Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Movies! (1986-92)

The combination of summer and a gauntlet of mostly not very enticing 80s and 90s movies forming the top of my to-see list has made for a slow couple of months in this regard. I will try to dispatch of these quickly.

Afterburn (1992)

This is another TV movie from the 80s and 90s that was absurdly given a five-star rating in one of the otherwise fairly reliable guidebooks. It is about an Air Force pilot who is killed while flying a faulty plane, the ensuing cover-up and insistence of the military authorities that the crash was caused by pilot error, and the determination of his fiery widow to discover and force those authorities to acknowledge the truth and clear her husband's name, in which effort she partly succeeded. Well done for what it is, I suppose, but not my kind of thing. Perhaps it should be more my kind of thing, as the film is all about tough, decisive, purposeful, highly competent people--in addition to elite flyers and the military high command and tenacious, fearless women, there are also big time lawyers whose main concern in taking on clients is that these may not have the stomach for the ruthless tactics the lawyer will need to employ to successfully prosecute their case. However, I found it rather flat, the characters probably too realistically depicted. Nothing sparkled. I did consider that perhaps the story was just too grown-up for me, but it also was not meaningfully artistic enough to hold my interest even if it this had been the case.

Distant Voices/Still Lives (1988)

This is one of the most unique and affecting movies I have ever seen. I can say this with the more confidence because I have not seen very many genuinely unique and affecting movies. I may not be able to adequately explain what I mean by this, nor do I have to, given the endless reams of movie commentary, adequate or otherwise, that already exists, but I am going to try, lest my capacity to use language atrophy entirely.

The basic way I would describe this film is as a sincere, unpretentious, uncondescending, sad poem, highly artistic and stylized, centered around settings and people that would be understood in almost all conventional art-language as dismal, ugly and uninteresting. in which something resembling the fleeting essence of ordinary human existence is dug for and to a remarkable degree depicted. This material could easily have been used in the service of a more 'raw' or angry film, but Terence Davies, the outstanding director, always counterbalances even his darkest scenes with a strong suggestion (or reminder) that this essence of experience, especially the moments of personal agency and camaraderie, is just as real and important and must be acknowledged as much. This is difficult, I would think, to express believably, and appreciate the strength of the effort he has made to do so.

The tone and balance throughout this movie with regard to affection towards the characters, objectivity, honesty, the use of singing as a major point of emphasis and character, all wholly untainted by a hint of pretentiousness, is classically well-managed. .

Below is a few minutes from what I believe is Terence Davies's most recent movie, a documentary/memoir about Liverpool, with heavy emphasis on World War II and the austerity period, the same in which DV/SL is set. This guy is an incredible filmmaker, especially when you consider that he seems to be very sentimental, and that this sentimentality strongly informs his work. He has mastered not only his vision, but what his feelings are about that vision, which he reproduces in his films in a way that makes them seem more substantial than such impressions usually attain. I suppose he is regarded in England as a conservative of sorts because he believes the country has gone to the dogs since his childhood and this sense is certainly an underlying, if not especially subtle, theme of his movies. I admit I am inclined to agree him on this point.

Don Quixote (1988)

This is a filmed performance of the famous Kirov Ballet of Leningrad. As I know nothing about ballet, I had a hard time both following what was going on and being overly thrilled by the art, though the sets looked lovely, and the dancers talented, skilled and artistically serious. I thought a lot about how glorious it must be to possess a brain truly steeped in the secrets and salient truths of European high culture. I have read the book of Don Quixote three or four times, and while there is a highly skilled dancer dressed as Don Quixote (and one as Sancho Panza too) who wanders on and off the stage as various points of the show, and the set for the second act includes a giant windmill, there are also long sequences involving gypsies and a romance between a barber and an innkeeper's daughter (I had to look this up) that seem to have to been based on minor incidents in the book that I don't remember. Apparently most of the plot of the ballet related to the book of Don Quixote is taken from two chapters. It is really about the dancers, of course.

My modest researches into this have also reminded me that of all the realms of snobbery which the arts have provided us, there are no snobs like ballet snobs. You would think that hardcore ballet fans were a pretty small group that is generally left alone to love their diva ballerinas, but they have a lot of disappointment and disdain to get off their chests.

