[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”

[1942] Mrs. Miniver

mrs-_miniver_posterEvery American film released between 1941 and 1945 was in some way a “war” film. It is the context that gives each film this title, because in some way some person working on the film was related to World War II – a family member serving, a friend or community newly employed in the manufacturing effort, a dissident among them. The unease about America’s role in the war could be interpreted, written about, filmed, distributed, discussed, and then repeated. Film became – eventually – a propaganda tool for the war effort and those who would want to prop up effort as meaningful and necessary made sure in some way that this message was clear.

And it was. Mrs. Miniver was perhaps this decade’s finest example of film-as-allegory.

It is not hard to dismiss Mrs. Miniver as a phlegmatic period piece about a middle class family only tangentially affected by the war. No one in the small hamlet where the Minivers live has had to put life and limb on the line for the war, yet. The devastation and heartbreak of war is elsewhere and in the future, though how could anyone know that? The townsfolk lead quotidian lives as a matter of fact. Mrs. Miniver (Greer Garson) worries about how to tell her husband about a new hat she bought, while Mr. Miniver (Walter Pidgeon) does the same, but with a new car. For this family, there is no ultimate choice, and any decisions are not have or have not, but have this one or that one. This representation is remarkably mom, pop, and 2.5 kids. A cynic could dismiss this film as a petty drama about a flower show; they could be right. But they are so, so wrong.

The seams unravel when young Vin Miniver (Richard Ney) both meets a lovely girl (Teresa Wright) and then leaves to join the Royal Air Force as a fighter pilot. This dramatic sequence will tend to devolve into his death and her grief. But Mrs. Miniver flips this on its head. The Dunkirk evacuation, not yet history, provides a gripping arc for the Minivers to be apart, and for Mrs. Miniver to understand what “enemy” means. It also shows her how to deal with desperate.

A climactic showdown between Mrs. Miniver, who is every woman, and a downed German soldier, who is every enemy, says much about who each of these archetypes is. As Mrs. Miniver feels, so do the women who fill her metaphorical shoes, and humanizing the fallen soldier makes the war more real. No longer are we fighting The Germans, but just one German, who is afraid and inept. Mr. Miniver, distant, if only for a while, is every man deployed. Director William Wyler, a native of Western Europe and close to this conflict, knew all well how to get this message across to the utmost success. Continue reading “[1942] Mrs. Miniver”

[1987] The Last Emperor

There is no such thing as objective memory. Even with documented and recorded evidence, different witnesses will recall an event differently. It might have to do with a person’s inherent bias (what a person is willing to hear versus what is actually being said) or it might have to do with the passage of time, and the reshaping of history that has always happened. Someone will benefit from misinterpreting an inconsequential detail or changing the language to separate story from historical context. The Last Emperor, winner of 1987’s Best Picture award, is an example of manipulating memory for the sake of narrative. Its intentions seemingly innocent and non-biased, The Last Emperor dramatizes the life Puyi, China’s last emperor before the 1911 Xinhai Revolution that ended millennia of godly endowment of power to a single human. In a single, somewhat swift populist demonstration against dynastic rule, Puyi’s story is often forgotten in favor of more modern Chinese history, with world history curriculum almost erasing two-thousand-plus years of progress (and strife) in the process. Some students believe that the People’s Republic of China has always existed, and that is exactly what that institution would want those students to believe.

This story, and certainly why The Last Emperor won in 1987, demonstrates the power of history in shaping one’s memory. As an adult, whose career choices might steer far from history, details of Chinese history may never cross his path and she will remember nothing from having not studied it. But how China has evolved since 500 BC has affected almost every aspect of one’s life. Majored in economics? What country has dominated manufacturing since the mid-1900s? Majored in political science? What country presents a quasi-credible threat to global, US hegemony? Eat takeout? The point is there, too. China has influenced so much of American culture. An inquisitive mind will ask: why? An even more intrigued student will want to know: from where? The Last Emperor plugs a hole in the institutional memory of global history through film. It is accessible and epic; it is thoroughly dramatic. And it is in English.

The language choice is an example of revisionism that makes a difference not only in what we remember, but also how we form new memory. Director Bernardo Bertolucci makes this conscious choice to tell a thoroughly Chinese story through an Anglo-American lens, and it affects how we can access this story, as a Western audience. It also affects how we remember the information presented to us. Had this film been in Chinese, the story would have been too dense and anti-consumer; the language is simply too different to convey the ideas to an audience of English speakers.

