Broken Ornaments, Stolen Babies, and Lies: A Not So Traditional CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT

•09/12/2012 • Leave a Comment

9 December 2012

While all holidays are steeped in tradition, no holiday has as many customary practices and rituals as Christmas, at least here in America.  Perhaps the most popular holiday on the calendar, Christmas’ ceremonial rites generally begin on Thanksgiving and run a full four weeks leading up to December 25th.  Of course there are typical traditions, like decorating a Christmas tree, giving and receiving presents, and celebrating the holiday with friends, family, and a gluttonous amount of food; however, people also have unique traditions they have created or have carried through their heritage, and these are as wide-ranging as the millions of individuals who celebrate the holiday all over the world.  But, even these self-made, atypical Christmas traditions are still habitual rituals put in place to celebrate in a customary way because, whatever the holiday tradition, the ritual is what makes the holiday familiar, comfortable, and reflective…right?

Moreover, the plots of most Christmas films spotlight holiday traditions.  For example, if one sits down to watch a Christmas movie for the first time, that person knows they will likely see Christmas presents exchanged, a Christmas tree decorated and/or displayed, and, without a doubt, the main plot of the film will focus on developing relationships, likely familial, in the spirit of the season.

Most audiences look for this heart-warming type of Christmas movie during the holiday season.  Watching the film itself perpetuates the Christmas movie tradition, but also, through its plot and subplots, reinforces the significance of traditions at this celebrated time of year.

But what about times in life when Christmas traditions are infringed upon by tragedy?  What happens to the happy rituals of yesteryear when pain, fear, and sadness find their way into the Christmas season?

These questions are timeless, and it seems possible responses to these questions delicately and unexpectedly emerge in an American holiday classic written and released during WWII.  In a time of global unrest, the American way of life changed and traditions, be them holiday or every day, were compromised; sadly, the war’s draft separated families, sent men overseas, and forced women to leave their children so they could work.  Released in 1945 and set during a holiday season in World War II, Peter Godfrey’s Christmas in Connecticut, written by Aileen Hamilton, Adele Comandini, and Lionel Houser, is a romantic comedy which light-heartedly suggests how WWII-ridden American society reacted to Christmas during a distressing time in the nation’s history.  The film’s plot captures a group of outsiders as they attempt to fake their way through a merry Christmas, similar to the way America, during WWII, forced its way through the traditions of difficult Christmases in the early to mid 1940s.

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Briefly, Christmas in Connecticut is the story of Liz (Barbara Stanwyck), better known by her pseudonym, Elizabeth Lane.  She is a columnist for a major American periodical.  Elizabeth Lane, the image, is a well-off, fabulous, wife, mother, and homemaker living on a large farm in Connecticut.  She shares her recipes, decorating suggestions, and advice with the country through her writing; however, the real Liz is single, childless, living in a small New York City apartment, and has no clue how to cook or desire to decorate.  Her boss, Mr. Yardley (Sydney Greenstreet), who believes Elizabeth Lane actually exists, decides the magazine should send a returning war veteran, Jefferson Jones (Dennis Morgan), to Elizabeth’s farm in Connecticut for Christmas, offering the soldier a traditional, wholesome holiday in thanks for his bravery during war.  Of course, this is Liz’s worst nightmare, and she must quickly come up with a farm in Connecticut so she can satisfy her boss’ assignment without revealing her actual identity.  Her fiancé, John Sloane (Reginald Gardiner), helps her secure a farm and pushes to marry her quickly so he will legitimately be her husband when the veteran arrives, and her good friend, Felix (S. Z. Sakall), a chef, agrees to play her uncle so he can cook the meals.  John’s housekeeper Norah (Una O’Connor), who babysits children while their mothers are at work, completes the plan by getting a baby who Liz pretends is hers.  Unfortunately, Jefferson arrives early, before Liz and John can marry.  Yet, that turns out to be rather good luck when sparks immediately fly between Liz and Jefferson.  The next few days are a series of close calls and shenanigans, especially when Mr. Yardley himself arrives to spend the holiday in Connecticut with Elizabeth, her family, and Jefferson.  Amidst the charade, Liz and Jefferson grow closer, and by the film’s comically calamitous conclusion all secrets are revealed and love conquerors all.

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Overall critics liked Christmas in Connecticut, however the film met resistance and has its share of naysayers. Theoretically, Christmas in Connecticut is not as embraced as its holiday-themed cinematic contemporaries because it does not drip with Christmas tradition; in fact, the film is all about faking tradition, and therefore it mocks yuletide rituals.  But that is, perhaps, the film’s strength; it is authentic to the nontraditional time it was made.  Within the turmoil of war, Christmas in Connecticut is a refreshingly honest, albeit somewhat silly, portrait of people who know exactly what a traditional Christmas should be, but find it impossible to pull off in their present circumstance.

First, Liz is forced to play Elizabeth Lane, the image, on Christmas.  Never once does she mention having to miss a traditional Christmas gathering or family celebration to pull off this charade.  Seemingly, Liz would have spent Christmas at home, perhaps alone.  She obviously knows what the traditional Christmas “should” be; she writes about it successfully in a magazine, but she does not conform to the tradition she pens.

