[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

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[1989] My Left Foot

A conscious creature develops a personality over time, though differently than it grows physically. An individual human, say, is governed by genetic code hardwired into every bit of body; its height and skin color determined and unchangeable save an external change. In this way the body is determined and fraught with nature. In other ways, aspects about an individual human are subject to their environment—a socio-economic standing, a gender, a fight for survival. A personality, though is complicated. The manner by which a human presents themselves outwardly is governed by a genetic mix, et cetera. Each person may spend their whole life becoming themselves, as if there was a post erected to pass. Humans are all actors, no?

So, how long does it take to become someone else?

For pouring himself into Christy Brown, Daniel Day-Lewis earned himself the first of three Best Actor awards out of six nominations. By any account this actor’s actor has found himself in extreme fortune and generous timing; each of his roles triumphs as a character vehicle, whose environment and/or plot places second and/or third. His work is always a conscious choice of character, too. Since 1982, he has only twenty credits to his name, and only 13 roles since (including) My Left Foot, his first victory, and the one for which he most carefully considered the role. To play cerebral palsy and not to mock it or make light of it is a tremendous feat of mind-meld. The disease is itself a parable of the physical, a body, as it turns out, not broken, but different. Here, Day-Lewis shines on all fronts. Looking back 30 years, six nominees, and three wins recognizing the actor’s actor as a chameleon off sorts. For this actor, himself is his other selves. 

Other actors can claim method, so Daniel Day-Lewis is not alone atop his triumphant mountaintop. The most decorated actor of all is Katherine Hepburn with four, followed by Meryl Streep, Ingrid Bergman, Jack Nicholson, and Walter Brennan. With a fifty-percent win rate, Day-Lewis isn’t even the most efficient—Brennan did it with a 3-out-of-4 career (though all nominations were for Best Supporting Actor, amazing in its own right, but not dominant like an Actor award). All of these actors, and the dozens of others with multiple nominations are tremendous at becoming someone else for art, and for money. So why do we talk about Day-Lewis in a separate breath? The conscious conversation steers this way. The first hypothesis is his gender; for worse, the Actor award is deemed more prestigious in the narrative. In 50 years, assuming the awards last that long, the conversation will drift away from this narrative. It is unfortunate, but true, that many of the stories told so far have been about men, whose funding sources are men, who have decided that these are the stories worth telling. Continue reading

[1973] American Graffiti

Nostalgia is a hell of a marketing technique. It, as a concept, can be sufficiently disaggregated so that each person’s experience is both universal and personal. Lots of new media relies on the unreachable past. There exists, as I’ve written about before, a term called sonder, which means nostalgia for a time not one’s own. Midnight in Paris captures this feeling to the letter, and commodifies it so that its message can be bought and sold by the very people it aims to placate with dreams of subservience to the artistes de La Belle Époque. Nostalgia is also overwhelming. Instead of inspiration, nostalgic media inspires selective memory, further confusing past narratives. Drowning in nostalgia is akin to a drug-induced coma. Here’s the trick for those who insist on capitalizing on it: rinse and repeat. People will become nostalgic of their own nostalgia.

That’s where, in 1973, George Lucas sold middle-aged Boomers on a “better” time, some ten years earlier, before fake war and realpolitik took generations of Americans to dirt futures. The concept is bizarre, because presumably these very Boomers lived this era, perhaps not as wantonly as the four underdeveloped kids, but they very much existed and had formed their own memories of 1962. Remember, 1962 was the apex year of postwar prosperity for an average American kid. The question for Lucas and his producer, somehow Francis Ford Coppola, is not what they should write the movie about, it’s who is this movie for, exactly? Was it a dopamine insult for Americans who couldn’t stand having family and friends napalming Cambodians and systematically picked off near Hanoi? Was a movie going to suddenly placate the hippies? The answer, in short, is totally, absolutely, and exactly. Here’s a mind-blowing number: in 2019 dollars American Graffiti would have made $800 million on a budget of just over $4 million. This movie made an overwhelming amount of money selling a truly empty version of American Life. Continue reading

[2014] Whiplash

Power can be a frightening subject, but it can also be used to explain away the end of things. Partnerships, whether thrust upon or voluntary, are continuous, minor exchanges of power throughout. When a sovereign directs his subjects to do the bidding of the Crown, the King is exploiting his uninundated power upon ultimately powerless people. When democratic processes mask power, through funnymoney campaigns, who wins? Power can always be recast as a struggle among constituencies; always in motion, teetering atop a spinning point. At some point, every aspect breaks, in order, without notices. Nothing knows existence anymore.

