[1942] The Pride of the Yankees

The Pride of the Yankees paints Lou Gehrig as the wholesome king of Yankee baseball in an era when Yankee baseball was king in the world of sport and the world of culture. In many respects, he was, if the movie is at least somewhat true. Self-aware and humble to a fault, a man whose mother was his “best girl” even when he married a woman of equal tenacity and warmth, Gehrig prescribed wholesomeness to the masses in a sport dubbed and continually rebranded as America’s pastime. The Pride, capital P, was not of his own accomplishment but to his team, and to his country by proxy. Whether any of the story is absolutely true is irrelevant: there has been a Mr. October and a Mr. November on the New York Yankees in the 75 years since Gehrig died, but The Pride of the Yankees paints Lou Gehrig as Mr. Forever.

This film was so profoundly moving for at least three reasons. The closeness of its creation to Lou Gehrig’s death, the striking accuracy with which Gary Cooper portrayed a man he may or may not have ever met, and the microscopic detail paid to a single man, when the film could have been about the whole team, a completely different team, or a different player all together, and it still would not have been about baseball. But it always was.

The hagiographic nature of this film paints Gehrig as at least saintly and at mostly godlike. Sincere in that level of reverence, The Pride of the Yankees idolizes Number Four as this man who can do no wrong and in his death the man who will perpetually do right. The world, at least as far as American sport reached, still reeled from his passing too soon from a degenerative disease that bears his name. Biographies just do not happen that close to passing. There is not enough time to memorialize and remember what there is to know about a person before the edit is due to the publisher or studio. Details continue to unfold about Gehrig’s life and will continue forever as long as a record of his life, as he lived it, exists. But this extracts a question with no answer: when is too early to remember someone? Are biographies awkward and unnecessary while the person is still alive? Can an unauthorized biography hold any credence, ever? Sometimes the reader just wants to learn about a character that exists or existed at one time. Is this wrong, or more specifically, authentic? Continue reading “[1942] The Pride of the Yankees”

[1931/32] The Smiling Lieutenant

Humor is incredibly challenging to sustain. In the short-term – film-length, say, jokes have to consistently strike a thin nerve and not stray too far away from the central themes or character motivations. A misplaced quip, or a joke that moves the plot off its close course, can derail an entire film. The audience rarely sees these errors because script and screen editors at the highest professional levels catch them and trash them almost as quickly as they are written.

In the medium-term – Oscar-season, perhaps, humor rarely makes buzz. Much humor is anti-erudite, and juvenile, such that taps into the audience’s deepest desires to identify with things they once found humorous; other humor is dry and satirical and the writing and acting work tirelessly to inform their audience of the hyper-specific culture referenced; still other humor does not parade as comedy and is unintentionally funny because either the story is intentionally poorly conceived, or the acting is laughably sincere or insincere, or often a heaping of both. None of these methods sustain the Academy’s wish to best represent the year in culture; gestalt. Worst case: nothing in the year struck a nerve as particularly humorous or even slightly funny. Modern times call for advanced emotions: fear, hatred, sadness, austerity.

In the long-term – the history of film, for instance, humor falls almost unconditionally flat as tastes are elliptical, and follow a long arc around a contemporary locus. Then, after some time, the basis for the humor no long exists as a strain in human consciousness, through no one’s fault. Tastes change. But, in the rare instance a film can track humor as part of a larger, more serious narrative, it sticks, and exists outside the general theory of relativity. Consider Chocolat. This film is a serious take on historical racism and family dynamics, but it does so through the lens of a loose, and well-intentioned, albeit funny, vagrant. Chocolat, was also one of a handful of films with even slightly humorous undertones nominated, since 2000. Some films, like Chocolat, use humor to their advantage, but are not comedy films, by the reasoning that the larger social and historical implications outweigh jokes. But a curious film from the 5th Academy Awards (1931/32) called The Smiling Lieutenant, seems to have broken all the rules on route to obscurity. Continue reading “[1931/32] The Smiling Lieutenant”

[1968.4] The Lion In Winter

I will be watching all 5 nominees from 1968 before I move on to the next year. The goal here is to watch them and have an internal discussion among them to try to piece together a “history” of the year. Let’s get to it. 

