[1962] Lawrence of Arabia

lawrence_of_arabia_ver3_xxlgOur ability to pay attention to paragraphs of rich, dense information has dwindled, slowly leaning off the informed cliff. It is impossible to blame any conspicuous actor in this process: access to any information instantaneously is the natural progression of the Internet, from airwave colonization through the eventual heat death of Twitter. Because anyone outside the least-developed places on Earth can tell you the summary of the day’s news without effort, our brains (probably) have rewired to expect this. The natural satisfaction of factual correctness, for those who value the deluge of thought, is almost too much to overcome in favor of nuance, explicit rejection of certain narratives, and longform journalism.

This phenomenon expands to visual media, too.

Television programs are made shorter, snappier, and available all at once. With Vine recoiled, Youtube is a haven for enterprising bloggers to capitalize on short, hot takes on the latest whimsy. There is no reason to be angry at this: people do not really read books anymore, if they did in the first place, in favor of secondary sources and opinion. And the era of the epic film has collapsed into, reflexively the 100-minute caper; if a director cannot tell her story in that time, it needs editing, the critic will say. The critic may be correct. But where does that leave complicated character studies, and films about multi-faceted war, and room to explore gorgeous cinematography?

TE Lawrence is a product of fortunate experience and a human’s capacity to conduct multiple threads of action at once. It is, and continues to be impossible, to simplify the man to a thread of existence. The film’s title – “Lawrence of Arabia” – would have an audience assume the man himself Arab. But Sir Thomas Edward Lawrence was a soldier in the British forces and simultaneously a bold ally to the plight of quasi-warring Arabian tribes and a thorn in the side of an intra-colonial British Empire, feigning Arabian prosperity as the only spoil of war required for proper victory. In retrospect, as is always the case, the inputs and outcomes are more complicated, more nuanced, and characters more wobbly than can be explored in 100 minutes. Lawrence of Arabia needs room to breathe. Its cinematography, narrative arcs, and character development ensure that the 200 minutes do not slink by in vain.

Continue reading “[1962] Lawrence of Arabia”

[2016] Hacksaw Ridge

hacksaw_ridge_posterHacksaw Ridge is about two things: religion (specifically, Christianity) and violence. It is not, for better or worse, about religious violence. Director Mel Gibson had spent the better part of the last twenty years pontificating about Jesus, his own come-to-Jesus-cum-anti-Judaism, so if this movie was to be about dying on That Hill, it was to be taken as an on-brand, but ultimately eye-rolling joke. Even worse, it was to be a joke about the life of a man whose bravery, religion, and selflessness in wartime saved dozens of lives and helped to propel the American victory in the Eastern Theatre.

Violence and religion, like everything else, deserve a healthy dose of comedy, but the evanescent tonal balance, critical for all directors, but more so for microscope attractor Gibson was critical. And if the film is going to be shockingly violent (see: Saving Private Ryan) it had better be compelling to watch. If the gore is overwhelming, it had better be accurate and respected. If the film is going to be a plus-one for religion as a pursuit, it had better be humanistic. Gibson strikes this balance well and also makes a compelling case for personal devotion to a Christian God without telling the audience that this is the only path. Continue reading “[2016] Hacksaw Ridge”

[1951] A Streetcar Named Desire

220px-a_streetcar_named_desire_28195129The tiniest of innocuous details, ones that pass by without notice are the crema of legends. Neither are all-time events and figures borne from a single gigantic event; nor more likely is a mythologized film shot in a single take. Every event you’ve heard about has a history in the small, snowballing events that lead up to it. Most films are lucky to have been made but for a perceived slight toward the executive production team. A single turn – not casting Marlon Brando in the lead as Stanley Kowalski – might have doomed A Streetcar Named Desire to an important, but ultimately indexed footnote to film history. As is the case, however, it is monumentally important.

What makes A Streetcar Named Desire odd, right away, is that the streetcar in question, yes named “Desire,” bears almost no weight on what this film tackles. It is a small, innocuous detail, whose point, if there is one, is to usher in the story medias res. The Kowalskis have a life of tumult, so as playwright Tennessee Williams does so featherlike, he drops in a complete mess of a personality via a perfectly normal streetcar. The detail (the name of the car), while tiny, is not extemporaneous or thoughtless. It is a clever and worthwhile misdirection. Blanche is an imbalance, waiting without delay along a fixed path toward disaster. We know this almost immediately and we wait without delay, along a fixed path, to see how this disaster unfolded. It is manifest in American, human experience and we watch this movie to chase the fixed path, deeply arcing toward disaster. Are we meant to look inward? Do we…desire it?

Tennessee Williams was a master playwright. Not only did he understand the confines of stage space and a reasonable parallel to action, he understood, somehow, the capacity of humans to deal with a rotten tomato tossed haphazardly. Sometimes it hits an actor in the face, and she has to wipe it off and keep performing; sometimes it misses completely and shatters the papier-mâché stage behind him; sometimes it doesn’t matter at all. A the cherry bomb is metaphor without being overwrought. How Williams was able to understand the intricacies of the human experience, process them, eulogize them, and repackage them as a confined statement, bold and indirect, is astonishing. This play was built for the screen, too, in an era of limited budgets and a restless postwar America.

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[2012] Lincoln

lincoln_2012_teaser_posterSteven Spielberg’s Lincoln is a boring movie.

