Thursday, December 30, 2010

Together, They are Better People

The African Queen is a perfect example of the sort of finely tuned moviemaking that seems to have virtually disappeared from Hollywood these days. Made with just the right amounts of romance, adventure and humor, the film manages not only to defy classification, but also please just about every conceivable demographic of viewers in the process.

Although it is well-regarded, what seems to have been missed in all the adulation the film attracts is the very mature way in which it depicts love as a kind of expert social partnering, in which the man and the woman rise to new heights because of the attributes and demands of the other. Without this, the film could almost be ordinary.
The whole of the 1951 picture stands much taller than its constituent parts thanks to timeless performances from screen legends Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. People who like to talk about inspired casting should watch this movie.
According to John Huston, the film’s director, the warm comedy we see on-screen was completely absent in both the C. S. Forester novel and the script derived from it. Rather, the humor radiated naturally from Bogart and Hepburn, who got along so famously they could not keep their playful banter in their trailers and off the film’s set. For this, we should thank them. Forester’s novel is a grim and rather straightforward enterprise, and like much of his work, it possesses a kind of juvenile flair that does not make a good foundation for portraying courtship in anything like believable terms.
Chemistry is a word often thrown at the feet of romantic duos in movies, but this is what it looks and feels like when it is present in a picture – and genuinely felt by the requisite actors – and not the paid creation of a studio publicist or the whimsical invention of a movie critic. Bogart, in particular, is worthy of praise.
His performance as gin-soaked riverboat captain who begins the proceedings with a nearly toxic combination of loose morals and low education is a host of delightful contradictions throughout. Allowed to play with a range of emotions unavailable to him in other films, he shrugs off his usual debonair self and deftly displays a pleasant mixture of strength and vulnerability, intelligence and naiveté, and stoicism and sweetness – sometimes even in the same scenes.
Hepburn is her usual intelligent and whippet-like self, gradually bending but not breaking to Bogart’s charms until just the right moment. I have always liked the way she draws out her sentences as if she is not sure what conclusion they will reach, and here it serves her character’s brazen – but ultimately forgivable – machinations toward her opposite.
The action of the film centers on the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 and the nascent threat the Germans could pose to British interests in Africa. When Hepburn, a British Methodist missionary intent on bringing Jesus to the Dark Continent, loses her brother to a German war party, her soul fills with righteous patriotism and singular purpose: She will exact her revenge by destroying the Louisa, a German steamer that controls a nearby lake. Unfortunately for her, to achieve her aim, she must convince Bogart, an agnostic and rather unpatriotic Canadian, to risk life and limb – not to mention his boat, the tiny African Queen -- for distant King and Country.
While these details are important, as an audience we are more invested in what is happening between Bogart and Hepburn and we follow their journey down the dangerous river and toward their inevitable confrontation with Germans because we want to see what happens to them as a couple much more than we want to see the Louisa sunk.
Love contains a great many things, but one of the most important is that the couple should augment each other in such a way that they bring out the best of the other. Films often fail to depict this facet of love, largely because writers and directors are more interested in exploring the power of attraction and the contrived drama that surrounds courtship. And while The African Queen certainly depicts attraction and courtship, it would fail to be a great film if it stopped there.

Bogart thaws the puritanical block of ice that is Hepburn’s missionary with his earnestness and worldly commonsense, while she civilizes his character’s coarseness and convinces him to believe in noble purposes and act selflessly. Separately, both begin the film on opposite poles of the human spectrum. Through their flirtation and courtship, they converge together in the middle, where both are happier and inherently more human. By the time they embrace as man and wife at the end, they are better people precisely because of their relationship with each other. This is ultimately what makes the film so charming: We witness the growth of two people into one better person.

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Ten Essential American Classics

It is the end of the year and lists and countdowns abound.

