[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”

[1987] Fatal Attraction

fatal_attraction_posterAlternatively, Fatal Attraction ended with Dan in jail. This ending, however, did not fuse climax and catharsis well enough, did not test well enough with audiences, and did not demonstrate a logic consistent with its smart world building. So the director rewrote, refilmed, and recut a version of Fatal Attraction that ended with everything in its right place: unwell Alex dead and philandering Dan without consequence. It didn’t even seem like he grew from his near miss. The blame, alternatively, has been cast onto Alex, poor, crazy Alex as the holder of bad fortune and loser of minds. Contemporary Dan is the embodiment of clueless, white, male privilege.

Well enough, Alex Forrest as a character has gotten a fair share of criticism and a few dozen thinkpieces denouncing her trope as anti-woman, anti-feminist, and wholly modernist. Unable to cope with — something — Alex descends from a career-minded single woman into total hysterical madness; over a weekend fling? When peeled back, alternatively, this characterization doesn’t hold up to immediate scrutiny. While thrilling, this type of surface-level character making, is as deep as she is manic. It means that Fatal Attraction is an expensive thrill with a character assassination at the expense of the white, male viewers whose “marriages were saved after watching this movie!” as if any of these hysterical men had any sort of gumption in the first place.

No, it means this: Fatal Attraction‘s writers trapped their perception of a woman scorned and broken bad into Alex, with every other character playing coy. That word, hysterical, is loaded with etymology related to the uterus and is taken to mean “at the whim of an emotional female,” or, anti-logical, because for millennia or more, female meant baby-bearing, illogical, subservient being. Alternatively, it means that watching Fatal Attraction thirty years later leaves a puzzling reconstruction of what it means to eschew a discussion of mental health. Alex originally kills herself, but in the theatrical cut, Dan’s wife Beth, somehow not hysterical, helps Alex kill herself. Continue reading “[1987] Fatal Attraction”

[1941] Sergeant York

sergeant-york-belgian-movie-posterHyperreal violence plays a role in postmodern American culture. It continues to be the defining moment in each day chronicled and it is glorified in stone in film and television. Fast, clear, and present danger is always under the next shag rug; the grass will kill you; and we better be ready for the imminent, always imminent, rise of the autonomy of things. First our cars will drive us, and then they will drive us off a cliff.

But ocean red, the hue that resonates the blood-shot reflection of a dead solider, will always be the cornerstone of American fascination with War. The Patriotic film demonstrates the hellish torment of battle, with corporeal guts and bones the ultimate sacrifice. This message is simple and meaningful and, when overdone, can be visually stunning and worthwhile as a statement, or just a way for a production studio to run the world a little dryer of #ff0000. But before color ubiquity in media, directors needed to dig a little deeper to represent the horrifics of war and death. Before it becomes unfashionable, the ultimate sacrifice is and was for of Our Lord the Christian God. Gary Cooper as Alvin York, in the titular Sergeant York, answers the call to demonstrate the harsh brutality of what it means to die in the arms of the ethereal. Continue reading “[1941] Sergeant York”

[2012] Zero Dark Thirty

zerodarkthirty2012posterHumans have found a way, compressed to virtual 1s and 0s, to make the world “flat.” That obstacles like time and space once prevented information from traveling from New York to New Jersey the long way round seems, now, and soon to our children’s children, ancient. That every human doesn’t have access to his virtual, visceral surroundings is a tragedy, to some, though the very ones that can’t know where the nearest coffee shop is have no access to the raw good two hectares away. In a way, we’ve never been further apart.

Add in narrators, who explain the event all (some) (very few) of us are seeing along with them, in misleading detail. They don’t mean to mislead, of course, but can’t help focusing an event, that for all intents and purposes, is happening through their own personal experience, the experience and profit/information motive of their employer, and the legal directive from anywhere else. Rip these bits up, reassemble them, and remove much of the original source, and you have a sheeny Zero Dark Thirty.

There is no doubt that this film was crafted by an auteur at the height of her craft. Director Kathryn Bigelow knows how to make a film with vision, with gumption, and with bite. Her films are visceral and award-worthy: The Hurt Locker won Best Picture just four years before this craft; it was made without the future history of bin Laden’s postmature death, which would happen, according to all available, corroborated evidence, two years later, at a fortified complex in Abbottabad, Pakistan. This is a movie whose premise is so highly contested that it would require wireframing from steel nerves to pass it off as anything more than: before there was bin Laden, and after there wasn’t. But the audience cares about CIA analyst Maya and they care about the piecing together of this narrative, true or not. It cares more about the narrator, unreliable almost by definition, than it does the facts. Zero Dark Thirty is a promise fulfilled to an audience that asked nothing in return. Continue reading “[2012] Zero Dark Thirty”