[1928/9] The Broadway Melody

It would be more accurate to call this post [1928/9] The Broadway Melody of 1929, seeing as within a dozen years we also got The Broadway Melod(ies) of 1936, 1938 and 1940 and just narrowly missed out on 1942 and 1944.

It is unfair to compare successes and downfalls of early film to its modern counterparts. It’s also quite unfair to have a negative opinion about The (first) Broadway Melody, because, for all its hokeyness and humdrum acting and plot points, without it we don’t necessarily have some of the luxury that allows some modern film room to sing, dance and talk. If only at the 2nd Academy Awards do we get our first taste of ‘talkie,’ it’s fitting that the Academy should bestow upon it film’s highest honor, but how we looked at film has changed as dramatically as what the film is about. As recently as 2013, The Academy has honored film more for filmmaking (Gravity) than for storytelling. Some things change – the public’s tastes, technology, budget, morality – but others don’t.

As we approach the 86th awards next March, we’ll expand the list of nominees to a balmy 521. Of the 85 winners so far, 83 have been talkies all but 1927/8’s Wings and 2011’s The Artist (save a single line of dialogue). We don’t take talking film for granted because we can probably count on a few dozen hands how many people remember when film without talking tracks was commonplace. We do, however, pay our respects to the early film for taking risks – some successful, some not – and exploring techniques that worked for several installments of The Broadway Melody, including, but not limited to, vocal tracking, the musical and sequels.  Continue reading

{Second Take} [1969] Midnight Cowboy

It is through his music preferences, not his dress, that the audience first learns of Midnight Cowboy‘s protagonist, Joe Buck’s (Jon Voight), cow-pokin’, cattle-ropin’ ways. Despite the iconic image of Buck’s unironic fringe jacket and cowboy boots strutting around grey New York, Buck’s home-on-the-range origins are first evinced by his singing “Git Along, Little Dogies” to himself in the shower during the opening credits. The soundtrack to the film and the use of music within the narrative provide much of Joe Buck’s characterization, but viewers may not know the final track list was almost drastically different.

Midnight Cowboy provided two immutable contributions to American culture: The disgruntled pedestrian and reckless cabbie interaction of “I’m walkin’ here!,” and Harry Nilsson’s “Everybody’s Talkin’,” the film’s theme. The movie propelled the song to the status of enduring hit, far outweighing Nilsson’s other significant contributions to American music culture, despite the song being a Fred Neil original while Nilsson’s own original track was overlooked. This was neither uncommon in the late 1960s folk scene nor Nilsson’s career specifically, as folk musicians and record labels swapped covers and songwriting credits almost haphazardly, and certainly without so much pretense regarding copyright as they do today. Continue reading

[1969] Midnight Cowboy

What a difference a year makes. Between 1969 and 1970, between Midnight Cowboy and Patton, some monumental shift realigned what kind of film could earn the Most Prestigious Award in western filmmaking. Not only are both movies enshrined as Best Picture winners, but are almost thematic polar opposites released just a few months apart. If we extend a film metaphor, that what we capture and release on film accurately reflects some kind of zeitgeist, it follows logically that we can assume the world changed significantly between the end of the decade and the start of the next. But let’s talk about a film’s MPAA “rating:” the elusive “X” given to Midnight Cowboy and the harmless “PG” awarded to Patton in 1970. Was public attitude shifting away from the queer and more towards the centre and the normal?

Since its creation, the Motion Picture Association of America has attempted to create some soft and hard guidelines as to regulate the movie-making process. Originally founded in 1922 (making it older than the Academy), the MPAA sought to create a standard for filmmakers, actors, producers and financiers to ensure stability, both financially and, for a while, morally. For the first 46 years in existence, the MPAA sought (especially under Will Hays) to standardize theme, content and production to a code up to focus on “wholesome” films and ones that don’t include “profanity” or “indecency.” In 1968, after several revisions and unraveling of the restrictive code, Jack Valenti sought to rework Hays’ code into the modern rating system still in use today – shifting the morality burdens off of the producers and onto the viewers, and specifically the parents of children Hays tried to protect.

