Oh, no, you're thinking. Not another one of those big century's-end pieces in which the Post genius in residence pontificates on The Meaning of It All.
And here's what I'm thinking: Oh, no. Not another one of those big century's-end pieces in which the Post genius in residence pontificates on The Meaning of It All.
Nope. Not gonna do it.
Instead, here's a modest century's-end piece, in which The Post's one admitted non-genius in residence flees screaming and terrified from the threat of The Meaning of It All. He just wants to tell you what it was. He focuses therefore on neither the great nor the wretched, but something far more revealing.
Instead of the 10 best films of the century, or the 10 worst, I give you the middle of the road: 10 typical films. For masterpieces, while delighting and provoking us immensely, tell us little. They tell us of the genius of their makers, the creative alchemy of unique collaboration, the once-in-a-lifetime performance, but they are almost always happy accidents. Check out "Citizen Kane" or "Dr. Strangelove" if you dispute. They transcend, they do not represent.
Instead I have chosen 10 films, each from a different decade, each remarkably untainted by greatness. I chose most against my own taste. I chose several that I'd never seen before and had no great warmth or attitude for. I chose typical industry product.
Of them, I asked the same four questions, as if to gaze upon each through the same small aperture, and see what secrets they yielded. I am not directly interested in content, or even in merit, but in revelation. What do they tell us about the state of film technique in that decade? What do they tell us about the state of film production as the principal industry of dreams for the millions? What do they assume about their audiences? And finally, what do they tell us about the values of the decade?
'The Great Train Robbery'
One must start, of course, with the start: "The Great Train Robbery" of 1903, directed in the woods of New Jersey by Edwin S. Porter, an executive in the Edison Co., generally considered among the first, if not the very first, narrative features made in this country. The film represented Thomas Edison's assertion that as a commercial venture, the motion picture belonged to him. It was made as if to express exactly that point: It's a movie made by an engineer, not an artist.
I mean not to break this fragile butterfly on a rack of iron. Still, all things considered, it's pretty awful. Here's what it tells us about film technique: Nobody knew anything about film technique. It hadn't been invented yet. A simple story of bandits who rob, victims who die and a posse that avenges, it represents a period of artistic, but not commercial, innocence. No film grammar has yet been developed, that comforting glide between close-up, mid- and long shot, which was to become the DNA-deep rhythm of film narrative. The camera is placed in front of the action and turned on. Clearly the imagination of Porter is limited to the stage; he still sees dramatic action happening in a box. There's really no sense of the cinema's ability to shorten time: Everything happens in real time. There's no cutting within the scenes to enhance drama; cross-cutting, to suggest parallel actions in different locations, hasn't been devised. To punch it up, Porter relies on flashy acting, such as the deaths of various gunshot victims who pirouette grandly before expiring.
Still, it's impressive, if not as a work of art but as a production: It shows that right from the start, the entrepreneurial strain--showmanship--was present in the idea of making films. This is an elaborate undertaking: The cast numbers at least 50, all in uniforms, or outfits. The filmmakers endeavored to create a believable world and to people it with recognizable types. They haven't cheated and they've worked hard: horses, trains, even special effects (some back-projection lends the suggestion of scenery whizzing by in the mail car when the bad guys break in). They understand the power of the western in the American imagination; they've made a conscious decision to connect to it, even if they only got a few hundred feet west of the Hudson.
Its values are primitive. A child, whose image is hand-tinted (Steven Spielberg did the same in "Schindler's List"), represents the focus of sentimentalization. Stars haven't yet emerged; there's no sense of protagonists as individuals but only as groups (the robbers, the victims, the posse). Justice is swift and irrevocable. Death is not remarkable--the movie is shorn of grief and largely of anything except movement.
"The Great Train Robbery" assumes that its audience is as naive as its filmmakers. It only barely perceives that movement alone (the movies had been around for a decade or more in nickelodeons and arcades) doesn't fascinate anyone anymore, so it makes a tentative leap to yoke movement to narrative to make a lot of money.
'Hearts of the World'
How much has changed by 1918! D.W. Griffith has invented the movies and he's already made his two films he's best known for, "Intolerance" (in 1915) and "The Birth of a Nation" (in 1916). By 1918, he's enlisted in the Allied cause and is grinding out routine propaganda. His effort for that year is "Hearts of the World," a drama of an American family caught in a small French village at the outbreak of the war.
