Countdown to Liftoff: “Following” (1998)

With Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” on the horizon, I’ve decided to take a retrospective look at his work. Nolan has arguably seen more success this century than any other director, both critically and at the box office (maybe you could make a case for Peter Jackson, but that’s about all). Nolan got an interesting start in the film world releasing “Memento” to critical acclaim and “Insomnia,” which wasn’t quite as universally accepted, but still generally viewed positively. Then, he would make the leap from big potential up-and-comer to a somewhat enigmatic challenge with “Batman Begins.” That was the make or break film for Nolan, as he took on a franchise that was in dire need of a change. But with such a high-profile property, success was bound to propel Nolan into the stratosphere, but failure may have relegated him to the art house theaters for life, where only those that “really understood” his work would still claim him as a hero. Well, with “Interstellar” not far off now, and with the Dark Knight trilogy behind him, it’s obvious which result he got.

But Nolan has become a somewhat polarizing name recently, as his popularity has earned him a backlash of naysayers in the film community. So it seems like a good time to take a look back at what he’s accomplished in the past, and work our way up to the present culminating with his new film’s release in November.

In 1998, “Following,” both directed and written by Nolan was released, and is by far the least visible film he’s done. Let’s take a look…

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MV5BMTkxNTkyMTY0M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwOTgxMDIyMQ@@._V1_SY317_CR5,0,214,317_AL_Looking at “Following” now, it does seem a little strange that Christopher Nolan has become a major player in Hollywood. There’s no denying the talent on display in his first film, but there’s nothing to indicate he would attain the level of success he’s had since 2000. That’s not to say the film is bad, it’s just kind of small compared to his other work. That’s probably true of any director’s first movie, but Nolan made quite a leap in every possible way going from this to “Memento.”

“Following” employs many themes people familiar with his later work would recognize. The most common of those would be that appearances are deceiving. He uses that idea to great effect in this effort.

The film follows a man who calls himself “Bill,” but is listed in the credits as “the young man.” In turn Bill follows others. He’s not so much of a creeper as he is just has a strange curiosity of trying to figure out who people are by following them around for a day. Of course, he doesn’t tell them he’s following them, so that might cause some issues. He sets some rules for himself, like not following women down an alley, and not following anyone twice in order to keep himself from getting into trouble. But for a guy whose hobby is basically stalking random strangers, it seems to be in his nature to break those flimsy rules.

Things change when “Bill” (Jeremy Theobald) gets caught in his spying by a man who identifies himself as Cobb (Alex Haw). Cobb immediately comes off as a highly intelligent individual, and by comparison, “Bill” is not too bright. Cobb informs Bill that he is actually a petty burglar, which is surprising to Bill because Cobb is a well-dressed man whom Bill had followed into an upscale cafe. So, immediately the audience knows that appearance doesn’t mean anything.

As Cobb takes Bill out for an outing of thieving, Cobb displays his intuition for understanding other people by looking through their stuff. He makes a good observation that when the people he’s stolen from get their insurance check, they’ll have to think about everything that was stolen before they rebuy it, to ponder if it was something they really cared about enough that they’d miss it or if it was something they realize they didn’t want anymore.

Of course, it’s not certain whether Cobb is really making good observations or just spouting intelligent-sounding ideas to lull Bill into trusting him. Perhaps it’s a bit of both. That’s more for the viewer to decide for themselves.

That concept of giving audiences something to watch and then decide on their own what they just saw and what it means is one of the hallmarks of thoughtful, artistic films in this postmodern world. That Nolan was able to eventually work his way up to making blockbuster, big-budget films is somewhat of a marvel, especially considering he’s continued to use the same technique in all of his movies, just applying it to different worlds and different stories.

In “Following,” Nolan tells the story uniquely through his editing. Though he’s certainly not the first to do it, the events of the story are shown out of chronological order, but as a master editor, he is able to manipulate the viewer’s assumptions and ideas the viewer might hold about what they are actually experiencing, forcing the viewer to continually shift their thinking throughout the film.

For instance, Nolan throughout the movie repeatedly shows the same shot of Bill with a bruised lip, as he surveils a club across the street. Every time the audience sees this shot, more pieces of the story have been revealed, so the viewer might find later that the assumptions they had about why Bill has a busted lip have changed over the course of the movie. At the beginning, one would assume someone whom Bill was following might have understandably become upset about it and roughed him up. After more of the story unfolds, you might find that your assumption was correct in a way, but the circumstances are not at all what you’d expected previously. This makes for a much more involved viewing experience. This sort of editing can sometimes be used to make up for a story that is lacking, but here it only adds to the rather original premise.

Throughout the film, Cobb’s scheme reveals itself, as Bill, assuming he’s in control of the situation (again not too bright), just stumbles through it oblivious that he’s being played. Oddly, it turns out Bill has a Batman sticker on his apartment door. It makes you wonder if Nolan had an idea of where his career was headed.

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The real mystery of the movie is, of course, which of these guys is Batman?

Unfortunately, a common problem in Nolan’s canon peeks up its head in his very first movie. There’s only one woman in the film, played by Lucy Russell, who is basically expendable. She’s really only there as a pawn in the strange game between Cobb and Bill, and she’s more of a love interest/sex object than a full-fledged character. This isn’t the only film of Nolan’s where this is the case. It’s obvious that he doesn’t really understand how to write women or simply doesn’t care about writing good women in his films. The film is still quite interesting, but throwing a woman in there basically as an object is lazy writing.

The open ending will leave viewers wondering what they just experienced, and leave them trying to unravel its mysteries for a while. It’s the mark of a good director when you’re left wanting more at the end of the movie, and this one definitely whets the appetite for more. I don’t want to reveal too much, because the movie is certainly better knowing as little as possible going into it. A second watch would still be great since the finish might leave people turning it over in their heads trying to make sense of it, but a first viewing without any preconceptions of what’s going on is recommended for the full experience.

At a mere 70 minutes, “Following” is a tightly made film, where Nolan has the opportunity to tease his talent a bit and gain his footing before really getting the chance to show off what he can do with a real budget and a real cast. That’s not a dismissal of the movie, as it is worth a watch on its own merits, as it’s very entertaining to try and keep up with the film’s twists and turns. It will be interesting to watch the director’s development over the decade in which Hollywood arguably belonged to him.

Next time, I’ll take a look at the film that would be Nolan’s first real break in Hollywood, in which Guy Pearce stars as a man who tries to unravel a personal mystery while dealing with short-term memory loss, “Memento.”

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100 Movies … 100 Posts: #74 “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991)

MV5BMTQ2NzkzMDI4OF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMDA0NzE1NA@@._V1_SX214_AL_This is post #27 in my series, 100 Movies … 100 Posts. In this ongoing series, I’m watching and writing about each film on the American Film Institute’s list of 100 greatest movies from #100 to #1. I’m not just writing a review of each movie. I am going to write a piece about whatever I find most pressing, as a critique of the film, an address of the issues it brings up, or my own experiences with the film. It will serve as an examination of the list itself and of political issues in Hollywood and the film industry. 

Without further ado, #74 “The Silence of the Lambs”

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Nothing says “Oscar” like a deranged cannibal psychologist, right?

