Thursday, March 22, 2018

Field of Dreams


If you review it, they will come.

Probably not in great numbers, but someone is still reading as I make my slow way through the National Film Registry. This was an addition from last year and it popped up on Netflix, so here we are. Field of Dreams. There's no crying in baseball, except for this movie.

This is a film I vaguely remember from childhood, which turned out badly, because my perception of events was so messed up that I spent the movie with a strong feeling of confusion. That's my own problem, but it made for a sense of uneasiness that the film didn't really warrant. Of course, I grew up in the 90's, and the cartoons of the period were lousy with jokes about mysterious voices and random men popping up in cornfields. This film didn't reach the level of cultural osmosis as some of the other films I've talked about, but just enough to stay at the fringes of my consciousness. And since it's a magical realism film...

Well, everyone remembers Kevin Costner bumming around in his cornfield in Iowa, when a mysterious Voice tells him to build something. My child brain remembers the identifying of the thing taking way longer than a few scenes, and the building of the baseball stadium taking longer still, but my child brain also liked the Land Before Time sequels, so make of that what you will. Dead ballplayers begin coming out of his corn, and he and his family just accept this as par for the course... until the Voice starts getting really pushy. Now, though the family matter-of-factly watches what they are aware looks to the town like a familial delusion, the wifey balks at the husband driving halfway across the country to bother a reclusive author because money trouble. I think that's the thing that has always bothered me about magical realism. The family affected always seems vaguely aware that there is something out of the ordinary happening, but never connect with it in a meaningful way. The wife voices vague doubts about whether the Voice is really trying to communicate something important, since her hubby spent their life savings and part of the mortgage turning half their farm into a ghost hang-out. I would be freaking out that famous dead ballplayers were hanging out in my backyard, but what do I know?

So Kevin Costner goes to find Black J.D. Salinger (since the real J.D. Salinger threatened a lawsuit), they talk a bit about how much better the 60's were than the 80's are, and then decide to go find another guy... which leads to a timeslip, which... time travel and life after death are explicitly confirmed, and no one is remotely excited. I really enjoy fantasy, but I'm a stickler for laws being in place. If you're telling me all of this is happening in Iowa, then why isn't anyone going "Oh wow, GHOSTS ARE REAL!?! And all they want to do is play baseball? Well... okay."

Which leads to another bit of weirdness in the film - James Earl Jones waxing nostalgic over just how great things were in the 1910's and 20's. A big long speech from a black guy over a field of exclusively white baseball greats of the 10's and 20's, about how great and simple and wonderful a time it was - even though the KKK had its first major resurgence in 1915, and an anti-lynching bill was introduced in 1920 but not passed until 1922. Some ballparks had segregated seating. Jackie Robinson wouldn't be allowed to play in the Majors until 1947. So, honestly, this speech about the beauty and goodness and simplicity of old-timey baseball that was going to make people congregate in Ghost Field and pay for the privilege (which leads to the memorable closing shot... and me thinking "How the hell are all those people going to fit on that one tiny bleacher?") just seems really weird coming from a character we've been told was a major Civil Rights figure.

I don't know. Instead of seeing the touching heart-reunion between an estranged father and son, I just see more Baby Boomer navel-gazing about how totally awesome they were. So awesome that the dead will walk the Earth in order to give one mediocre white guy a chance to reconcile with his father. The quote may be memorable, but I honestly can't see what's so game-changing about this film.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The Graduate


National Film Registry, you're trying to seduce me, aren't you?

Well, I avoided this one for awhile, because it is now linked with an incredibly awkward date in my mind, but I still really like this film. This is one of those movies that Roger Ebert amended his opinions on in the future... though he liked it far less than he remembered on a rewatch. I can't have the same experience of visiting it from the point of view of a young, hip member of the burgeoning counterculture, then re-reviewing it as an older adult. I first saw the movie when I was 20, but I've never been hip. I am, however, quite well-read in history, so I saw what Roger Ebert didn't see the first time around: the vitality of Mrs. Robinson. And the excellence of the Simon and Garfunkel songs, which are generally not used to their full potential, unfortunately.

