[1985] Prizzi’s Honor

Absurdity, at its purest, assumes its residual – common sense – exists as a constant. For a situation to feel nonsensical it must exist within the world of this context, but slightly off-center: any art that knowingly stretches or blurs the formal definition of object, for the purposes of critiquing it or commenting on it. If the author attempts to assign meaning, the art ceases to be free-form, in a way that erodes its absurdity. We need to be able to grasp at absurdity without ever reaching it. Absurdity also has a built-in meta component that syncs up with the very real phenomenon cognitive dissonance, holding two or more conflicting beliefs at the same time. When we watch Prizzi’s Honor, we know that the events in this film are unlikely to ever occur, even though they sometimes seem that they could in our own measured existence or even in another mafia-esque film. Maybe we desire this film because we desire absurdity.

In fact, if we use The Godfather (either) as our reference point for clarity, quality and non-absurdity, Prizzi’s Honor feels even the more surreal. Both films are set in fictitious micro-environments where organized family business often exists through crime motifs, or through (as Prizzi’s Honor illuminates it) honor and duty. We understand that crime, as a driver for story and for history, works insofar as purposeful or logical narration will allow. Only in specific context does random killing, for example, not derail an otherwise reasonable character framework; usually this character is molded and guided toward psychotic break, but sometimes a story will include a random killing as a moment of opacity. Purposeful confusion, though, is not a hallmark of absurdity, because the director will likely resolve the issue. The killing will turn out not to be random; the character is hiding disassociative personality traits; there exists a ‘whodunit’ mystery that unfolds. These film tropes, while tricky to clarify (see: The Usual Suspects), guide an audience, as the logic behind the story unfolds.  Continue reading

[1937.10] A Star Is Born

I will be watching all 10 nominees from 1937 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.  

In the late 1930s, there existed a colorless film standard: the technology was too expensive and not reliable enough for the majority of films to translate from sets or locations to film, then to playback across screens across the country. The infrastructure was still in its infancy. Naturally, with time and adaptation, the technology became commonplace – now when a filmmaker chooses black-and-white, the director chooses it as a style to possibly reflect a specific mood or callback to a past time. Schindler’s List is mostly in black-and-white, whose color palate reflects bleakness and starkness, dotted with some color for dramatic effect. Director Michel Hazanavicius, chose for Best Picture winner from 2011, The Artist, to film in black-and-white and remove sound, too. But there was a time when, in 1937, A Star Is Born, broke the color barrier (if you will), as the first Best Picture nominee to have been filmed in color.

The Artist won as homage to film’s past, so if we anchor A Star Is Born as homage to film’s future, we might expect a win, too, for its production quality alone. But like In Old Chicago and San Francisco before it, A Star Is Born could not win “Outstanding Production” on gimmick alone. The color adds extra depth to the story, but does not replace the qualities that make great story – especially those that reflect the mood and gestalt for 1937. But: this story is good, if not a little convenient, but could have been made five years earlier (maybe not in color) or five years later, and would have had the same effect. Janet Gaynor, film’s first Best Actress winner, plays a convincing, if reluctant leading lady. Once again, Adolphe Menjou lends his talents once again as a talent manager, and Frederic March rounds out the leading cast as the most interesting character. The color adds depth to his emotional journey, allowing for a full range of emotion from love on high to the end on low. There was no “switch,” though. Just deep blues and reds and greens and indigos. The man was a mess, but the late 30s were more of a recovery period than a messy one, and pushes this film out from Best Picture consideration. Continue reading

[1937.9] Stage Door

I will be watching all 10 nominees from 1937 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.  

If the Academy were allowed a mulligan – a do-over in retrospect, but a few years later – Stage Door would have offered The Life of Emile Zola almost unbearable competition. For the past eight reviews, all focused on films nominated in 1937, this blog’s format attempted to justify the Best Picture winner using static data that Emile Zola won (it did) and why the other films weren’t better suited (they weren’t), until this one. Stage Door is a superlatively powerful challenger, based squarely on Katharine Hepburn’s broad shoulders, so much so, that given a Mulligan, this film would have taken Best Picture at the 10th Academy Awards of 1945.

