LES YEUX SANS VISAGE “Eyes Without A Face” (1959)

Posted in JIMMY ON MOVIES: Thoughts on Films, The Folks Who Make Them, & Those Who Love Them, THE LUNCH MOVIE CHRONICLES: The original e-mail announcements that were sent through our office the evening before we rolled a Lunch Movie on October 16th, 2014 by Jim Delaney

From Monday, October 15th 2007:

In French with English subtitles
Directed by Georges Franju, starring Pierre Brasseur, Edith Scob, and Alida Valli.

A surgeon, guilt-stricken over the disfiguring of his daughter Christiane, sequesters himself in the French countryside trying to restore her beauty. How? How else. He and his nurse abduct women, surgically remove the face of their victim, and attempt to graft each face onto Christiane. With each failed surgery, Christiane is left to wander the chateau in a ghostly white mask, as her father descends into obsession and madness.

Franju was one of the founders of the Cinematheque Francaise — i.e. he’s no rookie — 8he helped define the rules that govern Film Noir for the French New Wave. I could not find a trailer to accompany this note, but once you’ve seen the photography of EYES WITHOUT A FACE, you will not forget it. While Franju acknowledges a debt to silent horror and the Surrealist movement, his style here is nonetheless way ahead of it’s time. Opting for black & white to avoid censorship of his surgery sequences, Franju refined a shadowy gothic tone that has influenced supernatural and other horror movies ever since.

It’ll finish Wednesday,
Love, Jim

AFTER THOUGHT from October 16th, 2014

Evidently, trailers have become available online for EYES WITHOUT A FACE in the recent years since batman13I wrote the above announcement for my west coast coworkers. Other developments have taken place as well. Other genre films over the years have borrowed elements from this film, including the knowing allusion of Jerry Hall wearing a strikingly similar mask to Christiane’s, Skin_I_Live_In_3under similar circumstances, in Tim Burton‘s BATMAN. More recently Pedro Almodóvar‘s THE SKIN I LIVE IN offers a bold-faced and loving tribute to this chilling masterpiece, fully borrowing the story and central conceit, albeit as a vehicle for Almodóvar’s trademark darkly comic ironic melodrama rather than as a straight forward horror film.

On a personal note, it’s heartening to see vanguards of celebrating unsung classics like The Cinefamily in Los Angeles or the Church of Film in Portland, OR embracing this film. When I initially shared the above announcement in my talent agency gig, my worthy adversary (and wet behind the ears whippersnapper) Evan dismissed it as “a B-movie.” Without hyperbole, dismissing EYES WITHOUT A FACE as a B-movie is like dismissing The Archer’s PEEPING TOM as a B-movie. While both may have had their controversial histories, both were ambitious, insightful, soulful, and as impeccably crafted as any Oscar-baiting prestige film. As occasionally happened in the ol’ lunch movie days, Evan and others busied themselves elsewhere and mocked what they had not experienced, while a small squad of the faithful were riveted the first day. The same friends showed up the second day, having read up on Franju and Valli, and found themselves a whole new corner of filmdom that they were excited to explore.

Yes, this is a mad scientist movie. And yes, William Friedkin’s THE EXORCIST was just a supernatural movie. And yes, Jim Henson’s THE DARK CRYSTAL was just another Muppet movie. Dig a little deeper, friends. Long before the irony generation of the 90’s appropriated the trappings of genre to make personal statements, Georges Franju welcomed you into a dark house, and used the mechanics of horror to show you that human regret and sorrow can be the greatest sources of terror.

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Posted in THE LUNCH MOVIE CHRONICLES: The original e-mail announcements that were sent through our office the evening before we rolled a Lunch Movie on December 31st, 2011 by Jim Delaney

From Friday, January 11, 2008.

In French w/ English subtitles
Written & Directed by Jean-Luc Godard, starring Jean Belmondo, Jean Seberg and Jean-Pierre Melville.

Michel is a small-time car thief who becomes a big-time criminal when he murders a policeman. No master felon, Michel is an impetuous young man more focused on presenting a Bogart-style tough guy image than in actually learning the ropes of being a tough guy. His Hollywood dream wouldn’t be complete without a girl on his arm, so rather than fleeing the country after the murder, Michel sticks around to convince a young woman to fall for him and escape with him to Italy.

