Saturday, February 04, 2012

On War Horse

Steven Spielberg's movie about a horse who goes to war is as pretty as it is preposterous.  It's gotten positive reviews from a wide array of critics, including some very good ones, and a Best Picture nomination.  It's better than I thought it was going to be; given the advertising I had pretty low expectations.  It just looked like the most overbearing schmaltzy nonsense, but I should have remembered that even the worst Spielberg films at least look great.  This is going to end up sounding more negative than I really feel about the film, mostly because I just don't understand the arguments being used to in favor of its greatness.  I thought it was fine, a lovely, silly movie.  Better than Baz Luhrmann's Australia and Ron Howard's Far and Away, but somewhere in that area.

One thing that constantly pops up in reviews of the film is that it is a harkening back to an older style of filmmaking, often dropping names like Ford, Lean, Borzage and Capra and genres like melodrama, but I don't really understand what is so old fashioned about it.  There are shots that recall Gone with the Wind and The Quiet Man, but that's not what people are referring to, and anyways the film is more Spielbergian in visual style than anything else (and he remains a composer of lovely, often striking images and excellent editor, this film would play brilliantly with the sound turned off).  The film's sentimentality can't be what is old fashioned about it, because sentimental films get made every year, and it seems to me that the kind of sentimentality it presents, a very obviously constructed and manipulative kind of sentimentality, is more a product of modern cynicism than anything else, that and the obligatorily overbearing John Williams score.  This kind of broad emotionality has long been a major part of Spielberg's work, but I'd say it's a lot more effectively done in films like ET or Empire of the Sun, which are grounded in a real world filled with unusual and complex characters, than this one which exists in a kind of theoretical movie-world filled with cartoons. 

I'm frankly flabbergasted by any comparisons with John Ford, who never made a film whose characters and relationships were this lacking in nuance.  Franks Borzage and Capra make a little more sense, but in their films the emotions grow organically out of the characters and their specific spiritual/political belief systems, whereas in War Horse every sequence is built instead around the emotional note Spielberg wants to hammer into you.  Compare the construction of a Borzage film like Street Angel or Seventh Heaven, built around small-scale character interactions that slowly build to an ecstatic spiritual release, one that, despite its unreality is made believable by the solidity of the characters and their relationship with each other, to the construction of War Horse, which leaps from emotion to emotion with no time for character development in between.  This is partly a byproduct of the film's episodic nature, but even the central relationship of the film, the one that bookends and unbalances it, the relationship between Albie the English Farmboy and Joey the Horse begins at 11 and never modulates, never deepens.  Instead, the characters we get are pure types: precocious but sickly girl, kindly grandfather, naive kids, cruel German and all kinds of horse-lovers: melancholy rich officers, kind-hearted fat man, determinedly insouciant Englishmen, etc.  It's telling that the most authentic, believable relationship in the film, and one of the loveliest same-sex partnerships I've seen in awhile, is between two horses.

Bilge Ebiri makes a decent case for the movie over at his blog and I buy what he's saying up to a point, especially as regards the film's ending, which he seems to think is a lot less happy than the way most people seem to be reading it.  It's telling, though, that his case for the film is almost entirely based on its visual style, the way the film builds its story of war from the bucolic beauty of the 19th Century to the mechanized horror of the 20th.  In this reading, the ending, with its enflamed sky and characters as silhouettes (a striking homage to the end of the first half of Gone with the Wind) is not so much a vision of redemption and triumph, but of a world consumed by fire, reducing humanity (but not the horse) to shadows.  I can ignore a lot in a film in favor of a few great moments like this, and while War Horse does have several moments as great as any in any film this year, there's just too much nonsense to overcome for me to really consider it a great movie.

Friday, February 03, 2012

The Laurel & Hardy Project #1: Thundering Fleas

The first film in the boxset is an Our Gang short from July of 1926.  The first several films in the set predate the beginning of the true Laurel & Hardy partnership (that's coming up in film #16, Putting Pants on Phillip), and this one doesn't feature Stan Laurel at all.  It's included because Oliver Hardy has a small part as a cop.  Hardy had a lot of roles like this, appearing in over 250 movies, before becoming a star.  Unlike vaudeville and music hall veterans like Chaplin, Keaton or Laurel, Hardy wasn't a trained comic actor.  He was a movie fan who got into the business as a movie theatre worker (usher, projectionist, manager) then got a job as a grip and script clerk and eventually as an on-screen actor.  He started at a small studio based in Jacksonville, Florida in 1913, at a time when Hollywood hadn't quite yet established itself as the movie capital of the country.  He later made films for studios in new York before moving to Los Angeles in 1917.  After freelancing for a year, he spent 1918-1923 working for Vitagraph and began working for Hal Roach in 1924.  Roach was one of the most successful comedy producers in history, producing films by Harold Lloyd, Our Gang, Charley Chase, Will Rogers and Harry Langdon, among others.  It was at the Roach Studios that Laurel & Hardy became a team and they stayed there until 1940.  All the films I'll be covering in this set, as far as I can tell, were made at Roach.

