[1941] Here Comes Mr. Jordan

Pinpointing where a trope starts is a core concept in film history; tracing the origins of story tells a story itself. For example, think about the first time movie showed a natural disaster on screen. Can you remember which movie showed a tornado? Flood? Huge earthquake? It’s a challenge because this process is multi-dimensional, multi-cultural and aspiring filmmakers dabbled extremely wide and deep in the first few decades of making movies. They grasped onto new technology and technique, they experimented in color and sound design and sought to move the medium forward, whether consciously or not. The very fact of making a movie in the 1930s and 1940s changed the game for every other filmmaker.

(Here’s a quick side note: because of how slowly information moved pre-Internet, multiple studios and directors created new all at once, often separately, often across the world. But here’s a fun thought experiment: two studios could have worked on the same idea across Tinseltown, and both could have made huge strides simultaneously. The industry-wide gains may have been realized, and later interacted with each other months or years later. The collective derivation swelled the world with so many new ideas for a long time.)

Deep in the morass of the early 1940s there’s hundreds of films buried, but for the Academy Awards. The landmark year 1939 (The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) bookends 1944, when the Academy shed its all-for-one mentality. For the next 64 years, only five of the best films would earn a Best Picture nomination. Where 1939 introduced Technicolor, 1940 didn’t introduce a thing. There’s absolutely talented, famous works here: The Great Dictator, The Philadelphia Story, winner, Rebecca, but this time in history is muddy, and Here Comes Mr. Jordan often gets, well, lost.

Like we’ve talked about, Here Comes Mr. Jordan is the spiritual successor to the guardian angel trope (even Heaven Can Wait, two years later. It’s modern flagpole is popularized by Christmas favorite, It’s a Wonderful Life (which definitely contributes to it’s lasting popularity.) What if you’d never been born? What if you die too early? Would everyone be better off? The trope is old news now; it’s fossilized. The answer is always “everyone’s worse off, because your individual life touches so many others.” It’s not an interesting premise, so why do studios keep making these movies? Likely, because it’s tried and true, and it’s a Universal Human Theme, of which there are only so many. Perhaps in the 2020s we’ll see more of this, but for members of marginalized groups–LGBTQ+, perhaps, or women and men of color.

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{No. 95: Home Video} [1956] The King and I

mv5bnmjkytvimzitzdm3ys00mdu2ltkzywitmgjkyjvjmju2yjnll2ltywdll2ltywdlxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvynjc1ntyymjg40._v1_uy1200_cr7906301200_al_Audiences of a certain age remember the now-bizarre struggle to maintain VHS recordings of their favorite programs and movies. During its 30 year dominance, the Video Home System was the singular standard for analog, portable video production and consumption, fully defeating Betamax’s inability to match functionality and consumer preference. The struggle, decades later, seems almost laughable: physically rewinding tapes after viewing, the constant threat of a tape jam, metallic tape depreciation – diminishing returns on each subsequent viewing – and finally physical clutter. Older audiences recall not having this struggle at all; recording anything was a tremendous accomplishment, and doing so was a marvel of technical skill and fiscal independence. New audiences, infants who can use Netflix instinctively, also recall not having this struggle given the death of the VHS when digital media, the DVD, took over.

Access to nothing and everything is almost the same. (Almost) every piece of media is available instantly now across too many platforms, so figuring out what to watch is no longer limited to what is currently on a shelf, but how long a person will spend scrolling through endless content. Both might be paralyzing, but for different reasons. For the film critic and historian, having access to an obscure title with a click is essential; but the critic likely has a decision matrix and a mental map of availability. The average viewer? The person looking to unwind after a long day? No clue, and why would they? There’s no structure or routine that the VHS, then the DVD, provided. A person’s evening would almost be better if the Internet made the choice for them, and just quit.

In 2001, my family first made the switch from VHS to DVD. The handsome Disney and Mel Brooks collections on our shelves would soon be decoration. Our first DVD was The King and I, seeing as it was the title my father recognized out of our library’s massive collection of four. At the time, my 43 year old father connected dearly with the 44-year-old movie; he was a fan of musicals of all kinds, and a fan of Oscar winner Yul Brenner as the precocious, permabanned-from-Thailand, eponymous King Mongkut. The King and I was an ideal introduction to DVD technology. It included an Overture, Entr’acte, and Exit Music to chop The King and I into halves and chapters. A VHS user would to continuously fast-forward and rewind if not interested; the DVD user pushes a single button and the only way to degrade the movie was to treat the DVD like a frisbee. Continue reading

{100 Ideas} Switching It Up

Table of Contents for 100 Ideas That Changed Film

In addition to this arduous and worthwhile task, I’m going to reorient this blog to include posts from David Parkinson‘s excellent book, 100 Ideas That Changed Film.

