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‘The Incredible Shrinking Man’ and ‘Downsizing’ speak to each other and to us 60 years apart

February 17, 2017 Leave a comment

Downsizing - coming in 2017

 

 

‘The Incredible Shrinking Man’ and ‘Downsizing’ speak to each other and to us 60 years apart

©by Leo Adam Biga

Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

 

Media wonks like me are always looking for anniversary tie-ins between something from the past and something happening right now. Being a film buff to boot, I like finding movies from, say, Hollywood’s Golden Age, that have some thematic, visual or authorial resonance with contemporary movies. An obvious one that will be even more noticeable later this year has to do with Jack Arnold’s “The Incredible Shrinking Man” from 1957 and Alexander Payne’s “Downsizing” premiering later this year. That makes 60 years between films that have something to say to each other as well as about their respective times through the conceit of human miniaturization.

Making comparisons is always precarious but, as Payne would say, we’re only talking movies here, so relax. Besides, it’s irresistible discussing two films about small human beings even though each project’s storyline, approach, resources and era of filmmaking is radically different from the other.

Another problem with doing a comparison in this case is that “Shrinking Man” is widely available for review while “Downsizing” hasn’t even been completed yet. But I  have the script to go on as well as interviews I’ve done with Payne and a good chunk of his creative team.

In the earlier film the protagonist is miniaturized by accident or fate or phenomenon and his reduction is gradual and out of his control. In the later film the protagonist’s downsizing is a choice that happens immediately upon demand. And where the 1957 film’s hero is the lone person affected by this strange and frightening event, the hero of the 2017 film is one of an entire community or population experiencing miniaturization.

For all the films’ differences, there are also some key similarities. Let’s start with fact that each has an Everyman protagonist who ends up scaled down by mechanisms that speak to the anxieties of their times. “Shrinking Man’s” Scott Carey, played by Grant Williams, is caught in a strange fog and dust out on the ocean. Given that the film is set in and was released in the first full decade of the nuclear age, the inevitable implication is that Scott’s fallen victim to radioactive fallout. Relatively little was known then about the effects of radioactivity and that’s why science fiction stories ran wild with conjectures of mutations that made things grow abnormally large. Well, here, writer Richard Matheson imagines the reverse result.

As Scott’s diminutiveness advances, he is framed against the plastic suburban world of his home that increasingly becomes a foreboding, overwhelming prison of things that heretofore were neutral when he dominated but are now threats in his fragile new state. At one stage in his downsizing the family cat becomes a terrifying predator he must run from to escape. Later, when’s he’s even smaller, he gets stranded in the basement, where everything is an epic, life or death challenge – from navigating steps looming as cliffs he must scale to getting swept away in a water heater spill that for him is the equivalent of being caught in a flood to a spider that’s no longer just a household pest but a frightening monster he must battle for hi slife. In a world where everything has spiraled out of scale, he’s a vulnerable creature subject to objects and forces he once mastered but that are now beyond his control.

 

Grant Williams in The Incredible Shrinking Man

 

Throughout the shrinking phenomenon Scott’s normal sized wife remains faithful until the differential makes things impossible to carry on anything resembling a normal relationship. He loses her and every outward artifice of his life. Stripped of all that he once used to define himself by, Scott is eventually only left with his mind, his heart and his soul. Faced with the inevitability of being reduced to a molecule, then an atom, then an electron and eventually to the smallest life particles, he enters the vast unknown of an infinite universe. It is at once sad, as he is alone, and inspiring, as he’s become fully, intimately integrated with the matter of nature itself. By the conclusion he has moved from fearful, angry, desperate and despairing to surrender. No longer resistant, he gives himself over to a new reality in which he is the first human traveler. It is among the most profound, spiritual endings in cinema history.

Without giving away too much, Payne’s “Downsizing” has its protagonist Paul choose to be miniaturized in a near future world where looming climate change catastrophe has motivated scientists to develop a means by which humans are reduced to four inches. Every day people’s motivation to take this drastic action is variously noble, practical, desperate and exploitive. The environmentally conscious are willing to sacrifice their normal lives and everything in them in order to reduce their carbon and resource footprint and thus help save the planet. On the other end of the spectrum are the hustlers, hucksters, opportunists and traffickers who see a new world of suckers to con or to conduct illegal business with. In between these extremes is Paul, played by Matt Damon, who is convinced to sign up for downsizing transformation by his wife, played by Kristen Wiig. Paul is the classic go along to get along type who doesn’t like making waves or going out on a limb. Yet he agrees to give up everything he knows to be miniaturized because he and his mate will take this leap of faith into the unknown together. Besides, there’ll be doing their part to conserve resources in the hope that enough people will do the same to stem the catastrophic, apocalyptic end of life as we know it. It’s the most dramatic decision and act of his life because once the process is complete, there is no turning or going back. It is irreversible.

Then there is the huge new industry sprung up overnight to support and outfit this pioneering alternative lifestyle. The consumerist culture of escapist cruises and retirement resorts finds new expression in the small world and its geodesic domed communities. The way people live in this manufactured, improvised reality mirrors the normal world and thus there’s a class system of haves and have-nots, desirables and undesirables, predators and preyed upon.

When the couple go in for the procedure, they are led to separate labs. Paul goes through the process only to discover his wife had last minute second-thoughts and opted to not go through with it, after all. Thus, he’s abandoned to face the small world alone. There he falls into something of a shell shock routine until he beings meeting people and seeing things he never would have met or seen before. This includes Euro-trash wheeler-dealer Goran, who can get anything for a price, and Vietnamese-American activist, Gong Jiang, who fights the injustice that confines a marginalized segment of the small world to ghettos. Paul is befriended by Goran, who wants nothing more than to corrupt the circumspect newcomer, but this good-hearted grifter settles for opening his innocent acolyte’s eyes to the illicit commerce and trade this new world order offers. He can also get Paul places he couldn’t get alone. Circumstances bring Paul and Gong together and he is at first put off by her fierce, single-minded focus but grows to admire her passion and to love her not just as a symbol of right but as a fully dimensional woman.

