Sunday, May 15, 2011

Sunset Boulevard

Year: 1950
AFI Top 100 Rating: 16
Writer: Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett, D.M. Marshman Jr.
Director: Billy Wilder
Star: Gloria Swanson, William Holden, Erich von Stroheim

I consider “Sunset Boulevard” to be the greatest film by a director who specialized in making great films. Though it incorporates elements of noir, horror, drama and comedy, it transcends these genres and becomes one of those rare films that is indefinable. It’s also just about perfect.

We first meet Joe Gillis (William Holden) as he is floating upside down in a swimming pool, very much dead. He’s a screenwriter though, so death doesn’t shut him up, and he narrates the story of how he got to be in that pool. Turns out poor Joe was also poor in the literal sense—about to get his car repossessed and pride long shattered from being turned down by every studio in Hollywood. A flat tire leads him to the marble doorstep of silent film star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), who invites him to stay with her and help her rewrite the script for her comeback…er…return to film. It starts as that, but soon develops into something much, much sicker.

The first time we meet Norma she is grieving the death of her pet monkey. She and her butler Max (Erich von Stroheim) mistake Joe for the undertaker and allow him into her mansion. To call Casa Norma an overstatement would be an understatement—it seems as if Paramount dumped the entire contents of its prop rooms inside those walls. Swanson overacts throughout the film, but it is a calculated overacting that makes the film that much more fascinating. It is as if the character of Norma Desmond got so used to acting like she was in a silent film that she began acting like that in real life, and no one was around to yell “Cut!” Her melodrama underlines all of her emotions, from her manipulations to the moments of her real desperation, which paradoxically makes her all the more sympathetic.

Yes, I said sympathetic. She’s a monster, but a monster we come to care very much about. The key to this is Max, who we learn was once much more than just her butler: He was the director who discovered her and became the first of her three husbands. He still adores her as much as he ever did, handling her like a cracked porcelain doll. He caters to her every need, resends fan mail and tries not to let Joe’s relationship with Norma eat him up inside. Because he cares, we care. Because he loves, we love. There’s a moment deep in the film where Norma leaves Max and Joe to meet alone with Cecil B. DeMille (playing himself), and we are anxious and horrified that her dreams will shatter. It is in that moment that we realize how much we have come to care for this weird, unpleasant woman, and because of that the final reel is that much more bittersweet.

Because the movie has a heart, however sick it is, screenwriters Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett and D.M. Marshman Jr. have a field day making everything surrounding that heart as bleak, sarcastic and dark as possible. This begins and ends with the Joe character, who can’t be too upset that he’s dead because he knows he was never a very good guy to begin with. While he (barely) admits once in the film that he likes Norma, he fills minutes of the film with narration that deconstructs her entire world and those sad creatures that fill it. Norma’s waxworks (her silent film friends, including Buster Keaton in a great cameo). Her house. Her car. Her persona. Her script. They are all mockable and he digs in with both hands, perhaps because it is the only way to stop him from weeping from the sadness of it all. His relationship with Norma at some point becomes sexual, but Wilder is right to keep the details cloudy. During the nights, Joe escapes from Norma to meet with a young woman named Betty (Nancy Olson). She’s engaged, but he still falls for her.

There are many reasons I love the film, but Betty is one of the biggest. In any lesser film, her character would be such a write-off. She’s would be the ambitious upstart who is good personified and ultimately do the right thing, no matter the cost. But Wilder and his co-writers turn Betty into a free-thinking, strong woman. Not only does she challenge Joe in the first scene they share by insisting that his new script isn’t any good, but later is more frustrated that Joe left because he was a rung in her ladder, not because he’s just so (*bats eyes*) dreamy. She has layers. She even admits that she got a nose job when she wanted to be an actress. In the end, Betty walks out of the movie with the kind of dignity you wouldn’t expect from a character of her type.

