Not long ago we lauded the Film Plays Itself series on the Criterion Channel, a collection of films about films that includes everything from Sunset Boulevard to 8½ to Hollywood Shuffle to Adaptation. Here, Tinseltown is by turns cynical, magical, savage, surreal, everything you could possibly hope for, anything you could possibly imagine. Here, film artists are by turns inspiring, insipid, visionary, avaricious, down on themselves, full of themselves. If you’re interested in movies about movies, Film Plays Itself represents a kaleidoscopic cross-section of Hollywood artistry that encapsulates pretty much everything you could want.
War movies don’t vary much. Customarily, this genre has a singular focus: examination of an individual (a soldier, usually) inside of a system (the military, usually). Wherever the film goes from there, it can typically still be traced back to that configuration of a singular unit as part of the greater whole. The individual is entrenched — to nick a military phrase — within the system, even if the premise of the film is to have that character reconcile with or refute the system itself. And in some ways this is technically true of Beau travail, the 1999 drama by Claire Denis, as it follows young soldiers training inside the construct of the French Foreign Legion. But the treatment of those individuals and that system is so unlike that which is described above, so unique in its presentation, that Beau travail can hardly be called a war film at all.
Unit master-at-arms Galoup (Denis Lavant) leads a section of legionnaires stationed in Djibouti, driving them through a regimen of intense and endless physical training. The legionnaires climb, hurdle, and crawl beneath crude obstacles. They stand for hours with their arms raised under the hot African sun. They iron their uniforms a lot, the sharp creases a signifier of their shared devotion. Galoup undertakes these exercises with his men, screeching at them as he does his own pushups twice as quickly. He is the Legion, in some senses: a lifelong military man, minded only toward the group, toward uniformity, toward the system.
Just last week, 30-year-old Alyssa Nakken became the first woman to coach on the field during a Major League Baseball game. It’s a noteworthy milestone for its empowering inclusivity, and Nakken acknowledged that her role forever means that “girls can see there is a job on the field in baseball.” It’s also noteworthy, of course, that things like this shouldn’t have taken the better part of a century to come about in America, though that unfortunate reality shouldn’t overshadow the positive progress inherent in Nakken’s achievement. The glass ceiling is still intact, perhaps, but there’s a meaningful new chip in it.
When — not if — that ceiling is finally good and shattered, we might also look back on Penny Marshall’s A League of Their Own, which brought to light the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League of the ’40s and ’50s. Now recognized as the forerunner of women’s professional sports leagues in the U.S., the AAGPBL was conceived as a societal distraction, more or less, while a sizable number of male American ballplayers were off at war. Four teams were formed, which eventually expanded to ten teams, and what might have been a single-season distraction grew and grew to a legitimate sport.
There may be no other gangster film in existence that walks the tightrope Miller’s Crossing walks. On the one hand, the third film from the Coen Brothers is of a piece with the 1930s gangster flicks that influenced it, full of colorful criminals and double-crosses and rat-a-tat action. The dialogue is straight from Dashiell Hammett and the production design is straight from the pre-Code era, à la Scarface and Little Caesar. The gangster subgenre and critical thinking on the subgenre are historically grounded in realism, unlike the mythic and symbolic trappings of the film Western, and Miller’s Crossing honors that in its gritty, ruminative approach to a complex plot. It is, in short, a quintessential gangster film.
On the other hand, stuff like this happens:
The pure gangster film we’ve described so far is constantly in sharp discordance with the Miller’s Crossing that knows it’s a gangster film. Self-awareness is not a traditional quality of the gangster picture. We’re supposed to be shocked when characters get riddled with bullets, not laugh at the absurdity of the manner of their demise (see above). Big hulking goons are supposed to be aces in fistfights, not whimper when they get bonked on the nose. And we’re not supposed to be expending energy reading into tophat dream symbolism during a traditional crime flick, right? In short, this is anything but a quintessential gangster film.
