Monday, August 20, 2007

"List, List, O List!"

Yes, another list, but truly, what is the Siren to do if good bloggers like Edward Copeland keep coming up with exercises like this one? The assignment: Pick 25 non-English-language features, in order to form a final ballot from which bloggers will choose the best 25 foreign films of all time. Or the favorites. Or bloggers' favorites. At that moment in time. Insert your favorite caveat here.

With amazing industry, Edward has already posted the ballot. And now the polls are open for the public voting phase. Here are the rules, quoted from Edward's page:

Choose 25 of these titles and rank them from 1-25 and e-mail them to by midnight Central Time on Sunday, Sept. 16. A first place vote will get 25 votes, second place will get 24 votes, etc. In the event of tie scores, the total number of ballots on which the films appear will decide who is ahead of the other. If there is still a tie, the films will just be ranked as tied. The final list will be either of the top 25 or top 50, depending how the voting goes. Now, here are the nominees. Feel free to include comments about your choices that I can quote when I post the final results.

The Siren hereby posts the list that she sent in. She prefaces with a comment left by Operator_99 of the blog Allure, a favorite stop of the Siren's when the world is too much with her and she needs something like this to lift her spirits. Operator_99 does reminding us what a list can, and cannot do:

Well, at 62, I'm must the least trusted person to make any comments, but...while "age is definitely not a meter of intelligence", it doesn't negate it either, if the sentient in question kept his or her eyes and ears open during waking hours. I have seen so much film during my life that I think I can truly say that I know what is good and what is not. However, film criticism, once a fun exercise for me, like debating Marxism in the early 60's (the late 60's are a bit of a blur) at the Cafe Figaro on Bleeker, often removed me from the pure joy of the experience as experienced. I just hope that everyone can step back occasionally and let the flickering moments take you away with no thought of camera angle, the comparison to the director's previous effort, etc. Its not easy to do, but kick back once in a while, ok? Then rip something to shreds.

La Règle du Jeu (Jean Renoir, 1939) If you put the Siren under hypnosis, this is the one she would probably name as all-time Number One.

Ivan the Terrible Part I (Sergei Eisenstein, 1944) Despite the extraordinarily creepy hagiography of Stalin, this movie is a superb visual achievement, so beautiful and composed with such extraordinary grace and precision that the Siren sat slack-jawed through much of it.

Les Enfants du Paradis (Marcel Carné, 1945) The most sweepingly romantic movie every made, with a script by Jacques Prevert that achieves the status of literature, yet remains cinematic at all times. "So you want to be loved for yourself, like the poor people? What's left for the poor people, then?"

Quai des Orfèvres (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1947) The relationship between the detective and his young son was beautifully done. A policier that is mostly a fine character study, this may not be as great as Le Salaire de la Peur or as twisty as Diabolique, but the Siren loves it more than either of those.

Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa, 1950) The Siren has wondered several times over the years if this movie gains in her memory from being the first significant Japanese film she ever saw. Perhaps, but it holds up for her, viewing after viewing.

Madame de... (Max Ophuls, 1953) If this one had not made the ballot the Siren would have been throwing her own jewelry boxes around the room.

Tokyo Story (Yasujiro Ozu, 1953) Like listing Citizen Kane, but like Welles's masterpiece it deserves its reputation.

A Geisha (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1953) Extraordinary study of the ways in which women bond.

I Vitelloni (Federico Fellini, 1953) 1953 was some year, wasn't it?

Smiles of a Summer Night (Ingmar Bergman, 1955) Pure, shimmering delight.

Lola Montes (Ophuls, 1955) The Siren thinks Martine Carol's marionette quality helps rather than hurts the film, emphasizing Lola as someone to whom history just happened--like other mortals who never slept with composers or kings.

Street of Shame (Mizoguchi, 1956) The movie that should have mothballed the "whore with a heart of gold" characters for all time, but alas, did not.

