The Sound Of Music (1965)

The Sound of Music (1965)

I had dreaded this movie.  I’ve never been able to sit through it before.  That opening cadence, ‘The hills…’, has tortured my ears since I last tried to watch it.  I just couldn’t bear the shrillness of Julie Andrew’s voice, and the knowledge that in a few minutes I would be watching…urgh…singing children.

But I take it all back.

The Sound of Music is a true story which begins just prior to the Anschlus, Germany’s political annexation of Austria in the lead up to the Second World War.  Julie Andrews plays a free-spirited nun who is sent away to take care of a family of 7 children.  She soon falls in love with their father (luckily for them Mum isn’t around), and they marry.  But Captain von Trapp’s love of Austria doesn’t sit well with the new regime, and the family must flee accross the border to Switzerland.

The film’s strength is in it’s construction.  Firstly, the music.  The melodies are often plain, but beautiful all the same in their simplicity – Eidelweiss springs to mind here.  What really knocks the Rogers and Hammerstein score up there is the way that a melody’s first use tends to be a seed, then used again in a later moment or motif.  In fact, the music and melody tend to be as much of a character as the people, as familiar by the end of the film as any of the Von Trapp children.  Simple but clever, the sound of the music is easily the highlight (so sorry for that pun).

Like the music, the story progression is also very clever.  With the opening set in the sweeping alps of Austria, we’re lulled by Andrews into a sense of comfort which is eventually shattered by the Nazi annexation.  The climax is startlingly tense, as the child-like simplicity of the music and earlier tale suddenly become a sanctuary from the Nazi nightmare which hunts the family.

I never thought I would say it, but The Sound of Music is great.  Julie Andrews is a true actress (rather than a star like Audrey Hepburn), the story-telling is excellent and the film persistently hits just the right tone.  A classic for good reason.

 

My Fair Lady (1964)

My Fair Lady (1964)

My Fair Lady is a film about class.  It touches on how our assumptions about people are predicated on factors with which we have limited control over, namely accent and the sound of one’s voice.  Eliza Doolittle, played by Audrey Hepburn, dreams of being a flower girl in a high-end store, but her accent knocks her back.  She pays a linguist to teach ‘er to speak as a lady.  Ultimately, she finds herself somewhat displaced, feeling neither of the elite nor the common.  At the end of the day though, we learn that you are who are no matter what you sound like.

Accross the board, vocal performances are certainly strong, and the songs are all light enough to be a good time, but as with so many soundtracks the music has slipped into the ether already.  There are some amazing uses of stillness and motion, a real choreographic triumph, and the set-dressing and costuming is simply superb.

I felt that Hepburn’s performance was excellent, though it seems that most disagree with me – her lack of a Best Actress nomination for the role is a pointer here.  I thought her vocal work was stunning, though we should presumably credit her ability to jump between easily between accents to a skilled vocal coach as despite having a strong vocal presence her voice was quite famously dubbed (not that it’s obvious).

Yet while I enjoyed her performance, Hepburn to me is the epitome of the packaged star, a product created through the combined efforts of countless coaches, make-up artists and management teams.  It’s in a case like Hepburn’s that we’re forced to take note of the aesthetic nature of Hollywood’s cultural products, and certainly no less so in My Fair Lady.  This film is about presentation, and how one is judged on their aesthetics; how fitting then that the film’s central figure is played by someone already enormously successful for their look and style.

I can see now why Minelli chose to re-cast Hepburn when he made Gigi; in retrospect it was a damn good manouvre.  This film is aurally and visually beautiful, but lacks awareness of it’s own irony.

Tom Jones (1963)

Tom Jones (1963)

The story of a well-to-do playboy from the English countryside in the Eighteenth Century, complete with period costumes and haughty accents, Tom Jones is presented in the flashy, self-aware style of contemporary British filmmaker Guy Ritchie.  The final product of this mash-up between period-piece and contemporary 1960’s is quite remarkable, if not for it’s strange depiction of the title character’s autobiography than for the at times utterly outrageous ride getting from start to finish.

I think most people are put off by the frantic opening, where a coy silent film exhibits the filmmakers sly awareness of film-as-medium; we are not only in ‘story-telling’ mode, we are in an editing room trying to make sense of this fascinating complement of images this wacky director has just given us.  After a rather violent but exhilarating deer hunt, characters begin to wink knowingly at the camera, inviting us to join in the adventure.  As the narrator calmly imparts the tale, we find that all we really want to do is have a good laugh with Tom and his mates.

