Are Old Movies Worth Watching?

I was recently asked this question in one of my film classes. There were a variety of answers: for historical purposes, as relics, to romanticize the past…but I love watching old movies for a different reason. Sometimes less is more.

In older films, such as those from the 50’s, you have to analyze the scene in order to figure out what is going on. Because of the production code and moral values back then, they had to use symobls to communicate certain acts, such as sex. The meaning is hidden and you have to search for it.

Of course, there are plenty of films that do this now. Obviously I still analyze and read them, or else I wouldn’t write about so many on my blog. But there are many mainstream films that leave little to be interpreted. And by that I mean they are too on the nose. They are too obvious. Everything is on the surface.

I love watching older films, like the old 3:10 to Yuma, and trying to figure out the message. The remake, however, changes the meaning of the film by making Dan Evan’s weakness too apparent. He is disabled with a bum leg. In the original, he was not a veteran who had been injured. He was just bad at trying to get Ben Wade on the train. My point is, older movies showed less a lot of the time and we weren’t given everything, which is sometimes more impactful.

I also love old films because I’m watching them from a completely different perspective than the audience it was meant for. Watching Citizen Kane in 2016 has a much different effect than it had in 1941. You can’t do that with current films. I have a different kind of appreciation for old films because of the time period I live in. It’s amazing to see what directors could do without the technology we have now.

Watching old films gives me a greater appreciation for filmmaking. Seeing these films helps me understand the way people from a different decade thought about and executed films. The writing has to be more complicated and intricate to get around the production code and to avoid inappropriate material for audiences. They also help me understand some of the “cliché” plots we run into constantly now. At one point, these plots were original, as well as camera techniques we are used to. Quentin Tarantino made Django Unchained , which was heavily influenced by old spaghetti western’s such as A Fistful of Dollars.

I suppose what I am trying to say is that classic films are worth watching because filmmaking was still fairly new, and there were innovative and new techniques directors were trying. The way they told stories was unique and interesting. It’s something different to watch compared to the repeated action films that are released now.

Like I said earlier, there are still films that create new techniques and have interesting writing. But I’d rather watch Double Indemnity than the new Pirates of the Caribbean coming out, that’s for sure.

-B

Johnny Guitar (1954)- Feminist or Antifeminist?

Johnny Guitar is the first western I have watched with a strong female protagonist that acts in a dominating and powerful way. She is featured on more posters for the film than the character the film is named after, Johnny. However, I found myself questioning how strong the character actually is, and whether or not the film presents a feminist viewpoint or not.

On the surface, I suppose it does. Joan Crawford portrays Vienna as a headstrong, resilient, and hardworking woman—all masculine traits. Her costuming is like what a male Western hero would wear. She is often seen sporting pants and a collared shirt, and has a gun on her. Her hair is short and conservative. When we first see her, she is towering above the men in her saloon and we hear them complaining about working for a woman. She is still in charge, none the less, and doesn’t let this criticism get to her. She has two men vying for her affections, rather than two women vying for a man’s affection. This is all progressive for the Western genre.

If you look deeper, though, you begin to see the cracks in the masculine, empowered view of this character. Both her and Emma, the villain of this film, are stereotypes even though they are powerful. Vienna is punished for her dominant ways. The entire town is after her, with very little evidence of any criminal activity. Emma leads this witch hunt, representing the woman who is jealous of another woman’s power, control, and sexuality. She resents Vienna’s freedom, a result of resisting traditional feminine gender roles. The men follow her lead without question because they demonize Vienna for being an empowered female. They attempt to kill a woman in a position of authority and destroy all she has worked hard for, symbolically representing the fear of powerful, successful women. Emma, the other women with a position of authority, is shot and killed. Regardless of how the women are punished, the point is that both women in the film are treated terribly because of their positions of power. The underlying message of Johnny Guitar is that powerful women are dangerous.

The film also ends on a romantic note, regardless of the fact that Vienna has lost everything. One of her closest friends was shot, her business burned, and she was almost hung and then shot. But all that matters is that she found love again (eye roll). This movie is progressive because it places women in traditionally male roles, but it still stereotypes these women and ultimately ends with Vienna as lesser than the male characters around her.

She has lost everything and is back to fulfilling the role that women are meant to play—the lover.  The film allows women to be empowered temporarily, just not too empowered to the point they surpass all the male characters in the end.

-B

Masculinity in Red River (1948)

The name John Wayne immediately evokes images of a tough, American Western hero. His character’s ooze testosterone and are considered by some the epitome of manhood. The 1948 Western Red River is a tale of masculinity that attempts to critique certain tropes of the Western genre. As I watched it I noticed a few things that represented this idea and thought I would share a few of them.

