Monday, September 14, 2015

Classic Film Review: Titanic

Dennis's Review:

I was thirteen when Titanic came out, and, to date, it has been the biggest movie of my lifetime, a colossus that totally dominated pop culture in the same way that Gone With The Wind had.  Given the march of technology, the atomizing of culture, it was probably the last time a movie will ever accomplish that feat.  Titanic was the last time for a lot of things: it was the last time a movie set in our reality topped the worldwide box office (since then, the year-end winner has been either science fiction or fantasy); it was the last Best Picture winner to feature a love ballad; it was the last great melodrama, a genre whose tradition stretches back to the very beginning of Hollywood.  Titanic was the end of something in the same way its maritime predecessor was, the crown jewel of a dying Golden Age.  

The first thing that strikes you about Titanic is how successful it is at showing the very big and the very small and placing both in proper perspective.  The then-revolutionary CGI images of the ship give you a sense of the scale of the thing while the incredibly detailed interiors show how it works.  In an early montage, we are taken from the heavenly top-decks, where the captain gives his orders, to the hellish bowels of the ship, where strong men endlessly shovel coal to keep propellers moving, and finally to bow, where a young and beautiful Leonardo DiCaprio hangs off the prow to experience a simulation of flight.  

Titanic is not notable for its development of characters, but it does build communities, like an old John Ford film.  We get a sense of three classes on board: the crew, the rich, and the poor.  Their interactions and attitudes toward one another drive the action and give us the real drama of the movie, and their response to ultimate disaster reveal the character behind the values.  Upper class solidarity and privilege doom the poor to their fate, while the crew is a mute witness, only intervening when the scale of the horror shocks their sense of duty and brings them in line with a kind of universal value “women and children first.”  But within each community, we see their common humanity in facing death that transcends their class of origin: Molly Brown’s courage, Jack’s sacrifice, Rose’s indomitable will to live, the band’s fatalism, the panic of the crew, and the cowardice of Billy Zane’s Cal.   The whole scope of the human drama is startling and magnificent.  

The criticisms of Titanic come easily: the characters are flat and unreal, and the environment is sanitized.  It’s true that Titanic doesn’t strive for realism, but that is a quality and not a demerit.  Realism is a mirage that recedes as you approach it.  The closer you get to showing something as it would appear to a time traveler witnessing the thing, the more you alienate the audience from the experience they would have if they lived in that time.  Yes, Rose and Jack’s night of partying below deck is a little too clean and not what a real 3rd class party would have been like in 1912, but, surely, the lower class felt a sense of joy and fun in those occasions, and that is the sense you get.  A realistic scene would have felt disordered and alien to a late 20th century audience.  Similarly, the flat nature of the characters gives them an iconic quality.  Jack is an unreal dream, the very image of True Love.  Rose is an icon for transformation, of becoming what we are meant to be.  That the movie resonated so deeply with adolescent girls is no surprise, then, and no sin.

Five Stars *****

Kevin's Review:

In an era of Hollywood cynicism, superhero blockbusters,  and the shift of ambitious narrative artistry toward television, James Cameron’s Titanic is a reminder of what only cinema can do. It is a testament to the enduring power of Hollywood magic.
Picasso's meditation on sex and death, in a film where the ship hits an iceberg as
 the couple consummates their love.
Hailed as a modern classic upon its record-breaking release and subsequently drenched with Oscars, Titanic is conspicuously missing from many current critics “best of the 90s” film lists.  This is a shame.  Despite the occasional hackneyed dialogue and the film’s velvety sentiment, Titanic is unquestionably a masterpiece of film-making.  Some say its power to incite tears from even the driest eyes makes it low-brow, or cheaply sentimental.  I say the film reaches toward the mythic modern truth in an experience we forever carry with us.

We know the ship sinks, just as we know we will someday die.  To clarify that he knows we know, Cameron begins the film with a computer model demonstration of how the ship sinks.  But the subjective experience of it: that is the part we didn't know, we couldn't know before, and that is the experience -- the descent -- we come ever-so-close to personally having via this magnificent film.
Titanic is something of a Homeric oral epic, told by Rose as an aged crone – a Western tragedy of the conflict between the values of temporary material society and those of the mythic eternal, a conflict propelled by Pride, the greatest flaw of man, and witnessed and all-consumed by the endless wine-dark sea.   There is an aspect of divinity to Rose and Jack, a touch of the archetypal, and when the two glow with romance under a dark dome of stars we are transported and transfixed.

