Saturday, March 17, 2012

Movies 1974-2004 (Common Thread: Pop Culture Icons of the 50s and 60s Who Are Possibly Slightly Overrated)

I am embarrassed that this is what my readers will have been waiting for after my Friday night appeal to their patience may have led them to expect something worth their time.

Life and Nothing But (La Vie et Rien d'Autre)--1989

This one was added late. Originally I was only going to do 3 movies for this edition but as usual I ended up taking so long that I saw a fourth in the meantime.

This is a French picture set in the area around Verdun in the aftermath of World War I. I have no memory of its original appearance, and before this recent awareness I had never heard of it. According to the movie, around 300,000 men just on the French side were still classified as 'missing'--i.e., no corpse had as yet been identified as theirs--more than a year after the war ended. The work of this identification forms the framework within which the action of the movie takes place. Being French and completely of its time in that culture, it is doubtless not just incidentally but deliberately really about the more abstract ideas that the circumstances of the plot suggest. I don't pretend to know what they are, but I presume death as it relates to time and nations and love and human geography and so on is one, or I suppose several, of them. There is some exploration of the gross immorality of the war, and references to the especial culpability of the upper class in this, but I cannot say I picked up any great insight into the nature of this on this initial viewing. The movie is interesting, albeit in a distant, formal way. What would have been to me the most interesting revelation, which is what the whole catastrophe of World War I means to people who identify as deeply French, not at the time, perhaps, but 70 years on anyway, seems to me to have either been kept at arm's length or not powerfully enough worked out. The movie has not insinuated itself into my active imagination very much.

One impression this, and other French films of any era, this time of my youth included, do make on the American viewer, is that French people seem to be comparatively very well trained both in how to occupy an identifiable station in society as well as how to conduct relations with people in other identifiable stations. Men and women, aristocrats and peasants, innkeepers and taxicab drivers, even wives and mistresses sharing the love of a single man, there are templates for how these various counterparts are supposed to interact with each other, and most people appear to be on solid ground where these are concerned. I also believe that there is a higher level of trust in and respect for the various systems for formal training existing in that country, with regard to expected degrees of competency, character types, such that when a person has spent a certain number of years in the prime of youth in the study or practice of a discipline. my impression is that is that there is a little more acceptance that this has some meaning in itself in determining what kind of a person somebody is, and should be taken into consideration in social situations. I may be exaggerating the consistency of this sentiment throughout the whole of the culture, but in the circles I have been exposed to there it is certainly more prevalent than in those I know in the United States, where nobody is interested in what kind of education you had, or considers it legitimate, apart from whatever component of it you have managed to derive an income from.

To devoted, and would-have-been devoted, art-house haunters of the late 80s and early 90s there could scarcely have been, apart from Gerard Depardieu, a more instantly recognizable male European star than the famously hangdog-visaged Phillipe Noiret, who played the lead in the beloved, sentimental, middlebrow and emotionally manipulative but nonetheless charming Italian hits Cinema Paradiso and The Postman. After the second film especially some among the sniffy crowd felt compelled to remind us naifs that Noiret was of course actually French, and a figure of no small distinction in that tradition. Hardly anyone can carry out the part of the guy who never quite knows the right stuff as expertly as I can, however, and thus I had not seen him in a French movie until now. This is apropos of nothing, only to reminisce about those old days when those Italian movies were hits. Even many of the arthouse cinema fans who usually favored more difficult and obscure fare allowed their brains a night of relaxation to see what they were all about. I'm sure not a few people thought they might have a chance to experience some romantic tension on these occasions of heightened excitement. You know I did. After the Postman I ended up going to Pizza Hut and eating an entire ham pizza (I was really skinny at the time, so it didn't matter), and then hit the bars--alone--while wondering if there would ever be another arthouse hit on that scale while I was still hovering around the scene. There would not be, as it turned out.

Though the film is supposed to take place in a state of wartime-induced austerity, the sight of even the simplest French table with its wine and its loaf of bread alone is enough to make one salivate. They are the masters of food.

Ray (2004)

Ray Charles (Jim Morrison/Johnny Cash/Sid Vicious/Cole Porter/Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart/Muhammed Ali, etc) is born in obscurity, but through a combination of talent, charisma and being in the right place at the right time he is enabled to attain celebrity status while still a young man. This gives him access to a continuous stream of groupies, which privilege he continues to take advantage of even after he gets married, which behavior usually does not bother his wife enough that she ever gets around to leaving him. He also develops a hardcore drug and alcohol habit, which brings him to the low point of his career, at which juncture he either dies or does a stint in prison. If he lives he usually cleans up somewhat, goes back out on the road and maybe puts together one last big comeback album before gradually fading into an honored dotage (the life of James Brown I don't believe has been committed to celluloid yet). If you are Ray Charles the government of your home state, which persecuted you through the first half of your life as official policy, makes one of your biggest hits the official state song and holds a day of honor where admiration and a kind of love are officially bestowed upon you.

