[Previous] [Main Index] [Next]

Monday, October 13, 2003

Final: WHAT'S HAPPENED TO FILMS? WHY ARE THEY GENERALLY SO BAD THESE DAYS?

The previous article ended with a selection of memorable films on the war crimes of the Japanese and Germans, singling out especially at the end Judgment at Nuremberg by Stanley Kramer . . . released in 1961. It then added a few comments, two or three sentences --- nothing longer --- about what makes for a memorable film. Those brief sentences begin this loose, freewheeling commentary about what has happened to the cinema business: in particular, why so few good films are made these days compared to the great era of Hollywood cinema between the mid-1930s and early 1980s. Loose? Freewheeling? It won't take the savvy among you long to note that these are a euphemism, a cover for essentially a discursive list of buggy preferences, a few questions, and a some fast, top-skimming observations at the end.

Nothing less, nothing more. Still, an important topic given the role of films in our lives --- whether made for distribution in theaters or directy for television. And, let's hope, a stimulus to some comments from our visitors that exceed the buggy ones in insight and thoughtfulness. Yes . . . especially since at the end of these casual, throwaway remarks --- skimmed off the surface --- you will find a remarkably good article full of insights on the topic that appeared a few years ago in The New Republic.


WHAT'S HAPPENED TO FILMS?

If the worth of a film is in part a matter of how many times you can see it over your lifetime --- and never cease being struck by its depths, intelligence, drama, humor, acting, and directing --- then Judgment at Nuremberg , like Casablanca, is one of them. I've seen the latter maybe a dozen times over 50 years now, always left wondrous by its stupendous impact. As for Judgment, maybe 7 or 8 times, and left with the same dumbstruck feeling. Both are in black-and-white and have no special digital effects, just stunning scripts, crisp direction of unusually talented actors, a remarkable sense of dramatic pacing, and the treatment of major historical themes without ever degenerating into soapbox didactics. Note: the lengthy discussion of Judgment at Nuremberg, which unfolded in the previous article, is tacked on at the end here, just in case there are readers of this article who haven't seen that earlier one

Good Cinema

Good films, of course, don't have to have world-historical themes like these two.

Lots of good ones are just solid entertainment of a high-quality order . . . no greater aspirations, no need too. Come to that, if you think of it, Casablanca --- even as it treated the themes of Nazism and its threat, German occupation of France and Vichy collaboration (in the film, Vichy rule of Morocco), and immoral US neutrality, symbolized throughout most of the film by Humphrey Bogart --- probably aimed as much at just being entertainment with remarkably stimulating personal stories as it did at treating the political background themes. Oppositely, as we know from a lot of recent European cinema, pretentiousness and a blatant lack of dramatic sense and sensitivity --- to say nothing of clunky actors sitting around moaning about the woes and numbing misery of modern life --- add up to a lot of off-putting pompous tosh, about as bracing as hacking and hewing your way through an impenetrable jungle of lengthy post-modernist academic pishposh without, close at hand, copious quantities of aspirin, Ad-van, and iced Sauvignon Blanc to urge you on.
In the last three or four years, I can think of a handful or so that deserve to be called memorable: The Rookie with Dennis Quaid . . . the best film about baseball ever made probably. The Tin Cup, the best film about golf too, and a remarkably good comic routine put in by Rene Russo and Kevin Costner of all people (who'd ever think he could play comedy?). Also an engaging musical score. Which brings to mind The Score with Robert De Niro and Edward Norton and Marlon Brando, a caper comedy full of twists and entertaining surprises. The Heist with Gene Hackman, one of the great actors of the last half century, and Danny Devito, likewise a caper comedy with double-crossing twists. The Bourne Identity with Matt Damon, the best of the CIA-Is-A-Demon films ever, and towering above the simpleminded unreadable book. Come to think of it, Spy-Game with Robert Redford --- his best role in decades too --- deals with the same theme, CIA chicaneries and how a clever and decent agent outwits his superiors. The long flashback scenes to Beirut, Lebanon --- ravaged by civil war for a decade and divided into hostile armed militias, Christian and Muslim and PLO --- are alone worth seeing the whole film, though the plot maintains a zippy pace to the end, when the arrogant CIA heads and the clueless, cynical National Security Advisor get their come-uppance from the wily Redford. (Have you ever seen a National Security Advisor not depicted in this manner?)

