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Entries in Distant Relatives (42)

Thursday
Mar292012

Distant Relatives: Brief Encounter and Once

Robert here w/ the secone season finale of Distant Relatives, exploring the connections between one classic and one contemporary film.

Hollywood has a pretty un-nuanced idea of infidelity. Whether cheating is bad usually depends on whether or not it's our protagnist who's doing it. If they are, then their current spouse is probably evil or terrible or unsympathetic and totally worth cheating on especially when the lover in question is most likely a soulmate of some sort to our protagonist. The details may differ but the situation is always perfect for drama. What our two films this week, which are tellingly not from Hollywood but across the pond, have in common is that both are more interested in the subtleties of infidelity than the overdramatics.
 
One place where our films differ is in the genders of our heroes. Brief Encounter is the story of Laura, a British houswife with an unextraordinary existence who meets a charming doctor named Alec Harvey and slowly begins to fall for him as he does for her. Once follows a pretty typical street musician (unnamed in the film, credited as "Guy") who dreams of something greater and begins to collaborate with and develop feelings for an immigrant girl (credited only as "Girl") and she for him. But despite this gender difference between the two films, they are vastly similar.


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Thursday
Mar222012

Distant Relatives: The Bicycle Thief and The Road

Robert here w/ Distant Relatives, exploring the connections between one classic and one contemporary film. This week the last in a three part series on how one classic film can have many children.
Cormac McCarthy's novel The Road will most likely always be remembered as a great novel first and a somewhat well received film second. But whatever your opinion ofthe film, and the consensus seems to be that it could have benefited from a little more Bicycle Thief-esque neo-realisism (indeed it's the only of the three "children" of The Bicycle Thief that we've looked at, that isn't heavily influenced by that style), it's hard to ignore the relationship between the two films as two tales of a father and a son wandering through the remnants of humanity.
 
But before we get into the father/son dynamic, it's worth noting that the heightened reality of post-apocalyptic cinema and the unavoidable realism of wartime pictures (and by that I mean films shot in a country during wartime or immediate post-wartime, not romantically shot prestige pictures) are fascinatingly similar. More after the jump...

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Thursday
Mar152012

Distant Relatives: The Bicycle Thief and Broken Flowers

Robert here w/ Distant Relatives, exploring the connections between one classic and one contemporary film. This week the second in a three part series on how one classic film can have many children.

Broken Flowers isn't exactly a sexy subject for an article. In 2005, it came and went as a well received if unextravagant entry in the Jarmusch canon and another minimalist comedic melancholic performance by Bill Murray in the style of Lost in Translation. But the reason the film won me as its champion over five years ago is the same reason it fits together so nicely with The Bicycle Thief is the same reason it was dismissed by so many. This film is not about what you think its about.
 
Hitchcock called it a "macguffin." It's the plot device that exists to drive the film, but isn't really what the film is about. In The Bicycle Thief, that device is a bicycle stolen from Antonio, a poor man who needs it for work. In Broken Flowers it's a letter from an anonymous ex-lover of Don Johnston (Murray) claiming that he has a son. In both cases, this early development sets our protagonists out on an almost impossible odyssey to either find and retrieve the lost bicycle or find and reclaim the unknown child.


 

Long before modern independent filmmakers were finding influence from The Bicycle Thief (discussed last week), Jim Jarmusch was borrowing the realist aesthetic back in the 1980's as a great way to stylistically account for having little to no budget. It shouldn't be surprising that his films, which often feature social outcasts on a quest owe much to Vittorio De Sica and his neorealist contemporaries. Especially in Broken Flowers, because in both films the climax does not solve the problem or the "macguffin" put forth in the film's first act.
 
We don't know if Antonio will ever find his bike or if Don will ever find his son. It doesn't matter. The resolution of these mysteries are not the purpose of our films. The purpose is in the journey. Generally, more viewers seem to accept this in the older film, possibly because it's foreign or because those seeking it out have a greater understanding or expectation of its purpose then anything that must be marketed for modern audiences.
 
But it's not infrequent for this concept, the unresolved mystery to be met with shock. So it was in the 60's when a missing person in the Italian film L'Avventura went undiscovered. And so it was a few years ago when a showdown over a satchel of money in No Country for Old Men never came to fruition. The purpose is in the journey, not the payoff.


