Sunday, November 16, 2008

Gone with the Ghibli: Best Pictures 1939 and 1996


An odd Moroccan wind rains blood on the state of Georgia...

NICK: If you've had seven spare hours lately - and who hasn't? - you'll have joined us in revisiting two of Oscar's grandest, prosiest, most impassioned historical epics. There had never been a movie quite like Gone with the Wind (1939), and in many respects, there's hasn't been one since: a cultural lodestone from the eve of the book's publication through the deliriously publicized build-up to the picture to its relentless, Sherman-style takeover of the box-office, where it still reigns handily as the all-time champ if you adjust for inflation. Gone with the Wind had more authors than you could shake your last carrot at, and it shows: directorial styles, camera distances, rhythms of dialogue, lighting regimens, and story emphases shift frequently over the course of its 238 minutes. For some viewers, this mars the movie and for some it deepens and enriches its interest; some critics are tempted to overlook the film's oscillations and inconsistencies, where others marvel at its overall coherence despite all the cooks in the kitchen. Some viewers don't even notice. So frankly, dears, do we give a damn?

And how about all the competing tones and authorial signatures in The English Patient, Miramax's first Oscar win after several years as the chic, funky, and dangerous bridesmaid? Anthony Minghella's glossy and story-driven direction sometimes matches Michael Ondaatje's spindly, image-driven mosaic. Harvey Weinstein's obsession with mainstreaming the arthouse and producer Saul Zaentz's fondness for European and literary pedigrees certainly worked out with AMPAS, to the tune of nine wins: one more than GWTW, unless you count the latter's technical and honorary citations. But is the movie they made all of a piece, or is it a pile of glittery, unreconciled fragments? Do the plot strands blend together or do some get lost within this romantic braid?

NATHANIEL: I think unreconciled fragments are the point, frankly (my dears), since The English Patient is such a memory tone poem. Not that I love all the fragments. The English Patient loses me whenever Willem Dafoe holds up his thumbless hands and the political intrigues bore me. But I lost the thread of your question as soon as you said "romantic braid"—anything referencing hair entangles me immediately in visual flashes of Kristin Scott Thomas's miracle bangs, Ralph Fiennes at his sandy prettiest, Naveen Andrews wringing out his massive locks, and especially the scene where Hana (Juliette Binoche) chops hers off in a moment of rushed practicality. She looks fabulous afterwards—I'm sure she's a good nurse but I think she missed her calling.


Hana as Coiffeuse > Scarlett as Couturier

This brings me to a major point in the movie's favor, which is its tactile quality. I often feel like if I touch the screen I'll feel the heat of skin, the smoothness of the sand, the texture of hair, and even the cold outer shell of bombs and worn book covers. Good movies always work sight and sound but how many evoke any of the other senses?

NICK: A great point, and a great one to get in early. I'm nosing in before Mike even gets to talk, but I remember being surprised (sort of) when Peter Greenaway took such strong public exception to The English Patient, since among narrative films it's the only contemporary of The Pillow Book I could think of that had a similar knack for that tactile, synesthesiac vibrancy that you're talking about. All those plums and paper maps and dust storms and shampoos.

MIKE: I can't help but think of The English Patient in terms of halves: the half driven by divine coincidence versus the half driven by contrivance; the half made of unapologetically melodramatic moments and huge emotional swells versus the half where everything is so polite, even despite the various explosions and romances; the half that's so three-dimensional, sensual, and sensory that I want to put it in my mouth and/or rub it all over my body (and it sounds like you guys agree with me) versus the flat whodunit (or whoisit, or isithim).

I'm talking about the good half and the not so good half, the pre-war and the post-war, the Ralph-as-gawky-god and the Ralph-as-whispery-pudding, the "Kristin Scott Thomas is a love goddess who seems uncomfortable in her own body, which makes her even more attractive" half, and the "Juliette Binoche is vague and cold beyond the requirements of her character" half. I don't know how this relates back to Nick's original question, since I haven't read the novel and can't say whether what works is Minghella channeling a 1930s epic weepie or Minghella trying to shove some Ondaatje into the film. Oh, yeah: what I'm saying is, "What Nathaniel managed to say in one sentence."

