The Drifter, the Desert and the Divine: Lilies of the Field (1963)

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To Homer Smith (Sidney Poitier), an overheated engine is just an overheated engine; to Mother Maria (Lilia Skala), it’s divine intervention.

Either way, it disrupts Homer’s drive through the Arizona desert at the beginning of the 1963 film Lilies of the Field and prompts him to seek water at the nearest building. This turns out to be a convent, home to Mother Maria and four other nuns (Lisa Mann, Isa Crino, Francesca Jarvis, Pamela Branch) who have come to the United States from East Germany. “God is good. He has sent me a big strong man,” Mother Maria declares upon seeing Homer, then informs him that she has work for him to do. Although he’s not interested at first and starts to drive away, the nuns’ sad faces bother him, and a glance into his wallet reminds him that he could use the money; he is, in fact, an itinerant laborer, and this job is probably no worse than any other he might encounter. As such, he agrees to fix their roof, intending to leave as soon as he’s finished — but Mother Maria has other plans for him.

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Like a Miracle: Whistle Down the Wind (1961)

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Even after the three Bostock children rescue a sack of kittens from drowning and hide them in their barn at the start of the 1961 Bryan Forbes-directed film Whistle Down the Wind, they know the danger is far from over: It was their farmhand, Eddie (Norman Bird), who tried to get rid of the unwanted animals on behalf of their father (Bernard Lee). Charlie (Alan Barnes), the youngest, is less concerned than his sisters, however. Having spoken to a woman (Patricia Heneghan) from the Salvation Army on the way home, he declares that Jesus will look after the kittens. Eldest child Kathy (Hayley Mills, daughter of Mary Hayley Bell, who wrote the novel on which the film was based) expresses skepticism, but Charlie insists that the woman knows “because she lives in his house.” “How can she when he’s dead?” Kathy retorts. Her sister Nan (Diane Holgate) warns her that she’ll “have something terrible happening now” for saying that, and although Kathy scoffs, it’s clear that she’s rather uneasy. Consequently, when she returns to the barn alone that night, she’s terrified to discover a bearded stranger (Alan Bates) there. “Who is it?” she manages to ask. The slightly dazed man says, “Jesus Christ”; she takes it as an answer to her question.

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A Parable in Pixillation: Neighbours (1952)

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In 1949, Scottish-born Canadian filmmaker Norman McLaren traveled to China in order to work on UNESCO’s Healthy Village Project. There, he taught local artists how to create a variety of audio-visual materials that could be used to educate the rural population; he also witnessed the end of the Chinese Civil War. “About three months after I went out there, communists took over our particular town, and for the rest of the year I was living under the new regime,” he said in an interview included in the documentary Creative Process: Norman McLaren. “And I was able to see what it was doing and talk with many people and heard the story of their lives, particularly people between the ages of twenty and thirty. I tended to identify myself with what was going on there because I thought what was happening was very good. So then when I left China, the Korean War broke out the same day, almost, as I left China, and I came back to North America, and I felt a great tension about war in general. The tension that was produced from my year’s experience in China, plus my return to here, and to an environment where the newspapers were saying something totally different from what I’d been used to — that tension produced the film Neighbours.”

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Between Parent and Child: Tokyo Twilight (1957)

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Single parents are as typical of Yasujirô Ozu’s oeuvre as static camerawork, young women being urged to marry and the ubiquitous presence of Chishû Ryû — often playing a single father himself. By and large, these are widows and widowers, as seen in such films as The Only Son (1936), There Was a Father (1942), Late Spring (1949), Late Autumn (1960) and An Autumn Afternoon (1962), among others. Less common is a parent raising a child or children alone while the absent parent lives on elsewhere. It happens in A Story of Floating Weeds (1934) and its remake, Floating Weeds (1959), and also in The End of Summer (1961); in all of those cases, the mother is the responsible one and the father is her former lover rather than her former husband. Rarer still — unique, even, for Ozu — is the situation found in his 1957 film Tokyo Twilight.

