Classics Corner: It’s a Wonderful Life

24 12 2014

BEFORE

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…

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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.





HITCHCOCKED: “Vertigo” (1958)

22 08 2011

I’m fully prepared to take a lot of heat for what I’m about to say.  In fact, as I ponder making this statement in my head, I myself wonder if I’m a humongous hypocrite.  What I’m about to suggest could spark some serious outrage, perhaps on the level of suggesting “Citizen Kane” isn’t all that great (which I have gone on the record as saying is false).

I’d like to see “Vertigo,” with the same script, comparable actors, and the same Hitchcock penchant for filmmaking, be remade in the present day.

There, I said it.  It’s out there, I can’t take it back.  But while watching “Vertigo,” I was struck by the powerful and affecting portrait of a mentally disturbed policeman played by James Stewart.  I found Kim Novak’s work as the woman who claims to be possessed by the spirit of a dead woman to be frightening.  I felt Hitchcock’s masterful storytelling with the camera to be totally present.  I was totally engaged by the smart writing, which harkens to a mystery of almost mythical proportions.

Yet the visuals just felt so … outdated.  Yes, this is obvious given that the movie is over half a century old.  Obviously, it was about as good as it got back then.  But this is 2011, and when the camera is stuck in the past while the story remains timeless, it can’t help but be distracting.  In fact, it goes beyond that – it detracts.  The movie’s style now alienates us from the movie, pulling us out to remind us, “Oh, this is a movie, and this is how they could visually represent the fear of heights back then.”

So to maintain that pervasive sense of acrophobia, why not remake “Vertigo” with modern technology that would make this classic story work so much better for the audiences of today?  Isn’t that why we should be remaking movies?  Not just to be lazy or to sloppily “update” it to market to younger crowds, a remake of “Vertigo” that preserved the timeless integrity of the acting and storytelling would be perfect.  Because, perhaps with the exception of historic visual achievements, the look of a movie is something that should hold power no matter if it’s being shown in 1958 or 2011.  I’m convinced that it would have rocked me to my core had my eyes been borrowed from that era.





HITCHCOCKED: Rear Window (1954)

16 07 2011

Now I’m getting into Hitchcock’s most revered films, and I’m getting more and more excited to watch the movies.  While I had to trudge through some of his lesser known movies to get acquainted with his style so I didn’t fly blindly into the classics, now I’m starting to see why he has become such an iconic director.  “Rear Window” is definitely one that shows his unique knack for suspense.  It’s a slow (and sometimes a little tedious) build towards a frightening conclusion, told with an Old Hollywood sensibility yet still a thrill.

“We’ve become a race of Peeping Toms,” says Thelma Ritter’s nurse, Stella, to James Stewart’s wheelchair-bound Jeff, a photojournalist whose daring in the field has left him immobile in his apartment.  Left largely to his own devices while his socialite girlfriend, appropriately played by future princess Grace Kelly, he turns to voyeurism while looking out the titular aperture.  From afar, he watches his neighbors, imagining what their actions say about their lives and making up stories based on what he sees.  Hitchcock’s clever camerawork mimics Jeff’s eyeballs, jumping from place to place based on what’s interesting.

But one day, his intuitions tell him that by connecting some mental dots, his neighbor Thorwald has committed murder.  With nothing else to do but observe, he sneakily begins building a case against him despite the insistence of his friends and caretakers.  Hitchcock keeps the suspense held back until the very end, not giving us anything but Jeff’s hunches to be suspicious of Thorwald.

Perhaps the biggest thing I took from “Rear Window,” though, was how very seldom Hollywood makes movies like Hitchcock’s anymore.  His movies were all about using the artistic capabilities of cinema to manufacture suspense, thrills, and chills; now, filmmakers just through blood and gore at the screen, play some booming tune in the background, and call it a thriller.  While I loved “Disturbia,” the self-proclaimed modern take on this Hitchcock classic, it certainly lacks Hitchcock’s artistic flair.  I’m certainly more primed to like the Shia LaBeouf vehicle over the James Stewart starrer because of generational differences, but I recognize why one is a classic and the other is just a wannabe trying to cash in on the wizardry of one of cinema’s greatest icons.