Thursday, September 11, 2008

A Plastic Bag Is Like a Melody

A shower of rose petals pours forth from Luise Rainer's bosom

And we're back! And we have two more Best Picture winners to tackle: MGM's lavish and lengthy The Great Ziegfeld, a mostly-biopic inevitably fashioned into an almost-musical from 1936, and DreamWorks' American Beauty, a satirical comedy married to a midlife-crisis drama making out with a rebels-without-a-cause youth pic going at least to third base with the digital effects department.

The movies were helmed respectively by Robert Z. Leonard (who didn't win Best Director) and Sam Mendes (who did), but creative control was a real team effort on both counts. Seymour Felix won an Oscar for his Dance Direction on Ziegfeld, as did Conrad L. Hall for his American Beauty cinematography, and I don't think either film's Best Picture victory is imaginable without these men's contributions. They are also emblematic of the splashy, tuneful, and expensive brand-naming that MGM was committed to reinforcing through the 1930s and of the "edgy," personal, unusual dramas that DreamWorks would become an in-house specialty in the late 1990s, even if they rarely delivered at this high level.

I'm interested off the bat, then, in what you guys think about the generic blends and creative points of view in these movies. And also in what they imply about why we tell stories about the people we do: is Florenz Ziegfeld worthy of a biopic outside of the excuse he offers for over-the-top production numbers (and don't you sort of wish there were more of these)? And what does The Passion of Lester Burnham have to say to American Beauty's unexpectedly massive audience? Does the film stay on a consistent message, or even agree with itself about what it's saying, or for whom, or why? Part of the attraction and also the frustration I feel for both movies stems from their shared tendency to be a little all over place.

NATHANIEL: I was thinking about this very topic (who gets bios and why?) the other day as I perused the National Gallery in D.C. For such an overstuffed genre with a veritably unlimited supply of source material, there sure is a distinctly limited set of protagonists. Ziegfeld is definitely one of the types: huge ego, massive dreams, big failures, epic influence on American entertainment. Oscar is a size queen but y'all knew that already.

Nathaniel tours the National Gallery in D.C.

Which is why the success of the smaller and more "personal" American Beauty is more fascinating to me as Oscar tales go. How did screenwriter Alan Ball's personal prejudices, pets, and demons—that's the way I see it because this movie is nutty with specifics—end up feeling so universal to moviegoers in 1999? Maybe the film should have been called American Neurosis, because boy, does it have issues. They're all visibly tangled up in your first question about the movie but I don't even know where to begin with the parsing.

Help me, Mike.

MIKE: I remember leaving the theater back in '99 so ecstatic about American Beauty that I was flabbergasted when a respected professor dismissed it as "a total male fantasy." How could she think that, when it was so sharply critical of the male fantasy that it was depicting? Seeing it again today, I don't think either of us was entirely right, because it's impossible to pin the film down on anything. What, exactly, is its point of view on any of the myriad "personal prejudices, pets, and demons" Nathaniel mentioned? It seems to genuinely love the very things it's tearing down, and genuinely hate the things it's holding up for praise, so in the end it's a huge, tangled, slippery ball of contradictions. Does it even understand when it's contradicting itself? Its only answer to this question seems to be a smirky "what do you think?" So in answer to your questions, I think it covered so many bases that audience members were almost bound to see something in it to identify with. The strength of that identification—the accuracy of the blindfolded knife throw—determines the amount of love people have for it.

I agree that The Great Ziegfeld wants its cake and wants to stage a huge dance number on it too, but it does it much less stealthily and stylishly. It wants Flo to be a rake and a cad, but a lovable one, but he ends up neither rakish nor caddish nor lovable enough. It wants to be a snazzy backstage showbiz film, but it doesn't have enough musical numbers, and the ones that were here were staged pretty shoddily, despite that Oscar for the enormous but utterly fucking boring "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody" number—hello, Oscar? Anything from Swing Time is better than this. (I'll tell ya, Busby Berkeley and Fred Astaire ruined 1930s musicals for me: if it doesn't have three hundred chorines stomping around in geometric patterns while wearing funny hats or two supernaturally gifted dancers flitting about an empty floor, I start to snooze, and all the numbers in Ziegfeld made me snore. But I digress.) It wants to be a Serious, Important biopic, but its rhythm is all wrong—scenes last too long or feel perfunctory, characters are built up and then disappear without explanation, there's no way to tell how much time passes between scenes, etc. The terrifying thing is that this is NOT the nadir for Best Picture-winning biopics in the 1930s: next time around we have to watch The Life of Émi

Sorry, I nodded off just thinking about it. What were we talking about?

