Monday, January 30, 2012

The Decade of Turmoil: Film In the 1950s

All one has to do is examine a time line of films made during the 1950s, year by year, to see the battle lines of gender warfare being drawn out, stars taking sides, casualties mounting and points being scored and lost on both sides, as the mundane daily lives of Americans clearly picked sides until, regardless of how desperately Hollywood was trying to teach Americans lessons of the consequences of what they were doing, America changed forever, from the macro demographics of the work place to the micro politics of each individual family and relationship.
In the 1950s, there are three references to Adam and Eve: in 1950, both All About Eve (winner of Best Picture that year) and Adam's Rib were made (as well as Victor Mature’s and Heddy Lamar’s Samson and Delilah with David and Bathsheba in the next year and Jean Simmons and Richard Burton in The Robe) then The Three Faces of Eve was made in 1957 and for which Joanne Woodward won Best Actress. Likewise, in 1957, Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison was made, starring Deborah Kerr and Robert Mitchum, which provides us an idyllic island in the middle of the Pacific war, with an illustration of Adam and Eve on their island.Why is this important? It shows that there was a desperation to re-examine and understand the most basic relationship that there is, that between a man and a woman, and how that knowledge was being used to create a battle plan against dangerous attempts to change the dynamics of relationships.
This is truly a great film; if you haven't seen it, do, it's not only great for Christians to watch, but provides an invaluable insight into the gender debates raging in the 1950s, and I do mean "raging."
There is a fourth film made during the 1950’s referencing the Christian understanding of, not only how God created the world, but the order which establishes the world: East of Eden starring James Dean. When we think of James Dean today, even when we think of the 1950s today, we think of Rebel Without A Cause, but the important fact is, it’s East of Eden which earned more money than Rebel, and earned Dean his Academy nomination (posthumously since he died in the car crash). In East of Eden, Dean's mother plays a prostitute who abandoned her family to own a brothel and made quite a bit of money doing it. But in the middle of all this is Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments of 1956, starring Charleston Huston and is still a classic today.
"So let it be written, so let it be done."
Why is this listing of films important?
It maps out the shifts in thinking, the central arguments of what was going on in marriages, families, Churches, the work place, and within individuals in a way regular political history cannot illuminate for us. Two films complimenting each other well, is Roman Holiday of 1953 (for which Audrey Hepburn won her Oscar for Best Actress) and Alfred Hitchcock’s North By Northwest of 1959. In Roman Holiday, Princess Ann is a member of the royal family who wants to step off her pedestal and enjoy life; in North By Northwest, Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) has slipped off her pedestal and wants Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) to put her back up there, which he does at the end when they are together.
These are the tensions that women's changing roles created and their own inner battles between their sexuality, religion, emotions, social standing, economic freedom and personal needs were the constant material for films throughout the 1950s. Women represented by Princess Ann in Roman Holiday had been on a pedestal before World War II, and going into the factories to work and being without their husbands and fathers, forced them to adapt to new ways of life. Regardless of what we think, these are facts that we can clearly trace back to films and the ways in which both men and women were being torn apart inside and out. Were women going to continue being women or were they going to start being men? Were women going to continue to be the civilizing force of society and culture or were they going to give free reign to their appetites and do whatever they wanted? That is the question film was asking in the 1950s.
William Wyler's 1953 romantic comedy, Roman Holiday.
The Three Faces of Eve succinctly summarizes the inner-conflict of women in the 1950s; this isn't the story of just one woman torn between being a "self-effacing housewife" and mother, and Eve Black, the fun-loving promiscuous woman, but every American woman: there were career women torn between their economic roles and their desire to have a family, then there were housewives torn by a feeling of responsibility and desire for a professional career and ever greater demands by society, culture and their family. The Three Faces of Eve is based on an actual case, but once it hits the big-screen, we can see how clues hidden in other films here and there were pointing to this exact same phenomena all over the country, in nearly ever family.
Joanne Woodward as Eve Black in The Three Faces of Eve.
