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The St. Louis Bank Robbery

Interesting in several ways
Let me begin by pointing out that IMDb makes a mistake when it lists Nell Roberts as "Woman in Bar Talking to George." The woman in the bar is George's girlfriend Ann, played by Molly McCarthy. Nell Roberts is the Salvation Army woman who appears in three places in the film but who speaks only at the end when she tells a cop, "Don't go in. They're robbing the bank." I speak from authority as the great-nephew of Nell Roberts, my grandmother's sister, who was active in community theater in St. Louis in the 1950s, and who also had a bit role (as an old woman who answers the door) in the film, "Hoodlum Priest" (starring Don Murray), which was also made in St. Louis. We always knew her as "Aunt Nelly," so I guess "Nell" was her stage name.

In any case, "The Great St. Louis Bank Robbery" is an interesting little movie -- though there really is nothing "great" about it. The noir approach fits the story line perfectly, but the execution strikes me as stiff and amateurish, especially in the acting and the editing. McQueen was doing what he could to be Brando, but Brando he wasn't. The three other members of the gang and the girlfriend have various small strengths as actors to commend them, but they wouldn't have been enough for professional survival today. The plethora of extras and bit players must have saved the producers some dinero, and they do give the film a certain documentary and amateur-theatrical charm, but their performances (including Aunt Nelly's) are of a type to make the viewer uncomfortable in the expectation of an embarrassing gaff. The homosexual subtext (mentioned by other reviewers) is certainly not imaginary. In fact, the things that make this movie most worth watching are, first, that homosexuality is included as a theme at all -- it was not necessary to the film's integrity unless the producers were aiming at some politically incorrect social commentary or had a personal ax to grind -- and, second, that the gay relationships had to be coded to make the finished work acceptable to the public in the late 1950s.

But I did enjoy the look of the cars and the streets of St. Louis (a la New York in "The Naked City") before the rapid urban disintegration that overtook it shortly afterwards, and from which it has still not recovered. The was the REAL "St. Louis Bank Robbery."


"Adaptation" is a Variation on (or a Rip-off of) "True West"
I enjoyed this film. I enjoyed its originality of execution, as well as its thematic obsession with originality itself. I also enjoyed the performances. But one thing that bothered me, and no one else seems to have noticed, is its resemblance to Sam Shepherd's "True West," the 1980 stage play, turned into a 1984 TV production starring Gary Sinise and, ironically, John Malkovich who also appears briefly in this film (though, in a sense, in his own eponymous film, of which he weirdly plays the director).

In both "Adaptation" and "True West" the story line involves two brothers, the first a successful screen writer embarked on a new project but now suffering from a debilitating case of writer's block, and the second, recently arrived for a stay with the first, who eventually begins working on a screenplay of his own, finishing it with the grudging help of his brother.

Even though the second brother's script sounds ridiculous and hackneyed to our ears and to those of the first brother, it is generously praised by a third party who represents the film industry's ignorant bureaucracy (the producer in "True West," the young studio boss in "Adaptation"), who both suggest that the second, greenhorn brother should now help the first. In both films the second brother becomes a kind of "doppelganger" of the first, a Mr. Hyde to the latter's Dr. Jekyll, and so it is not difficult to view these men as two sides of the same personality, which in "Adaptation" is one of the plot devices of second-brother Donald's script. All the major characters are in essence the same person because, although they may exist in the larger reality, they are all constructions (and reductions) of the author, including "Charlie" himself. And so we are to conclude that all writing is autobiographical (as much as we try to make it something else, something more), and the act of story-telling (i.e., movie-making) becomes a solipsistic enterprise shrinking the world into something that reflects nothing more than one's own neurotic self.

In neither film does it come as a surprise that reality begins to parody the written script, which has never been anything more than an insufficiently digested version of a richer, more elusive Reality (like the rare ghost orchid). This is underscored in "Adaptation" when the story ends so artificially and so happily, in all its Hollywoodian glory, contrary to all the all the events and all the agony that have led to it, including the ruination of the career of a fictionalized Susan Orlean and the deaths of both a fictionalized Donald and a fictionalized Laroche, the orchid man. Laroche is attacked by an alligator at just the right moment, a "deus ex machina" if there ever was one; and this, of course, is a slap in the face of the tormented ex-screenwriter McKee, but it is also a vindication of him because it helps us see how Charlie has sold out to the "formula." We notice this also in Valerie and Charlie's mutual confession of love, tidy and cute from a screenwriter's perspective, but too unbelievably pat from ours. These incidents can only make sense if we view all the trashed and co-opted characters as shriveled parts of Charlie's personality, whom he will now conveniently dispense with, just as Donald might have done, in order to get on with his comfortable career. In "True West," Austin, the bother who is equivalent to Charlie in "Adaptation," at one point laments, "There's nothin' real down here! Least of all me!" --an understandable observation when, although neither nature nor the human personality operates according to uniformly predictable laws, the characters in a Hollywood movie sometimes do. Charlie Kaufman could just as well have said this. But, in attempting to control the uncontrollable by putting himself in his own story, the "Charlie" he lets us see becomes as phony as everything else.

