[1929/30] All Quiet On The Western Front

It’s hard to name Western propagandists whose message advocated for war. During times just after intensive global strife, particularly war, lots of the filmmakers sought to describe the horror of war and its lasting effects on the people war devours. Even when one side defeats an enemy, lots of the film made after World War II and Vietnam chose to downplay the idea of victory. The message gleams clear from the genre–there are no winners in war, but losers and broken men.

There’s no indifference in war. Even Leni Riefenstahl, a German woman fascinated and adored by Nazis, but never officially charged as a Nazi, never made “pro-war” films. Ostensibly, she made movies with titles like Der Sieg des Glaubens (“The Victory of Faith”), and her twin masterclasses, Triumph des Willens (The Triumph of the Will) and Olympia (documenting the 1936 Munich Olympics). Close readers know there’s a deeper story to her work, to sow discord for one group and glory for another. This in and of itself isn’t problematic. In fact, most chronicles of war take a stance on an output–death toll–or outcome–a changed national jingoism. Even the documentaries, supposedly full of fact and nothing else, are also full of tone and timbre. There’s no such thing as objectivity. You know how you know? Ask five people to define what the word “objective” means.

This take is not defending Leni Riefenstahl, the propaganda she and her, er, cronies produced, or any of the outputs or actions of war. It is worth noting, however that German propaganda seemed especially fiery and pugnacious, especially between the two world wars, inclusive. The spewed lots of pro-might campaigns, ruthlessness toward apologists, and calls to arms to preemptively position the Fatherland toward a position of power. Odd then the timing of All Quiet on the Western Front, a perfectly placed propaganda picture released as Wiemar was on its last legs. It delivered a clear message and implied a warning to the next decade: war is not glory; war is not might; war is death; and war is fright. Continue reading

[1972] Cries and Whispers

There’s enough copy out there about how Ingmar Bergman drenched his feature, Cries and Whispers in red (röd). He chose red (especially after the majority of his earlier work was monochrome) for its striking visuals, color theory, and connection to Swedish history. If nothing else, in Sweden a specific red, Falu Rödfärg, colors a significant number of buildings, especially in the countryside. Red, across cultures, symbolizes passion, lust, desire, etc. It’s also the least visible of the color spectrum, so I’ll offer that Bergman chose to oversaturate the film with it to stand it out. It’s the first thing you’ll notice about this movie.

That’s really all there is to say about the color red and Cries and Whispers. There’s lots of scholarship about it. That’s enough.

The not-so-secret fact about the Oscars is their Americanness: of the 566 films to ever have been nominated, 12 have been filmed in a language other than English. This isn’t surprising–the Academy voters are mostly native English speakers, American audiences overwhelmingly see movies performed in English, and despite the premise that the Oscar winner should best represent the gestalt of the year, what we really mean is the zeitgeist of American culture. The road to global reach is unpaved, likely, but we’d like to think that language is the one phenomenon we can overcome; there are subtitles.

But alas, Cries and Whispers was the last Swedish movie to earn an Oscar nomination for Best Picture (but not first! The Emigrants” was nominated just a year earlier. The Emigrants, however wasn’t wholly Swedish, either. It’s a Swedish-rooted story about America).

Swedish, as a language, is sort of bonkers to decipher, and nagging to the native English speaker because of its Germanic roots and bouncy gait. Its structure, like any language spoken by millions of people, follows a pattern, and there’s more than a few cognates. But there’s still great distance between Swedish and English, and it’s an effective barrier between the two cultures. Cries and Whispers is incredibly Swedish, incredibly Bergman, but also full of universal tones ahead of their time: the quiet tragedy of women.

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[1940] Rebecca

Since evolved from a romantic horror genre to a more complex emotional battleground, Gothic arts take pleasure in allowing audiences to take part in their characters’ suffering; it’s the defining feature. The Germans have a word for the positive-extreme version: schadenfreude, or taking pleasure in someone else’s pain. It’s a mostly strange oddity of the human condition to relish in this emotion: it’s a private condition that’s always better left hushed. Hitchcock was a master of the Gothic, perhaps none more mesmerizing than Rebecca.