When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (Mikio Naruse, 1960)

Viridiana (Luis Buñuel, 1961)

The Leopard (Luchino Visconti, 1963) Visconti's elegy for the aristocracy becomes a lament for the fleeting nature of all beauty.

Contempt (Jean-Luc Godard, 1963) Almost too much to ponder here, but the element that always grabbed the Siren was the fragility of love--how one misguided moment can erase it all.

Seduced and Abandoned (Pietro Germi, 1964) A breakneck farce with a Swiftian soul.

The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966) They say the Pentagon screened this one during preparations for the second Iraq War, which convinces the Siren that elementary principles of cinema studies should be taught in college. That way, maybe smart guys won't watch a movie and, somehow, miss the entire goddamn point.

L'Armée des Ombres (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1969) Certainly the movie owes a great deal to Melville's studies of the gangster life, but it shows what a strict code among comrades can mean when applied to an honorable cause.

The Spirit of the Beehive (Victor Erice, 1973)

The Marriage of Maria Braun (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1979) The Siren wants to rewatch this one, as she suspects the scathing picture of a society rebuilt on false dreams is as relevant as ever. Entirely worthy of Fassbinder's idol Douglas Sirk.

Fanny and Alexander (Bergman, 1982)

Bullet in the Head (John Woo, 1990) The Siren surprised herself by selecting this one, but she had to include it. This action movie, despite some incongruous sentimentality and the bonkers editing of the first half-hour or so, captured unpleasant truths about the Vietnam War far better than many a high-minded prestige picture.

Raise the Red Lantern (Zhang Yimou, 1991) A women's picture like the ones the Siren worshipped as a girl, melodrama raised to the level of art.

The Blue Kite (Zhuangzhuang Tian, 1993) The Cultural Revolution through the eyes of a child, and family love seen as one of the few hopes we have.

So, according to her count, the Siren got 15 of her choices on the ballot, not a bad ratio at all. She makes no comment on the ballot; it seems pretty solid to her, and if there are a half-dozen or so the Siren would not have included, it still isn't as though Back to the Future showed up.

My mother is in town (yes Virginia, Sirens have mothers too) and so the Siren hopes to finish up with poor Tyrone Power by later this week. Meanwhile, the Siren leaves you with a piece of advice. Do not, for God's sake, ever, ever Google Image "Bullet in the Head" without plenty of other search terms such as "John Woo" and "Tony Leung." Sweet Saint Francis of Assisi. The Siren may have to spend the rest of the week watching MGM musicals in order to crowd that mistake out of her brain.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Scenes from the Cinematic Scorekeepers

Still out there? Good. The Siren has raised the blinds, put away her lace-trimmed hanky and is ready to face down Gladys Cooper, or whatever else gets dished out this week. She is still working on her Nightmare Alley thoughts, but the sudden, unwelcome spike in film obituaries has spurred her to put some down some old rambling thoughts.

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Hell of a time for film fans, isn't it? RIP, Ingmar Bergman, Michelangelo Antonioni, Michel Serrault and László Kovács. More interesting than the end-of-an-era stuff, however, is the subsequent scorekeeping. We cinephiles tend to pooh-pooh Greatest 100 Films of All Time Lists, then dive like Greg Louganis into debates over whether or not a director is an all-time heavyweight. In the most recent round, Jonathan Rosenbaum had critics all over the blogosphere uncorking either the champagne or the smelling salts when he ran a New York Times opinion piece on Bergman that the editors, in a moment of inspired chutzpah, titled "Scenes from an Overrated Career." Roger Ebert wrote a spirited defense, and discussions ensued all over everywhere, particularly at Scanners, a_film_by, Elusive Lucidity and Girish.

It is fascinating how the general tone in the treatment of a director or other film artist changes over time. If you admired Bergman in 1973, the year of Scenes from a Marriage, chances are you still do. But in that year you wouldn't have been contending with nearly as many reservations as have been heard in the two weeks since his death.

