Christmas in July – Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life”

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A white boy named Clarence? Drexl from True Romance would have words to say about that.

Saying “Merry Christmas!” to buildings? A state-appointed psychiatrist would have words to say about that.

Ah, humbug!

 

Just kidding. I loved It’s a Wonderful Life.

There’s a stigma around holiday films, and as traditions build and the years go on, it’s easy to rag on usually the most saccharin of them all: the Christmas Movie. I admit, I’ve never been a fan. Unless you consider Die Hard a Christmas movie; I do, and it’s become almost overexposed how many people throw that around these days. (I was here before The Office‘s Michael Scott referenced it! I was saying it before Die Hard for the National Film Registry‘s twitter! I’m so cool.) It’s funny, one of my favorite movies of all time has become a holiday film also – Steven Spielberg’s Jaws – a mainstay of any Independence Day celebration for me. So, not all holiday films are bad, just because they evoke a time of year. It’s just Christmas movies, often with their message of family values and helping the poor and all the humane things we should strive for as denizens of this planet…that just makes people sick to their goddamn stomaches.

I admit, this is why I’ve avoided It’s a Wonderful Life for 31 years. The most I’ve ever seen was Jimmy Stewart running through snowy streets, yelling “Merry Christmas!” at buildings, and maybe winking up at his ceiling, holding his family close. Seemed like some old-time, kumbaya shit to me. Sometime when I was a teen, I heard the movie was actually about suicide. What a crock. Was that a way to get teenagers to watch it? To get them to turn off the Sabbath records for 2 hours and give it a try? What Christian town did I grow up in?

It’s a Wonderful Life was on television all the time, when I was a kid; certainly around Christmas, but at least 4 or 5 other times during the year too. It’s always been that experience I knew I should have but always ran away from. It’s my sister’s favorite movie; that could’ve helped scare me away too. What I’m driving at is, I was a stupid, stupid, anti-establishment punk, poser kid.

itsPartly because it’s July and partly because the film doesn’t tip its hand too far about Christmas in the first 2 acts, I didn’t watch It’s a Wonderful Life as a Christmas movie. And, I think that was an excellent mindset going in. It didn’t have baggage and aesthetic cues I was searching for. It wasn’t until the day the money went missing, in fact, and seeing the snow on the streets and the Christmas tree in George Bailey’s house that the holiday time period registered. Watching it as a film alone, a lot hit home for me. A boy trying to do good by his neighbors, boss and community. A man trying to strike out on his own, away from the family business, and do what makes him happy. The desire to continue the family name in hard times. Making sacrifices to keep a community and his family strong. These are all the ideas that swamped me as a young man: fierce independence, wanting to travel, wanting to not be locked down by career or family. Even as an adult, I admire George Bailey as an early 20-something, an open future completely sprawled ahead of him.

The film’s message of sacrifice and hope aren’t lost on me. It’s a romantic, pleasant film with great performances from Stewart, Reed and all supporting players. It fits perfectly as a Christmas movie too. Help the community and the community will help you. It has a lot of good things to say about small town folk, and quite a few bad things to say about the rich moneymen. (Maybe another Eastern bank allegory like The Wizard of Oz?) It’s so apparent how many films take an anti-capitalist stance in the wake of the Great Depression; it’s partly to thank for how I was educated on the topic growing up. The Christmas Carol sequence with Clarence, the soon-to-be angel, showing Bailey what life could be like without him was the only aspect I really knew about the film before I saw it. In the end, as fiercely independent as Bailey is, regretting the course his life has taken, his nightmare “sobers” him to another reality: conformity. The message works fine for the time, 1946, and great for the holiday, Christmas, but it has a mixed result on me decades later.

Rather, I like to see It’s a Wonderful Life as a historical item; the result of depression and war, and a glimpse at the beckoning baby-boomers and materialism of the 1950s. The film is All-American, about fitting in, down to its core. There’s a lot to love, but The Parallax View is nowhere to be seen here.

Also, this is the one and only Frank Capra film I’ve ever seen. Might have to consider that for Auteur Cinema Shame next year…

1. Some Like It Hot (1959)
2. Persona (1966)
3. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)
4. Napoleon Dynamite (2004)
5. The Searchers (1956)
6. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
7. Cinema Paradiso (1988)
8. Breathless (1960)
9. Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) / Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
10. It Happened One Night (1934) / His Girl Friday (1940)
11. Sabrina (1954)
12. Hell in the Pacific (1968)

 

Catch-Up: Cinema Shame June – John Ford’s The Searchers

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John Ford’s 1956 film, The Searchers, is arguably the pinnacle of Ford’s career. It’s also arguably the pinnacle of John Wayne’s career; though he had several comebacks later in life. When the question is posed, “what is the greatest western of all time?” it’s not out of left field to get the answer, The Searchers. In fact, I’d think The Searchers pops up at least 7 out of 10 times. Best-of lists, film critics’ Top 10s, AFI’s most notable, the Academy Awards…if not name checked directly, footage from The Searchers at least garnishes montages and retrospectives of classic American cinema. It is the western genre.

