It's an utter indulgence, but for the second year in a row, my wife and I have seen all nine of the Best Picture nominees prior to the Academy Awards. Indulgent, I say, because the aggregate twenty hours and nineteen minutes that we spent watching the films might have been put to more practical use doing nearly anything else, not to mention the bucks frittered away on our admission and concessions tab. Still, there are worse things you could do with your time and money, and as a means of distraction from the dreariness of winter, it's cheaper than professional therapy (and perhaps nearly as beneficial). Plus we're all set to be the hit of the cocktail party, should we ever attend one.
Overall, I found more enjoyment and enlightenment in last year's crop of nominees, a diverse lot of worthwhile films with an average running time of 125 minutes. This year's average is 135 minutes, which is the time-consuming equivalent of adding a tenth movie to the mix. More and more audiences have been exiting theaters asking, "Why? Why did the movie have to be so long?" The unfortunate answer, I'm afraid, is "It didn't."
What do Brad Pitt, Viola Davis, John Goodman and Jessica Chastain have in common? Each of them appears in two of the nine movies nominated for Best Picture of 2011 by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Four of the films include French settings or characters, three of them use World Wars I or II as plot elements, and two of them feature a boy trying to strengthen ties to his late father by solving the mystery of a missing lock or key. Aside from all that and a pervading air of nostalgia, the field of nominees is most notable for its diversity. Good luck to the Academy trying to sort it all out, because these nine films are nearly incomparable.
The Artist may appear to casual moviegoers as the oddball of the bunch. After all, it's a silent movie shot in black and white. This does not, however, signal pretentiousness. On the contrary, it's a very accessible, entertaining film that's bound to charm anyone who gives it a chance. Best Actor nominee Jean Dujardin and Best Supporting Actress nominee Berenice Bejo are magnetically charismatic as falling and rising stars at the dawn of the talkies. Those with a fondness for silent cinema will enjoy the evocation of that era, but it's not necessary to be a film buff to like The Artist. It's a lightweight yet engaging romance, a rare crowd-pleaser that does not pander to its audience.
One of the things that I love about the Internet is the way that it snatches dormant media from obscurity, allowing us to experience anew that which hitherto existed in the far recesses of our minds as the merest fragments of memory. Whether it's a long-forgotten commercial or pages from an old Christmas catalog, it seems like everything that was ever broadcast or printed is being digitized, tagged, and archived for our instant access. Can't get a fragment of an ancient advertising jingle out of your head? Google a few words, and you'll likely hear it in its entirety. Thinking about the colorful cover of a paperback you once owned? Someone, somewhere, has scanned it, along with the artwork for every other known edition of the title.
Thanks to that other resuscitator of bygone entertainment, Netflix, I recently followed a trail of mental breadcrumbs back to one of my earliest memories. I was watching Who's Minding the Store, a seldom-seen (and justifiably so) Jerry Lewis vehicle from 1963. Released just five months after Lewis's brilliant The Nutty Professor, the Frank Tashlin-directed Store is a cinematic abomination that is nevertheless worth watching for its immortal typewriter routine as well as the sheer, audacious chutzpah of its star's performance. What caught my attention, however, was the unique diction of supporting player John McGiver. I knew I had seen him in other productions, yet I could not name any.
IMDb to the rescue! Soon I was poring over McGiver's filmography, and while searching for movies and television shows in which I was likely to have seen him, I was absolutely gobsmacked by the presence of a film I had certainly never seen. In fact, I had wondered whether or not my mind had made up this curious title I recalled being promoted when I was quite young. But there it was: Arnold, released in November of 1973. For years I have carried around in my mind the latent trauma of being exposed to its advertising campaign, which scared the hell out of me as a sensitive and neurotic five-year-old.
"Fear not! It's only a picture of a train!" Learning the language of cinema in 1895.
SPOILER ALERT! If you are like me and prefer to know as little as possible about a movie before seeing it (I don't even like to watch trailers for this reason), then be forewarned that the following post discusses key plot elements of Christopher Nolan's Inception. Furthermore, if you haven't seen Inception, I recommend that you read no further and see the movie at your earliest convenience, before someone tells you all about it. Just think about how much more fun Psycho would have been if you hadn't already known what was coming. You'll enjoy Inception more going into it blind.