This Our Gang film is a good example of the kind of supporting roles Hardy would play before his breakthrough with Laurel.  The plot involves the kids hanging out before a wedding, when one of them wanders off with his dog and watches a flea circus.  The fleas jump on the dog and make their escape, causing itchiness in all the humans the kid and dog come across.  Hardy plays a local cop who gets a flea infestation, takes his pants off to shake the fleas out then has his pants stolen.  After painting his long underwear black, he chases down the kids to get his pants back.  The fleas then invade the wedding and hilarity ensues.  It's totally silly and surprisingly charming, and it integrates animation pretty well with closeups of the fleas riding bicycles and wearing hats and such.

The Laurel & Hardy Project

Around 5:30 AM a couple months ago, I caught a showing of the Laurel & Hardy short Two Tars on TCM and absolutely loved it.  The guys play a couple of sailors who cause a great deal of destruction at a traffic jam for no particular reason other than the pure joy of creating chaos.  This struck a chord with my newborn-addled mind and, after some helpful advice from this thread (where a commenter provides this brilliant explanation of the boys to his young daughter: "They're both dumb, but the fat one thinks he's smart"), I went and bought this massive Laurel & Hardy boxset from  It's bigger than the American DVD collection as it includes their silent films as well as their talkies.  My task then, is to watch all the film in the set, in chronological order and write about them here.  This is the list of the films, along with disc number and release date as provided by a helpful commenter at the amazon site, with links to the reviews added as I write them:

1. Thundering Fleas (21) 04.07.1926 
2. Along Came Auntie (9) 25.07.1926 
3. 45 Minutes from Hollywood (12) 26.12.1926 
4. Duck Soup (12) 13.03.1927 
5. Slipping Wives (10) 03.04.1927 
6. Jewish Prudence (21) 08.05.1927 
7. Love 'Em and Weep (8) 12.06.1927 
8. Fluttering Hearts (21) 19.06.1927 
9. Why Girls Love Sailors (16) 17.07.1927 
10. With Love and Hisses (7) 28.08.1927 
11. Sugar Daddies (8) 10.09.1927 
12. Sailors, Beware! (16) 25.09.1927 
13. The Second Hundred Years (12) 08.10.1927 
14. Call of the Cuckoo (12) 15.10.1927 
15. Do Detectives Think? (20) 20.11.1927 
16. Putting Pants on Philip (15) 03.12.1927 
17. The Battle of the Century (19) 31.12.1927 
18. Leave 'Em Laughing (2) 28.01.1928 
19. Flying Elephants (17) 12.02.1928 
20. The Finishing Touch (14) 25.02.1928 
21. From Soup to Nuts (1) 24.03.1928 
22. You're Darn Tootin' (11) 21.04.1928 
23. Their Purple Moment (13) 19.05.1928 
24. Should Married Men Go Home? (7) 08.09.1928 
25. Early to Bed (8) 06.10.1928 
26. Two Tars (16) 03.11.1928 
27. Habeas Corpus (20) 01.12.1928 
28. We Faw Down (13) 29.12.1928 
29. Liberty (20) 26.01.1929 
30. Wrong Again (20) 23.02.1929 
31. That's My Wife (9) 23.03.1929 
32. Big Business (12) 20.04.1929 
33. Unaccustomed As We Are (7) 04.05.1929 
34. Double Whoopee (14) 18.05.1929 
35. Berth Marks (6) 01.06.1929 
36. Men O'War (16) 29.06.1929 
37. Perfect Day (2) 10.08.1929 
38. They Go Boom! (2) 21.09.1929 
39. Bacon Grabbers (20) 19.10.1929 
40. The Hoose-Gow (19) 16.11.1929 
41. Angora Love (20) 14.12.1929 
42. Night Owls (12) 04.01.1930 
43. Blotto (18) 08.02.1930 
44. Brats (5/21) 22.03.1930 
45. Below Zero (11) 26.04.1930 
46. Hog Wild (14) 31.05.1930 
47. The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case (6) 06.09.1930 
48. Another Fine Mess (1) 29.11.1930 
49. Be Big! (18) 07.02.1931 
50. Chickens Come Home (8) 21.02.1931 
51. Laughing Gravy (10) 04.04.1931 
52. Our Wife (4) 16.05.1931 
53. Come Clean (8) 19.09.1931 
54. Pardon Us (19) 15.10.1931 
55. One Good Turn (3) 31.10.1931 
56. Beau Hunks (4) 12.12.1931 
57. On the Loose (9) 26.12.1931 
58. Helpmates (4) 23.01.1932 
59. Any Old Port! (16) 05.03.1932 
60. The Music Box (14) 16.04.1932 
61. The Chimp (17) 21.05.1932 
62. County Hospital (2) 25.06.1932 
63. Scram! (12) 10.09.1932 
64. Pack Up Your Troubles (15) 17.09.1932 
65. Their First Mistake (15) 05.11.1932 
66. Towed in a Hole (16) 31.12.1932 
67. Twice Two (5) 25.02.1933 
68. Me and My Pal (4) 22.04.1933 
69. The Midnight Patrol (20) 03.08.1933 
70. Busy Bodies (14) 07.10.1933 
71. Dirty Work (14) 25.11.1933 
72. Sons of the Desert (13) 29.12.1933 
73. Oliver the Eighth (6) 13.01.1934 
74. Going Bye-Bye! (20) 23.06.1934 
75. Them Thar Hills (2) 21.07.1934 
76. The Live Ghost (16) 08.12.1934 
77. Tit for Tat (2) 05.01.1935 
78. The Fixer Uppers (10) 09.02.1935 
79. Thicker Than Water (3) 16.03.1935 
80. The Bohemian Girl (9) 14.02.1936 
81. On the Wrong Trek (13) 18.04.1936 
82. Our Relations (5) 30.10.1936 
83. Way Out West (3) 16.04.1937 
84. Swiss Miss (17) 20.05.1938 
85. Block-Heads (7) 19.08.1938 
86. A Chump at Oxford (1) 25.01.1940 
87. Saps at Sea (11) 29.04.1940 