Unable to sum up 2010 in any relevant fashion on this site, I have decided instead to post my Top 10 list of American classics. These are the essential pictures, the ones every living and breathing person on Earth should endeavor to see to better understand the cinematic art form, America as a nation … and to just sit back and enjoy great, old fashioned moviemaking.

1. Citizen Kane (1941) – Stands like a colossus over all American film. Orson Welles makes a legend out of himself by petulantly tugging an icon (William Randolph Hearst) from its pedestal. Well-known for its technical innovations and style of storytelling, audiences today often overlook how well the film works as a character study or a piece of social criticism. That Kane’s lifetime of enterprise and achievements cannot recapture the sanctity of his “Rosebud” is both tragic and profound. The American Dream has never been so cleverly explored, celebrated and then debunked.
2. Casablanca (1942) – My favorite film and possibly the greatest motion picture of all time. It cannot equal Citizen Kane for technical prowess or philosophical depth (nor is it as influential), but in every other way this film is its equal. The actors and actresses are all perfect in their roles, and every role is memorable and unique. By blending equal parts of adventure, romance and suspense with a timeless tale concerning sacrifice and moral imperatives, the film manages to have something for everyone. It also speaks to a great many eternal questions about the human condition without taking the easy turns to either sentimentality or sanctimony. Impossible to watch and not feel uplifted.
3. Rear Window (1954) – Unquestionably Hitchcock’s masterpiece, in which he deftly juggles ethics, psychology and suspense to titillate audiences. An even greater film when one considers it is largely set in one room and revolves around a wheelchair-bound protagonist who never leaves his apartment. Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly ooze stardom, practically float across the screen. The final 30 minutes stir up more tension and mood than any other movie I am aware of. A murder is discovered and exposed, but Hitchcock forces us to consider the cost of the exposure and to wonder if the protagonists are not as demented as the man who actually killed his wife.
4. The Godfather (1972) – A powerful exploration of the perversion of the American dream, an epic about the rise and fall of a family or just the best mafia film ever made? Take your pick. The Godfather is all of these things and more. Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo’s refashioning of the latter’s rather ordinary novel is perfectly executed. Each scene precisely conveys its intent, and when taken as a whole, this picture is one of the few films that successfully steers the audience through a host of conflicting emotions and moral conflicts that refuse easy characterization. There has never been a better movie made about the shades of gray that exist between the black and white of good and evil. This is why we root for Michael at the same time we shudder at what he is becoming.
5. Patton (1970) – There are many noteworthy war films, but Patton stands supreme. Released during the Vietnam War, the film’s creators envisioned this as an anti-war picture. They were horribly wrong. In addition to multiple White House screenings by Richard Nixon, the general populace took Patton into its bosom as a celebration of American tough-mindedness. Patton, whose famous temperament and lust for battle attracted admiration, loathing and fear during his lifetime, is played to perfection by George C. Scott (who famously refused his Oscar for this role). As a character study, the film’s nuanced portrayal of the general’s megalomania, gallantry and genius is unequaled.
6. Chinatown (1974) – Nothing is more American than film noir, and the genre never worked better than it does in Roman Polanski’s 1974 homage starring Jack Nicholson. Filled with seedy politicians, corrupt policemen and neurotic women this gothic tale about a private detective in California forces audiences to confront institutionalized injustice and ultimately accept our own powerlessness to remake every corner of the world. The last line of the film, which might be the best coda ever penned for the screen, says it all: “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”
7. Dr. Strangelove (1964) – Difficult to pick just one from Kubrick’s many great works, but this film is satire incarnated and it seems to grow better with age. Indeed, as the Cold War fades from modern memory, one can easily imagine a scenario where this film comes to stand as a kind of documentary – albeit one with a great deal of hyperbole – representing many of the attitudes born from that complex conflict. A virtuoso performance from Peter Sellers, who plays multiple roles, and a script infused with the kind of crass intelligence that coughs up endless one-liners, such as “Gentlemen, there’s no fighting in the war room,” ensures this picture’s Olympian status.
8. From Here to Eternity (1953) – Long before the hardheaded contrarians in Coolhand Luke or Rebel Without a Cause, there was Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt in From Here to Eternity. Prewitt’s inability to be broken by an institution he loves – the U.S. Army – is an aggressive examination of individualism and personality. Each of the soldier’s flirtations with depravity is sharpened by the audience’s awareness that the film is ticking down to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. These are the men and women who would become the Greatest Generation and in the film we learn about their strong sense of self, their categorical dismissal of weakness and pedantry.
9. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) – Selected just ahead of Leone’s other masterpiece, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, as the best exemplar of the American Western. Why? Manifest Destiny, the cruelty and injustice of the West, the rugged individualism it inspired, the complex code of the survivors who journeyed there for a fresh start, the notion that to achieve the moral end, a person may have to do some immoral things along the way – it is all here, in this often overlooked film. So, too, is a great performance by Henry Fonda.
10. The Graduate (1967) – No other film captures the pivot between the America of the 1950s and the America that emerges from the crucible of the 1960s as well as The Graduate. The story of Benjamin Braddock’s inability to orient himself within the environment created by his parents is not just another retelling of a timeless crisis faced by all adolescents, but a powerful metaphor for a country that was clearly restless about its future. Braddock’s sordid journey through the boozy, adulterous world of Mrs. Robinson ends with a frantic escape – undertaken with Mrs. R’s daughter – from the limited possibilities setup by the previous generation. Or does it? The final expression on Ben and Elaine’s faces is one of the most enigmatic in film. Are they happy? Sad? Relieved? Or simply resigned to eventually recreating the kind of world they just escaped from?

