Wednesday, August 27, 2008

#3: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929/30)

All Quiet On the Western Front

Winner of "Best Production" Category at the 1929/1930 Academy Awards (3rd annual ceremony)

After lots of Olympics and lots of life, I finally got a chance to sit down and watch All Quiet On the Western Front last Wednesday, August 27th.

The sound quality on the DVD wasn't spectacular, so I was happy to be able to turn on the subtitles.

I don't watch a lot of war movies, because, well...I know that war is stupid and pointless and apparently going to happen again and again. (Willa Cather probably said it best: "There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.") I can't stomach any movie that overly glorifies war, and as for a movie that highlights how stupid war really is, like I said, I know that. It's hard for me to watch a lot of pain and suffering in the limited time I have for my entertainment, because frankly, there's enough pain and suffering in the real world for my taste without having to see it on film or in theater, particularly if the movie or play does not help me somehow make sense of it all and order the world a little better.

And so it's interesting to me that the last two Best Picture films I have seen now have been about war, specifically World War I. Though the war had ended over a decade previous to the movie All Quiet on the Western Front, that didn't mean that people were done processing what had happened and trying to make sense of it all. Not to mention trying, like Erich Maria Remarque tried, to figure out how to never let such a terrible thing as a world war happen ever again. Perhaps they should have tried harder. And this film is such a contrast to Wings in many ways. I said above that I don't need a film to tell me that war is stupid, because i already know that -- but this is the original film that pointed out that war is stupid. And I don't think it would be exaggerating to call this film great -- it was important in its time, and it feels just as important today. I certainly will not be the first person to mention the fact that there is a timelessness to the message of pacifism, of the futility and absurdity and indignity and pointlessness of war. In the introduction, which was from TCM, the host Robert Osborne quotes someone who once said that all people in all countries should have to watch this movie once a year until the word war is eradicated from every language. Would that it were so easy...

I have to say that in the war scenes, particularly the trench scenes where the soldiers were being bombarded, all I wanted was for it to end, and I kept feeling an oppressive claustrophobia -- which means, I think, that they were perfectly done. There's no way to convey to the viewer the true feelings of the horrors of war, but these raw scenes filled with men soiling themselves, being injured and running wild causing their own deaths by running in sight of the enemy, freaking out after days of constant shelling and being unable to leave their literal rat holes -- they most certainly give the viewer at least a glimmer of understanding of what war must actually feel like. The scene in which the men in the bombarded underground bunker beat a swarm of rats to death with their shovels, seemingly relieved to have something to do besides wait to see if they would live or die, was truly horrifying.

The thing that I think was truly revolutionary about this film was the fact that it was a movie for a largely American audience in which the German enemy wasn't painted as villianous, or monstrous, or devils, or somehow larger than life, or anything like that. Instead, the German soldiers were rendered in exactly the same way that the French or American soldiers would have been rendered had it been from the other side's point of view -- as human, as scared kids trying not to get killed, going where they were told as if they were in a bad dream that would never end. This refusal to paint the other side as the bad guys is so profound (though certainly with a bad guy or two among them, just like in all countries -- Himmelstross, I'm looking at you). I mean, if you take a step back and think of this story as a story written by a German man based on his own war experience and put it back into his context, then it makes sense. But the fact that it was made into an American film is where the profundity creeps in. You didn't need to be one nationality or another to relate to and understand this film. It didn't matter whether the soldiers' helmets were pointy on top and they reported to the Kaiser or not. The story could be adopted by American audiences because it wasn't a German story -- it was everyone's story. I mean, could there be any more striking scene than the soldier blown apart by a hand grenade, with nothing more visible than his arms clutching a barbed wire fence? No helmet, no patches, no country any longer. Just an unnatural and terrifying moment that no human being should ever have to witness, those remnants of arms that could be anyone's arms.

I'll end this with a great quote that was perhaps my favorite from the movie: "Every full-grown emperor needs one war to make him famous." Even when those emperors happen to be elected officials, I would not hesitate to add.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

#1a: Wings (1927/28)


Winner of "Best Production" category at the 1927/28 Academy Awards (the 1st annual Academy Awards ceremony)
Ceremony Held: May 16, 1929
Winners had been named 3 months earlier
Only time ceremony was not broadcast in some way
Academy Awards were born "the year sound was born" in the movies
(with thanks to The Greatest Films for the details)

Well, I wasn't kidding when I said this was a very slow movie marathon. However, I finally had a chance to sit down and watch another Best Picture Academy Award-winning film today, Wings. This film is commonly referred to as the first movie to win the award for Best Picture, but that's actually somewhat inaccurate -- it actually took away the award for Best Production. There was a second category in that first year, Best Artistic Quality of Production, or Best Unique and Artistic Picture, which is why I am considering Wings #1a. The film Sunrise, which won the award for Best Unique and Artistic Picture, rightfully ought to be considered the co-winner for Best Picture, in my opinion, particularly as that category seems to bear just as much resemblance to the current Best Picture category as the Best Production category did. So, at any rate, I'm planning to watch and write a little bit about both films.

