Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Essential Cinema - 7

French Language with English Sub-Titles

Diary of a French Priest

Claude Laydu
Jean Riveyre
André Guibert
Rachel Bérendt
Nicole Maurey
Nicole Ladmiral
Martine Lemaire

Robert Bresson

Robert Bresson

Léonce-Henri Burel

The memories of a young Vicar in a rural French town document the shallow and callus lives of the adults in the community, set against the innocence and growing realizations of its youth.

Depression is the first thing that comes to mind. This isn't a very uplifting film, even on a spiritual level. It is extremely intimate, drawing the viewer into the mind of the priest and his discovery of the pain and angst of the townspeople that he is sent to over-see. Hollywood has rarely made this type of film. It has to do more with the examination of the soul and the complexities of the human experience.

This film is interesting because it is different from most American cinema. It shows that cinematic story telling can be a personal and introspective art as opposed to a neat plot that is resolved in 90 minutes. For anyone struggling with the complexities of life this would be a good film to see and ponder. In the end, all the things we fuss over have little bearing on the big picture.

The soft focus black and white print gives an almost impressionistic tone at the beginning of the film. The story moves smartly with short direct scenes that build characters and set the mood. There are no long takes or establishing shots. It is a very terse film, with minimal dialog. The lives of the rural French community are woven together/discovered by the timid priest who is thrust into their midst. The film shows how other cultures think and what they find important and meaningful.

In the film's setting the priest is a standard figure of society, much like a postman or fireman, he is the living conscience of the community. The central character is similar to the Catholic Priest played by Spencer Tracy in "Boy's Town", only less dynamic and more introverted. He searches for the meaning of life amongst the cynical souls of rural France where gossip and back stabbing appear to be the norm. All in all a depressing film with a very thin plot. Mostly an introspective character study of the lives of troubled people and their failure to find salvation. There isn't a lot of resolution in the story, just a certain amount of realization on the part of the characters.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Urban Archeology

Extra Spicy Please

There is a veneer over society. It is sort of a facade that covers up the ugly parts we don't want to acknowledge. Whether we like it or not, we end up scratching the surface eventually and what we find underneath is usually a shock to our system.

I sold a house several years ago and made a tidy profit from it. I lived in it for almost 15 years. It was a nice starter home but I don't miss it much. It was a stepping stone to better things and a good investment. Before I sold it, I hired a residential management agency to rent the house so I could get some additional income. In retrospect, this was not a good idea. Renting in Phoenix, Arizona is a tricky thing due to the large number of transients and urban cockroaches that infest this city.

The management company indicated that I could expect to see $1200 a month in rental income from the property. After three months, I had seen two renters pass through the place and barely $600 in profit, so I called up the management company and raised hell about it. Turns out the management firm had hired an inexperienced property manager that knew nothing. She had rented the house without checking references or backgrounds on the renters. After four months I got a call from my old neighbor telling me that the police had been to my rental house several times that week and I should probably look into what was going on there. We ended up getting an eviction notice from the local court in order to legally enter the house which appeared to have been abandoned. What we found in the house is where this story really begins.

When we opened the front door, we peeled back part of society's veneer, it wasn't pretty inside. To say the interior of the house was a mess would be a gross understatement. It had been destroyed. There were holes in walls, broken glass, busted furniture, clothes and trinkets scattered everywhere. There was dog feces ground into the carpet and hundreds and hundreds of penny's strewn about the place. I promptly fired the management firm and filed suit against them since it appeared they had failed to manage anything except the house's destruction.

I began the slow process of cleaning the house and repairing the damage. It was during this process that I started to piece together the lives of the people that had lived there.

Renter #1 and his daughter

The first renter must have been 21 years old. He had a 4 year old daughter that liked to write on everything with crayons, walls, floors, doors, etc. The father didn't discourage it. He was a child raising a child. He had just gotten divorced and was trying to get back on his feet. I don't know a lot about him, because most of what he left behind was covered up by the second renters. What I did find was a video tape in a pile of trash in the back yard. It was his wedding video. It appeared to be an Hispanic / Gypsy wedding. To say that the video was bizarre would be an understatement. The video showed the young man and his new wife, surrounded by gypsies performing mystic rituals on the bride and groom. My guess is that the marriage lasted less than a year. He fled Southern California with his daughter to start a new life in Arizona. But I guess he couldn't let go of his past.

