I’m a big fan of outsize performances like Laughton specialized in; I share the Siren’s disdain for moderns who think it constitutes bad acting.
Or, in some cases, worse than forgotten. “Laughton’s mannered performances are liable to elicit laughter today,” sniffs one writer reviewing Callow’s book. This prompts the Siren to a rare display of temper. Mannered? What could be more mannered than some contemporary actors who wait for the camera to discover each tiny effect as they overact their underacting? (That is, if indeed they are actors; of late the Siren has endured too many nonprofessionals cast by wannabe Bressons.) You can keep that kind of pallid realism, where the goal is to be the closest thing to real life. Sure, it’s close. And real life is being on hold with the airline, or flossing your teeth, or staring into the middle distance while trying to recall whether you took your vitamins. The Siren doesn’t require tedium to be all that accurate.
Indeed, these two films might be quintessential representations of a classic debate: should art be dazzling and inventive or should it be stripped-down, simple, and honest? Should the artist be in-your-face with her talent, or should she recede into the background of the work? Should she be a magician or a workman? [...] The “magician” school of writing risks pointlessness, while the risk of the “workman” school of writing risks being boring. Plenty of “magician” writers do come up with technical conceits that seem to serve no purpose. Cool, your chapters expand in length according to the Fibonacci sequence and your characters each embody a different animal from the Zodiac… but why? On the other hand, plenty of “workman” realists present the reader with nothing other than the banalities of daily life, fiction as diary entry.
[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.]
Our own era is dominated by special effects blockbusters, and a lot of our ongoing cultural love of oversize entertainment stems from one of the films under discussion today. Critic William Troy wasn’t overly enamored of King Kong as a whole, but expressed in a succinct and thoughtful review, he does get at a lot of why audiences were and remain so. He prefers the somewhat quieter horror of The Invisible Man, a film from Universal’s original horror cycle that tends to be highly regarded and perhaps ironically underseen. Ryan and I greatly enjoyed Troy’s mastery of the short form review, finding ourselves ruminating ourselves on why certain films remain forever popular while others die out of the zeitgeist.
In this pair of short reviews, we have a distinguished literary critic and professor reviewing two pioneering special effects films from 1933 – King Kong and The Invisible Man. It’s interesting that he praises both films for their technical ingenuity, but he seems to believe The Invisible Man is much more successful in its story and setting than King Kong, which he thinks failed by trying “to unite two rather widely separated traditions of the popular cinema – that of the ‘thriller’ and that of the sentimental romance” and in so doing “strained our powers of credulity.”
So first of all, what I loved about the Troy pieces was the way they were – as the introduction tells us – an “occasion for some larger essayistic rumination”. While I’m a believe in the long form, I also understand that there’s a need and a want for shorter “capsule reviews”. But what I love about these posts is that they prove that a short piece can still be a way for a critic to get into an idea a film prompts…and not waste valuable words and space recapping what the movie is about.
And all of this back when there were so fewer places to learn what a film was about!
I wondered if you’d latch onto the idea of Troy’s reviews being “larger essayistic ruminations.” No joke, I wrote in the margin “Ryan does this with his reviews, too.” Not to get off track on this, but it’s one of the things I like about your reviews – I always know I’m going to get more than just “here’s what’s in this film and it’s good/bad/mediocre.” Troy does it in a very small space indeed. You’re right, I hadn’t thought of it, but he barely recaps the movie at all – recapping can be done well and intertwined with thoughtful criticism, but Troy makes the best use of the space he has to tie the film to something grander and more thought provoking.
Easy there, Hardesty – you’re makin’ me blush.
I usually don’t post too much about the Oscars, but these pie chart breakdowns of the Best Picture nominees are pretty funny (I’m sure I would think they were even funnier if I’d seen any of the movies!). Also, I need to post more image posts to get the really old Criterion ones out of the sidebar. :)
So the music video for the latest Sleater-Kinney song “A New Wave” (off their recently released album No Cities to Love, their first album in ten years) is set in Tina’s room from Bob’s Burgers. I wouldn’t consider myself a mega Sleater-Kinney fan or anything, but I do like them and have been glad to hear new music from them. Plus Jonathan and I have been enjoying getting into Bob’s Burgers recently, so this was a fun surprise to see in my feed this morning!
When I first saw this article’s headline, I tweeted something snarky about Birth of a Nation not being the first feature film. That’s still true and I still think this is a dumb headline for the article, but I have to apologize for assuming the article didn’t have merit based on the title, because the rest of the article is really great – a discussion of Birth of a Nation‘s origins and initial reception, a thoughtful treatment of both its offensive content and incredible technical achievements, and some good insight into whether and how it should be seen today.
My own thoughts on these questions involve a recollection of teaching Birth a few years ago to a class of bright undergraduates at a Southern university, as part of a survey course on the history of film. Aware that young viewers today are notoriously resistant to anything old, black-and-white, and (especially) silent, I was expecting yawns and annoyed fidgeting. Instead, the film — its hypnotic power intact after nearly a century — held the class riveted for three hours, few students even taking bathroom breaks. Afterward, I asked: Should this movie be shown today, in this class or anywhere? Some white students, shocked and embarrassed by the film, said it shouldn’t be shown, at all. African-American and Asian students, on the other hand, felt just the opposite, saying it must be seen — as widely as possible.
I admit to only having seen a couple of Lizabeth Scott films, but reading a few eulogies after her death last week has convinced me I ought to see more – particularly Pitfall.
Lizabeth Scott is an actress who always made an impression on me, through the fact of her existential presence if nothing else. Scott was a blonde. Not usually a platinum blonde, though she photographed that way, for her time in pictures was a great time—maybe the great time—for brunettes. She had a heavy sculptural brow, wide-set eyes, almost impossibly symmetrical features, a broad mouth that turned down ever so slightly at the corners, and, her calling card, a deep, damask-plush burr of a voice. Even when playing light comedy, Scott betrayed a close acquaintance with dolor. Commenting on the characters in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (46), one of them played by Scott, a young Manny Farber wrote that they “act as if there were no evil that hadn’t been imposed on them.”