The film is deeper and more mysterious than its reputation for mere spectacle suggests.  It is an endlessly re-watchable journey, an ordeal and an initiation. This is powerful storytelling -- and we feel, deeply and madly, its terrible, transcendent beauty.

Five stars *****

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Classic Film Review: A Man for All Seasons

Dennis's Review:

Are we supposed to think of Thomas More as a saint or as a fool?  In a memorable scene, Thomas More asks his son-in-law if he would cut down all the laws in England to catch the devil.  When his son-in-law replies that he would, Thomas asks him what he’d have to protect him when the devil turns round on him.  But, of course, Thomas carefully tended his forest of laws and had nothing to protect him from King Henry, the devil’s rather on-the-nose earthly approximation.  Paul Schofield plays Thomas More as the infallible logician, confidently asserting the supremacy of the law, but in the end he’s shown to be naive or worse.

In that I’m reminded, strangely, of King Edward from Braveheart, another character whose impeccable logic met constantly with an inconvenient dose of reality.  Edward is a Machiavellian who is frustrated by the power of something beyond soldiers and money.  Thomas, conversely, is a sort of romantic who underestimates the power of soldiers and money.  The difference between them is that Thomas has God on his side.  God is the key character in A Man For All Seasons. Without God, Thomas is simply a man who sacrificed himself and his family on the altar of his own self-righteousness. With God, he goes to heaven and becomes a saint, while al his enemies die eventually anyway.  

A Man For All Seasons is a great film because it makes us wrestle with a difficult character like Thomas More.  A lesser film would have us rooting for Thomas to hold out for his ideals.  Paul Scofield gives us as convincing an argument as he can for Thomas’ case, but I still find myself begging him to simply sign the paper and go back to his wife and children and servants.

4 Stars ****

Kevin's Review:

What is a Man for All Seasons? Is it a man who stays true to himself despite changing “seasons?” For this is how we think of Sir Thomas More: the ultimate man of conscience. But the title is Erasmus's:
“Though your remarkably keen intelligence places you worlds apart from the common herd, still the incredible sweetness and gentleness of your character makes you able and willing to be a man for all seasons to all men."
This suggests the opposite: A man for all seasons is, perhaps, the charmer, the chameleon. The title is a paradox.

Orson Welles as Cardinal Wolsey

Certainly one must be flexible to thrive (or survive) at Henry VIII's Court. But there is a difference between a man who will adapt to anything, and a limber man with a spine of steel: a tree for all seasons, rooted below, but changeable opposed to a tumbleweed blowing in the winds.

Hampton court was full of opportunistic tumbleweeds: ambitious-at-all-costs Richard, in particular, who purgers himself which ultimately sends More to his death. Others are simply practical, and go-along-to-stay-alive, and not even More can blame them. Or perhaps everyone there is rooted by some trump value, something that ties them to earth: for Richard, ambition, for the King, legacy, and for More's family it is love of family, and Thomas in particular.

But More, while he (foolishly) relies on the letter of the Law to keep him alive, is not, ultimately, rooted to the earth -- his allegiance, even above his family, and above his King, is to the Unseen realm of God.  This is why, in England, he is a Saint.

Of course, in Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, More is rendered as a religious fanatic, a killer of heretics himself, who resembles more a stubborn toddler than a man of truth.

In this lovely, intelligent film, there is a sequence in which prisoner More watches the seasons change outside his cell window, is led down a hallway, and witnesses a jovial Court Party, a reminder of the earthly life given up. This is the most moving and truly cinematic part of this filmed play. In rejecting this world, More is gambling on a heaven and the transcendent truths implied in its existence. But in our secular age, is he still standing for something existential and eternal, even if his consciousness is fated to disappear?

To what do we owe our very-real-families, and to what do we owe our un-provable souls? This gorgeous film, rich with imagery and full of powerful symbolic costumes and performances, shows to us in cinematic glory the wondrous riches of our material existence. What is More standing for? Is it merely the black abyss of the end screen we see after the chopping of his head? The living shall never know for sure -- but there's beauty in that, too.

Three and a Half Stars ***.5