Film

Lonely Are the Eighteen Material Witnesses

Stacy Danielle Stephens, author and editor and frequent Classically Educated contributor returns this week with a second review of a film dealing with the JFK assassination (for last week’s review of JFK, see here).  

Executive Action (1973) Film Poster

When the DVD sleeve liner says, “written for the screen by Dalton Trumbo,” you’re hoping for something like Spartacus, or at least Exodus, but when you watch Executive Action, you’ll remember that most of Trumbo’s screenwriting was done for the sort of studio Termite Terrace parodied by having Porky Pig crank a sausage grinder in place of a camera. This is not to say Executive Action is a bad movie, only that it is the sort of movie most people watched for the first time on television, after the local news, in the days before cable. It can hold your interest, although you might check out pro wresting at the commercial break. It’s the sort of movie you’d expect to find in a four-movie TCM collection featuring Burt Lancaster.

David Miller had directed popular hits like Captain Newman, M. D. and Flying Tigers, and following on the heels of The Day of the Jackal, Executive Action, the first cinematic treatment of the JFK assassination as a conspiracy, should have been a blockbuster, and even more so for being not only controversial, but introducing that very controversy to the American movie audience. Yet somehow, Miller and Trumbo went very wrong in how they presented what they presented.

Executive Action 1973 Robert Ryan Burt Lancaster

Anyone who has seen JFK will recognize several scenes in Executive Action, particularly scenes involving Oswald. This apparent plagiarism is permissible because these depicted events are documented occurrences, with only some of the speeches in each film being invented by an author. It is in these scenes that both the failure and the reason for it become clear. James MacColl, impersonating Oswald, isn’t convincing to anyone but the used car dealer, target shooter, and gunsmith he’s been hired to deceive in order to frame Oswald as the patsy. Ironically, MacColl, who is technically playing himself rather than Oswald, gives the only impassioned performances of the film, other than the car dealer and target shooter whom he angers. Theirs are the only convincing performances, but even their dialogue is not compelling. They convey feeling, but cannot effectively draw anyone into that feeling.

So why would anyone give up ninety-one minutes to watch a failed effort which became Late Show fodder and ended as an also ran in a lesser collection of alleged classics? Well, throughout the history of television, there have been beer commercials, and a recurring trope in these is the empty glass being filled with beer. Anyone who enjoys beer will visualize just how refreshing the brand being advertised really is. And that is the main reason for watching Executive Action; it reveals how well Oliver Stone filled the aching emptiness of November 22, 1963.

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Because Reading the Warren Commission Report Is Like Drowning

Our star contributor Stacy Danielle Stephens is back.  Today, she brings us her look at Oliver Stone’s JFK.  As always, her eye for history and analysis brings the subject to life.

JFK Assassination

On November 22nd, 1963, that bright shining moment which was Camelot abruptly faded to black.  In an amazingly similar way, when we look back at December 20th, 1991, we see that this big blue ball we know as the earth, after several centuries of spinning and moving just as Galileo insisted it did, began to go flat.  With the release of Oliver Stone’s JFK, an adroit concatenation of details became more convincing than a rational evaluation of what those details added up to, because it succeeded where David Miller’s Executive Action (1973) failed.  As Roger Ebert concluded, in JFK, Oliver Stone was able to “marshal the anger… gnawing away on some dark shelf of the national psyche.”

