His Girl Friday

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I love pretty much everything there is about “His Girl Friday”, it’s one of those perfect comedies from Hollywood’s golden age, if you look at it now, it remains very modern, but it still keeps the cool elegance of 1940s screwball comedies. The film is a love story between two people who are evenly matched in every sense of the word, gender politics never seems to be an issue between them since they look at eachother equally both as lovers or as two people doing their jobs and doing them well. They begin the film as quibbling exes who are divorced, but their flame reignite thanks to a hot newspaper story that brings them both together again. This is what falling in love in the movies is all about, when it’s conveyed in the best way, it’s exciting, it’s playful, it’s sexy, it’s sophisticated, it’s smart, and it’s oh so very entertaining.

“His Girl Friday” was adapted from a play by one of the best Hollywood writers to ever have lived, Ben Hecht entitled “The Front Page”. The play was about how a conniving newspaper editor keeps his star reporter from quitting during the story of the year by any means necessary, the difference in the play was both characters were men, in “His Girl Friday”, director Howard Hawks made the ingenious decision to change the reporter character Hildy Johnson into a woman and turning it into a love story between the editor and his star reporter. The rest of the film follows the basics of the main plot of the play, Hildy (Rosalind Russell) goes to her editor/boss Walter Burns (Cary Grant) telling him she’s quitting and is going off to get married to an insurance salesman/momma’s boy Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy) tomorrow. Walter, knowing Hildy is the best reporter he’s ever had immediately schemes to keep Hildy on the paper first by making a deal with her to write a story about accused murderer Earl Williams, who, if not found innocent soon will be sentenced to hang tomorrow at dawn. Walter agrees that if Hildy write’s the story, he’ll fill out a $20 000 insurance policy with Bruce to get her started on her new life. But Walter does not let Hildy go that easily, he seems to know better than her that being a newspaper “man”, as he calls her is what she is destined to be.

As the film goes along, Walter’s scheming  then escalate to involve ways to keep Hildy in the city newsroom writing her story on Williams, and also somehow finding ways to get Bruce arrested all the time so he fades further and further from the picture and Hildy’s life. Walter is a ruthless man without a sentimental bone in his body, but one thing’s for sure he cares about his paper, and in his own way he cares about Hildy, she may actually be the only person he even cares about or is willing to admit no matter how brief it may be.

For her part Hildy shows off pretty quickly what a skilled reporter she is, she interviews Williams and sort of manipulates it in order to write the story she wants,( no one ever says the reporters in this film are honest, and they aren’t, but that doesn’t really matter), yet Hildy ,who has learned from Walter knows how to bend the truth to get reader’s sympathies on her side, she is after all fighting for Earl’s life which I suppose is noble, on the other hand if it weren’t for the paper’s best interest to keep him alive, I’m sure Hildy would’ve written another article condemning him. But the idea that director Hawks is aiming for is Hildy’s job itself and how it defines her as a person.

Howard Hawks made many films about people who were defined by their profession, he usually found excitement in it. A lot of his films dealt with men who shared a certain camaraderie when they were working together. Yet Hawks was responsible for some of the best women characters in film history, but they seemed to be women that Hawks himself would feel an attraction to. They would be tough, and be able to give as good as they got in any situation, in other words Hawks’ women didn’t need men to look after them. The only time a man would enter the equation for a Hawks woman is if there was that mutual passion that could draw them closer to eachother like their profession, and that shared sense of experience and purpose it gives them when they do their job and do it well, that’s when the sparks fly.

But the equality is also there in the actors, look at the first and last scenes between Grant and Russel, both of which are long and dialogue heavy, but they are bouncing off eachother so well like tennis players at Wimbledon, you can actually see the fun they are having in these roles and the playfulness they are feeling in their characters. Cary Grant was and still remains one of the most underrated actors in film history, he gets accolades now by film critics in essays and think pieces, some of which claim he was the greatest movie actor of them all. It’s difficult to dispute this as you watch Grant play Walter Burns without an ounce of self-consciousness, when Grant is on camera you are watching him, when he isn’t saying anything, you are waiting for him to say something, or you are waiting for him to react in some way, because whatever he does it surprises you. There’s a gleeful delight in Grant’s performance that remains irresistible even if you stop and think how much of a despicable man Walter Burns really is, you’re rooting for Grant as you always should, Bruce really doesn’t have a chance.