So, the basic plot (since my experience is that most people haven't seen more of the movie than the screenshot above) is that Ben (Dustin Hoffman) comes home from college, unsure and full of ennui. He has rich parents who like to hobnob with other rich parents, and who all want to bug him about why he hasn't found a job and why he's sponging off his parents. Which, as a Millenial, that would seem to hit too close to home, except that Ben has plenty of opportunity to find work and isn't being nagged about "pounding the pavement instead of wasting time online" when all work applications are online. Which definitely limits my sympathy for his aimlessness, and also makes me wonder if this film is where the idea of recent college graduates without work came from. I'm not denying that some of them are lazy (or clinically depressed, as Ben seems to be), but it seems rather unfair all the same.

Anyway, rich family friend Mrs. Robinson recognizes Ben's ennui as something she is going through herself. She's pre-sexual revolution, and a highly passionate and sensuous woman stuck in a loveless marriage with a workaholic who expects her to be nothing but window dressing, all because she got pregnant on a date. This trope of unfulfilled woman was pretty well trod through the 60's and 70's, but it was apparently a story that rang true to a lot of women, struck fear into the hearts of husbands, and brought a lot of hope to teenage boys. Mrs. Robinson seduces Ben, seemingly amused at his bumbling and stumbling through all their arrangements, while also being impatient at his ineptitude. One more man in her life she can't count on. She warns him away from her daughter just as his parents and her husband make a big push to get Ben and Elaine Robinson together. He purposely ruins their date before realizing he really likes her... which leads to a lot more complications. Including Mrs. Robinson telling Elaine that Ben had raped her and Mr. Robinson threatening Ben, and finally, Mr. and Mrs. Robinson arranging a marriage for their daughter that Ben breaks up, leading to the iconic back of the bus scene. Which is so iconic because the director forgot to yell "Cut", so poor Dustin Hoffman and Katherine Ross are just sitting there, waiting for the scene to finish, which became the whole emblem of counterculture uncertainty.

This movie elicits a lot of complicated feelings, in part because it's such a complicated movie. On a straightforward level, we're called to sympathize with the young and unsure Ben, though the older and despairing Mrs. Robinson has way more personality. The soundtrack is truly excellent, but is frequently used poorly, with only a few songs being repeated. The editing makes truly masterful use of cuts and transitions, but in other places, the camera just seems to have been left on with no plans.I definitely recommend this movie, because there's a lot to get out of it. But easy answers are not one of them - even the easy answer if it's a straightforwardly "good" movie.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Sullivan's Travels


   I'm gonna make it! I'm gonna make the National Film Registry!

  Talk about contrast from my last entry. I had never heard of this film until I started working on the Film Registry Project, even though it gave the title to one of my favorite films - O Brother, Where Art Thou?. It was Veronica Lake's first starring role and certainly launched an interesting career. It's been called the "best movie about making movies". I don't know if I'd go that far, but it does move well between fun jaunt and a message picture. It even has a sequence that likely inspired Lucille Ball's slapstick in The Long, Long Trailer.

 So for those who are also unfamiliar with this picture, the basic gist is that a typical Hollywood silver spoon director (titular Sullivan) wants to make a socially conscious picture during the Depression. He has read a book called O Brother, Where Art Thou? and been deeply touched by the daily toils of the great unwashed. While he has always made light and frothy comedies, he now wants to make a picture of stark realism. With that end in sight, he decides to dress up as a tramp and go out on the road with ten cents to his name, so he can experience some "real suffering". The studio decides it's a good publicity gig, and sends a fully-loaded touring bus to watch this "real suffering". He finally escapes them, and instead hooks up with a nameless never-was who buys him breakfast. She is disgusted to find out he's a wealthy man slumming it, but joins him jumping trains and begging food, until the experiment is over. At which point, like many respectable people, he is hit by a train.

