Every Friday, we look back at films released 10-100 years ago this week.
Visit Remembering the Movies to further peruse the past
This week, "Remembering the Movies" takes a walk on the wild side - surrealism, fantasy, and passionate affairs are all in the offing, as are deserted islands and dilapidated attics, exotic adventures and anthropomorphic westerns, the birth pangs of the "Felliniesque," the adolescent angst of Tim Burton, and the death rattle of the sixties counterculture. There are two personal recollections for films I saw in their initial run, two collections of screen-caps for short cartoons, and a fresh review of Flash Gordon, which I watched for the first time tonight. I have also excerpted a contentious contemporary argument between my favorite critic and my favorite documentary filmmakers (Point: filmmakers) about the hypnotic, hallucinatory and disturbing Gimme Shelter. See The Documentary Blog for the full back-and-forth. As always the black words are my own, the red, quotations.
10 years ago (December 7, 2000)
In any given "Remembering the Movies" entry, only two years have releases I could have seen in theaters - 2000 and 1990. Often, I haven't seen the movie for either year, but this week I've seen both. I was in high school when Cast Away came out, and I went with several friends. I didn't dislike the film, yet it didn't leave me with much of an impression, excepting the notion that FedEx must have underwritten the whole production (when product placement is finagled onto a deserted island, things have gone too far). Tom Hanks' commitment to craft (or at least, its outward trappings) was commendable, but my favorite character was the volleyball.
"While Robinson Crusoe was a paean to the practical middle-class virtues that allowed its industrious hero (and the nation he represents) to re-create civilization out of nothingness, Cast Away is a far less triumphalist peek into the nothingness at the heart of civilization. Fortunately, a few indestructible FedEx boxes wash ashore—one containing an apparently useless volleyball that, as soon as Hanks paints a face on its surface, becomes his combined pal, pet, and pagan idol. In another bit of product placement, Hanks calls the ball by its trade name: Wilson. Although Cast Away is very much Hanks's extreme everyman solo, his inanimate Man Friday deserves recognition as one of the year's best supporting actors. At the very least, Wilson gives the star a pretext for the movie's most emotionally wrenching scene. ... The raft sequence has intimations of 2001 that don't stop even after Hanks returns to civilization (on a plane of total solitude) to hear how the "FedEx family" lost five of its "sons" and endures a bad-beyond-belief meeting with his dentist. I was amazed at the depth of alienation with which Zemeckis infused these scenes. But as if frightened at having conjured up the least compromising, bleakest vision of the human condition in any Hollywood A-picture since Douglas Sirk's Imitation of Life, Zemeckis casts it away with pumped-up affirmation. God moves in mysterious ways. It's a wonderful life after all." - J. Hoberman, The Village Voice
Cast Away (2000)
20 years ago (December 6, 1990)
This one was, for me, a more memorable theatrical experience. For some reason, perhaps because their trailers played before each other's screenings, Edward Scissorhands, Home Alone and Kindergarten Cop were all linked in my 7-year-old mind. They formed a trilogy which kicked off my moviegoing "golden age" in earnest. Of the three, this was the last one I saw, and the one that stuck with me the longest. My father having nixed Batman for me when I was five ("too dark," which I think he meant visually as well as thematically) this was also my first Tim Burton. I saw it with my mother and remember cheering, perhaps vocally, certainly inwardly, when (spoiler alert) the callow bully got scissored and defenestrated. Yup, even tales about sensitive outsiders could deliver that cathartic violent release!
Incidentally, that violent release was something "Siskel & Ebert" griped about at the time (speaking of gripes, a few weeks ago I lamented the deletion of the show's website; luckily, many are available on You Tube - click on the link to see this particular clip). Roger: "I found the movie perverse and self-indulgent, the kind of project that's supposed to appeal to kids, but only shocks and disturbs them. I wish they'd devoted a little more love and imagination to the screenplay of this movie, which is a real no-brainer about Winona Ryder's boyfriend developing a grudge against Edward. The movie ends with a fight to the finish where one character dies, and that's how a lot of movies end these days, not with people working out their problems or getting to know one another, but with somebody getting killed and death is a solution. I guess it's easier to write death than dialogue, and so the new motto is 'better dead than said.' Edward Scissorhands left me depressed and disturbed." Gene: "It sets up this guy in a fable, this interesting world, and then he comes down to this pastel suburban parody, which of course we've seen before ... that's all set up, it's nicely done, you marvel at the way Johnny Depp manipulates his hands and then...there's really no payoff." Roger: "It just shows a complete lack of a desire to really work out this situation and to come up with something creative." Gene: "I didn't really see this as much of a kids' movie as much as you did, I thought this was made for me as much as for a 10-year-old, and I just wish there was a third act as interesting as the first two."
