Monday, September 18, 2006


The cult classic, Harold and Maude is unlike any other film in two major respects. For one thing, it involves a unlikely love story between a 79 year old woman and a 20 year old man-child. Secondly, it makes light of death-in a darkly hilarious way. While those two things may turn many people off at first glance, I highly recommend that everyone see it at least once. In my opinion, it is one of the most revealing, delightful, and profoundly sweet movies I have the pleasure to own.

Harold is a wealthy heir, just out of school who is less than impressed with life. He has a deep fascination with death-bordering on obsession- and he drives a hearse. His only joy is derived from visiting funerals and playing pranks on his mother by staging his own macabre end. These pranks are twisted and wierd but also somehow unsettlingly funny. His mother pays him no mind, no doubt assuming that her son is going through a harmless phase of some sort. She attempts, throughout the film, to set up fruitless dates for him-hoping he will eventually warm up to the idea of a companion with which to share his vast fortune. While visiting one of his beloved funerals, Harold comes across free spirit Maude-a 79 year old sprite of a woman with a lust for life. To Maude, the world is a playground and death is just its exciting conclusion. She herself hangs out at the funerals to reaffirm her own happy existence and pays no heed to rhyme or reason in her attempt at living life to its fullest. Harold is instantly drawn to her and the two of them develop a deep friendship that seems only natural under their respective circumstances. The love that ensues is strange but still absolutely believeable.

Bud Cort is a face worth remembering. His huge almost 'bugged' eyes are full of character and feeling. His lanky frame and quirky clothing only add to his appeal as the film's oddball of a hero. Ruth Gordon is the star of the movie though, make no mistake. There is no doubt that the woman was a phenomenal presence in every film she graced (I can distinctly remember her playing a very Maude-like character in the underrated teen flick-My Bodyguard). But as Maude, she's more than a presence; she's a downright inspiration. It is her sweet outlook ('I'd like to be a sunflower') that makes the movie so delightful, despite the blanket synopsis. She flits around the screen like some type of nymph, bringing to Harold a new opinion of life that remains with him even through the film's bittersweet conclusion.

Hal Ashby took on a huge challenge by directing this as his first film. He was an oscar winning film editor prior to this picture, and choosing such a strange black comedy for his first attempt at directing, was needless to say-a probable jump at failure. But he pulls it off brilliantly. The direction is superb throughout. The flow from Harold's dark and dreery mansion to Maude's luminous walks in the sun are virtually seamless. Cat Steven's upbeat music also lends a measure of harmony and lyricism to the whole experience. It's evident that Wes Anderson (who directed current cult classics 'Rushmore' and 'The Royal Tenenbaums' ) was heavily influenced by this particular film.

There are aspects of this movie that would probably warrant it having a 'pg13' rating today. Some of Harold's 'pranks' are a bit violent and some sexual activity is 'alluded' to in one scene. But thankfully, it doesnt dwell on the immorality for a significant ammount of time nor does it take itself very seriously at any given point. You must use your own discretion when approaching this subject matter, I suppose.

But, I'll just close by saying-I highly recommend it as both a love story and a wildly entertaining piece of film history.

My rating: 9/10

Tuesday, September 12, 2006


One day I saw an article in a film magazine citing the greatest female performances in movie history. The performance by Maria Falconetti in this silent film was at the top of the list. Being only slimly familiar with silent film, I was puzzled and intrigued by this bold proclamation. The greatest performance by a woman ever ? Really? I put it on my netflix rental queue intending to watch it when I got to it.

My father called me last week to inform that the film was going to be playing on TCM and that I should give it a watch. So I did. Interestingly, in the film's introduction, it was stated that Maria Falconetti never made another movie. This was her first and her last. Now I am even more intrigued.

Most of the time, I am disappointed when something is built up as the 'best' of anything. The best creme' brulee'? meh. The best song? No way. The best band? C'mon. But this time, I must say that if Maria Falconneti's performance as Joan of Arc is not the BEST ever, it is definitely AMONG the best. Let me see if I can put it into words.

Have you ever been watching someone fall apart from a distance? You cannot hear them or read their lips even. But you see their face crumple, their eyes fill, their lips tremble as they try to get the words out. You feel guilty in your voyeurism but don't want to look away. What could possibly have happened? Regardless of what the problem is, it has obviously turned their life, for the time being, upside down. Now imagine that you do know what is wrong. That somehow, just by their expression, you were able to read their thoughts. Their whole story is in their eyes. And you sit by, mezmerized in their power.

This is, in effect, how I felt about Maria Falconetti's performance. I felt that even if I had not seen any of her surroundings or known who she was portraying-I would still have somehow known. She is able to convey the broad spectrum of emotions that Joan of Arc underwent thru the course of her trial-of determination, grief, adoration, fear...simply by the use of her glorious eyes. I stared openmouthed as she wiped tears away, swatted a fly distractingly, bit her parched lips, wiped her runny nose with the back of her hand, and became a living breathing part of history. The dialogue cards were actually unnecessary, as strange as that may seem.

