Thursday, January 24, 2008

Recent Movie Watching

One of my goals for 2008 is to catch up on movie watching. And not just recent stuff, either, but some of the "Old Greats" that I've never before seen, or only seen in part. I'm not setting a specific goal, but it's just a general thing I want to do. I'll be using resources like the AFI 100 lists, which even if they are certainly open to debate, they do boast some very good movies in their ranks. In the last couple of weeks I've watched two such films.

:: Even though I'd never seen The Philadelphia Story until just a couple of weeks ago, I knew its story well, because I've seen a number of times High Society, the musical version of the same story that was made fifteen or so years later. Wouldn't you know it; going back to the source material (so to speak, since The Philadelphia Story is in turn based on a stage play), I find that the original is superior to the remake.

It's not an entirely fair comparison, I suppose, since High Society is a musical while The Philadelphia Story is not; they're not really the same types of pictures, even if the stories are the same right down to large swatches of dialog. High Society's songs are all quite good, and the film has a justification for its musical doings: CK Dexter Haven is, in HS, a jazz musician who has scheduled a jazz festival in his home town (Newport, RI) that just happens to coincide with the wedding of his spoiled brat of an ex-wife with whom he happens to still be in love. Hijinks ensue.

Contrasting in TPS is CK Dexter Haven as a rich guy who is enlisted by SPY Magazine to get two reporters into the wedding, on the basis that they are friends of Dexter Haven's equally spoiled brat of an ex-wife's brother Junius. Or something like that. Anyway, the basics are the same: CK Dexter Haven is still in love with Tracy Lord; Tracy's marrying a stuffed shirt named George Kittridge; two reporters (Mike Connor and Liz Imbrie) from SPY are in attendance, even though they find the assignment distasteful, and Liz is in love with Mike, although he's oblivious to her feelings and finds himself involved in shenanigans of sexual chemistry with Tracy. Hijinks ensue.

I find it interesting that while HS is watchable because it's got good actors and good songs and the like (although I continue to be amazed that anyone ever thought Bing Crosby a suitable romantic lead), TPS is, with the same story and much of the same dialog, actually funny. I'm not entirely sure why, but I found myself laughing out loud at a lot of the hijinks in TPS, and I was struck by Cary Grant's ability to be the near-perfect straight man. He's funny just standing there, being stoic while all manner of hijinks ensue around him, and when he himself partakes in some foolery, it's utterly hilarious; witness his impromptu "Pomp and Circumstance" when George stomps away at the end of the movie.

And of course, James Stewart and Katherine Hepburn are, well, they're James Stewart and Katherine Hepburn. I tend to like Stewart more in movies like this, where he can be cynical and weary; for instance, when his boss the publisher guy asks Mike if he hates him, and Mike replies, "No, oh no. But I don't like you very much." It's not a great line, by any means, but Stewart turns it into one, by showing that Mike is enough of a diplomat to not openly admit to hating his boss, but possessed of enough self-pride to not pretend otherwise, either.

I also think that the ending works better in TPS than in HS, mainly because HS really beats the viewer over the head with the fact that CK Dexter Haven is still in love with Tracy, while TPS never really comes out and states it but rather lets us grow to suspect it as we get to know him.

(And for sheer laughs, TPS gets the nod over HS by having young Diana, Tracy's precocious little sister, rip off an exuberant rendition of "Lydia the Tattooed Lady", a song so funny that I'd laugh no matter who sang it.)

:: So, what better to follow up a 1930s screwball comedy about romantic shenanigans in an upper class Eastern city than a cynical 1970s tragicomedy about a man committed to a mental hospital? Nothing, obviously, which is why I finally struck One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest from my list of movies I should really have watched way before now.

What a great movie. Parts of it troubled me, parts of it made me laugh, parts of it saddened me. I guess that was the whole point. It never quite went in the direction I thought it was going in, and that makes me happy, even toward the end when the film took the tragic note that I'd really knew was coming the entire time.

I did find the film difficult going on occasion. I don't know much about mental illness, but I do know that while it still probably isn't taken seriously enough, it's taken much more seriously now than it was even in the time One Flew Over is set (late 60s or early 70s, I assume). The attitude toward mental patients in the film seems to run from seeing them as children who can't handle anything to people who are simply dangerous to themselves and others. I don't know enough about the history of mental illness treatment to know how accurate a depiction of that period's treatment of mental patients may be, but there's certainly a rather disturbing and horrifying tone to it all. I don't know if that feeling was there when the film first came out, but it's certainly there now. Similarly, I'm not sure if I was supposed to feel this sense of impending doom during the fishing boat sequence, but I did. I was surprised when that doom didn't happen at all.

This is why I had a hard time seeing Nurse Ratched as the malevolent villain she's most often described as. I couldn't decide if she was the cold authoritarian, or just a very serious person locked into the standard view of mental illness of her day. Certainly Louise Fletcher's performance is a great one, worthy of the Oscar it won, but watching the movie now, in 2008, for the first time ever, I couldn't truly see her as a villain. She's an antagonist, certainly, but that's not the same thing. She gets her way in the end in the brutal fashion of the day, but again, it's hard not to see that situation playing out any other way, even if she'd been a perfectly nice lady the whole time, right up to McMurphy's attempted strangling of her. The much more malevolent presence, for me, came from the orderlies underneath Nurse Ratched. I don't know if this was intentionally done on the part of the director, but these orderlies, played by two black men, have the same hairstyles and the same mustaches, they wear the same uniforms of white shirts with black bowties, and they walk with the same muted swagger. They seemed like, for lack of a better term, stormtroopers. Certainly nothing in the film was, to me, more ominous, not even anything said or done by Nurse Ratched, than the orderly who decides that it's time to get tough with McMurphy and puts a strap of hard leather over his knuckles in preparation to fight him.

McMurphy was doomed at that moment, of course, but even so, the Chief's subsequent discovery of his lobotomy scars is one of the sadder moments I've seen in a film recently. McMurphy is literally reduced to the drooling existence he had earlier pantomimed after his electroshock therapy. This time it's real, and McMurphy can no longer observe his greatest triumph: that he gave the Chief the wherewithal to free himself. I found the film playing out, in some of its particulars, almost like a Greek tragedy.

To praise the film's acting is easy enough, but there it is. Most of what I've seen of Jack Nicholson has been released in more recent years, when he's been JACK NICHOLSON, so to go back and see him when he was a young and vibrant force on the screen was a real treat. I kept noticing the one guy and thinking "Wow, he looks like a young Danny DeVito!", and then when I watched the credits, I learned that it actually was a young Danny DeVito. And then, of course, there's Christopher Lloyd, much younger than his Doc Brown days and much thinner and cleaner, and thus much more crazy looking, than his Reverend Jim of Taxi.

So: two movies down, and I loved both of them. Off to a good start, I think.


Bill said...

Bing was a killer romantic lead-- he was so popular at his peak that he was able to negotiate a provision in his contract with Paramount that allowed him to do one project a year with any studio he wanted, so that directors and producers who wanted to work with him could pitch projects that he could pick. He had enough pull to get Louis Armstrong in one such project ("Pennies From Heaven")-- and he got him star billing.

Writers who worked on scripts for Bing were told that the story had to have the female lead fall in love with him-- not the other way around.

Even today I think he works as a romantic lead-- he's no pretty boy, but he has a sincere, open face, and big eyes that are endearing, and a relaxed, casual manner that is pretty irresistible.

Becky said...

You should try to find time to read the book "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" now. Slightly different mood, more insight, very good.

Pauldub said...

Becky's right. The book is written from a slightly different point of view. Read it the first time in high school and it was amazing. It was also a very long time ago