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Distant Relatives: Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and The Kids Are All Right

Robert here, with my series Distant Relatives, where we look at two films, (one classic, one modern) related through a common theme and ask what their similarities and differences can tell us about the evolution of cinema.

Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command

The relationship between art and social change is one open to debate, with some people believing that art is essential to such change and others believing that its influence is non-existant or minimal at best. Still, as society continues its constant march forward, we can disagree about whether great art can effect it, while perhaps agreeing that the best art often reflects it, becoming a statement of what it meant to be in a certain time and place while touching upon deeper human truths that elevate it to the realm of timeless. Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and The Kids Are All Right are two films from two different times in American history that deal with the changing definition of marriage. Both are domestic dramas. Both find their conflict by indroducing an unfamiliar outsider into a comfortable family atmosphere. But each handles the social issue at their center differently, the prior attempting to effect it, the latter to reflect it.
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner is the tale of a stalwart, liberal, San Francisco couple (Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn) whose stalwart liberalism is challanged when their daughter brings home her new fiance, a brilliant, black man (perfect in that he is Sidney Poitier, imperfect for that same reason). Director Stanley Kramer, a great craftsman who never met a social issue he couldn't direct the hell out of, fills the next two hours with a series of soul searching debates, safe revelations, long speeches, and a delightful scene where Tracy gets into a fender bender with a black driver while trying to procure himeself some comfort ice cream. "Thirty or forty bucks, that's how much" says the other driver when asked the approximate cost of fixing his car. And so it is, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner is a film of its time.
The Kids Are All Right tells of a long standing lesbian couple, Nic (Annette Benign) and Jules (Julianne Moore) whose family is thrown into chaos when their kids bring their own guest to dinner. In this case, it's the man whose sperm is responsible for both youngsters. Played by Mark Ruffalo as a free spirited man of the earth, Paul's intrusion is dangerous as a disruption of a family unit already fragile from nothing more than the emotional comings and goings of every day life. In a series of events that involve less pontificating than the older film, Paul comes to represent an individual escape for each family member, something new, exciting, refreshing, as they come to mean the same for him.


Tell me who are you?

While both films purport to begin from a place of viewer sympathy, traditional (whatever that means) married couples will find more in common with Nic and Jules than Dinner's Matt and Christina Dreyton. Matt is a newspaper publisher. Christina runs an art gallery. Their daughter Joey is studying in Hawaii when she meets Poitier's John Prentice. They are clearly the creme de la creme of society. Their lives, until the introduction of John are pretty perfect. Contrastly Nic and Jules are at a point in their marriage where their love for each other, while clearly evident, is starting to be overshadowed by the little annoyances, work stresses, and two teenage kids who are, as teenagers tend to do, struggling to find their places in the world. The fact that Nic and Jules are lesbians, while essential to the story, is also almost beside the point. Their family is your family.  

Guess who's Coming to Dinner casts the viewer in the role of the All-American white family who must deal with change when it shows up at their doorstep. The Kids Are All Right casts the viewer as the unconventional family with two matriarchs who must deal when the All-American man (what is Paul but a modern cowboy with a motorcycle instead of a horse?) shows up at their door. According to both films, if you’re of the family’s young generation, you’re likely to embrace or even introduce the change. If you’re parental but romantic, you’ll come around quickly, but if you’re stoic and cynical, you’ll take far more convincing.

We got this solid love

This casting speaks loudly to each films’ motives. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is a persuasive piece. It wants to change your mind and suffers from it. The film creates a number of devices to funnel every conflict into the interracial message issue. Included in this are the aformentioned beatification of Poitier’s character, his refusal to marry without the Dreytons’ consent, the short amount of time he and Joey have known each other (1 week -- drama!), Joey’s willingness to define herself only in terms of his wife (“and when we’re married, I’m going to be important too,” she says), and their impending departure to marry (that evening). Now, over forty years later when the interracial marriage element is a non issue, all of these, combined with the fact that Poitier is closer in age to his fiancee’s parents than hers, linger as genuine issues that you wish the characters would be reasonable to address. The film still stands as a slice of time and place but has cornered itself out of any larger universal context.
The Kids Are All Right is different. There’s no attempt here to manufacture drama. If the film does anything to make a persuasive argument for gay marriage it's by presenting Nic and Jules and their family as likable, flawed, realistic, capable of surviving great challanges but not without great effort. But generally the film seems disinterested in dignifying the debate by becoming piece of propaganda. The final statement seems to be one in favor of the strong bond of family. Only those who put in the hard work can be a part. So there is another common theme between the films, they are both strongly and progressively pro-family.

