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Archive for December, 2010

Gone With The Wind (1939)

Since grade school whenever I went to my nana’s house for an afternoon we were treated to her large collection of Disney films and various VHS tapes she had picked up over the years. To this day an unwrapped double VHS copy of Gone With The Wind has sat among those films. In all that time I never watched the film. For many this film goes hand in hand with watching The Wizard of Oz from an early age. I was not one of those people. So as I watched the picture for the first time last week I did not find myself swept up in the romance or the grandeur of a by-gone Hollywood era.

It was a kick to see Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh utter some of the most well-known quotes in cinema history, but it was not enough to shake the drudgery of social conventions and the representation of race and gender throughout the film. I know some will argue that you must view a film as a product of the times, but in some areas it was just too much. I would argue that Butterfly McQueen’s alliteration, “I don’t know nothin’ ’bout birthin‘ babies!” single-handedly set back the image of black america in cinema for decades. That may be a tad extreme, but through Prissy, Mammy and Pork the film presents a woeful caricature of people enduring slave life.

Also, I did not feel any concern for Scarlett O’Hara. I was gleeful when Rhett finally leaves her at the film’s conclusion. Scarlett inhabits some of the worst qualities of the privileged. I understand that is the purpose of her character, but it is still unnerving. At the same time I do understand her motivations. Throughout the picture she is married and loses a partner three times all the while pining for the love and devotion of a fourth man. Although, I was never convinced she loved any man. On reconsideration this is the most challenging and interesting aspect of Scarlett’s character.

There are several scenes which highlight the independent streak that runs though Scarlett, but none more so than one set in her second husband’s lumber mill. After usurping her sister’s engagement Scarlett marries Frank Kennedy and begins to run his business affairs and even purchases a saw mill. The film highlights this by including a scene of Scarlett running the factory herself. In a medium shot the camera places Scarlett in the center of the frame with employees and her husband appearing on each side. This shot is on the second level of the saw mill and in the background the shot shows the workers (inmate labors) below toiling away. The composition of the shot places all power and importance on Scarlett. Vivien Leigh is electric in the scene, her eyes scanning blueprints while barking orders at workers and her husband alike. This scene boils Scarlett’s character down to her most base elements and highlights her drive to succeed in business. It is the clearest display of Scarlet acting on her previously restrained desire and ambition.

Heralded as a classic and essential viewing for anyone who aspires to study film, I was not enchanted by this picture. It may be do to the time in life I first saw it, my trouble with the film’s themes or my familiarity with the quotes and more famous scenes. Whatever the reason I do not intend to see the film again any time soon. The grand scale of the picture is remarkable and I doubt it could be made in the current Hollywood climate. On that level the film is worth a look. For my money though there is no beating the intensity of Vivien Leigh’s eyes during the saw mill scene.

Rating: 3/5

Until next time, Cheers!

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Easy Rider (1969)

Over the past week I have attempted to watch Easy Rider several times. I had an avi. file of the film, but recently got a high-definition copy. Before viewing the film I had some trepidation, because of a comment my mother made years ago. This was back when I was still in high school. Sitting in the living room watching AMC a commercial for the film came on to which my mom said, “I cannot handle that film” or “I have very bad memories of that film.” This was out of character for a person who rarely says more than whether she liked a film or that “the characters swore too much.”

My mind went a bit nutty from this comment. I started to imagine a entire sequence of events regarding my mom’s experience with the film. In 1969 when the film was released my mom would have been 19 and a prime target for the audience of this film. Thinking about this in combination with the film’s themes I could only believe that my mom and her California hippy friends dropped acid before attending a matinée screening. This logically led to my mom having small psychotic break during the films own infamous ‘acid scene’ and abrupt conclusion. However, for a young high school guy who had just seen Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream I could not imagine a more affecting drug film.

