[1932/1933] Cavalcade

A type of visceral film exists that is aware of its own structure. Cavalcade is one of them, it might be the first one, and it won Best Picture at the 3rd Academy Awards. The voters probably noticed it and wished to confer upon it a nod of appreciation for a book like handling of a character driven slice-of-life drama. It isn’t even an odd choice, considering talking film was still forming as a process, that a film that took advantage of large sets and big, blocky characters would win an honor that meant, probably, technical achievement in filmmaking as much as it did representation of the human experience. Curiously, on its face, Cavalcade is not particularly interesting: a well-to-do English family faces minor inconveniences among a host of relative stability; their staff, seemingly content but hungry to join an upper echelon, is a normal view on the human experience from a Depression vantage point. It probably projects a more modern experience onto a proto-Victorian, fin de siècle experience than was likely. This movie approaches class almost apathetically, vacating all pretense when the plot simply moves along among tragedy. This approach flattens the movie and rips from it the ability for a modern audience to appreciate its candor and stiff-upper-lip mentality. Cavalcade is quintessentially British, Depression-era, and pre-code. It is also lightly meta.

Metafilm is a classification not a genre. Any movie can have meta elements. A simple, famous example is this: in The Godfather Clemenza and Rocco finish their work and Clemenza, nonplussed tells Rocco to “Leave the gun – take the cannoli.” Without deconstructing this scene, we can observe metaness from it. Director Francis Ford Coppola and book/screenwriter Mario Puzo wink at the established stereotype of capital I Italians and their obsession with native desserts. They want the audience to know that they, too, are aware of the stereotype. This is meta because it references itself. It expressed through film. What makes Cavalcade somewhat special is that the whole movie is referenced in its title: a “cavalcade” is a formal march, a procession of sorts. In a cavalcade, the company of marchers is undeterred by obstacles; with enough force, seemingly insurmountable obstacles are reduced to rubble. (I suppose this concept is what Werner Herzog was attempting to convey in Fitzcarraldo.)

In Cavalcade, director Frank Lloyd demonstrates his understanding of this concept by pitting his aristocratic family against abstract concepts, like love, death, tragedy, and war and following them through the muck, deterred and fazed, but dutiful to the most abstract concept, time. Thirty-four years pass from New Years’ 1899 to New Years 1933 and our family, wealthy but sympathetic, has grieved in great loss of their two sons. The legacy is confirmed by time but time waits for no sorrow like the present. Here this family sits, 34 years after Father Gilbert ships off to South Africa to fight a spectre of an enemy, and Sons Sullivan fights against Titanic’s Iceberg and against global inertia in the Great War. There is a great sense of duty among the Marryots. This movie is well-set-up to predict that the next Great Conflict will end them, heads held high. Only at their end, and with reflection, and balanced on the pinpoint precipice of World War II, does the meta-ness start to show, and with it memorable brilliance.  Continue reading

[2001] A Beautiful Mind

115135696_1300x1733Myth supersedes man.

It is impossible to tell in two hours the mess of a man who simultaneously gave language to a fundamental human condition and who also couldn’t, at times, distinguish between real and not real. Thankfully, for the applied economics work that he described so succinctly and eloquently, he did not kill anyone in its stead. Because John Nash held both of these extremes inside of his brain simultaneously, if not incongruously, his story is intrinsically interesting because of the questions it generates: how did he keep himself together enough to give us his famous theory? What challenges did he face and how did he overcome them? Which characters influenced him and how did they evolve to meet him where he was? What don’t we see? Instead of a round look at the person who was, A Beautiful Mind chooses to highlight Nash’s best self, tempering it with periods of prolonged strife. The narrative is clean if not flawed.

In her biography, Sylvia Nasar does not shy away from John Nash the man; in his adaptation, Ron Howard does, and creates John Nash the character, the John Nash that now, outside mathematics and economics enthusiasts, a plurality of audience members know. This is not a problem. As an audience, each person has to decide what to believe, which is the basis of myth. But: a movie like A Beautiful Mind does help us attempt to answer the question of what is more worthwhile from a biography like this, pure truth, as we might expect from the Oscar, or pure entertainment, which we might expect from E!

The distinction between the two is not necessarily evenly distributed. Picture this: there is not a straight line between pure documentary and pure entertainment and the best films hit some sort of apex of some sort of normal distribution. Or, at least, they are supposed to. Empirically, if this is the case, there should be some objective, measurable data to determine “BEST.” Didactically, there is no data besides financial returns and those tend to correspond to popularity, not necessarily quality, and there is no way to marry the two without editorializing the results. So: how should we, as individual readers, and, potentially as a voting bloc, judge the man John Nash as we (or they) evaluate the myth John Nash? Let’s look at a few examples.

