I’ve said many times that my love of classic film can be traced directly back to my mom, who raised me on MGM musicals, classic dog-and-pony films, and dramas that I’m sure I didn’t get until I was much older, but somehow liked anyway. Mom passed away a couple of months ago, after ten years of suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease. Many people have offered their sympathy and I think you for that, but as anyone who has a loved one with Alzheimer’s will know, it feels in many ways like we lost her ten years ago. In addition, a loved one’s death, especially one who had been fighting disease and age, is in many ways joyful for Christians – she fought the good fight and she’s gone on to her heavenly reward, and while I grieve that my daughter will never know her grandma the way I knew her (until they meet in heaven, of course!), I’m glad my mom is free from the pain and mental loss she experienced here.
Enough of all that. I’d rather talk about the things she loved.
Mom was born in 1936, in East Brewton, Alabama. That’s a small town about an hour north of Pensacola, Florida. Many of her fondest memories as a child were of going every week with her best friend to the movies. There was only one theatre in town, of course, with one screen, so they saw whatever was playing that week, along with the requisite shorts and newsreels. Going to the movies cost 35 cents, and that’s if you bought a popcorn and a soda to go along with it. There was a balcony, and from her stories, half the fun was tossing popcorn down on people’s heads below them. Remember, folks, there was no golden era of movie audiences!
She must’ve seen all kinds of things, but musicals held a special place in her heart. That’s what she introduced me to first as a kid, and she didn’t have a lot of care whether they were good or not. She enjoyed them all, and so did I. That said, she definitely had more of an affinity for the Technicolor extravaganzas of the 1940s and 1950s over the B&W musicals of the 1930s. I got into Fred Astaire on my own; she associated him with ballroom dancing (rather than tap) and she thought that was boring. I like to think I convinced her otherwise!
[Ryan McNeil of The Matinee and I are reading through the American Movie Critics anthology and discussing each chapter as we go, crossposting on each of our blogs.]
After a few months’ hiatus while we did…other stuff…we’re back and chomping the bit to talk about Andre Sennwald, a daily reviewer at the New York Times from 1934 to 1936, when he was killed in a gas explosion at his apartment at the age of 28. A shame, since the two pieces we have from him are youthful and brash but insightful, and it would’ve been fascinating to see how he matured as a writer and critic.
We didn’t have a lot to say about his first piece, a defense of Josef von Sternberg’s The Devil is a Woman, but his second piece is a rumination on the place of Technicolor following its feature debut in Becky Sharp. As in our earlier discussion on Alexander Bakshy’s take on the sound revolution, we find plenty of fodder to jump into thoughts on 3D, technology, and whether cinema should aim for “realism” or not.
While there’s a point or two in Andre Sennwald’s piece on The Devil is a Woman that caught my attention, it primarily reads as the sort of “Why You’re Wrong About…” piece of contrarianism that dots the current landscape of film writing.
At least Sennwald’s contrarianism on The Devil is a Woman is a defense of the film, which I greatly prefer to contrarian takedowns! That said, I also have little patience with the “you just didn’t get it” method of defense that he employs at least once or twice in the piece. On a single viewing of that film, I must admit that I fell into the “you just didn’t get it camp,” though I’m more than willing to return to it with more von Sternberg under my belt.
Marlene Dietrich mocks the patriarchy in Josef von Sternberg’s The Devil is a Woman
Great infographic from BFI, and very relevant for those of us nearing the end of the TCM/Ball State online film noir course. Look for more posts from me about that course and the films I’ve watched for it. Click through to see the full (very long, very worthwhile) infographic.
I loved Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow – I’ve always been sad it didn’t do better, but I didn’t realize the directors hadn’t really done anything since.
While Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is far from perfect, with some stiff line readings and uneven plotting, there’s much in it that is wonderful. Visually, it’s never dull, throwing up military bases in the sky, elephants that fit in the palm of your hand, dog fights through the streets of New York. Any faults are a result of too many ideas, not too few. It received mixed reviews, but some raves, notably from the late critic Roger Ebert, who said the film, “reminded me of how I felt the first time I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark. It’s like a film that escaped from the imagination directly onto the screen”.
But a few great reviews don’t make a difference if your numbers are bad, and Sky Captain’s were very bad. Cinemagoers, perhaps put off by its black and white visuals or comic-strip tone, stayed away: the film made just $15.5 million on its opening weekend. This would have been fantastic if the film had used the tiny budget for which the brothers had originally asked, but the reported cost of $70 million made its eventual worldwide takings of $58 million a catastrophe.
I believe this IS the best kind of film criticism, but Daniel appears to expect it to be financially viable and I think that’s overly optimistic. Individual writers are doing this (like the ones he mentions) but only as part of much larger publications or in very non-mainstream publications like Film Comment. So in one way, this kind of criticism already exists, but in another way, I’m not sure it will ever exist in the kind of pervasive way we’d like.
Somewhat related, mostly by virtue of being about film criticism, but also relevant in this projected move toward more essayistic criticism, Sam Adams at Indiewire discusses whether film critics should write in the first person.
Some of the best film criticism being published today follows suit—that is, eschewing the typical constraints of a review and instead opting for the potentially much more rewarding, all-encompassing criticism modeled by the best TV reviewers. Think of Wesley Morris’s stellar essays on Let’s Be Cops and Ted 2, both of which placed the films in the broader context of the political struggles of the moment and demonstrated how films can show us who we are, who we want to be, and who we wish we weren’t. Or David Ehrlich’s critical (in every sense) assessment of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, which made deft arguments about the film’s use of perspective and style, interwoven with his own experience of caring for a loved one in pain. Or Jessica Ritchey’s examination of gender politics and Jurassic World. Or Matt Zoller Seitz’s piece about the contrast between Only Lovers Left Alive and our hyperactive, inattentive age. Or Tasha Robinson’s look at Disney’s latest iteration of Cinderella and its structural sexism. These and many other such pieces aren’t reviews as we’re used to thinking of them, but powerful works of criticism that look at any and all aspects of a movie and examine their artistic meaning and cultural impact.
This is the future of film criticism: deep, meaningful essays that aren’t afraid of spoilers and that blend aesthetic investigations with social reflections.
Over on Flickchart last week, I posted a short appreciation and Top Ten list for Barbara Stanwyck’s birthday, contributed to the Top Ten Films of 1985 post, and started a new series counting down the best news stories of the week.
Staying busy busy!