Friday 24 July 2015

Animal Farm (1954)

Kammerat Napoleon

”All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”

Ain’t that the truth…

More and more frequently do I now encounter movies that I not only know of, but have also seen. “Animal Farm” is another one of those. I saw it back in high school in an English class and I figure that though it was an easier treat than George Orwell’s novel, it did make a big impression on me back then. The thing is this movies plays a very nasty trick. It lures you into thinking this is a classic Disney-ish feel-good cartoon and then turns the whole lot very dark and bad. Even as an adolescent you are not above feeling that hammer slamming you to the ground. Oh, I think that English teacher enjoyed that very much, he did have a wicked sense of humor.

“Animal Farm” is a British cartoon feature from the Halas and Batchelor studio about how the animals at Manor Farm kicks out the farmer and takes over the farm for themselves as a commune. This part is very happy and uplifting with Disney elements like the little clumsy duckling and the animals farming in their own quirky ways. Halfway in however the pigs who led the rebellion form a new ruling class, which is at first kind of sweet, but soon turn sinister and menacing when the pig Napoleon takes control using loyal dogs as power leverage and send them off to chase down and kill the rival Snowball. Goodbye Disney and goodbye kiddies, I do not think this is a movie for you.

As Napoleon’s rule turn more and more oppressive colors become dark and grayish and gone is any vestige of the previous optimism. This reaches a climax when the big horse Boxer, who was instrumental in practically all physical labor on the farm is sold to a glue factory for whiskey to the pigs. When the other animals thus learns that the pigs have become essentially human and more equal than others they rebel, but this time not in happy optimism, but in furious anger.

It is no secret that Orwell’s story is about the Russian revolution and the rise of Stalin. The movie was even intentionally funded as propaganda against the East bloc. The interesting thing here is how detailed and honest it is. A pure propaganda stunt would be very black and white with no redeeming elements to the opposition. Animal Farm is certainly painting a dark picture of Stalin, but it is actually all for the revolution itself. Farmer Jones (the tsar) had it coming with his mismanagement and brutality. The communist manifest is celebrated as a solution and Lenin as the old hog Old Major is a benign character. When the animal fight off the farmers trying to take the farm back (the White alliance) the animal are heroic, even the pigs, and the animals vigor in farming reflect the creative burst the Soviet union went through in the twenties, symbolized by Snowball (Trotsky). This is all very impressive of a film against communism to say that the people are all right and the idea is good.

Then the page turn and we see the two main points of the movie:

  1.   That such an egalitarian society is a fantasy, that someone will eventually rise to dominate the rest, but by claiming to represent the people effectively gag the opposition
  2.  That Stalin is an evil power monger who used his tools of strength to secure a power base to exploit his people.

When the farmers attack again (the German invasion in 41) the animals are still heroic, but lead not by joy and optimism but by the force of a tyrant. 

One by one all the things the animals fought for are gone. There is little food and no protection. Their ideals written on the barn disappears or ring more and more hollow the same way as communism devolved into an oppressive system to support the power elite. 

Although this is a blatant propaganda piece it is also scary how spot on it is. In 54 this may have felt like an exaggeration, but with our advantage of hindsight we can tell that the producers were not far off the mark. Halas was a Hungarian and he would therefore have some first or second hand experience with Stalinism and while the upbeat ending can be interpreted as a last ditch effort at crowd pleasing, it is also likely that Halas and sponsors hoped that the people of the East bloc would find inspiration to rebel. The Hungarians did indeed do so a few years later and the Czech again in 68, but it would take 35 before the prediction of the movie became reality with a literal breaking of the wall. Incidentally this may have been why our English teacher made us watch it back in 1990. 

While “Animal Farm” is decidedly not a children’s movie I do consider it both an important film and a very clever one. It grabs the attention of the audience and then twitches you around and forces you to see the awful truth as the producers sees it. It has an uncanny ability to force home its points and even if you disagree with those you have to admit that it is effective.


Friday 17 July 2015

A Star is Born (1954)

En Stjerne Fødes

I have said it before and I know I will say it again: 1954 was an awesome year in movies. Today’s movie “A Star is Born” is only confirmation of that statement. This is a very impressive musical on practically every level and it ranks very high on my list of best musicals. To be fair that list is not exactly crowded, but after “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” this marks a return to musicals that respect its audience.

