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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100 Movies … 100 Posts: “The Apartment” (1960)

MV5BMTM1OTc4MzgzNl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNTE2NjgyMw@@._V1_SX214_AL_This is post #21 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, #80 “The Apartment”

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“The Apartment” is a movie about the everyman. You know, someone everyone can relate to. It’s the middle class, white collar guy who goes to work at a menial job, trying to move up the corporate ladder, but at the same time is just trying to keep his head above water. And in trying to get ahead, he winds up loaning out his apartment key to the corporate executives so they can have a place to have their trysts with women other than their wives in a private setting so no one who might object will notice, in order to keep it classy.

As one of those poor women asks “Do you bring other girls up here?” one sleazy exec replies, “Certainly not, I’m a married man!”

Everyman (approximation)

Everyman (an approximation)

OK, though there might be some people who still remember what it was like to be that “everyman,” that sort of life certainly isn’t as common as it was in 1959. Most of the ones who do remember those times probably didn’t ever slip their house key to a big shot executive. But life for working class Americans has changed, especially within the last decade. Since the economic recession, many middle class jobs have been eliminated in the U.S. Although since then, the economy has recovered the number of jobs lost, many of the middle-level positions have been replaced with more entry-level, lower skill positions, such as fast food and other food service jobs, as stated in the “Spartacus” piece. Even for entry level corporate jobs, there isn’t a lot of room for advancement anymore. Executives now are no longer promoted to their status, they are born into it. Mid-level employees are mostly aging veterans of the workplace, who are within spitting distance of retirement. They aren’t quite as focused on moving up the corporate ladder anymore, as they are mostly trying to pay off mortgages or their kids’ (or their own) school bills and saving up their money so they can retire when they are old enough. Hopefully, that happens before they get laid off.

For younger workers, the hope is less in moving up in the company they already work for, and more in moving to a similar, higher paying position in a better company, once they’ve acquired the experience they need at their current job. “Company men” aren’t as common anymore. It’s more about putting in your two years, beefing up the 401(k) and moving on to the next job.

And besides that, women are competing for the same jobs as men now, so “everyman” should be replaced with “everyperson.” It’d be nice to say there’s equal opportunity for all, but the reality is the men still outnumber women in the workplace and also make more on average, despite more equal opportunities at education. Men also don’t have to be concerned as much about sexual harassment in the workplace as women either.

But back in 1959, funnyman Jack Lemmon is that everyman named CC Baxter, and he’s alright with passing around the apartment key, because every executive who borrows it reminds him that they’ll put in a good word for him at the next board meeting. It’s never made clear what Baxter’s real job at this major insurance company even is, as he spends most of his time at work managing his calendar to make sure his apartment is available on any given night for his next client. He often stays late after work, not because he’s trying to get more done to please the boss (in any conventional sense, anyway), but because he can’t go home, as someone else is using his apartment. His normal deal is that they have to be out by 8 p.m., so that he can come home and go to bed, but occasionally an emergency will come up, and one of the bigwigs will need to use his flat late at night. Reluctantly, he always gives in, as the big men upstairs continually dangle the promise of his eventual promotion in front of his face, while in the next breath requesting that he keep his booze and cheese crackers well-stocked at home.

In the meantime, Baxter’s got a crush on Fran (Shirley MacLaine), the elevator operator at work (back when executives were well-off enough to pay for someone to operate the elevators for them), who is nice to him, and that big promotion is always around the corner, so things are looking up for him.

Baxter pines for Fran, but she's busy with other things at the moment.

Baxter pines for Fran, but she’s busy with other things at the moment.

Speaking of women being sexually harassed in the workplace, there weren’t any legal ramifications for that sort of behavior back in 1959. Fran faces this threat regularly from the lecherous executives, and she has to fend them off herself, which she has no qualms about doing. After not-so-discreetly lays a hand on her, she makes it clear to him that the next time he does it, he might lose that hand. But by the gesture she makes, it’s obvious that his hand isn’t the only part of him she intends to lop off with the elevator doors.

One day, Baxter finally gets that call from the boss that he’s been waiting for. This time, it’s Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), the man at the top. He’s so elated as he makes his way to the boss’s office that it’s obvious to the audience he’s about to be let down. The audience is right, but it has no idea just how much of a letdown this is. Sheldrake tells Baxter that he knows what Baxter is up to. But Baxter is not in trouble for this. As it turns out, the reason he got the call is that Sheldrake wants a piece of the action. In return for letting him use the apartment tonight, he offers Baxter two tickets to “The Music Man” on Broadway.

