[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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[1929/30] All Quiet On The Western Front

It’s hard to name Western propagandists whose message advocated for war. During times just after intensive global strife, particularly war, lots of the filmmakers sought to describe the horror of war and its lasting effects on the people war devours. Even when one side defeats an enemy, lots of the film made after World War II and Vietnam chose to downplay the idea of victory. The message gleams clear from the genre–there are no winners in war, but losers and broken men.

There’s no indifference in war. Even Leni Riefenstahl, a German woman fascinated and adored by Nazis, but never officially charged as a Nazi, never made “pro-war” films. Ostensibly, she made movies with titles like Der Sieg des Glaubens (“The Victory of Faith”), and her twin masterclasses, Triumph des Willens (The Triumph of the Will) and Olympia (documenting the 1936 Munich Olympics). Close readers know there’s a deeper story to her work, to sow discord for one group and glory for another. This in and of itself isn’t problematic. In fact, most chronicles of war take a stance on an output–death toll–or outcome–a changed national jingoism. Even the documentaries, supposedly full of fact and nothing else, are also full of tone and timbre. There’s no such thing as objectivity. You know how you know? Ask five people to define what the word “objective” means.

This take is not defending Leni Riefenstahl, the propaganda she and her, er, cronies produced, or any of the outputs or actions of war. It is worth noting, however that German propaganda seemed especially fiery and pugnacious, especially between the two world wars, inclusive. The spewed lots of pro-might campaigns, ruthlessness toward apologists, and calls to arms to preemptively position the Fatherland toward a position of power. Odd then the timing of All Quiet on the Western Front, a perfectly placed propaganda picture released as Wiemar was on its last legs. It delivered a clear message and implied a warning to the next decade: war is not glory; war is not might; war is death; and war is fright. Continue reading

[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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{No. 55: Animation} [1993] Beauty and the Beast

The Academy plays favorites. This is not a new fact—almost exclusively winners (and losers) over the past 90 or so years have been dramas or historical fictions. There’s a seriousness or a weightiness to soaring, emotional movies. Making them and watching them feels like work, a work for which the Academy wants to bestow a promise of a reward. We almost never watch a drama for fun; Doubt isn’t a laugh factory or an escape. It demands our attention or we’ve just wasted two hours watching Meryl Streep looking sternly at us.

Science-fiction, action-adventure, comedy are cast into unseriousland as their studios green light another $150 million summertime fun blockbuster. What Scorcese talks about when he talks about cinema vs. cinéma is what the Academy means when it nominates movies about trans folks or historical slave struggles over a superhero movie. The media drama certainly overplayed the audacity of the response to this. Regardless of how we feel about these simple flicks, we know what Scorcese means. Stay in your lane, Captain Whosit.

To say that the Oscars haven’t honored “fun” movies is unfair, though. All three Lord of the Rings movies got a Best Picture nod. Toy Story 3 did, too. Is it unfair? If we search the list of “fun” movies the Academy has thought to advance to the highest canon, Beauty and the Beast comes first. Beauty is an 80 minute kids’ movie. It’s Disney’s thirty-seventh animated feature. It was also nominated for three other Oscars, winning two. What makes this movie more important to the history and exalted vaults of film history. Why not Aladdin the next year, or The Lion King in 1994, arguably a better execution of Disney’s modern anthropomorphic formula?

Animation, almost as old as the medium itself, earns a certain level of disrespect among auteurs serieuses. It’s not real, they’ll say, it’s too far removed from the goings-on of the everyman, the elevated filmgoer with a few extra bucks in her pocket. She doesn’t want to indulge in fantasy, when she might want to see a New Yorker editorial in 48 frames per second. She’s smarter than that; more human. She’s American, and here, cartoons are for kids.

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{No. 95: Home Video} [1956] The King and I

mv5bnmjkytvimzitzdm3ys00mdu2ltkzywitmgjkyjvjmju2yjnll2ltywdll2ltywdlxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvynjc1ntyymjg40._v1_uy1200_cr7906301200_al_Audiences of a certain age remember the now-bizarre struggle to maintain VHS recordings of their favorite programs and movies. During its 30 year dominance, the Video Home System was the singular standard for analog, portable video production and consumption, fully defeating Betamax’s inability to match functionality and consumer preference. The struggle, decades later, seems almost laughable: physically rewinding tapes after viewing, the constant threat of a tape jam, metallic tape depreciation – diminishing returns on each subsequent viewing – and finally physical clutter. Older audiences recall not having this struggle at all; recording anything was a tremendous accomplishment, and doing so was a marvel of technical skill and fiscal independence. New audiences, infants who can use Netflix instinctively, also recall not having this struggle given the death of the VHS when digital media, the DVD, took over.

Access to nothing and everything is almost the same. (Almost) every piece of media is available instantly now across too many platforms, so figuring out what to watch is no longer limited to what is currently on a shelf, but how long a person will spend scrolling through endless content. Both might be paralyzing, but for different reasons. For the film critic and historian, having access to an obscure title with a click is essential; but the critic likely has a decision matrix and a mental map of availability. The average viewer? The person looking to unwind after a long day? No clue, and why would they? There’s no structure or routine that the VHS, then the DVD, provided. A person’s evening would almost be better if the Internet made the choice for them, and just quit.

