Gone With The Wind (1939)

June 16, 2010

“We’re alike. Bad lots, both of us. Selfish and shrewd.”

Adjusting for inflation, this is the highest-grossing film of all time. Gone With The Wind is a film richly deserving of the term epic – it’s a love story, of sorts, played out against a backdrop of the civil war, and of the reconstruction that followed.
Gone With The Wind is not a “problematic” movie, it’s a movie that goes so far beyond any use of that word that it is almost laughable. It’s clear from the opening caption that this isn’t “The South” as it actually was, but an idealised, romanticised and mythologised “South”. It’s also a racist portrayal of a racist time. There are cringe-inducing portrayals, stereotypes and derogatory terms and phrases thrown around like confetti.
As a bonus, there’s a “rape makes things better” scene, and random other sexist moments thrown in.
The problem is, Gone With the Wind somehow manages to transcend these issues – not that they go away, but that there is so much to like and enjoy in the movie that it remains more than watchable.
Most of this is Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh. There’s an astonishing scene, about half-way through the movie, where Rhett drives a carriage through the burning city of Atlanta. It’s the only time there’s something brighter that Gable on the screen. From the moment that he lifts his head above the couch at the start of his first conversation with Scarlett, his presence on the screen sizzles. He is charming, dangerous and wild and compulsively watchable. Vivien Leigh is astonishingly beautiful, appealing and dislikable in equal measure, and the centre of a movie that’s visually astounding and ambitious.
The second half of the film does not have the drive of the first half, the end of the civil war and immediate aftermath giving way to a rather more contained (and less interesting), mostly domestic, narrative.
For an epic film to work, it has to be involving, a film that you can wallow in. Gone With The Wind is certainly that, even if you come out at the end feeling stained and uncomfortable. It’s easy to see how people become obsessed by it. It’s also easy to see how dangerous that obsession could be. In many ways, Gone With The Wind is like its main character – flawed, objectionable, magnetic and enthralling.

Adjusting for inflation, this is the highest-grossing film of all time. Gone With The Wind is a film richly deserving of the term epic – it’s a love story, of sorts, played out against a backdrop of the civil war, and of the reconstruction that followed.

Gone With The Wind is not a “problematic” movie, it’s a movie that goes so far beyond any use of that word that it is almost laughable. It’s clear from the opening caption that this isn’t “The South” as it actually was, but an idealised, romanticised and mythologised “South”. It’s also a racist portrayal of a racist time. There are cringe-inducing portrayals, stereotypes and derogatory terms and phrases thrown around like confetti.

As a bonus, there’s a “rape makes things better” scene, and random other sexist moments thrown in.

The problem is, Gone With the Wind somehow manages to transcend these issues – not that they go away, but that there is so much to like and enjoy in the movie that it remains more than watchable.

Most of this is Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh. There’s an astonishing scene, about half-way through the movie, where Rhett drives a carriage through the burning city of Atlanta. It’s the only time there’s something brighter that Gable on the screen. From the moment that he lifts his head above the couch at the start of his first conversation with Scarlett, his presence on the screen sizzles. He is charming, dangerous and wild and compulsively watchable. Vivien Leigh is astonishingly beautiful, appealing and dislikable in equal measure, and the centre of a movie that’s visually astounding and ambitious.

The second half of the film does not have the drive of the first half, the end of the civil war and immediate aftermath giving way to a rather more contained (and less interesting), mostly domestic, narrative.

For an epic film to work, it has to be involving, a film that you can wallow in. Gone With The Wind is certainly that, even if you come out at the end feeling stained and uncomfortable. It’s easy to see how people become obsessed by it. It’s also easy to see how dangerous that obsession could be. In many ways, Gone With The Wind is like its main character – flawed, objectionable, magnetic and enthralling.

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)

April 23, 2010

This song of the Man and his Wife is of no place and every place; you might hear it anywhere, at any time.
Sunrise is a silent, black and white, film about a man (George O’Brien) who is caught in a love triangle, between two women, one his wife (Janet Gaynor) – a country sort, rather childlike – and the other a sophisticated city women (Margaret Livingston), holidaying near the farm he owns. The city women persuades him to kill his wife by drowning, and come and live in the city. When time comes to do the deed, at the last moment he changes his mind, then chases his panicked wife to the city, where they rediscover their love in an idyllic, absurd (pig-chasing, country-dancing, barber-visiting, photograph-taking) day.

