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Film Comment Selects 2010: The Victors

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Film Comment Selects 2010: The Victors

The secret passion of the cinephile is to find a hidden treasure. It’s often a film that wasn’t well-received in its day; its makers were beleaguered; and it is definitely, certainly not on DVD. Check all three for The Victors, a 1963 World War II movie in which a battle emerges between a bulging international cast. The movie’s director, Carl Foreman, was one of the blacklisted screenwriters that made up the Hollywood Ten, and The Victors was his only director’s credit. The New York Times hated it (though Bosley Crowther hated many things), and the Time critic wrote that “Foreman has spent two and a half years producing a faintly vulgar medley nearly three hours long.” It didn’t help that the previous year’s WWII epic, The Longest Day, had earned lots of money and a Best Picture nomination, overshadowing it. To this day The Victors isn’t on DVD or VHS. For all these reasons we can call the film a rediscovery. But is it good?

For long stretches, no, though its precepts are useful. Like many strong American war movies (from The Best Years of Our Lives to The Big Red One to The Thin Red Line), The Victors focuses on a group rather than on one individual, with accompanying commentary on group patterns and behaviors. (The Hurt Locker, by contrast, seems much more focused on individual trauma.) Foreman’s film sets up its social dynamic from its first scene, where a voiceover introduces us to our American soldiers, arriving last at their two German prisoners, “not-so-masterful members of the master race.” We’re told that in war there are two kinds of people, the vanquished and the victors. Nearly every scene in this episodic film illustrates that dynamic, whether the opposed be soldiers in different armies, men and dogs, or concentration camp survivors and their American saviors. Most frequently, though, the vanquished/victor dynamic emerges between American boys and European girls. Married Vince Edwards pines for married Rosanna Schiaffino, George Hamilton chases down young Romy Schneider, George Peppard falls into the older Melina Mercouri’s clutches, strong Eli Wallach protects quivering Jeanne Moreau (think about that last pairing). At times the movie feels less like Battleground and more like La Ronde—though, funnily, with its focus on all the time and space lovers spend without each other, the light love story La Ronde proves the sadder film.

Foreman gives his sweethearts nothing but time and space, with or without each other: He generally frames the action so that the actors have several inches of room on either side of them. That doesn’t mean that you can see them better, as the film’s black-and-white stock drowns in grainy, murky light, suggesting that The Bridge on the River Kwai’s screenwriter watched Paisan too many times. When people talk about the authenticity of Italian neorealist films, they’re often referring to technical elements (natural lighting, location shooting, amateur actors) rather than narrative ones. Neorealism’s plots can be as formulaic as Hollywood’s, with characters and events turned to make specific, didactic points—though sometimes, like with The Bicycle Thief, it works anyway. It doesn’t so much with The Victors, in which the message of each scene is that war is hell, somehow, and love sometimes sucks, too.

The movie’s script thuds and clunks (Schiaffino: “You love wife. You love me. I love husband. I love you.”), and so does its cast. Moreau, playing a Frenchwoman in a bombarded house, falls flattest: With her stiff, face-forward delivery, every word about civilian hardship enunciated, she gives not a character but a public service announcement. The other actors, hamstrung, follow. Wallach, the plainspoken, anti-bullshit, anti-intellectual voice of reason, keeps calling people “stupid idiots”; belle artiste Schneider stares into a glass and pines for her lost conservatoire. A young Albert Finney (the same year as Tom Jones), in a cameo as a Russian lout in a bar, escapes by freeing himself, Laughton-like—expanding his stance, stretching his shoulders, dangling an easy hand over the bartop, and generally swallowing space. It’s one of the few instances in The Victors where I don’t feel like I’m watching something that’s been carefully blocked.

This raises a paradox: The Victors shows copious newsreel footage (the Yalta Conference, or Army’s football team beating Notre Dame’s), but very little of the film feels authentic. To critic James Agee, one of the greatest (if not the greatest) war films ever made was 1944’s The Story of G.I. Joe, precisely because of how it merged documentary and fiction. I’m not crazy about G.I. Joe —Robert Mitchum gives a wonderful early-career performance, but after a while the film’s story disappears—yet I find myself in tune with Agee’s arguments for it. He wrote that G.I. Joe “not only makes most of its fiction look and sound like fact—and far more intimate and expressive fact than it is possible to record on the spot; it also, without ever inflating or even disturbing the factual quality…gives fact the constant power and meaning beyond its own which most ’documentors’—and most imaginative artists as well—totally lack feeling for.” An image can feel real, in other words, even when highly stylized. The example Agee gave is a sudden close-up of a soldier’s gear-laden back as he walks away from his captain’s corpse, an image Agee compared to poetry; by contrast, whether through round Churchill or square George Hamilton, The Victors constantly speaks dull prose.

