Monday, October 17, 2011

Your Next Best Film List

 There is a list of 'best' films that no one seems to argue with. Best film of all times? Easy. Citizen Kane. Best musical of all times? Also, easy. Singin' in the Rain. Greatest comedy of all times? Some Like It Hot.

I am not saying that these are indeed the greatest, but they have been commonly received as such. Personally, I never found Some Like It Hot all that hilarious. I like Singin' in the Rain a lot, and I am always happy to watch it when it is on. But is it the greatest? Of course, the question is silly in that it is not quatifiable. I have compiled a list of movies that, for right or wrong, are universally acknowledged at the greatest of their genre and I have offered an alternative, just to expand your viewing options and let you join in in the best-film list silliness.

1- Your Next Greatest Film Of All Times - Citizen Kane is cited as the greatest film of all times, often by people who might not like it very much, often by people who have never seen it. The wonder of Kane is that it is a great film that is actually tremendous fun to watch. As an alternative, why not try The Magnificent Ambersons, the film that Orson Welles made after Kane? The Magnificent Ambersons doesn't have the stylistic dazzle of Kane. It is a subtler film. Its story is told in a linear fashion by an omniscient narrator, as opposed to the fun-house mirror narrative technique of Kane. The more traditional story-telling method gives the story and characters greater appeal than the endlessly fascinating but somewhat remote characters in Kane. The Magnificent Ambersons was a victim of RKO studio politics. The final edit was not by Welles and the final two scenes seem to belong to another film. Although more muted than Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons is still emotionally overwhelming. Agnes Moorehead's performance alone ensures its immortality.

2- Your Next Greatest Musical Of All Times - There doesn't seem any room for argument. Singin' in the Rain is the greatest musical of all times. Period. End of discussion. Yet..... Doesn't the Broadway Melody number go on way too long? Aren't the characters, while endearing, a little cardboard? Singin' in the Rain is so solidly recognized as the greatest that it almost seems heresy to propose an alternative. However, I submit for your consideration Vincente Minnelli's 1944 masterpiece Meet Me In St. Louis. The film has something that most musicals lack: a great book. It depicts the life of the somewhat quirky Smith in the year leading up to the opening of the 1904 World's Fair. The characters are well-rounded. The film has great period nostalgia and some sentimentality, but enough vinegar to keep the enterprise from becoming too cloying. The songs are a mixture of original and period compositions, and they flow organically from the action. There is a Hallowe'en scene that is genuinely creepy. A totally satifying film experience.

3- Your Next Greatest Historical Romance - Even ignoring the racial insensitivities and the romanticising of the Antebellum slave-owning Dixie, Gone WIth The WInd is a dull, elephantine work. As an alternative, try Jezebel from 1937, starring Bette Davis and Henry Fonda. Legend has it that Warner Brothers Studio created the film as a consolation prize when Bette Davis did not win the coveted role of Scarlett O'Hara. Davis' character is certainly as self-centered and headstrong as Scarlett, The MGM 'Tradition Of Quality' often can over-inflate a film. Here the grittier Warner Brothers production values make this a more engaging and satisfying film. The story is tightly told, the performances are wonderful, and it is all in glorious black and white

4- Your Next Greatest Adventure Romance - The favorite in this category must be Casablanca, a film I believe deserves all the praise and devotion it has garnered over the years. So, why not stay in the same mood with an alternative film? You say you like Humphrey Bogart thwarting Nazi operatives in the company of beautiful women? Why not try To Have And Have Not, based on what Hemingway called his worst book. The locale in Martinique is gritty in the best Waner Brothers fashion. The supporting cast is as wonderful as that of Casablanca, with a beautiful performance by Walter Brennan. What makes this stiff competition for Casablanca is the sexual fireworks between Bogart and Lauren Bacall in her film debut. Watching these two falling in love is a sophisticated pleasure.

