La Grande Illusion (1937)

Movie Review

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La Grande Illusion, directed by Jean Renoir, is a must-see film for anyone who is a serious film lover. It is considered to be Renoir’s masterpiece and has made many critic’s lists of best films ever made, including mine.

The film is about a group of French prisoners of war in two German camps during World War I. There are officers in the group that includes an aristocrat, a wealthy Jewish banker, a music hall actor and a mechanic. Pretty much a cross section of French society.

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These officers make several escape attempts. Their last attempt to tunnel out is interrupted when they are transferred out to another camp before they can complete the tunnel. They are sent to a fortress called Winterborn from which no one has ever escaped. This camp is run by a German aristocrat named Captain von Rauffenstein (Eric von Stroheim).

The French aristocrat de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) forms a bond with Captain Rauffenstein but sacrifices his life in order to help his fellow officers, working-class Maréchal (Jean Gabin) and the wealthy Jewish banker Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio) finally escape. These class distinctions are essential to the story and are part of the overall theme of the illusion of class barriers which artificially separate men in society. The themes of race and ethnicity are also explored. The men are rescued by a German widow, Elsa (Dita Parlo), and eventually make it across the border to Switzerland.

Two other famous movies were directly influenced by La Grande Illusion: The Great Escape and Casablanca. The digging of the tunnel in The Great Escape is performed in the same way as in La Grande Illusion including the way the prisoners hide the dirt from the tunnel in their pants and shake it out on the ground during their exercises period. The singing of the “Marseilles” to enrage the Germans in Casablanca can also be found in La Grande Illusion.

La Grande Illusion is an anti-war film in which the main thesis is the futility of war. It relies heavily on ideas from the book The Great Illusion by Norman Angell published in 1909. Angell argued that the cost of war was so great that no one would risk starting a war because the result would be disastrous. Of course, this proved to be illusory.

The title of the movie seems to have multiple layers of meaning. The futility of war, the artificial boundaries between men in class distinctions and even the artificial and invisible borders between countries. In the last scene of the movie as Maréchal and Rosenthal make their escape into Switzerland across a snowy mountainside a German patrol spots the men and fires shots at them. The order is given to stop shooting as the prisoners are over the border into Switzerland. The camera pans down the mountain side to the two men. Marechal asks, “Are you sure we are in Switzerland, it’s so alike?” Rosenthal, who has a map, says, “Of course. You can’t see frontiers. They were invented by men. Nature doesn’t care.”

This is a movie that has definitely stood the test of time in every way.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Detour (1945)

Movie Review

Detour

Detour, directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, is a classic “B” movie in the Film Noir genre straight out of Pulp Fiction Hell. Shot on the cheap in four weeks it packs a wallop! This Criterion edition film is beautifully restored in glorious black and white. It is worth seeing just for the visuals alone. The story is as cheap as the characters it portrays. The writing is a little weak but the performances of the unknown actors more than compensate.

The story is told in flashbacks from an opening scene in a diner somewhere in the middle of nowhere.

The main character, Al Roberts (Tom Neal), is an out of work down on his luck pianist from New York City. He hitchhikes out to Hollywood to join up with his girlfriend Sue (Claudia Drake) who is a chanteuse, also from New York City, who went out west earlier to find her fame and fortune. Along the way he is picked up by a guy named Haskell (Edmund McDonald). Haskell tells him about another hitchhiker he had picked up earlier. A young female who turns out to be a real hell cat who put some deep scratches in his hand when he had tried to make advances on her. “There oughta be a law against dames with claws,” he says. Later he dies of a heart attack. Al panics as he thinks the cops will think he killed the guy. He hides the body and takes Haskell’s clothes, money, identification and drives away in his car.

He meets a girl at a gas station and offers her a ride. She falls asleep in the car then suddenly sits bolt upright and demands, “Where’d you leave his body? Where did you leave the owner of this car? Your name’s not Haskell!” About this time Al realizes he has picked up the same girl that Haskell had picked up and she turns out to be the femme fatale of all femme fatales. She berates him all the way to Los Angeles.

When they get to Los Angeles, they cook up a scheme for Al to impersonate Haskell, the long-lost son of the elderly rich father who they read about in a newspaper is dying. They plan to inherit his estate when he dies. Waiting to execute their plan, they sit around in an apartment, drinking, playing cards and fighting. Al’s not playing ball to suit the drunken Vera and she threatens to call the cops. She runs to another room with the phone and slams the door. Al grabs the phone cord and pulls on it. He pulls and pulls. Finally, the line goes slack. He goes in the room to find Vera has become entangled in the cord and is accidentally strangled on it. Now Al has another corpse on his hands that just might point to murder.

