Sunday, September 28, 2008

#6: Cavalcade (1932/33)


Winner Best Picture at the 1932/33 Academy Awards

This was the last time that the Academy Awards spanned from one year to the next like this. The ceremony covered an extra-long period of time so that in the next year, the ceremony would be calendar year based and cover 1934 only.

I was on a roll yesterday, and so I ended up watching Cavalcade in addition to Grand Hotel. This was the first Best Picture film that was both not available on DVD and that I couldn't manage to catch on television, so I ended up purchasing a used VHS tape from an Amazon seller (in perfect condition). As I've mentioned before, there are still a handful of these films that are not yet available on DVD, including Wings and Sunrise, though good news, Netflix now indicates that Sunrise will be available on DVD in December 2008.

At any rate, this doesn't seem to be a very popular film now, and many online reviewers seem to feel that it has not stood the test of time, particularly since it didn't have any big-name actors. There are a number of folks to be found on the internet who are very critical of the film, calling it boring, complaining about the acting, etc. I think that is unfair to a large degree. I actually found the film quite interesting, and I liked getting a historical glimpse into a time and place that I am not quite as familiar with as I thought I was, judging from the contents of this film.

Part of the criticism of the film likely stems from the fact that it was adapted from a stage play, and it retained some elements of the stage. Not the least of those was a number of the actual cast members. But honestly, I don't mind a movie that feels like a play, in fact, there are some notable examples that I really love. I wouldn't go so far as to say I loved this movie, but I didn't find it overly stagey, at least not enough to merit the criticism. The acting, which was criticized in places for being overblown and better suited for the stage, also didn't bother me -- it seemed good enough for its day, and I didn't notice that it was glaringly overblown, so I can't complain about that. Sure, as I've said before, it's not modern, natural acting, but it wasn't meant to be -- it was more along the lines of what was valued at the time.

The film covers a sweeping timeframe, from New Year's Eve in 1899 through New Year's Eve in 1932, following two families, in a sort of an Ur-Upstairs-Downstairs, seemingly a precursor to the genre that we've seen numerous times since (my favorite example and one of my all-time favorite movies being Gosford Park). At any rate, though it covers such a long period of time in the lives of these two British families, very much like Cimarron did, I thought that the pacing was much better, the different major times and milestones were hit, dealt with evenly, and flowed into the subsequent scenes much better by far.

As the time-period and locale hints, this is yet another film that dealt with World War I, though it was merely one of many elements. Still, some critics have pointed at that it was also an anti-war film, though in a subtler way than All Quiet on the Western Front. What I thought it conveyed even better than that, though, was a portrayal of a rapidly, almost drastically changing world, and the way that affected the lives of the people in it. Things must have seemed like they were moving fast and faster to people living in such a time, in ways that were good and bad, and its no surprise at all that people wanted to capture that feeling first on the stage and then on film. One of the elements of the film that I thought actually best conveyed this rapidly changing, bustling feeling was the seemingly endless noise and terrible crush of people in many of the scenes in the film -- it gave it an almost overwhelming feeling at times, one which I thought seemed appropriate for the ways the world was changing then.

It seems fitting that this film that culminated with the Jazz Age and then the early years of the Great Depression should win the Best Picture Award for 1932/33, the last awards ceremony to take place in pre-Hays Code Hollywood. It was sort of like shaking up a cocktail of change and disillusionment, and then watching the reactionaries circle in for the kill. You know, I just did a little Wikipedia research, and I find it very interesting that the Hays Code took effect the very year after Prohibition was repealed. I wonder what that means? It seems significant to me, somehow. At any rate, I'm getting off on a tangent. But my point was, it was interesting to see some of the latter scenes in this film, the dancing and drinking and Jazz and empty churches, and reflect that in the very next year, strict morality codes were imposed on film. If you haven't read about the Hollywood censorship guidelines, I recommend doing so -- it's very interesting, and it also explains why you can watch films from the 20s and be shocked by the lack of prudishness -- so funny the way these things go in cycles, time and time again. After all, the Victorians were shocked by the Edwardians. Ahem, but again, I think I'm getting tangential. At any rate, if you have the time, I highly recommend reading through that Wikipedia link about pre-Code films. The Hays Code really shaped the future of film from the time it was put into place in 1934, in some ways that actually weren't bad (plots about "headstrong, able, employed women," for example). But at any rate, after this film, I'm about to embark on a LONG series of films that did have to adhere to The Code and live up to the values of the Legion of Decency (no joke!) and the Roman Catholic church until (I am not kidding here) 1967. I am seriously starting to love this Oscar project. It's giving me a much broader historical perspective and understanding, as seen through film and my related research, than I ever would have expected. Bring it on!