In my opinion, those who describe this as ‘the worst’ of the best picture canon lack imagination.  Not wishing to sound superior but wanting to give credit where it is due, I would go to so far as to say that this film is approaching the deconstructionist school of academia, inhabited by minds such as Derrida (and perhaps even Stoppard?), where the film itself is acknowledged to be somewhat arbitrary; what matters is the space between your mind and the screen.  Tom Jones is pointing right at us, interpollating us and screaming that we’re in this together.  It’s awareness of itself makes it’s very existence seem pointless: much like, one might say, the hyper-aware mind contemplating the necessity of existence.

Peculiar but stunning performances and a quirky soundtrack to match, I suspect that this film will prove to be a rare find in the Best Picture canon and I am certainly glad to have had the chance for this unique experience.

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

It’s funny how a man with such a plain name could leave such a huge mark upon film history.  I was most pleased to learn that Lawrence of Arabia was directed by David Lean, whose fascinating film The Bridge on the River Kwai provided insight into various complex issues while retaining a dynamic visual flair.

Lawrence of Arabia is a continuation of many of the themes addressed earlier in Kwai; for instance, both films focus on how people relate to war, how people act during war and how war can change one’s perspective on duty and nationhood.  Also emerging from Lean’s meditations on war is the grey area between friendship and conflict and what arises between the two.

It feels as though Lean says that unity is often a product of conflict.  I know it’s true from my schoolyard years that a deep animosity can result in a great friendship, possibly beause of the intensity of feelings one invests in a hatred of another.  In Kwai, Nicholson and Saito gradually develop an understanding of one another, and in Lawrence of Arabia, it is the somewhat mistrusted outsider who leads the Arabic tribes to unity.  Amidst this clashing of cultures and the conflict of the tribes, Lean manages to find a way for his characters to rise above petty squabbles and suggests that it is natural for humankind to join together for the greater good.

In saying that, all is not rosey for the Arabic tribes at the close of the film.  Intense bickering dominates the council as the Western model of governance fails to serve the needs of the tribal Arabs.  One gets a very visceral sense of the fierceness of the Arabic people, and a renewed respect for a part of the world which is today so fraught with jumbled representations it is near impossible pass a legitimate judgement upon.

Lean’s casting in Lawrence of Arabia is stunning.  He casts Alec Guiness, the lead from The Bridge on the River Kwai, is a supporting role as a Sheik Prince, and his blackened face make-up would be horribly racist were it not for the superb performance he gives.  And Peter O’Toole, whose name has become synonymous with the role of Lawrence, gives a quirky performance best remembered for the stunning shots of his luminous blue eyes.

No mistaking, the film is long.  It’s an epic, afterall, but it is quite a massive epic. Thankfully there is consistently amazing cinematography (who knew there were so many ways to film a desert?) and an equally resplendent musical score.  Here’s a question though – if this film were a work of fiction, would we still consider it a masteripece?  We could well read the film as a racist tale about a colonial outsider uniting the tribes of ‘lesser’ desert-dwellers, were it not that the film is a true story.  Actually, does the fact that it is a true story change anything?  I think it does, but I’m really not sure why…

West Side Story (1961)

West Side Story (1961)

They say that West Side Story is a musical, and they’re right insofar as there are songs and music, but this film has spurred quite an amazing discovery for me; I love ballet.  Sure, I was enamored by these classic songs performed as they are meant to be heard, but for me the vocals would be nothing without the incredible choreography, which rivals An American In Paris in its beautiful control and clever delineation of character.

It’s rather well known that West Side Story is loosely based on Romeo and Juliet.  Loads of pleasure in a first time watch comes from working out how the film corresponds to the play, though thankfully the film doesn’t burden itself with an exact transposition.  The nurse, for instance, becomes ‘Juliet’s’ sister, the masquerede ball becomes a 50’s-style dance, and the ending is altered to avoid the expected cliches.

And of course there is the inspired decision to set West Side Story in New York City.  This is a deliberate and very successful choice.  Where Shakespeare’s ‘fair Verona’ represents a city of exoticism and love yet also unrest, New York, as we have seen from the Best Picture canon, is often used to convey contemporary America as a melting pot of ideas and people – consider The Apartment, You Can’t Take It With You, and even Gentleman’s Agreement.  In retaining focus on the meeting of groups/gangs, West Side Story comes to represent contemporary preoccupations of the time.

I consider the most significant idea within the film to be found in the moment of ‘the clash’.  More even than the meeting of Portuguese and American gangs, West Side Story is about the meeting of contemporary culture with classical forms of art.  Consider the ways that the images of the graffiti-laced basketball courts are juxtaposed against beautifully choreographed dance routines.  The rough-as-guts inhabitants of the streets dance to a resplendent orchestra, and a knife-fight is performed with a liquid grace unfounded at an actual murder scene.  New York truly does come to represent a melting pot, not solely in terms of ethnicity but in it’s broad cross-section of art and culture.

