Friday Night Seitz
Slide show: From "Godfather" to "Gone With the Wind," the major flaws that plague these widely acclaimed films
“Gone With the Wind” (1939)
Producer David O. Selznick’s Civil War epic swept the Oscars in 1940 and is, adjusted for inflation, still the top-grossing movie ever made. And there was a time when it sat smack-dab in the center of the American consciousness. It was shown on network TV every year, and viewers gathered around to share in the ritual and recite the lines. Ted Turner fetishized it — still does, in fact. But at some point its star began to recede a bit — a fate that has yet to befall other canonical films from that era, such as “Citizen Kane,” “The Wizard of Oz” and “Casablanca.” What happened? Maybe the country grew up just a little bit, and realized that, almost a century and a half after the Civil War’s end, a democracy of free men and women should not be sentimentalizing the Confederacy as a fairy-tale kingdom in which good-hearted plantation owners ruled over happy, loyal darkies and threw big, beautiful soir
“The Silence of the Lambs” (1991)
“The Silence of the Lambs” is one of the most financially successful horror films of the past 20 years, and with the top five Oscars in its pocket, definitely the most acclaimed. Director Jonathan Demme — previously known for such funky humanist comedy-dramas as “Citizens Band” and “Something Wild” — goes the extra mile to treat Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling and the film’s supporting players as sensitively as he can. But Anthony Hopkins’ Lecter sets the tone, and it’s a rather ugly tone: smug and superior, all-knowing and supercool, the mass murderer as hammy comic book supervillain, spreading his tentacles far beyond his prison lair. There’s a touch of Ayn Rand’s demigod architect Howard Roark about him; he kills only intellectual and social inferiors (a category that from his perspective includes everybody [but Clarice] — and the movie does not contradict him). And after Lecter has spilled their blood, we’re free to forget all about them. Lecter is an intellectually gussied-up cousin of Freddy Krueger or the Crypt Keeper, cracking wise and showing up the phonies. At least in “Lambs” the cannibal-as-elitist-antihero shtick was contained by Lecter’s limited screen time. But it became trashier, cornier and more insufferable in Ridley Scott’s follow-up, “Hannibal,” which put Lecter at the center of the story and pitted him against a nemesis, a disfigured, child-molesting billionaire who fed his enemies to ravenous boars (that’s the “Godfather” trick — make repugnant characters palatable by contrasting them against even more repugnant characters). By the time America’s favorite flesh-eater showed up yet again in the prequels “Red Dragon” and “Hannibal Rising,” he was as played out as Inspector Clouseau. One could blame Hollywood for pimping Lecter to death. But they wouldn’t have had a foundation on which to build if Demme, Hopkins and screenwriter Ted Tally hadn’t played up his charisma, erudition and romantic spirit and made him seem frickin’ awesome, turning a scene-stealing psycho into a folk hero, and emboldening Harris to try to turn him into a cannibal version of Tom Ripley. I prefer the version of the character played by Brian Cox in Michael Mann’s 1986 film “Manhunter,” [an adaptation of "Red Dragon," the Harris novel that introduced the doctor]. Cox’s laid-back, blank-faced incarnation was as terrifying as Hopkins’, but more mysterious, complex and plausibly human. Mann regarded the doctor with scientific detachment, never finding him charming. Did Demme have regrets over directing “Lambs”? It’s not inconceivable. His next two movies –”Philadelphia” and “Beloved” — were so steeped in nobility that they felt like attempts to atone for the biggest success of his career.
“District 9″ (2009)
Who doesn’t love “District 9″? Very few people, apparently. As of this writing, South African director Neill Blomkamp’s quasi-allegorical thriller has a worldwide box office gross of $210,000,000, an Internet Movie Database rating of 8.3 out of 10 and a 91 percent fresh aggregate score on Rotten Tomatoes. And this year it shared honors with James Cameron’s “Avatar” as the first science fiction film to be nominated for a best-picture Oscar since 1982′s “E.T.: The Extraterrestrial.” Why? I’ve seen the movie twice — once in a theater and again on a plane — and both times it struck me as a weakly conceived, high-concept calling-card project that started out with good ideas but failed to do them justice. The extraterrestrials-as-despised-Third-Worlders notion was done more thoughtfully (if less noisily) in 1988′s “Alien Nation” and its subsequent TV spinoff. And Blomkamp never quite convinced me that his “prawns” were creatures from another galaxy, with a biology and culture truly foreign to us; they just looked like humans walking around in buglike CGI costumes, and their subtitled dialogue was drab as could be. (“How many moons does our planet have?” “Seven.”) The film’s niftiest aesthetic conceit — that we were seeing the story past-tense in the form of a documentary — got abandoned the second it no longer served the director’s expository purposes; yet the film clung to its drab TV news look and shaky camera work anyway, presumably to make comparatively cheap effects look somewhat less hokey. The movie’s more of a videogame-influenced, junkyard-chic action quickie than a visionary masterwork made on the cheap: a 112-minute version of something like this. “Avatar” was conceptually thin, too, but at least had fearsome classical filmmaking chops and a touch of pulpy wonder (there’s no image in “District 9″ a tenth as beguiling as those floating mountains). If you’re in the mood for a lo-fi science fiction picture with the courage of its own audacity, I recommend “They Live!,” “Primer,” or another 2009 release, Duncan Jones’ “Moon.”
“Pulp Fiction” (1994)
Quentin Tarantino’s second film might mark the point at which American cinema, which was still stuck aesthetically and psychologically in the ’80s, leaped into the ’90s with steel-toed boots. The movie is hellaciously entertaining, structurally ingenious, and packed with great songs and musically inventive dialogue. It’s outlaw art produced within the commercial system — no small feat — and its countless, inferior imitators should not be held against it. But really, when’s the last time you watched the whole movie all the way through and gave every second your full attention? Yes, much of “Pulp Fiction” is riveting (even if you find Tarantino too glib, sadistic and distractingly aware of his own influences). And the big set pieces (the Ezekiel speech, the gold watch monologue, Mia and Vincent’s date from hell, the hillbilly dungeon sequence, the final scene in the coffee shop) are brilliant. But for a newly minted consensus classic, this movie sure has a lot of flimsy, misjudged, unnecessary or unfortunate moments: the whole “Boootch, what does it feel like to keel a man?” scene in the cab; the potbelly conversation, which is charming but shapeless; Tarantino’s amateurish cameo, where he repeats the N-word over and over for no discernible reason (except perhaps to one-up Martin Scorsese’s racially charged monologue from “Taxi Driver”), and the rather thin and tedious cleaning-the-blood-out-of-the-car sequence, which oversells the complexity of what Mr. Wolf is asking the boys to do. (Did Vincent and Jules really need a mysterious expert to tell them to clean all the blood out of the vehicle and put clean blankets on the seats? They are professional assassins, are they not?) “Pulp Fiction” has greatness in it, but I wouldn’t call it a great film. In fact I’d place it fourth in Tarantino’s pantheon, with “Jackie Brown” at No. 3, “Reservoir Dogs” at No. 2, and “Inglourious Basterds” –the director’s most original, controlled, daring work — at No. 1.
Hmmm … Toss a basket of kittens off a cliff, or nitpick “Shane”? Let’s go with Option 2. Director George Stevens’ western is as impeccably assembled as the rest of his output: every shot, cut and music cue arranged as perfectly as Alan Ladd’s swept-back blond locks. Few ’50s films make bolder compositional use of mountains and sky or arrange tiny human figures more strikingly against them. Ladd cuts a suitably dashing figure as Shane; as Joe and Marian Starrett, the endangered homesteaders Shane protects, Van Heflin and Jean Arthur nail the required salt-of-the-earth vibe, and smuggle in some humanizing touches with the furtive deftness of kids sneaking bubblegum and baseball cards into church; Brandon de Wilde’s little Joey Starrett is an insufferable chirpy, wide-eyed worshipper, but the postwar era featured so many child characters in this vein that it seems churlish to complain too loudly. So what’s my problem with “Shane”? Maybe its that A.B. Guthrie’s screenplay replicates a simplistic, pretentious, straining-after-timelessness novella so slavishly, adding but a handful of tentative tweaks — including a slightly more obvious flirtation between Shane and Marian, a long, violent dustup between Shane and Joe, and the most graphic death-by-gunfire yet seen on American screens: Elisha Cook Jr.’s ex-Confederate soldier “Stonewall” Torrey getting blasted off his feet