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Why? Perhaps because when she tries, when she is Elizabeth Lane in Connecticut, Liz is a disaster.  Circles don’t fit into squares, and Liz, symbolizing American Christmases during WWII, is too nontraditional to pull off the holiday rituals.  Take, for example, decorating the Christmas tree.  The film attempts to capture a picturesque holiday tradition: Liz decorating as Jefferson plays the piano and sings.  However, Liz breaks an ornament and the moment is spoiled; the tradition is broken.  Also, just after breaking the ornament, Liz holds a present it seems she wants to give Jefferson; however, she puts the present back, unopened, under the tree before he sees what she is holding.  This is as close as the film comes to covering the holiday tradition of gift-giving and receiving.  Somehow that tradition, like the tree decorating, fails in Christmas in Connecticut.  As for other traditions, there is no Santa and no Christmas cookies, but there is a dance to celebrate the holiday.  Yet, after a short time (just long enough for the director to shoot a large “Buy War Bonds” banner), Liz and Jefferson leave the dance, disinterested in the communal celebration of the holiday, and identifying once more how nontraditional a Christmas there is in Christmas in Connecticut, and, by extension, how nontraditional Christmases likely were for so many in America when the film was made.

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Often, films made during WWII went out of their way and over the top to preserve American values and tradition in the face of war, suggesting the war would end and the American way would restore itself.  In wartime, traditions become even more important because they represent a way of life threatened that must be defended.  Because Christmas is largely about tradition, holiday films often become a foreground for spotlighting the value of tradition in American society.  Christmas in Connecticut, ever so slightly, resists that.  Godfrey’s film is not afraid to fumble or refuse many Christmas traditions, therefore honestly reflecting the tumultuous time in America during WWII.  Instead of faking through Christmas, Christmas in Connecticut finds comedy in the artifice of it all.  Thus, Christmas in Connecticut reflects its time, wittily and unpretentiously.

In all, Christmas in Connecticut is a nontraditional holiday classic. The film, true to the historical moment of its creation and release, embraces a difficult moment in American history.  It may not be the prescriptive holiday classic so many films are, and it may be silly at times, but, when looked at thorough a certain lens, makes strong statements about its time and traditions during conflict, and for that it must be respected.

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It’s Hard to Believe, but…

•05/12/2012 • Leave a Comment

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Unconscious Reflection and Foreboding in THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER

•02/12/2012 • Leave a Comment

2 December 2012

Art, like life, happens through conscious and unconscious expression.  Narrowing art to simply cinema, it must then be true that there are intentional, purposeful actions, references, and language in films as well as “unintentional” happenings that slip in from the unconscious.  While this has and will always happen, it is of particular interest to look, retrospectively, at films from a particular region on the eves of that region’s significant historical moments and see what, if any, unconscious premonitions, be them anticipatory or foreboding,  become visible in hindsight.

One of the most tumultuous eves in American history is 1939-1941.  Not only had Americans been struggling through The Great Depression for over a decade, this particular time was the eve of America’s entrance into World War II.  Interestingly enough, 1939 is, arguably, the American film industry’s strongest year to date; some of the country’s most renowned cinematic accomplishments arrived in 1939: Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Dark Victory, Wuthering Heights, The Women, Young Mr. Lincoln, and Love Affair.  And, between the releases of these classics and America’s declaration of war with Germany in December 1941, more of the nation’s most celebrated cinema came about: Fantasia, The Philadelphia Story, The Great Dictator, Rebecca, The Bank Dick, Citizen Kane, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, High Sierra, The Lady Eve, The Maltese Falcon, Sullivan’s Travels, The Grapes of Wrath, and The Shop Around the Corner.

The last film mentioned, The Shop Around the Corner, is of particular interest this week in Reel Club.  Released in 1941, this film was directed by Ernst Lubitsch, and although this is an American film, it is set in Budapest, Hungary, the same setting of Parfumerie, the 1937 play by Miklos Laszlo that the film screenplay was adapted from.  “The shop around the corner” is Matuschek and Co., and the film follows Mr. Matuschek (Frank Morgan) and his staff: Alfred Kralik (James Stewart), Ilona (Inez Courtney), Mr. Pirovitch (Felix Bressart), Flora (Sara Haden), Pepi (William Tracy), and Vadas (Joseph Schildkraut).  Kralik has been exchanging letters with a woman whose ad he found in the newspaper, and he is increasingly smitten with the depth of his anonymous correspondent.  Simultaneously, Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan) enters Matuschek’s looking for a job.  After thinking on her feet and making a remarkable sale in front of Mr. Matuschek, she gets the job, but, unfortunately, Klara and Kralik get on each other’s nerves right from the start, and after six months of working together tensions run high between Kralik and Klara.  Separately, Mr. Matuschek believes his wife, Emma, is having an affair, and Matuschek suspects Kralik.  Eventually, and because of his suspicions, Matuschek lets Kralik go as an employee, which thaws the icy relationship between he and Klara.  That same night, Kralik learns his secret correspondence is actually Klara, but he does not reveal his identity to her.  Moreover, it comes to light that Vadas is the employee Mrs. Matuschek is having the affair with, not Kralik.  Matuschek welcomes Kralik back to the store just as the Christmas holiday approaches.  On Christmas Eve, Matuschek’s makes an impressive income, which warms the hearts of the store’s owner and employees.  And, just as Klara is preparing to leave for the evening, Kralik declares his love for her and confesses he is her correspondence.