The final similarity between these two films (and by means of feeling I've been a little too hard on Guess Who's Coming to Dinner) is a great cast, a collection of fantastic performances, filmmakers who, whatever their motives, have a clear and great empathy and understanding of their characters, and a general sense that life is measured in dinnertimes, when everyone gathers around in anticipation of joy, drama, food and family.


Distant Relatives: Midnight Cowboy and The Fighter

Robert here, with my series Distant Relatives, where we look at two films, (one classic, one modern) related through a common theme and ask what their similarities and differences can tell us about the evolution of cinema.  This week there are definitely SPOILERS AHEAD, not necessarily specifics but revelations in terms of happy ending or sad ending. Be forewarned.

Two men looking for the American Dream

In the 1960's Easy Rider, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Midnight Cowboy and other films followed an emerging theme, two brethren on a quest for success, triumph, togetherness, the American Dream. It may seem odd to consider The Fighter a descendant of this type of film. Indeed The Fighter (2010) and Midnight Cowboy (1969) come to drastically different conclusions about how attainable the dream is, but their journies to that concusion are consipuciously similar, especially in terms of the relationship between the two men at the center of the stories.

In Midnight Cowboy, Joe Buck (Jon Voight) has dreams of making it big in the male prostitution business, but can't seem to get out of small time transactions. "Ratso" Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), the untrustworthy but sympathetic loser who eventually takes him under his wing, has no hope in life without Joe. When Joe makes Rizzo his manager of sorts it's a move that he needs and yet one that keeps him teetering on the edge of success and failure. Eventually the men will become brothers in their quest for a better life. So it is with real life Mickie Ward (Mark Wahlberg), the underachieving boxer who needs his actual brother Dickie (Christian Bale), a drug addict and perpetual screw-up, but the only man who can lead him to a world championship.

The Adonis and the Scofflaw

The two man story structure isn't anything new, nor was it anything new when our earlier film was made in the 1960's. In fact, in the world of comedy, the straight man/comic relief duo has always been standard. And it's that structure that both of our stories share in common. Not to suggest Ratso or Dickie are "comic relief." They're definitely the more animated character who stands in direct contrast to their straight man. This is what makes Midnight Cowboy the more significant cousin to The Fighter. Butch and Sundance don't have this dramatic a dynamic, nor do Billy and Wyatt.

While The Fighter asks us to make comparisons between Dickie's past failure and Micky's impending failure that Midnight Cowboy does not, both present a picture of men on different sides of their hopes and dreams, one beyond hope, and one filled with it. They are a contrast of sickness and health.

A man's got to make a living

Consider also the similarities between the jobs of Joe Buck and Micky Ward. I don't mean to suggest that the legitimate pursuit of boxing is equal to prostitution, however both present opportunities for the film to comment on the projection of the protagonist's success, one opponent/clinet at a time. Something between luck and talent lead to whether the next opponent/client will be an improvement over the last, a step in the right direction. So it is with the American Dream, half luck, half talent. But in these cases, all the more apparent when noticed one job at a time.

Inevitably Midnight Cowboy ends by declaring the death of the dream, and finishes off with an actual death to symbolize this. For The Fighter the dream is achieved, renewed even through the symbolic renewal of a character. Is the fact that the modern film ends happily a sign that audiences reject the suggestion that the dream is dead? Not necessarily. The truth is far more complex than that. Plenty of films with harshly realistic endings these days find success on their own level. Suggestions about the declining taste or tolerance of the modern moviegoer need not be marked against a film as lauded as The Fighter. What is telling about the film is, considering just how many inspirational sports films, even boxing films, there are, filmmakers wanted to tell this story. It is perhaps because it presents something new to the feel-good genre: the idea of opposites, but brothers, playing off each other in their quest for something great.