Curious, then that Midnight Cowboy won an Oscar as the first (and only) X-rated film. This fact is mostly irrelevant seeing as the definition of an X-rated film has changed even more dramatically from 1968 to 2014 than the code has from 1922 to 1968; the definition of profanity has changed more than the actuality of the content; the technology and clarity of the filmmaking process has overshadowed the content somewhat. More likely than not, the rating created fantastic hype around the film, whose only true X-rated premise delves into the correlation between male prostitution and homosexuality. These themes in 2014 most likely would earn this film a soft R-rating – and in fact the newly reformed MPAA rerated the X-rating into an R fewer than 2 years after its release. Continue reading

[1967] In The Heat Of The Night

“They call me MISTER Tibbs,” exclaimed the defiantly proud man of the same name. Yet his powerful and oft cited utterance, Sidney Poitier commits to his role as a detective first and a black man second. In The Heat Of The Night wants its audience to know that and this strict adherence to logic and archetype afford it the grace to convey a simple, strong and solid message about the state of affairs in the tepid South. It, of course, succeeded, but its lasting impression is still this iconic line. What’s the film even about?

Therein lies an interesting discussion. Will canon remember 1967’s Best Picture winner for its story? Its contributions to peeling back the racial onion? Or, in 53 years, when it turns 100, will people only remember Poitier’s crystallized, most likely off-hand remark, and forget that his screen partner, Rod Steiger, actually took the Oscar for Best Actor? As a hopeful metaphor for racial acceptance and gradual change in the post-Jim Crow Stouth, Steiger’s Gillespie can be a particular metaphor for acceptance at one’s own pace – if not acceptance, then at least some kind of mutual respect. This kind of reformation might be included in our own epoch’s education against intolerance.

Curiously, a high correlation exists among AFI’s “100 Years…100 Quotes” index and Oscar nomination, In The Heat Of The Night included. In fact, all but two out of the top 20 were nominated for Best Picture; these two outliers, “Go ahead, make my day,” from 1983’s Sudden Impact and “Made it, Ma! Top of the world,” from 1949’s White Heat are respected enough to earn a watch. But being that 18 of 20 are Best Picture nominees and winners, one can reasonably assume an iconic quote might give way for a nomination or a win. Do writers know this and purposefully try to include a line to punctuate a harangue, or one in context that has particular cultural resonance? This kind of effort begs failure.

Several explanations would attempt to explain the global significance of certain lines in film over decades  – “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn,” “May the force be with you,” “Toto, I’ve got a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore” – but in the context of In The Heat Of The Night, what makes “They call me MISTER Tibbs,” so significant? A combination of who said it, when it was said, why he said it, etc., contributes to its significance; the milieu gives the text contextual significance, but a more compelling explanation examines the gestalt significance of this film’s release. Imagine if, instead of in a post-Jim Crow universe, this film takes place in a post-gay marriage world, let’s say 2020, and instead of Poitier, Neil Patrick Harris, utters the words, “They call me MISTER Tibbs.” Impossible to tell outside an alternate universe where NPH’s version is the only version released, this inquiry falls victim to inherent comparison. In this alternate world, though, social activism has become norm and global, rather than fringe and provincial. Do we care about this line in a modern context? Continue reading

[1942] The Magnificent Ambersons

With a sincere bitterness, Orson Welles got his Either/Or moment upon the release of 1942’s The Magnificent Ambersons.  Welles, most widely known for his 1941 masterstroke, Citizen Kane, had the opportunity just a year later to curate his mystique by delving into the canonical review of massive tech and social changes around the turn of the last century. Welles, like all of us, like George Amberson Minifer, continued to have an infinite amount of choice, and with either choice or no choice, the choice was wrong. One can be tempted to call this kind of distinction fate, but instead it seems like inevitability.

Either/Or, of course, is Søren Kierkegaard’s long manifesto on the rumination of choice, love, marriage and aesthetics. Written almost a full century before the jumble that was The Magnificent Ambersons, Either/Or outlines that choice is not really a choice, but rather a blurry distinction between a set of other distinctions. Inevitably each person will make some “right” choices and some “wrong” choices (really no choices), but none of these choices should lead to any sort of marriage – whether it be convenience or love/lust. This same affliction haunts George Amberson, our stories main antagonist and thematic driving point. The man himself is a caricature of indecision – he seems determined to make no choices, which in and of itself is a choice, concerning his life, his mother’s life or his lover’s life. Left to his own desires, munitions and a lackadaisical boredom, this man is a broken shell of a comeuppance-to-be. Kierkegaard writes:

…then, that the world goes from bad to worse, and that its evils increase more and more, as boredom increases, as boredom is the root of all evil.


