February 17, 2012
As mentioned in Wednesday’s post, guessing which shorts will win an Academy Award is often the hardest part of Oscar office pools. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been handing out Oscars for animated and live action shorts since 1931, and for documentary shorts since 1941. Few mainstream viewers ever see these titles, making predictions about them the equivalent of playing darts while blindfolded.
Animated shorts tend to be easier to judge than live-action shorts. Cartoons are either funny, beautiful, compelling—or not. Live-action shorts, on the other hand, are more like miniature versions of feature films. As such, they can range from abstract and experimental to conservative, even classical in style, and from melodramatic to slapstick in approach. In judging them, you have to take into account a wider range of expectations than for cartoons.
As I’ve argued before, television has taken over the role once played by shorts. Without commercials, broadcast sitcoms are about 22 minutes long, roughly the same length as a two-reel short. For better or worse, the five nominees for live-action shorts are essentially television shows. More ambitious, perhaps, and in some cases with classier actors and production values, but all in all they are surprisingly, even disappointingly, conventional. Some are tall tales spun out a bit too long, some are sentimental to a fault, but frankly none moved me as much as a typical episode of The Good Wife.
In alphabetical order:
Pentecost, written and directed by Peter McDonald. Financed in part by the Irish Film Board, this short comedy takes place in a small parish in 1977. The archbishop is coming to visit, and disgraced altar boy Damien Lynch is given a chance to redeem himself as thurifer during Mass. Before the service, a sexton gives a pep talk to the servers, much as a coach would do to athletes before a game. McDonald throws in an underdeveloped subplot about soccer, but this is a very slender piece whose ending might mean more to Irish viewers still breaking free from the grip of the Roman Catholic Church.
Raju, directed by Max Zähle. If anything cries out “Oscar bait” among the live-action nominees, it’s this crisis of liberal guilt. A European couple adopts an Indian child only to uncover troubling inconsistencies in the youth’s background. Shot on location in Calcutta, Raju has a gritty look and feel to go along with its manipulative story line. The film might have been more persuasive as a documentary, but then director Zähle wouldn’t have had the opportunity to focus so deeply on his characters’ emotions.
The Shore, written and directed by Terry George. Financed in part by the Northern Ireland Film Commission, The Shore is a story of forgiveness and reconciliation played out among the vernal landscapes of suburban Belfast. As a teenager, Joe flees the “troubles” in Northern Ireland for the U.S., returning 25 years later to confront the people he left behind. With his haunted eyes and mournful visage, the accomplished actor Ciarán Hinds (who has a supporting role in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) is perfectly cast as the stoic Joe. Terry George, who earned Oscar nominations for writing In the Name of the Father and Hotel Rwanda, wraps up the sentimental plot a little too patly, but The Shore is still a polished if middlebrow piece of entertainment.
Time Freak, written and directed by Andrew Bowler, moves quickly and engagingly in telling a tall tale about time travel. Starring Michael Nathanson as a science geek obsessed with detail, the film reworks the great feature comedy Groundhog Day to pretty good effect. Bowler draws his characters and settings with sharp strokes, but Time Freak is a one-joke idea that, unlike Groundhog Day, never develops beyond its cute gimmick.
Tuba Atlantic, directed by Hallvar Witzø. My personal favorite among the nominees, but then I love Norway so much I watch television shows like Fjellfolk even though I don’t speak the language. Scandinavian humor is an acquired taste, and a comedy about a lonely, bitter farmer with six days left to live will strike many as too dark and morbid. Oskar (played by Edvard Hægstad) wants to die alone, but the local Jesus Club has sent Inger (Ingrid Viken), a blond teenager, to be his “Angel of Death.” Naive but determined, Inger consults a Road to Death guidebook about the five stages of dying before dispensing advice (and sleeping pills). Oskar, meanwhile, must decide whether to contact his long-estranged brother Jon before it’s too late. The premise behind Tuba Atlantic may be grim, but the film succeeds due to its understated acting and agreeably deadpan jokes.
February 10, 2012
This year Hollywood offers two variations on romance movies for Valentine’s Day. The Vow, an old-fashioned tearjerker, is loosely based on a true story, although it also owes some of its narrative inspiration to Random Harvest, a 1942 MGM melodrama based on a James Hilton novel and starring Ronald Colman and Greer Garson. Both films see love as a sort of minefield or obstacle course in which fate tries to keep people apart, in this case through amnesia.