No, that’s not a reference to “Good Will Hunting” (RIP Robin Williams), it’s “The Silence of the Lambs,” the Best Picture winner featuring everyone’s favorite human flesh eater, Dr. Hannibal Lecter, played delectably by longtime British theater actor Anthony Hopkins, who would go on to play Hannibal Lecter and also Hannibal Lecter, but not on TV.

Although Hopkins threatens to steal the show with his incredibly unique role, the movie really belongs to Jodie Foster as Clarice Starling, the soon-to-be minted FBI agent, whom her superiors toss out there as bait to see what information they can catch from the not-so-good doctor.

It’s great to see a woman take the lead in a film like this one, as it’s a rare sight. Up until now, the only movie this site has looked at that could be considered to have a female lead is “Sophie’s Choice,” which despite featuring a career performance by Meryl Streep, still was told through the lens of a male character. There were some films where a man shared a female actor as a costar, such as “The Apartment” and “Titanic,” but in all three of those films, the woman still served as a love interest to a main male. This year, Hollywood has offered lead parts to women in a few big budget box office hopefuls, but it was pretty rare to see a female lead outside of romantic comedies prior to this year.

Many years before the world learned that she was “single,” Foster got her moment in 1991, and she ran with it, all the way to the Academy Awards. It’s great to see a film that not only has a female protagonist, but is also told from her perspective. It also does an excellent job of showing the types of struggles women might experience in male-dominated workplaces.

 

The film doesn’t hesitate to throw the audience into her world, by showing the diminutive Foster getting on an elevator with a bunch of burly male FBI recruits, all at least a foot taller than her. From the beginning, it’s clear that one of the obstacles Clarice will have to overcome over the course of the film will be men. When she walks past men, all the heads turn, and it’s not as if she’s dressed in some flashy, attention-grabbing outfit (which would be no excuse anyway). She’s wearing modest, professional attire. When she’s in a room full of badge-and-gun officers, her superior has to talk to their superior before they’ll listen to her, or at least that’s what he assumes. It’s not as if he consults her before the fact. On the contrary, he only asks her about it after they’ve left the scene. She politely but sternly tells him off saying “Cops look at you to see how to act. It matters.”

Jodie Foster is short.

Jodie Foster is short.

Clarice and Hannibal share a swirling duel, or perhaps a dance, over trying to track down the serial killer Buffalo Bill. Clarice gains his trust then brashly makes offers she knows she isn’t good for, while Hannibal picks his battles carefully, and enjoys toying with her as the clock ticks down to Bill’s claiming of another victim. It’s an interesting way to tell the story, as typically, the point of conflict between the protagonist and antagonist is mostly direct. But in this case, Clarice has her direct conflict with Hannibal, whom though dangerous and evil in his own ways, is not the enemy at the moment. As Clarice and Hannibal do their dance, Bill operates on his own, unaware the FBI is even tracking him.

All of Clarice’s success comes from her taking advantage of men underestimating her. Even her superior, who actually seems impressed with her from the start is skeptical of her abilities and plainly states that he doesn’t expect great results out of sending her to talk to Hannibal. Lecter actually gives her more respect than anyone else in the film. She’s able to gain his trust to the point where he takes the offer at a better situation in prison (which turns out to be false) in exchange for information, which otherwise he doesn’t owe her. Even Bill underestimates her in the end.

One other important detail is that Clarice doesn’t have a love interest. There appears to be no man in her life. So, the audience gets her story and hers alone. It’s an affirming angle for a female character to have, as she’s able to be truly independent, and the focus can be on her and her work. For once, a woman’s story doesn’t have to revolve around her appearance. Though she is attractive, she doesn’t look like a fashion model.

Both Foster and Hopkins give masterful performances. Foster subtly conveys the plucky Clarice’s strengths as capable, intelligent, and determined, but also her greenness as a rookie in her field and overconfidence at times, as she deals with Hannibal. Dr. Lecter is such a bizarre character that in less capable hands could have been way over the top and campy, but Hopkins in his masterful talent is able to ground the character with a calm, peaceful demeanor that actually underscores how dangerous and deranged Hannibal really is.

"Don't worry, I'm a doctor."

“Don’t worry, I’m a doctor.”

Director Jonathan Demme imbues the film with a sense of unease. The film is not so much gritty as it is grimy. When Claire goes searching in Hannibal’s storage unit in the middle of the night in the rain, there’s something gnawing in the pit of your stomach knowing that things are not right (besides all the popcorn you just ate). There are few things in film as revolting as one of Hannibal’s neighbor prisoners flings his semen on Clarice. This is the type of film where about halfway through you’re already thinking about taking a shower afterward because you’re afraid you might have contracted an infection of some sort while you’ve been watching. It’s slimy and gross, but in the best way.

The only real problems in the movie all have to do with Buffalo Bill. Though it’s cool that Clarice is able to get her big heroic moment at the end, the showdown between the two is a bit standard. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but her finish pales in comparison to Hannibal’s.

The bigger problem is with Bill’s gender issues. At one point, Hannibal informs Clarice that Bill is a “transsexual,” which is kind of an outdated term, but was probably correct for its time. It’s cool that Clarice defends “transsexualism” as not being inherently linked with violent behavior. But Hannibal continues, saying that Bill isn’t a “real transsexual,” he just had a rough childhood, or something to that effect, which is an incredibly problematic thing to say, though that might have also reflected gender studies or lack thereof at the time. Gender is complex. The scientific world just can’t be allowed to encroach on societal construct in such a way that it doesn’t allow people to identify as themselves as whomever they are in terms of gender. And today, the scientific world seems to agree, if you read up on your gender psychology.

Worse, the character of Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) as a “transsexual,” despite not being inherently violent, is going to be remembered as a violent “transsexual.” Images speak louder than words. People see a person keeping a woman locked up in their house and skinning women to make a skin suit out of it and then a person tucking their penis between their legs, and the negative association is made, regardless of what characters may say about “transsexuals.” Transphobia is older than this film, and even as LGB people have gained some measure of acceptance recently, trans people are only barely starting to make any progress in the public eye. Jokes about trans people are for the most part still fair game, even as homosexual jokes are beginning to become taboo. It’s lazy comedy at this point especially, but you’ll still get a bit about trans people in nearly every comedy movie or sit com at some point. Most people have likely said or laughed at ignorant jokes about most groups of people at some point in their lives, myself included, but that sort of thing needs to be phased out in society, especially in pop culture. There’s no excuse for it now, and it doesn’t help anyone.

It seemed like Thomas Harris, who wrote the novel, was trying to write as dark of a story as he possibly could, but gender identity issues shouldn’t be considered dark material, that only serves to stigmatize. Anyway, it wasn’t bad enough that Buffalo Bill made flesh suits out of women’s skin?

Other than that, “The Silence of the Lambs” is a tightly well-written movie about a serial killer with one of the most original characters in the history of cinema, and one of the strongest female characters. This is a great psycho-thriller, with some horror elements as well. It might be a little too gross for some, but others really enjoy that sort of thing. It seems odd that this sort of movie was anywhere near Best Picture at the Oscars, but that’s a testament to its artistic quality and its portrayal of a woman trying to break out into a male-dominated profession. A win for the cannibals!