A cartoon I remember from years ago depicted a couple leaving the cinema. The man opines, "I didn't care much for the plot, but I did enjoy the illusion of motion created by the projection of still frames in rapid succession." I still smile whenever I think of that cartoon, because not only is it funny, but it also it also says something about the way our minds are accustomed to films and television. That anyone should go to a movie and simply appreciate the technological trickery that makes our brains perceive moving images is laughable to us now. What we often do not recognize, however, is the sophistication of our collective perception, that we understand what we watch because we have learned the conventions of cinema.
There is the famous apocryphal story of the audience reaction at the premiere of Auguste and Louis Lumiere's 1895 short The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station. Running only 50 seconds, the pioneering film's documentary content is aptly summarized by its title. According to legend, viewers were so alarmed by the moving image of an approaching train and so unaccustomed to cinematic illusion that they reflexively took evasive action so as not to get run over. You can judge for yourself by viewing the original footage, which wouldn't hold a modern audience's attention for half its length. At the end of the 19th Century, though, content hardly mattered. Just watching projections of apparently moving images was captivating.
Oh, the many pleasant hours I spent plucking junk from its spring-loaded jaw!
We are in full summer mode here in the Hunt household, and perhaps there is no greater indication of our seasonal relaxation than the fact that we have just sacrificed four consecutive evenings to view the entire Jaws tetralogy. This is what can happen when you have time on your hands and the ability to stream Netflix offerings on your TV. It all started innocently enough on Sunday evening, the first of several nights that our eldest daughter was away at camp, thus reducing the number of family members needed for unanimous entertainment option agreement to three. Somehow the availability of Jaws for streaming came up, and it struck each of us as a fun viewing choice for different reasons. My wife remembered seeing it many years ago. Our youngest daughter had heard about it and was intrigued. And me? I came within a shark's tooth of seeing Jaws at a drive-in in the summer of '77.
It is easy now to forget just how big a pop culture phenomenon Jaws became after its 1975 release. The movie allegedly deterred impressionable viewers from enjoying the beach. It was memorably lampooned in the famous "Landshark" sketches of Saturday Night Live, an effects-laden sendup called "Jowls" on The Carol Burnett Show, and a classic Mort Drucker/Larry Siegel movie parody in MAD magazine. Among the merchandising tie-ins was an Ideal Jaws game that featured a G-rated version of the Freudian movie poster on its box (minus the naked woman swimming above the advancing shark). I owned the game, which consisted of a hollow plastic shark with a hinged jaw, upon which an assorted of marine detritus was balanced. Players used a small hook to retrieve the items, until at last the weight of the remaining pieces no longer counterbalanced the tensile strength of attached rubber bands, whereupon the jaws suddenly snapped shut. I thought the game was great.
A couple summers later I was asked by a friend to accompany her family and some other kids to a drive-in showing of Jaws. I was incensed when my mother firmly declined the invitation on the grounds that the movie was too disturbing for anyone my age.
Ever have one of those days?
"I've been nominated for membership in the National Geographic Society."
"Aw, youth is wasted on the wrong people!"
"This old thing? Why, I only wear it when I don't care how I look."
"Well, I'm sorry - HEY!"
"Out you two pixies go, through the door or out the window!"
If the previous quotations are instantly recognizable to you as lines of dialogue from It's A Wonderful Life, and if you cannot read the words without also hearing them and visualizing their associated characters, then you and I have something in common. We're two among the countless devotees of the 1946 Frank Capra classic, its sights and sounds replaying within our cerebral folds after many hours of repeated exposure. There's only one reason why anyone would voluntarily watch a movie again and again, and that is, of course, that you like it. Obvious, right? But the widespread appeal of this film is varied, and perhaps the only thing upon which all lovers of it will agree is that it is a great movie.
As for me, and in the words of Henry F. Potter, "I'll go further than that." I think It's A Wonderful Life is as close as anyone has come to making a perfect narrative movie.