That said, the two films overlap on at least one approach they take to capturing the real, and it’s the aspect of The Victors that I admire the most. Agee wrote that G.I. Joe acknowledges death by eliding it: “With a slight shift of time and scene, men whose faces have become familiar simply aren’t around any more. The fact is not commented on or in any way pointed; their absence merely creates its gradual vacuum and realization in the pit of the stomach.” Similarly, The Victors often drops characters without explanation, sometimes bringing them back with missing noses or crippled legs. The movie contains no actual battle sequences, but conveys the damage of battle beautifully—sudden, grotesque, and arbitrary (this differs from several rancid Holocaust films, the worst being The Grey Zone, which by burning as many fake bodies onscreen as possible to prove its moral seriousness actually cheapens real slaughter). This may be partly why two of The Victors’s most overt on-screen depictions of violence, an execution of an American soldier for treason and a climactic knife fight between rivals, are two of the film’s most galvanizingly obvious moments. In the first, the austere longshot handling clashes with “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” on the soundtrack; in the second, the flying V shape that the wounded men form competes with the ruined physical terrain. In moments like these the victors are the audience members, who get to walk away from the movie. Cinema is a literal medium, but its stabs at reality can often look fake.

The Victors will play on March 1 as part of this year’s Film Comment Selects series. To purchase tickets, click here.

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Watch: Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood Gets Teaser Trailer

When it rains, it pours.

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Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Photo: Columbia Pictures

When it rains, it pours. Four days after Quentin Tarantino once more laid into John Ford in a piece written for his Beverly Cinema website that saw the filmmaker referring to Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon as Tie a Yellow Ribbon, and two days after Columbia Pictures released poster art for QT’s ninth feature that wasn’t exactly of the highest order, the studio has released a teaser for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The film was announced early last year, with Tarantino describing it as “a story that takes place in Los Angeles in 1969, at the height of hippy Hollywood.”

Set on the eve of the Manson family murders, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood tells the story of TV actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), as they try to get involved in the film industry. The film also stars Margot Robbie (as Sharon Tate), Al Pacino, the late Luke Perry, Damian Lewis, Dakota Fanning, Emile Hirsch, Timothy Olyphant, Kurt Russell, and Bruce Dern in a part originally intended for the late Burt Reynolds.

See the teaser below:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Scf8nIJCvs4

Columbia Pictures will release Once Upon a Time in Hollywood on July 26.

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Watch the Stranger Things 3 Trailer, and to the Tune of Mötley Crüe and the Who

A wise woman once said that there’s no such thing as a coincidence.

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Stranger Things 3
Photo: Netflix

A wise woman once said that there’s no such thing as a coincidence. On Friday, Jeff Tremaine’s The Dirt, a biopic about Mötley Crüe’s rise to fame, drops on Netflix. Today, the streaming service has released the trailer for the third season of Stranger Things. The clip opens with the strains of Mötley Crüe’s “Home Sweet Home,” all the better to underline that the peace and quiet that returned to the fictional rural town of Hawkins, Indiana at the end of the show’s second season is just waiting to be upset again.

Little is known about the plot of the new season, and the trailer keeps things pretty vague, though the Duffer Brothers have suggested that the storyline will take place a year after the events of the last season—duh, we know when “Home Sweet Home” came out—and focus on the main characters’ puberty pangs. That said, according to Reddit sleuths who’ve obsessed over such details as the nuances of the new season’s poster art, it looks like Max and company are going to have to contend with demon rats no doubt released from the Upside Down.

See below for the new season’s trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YEG3bmU_WaI

Stranger Things 3 premieres globally on July 4.

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Who Killed My Father Is Heartbreaking but Prone to Pat Sociological Analysis

Édouard Louis’s latest is strong as a portrait of a family unable to communicate through anything but volatile, toxic outbursts.