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Next up, #73. “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”

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100 Movies … 100 Posts: #75. “In the Heat of the Night” (1967)

MV5BMTk3NjkxMDc1MV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMDIwMjI0NA@@._V1_SX214_AL_This is post #26 in my series, 100 Movies … 100 Posts. In this ongoing series, I’m watching and writing about each film on the American Film Institute’s list of 100 greatest movies from #100 to #1. I’m not just writing a review of each movie. I am going to write a piece about whatever I find most pressing, as a critique of the film, an address of the issues it brings up, or my own experiences with the film. It will serve as an examination of the list itself and of political issues in Hollywood and the film industry. 

Without further ado, #75 “In the Heat of the Night”

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Earlier, I wrote that it was disappointing that the AFI included “In the Heat of the Night,” on its 10th anniversary list rather than “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” If there was only going to be one Sidney Poitier film on the list, then “In the Heat of the Night,” which was described as a buddy cop film about a black officer and a white officer who learned to put aside their differences to solve a crime, sounded like it dealt with less poignant subject matter than a movie about an interracial dating relationship. “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” still sounds more interesting, as the world is flooded with police dramas, but “Night” is an excellent entry for the list. Then again, why isn’t there room for both?

“Night” does hold an important place in history, capturing the strong racial tension in the Deep South during the height of the Civil Rights Movement in 1967. Martin Luther King Jr. would be assassinated the next year on the day the Academy Awards ceremony was scheduled, so it would actually take place two days later. Despite taking place in Mississippi, no filming was done in the South because Poitier feared for his life after several incidents in which he was targeted because of his race, according to an article on Slate.

The film delves into racial issues like few others did for its time. That’s not just social taboos, like the issue of blackface or awkward interactions between people from vastly disparate cultures (like in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?”). This movie dove headfirst into racial profiling and death threats from Confederate flag wavers.

Friends? Not exactly.

Friends? Not exactly.

In fact, the film doesn’t waste any time in getting to those issues, as Poitier’s Virgil Tibbs is introduced after the local police of the small town of Sparta, Mississippi, (a real town, though obviously fictionalized here) arrest him shortly after they discover a murder had been committed in town. The cop who finds him sitting at the train station waiting for a train pats him down and sees that he has about $100 in his wallet, which he must assume no black man could ever have earned. So, of course, Virgil immediately becomes a suspect and is arrested. Chief Gillespie (Rod Steiger) assumes he’s guilty once he’s been delivered to the station and begins interrogating him. It’s only when Gillespie asks “Where the hell’d you earn that kind of money?” that Virgil gets the chance to explain that “I’m a police officer.”

Virgil tells Gillespie that he makes $162.39 a week, which must have been a lot back then, but sounds like nothing today. Virgil’s not just a cop, he’s a homicide expert, and he was at the train station to catch a ride back to the North. Back where he’s from “They call me Mr. Tibbs.” So Gillespie gives Virgil’s chief a call and explains the situation, and Virgil’s chief decides he wants Virgil to stay in Sparta and help the department solve their murder.

The Sparta Police Department seems to be about as well equipped to handle a case of this magnitude as the Mayberry Police Department, but no one in Sparta has quite the machismo of Barney Fife. There’s no forensics expert there near the caliber of Virgil. Having just been detained by the police for no reason, and already sick of the town’s racism, Virgil can’t be faulted for just wanting to go home, but the chief insists he stay and help. Gillespie knows full well that he is in over his head without Virgil, which he takes as an attack on his pride, as he is already butthurt over the fact that Virgil both makes more money than he does, and is also black and has already made him look bad for issuing a false arrest. He takes a lot of shit from the town over the department’s ineptitude, so the ingredients are not there for a good working relationship between these two. But seeing Virgil work, Gillespie can’t help but begrudgingly show the least bit of respect for Virgil, even through back-handed remarks.

Some things never change.

Some things never change.

And make no mistake, Virgil demands respect. He doesn’t want to be here in the first place and threatens to leave every time Gillespie gives him shit or questions his authority. Virgil has nothing to gain from this, and he knows that Gillespie needs him, so he uses that to his advantage whenever he’s challenged. As Gillespie makes one false arrest after another (including an unrecognizably young Scott Wilson of “The Walking Dead” fame), he becomes more and more frustrated with Virgil’s determination to legitimately work the case. Virgil makes the white cops look like fools again and again.

But Virgil runs into instances where he nearly lets his own prejudices of white people and the South get in the way of good detective work. In one instance, Virgil’s investigation takes him to a cotton farm, where the audience is shown black people in the fields picking cotton, much like on a plantation, as if nothing had changed over 100 years. After he confronts the owner about the murder, and a brief physical altercation takes place, Virgil understandably wants to “pull that fat cat down,” and the world might be a better place for it. But some chiding from Gillespie makes him come to his senses, that this isn’t what he’s here to do, and he can’t let his disdain for the cotton farm’s owner cloud his work.

As the case progresses, Virgil gets into some trouble from the locals because, you know, he’s a black man in the South, and an accomplished one at that. Gillespie offers back up for him, and tells him he should leave for his own safety, but now that he’s committed to the case, Virgil’s pride won’t let him return home until his work is done. But by coming to Virgil’s aid, Gillespie is able to prove to Virgil that he can be of use. Look at that, a white cop has to earn the respect of a black cop, who woulda thought?

From the moment Virgil appears, racial tension drips from every frame of this film, and it’s spectacular. No punches are pulled. The complex dynamic between Virgil and Gillespie is riveting to watch, and the pair of Poitier and Steiger pull off a masterpiece. The supporting cast is great too. It’s good to see that the townsfolk of Sparta are presented realistically, rather than how racist Southerners are often stereotypically presented as stupid rednecks or hillbillies as they are in “Easy Rider.” The depiction of racism isn’t always overt in this film, but the power struggle between Virgil and Gillespie is often boiling beneath the surface rather than in strong outbursts. That’s important, as that’s how subtle racism often plays out in real life.

Yes, the two of them eventually get to a place where they can almost come to respect one another, which seems kind of silly, considering Virgil has every reason to distrust Gillespie from the moment the chief accused him of committing murder. But it’s not like they go out to karaoke together or anything like in “Rush Hour.” The two men do come to a point where they can understand the similarities between them and at least learn to respect one another on a professional level, but it’s obvious the tension between them would take a long time to heal. And once Virgil’s finished the case, there’s no reason for him to stick around that long.

The tension is so overpowering that the crime itself comes off as weak in comparison. It really only serves as a reason for Virgil to interact with the people around town through the investigation and demonstrate those social issues that exist between people of different races in society. The case even ends somewhat abruptly in an unsatisfying and anticlimactic manner, but it’s an adequate catalyst to push along the relationship between Virgil and the townsfolk.

For all the positives the movie accomplishes in telling the story of a black man trying to navigate a racially hostile environment, it seems wrong that Steiger won Best Actor that year, and Poitier wasn’t nominated. Poitier was the first black man to win Best Actor, but it was for “The Defiant Ones” in 1958.

In the wake of Michael Brown being gunned down by police in a different state that begins with “Miss-“, “In the Heat of the Night” is still of great importance, as it depicts the dangers black men and women face  not just in the South, but everywhere in the U.S. Racial profiling by police continues to be an all too common problem. If cops were even as civil toward black people as they were in this movie, it would be less of an issue, but it’s scary out there right now.

The film serves as a great history lesson for those who weren’t around during the Civil Rights Movement and also as a reminder to those of us who don’t have to worry about police harassment that we are quite privileged.

