AFI #7: Lawrence of Arabia

lawrence-of-arabia

“The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts.” — T.E. Lawrence

Let’s see, a four-hour movie set in the Arabian desert with no women in the cast and long, drawn out scenes of emptiness. Yeah, that’s good for seven Academy Awards including Best Picture. Lawrence of Arabia is nothing if not ambitious. The trick indeed is not minding that it hurts.

If I’m being honest I didn’t really like Lawrence of Arabia. I mean, I sort of liked the first few hours, but by the time I got to the three-hour mark I was done. I made it to the end, but I lost interest around the time the Arab army attacked Damascus. I get that Director David Lean was going for long and slow to simulate the vastness of the desert, but he could have easily told this story in 120 minutes instead of 227. And yes, the cinematography was wonderful but after a while it too got boring. It’s interesting to me that The Bridge on the River Kwai (also directed by Lean) was #36 on this list despite being a much better film in my humble opinion.

Alas, I was not an AFI voter so my opinion doesn’t count. I did enjoy quite a bit of Lawrence of Arabia. I thought Peter O’Toole was great, but I’m a big fan. He’s one of those actors who always seems to play Peter O’Toole in films (my favorite, for the record, was 1982’s My Favorite Year). O’Toole has this amazing way of looking both serious and like he’s up to no good at the same time, which was a key attribute of his Major T.E. Lawrence. I also thought Omar Sharif was fabulous as Sherif Ali and Anthony Quinn was brilliant as Auda Abu Tayi. Too bad I can’t say the same thing about Alec Guinness, who was miserably cast as the Arab Prince Feisal — really, you can’t find a middle eastern actor to play the role of a sheik so you cast an old white British guy? Was Omar Sharif the only middle eastern actor in Hollywood at the time?

The film also has some very classic lines, so kudos to the screenwriter and likely the real Lawrence may have had something to do with it as well given the film is based on his life and the book he wrote about it. Here’s a gem:

General Murray: I can’t make out whether you’re bloody bad-mannered or just half-witted.
T.E. Lawrence: I have the same problem, sir.

Ultimately I’d say Lawrence of Arabia was decent but too damn long. Certainly not one of the top 10 American films ever made. One of the most ambitious…sure.

Next, another behemoth: Gone With the Wind

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AFI #8: Schindler’s List

SCHINDLER'S LIST (1993) OLIWIA DABROWSKA STEVEN SPIELBERG (DIR) 025 MOVIESTORE COLLECTION LTDI’m not going to attempt to provide a review of Schindler’s List because frankly it’d be a waste of time. It is clearly one of the greatest films ever made and to offer my semi-professional opinion on it as a film would be unfair to Mr. Spielberg. Suffice it to say Schindler’s List is brilliant. As are the performances by Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes and Ben Kingsley.

Instead, what I’d like to offer is my opinion on the purpose of film in general. Because let’s be honest, Schindler’s List is not entertaining and I have argued on this blog before that the main purpose of movies is to entertain. When I saw Schindler’s List I walked out of the theater looking like I’d been run over by a train. I was emotionally drained and disturbed. I swore to myself I would never see it again, despite believing that the film was so important that everyone in the world had a responsibility to see it. I didn’t want to see it again because as someone who grew up in the Jewish community I had had my fill of Holocaust education. I knew everything I needed to know about these tragic events and, well, “never again.” Of course, Schindler’s List added the previously unknown story of Oskar Schindler and the Schindler Jews, but once I knew that story I didn’t want to be reminded again about the Nazis. But I have been pretty true to watching these AFI films again, and in order, so I carved out three hours recently and watched it again.

So is the purpose of film to entertain? As I said above, I have used “lack of entertainment” as an excuse for why I haven’t enjoyed some of the films on the AFI list. But in the past couple of days I have seen several films that reminded me that film is art and art can also be educational. In some cases, art can even be revolutionary. In that context, Schindler’s List is as important a film as has ever been made. If art can cause a sea change in ideas and understanding, then that too is a worthwhile purpose. Entertainment is important, but so is providing understanding and empathy and knowledge and context of history. So for that reason I can say Schindler’s List is one of the most important films ever made and if being important is a measure of art then Schindler’s List is also a great film — even though it is not “entertaining” in the popular sense.

