Here’s how I spent the last three months of the year, checking out some celebrated new releases and revisiting some old favorites.
My original intention last month was to chronicle the films I screened as I went—and as usual, that fell victim to other things. But there was another consideration. The further I went into the month, the more I realized that film noir is less about any single film and more about a series of themes and tropes. That it might be preferable to consider the power behind the form, why it matters now, even if the medium is rooted in a series of outmoded archetypes.
The last film I saw last month, David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001), frankly, gave me very little choice, such as it is not only a distillation of noir elements but also a comment and ultimately, a deconstruction of them. The film at once reminds us that such elements are eternal while at the same time rendering them as archaic and formulaic as the Betty-and-Veronica duality that sits at the heart of the story. In that regard, it might be regarded as the eulogy for the form, as Lynch seems to be telling us that its basic tenets—the detective story, the femme fatale, the underbelly of Los Angeles, the shadowy menace—are best viewed as totems now rather than actual storytelling devices, that they have been internalized by the audience to such an extent that any idea of playing it straight is futile.
Do we get the dystopia that we deserve?
While “Her” was largely billed as an offbeat romance (God, help us), at its heart it’s the story of a near future nearly as terrifying as the one that features Skynet and The Terminator, one that seems more than plausible. Indeed, in its version of a future Los Angeles, it’s almost as chilling as Blade Runner’s.
Is love difficult for Hollywood to capture because it isn’t real?
Okay, let’s try not to be so existential. I’m not looking to be cute. Love, or at least what we think as love, we experience in various forms, to varying degrees. It assumes the shape of loyalty, attachment, desire, inspiration, lust, warmth, friendship, empathy, commonality, electricity. It lasts lifetimes. Or it atomizes in three hours. Or two weeks. Or five years.
“We’ve been coming to the same party for 12 years now, and in no way is that depressing.”
Way, way, way behind so I won’t spend a lot of time talking about two movies that don’t deserve much in the way of substantive criticism.
Blake Edwards’ 10 was my inaugural choice for watching Netflix on TV through my Wii. (Hell, “wii” sounds a little dirty, so why not watch a film that shoots for same level of adolescent naughtiness.) And with Edwards recently passing away, it seemed like a good time to revisit a film that, while not among Edwards’ best work, served briefly as a cultural touchstone, one to which my 13-year-old self (with cable TV no less) keenly paid attention.
They don’t really make American sex farces like 10 anymore; they’re a victim of altered sexual politics. We’ve grown up a little. Dudley Moore’s George seems a bit bemused and befuddled, even on the cusp of the 80s, to discover young women who seem to be in charge of their own sexual appetites and whose definitions of monogamy are as flexible as his.
These aren’t the best films ever made—or ones recommended for essential viewing. Few of them could even be called classics–and none is about to play at an art house. Instead, here’s a list of movies that simply give me pleasure whenever I return to them. They’re more like your mother’s stuffing. Somehow you don’t grow tired of it.
In no particular order:
The Big Sleep (1946)
From the moment Humphrey Bogart’s Philip Marlowe walks into the Sternwood mansion and meets Carmen Sternwood, played by the electric Martha Vickers, Howard Hawks’ mystery takes us into a world of sharply drawn characters, all of whom engage Marlowe with sharp-edged, tart dialogue, usually either challenging or flirtatious.
Laura Linney considers the better films that lie ahead.
Directed by Gregory Hoblit
Written by Steve Shagan (based on the William Diehl novel)
Starring Richard Gere, Laura Linney. Edward Norton
One of the more enjoyable aspects of this film blog is that, as my cinema aptitude grows, I can go back and view movies with which I thought I was familiar using, in a sense, new eyes.
I never considered Primal Fear as great art, but I have always enjoyed the performances and the plot, as tangled as it is. Now, however, its strengths, and especially its weaknesses, are clearer to me.
But first a word why movies like this are so appealing. As much as the Western or the heist film, courtroom thrillers are a genre staple. (See Anatomy of a Murder, below). So in one sense, Primal Fear isn’t very interesting at all–and at times it teeters close to the generic: the showy defense attorney, the needy client, the venomous prosecutor, the no-nonsense judge. They are all here.