Alfred Hitchcock is known for his archetype defining tropes, many of which involve manipulating an audience to suffer–however slightly–for his own pleasure. Hitchcock’s use of schadenfreude remains classic, if not overlooked.His sound and visual cues were likely the first to signal a psychological trauma incoming (PsychoThe Birds), or the first to use first-person to treat the audience as a a voyeuristic character (Rear Window). But these tropes came from somewhere, and they likely were fully formed for Rebecca. 

Rebecca‘s strongest feature is pacing, which seems to turn on a dime, starting and stuttering, purposefully designed to keep the audience intentionally off-balance. It’s written in such a way — likely in the source material, too — that we’re not supposed to know who to root for or against at any given time. The de Winters, alive oscillate between pitiable and crass. We want this man, Maxim de Winter, to find love again, then he’s a rube, and then he’s a murderer. His second wife, never given a name, is cloyingly Pollyannaish and bright-eyed, until she’s convinced to jump to her death. Rebecca, Maxim’s first wife, is revered, until it’s revealed shes the smarmiest of them lot, conniving as ever. These people are all terrible, and it’s Hitchcock’s pacing that let’s his audience figure this out on our own, without need to tell. Hitchcock was a master of show.

But Mrs. Danvers is the most Gothic character and sets a stage for Norman Bates in Hitchcock’s Psycho 20 years later. She has an obsession with Rebecca de Winter bordering on violent delusion, and takes offense to Maxim remarrying, soon after Rebecca’s death but likely ever. She relishes misleading Maxim’s second wife into dark corners, stirring trouble. We’re supposed to hate her, and empathize with Danvers’ prey as an object of evil affection. Mrs. Danvers is obviously mentally ill, but 1940s America sees her as evil and crazy. If Hitchcock understood this about his audience, he made a perfect character. If he didn’t, he shot a great character, accidentally.

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{No. 55: Animation} [1993] Beauty and the Beast

The Academy plays favorites. This is not a new fact—almost exclusively winners (and losers) over the past 90 or so years have been dramas or historical fictions. There’s a seriousness or a weightiness to soaring, emotional movies. Making them and watching them feels like work, a work for which the Academy wants to bestow a promise of a reward. We almost never watch a drama for fun; Doubt isn’t a laugh factory or an escape. It demands our attention or we’ve just wasted two hours watching Meryl Streep looking sternly at us.

Science-fiction, action-adventure, comedy are cast into unseriousland as their studios green light another $150 million summertime fun blockbuster. What Scorcese talks about when he talks about cinema vs. cinéma is what the Academy means when it nominates movies about trans folks or historical slave struggles over a superhero movie. The media drama certainly overplayed the audacity of the response to this. Regardless of how we feel about these simple flicks, we know what Scorcese means. Stay in your lane, Captain Whosit.

To say that the Oscars haven’t honored “fun” movies is unfair, though. All three Lord of the Rings movies got a Best Picture nod. Toy Story 3 did, too. Is it unfair? If we search the list of “fun” movies the Academy has thought to advance to the highest canon, Beauty and the Beast comes first. Beauty is an 80 minute kids’ movie. It’s Disney’s thirty-seventh animated feature. It was also nominated for three other Oscars, winning two. What makes this movie more important to the history and exalted vaults of film history. Why not Aladdin the next year, or The Lion King in 1994, arguably a better execution of Disney’s modern anthropomorphic formula?

Animation, almost as old as the medium itself, earns a certain level of disrespect among auteurs serieuses. It’s not real, they’ll say, it’s too far removed from the goings-on of the everyman, the elevated filmgoer with a few extra bucks in her pocket. She doesn’t want to indulge in fantasy, when she might want to see a New Yorker editorial in 48 frames per second. She’s smarter than that; more human. She’s American, and here, cartoons are for kids.

