Sunday, September 24, 2006

The Gym Class School of Film Criticism

Like most bloggers, the Siren likes to look at other blogs. A while back she discovered Libertas. The writers there do not exactly share her own political philosophy, but it's healthy to read opposing opinions, and they cover a lot of old movies, so the Siren still checks in every once in a while.

There are times when the Siren simply disagrees with Libertas (you can see her objecting in the comments section to this post on The Searchers), times when she thinks hmm, interesting and other times when she's just flummoxed. Like this post on Flags of Our Fathers. The film hasn't been released yet, so blog editor Jason Apuzzo is critiquing the trailer, which strikes the Siren as a mighty perilous approach. Trailers are the reason she went to The Crying Game expecting The Informer, for example, and thought the worst thing that could happen in Million-Dollar Baby was that Hilary Swank might lose the big fight. Anyway, here is the trailer. Please do take a look before you continue.

What did you see? The Siren saw a preview for a movie about some very brave soldiers, who saw some bad things during a terrible and hard-fought battle, came home and found themselves catapulted into unexpected fame, were dragooned into war-bond drives they found embarrassing and crass, and wound up wracked with self-doubt because they didn't consider themselves heroic in comparison to the men killed in battle.



The Audie Murphy story in triplicate, in other words.



What she did not see was a commentary on the Iraq war, the insinuation that World War II was unjust or that the men who raised the flag on Iwo Jima were frauds or war criminals.

What the hell? That trailer is nothing. You want a cynical, politicized WW II movie, the Siren'll give you a cynical, politicized WW II movie. How about Attack, the 1956 film that shows a soldier dying as horrible a combat death as you've ever seen--and dying that way, mind you, due to the cowardice of an American officer promoted solely because of his rich daddy's connections. (The Siren is convinced that sequence must have influenced Steven Spielberg when he was creating one of Saving Private Ryan's most memorable death scenes--but the Siren also says Attack is the better movie.)

Or let's talk about a movie with enough derring-do to satisfy even Libertas, The Bridge on the River Kwai.
Even in that one, you want moral equivalence? Take a look at the none-too-subtle parallels between Sessue Hayakawa's camp commander and Alec Guinness's POW. And ruthlessness to spare, with Jack Hawkins as the British commando ready to sacrifice not only himself, but William Holden and every other man he brought with him. The Siren's favorite shot in that splendid movie shows the young women bearers recoiling from Hawkins--they know what he is, no matter what cause he's pursuing. The primary characters in Bridge are, with the qualified exception of Holden, utterly focused on winning their narrowly defined parts of the war game, to the point that they are barely thinking about the larger issues at stake. That is what happens in a war, Carl Foreman, Michael Wilson and David Lean are telling us.

Or how about The Best Years of Our Lives. Homer, the returning GI with hooks for hands, finds himself in a drugstore being queried by a customer who obviously never saw combat.

Customer: You got plenty of guts. It's terrible when you see a guy like you that had to sacrifice himself - and for what?
Homer: And for what? I don't getcha Mister?
Customer: ...We let ourselves get sold down the river. We were pushed into war.
Homer: Sure, by the Japs and the Nazis so we had...
Customer: No, the Germans and the Japs had nothing against us. They just wanted to fight the limeys and the reds. And they would have whipped 'em too, if we didn't get deceived into it by a bunch of radicals in Washington.
Homer: What are you talkin' about?
Customer: We fought the wrong people, that's all. (Pointing at his newspaper, with headlines: "SENATOR WARNS OF NEW WAR") Just read the facts, my friend. Find out for yourself why you had to lose your hands. And then go out and do something about it.


That customer says he is espousing "plain, old-fashioned Americanism." He's an accurate depiction of post-war sentiment in certain quarters. But if such a character pops up in Flags of Our Fathers, Mr. Apuzzo will probably have apoplexy.

The Siren adores Best Years, and without hesitation would cite it as the greatest celebration of true American values ever made. But part of its greatness lies in the filmmakers' willingness to include a character like that drugstore customer, or the people overheard making snide remarks about veterans flooding the job market. Conflict, you see. Nuance. Dramatic shading. A movie that has those qualities has a shot at greatness, or at least watchability. A movie that doesn't have them will be Little Tokyo, USA or at best Conan the Barbarian.

Why this bizarre insistence that any attempt to show any World War II leaders as less than stainless somehow represents an insidious left-wing all-American-wars-are-imperialist agenda? After seeing a trailer, for heaven's sake. Well, Mr. Apuzzo pretty much tells you what he is basing his assumptions on--screenwriter Paul Haggis. Haggis, you see, is a liberal, and that's enough: "My concern was that Haggis would try to smuggle his politics into Eastwood's Iwo Jima melodrama, and it appears that my concerns were justified."