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Blind Spot Series: Last Year at Marienbad (1961)

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At a luxurious, baroque hotel, a man (Giorgio Albertazzi) confronts a woman (Delphine Seyrig) and claims that they were acquainted last year at Frederiksbad. When she says that she’s never been to Frederiksbad, he acknowledges that it might have been Karlstadt or Marienbad or Baden-Salsa, or even the very room where they’re now talking, and it’s also possible that it happened more than a year ago. Still, he insists that it’s true and tells her everything he remembers about their time together, about the way she looked and their surroundings and the conversations they had and the plans they made. She, meanwhile, keeps denying that she recalls any part of it.

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Driving Through Fog: La Cotta (1967)

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Andrea (Luciano Piergiovanni) may only be a fifteen-year-old Milanese schoolboy (“Let’s say sixteen,” he suggests), but he prefers to view himself as a man of the world, especially when it comes to romance. “Every guy has his own technique for picking up girls,” he explains. “Some feign indifference. Some are very passionate, but that’s not in at the moment. Some act tough, but most guys act sad — who knows why, but falling in love makes them sad and surly. They look preoccupied. My technique, very little used but perhaps the most effective, is to use ideas and self-control. I talk and talk until they’re totally confused, and the trick is done.” Although Ermanno Olmi’s 1967 made-for-television movie La Cotta (or, in English, The Crush) runs a mere forty-nine minutes, Andrea manages to do a good bit of talking in that time; he also proves that he’s not immune to total confusion himself.

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Twelve Classics for 2017

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As I did this year, I’ll be participating in the Blind Spot Series in 2017. Every month, I’ll watch a new-to-me classic film and write up my thoughts afterwards. Here’s my list:

If you’re interested in taking part, more information can be found at The Matinee.

A Ragged, Glistening, Unlikely Hero: Sanjuro (1962)

All he wanted was a place where he could spend the night for free.

Unfortunately for the man in question (Toshirô Mifune) — the title character in Akira Kurosawa’s 1962 film Sanjuro — his sleep is interrupted when nine young samurai convene in the building where he decided to bunk down. Concerned about corruption in their clan, the samurai recently wrote up a proposal for eradicating it. One of them, Iori Izaka (Yûzô Kayama), presented this plan to his uncle, Chamberlain Mutsuta (Yûnosuke Itô) — only to have Mutsuta reject their assistance, going so far as to tear up the document itself. An offended Izaka then turned to Superintendent Kikui (Masao Shimizu), who was much more sympathetic. “He thought about it and said, ‘All right. I’m with you. I’d like to talk with your group. Gather all your men quickly,'” Izaka tells the others. The samurai, delighted by this news, are ready to leap into action, but it’s at this point that they hear a half-yawn, half-groan from the next room. “Wait just a minute,” says an unfamiliar voice. The erstwhile slumberer emerges from the darkness, looks around at the startled young men, lets out another yawn and informs them that they have the situation all wrong.

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Blind Spot Series: Metropolis (1927)

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The futuristic city of Metropolis is two worlds in one. Above ground, the privileged portion of the populace, including wealthy businessmen and their sons, leads a life of pleasure and ease; meanwhile, deep under the earth’s surface, workers toil away for hours and hours at backbreaking jobs in order to make that lifestyle possible, never getting to partake in the fruits of their labor. A young man named Freder (Gustav Fröhlich) — whose powerful father, Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), made Metropolis what it is — is blissfully ignorant of the workers’ misery until one day when he pays a visit to the city’s Eternal Gardens. His frolics with the women there are interrupted by the appearance of an unknown, simply dressed woman (Brigitte Helm) and a group of ragged children. “Look! These are your brothers!” she tells her young followers, the offspring of the workers. They’re all quickly shown the door, but Freder is both smitten and intrigued, and he decides to chase after her.

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