[1962] To Kill A Mockingbird

There’s a handful of roles made for a single actor. It’s rare that an audience will remember an actor by a single role. It takes a confluence of happenstance–timing being the big one. The right actor in the right circumstance with the right personality and experience meets the right writer who writes for the right projection of self; the plot is timely and impactful and the characterization is meaningful, riddled with emotional cues and the director and supporting cast have the right combination of empathy to allow the role to breathe or constrict, as written.

This is rare. It’s rare to get a handful of these circumstances in the same state, and even more unlikely to have them convalesce on the same set. George C. Scott as General Patton in Patton is one. Daniel Day-Lewis bucks this trend and seemingly rearranges spacetime to force the pieces together as Christy Brown in My Left Foot, William Cutting in Gangs of New York, Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, President Lincoln in Lincoln, and about half a dozen others. One more to add to this list is Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird.

We’ve got to consider context, too. The external factors that audiences have access to were off the radar to audiences in 1962: it was an age of simmering indifference and false innocence. Americans were lulled into great times of growth. Post-war America ushered in a generation of prosperity and security, mildly plagued by simmering tensions in the East. Fathers and brothers who served their country and came home in Europe or Asia were rewarded with access to education, credit and stable jobs. It was never this way for black Americans, though. It wasn’t even a secret.

Harper Lee wrote To Kill a Mockingbird from within an era of piercing  failure of justice. Her words, with the benefit of experience, said the quiet part deceptively loud. Through her characters, tightly constructed, the reader sought idealism and the aforementioned justice for humanity. She defended different and championed compassion for the men and women she made. What American idealism had done for 300 years–dehumanized the black experience–Harper Lee, herself white, tried to tackle over 200 or so pages. For whatever looming threat lurked overseas unbeknownst for generations, the internal war we’d been fighting in America raged, nearly invisible to the naked eye. We’d fought to free the slaves a hundred years ago, but the lives of others remained nominally unaffected. Never forget Emmett Till.

Lee’s book, and Robert Mulligan’s movie, is what gives those who would otherwise ignore civil rights of others standing to fight for them, for all Americans, and especially black Americans.

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[1929/30] All Quiet On The Western Front

It’s hard to name Western propagandists whose message advocated for war. During times just after intensive global strife, particularly war, lots of the filmmakers sought to describe the horror of war and its lasting effects on the people war devours. Even when one side defeats an enemy, lots of the film made after World War II and Vietnam chose to downplay the idea of victory. The message gleams clear from the genre–there are no winners in war, but losers and broken men.

There’s no indifference in war. Even Leni Riefenstahl, a German woman fascinated and adored by Nazis, but never officially charged as a Nazi, never made “pro-war” films. Ostensibly, she made movies with titles like Der Sieg des Glaubens (“The Victory of Faith”), and her twin masterclasses, Triumph des Willens (The Triumph of the Will) and Olympia (documenting the 1936 Munich Olympics). Close readers know there’s a deeper story to her work, to sow discord for one group and glory for another. This in and of itself isn’t problematic. In fact, most chronicles of war take a stance on an output–death toll–or outcome–a changed national jingoism. Even the documentaries, supposedly full of fact and nothing else, are also full of tone and timbre. There’s no such thing as objectivity. You know how you know? Ask five people to define what the word “objective” means.

This take is not defending Leni Riefenstahl, the propaganda she and her, er, cronies produced, or any of the outputs or actions of war. It is worth noting, however that German propaganda seemed especially fiery and pugnacious, especially between the two world wars, inclusive. The spewed lots of pro-might campaigns, ruthlessness toward apologists, and calls to arms to preemptively position the Fatherland toward a position of power. Odd then the timing of All Quiet on the Western Front, a perfectly placed propaganda picture released as Wiemar was on its last legs. It delivered a clear message and implied a warning to the next decade: war is not glory; war is not might; war is death; and war is fright. Continue reading

[1972] Cries and Whispers

There’s enough copy out there about how Ingmar Bergman drenched his feature, Cries and Whispers in red (röd). He chose red (especially after the majority of his earlier work was monochrome) for its striking visuals, color theory, and connection to Swedish history. If nothing else, in Sweden a specific red, Falu Rödfärg, colors a significant number of buildings, especially in the countryside. Red, across cultures, symbolizes passion, lust, desire, etc. It’s also the least visible of the color spectrum, so I’ll offer that Bergman chose to oversaturate the film with it to stand it out. It’s the first thing you’ll notice about this movie.

That’s really all there is to say about the color red and Cries and Whispers. There’s lots of scholarship about it. That’s enough.

