[1973] The Sting

Pauline Kael is easily the most influential film critic that most of the world has forgotten. What makes her style—and voice—more distinct than her peers and especially modern critics is the absolute sincerity with which she wields her devastating pen. Tone is near impossible to master and it’s important to understand how hard it is to douse your words in them without trying to. It’s the game all writers play. Kael had mastered it and then some.

To be critical without being unfair, to pick apart a film with legendary wit without being sarcastic or even sardonic is Kael’s greatest strength. Pauline Kael always told her own story without rewriting the work she covered, but always accepted the work as is—a trait armchair critics and bloggers can’t seem to shed; “but if only director X had done such and such” was most often nowhere near Kael’s reviews. She would always do well to play, not Devil’s advocate, but critic’s advocate, putting words to exactly why a beloved movie was just not as good as we thought it was. Her work, which often got her in hot hot heat with editors and made few friends behind the camera, gave cover to every other critic and ran counter-cultural to a pervasive narrative that popular was either good or bad. Kael’s writing focused on the work. She’s a driving force behind why I’m adamant to finish this blog: I’m looking for a why.

Her review of Bertolucci’s Last Tango In Paris is as artful as the film itself. It’s a brilliant trick of phrasing and construction, matching Bertolucci’s inward eroticism made outward by Brando’s performance of American masochism. It would seem that Kael thinks of two minds of Last Tango: shock and awe that it was made and shock and awe that the top masters of their craft would make this movie, effectively turning the deck of cards upwards and demanding audiences to pick a card. It’s what Kael does with her reviews. She’ll always guess your card but not because she was looking at the deck.

This review, written the same year as her one-shot takedown of 1973’s Best Picture winner, The Sting, infantilizes the Redford/Newman “thriller.” Her criticism is valid if the reader is looking for reasons not to like it, but it’s the undertones—not so soft—that make a very simple point. She is, in effect, calling out some combination of actor, director, film, industry for straight-washing and woman-erasure in about 200 words. And she’s right and she says it right in the review. What if Last Tango was about a gay “relationship?” What if Shaw (Newman) and Kelly (Redford) sought a relationship that wasn’t poking fun at homoerotic tropes, or propped women instead of equalizing a whole gender? Not to fall into the trap that I’d set for myself: director George Roy Hill made the movie he made and therefore we must judge it for its merits and faults on its face, which Kael does, too. Continue reading

[1988] Mississippi Burning

As years progress, I’m continuously uncertain whether the majority of us understands right and wrong. Granted, this distinction is often not as binary as we’d like it to be (and using “objectively” to preface any extremely non-objective statement, e.g. “objectively, billionaire philanthropy is wrong,” is an instant way to open oneself up to semantic argument). But there are objective, ipso facto rights and wrongs, chiefly, slavery and the subjugation of other humans, is objectively wrong. There’s no justification for it. And yet it happened, and is happening by other names, today, still, even though there’s no justification for it. There’s a long treatise on Wait But Why that I won’t rehash here in full, but Tim makes an incredible argument about parametric power and I believe him.

Mississippi Burning, released in 1988, rehashed a still-unsettled incident from 1964. It commented on the maddening fact that the United States has subjugated Black people to non-entity-at-best for over what was then 300 years.  That’s fifteen generations of families first enslaved and then discarded as other. It’s pathetic but powerful that we still have to say this in 2020, over four hundred years—20 generations—later: Black Lives Matter.

The movie splits time between recounting the deaths of three Civil Rights activists, killed for their work in Mississippi in 1964 registering Black citizens to vote, and the relationship between two buddy/FBI agents sent to investigate their murders. These stories work in tandem, with built-in pressure points, perhaps even counter-intuitive ones, like the state government willfully ignoring the Federal directive to integrate at least, tolerate at best. The interplay between Gene Hackman and Willem Defoe is another pressure point, and is a strong analogue for the old adage of “missing the forest for the trees,” which almost allows the bad actors to win. But there are four other pressure points that help craft this story—the timing and our collective memories of MISSBURN—Mississippi Burning.