Although this isn’t what Baxter had hoped for, he accepts because, hey, now he’s got a ready made date to take Fran out for. He asks her, and she’s reluctant at first, because she’s meeting someone else for a drink. But eventually, she accepts, and Baxter is flying pretty high. But it turns out the person Fran was meeting for the drink was Sheldrake, with whom she’d previously had a fling with, and he wants to heat it up again. She’s reluctant, but she wants it too. Meanwhile, Baxter is left alone outside the theater with a cold. Seeing him pace back and forth before he walks away is rather pathetic, especially as the audience knows what’s going on at his apartment, while he has no clue. But the image of a lone tissue falling out of his pocket as he walks off adds a touch of touch of hilarity to the situation.

What follows is a twisty-turny soap operatic series of events revolving around this love triangle that keeps the audience guessing, but always with foreshadowing about what’s to come next. It’s a brilliant bit of storytelling that keeps the viewer always informed of what’s happening, while only offering the characters pieces of the truth at a time.

Meanwhile, Baxter’s neighbor, old, Jewish Dr. Dreyfuss (Jack Kruschen), hears someone in the room down the hall coming and going with ladies every night, sometimes several times a night. He and Baxter converse often, and it’s obvious from the way Dreyfuss talks to him that he incorrectly assumes the young man Baxter must be some kind of lothario. At first, he encourages Baxter to have his fun enjoying his youth and freedom. But after a particularly serious emergency that forces Dreyfuss to offer his help (he is a doctor, after all) he comes down hard on Baxter, telling him to stop treating these women the way he does, toying with them, dangling love in front of them, and treating them as expendable.

Although Baxter is actually doing none of these things, this verbal undressing of his supposed character serves a dual purpose. All but the biggest assholes among us can agree that the executives’ behavior is revolting, not only in how they see women and even Baxter as expendable, but in that they also have their own families whom they cheat on constantly and consistently. The audience never even sees them do any actual work, so it’s not apparent that they even do anything for their company, which is paying them the big bucks. Dreyfuss’ rant takes those dicks to task the way the audience would like to.

He plays a helluva good game of gin.

He plays a helluva good game of gin.

But at the same time, even as the doctor is tearing Baxter a new one for things he hasn’t even done, the audience can see that Baxter very much deserves it for a different reason. That is, he’s complicit in their sins because he’s the one offering up his apartment for the simple hope of getting a promotion. The audience can see Baxter as “likable” to some extent because he’s obviously not the same type of guy as these disgusting executives. He doesn’t really approve of what they do, and he wouldn’t do the same thing in their situation. But he isn’t a good guy here. In trying to become one of them, he becomes their partner in crime. He shares responsibility for their actions because he actively enables their behavior. The doctor tells him he needs to start being a mensch. That is, he needs to start being a human being. The doctor means he needs go grow a heart and stop treating women like toys, but to Baxter and the audience, it means that he needs to grow a backbone.

All the while, Baxter is starting to get those promotions in his company, as he’s finally scratched the right man’s (Sheldrake) back. Even after he finds out that Fran, the woman he wants to be with, is actually Sheldrake’s mistress, he does all he can to keep them together, because he wants her to be happy, and he wants to get ahead at work. But eventually, on the day Sheldrake makes Baxter his executive assistant, Baxter finally decides enough is enough, and he quits, giving all of it up. Fran finally wakes up and realizes Sheldrake is never going to settle down with her, and she gives up on him too.

This is a film that took a lot of risks for 1960, as it hearkens back to the squeaky clean image of older, similar romantic movies about life in the big city. Without being totally explicit, especially by today’s standards, director and writer Billy Wilder managed to fit in many suggestive double entendres and adult jokes for the time that appear relatively innocent on the surface. It also takes a turn into very dark territory that might not be so uncommon today, but he does so without ever losing that comedic tone, which is very much Lemmon’s element. Audiences today might remember him more for his lighter fare, like “The Odd Couple,” but “The Apartment” allowed him and the other two leads, MacLaine and MacMurray, to stretch their acting legs in dramatic roles. The more naturally comical presence of these actors serves as a surface-level persona for their characters, which occasionally gives way subtly to the darkness lurking within them in brilliant fashion. This might be a comedy, but it’s also serious film, and people who are serious about film should not miss it.

There are many smaller details about Baxter’s 1959 life that folks might find foreign today. Baxter has to heat up a TV dinner in the oven because microwaves don’t exist yet. This is a rare film that features the presence of the television dial, and to Baxter’s misfortune, there are only four channels, all showing westerns but on, and that one just shows commercials. He keeps a tennis racket in the kitchen, because he found a handy cooking use for it: straining spaghetti. That’s an invention bachelors today might find useful, if only tennis rackets were still affordable. Baxter’s rent is only about $85 a month in New York City, and he only makes $90 a week, though when accounting for inflation, that was probably a decent wage.