 



Anything Else?

Well, a few more names also emerge out of the murky depths of the turbulent buggy mind into consciousness: Insomnia with Al Pacino and Robin Williams and --- an even better Robin Williams film --- One Hour Photo --- and Memento with Guy Pearce, Christopher Nolan the director of this stunning film (likewise of Insomnia) . . . nothing ever like it before. Told entirely backward. Who says Hollywood won't take a risk? Then too there's Adaptation with Nicolas Cage and Meryl Streep and Chris Cooper. It's Streep's best role since the mid-1980s; Cage, believe it or not, actually manages to act convincingly, not just ham it up; and Chris Cooper shows why he's one of the two or three best character actors in Hollywood since the late 1970s. And more recently, there's the best Tommy Lee Jones film since The Fugitive --- in fact, just about the only good role this talented actor has had in a decade --- The Hunted, which is stunningly photographed with riveting choreographed knife fights and martial arts and an important theme at the core of its thriller script. There may be others, but if so, not many. Oh yes, Black Hawk Dawn by Ridley Scott and his earlier Gladiator --- both with effective musical scores too --- and Chicago, the best musical in a long time --- and Perdition, brilliantly acted and maybe the most dazzlingly photographed film ever made for a thriller . . . or almost any kind of film, period. Each scene looked like a carefully framed painting by a virtuoso artist, a Rembrandt of the cinema, the visual mood and play of light-and-shadow tightly fitted to the overall drama and action and emotions connected to them.

And if 1998 isn't too far back in time, you have to admire Saving Private Ryan --- an interesting script about a small American Ranger Squad, led by Tom Hanks (always an actor of astonishing gifts), sandwiched in between two unforgettable battle scenes, on the Normandy beach to start the film and in a small French town to end it. Then too, just remembered The Insider with Al Pacino and Russell Crowe, which shows how a film about the machinations of tobacco companies and the torn nature of the media ("60 Minutes") can be turned into riveting cinema without degenerating into soapbox stuff.

No, I haven't yet seen the Pianist I will . . . even though I'm not sure how many films on the Holocaust I can sit through in the future, the whole monstrous evil of it not fit for the medium except maybe tangentially, as in Judgment at Nuremberg. As for Life Is Beautiful, its contrived jaunty approach to Nazi and fascist racism and the death camps were so repulsive that a half hour of it was all that I could stomach.

Then, too --- it just occurred to me, speaking of racism --- there's American History X: now four or five years old probably. It treats the theme of racial hatreds and neo-Nazism and their sheer idiocy with uncommon intelligence and a totally absorbing script and has startlingly gifted acting by Edward Norton and Edward Furlong in the main roles, and, for that matter, superior performances put in by all the other actors . . . including the Aryan brothers in jail and black thugs and a terrifically good acting job by an African-American prisoner who shows Norton just how wrong-headed and stupid racism and hatred are. Surprisingly, just about the only unconvincing character was the neo-Nazi head of the skinhead-Nazi group out of prison, played by Stacey Keach . . . a very gifted actor most of the time. What happened? As Keach played the role, he came across more like a frustrated, cynical head of a local Rotary club than a manipulative, morally debased Nazi fiend.

