28 February 2011

Shhh! Don't Tell Anyone (Especially in Hollywood) This Has Been Black History Month

Today marks the end of another Black History Month in the United States. It's again been time to recognize the contributions of African Americans in the building, defending and maintaining the country. It is also a time to reflect on the historic victories against repression and oppression earned by Black Americans during their long struggles for freedom and equality.

Among the areas where positive strides have been made is film. African Americans have come to enjoy greater participation and more positive portrayals in movies over the past 50 years. For far too long Blacks were shut out of the film industry except to play minor roles as maids, porters and all too often buffoons.

Now Hollywood's A List of stars includes important Black performers such as Denzel Washington, Halle Berry and Will Smith. Oscars for acting in both lead and supporting roles have gone to a number of African Americans over the past dozen years.

The times they have changed.

But hardly enough.

Quick, name some films this past year that dealt with issues particular to the Black experience. How many of the nominees for this year's Academy Awards, in acting categories, were black? Answer: none.

This mirrors what is happening within the country as a whole. The US has its first African American president, many of our greatest athletes and entertainers are black and society frowns on anything hinting at racism in public speech or deed. On the surface, all seems well. But as I noted in a recent post, the lot African Americans in general, those not endowed with natural athletic or perfroming talents, is at its lowest point in decades. Progress has ground to a halt. In the US today a Black male of college age is statistically more likely to be in prison than in a dorm.

Most troubling is the fact that this phenomenon is not part of our national discourse.

It is sometimes difficult to tell whether Hollywood is reflecting our culture or influencing it. In either case there has been virtually no serious films about the Black experience since Do the Right Thing (1989) and Boyz n the Hood (1991). Last year's Precious did receive widespread critical acclaim but it was also mocked by many white critics who evidently prefer minstrel shows to dramas featuring lower class African Americans.

I began pondering all this the other day when I saw the trailer for a documentary examining Hollywood's depiction of the Holocaust. In it Steven Spielberg actually had the cheek to say that Hollywood has veritably ignored the Holocaust.

Come again?

How about his own Schindler's List (1993)? The Pianist (2002)? The Pawnbroker (1964)? Sophie's Choice (1982)? The Boy in Striped Pajamas (2008)? Life is Beautiful? To name a few.

Now let's look at the long list of films that show slavery in America.....

All right, how about Reconstruction?

Okay, how about films dealing with the Jim Crow Era in the South?

And let's not leave out the countless films on the Civil Rights movement.....

Sadly there is virtually nothing in these categories. To his credit Spielberg directed Amistad (1997) which deals with the slave revolt of the same name. But it principally focuses on their court trials. Then there's the excellent Glory (1989) which looked at the all black 54th massachusetts regiment during the Civil War.

There are no recent films examining the Nat Turner Rebellion, the Underground Railroad or Frederick Douglass. WEB Dubois, Roy Wilkins or the Little Rock Nine all have stories that could easily be adopted to the screen. (To their credit HBO has recently presented a film on Thurgood Marshall, Thurgood.) In more recent times the works of community activits and organizers who have not gone on to the presidency could make for dramatic film stories. Instead I imagine we'll be seeing more Tyler Perry comedies replete with flatulating big mamas who remind some of the Uncle Tom and Aunt Jemima characters of old.

America and Hollywood have come a long way since the dark days of segregation. But the difference between a long way and job finished are great indeed.

26 February 2011

They Say That in Hollywood Oscar is King, Which I Suppose Means That it's a Corrupt Monarchy

You may not like a powerful winter storm or an oppressive summer heat wave but there they are, pretty hard to ignore. The same can be said of the annual Academy Awards. There is much to dislike about them for true cinephiles and much that should be ignored. But there it is.

