Friday, September 24, 2010

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

So our third pick, The Magnificent Ambersons, brings with it a few firsts for the blog. It's the first adaptation of a novel, and additionally, the first adaptation of a novel from the acclaimed genre of books I've bought and haven't read yet. The 1918 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is the second in Booth Tarkington's Growth Trilogy, which chronicles the effects of rapid industrialization and social change on the fortunes of a Midwestern family. If you know anything about my interests as a scholar, this plot is catnip to me. Will the effects of capitalism on individual minds and bodies be explored? Will the evolving definitions of femininity and masculinity be represented? Dare I hope for pre-modern nostalgia? It's also the first Orson Welles movie we've encountered so far. Welles was a 27-year-old wunderkind hot off the heels of Citizen Kane when he turned his attention to Tarkington's novel. At this point in his career, Welles was brash, arrogant, and ungodly talented--the very type of alpha male upon whom I would have developed a debilitating crush. Ambersons is notable both for being highly autobiographical and for its bungled ending. Welles was partying in Brazil and couldn't be bothered to defend his original cut. Apparently, the clumsily affixed "happy ending" is one of the tragedies of modern cinema. I am officially amped.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

In the Year of the Pig (1969), or why Natalie No Longer Does Scholarship

Full disclosure: I'm starting to write this at the 41 minute mark of the documentary (it's 103 minutes long). I'm not enthralled. Although Jack Kennedy just came on screen so that got my attention for a minute. Ok, Lyndon Johnson is on--back to writing and watching simultaneously.

I think this is an important film in that it presents a crucial argument and did so at a time in our history when that argument was especially unpopular. Telling Americans that we're sticking our noses in things that are none of our business and are headed for a giant clusterfuck of a no-win war and political situation is a bold move. It never goes over well. Never. And it is especially pertinent considering our recent history of sticking our noses in things that are none of our business and creating a giant clusterfuck of a no-win war and political situation--seems good 'ol W. has never seen this film. Surprise.

The film is also a carefully edited and subtle argument. This one isn't going to knock you over the head and then scream the argument at you while shoving flash cards with key points in your face. You actually have to pay a certain amount of attention not only to content but to tone. The doc. makers are obviously not endorsing many of the people who speak in the film and it's up to the audience to carefully discern irony. This is something more contemporary political doc. makers could learn from. Ahem, cough, Michael Moore, cough. Oh! Wait! Maybe W. did see the film and thought "the sooner that we hit everything we can and hurt 'em over there we gotta a better chance to win that war and that's exactly what we should do in my opinion" was super advice.

The source of my discontent with the film lies solely in my particular focus in scholarship (when I did scholarship): terrorism in 20th century American literature with 9/11 as the pivot point. So I'm thoroughly steeped in this argument because, surprise, 35-ish years after this documentary when I was writing my dissertation, artists of all sorts were making these same arguments, albeit in color. So, perhaps especially because I'm not particularly knowledgeable about Vietnam, I'm watching this film through the lens of my 9/11 research and I'm finding it too-similar a source to make use of. "There were no torpedoes fired" rings eerily similar to "there were no WMDs." But, alas, the people who promulgate these clusterfuck no-win situations are not the people who would learn from this film (especially given the French origin when we're talking about post 9/11 enlightenment--as Athelas noted "Freedom fries indeed"), or the terrorism information I'm more familiar with--hence the unfortunate repetition of history.

So, thumbs down for me but thumbs way up high for inclusion in the list.

"In The Year of the Pig" or, Team America: World Police

If Michael Moore had been making movies in the '60s and wasn't as deeply besotted with the sound of his own voice and the sight of his own face, he might have made this documentary. Usually, I'm not as big a fan of docs that make a strident argument (rather than present an issue to explore), but I found this one inescapably compelling. Full disclosure: I had to make a brief escape after the first three minutes revealed that this was NOT the film to watch while I was eating dinner, so I took a break and caught a bit of Honeymoon in Vegas. A classic that the editors have thus far cruelly overlooked, I might add.

