Reel 42: Off-Beat Musical Biopics

Biographical films are always tricky to navigate, largely because they need to choose a point of view to work from. For instance, when talking with other people about the recent biopic Elvis, some viewers were disappointed that we didn’t get to see Elvis Presley eating one of his weird sandwiches, or that we didn’t get the encounter with President Nixon. But the focus of that film was Elvis’ relationship with his manager, Tom Parker.

So we have to imagine that it’s going to become even more complicated when the film’s subject is still alive, as we delve into this episode’s films. First up is 2007’s I’m Not There. The life of Bob Dylan is examined through the viewpoints of five different fictional characters. Each character represents a specific phase of Dylan’s life.

In Part 2 we concentrate on 2014’s Love and Mercy, which centers on two specific eras of Beach Boys founder Brian Wilson. First we have his mid-60s period, which outlines the growing pains that the band went through, and then we jump to the 1980s, where he’s basically a broken man under the thumb of his therapist. We don’t get the whole story of how he got out from under there, but again it’s part of the film’s viewpoint that there are events in the story that we don’t get to see.

COMING ATTRACTIONS: 

In our next episode we spend some time in Dublin, with a pair of films that have many points in common, including one that’s led to an interesting theory tying them together. First up is The Commitments, Alan Parker’s 1991 film about a band’s rise and fall. From there we jump to 2007 to talk about a truly delightful film called Once, written and directed by John Carney, about a week in the life of a pair of struggling musicians, and the songs that underline their relationship. 

R.I.P., Jean-Luc Godard

As I’ve said before, my father always told us Dickens A Christmas Carol must be understood first and foremost as a ghost story – after all, the first line of the novella is, “Marley was dead, to begin with”, and Marley later appears as a ghost to warn main character Ebenezer Scrooge of three ghosts that will show up and (he hopes) inspire Scrooge to change his ways and avoid the same fate he’s currently suffering. Similarly, you can’t understand the filmmaking career of Jean-Luc Godard, who died today at 91, without understanding that he started out as a critic before he became a filmmaker, and as he would later admit, continued as a critic even when he became a filmmaker. Godard has always been a divisive filmmaker – in one of the occasional articles he did for American Film magazine, John Waters admitted that after he took a friend of his to a Godard triple-feature, the friend refused to ever watch movies with Waters again – but as I hope I illustrate in what I’ve written below, he’s enthralled me as much as he’s exasperated me.

Godard, of course, started off his love affair with movies when he joined up in cinema clubs in Paris in the early 1950’s, including the Cinematheque Francais, run by soon-to-be legendary film programmer Henri Langlois. There, he fell in with Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette, Eric Rohmer, and Francois Truffaut, and the five of them eventually became critics for Cahiers du Cinema (the leading French film magazine at the time), co-founded by famed French movie critic Andre Bazin. It was in that magazine the five writers put forth what later became known as the auteur theory (which, among other things, says the director is the author of a film, just as the writer is the author of a novel) and attacked what Truffaut dismissed as the “cinema of quality” that he saw in French movies of the time. More importantly, these five critics became part of what became known as the French New Wave, along with like-minded filmmakers such as Louis Malle, Alain Resnais, and Agnes Varda, as they attempted to put their theories about film into practice as directors. Of course, Breathless was not the first movie of the French New Wave – Chabrol’s first movie, Le Beau Serge, preceded it by two years, Truffaut’s first movie, 400 Blows, which won Truffaut Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival when it played there, preceded it by a year, and there are those who argue Varda’s first movie, La Pointe Courte, which came out in 1955, was the first true French New Wave film, as it used documentary techniques, was filmed on location with a small crew, and was clearly a personal expression of Varda’s (I don’t think it’s as good as Chabrol or Truffaut’s first films, not to mention Godard – Varda, for me, wouldn’t hit her stride until Cleo from 5 to 7 – but you can see the talent there). But Breathless (along with 400 Blows) made the biggest splash, and even more than 60 years later, it’s easy to see why.

Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg in Breathless.

