1967

Back in the day Hollywood cranked out movies like a factory. They stuck to formulas and by 1967 the formulas got old. Risks needed to be taken which meant breaching controversial topics like sex, race, and violence. Audiences wanted to see their changing world and values reflected on the screen. Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, for example, was released only months after 17 states’ anti-miscegenation laws were ruled unconstitutional.

Studios also tried giving more control to filmmakers in an attempt to draw in a more artistic-minded audience that had turned to foreign art films (which I might write about separately). I assume those audiences were really insufferable but they happened to be right. Moral uncertainty, heightened realism, ambiguous resolutions, shooting and editing to fit the mood, and soundtracks with popular music brought excitement back to American movies. In a few years this movement known as New Hollywood would hit its stride and take over for good.

In the Heat of the Night

When a wealthy man planning on building a factory in a small Mississippi town is killed, a racist cop picks up a black stranger at the train station as an obvious suspect. When that black man ends up actually being an experienced Philadelphia homicide detective, both men are ordered by their superiors to work together to solve the case.

In the Heat of the Night joined Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and To Sir, With Love to make an insane year for Sidney Poitier. That’s three of the top twelve movies of 1967, although it’s also three of the worst movie titles ever when listed together like that. Here  as Detective Tibbs he’s maybe a bit too restrained and perfect, but that allows any viewer to put themselves in his shoes. He’s almost like a neutral mask of slapping the South’s tyranny of racism in the face. That enemy permeates every other locale and character, with most of that stank coming from Rod Steiger’s police Chief Gillespie. Every look is mean and every movement is pure swagger. He practically dares Poitier’s Detective Tibbs to try and solve the case. His indomitable spirit of racism is weirdly hilarious.

This is one of the movies from this year that definitely feels almost 50 years old, but it was  made as a message for that time. It feels great to see Tibbs chew out redneck cops and make them look like idiots, so I can’t even imagine how crazy it seemed back then.

The Dirty Dozen

In preparation for D-Day the US military selects twelve ex-soldiers serving long sentences or awaiting execution for a suicide mission. They’ll be sent to a meeting of German generals, and those who survive can receive commuted sentences. Before they can attack they’ll have to learn to follow orders and trust each other.

It’s pretty long, but the time spent getting to know the rascally dozen convicts makes it enjoyable to see them stick it to higher-ups by succeeding and adds some excitement and tension to the mission. Surprising violence and irreverence for the times now seem pretty normal, but then again I had already seen Inglorious Basterds, which copies this pretty hard. It’s not The Dirty Dozen’s fault that it changed culture enough for its shock to have worn off.

Cool Hand Luke

A man tries to keep his rebellious spirit intact while serving a prison sentence in a Florida chain gang. The prison warden, cruel environment, and other prisoners try to beat him down.

I absolutely love Cool Hand Luke. My twitter avatar has been of the poster ever since I first saw it. Paul Newman is the man, and here he’s at his charming, stubborn best. The script explodes with humor, despair, and some of the coolest lines ever. Watch this on a cold day and its cinematography WILL convince you that you’re dying of heat with the prisoners. Cliff from Cheers is right, it’s the sweatiest movie of all time.

It doesn’t totally fit into the New Hollywood thing, but Luke as a character does. Even in helplessness his spirit fights back. He’s an example for youth of that era and anyone with tough problems today. When he convinces his fellow convicts to continue hoping and caring he convinces us too. Plus he tries to eat 50 eggs in an hour on a bet! If you take one thing from this entire post I hope it’s that you should watch Cool Hand Luke.

The Graduate

An aimless recent college graduate is seduced by an older woman (the now infamous Mrs. Robinson), and later falls in love with her daughter.

Whether or not The Graduate fits the New Hollywood style artistically, it content definitely fits, including relaxed views on sex and a soundtrack featuring Simon and Garfunkel. Dustin Hoffman isn’t always easy to root for as the lead, but he’s funny and relatable. Whenever you see a movie about a kind of whiny young adult that doesn’t know what to do with his life and can’t get a girl to love him, they’re probably doing a worse version of The Graduate.

Despite all this, I don’t care about it. Everyone in it kind of sucks. Maybe if I see it again (it’s been several years) I’ll get more out of the technical aspects but I’m not planning to.

Bonnie and Clyde

During the Great Depression a bored small-town waitress is intrigued by a man who tries to steal her mother’s car. They travel the country committing robberies and acts of escalating violence.