In any case, this movie helped me unpack the monolithic signifier that lives in my head as "The Vietnam War" by taking a dimensional approach to explicating the conflict's historical, political, social, and human context. Some of the combat footage is absolutely astonishing, and gives you a real taste of what a different business war reporting was before the Defense Department took an active interest in what does and does not make it back to American television screens. The most unsettling thing for me (and trust me, picking the most unsettling aspect of this movie is a trick) is how depressingly familiar the rhetoric of violence in the name of nation building sounds forty years later in the middle of another monolithic signifier, "The War on Terror." And, as a bonus, you get to hear Mark Clark, who currently rests in peace at The Citadel, and whose eponymous expressway I drove on regularly in Charleston, make some delightful observations about what "all Orientals" do.

Though I think this documentary is essential, it does bring up the point of whether docs should really be included on this list. They follow such different rules and operate under such a different aesthetic than features, I wonder if it's fair to lump the two genres together?

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

In the Year of the Pig (1969)

Apparently we don't like color film around here. Or movies made by Americans. This Oscar-nominated 1969 doc from Emile de Antonio is certainly all about America, though. In that colonial-superpower, military-industrial-complex kind of way. In the Year of the Pig chronicles America's involvement in Vietnam using what my Anthropology 101 professor called "thick description"--lots o'context from the famous (John Kennedy, Dwight Eisenhower, Joseph McCarthy) and the not as (Jean de Lattre de Tassigny--Freedom Fries indeed). And hey, any film that generated bomb threats against theatres that screened it has got to have something interesting to say.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Origins of Wendy and Lucy (2008), OR Umberto D (1952)

And, we're off with a whimper.

Athelas hit the can't-feed-the dog-but-can't-find-it a-better-home-because-I-NEED-the-dog-to-feel-like-a-person-and-this-is-just-all-a-metaphor-for-larger-country-wide-economic-issues movie plots nail on the head.

Umberto D. IS Wendy and Lucy.

Let's review a few key points (warning: full of plot spoilers for both films):

1. Down on his/her luck titular character who just needs this ONE thing before everything is better:
a. Umberto--pensioner who just needs 5,000, no 4,000, no 1,000 lire . . . . to pay his debts (back rent).
b. Lucy--young woman who just needs to get to Alaska so she can find a job.

2. A mutt who doesn't get fed much but likes to play and wander off; said wandering off gets mutt caught by whatever version of animal services and sent to the pound:
a. Filke--a Jack Russell-like dog who is only seen eating a plate of pasta at a cafeteria and who likes to play with a ball and a ruler (and later a pinecone). He wanders out of the apartment and gets sent to the pound.
b. Lucy--a golden retriever-like dog who gets an inadequate amount of dog food once and who likes to play with sticks. Lucy wanders off at various points in the film but it's Wendy's leaving her at a grocery store that gets her sent to the pound.

3. Hair-brained plan to play the system and, thus, temporarily get by results in dog incarceration:
a. Umberto plays sick to get sent to the hospital where he will be fed for a month and can save his pension which can be used to pay rent. Filke wanders out of the apartment during this hospital stay.
b. Wendy decides to steal a can of dog food (despite having enough money to pay for the can and one can not being enough for Lucy for even one day). Wendy goes to jail and Lucy is picked up by the pound.

4. Minimally-employed person of the opposite sex helps the titular character with the dog, advice, and misc.:
a. Maria the maid is supposed to watch Filke while Umberto is in the hospital, she also tries to help him with the landlord, brings him cake and a thermometer surreptitiously.
b. Security Guard (no name) gives Wendy advice on where to get her car fixed, allows her to use his phone to call the pound, and gives her money.

5. Same minimally-employed person has immense trouble of his/her own but seems to keep it together:
a. Maria is pregnant and isn't sure which of two military guys the father might be (and both deny capability). The landlady finding out about her pregnancy will probably get her fired.
b. The security guard has a daughter with a child who is demanding of all of his resources.

6. Larger economic issue on which the writer, director, et al. would like to comment:
a. The Italian post-war economic recovery which was looking pretty good for everyone but the pensioners who were suffering greatly.
b. The recent huge economic failure in the US.