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Although it is set in Hungary, The Shop Around the Corner comments heavily on American life in 1940 and also forebodes the impending tragedy that would rattle America, and the world, in the four, war-ridden years immediately following the film’s release.

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Evident from the opening scene, The Shop Around the Corner addresses America’s economic hardships in 1940, specifically how the hardships impacts average, working-class Americans.  The film begins early on a summer morning with Pepi riding his delivery bike for Matuschek’s in Budapest’s bustling city center.  He arrives at Matuschek and Co. where Mr. Pirovitch is already waiting, reading his newspaper.  Pepi immediately begins riling Pirovitch by suggesting Pirovitch arrived early to show-off his loyalty and dedication in front of the boss, all in hopes of receiving a raise.  Thus, the first exchange in the film is motivated by and revolves around money.

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Next, Flora arrives and asks Pirovitch if his son is feeling better.  Pirovitch tells her the boy saw a doctor and is now doing well.  Instantly, Flora comments on how “pricey” that doctor is, and Mr. Pirovitch agrees.  He then reveals that he plans to cut back on cigars to pay the medical bills. Again, the conversation centers on money and how people are struggling to make end’s meet.

Then, Ilona arrives with a new silver fox stole.  Her eye-catching accessory gets the attention of Flora, Pirovitch and Pepi, and she tells the small crowd she tried to resist the expensive purchase, but she was so in love with the stole she could not let it go.  Less than three minutes into the film, all of the action has surrounded money, specifically how expensive the cost of living is and how people find it difficult affording the things they want and need.

The next person to arrive at the store is Kralik, and his entrance signals a slight shift.  As soon as Kralik approaches the crowd, he pulls out money, all coins, and asks Pepi to buy him some bicarbonate soda to treat a mild case of indigestion afflicting him.  After all the talk about money from the other three characters, Kralik’s coins solidify the significance of money to this opening scene of The Shop Around the Corner.  Moreover, rummaging through coins also signals to viewers that Kralik is not an affluent man, and he may have barely enough to get by.  (This is reinforced later when Vadas pulls out a large wad of paper money.)  Obviously, finances are a conscious part of the opening scene in The Shop Around the Corner; however, the film is, likely, not conscious about how provocative the economic references are to The Great Depression in its first few minutes.

After Pepi’s departure, Vadas arrives, dressed sharply and seeming upbeat.  Interestingly, he is not well received by the others, perhaps not simply because he appears to have more than the rest, but because he flaunts himself and attempts instigating conflicts amid his co-workers.  The way he ignites hostility leads into the foreboding suggestions in The Shop Around the Corner, which are unconscious political and social feelings of 1940 slipping into the film.

First, as Ilona talks to Kralik she suggests Mrs. Matuschek, who Kralik had dinner with the night before, must have had her face lifted.  Vadas, who stands alone, behind the crowd, says, “I think Mrs. Matuschek is a very charming woman.”  His comment sends Ilona into a fit, as his statement suggests he believes Ilona must not think Mrs. Matuschek is not charming simply because she’s had her face lifted.   Directly afterward, Kralik reveals he ate too much goose liver at the Matuschek’s and that’s why he wants the bicarbonate soda.  Vadas asks, “Wasn’t [the goose liver] any good?” His second comment also instigates trouble, as his latest remark implies Kralik thinks his difficult digestion happened as a result of the Matuschek’s food.  Kralik becomes furious with Vadas and the way he spun words.

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In 1940 people were legitimately concerned about what they said, who they said it to/in front of, and how their words might be misconstrued.  This was an unstable time, therefore a dangerous one.  Everyman could not afford to have his/her words misconstrued if that meant his/her income could be compromised. Moreover, on a bigger scale, political uncertainly all over the world made it imperative for every person to be mindful of their actions and words.  Evident from the characters reactions to Vadas, tensions ran high, and considering how frightening real-life events were at the time (and subsequently became) Vadas becomes more than a character; Vadas is symbolic of a threat challenging average, working-class citizens.  All of the references to money and Vadas’ pot-stirring manipulation happen in, roughly, the first six minutes of the film.  Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner is, without a doubt, a loaded movie.  Again, there is no doubt some this conflict regarding money and manipulation was intentionally injected into the film, but the unconscious amount the references parallel America and the world in 1940 is something that only became conscious retrospectively.

As Lubitsch’s film continues, his use of Pirovitch addresses impending dangers, felt in 1940, regarding Jews.  Although the film is American, its Hungarian setting puts Pirovitch, a Jewish character, in a more precarious position (Hungary joined the Axis party in WWII).  Audiences at the time would have felt fearful for Jewish men and women in Europe and resonated with the director’s decision to highlight a dynamic, loyal, hardworking, and loveable man; Pirovitch sacrifices to care for his sick child, he reveres his boss and family, and he consistently helps his friends to be best of his ability.