In 2001, my family first made the switch from VHS to DVD. The handsome Disney and Mel Brooks collections on our shelves would soon be decoration. Our first DVD was The King and I, seeing as it was the title my father recognized out of our library’s massive collection of four. At the time, my 43 year old father connected dearly with the 44-year-old movie; he was a fan of musicals of all kinds, and a fan of Oscar winner Yul Brenner as the precocious, permabanned-from-Thailand, eponymous King Mongkut. The King and I was an ideal introduction to DVD technology. It included an Overture, Entr’acte, and Exit Music to chop The King and I into halves and chapters. A VHS user would to continuously fast-forward and rewind if not interested; the DVD user pushes a single button and the only way to degrade the movie was to treat the DVD like a frisbee. Continue reading

[1975] Barry Lyndon

Three-hour-long movies that feel like half-hour sitcoms are a treasure, and are extremely rare, especially that the style has shifted, almost totally away from this format in recent years. Labor has gotten simultaneously cheaper (software does a lot of the editing grunt work) and more expensive (it takes more specialized experience to run it). Budgets have expanded, and massive returns are expected. The blockbuster has shifted mediums, too, from the physical block, to eventually, the blockchain. Streaming and massive distribution is king and finding an unhappy content churn is the profit-maximizing middle where original thought dies. The three-hour-long movie better damn well have an expanded universe or audiences will continue game out effective bathroom breaks. Three cheers for the return of an intermission.

Attention spans have waned with the increase in media outlets: why would an audience spend minutes – seconds even! – on one platform when the next platform has the next cultural missive ready to go. There will be a time in the early 2020s (check me on this, future readers) when the splintering of services will bundle into packages customers can buy; it will have regressed into neo-cable, with each platform owning exclusive rights to content, removing consumer choice from marketing paradigms. Instead of driving subscriptions, this non-coordinated market abuse will drive a significant portion of people who might buy one or two subscriptions to steal the content. Eventually the funding will run dry and the islands of content will become deserts. Nostalgia will be the only currency in which these fake-monopolies trade. Forget monoculture. Remember protoculture.

The point here is that there is very little room in today’s marketing/content churn environment for a director – let alone Stanley Kubrick – to film a Thackeray satire. This three-hour epic, Barry Lyndon, does read like vignette of half-hour shows, told anthology-like through a narrator we’re supposed to believe is reliable. Barry Lyndon‘s eponymous Redmond Barry is the tragic farce of stale upper crust Thackeray was known to lampoon. His narrative arc is as long as Kubrick’s shots are wide. His character portraits are eloquent, but backloaded. Action is sprinkled among shots that double as paintings. Barry Lyndon requires an attention span and a patience audiences no longer possess en masse. Students of film know and love this film for its technical innovation and its warm, true-to-tone adaptation of Thackeray’s “The Luck of Barry Lyndon.” An everyday audience, the one whose billets-complets fill Disney’s pockets, has no use for this low-budget movie. Even casual Kubrick fans dismiss this as Kubrick’s passion project; it is, and it is impossible to edit down. Continue reading

[1927/28] Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness

The first Oscars set no precedent.

The “ceremony” was a cloistered affair, offering little fanfare and no vaunted halls. It wasn’t even called the “Oscars” until sometime later with competing apocrypha clouding the chaotic 30s. The categories resembled their modern counterparts, but also didn’t. There was a category for “Best Title Cards” sometimes referring to (no specific film); two distinct directing awards – one for comedy and one for drama; two actors nominated for their whole body of work from the year, and three actresses for the same; there was a category for best art direction. Surprisingly this category lasted until 2010, when it was renamed “Production Design.” The first Academy Awards awarded two films, co-equal, “Best Picture” — one called “Outstanding Picture” and the other called “Most Unique and Artistic Picture.” Retroactively, the Academy decided to consolidate the top honor into a single choice, thus orphaning three films that aren’t even counted in the total, official count.

One of these films is Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness, and it isn’t like its contemporaries, or really any movie nominated for Best Picture since. It is ostensibly a documentary with a loose narrative attached. As is the case, no “cast” exists. It does track a man, his family, some elders, and a host of animals that are competing for a limited space in the jungles of Siam in the mid-1920s, pre-modern, pre-almost-everything. The film is really about the absolution and decimation of a natural space in exchange for Man’s progress. Curiously, the filmmakers treat the experience agnostically, choosing to treat their audiences to the sighting of animals they most likely hadn’t seen before — tigers, monkeys, elephants (“Chang”) — slaughter and trappings included. As it stands, Chang is an unintentional relic of its time and environment. Continue reading

[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

[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

[1951] A Place in the Sun

The Gilded Age in the American experience subsists as worthwhile to study because of its uninterrupted, demonstrated prosperity (curiously corresponding to a legal ban on drink) immediately followed by superficially mitigated disaster and calamity. The Depression certainly carved space for the creation of great works; jazz and photography each had hallmark decades and increased the breadth and depth of its craft. Advances in telecommunications, regardless of who could afford them, allowed for this art to democratize and to offer at least a distraction and at most a joy to millions of people who had nothing now but drink and unsalable assets. Authors who write about this transitory time ex post facto get the benefit of knowing in advance what came next. What makes The Great Gatsby brilliant makes its later Contemporary American Novels not so much: perspective, of which we know Scott Fitzgerald had little.

Fitzgerald’s contemporary, at least in epoch, Theodore Dreiser, wrote a book called An American Tragedy, which would eventually bastardize its way into A Place in the Sun, a 1951 film that showcased Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor. Unlike the book, whose plot developed slowly and canonically, the movie saw its lead characters smush together into a love triangle that convinced no member of its audience of its emotional heft. The key to Clift’s character, a naive and unassuming nephew type, is believing that plot points happen to him and that he is in control of nothing. Only after he falls in too far does an audience understand that the avariciousness is borne of self-preservation not of circumstance. The character study is trying to piece together how much of the behavior is nature versus nurture. When, as A Place in the Sun insists, the “love” between leads is forced for the sake of time or convenience, our character palate becomes not a band of misfits, but contemptuous mallards. Forget the antihero trope that Gatsby pulls off with aplomb (that each character is a self-serving product of nature), this trope, the speedy drive-thru love, is a film killer and should have died on the cutting table. Continue reading