A Man for All Seasons (1966)

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If you know anything about Henry VIII, it’s probably that he went through wives like a teenager goes through hashtags.  (Is that a hip, relevant reference – all the kids these days use the Twitter, right?)  In fact, he was so pissed at the pope, he broke off and formed his own church where he could marry, fuck, kill whichever queen he wanted.  I feel like this is totally accurate.

The man for all seasons featured here is actually Thomas More, who is famous for writing Utopia, a book that you may have learned was significant in school but would never actually read.  He also, out of some deep moral feelings, resisted Henry VIII’s crazy moves by… not explaining why he wouldn’t sign on to the divorce/beheading party. I’m not entirely clear on that part.  It’s fine, though, because (history spoiler alert) he eventually joined the beheading party whether he wanted to or not.

As I may have mentioned, I’m a little rusty on royal history.  As evidence of this, I spent a decent portion of the early section of this film wondering why Oliver Cromwell was in a movie about Henry VIII and how I’d learned so little in AP Euro History in high school.  Lo and behold, another Cromwell played a role in British history, and he was apparently related to the Puritan who later ruined Charles I’s day.

I found the first half of this pretty dull, in large part because I had trouble figuring out who was who and what the story was.  Then Henry VIII shows up, and acts in a manner that seems to be now standard for autocratic figures:  he’s downright jovial one minute and spins on a dime to be creepy-scary when he doesn’t get his way.  It’s a little cliché now, but maybe was less so in the sixties.

As Thomas More sits with the decision he’s made – not to support Henry VIII’s break from the Church, but also not to openly oppose him – it gets a bit more interesting.  But it’s never exactly clear what game he’s playing and why he thinks remaining mysterious is the way to go.  Maybe he hoped that he might avoid the king’s wrath by keeping his big mouth shut; on the other hand, if he holds such deep religious convictions, why not own them, even at the risk of his own life?

Sometimes movies appear to be educational, or at least to inspire you to go read a book or something.  I’m not sure whether I care enough about Thomas More to read more about him, unfortunately.  I am, however, looking forward to spending more of my free time reading in the near future.  Or maybe I’ll go binge-watch The Tudors or The Crown.

 

Theme:  King

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  This isn’t Spain

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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!

 

Tom Jones (1963)

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I’m going to be perfectly honest here:  before watching it, I was certain this movie was a musical.  I mean, why not?  It fell right in the middle of the 60s, when practically everything was set to music.  It featured a whimsical lad with a weakness for the ladies, which is about the best you could expect from a bastard son raised by a country squire who takes pity on the chambermaid who apparently mothered him and abandoned him in the squire’s bed.

Tom Jones is based on an English novel from 1749 by Henry Fielding, and is apparently highly condensed, because the original tops out at over 300,000 words (that’s a lot of pages).  Needless to say, I don’t feel compelled to read the novel to get a sense of how it was adapted into this film.  I’ll take Wikipedia’s word for it that the plot remains pretty faithful to the book, minus a fair number of digressions, I’m sure.

Though Tom Jones is an illegitimate child, he is raised under the care of the squire, alongside his cousin.  Once they grow into adulthood, Tom turns out to be a bit of a man-slut while the cousin is a virtuous-but-hypocritical prig.  Tom gets kicked off the estate and wanders off to have some more adventures, and then eventually the plot wraps itself up conveniently.  Tom finds a couple more ladies to keep him company, including – against all probability – the woman known to all as his mother.  Yowza!

This is a really bizarre movie.  It has this curiously weird comical tone, with an arch narrator (using lines presumably pulled straight from the text) and characters who pretty regularly break the fourth wall to comment on the action.  Nobody, incidentally, breaks into a showstopping number, but I almost would have expected that in the middle of this otherwise non-musical film.  I was curious to see whether another Oscar winner (that I haven’t watched yet) might have tried a similar sort of stunt.  The closest I’d say is Annie Hall, but I watched that one ages ago and don’t feel obliged to do so again.  I did, however, stumble upon this fun little video featuring 400+ films that break the fourth wall.  If you stay through the end credits, you’ll spot quite a few of the movies on my Oscar list.

