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.
What was it about these trading cards that made them so irresistible?
I grew up calling them Monster Cards, although that is merely a generic description. Collectors often refer to them as You'll Die Laughing cards. That is also incorrect. For many years, the proper name for this bizarre series eluded me, as I had discarded the colorful wax paper pack wrappers shortly after every purchase, and I was only five at the time. In fact, the fabled Topps collectibles were marketed as Creature Feature in 1973 with an initial run of 62 trading cards, followed shortly thereafter with a second series of 66. The images on those cards are still familiar to me all these years later.
The Creature Feature gimmick was as elementary as its target demographic. Black and white stills from old Universal Pictures horror films were given ridiculous dialogue captions. The reverse, printed in purple ink on gray card stock, featured a fanciful illustration of jovial monsters gathered around a tombstone, upon which was inscribed a terribly corny joke. Despite the heading You'll Die Laughing, it's unlikely that the lame attempts at humor provoked so much as a mild snort, let alone a lethal guffaw.
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.
John Watson regales us with yet another adventurous yarn.
There is a wonderful moment in John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces in which the eccentric protagonist is so incensed by what he sees on a movie screen that he cannot help shouting out his indignation. "Oh, good heavens!" bellows Ignatius J. Reilly to the annoyance and unease of fellow patrons. "What degenerate produced this abortion?"
Although I'm a passionate proponent of politeness in movie theaters, I can empathize with Reilly's plight. There is a point where one's artistic sensibility can become so offended that it is impossible to remain silent. That's why I'll be staying away from screenings of one of this holiday season's anticipated blockbusters, Sherlock Holmes. I wouldn't want to involuntarily proclaim my outrage aloud and thus violate my own standards for audience etiquette.
I enjoy the canonical Sherlock Holmes, which is to say that I prefer the novels and stories written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I'm not a snob about it, though - if a later author produces a story that is true to the spirit, logic, and language of the canon, I'm all for it. The original stories are so beautifully crafted that I find many adaptations enjoyable but nevertheless diluted. I'll take a good verbatim reading of a classic Holmes story over the best dramatization any day.
From the looks of the Guy Ritchie-directed Sherlock Holmes (if trailers and other advance publicity are any indication), this latest effort appears to be not so much an adaptation as an outright bastardization.