[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.

Continue reading “[1962] Lawrence of Arabia”

[2016] Hacksaw Ridge

hacksaw_ridge_posterHacksaw Ridge is about two things: religion (specifically, Christianity) and violence. It is not, for better or worse, about religious violence. Director Mel Gibson had spent the better part of the last twenty years pontificating about Jesus, his own come-to-Jesus-cum-anti-Judaism, so if this movie was to be about dying on That Hill, it was to be taken as an on-brand, but ultimately eye-rolling joke. Even worse, it was to be a joke about the life of a man whose bravery, religion, and selflessness in wartime saved dozens of lives and helped to propel the American victory in the Eastern Theatre.

Violence and religion, like everything else, deserve a healthy dose of comedy, but the evanescent tonal balance, critical for all directors, but more so for microscope attractor Gibson was critical. And if the film is going to be shockingly violent (see: Saving Private Ryan) it had better be compelling to watch. If the gore is overwhelming, it had better be accurate and respected. If the film is going to be a plus-one for religion as a pursuit, it had better be humanistic. Gibson strikes this balance well and also makes a compelling case for personal devotion to a Christian God without telling the audience that this is the only path. Continue reading “[2016] Hacksaw Ridge”

[1951] A Streetcar Named Desire

220px-a_streetcar_named_desire_28195129The tiniest of innocuous details, ones that pass by without notice are the crema of legends. Neither are all-time events and figures borne from a single gigantic event; nor more likely is a mythologized film shot in a single take. Every event you’ve heard about has a history in the small, snowballing events that lead up to it. Most films are lucky to have been made but for a perceived slight toward the executive production team. A single turn – not casting Marlon Brando in the lead as Stanley Kowalski – might have doomed A Streetcar Named Desire to an important, but ultimately indexed footnote to film history. As is the case, however, it is monumentally important.

What makes A Streetcar Named Desire odd, right away, is that the streetcar in question, yes named “Desire,” bears almost no weight on what this film tackles. It is a small, innocuous detail, whose point, if there is one, is to usher in the story medias res. The Kowalskis have a life of tumult, so as playwright Tennessee Williams does so featherlike, he drops in a complete mess of a personality via a perfectly normal streetcar. The detail (the name of the car), while tiny, is not extemporaneous or thoughtless. It is a clever and worthwhile misdirection. Blanche is an imbalance, waiting without delay along a fixed path toward disaster. We know this almost immediately and we wait without delay, along a fixed path, to see how this disaster unfolded. It is manifest in American, human experience and we watch this movie to chase the fixed path, deeply arcing toward disaster. Are we meant to look inward? Do we…desire it?

Tennessee Williams was a master playwright. Not only did he understand the confines of stage space and a reasonable parallel to action, he understood, somehow, the capacity of humans to deal with a rotten tomato tossed haphazardly. Sometimes it hits an actor in the face, and she has to wipe it off and keep performing; sometimes it misses completely and shatters the papier-mâché stage behind him; sometimes it doesn’t matter at all. A the cherry bomb is metaphor without being overwrought. How Williams was able to understand the intricacies of the human experience, process them, eulogize them, and repackage them as a confined statement, bold and indirect, is astonishing. This play was built for the screen, too, in an era of limited budgets and a restless postwar America.

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[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”