It’s a ploy that storytellers have used for centuries—not necessarily amnesia, but some outside force that prevents lovers like Romeo and Juliet, Guinevere and Lancelot, Beatrice and Dante from finding happiness. In films like 7th Heaven and Gone With the Wind, Hollywood seized upon war as a means of separating lovers. Other, trickier devices have included car accidents (Love Affair), an arrest for pickpocketing (Remember the Night), brain tumors (Dark Victory), domineering mothers (Now Voyager), jealous wives (In Name Only), jealous husbands (The Postman Always Rings Twice), clowning around on a speedboat (Magnificent Obsession), politics (The Way We Were), ice bergs (Titanic), and murder (Ghost).
A lot of the classic Hollywood romances look cruel today, with heroes and heroines martyring themselves for the sake of love. The lovers in Brief Encounter both choose unhappiness to avoid hurting their families. The only way Ingrid Bergman can prove her love for Cary Grant in Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious is to allow herself to be poisoned by a Nazi.
On the other hand, there’s This Means War, a romantic comedy in which love is a battle between two contestants vying for the same person. The roots of This Mean War come from one of Hollywood’s favorite formulas, the romantic triangle. It’s one that goes back to silent clowns like Mabel Normand and Charlie Chaplin, but which found its greatest success in the screwball romances of the 1930s.
With The Awful Truth (1937), director Leo McCarey (who was also responsible for Love Affair) came up with a story line that Hollywood has plundered repeatedly. (To be fair, The Awful Truth was based on a play that had been filmed twice before.) Cary Grant and Irene Dunne play a wealthy, glamorous couple who through sheer stubbornness wind up in divorce court. The audience knows they are meant for each other, but McCarey keeps finding plot complications to keep them apart: a Tulsa oilman, a nightclub dancer, even their pet dog. In the course of the film Grant and Dunne get to express emotions like desire, jealousy, and anger that are often shunted aside when things like war and brain tumors come into play.
The screwball comedy, as films like The Awful Truth came to be called, is where Hollywood really excelled at depicting romance. Movies like The Lady Eve, It Happened One Night, The Thin Man, The More the Merrier took viewers right into the give and take of love, with its ever shifting balance of power and its constant outside threats.
Both The Vow and This Means War were originally supposed to open on Valentine’s Day, just as the Warner Bros. omnibus film called Valentine’s Day did last year. But folks at 20th Century Fox apparently got cold feet going up against The Vow and pushed the opening of This Means War back to February 17 (apart from some sneak preview screenings).
If that’s too long to wait, you can find remnants of the screwball formula in films like Something’s Gotta Give and You’ve Got Mail, although they seem too labored and desperate for many viewers. And there’s usually a Katherine Heigl comedy around somewhere (currently the aptly named One for the Money), even as her reputation in the industry plummets.
The best romance movies I’ve seen lately have come from Asia. Released in 2008, If You Are the One focused on a middle-aged bachelor’s search for love. Starring Ge You and Shu Qi, it outgrossed Titanic in China, and led to a sequel and a reality TV show. Or there’s Don’t Go Breaking My Heart (2010), in which an architect and a banker compete over a working girl. Directed by Johnnie To, Don’t Go Breaking My Heart is funny and rueful in equal parts, just the way Hollywood used to make them.
December 16, 2011
If you’re reading this blog, your interests probably extend beyond current DVD and Blu-Ray releases. This is a great time to collect obscure titles as the industry scours its vaults to make one last killing in the home video market. And the holidays are a great excuse to stock up on movies. But get them while you can: there doesn’t seem to be a way to stop the trend to the cloud.
As a critic I get a lot of screeners. They are both a blessing and a bane, especially as the piles of unwatched DVDs teeter higher around the TV every day. I’ve also reached the age where it’s better to get rid of things than add to them. So it takes something special to convince me to spend more money on a technology that will soon be obsolete. Like the five titles listed below. Some are guilty pleasures, some required viewing.
1. Seven Chances. Kino has been doing a tremendous job releasing Buster Keaton’s oeuvre on Blu-ray and DVD. Any of the comic’s features would make a wonderful gift, but Seven Chances, from 1925, is one of his lesser-known works. Plus it just came out in an “Ultimate Edition” with a newly restored color for the opening reel. (Eric Grayson gives an absorbing account of the restoration on his Dr. Film blog.) Based on a Roi Cooper Megrue play, it’s a sort of variation on Brewster’s Millions, with Keaton playing a financier who has to marry by 7:00 p.m. in order to inherit $7 million. It’s delightful to see the comedian in a relatively sophisticated role, just as it’s always a treat to see his athleticism emerge in carefully worked out gags that in my opinion have never really been equaled. Just as worthwhile is Buster Keaton: The Short Films Collection (1920-1923), a two-disc set that includes some of the finest comedy shorts ever made.