  Okay, he's not hit by a train, the bum that robbed him is hit by a train, and Sullivan is arrested for assaulting a railroad worker while dazed and disoriented. Everyone, especially the Girl, mourn Sullivan's untimely death in pursuit of ART. However, his stint in the penal farm finally gets across what every person who had experienced poverty was trying to tell him. A poor black church (implied by the setting to be somewhere in the Deep South) invites the convicts to watch a film at evening services. It's an old Pluto cartoon, and everyone is laughing themselves silly. Sullivan finally gets it. The poor do not need the rich to tell them they are miserable. They would appreciate a good laugh far more than any amount of sobering message pictures.

  Which... I suppose is true to a certain extent. Certainly the high points of escapism in film come in times of poverty and despair. The worse the economy is, the more lavish costume dramas, the more special effects laden epics, the more films there are of the lives of the rich and glamorous. As the economy betters, our taste for gritty realism comes back, and a slew of message pictures and lugubrious philosophical works come out. Then again, with the rising price of movies, the bad economy now sometimes supports message pictures - if it can convince the audience that they're socially relevant and artistically worthy.

  But the crux of the matter is the heavy contrast with my last review. The basic argument of the picture is that a film that makes people laugh and feel good is the most worthy of all films, because all some people have is laughter. On the other hand, Sullivan's Travels is a pre-Holocaust picture. The idea of using film to inform or educate wasn't new in 1941, but opinions certainly changed with the stark newsreels that Eisenhower returned with. So there's the question: is the message picture truly not worth as much as the comedy?

  For me, the answer lies in between. I like comedies. I like good comedies, like this one, and good comedies, like the ones it inspired. I also appreciate message pictures and understand where the good ones are coming from. It's a much harder genre to do correctly - as anyone who has seen Captain Planet surely knows. But it's such an important thing to viscerally see how other people exist on film, and not just in documentaries. Based on the time period, I don't think the premise was exactly flawed, but it isn't really one that holds up.

  Which doesn't stop this from being a charming film that I would suggest to anyone.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Schindler's List


 No quips on this one.

 Reviewing the National Film Registry, I've seen a lot of films pitched towards the Male Gaze. I've seen a handful pitched towards the Female Gaze. Schindler's List is probably the only movie I've ever seen that I could classify as being pitched towards the Gentile Gaze.

  What I mean by that isn't any sort of betrayal of the fact that this is a film about the unspeakable tragedy that fell most heavily on the Jews of Europe, under the direction of a Jewish man. What I mean is that this movie didn't strike me as being about how people of Jewish heritage should reflect on the Holocaust period, but instead it feels like a film directly challenging the Gentile audience to really look. We spend most of our time with the imposing, booming-voiced opportunist and the fiercely handsome, winsomely childlike sadistic murderer. Other film critics have pointed out that the Jews in this film tend to be physically tiny. Liam Neeson towers over his workforce with more than a hint of paternal protection. But watching as a Gentile, I feel that is the challenge of the film. To see such large scale dehumanization and to see the desires of our worse natures dangled in front of us (the Nazis are almost always seen partying, enjoying expensive things, having sex with beautiful women, raking in piles of cash), and to make the right choice anyway. The breakdown at the end of the film has been criticized as maudlin, but it seems more realistic. This is a man who spent the first half of the war living large, and he saw his money transform into human faces. The pardon is in the fact that his "wasted" money got the Nazis to trust him, which enabled lives to be saved.

  It's not a film with easy answers about what makes people wake up and decide that some people are far less deserving of life... or even truly a film that answers what makes some people realize the "untermensch" are actually human beings and become willing to risk everything to save them. At three harrowing hours, what we get is a documentary-like focus. This is Spielberg's tightest film from a narrative point of view, and is his quietest film, as he rarely spells anything out for the audience.

 This is a movie that should be required viewing, but it's an experience above being a film.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Rear Window


Another National Film Registry post. I'll tell you exactly what I saw and what I think it means.

So, here's another Hitchcock masterpiece, starring Jimmy Stewart being kind of a grump that everyone treats as way younger than he clearly is, and an ethereally lovely blonde, costumes by Edith Head. I guess why tamper too much with a formula that works (though Rear Window predates Vertigo by four years)? Especially since the plots manage to be different enough that you aren't constantly comparing L.B. Jefferies and Scottie Ferguson - even though you can tell some of the shots here were the forerunners of the later film.

