Posted in First Take

[1968.2] Funny Girl

I will be watching all 5 nominees from 1968 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. 

funnygirlposterFunnily enough, Funny Girl earned neither a Best Original Screenplay nor a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination, even though it had been produced as an acclaimed stage production – which itself had been adapted from a book. Clearly, the work was not an “original” screenplay, but still removed far enough from Fanny Brice’s actual life  (three degrees) so as to offer dramatic license to transform story into narrative. Funny Girl provides a glimpse into the unknown world of a girl, truly funny, but with levels of processing, Brice’s story resembles a game of “telephone,” where star Barbra Streisand steps into the role of a woman she never met, based on a series of adaptations (and maybe conversations/sessions) and script directions. After this many deviations from the original, who can say if Streisand is not simply playing a caricature of herself? Perhaps the performance demonstrated an excellent reading of the script and  – with Streisand’s jovial and emotional representation – offered a meta-wink-and-nod to industry elite and sentimentalists. Streisand, in her magnum opus, is quite funny, and identifies as a girl but it becomes increasingly difficult to parse meaning from the concatenation.  Continue reading “[1968.2] Funny Girl”

Posted in First Take

[1968.1] Rachel, Rachel

I will be watching all 5 nominees from 1968 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. 

83aThe human eye, for its awesome complexity, is imperfect. An average human can distinguish among 10 million colors to varying levels of intensity. Trichromacy is a distinguishing factor among primates from other mammalian species and is responsible for evoking (occasionally vivid) emotional responses. Artists and filmmakers decide that crisp and clear color might symbolize a specific emotion or mood; to that effect, an artist with a different objective might elect to dull a palate of colors enough to push a different set of feelings. A filmmaker’s choice can only really reflect intent, however, as each human, just as she has different eyes also sees things through a unique perspective. Sometimes the human eye, it its awesome complexity, cannot interpret crispness as imperfection causes the physiology to distort.

To examine the history of film is to undertake an impossibly knotty task. Separate, and often collinear threads, like technology’s insatiable progress and public opinion’s often disheartening demagoguery, or a deepening mistrust of authoritarian figures and a shift in music tastes, that have little to do with one another often superimpose one another, intentional or not. The eye, as propagator of one of humans’ most treacherous senses, cannot piece cognitive dissonance together: against evidence to the contrary, what it sees it believes, even at the behest of the other senses; the eye is the human’s most slanderous sense. 1968’s Rachel, Rachel remains honest with intent, but blurry in obscurity. Released during a time of global tribulation, its soft reflection on human suffering seems trivial – but, once again, the human eye deceives.  Continue reading “[1968.1] Rachel, Rachel”

Posted in First Take

[1929/30] The Divorcee

220px-the_divorcee_posterThomas Piketty, in his seminal book on modern economic theory, Capital in the 21st Century, makes several offhand references to literature, and specifically that of Honoré de Balzac. Piketty notes that since early Western governments, fickle and fragile, kept slipshod records for economic data, a reliable source would be theoretical banking accounts for fictional characters; the intent was to demonstrate certain patterns of investment and commercial practice common to the time, proxy for hard, verifiable data. Piketty’s review, defense of, and argument for Balzac’s France as evidence for certain thematic-banking practices is convincing if not scientifically sound. With bygone generations lost to the annals of history, anecdote trumps nothing whatsoever. Though closer to contemporary, 1929/30’s The Divorcee allows a brief glimpse into the psyche and tremulous nature of relationships as they once were.