Thursday, December 23, 2010

A Tree Never Solved Anything...

A Charlie Brown Christmas is not a classic film, but it nonetheless warrants brief examination here on account of the holiday season and the considerable impact the half-hour long television special has levied on our culture. Put simply, for multiple generations, Christmas cannot be experienced without a viewing of this timeless piece of animation.

What continues to amaze even the adult viewer is the simplicity of its message – the “true” nature of Christmas – and the subtle power it employs to ram this point home: Linus, the pint-sized philosopher with a blue security-blanket explains, the spirit of Christmas can be found in the Gospel of Luke, and it has more to do with a certain person being born that it does with pagan trees emblazoned with lights, gaudy decorations, boozy office parties and ever-dubious gift-giving.

Walking hand-in-hand with this message is the show’s open hostility toward the commercialization and secularization of Christmas. This attitude is even more striking if one realizes that this television special premiered in 1965. If Christmas was too commercial and too secular at that time, trying to imagine what Charles Schulz – creator of the Peanuts comic strip and this program – would think of the holiday today is difficult to imagine.

Not that everything was God-given back in the mid 1960s, either.

Schulz argued hard with television executives uncomfortable about referencing the Bible to keep the Gospel in the script. “If we don’t tell the true meaning of Christmas, who will?” he supposedly said. Given that the nation’s other beloved holiday entertainments involve a kind of green goblin and a melting snowman, one can easily understand the rhetorical nature of Shultz’s riposte.

Indeed, Schulz’s instinctual feel for what worked played a large role in making A Charlie Brown Christmas timeless. It was Schulz who insisted the show’s dialogue be spoken by actual children and who wisely vetoed the idea of adding the kind of laugh-track commonplace in sitcoms. The now classic, all-jazz soundtrack probably would have also been shelved without the strong backing of the cartoonist.

Still, for all its creative genius, what continues to resonate with audiences today is the characters and the story

The initial rejection of the confused and uncertain boy named Charlie Brown by his peers speaks to child and adult alike. Charlie Brown does not have all the answers. He is depressed, exasperated and in desperate need of a greater meaning. Ultimately, his failings are forgiven, he is accepted by others and he finds comfort in something beyond the tangible – read temporal and temporary – delights of the holidays. Has the spiritual journey ever been boiled down to its essence any better? 