Wayne plays Tom Dunson, a rough and tough cowboy, headstrong and possessing big dreams. Montgomery Clift plays his adopted son, Matthew Garth, who wants to live up to his father’s expectations but is more softhearted than his elder. Throughout the film, Garth struggles to fulfill his father’s dream of driving cattle north to Missouri and it results in a tale of masculine power.

In one scene in particular, two men symbolically compare their masculinity. In what could also be read as homoerotic subtext, Garth and Cherry Valance compare their guns. Guns are a traditionally phallic symbol. By comparing their “guns”, they are measuring each other’s levels of toughness and strength.

As the film goes on, Dunson grows more irritable, cruel, and violent in his leadership role. This equates extreme masculine power to violence. When he exerts control, it usually involves him shooting, whipping, or wanting to hang someone. When someone disagrees with him, he sees this as threatening to his masculine control and lashes out. He sees his son as being weak, by showing a heart. Garth stops Dunson from killing men multiple times, and is essentially seen as less dominant because of it. When he finally “man’s up” and takes control of the cattle, his father threatens to kill him in order to feel less emasculated for losing his control of the group.

Later on in the film, Garth meets Tess Millay, played by Joanne Dru. She illustrates and interesting take on masculine/feminine roles. When we first see her, it is in the middle of a battle with Native Americans, and rather than cowering and screaming, she is shown shooting a gun. Even after she is shot, she doesn’t immediately faint. She manages to slap Garth in the face first. As I said early, violence can be equated to masculinity, and by shooting a gun and hitting him in the face she takes on masculine characteristics.

Millay is continuously shown taking on masculine characteristics, as well as holding on to her femininity in her way of dress and the romantic subplot involving Garth. Her character is mainly driven by love, but she isn’t a damsel. She is actually the driving character of the ending.

In the final “showdown” between Dunson and Garth, the typical masculine tropes of the Western genre are subverted. Dunson shows up to follow through with his threat to kill Garth, which would cause him to resume a dominant, masculine role. Garth, however, refuses to use his gun. Dunson is frustrated with this act, and throws both his gun and his son’s gun away, castrating himself and his son of their manhood (remember early the comparison of the guns as a way of comparing manhood). They result to a fist fight.  Millay finally steps in, the only person holding a gun. This gives her control of the scene as she is holding the phallic object. She uses this masculine form of control to speak about how ridiculous their battle for masculinity is in the first place. Not only does she illustrate the stubbornness of the battle over manhood, she also speaks about a man loving another man. She symbolizes both femininity and masculinity in that moment, holding control over the scene but also expressing love.

Red River comments on the traditional ideas of masculinity in Western film that helped perpetuate myths of the American West.

-B

 

Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Terror of the Mind

I’ll admit, I was skeptical about watching the 1974 film Texas Chainsaw Massacre directed by Tobe Hooper for the first time. But after viewing it, I found it holds up better than most horror films from the past decade.

The film was revolutionary to the horror genre. Taking the classic Hitchcock film Psycho and expanding upon it in a new way, Texas Chainsaw Massacre helped define what we know now as the slasher film. Hooper’s movie is vile, disturbing, and wreaks havoc on the psyche of audience members. With little to no gore, the focus of terror is purely based on the viewers mind. We don’t see a close up of the chainsaw digging into poor Franklin’s chest–our mind does the work for us. What we can imagine is far worse than what Hooper could have portrayed on screen. It makes all out gory films seem lazy and lackluster, relying on visible and tangible disgust rather than psychological terror.

The viewers find themselves thrust into a story of disillusionment and straight up insanity, and they feel every bit of it along with the characters. The simple images evoke so much distress, such as the family of killers eating dinner in front of Sally, which is presumably her deceased friend, Pam. The décor of the house is enough to revulsion and dread, as we hear the crunching of bones on the floor and see the severed arms of human beings tied onto chairs. It’s completely sadistic and absolutely repugnant, but the cinematography is expertly crafted to provide a dizzying contrast to the dark subject matter.

The famous scene from the film is the ending, as Leatherface performs a sort of sick, twisted ballet as he holds the chainsaw over his head. The sun provides a soft, typically romantic lighting on a disgusting and nauseating, aiding the disorientation viewers have felt the entire film. Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a gorgeous movie about an inbred, cannibalistic family that brutally murders a group teenagers. That last shot represents the films conflicting beauty and horror, which leaves the audience with a haunting feeling of discomfort, but also satisfaction.

I’d like to see a horror movie from the last two decades wreak that much psychological terror on an audience while simultaneously looking aesthetically gorgeous.

-B

Review: Night of the Hunter (1955)

5 stars

Robert Mitchum as a scary serial killer? I’m in

Chris Laughton’s final and only film as a director, Night of the Hunter, is a compelling and creepy tale of a religious psychopath that pretends to play a family man. It’s an interesting film to be classified as classic film noir, but its expressionist lighting and dark themes narrowly place it into the genre/style.

Mitchum plays an evangelist madman, Powell, whom while in prison, hears about a now fatherless family that has a fortune hidden away somewhere. After being released from prison, he seeks the family out and marries the prior widow. The true stars of the film are John (Billy Chaplin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce), the step-kids of Powell. The entire film is viewed from their innocent eyes and we watch as that innocence begins to fade away as they become the target of Powell’s insanity. They are exposed to an adult world of greed and violence much too young.

Every frame in the film is carefully crafted. The most memorable shot in the movie is that of the deceased mother at the bottom of the river. Cinematographer Stanley Cortez masterfully crafted the haunting image of her hair floating along with the seaweed at the wheel of a car. Throughout the film, his cinematography contributes to the frightening feeling the viewer feels. The basement scene when the kids are attempting to hide from Powell, the children floating down the river, Powell’s silhouette as he sings on his horse. The low-key lighting aids to the mystery and keeps audiences on the edge of their seat.

A terrible twisted version of a child’s tale, the film resonates with horror. The film is dated, but as an adult watching from 2016 I still felt a chill while watching. Mitchum portrays a terrifying figure, menacing and memorable. His singing will haunt my nightmares. Chaplin puts on a performance that is both empathetic and heartbreaking, much better than many child actors I have experienced. Night of the Hunter is an unnerving masterpiece that current horror and thriller movies could learn a thing or two from. Take notes, filmmakers.

-B

What is up with the sexist dudes in film noir?

I love classic film noir. I find the paranoia and post-war culture than inspired them intriguing. Half of that reason is because of the domestic anxiety that was occurring because it was a post-war America. During World War II, women had to take over roles that men typically would have held. When the men came back home, they weren’t too happy about it.

I think that’s why so many of the male character’s in the films strike me as sexist jerks. I recently watched the 1955 film The Big Combo, and the entire movie I was rooting against both the male antagonist and male protagonist. The only character I was really rooting for was Susan, the woman that both men were trying to use for both sexual and career-driven gain. In the film, Brown, a gangster, continuously told Susan what to listen to, what to wear, and forcefully kisses her multiple times against her will. Our anti-hero, Diamond, didn’t treat her much better. After lusting for her from afar, he attempts to get closer to her in order to find out information about Brown.

This is a pattern I see occurring in many noir films. The male character sees himself as dominant and continuously degrades the women around him, or simply uses them. Many of the protagonists use pet names, such as baby. When the women try to fight back and assert their own will, the men turn on them and see them as bad. Going back to what I said about post-war America, the way males in film noir treat females represents the gender anxiety and conflicting domestic roles that were occurring in the 40’s and 50’s.

The overwhelming misogyny can be hard to watch, but I find it fascinating when I think about the reason why those characters act the way they do. Film noir is a brilliant kind of genre/style that can be interpreted historically as well as aesthetically. There’s nothing else like it.

 

-B

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

In early 1920, Germany was introduced to what is considered the first horror film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (with Nosferatu a close second). A bit disorienting and incredibly creepy, it’s hard for a modern audience to consider Robert Wiene’s expressionist masterpiece “scary”. However, back in when it was released, the film shocked audiences. Featuring a visually intriguing set full of oblique angles and odd shapes, the film embodied early German expressionism, and resembles any Tim Burton movie you have ever seen.

The film is most remembered for its bizarre look. The set is full of diagonal stairs, jagged angles and shapes, and other crazy distortions. It’s as if the viewer is watching a movie through a mirror at a carnival funhouse. The actors are all decked out in dark, radical makeup, creating a shocking and dramatic look.  The set is just as twisted as the story.

The eerie silent film is about an eccentric man named Dr. Caligari and his zombie-like sleepwalker, Cesare. At a carnival in Germany, Caligari claims his “somnambulist” can see into the future. The predictions are quite ominous and a series of dark events occurs. The plot was extremely intense for 1920 and audiences were shaken and terrified.

If you’re a horror movie fan, or enjoy influential cinema, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a must watch. You may think silent films are boring, but this one just might change your mind.

-B

Sunset Boulevard- Coming Full Circle

Full-circle endings are always fascinating to me.