 

It may be too strained of a connection to suggest that both Antonio and Don's journeys are mid-life crusades to make something of themselves in the eyes of their progeny. But it's not too much to say that both missions end in abject failure, both take desperate men and hurl them deeper into desperation than they ever thought possible. Both films reveal to their protagonists truths that they failed to truly understand before: the importance of family, the dangers of vanity, and the interconnectedness of hope and pride.
 
What matters at the end of both films isn't whether their journeys have been worth taking, but how they have come to define these men's lives. Like last week, the resolution isn't particularly cheerful, but the humanity both filmmakers show toward their protagonists is palpable and the suggestion that even in middle age, a life can become redefined is powerful.

The saying "life's a journey, not a destination" is as cliched as they come. But perhaps we've not heard it enough if films with ambiguous or unresolved endings like these continue to inspire apathy or derision, or an inability to see the massively changing lives unfolding in front of us.

Thursday
Mar082012

Distant Relatives: The Bicycle Thief and Wendy and Lucy

Robert here w/ Distant Relatives, exploring the connections between one classic and one contemporary film. This week the first in a three part series on how one classic film can have many children.

After a year that celebrated films about redemption and sentimentality, it's difficult to look at movies about poverty and struggle and not feel like a downer. But there's a reason why a film like The Bicycle Thief, or its neo-realist brethren is considered among the best of all time. Similarly, there's a reason why enough young filmmakers today are inspired to take on that same topic of hardship to make up a small movement that's frequently labeled "neo-neo-realism" (if you're into things being labeled), including Wendy and Lucy. And it has nothing to do with presenting a vision of a world devoid of hope or happiness.
 
The old joke phrase, "I'm not a pessimist, I'm a realist" doesn't apply here. The purpose of these films isn't to convince you that the world is impossibly sad. So instead, replace the word "realist" in that phrase with "humanist" and consider that the success of these films is based on the fact that their creators truly care for their subjects. How many Hollywood blockbusters that present use with canned happy endings, have no real interest in the actual humanity of their characters?
 
The Bicycle Thief and Wendy and Lucy present humanist portraits of two troubled souls on a quest to improve their lives and keep their families together. It makes no difference that in one case "family" is traditionally defined and in another it's a girl and her dog. Companionship is companionship as is unconditional love. And in both cases, this singular quest gets sidetracked with familial consequences.

The plot of The Bicycle Thief is well known for both its simplicity and effectiveness. Impoverished Antonio, having just secured a new job that requires a bicycle, has his bicycle stolen out from under him. He wanders through the streets of his village accompanied by his young son, hopelessly attempting to catch the thief and retrieve his bike. Of course, additional things happen, but this is all the viewer needs to know. We may not have all felt this level of desperate, but we can all understand desperation. Similarly Wendy and Lucy can be summarized to easily evoke emotions. A poor young woman, Wendy and her constant companion, her dog Lucy, are on their way to a better life in Alaska. When Wendy is detained by the police, Lucy disappears and she'll spend the rest of the film trying to find her.
 
The humanism in these films lies in the fact that we care for these characters vicariously through the eyes of their directors, and in doing so understand that there are those who similarly care for and empathize with us in our moments of need. We root for both of these characters even as their missions seem to be leading them toward the same inescapable conclusion.
 
It's a conclusion as inescapable as their poverty, and it's that understanding that further connects the two films. Why is it so difficult to ascend financially in the world? Because even a small disaster can derail a life. A stolen bicycle, a broken car, a lost dog, can bring an immediate end to a hopeful journey. For the wealthy, minor nuisances are just that - minor, forgettable, easily overcome.

 
In addition to their own diminishing success in life, Antonio and Wendy have to contend with the fraying bonds of their family, another theme familiar to us all. There is a moment where you realize that your relationship to someone close has been eternally altered and can never go back, and both of these films present these tragic moments as yet another consequence of their noble but unachievable goals.
 