But the film really is Hildy’s story, as it’s her journey into finding out who she really was all along, a newspaper “man”. Rosalind Russell matches Grant beat for beat, but unlike Burns, Hildy is able to show a bit more of a human side and we even get a sense of maybe why Hildy wants to leave the newspaper business in the first place. In probably the most serious scene in the film, Molly Malloy the girlfriend of Earl Williams, comes into the newsroom and berates the other reporters for telling lies just to sell more newspapers. Molly is taken out of the room by Hildy, where she says “They ain’t human”, to which Hildy quips back  “I know their newspaper men.” When Hildy returns to the room which was full of noise a moment ago but is now quiet with remorse, she says in an ironic tone “Gentlemen of the press”. It’s a small moment, but Russell fills it with the kind of gravity that isn’t played anywhere else in the film, and Hawks is smart enough not to play the moment sentimentally.

Hawks captures the high energy environment of a newsroom very well in “His Girl Friday” with the rapid fire dialogue. A lot has already been said throughout the years about the dialogue exchanges in the film, how Hawks kept it fast paced and overlapping, yet a word is  never lost no matter how busy the scene gets. Sometimes small bits of words can be heard over longer speeches which gives a richness and urgency to the scenes, it feels all very lived in and authentic, although I’m sure if you went to an actual newsroom, you wouldn’t see people spouting a hundred words per minute like they do in the film, then again maybe you would.

But if you think about what “His Girl Friday” is really about, it’s not so much about life in a newsroom, or a critique of it, although it does do both of those things to perfection, the film is really about not being afraid of who you are. During the film Hildy is trying to convince herself that what she needs in life is what is commonly seen as normal and acceptable; settling down with Bruce, enjoying a nice quiet life with him in Albany, with his mother, and the eventual children she plans on having with him, but that’s not what she is, and it’s plain to everyone except for her that isn’t what she is. It takes someone like Walter Burns who maybe isn’t the greatest or most moral guy in the world, but he knows who Hildy is, and his grand romantic gesture wouldn’t be getting down on one knee confessing his love for her, or even asking her to marry him, the man doesn’t even tell her he loves her ever in the film. What he does do is show her who she is, what she’s all about, what gives her life meaning and purpose. For a guy like Walter, that’s all he really has to, and for a woman like Hildy that’s all she really needs, Bruce can go home back to Albany with his mother, he’s better off there anyway.

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The Birth of a Nation

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“The Birth of a Nation” can be seen as the original sin of cinema. Have we really come so so far? I’m writing this at a time when America has seen the rise of Donald Trump, a man who is very close to becoming the next President, and he’s done that by spewing hateful, racist rhetoric and has been helped along too much by mainstream media who didn’t shut him up sooner. I recently read an article that stated, due to Trump’s popularity it can be argued that white supremacist groups are now having a bigger voice than ever on media outlets such as CNN, and FOX News to name a few. Trump’s rise to power seems to have opened up an old wound that won’t stay shut in America, and one that gives every blow hard bigot a chance to share their opinions on the world stage.

This wound of racism can be found throughout the history of America, and can be traced even in the history of American cinema with the most early pioneering film, and the most racist mainstream film ever to come out “The Birth of a Nation”. I’ve been wanting to talk about “Birth” for a long time, and it seems only fitting, and timely especially now. Many might not know of “Birth” unless you’ve taken a film class, or are affectionados of classic or silent film, or you just happen to be a member of the KKK, for which it was used as a recruiting tool.

“Birth of a Nation” is famous for being arguably the first American epic, a civil war story that documents both the war itself and its reconstruction. It was directed by D.W. Griffith who is known as the Godfather of film. Griffith introduced innovations we now take for granted; he used close-ups, fade-outs, iris shots, and cross-cutting to create  deeper, emotional scenes. His close-ups are indeed wonderful especially when he captured the face of his greatest star Lillian Gish  who appeared in his most famous films and who is most often thought of as the first lady of cinema.

In “Birth”, Griffith utilizes these innovations to great effect, it’s easy to see how audiences could be in such awe of the film on a purely technical level. Take the main battle scene where we see a confederate soldier charge towards a Union army waving the confederate flag and symbolically ramming it down the enemy’s cannon before he is wounded. To get this effect, Griffith rigged the camera onto a vehicle to follow the charge, the camera being close to the ground and on the soldier’s face, able to see the drama, and intensity up close, this is the creation of a film language we still use today, it’s important to note that. Or take the finale, the one where the Ku Klux Klan become the heroes of the film as Griffith cross cuts between a group of white southerners held down in a cabin by radical black men, and another scene involving Lillian Gish and her father held hostage by a negro politician who is drunk on his own power now that black people have the right the vote and marry white women if they choose. Griffith brilliantly cuts between these two scenes and those brave hooded knights in white as they mount their horses and race to save all the white people before the black men take control of their country. The scene is so well done and impressive it’s enough to make you throw up in your mouth a little bit.

