films

The Razor’s Edge

Our guest blogger today is Clinton A. Harris, a travel writer who also writes fiction. You can check out his blog, Getting Out More, right here.  He is the author of Song of the Cinder.

The Razor's Edge - Somerset Maugham

The Razor’s Edge.

I have tried to read this book. Yes, I have an English BA, I am a writer, I have read many of the classics with varying degrees of difficulty, subtext, and mechanical artistry that make them nearly opaque. But for whatever reason W. Somerset Maugham’s story of Larry Darrell begins with the author himself standing right in the way, like someone with a really big hat sitting in front of you at the theatre, and he just never gets out of the way. So, I’m going to talk about the Bill Murray version of the movie instead.

Decades before Lost in Translation, this was his first serious role. Rumor has it that Bill Murray held out on taking the starring role in Ghostbusters just so this movie could be made. I read it on Wikipedia, so it must be true. Larry Darrell (Murray) is a member of the Chicago aristocracy. He is engaged to be married to Isabel Bradley and everything seems great until war breaks out in Europe. Like many of his peers, Larry volunteers for the war effort and finds himself postponing his marriage so he can be an ambulance driver on the Western Front. There, we get to see the absurdity of war as well as the tragedy of how easily human life is wasted. At a pivotal scene, Larry is riding shotgun in his ambulance, as Piedmont (played by real-life brother Brian Doyle-Murray), sings a flat, monotone rendition of Frere Jacques to the dying men as the Germans lob artillery shells at them.

The Razor's Edge Film 1984

The World War I scenes are marvelous, and often echo the expatriate tales of disenfranchisement started by writers of the Lost Generation such as Hemingway, who himself was an ambulance driver in Europe during the war. The scenes of battle, loss, heartbreak and disillusionment are nearly cut and pasted from this film into the widely more popular film which launched Brad Pitt’s career ten years later: Legends of the Fall.

Piedmont’s cynicism is infectious and after his death and the war, Larry returns home changed. Isabel and his socialite friends haven’t missed a step, however Larry’s best friend, Gray, seems to have taken a liking to his betrothed, much to Sophie’s chagrin, as she was Gray’s fiancée herself. Larry seems indifferent to all this. Something inside of him has been lost since the war and so he decides to take some time to get his head back together. He goes to Paris where he lives in squalor, works menial labor jobs, and reads. Isabel makes a surprise visit one day and after seeing the state of Larry’s living conditions, she bolts and presumably gets more chummy with Gray. Larry is even more indifferent and so after being introduced to the Upanishads by a coal miner, he decides to go to India, then to the Himalayas.

The ahah! Moment hits Larry as he is freezing to death on top of a mountain where he has been reading and searching for answers in himself. Bill Murray captures this moment perfectly, in such a subtle way that makes the 1946 version of this movie so melodramatic and heavy-handed. You truly get to see Murray’s genius in this moment. He lets go and just starts burning the pages of the book he is reading for warmth. He had lost himself in the quest to find himself and has come through to the other side.
Returning to the world of his old peers, Larry seems relaxed. He has learned that Gray and Isabel are married, Sophie is an alcoholic prostitute, well, really a flapper, but potato-potahto. He doesn’t seem bothered by any of it. He takes in Sophie, gets her cleaned up and begins a romantic relationship with her, which pisses Isabel off to no end. The film ends in more tragedy, and even though Larry is saddened by it, he continues on. The years of his life and the pain being so many pages going up in flames. He isn’t lost or ruined. Larry continues on in spite of the way things have turned out.

I would consider this movie to be more of a travelogue than anything else. In his travels, Larry realizes that the person he is has been with him all along, but in his journey, he has lost so much of what has burdened him along the way. I think it is a story of survival as well as revelation, and would put it in the same category as Laura Hillenbrand’s novel, Unbroken, about Olympic runner, Louis Zamperini who was held as a prisoner of war by the Japanese during World War II, and also Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, which is a story of overcoming addiction and self-destruction and finding oneself at the other end of a long, difficult journey.

Those stories, as well as The Razor’s Edge are played off as victories, unlike the narrative of Chris McCandless’s ill-fated, yet fairy predictable tale told by Krakauer in Into the Wild, which though fascinating, is much more suited to the sub-genre of something more like Titanic or White Squall. A car-crash in slow-motion we continue to watch, but cannot pull ourselves away. We are at first wowed by the wonders and then tradegy brings it all into focus, rather than emerging from the chaos to find a sort of truth.

Stories like these are cathartic. The climax of the story is often reached when the protagonist learns a vital truth about themselves or the world and is better for it. Why did I drag everyone through this analysis of a 1984 movie? Because as a person who wants to write about traveling to places, I want to convey the spirit of the experience. How in leaving the comfort of our own homes and regions, we not only explore these places we are seeing, but also how we fit into the large scheme of things. By being open to new experiences we often reach a moment of catharsis. We lose something of what we once knew or held as sacrosanct and it is lost, yet replaced with something new. A broader perspective.