So, why did it take me so long to watch it? Well, it’s not like I didn’t try before. This viewing marks the 3rd or 4th time I’ve tried to sit down and take in the Great Film. This time I was successful. The previous times, always hit a wall of boredom. Chalk it up to a young boy’s attention span at least 2 of those times; the others, just not engaged. I think there’s a hurdle with classic-era westerns and me. I’m just not engaged by them. Spaghetti westerns, yes. Self-reflexive westerns of the 1960s-1990s, thank you sir, may I have another? It stands to reason, then, “Greg, if you like these things, you’ll probably like the movies that influenced them, that birthed them.”

Nope.

Few classic-era westerns engage me, grab me, speak to me. Whereas I can swim in the style of Leone, and badass music of Morricone, and even traipse in Bacharach and bicycle montages in Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, style is very traditional in the classic era. That’s not a bad thing, but how do I explain it? Pacing, music, acting, even directing doesn’t strike me with vivaciousness, vibrancy, movement. It’s all very blocked, and I mean that in a distance kind of way. It’s rehearsed, stilted. Blame growing up on the vibrancy of Spaghetti westerns as my first foray into the genre; it spoiled me. I mean, there are a few. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, for one. I just also recently saw Red River for the first time; took a couple viewings to grow on me, but dig it a lot now. Hawks was, and will always be, my favorite American western director. Nothing against Ford, but more on that later. Hawks’ handling of story and character speaks to me, and that goes for every genre he worked in. His female characters are also a draw. It wouldn’t be beyond reason to say what turns me off about classic-era westerns is how it handles the genre’s tropes. It isn’t often aware of its tropes, it’s playing them for real. The political sensitivities of Native American subjects, making them often the villain, also, rubs me the wrong way. On the surface, westerns are about maintaining the community, the civilization and family unit, particularly the white settler’s. And, that stuff is too conservative for me. Too stuffy. I want anti-heroicism, emotional complexity and gray area. And classic westerns are pretty short on gray area.

the-searchers-original1As previously reported, I’m a gigantic Akira Kurosawa head. The dude’s my bread & butter. Much like questions of influences and their progeny discussed above, you would expect me to love John Ford, Kurosawa’s foremost cinematic influence. Again…nope. It isn’t a stretch to see the similarities between Ford’s westerns and the samurai adventure pictures Kurosawa put his stamp on. The kineticism and violence, bursts of movement, composition, they all talk back to each other; East meets West. And that’s just the surface. Kurosawa and Ford share similar story themes and lead characters. But, it becomes more apparent the chasm between the two’s cinema when you look further to the next generation, and particularly whom Kurosawa influences. Leone, Lucas, Scorsese, Schrader; hell, the whole American New Wave grew up on his films. The French too. The Russians. Whole fucking nations’ film movements were begat from Kurosawa. I don’t know if you could say that about John Ford. I’m serious. I know Ford is an influential filmmaker, I’m not significantly undercutting that. But, at some point, the modern cinematic world didn’t rush to Ford first for inspiration. It’s just like how most modern filmmakers use Quentin Tarantino as a jumping off point, not Kurosawa, Hawks, Leone or Preminger (which is a shame). I just think the scope of Ford’s influence is smaller than cinephiles give him credit for.

That is not to say John Ford is a bad filmmaker. On the contrary, he is a master. I’ll forego the synopsis of The Searchers, for the most part, to focus on what I took away from my viewing. This movie is so utterly beautiful in every way. Composition, setting, color. It is so striking. Monument Valley, breadth, scope, epicness. The Searchers has it in spades. That’s one thing, first and foremost, that blew me away.

I don’t want to dwell too much on my failed past attempts at watching this film. It’s not clearly because of a short attention span. Anyone who knows me knows I love deliberately paced media; slow builds that grow to crescendo…or don’t. What didn’t engage me the first few times, and honestly, what didn’t engage me this time is the film going through its genre paces. Meeting the family unit, giving them the typical importance before they’re robbed away from the protagonists, meeting the quirky townsfolk. The typical rigamarole. Once it went into that mode, I started tuning out. It’s not possible I wasn’t on The Searchers‘ wavelength four different times in my life, is it?

searchers1I have to say that first hour was a chore. But I do appreciate something about The Searchers wholly. It isn’t a classic-era western. At least, not how I’ve defined it for myself. This isn’t a heroic, black & white, good & evil adventure. The protagonist, Ethan Edwards (Wayne) is a despicable, racist former Confederate soldier. He doesn’t seem at any point in the film to embody fairness, goodness or the qualities of a classic hero. In fact, he’s an anti-hero, with elements of even villainy. The question is, how much of this disconnect was intended? I’m watching this in 2014, but did moviegoers in 1956 have a different mentality and different values? Of course they did. Did they see John Wayne as a hardened man who reflected social prejudices of the day? I can see a large section of white viewers being in Wayne’s camp without hesitation. The film’s story also is complex and better realized than most classic westerns I’ve seen. It isn’t just a rescue/revenge story; there is collateral damage. The family unit is destroyed; members killed and scalped. Ethan’s niece is kidnapped by Comanches. His reluctant partnership with his one-eighth Injun surrogate son whom he rescued from death as a child, Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), is full of racist barbs and the wedge between them is never completely lifted. In fact, their five-year journey to rescue the niece, Debbie (Natalie Wood), only goes to show how different they view their worlds and missions.

