Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Getting Back to the Good Stuff

For a little while anyway.

Dr Strangelove (1964)

I had seen this I believe twice before, but it had been ten years at least since the last viewing, I hadn't made any record of it here, and I am fond of the movie, so I decided to see it again.

Many commentators note that a lot of the jokes, especially the more famous ones, lose impact on repeated viewings. I did notice something of this--perhaps age has something to do with it also--but it isn't like my affection for the movie was ever based on a selection of quotable but evidently insubstantial and transient lines.

I do suspect that the main appeal of this for me now, as it is with most of these old films that I like, is as a nostalgia piece, of which Dr Strangelove is an especially potent artifact for me. While it is true that film dates from six years before I was born, the world it depicts, its images, many of its attitudes, are more familiar to me, or at least resonate more with me, than almost everything about current existence, in which I almost never feel really at home. I will try to express what I mean by this below.

I wrote recently that my ten year old wanted a typewriter for Christmas. After poking around online I found someone near me who was selling a pale blue 1970s vintage Smith-Corona Coronet for $40, which is a good price for a working typewriter. It seemed beautiful to me when I beheld it, and even though I had not banged on this kind of machine for 25 years certain of the various idiosyncrasies of handling it that have been lying utterly dormant during the whole of that time returned to me within a few moments. In brief, given this antique instrument to play with, I had the opportunity to feel almost competent to perform some adult activity for a few moments. Movies from the 1960s especially often have a similar effect on me because the details and objects and even the geography in them are within the range of my knowledge and sense of what the world is properly like. I have noted elsewhere that even 1960s depictions of sex seem more natural and to make more sense to me than most of what has developed in that realm--both in films and real life--since.  Dr Strangelove is full of both little and big instances like this. To begin with the whole struggle of the Cold War, with the United States and Soviet Union as mortal enemies and the threat of nuclear annihilation always hovering somewhere in the back of one's consciousness was a dominant fact of the first 20 years of my life that suddenly evaporated into nothing. It is odd to say that returning to days when that state of mind prevailed as a cinematic tourist is comforting, and I don't think that is the right word anyway; but it does seem normal. The movie also conveys an idea of the physical earth, as least in the northern hemisphere, as vast, cold, mostly barren, alien to refined human sensibility but also exciting in a masculine measuring-oneself-against-nature kind of way that I am in tune with, an idea that also had strong roots in the far flung military activities required by the Cold War and also with the Space Age. Even though outrageous, the characters as human types do not seem to me as remote as almost anyone either in or portrayed by media or the arts today. This has to be illusory, and the result of my just not feeling able to trust anyone in contemporary society, or always being wary of whatever agenda it is they want to push. The agendas of people who are dead or superannuated are less threatening to me, not least perhaps because enough time has passed to identify anything that would strike me as really insincere or incoherent or sinister about them, which I cannot seem to effectively do with contemporaries...

Yes, so I hope you get the idea. I didn't pick up much insight from the bonus materials. There were two tidbits I found of mild interest. The first is mainly for those who are obsessed by dates. Dr Strangelove was supposed to be released on November 22, 1963, but the date was moved back to January of '64 due to the Kennedy assassination. The second was a story, probably apocryphal, that when Ronald Reagan arrived at the White House upon his inauguration as President, he inquired of various aides where the War Room was, having apparently gotten the idea from this movie that such a place actually existed, which, however, is not the case.

Along this same general theme of nostalgia and my mental image of what the universe is like, the opening sequence remains one of my favorites of all time.

Shane (1952)

Most of the reference books have it listed as 1953, though the copyright date on the movie itself is '52, which is why I am going with that.

I never watched Westerns as a young person. I don't know why, I suppose somewhere along the line I got the idea that they weren't very interesting. As a result just about the entire genre is unknown to me. But maybe I am ready for it now, or at least for the better specimens of it, because I liked this. It is emotionally appealing. While it is a cliche to say that Westerns have classic story structures, in the case of Shane at least there is more than a little truth in it. In the execution of the key scenes there is a deliberation that allows the viewer to ponder the particular drama that is unfolding and to savor it, without being gratuitous. The director was George Stevens, who had had another triumph the previous year with A Place in the Sun, which I wrote about here a couple of years ago, as well as several other well-regarded films. I would rate Shane above A Place in the Sun, which I also like, but not as much--Shane hits a number of high points and seems to me to attain nearer to perfection with regard to what it is trying to do. I don't think it is inherently a great story in bare form, but there was a meaningful story in it that the filmmakers hit upon and were able to bring out.

The cast featured several name actors in prominent roles whom I had not, however, seen before. Alan Ladd and Jean Arthur especially, but also Jack Palance, who was kind of a kooky but somewhat engaging old guy who was always on television when I was a kid, as a young man. All of these people have a certain appeal to them that I think was used to good advantage in the movie.