Sunrise is one of the last of the silent films, coming out almost simultaneously with “The Jazz Singer”. In a way, it represents a blind alleyway of film evolution – the early “talkies” were a step back in terms of camerawork due to the need to soundproof the camera. In Sunrise, the camera moves, fluidly, at length – there’s one noticeable scene where it follows the man to his rendevous with the city lover, crossing over a fence, moving through trees. It’s almost exactly what you don’t expect in this early a film, though it’s interesting to compare the development between this and, say, Gone With The Wind, twelve years later. It’s clear the medium was changing rapidly.

The film is directed by famed German director F.W.Murneau, his first Hollywood film, and imports much from German cinema – the sets are distorted, perspectives awry, sometimes noticeably, sometimes less so. And the language it speaks is broad, rather than refined, and often unsettling. As the man (none of the characters are ever named in the film) rows the boat, it sometimes doesn’t move at all, sometimes is propelled far faster than his oars could ever manage. George O’Brien walks through the early sections as if the weight of the world was upon his shoulders (reportedly because of the weight of the lead in the boots Murneau made him wear). The city is at times scary, cars looming out at pedestrians, a confusing mass of humanity. The buildings tower above, their angles and lines subtly wrong.

Subtitled “A Song Of Two Humans”, Sunrise has pretentions of being more meaningful than it probably is – the plot is in many ways hokey. But in Janet Gaynor it has a radiant star, despite the ludicrous wig she’s made to wear, and in the city scenes, not only do the couple fall back in love with each other, but we do with them, too. Their joy is infectious. And, through the melodramatic denoument, I found myself rooting for them wholeheartedly, and more engaged than I expected to be.

There’s a lot to unpack, and some of the most interesting bits are only touched on. For example, the man has a vast amount of repressed violence – when he’s gotten over the “kill the wife” bit, he’s right on to a “kill the corrupting city women” kick. And, if you think that’s a bit problematic… you’re right. However, Murneau has enough subtlty to let his characters be characters, and in the end one feels, perhaps, that the message of Sunrise, if there is one, is that it’s never too late to make the right decision. Or, conceivably, that pig chasing and country dancing are good ways to rescue a troubled relationship.

Ben-Hur (1959)

March 31, 2010

“I know there is a law in life, that blood gets more blood as dog begets dog. Death generates death, as the vulture breeds the vulture!”

Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) is the oldest son of a noble family in Judea. Accused of attempting to kill the new Roman governor, his once-friend Messala (Stephen Boyd) sentences him to the galleys. Involved in a sea battle which sinks the ship, he escapes, saves the life of the Roman Consul Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins), then returns to seek his mother and sister, and wreak vengeance on Messala.

Ben-Hur is one of the great epics of cinema. You can tell this because it lasts more than three and a half hours, and occasionally it feels like it. At times glorious – the chariot race is rightly famed, the sea battle is almost as good, and at times rather slow and plodding, it has an unconvincing romantic subplot and a rather more convincing gay subtext in the early scenes between Ben-Hur and Messala. Often, it looks sensational – these Technicolor films (The Searchers is another one) somehow manage to use the unreality of their colour to create a more immersive world.

Writing about Ben-Hur is rather like trying to write about the Atlantic Ocean – it is massiveĀ  and difficult to deal with on an individual scale. Commenting on acting (mostly good), direction (fine), script (has words in) seems a little futile. It’s hardly unpredictable (LOOK! FORESHADOWING! A DRINK!), but there’s pleasure in watching it unfold, and enjoying the scale and spectacle.

The subtitle, or tagline, is “A Tale Of The Christ”, but the biblical bits feel bolted on, especially the end scenes, which suffer because the climax of the film (the Chariot Race and immediate aftermath) have already been and gone.

Just in case you think that you can get through this with only low-level racism – the Judean characters look vaguely plausibly jewish (if modern Jewish, rather than biblical-times Jewish), the Romans look faintly Roman, or at least different to the Judean characters – up pops Hugh Griffiths in blackface, to sing a song about the plantation and do jazz hands. Well, not quite, but there’s no particular reason why he should be in blackface, and there’s an amusing (sic) scene where he talks about his “…six… no, seven” wives. He’s not exactly a figure of fun, but it’s a little saddening.

So. Ben-Hur. It exists. It’s rather hard to say any more than that.

The Searchers (1956)

March 30, 2010

“They ain’t white. Not any more. They’re Comanch.”