The two films are essentially incomparable, aside from their temporal and basic technical aspects. The mood in each film taps a completely different nerve, the structural elements of each’s story assumes wildly different story arc depths and each tackles a different synapse of the American Interwar psyche. On one hand, The Life of Emile Zola tackles xenophobia, political resistance and preaches acceptance in response to European democratic devolution and revolt. Stage Door, on the other hand, dives inward into the interplay among varying levels of “together,” in the stifling world of top-level Theater. With dozens of girls and women at different stages of their careers, relationships form from happenstance and from necessity. The only common thread that ties these two films together is that both films concentrate on the actions of people in the face of an uncertain and variable living conditions. Even so, nineteenth century France and twentieth century New York do not seem to intersect culturally or politically until the advent of rapid communication technology via the Internet. Continue reading

[1937.8] One Hundred Men and a Girl

I will be watching all 10 nominees from 1937 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 simplest movie out of the eight (so far) from 1937, One Hundred Men and a Girl, also proves one of the most successful. This film is logically self-contained, and though it possesses only fragments of human endeavor, its ends justify its means. One Hundred Men and a Girl is meant to show off breakout star Deanna Durbin’s vocal and acting chops and needed a truly simple plot to maneuver from point A to point B. In 80 minutes, we learn just enough about each character so that we (the audience) can discern a character’s motivations for action, even if the environment will not allow for it or, more often, over-corrects to an illogical extreme. What makes One Hundred Men and a Girl different from a film like In Old Chicago is the complete unabashed focus on real-life career-making at the expense of a comprehensive or even believable story or character development.

For example, in no way do I believe that 100 people are ready at a moment’s notice, fully practiced and tuned, to jump at the chance to perform “in three days,” for a famed maestro [the actual Leopold Stokowski], who has no idea of any of it. I do not believe young Patsy has the wherewithal to move so deftly through a city and catch people unaware and ready to chat – or the opposite, to “just miss” the loopy (and perhaps drunk) benefactress for this orchestra of unemployed urchins. I do not believe the supportive taxi man would give up his day job to shuttle this rambunctious, if not well-meaning, teenager, around the city for hours and days at a time as an “investment in her voice.” BUT: because I am aware of all these plot holes and nonsense coincidences, and I am also aware of this film’s purpose, I cast aside the doubt in exchange for a simple and fun 80-minute tale of validated dreams. It is inspiring.  Continue reading

[1937.7] Lost Horizon

I will be watching all 10 nominees from 1937 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.  

We mythologize utopia as some lost dream from past society or some future to work toward. We can be certain that no such society exists where moderation is maxim and utility is perfectly cached: the desires of men are too disparate. And yet some faction of Utopian flag bearers, somewhere, still pushes the cause for a form of direct democracy where every member of a perfect society lives in harmony, balancing free will and freedom with equality and efficiency. This equilibrium, if ever achieved, is bound to be ephemeral if the conditions upon which it is tenuously based change in any way. In a society of more than one actor (by definition), these conditions can be near infinite. Yet we yearn for perfection, for redistribution, at the expense of neoliberalism, upon which our real, capitalist society is based. Why?

Lost Horizon is a shallow dive into this question. In this (the first, and most successful, of many), legendary director Frank Capra supposedly shot over one million feet of film to capture the balance between the visual and the aural cues behind societal and physical perfection of mind and place. Often what makes for good tonal and internal conflict within a two-hour film is severe realism versus capricious mysticism. Searching for voice, a director will sometimes (perhaps more often than not) film with hopes of reflecting points onto which an audience can latch. This is why we often see a story through the point-of-view of a protagonist instead of an antagonist, in the grand hope that Good can overcome Evil, or that the down-on-his-luck insurance salesman can push through adversity to escape into someone – or something – else. The trick with Lost Horizon is that neither option – Utopia nor status quo – is particularly good or evil. Whose voice we follow, Robert Conway, canonizes the mood of Perfection; of non-linear, human life and desire. Conversely, Conway’s brother, George, idealizes the need to break out from what seems a trap; the linear, skeptical, human life and desire. With whom are we supposed to identify? Is it fair to assume Robert just because Capra decides as such? Why is George, a “realist,” derided?  Continue reading