Monday, November 12, 2012

Winning Your Wings

Since it's Veteran's Day weekend, I thought I'd share this. The film is called Winning Your Wings. Made in 1942, it was directed by John Huston and is essentially James Stewart telling the audience to join the Air Force. It's classic American propaganda.

What's striking is you can see the ways the film attempts to manipulate it's viewers. Clearly the target audience is men in their late teens to their mid-twenties, and so how do you go about winning them over? Well, you make them feel special. Stewart talks right to the audience, as if he's addressing you. Yes - You! And don't forget about all the pretty ladies you'll woo with your air force pin. 

But what sets Winning Your Wings aside is that it's a fantastic film in it's own right. The cinematography is phenomenal, particularly the flight choreography. There's one shot in particular near the end where lines of planes appear out of the fog. It's mesmerizing - like T.E. Lawrence emerging from the desert.

The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary, and frankly, it deserved the nod. It may be have been a recruitment tool, but it's engaging and enjoyable nonetheless. The way the in-the-air shots are framed, the way eager young cadets are so effectively painted as heroes, the way Stewart breaks down at the end into a flurry of rage. Plus, you've got to love the way the filling station attendant reacts when Stewart tells him he "could grow wings any minute."

Monday, November 5, 2012

Some Thoughts On The Grey

At its surface, The Grey appears to be a simple tale of Man vs. Nature. But in actuality, it is a tale of Man vs. Self. It is about Ottoway’s struggle to survive, or whether he should he even try to survive. 

We begin by seeing him with a shotgun in his mouth. And we end by seeing him with broken bottles of whiskey in his fists.

The wolves are harbingers of death. An unstoppable force than can be staved off, but is ultimately inevitable. They are Grim Reapers, who with their mere touch cause men to die where they stand. And they are collectors, who harvest the body and souls of those who falter along the way.

There is a recurring poem:

Once more into the fray
Into the last good fight I’ll ever know
Live and die on this day
Live and die on this day

I think more of Dickinson:

Because I could not stop for Death
He kindly stopped for me
The carriage held but just ourselves
And immortality

When Ottoway yells to the sky demanding something real, something tangible, there is silence. But is there already something real? Are the wolves that sign, that tool of God? A symbol of the destructiveness of God and nature itself? He giveth and he taketh away.

There may be no way to outrun death, but it is up to the man whether he tries. 

Monday, May 28, 2012

200 Motels

Aside from his hardcore fans, most people are likely unaware of Frank Zappa’s dabbling in film. In the early 1970’s, he teamed up with director Tony Palmer to produce a film that would show what happens to a band after they’ve been on tour for too long. What came out of that collaboration is a cacophony of rainbow nightmares and incomprehensible skits.

200 Motels stars Zappa’s backing band, The Mothers of Invention, playing versions of themselves as they go stir crazy in a small town named Centerville, desperately trying to get laid and/or drunk (or as they put it, trying to find that magic elixir).

On top of that, it also features Theodore Bikel as Rance Muhammitz, a man who has “many names” and might also be Satan, Keith Moon of The Who as a groupie dressed like the Flying Nun, and Ringo Starr as Larry the Large Dwarf who spends his time impersonating Frank Zappa.

Zappa himself only appears in the film a few times, never speaking or singing. However, the band members do believe he’s an omnipresent figure who is always watching them through an empty beer bottle.

The actual narrative of the film is made up of various skits, which look like they were shot after hours on the set of a PBS kids show, live concert footage, and general freak outs where deciphering what is happening is pretty much impossible. Nothing makes sense. The combination of screeching music and screeching visuals are enough to induce a migraine. It’s like something out of Videodrome


It manages to keep that visual style up throughout the whole thing. This works at times, but after awhile it wears out its welcome.

Most bizarre head trip films tend to give the audience something to hold on to while watching it, like a floating piece of the wreckage after the ship sinks. That stray sense of relatable normality or recognizable narrative that makes the movie accessible despite its psychedelic nature. 200 Motels has barely anything resembling that. The entire time you’re wildly grabbing at the air trying not to drown in its absolute chaos.

Despite frenzied visuals and bizarre storylines, films like Hausu or The Holy Mountain work because they give you relatable characters and create a world full of images that are at least comprehensible. 200 Motels is what happens if you throw spin art in a blender.