by Jack Palance’s assassin. At times “Shane” feels more like an audio-animatronic diorama based on American mythology than a living, breathing story. And unfortunately, both this film and another beloved early ’50s western morality play, “High Noon,” mark the point where the American studio system started treating Western tropes not as disreputable genre elements from which vital pop art could emerge, but panels in a stained-glass mosaic representing Our National Myth. The saloon in “Shane” isn’t a saloon, it’s The Saloon; the Starretts’ homestead is The Homestead; the final standoff isn’t a gunfight, it’s The Duel. Among self-consciously mythic westerns, I prefer John Ford’s “My Darling Clementine” and Sergio Leone’s horse operas. Even Clint Eastwood’s bald-faced 1985 “Shane” rip-off, “Pale Rider,” which blends the Ladd and Palance characters into a holy/unholy angel-of-death figure, is livelier and more complicated. The worlds in those films are just as ostentatiously symbolic as Stevens’, but they feel more lived-in, and you can imagine their main characters existing when the cameras aren’t rolling. For all its visual beauty, “Shane” strikes me as more a monument than a movie. It’s an example of a director trying to will a masterpiece into creation and squeezing the juice out of it.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962)
“To Kill a Mockingbird” is a very good film, and as transcriptions of beloved novels go, it’s damn near perfect. My problem is the way this movie (and its source novel) make the heroes so pure, the villains so irredeemably craven and nasty, and the moral lessons so tidy. Atticus Finch is the nicest man who ever lived. Accused rapist Tom Robinson is innocent of all charges, including the implication that a black man could be turned on by the likes of his accuser, the gangly, shrewish, redneck slut Mayella Ewell. Mayella’s dad, Bob Ewell — who beat Mayella and concocted the phony rape and battery charges to save face — is a racist pig, a step up from the hillbillies in “Deliverance.” Granted, this same wrongful-persecution gambit happened quite often in America until fairly recently, and it often resolved itself with the wrongly accused swinging from somebody’s rope, and schoolchildren need to know about it. And yes, poor Tom Robinson does get a raw deal at the hands of Maycomb County, Alabama, and Atticus’ defeat-as-moral-victory has a slightly bitter aftertaste. But think about how Lee’s universe contorts itself to ensure that the wicked are punished anyway (Halloween costume; knife), suggesting that there’s a higher law that will eventually hold everyone accountable (a fine lesson if you’re devout, but what if you’re not?). And think about the problematic movie tradition that this film fits into — a tradition of all-things-to-all-people liberal message pictures that stretch from “Gentleman’s Agreement” through “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” and “Philadelphia” and beyond. What those stories and “Mockingbird” have in common is a tendency to boil morally and politically complex scenarios down to the same counterproductive message: Don’t be a bigot, because the person you’re being bigoted toward might turn out to be a saint. That’s an OK message insofar as it goes, but I’m partial to a principle that Hollywood films rarely endorse: Everyone should be treated with dignity and given certain basic rights, including the people you hate.
“Gran Torino” (2008)
Clint Eastwood’s geriatric gloss on his cranky badass persona was one of the star’s biggest hits, grossing over $300 million worldwide, and critics reflexively treated it as an auteurist statement, a film worth taking seriously as popular art whether they enjoyed it or not. I’d agree with that — but only to a point. Eastwood has been around so long and has toyed with his image in so many fascinating ways that we can’t help but be interested whenever he does it again. And to be fair, this movie about Walt Kowalski — a widowed Polish-American retiree defending Hmong neighbors against local gangbangers — has a surprising, effective ending. And Eastwood’s performance is deeply felt and exquisitely modulated, maybe one of his very best. But in the minus column, “Gran Torino” is a lumpy, unfocused movie with mostly wooden supporting performances and only one fully rounded character, Eastwood’s leathery hero. It panders to Eastwood fans in much the same way that John Wayne’s post-’True Grit” films pandered to the Duke’s audience, by wildly overselling an elderly star’s physical prowess (wouldn’t a guy as old as Walt throw his back out administering a Scorsese-style beatdown on to a thug one-fifth his age?). There are way too many cringeworthy, spell-it-all-out lines (“I have more in common with these gooks than I do with my own family!”). And politically, the film tries to eat its cake and have it, too, chastising the hero for his racist language and posturing while framing each new colorful slur as a crowd-pleasing, “That old dude is crazy!” moment. (If Walt’s neighbors were black or Mexican, and he described them in similarly harsh terms, would the film have been received with such affection?) Yes, “Gran Torino” is intriguing in light of the star’s fascination with emotionally damaged loners slowly rejoining civilization. That image fascinates me, too. But I’d rather watch his masterpiece “The Outlaw Josey Wales” 10 more times than sit through “Gran Torino” again.