There are a couple of strange extended scenes that must have come from the book somehow but make a weird impression here.  The first is a long hunt, with about a hundred dogs and dudes on horses chasing after one little baby fawn.  Then there’s a scene where Tom eye-fucks a lady while they both gorge themselves on a multi-course meal, complete with sexy soup, lascivious lobster, and… I’m not going to find appropriate adjectives for the rest.  It’s enough to turn you off chicken legs for the rest of your life.

Like so many of the films I’ve watched this year, this is one that I would never have thought to watch outside of my project.  I’m not saying I’m the worse for having seen it – in fairness, I think it attempted to replicate on film something of the flavor of what I imagine the original novel might have achieved.  Even still, I’m growing a bit weary of educating myself.  I might spend next year watching the least-likely-to-win-an-Oscar films, just for contrast.

 

Theme:  Novel into film

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  You play like an atheist

Oliver! (1968)

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I have a distinct memory of my eighth grade English class joking about that famous line of Oliver’s “Please sir; can I have some more?” repeating it to each other ad naseum and laughing hysterically every time.  This leads me to believe that we read the book, at least in part, and watched this film, at least in part.  However, I could not have told you a single plot point if my life depended on it.  That’s either a reflection of my education or of my long-term literary memory.

 

Thanks to IMDB trivia, I’ve learned that Oliver Twist was initially published in the pre-Victorian times – specifically, in 1837 (in serial form), while William IV still reigned.  All the same, if there’s any writer I associate with the Industrial Revolution and the Victorian era, it’s certainly Charles Dickens.

 

The plot is this:  Oliver Twist is stuck in an orphanage until he dares to ask for more gruel.  Then he gets dumped into a undertaker’s family, but they don’t like having him around, so he escapes to London.  There, he joins up with a creepy old man who lives with a bunch of homeless boys and teaches them to pick pockets, obviously by encouraging them to reach into his pants.

 

Recently, I’ve been playing this old computer game called Thief.  It’s an awesome game, where the main purpose is to sneak around stealing stuff.  I was reminded of it by this one scene with Bill Sikes, the scary house burglar who was once creepy old man Fagin’s protégé and still uses him to fence his goods.  Bill Sikes has a big sack and keeps taking out plates and silverware and pewter trays and all this crazy, loud stuff, using the same sort of video game logic that allows a character who’s supposed to be really quiet and sneaky carrying around a big clanging bag of junk.

 

As I’ve found in most of the musicals I’ve watched, I can often get kind of interested in the story, only to find myself stymied by the songs.  “Get to the point already!” I usually think.  There were a few interesting bits of song here, where different members of the town come and go, creating a sort of layered effect that worked well in establishing atmosphere.  In general, though, I did find myself anxiously awaiting the next scene to start.  I guess I’m just not a big musical person.

 

It’s quite clear that, regardless of genre or time period, women on film rarely get a fair shake.  Poor Nancy is stuck with a deadbeat boyfriend in Bill Sikes, and doesn’t come out great for it.  She wasn’t the greatest friend to Oliver, but at least she did try to help him out in the end.

 

I don’t know if it’s a skill or a cheesy gimmick, but the story manages to be conveniently wrapped up by the appearance of an unexpected distant relative.  So if you are an orphan, all you need to do is make sure that your dearly departed mother was kin to a rich uncle who can save you from your poverty once he learns about your existence.

 

 

Theme:  Victorian

First Time Watching:  Possibly not, but I don’t remember it

Final Verdict:  Shut up and drink your gin!

 

The Apartment (1960)

As I alluded to in a previous post, I’d intended to pair this up with It Happened One Night because I assumed this was a romantic comedy.  I mean, it essentially is, but there’s also this little side plot that makes up half the movie that revolves around something a little darker.

If this movie came out today, it would be the sort of thing that Judd Apatow would make, and somehow I think it would contain far more semen jokes and far less subtlety.  (Not saying there’s anything wrong with him, just that modern comedies are of a completely different ilk.)

As it is, though, I’m a little surprised at the plot of this movie.  It’s like Mad Men on steroids.  A lower-level office worker who happens to have a really desirable apartment a couple blocks from Central Park (somehow I don’t think any of my friends in New York live in a similar setup) and rents it out by the hour to his superiors as a way to move up in the company.  That’s right – he makes his apartment available for his bosses’ sexual dalliances in exchange for a promotion.  If you’re thinking gross then you have the right idea.

