[1932/1933 & 2019] Little Women II

Here’s Part I.


Sam Sklar  

Besides the fact that diversity is Good, everyone deserves a shot regardless of race or skin color or gender or orientation. Whoever you are, you deserve more attention for making really good art. What I think is even better is that a lot of the stories that we haven’t heard yet are probably going to be coming from women and people of color and people of different sexual orientations and preferences. And these are the stories that are going to define this generation of audiences and I think that producers and people that fund these projects and that greenlight scripts should do a better job and lead the way, rather than just following the dollars. It’s going to be slow rolling anyway.

Zach Schonfeld  

Yeah. Throughout the past century almost all of the film adaptations of Little Women have been huge box office successes, and proved that movies that center around women’s stories can perform really well at the box office, and that both men and women will go see these movies. And you can go all the way back to the very first adaptation of Little Women, that 1918 version, which I haven’t seen because it’s lost, and see that this is true.

When I was researching the Vulture piece, I was going through this old Paramount pressbook from 1918, which has all these promotional materials for movies that Paramount was releasing at the time, and there’s all this material urging theater owners to show this Little Women adaptation at their movie theater. And it says: “

It is safe to state that nine out of every ten women and girls in your town have read this idyllic story of home life during the period of the Civil War … Every woman who has read this notable book in her girlhood will see the picture again at your theatre. Every mother will want her daughter to see it.” 

So it’s a shame that Hollywood has been so resistant, or the Academy has been so resistant, to movies that center around women’s stories when it’s clear that these movies resonate with a lot of people.

Sam Sklar  

I’m going to venture a guess here: the Hays Code may have slowed this down.

I think a lot slowed down the acceptance and adaptation of female stories and stories about people who aren’t just straight white people. I think that the folks who were in charge of censorship for 25 or 30 years were not just we’re not just editing for explicit material or whatever their moral code was. I think they were probably editing out stories… a person who color or a gay person or someone experiencing sexual trauma was not allowed to be told. And before filmmakers could even decide whether a story was worth telling, they were hamstrung by the code and they found they were going to eventually get censored by it. It halted a lot of progress.

So I would bet that the Hays Code definitely played a big part jamming natural progress and I think also film executives are probably very skittish. And the folks who have a lot of money and prestige and power tend to trust their own instincts, even if they’re rooted in a very narrow set of experiences. 

And when it’s all white men whose instincts are “I am white man, I understand white men, so we’ll pay white men to make movies about white men until it makes me comfortable.” It’s an a-virtuous cycle.

A lot of these big studios are reeling (ha) from the legacy of the Hays Code, and a lot of the staff, children of filmmakers, maybe children of people who saw these films still linger. We’re going to need another generation or two: this upcoming generation will be the “change” generation and the next generation of filmmakers. The next one will show that the film industry won’t even be recognizable in 40 years.

Zach Schonfeld  

So I’ve already explained why I was skeptical of Greta Gerwig’s version of Little Women, and why I didn’t love it as much as most critics did. But I do want to say what I did like about it. There was a lot that I did like about that movie. 

First of all: Saoirse Ronan, I think, is absolutely fantastic. She gave a deeply felt, lived-in performance as Jo. She’s a fantastic actress. And I think you can absolutely draw a parallel between Saoirse Ronan in the 2010s and Winona Ryder in the early ‘90s. Both actresses in their early 20s who are so good at playing coming-of-age roles, playing troubled, intelligent, tormented, teenage girls in various settings. I thought Saoirse Ronan was also brilliant in Lady Bird and in Brooklyn as well, which are both kind of period pieces in their own way. 

Another thing I liked about the 2019 Little Women was the cinematography, and the level of visual detail in every scene. It’s stunning, and I particularly loved the scenes where the whole family’s together, when the girls are younger, and the whole family is together in the living room, and there’s such a family feeling to those scenes. Greta Gerwig directed it in such a way where they’re all talking over each other. The sound design is very chaotic in a very realistic, familial way. All the girls are talking over each other and there’s so much affection and love and bickering and it just feels like a real family. I thought that it was just extremely well directed. I really like the scenes where they’re all together.

Sam Sklar  

Yeah, Saoirse Ronan’s performance was my number one thing that I liked the best about this movie as well. I’d also like the scene where Bob Odenkirk showed up halfway through for a little unintentional comic relief. He’s so recognizable from Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul! that seeing him in this context was a little…goofy. He was good though!