2. The Rules of the Game. This 1939 Jean Renoir film examined the French social structure in such a pitiless light that it provoked a riot on its release. A shaken Renoir tried re-editing it, but soon left France for the United States. The negative was lost during World War II, and so essentially was the film until it was reconstructed in 1959. An account of a weekend party at a country chateau, the film veers from comedy to tragedy without ever losing its wry, detached tone. Bravura passages, like an unnerving hunt in the fields, and cinematography that predicts the New Wave twenty years later make The Rules of the Game seem timeless. This is one of the great masterpieces of cinema, and if you haven’t seen it you owe yourself this excellent Criterion edition. (And check out some other great films in the Criterion Collection, like Carlos and Island of Lost Souls.)
3. Havana Widows. “Pre-Code” refers to a brief period between the transition from silents to sound and the imposition of stricter censorship regulations in 1934. For years pre-Code films were regarded as creaky antiques and largely neglected by studios. Now, thanks to growing demand, it’s easier for us to appreciate their looser morals and racy, occasionally raunchy subject matter. Warner Bros. made the fastest and funniest pre-Code films, like this 1933 romp starring Joan Blondell and Glenda Farrell as blondes on the make. Somehow the plot has them stripping down to their lingerie with surprising frequency. Havana Widows will never be mistaken for a Jean Renoir film, but as escapist entertainment it’s hard to top. (It’s paired on this made-to-order disk with another Blondell feature, I’ve Got Your Number.)
4. Popeye the Sailor 1933–1938. Warner Home Video has released three collections of Popeye cartoons, but I think this is the best. It includes Popeye’s first screen appearance (in the Betty Boop cartoon Popeye the Sailor) as well as his two-reel Technicolor extravaganza, Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor. More important, it includes titles like I Yam What I Yam, The Dance Contest, For Better or Worser, and A Dream Walking that helped establish Popeye, Olive Oyl, Bluto, and Wimpy as some of the most popular cartoon characters on screen. You might be surprised how gruff, funny, and adult the pre-Code Popeye’s muttering can be.
5. Remember the Night. Over the years this has become my favorite Christmas movie, perhaps because its humor and romance are tinged with so much remorse and loss. Barbara Stanwyck plays an unrepentant thief, Fred MacMurray an up-and-coming assistant district attorney, and through a masterful set-up by screenwriter Preston Sturges, both have to spend the Christmas holidays with MacMurray’s angelic mother Beulah Bondi on her farm in Indiana. One part sparkling comedy, one part aching romance, one part harsh reality, the film sets a mood that I find unshakable. An early scene of Stanwyck and MacMurray dancing to “Back Home Again in Indiana” never fails to bring me to tears. Making small talk, MacMurray asks Stanwyck if her mother is still alive. Her response—”I hope so”—shows how deeply the film can cut.
Editor’s note: There is one book for film buffs that Daniel didn’t mention: his own! America’s Film Legacy, 2009-2010: A Viewers Guide lays out everything you need to know about the 50 newest additions to the National Film Registry, including Dog Day Afternoon, The Muppet Movie and lesser-known films akin to what you’ve read here on the blog. If you enjoy Reel Culture, you’ll enjoy his book.
November 16, 2011
A recent posting on Smithsonian‘s history blog Past Imperfect, The Skinny on the Fatty Arbuckle Trial, discusses at length the murder case that helped ruin the comedian’s career. Since his films disappeared from the screen in the 1920s, Arbuckle (who personally disliked the nickname “Fatty,” preferring his given name Roscoe) has become a sort of shorthand for movie scandals. When news shows trot out montages of Hollywood sex scandals, his photo is invariably included. By neglecting to mention that the actor was exonerated, This Film Is Not Yet Rated, a 2006 documentary about the film ratings system, implies that Arbuckle was guilty of manslaughter in the death of actress Virginia Rappe.
