Only an American Would Have Thought of Emerald Green

When I began this writing project on John Ford’s 7 masterpieces in Marshall’s memory, I knew that I wanted to revisit his 1952 film The Quiet Man despite having already given a review a couple of years ago that I still stand pretty well by. For the continuous momentum, for the blunt fact that 6 reviews over a week does not look as good as 7 reviews, for the fact that it WAS a movie Marshall loved, and most of all just to give myself an excuse to rewatch it the way I am always looking for an excuse to rewatch my old favorites. But of course, that comes with wanting to talk about The Quiet Man without really knowing what to talk ABOUT. And then a few hours before I was freed up to pop my blu-ray in and revisit that beautiful green land of Innisfree… I found myself scrolling through a few of our old facebook messages together and found this…

An angle of The Quiet Man that I didn’t even feint towards in my past review and so – with thanks to Marshall directly for guiding me here – my rewatch occurred looking at the ways in which The Quiet Man is very much about this. Which should be obvious in its authorship – John Ford being an American with Irish ancestry born John Feeney or, to his claim, Sean Aloysius O’Fearna – as well as in its premise. You could just read the back of your DVD or blu-ray case to identify this in its plot summary. Sean Thornton (John Wayne, also of Irish descent and did you know his real name is Marion?) returns to his birthplace of Innisfree, Ireland after a hard life in Pittsburgh trying to bury his past in America with this idealized version of his homeland. But let’s go a bit deeper into how A Quiet Man is about this…

Everything we learn about Sean’s life in America is of hardship and most of that established from the beginning. His grandfather died in an Austalian Penal Colony, both of his parents dead before he was 12 years old, grew up in destitution next to a “slag heaps” (a piece of dialogue that calls back specifically to the imminent coal rundown future of How Green Was My Valley). It’s important to note that two of the figures that raised him ended up dying outside outside of their homeland – Sean’s mother and grandfather – and his father of a “bad accident” before America, implying Sean’s barely has memory of him. And so he is brought to feel like what little memories and stories his mother told him of Innisfree and his childhood home White O’Mourn, he recognizes Innisfree as “another word for Heaven”, something instantly shot down by the local Widow Tillane (Mildred Natwick) as “Innisfree is far from being Heaven, Mr. Thornton” as well as her immediate assumption not that Sean wishes to live once more there but that he seeks to create a monument or memorial of the shack.

Nevertheless, Sean tries to build his own heaven and it’s a little bit more of the fantasy version where he reconstructs White O’Mourn with rusticity that is greeted not necessarily with condescension but with some amount of surprise. His choice to paint his home door green at one point is treated as a charming perculiarity – “Only an American would have thought of Emerald Green”, as this review’s title quotes – and there is a later scoffing at his choice of things to plant once he makes to create a garden on the lands. Which is to say that Sean is trying very hard to fit with an image of Ireland that might be more in his head than in the land before we even reach the major conflict of the film, where Squire “Red” Will Danaher (Victor McLaglen, for this is obviously Ford’s most Irish film since The Informer and that of course means McLaglen will be front and center)’s deep grudge at Sean for claiming his birthright of White O’Mourn just before Danaher was aiming to purchase the home and the complications that ensue when Sean and Will’s sister Mary Kate (Maureen O’Hara, returning among other actual Irish Ford regulars like a never-better Barry Fitzgerald and Arthur Shields) court and marry.

But this is talking more explicit narrative evidence and if there’s one thing I hope I’ve indicated John Ford does, it’s how he says things a whole lot better through aesthetics. The primary one being that Sean – despite our noting that he very much born in Ireland – does not have an Irish accent. And it can be safe to say the reason is practical, as Ford and Wayne’s earlier collaboration The Long Voyage Home indicated that accents are probably not Wayne’s strongest suit. Regardless, the result is strong: when even Ward Bond is able to put on an Irish brogue in his delivery, Wayne is going to look plenty out of place amongst this otherwise friendly company (let alone when it’s actually antagonistic to him like Red and Mary Kate).

Beyond that, The Quiet Man still feels somewhat an autocritique of Sean’s mindset returning home as it appears to be Ford’s mindset making the movie, being born in Maine and to my knowledge this being the first time he was in Ireland, creating his own image of how the land should look. I’ve never been to Ireland (though Odin help me, I will try to make that not the case* before I die) and it is sad to say I know very few Irish people, but I think it’s safe to say that the manner in which Ford presents the land and its people is… shall we say animated? It indulges in a multitude of stereotypes about drinking and impishness and throwing fisticuffs (which of course we will get back to) and fiery redheads of the sort, but it doesn’t lack one bit of sincerity and it seems as better a home for that loving jabbing at Ford’s ethnic background. Besides which, I can’t imagine that mindset also didn’t inform Ford and returning cinematographer Winston Hoch to make green by far the most saturated of the colors in The Quiet Man, though plenty more are prevalent with one we will particularly note.

