[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

[1947] Gentleman’s Agreement | Crossfire

So the goal here was to watch Gentleman’s Agreement – 1947’s Oscar winner starring Gregory Peck and Dorothy McGuire – and, like all my other posts, comment on why it fits the Academy’s modus operandi of picking not the best movie of the year (too subjective, too many), but the movie that best represented its year’s gestalt. In 1947 anti-Semitism either had begun to run rampant or a series of filmmakers and studio executives decided that this was the year to tackle this off-center issue. In the span of a year, then, two movies decidedly different – one an overwrought, but ultimately thought-provoking exposé on Judaism and the tenets of pluralism in society and the other a dark-noir that opens and ends with a deus ex machina of “Jewishness” as the lock-and-key.

Usually, when two films operate in the same arena during a year they offset one another. When two films discuss World War II slightly differently, or deal with race and religion, or fall in the same thematic element, the Academy usually will decide that the theme itself is enough and look elsewhere to appropriate its crown for film of the year. In 1947, they deemed that one film about Jewishness was the best representation of the year in film and in theme and not the other. Why?

It goes without saying that the winner, Gentleman’s Agreement, brought with it a bigger tag. Acting, directing, budget, revenues drove Gentleman’s Agreement above its rival-cum-Judaism, Crossfire; Gregory Peck and Elia Kazan command more attention than does Crossfire‘s relatively unknown cast of characters (save Robert Mitchum) and director, Edward Dmytryk. Yet, noir seems to work best when the characters play second to the mood, so compromise would not have done Crossfire favors toward relevance in the eyes of the Academy voters. Is the tag itself enough to leap Gentleman’s Agreement over Crossfire? The distinction seems arbitrary, even to the sometimes wanton Academy voters.

There is also something to be said for the relative quality of the films compared, not only to one another, but to the rest of the competition. I find it hard to believe that among the nostalgia (Miracle on 34th StGreat Expectations) and the light-fare The Bishop’s Wife, that either Gentleman’s Agreement or Crossfire were that much “better” than the other films, or that much better than each other. Instead, I would contend that the quality of the film rather arbitrarily was ignored this year in favor of a more noble notion – bringing to light the sore subject of religious pluralism after the horror of the Holocaust that most Americans did not witness firsthand. Jews, according to Kazan, were unfairly second-rate citizens and Gregory Peck, perhaps the most Gentile human alive at the time, was to tell us all so through some deliberate method acting and overemphasizing the word “JEW” at every instance. This notion over-scored any nostalgia wrought in 1947.  Continue reading

[2013] 12 Years A Slave

12 Years A Slave will be a difficult film to tackle for no other reason than I’m a white person. I don’t pretend to “feel” the layered effects of slavery past any historical reference, nor do I take credit or blame for the misgivings of my white ancestors (technically I’m Jewish, so my family weren’t the Christian property holders) misgivings and horrific treatment of human life. That said, my whiteness does not preclude me from analyzing the plight of black people in the United States’ infancy and I will take shot at 12 Years A Slave (and Django Unchained). However, this review will be too brief to cover the history of slavery, just as the movie was; how slavery manifested in the US is a great opportunity to plug “A People’s History of the United States,” by Howard Zinn. Instead, this review will focus on the slippery slices of life that were Solomon Northrup’s and Django Freeman’s, how each film’s director decided to tell his story and how the Academy views films rooted in slavery.

Movies concerning slavery pack a larger punch when the film follows a character with purpose, depth, clarity, flaws and foil characteristics – like those that demonstrate the horrific slavery conditions. For example, Solomon Northrup, a free and learned northern man, spends the titular 12 years as a slave in the deep south after he’s literally stolen, stripped of everything and sold to the highest bidder. We, as an audience, care because we want him to find a way to earn his freedom back; we want to root for him to fight for dignity and uphold honor even within the most horrifying circumstances. We also know, through Director Steve McQueen’s clever exposition that he is a kind man – though too proud for practicality. Solomon’s perseverance mirrors our own desires to be free and nested in the overt and still prescient topic of slavery. As a companion piece to 12 Years A Slave, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained explores slavery through the surreal and hyperdramatization, in a similar fashion to McQueen’s gritty native truisms and blurred timeline. Our eponymous Django, given last name Freeman, earns freedom through a semi-realistic chain of events, until Tarantino eschews realism in favor of a Hamlet-esque ending, wherein everybody dies. Also connecting the two films are both directors’ fancy to make temporal jumps, smoothing out somewhat long periods of time over just two hours. It helps to mirror the reality of how long both men were enslaved as well as the absurd length of time the land of the free and home of the brave treated people like objects. Beyond the obvious connections of two men enslaved, what earned 12 Years A Slave a Best Picture win and Django Unchained a mere nomination? Continue reading

[2009] The Hurt Locker

Recently, for no reason in particular, I’ve been obsessed with war.