NICK: We were talking about how I can't wait to hear what Nathaniel thinks about American Beauty, given how swiftly he passed that hot potato, but maybe we should knock out Ziegfeld first. Over and above the other pseudo-musical that we've covered, The Broadway Melody (R.I.P. Anita Page, who died this weekend!), I'll at least give Ziegfeld credit for archiving a stage aesthetic that makes almost no sense to me, but which was enormously popular at the time, and in which the filmmakers do seem to take earnest and sustained pleasure, even if they can't always communicate that pleasure to us. All of those outfits shaped like feathery candelabras, and sequined spiderwomen, and giant cake-shaped rotating stages where no one does a whole lot while a mostly arbitrary song plays over top of them... It's all about the crazy-ass designs, and alternating slow and fast rhythms, and I like the bizarre creativity of that, even though The Great Ziegfeld is helpless at making distinctions between "good" tableaux and "bad" tableaux.

And though I agree with every single one of your criticisms, Mike, I do find Ray Bolger's tap routine pretty delightful (even though it only represents about 1/100th of this gargantuan movie's running time), and the plotline about the sozzled chorine Audrey at least dramatizes the trade-offs between beauty and tackiness that generally fight a losing battle elsewhere in the film. Luise Rainer's Oscar is as mysterious to me as the film's, but with Frank Morgan hamming so relentlessly, hers isn't even the most distractingly overcooked performance. As opposed to William Powell's, which is the most distractingly undercooked.

NATHANIEL: I'm guessing I can safely say that I enjoyed The Great Ziegfeld more than both of you. But I temper this enjoyment confession with the following disclaimers.

1. I'm a sucker for the song and dance. Kick a leg up here or there, throw in some showtunes properly sung. I'm good.
2. My finger did slip, accidentally jarring the fast-forward button on occasion. (That damn DVD remote is so tiny!)
3. I spent some of the running time fantasizing that I was watching Matthew Barney's Cremaster Cycle. There was so much white on white on white on white in Ziegfeld's tableaux that I half-expected the chorus girls to dissolve into big hunks of sculptural vaseline like the props that they were. And then maybe drip down the walls of the Guggenheim.

4. I watched it in seven hour-long sessions as opposed to all at once. In one of those sessions, all that happened was that the aforementioned wedding cake rotated 180 degrees. Unfortunately, Madonna did not descend from it in full Virgin regalia. In another I swear Luise Rainer changed her mind 180 times. Thrice each minute!

On the subject of Rainer's over cooking and Oscar eager dining on the same... I'm OK with it. I prefer well done (Rainer) to medium rare (Powell) if the subject is extravagant show people. Okay okay... I prefer overcooking even if the dish is stylized marital discord. Y'all know where I'm headed with this. If Mena Suvari gets to have rose petals exploding from her underage tomatoes, nobody better be throwin' tomatoes at my very ripe Annette Bening.

Tread carefully, boys.

NICK: Did it just get cold in here? I'm going to go get a sweater...

NATHANIEL: A sweater? Wouldn't you rather have the dresser fetch you a nice second-hand shawl for your Follies debut? If it's good enough for Fanny Brice...

MIKE: Speaking of that shawl, and sort of avoiding the Annette Bening issue for a moment, there was a nice instance of When Biopics Clash in TGZ, with its tale of how The Impeccable Flo takes Fanny's glam outfit away, understanding intuitively that she had to perform in Salvation Army wear instead of silk and lace. Thirty years later in Funny Girl, however, it's Brice who has to give Ziegfeld the business about how Fanny Brice™ should be presented to the public. The later depiction makes more sense to me, and maybe if I bothered to look it up it might turn out to be true, but it's interesting how the earlier film seems to maim history and my sense of what feels intuitively right in the service of establishing Flo as some sort of tarnished (but not too tarnished) god of the theater.

About The Bening: she gives by far the best performance in the film, and if a certain other woman hadn't delivered a certain other performance in 1999, Bening would get my Oscar vote. She's consistently sharp and funny, and her take on Ball and Mendes's take on Carolyn Burnham remains the most rewarding thing about re-watching the film.

(Can I throw in a "but" here?)