It’s hard to make a character like this sympathetic, and that’s definitely a big concern I had throughout.  Whichever way you look at it, it’s a bit skeevy, this guy who seems to have no problem with middle-aged men “entertaining” (read: boning) women in his bed.  On top of that, he’s doing it solely to get ahead in his dead-end job (and I’ve already managed to forget what industry he’s in, because he seems so bored by it).  The only leeway I can give him is that, however this questionable arrangement started, he seems to have been pressured into maintaining it by the thirsty executives he hosts.

The real story here, of course, is the budding romance between the office guy and the elevator guy.  Just as a side note:  how many jobs have we lost because people no longer need an elevator operator to get them to the 25th floor?  Spoiler alert:  the elevator girl is actually one of the flings that has been entertained at the Apartment by one of the executives, and believes that her man will abandon his wife for her.  It reminds me of a Lorrie Moore story, “How to Be an Other Woman.”  It usually doesn’t end well.

But here is C.C. the office guy, waiting to rescue her from her complicated and distressing life.  Why, he’ll even save her when she downs a bottle of his sleeping pills and tries to kill herself in his bed.  Okay, that’s nice.  Then again, the fact that he also keeps her there for a couple of days to conceal the fact that she’s just attempted suicide without getting her any other kind of help is a little strange.  Maybe not the best foundation for a solid relationship.

I think one of the things that plagued mental health care of this era was the stigma.  Perhaps someone like the elevator girl – not rich – would be seen as defective and get shunted away in a scary state institution.  So what I see as somewhat uncaring from a modern perspective might actually have been an act of great caring and consideration.  Suicidal thoughts are often fleeting, once appropriately addressed, so maybe there’s a chance these two crazy kids can make it.

 

Theme:  Mental Health

Diagnosis:  Suicidal ideation

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  Like a broken mirror

My Fair Lady (1964)

Rex Harrison, I discovered while watching this film (and perusing IMDB for tidbits of trivia) was the inspiration for Stewie’s character on Family Guy.  That’s not really relevant to anything else I have to say about this movie, but it seemed like one of the more pleasant things I could say about Henry Higgins, so let’s start there, shall we?

In college, I took a couple of classes in linguistics, so that obviously makes me an expert in the field.  And I have so much trouble believing that a character like Professor Higgins who seems to be so fascinated with speech can also be so judgmental about how people talk.  What intrigued me most about linguistic study was the sheer range of sounds that we could make and still be understood.  But then douchey Higgins comes along and makes a little science experiment out of Eliza Doolittle and takes all the credit for her transforming herself into a bombshell with excellent elocution.

Is it truly a romantic movie if you spend most of it hoping that the female lead will come to her senses and get the hell away from the guy?  Why is it considered romantic for a woman to fall in love with a total asshole who treats her like crap?  Even worse, a man who sings songs about how terrible women are and how they should be more like men (listen, buddy, when you’re singing a song to your live-in, confirmed bachelor, fellow-linguist colonel friend about how you wish women were more like him, you need to come to terms with some basic truths about yourself; just run off together, already).  Eliza has the good sense to get away from him, but then comes back, just in time for him to demand his slippers.  Come on, Liza.  You can do better than that.  Find a damn prince.

There’s an interesting commentary here about social class, and how the way people present themselves to the world – through speech and dress – affects the opportunities they can access in life.  Eliza recognizes this from the beginning, and manages to raise her station by getting lucky and working hard.  It’s a shame to think that, even in her best-case scenario, all she thought herself good for was to work as a teacher supporting a worthless lump of a suitor.  Instead, she finds herself silenced at every turn, even as she struggles to find a new voice.  Meanwhile, the men sit around congratulating themselves on how well they’ve fooled everyone with their pet project.  The scene after the ball, where Higgins and Pickering are singing about how great they are as Eliza cowers in the background, worried about what’s next for her is kind of heartbreaking, though I suspect it was meant more to be funny.

Bits like that add up to a big fat zero when it comes to the Bechdel Test.  There are so few scenes where Eliza is not surrounded by the phonetic duo that I didn’t even keep track of any spots where she spoke to other women.  Maybe a couple of moments where she’s alone with the maid or Higgins’ mom, and where she’s either screaming bloody murder or playing coy about running out on Higgins.  But any movie that takes such pains to blather on about women’s irrationality doesn’t deserve a feminist pass.

