Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated '65 - Aaron West ""

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Underrated '65 - Aaron West

Aaron West is an art film enthusiast, a Criterion obsessive (as evident from his writings at Criterion Blues) and can be found on Twitter @awest505.
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Check out his Underrated '85 and '75 lists too!

THE HILL (1965; Sidney Lumet)
Sidney Lumet has had quite a career with several classics, but I feel he doesn’t get enough due for this war prison film. When reading the premise, the film does not sound too engaging. It is basically a North African war prison with five fellow prisoners doing their best to endure. While the conflict is often with the prisoner officers, many of whom do not see eye to eye, the real fight for survival is primarily against themselves, the hot sun, and the man-made hill that they are required to constantly climb at the officer’s whim.
I could say plenty about the top notch writing, the black and white cinematography, and I will talk some about the acting, but what I like most is how this simple little hill is used. It is an instrument of power. If one of the superiors tells a prisoner to climb it, then he expected to obey. The hill then centers his struggle away from the officers and is internalized into the prisoner’s psyche. Sure, they all hate the prison officers, but not as much as that heap of sand that gets taller and steeper each time they climb it. It can also be a metaphor for war itself, which could be argued to be a pointless man-made creation with little consequence. We see a great deal of sweat and anguish as they try to survive the hill, which is in a way a war away from the war.

All of the acting is superb, even leading man Sean Connery, who was playing a character far away from the James Bond role he was already tethered to. The most impressive performance to me is Ossie Davis. He brings the issue of civil rights into the narrative, while also questioning the nature of power. He simply reaches a breaking point and refuses to obey. The officers are beside themselves on how to handle him. Ultimately they could and would have handled such an act of defiance, but it does beg the question that in order for one person to hold power over another, someone’s rights have to be given. What happens when someone refuses to give those rights away? What if he forces those in power to play their hand? Ossie Davis not only gives a comical and enjoyableperformance, but he makes a profound statement about pacifism and non-violence in the face of oppression. This was a heated topic during the 1960s.

The Zatoichi franchise can be fairy criticized as being formulaic, escapist entertainment, which borrows some of the framework established by the best of the Japanese auteurs. Nevertheless, these were being produced by many of the same people who were involved with classic art films. They do tend to follow a formula, but they are put together extremely well. Because they are part of such a lengthy series, it is easy to underrate the individual films. After watching many of them, they tend to blend together. Some of them are not as good as others, although all of them are watchable and entertaining. At their lowest point, I liken them to a mediocre TV series that follows a template. Watching today, it is similar to binge-watching a TV series, and Zatoichi would move to TV during the 1970s. However, at their highest point, they do reach a level of artistry. I’ve seen over two-thirds of the series and have found myself stunned by the quality of a specific title more than once.

ZATOICHI AND THE CHESS EXPERT is one of the early examples of being pleasantly surprised. It follows one of my least favorite iterations, ZATOICHI AND THE DOOMED MAN, and it precedes a few films that I find are amongthe best in the franchise. By 1965, they producers had been cranking out approximately three films per year, and they had fallen into a lull of sorts. It was time for something to breathe life back into the series, and the Chess Expert accomplished this.

Even though Zatoichi films are essentially soloadventures starring the fantastic Shintarô Katsu, the quality of each individual film often depends on who he teams up with. Some of my favorite iterations could be seen as “buddy” films. This is partly the dynamic that began the series, withZatoichi finding mutual respect with a formidable samurai from a rival clan. Their bond transcended these small territorial squabbles.With the Chess Expert, Zatoichi finds a similar type of chemistry, and his counterpart is a strong masculine character. Conversely, Zatoichi tends to be demure and quiet on the outside, yet deadly on the inside, which is why he is continually underestimaged. Even though this edition still follows a formula, the two actors elevate the characters. The audience gets invested in them, and subsequently we care more about the outcome of the final fight.

THE MOMENT OF TRUTH (1965; Francesco Rosi)
I’m a sucker for sports films. It isn’t just because I enjoy sports (which I do) or because there are the predictable sports tropes that revolve around winning and losing. I enjoy them because sports are a good mechanism to show a person’s passion for something. Of course there are a lot of good football and baseball movies, but I find myself gravitating to smaller, individual sports. For instance, I love Peter Yates’ BREAKING AWAY, which is about cycling, but is also about youth, obsession, and coming of age. THE MOMENT OF TRUTH touches on many of the same themes. It is about bullfighting, an unfamiliar sport to most Americans, but with the heightened risk, it is an intense portrayal of what drives someone to choose a path towards being a matador.

