Battleship Potemkin (1925)

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D.W. Griffiths made his share of epic films in the 1910s in America, but the Russian filmmaker Sergei M. Eisenstein broke brand new ground with Battleship Potemkin. The film is an epic to be sure, set during several of the most crucial moments of the war between Russia and Japan in 1905. But each of the five moments covered are set almost exclusively within the battleship, and the whole Revolution is seen from the view of the soldiers on that one battleship. It’s the first intimate epic and without it there would never have been a Gone with the WindLawrence of Arabia, or Barry Lyndon.

Battleship Potemkin is barely an hour in length but immerses us fully into every detail of this group of soldiers and their involvement with each of the five important moments of the war. The first section is an introduction to the battleship and the horrible conditions that the soldiers are subject to. It’s made clear that the military officials have access to much better and do not need to feed the men with the rotten meat they’re always given.

The first section sets the stage as the foundation for the episodic way that the rest of the movie is going to unfold. We’re shown the injustice of the Russian military and the greater Russian government of the time all through the horrendous conditions of the soldiers aboard this one war ship. The rest of the episodes show the soldiers’ revolt, a mini-revolution as part of the bigger Russian Revolution that coincided with the war against Japan.

More than anything Battleship Potemkin is a cry for justice. Just as the soldiers are unnecessarily forced into conditions that are not fitting for any human, their actions during the four later episodes are filled with heroic stances against tyranny. Their own victimization brings urgency to their stands, but none is doing it for himself. The last two episodes take a outside the battleship for a very short time, but it’s just long enough to know that the stances these men have taken against tyranny has had an effect on the whole nation.

The actions of heroism depicted in Battleship Potemkin are selfless acts of sacrifice. Within the ship, every act is done for the protection of the brotherhood created in that battleship. We know they have bigger views and bigger ambitions that see their service as for their country and possibly the world, but whoever it is they’re fighting for and whoever they’re fighting against, there is never an ounce of self interest in what these people do.

Eisenstein’s film is an extremely powerful picture of the power of unity and brotherly love. Although it was a very small victory that didn’t stop the tyranny already existing or prevent the rise of the further tyranny that marred most of 20th century Russia, it was still a victory. The movie shows this victory as entirely the result of selflessness and unity.

There’s a scene in the fourth episode that looks a lot like what we saw on the news a couple weeks ago from Charlottesville, Virginia. The soldiers get off the battleship celebrating what looks like a victory with many people greeting them when an ambush is arranged against them that looks a lot like the way the car suddenly became a weapon in Charlottesville. The evil of the tyranny around them and the system allowing it to happen is a lot like our own political climate where the hate groups have a newfound voice thanks to our president who won’t admit any responsibility in the attacks, but anyone who heard him talk during his campaign knows that he made the way for this to happen and for many more situations like it.

But even in the midst of that reality that was opened to our eyes, there is hope as long as there are people willing to selflessly stand against hatred and injustice. The mutinous soldiers of Battleship Potemkin are a wonderful example of that through their unity and brotherhood. Their example shows us that there is always room for victory even if it looks like we’re losing the war, but that victory only can come through selfless acts of unity, love, and peace.

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Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962)

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We learn right away that Cleo has a doctor’s appointment in two hours where she’ll receive the results of tests that will tell whether or not she has cancer and the prognosis if she does. The movie does just exactly what the title tells us it will. We follow Cleo for those two hours leading up to the appointment.

We see moments of excitement where she’s convinced she’s going to get good news, and even though she doesn’t have any good reason to anticipate any of the potential answers (only the tests can answer those question), she convinces us that she’s going to be okay and we share in her joy. We also see moments where she’s convinced she’s dying. Again, she’s so convinced that she convinces us, and we feel her despair.

Then there are the moments where she just tries to live her life. She’s a professional singer, and the time she spends in the studio is filled with conflict that we realize isn’t normal. She usually gets along well with her band and the songwriter she works with, but everything’s different this day. She doesn’t express any of what she’s going through personally to her co-workers, but we can tell exactly what she’s thinking and feeling every second that she’s physically at work but mentally at that appointment that hasn’t come yet.

