Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Movie Set (Common Theme: Oscar Winners, Especially Foreign Category)

These are all pretty good. I confess to being a benevolent judge, and am heavily influenced by my sense of how difficult it is to produce something which can be generally said not to be a failure even on mechanical grounds alone.

The Official Story--(1985)

From Argentina, won the Oscar for best foreign language movie in its year. It is about a politically naive, or at least willfully oblivious history professor married to a right wing businessman who discovers that their adopted daughter is likely the biological child of a communist agitator/leader shot during the country's infamous "Dirty War" of the late 1970s and early 1980s. I admit that I know virtually nothing about this war. The internet reference sites describe it as a near decade-long period of state-sponsored violence against the citizenry, presumably concentrated on the political opponents of the ruling regime. Between 10,000 and 30,000 people are estimated to have been killed. The movie, all of whose characters have recently lived through this upheaval, is serious and adult in tone. Conversations, relationships, political beliefs, professions, eating, dress, are engaged with an impressive, even almost unnerving, purposefulness. Characters are brusque, direct, knowing, competent, composed, and full of conviction. Even the main female character who is nagged by doubts and whose naivete is shattered during the course of the movie was an accomplished and put together professional, if politically and socially too submissive to the influence of her husband.

To an American sensibility the depth of conviction of the filmmaker's leftist/Communist sympathies is practically breathtaking. Hollywood people, however left wing they are supposed to be, have never been able to muster up this degree of heartfelt and unconditional hatred of the wealthy bourgeoisie, let alone the 0.1% or whatever precise stratum qualifies one as one of the truly rich. There is one scene where the plodding and increasingly successful businessman has Sunday lunch with his father and brother, socialists who cling to the woefully outdated small family concern that has no hope of being competitive in the modern international economy that even in the 80s was beginning to be recognized by more astute people. In the course of a political argument that becomes heated the successful brother calls them both out as losers and lays out for them how capitalism and the modern world works, how they would be foraging for roots and living in hovels without people like him, how he creates more economic value before lunch they have done in the last 40 years, and in general the rest of the standard argument that we have heard countless times from Republican party media and politicans over the last 30 years. Having had it deeply impressed on me that no one, no matter what they do, will ever be conceded to have won a political or economic argument in opposition to the core principals of capitalist enterprise on the merits of his case by anyone in a position of real authority, my impression of the scene was that while the socialist relatives might have been more endearing humans, the businessman had effectively demolished them, and demonstrated his strength, seriousness of purpose, and superiority over them to the extent that they, and the audience, must confess as much, at least when confronted by thriving capitalists of similar power and ambition. It was not until much later in the movie that I realized that we were actually supposed to hate the businessman, and that his speech, far from being conceived by the director as containing any force of truth, was intended to be despised for its grasping and petty conception of human affairs.

I gather that the characters in the movie represent a fairly privileged and elite class--even the professors and high school teachers work in more intellectually rigorous schools that most middle class Americans will ever have been exposed to--but the picture of Argentine society as depicted here looks more sophisticated and interesting at the ground, day to day level than ours does.

Madame Rosa (1977)

French, won the foreign language best picture Oscar in its year. It stars French cinema legend Simone Signoret, whom, incredibly I am seeing for the absolute first time, in one of her most acclaimed roles. Despite all of this that it has going for it the movie does not appear to be presently available on DVD, so I had to dredge up a copy on videotape. Simone Signoret is a retired prostitute (and Auschwitz survivor) who lives by taking in the children of active practitioners of her former occupation that they cannot, or don't want to, take care of themselves. They are supposed to send Madame Rosa money for this. The movie is about her relations with these children, one in particular, as well as the household's general relation to the bohemian-multicultural-immigrant neighborhood where they live. It is characteristic of its era and nation of origin: pretty original conception, good plot/character development through the first half of the film, retrospectively attractive cityscapes and people--the Parisian neighborhood where Madame Rosa lives is a little run down but vibrant and still recognisably connected with the French cultural tradition, and French people below middle age in the 1970s always strike me as being extraordinarily healthy looking even with the ridiculous fashions of the time. It is somewhat marred by a unsatisfying Godardesque ending that is also endemic to the period. I used to presume that these endings, being obviously symbolic of something, were possibly profound, and that my inability to make any sense of them was a tremendous loss of life-quality to me. I suspect now that they may be merely intended to be challenging or illustrate a quality of nihilism which is only pleasing, as well as accessible to, people of exceptionally refined intellects. I would still like to be such an intellect, and qualify myself for inclusion into a more desirable segment of society, of course, though I no longer believe that dutifully straining my wheezing brain for another 20 years to try to figure out the meaning of this class of inscrutable ending is an especially productive use of that organ.

