Monday, December 28, 2015
The new Star Wars movie, "The Force Awakens," which I saw this past weekend, is a reminder that the originals were never quite as good as they're viewed in retrospect.
What were they? Pure entertainment combined with a large amount of nonsense. Good old-fashioned American hokum, in other words.
The genius of George Lucas was to combine every stray cultural influence he could find-- from "El Cid" swordfights and bad guys, to comedic sidekicks straight from the novel Ivanhoe, to the sandy vistas of Arabia, and exotic ethnicities strange to his Southern California upbringing, to the clichés of "B" movies, including those of the kung fu variety-- and set this mix in a faraway galaxy, which gave complete freedom to his desire to mesh these many influences into a single entity.
Ideas? There are no ideas in the Star Wars movies, only pseudo-mythology, mumbo-jumbo paganism, and a medieval style. In that sense it's akin to the operas of Richard Wagner. As with Wagner, the music, the sets and costumes, and the posturing ARE the point. All else are rationalizations for the rubes; reasons for people to buy the tickets and attached products.
Don't get me wrong. The movies have a lot going for them. The original "Star Wars" was a revolutionary film. It transformed the movie art, by relying most on those elements essential to the art. While it was a lot of silliness, it also had awesome music (triumphalist in the Wagnerian style), fast pace, thrilling special effects, and brilliant editing. It was joyously fun to watch. The movie was immensely influential. The hundreds of action-adventure flicks that followed borrowed its elements. As a result, the latest sequel could never have the impact of the original, given the changed context.
The Star Wars phenomenon began as P.T. Barnum hokum and morphed quickly into all-out P.T. Barnum ballyhoo-- seen with the latest incarnation. "The Force Awakens" is the most thoroughly marketed and merchandised movie ever. With the Disney empire now producing the series, the entire enormous American media publicity machine was geared up to promote the flick. The movie business itself, and all attached outlets and critics-- theaters, magazines, et.al.-- were dependent on the movie's success. The project is the epitome of Disney calculation and hype. Far in advance it was sold, both subliminally and specifically, as the apex of motion picture achievement. The full eventual payoff will be in the many billions of dollars earned by everybody associated with the product.
Did this lead to a low-risk creative strategy for the film itself? Stay tuned for Part II of this essay, which will include my fully honest review of "The Force Awakens."
Thursday, January 29, 2015
With Clint Eastwood’s film “American Sniper” receiving a flurry of attention, both bad and good, it might be time to examine his most famous Western movie, “Unforgiven,” made in 1992.
How good is it?
The American Film Institute ranks it #68 on its list of Top 100 Movies.
Yet I can think of at least one Western movie with similar themes that’s better than it. Namely, Marlon Brando’s 1961 flick “One-Eyed Jacks.”
“One-Eyed Jacks” is a better movie than at least half of those listed on the AFI list. As a work of art it’s better than all but a handful of them. Even that statement is modest. Is “One-Eyed Jacks” as deep in its subtexts and undercurrents as Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo”? Yes.
“One-Eyed Jacks” is a better film than “Unforgiven” on many levels, in many aspects. I’ll discuss here only one of them.
“One-Eyed Jacks” contains a scene when Sheriff Dad Longworth, played by Karl Malden, brutally whips Marlon Brando’s Rio in the center of town, with the community looking on. The sudden violence from the lawman comes as a surprise.
“Unforgiven” mimics this scene in two of its own. First, when Gene Hackman’s Sheriff beats up gunfighter English Bob, played by Richard Harris. The presentation is similar—a host of rifles and shotguns tell the gunman he has no chance. Hackman exhibits the power of authority over the cocky gunslinger.
Later in the movie, Hackman beats up protagonist Clint Eastwood, another aging gunfighter, in similar fashion, which sets up the film’s violent conclusion.
The scene in “One-Eyed Jacks” is superior, because it brings together several of the subtexts and themes that have been floating beneath the narrative. For the Malden character, his action is not simply a demonstration of authority. The beating is personal. It’s an explosion of tension which has been building between the two men from the film’s beginning.
There’s the self-hatred Malden feels for having betrayed his friend—hate which is projected onto Brando. There may be a deeper subtext, given that Brando was in effect his protege, having started riding with Malden from a young age. As the dialogue states, from when Brando’s character was little more than a kid. Is something psychosexual going on? It’s possible.