Ultimately I go to films to be entertained, but as a lifelong learner I also go to films to be educated. Documentary films do this, but so does drama (fiction or based on true events). For example, just because Dances With Wolves is fiction does not mean it does not effectively educate viewers on the events surrounding the extinction of Native Americans. And of course, any drama is “based on” true events. Filmmakers take literary license and that’s ok. Even documentary filmmakers take license and spin stories to their narrative.

I also watch films to be moved. I was thinking about this very thing the other day when I was coming out of a screening of Kill Your Darlings, which was based on true events. I loved the film, and I loved it because it was a tremendous story and I love a good story. I always say I like to be entertained, but what I really mean is that I love to be taken on a journey. It’s why I love to read fiction and why I love movies and even story-driven television shows. And it’s why I have spent close to two years now watching every damn film on the AFI top 100 list!

Next: Lawrence of Arabia

AFI #9: Vertigo

james-stewart-vertigo-thumb-400x230-32546Vertigo is the fourth and final Alfred Hitchcock film in the AFI top 100, and of the four I’d rank it as the second best behind North by Northwest, which is one of my favorite Hitchcock films and #55 on the AFI list. For the record, my favorite Hitchcock film is To Catch a Thief, which is not on the AFI list

Vertigo is a solid thriller, with an incredible twist that catches most viewers off guard. The film is almost always included by reviewers as one of the best American films ever made and some even suggest it is the best American film ever. I don’t know what film those people watched, but like a lot of films it likely gets better the more you think about it afterward. I did some reading about the film after viewing it last night to see what all the fuss was about, and much of it centers on the themes rather than the plot. In that retrospect, and in an Academic sense, the film does indeed deal with several key issues not the least of which is society’s manipulation of and abuse of women. Vertigo centers on John “Scottie” Ferguson, a retired cop who unbeknownst to him is set up by an old college buddy to play a role in a crime. Of course, the crime is perpetrated upon a woman and even after the deed is done Scottie himself takes advantage of a woman’s love to its sordid and unfortunate conclusion. Even the subplot, the suicide of a woman 100 years earlier, is misogynistic. The film is all about the manipulation and destruction of women!

Which brings us to Mr. Hitchcock himself. Some critics believe Vertigo is a self-analysis of Hitchcock himself, with the Jimmy Stewart character as Hitchcock. If so, is Hitchcock self-aware of his misogyny or is the film a critique of those who criticize him? I’m not sure, but there is certainly a lot written about it on the Internets. One thing that is clear is that in many of Hitchcock’s films his lead female characters are icy cold women to whom bad things happen. This is clearly the case in Vertigo with the demise of both Madeleine and Judy and god only knows what Hitchcock is trying to say about manipulative women with the mother in Psycho! I’ll give him this much, he sure knows how to pick gorgeous women to star in his films. Kim Novak is stunning in Vertigo (both playing Judy and Madeleine) and I gushed about Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest. But without question his most beautiful star, and for my money one of the most beautiful actresses of all time, is Grace Kelly who not only stars in Rear Window but is also the star of To Catch a Thief and Dial M For Murder.

So, what is Hitchcock’s legacy relative to the AFI top 100? His four films on the list is the top performance by a director, so does that make him the best American director according to AFI? I’d say several directors have had better single films, but it’d be hard to argue that Hitchcock didn’t have the greatest portfolio of films ever. My personal opinion is that he’s easily one of the top 10 best directors ever, though I wouldn’t put him at number one. That place is reserved for Martin Scorsese in my book, followed by Woody Allen and Spike Lee. But that’s an argument for another blog post!

Next up: Schindler’s List

AFI #10: The Wizard of Oz

“I have a Feeling We’re Not in Kansas Anymore.”

I doubt there is anyone in America who has not seen The Wizard of Oz, a film that has become a part of American pop culture to the point it continues to be shown each year on television and nearly 70 years from its premiere kids still dress as Dorothy, the Scarecrow and the Tin Man for Halloween. Although for my money a better costume would be a flying monkey!

wizard-of-oz-updated-6I don’t have a lot to say about The Wizard of Oz. It is a cottage industry in and of itself that has spawned sequels, prequels and reinterpretations. Frankly I like it, but I don’t get the hype around it. I’m not a big musical guy, though I don’t mind them. I certainly like fantasy films, though following yellow brick roads and killing witches with buckets of water doesn’t do much for me. Like most people, I have seen it tons of times and know it by heart. I had a favorite character as a kid (the Scarecrow) and hid under the bed when the wicked witch came on the screen. I have probably made references to munchkins or Toto or the lollypop guild over the years. I enjoyed seeing the actual ruby slippers at the Smithsonian.