Back to the complications of Sean and the Danahers. Those complications are the basis of when Sean starts to recognize that Irish customs of domesticity don’t exactly match up to his expectations and to deal with that. Red particularly is spending most of his appearance trying to goad Sean into a physical fight but this is something Sean is adamant on preventing, but it’s more Mary Kate whom he has to look out for. In a movie full of greens, Mary Kate is almost exclusively set in blues and reds, normally the former when she’s at her most agreeable and red when she’s at her most confrontational with Sean and a balance of both the scenes that require the most complexity out of O’Hara’s performance. Either way, her visual color palette cuts particularly through the greenery (including and especially her introductory wide shot) in a manner that interrupts the exact sort of Irish landscape that Sean was looking for when he arrived. Eventually, this becomes more or less a visual struggle between green and blue – when Sean tries to adapt to Irish customs of courtship is where we see him most in blue and outside of the third act, it is an outright fish out of water look. Just consider this hilarious two-shot of them in marriage…

Later on a mixup causes Red to be so infuriated that he refuses to provide Mary Kate’s dowry and that’s the real kicker in Sean and Mary Kate’s marriage. To Sean, he’s abandoning materialism and possessions in the US – particularly after a life of having none – but Mary Kate’s possessions of her own earning from her own hard life and Sean does not seem to truly understand that, causing the biggest hurdle for them two as a couple. Particularly Mary Kate’s frustration that Sean doesn’t care to integrate her way of life with his and will not fight for her, something Sean really needs to be convinced of and where his status as an outsider truly brings him at a divide.

The moment that indicates Sean’s reason for not wanting to fight and for leaving America in the first place is a flashback distinct in both being the only sequence we see set in America and the only one that’s abstract: the backdrop is darkened beyond a backlight for Sean’s stunned posture and when we see him taking a seat and being covered in something comforting… what is important to note is that his name is embroidered in green of all things in that one flashback sequence. A visual anchor right back to where we meet Sean and a moment of personal contention before making his decision to finally accept and engage the fight for his identity and his new home, a moment where he cuts along through the field of green marching and dragging along with Mary Kate in a blue shirt. And his blue shirt matches up well against Red’s own blue when they finally have their phenomenal and unforgettable fisticuffs match (on top of being the moment where Victor Young’s score, the best ever made for a Ford film, get most indulgent in traditional instrumentation after previously just sprinkling Irish airs whenever Sean seems to get closest to getting it) which ends specifically with a dissolve to the two of them side by side, blue sleeved arm over the other’s back, embraced like brothers now… no decisive result of the fight, just that it ended with Sean’s acceptance. And blue-shirted he remains in his final shot as well when we literally say farewell to every character with their own direct address close-ups and two-shots.

So there you have it: John Ford took the opportunity with The Quiet Man to imbue his own sense of what Ireland would look like to the mind of someone whose heart belongs there but does not come from there. And in turn that informs The Quiet Man‘s tale of an Irish-American trying to have Ireland fit into his foreign idea of the land before taking solace in being a part of the culture itself and reclaiming his heritage. And like all of Ford’s best masterpieces, he lets this psychology fit just as well into the strong and striking visuals even in a movie as easy-going and easy-on-the-eyes as The Quiet Man.

*in this asterisk, I shall hide my shame that I was at one point in consideration of an internship at Cartoon Saloon before pulling out.

…And The Valley of Them That Have Gone

For Marshall – who was one of the first people I’d met who’d push back on this movie’s ill-deserved legacy

We all know the infamous results of the 14th Academy Awards in 1942, where How Green Was My Valley won 5 Oscars including the third Best Director win for John Ford and Best Picture. And that happened at the cost of Citizen Kane, thereby leading to nearly 70 years of backlash that insisted because How Green Was My Valley was not worthy of that award because the win was stolen from “The Best Movie Ever”. What this post pre-supposes is… maybe this win was deserved.

It really was. Certainly, How Green Was My Valley is not better than Citizen Kane (likewise, Orson Welles is my favorite director where as John Ford is only my favorite American director) but not being as good as Citizen Kane still leaves room for being one of the best movies ever made.

And I get how it may feel like the sentiment inherent in How Green Was My Valley‘s storytelling from a script by Phillip Dunne adapted from the novel by Richard Llewellyn was being awarded as a reaction to Kane‘s cold cynicism but if you may permit me the chance, I’d like to propose that How Green Was My Valley accomplishes that sentiment of a child’s memory but from the eyes of an adult that clearly came to recognize the beginnings of what is a darker and immediate present. That’s after all the first thing we are faced with before anything: an unseen narrator voiced by an uncredited Irving Pichel observes with us the audience a blackened and smoke filled hillside Welsh village as he prepares to leave this place for good. The very shot has us hover past his hands preparing to leave and exiting out the window of his home where blackened ground and smog from the nearby colliery greets us by filling an place in the frame where the sky could be visible with gray toxicity.

After Pichel delivers his defiant monologue for remembering the valley the way it was over the way it now is, we fade into a view of the major road where young Huw Morgan (Roddy McDowell) and his father Gwilym (Donald Crisp) are able to view mountains as far as seen filled with trees and brightness in Arthur Miller’s glowing black-and-white cinematography but even within that opening introduction to our narrator’s – who is identifiable as the adult Huw – childhood reminiscences, the beginnings of that “black slag, the waste of the colliery” is visible (including a shot where it takes up a third of the frame at the top of the village’s adjacent hill. That slag is introduced to us in the frame narrative with practically half of the village’s homes buried beneath it, thereby even from the start of Huw’s voiceover waxing we are reminded grimly that the destruction of this village has already begun.

And before I go on, if I may note something I really love about the way these first three minutes (for indeed, I’ve only JUST described the first three minutes!) invite us to watch Huw’s memories with him: the introductory montage in the present brings us to face the remnants of the village with straightforward cuts from James B. Clark to each reveal but then once we fade into the past, a single moment – Huw and his father walking to the coal slag before Huw’s sister Angharad (Maureen O’Hara) calls out to them through song and Huw calls her back with the same tune – features crossfades between the shots, giving it more of the sense of something associative rather than continuous. Which is an outstanding usage of editing a single event to tell us how this is a movie communicating moments popping into the mind of a man rather than an active history. It will not return for most of the film, but as mental place-setting, it did all it needed to in those 3 minutes.