Wilder made a career of making masterpieces, from “Some Like It Hot” to “The Apartment” to “Double Indemnity,” which are all in the AFI Top 100 along with “Sunset Boulevard.” But there’s also “Witness For the Prosecution” (rarely seen today but easily ranks with his best), “Ace in the Hole,” “Sabrina,” “The Seven Year Itch”…my apologies, I’m beginning to list. For me, this film has the most deeply felt emotions and one of the greatest characters ever committed to film. Its irony and cynicism is a mask that slowly degrades the more you watch the film, and you begin to realize that just because there is much melodrama and “loudness” (for lack of a better word), there is just as much subtlety and beauty.

The stuff that happened behind the scenes of this movie is just as interesting as what happens onscreen, and in this viewing I tried to put everything I learned and read out of my mind. And yes, the movie still works beautifully on its own, whether or not you know that Swanson was a real silent film actor and that von Stroheim was really her director for many years. There have been many masterpieces made about Hollywood, but only one of them has Norma Desmond, so let’s face it…nothing else can compare. Despite the film’s famous closing line, the film blurs to black before Norma can get that final close-up. She didn’t need it. She’s made quite an impact already.

My Score (out of 5): *****

Saturday, May 14, 2011

2001: A Space Odyssey

Year: 1968
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 15
Writer: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke (adaptation) Arthur C. Clarke (source material)
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Star: Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, Douglas Rain

“2001: A Space Odyssey” is a movie I greatly admire. It is also a movie I don’t like very much and a movie I probably won’t feel the need to revisit for another decade. It’s a film filled with ideas and isn’t afraid to challenge its viewers in content or pace. And yet it’s a film, like most of director Stanley Kubrick’s work, so devoid of human emotion or connection that it left me cold to it every moment I should have been fully engaged.

The film begins in pre-history, with half-human/half-apes uncovering the greatest discovery since the opposable thumb. As he moves through a group of bones, one of the ape men discovers that using the bones as a weapon gives him, and his people, a power none of the surrounding species have. Oh, and a giant black monolith appears out of nowhere. Fast forward a few thousand years to 1999 when another monolith has appeared on the moon and a group of scientists is sent to investigate. Once more we fast forward to the title year and find two scientists (Keir Dullea & Gary Lockwood) on a spacecraft headed toward Jupiter. Controlling the spacecraft is a computer called Hal 9000 (voiced by Douglas Rain) who, despite being a ball of red light, displays more emotions than any of the human characters. Is Hal malfunctioning, or are the scientists jumping to conclusions? Needless to say, the black monolith makes at least one more cameo before the end of the film.

Why are the monoliths there and why do they choose those specific times to appear? They obviously represent a far greater intelligence than ape or man…look at the contrast of the rounded, intricate space vehicles to the sleek, rectangular simplicity of the monoliths. It could be argued that they feed first the ape and then Dullea’s character (named Dave) with intelligence, but I don’t think so. I believe they are there simply to observe huge breakthroughs for humanity. They first watch the apemen realize their inherent power and then see Man triumph over the “perfect mind” of a computer. Note that they leave Dave alone to grow old and “die” (rebirth) in a makeshift five star hotel room with really bad floor lighting. And yet there are still questions, like why it behaves the way it does on the surface of the moon? Had Man become to reliant on computers and the monolith sensed that? Perhaps.

There are no easy answers, of course, simply much to observe before screenwriters Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke allow you to draw your own conclusions. Kubrick structures the movie at a very deliberate pace, never quickening or using unnecessary editing tricks to alter tension. He favors medium and long shots to close-ups throughout the first two-thirds of the film, not allowing himself (or the viewer) to get too close to the world or characters. In fact, the only character who really gets one hell of a lot of face time is Hal, but even there we find ourselves drawing our own conclusions as to what hides behind the simple red light.