Elmer Gantry, from 1960 starring Jean Simmons as Sister Sharon Falconer and Burt Lancaster in the title role, would bring woman back down from her pedestal in a very religious context: while Shirley Jones plays an Oscar-winning prostitute (shocking considering that she had been playing a prim and proper lady in Oklahoma!), Sister Falconer is a devout Christian evangelist, going around and preaching revivals but, in the end, is seduced by Gantry. After her seduction, Sister Falconer holds a revival meeting in a tent and a man comes forward whom she heals of deafness and then the tent burns down, ending her career as a female preacher. The opening of the man’s ears isn’t a sign of power she has gained as a result of being seduced, that she has been given power and liberty in being freed of the bonds of her virginity, rather, the man is the audience, whose ears are now opened to hear the message, not the message Sister Falconer is preaching, but the whole film: women must be protected or society will burn down and they must be protected from men.
Shirley Jones in her Oscar winning performance as a prostitute in Elmer Gantry
To Feminists, this is pouring hot coals over their head: “Protected from what or whom? Women have every right to indulge their sexual needs just like men and anyone who suggests that women should be at home barefoot and pregnant should be mummified because you are so obviously out-of-touch with reality." I think it's reality, though, that supports what I am saying, not only reality in the 1950's, but reality today. The primary difference between Feminists and those propounding a "more traditional femininity" is that Feminists think of themselves first and only in terms of economical and social standing; women who support femininity think of those who depend upon them, their husbands and children, and think of themselves in terms of what they can offer others, the emotional care and nourishment they can provide to individuals and society.
Feminist Gloria Steinem; it's beyond irony that her birthday is March 25, the Feast Day of Mary's Annunciation, but Ms. Steinem probably doesn't know what that is.
There is another major difference between Feminists and the feminine. Like Mrs. Banks in Mary Poppins (1964) singing, “Though we adore men individually, we agree that as a group they are rather stupid.”  Feminists have reduced men to political, social and economic entities (void of humanity and life) just as Feminists claim men reduced women to dumb baby-making machines (non-political entities void of thought and talent). 
Ray Milland and Jane Wyman in The Lost Weekend. His appetite for alcohol is waged against her appetites apparent by her leopard-skinned coat, but they work everything out in the end, because she has faith in him. Feminists would, of course, laugh at this, but being that "help mate" to man, helping him get to heaven, is why woman is at the pinnacle of creation and why she should humbly nourish the love within herself so she can give it to others who are in need of it.
After World War II, the crisis happening with men and their sense of masculinity, their individual and collective identities (best summarized immediately after the war in The Lost Weekend of 1946, the story of alcohol addiction, which won both Best Picture and Ray Milland’s Best Actor Oscar), were bulldozed over by women who were concerned with putting themselves on men's levels, that to Feminists was "equality," but to traditional femininity was being lowered, because woman was created as the pinnacle of all other things; for this reason, (as I have stated elsewhere in my discussion on Irene Adler and Mary Morstan from Sherlock Holmes) films were trying to understand why women would want to go from being a Princess Ann in Roman Holiday, to being Eve Kendall in North By Northwest?
In the middle of all this is a woman not associated with Feminism, known throughout the world for her acting and beauty who made a definite stance, but as been discriminated against by Feminists: Elizabeth Taylor. Cat On a Hot Tin Roof (1958) illustrates in the marriage of Cooper and Mae Pollitt the “hen pecked husband” dominated by his wife, while Maggie (Elizabeth Taylor) and her wounded husband Brick Pollitt (Paul Newman) show us a broken marriage trying to be fixed, but a marriage of emotional equality and equality in sacrifice.
If we know where we have been, we can see the direction we are going in, and the films Miss Taylor did in the 1950's made their completed statements throughout the 1960s. The epic Cleopatra (1963) intimately portrays the full days of a queen and the lonely nights of a woman, delivering a most succinct message to women of what their choice is (either advance in the political sphere or in the emotional sphere but both at the same time is not possible), but it is a choice, they can’t have it both ways, because then they will end up with neither. Butterfield 8 of 1960, for which Taylor won a Best Actress Oscar, graphically details the insecurity and consequences of the sexually promiscuous woman and the damage she brings to herself, others and society at large when she gives free rein to her appetites (it’s a wonderfully done film and I hope to post on it soon).
Why are the 1950s important? Why should we bother with it?
This summer, Battleship is going to be released. While we could say that there have been a steady stream of alien films since the 1950s, films such as Transformers, Cowboys & Aliens, The Thing, Apollo 18, these films have linked us back up with the 1950s and will build upon the vocabulary established there and it was in the science fiction genre that the gender battle found its strongest weapons and so made its strangest statements that were being made in the great dramas of the day, but were better articulated in the sci-fi shows. Before we can explore film noir, or the big epic films, I will do some of the smaller, sci-fi films and then build upon that. Then, as films continue being released, we will all ready have a solid, stable vocabulary to build upon.
The future is in their hands, what will they choose to do with their lives?