There are many great things technically working in “Birth” that make it so important, but there are so many things that are ultimately wrong that should outweigh its importance. The film is a white man’s depiction of what occurred before and after the Civil War, which to them could be thought of as true, and everyone including President Woodrow Wilson praised the film for its historic accuracy. This is not a black person’s story, they aren’t even really seen as fully fleshed out people, mostly caricatures who are good, faithful slaves, or power-hungry black people.  The most disturbing scenes all concern the slaves who are occasionally depicted by real black actors, but the more prominent ones are white people performing in black face. Black face was common early on in cinema, lord help me even the great stars like Buster Keaton, Fred Astaire, and Bing Crosby were all seen in black face in at least one of their films, a common norm, and an embarrassment when seen now in any form. Even the pioneering film in sound “The Jazz Singer” has Al Jolson singing “Mammy” in black face, another innovative film scarred by racism. But in “Birth”, the black make-up on the white actors is easily noticeable, even the film’s main villain, a black Governor named “Lynch” isn’t hidden too well from his caucasian features. To add insult to injury, the black actors all play second fiddle sometimes filling in as background, it makes you wonder what they could possibly be thinking about this film they are in.

In the beginning of the film we are treated to what might be called casual racism with the white ideal of what the slaves’ living quarters looked like. They are seen living in very poorly looking conditions but they don’t seem to mind, as they’re shown dancing and celebrating, grateful I guess for what they have, as if to say giving them their freedom would only damage their already peaceful existence. (It’s important to note no whippings or lynchings are ever depicted in this film, while the loyal slaves themselves are the only ones who are sympathized with).

But it’s later with the reconstruction and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, the images become much more potent. Perhaps the harshest scene comes when the Klan track down and African-American man after he is seen responsible for the death of the main Klansman’s sister. There is an eeriness to the scene after the man is captured and the Klan institute a ritualistic mob rule trial on him, eventually killing him, and throwing him on the doorstep of the “evil” black Governor. No matter how you look at it, the scene comes off as disturbing, not just with the actions of the Klan members, but also with the idea that in this scene their actions are shown as justified, Griffith is creating a myth for the Klan, and it’s terrifying.

It was this scene in particular that had me thinking of maybe the greatest innovation  “The Birth of a Nation” offered, and that’s the absolute power of the moving image. “The Birth of a Nation” has been thought of as an argument for content not really having to matter in film or in art, because despite its subject it can still stand as a masterpiece of film. But shouldn’t this content matter? I’m asking this because I’m finding it very difficult to separate myself from this type of content, one that can be thought of as damaging, or dangerous. This content was powerful enough for the KKK to use it as a recruiting tool, they were moved enough by the images this film produced, watching it all come together so majestically by a technical innovator, they chose it as their “call to arms” piece of propaganda. And here we are, 101 years after this film was released, watching the same people this film inspired on television promoting a man full of his own hate filled content and who could very well be living in the White House in the next couple of months.

I don’t think “The Birth of a Nation” has properly been dealt with, I feel like it gets swept under the rug so easily as an embarrassment to cinema history, yet I still feel its message in today’s society. No, it probably doesn’t get shown very often unless you do attend a film class, I doubt Donald Trump even knows it exists, but it’s such a powerful document of a certain kind of history, the damage of it has already been done.

Yes there has been progress with filmmakers downright denouncing “Birth of a Nation” with their own revisionist tales just recently with Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave”, Tarantino’s own “middle finger to Griffith” “Django Unchained”, and Spielberg’s “Lincoln”, a film which to me parallel’s so many scenes from “Birth”, but turns it on its head.

As for D.W. Griffith, he is a complicated figure in film. He made some other notable films, and after “Birth” was criticized for its inherent racism, something that Griffith was totally oblivious about, he made a sort of apology the next year with “Intolerance”, which depicted prejudice throughout the ages, that film was even more epic, innovative, and ambitious than “Birth”. In his late years, Griffith didn’t get much work and died an alcoholic. He’s still seen as the Grandfather of film, the Directors guild even has a lifetime achievement award named after him, something I would doubt a director like Spike Lee would ever accept.

