Sunday, 26 August 2012

Oscar Season Ponderings: "The Dark Knight Rises" and The Superhero Barrier

The superhero genre may be the last barrier that needs to be broken in terms of the academy awards. Despite being critically acclaimed, films like Spider-Man 2 and even The Dark Knight have failed to snag Best Picture nominations. Though to be fair, Christopher Nolan's first two Batman films have a combined nine Oscar nominations, eight of those belonging to The Dark Knight, including wins for Heath Ledger's iconic turn as the Joker as well as sound editing. Ledger's performance was rightly honoured but The Dark Knight missing out on both Best Director and Best Picture nominations and were perceived as snubs in many circles. Some feel the Academy's decision to expand the Best Picture field to ten nominees was in response to the criticisms regarding the film not getting a nomination, or at least to allow genre films like The Dark Knight to get a nomination. The following year the sci-fi film District 9 actually received a Best Picture nomination and Nolan's next film Inception, another sci-fi film, received a nomination for Best Picture.

Now the final film of Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, has been released to strong critical support. The question is, can The Dark Knight Rises be the first superhero film to receive a Best Picture nomination? While I can't say it's a done deal but I do feel it has a chance. Why I feel it has a chance can be boiled down to a few select reasons. First, the expanded Best Picture field allows for films that may have got lost in the shuffle if there were only five nominees. Even if the film doesn't score directing or acting nominations, it could still score a nomination, similar to Inception.

Second, while The Dark Knight Rises still has a guy dressed up in a bat suit, it's not as self-consciously "comic booky" as The Avengers or even The Amazing Spider-Man, which actually takes some inspiration from Nolan's Batman Begins. Not that "comic booky" is a bad thing, just that it may turn off certain members of the academy who may not be enamoured with the superhero genre. The Dark Knight Rises, similar to the previous film, is stripped down and more stylistically realistic, which allows it to just exist as a movie about a city unconsciously living a lie and an outside terrorist force using economic crisis as a means to divide the city before destroying it. It's not that The Avengers or The Amazing Spider-Man can't be enjoyed as standalone movies, just that The Dark Knight Rises may allow certain academy members to put aside their biases and see how Nolan's universe relates and parallels our own world.

Then there's Nolan as a possible Best Director contender. While Nolan has received nominations for his screenwriting on Memento and Inception he has yet to be nominated for Best Director. If there's any feeling among the academy that he's overdue, it could lead to him getting nominated and that may also go hand in hand with votes for a Best Picture nomination.

The Lord of the Rings is usually brought up in situations like this, with this being the final film of Nolan's trilogy. The final Lord of the Rings film won Best Picture and that is usually seen as the academy honouring the entire trilogy. The Lord of the Rings, however, had received Best Picture nominations for the first two films in the trilogy, while Batman Begins and The Dark Knight did not. The academy really has to be brought on board in terms of this being the final film and the culmination of a very epic and ambitious saga. Warner Bros., which has produced all the Batman films since Tim Burton's Batman in 1989, definitely has to campaign hard for this film.  Unfortunately, something's telling me The Dark Knight Rises may be the Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 of this year: the solid and satisfying finale that won't get honoured due to there not being enough academy support for the franchise leading up to the finale.

The superhero genre is still the final barrier in terms of getting a Best Picture nomination. This is not to say a film has to receive Oscar nominations to be considered a great or important film. Nolan's trilogy stands pretty tall amongst the superhero genre and getting or not gettng a Best Picture nomination won't change that. It'd be nice to for the film to be among the Best Picture nominees this year especially since it's a film of the moment and the ideal Oscars are always ones where the nominated films represent how filmmakers are interpreting the era we live in.

I'm not certain The Dark Knight Rises deserves a nomination for Best Picture over some of the films coming out this fall but I feel it still deserves consideration due to how it ties together all the themes and ideas of the previous two films in a cohesive and exciting and yet ambitious way- as well as its ambition and willingness to create a blockbuster entertainment that can be both grim and terrifying as well as being a thrilling action epic.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

The Essential Films: "Rear Window" (1954)

The Essential Films: A Series of Writings on Films that I feel are essential viewings for film lovers, coupled with films that are personal to me.

Spoilers Ahead

Rear Window is probably my favourite film of Alfred Hitchcock's. It takes a concept that sounds like it'd be the most uncinematic of movies, a man stuck in his apartment spying on his neighbours, and makes it in to an ultimate cinematic experience- and like Vertigo, it's a perfect metaphor for the way we watch movies, how movies represent a form of voyeurism that is supposed to make us a feel innocent. By calling attention to movies as voyeurism, Hitchcock shows us that we, as we're sitting down in a movie theatre, are not as innocent as we think we are.