Zach Schonfeld  

We haven’t talked about Timothée Chalamet, I think he’s a good Laurie. I thought he got too much screen time in the film, perhaps. I thought he got too much screen time relative to Professor Bhaer, who was relatively underemphasized in this version. But it makes sense: Timothée Chalamet is the hot young thing right now. It makes sense that he would get a lot of screen time given his current rising profile.

Sam Sklar  

This was going to be one of my main points. I thought Timothée Chalamet was wildly miscast in this role. I understand the twee nature of Greta Gerwig’s work and the fact that Timothée Chalamet is the it boy in Hollywood right now—he’s the hot young thing. Every movie he’s in gets a bump.

My view of who Laurie is, is Christian Bale’s performance. Obviously this is Greta Gerwig’s telling of the story so she had a different interpretation of what “big strong man” means to her in 2019 whereas the 1994 version and even the 1933 version had much different takes on it. 

To me, the Laurie character is meant to be this very stereotypical six-foot-three, two-ten, and handsome, but a little bit oafish; all over the place, but well-meaning; a duality of traditional masculinity and what a “man” actually is—a flawed human. And I thought Christian Bale did a great job—he is my standard bearer for that type of role anyway. And I just think that it weakens the relationship when you have two skittish, waifish people going at it. 

There’s a power dynamic, which I think Greta Gerwig was trying to flatten a little bit, which I think needs to exist in order for the story to make sense as it was written, but again, this is Greta Gerwig’s interpretation of it. And so for me and my expectations for the film, I think he was miscast. For Greta Gerwig’s interpretation, I think he was the perfect cast. It’s hard to only comment on what movie we got and what movie we want, though.

Zach Schonfeld  

I thought he was good, but he got too much screen time relative to the character, Professor Bhaer, who I think is an important character who was not very well developed in this particular adaptation of the film.

Sam Sklar  

In this theory of Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, (if I’m going to interpret this, and I’m likely to be way off, and I don’t want to put words or ideas in her head) the whole flattening of the power dynamic, is that she didn’t want Jo to succumb to the eventual “needing a man to be fulfilled” trope.  And so by giving Professor Bhaer less screen time and making him an increasingly secondary, throwaway plot point. Greta Gerwig doesn’t seek to remove the power that Jo had over her own life, in a way that the ‘94 version did, which was a little more faithful to the book, and maybe faithful to Alcott’s experiences.

I just think it was a conscious choice to make this man a secondary part of Jo’s life rather than her eventual understanding that you can do both: you can have a career and a life and also find love, and it’s likely to come out of nowhere. That’s what that’s what that character represents to me. Dumping this part of the plot into “Oh, I guess you’ll get married now, but whatever, he’s just a man,” was a weak choice. And I think played out the opposite way of what Greta Gerwig was expecting. Instead of empowering Jo to make her own decisions it infantilized her.

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[1932/1933 & 2019] Little Women I

I sat down with Zach Schonfeld, who’s been a longtime contributor and friend to this blog to talk about Little Women, both George Cuckor’s 1933 version and Greta Gerwig’s 2019 version, along with a smattering of version in between. It’s been made more than a handful of times, for better or for worse.


Sam Sklar  

So, let’s talk about Little Women. We’re going to talk about the one that came out last year as the main focus, but it’s been remade many times. I think this was the fourth time it was made as a movie.

Zach Schonfeld  

Actually no. I wrote a piece about the original silent film adaptations which have been lost. So there are two silent film adaptations in 1918, and 1919, then the 1933 version, which I recently watched, and which was nominated for Best Picture, as you know, then 1949. So that’s 1-2-3-4. And then there were a few television series adaptations, which I don’t think you’re counting. So forget those. Then ‘94 that’s five. So ‘94 is the fifth and then in 2018, there was some Christian film production company, which made a “modern” retelling of Little Women, where it’s actually set in the 2000s. And, instead of going off to fight in the Civil War, the Dad’s going off to fight in the Iraq War. So that was the sixth, and the Greta Gerwig version was the seventh version of Little Women for film. 

So there there are seven film adaptations. But only five of them are available. Two of them are lost films.

Sam Sklar  

Plus a TV series.

Zach Schonfeld  

Plus a whole bunch of television adaptations, including an ABC adaptation from the 70s, which is ranked as the worst Little Women adaptation of all time. Apparently, William Shatner is in it. I’m curious about that. But I haven’t watched that yet. I’ve seen the ‘33, the ‘49, the ‘94 and the 2019 film adaptations. I’ve seen all the major film adaptations.

Sam Sklar  

So you chose not to watch the Christian remake?