Something else that won’t necessarily return until later is the sense of things becoming for the worse, since this is in the end a movie about adult Huw’s attempts to maintain nostalgia as Pichel’s narration never ceases to be warm and wistful no matter what the scene be. Even while the central colliery remains hovering over the village with its smoke and its waste taking up one isolated quarter of the landscape shots involving that lovely and cozy village main village road (a studio set* designed by Richard Day and Nathan Juran in a manner that greatly favors Miller’s full frame and Ford’s attempts to resemble 19th Century British landscape paintings), Huw plays softball selecting early memories like his eldest brother Ivor (Patric Knowles)’s marriage (and Huw’s immediate infatuation with his sister-in-law, Bronwyn (Anna Lee)), the men working that colliery that make up that village’s entire economy singing proudly in Welsh at the end of the working day as they prepare to wash up the soot covering their bodies, and the pleasant domesticity of dinner together with the family.

And yet before very long, we are faced with the first major conflict: the wages of the coal mine workers has been cut and the remaining four of Huw’s brothers that were living in the Morgan home clash with their father on the matter of creating a Union to protect their rights as workers. And then further on more quiet conflicts occur at the margins of Huw’s happy memories until they start taking over the narrative structure. That’s the most impressive thing about Dunne’s writing here: the way it lets the events play episodically until they catch together as something like momentum to the inevitable around halfway through. It is also one of the ways this movie allows Ford to slip in as much of his socialist politics as possible: the union business, the lingering presence of capitalism and the awareness of its coming effects, and even fits in environmentalism in the quietest (though not subtle) ways.

In any case, just as much as Pichel attempts to provide resilience to the early signs of his village and his family’s future, there is still one more formal element to provide reinforcement to that swell and it’s Ford and Miller’s favor of wide shots and wide angle lenses. Which certainly makes sense for exterior sequences that add to the sense of community when we witness all the workers filling the streets and the screen, singing together or marching together or even just need a reminder of what is at stake with the shots of the entire village and what is coming with the colliery standing in the back. But the interior sequences – those particularly in the Gwilym home though the chapel in which Pastor Gruffydd (Walter Pidgeon) preaches between acting Huw’s secondary father figure has a significant presence and there is also an incredible usage of a schoolhouse hallway that stresses the out-of-placement of certain characters – give up the game by abiding by the same angles and lenses where we see just how tightly fit together the Morgans are in their own home, particularly when they get to pull Ford’s favorite trick of capturing the ceilings (introduced earlier in Stagecoach). Yet even within those homey walls, there are battles to be lost: the forces of the colliery ruining the livelihood and home of these people move back as the interpersonal conflicts take center stage, some of which are the acts of good people not knowing right (such as the afore-mentioned tension between Gwilym and his sons on unionizing), some are complex (as in the romance between Gruffydd and Angharad), and some are just the cruel acts of the vindictive (the deacon Mr. Parry (Arthur Shields) is the closest this movie has to an antagonist).

It is perhaps through the characters (and the ensemble’s lively way of playing them even at their most significant hardships) that Huw most finds his memories faced with a lack of pure sweetness. The perspective of which we are particularly watching Gwilym beckons the sort of uncontested admiration a son would have of his father, aided by the firm human patience with which Crisp (in an Oscar winning performance) fills Gwilym. But yet there are moments where Gwilym is fundamentally wrong and while it is admiring to recognize the manner in which Gwilym holds tightly to patience and manners, the course of events eventually locks on what his second oldest son Ianto (John Loder) declares “If manners are what keeps us from speaking the truth, then we shall be without manners”. Gwilym’s demeanor and role in the family are idealized tenfold especially from the eyes of a child, but it is not the answer in all cases and it unfortunately leads to the inevitable dissolution of the household by the end of it all (and maybe the best function of Sara Allgood as Gwilym’s wife Beth, the matron of the family, is how she gives by far the most emotive performance and the sadder moments in her performance give way to a better knowingness of where we are being led to than anybody else on-screen). Meanwhile, Gruffydd himself is a more grounded figure in Huw’s life who – even in his capacity as spiritual leader – leads the people to more down-to-earth perspectives and matters. And yet in the first of essentially two climaxes in this film, he finally betrays himself to an emotional outburst that promises all bridges burnt against the hypocrisies of the church he works in, something the film finds extremely unmanned even in the truthfulness of it all.

And so here I declare that How Green Was My Valley, even as blessedly affectionate and romantic about the past as it may be, is doing so in a defiant struggle against the clarity of what the real implications and consequence of the times Huw lived in as a boy. And the result is something as effectively bittersweet as anything else could be when introducing a boy’s dearest recollections the sort of gravity only a mature mind can recognize, something more complex than I feel the detractors give How Green Was My Valley credit for. Can it truly be blamed for wanting to indulge as much as possible in its maudlin sympathies? Can a man truly be condemned for wanting to remember simpler times, especially as he recognizes they were not so simple at the same time as the viewer does? That the very final moments of How Green Was My Valley fights the grimmest tragedy with the comforting fact of the affable homeliness at the very beginnings of this memory’s journey (including recalling the sing song calling in a new context) and refuses to return to that initial frame narrative before the credits gives me the sense that even if the past is distant and the present is impossible to escape, perhaps Huw’s battle was not in vain. And that is impossible for me to disparage in any capacity, especially in how it stands as memorable to me as any of Ford’s Westerns.

