Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Movies (Most Common Themes: Homosexuality in the 90s? Professionalism)

life bestowed him little

As Bad As It Gets (1997)

This movie, for reasons that remain elusive to me, was a hit with a substantial number of film critics and members of the general public whom you could probably stand to have as your neighbors, and apparently continues to be so to this day. I thought it was pretty ordinary, and did not strike a congruous note with regard either to art or reason. The movie of course stars Jack Nicholson. His character is in his 60s, appears to have some form of Asperger's Syndrome which makes him speak to people in a more than usually cruel and obnoxious manner, and he appears to be a lifelong bachelor who has no friends. Naturally he is the romantic lead. The female romantic interest is played by the frigid (and at least 25 years younger) Helen Hunt, perhaps the most annoying actress of her (my?) generation. Meryl Streep comes off as cuddly in comparison. As we are often reminded, Helen Hunt is a consummate professional--there is little praise higher in this cultural era in which we live, which really began to blossom around the time that this movie came out. For me this quality does not compensate for her being almost inveterately unlikeable, but I suppose she has her fans. Both of these stars won best acting honors at that years' Oscars, and one senses it was only the unstoppable presence in that season of the colossus Titanic (which, I may as well note, I have managed as yet to avoid seeing) that prevented it from taking home the Best Picture trophy as well. There is  a messy and not especially interesting subplot featuring a gay artist, his dog, his black agent, some other minor characters, an assault, and medical bills. Medical bills are a common theme throughout the movie, in fact, though they mainly afflict the younger characters. The movie is usually billed as a comedy, but I don't recall anything funny that happened in it.

The commentary employs the method favored for contemporary Hollywood films of having the actors, producer, writers and so on involved in the picture shill for the awesomeness of the movie. If you take the word of the commentary, everyone was incredible to work with, the screenplay was a masterpiece, every scene features brilliant acting and direction that the layman would be unlikely to pick up on. They even got Jack Nicholson to take part (a little). Helen Hunt, too, of course--she probably looked at it as a professional duty. I have elsewhere come across the idea that the screenplay is somehow exceptionally outstanding, which is absurd. I thought it was markedly labored, overlong (over 2 1/2 hours), full of clunky scenes and entire subplots that neither run smoothly in themselves nor fit smoothly with the rest of the movie, and there are numerous extraneous characters whose purpose as far as the core thrust of the story goes is not clear. I suppose you could say the movie holds together, in the way that one of those old sheds welded out of disparate sheets of metal holds together. But there is no sensation of true unity either in parts or the whole, which in most instances is the holy grail for a would be work of art.

I also found that my mood was deflated by being set back in the world of the late 90s. I had not anticipated this, for as you know I am I generally given to nostalgia, and I usually like revisiting the world of the 80s and early 90s even when the movie is so-so. But evidenly I am not nostalgic for the period starting from around '97. My feeling in watching the movie was that these were years when I should have been the most deeply engaged in the life of the time, and emerging in some way as an actor on the stage of life that never managed to happen (I was age 25 to 29 in these years) so seeing various motifs of that time I feel oddly disconnected from it, as I do from nearly everything since then.

Ballot Measure 9 (1995)

This is a documentary about the campaign to pass an anti-gay referendum in Oregon in 1992 and the resistance against it. The measure was defeated by a statewide vote, though only by about 56-44%. Had it passed, discrimination based on sexual orientation would have been legally allowed, and there were also several clauses that would have defined homosexuality as a deviancy, and required schools and other arms of government to regard it as such in the carrying out of their functions.

Well, I am glad it didn't pass. I cannot believe that the measure as written could ever have been enshrined as state law anyway, though maybe it could have, and I doubt that was really the point of the movie anyway, that being to show the frightening extent of the hate out there. According to the film there was an unbelievable amount of property violence against homosexuals and activists during the campaign, and even an murder, all of which crimes the movie gives the impression went utterly unsolved or were not in some cases perhaps even seriously investigated. From today's standpoint I would be inclined to question some of this but 20 years ago there weren't cameras everywhere, GPS systems installed in cars and phones and so on, and it is easy to forget the amount of vandalism and robbery and assault that went unsolved. The movie is obviously heavily biased in favor of the pro-gay rights contigent--which is fine for its purpose--though for the film viewer who is not especially inflamed by the cause some of the drama queen hysterics , the relentless and uniform stupidity and evil of the opposition, the incredible wisdom and sense and moral authority emanating from the representatives of the gay community and other oppressed peoples can be a little wearying. Most evolved people, of whom I wish I were one most of the time anymore, I assume will have a more visceral response, partaking equally of compassion, desire for justice, deep disturbance, and ferocious outrage, directed to the appropriate quarters.

The Gunfighter (1950)

This is a western that does not seem to be very widely celebrated, but it is quite good, at least up to the ending, which I thought was hurried and lacked the drama that the buildup of the plot up to that point promised it should have. It operates on what I consider to be the most classic Hollywood model. It does its work in 85 minutes, the plot being moved almost entirely by constant rapid-fire dialogue that is not however exhausting to follow. Apart from the first ten and last ten minutes there is surprisingly little action and the scene is limited to the saloon and the main street and a couple of the buildings in full sight of it opposite. The director was Henry King, a Hollywood dinosaur who had directed his first movie in 1916, and who would keep going for another decade, including being the helmsman on Carousel, which I wrote about recently on here in 1956 (though according to the commentary he did not personally direct the ballet scene). I am guessing that King would be generally considered less an artiste than a competent, experienced professional manufacturer of film product (wait, did I say professional? That makes it sound like Helen Hunt could have starred in this--actually she probably would have been good in this as the love interest [played by Helen Westcott, who was almost as frigid, and more dour, than Helen Hunt herself; I think Helen Hunt would benefit from the faster pace of dialogue too]--Still, I have an instinctive distrust of people whose professionalism seems to be their defining characteristic; I am not sure whether this was the case with Henry King or not). The strength of this movie upon a first viewing does seem to be the screenplay, but the staging I thought was good, as well as the economy of scenes and the use of very brief visual cues to subtly but clearly indicate transitions, a common skill among the old filmmakers that is underutilized nowadays.

Gregory Peck (who for the record, is probably among my ten or so favorite male Hollywood actors) is the star of the movie, and among the other actors is Karl Malden. I did not previously much associate either of these guys with the western genre, though in Peck's case this is rather silly because he was in a lot of them, though until now I had not seen any of them.

Netflix does not have this movie available so I had to get an old VHS tape to watch it. Hence no commentaries, extras, etc.

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