Or is it? Continue reading “[1987] The Last Emperor”

[1955] Marty

Pith requires no antecedent. Shortness of sentence and completeness of meaning are compatible. Sometimes. But other times, pithy writing and shoestring budgeting hinders a process and matching mood to method becomes a challenge. Curt for curtness’ sake will ensure that story and characterization, plot and meaning, and any semiotics or symbolism are compromised. The ability to tell a concise, simple story is not an antecedent to worthiness nor is it a precursor to credibility. Audiences in the early-modern period of cinema developed an appetite for the Epic and film, especially ones that starred ensemble casts and would run two-and-a-half to four hours. The mid-1950s capitalized on this demand and also pushed length for, presumably, a multitude of reasons (unionized labor, capitalism, nostalgia, et cetera). Notable examples include: The Greatest Show on Earth, Giant, The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Ten Commandments, and Ben-Hur. Almost all of these films focus on the tragedy of Human Existence or the Atlasian weight of worldly matters on the human soul. Still other films run around two hours – the amount of time it takes before a human checks how long it has been since time was last checked. Some of these films hold status as simple, yet effective stories and to wit: 12 Angry Men, On the Waterfront, Sunset Boulevard, and A Streetcar Named Desire.

And then, Marty.

At a pithy 90-minutes, Marty builds a simple and titular character and surrounds him with s vibrant story borne from stereotype. Tropes include: overbearing, widowed Italian mothers; husbands and wives quarreling over minutia [but really, not minutia]; the idealistic, unrealistic best friend; the creepy, naïve idiot-friend group; an Italian butcher; and the soul crushing loneliness when Marty Piletti continues to lament in the most honest way that he is a fat and ugly guy who does not deserve love. This last one is a trope, but a dangerous and burning one, often misplaced. All people feel it at some point; most people find a multitude of numbing tropes (like alcohol, womanizing/hooking, cruelty, violence – and sometimes all of them simultaneously), but Marty (Ernest Borgnine) does not. Nor does he sink into a massive depression. Marty is not a story of deep depression and low-brow drama, but a pithy take on the resilience of the human spirt. A simple point-to-point story sheds pretense. The audience likes Marty, not because Marty ‘represents the human spirit’ so well, but rather because Marty is a fictionalized version of the simplicity the audience all seeks. Through minimalism comes clarity – a clarity not found floating in a half-full tumbler. Continue reading “[1955] Marty”

[1968.5] Oliver!

Nostalgia, as a concept, has not changed much since its definition in the mid-17th Century. It was originally a study in scientific longing; an acute and overwhelming physiological pang for home, from wherever the sufferer happened to be. Homesickness under these conditions was diagnosable and treatable by returning home, assuming that the homesick soul had one to which to return, or one from which she came. This phenomenon took hold in Central Europe and, according to the prevailing science of its time, caused more than a few soldiers’ deaths. Nostalgia – a mash-up Greek nostos and algos for return and sickness, respectively – was not an effect of one’s environment or circumstances, but rather its cause. The cure has remained the same over time – to return home would “cure” the affliction (modern psychologists might argue that the change in environs provided the needed therapy to alter a state of mind, and uncover the “root” issue). Moreover, modern circumstances have shifted “nostalgia” to a more domestic affliction from one borne from war. Adults will watch a film they had seen as a child and recall an environment – one of safety or comfort in the known perhaps – and long for a seat on the Past’s Couch. Forty-eight years after its original run, nostalgia must be the reason the public remembers Oliver! so fondly.

When one watches Oliver! it is dishonest to expect its tone to reflect Charles Dickens’ original serial from the mid-1800s. First, it is a musical, and even darker musical theatre tends to be comedic in some respect, if not for the tonal similarities between a joke and a song. Second, it is a different medium: it is actually quite a few steps away from the original, and with each transformation, some level of story shifts to meet its new medium. A book has, for example, hundreds of pages for the author to create local nostalgia; an emotional outburst so acute that the reader longs for a different emotional state pure of the book’s horrors or new memories. Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun is eerily reminiscent of this idea: is it a new emotional state that our mind must develop to cope with the horrors of war-fiction or does the mind have a process to repress these memories? Is it nostalgia that drives the mind – or is it the endless forward movement of time that forces the mind to remake itself constantly? Continue reading “[1968.5] Oliver!”