I didn’t connect with The Searchers until the last act really; before I was just passively watching. I knew the twist: once it’s revealed that Debbie has a little case of Stockholm Syndrome and has become a pseudo-Comanche herself, Ethan tries to shoot and kill her. There’s no sense of heroicism here. Again, it’s quite clear he is a horrible human being. He’d rather see his niece dead by his own hand than become “one of those heathens.” This is where the complexity of the movie grabbed me. Not only is Wayne playing an atypical (for his reputation) lead, and doing a great performance at that, but his motivations are completely on par with what his character would do. It takes balls to play disgusting and inhumane when you’re John Wayne. But, again, were 1956 audiences screaming, “yeeeah, kill that little Injun wannabe!!!”? I don’t know.

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I want to believe this was all intended by John Ford and the writers. To create almost an anti-western. (Not like The Proposition or something, but anti-what-you-expect.) The actions of Ethan, at odds with young Martin, in the mission to basically save Debbie (& her soul) makes for a damn fine last act. Ethan is willing to let Debbie get killed as a bystander when he and his men plan to invade the Comanche camp. Martin is having none of that; volunteering to sneak in Sam Fisher style and get her out before any bloodshed occurs. Things don’t go exactly to plan. Debbie does get rescued, but the action, shooting, horse riding invasion comes on quick. Some of the best editing of the film is in this sequence. In the chaos, Ethan scalps Scar, the Big Bad of the villainous Comanches (also played by a white dude). What I respect about the ending is how empty it is. It’s audacious on Ford’s part. Debbie’s rescue means something to her parents (I think those were her parents?). The relieving denouement also means something to Martin and his sweetheart-someday, Laurie (Vera Miles), who smile and hold hands. But what does Ethan have? He is left in a doorway with no one to hug him and ask how he’s doing and celebrate his actions. He has nothing. Everyone enters the house, and he is alone. No reward. No parade.

iconicdoorwayshot_thesearchersReally getting into the last 30-45 minutes of The Searchers makes me wonder if it needs another viewing. No, I know it needs another viewing. How I feel about it after the fact makes me see the lead-up in a new light. Maybe my patience is prepared for another outing. Maybe there’s more to chew on than just the beautiful scenery. I might give Ford another look.

1. Some Like It Hot (1959)
2. Persona (1966)
3. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)
4. Napoleon Dynamite (2004)
5. The Searchers (1956)
6. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
7. Cinema Paradiso (1988)
8. Breathless (1960)
9. Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) / Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
10. It Happened One Night (1934) / His Girl Friday (1940)
11. Sabrina (1954)
12. Hell in the Pacific (1968)

 

My List of Shame – Reevaluated

Updating my list, switched out some for later/next year.

1. Some Like It Hot (1959)
2. Persona (1966)
3. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)
4. Napoleon Dynamite (2004)
5. The Searchers (1956)
6. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
7. Cinema Paradiso (1988)
8. Breathless (1960)
9. Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) / Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
10. It Happened One Night (1934) / His Girl Friday (1940)
11. Sabrina (1954)
12. Hell in the Pacific (1968)

Catch-Up: Cinema Shame May – John Boorman’s Hell in the Pacific

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I have a lot to catch up on. I hate being behind. So let’s dive in and get caught up with July.

My favorite filmmaker of all time is Akira Kurosawa. I discovered Seven Samurai at my local video store when I was in 7th or 8th grade. I was entranced by it from the drop. In this film was a maniacal, jumpy, overacting, hammy nuisance named Kikuchiyo, played by an actor I would come to know as Toshiro Mifune; Mifune being arguably the most recognizable and popular international actor to ever come out of Japan. What I didn’t get then, as an early teen, was Mifune’s brand of acting was broad to the western eye, and especially to someone brought up on more subtle acting of 1970s cinema and Method actors out of New York. When you’re educated that acting equals one thing, it’s difficult to reevaluate and reassess something so deeply ingrained. But Mifune was broad because Kikuchiyo was broad; a lively young man in a constant state of arrested development, at least until the titular other samurai grow him up (and vice versa). Mifune was similar as the bandit in Rashomon, so again I thought “well, this is the dude I’m gonna know…the jumpy, screaming dude who chews scenery.”

