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Breadlines and Champagne! “Man’s Castle” (Borzage, 1933)

Film Forum's Breadlines and Champagne! series started Friday, February 6th, with 35-cents tickets (25-cents for members) for screenings of the Mae West vehicle, I'm No Angel. A funny little thing about a sexy, driven lady, it was a perfectly "fine" start to the series, which continues through the month, but the real draw of the weekend is a pristine new 35mm print of Frank Borzage's Man's Castle (paired with Capra's not-on-DVD American Madness). The run lasted through Monday night but, looking ahead, the theatre will be offering all kinds of fun and sad ways to stand up and cheer that this new fangled new year may be starting at a low point but will—we hope! we know!—turn up towards the good. And before we know it we all will need a new daily planner. You can see the whole line-up of films at Film Forum's website.
A film made to witness the social blight of the Great Depression, released in that earliest and leanest period of the decade before FDR and his New Deal upturn, Frank Borzage's Man's Castle takes on characteristics of its male lead, a young Spencer Tracy, unspooling with patient bemusement and gruff shades of guile. Tracy plays Bill, a man who lives clean and free, taking whatever job will feed him, living most nights under the stars. He prides himself on his independence and, a lot of the time, this no-apologies bluster makes him a prick. All his kindness is masked by toughness, by his brawny bring-it-on posture. Decked in tuxedo and top hat, Bill meets Trina (a wounded Loretta Young, all eyeballs) crumbling popcorn for swans beside The Pond in Central Park. Trina says she hasn't eaten in days and Bill says "Women got nothing to do with the unemployment." When she demures, he goes further to say that there's the river to think about, too. Again she declares herself too afraid to do anything besides starve. So, with a grimace, Bill invites her to dinner.
Although the film offers a pretty simple push-and-pull love story, its charitable optimism—typified by how Borzage smears the lens with light (to point beyond the frame, to point back at the world)—smoothes its frankness. In that first scene (where the city appears as a rear-projection), the swans do not just waddle at Tracy's feet, their feathers' blur bleeds around the little space, a set of beacons bobbing. This molding of the world continues: when not an obvious and limited back-lot set, the city scenes follow routine to show our "subjects" in front of a screened crowd, and never a part of the foot traffic flow; "moonlight" dances on the "Hudson" while the couple skinny dips, racing "to the moon" (a perfect overhead lamp); clouds and balloons laze past windows with weighty grain; a key-light haloes Young in close-up time and again; the whites do not burn the emulsion, as they may in a Von Sternberg film, but rather streak and daub to accent a space, a face, a scene. I've read characterizations of Borzage as inheriting a certain Romantic tradition, and this proves true in that the film sees the wonder in our natural world. However, given all the artifice involved not only in this film but in film on the whole, as it is its own tradition, this is a troublesome tack to take. Somehow Wordsworth writing under a tree about that tree feels more real, or more immediate, than this brand of cinema—or, at least, this Borzage (my first).
You may have guessed: while the film is ostensibly about the Great Depression, and the weight many citizens felt during its run, this is more milieu (a literal backdrop) than subject matter. No, Man's Castle has simpler aims—a modest interest in love's fight for itself. For Borzage, it would seem, love is basic—a form (or shifting forms, arrangements) of servitude. Thus, this story could easily be told in any of our 20th Century decades past—just as it could be told at our current moment. I guess that resonance is the thrill that this retrospective can provide, which is another simple (and, yes, generous) goal. This hope to spark your brain in tandem with your, ahem, heart is typical of any great love, be it for a person or a county; that hope to inhabit the space such a love makes possible. The uplift of the camera, ascending with grace at the close to present a near-Pieta tableau, signals that these souls shuttling towards a new life will find their fulfillment somewhere down the line. We remember—perpetually, pace Cavell—that "America is a place, fictional no doubt, in which that happiness can be found."
Seeing the film a second time on Sunday, a couple weeks after a first viewing, confirmed that my brain had re-arranged the picture in its absence. I find these kinds of “revelations” or “reminders” fun, for the most part, since it shows me how easy it is for a project such as criticism to fail — at its own hand — or at least fail to account for itself. Lucky, then, that I’m still an online critic with space such as a comment thread to offer something such as this. I also want to say that this film only appreciates for me. Watching it a second time, I don’t quite know if it’s as much about “the smear” as I thought it was. However, I still think its whites are not the same self-illuminating, own-that-space kind of burning emulsion as those I saw in The Last Command last year. And I still think the brilliance of those whites helps define a lot of my immediate attraction to the picture. Those and the sheer charisma of Tracy. His performance made me say, walking to the train, “There’s really just no actors like that anymore.” I am wary of saying shit like that, of course, but I think it’s true. The way Brad Pitt flirts with the world (as in his junk food eating in those Oceans movies) or the way Matthieu Amalric charms anything in his path despite a callous front (such as the doctor in Xmas Tale) are much different kinds of acting, although they bare more resemblance to what Tracy’s doing here than, say, what Clooney does, or even what DeNiro did. I’m sure somebody smart can shut me up about this thread but, really, there’s something about the way Tracy can stand by a pole and scratch his face that’s so cute and sexy and guarded and playful… that I just love it, and it makes me wish that all these thesping-scientists (like, say, PSH) would just give themselves to the world a little more. The only current actor I can think of that does something similar in his posture is Mark Ruffalo, and even his version is different, or more “modern.” —Any takers? Another thing is: boy, Loretta Young was a dish. She had me all Bragg-like last night in Employee’s Entrance opposite Warren William, btw, where the clear-as-night print made her radiate. A final thing, for now, is: how come I didn’t talk about the title? What’s the castle? Man made, no doubt. The train? The window? Wait: what’s her role in its construction? Also, is the cinema something built strictly by men and their (transparently) “complex” desires? by looking?
A man’s house is his castle (irony abounds). Honestly, the first thing I did when I got home was check to see if Loretta Young was still alive and single. who’s PSH? more later Dave
Philip Seymour Hoffman. There can only be one.
Excellent movie I bought this here

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