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Next up, #74. “The Silence of the Lambs”

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100 Movies … 100 Posts: #76. “Forrest Gump” (1994)

MV5BMTQwMTA5MzI1MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMzY5Mzg3OA@@._V1_SX214_AL_This is post #25 in my series, 100 Movies … 100 Posts. In this ongoing series, I’m watching and writing about each film on the American Film Institute’s list of 100 greatest movies from #100 to #1. I’m not just writing a review of each movie. I am going to write a piece about whatever I find most pressing, as a critique of the film, an address of the issues it brings up, or my own experiences with the film. It will serve as an examination of the list itself and of political issues in Hollywood and the film industry. 

Without further ado, #76 “Forrest Gump”

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“Gump sat alone on a bench in the park
My name is Forrest he’d casually remark
Waitin’ for the bus with his hands in his pockets
He just kept sayin’ life is like a box of chocolates”

-“Weird” Al Yankovic, Gump, 1996

When “Weird” Al makes a reference to something, that’s when you know for certain that that person or work has become part of the Zeitgeist.

In the mid-’90s, “Forrest Gump” was everyone’s favorite movie. To prove it to you, they’d tell you “Life is like a box of chocolates” in their best Gump Voice. An actual Bubba Gump Shrimp Company serves food in coastal states. There may not be a more beloved entity to Gen-Xers than this film.

The first time I saw this movie was probably a year or two after it was released. My family got a copy of the VHS (that’s right) from the library, and it was rare when a movie you actually wanted to see was available off the shelf. Usually for movies that everyone wanted to see, you would have to reserve it and wait at least a few months before it would arrive. But the library is a great resource for families on a budget, since you can get everything for free.

The copy we got included descriptive audio for the sight impaired. This meant that a narrator would describe everything that happens on the screen. Again, this was a VHS tape, which meant you couldn’t just turn off the narration. It’s cool that that service exists, but if you’re not impaired, it makes for a trying watch.

For instance, in the opening scene, the narration went something like this:

“A feather blows across the screen. It flutters around a busy area of town, down to a man sitting on a bench.”

For those of you who are fortunate enough to have your eyesight, imagine sitting through 2 1/2 hours of that. Believe me, if you had, you would have a newfound appreciation for your ability to see.

“Forrest Gump” stars Tom Hanks in his iconic role about a man who goes by that name who has a different disability. Forrest has an intellectual disability. He’s lacking in intelligence so much that his mother, played by the likable Sally Field, has to sleep with the superintendent in order to get him into a normal school. Not only that, but as a child, he also had trouble walking without braces. He has a friend named Jenny (Robin Wright), who shows up intermittently throughout his life. The movie encompasses the life of this man born in the mid-20th century and shows how he interacts throughout the recent history of the United States.

As you can see, this isn’t the most politically correct film, which is somewhat ironic given it was made in the supposedly “PC” Clinton era of the mid- to late ’90s. Right off the bat, casting the able-minded Hanks as a man with an intellectual disability is rather problematic in itself. Yes, acting is about portraying someone who is not like yourself, but there’s no way to get inside the mind and understand what it’s like to be someone else who is disadvantaged in this way. It’s nearly impossible to play this sort of role without it coming off as something of a caricature. Most well-respected actors don’t take roles like this anymore. Insulting people who are disabled has become somewhat of a taboo, but in many circles, it’s still socially acceptable, which is kind of sad. Using the word “retarded” was cool around the time this movie came out, and although you probably won’t hear it in public, it will still get thrown out there in close company. Now that Breaking Bad has reached a zenith in pop culture, it’s shown that using actors who share their disability with the character they play works very well. So, if the script calls for that type of character, it’s not necessary to get an able-minded actor to play them, which is great. But in the ’90s, no one gave it a second thought, it just made for easily accessible comedic situations.

A semi-accurate representation of mid-'90s United States.

A semi-accurate representation of mid-’90s United States.

Much of the movie’s humor comes from Forrest’s involvement in many important U.S. events that took place throughout the mid-1900s, but most of the jokes are based around his disability in some way. He pronounces things oddly and whenever he’s given a task by an authority figure, he takes it literally and performs to the letter exactly what he’s told to do. This makes for some tragic moments, as he’s easily taken advantage of, especially by the military.

The reasoning for this character being the protagonist of the film seems to be for the sake of showing a person with either a blank slate or a child-like view of the world, to show how a person with a certain innocence reacts to heavily politically charged events. If this is in fact the point, then that’s also insulting to people who share Forrest’s disability.

Poor deadbeat legless Lt. Dan.

Poor deadbeat legless Lt. Dan.

But he does care about people, especially his friends, and he’s a loyal friend. There are positives to take away from this problematic character, and there are some clever moments in the film, despite the flaws. When Lt. Dan (Gary Sinise), Forrest’s former commanding officer from when they served in the Vietnam War, asks him if he’s found Jesus, Forrest replies “I didn’t know I was supposed to be looking for him, sir.”

It wouldn’t have been much of a deviation to have made the character a man with just simple tastes a simple outlook on life. Being from Alabama, there are a lot of people from that area of the country who take pride in that sort of world view in a positive way. That sort of character would have served the same purpose, but without going for that cheap, offensive humor this film so strongly features.

For those who haven’t seen the movie since the ’90s, they might be surprised by how dark the film is. As mentioned earlier, Forrest’s mother has sex with the school superintendent so that Forrest does not have to go to a special needs school. But being told from Forrest’s point of view, that bit could easily go over people’s heads without them realizing.

Forrest is named after an ancestor of his who was a high-ranking officer in the Ku Klux Klan. The film doesn’t go into what the KKK represented, but Forrest, in his simple understanding, just believes they rode around on horses wearing funny masks. There’s nothing wrong with insulting that horrible organization, but to treat it as something silly without acknowledging the reasons they did what they did and what they actually stood for seems rather irresponsible. Although the group no longer holds the power or public view it once had, it does still exist even today, and their beliefs are still very prevalent in society, as evidenced any time the subject of race comes up in the news, such as the recent events in Missouri.

But the character who gets it the worst is Jenny. Early on, the film hints that her father, who doesn’t appear onscreen, had a history of abusing or molesting her in some way. It’s not clear exactly what he does to her, as the only evidence the audience is given is Forrest’s misguided explanation, and it’s clear that he’s unaware anything harmful even occurs between them. Pedophilia until very recently, similar to intellectual disability, and especially in the ’90s somehow was considered a joking matter, just something to be laughed at. It’s only been within maybe the past decade, when the scandal within the Catholic Church came out that some people began to treat pedophilia as a serious issue, probably because many people discovered that they knew people who had been molested as a child. But it’s somewhat ridiculous it’s taken this society so long to even consider it a legitimate issue, rather than comic relief fodder. Thankfully, the film kind of lends that issue the gravity it deserves more than most pop culture of the time.