Movies like these exploded onto the market during the 1990s, much of it fueled by the fiction market ruled by writers such as John Grisham. So beyond Primal Fear (based on a book by William Diehl), you had The Client (1994), the wretched A Time to Kill (1996), which makes Primal Fear feel like The Passion of Joan of Arc, and The Rainmaker (1997). You had A Few Good Men (1992) and A Civil Action (1998).
Most of these films provided some satisfaction, mainly in the sort of one-man-against-the-system drama that has always been a cinema hallmark, with a healthy dose of legal mumbo-jumbo, courtroom galleries that frequently gasp in unison, and a broad range of characters.
So where the hell have they gone? The courtroom movie and its cousin, the urban thriller, the likes of which were the province of directors such as Sidney Lumet, seem to have left us and largely have migrated to television. Much of this has to do with the move toward spectacle films and an even fuller embrace of the youth market.
You’ll have to excuse me. I wasn’t expecting to find an American girl on a British ship in the middle of the South Pacific during the Napoleonic Wars.
Directed by Raoul Walsh
Based on the novels by C.S. Forester
Starring Gregory Peck, Virginia Mayo
I pretty much got what I wanted with this Warner Brothers historical actioner, a lot of cannonade and “clear for action.” Using irrefutable Hollywood logic, a series of novels about a Royal Navy officer stars British actors in every role except the two leads. Oh well. Peck is at least stolid enough to make you think he’s was schooled across the pond. Warners apparently sought Peck after concluding that the young Burt Lancaster wasn’t right for the part.
You’re no Donna Reed–and that’s okay by me.
Directed by Otto Preminger
Written by Wendell Mayes
Starring James Stewart, Ben Gazzara, Lee Remick
It is said of the classic movie stars that they were people you liked spending time with. The knock on the Cary Grants and John Waynes, of course, is that they were just playing themselves, playing the same role again and again.
There’s much truth in that, but there’s also something to be said for consistency of performance–and for plain old personality. I was reminded of this recently while on an extended road trip. I had inserted a DVD of Anatomy of a Murder into my laptop so I could watch it whenever I had some down time. As it happened, I ended up watching a 160-minute movie over the course of a week.
That doesn’t sound like much of an endorsement for a film, but Anatomy felt more like a tightly-written thriller than you enjoy returning to again and again. (You also end up re-watching scenes repeatedly, as you might reread a page where you have a bookmark.) The main reason why I was in no hurry for the film to end was Jimmy Stewart.
Jimmy Stewart spent the summer learnin’ how to shoot.
It’s been a good summer for watching films, but not one for writing about them. And with each mini-essay I wrote in my head in concert with the film on the TV, the pressure to turn those scraps of thought into a coherent product built.
Ultimately, that pressure gave way to a new realization. That those essays are not happening. There was also a multi-week diversion attributable to getting caught up on “Mad Men.”
So, instead, here’s a roll call of some of the movies I experienced for the first time over the last eight weeks, with a line or two of how they struck me.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) dir. by John Ford.
What happened to the John Ford who so faithfully sought out to faithfully recreate the rituals of the Army cavalry in the Old West? Liberty Valance is so stage-bound that it looks like TV western. John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart are far too old for their parts. The dramatic reveal is obvious from the title of the movie.
So why does it work? Ford had increasingly been boiling down his work so it that it worked most predominantly on the thematic level, often in highly idealized settings.
The Ireland in The Quiet Man (1952) is more like a dream that Irish-Americans have of the auld country than reality. The Searchers (1956) seems to be almost a parable about hate and revenge.
Wayne’s race-hatred was outdated in that film and his entire character and way of life is passing from the scene in Liberty Valance. (Wayne, of course, would go on to play many versions of this archetype in subsequent films.)
For me, the movie came alive in two late scenes: one in which Wayne’s character, Tom Doniphon, burns down the house he was constructing for his life with Hallie (Vera Miles) and the subsequent scene at the state nominating convention that codifies the movie’s themes about the triumph of the civil society over the lawlessness of the Old West.
By the way, an early “Mad Men” episode contains a Liberty Valance spoiler, so watch carefully.