But it's a feat of intuition and skill that comes despite, not because of, the way the film sees Carolyn. I think she's the only place the film doesn't want to have it both ways: it thinks she's completely ridiculous, and it never changes its mind. It's ridiculous for her to want to protect her couch from beer spills, even though this comes right after we learn that Lester has purchased a classic car "because I wanted it." Why is materialism OK for him but not for her? Why is Lester's lust for his high school sweetheart presented so forgivingly—"Laugh with us at this middle-aged guy's silly infatuation with this teenage git, this lovely, sweet, irresistible teenage git you all want to sleep with too"!—but Carolyn's athletic romps with the King of Real Estate are total, unredeemed comic relief? But Bening is so awesome that she almost makes me forget all of this.

NICK: I have repeatedly used that car-to-couch sequence as a little nugget for teaching film analysis in my classes, because, as you say, you instantly catch American Beauty right in the act of its anti-woman double-standards. For extra perks, notice that costume designer Julie Weiss has outfitted Bening in a stiff steel-blue sheath dress so that when she sits, she looks exactly like one of those Italian-silk vertical stripes on her sofa. Lester wants his car, but she is her couch, and this, apparently, is the problem.

Even the fact that most of the other principals—Spacey, Bentley, Birch, Suvari—go naked at some point but Bening never does seems like a kind of built-in defense against ever "looking closer" at an adult woman without all the shrill editorializing.

I can't agree that Bening gives the best performance; my vote goes to Bentley, followed by Cooper, and then to Spacey (if only in his scenes with Bentley and Cooper). But I will say this, partially to bowl over Nathaniel: I do think she has two of the best line-readings—"I must be PSYCHOTIC then!" and "We lived in a DUPLEX!"—and I think she stars in the single best-acted scene of the movie, when she's tipsily asking to pick the brain of Buddy the Real Estate King. She's light and funny, and her voice loosens up; she works hilariously with those olives in her martini glass; and she shows us Carolyn "being herself" while also keeping up a strange set of pretenses. We can't tell if she's suppressing or exaggerating her drunkenness, and it's sad and humorous and poignant to watch her strategize. Much more interesting and believable than that grotesque house-cleaning plus self-slapping bit. I have never given this scene its proper due in teaching, writing, or thinking about the movie, and I'm glad to have a companion scene for crystallizing American Beauty at its best: capturing the absurdity, humor, cynicism, and sexuality of white upper-middle class suburbia without all the strenuous effects and acting tics that distract the film from itself as often as they help it.

So, can we play this game for a second? Say something about American Beauty that you've never said before in private or on your sites. What's the freshest thing you noticed or thought this time through the movie? And does it break in the movie's favor or against it?

NATHANIEL: I love to play games, but yours come with difficult rules.

The first two times I saw this film were during its release, and I was entirely focused on the three adult couples: the Burnhams (Bening & Spacey) for obvious film-carrying reasons, but the other two as well: that happy jogging gay couple whom we never get to know, and the uptight military couple who have rendered themselves unknowable.

The third time through (last week, nine long years later), I was focused on the teenagers. I ended up really angry that Wes Bentley's Ricky and Thora Birch's Jane so viciously reject Mena Suvari's Angela in the end. Previously there'd been this strange The Kids Are All Right vibe going on in the movie. (Grading on a curve, are we, Alan Ball?) But then the trio breaks up and Angela is condemned for her normalcy. Though, let's be honest here: what's more normal when you're a teenager than being moody (i.e. Jane) and feeling superior (i.e. Ricky)? I suddenly realized that Angela was going to grow up to be Carolyn. They're both sexual, slightly wild girls who have basically normal suburban values at heart. One of them is just 20 years older than the other. I still wonder why American Beauty thinks that growing up to be Carolyn is such a terrible terrible thing. Or at least why it thinks that's such a worse fate than growing up to be Lester.

NICK: Right, but one never grows up to be Lester, because then you would GROW UP. But I'm sure the movie doesn't want me thinking that. And in truth, in many scenes, the movie convinces me not to feel this stingy and conned, because it looks and sounds awfully delicious.

Sorry, Mike. I interrupted.

MIKE: Will I be graded on this assignment, other than by public opinion? OK, two things I noticed this time around. (1) A deeper connection between Ricky and Lester, in that they're both obsessed with not wanting to miss experiences. Lester's catching up on the ones he let slip by, and Ricky compulsively records everything—because he "has to remember" or however he puts it. Both tasks are pretty hopeless. Lester's not twentysomething anymore, and he'll never get that back even if he buys a dozen cars and sleeps with a dozen cheerleaders. Ricky isn't experiencing any of it: he has thousands of tapes, but how would he ever get the time to revisit them (aside from the plastic bag, of course)? He's documenting, but I think he's forgetting to live. (Editor's Note: Even when we coop up inside with all these Best Picture winners, we are in no way guilty of this same mistake.)

