2023 Movie Diary (1/6-1/10): Meet the Gladneys

January 6th

  • La ceremonie / 1995, dir. Claude Chabrol

In English, you’ll sometimes see this given the name of the novel it’s based on, A Judgment in Stone. If I were naming the movie, I would probably default to something a little less grand than its French title or its English one. At the risk of jacking up the comedy factor a little too high, I’d go with No, Not Like That. You can practically hear the masters in this film, the well-off Lelievres, speaking to their maid Sophie and managing to say this stuff with a straight face. Get a job and work hard…but not like that! Make friends…but not like that! Do charity work…but not like that! Stand your sacred ground…but not like that! Do class consciousness…but not like that! The film’s saddest aspect is not in the murders, accidental death, and presumed life sentence which come about in the final act, but in Sophie’s illiteracy. I gasped at that moment where it becomes clear that she can neither read nor write, and felt such sympathy for her as she wept for the frustration of not being able to read. So much of the film’s little crises come about because Sophie cannot read and is desperately and adroitly trying to hide that fact. She’s discovered that there are little ways to try to get out of awkward moments where she might have to read something. I can’t see up close (although being a maid who can’t see up close feels like a weird problem to have), I’ve misplaced my glasses, and in the last resort simply being quiet and refusing to read something until someone loses patience. She’s worked at it, practiced it. Sophie understands that her will not to reveal her inability to sign for something, read something is stronger than other people’s willingness to wait on her to start doing it. She’s good enough that it’s not necessarily obvious even from her reluctance to take a driving test that she’s unable to read or write. Illiteracy in film is a funny thing. In stories where men are illiterate, like The Shawshank Redemption, it becomes a place for an adult man to prove himself, show he’s still got it. It becomes the sign of what he overcomes. In stories where women are illiterate, like La ceremonie or The Reader, her illiteracy is calamity itself. Her inability to understand rips the social fabric, and her illiteracy in letters is metonymous for her illiteracy in controlling her own world. She is put on the track of murder. She is a guard at a concentration camp and a rapist.

January 7th

  • The Cool Lakes of Death / 1982, dir. Nouchka van Brakel
  • Gangs of Wasseypur: Part 1 / 2012, dir. Anurag Kashyap
  • Gangs of Wasseypur: Part 2 / 2012, dir. Anurag Kashyap
  • Miracle in Milan / 1951, dir. Vittorio De Sica

A woman in Victorian Europe is introduced to the joys of sex, falls in love, is betrayed, and in the absence of that love literally goes insane. She falls into prostitution after the death of her infant daughter. She gets hooked on morphine and is ultimately brought back to health by a nun. It’s too fanciful to be believed. How are we supposed to give credence to a story in which the stereotypes of what late 20th Century artistes suggest about Victorianism are turned into the basis of a film? It’s a story originally from the very tail end of Victoria’s life, adapted here eighty years later. We have as little humor about the Victorian era as the Victorians are supposed to have had about themselves, and maybe that’s why The Cool Lakes of Death is such a difficult film to engage with. I don’t think there’s another way for us to generously engage with The Cool Lakes of Death except as a heightened, arch picture; it requires the same mindset that people were willing to slip into for Hereditary. What’s real about the film is not its scenario or its depictions of its time or of its three places (the Netherlands, England, France). The reality is in the cresting and crashing emotion of Renee Soutendijk’s performance, which is a spectacle whether she’s on the receiving end of cunnilingus or stuffing a baby into a carpetbag.

If only there had been so much spectacle in Gangs of Wasseypur, a film which seems to believe that violent death is a spectacle even though an average child left in front of CBS for a few weeks would be basically immune to the hulking and inevitable carnage in the second half of the film. Gangs of Wasseypur has enough sense, I think, to understand that its characters are not the heroes of Bollywood cinema; there’s a scene late in the second half of the picture which condemns Indian men for wanting to become the heroes of those movies rather than do their jobs properly. A savvy, restrained politico. His rival, who chases pussies with the same zeal as the unseen Mrs. Mooney of Sweeney Todd, and dies with his familial revenge unfulfilled. The rival’s second son, who loves weed and ends up being the greatest killer of them all. These men are interesting enough, perhaps, for a movie of two hours. At about five and a half hours, a viewer finds himself chewing cheap gristle an awful lot in this film while the filmmakers insist that he’s got the best of a filet in front of him. If your generational epic would have made just as much sense with a three-minute flashback, or if your generational epic requires a narrator to explain what the characters are doing or how they feel, then it’s possible that you just have fanfiction for your own story. There’s a fun exploitation film of about 100 minutes in here, though in truth Gangs of Wasseypur lacks the visual style that one even associates from B-movies that came to theaters looking like VHS rips.

