The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

January 15, 2010

Review: Movies speak to audiences in similar ways


For this column I will look at two movies that couldn’t be any more different from each other — on paper, anyway. But they both possess whatever magic lies within really good movies to make them “speak” to an audience — to show us something about ourselves and the world around us.

“Unfaithfully Yours”

(not rated)

Whenever I’m asked to recommend a movie to a library patron (and it happens fairly often) I always tell them, “Oh, you should get ‘Unfaithfully Yours.’” It’s the perfect movie to recommend to a stranger for three reasons:

1. It’s really good.

2. It’s tasteful (but not boringly so).

3. Most people have never heard of it, let alone seen it.

The movie tells the tale of one Sir Alfred De Carter, a famous orchestra conductor who, despite his prestige and high standing, is a man at heart and as such is given over to petty jealousy and fantasies of revenge when he suspects his wife of having a wandering eye.

As he conducts his symphony through several disparate pieces of classical music, his mind wanders as he envisions impossibly complex ways to both prove his wife’s unfaithfulness and to exact his own ultra-suave brand of revenge. But things go hilariously awry when De Carter actually gets a chance to set his plots into motion.

“Unfaithfully Yours” stars a younger Rex Harrison, 16 years before his famous turn as Professor Henry Higgins in “My Fair Lady,” and benefits tremendously from the highly skilled actor’s wonderful performance. Capturing a pompousness and coldness about De Carter while still remaining sympathetic is no small feat, and Harrison handles it admirably.

Once things start to go seriously downhill for the man, it’s hard not to feel sorry for him, even as you laugh at him and chastise him for ever fantasizing revenge in the first place.

Perhaps not the most obvious draw for the movie, but the most important and the most lasting, is that it was directed and scripted by that manic genius of 1940s cinema, Preston Sturges. A rather late-period entry into the director’s filmography (his earlier, more well-known efforts such as “Lady Eve” and “Sullivan’s Travels” having come at the very beginning of the ’40s), the film still bristles with Sturges’ trademark energy and the unusually structured script is distinctly his own.

A small masterpiece from one of the giants of “golden age” of comedy, as well as a powerful treatise on male hubris and machismo, “Unfaithfully Yours” is a hilarious movie that comes highly recommended.

“Tarnation”

(not rated)

It’s hard to describe the power of Jonathan Caouette’s powerful documentary “Tarnation.”

I was going to finish that sentence with “other than to say that … ” but I couldn’t come up with anything, so I’ll let that first sentence stand all on its own. It’s hard to describe the power of this movie.

“Tarnation” was the end result of a lifetime spent obsessively documenting, archiving and manipulating the life of its director. Culled from more than 20 years worth (hundreds of hours) of old video footage, and made for the sum total budget of $218.32 at the home of the director on his computer, the movie works in spite of its obvious limitations. (Good portions of the movie consist of text scrolling across the screen in front of still photographs.)

The film details the troubled childhood of Caouette, from coping with an absent father to dealing with his mentally disturbed mother who goes through a series of bizarre and disturbing electroshock treatments, rendering her a shell of her former self. Throughout, vintage video footage reveals Caouette to be a highly intelligent, artistic youth left to drift and come to terms with his life in the best way he knows how — in front of a camera.

At times funny, at times deeply disturbing, and at times downright horrifying, “Tarnation” is a film unique unto itself. A highly moving portrait of a tortured soul and his attempts to come to terms with his birthright and the world around him, the film rises above the sum of its limited parts to create a whole both affecting and powerfully memorable.

Mark Schuster is the assistant circulation supervisor at Joplin Public Library.