Thursday, June 28, 2007

Let's Go Out to the Movies

By Drew

Let’s talk a bit about movies.

Back in the days when I subscribed to both Crisis and The American Spectator, the sections I invariably turned to first were the book and movie reviews. James Bowman, the movie critic for the Spectator, and Terry Teachout, his equal at Crisis, often provided the most interesting reading in the issue. So what could be better than a post that incorporates good stuff from each one of them?

Terry writes about the most recent American Film Institute list of the 100 greatest American movies. Now, I’m not much into a list like this; in the first place, it’s confined to American movies, which leaves out some brilliant foreign films. Furthermore, what exactly is an “American” movie? Is it one set in America, produced by Americans, starring Americans? Is there a material difference between an American movie about World War II set in Britain starring British actors and a British movie of the same type? And what about Lawrence of Arabia (#7 on the list), which had nothing to do with America at all?

Be that as it may, we’ll take this list with its limitations. My point in bringing this up was that I was struck by the number of movies on the list that Terry hadn’t seen but I had: Raging Bull, Lawrence of Arabia, Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, Rocky, The Fellowship of the Ring, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Sparticus, Blade Runner, Toy Story. (For a brief moment I even imagined myself flattered by the difference, until reality intruded to remind me that the man also sees operas, ballet, and Broadway plays and musicals.)

I was also intrigued by the movies that Terry singled out as his ten favorite from the list: Citizen Kane, Singin’ in the Rain, Vertigo, The Searchers, Sunset Blvd., Chinatown, All About Eve, Double Indemnity, North by Northwest, and Sullivan’s Travels. I’ve seen a good number of these as well, but not all – Sunset Blvd. and All About Eve have never made it on to my TV set. I thought Citizen Kane fascinating technically but somewhat overrated, The Searchers (like so many John Ford movies) overwhelmed by its purplish music, and Sullivan’s Travels a terrific movie that faded in the stretch. Vertigo was disturbing, Chinatown a movie that landed on my own 10 best list. Singin’ in the Rain comes from a genre (musicals) that is far from my favorite and stars an actor (Gene Kelly) I’ve never been a fan of, yet it manages to avoid so many of the clichés that plague musicals (the “misunderstanding” between lovers that threatens their relationship, for example) and features a scene-stealing performance by Donald O’Connor.

Conversely, Terry dismisses several of the movies from his “haven’t seen” list that happen to be among my favorites: Lawrence, for instance, or Apocalypse Now (the original, not Redux). Raiders was fun, if not great art, and I probably liked The Deer Hunter more than some (although I recall with fondness the comment from one observer that at the moment the film was named Best Picture at the Oscars, the audience reacted as if “they’d asked a girl to the prom, and to their horror she accepted.”) Sparticus was preachy though, (some fine performances, particularly by Peter Ustinov, but for a more interesting interpretation of the Sparticus story I’d recommend Koestler’s novel The Gladiators), and Blade Runner was, frankly, almost incomprehensible (with or without the narriation).

At any rate, if nothing else it shows that movie criticism is subjective. One man’s trash is another’s treasure. But at the same time, I can’t help feeling that – like music – there are some standards out there that are undeniable, certain qualities that clearly define a movie as being “good” or “bad.” You could argue that a moral fulcrum is one of those qualities (see our previous discussion on truth and morality in art), and one of the things I always admired about James Bowman was that truth was not an irrelevancy for him when it came to reviewing movies. Oftentimes he would acknowledge the artistic merit of a film, while at the same time pointing out the moral, ideological, or historical failures that ultimately brought down the film.

For that reason, it’s always a pleasure to check out Bowman’s site. At present, for example, he’s writing on the changing role of heroes in movies (the transformation from Gary Cooper to John Wayne to Humphrey Bogart, for example). And this is probably worth a post in and of itself.

But what triggered my interest was a comment Bowman made in discussing the role of the movie epic. For that, let's go back and look at one of those movies on the AFI's list, the aforementioned Lawrence of Arabia.

Lawrence was often referred to as the first “intimate” or “literate” epic, by which it was meant that the movie actually attempted to provide some insight into the main characters, rather than being content to simply overwhelm the audience with spectacle (although it certainly did that as well). However (and I say this as one who has this movie on my ten-best list as well), even after having seen the movie four times (as well as owning a biography and an autobiography of T.E. Lawrence), I’m still left wondering if I really understood what David Lean was trying to say about Lawrence’s character. Does Lean (and his scriptwriter, Robert Bolt) mean to suggest by Lawrence’s ambiguities that he was ultimately incapable of being understood, or have I simply failed to understand what Lean was trying to say?

That’s one of the problems with movies that come from what Bowman, in quoting Judith Crist, refers to as “the ‘intellectual’ spectacular”:

The quotation marks around “intellectual” are meant to suggest (I think) a certain falseness about these films’ intellectual pretensions, and the glibness with which they supplied a popular audience, hungry for “culture,” with potted versions of history. Inspired partly by the post-war rage for psycho-therapy, the intellectual spectacular derived a lot of its kick from the illusion that this or that historical figure had been “explained” in terms of what, a few years later, were to be described as his “hang-ups.” Oh, so that’s what the Reformation or the Renaissance — or whatever large historical phenomenon you like — was all about.

While Bowman happens to make this comment in reference to the movie Becket (which Mitchell wrote about earlier here), he includes Lawrence and A Man for All Seasons as examples of this genre, that marks many of the signature movies of the late 60s and beyond. This desire for psychoanalysis in the movies extends, I think, to many of the achingly earnest socially relevant movies of that same period – movies such as In the Heat of the Night, Sparticus, and 12 Angry Men that sought to enter the minds of its protagonists in order to “understand” and, especially, “explain” their actions. (Note that having these characteristics doesn’t mean the movie can’t still be good – many of them, such as the two listed above, are marked by strong acting and well-written, if preachy, scripts.)

Whereas movies used to be content with telling a story, even a heroic story, the emphasis today is on the inscrutable nature of man, and the relativity of all that we naïve folks used to think we knew. It’s not all black-and-white, the filmmakers would have us believe today – according to them, there are so many shades of grey we may never find out the truth, if in fact it even exists. This could be as good an explanation as any as to why the Western, which has generally been understood as a allegorical morality play, has virtually disappeared from movie screens (Clint Eastwood notwithstanding). Exceptions to this rule, and there are some, become more notable for daring to take such a stance. At any rate, one can suggest that this trait has diminished the movies in some way. Escapist fare has yielded to deep analysis, and in the crime story it becomes more and more difficult to tell the good guys from the bad.

Yes, it can be hard to find good movies to see nowadays (Teachout has mentioned how he's practically given up going to movie theaters) - but reading literate criticism from writers like these two, and others such as John Simon, reminds us of the fun movies used to be, and the delight a good one can still produce.

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