Archive for January, 2011
Posted by Gerald on January 24, 2011
Filmsite movie #3 (and again, the number is simply the order I’m watching them in): On the Waterfront (1954). I have a lot less to say about this one. While I’m glad I saw it, it just didn’t leave me pondering anything the way the first two films did.
This was my first time watching the whole film, which may have colored my response to it. As I said earlier, I liked it, but it didn’t inspire any deep thinking. Elia Kazan gives us an excellent story incorporating some of the big themes in American films – particularly the little guy standing up against the system and the quest for personal redemption. However, what I was most struck by were the performances. Rod Steiger and Marlon Brando stand out, but this is a film filled with great actors.
Rod Steiger probably couldn’t land a role on TV now – I doubt anyone ever called him pretty – but he is a consummate actor. As I watched him I remembered other roles of his, particularly as Gillespie in In the Heat of the Night (a movie I love and which we will be visiting again in a later post). What I remembered was how completely different that character was from Charley, the cold and intellectual toady he plays in this film. Steiger is an example of what I think is a dying breed – the true character actor, the professional who is more interesting in portraying another person than they are in reminding the audience who is doing the portraying.
I particularly enjoyed Marlon Brando here as Terry. Like in The Godfather he creates a character through subtle touches (Vito Corleone also exhibits some unsubtle touches – but I think what makes Brando so great in that film are the subtle things he did with the character – minor gestures and expression changes. Again – to be continued at a later date…) I can’t help contrasting two of his iconic scenes in film. First, in this film we see the subtlety of the conversation in the car with Charley where we discover how he sold Terry out to the big mob boss Johnny Friendly. Brando conveys deep pain and disappointment for the way his brother ruined his life – and the way he let it happen to himself – without screaming histrionics. Then we look at the famous scene from A Streetcar Named Desire (a movie I am not in love with – but that is for another post) with Brando in torn shirt yelling “Stella” in the street. It could just be my own emotionally minimalist esthetic, but I think there is more real emotion in Terry’s quiet monologue than in Stanley Kowalski’s passionate cries.
Behind all this, three solid supporting performances from other great actors. First, Lee J. Cobb as Johnny Friendly was almost a prototype for Tony Soprano – the charming mob boss who we can never forget is a monster, even though he doesn’t believe he is one. Second, Eva Marie Saint who won an Oscar for her role as Edie, the person whose sense of decency and desire for justice for her slain brother acts as a catalyst for everything that happens in the film. She manages to shine through despite a very testosterone laden script. Finally there is Karl Malden as Father Barry. I think Malden was an actor who could take the lead, but he really shines in making great things out of smaller parts (Josh Brolin, who I just saw again in the Coen Brother’s adaptation of True Grit comes to mind as someone who does the same thing). Here we see Father Barry as the man who helps Terry find his conscience, but we also see his own transition from viewer to participant in the events at the docks – and in just a few scenes.
I’ve already watched film #4 for this project – Some Like it Hot (1959). Film #5 – which I’ve just received from Netflix – will be To Kill a Mockingbird (1962).
Posted by Gerald on January 11, 2011
I’m continuing the project I set myself, but I’m changing lists. Rather than AFI Top 100 American films I’m going to use Filmsites 100 Greatest Films. The Filmsite list overlaps the AFI list considerably, but there are some differences. Filmsite looked as English-language rather than American films, so the list is more inclusive. I also just like the selections better. Of course, “Casablanca” was on Filmsite’s list as well, so I don’t need to start over.
The second list film I watched was “Citizen Kane,” a movie widely hailed on such lists, usually at the top. It is also one of the most written-about films ever produced. I can’t hope to add anything my personal observations to that mass of work.
The first thing that struck me on this viewing is what struck me the first time I watched the movie, and that is how entertaining it is. I came to this film late, when I was well into my 20s. I’d been hearing about it for years. Because of all the critical praise, I approached watching the film almost as a cultural duty. If I was going to keep yapping at people about films I had to go watch this movie. It was being shown at the student center at the University of Iowa one evening, so I went. I expected to admire the film for all the reasons I’d heard – the cinematography, the editing, the directing… What I didn’t expect was that I would simply like it as a movie. But I did.
The film moves between moments: sorrow, despair, joy tinged with sorrow, simple joy. It is fun and moving to watch. It has a simple story; a wealthy man dies and a newsman tries to discover the meaning of his final words – the infamous “Rosebud” – by interviewing the people closest to him. What follows is a semi-linear series of narrated vignettes showing the most significant moments in this man’s life. Everything in the film works on multiple levels and I think you can carry away from it as much as you choose.
One thing that really struck me this time was the acting talent of Orson Welles. Biopics that age the actor with make-up are commonplace, but Welles conveys that stages of Kane’s life so effectively, especially with his changing physicality, from the exuberant young man dancing at an office party to the stiff older man throwing a tantrum when his wife leaves him.
It is also fascinating how much of an enigma Kane remains at the end of the film. After over ninety minutes of scenes showing us the moments that made this man who he was as a person (the story of his rise and fall in business is almost secondary), I’m still left with the feeling that I don’t really understand him – and that maybe we can’t ever fully understand anyone.
Two further observations:
First – watching this soon after the holidays I was struck by how similar this story is to A Christmas Carol – but without the redemption at the end. Still, I suppose that is because both touch on the reality that we move through life from the hopefulness of youth toward the inevitability of death, and many become bitter and empty along the way. Also, both stories feature the idea that wealth cannot give happiness; either in its unrelenting pursuit (Scrooge) or in its inheritance (Kane).
Second – it struck me that Kane is a symbol of America. He is sent away by his mother “for his own good” and never recovers from that sense of isolation – which I think is echoed in America’s sense of itself, including a traditional resentment of the European culture we borrowed so much from. While resenting the European powers, and insisting we were “exceptional” and different, we eventually came to resemble them on the world stage – much as Kane seeks to be everything his adoptive father hates, but becomes a tychoon and dies old, and alone like him. America constantly seeks to re-make the world in its image as Kane sought to use his wealth to make the world what he wanted it to be. America demands the world’s love, as did Kane, and both try to purchase it. America grew rich and powerful, in part on its own efforts, but also on a foundation of land and labor stolen from others and huge investments from the Europe it saw as old and decadent. Kane tries to do many admirable things, and sometimes succeeds, but the foundation of his wealth is the mine he inherited from the mother who abandoned him. I know someone who argues that John Wayne in “The Searchers” represents America’s view of itself. Maybe Kane is more a representation of America as viewed by others, as in the film we never see him except through the eyes of others.
I’ve already seen film #3 – “On the Waterfront”. I’ll post about that one soon.