The Lost Weekend (1945)

The Lost Weekend – 1945

Director – Billy Wilder

Starring – Ray Milland, Jane Wyman, and Phillip Terry

With the The Lost Weekend, Billy Wilder has successfully created and commit to celluloid, a fully realized nightmare.  In particular, we are watching a man’s life disintegrate right before our very eyes.  Where in other films, we would get only hints and suggestions of the depths of this nightmare, Billy Wilder shows it all with a tone that is so matter of fact it is lots of times awkward to watch.

For the uninitiated, Milland stars as Don Birnum, a writer who’s going through a bit of a rough patch.  Don is an alcoholic, a fact that he’s been unsuccessfully trying to hide from his girlfriend Helen (played by Wyman).  The story is fractured into three segments told out-of-order, the first is when he meets Helen at the opera.  Consumed by the thought of getting a drink, he runs to the coat check to get his flask only to find that he has the wrong claim ticket.  After waiting for the show to let out, he meets Helen, who unintentionally claimed his coat.  The second segment is slightly further down the line when their relationship is in full swing, Don is waiting to meet Helen’s parents and suddenly gets cold feet.  He retreats into drink, destroying the brief period of sobriety that he had enjoyed throughout his relationship thus far.  And finally, the third section deals with his alcoholism while it’s in full swing.  Delusions, hallucinations, incarceration, and a cold hard look at what his life has become, provided me with some of the most squirm worthy moments in the movie.

Visually, The Lost Weekend starts off just like a typical movie from this era, straight forward camera positioning, a standard assortment of cuts and fades to get from scene to scene, but it slowly morphs into a much more fluid surreal monster.  The camera follows Don on his decline, giving us shots from a worms eye view, harsh shadows, tricks of light, and unnerving close-ups or our main character sweating and suffering.  The change is subtle, but effective, and the difference between these scenes and when the couple first meets is like night and day.  Wilder is never afraid to show the flaws of his characters actions, but in the Lost Weekend, we see it represented visually in how Don is constantly sweating, the dark circles under his eyes, and the stumble in his step.

In terms of acting, the real standout of the performances is delivered (no surprise) by Ray Milland.  And while the supporting performances are decent enough, they never amount to the impact of the Millands.  To be fair though, they were never written or intended to be center stage like the character of Don Birnum was.  The depths that Birnum visits make the possibility that he may never get better, and be continually relapsing a very real possibility, and causes us to doubt any sort of outcome that the film presents for us.  The acting and subject matter was so effective that both sides of the liquor industry (those in the industry afraid it would hurt sales as well as numerous temperance groups afraid it would glamorize drinking) attacked the movie, in an attempt to prevent it’s release.  Reluctantly the studio gave the film a limited release at Wilder’s insistence and immediately had critics falling all over themselves in praise of the film, Wilder and their lead actor Milland.  Ultimately, this movie that was to be the “career killer” for Ray Milland, turned out to bring him an Oscar win.

Billy Wilder’s unique vision paints America in both a loving, and disgusted light.  He sees this place, bourne of freedoms and rights, as a prison, purgatory, shelter,  and safe house.  It is both safe and dangerous, cancer and cure.  In many ways Wilder’s film is the same, it is both frightening and captivating, great and awful, and regardless of which side you come down on, it is completely worth seeing.

La Jetee (AKA: The Pier) (1961)

La Jetee

La Jetee (AKA: The Pier) – 1961

Director – Chris Marker

Starring – Jean Negroni

Although this small scale, experimental film is short in length, it is certainly long in premise.

***SPOILERS***

If you’ve seen the Terry Gilliam film, 12 Monkeys, then you know the basic gist of what La Jetee is attempting.  La Jetee, the basis for 12 Monkeys, doesn’t have as much story to deal with, but still manages to pack a lot of plot into its 30 min. run time.  Unfortunately (in my humble opinion) it’s innovation and it’s stumbling block are the same, the delivery of the story not through motion pictures, but through still photos, or Photo Roman.  (For those who’ve never heard of it, Photo Roman is an older style form of story telling that is essentially photo-montage.)

***END SPOILERS***

I say, “stumbling block”, because the pacing of the film really is unable to accelerate to the degree I felt it needed to in order to stay exciting.  The drab black and white photos, while completely serving the tone of the film, somewhat hinder it’s ability to keep the audience engaged for the duration.  Save for one short sequence, the entirety of the film is in the Photo Roman style, with a French-accented English-language narration over the top over the top of it.  While this may have been a fine choice for a work that was 10 minutes, 30 minutes is a long time.

The story, for those who haven’t seen or heard of 12 Monkeys, is a simple one in theory, but a complex one to illustrate in a piece as short as this.  We open on our main character as a young boy with his parents at the airport, watching planes take off.  While there he is witness to an act of murder, imagery that sticks with him throughout his entire life.  Soon after, a terrible disaster (in this case a nuclear fueled World War 3) strikes and his home town of Paris is leveled.  We jump forward many years in the future,  the world on the surface is uninhabitable, and people are forced to live underground.  Our main character is now a prisoner of the “winners” of the war, and subject to experiments trying to send him through time for the answers to re-populate the earth.  The strong imagery of the man’s death, makes him an ideal candidate for the process, but his keepers may have ulterior motives for him when he returns.

The music/sound effects are the only other element that helps to carry this work along, and while they are well done and very tonally appropriate, they do very little to pick the pace up.  The Photo Roman style works very well to get across the dreariness of the main character’s present-day setting, but it does very little to capture the nostalgia and romance of his earlier days.   The impression that this story feels like a found record of what happened (a’la “The Blair Witch”, or “Cannibal Holocaust”), works well most of the time, and helps to see why this movie was influential in film history.  An area that doesn’t work as well with that tone, is the airport setting.  Some of the photography is pretty stunning, but after seeing it the first time through his younger self, the subsequent times we visit the airport don’t have any more impact, and in-fact, may have less.

By and large, La Jetee was a good piece of work that was most certainly influential, but it felt incomplete, and was ultimately overshadowed by the very similar, and visually superior, 12 Monkeys.

“If only all family vacation slideshows were this interesting.” – Ashley