My love of Kurosawa continued from there. Everything I could find by the Japanese master, I consumed. Unfortunately, the selection at my local video store left me wanting, even as great and varied as their art house and foreign section was. I hit the library too, where I found some more Kurosawa, but also Dassin, Melville, Hitchcock and Fellini. By the time I entered college, I was a seasoned Kurosawa fan. I read the biographies and his autobiography. And, I sought out anything about his work with Mifune especially; a cinematic relationship that spanned 16 films and is matched by few other Director/Actor teams. By this time, I had seen Mifune had range. Seeing the man in Rashomon and Seven Samurai paints him one way, seeing him in Stray Dog, Throne of Blood, Yojimbo, Red Beard and especially I Live in Fear paints him 180 degrees in the other direction. Kurosawa has a famous line about how efficient Mifune was as an actor; something like “what takes a regular actor 10 gestures to convey Mifune can convey in 3.” He really is what any movie star should be: charismatic, intelligent, beautiful and infinitely watchable. Any scene in any movie Mifune is in, he is what draws the eye. Even in shit. Even in 1941.

It’s in college during my infatuation that I learned about Hell in the Pacific. Basically, the film is a mix of Castaway and The Bridge on the River Kwai. A Japanese soldier (Mifune) and an American soldier (Lee Marvin) are stranded on an island during the waning days of World War II. They are immediately at each other’s throats; Mifune seems to have the survival skills, ability to make fire, and most of the fresh water, while Marvin has nothing. There’s some cat & mouse, Road Runner and Wile E Coyote antics — all with Mifune only speaking un-subtitled Japanese and Marvin only speaking English — but soon they wear each other down and realize they have to work together to survive. Fishing, building fires and shelter, all begrudgingly still, mind you, but more civil than the start. Then, they join forces to create a raft to get away. They struggle on the open seas, as you’d expect. But they find new land: a blown out, vacated American base. In good spirits from finding cigarettes and sake, and from the high they both must be feeling from sheer adrenaline and possible survival, the two men get along. Mifune finds medical scissors and mirrors, which affords the two men something they haven’t had in ages: clean-shaven faces. Newly classed-up, Marvin and Mifune share sake and a warm fire in one of the base’s offices. TIME magazines are also strewn about the base, and as Mifune sifts through one to find pictures of his fellow Japanese soldiers being captured and killed, his ire rises once again. It just so happens Marvin is on a diatribe at that very moment about how “you people don’t believe in God, in Jesus Christ!”

Then the film ends. Abruptly. Bombs exploding in the distance come home quick and blow up the building Marvin and Mifune are fighting in. This ending has been controversial and detested for longer than I have known about it. AND it’s possibly the reason I never sought out Hell in the Pacific sooner.

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That’s right. The British version was severely changed by the studio. The American version has the two men arguing & fighting in their respective languages, then walking off in separate directions. Their fates are ambiguous. This latter ending happens to be more in line with the mission statement of the movie: how we don’t hear / listen / comprehend each other during war. The two leads never have to speak each other’s language; their friendship is slight, only dependent on survival. They both have their prejudices, and not even a moment’s respite will change their point-of-view. But blow them up suddenly with no rhyme or reason, almost akin to Dr. Strangelove, and against the filmmaker’s intention? What a horrid outcome. This isn’t a satire of war. It’s a deep analysis of it and the character of war.

I say all this because I admire the concept of Hell in the Pacific more than the film actually. It’s an okay movie. Not earth-shattering. It is directed by Boorman, a frequently reliable director when it comes to character-driven 60s/70s cinema. It is shot by Conrad Hall, probably one of the Top 3 cinematographers in Hollywood history and a constant influence on documentary and lowlight filmmakers. Lalo Schifrin does turn in a unique score, even though he becomes more well known for a style he plants in the next decade. And of course, Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune. Marvin is gruff and sly, what he does best. Mifune is aptly crazy at one moment and reserved Japanese tradition the next. All these ingredients should make for a grand movie. Honestly, sometimes it hits, other times it’s a slog. It’s got Castaway moments, long stretches where things play out with little dialogue, and I love that stuff usually. But, here, I found it a chore to keep interest going. I do, however, absolutely agree with this, and it was the main draw of the film for me:

 

Toshiro Mifune also took on foreign assignments, but few did him justice. It was only John Boorman’s Hell in the Pacific that captured something of his range, humour and power.

 

 

Mifune again proves to be the most watchable person in the room. I just wish the film had been better. It’s an oddity for completists. It’s got fantastic moments of cinematography and chemistry between the leads — it’s obvious Marvin admired Mifune enough as an international star to share the spotlight with him. Marvin was a ballsy actor willing to take risks, just like Burt Lancaster was. And, it shows with his commitment to this project. If it had done better financially, this could have catapulted Mifune to a new sphere of stardom. I guess we’ll just have to live with the work he’s best known for. 😉

1. Some Like It Hot (1959)
2. Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)

3. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)
4. Napoleon Dynamite (2004)
5. Koyaanisqatsi (1982)
6. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
7. Cinema Paradiso (1988)
8. Breathless (1960)
9. Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
10. It Happened One Night (1934) / His Girl Friday (1940)
11. Sabrina (1954)
12. Hell in the Pacific (1968)

 

Colonel Blimp: Can Anything Make Me Love Cinema More?!