On one level, the movie tells the simple tale of Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo), a criminal on the run after stealing a car and shooting a motorcycle cop, who comes to Paris to get some money and to convince Patricia (Jean Seberg), an American expatriate working for a newspaper (her memorable first line is, “New York Herald Tribune!”, the paper she works for and is selling on the street) and one of his girlfriends, to run away with him to Italy (while, unbeknownst to him at first, the police are hot on his trail). But it’s the other levels that make Breathless so special, to me and many others. Godard and his frequent collaborator, cinematographer Raoul Coutard, shot the movie on the streets of Paris, using long takes (accomplished by Coutard following the actors with the camera while sitting in a wheelchair that was being pushed, since Godard couldn’t afford a crane), which helps give the movie energy and excitement, even if it’s about a character who is going to meet a sad end. The jump cuts – used at a suggestion of Godard’s then-idol Jean-Pierre Melville (who makes a cameo as an author Patricia interviews) in order to shorten the film’s length – also help give the film its energy, as does the jazz-themed score (credited to Martial Solal). But even as Breathless is an example of the type of crime movies made in America in the studio era (Godard dedicated the movie to Monogram Pictures, which made several B-crime movies), Godard is critiquing those movies, and referencing those movies, at the same time. This comes out most clearly, of course, in the sequence where Michel spots a poster of Humphrey Bogart (from his last movie, The Harder They Fall), says the name “Bogie” in reverence, and moves his thumb over his mouth in tribute (Patricia moves her thumb over her mouth at the end of the movie, in an echo of that sequence), but there are other visual and dialogue references to movies (as well as literature) throughout the movie. Godard, like his fellow New Wave directors, was also making the camera a character in the story. Most importantly, Godard was showing how a person like Michel, who saw himself as a character in a movie, would end up in real life if he acted this way.

Anna Karina in A Woman is a Woman.

As I alluded to above, one of the major strands of Godard’s work in the 1960’s – my favorite period of his – was this idea of making movies that were nevertheless an extension of his work as a film critic. A Woman is a Woman, the first movie of Godard’s to be released after Breathless, the first to feature his then-wife Anna Karina (I’ll get to the first one he made after Breathless, and the first with Karina, below), and his first film shot in color, was his attempt at a musical, and at the same time, it felt very different from your typical musical. For one, Angela (Karina), the main character, is an exotic dancer, for another, the songs often stop in the middle (which became another Godard trademark), and finally, the characters (which include Belmondo as Alfred, one of the two men Angela is involved with) often break the fourth wall (after an overture and a credits sequence, the movie begins with Karina yelling out, “Lights, camera, action!”). Yet A Woman is a Woman is as exuberant as the best Hollywood musicals of the time. Turning away from American movies for the moment, Vivre sa Vie (My Life to Live) – a story about Nana (Karina) and how she turns to prostitution – shows the influence of other international filmmakers such as Carl Dreyer (at one point, Nana watches The Passion of Joan of Arc, and replicates the facial expression of Falconetti, the actress who played the title character in Dreyer’s film), G.W. Pabst (Nana’s hairstyle at one point recalls Louise Brook’s bob cut in Pandora’s Box) and Kenji Mizoguchi (one of Godard’s favorites, who made most of his movies about the struggles of women, particularly those who worked as prostitutes).

Claude Brasseur, Anna Karina, and Sami Frey do the Madison in Band of Outsiders.