51fbqfvec2lIt is utterly impossible to predict chemistry in film. The chaos of combination can drive filmmakers mad piecing together disparate parts – acting, writing, directing, promoting, etc. – into cohesive art. Sometimes a casting director has instructions from her writers to land a specific actor for a role; the role, in fact, was written for this particular person. Other times, the team must interpret intent and cast to the best of its ability. The order with which the team comes together (and breaks) is fluid and unpredictable; the same team, had it been assembled in a different logistic, would function as a totally different unit, as levels of seniority and a shifting power dynamic supersede the film’s goal – to be made. The more complex the team, the more brittle it is, and the more susceptible it is to external forces (mostly money).

What is more remarkable than a film that captures zeitgeist, is one that is made at all. No obvious evidence exists that the filmmakers had trouble putting The Lion In Winter together. In fact the chemistry seems primordial of sorts, as if the pieces just fit prim and proper. The subject matter – a slippery tale of deception and inertia in 12th century terms – provides no clues necessarily, either. In a way, The Lion In Winter shows three generations of the human condition spread across millennia and geometrically accelerating across time: we, as a species have changed only in the clothes we wear and the war we wreak. The struggle for acceptance and ascendance has not changed from AD 1183 through to 1968 to a modern viewing. The Lion In Winter‘s team caught a lucky break, matching marvelous dialogue with sublime acting. The actors seemingly slowed humanity for a blip to reflect on its role as a defender of chaos.  Continue reading “[1968.4] The Lion In Winter”

[1968.2] Funny Girl

I will be watching all 5 nominees from 1968 before I move on to the next year. The goal here is to watch them and have an internal discussion among them to try to piece together a “history” of the year. Let’s get to it. 

funnygirlposterFunnily enough, Funny Girl earned neither a Best Original Screenplay nor a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination, even though it had been produced as an acclaimed stage production – which itself had been adapted from a book. Clearly, the work was not an “original” screenplay, but still removed far enough from Fanny Brice’s actual life  (three degrees) so as to offer dramatic license to transform story into narrative. Funny Girl provides a glimpse into the unknown world of a girl, truly funny, but with levels of processing, Brice’s story resembles a game of “telephone,” where star Barbra Streisand steps into the role of a woman she never met, based on a series of adaptations (and maybe conversations/sessions) and script directions. After this many deviations from the original, who can say if Streisand is not simply playing a caricature of herself? Perhaps the performance demonstrated an excellent reading of the script and  – with Streisand’s jovial and emotional representation – offered a meta-wink-and-nod to industry elite and sentimentalists. Streisand, in her magnum opus, is quite funny, and identifies as a girl but it becomes increasingly difficult to parse meaning from the concatenation.  Continue reading “[1968.2] Funny Girl”

[1968.1] Rachel, Rachel

I will be watching all 5 nominees from 1968 before I move on to the next year. The goal here is to watch them and have an internal discussion among them to try to piece together a “history” of the year. Let’s get to it. 

83aThe human eye, for its awesome complexity, is imperfect. An average human can distinguish among 10 million colors to varying levels of intensity. Trichromacy is a distinguishing factor among primates from other mammalian species and is responsible for evoking (occasionally vivid) emotional responses. Artists and filmmakers decide that crisp and clear color might symbolize a specific emotion or mood; to that effect, an artist with a different objective might elect to dull a palate of colors enough to push a different set of feelings. A filmmaker’s choice can only really reflect intent, however, as each human, just as she has different eyes also sees things through a unique perspective. Sometimes the human eye, it its awesome complexity, cannot interpret crispness as imperfection causes the physiology to distort.

To examine the history of film is to undertake an impossibly knotty task. Separate, and often collinear threads, like technology’s insatiable progress and public opinion’s often disheartening demagoguery, or a deepening mistrust of authoritarian figures and a shift in music tastes, that have little to do with one another often superimpose one another, intentional or not. The eye, as propagator of one of humans’ most treacherous senses, cannot piece cognitive dissonance together: against evidence to the contrary, what it sees it believes, even at the behest of the other senses; the eye is the human’s most slanderous sense. 1968’s Rachel, Rachel remains honest with intent, but blurry in obscurity. Released during a time of global tribulation, its soft reflection on human suffering seems trivial – but, once again, the human eye deceives.  Continue reading “[1968.1] Rachel, Rachel”