 

Horror Galore

Two days after this article was posted, another very good film of the last 4 or 5 years popped to mind that should be mentioned --- maybe the best horror film in two decades, The Sixth Sense with Bruce Willis and a mentally troubled young kid played deftly by Haley Joel Osment. Expertly directed too, full of one surprise after another . . . the biggest of them all sprung in the very last scene. All the more impressive when you compare the film's intelligent script and lack of gore with the usual horror-stuff pushed at teeny-bopper audiences, about (naturally) teeny-boppers --- sex-starved, druggy nerds off in the woods somewhere, or in a spooky mansion full of creaking noises and no lights, where they're gobbled up gory-like by some ghastly monster, whether from Outer Space or escaped from a near-by loony bin or flapping around in crazed-Vampire style. The Sixth Sense towers above these cretinous celluloid products the way the Empire State building dwarfs the tiny vehicles on the New York streets below. In intelligence and chilly suspense, it's worthy of the first two Alien films of the early 1980s starring Sigourney Weaver and her crew-mates and, of course, a swarm of giant icky spider-fiends . . . the Queen-bug herself even scarier than the demented Norman Bates and his mummified mommy in Hitchcock's Psycho of the late 1950s, possibly the best horror film of all time (maybe Jaws and The Exorcist the closest rivals). Not to forget, of course, the other monstrous enemy that threatens Weaver and her mates --- the earth-spawned enemy-from-within, the rip-off rep who fronts for The Company, a gargantuan corporate firm full of ominous greed and inhumanity back on terra firma.

If anything, the remake --- Aliens --- is even scarier. And it leaves you wondering what's worse: to be cocooned and have your flesh and blood sucked out slowly by the disgusting giant Tarantulas or your mind and your pocketbook emptied by the blood-sucking corporate giant back on earth.

Note that Alien --- the first one --- was directed by Ridley Scott, the admirable British transplant. It nails down his reputation as one of the great directors of all time, with the remarkable debut film The Duellists in the late 1970s followed by a succession of impressive films: Alien and Blade Runner and Thelma and Louise and Black Rain ---a terrific police-thriller, set mainly in Japan with Michael Douglas and a remarkable study of contrasting cultures ---and 1492 , not to forget the recent ones just mentioned, Gladiator and Black-Hawk Down. These seem to be Scott's best films, the ones his reputation stands on.

As for The Duellists, his breakthrough film, it's based on a story by Joseph Conrad set during the French Revolution and afterwards, and no kidding, it was an astonishingly admirable debut that puts you in mind of Stanley Kubrick's noir-thriller The Killing that Kubrick directed when he was only in his late 20's --- and then, at the age of 29, the even greater Paths of Glory with Kirk Douglas, which unfolds during French mutinies on the Western front in WWII. Scott's debut also deals with the French army, and has unforgettable performances from Harvey Keitel and Keith Carradine as the two dueling French rivals in the Napleonic period who continue, without knowing why, after Keitel thinks he's been insulted, fighting one deadly duel after another for decades: with rapiers, swords, pistols, and on horseback. The camera work by Frank Tidy is strikingly evocative, some of the scenes still vividly fresh in your mind two decades later, and the historical background is agilely sketched in and easy to follow even if you don't know much about the era.

Sidebar Query: We just noted that Aliens was a surprisingly successful remake. Are there other remakes that work well?

I can't think of any. Die Hard with Bruce Willis was clever, original, and exciting, one of the best police-thrillers of all times. Die Hard 2 or whatever it was called was barely watchable, and the third one in the series not even barely that: just a clunker from start to . . . well, whoever was silly enough to stay to the end? Similarly, Rocky was one of the best boxing films of all time, and the depiction of the working class milieu out of which Stallone came was convincingly scripted and acted, as was his relationship with the woman and her over-protective brother. The others in the series plunged in quality, to the point that you were left wondering who would have been dumb enough to pay to see Rocky IV or V other than Stallone's mom? Come to that, Rambo II --- which is also entitled First Blood and was actually released before Rambo I --- was an outstanding film: intelligent, absorbing, well-acted. It also treated a serious theme: the problems of unadjusted Vietnam vets, and the cold welcome they got back home here in the states. The others in the series left you wondering whether even Stallone's mom would have shelled out a dollar or two to see them.


 

Others

No doubt there are a few others. They just don't leap to mind.

Probably not many though.