That Baxter is one inventive bachelor.

That Baxter is one inventive bachelor.

Even though 1959 was quite a different time, most people should be able to relate to Baxter’s plight in some way. Only today, people are more likely to do whatever it takes to keep their job, rather than to advance. The promise of a promotion is so rarely dangled in front of employees’ faces, because it isn’t really a possibility. Would they lone out their residences so the boss could get his affair on? If it came down to it, it could be a difficult choice to make, considering that jobs are hard to come by these days, and there are plenty of folks out there who would be glad to take your spot. Unlike Baxter, whose greatest fear was losing his progress in one company and having to start over at another, the prospect of losing one’s job today is a much bleaker one.

Mr. Sheldrake is quite the family man.

Mr. Sheldrake is quite the family man.

Asian Sighting: The bar that serves as Fran’s meeting spot with Sheldrake is a small Chinese restaurant, featuring a piano player who calls himself “Rickshaw Boy.” It’s a nice slice of New York ’50s culture. On Christmas, Fran thoughtfully presents Sheldrake with Rickshaw Boy’s record album. Sheldrake responds by giving her $100 and telling her to buy something nice with it. What a winner that guy is.

The indictment of capitalism and the promise of great comedy make “The Apartment” a must-watch for film lovers. The jokes still crackle more than 50 years later. This might be billed as a comedy/drama, but it has quite an epic feel to it with how brilliantly Wilder laid it out.

As you return to your run-of-the-mill, mundane life, let Fran’s wisdom accompany you on your way out.

“Some people take, some people get took. And they know they’re getting took and there’s nothing they can do about it.”

And

“When you’re in love with a married man, you shouldn’t wear mascara.”

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Next up, #79 “The Wild Bunch”

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True Hype

MV5BMjA2NjI1Mzg2MV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMTI2MzE1MDE@._V1_SX214_AL_*SPOILERS AHEAD*

I know I’m gonna offend people with this, so I’ll get it out of the way right off the bat: “True Detective” isn’t the greatest thing ever in the history of ever … not yet anyway.

But the hype around the ‘Net would certainly have you believe that it is simply the greatest work humankind has ever produced, and if you’ve already seen it, maybe you feel this way. If so, good for you, it’s a pretty good show, I’ll give it that, and you’re entitled to your opinion anyway. But the calls for “GREATEST SHOW EVAR” seem to be off base in my opinion.

I have to admit, I bought into that hype before I watched the eight-hour first season of Nic Pizzolatto and Cary Fukunaga’s HBO show. Admittedly, it could just be the contrarian in me, but when I finally did get to see it, I was kind of let down. I thought there were interesting things about it. The cast is off the charts for a TV show. Getting Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson must either be seen as something of a coup, or a true, amazing sign of where TV is headed. In particular, McConaughey’s Rust Cohle is one of the most dark and intriguing characters you’ll ever come across. The rest of the cast list is pretty impressive too, with a mix of familiar faces and unknowns who certainly have the talent to support the leads.

The production values are very high as well. It’s basically a long Hollywood film split into bite-size parts. As I’ve written before, this is where I’d like to see the realm of entertainment go. Movies are great, but stories can be better told in the TV format if people with money are willing to invest in it. Tural Louisiana in the mid-90s is a powerful, creepy setting, which lends itself well to a cop noir, which is a style “True Detective” delves into often. And anytime something is able to rope in an older work like the 120-year-old book of short stories, “The King in Yellow,” by Robert W. Chambers is a win in my book.

The Yellow King casts an unsettling presence upon "True Detective." But it kind of unravels before it's over.

The Yellow King casts an unsettling presence upon “True Detective.” But it kind of unravels before it’s over.

Side note: Since people have learned about that tie-in, lots of people have cracked open that book, only to find that it’s written like a book that’s more than a century old and not filled with all kinds of cool, bizarre monsters and shit. Instead it’s this slow, psychological stuff about people dying in their insanity. It’s pretty funny to read people’s comments on Amazon.com saying, “Sooo, this wasn’t what I was expecting,” as if they thought Chambers had pre-written “True Detective” over a century ago. That’s what you get, Pizzolatto, for trying to make really old stuff seem cool. Certainly, using that book as a backdrop adds another layer to the show that is very different from anything else out there.

But that’s where my unmitigated praise ends. There are a lot of elements in this show with plenty of potential, but as of the end of this season, most of it goes unfulfilled.

