Category Archives: Film

The First Academy Awards

Screen shot 2014-03-02 at 9.43.23 AMIt’s Oscar night here in Hollywood and the town is all a flurry. I have to admit, I get pretty excited myself – the ceremony is right down the street from my house and well, being a Hollywood type and all (snicker), I like to join in the revelry. Naturally, the history of the event interests me. So while many in the rest of the country are lambasting Hollywood for its superficiality and botox injections (by the way folks…you are the ones who flock to the movies and buy the fanzines so shut up. Really…it’s irritating) I’ll offer a just a little on the first ceremony.

The very first Academy Awards ceremony took place at a private dinner in the Blossom Room at the Screen shot 2014-03-02 at 9.44.55 AMRoosevelt Hotel in Hollywood (just a block west from where the ceremony takes place today) in May, 1929. Douglas Fairbanks hosted the event, which honored films made in 1927 and 1928. There were 270 people in attendance and the award presentations lasted just under 15 minutes. Wow…things have certainly changed.

And in case you are interested, the Best Picture nod went to Wings, a 1927 WWI fighter pilot drama starring Clara Bow, Charles Rogers, and Richard Arlen. You can check out the rest of the winners HERE.

With compliments,

Keith

Every Piece of This War is Man’s Bullshit: The Women of Cold Mountain

Screen shot 2014-02-12 at 11.13.12 AMI never miss a Civil War film. Cold Mountain?? I saw it in the theater years ago – and it took me three days to get through it the second time around. You can make what you want from that comment.

But despite my not so subtle thumbs down, I still find this film worth speaking about, simply because I find so many things troubling about it. In other words – expect more than one post about Cold Mountain.

Today – it’s the ladies. I really want to speak about women in this film vis-a-vis Confederate nationalism. All – not some – but ALL of the women in Cold Mountain are outright opposed to the prospect of Confederate independence. I find this particularly odd. Sure, I am willing to concede that some white women in the South opposed the war – or rather – opposed the Confederacy. Of course, this was not the case – not by a long shot.

The film, based on the 1997 best-selling novel of the same title by Charles Frazier, indeed paints an alarmingly one dimensional portrait of the Confederacy’s women – and manages to touch all socio-economic bases in the process. A quick rundown of the three central female characters:

Ada Monroe: a refined, sophisticated, well-to-do daughter of a slave-holding Charleston preacher.

Sally Swanger: neighborhood matriarch and the wife of a middling famer.

Ruby Thewes: abrasive, unsophisticated (yet literate) poor white woman.

All three of these women, despite their vast differences, seem very much in tune with one another when it comes to the prospect of Confederate independence – essentially written off in the beginning of the film as man’s folly. “Did you get a picture made,” Ada asks Inman, the male protagonist, “with your musket and courage on display?” And in the one of the film’s culminating moments (there are several) Ruby sums things up pretty well – “They call this war a cloud over the land – but they made the weather. Then they stand in the rain and say shit it’s raining!”

The truth is that one or all three of these women would have very likely supported independence, even if they had grown weary of war – something the author never develops…but something that was considerably important to a great many women. Yes friends, women may not have had the franchise in the 1860s, but were profoundly involved in the political process. They sent their men to war willingly, and in many cases, insisted their men enlist and fight for the cause. Why you ask? Because they had a stake in a slave-holding (and by the way, patriarchal) society. Independence fit very well within their white southern worldview. Those of you who wish to argue with me on this point may do so in the comments – I admit that I am vastly over-simplifying here.

On one hand the film’s sentiment fits neatly with a scholarly approach suggesting the Confederacy did itself in internally – that precisely because women did not support the war effort (and thus independence) the fighting spirit of the new nation collapsed. Authors such as Drew Gilpin Faust and others have offered such analytical conclusions.

But – even a cursory look at the letters and diaries written by women during and shortly after the war suggest otherwise. Many were very much on board with a southern Confederacy and heartbroken when it did not materialize. So…the women in Cold Mountain who pray “the sooner we lose this war, the better” most definitely did not speak for everyone.

With compliments,

Keith

The Worst Film about the Civil War Era. Ever.

Screen shot 2014-01-25 at 10.37.43 AMNot long ago, I discovered that The Conspirator was available on Amazon Instant Video. Huzzah, I thought. I had the house to myself and I figured it was the perfect time to enjoy a Civil War era film.

I made it through twenty minutes and turned it off.

Keep in mind, I have never walked out on or turned off any Civil War film. Ever. And I have sat through Gods and Generals TWICE. Clearly I am committed to Hollywood’s take on this epic historical event. But I just could not stomach this wretched piece of rubbish.

If the first twenty minutes were any indication of things to come in the rest of the film, then I suppose I would have been treated to more over-wrought testaments to “American” jurisprudence – the right to a trial by one’s peers and the notion of innocence before guilt can be established without any element of doubt. Thanks for the elementary lesson in  law.

But wait, there are more lessons to be learned here. Yes – Mary Surratt was indeed a woman. Her implication in the murder of Abraham Lincoln and her subsequent execution were shocking to be sure. Thanks for the elementary lesson in nineteenth-century gender assumptions.

The problem, at least in the first few scenes that I could watch, is that both of these issues are of great significance – then and now – but they were glossed over in a tisk-tisk fashion only after dripping a taste of sickening “look-at-how-we’ve-progressed-but-there’s-still-work-to-be-done” syrup on for good measure. And even this was done so in a mumbly dead-pan stumble fest. Such nonsense can only refelct some of the worst writing, the worst acting, the worst directing, or a combination of the three. I would have been more riveted watching a plate of white toast get stale as time slowly, painfully passed.

Not that the film was completely lacking in merits. I got a bit of a chuckle at the actor who played John Wilkes Booth. With all the southern-Gothic charm of a junior high production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, his brutish pronunciation of the Virginia state motto in the Ford’s Theatre scene – sic semper tyrannis – was delightful. I suppose this was merely an effort to “southernize” or if you like, “Rebelize” the president’s assassin (who was not a redneck but a classically trained actor), by giving him a slightly raspier Jethro Bodine-esque accent. Such clumsy and obvious efforts make me laugh.

But who knows? Maybe the utter brilliance of rest of the film made up for the first twenty minutes. I will never know. Perhaps it got slightly less patronizingly preachy. Maybe there was a musical number. Maybe robots. If anyone has seen the whole thing, chime in.

With compliments,

Keith

John Huston and the Art of the WWII Documentary

Screen shot 2014-01-12 at 4.11.38 PMWhen the US War Department set out to document the Allied victory at San Pietro on film, naturally they turned to filmmaker and US Army Captain John Huston. Having just recently helmed The Maltese Falcon, Huston turned his cinematic genius to the war documentary – and did so with fine style. His work here is really quite breathtaking in terms of scale, realism, and cinematography. But there are some peculiarities here as well.  General Mark Clark’s introductory speech is nothing short of awkward (you can see his eyes reading cards). And many of the scenes are staged. Huston admits to much of this in a final note at the end of the film but does not note specifics. There were multiple reenactments, GIs posed as dead Germans, and the “ruined village” was actually another town that a US bombing had accidentally destroyed earlier. For a final touch – Huston added the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to add depth to the soundtrack. When the film premiered in spring 1945 Time magazine declared that it was “as good a war film as any that has been made.”

Many were worried that the realness of the film – filthy soldiers, tough fighting, and death would harm morale and sap the fighting spirit of the US citizenry. General George Marshall thought otherwise and defending the film for its grittiness. He even thought it would make a good training film. Soldiers, after seeing the realities of war would most certainly take their training seriously.

Have a look at the film below – what do you think?

With compliments,
Keith