Otherwise, for well over a decade now, films rely mainly on visual effects, animated cartoons, bang-bang action ---or oppositely, sloppy romance themes that seem chic for their cynicism of the day, plus now and then inferior remakes of Animal House set in high school or college, or comedies that pale into dismal fare compared to My Cousin Vinny --- and scripts that wouldn't stretch the minds of 12 year-olds . . . if anything, clearly aimed at that level: all of which makes you pine for the days of the period roughly between the late 1930s and the early 1980s. Those shot and released in the two decades between the start of the 1960s and the early 1980s --- which brought a whole new generation of great directors and actors to the screen --- remain probably the best ever period of film . . . American or otherwise.

Am I exaggerating?

If you think so, go to this link, click on the top box office films of 2001, 2002, and 2003 and see what's featured. I haven't seen one of them, save Pearl Harbor --- a film so ineptly and inanely conceived, acted, and scripted that if you could watch the stuff for more than a half hour, you must have greater tolerance for the 10th rate than the disbelieving buggy prof, who struggled to make it to that point in the film before walking out. If you want a good, fairly accurate depiction of Pearl Harbor and the attack, with outstanding acting and directing by the Japanese and American crews, and some historical understanding, try Tora, Tora, Tora. But then the latter was filmed in 1970, a year when movies weren't aimed at restive, easily bored teeny-boppers . . . the bulk of today's audiences, here and abroad apparently.

And note. Disappointing as American films have been for over a decade now, it's even worse in Italy, Britain, France and Japan, once also countries of a vibrant national cinema. Agreed: the British still put out an occasional good one compared to the others . . . mainly because their directors, script-writers, and actors all know when they're face-to-face with pompous intellectual pishposh, something, apparently, Frenchmen and Italians and Germans (who produced an intersting if briefly lived cinema revival of the 1970s) seem to be suckers for. The directors and script-writers, that is. Not the publics. They're too intelligent and vote with their pocket-books. (In fairness, most of the best German film-makers came to this country in the 1980s and last decade, a trend even more pronounced for the Australians, whose cinematic vitality of the 1980s decade --- starting with Breaker Morant --- was a real marvel.

And what happened to Klaus Marie Brandauer, out of Austria, whose magnetic appearance in a klunker, like Out of Africa, could transform it magically into never-to-be-forgotten cinema? Try Streets of Gold, an outstanding film on boxing, where Brandauer plays a Russian Jew, a former Soviet boxing champion who takes refuge in this country, and trains Adrian Pasdar and Wesley Snipes as Golden Gloves reps of the US to take on the Soviets when they travel to this country: great boxing scenes, great acting, a bracing story of a far-ranging sort, and very good music. For that matter, speaking of Austria, there's Arnold You-Know-Who in Predator --- one of the most imaginative sci-fi films of the modern era, with two elected governors in the small US special force squad. Imagine that! Who can forget Arnold, after the electronically advanced alien has killed off all his squad, rolling in oozy mud as camouflage and taking on the Predator-alien with a spear in hand-to-hand combat . . . the alien only about 10 feet tall and apparently built out of some wizard-like indestructible metal, which makes him invisible at will; and the final scene so strikingly implausible and nutbin as the alien sets off a suicide nuclear bomb that it takes on a certain aura of perverse and unforgettable genius?

Poor Arnold. He thought the Predator was a tough foe. Wait until he has to tackle a Democratic State Assembly and Senate in Sacramento.

 

A Terrific Article, Gleaming with Insight

Entilted Dumb and Dumber, it appeared in a 1995 issue of The New Republic; and wonder of wonders, it's available online.

 

ADDENDUM: JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG, A 1961 FILM

A Classic Film About German War Crimes

The Australian film [Prisoners of the Sun, discussed in the previous article] brings to mind an even greater film, the best perhaps ever made by Hollywood about Nazi war crimes, Judgment at Nuremberg . . . based on a real incident, the follow-up trials at Nuremberg after the captured big shots of the Nazi regime had been tried, condemned, and either sentenced to prison or hanged.

