Classics Corner: It’s a Wonderful Life

24 12 2014


Everyone, including people like me, has blind spots in their knowledge of classic films from the cinematic canon.  In the past few months, I have only just seen “Gone with the Wind,” “Lawrence of Arabia,” “The Birds,” and “Dead Poets Society.”

Now, I am someone who loves Christmas movies (if you have any doubt, I’ll direct you to my insanely detailed moviegoer’s challenge for “Elf”) and Frank Capra films like “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (though I am rather blasé about “It Happened One Night“).  So, you would expect that by now, I would have seen the holiday classic “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  If you assumed I had, you would be wrong.

To be clear, it is not for lack of effort.  Two years ago, some friends and I attempted to see a screening held at a local theater.  We deduced that since it was readily available for people to watch at home, the theater would not be crowded.  And we were wrong.  (A humorous aside: they spelled the movie wrong on their marquee. It was a “wonderderful” life, apparently…)

I have also pretty much absorbed the story through cultural osmosis.  Everyone knows the story of “It’s a Wonderful Life” to some extent, just like they know the shower scene in “Psycho.”  My primary exposure to the film came through – and this will date me tremendously – the 2002 TV movie “It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas.”

(Oh, and “Shrek Forever After” too, I suppose.)

But last night, Christmas Eve Eve, I decided it was time to end my ignorance.  Armed with a copy of the DVD acquired from the Houston Public Library, I would finally figure out why the movie is a mainstay of the Christmas season on television.

How to turn it into an interesting blog post, though?  I had the epiphany to essentially live blog my viewing experience and then add in a reflection at the close.  All times listed are from the 60th anniversary DVD (unsure if that changes anything but thought it might be worth noting).  So, without further ado, enjoy my thought process as I experience “It’s a Wonderful Life” for the very first time…

Read the rest of this entry »

Classics Corner: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

6 11 2012

I wish I could have voted for Jefferson Smith today.

It’s rare that a movie rings as true today as when it was released and far less common for them to be even more relevant in the modern era, but “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” does the unthinkable.  Granted, that’s less of a compliment to Frank Capra’s superb morality tale and more of a disgrace on a country more divided than it has been since the Civil War.  Though perhaps the problem is that a post-Watergate world refuses to see a Capra-esque worldview as anything other than naive fantasy.

If that’s true, then bury this country.  I rarely engage in idealism, but these classics of a bygone era inspire those sensibilities to come flowing out of me.  The times then might have been more innocent, and the world now might be far more hostile.  But there are still Jefferson Smiths among us.  There might even be one in us.

And obviously, there’s no one better than Jimmy Stewart to play the best of us, Jefferson Smith.  As a non-politician transported to Washington as a thinly-veiled ploy, he’s a symbol of the purity of the common man.  Yet set against the backdrop of a systemic culture of corruption, his high hopes are quickly squelched.  He’s a big proponent of building a camp for boys in his unidentified home state; however, when it collides with the entrenched interest of the other Senators planning to build a dam on that land, Smith finds himself in hot water.

We all like to think we would do what Jefferson Smith does.  He stands up for what he believes in even when it’s unpopular.  He fights for what he believes in even when it collides with the wills of more powerful men than he.  He is not swayed by fickle public opinion or the press.

Yet most politicians today switch their positions as soon as a poll suggest their voting bloc opposes their position.  They might not be the best of us or even the best for us – just the best choice we have.  On this election day, my hope is that the vision Capra had for an America where the average American’s purity can inspire real change in a sick society can become less of a hope and more of a reality.  Regardless of what party you support, we should all aspire to have a candidate who fights for his convictions with all his might like Mr. Smith.  And if you can’t vote for Mr. Smith, then be one.

Classics Corner: Jaws

14 08 2012

Everyone thinks they know “Jaws” if they have ever stopped foot in water, be it a swimming pool or an ocean. There is always that joker who starts to hum two notes that speak volumes for the generations that grew up after 1975, inducing a sense of dread. John Williams’ iconic theme for “Jaws” has become synonymous with the menace of a shark attack, and it is remarkable to see how a simple theme can still be so evocative over three decades later.