Screen Actors Guild Awards

As I said, films that win awards decide what films will be made in the future and help us fill out those local area "Guess the Oscar Winner" ballots so we can win free movie tickets; however, I am not alone in this but I am in the minority, the Screen Actors Guild Awards are not very reliable determiners of who will win the Oscar, but in and of itself, it is a prestigious award that carries quite a bit of weight in Hollywood; so, winner listed first, nominees in the category following:

Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture

WINNER The Help (2011)

Other Nominees:

The Artist (2011)

Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Leading Role

WINNER Jean Dujardin for The Artist (2011)

Outstanding Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role

WINNER Viola Davis for The Help (2011)

Outstanding Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role

Other Nominees:

Nick Nolte for Warrior (2011)

Outstanding Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role

WINNER Octavia Spencer for The Help (2011)


Friday, January 27, 2012

A Better Life & The Bicycle Thief

You have probably never heard of Demian Bichir, but he has been placed in the company of George Clooney and Brad Pitt as a candidate to receive this year's Academy Award for Best Actor in a leading role for his performance in A Better Life directed by Chris Weitz. Mr. Bichir is absolutely fantastic in this role because you not only see his pain, but you see him trying to hide his pain, you see him want to get angry but choose not to for the sake of his son Luis (Jose Julian, who himself does a fabulous job, I would much rather see him up for Best Supporting Actor than Christopher Plummer in Beginners) who is in a fragile position as he makes decisions between LA gang life on the streets or a future working and earning an honest living. 
Demian Bichir as Carlos and Jose Julian as Luis in A Better Life.
A Better Life is closely based on the Italian Neo-Realism film from 1948 The Bicycle Thief/Bicycle Thieves which won an Honorary Oscar for Best Foreign Language film and is usually in critics' top ten list of best films ever made. There are some important differences between the two films: The Bicycle Thief takes place in post-Fascist Italy, after the disastorous reign of Benito Mussolini who got Italy into World War II on the side of the Nazis. The Bicycle Thief is an incredible yet simple parable of how the "vehicle" of Italy getting back on its feet after the catastrophes of World War II were proving futile and hopeless. Likewise, A Better Life provides us with a view of the difficulties of making it in today's economy but also takes the time to show us how doing the right thing doesn't always pay off in monetary terms, but does pay off.
The Bicycle Thief, critically acclaimed as one of the greatest films ever made.
You are bound to have an oppinion on the question of immigration by Mexicans into the United States, and A Better Life does show you what their life is like, but it is also full of valuable symbols that holds up a mirror to our country and shows us sides that perhaps we didn't know existed. One symbol is a constant in Catholic iconography (Carlos is Catholic, we know this by images hanging up within his home) and Carlos is a gardener, a lawn man. The spiritual significance is that our souls and their spiritual growth are often likened to a garden, as in the Garden of Eden and the Garden of Olives, and after Christ's Resurrection, Mary Magdalen mistakes Jesus for the gardener. In terms of the film, Carlos is capable of the hardships he is about to undergo because his garden/soul is well-tended and he knows who to grow "the flowers of virtue" instead of the weeds of sin and vice.
Carlos up in a palm tree as part of his job just as Santiago steals his truck from him. When Carlos has climbed to the top of the palm tree, he admires the beautiful view he sees, and then sees his truck stolen. The view symbolizes wisdom because wisdom can see far and wide compared to fools who can only see what is in front of them, and it is the wisdom that Carlos' hard life has taught him that aids him in getting through this trial. Being "up a tree" correlates to Christ hanging on the Tree of the Cross (Carlos is using a strap system to climb up it, literally hanging onto the tree) and also reminds us of Zacchaeus who climbed up the tree to see Christ passing.
The flowers of virtue within Carlos' soul are shown again and again throughout the film: one example is when he and Luis have finally found Santiago, the man who stole Carlos' truck, and Carlos discovers that Santiago sold the truck and sent the money back home to Mexico. Luis will not stop kicking and beating Santiago, on the parking lot ground, but Carlos realizes that is not the way to deal with him and makes Luis stop, although it appears that Santiago has ruined his life. The greatest moments of acting, however, come from the horrible moments he has with his son, desperately trying to both bond with his son and show him his love for Luis while still respecting the man he is becoming and yet chastizing him when he doesn't have the right morals and position on something.
There's a scene where Carlos and Luis have found the nightclub where Santiago washes dishes but it doesn't open until later, so they go to a nearby rodeo. In The Bicycle Thief, this corresponds to the part where father and son go to a restaurant and have a rarely enjoyed meal. While The Bicycle Thief compares the two classes, Carlos compares his son to the native Mexican heritage from which he came to the streets of LA; while The Bicycle Thief shows father and son eating, A Better Life shows father and son watching aspects of their homeland that they no longer have contact with and "eating that up," as a kind of spiritual nourishment for the tasks still ahead of them (granted, Carlos and Luis do have a mean while at the rodeo, however, the colors, language, music and activities are their main focus, not the food).
This is an apartment where Santiago was living when he stole Carlos' truck. When Luis and Carlos enter, there are people everywhere in the small place, sleeping and living in every inch. They are able to find it by Luis calling his dad's cell phone which was in the truck when Santiago stole it. The phone symbolizes "the calling" to which Carlos made an act of faith by buying the truck and going into business for himself and Santiago stealing the truck, the vehicle of making Carlos' dream come true, was also stealing Carlos' calling to be a gardener. This is repeated in the prison when a gang member walks by Carlos and steals his $5 "calling" card from him and Carlos, holding onto the man's arm, gets it back by an act of emotional strength over brute physical strength.
Towards the end, when Luis has come to see his father before Carlos is deported, Luis brings him a bag of "things" he will need but that is really symbolic (because Luis has displayed so much anger and disrespect towards his father throughout the film) of Luis giving his dad the spiritual and emotional things he will need to get through this journey; similarly, Carlos answers a question Luis put to him while they were at the rodeo: "Why do all these poor people have children? Why did you have me?"
But when Luis and Carlos go to the rodeo, it symbolizes how they are not only riding their own untamed fears over what will happen if they do not find the truck, but the gaps in their relationship with each other. I could be mistaken, however, I believe Luis has an image of the Virgin Mary on his T-shirt, which means that Mary is "on his heart," and protecting him from the rabid influences that are trying to work against him.
While he is in chains, in a prison, about to be deported, Carlos, who has had everything taken from him down to his bare skin, gives Luis the emotional and psychological things Luis will need to get through his journey he is to take. One of those things being the song that they had heard at the rodeo, and what it means. Luis figures out that it wasn't his mother who had sung it to him when he was a baby, as Carlos told him, but that Carlos himself had sung it to him. The song is about a man who wanted a pair of shoes with a duck's bill on the end of them, but the shoemaker cheated him and gave him plain shoes instead. The purpose of this is that the shoes symbolize Carlos' will, how he wanted one thing in life, a better material life for he and Luis, but God gave him a different life, that doesn't seem better, but when we see Luis at the end, we know that only because of the events that have taken place, Carlos' hopes for Luis to have a better life have come true.
With director Chris Weitz, the marks of a great director are all over this film.
In conclusion, we all say that we want a better life, but like the hip-hop song Luis listens to in the film, we generally think of that in terms of better material living, not better spiritual, psychological and emotional living, but A Better Life makes it clear that both Carlos and Luis have gotten a better life by receiving the fruits of the spirit, the gifts of faith, love and patience that we never want God to give us, but which He desires to give us abundantly, and which comes to us in the very moments when we believe we have lost our life, but He is giving us Life.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Second Original Sin: Art In the Atomic Age

