[1948.5] Hamlet

I will be watching all 5 nominees from 1948 before I move on to the next year. The goal here is to watch them and have an internal discussion among them to try to piece together a “history” of the year. Let’s get to it. 

To Be Or Not To Be – That Is The Question

No, it’s not, Hamlet, you brooding Dane.

The real question is what did Sir Laurence Olivier do with Shakespeare’s four-centuries-old masterpiece? Some – casual viewers – saw the silkiest, leanest interpretation of the play. Others – purists – saw Olivier cutting the play into parts convenient and cried heresy. “Anyone who’s ever heard of or seen any production of Hamlet” – the completion of the pie – saw the Shakespeare by accident, or for school or for a blog post and recognized Olivier’s genius for drama, without consideration for the interpretation or for the heretics. In Hamlet, our titular character too often acts too singularly overwrought and too blatantly standoffish to show the true brood as a character of such complexity. Olivier, for luck or for skill, both wrote and acted his Hamlet perhaps as close to Shakespeare’s original fabric.

To Be Or Not To Be – That Is The Question

No, it’s not, Hamlet, you grand inquisitor.

Olivier plays Hamlet as a deft, cunning, impressionable, passionate, capable young prince, not out for revenge or justice, but rather out of sheer boredom. Never is there urgency to his actions, even with directive from his father and strange confession through a play-within-a-play. Olivier’s Hamlet seems content to allow this story to play out quite literally among the court with no true directive, self or not. He feigns madness to…throw his uncle (the new king) and his uncle’s advisor (the “cunning” Polonius, who’s a fool in disguise) convincingly enough to actually drive Ophelia (Polonius’ daughter and love…interest?) mad. For Hamlet the decision to play “mad,” is a simple and inconsequential one – why would anyone suspect the grieving son of anything? It’s not quite rational. It’s not quite full-on insanity. It’s how Olivier plays Hamlet – slightly unhinged, but not so much as to become caricature. Continue reading

[1948.4] The Snake Pit

I will be watching all 5 nominees from 1948 before I move on to the next year. The goal here is to watch them and have an internal discussion among them to try to piece together a “history” of the year. Let’s get to it. 

The metaphor here is both simple and literal: against a backdrop of the most wretched or insane, there’s always someone worse off. The snakes represent the conflict – any conflict – a person might have and the pit represents the environment within which the conflict takes place. The imagery is straightforward, too. Snakes, as plot devices, represent something unnatural and the pit represents unrelenting depth, the No Exit. It’s almost too simple, then, that 1948’s The Snake Pit tells a snippet of a poor woman, one who needs to be tossed into the snake pit to come back out. It’s an interesting concept, like film shock therapy but besides the magnificent performance from Olivia de Havilland, the story is too obvious and the message comes across as preachy rather than eerie.

Instead of a nebulous take on contemporary health care or a murky character analysis piece, The Snake Pit is instead a straightforward plot-and-potatoes story about a woman, Virginia Stuart Cunningham (de Havilland), who finds herself in an institution after years and years of abuse and psychological trauma had caused her to lose some kind of grip on reality. She interacts with a myriad of doctors, ethical and self-serving, with nurses, caring and maniacal and with other inmates, in various levels of sanity and protective custody. Not one of the interactions is dramatically challenging to the viewer nor do any of the situations force Virginia to become so unhinged as to seem like a real threat to herself or to others. We spend almost two hours watching and listening to a woman resolve daddy issues and fall in and out of “love” with her boring doctor. de Havilland plays what limited material she’s given with grace and class and a certain level of un-hingedness expected of her. Unfortunately, the performance wasn’t enough to save the film from the snake pit of boredom.

The film lacks both an emotional punch and a thematic strength befitting of the mental health genre, à la One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest or even Rain Man. A theory as to why could involve the source material: it just might not be interesting, or at least interesting enough to base a whole film of the semi-autobiographical novel bearing the same name. Nurse David is not Nurse Ratched; she’s cruel, but very much obviously so and she’s suffocating for the wrong reasons. Instead of mental torture by way of subtle and menial sado-masochistic torture, Nurse David (Helen Craig) is a failed caretaker, rejected by the doctor (Kik – Leo Genn) she almost knew didn’t love her, rejected by her patients she almost knew don’t respond to any kind of stimulus and rejected by this boring archetype, which, instead of strongly contrasting temporary dissociative Virginia, simply is a mean person. Another theory is the lack of clear direction from perhaps an odd choice, Anatole Litvak, who seems to have missed the power of creating a noir powerhouse, and instead deciding to do an expensive exposé on mental health by way of a strange choice in marginalizing women’s rights and role definitions. Not quite modern and less progressive, The Snake Pit suffers from its own thematic shortcomings: throw this film in a film snake pit and perhaps cure it of its disillusionment.