Film has a long line of racism in its history, and as a fan of classic cinema, I won’t try to justify it, a lot of films have to be seen within the context of the time they were made. Hollywood films in particular pandered much to the American myth, but as films evolve they can be deconstructed or scrutinized more. “The Birth of a Nation” never seems to be a film anyone likes to talk about, mostly because it represents the worst period in America’s history in the worst possible way. But it still exists, we can’t extinguish it, it should be dealt with, for those who would call film art, this should be seen as it, it’s not beautiful to look at but art doesn’t have to be. I’m an outsider looking at American culture now, and to me it’s ugly, “The Birth of a Nation” can be thought of as film that shows why it’s so ugly.

 

 

 

What I Saw in August

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A slight change in formula in my monthly posts of films I saw. I decided not to just stick with films, but I will also be adding television shows I may have watched over the month as well. I’ve slowly come to the conclusion that television and film have become closer in comparison more than ever. Television despite what some may say I believe can be just as cinematic if not more so than some films. I want to explore this further in maybe a later post, particularly maybe when I sometime revisit “Mad Men” which to me might be the best bit of narrative story telling in any medium within the last decade, but for now, I would like to start adding it to my list.

1. Suicide Squad (2016): If it weren’t for some performances I would deem more worthy than the film itself, and save for the one shot of Harley Quinn playing dead, only to jump back to life like a rag doll which gave me the only jolt of pleasure in this film, I would give “Suicide Squad” a big fat zero! The film was mostly an insult to an audience who the studio felt they couldn’t trust to get what “Suicide Squad” was all about. If this is indeed the cut of the film director David Ayer claimed he intended than he should be ashamed of himself. A director of his calibre should know better how to splice together cohesive action and emotional beats, choppy is too good a word for the deplorable editing done here, with a ridiculous intro to each character that made them seem more like players in a video game than in a live action movie, giving them stats, and their own theme song, and a painfully long opening scene with Viola Davis (Doing her best) explaining who each member is. I have seen very few films in my life where exposition is done in practically every scene, the cardinal sin of cinema of telling not showing. Though I was not a fan of “Batman v Superman” either, I will give that film credit for having a few interesting visual moments, “Suicide Squad” is studio film making done in the worst way. I weep for the audience, I weep for this cast, start banning these movies, I know you won’t but you all deserve better. 0.5 stars out of 4

2. Stranger Things Season 1 (2016): Could it be that the biggest blockbuster of the summer didn’t happen at your local multiplex, but in your own home? Well if the statistics are correct, than yes. “Stranger Things” will probably be the most memorable thing this summer had to offer and that’s not really a bad thing. Soaked in 80s film nostalgia taking cues from early Spielberg, Carpenter, Stephen King, and others, “Stranger Things” starts off with an intriguing premise, slowly growing its mystery and mythology but not losing focus of its story. The show has some pretty memorable set pieces and performances namely the young Mille Bobby Brown as the mysterious Eleven, she brings the right ounce of innocence, mystery, and pathos to her role that made this show really click for me. Other performances were great as well though I’m somewhat mystified by the whole cult following for the character of Barb who seemed to me like more or less a plot device who didn’t have much screen time or development; But I digress. I suppose my main gripe with this show is it’s main focus on story than character which I suppose is a choice. Most characters are given back stories that aren’t really explored in much meaningful ways (ie. the sheriff’s daughter which is a big motivation for him yet it’s only slightly touched upon near the end in the final episode), but I suppose that’s what serialized television is for, fleshing out its characters, although it was a satisfying conclusion, there was really no need for the open ending. I didn’t have an emotional payoff at the end unlike say in a Spielberg movie, this seems to be going more for a J.J. Abrams mystery box idea, not that there’s anything wrong with that, it in fact out-mystery boxes J.J.Abrams especially when it came to his own 80s cinema homage “8mm”. However this is a nice reminder of what summer blockbusters used to be. 3.5 stars out of 4

