[2012] Lincoln

lincoln_2012_teaser_posterSteven Spielberg’s Lincoln is a boring movie.

It moves incredibly slow, but it isn’t paced badly. Daniel Day-Lewis and Tommy Lee Jones act with aplomb, and their performances are memorable, as are the real-life characters they portray. Lincoln doesn’t linger on the 16th President’s death so much as the war he fought against the Confederate insurgents. It does spend its whole running time counting beans and exploring the actions of those who would support or oppose the 13th Amendment, freeing the slaves permanently, after the insurgent South sued for peace. Lincoln supposes that Congressmen and Senators from the 1860s spoke solely in soliloquy. On and on Daniel Day-Lewis does justice to Abraham Lincoln, the politico, and has his audience swimming in the deep end policy consideration. This movie spends time poring over a piece of parchment. It is a boring movie and it took me four sittings to get through it.

Lincoln is also fantastic and should be celebrated. Continue reading “[2012] Lincoln”

[1941] Sergeant York

sergeant-york-belgian-movie-posterHyperreal violence plays a role in postmodern American culture. It continues to be the defining moment in each day chronicled and it is glorified in stone in film and television. Fast, clear, and present danger is always under the next shag rug; the grass will kill you; and we better be ready for the imminent, always imminent, rise of the autonomy of things. First our cars will drive us, and then they will drive us off a cliff.

But ocean red, the hue that resonates the blood-shot reflection of a dead solider, will always be the cornerstone of American fascination with War. The Patriotic film demonstrates the hellish torment of battle, with corporeal guts and bones the ultimate sacrifice. This message is simple and meaningful and, when overdone, can be visually stunning and worthwhile as a statement, or just a way for a production studio to run the world a little dryer of #ff0000. But before color ubiquity in media, directors needed to dig a little deeper to represent the horrifics of war and death. Before it becomes unfashionable, the ultimate sacrifice is and was for of Our Lord the Christian God. Gary Cooper as Alvin York, in the titular Sergeant York, answers the call to demonstrate the harsh brutality of what it means to die in the arms of the ethereal. Continue reading “[1941] Sergeant York”

[2012] Django Unchained

mv5bmjiyntq5njq1ov5bml5banbnxkftztcwodg1mdu4oa-_v1_uy1200_cr9006301200_al_l learned, recently, that Alexandre Dumas was a black man writing white stories in the nineteenth century. Cornerstones in American literature – The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers – were written back-to-back in 1844 and 1845 in a post-revolutionary but pre-abolition world. The era is specifically important and places this work into a context not unlike the films we watch today, of yore: representative and reflective. Depending on the reader’s station, she will read Dumas’ work with a particular bent and her life will be further honed because of it. A wealthy white woman in 1855 might understand, through no fault of her own (though, it is very much her fault) The Count of Monte Cristo as a personal attack on the long-aft bourgeoisie, dismantling the wealthy for the betterment of the working and underrepresented classes. A modern black man might read it as a triumph of the wrongly imprisoned over corruption and the consolidation of white power. The very real differences in how people read art makes literature entirely subjective and wholly personal. The same holds true for film.

I learned that Alexandre Dumas was a black man from watching Django Unchained.

That this is true is a testament to how young people are learned and I must read him differently now that I know I know his race, regardless of how I read him before. Does it matter, at all, that I learned this fact from a film? Here are the arguments for both.

No: How a person learns something is irrelevant and that he knows it now is the whole point of education. When building a person, his combination of experiences, truism, faults and values make him who he is and the purpose of education is to ensure that he  has access to as much information as possible. Combined with critical thought these ideas become ritualistic: he will draw upon them to make decisions day-to-day, whether by choice or by subchoice. I happened to choose to watch Django Unchained and by way of this choice I learned a fact about a historically significant figure. I can now make more refined choices about how I think about him, his historical context, his offshoots and literary descendants, and modern application of the Higher point, should I choose to attribute one. For this I thank writer and director (and actor) Quentin Tarantino.