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Bottom of the Barrel Never Looked So Good

The only reason anyone still watches The Killing – a 1956 film noir revolving around a clever heist at a California horse track – is because Stanley Kubrick directed it, and at some point, the dedicated will peruse the auteur’s less known works in much the same way a Shakespearean scholar eventually reads the bard’s mediocre plays (and there are plenty of them).
Invested in Kubrick’s greatness as they are, some of the film world’s literati have attempted to inject a sense of austerity into The Killing that is just not there. These fans will typically argue that it offers a tantalizing preview to the filmmaker’s future greatness, while others note it served as the inspiration for Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs – the latter being a dubious honor, from my perspective, as it rests uncomfortably on the far from certain proposition that Tarantino is a great filmmaker and Reservoir Dogs a great film.
Kubrick’s pervasive cynicism is remarkably potent in The Killing, but little else of the visionary man is on display. There are a few visual shots – such as the long tracking sequence that follows the galloping race horses – that feel like Kubrick’s better known work, but the subject matter here is hardly the sort suited for his talents. Watching – as we all are – from the mighty wake of Kubrick’s career, it is easy to imagine the great director somehow subjugated his usual flair to the demands of the film noir genre, but this is really little more than an excuse for some of the more unimaginative aspects of the movie.
Indeed, for passionate Kubrick fans, the relative simplicity of film noir, along with the uncomplicated nature of The Killing’s conflict, is its ultimate undoing. This is not a film that demands repeat viewings – nor should we expect it to. A plot revolving around a heist and its fallout cannot possibly hope to comment on society and the human condition with the grandeur and scope Kubrick reached for in other films. Still, for all its ordinariness, The Killing is far from an average film.
For starters, not many heist films have the courage to allow their plots to deal so brutally with the plotters themselves. Most of the protagonists in The Killing wind up dead on a floor in a cheap motel (and if you doubt this kind of twist does not take guts, ask yourself if today’s Ocean’s 11 remake could ever end this way). Even the money – quite literally – is scattered in the wind.
What is most remarkable about the film's conclusion is that it is set in motion by an expected source – a dour and disgruntled husband, played with precise foolishness by Elisha Cook Jr. – in the most unexpected of fashions. Marie Windsor, called “Queen of B’s” on account of her proclivity for appearing in B-movies, augments Cook’s standout performance with a delightful turn as a lurid and manipulative femme fatale.

Film noirs cannot keep from moralizing (it is part of what makes them film noirs), but the only message Kubrick and company are able to impart with this script is how the best laid plans can fail for the strangest and most unforeseen reasons. This is something quite different than today’s heist films, which all seem designed to show how clever the characters are – and, by silent extension, how much cleverer the writer’s that dreamed up these criminal plots are…
Kubrick and his cast did about as much as possible with the material they had to work with in The Killing. The film is sharp in all the right places, even though it has some unavoidable dull edges. The last half hour, when a great deal of tension builds expertly toward the frantic and grim conclusion, is particularly edge of the seat stuff. If Kubrick’s name were not on the masthead, this film would paradoxically be judged more enjoyable and less important by those who stumbled across it. Since his name is on it, the best and least we can say is that there are plenty of other directors who would love to have their "worst" movie be something along the lines of The Killing.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Look But Do Not Touch

The iconography of Breakfast at Tiffany’s is its most powerful legacy.

The images of Audrey Hepburn in her famous sunglasses, form-fitting black dress and oversized pearls have been so successfully branded that they have come to represent our collective idea of glamour with an intensity few other Hollywood classics can match. Hepburn now adorns every variety of product imaginable: There are posters, coffee mugs, purses and t-shirts galore to choose from, all of which immediately identify the purchaser as someone who understands that chic does not necessarily have to be new or gaudy – or so they hope.

