[1976] All The President’s Men

There’s a film (not nominated for Best Picture, probably incorrectly) called The Thin Blue Line, which doesn’t really distinguish between narrative fiction and fictional narrative, but asks the audience to follow incredibly closely and decide for themselves what happened. Errol Morris took this film in a brilliant direction as each person watching the movie (documentary?) was asked to examine their own biases for the name of fairness, correctness, and real life tragedy. His work is an important distinction and groundbreaking in that before The Thin Blue Line, film was very obviously either true or false; a director took license only where absolutely necessary. A few hypotheses why this was the case, in order from probably the truth to certainly not the truth:

  • Technical limitations set the parameters for what could be staged, shot, edited, and pressed. Until the advent of more advanced cameras and computers and software to handle the ambition, storytellers limited their ideas to plausible narratives and the naturally insane.
  • Film was expensive, and filming too much more in the wayward sense of exposition and exploration, would have driven budgets beyond what a financier would consider “acceptable” overruns.
  • Inventing a whole new type of storytelling takes a bold visionary, and they had not yet come along.
  • Audiences cared much more and were entirely more naive about what was truth and what was not. Critical narratives were not readily accessible and without them audiences could not fathom a distinction between manipulative intent and honesty.
  • There was no incentive or market to bust up inertia and jump-start creativity [Ed. – This might be true in the 2010s, somewhat]

This last point is not true, though film in the mid-to late 1980s had lost some of the ferocity brought forth starting in the late 1960s and The Thin Blue Line had started to shake up some of the storytelling techniques that would carry forward, especially into Oliver Stone’s JFK in 1990 and lots of neo-noir works like LA Confidential in 1997 and Mystic River in 2003. There was a cascading acceptance of newness toward the late 1980s. Continue reading

[1989] My Left Foot

A conscious creature develops a personality over time, though differently than it grows physically. An individual human, say, is governed by genetic code hardwired into every bit of body; its height and skin color determined and unchangeable save an external change. In this way the body is determined and fraught with nature. In other ways, aspects about an individual human are subject to their environment—a socio-economic standing, a gender, a fight for survival. A personality, though is complicated. The manner by which a human presents themselves outwardly is governed by a genetic mix, et cetera. Each person may spend their whole life becoming themselves, as if there was a post erected to pass. Humans are all actors, no?

So, how long does it take to become someone else?

For pouring himself into Christy Brown, Daniel Day-Lewis earned himself the first of three Best Actor awards out of six nominations. By any account this actor’s actor has found himself in extreme fortune and generous timing; each of his roles triumphs as a character vehicle, whose environment and/or plot places second and/or third. His work is always a conscious choice of character, too. Since 1982, he has only twenty credits to his name, and only 13 roles since (including) My Left Foot, his first victory, and the one for which he most carefully considered the role. To play cerebral palsy and not to mock it or make light of it is a tremendous feat of mind-meld. The disease is itself a parable of the physical, a body, as it turns out, not broken, but different. Here, Day-Lewis shines on all fronts. Looking back 30 years, six nominees, and three wins recognizing the actor’s actor as a chameleon off sorts. For this actor, himself is his other selves. 

Other actors can claim method, so Daniel Day-Lewis is not alone atop his triumphant mountaintop. The most decorated actor of all is Katherine Hepburn with four, followed by Meryl Streep, Ingrid Bergman, Jack Nicholson, and Walter Brennan. With a fifty-percent win rate, Day-Lewis isn’t even the most efficient—Brennan did it with a 3-out-of-4 career (though all nominations were for Best Supporting Actor, amazing in its own right, but not dominant like an Actor award). All of these actors, and the dozens of others with multiple nominations are tremendous at becoming someone else for art, and for money. So why do we talk about Day-Lewis in a separate breath? The conscious conversation steers this way. The first hypothesis is his gender; for worse, the Actor award is deemed more prestigious in the narrative. In 50 years, assuming the awards last that long, the conversation will drift away from this narrative. It is unfortunate, but true, that many of the stories told so far have been about men, whose funding sources are men, who have decided that these are the stories worth telling. Continue reading

[1951] A Place in the Sun

The Gilded Age in the American experience subsists as worthwhile to study because of its uninterrupted, demonstrated prosperity (curiously corresponding to a legal ban on drink) immediately followed by superficially mitigated disaster and calamity. The Depression certainly carved space for the creation of great works; jazz and photography each had hallmark decades and increased the breadth and depth of its craft. Advances in telecommunications, regardless of who could afford them, allowed for this art to democratize and to offer at least a distraction and at most a joy to millions of people who had nothing now but drink and unsalable assets. Authors who write about this transitory time ex post facto get the benefit of knowing in advance what came next. What makes The Great Gatsby brilliant makes its later Contemporary American Novels not so much: perspective, of which we know Scott Fitzgerald had little.