7. Family member or person like family who can't or refuses to help:
a. Umberto's landlady apparently was like family when he moved in and called him grandfather. Now that she wants to get married and he owes her 1,500 lire, she doesn't like him anymore.
b. Wendy's family is supposedly having their own hard time (but I think we're supposed to not quite believe this).

8. Third character who legitimately needs money from titular character:
a. Umberto's landlady.
b. Lucy's mechanic.

9. The unfortunate titular character is not sympathetic. Somehow just being down on his/her luck is supposed to be enough without character development or depth.

10. Titular character leaves dog in better place (or tries to) by tricking him/her with play:
a. Umberto tries to get away from Filke while he's playing with a group of kids (fails).
b. Wendy gives Lucy a stick to occupy her while she walks away (works because Lucy is in a fence).

Where Umberto D and Wendy and Lucy admittedly diverge is the endings (sort of). Umberto D gives us Umberto trying to first house Filke in a sort of doggie daycare with what I assume are supposed to be people of questionable repute but he has second thoughts so he tries to give the dog away to a child he somehow knows in the park (that, of course, fails thanks to a person who is, I assume, the nanny). Then he tries to kill himself and Filke with a train but Filke rightfully freaks out and Umberto wasn't even standing on the tracks so that didn't work out. Filke then doesn't trust Umberto for 10 seconds and then they run off playing. Wendy, however, finds Lucy has been taken from the pound by a man with a home and a yard. We know Lucy has an at least temporarily better life. We don't know what will become of Filke with his homeless master.

Despite the slightly divergent endings, the movies are the same thing and both ultimately fail but let's consider why Umberto D might be on this list. 1001 Movies begins its information on Umberto D with "This heart-wrenching"--nope, my heart wasn't wrenched. Not one bit. And I'm a bleeding heart, let's feed the poor and give everyone a chance and save all of the animals liberal. It continues with the fact that the film "is shot on the streets of Rome and the major parts are played by nonprofessional actors, add[s] to the film's immediacy and authenticity." Um, no. Being shot in Rome is cool but a lot of movies are shot in Rome. And the fact that nonprofessional actors are used only makes it poorly acted not to mention the fact that these nonprofessional actors are being PAID to be in a film and no matter how little pay they are receiving, it's more than their peers. Those nonprofessional actors are now taken out of their (maybe) bad circumstances and raised above their circumstances--they no longer represent the characters they're playing, they are no longer authentic.

1001 Movies adds in that "the suspense built up around the ever-more-desperate search [for Filke] rivals a Hitchcock thriller." Has the author seen a Hitchcock thriller? Even at his worst, the suspense in a Hitchcock is, well, suspenseful. Umberto D contains not one ounce of suspense. Not one. As with Wendy and Lucy, you almost hope that Filke isn't found by Umberto. First, that might give some real emotional heft to the film and, second, if Filke isn't found there is the slight chance that someone who can feed the dog has taken him (a la Wendy and Lucy).

Ultimately, both Umberto D. and Wendy and Lucy could have been more effective social message films without the dogs. While 1001 Movies may be right that a "pet who gives joy to a joyless existence" is fascinating and heartwarming, it is not effective as a social commentary on the downtrodden. Those dogs, like the dogs of homeless people on the streets of every major city, cannot change their circumstances. Those dogs are being led around by owners who, for whatever reason, cannot care for themselves and have implicated the dogs in their situation. I'm not blaming homeless people or poor people or anyone at all for circumstances but, if you can't care for yourself, if you can't provide for yourself, you cannot and should not implicate a helpless animal. Figure out a better solution. Keeping a dog when you can't feed yourself or the dog is simply selfish and mean to the dog. That's where these movies break for me. If you don't add in the dogs, I might have felt something, anything, for Umberto or Wendy. With the dogs, I hate both Umberto and Wendy for starving their pets. Wendy is marginally redeemed for leaving Lucy but the more effective film is following Wendy after she's left Lucy in that yard. Umberto gets no such redemption and his "walk into the sunset" with Filke simply makes me sad for Filke. Both movies fail to deliver their message, cloaked in neorealism or no.