In writing fiction, you often take a kernel of truth and surround it with a fictional universe, or at least one that is somewhat recognizable. In writing about travel, you are drilling down through the layers to find that kernel and bring it into the light. An “enlightenment” in a very real sense. Sometimes our adventures are a mess and sometimes they are a way to find peace. The reality of both is being able to look into these experiences and gain from them, rather than detract. Anyway, that’s what I’m going with.

The TD;DR is This is Larry. Larry went through some bad times. Now Larry is happy. Be like Larry.

 

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Actually Missing the Soviets

Nikolay Cherkasov as Ivan the Terrible

Every once in a while at classically educated, we take a few minutes to think about stuff.  It generally isn’t our first choice of activities, but we can be bludgeoned into it.  One such episode happened when viewing one of Eisenstein’s classic films from the 1001 movies list: Ivan the Terrible.

The film itself is a two-part, four-hour monster, but it passes reasonably quickly despite that.  It has war, murder, betrayal, intrigue and all the good things that a movie needs in order to be a good piece of entertainment (talk about living in interesting times), and the Ivan the Terrible character reminded us a LOT of Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow.  It is a historical film packed with a heck of a lot of actual history.  And history, if you happen to be viewing five hundred years later as opposed to being in the middle of it, is quite diverting.

So the movie went past quickly, with a “highly recommended” verdict on the side.  You’d be hard-pressed to find CE giving Eisenstein that kind of a rating normally as his masterpieces, Battleship Potemkin and October, though innovative and respected are terrible as entertainment – propaganda films generally are.  But this one deserves the descriptor “eminently watchable”.

However, it’s what’s behind the film that makes one think.

Sergei Eisenstein

To me, Eisenstein’s life epitomizes life of Soviet citizens.  Being essentially himself, he was constantly in and out of favor as the political fads changes in the party.  His films were critical successes until they were criticized because they weren’t popular enough (a crime that, in the communist paradise, could entail an appointment with a firing squad).  The first part of Ivan the terrible won him a Stalin Prize, the second was suppressed until after Stalin’s death and garnered its creator a severe reprimand.

He was allowed to go on tour in the west for a brief period – but then had to face the distrust of his peers.

Ah, the Soviet Union…  We miss it.

Anyone who remembers the 20th century will be well aware that, back then, the Soviets were no joke.  They were a big, influential power that effectively dominated a good chunk of Asia and Africa, as well as Eastern Europe.  They had a big army, lots of very destructive atomic bombs and an utter lack of a sense of humor.  So it might seem that the world is much better off without it.

But after the fear-ridden years of the cold war, Communist Russia has not aged well.  Casual observers looking back are already beginning to scratch their heads and ask themselves: did anyone take these clowns seriously?

Yes, we did, but there’s plenty of reason for the wonder, and we have to admit that, had they not been so well-armed, we would have appreciated just how entertaining the Soviets were:

1) Minor points in doctrine, impenetrable to most outsiders, could get you turned from a hero of the Soviet Union into a traitor to the Soviet Union before you could blink.  Most people would look at communism and say “simple enough, no one owns anything, but everything belongs to everyone” possibly adding “let me know how that works out for you”, but not the Soviets.  They regularly killed each other over invisible shades of gray.  Killing Trotsky with a hammer in Mexico has to be counted among the more entertaining episodes of the 20th century.  That combo of brutality and style has to be admired.

2) They were insistent that everyone was happier there in the west, and that the walls they had to build to keep their population in were actually there because the leaders knew better than the people and were doing them a favor.  Also, shooting people attempting to flee was a favor: death was clearly a happier place than capitalism.  Like Cuba today pretending to be a socialist paradise, that took chutzpah, and one cannot help but admire them.

Soviet Union Monarchy

3) They had established a monarchy but barefacedly told the world that the proletariat weren’t just politburo serfs.  I can only imagine the kind of laughter that echoed in the halls of the Kremlin when they heard that some western activists wanted to align themselves with communism to gain “freedom” for the masses.  Hats off to them for the sheer barefaced humor.  The best practical jokes are always the ones where you wonder whether they might actually be serious.

The truth is that no major government in the world today would dare do the things that the Soviets did in the name of “human rights” and of “equality”.  Yes, there are some clown states like Venezuela or North Korea (although I think the North Koreans have long since given up any pretense of Marxism), but no one who gets taken seriously on a worldwide level.  The Chinese seem to have found an excellent balance between communism and capitalism in a difficult situation, and Western countries generally seem to vote socialist for a few years before realizing that losing even more personal freedoms and having your economy destroyed isn’t worth the supposed benefits in increased equality that are eternally just around the corner.

Today, you’ll only find that kind of lip service to obscure utopian principles in niche cultural areas.

But back then, the USSR waved its missiles around and acted like what it was doing was perfectly normal.  Since, by all accounts, the leaders of the country were reasonably stable hardened politicians, one must conclude that they were laughing at the rest of the world the whole time (well, except for Stalin.  Anyone with a mustache like that has to have been batshlt insane).

And if you didn’t like it?  They’d boycott your Olympics*!

Yeah, we miss them.

