Home Movies #3

Busy would be the most appropriate word choice for the past month. Following a job promotion and an approaching move, I’ve had less and less time to commit to blogging. But as things kinda begin to settle, I’m hoping that I’ll be able to dedicate more time to my passion of watching films. It’s not as if I’ve stopped entirely either – it’s really a matter of reconciling time for watching films and time for writing about them. With the summer movie season under way, it’s really about time I get back into the swing of things. It’s especially the case with the Cannes Film Festival wrapping up, as big films are on the horizon. Expect some changes to the Chicago Cinema Circuit in June, including my first analysis of the upcoming awards season.  Until then, here’s another addition of my Home Movies column. There’s no grand theme uniting the three films selected here – it’s simply a random selection of films that I’ve had on my queue for a while now.

The Woman (2011) Directed by Lucky McKee

The effectiveness of The Woman stems from Lucky McKee’s ability to augment tension from two divergent plot threads. Both a drama and horror film, The Woman adopts a framework of instilling fear and dread through both the mundane and exotic. The film’s central antagonist is a cutthroat father, essentially instilling a deliberate male-driven hegemony in his own household. His belittlement of women extends from the corporate world where he arrogantly flirts with his secretary to the domestic, where he shouts orders at his wife and older daughter. Meanwhile, his son views him as a mentor, whereupon the perpetuation of male dominance is clearly outlined. As if on a conquest, the father enters the wilderness, gun in tow, and stumbles upon Woman. Woman is dominant and self-sufficient – qualities that the father labels as savage. This prompts him to capture Woman as she is obviously in desperate need of civilizing.

Note that I avoided using any names for the family. My most serious concern with The Woman stems from its on-the-nose symbolic representation of characters. They’re lacking in human qualities wherein they’re subscribing to overt allegorical qualities.  The visceral nature forgives this to an extent, but as I’m reflecting on the picture, it’s something that becomes increasingly grating. The Woman has subtext worth analyzing, but it’s not a particularly deep or stirring film – it’s more disturbing in its images than in what it has to say.

Rating: 6/10

Only Angels Have Wings (1939) Directed by Howard Hawks

The first forty minutes of Only Angels Have Wings is excellent. It’s an immaculately crafted first act that opens up a world unbeknownst to contemporary viewers and moves through it with diligence and force. It encapsulates moments of mystery, curiosity, blossoming love, and tragedy. But as the picture progresses, a particularly cynical worldview begins to overwhelm the picture’s emotional depth. I commented on the lack of depth in The Woman, Only Angels Have Wings does warrant more carful mining. Following the death of a messenger pilot, the picture begins to question the nature of reconciling professionalism with the emotional work associated with it. Bonnie (Jean Arthur) reacts to the death of the pilot that she only befriended minutes ago with a deep sense of loss. Everyone else around her, including the pilot’s boss Geoff (Cary Grant), get back to their drinking and move forward.

What follows is essentially a rethread of the previous event; a pilot will die and we will await the reaction (or non-reaction) of the film’s cast. This purposeful emotional restraint makes it difficult for me to ever really embrace Only Angels Have Wings – there’s a stasis that runs through the film’s tone that gives the picture a stagnant feel midway through its second act. By the time the picture unveils its emotional crescendo, my senses were dulled.

Perhaps a result of my lacking experience with Hollywood pictures of the 1930s, or my indifference toward Howard Hawks’ films, but the stagnant pacing and muted emotional tone handicaps the promise of an incredibly riveting opening act.

Rating: 6/10

Black Narcissus (1947) Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

I hoped to avoid a hackneyed phrase like “they don’t make films like this anymore”, but it’s the best way of describing the general plot of Black Narcissus. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s films tend to have this quality – whether it is the contemporary modifications made to Chaucer’s source material in A Canterbury Tale or the dazzling ballet spectacle of The Red Shoes, the directors rarely dabble in the mundane. It’s what sets Black Narcissus apart, as it’s a film dealing with the growing anxieties between missionary nuns attempting to establish a school and hospital in the Himalayas. The nun’s sexual repression is tested in both the physical and spiritual, whereupon the history of the land begins to seep into their subconscious and tests their dedication to their profession. In some ways, it recalls the narrative framework of the aforementioned Only Angels Have Wings, but with a larger emotional spectrum to deal with.

