zero dark thirty (kathryn bigelow, 2012)
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what i watched last week

Gone with the Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939). What to make of Gone with the Wind? There is no use denying its areas of greatness: the sweep of the narrative so that close to four hours doesn’t seem long at all, the performances of Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable, the impressive overall production design by William Cameron Menzies (who pulled off something similar for $290,000 in 1953 with Invaders from Mars). As I had watched A Streetcar Named Desire recently, I recognized more than a little Blanche DuBois in Leigh’s tics as Scarlett O’Hara, but that wasn’t a bad thing … it was actually kind of cool. Scarlett is a great character, and not very likable, which is also kind of cool. But then there’s the elephant in the room: even taking into consideration the time the film was made, the treatment of plantation life scars Gone with the Wind. There has always been a poignancy to the story of the destruction of the South, and GWTW unashamedly takes the side of the South. But the film deals with the question of slavery by largely ignoring it. The slaves at Tara are presented as if they were just workers; the ones who stick around after the war act no differently as free men and women than they did before the war. The horrors of slavery simply don’t exist in Gone with the Wind. Also, while the tale of the South provides a framework for the film, the main story is about Scarlett, who is so self-centered that the South as an ideal only enters her consciousness (and thus, that of the movie) when it impinges on her personal struggles. Which means Gone with the Wind is a fine, epic melodrama about Scarlett O’Hara, but its treatment (or lack of same) of slavery is only tolerable if you don’t think about it (and the film pretty much doesn’t think about it). #64 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 7/10.

L’Atalante (Jean Vigo, 1934). This is a film that plays better in the mind after you’ve seen it, and it might be even better with a second viewing. The plot is barely there, but beneath a character study of newlyweds, a lovely atmosphere works its way into our hearts, and by the end of the movie, you know you’ve seen something. I found myself wishing I’d noticed things when they happened, instead of after the fact, and I won’t make that mistake again the next time I watch it. There is some unforgettable imagery in L’Atalante, and my response to it is reminiscent of how I felt about Murnau’s Sunrise (“Many of the trend-setting Murnau touches are ordinary to us, more than 80 years later. Ah, but those touches!”). #17 on the TSPDT list. 8/10.

The Hurricane (John Ford, 1937). An early example of a disaster movie, coming a year after San Francisco. The hurricane that comes near the end of the movie may top even the earthquake from the earlier film. While the story leading up to the disaster is nothing special, it is better than the usual crap served up in 1970s pictures like The Towering Inferno. Jon Hall and Dorothy Lamour are photogenic, and Hall’s attempts to escape prison are interesting enough. Still, it’s all about the hurricane, which is mindboggling, impressive even 75 years after the fact. 7/10.

Looper (Rian Johnson, 2012). Time travel stories are inherently difficult. You can try to explain how time travel works, which leads to a spiral of disbelief. You can do what Philip K. Dick often did, and just create multiple parallel universes. Or you can throw up your hands and mutter something about the willing suspension of disbelief. Rian Johnson deals with the problem by having Bruce Willis’ character announce, “I don't want to talk about time travel because if we start talking about it then we're going to be here all day talking about it, making diagrams with straws.” And so they don’t talk about it. Yet Johnson is up to something interesting. He gives us a movie full of action, character development, humor, and even a female character who isn’t just eye candy. All the while, he seems to push the time travel element to the side, bringing it up only when the plot requires it. Yet at the end of the film, we realize he hasn’t forgotten about time travel at all. I’m pretty sure Looper doesn't work on a logical scale, but that’s not really why we watch time travel movies. The movie is well-cast and acted, the futuristic setting is subtle, and there’s just enough extra to it all that Looper is one of the better films of its genre. 7/10.

The Red and the White (Miklós Jancsó, 1967). This intriguing Hungarian-Russian co-production was supposed to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. It was eventually banned in the Soviet Union, which tells you how well Jancsó fulfilled his orders. It is the most matter-of-fact war movie imaginable. There are no main characters, there isn’t a plot, it’s impossible to know who to root for … and for the uninitiated like me, who aren’t conversant in the role of Hungary in the Russian Civil War, even the historical setting is hard to understand. (The Reds of the title, who had won the revolution, fought against the Whites, who wanted the old order of the Tsars reinstated. The Hungarians fought on the side of the Reds.) The narrative, such as it is, is almost abstract. We see a series of events in the war, as first one side and then the other take “top spot”, some people are killed, some are executed, others are captured and set free, it all seems meaningless, and we know as little by the film’s end as we didn’t know at the beginning. Which means The Red and the White is both an anti-war film and an anti-heroic film, because it rejects all the usual stuff we find in even the most ardent anti-war films (heroes, bad guys, ethics). It’s a unique work. #890 on the TSPDT list. 8/10.

Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow, 2012). 8/10.

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