The film's best moments feel like they're from another era, say, the era of Gone with the Wind (woo, segue). A weeping Ralph carrying Kristin's body out of the cave, the incredibly hot prelude to their first assignation ("You still have sand in your hair"): huge, unabashedly romantic moments that compelled me to watch them again before I could finish this paragraph. These moments reminded me of similarly huge moments in GWTW that I had seen and heard so many times that, when I finally got around to watching it for the first time, I thought would be sapped of their power, but they weren't. They're so much a part of the epic fabric of the film that anything muted or attenuated would have seemed out of place. I was so swept away that I really didn't notice all the oscillations and inconsistencies you mentioned in your opening, Nick. Maybe on second viewing I'll be able to see some of them.

NATHANIEL: I don't notice the tonal or visual schizophrenia of Gone with the Wind that much, either. I blame that almost entirely on Vivien Leigh. I like to think of GWTW's entire cast, numerous setpieces, and multiple acts in exactly the way that Scarlett herself seems to think of them: as either annoyances, obsessions, crushes, flatteries, inconveniences, backdrop, excuses for bad behavior, frenemies, threats, or... other. It's ALWAYS about her. Even when it's not.


Scarlett/Vivien throwing Georgia shade at the mention of Melanie/Olivia

Vivien Leigh is the top. When you hear about someone carrying a film, this is what they mean. That she carried it for four hours with an 18-inch waist as a virtual unknown in the midst of that veritable hurricane of apocrypha which surrounds this production—I'm sorry! This is supposed to be about what's on the screen. Not what happened behind the scenes or the legend accumulated. I get distracted. But maybe Oscar does, too. If you'll allow me an obscene exaggeration: I sometimes forget (mostly when I'm not watching it, which is often... it's four hours long!) that Gone With the Wind is a movie at all. It's a historical and cultural event that happened, rather than a story on celluloid. When that happens, isn't Oscar almost a given? See also: Titanic, The Sound of Music, et cetera...

I'm suddenly curious about which of those huge unstoppably effective moments Mike was referencing and which of Gone With the Wind's disparate personalities Nick likes most and least.

MIKE: The big one for me was Viv's "As God is my witness, I will never go hungry again!" soliloquy. I felt it coming a mile off—it might as well have been heralded by a troupe of trumpeters. Chills ran up and down my legs and arms: here it comes. And then it was so shattering, so strong, so desperate—and so contrived. But it blew me away, even though I was expecting to giggle through it. See also: "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn."

You bring up a good point, Nathaniel, about how hard it is to separate what's on screen from what went into it, and what came after it. Part of what makes it work is the fact that it was such a miracle that it worked at all, and there's a danger that its ubiquitousness will ruin the experience for first-time viewers (although it didn't for me).

NATHANIEL: "Never go hungry again"—the crazy thing about that pre-intermission curtain call is how "The End" and "Stay Tuned!" it is at once. If this movie were made now they would just chop it in half and demand your ticket dollars all over again for part two the following year.

A moment I love that I rarely hear discussed is the eruption of the news of war at the Wilkes plantation. The choreography is just thrilling. All those people running, colorful dresses swirling across the screen at various angles down towards the doors as Scarlett O'Hara alone zig-zags through them upstream, lost in a very different moment than the larger one. Movies today, outside of some action movies or auteur flicks, don't often have this kind of emotionally attuned and narrative revealing choreography—it's all closeups and reaction shots now—and I think the movies are worse for it.

That said, for as much as I can get swept up in the movie there is the nagging reminder that this lush world, built on the backs of slaves, deserved to be blown away. The slaves talking about beating the Yankees are particularly disturbing to me—Stockholm Syndrome anyone? It's always been a little odd to me that Hollywood romanticized the South so much. Are Civil War era movies ever about the North?

NICK: Sorry to duck out for so long from my own party. I was busy upstairs making a dress from my own drapes. I'm not even going to delve into the complicated waters of whether this movie actually waxes nostalgic about slavery or whether it has an appropriately harsh view of the Peculiar Institution. Though I will note that we see black slaves picking cotton in a field before we see anything else, and slave labor is often what's depicted beneath the occasional "That was the South, gone forever!"-type intertitles. Make of that what you will.

What I was getting at about the changing aesthetics, though I'm not the first to notice this, is that the first third or so of the movie (let's call it the Cukor part) has so many more close-ups, such gentler lighting, and so many more expressive movements of the camera or of choreographed bodies within the frame: that shot you mention, Nathaniel, of Scarlett floating up the steps while the men of Twelve Oaks are all racing downward is a perfect example. By contrast to this, Melanie's pregnancy and (even more so) the escape from Atlanta are rendered almost completely (and mostly by William Cameron Menzies, I think) through old-fashioned cross-cuts, like when Rhett worries out loud about explosives and we cut to a pile of boxes that say "Explosives."