Buzz surrounding The Snake Pit maybe (?) led to a national review of the national mental health system. It’s not unprecedented for a national cultural event to affect goings on outside the filmsphere, but it’s unclear as for what the auditors searched. Unkind treatment of inmates? Lack of funding or misappropriation of funds? Some hazy regulation review? Considering that claims like these are wholly unsubstantiated firsthand, the production company may have had a hand in a quite progressive guerrilla marketing campaign. Sadly, this must have been the most interesting part of this movie. The Snake Pit lacked the moral upheaval of Johnny Belinda, the psychological forethought of The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre and the storytelling ebullience of The Red Shoes. Snake pit indeed.

[1948.3] The Red Shoes

I will be watching all 5 nominees from 1948 before I move on to the next year. The goal here is to watch them and have an internal discussion among them to try to piece together a “history” of the year. Let’s get to it. 

The Red Shoes is the classic story-within-a-story, but something dissociative separates films regarding ballet from other films involving high art, like opera or classical music. In film, ballet’s been dedicated as a perfect complement of tortured souls. Curiously, though, there’s nothing overtly special or defining about ballet as the saddest art moste potente. But we all can sense that silence and isolation that defines this specific kind of dance.

Isolation, even within a tight-knit group, is inevitable. Only so much time exists daily, and not all of it can be spent in the embrace of a lover or the demands of a career. We all have to eat and sleep and practice general upkeep of our bodies, individually. Ballet, as a solitary/group activity, is a perfect expository foil for the exploration of both the dance itself – its movements and its pauses – and of its dancers – their movements and their pauses. In The Red Shoes, 1948’s masterstroke/Hans Christian Andersen rework, our actors all act silently and swiftly. Their machinations are their own: troupe leader, Boris Lermentov (Anton Walbrook), has his single-minded focus; the players don’t matter, until they do. Consumed by the purity of the dance, Lermentov spies Vicky Page (Moira Shearer), a dancer of some familial wealth, as the one who will dance his masterstroke and pegs Julian Craster (Marius Goring) to jolt the music into something more than fashionable, but less than garish. Together, the ensemble works to create a masterful representation of HCA’s dark fairy tale. Alone, the experience ruins each of them in turn.  Continue reading

[1948.2] The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre

I will be watching all 5 nominees from 1948 before I move on to the next year. The goal here is to watch them and have an internal discussion among them to try to piece together a “history” of the year. Let’s get to it. 

Ages ago, someone coined the pseudo-genre “neo-western,” for movies like The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre. For decades, Hollywood had romanticized the concept of the old west – the sense of adventure, the wonderment of Manifest Destiny and the cynical beauty of not knowing the source of one’s next meal – without question. As time has passed, so has the fascination with the western genre; we’re more interested in character and plot analysis over setting and mood. It’s become commonplace to, in 2014, fantasize about both eras with an offhanded air. But as we watch ’40s westerns almost 3 generations later, we have to reserve judgement as most of those who grew up fantasizing about cowboydom are long gone and what we’re left with is film and television caricature. What John Huston and Humphrey Bogart accomplish in The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre is both an homage to the old west and a look forward to modern film – a neo-western.

Most of The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre‘s conflict is internal – the pithy dialogue among the three main prospectors shows as much about their nurture as it does their nature. Yes, they’re all romping around the Sierra Madre mountains looking to get rich – but why? For one, it’s wealth for wealth’s sake; for another, it’s to achieve a childhood goal; for a the third, it’s to occupy his time, and seemingly, to learn about other people’s motives. He often assumes the role of moderator, helping cool the direct aggression from Bogart’s Fred C. Dobbs to the reactionary Bob Curtin (played by Lou Holt). But he’s also the cause of the aggression, constantly questioning the motives of what they’re all doing trolling for cash. As a result, paranoia often haunts the day and night activities of these three men, shown through various levels of trustworthiness, second-guessing and external and internal threats. Sprinkled within the campfire quarrels and gold-digging, the writer/director John Huston (who casts his father, Walter, in some kind of lucky nepotism) creates minor external conflict to strikingly exemplify a character’s internal motivations. It’s a neo-western: the conflict very western – the constant threat of bandits or dehydration or a deadly desert creature – but the handling is unintentionally modern, instead of facing the threat directly, the characters have lengthy (if occasionally forced) conversations discussions musing on how they’d handle bandits or what constitutes enough for the three of them.  Continue reading

[1948.1] Johnny Belinda

I will be watching all 5 nominees from 1948 before I move on to the next year. The goal here is to watch them and have an internal discussion among them to try to piece together a “history” of the year. Let’s get to it. 