Godard then made his first Hollywood-backed movie, Contempt (though it was a co-production of France and Italy, Embassy Pictures, run by Joseph E. Levine, ended up distributing the movie in the U.S.), which was also his first movie with big stars – French star Brigitte Bardot and American star Jack Palance – and was a movie about the making of a movie (Fritz Lang, another Godard idol, played himself as a director making a film of Homer’s “The Odyssey”, Michel Piccoli played the screenwriter, Bardot his wife, and Palance a studio executive). Yet even here, Godard showed both his subversive streak (the producers wanted to exploit Bardot by showing off her body, but Godard only shot her nude from the back, using color filters, and at the beginning of the movie – not only that, but the film shows how her character feels she’s being treated as an object by her husband and by Palance’s character) and his personal obsessions (the tension between Bardot and Piccoli’s characters in the movie reflect the strains growing in his marriage to Karina at the time). Band of Outsiders, his next movie with Karina, returned him to making a movie according to his dictum, “All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun,” but as with Breathless, is done in a playful style that nevertheless shows the characters are fated to a bad end. The movie also contains what might be my favorite sequence in a Godard movie, when Karina and the two men in her life (played by Claude Brasseur and Sami Frey) do a dance in a cafĂ© that’s been described as “the Madison” while Godard does voiceover narration at various points. This dance has been copied in other places (at the climax of the movie Le Weekend, stars Jim Broadbent, Lindsay Duncan, and Jeff Goldblum replicate the dance), but the sheer joyfulness and yet melancholy tone capture here have never been equaled (there’s also a great sequence when Karina, Brasseur and Frey run through the Louvre).

The other major strand of Godard’s career, however, was starting to come into play around this time as well. At the time Godard joined Cahiers du Cinema, and when he started making films, he shared the center-right political views of most of his colleagues, or at least that was his public stance. Le Petit Soldat, which was actually the first movie he made after Breathless, and featured Karina in a supporting role, was Godard’s look at the Franco-Algerian War that had recently ended and was banned in France for a couple of years because of its torture sequences. There are critics who see the movie as a critique of that war, but I confess while I think Le Petit Soldat works as a play on the genres Godard is using here (the war movie and the spy movie), I think the movie is rather confused politically, reflecting possibly his confusion about politics at the time, and therefore I do not count it as one of his best efforts. Les Carabiniers, about two peasants who become soldiers and find out firsthand the absurdity and futility of war (and was heavily influenced by another of Godard’s film idols, Roberto Rossellini), is, for me, much better and more cogent, both as a work of cinema and a political work. After Band of Outsiders, while Godard continued to pay tribute to movie genres and American movies while simultaneously critiquing them, his work started to reflect his increasing pessimism and disillusionment with Western politics in general and American politics in particular.

Chantal Goya, Marlene Jobert, and Jean-Pierre Leaud in Masculin Feminin.

A Married Woman (the one film from this period that I haven’t had a chance to rewatch yet) was, as the title indicated, a study of a marriage told from the point of view of a housewife caught between a husband and a lover. Alphaville was (nominally) a Lemmy Caution film (a recurring private detective character in novels and movies, played in movies, and here, by Eddie Constantine), but also a science fiction film about a society run by a giant computer. I must confess it took me a couple of viewings to warm up to the movie, but now I like it quite a bit, and it ends on a slightly more hopeful note than you’d expect. Godard’s follow-up, Pierrot le Fou, his last film with Belmondo, has Belmondo play a man stuck in an unhappy marriage and a job he hates, who goes on a crime spree with his babysitter/ex-girlfriend (Karina), and an unfortunate yellowface scene with Karina aside, starts to show Godard’s critique of American policy, specifically involving the Vietnam War, even as it falls in the familiar type of crime movie Godard had examined before. His next movie, Masculin Feminin, as one of the intertitles declares, was about “the children of Marx and Coca-Cola”, being an examination of the consumerist society in France at the time, and was a critique of it that never became overly didactic, thanks again to Godard’s documentary-type staging and writing that seemed in tune with what was going on (as with one memorable sequence when a character borrows a match from another character played by Jean-Pierre Leaud – a frequent collaborator of Truffaut who also worked many times with Godard – so they can light themselves on fire). Godard followed that movie with Made in U.S.A. (banned from U.S. distribution for many years, not because of its politics, but because the producer had neglected to purchase the rights to the novel The Jugger – written by Donald E. Westlake under his pen name Richard Stark – which the movie is based on), which is partly a genre film about a woman (Karina, in her last film with Godard – the two had already divorced in real life) trying to find out who killed her boyfriend (Godard provides his voice), but also, again, a critique of U.S. foreign policy, and with many instances of characters addressing the audience, which served as Godard’s critique of the genre. After this film, Godard went in an entirely new direction.