Cukor's GWTW is lovely! Menzies' GWTW is...so literal!

And then as the film continues, under the hands of mad Victor Fleming and staid Sam Wood, the lighting and color choices get much harsher, there's a lot more black and weighty diagonals, and the camera stays further away for lots of group scenes. At moments, the movie looks like Fritz Lang shot it (check out Barbara O'Neil as the dead Mrs. O'Hara on her Caligari-ish catafalque), and some of the Technicolor has a kind of violent, Red Shoes intensity to it, as when Bonnie takes her final horse ride or when Scarlett's accosted by her own husband on those huge, nightmare stairs.


It makes sense that the prevailing mood changes over the course of these particular events, but the early emphasis on personality-driven characterization and elegant movement in the early scenes turns into a broody, sometimes very tense, occasionally clunky pile-up of narrative scenes about running a sawmill or duping the police or pond-hopping to London or semi-hating your own spouse. It's partly great acting but partly the totally different photography that sometimes makes Leigh look like a totally different woman in the first half of GWTW vs. the second. I'm mostly cool with that—this movie gives you SO MUCH, and so much to chew on—but I miss the verve and lightness of the magnificent first half when I have to flip the disc over and press onward through the sudsier, stiffer second.

But with all this talk of GWTW's iconic imagery, you can feel that The English Patient is often aspiring to the same kind of iconicity: the bi-plane crash, Hana's flight through the church, Almásy toting Katharine out of the cave. Do these images resonate for you, or are they instances of the movie trying too hard?



NATHANIEL: I like it when movies try too hard ("...sometimes", he quickly adds). At least I do if what they're trying for is heightened. It's one reason I am counting down the days impatiently until Australia hits... But back on topic: I love Hana's flight through the church—it's the image that always pops into my brain if i hear the three words "The English Patient"—but in other instances I feel how self-conscious the movie is, even as I'm a little bit swept up in it (i.e. Almásy & Katharine's affair). I guess I wish that The English Patient was either more heightened (more of the real through unreal filters please: like those odd birds-eye flights over sand, all foldy like bedsheets) or a little more focused.

I've never been in love with it though it didn't make me as crazy the second time through as it made Elaine:

Oh. No. I can't do this any more.
I can't. It's too long.
(to the screen) Quit telling your stupid story,
about the stupid desert, and just die already!
(louder) Die!!

Mike?

MIKE: "What I want to know is, did they shrink them down, or is that a really big sack?"

Huh? Oh, right, we're talking Oscars. Yeah, The English Patient works best for me when it's going for the big score: I still cry like a baby when Ralph's crying like a baby toting Kristin out of the cave, I get a little steamed up during their assignation in the alcove, and I feel dizzy during Hana's flight in the church—incidentally, the only thing that really works for me about the postwar storyline. I want more grand gestures, doomed romances, tragic sacrifices, and Ralph looking like a tormented Muppet (sorry, Nick, I stole that from you). The past is veiled with smoke and dust and gauzy curtains, lit with reddish fiery sunsets and sunrises, and it's a much better place for both the main characters and us, the viewers, at least when it comes to The English Patient.

And it's not even trying to bite off as much as Gone with the Wind, which does want to be all things to all people (and its reputation and box office might indicate that it succeeds). Nick, having you spell out the pre- and post-intermission differences makes them completely obvious, and while I'm not going to say I subconsciously noticed all of them, I am going to say that even absent the too-many-cooks explanation for them, all those tonal, compositional, and narrative changes serve the story pretty well. One could probably exhaustively explain why each one of them works, but someone else has probably already done that in book-length form, and besides, I wouldn't always agree with the reasoning: there's a definite change once you have to flip that disc, and it's a change from something I absolutely love to something I heartily like and respect. From certain off-board grumblings, it sounds like "like" and "respect" might be in short supply during our next installment...


As God as my witness, readers, I'll never watch Braveheart again! Actually, I have to, but to ease my suffering in advance, please tell us what you think about Gone with the Wind's rose-colored plantations, the fierceness of Vivien Leigh, the sensuality of The English Patient, and the relative merits of its duelling plotlines. And we didn't even start on Clark Gable, on Max Steiner's score, on Gabriel Yared's score and Walter Murch's sound bridges, on those political intrigues that bore Nathaniel, on birthin' no babies, on whatever happened to the size of Kip's role (he has arguably the biggest part in the novel), on that gorgeous notch in a woman's neck, on Kristin Scott Thomas bumping her head on those bleachers, on that poor horse who drops dead on the way back to Tara (best acting ever by an animal, or a snuff film straight outta PETA's collective nightmare?), or on the surreal strain of pretending for four hours that Leslie Howard is a sexpot. What do you remember, from the amnesiac haze of your hospital gurney, and from beneath your Muppet makeup? What do you give a damn about?

