Full Disclosure: Twitch's Lists of Shame - February (Part 1)
The intention for February's edition of Full Disclosure was to acknowledge Valentine's Day and, where possible, have our team of writers tackle a romance from their respective Lists of Shame. Whether that means an epic melodrama like Gone With The Wind, a classic Hollywood monster movie like King Kong, or a taboo-breaking Asian drama like Happy Together, love and relationships feature so prominently in the world of Cinema that it seemed a fun topic on which to focus. It hasn't worked out completely, some of our writers simply didn't have an appropriate film in their dozen titles, but for those paying attention, that was the focus behind this month's selections.
Metropolis (dir. Fritz Lang, 1927 Germany)
Finally catching up with Fritz Lang's Metropolis felt like seeing an old friend. It's a title that's been lingering in my consciousness seemingly forever, with iconic images floating around as long as I've been aware of international cinema and the film casting a huge shadow over virtually all science-fiction since. Hell, I had an oversized poster from the film hanging on my wall for better than five years after college just because I loved the design work so much. But I'd never actually seen the full film until now. And it really is remarkable.
It's virtually impossible to watch Metropolis without filtering it through the continental conflict that was just around the corner, future echoes of the class warfare and political ideology - fascism versus communism - that would fuel World War II seeping through virtually every frame. It is odd, however, that given how firmly Lang lands on the communist side of the equation - it's an enormously pro-worker picture - he would be offered the post of official propaganda officer by the Nazi party just years later. He turned it down.
Metropolis is a movie that strikes you immediately with the scale and sheer craftsmanship of the design. It is a film that includes a sculptor in the opening credits and you very quickly come to realize that of course it does. You could never have made this movie without one. The picture is a testament to how limitations in form and technology need in no way limit the imagination, the force of Lang's vision rivalling and besting anything that anyone in this CG-driven age could dream up. The craftsmanship is simply astounding.
This viewing was also the first time in a very long time that I had sat and watched a silent film and I was struck by how freeing that can be in certain contexts. Brigitte Helm and Gustav Frohlich channel meaning and emotion through their bodies - Helm is nothing short of astounding as she carries multiple characters - while Lang's clever choices regarding which dialogue to represent via title cards and what is left unspecified, giving the viewer an enormous amount of latitude to bring their own interpretation and emotions to the picture. In a way it's far more interactive and engaging than our current 'more is more' approach to filmmaking and feels every bit as fresh as it must have when made.
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (dir. Mike Nichols, 1966 USA)
Winner of 5 Academy Awards, including Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress and Best Cinematography (Black & White)
Even though I've seen and enjoyed most films directed by Mike Nichols, I never felt inclined to seek out his debut, despite the accolades it received (five Oscars, out of a record-setting 13 nominations). My blind impression was that Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was nothing more than one huge domestic dispute - actors shouting at one another - and I had no desire to endure that, nor do I have any particular love for stars Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Still, it felt like a yawning, guilty gap in my continuing film education: how could I write knowledgeably about Nichols without seeing his first film? Or speak with conviction about great film performances without taking in the widely-acclaimed work by Taylor and Burton?
So I watched all 131 minutes. It felt like being trapped in a compact car with four drunken strangers while they argue and vomit all over you. Edward Albee's play, first produced in 1962, was groundbreaking and controversial for its time, but with the shock value of the sexually frank dialogue and situations gone, it struck me as an overheated hash of ideas. Nichols had been successfully directing plays on Broadway, but this feels like little more than a stage play transferred to the screen - static and inert, with ramped up, shrill performances that are overly-dramatic for a movie, and direction that does nothing but call attention to itself. To be blunt: the film has not aged well.
Annie Hall (dir. Woody Allen, 1977 USA)
Winner of 4 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actress, 5 BAFTAs
It's taken a fair bit of effort, but I've managed to avoid watching most films directed by Woody Allen for quite some time now. The oldest entry in the man's filmography I've seen to this point has been Match Point. So it's probably justifiable that so many film friends have joined the chorus of outrage at my judgment of Allen on his recent fare, and not on titles that most consider his best, such as Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters, and the film I watched for this month's edition of Full Disclosure, Annie Hall.
Having now seen the much-loved director's most praised feature, I can confidently call Annie Hall the best Woody Allen film I've seen. I wouldn't go so far as to declare my critical opinions completely flipped, but I can certainly say I enjoyed the film and found myself laughing quite heartily at times. I was surprised by the amount of both self-referential and non sequitur humor and it quickly became clear just how many comedians and filmmakers have been influenced by the man (an obvious fact, perhaps). Had Annie Hall been released today, I would be excited by the prospects of the young director. I suppose I should check out more of his early work, but a great movie from 35 years ago doesn't relieve the sense of disappointment brought on by some of his more recent stinkers.
Happy Together (dir. Wong Kar Wai, 1997 Hong Kong)
Winner of Best Director at Cannes Film Festival, Best Actor Award at Hong Kong Film Awards and Golden Horse Awards
Hong Kong arthouse darling Wong Kar Wai bagged the Best Director award at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival for this tale of a turbulent homosexual romance between two young Chinese men living in Buenos Aires. While I have seen most, though not all, of Wong's films so far, this one never really attracted me, despite the universal praise lavished upon it both at home and abroad.
The Full Disclosure initiative seemed the perfect opportunity to get this particular monkey off my back, but I must confess that the outcome was much as I expected. While it boasts an incredibly bold and impressive central performance from Tony Leung Chiu Wai, I struggled to sympathise with Po Wing, played by Leslie Cheung. Admittedly his character appears to be at odds with his own identity and role in his relationship with Fai (Leung), which positions him as the antagonist in most of their disputes and altercations. As a result, my inability to warm to Po Wing is intentional and a key element of the film's narrative, but nevertheless it bothered me, despite Cheung's excellent portrayal.
Elsewhere, Happy Together is as gorgeously grungy as one might expect from a Wong collaboration with cinematographer Chris Doyle, effortlessly gliding from drab interiors to bold skylines and somehow capturing the inherent beauty in all of it. The overhead shots of Iguazu Falls are truly breathtaking, and as always, Wong's musical choices are at once anachronistic, jarringly intrusive, yet somehow perfectly synchronise with the imagery and emotions of the moment.
The film leaves me conflicted, as so much of Wong's work does. There is no denying the artistry on display nor the talent of all involved, yet somehow it fails to connect with me. For a film so concerned with how its characters feel and their persistent battles against their own emotions, I was unable to appreciate Happy Together on that level. Most frustrating of all, the reaction I had to the film actually brought me somehow closer to Po Wing, and finally empathise with his unquenched desires for excitement, danger and raw emotion that he was unable to feel in the arms of the man who loved him.
His Girl Friday (dir. Howard Hawks, 1940 USA)
I don't know why I had never seen His Girl Friday. I love screwball comedies and I love the 30s and 40s when, at least, according to movies, women were tougher and wittier, people smoked in diners over black coffee and whiskey, and being a writer or journalist was still a viable career. I've seen dozens, maybe even hundreds of movies from this era, but somehow managed to avoid Howard Hawks' landmark romantic comedy. I'm not even going to try to come up with an excuse, because I don't like those. And anyway, I've seen it now.
I had been told by pretty much everyone that this Cary Grant-Rosalind Russell battle of the sexes is still an unrivaled landmark for the quick, witty, take-no-prisoners romantic comedy that characterized the 30s and 40s. Well, the quick part is certainly right. People talk faster in His Girl Friday than in probably any comedy ever made. Not only that, they articulate every word perfectly throughout every run-on-and-on sentence, and usually do so while at least three other people are talking. It's quite a spectacle, especially when the film reaches fever pitch about thirty minutes before the end during three or four simultaneous phone conversations in the charmingly dingy press room. No doubt about it -- for fast talking, His Girl Friday is where it's at.
I also appreciated how completely irredeemable Grant's character was, even as the movie ended. Modern romantic comedies wouldn't let a guy like him get the girl. Of course, they don't really write characters like Rosalind Russell anymore either, that is, ones who can hold their own, much less be happy with an underhanded newspaper editor like Grant. That's probably part of the problem too.
However, for laughter, wit and romance, I'd still take Holiday, Midnight, My Man Godfrey, everything by Ernst Lubistch and most Preston Sturges films over this one. Maybe it's because Russell isn't anywhere near as charming, provocative or hilarious as Carol Lombard, Claudette Colbert or Katharine Hepburn. Or maybe the death-penalty plot that tied the whole story together seemed a bit forced and detached from the central narrative to me. Hell, maybe I just didn't get all of the jokes because everyone was talking so fast. But when the dust from the verbal acrobatics cleared, I realized that while I was certainly awe-struck by the machine-gun dialogue, I didn't actually laugh all that much, and didn't get the warm, romantic feeling deep down that all the other films I mentioned provoked. I get why His Girl Friday was such a game-changer, and, unlike my film from last month, Easy Rider, His Girl Friday still feels fresh and bold today. But I'll still have to watch Design for Living and Bluebeard's Eighth Wife several more times each before I even entertain the notion of revisiting this one.
