Thursday, October 17, 2013

Quitcher Bitchin'!

You know why we don't blog much any more?

THIS is why. We spend all our time reading about films and film-making and hiking and reading (Indian history & culture this year; last year was SoutheastAsian history and culture); next year we go BACK to reading Chinese/Japanese/Korean history and culture in honour of the several hundred new acquisitions in that field).

This year's book list had 160 books on it. Still haven't posted my reviews, but, akan datang as we sometimes say in (parts of) SoutheastAsia. I know this.

We've watched a fucking shitload of films from, basically, 1895 (the very first Edison & Melies & Gaumont, etc.) to around 1930/1950. Last night we finally got to Elia Kazan's film, "Gentleman's Agreement."

This film won FOUR Oscars out of seven nominations. Including one for Best Director to Elia Kazan. It got rave reviews from everybody. What I want to know is, WHY? If you haven't seen it already, be warned. This is a terrible film. It was probably a great book, and I'd like to read that, but the whole thing was filmed in a way that completely ignores the magic & power of film. It was plotted and blocked and shot like a play in a theater. The camera is almost always static and views everything from about eye-level. There are no interesting angles, no especial or notable beauty or power in the scenes. They're competent. There are no major flaws in the film, although it could have been SO much better.

I had great expectations of this film. Gregory Peck has always done a great job on the screen, which loved his handsome face and class and style. But the dialog poor Peck had to declaim in this film was so thunderingly wooden, I almost up and died out of sympathy for the poor guy. He did a marvelous job, but really. The writer gave nearly every other character witty, dazzling, clever dialogue. WTF happened when he got to Greg's lines? Did he just hate the handsome hero, or what? Because watching the poor man sweat through some of those clunkers was pretty goddamn sad.

I'm not knocking the subject matter. In fact, I wish it had been far MORE searing, exposing the fate of the poor Jews in the tenements of New York, rather than the elegant country estates of the supposed supporters of anti-discrimination measures. And the film was certainly honest enough to expose the hidden anti-Semitism of the very people most affected by it, the Jewish employee of the liberal rag who fears that the "wrong type" will be hired if discrimination ends. It was a socially important film, just as Gone With The Wind was. But I don't have to like a film just for being socially important, if it's bereft of the art, quality, grace, style, and imagination of other films.

I blame the director for my disappointment, but admit that there might be some ambiguity in that blame. I'm well aware of Kazan's testimony before HUAC that landed so many of his colleagues and competitors on the blacklists. I despise the man for the suffering he caused. Is that colouring my critique of him? I thought so initially, and wrestled with committing my thoughts to the InterToobz (which, as we all know, are a series of large pipes, not trucks, filled with pictures of cats). But then I found, on IMDB, several people who seem to echo my sentiment.

In all fairness, it was Kazan's first film and he trained as a stage director (the same could be said of Hitchcock, though, who understood almost instinctively the great power of the camera and worked some two decades earlier). I shall watch the rest of Kazan's ouevre before further comment. I do want to comment on a few things, though, and I welcome feedback.

  1. The camera is almost always a passive observer of staged scenes in which two or more people converse This slows the pace so that it is almost always glacial.
  2. All the action is limited to the frame of that stage. Hardly anyone looks offstage or walks out of camera range or moves across the observing lens, or towards, or away from, it.
  3. The director seemed unsure whether to focus on the anti-Semitism that was the focal point of the story, or the romance.
  4. The camera lingered on many scenes for far too long.
  5. All technical aspects of the film were pretty good. Good lighting, good script (except for Peck's lines), witty dialogue, fine actors giving their best.
  6. Lots of unfinished business and hanging ends. WTF ever happened to Anne's proposal to Phil? Did he take advantage of it? Turn her down? WHAT? Did he take back his resignation? Decide to stay in NY? He certainly couldn't move up to Connecticut with the lovely Dorothy McGuire. She was supposedly moving to CT to ensure that his buddy David could live in her cottage without problems.
  7. Whoever did the sound for the movie should be shot as an example to similar sinners. The sudden sweep of wailing violins every time the hero approaches the heroine gets to be a bit much after the 47th instance, jesusfuckingchrist.
So yeah. Do Not Want.