5- Your Next Greatest Christmas Movie - Yes. I know. The greatest Christmas movie is It's A Wonderful Life. It is interesting to note that this 1946 film was not very popular when it premiered. Perhaps such a downbeat film coming right after the end of World War II was not what the public wanted. People had been through enough hardship and sacrifice and maybe were weary of this film's message of one's obligation to one's fellow man and the importance of sacrificing your dreams for others' well-being. I have found this film's message very troubling and have often voiced my dislike of it, courting physical danger from proponents of the Bedford Falls saga. Jimmy Stewart is on record as saying this is his favorite film of his career. I don't believe him. Not when he played the leads in Vertigo, The Shop Around The Corner, Rear Window and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. As an alternative, try Christmas In Connecticut from 1945. Much slighter than It's A Wonderful Life, it is also much cozier and sweeter. For a good dash of comedy you have supporting actors of the caliber of Sydney Greenstreet, S. Z. Sakall and Una O'Connor. Plus a love story centered on the very sexy Barbara Stanwyck and Dennis Morgan. I look forward to seeing Macushla every year.

6- Your Next Greatest Comedy - I do not like Some Like It Hot. I find it nasty, sexist and boring. I don't say this too loudly in public for the same reason that I don't express my true feelings about It's A Wonderful Life. However, I do love The Palm Beach Story by genius producer-writer-director Preston Sturges. This film is an absurdist trip down the rabbit hole worthy of Lewis Carroll. Insane situation piles up on top of insane situation, leading to an exhilarating, insane climax. Along the way, we encounter some of the wisest observations of love ever made. The dialog is so fast and so brilliant that you might not get just how brilliant this film is the first time around, but, lest you fear that it is simply a brainy comedy of manners, rest assured that there is enough slapstick to satisfy your baser comedy needs. Claudette Colbert and Joel McCrea's madcap journey from Manhattan to Palm Springs leads to mind-boggling encounters with a canvas of characters as varied as an oracular Pullman Car conductor, the Princess Centimiglia, the libidinous sister of the Rockerfelleresque Rudy Vallee and of course, the Wienie King, who is the closest I have seen to a Deus-Ex-Machina in American film.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Achieving Timelessness

The most discussed film of the past year must be Terrence Malick's The Tree Of Life. There was never any doubt that the film would be devoured by cineastes. Malick is a famously reclusive director who surfaces after long periods of silence with films of great beauty. Film lovers have ecstatic memories of their first viewing of his Days of Heaven (1978). With only five feature films in thirty-eight years, expectations for The Tree of Life were understandably high.

The film is stunning to look at, but quite cagey in its intentions. Just what is it doing? It seems to be concerned with depicting the life of a young family in Waco, Texas in the early 1950s. Their lives are presented in an impressionistic fashion. We don't get their story, rather we get the shape of their story. The film also attempts to put this very specific place and time in the context of the birth and death of the whole universe. A curious interlude with dinosaurs may echo tensions between the main character and his father. Scenes of the birth of planets contrasts with a highly stylized sequence at the end of the film where all the characters appear to be meeting beyond death in the shallow waters of a barren lake bed. Blissful scenes of summer evenings of childhood contrast with angst-ridden scenes in modern-day Houston's barren office buildings. The angst is never clearly articulated although it is effectively presented, just as the beauty of those summer nights is only evoked.

I left the theater dissatisfied. Subsequent attempts to get at the core of the film didn't yield much either. It is discussed in hushed, reverent tones and attempts to pin down its meaning are often dismissed as shallow efforts of a philistine.

The Tree Of Life left my consciousness quickly after seeing it. It wasn't until I recently watched John Ford's She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (1949) again that I began to re-engage with it. I was able to come to a better understanding of it through the lens of that Western.

She Wore A Yellow Ribbon is the second in a loosely connected series of films often referred to as John Ford's 'Cavalry Trilogy'. It follows Fort Apache (1948) and precedes Rio Grande (1950). The films are only connected in that they depict cavalry life on the frontier right after the Civil War. Curiously, the characters played by Ben Johnson and Victor McGlaglen have the same names even though they are not playing the same people from film to film.