The film has four parts, three of which are introduced via title in the film. The second, which depicts the moon mission in 1999, feels very dated and is an utter waste of time and energy. Its conceits, like using as many brand names (Pan Am, Hilton, etc.) as possible to underline a future of brand identity, not personalization, were fresh at the time of the film’s release but have become so commonplace today that they seem hackneyed. More than that, though, the entire section seems like weirdly unnecessary non-movement. There’s much to-do about rumors surrounding the moon mission, though characters never interact with any emotion or voice inflections. Sure, the last thirty seconds of the 25 minute section are fascinating, but were this section snipped entirely from the movie, would the viewer be really missing anything all that great?

Once we move to the Jupiter mission, it becomes apparent that Kubrick is bending over backward to keep us from making human connections to anyone in the movie. Though this would become a recurring theme throughout his work, I have to say that I feel the section (which is the film’s best) would have been much improved if we felt any sort of connection to Dave or Frank. Hell, there’s probably about ten minutes of material here before we get a good enough look at the two characters’ faces to tell them apart. Their personalities are interchangeable, and their voices remain stagnant and dull throughout. Even their “looks” are tedious: Dullea is handsome, but boringly so, and his hair is always perfectly parted. The characters don’t sweat. In what is supposed to be the most tense moment of the film, when Dave argues with Hal to let him back on the ship (“Open the pod bay doors, Hal.”) and he realizes he must jump from his pod through space to get into the ship, his face never registers worry or tension.

There are still great moments here. Seeing Hal read Dave and Frank’s lips as they plot to disconnect it is quietly unsettling, as is listening to Hal go through its death throes as Dave silently “murders” it. And yet…I don’t care.

From a visual standpoint, the film is unmatched. I’d go so far as saying that it’s the best-looking science fiction movie ever made. Despite all the huge advancements in technology since 1968, I doubt the best team at ILM could make more elegant, poetic special effects than what we see here. The surreal sequence where Dave is pulled through the cosmos is still a stunner, and Kubrick was right to give all the tremendous images room to breathe and make an impact on the viewers.

Perhaps it’s that I’m a screenwriter. Perhaps it’s just the way I’m wired. Whatever the case, I just can’t manage to engage in a film, no matter how close to perfection it otherwise is, unless it presents me with characters that I care about. If Hal’s fatal flaw was that it allowed emotions to overcome its logical components, this movie’s flaw is that it is too far removed from its own emotions.

My Score (out of 5):

Saturday, May 7, 2011

West Side Story

Year: 1961
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 51
Writer: Ernest Lehman (adaptation), Jerome Robbins & Arthur Laurents (source material)
Director: Robert Wise & Jerome Robbins
Star: Natalie Wood, Rita Moreno, George Chakiris

“West Side Story” is a movie I love, but it is a movie I love with reservations. It is certainly one of the greatest film musicals and features moments of tremendous power and emotion, and yet it falls short of transcendence. It ones of those movies where you walk out of the theater on a high and tell your friends “Oh, it was amazing! If only…” The major flaw I find with the film is entirely different than the ones my friends and colleagues often cite, and I can understand their complaints as well. That doesn’t make this a bad movie—there are too many perfect moments for that—but it does make the movie very, very interesting to critique.

Everyone knows that the film is a modernized, musicalized (I’m pretty sure I invented a word there) version of “Romeo of Juliet,” with star-crossed lovers Maria (Natalie Wood) and Tony (Richard Beymer) caught in the midst of a New York gang war between the Sharks (Puerto Ricans) and Jets (Whites). Tony was once the head of the Jets, but has lately been searching for something more to his life, leaving the gang in the hands of Riff. The Sharks are led by Maria’s brother Bernardo (George Chakiris), and also in the mix is Bernardo’s girlfriend/Maria’s best friend Anita (Rita Moreno). If you have even a passing knowledge of Shakespeare, you know where this is going, though the film deviates from its source material by allowing Maria to survive the finale.