It should be noted in passing that contrary to what has been said for more than fifty years, more than one hunter using the same model rifle and same ammunition attributed to Oswald has managed to replicate the allegedly impossible, putting three shots, and not just two, into a moving target at the same angle and distance; experienced crime scene investigators using precise laser measurements have digitally reconstructed the details of Dealey Plaza and recreated the events of that historic day; without resorting to magic, ballistics experts using a bullet identical to the one found on the gurney have replicated its assumed performance in simulated human bodies placed in the position of the president and Governor Connally; and experienced forensic pathologists have evaluated the skull fragments, concluding that those grisly moments revealed in the Zapruder film are the consequences of two bullets, both fired from behind, with the first shattering the skull in a manner familiar to pathologists who conduct examinations of fatal gunshots to the human head.  None of this, or even all of it taken together, gives any indication of any shooter other than Oswald, but of course, it doesn’t prove that Oswald was the shooter, or that one shooter acted alone.  If one believes there was a conspiracy, one cannot be convinced by the available evidence that there was no conspiracy, yet if one wishes to dismiss any possibility of a conspiracy, one is hard pressed to ignore the myriad coincidences surrounding this assassination.  And this is the strength of Oliver Stone’s JFK.

JFK movie poster 1992

Stone does not fail to marshal facts, but he uses them for emotional impact rather than for their factual value, just as one collecting bricks need not build a wall with them, but might choose instead to hurl them for impact.  “The film hurtles,” (Ebert again) “for 188 minutes through a sea of information and conjecture, and never falters…”  This is not to say his collection of facts is complete, or that the facts themselves have all been, or even could be, verified beyond question.  Stone himself conceded, perhaps disingenuously, that JFK was an “alternative myth”.

The impact of his impeccably crafted myth is all the greater for its cast of mythic proportions.  Donald Sutherland, Edward Asner, Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Kevin Bacon, and John Candy are all cast in minor roles.  Joe Pesci is cast in one of his best supporting roles, and Tommy Lee Jones, as Clay Shaw, plays one of his most unusual roles impeccably well, effectively giving the devil his understated due as a foil to Costner’s equally impeccable presentation of a District Attorney caught up in something surely beyond his jurisdiction, and yet falling somehow squarely within it.

All About The Love Goddess

Rita Hayworth in Gilda

Rita Hayworth was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood’s golden era, and it you only have to watch one movie to know why: Gilda.  Has there ever been a more perfect femme fatale in the history of cinema?  If so, I haven’t encountered her yet and the only one that really comes to mind is Loiuse Brooks in Pandora’s Box twenty years earlier.

In the noir era?  I’d say that Lauren Bacall and Ingrid Bergman, though often playing dangerous women, were redeemed by the fact that they were dangerous because of the situation they were in, or their upbringing.  None of their parts comes close to the gleeful courtship of an early death through her own actions of title character of this film.

The film itself?  Well, it was OK…  my wife enjoyed the first half and found the second half boring while my reaction was exactly the opposite, with the film getting better as it advanced.  But I have a feeling that I’ll be hard-pressed to remember much about it in a year or two other than as the film with Hayworth in it playing a very dangerous woman.

To be honest, I would probably also recall the fact that the action takes place in Argentina.  It wasn’t filmed in Buenos Aires and didn’t show any landmarks I could identify, but it felt like the action could, conceivably, have taken place here.  So that was a fun bit of trivia.

Gilda 1946 Movie Poster

Anyway, without giving away any spoilers, this one is something lovers of noir will like, as will people with an unhealthy fascination for women who can really, really wreck your life.  As a noir, I guess it’s middle-of-the-road as opposed to brilliant, with a few interesting elements such as the casino (shades of what was concurrently happening to Bugsy Siegel permeate the film and make one wonder).  And compared to other Hays Code films, this one is much sexier in nature.

But in the end, it’s all about that Hayworth woman.

We always do a few fun facts about the different films here, and this one’s is about the woman who dubbed the singing on the earworm signature tune Put the Blame on Mame.  Turns out that Singer Anita Ellis is still alive (albeit suffering from Alzheimers) – hope she is lucid enough to receive this shout-out and know we love what she did with that song!

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  His novel Outside was published in 2017.

