Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Sorely Underappreciated Movie File #001: The Magnificent Seven

If there's one thing that I've learned from my many film arguments with Adrian, it's that a person's fondness for a certain film can have an enormously big correlation to how old they were when they saw it. This has resulted in a number of explosive debates about old Disney classics in which he insists that the Dutch-dubbed version of Beauty and the Beast is far superior to the English, and when I try to argue he merely says, "Who's Angela Lansbury?" at which point I have to excuse myself from the room.

She's GOD, that's who she is.

So it was with a good deal of defensive incredulity that I gradually came to realize that the rest of the film world did not seem to love John Sturges's The Magnificent Seven as much as I did. It had been a Saturday morning staple of mine since early childhood. I loved everything about the movie--the score, the friendships, the bad guy, the one-liners, the effortless cool with which the cowboys swaggered across the screen.

Though extremely popular upon its release, spawning, among other things, a sequel and a television series, The Magnificent Seven, at least in my experience, is seen by the world of film criticism as the red-headed stepchild of Seven Samurai, the Kurosawa film on which it is based. When I started reading film critiques and delving into Greatest Movie lists, I was shocked to find that the only time Seven was ever mentioned was in reviews of Seven Samurai. And then, usually the only reason it was mentioned was to establish that there was an American remake and to emphasize the superiority of the original.

Now, in talking about these films (and, for that matter, in every other film in the Sorely Underappreciated Movie File series) I am going to try my very hardest not to get too defensive--which is a challenge, since every article is essentially a defense. I'm not going to say that anything in Seven is "better" or "superior" to Samurai since that will get us nowhere. Instead, I'll try to point out the things Seven really has going for it as a completely separate entity.

The plot, by this point in cinematic history, is an old one but a good one. A village of poor Mexican farmers is being harassed by a bandit, Calvera, who routinely comes through, steals their harvest, and takes off. Tired of being pushed around, three villagers go to a border town where they join up with Chris (Yul Brynner) a world-weary cowboy who informs them that it's cheaper to buy men than guns. He helps them recruit six others and the seven return to the village, where prejudices on both sides flare up between the gunmen and the farmers. After a few skirmishes, the cowboys are betrayed by a faction in the village, and are permitted by the bandit to walk free. Once outside the town, the cowboys decide not to walk away from the conflict, and return to the village once more. In the ensuing battle, all but three are killed and the bandits are eliminated. One of the surviving three has fallen in love with a girl from the village and decides to remain, leaving Chris and his friend Vin (Steve McQueen) to ride off into the sunset.

Now, first things first. I'll take you through the things that Magnificent Seven has going for it.

#1: The seven. Let's review the names here: Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, James Coburn, Robert Vaughn, Charles Bronson, Brad Dexter, Horst Bucholtz. All of them seemed to have been carved from the woodwork solely to play these sorts of characters. Brynner as the Cajun (?) no-nonsense leader who has seen and done it all sports a swagger and a low growl, and only reluctantly realizes that he still has some sentimentality left in him.

Coburn, as the impossibly tall, thin drink of water who says next to nothing yet is universally agreed to be the most dangerous fighter among them. (Coburn, incidentally, was a great fan of the original film and wound up playing the remake's equivalent of his favorite character from Samurai).

Bronson is a burly, down-on-his-luck mercenary whose gruff exterior hides a definite streak of mother hen.

Dexter, who has a twinkle in his eye and a greedy itch in his fingers.

My fingers are itching greedily!
Bucholtz as the young wannabe who, while definitely lacking the fantastic uninhibited wackiness of Toshiro Mifune, nevertheless manages to annoy both the audience and the other cowboys in equal degree.

And, finally, Vaughn, whose dapper high-stepper is concealing pathological fears.

The interplay between the seven is finely constructed and there are a lot of sidelong looks or nods that pass between them, letting the audience in on the little jokes and decisions that are made.

#2--Steve McQueen.

Thought I forgot about him, didn't you? Parents, if you want to make a McQueen devotee of your children, I suggest you start here. McQueen plays Vin, ostensibly Chris's "sidekick", but who often (quite forcefully) steals the show away. This film was made before McQuen was a bona fide movie star; he was already a hit on TV with his western show Wanted: Dead or Alive (from whose set he played hooky in order to make this movie). In Magnificent Seven you can see, perhaps more than anywhere else, the charisma and star wattage that was going to make him a film icon.

In Seven he is funny, friendly, approachable and surprisingly unselfconscious while still maintaining that veneer of unstudied cool. Not as smarmy as in The Thomas Crown Affair, less cold and closed off than in Bullitt or Nevada Smith. Here, he genuinely looks as though he's enjoying himself, comfortable in the role of counselor, comic relief and, when the urge takes him, limelight stealer.

I would now like to propose a new drinking game entitled "Who's Riding Shotgun?" It will take place during the scene where Vin and Chris first meet. Chris volunteers to drive a hearse up a hill to a cemetery where a group of racist protesters will attempt to violently prevent the funeral, and Vin agrees to ride shotgun. What follows is one of the most hilarious scenes of one-upsmanship in film. Gameplayers are encouraged to take a shot every time McQueen upstages Brynner. The legend goes that McQueen's antics so frazzled Brynner that he hired someone to watch the rushes and count the number of times McQueen stole the focus. Watching the movie you can see why.

