Monday, June 7, 2010

The Half-Life Seven

This time of year is filled with graduations and, being a cinephile who connects even the most meaningless word or phrase to a movie, I can't help but think of The Graduate, with Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft and Katherine Ross, this time each year. And whenever I think of The Graduate I am reminded that I only like one half of it, the first half. The opening party, the seduction of Ben by Mrs. Robinson, the trips to the hotel under the name "Gladstone" and the confusion of his first date with Elaine entertain me one and all. Then comes the disturbing break-up between Ben and Mrs. Robinson and the threats and the college stuff and Mr. Roper and Richard Dreyfuss giving Ben a hard time and bleh, I'm done with it. After Ben's first date with Elaine The Graduate holds no interest for me. And it's not alone.

There are plenty of movies that I call "half-lifers," borrowing the term from the scientific identification for the period of time an object in decay will deteriorate by half. My term has nothing to do with decay and everything to do with half of the movie coming alive for me and the other half being dead to me. And it's not that any of these movies are bad, just that only one half holds any interest for me and it is, almost always, the first half. So none of this is intended as a review of any of the films concerned, simply a statement of personal preference for one half over the other. Starting with The Graduate above, here are six more, in chronological order, that round out my Half-Life Seven. There are more but these are my most extreme cases of Half-Lifers, movies where I am really not interested for almost 50 percent of the movie while very much enjoying the other 50 percent.

Gone with the Wind (1939): Overall I'd have to say this is a movie I don't very much care for and yet, the first half does entertain me. I love all the buildup to both the war and the relationship between Scarlett (Vivien Leigh) and Rhett (Clark Gable) up through the war itself and the burning of Atlanta. And then, I stop watching. If this is on TCM and I happen upon it while the first half is running I'll watch it. As soon as they get to the post-war story and the marriage of Scarlett and Rhett, brother, I am outta there!

Julius Caesar (1953): I guess I should blame Bill Shakespeare for this one but the fact is, I'm with this story as they plot and scheme to kill Caesar (Louis Calhern). I'm with it further as Brutus (James Mason) stands before the Roman masses to justify his actions and I'm really with it as Mark Antony (Marlon Brando) delivers that ingeniously written speech that at first reassures Brutus that Antony will not incite revolt before twisting the rhetorical knife into Brutus' gut. Wow! What a speech! And then... I pretty much just turn it off.

The Ten Commandments (1956): The first three have all been the first half of the movie I like. With The Ten Commandments it's the opposite. Moses' (Charlton Heston) journey from noble prince to exiled shepherd bores me to tears. But once that angry God of his starts killing firstborns and blighting the land and parting seas, oh boy, just try and stop me from watching it! Still some of the most amazing effects of the fifties.

Vertigo (1958): This is the first film on the list that I would qualify as a great film (along with the next film on the list) but I could still survive just taking in a little over half of it. And that half is Scotty (James Stewart) following Madeleine (Kim Novak) around and falling in love with her. Once he goes catatonic after her faked death the movie holds much less interest for me. In fact (BLASPHEMY ALERT) I've always kind of wished that the movie really had been about a woman possessed with the spirit of a long dead, long suffering ghost. When it turns out to be just a piece of a murder plot I'm always a little disappointed.

Lawrence of Arabia (1962): There must be something about first halves because this is another one where the first half hypnotizes me and the second half doesn't. Lawrence's (Peter O'Toole) introduction to the desert and his almost instant connection with it is truly mystical in its presentation. The journey across the desert to attack Aqaba plays like a dream, taking its time, watching, following, always moving towards an unseen destination. Then the second half of the movie loses that mystical quality as it focuses on battles and political maneuvering. The second half is certainly great too and I'll watch it all but given the choice between the two, I'll take the first half.

The Ruling Class(1972): Finishing up the Half-Life Seven is The Ruling Class from 1972. While this film continues the tradition of liking the first half over the second half the difference lies in how dramatically different my feelings are for both halves. The first half with Jack under the delusion that he is Jesus Christ plays like some of the best British comedy of the seventies and I love it. I love the stupid jokes, the barely choreographed song and dance numbers and Peter O'Toole running around delivering bizarre platitudes intended to be taken as gospel. But if ever a movie didn't know when to shut off the valve and roll the credits it's this one. I really can't stand much of the second half as the sledgehammer satire takes over with Jack becoming Jack the Ripper and entering the House of Lords. The problem is that the second half isn't delivering anything the first half didn't already deliver, and better, but it keeps on delivering anyway until everything starts to feel run down. The movie doesn't feel so much like it concludes as it does that the editor just finally said, "Let's put 'The End'... oh, I don't know... um... here!"