The French New Wave directors of the 1950’s and 60’s began as a group of critics who deconstructed Hollywood film style, helped define it as an art and a science, and coined the phrase “Film Noir.” Several New Wave luminaries helped create BREATHLESS: Godard adapted his script from a treatment by Francois Truffaut, and Claude Chabrol is credited as “technical advisor.” Jean-Pierre Melville, playing Pavulesco in BREATHLESS, directed some of the best French noir thrillers of the 1950’s. BREATHLESS was the end of French emulation of Hollywood, and the beginning of challenging new shooting styles and story structures that would have a lasting effect on America’s Film School Generation — Coppola, Lucas, Spielberg and all their 70’s pals.

It’ll finish Thursday.
Love, Jim

AFTER THOUGHT (with Spoilers!) from 12.31.2011

The moment we meet Michel, he introduces himself as “an asshole,” and then spends a significant portion of BREATHLESS proving it. Michel enjoys presenting his Bogart-style image, endlessly repeating Bogey’s pensive Sam Spade gesture of rubbing his lip with his thumb. What his Bogey impression lacks is Sam Spade’s control of a situation, Rick Blaine’s calculating foresight, or Philip Marlowe’s confidence with women. Had Michel studied THE MALTESE FALCON, he would have known when in his own story to cut his losses and get out alive. Bogey’s Rick in CASABLANCA might have taught Michel who he can really trust, who would double cross him, and how to play both.

A closer read of Bogart’s persona in THE BIG SLEEP might have encouraged Michel not to whine and plead with his former lover Patricia to escape with him to Italy. He would have been decisive rather than manipulating, which would have made him the Bogey he wants to be, as well as the Romeo she longed for. Indecisiveness is Michel’s fatal flaw. He doesn’t know what he wants or who he wants, and even if he did, he doesn’t know from one moment to the next what he is willing to do to get it. He wants to avoid being caught with a stolen car enough to kill a policeman, but when the dragnet is closing in around him, he is incapable of making the choices required by his man-of-action front.

Within the first few minutes of BREATHLESS Godard turns crime movies, and the very idea of a movie, inside out. Voiceovers are a staple of the Film Noir genre. After Michel steals a car, he drives around describing what he enjoys about France, but before long we realize this is no ordinary voiceover. He is not simply thinking out loud for the sake of exposition; he turns and addresses the audience, as if we are riding shotgun. This would be a standard breaking of the fourth wall, but BREATHLESS doesn’t stop there. Michel both addresses the camera and directs its gaze along the Pontoise road, pointing out hitchhikers, farm houses, annoying drivers, and highway police. Further, Godard allows interaction between the camera and passersby that would cause most other directors to cut and reset their shot. In scenes where Michel and Patricia walk through Paris, people stop and turn to watch the filming, some looking into the camera as well. Godard requests no suspension of disbelief; his story is fiction, but it coexists with and occasionally collides with reality.

Inasmuch as Michel is a vicious brat disguised as a dangerous man, BREATHLESS cloaks its examination and inversion of the tools of cinematic storytelling in the suits and trappings of crime drama. Michel’s desire to live like he is in a movie virtually wills into being a movie of his life and death, but he has no more control over Godard’s film than he does over his own story. Michel would love it if you had bought a ticket to see him outgun the cops and out-con the cons and drive off into the sunset with plenty of money and Tinkerbell incarnate. Godard will have none of it. He will allow you to visit with Michel just long enough to feel like you got the story of guns and glory you paid for; and he’ll allow you just enough time with Patricia to get a sense of romantic intrigue. In between teasing those expectations Godard may test your attention span with protracted conversational sequences, which do very little to further the story, but greatly reveal his characters. Moments like these were virtually unheard of in Hollywood films before the France’s La Nouvelle Vague movement; later their influence could be seen in American films by Hal Ashby and Robert Altman. When Godard is not exploring his characters, or allowing Michel to explore his personal Film Noir, he is just as likely to use BREATHLESS to wander Paris like a painter, equipped with a camera in lieu of a canvass. He photographs Paris not as a tourist showing us what we have already seen in countless other films, but as a patriot in love with his city and seeking to share its sidestreets as much as its landmarks, the way Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese would do with New York in ensuing decades.

