Casablanca (1943)

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Casablanca is one of those films that I assume everybody except me has seen, because everybody seems to be able to quote it at will and everybody, even seventy-five years later, knows exactly who Humphrey Bogart is.  That’s probably not entirely true, but Casablanca is high on the list of iconic films that I thought I should watch before I die, simply because it’s so famous.

Surprisingly, this is a case where knowing just enough about a movie to anticipate the ending doesn’t ruin it, but actually kind of enhances the rest of it.  In fact, I’m pretty sure the only thing I knew about this movie was the end of it (spoiler, if that wasn’t obvious):  Bogie sends his lady friend off on an airplane in a form of self-sacrifice.  The thrill of it was going back to see how they got to that point, like learning a joke after you’ve heard the punchline.

One of the things I marvel at in these films from the forties, particularly the ones about the war is that they came out during the war, before they knew how it was going to end, and yet they already knew how monumental it was.  When I look at the world around us now, I wonder if we are living in similarly momentous times, and how we’ll come out of it.  So far I am not totally optimistic.

For those who aren’t already familiar with the film, here’s a brief summary:  Rick Blaine (Bogart) owns a bar in Casablanca, Morocco, which is a nebulous zone of “unoccupied France,” which seems to mean that officials from France and Germany wander through the city at will, along with refugees from various parts of Europe.  Everybody’s on their way somewhere safer, so long as they can get the appropriate paperwork.  Rick just happens to get his hands on the equivalent of a get out of jail free card that will get two people out of the country scot-free.  And then an old flame walks into his bar.

The character Victor Laszlo has escaped from a concentration camp and thus is highly sought after by the Nazi forces.  His only expressed affiliation is as a member of the underground French Resistance.  Though there were certainly other groups singled out by the Germans for concentration camps, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that this guy was Jewish, which kinda makes me root for him more than Bogie.  Beat those Nazis!

I’m glad I saved this for later in the year.  It’s one of my favorite movies from the earliest decades of Oscar history, and makes the whole project seem more worthwhile.  I mean, let’s be real, I could have skipped the crappy films and just watched this one, but then I wouldn’t have had the context to judge it among its contemporaries.

 

Theme:  War & Doomed Romance

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  A hill of beans

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

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I didn’t exactly plan it this way, but it’s sort of fitting that I ended up watching this so close to Thanksgiving.  Some friends of mine hosted a few Friends-givings that involved a daylong stream of the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy back-to-back-to-back.  Which is where I’ve mostly seen the movies, piecemeal and in a room full of chattering people, amid plates of turkey and stuffing.

As a kid, years before I even knew LOTR existed, I played this text-based roguelike game called Moria, whose object was to descend deep into a dungeon and eventually slay the most powerful monster, the Balrog.  I never won.  The closest I got was when I tried playing again several years back – I even got to the point in the game where the Balrog appeared (represented, like everything else in the game, by a single character, B).  But I was afraid to make it that far and die – roguelike means no save points.  So I let the game sit and never finished, apparently deciding that I was happier not accomplishing something than I would have been if I’d failed and died.

I would have been a terrible person to carry the One Ring into Mt. Doom.  Maybe I’d have made an okay Sam.  More likely, I could have been Gimli, or whichever one out of Merry and Pippin was the least helpful.

It’s hard to say anything too effusive or critical of this film.  I like it, sure:  the scale of it alone is amazing, and it’s hard to imagine anyone staging a historical war movie with such detail and expense.  I could have maybe done with a few less shots of horses running headlong into a line of pikes, which seems counterproductive, but hey, I guess this is why I’m not a medieval general.

On the other hand, I came to the story a little too late to really fall in love with it.  I was in college when I heard about the films, and I read the first part in preparation.  I’d grown up reading a lot of Tolkien’s artistic descendants without realizing it (Sword of Shannara, anyone?), so the concept was familiar.  Eventually, I’ll re-read the books, and check out the films (weirdly, I own copies of them, though they are borrowed/unintentionally stolen from someone).  But I’ll never love LOTR like Stephen Colbert loves it.

I think my favorite moment of the film is when Aragorn basically just says, “Oh, you’ve got Orcs?  Well, lemme go get some motherfuckin’ ghosts to fight for us!”

