[1972] Sounder

The worst thing that can happen to a great movie is, in hindsight, for its release to have been in 1939, 1943, 1961, 1962, 1972, 1974, 1975, 1991 or 1997.

Let’s talk about The Godfather, widely acclaimed as a top film of all time. The casting – almost perfect; the writing – too accurate; the adaptation – who remembers the book? The Godfather, the movie, benefits from almost every detail: the early 1970s determined the rise of the mafia movie and The Godfather was (is) the strongest, all(!) the actors had already developed impressive résumés (no need to develop unknowns),  the important scenes resonate with us (still) and we can never look at equus the same way. The parts all add to an absurd sum. The Godfather transcends genre, convention and, really the plasticity of awards shows. Of course, in infinite, alternate universes other movies could have won Best Picture. In those same universes, though, no one would have thought to have made any movies ever. That being said, it’s a damn shame that Sounder was released in 1972.

Released during the Second Golden Age of Filmmaking, Sounder tells the story of a poor, black family growing up and together in the poorest of times to be a poor, black family – 30s Depression. Its brilliance, and what allows us to examine Sounder from a different angle is that Sounder is not exploitative. It doesn’t aim to make an example of blackness or poverty, save to tell the story. And the story itself is largely inconsequential – the details matter inasmuch as to develop the theme. Sounder, it turns out, is not an obfuscated Faulkner reference, but a pup, and one who provides much-needed comfort and support to the family. He is the only constant in a world of changing variables: sometimes there’s no food, sometimes there’s no family, sometimes there’s unthinkable cruelty (as was the case in 1930s Louisiana); but there’s always Sounder. When Sounder is feared lost or dead, the family knows that he’s not. Sounder is faith and spirituality embodied and emboldened. It’s inspiring work.  Continue reading

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[1931/2] Grand Hotel

We trace ensemble casts back through Shakespeare to Ancient Greece and most likely to the earliest days of storytelling; they say ‘it takes a village for a reason.’ Most likely, in the earliest days of our anthropological past, the concept of community was not a distinction between the haves and the have-nots or the 99% vs. the 1%, but a necessity to survival. I won’t go so far as to equate ensemble casting to fending off warring factions of neighboring tribes or to compare the plague of paranoia and petulance of Hamlet to actual Plague. But the concept is old and has been reworked countless times. Its origins trace roots to 1932’s Grand Hotel.

Of all the casting combinations available, if the choice is available, strong, recognizable ensemble casting rewards the audience more than an unruly cast of misfits and vagabond actors. To justify spending time and money on a two-hour film, a viewer will make a few snap judgments: does this subject matter resonate with me? Has this studio produced films before that I know and like? Do I know the lead actors in this film? From where? Has their work impressed me before? With ensemble casting, the actors both bolster and cover each other. With MGM not a performance risk, the team behind Grand Hotel attracted a huge cast – to audiences in the early 1930s – Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery, John and Lionel Barrymore.  Probably, any one of these actors could have drawn a huge audience his or herself, but instead, to the delight of the audience, all five get a chance to interact and command the screen.

Quite the feat then, to crowd the screen with raw talent and still create a cohesive story that doesn’t feel like a “best of” performance. The titular Grand Hotel is fictitiously set in Berlin, but could be anywhere. The actors play archetypes, and types well, but the story keeps the fluid fivesome afloat. From the rising action we compartmentalize each character according to some personality trait and motivation. Both are clear and subtle; because of the long (and thereby expensive) runtime, Grand Hotel‘s pacing allows space for director Edmund Goulding to establish clear motivations and interactions that feel like they could have happened (in the ’30s). Sometimes the characters stay out of each other’s way and sometimes they’re purposefully in the way. Our one static character, whose function it was to stay out of the way states it clearly:

People come and go. Nothing ever happens

which is simultaneously true, as nothing of grand importance happens, but for the characters involved the interactions are life and death defining. But for Doctor Otternschlag, who’s a permanent resident of the Hotel, he’s seen this before and will see it again. The ‘slice of life’ motif is quite interesting when combined with ensemble casting. It creates a huge scene for almost nothing to happen.

