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

AFI #14: Psycho

psychoPsycho is the third of four Alfred Hitchcock films on the AFI Top 100 list, joining North By Northwest (No. 55), Rear Window (No. 48) and Vertigo (No. 9). I am certainly a Hitchcock fan, but I’m not as huge fan of Psycho. I’d seen it before and watching it again yesterday it felt a little dated and suffers from something that a lot of the films in this list suffer from — its reputation is better than the film itself. This has been a common theme for me on this journey. Films that are supposed to be American classics or “great” turn out to be dull, dated or flat-out bad. Psycho is a good film, but it’s not worthy of being #14 on this list and in my humble opinion it’s not even among Hitchcock’s best.

I think Psycho definitely has a place in film history, being perhaps the first successful and critically well received “horror” films. And it definitely deserves credit for its disturbing matricide theme and Anthony Perkins’ terrific portrayal of Norman Bates. Perkins set the standard for the “psycho” character and he plays it so quietly and internally that it will live on as one of the best film characters ever created. Unfortunately for Perkins he was never able to move beyond Norman Bates and the typecast despite clearly being a promising young actor. That being said, I suppose most actors would be thrilled to leave a legacy like Norman Bates.

But in terms of entertainment I really wasn’t that impressed. I am a huge fan of North By Northwest and To Catch a Thief. Vertigo and Rear Window are just ok for me, but I can definitely say I liked all of those films more than Psycho. That being said, you have to give Hitchcock credit for the creation of Norman Bates and for giving us the shower scene, which had people across the world afraid to get wet for years and has been stolen in tribute on many occasions. Few film fans will ever forget those two legacies.

I also have a bone to pick with the ending. The film should have ended with Bates’ arrest. Instead, Hitchcock takes us to the police station where the psychiatrist comes out of his interview with Bates and then tells us the whole story of how Bates ended up the way he did. The whole scene isn’t needed. It was patronizing to have someone explain the plot to us at the end — we got it without the narrative. He killed his mother and brought her back to life through his psychosis and related actions. I like it better when the  film goer is left to explore the themes on his or her own following a film. Makes for great after film dinner conversations!

Next: Star Wars

AFI #15: 2001 A Space Odyssey

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“Morally pretentious, intellectually obscure and inordinately long … a film out of control.” — Historian Arthur M. Schlesinger

Well, it’s never a good sign when you have to go on the Internet after watching a film to find out what the hell it was about. For the second time in my life I sat staring at the screen dumbfounded at 2001: A Space Odyssey, uncertain as to why I put myself through the entire 160 minutes of torture. I’ll admit it — I don’t get it. Maybe I’m just not smart enough or maybe I’m just not into science fiction enough. All I know is that I hated 2001: A Space Odyssey when I first saw it and I hated it again yesterday!

I really think the reason this film is rated so highly by the AFI is because the academics who vote for these polls are too embarrassed to admit they hated it too (and probably didn’t understand it either). Look, I get the basics. Mankind is some kind of alien experiment and by the time we are advanced enough to get to Jupiter our alien overlords move us toward the next phase of evolution. Great. We passed Go. Move directly to the next level. Thank you alien overlords.

But why all the weird special effects Mr. Kubrick? Why did this film feel like it was filmed in slow motion? Why did you put us through lengthy segments where nothing happened set to classical music? Why the black monolith? Why did you leave so much unexplained to the point that I had to go on Wikipedia to try to decipher the damn thing. Why? Why? Why?

Feel free to disagree my minions.

Next: Psycho

AFI #16: Sunset Blvd.

Joe Gillis: “You’re Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big.”
Norma Desmond: “I *am* big. It’s the *pictures* that got small.”

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I have mixed feelings about 1950’s Sunset Blvd. On the one hand, Gloria Swanson’s performance as aging silent film star Norma Desmond was brilliant. On the other hand, the story is far-fetched and a little trite. The writing is sophomoric, yet the screenplay won an Oscar. I sort of have mixed feelings about writer/director Billy Wilder as well. I loved The Apartment, but was lukewarm on Double Indemnity and Some Like it Hot. I’d say Sunset Blvd. is somewhere in between. It certainly doesn’t belong at #16 on the list of best American films.

Sunset Blvd. is really a tour de force by Gloria Swanson. She was 50 when she played Norma Desmond, herself an aging silent film star. Given that, her over the top performance was one for the ages. The way she used her facial expressions as if she was in a silent film was wonderful, albeit really creepy. In fact, everything about Norma Desmond was creepy, which I guess was the point. She was lonely to be sure, but she was also certifiable and perhaps the only reason she wasn’t locked up in the loony bin was because she was being taken care of by her butler/ex-husband Max.

