What to Watch on the Small Screen: August 2018

According to the Farmers’ Almanac, the start of August is an indication that we’re officially nearing the end of summer’s “dog days.” Here are some films you can stream before then:

Greed (1924)

Image courtesy of MGM.

Erich von Stroheim’s Greed recounts the rise and fall of John McTeague (Gibson Gowland), a one-time gold prospector who runs a dental clinic in San Francisco. Initially, McTeague doesn’t have too much to complain about in life: business is steady, and his fiancée-turned-wife (ZaSu Pitts) even manages to win $5,000 (~70,000 in today’s dollars) in a lottery. But things start going downhill after the state of California suddenly orders him to close down his clinic.

The story of the making of Greed is just as fascinating—and heartbreaking—as the film itself. Stroheim’s original, uncut version ran 10 hours long, and several critics said it was the greatest film they had ever seen. But squeamish executives at MGM ordered that the movie be shortened to two hours, and a janitor then threw away all of the cut footage. Today, film historians and archivists still refer to those missing eight hours as the “Holy Grail” of cinema; at this point, unfortunately, the closest thing we’ve got to the original film is a four-hour reconstruction that film archivist Rick Schmidlin created in 1999.

Despite its many gaps, however, the reconstructed version of Greed is still a veritable masterpiece, a multilayered portrait of early 20th-century America that proves both gripping and sobering. Stroheim’s depiction of unbridled materialism hasn’t lost any of its power; in particular, the film’s final sequence, which was infamously shot in Death Valley, offers a frightening illustration of money’s debasing influence. And although it might come off as a tad exaggerated, Gowland’s lead performance remains a magnificent, fierce portrayal of one man’s descent from meekness into savage cruelty. Watching Greed is an altogether captivating experience—and an indirect reminder, in the end, that the studio system stifled creativity more often than it encouraged it.

Where to Watch: YouTube, Google Play, iTunes

See it for: As illustrated by Lauren Greenfield’s new documentary about conspicuous consumption, Generation Wealth, many 21st-century Americans share McTeague’s obsession with money. The film comes to Chicago theaters on August 3.

A Brighter Summer Day (1991)

bright summer day
Image courtesy of Janus Films.

In 1961, a 14-year old boy murdered his girlfriend on a public street in Taipei; he then became the first minor to receive a death sentence in modern-day Taiwan, although the sentence was later overturned on appeal. This disturbing incident could easily have become a mere historical footnote. Instead, it eventually inspired Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day, an imagined biopic of the boy (named Xiao Si’r; played by an exceptionally astute Chang Chen) and his family.

Appreciating Brighter requires understanding some historical context. After Mao Zedong’s Communist Party emerged victorious at the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, supporters of the losing side, the Kuomintang (KMT), fled to Taiwan. While they ended up avoiding the famines and political witch hunts that the mainland subsequently endured under Mao’s rule, life under the KMT wasn’t necessarily better. In what is now referred to as “Taiwan’s White Terror,” Taiwan remained under martial law for almost four decades (1949-1987)—and during that time period, the KMT ruthlessly used its authority to persecute dissidents, intellectuals, and suspected Communists.

Over the course of four hours, Brighter convincingly shows that Xiao Si’r’s crime wasn’t a one-off aberration; rather, it was merely a particularly egregious manifestation of the economic, social, and emotional malaise that pervaded Taiwan during the White Terror. In making this argument, Yang benefits from Chang Hui-kung’s pensive cinematography, which ably engenders an atmosphere of unacknowledged yet creeping repression. And Brighter is also helped by its understated approach to the depiction of violence: far from glorifying delinquency, the film instead illustrates the tantalizing notion that crime helped Taiwanese boys “strengthen their weak and infantile will to live.” Altogether, then, this twist on the “lost innocence” genre is an illuminating time capsule, a meditative work that also highlights the crucial role that cinema plays in our understanding of history.

Where to Watch: FilmStruck, YouTube, Google Play, Vudu

See it for: Like Brighter, Crazy Rich Asians is about Asian people. Unlike Brighter, however, the adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s bestselling novel has Hollywood’s dirty fingerprints all over it. See the film at your own risk on August 15.

In a Lonely Place (1950)

In a Lonely Place
Image courtesy of Columbia Pictures.

In Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place, Humphrey Bogart stars as Dixon “Dix” Steele, a failing screenwriter who has a bad habit of getting into fist fights. At the film’s start, Dix invites a hat-check girl named Mildred (Martha Stewart) to his apartment. When she’s later found murdered, Dix becomes the main suspect. The only person who can provide him with an alibi is his neighbor Laurel (Gloria Grahame)—a wannabe actress with whom he soon enters into a tumultuous, all-consuming relationship.

Lonely came out in 1950, a year that also saw the release of Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard and Joseph Mankiewicz’s All About Eve. Like those two better-known films, Lonely offers a scathing look at showbiz and its twisted inner workings. As we quickly come to see, in fact, the screenwriting business has so distorted Dix’s worldview that he’s lost all sense of propriety. During one characteristically disturbing scene, for instance, he casually, callously launches into a blow-by-blow description of what a film version of Mildred’s murder would look like—all in front of a detective who’s investigating Dix’s connection to the actual event.