Every post will still cover a single film nominated for Best Picture, and will still attempt to tell a story about representation and world history told through film. But I’m interested in also now seeing how the film industry has drawn on technical challenges and changes to update how directors and producers tell stories. It would seem the stories themselves change very little, but the ways in which we tell them, and the cast of characters used to make a point are constantly evolving. So in addition to “Should this film have won Best Picture?” I’m also going to explore how this film, maybe not in particular, embodied an “idea that changed film.”

The change will be mostly unnoticeable, but for the title change and its organization on the web. I won’t be taking this list in order either. The current plan is to hop around and treat the “100 Ideas” as another checklist. I’m hoping this additional parameter helps me better analyze why a film was made like it was, how it contributed to the canon, and if the shift in “how” translated more to “why.”

Back to business. 1956’s The King and I is next.

—Sam

[1975] Barry Lyndon

Three-hour-long movies that feel like half-hour sitcoms are a treasure, and are extremely rare, especially that the style has shifted, almost totally away from this format in recent years. Labor has gotten simultaneously cheaper (software does a lot of the editing grunt work) and more expensive (it takes more specialized experience to run it). Budgets have expanded, and massive returns are expected. The blockbuster has shifted mediums, too, from the physical block, to eventually, the blockchain. Streaming and massive distribution is king and finding an unhappy content churn is the profit-maximizing middle where original thought dies. The three-hour-long movie better damn well have an expanded universe or audiences will continue game out effective bathroom breaks. Three cheers for the return of an intermission.

Attention spans have waned with the increase in media outlets: why would an audience spend minutes – seconds even! – on one platform when the next platform has the next cultural missive ready to go. There will be a time in the early 2020s (check me on this, future readers) when the splintering of services will bundle into packages customers can buy; it will have regressed into neo-cable, with each platform owning exclusive rights to content, removing consumer choice from marketing paradigms. Instead of driving subscriptions, this non-coordinated market abuse will drive a significant portion of people who might buy one or two subscriptions to steal the content. Eventually the funding will run dry and the islands of content will become deserts. Nostalgia will be the only currency in which these fake-monopolies trade. Forget monoculture. Remember protoculture.

The point here is that there is very little room in today’s marketing/content churn environment for a director – let alone Stanley Kubrick – to film a Thackeray satire. This three-hour epic, Barry Lyndon, does read like vignette of half-hour shows, told anthology-like through a narrator we’re supposed to believe is reliable. Barry Lyndon‘s eponymous Redmond Barry is the tragic farce of stale upper crust Thackeray was known to lampoon. His narrative arc is as long as Kubrick’s shots are wide. His character portraits are eloquent, but backloaded. Action is sprinkled among shots that double as paintings. Barry Lyndon requires an attention span and a patience audiences no longer possess en masse. Students of film know and love this film for its technical innovation and its warm, true-to-tone adaptation of Thackeray’s “The Luck of Barry Lyndon.” An everyday audience, the one whose billets-complets fill Disney’s pockets, has no use for this low-budget movie. Even casual Kubrick fans dismiss this as Kubrick’s passion project; it is, and it is impossible to edit down. Continue reading

[1927/28] Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness

The first Oscars set no precedent.

The “ceremony” was a cloistered affair, offering little fanfare and no vaunted halls. It wasn’t even called the “Oscars” until sometime later with competing apocrypha clouding the chaotic 30s. The categories resembled their modern counterparts, but also didn’t. There was a category for “Best Title Cards” sometimes referring to (no specific film); two distinct directing awards – one for comedy and one for drama; two actors nominated for their whole body of work from the year, and three actresses for the same; there was a category for best art direction. Surprisingly this category lasted until 2010, when it was renamed “Production Design.” The first Academy Awards awarded two films, co-equal, “Best Picture” — one called “Outstanding Picture” and the other called “Most Unique and Artistic Picture.” Retroactively, the Academy decided to consolidate the top honor into a single choice, thus orphaning three films that aren’t even counted in the total, official count.

