Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Hooray for Hollywood!, Dept.

Right. So, your sobsister watched AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies, 10th Anniversary Edition on TV a while back but couldn't be arsed to write about it until now. Ha ha! Anyway, the Usual Suspects were featured. By that I mean, the habitu├ęs of everyone's Top Film list, not the excellent Kevin Spacey film. And, parenthetically, why the American Film Institute chose to call this exercise 100 Years...100 Movies rather than "100 Films" is unclear to me. Maybe AFI thought Murkins would be overawed by the word "film". Being grateful for small favors as I typically am, at least they didn't call it "100 Flickers". That said, the top ten very much followed the "Great Books" model: weighty, influential, beloved, historic, revered.
In order:
1) Citizen Kane
2) The Godfather
3) Casablanca
4) Raging Bull
5) Singin' In The Rain
6) Gone With The Wind
7) Lawrence Of Arabia
8) Schindler's List
9) Vertigo
10) The Wizard Of Oz

Hard to argue, right? Except maybe for the fact that I really, really don't get the veneration accorded Schindler's List as a masterpiece of the medium. I mean, yeah, tugging the forelock before the Holocaust lobby but still... It's a good movie, a movie with fine intentions, but number nine best film of the last 110 years? AFI's/Hollywood's/Western Civilization's l-u-v affair with Mr. Spielberg's oeuvre is very much front and center at this event.

Actually, let me give Mr. Spielberg his own paragraph. Eight of his films were nominated (although--thank you, Jesus--A.I. was not among them), of which five were included in the final 100. In contrast to Martin Scorsese's six nominations, three entries, Francis Ford Coppola's four nominations, three entries, and George Lucas' two nominations, two entries, neither of which featured Jar-Jar Binks. Despite the fact that Scorsese (Raging Bull) and Coppola (The Godfather) placed higher than Spielberg in the top ten, Spielberg is still considered the pre-eminent American director both by weight of numbers and prestige. If asked to name a movie director, the average schmoe on the street would almost invariably name Spielberg before, and possibly to the exclusion of, anyone else. But should the wretched E.T. (#24) even be on the same list as, not to mention "outrank", Taxi Driver (#52) and Apocalypse Now (#30)? Among each director's unselected nominees, could one even mention The Color Purple in the same breath as Mean Streets and The Conversation? (And, really, I'm quite surprised that the Oprah bloc wasn't strong enough to push Purple into at least the lower ranks. Did Dr. King die in vain?) There's a much longer piece to be written on the overvaluation of Stephen Spielberg's directorial efforts. This isn't it. But his decision to move from making fun, exciting movies (Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark) to making treacly, 3-hanky crap (E.T., The Color Purple, Always) to Crafting Important Films On Sober Themes (Schindler's List, Amistad, Saving Private Ryan, Munich) while trying to return to making movies that are supposed to be fun and exciting but, in fact, are neither (A.I., Catch Me If You Can, The Terminal, War of the Worlds) has included me out of the Stephen Spielberg Sodality.

At any rate, as is invariably the case at the end of those ineluctable Memorial Day Top 100 Rock Songs Of All Time (which invariably disappoint by not including the great rock songs of the Hittite kingdom, the Merovingian dynasty, and the English Restoration), an unsurprising top ten. Citizen Kane universally regarded as the A-number-one top-of-the-list. Although me, I would've cast my ballot in the direction of 1984's criminally-overlooked Breaking It, in which the then-underage Traci Lords and three other nymphets of earlier vintage try desperately to lose their respective virginities. The scene in which "Jodie Brown" (Lords) practically forces her sex-education teacher (played by John Leslie) to pop her unwanted cherry is a particularly moving and gripping one. And if the moving and gripping is done in just the right sequence, result: happy ending! Ha ha! Bet you didn't see that one coming! Whoops! Another sex-related pun! Ha ha! Yeah. Words. They can make us laugh.

The searing, grating injustice here, however, is not the absence of Breaking It from the top ten or, rather, not only the absence of Breaking it from the top ten, but the inexplicable and shameful absence from the entire list of the cornerstone films of the most important genre in American film: musicals.