Zach Schonfeld  

Actually, I want to see it. I just haven’t gotten around to it. That one everyone acknowledges is bad, pretty much. The others, people debate. You know which of them are the best? Yeah.

Sam Sklar  

Let’s focus on the 1933 and the 2019 ones.

Zach Schonfeld  

Because those were both Nominated Best Picture. 

So the ‘33 version—my understanding is that for many years, that was the gold standard of Little Women adaptations; that was the movie that for many decades that everyone knew. Katharine Hepburn was the classic Jo March. She defined how Jo March would be depicted on screen. She’s sassy and funny, but also super angsty at the same time. 

(When I was talking to my grandma about going to see the new Little Women. She was like, “Oh, I love the one with Katharine Hepburn.” That’s the version that old people grew up with—the ‘33 version.)

I think it is a classic. I don’t think the other sisters are as memorable as Katharine Hepburn. None of the other performances really stood out to me. And then just recently, I watched the 1949 version, which came only 16 years after the ‘33 version. And it’s very similar—the screenplay is the same in parts; they used some of the same lines; they used the same music. The main differences: one. June Allison played Jo in the 1949 one and she tried to imitate the Katharine Hepburn performance in a lot of ways, but she’s just not as good. She just doesn’t pull it off—she’s not as charismatic. She’s petulant and annoying as Jo. That is a real fault of the ‘49 version. 

And two: the ‘33 version is obviously black and white, while the 1949 version is in Technicolor. And the filmmakers really took advantage of full color. You can tell that they’re soundstages. You can tell how fake all the scenery is, like it looks like a ‘40s Hollywood soundstage; it’s very artificial looking. 

The very last shot of the movie, when Jo accepts a marriage proposal from Professor Bhear, and then goes back to her house, the camera shows her house and then it pans up and there’s a shot of a full rainbow in full color. It is corny as hell. But you can tell at the time people were excited about movies being in color because it was a relatively new invention. But personally, I thought the 1949 version was inferior to the 1933 version in numerous ways. It was like the same movie, but slightly worse.

Sam Sklar  

Hollywood did that in the ‘30s and ‘40s. They took a lot of the same intellectual property and recycled it, right? There was really no shortage of works to draw on. But technical limitations forced many hands—there was very little science fiction and things requiring a lot of technical work were very challenging and very expensive. These pastoral stories kept getting remade with a lot of ensemble casts. They were cheaper and a tried practice.

Zach Schonfeld  

And part of that is because Hollywood was changing so quickly. There are all these silent films from the ‘20s and they would remake them in the ‘30s as talkies because all of a sudden they had sound. And then they would remake them again in the ‘40s or ‘50s in color, because all of a sudden you had color. Movies were changing at such a quick rate that they kept remaking movies that had already been popular not that long before.

Sam Sklar  

I mean, it makes sense from any perspective you look at it really, especially as time marches (ha) on. Sixteen years between these adaptations, you have a whole different audience of young people coming up, and the older people are looking for some nostalgia and to compare and contrast the different ones. It would be interesting to talk to someone—I’m not sure this person is alive anymore—that saw the ‘33 version in theaters and the ‘49 version in theaters, and then the ‘94 version in theaters, I’m pretty sure that person would have to be 120 years old.

I’m always interested in talking to people who have experienced a similar thing over time, and asking how their perspective changes—following these two paths of their own life experiences and the story, which stays the same, but with each director who puts their own “take” on it. And so there was a big 45 year gap between adaptations (minus a TV adaptation, these productions must have been extremely bloated if they’re going to be put on for TV. The movie really works well at just over two hours and I can’t imagine them stretching it out for longer than that.) 

It works really well as a movie, but I’m not sure it would do so well as a TV show, and yet, they did it anyway. And they’re going to keep doing it.

Zach Schonfeld  

Like many younger people, my introduction to the story was the ‘94 version. That was the first version of the movie I saw and my familiarity with the plot was all from the 1994 version. So going back to the ‘33 and the 1949 version recently, which I hadn’t seen before, I was surprised by certain things that were left out of those film adaptations.

For instance, when Amy burns Jo’s manuscript. That scene is such an important, pivotal moment in the 1994 film as well as in Greta Gerwig’s film, so I’m very surprised that that scene just is not in the 1933 version at all. In my head that was such a formative moment in the sisters’ relationships. So I was surprised that it wasn’t in the ‘33 version. When they were writing the screenplay for the 1994 version, whoever wrote that screenplay [Robin Swicord] must have noticed that scene in the book and was like, “Wow, this should be in the movie. This is an important moment.” It’s also, not coincidentally, left out of the ‘49 version.