Roger Livesey - The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) bathLet’s get the long, suspenseful lead-up out of the way. I never avoided The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. I never had an aversion to it. I never worried if it was “my cup of tea.” It never turned me off, thinking it was a stuffy British drama on par with Gone with the Wind. In fact, of all the films on my List of Shame, it is the newest to enter the “need to see.” Ever since I read the announcement of Criterion’s blu-ray release, and started researching the painstaking years Scorsese & Co took finding and restoring this film, I was hooked. In fact, though the title traveled in and out of my academic and professional conscience – much like Mike Leigh’s Naked – it never got the green light in my head. No real drama there, just never picked it up. Same with Naked; I kept saying, I’ll pick it up on the next Criterion 50% off sale, and just usually opted for a Kurosawa blu-grade or more recent releases.

What I can detail, without a doubt, is the graphical representation of the experience I thought I was going to get with Colonel Blimp. Let’s start with the widely dispersed poster and cover art.

51P98HZNKVLWithout keeping tabs on the cast of this film, I got it locked into my head that Alec Guinness was in this film. See Blimp, circa World War I garb, on the far left? I don’t even know why that spoke Alec Guinness to my brain. If anything, it looks more like Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove. Anyway, whenever Colonel Blimp came up, I would say to myself, “oh, that Alec Guinness movie.” (Sub-question, was Sellers parodying the look of Blimp in Strangelove? Has that ever been talked about? Anyone got a confirmation?)

main__0006_drStrangelove_0So, for the indoctrinated (and myself now), the amazing Roger Livesey is the titular “Blimp,” Clive Candy. I cannot say enough about how transcendent his performance is, embodying a career military man over 40 years of his life, basically from 1902 to the beginning of WWII. There’s humor, there’s love, there’s a true character portrait. And the physical transformation of Livesey is astounding. Through make-up, the use of doubles and good acting, Livesey goes from a fit rapscallion to a bloated general, spouting the jingoistic status quo (Scorsese and De Niro looked to Livesey when they were readying De Niro’s Jake La Motta in Raging Bull). The film overall is highly influential, beautiful and grand.

Along with Livesey are Anton Walbrook (an Austrian who, much like producer Emeric Pressburger, lived through the rise of Nazism in Germany & Austria and expatriated to England) and Deborah Kerr, playing three different roles in one of her earliest and most admired film credits. Kerr, Walbrook & Livesey make up a decades long love triangle in the film. Walbrook’s character, Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff, falls in love with Kerr’s first iteration, Edith Hunter in 1902, and marries her with seemingly encouraging approval of Livesey’s Candy. Subsequently, however, Candy realizes he loved her all along, seeing his infatuation in her next two iterations, WWI nurse Barbara Wynne and WWII driver Angela “Johnny” Cannon. The love story often injects both the lightest and melancholic parts to the film; especially after Candy realizes it is too late to have the life he might have idealized.

The other side of Colonel Blimp is a biting satire of British militarism. For those unaware, like I was prior, of why this film is titled as such, the name is derived from the influential comic strip in which Colonel Blimp, a company man through and through, spouts his rather ancient ideals concerning everything from British foreign policy to conservative stuffiness. In a liberalizing world, the British management, the “Old Guard,” came to be seen as out-of-touch, obviously not-of-this-time, armchair generals getting fat in saunas and talking about the old days. In their world, they were the Blimps, still upholding a belief in the “gentleman’s war” and the integrity of “the duel.” One of the lines that keeps getting thrown around even early in the film illustrates the chasm: “war starts at midnight!” The Old Dogs still want to keep to a gentleman’s schedule, while the new generation knows that it does not work. The Nazis have changed that. There’s no longer the forward movement of a single frontline of soldiers, and a break for tea time; now it is guerrilla warfare, now it is the element of surprise.

It’s rather interesting to watch Colonel Blimp as I did very close together with Errol Morris’ The Fog of War. Between the two, one can see the history of colonialism in the world: superpowers like England and France, built on pomp and circumstance, nationalism and military supremacy, stretching out their values and culture to other continents. Their oligarchies and eventual democracies hypocritically at odds with oppressing darker folks who didn’t speak the language. Blimp is someone who fought the Zulu. And even when he wasn’t fighting “the Krauts,” he was hunting the exotic animals of Africa, or exploiting the workers of India, or imposing racist laws on any number of his colonies. Candy in the film is a pinnacle of what the 19th Century British nationalist believed. Problem is this is 1942. We can’t fight wars like we once did. We can’t afford to think the way we once did.