There's a whopping big assumption in that sentence, that Haggis could somehow work in his agenda without Eastwood, a meticulous director and one tough hombre to boot, either noticing or saying "Hey Haggis, what is this pantywaist crap you're putting in my movie, punk?" But no matter. Haggis is vocally liberal, therefore he will always try to make a certain type of movie, even to the point of trying to hoodwink Eastwood, whose politics skew conservative.

The Siren calls this approach to evaluating a movie The Gym Class School of Film Criticism. Lance Mannion periodically tracks the flowering of this approach. The Gym Class School imagines art as a dodgeball game, with critics, cinephiles and Hollywood observers of various sorts as the self-appointed team captains. Actors, directors, screenwriters etc. are the potential Team Players. Death doesn't disqualify a player, in fact it can increase the squabbling when teams are selected. So it works something like:

Team Red Captain: I call Cecil B. DeMille.
Team Blue Captain: I call John Huston.
Red C: Sam Wood.
Blue C: Charlie Chaplin
Except, it rapidly deteriorates into:

Red C: John Ford.
Blue C: Says who? He was a New Dealer--
Red C: But then he went Republican. And he was always fervently anti-Communist. And then he--
Blue C: All right then, smartypants. Joseph Mankiewicz.
Red C: What?? Mankiewicz was a Republican!
Blue C: But he was a liberal Republican.
Red C: Then I call Frank Capra.

As biographical critique, it doesn't work very well. As film criticism, it doesn't work at all. Whose politics dominate a movie--the director, the actors, the screenwriter, the cinematographer, the best boy? And it is apparent to all but the most hidebound minds that an artist's politics may or may not have anything to do with his work. William Holden was a Republican, and two of the best movies he ever made were for a liberal director and a couple of blacklisted screenwriters. Flipping it around, if I know that Henry Fonda was a lifelong Democrat, that tells me exactly what about Advise and Consent, a film from a book by a noted conservative?

Gym class was a time of horror for the Siren, and she has no intention of revisiting it for Flags of Our Fathers or the next Gary Oldman flick. The Siren is not an optimist by nature, but she tries to give serious filmmakers (defined as those with some aspirations beyond the grosses) a fair shake with each new movie. You can get a great performance out of granite-ribbed reactionary Adolphe Menjou in the bitingly subversive Paths of Glory, or a beautiful elegy for the ruling class like The Leopard out of avowed Marxist Luchino Visconti. In the words of the great Fats Waller, one never knows, do one?

22 comments:

boisdejasmin said...

A big round of applause for you. The Leopard is such a great example that the political stance of people involved does not necessarily have to overshadow their art. It seems simplistic and misleading to assume such a thing. As for judging a film based on a trailer, I have no kind comments. It is much like judging a meal based on the description provided in the restaurant menu.

Lance Mannion said...

Hooray! Apuzzo is inexcusably ignorant of film history. I ran across something he wrote about Flags of Our Fathers back in May, and besides the fact he seemed unaware that there were movies made before the Vietnam era that didn't glorify war, he seems to equate being a warlover with being patriotic. Oh well.

He also hasn't read the book.

Attack is going right to the top of my Netflix queue. That's a good review you've linked to. Didn't mention this about Eddie Albert though. Albert served in the US Navy in WWII. He was a decorated war hero. I'm sure he knew exactly what kind of officer he was portraying in Attack.

Campaspe said...

V., seeing The Leopard on a big screen with you, and then having a good dinner go cold because we couldn't stop talking about it afterward, must rank as one of my favorite moviegoing memories.

Lance, Attack gets my highest recommendation. You could release it tomorrow and it would still kick audiences in the gut. It deserves its own post, and I should really buy it to review for that purpose and show Mr. Campaspe. I caught it quite by accident during a TCM tribute to Lee Marvin (another combat vet who knew exactly what he was playing in the character of the colonel). I liked the linked review too, and was glad it lacked real spoilers, since I hope people see Attack. Senses of Cinema has a good piece on it, but it describes some important scenes in great detail.

Noel Vera said...

Going by the trailer as well (you're right, this is risky sport), my gut reaction was: oh no, not a film on a war that, while there were many questionable side issues and moral complexities, was fully justified. This could play right into Republican hands; in fact, my difficulty is in seeing how it won't. Is Eastwood showing his red (sorry, rightist) colors?

