List: Film Characters I Have an Irrational Hatred Towards Part 1: The 1930’s

Have you ever watched a film and found yourself thinking “My God, but that character is getting on my nerves”, when said character is not necessarily meant to? There are plenty of onscreen characters throughout the years who are meant to be vexing or obnoxious. But at what point does that frustration transform into something a little more intense?

What do I mean by intense? Here are two possible definitions. First is that the hatred extends far past what is meant to be felt, becoming a somewhat preposterous fixation. The second is that the ‘irrational hatred’ for the character overflows to the point where you begin feeling adverse effects to the entire film itself.

Of course, these are more extreme side effects of the topic in question. For one thing, there are plenty of characters on this list that get on my nerves, but have never jeopardized my willingness to rewatch the film they are part of. For another thing, some of the characters on this list are supposed to get on your nerves; to a point. When you cannot move past it, when it grates on you beyond normalized reason, then it counts for this list, whether one is supposed to be annoyed by the character or not.

Something else to note; it does not have to be the character. In fact, many of the lists inclusions irritate me because of the performances attached to the character.

This is not the type of list I see around too much and so I thought it would be a fun and harmless road down which to venture. I like these kinds of lists that really have nothing to do with being the end-all be-all of anything, and focus more on ones personalized relationship with a variety of films. And anyone that reads this blog with any regularity knows I favor embracing the subjectivity of lists and somewhat resent (at least for myself) any attempts for a list to speak for anyone but myself.

The idea for this list came about from reminiscing about Apollo 13. In a management class for my graduate school classes for Library Science, we watched a few clips from the film. We had to discuss the various methods of group collaboration taking place and insert all the terminology we had been discussing about teams and groups into examples from the scenes (most featuring Ed Harris). I had been thinking about how much I truly like Apollo 13, and was lamenting about how long it had been since I watched it.

I then started to think about the one glaring downside to that film; Kathleen Quinlan. I flat-out do not like Kathleen Quinlan in this film. I realize that she was stuck with the obligatory ‘wife’ role and that it’s a pretty thankless part (although not thankless enough; she was nominated for an Oscar). There are a lot of similar thankless roles that actresses get saddled with, but none really got on my nerves the way she did. My memory recalls one worried facial expression throughout, and distractingly garish late 60’s/early 70’s wardrobe and makeup. At a certain point the negative feelings I have become inexplicable.

And thus the idea for this list was born.

There are some questionable choices here; I realize this. Some of the irrationality can be argued. I have a few characters on here where my reactions could be argued as being completely rational.

There were many that came to my head and I decided not to put them on. I felt either that my feelings were entirely too justified or that too many people hate the character for it to really feel ‘irrational’. How can it feel ‘irrational’ if so many others hate them as well? So no Jar-Jar Binks will be found here.

I am breaking them up into unordered chronological installments. I happened to have a lot from the 1930’s, but the next installment will cover at least two decades.

Examples of characters that did not make this first portion are Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, Margaret Lockwood as Jenny in The Stars Look Down, Walter Huston as ‘Deadlegs’ Flint in Kongo and Norma Shearer as Mary Haines in The Women.

What characters do you have an irrational hatred towards from this or any decade?

Virginia Cherrill – A Blind Girl – City Lights (1931)

A sweet innocent blind girl just trying to make ends meet; what’s not to like? It should be the easiest grab for audience sympathy ever. The Tramp is head over heels for her, and if he is, we must be; right?

City Lights is one of my absolute favorite films. It is near perfect. The only thing that has never worked for me was Cherrill as ‘A Blind Girl’. My investment stems from my emotional stake in The Tramp’s happiness. I care because he cares. I never care for her predicament at face value. Does this make me a heartless bitch? I think not.

To be unashamedly shallow, she looks like a snot; am I wrong? Her supposed innocence feels transparent. It looks like she constantly smells some indistinguishable stink in the air. I would not have been surprised if the film had ended with the shocking twist that she had been playing him for a fool the entire time. When it comes down to it, I just never bought the act she was selling.

Frederic March – Marcus Superbus – The Sign of the Cross (1932)

Is there a more salacious Pre-Code film than the giant hypocrisy that is Cecil B. Demille’s The Sign of the Cross? A film that wants to have its torture orgy-ridden cake and eat it too; this is a must-watch train-wreck oddity of its time. The sheer unabashed indulgence of splendor (it’s well worth seeing if only for the spectacle and the luscious performances of Charles Laughton and Claudette Colbert) and the gall it has to drown itself in false piety is unbelievable.

This false piety is embodied by the Marcuc Superbus character. Fredric March is sorely miscast and forced into tight curls and a constant display of upper thigh. He is also weighted down with unbearably corny dialogue. But it is his ‘arc’ that is intolerable. He immediately falls for Elissa Landi’s Mercia (a devout Christian in the age of Nero) and becomes insistent on seducing her. He pretends to give a shit about the Christian cause, but really thinks it is all a joke. He unsuccessfully humiliates her as he attempts to subject her to an orgy as everyone laughs at her purity. Then in the final minutes, he joins her in death because he loves her? Huh?

