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February 16, 2005

Kelly's Heroes

1970.USA.Hutton

3.5 / 4.0


Since his obscure 1965 debut Wild Seed, director Brian G. Hutton has made only nine films. Of that handful, the 1968 and 1970 war films Where Eagles Dare and Kelly’s Heroes, both starring Clint Eastwood, are his greatest achievements. The latter is an action-packed story about a team of soldiers who infiltrate a Nazi-held castle, not unlike 1967’s The Dirty Dozen. The former is one of my favourite World War II films.

Taking place in the late stages of the war, after Operation Overlord and the Allied breakout from the Normandy beachhead, Kelly’s Heroes follows the escapades of a group of men, lead by Eastwood’s Kelly, as they deviate slightly from the grand strategy of the war and take a detour behind enemy lines to steal a cache of gold. Filling out the fantastic cast of characters (and actors!) are Big Joe, played with comedic machismo by Telly Savalas, supply officer Crapgame, a whiney Don Rickles and, the best of the bunch, tank commander Sergeant Oddball, an era-displaced Hippie played with flair by Donald Sutherland. No doubt a reference to the Vietnam War, which was very much going on while Kelly’s Heroes was released, Oddball and his troupe, who lounge about in Flower Power glory, add an interesting dimension to film. A taboo subject in Hollywood until the late ‘70s, when both American involvement in Vietnam, and the war, was over, the Vietnam War had a singnificant impact on American filmmaking. That Kelly's Heroes, released in 1971, even raised the subject is somewhat amazing. Six years later, Taxi Driver, which dealt with a Vietnam vet in Travis Bickle, was still seen as breaking taboo ground. And it took Hal Ashby’s 1978 Coming Home to finally take the finger out of the dam.

Regardless, Kelly’s Heroes is still very much a World War II film. And it’s depiction of that war balances tragedy and comedy. There are scenes of utter brutality, such as a famous minefield shootout, and ones of easygoing laughter, provided largely by Don Rickles’ character.

That the film is about soldiers making the best of their situation is interesting, if taken with the knowledge that “the good war”, as World War II came to sometimes be called in America, resulted in an immense surge of prosperity in the United States. Are Kelly and his men simply taking their due (even more so, since the gold was likely stolen by the Nazis), or are they unethically profiteering while others are still fighting and dying? Since all they’re doing is killing Nazis and taking back Nazi-occupied cities, and are beneficial to victory, do their ethics and motives even matter? Likewise, Industrialists like Henry Ford became rich during World War II, but the machines and weapons they supplied to the United States Army and Navy greatly contributed to winning the war. I don't think the film offers a concrete opinion on the subject.

Although usually left off the lists of Greatest War Films (though not this one) or even Greatest World War II Films, Kelly’s Heroes is a classic. And for anyone who doubts how influential the film is, just watch the last hour of Saving Private Ryan, which features a showdown, set in a town, between a small group of American soldiers and two Tiger tanks. Two guesses at what happens near the end of Kelly’s Heroes.

Rear Window

1954.USA.Rear Window

4.0 / 4.0

Writing anything about Rear Window that’s not an academic paper seems pointless. It’s the Hitch film in which Entertainment (North by Northwest), Intellect (Marnie) and Art (Vertigo) collide in an explosion of filmic goodness. Taken as a film about watching films, with Jeff taking the role of the spectator, immobile, in a dark room, watching a screen, Rear Window is as much a film essay as anything Godard’s put out. As a commentary on gender roles, with the feminized Jeff trying to reaffirm his masculinity in the constant danger of the “perfect” Lisa, the film has been dissected to shreds by Feminist critics. Then there’s the whole Psychoanalytic angle, with Jeff’s fears and desires projected onto the windows of his neighbours. Miss Lonelyheart being the embodiment of eternal loneliness, the Newlyweds of marital hell, the Songwriter of artistic frustration, and Thorwald of the murderous impulse that, we're afraid, resides in us all. So what is there really to say about Rear Window? It’s the best film Hitchcock made. And one of the best ever made, at any time, by anyone, anywhere.

February 02, 2005

Father and Son

2003.Russia.Sokurov

3.0 / 4.0

It’s easy to watch Russian filmmaker Aleksandr Sokurov’s Father and Son and discard it as nauseatingly artsy Eurotrash. There isn’t a dominant story, and a subplot about an army man who may or may not have killed someone and may or may not be dead is as cryptic as it sounds. The two main characters (the Father and the Son) have no names and we’re not quite sure if we’re supposed to watch them or watch with them. Is their relationship creepy or loving? Add that long stretches of the already short film are of nothing happening and some viewers will conclude that Father and Son is monotony on film, disguised as art.

It’s an easy interpretation of the film, but one that’s nearsighted, while still being somewhat unintentionally accurate, and helpful in deciphering just what is going on. Father and Son is monotony on film, but it’s not a monotonous film. Going against what viewers are used to, and conditioned to concentrate on, Sokurov’s film is about not what’s happening or why it’s happening as much as it’s about how the happenings are shown. For example, the conversation between the Son and the Girl, if taken as a typical movie fare, is a throwaway exchange that neither advances plot or builds character. Hollywood would cut it. And that’s exactly Sokurov’s point. The conversation is meaningless, but the way in which it’s filmed gives it meaning. The form creates the content; the content doesn’t dictate the form. Sokurov says: Focus not on the dialogue, but on the mise-en-scene. It’s vital that the scene is shot with the two characters on opposite sides of a window, because it makes visual the invisible barrier that separates the Son from the Girl (in this case the Son’s reluctance to leave the Father). Furthermore, their faces, as filmed, are often separated by the horizontal and vertical bars that run across the glass, separating the screen into several frames, suggesting fractured states of mind. Other good examples are the multiple scenes in which the Father and Son are on the roof of their apartment building together. Sometimes they lift weights there, play soccer, or perform acrobatics. It doesn’t matter. What matters is the openness that Sokurov’s compositions and setting suggest. The dialogue between the characters doesn’t reveal as much about their relationship as the image of their figures against the sky and the shared feeling of being above the bustle of the street cars and people below.

It’s a shame that so many critics responded to the first shots of Father and Son, of the entangled, naked bodies of the Father and Son, by interpreting them as homoerotic and choosing to explore only that aspect of the film. And it’s fittingly funny that the reason the scene can be viewed as homoerotic is not because of what is happening (the Father waking the Son from a nightmare), but because of how Sokurov films and edits it. In a way, that scene is a misunderstood statement of intent, or thesis, to the rest of the film. In it, Sokurov flags up that how we see things has a huge impact on how we perceive them. Father and Son is not absorbing narrative entertainment. It's a defence of art cinema and of the director as artist. Remember the outdated argument about the auteur versus the metteur-en-scene? It’s just been updated.