“A Star is Born” is something of a revolution in musicals because it breaks with so many musical tropes to the extent that you can argue that it is not even a real musical, but a drama with music. George Cukor, the director, may have something to do with that. He had been around in Hollywood since forever and had done practically everything except perhaps musicals. “A Star is Born” is a progressive story that leaves opportunities for music where it is natural and integral to the story. There are no spontaneously breaking out in song scenes and backing music is a record playing or an orchestra actually there. I am not a puritan when it comes to these things, but watching the music integrated so well makes me wonder how I could stand all those musicals who insists on breaking the contract with the audience and leave the reality of the film while their songs last.

It is telling that the male lead never sings. When did you last see that in a musical? I should probably be grateful that James Mason only talks (something he is truly good at) and leave the singing to Judy Garland, but it shows that the drama element here is just as important as the music and that really makes the difference between a movie and filmed music (disregarding dancing which I do not care much about). 

The drama is a classic Hollywood story about the ascent of a star, but it is also the story of the deroute of a star and a scathing portray of the cynicism of the Hollywood media machine. This gives a balance of sweetness and bitterness with a dash of relevance and like cooking balance is everything.
Judy Garland is Esther Blodgett, a singer with a band who happens to save the famous movie star Norman Maine (James Mason) from making an absolute fool of himself at a benefit. Sobered up he sets out to find the girl and find out she has a magic voice. He convinces her to quit the band and go to the movies, but starts out by burning her when he gets drunk and is drawn out to a set to film for weeks. 

Eventually he finds her again and becomes her mentor in Hollywood and, of course in this sort of movies, her husband. Esther soon becomes Vicki Lester and a star on the rise while Norman heads the other way into the abyss of substance abuse.

I do not particularly enjoy watching people hit the gutter, especially when they cause it to themselves and so I am not a fan of substance abuse films. “A Star is Born” manages to incorporate this tragedy in a way where there is no doubt of its seriousness, but it is not allowed to steal the picture. Again “balance” is the word. This could have been unbearable or it could have been laughed off, but Cukor avoids both ditches. I found it hilariously funny when Norman crashes the show at the benefit, but there is nothing funny about his later crash at the Academy Awards. That is an ice cold picture of a pathetic alcoholic crying for help. Norman resolves the situation in a way that is not exactly optimistic, but at least holds some dignity and that is a good note to finish on.

There is a long tradition for self-reflection in movies. Movies about movies or at least with a setting around moviemaking. The special thing about “A Star is Born” is how close we get and how cynical that portrait is. We have the scene where Esther is repeatedly told how happy they are to have her with them although nobody is actually listening to her or even recognizes her. There is the Matt Libby (Jack Carson) character who as a public relations guy thinks only of actors as assets and treats them as such. Or the way Norman Maine is allowed to flounder until suddenly as by common decision he is cut out. It is not a very friendly picture. But then on the other side it is also about glamour and dreams and real achievements, so again, the movie keeps a good balance.

As Judy Garland is essentially the only singer in this musical a lot stand and falls with her performance and no amount of drama or framing can change that. She is good and she got excellent material to work with. Early on we get “The Man That Got Away” and that hits the mark on so many levels for me. This is exactly the kind of music I like. Unfortunately the rest of the set cannot match that jazzy cool, but less can also do it. Garland does well, even in the dance routines and often I am reminded of how much she looks like her daughter. On the acting side I am less impressed by Garland. I know her character is very emotional and lacking self-esteem, but Garland over-does it, especially in those scenes where she is crying. It looks forced. Fortunately Mason is such a standout performer that he outweighs Garland’s deficiencies. Oh man, I can listen to Mason for hours, that voice is honey for the ears. 

I got the impression that “A Star is Born” was considered the movie of the year in 54 with expectations of a big harvest at the Academy Award, but although it was awarded in numerous categories it won none. That is not because this was an overrated movie, but a testament to the strength of the field this year. 

If “A Star is Born” heralds a new era for musicals I am all in. This feels right, all three hours.     

Friday 10 July 2015

Rear Window (1954)

Skjulte Øjne

I knew 54 would be a great year because this is the year of ”Rear Window”. As it turns out there are many other attractions this year, but “Rear Window” is one of those movies I have been looking forward to see for a while. This is in fact a revisit as I saw it seven years back while I lived in China, and although I thought I remembered it well I found out I had entirely forgotten the resolution and what a drama!

I should warn the reader that this entire review comes with a large, flashing spoiler tag. I will be discussing that resolution in detail.