However, at the start of the film, still in that aforementioned opening scene, when Mr. Matuschek arrives at the store, he asks who put a particular item in the shop’s display window.  Timidly, Pirovitch owns up and says it was his decision to put the product in the window display.  Matuschek gives Pirovitch his approval on the decision, much to Pirovitch’s relief.  Yet, in two later scenes, Mr. Matuschek looks around the store for someone to give him an “honest” opinion or to tell him the truth about a product or event, and each time Matuschek says the word “honest,” the camera cuts to Pirovitch and captures him running away.  Evident from the opening scene, Pirovitch is honest, yet twice Lubitsch goes out of his way to show Pirovitch running away from honesty—or, perhaps running away from having to be dishonest.  Presumably, this was thought of as comic relief, but it is actually a rather noteworthy remark about how (un)wise it could be for a Jewish person to be honest at the historical time.  Pirovitch’s avoidance of honesty is an incredibly foreboding, unconscious claim made in The Shop Around the Corner, a claim that could not be fully understood until the ominous feelings of the time unfolded themselves in the coming years.

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So many American films from the eve of WWII are saturated in unconscious foreboding about the historical climate that immediately followed their releases. Often revered for its wholesome and relatable narrative and characters, The Shop Around the Corner typically finds itself on classic holiday lists (which is how it found a spot this month in Reel Club), but the historical moment this film was made in, in partnership with the film’s director, gives the film even greater significance.  More than just a seasonally appropriate romantic comedy, The Shop Around the Corner comments, consciously and unconsciously, on its moment in time, therefore the film is more than entertainment; The Shop Around the Corner, like its contemporaries, is a testament to American feeling, ideals, and fears while struggling through The Great Depression and on the eve of World War II.

What’s Up, Doc?: Psychology, Propaganda, and MIRACLE ON 34th STREET

•25/11/2012 • Leave a Comment

25 November 2012

As a whole, 1940s American film is black and white propaganda projected.  Considering the historical climate, and from a political standpoint, using film as a tool to build morale during World War II was a successful tactic.  But, before and after WWII heavy propaganda always has and does exist in film.  Be it romance, drama, comedy, or horror, messages are inlaid in film suggesting a certain point of view that some person or people want the public to get behind and support.  George Seaton’s Miracle on 34th Street, released in 1947, is an example of a post-WWII film containing strong biased messages designed to sway viewers’ perspectives on controversial topics, namely mental health.

Miracle on 34th Street, adapted from Valentine Davies’ novel of the same title, presents the story of Susan Walker (Natalie Wood), a girl conditioned not to believe in fairytales or myths.  Her mother, Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara), a single parent and an highly ranked employee of Macy’s, believes children should be realists so they will not suffer disillusionment when they reach adulthood.  However, when the performer Doris hires to play Santa in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade gets too intoxicated to take on the role, Doris hires Kris (Edmund Gwenn), a man who looks like Santa Claus and happened to be in the right place at the right time.  After the parade, Kris stays on staff at Macy’s, playing Santa in the store during the holiday season.  The curious thing about Kris, though, is he believes he actually is Santa Claus.   In fact, Kris goes by the full name Kris Kringle.  Doris does not buy Kris’ tall-tale for a minute and has him psychologically evaluated.  Originally, Susan also rejects Kris’ story, but after hearing Kris speak Dutch to a girl recently immigrated to America she begins to believe.  Fred (John Payne), Doris’ love interest, is much more open-minded to Kris’ stories, and he makes sure Susan spends some time with Kris, hoping to open the young girl’s mind.  However, the physiologist who originally tested Kris, Dr. Sawyer (Porter Hall), wants to put Kris away in hospital.  When Kris confronts Dr. Sawyer about his unethical practice of medicine, Dr. Sawyer exaggerates an altercation between himself and Kris, forcing Kris into hospital just like the Sawyer intended.  A highly publicized trial ensues, putting Kris on the defense for claiming he is Santa Claus.  On Christmas Eve, Kris is found innocent, just in time to deliver presents to the children of the world, specifically Susan Walker, the stern non-believer who eventually learned to believe.

One of the more interesting messages clearly communicated in Miracle of 34th Street is distrust of psychology, or, more pointedly, distrust of psychologists. In fact, even though Kris mentions he has a great “respect” for psychology as a field of study, Doctor Sawyer, the psychologist testing Kris, is the film’s antagonist. Kris and Dr. Sawyer are constantly in opposition, making Dr. Sawyer is the film’s villain.  Sawyer is lewd, dishonest, and brash throughout the film, which, viewing him as a representation for psychologists as a whole, suggests Miracle on 34th Street claims undesirable imposters threaten psychology and pose a threat to those they claim to heal.

First, when Dr. Sawyer “tests” Kris, during the “psychological evaluation” (which is made up of ridiculous questions that are an insulting measurement of a person’s mental stability), he is short-tempered and disgruntled.  This is quite noticeable as Sawyer sits across from the even-tempered, upbeat Kris.  Also, Dr. Sawyer is suffering from some nervous tendencies during this scene, such as compulsively pulling the hair from his eyebrows.  Sawyer’s anxiety grows as Kris passes the evaluation because Sawyer is convinced Kris’ delusions about being Santa Claus mean he is insane, and therefore should be failing the test.  In short, this scene communicates that psychologists are more mentally unstable than the patients they treat.