The story follows only the trial of Joan. We do not see her visions, her communication w/ the Dauphine, her march into battle. We see her before the judges, we see her in prison, and we see her die. It is not a light or joyous movie by any stretch of the imagination...not even once does it attempt to pull the viewer out of the doldrums. But where is rests-it accomplishes volumes.

The direction by Carl Dreyer is unprecendented and extremely ahead of its time. He used no make up, retaining a gritty and realistic feel throughout. It is this particular area that makes the film so timeless and the date of 1928 almost incomprehensible. Also, the movie is almost entirely shot in closeup. The different faces (principally that of Falconetti) are the story. And such wonderful faces were chosen. The characters are completely captivating from the outset, based as they are on looks alone. We despise the bishops and judges, love those who are sympathetic to her plight, and mourn for Joan as she bears it all. The realism is at times unsettling, such as when an arm is pierced for the customary 'bleeding', a nursing baby pulls away from his mother's moist nipple to watch the execution, and Joan's head is shaved as a final insult.

Since we know God did not speak to Joan, and that her visions were evidently hallucinations of some kind-the story is bittersweet. But to those of us who are more than willing to die for our faith, it also resonates in a way that many would not understand. Watching as the prosecutors try to attack her faith strikes home in more ways than one. The twisting of her words to serve their purpose, the onslaught of 'unanswerable' questions, the accusations-how can we not be moved by this?

I recommend this to anyone-but especially to those who are intrigued by this story, great acting, awe-inspiring filmmaking, or the strength of will.

My rating: 10/10

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

(based on the novel by Edna Ferber)

In the early months of this year my family and I were living temporarily in a one room cabin. During this time, I read two books-one of which was the novel Saratoga Trunk by Edna Ferber. I had gone to the library in search of her book 'Giant' (one of my all time favorite movies) and since they didnt have it, I settled on this one since I really just wanted to get familiar with her work. Let me say first, it is a great book.

Saratoga Trunk tells the story of Clio Dulaine, a beautiful bold female on a mission to right her mother's (and her own) sullied name. The story finds this elegantly dressed woman on a boat for New Orleans accompanied by her ominous black maid and another servant named Cupide who is a dwarf. While seeking vengeance for her mother, Clio also intends to marry a rich man so that, unlike her mother, she will be respected. However, this last plan becomes a bit complicated when she falls for long tall Texas smart alleck, Clint Marroon-a man who makes his living playing cards and has little or no money to speak off. The love story follows the two protagonists from the deep mood of New Orleans to the lighthearted ammusement of the Saratoga racetrack as Clio seeks to find her wealthy husband in full view of the man she truly loves.

I was thrilled to see that there was a movie version of this story-especially when the leads were so aptly cast. It's a long-winded spectacle, clocking in at almost three hours. But the ride, while it lasts, is a joy to watch. Ingrid Bergman is absolutely the physical manifestation of Clio Dulaine. She has never been more beautiful than she is in this film-with all her glorious costumes only adding to her charm. Cooper's lazy eyes speak volumes and his lines are delivered with effortless skill. Their love scenes are tumultuous but also very tender and funny. The development of their relationship is a bit confusing and sometimes leaves the viewer puzzled, but I was still satisfied with the outcome.

Unlike many film adaptions (The Count of Monte Christo for instance), this one truly struggled to stay close to the book and succeeded for the most part. The time spent in New Orleans was obviously filmed on a stage and a tight budget so much of the city mood is lost. But as the story journies to Saratoga Springs, we feel an 'opening up' that is very refreshing. Little Jerry Austin, who plays Cupide, does a great job with his physical role and is memorable. However, I was very turned off by the casting of Flora Robson ( a white woman) as Angelique, the black maid. This glaring problem destroyed her scenes, which could have been great.

The direction, by Sam Wood, seems a little claustrophobic at times (which I put down more to money constraints than lack of skill) but still manages to keep the viewer interested. The story flows along fairly well with the help of the great dialogue that was effectively adapted from the novel. An example: Clio is about to leave for Saratoga having been offered 10,000 dollars in 'hush money' by the Dulaine family. The Dulaine's lawyer is enamoured with her and is genuinely concerned for her future. " This money will not last you long, Miss Clio. What will you do?' "Do?"says she,'Why, I'll marry rich of course." The lawyer looks down bashfully. " You are very beautiful ma'am" he says. "Yes," she candidly replies, "Isn't it lucky?". The smile on Bergman's beautiful face with these words is what makes this movie, despite its faults, a wonderful piece of work.