06 February 2011

I Go A Long Way to Say Nice Things About Three Films: La Strada, Groundhog Day and No Country For Old Men

Truthfully I don't find much of a difference between movies and "real life." Particularly inasmuch as films are so integral to my understanding of the world.

Many of the films I like the best help inform my understanding of the universe. They can serve as a prism through which I view the world or as window or better still a way to feel about the world.

I'm growing increasingly impatient with films that waste my time. Of course being particularly careful about what I watch helps, but still there's always an occasional stinker that I sit through quite by mistake.

A bad movie is like some interloper who strikes up a conversation with you while you could be reading a really good book.

Regular readers of this blog (both of us) know that I've been contemplating death a great deal these days. The passing of one my very best friends (a previously healthy athletic person two years my junior) a few weeks ago has had a lot to do with this. But so too has been my obsession these past few months with the films of Ingmar Bergman and Woody Allen. Whether Bergman's Cries and Whispers (1972) or Allen's Love and Death (1975), the topic of human mortality is ever present in their work. As I've previously stated, this is in large part because their film's are great celebrations of life and ergo must dwell upon the opposite.

This has  been a cathartic experience for me and allowed for full recognition and acceptance of the fact that some day I will cease to be too. It's a relief. There's no use getting all depressed about it either. If one wants to feel miserable there's plenty going on among the living to do the job. Humans have thus far show no signs of evolving anywhere near a point where violence is not part and parcel to many of our cultures. That however is a subject for another time.

I've been fortunate enough recently to spend some time with some remarkable films. I've wanted to write about the last three that I've watched, but as I sit in front of a keyboard, or a pad of paper the proper words have eluded me. Mind you I've had plenty to say, but it's all been a lot of adjectives about acting, directing, scripts cinematography and the like.

The truth is I've felt it inadequate to go prattling on about how great something is. There are some really fun blogs that do nothing but extoll the virtues of various stars, directors or genres. Lots of lists, glowing adjectives and photos. This blog has frequently done the same.

But here's the deal: I've realized that far from anything being wrong with it, these are perfectly delightful blogs or blog posts to spend time with. We need not always take a critical eye to those things we enjoy. It's fine sometimes to just lead the applause.

But, you should excuse the expression, that's not where my head has been at recently. I have sought profundity, wisdom and insight. I've only wanted to share truths and stir thoughts. You see, I've gotten rather full of myself.

I hate pretense in others so I shouldn't have a bit of it from myself. Instead let me just rave about those three films I've watched this past week.

First there was La Strada (1954) the film that put Federico Fellini on the proverbial map, at least in terms of the US of A. Anthony Quinn and Giulietta Masina are transcendent as a traveling strongman and his abused assistant. Ms. Masina (the director's wife, by the by) could not be more endearing as the impish, clownish girl who is literally sold to the strongman.

I find La Strada an extremely difficult film to write about. (You have no idea how long it took to come up with the preceding sentence.) For one thing it can initially seem quite depressing.  There is a killing (however unintentional), a consequent mental breakdown. A parting of the ways and the discovery of our heroine's death by the grief stricken strong man. Yet this is an oddly uplifting film.

Perhaps it is simply a case of it being such robust film making. This is a much sparer film then future Fellini classics such as La Dolce Vita (1960). At least in terms of characters. It is at its heart as its title implies a road picture. The road of life maybe. Perhaps a look at destiny.

The real point may be that this is picture to appreciate for its richly drawn characters and their experiences and best of all the way their story is told. There are any number of indelible scenes. The circus, the spaghetti dinner, the high wire act, the night in the nunnery.

Okay, I still don't know what to say about La Strada. Except I love it. There, I said it!

Is the second film a contemplation of hell or of redemption?

Is it an amusing comedy or one of the deepest contemplations of the human condition ever filmed?

It is Groundhog Day (1993) and I submit that the answer to the above questions is: both. Surely you know the story. For one man the same day keeps repeating itself and he is the only person aware of it.