Gone With The Wind (dir. Victor Fleming, 1939 USA)
Winner of 8 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress
I adored Gone With the Wind. An unequivocal masterpiece, there's no wonder this is considered an American classic. Going into this epic I was daunted and apprehensive. January hadn't been kind as I'd pushed through Lawrence of Arabia, which I found much less than the sum of its parts, and now here was another lengthy opus with an intermission that I'd chosen to watch. However almost from the start I was enthralled. I'd always avoided Gone With the Wind as I thought it would be a soppy 4-hour period romance, but similar to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, this tells a small story amidst the much larger story of the American Civil War and its aftermath. It's done so well, both the small and the sweeping, that the combination is a towering achievement. Sure, the depiction of African Americans and slavery in general is pretty hard to take, but otherwise, Gone With the Wind truly stands the test of time.
Dagnabbit if I couldn't enjoy this romantic drama because of what a horrid cow Scarlett is. A gold-digger before anyone knew what they were, I consistently found myself at odds with her survival skills and her immoral means of using them.
The daughter of a rich cotton plantation owner, Scarlett is a spoilt brat from the get-go, relishing the attention of the local men and toying with their emotions. When she can't get what she wants she schemes to get her way. The only time Scarlett may ever be of redeemable character is when she returns to the family home, Tara, after Sherman's March to Sea has scourged the Georgian landscape. She does her damnedest to get Tara back to its former glory, but that doesn't last because once again desperate times require despicable measures.
Outrageous taxes have been levied by the victors. Scarlett runs to Rhett for his money, finds out his assets have been frozen so when she runs into her sister's fiance, she lies to him, tells him her sister has married someone else, so he'll marry her instead and she can use his money to pay her taxes. This is husband number two by the way. But don't worry, they don't last long. Scarlett is the Black Widow of Tara, didn't you know?
As if two dead husbands were not clear warning bells for Rhett Butler to stay the heck away I do not know what else could convince him to stay away. But he is drawn to her because he is a scoundrel himself and finds it an alluring quality in Scarlett. So they marry and it is like locking two white-tailed stags in a room together. They lock horns and the marriage is troubled from the start. They separate. They lose a child in a horse accident. She loses a child in miscarriage. She has everything yet nothing at all.
All the conniving, lying and unfaithfulness eventually get her nowhere again and she is left bawling her eyes out after Rhett leaves with his famous "I don't give a damn" line. I am with you on this one, Rhett. She got what was coming to her; I was short on sympathy by the end. I ended up not giving a damn about Scarlett either. True story. The ironic twist during my viewing of this Civil War era episode of The Hills was the phone call I got halfway through from my dad, letting me know I should be expecting a princely sum of money from his mother's estate very soon.
There is no denying the classic status of Gone With The Wind. Adjusted for inflation it is actually still the highest-grossing film ever, and even though it's now too old to get a general re-release, I remember this being in cinemas regularly in the early eighties. The poster itself is even a classic, used often in homages and caricatures.
But one evening, decades ago, Gone With The Wind was on the television and as a teenage movie enthusiast I wanted to see it. To my surprise I got an ugly look from my mother. Normally we share the same taste in movies, even when they contain zombies, science-fiction, car chases, whatever. So I asked: "Isn't it a good film?", and she told me it was used as THE template for all television soap operas: Peyton Place, Dallas, Dynasty... Well, that sure cured me. She still urged me to go check it out, if only so I could say to myself I had actually seen it, but I didn't do it that evening and... well, I didn't do it later either.
Three decades later, I own a collection of DVDs and Blu-rays, many of which are special editions. Gone With the Wind is amongst them, a gaudy velour-covered package that resembles a make-up case. I bought it because I'm a sucker for these vanity cases, and after all it IS a classic. Time to man up (or down?) and watch it!
Keeping in mind that this is a mainstream blockbuster from 1939, I approached the film as a historical document of THAT time, rather than 1860, where its narrative places it. And it impressed me greatly with its Disney music, astounding production values and vile protagonist. Wait, what?
Well, Scarlett O'Hara must surely be one of the least sympathetic characters in movie history. Being spoiled and self-centered is one thing, being a one-woman wrecking-crew is another. By using her as a lens, the beautiful South fast becomes the decadent South, and to the filmmakers' merit they never pretty her character up, apart from her looks. Still, when all goes to hell around her, you can't help but admire her determination, despite her being a meanie. So with that in mind, here's how the film struck me:
The first half starts out vapid, with arrogant beautiful people being assholes, but it becomes damn spectacular when war arrives. Early on in the second half, things get surprisingly gritty (headshot!) and interesting as people need to become assholes out of necessity, gaining our respect. Later on in the second half people find the luxury to become assholes for fun again, and our respect for them is gone. So far, so good. But then the film is capped with the most ridiculously melodramatic finale ever, appalling even. My final conclusion: this was an epic story about beautiful people being assholes. Nevertheless, when the laughable ending arrived my enjoyment was... wait for it...Gone With The Wind.
In spite of its reputation as one of the all-time greatest films Hollywood ever produced, nothing about Victor Fleming's Gone With The Wind ever interested me in the slightest. I'm not a fan of slavery-era historical revisionism, or the romanticization of the antebellum south. Call me a liberal, but it was all pretty disgusting and when it is glossed over in the name of entertainment of this sort, at least without tongue planted firmly in cheek, the idea just makes me angry. However, I made my own List of Shame, and so I am committed to seeing it through, and it was with that sense of indignation that I endured Gone With The Wind.
For the first two hours, I feared that my initial expectations would be proven valid. Vivien Leigh's Scarlett O'Hara is an insufferable twat, the kind of woman that women hate most, and from whom most reasonable men run. Instead, she bats her eyelashes and crushes the dreams of a million suitors just as soon as she'd whip a slave. It isn't until Clark Gable's dashing ne'er-do-well, Rhett Butler appears that the film piqued my interest, but holy Hell, what a character and performance by Gable. Butler is the lead male role in the film, but he darts in and out of the narrative for the duration of the film, and we are left to suffer at Scarlett's manipulations just as much as her incomprehensibly faithful servants.
It isn't until the final act, when Gable and Leigh step up and perform the hell out of this overcooked melodrama that the film really takes on any sort of momentum. As their characters become more and more inextricably intertwined, the actors turn up the heat. Gable's Butler becomes a heaving, pulsating personification of sex and machismo, while Scarlett shrinks away from the only man who can tame her. It is a brilliant match, and perhaps only so because of the preceding three hours of build up.
It's best that I leave the insane conclusion to you, but trust me when I say that I didn't see it coming. I'm torn on whether or not Gone With The Wind deserves its spot among the greats, but it sure as hell has one of the greatest endings ever.
I suppose it's fitting that so many of the Twitch crew got saddled (or corseted) with visiting Gone With The Wind during Oscar season. The Academy has a long history of awarding little golden men to ambitious (in size) productions and epic spectacle over dramatic and narrative originality. Who am I to argue against the highest grossing film of all time; clearly in 1939 there was a desire (and perhaps lack of options) for a colourful 4-hour melodrama that wears its bloat like one of the southern ladies equatorial sized ball-gowns.
Perhaps people at the time saw Scarlett O'Hara as a pillar of feminine strength in a world in flux (WWII was in full swing). Perhaps wowed by the sheer Technicolor excesses - even the same year's The Wizard of Oz seems a model of restraint against this film's deep reds and glowing auburns that often blind characters into silhouetted shadow puppets against the sheer scale of the landscape. People overlooked the fact that this is a collection of callow, stunted people who emerge from a major ordeal just as stunted (saintly Olivia de Havilland and her vacuous hubby excepted).
Despite the historical conflict, the narrative is horribly static. Perhaps this was intentional and daring. (I think not) What is to love about a strong woman if she is fickle, manipulative, dishonest, narcissistic, not particularly bright and nearly completely lacking in any kind of empathy? Experiencing Gone With The Wind was akin to watching Starship Troopers. Perhaps unintentionally, the film plays today like a satire of American hubris on its own gallantry (but also as the flamboyant playboy and manipulative exploiter of others in the face of its own security). It probably speaks volumes about me that I took such pleasure seeing these foul, repugnant fools meet their untimely ends. Maybe there is something going on here after all.