Moreover, during this scene, the setting helps stress Sawyer’s anxious and unprofessional behavior.  Sawyer’s office is toward the top of the Macy’s building, but the noise of the traffic below easily drifts up.  The sound of motorcars and horns are heard over Sawyer and Kris’ conversation, which add angst to the scene. In addition, the cords from Sawyer’s two telephones are tangled in the edge of his desk.  While this visual is only a minor distraction, the cords are chaotic and unorganized, symbolic of Sawyer himself. Evident from this clip, one of the film’s claims is the potentially dangerous irony of a psychologist being more mentally unstable than his or her patients.

Later, in Sawyer’s office, Kris confronts Sawyer about his dishonorable practice.  (Kris’ motivation to confront Dr. Sawyer came after learning Dr. Sawyer regularly meets with Alfred (Alvin Greenman), a young, impressionable Macy’s worker who now believe he hates his father after what Dr. Sawyer tells him during their sessions.)  Offended that Kris would storm in his office and make accusations, Sawyer fires back and the exchange quickly becomes heated.  Eventually, an enraged Kris, takes the handle of his cane and whacks Sawyer on the forehead with it.  Sawyer falls into his chair behind him and Kris leaves the office.  Sawyer is about to get up when he hears a noise and notices Doris and Fred are entering his office through another door.  Sawyer quickly throws himself back down in the chair and pretends he is knocked out.  Doris and Fred are horrified by what Kris has done, and when Sawyer “comes to” he claims Kris became violent when his delusion about being Santa Claus came up.  This, of course, is not at all what happened, and Sawyer’s lie causes Kris’ involuntary hospitalization for more psychological evaluations.  This scene shows the psychologist as a manipulative liar; a person one should never trust.  So, in addition to psychologists being represented as mentally unstable themselves, Miracle on 34th Street also points out psychologists can be fraudulent and entirely unethical.

Moreover, twice in the film Sawyer’s credentials for practicing medicine are called into question: fist by Kris and later by Mr. Macy.  These respective accusations against Sawyer draw attention to malpractice.  Therefore, in tracing many of Sawyer’s scenes in the film, it is clear Miracle on 34th Street uses a certain degree of propaganda to deliver messages about psychologists—more broadly, those who treat mental health disorders—and dangers the 1947 population saw as problematic with their treatment of mental instability.

Not all propaganda in film is overtly politically motivated.  Yes, Ginger Rogers famous monologue at the end of Tender Comrade (1942, during WWII) is quintessential American cinematic propaganda at its best and most recognizable, but any message expressed in a film that is planted with the intent for that message to spread to the masses is propaganda.  Miracle on 34th Street may not be as political, yet it has plenty of propaganda, and it seems that the film’s treatment (no pun intended) of psychologists communicates a feeling of fear or distrust that must have been present, at least unconsciously, in America’s 1947 historical climate.

What’s interesting is Miracle on 34th Street has been remade several times, most recently in 1994.  The character of Dr. Sawyer underwent radical changes after Porter Hall’s performance in 1947, and in 1994 the character was eliminated all together.  Apparently, in the early 1990s, the newest remake did not need to communicate any messages of hesitation or fear toward psychologists, or any persons in the profession of mental health.

 

What Next [?]: Underdevelopment in HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS

•18/11/2012 • Leave a Comment

18 November 2012

We all know where this is going.  Big city artist, intellectual, and loner must travel home to spend a holiday with the outspoken and off-color family she avoids the rest of the year.  The Thanksgiving table is decorated with food (fights), knickknacks, and arguments.  As emotions boil over, tears and laughter flood the day, and, in the end, resolution is found because, despite their antics, her blood-bound brood love each other in their own unique but exhausting way.  This is Home for the Holidays.

Directed by Jodie Foster in 1995, Home for the Holidays picks up with 40-year-old Claudia Larson (Holly Hunter) the day before Thanksgiving, as she gets fired from her job as an art restoration specialist in a Chicago museum. Shaken, Claudia continues with her plan to fly to Baltimore so she can spend the Thanksgiving holiday with her parents.  Just before boarding her flight, Claudia’s teenage daughter, Kit (Claire Danes), reveals that, while Claudia is away, she plans to have sex for the first time with her boyfriend.  Taking her from shaken to shock, Claudia travels home only to be greeted by Adele (Anne Bancroft) and Henry (Charles Durning), her meddlesome mother and brazen father.  On Thanksgiving, the familial motley crew grows to include Tommy (Robert Downey Jr.), Claudia’s hyperactive and homosexual younger brother, his attractive friend Leo (Dylan McDermott), Claudia’s resentful sister Joanne, along with her haughty husband and two annoying children, as well as Aunt Glady (Geraldine Chaplin), Adele’s loopy sister.  The seemingly never-ending holiday climaxes when Leo, who Claudia believed to be gay, admits he is straight and that he came to the Larson Thanksgiving celebration to meet Claudia. From there, the two quickly hit it off, and, after Claudia releases some lingering inhibitions, Leo flies home to Chicago with her the day after Thanksgiving.

