Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Movies 1972-1991

These movie recapitulations may seem a poor use of such little time and energy as I yet retain. However, the Blogger site now offers primitive statistics on visitors to your page, which reveal in my case that the postings which receive the most "views" are by far those about movies and, surprisingly, poems, a lot of people evidently stumbling upon me in the quest for assistance with their English homework (Sorry employers of America. Again). My all-time top 5 most-viewed posts are 1) 10 Best (Movie) Literary Adaptations (reminder to do more top 10 lists); 2) Cleopatra Overview; 3) Planes, Trains & Automobiles; (the ferocious popularity of this movie and nominal Thanksgiving classic never ceases to astound me) 4) A Streetcar Named Desire Part 1 (alas, no one seems to have been induced to examine Part 2) and 5) John Donne, "The Bait". If I had known how many people were cruising the web at all times looking for insights into this poem, I would have...well, I would have done something else with it, though what I am not sure.

Onto the movies, which are being presented in the odd order that their pictures came out in during the setting up of this post.

Sleuth (1972)

Adapted from a play that must have made for an exhausting night at the theater. Great acting--that Larry Olivier fellow is in this--clever, rapid-fire dialogue, a battle of wills and mental gamesmanship that demands some exertion of the intellect on my part anyway, which, not being prepared to do to the extent necessary on the initial viewing, I can't say that I greatly enjoyed the movie, as there does not seem to be much else to it other than this. I don't feel particularly energized to bother watching it again more closely either, at least right now. I'm quite sure it is impossible for every individual person to 'get' every individual clever thing that exists with equal clarity of understanding. This is a problem I have always had with certain critics and scholars about the arts who write as if they are the final authority, or at least the last one most people will ever need, on 90% of the works and artists worthy of anyone's notice. Anybody who declaims with complete assurance in the space of a few pages about the meanings and interior thought processes of say, Dickens, D H Lawrence, Samuel Beckett, Henry James and Emily Dickinson I always consider to be immediately suspicious.

There is a little intermission in the middle of the movie where Laurence Olivier eats a sandwich or something while three or four scratchy Cole Porter tunes play on a record player. I liked that part.

Decoration Day (1991)

The picture is of Edna St Vincent Millay and is not from the movie. I couldn't find any pictures I liked from that.

Decoration Day was a Hallmark Hall of Fame TV presentation starring James Garner and a young Lawrence Fishburne, among others. It was recommended with the highest rating by the video guidebook I tend to like the most, that which was formerly written by Mick Martin, who is apparently some kind of well-regarded indie rock musician, and Marsha Porter, but unfortunately was discontinued after the 2006 edition because, according to the publisher, all of the information in it is widely available on the internet. Unlike similar books, which stick mainly to theatrically released feature films, this book reviewed TV programs, music video and short film compilations, moderately obscure documentaries, and the like, and though I haven't found most of the TV stuff they recommend to be any good, I agree with their movie evaluations enough to be willing to give them a try.

I can't believe they liked this. It's a pretty standard fare TV movie, set in the south and centered on the attempt to belatedly award the Congressional Medal of Honor to a highly dignified black World War II veteran who would prefer to be left alone. James Garner is a retired successful judge whose even more imposing father entrusted him and his brother as pre-adolescents and teenagers to the tutelage of the slightly older black future war hero to teach them how to be men--hunting, fishing, repairing things, being as resourceful and forthright and honorable and uncowardly as white boys can reasonably be expected to be--only to establish, in keeping with their times, a chilly distance from his former mentor and friend upon reaching age eighteen or so. There were some tepid subplots centering around various white people who had cancer. I'm not sure whether this was intended to be symbolic of anything or not.

The movie tries very hard both to be and to show itself as respectful towards black people. It's a little too self-conscious and hokey to pull it off convincingly. James Garner's judge character, who is still the main focus of the plot, I suppose begs a comparison with the now widely detested Atticus Finch. There are some surface similarities, though Finch was depicted in his movie (which despite its many flawed and to us offensive presumptions, I cannot bring myself to wholly dislike as a work of cinema) practically as the second coming of Abraham Lincoln, while the Garner character is more of a sharp, crafty old pro at both the legal and social games than any kind of moral symbol.

I don't care about this movie enough to spend any more time on it.

These last two I actually liked.