You can change a human by changing her speech, Higgins says at some point in the film.  It’s a shame he couldn’t change his own speech to be a better person.

 

Theme:  Ladies on film

Bechdel Test:  Even if it passed, all the misogynistic songs would disqualify it

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  Well, I’m dashed

Midnight Cowboy (1969)

I love the song “Riptide” by Vance Joy, but, not having seen the movie, didn’t realize that the lyrics in the middle referred to Midnight Cowboy:  “There’s this movie that I think you’ll like/This guy decides to quit his job and heads to New York City/This cowboy’s searching for himself.”

It works as an introduction to the film, or at least the first ten minutes or so.  Once the cowboy makes it to New York, more things happen.  He tries to make it as a gigolo; fails.  He meets Ratso Rizzo; they don’t get off to a great start.  Out of desperation, the cowboy eventually moves into Rizzo’s shitty apartment in an abandoned building, which would still probably be out of my price range.  They enjoy some totally-not-gay times together, stealing coconuts and dancing in an unheated kitchen to keep warm.  Then one of them dies.

This film holds the distinction of being the only Best Picture winner to have been rated X, though it was later downgraded to R.  I sort of wonder what qualifies a movie for an X rating – I’ve certainly seen more scandalous stuff in your typical R-rated movie of the current era.  Hell, I’ve seen worse on premium cable TV these days.  I suppose it’s the hints of gay sex acts that were considered too hot for theaters.  It’s certainly not because there are any actual penises shown in the making of this film.

So, my theme this week is Dustin Hoffman.  I can honestly say that, despite his long and prestigious filmography, I don’t think I’ve seen a single movie of his.  Maybe I’m wrong.  In fact, in looking at his IMDB listing, I can confirm that I have seen a few films on which he holds a credit.  Just not the big ones, the classic films that everybody’s seen (hence my little blog project).

I know about Dustin Hoffman, mostly through parodies of his famous roles.  Forrest Gump features a throwback to the “I’m walkin’ here” scene.  There’s the dog character who talks like his Rain Man character on Animaniacs (let’s not even go down the rabbit hole of references in children’s programs that kids couldn’t possibly get).  In the course of watching all of these films, I’ve been noticing the source material for a lot of jokes that I didn’t always fully understand.  There are probably far more that I don’t even remember (and honestly, it’s surprising enough that I have pretty solid recall of so many references that I didn’t get).

I’ve read that Dustin Hoffman took a big risk for this role as the scuzzy Ratso Rizzo, immediately following his clean-cut character in The Graduate (another classic film I’ve never seen – and still won’t for some time, since it didn’t win Best Picture that year).  Rizzo is an interesting character.  Initially, I was afraid that he was going to turn out to be the old standby character – the homophobe that is secretly gay himself – and he sort of is, though I think it’s handled more deftly than the typical I’ll-bet-you-never-saw-this-coming storyline.

Jon Voight’s character, the cowboy Joe Buck, is a bit harder to figure out.  We keep getting these bizarre, and usually distorted, flashbacks to his youth, starting with his childhood with an odd grandma.  Then there’s this scene that keeps popping up with a woman, and people chasing her down.  I don’t know what to make of it, or even which parts are real and which are some paranoia-fueled dream.  Nor can I figure out whether Cowboy Joe is meant to be gay himself – would a straight man prefer to sell sexual acts to other men rather than pick up a few dishwashing shifts?

I wish I could say the ending left me emotionally wrecked, but I would describe my reaction more appropriately as “confused.”  I liked the film well enough, but I couldn’t get a handle on where it was all headed, so it just felt a bit abrupt.  Like this blog –

 

Theme:  Dustin Hoffman

First Time Watching?  Yup

Final Verdict:  Sunshine and coconut milk

The Sound of Music (1965)

This is one of those films that everyone seems to know intimately well, having watched it regularly since childhood.  I regret to inform you that I did not have that childhood.  Instead, my childhood was marked by a toy consisting of a pair of kittens in a basket that, upon turning a key, would play a tinny-sounding “My Favorite Things” while the kittens swayed in unison.  They were so well synchronized because they were part of the same metal frame fused together, I discovered after investigating underneath the basket.  I also learned that the music played on a metal cylinder with holes drilled at appropriate intervals, though I didn’t realize the tune’s origin until many years later.