I repeat; huh? It is unbelievably soapy, unearned and outright dull. But somehow through it all, March’s character frustrated me more than the bad writing, dry religious goings-on and hypocrisy. Never for one second does it make sense that he would fall for Mercia when he had Claudette Colbert (and her milk-bath soaked breasts) lusting after him. He is a douchebag cad throughout and March’s performance is just plain bad; as in, one of the worst I have ever seen.

Charles Ruggles – Peter Yates – Murders in the Zoo (1933)

Does anybody really like Charles Ruggles? Has anyone ever uttered the words “I am a Charles Ruggles fan?” I can guarantee you will never hear those words from my lips. Ruggles was a go-to character actor of the time. His general persona was that of a befuddled stuttering man  who would often get tangled-up in his own words while transparently putting on airs. He happens to have a supporting role in my favorite film Bringing Up Baby. I can usually tolerate him. Not in Murders in the Zoo, which I watched last year while covering all my bases for my Pre-Code Horror list.

From my write-up on “Pre-Code Horror: The 9 Films that Didn’t Make the Cut”: “Murders in the Zoo is brought down by none other than…Charles Ruggles….lots of Charles Ruggles. Ruggles gets the confounding honor of top-billing instead of Lionel Atwill. He plays a public relations type who gets to do his stuttering imbecilic fool act for what feels like eternity and what is actually a significant chunk of a film with a runtime of just over an hour.”

That pretty much sums it up. It is a performance that an active chore to sit through. While a lot of these performances and characters grate on me in ways far beyond what they should, there are few that reach this level of aggravation.

Katharine Hepburn – Jo March – Little Women (1933)

Don’t get me wrong; I love Katharine Hepburn. Part of me can admit that most of this entry is personal bias. I was born in 1987. In 1994, Gillian Armstrong’s Little Women was released and I distinctly remember seeing it in theaters at age seven. It had a deep and indescribable effect on me and continues to today; it would rank in my top five favorite films of all time. You see, to me, Winona Ryder is Jo March. Her portrayal remains one of my most cherished performances and characters. So to see Hepburn in this role was something that put me immediately on the defensive.

Clearly I realize this is unreasonable behavior. Normally I have no problem accepting the basic fact of life that beloved novels will have multiple adaptations. Different character depictions and interpretations deserve to be taken as separate entities even if (and when) comparisons inevitably come into play. Normally I can realize basic rationalities such as this; but not with Jo March. Winona Ryder is Jo March. I become a petulant child when it comes to my feelings on this.

Katharine Hepburn as Jo March can be a tad grating at times to say the least. It feels too easy, despite being a great idea in theory. They share spunk and drive and an everlasting search for the deeper meanings of life. In practice though, Katharine Hepburn as Jo March feels a bit like Katharine Hepburn as Katharine Hepburn. I said it twice and I will say it one last time; Winona Ryder is and will always be my Jo March.

Margaret Dumont – Various Characters – Any and all Marx Brothers films

Blasphemy you say? Well, I cannot help it. But she is like the fifth Marx Brother! Essential to the ensemble! She had an undervalued and difficult job! All true.

The simple truth of it is that I cannot stand her. Yet my eyes always helplessly drift towards her as the jokes land. Not because I am in Dumont-loving denial; it is merely the masochist in me.  Her reactions never fail to have the same effect; I take a deep breath so as to not lose my cool over performances given over 70 years ago.

I realize that there is only so much variety to be had when your job is to be the butt of jokes across several films and to be the reacting party over and over and over again. Here is my problem with Dumont; not only are her reactions all exactly the same, but I have never and will never be able to get past the antiquated theatricality to her. Her acting is unbearably stagey and try though I might, I cannot get past it.

I realize all of the ‘buts’ that could be thrown in here. Though, this is an ‘irrational hatred’ list after all. And that is exactly what I have for Mrs. Margaret Dumont.

Mickey Rooney – Puck – A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935)

I first saw the 1935 film version of Shakespeare’s play (my favorite of his besides Hamlet) about eight years ago on Turner Classic Movies. Generally, I enjoyed it. In particular, James Cagney as Bottom was inspired and unforgettable. But I am unsure whether I could sit through this again. Why? Two words: Mickey Rooney.

That he is playing Puck, marvelous mischievous Puck, only makes his performance all the more depressing to think about. As far as purely obnoxious performances go, this one takes the cake. I mean really. I do not know if there is a more obnoxious performance in the whole of cinema. In his earlier decades, Mickey Rooney had an energy level one could equate with pure adrenaline. As a young teenager here, this is raised to a maximum.

Just thinking about him is giving me a headache. It is all a blur. All I remember are these horrible guffawing noises he would make. A barrage of screeches, snorts, squeals, bulging eyes and manic energy. Is this an accurate description of his performance? I have no idea; it has been eight years and I sure as hell never intend to watch his performance again to confirm or deny my fuzzy remembrances.