Unfortunately, this sort of proliferation of boredom and mediocrity also haunted the release of this film. Continue reading

[1983] Tender Mercies

Raise your hand if you’ve seen 1983’s Tender Mercies.

I was talking to mom yesterday that I’d watched this movie and her response, as usual, was, “Well. What did you think?” I’d responded to this question before in my usual ambivalence: “I’m not sure, yet. I need to think about it.” And then we gossiped about this or that. I’m not surprised that mom has seen this movie. I’m surprised if anyone else has.

Tender Mercies, one of 1983’s Best Picture nominees, is part of film canon that has ridden below the surface for its 30 year history. Whether its been overshadowed by Terms of Endearment or The Big Chill or….1983 was a particularly weak year, and Tender Mercies fit the bill of an overwhelmingly mediocre film with a limited budget making the most of its resources. Tender Mercies doesn’t seem validate either of those hypotheses on the surface. The film itself is a 90-minute exposé on Robert Duvall’s acting ability and a concise reflection on the complexity of simplicity. The man, Mac Sledge, is surfeit of problems, but within the realm of Waxahachie, TX, the microcosm is simple: if he runs away and quits drankin’ his life will become the beacon of peace he’s looking for. It’s a 90-minute riff on the country-western ethos, so familiar to some and so alien to others.

Perhaps its too country-western, as Duvall himself expressed during the theatrical promotion and initial trial run. Perhaps Duvall’s plans didn’t lend themselves to a terribly profitable venture: the aesthetic of country-western is often synonymous with poor or struggling – these simple folks just don’t go to the movies and spend dollars on the moving pictures when there’s mouths to feed. Perhaps the studio, enamored with Duvall in The Godfather The Godfather II and Apocalypse Now, agreed to fund his pet project, a Horton Foote (To Kill A MockingbirdThe Chase) led-American values film. Somewhere in this particular production hell the studio lost interest and what we and the Academy were left with was a reflexive film project, displaying Middle American values, while adhering to them, without parodying them. It’s an interesting and rare combination – and was rewarded with a shelving and an Oscar nod for the film and a win for Duvall.

Ask anyone under 40 who Robert Duvall is. Continue reading

[2013] The Wolf of Wall Street

It’s a real travesty that over 20 years into his career, Mr. Leonardo Michaelangelo DiCaprio hasn’t yet won Best Actor at whichever Academy Awards ceremony we’re begrudgingly sitting through, again. He’s been nominated a handful (?) of times and has (so far) walked away with zero. He’s incredibly gifted and unlucky. He’s the face of the generation but the gold one still eludes him. His presence on the screen almost guarantees tons of cash for the studio – how much does an Academy Award weigh anyway?

The real travesty is that Jonah Hill doesn’t yet own an Oscar.

Mr. Hill knows his role within every film he steals to a tee. His breakout film, Superbad, is canon and a torchbearer for 2000s comedy pastiche. The first film for which the Academy graced him with a nomination for Best Supporting Actor, Moneyball, had Hill shed the goofy routine for a more dramatic role and he proved that his range extended beyond dick jokes and fat humor; in fact so much so that legendary film auteur and same-amount-of-Oscars-as-3-6-Mafia director, Martin Scorcese, chose him for a pivotal role in his adaptation of Jordan Belfort’s tiresome and self-aggrandizing laugh fest that was The Wolf of Wall Street.

Note that this is NOT a bad or even mediocre film: Jonah Hill’s acting and Margot Robbie’s “acting” were the high points; Leo’s physical acting grabbed him the nod. It was The Wolf of Wall Street‘s 3 hour run time and a heaping load of better films that landed it just under 1 Oscar total. This outcome begs the question, “would this film have been nominated had this been 2008, when only five films got the nod? Does it have the same canonical presence as The Dark Knight? It’s hard to see The Wolf of Wall Street from behind the obvious star power of its production team, but the answer is no. Continue reading