Distant Relatives: Annie Hall and (500) Days of Summer

Robert here, with my series Distant Relatives, where we look at two films, (one classic, one modern) related through a common theme and ask what their similarities and differences can tell us about the evolution of cinema. We'll be getting to some of this year's Oscar nominees shortly. But for now take a breather.

Women are from Mars, Men are from Venus

Turn on the television and chances are, especially if you're watching a commercial, for light beer, you'll get a pretty simple and standard view of the battle between the sexes. Men are aloof, sex-craved pigs who want to watch sports and pick up dumb girls while tolerating their nagging girlfriends who read romance novels and would prefer it if their boyfriends would talk more about their emotions like they do. This easy narrative is supposed to be funny because it's based in truth. If that was ever the case, it seems that now we've gotten to a point where reality has folded over on itself and now people believe truth to be based on this narrative.
Truth is, most of the guys I know are like Alvy Singer or Tom Hansen, men who, due to a combination of self doubt, loneliness and a good helping of life's little disappointments have placed an unreasonable but understandable amount of importance into the hope of finding that perfect girl who will comfort wounds, give endless encouragement and generally elevate their existence on this planet (did I say "guys I know?" I speak a bit from experience as well.) Annie Hall and (500) Days of Summer are two films about two such men thinking they've found it only to realize that it is a lot more complicated than they wanted.

Sad Sack

Alvie Singer, twice divorced, product of a dysfunctional existence, career in neutral due to a self-imposed principle of avoiding L.A. falls hard for the down home girlish charms of Annie. Tom Hanson, failed architect, hopeless romantic, equally falls hard for Summer. She likes The Smiths, she sings Karaoke and she takes an interest. The film suggests she has something of an indefinable "it" factor. I will define it (in her and Annie's cases) as accessibility. Pretty women usually strike fear into the hearts of men like Alvie and Tom. One who doesn't inevitably becomes one of those girls who everyone falls in love with. Whether they are really as accessible as they appear is another thing.
Summer Finn and Annie Hall are significantly different, perhaps products of their time. Summer's fear of commitment and disbelief in love stem mostly from her parents' divorce. Contrastly, Annie comes from a Norman Rockwell-esque existence. She doesn't mind commitment but wants to enjoy life and make the most of her big city opportunities. Summer and Annie don't need to be similar for these films to adequately reflect one another, they just need to be equally incompatible with Tom's romanticism and Alvy's pessimism... and they are.

Boy does not get girl back

Both films are disinterested in giving us a structured throughline of a relationship's destruction, and have a nature to jump around within time or the minds of our protagonists. Yet in doing so, both give us a fairly honest portrayal of a brief relationship: two people whose differences are danced around, denied and avoided until they have to be faced, overcome or the relationship ends. Both men, like so many men in films these days, like so many films themselves these days, see women in terms of how they effect their own lives, not as fully formed people, but means to the end of endless happiness. Both do so at their relationship's peril.

In (500) Days of Summer, Tom often defines his life by the culture he knows. When he's happy he becomes Han Solo, bluebirds dance on his finger. When he's sad, his misery manifests itself as a French or Swedish art film. This idea, of media defining our lives is often considered a new one, brought on by endless exposure. But it's not that new. Woody Allen was doing it in Annie Hall.He envisions Annie as Snow White's evil queen. He produces Marshall McCluhan at will to win an argument. People have been defining their lives with concepts and images from art since art has been expressing our emotions better than we could. As someone who's uttered the phrase "I'm due back on planet Earth now" or whose been tempted to break out dancing to "You Make My Dreams" I suggest that these two films have now joined the ranks of such art.

As for the major differences between the films, thematically there aren't many. Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, roll credits, may not be the escapist fare that people think they want to see, but these films prove that there can be plenty of laughter and insight in the journey. Alvy Singer's observation that we keep falling in love because "we need the eggs" still remains true (not to mention one of the best observations ever made in a film). Perhaps that's a testament to human nature. As much as the world has changed between 1977 and 2009, some things always stay the same.



Distant Relatives: Solaris and Inception

Robert here, with my series Distant Relatives, where we look at two films, (one classic, one modern) related through a common theme and ask what their similarities and differences can tell us about the evolution of cinema.