Indeed, the only comparable icon that communicates retro-style and coolness today in quite the same way is Jacqueline Kennedy, a woman who talked and dressed a heck of a lot like Breakfast at Tiffany’s Holly Golightly.
The fact both women – one the wife of a president, the other a fictional character – forever  seemed both bored and beautiful only adds to their appeal. The unpracticed aloofness of the sort of woman capable of appearing on the cover of Vanity Fair is something F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote about quite convincingly at the height of the Jazz Age. That the nation continues to this day to appreciate what I will call polished-yawners as inherently feminine, fashionable and positive is a topic for another day, but there is no doubting a great deal of Breakfast at Tiffany’s success and its canonization by subsequent generations is mixed up in that opinion.
Imagine then how the contemporary moviegoer – having absorbed a lifetime of Hepburn glamour – must feel when they actually sit down and watch the 1961 movie that is based on Truman Capote’s novella? To put it bluntly, Hepburn’s Holly Golightly does look great in that little black dress, but she is also trading oral sex in bathrooms for money. Exactly how the pre-teens with the movie poster on their wall react to this realization is probably something to behold.

Henri Mancini, who penned the film’s oft heard theme of “Moon River,” said it took him a long time to figure out what Holly Golightly was all about. If he has figured her out, he might be the only one. Holly was a hard-scrabble, somewhat empty-headed socialite to Capote, an eccentric and overly naïve wanderer to filmmakers and something quite else to audiences, many of whom like to think of her as the central player in “a hymn to love and to loneliness – to sex and to style” – hence the posters and mugs and what-have-you.

Capote himself said “the book was really rather bitter, and Holly Golightly was real – a tough character, not an Audrey Hepburn type at all.” Having read the book, I was prepared for the subtle intonations of immorality as well as the carefully-inserted hints that Holly Golightly’s seemingly happy-go-lucky approach to life might not be so enviable after closer inspection. I was not prepared for most of Capote’s frank exploration of socialites to be jettisoned (a good exploration of the film’s legacy and its difference from the novella can be found here).
In both Capote’s original version and the film, the character who gradually unravels Holly’s charade is her downstairs neighbor – a down-on-his-luck writer named Paul Varjak, played here by George Peppard.
Like Holly, Paul is quite literally selling himself for money. Unlike Holly, he is ashamed of his actions and realizes how much damage the transactions are doing to both his outward character and his personal self-esteem. Paul falls in love with Holly’s charade precisely because of its uniqueness and power (say what you like about her, but Golightly is an interesting character with a worldview that is entirely her own). His love survives his discovery of how dark and desperate the inner life behind Holly’s string of pearls and sunglasses really is. The intangibilities of love triumphing over all worldly impediments – like, say Holly being married – is  not a new theme, but at least in this film we have two characters who grow into their victory with enough original material to bolster their journey’s predictable course.

But what still endures beyond all of this is the image of Holly – or Hepburn, seeing as the two are virtually inseparable these days – standing in front of the window display Tiffany’s. Holly goes to Tiffany’s whenever she feels down because the “quietness and the proud look” of the place make it safe and beyond physical or emotional danger.

The irony of all this is incredible when you think about it.

The act of Holly staring at a window and finding a self-created meaning is much like the act of taking a movie poster or a still image from a film and branding it as the embodiment of glamour. As with all illusions, the process is built for observation alone. Try to touch what you have created and it falls apart. Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a very beautiful movie with a very ugly heart beating inside. That the filmmakers tried to dress this up with fetishes of fashion and a happy ending does not change this.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Nobody Falls in Love Anymore…

Or at least, not on screen they do.

We live in the age of insufferable romantic comedies, wherein aesthetically pleasing actors and actresses engage in childish antics as they annoy their way toward some kind of emotional and physical connection. Is it love these contemporary celluloid couples finally arrive at after their gaudy comedy of errors careens to a distinctly unremarkable conclusion? Somehow, I doubt it.

This is not to say we expect to go to romantic comedies today and see something completely original.