The Searchers is the story of Ethan Edwards (John Wayne), who begins the film by returning to his brother’s holding. Edwards is a loner, a civil war veteran who refused to surrender his sword and has been doing… something, in the three years since the war ended. There’s hints of some kind of relationship between Edwards and his brother’s wife Martha (Dorothy Jordan), and of unease between Edwards and his brother, before the Rev. Capt. Samuel Johnson Clayton (Ward Bond), a man who represents a kind of frontier authority, church and state conflated, turns up and takes Ethan and the Edwards’ ward Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), to find a group of Indians who have stolen some cattle.

The cattle raid is a diversion, and while they’re gone, the farmstead is raided, Ethan’s brother and Martha killed and their daughters carried off. The rest of the film is the story of Ethan and Martin’s quest to get Debbie (Lana and, later, Natalie Wood) back from the Comanche Indians who have taken her.

“The Searchers” is a flawed and fumbling attempt to re-address the myth of the West, and a statement by director John Ford, one of the genre’s foremost exponents. There are few “good guys” here. Ethan is a loner, rejected by just about everyone – he’s out of place and there’s an uneasiness about his presence in his brother’s house, he’s a Confederate soldier when there aren’t any confederate soldiers any more. He speaks several of the Native languages, but he’s driven by a hatred of the Comanch and a disdain for the others – his rejection of Martin Pawley, early on, because of his mixed blood, is the first taste of one of the film’s themes.

That theme is miscegenation. Debbie, the captured daughter, grows up with the Comanch. Martin Pawley, one eighth Cherokee, in many ways rejects this part of his heritage, though Ethan sneers that he is “a buck”. This theme is combined with outright racism from pretty much everyone in the film, even Martin’s love interest Laurie, who urges him to “put a bullet” in Debbie’s head when they find her. Ford is deliberately deconstructing the “classic western”, turning over the rock and showing the dirt beneath.

The US Cavalry, so often arriving to save the day, here are butchers – they raid an Indian camp, take prisoners, kill indiscriminately. There’s a parallel between the behaviour of the whites and the behaviour of the Indians that’s drawn explicitly.

“The Searchers” can’t escape its tropes, though, and the portrayal of the Comanche is at best ham-fisted – they are stereotypical “Red Indians”, even if the leader “Scar” is given at least a hint of motivation.

There’s also “Look”. Martin Pawley believes he’s trading for a blanket but, no! it’s a wife! When she tries to sleep next to him, he kicks her violently out of bed, to much hilarity from Ethan. This scene is almost incomprehensible. It looks like it’s played for laughs, but I can’t believe anyone ever actually laughed at it. It’s possibly an inversion of what’s happened to Debbie, but that doesn’t leave you anywhere other than confused and muddled.

It’s typical of early attempts to engage with issues of racism and sexism that they end up being racist and sexist themselves, and “The Searchers” is no exception to this. It does, however, mark the ending of the “Cowboys vs. Indians” – although there would be more Westerns to follow, and really the ending of the JOHN WAYNE character. At the end, Ethan is excluded from the happy family reunion. Whatever reconciliation or redemption he has found, it isn’t there – he’s still a man without a people. We see him framed in the doorway, and then he turns and walks away. In many ways, Ethan takes the classic western with him.

Jaws (1975)

March 15, 2010

He ate the light.

The movie that launched the concept of the “Summer Blockbuster”, and as a result is directly responsible for a) Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and b) Michael Bay.

Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) is Chief Of Police of Amity, a holiday island strikingly reminiscent of Martha’s vineyard, who’s called out to investigate the disappearance of a young woman who went swimming. The remains that are found indicate a shark attack, and Brody wants to close the beaches. He’s opposed by the Mayor (Murray Hamilton), who wants to keep Amity open for business. The casualties mount, until Quint (Robert Shaw) is hired by Brody to hunt down the shark, and, accompanied by Shark-Expert Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), they set out in a boat that /may not/ prove to be large enough.

It’s well reputed that “Bruce”, the animatronic shark, did not work well, and that this limited the number of scenes he could be in. As a result, director Steven Spielberg had to find other things to fill the run time with. Fortunately, he chose acting. One of the really noticeable things about Jaws is how well it builds its story – from the first attack to the last moment, it’s carefully orchestrated and allows the story and characters to develop. Indeed, in many ways the most enjoyable things are the bits that /don’t/ involve the shark – Brody’s son copying his father’s despairing body language over dinner, the famous “my scar is bigger than yours” scene on the boat. The result is that the movie is more than the spectacle – it’s a tale of obsession and fascination, and of dread rather than terror or horror.