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[1934] It Happened One Night

One of the stranger, maybe unintentional consequences of the 1930s’ Hays Code was an industry-wide move to hush-hush the unacceptable and repackage it into media moste moral.

Euphemism became a stalwart technique, if it wasn’t already before. Filmmakers and studio executives didn’t invent it, didn’t perfect it, and lost its thread when the Code was lifted in the late 1960s, ushering a golden age of filmmaking. With one fewer (granted, huge) constraint lifted, morality became a function of what studios were willing to produce and what audiences were willing to watch. It was a huge change from “what a governing body was willing to allow.” Freedom of expression brought us movies like Midnight Cowboy in 1969, which, just two years earlier would have been Midday Cowboy, and been about an actual cowboy.

Of course, these rules only applied to films made in America, so it would seem that France and Italy, certainly, exhausted the need to explore sex (pro tip: they didn’t) and violence with a 40 year head start. It’s not true, but America does sill have a tenuous Puritanical relationship with sex and sexuality in a way more liberated countries don’t. There’s less of a fine line between art and pornography in the United States, and the moste modern moral types still seek to protect young people from (female, or female-presenting) breasts, but will happily allow a child to witness gruesome death and produce a Happy Meal about it.

Almost like repressing healthy sexual (and non-sexual!) relationships, packaging them as euphemism for decades, and classifying them as pornography if not perfectly saintlike has had at least some effect on the content American audiences expect. Sex is still shocking; it’s still mostly banned on commercial television and nudity will earn lots of movies a revenue-dampening R, or revenue-killing NC-17 rating from the latest iteration of the Hays Code, the MPAA (but that’s for another discussion). Euphemism, however, will often drag ratings down to PG-13 levels, where it’s safe to say a few swear words and pan out from what the audience “knows” to be a sexual encounter. So it helps at the box office, too. Continue reading

[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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[1973] Cries and Whispers

There’s enough copy out there about how Ingmar Bergman drenched his feature, Cries and Whispers in red (röd). He chose red (especially after the majority of his earlier work was monochrome) for its striking visuals, color theory, and connection to Swedish history. If nothing else, in Sweden a specific red, Falu Rödfärg, colors a significant number of buildings, especially in the countryside. Red, across cultures, symbolizes passion, lust, desire, etc. It’s also the least visible of the color spectrum, so I’ll offer that Bergman chose to oversaturate the film with it to stand it out. It’s the first thing you’ll notice about this movie.

That’s really all there is to say about the color red and Cries and Whispers. There’s lots of scholarship about it. That’s enough.

The not-so-secret fact about the Oscars is their Americanness: of the 566 films to ever have been nominated, 12 have been filmed in a language other than English. This isn’t surprising–the Academy voters are mostly native English speakers, American audiences overwhelmingly see movies performed in English, and despite the premise that the Oscar winner should best represent the gestalt of the year, what we really mean is the zeitgeist of American culture. The road to global reach is unpaved, likely, but we’d like to think that language is the one phenomenon we can overcome; there are subtitles.

But alas, Cries and Whispers was the last Swedish movie to earn an Oscar nomination for Best Picture (but not first! The Emigrants” was nominated just a year earlier. The Emigrants, however wasn’t wholly Swedish, either. It’s a Swedish-rooted story about America).

Swedish, as a language, is sort of bonkers to decipher, and nagging to the native English speaker because of its Germanic roots and bouncy gait. Its structure, like any language spoken by millions of people, follows a pattern, and there’s more than a few cognates. But there’s still great distance between Swedish and English, and it’s an effective barrier between the two cultures. Cries and Whispers is incredibly Swedish, incredibly Bergman, but also full of universal tones ahead of their time: the quiet tragedy of women.