William Holden was also quite good as hack screenwriter Joe Gillis. As the narrator you initially relate to him and even feel a little sorry for him as he gets caught up in Norma’s craziness. But at some point you stop sympathizing with him because he starts to rely on Norma’s money and hospitality and whatever weird “relationship” they have. Had the film been made today we’d have surely seen some freaky sex scenes between Norma and Joe, but in 1950 it was okay for us to assume they were “lovers” without having to see the sex. In fact, perhaps they didn’t engage in a sexual relationship — maybe companionship was enough for Norma to feel like she was in a relationship. Still, it’s creepy.

Sunset Blvd. is also unique in that it’s one of the only films in history narrated by a dead person. The film starts with Joe floating in Norma’s pool having been shot and killed. I can think of only one other well-known film in which the narrator is dead — Kevin Spacey narrated American Beauty (Bruce Willis was in fact dead during the majority of The Sixth Sense but he didn’t narrate). Holden did a great job as the narrator, giving the film a noir quality (even though I found the script to be ridiculous).

Another cool thing about Sunset Blvd. is that several major silent film stars made cameos in it, including Buster Keaton. And of course, the film includes the famous line spoken by Norma as she’s about to be hauled off to jail or the loony bin, thinking the cameras are there for a movie when in fact they are there for the news of her arrest: “I’m ready for my closeup Mr. DeMille.”

Next on the list: 2001: A Space Odyssey

AFI #17: The Graduate

the_graduate_ending_shot_elaine_and_benjamin_on_bus

“And here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson, Jesus loves you more than you will know.”

It’s 1967 and you have just graduated from college. You return home to Los Angeles amid the expectations of a generation that represents everything you despise. Your peers are starting to drop out and drop acid. What’s a poor little rich boy like Benjamin Braddock to do? Sleep with your parents friend and run off with their daughter of course. Coo, coo, ca-choo, Mrs. Robinson!

I chose the photo above to represent The Graduate rather than the classic visual of Benjamin Braddock as seen through the leg of Anne Bancroft’s Mrs. Robinson because the story of The Graduate can really be summed up by the look on the faces of Ben and Elaine at the back of the bus that is taking them not to start a new life together but to avoid the life that was predetermined for them by society and their parents. The look is priceless. Ben has just burst into the church to save Elaine from becoming the wife of fraternity boy Carl Smith and he should be beaming because Elaine has chosen him, but instead he and Elaine both look like deer in the headlights because they have no idea what is in store for them. Is it a happy ending? Who the hell knows. Is there any such thing as a happy ending?

Here are a few things I do know about The Graduate. It’s funny. It’s funny in a sort of Curb Your Enthusiasm cringe-worthy way. Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin Braddock is a classic character. His facial expressions make you laugh. When he gets stressed he makes a little “hmm” sound that cracks you up. When he walks out of his parents house in full scuba gear upon being forced to show off his birthday present to his parents friends you laugh out loud. When he questions Anne Bancroft about her intentions: “Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me” he makes us laugh. It’s really a brilliant yet understated performance that is portentous or things to come in Hoffman’s great career. You can’t imagine anyone else in the role and that is a testament to his performance.

Bancroft is of course beautiful and sexy and vulnerable while at the same time mischievous enough to seduce Benjamin — he was doomed from the moment she decided to sleep with him and he was in no position to resist. He was utterly out of his league in this exchange. She manipulated him at every turn. Should we feel sorry for her when Ben chooses Elaine despite her warnings? Hell no. She knew what she was doing. Benjamin was as much a victim as Mr. Robinson! By the way, Bancroft was actually only 36 when she played Mrs. Robinson despite playing a woman who was supposed to be twice Benjamin’s age. She created an iconic character that she was never able to top despite a full career.

The Graduate is a classic American film because it captures an era as well as any film ever. It was nominated for a lot of Academy Awards but only won one, for Mike Nichols as Best Director. And while Hoffman went on to win Oscars for Rain Man and Kramer Vs. Kramer, and be nominated for five others including The Graduate, you can see all of his future greatness in Benjamin Braddock. Great film.

Next: Sunset Boulevard

AFI #18: The General

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Orson Welles said The General may be the greatest American film. Citizen Kane is number one on the AFI list, so if Welles thinks The General is better what should we make of that? I’ll tell you what we should make of it — Welles must have been high when he said it because The General was a boring, tedious, waste of time. I actually fell asleep halfway through and when I woke up I barely missed anything. Really AFI?

As I near the end of this cinematic journey it’s clear to me that lists like this (and maybe all “best of” lists) are made up faded memories, fake intellectualism and the subjectivity of art. I bet I could come up with 100 films off the top of my head that were better than half the films on this list. I’m sure you can too. But, alas, we’re not members of the American Film Institute so we are not qualified to comment on greatness. Well, I digress.