And (2) this movie is really, really hard on its women. Maybe this should have been more obvious to me the first time around. They're either shrill harridans (Bening) or soon-to-be so (Suvari) or stoned into submission (Janney) or basically unformed (Birch). Count 2 works against the movie, but I'm not sure about Count 1. It's interesting to see more parallels between those two, but it's one of those things the film doesn't really examine satisfactorily. Does American Beauty think that seeing everything through a video camera is unproblematic?

I'd like to throw in that I still like this movie quite a bit, just not as rapturously as I did when I first saw it.

NICK: About Ricky and his videos and whether the movie sees them as problematic: I remember laughing when my friend Lynn saw Road to Perdition, Mendes' Beauty follow-up, and in response to the Jude Law character, who's sort of a grotesquely criminal vision of Ricky, she said, "Maybe it's just Sam Mendes who likes to take pictures of dead people." Of course, Alan Ball obviously does, too.

I also still like the movie, even though repeat viewings don't seem to help it. (I discovered on this second viewing that I might also like The Great Ziegfeld more than it deserves, even though that's still not much.) You gotta give Beauty points for theatrical showmanship and for its various ambitions, however twisted up they seem to get. Andrew O'Hehir wrote this in Salon, and it sounds like we all agree, though I've never heard it put so succinctly:

"American Beauty accomplishes more in its incoherence than most Hollywood movies do in tidy, soulless success. It's remarkable that any movie that's so ambitious and angry—and that treats ordinary American life so seriously—made it through the mainstream production channels in the first place. Plenty of "independent" films aren't half this daring."

NATHANIEL: O'Hehir is a tough act to follow, curse you! But while I'm feeling resentful about his brevity and skill, I must concede that he's right... if a little generous, curse him!

Watching this again and discussing it with both of you I've realized that this movie makes me angry. I get angry with Alan Ball and Sam Mendes (and their respective surrogates, Lester and Ricky) for their inability to really see the women in their lives. They only have it in them to objectify or judge. I get angry that Lester is such a hypocrite and that the movie applauds that character trait. I get angry with Carolyn for shuttering her own joy with grudges and the inflexibility. I get angry with Janey for being so disdainful of her parents' admittedly pathetic outreach attempts. I get angry with Colonel Fitts because no one should do that to themselves or their families. I get angry with the cheap "Who shot L.B.?" red herrings. I get angry at the concluding voiceover epiphanies which don't make any narrative sense to me whatsoever. And yet... I like the movie. It makes me feel something (not always anger) in virtually every scene and that's, well, something. That's not normal.

Above all else it's highly watchable—so much beauty. It wipes the floor with Ricky's plastic bag video.

Florenz Ziegfeld's famous Dance of the Plastic Bags

Help us out, readers. Is Beauty more than skin deep? Is it equal opportunity for every gender? Is Ziegfeld really Great, or is it a pioneering work in TackyVision? We'll look forward to your comments... Oh, and: will SOMEONE pass the asparagus??!

This Week: Nathaniel's killer fashion spread

Previously: ep.1: Wings & No Country; ep.2: Broadway Melody & Departed; ep.3: All Quiet & Crash; ep.4: Cimarron & Million Dollar Baby; ep.5: Grand Hotel & LOTR:ROTK; ep.6: Cavalcade & Chicago; ep.7: It Happened One Night & A Beautiful Mind; ep. 8: Mutiny on the Bounty & Gladiator

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Blogger Catherine said...

Nathaniel, I read Janney instead of Janey in your sentence "I get angry with Janey for being so disdainful of her parents' admittedly pathetic outreach attempts" and spent a good minute rereading and trying to work out why you were hating on Allison Janney. My bad!

It's been a good three years since I watched American Beauty and my lasting impression is that of an overwhelming smugness. I do think it's slickly made and highly watchable, but the anti-women stance you guys talk about so eloquently turned me off too. I'll admit that I do still sometime break out the old Bening impression while doing housework.