Starring Dorothy and Lillian Gish and Robert Harron, the movie is an invocation to arms against the hated Huns, featuring American spunk and French grit as the only antidote to Bosche militarism. All these forces are personified in the characters that run through its paper-thin, symbol-heavy story. The movie opens in the lyrical village, where innocence and love cavort, only to be marred by the arrival of a German traveler (actually a spy). When war breaks out the village is quickly overrun by the Kaiser's legions; the men of the village of course join the French army and are sent to the lines just outside their village, and that spy is now Herr Kommandant. Several big attacks later, the French free the village. Lovers are reunited; goodness triumphs.
But the plot isn't the film; the war is the film. In fact, it now baffles me why "All Quiet on the Western Front" so moved audiences 12 years later, for so firm is Griffith's control of his materials that the war is re-created with great ferocity and believability; the fighting is fantastically frightening. Moreover, he visited the front, and film of actual fighting is intercut with his re-creation, almost seamlessly.
And this, more important: This man really understood storytelling. There are at least six plots going on in the film, and he cuts among them with such verve and confidence and such beguiling speed that the movie achieves enormous power. The film shifts adroitly between little pictures--men in the trenches, life under German occupation--and big pictures--the generals discussing strategy. Spielberg doesn't know anything about movie storytelling that Griffith didn't know 80 years ago; he may even know less.
Another brilliance: Unlike the somewhat ragged "Great Train Robbery," Griffith understood the importance of--and the difference between--the frame and the scene. He composed his scenes, always putting the camera in its most harmonic relationship to the most important contents, whether characters or houses. At the same time, he cut within scenes to control the flow of time and the sense of drama. He let the camera, rather than the actors, emphasize emotion, going to close-up to heighten key moments rather than leaning on explosive, grand acting techniques seen from afar.
This, of course, led to his other important discovery: the star. For in "Hearts of the World," despite its crude Allied propaganda, the two Gishes radiate intensely from the screen. One--Lillian--is ethereal and pure; the other--Dorothy--is earthy and practical and comic. They complement each other beautifully, reflecting two strata in society, and two idealizations of womanhood. At the same time, their exquisite if subtle, unique beauty (powerful eyes, wide cheekbones, tiny mouths, small faces) is in itself fascinating. But it's a peculiar film beauty, available only through the medium of the lens.
In its values, "Hearts of the World" isn't particularly meaningful; it's reverential to authority figures (Woodrow Wilson is pictured with an aura of light, like a halo) and completely pro-war. It is untinged by the bitterness that would come later.
And it assumes the same of its audience. It means to play on the viewer's latent emotions, not stir them up. Mothers die, children are threatened, women are raped, all by the Germans, who are represented as bestial, and played by heavyset, thuggish actors. The mother is a peculiarly poignant figure, and at one point a title card refers to the oncoming "profanation of eternal mother." Wow! 1918! A big word like "profanation." Does anybody today know what that means? Well, Griffith assumed that millions did in 1918.
'The Iron Mask'
By 1929, not only had the movies been invented but so had Hollywood. "The Iron Mask," with Douglas Fairbanks, is one of the last big silent films before the advent of sound. In fact, the version I saw was a 1954 re-release, with the subtitles gone, an orchestration added, and a voice-over narration by Douglas Fairbanks Jr.
The director was Allan Dwan, a journeyman whose work rarely transcended the genre and who has not entered the pantheon of great directors. But he understood the power of his star. Fairbanks, at his athletic best, dominates--fighting, riding, throwing back his head and laughing uproariously. He dominates the action, which is the last part of Alexandre Dumas' "The Three Musketeers" combined with the first part of "The Four Musketeers." (The same story was retold in 1998 as "The Man in the Iron Mask," with Leonardo DiCaprio.)
The tale covers 20 years from the death of D'Artagnan's girlfriend, Constance, to his final understanding of why it happened and what her last years meant. So it presupposes a remembered past--the audience had to remember facts and incidents disclosed earlier and apply that knowledge against what was happening currently in the plot. That presupposes a certain audience sophistication--that viewers can hold in their mind something abstract and apply it to the plot at the appropriate time, and thereby understand the drama. This moves the audience from the immediate to the symbolic. In other words, it demands a capacity for simultaneous thought, something audiences were only becoming savvy to after much instruction.
I also doubt the modern production was any more elaborate than this 1929 version, which represents Old Hollywood at its most spectacular. Seventeenth-century Paris is re-created to the tiniest detail, and the crowds in elaborate costumes throng through it, in a sea of humanity, contrivance and animals.
But mostly what it offers is the ether of pure entertainment. It is untouched, entirely, by the real world. It is a sealed-off joyland of bombastic emotions, colorful events, derring-do and narrow escapes, all cut and formed to express one pure emotion, which is the joy of escapism. At this point, it suggests, Hollywood was at its most benevolent, most artistic, least involved, most evolved. It assumed that the audience needed spectacle to amuse itself and, perhaps, keep its mind off Prohibition.