Bonnie and Clyde is essentially the birth of New Hollywood. It copied French New Wave’s innovative camera and editing techniques to achieve this but fortunately didn’t steal French New Wave’s trend of focusing on boring losers. Warren Beaty and Faye Dunaway as the leads are fun and detached but still flawed and kind. I can’t imagine who could watch this without being attracted to their beauty and freedom. It surprised audiences with casual depictions of sex and violence which we’re used to now and its rebellious lack of morality changed American movies. It’s worth watching today because it’s enjoyable even if you know none of that.

Posted in Yearly Notables | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

David Lynch

David Lynch can’t be described without eventually going through the word “weird”. If you’ve seen his TV show Twin Peaks you get it, although from what I’ve seen that’s as normal as he gets. He’s known for bringing an unprecedented level of surreal discomfort to audiences which is… cool? It’s definitely an artistic achievement. Feeling along with a character trumps being told about their feelings. Using the camera, lighting, and sound to achieve this is Lynch’s specialty.

But are the movies any good? Ehhh… sometimes. They always include moments of interest, but he can get so caught up in demonstrating his daring techniques that he forgets to give the whole thing a purpose. When he starts with the basics of good stories and adds his weirdness from there, great stuff can happen.

Eraserhead

A weak-willed man tries to get by in an industrial hellscape. When he is invited to his girlfriend’s house for the first time in a long time, he is cornered into helping raise the mutant child to which she supposedly gave birth. She leaves him alone to watch the baby in his apartment, and its constant cries and horrific appearance drive him insane. Believe it or not I have just accurately described almost the whole plot of a real movie.

Every sight and sound tries to convince you to stop watching. Every interaction is full of interpersonal strife. The sound outside makes you feel the characters’ constant stress with them. The baby is physically hard to look at and hear. Basically it all feels like a diseased mob surrounding you, closing in. I was kind of blown away. If you want to be impressed by how off-putting a movie can be (or really want to become horrified of having children), this is for you.

The Elephant Man

Based on the true story of Joseph Merrick, a severely deformed man in Victorian England who went from circus freak to medical subject to high class curiosity. His doctor tries to earn his trust and keep him from getting exploited as he seeks safety, friendship, and love.

Lynch sticks to his strength adapting a story that is inherently uncomfortable. This time though he tries to slowly bring in sympathy and admiration for Merrick, played by an unrecognizable John Hurt. Anthony Hopkins seems very natural as a Victorian doctor and sells his conflict that propels most of the story.

It asks a lot of questions about whether we should protect vulnerable people from decisions they can’t understand, and what society’s obligations are to the least capable human beings. Instead of answering these questions though it kinda just uses them to bum you out. It seems to be a skillful adaptation of the story, but at the same time kinda who cares.

Dune

How to describe Dune? Warring families struggle for power on a futuristic desert planet using psychics, assassination, drugs, ecology, weird religions, and guerrilla tactics. It’s based on a 1960s sci-fi must-read. By must-read I mean it’s excellent, but also that you literally have to have already read it to understand what on earth (or what on Arrakis I guess) is happening. It might be impossible to adapt this story into a coherent movie of reasonable length, so it’s not too much of a surprise that Lynch’s version is in many ways a long confusing mess.

That being said, I recommend it to anyone who enjoys sci-fi, goofy melodrama, or being baffled. The whole thing is a drug trip on film. Every setting, costume, creature, and technology is at the very least interesting. Kyle MacLachlan perfectly fits the coming-of-age hero in Paul and every actor is 100% dedicated to selling their patently bizarre characters. It impressively realizes scenes from the book that are hard to even imagine, much less put on screen in the mid 80s. The plot will never really make sense so just let the weirdness wash over you.

Blue Velvet

Jeffrey Beaumont cuts through an empty lot while walking home and finds a severed human ear. After bringing it to the police he meets with the detective’s daughter Sandy in an attempt to learn more about the case. When they together start snooping into the lives of those thought to be involved, they get sucked into a seedy social circle of violent sexuality and overt insanity.

Kyle MacLachlan (again) and Laura Dern appealingly and adventurously lead us into the darkness. Immediately when you meet Dennis Hopper’s spiteful and evil Frank you wish they could escape. There’s always enough mystery and intrigue to justify Jeffrey going back for more. It’s creepy, confusing, dark, disgusting, and exciting.

