As Cool As A Fruitstand

…and maybe as strange. A movie blog.

Rentrée: new beginnings

Posted by Hedwig on September 1, 2008

It’s September 1st: the end of the summer, the beginning of the new (school) year, of routine. The French have a wonderful word for it: they call it “la Rentrée”, which means something like “the re-entry”. For the first time in -I think- 17 years, I have nothing to re-enter into. However, the occasion seems fit for another new beginning: a rebirth of sorts of this blog, which has been sorely neglected this past summer. It’s been a necessary casualty on the way to the degree, but now that that’s in the bag I have no excuse any more, and plenty of words ready to spill out. I have dozens of ideas, but I thought it would be fitting to start with the story of a new beginning. The beginning of an education. A cinematic education, to be precise.

As faithful fruitstand visitors know, I somehow acquired a boyfriend not too long ago. As faithful fruitstand visitors also know, this is not a personal blog. That is: I do write about movies from a strongly personal standpoint, and admit that my (personal) life has an influence on how I experience movies, but I don’t think my life itself is all that interesting, and rarely write about it – the most recent post being, I believe, a warranted exception. So no worries: it’s bad enough that I can’t shut up about the guy to my friends. I promise I won’t go all mushy on you. All you need to know about him is that he has a rather limited experience with classic cinema, and that he’s graciously allowed me to introduce him to some of my favorites.

The Onion A.V. Club often has primers on certain directors. My intention, with this educational diary of sorts (which starts, appropriately enough, with this 101st post), is not to offer a manual for turning an unsuspecting victim into a cinephile, mostly because every single person requires a different approach. But I hope that by chronicling his gradual exposure what he calls “verantwoorde” (“responsible”, more or less) movies, I’ll entertain you a little and hopefully remind you of how it felt to first discover cinema. It’s been a pleasure to sit next to him and see him realize that pre-80s or even black and white, pre-50s movies do not need to be boring or slow, and that’s the feeling I wanted to share with my dear, movie-loving readers. And then I’ll just go ahead and keep the mushier (and other) feelings to myself.

The Thin Man

The Thin Man

The first classic we watched together was one I hadn’t actually ever seen myself: The Thin Man. I’ve read the book, and it’s great, but it doesn’t have William Powell and Myrna Loy. I know their chemistry is almost proverbial, but it still came as a surprise somehow. So did the sheer goofiness of the film. I didn’t remember from the book who was the murderer in the end, and I have forgotten again since, but it doesn’t really matter. It doesn’t either in the second movie (of which I’d seen the last ten minutes once, and remembered the reveal), though it does offer a certain actor an interesting moment.

More importantly, they were a perfect first step: light, funny, filled with boozing we could emulate, and (importantly for physicists like us, and especially for someone who’s also a mathematician like him) it had a problem at its center which is neatly solved by the end. I’ve learned to like ambiguity and open endings, to be less focused on plot sometimes and more on mood, visuals, character: all those elements that make (some) films more than just a story. But stories are good to start out with, especially when they’re told so well and entertainingly as in the Thin Man films, and we’ll definitely get around to the other sequels.

The Big Sleep

The Big Sleep

Next step was a movie which was also heavy on plot, though I’m still not quite sure it coheres. The Big Sleep: I’d seen it recently with my father, but it was no chore at all to sit through it again. It’s a magic concoction, that: Bogey and Bacall delivering sharp dialogue, a plot that twists and turns and entangles itself, and a melancholy undercurrent that grounds it and makes you want to know more about Philip Marlowe and the woman he falls for despite himself. She’s a femme fatale, alright, but she knows it.

