Sunday, August 29, 2010

Overlord (1975)

In the summer of 1975 Overlord took home a Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival and then promptly disappeared for almost thirty years. It resurfaced at the Telluride Film Festival in 2004 and had its U.S. premiere shortly after at the AFI Silver in Silver Spring, Maryland, as well as the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago, Illinois. Its director, Stuart Cooper, used archival footage for over one quarter of the film, footage he had pored over for some three years at the British War Museum in London, and it is that footage that gives Overlord its power and, in the end, its greatness.*



Stuart Cooper has done little else with theatrical film. After only three feature length theatrical outings, none of which I have seen, he directed for television exclusively until his retirement in 2000. But with Overlord he achieved something special, something unique. He created a film whose fictional aspects only work as setups for the non-fictional archival footage and whose impact comes from knowing exactly where the fictional story is going. It's a clever cyclical trick that Cooper pulls off quite well. Neither the fictional story nor the actual footage would work without the other.

The story follows Tom Beddows (Brian Stirner) as he leaves his parents home in London to begin basic training after being called to duty in the midst of the greatest destructive event in world history, World War II. The plot is simply that:
Tom going through his training for battle as well as meeting a girl. The training is monotonous and tedious and Cooper intercuts it with stunning archival footage of the war that at once illustrates the different worlds Tom and the war inhabit and how, inevitably, they will be brought together. When they do finally meet, the outcome has already been telegraphed from the first moments of the film onwards. While there is little emotional impact to the ending, simply because the audience is never allowed to go too deeply into Tom's psyche, it has a structural power because Cooper has been informing us all along that this is how it will end. Tom has enough visions of his own death, and early on, that to not know his character will die in the Normandy invasion (Operation Overlord, hence the title) is to be either delusional or exceptionally lazy as an observer. Cooper wants you to know, or at least strongly sense, that Tom's ticket out of this world has already been purchased from the moment he says goodbye to his parents. Because the tragedy is that this young man will spend the last days or weeks or months of his life doing nothing meaningful. As each tedious training routine goes on we want Tom to do something else. Write a poem, compose a sonata, paint a landscape, anything! Don't you know you're going to die? Stop being reticent with that girl. Make passionate love to her, woo her, marry her!

Instead, Tom does his duty. He even writes a letter home letting his parents know, in advance, that he believes he's going to die, to prepare them. And as he trains the war draws closer, the battle footage grimmer, the damage more devastating. They eventually start training on a beach and Cooper intercuts extraordinary archival footage of massive cutting and whirring and rolling machines that drive home the point even further that Tom, indeed all his comrades in arms, are part of a larger machine, one so massive that none of them can see it or even intuit what their part of it is, only that they have a part, and a necessary one.

Overlord is a triumph of design. It is one of the best, if not the best, combination of real and archival footage I have ever seen. What it lacks in emotional resonance it more than makes up for in what one could call "steel trap story structure," that is, sharp, tight and strong. It leaves nothing unresolved while drawing power from the fact that nothing that happens is, alas, unexpected.
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*It should be noted that the film's Director of Photography was longtime Stanley Kubrick collaborator John Alcott, who provides the film fictional sections with a beautiful greyness to match the archival footage. He worked with Cooper on Cooper's other theatrical films as well. Please visit Unexplained Cinema for a series of posts on the look of the film.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Dead Man Walking:
The Boots of All Quiet on the Western Front


One of my favorite sequences in All Quiet on the Western Front occurs when director Lewis Milestone follows around a pair of boots as they make their way from one owner to the next. Each owner is a German soldier, desperate for a decent pair of walking boots. In a life filled with rats, dysentery, trench foot, spoiled food and constant assault under fire, a decent pair of boots is tantamount to winning the lottery. Only this lottery turns the winner's luck around on him the second he wins. Each soldier who wears the boots dies.

Roderick Heath, in the comment section of his excellent review of The Big Parade, said of All Quiet on the Western Front, "no matter what else you say about it, you can’t get away from the fact it’s a message picture." I agree, even while also believing it to be one of the greater works of early sound cinema and a film filled with great battle scenes regardless of the era. Still, the point is taken: It's a message picture through and through and the boot scene hammers the message home as hard as any other scene but does so in a self-contained, short film kind of a way. It could exist as its own little movie without the rest of the story surrounding it. Also, the boot scene is the one point in the film in which Paul, the main character, disappears while a vignette breaks out in his absence. Maybe that's why I like it so much: it's all so very self-contained. So self-contained (it's only a minute long!), in fact, that the rest of the movie may as well be elaborate ornamentation surrounding it.