Sam Sklar  

I’m trying to think if there was anything culturally different about American life in the 1860s, when the book was written, and in the 1930s, when movies started to come out about why the director and the producer and screenwriter would choose to leave such a pivotal scene out.

I guess the relationship between women and the breaking of bonds between women was less important? Were all the movies before this last one, directed by Greta Gerwig, directed by men?

Zach Schonfeld  

The 1994 film was directed by a woman, Gillian Armstrong. She is a Australian film director. 

Sam Sklar  

That might give us a little insight into how a woman’s intuition about what kind of events in women’s lives might be more significant or very different than what a man would think. The small little interaction was seen as the throw away in the earlier versions and maybe in the later versions. The female directors may have found a little bit more value in displaying these day-to-day interactions to build a relationship, rather than the big sweeping moments, like Amy falling into the ice skating rink, which is a pivotal moment, but it’s an action moment. 

So men are drawn to it, I guess? Or maybe the “man” of the ‘30s was drawn to the action and the producers wanted to market it to that type of audience, which was interested in a little disturbing scenery rather than a book burning. Hard to say. 

This is also a theory that is backed up by absolutely nothing! We can’t really ask George Cuckor his opinions on this. 

The book was really long when it came out, over 700 pages. The book is two thirds of Lord of the Rings length and that got three movies. That’s where maybe they were coming from with trying to adapt it into a longer series. There is a lot of material there. But I think a lot of that material is better on the page. 

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{No. 62: Method Acting} [1979] Kramer vs. Kramer

Unless it’s the editor’s intent, an audience shouldn’t notice cuts between shots or transitions between scenes. Think: the wipe edit in A New Hope; or, the match cut in 2001: A Space Odyssey; the dolly zoom interspersed with the violent action shots in Raging Bull. These edits are iconic for adding style and substance to their respective films. They’re integral to the success of telling the story.

Unless it’s the editor’s intent, the audience should not notice transitions between characters in a dialogue scene or quick fades that flow as effortlessly as the narrative itself. Editing, we learn by studying editors, is method. Editors learn by immersing themselves in the script and in the daily shots and in the dark rooms with hundreds of terabytes of film that would run miles long (sometimes it does). A good editor makes a director’s vision shine. A great editor’s director gets them the shots they need to build the story.

Acting is different than editing, he writes, seriously. Great acting, as with great editing, should lift a script into the stratosphere. It should inspire! What, then, constitutes great acting: technical touchpoints; a “feeling?” Is it how and how much an actor appropriately emotes? Is it the ability to recite long lectures of soliloquy, or to spit lines ticky-tacky with one or more scene partners? Is it, “you know it when you see it?”

Actors engage in method, too. This immersion technique is meant to cut the distance between the character and the performance. Perfect method acting aims to remove the human from the performance entirely, as if the person were to be a vessel for lines and blocking. It’s not a new technique, but it’s rarely practiced anymore, if it ever was at all (known cobbler and part-time actor, Daniel Day-Lewis, is a famous, noted exception). Anecdotal evidence points to words like “arrogant” and “self-indulgent.” If the “point” is to immerse oneself so deeply in character study that the performance feels “real,” can it ever? If one was not a soldier in World War I, should one attempt to achieve appropriate levels of shell shock to play a soldier with smoldering PTSD? Should a man who hasn’t experienced loss and death fake it for real? Continue reading

[1934] The Thin Man

Despite Martin Scorsese’s best efforts to distinguish films from movies, studios still make low-brow, crowd-pleasers in bulk to help pay for the cinema Scorsese loves and makes. For every superhero reboot and sequel there’s a handful of arthouse dramas that will inevitably either be long, hooked foul balls or deep home runs. Cinephiles want as many of these made as possible, even if the majority of them are Green Book and not The Green Mile. We want creative chain lightning, but we’ll take the trash heap too. I take Scorsese at his word. He’s certainly earned the right to be cranky in public without reproach.

The truth that I know Martin Scorsese knows is that moviemaking is a business and no producer puts together a movie—or a film—on a promise that it will lose money. Intellectual property is expensive, however, and making a movie is lumpy; one cannot make half a movie to sell, seriously. Development and talent are expensive. That’s why movie studios make sequels—long character and dramatic arcs that span multiple movies are an added bonus that dovetail nicely with the economies of scale a serialized franchise brings. Screenwriters don’t have to teach audiences how to understand characters they’ve seen before and dev time shrinks; set pieces can be reused (or in the case of animation, frames, if at all possible). Continue reading

[1941] Citizen Kane

“What’s in a name?”