In Vertigo, we, just like Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart), become obsessed with the image of Madeline Elster (Kim Novak), and become accomplices in Scottie's makeover of Judy (Novak again) in to his dream image. She represents the  woman we see in a film who we know we can never have but pursue relentlessly, like a lovesick puppy- except that puppy is chasing it's own tail. Not many people can live up that image we have of them on screen. Even Cary Grant once remarked, "Everyone wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant." Madeline was always an image, something Scottie couldn't grasp until it was too late, after he was already swallowed up by his obsession.

Rear Window is also about a man obsessed with the images of others. In the film, photographer  L.B. "Jeff " Jeffries (Stewart again) is stuck in his apartment after breaking his leg while taking photographs in the middle of a race track. He has nothing to do but look out his window and spy on his neighbours. He soons becomes suspicious of the salesman Lars Thorwold (Raymond Burr) after seeing him make numerous trips out of the apartment one night. He starts to believe Thorwold murdered his invalid wife. Like Jeff, we too become obsessed with the mystery surrounding the disappearance of Thorwold's wife, as well as with the lives of the other neighbours. The film is not only a metaphor for our fascination with the private lives of people in movies but in ourr fascination in the private lives of people in real life as well- even they're bored and sad people. One of the people Jeff sees in a woman he calls "Miss Lonelyhearts"- a woman who pretends to have dinner with a man. As she raises a glass to her imaginary beau, Jeff raises a glass. It's an achingly poignant scene and one that I relate to on a personal level. I also like how it shows Jeff's compassion towards her, that he does care about these people on some level.

Hitchcock's films, even when they had high concept premises such as this, always were able to ground themselves with nice character relationships that give the characters texture and personality. The emotional centre of this film is probably the relationship between Jeff and his high society girlfriend Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly). I like that the main conflict in their relationship is Jeff feels she's too perfect for him. As a photographer who travels around the world, Jeff needs someone who can live the kind of life that requires you to get dirty, to live out of a suitcase and, according to Jeff, eat food you wouldn't be able to look at when it was alive. When he looks at Lisa, he sees a woman who belongs at fancy restaurants and parties. We see Jeff's point but also see that Lisa does care about Jeff and is intelligent enough to make her own decisions. We also sense a inner strength, which Hitchcock shows us later on when Lisa starts to believe and support Jeff's suspicions about Thorwold. And when Lisa sneaks in to Thorwold's apartment to leave a note, when she comes back, Jeff's face, full of pride, says it all.

James Stewart was, and I think still is, the quintiessential "everyman" actor, someone who, despite being a movie star, you could relate to and feel represented the values of normal people. That was there in the films he did for Frank Capra, Mr Smith Goes to Washington and It's a Wonderful Life. It's a persona that also fit perfectly in to Hitchcock's universe, which would frequently involve normal people caught up in extraoridinary circumstances. By having Stewart play Jeff, we get involved with his obsession and investigation him because we feel we are him on some level. I think that's one of the keys to Hitchcock's greatness- his films exist in a heightened reality but are populated by characters that feel real. I just rewatched The Birds and that film, while being an almost apocalyptic story about birds waging war on humans, is at its heart a character drama about two women, a mother and the woman her son may love, learning to co-exist. I like Thelma Ritter as Jeff's nurse Stella. She feels like the most wise character in the film and acts as a confidente for Jeff in certain scenes. I also like how she, along with Lisa do come to believe Jeff. Even his detective friend Tom Doyle (Wendell Corey) at first sees some validity in Jeff's suspicions. This is a nice change of pace from
the type of movie where absolutely no one would believe Jeff. Again, this helps make the characters feel more realistic. It's not just a movie one smart man (Jeff) and some not so bright people.
It's really impressive how Hitchcock, like Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Synechode New York, essentially creates an entire universe out of one set- a play with multiple little stories going on at once. Mostly everything is seen from Jeff's perspective, which puts us in his mind and allows us to put our own meaning on what we see- much like he does. In typical Hitchcock fashion, while there's plently of talky scenes, it's also a very visual film- and we get sucked in to the visual rhythms of looking with Jeff outside his apartment.

A nice detail of the film is how Jeff and Lisa want Mrs. Thorwold to be dead so their suspicions can be confirmed. It's a dark moment when Lisa tells Jeff they should be happy she's alive (after Doyle says Mrs. Thorwold picked up her bags at the train station). It's also a very human moment, especially since we realize we'd be giddy too if we stumbled upon a potential murder. Hitchcock actually uses the murder of Mrs. Thorwold to provide some signature macabre humour. Funnily enough we find ourselves sympathizing with the dog Thorwold kills because it almost uncovered something he buried.