Strictly from the trailer, mind you. We need to see the movie.

Peter Nellhaus said...

Apuzzo is blissfully unaware that Eastwood starred in a film, The Beguiled written by the blacklisted Albert Malz. So did John Wayne, who was well aware of screenplay writer Marguerite Roberts' past when he made True Grit. Conversely, there have been many false assuptions about Sam Fuller's politics based on Pick-Up on South Street. Sam was a Stevenson Democrat.

Campaspe said...

I have never known nor read of an actor who wasn't all about getting a good part, no matter who wrote the doggone script or was behind the camera.

Exiled in NJ said...

If trailers were horses, then 'Robin, Prince of Thieves' would fly, not crash.'

As he has aged, Eastwood's strengths are that he 'employs' one screenwriter, casts his films impeccably with actors of both stripes, and uses the same editor, and set designer among others of his supporting cast.

Exiled in NJ said...

Btw, the film that came to mind as I watched the preview was not a war movie, but Phil Kaufman's The Right Stuff.

Gloria said...

My favourite war films are the First World War ones: in most of them, because it is almost impossible not to reach a bitter conclussion about the nature and reasons of war.

Re your comment on "the Searchers" at Libertas: I must add that "honor killings" are also a sad reality coming regularly in newspapers in Spain, a country which has been *exclusively Catholic* for centuries, so I agree with you that it is culture, not religion, what prompts these crimes.

Re Fonda and "Advise and Consent". I find his is possibly one of the weakest performances of the film. He plays Lewfingwell as a kind of self-righteous lamb with no dark sides, which makes his character somewhat angelic. Lewfingwell practically dissapears from the film after **SPOILER** it is proven that accusations against him were based in fact. One has the impression that Senator Van Ackerman (george Grizzard), who is doing his dirty work, doesn't entirely act on his own initiative. BTW, Van Ackerman is presented as a sort of leftist Maccarthy... in the view of USA's history in the 50s, this strikes me as a cruel joke.

As a last note about Fonda (and wondering in which "team" he might be placed, ha), while he's got a reputation as a liberal, he's also the author of one of the most disgustingly homophobic remarks I've ever come across.

Noel Vera said...

It was amusing to note that when you posted your comment re: those honor killings, everyone pointedly ignored it. Really can't deal with the facts, can they?

Campaspe said...

Exiled: I see what you mean. What I noticed was that Eastwood is using the same washed-out palette for all of his movies these days, and I'm not convinced that's a good thing. But it certainly gives his movies a consistent look.

Gloria: I agree about Advise & Consent, Fonda is oddly muted and you really don't care for his sake whether he's confirmed or not. Yeah, the Grizzard character is an odd inversion considering actual history, but the movie is still quite interesting, oddly analogous to Bridge on the River kwai in that the game becomes more important than the stakes.

Noel: It took quite a lot of maneuvering to get that comment posted at all. I created an account and was told my comment was being held for moderation. Fair enough. But about two days ticked by and no posting. Considering some of the other stuff that had meanwhile cropped up in that thread (including a charming reference to "goat-humping Muslim countries") after a while I was, how you say, majorly pissed off. I wrote to Andrew Klavan, the author of the post, and he was exceedingly prompt, gracious and polite. He contacted whoever was "moderating" the comments, and voila, mine posted---so far back in the thread you'd need a Sherpa to find it, but at least it's there. I don't know precisely what Klavan thought, all he said was that he disagreed. Maybe I should point him to Gloria's comment here.

Gloria said...

Well, I actually like "Advise and Consent" very much! I saw it last week for the first time in a big screen. In fact, I suspect -not having read Drury's original novel-, that Otto Preminger brought an ambiguity to the film that the book didn't have. The most moral character (and in a way, the most positive) in the film is the senator played by Don Murray, who is against Lewfingwell, not out of conservative ideas, but from his dislike of Lewfingwell's deceit of the comitee... Murray's character is the only one in the film who'd rather be death than dishonoured, anyone else is playing dirty tricks of one kind or another.

Oh, please, do bring my point to Mr. Klavan. When I was born my country was de facto a Christian teocracy, and grew suffering it. So I'm quite convinced that "evil" is not exclusive to a particular religion or philosophy, any of them can get pretty nasty when brought to extremes or power.

Noel Vera said...

Yeah, I'd love to see one of those wingnuts respond, either to your point or Gloria's.

As for Advise or Consent...I suppose Fonda's a weakness, but I barely noticed him; was too busy being blown away by Laughton who was great in that pic.

Berlinbound said...