It’s an incredibly moving picture, one where sparse dialogue is complemented by stunning visual imagery. The fact that the picture was shot all within the confines of a studio is a testament to the stellar artistic talent associated with the production.  And the subtleties in direction are quite impressive, particularly in flashback sequences where the duo can aggressively move the camera to coincide with a rush in action.  While I wasn’t a big fan of The Red Shoes or Michael Powell’s solo directorial effort, Peeping Tom, both A Canterbury Tale and now Black Narcissus have etched a place in my all-time favorite films. Immaculately crafted and rigidly defiant in expectations, Powell and Pressburger essentially made films that defied a place in time – they exist on their own as masterpieces.

Rating: 10/10

Gone with the Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939)

I wasn’t all too interested in giving my first (and probably only) viewing of Gone with the Wind a write-up. First, is that its reputation precedes itself, to the point that any critique on the film is null and void – its status as an epic masterpiece is not given a second thought. And secondly, and perhaps more importantly, is that I simply didn’t care enough about Gone with the Wind to want to provide a substantial argument against its social politics.

But, I made a promise to myself to look at every film I see and provide some sort of statement on it, to provide a written down account of how I experienced it. So I suppose in a word, Gone with the Wind sparked ambivalence.

It begins innocently enough – a rich girl named Scarlett is upset over the proposed marriage between Ashley (whom she loves) and her best friend Melanie. In a frank display of emotional bravery, Scarlett attempts to urge Ashley to call off the proposal. This act is overheard by the local playboy Rhett Butler. Rhett is not the sort to sit down and marry; though he finds himself in awe of Scarlett’s selfishness and materialism.

It’s just that there happens to be a war in between the relationship drama.

This is where I found the film to become a morally offensive exercise. The stripping away of humanity from black characters was unbearable. Hattie McDaniel won an Academy Award for her portrayal of Mammy – the House Servant. But it boggles my mind that a performance like that, one that reaffirms submissiveness to the hegemonic elite, can be construed as a good act. None of the black characters here show so much as an inkling of thought in regards to the war that goes on outside. There’s a clear dependence on white characters, to the point that the film promotes slavery, as there’s no greater sense as to why the war is fought in the first place.

Could this be some subtle commentary on the South’s violent reactionary nature? With murmurs that war is inevitable, several characters announce their intense hatred for the North (those damn Yankees!). It’s only Rhett Butler, the most worldly of men in the film, who realizes that the North has a distinct advantage. His realist nature works in sharp contrast to the hot-headed Southern characters. But this contrast hardly does anything to defy the portrayals of the North throughout the film – soldiers of the North steal, rape, and kill throughout most of the runtime. Meanwhile, the South is portrayed as noble (you’ll have to excuse their hot tempter), who stick up for what they believe in – which just so happens to be slavery. But this minor detail is overlooked by the film’s central characters, including house servants. There are four principal characters here, with the war and its meaning stripped away to focus on their melodrama.

There’s nothing particularly effective about that either. The characters in themselves are largely attributes of real people – Scarlett is conceited, Rhett is promiscuous, Melanie is loyal, Ashley is timid. The four play together somewhat convincingly, but ultimately, their interactions go against my personal sensibilities of how relationships ought to work in film. There’s an overarching submissiveness throughout the film, to which Scarlett both reinforces and deconstructs. She is able to secure a business and essentially does so through her sexuality. But her motives are still tied down to attaining Ashley for herself. It’s contradictory and does her character no favors.

Ultimately, I found the film’s inane portrayals of race and gender to be problematic and incredibly dated. If there’s one aspect to the film I can appreciate, it’s the impressive art direction. From its visual sense to its costumes, Gone with the Wind obviously looks the part. But its social commentary strips away its artistry and makes it a very ugly and disappointing film.

3/10