However, to characterize an entire film by something so small is vastly unfair to the filmmaking expertise that provided the canvas for Williams to compose a masterstroke. Jaws derives its terror from places other than its non-diegetic soundtrack, namely the expert direction of Steven Spielberg. Watching his film in the present day might seem like an exercise in futility given how banal the plot seems to have become, yet it actually still plays quite well.

In an age saturated with horror films that substitute gore for thrills, Jaws scares all the more because Spielberg refuses to take the easy way out. While there is plenty of blood to still freak out the faint at heart, Spielberg opts for a much more deliberate, methodical approach that recalls Hitchcock more than it does Saw. Once the shark’s theme cues up, it is inevitable that someone is about to die … but Spielberg never lets the audience know when they are going to die until the Great White sinks its fangs into their flesh. He does not even reveal the shark in its entirety almost until the climax, slowly providing clues as to just how big the beast really is. His precision pays dividends, just as it did for Hitchcock and just as it still does for directors willing to take the time to get it right, such as J.J. Abrams in “Super 8.”

Although the shark may be the most recognizable part of Jaws, the attacks really only punctuate the domestic drama occurring ashore on the island of Amity. Police chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), a cop from the city taking refuge in what he thought would be the quiescence of a small town, is tasked with maintaining order and calm when the massacres create massive unrest. The mayor tells him to do whatever it takes to keep the people safe, short of closing the beaches and running their summer’s economy. They hire scientist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) to help catch the beast, but it ultimately requires the expertise of marginalized seaman Quint (Robert Shaw), himself a shark attack survivor. The three men come from vastly different backgrounds, but their unlikely camaraderie provides a refreshingly human aspect to a movie otherwise defined by the atrocities of nature.

While it may be easy to think of Jaws as little more than just the two notes of terror, it is worth a first watch or rewatch to let the true horror and humanity shine through.

Classics Corner: Singin’ in the Rain

11 03 2012

What a glorious feeling it was to behold the Best Picture win for “The Artist!”  A celebration of the glory of silent film, a look at the industry’s apprehension during the pioneering days of the talkies, and an ultimate wide-faced grin at what film would become … sounds familiar, doesn’t it?  Benjamin Sutton of The L Magazine wrote this in a column back in December: “[T]he lion’s share of ‘The Artist”s many narrative and aesthetic quotations allude to films of the sound era,”specifically naming “Singin’ in the Rain” as a movie he constantly saw parallels to within Hazanavicius’ movie.

I saw “Singin’ in the Rain” a few weeks before watching “The Artist,” and perhaps part of the reason why I felt the movie suffered a slight dearth of originality was because it was so obviously inspired by Gene Kelly’s classic musical.  I don’t, however, intend to judge the original solely in terms of the knock-off.  Such would hardly do justice to a movie that has stood the test of time and is still a fun romp six decades after release.

As a riotously fun musical in its own right and a parody of the overblown proclivities of the genre’s early classics, “Singin’ in the Rain” follows Kelly’s Don Lockwood, a silent film star who exudes more charisma than George Valentin, as he is forced unwillingly by his studio into talking movies.  When he is shown a demonstration of the new technology at a party, he scoffingly laughs it off.  But with the success of “The Jazz Singer,” Kelly has no choice but to add sound to his latest picture.

That brings up a unique problem though: his leading lady Lina Lamont has a grating and screeching voice that would totally destroy her image and the film.  Quick thinking leads him to bring on Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), a songbird if ever there were one, to provide dubbing services for Lina.  The zany, crazy situations that follow are as numerous as Gene Kelly’s overblown dance numbers – that man REALLY loves to dance, and darned if we don’t leave this movie knowing it!  And beyond the titular song that everyone knows from rainy days or “A Clockwork Orange,” the film also boasts great tunes like “Make ‘Em Laugh” and “Good Morning” that will have you whistling for days.

While the pleasures that exist within the frames of “Singin’ in the Rain” have made it an endearing audience favorite for years, it remains thematically relevant because it speaks to the common fear of technology displacing us.  With 3D, video-on-demand, and streaming services bringing about a new sea change in moviemaking, Kelly’s film speaks loudly to filmmakers past, present, and future.  As A.O. Scott so perfectly put it in his piece “Film Technology Advances, Inspiring a Sense of Loss” back in November 2011:

“The birth of the talkies, it goes without saying, represents the first death of cinema […] The movies survived sound, just as they survived television, the VCR and every other terminal diagnosis. And they will survive the current upheavals as well. How can I be sure? Because 10, 20, or 50 years from now someone will certainly be complaining that they don’t make them like they used to. Which is to say, like they do right now.”