How can you say that, sobsister?, I almost hear you ask, Why there are two right there enshrined in the pantheon of the top ten! Yeah, yeah. Applesauce!, I tell you. Why? Here's why.

In the entire Top 100, there are only seven musical films (eight if you count Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. which I don't. on account of how it's renowned as the first feature-length cartoon rather than as an animated musical.):
Singin' in the Rain (#5)
The Wizard of Oz (#10)
The Sound of Music (#40)
West Side Story (#51)
Cabaret (#63)
Swing Time (#90)
Yankee Doodle Dandy (#98)
and 7:100 isn't even an accurate reflection of the ratio of gays to the population at large, so, right off the bat, something's fucked.

Now, let's consider them individually if for no other reason than my obsessive need to drive shit into the ground:
Singin' in the Rain: great musical, no doubt. the definitive Gene Kelly musical, likely. the best film musical about the early days of film, sure. but not the best high-concept, big-ticket MGM musical of the '50s. that would be The Band Wagon. and it pains your sobsister to see this classic overlooked and elbowed aside time and again in favor of SITR. I will gladly match Fred Astaire's performance in Band Wagon against Kelly's. I will easily pick Band Wagon's Dietz/Schwartz songbook over SITR's Freed/Brown tunes. I will utterly prefer Band Wagon's gorgeous romantic duet, "Dancing In The Dark", over SITR's "You Were Meant For Me". I will unfailingly opt for Jack Buchanan's Mephistophelean director over Donald O'Connor's affable second banana. don't get me wrong: I love Singin' in the Rain. it's just no Band Wagon.

The Wizard of Oz: again, great musical. and more subversive, more surreal, more violent, and more dark than most Childhood Classics. it only makes me wish someone other than the candy-floss confectioners under Uncle Walt's baton had crafted the definitive Alice in Wonderland musical. I mean, yeah, ultimately, its message is defeatist and reactionary: real life, in its Dust Bowl grayness, peril, and misery, is still better than Technicolor with strangers, so don't wish for more than you have. but Judy Garland was never better. and there's that whole sync-the-movie-with-Dark-Side-of-the-Moon thing. which I've never done. although I have synced the Wizard of Oz with Connie Francis Sings Jewish Favorites and that shit will blow your fucking mind. the Wicked Witch of the West appears and up comes "My Yiddishe Momme". wow.

The Sound of Music: unless you have several hours to burn, don't get me started on this piece of shit. an utterly-crap score by casting-couch pirate Richard Rodgers who, without Lorenz Hart, cranked out witless "classics" in quasi-rhapsodic mode. children crawling like vermin over Julie Andrews. and the one character who reacts realistically and reasonably to this goon squad of winsome moppets is made the frigid villainess. this saccharine enema doesn't even hold camp value for me.

West Side Story: it's Art, right? with the Shakespeare and the Lenny Bernstein and the balletic choreography. again, don't get me wrong. as a kid, I loved West Side Story. at least the uptempo, jazzy numbers, less so the syrupy stuff. as an adult, I still enjoy its score and love Rita Moreno's drag-queen Latina and Russ Tamblyn's hyperactive Riff. but I find Natalie Wood's Maria too annoying, from her what-country-are-you-from-exactly? accent to her obvious lip-sync over Marni Nixon's arias. and it always bugged me that they bowdlerized lyrics and dialogue in the translation from stage to screen. I suppose I should be grateful that they didn't drag in June Allyson to play Maria.

Cabaret: now you're talking top ten, a genuine film musical classic built to go toe-to-toe with the Raging Bulls of the world. except it's at number 63. because it's a little, ummm, dirty for the masses. all that polymorphous perversity, don'tcha know.

Swing Time: yes, of course. Astaire-Rogers. of course. but why at number 90, for fuck's sake?! and why not Top Hat or Gay Divorcee too? these are the signature films of the Art Deco era. these are the signature films of musical romance. (what, you were gonna say "Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy"?) these feature not only some of the best dancing and best music of the 20th century but also some of the best second bananas in comedy: Edward Everett Horton, Eric Blore, Erik Rhodes, Helen Broderick. what the fuck, people? one movie at number 90?!? Jesus.