Saturday, September 27, 2008

#5: Grand Hotel (1931/32)

Grand Hotel 1

Winner, Best Picture, 1931/1932 Academy Awards Ceremony

Now we're talking! Great actors and actresses, intertwining plot lines, love, intrigues, stereotypes that aren't quite stereotypes, a sumptuous Art Deco this is my kind of movie.

I just finished watching it, and honestly, I'm not sure that there's much to actually say about this film. It's more something to simply be watched and enjoyed. And I did -- I enjoyed it very much. Even with Greta Garbo's sort of weird acting, which might have been good, though it was hard to tell, what with all that throwing her head back all the time. If you ask me, Joan Crawford seriously steals the show. But perhaps I'm in a minority, as I found numerous reviewers online who thought Garbo was magnificent. There's certainly something about her, because I can't quite say I found her terrible, but she was unusual anyway.

At any rate, rather than force some sort of review that I'm just not feeling is forthcoming, I'll just suggest that if you're interested, you can rent it from Netflix, and read about it on IMDB, TCM, The Greatest Films, or Wikipedia. Beware, though -- as with all of the reviews and links I post for movies, you're bound to find spoilers there if you're intent on being spoiler-free. Oh, and I noticed on that TCM link that they will also be playing it in both November and December. (TCM has a great feature where you can sign up for them to e-mail you a reminder of when a particular film is going to be on.)

Rent this movie, watch it, enjoy it. It's not going to change your life, and probably won't become your favorite movie ever, but it's just plain entertaining.

Grand Hotel 2

Thursday, September 18, 2008

#4: Cimarron (1930/31)


Winner "Best Picture" in the 1930/31 Academy Award Ceremony

Technically the first Best Picture, since this was the year that the category changed from Best Production to Best Picture

Admittedly, I think I was sort of putting off watching this movie. I mentioned before that I'm not much of a fan of war movies. Well, on that note, I'm probably even less of a fan of Westerns, particularly of the traditional variety. I watched this about a week ago in two sittings. I made most of my notes for this blog entry then, but I'm just now getting a chance to sit down and finish it now.

There's a lot in this movie that's challenging, complicated, complex. I feel like the filmmaking and the acting probably aren't doing justice to Edna Ferber's text, but of course I can't say that for sure unless I read it. It was a difficult film for me to make it through, and I had to watch it in sessions, because I honestly just wasn't all that into it. I can see why people call it one of the weakest Best Picture films in the history of the Academy Awards. But there were occasional moments that were really good, like the moment of true pathos that takes place in the Cravat family following a big gunfight in the street. It achieves a glimmer of a great film at least when the family stops suddenly in mid-conversation, and you see Sabra Cravat's face as she looks through a doorway, discovering the thing that the viewer has already known -- the family's loyal servant, the young black boy Isaiah, the stowaway on their adventure west to Oklahoma, has been shot in the street while looking for the family's five-year-old son. You knew they would discover it, but you didn't know for sure they would be so struck by it, and you certainly didn't expect what happened next, for him to be carried in by the tiny, much-harrassed Sol, the only Jew in town, the marginalized Other carrying in yet another marginalized Other, a tender unexpected Pieta, this sad burden passed from Sol to Yancey, who throughout the film is slowly becoming an ever-increasing voice of justice for any outcast at the time, whether black, Jew, Native American, or madam.

