Man with a Movie Camera, and a few more movies

#201  [archive]

Man with a Movie Camera (1929)
Streaming free

This is an experimental film, made in Russia during the silent era. It promises no story, no use of cinema's conventional shorthand, and no intertitles, though of course all this is promised on a series of intertitles. How else could they let the audience know?

The announced goal is "creating a truly international language of cinema based on its absolute separation from the language of theatre and literature." This introduction, more than a minute of serious intertitle-reading, seemed slightly pretentious and I wasn't in the mood for it, so I clicked it off to watch another day.

On another day, guess what? This is really an extraordinary movie.

For just over an hour, a man with a movie camera is seen darting all over Moscow (presumably), filming ordinary people doing ordinary things — brushing their teeth, going to their jobs, to the beach, to the gym, the magic show, the movies, riding in cars, making a call in a phone booth while the next caller waits, playing chess, playing spoons, the fire department rushing to an emergency, athletics and stuff, and actual childbirth, marriage, divorce, and death. There are even titties!

It uses lots of early-era camera tricks, mostly what must have been the invention of the perpetual quick-cut. The camera never sits still for a leisurely look, and I kinda hate that in modern movies, but here it's used for a purpose — it implies that you're seeing this and that, sure, but you're seeing everything, so step lively and keep up. The movie never slows down enough to be boring, and you know what else it's not? Pretentious.

The film's cameraman is frequently seen carrying his camera, setting up for a shot. Sometimes he's simply going about his work, and other times he's peering through his lens while being twenty times the size of a man, or he's arranging his camera atop another camera that's big as a barn.

What we never see is the real cameraman, the guy photographing the movie's on-screen cameraman, but we do see this movie being edited and then shown to an audience.

I'm not sure how the moviemaker (Dziga Vertov) did this, or maybe it's the restoration work, but most of the people in closeup in this almost ancient film look noticeably more 'alive' than most people in most movies, definitely most old movies.

Being a commie film, it has moments of propaganda, but nowhere near as many or as slyly concealed as the propaganda in any average Hollywood feature.

Being a silent movie, you're at the mercy of whatever soundtrack is appended. Music is needed, absolutely, but on the copy I watched the uncredited score seems mostly wrong — orchestral music that starts splendidly, but soon gathers an obviously rock-tainted beat that's beyond the film's time. Honestly, I think you'd be better putting your favorite jazz album on, and watching this with the sound off. But do watch it.

Verdict: BIG YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Risky Business (1983)

I don't remember whether I saw Risky Business when it came out 40 years ago, but I know the basics. Everyone does. Tom Cruise dances in his underwear, forever tainting Bob Seeger's "Old Time Rock and Roll." He plays a high school jock named Joel, whose parents are out of town so he turns the family home into a whorehouse. 

His dad is a very moneyed asshole, the kind of father kids rebel against in some high school movies, but there's no rebellion in Joel. He wants to be his father. He wants to go to Princeton. He's a member of his high school's Future Enterprisers Club, and when he has a heartfelt conversation with his pals, they agree that making money is what life is all about.

Through an impossible series of pranks and mistakes, yup, Joel turns his parents' house into a brothel. The situation spirals out of control, and as Joel gets deeper and deeper into this mess, the movie yields some laughs.

It was a big hit, and not for nothing. I can see why people, especially men and boys, love Risky Business — it's a male fantasy of sex and money, with well-written dialogue, a sharp look, cool music by Tangerine Dream, and Rebecca De Mornay as the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold (though her price of $300 for the night seems ridiculously low, even for the '80s).

Here's a spoiler. You have been warned.

Whatever enjoyment the film offers is drained away by its insanely happy ending. I would've preferred the satisfaction of seeing Joel get some slight comeuppance, even if he's only grounded for a week, instead of having all his dreams come true, with his brothel's big profits as the movie's punchline.

The film's message is that if you're born to the kind of money Joel's family has, you can and will get away with everything for your entire life. And that's true, but it's weird seeing it from the rich kid's empty perspective.

Verdict: MAYBE. 

♦ ♦ ♦

Smothered: The Censorship Struggles of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (2002)
Streaming free

Tommy and Dickie Smothers were young, clean-cut, and mostly apolitical folk singers and comedians, hired by CBS in 1967 to headline a weekly variety hour. The network was desperate to attract a young audience in the 9PM Sunday slot opposite NBC's perennial ratings champ, Bonanza, so when Tommy asked for creative control, the network shrugged and said OK. 

It was the perfect ruse: In their stage act, Tommy always played dumb, did yo-yo tricks, and the brothers' comedy and songs were very mild and old-fashioned — basically square. That mildness might have been true of Dickie, but not Tommy. Despite his short hair and middle-of-the-road look, inside he wanted to make a show that was "more relevant than a sit-com."

