[1968.4] The Lion In Winter

I will be watching all 5 nominees from 1968 before I move on to the next year. The goal here is to watch them and have an internal discussion among them to try to piece together a “history” of the year. Let’s get to it. 

51fbqfvec2lIt is utterly impossible to predict chemistry in film. The chaos of combination can drive filmmakers mad piecing together disparate parts – acting, writing, directing, promoting, etc. – into cohesive art. Sometimes a casting director has instructions from her writers to land a specific actor for a role; the role, in fact, was written for this particular person. Other times, the team must interpret intent and cast to the best of its ability. The order with which the team comes together (and breaks) is fluid and unpredictable; the same team, had it been assembled in a different logistic, would function as a totally different unit, as levels of seniority and a shifting power dynamic supersede the film’s goal – to be made. The more complex the team, the more brittle it is, and the more susceptible it is to external forces (mostly money).

What is more remarkable than a film that captures zeitgeist, is one that is made at all. No obvious evidence exists that the filmmakers had trouble putting The Lion In Winter together. In fact the chemistry seems primordial of sorts, as if the pieces just fit prim and proper. The subject matter – a slippery tale of deception and inertia in 12th century terms – provides no clues necessarily, either. In a way, The Lion In Winter shows three generations of the human condition spread across millennia and geometrically accelerating across time: we, as a species have changed only in the clothes we wear and the war we wreak. The struggle for acceptance and ascendance has not changed from AD 1183 through to 1968 to a modern viewing. The Lion In Winter‘s team caught a lucky break, matching marvelous dialogue with sublime acting. The actors seemingly slowed humanity for a blip to reflect on its role as a defender of chaos.  Continue reading “[1968.4] The Lion In Winter”

[1968.3] Romeo and Juliet

I will be watching all 5 nominees from 1968 before I move on to the next year. The goal here is to watch them and have an internal discussion among them to try to piece together a “history” of the year. Let’s get to it. 
All film in its respect is an adaptation of some written piece: the difference, in Oscar terms is whether the screenplay was written specifically for the purposes of filming (Original Screenplay) or not (Adapted Screenplay). Perhaps counter-intuitive, the category for Best Adapted Screenplay predated Original Screenplay by 11 years. But perhaps not: as a fledgling industry, motion picture needed to build a book of work, as a whole, before it would attract writers specifically for the purpose of making a film. Writers had been writing scripts for the stage for perhaps millennia; the technological leap had perhaps been too much early on, especially with the world in a topsy-turvy state. In contemporary filmmaking, it is difficult to pierce the mind of an author who writes a book – for the purposes of having a team adapt it to the stage or screen. Shakespeare, Bard extraordinaire, wrote exclusively for the stage and for the ear (his sonnets), but nearly 400 years after his death, a group adapted Romeo and Juliet for the screen to raucous success. The story, as old as time immemorial, required little updating; one might argue that it fits perfectly within a film’s environ, length, and arc. Shakespeare himself could not have imagined how modern playwrights would vivisect the story across generations, but the original holds up as a piece of modern adaptation unmatched.

William Shakespeare’s tragedies and comedies translate more readily to the screen than do his histories, and Romeo and Juliet is perhaps the least audacious and most true-to-form that it reads as both a tragedy and a history – even though we assume the story to be a concoction of the Bard’s brain. We know that he did not outline the story, but adapted a verse-to-prose-to-play version with which the modern audience aligns most closely. The tragedy of Romeo and Juliet remains patently obvious to the reader who will watch the film all the way through; the allegorical death of love. But the history of it had been written, and will continue to be written as long as love plays proxy for time.

No other Shakespeare adaptation sits so squarely at this collision; Sir Laurence Olivier’s and Sir Kenneth Branagh’s work, while true to script and accurately emotive, feel rooted in place and time. Modern “adaptations,” like O and Ten Things I Hate About You feel reminiscent of their own time and place, worthy in their own right as bastions of 1990s culture. George Cukor’s 1935 film, (also Romeo and Juliet) feels rooted in its own time; technological limitations remind the reader that she is watching an older film, which is valiant, if not immutable. Meanwhile Romeo + Juliet, Baz Luhrmann‘s unworthy, pandering, pastiche remake, strips down both its tragic elements and its historical roots, and replaces them with neither, making it instantly forgettable, if not leaving the reader with a taste of week-old coffee grounds in her mouth. Foreign adaptations, including Akira Kurosawa’s Ran (Macbeth), while worthwhile, are removed from the original, as much as any adaptation of Russian or Spanish literature feels when translated to English, then acted on stage or screen. The idea is there, but is muted because language conveys more than just words, but in fact the history and tragedy of its speakers. Continue reading “[1968.3] Romeo and Juliet”