"Umberto D": aka, La Dull-ce Vita

So it takes A LOT for me not to get overly invested in an animal movie. To this day, I can't watch The Fox and the Hound. But I'll hand it to Umberto D for taking the pathos out of a pound scene. The movie ended up being less transparently political than I expected, and, actually, I think it was the worse for it. I didn't get a sense of what social circumstances led to the pension crisis the first scene alludes to, how "the war" plays into it, or what the economic picture as a whole was for anyone other than Umberto D (which would be a good name for a rapper). If you're going to make a political statement, doesn't it make sense to at least show how we got to the bad place so we can, I don't know, fix it or avoid it or something? Even Upton Sinclair does that.

So once I decided I couldn't be less interested in the eponymous character, I had to do something else for the next 85 minutes. Rather than play the game of what celebrities the Italian extras resembled, (that one looks like Joel Grey! And bald Salman Rushdie!) I decided to pay attention to the secondary characters that the movie either outright disliked or marginalized and (feminista alert here) they were both women! I have to admit that I feel a bit bad for the landlady/madam. She's got to make money too in a presumably tough economic climate, and Umby mentions that she was practically starving during the war. She's marrying a dude for free movie tickets for God's sake, and he's not paying his rent. Let's cut her some slack.

And Maria (of course) the pregnant maid. Can we just write past the ending and imagine what her life is going to look like when she starts to show? The silent crying in the kitchen was nice, but why make her promiscuous? Can no one else be sympathetic in this film?

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Coming September 13: Umberto D (1952)

Our inaugural film is foreign, from the 50s, and might involve the euthanization of a beloved pet dog. Awesome. Umberto D is the follow up to director Vittorio De Sica’s and screenwriter Cesare Zavattini’s classic in Italian neorealism, The Bicycle Thief, aka, the go-to movie to reference if being pretentious is your goal. Umberto features nonprofessional actors and I’m guessing a pretty transparent political critique, as the plot centers around the titular character’s fervent love for a dog he can barely afford to feed. Ten bucks that the director of Wendy and Lucy is a big fan.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Manifesto Fiesta or, Why We're Here

The Basics:

We're both PhDs in American literature and love a movie. We also love a list. We make lots of lists. We read lots of lists. We e-mail each other and talk about lots of lists.

Yes, we can talk about ourselves as a "we." 

We bought copies of 1001 Movies You Must See before You Die in 2007 after buying and being severely depressed by 1001 Books You Must Read before You Die (we can't discuss it without our therapists present). The 1001 Movie book became a challenge. Because, more than we love a list, we love to mark things off lists.

Fast forward 3 years and we've decided to blog our list marking off adventures, hence Docs on Films.


Rules & Methodology:

1. A movie is chosen from the list at random by that nifty widget over there on the sidebar.

2. We go with that movie--no cheating *sigh*

3. We do, however, have the freedom to not watch that movie. But we do have to post something. That something could be a rant about why we're not watching said movie (pink vomit is a legitimate and oft-employed reason, believe it or not), a post about having already seen the movie and why a re-watch isn't happening, or a post about how infuriatingly hard it is to find said movie in any medium (think we've run into a few problems already?), for example. So, we each post for each movie.

4. We're primarily using the 2005 edition of the book 1001 Movies . . . BUT we have added in a caveat for the 2008 update (which is largely the same as the 2005 ed.). If we spin the widget and land on a movie that has been removed from the 2005 edition, we'll watch both the removed movie and a randomly chosen movie that was added in the 2008 edition. Meta-discussion about the merits of the list will ensue. [Yes, there is supposedly a 2009 edition but we can't get our hands on it. And there is supposedly a 2010 update of the book coming in October. If we can get it, we'll adjust the meta-list accordingly then.]

5. We encourage you to join along or just comment. We have a handy little "upcoming movie" schedule over there on the sidebar. Disagreements are ok--just wait until we hit a Woody Allen movie--oy vey ;) Snarkiness is highly encouraged. And tell us another movie to watch--we'll make a list.