How do you judge a sequel as a standalone film?  I can see where Godfather Part II stands on its own merits – you don’t have to have seen the first one to appreciate the film (and believe me, it won’t help you understand it any better!).  But this is less a sequel and more the third part of one continuous story.  You sort of take it for granted that these individual characters have an arc – to the extent that any of them do, it’s something you’ve had to follow since part one.  It’s more folklore than characterization.  It’s a fun ride, but hard to place within the canon of Best Pictures.

On a completely different note, there is one thing that bothers me above all else in this story.  At the end, the Elves and Gandalf, and finally Frodo get on a boat that is setting sail for…somewhere.  Where the hell are they going?  Why is it when the Men finally come into power, they have to drive out all the cool people?

 

Theme:  sequel

First Time Watching?  First time in its entirely, in one sitting

Final Verdict:  Precious

The Godfather, Part II (1974)

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It’s kind of hard these days to be entertained by a vindictive sociopath.  In fairness, I’m not sure whether I would have enjoyed this much even if I hadn’t watched it dangerously close to the election.  I prefer even my anti-heroes to have a shred of humanity.  What’s the appeal of this gangster lifestyle, anyway?  It’s only attractive if you’re the one at the top of the food chain.

Michael’s transformation from college boy to powerful Mafia don is officially complete.  He even looks colder in this film, from his polished suits and slick hair to his stone-faced appraisal of his enemies (which, it seems, is just about everybody).  He’s apparently made a full shift to Vegas, expanding into the territory his own father refused to enter:  gambling.

Meanwhile, as we see Michael at his peak, we also learn more about how his father set off on his path to godfatherhood, starting from the murder of his entire family by the don they crossed in Sicily.  I’m not sure it’s a contrast, exactly, to see father and son learning how to kill.  If anything, it makes you wonder how two men with relatively different childhoods (one marked by trauma, the other by financial security with maybe some exposure to the grittier side of his dad’s day job) can end up at the same result.

In the middle, there’s a fairly muddled storyline about a movie producer and a congressional hearing and Cuba just before the revolution and people double-crossing Michael.  At some point in the film, nearly everyone is implicated in having a hand in betraying Michael, and I honestly don’t know for sure how much was paranoia and how much was actual scheming.  Also, I swear there was a guy working for Michael that shared the same name as the Mafia don who slaughtered the elder Corleone’s family back in Italy, but it was conveniently never explained.

Whenever I’ve heard about these two movies, it’s with the acknowledgement that the second one is better (and the final film a pretty distant third).  But I preferred the first.  I found it a bit predictable (well, the parts I could follow):  assuming you’re on Michael’s side, you might be happy to see that he gets his comeuppance against his enemies, but it’s far less satisfying that the vengeance wrought in Part I.

Michael doesn’t surprise me anymore.  He saddens me, to think that this is a man we (as a society, as a hyper-masculine culture) deem to be deserving of respect.  Perhaps the difference is that in Part I, he was protecting his family from an external threat.  Now, it’s hard to see what his motivation might be.  All he seems to be doing is demonstrating his power for the sake of it.

 

Theme:  sequel

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  Godfather 2: The Godfathering

Cavalcade (1932/1933)

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I had to look up the word “cavalcade,” after spending the past eleven months wondering what the story was with this movie.  A cavalcade is a procession of people on horseback (or, in its presumably more recent usage, in vehicles).  Which makes sense in relationship with that other horsey word, cavalry.  It also clarifies the recurring shots of horses trotting along while the year flashes across the screen, though in this case the horse reference is more metaphorical.  Here, the years gallop past, and good luck keeping up.

The story focuses on two families – the wealthy Marryots, who live in a fancy London building, and their servants, the Bridges.  It opens on the turn of the century (that is, 1899), on the verge of the Boer War, which drives both upper and lower class men to enlist.  Over the course of the next two hours, their lives are seen through the lens of major world events:  Queen Victoria’s death, the sinking of the Titanic, World War I… well, that’s about it, really.

There’s a sense of grandiosity about this parade through history, in that way that is apparently inscribed in the Official Rulebook of Historical Reenactments.  Everybody talks about events in direct and ironic opposition to their reality, so we get people casually dismissing this big war as one that’ll last three months – six, tops.  Or the romantic couple that discusses their future aboard ship on their honeymoon, only to step away, revealing the name on the life preserver (spoiler alert:  it’s not the Queen Mary.  And side note, who would take a ship across the ocean for their honeymoon?).  Instead of personalizing the epic, this kind of stunt only seems to trivialize the lives of people who actually experienced world-altering events.