Fitzgerald’s contemporary, at least in epoch, Theodore Dreiser, wrote a book called An American Tragedy, which would eventually bastardize its way into A Place in the Sun, a 1951 film that showcased Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor. Unlike the book, whose plot developed slowly and canonically, the movie saw its lead characters smush together into a love triangle that convinced no member of its audience of its emotional heft. The key to Clift’s character, a naive and unassuming nephew type, is believing that plot points happen to him and that he is in control of nothing. Only after he falls in too far does an audience understand that the avariciousness is borne of self-preservation not of circumstance. The character study is trying to piece together how much of the behavior is nature versus nurture. When, as A Place in the Sun insists, the “love” between leads is forced for the sake of time or convenience, our character palate becomes not a band of misfits, but contemptuous mallards. Forget the antihero trope that Gatsby pulls off with aplomb (that each character is a self-serving product of nature), this trope, the speedy drive-thru love, is a film killer and should have died on the cutting table. Continue reading

[1973] American Graffiti

Nostalgia is a hell of a marketing technique. It, as a concept, can be sufficiently disaggregated so that each person’s experience is both universal and personal. Lots of new media relies on the unreachable past. There exists, as I’ve written about before, a term called sonder, which means nostalgia for a time not one’s own. Midnight in Paris captures this feeling to the letter, and commodifies it so that its message can be bought and sold by the very people it aims to placate with dreams of subservience to the artistes de La Belle Époque. Nostalgia is also overwhelming. Instead of inspiration, nostalgic media inspires selective memory, further confusing past narratives. Drowning in nostalgia is akin to a drug-induced coma. Here’s the trick for those who insist on capitalizing on it: rinse and repeat. People will become nostalgic of their own nostalgia.

That’s where, in 1973, George Lucas sold middle-aged Boomers on a “better” time, some ten years earlier, before fake war and realpolitik took generations of Americans to dirt futures. The concept is bizarre, because presumably these very Boomers lived this era, perhaps not as wantonly as the four underdeveloped kids, but they very much existed and had formed their own memories of 1962. Remember, 1962 was the apex year of postwar prosperity for an average American kid. The question for Lucas and his producer, somehow Francis Ford Coppola, is not what they should write the movie about, it’s who is this movie for, exactly? Was it a dopamine insult for Americans who couldn’t stand having family and friends napalming Cambodians and systematically picked off near Hanoi? Was a movie going to suddenly placate the hippies? The answer, in short, is totally, absolutely, and exactly. Here’s a mind-blowing number: in 2019 dollars American Graffiti would have made $800 million on a budget of just over $4 million. This movie made an overwhelming amount of money selling a truly empty version of American Life. Continue reading

[2014] Whiplash

Power can be a frightening subject, but it can also be used to explain away the end of things. Partnerships, whether thrust upon or voluntary, are continuous, minor exchanges of power throughout. When a sovereign directs his subjects to do the bidding of the Crown, the King is exploiting his uninundated power upon ultimately powerless people. When democratic processes mask power, through funnymoney campaigns, who wins? Power can always be recast as a struggle among constituencies; always in motion, teetering atop a spinning point. At some point, every aspect breaks, in order, without notices. Nothing knows existence anymore.

Whiplash is about a power dynamic between two less-than-stellar characters; it is because the audience is watching two antiheros duke out unrepented angst for two hours across many movie months. Neither player has an emotional majority, and in seeps excess power. In blazing boorishness, JK Simmons, seething with disappointment in everything plays Terence Fletcher, a jazz instructor of undetermined but presumably stellar qualifications. In crippling consternation, Miles Teller, slithering with ego and id, plays Andrew Neiman, a drummer of self-sabotage, bad luck, and unquestionable talent. The tale unfolds as typical power dynamic drama often do: one man sees the collective success of a team as his own creation and success. The other man is scratching the walls raw for approval from the gatekeeper to his success, at the behest of everything else. Audiences will inevitably attempt to piece together why this is the case through context clues (plenty) and clever story by outline omission (lots). Director Damien Chazelle masterfully shows and not tells his take on anxiety, adrenaline, and authority.

Power is not tradeable and there is no such thing as “equal power” because there is always a time dilation. The opening few scenes in Whiplash are blurry because no dynamics have yet been established, which serves this story and mood. Fletcher is a menacing presence, the audience can tell; he looms in the background, but then he tosses—no hurls—a chair at Andrew when he cannot immediately tell whether he is anchoring the piece a little fast or a little slow. Where the power play manifests is in the idea that it doesn’t matter if Andrew was playing fast or slow; it was that he was playing at all relied on the whim of a monolith determined on extracting genius FOR THE GREATER GOOD, whose good was neither great nor greater. At every step, to be particularly honest about dissecting the motivating factors for each player, we’d have to ask “for whom”? And we’d be wrong. Continue reading

[2016] Hell or High Water

The Western ceased as an artform in early 1993, when Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven closed the chapter on a much-loved and rarely-maligned genre. Westerns were wholly post Manifest United States, though their premise has been recycled through Shakespeare and Kurosawa, setting the human experience against a backdrop of nothhingness – as the desert has sand and more desert – removes the setting from the movie’s intent. Every character written into a western usually exudes an invisible two-mile sphere from her center point that seemingly bounces off every object with which it comes in contact. This is a prerequisite for this genre it seems, that operates on lone-wolf syndrome and synthesis: the character on which we focus has a larger bubble than everyone else and we, the audience, are supposed to fit empathy inside of it.