The character may have been intended to be a voice of justice, but as a leading man, Richard Dix just wasn't at all compelling -- that was definitely a major drawback for me in this film. I found him hard to sympathize with, when theoretically, he should have been my favorite characters. Instead, he seemed artificial, and I think he was aptly destined for the B-movie western future in which he eventually found himself. I mean, look, I realize that this was pre-Brando, pre-method acting times. (Actually, Wikipedia contradicts me -- Method Acting was around. But it wasn't really popularized until later by people like Brando, so I stand y my statement.) People did not necessarily act in a way that was natural, and that also wasn't expected. But this guy was really pretty terrible even by contemporary standards, if you ask me. And it's a shame, really, because his is such an interesting character, so complex and contradictory and nuanced -- it really deserved a masterful actor to portray it in a way that would do any justice to the idea of a man who would in one breath make derogatory comments against the government stealing the Indians' land, and in the very next moment be lining up to take his share of that land and adventure. His love scenes and declarations and sweeping his wife into his arms were at times especially unconvincing, and sometimes even kind of creepy.

Speaking of the strange relationship between the two main characters, parts of the plot really didn't make sense to me. Here's a man who abandons his family for five years without a word, off in search of adventure, and yet he comes riding up home one fine day, and is wife quickly falls into his arms, his kids are just cheery and happy to see him, and it's all no big deal. Yeah, right.

There are some leaps, some illogical jumps in plot here, some transitions that don't flow or make sense. First Yancey is here, then he's not, then he's back, then he wants to print an article defending the Indians, then without knowing the outcome, 22 years have lapsed. Huh? Did I miss something? I don't know if we should scold Edna Ferber for this, but somehow I doubt it. You get the feeling that there were some excessively broad cuts to the original text to get it distilled down into movie form, sometimes without quite enough consideration for continuity or flow. Often it's implied, but sometimes, like in the jump from 1907 to 1929, much seems like it's glossed over, the timeline seems like it's speeding up exponentially, like they started to make the beginning of the film much more conscientiously, but they had a set amount of time allotted, and maybe midway through the filming realized that they'd only captured maybe 1/3 of the story and were going to have to cut and condense the remaining 2/3rds mercilessly.

In some ways, it's as if Edna Ferber's story were muckraking, as if she wanted to lift up every prejudice in front of society, and show (not tell) what was wrong with it. There are criticisms all over on the internet that this film is racist, which is absurdly simplistic. The film is full of racism, and prejudice, and sexism, but it's full of characters who embody those things -- that doesn't necessarily make it a racist or prejudiced or sexist film. That means it was a film that was meant to challenge people, challenge their preconceptions, challenge the preconceptions of the characters over the course of the film.

The character of the prostitute, Dixie Lee, was probably the most interesting to me. The actress who played her was probably one of the better members of the cast, and honestly, I'm just interested in the role of prostitution in the Old West. I did a little bit of reading about it over the summer, specifically about prostitution in Virginia City, Nevada, but I'm sure it was very similar all over. The story really isn't necessarily all that different from stories now, except that then it was even easier to fall out of society's norms and have but one option for subsistence left. Normal women with "decent" upbringings might experience one small mistake, one unfortunate twist of fate, and then suddenly theirs was a lot of shame and outsider living. And Dixie Lee, though she fought initially to find a place in a new frontier where she could start anew, she couldn't escape that caste once she had joined it.

With characters like Dixie Lee and even more with the character of Sabra, who spends most of her adult life going it alone an even ends up elected to Congress, there's a valuable, pointed commentary here too on female independence and strength. I dmean, really, Edna was hitting all the high notes, when you think of it.