[1968.2] Funny Girl

I will be watching all 5 nominees from 1968 before I move on to the next year. The goal here is to watch them and have an internal discussion among them to try to piece together a “history” of the year. Let’s get to it. 

funnygirlposterFunnily enough, Funny Girl earned neither a Best Original Screenplay nor a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination, even though it had been produced as an acclaimed stage production – which itself had been adapted from a book. Clearly, the work was not an “original” screenplay, but still removed far enough from Fanny Brice’s actual life  (three degrees) so as to offer dramatic license to transform story into narrative. Funny Girl provides a glimpse into the unknown world of a girl, truly funny, but with levels of processing, Brice’s story resembles a game of “telephone,” where star Barbra Streisand steps into the role of a woman she never met, based on a series of adaptations (and maybe conversations/sessions) and script directions. After this many deviations from the original, who can say if Streisand is not simply playing a caricature of herself? Perhaps the performance demonstrated an excellent reading of the script and  – with Streisand’s jovial and emotional representation – offered a meta-wink-and-nod to industry elite and sentimentalists. Streisand, in her magnum opus, is quite funny, and identifies as a girl but it becomes increasingly difficult to parse meaning from the concatenation.  Continue reading “[1968.2] Funny Girl”

[1968.1] Rachel, Rachel

I will be watching all 5 nominees from 1968 before I move on to the next year. The goal here is to watch them and have an internal discussion among them to try to piece together a “history” of the year. Let’s get to it. 

83aThe human eye, for its awesome complexity, is imperfect. An average human can distinguish among 10 million colors to varying levels of intensity. Trichromacy is a distinguishing factor among primates from other mammalian species and is responsible for evoking (occasionally vivid) emotional responses. Artists and filmmakers decide that crisp and clear color might symbolize a specific emotion or mood; to that effect, an artist with a different objective might elect to dull a palate of colors enough to push a different set of feelings. A filmmaker’s choice can only really reflect intent, however, as each human, just as she has different eyes also sees things through a unique perspective. Sometimes the human eye, it its awesome complexity, cannot interpret crispness as imperfection causes the physiology to distort.

To examine the history of film is to undertake an impossibly knotty task. Separate, and often collinear threads, like technology’s insatiable progress and public opinion’s often disheartening demagoguery, or a deepening mistrust of authoritarian figures and a shift in music tastes, that have little to do with one another often superimpose one another, intentional or not. The eye, as propagator of one of humans’ most treacherous senses, cannot piece cognitive dissonance together: against evidence to the contrary, what it sees it believes, even at the behest of the other senses; the eye is the human’s most slanderous sense. 1968’s Rachel, Rachel remains honest with intent, but blurry in obscurity. Released during a time of global tribulation, its soft reflection on human suffering seems trivial – but, once again, the human eye deceives.  Continue reading “[1968.1] Rachel, Rachel”

[1929/30] The Divorcee

220px-the_divorcee_posterThomas Piketty, in his seminal book on modern economic theory, Capital in the 21st Century, makes several offhand references to literature, and specifically that of Honoré de Balzac. Piketty notes that since early Western governments, fickle and fragile, kept slipshod records for economic data, a reliable source would be theoretical banking accounts for fictional characters; the intent was to demonstrate certain patterns of investment and commercial practice common to the time, proxy for hard, verifiable data. Piketty’s review, defense of, and argument for Balzac’s France as evidence for certain thematic-banking practices is convincing if not scientifically sound. With bygone generations lost to the annals of history, anecdote trumps nothing whatsoever. Though closer to contemporary, 1929/30’s The Divorcee allows a brief glimpse into the psyche and tremulous nature of relationships as they once were.