There is no question Home for the Holidays has its charm, but the film lacks originality.  More than that— because what film is actually original, whatever that is—, Home for the Holidays pigeonholes itself with static characters and an underdeveloped narrative, which fail in the film’s attempt to achieve a nostalgically emotional resolution.

This comedy is, in large part, about a dysfunctionally functioning family; they are atypically typical, yet loving and lovable.  Their quirks are what make them interesting and worth watching.  However, the film is filled to the brim with characters, or caricatures, and the narrative spans a mere 48 hours of maddening holiday rituals.  Most characters simply come and go.  For example, aging Aunt Glady is an unforgettably idiosyncratic character.  She’s madly in love with her sister’s husband—and never misses an opportunity to awkwardly admit (or sing) it—, she has the attention span of a goldfish, and thinks sensory lights are, to quote her, “magic.”  She’s a bit role in the film; her character does not develop at all because her function is to offer laughs.  She is a static character, like so many others in the film.

A character with more screen time is Tommy, played by Robert Downey Jr.  Reportedly, Downey Jr. considered leaving acting prior to Home for the Holidays, but took the role when Foster promised he could improvise and adlib in his role, in an effort for Downey Jr. and Foster to communicate stronger realism and perhaps dynamism in his character.  Arguably, this did not work. Even with more screen time than Glady, it seems, at any moment, the figurative wheels are about to fly off Tommy’s character.  The performance is spontaneous.  The brief moments when Tommy’s relentless exterior cracks are inconsistent and skirted, making his ostentatious character unchanging and difficult to connect with, thus as static as Glady.

Even Claudia, the protagonist of the piece, does not evolve in the film as a typical protagonist might.  Her story begins when she loses her job, which upsets her only briefly.  After its initial happening, her firing becomes passive commentary peppering the film.  Even though the opening sequence, as Claudia restores a piece of art, suggests her job has recently become a great passion of hers, she is never terribly affected by its loss.  Of course, the film cannot spend a great deal of time working through Claudia’s potential emotional struggle sparked by an major event at the start of the film because there is a subplot for Claudia in the whirlwind narrative, her love interest, Leo.

Part of the reason Claudia’s characterization is stifled is the loaded narrative introduces several twists and turns without fully developing any one of them.  One such twist is the subplot between Leo and Claudia.  The underdeveloped narrative sets up Leo and Claudia meet and grow feelings for one another in, approximately, 24 hours time.  In the 24th hour, the two are flying home together, Claudia back to Chicago and Leo with her.  Like Tommy, this narrative twist is spontaneous.  Perhaps, romantic at first, Claudia and Leo’s relationship is preposterous because it is so underdeveloped.  It is not relatable; it is ridiculous, and rather random.

And, just after Leo pops up on the plane Claudia boards to return home, the film begins a montage of love as its resolution, and this is where Home for the Holidays misses its mark.  First, the montage travels into the past to see Adele and Henry young and madly in love, and their young children happy and loving.  Then, jumps forward to Tommy and his husband Jack on the beach at their wedding.  Next, the audience watches Joanne and her family lovingly playing with one another.  And, of course, leaving off with the present, Claudia sleeping with her head on Leo’s should as they fly home to Chicago, all while a romantic ballad plays.  This nostalgic resolution attempts to elicit an emotional response from the audience, but why would the audience become emotional?  What groundwork as been laid and built upon with these characters and their lives to suggest they are relatable individuals who viewers chose to care about?

Home for the Holidays is a comedy which exists on caricatures, slapstick, and situational irony; it does not spend time on character or plot development; it’s surface. Hence, this is not the type of film calls for sentimental closure.

To See or Not To See: Sights and Symbolism in SCENT OF A WOMAN

•11/11/2012 • Leave a Comment

11 November 2012

During Christmastime in 1992, Martin Brest released his film Scent of a Woman, which received a warm response from audiences, but a slightly cooler reception from critics.  The film features a commanding performance from Al Pacino, in a role earning him an Academy Award.  Playing sightless veteran Frank Slade, the film attempts to communicate how devastating the loss of sight is to Frank through constant visual cues.  However, while the film does cleverly communicate the theme of sight occasionally, Scent of a Woman does not maintain its focus on this theme—which is necessary to support the narrative—and ends up falling short of its potential.

Over Thanksgiving break, Charlie Simms (Chris O’Donnell), a modest prep school student, takes a job as an assistant to a blind veteran, Lieutenant Coronel Frank Slade (Al Pacino).  Frank’s family, who he lives with, is traveling for the holiday, so Frank needs help getting by; however, when he took the job, Charlie had no idea what spending Thanksgiving with Frank would entail, namely a spontaneous, first-class trip to Manhattan.  But, when Charlie realizes Frank’s lavish New York City escapade is a last hoorah (or, “Hoo-ah”) before ending his life, Charlie’s upstanding, loving moral character reveals itself fully, changing both his and Frank’s lives forever.

