List: Future Shock

Next Thursday, Oct. 27, Turner Classic Movies will be airing films that represent 70s future shock. There are some great movies for that theme, but I thought it would be more interesting to broaden it to all time periods of film. So here’s my list of the great future shock movies.

Metropolis

 

5. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

The world is shocked by the presence of aliens, but these aliens don’t come to invade the earth. They come to heal it. They know that the real source of the world’s future shock is its fear and unwillingness to unite with other people.

 

4. Modern Times (1936)

Chaplin’s classic comedy shows fear of a very soon-coming future. The combination of mechanical advancement with increasing poverty gives the hilarious futuristic machines created in this film a somber and frightening backdrop in Chaplin’s own present time.

 

3. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Mostly a wondrous and beautiful look at the future, HAL represents all that is also scary about the future. The shock comes from getting the answer to the question the astronauts don’t really want an answer to: Can something humanity created become human and even replace humanity?

2. The Time Machine (1960)

The starkest look at the potential future, George Pal’s masterful adaptation of the H.G. Wells’ classic novel includes a future without the capacity for thinking, individuality, or love. As the result of centuries of cultural brainwashing, this is the thought of what the world will look like. It’s especially shocking for Americans right now, living in a country led by someone so insecure that he wants to make everyone like him (in both senses of the word “like”), creating some segments of the country that look a lot like this movie’s dismal vision of the future.

 

1. Metropolis (1927)

Fritz Lang directed the greatest of all silent films. A futuristic retelling of the story of the Tower of Babel, Metropolis shows how future shock is often the result of fearing that the past will repeat itself. With loads of biblical imagery placed in a sci-fi setting, Metropolis, like 2001 and The Day the Earth Stood Still, has a potentially hopeful view of the future. But it understands that shock must come before the hope, and that the hopeful possibilities can only occur if there is a Mediator willing and able to lead people through the shock and into the hope.

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Vertigo (1958)

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Alfred Hitchcock’s best movie is based on a novel with a title much better than the movie’s title. Boileau-Narcejac’s Dentres les morts means “From among the Dead.” I haven’t read the novel, but it’s a better title because it’s what every frame, every twist and turn, every character, and the eventual solving of the mystery in Vertigo is all about.

The movie starts with the traumatic event that caused the main character’s vertigo. When we see his attempts to recover from the trauma, we see that he sees himself still as living among the dead (among those who died in the traumatic event). He agonizes over whether or not he could have saved anybody, if he did the best police work he could have done, if the whole matter was his fault.

He learns that his vertigo can only be cured by another traumatic event. He’s quit the police force but gets a call out of the blue asking him to take up a private job of detective work. It’s a ridiculous offer with a ridiculous premise, but he accepts it because he is trying to find his way out from among the dead. Just as he thinks his vertigo will be cured if he finds his way into another traumatic situation, he thinks he will have the opportunity to answer all the questions that nag him about the last one. So the whole plot to solve the mystery put in front of him is for Scottie (Jimmy Stewart) a way to recreate his past and see if he can make it turn out differently, in a way where he’s not disappointed in himself anymore.

He didn’t fail in the situation that haunts him, but that doesn’t stop him from believing he’s a failure and from living as if he’s a failure from that point forward. He didn’t just quit the police force, he quit living until getting obsessed with this new case. It was his way out of his situation “among the dead.”

It’s not only the Jimmy Stewart character who finds himself “among the dead,” but every character in the movie. At the beginning, we see him with Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) who’s in love with him, but he sees her more as a sometimes-maid, sometimes-nurse, and sometimes-mother. They had a romantic relationship long ago that she wants to resurrect but he doesn’t show any signs of wanting any life back to their relationship as it once was. She sees him as her only hope to find her way back from “among the dead.”

In case you haven’t seen the movie, I can’t tell you about any of the other characters and how they are “from among the dead” without giving away major plot points. And being an Alfred Hitchcock movie and the greatest mystery movie of all time, Vertigo is loaded with twists and turns. Except for what I’ve already described as far as everyone’s place “from among the dead” and their pursuit of a way out, nothing is ever as it seems until the very last second of the movie.

But if you have seen Vertigo you know that this doesn’t matter for multiple viewings. Knowing all the revelations doesn’t make it any less rewarding to rewatch and rewatch. I watched it last week for about the 10th time. There’s always more depth to the characters and to the storyline than meets the eye, so even knowing how things turn out, there’s always something to be missed that needs another viewing. But I wish that Hitchcock would have given the movie a title like the novel. From among the Dead tells us that this is a movie about attempting to regain life when it’s been stolen. And even though we don’t get to know for sure if Scottie ever finds his way out “from among the dead,” we do know that he had a chance. These spiritual, philosophical, and psychological concepts that fill every second of this film are what makes it come alive.