The sled isn’t interesting; knowing the origin of “Rosebud” doesn’t change Citizen Kane‘s knee-high depth of character and story. Troves of thinkpieces, even within Citizen Kane, have been written and reported about the significance of Charles Foster Kane (an ebullient Orson Welles) and the meaning of the infamous sled, last seen burning in effigy in the great Kane fire sale. “A rose(bud) by any other name,” says A.O. Scott’s review of Kane‘s metanarrative, Mank, and he’s right. It’s objectively a MacGuffin, but because of the entire film before it, the fadeout itself is the film’s true MacGuffin: an unimportant event that has come to define the movie, 80 years later. It’s telling that there’s no mention of it in Mank, the movie about the movie.

What is interesting, and has endured as an endearing feature in Citizen Kane is the use of Christian nicknames—Charlie, Jed—to (successfully) humanize these characters. In no uncertain terms, the two men are caricatures of figures alive in Welles’ present; Citizen Kane is a deep allegory in character and in spirit and it’s hard to remember this. There’s a reverence with a wink here as the audience sees the “real” Charles F. Kane alongside the public CFK, who is, for all intents and purposes, a wealthy, successful, happily-married, self-made man. None of those who worship him would dare call him Charlie. Jedidiah Leland—Jed—does though. In-movie, it’s a sign of familiarity and a sign of humanity. Later, we only hear the rest of the cast refer to him as Mister Kane. It’s telling this movie wasn’t called Mister Kane, or Charles Foster Kane: Man of the People. No; it’s called Citizen Kane. He’s one of us—but he’s not one among us. Continue reading

[1957] 12 Angry Men

Some years ago, after the United States elected our dumbest citizen president, Aneela Mirchandani wrote for The Odd Post, “Twelve Angry Trump Voters,” casting each of Sidney Lumet’s fictional jurors as archetypical Trumpers, accompanied by quick but deft analysis as to why these jurors behaviors would translate into a Trump vote. With the exception of Juror no. 8, who Mirchandani astutely points out that his “not guilty” vote was not one of truth, but one of truth-seeking, the rest of the jurors are convinced of the prosecution’s case. This author makes a great case comparing attitudes from the foregone Great Era to today’s Great Again Era: they haven’t really changed. Maybe humans, as advanced apes and herd animals, are just wired this way.

I first read Mirchandani’s essay at around the same time I discovered Dorothy Thompson’s essay, written for Harper’s in 1941, called “Who Goes Nazi?” In it, Thompson, who witnessed Hitler and Nazism’s rise in Germany in the 1930s, surveys a room of fictional soiree attendees, defining each by their nature and nurture and thusly assimilating them into two categories: would this person be a Nazi, or not? For it’s plaudits, “Who Goes Nazi?” is a blunt, sobering take and shouldn’t be taken as a syllogism: Nazism isn’t an “if this, then that.” It’s “if those, then him.” It’s a complicated business accusing fake people of being real Nazis.

It seems obvious in the age of obvious Trumpism (there’s always been threads of anti-intellectualism, but never as a hegemonic power) which of 12 Angry Men‘s jurors would have voted for 45, but the analysis is already done. Instead, it would be an interesting exercise to try and peg each character as one who would go Nazi, or not.


Martin Balsam as Juror 1, the jury foreman; an assistant high school American football coach. (not a Nazi)

Juror 1 is not a Nazi. His neutrality is obvious and though he’d see the Nazis’ attempt to wrest control of the Reichstag and think nothing but politics-as-usual, until he’d begin to notice a growing number of small changes to his daily life. He’s interested in keeping the peace, and someone interested in the status quo doesn’t stir the pot, but nor does he actively oppose change. He’ll find his way to a country that is more liberated, perhaps the United States, before the first invasion. He’ll sign up to fight Nazis but will likely find a job pushing papers.

John Fiedler as Juror 2, a meek and unpretentious bank worker who is dominated by others. (Nazi)

Besides Juror 10, Juror 2 is the most obvious Nazi of the bunch. He’ll be a rank-and-file Nazi, assigned to do unspeakable tragedy, and he’ll never find courage to say no to his superiors, of which there are many. After the war, he’ll plead ignorance and will be sentenced at Nuremburg.

