Monday, May 14, 2007

Six more defining films- addendum to this week's Onion AV Club Inventory list

I’m the kind of movie-lover who always enjoys a good list. As long as the entries on the list are well-chosen, it doesn’t matter how seemingly insignificant the criteria are. One of the most interesting I’ve read lately was this week’s Onion AV Club Inventory, entitled “12 Films That Defined Their Decades.” Not only is this an interesting topic- combining the greatness of a movie to the way it reflects the time in which it was made- but nearly all of their choices were solid.

So why post a response list? Well, in my never-ending quest to provide semi-new and moderately interesting content for both of you readers out there, I thought it would be fun to think about. As I’ve learned from my list-making experiences over at ScreenGrab (they should pay me for plugging them like the dude in IDIOCRACY gets paid for mentioning Carl’s Jr.) half the film of making the lists is the second-guessing, the “hey, why isn’t such-and-such included?” of the thing. A really good list isn’t meant to be definitive- it’s meant to stir up debate. And I guess what I’m doing here is my rebuttal, my “yeah, but,” contribution to the AV Club list.

In making my list, I decided to stick to the second half of their timeframe. To be honest, I had a hard time coming up with many choices for the years up to 1949. Either I haven’t seen enough to make a good judgment, or I couldn’t think of enough compelling alternatives to make it worth my while. Instead, I decided to tackle one movie per decade from the fifties onward. You probably won’t agree with them all, but that’s half the fun.

1950s

A Face in the Crowd- television was still a young medium when 1957 rolled around, but it had already taken America by storm. Face may not have been the first movie to deal with television, but it was certainly the first to tackle the subject head-on. The film focuses on the meteoric rise of Lonesome Rhoades, a down’n’out musician whose plain-folks persona quickly turns him into a sensation. Director Elia Kazan and screenwriter Budd Schulberg’s most fascinating gambit is their on-target assertion that television is most of all a selling medium- whether it’s vitamin supplements, political candidates, or the American way of life, television’s primary strength is how it presents the image of the way things ought to be, and if real life doesn’t match up, then real life tends to adjust itself to television rather than the other way around.

Other possibilities: Imitation of Life, Sweet Smell of Success, The Apartment (which I realize was released in 1960 but still feels very much a 50s film)

1960s

Faces- by 1968, the Sexual Revolution was in full swing, but not everyone was equally prepared to deal with it. Rather than focusing on the kids, John Cassavetes instead viewed the period through the eyes of middle-aged Richard and Maria Forst, each of whom was trying to make sense of it in his own way. Uneasily attempting to shake of the morality that has served them well over the years, Richard and Maria experiment outside their marriage, he by visiting a prostitute, she by partying with a free-spirited young man. But if the Forsts’ marriage brings them little joy, their affairs scarcely bring more, and at the end of the night they end up more or less as before. By applying his warts-and-all storytelling approach to their lives, Cassavetes manages to portray the chaos, desperation, and emotional turmoil these new adventures have brought to the Forsts’ lives.

Other possibilities: L'Amour Fou, Blowup, Masculin-Feminin

1970s

The Mother and the Whore- with the Sixties drawing the close, where could society hope to go? Jean Eustache’s mammoth counterculture postmortem doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, but it’s no less an achievement for asking the question. The film presents three characters- Alexandre, a layabout who fancies himself a philosopher; Veronika, a promiscuous nurse; and Marie, a slightly older businesswoman who takes care of Alexandre. In various combinations, the three of them get together, drink, screw, and bullshit- but mostly bullshit. Eustache and his cast portray the characters’ interaction not as a sexual roundelay but rather as the dying-off of a very long party, complete with the resultant hangover.

Other possibilities: The Conversation, Dawn of the Dead, Taxi Driver

1980s

Scarface- the tagline said it all: “he loved the American Dream. With a vengeance.” Following his deportation from Cuba in the Mariel Boat Lift, Tony Montana (played by Al Pacino) arrives in Miami and quickly rises from nothing to become a drug kingpin. How does he do it? Not by being the smartest man in the room, or the strongest, but the most ruthless. As Tony explains, “all I have in this world is my balls and my word, and I don’t break them for nobody.” After the go-getter philosophies of the Me Decade, Tony Montana was nothing less than its slimiest and most amoral characteristics manifested in one vividly-rendered character. With his garishly opulent lifestyle and snarling bravado, Tony is the prototype for the eighties alpha male, and our culture is still feeling the fallout.

Other possibilities: Crimes and Misdemeanors, Do the Right Thing, Paris, Texas

1990s

Hoop Dreams- it’s probably cheating to include this here, since the idea of a documentary is to, y’know, “document,” but I can’t think of another movie that speaks to a very specific nineties mindset better than Hoop Dreams. Two inner-city teenagers, charged by images of athletic glory, pursue against all odds a career in the NBA. However, the real world has other plans- one struggles both academically and on the court and ends up losing his private-school scholarship, while the other has more success until he sustains an injury. Hoop Dreams is a key film of its time not just for the way it shows two young men pinning their futures on a goal that’s near-impossible to achieve, but also for showing the other side of the coin, when one of the boys’ mothers is able to achieve the comparatively modest but no less worthy goal of graduating first in her night school class.

Other possibilities: Defending Your Life, Seven, Three Colors trilogy

2000s

demonlover- maybe a couple of other recent films have remarked on the way the world is now, but how many have so vividly encapsulated the way the world is going? What does demonlover get right? Let’s see… the positioning of multinational corporations as the new global superpowers? Check. The ceding of individual will to the corporate entity? Check. The frantic pace of technology, with which it has become near-impossible for those on the inside just to keep up? Check. Heck, even the boardroom intrigues ring absolutely true, with long-term loyalty paling in comparison with results-mindedness and jockeying for supremacy. Above all, demonlover is one of the few narrative films of the new millennium that attempts to carve out a new and cutting-edge cinematic vocabulary, one in which the narrative is experienced almost subliminally, so bombarded are we with imagery.

Other possibilities: Code Unknown, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, High Fidelity

5 comments:

Paul C. said...

FYI: It's just a coincidence that three of the six films have the word "face" in the title. Honest.

martin said...

It's been said, maybe apocryphally, that doing A Face in the Crowd frightened Andy Griffith so much that he decided to turn to comedy. The man is electric in this -- it gave me a whole new appreciation for his capability and talent. It's a balls-to-the-wall performance, and I like to think of it whenever I see a rerun of the Andy Griffith show on TV.

Steve said...

Duuude... Theo's linking to you now! You're totally big time!

Also, apologies for not responding earlier, but I well and truly enjoyed your Rivette Movie Moment. Being a Beart fanboy, as you know, that film is pretty much one of the awesomest things ever.

Steve said...

Also, a big Hell Yes to demonlover.

Paul C. said...

DUDE. First Dennis and now Theo. Life is gooooooooood. Dare I dream the impossible?