The not-so-secret fact about the Oscars is their Americanness: of the 566 films to ever have been nominated, 12 have been filmed in a language other than English. This isn’t surprising–the Academy voters are mostly native English speakers, American audiences overwhelmingly see movies performed in English, and despite the premise that the Oscar winner should best represent the gestalt of the year, what we really mean is the zeitgeist of American culture. The road to global reach is unpaved, likely, but we’d like to think that language is the one phenomenon we can overcome; there are subtitles.

But alas, Cries and Whispers was the last Swedish movie to earn an Oscar nomination for Best Picture (but not first! The Emigrants” was nominated just a year earlier. The Emigrants, however wasn’t wholly Swedish, either. It’s a Swedish-rooted story about America).

Swedish, as a language, is sort of bonkers to decipher, and nagging to the native English speaker because of its Germanic roots and bouncy gait. Its structure, like any language spoken by millions of people, follows a pattern, and there’s more than a few cognates. But there’s still great distance between Swedish and English, and it’s an effective barrier between the two cultures. Cries and Whispers is incredibly Swedish, incredibly Bergman, but also full of universal tones ahead of their time: the quiet tragedy of women.

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[1940] Rebecca

Since evolved from a romantic horror genre to a more complex emotional battleground, Gothic arts take pleasure in allowing audiences to take part in their characters’ suffering; it’s the defining feature. The Germans have a word for the positive-extreme version: schadenfreude, or taking pleasure in someone else’s pain. It’s a mostly strange oddity of the human condition to relish in this emotion: it’s a private condition that’s always better left hushed. Hitchcock was a master of the Gothic, perhaps none more mesmerizing than Rebecca.

Alfred Hitchcock is known for his archetype defining tropes, many of which involve manipulating an audience to suffer–however slightly–for his own pleasure. Hitchcock’s use of schadenfreude remains classic, if not overlooked.His sound and visual cues were likely the first to signal a psychological trauma incoming (PsychoThe Birds), or the first to use first-person to treat the audience as a a voyeuristic character (Rear Window). But these tropes came from somewhere, and they likely were fully formed for Rebecca. 

Rebecca‘s strongest feature is pacing, which seems to turn on a dime, starting and stuttering, purposefully designed to keep the audience intentionally off-balance. It’s written in such a way — likely in the source material, too — that we’re not supposed to know who to root for or against at any given time. The de Winters, alive oscillate between pitiable and crass. We want this man, Maxim de Winter, to find love again, then he’s a rube, and then he’s a murderer. His second wife, never given a name, is cloyingly Pollyannaish and bright-eyed, until she’s convinced to jump to her death. Rebecca, Maxim’s first wife, is revered, until it’s revealed shes the smarmiest of them lot, conniving as ever. These people are all terrible, and it’s Hitchcock’s pacing that let’s his audience figure this out on our own, without need to tell. Hitchcock was a master of show.

But Mrs. Danvers is the most Gothic character and sets a stage for Norman Bates in Hitchcock’s Psycho 20 years later. She has an obsession with Rebecca de Winter bordering on violent delusion, and takes offense to Maxim remarrying, soon after Rebecca’s death but likely ever. She relishes misleading Maxim’s second wife into dark corners, stirring trouble. We’re supposed to hate her, and empathize with Danvers’ prey as an object of evil affection. Mrs. Danvers is obviously mentally ill, but 1940s America sees her as evil and crazy. If Hitchcock understood this about his audience, he made a perfect character. If he didn’t, he shot a great character, accidentally.

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{No. 55: Animation} [1993] Beauty and the Beast

The Academy plays favorites. This is not a new fact—almost exclusively winners (and losers) over the past 90 or so years have been dramas or historical fictions. There’s a seriousness or a weightiness to soaring, emotional movies. Making them and watching them feels like work, a work for which the Academy wants to bestow a promise of a reward. We almost never watch a drama for fun; Doubt isn’t a laugh factory or an escape. It demands our attention or we’ve just wasted two hours watching Meryl Streep looking sternly at us.

Science-fiction, action-adventure, comedy are cast into unseriousland as their studios green light another $150 million summertime fun blockbuster. What Scorcese talks about when he talks about cinema vs. cinéma is what the Academy means when it nominates movies about trans folks or historical slave struggles over a superhero movie. The media drama certainly overplayed the audacity of the response to this. Regardless of how we feel about these simple flicks, we know what Scorcese means. Stay in your lane, Captain Whosit.