This is not to say I did not enjoy the movie after a fashion; however it is not much of a departure from the standard entry in this genre of biography. It is a professional, glossy Hollywood production, and since it was supposed to be so good according to several sources, I was not once agitated about my precious time being wasted. One area in which it failed for me was that I never got a sense of what was really great about Ray Charles's music, which a good many people who know what they are about consider to be very great indeed. In a film about a musician one would hope that the music will lodge itself on the brain and be inspiriting for several days afterwards. The recent cinematic take on Cole Porter's life, for example, was not particularly distinguished, but one at least came away from it reminded that the man really did write a lot of great songs. My impression of the career of Ray Charles from this movie is that he was an unusually gifted roadhouse piano player who made some interesting records with Atlantic* in the 1950s--the impact of how many, and how good, these records were was not fully conveyed in the movie however--got a huge deal to sign with ABC in 1960 where he turned out most of his familiar mainstream hits, which however come across in the movie as schmaltzy and selling out compared with his prior quality. The movie attempts to explain, if not wholly excuse, this by reminding us that Ray Charles, as a blind black man in an America before disability payments and affirmative action and anything else, was naturally obsessed with being able to take care of himself first and foremost, and that aspect of the story, how he was able to do this (in his early years he would only accept payment in one dollar bills), is pretty remarkable to contemplate. I did not come away particularly inspired to dig deeper into Ray Charles's musical archives however. It is not that I don't want to, but given the time constraints I am under it is not at the top of my list of things to look up when I have a free 20 minutes or whatever.

*Atlantic Records CEO and St John's College alum Ahmet Ertegun is a significant character in the movie. As was the case when another SJC alum (Charles Van Doren in Quiz Show) got the Hollywood treatment, the Ertegun character speaks in a rather odd--some might say hypercorrect or hyperwhite (though Ertegun was actually Turkish)--manner pointedly different from that of the other characters. Whether this is the inevitable outward result of indoctrination in the Great Books I don't know--the origins of both of these men were very near the top of the social scale in their respective nations and also both graduated over 60 years ago. However, when I first began my current job, over fourteen years ago now, I apparently had a somewhat affected manner of speaking that a few people made fun of. There was one guy (who was very popular with women) who was fond of mock-effacing himself before the ladies by saying he was not debonaire the way I was. This impression seems to have faded over time with my increasing distance from any kind of pretentious society, as no one has made any comment in this vein in many years.

Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)

As is often the case with Woody Allen movies, I was taken in by this in the moment despite the storyline's not being particularly good, nor the insights brought to the usual great themes of existence being anything special (or especial), though I appreciate that he tries to acknowledge that he is aware of them as much as he can. That it is in some sense successful without being objectively good I think can be attributed to several characteristics that for whatever reason are fairly unique to Woody Allen movies:

1. He Presents a Certain Variation of the New York Dream Better Than Any Other Filmmaker. He is a little like Salinger in this regard, and unlike Salinger the effect I am sure is mostly intended. It doesn't work on everybody, of course (when I proposed this theory to my wife, who does not carry around a New York Dream within her, her response, apropos of this film was "Dream? Seems more like a nightmare to me"), but if you have ever been afflicted with the longing for an apartment on either of the Upper Sides, employment in an arts-related profession that does not make unreasonable demands on your time but gives you ample enough income to dine out frequently at good restaurants and pursue romantic affairs, and having a social acquaintance that consists entirely of what would anywhere else be considered pretentious people who name-drop old artists and painters and philosphers and musicians and filmmakers into casual day-to-day conversations as if it were the most natural thing in the world--and clearly a lot of people who know nothing like this style of life are--the presentation is unfailingly enticing, even when both you and Woody Allen know that it is shallow.

I have not seen much of his recent (post-1990) oeuvre, so I don't know how well this version of the dream is holding up, as it is my impression the economics and social dynamics of the city have changed considerably since the mid-90s, and I can't see Woody Allen characters thriving among the Wall Street/corporate titan crowd and their hangers-on. The Dream never dies though, however much the zeitgeist seems to change.

2. He Has Been Very Good at Keeping Up the Schtick of Being the Guy Who Just Is Not Quite Good Enough At the Most Crucial Times. I assume this is how most of his fans see their own lives as having predominantly played out. There is a certain amount of pressure, at least among serious adults, to mature and move beyond this way of looking at the world, but Woody Allen understands that a lot of people never get over failing at some important or desired thing in their youth, and that nothing that happens thereafter can make up for any sense of that particular sweetness that was missed or denied. Ironically this mindset probably held him back from attaining some of the heights of achievement he would have liked to reach as a filmmaker, though I do think it is one of his strengths as he is. This also probably correlates to...

