Friday, January 16, 2009

Harry Lime Lives!

This has been such a strange week. Famous people dropping dead every five minutes, an airplane and a miraculous and skillful save in the Hudson, and the final few days of this dreadful administration.

I've been working a lot on the screenplay for Angry Little People: The Movie. It's such a sad story in so many ways (i.e. all of them). It's all about Helen, a failed housewife and deeply closeted artist who has systematically destroyed herself with alcoholism, inertia, day-dreaming and bad, bad decisions. It's getting harder and harder to spend so much time in her head. As someone who has been plagued with all sorts of anxiety disorders and constant worries that my decisions are bad, and that I don't write enough and just want read novels and watch movies all the time, I'm beginning to see too much of myself in her. But she's not me. I made other decisions. I'm not an alcoholic. Maybe her story has always meant so much to me because she's not me, but she is an object lesson, someone who drinks too much, a writer who doesn't write; who is all feeling and zero critical thought.

VIRGODOG: Maybe you should write happy things. Happy people should write sad things, and sad people should write happy things. That's how it should work.

CAVIGLIA: And I'm a sad person, so I should write happy things?

VIRGODOG: Well, yes.

CAVIGLIA: What about Eugene O'Neill? He was a sad person who wrote sad things.

VIRGODOG: And how did it work out for him?

CAVIGLIA: Pretty well. He won a Nobel prize.

VIRGODOG: And what about all the other people in his life?

CAVIGLIA: I guess not so well. They didn't win Nobels.

VIRGODOG: I don't think I like where this is going.

And then I watched the Soderbergh film from a couple of years ago, The Good German. I really hated it. It was completely confounding to me. He filmed it in B&W, in the old aspect ratio, even using the lenses people used to film '40s movies. Doing all that with a modern cast, in a movie filmed now, I guess he couldn't avoid an ersatz feel to it, but he could have avoided it being sloppy and poorly shot. The movie looked just dreadful. And he has Cate Blanchett, and Clooney for Christ's sake and made them look awful. It was boring and confusing, and I don't understand what he was getting at. I talked a little about it last night with Fuzzy Bastard and he thought that Soderbergh seemed angry at the movies of the '40s. You can't really argue with a feeling, I guess, but I think the movies he seems to be arguing with: Casablanca and The Third Man are impossible to have a dispute with, they will stomp all over whatever problem you might have with them and simply win.

I don't think anyone needs me to tell them that Casablanca is a really, really good movie. I love it. And for most of my life I managed to see it only in theaters (including once at Radio City Music Hall. Yowza!). A couple of weeks ago, I watched a documentary on PBS, From Hitler To Hollywood, about the actors and artists and writers and filmmakers who fled occupied Europe and wound up in California. Really worth seeing if they air it again. Casablanca was made during the war and pretty much every actor with a speaking role (except for Bogart, Bergman & Claude Rains) was a refugee from Hitler.

The Third Man is in the top five (maybe the top three, or top two) of My Favorite Movies of All Time. I think it is perfect. Maybe that's one of the reasons this Soderbergh thing made me so mad. It was like he was trying to show how dark and edgy and how bad the Americans could be, too. There's nothing wrong with that. In fact that movie has been made. In 1949. By Graham Greene, Carol Reed and Orson Fucking Welles. Filmed on location in bombed out Vienna. With a crazy zither score. With jokes about genre fiction versus art. With two American characters, one hopelessly naive, the other a greedy, sociopathic profiteer. With Alida Valli as the femme fatale; you never find out what happened to her during the war, what she did to survive, or what she saw. You never find out a goddamn thing about her in the movie, because she's not talking, and nothing she could say would be quite as bad as what you're thinking. You know nothing, but see it in her seen it all dead eyes and know what ever it is, it was bad. And it will probably never be okay for her again. If Soderbergh wanted an Elsa who never got out of occupied Europe, here she is. Cate Blanchett might be one of the greatest film actresses alive, but her role here is unplayable. She's a movie dame who talks and talks and bloody talks, and it's all so underwhelming. Maybe Soodrbergh was domed to failure in this, but did it have to come off feeling so half assed?

I'm all over the place in this post today. I'l leave you with this:


That Fuzzy Bastard said...

Well, I do think movies of the 40s get wildly overrated because a few gems wipe out the memory of vast, vast amounts of WW2-era crap---suffer through Flying Tigers or This Is the Army if you don't believe me. While it's true that The Third Man is a wonderful, dark, complex film about the war and America's place in it, The Third Man was very, very much the exception in film culture of the time, and I can imagine Soderbergh doing his research, getting madder and madder the more he watches the jingoistic crap that was 99.9% of American film in the '40s (as it is in most eras, of course, the 40s were just rather higher-stakes).

This is not to defend TGG, which is a mess (though one that I think has a lot of good things in it), but more to denigrate 40s films, which I think get viewed with deep-rose colored glasses (I was amused that the dissolve in Clooney's first drive with McGuire, which so many people called out as an incompetent edit, was the moment in the film most directly akin to 40s movies, which are, even at their best, shockingly clunky in their cutting).

Carolyn Raship said...

I think your comment made it partly clear to me why this movie bothered me so much. I completely agree that most of the movies made about the war were dreadful, crappy propaganda, or just plain dreadful. The problem is, none of that was addressed in TGG itself, we're just assuming. Most of what was on the screen borrowed from Casablanca, The Third Man & Judgement at Nuremberg. If history is written by the victors, the artistic legacy is left by what is watched, or seen. Soderbergh has seen a lot of movies. So have you and I. No one pretends that the propaganda films are much worth reviving, and they don't inform what most people think about the war or the American involvement in it. The bitter noirs, and The Best Years of Our Lives have won that battle. So what is Soderbergh arguing with? Movies made 60 years ago that no one watches? In the face of all that devastation? It still makes no sense to me. I think this might be one of those films that I hate so completely that it edges into the irrational.

I'm so glad you brought up the lousy 1940's editing. I watched The Strange Love of Martha Ivers a week or two ago, and it's nicely shot but the editing is the week link and I began noticing how haphazard it was in lots of 40's films.

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

Yeah, I really wonder what happened in 40s films to make the editing so bad. I actually wonder if there was celluloid rationing in effect, which meant editors didn't have as much coverage to work with as they'd like---one thing I've noticed about 40s films is that they get out of scenes without the little extra shot that one usually drops in after the scene button (i.e. a standard edit would be that Character A says something, Character B responds with a joke, cut to a close up of the coffee cup, and dissolve to the next scene, but 40s movies tend to dissolve on the face of Character B).

One of the most telling moments, in TGG, is Emil and Lena hiding out in a movie theater. But what it's telling is hard to say, which is sort of the problem with TGG all through. Did you read Manohla Dargis' review? She made some excellent points, particularly about how the shooting seemed more early-60s than mid-40s, since when you try to de-glam 40s moviemaking, that's basically what you end up with. I'm actually sympathetic to that goal---when it comes to 40s movies, I love the sophistication, but the glamour makes me want to send them all to a Siberian labor camp---but as you say, he ends up retreading ground that The Third Man already covered, and doing it with a weird vagueness and incoherence.