Maybe one day I’ll return to Miracle in Milan when I haven’t had a sour taste in my mouth from watching a movie bloated like one of those pre-exploding beached whales, but I have a hard time believing I’d find this movie as charming as it wants to be even if I watched it bushy-tailed. Perhaps this is a religious story, replacing a mustard seed with a dove. More likely it is a religious story as best understood through Moses the raven of Animal Farm, who taught of a Sugarcandy Mountain where the common laborers of the farm would work no more and be allowed to rest in eternity. Is the best that the poor of Milan can hope for just pure wish-fulfillment, that some day after watching their community-built shantytown taken away from them because it’s more valuable with them off it they will get to fly to Heaven? It certainly seems like that’s what Miracle in Milan has in mind, but if that’s the case that is a deeply cynical idea which seems bizarre to represent via the eternal optimism of Toto, the quiet faith of Edvige, or the physical comedy engendered by the dove’s ability to grant wishes and do little miracles. My favorite part of this movie was the most Felliniesque, albeit before the introduction of that adjective: an emaciated old man carrying balloons has to be pulled down to earth before he’s spirited away.

January 8th

  • The Flight of the Eagle / 1982, dir. Jan Troell
  • Blossoms in the Dust / 1941, dir. Mervyn LeRoy
  • White Noise / 2022, dir. Noah Baumbach
  • The Gleaners and I / 2000, dir. Agnes Varda

The story of S.A. Andree, the Swedish polar explorer, is fairy tale stuff. A man who loved his mother dearly got the idea to float to the North Pole in a hot air balloon, give the glory to Sweden, and then return home. He and his two companions, Knut Fraenkel and Nils Strindberg, met the fate of a great many polar explorers: they died. One of my special interests is about polar exploration, especially the exploration of the North Pole. It has been the story of dismal failure far more often than not, and even the successes are more in the vein of “Farthest North” rather than actually attaining the geographical North Pole. (The Ralph Plaisted expedition of 1968 is almost certainly the first time that anyone made it to the geographical North Pole by land.) Andree’s story, which is strange because of the balloon, because of the inexperience of the explorers, because of the maze of ice floes they died on, has fascinated me since the first time I came across it. The Flight of the Eagle (or, translated more literally from the film’s original title, Engineer Andree’s Flight) hypothesizes that Andree always knew that the expedition would fail and only went because he couldn’t face the shame of being wrong alive in front of the whole world. That’s probably not fair to Andree, but it provides a conflict between him and Fraenkel in particular that serves the picture, so whatever. The film reaches its ascetic zenith when those two survivors are looking around at their surroundings, not long before both of them will be claimed by the Arctic. Fraenkel, surrounded by fog and gloom and gray-white perpetuity, hypothesizes that they are standing in Niflheim. I cannot bear it, he says. Andree, still holding on to some romantic feeling, is astounded by the beauty of this noplace. It is my late mother’s birthday, Andree replies, although “reply” is a strong word for the monologue in his bearing. I should, if you have no objections, like to name this place Mina Andree’s Land. A mother’s embrace, Norse Hell, what’s the difference when a compass is useless.

