Monday, September 21, 2009

Target #282: Ninotchka (1939, Ernst Lubitsch)

TSPDT placing: #282
Directed by: Ernst Lubitsch
Written by: Melchior Lengyel (story), Charles Brackett (screenplay), Billy Wilder (screenplay), Walter Reisch (screenplay)
Starring: Greta Garbo, Melvyn Douglas, Ina Claire, Bela Lugosi, Sig Ruman, Felix Bressart, Alexander Granach

I find it a little odd that, on the cusp of WWII, Hollywood delivered a piece of anti-Communist propaganda, when clearly there were, at that time, more immediate threats to European freedom. Ninotchka (1939) was produced while Ernst Lubitsch waited for Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart to become available for The Shop Around the Corner (1940), but it was by no means merely a fill-in project: the film was Greta Garbo's first and only collaboration with Lubitsch, and the actress' penultimate role before a premature retirement. MGM's publicity campaign used the tagline "Garbo Laughs!" to advertise that this was a new type of role for the enigmatic actress, a comedy that promised to humanise her otherwise somber screen persona {this campaign deliberately referenced the tagline for Garbo's Anna Christie (1930), which had proclaimed "Garbo Talks!"}. Though the screenplay by Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett and Walter Reisch unsurprisingly has many genuine sparks of wit, the balance of romance, farce and political commentary never quite sits as comfortably as one would expect given the talents involved.

When three Soviet diplomats (Sig Ruman, Felix Bressart and Alexander Granach) arrive in Paris to sell off some jewelry confiscated from the Grand Duchess (Ina Claire) during the Bolshevik Revolution, they find it difficult to keep their minds on their work. Far away from the cold, drab apartments of Moscow, the French capital is bustling with life, warmth and prosperity (just forget that the French upper-class are not, in fact, a reasonable yardstick for comparison with the Soviet proletariat). Playful aristocrat Léon (Melvyn Douglas), the Duchess' romantic lover, succeeds in corrupting the bumbling diplomats by flaunting the luxuries of capitalistic society. To ensure that the transaction goes through smoothly, the Soviets send down Ninotchka (Garbo), a curt, tight-lipped Bolshevik with a militant hatred of Capitalism and everything it stands for. Against all odds, the debonair playboy Léon and the belligerent Ninotchka fall for one another, an attraction that ultimately proves more significant than one's national allegiance.

Unfortunately, once love softens the formerly stone-faced Ninotchka, the film shifts from being a lighthearted political farce {not unlike To Be or Not to Be (1942) or Wilder's One, Two, Three (1961)} to a weepy romance. Lubitsch followed Ninotchka with The Shop Around the Corner. What worked so well in the latter film, I thought, was that Lubitsch's heart was not necessarily with the star-crossed lovers – James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan – but with Frank Morgan's shop owner, and his familial relationship with its employees. The three reluctant Soviet diplomats in Ninotchka are utterly charming supporting characters, but too often they are shunned in favour of the central romance, which seems to tread water once, as advertised, Garbo breaks character and enjoys a hearty chuckle. Nevertheless, Melvyn Douglas is magnificently debonair, bringing something distinctly likable to the role of a lazy playboy aristocrat. During her opening act, you can almost see a smile forming beneath Garbo's icy exterior, and she plays the role with just the right amount of breeziness.

Currently my #11 film of 1939:
3) Only Angels Have Wings (Howard Hawks)
4) The Wizard Of Oz (Victor Fleming, Mervyn LeRoy, Richard Thorpe, King Vidor)
5) Gone with the Wind (Victor Fleming, George Cukor, Sam Wood)
6) The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (H.C. Potter)
7) The Hunchback of Notre Dame (William Dieterle)
8) La règle du jeu {The Rules of the Game} (Jean Renoir)
9) Dark Victory (Edmund Goulding)
10) Another Thin Man (W.S. Van Dyke)
11) Ninotchka (Ernst Lubitsch)
12) Drums Along the Mohawk (John Ford)


Friday, September 18, 2009

Target #281: JFK (1991, Oliver Stone)

TSPDT placing: #492
Directed by: Oliver Stone
Written by: Jim Garrison (book), Jim Marrs (book), Oliver Stone (screenplay), Zachary Sklar (screenplay)
Starring: Kevin Costner, Jack Lemmon, Gary Oldman, Sissy Spacek, Michael Rooker, Joe Pesci, Walter Matthau, Tommy Lee Jones, John Candy, Kevin Bacon, Donald Sutherland

Oliver Stone's wildly-speculative conspiracy theory epic JFK (1991) opens with a montage of archival footage depicting the presidency of John F. Kennedy, 35th President of the United States, up until 12:30PM on Friday, November 22, 1963, in Dallas, Texas. However, even before this historical prologue has come to an end, Stone has already introduced his own dramatisation – a beaten prostitute, dumped on the side of a road, pleads that Kennedy's life is in danger. Her agonised cries play over familiar documentary footage of the Presidential motorcade. Already, Stone is defiantly blending fact and fiction, speculation and dramatisation. On its initial release, the film stirred enormous controversy due to its flagrant disregard for historical fact, but that's not what JFK is all about. Oliver Stone may (or may not) genuinely believe all of Jim Garrison's conspiracy theories – which implicate everybody up to former President Lyndon B. Johnson – but his film nevertheless offers a tantalising "what if?" scenario, an unsettling portrait of the fallibility of "history" itself.

Having undertaken some light research, I don't feel that Garrison's claims hold much water. However, that doesn't detract from the film's brilliance. Crucial is Stone's more generalised vibe of government mistrust, the acknowledgement that political institutions are at least conceptually capable of such a wide-ranging operation to hoodwink the American public. JFK also paints a gripping picture of its protagonist, torn between its admiration for a man willing to contest the sacred cow of US government, and its pity for one so hopelessly obsessed with conspiracy that it consumes his life, family and livelihood. Kevin Costner plays Garrison as righteous and stubbornly idealistic, not dissimilar to his Eliot Ness in De Palma's The Untouchables (1987). The only difference is that Garrison is chasing a criminal far more transparent than Al Capone – indeed, a criminal who may not exist at all. Costner is supported by an exceedingly impressive supporting cast: Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Kevin Bacon, Donald Sutherland, Joe Pesci, Michael Rooker, Tommy Lee Jones, Gary Oldman and John Candy.With the Director's Cut clocking in at 206 minutes, JFK is an epic piece of work. However, the film is so dazzlingly well-constructed that watching it becomes less of a choice than a compulsion. Stone frenziedly throws together seemingly-unrelated puzzle-pieces, systematically peeling back layer after layer of conspiracy until all that remains is what Jim Garrison believes to be the naked truth. Beneath the sordid details, Stone speculates on the nature of history itself. Archive footage blends seamlessly with dramatisation – but what is recorded history but a re-enactment submitted by the winners? Not even the witnesses to Kennedy's assassination, clouded by subjective perception, can know for sure what exactly took place on that dark day in Dallas. Perhaps Zapruder's 486 frames of grainy hand-held footage (combined with that of Nix and Muchmore) represents the only objective record of the event – but Antonioni's Blowup (1966) argued that even photographic documentation is unreliable through the inherent bias of the viewer. In short, nobody knows what really happened that day. JFK is Oliver Stone creating his own history – or merely correcting it.

Currently my #3 film of 1991:
1) The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme)
2) Terminator 2: Judgment Day (James Cameron)
3) JFK (Oliver Stone)
4) Hearts Of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (Fax Bahr, George Hickenlooper, Eleanor Coppola)
5) Barton Fink (Joel Coen, Ethan Coen)