[1991] The Silence of the Lambs

Mediocre acting performances treated as legendary run rampant throughout film history. It adds to a film’s mystique when a consensus concerned critique deems a performance more than merely marginal — it elevates the lore to must-see status for film novices, and will often be included on best-of lists by more seasoned viewers. Reputation begins to precede its merits and once a film reaches this status, merited or not, subjective review loses meaning. It becomes too popular to deride for fear of contrarianism.

This list runs deep, especially among Best Picture nominees. Of the 529 films nominated (so far), a reasonable guess might be a quarter to a third of them are marginally worthy at best in contemporary and extracontemporary context. The script is fine, the directing serves a purpose, and the vision is reasonably well executed. But the performances, for some reason, are marketed as glimmering and transcendent and the industry eats itself. Exemplifying this point seems counter-productive, but I’m often looking at Russell Crowe.

One of a handful of performances that shreds this thread is Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. This performance is so outrageously chilling and so magnificently acted that no amount of overreaction to it seems unreasonable. If a critic were to write that Hopkins as Lecter is the best Best Actor, this critic would not argue it. Only George C. Scott as General Patton in Patton, Ernest Borgnine as Marty in Marty, or Daniel Day-Lewis as whichever character’s skin he’s wearing, would near Hopkins’ heights. Even more incalculable is that Hopkins completely dominates this movie as a spectre — he’s only on screen for a handful of minutes but manages to seep into every conversation during the movie, and is what most viewers continue to talk about after the fact, never mind Jodie Foster’s good performance as FBI Agent. Hopkins/Lecter has surpassed words. Audiences then and now turn to a specific, stuttering seethe that’s usually paired with fava beans and a nice Chianti. This type of characterization and embeddedness is rare in modern society. Where competing for entertainment bandwidth has become a no-win bloodsport, that a decades-old movie “quote” sticks to the lexicon. It is a tribute to Hopkins and his enduring legacy.

It’s unfair to couch The Silence of the Lambs‘ other Oscar wins within Hopkins’ performance, but it’s dishonest not to, too. It is (at least as of the 90th awards, and will likely be for the foreseeable future) one of three films to sweep major categories — Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Original Screenplay — and it is not too far from true to say that the other four awards also belong to Anthony Hopkins. We can spend thousands of words trying to retrofit why this is most likely true, but it would be prudent to look into the nuances of this performance to understand this point. I asked ANP contributor and director Matthew Laud to weigh in:  Continue reading “[1991] The Silence of the Lambs”

[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”

[2006] Babel

babel_posterSince it became cheap and ubiquitous, the Internet has revolutionized how we communicate; the first total shift since the telephone, and the second since the printing press. The narrative around how has shrunk almost exponentially, as well, as physical contact is no longer a necessity, the human voice is supplicant to the typed word. People have friends they’ve never met, do business with robots, and can sometimes tell the difference between real and not real. The Internet is the simulacra Baudrillard didn’t know he worried about; he was (somewhat) ambivalent about its takeaway meaning. He couldn’t know, but he could induce where culture was going (which, to be fair, is a simulacra of meaning), and he could wax obscenity about it.

We should take care to communicate outside meme culture, however. A clickity-clack of links spreads almost like a virus across the globe. I can watch television in the United States, while downloading images from Morocco, learning recipes from Mexico, and meeting my partner in Japan. I can do all of these things simultaneously, and then I can blog about them. If I craft a narrative about it, I can make a movie via these links; if I do it quickly enough, I can make a hyperlink film.

Babel is representative. It corrals four realistically, yet improbably, simultaneous stories from four corners of the world and tells them in a sort of jumble, linking the stories, possibly, albeit improbably. These stories are really about fate and the impact of small actions. Babel unravels rather than unfolds. It is meant to be representative of fragility, randomness, luck, chance, …probably. Films like Babel: 2004’s winner, Crash, 2000’s nominee, Traffic, 2012’s Cloud Atlas, and so forth, always mean to be world-shattering with meaning, dripping with reflections on the human experience. These movies get self-aware and they always leave some sort of sour taste after the awe of connectedness wears off. These movies feel like pyrite.