My earliest encounter with BREATHLESS made me think it was an art film disguised as a crime drama. Now that “art film” strikes me as vague and generic a term as “action film,” I come to realize the BREATHLESS is a fully realized artistic happening disguised as a movie. It is opening night at a photography exhibit, a jazz session on a rainy afternoon, a staged actors’ reading, and a heated debate amongst coffeehouse poets all tied up in a celluloid bow.

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CITY OF LIFE & DEATH aka “Nanjing! Nanjing!” (2009)

Posted in MOVIES TO LOOK FORWARD TO: Coming Soon or Now Playing In A Theater Near You... on June 18th, 2011 by Jim Delaney

From the Landmark Kendall Sq. Theater, Cambridge, MA on Thursday June 9, 2011.

Written & Directed by Chuan Lu, starring Ye Liu, Yuanyuan Gao, Wei Fan, Hideo Nakaizumi and John Paisley, featuring cinematography by Yu Cao.

Whether as a lunchtime gathering between coworkers, or online as a movie blog or social media community, The Lunch Movie’s raison d’être is to celebrate the good stuff. There are too many good and great movies out there to bother writing negatively about movies that do not spark my enthusiasm. I make an effort to resist generic hyperbole of the “best” or “worst” variety. Once the provenance of know-it-all nerds, like THE SIMPSONS’ Comic Book Guy, these words have been made nearly redundant by critics more adept at synopsizing than analysis. Nonetheless CITY OF LIFE & DEATH stands apart even among a list of movies I love. It is the most profoundly haunting war movie I’ve encountered since APOCALYPSE NOW.

CITY OF LIFE & DEATH was shot in color and printed in black & white suggesting, at first glance, news reels of the era similar to Movietone news. The first hour details the Japanese invasion of Nanking in 1937 where thousands of Chinese soldiers were quickly cut down while fighting to hold their nation’s capital. That initial newsreel sense of the battle sequences expands rapidly to an awareness of extraordinary artistry. We’ve seen this more in still photography from war correspondents than we have in motion pictures. Composition within each frame is as strikingly beautiful as the subject matter is unnerving. “Epic” is a word that has become as squandered as “best” or “worst.” The massive scope of these street-to-street battles, on the scale of A BRIDGE TOO FAR and the finale of FULL METAL JACKET, should serve as a reminder of the true definition of “epic.”

As imposing as this widescreen doomscape is Chuan balances an intimacy with his characters, reminiscent of ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, with the urgency of hand-held vérité style as claustrophobic as THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS. In the crush of battle we rarely catch the names of the combatants with whom we become acquainted. Still they become familiar to us even amid the chaos. The few detractors I’ve come across find only the pace of this film to complain about. Everyone acknowledges the breathtaking photography, and compelling performances, but some find certain parts of the story too slow. It is in these quieter moments that the plight of the characters is seared into your soul. There is very little music here, just the dull tap of bullets and hollow thunder of grenades, followed by pin-drop silence. You may find yourself catching your breath along with the soldiers for fear that breathing too deeply could give away their position. The sincere humanity imbued in the Chinese defenders and even some within the Japanese assault, soldiers we may know only briefly before they are killed, draws us ever deeply into this tragic story. The audience is placed in a position similar to the participants by the story’s ensemble structure; any character we embrace could die at any moment, regardless or even in spite of our hope that they may emerge as the protagonist.

The second hour, spanning early 1938 after Nanking has fallen, is where CITY OF LIFE & DEATH may become too much to bear even for those who consider themselves aficionados of war films. Perhaps even more than the Nazi Holocaust or the Armenian Genocide, Nanking is notorious for an unfathomable number of rapes perpetrated within the first few months of the siege. The film manages to be as harrowing for its depiction of broken and battered women, attempting to comfort each other after being assaulted, as it would have been had it lingered in lurid detail of the crimes as they were committed. Yuanyuan Gao plays Miss Jiang, a character inspired by Iris Chang, whose book “The Rape of Nanking” is among the better known accounts of this battle to have been translated into English. Miss Jiang stands, often alone, as the last line of defense against sexual aggression. She tries to warn Chinese women how to avoid drawing the attention of Japanese soldiers. She is tasked with negotiating which women and children will be spared and at what cost. Through Miss Jiang we experience how each woman was forced to sell pieces of her soul for one more day breathing, with only so many pieces to her soul to spare, and so many days she can survive these conditions.

