Tuesday, March 31, 2020

The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926, Lotte Reiniger)

Quest Status: 692 /1000

TSPDT Rank #958

 The Adventures of Prince Achmed is an early adaptation of "One Thousand and One Nights" (aka "Arabian Nights"), featuring the collection's most famous character, Aladdin, as well as the titular Prince Achmed. It's also the earliest surviving animated film. Composed of silhouette animation transposed on a vibrant background of bright colors, Prince Achmed is a feast for the eyes, a rare type of animated film that was soon replaced by the works of Walt Disney and other popular animation studios.

The Art of Lotte Reiniger: The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926 ...
The story is simple enough. An African magician creates a magical flying horse to sell to the local monarch in exchange for his daughter, sending the monarch's son Prince Achmed flying into the sky when he tries to protect his sister. Achmed then kidnaps Pari Banu, the beautiful ruler of a magical island, who agrees to follow him but is kidnapped by the emperor of China. The magician's greatest rival, an unsightly but kindly witch, comes to the rescue, but it turns out that Aladdin's magic lamp is needed to unlock the gates to Pari Banu's kingdom and defeat the angry demons who live there.

The Adventures of Prince Achmed, and watching old movies. | Gender ...

Okay, maybe it's not that simple. If anything, this short feature film could have been longer in order to give the viewer more time to process the narrative information and enjoy the rich visuals. Maybe the short length was due to the difficulty of producing this style of silhouette animation. Otherwise, the only fault I can see in the animation almost 100 years later is the lack of facial expressions (so crucial to silent films) and the tendency of trees and other objects in the frame to get in the way of the characters sometimes. The movement of the characters looks very natural for the most part, and the storytelling is gripping and fast-moving even if it is outlandish. I'm glad that Prince Achmed has a place on the 1,000 Greatest Films (for now, anyway) - it deserves a place among any list of essential 1920s silent films.

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Local Hero (1983, Bill Forsyth)

Quest Status: 691 /1000

TSPDT Rank #569

A man working a well-paying but insignificant sales job at a Houston oil company gets sent to Northern Scotland to buy the land rights for an oil refinery, solely due to his Scottish-sounding name. His ancestors were actually from Hungary, but he goes anyway, with cryptic instructions from his eccentric boss (played by the ever-magnetic Burt Lancaster) to study the stars in search of a comet. In these expository scenes, Local Hero feels like a screwball farce - a swipe at the absurdity of the big business world and the disconnect between the people who occupy that world.

Mac (Peter Riegert) and Oldsen (Peter Capaldi) find privacy in the open space of the beach in Bill Forsyth's Local Hero (1983)

Then our hero, MacIntire (Peter Riegert), goes to Scotland. The pace slows, and the mood becomes much more relaxed. For awhile, I found myself wondering when the plot would start moving along. But it doesn't. Forsyth gives us shot upon shot of beautiful coastal scenery - blue skies, bluer seas, black rocks, green hills, tan sands, and purple sunsets. MacIntire's interactions with the villagers, an insular and guarded lot, are initially awkward in a quietly amusing way. But after, he begins to blend in with them. And in turn, the tone of their interactions change. Soon it becomes clear that what started as a simple business trip has turned into something else entirely. MacIntire has discovered a new way of life.

Local Hero (1983) Dir. Bill Forsyth

Local Hero is a film which takes its time and covers a lot of ground. It's a film that starts fast, slows down considerably, and comes back to surprise time and time again - not least with its abrupt and moving conclusion. With the beautiful location cinematography, director Bill Forsyth paid tribute to his native Scotland, and made a masterful study of the difference between American and Scottish attitudes and social behavior. And going one step further, he created a profound meditation on the old adage that "the grass is always greener on the other side" - and the fleeting call of opportunity that may come only once in a lifetime.

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Thursday, March 26, 2020

FROM THE VAULTS: Husbands / Shadows

Dear readers,

Since it's the 10th anniversary of the blog this year, I have been looking back at my viewing history from the early years of my quest and trying to make a complete list of what I've watched over the years - especially the "lost" periods when I got tired of writing the blog. Most of the time I was just prioritizing watching movies over writing about them, but thankfully I still kept a record of what I was watching.

My writing for this blog also overlapped with my participation in the Internet Film Club, an international online discussion group which started as an email group in 2006 (I joined shortly after in 2007), and later transitioned to Facebook. I have just recovered some of my writing for that group, so I'll be sharing some of those posts intermittently to fill in some of the gaps in my quest. 

The first installment is a pair of films by John Cassavetes: Husbands and Shadows. I wrote about these two films for the film club just before I started the blog in January 2010 (with another Cassavetes film, Faces). So here there are now, for posterity...

Husbands (1970, John Cassavetes)

--Originally written 1/4/2010--

Current TSPDT Rank (2020 Edition): #281

[2010 Edition: #539] 


I introduced myself to the work of John Cassavete's with the great film Husbands. Simply, it's a film about three men going through a mid-life crisis but ... what's simple about that, right? It's a very profound film, as is Cassavete's style of filmmaking. He attempts to film reality, not actually in documentary form, but a mirror image of life and the real emotions of his characters. In this he succeeds, because the film feels very realistic, he brings the viewer unusually close to the characters and their problems. But at the same time, we notice the camera, and the way it's used to tell the story. Husbands is an extremely personal film, you can tell that it was created off Cassavetes' own mid-life crisis. It's a daring film in that you can tell that Cassavetes is just laying his soul bare for us to see. Overall, I thought it was very good. I had heard it was hard to watch but had no troubles with it.