Lost in the lurid hoopla is an understanding of Arbuckle’s standing in the history of cinema. He is one of the key figures in film comedy, as important in some ways as pioneers like Mack Sennett, who hired him to work at his Keystone studio in 1913. Arbuckle was on stage by the age of eight, and spent a decade touring the country as an actor and dancer. It was the kind of training the great screen clowns like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton received. The experience taught Arbuckle how to play any kind of scene or situation, from rube to aristocrat, rural to urban, slapstick to melodrama. He knew what made a joke work, what endeared characters to theatergoers, and how far he could push a gag. Like the best screen comedians, Arbuckle knew how to make anyone laugh in a manner so effortless that it seems magical.
At Keystone, Sennett at first employed Arbuckle as a fat man, the butt of jokes. He didn’t originate the type on screen—the corpulent John Bunny, the first well-known film comedian, had made a string of successful movies at Vitagraph. Indeed, it’s a stereotype that appears throughout culture: think of the Greek god Bacchus, or Shakespeare’s Falstaff.
Arbuckle flourished on screen, starring in a wide gamut of films that appeared almost weekly. He built a stock company of actors and technicians, began overseeing his scripts, and eventually became a director. He teamed with Mabel Normand in a series of domestic comedies that set a template for today’s television sitcoms, and held his own with comic stars like Charlie Chaplin. At the same time, he helped develop a new type of screen comedy, one based more on psychology than pratfalls, one that could examine the motives and feelings of its characters instead of just hurling them into slapstick chases.
Perhaps because of his dance training, Arbuckle was an uncommonly graceful performer, adept at comic falls but also at sleight of hand. He loved working with props, juggling everything from frying pans to vases, and he loved stretching out routines. Good Night, Nurse, for example, opens with a three-minute scene in which he tries to light a cigarette in the driving rain.
Arbuckle was also a fearless performer who would try anything for a laugh. He could be casually subversive, employing ghoulish black comedy in Good Night, Nurse, with its hints of dismemberment and murder at a sanitarium. He frequently dressed in drag, enjoyed the kind of violent jokes that would become standard in cartoons, and could be casually contemptuous of the status quo. On screen he was a man of enormous appetites—immature, irreverent, disdainful of authority and obsessed with sex in a weirdly adolescent way.
Just as important as his performing style, Arbuckle worked out new ways to film comedy. He used unusual angles to emphasize jokes, experimented with point of view to involve viewers more closely with characters, and found new ways to exploit technology. Watch how the camera slowly goes out of focus when his character is sedated in Good Night, Nurse. Or how carefully he frames his jokes in The Garage.
Like Chaplin, Arbuckle outgrew Keystone. He moved to New York, where producer Joseph Schenck established the Comique Film Corporation for him. In 1917, Arbuckle met Buster Keaton, at the time a vaudeville star, and convinced him to try movies. The fourteen subsequent films they made together document one of the best comic teams ever captured on film. Arbuckle taught Keaton the fundamentals of cinema, while Keaton helped hone his mentor’s comic skills. In 1920, Arbuckle signed a contract with Paramount, the first comedian to make the switch from shorts to feature films.
His screen persona worked against him when he was arrested after Rappe’s death. Stirred up by sensational newspaper accounts of debauchery, Americans were perfectly willing to believe that Arbuckle was guilty. When the truth became apparent, it was too late to save his career. Fortunately, many of his films survive. They rank with the best of the silent comedies. Ironically, it is their sense of innocence and wonder that distinguishes them from the more calculating slapstick shorts of the period. Fatty and Mabel Adrift, for example, displays a sunny, rural surrealism that has no real equivalent in films of the time.
Consciously or not, Arbuckle’s influence continues to be felt on screen and television. Keaton reworked many of the gags from the films he made with Arbuckle in his own series of shorts and features. Arbuckle’s nephew Al St. John had a long screen career. Hollywood loves the stereotype Arbuckle inhabited: from Oliver Hardy down through Sydney Greenstreet, Laird Cregar and Peter Ustinov. In recent years John Belushi, John Candy and Chris Farley met untimely ends; John Goodman, George Wendt, Kevin Smith and others follow in the screen tradition established by John Bunny and Roscoe Arbuckle.
November 4, 2011
The lag between current events and their appearance in films is hard to explain at times. It’s been almost three years since Bernard Madoff was arrested, for example, and Hollywood is just getting around to criticizing him in the amiable but toothless Tower Heist. Movies that dealt with the 2008 economic collapse—like Company Men and the more recent Margin Call—felt outdated when they were released, no matter how good their intentions.