Whiplash is about a power dynamic between two less-than-stellar characters; it is because the audience is watching two antiheros duke out unrepented angst for two hours across many movie months. Neither player has an emotional majority, and in seeps excess power. In blazing boorishness, JK Simmons, seething with disappointment in everything plays Terence Fletcher, a jazz instructor of undetermined but presumably stellar qualifications. In crippling consternation, Miles Teller, slithering with ego and id, plays Andrew Neiman, a drummer of self-sabotage, bad luck, and unquestionable talent. The tale unfolds as typical power dynamic drama often do: one man sees the collective success of a team as his own creation and success. The other man is scratching the walls raw for approval from the gatekeeper to his success, at the behest of everything else. Audiences will inevitably attempt to piece together why this is the case through context clues (plenty) and clever story by outline omission (lots). Director Damien Chazelle masterfully shows and not tells his take on anxiety, adrenaline, and authority.

Power is not tradeable and there is no such thing as “equal power” because there is always a time dilation. The opening few scenes in Whiplash are blurry because no dynamics have yet been established, which serves this story and mood. Fletcher is a menacing presence, the audience can tell; he looms in the background, but then he tosses—no hurls—a chair at Andrew when he cannot immediately tell whether he is anchoring the piece a little fast or a little slow. Where the power play manifests is in the idea that it doesn’t matter if Andrew was playing fast or slow; it was that he was playing at all relied on the whim of a monolith determined on extracting genius FOR THE GREATER GOOD, whose good was neither great nor greater. At every step, to be particularly honest about dissecting the motivating factors for each player, we’d have to ask “for whom”? And we’d be wrong. 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

[1932/1933] Cavalcade

A type of visceral film exists that is aware of its own structure. Cavalcade is one of them, it might be the first one, and it won Best Picture at the 3rd Academy Awards. The voters probably noticed it and wished to confer upon it a nod of appreciation for a book like handling of a character driven slice-of-life drama. It isn’t even an odd choice, considering talking film was still forming as a process, that a film that took advantage of large sets and big, blocky characters would win an honor that meant, probably, technical achievement in filmmaking as much as it did representation of the human experience. Curiously, on its face, Cavalcade is not particularly interesting: a well-to-do English family faces minor inconveniences among a host of relative stability; their staff, seemingly content but hungry to join an upper echelon, is a normal view on the human experience from a Depression vantage point. It probably projects a more modern experience onto a proto-Victorian, fin de siècle experience than was likely. This movie approaches class almost apathetically, vacating all pretense when the plot simply moves along among tragedy. This approach flattens the movie and rips from it the ability for a modern audience to appreciate its candor and stiff-upper-lip mentality. Cavalcade is quintessentially British, Depression-era, and pre-code. It is also lightly meta.

Metafilm is a classification not a genre. Any movie can have meta elements. A simple, famous example is this: in The Godfather Clemenza and Rocco finish their work and Clemenza, nonplussed tells Rocco to “Leave the gun – take the cannoli.” Without deconstructing this scene, we can observe metaness from it. Director Francis Ford Coppola and book/screenwriter Mario Puzo wink at the established stereotype of capital I Italians and their obsession with native desserts. They want the audience to know that they, too, are aware of the stereotype. This is meta because it references itself. It expressed through film. What makes Cavalcade somewhat special is that the whole movie is referenced in its title: a “cavalcade” is a formal march, a procession of sorts. In a cavalcade, the company of marchers is undeterred by obstacles; with enough force, seemingly insurmountable obstacles are reduced to rubble. (I suppose this concept is what Werner Herzog was attempting to convey in Fitzcarraldo.)

In Cavalcade, director Frank Lloyd demonstrates his understanding of this concept by pitting his aristocratic family against abstract concepts, like love, death, tragedy, and war and following them through the muck, deterred and fazed, but dutiful to the most abstract concept, time. Thirty-four years pass from New Years’ 1899 to New Years 1933 and our family, wealthy but sympathetic, has grieved in great loss of their two sons. The legacy is confirmed by time but time waits for no sorrow like the present. Here this family sits, 34 years after Father Gilbert ships off to South Africa to fight a spectre of an enemy, and Sons Sullivan fights against Titanic’s Iceberg and against global inertia in the Great War. There is a great sense of duty among the Marryots. This movie is well-set-up to predict that the next Great Conflict will end them, heads held high. Only at their end, and with reflection, and balanced on the pinpoint precipice of World War II, does the meta-ness start to show, and with it memorable brilliance.  Continue reading

[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