Friday, December 28, 2012

Films of the 70s: Part One

It's possible I may have been drinking on Christmas Eve. While holding forth on movies, I was challenged to back up my claim that there are 20 really great classic films from the 70s or possibly that there were 20 totally seminal films, or 20 really interesting films that cast light on what this whole cinema thing was about. So I went home, had Christmas, and some days later, having forgotten the exact criteria but knowing the number (20) I sat down with Wikipedia's List of Films released in the 1970s and made a long list of great, classic, interesting and other films that amused me to add to the list. I then had a quick glance down spotting actors and directors that immediately sprung to mind.

I first noticed that I didn't have any women in my directors and actors of the 70s, which is partially the 70s fault, but mostly mine. Barring time travel, the 70s can't put that right, but I can in a later post. However I straight away had two directors I had things to say about even if they're both men.

Mel Brooks

So what did Mel Brooks do in the 70s? He made some spoofs of venerable film genres, Blazing Saddles (Westerns) and Young Frankenstein (Old Monster movies) and two less famous Silent Movie (Silent Movies) and High Anxiety (Suspense Thrillers of the type Hitchcock was a master of). Apart from being pretty funny, what else ties these together? Part of it is the films' explicit knowledge that they are films and, as well as being spoofs, are still part of the tradition of these genres. In Blazing Saddles in particular, there is the awareness that it's being made 1974 and the implicit racism of the Western should be noted, in part because the consequences are still being played out in America. This, of course, is what gives the jokes their bite.

So my first film from the 70s: Blazing Saddles. Mel Brooks continued to make spoofs and continued to hit and miss with them. Spoofs are being made even now, most notably by Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer. The comparison is not flattering for either Brooks or Friedberg and Seltzer. However as Blazing Saddles etc. were clear inspirations for later if worse attempts, I'm going to call  that innovative comedy with a lasting effect on cinema, along with being a self aware commentary on an existing genre.

Robert Altman

Back in 1970 there was another film that used comedy to satirise current events; MASH, set in a Korean War Army hospital that tapped into the growing American ambivalence to the war in Vietnam. It's director, Robert Altman, went on to develop a distinctive style which included:

- following the stories of several characters;
- naturalistic dialogue with characters talking over each other;
- not spelling out all the details requiring the audience to firstly pay attention and then infer things that were not seen or described ;
- allowing actors to improvise widely, which attracted many notable actors to his productions. 

Nashville (1975), set in the country music capital over several days, following various people involved in the country and gospel music business(es) from naive wannabes new in town, through up and coming stars, to old stars and to a beloved singer recovering from a burn accident, mixed in with fans, a British documentary maker and a political organiser for a third party candidate for the 1976 Presidential election. Wikipedia lists 25 characters, which just might be too many; Altman somehow keeps the film together throughout the craziness that ensues as all these people interact deliberately or accidentally. Every one of them has their moment and story and the finale combines tragedy, triumph, violence and gospel music that feels satisfying even though we leave most of the characters dangling. A unique film in which the actors mostly wrote their own songs; in fact Keith Carradine won the Oscar for Best Song.

Altman continued making films until he died in 2006; notable from his later career was Gosford Park, the inspiration for Downton Abbey.

Two down, eighteen to go. What comes next? Does Shaft make the top 20? Or Starcrash? Were there any female directors in the 1970s? Answers soon, when I've written them!

Sunday, December 02, 2012

I Read Dickens: Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit is big novel named after a small woman. It is about family, debt, bureaucracy, parasitism in public service, social standing and it's relationship to money, imprisonment, fraud, women who hate men, and, of course, love. It ranges over England, France and Italy. A few exotic elements of the European countries are introduced but mostly we are involved in English society, from the lowest (the debtors prison) to the highest (Peers and the great government institution of the Circumlocution Office).

Amy Dorrit, called little Dorrit due to her being small and having an elder sister, Fanny, is born in Marshalsea debtors prison. She is devoted to her father's - an inmate -  well-being. Later the family fortune is restored and Mr Dorrit becomes very eager to conceal their history of poverty. He insists on servants doing what she previously did for him. In case it's not clear, this is Dickens pointing out that money don't buy class, no sir, and insisting on respect hurts those who love you. Noticeably it makes respectable society respect him. Heh.

One character has a useful invention. To get it patented and in service to the country he applies to the Circumlocution Office. After years and expenditure, they tell him that the previous decision cannot be reversed. He tells them that there was no previous decision. They tell him to start again. There is some decent satire going on here. Thankfully reforms to the British Government mean this kind of thing doesn't happen any more. No, not at all. Never.

There's a lot going on here. I liked it quite a bit. The mysterious inheritance twist so beloved of Dickens I can for once believe to have been kept a secret, mainly because it is so convoluted and strange that trying to explain it to the following generation would have been extremely difficult. The fraud is not explained as clearly as in Martin Chuzzlewitt, and is a familiar twist on the one committed there, but still of interest.

Read This: For satire on society and bureaucracy, along with proper villains, noble self-sacrificing heroes, some Dickens women who make decisions to take action rather than having it forced on them, as well as the usual soap-operary twists and turns.
Don't Read This: My usual Dickens caveats - long, windy, old-fashioned prose; many characters defined entirely by two or three characteristics; melodramatic twists and turns. If these aren't your bag, shop elsewhere.
Available Online: A number of places including here.