List: A Star Goes Out

Two weeks ago I published a list called “A Star Is Born” like the three movie versions of the same story with that title. I listed movies about stars being born. In mentioning the 1954 version of A Star Is Born with Judy Garland, I said that it is just as much a story about a star going out (about the fading star who discovered her, played by James Mason) as it is about the birth of Judy Garland’s character’s stardom. So, here’s a list of the greatest movies about fading stardom, about a star burning out.

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10. Stranger than Fiction (2006)

Emma Thompson plays a has-been novelist trying to write one last great masterpiece, but a matter of morality gets in her way. The choice to let her most likely let her stardom die forever is clearly the right choice to make since the other choice inevitably involves the death of another person.

 

9. In a Lonely Place (1950)

Humphrey Bogart plays a screenwriter whose career is ended as a result of murder allegations. What follows is one of the great examples of film noir told through the eyes a man grieving many losses, including the loss of his career and potential loss of freedom though as the narrator, he tries to convince us that he’s innocent, but we’re not so sure.

 

8. Birdman or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance (2014)

Playing Batman in the 1980s and 90s, Michael Keaton experienced the height of movie stardom in a superhero franchise that many actors also look at as the death of their art. That’s certainly the case for the actor that Michael Keaton plays in Birdman. Trying to regain a connection to his art, his star burns out.

 

7. Amadeus (1982)

Antonio Sallierri was never as great of a star in the classical music world as he could have. He believes it’s because of Mozart, when the reality is he was much more of a star than he could even realize, but he willingly burnt out his own stardom because of his jealousy towards the greater star.

 

6. I’ll Cry Tomorrow (1955)

The results of being a has-been are often destruction addictions. I’ll Cry Tomorrow very compassionately tells the story of Broadway and Hollywood star Lillian Roth (played by Susan Hayworth) from her tumultuous start as a reluctant child star forced by her mother to the eventual fall from stardom with tragic results.

 

5. Ed Wood (1994)

Bella Legosi had a similar path after his movie stardom ended as Lillian Roth’s. Legosi is played brilliantly by Martin Landau, hilariously realizing his macabre sensibilities while sensitively and beautifully portraying his mental and emotional trauma and drug addiction.

 

4. A Star Is Born (1954)

As Judy Garland’s character is the star born, James Mason’s is the star that goes out. He discovers her at the end of his career. A romance begins between the two of them along with a replacement of sorts where she takes his place in the limelight, but it’s his support that keeps her star alive and it’s her life that keeps him alive at all.

 

3. The Joker Is Wild (1957)

Joe E. Lewis was a famous singer whose career was cut short by gangsters who cut open his voice box. Ironically, Frank Sinatra gives one of the greatest acting performances ever put on film playing a man who couldn’t sing.  Joe E. Lewis tried to regain his stardom through comedy, but mostly his star went out and like many others on this list the results are tragic.

 

2. Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962)

In the saddest and most tragic movie on this list, Anthony Quinn plays a boxer whose last knockout forced him to quit. We follow him trying to find any work he can, being unsuccessful at everything he tries, never being able to be who he thought he was as a boxer. This movie was probably inspirational to the brilliant melancholy Simon & Garfunkel song, “The Boxer.”

 

1. Sunset Blvd. (1950)

And of course, Norma Desmond is the perfect example of a star going out. But unwilling to let her stardom die in her own mind, she is controlled by delusions, and she controls other people by those same delusions. When asked, “Didn’t you used to be big?” she responds, “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.” And of course when about to be arrested, she doesn’t pay attention to the police around her, all she sees are the cameras saying “I’m ready for my closeup.”

The Lost Weekend (1945)

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Don Birnam (Ray Miland) is a writer, or at least he tries to be a writer and wants to be a writer. His addiction has overtaken all his plans, hopes, and relationships. It has stolen his life. He tells a bartender of a novel he wants to write, only it really isn’t a novel, it’s his autobiography. He says it’s a horror story named “The Bottle,” and that’s exactly what The Lost Weekend is. It’s a horror movie, and the bottle is its villain.

Billy Wilder uses all the techniques used for horror films, making sure that The Lost Weekend would not be like any other addiction drama. It never tries to teach anything about addiction. Instead, it tries its best to show what it’s like to be so completely bound to something else, to lose all personal choice and self-control. The music of the theremin tells that there’s a monster (a bottle or other impending temptation to drink) lurking around the corning waiting to attack Don. The creepy shadows of bottles appear to help us grasp the ever-present reality of Don’s perceived need for a drink. The screams and wails of others with him in a 1940s hospital give us a glimpse into what it’s like to experience DTs and to live in a time when even the institutions that were supposed to work with addicted people had little to no experience, knowledge of addition, or empathy for what their patients experience. We see Don’s own vivid nightmares at the hospital. And the nurse has no concept of compassion or care but is more like a ghoulish guide for Don’s night in the hospital.