Taking a Mix of Terrible Ingredients and Turning Them Into Something Brilliant

stairway scen in A Matter of Life and death

When looking at the major elements that went into the creation of classic British film, A Matter of Life and Death(1946), one would never have expected it to be anything but a confusing and incoherent hodgepodge.  Let’s have a look…  Take one part Christian-based afterlife, a drop of true love and its vital importance on earth, one part straight fantasy, a good dollop of melodrama, a court scene, the possibility of brain damage to the main character, and a request from the government to create a propaganda film to foster good relations between the US and England, stir well and stand back.

But I guess one should never underestimate the brilliance of Powell and Pressburger.  The team responsible for The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp was certain to defy every expectation we had and mix this together in a completely unexpected way.  Accustomed as we are to Hollywood today creating only blockbusters with completely nonsensical (albeit entertaining) plots and predictable, formulaic tear jerkers for those of other sensibilities, watching the films that these guys made is a bit of a jolt.

Essentially, this film deals with the plight of a British aviator who, while he is supposed to be dead, falls in love with an American girl.  Since he’s supposed to be dead but isn’t because of a cock-up by a particular angel, a whole boatload of bureaucracy gets put in motion to get him properly killed off.

In the meantime, a group of people on Earth are moving to save him.

A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH

It all sounds pretty maudlin, but in practice, the filmmakers manage to pull it off, and then some.  The mixture of black and white and color footage is the best use of this technique since The Wizard of Oz, and the special effects are extremely ambitious for postwar Britain.

Also, David Niven is always worth watching, no matter if he is the romantic lead as in this case, or if he’s playing a hardened commando.

This one is a keeper – even if American audiences will have to look for it under the title Stairway to Heaven (which makes it sound even dumber.  Does anyone else remember the moronic TV show of the same name).  If you haven’t seen it go out and watch it.

The curious incident from this one is that one of the character actors, Bonar Colleano, a man who was well on his way to becoming a superstar when he died, was killed in a sportscar crash returning from a gig in 1958 at the age of 34.  As you all probably know by now, Classically Educated loves all forms of high speed motorsport, the purer the better, so we salute, more than a half-century later, the passing of a fellow enthusiast.

Too Late to Really Kill It

The Killers movie poster

One has to feel for the producers of 1946 film The Killers.  While it’s true that not many films can claim to be the single adaptation of an Ernest Hemingway story that the great author truly liked, and it was also a commercial and critical success, one can’t help but feel that it is just another noir film in a decade full of them… and while The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep and their ilk are revered today, The Killers is all but forgotten by casual cinephiles.

This is too bad because it’s a pretty good movie.  Some of the plot points that weren’t lifted from the Hemingway story are at the far end of plausible suspension of disbelief but, other than that, this one is a winner.

Essentially, the plot isn’t about the killers of the title at all, but revolves around their victim and why he was killed.  It does so with all the noir elements you could ever want.  Untrustworthy dame?  Check.  Two-bit hoods?  Present.  Heart-wrenching betrayal?  Yep.  It flows well, with the big reveal at the end coming as something of a surprise, but not too big a shock.

It’s a good film.

And yet, other than fanatics like the Classically Educated crew that watches the 1001 movies obsessively in order, few people you might encounter will ever have heard of it.  I guess that’s what happens when you arrive just that tiny bit too late.

maltese falcon original statue

Interesting things about this film are that it gave Burt Lancaster his first big break (even though his role was as the victim of the killing).  But better still is that another actor in the film, William Conrad, was a) the narrator of Rocky and Bullwinkle and B) the owner for quite some time of one of the two Maltese Falcons ever made.  It’s nice to see that someone involved in the film was linked to The Maltese Falcon, anyway.

The Noir Film to End all Noir Films

Bacall and Bogart in The Big Sleep

We don’t normally start our articles with a caveat, but we’ll make an exception for this one.  We’re not considering Casablanca a noir film for this one, mainly because it doesn’t quite have the necessary cynicism in many of the characters that noir embodies.

Having said that, we can move along.