Their first episode was introduced by Ed Sullivan, and couldn't have been less threatening. As the weeks rolled along, with old-time guests like Jack Benny, George Burns, and Danny Thomas, and with the Smothers Brothers drawing a younger audience, the ratings were strong and growing. Eventually the show stored higher numbers than the unbeatable Bonanza.

Mason Williams is a composer, best known for the pop hit "Classical Gas," and he co-wrote the catchy theme song for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. He's also a funny guy, so Tommy hired him as the show's head writer, and together they pushed the show toward more topical humor, more unconventional guests like Pete Seeger and Joan Baez, and they hired younger and more 'out there' writers like Rob Reiner and Steve Martin.

The show was never all that far to the left, but it was far farther left than network television had gone before. Sketches alluding to marijuana? Harry Belafonte singing over a montage of soldiers on their way to Vietnam? It was a comedy hour and always it was funny, but despite Tommy's promised creative control, there were soon skits the network refused to air, guests CBS wouldn't allow, and finally the show was yanked off the air in the middle of its third season.

Smothered tells that story, and if I've made it sound strident, it ain't. With so many funny clips from the show, this documentary is at least half a comedy itself. The rest is a 'thank you' note to some people who deserve it.

Verdict: BIG YES.


• • • Coming attractions • • •

Special Bulletin (1983) 

Squirm (1976) 

Stephen Fry in America (2008)

The Time Traveler's Wife (2009)

You Can't Take It With You (1938)

... plus occasional schlock and surprises 

    • • • And then • • •

A Better Tomorrow (1996)

A Gnome Named Gnorm (1990)

A Night in Casablanca (1946) 

Alexander Nevsky (1938)

The Bat People (1974) 

The Beatles: Get Back (2021) 

Berkeley in the Sixties (1990)

Brainwaves (1983) 

The Card Counter (2021) 

Cellular (2004)  

The Celluloid Closet (1996)

The Dark Glow of the Mountains (1985)

Dark Star (1974)

The Day My Parents Became Cool (2009) 

The Decline of Western Civilization (1980) 

Downsizing (2017)

Frankenhooker (1990) 

The General (1926) 

Get Shorty (1995)

The Gorilla (1939)

The Green Girl (2014)

Hiroshima (1953)

Hugo (2011) 

The Importance of Being Earnest (1952)

The Internet's Own Boy (2014)

Kids in the Hall (debut episode; 1988)  

Kids in the Hall (reunion debut episode; 2022) 

The Killing of America (1981) 

The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)  

Line of Duty (debut episode; 2012)

Love Happy (1950)

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

The Man Who Thought Life (1969)

The Man with Nine Lives (1940)

The Manhattan Project (1996) 

Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment (1966)

Not Wanted (1949)

Nothing But a Man (1964) 

Phone Booth (2002)

PickAxe (1999)

Poison (1990)

Popeye (1980)

Reflections of Evil (2002)

Revelations (1993)

Ride in the Whirlwind (1966)

Romper Stomper (1992)

Room Service (1938) 

Same Kind of Different as Me (2017) 

Saved! (2004)

Scared to Death (1947) 

Secret Weapons (1985) 

The Shooting (1966)

The Soloist (2009) 

Sons of the Desert (1933)

Street of Crocodiles (1986)

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)

Taken for a Ride (1996)

The Train (1964)

Truck Turner (1974)

Welcome to New Orleans (2006)

Who Farted? (2019) 

Who's That Girl? (1987) 

Wristcutters: A Love Story (2006)

There are so many good movies out there — old movies, odd or artsy, foreign or forgotten movies, or do-it-yourself movies made just for the joy of making them — that if you only watch whatever's on Netflix or playing at the twenty-plex, you're missing out.

To get beyond the ordinary, I recommend:

AlterCineverseCriterionCultCinema ClassicsDocsVilleDustFandorFilms for ActionHooplaIHaveNoTVIndieFlixInternet ArchiveKanopyKinoCultKino LorberKorean Classic FilmChristopher R MihmMosfilmMubiNational Film Board of CanadaNew Yorker Screening RoomDamon PackardMark PirroPizzaFlixPopcornFlixPublic Domain MoviesRareFilmmScarecrow VideoShudderThoughtMaybeTimeless Classic MoviesVoleFlixWatchDocumentaries • or your local library

Some people even access films through shady methods, though of course, that would be wrong.

— — —

 Illustration by Jeff Meyer. Reviews are spoiler-free, or at least spoiler-warned. Click any image to enlarge. Arguments & recommendations are welcome, but no talking once the lights dim, and only real butter on the popcorn, not that fake yellow stuff. 
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