Yankee Doodle Dandy: hmmm...let's see...not one of the best musicals ever...not Jimmy Cagney's best performance (although he is shamefully unrecognized anywhere else on this list)...not even Jimmy Cagney's best performance in a musical. no, that would be his performance in Footlight Parade, a snappy, gritty, funny, crazy backstage musical choreographed by Busby Berkeley who...oh, that's right...is represented nowhere-at-fucking-all on this list. more on that in a sec but for now, let me just note: Yankee Doodle Dandy has no place on the Top 100, period.

Busby Berkeley. Universally recognized as a film visionary. 42nd Street revived the musical as an artistically- and financially-viable medium after the first studio hog-stampede to print money on The Jazz Singer's back by cranking out dozens of talkee-singee-dancee quickies saturated the market and alienated viewers completely. 42nd Street and its kin at Warner Bros. (Gold Diggers of 1933, Gold Diggers of 1935, Dames, Footlight Parade, not to mention the less-well-known Berkeley musicals) feature the most imaginative direction of musical numbers in the history of the medium. Heck, let's drop the qualifier: these films feature some of the most imaginative staging and direction of film you'll see. Berkeley was a surrealist, a realist, a magic realist. The scripts of the cited films themselves already crackle and pop with classic wise-guy/tough-broad banter and badinage, they steep in the funk of cheap perfume and backstage sweat and stubbed-out smokes that Warner Bros. brought to its films in the '30s. And then Berkeley comes along and takes the musical numbers into cocaine clarity and opium dreaminess and cocktail lust. Women turn into skylines, horny midgets dress as little boys, the camera travels through a tunnel of women's crotches and neon violins form a single giant violin, a Broadway Baby falls out a window and an army of homeless veterans tramps across an impossibly-large stage. How can this body of work be utterly ignored or, rather, how can the supposedly-informed voters at AFI be so clueless regarding one of the richest veins in American film history? Gratefully, Warner Bros. released the first tranche of its Berkeley-related musicals in a DVD box set last year and the next is due in 2008. Warner Bros. also released the complete Astaire-Rogers recently. All these films in beautiful b'n'w transfers. Hopefully, this will serve to introduce young and old viewers to some of the best films in history. Compared to which, The Sound of Music is a mouthful of Velveeta next to perfectly-aged Vacherin and Livarot.

So, yeah, AFI.
Maybe next time we can discuss why there are so few comedies on the list, only two of which were made after 1961.
Secret sobsister hint: most film comedies are meretricious, lowest-common-denominator shit.

3 comments:

Dan B (no, not Bennett, think harder) said...

Speaking of Judy Garland, there is an exciting new group on Yahoo called The Judy Garland Experience that everybody should check out. The group features lively discussions, rare photo's, and the most amazing music files anywhere! This week they are featuring both of Judy's appearances from the Merv Griffin Show circa 1968. Hear her singing and talking with Margaret Hamilton, Rex Reed, The Ohio Express, Totie Fields, Marty Brill, Van Johnson, Moms Mabley, Arthur Treacher, and others.
Judy is pure magic on these shows. The group also has audio files of her first concert at The Palladium in 1951, as well as both her songs from Valley Of The Dolls, taped phone conversations, interviews, radio spots, and more! The group membership includes Garland family members, authors, people who have made movies about Judy, other celebrities, and fans of all levels.
Truly, the most eclectic membership of any of the Garland groups or clubs. The only thing missing is you! Please stop by our little Judyville, once you visit you may never want to leave!
http://movies.groups.yahoo.com/group/thejudygarlandexperience/

uncleRoy said...

Isaac Asimov: "What was that word you used again?"
Annoying editor: "Meretricious!"
IA: "And a happy new year to you."

the sobsister said...

uncleroy, I'm sending a rim-shot through the ether to you.