Although Harrelson does good work as Rust’s fellow detective, Marty Hart, the character himself is hardly anything new. He’s your basic good, Christian family man, or at least that’s the performance he puts on in his public life. In his private life, he’s the patriarchal man-of-the-house, he cheats on his wife with younger ladies, and he acts like his family is some sort of entitlement who owes him for all that he’s “given” them. It is interesting to see how this type of character interacts with Rust, but it’s nothing too original.

At first, Marty’s arc seems like it could be an interesting deconstruction of suburban U.S. masculinity. It starts out that way. But by the end of the eight episodes, none of the women he’s playing off of are given anymore development than the general archetypes you see so often in Hollywood. There’s the “nagging” wife who wants to do what’s best for the family. And then there’s the couple of “crazy” girlfriends. If the show had gone farther in exploring how Marty’s belief system about himself and his world affects the people around him, then the lack of substance in the women might have been a little more forgivable. But in the later episodes, this part of the narrative is skimped because it wasn’t really that high on the list of priorities for the creators. So it doesn’t really add up to anything. Michelle Moynahan plays Marty’s wife, and she does her best with what she’s given, but there are some things you just can’t save no matter how hard you try. Eventually, Rust chalks Marty’s troubles up to going after “the crazy ones.” Maybe the viewer is supposed to dislike both of the main characters, but “bitches be crazy” seems like a rather stupid point to make in what’s meant to be a “serious and intellectually stimulating” sort of show.

The method of telling the story is great, because it allows the audience to see the characters grow over a long period of time, and the way the story is told itself is exposition on the characters. It’s a very appreciable unique approach that makes the show fun to watch. But the cops interviewing the two detectives about their past seem like they might have interesting stories themselves, but unfortunately the viewer won’t ever know about those because they aren’t there.

A lot is made of the big tracking shot part in episode 4. It is very cool to watch, but the portion of the story it’s used on is so tangential to the main story that the tremendous effort put into it kind of feels wasted. It’s a neat idea, but it might have been more useful given a tighter script.

Don't look so glum, guys. It's okay to not be the best.

Don’t look so glum, guys. It’s okay to not be the best.

The exposition about the killer in the whodunit? case is really interesting and creepy, and it seems like it’s leading up to something big, and shocking. But in the end, he ends up being a pretty common gross backwoods cliche you see in a lot of cop shows. It’s disappointing to see all that stuff you were pondering earlier on in the series that made you want to know what the hell’s going on, all go out the window in favor of a standard chase and fight scene. Since the killer’s identity was hidden for most of the show, you’re not really given enough about him, other than being a stereotype, so what appeared to be clever storytelling, now feels rushed and underdeveloped. As a result, instead of the epic finish we believed we were being promised, we got something kinda bland.

In the end, it just seems like all of this should have added up to a lot more than it actually did. There’s no question, there was some great talent involved in this production, and like it or not, Pizzolatto and Fukunaga told the story they wanted to tell. It seemed like a couple more episodes might have benefitted the pacing a bit, especially toward the end. Whether that choice was made by HBO or the show’s creators, we don’t really know.

If you look at this more of as a movie than a TV show, I think that improves it a bit. It works well as an eight-hour movie. As a weekly show, I could see being frustrated with the early episodes, but in the middle, it really starts to pick up and makes you want to see what happens next. Most HBO dramas have this quality, though in “True Detective’s” case, it’s for slightly different reasons. This is a much more compact show than other HBO dramas that have several seasons to sprawl out. The nature of this show, with each season being self-contained, made the early episodes challenging for different reasons. But season two does have a ton of potential, especially if it manages to build off of season one in some way.

I wouldn’t call this the greatest thing ever. It’s a really good movie or a really good show, depending on how you look at it. It’s probably the first one I would watch again, though there are plenty of other shows I say I’d be interested in watching a second time. But eight hours would be much easier to get through a second time than 70 hours.

I would still put “Breaking Bad” or “The Wire” over this, as both were much more original and substantive. They’re also much more of an investment, and although that means they take up a lot more of your time to watch, they’re also much more rewarding. No, they don’t feature big Hollywood stars. People only knew Bryan Cranston as Hal from “Malcolm in the Middle” before he started cooking meth. Idris Elba is great, and he has a major role in “The Wire,” but he’s not must-see for most people. The production of those shows isn’t of quite the cinematic quality as “True Detective.” But the writing and story and characters of those shows are so complex and strong that they more than hold their own. I’m sure those aren’t the only shows in that league.

Don’t get wrong, “True Detective” is excellent entertainment. It’s very fun to watch. There are a lot of good things here, and the Chambers theme just raises it another notch, especially for geeky people who are into that sort of stuff. Is it a must-see? Maybe. There’s a good chance you’ll see it and think I’m full of shit, and I accept that possibility. As long as you avoid buying into the hype, you probably won’t be disappointed. It’s ridiculous that something can be ONLY a really good show, and be a let down because it doesn’t happen to be the greatest thing ever.