More than 580 movies have been nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars. Take Letterboxd with a grain of salt, but as far as I can tell Blossoms in the Dust is in the fifth percentile of present popularity among all of those nominees. (Consider that some of those movies, like White Parade, East Lynne, and The Patriot are either lost or down to a single print, and that makes Blossoms in the Dust feel even further away from the warm hearth of public adoration.) In 1941, a movie could be the breakout performance for Greer Garson, her first collaboration with Walter Pidgeon, made in Technicolor at MGM by a director of significant reputation, and about a person of repute who would have been well known to newspaper readers. Fast forward to 2022 and the movie has been basically forgotten. The films of reasonable critical and audience acclaim will fade into nothingness. It makes you wonder what will become of the movies you like from your own time, of the movies you think are well-made or important. Many of those are not even as strong as Blossoms in the Dust, a film which certainly has a great many shortcomings (and as far as I can tell almost no relationship to like…history) but which still lands on a beautiful, terrible moment. In the world of the film, no person in Texas, perhaps in America, has worked so tirelessly for the benefit of orphaned and illegitimate children as Edna Gladney. She’s lost her husband on a Valentine’s Day, her young son on a Christmas Day. Now on a Christmas Day she gives away for adoption a child she has created a special bond with. Tony has loved her like she is her mother; she realizes that she has come to love him like he is her son. And on this Christmas, a family of means and with love in its heart has come to adopt Tony. She is reluctant to let him go, but she is advised to do so by her doctor friend via the unheard words of her dead husband. Perhaps they lost their child so that she could help thousands of children find homes. She gives Tony up. Two new children come through her door. Suffer the little children to come to Edna Gladney, a woman who is torn up by every successful adoption. So much effort, care, love goes into each of the children. So much of herself is burned away, and so much of herself must be remade to give the new orphans and castoffs what they need. It’s cyclical. She has begun a ring of good deeds that she cannot escape herself, even if she wants to have a child of her own again. For all the over the top events of the first forty minutes—inventing a childhood friend who kills herself when it’s discovered she’s illegitimate is a little much!—I was still moved by the final few minutes.

Another movie about Gladneys (what are the odds?), another movie where the final few minutes are the most memorable. White Noise has a better song-and-dance at the end than RRR, to be real. The star of this movie is LCD Soundsystem, unless it’s the guy who dances with like, toilet paper in line at the A&P for the last couple minutes of the film. Noah Baumbach is getting real soft in his dotage, isn’t he. There’s the tied shoe at the end of Marriage Story and now the practically poptimist ending of White Noise, where we’re all going to die someday but we don’t have to fear it so much. The Airborne Toxic Event stuff is actually funny in Baumbach’s hands (and Sam Nivola, playing one of the Gladney children, is pretty spry). It’s certainly out-of-place Baumbach rather than DeLillo, which is to say Upper East Side shenanigans transplanted to flyover country rather than vividly confrontational and unsettling prose. I think I prefer Baumbach in this lighter register, all things considered. He’s a sentimentalist as much as Steven Spielberg, but his sentimentalism so often requires a journey through effrontery and sloppy fistfights that never meshes well with the overall tone he’s trying to achieve. He’s no Wes Anderson, who doesn’t mind the effrontery so much but places it within highly fabricated settings that emphasize it to advantage. Baumbach just wants to feel good in the end, and in White Noise, after some dumb gunplay, he gets his wish.

After The Gleaners and I, I am down to three unseen movies from the top 100 on the ’22 Sight and Sound list: Satantango, Celine and Julie Go Boating, and Tropical Malady. On this new list, where the famously difficult Jeanne Dielman is at the top, The Gleaners and I is a really approachable movie. Under ninety minutes, shot on digital, narrated amiably and made with palpable goodwill, I can see the appeal. It would be hard not to like The Gleaners and I just as I think it’s rather difficult not to like Varda. Take the first couple minutes, where Varda, horror of horrors, is defining the word “gleaner” for us. And then she shows us one of her cats rubbing its face on the dictionary, and it’s harder to believe that the opening intends for us to take this “Webster’s defines” business all that seriously. Varda’s starting broad, and eventually she gets more interesting definitions along the way. There’s a difference, she’s told, between a gleaner and a picker. Pickers go up, gleaners go down. And she expands the definition along the way, so effectively that we start to lose track of the rigidity of definitions. There’s a lawyer she sticks in a cabbage patch in full regalia, which is pretty great. She finds people in the urban setting who stoop or dumpster dive. Some of them do so because they have a moral objection to food waste; it’s not that they couldn’t buy their own groceries, but that they can tell the difference between good and bad food and can’t stand to see the good disposed of. Varda is enamored of potatoes in the shape of hearts which will never make it to the grocery store; other people find in these potatoes the food they need to sustain themselves, shapes be darned.