Mirielle Darc and Juliet Berto in Weekend.

2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, which, like Alphaville, is a movie I learned to appreciate more on subsequent viewings, foreshadows the essay films Godard would turn to in the 1970’s, even as its nominal plot – about a housewife (Juliette Valdy) who becomes a prostitute for extra money – recalled Vivre sa Vivre, as its critique of the consumer society went even further than in Masculin Feminin (Godard shot the movie simultaneously with Made in U.S.A.). After that came La Chinoise, which followed a group of self-styled revolutionaries (played by, among others, Juliet Berto, Leaud, and Anne Wiazemsky, who became Godard’s second wife) who read Mao’s Red Book and plot a bombing. At the same time, Godard included a character played by Francis Jeanson who engages in conversation with Wiazemsky when they’re on a train, and wonders if the violence she and her “comrades” is self-defeating. This didn’t feel like a sop, but like Godard interrogating his beliefs even if they were becoming more polemical and radical. That movie, however, was merely a warm-up for Weekend, his 15th feature, and his most stringent attack on western civilization. (Claude and I talked about this film in Episode 26 of this podcast.) A savage trip down the rabbit hole, the movie follows a bickering couple (Jean Yanne and Mirielle Darc) on a weekend trip to her mother, whom they plan to kill to get her inheritance (the two of them each plan to kill the other and run off with the money themselves), but who instead get stuck in the road trip from hell. Famous for its seven-minute tracking shot showing a traffic jam, the film may show Godard at his most didactic up to that point in his career (best demonstrated by the scene where two garbage collectors, played by Omar Diop and frequents Godard collaborator Laszlo Szabo, each deliver a politically-charged monologue while Godard and Coutard focus on the one who isn’t speaking), and his most cruel to his characters (whereas previous movies showed him either in love with his characters, or trying to understand them, here, Godard clearly loathes them). However, the movie also shows Godard at his most scabrously funny, and most surreal. Elements of the latter include the number of literary characters that show up in the movie during the road trip, his usual film references (Darc describing a sexual encounter was inspired by a similar scene in Bergman’s Persona), and also the fact Berto, Leaud and Wiazemsky all appear in the movie in double roles.

Jane Fonda and Yves Montand in Tout Va Bien.

Weekend famously ends with a title card that flashes “The end of cinema”, and whether or not Godard was naïve enough to believe he was killing off cinema with his movie, there’s no doubt he was turning his back on it, to mixed results. One Plus One (Sympathy for the Devil) was a combination of filmed pieces of the Rolling Stones rehearsing one of their most famous songs, “Sympathy for the Devil”, and filmed scenes of the Black Panthers, but while both parts were interesting on their own, Godard, for me, never managed to combine the two strands into a cogent dialectic or film. Le Gai Savoir (The Joy of Learning), which reunited Berto and Leaud as two people who get into a discussion about, among other things, learning and revolution, is a film I remember liking, though it’s another I haven’t rewatched in a while. Not long after that movie, Godard formed a partnership with Jean-Pierre Gorin, and the two formed the Dziga Vertov group (named after the Russian director best known for his great film Man with a Movie Camera), making a series of essay films/documentaries that I confess I have not seen, with one exception (which I’ll get to in a bit). They also ended up making one feature film that resembled the movies Godard made pre-Weekend, even as it reflected his new political views. In Tout Va Bien, Jane Fonda and Yves Montand play a journalist and her filmmaker husband who go to a sausage factory to do a story, only to discover the workers have gone on strike and are locked into a struggle with management. Though there’s a certain cynicism Godard and Gorin can’t help betray in using Fonda and Montand, which comes through with the opening line, “If you use stars, people will give you money” – even though Fonda and Montand were fully in sympathy at the time with Godard and Gorin’s politics, and agreed to defer their salaries for a percentage of the profits to help get the movie made – the movie is nevertheless a trenchant critique of how little had changed in France since the events of May 1968, and featured such brilliant set pieces as a montage of interviews Fonda conducts with various workers, a series of tracking shots showing us the factory, which is designed almost like a doll’s house (Armand Marco was the cinematographer, while Jacques Dugied was the production designer), and a long tracking shot at a vast supermarket in the last 1/3 of the movie, showing how far-reaching the capitalist society had come. This was much better than what became Godard and Gorin’s last collaboration, Letter to Jane, one of their essay films. On a technical level, it’s undeniably fascinating, as Godard and Gorin, while examining a photograph from western media of Fonda with a Vietnamese peasant, show how western media was distorting coverage of the Vietnam War even if it was attempting to be sympathetic towards the Vietnamese. However, all of that is undercut by the fact Godard and Gorin seemed to be blaming Fonda for this distortion, which, given how Fonda was already pilloried at home for her protests against the war (and the attacks on her activism would become even uglier in the coming decade), seems tone-deaf at best and unpardonably cruel at worst.