It moves incredibly slow, but it isn’t paced badly. Daniel Day-Lewis and Tommy Lee Jones act with aplomb, and their performances are memorable, as are the real-life characters they portray. Lincoln doesn’t linger on the 16th President’s death so much as the war he fought against the Confederate insurgents. It does spend its whole running time counting beans and exploring the actions of those who would support or oppose the 13th Amendment, freeing the slaves permanently, after the insurgent South sued for peace. Lincoln supposes that Congressmen and Senators from the 1860s spoke solely in soliloquy. On and on Daniel Day-Lewis does justice to Abraham Lincoln, the politico, and has his audience swimming in the deep end policy consideration. This movie spends time poring over a piece of parchment. It is a boring movie and it took me four sittings to get through it.

Lincoln is also fantastic and should be celebrated. Continue reading “[2012] Lincoln”

[1987] Fatal Attraction

fatal_attraction_posterAlternatively, Fatal Attraction ended with Dan in jail. This ending, however, did not fuse climax and catharsis well enough, did not test well enough with audiences, and did not demonstrate a logic consistent with its smart world building. So the director rewrote, refilmed, and recut a version of Fatal Attraction that ended with everything in its right place: unwell Alex dead and philandering Dan without consequence. It didn’t even seem like he grew from his near miss. The blame, alternatively, has been cast onto Alex, poor, crazy Alex as the holder of bad fortune and loser of minds. Contemporary Dan is the embodiment of clueless, white, male privilege.

Well enough, Alex Forrest as a character has gotten a fair share of criticism and a few dozen thinkpieces denouncing her trope as anti-woman, anti-feminist, and wholly modernist. Unable to cope with — something — Alex descends from a career-minded single woman into total hysterical madness; over a weekend fling? When peeled back, alternatively, this characterization doesn’t hold up to immediate scrutiny. While thrilling, this type of surface-level character making, is as deep as she is manic. It means that Fatal Attraction is an expensive thrill with a character assassination at the expense of the white, male viewers whose “marriages were saved after watching this movie!” as if any of these hysterical men had any sort of gumption in the first place.

No, it means this: Fatal Attraction‘s writers trapped their perception of a woman scorned and broken bad into Alex, with every other character playing coy. That word, hysterical, is loaded with etymology related to the uterus and is taken to mean “at the whim of an emotional female,” or, anti-logical, because for millennia or more, female meant baby-bearing, illogical, subservient being. Alternatively, it means that watching Fatal Attraction thirty years later leaves a puzzling reconstruction of what it means to eschew a discussion of mental health. Alex originally kills herself, but in the theatrical cut, Dan’s wife Beth, somehow not hysterical, helps Alex kill herself. Continue reading “[1987] Fatal Attraction”

[1941] Sergeant York

sergeant-york-belgian-movie-posterHyperreal violence plays a role in postmodern American culture. It continues to be the defining moment in each day chronicled and it is glorified in stone in film and television. Fast, clear, and present danger is always under the next shag rug; the grass will kill you; and we better be ready for the imminent, always imminent, rise of the autonomy of things. First our cars will drive us, and then they will drive us off a cliff.

But ocean red, the hue that resonates the blood-shot reflection of a dead solider, will always be the cornerstone of American fascination with War. The Patriotic film demonstrates the hellish torment of battle, with corporeal guts and bones the ultimate sacrifice. This message is simple and meaningful and, when overdone, can be visually stunning and worthwhile as a statement, or just a way for a production studio to run the world a little dryer of #ff0000. But before color ubiquity in media, directors needed to dig a little deeper to represent the horrifics of war and death. Before it becomes unfashionable, the ultimate sacrifice is and was for of Our Lord the Christian God. Gary Cooper as Alvin York, in the titular Sergeant York, answers the call to demonstrate the harsh brutality of what it means to die in the arms of the ethereal. Continue reading “[1941] Sergeant York”

[2012] Zero Dark Thirty

zerodarkthirty2012posterHumans have found a way, compressed to virtual 1s and 0s, to make the world “flat.” That obstacles like time and space once prevented information from traveling from New York to New Jersey the long way round seems, now, and soon to our children’s children, ancient. That every human doesn’t have access to his virtual, visceral surroundings is a tragedy, to some, though the very ones that can’t know where the nearest coffee shop is have no access to the raw good two hectares away. In a way, we’ve never been further apart.

Add in narrators, who explain the event all (some) (very few) of us are seeing along with them, in misleading detail. They don’t mean to mislead, of course, but can’t help focusing an event, that for all intents and purposes, is happening through their own personal experience, the experience and profit/information motive of their employer, and the legal directive from anywhere else. Rip these bits up, reassemble them, and remove much of the original source, and you have a sheeny Zero Dark Thirty.

There is no doubt that this film was crafted by an auteur at the height of her craft. Director Kathryn Bigelow knows how to make a film with vision, with gumption, and with bite. Her films are visceral and award-worthy: The Hurt Locker won Best Picture just four years before this craft; it was made without the future history of bin Laden’s postmature death, which would happen, according to all available, corroborated evidence, two years later, at a fortified complex in Abbottabad, Pakistan. This is a movie whose premise is so highly contested that it would require wireframing from steel nerves to pass it off as anything more than: before there was bin Laden, and after there wasn’t. But the audience cares about CIA analyst Maya and they care about the piecing together of this narrative, true or not. It cares more about the narrator, unreliable almost by definition, than it does the facts. Zero Dark Thirty is a promise fulfilled to an audience that asked nothing in return. Continue reading “[2012] Zero Dark Thirty”