{No. 95: Home Video} [1956] The King and I

mv5bnmjkytvimzitzdm3ys00mdu2ltkzywitmgjkyjvjmju2yjnll2ltywdll2ltywdlxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvynjc1ntyymjg40._v1_uy1200_cr7906301200_al_Audiences of a certain age remember the now-bizarre struggle to maintain VHS recordings of their favorite programs and movies. During its 30 year dominance, the Video Home System was the singular standard for analog, portable video production and consumption, fully defeating Betamax’s inability to match functionality and consumer preference. The struggle, decades later, seems almost laughable: physically rewinding tapes after viewing, the constant threat of a tape jam, metallic tape depreciation – diminishing returns on each subsequent viewing – and finally physical clutter. Older audiences recall not having this struggle at all; recording anything was a tremendous accomplishment, and doing so was a marvel of technical skill and fiscal independence. New audiences, infants who can use Netflix instinctively, also recall not having this struggle given the death of the VHS when digital media, the DVD, took over.

Access to nothing and everything is almost the same. (Almost) every piece of media is available instantly now across too many platforms, so figuring out what to watch is no longer limited to what is currently on a shelf, but how long a person will spend scrolling through endless content. Both might be paralyzing, but for different reasons. For the film critic and historian, having access to an obscure title with a click is essential; but the critic likely has a decision matrix and a mental map of availability. The average viewer? The person looking to unwind after a long day? No clue, and why would they? There’s no structure or routine that the VHS, then the DVD, provided. A person’s evening would almost be better if the Internet made the choice for them, and just quit.

In 2001, my family first made the switch from VHS to DVD. The handsome Disney and Mel Brooks collections on our shelves would soon be decoration. Our first DVD was The King and I, seeing as it was the title my father recognized out of our library’s massive collection of four. At the time, my 43 year old father connected dearly with the 44-year-old movie; he was a fan of musicals of all kinds, and a fan of Oscar winner Yul Brenner as the precocious, permabanned-from-Thailand, eponymous King Mongkut. The King and I was an ideal introduction to DVD technology. It included an Overture, Entr’acte, and Exit Music to chop The King and I into halves and chapters. A VHS user would to continuously fast-forward and rewind if not interested; the DVD user pushes a single button and the only way to degrade the movie was to treat the DVD like a frisbee. Continue reading

[1951] Quo Vadis

It is beyond the scope of this blog to determine the answer to the question: “Which films, on aggregate, earned nominations for at least one Academy Award and won zero?”

That being said, 1951’s mostly-fictional quasi-epic Quo Vadis is a member of this (maybe) exclusive club for good reason: the movie, good enough; the acting, fair-to-good; the plot, trite, but enjoyable; the overall quality of the film (objectively, of course), mildly entertaining to did-the-editors-go-on-strike? What I’m starting to see over a large enough sample size are patterns starting to emerge: nominations and wins seem to be largely epochal, longer films seem to take precedence, perhaps seen as of higher quality and, as technology becomes more refined, so does The Academy’s attention. Quo Vadis is no exception. On a subjective Likert scale, Quo Vadis rustles little feathers and might qualify somewhere in the average range in almost every category. Sometimes this formula steals an Oscar nomination and sometimes it pilfers a win (largely, in part, due to overall quality of the year) but most times the movie is forgotten quite quickly as “adquate.” Quo Vadis is no exception.

The offensiveness of calling a Christian allusion to title the devilry of moving pictures is somewhat diminished by the double entendre in context. “Quo Vadis?,” in Latin, literally means “Where are you going?” as in, “I feel like I need to know this for some reason.” In Christian tradition, “Quo Vadis?” is more moralistic than it is literal, as is the biblical way: Saint Peter is fleeing probable (definite) crucifixion in Rome and loses courage and conviction, as Jesus arrives, risen, headed in the opposite direction, towards Rome. Saint Peter asks, “Quo Vadis?” as if seeing zombie Jesus wasn’t enough to get him to continue fleeing, to which Jesus, risen, responds, “Romam vado iterum crucifigi,” which, as we know, in English means, “I am going to Rome to be crucified again,” thereby through some zombie-transitive property fortifying Peter’s ministerial convictions. He eventually returns to Rome to be crucified upside-down, feeling that he does not deserve Jesus’ pre-risen fate in the same manner. The symbolism is many, ephemeral and highly allusive and, again, beyond the scope of this blog, save for its relation to Quo Vadis, the upside-down cross of post-WWII epic films.

Because Quo Vadis is a soap opera drenched in religious and historical-epic motif: some Roman commander, Marcus Vinicius (Robert Taylor), meets and falls in love, star-crossed style, with Lygia (Deborah Kerr), in a picaresque and grossly obvious representation of “Rome” and “Christianity.” As a love story, Quo Vadis is fine: our main characters are roguish and illusory and therefore possess lots of qualities that we, as an audience, either possess or wish we possessed. The supporting cast is wildly one-dimensional, with Emperor Nero (Peter Ustinov) as a buffoonish caricature of the historical version of Nero, who was known for his mild schizophrenia and paranoia. Surprisingly, the performance is not cloying in a distracting way, and his place and position allow the character to take on a wider range of emotion and thought process. But Quo Vadis is still soapish at heart and the backdrop of Rome and Romanism is distracting because of its lack of specifics; Quo Vadis is framed by the whole of the Roman Empire, seen through a myopic lens of 4 years, with very little outside information about historical place or events. Who cares that this is Romanesque? It could have just as well been Babylonian or Greek or some version of Mesopotamia. The religious conflict is well noted, but again, who cares? This could very well have been a Jewish vs. Christian conflict or literally any other conflict. The point is that Quo Vadis just happens to exist and we’re supposed to honor it as an Oscar-worthy film? Continue reading

[1958] Separate Tables

I have a strong connection to 1958’s Auntie Mame because it’s a movie that I would watch with my father every so often as a younger lad, but often enough for its lore to remain etched into my brain. Auntie Mame is a story every way in which Separate Tables is not – thematically compelling, dramatically lighthearted and fun, funny, charming, you name it. Granted and absolutely, the two films have disparate aims. Separate Tables is Grand Hotel-esque as its characters continue to lead lives apart but plot ensemble. I found every character unlikable and stereotypical, with almost no attempt to resolve any issues, whether plot-related or personal. Two movies nominated for Best Picture during the same year, two films embedded in Cold War Culture but only one is ‘watchable.’ For all its star-power, and it commanded quite the ensemble cast, Separate Tables is an unfortunate dud in an otherwise dull year.

We need to talk about storytelling rigor and what it means for a film to be ‘unwatchable.’ First, and most likely foremost, taste is subjective. Each of us has had a conspicuous life and will continue to do so, complete with our own experiences, feelings, memories and futures; these together start to compile our taste profiles and, to each of us, what’s subjectively ‘good’ and ‘bad.’ Good art accesses our taste profile and the best art does so implicitly – a small tribute to other art here or there, a historical nod, a cheeky anachronism or a running joke without actually spelling out its joke. Its themes are elastic and its structure clear, and concise (if not concise then purposefully bloated). Bad art meanders around half-baked everything and might pander to the offensive (not as a social observation) for a cheap laugh. It’s cheap and we feel cheap. We build our taste profile by compiling, either alone or among friends, the collective experiences of good and bad art.  Continue reading