It’s hard not to think we’re living in high-stakes times at the present, which adds a sort of weight to looking back.  One thing that oddly stands out, though, is how quickly we forget what came before us.  I don’t know what the Boer War was about, for example.  I suppose it involved the Dutch, and the big battle they kept referring to at Mafeking seemed significant.  At the time of the film’s release, I’m sure its history was more present and relevant, but since then, we’ve had two world wars and several other significant national conflicts to push it back into the fog of history.  Today, we as a nation can’t even seem to see the errors of Nazi Germany, let alone the disputes from twice as long before that.  I don’t know if I should find that thought reassuring or terrifying.

The film concludes pretty much where it began, in the Marryot’s living room (convenient for the set designers) as they toast another new year, 1933, the very same year the film was released.  Nearly everyone else they knew had died, and they’re pretty old, but since they were the rich ones, they still have a lot to celebrate.  Their swanky mid-London castle, for example, probably hasn’t lost value even in the middle of the Depression.

Out of nowhere, there’s a bizarre cacophony of final images, nameless figures warning of the rise of communism and the loss of faith.  You could imagine a similar kind of punditry today, which suggests that this progress hasn’t harmed us too much overall, though nor has it improved our lives beyond reckoning.  Time marches on, whether on horseback or ocean liner, or in a tank, and we have only to look around us to watch the enormity of history claim us.

 

Theme:  Rotten

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  Seasick, hideously

 

Out of Africa (1985)

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When you think of Africa, I’m sure your first thought is of the poor white people who struggled to eke out a living on a massive plantation during the colonial era.  If they’re really good white people, they might condescend to allow their African tribal neighbors to work on their land, even if, say, they have an infection on their leg. That’s just the kind of wonderful white people they are.

I now feel confident in my ability to categorize Oscar films into particular genres, and this one falls decidedly in the “white savior does something nice for a non-white person and now they’re a goddamn hero” camp.  It’s the only way minorities tend to feature in films, as objects of white characters’ narrative arcs.  I’ve heard this, and read criticism of it, and maybe even occasionally thought about it myself when watching films in moments of greater cultural consciousness.  But I suppose it’s a more striking lesson when you finally see it yourself.

The movie is based on the writing of Isak Denison, whom I’ve never read and didn’t know anything about prior to watching the film.  Her memoir of the same name described her experience trying to run a coffee farm in Kenya in the era of World War I.  Since reviewing accounts is pretty boring, most of the story actually focuses on her budding romance with the ruggedly handsome big-game hunter Denys Finch Hatton, who sounds like the poshest Brit in Buckingham Palace but is actually the basic equivalent of Crocodile Dundee.  You’ll be surprised to realize that Crocodile Dundee does not make the best of boyfriends, especially when he’d rather spend his time wandering around the wilderness instead of with his ladyfriend.  At least, as long as he can store his crap in her house rent-free.

Like most three-hour films, my attention flagged somewhere in the middle, which turned out to be just the point when something interesting happened with the plot.  The last thing I remember, the lovebirds were flying around in Finch Hatton’s aeroplane, which he picked up somewhere.  Then all of a sudden Isak was moving out because her farm failed.  Oh, and somewhere in the middle she opened up a school for the local tribe’s children – not the worst idea in the world if the curriculum were not based only on what she deemed fitting for the kids to learn.  Crocodile Finch Hatton thought so, anyway.

This is one of a handful of Best Pictures that holds a “rotten” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and the most recent film with that honor.  It makes sense.  Though I would certainly rate quite a few highly-regarded movies on the list as rotten, Out of Africa is fairly egregious in the same traits that other movies pull off better.  The scale is epic, but its story doesn’t support the length.  It’s sort of a romance, but you don’t need three hours to tell a love story.  Though the lead actors (Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, who even I recognize as among the best) are skilled, their characters don’t have much of a spark.

Bottom line:  it’s not the worst thing in the world to get out of Africa.

 

 

Theme:  Rotten

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  Not owners, just passing through.

The Godfather (1972)

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Many years ago, probably back in high school, I read The Godfather – the novel, that is.  I don’t know why.  Maybe there was a copy hanging around the house, maybe my brother had read it.  Or maybe, as in my current project, I’d learned that it was a cultural icon and thought that I should experience it somehow, in writing if I couldn’t see the film.