January 9th

  • The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms / 1953, dir. Eugene Lourie

This movie gets brought up a lot as a forerunner to Gojira, which of course it is, but the dinosaur that has come back to life after 100 million years of cryogenic freeze is not at all like the bad boy of Tokyo. The dinosaur here is a quadruped, with a raised head, slightly elongated neck, and longer front legs than back. The overall effect is more monitor lizard than dinosaur, strictly, but something about the way that this monster runs around is more puppyish than anything. (The way that he manages to escape detection is more catlike, though. There are two separate occasions where all the cops are arrayed with their guns and they’re like, Oh man, has anyone got eyes on the giant dinosaur we’ve been tracking and suddenly can’t find?! I love it.) I mean, it’s an onscreen animal, and I have this thing where basically any onscreen animal is a kitty I want to give cuddles to, but the way this animal kind of scurries around is not unlike watching a small dog wreak havoc on someone’s nice living room. You can almost hear the flop-flop-flop noise of little paws, and the roars he makes are more like a puppy barking HEY or NO or BAD at something. The fact that the movie’s final setpiece takes place at a roller coaster only amplifies this vibe for me. He’s just sitting there in the middle of this roller coaster, minding his own business, occasionally taking bites out of the track like he’s disappointed with it for existing. Anyone who’s ever done a tug-of-war with those ropes they give puppies knows basically what the dinosaur is up to. He’s a good hang! He just thinks amusement parks would be more amusing if they tasted better!

January 10th

  • Mother Joan of the Angels / 1961, dir. Jerzy Kawalerowicz

The cool kids will undoubtedly compare this unfavorably to The Devils, made ten years later by Ken Russell and based on the same basic characters. Russell’s film is fundamentally about the power struggle between the French crown, represented by Cardinal Richelieu, and local government, represented by the charismatic fuccboi priest Urban Grandier. This ends with the French government triumphant with a little help from the sex-crazed nuns of the local convent, particularly Mother Jeanne, and there’s a lot of nudity and yelling and fun lighting and it’s generally a pretty good time, albeit not as successful as a similarly hysterical movie from the same decade, Phantom of the Paradise. I’m fond of Russell, but The Devils is more notorious because of its history of bans than it is compelling as art. Mother Joan of the Angels does not have this problem. Set in a small Polish village rather than a significant French city, and working from the understanding that the Grandier equivalent, Father Garniec, has long ago been burned at the stake, Kawalerowicz has two other key changes. One is that the film is in this magnificent black-and-white, roving around the stone convent in shots that recall the frantically smooth cinematography of Day of Wrath. It’s not simply that the priest in black robes, Father Suryn, finds himself in conflict with Mother Joan in her lamb-white habit. It’s that Mother Joan of the Angels finds way to set the camera back and contort those bodies in ways that set them starkly apart from the rest of the world. The walls and floor of the convent are gray, the world is draped in natural shadows that we’ve forgotten because of oil lamps and incandescent bulbs and halogen headlights, and they are white figures with three points and a nub. Put them stretched out on the floor at roughly equivalent distances and we can see what it’s like for snowflakes to land on cold asphalt before any of them can melt. The other key change is that Mother Joan is beautiful and unspoiled, in contrast to the hunchbacked Mother Jeanne, and in the absence of a priest with a substantial schlong, that becomes the center of the film’s sly sexuality. Where the film becomes truly special is in the scene where Suryn visits the local rabbi, loath to seek counsel from a Jew but too desperate to solve the problem of Joan to stay away. Both priest and rabbi are played by Mieczyslaw Voit (nodded at rather boldly by one of the rabbi’s lines, “I am you and you are me”), and in that single scene the void of faith is encapsulated. What if the devil made the world and it belongs to him, the rabbi wonders, and theodicy reaches dizzying new heights. You come here, the rabbi scolds, and you want the answers in three words. The wisdom of the world is not in quickie solutions, but in a legacy which goes back generations and has the self-understanding to say that one has no idea how to solve anything.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s