We’re always experiencing history now. Few grasp this concept like Alex Cox, who frequently eschews the traditional idea of “historical accuracy” in favor of something we might pretentiously refer to as historical truth. In 1986’s Sid and Nancy, a bunch of kids meet the title character just outside New York City, and when they hear his name — “Sid Vicious” — they immediately scatter. That never happened in real life, but the metaphorical depiction of Sid’s living legend trumps the facts because it actually tells the real story more effectively in film. The more all-encompassing example is 1987’s Walker, Cox’s searing indictment of America’s quasi-colonialist mindset toward Nicaragua. Walker, set in 1853, is full of intentional anachronisms in the form of modern items — helicopters, automatic rifles, Newsweek — that weren’t around at the time. If you presume this device might take you out of the action of 1853, you’re exactly right — and it more or less plants you in Nicaragua in the 1980s, where much the same U.S. meddling would spur the Contra War for more than a decade.
Tombstone Rashomon, Cox’s latest, is in many ways a logical extension of this view of history as inextricable from the present. The title somewhat bluntly particularizes the story at hand: this is the tale of the famous Gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona, told in the kaleidoscopic style of Akira Kurosawa’s seminal Rashomon. The tale of this shootout — dubbed on its exhaustively-detailed Wikipedia page as “the most famous shootout in the history of the American Wild West” — has been told in film a hundred different ways already, most notably in John Ford’s My Darling Clementine (1946), John Sturges’s Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), and George Cosmatos’s Tombstone (1993). All of these technically depict the same event, but the varying degrees of accuracy and divergence speaks to Cox’s point: short of being present in Tombstone at about 3:00 p.m. on October 26, 1881, the vast majority of what we “know” about this event comes from its depiction in popular culture.
One of the most impressive things about the Coen Brothers is their ability to succeed in both self-aware comedy and super-serious drama, and their first two movies encapsulate both ends of that spectrum. Apart from No Country for Old Men, their debut Blood Simple is still their most stripped-down and somber effort. There’s only one real moment of self-awareness in that film, when the camera slides along the saloon counter and then jumps over a sleeping barfly before hitting the counter again. Coming only three years after that hardboiled crime drama, the cartoonishly bonkers Raising Arizona seems like the work of a different filmmaker altogether.
And maybe it is, in a way, given how much the Coens owe to Preston Sturges. The Golden Age screwball writer/director is often cited as a Coen inspiration, due in part to a few direct correlations between his Sullivan’s Travels and the Coens’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? But Raising Arizona lives more fully under the influence of Sturges, from the pratfalls to the simple-minded characters to the way dialogue reigns as simultaneously elevated and immature. Specific elements of three Sturges films from the most celebrated era of his career — Easy Living (1937), The Lady Eve (1941) and The Palm Beach Story (1942) — offer some insight into how Raising Arizona came together with the King of ’40s Screwballs in mind.
As far as indicators of things to come are concerned, Blood Simple has everything you need to know about the Coen Brothers right there in the opening. Okay, maybe not everything — after all, daring to think you’ve nailed down the Coens is, as critic David Edelstein put it, “a sure way of looking like an ass.” The most immediate hallmark is a somewhat superficial one, what with Blood Simple sporting the same exact opening (drawling narration over barren establishing shots) as later Coen films The Big Lebowski, The Man Who Wasn’t There and No Country for Old Men. But from there, the way light and shadow pass through Blood Simple serves as a solid marker of the artistry for which the first-time filmmakers would someday be known.
After the opening narration, credits roll over Abby (Frances McDormand) and Ray (John Getz) having a conversation in the car at night. The credits don’t roll, actually, but flash brightly whenever passing headlights illuminate the car’s interior. The pair have a cryptic conversation about Abby leaving Marty (Dan Hedaya) to be with Ray, and in the next scene they’re rolling around in a motel room bed, headlights from the highway still illuminating them briefly.
