[1951] A Place in the Sun

The Gilded Age in the American experience subsists as worthwhile to study because of its uninterrupted, demonstrated prosperity (curiously corresponding to a legal ban on drink) immediately followed by superficially mitigated disaster and calamity. The Depression certainly carved space for the creation of great works; jazz and photography each had hallmark decades and increased the breadth and depth of its craft. Advances in telecommunications, regardless of who could afford them, allowed for this art to democratize and to offer at least a distraction and at most a joy to millions of people who had nothing now but drink and unsalable assets. Authors who write about this transitory time ex post facto get the benefit of knowing in advance what came next. What makes The Great Gatsby brilliant makes its later Contemporary American Novels not so much: perspective, of which we know Scott Fitzgerald had little.

Fitzgerald’s contemporary, at least in epoch, Theodore Dreiser, wrote a book called An American Tragedy, which would eventually bastardize its way into A Place in the Sun, a 1951 film that showcased Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor. Unlike the book, whose plot developed slowly and canonically, the movie saw its lead characters smush together into a love triangle that convinced no member of its audience of its emotional heft. The key to Clift’s character, a naive and unassuming nephew type, is believing that plot points happen to him and that he is in control of nothing. Only after he falls in too far does an audience understand that the avariciousness is borne of self-preservation not of circumstance. The character study is trying to piece together how much of the behavior is nature versus nurture. When, as A Place in the Sun insists, the “love” between leads is forced for the sake of time or convenience, our character palate becomes not a band of misfits, but contemptuous mallards. Forget the antihero trope that Gatsby pulls off with aplomb (that each character is a self-serving product of nature), this trope, the speedy drive-thru love, is a film killer and should have died on the cutting table. Continue reading

[1966] Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

The joke in 1966’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is deeply ingrained in the small intricacies of wordplay and in ephemeral hand-gestures or sideways glances. So far buried this joke that what we mistake for plot is sad, onionic livelihood, ever unraveling from saneness to madness. What we watch is not what we see as alcohol metaphysically represents itself and its deep decline into an inebriated system of stories and layers so that this joke is simply not funny – it’s not sad either. The joke is carefully wrapped in itself, torturous and self-destructive and funny in the same way that Virginia Woolf herself straightforward. The lesson in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is not about fear of feminism and instead about questioning the motives of fear in instance.

The first joke is the set-up of the scene: George and Martha are too innocuous of names and the ludicrousness that a young couple would saunter home to them at half-two in the morning is absurd. We are to believe that these partiers, demure in nature and cruel in disguise, want to shindig throughout the evening with the most magnificent of boring. They, together, of course booze but some aspect of the scene is off. If not for the witty and rapturous dialogue, we might stop to ask: why is this happening? Where exists the humor in this evening or even a relative purpose? For whom is this entertaining? Surely the right move is to cut the scene off and move toward a more in-depth characterization of the innocuous couple; but no, here comes bright-eyed and waifish Nick and “Honey” to provide straight relief from the focal, rather cartoonish relationship. We are led to believe that George and Martha will use Nick and Honey as foil, a reflection of their joke of a relationship.

This joke is off-centre in a way that offers another vital point to the story: why are these two together in the first place? Are we supposed to see glimmers of a past relationship reflected and magnified as the two couples drink more and juxtapose? We laugh at Honey over-drinking, but doesn’t Martha consistently over-drink and over-talk? We scoff at George’s meek attempts at typical masculinity but don’t we see Nick attempting dominance throughout the film? At various points in the film, the script is patently obvious at its attempts to expose reasoning for why this particular difficult relationship – the four-way – is unfolding. It’s the set-up for the big joke, the big reveal we all know is coming in the film’s denouement. Except it isn’t funny. Continue reading

[1956] Giant

Name all three movies James Dean starred in before his untimely death in 1955.

Chances are you’ll name Rebel Without A Cause – his second starring role in what has come to define him and beatniks like him. So strong was his performance in Rebel, so strong in fact that actors almost 60 years later use his lead as a template in portraying the ’50s. The archetypical “rebel” demanded so much of his life, but paradoxically, you’ll be hard pressed to find a fan or a detractor who still wonders what the rest of his career could have offered. After his performance in Rebel – immediately following Elia Kazan’s East of Eden and immediately preceding George Stevens’ Giant – he certainly, if nothing else, curated a ratio of greatness-to-role unmatched. Wherein thousands of actors have come and gone almost none have accomplished what Dean did after just three roles.

As his last film, Giant allowed James Dean to explore his relationship with a future self, leaving on-screen a record of gargantuan greatness. Sprawled out over three-plus hours, Giant follows Texas men and women as they deal with oscillations in the American Dream, shifting from property ownership and family preservation to wealth speculation and cash hoarding; these motifs play out over and over…and over again in the next 60 years, both on screen and in real life – and we will notice that technology and communication convenience has piercingly demonstrated the dichotomy between the many ideologies of success. Dean, as prospering oil tycoon Jett Rink demonstrates the latter so convincingly, so astutely, that we’ll still wonder if Dean wasn’t meant for greatness in 1955 or 2055. The best actors radiate on screen; the all-time greats soar off it. Continue reading