I've made my disdain for the Oscars quite clear on numerous occasions. For every time the Best Picture award has gone to something deserving such as No Country For Old Men (2007), All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) or Casablanca (1942) there have been three or four travesties. Cases in point: How Green Was My Valley over Citizen Kane in 1941, Ordinary People over Raging Bull in 1980, An American in Paris over A Streetcar Named Desire in 1951, Rocky over Network and Taxi Driver in 1976 and who can ever forget the odious Crash winning in 2005 against fellow nominees as Brokeback Mountain, Good Night and Good Luck, Munich and Capote – all of which were far more deserving (which admittedly didn't take a lot).

The acting wards are often not given for the best performance but out of sentiment. Hence the laughable presenting of the Oscar for best Actor to John Wayne in 1969 (True Grit) over Dustin Hoffman (Midnight Cowboy). Paul Newman had deserved the award several times (especially for The Verdict (1982)) and they finally got around to rewarding him for a rather pedestrian performance in The Color of Money (1986). This year Colin Firth will win for The King's Speech. True, his performance was worthy of recognition, but he'll get it as much for having lost by a whisker last year to Jeff Bridges and for his impressive body of work as he will for stuttering like a King.

At any rate, this year's show will be "interesting" (I use the word loosely) because of the co-hosts, Anne Hathaway and James Franco. Word is the Academy wanted to lure a younger audience. On the one hand I feel that if you kiddies can't appreciate last year's hosting duo of Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin there's something seriously wrong with you. But, on the other hand, I really like both Hathaway and Franco and reckon that most folks share my fondness for them.

Both seem like people I'd want to hang out with. Franco is both popular and respected these days. He is the very antithesis of Charlie Sheen. He's acting, producing, writing and earning a Ph.D. Franco is clearly a young man with a strong social conscience but somehow seems not to avoid ticking off conservatives in the process, unlike Sean Penn.

The Oscars show is at its best when presenting their montages honoring someone or recognizing a particular type of film or genre. Their tribute to those Academy members who have died in the preceding year is also usually touching. Some of the acceptance speeches are quite nice though the majority seem to be from people we never heard of thanking still more people we have never heard of while we are left to twiddle our thumbs.

This year I fully expect The King's Speech to win the Oscar for Best Picture. It's the type of film that the academy loves. Historical drama, excellent costume design, nice sets and broad and wonderful acting performances. I found it an altogether mediocre movie. It had the story arc of the modern day sports picture. Someone struggling, gets a coach with unconventional methods, quits, comes back (didn't see that coming) overcomes handicap, big clutch victory as we cut to scenes of people in various places celebrating the triumph including the beaming coach. Ho hum. On a scale of one to ten its originality rating would be a two.

Two of the ten nominees are actually outstanding films. Winter's Bone and Black Swan. And the Coens' version of True Grit is laudable as well. A lot of people loved The Social Network. I thought it a nice enough movie and wouldn't argue a second with anyone who loves it. As a nod to 17 year old boys everywhere, Inception actually earned a nomination. Another nominee is The Kids Are All Right. This just proves that if the Academy will give the picture award to Crash, all bets are off.

So tomorrow night at around 9:30 in this time zone I know exactly what I'll be thinking: that's three hours I'll never get back. And now I'm going to watch The Searchers (1956). it didn't win the Best Picture award either.

22 February 2011

So You Want to Start Watching Westerns, an Introduction

So You Want to Start Watching _______is an occasional feature here at Streams of Unconsciousness. It is a guide to anyone unfamiliar with a particular star, director, genre, or time period in films. After a brief introduction, I will provide a sampling of films to watch. Although I will always strive to include the best possible films for each chapter in the series, I will also look to present representative work. I'll say a little bit about each film, all of which will be provided in chronological order. This is the third of the series. In the first I provided an introduction to the films of Humphrey Bogart the second was an intro to screwball comedies and in the third I introduced films of the 1970s.

Howdy Pardner. Y'all new to this here genre? No need to saddle up or tote your shootin iron, just mosey on over to yer Netflix queue or rustle up a DVD from the local livery stable or saloon.