There’s the father-son dynamic, as expressed even in the characters’ names-- “Dad” and “Kid.” Adding to this is the fact that Rio has entered Dad’s stepdaughter, Louisa—transcendentally played by Mexican actress Pina Pellicer—and Dad knows or at least suspects this.
The beatings in “Unforgiven,” however powerful, contain none of this, and so carry less discomforting force. The greatest art will work its themes and meanings through every part of the narrative. “One-Eyed Jacks,” a true American movie masterpiece, accomplishes this.
For more discussion of these two movies and other great Western films, pick up my ebook, ABOUT WESTERN MOVIES, available through Nook Books and Kindle.
Sunday, September 7, 2014
Viewed carefully, the remastered 1964 Beatles movie, "A Hard Day's Night," reveals how an obscure Liverpool rock group was able to initiate massive cultural change.
The first thing Beatles' manager Brian Epstein did right with the film project was to not settle for the generic Elvis-movie route. Selected as director was the most cutting-edge talent to be found, Richard Lester. As a result, the editing was revolutionary, with unsurpassed style.
Every aspect of the film fits with the image Epstein wanted to present. From a business standpoint, perfect branding.
Note the pop art poster images of the Beatles behind the band as they play on stage. Note the witty interview excerpts. Note how even the George Harrison excursion into a fashion magazine office has a purpose. It says, subliminally, "These four guys are the height of fashion. They're the new arbiters of taste."
What director Lester did above all was keep the four young men in motion. Dynamic, not static. From the famous first chord of the title song, the Beatles are seen running and tumbling across the landscape. Their movement matches the hyperfast (for the time) editing.
All aspects of the presentation worked in harmony. That the young musicians could crank out catchy pop tunes on demand was the foundation of their success-- but without the look and style, their sense of newness, they'd have gone nowhere.
These are lessons which can be applied to a stagnant literary scene.
Friday, June 20, 2014
A new literary project I’m soon to be involved in is looking for writers. Talented writers. Exciting writers. Writers who have verve and personality in themselves and in their art. Writers who are ambitious to make noise, and writers who are eager to change the culture. Are any such writers out there? Let us know at:
Monday, June 2, 2014
That question is at the center of my new fiction ebook, ASSASSINATION OF X. It's a bit of a political thriller. Ideas and possibilities are everywhere. The pace of the story is superfast. Where does it end up? Buy it now at Amazon's Kindle Store and find out!
(Click on Amazon link on the right of this page.)
Sunday, April 27, 2014
THE CINEMA THEATER EXPERIENCE
WHY is the 55 year-old movie “Ben-Hur” with its leisurely pace and retro technology a vastly more satisfying cinematic experience than the state-of-the-art “Captain America” movie?
“Captain America: Winter Soldier” is forgotten the moment you leave the theater, while the images and music of “Ben-Hur” seen on a movie screen echo inside your head for weeks.
There are similarities between them. Both films present the theme of “order versus chaos”—as timely a theme as any now going, given that we’re on the brink of becoming a totalitarian society. The difference is that in “Captain America,” the Imperial Romans are everywhere, playing both good guys and bad guys. America—Washington D.C. specifically—is the New Rome, seat of the kind of power and empire which in “Ben-Hur” Messala lavishly praises. (Long-shot special-effect views of both Imperial towns show surprising similarities.)
Pontius Pilate tells Judah Ben-Hur not to judge the empire based on his experience with Messala, an overeager enthusiast—and anyway there’s no other choice. “The grown man knows the world he lives in, and for now, the world is Rome.”
This is also the message of “Captain America.” Despite rogue elements in the nation’s security apparatus, there’s no other choice but to rely on Shield’s superheroes and their agencies to protect the country. As Scarlett Johannsen’s Black Widow tells Congress at the end, “You need us.”
“Captain America” pays lip service to opposing totalitarianism, but its strategy is the same as the plan of the bad guys: Create a sense of chaos in order to justify the imposition of order. Which is exactly what “Captain America” and movies like it are doing. The difference between “bad guy” Robert Redford and “good guy” Samuel L. Jackson/Nick Fury is one of degree. Fury wants to take away only some of your freedoms.