A Stanley Kramer film of the early 1960s, it boasts an astonishingly gifted galaxy of actors: Spencer Tracy as the small-town US judge who heads a small tribunal after the Nuremberg Trials, Burt Lancaster as one of 4 Nazi judges put on trial for participating in war crimes --- Lancaster playing a real German who had also been a distinguished jurist and writer before the Nazi period --- Richard Widmark as the US prosecutor, the extraordinarily talented Maximiillan Schell as the German defense lawyer (another great character actor, who won an Academy Award for his role), and Marlene Dietrich as the proud German widow of a dead German general whom Tracy falls in love with, only for the emerging liason to be ended when Tracy refuses to exonerate the German judges. Judy Garland appears twice in a brilliantly portrayed cameo role, and Montgomery Cliff, another giant actor of the 1950s and 1960s, outdoes her, if possible, in a related cameo role. It's a totally gripping film, where the didactic theme never gets out of control to overwhelm the searing high-voltage drama, a clash of characters and justice hanging perilously in the background . . . politics everywhere too, as in the Australian film.

To explain briefly. The drama of the Kramer film is all the more realistic because the trial takes place during the Berlin airlift in 1948, the cold war swiftly enveloping Europe. American authorities now want to stop the trials, as they did in Japan at the same time, in order to create a new German government and military in the struggle with the Soviets; and so Tracy --- remember, a quiet, unknown small-town judge who, we learn, had just lost re-election in his New England township and has no career to return to --- is subject to increasing political pressures not to convict the German judges. He refuses to cave in. His faith in justice remains his key motive. The convictions that follow are based strictly and unambiguously on the evidence. In behaving according to law and justice, he also loses the love of Marlene Dietrich, who --- unable to save the honor of the German people from the charge of complicity in Nazi evil --- will not even answer his phone call at the end of the film.

Just before Tracy leaves the large house the US authorities have rented for him, Schell --- the German defense attorney --- shows up, unrepentant and stridently self-righteous to the end. "I'll make you a wager, your Honor --- a bet between gentlemen: in the existing political climate, I predict that none of the four judges condemned to life in prison will serve more than two or three years." (All the quotes here, needless to add, are from memory, not the script itself.)

"Herr S . . , " Tracy replies quietly, "you are a very intelligent man and I respected how you defended your clients. You're a particularly logical thinker. So no, I won't bet with you. You're probably right; it's logical, given the times we're in, that they will soon be free --- "

Schell, whose acting role as a tormented Nazi apologist desperate to save German honor brought him the Academy Award, smiles triumphantly.

"--- but logic isn't everything, Herr S. And nothing that politicians or you or anyone else will ever do can change the truth and the justice done here. Nothing on God's green earth can change that. Now if you will excuse me, I've a plane to catch."

 

There's one more scene, the finale. It's a dazzle of crackling confrontation: between the two main judges --- the American Tracy and the condemned German Lancaster --- and between the two codes of law and justice each symbolizes.

It unfolds in the prison for condemned Nazi war criminals run by US authorities. At Lancaster's request, Tracy visits him briefly in his cell . . . a man condemned to life in prison for his judicial service for the Nazi cause. Before the trial had begun, all Tracy ever knew of the Lancaster-character was his scholarly reputation as a distinguished jurist, some of whose famous law books he had himself studied in Vermont over the years as a small-town judge. At first, then, Tracy had separated Lancaster in his mind from the other three distasteful German judges on trial; try as he may, he couldn't believe a man of Lancaster's intelligence and character could serve the Nazis the way he was charged. Only as the evidence gathers, heaps of it, does he begin to see that Lancaster was in many ways the worst of the 4 judges on trial, all the others either fanatical Nazis or clamoring careerists or timid men afraid to say No. They're pitiful men, corrupt morally to the core. Not Lancaster. He wasn't morally debauched from the start before Hitler and the Nazis took power, just the opposite, and he should have known better.

In his cell, Lancaster rises when Tracy enters. He thanks him for coming --- Tracy not at ease being there, uncertain why the request to see him has been made --- and tells Tracy right off that he had done the right thing in reaching the verdict he had.

"I know, Your Honor," Lancaster says, full of conviction, "what political pressures you have been subjected to over the last few weeks, just as I had been in the Nazi era. You did the right thing, you served justice, and if it means anything to you, you have the respect of at least one of the men you condemned."