I have a terrible memory for books, so I don’t recall now whether I liked it or whether it left an impression on me at all.  The horse head stands out, not necessarily because of how gruesome it was (and let’s just start with, how could you possibly not notice that a horse head was crammed under your bedsheets until morning?) but because of how frequently that scene had been referenced or parodied.  There’s like five big scenes and lines from this film that have been churned out and run through a parody generator for virtually every comedy act in the past forty years.  More mythos without context.

Given that, I was surprised at how readily I could get immersed in the mafia world.  It’s distasteful, of course, and its true appeal leans more on the hyper-masculine side with the gunfights and macho postures and vendettas.  Mario Puzo supposedly knew actual members of the Mafia, from which he drew the information for many books on the subject.  I feel like there must be some kind of modern equivalent – militia groups or terrorist organizations or something – where you just throw together a bunch of angry men and guns and see what happens.  Maybe there’s an evolutionary advantage in that.

Several years ago I read an article about some kind of sociological study of how immigrants transition from illegal or illegitimate means of making money (too bad I don’t know how to go about finding it again).  I believe the gist of it was that even those who are involved in sketchy means of employment early in their American experience, they quickly become upstanding citizens as soon as the opportunity arises.  Working for the mob essentially is just the hustle you do to reach the American dream.

Michael Corleone did not read that article.  It’s an odd story, essentially, in that Michael is not the hero through whose eyes we see the sordid world of his father’s Mafia.  Instead, he’s the one who could have escaped (and, it seems, was supposed to escape) but gets drawn back into the same old fight.  I tried to figure how what it was that drove that change.  His decision to avenge his father is definitely part of it, but even that could have been a one-shot deal.  Somehow, he returns from his exile in Sicily as if he’s been initiated into the secret club.  He even looks more godfatherly.  Michael learns how to be ruthless.

I found myself wanting to know more about the women in the story – like the poor Sicilian woman (did she even have a name?) that Michael decides to marry and who pretty much never speaks.  How did they tolerate this life of violence and uncertainty?  And (spoiler alert), the movie leaves us on the poor, naïve Kay, who also decides to marry Michael despite having learned pretty much the worst of his family.  What the hell was she thinking?

Oh, yeah, Marlon Brando was also in this movie.  Though I associate him most with this movie (before having watched it, obvs), he didn’t seem to play much of an active role in the story, except as the scary patriarch who everybody avoids because they don’t want to make him mad.

 

Theme:  Marlon Brando

First Time Watching?  Yes, but not reading

Final Verdict:  Can’t refuse

On the Waterfront (1954)

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Technically, my first experience of Marlon Brando was watching Superman as a kid, not that I would have had any clue who he was then.  Later, in my grad school Shakespeare class, we watched bits of Julius Caesar, where he famously portrayed Mark Antony.  But beyond that, I mostly know him only from the Truman Capote profile in The New Yorker.

Capote has his own mythos surrounding him, in much the same way as Brando – the center of everyone’s attention in New York City.  While Capote placed himself at the heart of a web of society, almost reveling in the fakeness of it all, Brando went the other way, receding ever deeper into seclusion of his own making.  You can almost see that moment of decision in the profile (though it’s probably more interesting to read about how it came about).

Anyway, I thought about that sort of mythos a lot as I watched On the Waterfront.  There’s that famous line, about the contender and the bum, and I found myself wondering, every time somebody used one of those words (happens more than you’d expect in this movie) when the famous moment would come.  Like so many other iconic scenes in cinematic history, when it comes, and you already know to expect it, it’s kind of a disappointment.

Brando plays Terry Malloy, a longshoreman whose older brother is right-hand man to a mobster.  The mob runs everything in New York, including the longshoremen’s union.  He decides to stand up to the mob, and embarks on a Christ-like journey that is inspiring, but also kind of futile.

One of the thoughts attributed to Brando in Capote’s profile, as he laments the idea of being a movie star and not making some kind of meaningful art, is “Movies date so quickly.”  It’s true – how many of these Best Pictures will we watch in another forty years?  That’s not a criticism of movies per se, so much as of entertainment or history of any kind.  The things of contemporary life that survive us are not necessarily those we would choose, or expect.  Much of the profile focuses on Brando’s current film, Sayonara, based on a novel by James Michener.  Both have faded into the mists of the twentieth century.

