Category: The Back Catalog

Back Catalog Review: Rome, Open City

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The Back Catalog is a series following my quest to watch all the movies I own. Check out the index, or follow the Back Catalog tag to see what I’ve watched and what I’ve thought of the films. 

Rome, Open City, released just months after V.E. Day in 1945, is Roberto Rossellini’s fictionalized depiction of Don Pieto Morosini’s life during the Nazi occupation of Rome and its sad conclusion. Because it was based on a real man, because it was filmed just after Rome was liberated, because Rossellini hired mostly new actors, and because Rossellini himself experienced much of the same fear and sadness that permeates the film during the occupation, Rome, Open City is a masterpiece of Italian neorealism. It veers into melodrama in the concluding scenes, but those work all the better for the earlier focus on realism and the dangerous situations that the group of Romans the film follows encounter on a regular basis. It’s a near-perfect movie, and it’s the best movie about WWII that I’ve seen so far.

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Back Catalog Review: Medium Cool

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The Back Catalog is a series following my quest to watch all the movies I own. Check out the index, or follow the Back Catalog tag to see what I’ve watched and what I’ve thought of the films. 

Those of you who have read more than one thing I’ve written or talked to me for over an hour probably know that Fanny and Alexander is my favorite movie of all time. You may also know that last year I wrote my Master’s Thesis on it (you can read the whole thing here, if you’ve got the time and the inclination), in which I talked about how Bergman sets up storytelling as a way to counter fascist (or authoritarian) narratives. I’m pretty proud of it, and it served as my launching point for my soon-to-begin Ph.D. studies in oppositional storytelling. I began to seek out other works (books, movies, essays) that could potentially become subjects of my dissertation. Medium Cool was one such film. My instincts, in this case, were pretty good too. When I watched Haskell Wexler’s half-drama half-documentary last night, I was stunned at not only how interesting it was in terms of the oppositional storytelling I was exploring, but also how beautiful and moving the film was.

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Back Catalog Review: The Double Life of Véronique

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The Back Catalog is a series following my quest to watch all the movies I own. Check out the index, or follow the Back Catalog tag to see what I’ve watched and what I’ve thought of the films. 

Maybe it shows my relative lack of experience with Krzysztof Kieslowski, but if you asked me to describe his style in one word, fun wouldn’t be the first to leap to mind. I guess I only have Blue as prior knowledge and that one is particularly, well, blue, but from what I know about his other films, I still wouldn’t leap to anything like joy or delight. So color me surprised when the first half hour or so of The Double Life of Véronique was particularly fun. It starts with the opening shot, an upside-down cityscape at dusk on Christmas Eve. We soon see a little girl being held upside-down by her mother as she casts a spell over her daughter, telling her that the city lights are really stars in the sky, and that the last colorful light in the sky is really mists below the town. It’s a thing kids do. If you tell them to look at something and then tell them what it is, they’ll believe it, even if they know that they always see a city out that window. It’s a thing movies do, too. They create a reality of their own and then show us what’s inside it. If the movie’s any good, we’ll believe it too.

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Back Catalog Review: Rebecca

Rebecca

The Back Catalog is a series following my quest to watch all the movies I own. Check out the index, or follow the Back Catalog tag to see what I’ve watched and what I’ve thought of the films. 

I’d been curious about Rebecca since I heard about it about a decade ago. It doesn’t really feel a whole ton like the other Hitchcock films I’ve seen, it’s much more character based than something like North By Northwest. And the romance is a thing I can really believe in for the first time outside of maybe Rear Window. I read the back of the Criterion case and it sounded a heck of a lot like Jane Eyre with the class difference between the man and the woman and the man’s mysterious past that haunts his (big and beautiful) house. But this is its own thing, enhanced by some superb acting and Hitchcock’s amazing eye for detail and manipulation of the frame.

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Back Catalog Review: Breathless

Breathless

The Back Catalog is a series following my quest to watch all the movies I own. Check out the index, or follow the Back Catalog tag to see what I’ve watched and what I’ve thought of the films. 

I missed a step. Somehow, in the space between going to a lot of movies in my childhood to today when I own what some would call too many Criterion and other movies, I missed the French New Wave. I knew of it, of course, but my first-hand experience with it was almost entirely lacking. I could see in movies like Submarine and Reservoir Dogs a kind of shared reference point and I could figure out what that reference point was by seeing what those kinds of movies had in common. However, when that actual reference point would come up in conversation, I’d just nod and smile. I started fixing this last year with The 400 Blows, which I absolutely loved. I picked up Breathless and Hiroshima Mon Amour recently thanks to that movie and we’ll see how it works out for me.

Breathless is one of those movies where it feels like you’ve seen it even when you’ve missed it for 29 years of your life. The details are intriguing and pulled me along when things felt a little rote. For example, the plot is such a straightforward genre type that when the movie focuses on that part it feels like almost any other crime thriller. The bits in between those standard plot beats are what make Breathless a movie to pay attention to, even though I didn’t end up loving it. There is a part of the film that ends up being almost a third of its 90 minute length which might have been five or ten minutes in another movie. It’s the seduction scene that takes place almost entirely in one room and features both Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo at the height of their strange mix of chemistry and philosophical musings. In what amounts to a short film on the topics of purpose, meaning, and desire, the two of them dance around each other wonderfully. Here are the beginnings of the Before Trilogy except I don’t particularly care if the two end up together or not. But then there’s 20 minutes of “necessary” cat and mouse policing and kind of standard moral conundrums that make the genre what it is and I start to disengage.

Jean Seberg in Jean-Luc Godard's BREATHLESS (1960). Courtesy Ria

The ending is really great, though, especially after Seberg’s Patricia decides to turn her lover in for his murderous past. The consequences of this play out in two long shots that first map the dissolution of their relationship and then his bloody (almost comically dragged-out) end. Here Godard breaks from what has become the film’s most important feature–the jump-cuts that almost accidentally revolutionized filmmaking–and because the rest of the movie is full of moments spliced together which unmoor the audience to some degree, the long takes that close the movie brings everything crashing back down to earth. It’s a great effect and it’s these shots that I’ll remember from this movie, along with that audacious seduction scene. I’m not sure I’ll revisit this lovingly in the future, but I’m glad I watched it (and own the disc which features a lot of great supplements that I will seek out as I continue to learn more about how movies work. I’m glad I’m finally filling in this hole in my movie knowledge, and I’m excited to check out Hiroshima Mon Amour to see if Resnais can bring the power of Night and Fog to a feature film.

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