Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Generic Movie Post That Took 2 Weeks to Write

valour kinds say time have think begin country

The goal with these, rarely attained, is always economy.

Avatar (2009)

They should have made the movie about her.

My beautiful wife did not watch this movie with me, but she came and sat in the living room for a few minutes while it was on, in the midst of working on a project and observed, with an air of mild bemusement, "Wow. This is not a typical Bourgeois Surrender movie." "No", I admitted, my body rigid in equal parts embarrassment and perplexity at the direction the world has gone in since 1995, "That it is not."

This one came recommended from Roger Ebert's 2012  Movie Yearbook, which I picked up at a discount without realizing that it only rated movies from the years 2009-2011. So I will probably be seeing more movies from those three years, though this book is the last in order which I refer to. [Roger Ebert's death was announced while this post was underway, but I don't know what to say about such things. He appears to have had a fulfilling and fortunate professional life in writing and the arts, which seems to me a rare happiness]. In recent years Ebert began to display an extreme strain of contemporary liberalism that I had not noted him to have before and he evidently found this movie to have cast a great blow for the causes of environmentalism, anti-militarism, anti-greed, etc. Perhaps these attitudes were driving creative forces behind the movie but they made little impact on me.

All of the characters in this movie are alpha males, including the women and the tree-hugging natives of the planet Zoltran. Every sentence of dialogue is confrontational, challenging and conveys the attitude that the speaker has attained a perfect competence in his calling and overall superiority of person and that no one else is worthy of being spoken to with even basic respect. One suspects this is not merely how the director, famed egomaniac James Cameron, deals with people--dominant artists and leaders usually seem to have to be this way--but how he actually views the general nature of human relations, which is not reassuring to me.

It is worthy of notice (to me--maybe this trend has been in motion for a while) that after a long tradition of stories about beings from other planets being smarter/more technologically advanced/militarily superior than Americans--interestingly, extraterrestrial life never seems to make its way to Pakistan--the popular liberal imagination at least now envisions interplanetary conflict as the American military in concert with rapacious corporations on the offensive in distant reaches of outer space. It says a lot about the mindset of a lot of people at this cultural moment with regard to how powerful and uncontestable the big companies and the high-tech military, and the individuals who have high positions in these entities, are perceived to be.

What was the big deal about this movie again? The special effects? The story, apart from a few adultish trappings, was about at the level of something my children would have watched, minus the humor. I can be impressed by computerized special effects in a movie where I can see something that strikes me as imaginative, like A Bug's Life, for example. I didn't think the concepts here were very imaginative at all--as my wife pointed out after watching the movie for five minutes, several things were ripoffs of Star Wars, and even I did not notice anything particularly futuristic other than the alienating anti-human headquarters of the space station and the Michael Jackson oxygen chamber where your soul left your regular body and was transferred to that of a space-creature--and both of these appeared in the first five minutes of the movie.

The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1975)

Sometimes called The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser. Also sometimes called by a more literal translation of the German title, Every Man For Himself, and God Against All; but somebody must have decided they wanted to try to sell some tickets in America, so for purposes of commercial release, that title was scrapped.

This is a European art movie--from a "New Wave", no less--about a curious historical incident and set in the 1820s or 30s. It is predictable that I would imagine I liked it. It was a comfort after the unrecognizable depiction of existence that was Avatar.

The aesthetic is very much of its time. There are a lot of leisurely outdoor scenes in gardens and fields and orchards kind of after the Bergman manner. The whole movie is comparatively restrained and 'unbusy' for a Werner Herzog film. There is almost no dialogue at all for the first half-hour, and until about the halfway point of the movie Kasper Hauser himself does not speak in more than monosyllables, though people begin talking about him. The second half is composed of a series of short scenes, vignettes almost, that do good service in keeping up interest in the story while maintaining the enigmatic effect. It is great, but it is also very suited to my particular sensibility.

Being a German movie, it is not surprising that a logic professor is brought in at one point to investigate the development of Hauser's reasoning capacity. I had to replay the professor's question and answer a second time before I 'got' it, but I am satisfied at least that I did get its particular elegance. I rarely get anything like that anymore.

There was a commentary on this featuring Werner Herzog himself, who, not surprisingly, speaks English well.  It was not a great commentary though, as Herzog kind of went all over the place and the moderator, who sounded like a fairly callow American, was not especially effective at asking questions or guiding the conversation, indeed engaging Herzog in conversation at all. The typical exchange was what you might expect when you pair up an earnest and totally overmatched American with a vigorous and highly experienced European artist:

American Moderator: So what you are trying to show in this scene is how Kaspar has no preconceptions about anything that a normal person would take for granted as a basis of society?

Herzog: Actually no (or yes, then talks for five minutes on some entirely different topic).

I am trying to figure out what some of the formulas are for a good commentary. Some lapse of time, usually a  long one, seems necessary. If the commentary features people who were actually involved in the movie, they should either be retired or long past the phase of their career/life in which they made the film. The film should not require promotion, unless it is a plausibly good old movie of which the reputation has languished.

Good commentaries are able to reproduce something of the atmosphere and intelligent mindset which vitiated the film, assuming of course that the film is so vitiated. There has to be a good correlation between the intelligence of the commentator and that of the film. It also helps for the commentator to have a somewhat engaging conversational style. Scholars and critics especially tend to be hit or miss on these points. Directors for obvious reasons are usually strong on the first criterion, but some flail on the second. I cannot say that Werner Herzog was one of these flailers, but it would have been better if he had had somebody a little more up to the task of engaging with him and directing him in more focused channels. Actors and actresses are usually decent enough at conversing but their intelligence levels vary widely--by which I do not refer to their scores on IQ tests so much as things like sense of humor, ability to discern between things that are more noteworthy and interesting of observation than other things, and ability to tell a story/explain something that the typical video drone would not know about but might find curious.