The Bicycle Thief
and Wendy and Lucy succeed by compelling us so easily to root for Antonio and Wendy. We feel their frustrations and successes so completely. To do so both directors utilize a style of simplicity and obtrusiveness. Obviously this is where the "realism" part of their respective movements comes from. But it's unfair to dismiss the obvious, since it contributes so much to these films' brilliance. By intimately placing us next to the action in the role of the all-seeing camera, these films make us a part of the story and give us no choice but to be surrounded by their reality, feeling all of its humanity, and depositing us on the opposite side of tragedy, and in doing so making us feel perhaps the slightest glimmer of hope once again.

Thursday
Mar012012

Distant Relatives: Lolita and Shame

Robert here w/ Distant Relatives, exploring the connections between one classic and one contemporary film.

We shouldn't be talking about these things. And by "these things" I don't necessarily mean sex in general. Sex is okay filtered through the acceptable narratives of or cinematic pop-cultural lexicon. The happy conquests of the charismatic man are a fine topic for a film, as are the the constant failings of the empathetic dope. The female sexual experience is okay as along as it kinda mimics the male sexual experience. Basically we're willing to watch attractive actors an actresses roll in the sheets as long as their sex lives are at their own command. We do not take well to stories of people whose sexual desires do the controlling.
 
Lolita's Humbert and Shame's Brandon are two such people. Though it seems like they have it all. They're attractive, rich, sophisticated, educated and lead lives of effortless good fortune. Brandon's good looks and success place no limits onto the conquests craved by his sex addiction. Humbert's ridiculous luck places him as the sole guardian of a pretty young girl whose already had just enough experience to alleviate him from any guilt. The only thing Humbert and Brandon lack is someone else to blame.
 
As spectators to their inevitable downward spirals, it's difficult to watch them make all the choices that lead to their sad end and then feel sorry when they get there, especially when they leave casualties in their wake. The films they inhabit don't ask us to sympathize for them with a wink of dramatic irony like A Clockwork Orange or The Godfather (both great films) do with their protagonists. Instead they ask us to observe and then try to grasp the incredibly complex realtionship we have with the power of our own desires.


 

This is such an easy source of drama that on most any evening you can find television shows about addicts and hoarders and attempted interventions. On most supermarket shelves you can find magazines with tales of celebrities suffering from addictions. Psychological damage sells. The best of these paint complex portraits of real people trying to survive in a world that demands they be at war with themselves. The worst of them gleefully invite us to shed our empathies and delight in the chaos. It's difficult to have empathy for someone like Brandon whose problem includes attracting a plethora of beautiful women that would make any man jealous. And it's even more difficult to have empathy for someone like Humbert who preys on children.
 
Add to this the fact that both films omit any context in which to place our sympathies. Shame clearly suggests that Brandon has been damaged somehow, but we never know how. The most common criticism of the film is of its lack of backstory. But I wonder if such details are relevant. Do certain backstories justify his behaivor while others don't? Or would some at least invite our sympathy more than others? It's easy for us to postpone our emotional investment in someone until we have more details. But that's not what the movie asks of us.
 
In the case of Humbert, while the novel Lolita clearly sets up his penchant for young girls, the film omits this entirely. I've often wondered how viewers in 1962, who didn't have the backstory of the book reacted when their hero began to covet the young Dolores Haze. Of course the film had little choice than to convert the story into comedy to soften the blow. But there's still a surprising amount of drama and suffering to be had among the proceedings. And comedy or drama, there's only so much you can tiptoe around the central plot of a man lusting for an adolescent.
 
Then there are the other victims of these men's desires. Brandon's severly depressd sister Sissy, who pursues her sexual needs just as nihilistically as Brandon, but has to be chided and demeaned for it. And there's Humbert's Dolores, who has little time in life to be anything other than an object of temptation. Even her mother, the comedic relief, bumbling, boisterious Charlotte doesn't deserve her fate.


 
Which leads us to the real question that both of these movies are asking, whether either of these men truly deserve their fates. It's a complicated one, and based on the way audiences have reacted to these stories, over the past few months or past few decades it's a question we're still nowhere near answering. I imagine there's more goodwill present for Fassbender's Brandon since he's not involving himself with anyone who can't give legal consent (yet I can assume that more good judgment has been unknowingly discarded as a result of Fassbender's piercing gaze than Mason's droll sophistication). Then again, Humbert gets what's coming to him. He ends up punished for his crimes. Brandon merely ends up once again at the beginning of the cycle. What goodwill does that invite?
 