The atomic cloud over Nagasaki, Japan, August 9, 1945.
On August 6, 1945, mankind committed an act of mass murder that would forever haunt us. President Harry S. Truman decided to drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan that was as devastating to the human soul as Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit. The world has not been the same since. Just as Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden of Eden, so the entire world seemed to be in revolt against mankind for spreading nuclear radiation  that spread like sin itself.
Why is any of this important?
Granted, it was decades ago, and radiation never caused giant rabbits to overrun Washington D.C., or attacks from giant lobsters to destroy a high school dance, and massive tarantulas never carried off the women folk; but the most influential directors in Hollywood today grew up with those films where those things did happen, and they still reference them in their work. Further, the visual language with which we are familiar today really started becoming mainstream then, and it's in these "campy" sci-fi films that some of the most basic moral dogmas are encoded at a time when everything seemed uncertain. The following clip is a Turner Classic Movies channel documentary called Watch the Skies, about the influence of sci-fi films on Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott, George Lucas, James Cameron and all of American society (the rest of the hour long documentary may be viewed at Youtube here).
So if TCM has all ready solved the importance of sci-fi films, why am I covering?
I think they are all wrong.
Films such as Them! and The Thing From Another World, and Creature From the Black Lagoon, The Blob and The Monolith Monsters, wasn't about them, the Communists, they were about us, the ones who dropped the bomb, the world we created and what we became when we dropped the bomb: those giant ants, rabbits, spiders, tomatoes, whatever you want to cite, wasn't about everything else growing so big, it was about how small we became when we indiscriminately unleashed the effects of technology against a city of humans utterly unprepared for what we were going to do. It wasn't that aliens were attacking us, but that we had become alien to ourselves and couldn't recognize ourselves anymore. The "alien within us" effected us from the country's status as a superpower to our sexual relationships and the relationship between parents and their children.
The climax of giant creature-features.
I am not, under any circumstances, making a historical judgment on whether or not it was the right thing to do by dropping the bomb, but the questions and doubts lingering in the unconscious of people living after the dropping of the bomb and for whom the sci-fi films of the 1950's provided that catharsis of seeing, not them, but ourselves is the center of my focus. The science fiction, giant creature-feature films didn't end until 1975 when budding director Steven Spielberg made his film Jaws, "regarded as a watershed film in motion picture history, the father of the summer blockbuster." I will be going into extensive analysis on Jaws, but, like Them! or any of the other giant creature features, the Great White shark was a giant, 25 feet long, and like the films Spielberg grew up with, it directly dealt with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) is really the cornerstone to what was happening from 1945 throughout the 1950s. Watch the Skies says that The Incredible Shrinking Man is really just the opposite of creatures becoming giants (part 2 of the film), but I hold that it's the exact same thing, because size is relative, when ants become giants, we become ants. In The Incredible Shrinking Man,  Scott Carey, on a boat off the California coast, is overtaken by a radiation cloud and from that day on, he begins getting smaller and smaller. The following trailer for the film doesn't show any of the great clips from The Incredible Shrinking Man, (we'll save that for my upcoming post) but it is narrated by none other than the great Orson Welles (please note how this still image in the trailer you see here resembles the poster art for Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo):
But the point is, as men were getting smaller women were becoming larger. This is the basic point of my contention with Spielberg, Lucas, Scott and Cameron: their interpretations of the 1950 sci-fi thrillers as vehicles of paranoia about Communism doesn't apply to other genres of film at the time, the film noir or Westerns, or dramas. Rebel Without a Cause has moments and hints of the Cold War (Plato being cold all the time, for example) but there isn't anything about Communism or suspected Communism in there, but the film is full of how small and insignificant Jim (James Dean) feels and how "the kids" at school treat others (please see James Dean vs Charles Darwin: Rebel Without A Cause).For an historical analysis of film to work, we have to be able to trace aspects of it to other genres and the Communist threat isn't there. However, the sexual role reversal as a result of radiation contact is evident in the 1958 film, Attack of the 50 Foot Woman:
What is the conflict between the man who is shrinking into nothing and the woman growing into a colossal? As I mentioned, both of the mutant sizes are the result of radiationthey didn't win the war, the bomb won the war, and that feeling of shame, and the responsibility of killing women and children because of the bomb dropping on them, was what caused men to lose their self-respect, and that is the radiation cloud which causes men to grow small and simultaneously caused women to become empowered, because the men lost the war on the front line, but the women won the war on the home front; it wasn't just the Rosie Riveters from war production faculties that "rose up" (grew) to the challenge of supplying the Allied Powers with war equipment, but that men shrunk from their duty to solidly defeat the enemy.
This horrible dichotomy was at least partially repressed by the incredible rise of consumerism in the 1950s, the "buying power" that a loss of power here could be compensated by a gaining in power there. These are bits and pieces that we can find in films such as The Best Years of Our Lives, The Asphalt Jungle, Sunset Boulevard, many Westerns such as Shane and nearly all the film noir films.
Robert Mitchum, Out of the Past, 1947.
I am making some pretty bold claims, however, I have also been researching them for over ten years and in great films and bad films, the same holds true that we were more interested in ourselves artistically than in the Communists (which was mostly a political agenda that individuals could capitalize upon for their careers). I will be posting on films throughout the next month on this topic and within this theme to explore how Hollywood could make a great films like James Dean's East of Eden and the same year make It Came From Beneath the Sea!  and the two films be basically about the same thing, concerned with the same consequences.
Clint Eastwood's first, uncredited role.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Christina's World & Our World