6:13 PM, September 11, 2008  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

that's funny catherine. I actually did want to talk about Janney more. She is the only woman the movie seems to have sympathy for but that sympathy and her situation is largely unexplored. so in a way she punches a hole in the theory that the movie hates women... but adding pity to objectification and judgment isn't that helpful. How about respect or empathy?

anyway. it's weird to have such a strong issue with a movie one still likes but there it is.

Please tell me that the ol' Bening impression is really committed. Do you wear a slip? Do you chant "I will CLEAN this house today" More details! ;)

10:23 PM, September 11, 2008  
Blogger Andrew Metcalf said...

I never thought about American Beauty as being misogynistic, but I could have been looking through the wrong lense.

Its still probably one of my favorite movies... ever. The cinematography and direction and acting were great, and I'm surprised you guys never mentioned the music. I think Thomas Newman's brilliant percussive soundtrack for this movie contributes just as much as the cinematography. The song that plays as the movie opens is absolutely perfect, as is the one that plays while they are watching the Plastic bag video.

One of the things that annoys me a bit is this movie's portrayal of the teenagers. The fault probably lies mostly in Alan Ball's writing, but something about the school scenes with Angela and Janey felt really awkward and unnatural - in particular, the one scene where a girl makes some reference to Chrissy Turlington to Angela feels forced and awkward - kids don't make those sort of references on the fly.

Also, with regards to Janey and Jimmy - I honestly don't see what he saw in her. I understand the whole idea of looking beyond exterior beauty for inner beauty, but she didn't seem to have much of that either. Her parents sucked, but she was no better - she completely shut them down at every attempt to reach out. One of my friends pointed out that maybe he saw something that no one else, including us, saw. I have sort of accepted that, but I'm a little reluctant.

Allison Janney's character confuses me - majorly. The movie seems to want to leave her open to interpretation, and she does seem fascinating, but there is just so little. I only remember seeing her for four short scenes - during one she thought someone had spoken when they hadn't, but thats about all I remember. I can't decide if she is in her own world, or just so submissive that she feels to frightened to speak.

I actually did like Carolyn's character - I didn't think the movie was that harsh on her. I'd never thought of the couch scene as being unfair towards her, although that's just because I'd never thought about it that deeply (that scene's composition is so good that I get distracted). She was responsible for a lot of the comic scenes in the movie. I still think her most brilliant line has to be "F#%$ me, your majesty!". I'm really not sure what I think of Carolyn - but I didn't feel the movie was that mean to her. It seemed more to portray her as lost than anything.

This is getting long, but I will mention one last thing - the dinner table scenes. Something about them is so absolutely perfect. The first one consists of a VERY SLOW zoom effect that lasts for the first half of the scene - I'm not even sure what that does for me, but it sure does something. In addition, those scenes felt frighteningly real. I've never been to a suburban dinner that felt that hellishly boring, but I can still absolutely see whats going on. The awkwardness, the small talk, the things that everybody is thinking but no one will say. As I recall, the table is perfectly set up, in absolutely symmetry, even though their lives are anything but. Maybe its a cliche, but I still think both dinner table scenes are absolute brilliance. They seem to exude American Beauty's message - dysfunctionality IS the norm. A "normal" family would actually be a real rarity to find.

11:15 PM, September 11, 2008  
Blogger StinkyLulu said...

Oh goodness.

I'm afraid to even comment. You all were so delicate yet incisive. I'm afraid I'm left to be the clumsy club-swinger.

So I'll go mildly oblique: Let's just say that I feel about American Beauty exactly the same way I feel about Sarah Palin.

(Someday I'll write my 1999 fury piece about the Beauty, Ripley and Boys Don't Cry, I s'pose. I do try not to write from rage but, then, American Beauty has always possessed a curious capacity to bring it out in me...)

11:59 PM, September 11, 2008  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

amet - i love the score, too. Believe me i think we could have talked about this for another few pages but who has the time to read that much ;) y'all would have gone as catatonic as Alison Janney Fitts.

stinkylulu -oblique hurts me. SPELL YOUR ISSUES OUT FOR US... That's what Alan Ball and Sam Mendes would do.

11:11 AM, September 12, 2008  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Catherine: Thanks for being such a regular reader and commenter on this series. Glad to know there are more people out there who recognize the movie's appeal but worry about the aftertaste (or maybe it's just the taste?).

@AMet: I actually wrote a few sentences about how much I like the music and then deleted them for those over-length reasons that Nathaniel describes! But yep, I agree that the score is one of AB's premier accomplishments. I also agree that the school scenes feel a bit off, not least because Jane would never in a million years be a cheerleader, as many reviewers noted at the time.

