[1934] Viva Villa!

1024px-viva_villa_posterWe learned from JFK and especially from Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line that there exists a small margin where a film is documentary and a where the same movie is a work of fiction. Obviously, a movie is a work of fiction if it is demonstrably or explicitly false: the author of the script made up a story, likely based on his experience or close cousins thereof, and this story receives a visual interpretation. There also exists movies more truth than fiction, whose story spine errs heavily in favor of honest, actual events, whose false parts are either included for narrative’s sake or to intentionally confound an audience. Some genres require more (horror/suspense), and others, less (period piece).

A film is either true, or as true as possible, or false with elements of truth, even if the truth is capital-T truth. All media needs some sort of relatable element, even a sliver of something to grasp. Otherwise, perhaps on purpose, the film will be nonsense incarnate and unwatchable. We can be sure, though, that no film is one-hundred-percent truth, even if it bills itself as documentary. Even primary sources, firsthand accounts of events that for certain happened, have fallibility: the human memory is imperfect.  Continue reading “[1934] Viva Villa!”

[1976] Taxi Driver

taxi_driver_movieposterWe cannot ever be certain how many people live in a place. Article I, Section 2 of the US Constitution mandates that the Union count it citizens every so often, as to get an accurate number of Representatives from the individual states to Congress. In the 228 years since the first decennial census, the Census Bureau, now housed in the Department of Commerce, has conducted 22 of these surveys – each one attempting to coalesce on the actual number of people who live in a place, and certain characteristics about them. The hope, we hope, is to strive for a count of people close to the actual number of people; these two numbers have (probably) been close for some time. The decennial census direct order to the governing institutions from the United States’ governing documents.

It is still voluntary.

People, (probably) in the low-millions range, fall through the thin comb but these people still drive cars or take buses on roads provided to everyone, breathe clean air regulated by strict pollution laws, and reasonably expect clean water to be delivered to their homes, and dirty water taken away. No representative exists to hear their voices because their voices, statistically speaking, don’t exist.

Expanding this logic, thousands, if not more, Travis Bickles roam public streets and the Internet, free to exist, essentially detached from reality. They consume apple pie and drink coffee out of a misanthropic ritual. They subsume pornography because sex is violence, and violence is normal. They drive or walk or bike around, almost aimlessly, not out of academic nihilism, but out of actual desperation that is too distinct to classify, and unfair to study. We have no way to help them, because they don’t exist; but they think, and they plan and they plot, …sometimes. We can’t know. Taxi Driver is an innocuous enough title for a movie about a man angry at nothing and everything at the same time – so he drives a taxi to unwind.  Continue reading “[1976] Taxi Driver”

[2006] Babel

babel_posterSince it became cheap and ubiquitous, the Internet has revolutionized how we communicate; the first total shift since the telephone, and the second since the printing press. The narrative around how has shrunk almost exponentially, as well, as physical contact is no longer a necessity, the human voice is supplicant to the typed word. People have friends they’ve never met, do business with robots, and can sometimes tell the difference between real and not real. The Internet is the simulacra Baudrillard didn’t know he worried about; he was (somewhat) ambivalent about its takeaway meaning. He couldn’t know, but he could induce where culture was going (which, to be fair, is a simulacra of meaning), and he could wax obscenity about it.

We should take care to communicate outside meme culture, however. A clickity-clack of links spreads almost like a virus across the globe. I can watch television in the United States, while downloading images from Morocco, learning recipes from Mexico, and meeting my partner in Japan. I can do all of these things simultaneously, and then I can blog about them. If I craft a narrative about it, I can make a movie via these links; if I do it quickly enough, I can make a hyperlink film.

Babel is representative. It corrals four realistically, yet improbably, simultaneous stories from four corners of the world and tells them in a sort of jumble, linking the stories, possibly, albeit improbably. These stories are really about fate and the impact of small actions. Babel unravels rather than unfolds. It is meant to be representative of fragility, randomness, luck, chance, …probably. Films like Babel: 2004’s winner, Crash, 2000’s nominee, Traffic, 2012’s Cloud Atlas, and so forth, always mean to be world-shattering with meaning, dripping with reflections on the human experience. These movies get self-aware and they always leave some sort of sour taste after the awe of connectedness wears off. These movies feel like pyrite.