But that’s the way hype works, isn’t it?1192835-hype__

100 Movies … 100 Posts: #81. “Spartacus” (1960)

MV5BMTAzNDcwODQ1MjJeQTJeQWpwZ15BbWU4MDY3NTAzMTAx._V1_SY317_CR2,0,214,317_AL_This is post #20 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, #81 “Spartacus”

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For the soldier who asked which one was Spartacus, the answer is: Kirk Douglas.

It’s widely known throughout the film world that the Roman gladiator film “Spartacus” was Douglas’ movie, and even though director Stanley Kubrick got to play in it, it was Douglas’ playground.

Despite this, Kubrick is able to craft a decent story about the Romans’ oppression of the people around them, and how one man led a revolt on the idea that humankind deserves to be free and humans have the right to choose their own destiny.

Jean Simmons (left) plays Varinia in "Spartacus."

Jean Simmons (left) plays Varinia in “Spartacus.”

Unlike other gladiator films, like “Ben-Hur,” and well, “Gladiator,” this film does not depict the glory of the coliseum (in fact, only the promise of it) but rather the poor treatment of the men who are tasked to fight one another to the death for the entertainment of wealthy nobles. Spartacus was a slave who looked pretty buff, and was promised fame and wealth if he could put on a good show, so take up the sword, he would. Upon being introduced to the world of gladiators, he’s taught how to not only fight, but how to make killing another guy look really cool. He’s kept in a cell, and his trainers bring him a woman named Varinia (Jean Simmons, as opposed to Gene, no long tongue or face paint here) and watch through a grate in the ceiling, hoping to get a look at some good, sexy action. But Spartacus proclaims, “I am not an animal!” and Varinia responds, “Neither am I.” Despite both not being animals, they form a bond and fall in love, which is totally not what the Romans were going for.

Spartacus goes on to lead a slave revolt, build an army and present a serious challenge to Roman rule. But this is only around 70 BCE, and the audience knows the Romans will keep their thing going another 400 years. It doesn’t end well for Spartacus. After his army is defeated and the commander of the Roman soldiers asks for Spartacus to identify himself, so he can be made an example, those still alive proclaim their allegiance and love for him and his ideas by standing in solidarity with him and claiming “I am Spartacus!” Then they all get crucified.

Considering when this movie was released, in 1960, it certainly seems to have been in solidarity with the civil rights movement then. Black people in the U.S. were fighting for the right to be treated as humans as well, trying to gain the full right to vote. It’s frightening that even today, many are now fighting to keep that right, as some states want to hinder that right with voter ID laws basically for the sake of trying to win an election. Although slavery is no longer legal in the U.S., socioeconomic systems strive to keep the status quo, and the wealthier folks want to abolish minimum wage laws because they don’t want to pay their workers. Meanwhile, the opposition is trying to raise the minimum wage to a livable standard. Some get upset at hearing this, saying that people with low skill jobs, like food service workers, don’t deserve to make more money. But with the state of the U.S. economy, those food service and other low skill, low education jobs have become the majority. Now, young Americans who have college degrees and older people near retirement are competing for those low skill jobs because so many middle class jobs have disappeared due to the economy’s collapse from a few years ago and older people don’t have enough money to retire. So, if being treated as a human in the U.S. means being able to work and make a living, that isn’t currently a reality for many people. That’s not counting struggles of LGBT people to be treated as equals with heteros. Certainly in most countries, similar struggles are going on, and sex slavery is common in most countries, even heavily modernized ones. So, even today, there are echoes of slavery and cries for freedom in the world that “Spartacus” can speak to. All the little people of the world are Spartacus.

Draba, according to Wikipedia.

Draba, according to Wikipedia.

Even as Spartacus gets the attention in this film, he wouldn’t have dared to lash out at his Roman captors if it wasn’t for the Ethiopian named Draba (Woody Strode). As a group of nobles visit the gladiator training camp, the piggish host Batiatus, playfully played by Peter Ustinov, shows off his gladiators to the men’s wives, as if he were showing dogs for a fight. “Look at that one. He’s short but strong.” Spartacus and Draba are among those chosen for a fight to the death for a private audience. Batiatus informs them that their gladiators don’t fight to the death … unless the money’s right.