Shadows (1959, John Cassavetes)

--Originally written 1/10/2010--

Current TSPDT Rank (2020 Edition): #437

[2010 Edition: #302] 


Shadows ... now here is a film that is a complete mess. It obviously had a lot of influence, as far as independent filmmaking goes (and especially the French new wave), and was very innovative for its
improvised acting, but it didn't work as a film for me. It seemed much more like one of Cassavetes' filmed improvising workshops. There's not really any main focus or idea, the camera just floats around from conflict to conflict - didn't really seem to matter what the conflict was - just so the actors could show off their improvisation skills. Also, the interracial romance (if you can even call it that) of the story was probably edgy and important for the time, but it's very irrelevant today.

The Piano (Jane Campion, 1993)

Quest Status: 690 /1000

TSPDT Rank #162

There aren't that many movies about female desire out there. Unsurprisingly, those that are out there tend be made by female directors most of the time. With The Piano, Jane Campion crafted a film about female desire that is both sensitive and earthy. Then there's the historical side of it - which takes us back into a barely settled 1850s New Zealand outpost. It's a world where men such as Sam Neill's Stewart send out for mail order brides from Scotland rather than settle for the few local unmarried gossips in their "settlement", a muddy swamp land in which the "roads" between houses are precariously placed boards leading across the mud. It's also a world where the cumbersome clothing that women wear is a metaphor for their sexual inaccessibility and the dense, tangled forests are a metaphor for the passion locked away in their hearts.

Cinematic Artistry on Twitter: "The Piano (1993) Director: Jane ...

For Holly Hunter's Ada, this might be more the case than most. Hunter pulled off quite a laundry list of feats for this movie - portraying a mute woman with only the most subtle of perceptible emotions, playing solo piano as the sole auditory expression of her character's soul, speaking in a Scottish accent for the film's opening and closing monologues, and working with a sign language coach to design a personal sign language to be used with her daughter in the film (played by Anna Paquin). Without the power of speech, her muteness becomes an amplified symbol of her repression. Through Ada, Campion shows us how it feels to be alone, unable to speak for yourself, unable to change the path of your life.

Cinematic Artistry on Twitter: "The Piano (1993) Director: Jane ...

Of course, in everyone's life, there are choices to be made. These choices can change the path of your life no matter how repressed. Ada makes a choice from which there is no going back and it ripples through the second half of the film like an earthquake. It's fitting for a film about a mute woman that the emotions should be so powerful. The things that can't be expressed with words carry more weight. One scene in particular comes to mind. At a crucial point in the middle of the film, the camera zooms in on Ada gazing into a forest. But we don't see her face, instead getting a close view of her intricately braided and pinned hair, which dissolves into a shot of a deep and dark forest. The forest is silent, but seems to be alive and hiding immense secrets. Rarely do movies let you glimpse into the mind of their characters like this, but Jane Campion seems to pull it off effortlessly in The Piano.

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Saturday, March 21, 2020

Celine and Julie Go Boating (Jacques Rivette, 1974)

Quest Status: 689 /1000

TSPDT Rank #199

There are many kinds of magic. Simple illusions, tricks on a stage, fortune telling by Tarot cards, mystic potions, everyday coincidences, and unexplainable events. Then there are dreams... maybe the most mystifying magic of all. In Celine and Julie Go Boating, Jacques Rivette made the connection between dreams and cinema. Many have made this connection before, but Rivette's concept here is particularly unique.

Image result for celine and julie go boating house

The film begins with an encounter between two women, the titular Celine and Julie, the former a librarian first seeing reading a book entitled "Magic" and the latter a low-rent magician at a sleazy dive bar disguised as a center for the arts. They have a strange attraction to each other and their lives quickly become entangled, the two becoming almost interchangeable. Furthermore, they both seem to have experienced something at a mysterious abandoned house, which neither remembers.

At this point, Rivette poses the question: What if we could relive our dreams, study them piece by piece and analyze their meaning? In so doing, what was initially beguiling and incomprehensible might become simple, even logical, and could therefore be overcome. This might sound like psychoanalytic therapy, but viewed today it seems to presage the coming of LaserDiscs, VHS, and DVDs, especially in the way that Celine and Julie play back their haunting visions while commenting and laughing at them like detached spectators. If you break down a film and analyze it, does it lose its magic? And could you ever really understand what it means?

Then there's the ending, which poses another question: If you could enter your own dream (or a film), what would it look like? Would anyone notice you? Would you have any effect on the action? These are just some of the questions that Jacques Rivette poses over the course of a 192-minute film that is endlessly fascinating and even riveting. It was my first encounter with a Rivette film - but it was long overdue. You can expect more on this unheralded French master before long.

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