Monday, March 02, 2009


I had hoped to get out to see Coraline this weekend, but that didn't happen. Instead, I was satisfied with a couple of undistributed movies.

One of the great tragedies of the copyright trouble in which Nina Paley's Sita Sings the Blues (2008) finds itself is that, outside of a few festival showings, it won't be seen by its audience on a big screen. I thought of this just after the halfway point, during a psychedelic freakout that had me floored even though I was watching it on a computer screen. Had this film been made in another era--at the height of the midnight movie era, for instance--this would have been one of the great "head" movies, in which audiences of teenagers and younger adults would drop acid before the show and find themselves in a seriously immersive alternate reality of sound and color. Hell, you don't even need the drug for this movie to transport you. Made in a variety of animations styles, and all animated by cartoonist Paley in Flash, this is a tour de force in imaginative juxtapositions. The copyright trouble stems from the use of blues recordings by Annette Hanshaw, which Paley puts into the mouth of Sita, wife of Rama in Hindu tradition, who is further interpreted as a woman wronged by a guy who's kind of a dick, even if he is a god. Paley further juxtaposes this story with her own autobiographical story of being dumped by a boyfriend who has taken a job in India. The whole thing is charming, wholly engaging, and occasionally visionary. One of the other thoughts that I had after I finished watching was that this is the kind of movie that shows up movies like Kung Fu Panda as creatively bankrupt, in spite of their lip service to a variety of styles. Highly recommended. You can watch it online here, if you're interested: nline/347/

The sixth annual True/False Film Festival rolled into our my fair city again this weekend, and, once again, the thing was packed. Last year, they drew 18,000 people. If they drew less than that this year, I would be shocked. The opening night film was Waltzing with Bashir, but there was no way I was getting in to that without standing in a two hour line in freezing temperatures and it was going to be playing at our art-house next week anyway. So I decided that my best bet were films on Sunday at the cavernous Missouri Theater. Surely those showings would have seats available? Famous last words. In any event, I barely got in to see a documentary called Pressure Cooker (2008, directed by Mark Becker and Jennifer Grausman, which depicts a Philadelphia inner city high school class in culinary arts and their peparation for a big scholarship competition. I suppose you could equate this to Hoop Dreams--substitute cooking for basketball--but that would do the film a disservice. The film focuses on three students in particular, as well as their tough as nails teacher, and winds up as a striking portrait of ordinary people in post-industrial America. It's a surprisingly funny movie, and it's a stark rebuke to some images of inner city life as a gang-infested hell. That's not the world--and certainly not the people--you see here. Recommended, if it ever makes it to DVD. The filmmakers were present and discussed the film afterwards. As usual for filmmakers at the Missouri Theater, they looked a little shell-shocked at the size of the audience. Documentaries don't usuallly play to 1200 people at a time.


High Sierra (1941, directed by Raoul Walsh) is arguably the movie that made Humphrey Bogart into Humphrey Bogart. It rescued him from a long string of gangster roles and marked him both as a charismatic movie star and as a really accomplished actor. The movie introduced Bogart to screenwriter John Huston, who would cast Bogart as Sam Spade later that same year (and the rest is history). High Sierra ain't no slouch, either. What we see here is a transitional film. It takes Bogart's Duke Mantee from The Petrified Forest and thaws him. Roy "Mad Dog" Earle is Mantee with a sliver of humanity retained. He has a consience. He's wonderfully conflicted, and the movie amplifies his inner conflicts with his relationships with both Ida Lupino's dance hall refugee and Joan Leslie's crippled teen-ager. In the broad continuum of film history, what we see in High Sierra is the Warner-style gangster film beginning to shade into the moral ambiguity of film noir. What the film lacks is the visual style of noir, but in its place, director Raoul Walsh has substitued a spectacular natural backdrop. The film hints at this when, fresh out of prison, Earle takes a walk to the park to "make sure that the sky is still blue and that the grass is still green." In the back end of the picture, this tendency becomes grandiose, as Roy Earle meets his demise in the shadow of Mount Whitney. On the whole a terrific film, and primo Bogart is ambrosia.

1 comment:

Will Errickson said...

Great piece on High Sierra, which I just watched a few weeks ago. Not crazy about his haircut, though! I was in L.A. just before Xmas and made a point to take a pic of me paying respect to Bogie at Grauman's. Sometimes it's easy to take Bogart for granted since he's such an icon, but man... he's the greatest.