Ruth Chatteron – Fran Dodsworth – Dodsworth (1936)

This is a tricky one; a really truly tricky one. Technically Chatterton should not even count. Her repulsive unappreciative character is an entirely purposeful creation (adapted from the play). Everything I felt towards her is meant. Nobody who has seen the film would ever question why I might feel this way. I can still recall what I felt while watching it in a heartbeat. There was a strong urge, rarely matched, to reach in and shake her, slap her and even shove her off a tall building. I recall heaving and puffing, even yelling at the television set despite being all by me while watching. My frustration with her nearly brought me to tears.  It has been too long for me to remember whether we were supposed to feel any sympathy for her at any point, but I never did.

Her placement on this list is due to my uncertainty whether or not I ever want to see Dodsworth again despite liking it very much. I think of all of the heavy and/or disturbing films I have seen multiple times (or films I’ve seen once but would see again eventually) and compare it with my possible unwillingness to sit through Chatterton’s despicable character. I am positive that at some point in my life I will rewatch Inside with no qualms whatsoever. But Dodsworth? I do not know. Because of this, her placement here felt necessary. Even if I would never in a million years call my hatred for her irrational.

Adriana Caselotti (voice) Snow White – Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

There was a time in my life where I had an obsession with Disney films. My love for them has not lessened, but there was a particular time of concentrated obsession. I constantly had all of my Disney DVD’s in rotation, keeping them on while I did homework after school every day all through high school. I made tons of ambitious Disney lists. I got to know all of these films very well through sheer repetition.

When is the last time you sat and watched Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs?  Maybe you have forgotten or never noticed, but Snow White is the worst. The film is generally a joy, unarguably important and fantastically creative in its animation. Our first Disney princess however, leaves much to be desired.

She is a concoction of uselessness. This goes beyond the expected levels of non-agency that the Disney princesses (at least in earlier decades), tended not to possess. Snow White is just plain stupid. She really is quite the moron. Sadly, this and helplessness are her only characteristics. Oh, and a natural inclination towards domesticity. None of this is even remotely surprising and it is only part of the reason why I have allowed an animated character to wring my hands up in impatience.

When it comes down to it, the clincher is Adriana Caselotti’s voice work. It sounds like someone took the affected iconic voice of Marilyn Monroe, distilled it to its purest form and turned the dial to eleven. Let us ignore the fact that Monroe was eleven when this was released. The voice is unbearable. It has the potential to evoke involuntary eye twitching.

Virginia Walker – Alice Swallow – Bringing Up Baby (1938)

The anger I carry towards this character does not compare to the other entries in this first set. Yet Alice Swallow still bothers me beyond what is meant. This is a character whom we immediately recognize as being the wrong match for Cary Grant’s David Huxley. She is stuffy, prim and curt. She is a party pooper of the first degree. We are not supposed to like her.

If we are not supposed to like her then why put her on? Because she is a caricature who barely gets any screen time. Alice is not for one moment in danger of keeping David away from what he wants. She is a physical representation of what needs to change in his life. She never feels like a real human being. And she appears in the very beginning and end of the film.

She is on this list because I spend far too much time hating a character that not even the film itself takes with a modicum of seriousness.

Review: 21 Jump Street (2012, Lord and Miller)

IMDB Summary: A pair of underachieving cops are sent back to a local high school to blend in and bring down a synthetic drug ring.

“21 Jump Street” is a gaping hole in my pop-culture knowledge. I knew of its existence and that it had something to do with cops. I knew it launched Johnny Depp’s career and that it featured Richard Grieco who remained a stagnant fixture in the 80’s. But that is it. I have never seen an episode and was unfamiliar of even its basic concept. When the news of its reboot came about, my reaction was likely that of many: yet another shrug-and-eyeroll combo with a reiteration of the oh-so-original thought that Hollywood has run out of ideas. From my limited understanding, not even the basic genre, tone or characters are kept here. It is a reboot mostly in name only.

Yet, lo and behold; 21 Jump Street is a mostly fantastic film. Save for a third act that comparatively falls apart at the seams, this is an engagingly uproarious and surprisingly sincere comedy that is taken to the next level by the pairing of Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum.

The first half is almost shockingly good. The pacing is razor-sharp and it clicks along with an at-times remarkable speed. Take the first five minutes which manage to accomplish what some films fail to do in their entire runtime. It establishes Jenko (Tatum) and Schmidt (Hill) in their respective high-school personas. Schmidt was a 2005 unpopular Eminem wannabe whereas Jenko was your typical douchebag jock. This sets up a really refreshing role-reversal that will take place later on when they return to high school as undercover cops. Years later, they encounter each other when they train at the academy. Jenko is dim and needs help with the exams while Schmidt cannot power through the physical training. They begin to help each other out; through montage we see the roots of a clearly meaningful friendship which has a genuine immediacy that carries throughout. All of this resonates within the first five minutes, making everything that comes after all the more absorbing.

21 Jump Street contains a manic energy akin to Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (screenwriter Michael Bacall had a hand in both screenplays) without the kinetic comic-book visuals. Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller of the perplexingly well-received Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, quickly establish a gleeful fluid mania that permeates through everything. Early on they show how they will use the camera and music to present something in a more subjective fashion, only to pull back and show the amusing reality. It works every time.