John Paisley plays John Rabe, a true life German businessman, who helped establish the Nanking Safety Zone to protect civilians from Japanese soldiers. In the film Rabe works with Miss Jiang, as well as his own Chinese assistant Mr. Tang (Wei Fan), to protect his workers and their families. John Rabe has been called The Schindler of China; that coupled with this being a black & white film has drawn inevitable and somewhat appropriate comparisons to SCHINDLER’S LIST. Rabe remains an important secondary character, but Miss Jiang and Mr. Tang emerge as the civilian opponents to the invading army, and it is through their steps and missteps that a traditional tale of redemption is carved from all this random sorrow.

The brutal majority within the Japanese forces is embodied by Captain Durdin (Sam Voutas) while Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi) represents the dwindling core of Japanese soldiers who feel their souls diminished with every day they occupy Nanking. Most of the Japanese soldiers are seen as happy to rape and pillage and wipe the Chinese off the face of the earth. Kadokawa stands for a few who realize that they will never be able to return home and think of themselves as human.

Much as I admire CITY OF LIFE & DEATH for having the spirit to be artistically ambitious, and the technical skill to realize those ambitions, it gives me hope on a more practical level as well. Let’s face it, the average American viewer thinks Karate movies and Kung Fu movies are the same thing, and wouldn’t be able to spot the samurai movie between 13 ASSASSINS and RED CLIFF. Euro-centric American audiences seldom recognize that the history and culture of China and Japan are as disparate as Italy and Germany. While pundits like Donald Trump and Lou Dobbs sound alarms about China, younger characters in this movie remind us that there are many Chinese still living who remember Nanking, or who lost family there. The perseverance and determination of Miss Jiang, Mr. Tang and legions of nameless soldiers reveal a Chinese national character that might be less concerned with Soviet style world domination and more concerned with making sure no one is ever again able to threaten them as one neighbor had done. In the end whether you are Chinese or Japanese, Italian or German, or any hyphenate American you will be humbled by this story’s answer to the question “What price survival?”

I thoroughly understand how excessive it sounds to place a recent film in the pantheon with not only the most legendary war films but some of the more significant achievements in the film medium. This is no exaggeration. CITY OF LIFE & DEATH gave me that sense, which occurs a handful of times per decade, that I was experiencing something that would alter my perception regarding cinema and war and the value of life itself. It accomplished this within the first act.

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Posted in THE LUNCH MOVIE CHRONICLES: The original e-mail announcements that were sent through our office the evening before we rolled a Lunch Movie on May 25th, 2011 by Jim Delaney

From Friday, February 8, 2008.

Written, Produced and Directed by Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, starring Dame Wendy Hiller, Norman Shelly and Roger Livesey.

Joan Webster (Hiller) is a middle-class London woman looking to elevate here status by marrying Sir Robert Bellinger (Shelly). She knows that she does not love him but she also knows that she is tired of doing without. She is to meet Sir Bellinger on his private island off the coast of Scotland for their wedding. All is going to plan until a storm sweeps in and forces her ferryboat onto another island. There she must wait out the storm with a motley crew of country folk and a naval officer (Livesey) returning from World War 2.

Powell & Pressburger spent the years leading up to and during WW2 making espionage thrillers (CONTRABAND, THE 49TH PARALLEL) to remind England what they were fighting against. In the years following the war they made several films to remind England what they had been fighting for. With I KNOW WHERE I’M GOING they focused on the simple pleasures that we miss if we’re not paying attention. One of the great simple pleasures of this film is its unique black-n-white photography. I saw it at The Aero Theater a while back. I hope DVD can translate how it looked on screen. The images sparkle and shine as though conjured from mercury. ….Yeah yeah I know, sounds flaky, but I promise you have never seen black-n-white look so alive.