The vignette's full story starts with Paul walking out of the hospital with his recently deceased friend's boots. But the character walking out of the hospital with the boots might as well be anyone as far as the vignette is concerned. After all, Paul isn't around to watch the other soldiers die, he's just there to get the vignette rolling. In it we see two soldiers get the boots bringing the death toll to three, which includes Paul's friend. I like that about it too: it's just two soldiers in the vignette, not five or six. The whole sequence commands a sense of brevity and clutter-free message-making that the rest of the film, great as it is, could have turned to a bit more.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

I am Real Superman

Hello, I am Real Superman. I hail from the planet Krypton which, you may have heard, blew up in my infancy. There's a lot more to it than that but let's long-story-short it and just say I travelled through space from my planet to your planet, Earth, and made it my new home. I'm sure you've heard many fascinating things about me and all the things I can do. I've heard the same stories: X-ray vision, incredible strength, virtual invincibility and, of course, the ability to fly. Well, sit down, we've got a lot to cover.

See, here's the thing everyone latches onto: My planet had a red star for its sun, like that's what explains everything. According to this line of reasoning the gravity on my home world of Krypton was much stronger than it is here on Earth, right? Well, yes, it was, but not necessarily because of the star. Actually, the strength of an object's gravitational pull depends on various factors but mainly on the size and core density of the planet itself. Lots of factors going into play here but basically, due to it's size, the gravity on Krypton was, in fact, a hell of a lot stronger than it is here on Earth. If you travelled to Krypton, set your ship down and headed outside for a stroll, you'd be crushed like a bathysphere with a cracked window at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Really, you'd die in, like, a tenth of a second. So when I came here the difference in gravitational pressure was startling. And dangerous. Like if you went to the moon and you're all, "Weeee, look at me, I'm hopping 20 feet in the air because the gravity here is only 1/7 what it is on Earth." But then you know what happens? Your muscle mass starts to atrophy immediately. After only a few weeks your bones become brittle and have trouble supporting your body weight in an Earth-like gravitational environment. Fun! Yep, in no time flat you're just as "strong" or "fast" as any other moon resident, if there are any.

That's what would have happened to me, except the gravity was so much stronger on Krypton that my bones started to expand upon my Earthly arrival as did the organs in my body. It's like taking an organism from a couple of miles down in the ocean and popping it up to the surface. To cope with the massive deep sea pressures its body is designed to equalize those pressures around it. Take away the pressure and the reaction is often explosive. Without the massive pressure of the Krypton environment bearing down on me, my organs began to expand but fortunately stopped just short of exploding. My eyes bulge almost completely out of my head giving me a rather gruesome appearance and my body appears bloated and abnormally swollen. It wouldn't be so bad if I also weren't incredibly weak and fatigued every waking moment of every day. Allow me to explain.

My body is being constantly assaulted by sunlight due to the drastic difference in our suns. Animal species evolve according to particular environmental conditions and the light source received from the home star is vital in that development. Krypton's red star places it in the Class M category (as opposed to your Class G sun) which produces much less luminosity meaning that here, I'm in danger of severe burning and skin cancer every time I spend more than two minutes outside. Even inside, the residual light is often too much. Either way, it saps every ounce of energy I have. One of these days I've got to move to Barrow.

Then there's my diet. My requirements simply aren't met by the vegetables and animal products on this planet which my digestive system is still getting used to. Add to that the fact that my colon is in such a warped state thanks to the previously discussed gravity/pressure problem and painful bowel movements, cramping and round the clock vomiting have become the order of the day, every day.

Speaking of vomiting, let's not forget viruses. I contracted at least three or four whoppers in my first six months on the planet, one of which damn near killed me. Again, the low luminosity of a red class M star produces a much different climatological environment, allowing for much less bacterial and viral life. But here on earth, with a nice yellow, main sequence, class G star? Holy shit! Hell, the flora alone on this planet is out of control compared to the icy world of Krypton! With that much life, water and abundance of warm, temperate climates there's probably more bacterial and viral life in a square inch here than on my entire goddamn home world. As such, my immune system is not only unprepared but practically worthless. Basically, if you sneeze anywhere near me my chances of dying in the next three days increase by around 48 percent. Joy! Even if I could walk without fear of breaking all my bones I probably still wouldn't go outside. Really, why risk it?

But of course I don't have to walk because I can fly, right? Bwahahahahaaaaaa!!! Oh man, good one! Yeah, really, I mean, I don't know where that shit came from. Fly? WTF? Yeah, it's true, when I first showed up I could jump pretty high because of the difference in gravity but no higher than anyone else really. And fly? Never. The people who say that clearly have no understanding of lift. Look, I'm a humanoid just like you. My body simply isn't designed for gliding which means I need self-propelled flight for this to work and last time I checked I didn't have jet engines or propellers shooting out of my ass so if you can tell me what's propelling me forward I'd love to hear it, 'cause brother, I don't know.