Godard was still making essay films, though with the exception of Comment ca Va (about two newspaper workers – one of them played by Anne-Marie Mieville, who became Godard’s third wife – trying to make a film), they came off as preachy and stilted rather than engaging (Comment ca Va was engaging). Then, in 1980, after a planned biopic of Bugsy Siegel, starring Robert De Niro and Diane Keaton (with Francis Ford Coppola producing) fell through, Godard returned to conventional filmmaking with Every Man for Himself, which follows Paul Godard (Jacques Dutronc), a TV anchor who’s unhappily married and, while carrying on an affair with Denise (Nathalie Baye), becomes involved with Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert, who, like Baye, would work with Godard once more in the ensuing decade), a nurse who moonlights as a prostitute. Unfortunately, what had seemed fresh and exciting in Godard’s 1960’s work now started to seem half-hearted and stale. There were good scenes – especially the one scene between Baye and Huppert – and Godard’s use of slow motion, like the other film techniques he’d use throughout, felt relevant to the movie rather than just showing off, but unlike his 60’s films even at their most polemical, which had a purpose and a determination behind him, in this film, Godard seemed like he was only trying to shock us for the sake of trying to shock us, and was no longer willing to engage society. With the exception of Hail Mary, his imperfect but purposeful modern-day version of the story of the Virgin Mary (which also became his most controversial film), the films that followed (the ones I watched aside from Hail Mary were Passion, First Name: Carmen, Detective, and King Lear, which is not an adaptation of Shakespeare’s play – though segments of that play and his sonnets are read aloud – but a film about the possibility of filming Shakespeare’s play) seemed to be more of the same, and after trying to watch In Praise of Love, another so-called comeback film for Godard, I gave up on watching his films.

I realize I sound like those folks who kick a musician, or music group, down because their later work isn’t as good as their earlier work, as if there was no way an artist could maintain any sort of relevance as they got older. And to be sure, there are a number of critics who felt Godard continued to make relevant and challenging films, praising especially his last two films, Goodbye to Language and The Image Book (which I have not seen, and may give a shot one of these days). However, in addition to his films being half-hearted and there only to shock us, so did his personal views. Part of that, admittedly, came from his frustration in trying to get financing for his projects (my favorite anecdote about that was when Mel Brooks ran into him at a film festival and gushed about his work – Godard apparently told Brooks if he had $100 instead of praise, he could make another film, and Brooks, who (a) was generous, and (b) never let a straight line go unanswered, pulled out his wallet and gave Godard $100). There has been disagreement about whether or not Godard is an anti-Semite. Part of that was suggested by passages in Richard Brody’s biography of Godard, “Everything is Cinema”, which Brody claims were taken out of context (I must confess I didn’t like the book), while part of it comes from the inevitable charge of antisemitism in many quarters that gets tagged onto anyone who dares criticize Israel over its policies towards Palestinians. But then there’s also the question of Steven Spielberg.