It is through these opposites of Gong and Goran that Paul goes on his greater adventure both within the social-political maelstrom of the downsized community and amidst the end-of-world crisis hanging over everybody, big and small alike. Indeed, he finds himself at the right place and at the right time to witness and participate in an epoch of global dimensions. His diminutive size makes him a candidate to join a group of pioneers whose mission is nothing less than securing the future of human civilization. Thus, by the end, “Downsizing” takes a spiritual turn not unlike “Shrinking” and suggests notions of man’s place in the universe, on Planet Earth and in eternity.

Both films speak eloquently to the nature of man and the nature of existence itself and what it means to be human. At the end of these respective stories, Scott and Paul prepare to embark on journeys that will take them into ever new realms of unknowns. The conclusions suggest that it’s not the end for these characters or for their fellow human beings, but rather the beginning. In the earlier film there is an underlying social consciousness that questions what have we wrought in the nuclear age in terms of our health and future. There’s also the strong suggestion that in smashing the atom and releasing its energy we have reconnected with the very essence of mankind’s beginnings and our elemental lineage with the stars. In the later film the social consciousness stream focuses on what man has done to spoil the Earth and the desperate measures taken to salvage a future for man to continue living on it. In that respect and others, these films speak across generations to each other and to us.

Before I bid peace out, a few notes about the creators of these two films:

The late Richard Matheson wrote the screenplay for “The Incredible Shrinking Man” by adapting  his own novel (called “The Shrinking Man”). Matheson was a prolific and much honored author novels, short stories and screenplays for film and television and much of his best known work is in the horror, fantasy, science fiction categories. Among other things, he wrote several films for Roger Corman, including adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe works, a handful of the best episodes of the original Twilight Zone series (“Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” and my all-time favorite “Little Girl Lost”) and the made for TV movie “Duel” which made its very young director, He adapted his short story “Steel” into a Twilight Zone by the same title and decades later the story was made into the film “Real Steel” starring Hugh Jackman. Omaha’s own Mauro Fiore was the cinematographer on that 2011 adaptation. Steven Speilberg, a hot commodity in Hollywood. He also wrote a well-regarded episode of the original “Star Trek” series – “The Enemy Within.” His novel “I Am Legend” was adapted into the films “The Omega Man” and “I Am Legend.” He also worked closely with director Dan Curtis on some fine TV movies, including “The Night Stalker,” “The Night Strangler,” “Dead of Night” and a great adaptation of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” starring Jack Palance. He also wrote for Western series and, well, if you look at his IMDB credits or go to his Wikepedia page you will see just what a titan he was among American popular writers.

The director of “The Incredible Shrinking Man,” the late Jack Arnold, was a good not great filmmaker who made some interesting movies in addition to this one, including “It Came from Outer Space,” “Creature from the Black Lagoon,” “Man in the Shadow” and the made for TV “Marilyn: The Untold Story.” Most of his directing credits were for epdisodic TV shows from the 1960s through the mid-1980s.

Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor are one of Hollywood’s great writing teams. “Downsizing” represents their second original script (their first was “Citizen Ruth”) and their adaptations have included “Election,” “About Schmidt” and “Sideways.” Payne directed each of these projects and two more features that Taylor did not contribute to – “The Descendants” and “Nebraska.” “Downsizing” represents their first foray into science fiction but the script doesn’t read so much as a sci-fi picture as it does an epic yet intimate human story that straddles, like all their work, comedy and drama. Lots of big ideas are explored and expressed in the story.

Where Matheson didn’t have the advantage of a director with great sophistication in Arnold, who was a studio journeyman, Payne is a world-class Indiwood filmmaker who has total creative control over his work. And where “Shrinking Man” was limited by a smallish budget and limited visual effects, though the effects are quite good not only for that time but even by today’s standards, “Downsizing” is a big budge project employing state of the art CGI and other technologies that should make human miniaturization look far more real than ever imagined before.

 

“The Incredible Shrinking Man”

1957 film

7.7/10·IMDb

90%·Rotten Tomatoes

“The Incredible Shrinking Man” is a 1957 American black-and-white science fiction film from Universal-International, produced by Albert Zugsmith, directed by Jack Arnold, that starred Grant Williams and Randy Stuart. Wikipedia

Initial release: February 22, 1957

Director: Jack Arnold

Story by: Richard Matheson

Producer: Albert Zugsmith

Screenplay: Richard Matheson, Richard Alan Simmons

_ _ _

“Downsizing”

2017 film

IMDB http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1389072/

First reviews should appear by the end of May 2017

“Downsizing” is a 2017 American comedy from Paramount Pictures, produced by Jim Burke, directed by Alexander Payne, that stars Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau, Neil Patrick Harris, Jason Sudeikis and Bruce Willis.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Downsizing_(2017_film)

Initial release: December 23, 2017

Director: Alexander Payne

Story by: Alexander PayneJim Taylor

Producer: Jim BurkeMegan Ellison 

Screenplay: Alexander PayneJim Taylor

‘King of Comedy’ a dark reflection of our times

February 12, 2017 1 comment

‘King of Comedy’ a dark reflection of our times

©by Leo Adam Biga

Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

 

Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro enjoy one of the great cinema muse relationships in movie history. Few American directors have found an actor who so thoroughly inhabits their screen worlds as De Niro does his old friend’s. The pair are best known for their collaborations on:

“Mean Streets” “

“Taxi Driver” 

“New York, New York” 

“Raging Bull” 

“Goodfellas”

“Casino” 

Powerful films all. But, as you’ll read, I’m making the case for Scorsese’s least known and seen film with De Niro, “The King of Comedy,” as a woefully under-appreciated work that ranks right up there with their best teamings.

Cases can be made for five of the other six pictures they did together to be considered in the Top 100 American movies of all-time: In an unusually strong decade for film, “Mean Streets” and “Taxi Driver” are certainly among the very best of that ’70s bumper crop of New Hollywood films. The first is an alternately gritty, trippy look at the small-time mob subculture that goes much deeper than crime movies of the past ever dared. The second is a cautionary tale fever dream that anticipates the cult of celebrity around violence. Though an acquired taste because of its uncompromising fatalistic uneasy rumination on love, “New York, New York” is a lush, inspired melding of intense psychological drama, magic realism and classic MGM musical. “Raging Bull” is often cited as THE film of the ’80s for its artful, brutal take on boxer Jake Lamotta and “Goodfellas” expanded on what Coppola did with the mob in the first two “Gpdfather” films by exploring in more detail the lives of men and women bound up in that life they call “our thing.”