Corinne Marchand plays Cleo, and through most of the movie Cleo doesn’t do very much. The world goes on around her. We hear conversations going on that aren’t relevant to Cleo and therefore aren’t important to the story or to us. What matters is what’s going on inside of Cleo as the world goes on around her, while she’s going through the most anguish and anxiety she’s ever experienced in her life. Corinne Marchand makes us able to understand what’s going on inside of Cleo every second of the movie because of how expressive she is as an actor when she doesn’t speak.

Cleo from 5 to 7 is a challenging film because we’re expected to think and feel with the character, not follow a story. We’re expected to build empathy on our own, not because the story has had an emotional impact on us but just because of what she’s going through. That’s precisely what makes it a masterpiece. Corinne Marchand’s acting performance and Agnes Varda’s direction take us inside the soul of Cleo for those two hour leading up to her appointment.

As we focus on Cleo’s mental and emotional state as she awaits the news of her own mortality, we are confronted with our own views on mortality. It allows us to experience what it feels like to wait for that news and asks us to try to keep living in the midst of the waiting, just like Cleo’s forced to. But’s it not the type of living we’re used to. It’s a type of living that focuses on the reality of death, confronting our beliefs about death and what comes after death and also confronting our current life and how we’ll live differently if we get good news. Even though the movie reveals the results of Cleo’s tests at the end of the movie, they really don’t matter to our experience. As we’ve been faced with Cleo’s traumatic wait, we’re forced into our very own traumatic meditation where we ask the same questions Cleo does and we think about the same things Cleo does because they are universal realities that we all must confront but usually don’t until in a situation like Cleo’s. And going through it with Cleo is challenging and painful but ultimately hopeful and rewarding dependent on the conclusions we come to during this meditation on the shortness of life.

Some Like It Hot (1959)

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The funniest movie ever made is also one of the most intelligent statements fit ever made about sex, gender and morality. It’s also one of the first movies to use very violent situations as the basis of comedy, and it probably was the first to ever incorporate a real, violent event in its fictional story. The fictional characters Joe and Jerry (Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon) become Josephine and Daphne because they witness the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre that happened in 1929 in Chicago.

Most of the movie is about the hilarious charade that Joe and Jerry have to play to save their lives. But we do see the gangsters of the massacre several times in the movie. The mob may have a goofy name, The Friends of Italian Opera, and some of them may be pretty stupid, but that doesn’t make them any less dangerous since Joe and Jerry aren’t very bright either. There’s a moment when the head of the Friends of Italian Opera watches the hit he ordered. He was just speaking to a group and adjusts the volume on his headset when the noise of the gunshots is too much for him. He sits back in his chair and casually enjoys the show. This scene gives a parallel between the head mobster and Joe and Daphne. Joe and Daphne are innocent witnesses of the violence, so they’re not desensitized to violence but they are desensitized to the harm that can be caused by misogyny and too casual a view of sex.

Joe is unquestionably misogynistic. From the very beginning of the movie we see the results of his using and abusing women to meet his self-centered desires. Jerry is disgusted by Joe’s actions against women, but he isn’t much better because he has absolutely no self-control. Although its unintentional for him, he objectifies women just as much as Joe does.

Meeting Sugar (Marylin Monroe), another character who’s not very bright, is the perfect situation for misogynists to take advantage of to get what they want, except that they have to convince her and everyone else that they’re women to stay alive. Their con against the conmen didn’t just save their lives but also rescued them from their perverse views of women and their self-centerdness. They had to become sensitized to the personhood of women if they wanted any chance of their scheme working. They had to learn what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes. They had to learn how to look out for the good of other people and not just themselves.

So the funniest movie of all times is a movie about organized crime, violence, social justice, and sexual morality. The humor never detracts from the message and the message never detracts from the humor. That’s quite an achievement. Thank you Billy Wilder.

 

Other Billy Wilder movies I’ve reviewed:

The Lost Weekend (1945)

Sunset Blvd. (1950)

Stalag 17 (1953)

 

Do the Right Thing (1989)

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The character Smiley (Roger Guenveur Smith), who is remembered for his stuttering and pestering of the movie’s main character Mookie (Spike Lee), really has only one purpose in Do the Right Thing. Every time we see him, he is holding a picture of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X shaking hands. Though this picture is the sole purpose for Smiley’s existence in the story, it is the essence of what makes Do the Right Thing a great movie.