I don’t know why I have a desire to see violence or connect with a soldier’s turbulent and uncertain lifestyle; I neither condone nor seek to kill or injure my enemy, and while my life is in transition, the uncertainty is more about approximate life choices. Certainly not about life or death.

Nevertheless, I find myself more and more identifying with a soldier and what it means to be one-track, one-day-at-a-time. 2009’s Best Picture winner, The Hurt Locker, bridges the gap between a warman and a civilian to a remarkably relatable T. Director Kathryn Bigelow inserts us, the readers, into the middle of the Iraqi conflict, but not as a demure bystander. We’re not confronted with the disaster story of a personal tragedy or a shaky upbringing that led to a damaged soldier with a death wish. Instead, our conflict exists extant the horrors and violence of war. The camera work and the haziness of what’s “right,” inserts each of us into the uncertainty of a bomb squad, whose task it is to defuse IEDs and uncover some of the layers of war not related to conflict or even guerrilla warfare. We’re concerned with this teams’ move on a minute to minute basis. Compelling tells half the story.

The phrase, “the hurt locker,” is an interesting one, as it’s relatively obtuse as a straightforward metaphor, but shockingly obvious if we peel back the layers. For me, a hurt locker is a place to store despair, hate, anger, annoyance – negativity; it’s an organizational tool through the lens of war. For our bizarrely autonomous team, the hurt locker is more literal (still figurative) – in a place where death is relevant and imminent the hurt locker is a function of a solider’s mind to quickly switch on and off the feelings to achieve a task. For our soldiers, who seem to operate without direct command, it is essential that the hurt locker exists to keep a clear head when lives are at stake. But what happens when lives aren’t at stake?  Continue reading

[1931/2] Grand Hotel

We trace ensemble casts back through Shakespeare to Ancient Greece and most likely to the earliest days of storytelling; they say ‘it takes a village for a reason.’ Most likely, in the earliest days of our anthropological past, the concept of community was not a distinction between the haves and the have-nots or the 99% vs. the 1%, but a necessity to survival. I won’t go so far as to equate ensemble casting to fending off warring factions of neighboring tribes or to compare the plague of paranoia and petulance of Hamlet to actual Plague. But the concept is old and has been reworked countless times. Its origins trace roots to 1932’s Grand Hotel.

Of all the casting combinations available, if the choice is available, strong, recognizable ensemble casting rewards the audience more than an unruly cast of misfits and vagabond actors. To justify spending time and money on a two-hour film, a viewer will make a few snap judgments: does this subject matter resonate with me? Has this studio produced films before that I know and like? Do I know the lead actors in this film? From where? Has their work impressed me before? With ensemble casting, the actors both bolster and cover each other. With MGM not a performance risk, the team behind Grand Hotel attracted a huge cast – to audiences in the early 1930s – Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery, John and Lionel Barrymore.  Probably, any one of these actors could have drawn a huge audience his or herself, but instead, to the delight of the audience, all five get a chance to interact and command the screen.

Quite the feat then, to crowd the screen with raw talent and still create a cohesive story that doesn’t feel like a “best of” performance. The titular Grand Hotel is fictitiously set in Berlin, but could be anywhere. The actors play archetypes, and types well, but the story keeps the fluid fivesome afloat. From the rising action we compartmentalize each character according to some personality trait and motivation. Both are clear and subtle; because of the long (and thereby expensive) runtime, Grand Hotel‘s pacing allows space for director Edmund Goulding to establish clear motivations and interactions that feel like they could have happened (in the ’30s). Sometimes the characters stay out of each other’s way and sometimes they’re purposefully in the way. Our one static character, whose function it was to stay out of the way states it clearly:

People come and go. Nothing ever happens

which is simultaneously true, as nothing of grand importance happens, but for the characters involved the interactions are life and death defining. But for Doctor Otternschlag, who’s a permanent resident of the Hotel, he’s seen this before and will see it again. The ‘slice of life’ motif is quite interesting when combined with ensemble casting. It creates a huge scene for almost nothing to happen.

The ensemble concept has reformed over the 85-year history of film – from pieces like Grand Hotel that give its characters room to explore to films like Ocean’s Eleven (and the remake, Ocean’s Eleven) and The Italian Job (and its remake, The Italian Job), which purposely obfuscates the motivations of its stellar cast. Other series/long-form features will cast lots of unknowns or half-knowns to draw more attention to the plot than to the cast. I’d think it’s easier to promote this kind of ensemble cast in our modern film sphere; more outlets for creative freedom exist, while the number of actors who command as much respect as those five did is probably the same – if not less than in the 1930s. This reformation is a commendable and necessary fact of modernizing film.