Just as De Niro came to the fore as an actor who penetrates characters in unusually deep, perceptive ways, Scorsese does the same as a storyteller working on the periphery of human conduct. Extremes of emotions and situations are their metier. Their mutual penchant for digging down into edgy material make them perfect collaborators. “The King of Comedy” is a dark film whose intense, deadpan approach to disturbing incidents makes it read as a straight drama much of the time. But it’s really a satire bordering on farce and theater of the absurd about obsession with fame and media. De Niro plays Rupert Pupkin, an emotionally stunted wannabe comic and talk show host who’s prepared to go to any lengths to make his show biz fantasies reality. His intrusive, hostile pursuit of affirmation and opportunity from fictional talk show host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) grows ever more dangerous and aggressive and eventually turns criminal. The character of Pupkin is often compared to Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver” and there are definite similarities. Both are isolated loners living in their own heads. Viewing himself as a kind of avenging angel, the loser Travis fixates on cleaning the streets of the human trash he sees around him and rescuing the child prostitute played by Jodi Foster. After growing up ridiculed and bullied, chasing autographs from celebrities, Rupert sees himself as entitled to what his fixation, Jerry Langford, has and he hatches a plot with a fellow nut case (played by Sandra Bernhard) to kidnap Jerry. Rupert’s ransom: doing a standup routine on Jerry’s show to be aired nationwide.

 

 

 

“King of Comedy” depicts the extremes, dangers and blurring of lines that make the object of celebrity media worship a target of an unstable mind. De Niro delivers a pitch perfect, tour de force performance as a vainglorious neurotic whose love for Jerry masks an ever bigger hate.

The film is filled with awkward, all-too-real situations that make us uncomfortable because we can identify with Pupkin’s desperate need to be liked, to be respected, to be taken seriously. The character is full of contradictions and De Niro strikes an incredible balance of grotesquerie, sweetness, delusion and determination..As Rupert, De Niro is pathetic, inspiring, scary, funny, needy and strong.

It had been awhile since I’d seen the film before catching it for free on YouTube the other night and I must say it holds up very well, and perhaps resonates even more with these times than with the time it was made and released (1983). After all, in an era when America’s elected a bombastic, egomaniacal reality TV star and grifter as president, is it such a stretch to think that someone could extort and kidnap their way onto late night television? “Triumph of the Will” (1935), “State of the Union” (1948), “A Face in the Crowd” (1957) “Medium Cool” (1969), “Network” (1976) and “Wag the Dog” (1997)show, decade by decade, the unholy alliance we’ve made with mass media’s ability to manipulate, seduce, exploit and distort. Likewise, “The King of Comedy” (1983) shows just how far some among us are prepared to go for attention, power, fame.

Watch the movie at this link–

 

 

Now, more than three decades since the film’s release, De Niro currently stars as an old, belligerent standup in “The Comedian,” a film that Scorsese was originally going to direct but didn’t. I haven’t seen it and so I can only go by the reviews I’ve read, but it appears to be a real misfire. I will hold judgment until I see it for myself, and I want to because I’m eager to compare and contrast what De Niro did with the standup he portrays in “King” to the comic he plays in the new film.

After recently watching “The Graduate” and now “The King of Comedy,” I was reminded of what brilliant chameleons Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro were early in their film careers. They very much followed what Marlon Brando did during his first decade and a half in Hollywood by submerging themselves in very different characters from film to film to film. Their collections ofcharacterizations may be the most diverse in American film history. These kinds of actors are rare. The closest equivalents to them we have in contemporary cinema may be Daniel Day Lewis and Johnny Depp.

But I digress. Be sure to check out “The King of Comedy” and let me know what you think of its ballsy, over-the-top, sometimes surreal yet always thoroughly grounded take on the implications of seeking celebrity as its own reward and the thin line between harmless flights of fancy and deranged compulsion. In its view, the American Dream and the American Nightmare are two sides of the same obsession. Be careful what you ask for it seems to be saying. And don’t look now, but that schmuck and impossibly irritating, shallow moron may just be the next Big Thing in entertainmet, media or some other sphere of public inflience. There’s something Trumpian about the whole thing and its media is the message theme.

Catch me talking ‘Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film’ on the podcast – ‘The Dustin Dales Show’

February 12, 2017 Leave a comment

THANKS, DUSTIN, FOR HAVING ME ON…

HERE’S DUSTIN’S POST ABOUT THE PODCAST EPISODE FEATURING THE SEGMENT WHERE I TALK ABOUT MY BOOK “ALEXANDER PAYNE: HIS JOURNEY IN FILM” (YOU CAN LINK BELOW TO THE BOOK’S AMAZON PAGE AND TO THE SHOW):

I want to send special thanks to Leo Adam Biga for stopping by to chat his book on Alexander Payne!

 

bd1cd-final2bfront2bcover2b6-28-16-1

 

Author & Journalist Leo Adam Biga of My Inside Stories stops by the show to chat film and his book ‘Alexander Payne: His Journey In Film,’ plus my reviews of #ADogsPurpose & #TheComedian

You can check out his book on Amazon here.
https://www.amazon.com/Alexander-Payne-His-Jou…/…/0997266708

 

Download past episodes or subscribe to future episodes of The Dustin Dales Show by Dustin Dales for free.
ITUNES.APPLE.COM

 

Forty-five years later and ‘The Godfather’ still haunts us

February 8, 2017 Leave a comment

Forty-five years later and ‘The Godfather’ still haunts us

©by Leo Adam Biga

Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

 

Forty-five years ago “The Godfather” first hit screens and it immediately became embedded in American pop culture consciousness. Its enduring impact has defined the parameters of an entire genre, the mob movie, with its satisfying blend of old and new filmmaking. It’s also come to be regarded as the apogee of the New Hollywood even though it was very much made in the old studio system manner. The difference being that Coppola was in the vanguard of the brash New Hollywood directors. He would go on to direct in many different styles, but with “The Godfather” he chose a formalistic, though decidely not formulaic, approach in keeping with the work of old masters like William Wyler and Elia Kazan but also reflective of the New Waves in cinema from around the world.

