Some Brief Questions About the Movies

One of the best things about films–both good and bad–is that they inspire us to inquire. We ask while watching them: Did it really have to happen that way? Or maybe: What’s with the lighting in that scene? How does so-and-so get out of that scrape? We’re always exploring this universe. There always are questions that come up during the course of a picture.

Recently, I began to wonder if the ones I’m asking while watching certain flicks are the same as those being posed by other viewers. Perhaps we’re all thinking similarly … or perhaps not. In that interrogative light, here are my latest musings, as unattached to each other as they may be:

Does anybody really like the character George Berger in Milos Forman’s film version of Hair?

Which is more disturbing: The discovery in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia that Gasim, the man T.E. Lawrence saved from death in the desert, has murdered another man, or Michael Corleone’s lie to his wife Kay in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather about killing his sister’s husband?

Would Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus be a heckuva lot better without Alex North’s excruciatingly bombastic score?

What would have happened in Kenji Mizoguchi’s The Life of Oharu if the eponymous character had rejected the advances of her suitor at the beginning of the film?

Where did Antoine Doinel go at the end of Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows? How about Kevin at the end of Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits?

Couldn’t Louis Mazzini just have gone back into the prison to retrieve his memoirs at the conclusion of Robert Hamer’s Kind Hearts and Coronets?

I’m just wondering. How about you?



Skip’s Quips: Nitpicking the Hearts of ‘Coronets’

Blog Sketch 082813There’s a scene in the film Kind Hearts and Coronets that has troubled me for a while, and I’m not sure how to address it.

The bit occurs toward the end in a dialogue between debonair serial killer Louis Mazzini, who has murdered all of the members of his estranged D’Ascoyne family in line to inherit the dukedom before him, and Sibella, his conniving mistress, who has framed him for the supposed killing of her husband. Mazzini (played by Dennis Price), now behind bars, is asked by Sibella (Joan Greenwood) if he remembers the nursery rhyme “Eeny, meeny, miny, mo,” which—in the form depicted in the movie—features an atrocious, offensive term used pejoratively to describe someone who is black. Both characters say the word, equating it with the people Mazzini has dispatched … something Sibella insinuates as part of her realization that his rapid rise to nobility isn’t natural.

So this is an issue. It’s a crucial scene, and the two protagonists, whom we’ve followed throughout the film, make these remarks in the casual way reserved for people lacking even a cursory understanding of racial sensitivity. Yet these are protagonists, not villains, and despite their despicable actions, also have likable qualities—ones that are essential to the film’s watchability.

Can we separate these traits from each other? Must we view them as either good or bad? I’m reminded of the mobster in The Godfather who is repulsed by the idea of selling drugs near schools but has no compunction about doing so to African-Americans and letting them “lose their souls.” He was a cut-and-dry villain, and the movie points that out. But Mazzini and Sibella are textured, flawed; their traits are mixed. Racism is one of their worst ones. Does that preclude us from enjoying their adventures as a whole?

One alternative is rooting for the characters such as the movie’s callous duke, who’s much worse, so that’s out. Another, however, is the affable, photography-mad nobleman who has done nothing wrong and is blown up in his lab by Mazzini. We’re forced to disagree with this decision and laugh at the incredible villainy, so perhaps we don’t have a choice.

And maybe that’s what bothers me so much—not being free to decide for myself whom to like or dislike. The movie makes the choice for us and does so ingeniously. One can make the argument that the offensive dialogue is in character and in keeping with the era in which the film takes place, but I wonder if that’s enough. Does that legitimize its use?

It’s a question I’ll need to continue asking as long as I watch and rewatch the film. Only great pictures deserve that kind of inquiry.

Setter’s ‘Spectives: I Sing the Movie Romantic!

Setter Drawing for Blog 082613Every so often, I start thinking about Odd Man Out and how romantic the film is.

Yes, I’m talking about Odd Man Out, Carol Reed’s elegiac 1947 masterpiece about the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland. The one where James Mason’s dying gunman staggers from alley to alley after killing a man in a robbery. The one where Robert Newton plays a crazed painter aching to create a portrait of the doomed fellow. The one where Robert Krasker’s cinematography captures all of the shadows and snow cloaking Belfast’s forgotten corners.

That doesn’t sound romantic, you say. But it is, it truly is.

When you get to the end and watch Kathleen, the woman who loves Mason’s Johnny McQueen, make the decision to go with him on his predetermined journey, you might agree with me. Because they’re both incredibly flawed, often unlikable, even criminals–yet they overlook their faults for love.

By the way, I’m not advocating this behavior at all. As Sibella says in Kind Hearts and Coronets: “Not at all.” Johnny and Kathleen are just characters and not to be emulated–especially in light of the fact that they use violence to achieve their ends.

But their actions oddly remind me of another pair of I-don’t-care-about-anyone-else lovers, Heathcliff and Catherine in the towering novel Wuthering Heights. The idea that the connection between two people can be so strong that everyone else is immaterial is, to my mind, one of the most romantic and completely untenable notions around. That it exists, presumably, just in art is a blessing; anyone who apes Heathcliff in real life would be the most insufferable person around. Still, it informs the screen, with Johnny and Kathleen providing perfect examples of all-forgiving, all-consuming adoration.

And it makes a spellbinding story. Emily Brontë, I’m sure, knew that well.

I think about Odd Man Out most often when I’m mulling life beyond our own–not that on other planets, but on ours, in a movie that superficially is about political divisions yet really concerns people. It’s about humans’ insularity, how selfish we can be … and how personal our goals are. Maybe that’s what I like most about the film, that it shows us in all our disarray, in characters who are lost everywhere they go except together.

It doesn’t mean they’re right. It does, however, mean romance.