'You Can't Take It With You'
In Frank Capra's "You Can't Take It With You" (1938) all that has changed, at least a little. Capra is one of the great directors of the '30s and '40s; this is not one of his great films (which ranged from "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" of 1939 on to "It's a Wonderful Life" of 1946). Mounted on an overly whimsical Moss Hart-George F. Kaufman play, it's a celebration of American eccentricity, which watches as a titan of industry is tamed and domesticated by the decency of the common folk.
Capra never quite transcends the stage-bound limitations of the material, though he does impose his signature hubbub, which gives the piece some naturalistic tones it most certainly didn't enjoy on the stage. And he moves it into the real world, as opposed to a symbolic stage world. The camera ventures outside and the interior sets are immensely detailed and expressive in a way a stage set could never be because the audience's eye is too far removed from the stage.
And, of course, he gets excellent performances out of a sublimely talented cast (many of whom will reappear in his other films). Jimmy Stewart plays the young heir who falls in love with the madcap granddaughter (Jean Arthur, tres zany) of the bohemian clan leader (Lionel Barrymore) who wryly observes the nursery school that his home has become. It's filled with dropouts who want creative freedom (it's actually a pretty accurate forecast of '90s America) and do their own thing with a wacky joy.
One can feel the presence of Depression-era issues: economic deprivation, the dark fear each job-holder feels about his own job, the predations of capitalism and so forth. Yet these issues have been sentimentalized to such an extent they are hardly a force in the film, which is actually the movie's most interesting trait: The film is buoyant with optimism; one might call this a pre-Holocaust imagination, in which we took for granted that there were certain excesses in behavior that civilized people just would not commit against other civilized people. It was unimaginable (though, of course, it had begun; it just hadn't been noted). In the most astonishing scene, free spirit Barrymore shames industrial titan Edward Arnold into reform. Shame itself had power. There was an assumption that man's natural state was goodness and that forays into evil were momentary surrenders to opportunity and greed, not fundamental human states.
"Air Force" (1943) certainly accepts human evil, but only when vested in the Japanese. This is a primal mid-war agitprop film, directed with athletic grace and muscular drive by Howard Hawks. It's a fabulous film, actually, given its narrow moral vision and its commitment to making certain, in Bull Halsey's words, that the Japanese language is spoken only in Hell.
What marks it off from the previous films is a sense of documentary. Hawks chose a fictitious bomber, a Flying Fortress called the Mary-Ann, and used it as a tool by which to tour the first weeks of the war in the Pacific, beginning Dec. 7, 1941, at Pearl Harbor and ending with a fictitious sea and air battle that will put most in mind of Midway, where the U.S. Navy stopped the Japanese expansion for good. But he shot it on a real bomber that, obligingly, the Air Corps ponied up for the filmmakers.
The plane itself and the process of operating it are a source of great fascination in the film. I don't suppose you'll find a film made before it that finds more pleasure in the genius of the mechanical. Of course there are metaphoric overtones as well; the bomber is the nation, and the overall ethic is teamwork. We were all on the team: The Air Corps even let a stunt pilot pancake the plane into the surf for a fitting closing image of survival and triumph.
Likewise, the story was built around teamwork, for there's probably no more intense team sport than dropping bombs on people in a sophisticated airplane while, in their thousands, they are trying to kill you. Hawks loves the professionalism of the crew, the interaction among them. The great John Garfield, with his atypical, unbeautiful face, is the linchpin as an embittered working-class gunner who hates the Corps because it washed him out of flight school. Watching him complete his arc--going from outcast to hero (the Air Corps' first tail gunner!)--is one of the movie's primal pop pleasures.
But one can continuously see the visible darkness, too. The movie is vicious toward the Japanese, imputing sabotage to Japanese civilians at Pearl Harbor (there was never a shred of evidence of this) and watching with unconcealed glee as Americans commit to total war. "Hey, Joe, fried Jap going down!" a gunner cries as he sends a Zero down in flames. Its emotional high point arrives when Garfield coldly mows down a crashed Japanese aviator as he leaves his plane and the film invites us to share in the pleasure and justice of the kill.