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

On The Artist

It'd be really easy to get all worked up about how bad this is, how it distorts not only the aesthetics of silent cinema but history itself in order to tell a pretty simple (yet still largely nonsensical) story, about how the decontextualization of of pastiches like this are indicative of the modern world's haphazard approach to history, of the elevation of ignorance to a virtue in the name of an all-out assault on elitist experts who have the temerity to know things about things.

I could complain that the movie seems to have been moved forward in time two years for the sole reason that the director seems to think it'd be funny for the lead's final silent film to be released the same day as the stock market crash.  By 1927, when the film begins, talking pictures were widely seen as inevitable.  Certainly by 1929, when the lead declares them a passing fad, they were an inescapable, established fact.  Less egregious is the film's closing tap dance number, scored to a "Sing, Sing, Sing" style Swing number in 1932, a few years before one could reasonably expect to hear Swing music, certainly outside a Harlem club.  I could also get worked up about the fact that the only sung song in the film is "Pennies from Heaven" , a wonderful song from 1936.  The weirdest thing about the film is that it exists entirely in its own universe: there's never any mention of any actual films, people, studios, music, anything.  It doesn't take place in our world, but one of those vaguely real counterfactual places you get in an essay by a terrible history student.

Lots of people get worked up about the Vertigo music used in the film's dramatic climax.  Kim Novak got worked up about it and used the word "rape".  The music is jarring, it doesn't fit the mood of the scene, though it would if the film was going in a different direction entirely, a more specific Hitchcock kind of thing where the girl is a creepy stalker or something.  It would be less jarring if the rest of the score was made up of references to other movie scores, but the rest of it is just stuff that sounds vaguely like older movie scores, not the thing itself.  That stuff could bother me as well, but I'd be more upset about the resolution of the scene, which goes for the tasteless Spielberg fakeout where you think something terrible is going to happen but it turns out to be a joke instead (think the shower scene in Schindler's List).

I could get worked up about the total lack of motivation for the main character, that he deals with the transition to sound in a wholly irrational way for no apparent reason.  He doesn't have an obstacle to overcome, his career flounders because he refuses to make sound movies.  But there's no reason for that.  We're not told he has a weird voice or thick accent, which was the main reason many silent film actors couldn't make the transition.  The film just assumes that silent stars couldn't be talking stars, which is simply false (one of the film's in-jokes is a quote of the famous Greta Garbo line "I want to be alone" so obviously the filmmakers are aware that there were actors who were big in both silents and talkies).  A possible motivation might be an Erich von Stroheim-style ego meltdown, that he is an "Artist" who refuses to compromise his art with sound and creates a giant flop that ruins his name in Hollywood.  This appears to be the approach, but we see no artistry at all in the guy's films.  They appear to be nothing but silly (anachronistic, as this wasn't a genre at the time, but apparently a reference to the director and star's OSS movies) spy movies (at one point we see footage of Fairbanks's Zorro with our hero clumsily spliced in, but making him a Fairbanks figure doesn't do much for the uncompromising artist angle (Fairbanks's decline had to do with middle age and bad movies, not an unwillingness to adapt the purity of his vision (which he never really had to begin with))).

Anyway, I could get all worked up about all of that, but there's really no reason to.  It's a light, at times effervescent film with some really wonderful moments (the Borzage-referencing jacket scene is one of the loveliest things I've seen in quite awhile) and what appears to be a genuine affection for film history.  It's a pleasant, cute film with some charming actors and a talented dog and to call it any less than that is to judge it as something it's not intended to be.  There's no reason to get worked up about it because there's no reason to take it that seriously.  No one takes it seriously, right?  Right?