Father of the Bride (1950)

If I were a normal, well-adjusted, forward-looking denizen of the present day, or were even consistent with my criticisms and dislike of nearly everything about that same present, I would be able to eviscerate this movie for its silliness, triviality, and almost unbelievable self-contentedness at its vulgar bourgeois materialism with a full heaping of (seemingly appropriate) self-satisfaction of my own. But predictably my apparently incurable sentimentality for almost any production of this time period won out and I found myself enjoying the movie against all of my better instincts, to say nothing of the wasted decades of attempted training of my intellect. I think it was Spencer Tracy's devotion to martinis and dogged consumption of the same, as well as the overflowing ash trays, all carried off in the unaffected manner of the time, that allowed me the freedom to enjoy myself. Also my wife, who doesn't care for most of the movies I get anymore, actually watched it with me and enjoyed it, and it is after all fun to have a good time with other people once in a while, if you can manage it. She pointed out that numerous items for this wedding in 1950 cost multiples of times in constant dollars what was spent on our own nuptials in 1997.

We haven't seen much of Spencer Tracy so far in this program of mine. He was, as his Wikipedia page asserts, one of the truly major stars of Hollywood's golden age. He is an interesting figure to me, but as there are a few other of his films coming up imminently, I will say more about him later.

Most capsule summaries of this movie mention as a big selling point that it features 'Elizabeth Taylor at her most beautiful'. I would say that she looked better in A Place in the Sun myself, but in any instance she generally looks better in newsreel/paparazzi footage from this time then she does in either of these movies. Not that I think she is ugly or anything, but I have never thought she was notably that much more desirable than thrity or forty other stars of her generation. Not that I know anything about the matter. Clearly she made men hungry--and the nearer they got to her the hungrier they became--in a way that even most beautiful do not quite do. Acknowledging all that, she was still a surprisingly minor presence in this movie, given all the hype about how beautiful she is supposed to be in it.

This was directed by Vincente Minnelli, who has been turning up a lot in these reports (The Clock, An American in Paris). He had a good run as a director, especially from around 1944 to '54. Mostly famous for his musicals, but he had, as a studio man anyway, the gift of touch or something. All three of his films that I have reviewed here have seemed from the critical point of view to suffer from some weakness or triviality but in the end impressed upon me some quality that made it impossible for me to dismiss them and indeed even inspired affection; though overall I have less affection for Father of the Bride than the others.

Despite all evidence to the contrary, even I don't really believe life was superior in 1950 to what it is now. Apart from the obvious abominations of the era, if I were actually forced to go back and live in it on a daily basis I would probably find it boring and stifling, especially if I had to live somewhere outside a major, New York-Los Angeles-London level city. It's not surprising to me that people drank a lot more than they do now. Still, there must have been something legitimately appealing about it compared to the present day, right? Something that is superior to life now? Let me try to think of a few possibilities.

1. There were far less people in jail at this time than there are now, both overall and per capita. This is well-documented. For most of the population there was much less of a police state/security atmosphere than what we are subjected to now as well. Even in New Hampshire, having a cop in public schools is de rigueur now. When I go back to Philadelphia there are security guards at the doors of supermarkets even in the inner suburbs. This at least hasn't come to northern New England yet.

2. I like the girls/music/literature/art of that era, most of which however I probably would not have been aware of had I lived at the time, and that obviously includes anything exciting that might have happened with the girls. I actually like the Girls of the 80s too, but even though I was actually alive in that era I might as well not have as far as socializing with any were concerned

3. I have mentioned in past posts that the bars/nightclubs/house parties of this time as depicted in movies look a lot more jovial than most of what I have known. St John's parties, like a lot of other things there, did often have a little bit of this retro feeling about them, which I obviously liked. Unfortunately I have to live the rest of my life in a more assertively post-1965 environment, which is a shame as far as partying goes at least.

This is not a point in favor of the 1950s but an aside regarding the sense I pick up sometimes in the present that back in those bad old days rapists and child molesters must have been running wild and commiting their crimes at will. This may have been so in some unfortunate cases but I am not certain that the volume of these kinds of crimes was any higher than it is now. Most older people I knew in the 70s and 80s, and by this I refer mainly to women, seemed to think children and girls were in much more danger of being subjected to these abuses and violences than had been the case when they were young. Also the general movement for women during the 60s and 70s was towards more freedom from parental/societal constraint in regard to relations with men rather than more protection from them. I know these are two different things, but they are probably not unrelated. One does hear and read the stories from this era of course about the extremely aggressive and brusque assaults (what we would call assaults certainly) that men would spring a la Mad Men upon women at cocktail parties or in offices. Those kinds of things obviously still go on today, but I am guessing among the professional classes anyway they are less frequent or are at least instigated by a much smaller number of men than formerly. Some men who would have behaved in this boorish way back in the 50s probably have actually become more enlightened in the matter of how to treat women appropriately, others probably would not be able to resist the temptation had they any longer enough power to safely risk nothing more in the attempt but a cold reception. Most men of course don't understand what they are supposed to do when no women seem to want anything to do with them at all, but obviously want all variety of pleasurable-sounding things from certain other men. One obvious response is to waste your life dreaming about being one of those winners and getting to do all the things the winners get to do with women, because let's face it, most of the time nothing else really matters. Indeed, the irony is that the less substantial and important and intelligent a person you are or become, the more your mind is probably taken up with sensualistic fantasies, because you literally have nothing else to think about...

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