Classics Corner: It Happened One Night

12 10 2011

According to the American Film Institute, it’s the eighth funniest movie and third best romantic comedy ever.  The Library of Congress has added it to the National Film Registry of movies deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”  It was the first movie to win the “Big Five” Academy Awards: Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay.  By all measures, Frank Capra’s “It Happened One Night” is a movie for the books.

So then why was I so unaffected by it?  Is the movie really so seminal that it feels hackneyed and trite in retrospect?

My conclusion is yes, “It Happened One Night” is a movie that contributed so much to the medium of cinema that Frank Capra’s film itself looks so small in comparison.  The fact that the “opposites attract” premise is still the dominant plot point of romantic comedy over 75 years later should serve as testament enough to the movie’s influence.  While my lack of definitive cinematic knowledge prohibits me from declaring with certainty that this is the first movie to introduce the idea, I think the movie’s widespread industry and critical acclaim cemented that the formula was acceptable.

I wouldn’t DARE compare a Frank Capra movie to a horrible Jennifer Aniston movie, but I will say that “The Bounty Hunter” sure did rip off this classic.  The romantic comedy babe, played here by a star of the century, Claudette Colbert as Ellie Andrews, is a spoiled brat running away from her tyrannical father.  The hunk is the great Clark Gable as Peter Warne, a rogue reporter looking for a story … and finds one in her.  The story is amusing enough, but it’s very cut and dry.  I’m happy to call it generational differences because I sure can respect “It Happened One Night,” but that doesn’t mean I have to be head over heels for it.

Classics Corner: Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?

29 09 2011

Much of the U.S. racial history that I learned as a kid in school could be summed up with this sentence: “Then Martin Luther King had a dream, he made the civil rights movement happen, and suddenly everyone could go to school together and racism wasn’t a problem anymore.”

There’s so much wrong with that statement, but I’ll start out by pointing out that racial tensions can never be covered up, erased, or eradicated; they can only be soothed and toned down to the point that they no longer present a basis for discrimination.  And the tensions cannot be controlled by the government; they can play a significant role in the process, but racial tensions have to be fixed by society because that’s the place from where they were derived in the first place.  The Civil Rights Act and Brown v. Board of Education were important steps on the way to deinstitutionalizing racism, but they did not magically make the problem disappear.

It’s a quick, easy pat on the back to say that since there was once a time when segregation in schools existed, we are a progressive and equal society.  The fact is, however, that we are not a society void of discrimination.  It still exists.  Whether it’s directed towards homosexuals, blacks, whites, Hispanics, Christians, Muslims, Jews – it is still out there, and it’s still a big problem.

Not to digress too much, but that’s why I think “The Help” was such an important discussion piece over the summer.  By showing us how backwards the Southern attitudes towards their African-American maids were, dehumanizing them to the point that they needed separate toilets, it reminded us of how horrible discrimination is.  If you really wanted to meditate on the late summer breakout hit,  you could think about how much discrimination still exists in our society (positive or negative) on the basis of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, or just about any other categorical distinction you can make.

So now to the main point of discussion, the 1967 film “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?”  Stanley Kramer’s film was nominated for 10 Academy Awards in a legendary year for cinema, winning a third Best Actress trophy for Katharine Hepburn and another trophy for Best Original Screenplay.  The film deals with one question: is it actually acceptable for Joey, an upper-class white woman (Katharine Houghton), to marry John Prentice, a black man (Sidney Poitier) even if he is extremely well-off and accomplished?

The question is directed at three groups.  The first is Joey’s parents, well-off California liberals Christina (Hepburn) and Matt Drayton (Spencer Tracy in his final film). The issue tests how committed they are to their ideals by muddling their interests in with the final product.  The second is the other African-Americans in the film, John’s parents and the Drayton’s maid Tillie.  They seem to doubt the sincerity of the gesture, wondering if the move is motivated by power rather than love.