Lee J. Cobb as Juror 3, a hot-tempered owner of a courier business who is estranged from his son; the most passionate advocate of a guilty verdict. (not a Nazi)

Although the proclivity for Nazism is there, Juror 3 doesn’t feel hate towards everyone. He’s reeling from the relationship with his son and is projecting his feelings outward. He’s reasoned himself into his verdict, but is finally reasoned out after he’s forced to face his own feelings. Juror 3 could go Nazi, but only if he’s kept away from the true horrors, which would instantly flip him. Death couldn’t escape Germany in the 1930s; Juror 3 doesn’t go Nazi.

E. G. Marshall as Juror 4, a rational, unflappable, self-assured, and analytical stock broker. (Nazi)

Juror 4 is the purest Nazi in the bunch; he’s found a way to rationalize National Socialism–not as a mechanism to scapegoat the other–but as a pathology toward net benefits to him and his family. He stands to gain by joining up with the Nazi party and would likely command others as his unflappable nature makes him perfect for this role. He’d likely have no problem subordinating Juror 10.

Jack Klugman as Juror 5, a man who grew up in a violent slum, sensitive to insults about his upbringing. (not a Nazi)

 

Juror 5 is proud of his heritage, and likely has spent time with people from all backgrounds. He’s continuously confused why others can’t follow his path out of poverty, and feels contempt toward those who try to cheat their way out. But he doesn’t feel right scapegoating them. He’s initially allured by the structure of Nazism but can’t stand for its ideals as, above all else, a hate group. Juror 5’s loyalty is to his community, and won’t stand for its people to be culled based on race or religion.

Edward Binns as Juror 6, a tough but principled house painter who consistently speaks up when others are verbally disrespected, especially the elderly. (not a Nazi)

Juror 6 might be persuaded to join the Nazi party when presented a compelling pro-German argument and is excited at the prospect of more work, but won’t ultimately join when he’s witness to unspeakable horrors in the name of the “German master race.” He holds respect for older members of his community and he won’t tolerate violence against them.

Jack Warden as Juror 7, a wisecracking salesman and Yankees fan who seems indifferent to his role. (Nazi)

Juror 7 is mostly indifferent to the plight of the German people, but he does find humor in people disappearing around him. He’d certainly go Nazi, if only to “get on with it already.” He’d eventually be applauded for vocally opposing Jesse Owens’ success at the Olympics because those medals “are supposed to be ours.” Eventually he’d make the wrong joke to the wrong official and that will be the end of Juror 7.

Henry Fonda as Davis, Juror 8; an architect, initially the only one to vote “not guilty” and openly question the seemingly clear evidence presented. (not a Nazi)

Juror 8 would likely seek out Oskar Schindler, or another German defiant, and actively work against the Nazis out of deep principle and deep respect for humanity. He’d be among the first to recognize the power grab in 1932 and would be deep in secret meetings to overthrow the injustice. The Nazis would have a special reward for his capture.

Joseph Sweeney as McArdle, Juror 9; an intelligent, wise, and observant senior. (not a Nazi)

 

Juror 9 would never be a Nazi, even if he’d agree to join the party. He doesn’t have the “qualities” needed to sustain the master race and would likely be instantly killed or dive deep into couter-insurgency with Juror 8.

Ed Begley as Juror 10, a pushy, loud-mouthed, and bigoted garage owner. (Nazi)

Unlike Juror 3, Juror 10’s grievances are borne from a deep hatred of the “other,” likely taught to him by his parents or by his local news sources. He’d likely respond to shame if it was the dominant party’s position that his feelings were wrong. However, that’s not the case and his racial animus would like make Juror 10 easy to manipulate and placate with the explicit instructions to “remove” others that he deems “un-German” by the color of their skin or the difference of their beliefs.

George Voskovec as Juror 11, a European watchmaker and naturalized American citizen who demonstrates strong respect for democratic values such as due process. (not a Nazi)

Though naturalized, he’s as much American as his fellow jurors. Having witnessed the horrors of World War I, he’d never wish war on anyone, even if it means he stands the most to gain from a party that mostly aligns with his heritage. He’d never go Nazi, having spent so much of his life fighting against anti-democratic hatred in his home country.

Robert Webber as Juror 12, an indecisive advertising executive. (Nazi)

Juror 12 would relish at the chance to sell any idea, as he was taught to do. He’d finally feel appreciated for his work, transforming his bland career into one more worthy of a cause célèbre–any cause célèbre–even if it means lots of his countrymen would be violently excluded. He would be convinced that he’s acting for the greater good and would be highly regarded among Nazi elite.


