Youssef Chahine: Communicating with Humanity

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One of the best perks of going to college back in the day was the campus film series. Each weekend, I eagerly attended the movie of the week, which could be a Hollywood classic, a recent popular movie or a foreign film. The campus film program was my introduction to international classics by Bergman, Fellini, Bresson and many others. Not having any control over the programming forced me to expand my personal canvas, reshaping my tastes and introducing me to the art and cultures of other lands. My friends and I were always excited to see a movie we knew nothing about it.

It occurred to me that FilmStruck is a streaming equivalent to the campus film series: For just a few bucks, viewers can escape the confines of their tastes and experiences and select an eye-opening film outside their comfort zone.

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When Context Matters: Nine Days of One Year (1962)

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Ever heard of Nine Days of One Year (1962)? Chances are, the answer to that question is no. It was for me when TCM assigned me to write it up a couple of years ago. I tried to find some info online but came up empty. There’s an old review I found from Bosley Crowther and then one more from decades later by J. Hoberman. Neither was too enthused. And that was it. I mentioned both in my article. If you go to the Wikipedia page, there’s a whopping three external links: an almost willfully pointless AllMovie writeup, its IMDB page, and a link to my TCM article which, of course, wasn’t there when I first went looking (please read it for a more thorough discussion of the story). So anyway, I got the screener from my editor, settled in to watch it and find out what this movie was all about and I was quite surprised by what I saw. I had to ask myself several times in the first few minutes, “Wait, this was made in the Soviet Union? In 1962? And the director wasn’t sent to a gulag? The movie wasn’t even banned?!”

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Take Time for Time Without Pity (’57)

TIME WITHOUT PITY (1957)

Isn’t Michael Redgrave simply marvelous? No matter the role, Michael Redgrave brings a sort of respectability and class; he commands the screen. Take his brief performance as the unnamed, mysterious uncle in Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961). The few minutes he is on screen, sharing a scene with that naive, inexperienced governess played by Deborah Kerr, Redgrave dominates, casting an unsettled tone over the film from the very start. The uncle never reappears in the film, his character only being mentioned occasionally in passing conversation. And yet, his domineering presence is felt until the last haunting moment of the film. Or how about Redgrave’s performance in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938), a great thriller surrounding mystery, missing persons and intrigue. Then there is Redgrave’s performance in the wonderfully bizarre Dead of Night (1945), which tells its interesting story in a series of vignettes; Redgrave’s insane ventriloquist character being absolutely terrifying. I recently discovered Redgrave’s masterful performance in the little known Time Without Pity (1957), now available on The Criterion Channel of FilmStruck (and coming to the FilmStruck portion of the service on February 10, 2017). Directed by blacklisted American expatriate Joseph Losey, Time Without Pity is an effective, taut noir thriller.

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I Really Like That Movie, I Just Don’t Care About It.

HOPSCOTCH (1980)

Back in the late 1970s, early 1980s, I had lots of free time, no responsibilities, and no bills on which to spend my hard earned minimum wage income, which could therefore go entirely to cigarettes and movies. I don’t smoke anymore but I still watch movies. Of course, not like I did then. Back then I saw practically every movie that came out. With rare exceptions, I just went to the theater with my brother or a friend and saw whatever was playing. One of those movies, way back when, was Hopscotch (1980). All I knew is it had Walter Matthau and Glenda Jackson and I liked them both. I think I might have known it was a spy movie, too. What I didn’t know is that it would become one of my favorite movies, a movie I have returned to time and time again as a kind of cinematic comfort food when I just need to relax and watch Ned Beatty give the F.B.I. a new name that I have yet to shake from my head.

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Gaslight (1944) and the True Meaning of Fear

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Gaslighting: The idea that a person will eventually become convinced of something through conditioning by an individual in a position of power and influence, despite being in direct opposition to what the person knows and believes to be true. It is a word we hear tossed around a lot these days, usually in reference to the behaviors of overtly biased media and their use of clickbait headlines and grossly out of context quotes, and the politicians’ not-so-clever sleight of hand in discussing issues and controversy with the public. We frequently hear our elected officials telling lies, or at best, half truths. If they keep repeating and reinforcing them, the lies eventually become the truth, right? That is the strategy, at least. Fortunately, we have a few sane, respected voices who help parse out the information, while reminding us to stay vigilant. These same respected voices often compare this dissemination of lies to “gaslighting,” a term originated from the stage play Gas Light (1938). “Gaslighting” is a form of psychological torture found in abusive relationships, specifically romantic ones. Using this term to describe the actions of our political and media class is often overreaction at best, potentially dangerous at worst, detracting from individuals, particularly women, who are suffering mental torture in intimate, abusive relationships. By using the term to describe any nefarious action, we inadvertently dilute its originally powerful meaning.

