Saturday, November 6, 2010

In 1964, well, a lot of stuff was going on. I just looked at the Wikipedia page. Apparently, years have their own Wikipedia pages, and honestly, there’s way too much for me to pick what’s important. So let’s stick to the world of film and extrapolate from there. I will mention the Oscars. Not because they indicate any sign of real quality, but they do give some indication of the cultural zeitgeist of the time. In 1964, the best picture nominees were Becket, Dr. Strangelove, Mary Poppins, My Fair Lady, and Zorba the Greek. Of these, only two show up on the Clooney list. The one that won and the one that should’ve. Though it appears that the movie musical was on its way out, three of these titles were musicals. Including the one that won. The titles that round out 1964 on the list are A Hard Day’s Night, Fail Safe, and the aforementioned My Fair Lady. Thanks to Justin for joining me on the latter two.

I enjoyed A Hard Day’s Night. I’m a big Beatles fan. Though, admittedly, more of the later period than what was evidenced here. According to Wikipedia, Bob Dylan turned them on to weed in 1964, so I’m sure that was a crucial part of their artistic development. I actually saw this one a number of years ago, but I don’t think it made much of an impression on me. I will also concede that certain of the songs in this film such as the titular track(apparently only composed after it was chosen as the title for the film) and If I Fell certainly hint of the sophistication that is yet to come. I did find this film very enjoyable and I’m envious of what it must have been like to experience it at the time. In a year when three Elvis movies were cranked out, expectations for pop star vehicles must have been excruciatingly low. And yet, here are the Beatles, essentially playing themselves in an absurdist take on a day in the life of burgeoning pop sensations. Yes, they burst into song at peculiar times, but everything’s peculiar about the world of this film. That’s part of its charm. Though I didn’t necessarily appreciate it on a visceral level, I think I understand why it was important at the time. And, oddly, the more I research it and write about it, the more I look forward to seeing it again.

I first saw Fail Safe just a few years ago and looked forward to revisiting it. It was released by the same studio as Dr. Strangelove, but Kubrick had enough clout to insist that his film be released first. Though it received respectable reviews, it wasn’t embraced by audiences. In the wake of Strangelove, it was hard to take seriously. It got unintentional laughs. Henry Fonda, who played the president, even said that if he had seen Strangelove first, he probably wouldn’t have done Fail Safe. The plots are eerily similar. A number of planes accidentally are sent to attack the Soviet Union. The president negotiates with the Soviet premier. Crisis appears to be averted but one plane gets through resulting in catastrophe. I should be clear that everything just described occurs in both films. To be fair, Fail Safe is quite a remarkable film. And it also marks director Sidney Lumet’s first of five appearances on the list. Lumet is as prolific as Kubrick was perfectionist. He has 72 directing credits(mostly in film and some in television). Every decade Lumet worked in has remarkable examples of his work. His most recent film, 2007’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, is as vital, if not more so, than directors half his age. Fail Safe could feel stagey or talky as it is heavily dialogue driven, yet it is always very cinematic and looks great. The cast, ranging from veterans to young up and comers always feels fully invested and the situations are riveting. In fairness to 1964 audiences though, I can understand how, after seeing Strangelove, the solution in this film might seem absurd. The president agrees that, if Moscow is destroyed, he will destroy New York City in exchange for the Soviets not retaliating. And then he does just that. Like the Kubrick film, it highlights the absurdity, though using a completely different technique. It’s amazing Lumet was able to sell this as believable. In an odd way, Fail Safe almost feels more optimistic about humanity. It ends very abruptly. And I felt for these seemingly good men who had to make this horrible choice. Strangelove, on the other hand, ends with the generals in the war room scheming about how, in 100 years, when the survivors emerge from the rubble, the Americans can start figuring out right away how to start getting the upper hand. In Kubrick’s world, the carnage is greater. Humanity is wiped out. But we had it coming.

The last 1964 film on the list is My Fair Lady. Winner of 13 Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor. I promised when I started doing this that I’d check my baggage upfront. I’ve already mentioned that Dr. Strangelove is one of my favorite films of all time. Truth is, it’s also the type of film I’m more inclined to like. Every other film on this list from 1964 is one I’m more inclined to like than this one. This is a studio picture directed by a man born in the 19th century who even described himself in such terms as “not an auteur” and “perfectly competent.” The casting for this film was based on who would sell tickets as opposed to who could do the job. As a result, Audrey Hepburn’s singing had to be dubbed by Marni Nixon. Baggage declared. That being said, I don’t feel like I went into this with a chip on my shoulder. It’s on the list. I wanted to give it a chance. And I liked it. For awhile. Though I thought Hepburn was overacting a bit in the early scenes, I often found myself laughing at her mugging in spite of myself. I found the film thoroughly engaging for the first half and a bit beyond. I enjoyed the acting, the music, the stylized approach. It actually has something in common with A Hard Day’s Night in the sense that it totally exists in its own world. I also appreciated the liberal use of Shaw’s dialogue from Pygmalion(the play it was based on). As a result, it certainly has a much better script than many musicals. Justin, my viewing partner for this one, was essentially on the same page as I was. Not inclined to like it, but curious nonetheless. In fact, he told me that one of the reasons he attended the screening is that he couldn’t imagine he’d choose it on his own. We were both charmed as the plot unfolded. As Eliza went from cockney flower girl to refined lady. It also occurred to me how Shaw was in a sense ahead of his time. That perhaps the sly social commentary on class anticipated the civil rights movement that was beginning to unfold. But maybe I’m giving it too much credit. Maybe this was just being in the right place at the right time. My point is that I liked it better than I expected. For a long time. But not long into the second half, we both started to tire. And when I say second half, I should point out that this is a nearly three hour film including an intermission. I’m not opposed to three hour films. To paraphrase Roger Ebert, no good film is long enough and no bad film is short enough. But it just didn’t feel like this one had enough story to justify its length. In the last half hour(perhaps more) it just started to feel a little self indulgent. Every song, when I thought it was over, just kept going. And going. I’m glad I saw this. I really think that these six films paint a picture of what was going on in cinema in 1964. But I must also add that of all the films on the list so far, it’s the one I’m least likely to want to watch all the way through again.

So that’s 1955 and 1964. Seven films. Five days. And ten days of other stuff happening. I promise to get this thing going again as soon as I can. You’ve been very patient, blogosphere. I promise I won’t let you down.

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