{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

[2016] Hell or High Water

The Western ceased as an artform in early 1993, when Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven closed the chapter on a much-loved and rarely-maligned genre. Westerns were wholly post Manifest United States, though their premise has been recycled through Shakespeare and Kurosawa, setting the human experience against a backdrop of nothhingness – as the desert has sand and more desert – removes the setting from the movie’s intent. Every character written into a western usually exudes an invisible two-mile sphere from her center point that seemingly bounces off every object with which it comes in contact. This is a prerequisite for this genre it seems, that operates on lone-wolf syndrome and synthesis: the character on which we focus has a larger bubble than everyone else and we, the audience, are supposed to fit empathy inside of it.

Classic westerns, High Noon, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Searchers, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, say, dive into bubble-man vs. other bubble-man, bubble-man vs. bubble-community, bubble-man vs. bubble-treasure. Unforgiven asked the audience to examine the self-immolation of bubble-man vs. himself; Eastwood gives his soul the diameter to which so many directors gave the untouchable treatment. This should make this man explode, but there is a pensive quality and a finality to Unforgiven that mostly left the genre undoable anymore. Reworks always fell short and any new attempts at a western came across as aloof, pastiche, or marred by too-small bubbles. If the characters were either not approachable enough or too approachable, or they became caricatures of themselves, the western genre and especially audience would abjectly reject them, sometimes especially quickly or without a second thought. Even acceptable remakes, though wildly unnecessary, like 2010’s True Grit remake (with Jeff Bridges [good casting] in John Wayne’s role), fell short of the atmosphere and ambiance they aimed to capture. It was a consequence of the genre itself bursting out any approachable ideas.

Hell or High Water pierced this veil. This movie is so good while being so modern that it seems to exist solely because no critic could outright dismiss it and no audience could, even subliminally, ignore it. Jeff Bridges, seemingly born to remake Westerns, absolutely crushes his role as stoic-cum-playful sheriff, but the star of this movie is Chris Pine, campy-bubble-man Kirk in Star Trek iterations. He is almost too handsome to make me believe that he has suffered as much as he did, but nevertheless, the steel bubble he erects around his person is ferociously believable and the setting, Texas in its many iterations, is functionally an anti-setting: the trope of lawless West Texas has become part of the history that, culturally, it doesn’t need an explanation. West Texas is the bubble Hell or High Water is trying to wedge into. Then, there is a bubble around the whole state. How can a character study resolve this? Continue reading