While Godard’s criticism of modern-day American culture had become even more strident than it became around the time of Weekend (while he retained affection for the studio era Hollywood movies he and his former Cahiers colleagues had championed), Spielberg seemed to draw his particular ire, as if he was offended by Spielberg’s presence on this planet. One of the reasons why I gave up on In Praise of Love was the segment of the movie where a Spielberg company tries to buy the memories of Holocaust survivors to make a film, and the implication Spielberg left Oskar Schindler’s widow poverty-stricken when making his film Schindler’s List; as Roger Ebert pointed out in his panning of Godard’s film, it’s not like Godard sent Schindler’s widow any money, and whatever you think of Schindler’s List – which was Ebert’s favorite movie of 1993, and my second favorite – Spielberg has done much to preserve the memories of Holocaust survivors, donating time and money to the cause.(in his pan of the movie, Charles Taylor, then writing for Salon, astutely wondered if Godard had compensated the widow of Ben Barka, the Moroccan leader whose murder was used as a jumping-off point for Made in U.S.A.). This jeremiad against Spielberg, painting him as an evil figure destroying culture (there have been plenty of legitimate criticisms of Spielberg’s work as both director and producer – and I say that as a fan of his work in general, especially as a director – that didn’t fall into that trap), made Godard seem like just another tired old crank, instead of someone trying to make a legitimate complaint about American cultural dominance (of which, again, there have been plenty legitimate examples).

Still, those 1960’s films retain their freshness and urgency no matter how often I watch them. Godard’s willingness to experiment, his interrogation of culture even as he celebrated it, and his technical advances make those movies still relevant today. And even when Godard fell out of favor with critics and audiences, his influence on directors as diverse as Olivier Assayas, Alfonso Cuaron, Martin Scorsese, and Quentin Tarantino can still be felt in their work. Godard may have ended his life (according to reports, it was assisted suicide), but his work continues to live on, as the best of his work deserves to live on.

Reel 41: In the Record Store

With today’s episode drop, we’re moving into a new mini-block of themed episodes, all of which involve music in one way or another. And in this episode we start where most people did when it came to music back in the day: in the record shop. This despite the fact that by the time either of these films came out, vinyl was considered a more or less quaint format for music.

We begin with 1995’s Empire Records, directed by Allan Moyle and starring a lot of people who weren’t honest-to-god stars yet, so you’ll have a lot of “Ermahgerd, they’re such babies here!” and you’d be correct. This is one of those films that takes place over roughly a 24-hour period (probably just a little longer), and a bunch of lives manage to change in a big way during that day.

From there we move to High Fidelity (2000), directed by Stephen Frears and starring John Cusack, Iben Hjejle, Jack Black and a couple of surprises here and there. It’s a spot-on look at the near-middle-aged man’s psyche just before he realizes that he can’t keep on doing stuff the way he’s been doing it so far.

COMING ATTRACTIONS:

Our next episode is a fun one, as we look at a couple of biographical movies that are presented in a rather unconventional way. We’ll start with 2007’s I’m Not There, directed by Todd Haynes, and then move on to Love and Mercy from 2014, directed by Bill Pohlad. Interestingly, they have something in common not only with each other, but with the recent Elvis biopic, which hadn’t yet been released at the time we recorded that episode. So watch this space for that detail.

Reel 40: You Can Like Both, Part 5

War movies make for some pretty good drama, even when there’s a clear “right” side and a “wrong” side. Nazis are bad (they’re still bad, right? Recent politics gives me a headache); non-Nazis are good. That sort of thing.

In fact, we’d argue that the drama ramps up a little bit more when there’s a clear good side and a bad side, and there are conflicts regarding how that “good” outcome needs to be achieved. With Vietnam-era films, all the good/bad is nebulous and the bad guys, regardless of what side they’re on, are all part of the same corrupt system. But when we’re all out to take on the Nazis, and there comes some sort of argument regarding how that’s to be done, now you’re getting into some interesting territory.

This episode is the last in our “You Can Like Both” series, and it takes a look at the first major offensive of each theater of the Second World War. In Part 1 we’re examining Saving Private Ryan (1998), directed by Steven Spielberg. This film takes place around the Allies’ invasion of the French Normandy Coast, with a couple of modern-day scenes bookending the film.