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Coming of Age with Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970)

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I’ve been on something of an Eastern European tear lately with the release of the third (and final, for now) boxed set of “Martin Scorsese Presents” Polish classics, which had a tremendous run in New York and (in more scaled-down fashion) Los Angeles a while back. However, with all the attention Poland has been getting the past couple of years from cinéastes, let’s not forget that Czech films have an astonishing history as well and could easily merit a months-long retrospective. But where to start? If you’re browsing around FilmStruck, I’d like to point in the direction of one obvious and very irresistible candidate streaming on the Criterion Channel: Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970), a beguiling supernatural fantasy that also happens to be one of the finest films ever told from a young girl’s point of view. [...MORE]

A Poet’s Life: Pyaasa (1957)

PYAASA (1957)

Guru Dutt is a tragic figure in Bollywood history, a tremendously talented actor and filmmaker who committed suicide at the age of 39. He was able to direct eight films before his passing, the most famous of which is Pyaasa (1957), an intensely moving melodrama about a struggling poet, Vijay (played by Dutt). It is a movie about failure, as Vijay’s poems are roundly rejected, while his vagabond lifestyle alienates him from his immediate family. Broke and depressed, Vijay wanders the lower depths of the city and finds the first honest people he’s ever met, they just happen to be prostitutes and hucksters. As proper society would rather he disappear, Vijay pursues his art anyway, to destructive and unpredictable consequences. Filmed with a delirious mobility, the camera is always dollying from long distances into huge closeups, the distance between two unrequited lovers closed by the lens. With sinuous, unforgettable music by S.D. Burman and evocatively nihilistic Urdu poetry by Sahir Ludhianvi, FilmStruck is streaming Pyaasa as part of its “Classic Bollywood” package, and if you are looking to start exploring Bollywood cinema, this is a wise place to begin.

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Resurrecting The Stunt Man (1980)

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The theme of this semester’s campus film series that I co-direct with my fellow faculty member and partner-in-crime is “Movies About the Movies.” So, I was excited to discover that The Stunt Man (1980) is currently streaming on FilmStruck. Directed by maverick filmmaker Richard Rush, The Stunt Man stars Steve Railsback as a Vietnam vet on the drift who runs afoul of the law. When he stumbles onto the set of a movie shooting on location, the director takes him on as a stunt man to hide him from the police. A raging egomaniac, the director is played by Peter O’Toole, who brings charm, charisma and a dark streak to the roguish Eli Cross.

I first saw The Stunt Man in Chicago in the fall of 1980 in a preview screening arranged by Twentieth Century Fox. Rush was there to introduce the film and to answer questions afterward. He had spent several months that year previewing the film on his own to prove to potential distributors that it would draw audiences. He had been to Seattle, Phoenix and Columbus, and he also arranged for test runs in Seattle and Los Angeles. Finally, Fox negotiated a deal after the L.A. run drew good reviews and packed theaters.

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GILLIAMESQUE

LOST IN LA MANCHA (2002)

Gilliamesque is the title of the recent autobiography by Terry Gilliam (co-written by Ben Thompson). On the cover, the byline announces “A Pre-posthumous Memoir,” but when you open the book this byline has a black mark through it, as does the byline below that, “TG’s Bio(degradable) Autography,” also marked through is the third byline: “A singular person’s first first person singular Palin-dromic biograph.” A fourth line is left alone: “My Me, Me, Me Memoir.” Those four pronouns promise to give readers a focused look into Gilliam’s life that is sure to be of interest to any fans of his work. Folks in that latter category should also know that FilmStruck is currently showcasing four films that also put Gilliam in the limelight.

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A Tale of Two Hydes

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Robert Louis Stevenson’s late-19th century novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has been the inspiration for countless stage, film, radio and television adaptations and inspired works. The first adaptation was Thomas Sullivan’s stage play Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which debuted in 1887, a year after the novella’s original publication. This stage version of Stevenson’s story included significant changes to the plot, including the addition of a complicated, romantic relationship between Dr. Jekyll and his well-mannered socialite fiancée. In 1920, Paramount Pictures released their version of Sullivan’s interpretation, a silent film starring the original A-list superstar John Barrymore in the title role. Known for his devastatingly handsome looks and “great profile,” Barrymore shocked audiences with his gruesome, monster-like appearance as the vicious Mr. Hyde. A little over a decade later, Paramount began preparing a remake of the 1920 film with plans to have Barrymore reprise his role.

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