*An outlier amongst Ford’s pictures, which are usually shot on location. Unfortunately, the ongoing Second World War – which Ford would later famously be involved in the documenting of just after this movie was released – made shooting in Wales out of the question.

Ah, What a Day for Inisfree!

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One of the undiluted pleasures of cinema to me is its transportive value, especially when the sense of setting is so powerful a movie makes me absolutely dream of one day finding and living in the place it takes place in. The Irish town of Inisfree, where the 1952 romance The Quiet Man, is not a real place except in the dreams of the filmmaker* but the Irish counties of Mayo and Galway where it was shot certainly are real and The Quiet Man certainly made me desire to one day witness the beautiful lush seemingly endless landscapes of brilliant lively greens in every possible shade met by an unblemished cool blue sky as cinematographer Winton Hoch captured in loud Technicolor. Nor of his serene and wonderfully sleepy view of the streets and churches and fishing holes and all the other domesticities of the town proper, designed and shot with a rustic adoration and intimate amiability.

Yep, you’d have to expect whoever the hell directed a movie that lays its eyes on the Irish lands with clear-eyed endearment with the island. One might even suspect that director to be Irish himself and would be pretty right that there is Irish in the blood of a man who swears his name to be Sean Aloysius O’Fearna or O’Feeney, though we better know him as the All-American director of mostly John Wayne Western vehicles, Mr. John Ford. Which would make it no surprise as well that he brought along Wayne to star this particular film, as the American returning to his birthplace Sean Thornton. What brings Thornton to his old family farm is matter screenwriter Frank S. Nugent leaves to mystery for most of the movie, but in a remarkably unstressed way that doesn’t stop it from striking the film as such an easy comic work where Thornton tries to adapt to the new culture he’s now living within, standing out in his being played by John Wayne, an actor as broadly American from his amused observations to his tall but slightly lazy gait about a land he hasn’t travelled since he was a child.

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Absolutely soon as Thornton steps foot into the green glades of his new home, he’s rapt with attention at the young woman wearing cool blue shirt to offset her blazing red hair and skirt shepherding the sheep and who takes immediate moves to avert his gaze. We later learn her to be Mary Kate Danaher (Maureen O’Hara) and even without Thornton’s courting of her, Mary Kate’s eldest brother and the man of the Danaher house Squire “Red” Will (Victor McLaglen, another Ford collaborator who gives a performance as red-faced and sputtering in its mask as in his Oscar-winning turn in The Informer) has his own grievance to hold against Thornton. Squire Danaher had his eyes on White O’Morn, the cottage of Thornton’s birthright residing right in view of the Danaher house, for purchase. Thornton’s return and easy friendship with every town in contrast to Red’s tolerated but undangerous antagony makes it sure quick for Thornton to take back his spot.

Tradition favors the way that Squire Danaher imposes between Thornton and Mary Kate unless Thornton takes up his fists to defend the honor of their courtship and yet Thornton refuses to indulge in that sort of violence, for reasons related to his escape to Ireland. The movie is generous to two separate points of view: the reasons of Thornton’s refusal to fight Squire Danaher are completely understandable and so the issue is not that Thornton refuses to fight a man, but that he doesn’t seem to take Mary Kate’s dignity seriously enough to fight for it in anyway, particularly once they’re married and her brother refuses to the dowry.

This is the least of the places where The Quiet Man could afford Mary Kate some dignity. Nothing really knocks off O’Hara’s proud and fiery approach the character as a woman of her own strong wills, but we may as well identify now that The Quiet Man‘s gender politics are more than a bit regressive when there’s the matter of how one of the movie’s famous kisses is essentially by force. And yet, I can’t help my male privilege showing by getting intoxicated and swooned by how the power of that kiss, not just because of Wayne and O’Hara’s posture as she collapses in his strong arms, but the force within the wind itself blasting into the room from the open doors and windows, threatening to extinguish any flames except their own body heat, practically pushing the two of them together. It’s only one moment of the high-charged eroticism in that restrained 50s visual vocabulary that gives the The Quiet Man the excitement it demands (and it’s not even my favorite – rainy scenes and cemetery scenes are my personal catnip and that particular kiss also has the benefit of not being as manhandling, just so much more tender) and I think that O’Hara and Wayne are able to accomplish that is what makes me move past what is understandably non-preferable material.

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And nothing really gets me past the fact that the movie has an extended sequence in the third act where the butt of the joke is “John Wayne drags Maureen O’Hara uncomfortably across a field”. It’s my least favorite moment in the whole film. And yet The Quiet Man doesn’t find Mary Kate contemptible and finds her grievances with Sean’s lack of action the most valid thing, finding her victory even in that dragging scene when it culminates with Sean and the Squire go head-to-head and insisting that the way of life in Inisfree is certainly more pleasant and preferable and possibly even more dignified to Sean’s rigid Americanism.

And what a brilliant fight that is, extended and exaggerated and full of barreling throws and close-ups of Wayne and McLaglen’s faces taking a wallop and wondering what just happened, rolling in lakes and hay and grassy hills. The traveling manner of the fight and the way that practically every single male figure in the vicinity has to involve themselves and exclaim and cheer (including a very wonderful moment involving a man on his very deathbed) just piles on the good humor and nature of this conflict so much so we can’t imagine Sean and the Squire coming out of this with any more bad feelings for each other.

