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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Westfront 1918 (1930)

**Special thanks to Movie Madness in Portland Oregon for having this on their rental shelf!**

The First World War is a sadly neglected subject in our modern age. Films about World War Two have become quite popular in the past ten to fifteen years as a sudden awareness of how many veterans from the conflict are dying all the time, yet barely a note was played when Florence Beatrice Green-the last known veteran of WW1- passed away in early February of this year. One can speculate why no one (at least of my generation) seems to care all that much. To be fair it was a war that accomplished very little (besides being a major cause of WW2 that is), and this film illustrates that to a tee.

As a trailer for this epic does not seem to exist, you will have to do without. The film follows the activities of a squad of German infantrymen in the trenches of France late in the war. Their life is of course far from idyllic, with death surrounding them at each and every second- you are just as likely to get buried alive in an artillery barrage as you are shot by the enemy. Will the squadmates make it out alive? Watch and see.

You are probably thinking this sounds quite a bit like All Quiet On The Western Front (Also a talkie released in 1930 with similar anti war sentiments) and you would be correct. While the similarities between the two are numerous, both are based on different novels. The main difference between them is Westfront 1918 is by far the bleaker film in overall tone. AQOTWF however has a far more memorable ending and wider distribution which is likely why this film is the much better known of the two which is honestly quite unfortunate once you see both, as each has a very strong statement.

This is Director G.W. Pabst's very first talkie. For those of you who are woefully unaware, he directed many films- perhaps the most famous of which the three which feature silent film goddess Louise Brooks. Pabst does some incredible work in this picture. Whereas American talkies generally feature talking just for the sake of it, Pabst litters the film with normal chit chat and everyday interactions. There really is no plot necessarily, and the film plays like a series of long vignettes. This makes the film feel more like a documentary than a movie played out by actors, which definitely works to its credit.

One thing that really struck me was the amount of tracking shots present. Films of this era often feature static camera work (many early screen actors had theater experience, soit makes sense), and Pabst even went so far as to make sure he had a way for the sound to keep running along with the shot. How on Earth Pabst and his crew managed to do this with 1930's sound technology we can only guess at, but this achievement should not be overlooked. We take it for granted that movies just have sound now and it is easy to lose sight of just how difficult adding sound to motion pictures was in the beginning.

Remember when I said this movie was bleak? I meant it. There's loads of shots of the muddy and barbed wire strewn no man's land to exacerbate the death that surrounds our characters sure, but there's a whole lot more than that going on. One of the most memorable sequences for me was when the character Karl (played by Gustav Diessel, who appeared in Pabst's film Pandora's Box and Fritz Lang's The Testament Of Dr. Mabuse amongst other films) goes home on leave. Upon arriving home he finds his wife in bed with another man. Such an occurrence is most certainly common during wartime and for a film in the 30's to show such frank expression of human sexual needs is equal parts daring as it is accurate.

The DVD I viewed for this review is actually a DVD-R. For reasons unknown to me, this film has never had a DVD release, only VHS. A film of such seminal importance deserves better, and the print used to strike the copy is littered with breaks and abrasions. Interestingly the opening titles of the film are entirely in German yet there are several intertitles that appear throughout the film in English. Why this is I do not know, and I can only assume that they were added to the US theatrical release as the ability to add on screen subtitles simply did not exist. Do not quote me on that last bit, but I do know that redubbing films at this period of time was an incredibly expensive endeavour, so if adding intertitles in English was a way around this (however clunky the finished product) it would make perfect sense to me. Although I do know it was cheaper to reshoot an entire film in a different language than it was to overdub, and I have heard that at least three different versions exist (French, English, German) but cannot confirm this as the German version is the only one I have seen available.

The cut I watched is presumably also missing some footage (total running time for review copy: 90 minutes), as IMDB lists three different lengths for this film depending on where it was released- mot notably the original German cut ran for 97 minutes. That footage was probably lost during later re-edits of the film in its native Germany, where Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels had the film banned. The irony of banning an anti war film during war time really amuses me to no end. In the end, this film seems to have been all but forgotten by critics and film buffs alike which is a sad fate for a film with such a powerful message to deliver and such a technical and cinematic triumph as well.

If you are interested in talkies or films about WW1 I highly recommend this title. In fact I just recommend it period if you love movies in general. While finding a copy is not necessarily easy (some editions of this film lack subtitles, beware!) the end result of your search should prove worth it. Thankfully for those of you who don't necessarily want a physical copy, someone has uploaded it in its entirety onto youtube in a far better quality print than what I viewed and is from a Janus Films print as well. Considering that Janus is responsible for the Criterion Collection and has not released this yet is truly baffling.

