Tag Archives: Classic Film

Rebel Without A Cause – 1955

rebelWhen a film is so defined by it’s era, so much a product of the struggles of a certain time, can it still be relevant fifty years later? Rebel without a cause defined a generation.  The American youth with a country trapped in a silent war. The war divided them from their parents further than almost any generation before. Out of this came the disillusioned teenagers which make up our protagonists Jim (James Dean), Judy (Natalie Wood) and ‘Plato’ (Sal Mineo). Each one has been warped in their own way by their family upbringing. The film places these characters into increasingly unnerving situations. The script never directly addresses these issues, the fight for male ego, burgeoning sexuality and acceptance is underplayed to such an extent that not even the characters themselves seem to recognise it. Each one seems ready to explode from their own troubles but are forced into a straight-jacketed ‘normal’ life.

In fact, the only character who is ever permitted to express this is Jim. But even then it is in short outbursts, devoid of literal meaning but filled with raw emotional power. His performance is, while decidedly accomplished, somewhat stilted and awkward. Even the few years that he has on the character seem to render him as a man in boys shoes. It’s an odd quirk which the film bends to its advantage, Jim becomes the guide and patriarch in the dysfunctional family set up by these three children.

This temporary family unit reflects the dissatisfaction that they feel in their home lives but also absorbs the problems. The freudian conflict and jealousy felt by Plato is shocking for its time, as his clear romantic intentions are thwarted by the mother figure. The same mother figure who is denied the affection of her own father.

The film captures a generation in the process of change. New definitions of masculinity created rifts in the social structure at the same time as women asserted their own autonomy. Perhaps it is best seen as a snapshot, parts of it are imperfect but it serves as a flawless reminder of a flawed time.

 

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The Graduate – 1967

GraduateIt is rare that I find myself utterly in agreement with every accolade a film is given. I watched this film two years ago and failed to understand it’s significance. The Graduate represents such a drastic shift in cinematic grammar, that to my less experienced self it seemed to be awkward, lingering and almost foreign in its delivery of a story.

Two years later, and I can see this as the bold masterpiece it has always been described. The opening scenes place Dustin Hoffman as a young man in the world of adults. He is unnatural in his surroundings, the camera thrown in his face and never leaving. We scrutinise him as an audience, just as much as those he is running away from. Hoffman’s short stature is exploited, making him seem younger than the man he is, literally dwarfed by the adult world. The lingering shots never allow him time to falter or pause, he is forever observed and judged. This established pattern is, of course broken up, by the infamous Mrs Robinson. Her presence brings with it jump cuts, split second editing and even less time to think. However the film does not present a merciless onslaught to the viewer. There are moments to pause as there are in life, and the film furnishes these in music. The whole soundtrack, including diegetic music is performed by Simon and Garfunkel, which lends it a cohesive quality rarely found in films where music is used so prominently. It is almost a musical in a way, the songs take centre stage, as all other sound is muted and you simply appreciate the lyrics in conjunction with the unfolding story.

The story seems to straddle the gap between two generations. The parental characters are perpetually nameless and known only in terms of their marital status, despite the inherent problems in these marriages. The young man Benjamin is no longer a child and must enter this adult world. He is forced into certain modes of life, his parents force him into a swimming pool in a diving suit,  yet criticise him for enjoying the water on his own terms. The attitudes of the adults he meets throw him into their dysfunctional world of alcoholism, disillusionment and broken marriages. Despite all the circumstances against it, we are suddenly, halfway through the film, presented with a couple who have fallen in love. It is not their own wills which hinder them from living this out, but the manipulations and machinations of their parents. While both parties are desperate to live their own lives, and make a great show of their independence, it takes them until the very last minute to gather the strength to fight against this established regime.

The film also functions as an exploration of late adolescence. A period of time when everyone has an opinion on how “the best days of your life” should be spent. Benjamin is plagued with worry about “his future” a nebulous term that reveals itself less the more you worry. It is difficult to know whether Benjamin (Hoffman) is freed or trapped by his experiences in this time. He is always portrayed crossing the screen from right to left, the wrong direction. Yet can it really be wrong? Modern convention teaches us that he is doing what is right. He is defending himself and fighting for what he loves. Where is the line which makes a person indefensible? Does the power of “true love” really excuse his errors? The final five minutes of the film attack these questions in full force. Even once they have broken fee of their parents, and the expectations that have been thrust upon them, as they escape the failed marriages and unrequited love that they watched their parents experience, they seem to be, above all, confused. They smile at their reunion but soon settle into the fear that they genuinely do not know what will happen next. There is no one to force, guide or coerce them for the first time in their lives. The soundtrack switches into the very same song it played at the start, but it is a different recording. Is this change enough to stop them from slipping into leading the lives they ran away from? We can but hope.

 

Aguirre Wrath of God – 1972

aguirre wrath of godContained within an hour and a half of 35mm film we are taken on a journey through the wide and sprawling Amazon jungle. The film’s premise allows the action to develop organically, the plot is never forced to move forwards, more coaxed by circumstances.

Werner Herzog’s filmmaking style greatly helps the action, with the whole film shot in the same period of time as the action itself. This lends the film a realism normally reserved only for documentaries, the actors’ tiredness is real, the state of their surroundings has naturally degraded and even their hair has grown a realistic amount. You feel that the rivalries and anger played out in these ‘Lord of the Flies’ style arguments come from genuine pools of hatred and despair.