In Big, 13-year-old Josh Baskin wishes his way into a 30-something-year-old grownup version of himself. The trope of a mind-body mismatch was certainly nothing new in 1988, and in fact the late ’80s had a whole slew of movies featuring this exact same plot. These are heedfully chronicled by Mike Ryan here and include the likes of Vice Versa, Like Father Like Son, 18 Again! and Dream a Little Dream, all released within the approximate span of a single year; the other point of commonality those films share, of course, is that they’re all pretty crappy. Big is the outlier in that regard. I was about the same age as Teen Josh when I first saw the movie, and I found myself enamored with the possibilities of instant adulthood, getting a job with a toymaker and renting a sweet NYC penthouse and flirting with someone who would eventually and inexplicably agree to become my girlfriend. Teen Me was most likely motivated by this last point.
Today I’m closer in age to Adult Josh, and now Big almost seems like an entirely different movie. From a kid’s point of view, looking forward to finally attaining that brand of independence reserved for grownups, Penny Marshall’s sophomore directorial effort rings true in almost every frame. It has the wide-eyed wonder and the sentimental disillusionment that all kids experience to some degree. In a sense all movies are accelerated versions of life experiences, condensed down to two hours and designed in an arc so as to bring the viewer along for the ride with the characters on the screen. From a kid’s point of view, Big works because that acceleration is literally a part of Josh’s experience: he goes from kid to grownup and back again in a short amount of time, and so do we.
Just now I googled “Tom Cruise best roles”, “Tom Cruise worst roles”, “Tom Cruise best movies” and “Tom Cruise worst movies”, partially because I’m interested to see where his role as Mitch McDeere in The Firm lands and partially because my boredom has reached carrying capacity. I found, unsurprisingly, that the internet does that thing where it reaches consensus about certain things being “good” and certain things being “bad”, which in this case is sometimes inarguable (A Few Good Men = “good”, Far and Away = “bad”) but sometimes weirdly unearned, as with the endless praise heaped upon Edge of Tomorrow or Cruise’s role in Tropic Thunder. The former is a fairly fun movie and the latter is a fairly funny movie, but to say that these number among Cruise’s best seems a stretch. Again, the common consensus surrounding mediocrity doesn’t exactly come as a shock.
What was surprising, though, is that not a single article or top ten list included Mitch McDeere or mentioned The Firm at all. “Good” and “bad” are complicated, sure, and you might even suggest that the overarching opinions of the internet’s burgeoning culture commentary is at fault for this, too, as if to say “those other guys didn’t claim The Firm to be a great Cruise movie, so we won’t either.” But not a single one mentioned The Firm. No outliers buried in a list to satiate the unconfessed desire of a film blogger, no mention of Mitch McDeere even in reference to another role. It’s like The Firm never registered as a Cruise flick. Putting aside common consensus and inescapable truth (Far and Away = “bad”), that just seemed strange.
Any cook will admit that having delicious ingredients doesn’t necessarily make for a delicious meal, even if you are faithful to the recipe. The most masterful chef can combine a snazzy main course with cool, exotic sauces and side dishes, pepper in some flair, and tie it all together with pristine presentation — but if the temperature isn’t just right, or if just one of the ingredients has started to turn, or if the sous-chef finally makes his move by sabotaging his tyrannical chef’s best meal, well, at least those would be reasons. Sometimes it just doesn’t taste good. Questions arise: why didn’t the dish work? Didn’t we follow the recipe to the letter? Did you freeze that thing overnight like I told you to? When does one traditionally bring their extended metaphor to a close? Now?
Havana had all the ingredients. Sydney Pollack’s previous film Out of Africa walked home with Best Picture and a cartful of other Academy Awards; Robert Redford, longtime Pollack collaborator, was back for his seventh (!) go-round under Pollack’s guidance. Right there you’d think success would be imminent. Of all the famous Director-Actor partnerships, Pollack-Redford is perhaps the most dynamic, the most unexpected, the one that results in classics that span more than one genre. The pair met as actors on the low-budget 1960 film War Hunt, as recounted by Redford in his tribute to Pollack in Time following the latter’s passing, wherein Redford uses the term “kindred spirits”. The success of the adventurous Jeremiah Johnson, the thrilling Three Days of the Condor, the intimate Electric Horseman and the epic Out of Africa would all support that claim.