[1965] The Sound of Music I

As part of the Conversation Series, I’ll be speaking with certain contributors about certain movies at certain times. 

Zach Schonfeld is a “writer” living in “Manhattan.” He is currently a reporter for Newsweek Magazine and studied English and American Studies at Wesleyan University, for which we’re all very proud.

We spoke at length about 1965’s Best Picture winner, The Sound of Music.

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Sam Sklar: Let’s first start with overall impressions and thoughts about the movie.

Zach Schonfeld: Well, I’d seen the play before but I’d never actually seen the film before. And it was very whimsical I thought; it was very family friendly. It is interesting that movies like that were pretty frequently nominated for Oscars in the ’60s. And now musicals don’t win best picture anymore.

S: The last one was Chicago [in 2002]

Z: I mean, La La Land, came close…but today, movies that are so whimsical are seen as being un-serious by critics, but that wasn’t the case back then, which I find interesting. There’s an historic element to the film, too. It captures a specific era of history, which would be the Nazi era. But it translates it for family-friendly audiences.

S: It sanitizes it a little bit, where the Nazis were just your typical adversarial element rather than a world-changing evil, in a way.

Z: Yea, it didn’t really contend with the reality of Nazis, but you can’t really expect it to do that. The music – not my thing, as I don’t really listen to show tunes, but it’s obviously endured incredibly. It’s hard to think of another musical from that era that has endured.

S: The only on I can think of “My Fair Lady”.

Z: Yea, I mean. Even that hasn’t been quite as ubiquitous. Maybe West Side Story?

S: So what do you think it is about these songs, because you can remember, “Doe, a Deer…” and obviously you’ve got “My Favorite Things” (wait is that that song, yes that’s that song). Then there’s, “How do you deal with a problem like Maria” songs that are very nostalgic.

For me, I first saw this as a kid with my dad [probably around 1996], and I liked it because it was basically made for kids. I enjoyed more now [in 2018] as a piece of nostalgic media rather than a “great movie,” but the story’s pretty solid. I don’t know what classifies it as a “timeless, great film.” Continue reading “[1965] The Sound of Music I”

[1962] Lawrence of Arabia

lawrence_of_arabia_ver3_xxlgOur ability to pay attention to paragraphs of rich, dense information has dwindled, slowly leaning off the informed cliff. It is impossible to blame any conspicuous actor in this process: access to any information instantaneously is the natural progression of the Internet, from airwave colonization through the eventual heat death of Twitter. Because anyone outside the least-developed places on Earth can tell you the summary of the day’s news without effort, our brains (probably) have rewired to expect this. The natural satisfaction of factual correctness, for those who value the deluge of thought, is almost too much to overcome in favor of nuance, explicit rejection of certain narratives, and longform journalism.

This phenomenon expands to visual media, too.

Television programs are made shorter, snappier, and available all at once. With Vine recoiled, Youtube is a haven for enterprising bloggers to capitalize on short, hot takes on the latest whimsy. There is no reason to be angry at this: people do not really read books anymore, if they did in the first place, in favor of secondary sources and opinion. And the era of the epic film has collapsed into, reflexively the 100-minute caper; if a director cannot tell her story in that time, it needs editing, the critic will say. The critic may be correct. But where does that leave complicated character studies, and films about multi-faceted war, and room to explore gorgeous cinematography?

TE Lawrence is a product of fortunate experience and a human’s capacity to conduct multiple threads of action at once. It is, and continues to be impossible, to simplify the man to a thread of existence. The film’s title – “Lawrence of Arabia” – would have an audience assume the man himself Arab. But Sir Thomas Edward Lawrence was a soldier in the British forces and simultaneously a bold ally to the plight of quasi-warring Arabian tribes and a thorn in the side of an intra-colonial British Empire, feigning Arabian prosperity as the only spoil of war required for proper victory. In retrospect, as is always the case, the inputs and outcomes are more complicated, more nuanced, and characters more wobbly than can be explored in 100 minutes. Lawrence of Arabia needs room to breathe. Its cinematography, narrative arcs, and character development ensure that the 200 minutes do not slink by in vain.

Continue reading “[1962] Lawrence of Arabia”

[2016] Hacksaw Ridge

hacksaw_ridge_posterHacksaw Ridge is about two things: religion (specifically, Christianity) and violence. It is not, for better or worse, about religious violence. Director Mel Gibson had spent the better part of the last twenty years pontificating about Jesus, his own come-to-Jesus-cum-anti-Judaism, so if this movie was to be about dying on That Hill, it was to be taken as an on-brand, but ultimately eye-rolling joke. Even worse, it was to be a joke about the life of a man whose bravery, religion, and selflessness in wartime saved dozens of lives and helped to propel the American victory in the Eastern Theatre.

Violence and religion, like everything else, deserve a healthy dose of comedy, but the evanescent tonal balance, critical for all directors, but more so for microscope attractor Gibson was critical. And if the film is going to be shockingly violent (see: Saving Private Ryan) it had better be compelling to watch. If the gore is overwhelming, it had better be accurate and respected. If the film is going to be a plus-one for religion as a pursuit, it had better be humanistic. Gibson strikes this balance well and also makes a compelling case for personal devotion to a Christian God without telling the audience that this is the only path. Continue reading “[2016] Hacksaw Ridge”

[1951] A Streetcar Named Desire

220px-a_streetcar_named_desire_28195129The tiniest of innocuous details, ones that pass by without notice are the crema of legends. Neither are all-time events and figures borne from a single gigantic event; nor more likely is a mythologized film shot in a single take. Every event you’ve heard about has a history in the small, snowballing events that lead up to it. Most films are lucky to have been made but for a perceived slight toward the executive production team. A single turn – not casting Marlon Brando in the lead as Stanley Kowalski – might have doomed A Streetcar Named Desire to an important, but ultimately indexed footnote to film history. As is the case, however, it is monumentally important.

What makes A Streetcar Named Desire odd, right away, is that the streetcar in question, yes named “Desire,” bears almost no weight on what this film tackles. It is a small, innocuous detail, whose point, if there is one, is to usher in the story medias res. The Kowalskis have a life of tumult, so as playwright Tennessee Williams does so featherlike, he drops in a complete mess of a personality via a perfectly normal streetcar. The detail (the name of the car), while tiny, is not extemporaneous or thoughtless. It is a clever and worthwhile misdirection. Blanche is an imbalance, waiting without delay along a fixed path toward disaster. We know this almost immediately and we wait without delay, along a fixed path, to see how this disaster unfolded. It is manifest in American, human experience and we watch this movie to chase the fixed path, deeply arcing toward disaster. Are we meant to look inward? Do we…desire it?

Tennessee Williams was a master playwright. Not only did he understand the confines of stage space and a reasonable parallel to action, he understood, somehow, the capacity of humans to deal with a rotten tomato tossed haphazardly. Sometimes it hits an actor in the face, and she has to wipe it off and keep performing; sometimes it misses completely and shatters the papier-mâché stage behind him; sometimes it doesn’t matter at all. A the cherry bomb is metaphor without being overwrought. How Williams was able to understand the intricacies of the human experience, process them, eulogize them, and repackage them as a confined statement, bold and indirect, is astonishing. This play was built for the screen, too, in an era of limited budgets and a restless postwar America.

Continue reading “[1951] A Streetcar Named Desire”

[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”

[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”