The idea of divorce, conceptually, as passé offers insight into high society perhaps unavailable otherwise. Typical, Christian wedding vows come with something resembling “’til death do us part,” and in order for a priest to ordain a couple married, they both must agree to this. Marriage does not offer an opt-out clause, but divorce exists anyway. High society folks, according to this film, seem to slip in and out of marriage as an activity occasionally worth doing. The characters involved in phony love triangles just make decisions, almost irrespective to their feelings, as the point of marriage – the point – is to extend The Beautiful to The Damned, and extend a life of leisure without purpose to the next pit stop. Divorce, then, is not a response to a damning relationship; it is a next stop for wealth malaise and boredom, as Balzac, too, describes via literary realism in his works. Piketty recognizes this realism as does The Divorcee’s director, Robert Z. Leonard. Even though none of today’s audience lived in 18th-century France or through the Great Depression, this film’s striking take on the unexplored impacts of meaningless decisions, like marriage and divorce, among the wealthy, and note that even though the husbands or wives might make haphazard choices in love or lust, their impacts can cause similar social rifts to those current audiences explore. Except today’s audiences have access to anything at the click of a mouse. Continue reading “[1929/30] The Divorcee”

{Second Take} [1944] Gaslight

The horrors of World War II upended Western civilization. War ravaged nations. Governments attacked their own citizens. Neighbors lost trust in one another. Between secret police and state propaganda, the fighting extended from the battlefield to the town square as control of speech and thought intersected with the war effort. While vilifying enemies is a normal aspect of war, the citizenry also turned on itself: Germans and French aiding in their neighbors’ deportations to concentration camps, the internment of Japanese-Americans, and the similar British internment of German and Austrian citizens represent the heights of public paranoia and scapegoating.

The uneasy atmosphere unavoidably influenced the popular culture of the time. Some of it was overt, like anti-Japanese and -German hysteria in early Bugs Bunny cartoons or dystopian fiction such as George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, while other works borrowed only the general feelings of fear and paranoia, like George Cukor’s film Gaslight from 1944. Cukor’s movie is adapted from a 1938 British play by Patrick Hamilton and preceded by a British film adaptation from 1940. Hamilton’s play and the British film, directed by Thorold Dickinson, were titled “Angel Street” when they originally reached American shores. Getting these details right matters, because this story is about memory and perception.

Today’s audiences may have heard the term “gaslighting” before (particularly in this fractious political season of unrepentant Trumpian falsehoods), and may rest assured that this is from where the phrase is derived. When Gregory nearly drove his young wife Paula to insanity by isolating her and manipulating her environment, he perpetrated an unforgettable trauma in the memory of film and culture. Indeed, he was going beyond the call of his contemporaries to police thought, and taking it one step further by performing what may be film’s first psychological inception (sorry, Chris Nolan).

One wonders if anyone at MGM had seen or read the story their production company purchased. If they had, and possessed any sense of irony, perhaps they would have reconsidered their demand to destroy all copies as well as the negative of Dickinson’s film. In true Orwellian fashion, MGM attempted to control the present by eliminating the past: down the memory hole with the 1940 movie. May no one ever compare the two films, nor even remember the original! MGM wanted to treat the moviegoing public like Paula, restricting its access to the world, lying to its face, and forcing it to doubt its own powers of recollection. Later, MGM would again attempt to manipulate the public’s perception of its environment by suing Jack Benny for parodying Gaslight on a 1959 episode of his TV program. Continue reading “{Second Take} [1944] Gaslight”

[1944] Gaslight

Regardless of whether or not sonder is a “real” word, the feeling is essential to existence. Directly from The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows:

“…the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.”

In short, sonder is the response to a life of isolation, of predictable dread, and of mental instability. Nineteen forty-four’s Gaslight asks the audience to follow a life unexamined, but not one suspended by choice. Ingrid Bergman as Paula wonders whether her whole existence is sonder from herself. Her sadistic husband, Gregory (Charles Boyer), begins to encourage the idea of the whole world as random passersby living vividly; that everyone else’s ambitions are justified, while hers are shameful and squarely unique; that everyone else is the main story and that she is the extra in her own life. One might argue sonder is a stalwart of the human condition, predating the confines of its definition. A more narrow-minded skeptic would respond that the unbearable and crushing feeling of aloneness is a technocratic achievement, tipped in a free-falling direction with the advent of the Internet. Others might argue for tautology – “it is what it is,” and that without definition, the concept does not exist at all. Gaslight proves the first one more believably true. Without the Internet to spread the definition, Paula, trapped if not for deus ex detective, would have felt like a spectator to her own life. She is sonder. Continue reading “[1944] Gaslight”