The film takes place in a very specific time. The voice-over introducing the film informs us that Custer has just been killed, which places us in late 1876. The Indian Wars seem to be winding down, but there are still pockets of resistance from tribes fighting the encroachment of the white man on ancestral lands. The Civil War also casts a long shadow over the events of the film. Sgt. Tyree (Ben Johnson) constantly reminds us that he is a son of the confederacy and states that the letter of honor that Capt. Brittles receives at his retirement would be even more meaningful if it contained Robert E. Lee's signature along with Grant, Sherman and the others. The officer killed at Sudros Wells lies in state under the Stars and Bars.

This anchoring of the film into this specific era is done with a plethora of details of the time. The minute detailing of daily life, a hallmark of Ford films, is evident here in the depiction of life at Fort Starke. We go with the soldiers to the genearl store that doubles as a bar. Young officers and their girls go, or at least attempt to go on picnics. Friendships, rivalries and camaraderie among the soldiers is fleshed out by small, almost off-handed detail. Though unessential to the plot, dances, scouting parties and troop exercises give a great feel for life in that place at that time.

This very attention to detail has the dual effect of solidly locating the action in a time and place, but it also expands the everyday aspect of the film into the epic and timeless. Consider how She Wore A Yellow Ribbon depicts the whole spectrum of love and marriage:

a -The trajectory of the flirtation between Olivia Dandridge and Lts. Cohill and Pennell points  to an inevitable marriage just beyond the end of the film. Here we see the budding romance ending in almost fairy-tale like coupling.

b- The mature relationship between Col. Allshard and his wife Abby, affectionately referred to as 'Old Ironpants', shows the quiet understanding and wordless communication that only comes after years of being together. They represent the high point of relationships.

c- As Olivia and her beaux show us the beginnings of love and marriage, the poignant visits of  Capt. Brittles to the grave of his wife depict the relationship that exists even after death.

This multifaceted depiction of love and marriage lifts the movie into a timeless rumination of just what love and marriage is. It is no longer the story of these individual characters. It is the story of love itself.

The way that the various stages of military service are shown in the film also lifts it out of a particular time and place. The whole notion of 'career' is laid out before us.

a- She Wore A Yellow Ribbon begins with a clear statement that Nathan Brittles along with Sgt. Quincannon are soon to retire from active service. This is another of the trajectories that create the framework of the film. Brittles and Quincannon are career soldiers on the brink of the unknown. What will they do once they leave the cavalry? They look ridiculous in the suit of civilian clothes they both try on. Brittles talks off-handedly about going west, perhaps to California, but going west means going into the setting sun, and the setting sun metaphorically means one thing only.

b- But with then end of the career of these two hardened soldiers, the career of two green cadets on  the rise. Cohill is poised to take the reins of command from Brittles. We are anxious about his inexperience and callowness, but as the commander says, everyone must make their first run cross the river under gunfire. He will gain his experience just like Brittles did.

c- The counterbalance to these two is Sgt. Tyree. He is a seasoned soldier at the height of his career.  He, too, will be at the fort after Brittles has gone, but he will be gone long before Cohill retires.

The sense of epic is taken a step further with the hint of a past history, of things that happened before the story begins. This is so beautifully depicted in the scene at the camp of Chief Pony-That-Walks. Ford creates a sense of tension and fear that the situation could explode into violence. We are afraid because even the usually cool and collected Sgt.Tyree is visibly nervous. However, Brittle strides into the camp. What gives him the confidence? We soon see that he has an almost brotherly relationship with Pony-That-Walks. They are both relics of a time when Indians and white men, while not exactly friends, at least respected each other. They can speak each others' languages. They have smoked the peace pipe together.

The tragedy is that it is too late for peace. Our glimpse of Brittles and Pony-That-Walks as leaders of their respective men, is but a shadow of what they now are. Their civilized friendship is swept aside by the zeal of a new generation bent on the annihilation of the other side. Even though it is not shown, we know the history of these two men. By being able to sense what they were, we leave the 'present' time of the film and are aware of history rushing past them.

