[1976] Taxi Driver

taxi_driver_movieposterWe cannot ever be certain how many people live in a place. Article I, Section 2 of the US Constitution mandates that the Union count it citizens every so often, as to get an accurate number of Representatives from the individual states to Congress. In the 228 years since the first decennial census, the Census Bureau, now housed in the Department of Commerce, has conducted 22 of these surveys – each one attempting to coalesce on the actual number of people who live in a place, and certain characteristics about them. The hope, we hope, is to strive for a count of people close to the actual number of people; these two numbers have (probably) been close for some time. The decennial census direct order to the governing institutions from the United States’ governing documents.

It is still voluntary.

People, (probably) in the low-millions range, fall through the thin comb but these people still drive cars or take buses on roads provided to everyone, breathe clean air regulated by strict pollution laws, and reasonably expect clean water to be delivered to their homes, and dirty water taken away. No representative exists to hear their voices because their voices, statistically speaking, don’t exist.

Expanding this logic, thousands, if not more, Travis Bickles roam public streets and the Internet, free to exist, essentially detached from reality. They consume apple pie and drink coffee out of a misanthropic ritual. They subsume pornography because sex is violence, and violence is normal. They drive or walk or bike around, almost aimlessly, not out of academic nihilism, but out of actual desperation that is too distinct to classify, and unfair to study. We have no way to help them, because they don’t exist; but they think, and they plan and they plot, …sometimes. We can’t know. Taxi Driver is an innocuous enough title for a movie about a man angry at nothing and everything at the same time – so he drives a taxi to unwind.  Continue reading “[1976] Taxi Driver”

[2001] A Beautiful Mind

115135696_1300x1733Myth supersedes man.

It is impossible to tell in two hours the mess of a man who simultaneously gave language to a fundamental human condition and who also couldn’t, at times, distinguish between real and not real. Thankfully, for the applied economics work that he described so succinctly and eloquently, he did not kill anyone in its stead. Because John Nash held both of these extremes inside of his brain simultaneously, if not incongruously, his story is intrinsically interesting because of the questions it generates: how did he keep himself together enough to give us his famous theory? What challenges did he face and how did he overcome them? Which characters influenced him and how did they evolve to meet him where he was? What don’t we see? Instead of a round look at the person who was, A Beautiful Mind chooses to highlight Nash’s best self, tempering it with periods of prolonged strife. The narrative is clean if not flawed.

In her biography, Sylvia Nasar does not shy away from John Nash the man; in his adaptation, Ron Howard does, and creates John Nash the character, the John Nash that now, outside mathematics and economics enthusiasts, a plurality of audience members know. This is not a problem. As an audience, each person has to decide what to believe, which is the basis of myth. But: a movie like A Beautiful Mind does help us attempt to answer the question of what is more worthwhile from a biography like this, pure truth, as we might expect from the Oscar, or pure entertainment, which we might expect from E!

The distinction between the two is not necessarily evenly distributed. Picture this: there is not a straight line between pure documentary and pure entertainment and the best films hit some sort of apex of some sort of normal distribution. Or, at least, they are supposed to. Empirically, if this is the case, there should be some objective, measurable data to determine “BEST.” Didactically, there is no data besides financial returns and those tend to correspond to popularity, not necessarily quality, and there is no way to marry the two without editorializing the results. So: how should we, as individual readers, and, potentially as a voting bloc, judge the man John Nash as we (or they) evaluate the myth John Nash? Let’s look at a few examples.

Continue reading “[2001] A Beautiful Mind”

[1935/2012] Les Misérables

Film without music is a bizarre experience. It is theoretically possible to edit out non-story musical moments from any film – all that is required is the audio stems and a big mute button. The experience would be cold, mildly alluring, and tremendously disjointed. Film scores, often referred to as “the background music,” are clever editing tools to guide an audience through complex story concepts; musical themes signal to the audience that this character has that relationship with this event. Repeat these musical motifs and there exists a complementary story line and tools to tell it. The themes, tone, and timbre of a film are all usually told through a musical story. There is sufficient cause to praise scores within and without the context of their respective films and there is sufficient reason to know of these composers: John Williams, Howard Shore come to mind. Schindler’s List and The Lord of The Rings are treated as masterful because of the treatment of tone via music.