Grand Hotel holds a distinctive title of both popularizing a genre and not outliving its own popularity through decades of great, mediocre and poorly executed films. It’s still require curriculum for most film (life) students to cite Grand Hotel as a forerunner for so many of the films we watch, even today. It neither created the hustle-and-bustle genre nor defined it: it neither owns the popularity nor defies it.  Further, in a testament to the symmetry so often secluded from modern film, Grand Hotel starts and ends on two ideas. The first one, Dr. Otternschlag’s shrewd observation, brings a balance to the film. The second one, that a cast can survive within such a grand idea, has bookended film history until this day. See Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Grand Hotel rightfully took home the crown for Best Picture in 1931/2. In a year when it seemed like every film produced earned a nomination (nominees weren’t standardized at 5 until 1944), Grand Hotel is the cream that rises out of the proverbial crop. Some of the films nominated at the 5th awards are so obscure and dated that I’ll want to space out watching them to keep my sanity – but one thing for sure is that Grand Hotel is eons beyond Arrowsmith.

 

[1971] The French Connection

The French Connection was a real thing. I’m not going to re-edit the details here but know that in the 1930s, ’40s, ’50s, ’60s and ’70s smugglers trafficked more heroin than you can count from the Middle East through Western Europe and eventually through North America. Its rise and fall demonically haunts pre- and post-war Europe through its enormous involvement at all levels of corruption, from local informants and drug runners up through the highest echelons of government and other agency. It was a perfect combination of circumstance and trading one aesthetic and global crisis for another, lesser (?) one.

The French Connection took to dramatize and compartmentalize 40 years of serious drug trafficking into 2 hours of thrill, substance and action. William Friedkin’s dramatic distillation of decades of drugs helped to liven the pulse of filmmaking that beat so heavily from the late 1960s to the early 1970s. Much like the conflict for which the film was named, The French Connection took clever advantage of circumstance to help craft its message. The perfect combination of casting, direction, cinematography, special effects, production and source material together (among other factors) drove this movie to such heights as a political action thriller and an investigative crime drama, that to try to replicate it is almost impossible. Yet improbably, and mind-blowingly it’s probably the worst of the 4 movies to win Best Picture from 1969 to 1972. Continue reading

[1928/9] The Broadway Melody

It would be more accurate to call this post [1928/9] The Broadway Melody of 1929, seeing as within a dozen years we also got The Broadway Melod(ies) of 1936, 1938 and 1940 and just narrowly missed out on 1942 and 1944.

It is unfair to compare successes and downfalls of early film to its modern counterparts. It’s also quite unfair to have a negative opinion about The (first) Broadway Melody, because, for all its hokeyness and humdrum acting and plot points, without it we don’t necessarily have some of the luxury that allows some modern film room to sing, dance and talk. If only at the 2nd Academy Awards do we get our first taste of ‘talkie,’ it’s fitting that the Academy should bestow upon it film’s highest honor, but how we looked at film has changed as dramatically as what the film is about. As recently as 2013, The Academy has honored film more for filmmaking (Gravity) than for storytelling. Some things change – the public’s tastes, technology, budget, morality – but others don’t.

As we approach the 86th awards next March, we’ll expand the list of nominees to a balmy 521. Of the 85 winners so far, 83 have been talkies all but 1927/8’s Wings and 2011’s The Artist (save a single line of dialogue). We don’t take talking film for granted because we can probably count on a few dozen hands how many people remember when film without talking tracks was commonplace. We do, however, pay our respects to the early film for taking risks – some successful, some not – and exploring techniques that worked for several installments of The Broadway Melody, including, but not limited to, vocal tracking, the musical and sequels.  Continue reading

{Second Take} [1969] Midnight Cowboy

It is through his music preferences, not his dress, that the audience first learns of Midnight Cowboy‘s protagonist, Joe Buck’s (Jon Voight), cow-pokin’, cattle-ropin’ ways. Despite the iconic image of Buck’s unironic fringe jacket and cowboy boots strutting around grey New York, Buck’s home-on-the-range origins are first evinced by his singing “Git Along, Little Dogies” to himself in the shower during the opening credits. The soundtrack to the film and the use of music within the narrative provide much of Joe Buck’s characterization, but viewers may not know the final track list was almost drastically different.

