[1962] To Kill A Mockingbird

There’s a handful of roles made for a single actor. It’s rare that an audience will remember an actor by a single role. It takes a confluence of happenstance–timing being the big one. The right actor in the right circumstance with the right personality and experience meets the right writer who writes for the right projection of self; the plot is timely and impactful and the characterization is meaningful, riddled with emotional cues and the director and supporting cast have the right combination of empathy to allow the role to breathe or constrict, as written.

This is rare. It’s rare to get a handful of these circumstances in the same state, and even more unlikely to have them convalesce on the same set. George C. Scott as General Patton in Patton is one. Daniel Day-Lewis bucks this trend and seemingly rearranges spacetime to force the pieces together as Christy Brown in My Left Foot, William Cutting in Gangs of New York, Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, President Lincoln in Lincoln, and about half a dozen others. One more to add to this list is Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird.

We’ve got to consider context, too. The external factors that audiences have access to were off the radar to audiences in 1962: it was an age of simmering indifference and false innocence. Americans were lulled into great times of growth. Post-war America ushered in a generation of prosperity and security, mildly plagued by simmering tensions in the East. Fathers and brothers who served their country and came home in Europe or Asia were rewarded with access to education, credit and stable jobs. It was never this way for black Americans, though. It wasn’t even a secret.

Harper Lee wrote To Kill a Mockingbird from within an era of piercing  failure of justice. Her words, with the benefit of experience, said the quiet part deceptively loud. Through her characters, tightly constructed, the reader sought idealism and the aforementioned justice for humanity. She defended different and championed compassion for the men and women she made. What American idealism had done for 300 years–dehumanized the black experience–Harper Lee, herself white, tried to tackle over 200 or so pages. For whatever looming threat lurked overseas unbeknownst for generations, the internal war we’d been fighting in America raged, nearly invisible to the naked eye. We’d fought to free the slaves a hundred years ago, but the lives of others remained nominally unaffected. Never forget Emmett Till.

Lee’s book, and Robert Mulligan’s movie, is what gives those who would otherwise ignore civil rights of others standing to fight for them, for all Americans, and especially black Americans.

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[1961] West Side Story

west_side_story_posterIn a world that deals almost exclusively in violence, our media should reflect it accurately, and tell the stories that humans are both hard- and soft-wired to accept. Our narrative-driven consciousness needs no introduction to suffering from a young age. The birthing act itself is hyper violent, rearing a child is bumpy, and letting her loose into the unforgiving wild is dangerous no matter the station. If one’s too rich: people snipe at her heels for a piece of the pie, and if one’s too poor, the street sucks her in with no discernible contempt. Somewhere in the middle, anonymous, is probably best. But it isn’t immune the hyperreal stray bullet from a gun, or the recently rebooted whip-viper of a particularly cruel tongue.

And a media that sanitizes the violence for consumption is the norm. We don’t let our children, whose brains are fluff, see a favela murder or a starving village. We conspicuously edit meaningful conflict from our stories to ease them, the children – the future – into adolescence. And this is commendable, to a point. If adulthood is soul crushing, let the child have a soul, first.

Film doesn’t have a soul. It’s a visual medium for movie “magic,” whose main concern continues to be visual storytelling. The color and movement need to sell the attention span of the audience, which is getting shorter. Quick bursts of violence and sex do this; familiarity with previous characters does this; violence and sex between and among familiarity is intriguing. But this is new, too. The standards have relaxed considerably where there’s no longer a visum prohibitum on what’s allowed to be shown on screen; visum in se is still true and is monitored by what a public will stand. Snuff, as violent as it gets, is not tolerated; neither is anything off-color involving children. Explicit sex is only moderately tolerated, as it is seen as niche, will get an unfriendly rating and killed at the box office; but mostly everything else goes in service of the story.

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[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.

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