I guess I’m also thinking about the idea of legacy, thanks to my recent stint of (finally!) listening to Hamilton.  Brando has this legacy of brilliance, but what did he really do that lasts?  What makes him so much better than the other actors of the time, if not simply the story that everyone tells of his superiority?  He’s the kid sitting on top of the pile of candy, maybe buying into the mythos a bit, maybe not, but ultimately, like anything mythical creature, he’s forever alone.

 

Theme:  Marlon Brando

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  Contender or bum?

Argo (2012)

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A couple of years ago, I had the idea to watch a bunch of Oscar-winning films for the sake of a blog (sound familiar?).  My plan then was far less ambitious in many ways:  I’d just start with the most recent one and work my way back until I got bored of it.  Well, this was where I began.  (Let’s not mention how many films it took me to get bored.)  (It was five.)

Since I generally try to avoid too many plot spoilers before I watch a film (and I’m fortunate enough, even with the most popular ones, to remain largely in the dark about the most basic information about these movies), I tend to enter a film pretty blind.  Watching this the first time through, I struggled a bit to follow what actually happened.  Most of what I know about Iran, even now, comes from Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”

So, yeah, I knew that the Iran hostage crisis was a thing, but didn’t understand the circumstances leading up to it or how it played out.  That’s not exactly the story here – instead, it’s the story of six people who escaped the U.S. Embassy in Tehran when it was taken over by an angry mob (what they’re angry about we aren’t privileged to learn).  Seems like maybe not the best idea, wandering out into the crowd, but who am I to judge?

They take refuge at the Canadian Embassy, and since their presence is a secret, cue Ben Affleck to rescue them.  He plays a CIA agent (who in real life is Latino, but let’s not worry about that).  Also, he has a back story about wanting to be a good father or something, which somehow makes him seem even more wooden.  Is this how he acts in every movie?  I’ve seen robots with greater emotional range (Lost in Space robot, I’m looking at you).

Fortunately, he directs a better film than he stars in, with a nice late 70s effect to the film itself.  There are some interesting moments where multiple things are happening at one time – and though it’s a pretty common filmmaking tool, it was successful here in conveying a lot of information in short batches.  Suspense on the whole is well done here – who would have guessed sitting on a plane could be so fraught with tension?

On the other hand, there are definitely moments of manufactured drama.  The Pentagon has called off the mission?  Screw you, I’m doing it anyway!  (Which sounds nice in theory, but not when you need cover from people back home to carry out the plan.)  There’s an unnecessary scene featuring Affleck and a bottle of whiskey, torn by indecision(?) as he contemplates his mission.  At least, you assume this, based on the fact that practically every other movie has featured the same type of scene.

Here I am, a few years later, and apparently on track to finish something I started for once in my life.  Watching so many movies, one after another, makes you start to wonder what differentiates one from another.  I mean, what makes this a Best Picture?  I ask myself that a lot, both on and off this screen.  I keep hoping that I’ll come up with an answer.

 

Theme:  Whitewashing

First Time Watching?  Actually no.

Final Verdict:  The best bad idea we have

West Side Story (1961)

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If you know nothing else about West Side Story (like, say, your fearless blogger), you know that it’s based on Romeo and Juliet.  Okay, I’m familiar with Shakespeare, so I have a pretty good idea of how this movie is going to go.  Somebody dresses up as a woman (and/or man), everybody gets married in the end, and a Fool sings in rhyming couplets, right?  Just kidding – it’s one of the ones where everyone is brutally murdered, obviously the best choice to set to music.

I know plenty of people who really love this movie, so I came into it with the cautious skepticism that accompanies any viewing of a favorite.  (Basically, I’m always expecting to be disappointed, both in the movie/TV show/whatever and with myself for being so damned contrary).  In past posts, I’ve noted my low to moderate interest in musicals, which is merely to say:  don’t expect me to go crazy here.

From the beginning, I couldn’t help noticing the filmmaker’s deep appreciation of color, as many of them as possible, in fact.  In the overture, I was half-convinced that something had gone horribly wrong with my television set.  Later on, there are moments that suggest someone went a little wild with the Instagram filters.  The Sharks and the Jets conveniently dress themselves in coordinating colors, like uniforms for their respective sports teams, which is honestly what they seemed like more than rival gangs.

Let’s just be real here:  it’s really hard for me to take a musical seriously.  I can’t immerse myself in a story about racism and blood feuds when somebody’s busting out into song every few minutes.  My attention flags quickly in the middle of a number, because I’m just waiting for something else to happen.  And sure, the dance choreography is pretty neat, but it just makes me think of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” more than deeply affecting emotional drama.