Like "Being John Malkovich," this is a movie that made me think -- maybe even more than "True West" did. I just wonder, though, whether Shepherd shouldn't sue for plagiarism.


Early Merchant-Ivory is Diamond in the Rough
This early (if not first) Merchant-Ivory collaboration anticipates what the team was later able to do with larger budgets and color cinematography. Set in post-independence India, it tells the story of a small, though thoroughly professional traveling Shakespeare company fallen on hard times. The troop, built on the talents of the three Buckingham family members, including the young and fetching daughter Lizzie, is slowly dissolving in a culture increasingly hostile to their art and readier to worship the queens of the silly Indian pop cinema.

The main thread of the plot concerns a rather thin romance between Lizzie and a young Indian playboy quite under the thumb of a local movie vixen named Manula. Meanwhile we are given snippets from various Shakespeare plays: Hamlet, Othello, Twelfth Night, Romeo and Juliet, Antony and Cleopatra.

Fine B&W photography, though much in this film seems dated now.

Camille Claudel

Darkness and Light
This film is about the tragic failure of a genius. She fails not so much because of her tendency to make fatal mistakes but because of the shape those mistakes took in her mind. This, even as lesser personages prospered (e.g., Camille's brother Paul, the famous Catholic poet and diplomat) because they were not adverse to espousing convenient "beliefs" for the sake of earthly success. Many viewers will feel a strong affinity with Camille, not because they consider themselves geniuses but rather for the interior world she constructed that, without religion, gave the exterior world meaning. I say she was without religion, but in fact sculpture was her religion--at least until her final failure to gain the respect and patronage of capricious buyers. It was then that her religion (her meaningful myth) took the form of a conspiracy delusion. Powerful people, she thought (mostly, the sculptor Rodin, who had been her lover), were out to get her, thwarting her every move.

What we experience here is a thoughtful, scary exploration of the darkness that is a paradoxical part of all brilliance.

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner

How Lonely Are the Blessed Nay-Sayers!
How miraculous it is that Tom Courtenay aged so little in the twenty years or so since this early role and that of the `The Dresser.' And how refreshing it is to see `Runner' again, surely one of the classics of the Angry Young Man school--a kind of Brit Noir of the early 1960s which includes some other memorable masterpieces: `Look Back in Anger,' `This Sporting Life,' and `Saturday Night and Sunday Morning'--though all of that seemed to end when director Tony Richardson switched to color and costumed Albert Finney as the irrepressible Tom Jones. Nonetheless, the influence of the Angry Young Men persisted in Richard Lester's vehicles for the Beatles, can also be discerned in the Kubrick of "A Clockwork Orange, and is faintly echoed today in the work of Mike Leigh and others.

On this viewing, I was more impressed than ever--as anyone with a blue-collar background would be--at the sheer hatred for the Establishment felt by English youth of this time, and I was reminded again of how strong a theme this is in virtually every film of the genre. The old bowler-and-umbrella Imperial types are portrayed as stodgy fat cats trying either to frustrate or to exploit youthful exuberance, while the young themselves struggle to protect their integrity in but one bleak corner of a very unfair universe. It is as if James Dean were caught on the set of `Rebel Without a Cause' cradling a greasy newspaper wrapper and boorishly scarfing down an order of fish and chips. I doubt that he ever actually heard of fish and chips, but it is clear that the Brits had heard of him.