Two sequences that do this perfectly are arguably the films two funniest sequences. The first is the pair’s first attempted arrest. The second is the pair’s drug-addled excursion during school hours. The latter switches back and forth from a first-person perspective, showing how they experience the various effects of the drug (whose supplier they have been assigned to track down), to a third-person perspective which displays just how ridiculous they really look. I can honestly say I do not know the last time I laughed this hard as this played out.

There is something about the experience of high school that is captured here, inducting it into the pantheon of memorable high school films. It helps that Jenko and Schmidt graduated high school in 2005, the same year as me, giving it an added dose of personal resonance. It presents high school as a toxic environment where peer approval not only reigns above all, but legitimately defines you as a person. Going back to high school terrifies Schmidt whereas Jenko is thrilled with the assignment. But the tables have turned. The high school experience has changed enough in seven years allowing Jenko to be unpopular and allowing Schmidt a place in the school’s top clique.

High school is its own universe and 21 Jump Street gets this. It capitalizes on the idea that going back after a number of years would be somewhat surreal. It is surprising just how much we feel when Schmidt, in his newly acquired popularity, distances himself from Jenko, who is looked down on by the popular crowd for his low intelligence level. This role-reversal allows for both the story and performances to go in some nicely unexpected directions.

As far as the two lead performances go, the brilliance of the Jonah Hill/Channing Tatum, pairing cannot be overstated. In the end, they make this film the success it is. They raise the bar for onscreen comedic pairings in our modern times. These are no exaggerations. Together that not only possess perfect comedic timing, but their ‘bromance’ (hate the term, but if it applies anywhere, it applies here) feels completely authentic and is respectfully played straight. When Tatum says he would take a bullet for Hill, it isn’t played for laughs.

To think of Hill in Moneyball and then in 21 Jump Street is a bit jarring. It is evident at this point that he can filter himself into a variety of different characters. Here, his character is equal parts insecure and misguided; but he’s also very intelligent. He isn’t really playing a ‘type’ here; Schmidt is a well-rounded character navigating through the confusing times of high school for the second time. It is very easy to overlook Hill’s considerable talents, but we shouldn’t. And here is hoping we do not start taking him for granted any time soon.

As far as Channing Tatum goes, his work here has single-handedly made me a fan. Saying he is revelatory may be an overstatement, and yet to simply say he shines would be an understatement. There is no straight man between the Hill/Tatum pairing. Not only does Tatum go for broke with the comedy, but the majority of the humanistic elements fall on him. The vulnerability on display is flat-out moving and he sells the hell out of all the facets of his character. This role represents a turning point in his career.

The last third of the film does not destroy everything that came before, but it certainly threatens to. There are still laughs and earnest storytelling to be had, but an unskillfully apparent chaos comes into play. The controlled tightness unravels and an unappealing messiness takes over.

The action scenes are somewhat incoherent. In concept there is a lot of potential, but the execution fails to translate what could have been exciting and vibrant set pieces. It does not help that distractingly subpar post-production work both in effects and sound somewhat take away from the experience. And while the crisp editing works in non-action scenes, it weakens the majority of the chase and fight scenes. This is a great comedy that also happens to be a weak action film.

21 Jump Street remains self-aware throughout, acknowledging its own lack of originality. But it never allows that one-joke gimmick to define the film; far from it. This is a mostly great comedy (and how few comedies can even be defined as ‘mostly great’ these days?) that thrives on being hilarious and sincere in equal measure. The rocky road the central friendship takes is clearly just as important to the filmmakers and actors as the laughs. Only time will tell, but I predict that Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum will go down as one of the best onscreen pairings of our time. Yep. I said it.

Review: Gerhard Richter Painting (2012, Belz)

Originally posted on Criterion Cast February 19th, 2012

Watching Gerhard Richter paint is an experience damn near revelatory. I went into this film knowing nothing about modern art, and admittedly, having my own baggage of hesitancy towards its more extreme sides of abstraction. I was also shamefully unaware of just who Gerhard Richter is, and why he is such a long-standing and significant figure. This outstandingly insightful observational documentary is not just about Richter, but about all aspects of the creative process, an artist’s relationship to their own art, other art, and to the outside world.

Corinna Belz’s ponderous pace equably matches her subject. Gerhard Richter is thoughtful and articulate but very internal. He easily retreats into himself and seems more comfortable doing so. But the film is less about the man and more about his methods and artistry. Filmed over the course of several years, we see gallery openings, archival footage, and Richter being questioned by historians, the press and Belz herself. Yet the film always comes back to its most central element, which could not be made any more explicit by the title, and that is Gerhard Richter painting.

Through an intermittent series of tracking shots that follow miniature exhibition models of Richter’s works, the sense of his seemingly infinite breadth of styles and phases is immediate. It effectively displays, without needing to be said, just how much ground Richter has covered throughout the decades. When he paints in Belz’s film, he is captured indulging in his current favored modes and styles of creation. These include abstract pieces that start with sweeping brush strokes and are continually modified with a giant squeegee that takes all one’s strength to manipulate.