“Bruce” is the worst thing in the movie – the prop isn’t convincing, and it does drain some of the tension that the film has worked so hard to earn. Scheider and Lorraine Gary (playing Ellen Brody) and Dreyfuss all work well. Robert Shaw… on the other hand… puts in one of the most memorable performances committed to celluloid. It’s occasionally convincing, occasionally bizarre, and it’s clear that the fish isn’t the only thing intent on chewing up the boat.

Overall, Jaws is nearly as effective a movie today as it was when it was released, and even if it is responsible for the existence of some of the mind-numbing dross that gets pushed out over summer, it’s /also/ a template for how to do that kind of thing well. It mixes character and story and humour and scares and amazingly evocative music, to create something that is uniquely cinematic.

One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

In one week, I can put a bug so far up her ass, she don’t know whether to shit or wind her wristwatch.

Jack Nicholson plays Randle P. McMurphy, a man transferred to hospital from prison for an assessment on his mental condition. There, he comes into conflict with Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher), teams up with the unspeaking, unreactive Chief (Will Sampson) and generally sets about rebelling against the controlling authority of the hospital.

This is a good film. It’s beautifully shot, and well-paced, played and written. However, this goodness is in the service of a dark and evil master. There are four speaking female characters in this movie: Two of them are whores, one of them is the evil and emasculating Nurse Ratched and the other one is her sidekick whose major role is to scream unprofessionally when confronted with a slightly unconvincing but dramatic plot development. In short – this film is not only sexist, but misogynistic. It’s also racist (the only black characters are the orderlies, in unthinking service to the machine), but in a rather more casual way.

Part of the problem is that Jack Nicholson is too charismatic and sympathetic an actor – it’s impossible not to be on Randle. P. McMurphy’s side, and as a result his view becomes all-encompassing, and difficult to question. There’s no room for any shading at all, and as a result the “nasty evil ball-breaking woman and her negro sidekicks repress the poor fragile white men” theme becomes unavoidable. Even the interesting question of whether McMurphy, who clearly has some problems, should be getting treatment or be back in prison gets sacrificed on the altar of simplification.

There’s also a weird attitude to the patients at the hospital – the film veers very close to suggesting that all people with mental health issues need to do is get out and be normal, damnit. I think that’s accidental, in that it’s trying to be anti-establishment and anti-institutional, which is rather more laudable, but when you’ve committed so many sins you don’t get a pass on that one.

It’s a shame that so much skill, talent and artistry has been wasted on a film that has such a dark heart, and it’s an even bigger shame that it seems so many people get swept up in the anti-establishment fervour and don’t think about what was chosen to represent that establishment. In the end, this is a movie that stands up and says “I am saying something true.”

It’s lying.

Raging Bull (1980)

March 9, 2010

Shut up. You just shut up. I’ll fucking take care of you later.

Raging Bull is a Martin Scorsese-directed film starring Robert De Niro as Jake LaMotta, the “Bronx Bull”, Middleweight Champion of the world. It’s based on LaMotta’s 1970 autobiography, though much has been compressed, amalgamated or extrapolated.

I find it a little hard to write about this movie, due to the level of internal conflict it has generated in me. I can’t see how anyone could love this movie. There’s nothing lovable about it – no Jimmy Stewart being “Aw shucks” honest, no Rosalind Russell being smart and funny. De Niro’s LaMotta is a man trapped by his own insecurity, his own inability to communicate and his own violence. In many ways, this is the most violent movie I’ve ever seen – it’s in almost every scene, almost every frame, except for the ones set later in LaMotta’s life, where he’s scratching a living as a poor stand-up comic. The violence of the ring, the violence of LaMotta’s assaults on his wife and brother, and violence that is barely restrained, but seethes under the surface, leaving you almost wanting it to break out, so clear is the tension.

It’s a desperately sad movie, too. LaMotta has almost nothing sympathetic about him, but I ended up wishing that there was some other way for him to be, some way for him to break out of the world he lived in.

A while back I read an LJ post that I’ve lost the link to, about the prevalent “default” male view of women, that of objects to be pursued, but once acheived, to be hated and shunned. I couldn’t help but think about that while watching Raging Bull – LaMotta pursues the 15-year-old Vicki, eventually marrying her, and almost immediately is insecure about her, convinced she is cheating on him, unsure about his sexual relations with her, violent and abusive towards her.