@Stinky: Yes, hold forth! Throw out some StinkyBits! I'm even more eager, though, to hear your objections to Boys Don't Cry, since I think it's much a more honest effort, despite its avowable shortcomings.

@Nathaniel: "That's what Sam Mendes and Alan Ball would do." Hilarious.

11:22 AM, September 12, 2008  
Blogger Calum Reed said...

A few words on The Great Ziegfeld...

I never would have guessed, an hour into the film, that Luise Rainer's character was there to give us an insight into Ziegfeld. I feel like she was the only reason to watch the movie at all (however annoying she is) and when she disappeared it's like we lost the leading character, and it was never the same again after that. I must say though that hers is not a great performance, and certainly didn't deserve to win the oscar over Lombard in My Man Godfrey.

On Ziegfeld himself: the only thing I actually remember learning about him is that he couldn't budget to save his life. All the running out of money and finding it again exhausted me. And so did the 3-hour running time.

2:32 PM, September 12, 2008  
Blogger goatdog said...

With all her endless back and forth, "I love him I don't," "get out no come back in"-ing, Rainer seemed like a less successful version of Garbo's Grusinskaya in Grand Hotel. I think that would have been something to watch, and I could probably see Garbo--a better actress than Rainer--earning that Oscar.

2:57 PM, September 12, 2008  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Cal: I agree with you absolutely about how Powell becomes even more pallid after Rainer disappears, though I hadn't thought of it that way. I do think Myrna Loy succeeds in restoring a slight personal charge to the closing scenes of the movie—particularly when she forks over her savings to Z's mad plan of running four simultaneous shows, which speaks to that interesting thread of his hopeless mismanagement. But, this achievement says more about Loy's remarkable reliability as a humanizing presence than about The Great Ziegfeld itself.

@Goatdog: Agreed here, too, though it makes it all the more galling that Oscar's weird, short-lived, but ardent Rainermania cost Garbo her richly deserved Camille Oscar, even conceding that Rainer is better in The Good Earth than in The Great Ziegfeld.

4:12 PM, September 12, 2008  
Blogger Calum Reed said...

All I remember about Garbo in Grand Hotel is her flailing around endlessly and not understanding a word of what she's going on about. At least Rainer's indecision is able to follow, even if it seems like diva overload without the enjoyable campness. The bumblebee act, however, is a highlight.

Myrna Loy... who was she? It's been about a year since I saw the film but I hardly remember anything of the second half except Flo sitting forlorn aftern financial difficulties and his inevitable decline.

7:14 PM, September 12, 2008  
Blogger Joe Reid said...

Not having seen American Beauty in 8 years, I'm not sure how I'd feel about it anymore. I do recall my roommate and I as college sophomores, seeing it and being blown away by all its big ideas and what it was saying about American Life and yadda yadda. These days, I cringe more at my rapturous response to the movie more than the movie itself.

That was the same autumn as Fight Club, a movie which I've seen very many more times in the past eight years and which also has a lot to say about materialism. But that's a whole other discussion.

Speaking of whole other discussions, I've been meaning to undertake a grand Six Feet Under rewatch some time soon. That'd probably make for a fine time to revisit American Beauty. Throw True Blood in and I might stand a fighting chance at understanding just what the fuck Alan Ball thinks about this life we're all living.

7:53 PM, September 12, 2008  
Blogger Sam Brooks said...

Very interesting read, though I'll leave my thoughts about The Great Ziegfield and American Beauty aside for the most part (I like Luise Rainer in the former, but nowhere near to the extent where I would pick her over Camille; I can't tolerate a film that seems to exist only for it's message.)

I am interested to see what you guys think of the other nominees for Best Picture in their respective years and whether these deserved the trophy over the nominees (or other films in those years!)

10:22 PM, September 12, 2008  
Blogger liz said...

My roommate has recently undertaken such a project w/r/t Six Feet Under (a first-time watch for her), and I have to say, as someone who has also not seen American Beauty in like 8 years, the similarities between Lester and Nate Fisher are...chilling. Although the women of Six Feet Under come out a lot better, I think. Maybe that's a TV thing.

11:04 AM, September 13, 2008  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Cal: Myrna Loy shows up as Billie Burke, i.e., Glinda the Good Witch, who is Ziegfeld's second wife and his, well, compassionate under-writer.

