Monday, October 25, 2010

Day One and Beyond

Officially, as I write this, it’s now Day Three. I’m four titles in and expect to add a fifth before the day is out. Though I’m trying to stay away from being rule oriented and, as some who are dear to me have pointed out, I have a tendency to overexplain things, its occurred to me that I need to make one thing clear with regard to the contents of these writings. In the interest of embarking upon a freewheeling discussion, and because none of these films are less than 34 years old, there will be spoilers. Spoilers aplenty. They’re on the table and may even be encouraged. Fair warning.

I embarked upon this journey Sat., October 23, just after 8P.M., with a screening of the 1955 film, The Ladykillers. Thanks to Bricken and Eric for helping me launch this thing and getting off to a good start. I followed this up on Sunday with a Cold War triple feature of I Am Cuba, Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, and Seven Days in May. The only thread(besides the obvious one I already mentioned for the ’64 titles) that I’ve noticed is a healthy distrust of authority.

The Ladykillers is a pitch black comedy featuring, among others, Alec Guinness(who, as my guests and I noticed, didn’t seem exactly 22 years younger than he did as Obi Wan Kenobi) and Peter Sellers. It’s about a gang of criminals who plan a robbery but are each undone as a result of crossing paths with a cheerful little old lady. It simultaneously sends up both proper English culture and the respectability of Ealing Studios who, though very highly thought of and revered, was never as subversive as this with their other works. As one person involved in the project remarked, “There are six main characters and five of them end up dead. And it’s a comedy.” Though the themes running through it include robbery and murder, there is still a sense of right and wrong. The bad are punished. The good triumph. But that doesn’t necessarily mean all’s right with the world. Per the running theme I’ve noted, the authorities are unwittingly duped by their own incompetence.

I Am Cuba is a curious relic. It was financed by the Soviet Union shortly after the Cuban revolution and shown briefly in both countries. I’ve placed it on the list here based on when it was made, though technically it wasn’t shown in the U.S.A. until 1995, thanks to efforts by Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. It is most definitely a work of propaganda. It’s anti American and anti imperialism. At one point a would be sniper is made to be a hero and a martyr. It’s also a beautiful and fascinating film. And American imperialism had it coming. The reason this survives and is worth revisiting is because it’s not so focused on the solution but on the problems. No matter what your opinion is on Castro, the conditions under Batista were intolerable and there was ample justification for revolution. Again, though, it’s also a beautifully shot film. Though somewhat languidly paced, some of the imagery is mesmerizing.

Dr. Strangelove is the first title on the list that I’ve seen before. The first time was on VHS in the late ‘80’s. I watched it twice in the three day rental period. I saw it again a few years later on the big screen, probably a restored print for some anniversary release. That may have been 15 to 20 years ago. To say I was looking forward to it is an understatement of great magnitude. All these years later, its lost none of its power or relevance. It is both completely a product of its time and utterly timeless. Stanley Kubrick started out developing this script as a drama, but discovered that, as the strategy of nuclear warfare was completely absurd, the idea of shifting to satire just seemed perfect. I can’t think of another film that is this hilarious and terrifying. I found myself looking up Kubrick, as I was looking forward to several of his titles on this list. I knew he was far from prolific, but I was still moderately surprised to see that, in a career that spanned nearly 50 years, he only directed 16 films. This is not only one of his greatest, but one of the very great films.

It would be hard for any film to follow the previous entry, but Seven Days in May is still very good. It’s more of a straight drama, though works well as a companion piece to Strangelove. Both contain fictional presidents and generals set against tensions with U.S.S.R. But they also highlight the conflict between politicians who want to keep the peace, however tenuous, and military figures chomping at the bit to jump into war. In Strangelove, Sterling Hayden’s Gen. Jack Ripper subverts the system to start a nuclear strike that triggers the destruction of the human race. In this one, Burt Lancaster’s Gen. Scott is engineering a conspiracy to overthrow the president. Arguably, the latter is almost more frightening as Hayden’s character is clearly batshit, while Lancaster is just the kind of charismatic seemingly reasonable figure that could make people side with him. Curiously, things seemed reversed in the recent Bush administration, with Bush excitedly pushing war and his general urging reason. Unfortunately, we seem to be back with this dynamic in the current administration. Recently, I saw Bob Woodward plugging his latest presidential book on Charlie Rose. It was a little unnerving to hear the way he described the generals pushing Obama around and not even making any real effort to try scaled back plans in Afghanistan. Of course, the media coverage of this only talked about Woodward’s speculation that Hillary Clinton might replace Joe Biden on the ticket in 2012. Guess Kubrick was right. Absurdity is the only way to make sense of any of it.

So don’t trust the authorities. Whether it’s the incompetent bobbies in The Ladykillers, a ruthless dictatorship in I Am Cuba, or the squabbling politicians and generals who insist that the only way to avoid nuclear holocaust is to build more nuclear bombs. Feels like we’re off to a good start. Up next is A Hard Day’s Night, Fail Safe, My Fair Lady, and then its off to 1965.

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