Brynner lights a cigarette...

...McQueen loudly shakes his cartridge and loads his rifle.

Brynner takes a puff, McQueen raises up his hat to check the sun.

Brynner lights another cigarette, McQueen twirls the rifle around in his hands.

The whole thing must have been infuriating, but onscreen it comes across as friendly competition. McQueen's facial expressions are also pretty classic. There's one scene where he's in the woods training some of the peasants with James Coburn. He looks over to one side and something catches his eye:

His reaction?

#3--The one-liners.

Surprisingly, the script of Seven has more than its fair share of great lines. If you haven't seen the film and you don't want the lines to be spoiled, just move on down to #4.

At one point, Coburn, Vaughn and Bucholtz (the young dweeb) are sent off into the woods after a few bandits that have been spotted in the hills, with instructions to bring one back alive. Coburn easily kills two of them, and then sets his sights on the third. It's an impossible shot. The bandit is incredibly far away, already riding at top speed over the top of the hill, when Coburn fires. The bandit drops. Bucholtz looks as though he's about to wet himself.

Bucholtz: That...that was the greatest shot I've ever seen!
Coburn: The worst. I was aiming at the horse!

When Chris is recruiting men back in the border town, he invites Vin over for a drink at his table. He asks Vin if he has any employment already lined up.

Vin: Guy bouncin' a grocery store across the street. 
Fella told me I'd make a crackerjack clerk. Crackerjack.

Vin and Chris go to visit the old man who lives on a hill bordering the village. They encourage him to move into the village so that they will be better able to protect him. The old man demurs, saying that the farmers' conversation would bore him to death. 

Old Man: Farmers talk of nothing but fertilizer and women.
I have never shared their enthusiasm for fertilizer. And as for
women...I became indifferent when I was eighty-three.

And, of course, McQueen's priceless reaction:

#4, 5, 6--The action, the villain, the score.

These are purely elements of cinematic fun. The action is fast paced, alternating between incredibly tense (Chris and Vin at the cemetery, Britt in the knife-throwing contest that introduces his character) and good, old-fashioned, rip-snorting western shootouts. There are gun tricks, knife tricks and horse stunts, and someone even gets axed in the back. 

Then, of course, there is the villain Calvera, who is played with gleefully slimy aplomb by a gold-toothed Eli Wallach. The film benefits greatly by witnessing the relationship between the villagers and Calvera, making the tension between them all the more heightened in the face of their previous personal interactions. 

Wallach's greasy, heartless bandit is almost the polar opposite of the quiet, elegant Chris, yet there are parallels between them that the film is intelligent enough to sketch out (comparisons completely ignored by Samurai, whose bandit we barely even meet). Both live lives of destruction and violence, and Calvera himself recognizes the similarities between himself and Chris, and appeals to the fact that they both belong to the same warrior caste, high above the lowly farmers. It is this recognition that leads Calvera to make his fatal mistake and let the gunfighters go free, thinking that there is no way they'll return and risk their lives for such a small, insignificant little village. Perhaps at the beginning of the film Calvera would have been right, but the gunfighters' experience in the village has changed them; there is a newfound sense of honor in them. "No one throws me my own guns and says run. No one," Britt growls. So when Chris and Calvera face each other down and Chris shoots first, Calvera looks up at him in disbelief. "You came back - for a place like this. Why? A man like you. Why?"

He dies with his question unanswered, and in Chris's unspoken reply lies the heart of the movie. 

Any discussion of The Magnificent Seven wouldn't be complete without a mention of the stirring, rousing score. Those first musical hits are alike a Pavlovian trigger in my head--I hear the notes and I'm instantly transported back to the age of ten on a Saturday morning.

#7--The relationship with the farmers.

Here I can get a little defensive--Seven is most often accused of having little to no emotional depth, but I think that that is because critics haven't looked past the gunplay to the core beneath. There are deep strains of moral quandary running throughout the movie--the morality of fighting or killing, identity and heritage, class systems, compassion, bravery, honor and what things people are willing to die for. Seven shows a prescient ability not to stereotype--the Mexican farmers are not all brave and righteous, nor are they cowardly and weasely. Some rightfully think that it is irresponsible to risk their lives and the lives of their families by fighting back against the bandit Calvera, others believe that if they don't fight they are doomed as well. They go to seek help across the border not because they are ignorant or weak but because, as one farmer puts it, "We know how to plant and grow. We do not know how to kill." And, just as the gunfighters are guilty of stereotyping, judging or looking down on the farmers, so are the farmers guilty of the same prejudice. They see the gunfighters both as a salvation and as bringers of death and destruction. 

Chico, the young hotshot, stumbles across one of the village girls hiding in a forest and carries her back to the others. "Farmers," he spits disgustedly. "Their fathers told them we'd rape them." Chris considers. "Well, we might," he says equably. "But in my opinion they might have given us the benefit of the doubt."