Early in the film, the Widow Tillane (Mildred Natwick) who sells Sean his home mutters “Inisfree is far from heaven”, but Ford absolutely does not believe that and spends the whole movie proving her wrong with a joyous eye for picturesque locations with sequences indicating the idyllic aspect of living in this Island, like a rousing horse race on the shores of Lettergesh or the quiet fishing hole which the easy-going Father Lonergan (Ward Bond, another Ford mainstay) could be found praying for a bite, all blanketed by Victor Young’s arrangement of Irish airs and bouncy slights. And the cast populates it all in unsubtle Irish caricatures full of personality and bouyancy in joy, most of all in the small impish and grinning Barry Fitzgerald’s turn as jaunting car driver Michaeleen “Óg” Flynn. Nothing about the high-spirited sense of humor feels spiteful, it’s just in service to accenting how colorful this community Ford and Nugent and company wanted to erect as a grand collection of all the things that make Ireland great in their eyes.

That’s what animates The Quiet Man, nothing but love from Ford. Love for a people and a land that Ford is aware he comes from turning over into love for a place and characters that he invented, thereby making that love impossibly infectious to leave the movie without. Every inch of Ford’s directorial ability is spent trying to turn Inisfree into a complete wonderland of color and wind, earning him his fourth (and last) Best Director Oscar and making two hours in the most low-key lovely place feel like such a rush that I can’t wait for the next time I go back.

*There IS an island called Innisfree but it’s not the same place.

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Ocean Man

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There’s gonna be something weird about finally writing about The Shape of Water after it had won its Oscar, as though I’m raining on somebody else’s celebration since I don’t have much happy things to say. But, I plan to eventually review every Best Picture winner and I need to get this out of eventually. And I may as well be happy that Guillermo Del Toro, decidedly one of my favorite filmmakers working today, is finally receiving the recognition he deserves. It’s just not for a movie I have much love for and I’d argue it’s his most ordinary movie yet, which is a hell of a claim for a Gill-Man romance.

Besides Terry Gilliam, nobody stacks up rejected projects like Del Toro. The man collects them like Pokémon. And while the scrapping of Silent Hills and At the Mountains of Madness certainly hurt more, the hurt for his proposed romantic Creature from the Black Lagoon remake is still searing right there in my heart, so when the trailer for The Shape of Water came out earlier in 2017, I was pretty much giddier for the project than I’ve ever been for a Guillermo Del Toro film in my life. And then when it was announced at the Venice Film Festival that it won the Golden Lion, I was even more sold than I’ve ever been. “They gave their top prize to the movie where Sally Hawkins fucks the gill-man?!” I exclaimed to my friend in excitement when I found out.

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So, when I walked out of the movie nowhere near as ecstatic as the folks I saw the movie with, it may very well be a part of my expectations not exactly being met (FULL DISCLOSURE: It may also be that I was suffering a numbing amount of after-work migraines in the film and chose unwisely to join them at a 10:10 pm screening), but I hope I can express well enough – against the tide of praise – why The Shape of Water only occurs to me as fine rather than great. I mean, fine should not be the way I feel after I got my romantic Creature from the Black Lagoon remake that I’ve been wanting for so damn long.

Except I only got it after sitting through an hour of Guillermo Del Toro’s Crash. I mean, it’s a significantly better version of Crash as directed and co-written by an actual talent and it’s theses about race and society are not as patronizing as Paul Haggis’. But they’re arguably as shallow and distanced, with little interiority afforded by Del Toro and Vanessa Taylor’s screenplay to some characters (ie. Octavia Spencer once again having to do the heavylifting for his character with a pretty much one-sided portrayal of a dead marriage displayed 90% via monologue) and used mostly as just more window-dressing to setting the film in the racially, gender-wise, and diplomatically messy time of America on the verge of the Civil Rights. And while the argument could be made that The Shape of Water is in the end not really about these observations, it doesn’t really assuage me when Del Toro and Taylor devote more screentime to these surface level themes than the “fish-fucking” that people like to praise the movie for. And I know Del Toro is intelligent enough to work with these concepts.

That’s a lot of talking about the script without actually establishing what The Shape of Water‘s story is. The straightforward premise of The Shape of Water is how Elisa Esposito (Hawkins, a Mike Leigh alum who I’m always ecstatic to see in movies), a mute janitor for the US government-contracted Occam Laboratories, witnesses them bringing in a mysterious monster (Doug Jones, Del Toro’s reliable monster man) at the height of the Cold War insisting its danger and the potentials of winning the space race from studying the creature. And how after a time, Esposito and the Asset (as it is referred to in the film and credits) come to fall in love to the point that when the authority on the research of the Asset, Col. Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon playing an unchallenging part he can do in his sleep, though that doesn’t detract from how far he excels at it), eventually orders its death for dissection, Elisa and her friends craft up a plan to rescue and release the Asset.

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It’s pretty much fairytale stuff here and Del Toro is more than aware of that in Paul D. Austerberry’s production design of the early 1960s as a drowned-in green caricature of urban and domestic ghosts left over from the likes of American Graffiti which feels like the least creative design of Del Toro’s career since Hellboy, frankly mundane and even within the transparently sinister laboratories and the unglamorous period settings – or in the very calm and paternal delivery of the narration like lulling somebody to sleep by Richard Jenkins’ character, Elisa’s best friend and closeted advertising artist Giles (who is both the best performance in the film and the most shaded of all the characters arguably, given his very own subplot in regards to an infatuation he has and the depression brought about by the state of his career).