“Captain America” is virtually the same movie as the recent “Iron Man III.” The same generic, monotonous techno-style musical score. Many of the same set pieces. There’s a freighter to be stormed; a corrupt politician inside D.C. betraying the country; plenty of aerial combat with amorphous high-tech planes; a plunge by the hero into an ocean; confusions about characters or even exactly what’s happening on screen. The plot complexities are given quickly and never fully explained. We know there’s a countdown of some sort; something vague will happen if something isn’t stopped; predictably it is stopped, though the heroes seem to have been or should’ve been killed many times over. Unlike the Roman Messala, they’re not vulnerable creatures. They never face the real consequences of their actions—as Messala in “Ben-Hur” so graphically faces them.
Unlike “Captain America,” “Ben-Hur” has only three set pieces, all well prepared for. (The A.D.D. crowd would argue, too well prepared for.)
ONE.) The Roman sea battle with pirates. The special effects are dated, but appear no more fake than today’s CGI.
TWO.) The chariot race. All the overused fast crashes and speeding vehicles in today’s generic action movies don’t equal this sequence.
THREE.) The crucifixion/miracle sequence, the real climax of “Ben-Hur.” Its sound, music, and editing, combined with the story’s emotional climax, make it one of a kind. The emotion of family combined with spirituality make the effect overpowering.
Friday, April 18, 2014
About the movie Ben-Hur (1959), which I saw last week in a movie theater.
Could a film that won eleven Academy Awards be considered underrated?
Yes, if in the years since its release it’s been consistently disrespected and downgraded by film critics.
(For instance, the American Film Institute rates it #100 of its top 100 American movies. In 2012, the Sight and Sound poll of film critics conducted by the British Film Institute ranked it #588 on their list. Only two critics voted for it. One of them, curiously, was Camille Paglia.)
When objectively examined, Ben-Hur belongs in the TEN Best list of American films. The problem is that from the beginning, the closed-mindedness of many important film critics toward religious themes prevented them from understanding what Ben-Hur is about. They failed to comprehend why it’s an artistic triumph, and why it’s important.
First, the superlatives.
Ben-Hur has a very literate script. The dialogue is resonant and tight (except for a couple missteps toward the end). It concisely expresses the story’s theme of Community against Empire; Judea versus Rome. This is noteworthy in the words of the Roman characters played by Stephen Boyd, Jack Hawkins, and Frank Thring; advocates if not fanatics for their Imperial cause. They’re in no way stereotypes. The script was the product of intelligent writers Christopher Fry, Karl Tunberg, and Gore Vidal. The words show a thorough knowledge of life, society, and the world. The competing views presented are well balanced.
Ben-Hur is a spectacular, awe-inspiring viewing experience.
The movie is masterfully directed by William Wyler operating at the top of his form. Note the perfect compositions from the beginning, with the manger scene, or the line of goats viewing the intrusion of Messala and his Roman legions into their peaceful world.
Or note the variety of camera angles. Early, when he betrays his friend, Messala is viewed from above, which gives him the appearance of a toy soldier isolating himself from the world. At the finish of the chariot race, Messala is viewed at ground level, emphasizing how he’s been knocked down, his deeds come full circle.
Or, the framing device of the cave during the final storm; and a quick shot of Jesus on the cross, the reflection of the cross in a puddle; the montage comparison of Jesus’ hand with the hand of one of the women. The storm-and-miracle sequence shows great artistry. It’s great cinema.
Ben-Hur contains what remains, especially when viewed on a big screen, the most exciting action sequence in film, without a single CGI effect, and with stars Charlton Heston and Stephen Boyd doing most of their own stunt work.
Ben-Hur contains the best galley-slave montage sequence ever, for whatever that’s worth.
The musical score by Miklos Rozsa, of prime importance for the overall effect—which is operatic—may be the best film score ever composed.
Above all, Ben-Hur, by the time it concludes after nearly four hours with intermission included, is an cathartic artistic experience, of a kind seldom equaled. Director William Wyler specialized in conveying the emotion of families (see “Best Years of Our Lives”). He was the perfect choice to direct this film.
How have film critics for fifty years been consistently wrong?
The three most influential film critics of the day, Dwight MacDonald, Andrew Sarris, and Pauline Kael, hated Ben-Hur. They hated everything about it. You’d think they’d at least have enjoyed portions of it. The cinematography or music. The solid and subtle acting of Boyd, Hawkins, and Thring articulating the more “adult” words in the film. At least, certainly, the chariot race. Merely watching the competing horses racing in a perfect line, four white horses alongside four black ones, is a picture both thrilling and beautiful.
That these esteemed critics hated all of the movie (Sarris called it “unendurable”) says more about themselves than the film.