I think that West Side Story may well be the epitome of the New York film.  There’s an interesting two lanes here, where as much as New York stands for America it also stands as itself.  Nowhere else can be New York City, and it is my opinion that this film would be read entirely differently if it were set in a different place.  I’m expecting New York to have been done for a little while now – I think it’s expended all of it’s juice with West Side Story.

The Apartment (1960)

The Apartment (1960)

The Apartment is a landmark for changing attitudes in society, particularly around sex.  I was startled by Mrs Miniver in the 1940’s when a husband and wife had to take seperate beds, and even in Gigi in the late 50’s the sexual innuendo was so watered down I barely noticed it.  Just two years later in The Apartment we have a film which explicitly tells us that sexual acts are occouring, marking a sharp turnaround in attitudes towards sex and sexuality.  As if Shirley MacLaine’s short haircut were not scandelous enough.

The film stars Jack Lemon as a rather depressed middle-aged man climbing the corporate ladder by lending his apartment to his superiors for their extra-marital romps.  Lemon is a very talented and versatile actor – he can play up and then pull his performance right back again, which is a great marker of a skilled and distinguished actor.  Shirley MacLaine plays his love interest, and her performance is equally deft in her contrast of harsh and soft textures.

The Apartment is definitely a comedy, but there is also something dark about the film.  Billy Wilder also wrote and directed The Lost Weekend, a winner from the mid-1940’s about the gruelling effects of alcoholism.  I think that there’s also something to be read into The Apartment being the first winner to be set in America for some years.  Wilder seems to be able to tap into the darker side of his contemporary America.  To be writing about extreme alcoholism and adultery he must have seen these things and know what they can do to people.  Wilder is not just a gifted screen writer, he is brave and courageous for putting on screen things which truly reflect what happens in the world.

It’s lovely to watch a film that brings things back from the out of control epics like Ben-Hur, Bridge on the River Kwai and Around The World In Eighty Days.  Don’t get me wrong, I loved all of the above, but it feels good to be brought back down to earth with a regular guy with much more regular, if salacious, troubles.

Ben-Hur (1959)

Ben-Hur (1959)

Ben-Hur is an incredible feat of cinema which well deserves it’s reputation as one of the greatest films made.  It tops Gone With The Wind is it’s scope and high-stakes (what is a farm-owner’s plight next to that of a Prince?), it’s action scenes are utterly impeccable, and it’s rhythm and pacing superb.

This is director William Wyler’s third oscar, and by jove he just gets better every time.  His first two winners, Mrs Miniver and The Best Years of Our Lives, were enormously successful experiential chronicles of the Second World War.  Wyler has an amazing ability to perfect the mise-en-scene of a shot.  Stillness and motion play a huge part in his arrangement of people and bodies – have a look at any of his films and you’ll notice that people stand still a lot, and the way he arranges his pictures channels the energy of people and action.  As a little test, watch this film with a friend and pause at random moments, then each draw a line in the air that follows the film picture.  I’ll bet that 9 times out of 10 you’ll draw the same thing.

Judah Ben-Hur is played by Charlton Heston, a familiar face from The Greatest Show On Earth. He’s ruggedly handsome and every bit believeable, though I must say that the most memorable performance has to be from Stephen Boyd playing the villain Messala, who’s gruelling death scene stunned me in it’s intensity.  Another highlight is the music, my personal favourite being the beating of the drums in the slave ship, where the internal sound of the film and the external score become blurred and the excitement which builds as a result is utterly palpable.

I found Ben-Hur’s tagline, ‘A Tale of Christ’, quite an interesting way to approach the film. I was surprised that the main action is kind of a side-note to major world events at the time, occouring simultaneously with the story of Jesus, whom we never fully see.  By using only shots of the back of his head, Jesus’ words and actions are given an otherwordly power. At the close of the film, Judah Ben-Hur reclaims all that was taken from him; amidst the greatest loss humanity could know, Jesus has given man all the tools it needs.

Of course, no review of Ben-Hur can be complete without mention of the chariot scene.  This is without a doubt one of the greatest cinematic achievements ever.  There’s no CGI here, every shot is for real.  The rhythm and pace of the scene is phenominal, the lead-up brimming with intensity and the pay-off just sublime.  Ben-Hur is unarguably one of the greatest films ever made – real action, real emotion, and a damn good story too.

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