Westerns, as the following list will help prove, span the entire history of cinema. Like any other genre there are within it classics, stinkers and the utterly average. A Western is generally agreed to be a story set in the area that constitutes the present day U.S. Usually from west of the Appalachians to east of the Sierra Nevadas. Sometimes spilling south into Mexico and north into Canada. The time period depicted is usually between Lewis & Clark (1806) and the end of WWI (1918), though most are in the post Civil War pre 20th century period.

Because there are a seemingly infinite number of Westerns that have basic stories of good guys and bad guys that are plainly told, the Western has gotten a bad rap with many snooty types like yours truly. Except yours truly appreciates movies of all stripes so long as they're good -- and boy howdy they's some Westerns that are doozies.

Westerns make for good cinema in large part because a director can paint his story across a grand canvass. Most good Westerns embody some aspects of the great length and breadth that was the America West of bygone times. While the wildness of the wild west has been greatly exaggerated, there was a fair amount of colorful outlaws (colorful so long as you didn't cross their paths) and heroic figures. And the west really did feature all manner of what we call characters. Odd, quirky, "touched" and sadistic. There was also the added element of the Native tribes who, as you may well know, where there first. For the most part they were done dirty in Westerns for the first 70 or so years of films. Stereotypical "ugh" spouting savages were convenient villains and foils. There has been a corrective to that over the years and depicting Native tribes in a more sympathetic light has added dimension to their stories and thus to the genre. Truly, the West is a setting that practically begs for myth making.

I set myself the ridiculous challenge of coming up with a starter set of only ten. I failed. Here are 12 films to wet your appetite. This is not a compilation of the greatest Westerns ever made nor a list of my favorites. This is designed to give the novice a broad sample of what's out there. I've attempted to  spread the choices out to represent various time periods in film (over 100 years) with a variety of directors and stars. This meant the inclusion of only two John Ford films on the list. He was the grand master of the genre.

I list plenty of other choices at the conclusion of this writing.

The Great Train Robbery (1903). Why not start at the beginning with a western made when the west was still wild? It was innovative, influential but only 12 minutes long. Still a fun film, not to mention a relic from the past.

The Big Trail (1930). A fairly early talkie and a much neglected film that finally was masterfully restored on DVD three years ago. Raoul Walsh directed this epic story of a wagon train on the Oregon Trail. It is replete with the requisite good guys, bad guys and romance. It was shot in wide screen well ahead of its time. This is a great Western to start with, containing, as it does, all the classic elements, including John Wayne.

Stagecoach (1939). The film that brought the Western back into fashion and helped revolutionize film making in the process. Orson Welles watched it repeatedly as he prepared to make a little film called Citizen Kane (1941). Ford masterfully contrasts the claustrophobic interiors of the stagecoach and other dwellings, with the wide open spaces.

The Westerner (1940). Yup, Even William Wyler directed a Western. Course it didn't hurt none that he had Gary Cooper and Walter Brennan in the cast, two old and future hands at Cow Poke stories. This is the best of the many cinematic tellings of the story of Judge Roy Bean, with Brennan playing the ole cuss.

Westward the Women (1951). Women as western heroes? Yup. From director William Wellman comes the story about a wagon train of women and one fella (Robert Taylor) making their way west to marry up with some lonely settlers. It's chock full of adventure and human drama. Also features fine performances from a relatively anonymous cast, Taylor aside. If you ain't a seen it, do so, pronto.

The Naked Spur (1953). James Stewart as you've never seen him before. Or rarely anyway. He's one tough, borderline mean hombre, pushed by desperation to extrememe measures. Robert Ryan is the real bad guy here (there's someone who could really play mean) and Stewart wants to bring him in for the reward. He just might get the scrumptious Janet Leigh as a boobie prize (watch it!)