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[1961] West Side Story

west_side_story_posterIn a world that deals almost exclusively in violence, our media should reflect it accurately, and tell the stories that humans are both hard- and soft-wired to accept. Our narrative-driven consciousness needs no introduction to suffering from a young age. The birthing act itself is hyper violent, rearing a child is bumpy, and letting her loose into the unforgiving wild is dangerous no matter the station. If one’s too rich: people snipe at her heels for a piece of the pie, and if one’s too poor, the street sucks her in with no discernible contempt. Somewhere in the middle, anonymous, is probably best. But it isn’t immune the hyperreal stray bullet from a gun, or the recently rebooted whip-viper of a particularly cruel tongue.

And a media that sanitizes the violence for consumption is the norm. We don’t let our children, whose brains are fluff, see a favela murder or a starving village. We conspicuously edit meaningful conflict from our stories to ease them, the children – the future – into adolescence. And this is commendable, to a point. If adulthood is soul crushing, let the child have a soul, first.

Film doesn’t have a soul. It’s a visual medium for movie “magic,” whose main concern continues to be visual storytelling. The color and movement need to sell the attention span of the audience, which is getting shorter. Quick bursts of violence and sex do this; familiarity with previous characters does this; violence and sex between and among familiarity is intriguing. But this is new, too. The standards have relaxed considerably where there’s no longer a visum prohibitum on what’s allowed to be shown on screen; visum in se is still true and is monitored by what a public will stand. Snuff, as violent as it gets, is not tolerated; neither is anything off-color involving children. Explicit sex is only moderately tolerated, as it is seen as niche, will get an unfriendly rating and killed at the box office; but mostly everything else goes in service of the story.

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[1965] The Sound of Music II

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, starting in Part I, here. This time around we dive into musical theatre and Christopher Plummer’s disdain for his role.

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Sam Sklar: Musicals live on in cartoon a lot – in the ’80s and ’90s – it shifted away from being for families to being for children. The genres broke apart and they became a little more post-modern. A lot more dialogue around what is for kids for adults and not for families. Everyone’s time is a little more compartmentalized, ideas need to be put into compartments instead of just having an experience. It is interesting to look back and see this. This shift away from musicals and then back into musicals with this new skin on it.

I’m not drawn to musical theatre either. When I was a kid I would think: ‘Why are they singing?’ until I realized, you know, “that’s the genre,” and that’s what it is. I didn’t understand. I get opera because they’re singing all of the time, and I get drama because they’re singing none of the time.

Zach Schonfeld: So, why are they singing some of the time?

S: Ha, right! Why are they randomly breaking into song? And then I got older and understood that’s the point, the form of entertainment.

Z: Yeah.

S: I’m just not drawn to it naturally. I appreciate it though. I think it takes a lot of talent to sing and dance and act. It’s just adding more to the entertainment value.

Speaking of which: Christopher Plummer did not do his own singing in this.

Z: No, he did not. Someone else did.

S: You don’t — didn’t — really notice that. So the question is: why was he cast in this role?

Z: I don’t know. I feel like there’s probably a story but i don’t know what it is.

S: might be worth looking into when I write this up and put a little aside in there.

[Aside: In 2012, Plummer sat for an interview with NPR’s Scott Simon, where he discussed how the film’s producers overdubbed his part with singing from maestro Bill Lee. The team of Lee & Plummer, in effect, tag-teamed the role, with Lee sounding astoundingly like Plummer as Captain von Trapp.]

Z: It’s interesting because this role made him a real star and was the most famous role of his career. And he’s made it clear that he resents how much this role has followed him around. He doesn’t really want to be known as Captain von Trapp. When I interviewed him [for Newsweek in June 2018] he said something like, “Oh as soon as I played that role, all the roles that were offered to me were uptight sons-of-bitches like Captain von Trapp. I didn’t want to be a leading man; I couldn’t wait to be a character actor.”

He thought it was a dull character. He wanted to play more interesting characters and he complained a lot on set that the film was “too sentimental, too gooey,” and he’s credited himself as pushing Director Robert Wise to make it less sentimental, to cut down on the sentimentality, which I think is a noble pursuit and made the film better.

But i think over the years he’s referred to it as The Sound of “Mucus” and has expressed a lot of irritation as being known for that movie out of all his roles.

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[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

[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

[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