Sophie's Choice (1982) It is probably apparent by now that my primary interest in movies, and most other forms of art, is escapist, so as to imagine myself communing with modes of life that have more camaraderie, mental activity, sensualism and so on than my own has. While I am not adverse to occasionally learning something or even having my comfortable world view 'challenged', provided the challenge is presented in a way that appeals to the idea of my having a better self that has for whatever reason not had the opportunity yet to properly consider whatever the matter is that the artist thinks himself impelled to call to my attention, I do not feel any obligation to seek out works that I sense may be calculated to make me overly uncomfortable or even merely unhappy. Perhaps it is true that one often does learn something by being made uncomfortable in this manner, but I have never found such learning to lead to anything either better or more useful than such learning as takes place under rosier conditions. At the best, it is a supplement to one's mental core rather than a replacement.
As the only thing, or one of the only two things, I knew about Sophie's Choice, whether the book or the movie, was the incident which provides it with its title, I had always avoided having anything to do with either of them, because I thought that this constituted the bulk of the narrative, and I did not see what good could possibly come out of reading or watching such a story, at least to me, as it was always presented to me as being like a kind of literary or historical medicine without any obviously redeeming benefits, and as such I had no interest in it. In time however it came up on my list as a 'great' movie, so I submitted to see it. I am still not sure if ultimately there are redeeming benefits in it given what everybody knows happens, but I was surprised to find that before you get to the infamous part, which doesn't come until nearly the end, there was a fairly mentally lively and energetic movie set mainly in late 1940s New York. I have seen it argued by some critics that the story is implausible. There is something in that. I think the problem is that the interpretation of the situation and its effects is an overly, even audaciously, American one, and it does seem off. It is hard for me to see an Eastern European artist-director treating the material in this way, certainly not from this particular angle, if he would have chosen to treat it artistically at all.
The other thing I knew about the movie beforehand was that Meryl Streep blew everyone away with her Polish accent. While I am always looking for an excuse to find fault with Meryl Streep, it does sound good to me too, and overall I have to say I can't find much wrong with her performance. Indeed, she is appealing enough here that one almost wishes she could have adopted the Polish accent as her permanent voice. You still always notice the work, the craft in her acting though. She is one of those people who forces you to confess that she is admirable at every minute, and never allows you the pleasure of making the case to yourself upon some overlooked or unconsidered point, for she admits no such points to exist in her work. This is why so many people find her annoying or only grudgingly give her the credit that is due her.
Kevin Kline is like a male version of Meryl Streep. Obviously very talented and capable at acting, but numerous qualities of his appearance and demeanor annoy me to no end. I don't derive any pleasure from watching him in a movie.
The director of this was Alan J. Pakula, whom I did not recognize as a household name, especially among the many celebrated directors of his generation (roughly late 60s on), but he made several well-known movies. All the President's Men was a big deal when it came out, though it does seem to have been forgotten in recent years. I saw his first film, The Sterile Cuckoo, which is a 60s college movie, on TV a long time ago and thought it was pretty decent, despite its having foisted the song "Come Saturday Morning" on the world (I actually kind of like the song, of course, but I doubt you will find anyone alive who is at all knowledgeable about music who does).
In a similar vein as other those other modern Italian movies written about here recently, I'm Not Scared, and The Best of Youth. Like both of these, it makes heavy use of the incredible light and barren ancient scenery of southern Italy--Sicily in BOY, Basilicata in INS, and here the remote island of Lampedusa, which is out near Malta. Like I'm Not Scared, children are featured heavily, and also like that movie, despite being set in the present, or near present (1978 in the case of INS) the economic and communal lives of all the characters in the film appear to have much more in common with that of the 1940s and 50s than more contemporary times. The general consensus even within Italy is that the nation is sclerotic and dying, no one is able to move out of their parents' house or get a decent paying job until they're pushing forty, the birth rate has been so low for so long that even with immigration the population is already declining, the last golden era of Italian culture and style which flourished in the postwar decades is long dead, Venice has been almost entirely depopulated of native Italians and is probably sinking, the Pope is a German--the point is, these movies are indicative to me of this sense of decline. Their subject matter and sense of the world seems small. The attraction to remote corners of the country with great natural beauty where people lived as they did 50 years ago seems a confession that the filmmakers do not know how to set a story in the world of present society but need the familiar structure of the village, the square, the land and sea, the non-abstract occupations, etc, as a base (I notice something of this same effect at work in American movies set in Maine or other rural New England locales, as well as in some of my own efforts--indeed my own life even). Or perhaps I misunderstand, and Italy is such an ancient country that unlike America, where people and fictional characters and industries and everything else need be always on the way to some other destination than where they currently are, it is taken for granted that most people are going to live and die pretty much as people have for the last 5,000 years for the next 5,000, and that if you are living in a fishing village in Italy there really is not effectively anywhere else for you to go. I do not think that is the reality however.