For me, the most powerful scene is when the woman who owned the dog cries out in the middle of the night    "You don't know the meaning of the word 'neighbors'. Neighbors like each other, speak to each other, care if anybody lives or dies! But none of you do!" This scene highlights a central theme of the film, which is the disconnection in society between people. Until this scene, everyone in the courtyard is disconnected from each other, only to be finally  united by this woman's grief. The theme of disconnection is also highlighted by the fact that a murder happened right under everyone's noses and only Jeff noticed. Looking back on the film, I started to think about the story of Kitty Geneovese, the woman was murderd in the early sixties outside her apartment, while her neighbours were not quite sure what was happening or if they should help.

The final confrontation of the film occurs when Thorwold comes in to Jeff's apartment. While seemingly a straightforwars climax, what's striking about it is it's the first time someone other than a friend has come in to Jeff's apartment. Thorwold has turned the tables on Jeff, not just spying Jeff spying on him but violating Jeff's space as well. We've seen Thorwold from a distance for so long- now we see him up close.

In the final scene, we see things have changed: new dog, new paint job for Thorwold's apartment, Miss Lonelyhearts meets the musician in the courtyard- but at the same time you feel life goes on-it has to. Some people feel the need to change but for Lisa, after proving herself adventurous- and as she switches from a foreign travel book to Bazaar- she shows she's quite comfortable being herself.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

"I Look Up, I Look Down- Hey it's Citizen Kane": What Vertigo's Place On Top of Sight & Sound's Top Ten Greatest Film Poll May Mean

Warning: Spoilers for Citizen Kane and Vertigo Ahead

So, Orson Welles' revolutionary classic Citizen Kane has been dethroned from the top spot of the British film magazine Sight & Sound's Top Ten Greatest Films Poll. It's seat has now been filled by Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, the film considered by many to be Hitchcock's masterpiece. And while Citizen Kane still holds the number 2 spot, it's quite a shakeup considering its held the number one position for fifty years.

The first Sight & Sound poll was conducted in 1952. The film that ranked number one on that first poll was Vittorio De Sica's Neorealist Bicycle Thieves. Citizen Kane, released in 1941, was no where to be found. On his commentary for the  DVD, film critic Roger Ebert mentions that the film, due to the controversy surrounding its similarities to the life of William Randolph Hurst, the newspaper baron, Hurst used his powerful influence in order to make theatres limit the number of showings for Citizen Kane, leading to poor box office. Ebert says it was only in the late fifties that many people were able to see the film. The lack of exposure for the film back in 1941 may have a role in keeping it out of the Sight & Sound Top Ten.

It was only ten years later, in 1962, when the film entered the top ten and claimed the number one spot, keeping that spot over the decades, as other films entered or fell out of the top ten. In 1952, Charlie Chaplin held the number 2 and 3 spots with City Lights and The Gold Rush, respectively. Sadly, from 1962 onwards Chaplin is completely absent from the top ten, with City Lights ranking 50th this year. For that devastatingly beautiful last scene, I feel it should be much higher. One film that has slowly crept up the list is Hitchcock's Vertigo. A film that, on its initial release, was met with poor box office and negative reviews, entered the top ten in 1982, tieing with Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons and Michelangelo Antonioni's L'avventura for the seventh spot. In 1992 it climbed to the number 4 spot and in 2002 it was number two right behind Citizen Kane.

Now Vertigo has claimed the number one spot, edging out Citizen Kane by 34 votes (Vertigo: 191, Citizen Kane: 157). The question remains: does it mean anything that Vertigo is now in the number one position? Many people will still feel Citizen Kane is the greatest film ever made while others will still feel it's "overrated." Some have already argued that Vertigo isn't really Hitchcock's best film (for me, Rear Window is my favourite of his but I feel Vertigo is his greatest film). Ultimately, it comes down to the slow shift of perspective regarding Hitchcock's film. It look a little longer for it enter the top ten and even longer to reach the top spot. It didn't automatically claim the spot as Citizen Kane did. But over time, Vertigo is one of those films that keeps reminding viewers, new and old, how great and timeless it truly is. It's a film that captures the obsessive and twisted forms love can take-especially within the male psyche. It starts out as a mystery about a woman, Madeline (Kim Novak) who may be possessed and the former detective, Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart), assigned to follow her-and becomes the story about a detective being haunted by her spirit, becoming possessed himself by the need to mold another woman, Judy (the same woman in fact), in to Madeline's image. It's essentially a character study that doesn't reveal itself as a character study until the third act.

And like Citizen Kane, it never truly resolves itself. It allows the audience to interpret what they've seen and draw their own conclusions regarding the title characters. Can the loss of his sleigh Rosebud truly define Citizen Kane's titular character, Charles Foster Kane's (Welles) life? Or is it impossible, as the reporter Mr. Thompson says, to define an entire man's life by just one word? In Vertigo, what happens to Scottie after the death of Judy? Is he able to finally move on or will he plunge even deeper in to his obsessive abyss? Both films show men brought down by ambition and obsession. Citizen Kane is about a man who had everything in his life but love. Vertigo is about a man who can only love a woman if she fits the image of his obsession- and the woman who will change herself in order for him to love her.

