Robin Bates Film Course
Films featured in previous editions of the Film Course
American Independent Films
Cookie's Fortune (Robert Altman, 1999): a heartwarming story about a community and a non-murder in small-town Mississippi
The Station Agent (Thomas McCarthy, 2003): a fascinating character study involving three characters, including a dwarf who lives in a train station that he owns
Pieces of April (Peter Hedges, 2003): a dysfunctional family manages to come together for a chaotic Thanksgiving
Limbo (John Sayles, 1999): a powerful and unpredictable story about the relationship between an Alaskan fisherman, a singer, and her disaffected daughter and the bonds that they forge.
Nature in Film
Dersu Uzala (Akira Kurosawa, 1975): Winner of the foreign film Oscar in 1975, the story of the relationship between a Russian surveyor and his Mongolian guide in early 20th-century Siberia.
The Fast Runner (Sacharias Kunuk, 2002): A remarkable film whose plot involves murderous struggles within the normally peaceful and close-knit Inuit community, who live north of the Arctic Circle. Viewers are fully absorbed into the Inuit world in this fascinating study.
Spring, Summer Fall, Winter…and Spring (Ki-Duk Kim, 2003): A metaphorical story about a boy brought up in a tiny Buddhist monastery that floats on a raft. A stunningly beautiful meditation on the joys and sorrows of life.
Days of Heaven (Terrence Malick, 1978): Director Terrence Malick's film about life in the Texas wheat fields in the early 1900's, which won an Oscar for cinematography.
Films About the Theater
Film has its origins in the theater and has produced a number of masterpieces about life under the lights. "The world's a stage," wrote Shakespeare, and some of the best films about theater focus on the murky area where art ends and the world begins-or is it the other way around?
Shakespeare in Love (John Madden, 1998): Tom Stoppard's brilliant screenplay helped win the best film Oscar for this wonderful film about how frustrated love transformed a mediocre Renaissance author into William Shakespeare and Romeo and Ethel the Pirate's Daughter into the stage's greatest love story.
To Be or Not to Be (Ernst Lubitsch, 1942): To be a German in Hollywood making a 1942 comedy about Polish actors matching wits with their Nazi occupiers involves walking a very fine line. Ernst Lubitsch, known for his cosmopolitan comedies (Ninotchka, Shop on Main Street), somehow pulls it off in this smart and darkly comic film starring Carole Lombard (her last) and Jack Benny.
Topsy-Turvy (Mike Leigh, 1999): People in the theater praise how this fictional and very entertaining account of the creation and staging of Gilbert and Sullivan's Mikado captures life behind the curtain. The sexually repressed Gilbert and the man-about-town Sullivan should never have been able to collaborate, but we can't think of either without the other.
Children of Paradise (Marcel Carne, 1945): Children of Paradise is probably the greatest movie about the stage, starring the legendary French mime Jean-Louis Barrault. Improbably made in German-occupied France (the story of its creation is a remarkable one) by the legendary pair Marcel Carne and poet Jacques Prevert, the film is set in 1828 when two great theater traditions vied for supremacy. Because of its length, the film will be shown two consecutive nights. "Few achievements in the world of cinema can equal it," says Roger Ebert.
Robert Altman Retrospective
Robert Altman, who died in November 2006, was a one-of-a-kind director, a man who had successes when Hollywood was at its most experimental (in the early 1970's) and failures because he refused to let fame prevent him from taking chances. Success and failure seemed to mean less to him than exploring certain ideas. He is famous for his overlapping dialogues, his dream-like narratives, and the improvisation of his actors. His often unstructured stories allow even minor characters to have memorable scenes. After being all but washed up, he made a surprise comeback in the 1990's with star-studded casts of actors who were willing to work for peanuts so that they could work with him. Previously in this class we have watched two such movies, The Player and Cookie's Fortune. Passing up masterpieces such as Nashville and Short Cuts (as too long for our time slot), we will watch four interesting (and by Altman standards tightly plotted) films from different moments in his career.
MASH (Robert Atlman, 1970) - This was the film that made Altman's reputation. Although set in the Korean War, the film is clearly about Vietnam, and its dark comedy shocked audiences and helped a new generation of moviegoers to process their distress about the war.
Images (Robert Altman, 1972): A relatively unknown but beautifully filmed mystery about housewife Susannah York, who writes about unicorns in her Ireland country home and has difficulty separating her fantasies from reality. One of Altman's haunting and dream-like films.
Vincent and Theo (Robert Altman, 1990) - A wonderfully sensitive film about Vincent Van Gogh and the brother who believed in him. Roger Ebert, differentiating Vincent and Theo from other artist films, writes, "Only occasionally does a film come along where we get the sensation that actual creation is taking place before our eyes."
Gosford Park (Robert Altman, 2001): The film only seems like an Agatha Christie murder mystery. In fact, as Roger Ebert points out, it is a loving testimony to style, which has always been one of Altman's strengths, and it is also an homage to Robin Bates' favorite film of all time, Jean Renoir's Rules of the Game (1939). The ensemble cast, as in so many Altman movies, remains with the viewer long after the film is over.
Australian Films Set in Colonial Times
Like many former colonies, Australia has found that looking back at its colonial history and exploring its national identity is a powerful stimulus for art. That impulse, combined with generous tax shelters, has made Australia one of the most consistently vibrant film cultures in the world over the past 35 years.
My Brilliant Career (Gillian Armstrong, 1979) - A young girl from the outback is introduced into high society and must choose whether or not to get married to Mr. Right. An exhilarating and affirming coming-of-age story.
Picnic at Hanging Rock (Peter Weir, 1975) - Peter Weir is best known in the United States for films such as Dead Poets Society and The Truman Show. But his greatest films may be his early Australian works. This film is about a mystery--the disappearance of three girls and a teacher from a 1900 boarding school--that the director explores through haunting images and music.
The Piano (Jane Campion, 1993) - A powerful melodrama about a catalogue bride who is mute and speaks through her playing. The memorable soundtrack conveys her pent-up passions. The film won well-deserved Oscars for best actress, best supporting actress, and best screenplay.
Rabbit-Proof Fence (Philip Noyce, 2002) - Based on an actual story, Rabbit-Proof Fence is about aborigine girls in 1931 forcibly taken from their families for re-education and their impossible 1500-mile attempt to escape back home.
Films of Australia
This semester's Lifelong Learning film course will continue with the theme of films from Australia, one of the strongest national film movements over the past 25 years. Last semester we looked at films set in colonial times. This semester we will watch films set in the years since Australia gained its independence, including present-day Australia.
Flirting (John Duigan, 1991) - A tender boarding school film about a friendship between a boy who stutters and a girl from Uganda, Flirting features "characters I cared about immensely" (Roger Ebert).
Muriel's Wedding (P.J. Hogan, 1994) - Wedding films offer powerful occasions for comedy drama and Muriel's Wedding is one of the best as it explores the illusion that one needs Prince Charming to bolster one's self esteem.
Lantana (Ray Lawrence, 2001) - Lantana is a murder mystery that is much more, a hypnotic film that follows multiple lives of strangers who meet by chance and influence each other.
Look Both Ways (Sarah Watt, 2005) - An extraordinary film by a first-time director, Look Both Ways interweaves animation with a series of stories about how we wrestle with the issue of death and find ways to give our lives meaning.
Contemporary Musical Films
This semester's Lifelong Learning film course will focus on contemporary musicals. There has been a resurgence of this classic film genre in recent years. The four films selected represent the wide range of cinematic styles and themes from 2001 to 2007.
Moulin Rouge! (Baz Luhrmann, 2001) - This fast paced Australian film is set in Paris and directed by Baz Luhrmann. It features Nicole Kidman, Ewan McGregor, and Jim Broadbent in a story of truth, beauty, freedom and love. It features songs from the 1970's and 1980's.
De-Lovely (Irwin Winkler, 2004) - Kevin Kline brilliantly portrays Cole Porter's amazing life. This biopic film features dozens of Porter's songs that are seamlessly blended into the plot line. Contemporary artists like Elvis Costello, Sheryl Crow, and Natalie Cole sing his songs.
Once (John Carney, 2007) - This Irish independent film was shot in 17 days on a miniscule budget. It is a sweet story of how music can bring two people together. It produced the 2007 Academy Award- winning Best Song. It was on many film critics 10 best list for 2007.
Across the Universe (Julie Taymor, 2007) - Julie Taymor, who also directed "The Lion King" on Broadway, directed this extraordinary musical. It is a love story set in the turbulent sixties and features music from the Beatles songbook. Visually, it is one of the most interesting films in years.
Films of Sydney Pollack
This semester's film course will honor the memory and films of Sydney Pollack. He was a true Hollywood renaissance man being a gifted director, producer and actor. We will explore the common thematic threads that are woven throughout his many different films.
They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (Sydney Pollack, 1969) - This tense depression era film focuses the desperate participants of a dance marathon who are trying to win a large cash prize. Its all-star cast includes Gig Young, Susannah York, Red Buttons, Michael Sarrazin, and Jane Fonda, who was nominated for an Academy Award.
Three Days of the Condor (Sydney Pollack, 1975) - Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway star in this tense and engaging well-made thriller. Redford works for the CIA and becomes their target in a complex conspiracy. The talented Cliff Roberts and Max von Sydow round out the cast.
Tootsie (Sydney Pollack, 1982) - Desperate for work, Dustin Hoffman disguises himself as a woman to get an acting job. This 1940's style film comedy mixes absurdity with serious social commentary. It also stars Jessica Lange, Bill Murray, Teri Garr, and Sydney Pollack as Hoffman's agent.
Out of Africa (Sydney Pollack, 1985) - This epic love story set in Kenya around World War I, stars Robert Redford, Meryl Streep, and the breathtaking scenery of Africa. It won the Academy Award for best picture and director and five other Oscars.
Escaping to Italy
Italy has long captured the world's imagination as a magical place to which one can escape and find one's true self. Not surprisingly, therefore, this is the theme of a number of fine films. Sometimes even Italian directors have taken up the theme and shown Italians escaping from one part of Italy to find a deep happiness in another. This course will look at four films dealing with this pattern. It will also explore the symbolic significance that the world attaches to Italy.
Roman Holiday (US, William Wyler, 1953) - Audrey Hepburn took the world by storm in this break-out performance about a runaway princess befriended by newspaperman Gregory Peck.
Enchanted April (England, Mike Newell, 1992) - This enchanting film begins in the London rain, which may provide all the explanation needed for England's centuries-long love affair with Italy. It tracks four women who set up house in an Italian castle.
A Brief Vacation (Italy, Vittorio De Sica, 1973) - A Brief Vacation was one of the last and one of the most beautiful films of the legendary director of Bicycle Thief. It shows that sometimes magical refuge can be found in the most unlikely of places, such as a tuberculosis sanitarium.
Bread and Tulips (Italy, Silvio Soldini, 2000) - To escape from a guided tour and a dull marriage to parts of Venice that most of us never see - that's the premise of this engaging Italian film, which was a tremendous hit in Italy.
The heist movie, where a gang of (mostly) men get together to rip off an institution that has a lot of money, dates back to the French film Rififi (1955), the Italian film Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958) and the original Oceans 11 (1960). For a variety of interesting reasons, it has been particularly vibrant over the past two decades. Its allure may have been identified best by Billy Wilder in his own (kind of) heist movie Double Indemnity (1944): "You're like the guy behind the roulette wheel, watching the customers to make sure they don't crook the house. And then one night, you get to thinking how you could crook the house yourself. And do it smart."
Of course, we would never undertake a heist ourselves. We let the movies do it for us.
Nine Queens (Fabian Bielinsky, 2000) - This stylish Argentine heist movie, shot on a shoestring budget, has so many unexpected twists and turns that one leaves it dazzled. As with other heist films, half the fun is reconstructing the film afterwards.
Inside Man (Spike Lee, 2006) - Spike Lee brings both racial sensitivity and surprising warmth to this bank robbery movie. Although it has high production values and high marquis actors (such as Clive Owen and Denzel Washington), Inside Man retains an independent film feel that is Lee's trademark.
Three Kings (David O. Russell, 1999) - Set during the first Gulf War, this heist/war film shows two sides of America at war with itself: its greed and its idealism. George Clooney is brilliant as he orchestrates the theft of Kuwaiti gold from Saddam.
Jackie Brown (Quentin Tarantino, 1997) - If you've heard about Tarantino but been scared off by his reputation for violence, this is the film of his to start with. The director takes Pam Grier, famous for her leading role in 1970's blaxploitation movies, and makes her a very attractive heroine, trying to hold out against the nefarious Samuel Jackson. As always with Tarantino movies, the dialogue is fast and smart and the blood shedding (by today's standards) is relatively mild.
Animated Features for Adults
While most full-length animated features are aimed at children (and at the child inside adults), in recent years a few directors have used animation to tackle difficult adult topics. This course looks at four interesting examples of such films from around the world.