As the movie follows Forrest throughout his life, it checks in on Jenny whenever the pair’s paths happen to cross. Forrest ends up (mostly by accident) joining the military, starting his own company, and stumbling onto investing in then fledgling company, Apple (Forrest must be a billionaire by now if he held onto that stock), all “highly regarded” positions. By contrast, Jenny becomes a stripper and a hippie, and she takes a lot of drugs and has abusive boyfriends. By the end, she contracts AIDS and dies. They both came from simple means, but Forrest was the more successful of the two. Though one would think this would make Jenny a sympathetic figure, instead the movie mostly treats her as though she’s one of those “bad girls” who sleeps around and gets herself into so much trouble because she likes the bad guys, and she’d be so much better off if she would just love Forrest, because he’s such a good guy, but she doesn’t realize it until it’s too late. It’s not until she learns to give up on her anger toward her father that she realizes she should be with Forrest, and that’s when she finally finds peace in her life. It’s a pretty ugly message that’s sent to women through this film.

Jenny's not ashamed of being a stripper, but we know that's because she's a "bad girl."

Jenny’s not ashamed of being a stripper, but we know that’s because she’s a “bad girl.”

It looks especially bad, as one of the film’s main themes is the whole “box of chocolates” thing. That is, you don’t know what you’re going to get out of life, you just have to be like Forrest and make the best of whatever you’re given. But if that’s true, then Jenny has mostly herself to blame for putting herself in so many bad situations. Her problem is that she holds on to that anger at her dad.

But anyone with any sense of compassion would agree that not only is Jenny not to blame for what her father did to her, but that she has every right to be pissed off at her dad and at the world in general for being so vilely violated at such a vulnerable age. She had no one to rely on early in life, other than Forrest, who wasn’t exactly in any position to support her in the ways she needed.

For some people who are in unfortunate situations, knowing that you don’t have much control over the hand you’re dealt in life, but all you can do is make the best of it, can be a comforting, empowering, and even hopeful message. It is true that the circumstances of one’s life are mostly out of their control, and they have to learn to be resourceful with what little they are given. It’s important to stay positive in life, even though it can often be difficult for many. That positivity can make the bitter pill that is life go down easier. But for others, having a chip on their shoulder and a healthy amount of “fuck off” for the forces that are trying to hold them down can be much more inspiring and rousing to action.

The “box of chocolates” idea is only true to a certain degree. A majority of people have relatively little control over the circumstances of their life. But people who possess more wealth or power have unlimited options. Not only do they have control over their own lives, but they often have control over the lives of many people. They might not do anything “meaningful” with those vast resources, but at the end of the day, even if they feel “unfulfilled,” the fact is they still have near-total control over their own lives. Less affluent people who don’t hit the right path, whatever that is, can find their lives passing them by because they missed out on something early in life. It’s not too late to make a change, but it’s much more difficult to do now. For the people who were telling this story, who were already at the point where they could do most whatever they wanted to with the rest of their lifes, to send this kind of message to us plebeians, is kind of condescending.

There’s nothing wrong with a “positive” movie, especially if it offers real inspiration. So often, however, the perhaps “well-intentioned” message rings hollow. If it rings hollow, that’s because it is hollow. The audience doesn’t have to be happy with whatever it’s given. Happy endings can be great and satisfying when they are earned, but if you’re going to insult them, then making them happy is going to be tough. “Forrest Gump” came out at a time when opportunities were plenty and the U.S. was trying to turn the corner on issues of poverty and racism (though those issues were really just swept under the rug). The U.S. was out of the Cold War and the war in the Middle East was on hold. Perhaps this movie made a lot more sense back then when the average American might have had more control over their life. There’s no question of its popularity, but perhaps its time has come and gone.

Asian sighting: Although one of the key scenes in the movie takes place in a combat zone during the Vietnam War, no actual Vietnamese or Asian or anybody actually appears onscreen to represent the Viet Cong military. There’s just a lot of bullet fire and explosions. Lt. Dan’s fiancee Susan (Teresa Denton, although in the credits, the character is listed as “Lt. Dan’s Fiancee,” rather than her actual name), whom he introduces at the end of the movie, is of some uncertain Asian descent, possibly symbolizing that he’s made his peace with his experience in Vietnam. Losing your legs and nearly dying isn’t enough of a reason to be angry either, apparently. You gotta find an Asian lady to make it all better.

They searched, but apparently the U.S. military didn't find any Vietnamese in Vietnam, only lots of gunless flying bullets.

They searched, but apparently the U.S. military didn’t find any Vietnamese in Vietnam, only lots of gunless flying bullets.

We don’t often reflect on pop culture from earlier in our lives enough to really think about how those things helped form the worldview we hold now. “Forrest Gump” was an influential movie for a lot of people. Many of the ideas espoused in this film that perhaps were meant to inspire are now used by those with greater means, like libertarians for instance, to shame people in less fortunate positions who are upset about their situation. Those who find themselves victims of heinous crimes are more likely to find themselves scolded for “playing the victim,” and told that they are too bitter. Sometimes, we need to take a look at things we have enjoyed in the past and examine them more closely, and sometimes, we might find we don’t like what we see the way we used to.

Some movies are ageless, and they’ll stand the test of time as long as people are watching movies, others become outdated and are looked at as a relic of their time. Having celebrated its 20th anniversary this year, “Forrest Gump” is already outdated, which is disappointing considering some of the classics that came before it that still continue to shine brightly.

A man who’s actually experienced a bit of a resurgence lately, “Weird” Al will carry us out:

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Next up, #75. “In the Heat of the Night”

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100 Movies … 100 Posts: #77. “All the President’s Men”

MV5BODAxMTc4ODcxNF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNDY0NTAyMQ@@._V1_SY317_CR8,0,214,317_AL_This is post #24 in my series, 100 Movies … 100 Posts. In this ongoing series, I’m watching and writing about each film on the American Film Institute’s list of 100 greatest movies from #100 to #1. I’m not just writing a review of each movie. I am going to write a piece about whatever I find most pressing, as a critique of the film, an address of the issues it brings up, or my own experiences with the film. It will serve as an examination of the list itself and of political issues in Hollywood and the film industry. 

Without further ado, #77 “All the President’s Men”

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Journalism in entertainment is often presented as being much more glamorous than it is in real life. If you take a look at movies made about reporting, you’ll get a rather strange picture.

One movie most people might think of when you mention journalism is “Anchorman.” In a way, it’s not all that far off from what TV news was like back in the ’70s, but writing for a newspaper is a much different story. For one thing, most journalists don’t get all that excited about buying new suits.

Nor is reporting like it’s presented in the backstabbing world of “House of Cards.” I’m not saying there’s never been a rookie reporter who has fabricated an affair with a politician in order to blackmail him to scoop her coworkers and move up the chain, but it’s not exactly common practice to do so in a real newsroom.

Nor is it like what you would have seen in “Batman” (the Michael Keaton one). I’ve never seen a reporter wearing a hat with a slip of paper in it that says “press.” And they don’t usually use such sensationalistic leading questions that border on accusation. Or at least the good ones are probably a bit more subtle about it.

Nor is a newsroom as melodramatic as Aaron Sorkin presents it in “Newsroom.” If there was that much family-style drama between reporters as there are in that show, at least the editor-in-chief or executive producer would ask their employees to kindly take it outside in not so many words (and not so kindly).

But if you are interested in what it’s actually like to be a reporter, Alan J. Pakula’s “All the President’s Men” will give you a pretty good idea. Sure, not everyone gets to break the Nixon Watergate scandal, so for most reporters, life is a bit more mundane than that of Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman). And considering how boring some of the work is that they do in this movie, that’s saying something.

