Saturday, June 24, 2006

Musing Pictures: The Stepford Wives (1975)

So I've finally seen "The Stepford Wives" (the original one, from 1975), and boy, is it creepy!

It's a somewhat dated film, but, after seeing it, I sort of got really peeved at the Frank Oz re-make from not too long ago. Oz turned it in to some sort of sordid comedy, whereas the original was really, truly, honestly creepy (as it should have been!)

One thing about it that struck me as a bit dated (thank G-D, too) was the "men are evil" attitude that it presented -- all of the men in Stepford (which is really little more than a stand-in for the rest of the civilized world) are selfish, ambitious, domineering and violent when it comes to women -- all they want is a sexual-satisfyer who will also keep the house neat, keep the kids well-trained and stay out of the way of business and other assorted "manly" things. I'm glad that men are being viewed a little more fairly these days than they used to be (I recently read "Self-Made Man" by Norah Vincent, which seems to be a part of a re-balancing trend...)


Musing Pictures: Nacho Libre

Parodies can be wonderful, but they're tough to pull off well. Nacho Libre is a fight-movie parody, in some ways transplanting the narrative from the Far-East, where such films often originate, to a sort of timeless, quintessential Mexican Nowheresville.

Nacho Libre, embodied here by Jack Black, is a Mexican wannabe-wrestler, whose life as a friar in an orphanage leaves much (including a pretty nun -- played by Ana de la Reguera) to be desired.

There's a lot of potential for humor here, but somehow, moments that could be riotously funny just aren't. There are some good chuckles, here and there, but to my mind, the film's greatest error is that although it is a fight-film parody, the fight scenes themselves are the least funny parts of the film!

When you think of a war film, you might think of battle scenes, but you'd also think of generals rallying their troops, soldiers commiserating in foxholes, etc. In a parody of a war film, all of those elements have to be transfigured in to something really funny, really hysterical (and of course, this is not the same as a comedy about war, a-la M*A*S*H -- only of parodies of serious movies about war). Since "Nacho Libre" is a parody of fight films, the elements that one thinks of in a fight film (especially the fight sequences that are always central to fight films) need to be funny.

There are a few notable elements to "Nacho Libre", though, that are interesting, but which have nothing to do with the content or quality of the film. There are a few sequences of un-translated, un-subtitled Spanish in the film, which, to a non-speaker of Spanish, were rather startling in a political and not-at-all-funny sort of way. Those segments, unlike untranslated or un-subtitled segments in other films, were presented as if they contained something important (that is, they were not background chatter), but non-speakers of Spanish were left (intentionally) out of the loop. It was as if the film were punishing non-speakers for not knowing Spanish (remember, I paid to see a film, anticipating that I would be able to understand it -- it's true of foreign films, too -- I pay to see them with subtitles, after all). If I know that a film is in a language other than English, I expect to be warned if it is not going to be translated in some way, so that I don't waste my money on a ticket to a film I won't understand.

And I'm not opposed to having extended sequences of American films done in other languages. I think "Traffic" was a triumph of multi-lingual film. But of course, with "Traffic", the subtitles were essential to those of us whose Spanish is limited to the digits from one to nine.

It's stuff like that, when a film tries to snub its audience, that makes me a little squeamish.


Saturday, June 10, 2006

Musing Pictures: The Mortal Storm

This is an obscure film, and that is exactly what is surprising about it.

Here's what it's about:

-A German family, comprised of an Arian mother, Arian children and a Jewish step-father, gets slowly and agonizingly torn to pieces during Hitler's rise to power.

Here's what it contains:

-Frightening and accurate scenes of Germans being moved and inspired by the Nazi propaganda machine -- in some cases, inspired to do violence and injustice to the people who they once admired and loved.
-Unequivocal condemnations of Nazi social policies, especially pertaining to concepts of 'racial purity'.
-Images of characters in a Concentration Camp

Here's what's so surprising:

This film was produced and released in 1940.

There is a great deal of talk about how Hollywood never really addressed antisemitism in its films until "Gentleman's Agreement" (1947) (in which the Holocaust is mentioned almost as an aside), and the Holocaust itself doesn't really become a serious topic until "The Pawnbroker" (1964) (with occasional films that handled the issue at arm's length, like "The Diary of Anne Frank" (1959)). But here, a film about the Holocaust that was released before the general public really had any clear sense of what was going on!

The scenes of the concentration camp are particularly surprising, because this was a time when no images, moving or otherwise, were available to anyone, anywhere, of the camps. It's just about the only historical image that is not accurate in the film (they got their uniforms perfect! Even "Schindler's List" didn't do that!) but it's pretty frighteningly close, right down to the spotlights on towers, the tall, ominous fencing, and the forced labor.

After seeing this film, I was filled with questions:

How did they know? (apparently the film was based on a book of the same title, which was written several years earlier!) There is so much in the film that is so accurately portrayed... it's amazing that the director, Frank Borzage, somehow managed to get it all right...

How was the film received? I wish I could find reviews -- did people realize that it was all true, or did they see it as a fiction? To what extent were American moviegoers aware of what was going on in Europe in 1940, and how much did this affect the way they received the film?

Why is it so obscure? It seems to me that "The Mortal Storm" should have much more significance in today's discourse on important Hollywood films. Aside from its subject matter, it is an exceptionally well-crafted film (it's very much a high-craft Stuido picture, right from the beginning), so there seems to be really no reason not to consider it quite highly. Evidence of its general obscurity includes the fact that IMDB has the wrong picture on the film's page, and it is not available on DVD anywhere.

I've found the VHS version of this film at only two libraries in Eastern Massachusetts, so if you're around here, you may have to fight to get ahold of it. If you're interested in examples of a more activist Hollywood, or if you are interested in the first Hollywood reaction to the Holocaust (which had barely begun at the time!), this is an absolutely necessary film.