Friday, March 5, 2010

A Rant, A Rave, A Reverie, A Request, A Roll Call, Au Revoir

When I listen to the horrible songs on the radio, and its shameful array of pleas for my attention (yes, Ke$ha, I can hear you just fine, and your valley girl cackle will rattle in my grave; Orianthi, you’ve played the Eddie Van Halen solo from “Beat It” live with MJ himself, so why is your female empowerment anthem so stupid and all about what some guy thinks about you?), I try to hear good songs in my head, but they seem equally horrible firing through my contaminated synapses. Christopher Owens, you sound whiny and out for my ears when I imagine “Lust for Life” pulsing under the din of Seacrest unjamz, although you are in fact totally genuine in your longing and your eagerness to have a good time. That can’t be said of the good times charades they play in all these depressingly peppy pop songs. I sometimes wonder if there is some unacknowledged contest of silent masochism going on among the world’s top 40 radio listeners, to see who will hold out the longest and who will be the first to go on a mass murder spree. Lady Gaga and Rihanna (songs with musical qualities and human feeling, respectively? What a notion!), plus an occasional and shockingly decontextualized “Losing My Religion,” continue to be the only relatively bright spots of my forays into radioland, that headache place where everything sounds so shoddy that there must be nary a bitrate over 60.

All the critics are talking about Make Way For Tomorrow, the New Deal-era Leo McCarey masterpiece about real life, now being rediscovered thanks to the Criterion Collection. I hate to use the word “rediscovered,” which implies a narrative in which this film has been done a historical disservice by not being seen and is now being done a favor by the newfound appreciation society that has gathered around it. It’s interesting to ponder the tangled byways of history that have kept this one out of the collective consciousness, but if this is indeed a “rediscovery,” it’s only to our benefit. In the many appraisals of Make Way For Tomorrow I have read on the inter-nest, the consensus is that one must be amazed to consider that a movie so oblivious to Hollywood convention was made there in 1937, and that this is the saddest movie ever made (quoth Orson Welles). I don’t have anything to add to those truths, but let me mention that this movie belongs in the company of world cinema’s great films about old age (The Last Laugh, Tokyo Story, Umberto D), and, dare I suggest it, is the least sentimental and most artful and heart-wrenching of them all. I learn that McCarey encouraged improvisation on the set, and I wonder if only in a collaborative medium like film, and in such an environment as McCarey fostered, do you end up with a work of art as beautifully objective as this one. I rarely make a distinction between high art and low art, but when I see a movie like Make Way For Tomorrow, it is obvious that its method of storytelling is what we should all strive for.

Lastly, the film includes one of my new all-time favorite shots, a sly wink at the camera and a complete reversal of those shots, so common in early American movies, in which an on-screen male spectator allows you entry into the pleasures he beholds. I don’t know if we have the director or the actress to thank for the moment, but it is so surprising, such a challenge to the voyeur, in an offhand sort of way, that an entire tradition of film theory could be devoted to it.

Speaking of great shots, they abound in A Single Man, but I think my favorite might be one that tracks Colin Firth and Matthew Goode through a crowded postwar seaside bar and captures a sublime and subtle choreography in which a woman tries to pick Goode up, he claims to be taken, and she passes by with her back to Firth. It’s an overwhelmingly vivid moment, shot straight from the recesses of our single man’s memory, and like all such great moments in the film, blurs the line between memory and fantasy. A passage from My Antonia sent me reeling back to it, and beyond: “As I sat down to my book at last, my old dream about Lena coming across the harvest-field in her short skirt seemed to me like the memory of an actual experience. It floated before me on the page like a picture, and underneath it stood the mournful line: ‘Optima dies…prima fugit.’” (The best days are the first to flee.) I suppose our greatest fantasies and our greatest memories have the shared quality of being the brightest images in our brains.

I am pushing for my work to book the film Prodigal Sons, for all of us who missed it at Plymouth Congregational Church when it was traveling the “community dialogue” circuit last year. Mostly I am envious to mine the documentary for its novelistic details: a handsome high school football star returning to Montana as a handsome woman; an adopted and antagonistic brother with a traumatic brain injury and a famous genius for a blood relative. Clearly there is some great author in the sky who has made these lives so ripe to be fictionalized, though I don’t want to belittle the pain they’ve been through. That much of this takes place in my hometown is all the more astonishing. If you watched Oprah’s interview with director Kimberly Reed recently, you may have seen shots of Reed wandering the Helena Middle School track, just down Rodney Street from my home.

Here are my Oscar favorites in the top eight categories. Full disclosure: I haven’t seen The Blind Side, The Last Station, The Messenger, and Nine.

Picture: Up In The Air
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Actor: Colin Firth
Actress: Gabourey Sidibe
Supporting Actor: Christoph Waltz
Supporting Actress: Mo’Nique
Original Screenplay: A Serious Man
Adapted Screenplay: Up In The Air

See you all after my trip, or during.


aaron said...

i object to any list of world cinema’s great films about old age that omits "ikiru" and "wild strawberries"

and, just for fun, what i'd pick. i haven't seen any of those movies that you haven't, btw:

Picture: "a serious man"
Director: kathryn bigelow
Actor: renner (haven't 3/5 of this category)
Actress: gabourey sidibe (but i haven't seen 4/5 of this)
Supporting Actor: christoph waltz
Supporting Actress: mo’nique
animated: "coraline"
Original Screenplay: a serious man
Adapted Screenplay: "in the loop"

Geoff said...

Gosh, what great director hasn't made a great film about old people? I forgot about the latter, and while I have the former currently checked out from the library, I haven't watched it yet and didn't want to assume anything about it.

We are pretty much in agreement Oscarwise. I would actually prefer a Renner/Firth tie.