Colonel Blimp‘s layered story and grandiose flourishes come courtesy of my favorite filmmaking team, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. I admit, it took about 30-45 minutes for me to get into Full Appreciation mode on Blimp. It has a seeming slow-burn, even when its wonderful scenes of warmth and comedy and tragedy are playing out. I knew I loved it, but it had to grow on me. It was weird because prior, I had immediately been onboard with P&Ps previous outings, or at least the ones I’ve seen, which is few. The best of what I’ve seen, and most viewers’ favorite from what I’ve seen and heard, is The Red Shoes, including another stupendous performance by Walbrook and starring Moira Shearer. I had an immediate, unchecked falling in love with that film. But yes, it took some time for me to find the same love in my heart for Blimp. Moving toward the WWI era, then into the 1930s of the film, I was in a sweet spot. Then, it happened. The most ahead-of-its-time, heart-wrenching scene about the horrors of Nazism one could see prior to maybe The Pawnbroker or Shoah or Sophie’s Choice. Anton Walbrook, an actual Austrian who had to flee his country, tells the story of how his wife Edith died and how his children became Nazis. If it isn’t heartbreaking enough, it plays out in a one, uncut shot. POWER-FUL STUFF. This scene defined the film for me.

When people think of epic filmmakers, they often throw out David Lean first. The man made some of the biggest budgeted, longest duration, “important” movies in British film history. Lawrence of Arabia, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Ryan’s Daughter. Probably his most lavish and indulgent film, Doctor Zhivago, is the one that Colonel Blimp is most akin, in my opinion. A love story that spans decades against the backdrop of war. It’s just fertile for drama, anywhere you look. The difference is that Zhivago is overlong and not really as good as people remember it; just like Gone with the Wind or the stupidity of Love Story. Sorry, but all three are generally saccharin, grocery store aisle pulps about unrequited love. (Zhivago has its moments, and honestly it’s been years since I’ve seen it; I just can’t muster the interest to sit through it again in my life. Overindulgent to say the least.) However, Colonel Blimp keeps getting better with every viewing – three so far – as its layers and themes and beauty reveal itself as one gets lost in its setting, characters and mise-en-scene. It is, without hyperbole, the best acted and directed film I’ve seen from the classic era. And the best I’ve seen so far for Cinema Shame. I love it “very much,” as early, English-lacking Theo would say.

1. Some Like It Hot (1959)
2. Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)

3. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)
4. Napoleon Dynamite (2004)
5. Koyaanisqatsi (1982)
6. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
7. Cinema Paradiso (1988)
8. Breathless (1960)
9. Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
10. It Happened One Night (1934) / His Girl Friday (1940)
11. Sabrina (1954)
12. Hell in the Pacific (1968)

Jared Hess’ Napoleon Dynamite & Not Being Part of the Zeitgeist

napoleon-dynamiteYou have to be careful where you purchase your hype from. Media and marketing are the biggest purveyors. A new trailer, on-set pics, news of your favorite actor being in a new movie directed by your favorite director. That usually does the trick. But, I would argue that there are three groups that shape whether you should see a particular movie and if you will like it. Group A is friends. Group B is your community (online, your social scene, your church, your neighborhood, or otherwise). Group C is the mainstream viewing audience. Find the group you identify with the most. Find who you agree with on a consistent basis. That is your group. For all you naysaying, got-to-be-cool, I-liked-them-before-they-were-big hipsters out there, go on enjoying your esoteric German Expressionist shorts, this article is not for you.

I would say, in general, there are a few friends and a few critics whom I can trust that, if they like something, I’ll probably enjoy it. These people are invaluable, and a better litmus test than reading any review, visiting Metacritic or Rotten Tomatoes. What it really boils down to, what you really need to overcome, is hype. Hype is a killer of the virgin experience. And, you can’t go into anything cold. Really, you can’t. Just by being birthed into existence, a film has a certain level of hype attached; the aforementioned “favorite actor/actress” is in it, the “favorite director” is making it, the subject matter, the setting, the music, the look. If you know it’s there, you’re going to attach a standard to it. (The tree fell in the woods, and there you were.) Hype of this level is not a problem. It’s why we go to see movies. No, the hype I’m warning you about is another beast when it infects the zeitgeist.

When every media outlet has a piece up about this film. When every critic swears by its originality, uniqueness, coolness, ahead-of-its-time-ness. When a film breaks through the box that contains it and is no longer a story, a script, an actor and a director. This is when we have problems, folks. Group A might do a good job of selling a film outing to you. It could be anything; and even if it sucks, hell, you’ll have a good time with friends. Group B is often a little more serious of a commitment. You go to them to gauge the community interest. This is the “good follower” in you – not a tastemaker – checking if it’s okay to enjoy something you’re hyped about. Depending on what everyone says, you’ll apply for or dismiss the outing. Group C is just like Group B, but now you’re talking about a movement. If you look to identify with the mainstream viewing audience first, out-the-gate, you are probably a casual movie watcher. You want to watch what everyone else is watching. You want to share in the experience, be part of the water-cooler conversation. You want to see the “good” movies, rag on the “bad” movies. And, most of all, you want to have a good time. You do not want to be fucked with, or challenged, or left with your gut spilling open. You want to laugh or cry. You want to say “that was a great movie!”