And yet The Shape of Water takes its sweet time trying to correct its course on tone between self-conscious social commentary, government thriller, monster movie, or broad romance and Del Toro for the first time can’t perform this function without every scene transition feeling thudded and sudden (including a huge gap in the developing relationship between Elisa and The Asset that feels rushed because of how overstuffed the social commentary makes The Shape of Water), which is why it’s no surprise that when the movie finally dedicates itself fully to thriller once Elisa and her friends decide to take action for The Asset’s survival. It’s much more focused and tighter at that point and even does more to earn the swooning final beat of the whole film than any of the slightness that inhabited the first half of the movie.

That The Shape of Water catches its footing the more it progresses as a narrative is a good portion of why it doesn’t distress me as much that I came away kind of disappointed. There are more than a few inspired elements within the film even before I feel it sticks the landing, like Alexandre Desplat’s tender score inputting delicate passions and vulnerabilities to underscore the characters’ living situations, the way that Giles is an unabashed movie fanatic which can’t help feeling informed by how much of a cinephile Del Toro is (sure, it’s part of what makes the movie overstuffed but it at least feels… real), and of course to say nothing of the wonderful texture and sleekness (slimy but not disgusting) of the monster suit Jones dons as The Asset, living and breathing and moving on its own terms and brought to life even further by post-production effects that surge lights through its body to shape a divinity into the creature and make him fascinating and scene-stealing with big round cutesy eyes to sell it as… well, a fish out of water while Jones moves with apprehensiveness and curiosity at the world around him.

It’s not a total loss, that’s just a fact. But I’d rather had a wholly great film like Del Toro has often given me than a halfway good movie. Still in the end, Del Toro will be ok and will hardly care what I think about the movie that got him two Oscars, the success of which probably ensures less adversity in his developing projects as he had faced all throughout his career. And he’s had more than enough great movies not to lose an ounce of good will from me just on account of The Shape of Water. Most of all, there’s no real context by which I could claim Del Toro was really… uninspired. The man loves making movies and feels like everything he makes comes from a labor of love. Just sometimes that doesn’t result in something every single one of his fans dig and that’s a-ok. We could do worse with our passion projects sometimes*.

*I say as I side-eye Mute.

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25 for 25 – Everybody Comes to Rick’s

“Scratch any cynic and you will find a disappointed idealist.” -George Carlin

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Casablanca is to me the quintessential example of Hollywood alchemy and it comes right at the very point where the studio system was beginning to drop off from its golden years in the 1930s, explaining how the production was so hands-off from the Warner Bros. superiors to director Michael Curtiz and producer Hal B. Wallis’ involvement. And yet such a tossed-off afterthought to the movie is now one of the most firmly entrenched entries in film history. Which makes it feel somewhat like a last hurrah to a kind of movie-cranking style that you simply don’t see anymore these days, much as cinema today still seems indebted to nostalgia towards those eras – what easier way to spur that nostalgia than Dooley Wilson’s sweet voice serenading “As Time Goes By” – and try to imitate it in homage form. You can’t recreate Casablanca by any means, no matter how much you try to ape from it. It is a product exclusively of its time and of its situation, only the right combinations at the right moment could have coalesced into this perfect form of cinema, the way Casablanca gets to be formed.

So, for God’s sake, stop aping from it, Foodfight!

Anyway, I’ve been going through quite a phase in my life over the past few years where two movies altogether struggle within me for my top spot of My Favorite Movie of All Time and I think they both have to do with how powerfully each one speaks to me, so it’s time for another extremely subjective review where I just square with what Casablanca says to me about myself.

And that means getting into the root of what is, to my mind, one of the most perfect narrative works of screenwriting that all started when Hal B. Wallis of Warner Bros. purchased the rights to husband-and-wife team Murray Burnett and Joan Alison’s then-unproduced play Everybody Comes to Rick’s. In the end, the real MVPs of the story – notoriously writing it and re-writing it over and over until the bitter end – are Philip G. and Julius J. Epstein (other notable writers were Howard Koch providing more political elements while the Epsteins worked on another piece of agitprop Why We Fight and Casey Robinson touching up on several meeting scenes). The cobbled together aspect of the story, throwing in further and further dramatic reveals and shading characters with more dimensions on each page, can be seen in the urgency of every development in the script. But, it’s still incredible how flawless the story cogs work within it and how quotable it remains on top of it.

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But I still didn’t elaborate on what those story cogs are: The Nazis have arrived and occupied Morocco and Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt) has been stationed there in order to see to the immediate re-capture of concentration camp escapee and resistance leader Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), who would have to go to Casablanca en route to salvation in America. At the center of this is the apathetic Rick Blaine’s (Humphrey Bogart) Cafe Americaine, a hot spot where incidents are always happening and the latest one of which is the sudden arrest of the ill-fated criminal Ugarte (Peter Lorre) over the death of two German couriers with MacGuffin-esque can’t-fail letters of transit out of Casablanca. Only problem is Lorre left those letters in Blaine’s hands and while Laszlo would very much like those letters, Blaine has complex history with the woman Laszlo is fleeing with, Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman).