I actually think his “The Conversation” and “Apocalypse Now” are better films than “The Godfather” and “The Godfather II” because he had even more creative control on them and didn’t have the studios breathing down his neck the way he did on the first “Godfather” film.

But there is no doubt that with “The Godfather” and its sequel he and his creative collaborators gave us indelible images. enduring lines, memorable characters, impressive set pieces and total immersion in a shadowy world hitherto unknown to us.

'The Godfather' Trilogy's Greatest Quotes for Entrepreneurs

Image credit: Silver Screen Collection | Getty Images

 

I think it’s safe to say that while any number of filmmakers could have made a passable adaptation of the Maria Puzo novel then, only Francis Ford Coppola could have given it such a rich, deeply textured look and feel. He found a way into telling this intimate exploration of a crime family pursing its own version of the American Dream that was at once completely specific to the characters but also totally universal. Their personal, familial journey as mobsters, though foreign to us, became our shared journey because the layered details of their daily lives, aspirations and struggles mirrored in many ways our own.

In many ways “The Godfather” saga is the classic tale of The Other, in this case an immigrant patriarch who uses his guile and force of personality to find extra legal ways of serving the interests of his people, his family and the public.

Coppola was ideally suited to make the project more than just another genre movie or mere surface depiction of a colorful subculture because he straddled multiple worlds that gave him great insights into theater, literature, cinema, culture, history, this nation and the Italian-American experience. Growing up in 1940s-1950s New York, Coppola was both fully integrated into the mainstream as a second generation Italian-American and apart from it in an era when ethnic identity was a huge thing.

The filmmaker’s most essential skill is as a writer and with “The Godfather” he took material that in lesser hands could have been reduced to stereotypes and elevated it to mythic, Shakespearean dimensions without ever sacrificing reality. That’s a difficult feat. He did the same with “Patton,” the 1970 film he wrote but that Franklin Schaffner helmed.

Of course, what Coppola does in the sequel to “The Godfather” is truly extraordinary because he goes deeper, more epic yet and still never loses the personal stories and characterizations that anchor the whole thing. In “The Godfather II,” which is partly also a prequel, he establishes the incidents, rhythms and motivations that made Don Corleone who he was when we meet him in the first film. Of course, Coppola subsequently reedited “Godfather I and II” to create a seamless, single narrative that covers the genesis and arc of the Corleone empire in America and its roots in Italy.

“Godfather III” does not work nearly as well as the first two films and seems a forced or contrived rather than organic continuation and culmination of the saga.

The best directors will tell you that casting, next to the script and the editing process, is the most important part of filmmaking and with the first two “Godfather” films, which are hard to separate because they are so intertwined, Coppola mixed and matched a great stew of Method and non-Method actors to create a great ensemble.

The depth of acting talent and pitch perfect performances are staggering: Brando, Pacino, Caan, Cazale, Duvall, Conte, Hayden, Keaton, Castellano, Marley, Lettieri, Vigoda, Shire, Spradlin, Rocco, De Niro. Strasberg, Kirby, “Godfather I and II” arguably the best cast films of all time, from top to bottom. One of the best portrayals is by an actor none of us have ever heard of – Gastone Moschin. He memorably plays the infamous Fanucci in Part II. And there are many other Italian and American actors whose names are obscure but whose work in those films is brilliant. Coppola is a great director of actors and he beautifully blends and modulates these performances by very different players.

 

 

   The Godfather - enough said.
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Al Pacino, The Godfather.  Betrayal hurts
"The Godfather." The movie "views the Mafia from the inside. That is its secret, its charm, its spell; in a way, it has shaped the public perception of the Mafia ever since." (<a href="http://rogerebert.com" rel="nofollow" target="_blank">rogerebert.com</a>)  March 15, 1972: The Godfather opens On this day in 1972, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather — a three-hour epic chronicling the lives of the Corleones, an Italian-American crime family led by the powerful Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) is released in theaters. Photo: Talia Shire (Talia Rose Coppola) and Marlon Brando dance in the wedding scene. (Mondadori Portfolio by Getty)

Coppola’s great way into the story was making it a dark rumination on the American Dream. He saw the dramatic potential of examining the mafia as a culture and community that can exist outside the law by exploiting the fear, avarice and greed of people and working within the corruption of the system to gain power and influence. Personally, I’ve always thought of the films as variations of vampire tales because these dark, brooding characters operate within a very old, secret, closed society full of ritual. They also prey on the weak and do their most ignominious work at night, under the cover of darkness. drawing the blood of the innocent and not so innocent alike. While these mob creatures do not literally feast on blood, they do extract blood money and they do willfully spill blood, even from colleagues, friends and family. No one is safe while they inhabit the streets. Alongside the danger they present, there is also something seductive, even romantic about mobsters operating outside the law/ And there is also the allure of the power they have and the fear they incite.

“The Godfather” set the standard for crime films from there on out. It’s been imitated but never equaled by those who’ve tried. Sergio Leone took his own singular approach to the subject matter in “Once Upon a Time in America” and may have actually surpassed what Coppola did. Michael Mann came close  in “Heat.” But Coppola got there first and 45 years since the release of “The Godfather” it has not only stood the test of time but perhaps even become more admired than before, if that’s even possible. That film and its sequel continue to haunt us because they speak so truthfully, powerfully and personally to the family-societal-cultural-political dynamics they navigate. For all their venal acts, we care about the characters because they follow a code and we can see ourselves in them. We are equally repelled and attracted to them because they embody the very worst and best in us. And for those reasons these films will always be among the most watched and admired of all time.

