{Second Take} [1964] Zorba The Greek

Opinion, news, politics—discussion abounds with questions of feminism, gender identity and expression, misogyny, and the patriarchy. Domestic and sexual abuse cases involving celebrities and sports heroes come to light with disturbing frequency. Street harassment draws the ire of much of society. Male coworkers (or bosses) cannot use terms such as “sweetie”, or “girls” without sounding patronizing. Society is gradually becoming accepting of more fluid gender role actualization and a non-binary view of gender. These manifestations of shifting cultural norms mark significant progress. So how does one approach a movie from another age, based on a book from several decades before that, in which the protagonist objectifies women as casually as James Bond? Zorba the Greek, while retaining a certain timelessness and magnetism, struggles to translate to the present day, due in no small part to the ubiquity of archaic gender role assumptions and the objectification of women.

Alexis Zorba in Michael Cacoyannis’ 1964 film Zorba the Greek, based on Nikos Kazantzakis’ 1946 novel, personifies the paradox of being a charming chauvinist. A gruff womanizer who objectifies women throughout the film, Anthony Quinn’s Zorba still infects the viewer with his unflinching attitude toward life. He talks about widows being easy, women needing men, and men having a responsibility to sleep with women, going so far as to say it is a sin when a woman sleeps alone. While Zorba’s approach to women (and life) shocks Basil, a young Englishman played by Alan Bates, he does not express disapproval so much as incredulity at Zorba’s willingness to voice such thoughts so unabashedly. While he does not initially understand Zorba, he grows to appreciate Zorba’s insatiable thirst for life, even in the face of adversity.

When compared to the Cretan villagers, however, Zorba’s penchant for subscribing to sexist mores seems almost progressive. But he understands the villagers in way that Basil cannot. In one particularly haunting scene, the widow, played by Irene Papas, falls victim to the villagers’ societal expectations. She cowers, dressed in black with her jet-black hair and dark eyes, set starkly against the sandy Cretan landscape, clinging to a lone tree, like a scared animal—the effect is nauseating. What has sparked this need for vengeance? She refused the advances made by a young village boy, apparently driving him to suicide; she said “no”; she refused to conform to the village’s idea, outdated even at that time, that she had no right to remain single. In their view, a woman should be married, even if she is widowed—one of the men (or young men) must be suitable, and she should choose among them. Does Basil understand this? Yes and no. He understands the resentment but not the magnitude or the sheer brutality of the reaction. As a viewer, the collective reaction and acceptance of violence as justice comes as a surprise—one might expect it more from a story occurring several hundred years in the past or a Roman Polanski film. Zorba, however, does understand it—both the impetus and the reaction. He doesn’t agree with it, but he does not find it shocking either. He attempts to save her and chastises the villagers, calling them an embarrassment to Crete. He ultimately fails; and the young boy’s father takes a knife to her throat and kills her. Zorba resigns himself to the fact that the Cretan villagers way of things is simply the reality, rather than truly challenging the status quo. By today’s standards, his resignation falls short of heroism or admiration as it relates to gender equality or women’s rights. But the film never tries to portray him as any sort of hero, so that judgment is beside the point. Continue reading

[1964] Zorba The Greek

Greek culture is historic and anthemic. Rooted in ancient and documented philosophies of civilized structure, Greek history tells interconnected stories of tragedy and progress, almost in an endless loop, that, if played out infinitely might stretch or shrink, but would ultimately end in chaos redux. Greek history, or dramatic Greek history, whichever an audience chooses to read, is ingrained as different from fundamentally similar cultures (city-states: think Italy or Korea, or even the United States before the ratification of the Constitution). But the fact about the human experience does not change with geography or within time’s endless bounds: humans are on a trajectory that is more prone to disorder and entropy than to ordered civilization. The beast of man is prone to self-destruction, through waves of doubt, existential crises, casus pacem or belli, and brief moments of nothingness. These things are pessimistic and true, to an extent. The best among the species have a keen eye to grab the vacuum between the schism of darkness and that of the belief that good exists without cause or reason. Zorba, the fictional Greek, was one of these men.

In the fifty or so years since Anthony Quinn danced on the graves of the Gods as Zorba, a hapless – but happy – man, the concept of whimsy has almost totally defined Greece as a bearer of cultural fruit. His lasting image as a human reflects, almost prophetically, the state of the Greek State: lovable and helpless, but loyal to a fault. It is important here to make the distinction between Greece and Grecian people. The whole, propped up by historical specters, will survive because the history is sewn into the global fabric for history and culture and without nation-state (younger than the US) as a form of object-permanence, the culture would disseminate and would slowly, and literally, Balkanize. The Greek people, however, remain in solidarity despite economic fulcra that drive wedges through the larger social fabric that determines a man’s worth should be determined by his stature and his things. Zorba profoundly rejects this notion and Zorba The Greek tells the story of the common truth: that in between want and need lies can.  Continue reading

[1974] The Towering Inferno

In the “normal” course of a “normal” person’s “normal” morning or evening, things happen both to and around the individual . These things are stimuli of various levels of control. In some instances, the individual acts on a thing that directly affects his or her environment and other times things happen in quick succession outside of anyone’s direct control. As living creatures, humans react and respond to external stimuli either consciously, unconsciously, or subconsciously, and as rational beings some among humans understand the relationship among many causes and effects, feedback loops, iterations, and dead-ends. Enlightenment via order is certainly a waste of precious time considering that we float through space with the capriciousness of the things that happen to us and to everyone else. To wrangle is to fight entropy – a natural state of chaos and disorder. This is true, normality is a subsection of chaos. The “normal” accident, then, is one of a confluence of seemingly random happenings en route to disaster. Thus simplifies the premise of The Towering Inferno.

