One of the big goals, when I started Berkreviews.com, was to catch up on the big movies that I’d missed. These “gaps” in our viewing history haunt the film obsessed, especially when conversing with others. There are few phrases I fear hearing more than “You’ve never seen that?”, with the accompanying shocked look. Yet, I know there are so many incredible films that have not been viewed for one reason or another. While I often attempt to close the gaps, I don’t always write about my experience with them. Often, I choose to write about the new releases instead, but I decided to try and share as I catch up on some of the older films that I watch throughout the year.
Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)
If I’m being candid, I didn’t know Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) was a film I’d missed out on until this year’s Sight and Sound poll. I’m sure I’d heard of it in passing, but I’d be lying to say it was on my radar. Of course, with it being the first #1 of the poll with a female director, Chantal Akerman, and my decision to participate in #theotherfilmmakerschallenge only further fueling my drive, I caught the movie on HBO Max.
I didn’t really know what to expect going in and was completely surprised by the style of the film. It is just over three hours long, which definitely means putting in the time to watch it. The use of long takes with no camera movement and the actions being predominately chores was concerning. However, there is something about Delphine Seyrig’s performance that makes even the most mundane tasks feel vital. I was shocked at how invested I was in the simple process of making a pot of coffee, especially living in a world where I have both a Keurig and a Nespresso machine. While I simply pop a pod into a device and click the button, she must boil water in one kettle while grinding her coffee beans. She then pours the beans into a funnel and places them on top of another kettle. Now she must slowly pour the water into the funnel allowing the grounds to filter the water until complete. Even then, she eventually pours the coffee into a big thermos to stay warm throughout the day. It’s these little details in Jeanne’s (Seyrig) life that are so important to her character which will ultimately help the audience make sense of the film’s ending. I certainly see why so many hold it in high regard.
The Public Enemy (1931)
I’m a big fan of the Secret History of Hollywood Podcast, and the series on the Warner Brothers also heavily featured James Cagney. As an actor, he is a major one on my gap list, and there was a New Year sale on some of the digital providers for a few of his films. It was time to dive into The Public Enemy (1931), despite my general disinterest in gangster films.
I’m not sure why I always allow myself this apprehension towards any genre at this point, as I’ve learned that there are good movies from every genre. This is definitely one of them. Cagney is as dynamic an actor as one could expect. It’s impossible not to root for Tom Powers (Cagney) despite knowing that we aren’t really supposed to, as he’s the titular character. I suppose that’s one reason I often avoid the genre, as our protagonists aren’t really who we should be cheering on. Yet, they’re so charismatic, or their rivals are depicted as so strict and uncompromising that we get why they push back so hard. We don’t always agree with their tactics, but we very much understand their frustration with their place in the world.
White Heat (1949)
I was so impressed with The Public Enemy that I figured I should keep the momentum up and jump into another Cagney classic, White Heat (1949). I noticed a trend between mobsters and their mothers between the two films, with this one taking it a step further. Powers’ mother in The Public Enemy was more or less just enabling the behavior of her son, if not being completely oblivious to it. Here, Arthur “Cody” Jarrett’s mother, played by Margaret Wycherly, is in on the illegal activity. It plays into the story quite a bit, and there is no denying the level of complexity in the story compared to the previous film.
I liked White Heat, but I think I really preferred the simplicity of The Public Enemy. However, the double feature has made me want to explore more of Cagney’s career. I also purchased this one on sale via one of the digital movie providers. I’m not upset with my order at all, though, because both films have the absolutely rewatchable quality one hopes for with a film purchase.
I plan to continue exploring films that I’ve missed out on and will do these type of micro reviews with them. It’s always exciting to see the trail of inspiration movies like these have had on filmmakers since their release. You’ll see traces of these films in movies you already love. If only we had more time to just keep watching movies.