The picture shows two very different people with very different ideologies but a common goal come together. That is something that never happens in the movie in any complete sense, though there are many attempts to make it happen and much resistance to stand against it. I’ve seen the movie several times now, and I’ve always thought of it as posing the moral question of which one of these great leaders was right. Some of the characters are extremely passionate in their stances of non-violence, and some are equally passionate in their stances for equality at any price including violence if perceived necessary. But Spike Lee wisely never answers the questions for us but allows his character to be right in their own eyes so we have to make our decision.

But the last time I watched Do the Right Thing, I came to realize that the point really isn’t to confront viewers so that we think about these issues and make up our own minds about this question he raises. The point of Do the Right Thing is encourage us to be people who allow the good that both King and Malcolm X accomplished to speak for itself and to let their legacies live in our society long after their deaths. Along with the passionate characters, there are just as many who really don’t care, people whose indifference would be equally despised by both King and Malcolm X. They just want to do their own thing, instead of doing the right thing. These are the people who need the passionate people to wake them up. By the end of the movie, everybody’s passionate about something, whether it’s real justice, self-preservation, or personal grudges and racial prejudices that have eventually become full-blown hatred.

In addition to the three types of characters I have mentioned already, there is Da Mayer (Ossie Davis) and Mister Señor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson), who along with Smiley and his picture (which is itself just as much a character in the movie as all the people) watch over the rest of the Brooklyn neighborhood. Smiley watches over the neighborhood hoping to someday see the unity represented in that picture.

Da Mayer watches over the neighborhood as the voice of sensitivity and reason. The movie’s title comes from Da Mayer telling Mookie to “do the right thing.” But Mookie’s one of the characters who just doesn’t care so he responds with the very capricious, “That’s it? I got it. I’m gone.” That’s how most people react to Da Mayer’s wisdom, because he’s known as a drunkard and nothing more, but he has opportunities to show that there is much more to him than that and that if the people around him would just be willing to enter the lives of others, to start caring about others, they can become sensitive to the needs of others and start respecting people for who they truly are.

As his nickname implies, Mister Señor Love Daddy is the voice of love. The greatest scene of the film involves four or five different characters, each of a different race, standing in front of the camera documentary style screaming racist epithets against the people group they are angry with. After the last one finishes, a quick cut takes us into the radio station where Mister Señor Love Daddy is the DJ. He’s just as loud, just as angry, and just as passionate as the people who have just been screaming hatred. But he’s loud, angry, and passionate in the name of love, screaming that all the hate and injustice needs to stop.

So, back to the question of who was right, Martin Luther King Jr. or Malcolm X. After this last time watching Do the Right Thing, probably my sixth time, I no longer think it’s Spike Lee’s intention to have us wrestle with the big morality question. I think he wants us to see that the question really has no purpose. They were both human, so that means they were both right about some things and they were both wrong about some things, but their goal was the same, and they came to a point of unity because of that same goal. The characters in Do the Right Thing all have very different goals, conflicting passions, and very different perceptions of what it means to “do the right thing,” but that doesn’t mean that they can’t all eventually come together, following the voices of those three characters watching over them. Do they come together? Some do, some don’t. Can they all come together? Because of those three voices, absolutely they can.

Do the Right Thing is an extremely important film for the time we live in, in America. Many liberals label all Trump supporters as racist, and many conservatives (especially Trump supporters) label Blake Lives Matter activists as anti-white racists. That’s just one example of the many polarizations in America right now. Spike Lee beautifully shows us that we can overcome those polarizations. In his movie, there’s really only one true racist, but many accuse others of being racist, and those accusations keep the divisions alive. That’s just like the current situation: on both sides, there certainly are very dangerous, racist people, but that does not give us the right to assume that the entire group is. We need to listen to the voice of reason and sensitivity, to come to understand why people have become the way we know them. We need to listen to the voice of the past, to the people who have made a great difference in our society whether we agree with the ways in which they did it or not (both Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X). Most of all, we need to listen to the voice of love so that we can really know what the right thing is for any given situation so we can do the right thing. And that’s the triple truth Ruth.