Johnny Belinda, 1948’s ebullient story about a young, intelligent deaf-mute girl from a small town on the eastern coast of Canada, offered a daring exposé on the unraveling consequences of rape in a small town.

This film holds a special mantle on Oscar’s shelf as its release defiantly shirked Hays’ Code rules against immoral or inappropriate subject matter in film. Perhaps from 1948 forward, rules that once boxed a story in, no longer applied. What’s interesting is that rape is a notoriously murky subject matter to tackle. Johnny Belinda‘s take on the matter is diffused somewhat seeing as the film itself thankfully does not muse on rape and rape culture, but rather treats it as a plot and mood device. This decision allows stars Jane Wyman and Lew Ayres to absolutely shine.  Continue reading

[1966] Alfie

The man Alfie Elkins’ constant pursuit of hedonism, even as a caricature and as a plot device, is despicable and watching him prey on women in 1966’s Alfie, made me, as I’m sure it was supposed to, uncomfortable. The barrage of dehumanizing rituals to which Alfie routinely subjects his “things,” even as a parody of machismo and masculinity, if nothing else drives the point home that, even the most hedonistic and emotionless of all men, need some TLC. Sex without love is, as we’ve always seen, and we’ll continue to see, eventually meaningless and mostly depressing.

Hedonism, as a life pursuit, deludes lots of men (and women) into thinking that the sole goal of one’s life should be pleasure, and any work or relationship or activity should totally and finitely support that goal. In reality, as has been proven for thousands of years of text, music, film and fine art, the lifestyle is unsustainable and more often than not ends in defiant crash-and-burn. Refreshingly, though, Alfie’s life affirmation ends with contemplation; not with a bang, but with a whimper.

Alfie attempts to provide insight and hope into the concept of The Modern Man. In the 1966 rendition, Michael Caine, plays Alfie (not Alfred, Batman),  a womanizing, friendless, carcass of a man, whose sole purpose seems to be reducing his women to almost inhuman levels of subservience. He treats his women like chattel and his “friends” as tools to the next easy lay. For, you see, women are Alfie’s addiction, but not love and not even lust; flesh is less important to him than the concept of owning a woman. It’s truly despicable: he describes his women using the pronoun “it,” picks up a nubile, naïve girl and almost forces her into involuntary servitude…..for what? What is it about this man that makes him so confident that his attention is even worth its weight in delusion? The answer, as our caricature finds out, is nothing.  Continue reading

[1957] Sayonara

1957’s Sayonara is a movie about rejecting racism and prejudice. Predictably, the 1957 version of civil rights has less to do with civil rights than it does with ‘edgy’ filmmaking.

On the forefront of civil rights and a level-ish playing field for all Americans, we staged a war in Korea thereby making the rest of the world safe for America, too. Predictably, Film took an almighty stab at the heart of intra-American conflict, race-relations, and while the medium is better for it the film plays more like a dark parody than it does a golden light. Yes, some citizens of the Orient have a problem distinguishing between an ‘L’ and ‘R’ (it’s the same letter in Japanese – about halfway between the two). Yes, Japan has modernized to become a global powerhouse, and not just a setting for kabuki and subservience. Yes, there was no way for screenwriter Paul Osborn to have known this and the depiction surely comes across as less overtly goofy in James Michener’s novel. But the best films in the past 85 years have done their best to create believable dystopia, so maybe enough with the ching-chong and a more focused look into politick if the movie really wanted to be a smart civil rights flick.

Marlon Brando and Miiko Taka save the work from becoming a true parody. We know Brando for his iconic performances in the 1950s and ’70s. We don’t really know Taka, save older theatre and cabaret junkies, but on-screen together the pair have uncanny chemistry – the believable relationship helps to highlight at least part of this issue, which would grow from anti-Orientalism (after our unofficial isolation after Korea) to anti-African American (still happening…) and now to anti-orientation-that-isn’t-straight (even more frustrating). We follow the issue on a micro level – the relationships among the soldiers and the betrothed natives and on a macro level – the military-industrial complex’s official position on inter-cultural relationships. Lots of these issues are dragged out to almost extreme examples – the double-suicide, the intense focus on the kabuki (really, though, Ricardo Mantalban as a Japanese kabuki artist?) and the somewhat goofy courtship among the lead actors. Brando just makes it believable that he’s a West Point educated son of a general with a goofy southern accent. What makes the performance so strong is that it’s almost incredulous to believe that any other actor could have played this part miraculously without spiraling into cabaret. Continue reading

[1971] The French Connection

The French Connection was a real thing. I’m not going to re-edit the details here but know that in the 1930s, ’40s, ’50s, ’60s and ’70s smugglers trafficked more heroin than you can count from the Middle East through Western Europe and eventually through North America. Its rise and fall demonically haunts pre- and post-war Europe through its enormous involvement at all levels of corruption, from local informants and drug runners up through the highest echelons of government and other agency. It was a perfect combination of circumstance and trading one aesthetic and global crisis for another, lesser (?) one.