Of course, every big story starts as something small. For instance, it might start as something as seemingly insignificant as a break-in at a hotel. But regardless of how minuscule that insignificant event might be, it always starts at the most convenient time: After the reporter has already gone to bed. Usually when they get the call in the middle of the night, it means throwing on some clothes and a quick but futile attempt to make themselves look presentable (especially on such short notice) driving out to a crime scene or an accident or a fire, then hurrying into the office to try and get the story out before the paper goes to press, if possible (or maybe they can get it in the next run) around 3 or 4 in the morning. Does reporting still sound glamorous? Woodward gets the call, and he’s ready to see what’s up.

But he has a lead on something, and so the next day, he’s going to do what any good journalist does, and that’s follow up on it. That means heading to a court appearance for the guys who did the break-in, trying to pump anyone for information who’s willing to talk (as usual, no one). But he gets the slimmest of clues from a lawyer, so now it’s time to make some phone calls.

So many calls to be made. So... many... calls....

So many calls to be made. So… many… calls….

Making phone calls isn’t the greatest. Of course, now that we live in the Google age, it’s not nearly as bad as it would have been back in 1972. If a source refers you to someone else, and you don’t know who that is, you just go on the Internet and look it up. Before the Internet existed, however, it meant asking around for a phone number and fishing around to find out who the hell this person you’re calling is and what could they tell you about the story you’re working on. One person tells you to call another person, and that person tells you to call someone else. No one wants to talk to you because they want to keep sensitive information quite, not blab it all to the media, who is going to give that information to the public (and typewriters, oh my!).

Much of the film is Woodward and Bernstein making the rounds, talking to everyone who might possibly be have some pertinent information and who would actually be willing to talk to them. Woodward is a by-the-book kind of guy who is more than a bit green, but he always wants to do what’s right. He does have that fire in the belly that makes a good journalist. He wants to know the truth, and he’s going to keep digging until he gets what he’s looking for. He’ll listen to all of the run-around calls, and he’ll persist. Bernstein is a bit more of a bulldog. He’s pushy. If his sources don’t want to talk to him, he’ll find a way to get something useful out of them. Secretary keeping him from speaking to a big-wig? No problem. He’ll just bypass the secretary and burst into the guy’s office demanding answers. Together, they make a team, sort of like a good cop-bad cop tandem, but they don’t have any real jurisdiction to be investigating things the way they are.

That’s one thing that’s fascinating about the film and the real people who lived the events of the film. These reporters aren’t police. They’re just reporters, but in this case, they end up doing the police’s job, as powerful people in the CIA were in on the scandal too. But the only motivation these journalists have is to report the truth. It’s a tough line when you’re trying to decide how far you should be digging, and how much time you should be spending on any one story. If you’re reporting something ongoing or working on something more in-depth, then there’s no real stop sign. But at the same time, you’re still fighting daily deadlines, and you have to come up with something to contribute to keep readers interested in your story. In WoodStein’s (as their editor calls the duo) case you don’t know going out for the day if you’ll have something to bring back. Some days, you just strike out and there’s no story. The movie does a superb job of capturing the frustration, as well as the victories, of the reporters as they go about following the news trail.

And sometimes, it’s incredibly tedious work. WoodStein spends an entire day rifling through book request slips at the Library of Congress to try and find some new thread to break through when the trail is going cold. Days don’t get much duller than sitting in a library sorting through paper slips. If there’s any reason not to watch this film, it’s because of the tedium of the work. How many phone calls can one listen to? How many face-to-face interviews can one watch? If you weren’t paying attention during the actual unfolding of the Watergate scandal, how many of these names can one keep track of? But if you have any interest in the journalistic process, this is about as real as it gets in a dramatic presentation. And there are some fun moments to break up the monotony.

"This thing goes all the way to the very top!"

“This thing goes all the way to the very top!”

And sometimes, you only get somewhere by a stroke of luck. It’s interesting how cartoonish and bizarre Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook) is made out to be. It would be pretty strange to have to go meet up with someone in a parking garage in the middle of the night and have to take the man’s word that, as Ken Jeong’s Chang from “Community” would say, “This thing goes all the way to the very top!” It’s very thoughtful filmmaking how the informant at first sounds like a paranoid conspiracy theorist, whom today most people would brush off without a second thought. But then again, this was one case where the conspiracy turned out to be real. As the meetings progress and that realization sinks in, the skepticism turns to actual paranoia, and Woodward begins to fear for his life, especially as Deep Throat tells him the reporters are being watched, and that they are in fact, in danger.

For a modern point of reference, the 2007 film “Zodiac” was very similar in many ways. David Fincher did use “All the President’s Men” as inspiration for that film, and you can see many similarities in the way Jake Gyllenhaal’s character carries out his own investigation of the Zodiac killer. It’s a similar process he goes through in spending his time talking to so many different people, chasing leads and hitting dead ends. There’s one scene in that movie where Gyllenhaal finds himself talking to a man in his basement, when he gets a feeling of claustrophobia, knowing that he could be flirting with danger considering the subject matter of the story he’s pursuing, and realizing he has put himself in a vulnerable position, with no easy access to an escape. It’s a similar creepy feeling that Woodward gets as he’s talking to Deep Throat in the parking garage, when he sees a car pull away, and he gets the feeling that he’s being watched and also realizing he may have put himself in the same danger that many of WoodStein’s sources are put in with their apparent gag order. Pakula did a great job of capturing a growing sense of fear and danger as the movie progresses and they get deeper into their work.

Hal Holbrook plays quintessential Shadowy Figure Deep Throat.

Hal Holbrook plays quintessential Shadowy Figure Deep Throat.

And it’s cool how the movie treats the audience as if they are right there with WoodStein as they uncover more and more information, rather than giving an overarching view of the aftermath at the beginning of the film, like some historical movies might. It feels a bit more organic, the way the audience learns about the details as the reporters do, and the case begins as something small, with only subtle hints that the Watergate break-in might be something bigger than it appears to be. The tediousness might make the movie hard to watch for some, but it also puts the audience right there with so much information being thrown at them at once, even if they don’t quite get all of it. After all, they do know where all of this is going in the bigger picture.

And the ending of the film is fitting, as it doesn’t offer a big finale or anything, it just kind of stops, as Woodward and Bernstein are typing away. That’s kind of how journalism works too, the story never really ends. It just keeps going. Where are all of these people be five years from now? How about 10 years from now? How does the past point to the future? A reporter’s job is never done, and when the reporter’s job is done, they just hand off their notes to the next one to take their chair. Certainly today, there are still echoes of the events of 40 years ago throughout the government and the public sector. It doesn’t end.

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Next up, #76. “Forrest Gump”

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100 Movies … 100 Posts: #78 “Modern Times” (1936)

MV5BMjMwMDA5NzEwOF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMzgwNDg3OA@@._V1_SY317_CR5,0,214,317_AL_This is post #23 in my series, 100 Movies … 100 Posts. In this ongoing series, I’m watching and writing about each film on the American Film Institute’s list of 100 greatest movies from #100 to #1. I’m not just writing a review of each movie. I am going to write a piece about whatever I find most pressing, as a critique of the film, an address of the issues it brings up, or my own experiences with the film. It will serve as an examination of the list itself and of political issues in Hollywood and the film industry. 