Richter never truly knows what the final product of his creations will be. As he describes, he does not start with a concept. The canvas guides and speaks to him just as much as he to it, and he creates with a kind of semi-calculated intuition. After a time, he stops and steps back, inquisitive from various angles and reflects on what he has done. Richter painting is  an indeterminate series of revisions and reflections. When he feels it is done, it is done.

Watching Richter, a man who knows his craft like the back of his hand, is a singular experience for several reasons. The abstract and somewhat improvisatory nature of his paintings instills a sequentially organic development, almost as if following a narrative’s progression, not knowing where it may end. Even the creator himself does not know when his piece will be finished or what it will look like, aligning Richter the artist, we the consumer, and Belz the filmmaker.

Sometimes he assesses in his head, other times he lets Belz know what he is thinking. His pieces go through many revisions and tweaks before he decides they are complete. At any stage of creation, Richter’s pieces could potentially be done. The difference between what looks like a finished abstract painting to the audience, and what feels unfinished for the artist is something Belz makes a point to distinguish. Belz allows us the freedom to observe and respond to Richter’s canvases as we would in a museum. The difference here is that the artist simultaneously takes part in the assessment, and the audience’s observations are of partially done works. Seeing and taking part in all of this, even as a bystander after the fact, is startlingly involving. Periodically, Belz will show the evolution of paintings using a series of dissolves, to illustrate the markedly transformative changes Richter, and artists in general, make to their creations over time.

Gerhard Richter Painting is also about the subject’s struggle with cameras, the media and the public. Being forced to elucidate on his work with explanatory expectations and the application of artistic theory and movements is daunting for him. Richter is articulate, but at the same time is unable to really express his process. In his eyes, painting cannot be described with words. So we see him deal with stress and frustration when asked to contextualize his own process and work in the same ways those who analyze and contextualize do.

Richter’s discomfort with the camera’s presence brings up a lot of stimulating broader questions about the documentary form. The fly-on-the-wall approach becomes compromised amidst the distraction that the camera brings for the subject. Belz is trying to create at the same time as Richter, and the collision of attempted creation across two mediums proves to be understandably difficult for Richter. He is always aware that he is being watched, and it halts his ability to paint with the internal mindset and somewhat spiritual sense of intuition needed to exert a satisfying creative output.

The compromise does not reflect a negative outcome here. It cakes on an additional layer with its inherent questions about observational filmmaking. It makes clear that capturing a naturalistic reality is on some level impossible when cameras enter a room. The acknowledgment and time spent (by Richter speaking of it, and Belz’s purposeful inclusion of the footage) on said interference makes it yet another thought-provoking element of Gerhard Richter Painting, instead of it being unintentionally implicit, and thus problematic.

Gerhard Richter Painting explores the universality of creation and the individualistic relationships between artists and their visions, process and products. It confirms that these individualistic relationships belong only to the artist. As gratifying as the insight that Belz gets and gives us is, neither a witnessing camera, nor words from the creator himself can truly represent the process of creating. What Belz and her marvelous film assert is that it makes being a bystander to the process is no less meaningful, and that our own individual relationships and responses to any work of art are no less essential.

Screening Log: March 1st-14th, 2012 – Films #43-60

All grades are completely subjective and ultimately arbitrary merely reflecting my own personal interest and engagement with each film. They are more of a record for me than anything else and not a simplified stamp.

43. Dead End (1937, Wyler): C+

44. The Smiling Lieutenant (1931, Lubitsch): A-

35. Shanghai Express (1932, von Sternberg): A-

46. Everything is Terrible! The Movie (2009): A-/B+

47. Fury (1937, Lang): B+

48. Gunga Din (1939, Stevens): A-

49. Port of Shadows (1938, Carne): B-

50. The Devil is a Woman (1935, von Sternberg): B/B-

51. Faust (1926, Murnau): A-/B+

52. Destry Rides Again (1939, Marshall): A/A-

53. The Gay Divorcee (1934, Sandrich): A/A-

54. Love Affair (1939, McCarey): B

55. Only Angels Have Wings (1939, Hawks): A/A-

56. People on Sunday (1930, Siodmak, Ulmer): A

57. You Only Live Once (1937, Lang): A

58. The Stars Look Down (1939, Reed): B

59. Rembrandt (1936, Korda): A

60. A Page of Madness (1926, Kinugasa): A

61. Pygmalion (1938, Asquith & Howard): A/A-

Review: Grizzly Man (2005, Herzog)

There is such a wide array of ruminations that course through me as I watch Grizzly Man for the second time. I first saw it about five years ago during a Documentary Fest I had with my aunt. It was my first Herzog documentary. I am now realizing it took far too long for me to revisit this film. I considered it one of my favorites, and to be sure, one of my very favorite documentaries. But I have always been a cinephile stuck somewhere between endless first viewings and endless repeat viewings of comfort films from my past. I have been trying to get better with revisiting films that mean a lot to me and getting to know them better. I have always resented my own preference to discover the new rather than the length of time I take in cherishing the ones that make an impact. And what brought about watching this for the second time was the event of showing it to my boyfriend who had not seen it. But I am veering off topic. Suffice it to say that Grizzly Man is a film that leaves an indelible mark for many reasons, not least in how Herzog recognizes the good, the bad and the ugly of Timothy Treadwell.