3. He Is Never Really Capable, Deep Down, of Really Enjoying Anything Unabashed and Without Some Corresponding Quiver of Unhappiness or Dissatisfaction. This is also a condition that afflicts a lot of people, including me, and which is not usually addressed in any kind of redeeming way in movies. Something that is often lost upon people who have to deal with a Woody Allen type person is that he or she has a high capacity for appreciation and even love of beauty or good fortune or whatever, but because they are incapable of ever feeling that they have really possessed them, they are never able to be enjoy themselves completely in the moment the way that a Warren Beatty type-person seems to be able to, or at least feel that as masters after a sort of human experience that all of the highest manifestations of that experience properly belong to their domain, which I take to be the attitude of the typical quasi-deified European artist.

4. He Is Still Compared to Pretty Much Everybody Else a Very Talented Comic Writer and Comedian. This movie is not a laugh riot by any stretch of the imagination but there still probably ten lines in it which were pretty good, enough to at least prick my long-slumbering funny bone, which is nine or even ten more than you find in most movies (most competent screenwriters can come up with one decent joke even by accident in the course of a two hour film.

Other quick notes on this:

There was a minor subplot involving the then fairly novel phenomenon of sperm donation and artificial insemenation, in which the Woody Allen character's wife has a kid with one of his friends with desirable genes--it is emphasized that they would not need to have sex to accomplish this--because he was supposedly sterile. When you have the idea of life that Woody Allen or I have, that working up to the point where women will even begin to consider having sex with you is the only reason for at least 90% of all exertion therein, the idea of the sperm bank child from the male point of view does not really make any sense at all.

In one review I saw of Woody Allen's latest movie, the one set in Paris, the writer joked that the demographics of his Paris were just like that of his New York, 95% white with the rest mostly stylish black people. The percentage of nonwhite people in this movie is probably even lower than that. Of course in 1940, when Woody Allen was a child, the population of New York City really was around 94% white, and as his obsessions form most of the material, as well as interest, in the films, it is not surprising that his cinematic New York has a population more similar to the kinds of people he was interacting with in 1954 than what we would expect to find there today.

Dianne Wiest--whom I don't think I have ever seen outside of a Woody Allen movie--is looking pretty good here. She would have been 37 or 38 at the time (though I assume playing someone a little younger) which means she is eligible for Social Security now. I was in high school when this came out, and it doesn't seem that long ago,

Lenny (1974)

As usual the 4th movie will get the shaft as far as my insights go, though I didn't have too much to say about it.

This is a biopic of a kind of the legendary comedian Lenny Bruce, whose once groundbreaking act does not strike one as terrible funny or provocative any more in itself. There is even some doubt afoot in the culture as to whether subversive speech is any more protected now, or will be in the near future, than it was when Lenny Bruce burst on the scene. Is it me, or has this film totally dropped out of the mainstream consciousness? I had never heard of it before, and God knows the important films of the 70s are talked about and celebrated ad nauseam. This was very well-received at the time, getting 6 Oscar nominations, including in all the main categories (though it did not win any of them)--Best Picture, Best Director (Bob Fosse, a pretty big name), Best Actor (Dustin Hoffman, a really big name) and Best Actress (Valerie Perrine, not so big a name among people who weren't there at the time, but well regarded among the down and dirty 70s crowd. Espeically when she spoke she made me think of a bigger-breasted Sally Field, which is not all bad, because I actually secretly like Sally Field). It is another movie that I got on VHS tape.

It's in black and white and has in its best parts a European art house tone about it. There are a lot of dingy clubs, dingy apartments, dingy hallways, car rides on rainy nights, claustrophobic telephone conversations where the speakers seem incapable of stepping an inch away from the handset; the movie is very good at creating this sensation of claustrophobia and dinginess and tightness, from which the Lenny Bruce character manages to cause stirs from time to time but never really escapes. There are drugs of course, and he seduces the pretty nurse whom he should not have been able to seduce--such a seduction makes the whole difference between an A-level life and a B-level one; or at least a B-level and a C, for sure. I never like courtroom scenes. The frame of the movie takes place after he's died, and the people who were nominally closest to him--his wife, his mother, his manager--are relating the story in flashbacks, but the sense is that they don't have any idea why he was the way he was, or why it mattered. The technique and style were interesting though, such as I wish we had more of in American movies. I give it a good mark for that alone.

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