Edward Scissorhands (1990)
30 years ago (December 5, 1980 in United States)
Flash Gordon knows it's ridiculous, but it doesn't quite know what to do with this knowledge. When dealing with "outdated" material in an ironic and self-aware age, there are several directions a film can take. There's the path of winky camp, in which the filmmakers let us know they're in on the joke and stretch it out until it becomes one big postmodern put-on. Then there's the more straightforward approach, something both Superman and Star Wars successfully employed in the late 70s - the first by mixing a reverential attitude towards its mythology with a playful self-deprecating sense of good cheer; the second by flaunting its influences brazenly yet nonetheless remaining sincere in its outlook. Flash Gordon tries a bit of both approaches, along with outright parody, and it never comfortably finds its voice. Its early 80s trappings are themselves too kitschy for the film to be "above" the kitsch of its source; if thirty years ago its cheesiness seemed ironic, now it just seems, well, cheesy.
That said, the film moves and is never boring - it has enough sense of what made the serials and cartoons work to hold our interest. Of the various performers, only Timothy Dalton comes out relatively unscathed, by playing the part straight and, perhaps, having the least embarrassing costume. (Ten years later, looking pretty much the same, he would return to the aware-but-dashingly-unperturbed approach in The Rocketeer and make it work again.) On the other hand, a surprisingly svelte Topol hams it up broadly and never lets us forget he's in on the joke, which of course only ruins said joke. Max von Sydow tries to cut loose and enjoy himself as the diabolical villain, but he can't avoid the shame. In the end, for all its efforts to make you laugh with it, Flash Gordon ends up being laughed at instead. The opening credits sequence, with it Pop Art motifs and laying-it-on-thick Queen song, is hip and slick enough to achieve the film's initial aims, but after a while Flash Gordon only works by giving into the silliness instead of smirking at it.
All in all, the movie reeks of a VHS tape that would be put on by the weird gym instructor when the planned activities are rained out, or by the ex-pothead math teacher on the half-day before summer vacation begins. The kids would groan and ridicule the movie, make fun of its uber-80s aesthetic and, sexy space babes aside, homoerotic atmosphere ("this is so gayyy," they'd jeer, ears deaf to protestations that everything from the Ken-doll hero to the barbarian thongs to the soft pink jumpsuits were conceived with tongue in cheek). And the poor teacher, who probably put it on as a joke, gets lumped in with the movies as well, the kids shaking their heads and wondering how their parents' generation could be so weird. Twenty years later they'll have Lady Gaga and Avatar to explain, and no one will be the wiser...
Flash Gordon (1980)
40 years ago (December 6, 1970)
"How does one review this picture? It’s like reviewing the footage of President Kennedy’s assassination or Lee Harvey Oswald’s murder. This movie is into complications and sleight-of-hand beyond Pirandello, since the filmed death at Altamont – although, of course, unexpected – was part of a cinema-verite spectacular. The free concert was staged and lighted to be photographed, and the three hundred thousand people who attended it were the unpaid cast of thousands. The violence and murder weren’t scheduled, but the Maysles brothers hit the cinema-verite jackpot. If events are created to be photographed, is the movie that records them a documentary, or does it function in a twilight zone? Is it the cinema of fact when the facts are manufactured for the cinema? The Nazi rally at Nuremberg in 1934 was architecturally designed so that Leni Riefenstahl could get the great footage that resulted in Triumph of the Will; in order to shoot A Time for Burning, William C. Jersey instigated a racial confrontation that split an Omaha church; the Maysles brothers recruited Paul Brennan, who was in the roofing and siding business, to play a bible salesman for the ‘direct cinema’ Salesman. It is said to be a ‘law’ that the fact of observation alters the phenomenon that is observed – but how can one prove it? ... What we’re getting in the movies is ‘total theatre’. Altamont, in Gimme Shelter, is like a Roman circus, with a difference: the audience and the victims are indistinguishable. " - Pauline Kael, The New Yorker (h/t The Documentary Blog)
Gimme Shelter (1970)
50 years ago (December 3, 1960)
High Note (1960)
60 years ago (December 6, 1950)