It’s not all bad though. There’s many times where the film does manage to work, even if only for a scene or two before getting lost again. The concert sequences are highlights, and are really when the visual style works the best. There’s also a really funny animated bit halfway through about a guy trying to get drunk and high, delivered to the audience under the guise of a dental hygiene cartoon.

If the screenshots intrigued you, then 200 Motels is certainly worth a look. But don’t expect any sort of masterpiece, or any sort of plot for that matter.

200 Motels is currently available to watch on Netflix Instant. A DVD exists but it appears to be a collector’s item.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Breeding the Super Soldier: Captain America as a Propaganda Piece

In all likelihood I’m not the first person to realize and write about this (after all the film has been out for almost a year now) but Captain America: The First Avenger is military propaganda at its finest. It seems that in recent years a New Wave of propaganda films has begun. Blockbuster films like G.I. Joe and Act of Valor, which glorify the American military, are becoming more and more commonplace, and Captain America is just another helping of militaristic, patriotism-inducing images.

I really shouldn’t be surprised that a movie about a man who is dressed in the American flag is being used to glorify the military, but at the same time I am. I like Captain America as a character, but I’ve always been more interested in him as a conflicted hero. Someone who stands for everything America is supposed to stand for - all those ideals fed to him by Fourth of July parades and the Pledge of Allegiance, but is then forced deal with the reality of an oppressive and corrupt government that has bastardized the stars and stripes and no longer represents the morals that it once stood for.

Captain America: The First Avenger is instead ripped right from a 1940s war serial. It returns the character to his original time and once again utilizes him for the exact reason he was manufactured in the first place – to instill in young children a strong pro-America, pro-military mindset.

Captain America feels like it wouldn’t be out of place in a World War II era movie theater, being played right after the newsreel telling audiences about whatever military victory happened that week. The entire film is soaked in propaganda. In fact, what impresses me the most is the movie’s earnestness. It knows it’s a piece of propaganda, and in a post-modern musical montage, the character within the film becomes a propaganda piece himself.

In the film, he travels with a troupe of showgirls performing a song and dance bit while encouraging his audience to buy war bonds. So within a film designed to win the hearts and minds of young Americans, Captain America is being used to win the hearts and minds of fictional young Americans.

This acknowledgment of the movie’s doctrine is taken even further by the filmmakers. After the final scene, what is the first image flashed across the screen, even before the “Directed by” credits appear? Uncle Sam saying “I Want You”. The credits sequence may very well be the most important part of the film; it’s made up of authentic American propaganda posters from the war. It’s almost as if the movie is telling us, don’t think of this as a film, think of this as a recruitment tool.

But ultimately, what drives the pro-American message home is how unbelievably pure and relatable Steve Rogers, the man who becomes Captain America, is. Anybody who has ever felt weak or bullied will see themselves in him. But in addition to the meek little figure that he is, he may very well be the most cartoonishly noble man to ever walk the Earth. He stands up for what he believes in no matter what the consequences, he’s kind, likeable, and he’s even willing to die for his country. Hell, for the first half an hour of the film his only real character trait is that he wants to join the military. So what is the message to little kids? If you want to emulate Captain America, you need to join the Army.

And, if you do enlist, you’ll no longer be small and defenseless. When he reunites with his best friend Bucky, Bucky is amazed at Steve’s physique. He asks him “What happened to you?” Captain America’s response? “I joined the Army”.

It should be noted that, in a manner befitting of propaganda films, the horror of battle is casually glanced over in order to glorify America’s superior strength and nobility. Death isn’t depicted as particularly gruesome or painful – instead, thanks to sci-fi energy weapons, it’s just a quick disintegration and it’s done with. There’s no suffering in Marvel’s World War II. During several battle sequences, disposable American soldiers run into combat with the evil HYDRA’s enemy troops. But while the camera focuses on Captain America taking out enemy henchmen, soldiers are consistently killed in the background. They’re hit a by a blue laser, then they’re gone. That’s it. No blood, no agony. Just a split second of screaming and it’s done with.

These background soldiers are nothing. Nobody in the movie pays attention to the men dying around them. Nobody mourns the loss of fellow soldiers after the battle. The film can’t ignore that death during war is inevitable, so it instead downplays it. It makes it something that just sort of happens in the background while everyone in the audiences projects themselves onto Captain America. Captain America isn’t the nameless extra who’s shot, killed and then forgotten, he’s the one riding a cool motorcycle and bashing people’s faces in with a shield.

