#190: The Grapes of Wrath. It’s the 1930s, and when Tom Joad is finally released from prison after four years, the joyfully anticipated reunion with his family is almost immediately succeeded by all of them becoming homeless due to foreclosure of their farm in Oklahoma. With yet unbroken spirits, they load their truck and join the migratory stream of expropriated farmers from all over the Dust Bowl states towards California upon hearing of its (vastly exaggerated) employment opportunities. Their literal pursuit of happiness is an utterly uncomfortable ride, with both of Tom’s grandparents succumbing to disease, the family being penned up like cattle in a privately operated work camp, and having to endure the xenophobia of Californians who are not at all in favour of the excessive workforce now accumulating in their vicinity. It’s not particularly surprising that The Grapes of Wrath had to withstand criticism, and more substantial negative feedback like boycotts and death threats, especially from banks and larger corporations holding farmland. The pro-union attitude expressed later in the film also caused the McCarthy administration to accuse its director of communist tendencies, a claim that is perhaps most easily invalidated by the concurrent Soviet Union’s ban of The Grapes of Wrath, since Stalin didn’t want his comrades to stomach the fact that even the poorest Americans were able to afford a car. That being said, and for all its relevance and influence, this film isn’t actually an ingenious piece of art. Especially the ending is not only terribly sentimental but also serves us outbursts of solemn monologues from several characters whose inspiration must have been conjured up out of thin air, making the screenplay feel artificial as though the whole sequence had been made in concordance with a contempoary template that simply required you to have a moral statement at the conclusion of your work. (Editor’s Note: Based on John Steinbeck’s novel of the same title which won a Pullitzer Price.)
#189: Ben-Hur. It’s the year of our Lord, and in those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered… that the storyline of Ben-Hur isn’t historically accurate is, of course, the Bible’s fault. Judah Ben-Hur is a supposed contemporary of Jesus, but even if you’re not interested in the subject matter at all, you might still want to watch Ben-Hur, simply for the sake of having seen it and to notice when other films make references to it. Also, there is a certain satisfying appeal to watching something that has been created on a truly monumental scale, knowing that most of the hundreds upon hundreds of legionnaires are real people, and, well, witnessing what a huge amount of money and work can accomplish. The story of Judah’s life is also invariably more interesting than Christ’s (there, I said it) and for most of the time, the amount of Messiah in the plot mixture is thankfully kept at a reasonably low level. It’s only after the climactic chariot race that the focus on biblical history becomes far too overwhelming. With Judah’s story arc already being sufficiently concluded, but still another hour or so of runtime, the cast has little else to do than to impress us with their wailing and gnashing of teeth and the film’s substance slowly dwindles away into a Christianity advertisement. But then, Ben-Hur is a bit like the zoo: Even if you disagree with it, chances are you will visit at least once.
#188: Annie Hall. I have looked forward to talking about Woody Allen’s films, although not necessarily because of their quality. Sure, they are great, but coming across great movies has turned into a bit of a banality at his point. More importantly, they don’t require much of a plot summary on my part! Annie Hall is fairly simple: Alvy Singer gets introduced to Annie Hall at a tennis match, they start a relationship, their relationship withers, they break up their relationship, and they reminisce about their relationship. Its appeal doesn’t so much originate from being coherent or original as it does from being an amalgamation of witticisms and a repository of highly quotable one-liners. Time will probably not be kind to Annie Hall; its satire has already lost some of its edge and the universe of the future might no longer revolve around Woody Allen’s neuroses with as much adoration as it used to, although none of this is necessarily going to be the film’s downfall. More importantly, it features Christopher Walken as Annie’s brother (him, Sigourney Weaver and Jeff Goldblum all play minor roles in the movie, despite of them being yet relatively unknown actors) but the credits misspelled his last name as Wlaken. For this impertinence, I am sure Mr Walken will eventually exact just retribution by obliterating every copy of Annie Hall still in existence. Watch it while it’s still here.
#187: Million Dollar Baby. Plus one for boxing. Maggie Fitzgerald is well past her prime to consider taking up a professional boxing career, but to her it still beats waiting tables all day any day. Frankie, her grisly old trainer of choice, proves unwilling to take her on at first, probably suspicious of the seemingly unwarranted female attention he is getting all of a sudden, which is a mindset both commendable and unusual for a man of advanced age (a judgment I make from observation and not from experience, you see). After about half an hour of on-screen persuasion, however, he finally agrees to get her into fighting shape and the movie runs the usual course of American Dream cinema: Maggie dedicates herself to a strict training regiment, obliterates her competitors, and is about to win her first championship fight. At this point the script writer jumps awake again and has her break her neck by falling on an inconveniently placed stool. You should think somebody would have an eye on potential death traps lying around in the ring. The following sequence is a lot less clichéd but also feels stretched a lot thinner as the paralysed Maggie tries to persuade Frankie to end her misery by turning off her breathing apparatus, him being the only person still caring about her at this point since she just before alienated her money-grubbing family who came by on a friendly visit and waved a paper declaring her supposed last will in front of her face. It is then perhaps the cruel irony of fate to have Frankie, one of the few persons left dear to her, perform the terrible deed – or simply short-sightedness, since I am sure one of her selfish and sorely slighted kin would have pulled the plug without much hesitance.