Yes: The question here is why this wasn’t taught to me while in an institute of lower learning. Why were my English teachers, or professors, apt to teach race as contextual clues to enhance the richness of the text. It is not rare that a person’s demography has a circular relationship to his work; in fact by presenting the work of literature as a standalone object, we are doing every aspect involved a disservice. The teacher is teaching nothing; the students are learning next to nothing. Beyond basic reading comprehension, which is necessary and overrated, knowing who Edmond Dantès is and what is struggle is is unimportant. Why did I learn this fact from a movie, in passing? Continue reading “[2012] Django Unchained”

[2001] Gosford Park

gosford_park_movieWe can never know necessarily the true center of anything, really. There is shaky fact that defines a beginning and an end, depending on who you’re asking, their own relationship to the subject, and the motivation as to why one would lie. There is always confusion over whether we care about the spiritual center – a task’s essence – or if we care about its temporal center – a task’s chaos. If each aspect of our lives is governed by an asymmetric sense of place and time, then locating the exact center(s) is good in retrospect, sort of. A post-mortem does us no good until after we’re dead.

If art mimics life in its absurdity only, it can be useful to try to identify an art movement’s center. The creative apex is a reasonable as any point to start a debrief for all those that come after. And still there will be argument, and for good reason. The most methodological way to go about choosing a center-point is to throw a dart at it and hope it sticks; fight away. Film, literature, painting, poetry, sculpture theory will be better for it.

In film it is helpful to talk about eras in terms of technology and we talk about firsts too often, and lasts not often enough. The “western” is a concrete example of this boxing; John Wayne’s mainstay is an obvious and therefore contentious center of the genre. We can think about the timeline imaginatively to organize these thoughts; humans love lists. The more we striate, too, the more nuanced the arguments can become: what about the British period drama?

The spiritual center of 1971’s Upstairs, Downstairs and 2010’s Downton Abbey, is 2001’s Gosford Park. Part Clue, too, Gosford Park captures turn-of-the (last) century class considerations in a haughty, but wholly British way. The landed elite dine and demure in lavish luxury while the working servants and butlers clean and crude in dingy dungeons. The air is of “other,” which, through an omnipotent, omnipresent technique allows the reader to decide who is “better.” We are meant to disparage the wealthy and root for the poor; the most well-written British period dramas also allow for some room to question our presented assumptions: the wealthy, while obnoxious, must churn or burn their wealth or find themselves pariahs, with no outside from whence they may gaze on what was once had.

Do we care about these people anyway?  Continue reading “[2001] Gosford Park”

[1941] The Little Foxes

21355-the-little-foxes-0-230-0-345-cropIn formal probability theory, mathematicians and armchair enthusiasts sometimes describe a technique called “coupling.”

This technique allows for seemingly random variables, x and y, to interact with one another in otherwise random way. Suppose walks that way and this – how can we measure how likely it is that they meet? Or that they never will? Probablists introduce a measure of their own creation to force an interaction, then measure success or failure. This technique allows for the creation of path dependence and bias determination that otherwise could not have been measured.

This is a phenomenal approach to a problem of no consequence. Sure, we care what should happen, but we really only measure what does happen and try to predict, with some accuracy what could happen, given xy, and the medium. Sometimes, with enough certainty, our best guess is correct, and we begin to understand the difference between a graphite prediction and a graphic realization. The Little Foxes, whose production brought Bette Davis and William Wyler together again in 1941, is a film-proximate take on coupling.

The actress and the director make magic; theorists can couple together as much evidence as they want, but there is no measurement for spark and collaborative creativity that can outperform expected results. The Little Foxes proved this in the early 1940s. By way of a proud story, the film pairs together an actress at the height of her career with a director at the height of his. The story had been scene-tested on stage and was destined for imprint on film, with interpretive authority to be canonized as one of the five best of the year. Given this footstool of facts, mathematics aside, a critic from a reel away could have predicted this film’s success from the onset.