Ultimately, however, what separates Lonely from Sunset and Eve is its tone. If those latter two movies are unabashed satires, Lonely instead turns out to be an earnest melodrama, a sincerely despairing depiction of how the movie industry turns people into emotional wrecks. Credit for the film’s potency should be given at least in part to Ray, whose direction neatly highlights the destructive potential of Dix’s possessiveness. Above all, however, Lonely works because of Bogart: the rancorous, belligerent brute you see here has nothing in common with the heroic gentleman who headlined Casablanca.

Where to Watch: Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu

See it for: An adaptation of Nick Hornby’s novel, Juliet, Naked tells the story of a failing artist—more specifically, a long-forgotten rock musician played by Ethan Hawke—and the woman (Rose Byrne) who falls for him. It’ll be in theaters on August 17.

A Man Escaped (1956)

Image courtesy of Janus Films.

In 1943, a French Resistance fighter named André Devigny managed to escape from a Nazi prison with the help of a safety pin, a spoon, some bed springs, and his blanket. 13 years later, Robert Bresson (himself a former POW) turned Devigny’s memoir of the experience into A Man Escaped, a film about a fictitious Frenchman named Fontaine (François Leterrier) who re-enacts Devigny’s daring escape on screen.

Escaped may not be nearly as well-known as genre peers like The Shawshank Redemption. But in several ways, it still has a serious claim to being one of the finest prison-escape films ever made. As exemplified by the simplistic set design and expressionless acting, the film’s stylistic austerity lends a remarkable degree of authenticity to its depiction of imprisonment. And in the spirit of contemporaneous movies like The Asphalt Jungle and Rififi, Bresson’s sparing use of score—the only music we hear is an excerpt from Mozart’s Great Mass that plays like a bitter, ironic leitmotif—ensures that Escaped always remains viscerally engaging.

Of course, Escaped is ultimately more than just a series of thrills. As a prisoner, Fontaine has next to no freedom of movement. And in keeping with the nature of his confinement, most of Escaped’s drama turns on what we hear rather than what we see. Like Fontaine, in other words, we hear things like the clinking of a guard’s keys and the roar of a passing train. But in an attempt to put us in Fontaine’s position, Bresson never actually shows us the guard or the train in question.

Here, Bresson’s unusually extensive reliance on sound serves two purposes. First, whereas most thrillers like to throw information at largely passive viewers, Bresson instead forces us to exercise our imagination to make up for his eschewal of visuals, thereby ensuring that we actively participate in the creation of the film’s world. More importantly, however, Bresson’s sound-based approach also highlights the quasi-existential helplessness of Fontaine’s character, evoking a world in which the individual will proves powerless vis-à-vis the kind of overpowering evil epitomized by the Nazis. Without ever slipping into pretension, the overall film thus provides a subdued but engrossing indictment of war—a historical document that stands as permanent testimony to the dark side of human nature.

Where to Watch: Kanopy, FilmStruck, Amazon, iTunes

See it for: Michael Noer’s Papillon recounts the true story of Henri Charrière, a Frenchman who successfully broke out of prison after being falsely accused of murder. This remake of the 1973 Steve McQueen film of the same name arrives in theaters on August 24.

Gertrud (1964)

Image courtesy of Janus Films.

The titular protagonist of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Gertrud (played by a stellar Nina Pens Rode) is a woman who desires love above all else. In this regard, however, reality invariably leaves her disappointed. To start, she’s married to a lawyer (Bendt Rothe) who cares more about his career than about her. And while she tries searching for companionship elsewhere, the men she ends up finding—a philandering composer-pianist (Baard Owe); a grandiloquent, work-obsessed poet (Ebbe Rode)—aren’t exactly much of an improvement.

If you’re unfamiliar with Dreyer’s work and his invariably restrained style, Gertrud might be a bit difficult to digest at first. For one, the actors rarely show any emotion. Much of the action, furthermore, unfolds in sparse, rigidly geometrical interiors, thereby ensuring that the film always feels somewhat staged. And don’t be surprised if you find the overall movie to be slow. Dreyer’s penchant for long takes —one of them lasts a whole 10 minutes—doesn’t exactly do any favors for the film’s pacing.

As difficult as they may be to endure in the moment, however, these apparent defects actually end up serving Gertrud’s overarching themes. Dreyer’s stiff mise-en-scène illustrates just how stifled Gertrud feels as a neglected spouse. Similarly, the long takes shed light on her emotional state, suggesting that her inability to find love has left her in a state of suppressed agony. And the characters’ impassivity testifies to their society’s obsession with maintaining facades of composed dignity (at the expense, of course, of real emotional expression). All told, every frame of this film offers a moving testament to the difficulty of finding a true life companion—a person, as Gertrud’s poet lover puts it, who can cure the “irreparable loneliness” of the human soul.

Where to Watch: FilmStruck

See it for: In Björn Runge’s The Wife, Glenn Close plays a woman who’s stuck in an unhappy marriage with an award-winning author. See it starting August 24.

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Andrew Emerson
Plan Your Life with 3CR Highlights

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