#186: The Grand Budapest Hotel. Wes Anderson is perhaps the one director who leaves the most obvious traces in the films he works on, so should you ever feel the need to learn how to recognise a director’s signature techniques, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a prime opportunity for taking the first baby steps. Coincidentally, it’s also a brilliant movie. A young woman standing in front of a graveyard memorial reads the accounts of an old writer, who tells of his time as a young writer, when he met the Grand Budapest’s owner Zero Moustafa, who tells us of his time as a lobby boy under the auspices of the hotel’s original concierge, Monsieur Gustave. Although these many steps into the past might be expected to take us all the way back to see plague victims crawling through the streets, we actually only end up in the middle of the 1930s, where one of Monsieur Gustave’s mistresses – he is a notorious dowagers’ boy toy – is assassinated by command of her own murderous family, whose wicked ways of dealing with human obstacles gain new impetus when they learn how exceedingly generous Gustave has been considered in their late mother’s will. One of Wes Anderson’s trademarks, aside from his recognisable aesthetics, is his proficient use of a visual comedy going beyond the practice of relying on spoken dialogue as the only means to deliver jokes, which is something many other filmmakers turn to (it is admittedly not as difficult to orchestrate), but which is also often criticised for consisting of nothing but “talking heads”. This is not to say that Anderson’s dialogue is bland, it is actually quite elegant, but it’s not what makes up the comedic aspect of the film.
sneaked-in #196: Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind – Kaze no tani no Naushika. A thousand years have passed since humans waged their wars with the help of giant warrior constructs, resulting in the destruction of much of the earth’s surface and much of each other. The adjacent surviving nations Tolmekia, Pejite and the Valley of the Wind are now little more than isolated towns dwarfed by the encroaching toxic jungle, which spreads over most of the remaining landscape and is home to enormous insects called Ohmus. If enraged, their stampedes are able to easily level whatever sorry defences the scattered humans put up, so their territory is only frequented by brave souls like the Valley’s princess Nausicaä, who has an unusual empathy for the jungle’s inhabitants. As we all know history to be a bad teacher, the uncomfortable but relative peace of the region is soon disrupted by new war efforts. A Tolmekian airship carrying a dormant giant warrior crashes into the Valley, its militaristic owners swarming in after it. While the Tolmekians bunker up in the Valley’s castle to hatch their apocalyptic cargo, Nausicaä has to go save her home and everyone’s future since Pejite is about to lure an avalanche of Ohmus into the Valley in an attempt to appropriate the warrior for themselves. Mistakes in Nausicaä are few and far between, but those it does make are uncharacteristically obvious, especially considering how much more potential could have been saved if the screenplay was just a bit more conclusive. The ending essentially arrives in a flash, and without offering any epilogue whatsoever the conflict between the three regions simply dissolves into nothing. Nausicaä’s advocates might argue that this quick resolution is due to the giant warrior’s disappearance, whose pivotal role during the first half of the movie swiftly stooped to having not much of an impact after all, but I for one find it unlikely that the battle scene at the end would be immediately followed by the pictures of Valley children taking their gliding lessons over the lush pastures that are rolling with the credits. However, much worse than this is the existence of Oh-Baba, the blind crone who is in charge of telling the audience what’s going on by way of babbling about prophecies. Prophecies are generally a terrible and unimaginative way to foreshadow future content; most of them are either too cryptic to make sense and their conclusion usually doesn’t feel rewarding because we couldn’t figure out what it was about in the first place, or they are so simplistic that they become redundant. Early during the film, Oh-Baba speaks about a tapestry hanging over the king’s sick bed which depicts a prince clad in blue walking over a golden field, and who is supposed to save the world by restoring balance to the environment. Oh-Baba might actually be forgiven here because she is blind, but for everyone else it is anything but challenging to notice that Nausicaä is just about the only character in the film who is constantly wearing blue. As a matter of fact, she sits through Oh-Baba’s tale wearing her blue pyjamas. The only real difference between her and the prince, then, is his beard, but there are no cases known to me in which lack of facial hair would have prevented someone from becoming the Saviour.
Niklas was drying his feather hat on Jean Lafitte’s Ship while writing this article.