Thursday, June 21, 2007

When Achilles Becomes a Soda Jerk

(And then becomes a Real American Hero)

Taking the cue from the incomparable Bourgwife, my wife and I have signed up for a netflix plan and are now faithfully viewing our way through the America’s Top 100 Movies list, attempting to learn how to watch and what to watch for along the way.

I won’t really try to write real reviews or plot summaries—taking my cue from Burglar, I will provide links to people who know how to do that at the end of the post, if you’re unfamiliar with the film perhaps go there first—rather, the focus will be on notes towards film literacy (being able to “read” the film-making techniques correctly) with some forays into meaning and message. I also would like to apologize now for being rambly: I don't really know what I'm doing so it takes me a while to say something.

Take One: The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

Film vocab I learned: “Deep Focus Photography”—allowing the director to have the main subject(s) in the foreground, and important action in the background that is still clearly visible [example: when Dana Andrews and Teresa Wright chat at the Drug Store with the owner, on the second floor and far behind them, visibly keeping watch]. “Long takes”—just what it appears to mean, allows the viewer to become intimate with the story as we occupy a stationary observation point. Employed to an extreme in Hitchcock’s Rope to prolong the suspense of fear. “One-camera setup”—going with long takes, the camera can move, but here the director only sets-up-one-camera, taking away the possibility of cutting in for a close face shot, etc.. The cinematographer for this film is Gregg Toland of Citizen Kane fame.

There are a lot of really memorable takes in this film. Director William Wyler (important/famous in the post WWII era) begins this movie on servicemen returning home after the war with the arrivals gate of an airport terminal; the camera is at an angle to the gate; Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) comes out and walks towards camera, at an angle to everyone else (civilians) and the foot traffic patterns in the terminal; walks up to the ticket counter and the airforce captain can’t get a plane ticket home while a plump businessman walks up, slaps down a wad of cash and gets his overweight baggage on board. Function: set up the plot for the arrival home; Message: the servicemen don’t fit, they are at odds with this society, and everything that held their world together in the army means nothing anymore. Emotion: disjointedness (is that an emotion word?).

There are many memorable camera shots: the three male leads flying home in the nose of a bomber, looking out at acres of junked airplanes (“... wish we’d had those in ‘42!”) [note: deep-focus photography]; taxi ride home looking at Boone City through the front window, with the shell-shocked servicemen in the rearview mirror; Dana Andrews finally finding himself while wandering amidst the carcasses of his formerly glorious war stallions (bombers), Fred Derry (Andrews) and Sgt. Stephenson staring at each other in a booth at Butch's Bar while they discuss whether or not Derry is in love with Stephenson's daughter, and what to do about it. There is a moment at the end of the film, however, where Wyler shoots the wedding of one of the men, and he tries to visually wrap up the film just a little bit too quaintly. Every one of the leads is fit into the same shot, all in different physical spaces—quite a technical feat. It is worth pausing the film here and noticing all of the spatial relations and lines of sight, etc., because they are all meaningfully thought out (trying to explain them here, however, would take about a page and I don’t feel like photoshopping a screen shot). However, this is just a little too heady, and for my price of admission, Wyler is getting a little too wrapped up in making it all carry the right meaning and no one stopping him to say, “Wait, Will, it just looks weird now.”

The acting is incredible, as one can expect from anything on this list. One blemish: the first time through, young Rob Stephenson (Michael Hall) really annoyed me because he was extremely awkward. The second time through I decided he was affecting that, and it makes sense to do so (the son and the father don’t understand one another: again the effects of the war, and tantamount to a prophecy from Wyler about the baby boomer generation and post-Korea views of War in America) but Hall went just a little overboard so that it’s one of those moments where the viewer is squirming in his seat – anytime there is a hiccup in suspension of belief someone messed up. On the opposite end, a performance for the ages was given by first-timer Harold Russell (read about it below). Hoagy Carmichael gave the best delivery of the best line in the movie, and Al Stephenson was hilarious on multiple occassions.

One of the most fascinating portrayals for me was of a Stephenson family discussion in the parent’s bedroom [note the setting and use of mirrors], where the adult daughter (Teresa Wright) confesses her desire and intention to “break up that marriage [Dana Andrews and Virginia Mayo]” and commit adultery with Fred. Her father rebukes her (which she accepts!!), and then confronts her desired Fred [D. Andrews] later. But this genuine, believable dramatic depiction, completely void of any shred of irony, of a family that has such conversations—and children who do not regret them but want and need them—floored me. Take that, Foucault.

Message. Overall, Wyler and Producer Samuel Goldwyn do an extremely convincing portrayal of the difficulties and emotional struggles of men who return from war and those who love them; this alone, however, could not have held an audience happily captive for three hours (and you are held a willing captive!). Best Years also presents how the three men came to understand themselves, what they learned from the war, and what they and that knowledge are good for back Home. The solutions are not easy (Virginia Mayo’s “Just get over it, will ya?!” is rejected as a solution, as is Harold Russel’s inclination to brood and internalize, or the anonymous Peace-Monger’s rejection of the reasons for going to war in the first place and blame of the government), but point is that real solutions are there, and they are attainable, and ultimately fulfilling. These are all better men for having come back from war and learning to accept themselves and those around them.

Next time: a shorter post.

Related Links:
On Visuals.
On W. Wyler and G. Toland.
On Harold Russell
On the film’s place in American Film-making (brief)
A Contemporary NYT Review of Nov 22, 1946

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