Less human than human

It may seem hard to believe now but the original intent of science fiction wasn't mindless entertainment. These days, the intelligent sci-fi movie is rare enough that it needs to be noted, but back in a time before time, exploring issues of social awareness, philosophy, and humanity was the purpose genre. Inception is a film that's been criticized and accused of a good many things. It's been called too complex, and not complex enough, shallow, convoluted and cold. But in its best moments and in what it eventually narrows down to it hints at this question: In the equation of reality, how much is objective fact and how much is our own perceptions and projections? Should we and can we accept the parts of reality that may or may not exactly be real?

We don't know for sure if Andrei Tarkovsky, famous heady Russian filmmaker would find fault anywhere in Inception. But it's well known that his most famous film Solaris was a reaction to 2001: A Space Odyssey, which he considered too cold and distant. That film follows Kris Kelvin, a scientist widower who travels to investigate strange occurrences aboard a the Solaris space station. Once there his wife reappears to him, although both she and he know that she is merely a projection of his psyche made flesh by the mysterious planet Solaris. After failed attempts to send her away (she keeps reappearing), Kelvin must decide whether he'd rather lose a lonely reality in turn for a world of fiction... but potential happiness.

Connections between the two films are immediately apparent. Both protagonists' wives are not only deceased, but of suicide, a plot device responsible for creating the most intense grief.  Both films present us with two states of being, either Earth/Solaris or dreams/waking and both protagonists must decide between the two of them.
In Inception, all of the business about implanting an idea in a man's head and corporate intrigue is almost a macguffin, a plot device which exists to place DiCaprio's Cobb deep into his own subconsious (represented by the Limbo). Here is a concept that Solaris does not share. There is no macguffin, no sideways entrance into the psyche. Tarkovsky doesn't wait long (by Tarkovsky standards) to put Kelvin into contact with his "wife".

You don't really exist

just reflections of real people

Each film's protagonist is a man in reality. When the film asks questions about humanity we experience it through him, his pain, his desperateness, and ultimately his decision to accept or reject reality. But to appreciate the questions raised it helps to understand the events through the prism of the deceased wives. Kelvin's wife Hari has consciousness and is by all standards an autonomous being but one who realizes that she is a construct of her husband's perception. Inception's Mal, as a projection of Cobb isn't necessarily a sentient being, but as we see her in flashbacks, as we know the real Mal, we see a woman who is constantly uncertain of whether or not the world around her is real or not, and struggles to knw how much of it is simply her creation. These women give us a good sense of how these films view the human condition, in both an active and passive sense. We need not be in a dream to wonder how much of the world around us is influenced by our own projections like Mal, nor do we need to know we're fictitous like Hari to recognize that the only understanding anyone can ever have of us is skewed by their own subjectivity. The world never exists in an objective state to us, and we never exist in an objective state to the world.
When Inception begins Cobb is already mimicing Mal's state of uncertainty at the reality of their reality. Cobb understands that dreams can be so convincing that one can become lost without ever knowing it. Conversely Kelvin doesn't fear getting caught in unreality and is always aware that his wife is, in fact, not real. But he fails to recognize the power of the dream and soon her unreality doesn't seem to matter as much to him.

'Tis better to have loved and lost...

would you give up reality if it never existed in the first place?

You mean more to me than any scientific truth. - Solaris

In comparing Inception with Solaris, it's easy to dismiss Inception as the big blockbuster for the masses that gives its medicine with a heaping helping of sugar while trumping Solaris as a highly-demanding work of art that isn't diluted by explosions and car chases. But that would be unfair. Nolan may serve up his philosophizing surrouneded by a buffer of entertainment but he's reached more people recently than Solaris, which wasn't exactly a big hit when it was released even among the idealized, Godfather and Nashville-going audiences of the 1970's. If anything, Inception proves that people aren't as opposed to complex films as Hollywood thinks. No, Steven Soderberg's Solaris didn't do so well, nor would Tarkovsky's today, though I doubt either of those men would have made changes for the sake of a bigger audience.