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[1940] Rebecca

Since evolved from a romantic horror genre to a more complex emotional battleground, Gothic arts take pleasure in allowing audiences to take part in their characters’ suffering; it’s the defining feature. The Germans have a word for the positive-extreme version: schadenfreude, or taking pleasure in someone else’s pain. It’s a mostly strange oddity of the human condition to relish in this emotion: it’s a private condition that’s always better left hushed. Hitchcock was a master of the Gothic, perhaps none more mesmerizing than Rebecca.

Alfred Hitchcock is known for his archetype defining tropes, many of which involve manipulating an audience to suffer–however slightly–for his own pleasure. Hitchcock’s use of schadenfreude remains classic, if not overlooked.His sound and visual cues were likely the first to signal a psychological trauma incoming (PsychoThe Birds), or the first to use first-person to treat the audience as a a voyeuristic character (Rear Window). But these tropes came from somewhere, and they likely were fully formed for Rebecca. 

Rebecca‘s strongest feature is pacing, which seems to turn on a dime, starting and stuttering, purposefully designed to keep the audience intentionally off-balance. It’s written in such a way — likely in the source material, too — that we’re not supposed to know who to root for or against at any given time. The de Winters, alive oscillate between pitiable and crass. We want this man, Maxim de Winter, to find love again, then he’s a rube, and then he’s a murderer. His second wife, never given a name, is cloyingly Pollyannaish and bright-eyed, until she’s convinced to jump to her death. Rebecca, Maxim’s first wife, is revered, until it’s revealed shes the smarmiest of them lot, conniving as ever. These people are all terrible, and it’s Hitchcock’s pacing that let’s his audience figure this out on our own, without need to tell. Hitchcock was a master of show.

But Mrs. Danvers is the most Gothic character and sets a stage for Norman Bates in Hitchcock’s Psycho 20 years later. She has an obsession with Rebecca de Winter bordering on violent delusion, and takes offense to Maxim remarrying, soon after Rebecca’s death but likely ever. She relishes misleading Maxim’s second wife into dark corners, stirring trouble. We’re supposed to hate her, and empathize with Danvers’ prey as an object of evil affection. Mrs. Danvers is obviously mentally ill, but 1940s America sees her as evil and crazy. If Hitchcock understood this about his audience, he made a perfect character. If he didn’t, he shot a great character, accidentally.

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[1987] Moonstruck

A day is both a discrete event and part of a string of days that hopefully make up a full, expectant life. During, and within, each day seems insignificant and to evaluate requires a perspective unavailable to us until much later: we don’t pre-write memoirs for this reason, and often our elders are wise because of their age and  because of their particular string of days; an existence in 88 keys. To short-circuit the learning-experience curve, maybe bisecting it, we use half-baked heuristics. As example: daily, maybe more often, our brains need to subjugate and dissect our interactions into lists and charts. We process by simplification and we exchange understanding and context for nuance. It might take years to undo or double-down on this type of life and it is almost impressively difficult to do.

Even more often we don’t even read a heuristic in a book or article: it is defined for us on screen and stage. And we accept it as true, even subconsciously, because we want to believe it. This specific bias is called “confirmation bias” and together with our peers we engage in groupthink. Almost every mass movement, good and bad, has been a combination of bias heuristics and groupthink. When we talk about race and creed we almost always rely on heuristics — stereotypes — to frame our interactions. Think of a person of Italian descent; now think of a new person walking into a room who looks Italian. What are the first traits that come to mind? Pasta fazhool? Mafia memes? Catholicism? Moonstruck 1987’s Italian-American melodrama can tell its story because of the biases baked into our collective culture. The jokes and jabs Moonstruck uses are shorthand for exposition. Loretta (played by surprisingly nimble Cher) is unlucky in love; her family is unflinchingly large and tightly woven; her new boyfriend needs to tend to his mamma in Sicily; the Church fosters character development almost as a wink and nod to its audience (because of course the Italian family credits the Church with its success and relies on it for strength through strife). Moonstruck tracks the family through love as heuristic for character development. Continue reading

{Second Take} [1987] Moonstruck

Sometimes a song is just meant for the screen. Even without any visuals to accompany it, it’s cinematic on its own; it tells a story, conveys a meaning, and conjures a time and place. “That’s Amore” by Dean Martin was born for film, quite literally, in that it was commissioned specifically to be performed by Martin in 1953’s The Caddy, but it’s somehow more at home when soundtracking a montage of people on dates eating pasta. It almost does a filmmaker’s work for them, as when director Norman Jewison pairs it with glittering imagery of Brooklyn Heights and the Metropolitan Opera House in the opening sequence of Moonstruck. The audience knows exactly what will happen next: high passions, red wine, and Italian accents.