Herzog performs a balancing act of relaying his observations without guiding the viewer’s thoughts, even as he skillfully highlights to enhance a point he wants to make. Grizzly Man is somewhat judgmental yet somehow remains nonjudgmental. One does not have to look far to see why Herzog was drawn to this story. The harsh realities of nature and the unstable man who defies the line between the wild and himself. The obsessiveness of the experience and connection with what is sought out.

Herzog holds an admiration and a sadness for Treadwell. He smartly stays away from denigration or hero worship. Because the truth is, even though subjects in the film tend to take one extreme or the other, he deserves neither. An urge to proclaim feelings of pity come to mind. But that is not entirely the case either. How can I pity someone who was able to live life how he chose to for over a decade? This desperate satisfaction, this essential component to his life was something he was able to accomplish, have and cherish for an uncommon length of time.

The structure of Grizzly Man is not to be undervalued. The death of Treadwell and girlfriend Amie Huguenard is covered immediately, and is periodically revisited throughout, leaving its unforgettable stain on everything that follows. As we continue forward, Herzog slowly pulls the curtain further and further back. His perception and understandings are as complex as he can make them by the end, given the runtime and the invisible wall that prohibits us from truly knowing all the facts and psychology of a life.

Many watching are likely to know a bit about Timothy Treadwell. Still, Herzog begins with an unfettered allowance of Treadwell’s purer emotions, letting them exist for that they are. The enthusiasm, love, devotion and well-meaning gentleness of his exploits are introduced with their sincerity. By the end, that sincerity remains, but additionally so do the many troubled elements of Treadwell’s being.

The film’s subject inspires a wide variety of opinions, ranging from fierce admiration to a total lack of empathy. I guess I would fall somewhere in between.

On the one hand, I do admire and almost envy his ability to look at nature through rose-colored glasses. He was an outsider who carved out a life for himself  at the Katmai National Park. I certainly empathize with his blatantly apparent mental instability. We are who we are, and his troubles remained persistent throughout his life, however willing or unwilling he was to admit that at various intervals.

I admire his devotion and his love for the animals, as corny as it sounds. Was it sentimentalized, extremely anthropomorphic and misguided? Yes. But it was ultimately pure and well-meaning. His freelance work in schools all over inspired children, making them enthusiastic about preserving wildlife. Plus, his relationship with the foxes I found to be actual and legitimate, not to mention adorable. And ultimately, his relationship with the bears was legitimate as well, if only because they were so for him and him alone.

Herzog commends and gives due to what he is able to capture with his camera. There is undeniably an intimate quality to some of the animal footage that differs from the distance felt in other footage of its kind.

Yet Treadwell tends to frustrates me to no end. I admit to outright resenting him for a number of reasons (all of which are addressed in some way, if not explored), harsh as it may sound. His self-denial resulted in an unsubstantiated mission statement to ‘protect the bears’. But he wasn’t protecting any bears. Far from it; he actually did more harm than good. His and Amie’s death perpetuated the killing of two bears as well as a posthumous increase of poaching in the National Park. He acclimated bears and foxes to the presence of humans, possibly rising a bear’s willingness to approach and cause harm in the future.

He conveniently chose to ‘protect’ bears in a National Park, a protected land, where the bears were already safe. Poaching was not an issue and ‘intruders’ were usually harmless and/or people from the National Park Service whose jobs Treadwell constantly undermined.

None of this is a revelation, and has been covered before in the film and in other media. I say all this in an effort to lay out how I feel about Treadwell.

The bears did not need Treadwell; he needed them. He needed them so desperately, that he whole-heartedly convinced himself that these wild animals were in danger. The scene where he all but attributes the land’s much-needed rain to his desire for it so be so is a perfect example. He created an artificial purpose that surrounded his very being, becoming his meaningless mantra. I guess what frustrates me is that his methods perpetuate the stereotype of the uninformed and misguided activist. I feel that his concerns and passion are so genuine but also so valid and applicable to countless, and I mean countless, other animal activist causes. I wish be had been able to fuel his fervor into something more useful and less selfish.

But he was just coming off a near-fatal addiction, which he was never cured from. It is clear he simply substituted one addiction for another. And this addiction is the one that ended up being fatal.

It is also tough not to see the subconscious vanity in his actions. His videos and shot set-ups are so deliberate and driven by a fascination with himself. It is fitting that his only (for the most part) companion out in the wilderness was his camera. That acting ambition never left completely. Again, I do not think he ever meant this, but his self-destructive narcissism is hard to miss.