When the audience first meets Frank he sits in a recliner in his small living room.  The room is dimly lit, but a strong beam of natural light shines through a window behind Frank’s chair and crosses his face.  This eye-catching lighting is, perhaps, one of the most memorable in the film.  It is unclear whether Charlie knows immediately that Frank is blind, or if he realizes during their initial conversation, however, what is understood from this defining use of light is how significant sight and seeing are in Scent of a Woman, and that the film, through its cinematic techniques, is trying to emphasize this.  The natural ray of light shines directly on Frank’s face and illuminates him.  Although Frank cannot see, he is being seen in this scene.  In front of this stranger (Charlie), Frank is on display, faults, handicaps, and all.  Conversely, even though Frank cannot see, literally, he senses Charlie; he visualizes him in his own way.

While this early use of light and its reinforcement of sight’s significant is promising, no other such play with lighting exists in the film.  However, this initial use of natural light does introduce a motif that recurs throughout Scent of a Woman.  Windows are loaded symbols, appearing consistently in the film, primarily in connection to Frank.  In fact, in almost every shot of Frank a window appears in the frame.  Similar to the window letting in the natural beam of light when the audience, and Charlie, first meet Frank, the windows surrounding Frank provide a constant reminder of seeing, telling and retelling the audience what Frank cannot physically do.  Windows offer seers a view, ideally a picturesque vantage point to the outside world.  Sadly, windows offer Frank nothing but a reminder of his handicap.  And, the only view the windows offer the audience in Scent of a Woman is into the melancholy and troubled mindset of Frank, who finds it difficult to live life without sight, particularly because the accident he caused took his sight from him.

Moreover, windows, as a symbol, are generally negative, and can be seen as negative in Scent of a Woman.  Through a window one only sees a partial view, one fitting a 2’ by 3’ opening.  In addition, the view is obstructed by glass, so there is always a barrier between seers and seen.  (Open windows may offer more to investigate, but there are no open windows in Scent of a Woman.)  Considering the motif this way, the windows placed around Frank in Scent of a Woman highlight more than Frank’s sightlessness.  Yes, the windows remind the audience Frank cannot see, but they also suggest the visual desires Frank clings to, such as in wanting to be adorned in elegant, custom suits, is severely limited and blocked by his handicap.

With this in mind, a scene toward the film’s conclusion, when Frank drops Charlie back off to school, becomes more significant.  Surprisingly, Frank grabs Charlie’s face and feels its structure, identifying Charlie’s facial features.  Figuratively, the window is broken in this scene; the limousine’s window is down, so Frank’s hands reach right through to grab Charlie’s face.  The limited view and obstruction of glass from the window is set aside and Frank, although blind, finally gets to see Charlie.  This brief moment is one of the film’s most positive, and one of its strongest shots.

Unfortunately, there is not enough clever cinematic communication like this in the film.  In fact, Scent of a Woman is full of tight shots, medium and close-ups primarily.  While these shots offer the audience focused attention in Al Pacino, they are static shots and undercut the film’s opportunities to communicate things like background action, size, shape, perspective, and setting.  Additionally, and as many critics reviewing Scent of a Woman have pointed out, the film is lengthy, and most of the key scenes, such as Frank’s suicide attempt, Frank and Charlie’s ride in the Ferrari, and trial, run too long and arrest the film’s pace.  During these lengthy scenes it seems Brest tries building the audience’s emotional intensity by using close-ups, yet what this actually does impede the film’s ability and puts most the film’s responsibility on Pacino’s performing shoulders.

Fortunately, Pacino can handle it.  In fact, Pacino’s performance is the reason to watch Scent of a Woman.  Without him the film could not stand on its own.  Even though the window motif is clever, and supports the focus on sight established early in the film, Brest is inconsistent and does not seem to know how to develop and highlight the motif into its potential.

Star, Smile, Strong: Keeping Confident about the Visual Irony in BROADWAY DANNY ROSE

•04/11/2012 • Leave a Comment

4 November 2012

Woody Allen’s signature style of filmmaking is best exemplified in his films of the 70s, 80s, and early 90s (arguably breaking consistency after Husbands and Wives in 1992).  Humor, intellect, clever and experimental camerawork, timing, nostalgia, along with a dash of anxiety ridden neurosis are a few key parts of Allen’s unparalleled style; however, Allen’s cinematic fluency makes it difficult to pinpoint all the aspects of his mastery.  Even with Broadway Danny Rose, a film often cited as simple and small, the complexity of its cinematic construction is awe-inspiring.  For a simple film it tells a complicated framed story of mistaken identity.  And, for a small film it spans from Manhattan to the New Jersey Marshland and back again, even gets as grandiose as, well, Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, twice.  This, too, is part of Allen’s style; communicating complicated and large events from the perspective of Everyman, and therefore expressing complex and big as simple and small.

Broadway Danny Rose is, without a doubt, an achievement for Allen, highlighting Allen as auteur.  The film accents the key parts of Allen’s style, and one of the ways the film does this is through silent, well-placed visual irony.  These ironic visual cues are easy to miss, however Allen does his best to guide audiences’ attention toward them, and once spotted these passing spectacles enhance Allen’s distinct style.