I can also appreciate the filmmaking genius of the movie. It was one of the first films to be shot in Technicolor. It had a huge costume and makeup and set budget and it employed hundreds of actors (large and small). It was probably the first visually stunning film, and even the black and white parts are done in sepia tones for added effect. It has some nice songs, including the ubiquitous Oscar winner “Over the Rainbow.” And best of all, it has some great urban legends attached, like the one about the munchkin who hung himself and accidentally was left swinging from a tree in one scene in Munchkinland (not true) and the one about the fact that Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon syncs with it if you begin the record at the exact moment the MGM lion roars (also a bunch of hooey kept alive by a generation of stoned teenagers).

I’m not going to argue over its placement in the AFI top 100 nor will I argue about its placement in the top 10. I get it. It’s influential. It was a first-of-its-kind and it has staying power. I just don’t like it that much. I did when I was a kid, but as an adult it doesn’t work for me anymore. And I’m ok with that. And I’m sure plenty of you still love it to this day. More power to you. Follow that yellow brick road.

I will say the actors did a great job. Buddy Ebsen was supposed to be the tin man but he got sick and was replaced with Jack Haley. Ray Bolger was tremendous as the Scarecrow with all that flopping around. Bert Lahr will always be remembered for his cowardly lion. And the 16-year-old Judy Garland was never better frankly. She was fresh and new and lovely and could sing her ass off. But for my money Frank Morgan as the Wizard of Oz and Professor Marvel and all his other roles stole the show. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!

Next: Vertigo

AFI #11: City Lights

CharlieChaplinCitylights2City Lights is the story of a tramp (played by Charlie Chaplin of course) who finds himself in love with a blind and poor flower saleswoman and at the same time accidentally befriends a suicidal millionaire. Yep, it’s a story you can only find in the movies.

I had two reactions to City Lights, so let’s begin with the film itself. I laughed a lot watching City Lights, at times out loud, and a few times uncontrollably. So given the point of the film is to laugh, I give credit to writer, director and star Chaplin. The plot is pretty loosely tied together — at times it seems more like a collection of vignettes or comedy sketches. But ultimately the plot holds on from start to finish and it may or may not have a happy ending depending on your perspective. Spoiler alert: the girl gets her sight back and money to save her from being homeless and to move her budding flower business off the street and into a storefront.

Several of the Chaplin bits are hysterical, including one where he tries to save the millionaire from killing himself and they both end up in the bay several times and a classic bit where he awakens after sleeping on a statue to find the statue has been revealed to an audience that includes the mayor and other dignitaries. For me though, the best bit is when he tries to earn money to help the flower girl by boxing. If this scene doesn’t make you laugh out loud you do not have a sense of humor:

All that said, I am surprised by how highly ranked City Lights is, and even more flummoxed by the fact that AFI included three Chaplin films in the top 100. City Lights is very funny, but it’s not the 11th best American film of all time. I agree one Chaplin film should have been included in this list, and I agree that City Lights is the best Chaplin film and worthy of the accolades. But including Modern Times (#78) and The Gold Rush (#58) is overkill. I really enjoyed Modern Times, but it’s the same shtick as City Lights. As for The Gold Rush, I hated it (I nearly fell asleep and turned it off after an hour).

By the way, I do like Charlie Chaplin, but for my money the Marx Brothers are way funnier!