It had potential. It really did. It could have been a deep satire of old jingoistic war films that tried to rally everyone into the American Bandwagon. Instead it proudly joins their ranks, bringing old time conservative ideals to modern audiences. Should you think independently? Not according to Captain America: The First Avenger. When the Red Skull tells Cap that his reign will be a world without flags, the good Captain tells him it’s not a world he’d want to live in. So join the Army and die for your flag. It’s all that Steve Rogers wanted to do with his life, why shouldn’t it be what you want too?

I wouldn’t let a child watch this movie. It would be dangerous to their development.

Monday, March 19, 2012

On Old Hollywood, Nostalgia, and Sunset Boulevard

“It isn't necessary to imagine the world ending in fire or ice. There are two other possibilities: one is paperwork, and the other is nostalgia.” – Frank Zappa

“I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.” – Norma Desmond

Upon first seeing Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, Louis B. Mayer, then head of MGM studios, screamed at Wilder for attacking the town that made him who he is (to which he simply responded “Fuck you”). But while Wilder prospered in Hollywood, going on to be remembered as one of the greatest directors of all time, Sunset Boulevard isn’t about himself, it is about paying respects to the former giants who built the city, but were then tossed aside and forgotten.

There is no question that Hollywood is a brutal town, with everybody only using everybody else to further their own careers. It’s like that today, and it was like that in the fifties. If you’re not profitable you’re out, and what’s profitable changes every year. The people who keep up with the times stay afloat, but those who don’t are likely to vanish amongst the thousands of other nobodies. And there begins the tale of Sunset Boulevard’s has-been superstar Norma Desmond (played by silent film veteran Gloria Swanson).

As William Holden’s chillingly blunt narration informs us, Norma used to be the queen of Hollywood. She was the superstar everyone wanted a piece of, receiving thousands of fan letters a day and working with only the greatest directors in the business. But by the time Sunset Boulevard takes place that was over twenty years ago, and the present day is 1950. Silent film is dead, and the idea of a “Talkie” is no longer a novelty, but the standard. She spends her days by herself brooding over how today’s movies don’t have the same heart as when she was acting, trying desperately to hold on to her former celebrity. Even if you sympathize with the character, it’s hard to not admit that she is, when all is said and done, pathetic. Her living room is adorned with photos of herself from her glory days, and she is more than happy to spend her afternoon watching an old silent film – starring her. Norma is forever stagnant, slowly deteriorating in her home while the world moves on without her.

Following Norma, Sunset Boulevard becomes a cautionary tale against the notion of living in the past, a word to the wise about the destructive power of nostalgia. She is someone who refuses change, leaving her a hollow shell of a woman. She is starved for the attention that she used to be able to feast on, and now she can’t accept a world where she doesn’t have this. She had it in the 1920s, so that is where she’d rather live.

But as the film shows, this is impossible. As I said before, Hollywood is not a nurturing entity. It will leave you behind, and it is up to you to keep up with it. Norma was so used to being on top, she never considered that she could have it all swept out from under her feet.

Wilder’s choice to have Cecil B. DeMille appear as himself serves as a vibrant contrast against Norma. DeMille began his career as a director during the silent era, making over fifty shorts and features between 1914 and 1929. Like Norma, he easily could have been left behind when sound entered pictures, still trying to pump out silent flicks that no one wanted to see. But instead he embraced this new technology and went on to make some of his most memorable films. He never held onto the past, and as a result he achieves success. He ensures his legend lives on, while youngsters have only heard of Norma Desmond in passing.

Wilder is careful to make it clear that he doesn’t dislike the past. In fact, he makes apparent that he loves this bygone era. Just as Norma’s old coworkers flock to admire her when she crashes DeMille’s set, Wilder has the utmost respect for the classic masters like Erich von Stroheim and Gloria Swanson. But he accepts that this period of Hollywood only exists as history now. As Joe Gillis (played by William Holden) tells Norma, “There's nothing tragic about being fifty, not unless you try to be twenty-five.”

Nostalgia is a powerful and if unchecked, an unforgiving force. There may be nothing wrong with looking back fondly on an old photo album, but when you try and keep things from moving forward things become stagnant. Norma lives in a house lost in time, forever stuck in 1925. It’s just as how we today can still watch a film like Sunset Boulevard, and for that hour and a half be back in 1950. But if we stop living in reality, and pretend that it’s 1950 all the time, we’ll find ourselves alone and living in a fantasy world.