Without further ado, #78 “Modern Times”

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Leave it to a Brit to accurately assess the problems the United States’ working class faces in a stinging yet humorous fashion.

No, not John Oliver, it’s the Tramp himself, Charlie Chaplin, and although the film was released in 1936, “Modern Times” is a remarkable look at what the average blue-collar worker in the U.S. faces. Though this isn’t generally regarded as science fiction, it might as well be, as Chaplin basically invented the dystopian society so commonly seen in literature and film for decades. It could also be called prophetic, as the corporate-driven world he envisioned basically became reality. Even though he saw society through the lens of the Great Depression, the film still resonates today, and maybe even more so, taking its age into consideration.

... although he's pretty fun too.

… although he’s plenty of fun too.

Chaplin plays a man simply known as The Factory Worker, and he’s apparently tasked with tweaking screws on an assembly line that goes a bit faster than he’s able to handle. The factory itself is constructed of a maze of levers and gears. The president of the company sits in his office and keeps an eye on the different areas of the plant through the use of two-way video screens he can control with a dial. Chaplin was generous in allowing the president to be kindly enough to afford his workers the courtesy of seeing him too, as factory surveillance only goes one way in reality. The boss even keeps tabs on the Worker when he’s taking a smoke break in the restroom, telling him to get back to work!

The Worker goes through a number of jobs over the course of the movie, never finding a place where he can manage to not wreak so much havoc and somehow get himself thrown in prison. Along the way, he meets a poor woman (Paulette Goddard) who steals for a living to provide for her two daughters after her father is shot and killed during a Communist protest. The “threat” of a Marxist uprising always looms in the background, as there are several flare-ups throughout the film. The worker even gets himself arrested for accidentally leading a protest.

At one point, the Worker finds he prefers prison to trying to make it out in the real world. That’s after he mistakenly shakes a bit of his fellow prisoner’s “nose powder” all over his food after the guy hid it in a salt shaker. The Worker is understandably a bit disoriented and gets himself locked out of his cell. Then, he stumbles his way into preventing a jailbreak, and the police name him a hero. Thus, he is afforded a more comfortable cell, and considering his situation, one can understand why he’s not so quick to return to the world.

So, of course, once he’s out, he makes every attempt to get himself put back in prison, but to no avail. He goes to a restaurant and has himself a feast, then declares he can’t pay. He goes to a cigar salesman, grabs a one of his wares and starts puffing right in front of him, but somehow manages to elude capture despite his best efforts. It’s obvious the world does not work in a way the Worker understands, as every attempt he makes at doing something he believes will improve his situation, ends up working completely counter to what he’d hoped. But meeting the woman gives him some direction, as they fall in love after he helps her flee after being arrested herself for her thievery. So, he becomes determined to work for a living in order to be able to afford a better life for the two of them.

So, in his attempts to find good work, he winds up back in jail a few times. By the end of the film, he finally discovers that he could make a living at singing, but the police catch up to the woman for fleeing arrest earlier, so the pair must once again go on the run. They head off into the sunset with the bleak, but hopeful belief that they’ll find a way to make it. Unfortunately, Charlie didn’t know World War II was just around the corner, which ironically, would be the catalyst to bringing the U.S. out of the Depression.

The film is extremely cynical of the idea of the free market, which the first title card describes as “Humanity crusading in the pursuit of happiness.” The first shot of the movie shows a herd of sheep trying to move through a narrow space, which then bleeds into men coming up a subway stairwell. An inventor comes to the worker’s factory touting a machine that would automatically feed the cattle workers, so they would never have to take a break for food. In testing it on the Worker, of course, the machine’s process goes horribly wrong, especially with the spinning corn-on-the-cob feeder, as you might imagine. Graciously, as far as the workers are concerned, the president sees that this contraption isn’t feasible and cans the idea. Today, if a company buys into a network or system or program built to improve efficiency, the company will continue to tout it and keep pushing it on its workers. If the workers complain that the thing doesn’t work, then the company will send out memos telling them they are doing something wrong, and it’s their fault the system isn’t working, even if they follow all instructions to the letter. So, even as cynical as Charlie was, he still wasn’t cynical enough for the real world.

When the machine serves pie, you know problems will occur.

When the machine serves pie, you know problems will occur.

For Chaplin, the film also likely represented his own misgivings about the industrial revolution and what it would mean for a silent film producer, like him, especially with the advent of talkies. Certainly, in many ways, modernization and technology can produce wonderful tools, but only for people who can afford them, while the rest are left in the dust because they can’t keep up for one reason or another.

The film is naturally presented with all of the glorious slapstick Chaplin is most known for, but even for people who don’t enjoy that form of comedy, it’s only window dressing for the intelligently plotted situations and the world that he has “created” for its resemblance of reality. Some of it is only funny because if you didn’t laugh at it, it would just be so depressing.

At one point, the Worker gets a job as a night watch at a department store. On his first night, a gang of burglars breaks in. One of them happens to be one of his coworkers from the factory. Recognizing the Worker, the coworker says “We aren’t burglars. We’re hungry.”

The film is a good depiction of the struggle of being poor in the U.S. although the Worker is much more clumsy and careless than the average employee. It’s unlikely anyone could manage to accidentally sink an entire ship while working at a shipyard. But work is not steady for everyone, and it’s not always easy to find. Unlike in “Modern Times,” when a company lays off its workers, it’s highly unlikely they’ll be called back in to work again, at least for that same company. Prison is probably not a preferable option anymore, but then again, at least your needs are taken care of there. One man did steal a single dollar from a bank a few years ago, just so he could be put in prison where he could get healthcare. Thankfully, that situation’s been improved since then.

“Modern Times” is a classic film that accurately represents the struggles of working people in a capitalistic society, with a wink and a nod and a pie to the face. It serves as an interesting bridge between silent films and talkies, as viewers can observe a man who was a master of his era as he struggles to adjust to the modern age.

Graciously, dear old Charlie has been reincarnated as a small cat, with whom I share an apartment.

Graciously, dear old Charlie has been reincarnated as a small cat, with whom I share an apartment. The Tramp is still as clumsy as ever.

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Next up #77. “All the President’s Men”

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100 Movies … 100 Posts: #79. “The Wild Bunch” (1969)

MV5BMjMxNjEyNDE4NF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwODk2Njk3OA@@._V1_SY317_CR4,0,214,317_AL_This is post #22 in my series, 100 Movies … 100 Posts. In this ongoing series, I’m watching and writing about each film on the American Film Institute’s list of 100 greatest movies from #100 to #1. I’m not just writing a review of each movie. I am going to write a piece about whatever I find most pressing, as a critique of the film, an address of the issues it brings up, or my own experiences with the film. It will serve as an examination of the list itself and of political issues in Hollywood and the film industry. 

Without further ado, #79 “The Wild Bunch”

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Before 1969, Hollywood was a safer place. Yes, there was murder, corruption, violent betrayals, domestic violence, and even bloodshed on occasion. But there was nothing to be ashamed of, nothing to upset anyone.

But then Sam Peckinpah and his “Wild Bunch” rode into town and took over.

Then, there was a new sheriff who took over the town, one with a murkier sense of morality and a thirst for blood. And he brought with him a band of outlaws that would change this place and upset that feeling of security and safety. In 1969, it was outlaws. Today, their descendants still run wild as gangsters and thieves. And … robots?