And that's The Half-Life Seven. There are many more that could make the list but their splits are not as even. For instance, M*A*S*H kind of loses me at the football game but that's less than half the movie by far. Or Titanic (1997), which is another rare one where I can watch the second half (when the ship sinks) over the first half (when the movie sinks) but even then there's plenty I could do without, like, for example, the cast. And there are plenty of movies where I love the whole thing but because I've seen them so many times I'm happy missing the exposition of the first third or so of the film to get to the major action (too many titles to list).

While I want to love every movie I see, inevitably, many disappoint me. Some the whole way through and others only part of the way. When it's part of the way it's sometimes more disappointing because the promise, the potential, was there but petered out. Still, I'll take whatever solid filmmaking and entertainment I can get, even if sometimes it's only by half.

28 comments:

Neil Sarver said...

It's funny. I just dug up my review of Martyrs after Bill and Rod were discussing whether it was good and apparently had offered just this as my opinion, although apparently not as memorably so as some of these.

And it's interesting, I agree with nearly all of these. The one that stands out for me the most is Vertigo, and I don't think I've ever put my finger on that being it before. Thanks for putting that together.

Greg said...

Pat, it seems to happen most with movies that have two distinctive parts. Not a lot of movies do. If you think of classics from Casablanca to On the Waterfront there seems to be a continual narrative whereas with a Gone With the Wind or The Graduate there appears to be two very distinctive parts to each movie. So different that you can enjoy one without caring for the other.

And please let me know, once you watch it, what you think of The Ruling Class.

Greg said...

Neil, I'm curious about your Vertigo comment. Do you mean you agree that you wish it was about an actual possession? Because I really do wish that when I see it and while I appreciate the murder plot and character arc of Scotty dealing with the same loss twice, I think it would have been fascinating if dealt with head-on as an actual case of ghostly possession.

bill r. said...

Greg, don't you mean that you wish VERTIGO had all been a dream?

Greg said...

Uh, no. But a nightmare maybe. Not enough movies where it's all been a dream wrap things up with the lead character lurching up in bed, sweat-drenched and screaming. How much more effective would The Wizard of Oz have been if after the Wizard takes off in the balloon, suddenly, dozens of evil green witches, in support of the Wicked Witch of the West, descend upon the Emerald City and commence in the wholesale slaughter of everyone present, even severing the head of Glinda. Finally, the Cowardly Lion is impaled in front of Dorothy splattering her face with blood as she bolts up in bed screaming! Now that would have been an ending!

Neil Sarver said...

I'm not sure I've ever thought specifically about what I wanted out of the follow-up, but I do find it the weakest of Hitchcock's great movies, and it is the second half that falls short for me.

bill r. said...

Greg, I was just saying, because you know how you like movies where it was all a dream, and there were no ghosts, or the guy was dead the whole time? Those are your favorite kinds of movies. I know this.

Greg said...

Now I'm just confused. Maybe this post is just a dream and soon I'll wake up and write it, only with no mention of Vertigo.

Anonymous said...

tdraicer:

With you on The Graduate and The Ten Suggestions. And yeah, Bill Shakespeare gets the blame on JC. I actually don't like either half of GWtW, and I like the second half of Lawrence better (for one thing, more Claude Raines).

As for Vertigo, it is watching Scotty unknowingly remake his lost love into his lost love that makes the film for me, so we differ there. But points for taking a clearly risky stand. (Or not, if that part turns out to be merely a dream.)

Christopher said...

I love the way Vertigo twists and turns on this long mysterious seductive journey buts its all a big scam and ends abruptly on a grim note with Jimmy getting fucked a second time as he conquers his fear of heights..