Few songs have had the reach “That’s Amore” has commanded over the decades, and despite its overtness and obviousness, we still associate it with success and accolades. It garnered an Academy Awards nomination for Best Original Song upon its debut in The Caddy, losing to “Secret Love” from Calamity Jane as one might expect: serious fare often earns more respect than lighter material. Later, “That’s Amore” set the stage for Cher, Olympia Dukakis, and writer John Patrick Shanley to all win their sole Oscar awards. At a time when the movie-going public was buying up tickets to action movies and thrillers, the Academy slowed down, took a breath, and recognized the ambitious acting and crystal-clear characterization the cast of Moonstruck was able to deliver. In 1987, “That’s Amore” primed audiences for a comedically fraught romance with bombastic performances that mix Old World realism with stereotypes informed by the observational eye of a playwright, and they were ecstatic when that’s what they got.

Only a year after the debut of “That’s Amore,” Alfred Hitchcock borrowed it to great and jarring effect in Rear Window (also nominated for awards from the Academy). The song already had such immediacy and cultural weight that The Master of Suspense was able to subvert its romantic message by removing the lyrics and using it to score a scene where a man spies on a newlywed couple from his window through theirs. It’s impossible to avoid mentally singing the lyrics to yourself, crossing the signals in your brain between the romantic and the voyeuristic. You know intellectually that the newlyweds are in the throes of love like the song describes, but you’re not with them: you’re with the peeping tom. Hitchcock relied on the original music’s instant popularity and inherent romantic meaning to create an uncomfortable dissonance for his viewers to sit with. Continue reading

[1944] Double Indemnity

Here is a short rundown of film noir:

…[b]ut the vivid co-mingling of lost innocence, doomed romanticism, hard-edged cynicism, desperate desire, and shadowy sexuality that was unleashed in those immediate post-war years proved hugely influential, both among industry peers in the original era, and to future generation of storytellers, both literary and cinematic.

This site continues to cite Double Indemnity as patient zero for the revolution of “black film” and it definitely doesn’t matter. That Double Indemnity sought but a visual vehicle for James M. Cain’s novella of the same name (this movie is probably on the list of movies that tremendously surpass their book equivalents i.e. The Godfather) is not significant. This “movement,” depicting seediness with sexuality and anger without avarice, wasn’t a Hollywood plant. The closest film noir came, and can be backed up by contemporary evidence is as a natural counter to the propaganda optimism bought and funneled through a government machine. For every Going My Way there was room for another Big Sleep.

Eventually noir contracted in the United States as audiences rejected the bleak for the bulbous (see: Marty, a rightful anti-noir, which won in 1955). Europe’s studios, surely replete with their own hot-take Humanism, sought to redefine art as it predicts reality, and branded their films “new wave” and “realism,” but really were noir reincarnate, but with better sound editing and sometimes, C O L O U R. Every few decades noir pops up as a counter-culture movement. Smart filmmakers understand that for every The Blind Side warm-heart there is room for a Winter’s Bone non-casual grit and grimace. Recently counter-epochal film has sprung up as “neo-noir,” whose best take, LA Confidential is as embedded in its own phone booth legacy as Double Indemnity is in its paper trail. Postmodern noir will comment on the fight against Twitter and Facebook. 2018’s Searching tried this concept, smartly showing setting its audience inside a computer. The film itself was a called strike three. Last comment on film noir: brand it however, what the “genre” is is much more anti-modernism than it is pro-anything.  Continue reading

[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