As the Internet has matured, the types of media representing it have also changed: hyperlink cinema has slowed down since the early 2000s and movies like Babel are replaced with movies like 2018’s Searching, whose focal point is from the inside of the screen itself. The Best films are supposed to represent the turbulence of the times, sure, but films like Babel overwhelm criticism with false-flag honesty. Films like Searching will come to represent more and more people. Today’s generation grew up on the Internet’s kinks, quirks, buffering and streaming. The future’s generations will include people who have seemingly harnessed the Internet for good and bad. Babel will live right in the middle – not enough (poor, remote) people had Internet – for this story to make logical sense. (Think about all the plots in Seinfeld whose humor would be totally dissolved by a quick mobile call). If we place it in its era, like we must, it stands shallow, but that it stands at all is a testament to director Alejandro González Iñárritu.

Continue reading “[2006] Babel”

[1943] Heaven Can Wait

It is fundamentally confusing that 1943’s Heaven Can Wait shares a title with the 1978 remake of another movie entirely (1941’s Here Comes Mr. Jordan). That this strange error exists makes for a confusing legal argument, considering that the newer movie should have run into copyright issues at the very least, and makes for a confusing cultural argument. Why would a studio want an audience to seek out a completely different movie? 

Here Comes Mr. Jordan was itself based on an earlier stage play called Heaven Can Wait, but early studio executives decided to rename it. When remade it took the play’s original title. Even more confusing: 1943’s Heaven Can Wait was itself based off a play called Birthday, whose studio execs decided to change its name to Heaven Can Wait, even though there already existed a play of the same name and the movie minimal narrative ties to it. We can only assume that the studio was not too worried about audiences mistaking these two pieces, the intellectual property laws that guided the convention of copyright were looser or perhaps less strictly enforced, or neither of the above. Perhaps no one bothered to check or, more likely, this wasn’t an issue. 

But these facts seem to be merely inconvenient: there has been no attempt to “correct” the nomenclature in the last 40 years. And besides the loose narrative ties (both plays deal with a person of questionable character waiting in some sort of Muzak purgatory) the stories share no pertinent details.

This phenomenon is not unique to the legacy films either; modern film has seen this happen in two distinct ways. First, constant series reboots make the intellectual property malleable. Every six or so years Spider Man has sought to redefine itself with a more modern take (some would argue a truer-to-the-comic version) on the radioactive spider hero. This phenomenon also doesn’t apply to sequels whose economies of scale decrease seemingly exponentially for studios who are looking to profit (read: all of them) on established universes, familiar characters, and trite, universal storylines. Neither of these phenomena are horrific for film, but they seem to take up a lot of bandwidth and make it increasingly challenging for independent filmmakers to create films that move an artistic needle. Rarely do or will sequels or reboots stand in Best Picture conversations. The populism vs. auteurism and what matters debate is too broad for this take on Heaven Can WaitContinue reading “[1943] Heaven Can Wait”

[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”

[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”

[2012] Lincoln

lincoln_2012_teaser_posterSteven Spielberg’s Lincoln is a boring movie.

It moves incredibly slow, but it isn’t paced badly. Daniel Day-Lewis and Tommy Lee Jones act with aplomb, and their performances are memorable, as are the real-life characters they portray. Lincoln doesn’t linger on the 16th President’s death so much as the war he fought against the Confederate insurgents. It does spend its whole running time counting beans and exploring the actions of those who would support or oppose the 13th Amendment, freeing the slaves permanently, after the insurgent South sued for peace. Lincoln supposes that Congressmen and Senators from the 1860s spoke solely in soliloquy. On and on Daniel Day-Lewis does justice to Abraham Lincoln, the politico, and has his audience swimming in the deep end policy consideration. This movie spends time poring over a piece of parchment. It is a boring movie and it took me four sittings to get through it.

Lincoln is also fantastic and should be celebrated. Continue reading “[2012] Lincoln”