The point is, in every Group tier I’ve outlined, there’s a level of starter position hype. Movies are built around this. The summer blockbuster, superhero sequel coming out soon? That is marketed to be an event for Group C. Your smaller crime drama or indie darling can be right at home with Group A & B. The question is really, “who do you trust?”

I found my Group(s) a long time ago. By default, because of my tastes and the kinds of films that I gravitate to, Group C is never the group I start with. I go on what my friends say first, then critics that I’ve come to identify with. And this is where my problem with Jared Hess’ Napoleon Dynamite started. I never went to see it when it was Group A chatter. When it was making its rounds in Group B, I clicked off the page or read something else. By the time it was in every college dorm room, along with the COLLEGE poster of John Belushi and the introductory copy of The Boondock Saints every goddamn film student had, I was more than eager to ignore, avoid and downright shit on Napoleon Dynamite. When kids were acting like Jon Heder and quoting “gosh” lines and wearing “Vote for Pedro” shirts, I could actually pinpoint the moment pop culture set sail, leaving me on the shore. And honestly, I was okay with that. I had other things…I did…I mean it…

In finally viewing the generally mediocre Napoleon Dynamite, several things dawned on me:

– the best part of this film is everyone and anything that isn’t the lead. Jon Heder is so obnoxious that I pleaded with the movie to cut to another character or subplot whenever he was on screen. This point is surprising and sucky to me; I loved him with Will Ferrell in Blades of Glory.
– Jared Hess has always occupied this space between Wes Anderson and Jody Hill, and he isn’t as clever or funny as either of them. He does PG-rated comedy with panache, I’ll give him that. I remember liking Nacho Libre quite a bit, but it has been years since I’ve seen that movie, and my pleasant memories could be locked in an unchecked love of Jack Black at the time, and loving making-out with a girl and feeling on her booby while watching. (that would paint any viewing experience with rosy memories for a hetero guy)
– Pedro. I get it, he’s great. And so is Kip and Lafawnduh. And I even enjoyed Uncle Rico, to an extent, trying to capture his 1982 high school glory. And the music, great picks. (Cyndi Lauper, Jamiroquai, The White Stripes, love love love) The dance-off at the end, I had some chuckles.
– BUT, this film’s humor is so broad; like, think, Three Stooges but done poorly by mentally-handicapped manchildren. It just plays out in a very slight way. As I was watching, I never knew exactly what people went so crazy for. The plots, the characters, the gags. Nothing felt completely real, or completely refined into a joke. Personally, I think Napoleon Dynamite skated along on its midwestern flavor for a long, long time. It was so unique to viewers that, by the time it became a flag of the zeitgeist of Group C, I bet many just went along for the ride, just so they wouldn’t be made fun of by their friends.
– One excellent thing Hess has always done, and is well on-display here, is the bucking of stereotypical reaction to outsiders and minorities. When you expect midwesterners to shun or get racist on the Hispanics, they don’t. They treat outsiders and minorities, like Pedro and his cousins, like they do anyone else. So I applaud that. Even though it is another detail that makes this film never fully tangible; almost sci-fi.

Not a great film. But not offensively bad either.

1. Some Like It Hot (1959)
2. Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)

3. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)
4. Napoleon Dynamite (2004)
5. Koyaanisqatsi (1982)
6. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
7. Cinema Paradiso (1988)
8. Breathless (1960)
9. Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
10. It Happened One Night (1934) / His Girl Friday (1940)
11. Sabrina (1954)
12. Hell in the Pacific (1968)

 

Sublime: Billy Wilder’s “Sabrina”

Much like the other Wilder work I’ve seen recently, including The Apartment and last month’s Some Like It Hot, I admit there is no good reason for me having never seen 1954’s Sabrina. But, unlike my misguided prejudice towards Wilder’s comedies and a conservative father leading me away from questionable cross-dressing, Sabrina‘s omission makes sense to me. My earliest memory is not of this one at all, but the 1995 remake by Sydney Pollack, starring Harrison Ford, Julia Ormond and Greg Kinnear. When trailers and commercials started popping up, I remember, seemingly, every adult female in my life swooning, including a sister and my mother. Given this time in my life, just brisking in my teens, I can only guess how uninterested I was in romance and “chick flicks.” Honestly, if you asked me my favorite film in 1995 – and still one of my favorites – I would’ve replied David Fincher’s Se7en. Adult-themed for a boy not even in high school, mature for a young man in a friend group still playing with action figures, but a movie that one can believe a kid gravitating to horror might like. Gruesome, unsettling and, to tell the truth, a movie that gave me nightmares for weeks afterward. (I slept in my dad’s room for the duration.) Subsequently, and very off-topic, I was deeply entranced with that film for years; daring myself to watch it alone on VHS to overcome my fears. I can note no other film for teaching me how to control my base emotions better – well, until The Exorcist: Director’s Cut came along, but that’s a story for another day. Anyway, back to the point: would you expect a punk kid – or wannabe punk kid, chain-wallet and all – on a steady diet of horror and action to even give a fuck about Sabrina?

