Movie Reviews: Highbrow Edition Part 1

Now’s as good a time as any to look back on some films that would scoff at being called anything less. Regrettably this kind of cinema doesn’t make it to the big screen in the Midwest no matter what the era, but it’s there if you look. On a personal note, it also seems fitting seeing that this is the first year I realized that the Toronto International Film Festival is only a half day’s drive away, but it was too late to plan a trip. I suppose 12 Years a Slave and Gravity can wait awhile. And it’s not like A Field In England was playing there either… Anyway, there were two more films I was going to include here, but since it’s been so long since I’ve posted, I’m just going to post the ones that are done. Part 2 will be on its way soon. Let the snobbery begin.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp – Even in the old comic strips there’s something endearingly sweet about the misguided old Colonel Blimp, the buffoonish satire of British jingoism, and filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger recognize the humanity behind his bluster, forgoing a traditional lampooning to spin his life story into an extravagant saga of early 20th century Europe. He’s introduced to this long fable in recognizable form. Sweating in a Turkish bathhouse, paunchy, bald, and mustachioed, Major-General Clive Candy is confounded by a brash young officer during (technically, prior to) a training exercise. He scuffles awkwardly with the man, howling about honor and protocol, and plunges into a pool completely out of his mind. This is the hero of our story? Apparently so, and the caricature is spot on. The narrative then ventures back in time, and a rejuvenated Candy is shown to be not so different from the cocky officer just seen tormenting his older self, disobeying orders to leave the country and stage his own mission. This leads to him dueling a German officer, Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff, with whom he begins a lifelong friendship. Candy is portrayed as the epitome of English honor – his unauthorized duel even forgiven as a patriotic endeavor – who clings rigidly to his morals. The march of time sees him growing out of touch with current affairs and at odds with increasingly savage military tactics. Stranded in the decimated Flanders fields, Candy dresses down a transport officer, saying his performance would have been unacceptable during the Boer War. “War?” one soldier scoffs once Candy leaves, “That was summer drill practice.” Still, for all the dreariness underlying Candy’s slow decline, the film proceeds with unrelenting spryness. The tone is jolly, making great use of big band music and vivid colors. The military is all pomp and circumstance, and the plot’s darker aspects invade almost from another universe, steering the story away from farce. War is Candy’s life, so why wouldn’t the portrayal be at least a little sunny? He takes everything in stride, and only when his career is held up to the tatters of Theo’s does the convenience of his situation become apparent. Theo is a product of a broken system, the crushing defeat of World War I and the dismantling of the German war machine teaching him to be humble and sympathetic, though equally despondent in the post-war tumult. Candy takes for granted his military might and the moral upper hand, and remains ignorant of defeat, even when he suffers a truly personal one early on. When both officers fall in love with Deborah Kerr’s feisty Edith Hunter, Candy gives Theo permission to pursue a relationship and marry. He then spends the rest of his life looking for a substitute before settling on a woman who resembles Edith perfectly (humorously enough played by Kerr, too), and considers her a prize for her likeness. Powell and Pressburger have crafted a meditation on the inevitability of progress, honor, dignity, and duty, finding at its heart the lessons of stubborn Candy, melancholy Theo, and three concerned Deborah Kerrs. When the barnstorming prelude is reenacted at the film’s end, after two and half hours of The Archers’ characteristically astute dialogue, editing, and set design, Candy’s fable comes full circle. Remembering that when he once broke the rules his superior officer treated him to dinner, he decides the whippersnapper who outdid him deserves the same humble congratulations. For once he breaks his constancy, and remains honorable by doing so.

Synecdoche, New York – Charlie Kaufman does so much right with this story of obsessive self-absorption that all the places where it could’ve gone horribly wrong never get a chance to break our fascination. Phillip Seymour Hoffman is Caden Cotard, a playwright who puts his life on stage after being endowed with mystically bottomless resources: a self-replenishing MacArthur Fellowship, a gargantuan warehouse, and an army of actors. He claims that his intentions are pure, vowing to find in this unprecedented production absolute truth, but he is guided from the start by the tyranny of introspection. His project spirals out of control as he spirals out of space and time, and Kaufman grips the reins to race through Caden’s unstable creation with miraculous grace. Kaufman shows Caden inhabiting a temporal void, skipping from crisis to crisis, even traveling into the future where his daughter lies old on her deathbed. There is some lightness to be found in one of the play’s most interesting developments, the spawning of a cottage industry of plays within plays as the actors begin to mimic Caden’s production at large, further blurring the lines of fantasy and reality. The lanky, un-Hoffman-like Tom Noonan puts in a sincere performance as the firstly cast Caden in a scene where it’s unclear who has chosen whom. The play has given Caden a chance to externalize his every thought, and Noonan’s Sammy appears as Caden’s disembodied consciousness, an actor whose obsession with Caden ironically defines him solely by self-interest. When his creations begin to exercise autonomy, and Sammy, for instance, in a fog of despair, commits suicide, Caden is infuriated. Standing over the corpse, he scolds Sammy for jumping. He never jumped. Caden never sees his play become anything more than an outline, as the telling of the story escapes him and he begins merely to supervise it. What he does create is antithetical to the art of theatre, an incoherent and indigestible behemoth that never entertains an audience. Kaufman piles on the metaphysics, symbolism, philosophy, neuroses, and phobias, but as far off course as Caden goes, Kaufman’s emphasis is always clearly on Caden. Despite its sometimes mind-boggling intricacy, the conceit is arguably very simple. What if one person was given unlimited resources to question his whole life? The questions that Kaufman asks and the ideas he proposes can be terrifying to contemplate, and they’re far beyond anything other filmmakers are demanding of us. It’s an apolitical examination of the individual, using Caden as its disturbed subject. It’s all due to Kaufman’s mastery of the medium that we become captivated by the endless juggling of Caden’s fears, insecurities, limitations, and shortcomings. As Caden comes closer to the end and the pace becomes more frenetic, his world erupts into mass hysteria, and we’re given the biggest punch in the gut. The pessimism flows through to the end with Caden’s epic attempt to make sense of life not only stripped away, but revealed to be nothing but a fantasy all along.

That rounds up this couplet of classics. Try as I might,  there is much, much more to be gleaned from both of these titles, and the more exploring I do online, the shrewder the analyses get. I’ll be back next time with a couple more ‘high brow’ pics, one a bona-fide classic, and the other a recent, shall we say, experimental piece.

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