Christina's World, Andrew Wyeth, 1948 MoMA, New York. 
Christina's World isn't just her world, it's our world, too, and the image of the frail woman abandoned in the field is the US at the end of World War II. Christina's World  by American painter Andrew Wyeth is a perfect example of wondering through an art museum and coming upon a painting you know is famous, but you don't know why it is famous. I've heard several things including that the girl in the painting, Christina, was schizophrenic. That just happens to not be true, but the point is, if we were wondering around a museum, and saw this work, we would want to interact with it, we would want to understand what the painting is showing us, because deep down inside, we know it's too strange to not be saying something. Wyeth completed this work in 1948 and seems to be illustrating for us what the United States was like in 1948; the problem is, the economy was strong, we had just won World War II, there was a baby boom and American living standards was starting on an all-time high; how can this frail woman in the middle of a barren field tell us about America in 1948?
To enlarge, just click on the image. You may also save the image to your computer by right-clicking and then opening it in your picture viewer and zooming in on various parts of the painting.
What strikes you first because it's most odd, is the vastness of this field and why on earth this woman, sitting in this barren field, is there. When viewing art, we tend to be drawn towards human figures, whether portraits or human shapes within larger works, because (ever since we were infants) we recognize the human form first, we recognize "our self" in the art and that's what we look for. So the seemingly vulnerable position of this woman, alone, in this barren field, and not knowing what she's doing there or if there is anyone there to help her, is dramatic and even potentially tragic because you begin to realize this woman needs help, but help doesn't seem to be anywhere nearby. It is possible, however, that if we did not know anything about the painting, we could deduce that we, the viewer, are Christina looking at this woman on the ground, and the possibility of helping her is ours: what do we feel as we look at her? Do we want to help her or are we repulsed by her helplessness?
Please note the muted color palette of the painting; there are no bright colors or primary colors used anywhere in the image; the sky is gray rather than blue, and the grass is a withered brown instead of green and lush. The house is gray and dark rather than warm and inviting and Christina's dress is dull and old, rather then new and clean.
Since we can't understand what is happening to this woman, let's just start with details.
She's bone thin.
Since this is 1948, and World War II ended in 1945, it's very possible that Wyeth had seen images of victims from concentration camps, those who had lost all their muscles in the upper arms and legs. Pink is the color of femininity, but it's a very faded pink. This could refer to role reversals post WWII. She's wearing shoes but she's not wearing socks which could be an indication about her will (feet symbolize the will as arms symbolize strength). Her left hand, poised towards the house and the barn, is in a clutching position, clutching the barren earth, almost as if she's pulling herself forward, crawling. What is most revelatory about the woman for me, is her hair: hair is symbolic of thoughts, and if you look closely at her hair, it's coming undone and flying loose. For those who remember Grant Wood's American Gothic, there is a small snippet of the woman's hair that has come undone from her bun (please see American Gothic American Theology: Grant Wood).
The woman's hair, in Christina's World, is really undone, and that could potentially symbolize schizophrenia or other mental illness, but it does at least convey to us that she is not stable in her thoughts. Why? Well, given how big the field is, and that there is no crop planted in this field, there is a lack of "fruitfulness" in her life. If this woman could be taken to symbolize America in 1948--and I believe it does, or it is at least a viable reading of it--this is a strange commentary that Wyeth is making because in 1948, the United States was doing pretty well: we had become a superpower but this woman is far from symbolizing that. It's not just that the field is barren, but unkept and full of weeds. The barn in the distance, upon close examination, has birds flying around it; that could possibly mean nothing, but it seems to me, that those birds have probably made their nests in the barn and that's why there are so many of them there and that means the barn is empty and not in use; there is no produce from the fields being kept in there. 
If she could only get to the house she would be safe; but would she?
Upon close examination, there appears to be damage to the roof just below both chimneys, and a ladder propped up against the front of the house, but no one there using it. Wood appears to be pulling away from the side of the house and if the windows aren't boarded up, they are closed up, which is odd because this is summer, before widespread use of air conditioning, so normally the windows would be open to let in a breeze, but these windows are closed, suggesting that the house is abandoned. There appears to be a piece of clothing on the laundry line, but it's undecidable what apparel it is, which could mean it's only something that blew there by the wind and got caught on the line, which seems more likely given the overall abandoned feel of the scene.
There are several poles, as if a fence, but there is no barbed wire or chicken wire, which again, suggests that the place at least is not productive, and probably as abandoned as the plowing machine to the left of the house. Lastly, there are tracks leading up to the house, like wagon wheel ruts, but the rut closest to the woman doesn't extend back as far (towards the right side of the painting) as the right sided rut, so the house also appears to be inaccessible.
So how did this woman get here?
Another way to put the question is, How did the United States get where it was in 1948?
If winning the war so they could get home was what kept American soldiers going in both Europe and the Pacific, they might have been disappointed when they returned. The The Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe started in April of 1948, but Wyeth seems to be saying that America needs rebuilding, too. Houses symbolize the soul, so when there is an abandoned house, there is an abandoned soul, or a soul in a state of depression. The woman before us, on the ground, seems to be also abandoned, a shell of a person like the shelter in the distance is a shell of a house, and Wyeth seems to be saying that the economic recovery of WWII was only an illusion, the power of the United States on the world stage was only an illusion, and the incredible productivity of the factories across the country was only an illusion; something was wrong with America, and while he maybe couldn't put his finger on it, he knew it had to do something with the way we were thinking (the woman's hair) and the abandoning of our soul (the deserted house), perhaps in favor of the material wealth many Americans began enjoying while neglecting a more soul-searching approach to life after the second World War.
The United States, in some way, is identifying with the victims of the concentration camps (the woman's thinness) because we had lost all our strength, which is odd, because we usually think of how strong we were coming out of World War II, but while we pulled together for the common cause of the war during the war, things changed after the war, and sacrifices that were willingly made had unforeseen consequences.
The mushroom cloud from the dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki, Japan, on August 9, 1945.  Culture, film and art critics have never made the case for it, but the consequences of the atomic age were the main driving force of art at the end of the 1940s and throughout the 1950s.
In research terms, Christina is Christina Olson, a neighbor of Andrew Wyeth's who had polio, a disease that crippled and killed thousands (it was contracted by drinking water that had human fecal matter in it; during the 1930s and 1940s, sanitation wasn't a top priority in the United States so the disease spread quickly). The importance of Christina having polio, and Wyeth highlighting that in 1948, is because President Franklin D. Roosevelt was wheelchair bound as a result of his polio; Christina's World, then, takes us back to the time when polio effected the highest and the lowest in the United States, the time before World War II, and makes the point that the U.S. hadn't come so far as we were imagining in 1948.
One of only two known photos of FDR in a wheelchair.
Wyeth had seen Christina from a window one day, crawling towards her home (while Christina was the inspiration for the painting, his wife was the model for the torso of the woman).  Knowing where Wyeth was when he saw Christina crawling towards her home is interesting because, if you look at the painting, that's not where we the viewer are, up in a house window, looking out; we are right behind her, on her level, in a position to help her, if we chose.
We are as much a part of Christina's world as she is of ours.
The details about Christina and her illness, where Wyeth was when he saw her, are not items we would have accessible to us, to aid us in engaging with the piece, if we saw it in a museum, and artists know that as they are painting. They know that their task is to communicate as much as possible with as little as possible, and as directly as possible with any viewer who sees the work, so it's a huge task that artists such as Wyeth excel at because, even without the research information, we can still understand a meaningful narrative just by taking time to examine the details.
This is the first in a series of post WWII art that I would like to examine (I will still be doing currently released films, and in between doing post WWII art). I will be examining the film noir genre as well as those campy sci-fi films of the 1950s with giant creatures roaming all over the place and why they are some of the most important films that America has ever made.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

