Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Catching up

It seems to be the same thing every year. I spend most of the month of January writing about dead people, and my reward at the end of it is… to have to write about more dead people.

In the meantime, lots of things have been going on in the world of movies. Things that I have not had the chance to weigh in on. Really important things. Like whether Brad and Angelina are still together or not. Or like the Golden Globes, which I always resolve not to elevate by mentioning them, except that I always do anyway. I have to say that I actually enjoyed the awards ceremony this year, which for the first time was broadcast live here. Not that I actually stayed up all night to watch it live. (That’s what DVRs are for.) But I found Ricky Gervais’s snarky, irreverent attitude as host perfect for the evening, which inexplicably had all of the recipients acting as if the awards really mattered (I’m talking about you, Sandra Bullock), even though they are basically voted on by three guys who can only be contacted through a private mailbox in Tijuana.

Okay, so maybe I haven’t missed anything. But here it is already Oscar season. And time to get my hopeless predictions posted. As usual, my world-famous, patented prediction process can again function uncluttered and undistracted by having seen too many (or hardly any) of the nominees. But I won’t let a little detail like that stop me from having strong opinions anyway. With any luck, I will have predictions posted by this time next week. In the meantime, we have some sad unfinished business to deal with…

Comedies and proverbs (1920-2010)

When Americans mock French movies, it is Eric Rohmer they are attempting to mock—whether they know it or not. Rohmer’s films conveniently fit the stereotype many Yanks have about European cinema. They tend to have a lot (I mean, a lot) of talking and little (if any) action. After Rohmer died on January 11 at the age of 89, a surprising number of obits and radio reports quoted Gene Hackman’s line from Arthur Penn’s 1975 movie Night Moves, in which he compares sitting through a Rohmer film to watching paint dry. Let’s just say that Rohmer’s oeuvre was not particularly comfortable for short attention spans.

My first experience seeing a Rohmer film was even more challenging. Recently arrived as an exchange student in France, his Le genou de Claire (Claire’s Knee) was one of two vaunted French flicks that I saw early on (Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima mon amour was the other) without the benefit of English subtitles. Hey, Hackman, try watching paint dry in another language without translation! Happily for people with weak French, at least Rohmer’s characters generally pronounced their words clearly and didn’t rush their delivery. There are worse ways of brushing up on your French than watching and listening to an Eric Rohmer film.

But beyond linguistic considerations, Rohmer’s films invariably have rewards for those with the patience to sit through them. We could nearly consider most of them (he did the occasional historical movie or biopic as well) a particular genre that could be called, say, conversation-as-drama. It may not be the most popular genre in the box office world, but neither is it limited entirely to Rohmer or to the French. A prime American example would be My Dinner with Andre, written by and starring Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn. Okay, bad example. It was directed by Louis Malle. Anyway, these conversation-as-drama movies follow a trajectory that involves (primarily) two people chatting away. At first there may not seem to be any point to all the chat, but over the length of the film it (gradually) accumulates some sort of emotional power that, by the end, builds up to some sort of dramatic climax in the form of emotional realization and/or a breakthrough in understanding. For people who can appreciate this sort of thing, it can be every bit as thrilling as seeing the good guy defeat the bad guy.

If I had to pick a Rohmer film off hand with the biggest emotional wallop at the end, I’d have to say that the one that sticks most in my memory is Le rayon vert, which was called Summer for the American release and, more literally, The Green Ray for the UK release. It starred Marie Rivière as a bored and aimless young woman trying to find someplace suitable to spend her summer holiday. It ends with a possibility of “meeting someone” and her spotting the titular atmospheric phenomenon (it can be seen, rarely, at sunset) which, by this time, has taken on huge spiritual significance. It was the sort of payoff that Rohmer’s films typically built up to.

A less discussed appeal of Rohmer’s films is the fact that he often featured scenic locations and invariably cast very attractive (and often young) people in them. For many of us American men, he gave us our first looks at such eye-pleasing actors as Ms. Rivière, Béatrice Romand and Arielle Dombasle, and I suppose you can include in the list the likes of the relatively young Jean-Louis Trintignant, who chatted his way through an entire night with Françoise Fabian in Rohmer’s Oscar-nominated Ma nuit chez Maud (My Night at Maud’s). He also had a nice take on finding new love in middle age in 1998’s Conte d’Automne (Autumn Tale). The last Rohmer movie I saw (he would make two more after) was 2004’s Triple agent which was, atypically, a period spy movie. Among other things, all the chat in that one told us everything we could possibly want to know about the build-up to World War II from the French perspective.

Apart from being a very accomplished filmmaker, Eric Rohmer (the name was a pseudonym) had a certain mystique. That may have had something to do with the fact that, even at his death, journalists still weren’t sure exactly what his real name was or where and when he was born.

Sgt. Sarah and Sister Sharon (1929-2010)

First, my addled brain confession. For years I kept mixing up the different Jeans. I could never remember which movie starred Jean Peters, Jean Seberg or Jean Simmons. But there was no excuse for that, and I am truly ashamed. Jean Simmons, who died on January 22, was of course the English one, the one with the completely enchanting voice.

The rap on Simmons was that she deserved better than the roles she got. Maybe so. But she has an impressive enough list of credits anyway. She never got an Oscar, but she did get nominated twice, for Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet and for The Happy Ending (as John Forsythe’s wife), directed by her second husband, Richard Brooks. (Her first husband was Stewart Granger.) She did win an Emmy, for her role in the mini-series The Thorn Birds. Her career sort of came full circle in 1989 with another mini-series, Great Expectations, in which she played crazy old Miss Havisham. One of her early prominent roles had been as young Estella (opposite John Mills’s Pip) in David Lean’s adaptation of the Dickens classic. Simmons also appeared as Patrick Swayze’s mother in the mini-series North and South and its sequel.

During the 1940s and 1950s, Simmons appeared in her share of ancient and biblical epics, like Caesar and Cleopatra, Androcles and the Lion, The Robe and The Egyptian. A stand-out, however, was as Kirk Douglas’s love interest in Stanley Kubrick’s classic Spartacus. Coincidentally, two of her most memorable roles both involved her playing purveyors of religion. That would be Salvation Army Sgt. Sarah Brown (opposite Marlon Brando) in the musical Guys and Dolls and Sister Sharon, who comes under Burt Lancaster’s influence as the titular protagonist in Elmer Gantry. Other notable roles: The Blue Lagoon (in the role that Brooke Shields would play in the somewhat steamier remake 31 years later), Black Narcissus (as a sensual native girl being civilized by Anglican nuns in the Himalayas) and How to Make an American Quilt (as the long-suffering wife of a philandering artist).

But let’s get down to the important stuff. Around the time of the first Gulf War, in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, she played a retired Starfleet admiral who conducted a witch hunt on the Enterprise, looking for a traitor. But she has an even greater claim to fame than that. Around the same time she starred in the short-lived primetime revival of the classic gothic serial Dark Shadows. She played the matriarch of the perpetually cursed Collins family, Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, the role played by fellow screen legend Joan Bennett in the original series. While I had mixed feelings about the 1991 series, it’s a shame that it did not last longer. With a cast that included Ben Cross, Roy Thinnes, Barbara Steele and a very young Joseph Gordon-Levitt, it definitely had potential. Not the least of its aborted pleasures would have been seeing more of the always beautiful and compelling Ms. Simmons.

-S.L., 4 February 2010

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