Meanwhile, in the Pacific Theater we have Terence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, also from 1998. This one focuses on the start of the Allies’ offensive at Guadalcanal, our first big push on that side of the world.

Both of these films deal with some of the murky issues behind what’s right and what’s wrong when it comes to fighting enemies in a “righteous” war.

COMING ATTRACTIONS:

From here we’re going to look at a bunch of musically-inclined films. Some of them will be true musicals while others will surround themselves with the industry in one form or another. Our next episode will be the latter: first up, from 1995 is Empire Records, directed by Allan Moyle and starring a bunch of young people who will be much bigger names before very long. In Part 2 we’ll deal with some more established actors in Stephen Frears’ High Fidelity, from 2000.

Before that, later this week will be a mini-episode we prepared as a follow-up for this one.

Reel 39: You Can Like Both, Part 4

Even if they haven’t seen it, most people know a little something about The Big Chill, the film released in 1983 that was directed and co-written by Lawrence Kasdan: a bunch of thirty-something types get together and stuff happens. And of course that’s true, but it’s also true that it goes a little deeper than that.

But what most people don’t know is that The Big Chill had a predecessor with a similar theme going on: 1980’s Return of the Secaucus 7, written and directed by John Sayles. This one deals with a slightly younger crowd, perhaps just on the cusp of turning 30, as they gather for a weekend event.

Now, if you’re a film buff you probably know that Secaucus 7 is a little more dramatic and The Big Chill is a little more comedic. But both groups have some old baggage that they need to work through. And for the most part we feel some resolution at the endings, even if they’re not necessarily the ones we thought the characters were going to have.

And, of course, there are plenty of people who vastly prefer one film over the other (as in, it’s not even close). But the fact is, You Can Like Both. The other fact is, we do like both. And at least this time around we can understand why there’s a comparison to be made (still looking at you, Reel 37).

Our recent decision to release an episode in two parts proved to be rather popular, since we’ve been getting into Epic Length shows lately. So what you’ll see in the future is more of the same: both halves will be released back-to-back, so that you can listen to each segment at your leisure. Plus it should make the downloading go a little bit more quickly.

Now, over the next couple of episodes we’ll still be talking as though there’s going to be a break and then immediate resumption of the show, unless Claude can get clever about patching in some new audio (as he was–nearly–for this one). Then once we’ve used up that backlog of episodes (three more, I think), we’ll be speaking more conventionally about the whole Part 1 and Part 2 of it all.

So if you listen through your podcatcher, you should still get stuff in order. And if you listen here, you’ll see that there are two links to click on (rather than one) in order to get the entire episode.

Reel 38: You Can Like Both, Part 3

When two films are this similar in subject matter, it’s curious that they were both released by the same company during the same year (Columbia Pictures, 1964). But therein lies a story, as Sean will tell you during this episode.

Both Dr. Strangelove and Fail-Safe deal with an American airplane that’s “gone rogue” for different reasons. Both planes are on their way to deliver a nuclear bomb to the Soviet Union. However, one is going because the commander who sent it is insane, while the other one is going because of a technical malfunction. However, the end result is going to be the same, even if the approach that each film takes is vastly different.

Dr Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (if you’re a completist about titles) is a black comedy directed by Stanley Kubrick and starring Peter Sellers (thrice), George C. Scott and Sterling Hayden, with a strong supporting cast of character actors. Meanwhile, Fail-Safe was directed by Sidney Lumet and stars Henry Fonda, Walter Matthau and several actors who are at the start of long careers.  It’s a tense drama—so tense, in fact, that it has no musical score. And it’s got one of the most compelling endings you’ll ever see.

COMING ATTRACTIONS:

Part 4 of this five-part series continues with The Return of the Secaucus 7, written and directed by John Sayles, and The Big Chill, directed and co-written by Lawrence Kasdan. See you soon!