To say that the Oscars haven’t honored “fun” movies is unfair, though. All three Lord of the Rings movies got a Best Picture nod. Toy Story 3 did, too. Is it unfair? If we search the list of “fun” movies the Academy has thought to advance to the highest canon, Beauty and the Beast comes first. Beauty is an 80 minute kids’ movie. It’s Disney’s thirty-seventh animated feature. It was also nominated for three other Oscars, winning two. What makes this movie more important to the history and exalted vaults of film history. Why not Aladdin the next year, or The Lion King in 1994, arguably a better execution of Disney’s modern anthropomorphic formula?

Animation, almost as old as the medium itself, earns a certain level of disrespect among auteurs serieuses. It’s not real, they’ll say, it’s too far removed from the goings-on of the everyman, the elevated filmgoer with a few extra bucks in her pocket. She doesn’t want to indulge in fantasy, when she might want to see a New Yorker editorial in 48 frames per second. She’s smarter than that; more human. She’s American, and here, cartoons are for kids.

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[2011] Midnight In Paris

On est ici, toujours à point nommé.

That’s it: you’re here, always, right where you should be. It’s a French idiom that reminds us to stay grounded in the present and it’s not some hard cheese like, “The grass is always greener,” because of course the grass is always greener where you’re not tromping on it like a damn timpani booming out Lux Æterna. It’s a nonsense aphorism. It’s the lesson lots of us learn too late, because what is perspective? I think it’s finally being able to see down the bridge of your nose; when your eye muscles can’t force your vision forward. It’s centering, especially after a lifetime of disillusionment. Our character, Gil Pender, learns this in an earned and completely satisfying way. It’s what makes Midnight in Paris a fantastic movie instead of just a good one.

Here are the factors that allows a character to earn a payoff:

A struggle (external or internal). A master director will let a struggle unfold gracefully or hint at it; the director will use context clues and deft archetypal characterization in tandem to show the audience that there’s a problem that needs to be solved (that it can be solved, too—and that the character can’t just exist with it). In Midnight In Paris, Woody Allen shows us Gil’s challenge to reconcile his desire to love and to be loved with a nagging need for creative freedom. He’s internally conflicted about what to do.

means. The good director, and the excellent acting, will guide the audience to believe—not accept—that this struggle will continue (a very modern take) without some force acting upon it. A droll take could subvert a payoff entirely, which some modernist and absurdist directors have shown us—think Jacques Tati’s M. Hulot in Playtime or almost any Luis Bunuel film from mid-20th masterpieces. But it’s key to ground a means in believability. It can be believably fantastic, where the director asks the audience knowingly to suspend what they (think) they know to be true facts about beings and spacetime. Really, though, there just needs to be the right tools for the job available or gettable.

Often a large chunk of a movie will be assembling means. For Gil, it was a week of fantastical journeys into the past. …..the past within a past is the masterful stroke of this movie — Gil’s journey becomes a proxy for the audience’s; we;re watching him get fed the same lesson he’s been feeding us. Never one to teach instead of poking fun, Woody implores his audience to exist in the present as much as possible and that there’s a Big Human Lesson here.

He needed to learn confidence to act.

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[1979] Breaking Away

The youngest Baby Boomers, poster children of Postwar America, would have been 15 in 1979; the oldest pushing 35. This isn’t new in generation theory—that there’s often as much difference at the margins of generations as there is between them. But they follow cycles on larger scales, on attitudes, and in events that define them. Collective memory draws together generations as they get older. In 1979, a 15 year old and a 35 year old might take a different tack on their Dad, they all remember the impact of Vietnam (it’s always war) on each of their lives.

The oldest Boomers would have been PFCs, new fathers, at the start of the war; the youngest would have seen these fathers come back, shattered. Forty years later Vietnam remains the defining event collective for their generation: those born any later than ‘64 remember ‘Nam as a spectre, a wisp of collective memory that isn’t theirs. That’s Gen-X: tiny by comparison, between major conflict and free of most of any. It’s the Coldest generation, but not the boldest; the world remembers Gen-X as Reagan’s babies, ushering in Millennials with a coup de grâce; an Australian winter; a rejoinder of gentle-going.

Breaking Away was the Boomers’ present to Gen-X: a love letter to life before. Unlike American Graffiti, which was neither funny nor poignant, Breaking Away fills its runtime with what feels like real stakes, humor and meaningful character development. It’s a reminder that humans are delicate beings that deserve meaningful connection; we deserve an antidote to loneliness. Breaking Away expertly bridges the generational divides across age, class, national origin and it tells a fun sports story, too. Though it isn’t really about sport; it never is. Continue reading

[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