Which suggests that audiences will only go so far. Yes, Inception's insight isn't at the level of Solaris's, and yes Inception is often criticized for glossing over its climactic reality vs fiction decision. But like Solaris, the film ends on a vague suggestion that all along, the distinction between fact and fantasy may not have really made a difference. One great writer said of the film, "This exploration of the unreliability of reality and the power of the human unconscious, this great examination of the limits of rationalism and the perverse power of even the most ill-fated love, needs to be seen as widely as possible." Of which film, you ask? Such is their similarity that it could be either. And I have to wonder, does the reality matter?



Distant Relatives: F for Fake and Exit Through the Gift Shop

Robert here, with my series Distant Relatives, where we look at two films, (one classic, one modern) related through a common theme and ask what their similarities and differences can tell us about the evolution of cinema. There's a mixed response on the internet in terms of how much of Exit Through the Gift Shop to reveal.  Some people will tell you nothing, some will give you a smattering of plot.  I'll do the latter, though I won't give away any secrets (for I know none) but I will discuss some of the mysteries.

F for Film

When Orson Welles made F for Fake in the mid-70's his reputation was somewhere between visionary director of the greatest movie ever (he'd won his honorary Oscar a few years earlier) and washed up, indecisive, expatriate.  Far removed from the War of the Worlds episode, it's unclear how many people saw him as the master charlatan he proclaims himself as the host of his film.  At the time F for Fake was a strange and new type of documentary.  More essay than narrative, Welles himself serves as ringmaster, telling us the stories of famous art forger Elmyr de Hory, fake biographer Clifford Irving, and others.  When it premiered it was, predictably shunned by a public who didn't know what to make of it, the other bookend to Welles' cinematic career.

Exit Through the Gift Shop is the first film by Banksy, English street artist, man of mystery whose identity is still unknown and whose work has sold for thousands of dollars thus legitimizing the street art movement and thus doing what to it?  The film follows Frenchman Tierry Guetta who uses his ever present camera to chronicle the likes of Banksy and Shepard Fairey before taking up the movement himself to much success, and dismay of his contemporaries.  The major debate sparked by the film is whether Mr. Guetta, who does his art under the pseudonym Mr. Brainwash and is never actually shown creating is, in fact, a creation of the film itself, meant to make some larger point about commercialization or populism.

The joke is on us

Elmyr de Hory - fake

Welles and Banksy are clearly two personalities who enjoy their self-adopted trickster status and relish any opportunity to embellish it.  But is the joke on us?  Is our deception, our infuriation, part of the point?  The idea of passing off something fictional as something true wasn't invented by Welles or Banksy.  They join a large collective which includes Michelangelo's early forgeries, P.T. Barnum's famous claims, Vladimir Nabakov's Lolita prologue, Peter Watkins' films, Andy Kaufman, everything Andy Kaufman, Jonathan Swift's misunderstood commentaries, into modern times with Sacha Baron Coen, the Blair Witch Project, or Joaquin Phoenix (though let's not get into that).
Let's talk about Werner Herzog who believes that verite truth is overrated.  In his documentaries he often stages moments and feeds lines to his subjects.  Why?  Because sometimes manufactured reality is more truthful than actual reality.  Truth is something both Welles and Banksy are going for through these films which are works of art.  This is where questions and realities begin to double back on top on themselves.  If art is a fictional representation of the world (even, as Herzog believes, the most untouched documentaries can't achieve objectivity), then what about fictional representations of art?
But is it art?

Thierry Guetta - fake?

What is art is a question that isn't likely to lead to any consensus, but it is what Welles and Banksy are asking with these movies.  If Elmyr and Mr. Brainwash have achieved success through their art (in sales, museums and galleries) then what sets them apart from "real" artists?  Perhaps success isn't how we should judge art.  Perhaps it should be up to the critic and the expert.  But as Oja Kodar, Welles' lover and subject of F for Fake suggests, what purpose serves the experts if they can't deciper the fakes?  If the experts disappeared, would the fakes?  These films leave us with more questions than answers.
Exit Through the Gift Shop is one of several recent films which have generated a surprising amount of controversey over just how many of their elements are fictional or not (it's hard to generate controversey these days without wading into the pools of political opinion or explicit content).  Here perhaps lies the significant difference from F for Fake to Gift Shop.  Welles' subject Elmyr was well known as a forger.  Clifford Irving was eventually outed as a fraud.  Even Welles reveals his hand at the film's finish, quite a ways after it's gone off the tracks.  But don't expect Banksy to give us any answers any time soon.  Perhaps for him, and for a new generation of charlatan artists, truth need not be revealed as if it's fact.  Truth is in the eye of the beholder.