[1957] The Bridge on the River Kwai

What makes a film classic? To abstract: what makes any single piece of media worthy of historical cataloging in Library of Congress as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant?” The simplest answer to this question is hegemonic subjectivity: a consort of culturally in-tune men and women with qualification afforded to them via…what exactly? This argument of who gets to rule is an old one, dating back to Plato’s Republic (also a classic) and mentioned throughout cultural and state criticism. Pansocial critic, Chuck Klosterman, mentions this idea in another form: “ratedness,” or how accurately the social sphere “rates” culture. He argued that most pieces of social culture are inacurately rated, that the public perceives it better or worse than some static standard Klosterman himself decrees. This argument, like much of his critique, relies on this same public to judge whether Klosterman has made an accurate measure of a bearer of standards. For film, and especially Best Picture winners, the piece of media can only either be accurately rated or overrated because for 88 years the public has accepted the Academy’s judgement as fair. This blog argues a larger point: that the Academy’s choice further represents a broader message. That not only was the film “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant,” but also that it was the most of these adverbs. In this respect, even the Academy’s choice can be overrated; most of these films do represent the zeitgeist – mood – of their respective years, but some (“Crash”) do not. In 1957, The Academy selected The Bridge on the River Kwai to represent the year. It is a classic.

Kwai is a classic for three reasons: timeliness, message, and skill. Together, these qualities not only allow exploration of its production and its reception, but also define a mark against which any other film of serious pursuit can be benched.

Timeliness: the key to “timeliness,” in a sense is not necessarily when the team released the film (the criterion is not called release for a reason), but the manner by which the film is shown to the public that includes the release. For example: the film’s historical context matters, as does the subject matter, and the distance between the film’s subject matter and its time-sensitive social or technical circumstances (i.e. films before and after Hays’ Code, before and after color, before and after home video, different wars, etc.) Releasing a film before or after its ideal can dampen its impact. The Bridge on the River Kwai hit theatres 12 years after VJ-Day, far enough removed from American World War weariness – but still burrowed in the salty aftermath of Korea. Viewing it in a past-tense heightens its great strengths with many more, and many more complicated, global conflicts and its message remains vital.

Message: A message is both an obvious and designed takeaway and one coded in motif, double-entendre, metaphor, etc. The obvious messages:

War is messy and unpredictable, but people still make their own, predictable decisions

 

Principled men make practical decisions, except when they do not

 

Motivation matters, except when it does not

 

Nationalism and jingoism have hard ceilings

 

Lie at one’s own risk, and hope for a net-positive outcome; nothing is guaranteed

 

Willingness to die for a cause does not remove the edge from or the quick pace of death

Yet, a more non-obvious message still lurked, waiting for a pluck. It was a calm among storms, perhaps, and a time for somber reflection on human desires and motivations. The bridge is most obviously a willing metaphor for a desire to cross-cultural aphasia. The film attempted to non-obviously demonstrate many of the functions the audience will have learned in adolescence. The literal, present theatre of war was disguised as an in-vogue epic for a figurative one, and the world is all the better for it. Continue reading “[1957] The Bridge on the River Kwai”

[1992] Unforgiven

Not much more can be said about Unforgiven; the film acts as a rightful tombstone for the death of a genre as non-homage, non-satire. Not much more can be said for director, writer, and actor Clint Eastwood, who, with the fresh-dirt Unforgiven brought to the Oscars in 1992, hyper-legitimized his place as both an actor and director almost 40 years into his career. Unforgiven is remarkable because of its simultaneous ultraviolent and restrained plot stems. Eastwood as Munny, a man with a character fog that neither lifts nor needs to, runs a cast of characters in circles as he cuts through both plot and character with such sharpness that as the last credit rolls across the screen, the audience is certain Eastwood is both the diameter and the circumference, and all points in and on the shape – “life.” Not much more can be said about Gene Hackman or Morgan Freeman or Richard Harris that has not already been said in essay or video format.

The Western genre is dead; long live the West. Continue reading “[1992] Unforgiven”