The Searchers (1956). Is this the best Western ever made or is Stagecoach? I'll call it a toss up. John Ford directed both. This is a beautifully told story with many layers. And it includes Wayne's best performance. For more on this masterpiece, see this post of mine from two years ago.

Ride the High Country (1962). Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott were veterans of Westerns when they co-starred in this Sam Peckinpah directed film. It seems at first a rescue story (Mariette Hartley is the damsel in distress) but turns into a morality tale. Gorgeous scenery and two leads at the essentially finishing their careers playing men finishing their careers.

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). Will wonders never cease, Henry Fonda playing a low down dirty snake of a bad guy. In a spagehetti western no less. The director was Sergio Leone who was a master of the Pasta Oater. Fonda was an actor first and so had no trouble convincing audiences he was a rat. Charles Bronson is the hero.

McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971). Yes there's even a Western film with 1970s cinema sensibilities and it was directed by the iconclastic Robert Altman and starred, of all people, Warren Beatty. I told you that Westerns come in all shapes and sizes. Beatty is the McCabe of the title and the delicious Julie Christie is Mrs. Miller. At the very least its an intersesting Western and to many its superb film making.

Dances With Wolves (1990). If it hadn't gone an beaten out the vastly superior Goodfellas for the best picture Oscar, this sprawling Western from Kevin Costner wouldn't suffer the bad rap that plagues it today. It's got action, romance, wide vistas and the "Indians" as good guys. I unashamedly showed it as part of my US History curriculum for the zillion years I taught and the young uns loved it. So did I.

True Grit (2010). Hokey smokes even the Coen Brothers made a Western and by gum they did a bang up job. It's a classic revenge story. Jeff Bridges is an ideal old west crumudgeon lawman and Haillee Steinfeld adds a twist as the super precocious teen seeking justice for Pa's murder. They didn't make Westerns like they used to it, until of all people, the Coens came along. Let's hope it brings the genre roaring back.

Lookey here for what other Westerns are worth a look or 12. Red River (1948), Shane (1953), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), The Wild Bunch (1969), Little Big Man (1970), The Iron Horse (1924), The Good the Bad and the Ugly (1966), The Man From Laramie (1955), The Ox Bow Incident (1943), My Darling Clementine (1946), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), Dodge City (1939), Destry Rides Again (1939), Winchester 73 (1950),  Unforgiven (1992), High Noon (1952), Fort Apache (1948),The Long Riders (1980) and a bunch of others that I'm sure I'll catch hell for leavin' out.

20 February 2011

Three Bogies, Woody, Warren, Lawrence and the Brothers Marx -- The Films That Saw Me Through the Flu This Past Week

It is a tradition at Streams of Unconsciousness that once a year I get floored by the flu. It's never enough to send me into delirium but powerful enough to make reading a chore and working an impossibility. The bright side is that I get to spend some quality time on the sofa with some beloved friends -- movies.

Here's a capsule looks at some of those that sustained me these past seven days. Bringing intellectual nourishment to accompany the Tylenol, hot tea and tissues.

Duck Soup (1933). How is it possible that you can not only know the lines that are coming but say them along with the characters and still bust the proverbial gut with guffaws? I dunno either but it happens whenever I watch this, my favorite Marx Brothers film. Surely the delivery of the quips has much to do with it. All hail Freedonia and its fearless and witty leader Rufus T. Firefly as played by the comic genius, Groucho Marx. More than any of their other films this is his picture. Chico and Harpo are in strong supporting roles and Zeppo shows up for the last time. Margaret Dumont is indispensable as Mrs. Teasdale. Nearly 80 years later what passes for comedy in movies today is Adam Sandler getting hit in the crotch. Talk about not making 'em like they used to.... As Firefly said:  "I've got a good mind to join a club and beat you over the head with it."

