Talking Movies and Music: Cinematic Snobs

Last evening I had the pleasure of appearing on the Cinematic Snobs podcast with hosts Jay Caruso and Andrea Ruth. We had an entertaining discussion about our Top 5 films about musicians, and fortunately no one came to blows. You can download the episode by following this link.

Below follow my choices for the show, with some explanation to hopefully whet your appetite for seeing these films, or looking at them again in a new way. Being considered quite the snob (by some), I suspect that at least part of my list will come as a surprise to my readers, but here we go:

1.      Autumn Sonata (1978) – Hollywood legend Ingrid Bergman, in her final film, plays a famous musician who spends a raw and painful weekend with her estranged children. Directed by (the equally legendary) Ingmar Bergman, in his last film made specifically for the big screen, this pairing of Sweden’s greatest actress with Sweden’s greatest director took a lifetime to happen, and does not disappoint. Both Bergmans were nominated for Oscars – she for acting, he for the screenplay – and the movie won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language film.

2.      Tous les Matins du Monde (1991) – A slow, occasionally surreal, yet passionate interpretation of the life of the late 17th century French musician and composer Marin Marais and his teacher, M. de Sainte-Colombe, this film is based on the novel (and screenplay) of the same name by best-selling author Pascal Quignard. Played both by Gerard Depardieu and – in flashback – by his son Guillaume Depardieu, Marais wants to learn to play the viola da gamba at a high level, and Sainte-Colombe is the elusive master of the instrument. The soundtrack to this film is mesmerizing, and the performances are deeply personal; it won seven Cesar Awards (the French equivalent of the Oscars), including Best Film and Best Music.   

3.      La Vie en Rose (2007) – The film that catapulted Oscar-winning actress Marion Cotillard to international fame, based on the life of the great French singer Edith Piaf, is something of a mess in its editing, and at times the production feels more like a telenovela than a work of serious cinema. Yet these shortcomings are overcome by Cotillard, who transforms herself from young peasant girl to international star to tragic cripple in a performance which was duly recognized by practically all of the major international cinema awards. The intensity of Piaf’s music and Cotillard’s acting are a perfect match.

4.      The Sound of Music (1965) – Just about everyone loves this movie, but not everyone stops to think about the reality on which it was based. The relatively happy life, and relatively simple escape from the Nazis, of the Von Trapp Family Singers as portrayed on film, was not quite as easy as it appears. When life took away their livelihood, music became their new life. This is hinted at in the film, but the film should be your gateway to the real story of the power of music to help us come through adversity.

5.      This Is Spinal Tap (1984) – Admittedly this is what my sister would call a “guy movie” – particularly if you are about 14-16 years old, or, as is probably the case, you are still mentally about that age even if you are now a grown man. A spoof by director Rob Reiner on the pretentious rockumentaries of the 1970’s and 1980’s, the film has a deadly earnestness to it, in which the slowly disintegrating band and their increasingly awful concerts are treated so seriously, that we cannot help but laugh at them – and indeed at ourselves, for taking rock-schlock so seriously. However there is also a sweetness to this movie, in which the unexpected resolution of the plot shows that sticking with what you love, even if your life doesn’t quite turn out the way you expected, is the right decision.

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Ingrid Bergman at MoMA

With the 100th anniversary of the birth of screen legend Ingrid Bergman coming up next month, the Museum of Modern Art in New York has announced a special film festival in honor of the late Swedish actress and three-time Oscar winner. MoMA will be screening 14 of Ingrid’s movies, selected and introduced by her four children, including actress Isabella Rossellini.  Several of Ingrid’s most famous movies will be shown, such as “Casablanca” (1942), “The Bells of St. Mary’s” (1945), and “Notorious” (1948) – my favorite Hitchcock film, as it happens – among others.  In addition several of her European films, less well-known to American audiences, will be screened. These include four of the Italian films she made with her second husband, director Roberto Rossellini, which are considered some of the most important works of European Neorealist cinema in the Post-War era.