I feel that the concreteness of the depiction of time and place in She Wore A Yellow Ribbon allows it to accomplish what The Tree of Life tries to do, but ultimately fails to do. The obliqueness of The Tree of Life prevents it from attaining the epic and timeless, something that She Wore A Yellow Ribbon does with seeming effortlessness.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

I'd Give My Head To Know What Really Happened Up There

This is all you can know, all you can be told. When you get where I am, you will know the rest. 
-Sunny von B├╝low, Reversal of Fortune

Demand me nothing: what you know, you know: From this time forth I never will speak word. 
- Iago, Othello Act V, scene ii

Picnic At Hanging Rock presents a mystery that is never solved. On Valentine's Day 1900, three teenage girls from an upper class boarding school, along with one of their teachers, disappear during a day-trip to a local geological wonder. One of the girls reappears several days later with no memory of what happened. The other three are gone forever.  Bits of information begin to appear, which we try to piece together in an attempt to explain the events of that fateful day, but they are contradictory and frustrating.  The leads to any real resolution eventually run cold. The facts we are left with are flimsy and arbritrary. We can't make anything of them and we soon let go of any hope of solving the mystery.

Picnic At Hanging Rock uses this mystery to draw us into its world.  The urgency to find out what happened is so compelling that we don't realize how immersed we have become in its universe. Once we come to know that we will never know the answer, we are beyond caring. We have become deeply involved in the lives of everyone depicted.  The disappearance is a MacGuffin worthy of The Birds.

The opening scenes carefully depict a tightly buttoned world that has much bubbling below the surface.  The rigid formality of the girls' school is soon to unravel. The budding sexuality of the students will give way to tragedy and hysteria. The placid young Englishman (Dominic Guard) visiting his dim, aristocratic aunt and uncle, will lose his Victorian impassivity in a burst of passion and yearning.  The disapperance is a catalyst for all this. The way the bird attacks afford us a window into the complicated lives of Melanie Daniels and the burgers of Bodega Bay is comparable to the way the disappearances in this film enable us to have an intense identification with those left behind.

So often an unsolved mystery can be audience-baiting. One watches such films as Mulholland Drive or the series Twin Peaks, tantalized by the direction the clues to the various mysteries are leading. The clues to the mysteries of Twin Peaks or Mulholland Drive are as inconclusive as the clues in Picnic At Hanging Rock, but I believe the audience feels a betrayal in the Lynch productions.  As we watch those works, we come to realize that not only are the clues red herrings, but the movies themselves are only about these red herrings. We are frustrated by all the work we are doing to bring it into some sort of order.  

The reason that Picnic at Hanging Rock is so powerful is not that the mystery is unsolved, but that the mystery becomes irrelevant. The honest emotion we share with the protagonists is the true gift of this film. By having us identify so closely with the characters' need to know, we penetrate their psyches.

The various components work beautifully to mesmerize and overwhelm us.

The first element to make an impression is the haunting pan flute score by Zamfir.  The music is odd and ancient sounding, reminiscent of the digeridoo.  The unresolved, yearning melodies parallel the story.

The costumes are another critical elements in the character studies. Michael's three piece suit and top hat in the sweltering February heat emphasize how he is trapped in his late Victorian world.  As he becomes obsessed with finding the girls, his dress becomes looser and more relaxed.  The white dresses of the girls give them the aura of the Botticelli angel that we hear Mlle. de Poitiers talking of.  We also know that under the dresses are the constricting girdles, one of which will be the 'clue' that ultimately tips the mystery into insolubility.

The gradual dishevelment of the helmet-like hairstyle of the terrifying Mrs. Appleyard (played, in a tour de force performance, by Rachel Roberts) does as much as anything to underline the unraveling of this Fury of a schoolmistress.

The film obsessively repeats images, each time having them loaded with more and more emotion.  The final glimpse of Miranda at the end brings home to us how the compounding of disparate clues has actually brought us to a profound emotional climax.

The mystery has revealed everything.