Rosi uses film language to get into the character’s heads both during and outside of the action. We learn what drives them towards the career, the yearning for glory, the insecurity, and most importantly, the deep-seated fear. If they fail, they die. If they succeed, they achieve celebrity. The scenes during the actual bullfight are quiet, yet exhilarating.  We are immersed in the culture and find ourselves rooting for and becoming invested in Miguel, similarly to how we root for Dave, only the stakes are higher in THE MOMENT OF TRUTH because death is in the equation.

Those who are squeamish about animal violence should avoid this film. Many do see the practice of bullfighting as abusive and cruel to animals. I don’t disagree with their arguments, but regardless, the sport exists and is worth examining. I like that Rosi does not hold back on showing the graphic violence, usually towards the bull. We see many fights during the film and get an understanding of how the fighter conquers the bull. Yet it is not just the cultural educational value that makes me love the film,but the way it shows the perspective of ambition and the survival instinct. Rosi intentionally shows equates the bull and the matador as being on equal platforms, with it being a game and a lust for blood from both of them.

YOYO (1965; Pierre Etaix)
As an avid Criterion Collection fan, I appreciate that they bring some under-the-radar talents from classic film to the surface. Pierre Étaix is not exactly unknown. He has worked with some tremendous filmmakers, but his own films wereunavailable for a long time. Without his films being out there and aging, he has lost out on many of the accolades that other French filmmakers have received. He is compared most often with Jacques Tati, who he actually worked with as Assistant Director on MON ONCLE. I’ve seen him called a lesser Tati, but that is not fair to Étaix. Yes, they both operated as silent and comedic filmmakers, but they have different styles and come from different entertainment backgrounds (Tati was a mime, Étaix a clown). In reality, they probably influenced each other’s styles.

Étaix’s films are lighter than Tati’s. He makes plenty of cultural and economic statements, especially in YOYO, which I think is his best film, but he could never have made a film like PLAYTIME. I don’t hold that against him, but instead just understand that he is a different type of entertainer. In YOYO, he belittles the concept of wealth and shows that making people laugh is a higher virtue.

Like TatiÉtaix was also an actor, but again, a different sort of actor. He is actually a tremendous entertainer and has a flair for the camera. Without him in front of the camera, his films would not have had the same spark, which arguably would not be the case with TatiÉtaix’sperformance in YOYO is dazzling and he simply finds a way to put a smile on my face. The fact that he pulls out all the stops with his circus acts, including using elephants, makes this film a joy to watch. He has such charisma that he sells the thesis that doing what you love is more important than doing what makes you rich.

FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX (1965; Robert Aldrich)
As I prepare this list, I’ve found a few constants. Aside from Zatoichi and Étaix , my choices are about endurance and survival, and they criticize the idea of power (which Zatoichi does too). FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX is also about survival, but rather than focusing strictly on the individual, it focuses on the collective. A twin-engine aircraft flying in Libya is caught in a sandstorm and has to crash land. Stuck in the hot sun, the group has to try to work together to not only not wither away, but also get themselves out of the mess.

Phoenix was a mainstream Hollywood film with a large cast, most notably Jimmy Stewart, Richard Attenborough, Ernest Borgnine, and Peter Finch. As they try to find a way out of their grave situation, they touch on many themes – including commercialism, industry, distrust, and even a form of nationalism. The latter is explored through the distrust of Hardy Krüger, which processes anti-German sentiment that existed even twenty years after the war had ended. In order to succeed, they have no choice to work together, and the ensemble plays off each other effectively. Essentially we have a feature length film set in the middle of the desert with talented actors and a good script. They make it work, and even if it sounds dry (just like THE HILL does), it flows well and resembles an adventure film more than any of the others on the list.

1 comment:

garv said...

I think that Pierre Étaix is more than Tati's equal. His films are funnier than Tati's, and he's a more engaging performer. I like to say, "Imagine that somehow Buster Keaton and Ernie Kovacs had a baby while vacationing in Paris--Pierre Étaix would be the result." The Criterion box set of Pierre Étaix's films is my favorite Criterion, and my favorite blind buy. If you have been even slightly interested in this blu-ray set, I greatly encourage you to give it a try.