While it is great that so many of Ingrid’s performances will be shown to audiences who have never had the chance to see her on the big screen, there are a few notable absences.  I find it somewhat odd, for example, that MoMA of all places would not include “Spellbound” (1945) with Gregory Peck, since certain elements of the production were designed by Salvador Dali. Neither will be attendees be seeing “Anastasia” (1956) with Yul Brynner, for which Ingrid won her second Oscar, nor the now-legendary Sidney Lumet ensemble film, “Murder on the Orient Express” (1974), for which she won her third.  It would also have been nice to see the sophisticated romantic comedy “Indiscreet” (1958) with Cary Grant which, while admittedly more of a specialist taste, has always been one of my favorite films of hers because of its very grown-up, cosmopolitan script, and whose Technicolor positively glows on screen.

That being said, I’m pleased to see that MoMA will be screening “Autumn Sonata” (1978) with Liv Ullman, Bergman’s final film and the only one she made with another towering Bergman of the cinema, Swedish director Ingmar Bergman. The two Bergmans had always wanted to work together, but as so often happens, sometimes these collaborations only happen in the autumn of one’s years – appropriately enough for the title and subject matter of this work. For those whose image of Ingrid is of the compassionate but resolute, strong yet tender beauty, this performance is quite a departure. It shows not only that she could act – John Gielgud’s catty comments notwithstanding – but that she could confound your expectations.

At first the role of the famous performer, all warm smiles and graciousness, seems to be Ingrid the actress playing a musical version of herself. Yet as the film develops, she plays against type in such a way that at first you don’t realize that her character is actually quite monstruous. The viewer is both drawn to and, upon reflection, repulsed by her character at the same time. It is not surprising that Ingrid received her 7th and final Best Actress nomination for the role, and that it won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film.  Even if you can’t get to New York to see it, if you enjoy good acting you should definitely add this one to your screening queue.

Ingrid Bergman: A Centennial Celebration runs at the Museum of Modern Art in New York from August 29th to September 10th.

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I’m All About “Eve”

This weekend I had the good fortune to view (in convivial company) the classic 1950 film “All About Eve” on the big screen for the first time, at the American Film Institute in Silver Spring, Maryland. Now as regular visitors to these pages know, I have been a huge fan of this film for many years. I have seen it more times than I can recall, and can also recite almost all of the dialogue from memory. I also own a copy on DVD, naturally enough.

However there is something truly unique about seeing a classic black and white Hollywood film from the golden era on the big screen. No matter how familiar you are with a particular movie that you have seen on a television or computer screen, there is nothing quite like the experience of being in a theatre with a large group of people, seeing it on a huge screen, surrounded by sound. And truth be told, despite having lived in Washington for many years, this was only the first time I visited the AFI Silver Theatre, which is a wonderful space showing a wide range of both classic and contemporary cinema.

With “All About Eve”, this film in particular does not necessarily need to be on the big screen to be enjoyed. There are no great action sequences, and the film itself is not unlike a stage play, in which the dialogue is far more important than the action. However because the characters in the film – not unlike the actors who portray them – are so much larger than life, seeing them several stories tall really does add to the feeling that you are watching a hugely important work of American cinema, which “Eve” definitely is.

There are many reasons why I might recommend that you check out “All About Eve” if you have never seen it before. It could be because it is such a devastatingly accurate look at the misunderstandings and conflicts in relationships between men and women, for one thing. Or it could be because of its steely-eyed look at the problem of unfettered ambition and how it can harm other people. Yet I think on the whole if you enjoy hearing the English language well spoken, and you also enjoy a carefully crafted book, fiction or not, that becomes the primary reason to see the film. The words of the magnificent screenplay of “Eve” fill the air on the film set in a way that few films have done before or since. Paradoxically, this is a sensory feast for someone who loves to read.

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Anne Baxter, Bette Davis, Marilyn Monroe, and George Sanders in "All About Eve"