Thursday, January 22, 2015

Movies 1959-1963 (Legendary Ones Too!)

As increasingly happens to me with books, I have hit a snag with regard to my movie watching where I haven't been enjoying it as much lately as I did before. Part of this is that there are always too many other things going on, and I don't have, or don't feel that I have, even an hour in a day that I can take to watch a film or write or do anything I want to do without getting distracted or jittery. The other part is that I have been seeing almost all modern things, modern for me being anything after about 1970, which I rarely like. So having finally gotten back again towards the time period and the accompanying sensibility that I like, and with the next three pictures up on my list iconic and all time popular classics, I had hope that I would get swept up in the spirit of the project again, as seems to have been the case with my reading when I began sprinkling in again novels and plays of the sort that I like, intelligent and funny without being at every instant a test or indictment of my intelligence or other development, among the heavier material that I find I am no longer able to read with any sense of accomplishment or enjoyment. This partially happened. I did feel, in one instance especially and in parts of the other two, that I was experiencing great and significant work, and I could see where at another time and in another psychological state of mind I would have taken to them with real enthusiasm. At the same time I feel at this point so remote from the artistic process and the state of mind in which it flourishes and which is the basis of what most great artworks are about, maybe more so than at any time in my life, that it is hard for me to take up anything that does not belong to the truly remote past, before the adult memory of almost any living person, without feeling sheepish or embarrassed before it. Also at least two of these movies were very long, so that I had to watch them over several nights, and in my current agitated state I was never really being able to settle in to the world which the film inhabited, which is especially important to do with epics.

8 1/2 (1963)

I may have the mind and perception of a child, but I have enough sense to know that this has greatness imprinted on it in just about every frame. This does not require a keen insight, as the movie's status as one of the immortal monuments of the postwar international art cinema has been established almost from the day it came out. It is hard for me to project seriousness, but I do mean it, it's an impressive work. Fellini was a true badness, and this movie is a two hour and eighteen minute. masterfully stylized demonstration of what being that kind of artist consists of. The scene (I was going to say the famous scene, but almost every scene in this is famous) where Mastroianni, who seems to have been a badass of acting in his own right, in his dream, has gathered all of the important women in his life, wives, mistresses, prostitutes, childhood fascinations, actresses and so on, in his childhood home where they cook dinner and bathe him and wrap him up in blankets before they begin to snipe and make accusations and demands, at which he has to drive them back with a whip is one of the most memorable depictions of a properly flourishing male ego that I have seen. But then the set of the spa, both by day and night, where Mastroianni and his entourage have come, nominally to begin work on his next movie, the nightmare of the traffic jam, the dingy railway hotel where he stashes his mistress--these are all wonderful enhancements and understandings of the possibilities of life also. But you knew all that.

It is a sign however of how off I am at the moment that I did not feel much personal emotion or thrill, even of the quieter sort, while watching this, which I usually do when encountering artworks of this stature and caliber. As enumerated above, this has much to stir and raise even the most dormant spirit, but mine does not seem to be capable of being stirred by anything. It even has Claudia Cardinale in 1963 for goodness's sake-- her 1963 is one of those singular years in the history of movies, or anything else, where a woman attains a unique and frankly awesome state of near perfection that is too fragile to hold for more than a few months (Grace Kelly around 1954 comes to me as another example of this phenomenon; no one else is coming immediately to mind in this same way at the moment). But I can't feel that any of this has anything to do with me anymore, and such a thing is to me a kind of indictment or accusation for the obvious reasons that we don't need to go over again. But I hope our culture can continue to produce enough people who possess enough intelligence and spirit to enable the film to survive, that it may speak to people even many generations generations from now and the names and personae of Fellini and Mastroianni and Cardinale and Italy and even Europe will still resonate and have meaning for them. I don't think it is a certainty that they will by any means.

Psycho (1960)

To be honest, I find the story here to be unsatisfying. It doesn't hold together. The characters aren't strong enough. From the 21st century point of view it is wholly implausible that the Bates Motel would not be under 24 hour police surveillance just on principle, though implausibility in itself is not enough to mar an otherwise fascinating tale. There isn't really enough tension or motivation here to interest me.

That said, I find it very watchable. The world of the old U.S. highways with their oddly designed turns and exits, lined by empty spaces or local nature that looks more organic than that along most of the interstates with the occasional sketchy hotel or odd, out of place looking Victorian mansion has largely disappeared in much of the country, namely the more populated parts of it, but where I live the roads are largely still like this. The film was shot on the same lot as Hitchcock's TV series was, and it has the look and feel of television productions from that time, which effect however I like (Inherit the Wind was also filmed on a TV lot around this time, and I noted that I liked this aspect about that movie too). Janet Leigh's muscular, almost strapping, physique caught my attention--it is not a type I associate with this time period. As I begin to move beyond the time of life where I can even pretend that varied experiences of the sensual kind are still realistic possibilities, I have taken more of an interest in the variety of physical body types and attributes than I was want to do in my desperate youth, when I wrote off everything beyond finding someone who was identifiably female from ten feet away and would not be too harsh for my fragile personality to be capable of contending with as luxuries I could not afford. I also like the quiet, slow pace of this movie; it is not that I don't like the frenetic, anything can happen style of Fellini and other artists of his type, but as hardly a day of my life has ever assumed that form, it is always an alien experience for me to try to comprehend. The tone of my day to day life is, unfortunately, a hell of a lot closer to Norman Bates's than it is to that of any character in a Fellini movie. Anyway, the main thrust is there are many things about Psycho that I like, I just think the plot misses in some way. I missed the Hitchcock cameo as I always do. I haven't bothered to look up where it was--what's the point of that? The game is to find it on your own.