Perhaps the moralities of these films are so difficult to digest because they present not a simple world of monsters and victims, but a complex one of hurt people who hurt people, where the only monsters are us, when we look the other way and demand an easier reality.

Friday
Feb242012

Distant Relatives: Limelight and Hugo

Robert here with my second Distant Relatives of the week, making sure the series covers the major Oscar contenders before the big day (sorry The Help). Plus, Hugo arrives on DVD Tuesday for those of you who haven't yet seen it.

 

Two weeks ago I compared The Artist to Sunset Blvd delighting in the contrasts between the inspirational modern film and the cynical classic. Hugo might have been an even better point of comparison to Sunset Blvd since both are about young men discovering titans of the silent era whom time has forgotten but a film has many fathers and I'm intrigued by the relationship between Hugo and a film like Charlie Chaplin's Limelight. Like Hugo, Limelight is a film about a rediscovered artist, that's really a film about love of silent cinema that may really really be about the filmmaker himself.
 
There must have been several things compelling Martin Scorsese to adapt the book "The Invention of Hugo Cabret": Scorsese's legendary love of cinema, his passion for the cause of film restoration and preservation, and as his story goes, a desire to make a children's film that his own child could watch. But might the tale of an underappreciated filmmaker from years past held more personal resonance? In Hugo our hero Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) discovers the presence of Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley) through a series of adventures in the train station in which he lives. Through further adventures the young boy attempts to bring about Méliès rediscovery.


 

In the age of the home viewing and the internet it's pleasant to believe (however optimistically) that we don't forget such brilliant filmmakers. But how often must Scorsese have heard in recent years that his best, most productive years and most influential films were behind him. In fact, any of his contemporaries from the 1970's, George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, Woody Allen, have heard the same from time to time or quite often. And while we may not forget their seminal works as the world forgot the work of Méliès, how quick are we to dismiss them as great artists of the past or bores of the present.
 
Speaking of which, Charlie Chaplin made Limelight in 1952, almost twenty-five years after the arrival of talkies forever changed his canvas. Of course he hung on as long as he could, making silent films or semi-silents until the late thirties and then scoring a couple of talkie hits. But by the time the fifties came around, Chaplin was most definitely yesterday's news. It's not surprising that he wrote a film about a long forgotten clown named Calvero (Chaplin) rediscovered by a beautiful ballerina (Claire Bloom) and eventually given the tribute he deserves. Of course the film isn't about the art of the clown as much as it is the art of the silent comedian, punctuated by final performance by Calvero and his old partner (played by Buster Keaton). And of course the film isn't about anything as much as the lost prestige of Chaplin who was being banned from the US for his "communist sympathies" just as Limelight was being released.


In these films about young characters who discover old artists, it's entirely possible that Scorsese and Chaplin feel a kinship with the characters of both generations. While it's debatable that Scorsese sees similarities between himself and Méliès, I don't doubt that he knows what it's like to be Hugo, the young boy whose life is defined by the magic of movies. And Chaplin may not be an exact match with the ballerina who falls in love with a clown, but he certainly has an understanding of being a performer whose life is altered after discovering the brilliance and art of real clowns.

What's further telling is how the young people in both films lead sad, dreary, almost hopeless lives until they discover the magic that the rest of the world has forgotten. For Chaplin and Scorsese, these films are a look back at their pivotal moments and a look forward at those who may very well be discovering them, and perhaps a plea for our own lives and our own sakes, not to forget the magic. In an odd way they're both true stories too, however embellished. Méliès was re-discovered and re-appreciated in his life. And the real-life counterpoint for Calvero the clown had his moment too.

Thursday
Feb232012

Distant Relatives: Kramer vs Kramer & The Descendants

Robert here w/ Distant Relatives, exploring the connections between one classic and one contemporary film.

The final Oscar campaign push for The Descendants painted it in the grand tradition of much Oscar-loved domestic dramas like Ordinary People or Kramer vs. Kramer. Okay, good enough for me. Let's compare. Particularly, for me, I like the Kramer vs. Kramer contrast, since both films follow the "absentee mom and fallable but ultimately well-meaning dad" narrative that seemed to really build steam in pop culture after Kramer vs. Kramer hit it big.
 