Lawrence of Arabia (1962). I love/hate this movie. Perhaps that's stretching it. I really like/dislike this movie. Oh never mind. Point is my thoughts are decidedly mixed (you guessed?). On the one hand, every time I watch it I want to run out and by every book available by and about T.E. Lawrence. Peter O'Toole gives one of cinema's great performances as the iconoclastic Lawrence. "I'm different," he says of himself by way of explanation early in the film. And how! Wonderfully so. Surrounded by stiff upper lips by-the-book British military, he marched to the beat of his own drummer. Sometimes through the desert. But with each viewing I become increasingly bothered by a film of well over three hours with nary a word from a female, or even a gander at one for that matter. Worse is Alec Guiness as an Arab. Worse still is how everyone speaks English. I know, I know, the film was made at a different time. Slavery was at a different time too and I still hate it. It's epic, sweeping, masterful and a creaky old anachronism.

Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). Oh Fred Dobbs, when will you ever learn? You could have had wealth and happiness. But plenty was not enough. Greed cost you your sanity and then your life. Humphrey Bogart was at this very best as Dobbs in this remarkable John Huston film. So was Huston's dad, Walter who copped a well-earned Best Supporting Oscar (not even a nomination for Bogie? now that's insane!) The younger Huston also was rewarded for his direction and screenplay. TOTSM is a film that works on so many levels which means it never gets tiresome. Hell, when does great film making ever tire one?

The Big Sleep (1946). I once wrote on this here blog that I didn't think I could not respect the opinion of anyone who didn't at least like this movie. I'm going to have stand by that. Yes it's Bogie and Bacall. Yes there's a byzantine plot. Yes it's a classic whodunit with many people having been dun. Sure there's a lot of other classy and sexy dames besides Bacall to brighten the scenery. But its the dialogue that does it for me. Five examples:
1.Vivian: You go too far, Marlowe. 
Marlowe: Those are harsh words to throw at a man, especially when he's walking out of your bedroom. 
2.General Sternwood: How do you like your brandy, sir? 
Philip Marlowe: In a glass. 
3.Philip Marlowe: She tried to sit in my lap while I was standing up. 
4.Vivian: I don't like your manners. 
Marlowe: And I'm not crazy about yours. I didn't ask to see you. I don't mind if you don't like my manners, I don't like them myself. They are pretty bad. I grieve over them on long winter evenings. I don't mind your ritzing me drinking your lunch out of a bottle. But don't waste your time trying to cross-examine me. 
5.Philip Marlowe: My, my, my! Such a lot of guns around town and so few brains! You know, you're the second guy I've met today that seems to think a gat in the hand means the world by the tail. 
Play it Again, Sam (1972). Not to be confusing, but this is not a Woody Allen though he wrote it and stars in it. Also this is still another Bogie film though not really since he's not it though someone plays him. To clarify: it's not a "Woody" in that he did not direct it (Herbert Ross did) which to a lot of people is a hard and fast rule about constituting Woodys, so to speak. And Bogie is a character in the film played by an actor (Jerry Lacy). Play it Again, Sam is just as funny today as it was nearly 40 years ago. It was Allen when he was writing thoughtfully funny comedies and playing the lead to hilarious perfection. It's his first film pairing with Diane Keaton and they are magic together. Tony Roberts as Keaton's husband is rock solid here as he was often for Allen movies. The setting is San Francisco. Allen is a recently divorced cinephile so obsessed with Humphrey Bogart that Bogie's apparition visits and counsels him. It's a great comedy and a veritable ode to Bogie in general and Casablanca (1942) in particular.

The Parallax View (1974) This film is like a great story being told by someone who mumbles. Warren Beatty is a reporter who investigates a political assassination from three years before as witnesses to the killing keep dying, including a friend of his. He is led to the mysterious Parallax Corporation which, as it turns out, seems to be responsible for the killings at the behest of God-knows-who. It's all fascinating and for a generation brought up as its inspirational leaders were getting bumped off in most peculiar ways, it is an important topic to explore. The Parallax View is the very quintessence of the paranoid political thriller of 1970s cinema (a topic I once explored on this here blog). But there are a few scenes that stick out like very sore thumbs. Such as an over the top bar fight that adds nothing to the story and the implausible coincidence that leads to Beatty unfoiling a plot to explode an airplane in flight. The story is also told in a hazy, jumpy way that speaks poorly of either director Alan Pakula or his editor or both. Still I re-visit The Parallax View every few years and am always glad I did.