Up until watching The Sound of Music this past weekend, all I really knew of the plot came from moments recreated on Family Guy.  And I suspect a significant chunk of the movie ended up in parody form at some point; I almost convinced myself that I’d seen the movie before because of the familiarity of the final scenes at the concert and the cemetery.  Who knows?  Maybe I have.

Like most romances, this one begins with the dude acting like an asshole because the woman is being herself.  The free-spirited Maria can’t hack it as a nun, so they send her to manage a brood of children under the tyrannical leadership of their naval officer father, Von Trapp (who is surprisingly resistant to the tyrannical leadership of Hitler).  Somehow, with the help of a few show-stopping numbers, everybody gets along (except for Hitler).  That pretty much sums up the film.  I suspect most people reading this know far more about it than I do.

In terms of the 1960s decade, there’s a relative dearth of war pictures, and there’s probably a good reason for it.  World War II was distant enough by that point that it didn’t hang quite so heavy on people’s lives, and by the time the Vietnam War dominated the news, it’s understandable that people wanted to avoid thinking about it in their entertainment.  The closest you get is this, which is more romance than drama, a little too upbeat to really delve deeply into the horrors of war.

Admittedly, The Sound of Music is an unusual choice for a war-themed series.  While the threat of war looms heavily on the story, particularly in the later moments, it’s not really a “war movie” per se.  Then again, nothing says war like Nazis.  I thought it would be interesting to include regardless, as a contrast of sorts to the other angles we’ve seen of war thus far:  the cold monotony of trench warfare, the recovery of soldiers back home, the drudgery and adventure of troops and commandos.  Here is a pleasant family life spoiled by war.  The story of The Sound of Music suggests more to me of the lives of Jews in Germany and throughout Eastern Europe, forced to uproot their lives to escape the Nazis.  I don’t know enough about the making of the film (or its original musical) to determine whether the story of this family is meant to reflect the struggles of oppressed peoples, or if it’s just that so many of the stories of refugees were similar.  Except maybe the part with the singing kids.

I didn’t expect to enjoy this film, being all cool and cynical, but I mostly did.  Not having seen it, I still recognized so many of the songs, which have percolated into popular culture (and creepy children’s toys).  As a kid, I remember getting bored in the musical numbers of movies, wanting them to just get on with the damn story already, and I feel a little of that here, too.  Fortunately, these days, I have a smartphone to distract me.

 

Theme:  War

Which War?  World War II (Anschluss)

First Time Watching?  Yes.  For God’s sake, yes, I’ve never seen it before!

Final Verdict:  How do you hold a moonbeam in your hand?  I mean, will it just sit there, or do you have to wrap it up in your fist, or what?

In the Heat of the Night (1967)

 

I’m not a poet by any stretch of the imagination, but I can’t resist saying the title of this film over and over. In the Heat of the Night. In the Heat of the Night. In the Heat of the Night. It has a great rhythm to it, and Wikipedia tells me that this particular arrangement of meter is called an anapest. To be fair, though, I think the title stands out to me more vividly because of the late 1980s TV show derived from the film, which used to air on USA in syndication.

Though I’ve probably seen Sidney Poitier in something before, I never before now appreciated his presence. He’s amazing in this role as Virgil Tibbs, exuding quiet confidence in the face of blatant racism. Poitier’s character – an expert homicide detective with the police force in Philadelphia – has clearly earned respect in his position, but at the same time, isn’t surprised by his reception, not even from the very first moment he’s arrested in a case less of mistaken identity than of blame-the-first-black-man-you-see.

It’s so easy to depict racism in the South – Southern-ness itself as a sort of shorthand for racist – and yet Northerners don’t seem to be as willing to face culpability for the legacy of slavery and oppression in this country. Not our problem, we think. Or maybe part of it is shock. Not in the big, dramatic explosions of violence against an uppity black man, because we could do such a thing. It’s the small moments of inhumanity that shock us, jokes and dismissals, because if we really think hard enough, look deeply enough into ourselves, we might see a reminder of something familiar, something we’ve done to diminish the humanity of someone who wasn’t white.

This film was released in 1967, in the midst of the Civil Rights movement. In today’s Oscar climate, it’s hard to imagine such a bold decision as to award this movie Best Picture. I wonder how that came about, choosing this movie over the year’s other nominees, which included The Graduate and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. What was it that made the difference – that famous scene where a white suspect slaps Tibbs and, for the first time in cinematic history, the black man slaps back?