Sunset Boulevard ends where it begins- with Joe’s dead body floating in the pool.  It isn’t until the moment that Norma fatally shoots him that the audience understands the narrator of the story has been dead the entire time.

On top of that narrative brilliance, Norma goes completely bonkers after that moment (though she was pretty crazy to begin with). We witness her final descent into madness along with a deceased Joe. She loses total control of her reality.

The films end was inevitable. The entire movie has been leading up to Norma’s breakdown. She lives for herself and her fame, so she must end with herself and her fame. She continuously contradicts everything that disagrees with her idea of fame, including the officer’s in the end. She sits looking in the mirror as though she’s preparing for a film.  Norma pretends to be in her fantasy of fame for so long that the illusion becomes her reality.

Sunset Boulevard is about characters that believe their work to be better than it is. Joe is disillusioned because he believes himself to be a great writer, when really his work is just mediocre. Norma is unable to wake from her dream of fame that faded long ago. Both characters couldn’t continue living the way they were because what they were living wasn’t real. That’s why Joe and Norma both meet their demise, one physical and the other mental.

-B

Is There a Citizen Kane of Our Generation?

“What is the Citizen Kane of our generation?”

The answer is that there isn’t one. And there never will be. Citizen Kane is timeless.

I’ve seen Orson Welles’ groundbreaking classic multiple times, and each time I view it I find something new that strikes me. It changed everything about film. Citizen Kane was way ahead of its time and all movies since it have taken the film ideas and made them their own.

First of all, it was one of the first films to play with narrative structure. The storyline doesn’t follow a chronological order. Told almost entirely in flashback, the movie is presented from different character’s point of view discussing the past. Today we see films do this all the time. Reservoir Dogs, for instance, tells a nonlinear story. In 1941, however, it wasn’t so common.

The deep focus in Citizen Kane was also new and influenced following films. Rather than only having people or objects close to the camera in focus, the foreground and background were in focus. Welles’ film was the first to do this. For example, in the beginning of the film, a young Kane is playing in the background through a window, and his parents are near to the camera. In that frame, everything is clear and in focus. Modern viewers may think nothing of this when they watch it, but it was a big deal at the time.

Another new technique used by Welles was low-angles. Rather than using Hollywood sound stages that had wires and mics hanging above the actors and actresses. Welles decided to build full sets in order to show the ceiling. The camera would angle from the floor up, providing angle audiences had never experienced before.

There are so many other important aspects of the film. I could go into detail for pages. But, my point here is, how could there ever be a “Citizen Kane of our generation?” How could there ever be such an influential, groundbreaking film again?

Some people argue that The Godfather could rival Citizen Kane, but I disagree. How could a film that uses so many techniques from Kane possible rival it? Coppola’s film took so much from Welles’ film. Without Kane, there may not be a Godfather. (That’s probably an exaggeration, a film probably would have come along that played with non-linear stories and aging greatly with makeup.)

What I’m trying to articulate is: you cannot compare a modern film to a classic film that influenced all of the elements the modern one has. There isn’t a film “greater” than Citizen Kane, because without it, the “greater” film wouldn’t exist.

-B

Femme Fatale & Noir Anti-Hero in Double Indemnity

The 1944 film Double Indemnity is everything that classic film noir could possibly be. It has venetian blinds, hats and coats, pouring rain, and, of course, crime.

Two of the biggest noir elements in Double Indemnity are the femme fatale and anti-hero.

Phyllis embodies the classic femme fatale. She’s seductive, manipulative, and morally ambiguous. Throughout the film, it’s hard to know whether she is to be trusted or not.  From the moment we see Phyllis’s character it is obvious she’s meant to be the femme fatale. In the first glimpse the audience gets, she is undressed. The entire introduction between Phyllis and Walter is sexy and flirtatious. She is both seductive and powerful in the way she speaks to him. The scene perfectly captures her dominance as well as her charm.  Of course, Phyllis is basically the downfall of our protagonist, a frequent plot point in film noir associated with the femme fatale.

Walter is the classic hardened anti-hero led astray by his lust for the female figure. His costuming consists of a long coat and a hat that frequently casts a shadow over his face. He speaks in a quick manner, always wanting to get straight to the point. Walter shows a remarkable verbal wit, illustrated in many noir protagonists. He shows off his street-smarts by gathering information from different sources, like Keyes and Lola. He narrates most of the film, telling his tale of desperation and paranoia, two key themes that dominate noir films. In the end, Walter’s world is full of corruption and crime, and he is too tangled in it to come out.

Double Indemnity is a perfect example of the world of film noir, as well as a great introduction to the genre/style.

-B