[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

[1929/30] The Divorcee

220px-the_divorcee_posterThomas Piketty, in his seminal book on modern economic theory, Capital in the 21st Century, makes several offhand references to literature, and specifically that of Honoré de Balzac. Piketty notes that since early Western governments, fickle and fragile, kept slipshod records for economic data, a reliable source would be theoretical banking accounts for fictional characters; the intent was to demonstrate certain patterns of investment and commercial practice common to the time, proxy for hard, verifiable data. Piketty’s review, defense of, and argument for Balzac’s France as evidence for certain thematic-banking practices is convincing if not scientifically sound. With bygone generations lost to the annals of history, anecdote trumps nothing whatsoever. Though closer to contemporary, 1929/30’s The Divorcee allows a brief glimpse into the psyche and tremulous nature of relationships as they once were.

The idea of divorce, conceptually, as passé offers insight into high society perhaps unavailable otherwise. Typical, Christian wedding vows come with something resembling “’til death do us part,” and in order for a priest to ordain a couple married, they both must agree to this. Marriage does not offer an opt-out clause, but divorce exists anyway. High society folks, according to this film, seem to slip in and out of marriage as an activity occasionally worth doing. The characters involved in phony love triangles just make decisions, almost irrespective to their feelings, as the point of marriage – the point – is to extend The Beautiful to The Damned, and extend a life of leisure without purpose to the next pit stop. Divorce, then, is not a response to a damning relationship; it is a next stop for wealth malaise and boredom, as Balzac, too, describes via literary realism in his works. Piketty recognizes this realism as does The Divorcee’s director, Robert Z. Leonard. Even though none of today’s audience lived in 18th-century France or through the Great Depression, this film’s striking take on the unexplored impacts of meaningless decisions, like marriage and divorce, among the wealthy, and note that even though the husbands or wives might make haphazard choices in love or lust, their impacts can cause similar social rifts to those current audiences explore. Except today’s audiences have access to anything at the click of a mouse. Continue reading

[1964] Zorba The Greek

Greek culture is historic and anthemic. Rooted in ancient and documented philosophies of civilized structure, Greek history tells interconnected stories of tragedy and progress, almost in an endless loop, that, if played out infinitely might stretch or shrink, but would ultimately end in chaos redux. Greek history, or dramatic Greek history, whichever an audience chooses to read, is ingrained as different from fundamentally similar cultures (city-states: think Italy or Korea, or even the United States before the ratification of the Constitution). But the fact about the human experience does not change with geography or within time’s endless bounds: humans are on a trajectory that is more prone to disorder and entropy than to ordered civilization. The beast of man is prone to self-destruction, through waves of doubt, existential crises, casus pacem or belli, and brief moments of nothingness. These things are pessimistic and true, to an extent. The best among the species have a keen eye to grab the vacuum between the schism of darkness and that of the belief that good exists without cause or reason. Zorba, the fictional Greek, was one of these men.

In the fifty or so years since Anthony Quinn danced on the graves of the Gods as Zorba, a hapless – but happy – man, the concept of whimsy has almost totally defined Greece as a bearer of cultural fruit. His lasting image as a human reflects, almost prophetically, the state of the Greek State: lovable and helpless, but loyal to a fault. It is important here to make the distinction between Greece and Grecian people. The whole, propped up by historical specters, will survive because the history is sewn into the global fabric for history and culture and without nation-state (younger than the US) as a form of object-permanence, the culture would disseminate and would slowly, and literally, Balkanize. The Greek people, however, remain in solidarity despite economic fulcra that drive wedges through the larger social fabric that determines a man’s worth should be determined by his stature and his things. Zorba profoundly rejects this notion and Zorba The Greek tells the story of the common truth: that in between want and need lies can.  Continue reading

[1978] Midnight Express

With the sound switched off cinema becomes a visceral and visual experience. Without audio clues to connect readers to narrative, a film becomes unhinged; and yet without visuals, an aural experience treats a reader to an era bygone when radio transmissions told history and the wondrous human brain filled in the appropriate imagery. It was a familial experience but a deeply personal one as well: only the individual reader can ever know the deep hues of dusk or staccato contours of landscape. It will vary from person to person but the amorphous nature of memory renders sharing this experience subjective, wrong, and boring. Knowingly watching a movie with the sound off is bizarre in a different way. This method allows for shared experiences; families huddled around a coffee table talking over the television as if it were furniture; waiting rooms with broken speakers; a neighbor’s airplane seat. If the reader has seen the film before, her memory will fill in gaps with enough internal dialogue to render the experience manageable or pleasant, even. It can be a new head for an old hat.

Midnight Express offers an experience situated somewhere in the middle. The visual is full and common to the reader, but the language is intermittent: Midnight Express is written in English but set in Turkish for all intents and purposes. A reader will learn facts and frames of mind from the language spoken among native English speakers (assuming that the reader’s native or learned tongue is English!), but the sparseness among the Turkish manifests in uncanny glares and pure contempt. Later, the team responsible for this movie would apologize for how Midnight Express portrayed native Turkish people – which is telling in embedded globalization that film would have an impact on international relations. This fact surrounds its lore, but the key point, and the middle-driver is that the production team deliberately omitted the Turkish subtitles, and with them the tacit understanding that language is merely a driver for understanding and not the sole purpose of language and meaning ipso facto. 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

[1937.6] In Old Chicago

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.  

Nearly eighty years later, In Old Chicago reads as representative of the film industry working many kinks out. For one, movies strove (and maybe still strive) to find the very difference between stage and screen, mostly with obvious differences to do with scale, scope and budget. For another, cinematographers, directors, producers and actors needed to work within technology available: gel film, mechanical cameras, low-light projectors, etc, etc.

The fact that any film existed before a majority of modern technology was commercially feasible is incredible, and we should watch older movies with such-colored glasses. In Old Chicago followed San Francisco as a quasi-blockbuster to feature a miniaturized disaster as precursor to modern computer generated images. To compare, performing in front of a live audience a stage troupe would never be able to convince an audience that a 1:100 scale of anything was supposed to represent “real,” and the choice of medium should be clear. Yet in the case of older film, predating digital film (surely), but also larger and more specific budgets, the cast and crew usually could muster perhaps two chances for the expensive, but visually stunning scenery and subsequent destruction. Make fun of the primitive at will and watch a modern post-produced action film with awe, but respect the vision and execution of the original action sequence for its vision. Continue reading

[1945] The Bells of St. Mary’s

In a previous post, I mentioned that, in the mid-1940s, the sequel was not the default for film production as it is today, both as a conscious method of storytelling and because the limited data did not support it. This ethos did not extend to the concept of character clearly, as The Bells of St. Mary’s resurrects Father Chuck O’Malley from his award-winning role in Going My Way. The concept is not problematic; the Father is a warm-hearted, level-headed, American folk hero whose predilections for conversation and reason helped to permeate the average American experience. This is one thing about which the studio can be and was sure.

Yet in Oscar hopscotch, thematic shifts have required course correction. In 1945, unlike in 1944, The Bells of St. Mary’s did not win Best Picture or Best Actor. Instead, those awards scuttled over to The Lost Weekend, a noir classic, often evoking superlatives as Billy Wilder’s best work or Ray Milland’s most striking performance, perhaps. The meta-drama within the sequence from 1944 to 1945 supports this blog’s theory that the award for Best Picture (and in some spirit other Academy Awards) is awarded based on mood, politics and especially an effort to document gestalt for the year in question. That a wholesome, Christian film won in 1944 over another noir film, and the roles reversed just a year later provides clear evidence in support of the theory.  Continue reading