[1962] To Kill A Mockingbird

There’s a handful of roles made for a single actor. It’s rare that an audience will remember an actor by a single role. It takes a confluence of happenstance–timing being the big one. The right actor in the right circumstance with the right personality and experience meets the right writer who writes for the right projection of self; the plot is timely and impactful and the characterization is meaningful, riddled with emotional cues and the director and supporting cast have the right combination of empathy to allow the role to breathe or constrict, as written.

This is rare. It’s rare to get a handful of these circumstances in the same state, and even more unlikely to have them convalesce on the same set. George C. Scott as General Patton in Patton is one. Daniel Day-Lewis bucks this trend and seemingly rearranges spacetime to force the pieces together as Christy Brown in My Left Foot, William Cutting in Gangs of New York, Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, President Lincoln in Lincoln, and about half a dozen others. One more to add to this list is Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird.

We’ve got to consider context, too. The external factors that audiences have access to were off the radar to audiences in 1962: it was an age of simmering indifference and false innocence. Americans were lulled into great times of growth. Post-war America ushered in a generation of prosperity and security, mildly plagued by simmering tensions in the East. Fathers and brothers who served their country and came home in Europe or Asia were rewarded with access to education, credit and stable jobs. It was never this way for black Americans, though. It wasn’t even a secret.

Harper Lee wrote To Kill a Mockingbird from within an era of piercing  failure of justice. Her words, with the benefit of experience, said the quiet part deceptively loud. Through her characters, tightly constructed, the reader sought idealism and the aforementioned justice for humanity. She defended different and championed compassion for the men and women she made. What American idealism had done for 300 years–dehumanized the black experience–Harper Lee, herself white, tried to tackle over 200 or so pages. For whatever looming threat lurked overseas unbeknownst for generations, the internal war we’d been fighting in America raged, nearly invisible to the naked eye. We’d fought to free the slaves a hundred years ago, but the lives of others remained nominally unaffected. Never forget Emmett Till.

Lee’s book, and Robert Mulligan’s movie, is what gives those who would otherwise ignore civil rights of others standing to fight for them, for all Americans, and especially black Americans.

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[2011] Midnight In Paris

On est ici, toujours à point nommé.

That’s it: you’re here, always, right where you should be. It’s a French idiom that reminds us to stay grounded in the present and it’s not some hard cheese like, “The grass is always greener,” because of course the grass is always greener where you’re not tromping on it like a damn timpani booming out Lux Æterna. It’s a nonsense aphorism. It’s the lesson lots of us learn too late, because what is perspective? I think it’s finally being able to see down the bridge of your nose; when your eye muscles can’t force your vision forward. It’s centering, especially after a lifetime of disillusionment. Our character, Gil Pender, learns this in an earned and completely satisfying way. It’s what makes Midnight in Paris a fantastic movie instead of just a good one.

Here are the factors that allows a character to earn a payoff:

A struggle (external or internal). A master director will let a struggle unfold gracefully or hint at it; the director will use context clues and deft archetypal characterization in tandem to show the audience that there’s a problem that needs to be solved (that it can be solved, too—and that the character can’t just exist with it). In Midnight In Paris, Woody Allen shows us Gil’s challenge to reconcile his desire to love and to be loved with a nagging need for creative freedom. He’s internally conflicted about what to do.

means. The good director, and the excellent acting, will guide the audience to believe—not accept—that this struggle will continue (a very modern take) without some force acting upon it. A droll take could subvert a payoff entirely, which some modernist and absurdist directors have shown us—think Jacques Tati’s M. Hulot in Playtime or almost any Luis Bunuel film from mid-20th masterpieces. But it’s key to ground a means in believability. It can be believably fantastic, where the director asks the audience knowingly to suspend what they (think) they know to be true facts about beings and spacetime. Really, though, there just needs to be the right tools for the job available or gettable.