In Chico, we find the most explicitly presented take on the class differences between the farmers and gunfighters. Chico is the son of Mexican farmers much like the ones in the village And, whereas the futures of the other gunmen are already set in stone, his is still open to be written. At one point, Chris taxes him about his hatred for the farmers, and Chico spits back (in a line almost directly taken from Seven Samurai) "Yes, I'm one of them. But who made us the way we are? Men with guns. Men like Calvera and men like you." His fervent rejection of his heritage and the intensity of his worship of the fighters makes his final decision to remain in the village all the more poignant. It takes the horror of battle and the wastefulness of death to turn him around, and the small action of his removal of his gun belt is the major triumph of the film. 

Part of why the protagonists' struggle is so appealing is that they all seem to be consumed with some degree of self-loathing, which only gradually is stripped away as during the course of the conflict they realize that they are still capable of self-sacrifice and compassion. In the beginning of the film, Chris attempts to turn away from helping the farmers. "Everything we own," insists one villager. "Everything of value in the village." Chris pauses for a moment. "I have been offered a lot for my work," he says quietly, "but never everything." 

Vin, too, at first tries to deflect. "Nah...it wouldn't even pay for my bullets," he murmurs after Chris tells him what the job pays.

All of them seem to want to be simple mercenaries bought for their services, but it's almost as if the very hopelessness and impossibility of the situation is what draws them to it (with the notable exceptions of Chico, who's crazy, Lee, who wants to find somewhere to hide, and Harry, who is convinced that there is gold somewhere nearby). The audience knows, long before they do, that they are at heart good men, and watching their gradual realization take hold is one of the joys of the film.

Another current runs through the character of Bernardo O'Reilly, played by Charles Bronson. He is, as he himself puts it, "Mexican on one side, Irish on the other and me in the middle."  He is adopted by three young boys from the village, who tag along behind him, keep watch with him and helpfully inform him that if he is killed they'll take the rifle and avenge him, and always keep fresh flowers on his grave. "That's a mighty big comfort," he says dryly. 

At one point, the boys talk about their role in the conflict and one boy shamefacedly calls his father a coward. In a shockingly violent moment, the normally gentle Bernardo seizes him, gives him a wallop and releases him.

"Don't you ever say that again about your fathers, because they are not cowards. You think I am brave because I carry a gun; well, your fathers are much braver because they carry responsibility, for you, your brothers, your sisters, and your mothers. And this responsibility is like a big rock that weighs a ton. It bends and it twists them until finally it buries them under the ground. And there's nobody says they have to do this. They do it because they love you, and because they want to. I have never had this kind of courage. Running a farm, working like a mule every day with no guarantee anything will ever come of it. This is bravery. That's why I never even started anything like that... that's why I never will."

The boy is deeply abashed and the scene passes, but it an incredibly beautiful and honest moment that would probably not have existed in a lesser  movie. Another telling segment exists in a scene between Vin and one of the Mexican farmers a few moments after the villagers have experienced their first successful conflict against the bandits.

Hilario: The feeling I felt in my chest this morning, when I saw Calvera run away from us, that's a feeling worth dying for. Have you ever felt something like that? 
Vin: Not for a long, long time. (smiles) I...envy you.

And that smile sums the whole film up. The crux of the conflict is that these gunfighters only now, now that they've lived and fought and killed, recognize that the farmers' life, the one they initially shunned, as the sort of existence they long for. It's sort of an Orphic revelation; the life they desire is just beyond their grasp and it brings a distinct wistful sadness to their interplay with the farmers. They recognize that the only thing they can do is to try and preserve that other way of life as best they can. The world-weariness is most evident when Chris and the others begin to discuss their philosophies on life and the farmers.

Chris: It's only a matter of knowing how to shoot a gun. Nothing big about that.  
Chico: Hey. How can you talk like this? Your gun has got you everything you have. Isn't that true? Hmm? Well, isn't that true? 
Vin: Yeah, sure. Everything. After awhile you can call bartenders and faro dealers by their first name, maybe two hundred of 'em. Rented rooms you live in--five hundred. Meals you eat in hash houses--a thousand. Home, none. Wife, none. Kids... none. Prospects are zero. Suppose I left anything out?  
Chris: Yeah. Places you're tied down to, none. People with a hold on you, none. Men you step aside for, none.  
Lee: Insults swallowed, none. Enemies, none.  
Chris: No enemies? 
Lee: Alive.  
Chico: Well. This is the kind of arithmetic I like.  
Chris: Yeah. So did I at your age.

At one point, it looks as if the farmers have decided to give in to Calvera and Chris furiously stalks off. Vin follows, recognizing that there is something else going on underneath.

Vin: You know the first time I took a job as a hired gun, fellow told me, "Vin, you can't afford to care." There's your problem.  
Chris: One thing I don't need is somebody telling me my problem.  
Vin: Like I said before, that's your problem. You got involved in this village and the people in it.
Chris: Do you ever get tired of hearing yourself talk? 
Vin: The reason I understand your problem so well is that I walked in the same trap myself. Yeah. First day we got here, I started thinking: Maybe I could put my gun away, settle down, get a little land, raise some cattle. Things that these people know about me be to my credit - wouldn't work against me. I just didn't want you to think you were the only sucker in town. 