I really liked this film, which is especially notable considering I don’t fully understand the resolution of the crime. Lately, I’ve been watching a lot of crime-solver television and reading mystery novels (almost half of the last twenty novels I’ve read have been Agatha Christie’s). I’m always terrible at picking up on clues and figuring out who-dun-it, so I can’t say whether this film succeeds as a solvable mystery, but it does set the appropriate scene for a gritty crime drama with a more serious undercurrent. It makes sense that the pairing of Tibbs and Chief Gillespie inspired a television show, because they share an interesting dynamic and tension. It’s quite a stretch, though, that Tibbs would want to stick around a place like Sparta, Mississippi.

Virgil Tibbs has to be infallible among this group of mediocre small-town cops and backwoods hicks just to stay out of jail. Respect is even harder to come by, and it’s unclear whether he gets it from anyone by film’s end, except maybe the police chief. Strange how so many of the themes in a 50-year-old film ring just as true today.

 

Theme: Race Relations

First Time Watching? Yes

Final Verdict: I’ll call him Mister Tibbs

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

This is what I was afraid of when I first decided I would watch all the Best Pictures: that I would feel like I was wasting my time. It’s especially noticeable when you sit down to watch a film that’s three hours and forty-two minutes long, like Lawrence of Arabia. I feared the tedium of seeing through a task that I’d set for myself, to watch this movie whether I liked it or not. Of doing something without a clear purpose, only for some arbitrary reason.

Yeah, I could have given up on it halfway through, like one of those times I paused to take a break or to see how much more of it there was to get through, only to discover that I had two and a half more hours of this. But I’m stubborn that way. This was a classic, recommended to me by movie buffs, and I was going to look for the proof of its brilliance.

I don’t regret finishing the movie, but I don’t really think I appreciated it much more by the end of it. For starters, I had a bit of difficulty following the story. Truth is, I don’t know much about this period of history, in this place – the Middle East during World War I – and one positive result of watching the movie is that it piqued my interest in reading more about it: the role the Ottoman Empire played in the region, the aftermath of the Arab Uprising, how the European powers contributed to the upheaval in the Middle East in ways that clearly resonate today. Sometimes that’s the best a film can do, make you want to know more about something.

One thing that a good film can offer is simple beauty, and there’s definitely much to be found in the long, lingering shots of dunes. Sometimes the only traces you find of the people at all are tiny silhouettes of camels, or the lone straight lines of footsteps in the sand. Someone I know from Saudi Arabia once referred to himself and his nation as “desert people,” and I don’t think I fully appreciated the sense of that until seeing that expanse of space. I’m from a place where there’s not much empty space in between the parts that contain people or clear signs of civilization, so it’s hard for me to fathom living in a region that lacks so much of both.

Also, I’m having trouble deciding whether Lawrence was intended to be portrayed as a heroic figure, or if we’re meant to come out of it thinking he’s kind of an asshole. Maybe both, if the funeral scene at the beginning is any indication. All the same, I couldn’t get a handle on his character’s journey by the end of it. His actions, from his seemingly random decisions to leave the people and then to return, came off as nonsensical to me.

One thing that surprised me was the complexity given to many of the Arabian characters. My impression of a film from the sixties is that non-white characters are naturally given less of a sense of their own agency than white characters. Considering that the film was peopled by a large cast, there was an interesting range of personalities, portrayed as having their own motives. True, most of them were played by white actors, which is certainly problematic. And then there was the bizarre worship of Lawrence, resplendent in his white heroic garb. But I suppose I expected worse.

It does raise an important question, though, in light of this week’s Oscar nominations. Should I be more surprised about how much diversity exists in a film from fifty years ago, or that so little exists in Oscar-nominated films today? What sort of progress have we made in that period of time? (Answer: none.) How is this restriction of diversity in one field reflective of greater American culture, and how do we improve? I don’t know the answer to these questions. That sort of goes beyond the scope of my intentions with this blog, which was essentially: let’s write our silly little thoughts about movies.

I was thinking about a good movie to pair this with – something that addresses war in the Middle East today, of which there are several possibilities? Another cult of personality film? Or another epic (read: long) film that spans space or time. I think I found something that balances well against this one, and a theme that I’d like to think about: going native.