I sound insensitive but I do not mean to be. In the end, I strongly sympathize with Treadwell. I sympathize with his inability to function in the real world. I sympathize with his feelings of isolation and loneliness. I sympathize with his feigned connection with the bears. I sympathize with the overwhelming sense of belonging he felt while in the wild.

All of this reeks of condescension, but it is not meant to. Herzog does not look up to him or down on him and we should not either. It does Treadwell much less credit by doing this.

The filmmaker largely focuses on what Treadwell shot over the years of his expeditions. Herzog showcases the bear enthusiast’s stunning animal footage. More importantly, the majority of what is shown focuses on Treadwell himself and his ability to indulge in his extremes in the place he called home. The camera allows him a voice to another; we get an intimate insight into him because in these moments he is entirely himself. He constantly proclaims his love for the animals. Just as constantly, he proclaims his willingness to die for them. His insistence on this shows that he not only means it, but fully expects this to happen some day. I would not categorize this as a death wish as many others do. It is clear he wanted his experiences to last as long as he could. But he knew he would die this way, and accepted it, almost waiting for it.

The footage chosen shows Treadwell’s penchant for working himself up into a frenzy. Close friend and former girlfriend Jewel Palovak says at one point that he had extreme highs and lows. He went on an anti-depressant at one point, but stopped because he felt those aspects of him were integral to his personality. We can see some of this extremity in his videos.

In editing, Herzog and Joe Bini have captured the innate awkwardness of documentary interviews without allowing it to distract. He lingers for a few extra seconds, keeping with the subject on the screen slightly beyond their purpose. This is most evident with the coroner, who seems an oddly self-conscious and rabid fellow. He always sounds like he is reading off cue cards. The scene where he gives Jewel Timothy’s still-ticking wristwatch  has a hypnotic artificiality to it, almost like something out of a David Lynch film. At one point as the coroner spills all the grimy details and he is right up in the camera’s face. When he is done, the camera slowly pulls away, showing him from a distance looking awkward next to his autopsy table, not knowing at all what to do with himself.

Herzog’s voiceover narration is always welcome even if it, at this point, comes loaded with memories of its parodies. He is able to make his own observations personal, and thus, not factual. He allows for his observations without ever deeming they must be ours. In a medium so subject to manipulation, this remains a distinct quality of his I highly appreciate.

We see footage of a particularly intense tirade of Treadwell’s, which randomly springs from what is supposed to be a simple outro. It consists of him telling off the National Park Service to the camera. As he continues in a string of curses and periodically obscene gestures, Herzog narrates over the footage, marking this distinction:

“Now Treadwell crosses a line with the Park Service which we will not cross. He attacks the individuals with whom he has worked for 13 years. It is clear to me that the Park Service is not Treadwell’s real enemy. There’s a larger and more implacable adversary out there, the people’s world and civilization. He only has mockery and contempt for it. His rage is almost incandescent, artistic. The actor in his film has taken over from the filmmaker.”

Herzog intersperses the narration throughout Treadwell’s rant; the result is that at times we are left with the visual evidence of his rage filtered through the forced perspective of how Herzog sees the incident. His spacing keeps Herzog from taking over by giving us his observances in deliberate doses. It is one of the few times Herzog forces us to take something in as he sees it because he narrates as it happens. He chooses his moments very wisely and is part of what makes this an astonishing film.

I must make a note about Amie Huegenard. I tread on this only because I feel the comments made in regards to her completely undermine that women, believe it or not, actually have minds of their own and are capable of making their own decisions. I feel truly awful and am full of remorse about what happened to both Treadwell and his girlfriend. But to suggest that Treadwell brought Amie down with him disregards her individuality as a person. Uncomfortable as she may have been, she alone made the choice to go. Journal entries suggest that she was worried about his fanaticism and wanted to leave. It seemed likely that she would have left him had they returned and it is truly horrible that she was never able to act on this.

Grizzly Man stirs up a lot of feelings in a lot of people. It is about one man and his decision to continually risk his life for the animals and landscape that were quite literally his life support. It is also about man and nature, questioning where the line now lies between the two. Timothy Treadwell made a choice, and he died for that choice.

I do not find Treadwell’s death to be tragic. He got a lot out of what he did. The fact that it was a conscious choice he knew would lead to his death makes it impossible for me to tack that label onto it. It gives him more credit to deny him the word.

If anything is tragic, it is that this was the only way he could feel alive. That it came to this extremity of habitat and ‘mission’ for him to want to live. To say Timothy Treadwell is a fascinating subject is an understatement. His footage gives not only beautiful visuals of Alaskan wildlife, but intimate insight into the man at the center of it all. Werner Herzog skillfully works through the footage to create a sobering portrait of a man who made a choice to live with the creatures he loved.


Blu-Ray Review: Rebecca (1940, Hitchcock)

Originally posted on Criterion Cast March 1st, 2012

Rebecca represents a major turning point in Alfred Hitchcock’s career. It was his first American-made film, allowing him to capitalize on the hopes and dreams of working with a bigger budget and more equipment, furthering the masterful technical control so central to his style.