The film itself is straight-forward, but seems to stall for about two hours in between the introduction of the problem and the eventual resolution. An as-of-yet-to-be detected fire starts in an inconspicuous closet on a single floor of over a hundred, and because of dramatic necessity, the whole building bursts into flames while hundreds of people panic 50 floors up. The story weaves through character profiles whose motivations do not really matter, so the sense of urgency falls somewhat flat, and whose outcomes feel random – normal even. Both Steve McQueen and Paul Newman vie for the audience’s affections, and mostly succeed, though they both seem to want this love in its entirety. Fred Astaire makes a legacy performance worthy of an Oscar, Jennifer Jones exits on a high note, and O.J. Simpson practiced his own peculiar brand of acting, for which he would soon become infamous. Together, this ensemble cast in this situation should have made The Towering Inferno an exciting and enjoyable watch. Normally, it would have been, but the specifics behind the scenes somewhat doomed this picture to bloat and disorder.  Continue reading

[1980] Raging Bull

“Boxing” films traditionally mythologize the ring as place sacrosanct. When a fighter steps through the soggy void between the semi-taut ropes and onto the mat, a particularly delicate “outside” struggle dissolves and the fighter refocuses on beating his or her opponent to a pulp. Bloody eyes and broken noses replace bleeding hearts and shattered minds, if just for the half hour. No ambitious souls have yet made a film documenting a well-adjusted boxer, as the metaphor is so obvious that as a motif, the damaged fighter, has nearly outlived its storied and well-respected history. The audience knows as much and often will seek out a “boxing” film as a place to witness redemption; the ring is both dangerous battleground and safe haven. The ring is anger and the fighter is pure punches. What makes Raging Bull a cut above the rest is the manner by which the audience connects to the ring through cinematography.

Director Martin Scorsese wanted the audience to feel Robert De Niro’s overwhelming life as real-life boxer and champion, Jake LaMotta. Raging Bull, as a rightful torch-bearer for 1976’s Rocky, demonstrates boxing mythos through tried-and-true means: Jake is a man of few words, but when he speaks the world seems to rattle. He finds no inner peace in the ring, per se, but the canvas mat and attending ropes become a home through which he can channel his pervasive anger. And the audience feels this: the steady punches – tat, tat, pumpf, the off-center angles, close-ups and pan-outs, all timed as though in 7/8 time. Raging Bull is a musical without melody, thump, thump, snatch, spin. Crash. When the bell rings, skulls rattle.  Continue reading

{Second Take} [1980] Raging Bull

A crisp and penetrating character drama that rings true as so much more than a boxing film. Raging Bull transcended a sports genre that is to this day rife with Hollywood clichés and uninspired storytelling. At the heart of its transcendence is Robert De Niro’s performance as legendary boxer Jake LaMotta. De Niro’s acting – the razor-sharp mood swings, non-linear thought processes, and profanity laden quips – allowed Scorsese to focus on LaMotta’s personal life and not just the bludgeoning of anything that stood in his path. In the wake of Raging Bull, De Niro’s acting would become the template for every rough-around-the-edges Italian-American character in American cinema for the next twenty-five years. Jake Gyllenhaal, who was born on the day Raging Bull was released in theaters in 1980, garnered attention for what many thought would be a De Niro-esque performance in his 2015 film Southpaw. Sadly, Southpaw took its place in a long line of boiler-plate boxing films unable to escape the long and dark shadow that Raging Bull has cast on the genre – a fate that has befallen nearly all of the well-intentioned boxing films of the past thirty-five years. Among viewers and critics alike, Raging Bull is considered THE crowning achievement for all of Hollywood in the 1980’s. With the weight of all that how did such a cunning and concise piece of cinematic storytelling NOT walk away with Best Picture that year?

Scorsese’s stylistic tact for Raging Bull mirrors the man it chronicles: brutal, piercing, and never deeper than it seems. It mirrors all of us, and who we are in our secret moments of self-doubt and anger. We watch as a brutish LaMotta gets everything he ever wanted, the money, the woman, the title. Scorsese then puts LaMotta’s insecurities and tyrannical nature front and center. Viewers are helpless to interfere as we watch the tyrant crumble from within and lose everything. That helpless feeling makes this a terrifying film; something Academy voters were sure to notice. No parallel can be drawn between personal salvation and any larger theme of Americana, because for LaMotta no personal salvation exists. Little about Raging Bull lands within the platitudes that typical American moviegoers latch on to. Continue reading