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.