It was interesting to watch the discovery of oil in Oklahoma, and to view it through modern eyes, as we creak under the current weight of $4 per gallon gas -- it made me want to reach back in time and shout, "Develop other alternatives! Do it now!!"

A few other random things, I guess:

1. Why do so many old movies have a character that stutters? Why was this a good form of comic relief? What's so funny about that? It's like it's some old bit that gets repeated over and over. Was it a vaudeville favorite? Was it considered a sign of something? I really just don't get it. I guess I just mostly don't think that stuttering is all that hilarious.

2. This was yet another Best Picture film in which the sound was pretty bad. Even with it turned up pretty high, I was still happy to be able to turn on the English subtitles so that I could read along when it was harder to hear.

3. In what I suppose is a potentially interesting side-note, I will mention that the history that spurred this film is actually my history too, I guess. My grandmother on my father's side was from Oklahoma, born in the 20s, a mixture of European and Cherokee ancestry. That doesn't necessarily mean I relate any better to this film than anyone else would, but it was instructive to realize, really late in the film I must admit, that this is in part the story of where I came from. I don't spend a lot of time thinking about that, not on purpose, of course, but it's interesting to have the chance to do so.

4. Finally, it is also worth noting, if you consume two glasses while watching, as I did, you may shed a tear or two at the ending. I'm not so sure how it would go without wine. Perhaps it's better not to risk it...

Sunday, September 14, 2008

#1b: Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927/28)


Winner of the 1927/28 award for Best Unique and Artistic Picture (aka Best Artistic Quality of Production) -- a category that existed only in the first year of the Academy Awards

Read an overview on Turner Classic Movies' Website here.
Read about it on the Internet Movie Database here.
Read a review on the Greatest Films website here. (By far the most thoughtful discussion of these three.)

Also, looks like Netflix is finally set to get this movie, as it is planned for release on DVD this coming December. I watched it on my DVR recorded from TCM. The Netflix page is worth checking out. There are a number of thoughtful member reviews there - which is kind of interesting, since the DVD isn't even available through Netflix, so you get reviews from people who watched the film through other means and took the time to discuss it.

And as always, there is quite a bit of interest to be found on Wikipedia, including interesting stuff about director F.W. Murnau and the cast.

There is one word that kept coming to mind as I did my preliminary research on and then subsequently watched this silent film: allegorical. The word sprang to mind even before I eventually found it spelled out in review form. The plot, the actions of the characters -- all seemed to be not realistic, but rather physical embodiment and portrayal of inner passions, desires, and struggles that might occur in any marriage. Well, hell, what do I know? Maybe other people in other relationships go out on rowboats with their spouses, are nearly killed by those spouses, flee to the big city, and then are persuaded that the spouse didn't really mean it by a big plateful of cakes, a lovely bouquet, and watching a brief marriage ceremony. When viewed literally, the events in the film seem almost ridiculous -- and I've read arguments from viewers who felt that taking the stance that the happenings in the film are unrealistic is to look at the film through a modern eye and to fail to place the film within its context as one should do. Well, to that stance, I answer with a single word that is also outmoded to the modern ear: poppycock. C'mon people, the film was made in 1927, not the middle ages. This was no more normal behavior then than it would be now. To me, the actions of the characters in the film only make sense when the whole is viewed as a parable. This is a "modern" day film-version of the old school Medieval morality play. The players embody the eternal struggle between good and evil in a way that might seem caricature if you encountered it in everyday life -- that's true now, and it was just as true in 1927. The protagonist must navigate these forces of good and evil, his devotion to his wife and baby versus the allure of the evil temptress, a struggle that becomes extended into the exterior world, as he battles against the forces of nature that threaten to drown him and his wife. The man's inner conflict is resolved, only then to be externalized and replayed by forces of nature in the form of a sudden storm, a capsized boat, and a desperate search for a wife suddenly lost.