Hitchcock’s Favorite Film

Shadow of a doubt poster

Normally, when we do a review of one of the films on the 1001 Movies list, we attempt to link them to broader social issues; a great case in point is the last one we did, about the Henry Fonda vehicle The Ox-Bow Incident.  Looking further back, it’s a thread that this series of reviews has embraced since even before it moved to Classically Educated.

But sometimes, a movie is so completely timeless that it forces you to take it on its own terms, without really looking into the broader social issues that engendered it.  This could be because the director deliberately strove to keep them out, because the plot was compelling enough to make the viewer ignore them, or because the theme is so timeless that the setting could change in time without affecting it.

Alfred Hitchcock‘s 1944 film Shadow of a Doubt is such a film, mainly for the second and third reasons established above.  This has often been cited as Hitchcock’s favorite film, and the reasons are clear to see – the tension is built brilliantly.

In most films, one of two situations arise: either the viewer is aware of things the characters aren’t, or both the viewers and the characters are equally in the dark, leading to a final reveal.  For this film, Hitchcock chose to twist things around a little, and combine the two.  The viewer has an inkling as to what’s going on, but isn’t quite sure – while the characters remain completely clueless… except for one, except at the very end.

Essentially, the plot revolves around a normal, happy family who gets a visit from a beloved uncle… who has a dark secret, or does he?  One really can’t be sure.

Shadow of a Doubt film still

Another notable thing about this film is that it really could only work effectively as a movie.  If one removes the brilliant withholding of information that the film does by showing some scenes and not others, it would simply be a lineal thriller – and it would be impossible to do this effectively with any kind of novel with a consistent point of view.  And that is what pulls it out of the ranks of the good films and puts it onto this particular list of greats.

It does help that the cast is a good one, with actors in the cast winning (for other projects, not this one) Oscars, Tonys and Emmies.  And Hitchcock’s eye for talent wasn’t bad either – he gave future Emmy winner and Oscar nominee Hume Cronyn his Hollywood debut.

We’re not convinced it’s the man’s best film, as we prefer the earlier British films – but it definitely deserves to be one of the 1001 films.

Edna May Wonacott

Another little tradition we have when watching films that are seventy years old is to give a shout out to the cast members who are still alive.  In this case, our regards go to Edna May Wonacott, who was 12 when she acted in this one!

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A Very Different View of the War

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp Poster

 

If, a few weeks ago, you’d asked me what films about contemporary events produced during WWII were like, I’d have mumbled something about a combination of ra-ra morale building and propaganda.  In many cases, and for many countries, I’d have been absolutely right, but the British have always marched to a different drummer, it seems.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)is not a film that could have been filmed in Nazi Germany, and I seriously doubt that it is something that would have been permitted in the US.  In fact, it was filmed in Britain despite a certain Mr. Churchill attempting to stop production and making it difficult for the producers to film.

And yet, years later, we can watch it in its original glorious technicolor, and enjoy the fact that it was filmed.  Only in England…

Colonel Blimp

Of course, why it was not quite popular among the governors of that island is a much more interesting tale than the production itself.  The first clue is in the title.  Colonel Blimp was a cartoon character from the 1930’s who made proclamations such as “Gad, Sir! Lord Bunk is right. The government is marching over the edge of an abyss, and the nation must march solidly behind them!” from various Turkish bath locales.  The cartoon, clearly well-intended, and quite left-leaning (a google image search should find some more examples) was probably not the most popular of motifs by 1942.

The only real link to the cartoon, though, other than the title is that the main character, in his middle age, looks quite a bit like the Colonel in the cartoons, plus the fact that the action starts in a Turkish bath could possibly make it a bit confusing to the modern viewer, but that never detracts from the entertainment value of a film which, in essence, is a bit of a romp.

The second thing that was objectionable to many is that the film portrays a German (and a WWI officer at that) as a likable character. The fact that this German was not a Nazi, in fact was running from the Nazis, seemed to cause little impression amongst the naysayers.

It’s not actually clear why, Specifically, Churchill was against the film, but it was rumored that he thought it was a satire of him.  After production, he promptly banned it for export.

Deborah Kerr

It does seem, however, that resistance was mainly from a few sectors, and audiences enjoyed it, which is unsurprising, as it follows the career of Major-General Clive Wynne-Candy, played by Roger Livesey as he falls in love with three different iterations of Deborah Kerr’s character: once as a young firebrand disobeying orders, once as a mature WWI officer looking for a wife, and once as an older man whose feelings are more paternal towards her – and of outrage towards the actions of her boyfriend in whom, eventually, he sees a reflection of his younger self. 

This is essentially a story of coming of age, of the wisdom of age, and the value of friendship, as shown by our German officer who becomes the good Major-General’s best and oldest friend.

And, for a romp and a romance, it’s surprisingly good at showing what growing old means – and a good way of coping with the realizations one has along the way.

Plus, it’s fun.  We here at CE give it four Schlemmons on our newly introduced five-Schlemmon scale (invented this very to give this movie four Schlemmons on it).  We will be rating all movies on the Schlemmon scale from now on, in honor of the guy who told me how Titanic ends (the ship sinks), and thereby saving me a couple of hours of maudlin lowest-common-denominator awfulness.  We may use the Schlemmons for other things, too, depending on whether we feel like it.

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