‘The Graduate’ revisited

February 6, 2017 Leave a comment

‘The Graduate’ revisited

©by Leo Adam Biga

Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

 

This is the 50th anniversary for a much beloved yet peculiar film,“The Graduate” (1967), that landed as a sensation in its time, became an adored artifact of the 1960s but has steadily lost some of its stature and allure over the proceeding half-century. I watched it again the other night and while it’s a film I’ve always admired and I still enjoy I can see now that it’s a strange thing to have resonated so deeply in any era, even in its own breaking-the-rules time.

I mean, the new college graduate protagonist Benjamin Braddock sleeps with the mother of a childhood friend and then falls in love with the daughter and interrupts her marriage to run off with her. It’s a preposterous plot line but it works, which is to say we go along with it, because the film is basically a farcical, satirical indictment of the establishment and an embrace of youthful rebellion and following your heart. The performances by a very fine cast mostly hold up. the writing perhaps less so and the direction is, well, needlessly showy. Mike Nichols was a Broadway wunderkind and a fresh force in cinema who helped push American filmmaking more in the direction of the various European New Wave movements with rapid cutting, restless camera, nonlinear structure and frank exposition. He veered dangerously close to going over the top with it all in his first three features – “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?,” “The Graduate” and “Catch 22” – I suspect because he was enthralled with the new freedom cinema offered and was just insecure enough not to trust the material to hold our attention without using various tricks. His much later work (“Working Girl,” “Charlie Wilson’s War”) is far more traditional, visually and technically speaking, but far more satisfying, too.

The best thing about the movie is Dustin Hoffman’s performance. It’s a tour de force that sneaks up on you. He is so present and in the moment in every shot and scene and so real and truthful to the buttoned-down character he plays that it seems like he’s doing nothing when in fact he’s doing everything an actor’s called to do. Much of his characterization is done without words. Indeed, his performance reminds me of those of the great silent film comedians like Chaplin and Keaton, only he’s less busy and big.

 

9shot - the graduate

 

photobooth the graduate

 

My take on “The Graduate” today is that if not for Simon and Garfunkel’s music, the film wouldn’t work nearly as well as a ’60s counterculture piece. Indeed, other than the music there’s virtually nothing in the film that either overtly or even obliquely refers to the very decade it purportedly speaks to. There’s no mention of civil rights or the war in Vietnam or the burgeoning feminist movement or the end of Camelot or the culture wars ushered in by rock ‘n’ roll, drugs and free love. There’s no reference to politics either. Admittedly, Ben is from a privileged white suburbia world where some of those currents and issues would not be discussed or experienced. But even in those circles things would not have been so sterile or blind or one-dimensional that some of these things didn’t come up or resonate or cause a conflict. The generation gap the film depicts is so generic that it would be easy to forget what decade the film is set in except for that music.

On the other hand, the film is far superior to the vast majority of comedies made in that era, especially the lame youth films of that decade. Even though the men who wrote (Buck Henry and Calder Wilingham) and directed (Nichols) “The Graduate” were much older than the generation they were obviously siding with – even Hoffman was far older than the character he played – they managed to catch a certain ironical spirit of the time that really was a carryover from the 1950s as much as it was a purely ’60s sensibility.

Where the film is perhaps most interesting is in striking an odd but somehow effective balance of the romanticism, even idealism and anger of the ’60s tinged with the cynicism that the ’70s would more fully usher in. The end of the film echoes the beginning in that Ben is searching for his path in life. At the start, he’s alone as he tries finding his way. At the end, he’s with a girl, but still very much alone and adrift. Sure, he’s defied the cookie-cutter, plastic life of his parents and their friends but at a price. He’s lost his naiveté but gained a heavy does of reality that will, as we’ve come to know, likely find him following many of the very Establishment precepts he rejected as a young man.

Looked at today, the movie seems to have some mixed or superficial messages: the hot passions of life are all very ephemeral but desirable; going after what you want is a messy buisness but it’s worth it; conformity equals comfort if not contentment so why settle for less? It kind of sounds like the very things “The Graduate” supposedly rejected. Ben, in middle age, probably ended up in a similar circusmstace as his parents and their freinds, not that you could have convinced him of it at the time. And so it goes…

1950s Cinema: An under-appreciated decade of film and ferment

January 24, 2017 1 comment

1950s Cinema: An under-appreciated decade of film and ferment

©by Leo Adam Biga

Author of Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film

 

I am amused by the persistent myth that 1950s America was somehow this sterile time capsule when the mass consumer population became lulled into a kind of stupor that made them numb or oblivious to reality. Or that it’s a decade when nothing much happened compared, say, to the 1960s. Nothing could be further from the truth.

To portray the ’50s as a big bore or big nothing is as inaccurate as purporting that everyone in the ’60s was active in the counterculture movement, protesting in the streets, experimenting with drugs, et cetera, when in reality relatively very few people did those things. When it comes to social phenomena, most people are observers, not participants. But that’s not to say they’re unaffected by those same forces. They very much are.

The movies of any decade offer a somewhat reliable reflection of whatever is on the minds and in the hearts of artists and audiences during that time frame. The caveat to this is that you will inevitably find what you’re looking for if you examine any decade with a certain predisposition or agenda.

Sure, there was a lot of purely escapist fare released in the ’50s  courtesy the glorified soap operas, big studio musicals, sword and sandal epics and romantic comedies that filled screens. But there were also many pictures dredging up the fears, anxieties, neuroses and complexes over any number of social-political topics. Groundbreaking troubled youth pics, film noir classics, anti-war movies, socially conscious westerns and psychological science fiction flicks were among the genre films to take on sensitive subjects.

The ’50s was full of conflicting social, cultural, political, upheaval and the best film artists mirrored those currents in their work, if not overtly than metaphorically.

The canvas was even richer and deeper when considering the Hollywood films of auteurs like Ford, Kazan, Mann, Zinnemann, Boetticher, Hitchcock in combination with the best foreign films of that decade. The neo-Realists of italy, Bergman in Sweden, Kurosawa in Japan, Wajda in Poland, Ray in India, Bunuel in Mexico and Spain and the French New Wave vanguard of Godard and Truffaut took cinema to new heights of form and meaning.