Midnight Cowboy provided two immutable contributions to American culture: The disgruntled pedestrian and reckless cabbie interaction of “I’m walkin’ here!,” and Harry Nilsson’s “Everybody’s Talkin’,” the film’s theme. The movie propelled the song to the status of enduring hit, far outweighing Nilsson’s other significant contributions to American music culture, despite the song being a Fred Neil original while Nilsson’s own original track was overlooked. This was neither uncommon in the late 1960s folk scene nor Nilsson’s career specifically, as folk musicians and record labels swapped covers and songwriting credits almost haphazardly, and certainly without so much pretense regarding copyright as they do today. Continue reading

[1969] Midnight Cowboy

What a difference a year makes. Between 1969 and 1970, between Midnight Cowboy and Patton, some monumental shift realigned what kind of film could earn the Most Prestigious Award in western filmmaking. Not only are both movies enshrined as Best Picture winners, but are almost thematic polar opposites released just a few months apart. If we extend a film metaphor, that what we capture and release on film accurately reflects some kind of zeitgeist, it follows logically that we can assume the world changed significantly between the end of the decade and the start of the next. But let’s talk about a film’s MPAA “rating:” the elusive “X” given to Midnight Cowboy and the harmless “PG” awarded to Patton in 1970. Was public attitude shifting away from the queer and more towards the centre and the normal?

Since its creation, the Motion Picture Association of America has attempted to create some soft and hard guidelines as to regulate the movie-making process. Originally founded in 1922 (making it older than the Academy), the MPAA sought to create a standard for filmmakers, actors, producers and financiers to ensure stability, both financially and, for a while, morally. For the first 46 years in existence, the MPAA sought (especially under Will Hays) to standardize theme, content and production to a code up to focus on “wholesome” films and ones that don’t include “profanity” or “indecency.” In 1968, after several revisions and unraveling of the restrictive code, Jack Valenti sought to rework Hays’ code into the modern rating system still in use today – shifting the morality burdens off of the producers and onto the viewers, and specifically the parents of children Hays tried to protect.

Curious, then that Midnight Cowboy won an Oscar as the first (and only) X-rated film. This fact is mostly irrelevant seeing as the definition of an X-rated film has changed even more dramatically from 1968 to 2014 than the code has from 1922 to 1968; the definition of profanity has changed more than the actuality of the content; the technology and clarity of the filmmaking process has overshadowed the content somewhat. More likely than not, the rating created fantastic hype around the film, whose only true X-rated premise delves into the correlation between male prostitution and homosexuality. These themes in 2014 most likely would earn this film a soft R-rating – and in fact the newly reformed MPAA rerated the X-rating into an R fewer than 2 years after its release. Continue reading

[1967] In The Heat Of The Night

“They call me MISTER Tibbs,” exclaimed the defiantly proud man of the same name. Yet his powerful and oft cited utterance, Sidney Poitier commits to his role as a detective first and a black man second. In The Heat Of The Night wants its audience to know that and this strict adherence to logic and archetype afford it the grace to convey a simple, strong and solid message about the state of affairs in the tepid South. It, of course, succeeded, but its lasting impression is still this iconic line. What’s the film even about?

Therein lies an interesting discussion. Will canon remember 1967’s Best Picture winner for its story? Its contributions to peeling back the racial onion? Or, in 53 years, when it turns 100, will people only remember Poitier’s crystallized, most likely off-hand remark, and forget that his screen partner, Rod Steiger, actually took the Oscar for Best Actor? As a hopeful metaphor for racial acceptance and gradual change in the post-Jim Crow Stouth, Steiger’s Gillespie can be a particular metaphor for acceptance at one’s own pace – if not acceptance, then at least some kind of mutual respect. This kind of reformation might be included in our own epoch’s education against intolerance.

Curiously, a high correlation exists among AFI’s “100 Years…100 Quotes” index and Oscar nomination, In The Heat Of The Night included. In fact, all but two out of the top 20 were nominated for Best Picture; these two outliers, “Go ahead, make my day,” from 1983’s Sudden Impact and “Made it, Ma! Top of the world,” from 1949’s White Heat are respected enough to earn a watch. But being that 18 of 20 are Best Picture nominees and winners, one can reasonably assume an iconic quote might give way for a nomination or a win. Do writers know this and purposefully try to include a line to punctuate a harangue, or one in context that has particular cultural resonance? This kind of effort begs failure.

Several explanations would attempt to explain the global significance of certain lines in film over decades  – “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn,” “May the force be with you,” “Toto, I’ve got a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore” – but in the context of In The Heat Of The Night, what makes “They call me MISTER Tibbs,” so significant? A combination of who said it, when it was said, why he said it, etc., contributes to its significance; the milieu gives the text contextual significance, but a more compelling explanation examines the gestalt significance of this film’s release. Imagine if, instead of in a post-Jim Crow universe, this film takes place in a post-gay marriage world, let’s say 2020, and instead of Poitier, Neil Patrick Harris, utters the words, “They call me MISTER Tibbs.” Impossible to tell outside an alternate universe where NPH’s version is the only version released, this inquiry falls victim to inherent comparison. In this alternate world, though, social activism has become norm and global, rather than fringe and provincial. Do we care about this line in a modern context? Continue reading