Danny Rose (Woody Allen) is a talent manager in New York City.  Only trouble is Danny Rose does not have much talent to manage.  Danny’s cliental is made up of a one-legged dancer, balloon animal artists, and a blind juggler, all entertainers who Danny sees potential in; unfortunately, he is the only person who sees this potential.  One of Danny’s clients, Lou Canova (Nick Apollo Forte), experienced some success with singing back in the 1950s, and, as luck will have it, finds himself on the road to a comeback, just so long as he can impress Milton Berle (himself) during a live performance at The Waldorf Astoria.  Lou, who is now an overweight, womanizing drunk, tells Danny he cannot perform without his newest flame, a woman named Tina (Mia Farrow), at his side, and he begs Danny to act as “beard” for the night, meaning Danny will take Tina to the show so Lou’s wife will not realize her husband has another woman on the side.  Danny, of course, agrees, but reluctantly.  When he arrives to pick-up Tina she is mid phone argument with Lou and tells the singer she will not be attending his show.  With his talent’s big night compromised by Tina’s “moody” behavior, Danny chases after Tina in hopes of getting her to The Waldorf Astoria.  Unfortunately for Danny, Tina has another boy-toy besides Lou, and her other on-again, off-again boyfriend is a member of organized crime.  He mistakenly thinks Tina has stepped out with Danny behind his back.  All of a sudden Danny is not doing the chasing; he and Tina are being chased.  With the mob in hot pursuit, Danny and Tina try desperately to make it to Lou’s big performance, but they meet obstacles at every corner, including an unforgettable—and hilarious—run-in with the floats from Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Visual irony is all over Broadway Danny Rose.  For example, when Danny and Lou are walking across the street during a bustling afternoon in Manhattan, they pass a movie theater and the marquee primarily advertises Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982).  (Q is also advertised, but the eye is drawn to Halloween III.)  The marquee, glowing in lights, was not an oversight for director Allen; he clearly realized while filming this scene Halloween III was being advertised and made the directorial decision to include the theatre and its marquee in his shot.

As a brief aside, it is always interesting when a movie includes a movie within itself.  Meaning, mentioning a film within a film reminds audiences they, too, are watching a movie.  This can be a slippery slope.  Any realism the film establishes is therefore compromised by the allusion to cinema within the film.  However, in Broadway Danny Rose, the audience knows right from the start they are simply watching a story.  The film begins with a bunch of comedians at a table in Carnegie Deli, and one of the men begins the story of Danny Rose and Lou Canova.  Occasionally, the film cuts back to these comedians, which, in its own way, consistently reminds the audience the film is not reality and merely a story; therefore, Halloween III within Broadway Danny Rose does not compromise the film.

In fact, this visual irony adds to the film.  Halloween III: Season of the Witch tanked with audiences and critics alike.  Hiding behind the Michael Meyers’s-famed Halloween title, Halloween III veered away from Haddonfield’s masked homicidal maniac, instead making children’s masks the evil villain (yes, that is right, blood-sucking masks).  The film is a waste from beginning to end.  To digress again, it rips off a far superior franchise and was released on its namesake’s holiday in hopes of attracting a fear-seeking crowd who might mistakenly think Halloween III could satisfy their horror craving.  But, back to Broadway Danny Rose, is this not exactly the type of movie Danny would get behind?  Of all the people in the world, isn’t Danny Rose one of the only ones who would find the silver lining in Halloween III?  Absolutely.  As he walks in front of the theatre’s marquee with Lou, desperately trying to convince this washed-up singer, and perhaps himself, a comeback is right around the corner if focus is held, the irony of the shot suddenly hits the audience.  Lou is to Halloween III as Danny is to whoever produced that flop.  This sly irony is hilarious.

Another example of visual irony in Broadway Danny Rose is the No Smoking signs, which appear consistently throughout the film.  The audience sees the signs in Lou’s gym, the room Danny and Tina are tied up in, and the storage warehouse for the Macy’s Parade floats, just to name a few places.  Conversely, everyone, aside from Danny, is smoking throughout the film: Tina smokes, the comedians at Carnegie Deli smoke, even the film’s extras smoke.  Already, Allen establishes irony by including, and even highlighting, these No Smoking signs while characters smoke their way through the film.  Adding to that, even though Danny does not smoke he certainly blows smoke throughout the film.  The popular expression blowing smoke typically refers to a person who talks to make himself/herself, or a topic at hand, sound more important than it actually is.  Essentially, this defines Danny Rose, and makes his placement around the No Smoking signs just as ironic as the literal smokers in the film.  While he never blows smoke about himself, as a small-time talent manager Danny’s job is to blow smoke about clients.  And, Danny does not stop there; Danny blows smoke every time he opens his mouth. Be it when rambling to the 75-year-old woman visiting bedridden psychic Angelina (Olga Barbato) or the verbal rollercoaster to Tina regarding her interior decorating skill, there he blows.  Once again, these ironic signs are humorous, as well as clever and always well-timed.

If popular opinion is correct, and big things come in small packages, than it must be true that Broadway Danny Rose is a small film packing something big into almost every shot.  The visual irony is as distinct a part of Allen’s auteur style as neurotic character(s), tracking shots, or New York City, and it is unquestionably evident in Broadway Danny Rose.

 

 
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