Well now some eight or nine years later I have seen the infamous film and of course in relation to the hype I brought to it, the reality was underwhelming. However, this was a wonderful thing. Instead of some demonic or disturbing probe into the fractured psyche of america citizens, it now seems to play like a postcard to the majesty of the endless highways and landscapes of the country. Laszlo Kovacs’ photography is astounding in its simplicity and depth. For nearly a third of the film the camera seems to be mounted on a truck filming alongside the main characters as they tool down the highway. Those along with extended tracking shots of highway scenery and rolling plains highlight the wonder of being out on the road. Having been away from the US for the better part of eight months it was a joy to see how beautiful the county can be.

After the opening title sequence and few of the above mentioned landscape shots I was on board with the film completely.  Most of the ‘plot’ fell by the wayside in favor of the cinematography. The events that happen through the film are mere blips along the journey of these men on the road. I imagine others have covered this aspect, but it cannot be denied. Rather than probing deep into a culture/class conflict or wondering how hippies will make it in a convent I was entirely focused on the joy Hopper and Fonda exuded anytime they hit the road. (Also, I love Jack Nicholson’s helmet!)

The soundtrack of the film also elevates the beautiful photography. From the title sequence “Born to be Wild” to the excellent use of Jimi Hendrix’s “If 6 was 9” as they enter New Orleans the film seamlessly pairs image and sound. It is no wonder that these songs have defined  ‘road tunes’ since the film’s release.

While there is always more to comment on these are a few sketches of the things I was struck by watching Easy Rider.

Rating: 4/5

Until next time, Cheers!

‘Best of’ Lists

Recently I have felt like I am in a phase of transition. It has a been a period of reflection on my part regarding the actual knowledge I have built up as an aspiring cinema and media scholar. This can be attributed to two things; applying to PhD schools and those gosh darn ‘best of’ lists.

I have always thought of myself as a movie buff and early on I made it a point to watch recommended films, blockbusters and any movie that might add to my collective film knowledge. Over the past several years I realize there are a vast amount of films that I have never come close to watching or even think about seeing.

While applying to PhD programs I have been taking ‘breaks’ by watching films from a seemingly endless list of ‘best of’ or ‘100 greatest lists.’ By and large I have seen the films that comprise the American Film Institutes’s (AFI) 100 series, however, within that group there are inevitably a handful from each I have not seen. In fact the comedy list from a few years ago is comprised with a majority of film from the 30’s and 40’s which I have never seen. Also, the combined Sight & Sound Best 10 polls over the past sixty years add another 20 films. Listing these films would be mundane, but anyone familiar with even a basic knowledge of cinema history will have seen or heard of these pictures.

I am pleased to report that I have made significant progress on these various lists and am increasingly encouraged by how wonderful cinema can be. Interesting enough many of these lists ignore Japanese and Asian cinema sans the absolute most well-known films or directors. Granted the AFI lists are composed only with US and some co-opted UK films (Third Man cough cough).

Anywho, since I have been making headway on these film lists I thought I would start posting comments. Not a review or critical analysis just a light sketch of impressions or things which stood out. In the past week I have seen quite a few so I will try to start posting them soon. Tonight, coincidentally is a Jack Nicholson double feature, Easy Rider (1969) and Chinatown (1974). In high school I purchased a VHS of Chinatown and have a vague recollection of seeing the film, but I feel it warrants another viewing. For instance I can only recall Nicholson’s nose being cut by a seedy character and the uber famous closing line of the film. Also, I only remember that line from a Simpsons reference where Moe tells homer, “Forget it Homer, it’s chiro-town,” in reference to an underhanded chiropractor ring that had been running through Springfield. (UPDATE: I totally forgot that the ‘seedy character’ is in fact director, Roman Polanski, a very ‘duh’ moment of recollection on my part)

To wrap up the goal of watching all these films is to provide this aspiring media scholar with a proper foundation in the most revered or well-known cinema which I have ignored up to this point. Hopefully this will result in less, “Oh I have heard of that and I need to see it” or the classic “I saw it a long time ago (see: NEVER), but I have forgotten large portions.” Most of all I do not want to be told a film is so ‘Godard’, ‘Fellini’ or ‘Melville’ again and doubt my own knowledge of film or question if they are just full of shit (when in doubt I go with the latter).

So this is the goal, lets see where the road takes us…

Until next time, Cheers!