Billy Wilder’s decision to make The Lost Weekend a horror film means that an audience gets to feel and experience the horror of addiction. Most addiction dramas focus on the families of the addicted person, the growth and eventual realizations that lead towards the character’s overcoming of the addiction. These films do not show anything like the reality of addiction. It takes a horror movie to do that. The Lost Weekend is almost a movie without an ending. Yes, we see a glimmer of hope when Don throws out some booze and abandons his plan for suicide, but the movie leaves us with no sense that this is permanent. It might be, but it just as easily might not be. That’s the reality of addiction.

So by making The Lost Weekend a horror movie, Billy Wilder not only tells the truth about addiction but also cries out for people to have empathy. It should be impossible to watch this movie and still credit addicts with more ability and responsibility to choose than they actually have. We don’t need AA characters hitting us over the head with phrases like “it’s a disease,” like we get in most addiction dramas. We get to see the sickness for ourselves. We get to feel at least a little of what Don feels because whether or not we can understand addiction, we can understand fear. By capturing all the fear of a horror movie, Billy Wilder helps us to understand addiction and to gain empathy for the people who suffer from its devastation.

Other Billy Wilder films I’ve reviewed:

Sunset Blvd. (1950)

Stalag 17 (1953)

Some Like It Hot (1959)

 

List: The Films of Anthony Perkins

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Turner Classic Movies’ Star of the Month for October is Anthony Perkins. I’ve only seen two his movies so this will be a short list. I’m listing his movies that I’ve seen along with a grade for his performance, not the movie as a whole. Despite my lack of better knowledge of Anthony Perkins’ filmography, I’m doing this list because what he does in just these two movies summarizes his greatness.

Psycho (1960; A+)

Unquestionably one of the greatest acting performances in film history, Anthony Perkins makes every word he speaks, every facial expression, and every bit of body language completely terrifying.

 

The Trial (1962; A+)

Everything Anthony Perkins does in The Trial is the reverse of what he does in Psycho. His character’s existence is one that knows nothing but fear. So every word he speaks, every facial expression, and every bit of body language in The Trial demonstrates the victimization of all that is terrifying.

 

 

Blade Runner (1982)

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Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner is a movie that asks what it means to be human. Like Frankenstein, mere mortals attempt to create life, but in the world this film invents, most other mortals don’t see this as an abominable thing as Mary Shelley’s characters do. The original theatrical release is still my favorite after the multiple director’s cuts that have been released over the years. I say that mostly because of Harrison Ford’s voiceover narration. It helps bring a classic 1940s film noir element to sci-fi that introduces us to Harrison Ford’s character Rick Deckert as a detective just like those in film noir. But much more importantly it also lets us see that Rick values the lives of the genetically engineered beings known as replicants who resemble humans in every way except emotion.

While those around him call him the great blade runner and want to see him once again be the hero they thought he always he was for “retiring” replicants, in the narration he tells us that he sees himself, and blade runners in general, as killers. As in any police work, sometimes killing is necessary and unavoidable, but it’s killing all the same. The genetically engineered replicants aren’t treated as human by other police, but Rick sees things differently, more like a real police officer when forced to kill in the line of duty. Is that because he’s a replicant himself or just has a moral compass that nobody else in this future world has? Of course, people have debated this for 35 years and the movie never answers it. I hope Blade Runner 2049 doesn’t answer it either. Yet I think it’s the second.

Every character in Blade Runner either has a seared conscience, a seared emotional capacity, or both. Rick has no emotional capability when we first meet him, just like the replicants he’s hired to kill. But a new replicant model, Rachael (Sean Young), was made with implanted memories through which she was able to develop her own emotions. She also was made without the 4-year lifespan of all the replicants before her and without the knoweldge that she’s a replicant. Through Rachael, Rick begins to feel again, and they fall in love. Yet his respect for a replicant’s life began long before meeting Rachel though.

Back to that noir-esque narration. After hearing his boss give him his next orders and calling replicants by the derogatory term “skin jobs,” Rick tells us in the narration that his boss is the type of person that would have used the “n” word long ago. That tells us that he believes replicants are fully human. And all his actions throughout the movie continue to show that belief. Because he believes that, and because he respects human life unlike most people in this very dark vision of an amoral, violent future, he does his job much different than anyone would expect him to. During the intense and terrifying chase scenes between Rick and the great villain Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), we see Roy’s humanity. We see the humanity of the replicants he killed. We see the humanity of Rachel.