Other directors are also getting fewer awed reactions than in the past. When in her late teens the Siren started trying to watch movies in an intellectuallly engaged manner--reading up on history, seeking out serious critics, trying to mix as many highly regarded films into her viewing as possible--it was axiomatic that John Ford was a towering great. That was a while back, and Ford's status has slipped for some; he even got a sideswipe in Rosenbaum's piece. David Thomson and Richard Schickel, both veteran Ford haters, have a lot more company now.

On the other hand, back in the 1980s the Siren had a hard time getting a serious discussion of Billy Wilder going, unless she wanted to talk about his supposed misogyny. (She didn't want to talk about that, because she doesn't think he IS a misogynist, but that's another post.) Reagan was in office and, not coincidentally in the Siren's view, Frank Capra was fashionable. It was a go-go era, a time of vocal patriotism, even more so than now. Capra was better suited to it than Wilder, with his mordant view of what success means for Americans, and what we will do to achieve it. With the publication of Cameron Crowe's book and the tributes after Wilder's death in 2002, suddenly the Siren had no trouble finding Wilder admirers. He is better suited to the tenor of our own times than Capra--Ace in the Hole is a lot closer to the age of reality television than Meet John Doe--so it isn't surprising that Wilder now is more in vogue.

In vogue, if not in full pantheon membership. According to Brian Baxter of Britain's Guardian, Wilder is still "second rung" (though "never second rate"). In this Guardian obituary for Ingmar Bergman, Baxter names a "handful of geniuses--Robert Bresson, Carl Dreyer, Yasujiro Ozu, Jean Renoir, [and] Roberto Rossellini" who outrank Bergman and Antonioni, and by the way, they're also better than Wilder, Visconti, Kurosawa and Ray. You might think that with six Film Pageant Runner-Ups (if Mr. Bresson cannot fulfill his duties as Greatest Director of All Time...) you would have just six different ways of getting pissed off. But the Siren's initial reaction was "What about Max Ophuls, huh?"

Her readers can replace the name of Ophuls with their particular favorite. We all have our teacher's pets, no matter which directors are being debated more in film classes. Year by year, with pious patience, the Siren sits waiting for Mitchell Leisen to get his due. And she loves John Ford, but has resigned herself to the naysayers. Now the Siren can read David Thomson's vituperative Ford piece in A Biographical Dictionary of Film without recourse to ripping out pages, scribbling in the margins or calling her cousins to rant. On some directors she retains a certain touchiness, however. When you trash Ernst Lubitsch, smile, cowboy.

The Siren is firmly on the side of the Bergman lovers. His "private psychodramas" still say many large and universal things to her. She does think, however, that people should give Mr. Rosenbaum a break about not seeing Fanny and Alexander. For one thing, Antonioni's death sent the Siren scurrying to her Netflix queue in embarrassment--even though he isn't really in her chosen specialty, boy, does she need to get cracking on his filmography. For another, she is exceedingly fond of Fanny and Alexander and does not wish to hear it nitpicked, by Mr. Rosenbaum or anybody else. Far more painful than someone loving a movie you loathe is someone who hates a movie that you consider a work of genius--or, worse yet, waves the movie aside as old hat.

Rosenbaum himself gave a nod to the way reputations cycle when he showed up at Jim Emerson's place and remarked, "I don't think I could have written such an article for the Times WITHOUT it being to some extent a piece about fashion." The Siren thinks Bergman will swing back into fashion; he's too good not to. One rediscovered movie is often enough to do it. When I Vitelloni had a brief re-release in theaters some time back, the Siren went to see it. As she sat in the audience she felt a sense almost of surprise coming off some other patrons--the startled laughter and enjoyment of people who weren't expecting to be wowed. Fellini has also been out of style--try Googling Fellini and "overrated" and just look at all the opinions that come up--but the movie is so good it constitutes its own form of rebuttal. So does Fanny and Alexander.

Anyone wish to share some perceptions of who's in favor these days, and who seems to be getting more knocks than in the past?

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Ever have a bad week? Not a tragic week, just one-damn-thing-after-another bad? The Siren did. She is still recovering. She begs your patience.