Tracy stares, nodding silently. His eyes have been opened by the trial. A decent man who believes in justice and withstood the pressures from his own government, he doesn't --- can't --- understand how a legal mind like Lancaster's allowed himself to become a legal instrument of monstrous injustice. After several more moments of silence, shuffling a bit, he nods again and thanks Lancaster in a scratchy voice.

Then, still ill-at ease --- a silence in the cell again --- Tracy begins turning toward the steel door. "Wait, your Honor, please!" Lancaster urges. "There's something else I'd like to say."

Tracy stops and turns to face Lancaster again. He waits. Lancaster --- clearly burdened, guilt churning in him --- then says with emotion, "I want you to know something. All those millions of people, all those people slaughtered by the Nazis. I never knew it would come to that. Never! You have to believe me! I never knew it would come to that!"

Tracy reflects a moment. Then his big square-built head shakes slightly from side to side. "Herr L. . ., it came to that the first time you sentenced a man to death you knew to be innocent."

 

The camera still on Tracy, he turns swiftly, bangs on the cell door, and walks out into the prison corridor where hundreds of Nazi war criminals are incarcerated, an MP standing in front of each cell. Just before he exits the cell, the camera focuses over his shoulder, and you see the stunned look suddenly left on Lancaster's face . . . the man shattered by Tracy's pithy reply, the full rippling realization of his evil complicity in Nazi genocide and other monstrous crimes overwhelming the last of his mental defenses.

The film continues about 10 20 seconds more before the end credits come on. As Tracy moves slowly down the long prison corridor --- the return trip to Vermont and retirement ahead of him, his duty on behalf of justice completed --- the camera shifts to a long shot of the prison interior, all those MPs standing before the cells, their doors slammed shut on condemned war criminals . . . the once mighty politicians, generals, Gestapo agents, SS-thugs, top bureaucrats, and judges like Lancaster locked up for years or for life or awaiting the hangmen. All at once, a Nazi marching song begins to play. Loudly. Vigorously. With irony. Its triumphant bravura jars with the historical reality of the prison interior and the shattered look we have just witnessed left on Lancaster's face back in his cell: the Nazis, we see, have irrevocably lost, their grotesquely evil 1000-Year Reich destroyed after a mere 12 years, Germany itself bombed and divided and occupied by the allies and the major Nazi war criminals --- most of them anyway --- now meeting justice.

 

If the worth of a film is in part a matter of how many times you can see it over your lifetime --- and never cease being struck by its depths, intelligence, drama, humor, acting, and directing --- then Judgment at Nuremberg , like Casablanca, is one of them. I've seen the latter maybe a dozen times over 50 years now, always left wondrous by its stupendous impact. As for Judgment, maybe 7 or 8 times, and left with the same dumbstruck feeling. Both are in black-and-white and have no special digital effects, just stunning scripts, crisp direction of unusually talented actors, a remarkable sense of dramatic pacing, and the treatment of major historical themes without ever degenerating into soapbox didactics.

Replies: 1 Comment

Please don't dismiss Japanese cinema quite so fast. If you haven't seen "spirited away" the English language title for the Japanese cartoon "Sen to chihiru no kamikazushi" then you have missed a treat.

I had assumed that there was too much in this that would be incomprehensible to viewers who were not familiar with Japan but I was wrong as the Financial Times reviewer gave it 6 stars out of 5 (sic) and Steven Denbeste also raved about it - see http://denbeste.nu/cd_log_entri/SpiritedAway.shtml and http://denbeste.nu/cd_log_entri/SpiritedAway.shtml

I can only echo Steven's praise. This is the first movie in years that I have watched twice and I fully expect to watch it many more times.

THE BUGGY REPLY:

Francis: Thank you very much for the tip. In Santa Barbara, we're lucky because there's a privately owned and well-stocked local video store, Video Schmideo, which has all the classic Hollywood films and thousands of foreign films, Japanese included. I'm sure it has the film you mentioned.



Posted by Francis Turner @ 10/14/2003 12:05 PM PST