@Joe: I actually went straight from American Beauty to Fight Club in consecutive 7:00 and 9:20 showings when they were released. AB had such an impact on me that I wouldn't have done if I hadn't agreed to meet three friends for Fight Club who would have wondered where I was. It was a crazy night.

@Brooke: I'm preparing a '99 post, and if I finish it, I'll let that one answer half of your question. As for '36, I've seen seven of the ten nominees, and I'd put Dodsworth emphatically in front, with Libeled Lady a strong second, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town a reasonable third, Three Smart Girls an enjoyable lark but maybe not Best Picture material, The Great Ziegfeld a stultifying pic with occasional pizzazz, and Anthony Adverse and Romeo and Juliet as stultifying pics with no pizzazz.

Sorely missing is Chaplin's all-time great Modern Times, which should have walked away with this; Howard Hawks and William Wyler's Come and Get It; and Fred and Ginger's Swing Time. Lots of other '36 goodies that I haven't caught up with yet include Renoir's Crime of Monsieur Lange, Borzage's Desire, Mayo's The Petrified Forest, Arzner's Craig's Wife, Bacon's Gold Diggers of 1937, Browning's The Devil Doll...

@Liz: One does worry about Ball's fascination with charismatic, narcissistic man-children bound for the grave and with harridan-women. Having only made it through two and a half season of Six Feet Under, I agree that the women eventually fare much better than they do in AB, though Frances Conroy's Ruth sure started life as a shrill, severe gorgon in the Carolyn Burnham vein. (Claire was always a more interesting creation than Jane, and only became more so, because Lauren Ambrose is a great actress and Thora Birch, from what I can tell, is a pretty terrible one.)

1:04 PM, September 13, 2008  
Blogger John T said...

For me, I tend to lose interest in American Beauty when the supporting players show up-the electricity is Bening's Housewife on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and Spacey's pathologically pervy under-achiever. The rest of the case doesn't seem to crackle like these two.

Of the 1999 movies, The Insider is actually the newest Best Picture nominee I haven't seen, and I liked The Sixth Sense (though who saw the Cimino-like tract Shyamalan's career took after that film way back nine years ago?). But I'm floored no one's brought up the utter crapfest that the other two nominees were. I think The Green Mile may be in my Top 5 worst nominees of the decade.

As for 1936, for me, the year is only about Godfrey-it seems a shame that, considering Powell was so devilishly wonderful in Godfrey, they couldn't have gone with his other film for the top gold. Particularly considering they'd so beautifully gone romantic comedy two years earlier.

3:42 PM, September 13, 2008  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@John: My contempt for The Green Mile knows no bounds. The Sixth Sense doesn't gain from repeat viewings, and The Cider House Rules didn't even gain from one. I, at least, didn't gain from viewing it. You should absolutely see The Insider.

And I second the Godfrey motion: the only movie ever to be nom'd for Best Director and all four acting categories, but not for Best Picture, even with ten nominees competing. Hard to suss out. At least Powell himself got nominated for the right performance.

4:13 PM, September 13, 2008  
Blogger tim r said...

Late to this party as ever, but can I just add to Nick's admirable list of 1936 overlookees: Fritz Lang's excellent Fury, which has a really forceful Spencer Tracy performance, and Hitchcock's Joseph Conrad adaptation Sabotage, for me his best film of this decade. The Devil Doll is an ingenious little thing, too, but perhaps not Browning's very best work, which I think is Freaks.

Who knows when I'll get round to seeing Ziegfield, but I love Nat's Matthew Barney parallel.

Funnily enough, American Beauty was on TV here the other night, and I caught precisely one scene of it -- a minute's worth of viewing which for me summed up everything that works about the movie and everything that sort of doesn't. It's the scene between Birch and Suvari in the car. We get the difference between these girls, but boy, don't Mendes and Ball have to ram it home to us. I switched over to Family Guy, or maybe Entourage, I can't remember. I could easily have kept watching and would have been reliably entertained by the Bening -- yes Mike and Nat, I've got your back, she gives the best performance in the worst role, hello Tilda -- but there's a streak of overwritten smugness, mainly surrounding Lester, I've never been able to deal with, and I find his death and martyrdom both a fantastic irrelevance and final summation of its priorities. It would be a much better movie if Carolyn died, because at least it would show that she's flesh and blood. Of course, AB has lots of good qualities and you enumerate them very generously, but can we agree that it remains seriously overrated?

2:00 AM, September 15, 2008  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Tim: Yes, we can. ("Yes, we can! Yes, we can!" Sorry, habit.)