And it was almost derailed. Continue reading “[1941] The Little Foxes”

[1942] Mrs. Miniver

mrs-_miniver_posterEvery American film released between 1941 and 1945 was in some way a “war” film. It is the context that gives each film this title, because in some way some person working on the film was related to World War II – a family member serving, a friend or community newly employed in the manufacturing effort, a dissident among them. The unease about America’s role in the war could be interpreted, written about, filmed, distributed, discussed, and then repeated. Film became – eventually – a propaganda tool for the war effort and those who would want to prop up effort as meaningful and necessary made sure in some way that this message was clear.

And it was. Mrs. Miniver was perhaps this decade’s finest example of film-as-allegory.

It is not hard to dismiss Mrs. Miniver as a phlegmatic period piece about a middle class family only tangentially affected by the war. No one in the small hamlet where the Minivers live has had to put life and limb on the line for the war, yet. The devastation and heartbreak of war is elsewhere and in the future, though how could anyone know that? The townsfolk lead quotidian lives as a matter of fact. Mrs. Miniver (Greer Garson) worries about how to tell her husband about a new hat she bought, while Mr. Miniver (Walter Pidgeon) does the same, but with a new car. For this family, there is no ultimate choice, and any decisions are not have or have not, but have this one or that one. This representation is remarkably mom, pop, and 2.5 kids. A cynic could dismiss this film as a petty drama about a flower show; they could be right. But they are so, so wrong.

The seams unravel when young Vin Miniver (Richard Ney) both meets a lovely girl (Teresa Wright) and then leaves to join the Royal Air Force as a fighter pilot. This dramatic sequence will tend to devolve into his death and her grief. But Mrs. Miniver flips this on its head. The Dunkirk evacuation, not yet history, provides a gripping arc for the Minivers to be apart, and for Mrs. Miniver to understand what “enemy” means. It also shows her how to deal with desperate.

A climactic showdown between Mrs. Miniver, who is every woman, and a downed German soldier, who is every enemy, says much about who each of these archetypes is. As Mrs. Miniver feels, so do the women who fill her metaphorical shoes, and humanizing the fallen soldier makes the war more real. No longer are we fighting The Germans, but just one German, who is afraid and inept. Mr. Miniver, distant, if only for a while, is every man deployed. Director William Wyler, a native of Western Europe and close to this conflict, knew all well how to get this message across to the utmost success. Continue reading “[1942] Mrs. Miniver”

[1956] Friendly Persuasion

Without a whimper some movies – wager half or more of the 546 movies nominated so far for Best Picture – fall out of the consensus consciousness. Musicals, memorable, often last longer than say, a period piece written contemporaneously and are destined to be stuck there. Old films that strike a memorable dent in their medium, say Citizen Kane and 2001: A Space Odyssey, continue so through essayists who all have a new take on it (they don’t) and families who insist they know film (more likely) needing to pass it on to their sons and daughters, lest the lore get lost. Other films, period pieces about period pieces, are destined to be buried within their own time, with neither sharp pen nor advocate to fight for it.

If Friendly Persuasion has yet to cross into the national conversation, it is unlikely to ever. Ask anyone what movie won Best Picture in 1956, let alone the other four films nominated; some might remember or guess Around the World in 80 Days. Others would guess Gigi. (Does it matter?) Counter: only the most dedicated film buff can name all 500-plus films at any given time, and even then, it is unlikely that this film comes to mind. The why is obvious, a more interesting question is the why not this one?

Friendly Persuasion is antidramatically left off best-of lists, and the web barely has a criticism of it, save for a few “Gary Cooper, listless as ever…” hot takes. Even its Wiki has gaps in its plot summary. It was neither William Wyler nor Michael Wilson’s best known or most accredited work and its permanence did not aggrandize during a period of consistent blacklisting. Despite seven nominations, it won zero. Is this what happens to a film that comes up nil – Oscar graveyard? How long after its rollover did the public lose contemporary, then historical interest in Friendly Persuasion? It is now over 60 years old and has not quite held up; we are less religious and less interested in the combination of a now-historical film about a historical age then and this combination with puritanism has not and will not continue to stand the test of Public time.

Continue reading “[1956] Friendly Persuasion”