It seems that, over the past few years, a very good chunk of our posts regarding the 1001 films one must view before the grim reaper arrives have been about noir in one form or another.  It’s pretty much to be expected, as we’re traversing the golden age of the genre, the mid forties.

We’ve seen some films that we liked, a few that played with the expectations, and at least one which was just that little bit too dense to be enjoyable.  Hell, we even thought we’d finally found the be-all and end-all of noir film.

We were wrong.  The best noir film ever made is The Big Sleep (1946), and the reason it beats out To Have and Have Not is twofold.  The first part of the explanation is that the producers built on a formula that was pretty much perfect.  They took the same insanely talented group of actors and writers and applied the lessons that they and everyone else had learned over the intervening two years–and though two years might not sound like much, remember that there was more noir going on in those two years, than any time before or since.

The second reason is that, though we’re including To Have and Have Not among our noir films, it’s actually, to a certain degree, more aligned with Casablanca than with The Maltese Falcon.

The Big Sleep Movie Poster - Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart

But there’s no doubt about The Big Sleep.  As soon as Marlowe walks in, you know it’s the real deal… almost by definition.  In fact, we’re going to establish a new definition for noir: it has to contain either Marlowe, Hammer or Spade.  There.  We said it.

But even if the main character was some other detective, we’d have allowed this film in.  The plot twists and turns like a corkscrew, and you need to pay attention, or you’ll miss just what the heck is going on.

The women are beautiful–even the ones that aren’t Lauren Bacall–and the fact that the characters inhabit a world where night never seems to end is an inspired artistic decision.

Unusually, there are two versions of this film, one from 1945 and this one. The ’46 version is one in which the studio made a bunch of alterations… and, in an unusual turn of events, is actually better than the director’s original vision (more Lauren Bacall can never, ever be a bad thing, can it?).

So, if you are going to watch only one noir film in your life, this might be it.  It is film noir fully grown up and using all the tricks it learned in adolescence.

 

Also, here at CE, we’d like to give a shout out to surviving members of the cast: Dorothy Malone and Sonia Darrin, two women who have had an extraordinary run… long may it continue!!

Documentaries – Decline and Fall?

Mystery Image

Normally, I am very upbeat about market forces and their effect on society.  The benefits of allowing the market to define stuff generally results in a net improvement of most everything over time.  For every unintended side effect, we are given ten products or services that make our lives better or easier in some way, or which allow us to concentrate on things that make us happy, as opposed to, for example, peeling potatoes.

Even consumer-driven TV, which is generally set up for audiences with about the intelligence of a hamster has never been an issue for me.  I watch very little TV other than sports, so I’m happy that the drooling masses are cooped up in their houses game shows and Big Brother instead of clogging the streets or committing violent crime.   Or worse, trying to think… that never goes well.  So the boob-tube serves a purpose.

idiot-box

But, sometimes, one is hoisted by his own petard, and suffers karmic vengeance.  While generalizing about TV, I was once under the smug impression that the documentary channels stuck somewhere in the 400s of the cable system were free from that particular plague.  It used to be that the media companies behind them had seemed to simply stick them there, hoping to get an intellectual audience in New York, and resigned themselves to making small profits from that pat of their programming.  Documentaries are cheap to film, as you don’t need to spend money on big stars, so even a small advertising investment is enough to keep the channels viable.

Unfortunately, there came a time in the mid 2000s when someone realized that people will watch stuff with a documentary format if you dumb it down enough.  Reality TV had proved popular enough to have a long run on network TV, just imagine what it could do for the History Channel!  And from there to the current programming grid was a slippery slope.  I did an experiment last night: of the ten documentary channels on my TV grid, only one was showing something that a reasonably bright 10-year old wouldn’t have shut off in disgust.  The rest were showing series about pet misbehavior, celebrity ghost stories, prisoners abroad, crime stories and psychic children.  I do enjoy the show about restoring stuff, but I have to admit it counts as entertainment more than documentary films.