Let Him Have It (1991)

This was based on a notorious criminal case in 1950s London in which a 16 year old shot and killed a policemen, and the epileptic and the developmentally delayed--and unarmed--19 year old who accompanied him was sentenced to death by hanging, one of the last people to receive the death penalty in Britain. The violent crime rate in Britain was so low during most of the 20th century that cases that would have been fairly pedestrian in the United States became major episodes in the national life there (this one was also the inspiration for the Elvis Costello song "Let Him Dangle", as well as numerous books). The Manson family this crowd is not. Some people are of the opinion that the movie is manipulative and distorts the case too sympathetically on the side of the doomed young man. I can see where that might be plausible, and even likely, though I would excuse it on artistic grounds because that sympathetic identification and conviction of the injustice of the sentence is where the movie's force comes from, and that is presented very effectively.

While not a great era for movies, the early 90s is starting to look better and better to me compared to most of what has come since. This may be because it is the period of my own youth, but the films set in this period seem less artificial, i.e., the imaginative world in which they are set seems more real to my mind/sensibility that that in which most recent films take place. This one of course was set 40 years in the past--in a period for which I have a lot of interest, and some (probably misplaced) fondness, I might add--and while all of it does not feel equally authentic, many of the more focused smaller scenes, especially indoor family ones, are very believable and evoke something of life.

The sister of the condemned man, who was a consultant on the film and consequently one suspects was portrayed in an especially favorable light, was played by an actress named Clare Holman who is possessed, at least in this movie, of a distinctly English variation of the quality which the French call, and celebrate, by the appellation jolie laide. Further research reveals her to be the typical icy, highbrow English theater actress, but I was taken by her circa 1951 smart working class hair and clothes in this picture. Especially the canary yellow slacks she appears in in her entrance on the screen.

Here's a video of scenes from the movie set to the Elvis Costello song.
Das Boot (1981)
Famous World War II submarine movie. I'm not sure what I expected--something drier and more utterly nihilistic, I think. It was a lot better than that, though. It was made with too much care, and had too much care for its main subjects, if not for anything else.

I assume this movie counts as part of the 'German New Wave' of roughly the 1973-82 period. It is very much of the sensibility of that school of filmmaking, paying great attention to the technical and practical details of its environment and allowing its dominant characters to emerge through the activity and forcefulness of their finely developed intellects so as to give the story a particular rather than a general sense of truth. The German New Wave may be the last great wave, that I am familiar with anyway, that I like a lot*. The more I see of these movies and begin to get a sense of their patterns and the mindsets and concerns that animate them, the more I am impressed by their thoroughness, their coherence and their truth. Also to see these movies is to be impressed by how affected all of the arts have been by the internet and the other distracting technology of the last two decades. There is a degree of concentration in all the aspects of successful filmmaking--the control of pace, emotional pitch, distinctive episodes which cohere to the rest of the plot, consistency of character without predictability or irrelevance--in the execution of this movie from beginning to end which I increasingly notice contemporary filmamkers having a hard time managing. One could make the case that I using as my example of the superiority of the past some of the most meticulous movies ever made. This is fair enough--the contrast really stands out in these instances--but even many inane movies from the past, such as my beloved soda fountain and bobby soxer romances from the 1940s, achieve a certain internal consistency with regard to pace and plot development, the purpose of introducing specific characters and skills, dilemmas, etc, that people seem to have a hard time with now. I really believe people's capacity for the sustained concentration necessary to produce art of a certain fulfilling quality has become strained (Note this paragraph as an example of that).

If one is not on the ball, one can at moments find oneself in a certain degree of sympathy with characters who are, after all, in the service of the Nazi regime--at the least one does not care to watch them in the act of suffocating or drowning on the ocean's floor, which situations threaten them at various points in the film. None of the major characters expresses any enthusiasm for Hitler, or the war. This is perhaps too convenient, but was doubtless a necessary device in 1981 and probably would still be now. The film does not glorify the war, and goes out of its way to emphasize this in fact, but it does decidedly appreciate the ingenious grandeur and beauty of the submarine; it is this as much as anything else which makes the movie so compelling.

Sometime in the 90s the theme music from Das Boot got a techno remix; it was not a bad job. here it is with scenes from the movie.

*There was a wave of Chinese movies in the 90s with something of these same qualities of intense concentration, classical density and structure, transcendent humanity; I haven't been able yet to ferret out the relations in their patterns, themes, beliefs about the world, and so on, so as to be able to organize them in my mind as representing a distinct movement that means anything to me. But I think they probably were one.

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