Monthly Archives: March 2009

30′s movies marathon – part 25? 26? who knows?!

Aleksandr Nevskiy (1938, Soviet Union) – Considering that the message here is “never mind the Mongols who just passed through our village, the Germans are our real enemy”, it’s not surprising that Hitler broke the pact. Watched: 18 minutes.

Carefree (1938, USA) – Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers spoof psychoanalysis. Best (only?) attempt in film history to combine tap dancing with golf. Watched: 16 minutes.

Little Tough Guy (1938, USA) – The ‘Dead End Kids’ from ‘Dead End’ reach a [two words, two syllables] in this terrible followup. Watched: 8 minutes.

Mr Wong, Detective (1938, USA) – What is it about the 30′s and stereotypical Chinese detectives? Boris Karloff could at least have tried to look the part. Watched: 6 minutes.

The Great Waltz (1938, USA) – A movie about Johan Strauss and his immortal waltzes. I hate Johann Strauss and his immortal waltzes. Watched: 4 minutes.

Suez (1938, US) – Yes, but what I want to know is: Whatever happened to Napoleon the second?! Watched: 14 minutes.

Le quai des brumes (1938, France) – Probably a very fine movie about a cynical deserter, but not for me. Watched: 15 minutes.

Marie Antoinette (1938, USA) – A cheerful, empty-headed princess marries a royal imbecile, and then she’s beheaded by the citizens. Interesting, but the acting is either bad, or an accurate portrayal of some truly annoying people. Watched it all.

Being king means never sleeping through the night again

Well this isn’t too bad. Kings is a modern retelling of the David story, with Ian McShane as Saul, Chris Egan as David, and a tank as Goliath. It does a more or less 1-to-1 mapping from Biblical Israel to alternate universe America, which is smart: When your source material is one of the greatest stories in ancient literature, there’s no reason to change it.

There’s a comic book series, Testament, which did the same thing with the book of Genesis. I didn’t like it. The mapping was odd, the appeal of the original legends was lost by trying too hard to be clever. Kings, so far, does not. Michael Green maps Bronze Age to Internet Age in a way that is both creative and mostly faithful to the story.

I’m not sure about Jonathan, (“Jack”). He’s gay, which the original story hinted at, (one of many delightfully inconvenient passages in the Bible), but also shifty, possibly treasonous, and unlikely to hook up with David. It’s an odd departure from the source. There’s also an evil corporate presence I don’t remember from Sunday School. But – I’m beginning to sound like a nitpicking Watchmen-fan.

The tone of the show is well done: Contemporary, with a sideways step towards the mythical. It’s the only example of Biblical SF on television I can recall, and I want to see where it’s heading. (Even if I know how it ends. Probably. Unless this is all a ruse leading up to a shocking departure later on.)

30′s movies marathon – part .. oh who’s counting?

Jezebel (1938, USA) – A 1850′s New Orleans woman tries to win love through manipulation and audacity, which doesn’t work out too well. Told against a background of Southern elegance and happy, comical slaves. Fantastic, racist period piece, with Bette Davis switching comfortably between brave, pathetic and cruel. Watched it all. IMDB reviewers call it a prelude to Gone With the Wind, which is nonsense – this is far better.

You Can’t Take it With You (1938, USA) – A group of free spirits explore Maslow’s fifth layer in their commune, which is threatened by .. (queue Psycho-music) .. tycoons. Nice, well-intended, and naive, in a way that’s a little less interesting now that we’re all like this. Watched: 30 minutes.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1938, USA) – The beloved classic, reimagined as Dennis the Menace. Watched: 10 minutes.

Ask a Policeman (1938, UK) – Loud jokes that beat you over the head with how funny they are. Watched: 8 minutes.

The Texans (1938, USA) – Evil cardboard yankees force confederate veterans to pay taxes and work for a living in reconstruction-era Texas. It’s a travesty! It’s up to a band of brave, doomed rebels to save the South, by relaunching the Civil War with Mexican and French soldiers on their side. Yes, they’re the good guys. Watched: 14 minutes.

A Slight Case of Murder (1938, USA) – Gangster tries to go legit when prohibition ends, but Society Won’t Let Him, (they hate his crappy beer). Watched: 8 minutes.

Possibilities for being entertained

About nine years ago I played in a Team Fortress Classic team. TFC was a PC game with a large community of competitive leagues. Our team would meet online to practice and plan tactics, and then compete with other teams in our league. The only difference from a sport was that we weren’t getting any excersise out of it. But it was hard, fun, and social.

While I was playing TFC, Jim Rossignol was coaching players in Quake 3, another first-person shooter. He did it so obsessively that it cost him his job, which got him started on a career in gaming journalism. Today he’s an editor of the excellent PC gaming blog Rock, Paper, Shotgun, and has written a smart book about online gaming culture.

This Gaming Life is about the social aspect of computer games. Rossignol believes that games are a waste of time, and that’s a good thing. They prevent boredom, one of the major challenges of a leisure-based culture, and they give rise to interesting new forms of social interaction.