Most people look at this movie through the lens (har) of voyeurism and lack of connection in urban spaces. Jeff feels justified in spying on people and having gossipy conversations with his nurse about what he suspects based on his observations, using the justification that they could watch him right back. This isn't the first time that Jimmy Stewart has been given a role more traditionally suited to a female character - in It's a Wonderful Life, we got him as the perennial martyr. Here, he's a Yenta, who is only missing trying to matchmake his neighbors and moaning that his kids never call. For a rather unusual twist, the women in this film are the active agents, doing for Jeff because he simply can not do for himself.

Which brings me to what I really want to talk about: disability. We're introduced to Jeff as a man suffering the burden of a painful and deeply hampering temporary disability. He is swathed from hip to toes in plaster and can barely move out of his wheelchair. He is chafing at the restrictions of his formerly active life, and is angry that he has been dealt such an unfair blow as to have to spend seven weeks in a wheelchair. Our murder victim is also disabled - a chronic invalid who is rarely shown out of bed. She's also shown to be argumentative and probably rather shrewish. This is a parallel you don't often see when disability is represented on film: our hero is ticked off and snappish because he is dealing with a temporary disability, and no one faults him overly for it. Our disabled victim is not a suffering saint either - she is likely in pain and is as quarrelsome as the guy who is laid up. Yet at no point are we asked to feel sympathy for a murderer who kills disabled people... though rather tellingly, our for-sure turning point is when he murders a friendly little dog.

This is rather revolutionary, even now, where depictions of the disabled tend to indicate that we are much better off being dead and that no one will miss us. While Jeff may not feel much besides curiosity for the life of Mrs. Thorwald, he becomes as involved as possible in her death. I couldn't help but think of a connection from one crip to another. Our stories are so often overlooked and so little told that there's a spark of recognition when a disabled person on screen, even if that person has nothing in common with us, not even the same disability. I don't know if Hitchcock knew about that. I don't know if he was going for the connection between Jeff feeling disposable (we're introduced to him getting turned down from an assignment he had been cultivating because his disability will lay him up slightly longer) and Mrs. Thorwald being literally disposed of for her inconvenience. But society was having the conversation about whether the disabled have any rights worth speaking of, including the right to live, that we are still forced to have. Here, there's no excuse. A jerk of a disabled woman didn't deserve to be strangled and dismembered any more than the clever, kind, and beautiful Lisa Fremont deserved to be strangled by Lars Thorwald. Lisa is saved by the timely intervention of the police, but Mrs. Thorwald is ignored by all except the one disabled figure across from her bedroom window.

Even if this movie doesn't give you the same feels it gave me, I have no hesitation in strongly suggesting it. I'm a Hitchcock fan, true, and this is one of his A-Games.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Psycho


We all go a little mad sometimes. And sometimes that means we take an extremely long hiatus.

So.... I once again find myself asking the question of how honestly can a film be judged by its own merits when it has reached saturation levels of cultural osmosis? Psycho did what it did so well that it spawned countless parodies, references, and homages. If Jaws made you afraid to go in the ocean, Psycho had already made you terrified of the shower. It's a powerful image to see a young woman brutally murdered in the shower, even if the "graphic" shots of the murder now look comical. Especially since Janet Leigh's Marion Crane looks as happy as those weirdos in the Zest commercials until suddenly the curtain is ripped back. You genuinely believe this is the most refreshing shower ever, and then BAM! Murder time. It also helps that the shot of her unblinking, dead-eyed stare while slumped on the tile floor is genuinely chilling.

Since everyone knows the steps of the plot, the big question is can this movie still function well as a psychological thriller. In this case, it really can, but that's largely due to the bits left out of the re-treads. Anthony Perkins plays Norman Bates as a shy, golly-gosh-gee-whiz awkward guy who you could imagine being the nerdy friend in Leave it to Beaver. His almost aggressive wholesomeness is what makes all of his behavior off-putting. He kindly brings Marion a sandwich, then peeps on her through a spyhole. He makes nice conversation, then starts going down the road into creepy territory. Every woman has known a guy like this, who seems sweet and innocent, then starts speaking violently or getting agitated to the point of frightening when a particular button is hit. It also makes the central question of the film much deeper - which personality is actually the killer? Norman says Mother is violent and controlling, Mother says Norman is a cold-blooded murderer. Hitchcock doesn't think we need that questioned answered, any more than Ford thought we needed it confirmed who actually shot Liberty Valance. As a person who has been soaked in this film since childhood, but never actually seen it, I wasn't ready for that to be a question. It somehow gets skipped over in the parodies, which prefer to focus on "Haha, this man is wearing a dress".