BANG! The Artist & the New Agenda In Film

What is it about Michel Hazanavicius' 2011 The Artist that has won every major film award so far thus and has positioned itself to win the Oscar for Best Picture and Best Director? What's the big deal? It is not only an extremely complex film (in terms of the rich layers of meaning and discourse it offers the audience) but The Artist is as much a part of the future of film making as the "talkie" films of 1927.
Jean Dujardin is a cross between the great Douglas Fairbanks and Gene Kelly; when George Valentin (the last name references Rudolph Valentino, obviously the great great great silent film "lover" of all time) wakes up in Peppy's house, that's Hancock Manor, the mansion of Fairbanks and Mary Pickford and when he wakes up in bed, that was Mary Pickford's actual bed.
Let's begin with an historical analysis.
1927 in Hollywood.
The Roaring Twenties are about to come to an end in the Stock Market Crash (1929). When Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) drops her purse while watching George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) pose with his muscles for the crowd, this foreshadows for us the illusion of economic strength the United States economy had (George posing with muscles he doesn't have) and the millions of dollars that would be lost by millions of people (Peppy dropping her purse).
George putting on a show of strength as Peppy clutches her purse. The stock market crashes in the film just before George's big independent film venture, Tears of Love, will be released, and since he has lost everything in the crash his only hope is to regain the money he has invested in his film with a big success. True to capitalism, the old silent film can't compete with the new talkie film opening on the same day, Beauty Spot, starring Peppy. The most basic fundamentals of the free market are discussed in what will determine the films that are going to be made and that mirrors our day and age exactly.
As Peppy reaches down to retrieve her purse, she is pushed by the crowd "across the line" into "George's space" (the area of the celebrity the cop has created by keeping his arms held up to keep the crowd back) and this, too, foreshadows not only Peppy and the young generation of the "talkie" film stars taking over the space of the older silent stars, but also the class shifts which would take place as a result of the changing dynamics of the free market and Roosevelt's New Deal program over the Great Depression.
This is one of the ways we can see The Artist being a thoroughly contemporary film: our own stock market crash that we still haven't recovered from that films such as Margin Call and In Time have dealt with (and I foresee more class oriented films being released this year).  What's really being set up in this scenario is, how economics will drive a "new artistry" in Hollywood. When George drives onto the lot of Kinograph Studios and sees that everything has been closed because Kinograph is only going to make talking pictures from now on, that truly reflects the kind of films that are going to be made today.
George's car arriving at the Kinograph Studio where he has his contract. Like Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, The Artist harkens back to the Twenties, but in Hollywood, not Paris, however, just as the car is a creative vehicle for Gil in Midnight in Paris, so cars are important symbolic vehicles in The Artist, because they transfer for the audience what is "driving" the characters, the creative process and the story line.
When I first became aware of The Artist back in September, I predicted that it would be about the debate in Hollywood over films being purely entertainment or films that say something, and The Artist, like all the other great films released this year, is saying something: films must say something! Entertainment is not sacrificed when films say something (take, for example, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, most enjoyable and saying so much that I could easily post two more essays on it!). To me, films are most enjoyable when they are saying something because when they try to be purely entertaining, they fail (The Thing, Darkest Hour, Conan the Barbarian, etc).
After being fired because the audience wants "something new," George decides that he will finance his own silent film, Tears of Love, that he wrote, produced, directs and stars in which takes place in a jungle atmosphere. In spite of it being a silent film, George can't help but "say something" with the film because, as I have often pointed out in this, my little corner of cyberspace, every single second of film is a decision that has been made, a choosing of this over that, and that over this. Those decisions are based on morals, ethics, fashion, politics, the economy, history, and personal experience, i.e., everything is reflected in even just one second of film.
Personally, when I think of an agenda for Hollywood, I tend to think of films such as Brokeback Mountain or Alexander, films that definitely do not coincide with my personal beliefs and moral codes; however, this is the year that we have seen films such as The Help, The Descendants, The Debt, Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy, Warrior, Take Shelter, The Tree of Life, Shame, Moneyball and so many others I could go on and on. Films have always said something, but now the stakes are raised, partially because, like the Great Depression of the 1930s, there is a global economic crisis and some people see that there is also a crisis in political leadership (myself included) and the direction the country will take, who we have been and what it is we want to become and how we will achieve that, is all going to be a part of the new agenda in Hollywood, and saying something isn't the only important thing, but how to say it.
"Free Georgia!" the hero yells from the escape plane as he and the heroine make their getaway. What does that refer to? The "August Uprising" to free the country of Georgia from Bolshevik Rule that happened just three years before A Russian Affair (the silent film in The Artist) was made. Thousands of Georgians were executed in the purging led by a native Georgian, Joseph Stalin, who firmly established the rule of the early Soviet government, ruthlessly. While A Russian Affair seems to be a silent film, it speaks loud and clear about the political landscape of the Twenties, what was at risk on the international stage of politics and the influence that film could play in drawing people's awareness to issues such as the August Uprising and the  catastrophic events that would result.
The first rule of language is that there are rules but there are very interesting ways to break rules. For example, when George has a gun in his mouth and is ready to commit suicide, the title card reads "BANG!" as if George pulled the trigger, but actually outside is Peppy who crashed her car into a tree and the noise makes George stop so he doesn't pull the trigger. "BANG!" in this instance has an ambiguous, double meaning: we expect the noise from a gun going off to sound like "BANG!" in a silent world where only words convey to the sense (hearing) what we are supposed to gather as information from the story line. But the ambiguity allows the "BANG!" to also accurately denote the noise of Peppy outside crashing. Just as there is ambiguity in the source of the "BANG!", so there are numerous ways of communicating that the film explores.
 