There’s a real balance in this film with the desires of the screenwriters and director Curtiz, as it’s clear that the screenwriters want to focus on the melodrama of the scenario – every single motivation is covered and staked and communicated clearly with no room for ambiguity except in the very perfect ending – but Curtiz wants to up the romantic element which is probably why if the scene can spare as much framing as it can on Rick and Ilsa, with poor Laszlo nearly out of the picture, it can. The movie sells the chemistry between Rick and Ilsa as dynamic and interesting (while Laszlo and Ilsa are still sweet together, thanks to their performances) and that’s what makes it easy to be convinced Rick may be off to the deep end with what he does with the letters of transit. I mean, I don’t think anybody doesn’t know what happens in Casablanca at this point. But in the moment, Rick’s actions and statements are so very grey and cynical that I’m not convinced he knew 100% what his decisions were going to be until the end and Bogie himself does oh so much to sell that indecisiveness (the only thing he does better than tease the possibility of being a villain in his career despite earning our trust is play drunk and hardboiled and sharp-edged and… ok, he does everything great) while Bergman embodies a need to square her romantic history and bravery in trying to spare her husband of any pain in the truth. Frankly, I don’t think Casablanca is generous on paper to Ilsa as anything more than a gendered second MacGuffin between two men, but Bergman stands tall and proud in that thankless role that it’s not a surprise to find why she was a star afterwards.

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This doesn’t mean Casablanca doesn’t take seriously its political elements. They’re a continued presence that OF COURSE pay off in the final product and the movie’s second most memorable scene is not a political Laszlo scene for no reason. “La Marseillaise” drowning out the vain singing of the Nazis overtly uplifts and tugs at the heartstrings and I don’t give a damn. Those are real immigrants fleeing from German occupation right there in the scene singing along in defiance at the moment the world needed it most. Julius Epstein claimed the movie was full of corn, but that’s dismissive of the sincerity and genuine emotion on the film and the most invested usage of extras I can imagine in any film. If THAT’s corn, then I don’t know what’s real in movies.

But maybe it doesn’t have to be too real. Casablanca fills me with a romantic feeling, every element of it perhaps due to the artificiality of it. I’m not gonna be fooled by the production design of this B-movie-in-all-but-name when I’m actually from the Sahara and have been to Morocco myself, but it gives the film such an exotic atmosphere (something we’re pulled out of during the sophisticated Parisian flashbacks in the end of the first act) that heightens it as manufactured but convincing romanticism. As much romanticism as isn’t already provided by the fact that World War II is to our minds the last war to actually have clearly defined heroes and villains and thus making us yearn for more moral conflicts than the ones in our day and age, so having a movie not just made in that time period but actively pushing towards an attitude for the war that desires we get right to Europe and fight the Nazis head-on. It’s essentially the mythologizing of history right before our very eyes and I can’t imagine getting to have that sort of retrospective attitude toward this movie that fuels its battle for my Favorite Movie of All Time without being born 50 years after its existence. And yet there’s no distance in its mythologizing because of the immediacy of World War II. That very direct inspiration somehow is able to transcend time and its dated context to the very writer of this post every time I watch it. It’s a weird paradox of time of reception that is hard to explain, but it’s there.

Anyway, I’m a cynic, an exhausting cynic that curses and makes sardonic cracks and teases indifference and selfishness same as Rick on the screen. I make sarcastic quips when I don’t need to, I keep to myself deliberately and sometimes inadvertently, I get angry easy, these are all things people attribute to me. And it’s honestly not something I want to be, much as I doubt anybody wants to be a cynical angry person. Casablanca is certainly THE movie that helps to convince me I’m a romantic, just as much as the charmingly corrupt Capt. Renault (Claude Raines threatening to steal the whole damn movie from an already stacked cast) implies in his gamble with Rick Blaine. Blaine’s ability to make a decision by the end of the film for the fate of Laszlo and take a side for the war after the film shakes him angrily and demands it… that’s illuminating. It means there is something he’ll fight for, something to believe in within the war, and seeing myself in Rick means that maybe I want to be a romantic too which brings out my attempt to be the best version of me I can be whenever I can be aware of my actions. Which fuels a much better feeling in myself and yeah, a form of confidence. It’s not for nothing that this inadvertently became the movie I keep showing any girls I date.

It’s so that when we inevitably break up I can look them in the eyes and send them off with a “We’ll always have Paris” and “Here’s looking at you, kid”.

Holy shit, that is cynical. Maybe I should watch Casablanca a few more times.

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No, it’s a Bird.

Ok, so I’m going to be upfront.

This weekend the most notable wide release is Dumb and Dumber To, which I can’t think of anyone wanting to see beyond sheer nostalgia. The rest of the possible remaining movies on the marquee are the simplistic Gone Girl (which you probably saw already), the not-for-everyone John Wick, the boisterous Interstellar and some others I won’t list because I’m lazy and want to get to my review.

But last night, from what I understand, Birdman opened in 800 theaters finally. And if I am correct, it will only be in that many theaters for ONE week.

Go see Birdman.

And now I back it up. I honestly did not expect to like Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) – a title that is such an afterthought and too long that I’m only typing it once. In fact, I didn’t even expect myself to go watch it. It’s been a long while since I ended up actually liking the stuff director Alejandro González Iñárritu, I still want my time wasted for Babel back.

I also don’t very much care for one-shot scenes most of the time. They usually call too much attention to themselves, a catch-22 when the original idea is to reel you into the scenario a lot more. I think that idea is largely lost though by the fact that most filmmakers don’t use it as an involvement technique of cinematography, but just to show off “Oh look how much we can get done in one shot.”