The idea of divorce, conceptually, as passé offers insight into high society perhaps unavailable otherwise. Typical, Christian wedding vows come with something resembling “’til death do us part,” and in order for a priest to ordain a couple married, they both must agree to this. Marriage does not offer an opt-out clause, but divorce exists anyway. High society folks, according to this film, seem to slip in and out of marriage as an activity occasionally worth doing. The characters involved in phony love triangles just make decisions, almost irrespective to their feelings, as the point of marriage – the point – is to extend The Beautiful to The Damned, and extend a life of leisure without purpose to the next pit stop. Divorce, then, is not a response to a damning relationship; it is a next stop for wealth malaise and boredom, as Balzac, too, describes via literary realism in his works. Piketty recognizes this realism as does The Divorcee’s director, Robert Z. Leonard. Even though none of today’s audience lived in 18th-century France or through the Great Depression, this film’s striking take on the unexplored impacts of meaningless decisions, like marriage and divorce, among the wealthy, and note that even though the husbands or wives might make haphazard choices in love or lust, their impacts can cause similar social rifts to those current audiences explore. Except today’s audiences have access to anything at the click of a mouse. Continue reading “[1929/30] The Divorcee”

Posted in Second Take

{Second Take} [1944] Gaslight

The horrors of World War II upended Western civilization. War ravaged nations. Governments attacked their own citizens. Neighbors lost trust in one another. Between secret police and state propaganda, the fighting extended from the battlefield to the town square as control of speech and thought intersected with the war effort. While vilifying enemies is a normal aspect of war, the citizenry also turned on itself: Germans and French aiding in their neighbors’ deportations to concentration camps, the internment of Japanese-Americans, and the similar British internment of German and Austrian citizens represent the heights of public paranoia and scapegoating.

The uneasy atmosphere unavoidably influenced the popular culture of the time. Some of it was overt, like anti-Japanese and -German hysteria in early Bugs Bunny cartoons or dystopian fiction such as George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, while other works borrowed only the general feelings of fear and paranoia, like George Cukor’s film Gaslight from 1944. Cukor’s movie is adapted from a 1938 British play by Patrick Hamilton and preceded by a British film adaptation from 1940. Hamilton’s play and the British film, directed by Thorold Dickinson, were titled “Angel Street” when they originally reached American shores. Getting these details right matters, because this story is about memory and perception.

Today’s audiences may have heard the term “gaslighting” before (particularly in this fractious political season of unrepentant Trumpian falsehoods), and may rest assured that this is from where the phrase is derived. When Gregory nearly drove his young wife Paula to insanity by isolating her and manipulating her environment, he perpetrated an unforgettable trauma in the memory of film and culture. Indeed, he was going beyond the call of his contemporaries to police thought, and taking it one step further by performing what may be film’s first psychological inception (sorry, Chris Nolan).

One wonders if anyone at MGM had seen or read the story their production company purchased. If they had, and possessed any sense of irony, perhaps they would have reconsidered their demand to destroy all copies as well as the negative of Dickinson’s film. In true Orwellian fashion, MGM attempted to control the present by eliminating the past: down the memory hole with the 1940 movie. May no one ever compare the two films, nor even remember the original! MGM wanted to treat the moviegoing public like Paula, restricting its access to the world, lying to its face, and forcing it to doubt its own powers of recollection. Later, MGM would again attempt to manipulate the public’s perception of its environment by suing Jack Benny for parodying Gaslight on a 1959 episode of his TV program. Continue reading “{Second Take} [1944] Gaslight”

Posted in First Take

[1944] Gaslight

Regardless of whether or not sonder is a “real” word, the feeling is essential to existence. Directly from The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows:

“…the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.”

In short, sonder is the response to a life of isolation, of predictable dread, and of mental instability. Nineteen forty-four’s Gaslight asks the audience to follow a life unexamined, but not one suspended by choice. Ingrid Bergman as Paula wonders whether her whole existence is sonder from herself. Her sadistic husband, Gregory (Charles Boyer), begins to encourage the idea of the whole world as random passersby living vividly; that everyone else’s ambitions are justified, while hers are shameful and squarely unique; that everyone else is the main story and that she is the extra in her own life. One might argue sonder is a stalwart of the human condition, predating the confines of its definition. A more narrow-minded skeptic would respond that the unbearable and crushing feeling of aloneness is a technocratic achievement, tipped in a free-falling direction with the advent of the Internet. Others might argue for tautology – “it is what it is,” and that without definition, the concept does not exist at all. Gaslight proves the first one more believably true. Without the Internet to spread the definition, Paula, trapped if not for deus ex detective, would have felt like a spectator to her own life. She is sonder. Continue reading “[1944] Gaslight”