Rick believes that replicants are human from the beginning, but he doesn’t feel it and can’t express that belief in any tangible way because he’s not emotionally connected to his own conscience. It takes Rachael for him to learn to feel the truth behind what he believes. Thankfully the movie never tells us for sure if Rick is a replicant or not, because all we need to know for sure is that he is human and that he believes replicants are human. As he learns to feel what it means to be human and how to act on the moral beliefs already established in his character, we the audience are taken on our own moral journey in our very own world that parallels perfectly with the dark, futuristic world of Blade Runner. Not that we’re as hopeless and inhumane as the world in the movie, but we are pretty selfish and need to wrestle with the question of what it means to be human and how that relates to our selfishness. Our answers to that question determine the relationships between our consciences and our emotions. It determines how we live in relationship with others and what we’re willing to risk.

Concerning the lack of certainty of Rachael’s lifespan, Rick is told “too bad she’s gonna die, but then again who doesn’t?” He simply nods, and that nod shows us that he’s not going to waste any more time questioning her humanity or his own. He’s going live and he’s going to love even though he lives in a world that has no consideration for life or love. Blade Runner confronts our views of other people and urges us to reject the selfishness so abundant in our world.

List: “A Star Is Born”

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Tomorrow night, Sept. 29, Turner Classic Movies is having an “A Star Is Born” festival, showing all 3 popular versions of the story. When I first saw the advertisement on their website, I misunderstood it thinking it to be much bigger than the 3 versions of the movie. I was expecting to see many movies about stars being born. So we won’t get that on TCM tomorrow night, but there are enough great stars, both real and fictional, born in the movies, and they’re not just stars of the entertainment industry like the 3 movies we’ll see tomorrow night. So here’s my list of the best “stars” born in the movies.

 

10. Beatrix Potter, Miss Potter (2006; Renée Zellweger)

The author of the Peter Rabbit began her “career” drawing pictures of animals that she talked to. They were her only friends, but completely in a creative way, not a schizophrenic way. But it was a long road to sell those characters and to eventually become a star in the world of children’s literature.

 

9. Kathy Seldon, Singin’ in the Rain (1952; Debbie Reynolds)

From being a dancing girl who jumps out of cakes to providing the voice for a famous movie star who can’t sing or talk for herself without embarrassing everyone around, Kathy’s road to stardom isn’t as difficult as most in the movies, but it sure is delightful.

 

8. Babe, Babe (1995; Christine Cavanaugh)

This “star is born” genre has to have humble beginnings. You can’t get much lower than being born with the purpose of being eaten! But since Babe thinks he’s a sheeppig, he becomes a star in a sheepdog shepherding competition.

 

7. Harvey Pecker, American Splendor (2003; Paul Giamatti)

The American Splendor comics reflect Harvey’s depressed, bored, and lonely existence. But it’s exactly that existence that made him a star producing graphic novels that people could relate, and those people became a cult following that eventually elevated him as second only to Harvey Crumb.

 

6. Mia, La La Land (2016; Emma Stone)

Moving to L.A. to be a movie star but with nothing to show that she has what it takes, Mia sacrifices every other dream in life to be the “fool who dreams” and eventually makes it.

 

5. Mark Zuckerberg, The Social Network (2010; Jesse Eisenberg)

The only “star” on this list who’s completely unlikable and doesn’t grow up at all, Jesse Eisenberg’s portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg highlights the irony of the title, presenting Zuckerberg in a way that shows antisocial behavior as the way he became a technological “star” through the development of social networking.

 

4. Rocky Balboa, Rocky (1976; Sylvester Stalone)

Picked out of nowhere because of his nickname, the Italian Stallion, all the many Rocky movies have caused us to almost forget that the birth of this star was not the birth of a winner but of true athletic greatness that learned from the losses and never cowered in the worst of odds.

 

3. “Sugar Man” Rodriguez, Searching for Sugar Man (2012)

The most unique birth of a “star” on this list, this groundbreaking documentary introduces us to a Bob Dylan-esque folk singer from the 70s who lived his life for about 30 years thinking that his music never came to anything. But we also get to see the birth of his stardom in South Africa as an anti-Apartheid voice, so every stage of “Sugar Man’s” success and stardom was unknown to him for decades.

 

2. Vicki Lester, A Star Is Born (1954; Judy Garland)

Of course, I had to include the movie that gave this list its title (actually the original 1937 film did that, but George Cuckor’s version is by far the best). Esther Blodgett is a great singer but no contacts to make her dreams come true until a fading star comes along and makes her a star. So A Star Is Born is just as much about a star going out as it is about the star being born.

 

1. Eve Harrington, All about Eve (1950; Anne Baxter)

By attempting to be exactly like her stage hero Margo Channing (Bette Davis) and by weaving all sorts of deceit, Eve’s stardom is born at the cost of the very careers that made her own.