Rossignol writes about nationally televised Starcraft championships in South Korea, where gaming is part of the mainstream youth culture. We hear about corporate backstabbing in EVE Online, a space adventure MMORPG with its own functional economy, and about the mod community, where fans create their own variations of commercial games.

Unusually for a non-fiction book about a hypable cultural trend, Rossignol’s tone is that of a calm and reasoned essay, providing genuine insights into gaming culture. More of that!

The eye sprang out of his face like a yolk from a broken egg

It’s easy to see why Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird made him unpopular in Eastern Europe. A kid wanders through Poland during World War 2, and, suspected of being a gypsy, is abused by superstitious peasants. Every page hammers down the message of how stupid and brutal Eastern European peasants are. Who wouldn’t be offended?

It’s harder to understand why many reviewers thought the novel was semi-autobiographical. At one point the kid pushes a man who is trying to kill him down into an abandoned bunker, where he is eaten by rats. The rats swarm over the man, tearing his flesh apart, consuming him, until all that is left is a lone hand sticking up from the sea of rats.

That’s not a traumatic war memory. That’s a visual punchline in a self-mocking horror movie. There are many episodes like this, and I wonder if some of the novel’s reputation came from 1965 readers being more easily shocked, and mistaking their reactions for the discomfort one can get from a truly great novel. Me, I think of Evil Dead. I almost stopped reading, not because it’s too disgusting, but because I think Kosinski is trying to be serious here.

The second half is better. Kosinski ends the gore-fest, and gets to the point, which is to make the kid a sociopath who muses over why some people are strong, and others weak. Who is the more useful ally: God, Satan, Hitler or Stalin? The answer, he concludes, is no-one. Everyone stands alone, separated as by mountains.

30′s movies marathon – part 23

Topper (1937, USA) – Manny-man man’s man Cary Grant plays an irresponsible playboy who kills himself and his wife in a drunk driving accident. They then return as ghosts to teach a respectable banker to be an irresponsible drunk driver too, (or at least help him stand up to his shrewish wife). Loved it. Watched it all.

The Good Earth (1937, USA) – I don’t know which is more stupid: A movie set in China where all the main characters are white, or this, where the characters are Chinese, but they’re all played by white actors. Watched: 14 minutes. IMDB reviewers beg us to consider the casting in the context of its era, and not condemn it out of “political correctness”. I wonder if they excuse all 30′s racism equally?

Conquest (1937, USA) – Polish countess Greta Garbo is pressured into offering herself to Napoleon in the hope of securing freedom for her people, but all she gets in return is rape and dishonor. She falls in love with him anyway, but again (and again, and again) she is betrayed by his ego and ambition – just like Europe. Excellent. Watched it all.

Range Defenders (1937, USA) – Oh God, it’s a horrible, ultracheap Western. Noooooo…! When did they begin making good ones?! Watched: 5 minutes.

A very innocent time

I wonder what impression a viewing marathon of 1946 films would leave on the mind of someone who never knew that year. How true a picture would it give of the time? When I look back, as I frequently do, at movies of the thirties and forties, and compare them with the reality I knew then, as schoolboy, soldier and young newspaperman, I can say that they reflect very fairly our backgrounds, our values and some of our ideals.

I insert the word “some” as one who has never been politically committed, except for brief periods after every political meeting I ever reported: if it was a Labour meeting I came out somewhere to the right of P.C. Wren; if Conservative, my feelings would have made Lenin look like a hesitant moderate. But I concede that those with strong political views might not think that old movies gave a true picture, inasmuch as they had no time for extremism, either way.

What does come off them, very strongly, is a remarkable innocence. No doubt the Hays Office and the British Board of Film Censors had something to do with it, but not all that much. It was, as I look back and remember, a very innocent time – even with the Depression and Hitler and the atom bomb, it was still innocent. Perhaps that was why they happened.

- George MacDonald Fraser, The Hollywood History of the World

30′s movies marathon – part 22

Young and Innocent (1937, UK) – A British movie that doesn’t suck! In fact it’s good. Hitchcock does his innocent suspect thing, with black humor and many inspired scenes, such as a jazz drummer in blackface trying desperately not to reveal his villainous twitch. Watched it all.

A Damsel in Distress (1937, USA) – Merging Fred Astaire with P.G. Wodehouse sounds like a good idea, but .. nah. Watched: 15 minutes.

Salama fi khair (1937, Egypt) – En Egyptian farce! It’s actually funny, at times. A lazy office worker gets stuck with a large sum of money, and becomes afraid of thieves. Watched: 31 minutes.

The Prisoner of Zenda (1937, USA) – A man happens to look exactly like the crown prince, and happens to meet him just in time to fill in for the prince at his coronation after he’s poisoned. This will no doubt cause 1h and 40m of intrigue and confusion, but this sort of aristocratic adventure doesn’t interest me. Watched: 15 minutes.

La Habanera (1937, Germany) – A Swedish woman visits Puerto Rico with her humorless aunt, where she is swept off her feet by the natives and their exotic customs (bull-fighting etc.) Watched: 14 minutes. IMDB reviewers say the romance doesn’t last, and she ends up safely in the arms of a fellow Aryan.