Dark Passage (1947) It should now be quite obvious that I see real healing powers in watching the films of Humphrey Bogart. This is also another Bogie and Bacall pairing and I'm going to get extremely controversial here and state that she was never lovelier than in The Dark Passage. Bogie gives a solid if somewhat understated performance. After all we don't really seem him until an hour into the picture. Oh he's in it from the get-go all right but he starts off with a different face before plastic surgery gives him the mug we all know and love. Thus the first third of the movie we see not him but what he sees. It could be annoying but it's not. Thank you director Delmar Daves. Later his face is wrapped in bandages. Course we don't much miss him what with Bacall to set our peepers on. Agnes Moorehead is part of the show too and brudder what a stinker! Yeah, she gets hers. San Francisco is the setting again. Bogie plays an escaped con holing up with Bacall hoping to clear his name. There's the requisite suspense and romance but this is a happy film noir at heart. Great cinematography highlights the film. Speaking of Daves, he also wrote the screenplay. His other credits include a musical, Dames (1934), a war picture, Destination Tokyo (1943) and a sappy love story, Love Affair (1939). That's versatility!

09 February 2011

And Rooneyed With Fontaine

See the SpokenVerse Channel on YouTube. It's full of great poetry read in a wonderfully sonorous voice by a gent calling himself Tom O'Bedlam.

07 February 2011

So You Want to Start Watching Films of the Seventies, An Introduction

So You Want to Start Watching _______is an occasional feature here at Streams of Unconsciousness. It is a guide to anyone unfamiliar with a particular star, director, genre, or time period in films. After a brief introduction, I will provide a sampling of films to watch. Although I will always strive to include the best possible films for each chapter in the series, I will also look to present representative work. I'll say a little bit about each film, all of which will be provided in chronological order. This is the third of the series. In the first I provided an introduction to the films of Humphrey Bogart and the second was an intro to screwball comedies.

Question: what was the best decade of American films? Answer: that most certainly depends on your taste in movies. Most cinephiles will argue for the 1930s or 1970s. The 1950s has a few supporters, TCM host Robert Osborne likes the 1940s, silent film buffs will undoubtedly extol the 1920s and many of the younger generation favor the last decade. I don't know that the 1980s or 1990s have many advocates.

For my money (what little there is of it) the Thirties has the big edge in quantity of good films but the Seventies boasts an advantage in quality. The 1970s were a perfect storm for films. The studio system had come tumbling down as had censorship. There was a plethora of independent-minded directors and screen writers who were getting free reign. Technical innovations had not yet morphed into an over reliance on special effects. And a changing Western Culture was ready for and indeed demanding more of cinematic artists. We've not seen the likes of the 70s in film since and may never. 

I could easily recommend dozens of films to get you started exploring the Seventies, but I've simplified the task for myself in the following ways: one film per year, American films only and none of the more obvious films that you're likely already seen such as The Godfather (1972), The Godfather Part II (1974), Annie Hall (1977), Manhattan (1979), Cabaret (1972), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Apocalypse Now (1979), Taxi Driver (1976) or Jaws (1975). I've also made a point to give you a variety of film types including horror/sci fi, comedy, gangster, thriller, cops and robbers and the always popular disco film.

The Strawberry Statement (1970) Why not start your tour of seventies cinema with a film that looks at the sixties? That is the campus protest movements that helped (as they say in documentaries) define a generation. TSS has held up over time, at least for someone like me who was "there." It centers around one student who simultaneously gets caught up in love (what guy wouldn't fall for Kim Darby in 1970?) and sticking it to the man. TSS features a great soundtrack.