George watching himself in some of his old films in a run-down apartment that he's about to burn. An old silent screen star watching their old films invokes the mega-hit Sunset Boulevard, but it also reflects what Hollywood is doing today: watching its old films and deciding where to go from here. Hugo, The Artist and My Week With Marilyn are some of the obvious films about Hollywood examining how it makes films, and that is what George is doing above. As you know, where we have been is necessary to know where we are going, and the explosiveness of this year's film crop is taking us to new places this year and beyond.
We could say that the reason The Artist is a silent film is to highlight all the ways communication takes place without speech: the dog, Jack, successfully communicates to a policeman that George is in danger and saves George's life; Jack and George mimic each other's reactions in front of Doris, George's wife; Peppy writes on George's dressing room mirror "Thank you" for the help he has given her, a sign behind the theater reads "PLEASE REMAIN SILENT," and all these seem like little things when speech is the dominant force of communication, but quarantining speech and noise dramatizes the importance of these modes of communication that, in our daily lives, we tend to silence and it brings us to another possible mode of communication: dancing.
The prop men have a backdrop that separates George from the unknown female dancer's legs on the opposite side; as she rehearses her dance steps, George tries to outdo her, and they have a "dance duel" until the prop men life up the back drop completely and George recognizes Peppy from the day before.
Can dancing be a form of communication?
In other words, can the dance numbers of George and Peppy communicate to us the way a title card reading "Free Georgia!" communicates?
 The Artist obviously references the great 1952 classic Singin' In the Rain which is a musical/dance film; anyone who says that Gene Kelly's dancing doesn't communicate has never seen Gene Kelly, but it is more difficult to get at the communication of dancing and I think that's one of the reasons why a conscious decision was made to sacrifice sound (up until the end with the tapping of the dance number) so additional methods of communication could be introduced and the audience could learn new ways of enjoying film and educate us about all the wonderful things film can do when we let it.
George and Peppy dancing for director Al Zimmer (John Goodman). This scene really reminds me of Yankee Doodle Dandy, which is very much about the relationship of money and art, and how the two work together for ultimate profit.
So what does the dancing communicate?
Dancing is done with the feet (and other parts of the body and objects) but the feet is always symbolic of the will and the type of dance that is being done communicates to us about the dancer's will. For the most part, Peppy's and George's dance number at the end is in unison with each other, they are dancing the same dance, their wills are united (compare this, for example, when they are having the "dancing duel" with Peppy behind the backdrop and they compete; you can watch a full clip of Peppy and George dancing in Al's office and the full dress tap dancing here). The dance is fast-paced because energy is comparable to industry and productivity, compared to the dance they do for the taping of A German Affair, when they have several takes and can't get it right. That dance is in unison, however, it's a slow and a more bland, romantic dance, no choreography hence no creativity. (Like A Russian Affair about the political woes of a country most Americans probably didn't even know existed, A German Affair, used George changing partners in the dance to explore how the United States would "change partners" from neutrality to Allied status in the upcoming German affair called World War II).
Peppy & George in their final dance routine for the cameras.
In The Iron Lady and Margin Call, music is used as a parable for the economy and the fast-paced dance number George and Peppy do communicates that the music will start again and the old will be in step with the new as a parable of the Great Depression ending and economic recovery being a reality (The Artist is taking place during the Great Depression). In the office scene when George and Peppy dance for Al, he stands and makes a fist, shaking it in the air, then during their full-dress take for the tap dancing towards the end of the film  (pictured below) he does it again. The fist in the gripping/shaking gesture emphasizes the hand which is symbolic of power, specifically, the power that comes with a "strong" economy (and it's only because Al thinks the routine is good and they can make money off it--because audiences will love it--that he gets excited to begin with).
Notice, please, the fist he's making.
There is gracefulness and harmony in the dances, and when the economy was spiraling out of control in the Great Depression (as it seems to be doing today) seeing the order that harmony communicates would be a welcomed message indeed. The backdrop, the art deco cityscape, is glamorous and meant to remind people of the success of the big cities and not their bread lines or unemployment centers. But dancing in The Artist does more than this, because the use of sound right here is extremely controlled and it is a deliberate reference to today's film making and what it is doing.
In the moment above, towards the end, George and Peppy have finished their exhausting dance routine and we hear them breathing heavily, out of breath. The director asks if they can do it one more time, and George replies, in a heavy French accent, "With pleasure," and (of many possibilities) the French accent (the only time in the film we hear George's voice) references the French voice, i.e.,  the French New Wave of cinema, one of the leading films of that time being Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless of 1960 (hence why George and Peppy are "out of breath" and breathing so hard at that moment). French New Wave was influenced by classical Hollywood, just as films today are, but the films today are also taking amazing chances and risks just as the French New Wave films were doing, and the films of today are going to be remembered as opening up new possibilities in film making just as the New Wave did.
George has a nightmare that everything has sound and he alone is unable to speak/make sound. The dream ends when a feather falls to the asphalt of a street and makes a loud boom sound, obviously exaggerated. He is also in the gesture of the three wise monkeys.
The use of sound in very controlled circumstances in the film brings us to the what sound does mean. 
What is the meaning of George's nightmare?
He sits down a glass on his dressing room table and we hear the sound of it being sat on the hard surface. This is a very legitimate aspect of film "talking" and saying something, because every little thing in a film has meaning, and the smallest things become "exaggerated" in importance. For example, a Coke can that in daily life wouldn't be noticed by anyone, has had hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars invested to get it placed in that moment of the film, whereas in daily life we would throw it away without noticing. It's not just the team of sound mixing and editors as well as the music and soundtrack team that work on the sound until it's perfect, but decisions have been made by dozens of people about every word and second of silence, so every second of film is not only invested with decisions, but money.

Placing the glass on the table, then, suddenly "talks" in a film where everything is invested with meaning (it's placed there instead of dropped, it's placed there instead of over there, of being held onto to; it does or does not have liquid in it, or something else for that matter). Even a feather from out of nowhere, falling onto the asphalt has meaning that it wouldn't have in daily life (if I saw a feather right now falling onto the street outside the window, I would assume it was just a bird in one of the many trees nesting and wouldn't give it a second thought). We know that sound can communicate, but can silence communicate?