Up (U.S., Peter Docter and Bob Peterson, 2009) – We start the course off with Up to talk about the remarkable phenomenon that is Pixar Films. Among other startling features of this “Lost World” adventure is the fact that it has a geriatric protagonist. (96 minutes)
Waking Life (U.S., Richard Linklater, 2001) – Linklater gives us surreal characters engaged in a philosophy discussion—is it real or a dream?—that is mesmerizing to watch and stimulating to talk about after the film is over. (100 minutes)
Persepolis (France, Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi, 2007) – Based on an autobiographical graphic novel, Persepolis traces the journey of an Iranian girl, from her childhood in Tehran to her adolescence in France to her adulthood in Iran, where she must subscribe to Iranian restrictions on women. Both humorous and disturbing, the film provides us with a glimpse into Iranian society. (95 minutes)
Waltz with Bashir (Israel, Ari Folman, 2008) – Folman turned to animation to capture a 1982 Lebanese massacre that he himself witnessed but then erased from his mind. The use of hallucinatory animation allowed the director to get at the war experience, especially the PTSD suffered by soldiers, in ways that a more realistic depiction could not. (90 minutes)
This semester’s Lifelong Learning Film Class is run in conjunction with “Between Fences,” a traveling Smithsonian exhibition at the St. Mary’s Boyden Gallery. Each of the films is a profound exploration of the boundaries that define us and divide us.
La Grande Illusion (Jean Renoir, 1937) – In one of the most humane films ever made about war, Renoir charts the relationship between French and German soldiers, upper-class and lower class officers, workers and Jews, and any number of other contentious dividing lines. (114 minutes)
A Touch of Evil (Orson Welles, 1958) – Welles’ film noir masterpiece begins at the shadowy border between Mexico and the United States but that’s only one of the permeable boundaries in the film, the most noteworthy of which is the line between law and criminality. (95 minutes)
Bread and Chocolate (Franco Brusati, 1974) taps into the tradition of Charlie Chaplin’s little tramp in this bitter sweet film about Italian immigration into Switzerland and their love-hate relationship with their wealthy neighbor to the north. (100 minutes)
Goodbye Lenin! (Wolfgang Becker, 2003) – In this award winning comic drama from Germany, a woman in a coma awakes following the fall of the Berlin Wall. Her son, worried that her health won’t handle the shock of the news, tries to maintain the illusion that the two Germanys are still divided. (121 minutes)
Funerals may sound like a depressing subject, but these filmic treatments use the ceremony to open up profound and often uplifting meditations on the meaning of life and death. This includes one film that employs black comedy to engage with something that most people are wary about discussing.
Death at a Funeral (England, 2007) – The Brits are better at finding the comic dimensions of funerals than anyone else, perhaps because of their famous reserve. Propriety mixes with slapsticks in this black comedy. (91 minutes)
Ikiru (Japan, 1952) – One of the greatest films by Akira Kurosawa, arguably cinema’s greatest director. A diagnosis of terminal prompts a man to find new meaning in his life. (143 minutes)
Get Low (United States, 2009) – Knowing that important truths sometimes get said at funerals, hermit Felix Bush (Robert Duvall) plans his own funeral to occur while he is still alive. Masterful acting by Duvall and funeral director Bill Murray. (100 minutes)
Departures (Japan, 2008) – An unemployed cellist finds his true calling in preparing the dead for funerals but faces Japan’s disgust with his job in the process. A moving film that won the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 2009. (131 minutes)
The Wild and Wondrous Films of Pedro Almodóvar
Few directors today can match the startling plots and arresting images of Pedro Almodóvar, one of contemporary cinema’s most interesting directors. Although his subject matter is almost always controversial and treads into taboo territory, the Spanish director gets us to look past our preconceptions and appreciate the complexity of the individuals involved.
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown(1988) – Almodóvar’s breakthrough comedy is about an actress whose life is falling apart (but in interesting ways). (90 minutes)
All About My Mother (1999) – Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film, All About My Mother features a woman who, struggling to recover from her son’s accidental death, finds support in her friends, who include a transsexual prostitute and a pregnant nun (Penelope Cruz). (101 minutes)
Talk to Her (2002) – Winner of the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, the film is about a man who becomes obsessed with, and tirelessly tends to, a woman in a coma. (112 minutes)
Bad Education (2004) – A film director is give a short story written by a childhood friend and lover about molestation at the hands of their Catholic school teacher. Dark developments occur when he starts to adapt the story into a film. (106 minutes)