Here is only a partial sampling of the very real issues that either became full-out movie fodder or that informed dramatic plot-points and shorelines in ’50s-era films:

Rock ‘n’ roll’s advent

The Cold War 

McCarthyism

The Black List

Civil rights

The Korean War 

The Military Industrial Complex

The Iron Curtain

The Space Race

Suburbia

Television

The Baby Boom

The Mob

The Beat Movement

Folk music

Films as disparate as “”The Blackboard Jungle” (Richard Brooks) “Rebel Without a Cause” (Nicholas Ray) and “East of Eden” (Elia Kazan) capture the youth angst Zeitgeist wave.

“Pickup on South Street” (Samuel Fuller) “High Noon” (Fred Zinnemann) “Stalag 17” (Billy Wilder) “On the Waterfront” (Elia Kazan),  “Touch of Evil” (Orson Welles) pand “12 Angry Men” pose the ethical dilemma of choosing to remain silent in the face of corruption or risking everything to stand up for the greater good.

Alexander MacKendrick’s adaptation of Clifford Odets’ “Sweet Smell of Success” presents the moral quagmire that comes with be willing to do anything to get ahead.

Everything from the films of Douglas Sirk (“Imitation of Life,” “The Tarnished Angels,” “Written on the Wind,” “All That Heaven Allows,” “Magnificent Obsession,” “There’s Always Tomorrow”) to Fred Zinnemann’s “From Here to Eternity,” Robert Wise’s “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” Don Siegel’s “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” Joshua Logan’s “Picnic” and Mark Robson’s “Peyton Place” juxtapose the dull, cold routine of conformity with the hot desires of the human heart.

Elia Kazan’s “A Face in the Crowd” offers a prescient view of the mass media and general public raising a figure to a position of influence out of all proportion to their gifts and then bringing him down to a terrible fall.

“The Steel Helmet” (Sam Fuller) “Attack” (Robert Aldrich), “Paths of Glory” (Stanley Kubrick) “Men in War” (Anthony Mann) and “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (David Lean) show the cruel futility of war.

“No Way Out” (Joe Mankiewicz) “The Searchers” (John Ford), “Giant,” “The Big Country” (William Wyler) and “Odds Against Tomorrow” (Robert Wise) depict the poisonous evil of bigotry.

“South Pacific” and “Sayonara” (Joshua Logan), “The King and I” (Walter Lang), “House of Bamboo” (Sam Fuller) and “The World of Suzie Wong” (Richard Quine) examine race within the arc of interracial relationships that play out in larger contexts.

“Baby Doll” (Elia Kazan), “Anatomy of a Murder” (Otto Preminger),  “Some Like it Hot” and “The Apartment” deal maturely with sexual subject matter.

George Cukor’s “Born Yesterday,” Robert Wise’s “Executive Suite” and Nunnally Johnson’s “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” critiqued American consumerism.

Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevsrd,” Joseph Lewis’ “Gun Crazy,” Anthony Mann’s “Winchester 73,””Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire,” Mann’s “The Furies,” Fritz Lang’s “Clash by Night,” MGM’s “Forbidden Planet,” Budd Boetticher’s “The Man from Laramie,”Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” “Vertigo” and “Psycho” Budd Boeticher’s “Ride Lonesome” and “Comanche Station,” Sam Fuller’s “Forty Guns”are among a great number of films from that decade that delve into Freudian themes.

The ’50s even produced an unapologetic and uncompromising art film, Charles Laughton’s “The Night of the Hunter,” that broaches all kinds of sensitive subjects through audacious use of symbolism and allegory. This masterfully crafted black and white film plays as a fairy tale with its dark themes, evil villain, innocent children in peril and episodes of magic realism. The whole film operates on the level of a fevered dream-state or trance that’s triggered and ended by trauma.

So, don’t ever fall for the notion the ’50s represented a blank slate, cinematically or otherwise. Its screen stirrings are replete with potent content, context and subtext that will make your head spin or at least make you think twice about this supposedly banal, complacent and complicit decade. Yes, there was conformity and consumerism, but when hasn’t there been since the 1920s? But the masses were far from moving in lockstep and thinking alike. Diversity, division and rebellion were present. So were the nascent civil rights, black power and feminist movements. It just took the 1960s for it to more fully come to the surface.

 

100 Greatest Movies of the 1950s

A list of the 100 greatest movies of the 1950s compiled by Digital Dream Door.
Source: digitaldreamdoor.com · Added by Ilsa Lund
 3,339 users · 74,821 views
 Avg. score: 29 of 100 (29%)
 Required scores: 1, 10, 18, 31, 47
 How many have you seen?
1
Seven Samurai (1954)
2
On the Waterfront (1954)
4
The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
5
The Seventh Seal (1957)
6
Sunset Boulevard (1950)
7
Rear Window (1954)
8
Rashomon (1950)
9
All About Eve (1950)
10
Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
11
Some Like It Hot (1959)
12
North by Northwest (1959)
13
Tokyo Story (1953)
14
Touch of Evil (1958)
15
A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
16
Diabolique
17
Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
18
The African Queen (1951)
19
12 Angry Men (1957)
20
La Strada (1954)
21
Ben-Hur (1959)
22
Wild Strawberries (1957)
23
The Searchers (1956)
24
High Noon (1952)
25
The Night of the Hunter (1955)
27
The 400 Blows (1959)
28
The Ten Commandments
30
Strangers on a Train (1951)
31
Kiss Me Deadly (1955)
32
From Here to Eternity (1953)
33
Mr. Hulot’s Holiday
34
A Christmas Carol
36
The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
37
Roman Holiday (1953)
38
Old Yeller (1957)
39
Early Summer (1951)
40
Anatomy of a Murder (1959)
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My Favorite Christmas Movies

December 26, 2016 Leave a comment

In thinking about Christmas movies the other day, it occurred to me that my favorites, almost without exception, are among the bleaker stories with that holiday as a theme or backdrop. These movies mostly have happy endings, mind you, it’s just that they are rooted in the difficult journey that is life, regardless of the time of year or the cheeriness of this particular holiday season in question. Like it is for a lot of people, this holiday can be hard for me. It’s filled with expectations and schedules set by others when my one true desire is to be quiet and at peace. Growing up, holidays were perhaps the most stressful times in an already strained household. That said, there are beloved family traditions I inherited and continue to this day, most of them revolving around food, which is my preferred way of gift giving to others. I love cooking and serving the traditional Christmas Eve baccala dinner that many of my fellow Italian-Americans enjoy.