Distant Relatives: Blazing Saddles and Hot Fuzz

Robert here, with my series Distant Relatives, where we look at two films, (one classic, one modern) related through a common theme and ask what their similarities and differences can tell us about the evolution of cinema.

Bad boys, bad boys, whatcha gonna do

It shouldn't come as a shock that Blazing Saddles and Hot Fuzz have basically the same setup: outsider comes to small town where he has a hard time fitting but eventually becomes the only man who can save the village.  It's not that Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg and Mel Brooks and his co-writers all coincidentally had the same idea.  Truth is, the western and cop movie, the two genres being spoofed here, are the same genre only set 100 years apart or so.  In both cases, an outsider protagonist (not even literal outsiders, moral outsiders like High Noon's Gary Cooper or Serpico's Al Pacino work too!) creates drama by pitting the hero against insurmountable odds in an environment he doesn't know.  In both cases a lovable sidekick helps grund him and a conflict only he can solve elevates him to hero status (in terms of both his success and rare skill).

The protagonists of Blazing Saddles and Hot Fuzz couldn't be more different but they're similar in that they contradict expectations set up by their genres' more serious films.  Nick Angel (Simon Pegg) is a good cop who plays by all the rules.  He isn't exactly Detective Riggs.  Sheriff Bart (Cleavon Little) is vulgar, vain, charming, clever, and doesn't care to know the rules enough to break them.  He isn't exactly John Wayne.  The towns they inhabit, aren't so much contradictions of cultural portrayals as exaggerations.  The town of Sandford is comically peaceful, playing off the idea of the quaint and safe countryside of movies like Local Hero.  Rock Ridge has fun with the towns of the old west, with cows rummaging through churches, and citizens all named Johnson.

That's Entertainment

Each film skewers the genre it spoofs and eventually becomes.  How do they do this?  First by establishing a world where everyone knows the elements of that genre.  In Hot Fuzz it's easy.  Since the film is set in modern time, anyone can go down to the local store and rent a copy of Bad Boys.  In Blazing Saddles, while it seems like a good assumption that no one there has seen a western, they still know their roles, appreciating good old fashioned gibberish, getting annoyed at classic western cliche and genuflecting the very mention of Randolph Scott.  By giving everyone an understanding of how their world "should" work, they've made them extra-aware of when it's not actually working in that manner, like when a series of unusual crimes begin to unfold.

If comedy is inconsistency, then Brooks and Wright set up meta-levels of self awareness by which the characters can be inconsistent.  Each film culminates in the ultimate self-aware spectacle.  In Hot Fuzz this involves the plot actually turning into that of a generic action blockbuster.  For Blazing Saddles, the action literally spills off the lot and onto other films.

But did we learn anything?

The big difference between these two films, as anyone would note, is in social commentary.  Blazing Saddles, though often saddled itself with the qualifier "a film like this could never get made today" is an argument for tolerance, using the uber-racist town of Rock Ridge as a mirror for our reality.  While one could argue that the small town of Sandford in Hot Fuzz is a take on a "violence begets peace" mentality not uncommon in our world, it might be a bit of a stretch.  Hot Fuzz doesn't have a social message.  Is that a sign that as satire, message movies are dead?

What Hot Fuzz does suggest however is a reality in which we're so immersed in media and culture that we can no longer separate it from ourselves.  Culture is not a reflection of us, instead we are a reflection of it.  Blazing Saddles, with its self awareness and unending pop-cultural references often suggests the very same.  Both films get their laughs by creating worlds that couldn't exist without the totality of pop to be built upon.

The suggestion that the spoof film is dead is one made not without merit.  Such films still get made, just not often well.  What the evolution of Blazing Saddles to Hot Fuzz suggests is that while grand social statements aren't necessary, some statement, some observation about our reality is.  References to culture alone won't do it.  Some greater truth has to be revealed, whether it be the dark side of our society or the overbearing anti-originality tendencies of our culture.  There's truth there.  And truth is funny.

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