The Last Picture Show (1971)  To many film lovers of today, Peter Bogdanovich is a frequent talking head on DVD special features and the author of some of the better books on movies. But he's had an up and down career as a director and this was his big up, so to speak. And it was a really big up. It features a great cast including Ben Johnson, Cloris Leachman, Cybill Shepard, Timothy Bottoms and a very young clean shaven Jeff Bridges. It is about the death of a West Texas town in the 1950s, including its lone movie house. Screenplay by legendary writer Larry McMurtry.

The Getaway (1972) It's directed by Sam Peckinpah, so you know there's no shortage of blood. It stars Steve McQueen, so you know there's no shortage of cool. McQueen is Doc McCoy who gets out of prison just in time to get in on a big bank heist. There's screw-ups and double crosses and McQueen along with his lovely wife (Ali McGraw) on the lam to Mexico with murderous accomplices in hot pursuit. No production code to dictate how it all turns out.

Mean Streets (1973) Before they made Taxi Driver, Raging Bull (1980) and Goodfellas (1990), Director Martin Scorsese and actor Robert Deniro made this terrific film -- albeit DeNiro was not the star, Harvey Keitel was. It is rough, especially compared to the slicker films Scorsese has made recently. But it is wonderfully rough in a manner appropriate to the story of small time hoods in the mean streets of New York. It has a verve and excitement that presages Scorsese's later works. But it is a great film in its own right.

The Conversation (1974) Gene Hackman likes to listen, so much so that he does it for a living. This is one four Best Picture nominees from director Francis Ford Coppola in an eight-year span. It is too often the forgotten one. For more see this post of mine from August '09.

Love and Death (1975) This film answers the question: What would you get if you combined Ingmar Bergman with Groucho Marx. I don't know what I can add to that. Although you could check out this post I wrote about the film last Fall.

Marathon Man (1976) Dustin Hoffman is a graduate student who likes to run. But this is the 1970s when any poor schmoe could find himself in the midst of a vast conspiracy in which no one can be trusted. Laurence Olivier is a sadistic ex-Nazi dentist who works on our hero's teeth sans novocaine. Ouch. Marathon Man is one of the many excellent political thrillers of the decade.

Saturday Night Fever (1977) Daddy, did they really make a good movie about a guy who danced disco? They sure did. Re-visiting it today one is struck by how dark a film it is. Yes there's plenty of leisure suits, Bee Gee songs and John Travolta shaking his booty, but there's also a story of working class angst and the desperation to escape it. There are also people at war, not the military kind, but the day-to-day grind within families and communities. At once entertaining and thought-provoking.

Animal House (1978) I think its one of the funniest movies ever made. The late John Belushi is the star of a delightful ensemble cast. Watching it today makes one wonder what else he'd have achieved as a comic actor. Animal House is the story of a renegade frat house that goes up against the stuffed shirt fraternity and the mentally constipated campus administration. Most of all its good dirty fun.

Alien (1979) My understanding is that 99% of horror and sci fi movies today are suitable only for flushing. "Back in the day" director Ridley Scott created this classic of the genre that sadly has been sequeled and imitated to death. It is an intelligent film rife with tension and it hasn't aged a day. Either this kind of film is hard to make, producers today settle for cheap thrills or Scott and company just hit a massive home run.

Others to consider: Network (1976), Three Days of the Condor (1975), All the President's Men (1976), The French Connection (1971), The Man Who Would Be King (1975), The Last Detail (1973), The Sting (1973), The Exorcist (1973), Serpico (1973), Little Big Man (1970),  Play it Again, Sam (1972), The Front (1976), A Clockwork Orange (1971), Barry Lyndon (1975) and on and on and on.....

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 not 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 adapted 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 that 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. It is a case of film- making aspiring to the power of great literature and actually succeeding.