There is instead a different take with movie musicals – in which the music is the purpose – and the dialogue serves as transitory at best. This is also different from operatic performance, in which the transitory dialogue is the music. The music is almost always cloyingly nice or dramatically silly. There is room for comedic musicals and overdramatic musicals on purpose. Musicals are marketed as universal and inoffensive – even ones that deal in subjects whose accompanying music sanitizes horror or deleterious violence. And parents will take their children to see them because enjoying music is a universal human trait, innate to children and there is no need to explain what music is to a toddler or pre-teen. Their purpose is to entertain, and they almost uniformly do. There is no objective rub with film or stage musicals.

Les Misérables has been seen and not read for over a century, the first of whose adaptations appeared on screen in film’s first foray, J. Stuart Blackton’s 1909 take. Victor Hugo’s marvelous epic tale is historically rigorous, characteristically clear, and obviously adaptable to be acted, directed, and enjoyed. For 118 years, until 1980, Les Misérables was a film trafficked in dialogue, in characterization, in setting, and in continuity. But in 1980, music, now almost ubiquitous songs like “I Dreamed a Dream” and “Master of the House” define the story and frame it as an experience whose story is meant to sell the songs. And it has been wildly successful. Les Misérables’ 2012 adaptation was nominated for Best Picture, the film that best represented the world’s pulse for the year. It, however, was not the first version of this film to do so: 1935’s fifth adaptation (of now 17 overall) was filmed and nominated first. Despite the media narrative, 1935’s version is a better, more succinct and narratively sound version of Hugo’s original. It does not have songs (which were written in the late 1970s) and barely a score. But this film captures Hugo’s existential despair better than 2012’s cartoonish take. 

The success of 1935’s Les Misérables has roots in the limited technological ability of the time, so director Richard Boleslawski’s version required the earnestness and commanding presence of Fredric March’s Jean Valjean and Charles Laughton’s Inspector Javert to carry it; Tom Hooper’s 2012’s Hugh Jackman/Russel Crowe combination provided a vessel for the dialogue and lyrics, but ultimately half-commanded the screen, which emphasized theatrics and framing over keen acting performance. The strength of the music carried the later film, but its ultimate sterility fundamentally violates Hugo’s tale of despair and sacrifice. It is a chore to watch all 160 minutes of Hooper’s film. Also, and not to be understated, Russell Crowe cannot sing, nor realistically would Javert have any narrative reason to.

Continue reading “[1935/2012] Les Misérables”

[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.

Continue reading “[1961] West Side Story”

[1934] One Night Of Love

onenightofloveWe tend to think of the media we consume as products, finished from their inception. The point of a talented production and relations staff is to control the narrative; filming is going smoothly, no actor or director feels slighted (at least publicly); and that the release is planned, and executed perfectly from the production schedule through opening night and beyond. If we knew about petty behavior, like we sometimes, do, or we heard about struggle, perhaps the talent is a little less lofty, shrouded in a little less mythos. We want art, maybe not especially film, to dazzle us as a triumph over entropy and the natural path of a Luddite society. And so the process is controlled, with conflict carefully curated and presented to us with or without commentary.

The early talking films, spreading wide throughout the 1930s, proved the technology to record sound to tape and sync it with a moving image became cheaper, more prevalent, and its welders more proficient. Commentary about film was limited, perhaps not by ambition, but by bandwidth: the cost of ink and demand for media process stood at odds and remember media was not yet social, but curated by the powerful few who controlled what was said, who said it, where it would be seen, and when the masses would get to see it. The press was free insofar as the worldmakers believed it so. In short: the corrupt and the balmy occupied the same space. The early film, One Night of Love, was no exception to this way of the world.

Its story isn’t new. It centers around a slice of life of the human spirit: a burgeoning opera singer happens upon a willing and renowned teacher, and they form a bond, ultimately leading to her success and their togetherness. Every film in the 1930s innovated in some way, either technologically or in how it presented a story. One Night of Love helped to push the movie operatic Musical: before popular music became, well, popular, the Opera dominated the space, as the vocal response to a genre that’s teetered across vocal/instrumental divide since the human learned to make sound and to harness it. One Night of Love employed one of the 1920’s operatic stars, Grace Moore, to sing the part and she did so, for all we know, as well as was asked.  Continue reading “[1934] One Night Of Love”

[1965] The Sound of Music II

As part of the Conversation Series, I’ll be speaking with certain contributors about certain movies at certain times. 

Zach Schonfeld is a “writer” living in “Manhattan.” He is currently a reporter for Newsweek Magazine and studied English and American Studies at Wesleyan University, for which we’re all very proud.

We spoke at length about 1965’s Best Picture winner, The Sound of Music, starting in Part I, here. This time around we dive into musical theatre and Christopher Plummer’s disdain for his role.