Hey, I know, maybe I should look for the source with my X-Ray vision. If you'll pardon me one more time: Bwahahahahahahahaaaaaa!!! I'm sorry but someone really needs to get their head out of their ass with this one. Look, my vision is slightly different than yours, it's true. I can see in the ultra-violet spectrum, like a bee can, so things look a little different to me but to see an X-ray version of something can't work because x-rays don't bounce off an object to be picked up as reflected light by an optic nerve, they pass through an object and have their shadows trapped, so to speak, by the x-ray machine's photographic plates. The only way it could work is if my eyes acted as photographic plates that "caught" the shadow of the x-ray as it passed through my optic nerve in which case I'd have that image trapped in my eyes forever unless every time I looked at something I changed my eyes out. Seriously ... the fuck?

There are, of course, dozens of other examples: heat vision, freezing breath, super-hearing (actually my hearing might be better than yours had my ear drums not expanded upon arrival making it so I can barely hear anything and what I can has a constant, low, relentless buzzing behind it) and so on. I'd love to discuss each and every one of them with you but I'm getting tired and my nurse tells me I'm getting too excited and that's not good for my lungs, frail as they are in this light pressure environment. I'd show you to the door but walking is a difficult process requiring the assistance of canes and the unnecessary risk of breaking all of my bones. Thanks for stopping by though, I've enjoyed your company.

I am Real Superman. Good day.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Episode V: Cinema Styles Strikes Back

On July 15, 2009, I worked my last day at my old job. That day I officially joined the millions of Americans that, when asked about their gainful employment, could reply, "I've been laid off." From July 16, 2009 through July 14th, 2010, I went to craigslist, looked for openings, sent in resumes, put in applications and waited. Nothing happened. In one year's time I had exactly two interviews. Two.

My severance had run its course months before, my unemployment had gone into extensions and even those extensions had stopped, pending a Congressional vote. If not for my wife's income, we would have lost everything. Even so, we needed the unemployment to cover the bills my wife's income couldn't cover alone, which left precious little for groceries for the household, a household with six people. Our oldest son helped out too with money from his job, bless him. Things were desperate when, finally, on July 15, 2010, exactly one year to the day that I had left my last job, I got a call from my most recent job interview, only the second I'd had. They offered me a job. It was a job in retail, tough work moving things and stocking and being on my feet all day long. It was a rough adjustment to make and the pay was the same as the unemployment but, and this is important, it was pay from a job, which meant it wouldn't stop unless I stopped working, so I took it.

The rest, as they say, is history. After work I was exhausted and in no mood to write or even watch a movie. The schedule was erratic, never getting two days off in a row, with changing hours daily. Posting here at Cinema Styles plummeted. From three or four posts a week last year to two, then one, then, maybe, one every couple of weeks. The Invisible Edge stopped completely (and will, most likely, remain closed for business) and my postings at The Gunslinger slowed to a damn-near standstill. Unexplained Cinema suffered the same fate as the other three.

But that was then, this is now.

Two weeks into my new job I got another call. It was a call from the National Archives where I had interviewed for a position that I wasn't really qualified for but went after anyway (that was the other interview I had). I didn't get that one but now, months later, another job had opened up, one that I was eminently qualified for with my administrative and managerial background. They asked me to come in and talk, which I did on my day off and, the very next day at work, I got the call that they wanted me for the job. After one year of being unemployed with no prospects in sight I was now forced to go to the manager of my new job and apologize for having to give my notice a mere fourteen days into the venture because of another job. It was made all the more difficult by the fact that I had repeatedly assured her that despite being overqualified I wouldn't let her down. But as hard as that news was to break there really wasn't any choice (and she completely understood and thought it ridiculous that I would even fret over it). The new job puts me back on a Monday through Friday, nine to five schedule in a nice office environment (although it's an office for working so I'll still be offline during the day). And for a history and archival buff like me it's quite something to know that the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights are just a few seconds walk from my office.

As for Cinema Styles I already feel refreshed and am eager to write again. I'm looking forward to another exciting October and a refreshing fall season of new posts. I also started writing a series of deconstructions in the last few months because of something indefinable that made me want to and since I've now written several, sitting in draft form on my edit page, I figure I might as well post one a week or so and call it a new series. There's a definite format to each one and I'll put the first one up on Sunday but until then, I'll say no more, except that, having been written whilst unemployed, they do reflect a certain mood, a certain... state of mind.

Until then, I'm just happy to get back to posting (at The Gunslinger too, where I'm back to my usual posting quota this week) and Unexplained Cinema will start back up next week as well. I also look forward to visiting all my usual blogs again. It's been too long and I miss reading all the great posts out there and commenting on them. And thanks to everyone for sticking around during the lean months here at Cinema Styles. Hopefully, it won't happen again, or, at least, not too often. For now, it's time to start watching movies again.

Thursday, August 12, 2010