It's a bit like a Greek tragedy, however--the fates of all the characters are foretold from the beginning and the gunfighters are all too aware that the destiny they've chosen is to die and to die bloody. The only question, really, is where or how. So at the end of the film they go back to save the village and there is the climactic final shoot-out. One by one, the fates are sealed and there is almost a sense of poetry in the deaths. Bernardo dies protecting the children. Britt is gunned down, leaving his switchblade jutting out of a wall. Harry dies protecting Chris and Vaughn finally faces his fear and stages a brilliant rescue for some farmers. As he hesitates, contemplating his personal triumph, he is shot. When the smoke clears, only Vin, Chris and Chico are left, and the final scene has the three standing at the top of a hill looking down on the farmers as they once again begin to sow the next crop. Chico looks between the gunfighters and the farmers, then tips his hat to Vin and Chris and rides back down into the town, undoing his gun belt. Vin and Chris watch with rueful smiles from the hill, seeing in Chico the part of themselves that has been lost, the inevitability of their own fates, and the hope that goes along with Chico's decision to remain and live the life of peace they now wish they had chosen.

"The old man was right," Chris says wistfully. "Only the farmers won. We lost. We'll always lose."

And with that, the two friends turn their backs on the village and ride off into the distance as the music swells and draws to a close.

In some ways, the film's score is the key to truly understanding and appreciating The Magnificent Seven. The film is often overlooked, I think, because its spirit is ultimately that which is contained in the musical theme--one of adventure and fun and pure entertainment. Unlike its predecessor, Seven doesn't aspire to be high art. It is instead a fantastic example of the kind of film I first saw it as--a Saturday morning western, albeit one whose moral core and emotional depth can be all too easily overlooked by those who choose to watch it without divorcing it from Samurai. It is unfair to judge either Samurai or Seven in light of one another; the two are extremely different films--Samurai as an example of fine filmic art, and Seven as a specimen of sheer intelligent entertainment. Neither film may be for everyone and both have their positive and negative points. Scoff all you want at Seven, but good luck trying to get your ten year old (or my mother, for that matter) to sit through the three-hour-plus running time, the long quiet periods in the film and the often comically overwrought acting style of Samurai. On the other hand, the extra hour of time affords Kurosawa the opportunity to inject a number of wonderful dramatic, comic and human nuances into his film, and Toshiro Mifune's searing performance completely obliterates the comparatively weak character portrayed by Horst Bucholtz.

But is it fair to say that Samurai is "better" than Seven? No. The following is something that I firmly believe and will probably be the thesis for a number of these articles: to turn one's back on the value of entertainment is to look away from the reason the medium was invented in the first place.  Nor should Samurai be dismissed simply because modern viewers may find it more difficult to approach and more challenging to watch.

Seven is crippled as well by being the "remake". If Samurai had come after Seven, I believe that there would be a larger dialogue about the qualities of Seven instead of its immediate dismissal (ironic, too, since Samurai owes its inspiration and style just as much to movies like Seven as Seven does to Samurai). To me, The Magnificent Seven is a wonderful story with more than its fair share of acting talent, and remains an outstanding example of the western film genre, which definitely deserves a closer, more unbiased appraisal by its detractors. If you've seen it before, give it another watch. If not, you're in for a treat.


Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Brief Encounter and the Art of Restraint

While reading another "Why do Hollywood films suck so much compared to old Hollywood films?" rant on one of the media commentary sites I frequent, I got to thinking. After a bit of pondering, I landed on the idea of censorship. Now, I don't by any means support censorship as a way to repress artists and artistic expression, but if you really think about it, the Golden Age of Hollywood owes an awful lot to the strict censorship codes of the era. A lot of directors and screenwriters had to shimmy their way around the "questionable" subjects of the day and the whole thing resulted in a number of positively brilliant sequences whose impact is owed mainly to the restraint and the implications of their situations. Cary Grant and Paul Newman had to be incandescent so that their allure would be transmitted in just a glance or a smile, without having their bedroom prowess blatantly spelled out. Old Hollywood was all about mystique, which in most cases is more powerful than explicit statement. For example, one of the most famous of these sorts of scenes:

Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman's infamous balcony kissing scene in Notorious. Director Alfred Hitchcock famously taunted the censor's three-second kiss rule by having his actors embrace, whisper, coo, and stare smolderingly at each other. Would the erotic impact of this have been the same if they had been allowed to make out or even if they were shown hopping into bed together? I don't think so. The audience, thanks to this scene, is well aware of the great sex that they're having, and the great sex we can imagine is far more potent than any Hitchcock could have shot. And even the timing of the shot--the kisses seem almost cut off, building up the tension of the moment, prolonging the stares and the whispers. So in some ways, I think censorship was almost a boon to directors who were gifted enough to bring some ingenuity to their approach. Of course, without loosening of the codes we wouldn't have The Godfather or Step Up 2: The Streets, and then where would we be?