Outside of the many crimson sunsets, overblown Sirk-on-steroids melodrama and magnificently bad parenting, a few scenes were truly engaging, perhaps even justifying the film's reputation. Atlanta's train-yard full of the dead and dying is slowly revealed in a way that seems to anticipate Leone's Duck You Sucker or even Kubrick's Barry Lyndon. Perhaps more telling was a needless, if dynamic, scene where a house-slave at the O'Hara Tara estate chases a scrawny chicken with an ax - for me, A metaphor about why people were so emotionally engaged with the proceedings.
Much earlier, a signpost presides over a comfortably sleeping cat, "Do not squander time. That is the stuff life is made of." Despite being a mess grammatically, the warning seems to be a taunt aimed at the moviegoing collective. Indeed, this film has squandered untold people years in cinemas, on VHS and DVD watching an unintentional satire of America do exactly, well, that. As portraits of America go in classic cinema, if Citizen Kane is the bar at its highest, and Birth of A Nation the lowest, Gone With The Wind is the very sloppy middle.
La Belle et La Bête (dir. Jean Cockteau, 1946 France)
Winner of Le Prix Louis-Delluc
Though I was never readily adverse to seeing Jean Cocteau's adaptation of the classic fairy tale, I had no compulsion to see it either. Chalk it up to being a 90s kid with the vague experience of disliking, or at least finding nothing of interest in Disney's animated version. When James presented this idea of lists to us I figured now was as good a time as any to see the film that many have cited as a fantasy classic and the pinnacle of Beauty/Beast adaptations. Still having little interest in the story, I can at least understand where these sentiments are coming from and admire the film for its bold production design, dazzling cinematography, many poetic metaphors and especially Arakelian's stupendous Beast make up, as well as the gripping and tragic performance Jean Marais is able to emote under such a burden. While every scene away from the Beast's surreal twilight castle feels like a standard costume piece, there is no denying the true movie magic at work here.
Long before the classic French fairy tale La Belle et la Bête (Beauty and the Beast) was an animated tale as old as time, it was adapted as an altogether different movie. La Belle et la Bête is that rare film so adorned with "movie magic" in every nook, every corner of the frame, that no participant is likely to escape deserved acclaim. So I'll spare the specific rundown of everything that's great about the film, as the act of reading such a list may run longer than the film's quick 96 minutes.
Postwar France must've needed this spectacular burst of raw whimsy and imagination the way America needed The Exorcist and Star Wars on the heels of the Vietnam war. Nevertheless, Cocteau still felt the need to scroll a disclaimer at the beginning, prompting viewers to channel their inner child, lest the wonder before their eyes be lost upon them. Cinema itself had by then arrived at a place of such dramatic maturity that there was legitimate concern of dismissal at such sights as a hallway of free-floating candelabras, and the living wall-mounted arms that hold them.
Today, having snowballed from the very success of The Exorcist and Star Wars, we've reached an opposite extreme. Cocteau's La Belle et la Bête, a precursor to many a lesser Tim Burton spectacle, had to implore adults to give it a chance. Burton's own highly stylized children's tale adaptation, Alice in Wonderland, is a headache-inducing 3D vomitorium that correctly assumed an across-the-board audience. Cocteau shows us the cinematic bedazzlement of childlike imagination; Burton a half-century later saps us with juvenile sugar shock. Somewhere, amid the rise of youthful obsession and either refusing to let our children grow up or forcing them to grow up too soon, culture has skipped a groove.
Jean Marais (who pulls triple acting duties in the film) plays the brutal yet sensitive Beast in a gauntlet-throwing five-hour make-up job. Cocteau was clearly far more in love with the Beast than he was with Belle (Josette Day), having gone as far as to admit he hoped the audience shared his own disappointment at the end when the Beast becomes human. The unforgettable Beast literally smolders in this film. Perhaps a more accurate title would've been "Beauty is the Beast".
La Belle et la Bête is a bona fide List of Shame movie for me, in more ways than one. Not only had I managed never to see it (despite knowing how it would likely appeal to both my childlike movie fan and the grown-up cinema appreciator in me), but over the years I'd purchased the film twice and was gifted it once. Thanks to this exercise, I'm glad to finally see it, and join the chorus in appreciation for this tale older than the Disney tale as old as time.
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