That’s when he heads back east and we find him in the diner. In the final scene he is walking out on the desert highway and gets picked up by the cops. His last line is delivered in a voice over, “Fate, for some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me, for no good reason at all.”

Most reviewers of Detour take Al’s story at face value. But I have a different view. Al is an unreliable narrator and tell us what he wants us to hear to make himself  look good. He more likely is a psychopath who has committed both murders and is caught by circumstance or fate as he likes to say.

Famed film maker Errol Morris said of Detour, “It has an unparalleled quality of despair, totally unrelieved by hope.” A pretty apt description.

 

WORD OF THE DAY – DECIMATE

Kill One in Ten.

Originally from the Latin: decimatio (decem – ten). Historically decimation was a form of military discipline used by senior commanders in the Roman Army to punish units or large groups guilty of capital offences, such as cowardice, mutiny, desertion, and insubordination, and for pacification of rebellious legions.

It has since come to mean to kill, destroy, or remove a large percentage or part of, as “the project would decimate the fragile wetland wilderness.” Or more recently, “the hurricane decimated everything in its path.”

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Graham Greene wrote about this concept, in the historical sense, in his novel, The Tenth Man.

A group of Frenchmen were being held hostage in a Gestapo camp. A German officer enters the cell one afternoon and announces that there were three murders in the town last night. He is ordered to shoot one in ten of them in the morning. There are thirty men in the camp, therefore three men must be shot. He doesn’t care who. They choose. They chose by lot. Louis Chavel was the tenth man.

Things get tricky from there, but Greene supplies a heavy dose of irony as the plot unfolds.

The Barnes Foundation – Philadelphia

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On a recent trip to Philadelphia I had occasion to visit the Barnes Foundation with my friend Winter. This is a wonderful collection of art from around the world and from different time periods. It is housed in a magnificent building  that is an architectural wonder. The photographs in this post are my impression of my visit and in no way exhaustive of what I saw.

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The following information from the brochure will give you some more facts about the collection and the philosophy behind it. I must say I was not prepared for what I saw and my jaw was agape from the time I walked into first gallery until the last.

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Top Picture: Models. George Seurat, 1886-1888

The Barnes is home to a world-class collection of impressionist, and early modernist paintings, with especially deep holdings in Renoir, Cezanne, Matisse, and Picasso.  Assembled by Dr. Albert C. Barnes between 1912-1951, the collection also includes important examples of African Art, Native American pottery and jewelry, Pennsylvania German furniture, and wrought iron metalwork.

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The Card Players. Paul Cezanne, 1890-1892

The minute you walk into the galleries you’re in an experience like no other. Here you will find paintings by Vincent van Gogh, Henri Matisse, And Pablo Picasso, hanging next to ordinary household objects: a door hinge, a spatula, a yarn spinner. On one wall you might see a French medieval sculpture displayed with a Navajo textile. Dr. Barnes chose to combine objects from different cultures, genres, and times to create diverse displays he called “ensembles.”

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Bather Drying Herself. Pierre-August Renoir

These ensembles, each one carefully put together by Dr. Barnes himself, are meant to show the surprising similarities between objects we don’t normally thing of as belonging together. He arranged the works according to light, color, and space-principles that he called the “universal language of art.”

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Bathers in the Forest. Pierre-August Renoir, 1897

Dr. Barnes believed that art had the power to improve minds and transform lives. In 1922 he established the Barnes foundation as a school for learning how to see and appreciate art. He had a gallery built on Merion, a Philadelphia suburb, to house his growing collection. He held classes in the gallery so that students could learn directly from the art.

In 2012, after much controversy, his collection was moved to Philadelphia.

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Luncheon. Pierre-August Renoir, 1875

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Sailor Boy. Pierre-August Rodin, 1883

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Bather and Maid. Pierre-August Renoir, 1900-1901

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Woman with White Stockings. Gustave Courbet, 1864

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Before the Bath. Pierre-August Renoir, C. 1875

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Two Women Surrounded by Birds. Joan Miro, 1937

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Winter at the Barnes

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Studio with Gold Fish. Henri Matisse, 1912

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In the Galleries

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Leaving the Conservatory. Pierre-August Renoir, 1876-1877

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Girl with a Goat. Pablo Picasso

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The Music Lesson. Henri Matisse, 1917

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The Dance. Henri Matisse, 1932

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Mussel-Fishers at Bernal. Pierre-August Renoir

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Jean Hebuterne.  Amedeo Modigiani, 1919

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Two Standing Nudes. Jules Pascin, 1914

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Outside the Barnes

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Reflecting Pool Outside the Barnes

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Art on the Avenue

 

The Killer of Hope

The continuing saga…

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So, I was on a photo shoot with Candide in the old neighborhood. Here’s what happened.

