Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Final Stage of the Cinephile: Acceptance

I'm not getting paid for Cinema Styles and I never will. My job isn't to see every movie out there and report back to the world on how I think it went. My real job, in fact, is to do a lot of stuff that would bore most people to tears (including myself) and, as a result, I'll never write about it.

Movies I see and write about because I love them.

When I see one I don't like, generally speaking, I don't write it up. Sometimes I do but not often. I'd rather promote the movies I think are worthwhile than pick apart a movie I don't like (although I have done it, don't get me wrong). Mainly, what I'm trying to say is, I no longer feel embarrassed about not having seen so many films that I want to see or that I should see. There are thousands of them and, frankly, if I started watching all the movies I haven't seen right now, and kept going around the clock for the next thirty years, I'd still miss some.

I'll see what I see, when I see them and if I don't, I don't.

Just a few years ago, when I started writing online, I remember thinking things like, "I can't admit I've never seen The Earrings of Madame de..." I felt I'd done something wrong by not seeing it and every other classic film out there. But then, The Earrings of Madame de... showed up at the AFI, I saw it on the big screen and I loved it. So it all worked out. It took me until my forties to see it but so what, right?

None of this sounds like a big deal to most people but to a bonafide film lover it's a hard thing to accept. That is, to accept that you're never going to see them all and that's okay. With each passing year I see fewer new movies in release and more classic films and it's still not enough. In fact, there are more directors whose entire oeuvre I haven't seen than directors in which I have. Chaplin, Keaton, Kurosawa, Fellini? Nope. I've seen plenty of their works but not all. Hell, there are big time directors of which only one or two of their films I've seen. Claude Chabrol I never saw until Ray Young of Flickhead had his blogathon a couple of years back. How pathetic is that?

Of course, let's be honest, it's not easy seeing the entire life work of any one director but even harder for one pre-1970s. Back then they directed hundreds of movies in a career. John Ford? He directed 146 movies. I'll never see them all. Michael Curtiz? 173. Forget about it. D.W. Griffith? 535! That's five hundred and thirty five! I just... I mean... it's... 535! Okay, so a lot of them are shorts but they're still the works of Griffith and, brother, I'm never seeing all of them.

And I wouldn't want to. I've got limited time, both daily and over the long haul. Why go for quantity over quality? However, there are some directors for which I have seen all their works (and I'm not counting one and outs like Charles Laughton) but it's usually because their output wasn't tremendous in quantity. One that immediately come to mind is Stanley Kubrick but, really, even casual film fans have probably seen at least half of his movies.

So as my time wanes and the decades spent obsessing about movies mount up, it's time to stop worrying about what classic films I still haven't seen and take it easy. The truth, for all of us, is that none of us will ever see more movies than movies we won't see. The overwhelming numbers means that even the most obsessed and dedicated movie fan will never see more than a fraction of a percent of all movies ever made. Think of that. Most movies ever made will go unseen by all of us! It's a difficult thought to consider but one the movie lover must acknowledge. And once you do, once you break free of the delusion that you have to see everything, somehow, inexplicably, the movies seem even better. And that's something I accept, unconditionally.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Unbearable Sadness of Being:
Atlantic City, 1980

I saw Atlantic City when it was first released in the states (It was completed in 1979, released in Europe in 1980, and in America in 1981) and I liked it. I thought it was a fine picture but not much more.

I was a kid. A cinematic babe in arms. A waif.

I watched it again recently, thirty years older and in the midst of a very stressful financial period due to factors beyond my control, and found it an extraordinary film, moving and unbearably sad. Truly and deeply sad.

But also redemptive, renewing and fulfilling.

Honestly, I was unprepared for how well the movie explores the themes of self-delusion and loneliness. Of nostalgia and longing. Of the cruel tricks played on all of us by life and how, usually, the smallest thing will bring us back.

The plot revolves around an aging numbers runner, Lou Pascal (Burt Lancaster), who also earns a few extra dollars acting as a personal assistant/nurse to a mobster's widow, Grace Pinza (Kate Reid). He lives across from Sally (Susan Sarandon) and watches her wipe herself down with lemon juice each night to wash off the fish smell she gets from the oyster bar in which she works. Into both of their lives walks Dave and Chrissie (Robert Joy and Hollis McLaren, respectively), Sally's husband and sister (now with Dave and bearing his child). Lou gets involved with Dave who's looking to score big with some cocaine he stole off of a dealer in Philadelphia. Lou makes the drop for him, Dave gets killed and Lou ends up with the money.