As the Internet has matured, the types of media representing it have also changed: hyperlink cinema has slowed down since the early 2000s and movies like Babel are replaced with movies like 2018’s Searching, whose focal point is from the inside of the screen itself. The Best films are supposed to represent the turbulence of the times, sure, but films like Babel overwhelm criticism with false-flag honesty. Films like Searching will come to represent more and more people. Today’s generation grew up on the Internet’s kinks, quirks, buffering and streaming. The future’s generations will include people who have seemingly harnessed the Internet for good and bad. Babel will live right in the middle – not enough (poor, remote) people had Internet – for this story to make logical sense. (Think about all the plots in Seinfeld whose humor would be totally dissolved by a quick mobile call). If we place it in its era, like we must, it stands shallow, but that it stands at all is a testament to director Alejandro González Iñárritu.

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[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.

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[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”

[1956] Friendly Persuasion

Without a whimper some movies – wager half or more of the 546 movies nominated so far for Best Picture – fall out of the consensus consciousness. Musicals, memorable, often last longer than say, a period piece written contemporaneously and are destined to be stuck there. Old films that strike a memorable dent in their medium, say Citizen Kane and 2001: A Space Odyssey, continue so through essayists who all have a new take on it (they don’t) and families who insist they know film (more likely) needing to pass it on to their sons and daughters, lest the lore get lost. Other films, period pieces about period pieces, are destined to be buried within their own time, with neither sharp pen nor advocate to fight for it.

If Friendly Persuasion has yet to cross into the national conversation, it is unlikely to ever. Ask anyone what movie won Best Picture in 1956, let alone the other four films nominated; some might remember or guess Around the World in 80 Days. Others would guess Gigi. (Does it matter?) Counter: only the most dedicated film buff can name all 500-plus films at any given time, and even then, it is unlikely that this film comes to mind. The why is obvious, a more interesting question is the why not this one?

Friendly Persuasion is antidramatically left off best-of lists, and the web barely has a criticism of it, save for a few “Gary Cooper, listless as ever…” hot takes. Even its Wiki has gaps in its plot summary. It was neither William Wyler nor Michael Wilson’s best known or most accredited work and its permanence did not aggrandize during a period of consistent blacklisting. Despite seven nominations, it won zero. Is this what happens to a film that comes up nil – Oscar graveyard? How long after its rollover did the public lose contemporary, then historical interest in Friendly Persuasion? It is now over 60 years old and has not quite held up; we are less religious and less interested in the combination of a now-historical film about a historical age then and this combination with puritanism has not and will not continue to stand the test of Public time.

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[1992] A Few Good Men

a_few_good_men_posterIs a man “good” if he is honorable, attentive, and dutiful? For a vague adjective – one that is routinely edited out of academic and non-creative writing for lack of rigor and specificity – good seems to evoke this sense of righteousness attributed to no single entity in particular. Its usage is biblical and universal. Its opposite is not necessarily bad, but rotten, pernicious, and the catch-all not-good. Many potential partners desire this trait in a mate. Mothers long for their sons and daughters to stay out of trouble, “up to no good,” they will call it.

What does it mean, then, to be a good man? If we call it an adjective of vaguery and looseness, then a good man is a man of any quality the beholder attributes to good. It could be honor, attention, and duty, but it could also be kindheartedness and honesty. Rob Reiner’s A Few Good Men does not ask us to define good, which is, well, good, because the line is thin between good and evil. Jack Nicholson’s Colonel Jessup toes the line as if there is no line. The audience, whose narrator is omnipotent, sees cover-up and deception, but Col. Jessup, the antagonist as written, sees duty and honor. Is fairness and justice for all more important than national security and unit cohesion, as Col. Jessup sees it? Is it good to value honor over life? Continue reading “[1992] A Few Good Men”