Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Movie guy: AFI Countdown 10 to 6

Hey, we made it the top ten! Any Gone With the Wind fans out there? Well, you may only want to read my take on the first four of today's batch of films.

The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Coming in at position #10 is this classic family favorite. I don't know anyone over the age of 7 who hasn't seen this film, and I don't know anyone who has seen this film and not loved it. The special effects may be just a little bit dated, but the magic of the story is timeless. A young girl is transported to a magical land, and her only hope of getting home is with the assistance of three flawed adventurers (who turn out not to be so flawed after all.) Fantastical sets and costumes combine with lively music to tell a heartwarming adventure of friendship and self-realization. 

Vertigo (1958)
I do like this film. It is a compelling psychological thriller, the performances are powerful, and the direction is taut - scene by scene, at least. Overall, it is a little long for the story that it is trying to tell, and that story itself has a central conceit that is a little far fetched. These flaws are forgivable, but I don't agree that this film belongs ahead of Hitchcock's other films that made this list. 

Schindler's List (1993)
This movie is another example of the use of black-and-white film (like The Last Picture Show) being used effectively rather than gimmicky, and Spielberg's selective use of color makes for some striking moments in the narrative. The film is both heartbreaking and uplifting as we learn the little-known story of a German businessman who is able to save over a thousand Jews during the Holocaust by employing them in his factory. Liam Neeson as the eponymous Mr. Schindler gives one of his best performances, and Ralph Fiennes in his career-making role as Amon Goeth has never been more chilling - even when he played "He Who Shall Not Be Named" in the Harry Potter films. This is a very difficult film to watch, and it is perhaps inappropriate to say that it is "enjoyable," so I will just call it engaging instead. Highly engaging.

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
This is the longest film ever to win a Best Picture Oscar, I feel that this is a far superior movie to the 2nd longest (which I will get to in a minute), and its 222-minute run time is made all the less daunting by its breathtaking cinematography and enthralling adventure. The accuracy of the story may be a little dubious, but that's Hollywood for you.

Gone With the Wind (1939)
When I decided to take on this list, I knew that there was at least one film about which I would have to take a very unpopular stance. As such, I decided to watch it again to see if my opinion of this film had softened any. It hadn't. Now, I don't think that this is a terrible movie. I'd even acquiesce to the fact that it might have a place on this list, but that place is not #6. It's not even #56. Many people (a number of my ex-girlfriends included) hold with the idea that this is the greatest film ever made. I don't even consider it the greatest film of 1939. Blasphemy? Maybe, but I've never connected with this film the way that others have.

For one, the film - the story - is built upon one central point: the lovability of its heroine, Scarlett O'Hara. Rhett Butler falls for her. Ashley may or may not love her. She has numerous other suitors, and even Ashley's wife, Melanie, considers Scarlett a dear friend. The problem is that Scarlett is an odious character who is quite possibly also a sociopath. From her first line in the film, Scarlett is shallow and manipulative, and while many popular films are built around unlikable central characters, Miss O'Hara is not presented to us as an anti-hero. Further, the characters who adore her are weakened, in my opinion, by their apparent blindness to her complete lack of moral fortitude. Yes, she's very pretty, but she is rude rather than charming and petulant rather than spirited. That Rhett falls in love with her seemingly upon their first meeting diminishes him greatly in my eyes.
(Plot spoilers follow.)
Scarlett marries her first husband out of spite and then pouts - not because he is killed in the war - but because she has to go through the tedium of being in mourning. She appears to become a better person as the hardships of war bring her to the brink of starvation, but, whoops! nope: she manipulatively marries her sister's beloved for his money without regard for anyone but herself and her own beloved: the plantation, Tara. (Ashley is away at war, but don't worry: she'll get back to him.) She utilizes inexpensive prison laborers (the post-War equivalent of slave labor) to build her business much to the distaste of all around her. The story glosses over the fact that the O'Haras were wealthy slave owners in the first place, and then we are somehow expected to view the "war-hardened" Scarlett as a shrewd businesswoman, because she recognizes an opportunity to profit from institutionalized slavery later. (And yet Rhett is still in love with her. Sap.) The only thing that really seems to cause Scarlett any angst over the first two-thirds of the film is her unrequited love of Ashley, but that seems more like an obsession with winning him than actual love. The later hardships that befall Mrs. Scarlett O'Hara Hamilton Kennedy (and eventually) Butler are presented with near-comical seconds of foreshadowing: Rhett wishes aloud that the pregnant Scarlett would have an accident and she swings at him, misses, and falls down the stairs. When their first-born rides away from the house on her pony, both Rhett and Scarlett are suddenly overcome with dread about two seconds before we hear a scream and a crash.
Truly, I think that I would enjoy this film more if it was presented as a black comedy, but it isn't. It's supposed to be a sweeping dramatic epic and heart-wrenching love story. I don't get it. I just don't.
I'll give director Victor Fleming a few points for some truly picturesque on-screen moments (even if they are a bit heavy-handed at times).
Actually, the more I think about it, the less inclined I am to think this film really ought to be on the top 100.

There is an "adaptation" of Mitchell's epic story of the South that I do quite enjoy: the 1976 sketch on The Carol Burnett Show, "Went With the Wind."

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