It would be easy to praise Klaus Kinski for holding the film on his shoulders, but I feel that this is only true of the second and third acts. In this film, as in life, the protagonists are not revealed from the outset but rather grow into their important roles. In fact, Kinski’s presence throughout the film seems somewhat understated, like an invisible dictator he controls without the need for presence or violence. An astoundingly powerful performance which gains momentum even as the character loses control. By the end of the film you almost believe that this powerful and compelling man will find what he searches for and conquer a continent alone. This is the extent to which the world in the camera’s view has degenerated, as the very metal and wood has rusted and grown algae, as men have faded slowly from existence, even as a monk becomes a mutineer only the force of Aguirre, albeit twisted, has survived.

Cinematographically the film is a masterclass in subtle colours. In the heart of the Amazon rainforest the palette of the film rests mainly in shades of green and brown. Herzog’s use of contrasting colours in costumes, and even in the fake blood used, makes these elements more visually important. Anything that is lost leaves the screen in a final bright, pure colour before never being seen again. Once more the scenes with Kinski shine, his monologues being some of the most effective scenes in the film, including a single glance to camera, perhaps the most poignant moment in the whole film.

Two musical motifs appear in the film, both are haunting in their own way. The piece which accompanies the opening sequence, a stunning wide shot of the troupe carving through the Andes, has an unnatural quality which serves to heighten the oppressive unease throughout the film. Each time the piece recurs the situation has got to a point where you almost cannot imagine worse; but rest assured, the worst is yet to come. It is fitting therefore that the film ends as it began with this music, promising no hope for the lone survivor, despite his power.

Gone With the Wind – 1939

gone with the windI’ve spent my life hearing trivia and quotes from this epic film and so I thought it high time that I formed an opinion. Firstly what struck me was how quickly the time passed. I never once felt bored in the whole of this film’s runtime. I feel like this is an art lost to modern Hollywood, the ability to engage an audience consistently. Even earlier this year I found myself wondering whether Zero Dark Thirty really needed to take so much time yet I happily sat riveted to my seat during the whole of this, Giant and Lawrence of Arabia – and I could happily do so all over again.

What makes this film so appealing is its faith to life. While it covers a huge amount of history, social and political upheaval, I believe that despite all this it remains a human story. Life has not stopped because of the war, if anything the war is merely an inconvenience to life; babies are born, lovers leave each other and friends disappoint. These are the staples of every great tragedy and Gone with the Wind has these in spades.

I found it poignant watching this film with history on my side. For a film produced in 1939 it is somewhat eerie to have such a strong message against war and the senseless waste of human life – a waste that would once more ravish the planet in the years to come. One can only imagine how many lives like those of Scarlett, Rhett and Melanie were ripped apart so soon after audiences so lamented for these characters.

The film itself is no mean feat, containing some of the most developed and believable characters ever committed to celluloid. Perhaps its greatest achievement is creating such a boundless supply of empathy for our heroine, Scarlett O’ Hara. By all accounts a thoroughly dishonest and mean woman, she manipulates men to her advantage with no regard to their feelings or those of the women she calls sisters yet the films lens is forgiving, she is a wounded animal, fighting in the only way she can, rather than a selfish and self-indulgent social climber.

The script is gloriously light in places, kindly mocking the very people it raises to the level of “true Americans” but never losing intensity where it is needed. The repartee between Scarlett and Rhett never falters. Even when they fight it is with an ultimate understanding of one another, a bond that is accepted, rather than understood by either party.

I was asked recently whether a story loses its meaning once its history is long past and society has healed. I believe that Gone With the Wind proves this untrue. In a world still torn by war and divided on too many counts to name it is still all-important to not miss out on what life is truly offering you. Even if you do not understand why it is being offered.

Lawrence of Arabia – 1962

Today I sat down with a large bowl of popcorn to conquer a classic. Lawrence of Arabia.

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I don’t quite know where to start with this. I was totally stunned, in my recent task to watch this years Oscar nominees there was a certain kind of culture shock in moving from these clean, digitized, self-conscious films to a pure story in film. No flashy effects or witty repartee to fill the silences, just rich, sweeping scenery and a considered study of an extraordinary man.

What really amazed me though was how this film has not aged; it can be viewed today with the same wonder as when it was first released. In fact the only jarring moments of realisation I had were during the opening credits. (Namely the existence of full opening credits, as well as Alec Guinness’ name appearing without a “sir” next to it and the shock of seeing a title “introducing” Peter O’Toole). Speaking of Peter O’Toole, I found myself captivated by his performance, one of the most subtle and sensitive performances I think I’ve ever seen.

I was nervous that the film would drag, having just seen Lincoln I knew that one great performance does not a good film make. Yet these fears were promptly dismissed when I realised what had felt like fifteen minutes had in fact been nearly an hour of utterly breathtaking, captivating filmmaking. Boldly filmed with many a sweeping shot of a desert, set of course to a full orchestral score, the film doesn’t stray away from the hyperbolic; yet what other means could you use to tell the story of this man? An understated, minimalist piece would never do the character justice. The cinematography remains dynamic and interesting despite the majority of the film being shot in a desert in various tones of grey and brown. What is so beautiful is that in this film the desert is not “clean” as Lawrence so describes it, it is harsh, grainy gritty and so very real.