Posted in First Take

[1957] The Bridge on the River Kwai

What makes a film classic? To abstract: what makes any single piece of media worthy of historical cataloging in Library of Congress as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant?” The simplest answer to this question is hegemonic subjectivity: a consort of culturally in-tune men and women with qualification afforded to them via…what exactly? This argument of who gets to rule is an old one, dating back to Plato’s Republic (also a classic) and mentioned throughout cultural and state criticism. Pansocial critic, Chuck Klosterman, mentions this idea in another form: “ratedness,” or how accurately the social sphere “rates” culture. He argued that most pieces of social culture are inacurately rated, that the public perceives it better or worse than some static standard Klosterman himself decrees. This argument, like much of his critique, relies on this same public to judge whether Klosterman has made an accurate measure of a bearer of standards. For film, and especially Best Picture winners, the piece of media can only either be accurately rated or overrated because for 88 years the public has accepted the Academy’s judgement as fair. This blog argues a larger point: that the Academy’s choice further represents a broader message. That not only was the film “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant,” but also that it was the most of these adverbs. In this respect, even the Academy’s choice can be overrated; most of these films do represent the zeitgeist – mood – of their respective years, but some (“Crash”) do not. In 1957, The Academy selected The Bridge on the River Kwai to represent the year. It is a classic.

Kwai is a classic for three reasons: timeliness, message, and skill. Together, these qualities not only allow exploration of its production and its reception, but also define a mark against which any other film of serious pursuit can be benched.

Timeliness: the key to “timeliness,” in a sense is not necessarily when the team released the film (the criterion is not called release for a reason), but the manner by which the film is shown to the public that includes the release. For example: the film’s historical context matters, as does the subject matter, and the distance between the film’s subject matter and its time-sensitive social or technical circumstances (i.e. films before and after Hays’ Code, before and after color, before and after home video, different wars, etc.) Releasing a film before or after its ideal can dampen its impact. The Bridge on the River Kwai hit theatres 12 years after VJ-Day, far enough removed from American World War weariness – but still burrowed in the salty aftermath of Korea. Viewing it in a past-tense heightens its great strengths with many more, and many more complicated, global conflicts and its message remains vital.

Message: A message is both an obvious and designed takeaway and one coded in motif, double-entendre, metaphor, etc. The obvious messages:

War is messy and unpredictable, but people still make their own, predictable decisions

 

Principled men make practical decisions, except when they do not

 

Motivation matters, except when it does not

 

Nationalism and jingoism have hard ceilings

 

Lie at one’s own risk, and hope for a net-positive outcome; nothing is guaranteed

 

Willingness to die for a cause does not remove the edge from or the quick pace of death

Yet, a more non-obvious message still lurked, waiting for a pluck. It was a calm among storms, perhaps, and a time for somber reflection on human desires and motivations. The bridge is most obviously a willing metaphor for a desire to cross-cultural aphasia. The film attempted to non-obviously demonstrate many of the functions the audience will have learned in adolescence. The literal, present theatre of war was disguised as an in-vogue epic for a figurative one, and the world is all the better for it. Continue reading “[1957] The Bridge on the River Kwai”

Posted in First Take

[1992] Unforgiven

Not much more can be said about Unforgiven; the film acts as a rightful tombstone for the death of a genre as non-homage, non-satire. Not much more can be said for director, writer, and actor Clint Eastwood, who, with the fresh-dirt Unforgiven brought to the Oscars in 1992, hyper-legitimized his place as both an actor and director almost 40 years into his career. Unforgiven is remarkable because of its simultaneous ultraviolent and restrained plot stems. Eastwood as Munny, a man with a character fog that neither lifts nor needs to, runs a cast of characters in circles as he cuts through both plot and character with such sharpness that as the last credit rolls across the screen, the audience is certain Eastwood is both the diameter and the circumference, and all points in and on the shape – “life.” Not much more can be said about Gene Hackman or Morgan Freeman or Richard Harris that has not already been said in essay or video format.

The Western genre is dead; long live the West. Continue reading “[1992] Unforgiven”