The main character of `Runner,' a boy in his late teens named Colin Smith, is sent to borstal for an impetuous act of petty robbery--a crime ostensibly as innocent, though not quite so lacking in motive, as the murder in Camus' "The Stranger." In the reformatory he is spotted by the pipe-smoking governor (Michael Redgrave) and is groomed as a contender for the champion's laurels in a much-anticipated long-distance race against a local public (i.e., private) school. In the end, Colin/Cortenay, far out ahead of the smug rich boy (James Fox in one of his first roles), simply coasts to a stop within view of the finish line, thus dashing the ambitions of the warden. This bold and apparently gratuitous gesture of refusal will ruin any chances Colin had for future favorable treatment by the authorities, and it essentially disqualifies him from any advancement within the system--including all the rewards commonly bestowed upon those who accept competition, progress, and material well-being as meaningful values worth obtaining through a seemly subservience. This film would speak volumes to any class of the oppressed.

And in view of its obvious distaste for those who so arrogantly dismiss the existentialists and their adherents, I think we can see it as a demonstration of Tony Richardson's intellectual sympathies with Sartre, Camus, and their brethren. We are left to ponder its haunting message that an apparently uncalled-for assertion of the will--even when it tragically threatens our survival, or works against us in all the banal ways which the greedy or merely practical-minded view as obvious routes to success--is to be applauded as an heroic achievement that reconfirms our sometimes questionable humanity.

The Miracle of Morgan's Creek

She Rings My Bells
I have heard Betty Hutton's name all my life, mostly in the offhand comments of my parents. But I do not remember seeing her in a movie until this one. I will not repeat what has already been said about The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, an extraordinary film for 1943 when it was made but which I have just seen for the first time. I will comment only on the scene in the music store (occurring in about the first five minutes). It is the one in which we first meet Trudy Kockenlocker, the Betty Hutton character, who works as a clerk in the store. She is ravishing in a shapely grey suit with white hightlights, and her beautiful blond hair is done up in a wartime wrapped-braids do. But what made me fall in love with her is the exquisitely comic lip-synching performance she does of the record she is playing: Could it be Paul Robeson's bass-baritone in a rendition of a song whose lyric goes something like "Ring dem bells in the valley"? Her cute mouth is the center of this spectacle as she catches every subtlety of the original, scrunching up her face as for a moment she actually becomes the singer, sinking to the floor in a climactic attempt to do justice to the song's concluding long low note. This scene could be used as a definition of the word "charm."


Kurosawa's symphony to the lived life
After seeing this wonderful film for only the second time in thirty-five years, I was reminded of how much it resembles Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Both stories are efforts to grapple with the the imminence of death when it finally arrives for a believably human person who touches us deeply because we so readily recognize our own weaknesses and strengths in his. Much in both stories can also be connected with theories on death developed later by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross.

Like most symphonies, the film can be divided into four movements: 1) Background and diagnosis, 2) Making up for the waste of the past I--a night on the town, 3) Making up for the waste of the past II--a pathetic infatuation, 4) Funeral scene and flashback on the building of the park. Ikiru is less about a corrupt and obstructionist "system" than about one man's struggle to achieve something memorable before he dies. Everything about this masterpiece is graced with a subtlety that is uniquely Japanese and uniquely Kurosawa's.

The sad little infatuation of elderly bachelor Watanabe with a young former office underling is a superby honest appraisal of human nature on the parts of both characters. And the moment during the funeral when the committee of mothers arrive, kneel, and spend a minute in deep keening was one of the most wrenching emotional experiences I have ever received from a film.

Takashi Shimura is so good an actor that watching him is like a form of meditation. Just looking at his photo on the funeral altar brought tears to my eyes. It is astonishing that this harmless-looking little man also played the role of the leader of the Seven Samurai!

Bitter Moon

Adds to our understanding of sex as politics
Extremely well made, extremely well acted, extremely intense and disturbing, and extremely conscious of areas of the sexual psyche that I'd never seen so honestly explored in a movie. According to Polanski, it is not love and hate which are opposite, but love and indifference. Obsessive sex gives way, at least between the two lovers of Bitter Moon, to a hatred as savage as cold-blooded murder or all-out war.

These extremities of love and hate work themselves out in a game of power and manipulation, and it remains the only vehicle by which these two can merge with one another so as to lose both their independence and the rest of their inhibitions and illusions. In the end, they become so bound up in their mutual need that the sex itself is no longer central. They might as well be prisoners lashed forever to the same stake, learning actually to enjoy the various torments that the other is able to inflict. Freud thought similarly that all sexual love was ultimately a form of masochism--identification with a partner whom one has caused to suffer. These questions are essential as long as the blood continues to throb in us; and, whether or not we find Polanski's story credible (I do), any thinking person would recognize it as a serious attempt to define who we humans are, both as rutting mammals and as something more.

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