“All About Eve” (1950)
Writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Oscar-winning drama about an ambitious newcomer usurping an established Broadway star is a masterpiece of screen storytelling and one of the most quotable movies ever made. And it’s just about perfectly cast, from its leads (Bette Davis’ boozy diva Margot Channing) on down through its supporting players (George Sanders’ serpent-tongued gossip columnist Addison DeWitt) and its walk-on scene-stealers (including a young Marilyn Monroe as — what else? — a wide-eyed sexpot). The only weak spot, unfortunately, is the casting of the title character, Eve Harrington. Anne Baxter is a shade too old to be playing the “girl” or “kid” described in much of the dialogue (she was 26 when the film was shot), and more damagingly, she’s simply not as compelling and imaginative as her fellow actors. Where Davis, Sanders and the rest manage to make Mankiewicz’s florid, lit’ry dialogue sound like spontaneous banter, Baxter always seems to be reciting lines. And she can come up with only one way to fake sincerity — by delivering poignant anecdotes in a breathy voice while staring mournfully into the distance. I don’t believe that Baxter’s version of the dewy-eyed foundling routine could fool so many battle-scarred showbiz veterans, except maybe Celeste Holm’s kindhearted Karen. (Mankiewicz evidently had doubts, too. Note that in a movie filled with long, complex monologues delivered in otherwise naturalistic situations, he makes sure to help Baxter’s heart-tugging speeches along with wistful music cues.) Don’t misunderstand: I adore this movie. I’ve probably watched it 20 times; I saw it again on a big screen at Lincoln Center this past weekend. But every time I see it, I have to make up my mind to believe in Baxter’s performance, because if I don’t, the film doesn’t work. None of the other actors require such an indulgence.
“The Godfather” (1972) and “The Godfather, Part II” (1974)
The original “The Godfather” is as elegantly directed and compulsively watchable a film as Hollywood has ever produced. “The Godfather, Part II” is one of the few sequels to a beloved hit that matches (and in some ways improves upon) its predecessor. (I’m not mentioning “Part III” because … agggh. Don’t get me started.) When the first two “Godfather” films are on cable I can’t help but get sucked in, even when the content is butchered by network censors, and some individual sequences (the long close-up of Michael deciding to have Capt. McCluskey killed; the baptism/massacre sequence; the Little Italy flashbacks; the fall of Havana) are astonishingly rich, practically little films in themselves. But I’ve always been skeptical of claims that these two movies are great and complex works of art as well as seductive pieces of entertainment, because in ways large and small, they cheat to make sure you identify with their gangster protagonists, the Corleones. In the first film, the family never causes the death of anyone not directly connected to the criminal underworld — even by accident. (The one cop shot on-screen is a police captain who’s on another family’s payroll.) Accused betrayers are never innocent; when they end up getting shot through the eye or being strangled to death in a car, there’s always good reason. Family patriarch Vito Corleone is a sweet man who loves children and cats, dotes on his wife, and refuses to deal in narcotics. “Part II” addresses the stacked-deck complaint by showing the collateral damage of gangsterism, but the dramatic through-line that joins the two films doesn’t pass the smell test. We’re supposed to believe that in the familial/corporate evolution from Vito to Michael some fine human quality was lost and that Michael expands the family’s scope at the cost of his own soul. But why is killing a conniving brother some kind of cosmic final straw, and a clearly greater sin than, say, ordering the execution of your sister’s husband? And why do we take the film’s word for it that Don Vito was a markedly better man than Michael? Because he smiled a little bit when people asked him for favors? Because he did the orange mouth? (I bet if you totaled up the number of people these men ordered killed, they’d be neck-and-neck for a New York Mass Murderer of the Century trophy.) And the film’s near-total lack of interest in its women characters (has there ever been a more thankless lead female role in a classic film than Kay?) can’t totally be explained on grounds that the movie is set in a sexist universe; Martin Scorsese’s gangster pictures are set in similarly Neanderthal-esque universes, yet his women have a lot more eccentric life. Again, I love watching these films, but if I had to name a greater gangster movie, I might have to go with Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” or Brian De Palma’s “Scarface,” both of which are more upfront about what they’re showing you and why.
Every Friday, Salon writer Matt Zoller Seitz sifts through beloved classics and obscure indies for a slide show that sheds light on the hidden connections and most fascinating moments in film and TV history.