The cagey among us know there have been too many films, too many plotlines and pickup lines exhausted for that. Indeed, I am not even certain we want originality from this genre. Rather, like the true and tested lover in our lives (or the one we yearn to find), I believe we want our romantic comedies to skillfully repackage everything we know from past experiences in a way that continues to tickle the better bones in our body. But we also want to watch two people actually fall in love. I mean, that is the point, right?

Unfortunately, nobody falls in love in the movies anymore. That something like a hangover or a rot has eroded the genre’s former standards is fairly obvious, if you look for it. The people we watch in movies nowadays meet and hookup. For how long? Who can say? To find two people who appear to be falling in love on film one has to go back to classics like 1934’s It Happened One Night. It is not an easy journey, because there are so many clichés one must get on the other side of, but it is a trip well worth taking.
To be sure, there is something overtly artificial in Frank Capra’s classic about a rich girl who runs away from an unhappy marriage and finds true love in the form of coarse and underclass reporter, but the fantasy behind this setup is much more palatable than the ridiculousness that all too often accompanies the Cinderella-story knockoffs we are forced to endure in today’s theaters. Capra was a skilled craftsman of the highest order, one who knew how to portray human sentiment without sliding down the slope and landing in the land of sentimentality.

In the hands of less talented actors, the relationship between the leads might have devolved into farce, too. But It Happened One Night boasts Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, both of whom took home little gold statues for performances more than worthy of the accolade. Gable, in particular, is impressive in the way he mixes grandeur and desperation to craft a wholly believable ruffian who stereotypically harbors a hidden idealism built on pride and good will towards his fellow man. That we accept him and accept the almost insane premise that throws the two into each other’s lives is entirely down to the undeniable authenticity of  the pair's interactions. And they are helped in this task by a script that is alive with wit.
You see, people fall in love – real love, not lust or infatuation – by talking to one another. There must be a certain level of shared understanding, a certain level of what I will call deftness and presentation – and, of course, infectious flirtation.  Without a delicate and case-specific combination of all of these, the spark between two people never truly turns to fire. And before you think I have forgotten about the film under review here, let me hasten to point out that It Happened One Night captures exactly what men and women say to another when they are engaged in the benign combat that begins love.

I will make no predictable claims about films being “better” back then. I will only say that writers had to work, in that they had to rhetorically walk around much of the crudeness that pervades – some would say perverts – the romantic comedy genre today. As Sam Wasson said, “wit was the best (and only) way to talk about sex” back then and so we are privy to remarkable conversations that dance around obvious attractions and even better metaphors concerning attraction’s end result.

Consider how Gable drapes blankets over a string to separate the couple at night. He blithely calls this the Walls of Jericho. Later, of course, these walls come down. An even more famous scene has Colbert showing a leg to stop a car. The act is hardly noteworthy today, but back then it was both scandalous and sweet, and in terms of the film’s plot, it helps convince Gable that the girl he is falling for really does have some spirit in her. My mind boggles at trying to imagine what a contemporary director would have to come up with to achieve the same effect.
The romantic comedy is dead – or beeping away faintly on life support – these days precisely because the whimsical subtlety and misdirection that makes flirting with a potential significant other so much fun is largely absent. There is goofy hilarity to be sure, but the actors today are not talking to each other the way Gable and Colbert did. And because of that lack of precision in the scripts, the contemporary equivalent of catching a glimpse of that special someone’s leg no longer matters all that much...

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

"There's No Place Like the Smithsonian"

What child does not watch The Wizard of Oz and fall in love with its fantastic splendor?

Obvious, corny and completely conventional, the 1939 epic manages to grab hold of the heartstrings of successive generations and hold onto them in a way that few other classics can because the film deals simply and forthrightly with the importance of friendship, the sanctity of home and the necessity of good triumphing over evil. All of which makes those famous Ruby Slippers an indelible part of the larger American narrative. That the famous footwear now resides in the Smithsonian, where I snapped this photo, is entirely appropriate.