[1929/30] The Divorcee

220px-the_divorcee_posterThomas Piketty, in his seminal book on modern economic theory, Capital in the 21st Century, makes several offhand references to literature, and specifically that of Honoré de Balzac. Piketty notes that since early Western governments, fickle and fragile, kept slipshod records for economic data, a reliable source would be theoretical banking accounts for fictional characters; the intent was to demonstrate certain patterns of investment and commercial practice common to the time, proxy for hard, verifiable data. Piketty’s review, defense of, and argument for Balzac’s France as evidence for certain thematic-banking practices is convincing if not scientifically sound. With bygone generations lost to the annals of history, anecdote trumps nothing whatsoever. Though closer to contemporary, 1929/30’s The Divorcee allows a brief glimpse into the psyche and tremulous nature of relationships as they once were.

The idea of divorce, conceptually, as passé offers insight into high society perhaps unavailable otherwise. Typical, Christian wedding vows come with something resembling “’til death do us part,” and in order for a priest to ordain a couple married, they both must agree to this. Marriage does not offer an opt-out clause, but divorce exists anyway. High society folks, according to this film, seem to slip in and out of marriage as an activity occasionally worth doing. The characters involved in phony love triangles just make decisions, almost irrespective to their feelings, as the point of marriage – the point – is to extend The Beautiful to The Damned, and extend a life of leisure without purpose to the next pit stop. Divorce, then, is not a response to a damning relationship; it is a next stop for wealth malaise and boredom, as Balzac, too, describes via literary realism in his works. Piketty recognizes this realism as does The Divorcee’s director, Robert Z. Leonard. Even though none of today’s audience lived in 18th-century France or through the Great Depression, this film’s striking take on the unexplored impacts of meaningless decisions, like marriage and divorce, among the wealthy, and note that even though the husbands or wives might make haphazard choices in love or lust, their impacts can cause similar social rifts to those current audiences explore. Except today’s audiences have access to anything at the click of a mouse. Continue reading “[1929/30] The Divorcee”

{Second Take} [1944] Gaslight

The horrors of World War II upended Western civilization. War ravaged nations. Governments attacked their own citizens. Neighbors lost trust in one another. Between secret police and state propaganda, the fighting extended from the battlefield to the town square as control of speech and thought intersected with the war effort. While vilifying enemies is a normal aspect of war, the citizenry also turned on itself: Germans and French aiding in their neighbors’ deportations to concentration camps, the internment of Japanese-Americans, and the similar British internment of German and Austrian citizens represent the heights of public paranoia and scapegoating.

The uneasy atmosphere unavoidably influenced the popular culture of the time. Some of it was overt, like anti-Japanese and -German hysteria in early Bugs Bunny cartoons or dystopian fiction such as George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, while other works borrowed only the general feelings of fear and paranoia, like George Cukor’s film Gaslight from 1944. Cukor’s movie is adapted from a 1938 British play by Patrick Hamilton and preceded by a British film adaptation from 1940. Hamilton’s play and the British film, directed by Thorold Dickinson, were titled “Angel Street” when they originally reached American shores. Getting these details right matters, because this story is about memory and perception.

Today’s audiences may have heard the term “gaslighting” before (particularly in this fractious political season of unrepentant Trumpian falsehoods), and may rest assured that this is from where the phrase is derived. When Gregory nearly drove his young wife Paula to insanity by isolating her and manipulating her environment, he perpetrated an unforgettable trauma in the memory of film and culture. Indeed, he was going beyond the call of his contemporaries to police thought, and taking it one step further by performing what may be film’s first psychological inception (sorry, Chris Nolan).

One wonders if anyone at MGM had seen or read the story their production company purchased. If they had, and possessed any sense of irony, perhaps they would have reconsidered their demand to destroy all copies as well as the negative of Dickinson’s film. In true Orwellian fashion, MGM attempted to control the present by eliminating the past: down the memory hole with the 1940 movie. May no one ever compare the two films, nor even remember the original! MGM wanted to treat the moviegoing public like Paula, restricting its access to the world, lying to its face, and forcing it to doubt its own powers of recollection. Later, MGM would again attempt to manipulate the public’s perception of its environment by suing Jack Benny for parodying Gaslight on a 1959 episode of his TV program. Continue reading “{Second Take} [1944] Gaslight”