Looming large over the entire picture is the involvement of that sleepless memo maniac David O. Selznick. With Gone with the Wind inching towards release, he moved forward on an adaptation, or as he put it ‘picturization’, of Daphne du Maurier’s much-loved classic Rebecca. Selznick was as intrusive as a producer gets, managing to stay on top of the production even through the Gone with the Wind preparation which took up almost all of his time. It is easy to under-appreciate what Selznick contributed to Rebecca, even though Hitchcock purists may see the final product as damaged goods. This new Blu-Ray reminds us of the singular combination of Selznick’s prestige, Hitchcock’s recurring themes and embedded psychology and du Maurier’s sumptuously enticing exploration of the Gothic.

Revisiting the film, in more pristine shape than ever before, allows us to take in Rebecca in all its glory, and even its limitations. Selznick had an unrelenting sense of grandeur and a lavishness with which he strove to do justice to a book he near-worshiped. This comes to serve Rebecca well, most prominently with Manderlay. The mansion is so imposing in its physical representation of the suffocating spirit of the deceased Rebecca that it becomes a central character. The  first Mrs. De Winter and Selznick are united in their paralleled enduring influence that seeps into every scene.

As contradictory as Hitchcock and Selznick’s agendas seem, they inadvertently coalesce to create something mostly harmonious. As far as Hitchcock goes, he also had a strong connection to the book, wanting to buy the rights earlier but not having the money to do so. Here, he gets to astonish with his lusciously multi-layered compositions. The lighting in particular is something to behold, alone begging repeat viewings with its majesty.

The mogul’s insistence on a conventionally faithful adaptation provides a basis for Hitchcock to wield his inquiring camera into what is going on underneath it all. Selznick’s top-of-the-line template doesn’t hurt either. He pokes and pries, peeling back the layers as Joan Fontaine treks into the nightmare world of Manderlay. Again, Rebecca solidifies Hitchcock’s unmatched control, all the more impressive for working on a production as big as this.

The performances remain a varied bunch, from Laurence Olivier’s constantly brooding and callous Maxim to the ever-reliable character actors Nigel Bruce, Reginald Denny and Florence Bates. Joan Fontaine is aware of herself every moment in her first starring role and Hitchcock uses that to showcase the character’s vulnerability and at times frustrating naiveté. She is a fragile stranger in a strange land, both on and off screen, and it appropriately looks like she could crumble any minute. All apprehensive eyebrows and second-guessing, Fontaine shines because she natural exudes a quality that she herself seems unaware of.

It is of course Judith Anderson whose performance has more than held up over the decades. Her Mrs. Danvers is one of mostly passive and increasingly apparent insanity. She exists entirely in her own world, a heightened past broken up with patches of lucid denial and resentment. Anderson’s spacy passion makes for a justifiably iconic villain. There is the moment when Rebecca realizes that Mrs. Danvers is not completely sane. The camera stays with the horrified unnamed protagonist as she moves away to deal with said realization, leaving Mrs. Danvers in the background, carrying on in her own world.That scene and moment express all, remaining as creepy as ever.

The final twenty minutes is largely where Rebecca falters. We see the baggage lifted between Maxim and our The Second Mrs. De Winter, and they are allowed to connect freely, banding together against Rebecca’s hold on posthumous hold on them. This is all well and fine, but at this point the story itself becomes laborious. Hitchcock can only do so much to alleviate the shortcomings found here. Thankfully, George Sanders’ slimy presence is always a welcome treat.

The extras on Rebecca carry over from a previous DVD edition and are more than satisfying in their abundant quantity, largely supporting a contextual view of the film via the Hitchcock and Selznick collaboration. Richard Schickel’s commentary is pretty basic and his views of the film appear to be largely lukewarm. ‘The Making of Rebecca’ and ‘The Gothic World of Daphne du Maurier’ further expand on adding contextualization. Also included are radio plays of the story, an isolated music and effects track, interviews with Hitchcock and, my personal favorite, original screen tests with Margaret Sullavan and Vivien Leigh.

Rebecca may not be a ‘pure’ Hitchcock film, lacking in his trademark acidic humor, and balancing out the expectations of another formidable force. Yet it remains one of my favorite Hitchcock films (indeed I far prefer it over Notorious) for its Gothic psychological thriller that seamlessly weaves in and out of an amalgam of other genres; the woman’s picture, melodrama, romance, mystery and horror, to name some. The Blu-Ray offers a stellar picture with very little grain and minimal kinks; it is a more than worthy purchase to make for one of the master’s largely exemplary works.

Screening Log: February 15th-29th, 2012 – Films 35-42

35. Doggie Woggiez! Poochie Woochiez! (2012, Ghoul Skool and Commodore Gilgamesh): B+

36. Under the Roofs of Paris (1930, Clair): C

37. Le Jour Se Leve (1939, Carne): A-

38. The Secret World of Arrietty (2012, Yonebayashi): A-

39. Found Memories (2012, Murat): B/B-

40. Animal Crackers (1930, Heerman): C+

41. Underworld (1927, von Sternberg): A-

42. The Docks of New York (1928, von Sternberg): B/B-