From most accounts, “The Wild Bunch” was the first to feature violence, not as a means to advance a plot or explore themes, but as a theme in and of itself. It was the first to feature bloody shootouts, with spurting blood and scores of dead bodies in their wake. Certainly, Quentin Tarantino and others have drawn their inspiration from Peckinpah’s most highly regarded film.

Violence in film is kind of a controversial subject. It’s important not to portray stylish violence in a way that glorifies it, but making it realistic should be a priority. As much as we’d like it to not be the case, violence is an inherent part of life. As the beginning of this film shows with the scenes of the ants killing a scorpion, violence is a natural aspect of the animal kingdom, which humans belong to on the evolutionary tree. Some societies have come to a point where violence doesn’t have to be a part of everyday life. Then again, as this past week’s events show, in some places, such as the Middle East and Eastern Europe, it’s an all too common occurrence.

Violence stems from a strong survival instinct. People kill to eat, and they kill to protect themselves from other people who would try to steal from them. As much as we’d like to hope and dream for a reality where there’s much less competition and ill will, violence has always played a role in humankind’s development since the beginning of human existence. We hope there are better means of solving problems, but certainly some people get to a point where they see no other option.

Is this too much? Was that the point?

Is this too much? Was that the point?

But as it pertains to film, the important thing is that violence serves as a reminder that these things really happen. Many directors have tried to clean it up, to make it more “family friendly.” But when it comes to real guns and weapons that can seriously hurt someone, toning it down not only seems cheap and fake, but it’s also somewhat irresponsible. People might find graphic violence in film disgusting or disturbing, and perhaps violent films are not for everyone, and that’s OK. But if we’re disgusted or disturbed by violent acts we see on a screen, that’s just a sign that we’re reacting the way we should. We should be disturbed by seeing violence, and if it’s just there to be “cool,” then all we’re doing is desensitizing ourselves and our reactions to the real thing.

In particular, Peckinpah makes a good point with the ridiculously violent opening shootout, where a band of outlaws is trying to rob a bank in broad daylight in a busy section of town, while a group of bounty hunters is trying to stop them. The outcome, of course, is that most of the people who get killed are the ones who aren’t holding guns, but the ones who were just going about their daily business who had no involvement on either side. This scene alone says a lot about the nature of violence in people.

One of the main ideas to take away from this is that in a war of any kind, the people who suffer the most are the innocents. Make no mistake, this is a war. Whether war is fought by opposing militaries or opposing gangs or opposite sides of the law, it’s still war. Obviously, that statement has different implications today than it did in the early 1900s or 1969, but it’s still true. Even though the bounty hunters are simple guns for hire, they still are paid by law enforcement, and so they do represent that kind of authority. Parallels can easily be drawn between this and the many acts of police brutality that still happen today. Whether law enforcement is willfully committing acts of violence against innocent people or is doing it out of a lack of regard for those people, the point is that the people with the weapons are the ones who do the killing. There’s no way around that fact.

The film was a departure from the norm in Hollywood in other ways as well. In contrast to other Westerns of the time, take for instance, Sergio Leone’s Man With No Name trilogy, the outlaws in “The Wild Bunch” act like outlaws. They aren’t nice guys. They adhere to some strong moral code but constantly break it as long as it’s convenient. As Ernest Borgnine’s Dutch says in regard to one authority figure, “We ain’t nothing like him. We don’t hang nobody!” He has a point, but the bunch has no problem taking people down when they’re in the middle of a robbery. Sure, the situations aren’t exactly the same, as the group isn’t in the position of power that some authorities in this film are, but they still should be accountable for their actions. They are bandits by trade after all.

In addition to the thrill of making that big score, the men live for booze and hookers. There’s no woman for them to come home to, just the guys and the road.

In this way, the film also serves as either a deconstruction or a celebration (maybe a bit of both) of that certain sort of macho masculinity especially characteristic of Westerns and other action movies. In keeping with the anti-violence theme, the film shows that the ultimate end for a violent lifestyle is generally a violent death. The guys aren’t invincible, and the lifestyle catches up to them eventually. As one man says, “We all dream of being a child again, even the worst of us. Perhaps the worst most of all.” That boorishness rears its ugly head in many ways in this film, and it’s an important takedown of that “manchild” mentality that is still too commonly espoused today.

Regardless of what you think of the film, you must admit there aren't many shots more badass than this one.

Regardless of what you think of the film, you must admit there aren’t many scenes in film as badass as this one.

Of course, although this film was considered excessively violent back in 1969, film connoisseurs would hardly bat an eye at it today. Back then they couldn’t get away with anything nearly as graphic as, say, “Saving Private Ryan,” or even “Pulp Fiction.” But the body count is rather ridiculous, though in this case, it serves as a reminder that violence begets violence, and sheer revenge for the sake of “honor” doesn’t really solve anything.

As in any good Western, there’s a great heist, involving, what else, a train. There are multiple opposing sides, each with their own agenda, and a detour into Mexico that turns into much more than the boys had bargained for. And of course, a dinner around a campfire’s worth of teasing and prodding jokes to help take the edge off. The Wild West serves as a good backdrop for many of Peckinpah’s ideas that were likely especially spurred on by the Vietnam War, which the U.S. was in the thick of at that time.

The film isn’t particularly friendly to women, unfortunately. Most of the women in the film who actually get any screen time are sex workers and are basically used as scenery. One of them is supposedly a former lover of one of the outlaws, Angel (Jamie Sanchez), and he takes offense to the fact that she is hanging around a certain powerful, corrupt individual, Mapache (Emilio Fernandez) when she’s supposed to be “his woman.” So he shoots her. It’s not totally clear who he was aiming for, but everyone else treats it like it’s no big deal that he just killed a woman. Mapache doesn’t even care, since he has lots of other women around anyway. Why be sad about just one? The leader of the bandits, Pike (William Holden) previously had a fling with a married woman, a relationship that ended when her husband killed her in the midst of their passion. That haunts Pike to some degree. The problem is that women in this film are mere accessories to the men, and although the film doesn’t necessarily portray the bandits in a positive light, it isn’t helpful when those women don’t have any personality or character of their own.

As the time of cowboys and the Wild West were winding down in 1913, it’s fitting that the old men of this group of outlaws were making their last score before their planned retirement into obscurity. But instead of fading away, they went out in somewhat of a blaze of glory. As the ’60s were winding down, a new era was around the corner. Thanks to Peckinpah, they went out with a bang (or many).

“The Wild Bunch” was incredibly influential for the film industry. If Peckinpah’s intent was to put an end to violent films, he succeeded in producing the exact opposite outcome. Contemporary directors, from Martin Scorsese to John woo, who love to stage stylish and bloody action sequences have this film to thank for their inspiration. And even Michael Bay, though he goes more the sanitary, bloodless route with his mounds of highly choreographed chaotic scenes, owes homage to this movie as well. So, if any of that is your sort of thing, you owe it to yourself to check out this movie. It’s rarely been done better since. Even as Peckinpah intended for it to be an ending of sorts, it also served as a beginning for a whole new generation of filmmakers.

For better or worse, the "Transformers" movies wouldn't be what they are without Sam Peckinpah's inspiration.

For better or worse, the “Transformers” movies wouldn’t be what they are without Sam Peckinpah’s inspiration.

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Next up, #78 “Modern Times”

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