Brilliant Essay!

And I agree with you on "Best Years" ... I had the great pleasure of working with Production Designer George Jenkins a few times before he retired ...

Iberê said...

To be fair to Libertas, they're constantly saying that leftist directors in the past were capable of putting their politics aside and make good movies, and that contemporary movie directors from the left (Haggis, Winterbottom) are not. That´s the major point of that whole blog, and I think it's a good one. But I agree with you that judging a movie by the trailer is probably not the best thing (in theory; in practice, I always do that and so, I suspect, does everybody).

Noel Vera said...

"leftist directors in the past were capable of putting their politics aside and make good movies, and that contemporary movie directors from the left (Haggis, Winterbottom) are not"

Closing them away safely in the past, are they?

No, that's a point--even Yo Soy Cuba, silly as it is, you don't see that kind of filmmaking anymore with a 35 mm, at least. I even agree about Haggis (though I vehemently disagree about Winterbottom.

Doesn't help their case that they're so virulently anti-Muslim. Some real ugly stuff there.

Campaspe said...

Ibere, I think that they make that point about past directors often by wild misinterpretation -- witness the bewildering misuse of the most famous quote from The Third Man on their sidebar and the description of Harry Lime, a conscienceless child-killer representing free enterprise run amok, as their "patron saint." As Scorsese has pointed out, directors of the past didn't so much put aside their politics as they tended to smuggle them in past the censors. I don't disagree with taking a look at a film's politics; frequently it would be stupid not to look at them. In this particular case, and in others I have seen on the blog and elsewhere, the "interpretation" is based on the perceived tilt of the filmmaker and not what is on the screen. That's what irritated me.

(I haven't seen Haggis's Crash, but it was amusing to see that it managed to irritate Libertas just as much as it irritated my mostly left-leaning colleagues at Cinemarati. Bipartisan loathing of a film is so heartwarming, doncha think?)

Noel, yeah, the unbridled hate-mongering in the comments section is not to believed. But for the most part it is confined to there. It's hard to say to what extent, if any, a blog should censor its more embarrassing advocates. The Siren is glad that people play nice at her house.

Tania said...

I don't know what else to say except ITA and that was one eloquent takedown, my friend. Gym analogy spot on. I also read your comment on the other blog's post on The Searchers and ITA on that too, to the point that I felt like I was getting whiplash trying to follow what the original post was trying to say. I mean, yes, honor killing, very bad, indisputably so, no relativist argument could sway us on that one, and yes, we're all glad Elizabeth Smart is home (although whether Utah Mormonism exemplifies American Christianity is something a lot of Christians would debate) ... but, um, John Wayne in The Searchers was not, like, a Muslim? I don't know, it made my head hurt.

Alex said...

Actually, recognition of the virtues of aristocracy is not that of an unusual position for a Marxist, at least an unconventional one. Of course, aristocracy was always founded on severe economic exploitation, but capitalism is similarly so founded and the economic exploitation is at least open and overt in an aristocracy, while capitalism covers it's own cruelty with a heavy dose of ideology, obfuscation and outright suppression.

Alex said...

Attack! is indeed a most excellent war movie.

If you want a truly caustic depiction of WWII, try out Nicholas Ray's Bitter Victory or Andre de Toth's more obscure (and less profound) but massively cynical depiction of the British in North Africa, Play Dirty. The Gregory Peck vehicle, The Purple Plain, isn't bad either.

Film-makers went even more cynical depicting the Korean War even while it was underway. Check out Sam Fuller's The Steel Helmet, but also his unjustly ignored Fixed Bayonets! (exclamation point part of title). Anthony Mann's Men in War almost goes to the lengths of Play Dirty.

Noel Vera said...

I'll second Mann's Men in War--a great war film, and a withering criticism of military leadership.

00ART00 said...

>>"leftist directors in the past were capable of putting their politics aside and make good movies, and that contemporary movie directors from the left (Haggis, Winterbottom) are not"

Closing them away safely in the past, are they?<<

I would wonder about what "leftist" means here in the case of directors from the 40s versus the 80s, or now. Conservatives won't even support agendas that were "conservative" five decades ago.

"Putting their politics aside" doesn't cover what was going on. For longer than just the McCarthy era, directors had to deal with government mandated studio blacklists, getting caught working with blacklisted or potential blacklisted writers / actors and guilt by association, and more behind the scenes business politics made by financiers and studio heads etc.

The existence of certain films, including "Best Years.." is incredibly against the odds.

And I can't imagine there weren't as many yahoos then as now, who only wanted black and white war stories.