The French Connection took to dramatize and compartmentalize 40 years of serious drug trafficking into 2 hours of thrill, substance and action. William Friedkin’s dramatic distillation of decades of drugs helped to liven the pulse of filmmaking that beat so heavily from the late 1960s to the early 1970s. Much like the conflict for which the film was named, The French Connection took clever advantage of circumstance to help craft its message. The perfect combination of casting, direction, cinematography, special effects, production and source material together (among other factors) drove this movie to such heights as a political action thriller and an investigative crime drama, that to try to replicate it is almost impossible. Yet improbably, and mind-blowingly it’s probably the worst of the 4 movies to win Best Picture from 1969 to 1972. Continue reading

[1956] Giant

Name all three movies James Dean starred in before his untimely death in 1955.

Chances are you’ll name Rebel Without A Cause – his second starring role in what has come to define him and beatniks like him. So strong was his performance in Rebel, so strong in fact that actors almost 60 years later use his lead as a template in portraying the ’50s. The archetypical “rebel” demanded so much of his life, but paradoxically, you’ll be hard pressed to find a fan or a detractor who still wonders what the rest of his career could have offered. After his performance in Rebel – immediately following Elia Kazan’s East of Eden and immediately preceding George Stevens’ Giant – he certainly, if nothing else, curated a ratio of greatness-to-role unmatched. Wherein thousands of actors have come and gone almost none have accomplished what Dean did after just three roles.

As his last film, Giant allowed James Dean to explore his relationship with a future self, leaving on-screen a record of gargantuan greatness. Sprawled out over three-plus hours, Giant follows Texas men and women as they deal with oscillations in the American Dream, shifting from property ownership and family preservation to wealth speculation and cash hoarding; these motifs play out over and over…and over again in the next 60 years, both on screen and in real life – and we will notice that technology and communication convenience has piercingly demonstrated the dichotomy between the many ideologies of success. Dean, as prospering oil tycoon Jett Rink demonstrates the latter so convincingly, so astutely, that we’ll still wonder if Dean wasn’t meant for greatness in 1955 or 2055. The best actors radiate on screen; the all-time greats soar off it. Continue reading

[1995] Sense and Sensibility

Of the 512 films nominated since 1927, only a handful exist that I have almost no interest in seeing. Sense and Sensibility was one of them: on my initial screen, I audibly cringed when I approached 1995 and saw that, along with Il Postino, I had yet to see Ang Lee and Emma Thompson’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1811 novel bearing the same name and the same tired, stepping-on-legos annoying people that plagued Ms. Austen’s novels and those of her contemporaries’, too. But it’s important to the blog and to my understanding of film history that I watch all the movies available irrespective of my aversion to them. I still find it crucial that the Academy chose each film based on specific criteria, and that each year’s winner exemplified some zeitgeist-affirming premise, or more likely, mood.

That said, it’s hard to argue against Sense and Sensibility for a nomination: the cast is impeccably English and Austen-esque, Thompson’s adaptation rightly (for film) exaggerates certain aspects about the Dashwood ladies’ wealth, and modernizes some of the male leads to better attract a more modern audience. Lee’s wide shots and modest cuts between scenes created, if nothing else, a beautifully filmed 2-hour adaptation. Really, though, nothing else: Austen, like the Brontë sisters, created this fantastical world where every sister or mother is clever and brooding and every man is either dashing or hopeless, but cruel nevertheless.

Thompson captured the essence of this story with fluidity and passion, but even with her sharp pen, the story suffers from a wanton ambivalence towards any of her characters and a waning clarity regarding the feelings of her moste brooding Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, sufferers of too many male suitors and not enough money to live in a gigantic estate, only a smaller one. At its core Austen’s novel and Thompson’s adaptation proxies Søren Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, within which the brooding lover decides whether she will choose sense or sensibility, never bits of both, but in truth makes no choice, simply an acceptance of fate. Oh the cruelty of Mrs. Dashwood’s husband’s first ex-wife! Oh, my word Colonel Brandon, dashing and handsome, are you too gentle and too schooled on the harshness of the world to love? Are you too sensible for me you old man of 35? Do I sense that you, Mssr. John Willoughby, dashing and handsome, schooled in the fantastical currency of culture and a passion for the senses? Will you betray the poor(ish, not really), beautiful Miss Marianne? Ah Hugh Grant! Will you show up shape-shifted into another bumbling do-gooder who can’t do good right?  Continue reading