cribbs & funderburg

Every day, it seems like there's more being written about fewer films. The internet is an endless expanse of opinioneering, but every blogger seems to be working from the same limited Rolodex. How many times do the virtues of The Godfather need to be extolled? If you love horror movies, do you ever need to read anything else about (the truly excellent, totally brilliant) Halloween or The Evil Dead? How many "Top 10" lists do you need to see recycle the same titles before you realize, "Gosh, maybe I should see The Shining and Casablanca?"

There's a whole universe of movies out there, but you wouldn't know it by perusing critical websites. Look, we love Funny Games (both versions) as much as anybody, but maybe it should be mentioned at some point that The Seventh Continent and Benny's Video are equally interesting films. It's possible some people never tire of reading about standbys like Stranger than Paradise, Breathless and On the Waterfront, but once a week give your palate over to the Pink Smoke and we'll recommend some films that maybe you didn't even realize were thoroughly, totally, 100% worth your attention. At very least, they're not films you'll have already read about 453 times.

andre de toth, 1952

~ by john cribbs ~

If you like:
Moral ambiguity, military degradation ceremonies, spectacular wagon crashes, Fess Parker in blackface (not really, it's just paint to disguise his features but with that accent it's unsettling for like five seconds.)

Fans of the Craig R. Baxley classic Stone Cold will be astounded to learn that, long before Joe Huff shed his mundane moniker for the strapping pseudonym John Stone in order to infiltrate white supremist biker social club The Brotherhood, Gary Cooper was covertly currying favor with a similarly dirty band of racist riders, in this case a gang of dirty freebooters and jayhawkers who've rustled over 1,000 horses from the Union during the desperate final days of the Civil War. But unlike Huff/Stone, Cooper's no cowboy: as an honored officer for the North he sensibly cuts his losses and retreats when he sees that raiders who've stolen their herd (with the intention of selling them to the South, horses described as being "more important than men these days") outnumber the company 4 to 1. Cashiered out of the army, stripped of his uniform with a yellow line branded down his back, he finds himself ostracized from the anti-coward community - even the bartender at the fort saloon refuses to serve him his Old Crow whiskey ("Pour it yourself, Copperhead.") Only a select few are in on the fact that it's all an elaborate ruse to land "disgruntled" Cooper on the side of the rustlers, led by a tough hombre with the excellent name of Austin McCool, so that he can take apart the layered organization from the inside.

Following a series of small victories and dire setbacks (like Face/Off and Infernal Affairs, this explores why it's a bad idea to only have a handful of people privy to your counterespionage activity), everything comes to a head in a climax where the good guys are bolstered by the novelty of using brand new automatic Springfield rifles ("I feel like a whole army!") This justifies the movie's Winchester 73-like title, although the finale feels vaguely like an NRA promo (i.e. "How convenient, I can kill more people much faster!"), and an addendum reveals that the successful use of the new guns gets Cooper assigned to new "military intelligence company in Washington" (the Pentagon? No that was mid-WWII.)

De Toth's cynical ambiguity is what makes Springfield Rifle such a wickedly brutal pleasure. Running throughout the story is a sense of inherent treachery and prevailing corruption so that characters trade roles as good and bad guys at the drop of a hat. Besides the memorable moment where Cooper makes the decision to become a murderer, drawing his gun to mow down an unarmed, de-horsed, wounded adversary during a messy shootout in the canyons, there's the jerk who orchestrated Cooper's downfall by accusing him of cowardice and staging a court marshal who ends up being his must trusted ally. Likewise, a decorated Union officer, the only one to show compassion for Cooper once he's ousted from the army, turns out to be the sleazy turncoat, and he's the one who ends up cornered and desperately fighting for his life against overwhelming odds at the end of the movie while the "good guys" are burning down half a forest and wiping out the small band of remaining "bad guys" with their fancy new rifles. This is moving far beyond the classic black-hat baddies of the genre; De Toth suggests that something worse than an unrelenting evil is a world where the morality line is so thin it barely even exists. His outlook on the human condition is bleak, perceiving a natural moral diffidence resulting in an ultimate explosion of misguided wrath.

This defines all his westerns - Kirk Douglas' fabled title Indian Fighter forced to confront the consequence of his own barbarism in the form of vengeful Sioux thirsty for the blood of settlers on the Oregon trail; visiting bandits who upset the balance of a dirty feud in Day of the Outlaw (which has one of the all-time great posters); Texan Randolph Scott unwillingly taking up arms against his own people despite traveling in the company of a convicted rebel leader in Thunder Over the Plains.* Attach man's ethical indifference to the moral grayness of the Civil War in general and the result is wanton destruction. There's a little compromising, as several of the famous western roles played by Cooper - an actor always pretty stiff and uninteresting - are undeniable good guys and 'Lex' Kearney is no exception, but like Anthony Mann's Man of the West his heroic acts are veiled self-assurances of a challenged masculinity that really just make things worse, the scene where he sits atop his horse with gun drawn on his gunless enemy reminiscent of the strip-wrestling match from Mann's movie. Having been literally stripped of his own manhood in the opening degradation ceremony, even Cooper's "badass" moments are almost sexual attacks on other men: instead of killing Lon Chaney after he tries to ride his horse, he slashes Chaney's ass with a knife so he can't ride a horse (not comfortably, anyway.) But it's these scenes that make De Toth's confused characters as memorably flawed and dangerously desperate as those of Mann and Boetticher.