These nagging thoughts aside, I enjoyed this movie more than either of the others I have associated it with in this post. I don't know how memorable it is however, since I actually saw it several years ago and had no recollection of it whatsoever when I read the title and even the synopsis of the plot (which in a way is a justification for keeping this diary of all the movies I see) and while I knew in the early parts that I had once seen a movie with a similiar milieu some years before, it was not until about an hour in that I recognized 2 distinct scenes as ones that I had definitely seen before, at which point the memory of the other elements of the story began somewhat to return to me. I don't know how I could have forgotten about Valeria Golina, aged 36 at the time of the movie, and a mother of 3 adolescents in it, but acting and dressing about 20 years younger in erotic terms, and pulling it off rather well; but as I have noted here before, the rather astonishingly sensual late-30s mother character, often from a traditional or working class background, has become a staple of the modern Italian cinema. This development may say something about the psychology presently at work in the Italian nation, though it may also just reflect a real phenomenon. I remember when I was staying in a perfectly adequate but modest one-star hotel in that nation--I forget which city, possibly Mantua--and one of the maids working in the place, who looked to be around 40, was absolutely mesmerizing to look at, and at the time I was 27 or so and generally had a very scant interest in women any more than a year or two older than I was. Her poise and grooming and sense of self were remarkable, a realization of mature femininity that was very much of the old world, though one recognizes it for what it is when one sees it. And this was a chambermaid.
Melvin and Howard (1980)
This is about a more or less regular, though impulsive and not doggedly steady or responsible guy (Melvin) living in Utah who picks up a stranger by the side of the road after a motorcycle accident one dark night out that way who, unbeknownst to him at first, happens to be the legendary reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes. A few years later, when Hughes dies, he leaves Melvin, along with bequests to about ten other obscure people, 156 million dollars. This was evidently based on actual events. Needless to say, Hughes's family and other important interests intervened and got the will declared invalid so none of the nobodies ever got to see any of the money. While this last is part of the narrative, Melvin kind of knows that the powers in society are not going to let the likes of him walk away with the cash, so the movie is more or less about the possibility of his rather uneven lower middle class life being dramatically altered. I didn't love it, but I liked it. It gets the feel of what life was like in that time and place and stratum of society pretty good, or at least as good as any movie I have seen lately. Melvin's major problems in life seem to be largely the result of his having an excess of vitality for his social station. He is not able to just while away his life in the boring jobs that are available to him and the restraints of social conventions and periodically has to blow up the aspects of his life in which these inconveniences were involved. He is the kind of guy who, to the extent that he still exists, gets slaughtered in short order in the economy and legal system today. No chance.
Hearts and Minds (1974)
Anti-Vietnam War documentary. It's a little dated, and I didn't find that the different parts of it had quite the coherence that I would really like, but it's worth seeing, if for nothing else than to be reminded of how events that seem all-consuming and hopeless of resolution at a particular time eventually exhaust themselves and enter the realm of history. I would say as well that it is also a good reminder of how stupid most wars are, especially when carried to the totally unnecessary extreme than this one was, though the determination of so many of the Vietnamese people to persevere unto the point of death through decades of this dreadful conflict also reminds that when you are fighting against a foreign power in your home country your experience of what is happening necessarily takes on a different sense. The movie of course was made several years after the main fury of both the American involvement in the war and the domestic protest movement had attained their peaks, and the prevailing atmosphere is one of weariness. There are a number of interviews with important American military and political figures in which these men say what seem to us incredibly stupid things, and reminded me (again) of how clearly stupid all of the rhetoric and chest-beating of this whole period of history we are living in now will seem to most sensible people in 30 years time.
Though these are not the object of the movie, the glimpses of America circa 1973 are of some interest, just to see how things have changed just in the course of my lifetime (I was 3 then). The fashions and hair of course were atrocious, though that is a minor point. Most of the regular people over age 45 or so look much older than people the same age do now; their skin is sallow and rather nasty-looking--I remember this in the older people I knew at the time too--perhaps from smoking and drinking too much hard liquor. A one point they were interviewing a soldier who had been a POW for seven years on the back stoop of his parents' house in New Jersey and the screen door and the iron railing were the exact same ones that my grandmother had at the time. There was a section where they interspersed scenes from a high school football game in Ohio with some of the war footage, including a genuinely insane halftime speech delivered by one of the coaches, which did not quite work, though there was an awesomely cute cheerleader who admitted to the camera that she was too wrapped up in her own life to think much about the war in Vietnam.
It is ironic that global communism, which wide swathes of the American populace were so obsessed with for so long to, at times, the point of madness, at the moment looks like it may have been the best thing that ever happened to the American laboring classes.
This film was produced of course by the legendary so-cool-it-was-actually-scary 70s Hollywood mogul Bert Schneider, who was one of the more interesting characters of that era to me. His rougish production company backed Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces among other iconic films of the era. Babes and cocaine were part of the workday at the BBS offices. Given how cool he was, his downfall shortly after this film is puzzling to me. I guess he made some powerful enemies, but still, a guy with that much charisma and sense for the business seems like he should not have receded from any position of influence that easily.
The 4th movie in these sets always gets the sloppiest review. I know I should cut them down, and do one post, one movie, but then I might be tempted to go on forever about each movie and I don't want to do that.