Of course this analysis is all fictional speculation and has no basis in reality. It’s a parlor game played to demonstrate character development. The very notion that all twelve jurors all have distinct enough personalities from a glorified table read to speculate their Nazism is a testament to the clarity of 12 Angry Men‘s script and Sidney Lumet’s deft direction.

The analysis could all be wrong, but that’s not the point. Humans are creatures of doubt and deserve to be judged on the soundness of their actions rather than on the whip of their wit. Watch what a man does when given ultimate power to choose. It’s this sense of wonder that sets 12 Angry Men apart. It’s hard to judge against Best Picture winner, The Bridge on the River Kwai. For its lasting power in 8th grade social studies classrooms, it should have been 12 Angry Men, though, and especially against SayonaraPeyton Place, and an analogue, Witness for the Prosecution.

[1996] Fargo

Fargo, North Dakota, the place, sits on a crossroads betwixt Interstates 29 and 94, whose interchange will direct travelers from Billings, Montana to Kansas City, Missouri (or Kansas, pick ’em). The clover design is meant to deliver ease to drivers, eliminating the need for other traffic control measures, like stoplights, and to allow drivers to continue their blissful 17 hour drive across the barren nothingness. There’s a faster way, of course, that takes our drivers through Sioux Falls, SD, eliminating the need to travel through North Dakota at all. But that’s not why our family is on this road trip; it’s to see America, as the framers of the state lines intended.

Across Montana, through Dakota (N), then south through Dakota (S), our family will miss Nebraska totally, through a planning decision that routed I-29 along Iowa’s western edge, instead of Nebraska’s eastern boarder. It’s the same reason this sedan will miss Kansas, until this car makes it to dual thread Kansas City. It’s been a pleasant drive thanks to the hundreds of millions of dollars Americans paid to pave its lands so that it’s easy enough to drive hundreds of miles for pleasure. Interchanges abound.

Fargo, the movie, happened somewhere on these interchanges, or maybe even further east, in Minnesota, where Jerry Lundegaard (brilliantly oafed by William H. Macy) started his slow tumble into madness. This character is a naïve klutz; a harebrain among pinheads, all of them. Every part of Lundegaard is a cruel gag. It’s where the Coens’ now thrive, casting characterization itself as a character, but were using their early work as a playground. Audiences hear “The Dude” and conjure exactly the effusive image of Jeff Bridges in his robe, sipping unpaid-for milk. Audiences also hear Jerry Lundegaard and think “oh yea, you betcha,” in that Minne-sowta drawl; they think of “Farego” and the woodchipper. It’s a triumph. (This is auteur theory).

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[1935] Top Hat

On-screen couples are always more attuned to one another, mostly because the relationship is manufactured. And that’s a fine outcome. It’s fine for people writing a story to include some sort of idealized hook to control for chaos down across screen-time. This type of escapism is not new, but when filmmakers began to craft narrative on screen as a mainstream prospect in the mid-1930s, audiences could share in seeing these emotions on screen for the first time. Books, while accessible, left much of the narrative in a reader’s hands; movies, did a lot more showing than telling. The best movies, still, do a lot more showing than telling.

Top Hat is a raw and clever “screwball” romantic comedy, on the heels of It Happened One Night, pitting two electrifying performers together in Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. How iconic are these two? Their names, if not what they’re known for, have been dragooned through film and entertainment history as icons (especially Fred Astaire; this might be because his last name is also, for a song’s sake, extremely rhymable). Astaire played his Jerry-as-dancer before his Jerry-as-actor, and Ginger played her Dale-as-well-rounded everywoman. They’re each other’s foil. The writing places these two characters as far apart as possible, but circumstance (also the writer) pulled them together in the laziest way possible: stage directions.

But what Top Hat is, above all, is a fun movie about attractive people making easy choices. There’s no doubt that Jerry and Dale would be together and the fun in this movie are the song-and-dance breaks that brought both Astaire and Rogers their fame. The movie’s heel is instantly dislikeable, and the minor characters are hapless memes. To be totally fair, this package works as a storytelling device and has been repeated in almost every romantic comedy, ever. Top Hat, its predecessors and its emulators, made it fine to escape into the hazy laze, and audiences were thankful for it. Dotted throughout film history are romcoms with different iterations on the manufacture; often if there was a new leap in technology, screenwriters would find a new way to wink-wink the leads apart. (Oh no! My AIM chat got disconnected!) Continue reading

[2016] Arrival

Ted Chiang’s The Story of Your Life is a disastrous work of hard science fiction. It doesn’t concern itself with important topics like faster-than-speed-of-light travel and the rigors and failures of data science and analysis. It mocks hard-coded human genetic behavior, like the ability to necessarily and programmatically, ipso facto, comprehend language. It’s instead entirely preoccupied with the squishy science of human failures and the unknowable uncertainty of entropy. Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov might call Chiang’s work “cute,” for instance.