The Maltese Falcon

The b/f liked it a lot, and so I felt bold enough to move on to the next movie, one with quite a few less laughs and less twisting, but with Bogart as a detective. A movie that more or less officially kicked off the genre the french later called “film noir”: The Maltese Falcon. Luckily for me (or maybe for him), the b/f approved. Then again, how could he not? Bogie taking his chance to shine, Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre in full-on scene-stealing mode, and you just gotta love how cynical it dares to be. I’m not a big proponent of the theory that the production code was essential to make noir possible, but the ways the makers of films used the constraints of the code to make films that were almost the opposite of wholesome is fascinating, and I would even say, missed.

Yes, there’s still the MPAA. But it mostly regulates the amount of sex, while allowing for plenty violence, and making no pronouncements whatsoever about “moral” content. Now, I’m not advocating putting the latter part back in. Far from it. However, when I look at a recent film like Wanted, which is entertaining enough in spots but morally reprehensible (more amoral than immoral, really), nakedly contemptuous of the audience and relying solely on creative violence for entertainment value, I can’t help but feel a little nostalgic. It’s not that I think it’s fundamentally bad to glamorize criminals – many films made when the production code was in full power did just that, and did it better than it’s done now. And I think it’s great that films are now allowed to reflect the fact that quite often, crime does pay. But The Maltese Falcon would have been a lesser film without these lines, at the end: “I hope they don’t hang you, precious, by that sweet neck”.

The Third Man

I was almost certain the next “lesson”, again a great noir about a mysterious murder (and with a The Adjective Noun title), would be a success, but halfway through The Third Man, the situation looked dire. The b/f was re-installing dear Larry* for me at the same time, and he seemed almost relieved every time he had to go and check on the progress. The music (that wonderful zither the trailer promises would have us in a dither) annoyed him, made him edgy, and up until the halfway point, he couldn’t really get interested in the mystery at the movie’s center.

Luckily, when there’s trouble, you can always count on Orson Welles.

When he appeared, it was quite a magical reversal. He started commenting on shots and their composition. Grinning at the Ferris Wheel speech. Stopped walking back and forth to the laptop constantly. And declared at the end “well, I still think it would have been better without the zither. But that was pretty awesome”.

Yes indeed, dear, it is.

That was more or less the curriculum until now (we also watched Bottle Rocket, but got kind of… distracted). However, next Thursday, we will have a small celebratory dinner (3 months, time flies), and while he doesn’t know it yet, he will be watching Casablanca. Tarantino once talked about the concept of “test movies” (his was Rio Bravo): the movie he’d show a girl he was getting serious about, “and she’d better fucking like it”. And for the b/f, Thursday is test taking time.

I’m just (half) kidding, of course. This is a test without consequences. But I’ll let you know on Friday whether he fucking liked it.


* Larry = my faithful old laptop

Tomorrow (hopefully), a post showing that the influence isn’t one way: for the first time at the fruitstand, I’ll be writing about… a video game.

3 Responses to “Rentrée: new beginnings”

  1. I’m very happy to hear you’re resuming your blogging duties, Hedwig.

    So tomorrow will be your 101st posting? My next posting at Coleman’s Corner will be my 101st. How neat and coincidental.

    You were starting to worry me there with The Third Man. My heart was palpitating, my brow began to furrow, my fists tightly clenched. “How can he?” I thought. “Throw him out!” And then Orson Welles saved my image of your beau forever.

    I’m kind of kidding. But only kind of. 😉

    I hated Wanted. It was such a soul-deadening experience…

    Can’t wait to see what happens with Casablanca.

  2. sarcastig said

    Actually, this one is my 101st. Fitting, since it’s kind of a cinema 101 🙂

    I was a bit worried with The Third Man too, but luckily it turned out well. And I am very curious what he’ll think of Casablanca, especially since it doesn’t have a central mystery, but considering how much he liked the ending of The Third Man, I think he might just fall for it. That’s what I’m hoping, in any case 😉

  3. Haha, and, wouldn’t you know it, I was actually one ahead of where I thought I was, already at 101 myself. It keeps getting weirder. 🙂

    You’re right, Casablanca will be a good acid test. Hope it works out.

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