* I haven't seen the Joel McCrea-Veronica Lake horse opera Ramrod, but the title alone puts it at the top of my list.

francois truffaut, 1971

~ by christopher funderburg ~

If you like:
Jean-Pierre Leaud as a young man, novelist Henri-Pierre Rochet, devastating epilogues, women literally going blind while masturbating.

Francois Truffaut’s heart-wrenching un-love story might at first glance register as simply a gender-reversed Jules and Jim. Based on a novel by J&J author Henri-Pierre Rochet, it concerns a pair of sisters vying for the attention of a comparatively libertine young man (Jean-Pierre Leaud) in the pre-WWI era. Jules and Jim is typically remembered for a youthful verve and romanticism totally absent from the final hour of its running time and Two English Girls almost seems to yearn to serve as a corrective to the standard mischaracterization of its counterpart. A still, almost clenched film locked in a series of painterly tableaus and dominated by voice-over narration taken from letters between the main characters, Girls could never be accused of attempting to inspire exhilaration in its audience. It's a quiet, snaking, slow-moving piece about emotions that refuse to form into actions, how our lives are dominated by incoherent notions that never quite become ideas and the things we can't be sure we're feeling. The three leads are excellent…which goes a long way towards keeping you engaged as Leaud decides to sort out his feelings by spending a year away from the sisters in Paris - he ends up embarking on a series of romances, but they are shuttled to the side in favor of the aforementioned letter-reading-and-writing sequences.

Leaud's work comes at a transition point in his career when he could no longer rely primarily on charming ingenuity as a performer but hadn't settled into the steady persona that defined his work in the late 70's and 80's of quietly erratic loners living inside their own head. (He also was, fortunately, years away from the lazy, pretentious work as a living cameo and bloated French New Wave symbol into which he eventually slouched.) Fittingly, as a performer he embodies restless late 20's malaise with an awkward charm and insularity that contrasts sharply Moreau's iconic love-triangle catalyst Catherine in J&J. He's a dude who can't quite get his life figured but has undoubtedly floated past the point in his existence when all the Big Decisions probably should have been made.

If I'm not making the film sound altogether wonderful, I'll have to admit that's not by accident because I think Two English Girls is quite strange in its artistic intentions and construction: to me, the whole film serves to set up a beautiful, poetic, utterly devastating epilogue. The rest is careful, not altogether brilliant in its own right set-up for the final scene. The epilogue features Leaud having an epiphany a couple years after the events of the film and Girls derives almost the entirely of its substantial emotional and intellectual power from this brief sequence. I think this is not a mistake on Truffaut's part, but rather his intention. As its central narrative unfolds, the emotional waters of the film are pointedly murky and unnavigable: Leaud's restless Frenchman meets sister #1, visits her at their country home in Wales and then is pushed towards a marriage with sister #2. He spends a year away from them, seduces many beautiful Parisian ladies (these are the young ladies who invented the concept of French-kissing!), calls off the marriage, sleeps with sister #1 during a friendly visit to gay Paree and then goes off on with his life. What drives the plot is their shared uncertainty and reluctance, all three are characters defined by not knowing precisely what they want or why they feel compelled to make the decisions they do. It's an almost Ozu-ian situation of frustrated emotions cultivated in a hothouse of sincere and reasonable intentions.

The epilogue breaks free from the bonds of murkiness, indecision, frustration and restlessness to jolt Leaud and the film out of its stupor. It's in these closing moments that Leaud finally understands something, finally he can pull together some bit of wisdom…but the newfound wisdom is that some things only happen once in a lifetime, some emotional connections can disappear and they will never return. You will only feel some things once. And now they are gone. The final line, delivered in voice-over, "Claude looked at himself and thought, 'God, I look old,'" has to rank up there with the most wrenching closing lines of all time. Despite being one of the most legendary filmmakers in the history of le cinema, Truffaut's later work generally gets overlooked in favor of those early films he produced brimming with energy and insouciance (although this is not such a late work.) That Two English Girls' artistic tactics function as an almost direct repudiation of the most famous instance of his vibrant early work means that it holds a particularly unloved space in a lot of Truffaut fans' hearts. It's a shame because this is every bit as beautiful and original a film as its beloved mirror.

~ APRIL 24, 2012 ~