It’ll finish Tuesday.
Love, Jim

AFTER THOUGHT from 5.25.11
Two of the more perpetuated stereotypes of movie fans break down along gender lines: women don’t like horror movies, and men don’t like romantic comedies. I disagree with both notions. I’ll address the former some time in the coming months, but for now, let’s focus on the latter. I believe firmly that men and women, and movie fans of any gender preference, like a good romantic comedy. It’s the lackluster ones we can do without. Give us situations that we can relate to, or failing those then situations that we can believe in, or failing those then situations that reward our suspension of disbelief. Love requires people to work hard and work smart. Give us characters that we see willing to do that work, or who are willing to try and fail, before learning and succeeding. Give the audience characters who have earned our affection and we will want to see them rewarded with someone else’s affection. The majority of romantic comedy scripts fall short in at least one of these areas. A likable cast and quick pacing can make up for only a limited amount of unimaginative story and uninspiring characterization.

I KNOW WHERE I’M GOING begins realistically enough but becomes more unbelievable as the story progresses. The masterstroke of Powell & Pressburger’s script is the proportions by which a tone of charming mysticism builds as events became more unlikely. As Joan Webster becomes flummoxed by the uncontrollability of the weather, the islanders with whom she keeps company are certain that she is quite in the control of something else, call it fate or curse or God or Mother Nature. Joan does not open a door and step into a Technicolor dream like Dorothy entering Oz. Her journey is cautious with little nudges and twists of fate challenging her perspective and priorities. The changes Joan undergoes are anything but easy; if she is going to find happiness she will not do so by wishing, and then being cheerfully perky until nice things happen because they are dictated by the running time. When a romance believes this deeply in the transformative nature of love, and a comedy offers characters that we laugh with rather than at, then you have the makings of a milestone among romantic comedies.

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SECONDS (1966)

Posted in THE LUNCH MOVIE CHRONICLES: The original e-mail announcements that were sent through our office the evening before we rolled a Lunch Movie on August 26th, 2010 by Jim Delaney

From Wednesday, March 17, 2008

Directed by John Frankenheimer, starring Rock Hudson, John Randolph and Jeff Corey, featuring an early score by the late great Jerry Goldsmith.

Arthur Hamilton (Randolph), an aging banker, fears his hum-drum yet wealthy life may be sputtering to an end. He is confronted by an agency that offers to give him a new face, a new identity and new youth … by murdering the person with Hamilton’s ideal life and surgically altering him to replace that man. When Hamilton awakens to find that his has become international jet-setter Tony Wilson (Hudson) he also awakens to the greater price that that the shadowy agency charges for their service.

SECONDS was the third in what is considered Frankenheimer’s “Paranoia trilogy,” after THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE in 1962 and SEVEN DAYS IN MAY in ’64. These films were in many ways ahead of their time. Paranoid political/social thrillers became a standard American genre in the 70’s, but few measured up the the hand-held camera/fish-eye-lensed nightmares Frankenheimer unleashed on an audience who had yet to learn to distrust The Powers That Be.

It’ll finish Friday,
Love, Jim

AFTER THOUGHT from 8.26.10
Aside from an intriguing story and unique photography by James Wong How, SECONDS is also a subtle and evocative study in duality. Arthur Hamilton is a Manhattan bank manager who is well regarded at his job. If he is not overly happily married, he and his wife at least seem content in their manicured Scarsdale home. One could expect a man this established in the east coast in the 1960’s to be living the Don Draper life, but he’s feeling more Bert Cooper. Having acquired just about everything a man of his stature could want, everything he’d worked for, Hamilton remains so unsatisfied that he is willing to pay $30,000 to reboot his life. Bear in mind that fee would translate to nearly $200,000 today!

The new life Hamilton receives, established artist Tony Wilson living a stones throw from the Pacific in a Malibu bungalow, fails to deliver the comfort he seeks. Tony Wilson had already earned his reputation before Hamilton assumed his life, leaving Hamilton with no sense of accomplishment for Tony’s deeds. Further, Tony runs within a circle of counter-cultural folks whose sexually and spiritually liberation outright confuses and scares Hamilton. An extended bacchanalian sequence during harvest in Santa Barbara wine country is staged as a sun-drenched nightmare for a buttoned-up gent like Hamilton.

Arthur Hamilton, the aging repressed solitary man from back east, could not be much more different from young bon vivant Tony Wilson from out west. The one thing unifying these divergent bodies is the ability for their singular heart and mind to despair. The horror of SECONDS is that you can find misery anywhere you seek it, and you cannot afford comfort. Personal note: as a devout fan of Santa Barbara wine country, since before SIDEWAYS brought the world to its door, it is really cool to see from what ragged roots that region sprung.