I had left the utilities on in the house (water/power/phone) so that prospective renters could make sure everything worked. The management company was instructed to have the utilities changed over when the house was rented. Seems they forgot this little detail. As soon as the renter realized the phone worked, he started calling. Calling long distance, to Los Angeles.....for 30 hours in three days. Needless to say, when I got the phone bill, I went through the roof. He promised to pay it back, but skipped out on the rent 2 weeks later....he probably went back to Los Angeles to rejoin the gypsies. He probably thought phone calls were free in Arizona.

Renter #2, his Buddy and his Girlfriend

The next urban dwellers were on a spiral path to oblivion. A single man in his 20s rented the house, but he didn't plan on living their alone. A common trick among young folks looking to move out of their parent's garage is to find somebody to rent a house and then have all your buddies move in and split the cost. That way a $1200 rental becomes a $400 per person rental, and you get a garage and fenced back yard, etc. It is like your parents house with no parents. The three pit-bulls got to stay for free. Talk about urban party heaven!

There was a cleaning deposit in the rental agreement but this really doesn't apply anymore. It is just a $500 party deposit, that allows them to trash the home, since they never really expect to get it back. But with home ownership, also comes reality. You have to pay for those damn utilities. Not these folks. When the water got turned off by the city, they just went to the water main and cracked the valve open. Presto....free water! Not exactly. The garbage collection was tied to the water bill. If you don't pay your water bill, the garbage isn't collected. Not a problem for these renters....they just started throwing it in the back yard. It was in this 5 foot high mound of rooting compost, that I found the first renters wedding video.

With irresponsible, unsupervised youth, also comes drug addiction. These renters didn't disappoint in that department either and it was their downfall. They were into prescription drugs. The finest pharmaceuticals were their drugs of choice. Pain killers along with the steroids that the two men took to pump themselves up made for a bad combination. Seems that one of the renters was an avid golfer, so his artificial testosterone must have put a few extra yards on his drives.

It all came crashing down when the pill-popping golfer came home and found his 19 years old girlfriend/roommate in bed with his buddy. The fact that he was probably withdrawing from prescription pain killers and in a steroid rage couldn't have helped the situation. While the roommate jumped the back wall to get away, the girlfriend locked herself in the bathroom. Hollow-core bathroom doors aren't designed to stop steroid crazed ex-lovers. The boyfriend put his fist through the thin particle board and proceeded to drag his soon-to-be ex-girlfriend out of the house by her hair. I got this wonderful play by play recollection from my 80 year old neighbor. He is the one that called the police, while the boyfriend was beating his girlfriend senseless in the driveway.

The cops hauled Mr. Steroid off to jail for domestic violence and substance abuse. At this point the two remaining tenants realized that the police would probably get a search warrant to look for more contraband in the house and the ex-boyfriend would probably be out on bail soon and come looking for them. So they did the only logical thing. They scattered like rats from a sinking ship. It took them about 30 minutes to throw EVERYTHING they could in the back of a pickup truck and vacate the property. What was left is what I found when I repossessed the house. What they left behind painted a sad story of wanton youth, looking for instant gratification. These young people were totally unaware of the consequences of their actions. They were basically urban animals.

I had to rummage through the clues they left behind to figure out all the sordid details. Some of the clues were personal belonging strewn throughout the house. Most of what was left behind was in piles, either in the back yard or stuffed inside trash cans in the garage. The garbage was rotting, putrid and had flies buzzing around it.

The young men were roofers. A lucrative trade in Phoenix because of the boom in housing construction. They were Caucasian and could speak English which almost guaranteed them a job that paid pretty well. The young woman was a high school graduate. I found her High School senior picture. It said class of 1999. She was pretty and innocent. The neighbor told me she worked at Hooters serving chicken wings in short-shorts and a tight tank-top.

The large garbage can in the garage yielded a wealth of information in the form or receipts and unpaid bills. One of the more poignant pieces of paper was an unfinished letter written by the young woman to her father. In it, she described how she and her boyfriend were going to start their own business and 'make it big'. She went on to say that the boyfriend wasn't the awful person her father made him out to be and that he didn't hit her anymore and was really a sweet guy. I suppose it is a good thing the father never got that letter.

