The Beginning or the End?

No, not the movie with Hume Cronyn, but an actual question about the beginnings and endings of movies.   Probably the majority of all movies ever made could be accurately described as having serviceable beginnings and serviceable endings.   The movies might be great but the beginning or the ending or both are just, you know, serviceable.  Like Casablanca.  It has a great ending, one of the best ever.  The beginning, however, is simply good, sturdy and, well, serviceable.  There’s the narration, the fish-out-of-water couple being taken for a ride and our introduction to Rick’s Cafe Americain.  It’s all quite good and necessary but not particularly over the moon.  Other movies open with a bold stroke and sometimes even end with one too at which point you have to ask, which is better, the beginning or the end?  To be clear, I’m not talking about grand finales, that’s a completely different animal (and one I’d like to post on soon).  I’m not talking about the endings to big epics with special effects and explosions and the whole budget up their on the screen.  I’m talking about comedies and dramas, horror and sci-fi and westerns and maybe a musical or two that really do a great job starting and finishing their stories.

beginning end Godfather 01

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The Creeping Death of the Signature Film

I was scrolling online through movies to watch last week when I came upon Defending Your Life, written and directed by Albert Brooks.   Even though I have it on DVD, I considered watching it right then and there online (it’s free for Amazon Prime members) because I like it so much.  Then I got to thinking about Brooks and his directorial career and how his 1985 film, Lost in America, is always cited as his best.  It’s the film people think of when you mention Brooks as director and, yet, I thought (and think) that Defending Your Life is better and the more complete Albert Brooks movie.   The problem is, once a movie comes to define you as a director, a lot of other very good stuff  often gets pushed aside while your “signature” film gets endless mentions and props.  The rest of your catalogue?  It falls into the foggy, vague netherworld that resides in the shadow of your “greatest work” where it and your reputation are mercilessly pounded into submission at the hands of “the masterpiece.”  Let’s call it the slow creeping death of the signature film.   And let’s call it a day on the practice, the sooner the better.

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Ranking the Greats: Please Make it Stop

When I was a young cinephile I was enthralled by the Sight and Sound Poll, which releases its latest ten year ranking today.  The first one I was aware of was the 1972 poll which had Citizen Kane at the top of the heap (as it was in 1962 and in 1982, 1992 and 2002).  I wasn’t aware of the list in 1972 when it was released but a few years later, probably around 1980 or so.  I had purchased The Book of Lists in 1980 and found the poll within its pages.  Being deeply immersed in a young cinephile’s love of film, I made sure to see every film on it.  That wasn’t easy (in fact, it was impossible at the time and still there are films like Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy only recently available on DVD in most places) but I did my best.  I loved having such an elitist guide to my film watching.  This wasn’t some popularity poll, for goodness sake, this was film critics and connoisseurs ranking what they felt to be the greatest films ever made.  That was important to me at the time and, I think, important for film.

But now it’s not.  And I don’t care.  And you shouldn’t either.  And Sight and Sound needs to stop doing this.  Now.

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The Films That Changed Their Lives

The Film That Changed My Life by Robert Elder features interviews with 30 directors about the one film that inspired, influenced, or touched their personal lives or careers. While the title evokes a rapturous experience in which the filmmaker suddenly realizes his calling after viewing a magical movie, the book works better as a window into the participants’ own films. Chicago’s Music Box Theater has programmed a series of screenings based on the book in which participants are invited to a Q&A with Elder to discuss their perspective after the film.

The series was launched last summer by the infamous John Waters, who had selected The Wizard of Oz (1939) for the book based on one line in the original script: “Who would have thought a good little girl like you could destroy my beautiful wickedness?” Waters claims that he repeats the line each night before he goes to sleep, “like a prayer.” The second event in the series was a screening of The Godfather (1972), which had been selected by Kimberly Peirce, who draws parallels in her interview between that modern-day classic and her film Boys Don’t Cry (1999).

Yesterday, I attended the third event, a screening of Harlan County U.S.A (1970), which had been selected by documentary filmmaker Steve James of Chicago’s own Kartemquin Films. If James’s name sounds familiar, it is likely due to his critically acclaimed documentary, The Interrupters (2011), which aired on PBS last week. The Interrupters has probably made more news because it did not get nominated for an Academy Award than if it had, and it marks the second time James has been snubbed by the Academy. (The first was for Hoop Dreams (1994), one of that decade’s most acclaimed and popular docs, which the Academy did not nominate due to some bizarre ruling or technicality that only they understood.)

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Disrespecting the Winner’s Circle

Last week I was watching the excellent documentary, These Amazing Shadows: The Movies that Make America.  It’s about the National Film Registry, how it came about and how films are selected for enshrinement.  It contains great clips, great stories and expert testimony from one actor, director, curator or writer (including the illustrious Self-Styled Siren herself, Farran Smith Nehme) after another.  Overall, I had a great time watching it and feel it’s an important topic (film preservation) that should be more widely known among the general movie-going public and discussed.   I don’t have any real problems with the movie save one. There’s a moment where they’re discussing how certain movies might not be as highly thought of upon release as they are later, after years of evaluation.  That’s true, it happens all the time.  But the way they illustrate that point is an old pet peeve of mine:  Take a Best Picture winner, explain that it won, then show the great movie that didn’t even get nominated and, in the process, unwittingly label the winner a mediocrity.  In this case, it was Oliver! that was shown with the caption, “Winner Best Picture Oscar, 1968,” followed by a shot of 2001: A Space Odyssey with the caption, “Not Nominated for Best Picture Oscar, 1968.”  The implication is “Boy, what a bunch of fools they were!  We’re so much smarter now, huh?”   And just like that, Oliver! takes a hit to its reputation without having done one damn thing wrong.

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Lessons from Citizen Kane (or, Cain?)

Recently, I showed Citizen Kane to the young college students in my Intro to Film class. I estimate that in my 20+ years of teaching, I have seen Citizen Kane at least 100 times. I am sure other film instructors have faced the same challenge as I do when teaching a required classic shown over and over again in the classroom: How do I present the material with freshness and enthusiasm? I remind myself that most of the students in the class have never seen Citizen Kane; for them it is a new experience. My attitude and approach to the film will have an effect on their initial perception, and it is important that they understand and accept its importance without letting personal tastes interfere. It is my job to model that behavior, even if I am not in the mood to see the film for the 101st time. Most often, my awareness of my responsibility to the students—and to the film—is enough to prevent me from dragging my feet.

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The Many Noses of Orson Welles

When you are down and out something always turns up – and it is usually the noses of your friends.” – Orson Welles        [...MORE]

“I Always Have To Be Bigger Than Life. It’s a Fault in My Nature.”

A friend and I have been mulling over cinematic portrayals of real-life historical figures, stars, and celebrities. We’re not particularly interested in historical or biographical accuracy but in which famous figures are most often depicted in the movies and by whom. Just as I was thinking about how to turn this idea into a blog post, along came Me and Orson Welles, which is director Richard Linklater’s new movie about the legendary boy genius before he came to Hollywood. Me and Orson Welles inspired me to think further about the use of real-life figures as characters in fictional films and prompted me to uncover other cinematic portraits of the great director.

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Spend September With Bernard Herrmann

Hermann

Every Tuesday night in September, starting tonight, TCM will be screening a diverse selection of films (23 in all) scored by the legendary Bernard Herrmann (the dandy image above was created by the Bernard Herrmann Society). As an appetizer, I’ve compiled a list of my ten favorite Herrmann scores, from radio, TV, and film. It’s easy to forget, but Herrmann was a master of radio orchestration before he created those distinctive tonalities for the screen. He had an innate sense of how to adapt his musical ideas to different formats, sounding more descriptive on the radio, and increasingly atmospheric and emotional on the screen. His work wasn’t merely music added to images – he composed out of these images, creating an organic whole that lifted the films he worked on into another level of artistry. How can one think of The Mercury Theater, Citizen Kane, or Hitchock without him?

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In Celebration of Agnes Moorehead

Agnes Moorehead in her technicolor glory in "The Story of Three Loves" (1953)Last Saturday, December 6th, marked the 108th anniversary of the birth of Agnes Moorehead.

While I enjoyed the sight of Moorehead‘s acerbic, self-centered country club divorcée as she preened and passed judgment last night during TCM’s broadcast of David O. Selznick’s powerfully bathetic Since You Went Away (1945), it struck me for the hundredth time that the presence of Agnes Moorehead in many classic (and not so classic) films was often what gave a movie a spine. Her characters, whether false or true, invariably made a vivid impression and deserve to be spotlighted around her birthday.

In the last week, TCM has given us a chance to see this actress pulling out many of the stops in some of those exceptional roles, with airings earlier this month of Citizen Kane (1941), with her five minute, finely etched debut performance on film as Charles Foster Kane’s mother, and in what author Charles Tranberg calls “a mangled masterpiece”, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), which gave the character actress her great role as the eternally frustrated Fanny Minafer. Not to be forgotten is her cranky hypochondriac in Pollyanna (1960), which Suzidoll celebrated here last week. In a rare broadcast just yesterday, the actress appeared as an elegant former prima ballerina (seen in technicolor glory on the left) trying to protect Moira Shearer in The Story of Three Loves (1953). The distinctive actress proved her versatility throughout her career. She arranged her aquiline features accordingly to convey a believable briskness, sometimes comforting, sometimes disapproving. She most often appeared as a pragmatic presence in many films that have etched themselves on our collective memory. [...MORE]

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