Get to it already Criterion!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Five Easy Pieces (1970)

I honestly believe that this is one of the best American films ever produced. The only problem? Most people have never even heard of it. I could be wrong in that fact, but I can count the amount of people I know who have seen it within ten fingers. Sure that makes me bad at statistics but you're picking up what is put down here. Upon first glance the film is a very simple tale but as things unfold it becomes much more complex, revealing much much more than you thought you were in for. Every time I watch this I realize just how magical films of this era can be.


For once I can say I am actually pleased that a film trailer falls short of the mark in telling us what exactly a given film is about. Five Easy Pieces is a simple film but loaded with complex things, something many modern films utterly lack. Plot synopsis you say? Fair enough: Robert Dupea (Jack Nicholson) is a seemingly simple blue collar oil field worker. He drinks beer with his buddies, plays poker, goes bowling, cheats on his girlfriend- you know, the usual. But for all of this image, Robert is actually a former child prodigy pianist, and for reasons unbeknownst to us, has turned his back on his past. After quitting his job and briefly taking off to Los Angeles, his older sister Partitia (Lois Smith) tells him that his father is tremendously ill after having strokes. Bobby sets off with Rayette (who through his friend he finds out is pregnant) to his family home in Washington, but to what end?

I admit I did water that down a little but in my everlasting zeal to not give each and every thing away in a film I truly love gets the better of me. This film is not always 100% serious but still is. I say this because there's a strange interlude on the way to Washington where Bobby and Rayette pick up two women (one played by Toni Basil- known for the 80's hit "Mickey") on their way to alaska. All they talk about is environmentalism and filth. I have a thing for serious messages delivered via comedy and I think they really hit the nail on the head. I won't post any clips of that to ruin it for you, but I just have to put in the infamous diner scene where Nicholson displays his supreme sarcastic abilities to their fullest.


I find it hard to believe that a diner wouldn't offer toast but the social context is obvious. So obvious in fact that I won't explain it, because if you're clever enough to be reading this far you probably already get it. But enough about shenanigans, this film has some truly fine acting from all members involved. I can't find one character that is cardboard for so much as a millisecond anywhere in the picture. How Karen Black never got more attention after being Rayette I'll never know (she of course has a terrific back catalog of films to boast of regardless) but after seeing her in this movie you realize she has tremendous acting ability. Susan Anspach (who plays his brother's fiancee') should not be overlooked either. She is a reminder of what Bobby could have if only he would allow himself to love himself, and her lines are so matter of fact I nearly burst into tears from the truth in them.

One really has to hand it to Nicholson as well as he is in top form here. Sure Chinatown is amazing but I feel this is his best effort, and the monologue he has with his disabled father is the clincher. I could post that for you as it is on youtube, but I would prefer you see it in its proper place in the film. Bobby is a man who cannot and will not accept the world as it is, and finds hiding and running away from his problems a more acceptable solution than owning up to them. He both cares and refuses to care. Where this mode of living will take him nobody knows, but such a misanthropic modus operandi tends to catch up with you sooner or later. To Bobby Dupea, everything truly is nothing at all.

One thing I regret not being able to post for you (maybe later but as I have no mp3 turntable so you'll have to wait indefinitely) is the soundtrack. It is a strange mixture of Tammy Wynette tracks mixed with the "five easy pieces" (from an early script reference left out of the finished picture) by Chopin, Bach, and Mozart. Also rare for a soundtrack of its era are loads of dialogue from the film, both as stand alone tracks and as intros and outros to several songs. Unfortunately the rather obscure nature of this film means it will likely never receive a CD release but thankfully the LP can be had for 2 dollars US if you know where to look. Anybody who likes country music of the era and Chopin like I do should love it.

For the sake of reference I will throw in a picture of it below:

Why see a film about a man who cannot be loved because he refuses to love himself? That is up to you to decide. The 70's in American cinema were touched by the misanthropy that lay underneath the nation's collective consciousness. By 1970 the hippie movement was winding down from their stupor and the counter culture started to look inward on itself, and I am glad films like this were the result of that soul searching. One can only talk about peace and love for so long before you realize that it starts from within you. I think it is a period for films that we will never see again, at least not in the way it was the first time around. Sure the tag line on the DVD cover is a bit lame (and I sincerely hope it wasn't used on any theatrical posters at the time), but don't let that deter you should you find this lying around in a Safeway store like I did.