From the start, Ben-Hur is nakedly religious. The cynicism of the critics couldn’t accept this. One sees them viewing the perfectly composed manger scene with utter scorn.
A second problem is that the three critics were consciously intellectual. This was their identity—experiencing the world and the things of the world through the trained analytical mind.
But art at its best is about more then the intellect. It reaches into the individual’s heart. It provokes the soul.
The three critics had to have hearts of stone not to be moved by the last thirty minutes of the movie. How do we explain it? They had to have already walled themselves off from every part of the movie experience of Ben-Hur.
That they did, ironically, caused them to miss as well the intellectual elements of the story, which are there, layered within the images, music, and drama.
Several story threads take place at once.
First is the overall “Tale of the Christ,” providing the film’s framework, from Jesus’ birth to death.
Fitting within this framework is the story of Judah Ben-Hur; his struggle to make himself and his family whole.
Within both threads—integral parts of them—is the larger theme of Empire versus Community; Rome against Judea.
The movie has a complex yet unified structure, which ranges in viewpoint from the most personal (family) to the broadest (the interplay of social and historical forces).
It’s impossible to imagine anyone other than Charlton Heston in the lead role. Not because of his performance. Heston is at times acted off the screen, by friend and foe—which is the point. Heston is perfect for the part because he’s square, good, honest, upright—attributes integral to the character of Ben-Hur, and which the actor embodies.
From start to finish Judah Ben-Hur is a strong but passive presence in the movie. He’s there to be acted upon. His soul is the prize to be won by various competing forces. Male or female. Pagan or monotheistic. Sybaritic or domestic.
Messala wants to win his friend over to his own Imperial fanaticism. He promises that his friend will rise with him. Ben-Hur is too stolid and simple, or virtuous, to buy into the plan.
Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins) likewise sees Ben-Hur’s strengths and engages in his own tug-of-war with him. Circumstances help him win Ben-Hur over, briefly, to Rome. Despite pagan allures, greater are the other forces tugging at the Judean prince.
Ben-Hur must be persuaded by an Arab sheik to seek his revenge on Messala via the chariot race. “There is no law in the arena.” Even in the race itself, Messala is the one attacking the other and not the reverse, though Ben-Hur is the one ostensibly seeking revenge. His very presence causes resentment. (Stephen Boyd’s performance as Messala is near perfect.)
Charlton Heston has a strong enough film presence to endure plot-and-performance fireworks from all sides, from actors, actions, and miracles, yet by presence alone carry the film. A lesser actor would’ve been obliterated.
The final tug on Judah Ben-Hur comes from three women: his mother, sister, and would-be wife. Only via the new pacifist creed of Jesus, and accompanying miracle, is the character able to put aside both Rome and revenge. The women triumph.
Critic Dwight MacDonald at the time found Ben-Hur to be overly bloody and violent. How times have changed! Today it appears subtle and tame—especially when compared with the nonstop sadism of films like Passion of the Christ, whose scenes of torture obscure what Jesus was about.
Ben-Hur, on the other hand, shows the barbarity of the arena to show the barbarism of Rome. It’s a necessary part of the message, one kept in balance by the rest of the film. The violence is used as contrast to the pacifist message of Jesus. Jesus is an escape for Judah from the violence and tragedy of the world—the message an escape as well for the audience.
Hundreds of movies have been made since 1959 far more violent and bloody than Ben-Hur; most if not all of them lacking any balance to, or escape from, the carnage.
As Balthazar urges him to, at the end of the story Judah Ben-Hur chooses life over death. Domesticity and the nuclear family—and religion—win out. Roman power and sensuality have been presented as inevitable temptation, but the wrong choice. The movie’s theme is politically liberal but socially conservative. One can see how atheistic film critics disliked the choice given them by the film. They saw or feared themselves placed on the wrong side of the equation, and reacted by blocking the dilemma (and the artwork presenting the dilemma) entirely from their heads.
The movie continues to be relevant. The dilemma, the choice, remains an impossible one for most of today’s film critics. Which means, that though it’s an intelligent film, an overpowering sensory experience, and a moving work of art, Ben-Hur will continue to be egregiously undervalued by the intellectual community, if not by the broader public.
(COMING UP: A comparison between BEN-HUR and the current movie, CAPTAIN AMERICA, WINTER SOLDIER. I’m tentatively titling the piece, “New Rome and Old.”)