And that’s the one in color. I wasn’t averse to black & white; some of my favorite films growing up were b&w, including Psycho. But, consider for a second: I don’t care about Harrison Ford falling in love with the help (I’d rather watch him race Nazis to historical treasure and swing a whip, anyway), would I care about Humphrey Bogart? I’m not even completely sure I had seen a Bogart film by that time. I knew who he was; a gargantuan star of yesteryear, parodied in Warner Bros cartoons and brought back to life through the miracle of computer-generated imagery. Billy Wilder’s Sabrina was not on my radar. And there it remained, several rungs down on “the work of the masters;” no one ever said, “See Sabrina!” at the same time he/she said, “See Seven Samurai!,” “See The Godfather!,” “See Casablanca!,” “See Jaws!,” “See On the Waterfront!”

It. Just. Did. Not. Register.

Part of me is glad I waited until I was an adult, with several relationships under my belt, with an idea of the world, class structure and how working for a corporation can be. That autobiographical shorthand allowed me to experience Sabrina for its story and characters, without having to translate it to the whims of a child. How does a complex emotion like loving someone you’re not sure loves you back translate to Blink-182 and X-Games? (god, I hate me.) How do you go from feeling so intently about someone for a lifetime to knowing that isn’t for you? What understanding of life would I share with Linus Larrabee or Sabrina Fairchild? Nothing was lost in these years preparing me for a film like Sabrina.

Sublime. Light. Funny. Romantic. Beautiful. Warm. That’s how I felt watching it. If there were better-looking women than Audrey Hepburn in the history of Hollywood, I certainly forgot about them for two hours. William Holden is atypically cast as the womanizing playboy, David, whose older brother, Linus (Bogart) – the undertaker – oversees the family corporate empire in New York. David is fun, living each day as his last. Linus is focused on work, dead serious and regimented. On the Larrabees’ estate, of course, is the help, including chauffeur, Thomas Fairchild and his daughter, Sabrina. Admiring David from afar her whole life – from outside the garage or from a tree – Sabrina is infatuated with him. She even goes so far as to attempt suicide via carbon monoxide asphyxiation, after hearing that his affections have been won by another in a long line of revolving PYTs. Rescued by a well-meaning Linus, returning a car to the garage, the two spark up a respectful understanding: she has something to live for, even if it isn’t David. Leaving the next day for Paris, Sabrina is to become a woman of culture, kitchen skills and manners befitting those in the employ of the Larrabees. Upon her return, she has changed: gone is the ponytail, replaced with Hepburn’s signature cut; gone are the clothes of a girl, replaced with the figure-hugging chic dress of a woman of the world.

Having blossomed, Sabrina is now able to pique David’s interest immediately. In one of the funniest scenes in the film, David happens upon her waiting to be picked up at the train station. He gives her a ride, all the while trying to place where he knows her from. I can’t sell it well enough to convey how light and engaging this sequence is, as David finally realizes who he is driving on their arrival at his own house. I dare anyone to not fall in love with Hepburn after this scene, if they haven’t already.

What follows is The Chase from David, all the while having been betrothed to a rich girl whose family means good business for Linus’ designs for a merger. Linus runs interference to protect said business interests and tame David’s wandering eye. But, in doing so, Linus falls for Sabrina. (Awkwardly, on their first “date,” he keeps reminding her that “it’s all in the family.” Kind of disturbing, when you think about it.)

Along the journey of this gradual love affair, the film has some interesting points to make about the chasm between the classes; the fear, the taboo of “a rich man running off with the help.” The Lord and Lady of the Manor, the Elder Larrabees, make no secret of how against the prospect they are. Linus too, at least at first, seems to be only “handling” Sabrina to keep David from making a huge mistake.

The other side of it is, of course, the older man/younger woman scenario. Bogart, as the aging bachelor who has lost years to being so focused on his business, does not expect to feel the way he eventually does about Hepburn. She, in turn, never saw him as a romantic interest; he was seemingly always nice to her, but nothing more than background to her infatuation with his younger brother. Neither are prepared for the emotional windfall. Sabrina, especially, is not prepared for the growing up; she thought she had it all figured out after Paris.

This film is supremely romantic. I mean it. If you have a heart, it will swell six times in size. It’s also not overly sentimental or saccharin, at least in my opinion. It’s beautiful Old Hollywood; the fantasy of the ugly duckling blooming into a grand swan, of Cinderella, of the lower class being admitted into the Circle. If you’re a cynic, maybe you’ll get less out of it.

But, for me, it’s my new love affair.

1. Some Like It Hot (1959)

2. Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)

3. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

4. Napoleon Dynamite (2004)

5. Koyaanisqatsi (1982)

6. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

7. Cinema Paradiso (1988)

8. Breathless (1960)

9. Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

10. It Happened One Night (1934) / His Girl Friday (1940)

11. Sabrina (1954)

12. Hell in the Pacific (1968)