"Variety Lights (1950) is a rarity in the career of Federico Fellini, though not an unexpected one for a first-time director. Fellini didn’t often collaborate, but he did this time, in production, direction, and screenplay, with another auteur, Alberto Lattuada. Previously, Fellini had worked mainly on screenplays (most notably Rossellini’s Open City), while Alberto Lattuada was already an established, respected director of neorealism and quality literary adaptations. Fellini fans and scholars have spent much time and ink on trying to determine who did what in the film — a question immediately confused by the presence of both men’s wives in the two lead female roles. Fellini himself has weighed in on the subject in his typical way that beguiles the listener while revealing nothing. In Charlotte Chandler’s book I, Fellini, he says: 'I have been asked many, many times about who really directed Variety Lights. Should it be counted as one of my films or as one of his? He counts it as one of his, and I count it as one of mine. We are both right.'" - Garry Morris, Bright Lights Film Journal
70 years ago (December 5, 1940)
"The silent 1924 movie of the same name starring Douglas Fairbanks, sen., was hailed as 'a work of rare genius'. Possibly it was for its time. But this one is even better, even more magical and enchanting, even closer to capturing the spirit of the Arabian Nights on film. Sabu is the boy thief, John Justin the blinded prince whom he befriends, Conrad Veidt the evil Grand Vizier who has stolen the prince's kingdom. June Duprez is the heroine and - best of all - Rex Ingram plays the vast, jovial but terrifying genie of the bottle. This is a thoroughly enjoyable, sumptuous and beautifully photographed movie with special effects - especially the magic carpet and the flying horse - that are spectacular even today. Again it's an example of how occasionally and against all the odds a film can work wonderfully. This one was begun at Denham Studios in 1939. Then war broke out, plans to shoot in Baghdad had, perforce, to be abandoned and the production moved to Hollywood. In the end Baghdad was built in the Mojave desert. Meanwhile, the directors changed almost by the day. Apart from the three who are credited, three others - Alexander and Zoltan Korda and William Cameron Menzies - also contributed bits and pieces. But somehow it all came seamlessly and delightfully together."
- Barry Norman, "The 100 Best Films of the Century"
The Thief of Bagdad (1940)
80 years ago (December 5, 1930)
"The constant struggle between music and story finds a happy balance here, as the songs are used to forward the story. In some ways this foreshadows some of the musical films that Disney would release later. Early songs like “Oh Susannah” being sung by Mickey and Minnie are used to set the scene and put the viewer in the proper frame of mind, just as “Jingle Bells” was used in Winter. Of course, the main focus of this short is the story of the conflict between the Indians and the pioneers, and it is set up right from the start. After we see the Indians start their war dance, the scene then jumps over to the pioneers, and we get a nice juxtaposition between the warlike camp of the Indians and the peaceful, rustic camp of the pioneers. ... I enjoyed Pioneer Days a great deal. It does show some advancement in the Mickey shorts, continuing on the heels of The Gorilla Mystery and The Picnic. In Mickey’s third year of action as a cartoon star, it seems that Mickey is finally coming into his own." - Ryan Kirkpatrick, comment on The Encyclopedia of Disney Animated Shorts
Pioneer Days (1930)
90 years ago (December 3, 1920)"The Renaissance England in which Anna Boleyn (Henny Porten) finds herself suddenly recruited as the second wife of Henry VIII (Emil Jannings) gives Lubitsch plenty of pomp and spectacle, which he handles with exacting skill, but the film is more fascinating on a thematic level. Since the beginning of his career, Lubitsch used his characters' manners as an intricate tool of analysis—of how human behavior is shaped by society and how surfaces (including film style itself) can embody emotional and spiritual meaning—and the film's English court is a veritable nest of stifling ceremonies: The rivalry between two maidens reflexively turns into mechanic pleasantries after they bump into each other amid the revelries, and even violence must be channeled into ritual, as when accusations of infidelity are resolved in a jousting match. In this context, Janning's lusty, gluttonous Henry emerges as the picture's most interesting character, a vital bull in a genteel china shop who, giving in to his reckless impulses while reinforcing the oppression of all those around him, is both at odds and at the center of the system." - Fernando F. Croce, Slant Magazine
Anna Boleyn (1920)
100 years ago (December 6, 1910)
"Movie actors weren’t credited in those days, and [Florence Turner] became known as the “Vitagraph Girl.” She had a wonderfully expressive face and almost as expressive feet. On the other hand, her charisma wasn’t strong enough to keep a dog from stealing the picture." - Lincoln Specter, Bayflicks.net
"This little short shows an entirely different society from the one we are used to, one in which a woman coyly throws her hat into the water to attract a man's attention, where lovers exchange tintypes, and in which, when they wish to neck at the beach, they use umbrellas to hide their activities from passersby. The leads are having fun and Jean the Vitagraph dog is a handsome, intelligent actor -- with a nose job and implants she could be the rage in the 21th century." - boblipton, IMDb
A Tin-Type Romance (1910)
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