Tags:
This Week: Nathaniel's screen shots
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; ep.9: Ziegfeld & American Beauty; ep.10: Zola & Shakespeare; ep.11: You Can't Take It with You & Titanic
Compendium: My ongoing "Best Pictures" Special Section, with reviews, rankings, polls, and links to all of our discussions

Labels: , , , , , , , , ,

Links to this post:

Create a Link

18 Comments:

OpenID dws1982 said...

A couple of comments:
Victor Fleming was incredibly lucky to be called on to take over Gone With the Wind after Cukor was fired. He had already replaced Cukor on The Wizard of Oz, and as a result, Fleming ends up directing two of the most iconic movies of all time. Without those, he'd be dismissed nowdays as nothing more than just another anonymous MGM hack.

And WAS basically just another anoynmous MGM hack--there's nothing in either of his 1939 films that distinguishes them as Victor Fleming Films--but he was not without talent, and made a permanent name for himself with those two.

I like both Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, although with the embarrassment of riches that was 1939, they might not make my top five or top ten. My top two (and I go by original release date, not Oscar eligibility) are Rules of the Game and Young Mr. Lincoln. Not terribly original, but there it is. Beyond those, I'm not sure.

As for The English Patient, I would fall on the thumbs-up side. I'd even say that it's the only worthwhile nominee of a terrible Best Picture lineup, and probably my second favorite film of 1996 overall behind Charles Burnett's staggering masterpiece, Nightjohn. Throw in Lone Star, and--although I need to see them again--Portrait of a Lady and Everyone Says I Love You and you've got a not half-bad year.

But 1996 is also an odd year, one where several films have some fantastic elements right beside unspeakably awful ones--like Vittorio Gassman and John Williams's score in Sleepers, alongside that screenplay with its truly troubling moral stance; Derek Jacobi, Charlton Heston, and Julie Christie in Hamlet alongside Kenneth Branagh in the performance that put the Ham in Hamlet; Armin Meuller-Stahl alongside everything else in Shine; and so on.

The English Patient, I guess, appeals both to the epic fan in me, the kid who was turned into a movie buff in part because of all of those Biblical epics, and also to whatever hopeless romantic there is in me. It's hard to say why, but it's one of the few romance films (Portrait of Jennie would be another) that completely pulls me in, every time. It easily ranks in the top fifteen or so Best Picture winners of all time.

10:40 PM, November 16, 2008  
Blogger Brooke Cloudbuster said...

I've been hotly debating this roundtable since these Best Picture debates first came about, and you guys certainly did not disappoint: Bravo.

As for the actual movies, Gone With The Wind is my favourite movie of all time. I know this is a total cliche, but it truly is. And what you guys have reaffirmed for me is that there will never be another movie like it, there simply can't be. And yes, Vivien Leigh more than carries the movie, she is the movie.

And with The English Patient, I find a curious place on the fence. I don't think it's a great movie, but I don't think it's a terrible one either. (It would probably rank a solid third if you were to consider the nominees of that year, behind Fargo and Secrets & Lies). Anyway! I like certain parts of it very much (Kristin Scott-Thomas as always, Hana in the church) and there are bits which I find don't work (the post-war storyline, the length). So I sit somewhere on the fence-side of positive.

Still, a great discussion. I can't wait for you to tackle Rebecca/Braveheart.

5:26 AM, November 17, 2008  
Blogger Guy said...

I will always love The English Patient for bringing Juliette Binoche an Oscar -- she was never going to win one any other way, was she?

Nathaniel expressed the tactile quality so well I can't really add to it, but I remember watching the film in the cinema as as thirteen year-old, and being utterly spellbound by the opening credit sequence with the ink drawing -- the screen looks so wet and fragile at that moment.

In retrospect, I have some problems with the film -- Ondaatje's novel seemed to me primarily Hana's story, while the balance feels compromised on screen.

I can't help feeling the weight might have been swung more in Hana's favour had her lover not been a Sikh, but maybe I'm too cynical. It could just be my Binochephilia coming into play, too -- but really, in a film of fine performances (funny how everyone's forgotten Colin Firth was in this too, and better than he almost ever is), she connected more with the great intrinsic sadness of the text than the rest of the cast combined. (For me, at least.)