You see another hallmark of the sound film in the pre-color era, another signature that has vanished. This is "business." By that I mean the screenplay was an extremely sophisticated piece of writing that invented a personality for each man and a set of story issues for him. Within the overall arc of the story were dozens of smaller arcs as these stories were brought to closure in a variety of charming emotional modalities. A dog joins the crew (sentimental comedy); the officers rag on a pursuit pilot (boys' locker room humor); a crew chief worries about his son, a fighter pilot in the Philippines (poignancy); a kid writes his mom (pathos); the co-pilot is in love with the navigator's sister (romance). And on it goes, brilliantly modulated so that for every large movement of the story--the long flight from Pearl to Wake Island, for example--two or three of these littler stories are given screen time. For the record, it's this anecdote-rich style that strikes me as the essence of the studio film in its high period.
'Not as a Stranger'
And yet by 1955, it's all gone away. Our exhibit is the strange and strangely beautiful "Not as a Stranger," a movie I would have looked at for no other entity than The Washington Post. The surprise is that despite its spectacular but nevertheless typical strangenesses, it becomes quite moving by the end.
Based on a bestseller by a country doctor, it's the story of a man who rises above poverty, anguish and temptation to become a village icon as he ministers to the sick. It stars that least country, least doctorly of all actors in '50s Hollywood: Robert Mitchum. How do they get away with Mitchum, the quintessential white hipster, as a doc? Well, they surround him with even more unlikely doctors: Frank Sinatra, Lee Marvin and Broderick Crawford. I think we want these guys robbing casinos, not practicing medicine. And, in fact, the film seems to take its style notes from the weird huge smoothness of Mitchum's trapezoidally impassive head. The movie, directed by Stanley Kramer, has a minimalist look to it: The sets are drained of detail and light, and the actors move through it as if in a trance, with Mitchum, his gigantic shoulders bulging outward toward the horizon like a professional wrestler, as the Kabuki master. The emotional climax comes when he can at last admit pain and imperfection; he allows the shadow of a wrinkle to play across his massive forehead, and the tiniest glitter of a tear.
One could argue that the style is appropriate to the theme: Mitchum's character is obsessed with his own perfection, with denying human weakness, and the thrust of the drama is to suggest how pathological this is. So at med school, the film duplicates his view of life, which is simplistic, ritualized, devoid of detail, motive, shading--the egoist's vision. The film picks up details and a larger sense of naturalism when it leaves medical school and enters the real world of a small town (Greenville, U.S.A.). There, he learns both the smallness and the greatness in man in the real world. Mitchum's Dr. Luke Marsh becomes apprentice to Charles Bickford as a country doctor, whose people-savvy and common sense provoke and engage Mitchum. Next, he has an affair with a rich gal (Gloria Grahame), and his wife (Olivia de Havilland in the ridiculous role of the long-suffering Swedish Mrs.!) kicks him out. Finally, he makes a mistake and loses a patient.
These are all dramatic events that somehow exist twice: They exist in the plot but also in the style of the film. Generally, the movies have been utterly unself-conscious. Their makers were manipulating them to make key points, of course, but there's no sense that they're aware of the film as a medium. They weren't conscious of the film as a film, and what was possible to build into the DNA of its design. "Not as a Stranger" is one of the first films to begin to acquire this patina, and in an odd way it's a linear descendant of "Citizen Kane" of 1940, which was the first American film to begin to entertain these intriguing postmodern possibilities.
The fun has returned by 1963. This is Stanley Donen's delightful "Charade," which stars the magic of Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant in a piffle about foreign intrigue in Paris. Here's a movie that stands for the big movement in the '60s, and I'm not talking about politics or demographics or anything like that. It's the movement from style as an expression of substance to style as an end in itself. It's no surprise that Donen, who collaborated with Gene Kelly in a number of films, was the representative of this idea. He understood how movement, attitude, color--all virtues of the musical stage--could work equally well on screen, without the music. Thus "Charade," which is a musicless musical disguised without energy as a thriller.
The movie isn't selling its story; it's not really interested in narrative, in a way that marks it as different from the movies that came before it, all of which in some way, shape or form acknowledged the supremacy of the story. Donen couldn't care less; the story here has something to do with a robbery back during the war and the gathering of three robbers to take down the fourth, who absconded with all the dough. He happens to have been married to Audrey Hepburn, the lucky dog. Then there's mysterious Grant, bull-necked and unruffleable, who appears under a glut of names and identities but with the consistent twinkle in his eye.
What the movie is really selling is the fabulous chemistry between Grant and Hepburn, two sophisticated pussycats toying regally with each other for the entire two hours of the film, with the world's most gorgeous city in the background. It has an eerie precognition of what would happen to popular culture in the '60s as the rules were gradually erased and the sense of pleasure without consequence became paramount.