Now, one of my very favorite films is Brief Encounter, made in 1945 and directed by David Lean. It's sort of the filmic equivalent of wearing a corset, everyone is so tightened and constrained by the societal norms that even the slightest loosening is like a new breath of life. I imagine that young audiences today would find the conflict boring and the narration overwraught, but it is an incredibly moving story about longing and the fleeting glimpses into a different life and possible freedom.

The first scene of Brief Encounter is only about six minutes long, but it is one of the most brilliant sequences in cinema and is a fantastic example of the subtle drama that can be created through the art of cinematic restraint (regardless of censorship--that doesn't really come into play here). Lean stages it so expertly that after the first scene, we know almost everything there is to know--and no one has explicitly spoken a word about the plot. It's all in the staging, the camera, the faces of the actors. There's deft manipulation of the audience/camera symbiosis that rivals the work of Alfred Hitchcock in Rear Window. 

To illustrate the sequence, I'm just going to take you through it step by step, with stills from the movie.

The opening shot sets the scene, a train station. The moody, gorgeous cinematography and melancholy, romantic score tell us the tone of what is to come.

 A train conductor checks his watch. The theme of time is established.

The conductor crosses the tracks and heads up and across the platform...

...and into the small station cafe, where the conductor stops to talk to the woman working behind the counter.

The two begin to chat, and we get the feeling that they're fairly well acquainted and have been carrying on this subtle flirtation for some time. But the woman is a bit severe, the man paunchy and their conversation holds little interest for us. So we (as the camera) casually glance around the interior of the cafe, and our attention fastens on...

A nice-looking couple sitting alone in the corner over two innocent little cups of tea. They are seated intimately; he sits next to her instead of in front of her. There is deep sadness on both of their faces and an air of melancholy around their small table. The man says a few words to the woman, but his voice is so low that we can't quite catch what he's saying. We strain to hear what is being said. And then, Lean denies us any more information. In a brilliant move, he turns the camera back away from them and back to the conductor and the woman behind the cafe counter. The result, of course, is for the audience to say, "Hey! Go back! I want to know what's going on with the two of them!" Lean captures our interest and our fascination in these two people by keeping them at arm's length from his viewers. 

And then--the quiet atmosphere of the little cafe is brutally interrupted by a loud woman who recognizes the woman seated at the table. She bustles over and we are immediately aware of her intrusion; we squirm in embarrassment at the loss of privacy of the quiet couple, yet we are still keen to know precisely what is going on with the two of them (audiences are, as a rule, the most nosy individuals in the movies). The loud woman begins to prattle on, and we notice (though the woman doesn't), the significant glance passing between Laura (the quiet lady) and Alec (the man). Both Laura and Alec remain perfectly polite, and Alec even offers to get up and get the woman her cup of tea. Immediately after he stands the woman leans forward to Laura.

"My dear, what a nice looking man, who on earth is he? Really, you're quite a dark horse. I shall telephone Fred in the morning and make mischief!"

And in response, Laura attempts a smile but can only manage this:

It's an expression of unabashed horror, and in that moment we know everything. She having an affair with Alec, he is not her husband, and they have been having a covert rendezvous that was brutally interrupted when this woman plopped herself down at the table. Alec returns, and the story unfolds. He is a doctor who is leaving for South Africa the following week. This is the last time Alec and Laura will see one another and this revelation (though it only takes a moment and is treated quite casually by the three of the table) expands the poignancy and sadness of the moment by a thousand. The conversation is punctuated with little sidelong glances between the lovers, clearly desperate to tell the old bag to leave them in peace, but unable to rebel against the societal mores that bind them. And then, the conductor calls the name of Alec's train. They stare at each other for a moment, wishing that the moment hadn't come so soon. He stands, pauses for a moment and:

With a final, polite touch, walks out of the door, while every line on Laura's face tells us that she wishes more than anything to have a small private moment with him, something far away from the horrible woman who is still talking, still completely oblivious to the turmoil she is causing. Laura glances up as Alec walks out of the door, and we (along with her) wonder if he will turn back. Will he smile, will he make some gesture of his feelings?

But no. He is out the door without a backward glance, and we, like Laura, feel our hearts sink. The woman's prattling continues and the camera rests on Laura's face as she hopefully watches the door. Perhaps he will come back. Perhaps he will miss his train on purpose, buy them a little more time together, makes some excuse to get her away from the dreadful woman.  But as the woman's banal chatter chugs along, and with Laura we hear the sound of the train starting, the whistle and with each passing second we realize that he is gone for good.

Finally, the chattering woman stands and walks to the counter and our gaze follows her. The express train roars by, its noise eclipsing everything else in the scope of the scene. After a moment we glance back--and Laura is gone! We are confused, startled, we search around for her (along with the ladies at the counter) and then finally she enters back through the door, looking shaken and a little dizzy. "I just wanted to watch the express go through," she says weakly, and we get the feeling that something (though we don't yet know what) profound has just happened to her. Our interest is piqued again and we are pulled into the current of the story.