Often a large chunk of a movie will be assembling means. For Gil, it was a week of fantastical journeys into the past. …..the past within a past is the masterful stroke of this movie — Gil’s journey becomes a proxy for the audience’s; we;re watching him get fed the same lesson he’s been feeding us. Never one to teach instead of poking fun, Woody implores his audience to exist in the present as much as possible and that there’s a Big Human Lesson here.

He needed to learn confidence to act.

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[1979] Breaking Away

The youngest Baby Boomers, poster children of Postwar America, would have been 15 in 1979; the oldest pushing 35. This isn’t new in generation theory—that there’s often as much difference at the margins of generations as there is between them. But they follow cycles on larger scales, on attitudes, and in events that define them. Collective memory draws together generations as they get older. In 1979, a 15 year old and a 35 year old might take a different tack on their Dad, they all remember the impact of Vietnam (it’s always war) on each of their lives.

The oldest Boomers would have been PFCs, new fathers, at the start of the war; the youngest would have seen these fathers come back, shattered. Forty years later Vietnam remains the defining event collective for their generation: those born any later than ‘64 remember ‘Nam as a spectre, a wisp of collective memory that isn’t theirs. That’s Gen-X: tiny by comparison, between major conflict and free of most of any. It’s the Coldest generation, but not the boldest; the world remembers Gen-X as Reagan’s babies, ushering in Millennials with a coup de grâce; an Australian winter; a rejoinder of gentle-going.

Breaking Away was the Boomers’ present to Gen-X: a love letter to life before. Unlike American Graffiti, which was neither funny nor poignant, Breaking Away fills its runtime with what feels like real stakes, humor and meaningful character development. It’s a reminder that humans are delicate beings that deserve meaningful connection; we deserve an antidote to loneliness. Breaking Away expertly bridges the generational divides across age, class, national origin and it tells a fun sports story, too. Though it isn’t really about sport; it never is. Continue reading

[1941] Here Comes Mr. Jordan

Pinpointing where a trope starts is a core concept in film history; tracing the origins of story tells a story itself. For example, think about the first time movie showed a natural disaster on screen. Can you remember which movie showed a tornado? Flood? Huge earthquake? It’s a challenge because this process is multi-dimensional, multi-cultural and aspiring filmmakers dabbled extremely wide and deep in the first few decades of making movies. They grasped onto new technology and technique, they experimented in color and sound design and sought to move the medium forward, whether consciously or not. The very fact of making a movie in the 1930s and 1940s changed the game for every other filmmaker.

(Here’s a quick side note: because of how slowly information moved pre-Internet, multiple studios and directors created new all at once, often separately, often across the world. But here’s a fun thought experiment: two studios could have worked on the same idea across Tinseltown, and both could have made huge strides simultaneously. The industry-wide gains may have been realized, and later interacted with each other months or years later. The collective derivation swelled the world with so many new ideas for a long time.)

Deep in the morass of the early 1940s there’s hundreds of films buried, but for the Academy Awards. The landmark year 1939 (The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) bookends 1944, when the Academy shed its all-for-one mentality. For the next 64 years, only five of the best films would earn a Best Picture nomination. Where 1939 introduced Technicolor, 1940 didn’t introduce a thing. There’s absolutely talented, famous works here: The Great Dictator, The Philadelphia Story, winner, Rebecca, but this time in history is muddy, and Here Comes Mr. Jordan often gets, well, lost.

Like we’ve talked about, Here Comes Mr. Jordan is the spiritual successor to the guardian angel trope (even Heaven Can Wait, two years later. It’s modern flagpole is popularized by Christmas favorite, It’s a Wonderful Life (which definitely contributes to it’s lasting popularity.) What if you’d never been born? What if you die too early? Would everyone be better off? The trope is old news now; it’s fossilized. The answer is always “everyone’s worse off, because your individual life touches so many others.” It’s not an interesting premise, so why do studios keep making these movies? Likely, because it’s tried and true, and it’s a Universal Human Theme, of which there are only so many. Perhaps in the 2020s we’ll see more of this, but for members of marginalized groups–LGBTQ+, perhaps, or women and men of color.

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[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

[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