Simone Signoret in her younger days. She was a commanding presence on the screen even in her dotage, but I was curious to see what the vintage version looked like. Not surprisingly, very like what I take to be the average attractive Frenchwoman's idealized self-image. Will have to get around to seeing some of her old movies.

The French Connection (1971)

Won Oscar for regular Best Picture in its year. I had never seen it, though it is certainly one of the iconic movies of its time, which time being my early childhood is one whose attitudes have effected an especial influence on my development. For a long time the combination of the 1970s, drug dealers, car chases (there is a very celebrated car chase scene in the film) and Gene Hackman, while not wholly turning me off from seeing it, did not encourage me to make a special point of doing so either. So I was pleasantly surprised by how much fun it is--and as with The Godfather, fun is really the right word for the experience, despite the circumstance that the movie is filled with all manner of violence and blood and criminal activity--when I finally saw it.

It is very similar to The Godfather, which of course came out the next year (and also won the Best Picture Oscar) in the formula of its success. Besides the highly stylized killing, the plot has the same kind of classic construction that for whatever reason had a brief revival in the early 1970s and then largely vanished again, although Steven Spielberg I must say has maintained something of this talent even up to the present, which is doubtless one of the secrets of his continued success. The individual scenes, many of them become classics in themselves (the car chase scene lives up to the hype; it is legitimately thrilling, probably not least because such a scenario, indeed most of the scenarios in the movie, would be impossible to even conceive of with contemporary communications and surveillance technology in play) are highly vivid either in action, setting or dialogue and always clearly build further on what the viewer knows to be going on in the movie and continually move the story in the direction of the climax. This sounds elementary, but hardly anyone active in mainstream filmmaking seems to have a sense of how to do this, let alone with any mild interjection of vigor. Also, again like The Godfather, there is a certain amount of sardonic humor even in murder scenes that can be irresistible--the part where the French hitman after gunning down the Marseille cop in the hallway of his apartment in cold blood breaks off a piece of his victim's fresh baguette to snack on on his way out of the building comes immediately to mind.

As noted in a previous post, I've lately become more interested in the era around when this film was made ('68-'74 or so, which also happens to be the time right when I was born) than I had been previously. Indeed, for most of my life, it had been one of the periods of the 20th century I was least interested in. This disinterest was perhaps because the media focus on this era has always been on the extreme political and social turmoils and movements that defined it, which usually being depicted in broad and sweeping images never captured my imagination. It may also have been because the time, much of it my own childhood, struck me as not a particularly good one to be a child in. It also did not strike me in my 20s as a great time to have been in one's 20s, though the people who were that age, as people always do, certainly liked it well enough. It does strike me now however as not a bad time to have been a 40 year old man. The economy up until '73 was strong--you pretty much had to assault your boss with a baseball bat or embezzle money to lose your job--you weren't expected to do a lot of housework apart from mowing the lawn and simple repairs, you could still drink and smoke anywhere you wanted and not be the only person doing so, there seemed to be more leeway as far as flirting with women went, not that I would have been able to do that anyway, but the knowledge that some such possibility existed might have added a certain excitement to the day to day prospect of existence. Of course at the time all of this would have seemed so unremarkable that it would not have been any relief of depression anyway.

The city looks great in this movie too, even when it is supposed to be shabby and/or dingy. There seem to be so many interesting things for regular people to do, whereas the sense is that now this is not the case, that Manhattan at least is wholly the province of mega-millionaires and even nightclub life is become wholly organized around their status games. Against this backdrop, 1970-era New York suddenly looks less chilly than we remember it, though I know one must be wary against being taken in by appearances.

This is Arlene Farber as Angie Boca, the girlfriend of the small time middleman trying to make his first big score on the French drug deal. I thought Angie Boca was pretty sexy (she often disguised herself in blonde wigs as a 22-year old) and was taken with the idea of her for several days after watching the movie. I even posted on my Facebook status that "Angie Boca is the real dream NYC girlfriend", which observation alas garnered no responses, not even a like.