As two others go out to fight before them, Spartacus and Draba sit in a box next to the ring and wait as they have to spend the time looking at one another and listening to the swords clang and waiting for the death blow to be dealt. Once it’s their turn, they put on a competitive fight, but Draba gets Spartacus in position for the kill. Instead of slaying Spartacus, in a move that would eventually be inspiration for Katniss Everdeen to fire an arrow at the gallery watching her train in whenever the hell the “Hunger Games” is supposed to take place, Draba tosses his trident in the direction of the nobles watching them from a box above the arena. Once he’s startled them, he tries to climb up the tapestries hanging down to get his hands on them, but his one-man rebellion doesn’t last long, as he winds up with a spear in his back. Nevertheless, his sacrifice would plant the spark in Sparty to eventually lead his own rebellion that would be a bit more successful. As such, the movie might have been more aptly named, “Draba,” but even though the black man made the inspirational sacrifice, it still ended up being the white guy who got to do all the cool stuff.

Unfortunately, the film does get bogged down with a lot of overcooked, talky portions. It’s true that everything there has a purpose, but in a film that’s nearly 3 and a half hours long, it’s often the parts without any dialogue that carry its power and where Kubrick flexes his creative muscle. Spartacus and Draba sitting in the box as the other two gladiators’ swords are heard clanging against one another before they have to go out and do the same thing is particularly tense, and their fight itself is raw and visceral, unlike many of today’s film fight that are so heavily produced and laden with CGI. Spartacus finally snapping on his trainer and drowning him in a pot of hot soup (!) and sparking the slaves to revolt is awesome to watch. There are few sights more freeing than slaves overthrowing their masters and fleeing into the countryside. The soup drowning is especially poetic, as something that was created to warm and nourish from within was instead fashioned as a weapon used to burn the very orifice that was meant to consume it and kill. The Roman army coming out to confront the slave army only to see the slaves set their rolly things on fire and are rolling them their way would have led to many a pant-shitting. After the battle, close up shots of the mass of corpses are a chilling and sobering sight. And nothing is as demonstrative of the Romans’ cruelty as the slaves in the midst of their crucifixion lining the roads.

Marcellus really wanted the soup. But he ended up getting much more than he'd bargained for.

Marcellus really wanted the soup. But he ended up getting much more than he’d bargained for.

The sight of the once-powerful Spartacus hanging there might make one question the wisdom in trying to take on the Roman army with a relative handful of gladiators. He explains that although to a Roman, death meant the fear of losing everything, to a slave death meant an end to suffering. The slaves were going to die no matter what. Gladiators were going to die in the arena. The others were going to die at the hands of their masters mistreating them or they would spend their entire lives stuck in slavery. To fight was to go out on their own terms. Just the possibility that they could have won and gained their freedom was a freeing thought.

But “Spartacus” does have its weaknesses. The square-jawed Douglas is pretty well suited to playing a gladiator, and he gives one hell of an inspirational speech, but his love story with Varinia, though somewhat touching considering their situation, seems kind of out of place. Their conversations are a bit overly modern romantic, given the setting. It’s meant to be a contrast to the Roman nobles, who openly rationalize about the morality of sexualizing their slaves. But Spartacus and Varinia have the freedom to love one another more purely or something. So, the dialogue seems weird when Spartacus makes her swear to never leave him again. Some freedom that is. At the end, it seems like their relationship is there more for the purpose of showing that Spartacus has someone to pass on his free ideals to. They talk about her conceiving a child, though without any evidence that they were participating in activities that would cause such a thing to occur, it’s not even clear that it’s Sparty’s kid (maybe that’s purposeful). Varinia has an important moment when she declares she’s not an animal along with Spartacus, to say that poor treatment of women is in its own category, separate even from male slavery. But unfortunately, that’s all she contributes, and most of her time onscreen is spent romancin’ with Spartacus.

Gladiator training can get messy ... in rather unexpected ways.

Gladiator training can get messy … in rather unexpected ways.

Much of the time spent with the Romans seems to be there for the purpose of showing the true extent of the Romans’ evilness, with references to all manners of sexual debauchery. One Roman, Gracchus (Charles Laughton) in a conversation with Batiatus says that he isn’t married (though he keeps around some slave girls) to respect women’s “purity.” Batiatus gleefully retorts “it must be tantalizing to be surrounded by so much purity,” to which they share a heartily sleazy lecherous laugh.

Laurence Olivier as Crassus has a scene where he’s hitting on a male slave while the slave is bathing him. Crassus informs the man that he likes to eat “both oysters and snails,” where it’s pretty obvious he’s referring to neither oysters nor snails. Though Roman men having sexual relationships with slaves was a common practice in the Roman empire, using a homoerotically charged situation to express the depravity of the Roman nobility might not have been the best idea, especially at a time in which gays were themselves fighting for the right to have protection from harassment in the U.S.

And a reference to Christians eventually gaining their freedom from the pagan Romans in the opening monologue of the film has an odd ring to it today. Christianity has been the dominant religion in the U.S. for most of its existence, so it seems strange to bring that dichotomy up.