And I've got to get around to Fury. I'm developing a bit of a crush on Sylvia Sidney. Though I can't be accused of ever having had one on Spencer Tracy.

11:20 AM, September 15, 2008  
Blogger PPO-10 said...

God, great stuff as always by the gang.

I'm compelled to de-lurk briefly and bring up the AB misogyny again -- maybe I'm giving Ball/Mendes too much credit, but perhaps the reductive presentation of the women in AB is meant to be a microcosm of the reductive stereotyping women as a whole are still more likely to deal with by America? Or maybe I'm being too reductive with my conclusion?

I was a suburban 19-year-old film fanatic when AB came out and obviously that screams "target audience" for this particular piece, so I loved it. It's been a while and I'll have to check it out again if I ever get a free...lifetime.

7:23 PM, September 18, 2008  
Blogger x.allgrum said...

I find it interesting that Alan Ball’s name is so strongly associated with American Beauty, it isn’t a very common thing for the screenwriter to be as talked about in connection with a film they didn’t also direct save for the unusualness of a Charlie Kauffman or Dennis Potter. In my opinion, it is, however, appropriate. In a way American Beauty reminds me a little of Taxi Driver in as much as there seems to be two competing interests with different ideas about what the film is creating a schism that is the most compelling part of the movie since it requires the viewer to attempt to reconcile the two different views.

One of the things that surprised me most about American Beauty is how much people who wanted to talk about it and argue about what it meant. Many people seemed to find it profound, which was an incomprehensible proposition to me since so much of the alleged wisdom in the film seemed to be a standard list of clichés not too different from what one would expect from any arty angsty high schooler who dreams of escaping their suburban world and making their way to the glamorous world of the Big City. But, but, I too was temporarily drawn into this world while I was watching it even though I found much of it simple minded and ridiculous. In an attempt to understand this I read the screenplay a few days after I saw the film to clarify some thoughts I had and in doing so I found that the things I strongly disliked about the film were almost all entirely attributable to the writing which felt obvious, simple minded and didactic in its attack on the family and the suburbs. Things seemed spelled out very clearly on the page that weren’t nearly so nakedly present on the screen. I think the power of American Beauty, all the best things, were almost entirely due to direction and shaping of the film by Sam Mendes. He abstracted the film, removed the definitiveness of the screenplay and replaced it with the attitude of uncertainty that, to my mind, categorizes the best parts of the film. The film, unlike the screenplay, doesn’t spell out why the characters act as they do exactly. It allows more leeway for interpretation which became evident when I would talk about the film with people. Scenes were read in many different ways, different characters gained or lost sympathy depending in who you discussed the film with, suggesting that the film tells you more the viewer than it does about itself, which is an interesting feat.

The one area where I didn’t find that to be the case is Annette Bening’s performance. Whereas the rest of the main characters motives have multiple possibilities for interpretation, Bening’s seems constrained and shrill for most of the film. I have to think that this is largely her fault since it seems easy to conceptualize her scenes being done in ways that would lend more of a sympathetic air to her character, or at least to give the character the same range of possibility as the others seem to have, but it doesn’t really happen for me. (Obviously Mendes would also be culpable here as well in allowing this character to stand apart from the others so strikingly.) I would think that her character should be the key to giving the audience some real understanding on the reasons why some people would prefer the suburbs, some deeper feeling of association than couchlove which is so easily smirked at.

I’ve droned on long enough, love the comparisons. Give my vote to Ziegfield…

4:02 AM, September 23, 2008  
Anonymous Volvagia said...

I had just gotten out of a class covering psychological diseases when I saw this. Why is it bad to be Carolyn Burnham? She's, clinically, a sociopath. Alison Janney is playing a catatonic schizophrenic. Birch is playing...I don't know what the bleep Birch is playing. There's a reason you don't see her anymore. Is Suvari's character going to be like Carolyn? Maybe, maybe not. (Not like I care that much about that character.)

Performance rank:

1. Bening
2. Cooper
3. Bentley
4. Spacey
5. Janney
6. Birch
7. Peter Gallagher
8. Suvari

Movie Grade: A

And as for "Why is Lester's materialism good and Carolyn's bad?" Lester bought that car because it was the same one his brother had. (This only becomes clear at the VERY END of the movie.) It's a nostalgic impulse buy. Carolyn, on the other hand, buys gaudy couches that mean nothing. (See also: Jack, at the start of Fight Club.)

8:42 AM, January 31, 2011  

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