The major, almost unforgivable flaw comes in the film’s second half, after a bloody street fight leaves Bernardo dead at the hands of Tony. Tony crawls into Maria’s window and tells her what happens, and then Maria forgives him. Immediately. Not only that, but they then sleep together. Apologies for my vulgarity, but Maria might as well say the following dialogue: “You killed my brother? That’s okay, just fuck me!” How the heck did this make it into the movie? Screenwriter Ernest Lehman made one of the most convoluted plots of all time, “North by Northwest,” seem completely effortless, and had great success adapting such musicals as “The Sound of Music” and “The King and I” for the screen…so what happened here? Not only does it completely undercut the power of the death of a person we really like, but it is so heinous that it utterly destroys Maria as a character. Up until that point, you identify with her because she is a strong girl with her own opinions and ideas, but in that moment she becomes an unfeeling wretch. The saddest part is that the answer was in the source material! In the Shakespeare original, the Bernardo character was a cousin who didn’t have a deep connection with the Maria character, so his death was inconsequential to the love story but hugely important as the spark of the tragedy. Here, it’s just…icky.

Every time I watch the movie, I wonder whether that single move makes the last third of the film irreparable. And, to be honest, sometimes it does.

But if you can look past that, and I understand if you can’t, there’s just so much to love here. Consider the sequence that opens the film, where the gangs snap at one another and ultimately get into scuffles while performing some fantastic dancing. Jerome Robbins’ choreography still has the power to take your breath away in many of the sequences, not just because you just don’t see dancing like that anymore, but because it’s just so poetic and lovely. The dancing goes hand in hand with, for my money, the best score and songs of any musical. Ever. Sorry, “My Fair Lady.” There isn’t a clunker in the bunch. “America,” “I Feel Pretty,” “Maria”…the list goes on. My favorite is the quintet version of “Tonight,” which every smart composer and lyricist has ripped off at some point in his or her career.

The music leads to moments so perfect they stay with you, fresh as the first time you saw them, years after the end credits roll. Take the dance at the gym, where Maria and Tony first see one another and the manic mambo dancing fades away into a simple, intimate melody of newfound love between the twosome. Or when the men and women bicker with one another about the pros (washing machines) and cons (organized crime) of living in America via witty barbs and dance. At this point I’m just listing, so I’ll stop, even though there are many more.

Co-directors Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins try a lot of interesting things with the visuals, like when Tony walks in a daze from the school dance singing “Maria” and the backgrounds keep fading into others. Or, during the dance, when the dancers literally blur when Tony and Maria catch sight of one another. These kind of tricks could conceivably date the film, but they still surprisingly stand up because of the underlying romantic subtexts involved.

Then there’s the acting. Wood’s performance is often stomped upon by my friends, but all I see is a young woman with high spirits and a lot of chemistry with the rest of the cast. She is so…well…pretty and charming and gay in “I Feel Pretty” that I wonder if they are watching the same film as I. Perhaps it is because of the character assassination moment I wrote of earlier that leaves a bitter taste in viewer’s mouths. Beymer is unfortunately quite wooden when left alone, and does not convince any viewer that he once led a street gang, but his scenes with Wood have an innocent, sweet charm that I wasn’t expecting.

Moreno and Chakiris are both standouts, with charisma to spare and a great repoire with one another. I can’t be the only one who secretly wishes that there was another film tracking their love story to compliment this film, can I? Tamblyn is also very good as Riff, with his great early “Jet Song” wonderfully interpreted and danced.

The highest compliment I can give the film is that, after it ends, I still wonder what happened to the characters as they continue their lives. What did Maria do with her newfound strength? Did she ever reconcile with Anita, and how will Anita’s near-rape at the hands of the Jets strain the uneasy peace between the gangs?

With a movie that reaches such powerful heights, it’s easy to get carried away with it. To overlook those obvious flaws. Rewatching the film on the big screen reminded me what a “big” movie it is, both in terms of scope and emotion, and what an achievement it is that it works as beautifully as does. It’s definitely one of the greats. And yet…

My Score (out of 5): ****