This also reminds me a lot of The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton.  These were the sorts of stories that originated in an era when clean-cut preppies faced off against the greasers, and everybody had hilarious nicknames.  Sort of like hipsters versus everybody else today.

Though it’s certainly not the most egregious case of whitewashing in cinematic history, it’s worth noting that Natalie Wood is not, in fact, Puerto Rican.  Does it matter?  Natalie Wood was apparently the child of immigrants, so perhaps she could speak to the immigrant experience in some way.  Or maybe studio execs and America weren’t willing to see an actual Latina woman in a starring movie role in 1961.  How many are there even now?

Speaking of Natalie Wood:  she died in a boating accident in somewhat mysterious circumstances.  Also on that boat was her husband, Robert Wagner, and a man who later became famous for all sorts of other reasons – Christopher Walken.  Random trivia.

What more is there to say about West Side Story?  Well, I watched it.  Another iconic film from the twentieth century, probably on that list of 1000 Films to See Before You Die.  I feel like I’ve checked something off the list of shared human pop cultural references.  No, I am not an alien living among people and pretending to know your ways – that is, our ways.  I am completely normal.

 

Theme:  Whitewashing

First Time Watching?  Would you believe yes?

Final Verdict:  Let’s negotiate a RUMBLLLLLE!

 

The Last Emperor (1987)

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In college, I took a class on modern Japanese history, focusing particularly on the twentieth century and the era of Emperor Hirohito.  The professor had just won a Pulitzer for his book about Hirohito, and while I enjoyed his writing, I found him to be a terrible instructor.  I mention this not because I have confused Japan with China, or to excuse my ignorance of this era and region of history, but because I have to start somewhere.

The truth is, I only know bits and pieces of Asian history, either in the World War II era or throughout the entire twentieth century, and I’m a little ashamed of it.  Even things I ought to have learned from that class (which was essentially an elective for me, considering I wasn’t a history major) have now faded into memory.  I recognize names like Chiang Kai-Shek and Mao Zedong, but would be hard-pressed to associate them with a specific year.  The fact that an emperor still held power of any kind in this same general time period surprised me.

Pu Yi becomes emperor in 1908, just shy of his third birthday, and lives isolated in the Forbidden City, surrounded by his imperial eunuchs.  As he grows up, he gradually learns of what transpires outside, summed up as political upheaval (I sum it thusly because I don’t have a sophisticated enough understanding of the situation to be more detailed).  Pu Yi is Mongolian, from a territory that has recently been overtaken by the Japanese, and so when he is exiled, he decides to ally himself with Japan and its emperor, who is roughly his age (see? There was totally a connection).

I spent an early chunk of the film marveling at the fact that this was a movie made for a Western audience and featured an entirely non-white cast.  Then, thank God, they threw in a mostly unnecessary white guy just so we white folk didn’t get lost.  Much of the movie was based on Pu Yi’s autobiography, as well as a book written by Reginald Johnston, a Brit who had been employed as a tutor to the young emperor.  I wonder how the story might have been affected by its audience – for example, might the Expository Empress seen in the beginning have wasted a little less time explaining how the transfer of power would work to Chinese viewers who probably knew more about it?  The camera lingers on other objects and people, exoticizing them as they show them, daring us to goggle at an emperor having a threesome with his empress and second consort.

 

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Oh, did I mention Pu Yi’s John Lennon phase?  Because this happened.

Somehow, I’ve made it this long in my post without even mentioning the most important part:  the framing device.  As I’ve said before, I’m a big fan of framing devices, and apparently so was the eighties.  There was the confessional frame of Amadeus, and we see essentially the same thing here, meeting Pu Yi at the first moment of his incarceration in a post-war prison camp, where he’s been accused of colluding with the Japanese.  The problem with frames that involve jumping back and forth in time is that eventually you catch up to the present, leaving you to wonder why one particular “present” was more significant than another.

What is it like to be a figure treated as a near-divine and all-power being almost from birth, and then to come back down to earth to live among the rest of us?  At some point, all royalty has had to make that transition, if they’re lucky enough to have been spared the guillotine or the firing squad.  I didn’t know Pu Yi existed before, but now I wonder.

 

Theme:  Time of Transition

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  And now there are tourists in the Forbidden City