Left on the remains of the dining room table was a large colored piece of cardboard that had been ripped in half. I couldn't make sense of it until I found the other half and put them together. It was a large "I'm Sorry Card" made by the boyfriend. On it, he professed his love for his girlfriend and looked forward to the day when they 'didn't take any more pills'. It was signed with 'Love" by him and their "kids" with the paw-prints of their three pit-bulls. I don't know if it was made before or after he beat the crap out of his girlfriend but I guess that "pill-free day" never came.

Left behind in the house were odd little knik-knacks that didn't make the final cut during the exodus. Several cell phones and television remote controls had been used as chew toys by the pit-bulls. Large over-sized beds and frames that couldn't be moved quickly were left disassembled in the bedrooms. A poster on the wall of the guest bedroom proclaimed "Pimpin - Selling Ho's Since 1955!". There were several pornography videos of the bizarre variety in the master bedroom and last but not least, the rubber dildo I found on the top shelf of the master bedroom closet.

The most bizarre remnant of the whole fiasco was all the loose change. There were coins strewn everywhere in the house. I mean everywhere. They were in the dishwasher, in the sink, on the ceiling fans, on the carpet, in draws. There was no place in the house where I didn't run across pennies, dimes, nickels and quarters. These denominations appeared to have no value to the renters. I surmised that one or more of the renters had learned to 'flick' coins with their fingers and all the coins in the house were the remains of coin fights between the two men or coins that were launched at the pit-bulls to annoy them. As I started to clean up the house I collected the change and placed it in a large glass jar. By the time the house was cleaned, I had over $80 in change. It weighed about 60lbs.

It appears that the substance exposed ex-boyfriend returned to the house after posting bail the next day. I found his booking slip and mug shot picture next to the torn "I'm Sorry" card. He probably showed up at the house and finding everyone gone, went to ground as well. Disappearing into the anonymity of the big city. Warrants were issued for his arrest and liens were placed against them by various people, but none of them ever resurfaced. I assume they frequent check cashing stores to avoid the authorities and get their prescription money. I have no idea what happened to their dogs.

The last thing I found was while I was cleaning out the garage. There was a bottle of beer placed on a shelf. After a month of cleaning and painting, the garage was the last thing to get done. As I threw what I thought to be an empty beer bottle into the garbage, it rattled. I picked it up and turned it upside down. A steroid syringe came rattling out. I wondered what else I would stumble across in the future.

I still wonder what happened to these people. Did they turn their lives around? What was considered normal to them? They had no stability. Nothing was lasting or reliable in their minds. They appeared to stumble forward from day to day. A good day for them was when they didn't get into a fight, or get arrested, or when they found some spare pills that they forgot they had. A bank account, good credit rating, a 401K plan or owning a house in the burbs wasn't even on their radar.

I felt sorry for them as I scooped the last remnants of their shattered lives into the dumpster, but I also prayed that I never ran across any of them for the rest of my life. The veneer of society is pretty thin in spots, but what lies underneath can be bottomless.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Essential Cinema - 6

Ice Station Zebra

Rock Hudson
Ernest Borgnine
Patrick McGoohan
Jim Brown
Tony Bill
Lloyd Nolan

John Sturges

Harry Julian Fink

Daniel L. Fapp

Cold war adversaries against nature and each other. There is no quick way to the top of the world to recover lost secrets. This film documents a race between the superpowers, with dirty tricks and espionage thrown in for good measure. Adventure on a grand scale to the ends of the earth.

Political chess, with very high stakes. Technological prowess will only get you so far. In the end you have to see which opponent blinks first. This whole film has an underlying tone of deceit and secrecy. Up until the end of the film, you aren't sure who is on which side and who you can trust.

This is a man's film.....there are no women on screen. The overall tone of the picture is one of high adventure, pitting man against not only the elements, but also against his enemies and his allies. The excellent soundtrack by Michael Legrand evokes far away travel and sweeping scale. The film has exceptional special effects for its day. The opening credits evoke the cool, calculating tension of superpower espionage done at the start of the electronic age. This is James Bond without all the winks, nods and jokes....this is serious stuff. There are no fancy gadgets or exploding pens...we use nuclear submarines and jet fighters to get the job done here.