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Sam Sklar: Musicals live on in cartoon a lot – in the ’80s and ’90s – it shifted away from being for families to being for children. The genres broke apart and they became a little more post-modern. A lot more dialogue around what is for kids for adults and not for families. Everyone’s time is a little more compartmentalized, ideas need to be put into compartments instead of just having an experience. It is interesting to look back and see this. This shift away from musicals and then back into musicals with this new skin on it.

I’m not drawn to musical theatre either. When I was a kid I would think: ‘Why are they singing?’ until I realized, you know, “that’s the genre,” and that’s what it is. I didn’t understand. I get opera because they’re singing all of the time, and I get drama because they’re singing none of the time.

Zach Schonfeld: So, why are they singing some of the time?

S: Ha, right! Why are they randomly breaking into song? And then I got older and understood that’s the point, the form of entertainment.

Z: Yeah.

S: I’m just not drawn to it naturally. I appreciate it though. I think it takes a lot of talent to sing and dance and act. It’s just adding more to the entertainment value.

Speaking of which: Christopher Plummer did not do his own singing in this.

Z: No, he did not. Someone else did.

S: You don’t — didn’t — really notice that. So the question is: why was he cast in this role?

Z: I don’t know. I feel like there’s probably a story but i don’t know what it is.

S: might be worth looking into when I write this up and put a little aside in there.

[Aside: In 2012, Plummer sat for an interview with NPR’s Scott Simon, where he discussed how the film’s producers overdubbed his part with singing from maestro Bill Lee. The team of Lee & Plummer, in effect, tag-teamed the role, with Lee sounding astoundingly like Plummer as Captain von Trapp.]

Z: It’s interesting because this role made him a real star and was the most famous role of his career. And he’s made it clear that he resents how much this role has followed him around. He doesn’t really want to be known as Captain von Trapp. When I interviewed him [for Newsweek in June 2018] he said something like, “Oh as soon as I played that role, all the roles that were offered to me were uptight sons-of-bitches like Captain von Trapp. I didn’t want to be a leading man; I couldn’t wait to be a character actor.”

He thought it was a dull character. He wanted to play more interesting characters and he complained a lot on set that the film was “too sentimental, too gooey,” and he’s credited himself as pushing Director Robert Wise to make it less sentimental, to cut down on the sentimentality, which I think is a noble pursuit and made the film better.

But i think over the years he’s referred to it as The Sound of “Mucus” and has expressed a lot of irritation as being known for that movie out of all his roles.

Continue reading “[1965] The Sound of Music II”

[1965] The Sound of Music I

As part of the Conversation Series, I’ll be speaking with certain contributors about certain movies at certain times. 

Zach Schonfeld is a “writer” living in “Manhattan.” He is currently a reporter for Newsweek Magazine and studied English and American Studies at Wesleyan University, for which we’re all very proud.

We spoke at length about 1965’s Best Picture winner, The Sound of Music.

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Sam Sklar: Let’s first start with overall impressions and thoughts about the movie.

Zach Schonfeld: Well, I’d seen the play before but I’d never actually seen the film before. And it was very whimsical I thought; it was very family friendly. It is interesting that movies like that were pretty frequently nominated for Oscars in the ’60s. And now musicals don’t win best picture anymore.

S: The last one was Chicago [in 2002]

Z: I mean, La La Land, came close…but today, movies that are so whimsical are seen as being un-serious by critics, but that wasn’t the case back then, which I find interesting. There’s an historic element to the film, too. It captures a specific era of history, which would be the Nazi era. But it translates it for family-friendly audiences.

S: It sanitizes it a little bit, where the Nazis were just your typical adversarial element rather than a world-changing evil, in a way.

Z: Yea, it didn’t really contend with the reality of Nazis, but you can’t really expect it to do that. The music – not my thing, as I don’t really listen to show tunes, but it’s obviously endured incredibly. It’s hard to think of another musical from that era that has endured.

S: The only on I can think of “My Fair Lady”.

Z: Yea, I mean. Even that hasn’t been quite as ubiquitous. Maybe West Side Story?

S: So what do you think it is about these songs, because you can remember, “Doe, a Deer…” and obviously you’ve got “My Favorite Things” (wait is that that song, yes that’s that song). Then there’s, “How do you deal with a problem like Maria” songs that are very nostalgic.

For me, I first saw this as a kid with my dad [probably around 1996], and I liked it because it was basically made for kids. I enjoyed more now [in 2018] as a piece of nostalgic media rather than a “great movie,” but the story’s pretty solid. I don’t know what classifies it as a “timeless, great film.” Continue reading “[1965] The Sound of Music I”