The General is a 1926 silent film starring Buster Keaton as a hapless train engineer who despite being turned down to fight for the Confederacy at the start of the Civil War manages to save the day anyway by single-handedly foiling the Union’s attempt to steal his train and cut of supplies to the southerners. And he does it by slipping, falling, failing and fumbling along the tracks. Don’t get me wrong, I like silent films and comedies in particular. I won’t argue that several silent films belong on the AFI list, and in fact several Charlie Chaplin films are on the list including City Lights which comes in at No. 11. I just thought this film was a bore.

Next up: The Graduate

AFI #19: On The Waterfront

on_the_waterfrontWell, we’ve cracked the top 20 and things are heating up, literally. Temperatures are rising on the docks in 1954’s On The Waterfront, a film that reminds one how amazing movies and acting can be. I don’t even know where to start with this film, so I’ll just jump right in. The story is intense, focusing on a washed up boxer (Terry Malloy played by Marlon Brando) who works on the docks and runs errands for a mobster union boss. When he becomes the central figure in a mob hit and falls for the sister of the dead stool pigeon his life gets turned upside down and he’s torn between staying D&D (deaf and dumb) or singing like a canary (talking to the cops). Throw in a priest with the passion to make things right on the docks and you get the age-old right versus wrong debate.

For film lovers On The Waterfront has it all, but nothing better than Brando’s performance as Terry Malloy. Brando had been nominated for Best Actor three times prior to this film, but he finally won his first Oscar for his portrayal of Malloy. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that his performance is one of the greatest ever captured on film and it has become iconic. It’s impossible to take your eyes off Brando in the film as his character begins as a happy-go-lucky guy with a cushy union job and no worries to the central figure in a major crime wave. He plays Malloy with his characteristic intensity and you believe he is a dumb New York dock worker who maybe got hit a few too many times as a prize fighter. And of course, he utters the classic monologue in the back of a cab when his brother threatens to kill him if he snitches on the mob:

“You don’t understand. I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let’s face it.”

Nearly 30 years later Robert De Niro used the same lines while winning an Oscar himself for playing Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, which for the record is No. 4 on the AFI list.

But back to On The Waterfront. It took home eight Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director for Elia Kazan and Best Supporting Actress for newcomer Eva Marie Saint. Kazan’s direction was marvelous and along with Leonard Bernstein’s Oscar-winning score provided the perfect mood for the big city docks. Karl Malden was terrific as the priest, who acts as the moral compass for the film and makes the comparison between the sacrifice of the “stool pigeon” and the sacrifice of Jesus. His speeches to the dock workers were also worthy of his Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

When you think of film in the 1950s On The Waterfront rises to the surface as a masterpiece. Four of the top 20 AFI films are from the 1950s, but On The Waterfront really encompasses the style of the decade. Bernstein’s score has a lot to do with it, but also Kazan’s direction and Brando’s method make the film edgy and alive. But make no mistake — this film as all Brando. And if you don’t like it then I’d be happy to give you a one-way ticket to palooka-ville!

Next: The General

AFI #20: It’s a Wonderful Life

250px-Donna_Reed_with_James_Stewart_(1946)Okay, let’s get this out of the way straight off — I had never seen It’s a Wonderful Life before last night. I know what you’re thinking. I swear I’d never seen it. Does that make me un-American? Nah, it makes me a Jew.

If this is one of your favorite movies, or you think of it as a Christmastime tradition, you may want to stop reading because I’m about to skewer this piece of crap. It was all I could do to get through it, and given I’m a huge James Stewart fan that’s saying something. Let’s begin with the obvious. What a bunch of sappy garbage. God talking to angels and mean old Mr. Potter trying to take over the lovely town of Bedford Falls. It’s ridiculous. I’m already on the record saying I think Frank Capra is a horrible director who makes awful films (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington for example which I trashed earlier in this countdown). The screenplay is silly. The plot is even sillier. It’s a pure rip off of A Christmas Carol.

I don’t know what this film has to do with Christmas frankly, given that the only connection it has is that it ends on Christmas eve. Why did this become a Christmas tradition? It makes no sense (maybe simply because it is a rip off of Dickens?). Is it a Christmas film because God and angels have speaking roles? I won’t even go into the ridiculous religious themes of the film with all the praying and guardian angels. Yuck!

I’ll say one good thing about this film — in spite of everything else it has some decent performances by James Stewart and Donna Reed (quite the 1940s babe by the way!). Reed makes you want to settle down in a town like Bedford Falls and have a bunch of kids. Stewart is his usual wise but somewhat silly good guy. Oh, one more good thing about this — I don’t have to watch it ever again! Go ahead, say I’m a grinch. Bah Humbug!

Next up: On The Waterfront