Next Up: we crack the top 10 and head down the stretch run with The Wizard of Oz

AFI #12: The Searchers

“I don’t feel we did wrong in taking this great country away from them, if that’s what you’re asking. Our so-called stealing of this country from them was just a matter of survival. There were great numbers of people who needed new land, and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves.” — John Wayne, 1971

I’ve never been a fan of John Wayne. I find his real life persona so despicable (see the above quote for example) that I can’t get past it when I see him in films. So I was not looking forward to screening The Searchers, which is considered by many critics to be not only a great Western but one of the best films in American cinema history. After seeing it today, I have one thing to say: poppycock!

searchersI have never had such a visceral reaction to a film in my life. Yes, I was biased from the git-go given my feelings toward the Duke, but I don’t know how anyone can watch this film and not think it’s one of the most racist films ever shot. The story is simple. A Civil War veteran (Wayne) returns home to the Texas territory just as a band of marauding Comanche Indians ransack his family home, kill the adults and steal the women. Wayne then spends the rest of the film hunting down the tribe who killed his relatives to seek revenge and retrieve his niece. I get that this film was shot in 1956, but for me that doesn’t excuse the blatant racism and vitriol spewed from Wayne’s mouth regarding the Native Americans. It’s quite disgusting really, especially when you consider Wayne’s real life racist rants about Native Americans and other minority groups. The film treats the Comanche tribe as if they are subhuman, going so far as to imply that the women who are taken by the tribe “go Injun” to the point that they are no longer human or even worth bringing back into society. I seriously couldn’t get past the racism to make a decision as to the artistic merits of the film.

I have read some meaty reviews and commentary about The Searchers. Scorsese thinks it’s a great film. Academic papers have been written on John Ford’s technique and the subtext of the plot relative to one man’s search for something (in this case his niece). Supposedly it influenced a lot of today’s great directors and paved the way for great films like Dances With Wolves. Maybe that was Ford’s point — to make a Western in which white America’s hatred and disdain for the Native Americans is portrayed in all its ugliness and that was his commentary. If that’s the case, why is there no realization by the characters that their racism is wrong? Dances With Wolves is a tribute to the Native Americans of the same time period. It’s a much better film than The Searchers yet it didn’t even make the AFI list.

Next: City Lights

AFI #13: Star Wars

star-warsIt’s not often that a film makes as big a mark on the world as Star Wars did in 1977. You can argue that it’s a bit corny and that the special effects don’t hold up, but you can’t really argue that it changed the industry forever. From a box office perspective, the original 1977 film kicked off a franchise that has earned more than $4 billion (yes, I said billion). Star Wars: A New Hope has made three-quarters of a billion over the years. In 1977 the film earned more than $300 million — prior to Star Wars, the highest profit 20th Century Fox had every made in one year was $37 million. It is, to this day, the sixth highest grossing film (domestic) of all time!

The film also changed special effects forever. Sure, they look hokey today, but at the time of the film’s release the special effects were mind-blowing and set the bar for decades to come. And of course, the cultural impact of Star Wars continues today as we prepare for the latest installment in the franchise to be directed by JJ Abrams. Even kids born in the last few years know the difference between a Jedi and a Sith, know Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, and know what one means when they say “may the force be with you.” Star Wars is, to be sure, a deeply ingrained part of American (and global) pop culture. Not bad for a little $11 million film that nobody expected to be successful.

But if you are of a certain age (say 47 for example) then Star Wars likely played an integral role in your childhood. Much like the generation before remembers where they were when Kennedy was shot, my generation remembers the time they went to the theater to see Star Wars. For me, it was some time around Memorial Day 1977 and I saw it at the Loma Theater on Rosecrans Blvd. in San Diego and I waited in a line that wrapped around the theater. By the way, the Loma Theater is no longer with us but the sign remains as part of a Bookstar. My generation had Star Wars lunch boxes, Jedi t-shirts, made models of the Millenium Falcon and played with Luke and Han action figures. It was the first true blockbuster and the first film to make millions off tie-ins and toys. Like I said, it changed Hollywood forever.

So, the question is, is it a good film? Is it worthy of the number 13 slot on the AFI list? Hell, most of us could argue that it isn’t even the best of the franchise (Return of the Jedi is the best in my book). But really when you combine the film itself with the impact it had it’s hard to argue against its place among the best American films ever and I will not argue against it.

I love Star Wars. I have loved it since that day in 1977 when I was 11 years old and I loved it again today when I watched it for the umpteenth time. It has everything a kid needs in a film. Action. Heroes. Villains. Spaceships. Lasers. Explosions. A sexy princess (what 11-year-old boy didn’t have the hots for Carrie Fisher at the time). Sure, the plot is contrived and cliché, but who cares when you have Luke and Han firing lasers at storm troopers.

Next up: The Searchers