It's a brilliant sequence, and the delicate handling of the situation and the gradual subtle revelations about the characters are like a finely staged piece of music, with themes and grace notes only gradually reaching our consciousness. The gentle shifting of point of view from the camera to Laura to the woman is easy and constructed in such away that we never know too much but feel as though we do. Would that all directors gave this sort of care to their films. Every time I see this sequence I like it more and the movie itself is lovely and incredibly poignant. I highly suggest giving it a watch.


Monday, August 23, 2010

Since Roving's Been My Ru-i-in

Hello! Just got back from a fantastic week on the square-topsail schooner Shenandoah out of Martha's Vineyard. It's always an extreme overload of fun, and this year in particular had really great music and really fantastic people. I'm in total withdrawal. Glurg.

Yeah. Pretty hellish, right?

It's a very odd situation being on that boat. There are certainly people who come back year after year for this week and it's always really wonderful to see them and catch up. But I always end up making friends toward the last few days of the sail, and then before you know it, the trip is over and I have to wait another year to see them again (if ever). It always makes me feel happy that I've made new friends and a bit melancholy that it's all over so soon.

And, in other non movie-related news, yesterday (and today for that matter) was pretty rainy so I sort of puttered around indoors all day. In between sessions of cooing at my goldfish Spot, I managed to crack out this painting of Janis Joplin:

It feels pretty great, as I haven't painted anything for an extremely long amount of time and my previous attempts at painting Janis were pretty feeble. Hooray! Now if only it would stop raining so I could go out and train for the 5k I'm running in September.

A new movie post will follow shortly.


Friday, August 6, 2010

Balsamic Reductions, Respec' and Eminem

So last night turned out to be a bit of a mixed bag as far as entertainment/dinner pairings went. First, I'll start off with dinner, which nearly turned out to be a sixty-dollar trip to a nearby restaurant (oy, New York). That madness didn't last long, however, and Adrian and I set out on our daily venture to Citarella to get something to make. This resulted in the following:

We made duck with a blackberry-balsamic reduction, sweet potatoes and fresh spinach. The entire thing was quite lovely. I really enjoy duck, but we don't have it that often even though Citarella sells fantastic $10 duck breasts that are quite enough to feed two people. The reduction was very good, especially since I accidentally dumped in more sugar than I intended while I was making it. Accident or fate? You tell me.

Anyway, the night's entertainment turned out to be 2002's 8 Mile, and I guess now it's time to discuss the complicated feelings I have toward Eminem. First, though, I'm going to tell you a little story. My sister, Piper, has always had a rather unique way of looking at things, and has maintained an interesting relationship with the English language. Once, when she was about seven or so, we were at a horse show where she managed to catch a small frog in a styrofoam cup. She brought it up to my mom's friend, Linda. Linda asked, "What have you got there, Piper?" Piper replied, "A frog. Isn't it great?"
"What's so great about it?" Linda inquired. To which Piper thoughtfully regarded the frog and said, "It's just so...honest."

So I guess that's one way to sort of describe my feelings towards Eminem. This is not to say he in any way resembles a frog or any sort of amphibian for that matter. It's just that generally he projects this sort of very aggressive, violent persona but yet, like the frog, there's a little sumthin' sumthin' going on under there. I never really listened to his music and I thought he was a bit scary when I was in my early teens. He seemed to be very angry about everything all the time and expressed it by yelling and occasionally dressing up as Spock. Then I saw a trailer for 8 Mile, and I immediately wanted to see it since I'm a total sucker for people with great faces. And he's got a great face.

It's probably been around seven or eight years since I last saw the movie, but that was the image that stayed with me; pale and thin beneath armor-like layers of hats, hoods and sweatpants, staring out unblinkingly with those huge, haunted eyes. His eyes convey a sort of sensitivity and vulnerability that is lost in MTV videos where every shot is one second and consists mostly of him flailing at the camera. Here, what struck me was his stillness rather than his manic energy. When he's onstage during battles, listening to the other rappers insult everything from his skin color to his mother to his social status to his job, I tried to watch him and figure out what he was thinking during all that. He keeps his face blank, almost impassive, but you can feel the turmoil beneath it just sort of simmering. Is it anger? Does he duck his eyes in avoidance? But then--he picks up the mike and words just sort of come pouring out, and I realize that all through it he's calculating, taking and processing every word that is hurled at him and seeing how he can counterattack with the precision of a chess player. I think that many people were surprised by the amount of screen presence that he commands, and what continues to fascinate me are the contradictions that I see in his character. He's tough, bigoted, violent, extremely profane, juvenile, yes. But at the same time his lyrics have a complexity and a rawness to them, not to mention rhyme schemes that would boggle the minds of many English majors. And what further impresses me is that he can just toss of those rhymes on the spur of a moment, with only a few seconds' thought.