So, out of a grid of ten channels, precisely one – Discovery Civilization – was showing a program actually aimed at teaching something: Time Life Lost Civilizations – a show nearly 20 years old (the Mesopotamia chapter, BTW, is brilliant, balancing the religious and historical themes very well).

Ouch.  Seems like teaching intellectually stimulating programming on TV has gone the way of the dodo.

Of course, documentary film has anything but a pristine, unblemished history (wikipedia entry here).  From its very early origins, it has had its issues.  Perhaps the first major documentary, Nanook of the North, was also one of the the first fictionalized documentaries.  It tells 1920s audiences about the life of an Inuit family in northern Canada.  Sadly, the film doesn’t reflect the true life of those families at the time, but is, instead an idealized picture of how it would have looked decades earlier – but that isn’t explained to the viewers at any time.  In one famous incident, Nanook is shown hunting with a seal with a harpoon, which nearly gets him killed.  What filmmaker Flaherty neglects to mention, however, is that, in real life, Nanook would have done what any sensible person in the twenties would have done: shot the thing with a rifle.

41U6PTgd6sL._SX300_

It got worse long before it got better.  Over the next twenty-five years, documentaries were generally used for two things: basic newsreels and propaganda.  While Battleship Potemkin is perhaps the best known early Soviet propaganda film, straight documentaries – as opposed to historical reenactments – were also a staple of the state controlled cinema industry.

But even the Soviets took a back seat when it came to showing off their ideology in a chilling, powerful way.  The title of most alarming documentary has to go to Triumph of the Will.   Leni Riefenstahl was a brilliant filmmaker (as can also be seen in her other masterpiece, Olympia), but she was in the pay of Hitler’s government, which meant that her talents were used to glorify the Aryan race (although Olympia, surprisingly, hero-worships Jesse Owens, but that is a story for another post).  The images in Triumph are some of the most powerful I have ever seen on film, and the scene with the massed party at night is probably one of the most disturbing things ever committed to celluloid (yes, I know there are more graphic images elsewhere – but if you think it through, the death of millions trumps most anything else).

triumphofthewill-thelongwalk1 Triumph_of_the_Will_-_Night_footage_(1)

This use of documentary film is still alive and well today.  The documentary format is a great platform to push an extreme ideology in a way that, to the uncritical portion of an audience, makes it seem legitimate.  Super Size Me, for example, is based on an extreme, unrealistic premise – and yet was widely hailed as a serious film as opposed to what it was, a cynical publicity stunt aimed squarely at one particular company.  Anything by Michael Moore also uses the format, very intelligently, to lend credibility to ideology.  Modern examples abound.

In fact, it may be impossible to present anything in a way that completely avoids bias, or giving credence to one theory over another, but I think what makes a documentary worthwhile in my book is to at least make the effort, although in critical documentary that may become difficult.

To my mind, the golden era of documentaries started at some point in the sixties, and is only starting to end today, falling to commercial pressure and celebrity, as well as the shining beacons of commercially successful documentaries that are just opinion wrapped in facts that support it, ignoring anything inconvenient.

Don’t get me wrong – critical documentary can be very thought provoking and intellectually stimulating (I can’t recommend Visions of Space enough, the film about Mies van der Rohe is simply brilliant), but that doesn’t seem to be the direction in which we are heading.

Of course, all is not remotely lost.  Despite the impression one gets when looking at the Oscar-nominated documentaries, there are still great documentaries being created all over the world, and if you have access to BBC or PBS, you will probably still get them on TV (we only get BBC news in Argentina, and no PBS).  But for the rest of us, it takes an internet trawl to locate the good stuff.

I recently found a documentary which shows the life of the wildlife that has adapted itself to life in Japanese rice paddies, and the farmer’s planting cycle.  Simply fascinating – but ten years old.

Still, I know there are newer gems out there, too.  It’s just a question of looking for the.

Also, there are bonus points for anyone who can tell me where the lead image came from…  That has to count for something, right?