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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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[1975] Barry Lyndon

Three-hour-long movies that feel like half-hour sitcoms are a treasure, and are extremely rare, especially that the style has shifted, almost totally away from this format in recent years. Labor has gotten simultaneously cheaper (software does a lot of the editing grunt work) and more expensive (it takes more specialized experience to run it). Budgets have expanded, and massive returns are expected. The blockbuster has shifted mediums, too, from the physical block, to eventually, the blockchain. Streaming and massive distribution is king and finding an unhappy content churn is the profit-maximizing middle where original thought dies. The three-hour-long movie better damn well have an expanded universe or audiences will continue game out effective bathroom breaks. Three cheers for the return of an intermission.

Attention spans have waned with the increase in media outlets: why would an audience spend minutes – seconds even! – on one platform when the next platform has the next cultural missive ready to go. There will be a time in the early 2020s (check me on this, future readers) when the splintering of services will bundle into packages customers can buy; it will have regressed into neo-cable, with each platform owning exclusive rights to content, removing consumer choice from marketing paradigms. Instead of driving subscriptions, this non-coordinated market abuse will drive a significant portion of people who might buy one or two subscriptions to steal the content. Eventually the funding will run dry and the islands of content will become deserts. Nostalgia will be the only currency in which these fake-monopolies trade. Forget monoculture. Remember protoculture.

The point here is that there is very little room in today’s marketing/content churn environment for a director – let alone Stanley Kubrick – to film a Thackeray satire. This three-hour epic, Barry Lyndon, does read like vignette of half-hour shows, told anthology-like through a narrator we’re supposed to believe is reliable. Barry Lyndon‘s eponymous Redmond Barry is the tragic farce of stale upper crust Thackeray was known to lampoon. His narrative arc is as long as Kubrick’s shots are wide. His character portraits are eloquent, but backloaded. Action is sprinkled among shots that double as paintings. Barry Lyndon requires an attention span and a patience audiences no longer possess en masse. Students of film know and love this film for its technical innovation and its warm, true-to-tone adaptation of Thackeray’s “The Luck of Barry Lyndon.” An everyday audience, the one whose billets-complets fill Disney’s pockets, has no use for this low-budget movie. Even casual Kubrick fans dismiss this as Kubrick’s passion project; it is, and it is impossible to edit down. Continue reading

[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

[1987] Moonstruck

A day is both a discrete event and part of a string of days that hopefully make up a full, expectant life. During, and within, each day seems insignificant and to evaluate requires a perspective unavailable to us until much later: we don’t pre-write memoirs for this reason, and often our elders are wise because of their age and  because of their particular string of days; an existence in 88 keys. To short-circuit the learning-experience curve, maybe bisecting it, we use half-baked heuristics. As example: daily, maybe more often, our brains need to subjugate and dissect our interactions into lists and charts. We process by simplification and we exchange understanding and context for nuance. It might take years to undo or double-down on this type of life and it is almost impressively difficult to do.

Even more often we don’t even read a heuristic in a book or article: it is defined for us on screen and stage. And we accept it as true, even subconsciously, because we want to believe it. This specific bias is called “confirmation bias” and together with our peers we engage in groupthink. Almost every mass movement, good and bad, has been a combination of bias heuristics and groupthink. When we talk about race and creed we almost always rely on heuristics — stereotypes — to frame our interactions. Think of a person of Italian descent; now think of a new person walking into a room who looks Italian. What are the first traits that come to mind? Pasta fazhool? Mafia memes? Catholicism? Moonstruck 1987’s Italian-American melodrama can tell its story because of the biases baked into our collective culture. The jokes and jabs Moonstruck uses are shorthand for exposition. Loretta (played by surprisingly nimble Cher) is unlucky in love; her family is unflinchingly large and tightly woven; her new boyfriend needs to tend to his mamma in Sicily; the Church fosters character development almost as a wink and nod to its audience (because of course the Italian family credits the Church with its success and relies on it for strength through strife). Moonstruck tracks the family through love as heuristic for character development. Continue reading