I enjoyed 8 Mile about as much as I did the first time, but then Adrian and I decided to watch some of the special features as well. And this was where we struck gold. We decided to watch a little featurette about how Curtis Hanson, the director, organized a little impromptu battle-thon to keep the extras in his club scene happy. Four would have the chance to face Eminem in an unscripted battle onscreen and may be featured in the final cut of the movie. They showed a few of the auditions (one of my personal favorites was a gentleman who took his thirty seconds of time to describe the amount of marijuana residue to be found in his urine). When it came to the final four battle, Hanson (who was narrating the featurette and rather adorably kept referring to Eminem as "Marshall") informed us that he had instructed Eminem to just pantomime his half of the battles, since he was beginning to lose his voice after three days of shooting in the club. Needless to say, I was rather disappointed that we wouldn't get to see him do his stuff for real. I enjoyed the final battles in the movie but always in the back of my mind I knew that they had been scripted, so it would have been interesting to witness the real thing.

So the first battle went and Eminem mimed his performance and the other guy was pretty good, applause, applause. Then the next guy came up and did his thing, and in retaliation Eminem again began to mime his performance. This time, however, the audience (who was clearly getting into the real spirit of things) began to boo and taunt him. So he stopped, paused for only a second and flipped the switch on his microphone:

Hold on, (offensive term) let me turn this mike on
Don't think for a minute I'm gonna let you get away with that song
That shit was wack, you ain't spittin'
As a matter of fact, all that shit was written
And I know it wasn't for me, you surely must adore me, now lookee
Yo, you might as well move to Italy, 
Look this guy's ripped 
(ripping sound)...literally. 

It goes on, but you can really just hear the crowd come alive as soon as he starts to rap, his personality and charisma are sort of infectious. It was like a creative dam holding back and then finally being released, all in that scratchy, bruised voice. And for each of the following two battles, he fights right back and completely owns the stage. It was a great moment, especially because I was watching it with Adrian, who is probably the world's best audience member when it comes to "OOOOhhhhh!!!" moments (as in "Oh, no he did-n't!" or "Oh, man, that shark just bit that guy in half! Hahahahaha!") He kept letting off "OHHHHH's!!!!" that probably could have been heard all the way to Hoboken.

There's such a deep, primal pleasure to be had from watching people who are extremely good at something do that thing and do it well. So, in case you haven't seen the movie in a while or didn't have a look at the extras when you first saw it, give it a re-watch (among other things you'll get to see the hilariously disconcerting image of Eminem comfortably resting his elbow on Brian Grazer's shoulder). As for me, I'm still thinking about that moment when he turned the mike back on. That's such a defining moment for who I understand him to be. Someone who thrives on performance, on challenge, on competition, and someone who has an amazing gift for swift thought and lingual dexterity. I mean, I did improv comedy for a number of years, and it's tough. I can't imagine what it would be like if I knew the crowd was going to publicly crucify me if I messed up. Who would Eminem have been if he had been born fifty, a hundred years ago? A poet? Dead before twenty? It's fascinating to see someone who has been able to thrive in the context of a very particular art form in a very particular moment in time.

In truth, that moment was the definition of art. Being completely incapable of remaining silent when someone tells you to do so.

ps. Adrian would like to register his dignified outrage at all the horrible, slanderous claims I made about his movie-watching habits in the previous post. He would like me to say that he greatly enjoyed Guys and Dolls AND My Fair Lady and knows all the words to "I Have Confidence in Me" from The Sound of Music, thank you very much, and that he's not at all the snooty, closed-minded poo-head I make him out to be. Which he isn't by any means. But I mean, come on, my blog's called Expedient Exaggeration. What did you expect?

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Once: Musical or Diegetic Lollapalooza?

In some instances, it is very pleasant to have a significant other who is also a film student. We can say something like "We're on an express elevator to hell...going down" with the exact same Bill Paxton inflection. We are both bemused and fascinated by Kevin Costner. We will use irritatingly erudite terms like mise en scene and not get slapped. But we differ radically when it comes to the types of movies we like, and this leads to many situations in which I storm out in a huff and begin to stress-bake angry cookies. You see, I love classic Hollywood, in all its shapes and sizes. I love film noir, I love slapstick comedies, I love suspense thrillers, I love weepy romances, I love those soaring dramas blown up to the proportions of high Italian opera. Adrian...does not. I would say that it's because he lacks the patience to sit back and give them a chance, but he loves Kubrick for God's sake. I don't know.

Our biggest lasting conflict is on the subject of musicals. Adrian staunchly maintains that one day he's going to "do a musical the right way" (at which point I mutter something along the lines of Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, grumble, grumble, no respect, grumble), and though I've tried time and again to get him to sit down and appreciate the blissful, colorful, gleeful joys of My Fair Lady or Gigi, he will have none of it. The only way I got him to watch Guys and Dolls was by piquing his interest in seeing Marlon Brando as a song-and-dance man, and even then, half  an hour in he was in the kitchen rummaging around the cheese drawer.

Audrey or a hunk of cheddar? Tough call.

I was having lunch with Adrian and one of his friends, Craig, when the subject of musicals came up. I sat grumpily with my arms folded, fully expecting another hatefest on my favorite genre, until Craig used the words Sondheim and fabulous together in the same sentence. Joy! Gleefully, I tossed back a shot of tequila (it was during the World Cup and the Mexican restaurant downstairs was giving free shots for every goal scored) and threw myself headfirst into that tumultuous fray that is film debate. We both ragged on Adrian for half an hour or so until Adrian confessed that he found musicals to be too fake. This struck me dumb. "What about Once?" I asked. "You can't get much more of a realistic musical than that."

