[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”

[2011] The Tree of Life

tumblr_lyn29gp54m1qd4hdlo1_1280Just because something seems obvious, does not make it so, and the straight lines we often associate with time seem to stretch indeterminately depending on individual perspective and the wondering, orthogonal sonder* of others. Yet, vectors do not maketh man; actions do.

Artists, especially ones who seem to operate solely on no trajectory at all defy the hardwired conservatism that demands humans play it safe for the betterment of the species. They often buck the trend of playing it safe to test the boundaries of human experience. Art, then, works as a shared experience because sharing the otherness of experiences is essentially risk-free. They, the reader, don’t experience successes and failures as the artist and because something must be experienced solo, can’t experience the swooping success of completion. When we finish watching a movie, there is no revel in the midst of chaos, but a satisfaction of task exodus. And we move onto the next one immediately, but alone and sometimes together.

The human which defies convention pays the price for organizing chaos. How, then, do we reward the risk? Continue reading “[2011] The Tree of Life”

[1928/29] In Old Arizona

mv5bmtdlnjbjnwmtodlhzs00yjawlwjlmdqtzmmwmtrhnzlmytc0xkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymjuxode0mdy-_v1_sy1000_cr007431000_al_We shouldn’t celebrate the “first” of anything, really; we can celebrate the best of it, but the two are not necessarily equal. Groundbreaking technology or a story that has been told in a certain way for the first time is worth noting, but not celebrating. Insofar as humans are concerned with chronicling history, it matters that In Old Arizona was the first talking western, the first iteration of O. Henry’s “Calico Kid,” and the first instance of the singing cowboy motif so that we can compare any future iterations against these: we innovate because we don’t want to repeat the past.

In all other instances, we can ignore innovation for the sake of progress. In Old Arizona is not a movie worth watching more than once, but it will remain on the List of Important Things forever.

That the film seems both longer and shorter that it is demands a deep dive into its editing. Sacrosanct firstness aside this movie is too long: the story is simple by design and follows an arc borne by stage and silent film – so why the 100 minutes? Director Irving Cummings and his editor, Louis Loeffler, must have thought that the valence of each scene maketh lean movie. Or, the financial reality left this team unable to make many cuts in post-production because refilming wasn’t an option. Or, actors’ contracts required a certain percentage of screen-time (or somewhat similar).

Or, and most likely, the editing techniques that audiences may know, but likely don’t see, were not yet developed yet. Loeffler relied too heavily on the cut-and-paste with room to insert dialogue cards used exclusively in silent film until that point. The hack job makes this film tiresome with what could have been a tight, 65 minute caper. This film speaks nothing necessarily of his ability as an editor, as he was nominated for Oscars over 30 years later for his work on 1960’s winner, The Apartment, and on The Cardinal.

Continue reading “[1928/29] In Old Arizona”

[1941] The Little Foxes

21355-the-little-foxes-0-230-0-345-cropIn formal probability theory, mathematicians and armchair enthusiasts sometimes describe a technique called “coupling.”

This technique allows for seemingly random variables, x and y, to interact with one another in otherwise random way. Suppose walks that way and this – how can we measure how likely it is that they meet? Or that they never will? Probablists introduce a measure of their own creation to force an interaction, then measure success or failure. This technique allows for the creation of path dependence and bias determination that otherwise could not have been measured.

This is a phenomenal approach to a problem of no consequence. Sure, we care what should happen, but we really only measure what does happen and try to predict, with some accuracy what could happen, given xy, and the medium. Sometimes, with enough certainty, our best guess is correct, and we begin to understand the difference between a graphite prediction and a graphic realization. The Little Foxes, whose production brought Bette Davis and William Wyler together again in 1941, is a film-proximate take on coupling.

The actress and the director make magic; theorists can couple together as much evidence as they want, but there is no measurement for spark and collaborative creativity that can outperform expected results. The Little Foxes proved this in the early 1940s. By way of a proud story, the film pairs together an actress at the height of her career with a director at the height of his. The story had been scene-tested on stage and was destined for imprint on film, with interpretive authority to be canonized as one of the five best of the year. Given this footstool of facts, mathematics aside, a critic from a reel away could have predicted this film’s success from the onset.

And it was almost derailed. Continue reading “[1941] The Little Foxes”

[2015] The Martian

October_2_24_92_99_18.epsThere is a long history of awards’ ceremonies ignoring science fiction as fun but not worthy of enshrinement. Almost, if not all, of the films recorded as Best Picture have been dramas or musicals. The voters, mysterious creatures, but all too predictable, seek to reinforce the gravitas of the human condition, or the light-heartedness of the times between the terrible. Heavy be the high watermark that keeps film from being fun; Drama is Art, but not Fun, because verboten be that particular Venn diagram.

If comedy is the populist mandate for the film industry – and it is – then science fiction is the socialist third-rail. Audiences who scoff at a serious science fiction work – book or movie – often cannot decide whether they enjoy the science or fiction part less. The concepts are too high-minded and far-flung, and the situations just not humanistic. We have not yet been to Mars in any capacity, so instead of letting computer aided graphics show us a branch of the possible, the Academy scoffs. Millions of people saw The Martian and presumably enjoyed it because while the human condition needs history to preserve for future generations, the human condition is not simply a puzzle of the past, it is also very much the struggle for the uncertainty of the future.

Science fiction offers an escape to its readers. The scariest science fiction toes the line between the possible, the macabre, and the near future. The world is broken and we need technology to save it. Eventually, we find out that what we thought we knew was completely wrong, and we unite to crush the dystopia to bring order. The tamest sorts the world out; we are a fixed species in the future and our problems are common and external. We are running out of room and resources for humans, say, so it is time to start exploring our Solar System. Here, science fiction branches off again. There is the fear of being alone in our Universe – and then not – and our neighbors are not benevolent. Then we fight for survival, and we win, because to watch a film about the actual end of the world shows a bleakness reserved for the innermost depths of our minds. There is also the joy of rooting for a singular human who faces dire consequences and must channel the best of us. This character is heroic and faces internal conflict as a matter of narrative. But this human is relatable because his situation is unbelievable, but he is a projection of what we would like ourselves to be.

Continue reading “[2015] The Martian”

[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”