That being said, the actors playing the Romans are very fun to watch, and Ustinov walked away with an Oscar for his work.

Although Roman culture seems to be accurately depicted, even though the film is based on history, it takes liberties with Spartacus’ story, which works fine for the most part. But less than a decade removed from the Red Scare, it feels like the movie is pushing a certain form of nuclear family-promoting Cold War-era puritanicalism that was rampant in the U.S. at that time. It’s understandable, but it does look a little strange today. And when you’re taking liberties with history, it opens up to greater scrutiny the messages you’re trying to send with your piece.

But the film certainly has its merits, and I’ll never steer anyone away from a Kubrick film. The master didn’t even like this film due to the lack of control he had over it. It’s pretty easy to tell the points where his influence is heaviest, and that’s where the movie shines brightest. It’s bright enough to make for a very good and entertaining film. It’s just obvious that Douglas has control, and it’s interesting to think what could have been had Kubrick really been at the helm instead.

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Next up, #80. “The Apartment”

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Her?

MV5BMjA1Nzk0OTM2OF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNjU2NjEwMDE@._V1_SY317_CR0,0,214,317_AL_IPhones are pretty sweet, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’d want to have sex with them. That’s where Spike Jonze’s “Her” begins, but it ends as a deep exploration of how vulnerable people navigate romantic and sexual relationships with one another.

Jonze invites his audience into the not-too-distant future, where people walk around heads down, devices in-ear, oblivious to the world around them, and sex chats come at users’ convenience. The degree to which these people are connected is perfectly demonstrated when the main character, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) wakes up in the morning and puts his device in his ear before he even reaches for his glasses. Logging back in is the first priority of every day.

It’s a little strange that this is purported to be the future, as society is basically at this point already. The first thing a lot of people do when they wake up is head to their computer to find out what happened in the world while they were asleep.

Twombly is your typical lonely, single middle aged geek who loves his technology (a little too much?). He’s not a recluse or a social outcast. He has friends, including Amy, appropriately played by Amy Adams, and it’s strictly platonic between these two. He’s not particularly awkward around other people, unlike the stereotypical geek, until it comes to talking about his hobbies, where he cheerfully divulges that the only trouble he has is in choosing between video games and Internet porn. He’s not unfamiliar with the ways of love. He’s only too familiar, as he still reminisces on the happy days he used to share with his, for all intents and purposes, ex-wife Christine (Rooney Mara).

But lo-and-behold, this technophile naturally upgrades his computer with the newest operating system only to find out that it’s Scarlett Johansson. Or rather, she’s the voice of the AI interface who calls it/herself “Samantha.” It turns out to be more than just an OS. It’s the most useful personal digital assistant ever, decluttering his hard drive, making appointments for him, arguing with divorce lawyers. It does as advertised, it makes his life easier. More than that, it offers this lonely, sad man a friend with its/her charming personality.

As technology companies in the real world are evolving their wares for their customers, a major step has been to make the software intuitive for the user. Not only is it easy to navigate, but the programs are designed to recognize users’ tendencies and actively make it easier and faster for them to do whatever it is they need to do. For instance, Google Chrome knows which websites you typically visit by storing user data and makes it quicker for you to get to them. Samantha takes this concept of personal convenience to an entirely new level, not only taking over all the mundane tasks Twombly doesn’t want to spend his time with, but also at a basic, personal level, deducing who he is, fundamentally, as a person, in a matter of mere minutes, whereas a human likely won’t fully get to know another single human over an entire lifetime.

They're really just friends, really.

They’re really just friends, really. Really.

In essence, the computer fills one of the most base desires a person might have, and also one of the most elusive facets of human existence, which is to be known, understood and loved. It’s one thing to love another person, because that’s something you have some measure of control over. But to allow another person to love you is much more difficult, because it’s something that’s out of your control, and it makes you vulnerable. The easiest thing to do in any relationship and tragically, in a romantic relationship, is to dress yourself up and always make yourself look your best. When people start dating, they are basically making a resume of themselves. Put your best foot forward and all that. You play up your accomplishments, emphasize the strongest facets of your personality. But that’s only a small part of who people are. Anyway, people change over time, and those changes aren’t always easy to accept. In some way those things might be a new expression of personality, but in another way, they might be just a manifestation of what was inside them all along. So, to be comfortable with knowing someone and to be known yourself can be incredibly difficult and even painful, especially for an introvert like Twombly.