"Once isn't a musical," he replied.

Well, that did it. Not a musical, my eye! What piffle! But then I started to wonder what it was that made him think that way. It was a tough call. Once doesn't really boast any soaring strings or tappy dance numbers. At most it sounds like nice young people singing various folky-poppy songs structured around a small storyline. What really makes a musical? Music, certainly, but you'll be hard-pressed to find a movie without music. Music in a central role? Absolutely, but then again, you won't really find many people classifying Amadeus as a musical and in that film the music is basically the whole point.

I'm now going to make a few posits about what I believe a musical to be. I know full well that there are exceptions and that many people will feel differently, but these are the definitions of what works for me. I think in a musical people should sing (again, there are exceptions--ballet, for one), and that there generally should be accompanying music. I think the musical accompaniment certainly doesn't have to be diegetic (presented in the realm of the story, as in a musician playing an instrument onscreen); in fact, most of the best-known musicals are not. And, perhaps most importantly of all, I think that whatever song is sung should somehow support the emotions or the conflicts of a certain character at a certain point in the story. For example, take O Brother, Where Art Thou? When George Clooney sings "I am a Man of Constant Sorrow", he is not, actually, currently a man of constant sorrow. It's just a diegetic song in the realm of the story, as are most of the other songs. Therefore, I wouldn't classify that film as a musical.

What about Once? It's easy to see how the music could just be mistaken for regular old song breaks, a la O Brother. But to prove my point, I'm going to offer as an example two of the songs from the movie. The first, which took me a long time to get around to liking, is "Say it To Me." Now, if you haven't seen the movie, I'll offer a brief sketch of the scene in which the song takes place. We've met Hansard busking on the streets of Dublin, and we've watched his little daily routine of singing for people, playing other people's songs, chasing off would-be thieves. You know, the usual. Then we see this scene*:

The first time I watched it I was distracted by the song itself which seemed too harsh and screamy and yelly for my own personal tastes. It sort of put me off of the whole scene. However, after watching the movie a few more times, I realized that this was because I wasn't thinking of it as a musical; once I changed my outlook the song became heartbreaking instead of harsh and the scene itself became extremely moving.

Take the scene as a metaphor. A man in the dark stands and sings a song that is filled with hurt, anger and loneliness. It is his cry for help, a literal musical scream. He begins alone, but by the time the camera pulls back out...there she is! Marketa Irglova's character is standing in front of him, beautiful and smiling, ready to be friends. Here, it's important to note the uninterrupted take; her apparition is almost a trick of the light--in some ways, it's every bit as magical as the entrance of Clarence the angel in It's a Wonderful Life. And there, in this scene, in this song, you have the entire crux of the movie. She comes in as the answer to that musical plea for help, his way out of the darkness. Together they write songs and he remembers how to fall in love and resolves to piece his life back together and take a chance at making a life with his music. At the end (as is always the case with angels in movies) they go their separate ways, but remain all the better for having spent time together. Honestly, I can only think of a few scenes in more recognizable "musicals" that express the depth of a character's emotion and the theme of a story quite as profoundly as this.

Then, of course, you have "Falling Slowly", probably the best known song from the movie, and the tune that won Irglova and Hansard a well-deserved Oscar. This is where the music/reality metaphor becomes absolutely blatant:

Well, gee. I wonder what the subtext of that song is supposed to be! (For those unfamiliar with the film, Hansard and Irglova have begun a tentative budding friendship that results in their going to a music store where Hansard teaches Irglova the chords and they play the song together. By the end, he's hooked.) Let's consider the first words: I don't know you/but I want you all the more for that. Pretty topical, I'd say. Both characters have been romantically bruised, so the hesitant yet hopeful lyrics fit them perfectly. It's a song about falling sung at the first step off the proverbial romantic cliff.

The other songs adhere to the plot in much the same vein. "Lies" is sung by Hansard to video footage of his ex-girlfriend. "Fallen From the Sky", an adorable little ditty, is sung in the music studio at the height of their collaboration and happiness. My other favorite example is "Broken Hearted Hoover Fixer Sucker Guy," in which Hansard hilariously recounts the tale of his breakup in song form:

Ten years ago
I fell in love with an Irish girl, she took my heart
But she went and screwed some guy she knew
and now I'm in Dublin with a broken heart
Oh broken hearted Hoover fixer sucker guy
Oh broken hearted Hoover fixer sucker, sucker guy
One day I'll go there and win her once again
but until then I'm just a sucker of a guy
And on that note (ha ha), I rest my case. I'm quite sure, though, that Adrian is going to come up with a million compelling reasons why I'm nuts and Once is really a slasher flick with Oedipal undertones, but I nevertheless remain steadfast in my beliefs. One last thing--if you haven't seen the movie yet, I highly suggest you do. It's lovely.

*There is no copyright infringement intended. The courts recently ruled that it is not a violation of copyright to extract sections of a DVD for the purpose of essays or education, which is my intention here. If there is a problem, please contact me.