Reel 37: You Can Like Both, Part 2

This is one of those pairings that’s a little tough to understand why people would be asked to choose between the two films, because they really couldn’t be much more different from one another. But, here we are, telling you that despite what other people have to say, you don’t have to make a choice, Sophie.

Both of our films this time around are from 1946. We begin with The Best Years of Our Lives, directed by William Wyler and starring Frederic March, Myrna Loy, Dana Andrews and Harold Russell, whose performance led to a once-and-never-again event at the Academy Awards. Our male leads are having a tough time adjusting to civilian life after their success in the Pacific Theater of World War II, and we follow their tribulations in those first few months back in the U. S. of A.

From there we move on to It’s a Wonderful Life, directed by Frank Capra and starring James Stewart, Donna Reed and the rest of the Mighty Capra Art Players. Most of the film is a flashback recounting the life story of a man contemplating suicide one Christmas Eve, and whether redemption is possible for him.

Because both films are so long, and therefore we just had so much to say, we broke the episode in two for faster downloading, so there are two parts, both in your podcatcher and right here. So you’re not seeing double!


Short Subject: Reel 36 Outtake

This one isn’t an outtake so much as it is a little bit of extra stuff we did after recording Episode 36. But we made the template and we’re gonna keep using it.

In this clip, Sean had some comments about Auteur Theory when it comes to film, and Claude mostly let him do his thing, though there’s a small portion in there where he gets to say his piece as well.

Enjoy! Episode 37 will be out in just a few days.

Reel 36: You Can Like Both, Part 1

When it comes to daily emails, there are only a few that Claude reads on a regular basis. You know how it goes: you skim the rest of them and maybe click if something is of interest, but generally you’re deleting them until finally you realize that you’re deleting ALL of them and haven’t bothered to unsubscribe.

The point here—and we do have one—is that there’s one daily email that he reads every day, without fail. It’s Seth Godin’s Blog. Godin is a business wizard, and while Claude isn’t in the world of business, Godin’s advice for relationship-building in the business world is something that anyone can take, and use, and generally improve their work surroundings.

As it happens, this past Sunday, Godin’s daily email was specifically about these two films, and the approach that the main character takes to the situation that they’re in. Godin, of course, takes a different view of what was done and why, and—because he’s Seth Godin—he’s absolutely right. Read for yourself and see if you don’t agree. 

And in an amazing case of post hoc, ergo propter hoc, we’re going to conclude that Godin watched these films in preparation for this episode of the podcast, because he’s a huge fan, and it occurred to him to write a blog post about it.

At any rate, this episode is the first in a series of five episodes wherein we look at two films that people tend to compare to one another and decide that you can like one or the other, but not both. And to that, we say, “Nonsense.” Of course you can like both.

So we start off with 1952’s High Noon, starring Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly, and about 182 character actors. Fred Zinneman does a terrific job of keeping the tension ratcheted up, while Floyd Crosby’s cinematography is flawless, indoors and out. From there we slide on over to 1959 and a little film called Rio Bravo, starring John Wayne and Dean Martin, and directed by Howard Hawks. It’s an overstuffed episode, and the intermission (as usual) is only 30 seconds long, so get ready for some fantastic discussion.

COMING ATTRACTIONS:

In Reel 37 we bring you Part 2 of our five-part series with a pair of films that are vastly different in nearly every way, but there still seems to be insistence on one or the other. We have The Best Years of Our Lives, starring Frederic March and Dana Andrews, and It’s a Wonderful Life, starring James Stewart and Donna Reed, both from 1947. The Best Years of Our Lives is an epic-length film with no intermission, so be ready for that. And we know it’s warming up outside, but go watch It’s a Wonderful Life anyway, because now you have a reason to.

Short Subject: Reel 35 Outtake

This was a chunk of Episode 35 that went off-topic and we decided to cut it for time, but also thought most of what was said was actually kind of important.

Also, we both made a mistake regarding Cecil B. DeMille near the end of the clip, so Claude took the opportunity to eat crow on behalf of both of us.

At any rate, we present you with this Bonus audio, to keep your appetite whetted until Reel 36 drops. Enjoy!