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DEAD MAN (1995)

Posted in THE LUNCH MOVIE CHRONICLES: The original e-mail announcements that were sent through our office the evening before we rolled a Lunch Movie on December 31st, 2009 by Jim Delaney

From May 21, 2008

Written & Directed by Jim Jarmusch, scored by Neil Young, starring Johnny Depp, Gary Farmer, Gabriel Byrne, Billy Bob Thornton, Mili Avital, Alfred Molina, John Hurt, Iggy Pop in drag and Robert Mitchum in his final American feature.

William Blake (Depp) is lured from Cleveland, OH by the promise of a new job in an ol’ west town called Machine. He arrives to find his position has already been filled, and by the end of his first night, he is a fugitive for murder. An Indian named Nobody (Farmer) believes Blake to be the same William Blake as the poet, though he knows the poet to be dead. Nobody takes it on himself to protect Blake from pursuing bounty hunters until this living Blake can be properly dead, where he belongs.

DEAD MAN is a film that no one likes. They either love it or hate it. The one thing all agree on is that it is unique. Like the best of Jarmusch’s work, DEAD MAN is bizarre, and hilarious at times when you least expect it. Like the best of William Blake’s work, this film is bizarre, and spiritually profound at all times. Neil Young’s psychedelic score of guitar feedback and church organ, which would be utterly out of place in any other movie, fits DEAD MAN like a glove.

It’ll finish Wednesday.
Love, Jim

AFTER THOUGHT from 12.31.09
My friend Jessica watched the vast majority of movies we rolled in the 2 years I worked with her. She is my idea of the perfect movie-goer — she quietly pays great attention, reserving her insightful questions and observations until the movie is over, or at least until Lunch was over. Jessica steps way outside of her comfort zone, eagerly watching movies about people who are very different from her, and never judging movies simply on the basis of some characters being people she would not want to hang out with. I love her wide-open-mindedness.

So I could not hold it against Jessica when she told me at the end of the first day of DEAD MAN that she would not be back to see how it finishes. She gave it the full 45-50 minutes, and while she acknowledged that she liked some of the black-n-white photography, she found the story too existentially lost. Even in her not wanting to see the rest, she raised a great point: you know from very early on that this movie will not end well for anybody. I suspect that if there was a glimmer of hope, Jessica would have stayed on, as she had with other family favorites like REFLECTIONS IN A GOLDEN EYE and THE MOSQUITO COAST. I mean this all as a compliment to my friend’s lucid perspective.

I mean it as a compliment to DEAD MAN to say that watching it is like watching someone die. Most people would want to turn away. Judging by it’s box office returns, most people did turn away! It is a rare film that would aspire to capture that moment where you are truly past a point of no return, where the suspense comes not from If it will happen, but How?

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Posted in MOVIES TO REMEMBER: The ol' favorites that The Lunch Movie kids might have watched had the tradition continued... on December 20th, 2009 by Jim Delaney

Friday, December 9, 2009 at The Brattle Theater, Cambridge MA

Directed and co-written by Frank Capra, starring James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, Henry Travers and Gloria Graham.

It is convenient that The Brattle Theater offered IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE in the weekend right after I had seen Herzog’s THE BAD LIEUTENANT. This sequence enables me to stay on the topic of “movies I had strong hesitations about seeing.” For years I was way too impressed with my deep dark self to ever watch a movie with such a sappy title, never minding that I’d loved MIRACLE ON 34th STREET since I was old enough to barely begin wondering if Santa was real or not.

Wonderful Life, who are you kidding?! It did not matter if Mom or Dad loved it; it would take much more than that for me sit through a trip to Bedford Falls. When the challenge came in 1990, I was 20 years old in my senior year at Emerson College, so the deep dark (and pretentious) self was in overdrive. I was working at a Loews Theater in Copley Square, which is now sadly a Barney’s New York. We had three projectionists, all of whom taught film at local colleges and had made their own films. There was one fella named Phil who looked like Rasputin in Levis and an oil-stained t-shirt. Phil had earned the right to be as deep-n-dark as the rest of us students-by-day/ushers-by-night thought we were. If we mentioned Lucas, Phil would ask what we knew about Kurosawa; if we mentioned 2001 or CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, he would ask if we’d seen SOLARIS. It was this man who, when I mocked IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE simply for it’s title, informed me that he felt it was “one of the most important and purely American works of art in any medium that any artist has ever made.”