The Quiet Man (1952)

All right, this movie. Where to begin? I saw it some years ago and, like a lot of people, did not get why it would ever be supposed objectively great. I still think that absent the considerable backstory and the magnitude of the beloved personalities involved in the production that this would not have attained to classic status; and while I think it perhaps can pass as a work of art of a kind, I do not think it is of any very profound kind. That asserted, I do have some greater appreciation of the fact that in this instance the magnitude of the personalities is indeed important, that the film does have a beauty and energy about it that is decidedly unique, and that, especially as I enter the nostalgia phase of my life, it is highly charming.

The movie was a pet project of John Ford, the legendary director whom my various inquiries into the matter have begun to persuade is more widely considered the greatest American director of all time than anybody else. I was astonished to find out that he grew up on turf with which I am very familiar, being born in Cape Elizabeth, Maine and growing up on Munjoy Hill in Portland. He graduated from Portland High School (this was the other public high school in Portland, and the mortal enemy of my school), yet at least from 1986-89 when I lived there he seemed to be forgotten in his hometown, for I never had any idea that he was from there until this past year. At far as Portland celebrities go, he is really at least as big as Longfellow and Robert Peary, and much bigger than Judd Nelson, Linda Lavin, Annie Proulx and whoever else we can lay claim to. This guy is a titan in the history of cinema. He is our Fellini or Kurasawa.

I had the impression from somewhere that one of the reasons usually given for John Ford's successful development into a significant artist compared against the pygmies of the present day is that instead of watching television and throwing away years of his life going to college he obtained a varied experience of life and people while working on ships and construction sites and getting into bar fights and having affairs with girls from the wrong side of the tracks and that sort of thing, but the reality is much more prosaic and logical; he moved to Hollywood, where his older brother already was established in the fledgling movie industry, when he was 20, and began working on film sets, spending those crucial years of one's early twenties, when no process seems overly daunting given a thorough enough immersion in its operation, learning about how movies were made. In those heady days when demand for film production was increasing exponentially and technical skill in the art was largely the province of the young and rambunctious generation, Ford was made a director of quickie silent films (most of which , however, are are lost--only 10 of the estimated 60 silent movies Ford made survive today) at the age of 23. None of this is giving any particular insight about John Ford yet, but I am still in the process of gathering my impressions about him; perhaps by the 7th or 8th film I will have some insight into what is really going on with him.

The Quiet Man is also famous for John Wayne's branching out from his standard cowboy/war hero role to a more domestic part. We haven't seen much of John Wayne on this list. I am not sure what my opinion of him is yet. His persona obviously is his most important quality as a star but does he really earn it, really carry it off? I'm not convinced. He seems to take himself, or his image of himself, awfully seriously, more than I am used to at this point. He's also almost utterly humorless. I realize he was embodying an image of manhood that was much admired and aspired to at the time, and it was almost certainly a better model than whatever sad examples we are expected to emulate, but at this particular point in time there is something really foreign about it...

John Wayne is one of the three great celebrities of the 1940s and 50s whose body type and history pretty much mirrors mine from age 20 to 42 certainly, and is probably predictive of it going forward, the other two being Ted Williams and Charles de Gaulle. Modern day big shots have personal trainers and dieticians--or are otherwise extremely disciplined--all of which largely prevents their physiques from developing in a manner parallel to my own.

Maureen O'Hara, a healthy looking redhead, and native of Ireland, who frequently worked with John Wayne and John Ford, is the female lead here. Her character requires some mild Taming of the Shrew type treatment due to her predictable temper, but John Wayne obviously is up to that challenge. There was an interview with Maureen O'Hara in the extra materials in which she stressed the serious old-world training in the art of acting she received at the Abbey Theatre school, adding that no European movie actress got her start by being spotted sitting at a lunch counter. I wonder who that barb was aimed at.

I think the over the top Irish stereotypes that fill the movie are entertaining, silly as they are, because they are the kinds of things that a conscientious artist or intellectual would be so concerned about avoiding today. That sort of thing was of course rampant at the time, and it turns up again in another movie more or less contemporary which will be discussed in the next set, where I plan to go into it with more detail.

A woman I went to college with claimed that her grandfather had been the inspiration for the character of the Quiet Man. I have no idea whether this is true or not, but there is no obvious reason to believe it was not at least a family legend, since I doubt many people even at our school were familiar with either the story or the film. I certainly wasn't.

You could hardly have made an Irish movie from 1940-1955 without having a part for Barry Fitzgerald, who appears in his third picture, and really his first in a supporting role, of those I have written about on the site--the others were And Then There Were None and The Naked City, and this gets him into the first tier of the Bourgeois Surrender Movie Star Hall of Fame. Sterling Hayden (The Asphalt Jungle, The Godfather, and Dr Strangelove, also secured his spot with today's reviews.

I will do a brief post next on a couple of leftover matters not related to movies that I was going to stick in here.

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