Greg said...

tdraicer - I agree that the way Vertigo is set up makes for one hell of a tale of obsession on Scotty's part and ultimately heartbreaking tragedy, but I would have liked to have seen Hitchcock handle that as a purely supernatural story as well, something he never really directly did (indirectly, in films like Rebecca but never head-on). And no, I wouldn't want it all to be a dream. Maybe I'm a little thick these days but I actually am missing the joke there with Bill so Bill, please don't confuse me anymore.

Greg said...

Christopher, I do feel sorry for Scotty. He may be over his vertigo now but as my friend Larry Aydlette once said in regards to the ending, Scotty's now toast. That kind of double whammy simply wipes you clean.

bill r. said...

By the way, I'm glad to hear more people don't fall all over themselves about VERTIGO. It's a great film, but, like Neil, I think it's the "weakest" of his great films. I haven't watched it in a while, so I can't really explain why I think this, but Hitchock made so many other movies that just knock me out, that the wave of adoration for VERTIGO leaves me slightly bewildered.

Greg said...

Bill, you're right, Neil coined the perfect phrase "his weakest great film." I favor Notorious, Shadow of a Doubt, and Psycho over Vertigo. The adoration began in 1972, a mere 14 years after its release when it made the 72 Sight and Sound poll.

In my early cinephile readings on the subject in interviews and essays in things like Film Comment in the late seventies, the critical community went on and on about how it was Hitchcock's "most personal" film with Scotty as Hitch's stand-in and Madeleine the stand-in for his blond leading ladies or some such baloney as that.

And, essentially, that's it. Basically it became the flagship movie for a director with too many great movies for anyone to agree on. Now, they could point to Vertigo as the one that kind of summed him up so to speak. And I still don't really buy that.

Ed Howard said...

I totally agree about Lawrence. The first half is stunning and magical and hypnotic, at times reminding me of Fata Morgana or Gerry with all those hazy desert shots... And then the second half is good, but just loses a bit of that magic, becomes a little more prosaic, a little more plot-based as opposed to the first half's subjective encapsulation of Lawrence's desert experiences. It's a great movie, for sure, but a somewhat uneven one.

Vertigo, though, is a film I really love... now, anyway. It's the one big example I have of a movie that totally failed to do anything for me the first time around, and has only become a favorite with repeated viewings. Chris Marker's mini-essay on it in Sans Soleil helped, I'm sure, but more than that I think it's a film that's best appreciated when you're not hung up on the plot. The first time I saw it, I was wondering what was going on, and like Greg, was perhaps a little disappointed with the resolution to the mystery. But as in so many of Hitchcock's best films, the mystery actually isn't so important (it's "solved" halfway through, more or less, at least for the audience if not for Scottie), and on subsequent viewings I realized that focusing on "what happens next" is only a distraction from the tragic arc of Scottie, and the examination of obsession and dysfunction, and the ode to San Francisco geography.

Oh, and I know Bill was joking, but I've always thought it was possible to read the entire second half of the film, following Scottie's trippy dream sequence, as happening entirely in Scottie's head. He has this crazy hallucination, and then his frazzled mind attempts to bring the woman he lost back to life, only even in his mind he can't make it come out right.

Tony Dayoub said...

Great post, Greg!

I'm with you on VERTIGO up to a point. For me, a lot of the sensuality and mystery gets sucked out of the film once you find out what the explanation is. That's disappointing to some degree after Hitchcock's deliberate and atmospheric buildup, helped mightily by what I consider to be Herrmann's best score. In a way it is the score which continues to remind you in its later chapters what an about face the story has taken.

(As Larry David says) that being said, I agree with the anonymous commentor who says watching Scotty remake his ideal woman is a pretty interesting sequence in and of itself, and the strange psychosexual turn this Fifties-era movie takes is oddly gratifying because of its gutsiness.

Tony Dayoub said...

"...I've always thought it was possible to read the entire second half of the film, following Scottie's trippy dream sequence, as happening entirely in Scottie's head."

Great point, Ed!

Greg said...

Ed and Tony - I find Vertigo tragic arc with Scottie (I guess I was spelling it wrong before) compelling as well and my wish to see a completely supernatural take may well come as a result of seeing it too many times and wanting something different. Starting with it's re-release in the eighties I've probably seen it with different people a dozen times at least. Eventually you reach the point of diminishing returns which is exactly why I stopped watching several great movies a few years back that I'd perhaps seen too much. Frankly, I don't know how people like Roger Ebert do it, seeing the same film, like Citizen Kane over and over again as they teach it in seminars, without becoming contemptous of it after a while.