I've seen the film called "fable-like" in a couple of places, and not to split literary hairs too much, but it's technically more of a parable than a fable -- no talking animals here! The film feels like it has been made with such intention -- it has the feel of someone consciously creating art, making choices about how to transform a literary work onto the screen in a way that retains the feel of a literary work. It is not intended to be a realistic representation of life, but rather a representation of the passions and emotions that fuel everyday life. I've studied German Expressionist cinema only a tiny bit, back in my Germanic Languages and Literature days (undergrad degree and then some graduate school). This film was certainly born of a great time in German cinema, and this could probably be called its introduction to American film. (As a sidebar, I was thinking about it, and I have had a hard time coming up with too many more current films that capture some of these literary, allegorical qualities. There are some, but it's not a mode that filmmakers very often successfully attempt -- perhaps Baz Luhrmann's version of Romeo and Juliet and the Coen Brothers' Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? come readily to mind, but there weren't many others that did.)

Immediately from the opening scenes, I really loved this film. It is visually arresting, and each scene continues to hold your interest throughout. The musical score is perfectly done, and the way that the music conveys the mood and plot and really almost serves as another invisible character -- seldom have I seen that done anywhere near as well. In modern film perhaps Brokeback Mountain comes close, but even it doesn't go quite so far as this, though music is so important throughout in both films. The integration of music and sound effects with the otherwise silent scenes of Sunrise conveys as much as, if not more, information and emotion than dialogue could. F. W. Murnau was such a filmmaking genius - his films leave such a strong mental trace for me. Watching this film brought immediately to mind the scenes and feel of another of his great films, the German film Nosferatu, one which I'd seen but largely forgotten until I watched this movie. For those who are not fans of silent films, especially because of all the reading, these films might be a great way to tap into the genre -- there are few things to read, few of those stereotypical placards between shots -- this is truly showing and not telling, sort of opera without the words, or a painting turned into a moving picture, or a relative of the way that ballet tells a story with nothing more than visuals and music. To read that Murnau studied art history and literature in his time at University comes as no surprise at all to someone watching this movie. Don't go looking here for realism, because it's symbolism that you'll find, and for some of the negative reviews I found on the Internet, it was quite clear to me that some of those reviewers were trying to interpret symbolism as realism, finding it ridiculous, and missing the point entirely. One person on IMDB wrote something along the lines of, "I can't help but wonder if it was such a good idea for The Woman to stay together with The Man, who clearly has murderous impulses up through the end -- it seems that Murnau may intend something much darker than the happy ending." (I'm paraphrasing the quote, so I probably don't have it exactly right.) Well, of course if this were real life, the woman shouldn't stay with a man with such murderous impulses always so near the surface. But these murderous impulses are intended to be symbolism of the dark and light impulses within us all, made external for the purposes of this film. It's not meant to be taken so literally, and doing so puts a twist on it that I don't believe Murnau intended. I suppose I return again to the morality play analogy -- the bigger message that comes through from all this symbolism is that The Man, having been faced with both good and evil, has worked his way through these challenges and chooses good in the end. One can struggle against dark inner impulses and emerge on the right side in the end. The psychological implications of a woman who chooses to stay with a man who almost murdered her and almost murdered another woman would most certainly make for a very interesting film -- but they are not the point of this film.

I am SO GLAD I discovered that this was also one of the Best Pictures in Academy Award history. If I'd only ever watched Wings, I think I would really have missed out. On the whole, if forced to choose one of the two, I'd pick this one as my favorite. It really does have amazing artistic quality. Even the little bits of comic relief were still funny, and at a couple points, I laughed out loud.

On a very shallow side note, I couldn't help but wish that Janet Gaynor hadn't had such a distractingly bad wig on, since it really just looked like some sort of a strange hat the entire time, but really, that's a pretty minor complaint that I can't say took away at all from my viewing experience. It's really just an aside.

All in all, I think this is a truly great film, and definitely worth tracking down. One of Murnau's films has been lost entirely, which is such a tragedy, but highlighted even more for me how glad I am that I was able to see this one.