Emmanuel Lubezki is in fact one of the few cinematographers I think can actually not call attention to himself. His career is made up of tastefully composed and spread-out one-shot sequences that leave you realizing what they are only after the fact (and he’s usually helped by a fantastic editor who knows when and where to use them – In this particular case, Douglas Crise & Stephen Mirrone, though they are less there as a source of pacing for Lubezki’s beautiful eye and more to very astoundingly work at making the cuts near unrecognizable unless you really look for them; the pace for these moments seems to be granted by the throbbing drumroll of a score by world-class drum legend Antonio Sánchez).

But Birdman’s special form of presenting itself as a one-shot film (not including some semi-avant garde montages, the grand total of “shots” in Birdman is three) for most of its duration is special in not being cinematic. It’s extremely literary. It’s a visual translation to the stream-of-consciousness writing style. It’s why some things in the film don’t make sense, timewise or locationwise, in its presentation. We’re thinking with Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) as he just gathers himself in different places at different times. The movie makes this clear from the very first second it begins… the man is floating in midair, attempting to act serene as he sits on his invisible hand staring at a window, wondering “how did we get here?”

Who is Riggan Thomson, though? An actor once thrust into the limelight for his appearances in the blockbuster Birdman series, before inadvertently making a mess of his career by refusing to do a fourth movie. Now, a significant amount of decades after the fact, he is trying to clean his career back up in a revival at the St. James Theater. The play in question is an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” and Riggan is involved creatively at all points, directing, writing, and having his best friend and lawyer Jake (Zach Galifinakis) produce the production while Riggan himself finances it. He’s put everything on the line for this play, even things unrelated to the play whatsoever like his relationship to his daughter Sam (Emma Stone), who is fresh out of rehab and has a very strained attitude to her dad, threatening to tear them apart.

Also threatening to ruin Riggan’s career and life with it are his actors, such as the last-minute addition actor of Mike Shiner (Edward Norton with a hairstyle that while probably serving as one of many subtle bird images in the film, just reminds me of James Dean. A lot.) who quickly proves himself to be just as much an asshat and a control freak to severe levels as he is an amazing actor, Shiner’s girlfriend Lesley (Naomi Watts) who is looking forward to making it as a actress, and Laura (Andrea Riseborough), who Riggan is apparently sleeping with. The upcoming previews and opening performances are the final time-setter in this bomb Riggan finds himself inside of and he’s hoping to make it out alive.

See, now it’s especially funny that the movie is based on making itself as literary as possible simply through visuals and especially at focusing on a Raymond Carver tale because the movie itself feels like a Raymond Carver tale. Of course, one set in New York rather than the Southwest US and one that has a focus more on the upper class than the middle class, but its thematic appeals, its structure, its emotional focuses, they’re Carver in nature and maybe it’s because we happen to be in the mind of Riggan for most of the film and Riggan quickly proclaims himself a fan of Carver, but there it is – The script by Iñárritu, Armando Bo, Alexander Dinelaris, & Nicolás Giacobo certainly pits a bunch of minds together to try to make the film seem like a singular thought following all the fears and anxieties of a man at the edge, and despite it being an actor on the stage who has the world staring at him, it is surprisingly easy to relate to for any layman, whether at midlife crisis or in the middle of a life crisis. If there is one problem with the writing, it sometimes tangles over itself – for one, constantly we see Riggan as he perceives himself – capable of psychic powers and superhuman displays of strength and flight. It very much cements the fact that we are watching from the mind of Riggan, but the movie constantly parades an ambiguity into these moments that suggests possibly Riggan’s powers are real and it grasps onto this presentation especially to its final shot. I’m sure it’s fun for audiences to ask themselves those kinds of questions, but the problem is that this attempt at ambiguity is weighted towards one side; if the powers are real, the movie loses most of its theme.

In addition, for a movie that is supposed to have a centralized point of view, there are more than a few scenes that Riggan just doesn’t even appear in at all, with only one of them seeming to be essential to the storytelling while the rest are really great, entertaining scenes that still are pretty disposable in regards to the rest of the film. This is Riggan’s world, these are his own shadows he is trying to escape, let’s try to keep it Riggan’s world and let’s keep focusing on those shadows instead. But that’s just me.

Of course, this is the sort of script that is tailored for a certain lead actor to shine in. The kind of movie made for acting. And that actor blessed with this opportunity is Michael Keaton. Ignoring the obvious parallels in career (ironically, Keaton claims Riggan is the furthest character he has ever played from his own personality), Keaton still is at his best form, not only since his obscurity post-Batman, but in his whole career yet. He channels his frenzied stage persona to a tune that the audience can keep up with without feeling alienated (unlike his performance in RoboCop which… ugh), he has an underlaying melancholy that gives so much to the movie’s atmosphere, and especially a constant danger with every twitch of the finger and whisper to himself. Keaton as Riggan is just the cherry on-top of one of the better casts I have witnessed in 2014, even including some surprisingly revelatory performances from actors I was starting to get tired of, Emma Stone, Zach Galifinakis, and Edward Norton all are actors with as much to prove as Riggan and they damn well prove it against me earlier bias. Just Innaritu proves he can still be a fantastic source of comedy and that all his precise work can be used to actually say something than be a pointless display of technique. I have a lot of re-thinking to do about him.

Listen, Birdman is a really funny movie. A surprisingly psychological movie. An unrelentingly dramatic movie. If you’re going to watch any movie this week, watch Birdman. You can catch Nightcrawler, Interstellar or Whiplash next week, you’re not missing much with the others, and if you took forever to see The Boxtrolls, you deserve to miss it.

Treat yourself with Birdman.