Children of a Lesser God (1986)

I remember how popular this baby was among all the yuppie baby boomers when it first came out, and accordingly made a point of always staying as far away from it as possible. But the fates, which I believe to be real, were obviously for some reason determined that I should see this movie before the vagaries of my system should bring up Tokyo Story, or Vertigo, or The Searchers, or five hundred other deathless masterpieces, because when I devise a system I follow it to the death. Going off the course, except in carefully arranged cases, destroys the continuity and leads nowhere.

I should note that there are several things I enjoyed about this movie. While I was watching I thought it might have been made in Maine, because it looked a lot like it--I didn't recognize the town they filmed in, so I thought it might be the Bar Harbor area or somewhere even farther north. As it turned out it was filmed in bordering New Brunswick, which I have never been to, but which looks to be more Maine than Maine itself. The scenery reminded me of my youth, as did the time, which actually was my youth. The school reminded me of my school. The parts where they are playing football on a field covered with cold puddles and wet brown leaves? that's pretty much my adolescence in a nutshell. So I liked that.

The other part I liked was the restaurant the lead characters went to on their first date. There was a jolt back to the 80s. It was just a regular Italian restaurant, with a bar and a small place for dancing, and I think a pianist. I remember going to places like that vividly, though I haven't seen one for years now. Obviously the combination of chain restaurants and the steady demise of the middle class has killed them. What regular place employs a pianist anymore, even as a second job? Yet lots of places used to have one. So that made me very nostalgic.

But that is all I am conceding. This thing is a compendium of annoying early baby boomer tropes. The author of the original play, Mark Medoff, was born in 1940, so he predates the hard core of this cohort, and I don't know how much the spirit of the original play was altered for the film. But the director, Randa Haines (the first female director nominated for a best picture Oscar, incidentally), was born in 1945, and William Hurt, the leading man, was born in 1950, so I am giving the credit for the film's dominant spirit to them. The other lead, Marlee Matlin, somewhat well known as the deaf actress who won an Oscar, was born in 1965, which makes her a generation-Xer. So I guess she's all right.

The first annoying current running through this movie is William Hurt's smug face, which is the same smug face my father and all his friends had. I can't bring myself to want to punch out my father, but I would like to rain some pain down on William Hurt. These people have all gone through their whole lives thinking they're God's gift to the planet, and for what? The circumstances, the time they were born into, the lives they were able to lead, encouraged this. I will admit it, I really can't stand them. Having to endure this movie served as a good reminder of why.

All right, on a lighter note, we have a classic rendition of the young baby boomer job interview. Job interviews evidently used to be a lot less stressful in the old days, when you didn't have to try to persuade the person grilling you that you were the most qualified person on the planet for the position you were seeking. No, even if you were rather insouciant and blase in your interview you could still often count on being offered the position, with its full health insurance, and its pension, only with the caveat that the organization into which you were being hired had an established culture and ways of doing things, and that hires were expected to conform to the rules. What is this, the 50s? Telling a new employee in a baby boomer movie he's expected to follow procedure is the cinematic equivalent of Chekhov's ax; you know there won't be a rule left standing by the end of the movie. Which sort of segues into the next theme:

This one is such a cherished baby boomer belief that you still see it surface occasionally, though I am pretty sure its effectiveness as an educational resource has been thoroughly disproved. Of course I am talking about the idea that the insertion of rock and roll, especially from the 1960s, into the school curriculum, will foster a veritable explosion of learning. Given that in this movie the school in question is a school for the deaf (though I guess they can feel the vibrations through the floor if you crank the bass loud enough), the circumstance that  even here the rock-based program is the key to turning the moribund school around, should demonstrate just   how thorough (and perverse) the grip that this idea had on the generation of the 60s was. To me--and I mostly like this music too--and I believe most people my age, the thought that this genre of art has any substantial academic value is I think mostly ludicrous, yet it turns up in movie after movie after movie with a boomer mentality.

I should add that the boomers were still in their sexy years when this came out, so the relationship between William Hurt and Marlee Matlin gets physical pretty abruptly and matter of factly--this matter is addressed first, and any questions where things go from there can be addressed later. This is one area where I sort of grudgingly admire the baby boomers. Everybody who has come after them seems to have been hung up on determining who is worthy of sex and the appropriate expression of sexual desires (exceptions made for the obviously superior of course), before allowing that side of human interaction to develop. The boomers seemed to accept that everybody was motivated by this and was always going to act accordingly. I don't know that their approach is necessarily healthy either, but I will grant them that they don't seem to have pussyfooted their lives away in panting and not getting as so many people seem to do now.

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