[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”

[1989] Born on the Fourth of July

born_on_the_4th_of_julyFearful and fearless are not opposites but complements. One cannot become fearless without first acknowledging that fear exists and that fear persists within the unknown. This is true for all humans, and probably most animals, and is the reason we learn and why the calmest among us continue to learn. But the fear never goes away. Knowledge helps us internalize it and experience help us externalize it. Ron Kovic, the man, shares his experience (with Oliver Stone’s help) in Born on the Fourth of July and crafts a powerful anti-war story that Ron Kovic, the character, shows us. We are supposed to relate to him. Kovic experienced these feelings in reverse. For so many, fear is the catalyst for progress.

Born on the Fourth of July is about gradual, perplexing human disillusionment. The wide-eyed boy the audience meets in the film’s first act is brash and brave, without any real reason for doing so, except for a blind faith in Country and in Institution. Halfway through, when Kovic begins to see things through the lens of war, where Country is a construct and Institution does not play proxy for stability. Still, Kovic plays the part well. Perhaps he still believes that Vietnam was his destiny or that he was right to play his part. Toward the film’s end, Kovic devolves into a version of himself and no longer has an interest in pretending to love Country or his role in it; it happens over a few years for Kovic and just a few hours for Stone’s audience.  Perhaps Kovic was afraid to admit defeat. More likely he was afraid to admit that he was wrong.  Continue reading “[1989] Born on the Fourth of July”

[1942] The Pride of the Yankees

The Pride of the Yankees paints Lou Gehrig as the wholesome king of Yankee baseball in an era when Yankee baseball was king in the world of sport and the world of culture. In many respects, he was, if the movie is at least somewhat true. Self-aware and humble to a fault, a man whose mother was his “best girl” even when he married a woman of equal tenacity and warmth, Gehrig prescribed wholesomeness to the masses in a sport dubbed and continually rebranded as America’s pastime. The Pride, capital P, was not of his own accomplishment but to his team, and to his country by proxy. Whether any of the story is absolutely true is irrelevant: there has been a Mr. October and a Mr. November on the New York Yankees in the 75 years since Gehrig died, but The Pride of the Yankees paints Lou Gehrig as Mr. Forever.

This film was so profoundly moving for at least three reasons. The closeness of its creation to Lou Gehrig’s death, the striking accuracy with which Gary Cooper portrayed a man he may or may not have ever met, and the microscopic detail paid to a single man, when the film could have been about the whole team, a completely different team, or a different player all together, and it still would not have been about baseball. But it always was.

The hagiographic nature of this film paints Gehrig as at least saintly and at mostly godlike. Sincere in that level of reverence, The Pride of the Yankees idolizes Number Four as this man who can do no wrong and in his death the man who will perpetually do right. The world, at least as far as American sport reached, still reeled from his passing too soon from a degenerative disease that bears his name. Biographies just do not happen that close to passing. There is not enough time to memorialize and remember what there is to know about a person before the edit is due to the publisher or studio. Details continue to unfold about Gehrig’s life and will continue forever as long as a record of his life, as he lived it, exists. But this extracts a question with no answer: when is too early to remember someone? Are biographies awkward and unnecessary while the person is still alive? Can an unauthorized biography hold any credence, ever? Sometimes the reader just wants to learn about a character that exists or existed at one time. Is this wrong, or more specifically, authentic? Continue reading “[1942] The Pride of the Yankees”

[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”

[1987] The Last Emperor

There is no such thing as objective memory. Even with documented and recorded evidence, different witnesses will recall an event differently. It might have to do with a person’s inherent bias (what a person is willing to hear versus what is actually being said) or it might have to do with the passage of time, and the reshaping of history that has always happened. Someone will benefit from misinterpreting an inconsequential detail or changing the language to separate story from historical context. The Last Emperor, winner of 1987’s Best Picture award, is an example of manipulating memory for the sake of narrative. Its intentions seemingly innocent and non-biased, The Last Emperor dramatizes the life Puyi, China’s last emperor before the 1911 Xinhai Revolution that ended millennia of godly endowment of power to a single human. In a single, somewhat swift populist demonstration against dynastic rule, Puyi’s story is often forgotten in favor of more modern Chinese history, with world history curriculum almost erasing two-thousand-plus years of progress (and strife) in the process. Some students believe that the People’s Republic of China has always existed, and that is exactly what that institution would want those students to believe.

This story, and certainly why The Last Emperor won in 1987, demonstrates the power of history in shaping one’s memory. As an adult, whose career choices might steer far from history, details of Chinese history may never cross his path and she will remember nothing from having not studied it. But how China has evolved since 500 BC has affected almost every aspect of one’s life. Majored in economics? What country has dominated manufacturing since the mid-1900s? Majored in political science? What country presents a quasi-credible threat to global, US hegemony? Eat takeout? The point is there, too. China has influenced so much of American culture. An inquisitive mind will ask: why? An even more intrigued student will want to know: from where? The Last Emperor plugs a hole in the institutional memory of global history through film. It is accessible and epic; it is thoroughly dramatic. And it is in English.

The language choice is an example of revisionism that makes a difference not only in what we remember, but also how we form new memory. Director Bernardo Bertolucci makes this conscious choice to tell a thoroughly Chinese story through an Anglo-American lens, and it affects how we can access this story, as a Western audience. It also affects how we remember the information presented to us. Had this film been in Chinese, the story would have been too dense and anti-consumer; the language is simply too different to convey the ideas to an audience of English speakers.

Or is it? Continue reading “[1987] The Last Emperor”

[1931/32] The Smiling Lieutenant

Humor is incredibly challenging to sustain. In the short-term – film-length, say, jokes have to consistently strike a thin nerve and not stray too far away from the central themes or character motivations. A misplaced quip, or a joke that moves the plot off its close course, can derail an entire film. The audience rarely sees these errors because script and screen editors at the highest professional levels catch them and trash them almost as quickly as they are written.

In the medium-term – Oscar-season, perhaps, humor rarely makes buzz. Much humor is anti-erudite, and juvenile, such that taps into the audience’s deepest desires to identify with things they once found humorous; other humor is dry and satirical and the writing and acting work tirelessly to inform their audience of the hyper-specific culture referenced; still other humor does not parade as comedy and is unintentionally funny because either the story is intentionally poorly conceived, or the acting is laughably sincere or insincere, or often a heaping of both. None of these methods sustain the Academy’s wish to best represent the year in culture; gestalt. Worst case: nothing in the year struck a nerve as particularly humorous or even slightly funny. Modern times call for advanced emotions: fear, hatred, sadness, austerity.

In the long-term – the history of film, for instance, humor falls almost unconditionally flat as tastes are elliptical, and follow a long arc around a contemporary locus. Then, after some time, the basis for the humor no long exists as a strain in human consciousness, through no one’s fault. Tastes change. But, in the rare instance a film can track humor as part of a larger, more serious narrative, it sticks, and exists outside the general theory of relativity. Consider Chocolat. This film is a serious take on historical racism and family dynamics, but it does so through the lens of a loose, and well-intentioned, albeit funny, vagrant. Chocolat, was also one of a handful of films with even slightly humorous undertones nominated, since 2000. Some films, like Chocolat, use humor to their advantage, but are not comedy films, by the reasoning that the larger social and historical implications outweigh jokes. But a curious film from the 5th Academy Awards (1931/32) called The Smiling Lieutenant, seems to have broken all the rules on route to obscurity. Continue reading “[1931/32] The Smiling Lieutenant”