The man is Phil Connors (Bill Murray) a conceited, cynical, inconsiderate TV weatherman from Pittsburgh assigned to cover the Groundhog Day festivities in Punxsutawney where a groundhog is called upon every second of February to forecast how much Winter is remaining. Phil is not the sort to do quaint or kitschy, he aspires to a network gig. There's a new producer, Rita (Andie MacDowell) along for the trip along with dopey cameraman (Chris Elliot).

Phil goes to bed at the end of a frustrating day in which a storm has kept him trapped in town. He wakes up the next morning to find that it's not the next morning but the previous one. This happens again, and again and again and again and again for what director Harold Ramis has said is ten years worth of February the 2nds.

It remains a brilliant idea for a film because it is so open to interpretation. I watched it on, of all days, Groundhog Day. It got me thinking about how I would use the blessing/curse of repeating a day. For one thing I'd become fluent in French and for another I'd read all the great works of literature that I've still not gotten around to. But of course the film at it's heart is a study of how we choose to live our lives and interact with those around us. And how rare it is to get a second, let alone a 1,000th chance. Connors finally learns to embrace life and make the most of himself and be honest and loving. What a wonderful message.

We close with No Country For Old Men (2007) one of that tiny, tiny percentage of films that I believe is worthy of the tile masterpiece. The Coen Brothers made as close to perfect a film as possible, right down to and including the ending that had so many yokels saying: "huh?" It was no the nice tidy wrap up that most people want from a movie. It concluded exactly as did Cormac McCarthy's book of the same name that it was so faithfully adopted from.

It is a great gift indeed when a film allows us to decide that nagging question: then what? Besides a pat ending would have ruined the opportunity the NCFOM provides to wonder. Just who or what was Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem)? Why the car accident? Was he meant to symbolize the grim reaper? Why the code of killing he lived by? Why did he so scrupulously avoid blood?

NCFOM is powerful meditation on death. (And is it not interesting that the two main characters who die do so off camera?) It is fascinating to watch the manner in which Chigurh dispenses it and also note how Kelly MacDonald's and Woody Harrelson's characters face the inevitable.

But what came through most clearly for me with my latest viewing was Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones). He has such a sad (and yet sometimes funny) wisdom about the world expressed eloquently (verbatim from the novel) at the beginning and end of the story and a few parts in between. He is involved in no acts of violence but sees its sad aftermath and is left to contemplate it. He makes two references to other heinous crimes. Like many of us Ed Tom can make no sense of this sad aspect of human behavior. Of one crime he says that you could not make such stuff up and "I'd defy you to try."

This is not, in some respects, an easy film to watch. But it is so very rewarding. This is a case of film making aspiring to the power of great literature and actually succeeding. 


Tudor Queen said...

Beautiful. I understand what you mean about the way that, for some of us, film and 'real life' are integrally woven together. My ex used to get annoyed with my constant film references - it may be one of the reasons he's my ex!

I agree with your musings on all three films, having seen them each multiple times and always come away with something more to consider. I'd even venture into the heresy of saying that I got more from the film of "No Country For Old Men" than from the novel. And thank you for highlighting Tommy Lee Jones's exceptional but mostly underrated work in that film.

Martin Keller said...

When you say that sometimes rather than criticize we should lead the applause, I wholeheartedly agree. I've recently been thinking about art v. craft.

When you're young or just not in the know, the simplest of movies or songs can blow you away. They reach through to you, there connection to you is not jaded by your knowledge of filmmaking or songwriting or of the actual players involved. But as I've grown up and have become increasingly involved with and dependant upon movies and music, I have lost some of that organic connection. I have traded the unfettered joy of art for the interesting knowledge of craft. It's a different type of celebration and appreciation. I find things impressive instead of wonderful. Everything is qualified. But somehow, things are richer, the horizons widened, the windows are down and the breezed is blowing and now I can discriminate. I know when I'm being sold a product as opposed to being shown the depth of the human condition.

Yet I still pine for the unhindered beauty of art, and of ignorance.

Oh, and film informs my every waking moment. I could talk about it forever I think.