So I watched it. And I cried like a sap. Way before the end, and again at the end. And I have watched it at least once per year since then. In all those viewings, I have come to the conclusion that IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE is not amazing for the tears and joy that it makes us all look forward to. Its greatness lies in the levels of hell that it puts poor ol’ George Bailey through before he earns that tearful ending. This is a man who just cannot catch a break. Every time things are going right, something will come along to ruin it. Hey George, you have Mary in a very interesting situation and needing her robe? Guess what, your father has fallen ill. Hey George, your brother Harry has returned from college to take over your job? His new wife and her father have other plans. You’re finally escaping Bedford Falls to see the world, and on your honeymoon no less? Not on October 29, 1928!

The story is brilliant in its precision, ratcheting up George’s hope in equal measure with his dashed expectations. The winning decision that Frank Capra makes as a director is that he stands back and lets Jimmy Stewart become George Bailey. Camera movement and editing are, for the most part, spare. When George learns that Harry will not be taking over his job as planned, we follow George for a searching moment as he approaches Harry’s new wife. There is a similar pause when George and Mary are about to leave for their honeymoon, when they witness a mob gathering outside the Bailey Building & Loan. Yet another comes after Clarence has granted George his wish, where Capra closes in tight on Stewart’s face as George surveys what his become of Bedford Falls in his absence. Stewart’s eyes deliver soliloquies of greater despair than anything that could have been written for him to say.

Capra also loads the film with other little gems like the shot above: rather than belaboring George’s skepticism about Clarence with excessive dialogue, Capra simply inserts a physical barrier into the shot. We had already seen the clothes line earlier to know that George and Clarence’s clothes were drying from their fall into the river. We do not need to see it in this shot, except that it works to sever a lost man from his own salvation.

When I was younger and uninformed, I had expected IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE to be a blissfully ignorant denial of the very same hardships I had yet to experience. It is in the film’s embracing and transcending life’s slings and arrows that it finds its power and glory. Even for those of us who can only aspire to the destination George reaches, we can all relate to the road he travels. Capra is on record as saying he got more mail regarding the fate of old man Potter than he did any other topic in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. What those letter writers missed was that Potter’s punishment is that he has to be Mr. Potter for the rest of his miserable life. George Bailey reminds us that those hallmarks of America’s Greatest Generation — tenacity, ingenuity and generosity — can be their own rewards. Thanks for the push, Phil.

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Posted in THE LUNCH MOVIE CHRONICLES: The original e-mail announcements that were sent through our office the evening before we rolled a Lunch Movie on August 19th, 2009 by Jim Delaney

From Wednesday, August 8, 2008 in 8North

Directed by Robert Wise, produced by Darryl F. Zanuck, starring Michael Rennie, Patrica Neal and Lock Martin, and featuring a score by Bernard Herrmann.

A flying saucer lands on the Mall in Washington D.C. and is immediately surrounded by soldiers and heavy artillery.  An alien ambassador named Klaatu emerges, wishing to speak to all the governments of Earth, but refusing to cooperate with any single government.  Klaatu becomes wounded and flees the capitol, hiding out with a suburban family as global paranoia erupts over his whereabouts and intentions.  Who is he?  What does he want?  And what did he leave behind in that flyin’ saucer when he fled?

THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL plays a little dry and dated by today’s standards, but it was audacious and profound for its time.  The United Nations had only existed for 5 years.  Man’s ability to annihilate the Earth at the push of a button had been in an escalating race since 1945.  The U.S. War Department, engaged at that moment in the Korean War, refused to cooperate with a movie about peace ’cause it seemed unpatriotic.  Zanuck and Wise had to borrow tanks and other military equipment from the Virginia National Guard.

It’ll finish Thursday.  Love, Jim

AFTER THOUGHT from 8.19.09
We rolled this in anticipation of the December 2008 remake. In hindsight, and at the risk of sounding cliche, I greatly prefer the original. In this quieter story, I believed Klaatu had the power to both destroy and save humanity. The remake does not rely on giving you that faith in Klaatu — it simply shows his race’s strength to you, which sorta undermines his whole mission.

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