08 July 2014

Reds - The Passion of Reed; Stephen Fry Does America; And I Proclaim a New Number One

For our Independence Day viewing we selected that thoroughly patriotic film, Reds (1981).  It is a movie rich with ideas political historical and philosophical and all neatly wrapped within a love story.

Warren Beatty directed and starred as John Reed the leftist journalist who penned the classic book about the Russian Revolution, Ten Days That Shook the World. Diane Keaton co-starred as his wife Louise Bryant herself a lefty and a writer. Other historical figures depicted include Emma Goldman (Maureen Stapelton) Eugene O'Neill (Jack Nicholson) Louis Fraina (Paul Sorvino) and, in smaller roles, Lenin Trotsky Max Eastman and Big Bill Haywood.

It's a great sprawling film of places history politics and ideas. It covers a tumultuous time in the world's history what with World War I and the Russian Revolution in the mix. There are arguments fights betrayals and passion -- the passion of John Reed who zealously pursued the story as a journalist while becoming part of the story. Beatty is not satisfied with merely giving history lessons or prodding audiences to consider political or philosophical discussions. There must also be romance. Young passionate people often hungrily pursue love -- or at least sex. With senses wide awake lust is just a shot away. The Reed-Bryant romance, at least as depicted here, was as enflamed as the times and included betrayal in the form of an affair between Bryant and O'Neill the sotted playwright. There is a familiarity about those scenes and a wise creepiness to Nicholson's performance than can be difficult for a man to watch. You'll be hard pressed to find a more sneaky cynical seducer.

Reds does not seem to be regarded as a classic which is something of a mystery to me. Perhaps it is viewed as espousing leftist politics and thus is a tad subversive for mainstream tastes. It's not a perfect film but it deserves a lofty place in the pantheon of historical epics. Its one of those movies that can send you scrambling to the history books to learn more (okay to wikipedia) and if you're of the type you may shed a tear or two. It really is a grand love affair and an example of grand scale story telling done right.
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It's wonderful to discover a gem in an unexpected place. I was looking for I knew not what on Netflix instant a few days ago and decided to give Stephen Fry in America (2008) a try. Fry is the classy witty British comic/actor/writer/BAFTA host famous for any number of reasons including his very public struggles with manic depression and bi polar disorder. He is charming and erudite without a hint of snobbery. Suffice to say I am a fan. I'd had this six part made for British telly series gathering dust on my instant queue for ages and it seemed the July 4th weekend was a logical time to take it for a test drive. I hadn't expected much but I got plenty.

In late 2007 early 2008 Fry visited every state in the US via a London cab that had been refashioned for American roadways. The result was an absolute delight. There was no pretense to Fry as he hobnobbed with a lobster fisherman in Maine, a wiccan in Massachusetts, a prostitute in Nevada, a trucker in Nebraska a convict in Mississippi a bigfoot pursuer in Oregon and an inuit whaler in Alaska -- to name but a few. Stephen Fry, despite his height, talks down or looks down on no man or woman. Only in speaking to the camera would he comment on the vulgarity of this or the silliness of that and never at the expense of one of his interviewees. He showed the same sort of respect he was afforded.

The show is an utterly charming and surprisingly comprehensive look at America, Americans and Americana. It actually gives an anti patriot such as myself an appreciation for the -- excuse the cliche -- rich tapestry that makes up this country. It also is a stunning look at the geographic magnificence of a country that boasts such wonders as the Grand Canyon, Great Plains, Everglades, and huge national forests and long coastlines. The show is a great way to look at the US through a foreigner's eyes and learn no small about it. It's nice to see America without any political rancor and without red and blue states but just with people. Fry of course is the ideal host and I only wish there were many hours more of the program.
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"They probably sit around on the floor with wine and cheese, and mispronounce allegorical and didacticism." - Woody Allen as Isaac Davis in Manhattan.

So it happens that every once in awhile -- and I've checked I have a right to do this -- I'll change my number one movie favorite move of all time. It hasn't happened in long time nor does it occur often. But it did this past weekend. After many years at the top The Godfather (1972) gave way to Woody Allen's Manhattan (1979). The Earth has not spun off its axis as a consequence.

(It might be worth noting that Diane Keaton is in both the aforementioned films as well as the previously mentioned Reds and of course The Godfather: Part II. She was on quite a run for about a dozen years. Another actress who had a similar golden age was Faye Dunaway who appeared in Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Little Big Man (1970)Chinatown (1974), Three Days of the Condor (1975) and Network (1976) over a ten year stretch appearing opposite Warren Beatty, Dustin Hoffman, Jack Nicholson, Robert Redford, and William Holden, respectively.)

The film Manhattan has been in my life since it first hit theaters 35 years ago. Like most Allen movies it is smart and witty and character driven. Allen has always managed to create characters with relatable neurosis such as Manhattan's protagonist Isaac.  He is intellectual without being pretentious or pedantic and he loves women. His relationships include a high school student (Mariel Hemingway) and a highly neurotic writer named Mary (Keaton) and his ex-wife (Meryl Streep) who has taken up with another woman and written a book about the dissolution of her marriage to Isaac -- much to his chagrin.

Isaac despises then falls in love with Mary. He dumps the teenager only to realize he's made a mistake. This after Mary has re-entered an adulterous relationship with Isaac's best friend. He also impetuously quits his job writing for a TV comedy show. Fickle is as fickle does. But Isaac never lapses into depression nor does he drown his sorrows and indeed he always has his sense of humor and a way of rolling with life's punches and if not always learning his lesson learning something along the way.

Manhattan is an exquisite film to look at (cinematography by the late great Gordon Willis who also shot the Godfather films) being a veritable love letter to the titular city. As with virtually all Allen films the musical score is a perfect accompaniment, in this case via the strains of Gershwin.

The film's ending recalls another classic cinematic climax, Charlie Chaplin's City Lights (1931). Whenever I finish watching Manhattan I feel refreshed excited and intellectually stimulated. I love it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Although both wonderful I generally think there are those who talk endlessly about Manhattan's open and those its ending. I'm in the latter camp. You have to have a little faith in people.