[1931/32] The Smiling Lieutenant

Humor is incredibly challenging to sustain. In the short-term – film-length, say, jokes have to consistently strike a thin nerve and not stray too far away from the central themes or character motivations. A misplaced quip, or a joke that moves the plot off its close course, can derail an entire film. The audience rarely sees these errors because script and screen editors at the highest professional levels catch them and trash them almost as quickly as they are written.

In the medium-term – Oscar-season, perhaps, humor rarely makes buzz. Much humor is anti-erudite, and juvenile, such that taps into the audience’s deepest desires to identify with things they once found humorous; other humor is dry and satirical and the writing and acting work tirelessly to inform their audience of the hyper-specific culture referenced; still other humor does not parade as comedy and is unintentionally funny because either the story is intentionally poorly conceived, or the acting is laughably sincere or insincere, or often a heaping of both. None of these methods sustain the Academy’s wish to best represent the year in culture; gestalt. Worst case: nothing in the year struck a nerve as particularly humorous or even slightly funny. Modern times call for advanced emotions: fear, hatred, sadness, austerity.

In the long-term – the history of film, for instance, humor falls almost unconditionally flat as tastes are elliptical, and follow a long arc around a contemporary locus. Then, after some time, the basis for the humor no long exists as a strain in human consciousness, through no one’s fault. Tastes change. But, in the rare instance a film can track humor as part of a larger, more serious narrative, it sticks, and exists outside the general theory of relativity. Consider Chocolat. This film is a serious take on historical racism and family dynamics, but it does so through the lens of a loose, and well-intentioned, albeit funny, vagrant. Chocolat, was also one of a handful of films with even slightly humorous undertones nominated, since 2000. Some films, like Chocolat, use humor to their advantage, but are not comedy films, by the reasoning that the larger social and historical implications outweigh jokes. But a curious film from the 5th Academy Awards (1931/32) called The Smiling Lieutenant, seems to have broken all the rules on route to obscurity. Continue reading “[1931/32] The Smiling Lieutenant”

[1955] Marty

Pith requires no antecedent. Shortness of sentence and completeness of meaning are compatible. Sometimes. But other times, pithy writing and shoestring budgeting hinders a process and matching mood to method becomes a challenge. Curt for curtness’ sake will ensure that story and characterization, plot and meaning, and any semiotics or symbolism are compromised. The ability to tell a concise, simple story is not an antecedent to worthiness nor is it a precursor to credibility. Audiences in the early-modern period of cinema developed an appetite for the Epic and film, especially ones that starred ensemble casts and would run two-and-a-half to four hours. The mid-1950s capitalized on this demand and also pushed length for, presumably, a multitude of reasons (unionized labor, capitalism, nostalgia, et cetera). Notable examples include: The Greatest Show on Earth, Giant, The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Ten Commandments, and Ben-Hur. Almost all of these films focus on the tragedy of Human Existence or the Atlasian weight of worldly matters on the human soul. Still other films run around two hours – the amount of time it takes before a human checks how long it has been since time was last checked. Some of these films hold status as simple, yet effective stories and to wit: 12 Angry Men, On the Waterfront, Sunset Boulevard, and A Streetcar Named Desire.

And then, Marty.

At a pithy 90-minutes, Marty builds a simple and titular character and surrounds him with s vibrant story borne from stereotype. Tropes include: overbearing, widowed Italian mothers; husbands and wives quarreling over minutia [but really, not minutia]; the idealistic, unrealistic best friend; the creepy, naïve idiot-friend group; an Italian butcher; and the soul crushing loneliness when Marty Piletti continues to lament in the most honest way that he is a fat and ugly guy who does not deserve love. This last one is a trope, but a dangerous and burning one, often misplaced. All people feel it at some point; most people find a multitude of numbing tropes (like alcohol, womanizing/hooking, cruelty, violence – and sometimes all of them simultaneously), but Marty (Ernest Borgnine) does not. Nor does he sink into a massive depression. Marty is not a story of deep depression and low-brow drama, but a pithy take on the resilience of the human spirt. A simple point-to-point story sheds pretense. The audience likes Marty, not because Marty ‘represents the human spirit’ so well, but rather because Marty is a fictionalized version of the simplicity the audience all seeks. Through minimalism comes clarity – a clarity not found floating in a half-full tumbler. Continue reading “[1955] Marty”

[1968.5] Oliver!

Nostalgia, as a concept, has not changed much since its definition in the mid-17th Century. It was originally a study in scientific longing; an acute and overwhelming physiological pang for home, from wherever the sufferer happened to be. Homesickness under these conditions was diagnosable and treatable by returning home, assuming that the homesick soul had one to which to return, or one from which she came. This phenomenon took hold in Central Europe and, according to the prevailing science of its time, caused more than a few soldiers’ deaths. Nostalgia – a mash-up Greek nostos and algos for return and sickness, respectively – was not an effect of one’s environment or circumstances, but rather its cause. The cure has remained the same over time – to return home would “cure” the affliction (modern psychologists might argue that the change in environs provided the needed therapy to alter a state of mind, and uncover the “root” issue). Moreover, modern circumstances have shifted “nostalgia” to a more domestic affliction from one borne from war. Adults will watch a film they had seen as a child and recall an environment – one of safety or comfort in the known perhaps – and long for a seat on the Past’s Couch. Forty-eight years after its original run, nostalgia must be the reason the public remembers Oliver! so fondly.

When one watches Oliver! it is dishonest to expect its tone to reflect Charles Dickens’ original serial from the mid-1800s. First, it is a musical, and even darker musical theatre tends to be comedic in some respect, if not for the tonal similarities between a joke and a song. Second, it is a different medium: it is actually quite a few steps away from the original, and with each transformation, some level of story shifts to meet its new medium. A book has, for example, hundreds of pages for the author to create local nostalgia; an emotional outburst so acute that the reader longs for a different emotional state pure of the book’s horrors or new memories. Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun is eerily reminiscent of this idea: is it a new emotional state that our mind must develop to cope with the horrors of war-fiction or does the mind have a process to repress these memories? Is it nostalgia that drives the mind – or is it the endless forward movement of time that forces the mind to remake itself constantly? Continue reading “[1968.5] Oliver!”

[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”