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TCM's 'Story of Film' Reaches the Golden Age of Melodrama and Some Not-On-DVD Masterpieces

Television
by Sam Adams
October 8, 2013 7:52 PM
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'All That Heaven Allows'
'All That Heaven Allows'

Perhaps it's just a coincidence, but it's somehow fitting that as Turner Classic Movies The Story of Film, their 15-week series built around Mark Cousins' documentary, heads into the section devoted to melodrama, it offers up several films that aren't available on DVD in the U.S. Even before women's weepies became chick flicks, it was a disreputable genre, filled with movies that make people feel rather than making them think. Of course, the greatest movies do both, and in recent decades critics have devoted themselves to pointing out that there's a lot more going on in, say, Douglas Sirk's All That Heaven Allows or Nicholas Ray's Johnny Guitar than their gaudy surfaces might suggest. Read previous coverage of The Story of Film here.

Mon., Oct. 7

8 p.m.: Pather Panchali (1955) (India)

The first part of Satyajit Ray's Apu Trilogy landmark in the history of neorealism and Indian cinema both, as well as Salman Rushdie's favorite movie. Here, he explains why, and picks out "the most painfully heartbreaking scene I've ever seen." 

10 p.m.: The Story of Film: An Odyssey (2011). Episode Six: "Sex & Melodrama (1950s)"

11:15 p.m.: Cairo Station (1958) (Egypt)

In his program note, Austin Film Society director Chale Nafus says Egyptian great Youssef Chahine's movie "fairly glistens, despite the dirt, grease, and steam in the setting."

12:45 a.m.: Throne of Blood (1957) (Japan)

Japanese film scholar Donald Richie says that Akira Kurosawa's re-set Macbeth -- a precursor to his great Ran -- is "the definitive statement on man’s solitude, his amibition, his self-betrayal," and Kurosawa expert Stephen Prince details the ways in which it's "so much more than a literary adaptation."

2:45 a.m.: Seven Samurai (1954) (Japan)

The Playlist's Oliver Lyttlelton enumerates "5 Things You May Not Know About The Seven Samurai," including that at first there were only six.

Tuesday, Oct. 8

8 p.m.: Rebel Without a Cause (1955) (U.S.A.)

"The cinema," Jean-Luc Godard famously said, "is Nicholas Ray," and though his contemporary admirers would sooner single out In a Lonely Place or Bigger Than Life, Rebel Without a Cause is the one film of his that truly entered the cultural lexicon, due in large part to the iconic performance of its star, James Dean. Dean only had time for three major film roles before his career was cut short by a fatal car crash, and Rebel's the only one that conforms to what we now think of his image: the leather jacket, the bad-boy sneer. The movie was presented as a "problem picture" about juvenile delinquency: Here, screenwriter Stewart Stern talks about how he interviewed real J.D.s as research. But now it's joined by the study of what passed by most viewers then: the crisis in gender identity flagged by Dean's relationship with Sal Mineo, whose character is coded as gay, and with his emasculated father Jim Backus, who plays one scene in a frilly apron. In a brief interview on set, Dean quipped that the movie was about "the rediscovery of my father, which I seem to be doing quite frequently." Its climactic scene also made Los Angeles' Griffith Observatory a landmark, as explored recently by the A.V. Club's Pop Pilgrims series.

Last, here's yet another 1950s icon trying out for Dean's role.


10 p.m.: All that Heaven Allows (1955) (U.S.A.)

Douglas Sirk is the key figure in the rehabilitation of Hollywood melodrama, due in no small part to his later association with his countryman Rainer Werner Fassbiner, whose Ali/Fear Eats the Soul is transparently modeled on Sirk's style (albeit without the self-consciousness of Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven). Film theorist Laura Mulvey opens her essay on the film for the Criterion Collection by quoting Sirk himself: This is the dialectic -- there is a very short distance between high art and trash, and trash that contains an element of craziness is by this very quality nearer to art.” In the Nashville Scene, Jim Ridley delves further into the connection between art and trash.

11:45 p.m.: Johnny Guitar (1954) (U.S.A.)

More Nicholas Ray, and more gender play, here with Joan Crawford as a grotesquely masculine saloon owner and Sterling Hayden as the ever-so-slightly feminized gunslinger. The New Yorker's Richard Brody talks about why it's a "feminist masterwork," and these film notes from Penn State's Kevin Hagopian explains why it's "one of the brilliant oddities of the classical Hollywood cinema."

1:45 a.m.: The Story of Film: An Odyssey (2011). Episode Six: "Sex & Melodrama (1950s)"

3 a.m.: Los Olvidados (1950) (Mexico)

"The case of Luis Bunuel is one of the strangest in the history of cinema," writes the great critic Andre Bazin in his essay on Los Olvidados (aka The Young and the Damned), Bunuel's portrait of life in the slums of Mexico City. 

4:30 a.m.: ...And God Created Woman (1956) (France)

Roger Vadim's film may have made Brigitte Bardot an international sex goddess, but these days it's mostly the province of completists. The Criterion Contraption got to it by way of reviewing every last Criterion Collection disc, and Kevin Lee was forced into it by his quest to watch every movie on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? top 1000 list. Even so, Lee admits, "Bardot still hits like lightning."

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