But what I really want to do with this post is to share some of my thoughts about the Christmas movies that mean the most to me. One of my litmus tests for movies on my list is that they must be films that I will sit down and watch regardless of the season. Though Christmas is a clear theme in the movies, these movies work independent of that holiday and time of year. My list is sure to be missing many of your favorites. Frankly, I haven’t seen most of the more commercial contemporary Christmas movies. Perhaps I can interest you enough in some of my favorites you’re not already familiar with that you’ll seek them out and give them a try. Perhaps some of them will make their way onto your own favorites list.

My 15 favorite Christmas movies–

The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

This is Ernst Lubitsch at his most masterful. A perfect balance of comedy and drama, sarcasm and schmaltz. The much-imitated storyline is handled with great finesse that only a Lubitsch could juggle so deftly in collaboration with the impeccable cast and crew – all at the peak of their powers. James Stewart and Margaret Sullivan work together beautifully as antagonistic shop workers whose pen pal relationship spawns love but this is ultimately Frank Morgan’s film. He’s the beleaguered shop owner whose lost hope is restored. This romance amidst despair will move you to laughs and tears without ever making you feel manipulated. It just flows, it just happens, like real life, and you can’t help but respond.

 

shop-around-the-corner-1

 

 

Meet John Doe (1941)

As caustic as Billy Wilder satires could be, Frank Capra could be every bit as dark and sardonic in his work. In one of the sharpest critiques of American greed ever put on screen, a female reporter (Barbara Stanwyck) concocts a circulation-boosting scheme that catapults a hobo (Gary Cooper) to fame and spawns a populist movement only to have malicious forces usurp it for their own power grabbing ends. A fateful deadline looms when Cooper, feeling the weight of the world on his shoulders for having fronted a fraud, opts to follow through on his alter-ego’s plan to jump from a building on Christmas to protest the ills of the world. Stanwyck, who’s fallen in love with him and feels awful for the betrayal, races to the top of the building to save her man.

 

 

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

I recently did an entire post about this movie. It is, for my tastes anyway, as profound a statement on the human condition as can be found in a cinema entertainment vehicle. I mean, it’s all there. Man’s inhumanity to man posed right alongside man’s self-sacrifice and the enduring qualities of love, faith. loyalty and dreams. George Bailey is our Every Man stand-in and the heartache of his perpetually deferred dreams and seemingly worthless life leave him on the brink of ruin and suicide. Even if you’ve never been that low, though I suspect most of us have for at least a moment or an interlude, we can identify with George ultimately finding wholeness and oneness in the simple pleasures of family and community, service and self-sacrifice. It is a beautifully evocative lesson in the power of humility, gratitude, redemption and forgiveness.

 

"It's a Wonderful Life": The most terrifying movie ever

 

Miracle on 34th Street (1944)

I love this urbane take on a pair of career-driven single New Yorkers who use a child’s affections and an old man’s eccentricities to broker their on-again, off-again relationship. Single mom Maureen O’Hara is a hard driving Macy’s marketing executive whose little girl. Natalie Wood, has adopted her pragmatist views on frivolous matters like Santa Claus. O’Hara’s character may be a bit too brittle at first considering how quickly she softens at attorney John Payne’s overtures, but that’s a minor quibble. The real story concerns Edmund Gwenn as the charming, charismatic Kris Kringle. He plays matchmaker for the couple by winning over Wood, who doubts he’s the real McCoy until she learns to trust her imagination. Mom follows suit and an instant family is born, but not before Kris proves his good name in court.

 

 

The Apartment (1960)

Billy Wilder caught the soulless character of modern corporate America and the misogyny of the male animal in this brutally honest portrait of what an Every Man might be willing to do to get ahead under the right circumstances. Jack Lemmon is just another number at a big insurance company before he agrees to let executives use his apartment for their extramarital trysts in exchange for a promotion. Shirley MacLaine is an elevator operator there whose dalliance with big shot Fred MacMurray plays out at Lemmon’s pad. Lemmon hates himself and MacMurray when he discovers his boss has no intention of fulfilling his promise to MacLaine of leaving his wife for her. Lemmon must decide between his career and doing the right thing.

 

 

Holiday Affair (1949)

This is an unusually mature look at adult romantic entanglements for a 1940s-era Hollywood Christmas movie. Attorney Wendell Corey and department store secret shopper Janet Leigh have a long-term thing going. She’s a single mom not ready to settle down again, at least not with Corey, even though he’s a nice guy who adores her and is just waiting for her to say yes. Trouble is, her young son doesn’t much cotton to Corey. Meanwhile, the boy and his mother fall for the charms of Robert Mitchum, a veteran and drifter who drops into their lives through meet-cute plot turns that make the two men rivals for the affection of this fetching mother-son package. Corey is the pragmatist. Mitchum, the dreamer.

 

HA5

 

The Dead (1987)

John Huston was dying when he directed this beautifully muted tone poem based on the James Joyce short story. In a career of understated masterworks, Huston achieved a purity and simplicity in this work that ripples with deep currents of love and loss. It is a melancholic tale that on the surface appears to be a trifle but then layer by layer reveals itself to be about the perplexing vagaries of life and death and what it means to be a couple who’ve endured the loss of a child for which no solace seems possible. It, too, is about the nature of family and community and the ritual of gathering together over a meal to share our humanity and to find some warmth and light amidst the cold and dark. There is stark beauty and gravity attached to every word, inflection, gesture and touch in this autumnal drama where memories cling to the season like freshly fallen snow. In cinematic terms, it is a real lesson in the effective use of negative space and subtext.