Classic westerns, High Noon, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Searchers, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, say, dive into bubble-man vs. other bubble-man, bubble-man vs. bubble-community, bubble-man vs. bubble-treasure. Unforgiven asked the audience to examine the self-immolation of bubble-man vs. himself; Eastwood gives his soul the diameter to which so many directors gave the untouchable treatment. This should make this man explode, but there is a pensive quality and a finality to Unforgiven that mostly left the genre undoable anymore. Reworks always fell short and any new attempts at a western came across as aloof, pastiche, or marred by too-small bubbles. If the characters were either not approachable enough or too approachable, or they became caricatures of themselves, the western genre and especially audience would abjectly reject them, sometimes especially quickly or without a second thought. Even acceptable remakes, though wildly unnecessary, like 2010’s True Grit remake (with Jeff Bridges [good casting] in John Wayne’s role), fell short of the atmosphere and ambiance they aimed to capture. It was a consequence of the genre itself bursting out any approachable ideas.

Hell or High Water pierced this veil. This movie is so good while being so modern that it seems to exist solely because no critic could outright dismiss it and no audience could, even subliminally, ignore it. Jeff Bridges, seemingly born to remake Westerns, absolutely crushes his role as stoic-cum-playful sheriff, but the star of this movie is Chris Pine, campy-bubble-man Kirk in Star Trek iterations. He is almost too handsome to make me believe that he has suffered as much as he did, but nevertheless, the steel bubble he erects around his person is ferociously believable and the setting, Texas in its many iterations, is functionally an anti-setting: the trope of lawless West Texas has become part of the history that, culturally, it doesn’t need an explanation. West Texas is the bubble Hell or High Water is trying to wedge into. Then, there is a bubble around the whole state. How can a character study resolve this? Continue reading

[1932/1933] Cavalcade

A type of visceral film exists that is aware of its own structure. Cavalcade is one of them, it might be the first one, and it won Best Picture at the 3rd Academy Awards. The voters probably noticed it and wished to confer upon it a nod of appreciation for a book like handling of a character driven slice-of-life drama. It isn’t even an odd choice, considering talking film was still forming as a process, that a film that took advantage of large sets and big, blocky characters would win an honor that meant, probably, technical achievement in filmmaking as much as it did representation of the human experience. Curiously, on its face, Cavalcade is not particularly interesting: a well-to-do English family faces minor inconveniences among a host of relative stability; their staff, seemingly content but hungry to join an upper echelon, is a normal view on the human experience from a Depression vantage point. It probably projects a more modern experience onto a proto-Victorian, fin de siècle experience than was likely. This movie approaches class almost apathetically, vacating all pretense when the plot simply moves along among tragedy. This approach flattens the movie and rips from it the ability for a modern audience to appreciate its candor and stiff-upper-lip mentality. Cavalcade is quintessentially British, Depression-era, and pre-code. It is also lightly meta.

Metafilm is a classification not a genre. Any movie can have meta elements. A simple, famous example is this: in The Godfather Clemenza and Rocco finish their work and Clemenza, nonplussed tells Rocco to “Leave the gun – take the cannoli.” Without deconstructing this scene, we can observe metaness from it. Director Francis Ford Coppola and book/screenwriter Mario Puzo wink at the established stereotype of capital I Italians and their obsession with native desserts. They want the audience to know that they, too, are aware of the stereotype. This is meta because it references itself. It expressed through film. What makes Cavalcade somewhat special is that the whole movie is referenced in its title: a “cavalcade” is a formal march, a procession of sorts. In a cavalcade, the company of marchers is undeterred by obstacles; with enough force, seemingly insurmountable obstacles are reduced to rubble. (I suppose this concept is what Werner Herzog was attempting to convey in Fitzcarraldo.)

In Cavalcade, director Frank Lloyd demonstrates his understanding of this concept by pitting his aristocratic family against abstract concepts, like love, death, tragedy, and war and following them through the muck, deterred and fazed, but dutiful to the most abstract concept, time. Thirty-four years pass from New Years’ 1899 to New Years 1933 and our family, wealthy but sympathetic, has grieved in great loss of their two sons. The legacy is confirmed by time but time waits for no sorrow like the present. Here this family sits, 34 years after Father Gilbert ships off to South Africa to fight a spectre of an enemy, and Sons Sullivan fights against Titanic’s Iceberg and against global inertia in the Great War. There is a great sense of duty among the Marryots. This movie is well-set-up to predict that the next Great Conflict will end them, heads held high. Only at their end, and with reflection, and balanced on the pinpoint precipice of World War II, does the meta-ness start to show, and with it memorable brilliance.  Continue reading