I found it surprising that this, or any other Academy Award-winning picture, might be difficult to find, but Wings does appear to be a bit difficult to locate on DVD. I'm trying to get as many of these films as possible via Netflix, but this one was not. It looked as if it might be possible to pick up a copy in VHS format, at the very least, but rather than buying it, I lucked out and located it playing on TCM, so I set the DVR to record it, and voila.

Perhaps at least part of the reason this film isn't in much demand, and therefore more difficult to find, is that many people, like me, don't much understand or relate to silent films. After all, movies with sound were around by the time my grandparents were young children -- so it's three generations before me that would have really gone to a lot of silent films. Also, I don't know why, but I am often surprised at just how LONG many of the silent films I have seen are. Wings is a good 2 hours and 20 minutes. I hear people complain that movies "nowadays" are getting longer and longer, but clearly, this is not a new phenomenon. Still, despite this, I would like to better understand silent film, and I think that this one was a good one to delve into. It seems particularly momentous to me that the dawn of the Oscars also truly heralded the end of the great silent film era. This was the first and last year that the Best Picture award(s) went to a silent film. Upon reflection, I suppose it does make some sense that silent films had to be so long -- you had to see the scene, and then you had to read the dialogue, adding just a bit of time to each scene throughout the movie.

I'm actually a little surprised to report that I enjoyed Wings a lot more than I would have anticipated. I tend to think of many silent films as overdone (so much emoting!), or unrealistic, or ... something. And yet there were many scenes and moments in this film that were really quite realistic and some that were even very poignant and touching. Ultimately, it's a tale of friendship love, and war, and the sacrifices that people make in the name of all of those things. A lot of times, it seems difficult to me to reconcile and relate what I see in a silent film to what life was probably actually like, real people, having real things happen to them. But this film succeeded more than some I've seen in making me believe that it was at least a little bit reflective of real life, World War I, as depicted from the viewpoint of the 1920s. I'll chime right in with what many other reviewers have said, as well, which is that the flying scenes are quite amazing -- no special effects here, or at least very few. The two leading men did their own flying, both in the film and in real life (this info, courtesy their IMDB bios, as well as other film sites -- check the margin for links to ones I've used.) Such a thing would be completely unheard of now in a world where actors doing ANY of their own stunt work are incredibly few and far between...maybe Jackie Chan and a handful of others. Good grief. nowadays, many actors don't even do their own "butt work." So it does seem that there's something a lot purer and more organic about people deciding to tell a story in a movie, and so they act it out to some degree as if they were living it, flying the planes and all. They probably had some fun blowing stuff up as well -- I can't imagine how dangerous these kinds of early stunts, explosions, and fires were -- I'm certain that technology has changed massively in that arena.

The other thing that really struck me about the flying scenes was that if this is really what flying in WWI was like (and how should I know, I certainly wasn't there!), then it really is some crazy, daredevil stuff. Those planes look like little haphazard death traps, if you ask me. But then, I suppose I'm one to occasionally get a bit freaked out on commercial airliner flights. And war is so stupid, yo. (Which makes me look forward to watching Oscar Winner #3, All Quiet On the Western Front, a movie bearing pretty much the same message.) Loved the crazy shot of men shoving bombs onto planes with their bare hands -- which is probably exactly how it went down, and which I can't imagine happening now. It's interesting to me as well, to see WWI from a viewpoint scarcely a decade later, because I've recently been reading the Maisie Dobbs series of mysteries, in which the female detective is a private investigator who was a nurse in WWI about a decade previous to the action of the books, and much of the plots and themes of those stories deals with WWI and its aftermath. So it's interesting to get a chance to compare WWI through a modern vision to WWI as represented by its contemporaries. It does seem to me that WWI must have been one of the most horrific wars, as technology far outpaced the mechanics of actual warfare -- fighting in the old way, but with new, even deadlier weapons.

Now, all this isn't to say that there isn't some bad acting or some silly-looking effects to modern eyes in this film. But for what the filmmakers had to work with at the time, it really is pretty good. Okay, the bubbles scenes were weird and lame, those "special effects" I could have done without. People don't get THAT crazy when they're drunk, unless that was absinthe in those glasses... But I can overlook a few missteps.

I really enjoyed Clara Bow in this film (she's so cute! I can understand why she was beloved), and from what little biographical info I read about her on IMDB, I'd be interested in reading more, so maybe I'll see if there are any biographies out there. Hers is such an interesting story -- such unlikely beginnings, such atypical behavior even when she was famous, and then sad things later in life as well, like struggles with mental illness, possibly schizophrenia.

Also, I can certainly see why Charles "Buddy" Rogers was nicknamed "America's Boyfriend" -- that dude was good-looking!

At any rate, I'm overall very happy that I got a chance to see this film. I certainly recommend it, and I hope it will make its way to readily-available DVD soon.