Consider it a kind-of anti-screwball comedy genre, not necessarily a response to men exiting the workforce, but to taking on roles that a quickly changing society had traditionally considered to be for women. At their best, such films could suggest that any gender-based definitions and divisions of spousal and parenting duties were ridiculous, cultural and social construct that need no longer apply. At their worst they featured the zany consequences of macho men taking on tasks that required them to be caring and nurturing... you know like women's work (I can't imagine a demographic or orientaton of people that films like this wouldn't offend in some way).


 

Both Kramer vs Kramer and The Descendants fall clearly into the better half of this equation. But there are other traps of which they skirt the edges. Consider, that the majority of films, then and now are made by men and for men...  [Continue]

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Thursday
Feb092012

Distant Relatives: Sunset Blvd and The Artist 

Robert here w/ Distant Relatives, exploring the connections between one classic and one contemporary film.

How does one begin to discuss The Artist in terms of just one distant relative? The film is a paean to all films silent-era Hollywood and enough films stretching far beyond the silent-era including Singin' in the Rain and A Star is Born, to which it owes story elements, Citizen Kane from which it borrows specific conceits and Vertigo... well, we'll leave that one alone. But I think the connection that intrigues me the most is notable not for what the two films have in common, but in how they differ.
 
The Artist tells the story of dashing silent film actor George Valentin and his fall from grace juxtaposed against rising talkie star Peppy Miller who, in a cruel twist of fate, is an ingenue he discovered. Sunset Blvd enters the world of former silents star Norma Desmond as discovered by aspiring screenwriter Joe Gillis, a world overgrown with bitterness, denial and impending senility.


 
Sunset Blvd is in a way the anti-Artist. If you started with one similar concept and gave the script to a half-glass-full director and a half-glass-empty director, you'd quite possibly end up with The Artist and Sunset Blvd. The similarities are obvious enough. Both films are about silent stars whose downfalls hasten when "words, words, words" make their way into motion pictures, soon making them quite irrelevant. George Valentin and Norma Desmond suffer the same fate, and the requisite eventual drinking and depression. The only difference is, Norma's "savior" finds her many years too late.
 
I use the term "savior" pretty liberally here, since this is where the films' paths really start to diverge. Peppy and Joe have enough in common. They're young. They're attractive. They're eager to make it into show business. And they have the one thing that Valentin and Desmond do not: potential. Now keep in mind, that's only true as defined by their genres. In a film noir, potential is a hack and a cynic stumbling into a good idea. In a feel-good film it's the rise of a dreamer.
 
However, these two have polarized motives. Gillis (our hero mind you) is in it for himself. He's using Norma's help to propel his success. Peppy quite contrarily is using her success to help George. And herein lies the reason these films reach their different conclusions, not to mention the reason why one of them is on it way to the Best Picture Oscar while the other didn't win the prize.
 

It's about appreciation. Peppy appreciates the classics, the silents, the stars. She loves them as we love them. And as our hero (if we can call her that since Valentin doesn't do anything active to save himself) this love propels her to be one of the most decent, morally unimpeachable movie characters in recent years. And then there's Joe. Joe Gillis doesn't care, and vicariously through him, nor do we, and even further than that Sunset Blvd suggests that very few do, and nowhere included in that few is anyone in show business. It's a dark, cynical accusation that no one cares about the old "wax museum" of stars whose talent built up the picture business. It's a sentiment that's not particularly easy to vote for even if it happens to lead a film that is both brilliant and in many ways, honest.


Which makes me wonder, has much changed since 1950? Certainly we now have home video, we have streaming and the internet. The brilliance of the slient era is more accessible than it's ever been, and that allows for a sizable fanbase. And what about within the world of The Artist? Valentin's discovery of Peppy originally seems like a spoonfull of irony but turns out to be uplifting cinematic karma. If she were not there to save him, would anybody? Would Valentin end up just like Norma Desmond? Would The Artist become a cautionary tale instead of an inspirational one?
 
The Artist was made in 2011 and takes place in the late twenties, early thirties. Sunset Blvd was made in 1950 and takes place in 1950. Therein may lie the ultimate clue to why these very similar films reach very different conclusions. Nostalgia is always inspirational. Reality, not so much.