[1935] Top Hat

On-screen couples are always more attuned to one another, mostly because the relationship is manufactured. And that’s a fine outcome. It’s fine for people writing a story to include some sort of idealized hook to control for chaos down across screen-time. This type of escapism is not new, but when filmmakers began to craft narrative on screen as a mainstream prospect in the mid-1930s, audiences could share in seeing these emotions on screen for the first time. Books, while accessible, left much of the narrative in a reader’s hands; movies, did a lot more showing than telling. The best movies, still, do a lot more showing than telling.

Top Hat is a raw and clever “screwball” romantic comedy, on the heels of It Happened One Night, pitting two electrifying performers together in Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. How iconic are these two? Their names, if not what they’re known for, have been dragooned through film and entertainment history as icons (especially Fred Astaire; this might be because his last name is also, for a song’s sake, extremely rhymable). Astaire played his Jerry-as-dancer before his Jerry-as-actor, and Ginger played her Dale-as-well-rounded everywoman. They’re each other’s foil. The writing places these two characters as far apart as possible, but circumstance (also the writer) pulled them together in the laziest way possible: stage directions.

But what Top Hat is, above all, is a fun movie about attractive people making easy choices. There’s no doubt that Jerry and Dale would be together and the fun in this movie are the song-and-dance breaks that brought both Astaire and Rogers their fame. The movie’s heel is instantly dislikeable, and the minor characters are hapless memes. To be totally fair, this package works as a storytelling device and has been repeated in almost every romantic comedy, ever. Top Hat, its predecessors and its emulators, made it fine to escape into the hazy laze, and audiences were thankful for it. Dotted throughout film history are romcoms with different iterations on the manufacture; often if there was a new leap in technology, screenwriters would find a new way to wink-wink the leads apart. (Oh no! My AIM chat got disconnected!) Continue reading

[1974] The Towering Inferno

In the “normal” course of a “normal” person’s “normal” morning or evening, things happen both to and around the individual . These things are stimuli of various levels of control. In some instances, the individual acts on a thing that directly affects his or her environment and other times things happen in quick succession outside of anyone’s direct control. As living creatures, humans react and respond to external stimuli either consciously, unconsciously, or subconsciously, and as rational beings some among humans understand the relationship among many causes and effects, feedback loops, iterations, and dead-ends. Enlightenment via order is certainly a waste of precious time considering that we float through space with the capriciousness of the things that happen to us and to everyone else. To wrangle is to fight entropy – a natural state of chaos and disorder. This is true, normality is a subsection of chaos. The “normal” accident, then, is one of a confluence of seemingly random happenings en route to disaster. Thus simplifies the premise of The Towering Inferno.

The film itself is straight-forward, but seems to stall for about two hours in between the introduction of the problem and the eventual resolution. An as-of-yet-to-be detected fire starts in an inconspicuous closet on a single floor of over a hundred, and because of dramatic necessity, the whole building bursts into flames while hundreds of people panic 50 floors up. The story weaves through character profiles whose motivations do not really matter, so the sense of urgency falls somewhat flat, and whose outcomes feel random – normal even. Both Steve McQueen and Paul Newman vie for the audience’s affections, and mostly succeed, though they both seem to want this love in its entirety. Fred Astaire makes a legacy performance worthy of an Oscar, Jennifer Jones exits on a high note, and O.J. Simpson practiced his own peculiar brand of acting, for which he would soon become infamous. Together, this ensemble cast in this situation should have made The Towering Inferno an exciting and enjoyable watch. Normally, it would have been, but the specifics behind the scenes somewhat doomed this picture to bloat and disorder.  Continue reading