[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

[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

[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

[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

[2015] Spotlight

Against some odds, Spotlight took home Best Picture honors at the 88th Awards ceremony. Among the eight films nominated, Spotlight blended into the fold perhaps a little too cleanly and emerged victorious as, a manner of speaking, default. In a series of films marked by quasi-historical narrative (well, not Mad Max: Fury Road or The Martian), Spotlight dug its roots into what makes us feel uncomfortable the most and asked the audience to respond in kind most visceral. So: perhaps different from past winners, which all follow this idea of narrative gestalt to one of emotional response because Spotlight did not respond to anything in particular from the year; it did not wrap its gravitas around a suite of ideas that moved the nation. It worked, though, as a powerful inductive technique to bring a narrative into the public, well, spotlight, that had been simmering for many years. Does this abrupt shift signify a trend for the future?

The future should be somewhat obvious (and surely looking back will prove this sentence one hundred per cent incorrect) to those with a finger on the pulse of an increasingly globalized political miasma. And yet, with all the uncertainty encircling coming national and international events, 2016’s winner this year will not feel like a coup of sorts. As of yet, though, the uncertainty of what awaits is pervasive and head-scratching. Navigating the movies slated for a 2016 release (in mid-May), nothing quite stands out as reflective of insurgence, political defiance, or identity politics. Nothing seems to spin off-center or unsafe. We must be cautiously frivolous, then, when guessing aberration or trend for Spotlight. Either way, this conversation has shifted for the better and its win brings a fresh sense of thematic ignorance (bliss) and polishes the jade so deeply ingrained. Continue reading

[1937.1] The Life of Emile Zola

I will be watching all 10 nominees from 1937 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. 

J’accuse… the nonsense self-interest of the economical man; the quibbling political machinations of the machine; the political, militaristic, duplicitous charge – forward from childishness and backward from sophistication.

J’accuse… the difference between the man who acts is the man who is and the individual who collects ideas can conspire to decimate those of another tout simplement parce que.

J’accuse… Over a century later and nothing has changed and it feels as though as we get “smarter,” we can shift the conversation; there’s anger here; and the anger is, in hindsight, directed at the whole complex that General Eisenhower warned us of fifty years after the Dreyfus Affair, but fifty before the age of the militarized police. The timing of The Life of Emile Zola, 1937’s Best Picture Winner, is curious and prescient in hindsight, striking a modern nerve only compounded by technology and perpetuated by an endless and self-referential news cycle. Zola’s writ polemic, only in print in 1898, is a classic example of public momentum realpolitik to expand coverage for what many consider to be a landmark in writ opine. The Dreyfus Affair, they call it, is a century-old singularity; a case-in-point. Today, for every j’accuse…there’s plural others.  It continues to be curious, however, that the the words that rang from Paris to South America at the turn of the 20th century mean less and less. What does it all mean? Continue reading

[2014] Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

The pulse of humanity continues to thump as though nothing changes from day to month to millennium; even nihilism makes sense stretched out over an eternal timeline. Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) [just Birdman for the rest of this essay] is a thrice-meta dialogue between film, a film audience and everyone else. Its message is messy and unkempt and uncomfortable and its style is prolific and unimpeachable. It plays anti- to almost every convention, even the anti-convention of bakers’ dozen favorite Boyhood, which was a deeply boring and inauthentic approach to cinema verité. Its whole gimmick – and yes it was a gimmick – was that it followed the same cast around a coming-of-age, one-size-fits-all approach to growing up. Birdman, essentially and almost certainly accidentally flips it the proverbial bird, daring to ask, “is this it?” Boyhood asks us to inspect the shit, then eat it, while Birdman thumps through it, seemingly at random, slicing life, not into categories bounded by “age,” but into tiny pieces that can’t be ordered.

Birdman the film feels like a culmination of a century of film-making but Birdman the film also acts as a secret joke between friends, which adds a whole order of long-and short-form narrative. Alejandro González Iñárritu directly points at Alfonso Cuarón (director of 2013’s marvel, Gravity, and 2006’s non-nominated Children of Men) and utters something about a “single shot,” chuckles, and collects a trophy to pair with his…trophies. Birdman in turn collects a stunning number of film tropes into a mess of moments: magical realism, the myth of super, Hays impersonations, comedy of remarriage, meta-narrative, among others, and crosses between the World Trade Center with no net. It, for lack of a better word, works. The casting is kinetic: Michael Keaton is electric; Edward Norton is characteristically ugly and charismatic; Emma Stone took a break from the latest Miyazaki to eyeball the world without blinking; Naomi Watts shines like an undying fluorescent bulb. They have summed to triumph, as it wasn’t enough to just have the idea, and execute, but also to electrify.