3. Cafe Society (2016) Woody Allen’s latest is something maybe I enjoyed more than I was supposed to, or maybe Woody Allen is just taken for granted sometimes, but I found this to be his best film since “Midnight in Paris”. The story involves Jesse Eisenberg as a young man moving from his Jewish family in New York to work for his agent to the stars Uncle (Steve Carrel) in Hollywood. He falls for his Uncle’s assistant (Kristen Stewart), but as in most Woody Allen romances complications arise, and being the writer/director that he is gives him the chance to explore his favorite subject,  the randomness of the universe, and a sort of Godless morality in the world. Allen’s Jewish humor and philosophy are apparent in many of the New York characters which made them very endearing to me. These are obviously themes he likes to come back to time and time again, I don’t see many people exploring them the way he does. The lighting of the film is a thing of beauty as it evokes old Hollywood, Kristen Stewart in particular has never looked more lovely in a film, and Allen is sometimes underrated as a director, but his staging of some scenes is masterfully done.  Also if Stewart and Eisenberg become the new Woody Allen/Diane Keaton pairing in film, that would make me very happy. 3.5 stars out of 4

4. Son of Saul (2015) Last year’s best foreign film Oscar winner is a power film, done in a purely unique way. “Son of Saul” is a holocaust film concerning a “Sonderkommondo”, which is a Jewish person hired by the Nazis to dispose of the bodies of other Jews who were killed in the gas chambers, after which they go through their clothes to collect valuables, they do this for a few weeks, and are killed off as well, these people I don’t think have been touched upon before mainly because there remains so little about them. Saul is one of these workers and we see his journey as he sees one victim of the gas chamber, a young boy who he believes is his son, and he will go to any cost to try and give him a proper Jewish burial, even if it means interrupting a rebellion by his fellow co-workers. Told completely through Saul’s point of view, we only see with his peripheral all the horrors surrounding him. This is a purely visceral film, and although the holocaust has been mined, and exploited for other films, this is one of the best, with an ending that is unforgettable, not to be missed. 4 stars out of 4

5. Chimes at Midnight (1965) Orson Welles’ long lost masterpiece, which, like most of his non-“Citizen Kane” films spent time in a cinematic purgatory has now seen the proper light of day thanks to a reissue from criterion. “Chimes at Midnight” is the story of Falstaff, a character who appeared in a number of Shakespeare plays, which Welles combined to make this poignant and unforgettable cinematic experience. Falstaff is seen as an overweight buffoon to most people but is loved by others mainly by Prince Hal, the son of King Henry IV. The two form a kinship despite the fact that Hal will soon be the new King of England. Welles weaves in Shakespeare’s plays effortlessly as if the Bard wrote this play himself, but it was Welles adapting and modifying it into an unforgettable love story between two men, and an act of betrayal by one them which leads to perhaps Welles’ most heartbreaking scene he has ever filmed. “Chimes at Midnight” was filmed with Welles’ usual small budget he had to work with, but it is a labor of love, it probably contains his finest performance as an actor, and for me it’s the best film experience I’ve had in a long time. Welles was certainly a master and for those who think he only made “Citizen Kane” best seek this out, it is a true treasure to behold. 4 stars out of 4

6.The Immortal Story (1968) Another lost Welles film brought to light by criterion, as you can see Christmas came early for me, even though it left me a little broke for the moment. “The Immortal Story” was a small film which was actually made for French television. Clocking in at only 58 minutes, it tells the story of a wealthy man (Welles) who is intent to create a story he heard once about a woman seduced by a sailor into his own perverse reality. He hires a woman (Jeanne Moreau) and a young sailor (Norman Eshley) to sleep together in his house. The story is bizarre to say the least, but it’s perfect for Welles’ avant guarde touches, and as the film went along, I found it gently moving and surreal. The love scene incidentally is beautifully shot and unlike anything I’ve seen before. It shows that Welles was never out of original ideas. 4 stars out of 4

7. Kubo and the Two Strings (2016) An animated film to close out the summer for me. Produced by Laika studios who is probably best known for “Coraline”, “Kubo and the Two Strings” is probably the most visually impressive film I’ve seen all year. Taken from a Japanese folk tale, it’s the story of a young boy who sets off on a quest to find an armour that will protect him from his Grandfather who is a spiritual entity that wants to take away Kubo’s humanity, by plucking out his eyes.On his way Kubo is helped by a charmed monkey (Voiced by Charlise Theron) and a samurai beetle (Matthew McConaughey). This is a very dark children’s tale that is really very blunt about the subject of death and the afterlife. It pulls no punches, it’s weird in that very good way Coraline was weird, with beautiful visuals that wash over you. This is a great animated film and a very mature children’s story. Summer may have been a disappointment for some, but along with this, “The BFG”, and very early on with “The Jungle Book”, I’d say it’s been great for children’s films that are just looking for an audience. 4 stars out of 4