Simply because a work of fiction has scientific elements can classify it, by definition, as science-fiction. But self-serious critics have split the genre, seemingly for the sake of criticism, into hard and soft. The subclasses are meant to mimic hard and soft sciences—think chemistry and physics versus anthropology and media studies. Science’s concern is to attempt to explain the human condition and how we fit into the larger scheme of the Universe.  For its part, “science” has been around for less than half a breath on the time scale it—hard—science attempts to explain. Making sense of chaos is a messy enough business; entropy indeed. 

Arrival, the rebranding of Story of Your Life in movie form, is a masterwork of soft science fiction, then. Part of what makes soft(er) science fiction so appealing is as an analog or as an alternative is the freedom it gives an author or filmmaker to simply tell a story free of self-imposed real-world constraints that don’t apply in made-up worlds borne from the author’s mind alone. This particular story focuses on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, or linguistic relativity (eat your heart out, Einstein!), tying one’s ability to experience the world directly to their understanding of language. This anthropological treatise is complicated but not unknowable, which makes it a perfect subject for science fiction. Chiang is a masterful writer, Villeneuve, a meditative director, and Amy Adams, a deft actor. It took a relative combination of these elements to pull off the meditative needlework that Arrival eventually became. 

It’s another marginal but effective difference between hard and soft science fiction: the “give” in the storytelling. Because hard science fiction, think Interstellar (which hired actual astrophysicists to accurately represent an on-screen black hole) is so married to its accuracy, insofar as the laws of nature are concerned, its rigidity assumes the form and function of the story. Insofar as the laws of nurture? They’re squishy for softer pieces. If it’s inconvenient that a black hole be scientifically accurate, then filmmakers can just build a tesseract at the event horizon and make the whole story a metaphor for love (…wait). Continue reading

[1973] The Sting

Pauline Kael is easily the most influential film critic that most of the world has forgotten. What makes her style—and voice—more distinct than her peers and especially modern critics is the absolute sincerity with which she wields her devastating pen. Tone is near impossible to master and it’s important to understand how hard it is to douse your words in them without trying to. It’s the game all writers play. Kael had mastered it and then some.

To be critical without being unfair, to pick apart a film with legendary wit without being sarcastic or even sardonic is Kael’s greatest strength. Pauline Kael always told her own story without rewriting the work she covered, but always accepted the work as is—a trait armchair critics and bloggers can’t seem to shed; “but if only director X had done such and such” was most often nowhere near Kael’s reviews. She would always do well to play, not Devil’s advocate, but critic’s advocate, putting words to exactly why a beloved movie was just not as good as we thought it was. Her work, which often got her in hot hot heat with editors and made few friends behind the camera, gave cover to every other critic and ran counter-cultural to a pervasive narrative that popular was either good or bad. Kael’s writing focused on the work. She’s a driving force behind why I’m adamant to finish this blog: I’m looking for a why.

Her review of Bertolucci’s Last Tango In Paris is as artful as the film itself. It’s a brilliant trick of phrasing and construction, matching Bertolucci’s inward eroticism made outward by Brando’s performance of American masochism. It would seem that Kael thinks of two minds of Last Tango: shock and awe that it was made and shock and awe that the top masters of their craft would make this movie, effectively turning the deck of cards upwards and demanding audiences to pick a card. It’s what Kael does with her reviews. She’ll always guess your card but not because she was looking at the deck.

This review, written the same year as her one-shot takedown of 1973’s Best Picture winner, The Sting, infantilizes the Redford/Newman “thriller.” Her criticism is valid if the reader is looking for reasons not to like it, but it’s the undertones—not so soft—that make a very simple point. She is, in effect, calling out some combination of actor, director, film, industry for straight-washing and woman-erasure in about 200 words. And she’s right and she says it right in the review. What if Last Tango was about a gay “relationship?” What if Shaw (Newman) and Kelly (Redford) sought a relationship that wasn’t poking fun at homoerotic tropes, or propped women instead of equalizing a whole gender? Not to fall into the trap that I’d set for myself: director George Roy Hill made the movie he made and therefore we must judge it for its merits and faults on its face, which Kael does, too. Continue reading