Those qualities are what make Blue Velvet most impressive to me as a modern version of film noir. Not nearly as pretentious as it sounds, film noir is simply a style of murder mystery that was popular in the 1940s and 50s. It’s the thing where the attractive but dangerous woman hires a private detective with a jaunty hat who talks too much. While they coolly allude to mature themes Blue Velvet pushes them in your face and makes you ask if they ever really were cool. When Lynch predictably blows their dream-like qualities out of the water, it strengthens my belief that film art and technology are almost always improving. For all I know I might only care about Blue Velvet because I’ve seen many old noirs, but I think it stands on its own if you haven’t.

Mulholland Drive

A car accident leaves a woman with amnesia. She meets a naive aspiring actress and together they try to discover her identity. Other seemingly unrelated storylines show the cutthroat nature of Hollywood and set a heavy mood.

The first time I watched it I didn’t get what happened, and the second time I didn’t get what the point was. There are some very cool scenes but ultimately Mulholland Drive only showcases a dream-like emotional immersion. Its style has probably been since copied by movies I care about, but they used it to tell good stories, not tell piping hot nonsense.

Posted in Is This Someone? | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

1920s

I’m not going to do these in order, but we might as well start at the beginning.

You might enjoy picturing yourself watching the birth of cinema, each shot a bold prediction of what might come in the future of the form. You can feel all smart and accomplished as you cross these off your list and later notice homages by big names. Others have claimed to really learn a lot from them and even that they enjoyed these movies.

They’re lying to you. Movies from the 1920s and earlier are basically all unwatchable. Without sound they’re unnerving. None of the acting can be taken seriously. On top of that, you’ll see a guy mouthing and then it cuts to a separate shot just to show you what he said. If anyone gets more than 15 minutes through Battleship Potemkin, they are either trying way to hard or have to write a paper about it.

Great news! None of this matters because watching ancient movies isn’t required to appreciate their importance. You also don’t need to drive a Model T to work for a week to understand they were important to automobile history. Just read about it. If someone says some movie invented shooting a conversation from two angles, take their word for it. Great job everyone, you nailed it. That totally caught on.

Earlier I mentioned that the acting can’t be taken seriously. To be fair, many of the most touted figures were comedians, so they were trying not to be taken seriously. I haven’t really sought those movies out. Check out a couple clips of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton on YouTube to see them predate Bugs Bunny and Jackie Chan respectively. I felt like I got the gist but if you’re more interested in comedy history let me know how they are.

The two movies I really enjoyed from the 1920s are coincidentally the only ones I’ve finished. If you think I missed some, sorry, I’ve avoided them because I’m an uncultured plebe.

The Passion of Joan of Arc

This is the story of Joan of Arc’s imprisonment and trial by the church. It’s shot in a way that makes you feel trapped along with Renee Jeanne Falconetti’s Joan. She can plead and fear and agonize with the best of ’em. The camera is all up in her business to catch that, which apparently was unusual at the time. Church dudes argue, accuse, and just generally are haters throughout. It’ll make you feel for her, and they kept it simple enough that it isn’t distractingly dated.

This movie is a bit slow and distant feeling but has plenty of upsides. It’s kinda cool to have a connection to the past within another connection to the past. Watching something this old does make you think differently about how movies are made and what’s necessary in the movies people make now. Could they get away with way less dialogue? Is it better to be told how someone feels or really see them feeling it? Or even to feel it with them?

Metropolis

It’s the birth (basically) of movie sci-fi, directed by Fritz Lang. The son of a powerful man discovers the oppressive world of the underclass that keeps his way of life going. A prophetic girl pulls him into their uprising, but his father has the girl kidnapped. He plans to ruin the movement’s reputation by copying her likeness onto a killer robot. It’s pretty sweet.

The characters are lively and you are invited to join their just anger. Pulling no punches, the story brings a brutality that makes you think anything could happen next. The designs of buildings, backgrounds and weird technology all add to the imposing futuristic world. The effects obviously can’t compare to the current level of realism, but everything is so evenly fake it feels believable like a cartoon. It’s fun to watch and wonder how they pulled it all off.

The version I watched featured modern electronic music by Giorgio Moroder which rocks. The dialogue was added to the bottom of the screen like subtitles, cutting down the length. For all I know the longer or older releases might be better but I’d recommend this. You can take in all the qualities with fewer distractions.

Posted in Yearly Notables | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment