It’s hard to believe that there was a time when Zorro did not exist in the popular imagination. He seems to be as timeless a creation as his legendary English counterpart, Robin Hood, who traces his origins to ballads from the middle ages. Just under a century ago, however, the legend of Zorro was born in the 1919 serialized story “The Curse of Capistrano,” by Johnston McCulley, telling the story of the masked avenger who defends the poor and the oppressed. Almost immediately, the story was picked up for the screen by Douglas Fairbanks, and adapted into the first Zorro film, The Mark of Zorro. The film was directed by Fred Niblo, who would go on to direct other Fairbanks adventures, and also the original screen version of Ben-Hur in 1925.
Martin Scorsese has said that he did not originally want to make The King of Comedy (1983) when it was first presented to him by Robert De Niro—he “didn’t get it.” But, as he has explained in a couple of retrospective interviews, he eventually came around to understanding the script. The story follows the improbably named Rupert Pupkin (De Niro), who wished to make it big as a stand up comedian on the Jerry Langford (a brilliantly simmering Jerry Lewis) late night show. When Langford brushes off the unproven Pupkin, Pupkin’s attempts to gain Langford’s attention grow more desperate, culminating in him kidnapping Langford along with his equally obsessed and unstable friend Masha (Sandra Bernhard).
Scorsese told critic Richard Schickel (in his interview book, “Conversations with Scorsese”) that at first, he thought that it was “just a one-line gag: You won’t let me go on the show, so I’ll kidnap you and you’ll put me on the show. Hmm.” But he later began to see what De Niro saw in the script by Paul Zimmerman: the way celebrities like De Niro have to deal with “the adulation of the crowd, and the strangers who love you and have got to be with you and have got to say things.”
Wim Wenders’s 1984 film Paris, Texas (which I have written about before), never reaches the town referenced in the title, but it is filmed in large part on location in various Texas towns from El Paso to Galveston. The final sequences take place in my home town of Houston.
Houston was a big city even in the early 1980s, riding one of the crests of an oil boom that was about to come crashing down later in the decade. But it has exploded in both population and sprawl since that time, now boasting one of the nation’s largest and most diverse populations. Houston is also infamous for tearing down and replacing old architecture, but a number of the iconic locations, so memorably captured by Robby Müller’s cinematography, can still be experienced in person.
Fragmentary impressions of a silent masterpiece, The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), directed by Carl Th. Dreyer, and starring Reneé Falconetti as Joan:
- The film is unique in my experience in the way that it refracts the point of view we experience through the constantly shifting angles deployed on the screen for brief moments before another equally striking image replaces it.
- The kaleidoscopic effect, rather than abstracting and distancing me, drew me into the heart of the emotion, and the spiritual nature of the simple narrative.
- Director Carl Th. Dreyer employs a rapid pace of editing that at times anticipates the style of a latter day music video.
- The pace is combined with the bewildering variety of camera angles, in almost exclusively medium to extreme close-up shots. The few instances of zooms or tracking shots are used with memorable specificity to emphasize the mood of the judges.
Well, I just missed noting the 2 year anniversary of the blog on June 9. It’s been a fun experience sharing discussions of new and classic films with you all this past year.
Here’s some of my favorite things I’ve written since the last birthday celebration, in case you missed them:
- I visited the filming sites of the Coen Brothers’ True Grit and Wes Anderson’s Rushmore.
- I wrote about all of Winsor McCay’s short cartoons, which was apparently picked up on by a university animation class in Australia.
- I discussed the links between Au hasard Balthasar and Paris, Texas in an essay.
- I looked at Peter Bogdanovich’s lesser-known first film, Targets.
- I shared a very personal reflection on the meaning of Scorsese’s latest film, Silence.
- And I made my first (and so far only) appearance on a podcast, making the case for A Shot in the Dark to Lady P. and Martin Kessler of the Flixwise podcast.
Thanks to everyone who has read and commented this year. I really appreciate anyone who takes the time to read my blog.
It is probably not best to view a parody before you see the original work that is its subject. But in this case, I think no harm was done. I laughed out loud the moment I recognized the music that underscored the crane shot in the opening sequence of François Truffaut’s Day for Night (1973), having first heard it in this silly gem of an American Express commercial by Wes Anderson. Anderson, noted for his admiration of Truffaut along with other filmmakers, has no shame in pilfering shots, music, or other elements from films he admires. You can also hear the same music cue in the trailer for Day for Night (pardon the unfortunate English dub). Anderson even riffs on the scene where Truffaut’s character has to choose from a tray of guns needed for a later scene, as he gives us his tongue-in-cheek homage to Truffaut’s behind the scenes look at filmmaking.
Jacques Tati’s second major film as a director, Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot (M. Hulot’s Holiday), was released in 1953. This was the first to feature the character of Monsuier Hulot, a quirky everyman, who jauntily bumbles his way through a series of humorous episodes. Usually, the humor comes from Hulot’s unselfconscious way of disrupting the order of his environment, merely by being himself.
The obvious comparison for Tati, from my experience, is Chaplin. Just as in the films of the famous silent comic, Jacques Tati is the total filmmaker: a writer-director-actor who controls all the elements of his production. He has also created a comic persona in Monsieur Hulot, that—like Chaplin’s little tramp—is one of the great and iconic contributions to cinema. I have heard so much about the work of Tati, and now that I have finally seen the first of his films featuring M. Hulot, I know that the consensus is right—Tati is among the greatest filmmakers in world cinema history, and I am very excitedly looking forward to experiencing his other films. Continue reading