More than anything, I'm a sucker for the hypnotic. I don't need much of a story if you give me great atmosphere and a dream-like feel. A couple of years ago I wrote about the abstract film Fantome Creole which I loved, solely for its dream-like ambience. So, like Lawrence of Arabia, once we get past the haunting possession of the first half and move into the nuts and bolts of Scottie's breakdown and the murder plot in the second half, I'm disappointed. Not because what is there isn't compelling but because that feel of the first half is gone.

Anonymous said...

tdraicer:

On Vertigo, I always thought Stewart leaps to his death two seconds after the film ends.

Greg said...

And just when his vertigo was finally gone.

Marilyn said...

I just had this conversation with the hubby last night. He brought me a DVD box for Bright Star and asked if is was any good. I told him it was half a good movie - the first half. I actually have a reaction to some of John Ford's films that deals in thirds. Pilgrimage is a film I like at the start and the end, but the middle section is just plain bizarre. He used to do these comic interludes that were like intermission acts.

BTW, I picked up a book on special effects (Movie Magic: Behind the Scenes with Special Effects) for $2 at a book sale on Sunday. Thought of you.

Greg said...

Funny you should bring up Ford because that's how I feel about The Searchers, and also Roger Ebert, by the way, who mentions the oddness of the middle part in his Great Movies review. You've got this strong first act, very strong third act and in the middle is this stupid back home sequence where some idiot fights Jeff Hunter for the girl and... aah, who cares! I mean, the movie screeches to a halt for that section.

I've already made my way to Amazon.com in search of Movie Magic. They've got used copies ranging from 90 cents to, are you ready - 999 dollars. Why I would opt for 999 dollars over 90 cents I have no idea. As long as it's in good condition from a reputable seller (it is), a couple of bucks is the one I'll go with. Thanks for mentioning that. I somehow missed out on that book.

Christopher said...

Strangers on A Train,Rear Window and Vertigo always fight for top spot of my favorite Hitch's..It took me 3 or 4 viewings of Vertigo to realize..I'm just being had!..like Scotty..Thats one of the things i like about it..I still watch it hoping things will turn out differen't..Madeline be true..Madeline be differen't..Madeline don't die..

Greg said...

Christopher, I wrote up the great Strangers on a Train here last year after I saw it at the AFI with Farley Granger in attendance doing a question and answer following the movie. He was great. Honest, blunt and straightforward. I got to meet him afterward (and my wife got his autograph on her program) and he was nothing but gracious and gentlemanly.

Christopher said...

now thats the way to see Strangers on a Train!..I definitely would have enjoyed that.

Margaret Benbow said...

Greg, I'm completely with you on VERTIGO; and in fact would go farther, and say that as the story progresses and this oldish geezer becomes obsessed with a beautiful young woman and relentlessly breaks a sensitive human being down to the components of his obsession--perfume, hair color, French twist, grey suit, and the rest--I literally feel sick to my stomach. And this is normally a stomach of iron!

In regard to THE SEARCHERS I'd argue that Ford's odd flights-- like the relentless chase being interrupted by the comic scene back home where Jeffrey Hunter is jousting with the farmer swain--are an example of his genius. He was unafraid to go beyond the conventional artistic unities. The whole movie is so piercing to us because subconsciously we recognize it as being like life; and life is a tragicomedy. I never watch these scenes, so fresh and unexpected, without admiration for his boldness.

Greg said...

Margaret, the only way I can rationalize what goes on at the end is that Judy is as obsessed with Scottie and her past role of Madeleine as he is. She must be because she doesn't say, "to hell with this" and leave once he starts making her over. Despite what she says she must want to revert to the romance they had before but can't come right out and say it. I think the movie is about two very sad and lonely people.

Jon Rob said...

A more recent half-life film is Office Space. First half has all the interest and frankly I could have watched a lot more if it was about the leads rise through the company by not actually doing anything.
But then they go for the paycheck fraud and it becomes much less interesting