But, back to the question at hand. What does it mean for Vertigo to be in the number one position. Well, as I said, the perspective regarding the film has changed and evolved slower than Citizen Kane and this year more people felt it was the greatest film ever made. Some have argued that Kim Novak's comment about feeling "raped" when this year's Best Picture winner, The Artist, used Bernard Herrmann's score, brought the film back to some people's minds, which may have led to some viewing it again. While that may sound humorous, it's not too big of a stretch that this comment made people revisit the film.

After 50 years, some voters may have felt it was time for a new film to take the number one spot. Some of these voters may have been new, some may have just come around to Vertigo after years of ranking it lower on their ballots or not ranking it at all. Now that Vertigo has placed number one, the best possible outcome is for more people to discover the film as well as other Hitchcock's films. Whether Vertigo is the greatest film of all time, I feel it's definitely one of the greatest films in cinema history.

Now, what of the rest of the list? What's fascinating, and maybe a little bit disappointing, is that the youngest film in the top ten is Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, released in 1968. So, the most recent film in the top ten came out over forty years ago. Contrast this with the first Sound & Sight Poll in 1952 where Bicycle Thieves, released only four years prior in 1948, topped the list. City Lights (1931, #2) was only 21 years old and The Gold Rush (1925, #3), only 28 years old when they ranked high on the list.

Now, there was "slightly" less film history in 1952 and more room for twenty year old films to appear on the list-but even when you look at the 1962 list, Citizen Kane was only 21 years old when it first claimed the top spot and was still only 31 years old in 1972. L'avventura was only 2 years old when it appeared on the 1962 list. Federico Fellini's 8 1/2 was only 9 years old when it appeared on the 1972 list. Now, in 2012, there are no films from the last five, ten, twenty or even thirty years in the top ten. No Pulp Fiction or Schindler's List. No There Will Be Blood or Fargo. The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, which appeared together on the  2002 list, have now fallen out of the top ten. This may be due to the rule change that wouln't allow them to be counted as one film.. A Martin Scorsese film has also never appeared in the top ten. Taxi Driver is ranked 31 this year, tieing with The Godfather Part IIRaging Bull, and Goodfellas are not ranked within the top 50.

For reference, this is the top ten for 2012:

1. Vertigo (1958, Hitchcock)
2. Citizen Kane (1941, Welles)
3. Tokyo Story (1953, Yasujiro Ozu)
4. The Rules of the Game (1939, Jean Renoir)
5. Sunrise (1927, F.W. Murnau)
6. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, Stanley Kubrick)
7. The Searchers (1956, John Ford)
8. Man With a Movie Camera (1928, Dziga Vertov)
9. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928, Carl Theodor Dreyer)
10. 8/12 (1963, Federico Fellini,)

Now, I've seen eight of the 10 films listed (I still haven't seen Sunrise or Man With a Movie Camera) and while it's a more than respectable list, it does feel a little boxed in. While the voters didn't sit down and decide not to have any post sixties films in the top ten, it's unfortunate that many of the great films from the 70s, 80s, 90s and the last decade are only represented outside of the top ten.

Now, Casablanca is my favourite film and it's not ranked at all. While I understand it's not as revolutionary as Citizen Kane or as psychologically probing or disturbing as Vertigo, its characters are as memorable and enjoyable as the ones in the aforementioned films, and while its filmed in a very classical Hollywood style, its images, the closeups of Bogie and Bergman, among others, really resonate. While I'm not a voter I've decided to throw out a top ten made up of personal favourites and films I just feel are great.

1. Casablanca (1943, Michael Curtiz)
2. Rear Window (1954, Hitchcock)
3. The Apartment (1960, Billy Wilder)
4. 12 Angry Men (1957, Sidney Lumet)
5. Citizen Kane (1941, Welles)
6. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928, Dreyer)
7. Vertigo (1958, Hitchcock)
8. Taxi Driver (1976, Scorsese)
9. The Godfather (1972, Francis Ford Coppola)
10. Psycho (1960, Hitchcock)

And look, I only have one film from the seventies. Aren't I hypocritical. Pot, Kettle.There's also so many I left out! Singin' in the Rain!, GFII!, Goodfellas! Damn you lists! Anyway, those are some of my thoughts regarding the new Sight & Sound Poll. Whatever meaning lists like S&S have, if they make you want to revisit films you haven't seen for a while or discover one you've never seen, well, I think that's a pretty good thing.

P.S: Here's a piece I wrote on Vertigo's influence on Scorsese's Shutter Island and Christoper Nolan's Inception: