Thursday, July 06, 2006

May Movie Challenge -- My Old Movie Diet

It's not like I don't like older movies. Most of my all-time favorites are from several decades ago. But for some reason I just don't watch them very often, now that I don't watch movies (or anything else) on TV anymore, and now that I am no longer in film school. It's not because I don't have the option. Netflix has a wonderful selection of oft-forgot cinema. But we cinephiles often find ourselves in the inescapable cycle of previews and new releases, previews and new releases. We get so caught up in what is coming next, we find it difficult to look back at the myriad movies that already exist for us to see and fall in love with. In many cases, these older movies are far superior in quality to the ones being churned out every week. But how can we make the time to view them when we can't escape this "New Movie Cycle?"

Well, as I wrote in a previous post, this past May I made the conscious decision to do it, and like someone who quits smoking cold turkey, I cut myself off from new movies completely for one entire month, no exceptions. I even checked with the hubby first, since I knew it would also affect his viewing tremendously (we rarely watch anything apart.) He was hesitant, though game, so we rearranged our respective Netflix queues and reacquainted ourselves with the ghosts of movies past. The parameters were simple: I could view any movie at all, from any genre or any country, as long as it was at least 20 years old. And even though I received a new movie from Netflix (due to my error in proper queuing) that I was dying to see (Everything is Illuminated), I promptly sent it back so as to faithfully stick to my new, Old Movie Diet. I wouldn't even consent to watching rented TV series that were newer, so as not to stray from the diet in any conceivable way.

So the question is... what happens when you exit the New Movie Cycle? Do you find yourself falling in love with old movies, and vowing never to watch anything new again? Do you become bogged down with the weight of old movies, and wish to switch all that high fiber for your high fructose corn syrup that is the modern Hollywood movie? Do you find that old movies are just as light and fluffy and don't add anything to your cinematic nutrition? Who knows? But one thing was apparent fairly early on: the hubby really wasn't excited about watching only old flicks. He mysteriously became tired or responsible and had to sleep or pay bills or fulfill other obligations every time movie time rolled around. Well that's the thing, isn't it? Whether they're good or not, most of us dread watching them. We want the cotton candy that is dangled in front of our faces. That's where our cravings lie. Anything else seems like it might be work, and who wants that? But is it really all that bad? And are old movies really even all that much better for you? Let's see...

The first night began with the 1977 version of Fun With Dick And Jane:

Fun With Dick And Jane (Kotcheff, 1977)
The original version of Jim Carrey's recent comedy featuring a corporate bigshot (George Segal in this case) who loses his job and must, along with his pampered wife (Jane Fonda), resort to armed robbery to make ends meet.
What better way to ease into a month of movies past than with the original of a movie remake I have recently seen? It allows for comparative analysis based on how each era's society is reflected in it's version of the movie. What's especially interesting here is how little has changed: the prevalence of sleazy corporate practices, the instability of corporate jobs, lay offs, living at the edge of or beyond one's means (instead of saving oodles), and apparently house servants (at least in the media) have been latin since at least the late 70s (I wonder when the black-latin switch occurred!) The differences between the two versions are slight, but they have mostly to do with class. The '77 version has Fonda's character coming from the upper crust of society. Her parents and her son are all completely snobby. The movie has her marrying down to be with Segal, and is now "reduced" to the lowest level by having to work and then resort to crime to make ends meet when hubby loses his lucrative job, and mommy & daddy won't help. Their son isn't so snooty as to be disgusted with their situation. Rather he is proud of Mom's take-charge attitude. Still, he has a nose-in-the-air manner about him. The '06 version, however, has the main couple as being on the very top of middle class. But the kind of top that shows they both worked their butts off to get there, and their work has payed off in job raises. She (Tea Leoni) is a working stiff and is absolutely miserable at her job, he (Jim Carrey) has worked hard for his company and can't believe his luck at being promoted to a top exec job. Their son is not a snob at all. In fact, thanks to all the time he spends with his latin nanny, he identifies more with her than with his parents (this is underscored by the fact that he speaks mostly only Spanish). What does this mean for the two movies? Well, the '77 version has us looking up at the starring couple. Their status is beyond our reach and we enjoy watching them fall. Whereas the '06 version has us mirrored in the main characters (we could all achieve this status if we worked the corporate ladder) and we laugh at our own misery of job layoffs being played out onscreen (granted in a bit of an exaggerated way). It could also be fun to look at the two movies differing attitudes towards women (particularly in the two leading lady roles). But I'll spare you all for now on that one. Overall, this one was cute but not nearly as funny as the remake.

So far, so good. I am definitely interested so far by the differences I am seeing between old and new movies. But then again, this one isn't super old, how about something much, much older? How about those Howard Hawks movies I had missed due to an illness while in film school? Yeah, let's do those...

Bringing Up Baby (Hawks, 1938)
Paleontologist übernerd Cary Grant is so caught up in his work that he doesn't notice that he's completely unfulfilled by his relationship with his fiancée, even just days before his wedding day. That is until cooky Katherine Hepburn throws a kink in his pre-wedding plans.
Why is it that we are so forgiving of weak plots and overacting in older movies? Naturalism reigns in the tastes of today's audiences, but in days of cinematic yore, we had no issues with instant love, unmotivated actions, and lots of odd plot occurrences without need for explanation. If you are the type to view older movies through forgiving, rosy glasses, and don't mind an overwhelming amount of Hawksian banter, you'll probably adore this movie. I liked it okay, and I laughed at times, but I'm almost ashamed to admit that I thought the 1980's Madonna remake, Who's That Girl, was funnier and the plot made more sense to me. Then again, that movie was made for my generation. I am eager to see the story as performed by Robert Redford and Barbara Streisand in What's Up Doc. As a lover of 60s kitsch and a big fan of Redford in Barefoot in the Park, I suspect this 60s version of BUB would we great fun to watch. Hmm... We have a version from the 30s, 60s, and 80s, seems like we're due for another remake, eh? I wonder who would be the cook in today's version.

Hmm... not as good as I'd hoped after all the Hawks hype I've heard. And making me think that older movies are maybe not as good as we think they are. It reminds me of when a friend of mine once told me she hated watching a certain movie, because she thought it was really boring, but still thought it was a good movie. When I asked her how she could have such a bad experience watching the movie and still say it was good, she told me it was because she knew it was highly regarded and she could "tell" it was a good movie. So, if that movie hadn't been considered a classic, would she still have thought it was "good"? How much do we let general consensus dictate our feelings? I know the answer to that. I think we all do. People joke about how it's the art critics who decide what art is, and the rest of us smile and nod. How many people are ready to say that Shakespeare is the greatest playwright that ever lived? And how many of those same modern-dayers actually do enjoy his stuff? I know that I tend to go against the grain and detest the general consesus. Still, I adore Shakespeare, so let's just say, I make my own decisions. Here, my gut tells me that the movie is cute, but not great. As far as romantic comedies go, this is no more a masterpiece than, say, French Kiss, and certainly not as funny to my palate.

Silk Stockings (Mamoulian, 1957)
Fred Astaire is a Hollywood filmmaker trying to convince a diplomat from communist Russia to allow a fellow comrade to compose his film's score. If this diplomat were male, all hope might be lost. Thankfully it is the lovely and slinky Cyd Charisse herself, and who is she to resist the charms, song, and dance of Fred Astaire?
Here's another one that needs a lot of forgiveness for weak plot and character motivations. Astaire & Charisse's love is totally insincere and what's worse, there are two amazing dancers here and there aren't very many decent dance numbers. Still it's somewhat entertaining. But what's perhaps more interesting is how balanced the movie is politically. Sure, the Russians are portrayed as ridiculous, but only in their actions. Their words, on the other hand, are level, clear, and you can see merit in their beliefs. If the movie were made today with Middle Easterners, it's doubtful that Hollywood would be so kind in presenting their dogma. I'm adding this to my mental list of movies that prove we have regressed politically in film.

Oh I was so looking forward to that one. I used to love Astaire movies so much. But now that I am a dancer, I fear that I may be a little more critical of the dance numbers (and Astaire used to be my absolute hero!) Also, now that I have been to film school, I am certainly more critical of film and stories. Yes, it makes it harder for me to enjoy a movie, but when I do, I think I enjoy it on many more levels than a non-film-educated person would. Alas, this one was disappointing. Not the "classic" I had believed it would be.

Airplane! (Abrahams, 1980
The prototypical 80s spoof movie featuring such can't-miss comedy such airplane-food poisoning, war trauma, lost love, pedophilia, and Leslie Nielson.
Can you believe it has taken me all this time to see this movie? I have heard it quoted so often that I know whole segments by heart, yet, till this month, I had still never actually seen it. I must say that some of the comedy really is truly funny. Most, however, is just plain silly. It's also fun to find out where your comedy differs from others. There are segments where my husband can barely breathe from laughter as I sit silently (like the whole jive-talking gag), and there are other segments where I can't help but laughing and my husband looks at me as if I am a total idiot (like the drinking problem joke -- Haha! Sorry, I chuckled just now, simply remembering the joke, and I KNOW it's soooo silly.) This is definitely a good junk-movie (best watched when in your flannel PJs and engorging yourself with copious amounts of junk food.)

This was fun. As silly as it was, it was like eating a heaping bowl of comfort food. Still the silliness did get to me at times. And I certainly couldn't say that this a movie of any kind of major quality. I couldn't call the comedy all that sophisticated either. But there was something about watching this movie that felt so comfortable. Maybe it was the nostalgia for the past, or maybe it was because it reminded me of modern-day fluff that I haven't watched in weeks. Still, I am in search of movies with substance, so moving right along...

Altered States (Russell, 1980)
Pre-What-The-Bleep movie about a scientist experimenting heavily with drugs and sensory deprivation in order to access another reality.
This ended up being a really interesting flick. One I can definitely recommend with one caveat: don't expect more than a super cheesy 80s ending. The ending notwithstanding, this movie explores some interesting areas of philosophical debate, namely our experience of identity, time, and reality. There is also some fun experimenting with image during these experiences of alternate reality, and a healthy dose of tension in what ends up almost being a sci-fi thriller. Less interesting is the relationship struggle between the overzealous scientist and his neglected wife. He's obsessed, and his obsession leads to his ruin, just as it leads every other obsessed scientist before and after him to the same fate (sometimes with redemption, and sometimes without.) Still, this one is kind of fun in a really out there kind of way. Definitely worth checking out.

Ok, yes, some effects are so cheesy in 80s movies. But there is something so lovable about them; something so endearingly naive. But it's not like we don't have cheesy effects these days. Cheesy effects abound and I cannot WAIT till the world decides we were so ridiculous to believe the CGI effects that are so popular today. I cannot WAIT till I am not a minority then. And I will point back to my blog and say, look! I knew from the get-go that those effects stunk, that they looked like cartoons or computer games (Harry Potter, LOTR, Star Wars, etc., etc., etc..) But you all wouldn't listen to me then! Anyway, even though there are some cheesy effects here in Altered States, doesn't mean that the movie lacks sophistication. Unlike movies of today, these effects aren't a substitute for content.

The Elephant Man (Lynch, 1980)
An early David Lynch take on the tragic, true story of the unfortunate young man, known as The Elephant Man, who was born into 19th century England with massive facial and body deformities.
It's not entirely a waste of time to make or watch a sob-story movie with no other reason than to make you sob, but isn't it more interesting when you have other layers of drama and conflict? It's easy to show a man be beaten down repeatedly only for him to finally die and have audiences affected by it. They'll probably even praise it above all other movies because to say that they were not affected by it would be like admitting they are heartless (or not Christian as in the case of The Passion -- which is, in my opinion, quite possibly the most flawed and overrated movie of all time.) But what if, on top of a heart-breaking tragedy, you had moral dilemma?

There are three main kinds of struggle: man against nature, man against man, and man against self. (Yes, I know, what about man against woman, ha!) Man against nature is usually intense and exciting, but there is no grey here, only good and not even any bad, just a man's ability to overcome the immensity of nature's wrath (or not.) With man against man, you have another layer. You have man's ability to be good or bad, or both. But in most cases the audience is given a clear choice of which character to support (i.e. good), and the outcome is usually fairly simple as well, either the good guy wins, or is crushed by the bad. The only other variable there is whether the bad guy turns good or the good guy turns bad. But with man against self, you suddenly have a million possibilities, and no definitive, forgone conclusion. Change occurs, and usually the man learns more about himself, and hopefully gains a stronger sense of identity, but there isn't one person to root for. There isn't a good and a bad for you to categorize this character under; he's neither and he's both. And it's in all this complexity that things can get really intriguing. And this is one of the best parts of this movie.

So if you thought Mask was somewhat moving, but a bit flat, then you should see The Elephant Man. Not only do we explore the depths of pain of a disfigured man's life, but also the darkness in the hearts of those that help him, and the compassion in the hearts of those that hurt him. Two men in particular represent these two not-quite poles. Anthony Hopkins plays the Elephant Man's doctor, who studies him, helps him, and grows to love him as a friend. But how different is he in the end from the carnival man who used him for his own gain? To discuss these complexities, you may forget the quality of image in this film. This would be a shame as there is a wonderful grit in the black and white presentation, and the image is drenched in mood. It has dark, menacing shadows, complex, thick fog, and all the grime and polish of 19th century London. Wonderful.

Now we're talking! I can't imagine the gloss Hollywood would have put on this today. An independent would have maybe done something interesting with it, but then the make up effects would have undoubtedly been inferior. But now the month is almost over, and after this movie, I almost wish I could get my husband to agree to an extension of the diet. There must be so many movies like this (or even better) that we're missing when we are in the New Movie Cycle. And at the end of this exercise, how can I not return to that cycle? It's so seductive! Well, I still have a little time left of my Old Movie Diet. Best enjoy what's left of it. What's up next? Oh yes, more Howard Hawks. Now, when we watched BUB, the hubby was certainly a bit non-plussed by all the Hawks-style banter, and definitely wanted to skip out on any further Hawks flicks. So, though he gave it a go for about half an hour, I was pretty much on my own for...

His Girl Friday (Hawks, 1940)
Hawks does it all again with Grant again playing the lead. This time he is a newspaper publisher trying everything he can to get his best "newspaper man" and ex-wife back -- they just so happen to be the same person."
I have to say I found this one more entertaining than Bringing Up Baby, probably because the plot points were a little less hokey. Plus, I must say that it's good to see a strong woman (Rosalind Russell) portrayed in 1940 who is not only the best "newspaper man" out there, but is also feminine and very desirable. In fact she is desirable to Grant in part because of her writing prowess (typically a man's skill, at least in this movie's world) not in spite of it. Yes, there are plenty references made to the proper life for a woman, and that this is not it. Still, Russell's character breaks this mould, does it with sass (it is she that solves the current mystery), and doesn't lose any fem points for doing so. Usually, even in today's films, when a woman wields this kind of strength or power, she is killed, portrayed as evil, masculinized or must submit in the end. Not the case here. Submitting to a traditional role is depicted as the wrong choice for her. And not only is she the only person equal enough to match wits with Grant's character, but she is also the only one who is always one step ahead of him. Too bad women aren't this strong anymore. If this movie were remade today, Nicole Kidman would star, she'd speak with a soft voice, and in the end realize she had chosen the wrong path when she'd chosen career instead of family.

This one is also going in my arsenal of movie info for when I once again debate the progression/regression of feminism in modern cinema. And the more of these particular movies that are remade today (starring Nicole Kidman or anyone else), the more evidence I will have to prove my case. The worst example for me is Nicole Kidman's remake of the 70s feminist film, The Stepford Wives. In this one movie, Nicky the Kid took feminism back several decades. She is not, of course, to blame for all that ails our society. Still, how could any woman agree to make a movie that de-empowers us so? And after all our predecessors have done for us!

Well, the month is over. Looks like I won't be seeing nearly as many old flicks in this diet as I had hoped. Still this awakened something in me. I think I am going to have to make sure I watch more of a variety of old and new movies in the future. Having said that, I have been new-movie deprived for a month now, and I want the biggest, baddest new release I can find. Ooh! How about...

King Kong (Jackson, 2005)
Jack Black heads a film crew bent on bringing real excitement to the silver screen by shooting on an uncharted island. But what waits for them there? A big, killer beast, of course. And who can wait to see this monstrous beast swatting the airplanes when he is brought back to New York City?
So I can't view this one without seeing it relation to the several movies I have just watched over the last month. It's such a big contrast! Emphasis on the word 'big.' Woah! The first thing I notice is that our 7.1 surround sound system is kicked into high gear, and I hear booming sub-woofers and a full rain-forest of sounds surrounding me. I never even noticed that this had been missing from the old flicks, but now that I have it back, I love it. This movie does offer the excitement of the modern-day action/adventure, and I kind of appreciate the tongue-in-cheek presentation that says "we get how silly this is, so we're going to play up the silly." Why else would you cast Jack Black in this role? Still, the movie is chock full of nasty CGI, and though I may be hyper-sensitive to it after seeing only old flicks for a month, it makes me wish that we'd never ruined film by adding anything CG. The photographic image is so beautiful in its pure form. And old-school effects are so ingenious. These modern-day live-action cartoons just nauseate me. Compounding this is LOTR filmmaker, Peter Jackson, who is apparently so incapable of telling a succinct story, that he once again presents a loooooooooong, draaaaaaaaawn ooooooooout, three-hour non-epic which is barely even filled with fluff. This movie could have been edited down to a 30-minute short, and that probably would have been an exciting movie. But as it is, King Kong's story is so spread out that one struggles to stay awake. Ugh. Give me my old movies back again!

Wow! I know the movie isn't a great one, but I couldn't have been more turned off by some of the modern aspects of moviemaking here. Who knew that I'd lost a little bit of my taste for modern movies while on my Old Movie Diet. This reminds me of people who go on actual, healthy-food-only diets and when they finally get to taste their favorite junk food once again, they find it absolutely disgusting. Somewhere along the way, their taste buds have changed, the high fructose has lost its grip on them, and now they want only the best foods. I know I certainly lost my taste for soda when I gave it up. Still, I am not ready to give up new movies forever. Besides, they will be old movies too in twenty years. It's not like I am going to suddenly like them just because they age, right? That would be ridiculous. No, there are good movies to be seen both before and after that 20-year mark. The trick is to not get sucked back into the cycle. So what to do? Well, I have decided that I will make sure that every other movie in my Netflix queue is an old flick (whether I am in the mood for it or not), and though I will still try to keep myself abreast of all the new releases, I will not let all the hype and previews dictate my movie viewing in general. And I will stop moving all the new releases to the top of my queue. Most of them will stay at the bottom of the queue, getting added to the bottom as they are released, and only being moved to the top when it is something I am really, truly aching to see. Let's just hope I can resist aching for the highly-hyped cotton candy that Hollywood shoves down our throats every day.

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