George just after Peppy has "crossed over" into his space in the beginning.
There are numerous times in the film when some one's silence is communicative, and the "breaking of silence" is breathless. First, when Peppy has crossed over into George's space in the spotlight in the beginning of the film, and she waits to see his reaction; George's wife Doris is silent as she reads the newspaper showing Peppy kissing George; when George and Peppy, unbeknownst to them, have a dance duel with a backdrop separating them and, when the backdrop is lifted, and Peppy is revealed, everyone is silent waiting for George's reaction; when Peppy is trying to "blackmail" director Al Zimmer over casting George in their new movie; Peppy and George have finished their dance number for Zimmer on the set and everyone waits to hear his reaction to what they have done. Silence communicates anticipation (from an audience holding their breath) and indecisiveness from the person everyone is waiting to hear from (amongst other emotions).

George's independent silent film Tears of Love plays to a nearly empty theater, and the emptiness of the theater speaks volumes: no one is talking about Tears of Love, they are talking about Peppy Miller. Silence is usually associated with negativity, that is, silence is a void where sound should be and isn't, but silence can also be fruitful, as in this scene when Peppy is in the balcony watching the quicksand scene and she doesn't say a word, but a tear, a "tear of love" falls down her face. In the classic film Singin' In the Rain, the conversion to talkie films from silent pictures was resisted and resented because actors talking was seen as vulgar: real actors, real artists, could communicate their emotions and feelings with real acting and because emotions speak louder than any dialogue that could bog down the story. When George decides to make his own film and declares himself to be an artist, and being free of the studio is the "price of freedom," it's being free of the perception of emotions enslaved to words that will never adequately approach genuine, deep emotions and states of being. We can see this in practice today in a film such as Tree of Life  which has large spans of silence and especially a film such as Gerry which is mostly silent.
Why is this important?
Because, in The Artist, we have silence within silence, a moment of silence within a silent film, which places all responsibility upon the audience to go deep within themselves to engage with the characters and their struggles. This is the basis of the art as entertainment or art that says something dichotomy: the audience doesn't interact with entertainment the way they interact with a more thought-provoking film (I hope that this blog has helped my audience to realize, again, that entertainment does not need to be sacrificed for great art, that we usually consider art to be that which we enjoy because it touches upon areas within us that maybe we haven't articulated to our selves but exist nevertheless).

One of many great shots.
There is another area of contemporary films that The Artist explores in addition to everything else discussed above: stable identity. When we first see George Valentin, he is screaming his head off, being tortured in a Frankenstein type device by Soviets trying to "get him to talk" and tell them the secrets he knows. Symbolically, this can be translated as pressure put on Hollywood producers to make films that say something, serious films, instead of films that are frivolous. But George then puts on a mask and makes his heroic getaway. The tuxedo he wears becomes a part of his facade, his celebrity identity that he wants to have and everyone expects him to have. He then gives the same kind of facade ("something the other actresses don't have") to Peppy (please click here to view the scene of George giving Peppy her beauty mark).

The window, obviously symbolizes reflection and the tailcoat was (in modern parlance of Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows) his "urban camouflage." The tailcoat is as much a mask to him as the mask he wears on his face, but this is just one example from the film: his wife, Doris, is fond of drawing faces on top of his face, blacking out his teeth and drawing mustaches and crazy hair, which is how she sees George, that he is different than what he appears to be. George sold his tailcoat to a pawn shop when he ran out of money to buy liquor and needed some more cash. It's up to the viewer to decide, if this is a part of the genuine self  or an illusion to keep himself thinking he is something he is not.
Ultimately, films are made for audiences, and this creates a subtle, but definite undertone to this whole discussion.
In George's house, on his radio, and shown several times (even in the trailer) are three wise monkeys: monkey see no evil, monkey hear no evil, monkey speak no evil that he finds Peppy has purchased and stores in her home later in the film. What's important about the image is the moral responsibility that film has to its audience in what it chooses to communicate to them and the evil that can be taught to us by a lack of moral integrity (of course, everyone will say that their moral integrity is superior to everyone else's, and that no one has a right to decide for everyone else) but the three wise monkeys being in the trailer and appearing at least twice in the film makes its own statement about statements that Hollywood chooses to make (The Artist is so contemporary that it's even referencing a film that hasn't been released yet, The Woman In Black starring Daniel Radcliffe, also prominently places the three wise monkeys within its trailer).

Peppy doesn't know George at this point, she had just "bumped into him" the night before and now she is a dance extra on his next film. She's in his dressing room "romancing his jacket," but, as discussed above, this is really a part of his facade, his mask, and Peppy romancing this "hollow man" is accurately reflecting her infatuation with someone she doesn't know but thinks she knows from the films, and how intricate the role of persona can be in film. This is why George gives her the beauty mark and her big hit (that opens the same day as George's Tears of Love) is Beauty Spot, for her beauty mark.
This brings me to my last comment: why is the film in black and white?It didn't have to be, they could have made the film in color and still silent, but black and white communicates just as color communicates, probably because the decision of whether films are going to be vehicles of thought, discourse and public forums for thought on all issues effecting us, is a black and white issue, and no one can ignore or choose not to decide about it.

After being fired, George is on his way down the staircase as, literally, Peppy is on her way up. Why does Peppy like to whistle and throw kisses? It shows us the different ways that we can communicate with out mouths other than with speech. The whistle, for example, isn't particularly lady-like, and that communicates to us about Peppy and her background, even her class, for example, we probably wouldn't see George's wife putting two fingers in her mouth and blowing through them.
There are nine films competing for the Best Picture Oscar this year and I have seen all but one of them (Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, which I will see this weekend). If it were up to me, I would hand the Oscar to The Artist, because it has done the best job of communicating what the history and the future of film making is, what the course ahead looks like and why it should be taken. It's not that other films haven't done this, but The Artist utilizes the greatest array of tools and techniques that other films will utilize as well and the reason this is important is, it will not only effect the films we will be watching (for entertainment and educational purposes) but also because films are social documents for understanding who we are now and historical documents understanding what we have been and why we have become what we choose to. The Artist fully realizes what movies mean to the modern world and it is leading the way for films to fulfill the demanding role we put on them.