Birdman the audience demands introspection from this film and it gets the uncanny collusion of collective narcissism and mystified mental health. Together, these conditions mirror the state of the union circa 2014. The world suffocates inside own self-importance and the stigma of “I don’t feel well” is unironically swept under the positivity rug. The everyman, he who would be King, balks at reality, as he can escape to Instagram or Facebook or to the quick-fix brigade. She who would be Queen sees the world in three-by-five, not an index card, but a glass screen, through which she can collect “likes,” “hearts” and texts. It’s not the method that is irksome, but the purpose. The dogma of this self-medicated cynicism is not the drive to be better than one’s current self, tomorrow, but to count to a million. Michael Keaton (as Riggan Thomson) arrives, not twenty years after playing Batman, to be Birdman, the magical superhero, can’t combat like-fever in his head, where his titular character splits from reality and demands more, for better or for suicide. None of these underpinning methods Linklater their way to T.R.U.T.H., but rather ruminate in the graveyard for “likes,” “hearts” and go-fuck-yourself’s. Continue reading

[1963] Tom Jones

I wrote about contemporary relationships with film in my review of The Big Chill and would be remiss to repeat myself but I feel Tom Jones, 1963’s Best Picture winner, requires a requisite analysis because I honestly can’t understand how this movie is funny or why it won Best Picture. The win is likened to a comedy club’s performances being booked by a promoter with no sense of humor.

With Tom Jones, there’s mythos and adaptation that stretches the meaning of “action” and “comedy.” Outside a carefree plot and handful of innovative storytelling gags ripe for parody, the two-hour-plus run-time is devoted to characters I can’t care about, a hackneyed plot based on the assumption that I care about our eponymous character’s whereabouts post-credits and humor that seems almost purposefully meant to be dated. Actually, since this film is set in 18th century England and uses mechanical 20th century humor, the story, based off an actual 18th century novel relies on the director/actor pushing anachronism as always funny all the time. I am open to believing that my 21st century brain is simply tired of this benign technique, but more likely than not, the film is simply not funny.

Tom Jones might be built solely on anti-humor, too; purposefully being unfunny in an attempt to cajole the audience inside the joke. The character Tom Jones is certainly based on true characterization from the early- to mid-18th century prim-and-proper Britain, when, as most media had portrayed (and continues to, albeit somewhat self-referential, today) the stoicism as a desirable trait. By establishing this idea as the foil, early, and reinforcing it often, Tom Jones becomes funny because it is not funny – or so the idea would be. Unfortunately, it’s just a head-scratcher. That said, I am equally certain that in a more favorable set of circumstances, this movie is both funny and poignant.  Continue reading

[1944] Going My Way

In the modern era of CGI-to-reduce-cost-and-expand-purview a reader can appreciate the concept and withdraw from the premise itself; some filmmakers have become so adept at this new-ish style of blockbusting that the best way to create some kind of predictive modeling for success is to examine the allotments of a film’s budget by bucket – acting, tech, staffing, other, etc. – and plot perhaps comparable returns by genre. In this data-heavy approach many a fortune has been and will continue to be made by those who understand the underlying assumptions behind this premise. Before computer scientists called Odysseus to determine the fate of the Known Universe, a certain ebb and flow concerning how an audience viewed a film pre-digital is that the content sold the premise, and the acting usually sold the concept. There were no data to be dug.

And thus the appeal to 1944’s Best Picture winner, Going My Way. Continue reading

[1943] Casablanca

I’ve already covered the iconoclasm of a famous quotes when writing about In The Heat of The Night, but it is patently obvious that Casablanca more thoroughly explains this point.

Casablanca is a golden film because in its case the parts far outweigh the sum. As a package, the film is more of a medium for acting, screenwriting, directing, cinematography, set design, costume design, sound editing and sound mixing, which together make a film, but separately craft a legend.

We are almost 75 years from Casablanca‘s initial theatrical run and its lore runs through film history as a standard, a candle that can cast no shadow too far upon any film that wishes itself iconic. But the film itself is a heist half-noir whose myopia falls comically short of leaving a lasting impact thematically, but more than makes up for it in its acting – specifically Humphrey Bogart. Bogart, besides having a memorable name (second only to Englebert Humperdink), pre-memorializes himself in Casablanca, perhaps changing the course of cinema down his path for the better part of two decades. He personified the damaged, irascible man as a likable character perhaps most convincingly throughout Casablanca, but certainly throughout the next 15 years. He was the damaged, lovesick, homesick man represented by so many living and fighting abroad during World War II.

The film also continues to hold allure as a film to semi-fictionalize its reality without dehumanizing it. It is a film about humanity during a time of inhumanity; personal triumph and failure over anti-Reich propaganda. Set far enough away from the European theatre, but with enough connection to it through its characters and mood that the sensation of urgency delivered through dialogue seems authentic. But we must not forget that the entirety of the film’s “plot” hinges on two pieces of paper. We would do best to forget that this entire film isn’t a character study or a masterclass in thematic pacing.  Continue reading