The film industry isn’t opposed to tackling social issues as long as a consensus has formed around them. Movies have always defended orphans, for example, and can be counted upon to condemn crimes like murder and theft. (In fact, a Production Code put into effect in the late 1920s ordered filmmakers to do so.) From the early days of cinema, the rich have always been a reliable target, even though the message within individual titles might be mixed. Filmmakers like Cecil B. DeMille and studios like MGM loved detailing how luxuriously the wealthy lived before showing that they were just as unhappy as the poor. And in some films, like Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (1924), the poor were vicious and cruel.
Like Greed, D.W. Griffith’s A Corner in Wheat (1909) was adapted from works by Frank Norris, a San Francisco-based writer who died before completing a trilogy of novels about American business. A Corner in Wheat attempted to show how a greedy businessman inflicted starvation on the poor, but worked better as sort of moving picture version of a political cartoon. Other filmmakers followed Griffith’s example with more insight but largely the same message. As the Depression took hold, features like Wild Boys of the Road, Heroes for Sale (both 1933) and Little Man, What Now? (1934) portrayed the country’s economic downturn as the result of mysterious, even unknowable forces.
Comedians actually did a better job depicting economic conditions than did more serious directors, perhaps because many screen clowns positioned themselves as outsiders. In shorts like Easy Street and The Immigrant, Charlie Chaplin took poverty as a given, and immersed viewers into the lives of the poor. The jokes in his feature Modern Times had serious things to say about the impact of assembly lines and surveillance monitors on workers. It also aligned Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” screen persona firmly with the left when he picks up a red construction flag and inadvertently finds himself leading a Communist march.
Buster Keaton made an even more daring connection in his short Cops, filmed not that long after anarchists exploded a bomb on Wall Street. Riding a horse-drawn wagon through a parade of policemen, Keaton’s character uses a terrorist’s bomb to light a cigarette. It’s a stark, blackly humorous moment that must have rattled viewers at the time.
Today’s Occupy Wall Street protests are reminiscent of the tent cities and shanty towns that sprung up across the United States during the Depression. Sometimes called “Hoovervilles,” they were the focal points of often violent clashes between the homeless and authorities. My Man Godfrey (1936) opens in a shanty town and landfill on Manhattan’s East Side, and details with cool, precise humor the gulf between the rich and the poor. Unusually for the time, director Gregory La Cava offered a cure of sorts to unemployment by getting the rich to build a night club where the shanty town stood. In It’s a Gift, one of the best comedies of the decade, W.C. Fields treats a migrant camp as a simple adjunct to his story, an exotic backdrop where he spends a night during his trip to California. It’s a brave gesture for a character who could have been swamped in despair.
Fields’ journey to a West Coast promised land evokes the Dust Bowl migration documented by John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath. When adapting the film version, director John Ford sent camera crews into actual labor camps to document conditions accurately. With its uncompromising screenplay and superb acting, The Grapes of Wrath (1940) stands as one of the finest films to address economic inequality.
Released the following year, Sullivan’s Travels, a comedy written and directed by Preston Sturges, included a sobering, seven-minute montage of soup kitchens, breadlines, flop houses, and missions. The film’s main character, a pampered director of lamebrained comedies like Hay Hay in the Hayloft, sets out to find the “real” America by disguising himself as a hobo. The lessons he learns are as provocative today as when the film was originally released.
World War II changed the focus of Hollywood features. Training barracks and battlefields replaced slums and tent cities as the film industry embraced the war effort. Social problems still existed after the war, of course, but in message dramas like The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), filmmakers tried to offer solutions—to unemployment among veterans, for example. In the 1950s, movies zeroed in on individuals and their neuroses rather than on a collective society. A Place in the Sun (1951) stripped away most of the social commentary from the original Theodore Dreiser novel An American Tragedy to concentrate on the dreamy romance between stars Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor. Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1954) was more about a former boxer’s crisis of conscience than it was about a system than exploited dockworkers. Rebel Without a Cause (1955) reduced juvenile delinquency to a teen’s romantic and familial problems.
In the 1960s, Hollywood began to lose its taste for social dramas, preferring to target films to a younger audience. Message films are still released, of course: Norma Rae, Silkwood, The Blind Side, Courageous. But more often than not the message in today’s films is hidden in the nooks and crannies of plots. Is Battle: Los Angeles about our military preparedness? What does Cars 2 say about our dependence on foreign oil? Filmmakers seem to have taken to heart the old line attributed to Samuel Goldwyn. “If you want to send a message,” the producer said, “call Western Union.”