It's become terribly fashionable to dismiss the film lately, which is all the more reason to like it, but I'm glad to see that Minghella's passing at least led to some revised appreciations in the various obits of his skills as a visual storyteller.

It's very difficult to think of another contemporary filmmaker who could have made "The English Patient" with quite the level of sincerity that he does. Any ideas?

Mel Gibson goes without saying, of course. (Seriously, commiserations on having to rewatch "Braveheart." I look forward to seeing if any of you can possibly make steps toward redeeming The Worst Best Picture Of All Time.)

7:13 AM, November 17, 2008  
Blogger Guy said...

Crikey... all that, and not one word from me about "Gone With the Wind."

It is my favourite film of all time, but even that feels like a diminutive statement for something so bloody huge.

Will do some thinking.

7:17 AM, November 17, 2008  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

Holy cow! Rushing off to work, with no time to actually respond to these comments, but I'm thrilled that they're all so meaty. Thanks, fellas... More soon.

8:43 AM, November 17, 2008  
Blogger StinkyLulu said...

Thanks for a heady jaunt through two entirely overwhelming films. Thanks especially for mapping the directorial shifts in GWTW.

These are both films I had avoided until their number came up in Supporting Actress Sundays (McDaniel in June 2008 and Binoche in June 2006).

I found I admired GWTW more than I expected to and though English Patient to be very pretty. The big difference in my recollection is how well GWTW's directorial incoherence mapped onto to the socio-historical aspects of the narrative, whereas TEP's directorial hand seemed to opt for aesthetic distance in ways that did not entirely serve the story. Put another way, GWTW gave me a real hit on what's confusing about telling a story about the U.S. Civil War where TEP often just left me confused.

I also really like the emotional density of the 2nd part of GWTW, especially how the women really get to do some surprising stuff, though I do think Gable's performance runs off the rails a little.

As for the respective Supporting Actresses, I think both Binoche and McDaniel are champs, but I especially admire how McDaniel maximizes the directorial incoherence to develop some emotional dimensions that would have likely been impossible in a more directorially coherent picture. My impressions of Binoche are generally affirmative, but basically vague. Perhaps an indication of something? (Though at some point I will have to soldier through Binoche's perf again, if only to develop the screentime stats that I had not yet been collecting when the Smackdown did 1996).

12:22 PM, November 17, 2008  
Blogger BGK said...

Excellent as always. I wanted to comment on the discussion about the various components of GWTW in terms of directorial, lighting and tonal styles etc. Don't forget that producer David O. Selznick oversaw the production from start to finish. Despite the numerous directors and changes in style, it was Selznick who saw the film as a whole and guided it to what was released, so it is much more cohesive than you would expect. Selznick was a micromanager, but he also had a vision and knew what worked on screen. The fact that he produced this and Rebecca back-to-back is pretty amazing. As for TEP, I agree completely with the comment about it being a film that appeals to all senses. Despite its flaws, I am always seduced by it in a dream-like way that is rare today.

1:17 PM, November 17, 2008  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

I must say: I know it seems gratuitously and in a way self-serving to love one's own commenters, and I know everyone thinks that bloggers have this inherent over-confidence that everything they think is worth reading, but of course I worry all the time that there is no audience or value to what I'm writing, and I am so heartened by how much thought people who visit this blog expend in sharing their comments. Especially for these longterm projects like the Best Pictures series. I really, really appreciate it.

@dws1982: Fleming sure was lucky&#151it's a little odd that he got two such big-money assignments, especially GWTW, given that the whole world was watching. And I have to say that on the evidence of these two and Joan of Arc, the only auteurist signature I associate with Fleming is a tendency toward garish color. But you're right, he wasn't without talent, and marshaling through as much plot as he does in his sequences of GWTW is a pretty strong feat.

I'm totally with you re: Young Mr. Lincoln, by the way; on the other hand, I'm cooler toward Rules of the Game than most, despite its evident craftsmanship. And as for the '96 lineup, I have to confess a strong affection for EP, Secrets & Lies, and Jerry Maguire, and an all-out adoration for Fargo, so I've gotta stick up for that BP lineup... though I certainly agree that Portrait (swoon!) and Lone Star oughta be up there. Will have to check out Nightjohn on your rec.

@Brooke: Given that you're such a fan of GWTW, I'm really pleased that you got your "money's worth" from this convo. You and I rank the '96 nominees in the same way.

