[1944] Wilson

wilson-1944As far as biography goes, Wilson mostly skates through the life of President Woodrow Wilson; Wilson the academic; Wilson the politician; and Wilson the projection of war patriot and reluctant isolationist.  Projection here is important: the film acts as a highlight reel of President Wilson’s career, pointing out leadership qualities that contemporary leaders during World War II continued to draw inspiration from. Wilson was released in 1944, toward the tail end of the Second World War, and about on the same timeline (looking back) that Wilson decided to formally join the war effort in Europe. The team behind the film intended this film openly as a propaganda piece, calling for the “good ol’ days” of simple leadership through strife. This type of communication is transparent by nature. It is not trying to hide the fact that it attempts to immortalize a character with, some might argue, a checkered record on issues outside of his demonstrated wheelhouse.

The too-big word for this type of frame is hagiography, which is often used in a religious context. Gospels and prophets get hagiographies in religious texts and scripture. This type of tunneled biography will frame and reframe at will to obtain the desired effect and it is almost always used to spin or project positivity and goodness. There is nothing outwardly wrong with this approach to monument-building. Wilson attempts no greater feat than ignoring the racism and orthodoxy he brought with him to the Office of, first the Governor of New Jersey and then to the President. But this also makes no difference in telling the story. It is not a problem that Wilson skirts this issue, but it also ensures that, outside of a war effort of contemporary magnitude and breadth as World War I, the film does not hold up under the quasi-strict scrutiny through a modern lens. Continue reading “[1944] Wilson”

{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”

[1944] Going My Way

In the modern era of CGI-to-reduce-cost-and-expand-purview a reader can appreciate the concept and withdraw from the premise itself; some filmmakers have become so adept at this new-ish style of blockbusting that the best way to create some kind of predictive modeling for success is to examine the allotments of a film’s budget by bucket – acting, tech, staffing, other, etc. – and plot perhaps comparable returns by genre. In this data-heavy approach many a fortune has been and will continue to be made by those who understand the underlying assumptions behind this premise. Before computer scientists called Odysseus to determine the fate of the Known Universe, a certain ebb and flow concerning how an audience viewed a film pre-digital is that the content sold the premise, and the acting usually sold the concept. There were no data to be dug.

And thus the appeal to 1944’s Best Picture winner, Going My Way. Continue reading “[1944] Going My Way”