De Niro is astonishing. What’s most interesting is that, playing a character called the Raging Bull, whose life is filled with violence and with anger, he conspicuously /doesn’t/ rage. Even when LaMotta has lost his temper, launching an attack on his brother, there’s a distance and reserve about De Niro that makes it all the more chilling. And his ability to work with subtext, to communicate more than the words on the page can – or even the opposite to the words on the page, is stunning. And everybody else (Cathy Moriaty as Vicki, Joe Pesci as Joey especially) is nearly as good.

I can’t love Raging Bull. I can’t see how anyone could list it in their “favourite movies”. If I go back and rewatch it, and I probably will, it will be because there is power in it. Power and truth. It’s that truth that’s so unsettling, makes the violence so difficult to watch… and possibly makes you think about the relationships you have, and the relationships you’ve seen.

Could I be like Jake LaMotta? I think not. But I couldn’t say that I haven’t felt some of the issues he faced, share some of the same weaknesses. Like Easy Rider, I don’t think I’ll forget Raging Bull in a hurry.

Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939)

March 5, 2010

You fight for the lost causes harder than any other.

Jimmy Stewart plays Jefferson Smith, selected as a stooge to be a temporary Senator for an unnamed state, so that Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold) can get his dam plan through. Smith, though, is an innocent with a pure belief in the principles of the United States.

Hokey as all hell, with stirring music over scenes of famous monuments, with a patriotism it wears on both sleeves, there’s so much about this movie that just shouldn’t work…

And yet. Stewart is so charming, Claude Rains (playing the secretly corrupt fellow-senator Joe Paine) so believable and the whole thing done with such a purity of purpose – it’s cynical about politicians, without being cynical about humanity, that it’s hard not to love it. I tend to flip-flop over the believability of the denouement, but I think on balance it’s /just about/ OK. Jean Arthur, playing Saunders, is great when she’s being sharp, and slightly less good when doing the 1930’s/40’s Hollywood-close-up-love-interest stuff. As the former is much more enjoyable than the latter, that’s probably the right way around.

Mr Smith remains one of my favourite films, though this project is putting pressure on it.

His Girl Friday (1940)

You’re wonderful, in a loathsome sort of way.

Our second Cary Grant film, this Howard Hawks-directed comedy from 1940 sees him starring as the cynical and manipulative newspaper editor Walter Burns opposite Rosalind Russell as Hildy Johnson, ex-reporter and ex-wife. Hildy brings her new fiancee to the newspaper, to show him off and to say goodbye to Walter… who has other plans.

We watched a fairly poor transfer of this film to DVD, which could have done with the soundtrack cleaning up and rendered some of the dialogue a little indecipherable. Which is a pity, as it’s largely great. Genuinely funny, in both smart and silly ways, and with a great swagger and amazing pace, it’s a joy to watch. Rosalind Russell is particularly marvellous, lighting up the screen every time she’s on it – she’s both gorgeous and brilliant, her lines fired perfectly, her transitions believable. Grant too is great, if occasionally mugging for the camera, and one can’t help feel sorry for poor Bruce (Ralph Bellamy), who not only gets trampled and torn in Burns’ schemes, but he also gets compared to some no-good Hollywood actor, Ralph Bellamy.

One thing that isn’t quite so hot is the racism. The plot turns around a man (Earl Williams, played by John Qualen) who’s been sentenced to hang for killing a policeman. The corrupt mayor is particularly keen to see him hang, as the policeman was black and “the coloured vote is critical” in the upcoming election. I still can’t quite work out what those bits (there are basically two of them) are doing there – they seem too crafted to have just been thoughtless racism, but not obviously satirical.

That aside, this film is a joy.

Bonnie And Clyde (1967)

February 25, 2010

…We rob banks.

I’d not seen this before, or heard very much about it. It’s clear to me now that this was an error. This is a movie that takes a true story, and then takes fairly great liberties with it, not to make it “more cinematic” or for commercial concerns, but because the writers and
director have something (actually, lots of things) to say. It’s also a movie that switches abruptly between a very jokey tone (there’s a beautiful visual joke set around a gag that Buck Barrow (Gene Hackman) is over-fond of telling) and shocking and realistic violence. These tone
switches are jarring and disconcerting, and clearly intended that way, which is, it seems to me, film-making of the highest order.

One thing that surprised me was how “actorly” a film it is, though there’s violence and action and Flat and Scruggs playing bluegrass, there’s enough time for Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty to act, which they do remarkably well, letting silence speak as loudly as the words.

Although you know the ending’s coming, and it builds and builds with an inevitability, you end up wishing there was another way. The look that passes between Clyde and Bonnie at that moment is one of the finest things I’ve seen.