Monday, September 20, 2010

Some Movies From the 80s & 90s That Are Supposed to be Great

Nothing subversive here. Nothing especially exciting here either, even to me.

Howards End (1992)

I saw this back when it first came out and thought it was solidly good, no grounds for me to give reproach at the very least. Seeing it again 17 or 18 years later, something about it seemed a little more off--such as none of the characters or the world they inhabit seeming believable any longer. This is in part the fault of the book, which I have happened to read in the interval, and which the movie follows pretty closely (and which shares many of the problems I now sense with the movie). The scope of the story seems too narrow and the lives depicted too constricted to make the points it wants to make. There are a lot of symbols of the desire and inner lives of the characters but in the movie these symbols never acquire the animating spirit they need from the characters to achieve realisation.

I wrote the above paragraph late last night. Looking at it now it strikes me that the concern with the story's scope, or smallness, is a very middle class college-educated American's way of critiquing literature, especially. I read a piece characteristic of this mindset recently by one such (presumably middle-class) product of a pre-revolutionary 60s humanities education, a writer named Steven Millhouser whose books have received generally good notice, including a Pulitzer Prize I think, but does not seem either to be much read or to be considered in the ranks of major authors. To get back to the main point, in this story the narrator has a dream of being taken though an endless enormous library which contains all the lost books of antiquity, such as the 150 lost plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles, all the volumes lost in the fire at Alexandria, the missing works of Aristotle, etc (one of the humorists among the students at my college opined that there was doubtless a lost treatise "On Doggy Style", that had been destroyed by monks into whose hands it had fallen in the middle ages); the lost epic poems of the early Middle Ages; the endings of various unfinished works such as Don Juan, Edwin Drood and The Castle; The later works of great authors who died early; ambitious works planned but never written, such as Milton's planned epic poem about the Arthurian legends; books about Don Quixote's childhood or Hamlet's years at the university; not to mention all the millions of books that were written and have been forgotten. Eventually the gimmick was carried too far, but for a while it was effective in making one consider the hopeless pointlessness and insignificance of writing anything. Most English writers of the past century don't seem to have been too oppressed by such worries. They also seem to have a different, and more natural attitude towards writing and the work of making literature than the more strident and earnest model that has prevailed in America. It is sometimes stated that England has not produced a 'major' novelist--major in the sense of depicting a kind of totality of life and experience--since Dickens, which may be true in the most stringent sense, which I suppose is the only one I ought to care about. But on the whole the limited and more finely focused scope has served many English writers well over the last century or so, and Forster is very much a writer in this vein.

The movie is still technically very well made. The pacing is smooth, and I noticed several times, a specific example of which I unfortunately can't remember, that the camera had been unobtrusively placed in a position that was not the obvious place for it but which greatly improved the effect of the scene.

E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

I had never seen this before. I wasn't overly excited to see it, though I suspected I might be taken in by it, as Steven Spielberg is famous for his ability to manipulate the masses, even those who should know better, but, to my surprise, I had a hard time getting through it. In fact I couldn't get through it on my own, and it was only when I let my older sons watch the last two-thirds of it with it that I could finish it, and with some pleasure. I am not a knee-jerk Spielberg basher. As almost everyone knows, he does some things extremely well, and other things, usually those involving some level of acceptable intellectual sophistication, not so well, but I am not the kind to hold that against. This movie, I know, is just a sweet kids' film, but I found quite slow and hard to pay attention to.

It is my impression that this movie, which was a huge hit when first released, is not as well known today. My children, who now that they are in school hear all about everything, had never heard of it, and while I think they enjoyed being able to watch a movie with me and were interested in various things that were going on, neither has mentioned it since, and they are at the age where if something makes an impression on them they talk about it incessantly for weeks and months afterwards. I would not rate it as one of the master's better efforts.