As for cons in this film, it is lengthy (over 2 hours), but I honestly can't see where you would cut anything out. Each scene moves the picture along at a good pace. The plot can get a little complex unless you pay attention. There is little to interest women in the film, unless you want to see what men fantasize about (besides sex). There are a few slip-ups regarding continuity, but unless you are watching very closely, you won't notice them. Another good example of the types of film that Hollywood isn't very good at making anymore. I highly recommend it.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Essential Cinema - 5

The Satan Bug

George Maharis
Anne Francis
Richard Basehart
Dana Andrews
John Larkin
Richard Bull
Edward Asner

John Sturges

James Clavell & Edward Anholt

Robert Surtees

Insane genius seeks to destroy all life on the planet by developing the ultimate biological weapon....what could possibly go wrong?

To instill fear. Fear that the overworked government brainiacs will go postal and create the ultimate lethal chemical agent. If released the population of the planet has two weeks to live. This is all about men playing God and realizing that being a deity comes with some nasty consequences. This sort of things is still going on with stem-cell research, genetic engineers, the human genome project and steroids, but the results are much more frightening and terrifying here.

This film started out on the slow side and at first appeared somewhat low budget. The sets and dialog seemed sparse and almost empty. As the film progressed, it became apparent that this was intentional in order to give a feeling of alienation and loneliness. The entire cast of the film is minimal. Anne Francis is the ONLY woman you even see on screen. The stark and empty desert landscapes of Arizona and Southern California give a sense of a world abandoned. There aren't a lot of plot twists in this film, but there is a lot of 'motivational' dialog. Questions regarding man's right to exist and the folly of runaway science. The scenes of death by bacterial toxins in the film are riveting and emotional. There is no blood or gore, just a momentary realization that the victims are about to die, and then they collapse and are gone.

There aren't a lot of cons in this film, because you have to take it for what it is. Stark, minimalist film making on a terrifying subject. It does appear odd that with the fate of the world at stake, all the US government needs are 6 men in trench coats barking into phones to get things done and one helicopter. This makes you wonder how we ever accomplished anything before cell phones and the internet. We like to see more detail and drama these days, but like I said, this is a simple film on a terrifying subject.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Essential Cinema - 4

Out Of The Past

Robert Mitchem
Jane Greer
Kirk Douglas
Rhonda Fleming
Richard Webb

Jacques Tourneur

Geoffrey Homes

Nicholas Musuraca A.S.C.

A Private Detective with a checkered past tries to start a new life in a small Northern Nevada town. When his past catches up with him, he devises a plan to set things right and protect the woman he loves.

It is easy to be led down the wrong path, especially if you love the wrong person. Sometimes our attempts to make amends or set things right don't always go as we planned. In reality, you often times can't escape your past. It hunts you down and finds you.

This is a Film Noir classic. I saw it once in college and was impressed by it, but couldn't remember much of the film since so many years have passed. Watching it again, only makes me realize just how much Hollywood has lost its ability to make really good films.

There aren't too many cons about this film. The black and white cinematography looks like it was done by Ansel Adams. Almost every scene in the film is suitable for framing. There is a lot of dramatic lighting, long shadows, cigarettes, hats and trench-coats. The overall feeling of the film is one of intimacy and dark mystery. It draws you in, as though you were sitting in the room with the actors and a part of the conversation. If you want to see what really good screen writing is all about, see this film. In my wildest dreams, I wished I talked like this. Every word carries weight and the comebacks and smart responses are the essence of strong men and women with dark secrets.

As for the cons. I suppose the fact that every scene shows someone smoking isn't really a good image for young people today.....the whole film is basically a Phillip-Morris advertisement. The only other con would be the fact that the director and the screenwriter assume the audience isn't stupid. You have to pay attention to this film to really follow it. There are no special effects, explosions or thrill rides to entertain your eyes. You have to listen to what the people are saying and understand their hidden meanings. Basically, a one hour and thirty minute college course in how to make great cinema.