William Friedkin, the director, followed up this, which I believe was his first feature, with the Exorcist, after which he attempted a remake of the great 1950s French film Wages of Fear which proved disastrous, and after which his career never really recovered. He was evidently so arrogant and obnoxious in the period where he was successful, not least towards film studio executives, that many took pleasure in his downfall. I listened to his commentary on the film and he is obviously pretty intelligent, with some sense of humor, as well as at times rather self-deprecating. Probably he was on his best behavior.

Hud (1963)

Did not win the Oscar for Best Picture in its year. In fact, it was not even nominated, which, especially as foreign language films don't seem to have been under any consideration at that time, seems almost a travesty now. While '62 saw a number of big time classics hit the screen, '63 was kind of a wide open year for the awards. There was no dominant English-language film casting a shadow over the rest of the field (Foreign-wise, I know 8 1/2 and Jules and Jim at least came out in '63; I can't remember anything else offhand). The winner was Tom Jones, which is sometimes listed among the worst Best Picture winners, and is detested by lots of serious film watchers. I have written elsewhere that I actually like it, though today at least I am pretty sure I would have voted for Hud over it for the Academy Award. I haven't seen any of that year's other nominees, but none of them stand out to me as anything highly regarded as great movies today: America, America, Cleopatra, How the West Was Won, and Lilies of the Field. Anyway, Hud is a real American movie with a lot of poignancy, it's from the tail end of the old days before the general personality of the country underwent the dramatic change that still informs it to a certain extent today, it's got Paul Newman in his prime years as a star taking on a role that requires him to play a rather small and unsympathetic man, it's got Texas in its full epic grandeur mode that Larry McMurtry, who wrote the source novel for this movie as well as that for The Last Picture Show, which has a very similar atmosphere to this, seems to have been able to tap into so well. There's a lot to like.

While the idea of the traditional rural Midwest in the collective national as well as international imagination seems to grow ever fainter, Texas seems to have retained something of that mythology of the remote place set amidst the vast open spaces, distant from population centers or other significant physical contact with the wider mainstream culture at all. The idea seduces you with the promise of its purity, you can feel the landscape and the tumbleweeds rolling down the main street of the town, uncorrupted by extreme postmodern developments, though you can still get Coca-Cola and toothpaste at the 1950sish drugstore. Professional cynics think it's a lie, just as they doubtless think the quaint New England village motif is a lie. They are not, not wholly however, at least if you have the imaginiative power to see them.

I haven't said much about the actual movie. It's heavy on the midcentury Freudian-type themes, the conflicts between fathers and sons, sibling rivalry, the mysteries and deep significances of female sexuality. We largely avoid these themes altogether in our generation, as well as the one behind us; such relationships as we do manage to have seem to be small by the traditional standards of the humanistic tradition, and do not involve a very substantial engagement with the question of how to live. I didn't take much from the story, which struck me as a framework in which to express more sweeping general themes--the dying of old ways of life, the ever more elusive quest to attain fully realized manhood, the (supposedly) elusive depths both of female desirability and desire--in a picturesque setting, with exquisite-looking people. I usually try to take things on their own terms, and I have a certain degree of sympathy with these terms, so I liked it well enough.

I do not want to go on a long aside about Paul Newman's sideline of above average food products (I just had his raspberry vinaigrette salad dressing tonight and I think it has a temporarily positive effect on the sharpness of my thinking), but I do think that the emphasis on the labels on how all the proceeds go to charity is illustrative of the broad change in our society's attitudes towards wealth over the last 30 years, which younger people will never have known and a lot of older people claim to have no memory of. Nowadays if a celebrity opens a clothing line or a fine wine division it is regarded a savvy move promoting the brand or whatever, and no one expects the entrepreneur to give the money to charity. This would not have been the case in the mid-80s, which if I remember correctly is when the Newman products first appeared. People like my grandparents, whom it should be noted were Archie Bunkeresque welfare-hating Republicans, would have somehow thought it bad form for a presumably already very rich celebrity to be able to muscle in by virtue of his name recognition on a lucrative but traditionally unglamorous market. Frankly it is difficult now to try to remember or conceive what the rationale against Newman's making himself a pile of money was, because nobody thinks this way anymore, but obviously Newman himself had something of a similar mindset, because customers were assured right from the start that any money earned from the sales of his salad dressing and salsa would not be going directly to him.

I had a Contemporary Bonus as well, but I think I will save that for another post, as we are already over a week on this one.

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