'Three Days of the Condor'
By the '70s, the breakdown of narrative and the supremacy of the vision and the relationship among the actors had become more than a stylistic twitch, it had become the vernacular. "Three Days of the Condor" (1975), the Sydney Pollack film based on the excellent Jim Grady novel (though truncated; Grady's Condor flew for six days!), is so typical of its time and place that to see it is to be drawn back to those days in a powerful way.
The movie is to some degree an exercise in paranoia; it follows as a young CIA analyst accidentally survives a hit on his installation (a New York brownstone) that he understands was coordinated by someone inside. Thus he has to not only improvise his own survival (assassins still hunt him) but also solve the enigma before he "comes in from the cold." The cynicism--post-Watergate, post-Vietnam, post-Kennedy assassination--is remarkable, particularly as the film suggests something that a Howard Hawks would have found treasonous in 1943: You can't trust anybody, especially the government.
Right away you see gross differences from the movies that have come before. For one thing, the violence is far rawer. In the first few seconds, six people are machine-gunned and collapse with the blood spurting outward. In some sense, the camera invites us to enjoy the slaughter from the vantage point of the killers and to experience their aloof superiority.
One also notices another value utterly inconceivable just a few years before: the pathologizing of the hero. Robert Redford becomes so violated by his ordeal that he takes on the raiments of the sociopath: He becomes hard, ruthless, a killer, a lawbreaker. He becomes a lone avenger who cannot trust the system, and ultimately the mentor in his anti-Establishment attitudes is Max von Sydow as the cool professional killer who befriends and educates him.
One also sees the stylistic influences of television--the movie is full of the TV staple of immense close-ups, which provide more emotional urgency--and the influence of the European art film, where time and space are fractured and leak into each other in ways that an earlier generation of Hollywood pros would have found baffling. This marks the globalization of the cinema as Tinseltown has surrendered its own natural mantle of world centrality.
'The Cotton Club'
By the 1980s, history is again the serious stuff of movies. Alas, it is not the history of record, it is the history of the movies. In desperate search of new pleasures and stimulations, filmmakers have begun to loot their own pasts. "The Cotton Club" (1984), for example, is stolen aggressively from "The Godfather," but it is stolen by "The Godfather's" own director, Francis Ford Coppola. Here is a film that represents the almost pure spirit of syntheticism. It isn't remotely interested in the gangster life in New York in the 1930s, its ostensible subject; it's interested in re-creating the sensations and rhythms of "The Godfather." It hasn't a lick of spontaneity, even as the "Godfather" team--Coppola, Mario Puzo and producer Bob Evans--attempt to duplicate their genuine success of a decade earlier.
In its way, then, it's more cynical than "Three Days of the Condor"--there's no passion in it, nothing being communicated. The story is a wretched mess. It follows two sets of brothers--black tap dancers and Irish musician-gangsters--through a clumsy tale that mixes real personalities (Dutch Schultz and Owney Madden) with fake (Nicolas Cage in a baffling turn as a Dwyer brother who happens to commit the crimes ascribed to Vincent "Mad Dog" Coll). The Hines brothers are the Nicholas brothers; Richard Gere is some strange manifestation of both Bix Beiderbecke and George Raft. This is a movie made by an industry bereft of confidence. It no longer knows what it does best or what was so good about it. It has forgotten too much; it exists only to make money and generate celebrity.
And finally--the '90s. I can think of no image that better sums up our own time than Tim Burton's "Sleepy Hollow." Burton, in the '30s or '40s, would have been working at the extreme margins of the film culture, if at all. But in a creative vacuum, his vision (and he has one) and his confidence (and he has a lot) have spelled a mainstream career, guaranteed apparently unto eternity on the strength of a single hit, his original "Batman" movie. By 1999's "Sleepy Hollow," his macabre tendencies have truly morphed into something horrifying, and what astonishes me about this film is how much effort has been invested in re-creating the act of beheading.
Watch those scenes carefully. Legions of the creative, from makeup people to computer geniuses, have labored long and hard to give us beheadings that are not only real, but in some sense super-real. The computer people have figured out how to project the living faces of actors onto the carefully fabricated prop heads, so that for a few precious instants after the death chop, the faces still beam with life, with befuddlement, with fear.
This sums up '90s filmmaking: high technology used without true moral compass or in connection with national standards, aimed instead at illuminating the tiniest of phenomena, the two to three seconds of spontaneous life left on the face of a severed head before the nerves sign off for eternity.
Is that the '90s or what: a wispy smile, fleeting and delicate, on the face of extinction? Somehow the movies aren't movies anymore, they're something else--huge, pagan, market-driven, sensation-desperate, louder than a battle, longer than a war. Hollywood no longer sells entertainment; alas, it now sells ordeals. They are to be survived, rather than enjoyed.