This guy is not me. Seriously.

Ben-Hur (1959)

I was a little piqued when this came up. It is certainly legendary, and won a chariotful of Oscars, which kinds of movies I find I usually enjoy, provided they are old enough. I also had not seen anything of this kind, namely an old Hollywood studio epic set in ancient times, in a while, and I thought that might be something that could revive my sense of enjoyment of life, which effect watching and reading depictions of Roman-era fighting, torture, injustice and so on often inspires in me.

I had seen it. or some of it at least, when I was around eleven, and while various of the more vivid scenes, i.e. the slave galley and the chariot race, had imprinted themselves on my memory, my ability to follow the story had been hindered by my complete lack at that time of any background in either religion or ancient history. I may have recognized that the unnamed man who gives Ben Hur water when the slave caravan passes through his village is supposed to be Jesus, but how that otherwise fit into the story would have been beyond me. The emphasis on Ben Hur's being a Jew would also have meant little to me at that time other than as a signal that he was probably going to be treated unfairly (i.e., I don't think I was clear at the time what 'being Jewish' meant either in a religious or racial sense). Other aspects of the plot had been confusing to me as well. Seeing as my understanding of some of this background matter has improved somewhat in the ensuing 34 years, I anticipated a much heightened viewing of the movie this time around.

Ben-Hur has its moments, though the three hour and forty-two minute running time is a bit excessive, given that the major episodes in the plot, extended though some of them are, are really not that numerous. There is a lot of dead time waiting around for the highlights. After the chariot race there are still forty or so minutes left, which are given over mainly to Ben Hur's finding his mother and sister in the leper colony and the last days and passion of Jesus Christ. It may have been good, but by that point in the movie my concentration was gone. I assume Ben-Hur must have converted to Christianity at the end, but I do not remember the scene or announcement when he did this, which is kind of embarrassing.

The logistics of showing this in the theater in some noweheresville American town, or even a place like Brattleboro or Concord, in 1959 are of interest to me. Unemployment in those days was like 2% and nothing stays open past 10pm even now so during the week they must have had to start the show around 6pm sharp, and with intermission they'd be lucky to be done by ten o'clock. It was a full night's outing, or afternoon if you went to the matinee. I suppose I only find it fascinating because I feel like I haven't had an evening, or a four hour block of time in which to do anything, sit in a beer garden or whatever, in years, and so I assume no one does such things anymore.

Burt Lancaster (as well as Marlon Brando) was offered the role of Ben Hur before it descended upon Charlton Heston, which only strengthens my theory that you could not keep Burt Lancaster out of classic movies in the late 50s and early 60s, unless he kept himself out of them.

Ben Hur's sister was played by Cathy O'Donnell, who was Wilma, the girlfriend/wife of the amputee in The Best Years of Our Lives, which was also directed by William Wyler. I had never seen her, or noticed her, in any other part. Ben-Hur turned out to be her last film.

I have to admit that I kind of like Charlton Heston. He was really a man of his generation, which is pretty much gone for good now, including him, though he was active in an often outrageous, frequently hilarious and to me somewhat endearing way up to the early 2000s. Of course as one of the last visible and combative elders of the World War II generation the ever obnoxious baby boomers were sniping at him to the very end, at which point he had alzheimer's and probably didn't know what he was saying half the time. I'm sure he was a more genial man to talk to in person than most baby boomers of similar stature would be. Though he became famous late in his life as a right wing caricature, he did not vote for a Republican presidential candidate until Nixon in 1972 when he was nearly fifty years old, which was an election when a lot of people of roughly his age decided things had gone a bit far and switched side. He did not officially register as a Republican and become the activist on their behalf that he is thought of as now until he was in his 60s. I suspect that in the 2030s, when I am 64 or so, I will appear to younger people to be the embodiment of a conservative reactionary, they'll regard me as Samuel Johnson regarded the old Puritans who were still hanging around scowling at everybody when he was a boy. I hope it doesn't happen, but we've all seen that old men, especially if things have always gone along pretty well for them in life, don't as a group take much to change, which eventually comes to some point that they just can't go across.    

The next five star movie on the list is the cartoon Aladdin, which I am not going to watch. It is not a favorite of my children, though they saw it once, or the older ones did, a few years back, and what I saw of it I didn't like. So I am recording it as done here.

The incident from Ben-Hur that made the greatest impression on me was the part during the chariot race when Messala, who has by that point long established himself as the embodiment of Roman tyranny and cruelty for the sake of cruelty, lays off from lashing his horses for a moment and in a furious rage begins to lash Ben Hur, his childhood best friend whom he has already sent to the galleys for three years, with the intention that he never return. I was struck by the capacity that Messala had to hate another man that much for what appeared to me at the time no apparent reason, because I did not understand the exchange in the beginning when Ben-Hur refuses to sell out his people to give smoother sailing to Messala's political ambitions. It seemed something worth noting to me.

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