On the front of disability activism, this movie does have problematic elements. Norman isn't a psychopath, and the portrayal of mentally ill people as killers is... well, it's a well-worn trope. But the movie does do a better job with dissociative identity disorder than could generally be expected from a film made in 1960. But while Norman's mental illness is shown as the reason behind the murders, it's also explained as a function of an abusive co-dependent relationship with a parent. While "Controlling Mother" is another well-worn trope, I'm not familiar with many earlier films that pushed the idea of abusive parents causing extreme reactions in their offspring. In the 80's, of course, we suddenly became obsessed with abusive parental figures, and I'll address that trope in some of the later films.

Overall, I'm really glad I finally watched this movie. In my opinion, it works better than some other films that have achieved a similar level of saturation precisely because the blend of cinematography and acting are ignored in the parodies and homages. Both are what make the story work, and without it, it's simply shorthand for a slasher film. The whole movie is needed to be a psychological thriller.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Night of the Living Dead


     Is reviewing the National Film Registry right? Well... the television said it was the right thing to do.

     So... Night of the Living Dead. I've been putting this one off, because to my ever-lasting nerd shame, I really, really hate zombie movies. Even though what we now call zombies are more properly termed "ghouls" (like they're called in this film) or "revenants". But the term zombie stuck, and now we've got a bonanza of the damn things chowing down on grizzled survivors, shrieking women, or trying their luck on eating wacky character types in the Zom-Rom-Com. But it really all started here, since the only earlier zombie film I know of is the obscure Bela Lugosi flick "Zombies on Broadway" (highly disappointing - while there are traditional Voudon zombies, they only show up on Broadway in the last scene). And this film didn't just make zombies a mainstream scare factory, it ushered in just how graphic a horror movie could get with its content!

     The film stars Duane Jones, Bill Cardille, and contains various other people. Duane Jones is really the only one to turn in anything resembling a performance, while Bill Cardille had actually been a reporter. The others... well, they help show just how low the budget was! They kind of lurch through the picture like extras in a high school play, occasionally reaching the level of first-time community theater performers. The camera effects are generally amateurish, with cuts especially being handled generally badly, and the camera choosing weird things to focus on (my favorite being the mincing zombie with the bob cut - she looks more concerned about dirtying her shoes than finding brains). But there is a certain effectiveness in the general lot of the film being amateur hour... especially since it was mixed with some very well-thought out practical effects and some amazing make-up work. The generally bad acting can feel a lot like random people facing this completely beyond the pale situation, and when the camera is focusing on the practical effects, it gives loving detail to the guts and gore.

     There's also the revolutionary casting of Duane Jones as the hero in a horror picture, and interestingly, the last to die. While everyone involved in the picture swears it was just because Duane Jones gave a really good audition, a black man keeping his head in a horrible supernatural situation, let alone being generally heroic, was pretty much unheard of. Here I'm thinking of the myriad of media from the era showing various black people being terrified of "haints", as an extra little nail of them being inferior to whites because they're so full of silly superstition! Ha! I take George Romero's word that he wasn't trying to do anything revolutionary with racial politics in film, but unconsciously achieving something is still an achievement. Even if that revolution was short-lived enough that "The Black Guy Dies First" is a standard horror trope.

     As you might surmise, my feelings on this film are mixed. It ushered in the era of everything I hate about horror films. I hate bloodfests and gore. I hate zombies. As a piece of entertainment that I was expected to find pleasing in some way, I hated this movie. But from the detached portion of me that is trying to engage these films on the level of "cultural, historical, or aesthetic significance", I have to admit this movie had all three.