Babette's Feast and Au Revoir, Les Enfants (both 1987)

I am putting these together because they have a number of things in common which interest me. Obviously both were made in the same year. Although Babette is a Danish movie, there is a good deal of Frenchness interlarded in it. Both are set in an earlier time, Babette from approximately the 1830s-70s, and Au Revoir in World War II. Most importantly both are well-steeped in, and to a certain extent take for granted, though not wholly unself-consciously, what we think of as the traditional European culture. Christianity and its traditions are a ubiquitous force in life, regardless of whether the filmmakers are believers themselves, young people are drilled in Euclid and study serious music, the rituals of meals and tea that date back for centuries are observed with attentiveness. The directors, Gabriel Axel (b. 1918) and Louis Malle (b.1932) both had some experience of life before World War II and were well into adulthood before the tumults of the 60s and the more international and high tech society of the last 30 years especially--to say nothing of post-1990 mass immigration and globalization--began eroding the longstanding ways and characters of the ancient nations of Europe. I note this because while 1987 is not that long ago, this generation of filmmakers and artists has passed on, and I do not see the same cultural sensibility at all in the films of the last 15 years especially, with regard to religion, music, literature or other intellectual achievements, in some instances, as I pointed out in my bit about The Best of Youth, even the national film legacy. This is what Americans are getting at when they say that Europe is Dead. The feeling that there is a profound link to the past, to civilization, that our sensitive types have been accustomed to looking to Europeans for, seems not to be there anymore, and we (or at the very, very least I) find we are taking this role on ourselves with regard to our own more recent but still somewhat distinguished and relevant history.

I was actually dreading Babette's Feast, but it was better than I thought it was going to be. While I do love eating French meals, listening to people talk about French meals in a self-satisfied manner--French people especially--I find rather tiresome, and my impression was that that was what this movie was largely about. But in fact it is mainly about severe Scandanavians who are determined to resist earthly pleasures, which was a theme that appeals to me much more. While I am not of such a disciplined cast myself, I might as well be for all the sensualism I actually have indulged in over the years.

I used to think that someday before I died I wanted to go to one of these world class French restaurants and have, once, one of these incredible seven course meals. This was largely presuming my developing into a different person however, and, not having been abroad or been to any kind of serious restaurant now in nearly 10 years due to my having so children it simply does not seem realistic anymore. I don't have the practice eating in quality places, having quality drinks and so on, and while up to about age 30 I was kind of on a trajectory to not be terribly out of place in such establishments, but I have fallen off that badly now and at this point the whole idea seems kind of unrealistic, barring a Tony Bennett-like resurrection of my general culturedness in middle age.

Au Revoir Les Enfants is a good movie, and I would recommend it to anybody who wants to see a well made, sensitive film and does not require a lot of provocation or outrage with the experience. I think I might have seen it before, 20 years ago, but I had largely forgotten it, or gotten it confused with Europa, Europa, which is also about a Jewish schoolboy trying to wait out the war by posing as a gentile, though that one, which I also don't remember well, was set in the east. I have a weakness for both school movies and movies that depict Catholic priests as genuinely intelligent and decent men, and this satisfies both of those impulses, so I like it.

My main observation on this movie is that I wonder, as more years go by, and the Nazi era fades wholly from living memory, if people will be able to find it believable, or wonder if certain aspects of it have not been exaggerated. In this movie for example, the main tension, is that the school is sheltering several Jewish boys who are pretending to be Christians. The boys in question are 11-12 years old, and I admit that I found myself saying, is it really plausible that the Nazis are going to devote all this energy to tracking down and imprisoning a handful of children? And when they are losing the war to boot? And I know that it actually happened, but from the viewpoint of the world as we know it today, it does not make any sense, even acknowledging that they hate the children and want to kill them, from our position it's a waste of resources, not to mention that any official policy involving cruelty towards children, though not uncommon even in this country until the last 40-50 years, is just unfathomable to us. I think if trends of acceptable attitudes continue as they are, the Nazi history will become something that people have a hard time really believing, and will tend to presume it either has been exaggerated or is not anyhow relevant to them, in the same way that we don't get worked up about the atrocities committed by the ancient Persians or Romans.

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