Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Movie List: 25-21

Where were we?

25. "It defeats its own purpose."

Raging Bull (1980)

Boxing offers archetypal plots that filmmakers can’t resist. The number of movies about boxers are out of proportion to even the sport’s heyday, which was a long, long time ago. Many of the sport’s giants have come from bad backgrounds, achieved great heights, and met ignominious ends. Many of its tomato cans are hard-luck studies in trying to flail your way out of a corner. The stories write themselves — or just about — which has led to the following, to name just a few: Body and Soul, Champion, Cinderella Man, The Champ, the Rocky series, Ali, Million Dollar Baby, The Boxer, The Fighter. Those are off the top of my head.

But Scorsese, being Scorsese, takes it to another level. First, as he always has, he got the best of Robert De Niro, who’s incredible here. And then there’s the composition, starting with the justifiably iconic title sequence, during which De Niro as Jake La Motta warms up in slow motion to a piece of music from Pietro Mascagni’s opera Cavalleria Rusticana. (You can hear cinematographer Michael Chapman discuss the popping light bulbs in that clip if you scroll down a bit here.) Chapman deserves a ton of credit for the film’s stark-but-lovely look.

There was a particular scene available on YouTube when I first started drafting this (in 1984), but it’s gone now. It’s at the public swimming pool, but Scorsese starts with the camera up high, then trails down a brick building, follows the path of a young black boy as he jumps into the pool, and then tracks across to De Niro. It’s a beautifully fluid motion, like reading. Raging Bull is like an unforgiving but lyrical novella; not exactly uplifting, but perfectly made.

24. “I swear, if you existed, I’d divorce you.”

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

Thinking about getting married? Or even just feeling affection for another human being? You might want to avoid this film adaptation of Edward Albee’s award-winning 1962 play. To understate it: Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor play a couple who don’t like each other. To properly state it: Take the angriest you’ve ever been. Take the drunkest you’ve ever been. Combine them. Multiply them by four. Add the most resentful you’ve ever been. Take one more drink. Now light yourself on fire. At that point, you might feel some fraction of what associate professor of history George and his wife Martha are feeling as they verbally assault each other.

Censors faced a string of impossible decisions, leading to outcomes like deleting the word “screw” from the film but leaving in the phrase “hump the hostess.” It’s easy to sympathize with their plight. The script certainly has its profane moments, but it’s more that the sheer intensity of the thing feels filthy. What do you make of a husband flatly saying to his wife, “There isn’t an abomination award going that you haven’t won”?

George Segal and Sandy Dennis are very good as Nick and Honey, the wispy young couple who are witness to the carnage, though the most unrealistic part of the movie might be that they don’t run screaming from the house after five minutes. Or less.

23. “Are you here for an affair, sir?”

The Graduate (1967)

22. “You’re not dying, you just can’t think of anything good to do.”

Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986)

Some people grew up with the height of the French New Wave, others during the Golden Era of 1930s Hollywood. I grew up in the 1980s. This position in the time-space continuum was not by choice, of course, but it certainly heightened my enjoyment of John Hughes’ movie about a Chicago teenager playing hooky with his best friend and his girlfriend, which came out in 1986, when I was 12 and orders of magnitude less cool than Ferris. (It’s 2012, and the grayer and pastier Matthew Broderick gets, the more I feel like I’m catching up.)

I can’t imagine there’s much more to say about this movie, so I’ll share a couple of facts learned from my old friend Wikipedia: One is that David Denby, a critic for New York at the time, called Ferris “particularly awful,” and “a nauseating distillation of the slack, greedy side of Reaganism.” The moral of the story? Denby is as dependable a guide as he’s ever been. (Though Wikipedia does say that Hughes was a Republican.) I also learned that “Several notable people have called Ferris Bueller's Day Off their favorite motion picture, including Wolf Blitzer, Dan Quayle, Michael Bublé, Simon Cowell and Justin Timberlake.” I didn’t opt to place the movie at No. 22 on my list instead of No. 1 to avoid being lumped in with that group, but I can’t say I’m upset about the coincidence.

Here’s one of those banal facts that still manages to feel earth-shattering (or at least rapidly age-inducing) to me: It’s been 26 years since Ferris was released, and there were 19 years between it and The Graduate. Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin Braddock is vastly different from Ferris (he’s closer to Ferris’ fragile best friend, Cameron, who contemplatively sinks to the bottom of a pool in a scene that echoes The Graduate), but the protagonists do share one thing, which is a sense of coming to the end of something with no idea what comes next. Ferris might play the uncertainty much cooler than Ben, but these are movies about blind transition out of youth. As the years pass, I take points away from The Graduate for all kinds of things — Hoffman’s performance is one-note; I love Simon & Garfunkel, but the songs don’t really fit the movie; Katharine Ross’ character is a weaker element than I think she’s supposed to be (but oh, Katharine Ross). But I still love its look and much of its humor, as in the scene when Ben meets Mrs. Robinson at a hotel. The shot of him holding the door for the parade of elderly people is great.

The Graduate is often talked about as a generational snapshot, but I think it holds up because of its oddball tone and its cinematic qualities. The Time Out film guide says director Mike Nichols “couldn’t decide whether he was making a social satire or a farce.” They mean it as insult, but that might be what makes it work. A pure farce or pure social satire may have misfired in any number of ways. This sometimes uneasy combination gives it a winning personality all its own.

21. "From now on, I would like to be a good guy, and a good gambler."

Guys and Dolls (1955)

There are many people under the age of 50 or so who have never seen this movie, and there are many people of all ages who have seen it and don’t like it very much. Leave aside, for a moment, that the people who don’t like it are implying that Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra could appear in something together in 1955 and that thing could be bad. That’s faulty argument No. 1. It’s true that some of the singing is amateurish, and if you’re not fond of Damon Runyon’s patois, I suppose this variation of it could grate. (I’m a big fan. “The oldest established permanent floating crap game in New York.” Come on.) There are some things, though, that are argument-proof, and this clip is one of them:



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