As advertised, the two eventually enter into a romantic relationship together, and it’s a little weird at first, as you might expect. It gives new meaning to the word technophile. It’s a new chapter for human-cyborg relations, ya know? It’s gettin’ serious with Siri. But Jonze does a good job of making Samantha as close to a full, actualized person, who, though lacking a body and still technically being a computer, gains some digital representation of emotions, and so when they finally decide to “go steady,” it’s believable.

How many gamers found themselves fawning over the possibility of such immersive games?

How many gamers found themselves fawning over the possibility of such immersive games?

Beyond the silliness of human-OS Sex, come other oddities in the relationship between a person and his computer. When Samantha informs Twombly she’s been seeing others, it’s funny when she announces she’s in love with 641 others, just because it seems like such a ridiculous number to feeble-minded, limited people. It’s a little bizarre when Samantha introduces a woman who’s offered to be a surrogate physical sex partner for Twombly, in what would amount to somewhat of a cyber three-way. And there’s a sneaking feeling that to people with a large digital footprint, their greatest fears of the Cloud going down might be realized with a certain development late in the film. There are some chuckles along the way, but that doesn’t take the viewer out of the contemplative mood the movie is going for.

The movie delves into some profound questions and ideas. Twombly is basically in love with an entity representing himself, at least at first, as it’s really just his computer fulfilling his own wishes. In a way, it helps him grow and live a more actualized life, because his longing for companionship is satisfied. He also provides Samantha a path to self-actualization, in a way. Conversely, does that just make him a narcissist? Is this healthy behavior, or is the relationship just serve as an escape from his own problems with intimacy and give him someone he feels like he can control?

There are a lot of positive notions that are conveyed quite insightfully throughout the film. A round of phone sex leaves Twombly feeling unsatisfied and cheap, whereas he’s able to feel emotionally connected to Samantha even though she has no physical presence. Those events help distinguish emotional intimacy from sexual intimacy, as they can be the same thing, but often can’t be equated. It dispels the notion that’s still far too commonly seen throughout entertainment that men and women are somehow distinctly opposed creatures who can mingle but never truly understand one another. In this movie, men and women share similar ambitions, desires, and insecurities, as people generally do in real life. And it takes a much more realistic view of women than most movies, treating them as just as emotionally complex as men, as seen in Amy, who is an excellent character. It also conveys the idea that sometimes leaving a troubled relationship can be just as freeing and fulfilling as entering a new one. The beauty of science fiction is that the abstraction of the story and its proponents can take on a postmodernist quality, as these things can be understood differently depending on the viewer.”Her” is a glorious example of good scifi, as it raises many poignant ideas about human relationships, but still isn’t beholden to any of them. It allows the viewer to come to their own understanding of things.

An interesting comparison the film makes is the limitations of humans as opposed to computers or artificial intelligence. The opportunities for advancement for a being not bound to time and space would be astronomical. It might take a person a month or two to read a book, but a computer can read millions of books in a fraction of a second. For completists like me who would see every movie, listen to all the music and read every book if they could, it’s hard not to be jealous of that kind of ability. There is a sad, depressing beauty in not getting to do everything you want to in life, but the beauty still isn’t precluded from being sad and depressing.

"Her" could have been about this woman.

“Her” could have been about this woman. Image Credit: Reddit

That doesn’t mean the film is without problems. The middle age sensitive emotional straight white guy is pretty overused. How many other wrinkles would be added to the story if it followed a woman or a non-hetero person? Amy does get similar treatment in the progression of her own relationships as Twombly gets, which is cool, but she just doesn’t get as much screen time. That’s a little disappointing since she probably would have been more interesting to follow than Twombly. The relationship with a computer thing is clumsily set up as a metaphor for non-hetero relationships, as some characters scoff at the idea of Twombly dating a computer, while others are cool with it. A better way to address that issue would have been through using non-hetero characters. That would just make sense.

As Sady Doyle has written for InTheseTimes.com, the fact that it’s about a man finding his fantasy woman in a computer who is basically a personal assistant is a bit disturbing. This is literally objectification of women. Even as the film doesn’t seem to disagree with this, it does show that there could have possibly been a better way to handle the story and its proponents. But unfortunately this is what we have, so that’s what we’re working with.

“Her” is definitely not a movie that everyone will get into. For some, the idea of a relationship with a computer will be too silly to even stand. For others, personal insecurities are something they don’t worry themselves with, and that works very well for them. So, not everyone will see this as a great profound work. In fact, some might think it’s downright stupid.

But if you’re a deep thinker, especially about relationships, especially if you’re one who understands how difficult romantic involvement can be, then it’s time to enter Spike Jonze’s Brave New World. “Her” is a new scifi classic that should stand for many years as a burgeoning pinnacle in the genre. It might appear to be a thinly veiled metaphor for how dependent people have become on technology, but what’s here is actually much more human than that.