The ensemble concept has reformed over the 85-year history of film – from pieces like Grand Hotel that give its characters room to explore to films like Ocean’s Eleven (and the remake, Ocean’s Eleven) and The Italian Job (and its remake, The Italian Job), which purposely obfuscates the motivations of its stellar cast. Other series/long-form features will cast lots of unknowns or half-knowns to draw more attention to the plot than to the cast. I’d think it’s easier to promote this kind of ensemble cast in our modern film sphere; more outlets for creative freedom exist, while the number of actors who command as much respect as those five did is probably the same – if not less than in the 1930s. This reformation is a commendable and necessary fact of modernizing film.

Grand Hotel holds a distinctive title of both popularizing a genre and not outliving its own popularity through decades of great, mediocre and poorly executed films. It’s still require curriculum for most film (life) students to cite Grand Hotel as a forerunner for so many of the films we watch, even today. It neither created the hustle-and-bustle genre nor defined it: it neither owns the popularity nor defies it.  Further, in a testament to the symmetry so often secluded from modern film, Grand Hotel starts and ends on two ideas. The first one, Dr. Otternschlag’s shrewd observation, brings a balance to the film. The second one, that a cast can survive within such a grand idea, has bookended film history until this day. See Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Grand Hotel rightfully took home the crown for Best Picture in 1931/2. In a year when it seemed like every film produced earned a nomination (nominees weren’t standardized at 5 until 1944), Grand Hotel is the cream that rises out of the proverbial crop. Some of the films nominated at the 5th awards are so obscure and dated that I’ll want to space out watching them to keep my sanity – but one thing for sure is that Grand Hotel is eons beyond Arrowsmith.

 

[1961] The Hustler

There’s a long and unspoken acknowledgment that the archetypal “sports movie,” has almost nothing to do with sport in favor of a life lesson. The fact that the plot, milieu, characters and themes revolve around the sport is secondary to the nested life lessons. In 1961’s The Hustler, “Fast Eddie” Felson is the best pool player around. He knows it, his loyal manager knows it and, in turn, everyone else knows it. He (we) learn(s) that it’s hard at the top; to be the best means to be lonely and satiated. The Hustler is a sports movie, but like all sports movies and like all sports, a higher meaning adds purpose to the simplicity of competition.

We meet “Fast Eddie,” as he’s known, waiting to challenge the best pool player he can find, with the goal of taking him down. We meet “Minnesota Fats,” as he’s known, a humble and talented pool player, who no one’s beaten in almost two decades. Surely an exaggeration, it sets the scene for an epic performance from both Paul Newman (as Eddie) and the incomparable Jackie Gleason (as Fats). Director Robert Rossen, intriguingly also the writer, demonstrates Eddie’s fast up-and-down character as he wins, wins, wins against Fats, only to completely fall apart and lose, lose, lose all but his original vig. About twenty minutes in, the real story starts. The man “Fast Eddie” is moving slow, having lost his confidence, his support system and his home. We meet his love interest, Piper Laurie (as Sarah), and out comes the struggle, both internal and external. Both are equally interesting.  Continue reading

[1977] The Goodbye Girl

The film everyone (everyone) remembers from 1977 is Star Wars, the film that launched a thousand nerds. Nerdity has come into vogue in the 2010s, an epoch when it’s cool to be smart and high schoolers are emulating Elon Musk, not Justin Bieber (my god, I’m guessing – hoping). Star Wars was everything science fiction both was and wasn’t. Still camp – echoing for eternity Bill Shatner’s Star Trek saga, but Star Wars added the concept of high-stakes adventure and characters with which the everyman could identify in unlikely hero, Luke Skywalker, chip-on-the-shoulder Han Solo, strong, reasonable Princess Leia and for some, hairy and loyal Chewbacca. The story has lived on nearly four decades and five-plus(!) sequels, not to mention thousands of syndications and millions in product opportunity. The film most perfectly reflected the tail end of the Second Golden Age Of Filmmaking (1969-1977) and most succinctly represented the ethos of the late 70s.

But Star Wars did not win Best Picture in 1977. Instead the honor belongs to Annie Hall, a Woody Allen comedy that may have accomplished what Star Wars did – but brought the concepts down to Earth, rather than to Tattooine. Annie Hall reminds us of the humorous side of the late ’70s. Julia provided the drama and the boundary push and The Turning Point is mostly irrelevant. The Goodbye Girl had the unfortunate circumstance of landing smack in the middle; humorous and relatable, but relatively tame and un-challenging. This predicament – the average among the best – is not unique, but it has left many films in relative obscurity…some great, some not. Besides Dreyfuss’ wacky, inspired performance, this movie should stick its way as the one of best average films to have been nominated for Best Picture. Continue reading