That's as much plot as you'll get from me because the plot isn't nearly as important as the idea of desperate people, interacting, fooling themselves and fooling each other. Lou never was a big time mobster and probably never wanted to be. All Lou ever wanted was for people to think he was a big time mobster. Sally wants to think he was, too, so she can pretend something good will come of her relationship with him. She also wants to believe she's going to be a world-travelled blackjack dealer. Grace believes her dead husband, Cookie Pinza, was a big shot and, by extension, she is too. And Sally's sister, well, she believes in everyone and everything.

The film's screenplay, by John Guare, is brilliantly composed, building its characters in snippets, moments and small talk. There are no laborious monologues or deep exchanges. None. Practically every line in the movie is surface, functional and utilitarian but succeeds at the same time in providing a kind of poetry of self-delusion that the characters use to ameliorate their lonely, desperate existences. Some of its lines are famous, like the one about the Atlantic Ocean. Lou, thrilled to be taken seriously by the young Dave and running out of things to memorialize, laments, "The Atlantic Ocean was something then. Yeah, you should have seen the Atlantic Ocean in those days." Other lines are less so but carry enormous power like when Buddy, an old friend of Lou who now works as a towel boy in a boardwalk restroom, gets a twenty from Lou and says, "Listen, when things start going good for me I'll make it up to you." He's in his late sixties working as a towel boy. Things aren't going to get good. Things aren't going to get better. Buddy's at the end of the line. It's over. But there he is, with a smile on his face, seemingly convinced that, yes, by God, things are going to get better. They have to, right?

This cast of characters vibrantly pulsates throughout the movie because its director, Louis Malle, never lingers over a scene unnecessarily. Most scenes have an exit cut the millisecond the last line is delivered. That line of Buddy's, for instance. As the final breath in the last word "you" is being exhaled, the scene cuts. It's as if, throughout, Malle is making the decision to show the viewer only what is absolutely necessary to express the scene. These are delusional people living just above the poverty line, not skilled orators. They say what they mean and move on.

Atlantic City came and went in 1981. It received marvelous reviews and many critics awards but never enjoyed the kind of lasting reverence afforded other movies of the time. Cinephiles know of it and older movie fans but it's not discussed much anymore. That's a shame. Burt Lancaster was never better and I'm including Elmer Gantry in that assessment. Susan Sarandon shows the great potential she would later fulfill. Robert Joy plays the loser husband at a perfect pitch and Kate Reid is wonderful as a woman who plays it tough but is really as delicate and fragile as anyone. I hope Atlantic City has a revival of sorts, and soon. It's a superb movie and deserves to be ranked alongside the best that the last thirty years has to offer.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Stretch Effect: The Grapes of Wrath

I've almost - almost - become used to seeing Academy ratio movies (1.37 to 1) stretched out on widescreen televisions by people either too stupid to notice the glaring difference or too lazy to bother switching the settings on their tv to match the movie. But one place I don't expect to see it is Netflix. So when I went to watch The Grapes of Wrath the other night, I was shocked to see this:

Here's the correct ratio:

Here are other screengrabs followed by the correct ratio:

When I saw this, I was shocked. I mean, I know nobody was doing widescreen in 1940 (although it had been used before, notably for the 1930 John Wayne movie, The Big Trail) and I certainly know The Grapes of Wrath didn't use it. Still, I went to IMDB to make sure. As I suspected, it was 1:37 to 1. But for some reason, someone at Netflix flubbed and gave us a "widescreen" version of a movie that never was widescreen to begin with, hence the stretched out quality of all the shots. I've notified them (and have for other problems in the past) and hope it gets corrected soon. Meanwhile, if anyone has any other classic movies on Netflix they discover have been stretched out, let me know. I'm curious if this is just an aberration or a disturbing new trend.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Love/Hate: Gangs of New York

There are several movies with which I have love/hate relationships. None of them actually involve love or hate but, rather, aspects I like or admire and aspects I find dull or uninspired or just plain wrong. One of the great Love/Hate relationships I have in the cinema is with the film Gangs of New York. There is almost as much I like about that film as I don't like so it comes about as close to an even split as I'm going to get. I will attempt to explain why but most of it is based on gut feelings, something that doesn't translate well into written analysis so listing may, instead, be the order of the day. I may say harsh things about a movie many love but hope that, in the end, Bill "The Butcher" Cutting himself would declare of this piece, "It's fair. A touch indelicate, but fair."