 

The Dead (1987)

 

A Christmas Memory (1966)

I recall seeing this television adaptation of the Trumam Capote story on television as a child and being captivated by its intimacy and nostalgia. This movie is available for free on YouTube and I intend watching it between now and New Year’s. It will mark the first time I’ve seen it in perhaps 45 or 50 years. Geraldine Page is magnificent as the fey middle-aged woman who is best friends with her young cousin Buddy. The pair live in a rural home with stern older relatives. The woman and boy treasure being companions because their warm, close confederacy girds against the harsh world outside them. Much of the story revolves around the two preparing for Christmas – gathering pecans and buying the necessary stores for making fruit cakes they send to people they admire. Then there’s the finding and chopping down of the tree, lugging it back and decorating it. And finally, the exchange of gifts and flying their kites on what will be their last Christmas together. All of these things are acts of love. Capote adapted his own story with Eleanor Perry and Frank Perry directed.

 

A CHRISTMAS MEMORY (1967).:

A Christmas Story (1983)

Bob Clark’s adaptation of the Jean Shepherd story doesn’t try to be too coy or cute but plays its rich satire and occasional cynicism for all its worth. The movie portrays classic holiday family and childhood scenarios most of us can identify with, even though the story’s set in the 1940s and many of its references are obscure for folks born after, say 1968. The themes of bullying, bickering parents, childhood dreams and Santa anxiety are pretty universal. Peter Billingsley is spot-on as Ralphie, an All-American boy still young enough to believe in fables but getting just old enough to know all things aren’t as they seem. Darren McGavin and Melinda Dillon are pitch-perfect as his harried but loving parents. For all the things that get mocked by this tale, it’s a sweet, nostalgic retelling of Americana innocence gone by.

 

 

How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966)

Perhaps the most inspired Xmas story of them all is this animated TV adaptation of the Dr. Seuss classic that gives us one of cinema’s greatest villains, the Grinch, in all his mendacity, arrogance and theatrics. Who knew that Dr. Seuss was prescient enough to create an ego-maniacal character that anticipated Donald Trump? We can only hope that somewhere under the president-elect’s cold, hard exterior beats a heart that even the Grinch possessed. We just have to hope that something happens to humble Mr.Trump so that he can soften his avarice against today’s equivalent of the Who’s. Cartoon master Chuck Jones directed this classic and Boris Karloff indelibly voiced the Grinch. The primary colors and dynamic action sequences are eye-poppingly cool. Albert Hague composed the memorable music.

 

The Grinch steals a star from the tree

 

A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)

The languid, zen-like idyll of Peanuts reached its zenith in this TV special that has sad-sack Charlie Brown learn the true meaning of Christmas with help from his family of friends: Lucy, Linus and Snoopy. I believe the genius of Charles Schultz with his Peanuts characters was tapping into the longings at the core of the basic human condition. We all desire to be loved and we all want attention to be paid and just like Charlie Brown we’re willing to suffer indignities in pursuit of these things. Having a few friends we can count on sure helps. They may drive us crazy but we know they’re there for us in the end. The minimalist jazz score is so right on for the simple images and messages.

 

Charlie Brown Christmas

 

 

 

White Christmas (1954)

For a feel-good Christmas movie, this one’s hard to beat. Having seen the stage play adapted from it, I can see why this story has legs that crosses generations and mediums. The characters are likable and the situations engaging. In my opinion this movie works as well as it does because of Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye. They make a great team as the veteran entertainers who conspire to help out their old commanding officer from World War II. In fact, I like Crosby and Kaye better than the Road movie tandem of Crosby and Bob Hope. As the retired general fallen on hard times, Dean Jagger has just the right blend of stoicism and sweetness. Rosemary Clooney and Vera Allen lack charisma and a couple dance sequences nearly stop the picture cold, but aside from those quibbles this Christmas chestnut still holds up as funny, heartwarming escapist fare. Director Michael Curtiz could still keep a story moving but this was grade B material compared to the great films he helmed earlier, Casablanca among them.

 

snow

 

 

Going My Way (1944)

Bing Crosby is the avuncular Father O’Malley come to rescue a failing Catholic parish whose curmudgeonly old pastor, Father Fitzgibbon, played by Barry Fitzgerald, resists change and resents being put out to pasture. This is old-fashioned Hollywood hokum that tickles the funny bone and tugs at the heartstrings. Director Leo McCarey had a light touch with sentimental material and though he comes close to going over the top with this one’s rather precious, nearly saccharine moments, he manages to keep things moving along and undercutting the maudlin bits with sharp humor and repartee.

 

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Scrooged (1988)

Nobody does obnoxious better than Bill Murray and here he veers dangerously near alienating viewers but always pulls back from the brink, though I must admit the first time I saw this pic his performance and the overall tone of the film turned me off. But after seeing the picture a few more times, my estimation of him as a megalomaniac media czar and of this updating of A Christmas Carol has risen considerably. Murray makes a fine if loopy Scrooge and in keeping with the Tim Burton-like approach (Richard Donner directed), Carol Kane and David Johansen bring original takes to the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present, respectively. There are some nice supporting performances by Alfre Woodard and Michael J. Pollard. But this is all about Murray’s character rediscovering his heart for his fellow man.

 

scrooged

 

 

Carol for Another Christmas (1964)

Rod Serling wrote and Joseph Mankiewicz directed for television this dark as night fantasy that tackles nothing less than the human condition and humanity’s fate. In the very year that Sterling Hayden co-starred as a raving mad general who instigates nuclear war in Dr. Strangelove, he stars here as an embittered, bigoted Cold War patriot grown callous to the brotherhood of man. His Daniel Grudge is a Scrooge for the modern era whose hardened heart and cold calculus represent the madness of nationalism and the cruelty of the military industrial complex. Haunted by guilt and grief over the loss of his son. he’s visited by spirits who show him horrors and hopes that make him see things in a new way. Though didactic, preachy and slow in places, it’s well worth your time. The eclectic cast includes Ben Gazzara, Peter Sellers, Robert Shaw. Pat Hingle, Percy Rodriguez, James Shigeta, Britt Ekland and Eva Marie Saint. Henry Mancini did the music, The movie can be viewed for free on YouTube.

 

 

Some more Xmas movies that I admire:

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

We’re No Angels (1955)

3 Godfathers (1948)

Holiday Inn (1942)

The Polar Express (2004)

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)

Frosty the Snowman (1969)

 
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