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?

Friday, September 01, 2006

Anecdote of the Week

"The film was a great success all over the world and brought Peter a recognition that was not always to his liking. He was in New York for the opening and climbed into a cab, but before he could state his destination the driver enquired, 'Quo vadis, Mr. Ustinov?'"

--From Peter Ustinov: The Gift of Laughter, by John Miller.