One of these films is Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness, and it isn’t like its contemporaries, or really any movie nominated for Best Picture since. It is ostensibly a documentary with a loose narrative attached. As is the case, no “cast” exists. It does track a man, his family, some elders, and a host of animals that are competing for a limited space in the jungles of Siam in the mid-1920s, pre-modern, pre-almost-everything. The film is really about the absolution and decimation of a natural space in exchange for Man’s progress. Curiously, the filmmakers treat the experience agnostically, choosing to treat their audiences to the sighting of animals they most likely hadn’t seen before — tigers, monkeys, elephants (“Chang”) — slaughter and trappings included. As it stands, Chang is an unintentional relic of its time and environment. Continue reading

[1987] Moonstruck

A day is both a discrete event and part of a string of days that hopefully make up a full, expectant life. During, and within, each day seems insignificant and to evaluate requires a perspective unavailable to us until much later: we don’t pre-write memoirs for this reason, and often our elders are wise because of their age and  because of their particular string of days; an existence in 88 keys. To short-circuit the learning-experience curve, maybe bisecting it, we use half-baked heuristics. As example: daily, maybe more often, our brains need to subjugate and dissect our interactions into lists and charts. We process by simplification and we exchange understanding and context for nuance. It might take years to undo or double-down on this type of life and it is almost impressively difficult to do.

Even more often we don’t even read a heuristic in a book or article: it is defined for us on screen and stage. And we accept it as true, even subconsciously, because we want to believe it. This specific bias is called “confirmation bias” and together with our peers we engage in groupthink. Almost every mass movement, good and bad, has been a combination of bias heuristics and groupthink. When we talk about race and creed we almost always rely on heuristics — stereotypes — to frame our interactions. Think of a person of Italian descent; now think of a new person walking into a room who looks Italian. What are the first traits that come to mind? Pasta fazhool? Mafia memes? Catholicism? Moonstruck 1987’s Italian-American melodrama can tell its story because of the biases baked into our collective culture. The jokes and jabs Moonstruck uses are shorthand for exposition. Loretta (played by surprisingly nimble Cher) is unlucky in love; her family is unflinchingly large and tightly woven; her new boyfriend needs to tend to his mamma in Sicily; the Church fosters character development almost as a wink and nod to its audience (because of course the Italian family credits the Church with its success and relies on it for strength through strife). Moonstruck tracks the family through love as heuristic for character development. Continue reading

{Second Take} [1987] Moonstruck

Sometimes a song is just meant for the screen. Even without any visuals to accompany it, it’s cinematic on its own; it tells a story, conveys a meaning, and conjures a time and place. “That’s Amore” by Dean Martin was born for film, quite literally, in that it was commissioned specifically to be performed by Martin in 1953’s The Caddy, but it’s somehow more at home when soundtracking a montage of people on dates eating pasta. It almost does a filmmaker’s work for them, as when director Norman Jewison pairs it with glittering imagery of Brooklyn Heights and the Metropolitan Opera House in the opening sequence of Moonstruck. The audience knows exactly what will happen next: high passions, red wine, and Italian accents.

Few songs have had the reach “That’s Amore” has commanded over the decades, and despite its overtness and obviousness, we still associate it with success and accolades. It garnered an Academy Awards nomination for Best Original Song upon its debut in The Caddy, losing to “Secret Love” from Calamity Jane as one might expect: serious fare often earns more respect than lighter material. Later, “That’s Amore” set the stage for Cher, Olympia Dukakis, and writer John Patrick Shanley to all win their sole Oscar awards. At a time when the movie-going public was buying up tickets to action movies and thrillers, the Academy slowed down, took a breath, and recognized the ambitious acting and crystal-clear characterization the cast of Moonstruck was able to deliver. In 1987, “That’s Amore” primed audiences for a comedically fraught romance with bombastic performances that mix Old World realism with stereotypes informed by the observational eye of a playwright, and they were ecstatic when that’s what they got.

Only a year after the debut of “That’s Amore,” Alfred Hitchcock borrowed it to great and jarring effect in Rear Window (also nominated for awards from the Academy). The song already had such immediacy and cultural weight that The Master of Suspense was able to subvert its romantic message by removing the lyrics and using it to score a scene where a man spies on a newlywed couple from his window through theirs. It’s impossible to avoid mentally singing the lyrics to yourself, crossing the signals in your brain between the romantic and the voyeuristic. You know intellectually that the newlyweds are in the throes of love like the song describes, but you’re not with them: you’re with the peeping tom. Hitchcock relied on the original music’s instant popularity and inherent romantic meaning to create an uncomfortable dissonance for his viewers to sit with. Continue reading