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 Second Take

{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 “{Second Take} [1964] Zorba The Greek”

Posted in Second Take

{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 “{Second Take} [1980] Raging Bull”

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{Second Take} [1973] The Exorcist

Few things have been so distorted by popular culture quite like The Exorcist.  The ooze-like vomit and crucifix masturbation that the film is famous for are but details meant to enhance the grand and traumatizing struggle of good versus evil personified by each character.  Originally, a particularly horrific scene involved the possessed Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) crab-walking down a flight of stairs, coming to a halt only to howl and vomit blood.

This scene was cut from the 1973 release because director William Friedkin felt the effect was “too much” and the wires used to harness the contortionist stunt-double were too obvious. In the 2000 extended release, the wires were digitally removed and the importance of the effect was finally realized.  Right before Regan descends the stairs, her mother, Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) is told that her director and close friend Burke Dennings (Jack MacGowran) was found dead at the bottom of the steps outside her house with a broken neck.  With doctors unable to help her daughter and her career and sanity threatened, this is the precise moment that her life unravels completely.  The effects of a young girl doing these terrifying things isn’t to incite a simple shock, they are crucial moments in which the other pivotal characters are broken down and forced to question their very existence.  What is overlooked by almost everything that has ever mentioned the film is that Regan’s character is not only a vessel for evil but is a tool used to force everyone in contact with her to confront the evil they feel inside themselves; whether it’s her own mother questioning what she has done to allow this to happen to her daughter despite the ‘ideal’ life she has provided or the rouge priest, Father Karras (Jason Miller), who questions his own faith and blames himself for his own mother’s neglected condition and even her eventual death.  Every character has something for the true evil inside of Regan to exploit. Continue reading “{Second Take} [1973] The Exorcist”

Posted in First Take, Second Take

{First/Second Take}[1997] The Full Monty

Original Cinema Quad Poster - Movie Film PostersLest you get the wrong idea, I’d like to start by saying comedy movies need not necessarily be artfully made. Stylistic filmmaking can distract from the tone a comedy screenplay requires. But I’d like a little creativity from time to time, and although The Full Monty has a number of amusing bits thanks to the winking performances from its actors, the camerawork was very still for a film revolving around choreography.

There are as many ways to make people laugh as there are methods of communication: body language, tone of voice, facial expression, music and sound effects; biting sarcasm, salty wit, acute satire; the unexpected and ironic, or obvious and deliberate; slapstick, vulgarities, and physical shtick… The list goes on and on, yet film is one of the few media capable of blending the desired selections from the full swath of tools to set a comedic tone. Not just The Full Monty, but seemingly the majority of comedy movies are afraid to move beyond over-the-shoulder shots and other static frames. TV shows and commercials nowadays have bolder filmmaking than studio productions. Before I get technical, let it be known that I’m writing this having recently watched this fantastic deconstruction of Edgar Wright’s comedic filmmaking style, which says everything I want to say more eloquently (and backs it up with clips).

If you don’t want to sit through all eight of its minutes, I’ll summarize the video: Edgar Wright makes inventive use of camera movement, framing, and sound editing to tell a story both comedically and cinematographically, in contrast to fellow Brit Peter Cattaneo’s The Full Monty. Granted, Cattaneo is going for a certain lighthearted realism and Wright is working within very heightened universes. But that doesn’t mean Cattaneo’s dance footage need be filmed in boring, unimaginative shots, particularly if the actors’ movements are supposed to be funny.  Perhaps jerky camera motions during the beginning of the choreography montage could give way to smoother, more flowy movements as the guys slowly learn how to strip in sync with one another. Or hopefully something better than that, I’m not a filmmaker. But the point remains.

In fairness, there were moments beyond the humorous dialogue and acting that left me grinning. Our protagonist spends much time spying on people over fences and through windows (something about envious, voyeuristic comparisons men make against each other and how that affects their perception of worthiness and manliness would be a whole other blog post), and some of those instances were well shot and edited. Particularly amusing and well framed were the guys spying on Tom Wilkinson’s character’s waltz lesson. And it goes without saying the final dance performance at the end of the film was a funny, suitable climax. Yet even the impromptu “Hot Stuff” dance waiting in line at the job centre, as funny as it was, could have been filmed with a little more panache.

It’s no wonder this movie was quickly adapted into a stage musical; much of it is simple, uncomplicated blocking with three walls surrounding the actors, who primarily dance shoulder-to-shoulder. There seems to be much more comedy available to be mined from this story, and you wouldn’t have to replace its reserved, dry Britishness with more American dick jokes, as a more up-to-date incarnation would no doubt attempt. Just a little more thought into making the presentation match the action and tone, and the movie would be elevated from an amusing diversion to an absurdist comedy.

Also, the entire time these grown adult men are stripping and practicing getting naked in front of one another and wearing banana hammocks, there’s a boy who appears about twelve years old forced to bear witness. From the inception of the production to the final performance, adults wag their penises at this child. And no one bats an eye. Just thought I’d make sure we all noticed that part, and didn’t gloss over it. Continue reading “{First/Second Take}[1997] The Full Monty”

Posted in Second Take

{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 “{Second Take} [1969] Midnight Cowboy”

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{Second Take} [2000] Traffic

Traffic, Stephen Soderbergh’s 2000 epic about the War on Drugs, gets a ton of mileage out of telling gritty, taught stories about real people, and letting an audience decide. For an infuriating, maddening issue like the war on drugs, he seems to have prescribed a hard-reset on narrative conventions of genre and heroism. What we get instead feels like a documentary: a film in which every character arrives in frame motivated by circumstance and emotion. Nobody is good or bad, they are simply victims of their environment. Suddenly it’s all understandable – there is no “evil” in this world, there are simply people doing the best with what they have, and sometimes that means taking a bribe, or pushing freebase, or selling out to wealthy criminal. It’s a bold choice to humanize the enemy, rather than vilify him, but I’d say it does the trick.

In his insanely good State of Cinema speech to the San Francisco Film Festival this year, Soderbergh called art “a very elegant problem-solving model.” In the hands of a smart filmmaker, this idea has enormous power – suddenly the medium is no longer about escape or transportation. With this idea, film can even aspire to be more than “life-affirming,” which seems to be the benchmark of absolute quality. As a model for problem solving, film can be life-prolonging. Did Traffic make people think twice about starting or continuing to use or buy drugs? Absolutely. Were lives saved in that equation? Hard to say, but I’m cool with ‘yes.’

I was very frightened by Traffic when I saw it in the theater. I was in sixth grade, and it wasn’t really any of the violence or unsavory characters that frightened me, or even the underaged drug use, but by the choice it left me with. The events in Traffic are emblematic of a problem that defies solution – some days getting worse, some days getting better, but always, always there. My take-away was very personal. I remember thinking that I, myself stood on the precipice of choice, not just on viewing the film, but every day henceforth – to wake up every day prepared to reject drugs, or in one puff to become both victim of and accomplice to a war being fought every day, complete with bloodshed, corruption, and no-end-in-sight. By asking us to make a choice, Soderbergh has taken a major step toward “solving” a problem – with a choice, there can be progress. Continue reading “{Second Take} [2000] Traffic”