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?

How Green Was My Valley (1941)

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So, interesting factoid:  this movie beat out Citizen Kane for Best Picture in its year.  I once tried to watch Citizen Kane and fell asleep almost immediately, but managed to make it all the way through this one, so apparently The Academy made the right choice.  Assuming, of course, that Best Picture is another term for Picture Least Likely to Knock Bridgie Unconscious.

You’ve got coal miners, childhood fights, unionization, breaking through ice in the middle of winter, slut-shaming, bedridden invalids, secret romance.  What more could you ask for?

The film starts with a voiceover by the character Huw, who appears in the film as the youngest boy in a large family of coal miners.  Huw laments the good ol’ days of his native Welsh town, back before the hills had grown dark with the soot of coal dust.  In a throwaway line that’s never later explained, Huw tells us he’s finally leaving his hometown forever, which might lead one to believe that the events of the movie might be the cause.  If so, you’d probably wonder why he waited until the age of 50 to finally depart.

Over the course of the film, we see the typical travails of childhood, but also the challenges of a family whose livelihood depends upon their earnings from coal mining.  When the owner decides to lower wages, the miners argue about forming a union, and a rift forms between the family patriarch and his sons.  Gradually, the older boys seek out better opportunities and emigrate to other parts of the world, until only the elderly father is left with little Huw.  Meanwhile, their sister gets pressured into marrying the mine owner’s obnoxious son instead of the more likeable parson.

Something about this film reminded me a bit of my friend Andrew’s novel about the waning years of a sparsely-populated Scottish island.  Both are stories of transition, from a time that appears simpler, or better, or maybe just preferable to somebody when compared to the present.  Or maybe it’s just nostalgia, wistfulness without judgement about today.  Huw recalls his days at the school in town, where his teacher belittles him and other kids beat him up, and even though they’re not great memories, there’s still a fondness in their recollection.

After watching so many films, it’s interesting to see echoes of others.  There’s a wedding scene in this one that reminds me of the extended wedding sequence in The Deer Hunter.  Obviously, it’s supposed to be the other way around, but since I saw the more recent movie first, that’s the one that feels more like a response in my memory.  I’ve wondered whether there might actually be continuity between this long string of films, and maybe here’s my answer.

Ah, Huw.  You’re really big on memory, aren’t you?  Remember when memories were really something special?
 

Theme:  Times of Transition

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  They don’t make green like they used to