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Who Killed My Father

Author Édouard Louis’s father has been an important figure in each of his previous works, even when he’s never seen or mostly at the periphery (as in The History of Violence). With his latest, Who Killed My Father, Louis finally turns to directly examining his most important, damaged relationship. Both in his previous books and interviews, Louis has repeatedly acknowledged this broken relationship, largely stemming from the author’s open homosexuality. Alongside this, Louis’s prior works have circled around a number of themes to which he returns here: the French political and working classes, the small-town prejudices that surrounded his upbringing and drove a closeted homosexual boy to escape to more cosmopolitan Paris, and the role of state power in producing social and physical illness.

With Who Killed My Father, Louis invites inevitable comparisons to Abdellah Taïa, another talented French writer who’s also gay and largely estranged from his place of origin, and also primarily an autobiographical novelist. Like Louis, Taïa incorporates his complicated relationship with a parent into several of his books. Taïa also connects that relationship, his writing, and his experience with the society he left behind in Morocco and the one he found in France. But what distinguishes his writing in, for example, Infidels or Salvation Army from that of Édouard Louis in Who Killed My Father is a strong sense of meaning. Taïa incorporates his relationship with his mother, M’Barka, to convey something more meaningful and developed.

Louis begins down this same road before clumsily inserting a political tract at the end of Who Killed My Father that doesn’t knit as effortlessly with parts one and two. The book situates Louis’s relationship with his father front and center as compared to his previous work. It’s clear that he’s exposing the painfulness of their relationship for the purpose of speaking about political power and its physical and social toll on those who don’t possess it, but Who Killed My Father stumbles in conveying its message adequately.

Louis’s account of his father’s suffering and violence toward those around him is both painful and sharp. Who Killed My Father is strongest when Louis is demonstrating his father’s most private acts of kindness, as when the father gives Louis a copy of Titanic for his birthday after trying to convince him to ask for a more “masculine” gift. After Louis realizes that his carefully planned tribute to the pop band Aqua at a family dinner has embarrassed his father, the man reassures Louis that “it’s nothing.” In the book’s first and strongest part, Louis expounds not only on the relationship with his father, but also excavates what might have made his father the man he grew up with. At one point, he recounts finding a photograph of his father in women’s clothes—undoubtedly some adolescent joke, but also inconceivable from the man who insisted to his son that men should never act like girls.

Regrettably, part one ends with a trite conclusion that says everything and nothing at the same time. In part two, the story attempts to braid together all the malignant threads of Louis’s family narrative. Louis recalls igniting a violent outburst between his father and older brother as a result of his mother shaming him for acting too much like a girl (“faggot” is what some others in the neighborhood more precisely call him). The insinuation hurts and angers him so much that he betrays his mother’s confidence on another family secret, setting loose a new wave of violence. Part two is short and important to moving Who Killed My Father toward some wider evaluation of the questions Louis begins the book with, but it ultimately fails to find its footing by pivoting in part three to an unearned polemic against the political classes.

Who Killed My Father is strong as a portrait of a family unable to communicate (except in brief moments of tenderness) through anything but volatile, toxic outbursts, but the book at its weakest when trying to ham-handedly force this narrative into some broad theorizing about power and society and structural violence. Part one aligned beautifully with a narrative of meaning more comparable to Taïa at his best. Unfortunately, the story quickly falls apart when Jacques Chirac is indicted for destroying Louis’s father’s body through changes in health care coverage. It’s not that the questions Louis ends with aren’t necessary and important ones; it’s that there’s so little threading the narrative together into anything cohesive. What was the point of the first two-thirds of the book? His father was cruel, occasionally loving, but never mind because the state is killing him? The life of the poor is one of abject powerlessness against an unremittingly powerful and callous “ruling class”?

Louis deserves credit for the attempt to tie it all together into some grander commentary on the political class and its ambivalence, but the conclusion is simultaneously glib and condescending. Perhaps Louis didn’t intend it, but the book’s conclusion drains away responsibility for the cruelty and bigotry of those like his father, and patronizes them as with a quick How could we expect any better of the noble, working poor? Is it the state’s or the ruling class’s subjugation of his father’s body that’s somehow also responsible for his inability to sympathize with gays or immigrants? Of course, the poor are subjugated by the rich and Louis has written more meaningfully about the implications of that relationship elsewhere. But in Who Killed My Father, he inadvertently demonstrates that the answer isn’t to sanctify them any more than it is to demonize them.

Édouard Louis’s Who Killed My Father is now available from New Directions.

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