And the third group is us, the audience, be it in 1967 or 2011 or 2100.  Some considered it dated even upon release, according to The New York Times‘ Frank Rich.  “What couple would not want him as a son-in-law,” he asks upon restating John’s impressive résumé.  Some critics have said that he was too white and have thus dulled the movie’s impact.  But as Rich said, “[W]hat’s most startling about this archaic film is the sole element in it that proves inadvertently contemporary. Faced with a black man in the mold of the Poitier character — one who appears ‘so calm’ and without ‘tensions’ — white liberals can make utter fools of themselves. When Joe Biden spoke of Obama being ‘clean’ and ‘articulate,’ he might have been recycling Spencer Tracy’s lines of 41 years ago.”

We can pretend that by electing a black President, we’ve purged ourselves of a long history and assuaged our guilt (an explanation that many have proffered now that his approval rating hovers in the low 40% range), but movies like “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” remind us never to stop questioning our values.  Taking place after the passage of civil rights legislation, I can assume many people would have liked to put their feet up and pretend equality had been achieved.

Sure, its script may not have much to offer, the music may be brutal, and it lingers for too long.  But amidst all of that, there are numerous challenges to think about our notions of equality that society needs to continue to ponder on if we ever intend to keep moving forwards.

Classics Corner: “Some Like It Hot”

24 08 2011

As I talked about in my “Weekend Update” column two weeks ago, comedy with lasting cultural value is few and far between at the movies nowadays.  The genre has become heavily manufactured, producing standard-order products that entertain at the most basic level to turn a quick profit.  Ben Fritz of The Los Angeles Times wrote this about the state of the movies in July: “Increasing concern about the economics of comedies has also led studios to increasingly rely on well-known names with track records. That’s why Apatow, Adam Sandler and ‘Hangover’ director Todd Phillips remain among the busiest people on Hollywood’s comedy circuit.”

But as I am quite notorious for insisting, the instant gratification culture that began in earnest with the proliferation of the Internet is truly far-reaching, changing the way that the industry makes movies.  They want movies to make money so they can appear to be in the black for their shareholders.  The easiest way to do that is by producing a movie that barely has enough laughs to sustain a 150 second trailer and then building clichéd tropes as filler around it.  This makes for instant gratification, sure, but how many of our comedy favorites of this decade will be not only memorable but still funny in 50 years?  “The Hangover?”  “Superbad?”  “Wedding Crashers?”

To keep viewers for many years to come, studios should be patterning their comedies more like “Some Like It Hot,” Billy Wilder’s classic that was ranked the funniest American film ever by the American Film Institute in 2000.  I don’t know if I wholeheartedly espouse this choice, but I will say this: on first view at home, it made me laugh more than most modern comedies make me laugh in the theaters.  And on second viewing, it held up better than any recent genre effort.

The key is this, in my opinion: it’s all in the nuances.  Humor calibrated to please the culture of its time will rise and fade like a setting sun; take for instance 1973’s “Blazing Saddles.”  Yes, it’s absolutely a riot, but a scene of flatulence which was shocking then is now commonplace and incredibly tame compared to the nonstop easy scatological humor that Hollywood comedians insist on throwing at us like we’re nine years old.  (Looking at you, Happy Madison.)

It all starts at the grassroots, namely with the writers and the actors.  This is where comedy flourishes, when everyone is game to generate something hilarious once and just as good afterwards.  Billy Wilder, perhaps one of the most diversified figures in cinematic history, co-wrote this story that lovingly pastiches multiple movie archetypes – the gangster flick, the screwball sex comedy, the slapstick humor popularized in the silent era by Chaplin and the Marx Brothers, and a non-tailored romance with some interesting twists and turns.  His excellent cast, which includes the enchanting Marilyn Monroe and “her bosom companions” played by Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon, carries the movie to comedic transcendance.

Not too unlike “The Hangover,” Wilder’s film begins with a crazy premise: Curtis and Lemmon’s macho Prohibition-era Chicago musicians, fleeing the scene of a gang massacre, get in drag to join a women’s band on the road.  They fit in rather nicely on just appearance, but that’s the least of their problems.  There’s the issue of another smoking hot singer in the group (Marilyn Monroe) who’s voice is as stunning as her face.  There’s also the problem of them attracting other men to their new personas as the billionaire Osgood Fielding takes a special interest in one of them.

It’s a movie of twists and turns, mistaken identities, hilarious physicality, snappy dialogue, and just plain fun.  Now doesn’t THAT sound like the type of comedy you’d pay to see?