Candide: Where should I stand?

Benn: How about over here with that building behind you in the background? Or, over there with the fountain behind you? Or, over there in front of that tree?

Candide keeps walking….

Benn: Or, hey! I have an idea! Why don’t you pick a spot?

Candide: Is that another smart-ass remark? More of your sarcasm?

Benn: What me? Sarcastic? You obviously have me confused with someone else!

Candide: No I don’t! It’s you all right! You with your sarcasm, your cynicism, and your skepticism. You a hope killer!

Benn: Hope kills…

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Silence (1963)

Movie Blurb

The silence poster

Catching up on my Bergman. I’ve seen The Silence before, back in the 70s, when I first became acquainted with Bergman and he quickly became my favorite auteur. One benefits from the passage of time and the experience one gains from it. I watched The Silence again with new eyes and a new found appreciation. The Silence is a movie of visuals. Bergman strove to find a vocabulary of moving pictures with few words. There were 38 exchanges of dialogue in the film. He would have been happier with 28.

The characters are traveling by train home to Sweden and have to stop off in a strange city where they don’t speak the language making verbal communication impossible with the locals.

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Anna and Ester are sisters who are emotionally isolated from one another. Ester is ill and may be dying and she is the reason for the interruption of their journey. Anna represents the carnality of the pair and Ester is the intellectual component. Anna’s son, Johan, is along for the ride and keeps getting rejected and shunted aside as he first explores the corridors of the train then the empty hallways of the hotel.

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The Silence, was the final installment of his film trilogy, The Silence of God, which included, Through Glass Darkly and Winter Light. The word “silence” in the title of this film refers not only to the silence of God but also to the silence of the characters which represents a total breakdown in communication between human beings.

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When the film first came out in 1963 it was considered pornographic in some quarters. There are a couple of explicit scenes in the movie which are rather tame by today’s standards. During that time period however, Bergman, like always, was pushing the envelope.

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Pretty bleak stuff, but Bergman at his best.

Muhammad Ali Center

Photo Essay

The Muhammad Ali center is a multicultural center with an award wining museum dedicated to the life and legacy of Muhammad Ali. It is located in the heart of beautiful downtown Louisville at 144 N. 6th Street. Ali was a boxing champ, a humanitarian, and a Louisville legend. He is widely regarded as one of the most important sports figures of the 20th century.

I recently visited the Muhammad Ali Center with a friend of mine who was visiting from Philly. While there I snapped a few pictures. Here is what I saw.

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Front Entrance

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Ali – Our Champion Forever

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Olympic Torch

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Islam vs. Christianity

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I am the Greatest!

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Winter in the window  overlooking the Ohio River

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Picture Ali

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A young Cassius Clay

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“Cassius immediately springs to his feet” -Leroy Neiman

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In the Lobby

Book Notes

The Snows of Kilimanjaro by Ernest Hemingway and Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

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So, I finished one book and started another. I finished The Snows of Kilimanjaro and started Sweet Tooth.

The Snows of Kilimanjaro is a book of short stories by Ernest Hemingway, some I have read before and some of which were new to me and I was reading for the first time. The last story in the collection was The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber, my favorite Hemingway story and quite possibly my favorite short story of all time. The last time I read this story I was in my 20s. I remember when and where I read it and under what circumstances I was my reading it. It made such a large impression on me. So, these many years later, I read it again with great joy and new eyes. It still made a great impression on me and revived many fond memories. This story taught me at an early age that Hemingway lived by code and it was possible to even have a code. This was an early and important teaching in my life and one I have always tried to live by.

I picked up Sweet Tooth and began to read it. Within 10 pages I knew I was going to like it. First of all, it was dedicated to Christopher Hitchens. One of my favorite writers and one to whom I most look up to and strive to write like when I attempt to write nonfiction. It is not easy. He has set a high bar. A few pages in McEwan references some of my other favorites writers and books as well. These are writers of fiction who are also my heroes: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, Vladimir Nabokov’s Bend Sinister, and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. All of which I have read. I am betting this book will prove to be a good read!

White Lotus

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The lotus symbolizes the simultaneous nature of cause and effect or the laws of karma because it blossoms and produces seeds at the same time. We can create our own happiness under any circumstances. This is also symbolized by the lotus. The lotus grows and blossoms in a muddy swamp, yet remains utterly free of any defilement.