“Rear Window” is one of Alfred Hitchcocks most famous movies and for a very good reason. It is absolutely awesome on every level imaginable.

Just take the set. An entire New York backyard built inside a studio where you can watch the going-on’s in all the opposing apartment. It is a voyeurs dream and try as we might it is difficult not to be a little fascinated with the lives through the windows of all these people. In fact you never really notice that this is a studio setting, it feels very real. As in so many other of Hitchcocks films the story never leaved this backyard and so we are as stuck here as L.B. Jefferies (James Stewart).

He is a professional photographer with a leg in cast and therefore stuck to a wheelchair in his apartment. From here his only entertainment is to look out his window and into the apartments of everybody else in the opposing building. This interest out of boredom soon become voyeur obsession of a decidedly unhealthy nature. He watches Miss “Torso”, a skimpily clad dancer, feels with Miss “Lonelyhearts”, a woman so lonely she pretends to have dates, listen to the music of the composer neighbor and so on. 

Then one day the salesman right across from him, who always fights with his wife, starts acting weird. The wife is gone, he leaves and returns several times in the night with a suitcase and he is doing something with knifes, saw and ropes. Jefferies is convinced that the man, Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr), has murdered his wife.

There are two women in Jefferies life. Stella (Thelma Ritter) is the nurse attending his leg and general needs and Lisa (Grace Kelly) is his girlfriend. Both are upset with Jefferies voyeurism, but once he fields his murder suspicion they are converted immediately and a just as much obsessing as he his. Stella has a penchant for the macabre and Lisa I suspect do it because it is a way into the heart and life of the man she love. He is reluctant about marrying her, but as soon as she enters the adventure his look on her changes for the better so it works.

Jefferies calls his police detective friend Doyle (Wendell Corey) repeatedly, but every time Doyle refuse the allegations. There are always perfectly good explanations to what Thorwald is doing.
Here we are at the heart of the story. Jefferies, Lisa and Stella are clearly on an unhealthy voyeur trip. They are the kind of busy-bodies who are drawing conclusions about other people based on vague hints and fantasy. Exactly the kind of garbage you read in gossip magazines. Doyle is the voice of reason and common sense, but they are so entrenched in their murder story that they are hardly listening. Then when they start sending Thorwald notes, dig up his garden and break into his apartment they are clearly crossing the line of acceptable behavior. It is very suspenseful and even more so because I know it is wrong what they are doing.

So, is Thorwald a murderer or is he an innocent victim of serious harassment and slander? This was the part I did not remember and if you do not know it either, please, read no further.

We see something early on that Jefferies is missing because he is asleep. At a time where Thorwald is supposed to have killed his wife he is leaving his apartment together with a woman that looks like his wife. This ties in very well with the information Doyle, the police detective, provides and I felt quite convinced that the man was innocent. Therefore when Jefferies, Stella and Lisa are caught red handed, Lisa quite literally, I am sure there is hell to pay and frankly they deserve it. Yet when Thorwarld enters Jefferies apartment, presumably to knock some sense into him, he is revealed as an actual murder, that they were right all along. I really had not seen that one coming and actually at first I felt deceived, but now thinking about it I realize how clever Hitchcock is. Just as Jefferies is deceived by what he sees when he watches Thorwald so are we deceived. Just because we see more than Jefferies does it does not mean that we see and know everything. We are still only watching through the rear window and are making the wrong conclusions. 

I still do not know who Thorwald left with that morning and I still do not know how that ties in with the murder, but the point is that it does not have to. We simply do not know everything that is going on.

It is a genius plot and an excellent story, but it is the execution that really bears the Hitchcock mark. The suspense is almost unbearable and the voyeur fascination is communicated so well that we balance between fascination and disgust. But we also have a brilliant dynamics between James Stewart and Grace Kelly. Yes, of course he is too old for her, but I only think that the first five minutes then I forget all about that. Kelly has one of the most angelic introductions in movie history. When she enters and bend down to kiss him I cannot help thinking he is the luckiest man in the universe. Yet when the male/female conflict rears its head I can also understand why he balks away. She is a strong woman and she intends to domesticate him as a trained dog and of course he is rebelling against that. It feels like an irrelevant sub story at first, but it leads up to the bonding that happens when she joins the voyeur obsession. So clever.

This is one of the truly great Hitchcock film and one that is as good today as in 54. I love it. My wife loves it and I am sure you love it as well. Unless of course you do not like being fooled by a clever director.