*Daniel Day-Lewis as Bill "The Butcher" Cutting. As always, Day-Lewis doesn't pull back and that makes for one hell of a watchable performance. In my view, people continue to misunderstand acting that many describe as "hammy" or "over the top." I have commented on this many times but will say it again: A bad actor attempting to ham it up or go "over the top" is painful to watch and, often, wooden. A great actor doing it is a joy to behold (Charles Laughton, Gary Oldman, Bette Davis). I love when he says the "indelicate" line quoted above. Also, after piercing Amsterdam Vallon's (Leonardo DiCaprio) side, announcing, "That's a wound."

*The look of the film. The sets and art direction are terrific to take in and director Martin Scorsese creates an other worldly feel with it, providing a real sense of space and depth within the sets that transport the viewer back in time.

*Jim Broadbent because, well, you know, he's Jim Broadbent!

*The time it takes to develop its story. It doesn't rush itself and doesn't necessarily go where one would expect.

*The history provided in the film, though largely fictionalized, is nonetheless fascinating and did actually inspire me to research it further.


*Cameron Diaz. I just can't stand her in this movie. I find her line deliveries flat and unbelievable and no matter what they do to her costume and makeup, she doesn't look period. She's found a niche in comedy and I think she's skilled at it but in drama, especially this particular period drama, she doesn't work.

*Leonardo DiCaprio. I've grown to like DiCaprio in many things, including all of his other efforts with Scorsese but here he feels forced. From Day-Lewis and Broadbent I get period characters I believe, from DiCaprio I get unconvincing period affectations.

*The opening and closing music. God, how I hate it! This is probably the biggest "Hate" factor of them all. When the opening fight begins and, despite the rest of the film using period Celtic American musical motifs, goes into electric guitar riffs while the action slows to jagged frame by frame slow motion, I don't feel taken out of the movie so much as desperately wanting to leave the movie, and I don't even mind non-period music in period pieces.

Then, at the end, as Amsterdam ponders the future memory of who they were and what they did, cheesy synthesizer-sounding strings strike up (complete with electric guitar riffs, again) as if Scorsese said to the music director, "Now, listen, I'm serious, I really want you to totally screw up this ending," and then the music director pulled out his "100 Greatest Cheesy Movie Themes of the 80s" album and said, "I've got just the thing!"

*The CGI/Matte work/Special Effects. When the camera pulls back at the beginning to show where they are (pssst, it's New York) it looks like the worst matte painting in history as viewed through a broken down screen door. Honestly, I'm not sure if it's matte, CGI or a combination of both, I just know it looks bad. At the end, when Musical Cheese-Fest 2002 is going on, the New York skyline changes or, rather, the really bad CGI/Matte drawing of the New York skyline changes. Hey Marty, way to do everything in your power to destroy the closing shot.

*Finally, and here comes the big one, Martin Scorsese's direction. It's pretty dreadful. He makes some good choices (I mean, how could he not, he's Martin Scorsese so it's not a total loss) but he makes many more bad ones. Mainly, he doesn't stick with any one stylistic approach. There's the jagged frame by frame slow-mo of the fight scene. There's the varying musical approaches. There's the hectic, chaotic climax, narrated by a reporter reading off the telegraph machine so the viewer gets a play by play of the action. Dear Lord, that's got to be one of the most ill-advised approaches to a climax I've ever seen. Scorsese clearly wanted the ending to simulate a newsreel play by play but, alas, the story takes place during the Civil War so he goes with the reporter reading off the telegraph instead. The ending felt so disconnected from the rest of the film, so emotionally distant, that by the time we see the long line of dead bodies waiting to be claimed one feels relief only that, with the end credits nearing, the constant shift in styles will be mercifully over.

When Gangs of New York ends, and the big, overdesigned title card (seriously, the title card is overdesigned! How? Why?) I walk away with a sense of longing. A longing for a better, more consistent film. And, really, that's not a knock so much as an acknowledgement that I like a lot in the movie and wish I liked the movie itself more. And I'll watch it again. I'll watch Bill teach Amsterdam how and where to cut someone for maximum effect (another favorite scene) while I drift off as the Cameron Diaz scenes play out. I'll love it and I'll hate it and dream of what might have been but the movie's shortcomings won't keep me away. After all, with Gangs of New York I know where I stand. It's hit and miss and that's not deadly. That's a wound.