@Guy: Ditto what I said to Brooke, and I agree that the world could stand a second cinematic crack at The English Patient that makes Hana and Kip much more central... although I confess that Ondaatje's relentless lyricism and commitment to fragmentation on the page often strikes me as just as forced as Minghella's honeyed aestheticism. In truth, I probably prefer the movie, though they're both such heady experiences, and better as a combo than either is alone, in my opinion. Your thoughts about Hana's diminution in the overall narrative as a possible effect of having a Sikh lover is an interesting angle I hadn't considered.

Whether Braveheart really is the worst BP winner of all time is an issue we'll have to postpone till the next discussion. I do think Nathaniel and I, at least, are going to show up for that one with a 40oz. bottle of beer apiece.

@His "Actressing on the Edges"-ness: I love your phrasing that "GWTW gave me a real hit on what's confusing about telling a story about the U.S. Civil War" and your way of stacking the movie's tones and politics up against those of The English Patient. The combination of sudsiness and severity in the second half of GWTW (rape, adultery, funeral after funeral, multiple forms of marital and familial alienation...) is pretty transfixing, and I'd probably be even more sanguine about it if the first half of GWTW weren't so special.

As for McDaniel, I think she shows amazing and very subtle dexterity in this part; it's almost as though she seizes on the extreme length of the picture as a chance to play many of her scenes pretty close to the bone of conventional "Mammy" scenes in Hollywood films, but to underscore the surprising ranginess and the incoherence of that stereotype. Plus, she acts the heck out of Mammy's relations to Rhett and Scarlett: I relish every single scene where she demonstrates a superior knowledge to Scarlett's about gender dynamics and emotional truth. Her way of manipulating Scarlett into eating before the Twelve Oaks party: genius.

@BGK: Well-put about Selznick; I still think the different stages of the film often betray a noticeable variance in directorial approach, but (for me) the invaluable contribution of Selznick is to make that variance work in the service to the story's changes in direction and emphasis, and to have cast the thing with actors and technical artists who could bring their own forms of coherence to the film despite its massive scale and the revolving door of directors. Rebecca will certainly afford us the chance to say more about him. And, as I've suggested above, I agree about The English Patient: it's remarkably engaging, even lovable, despite and sometimes because of its overweening epicureanism. (More of my thoughts here.)

2:04 PM, November 17, 2008  
Blogger PROVA PERICIAL IMPORTANTE said...

Seriouly, you guys have to make a part deux of this thing just to give Nathaniel the chance to talk about his theory on child birth = no baby.
That last paragraf of the things you left off the post is totally amazing@@

4:13 PM, November 17, 2008  
Blogger Tim said...

Only 9 comments, and almost everything I could hope to say has been already (and better).

But just to add my two cents anyway: my feelings towards The English Patient have always been colored by the fact it beat Secrets & Lies, which I'd humbly declare to be the second-best Best Picture nominee of the last 20 years, after The Thin Red Line. Still, I don't think it's just bigotry that keeps me from fully engaging with the film; after two viewings, I still find myself drifting into the Elaineian view that it's just too damned long. And like all of Minghella's films, he's much happier filming landscapes than people. Most of the flashback scenes play to me like a cross of Lawrence of Arabia with a love story, done by somebody who wasn't terribly good at either.

That said, I do truly adore the post-war half of the film, probably because of my undying devotion to La Binoche. That's the only part of the film where I genuinely sense that tactility that everyone is speaking about. Something about it all feels much more intimate and "small" in a good way (the paradox of the intimate epic has never failed to delight me).

As for GWTW: how can somebody put that film into words? It's the most MOVIE movie ever made, the finest example of producer-as-auteur in cinema history. Even the parts of the film that don't work - the second half is obviously the work of a weaker director than the first - still result in iconic images and moments, and the parts that do work represent classical Hollywood at its very greatest. I always come back to that endless crane shot of the dead and dying soldiers (supposedly recommended by Selznick's assistant & future superproducer himself, Val Lewton) as quite possibly the finest image in an American film from the 1930s.

6:02 PM, November 17, 2008  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

...and it's such a perfect note of characterization that after that gigantic reveal of just how many wounded and dead are sprawling out toward every horizon, when Scarlett thought she was just coming to fetch the doctor from his clinic, that she experiences the same epiphany we do and yet she still goes looking for the doctor, and when she finds him, she still asks him to come back with her to facilitate the childbirth, because she doesn't know how, and Melanie might die. Leigh plays the combo of perspicacity and obtuseness so brilliantly throughout, and the script sure helps her along.

Re: The English Patient, I wouldn't know which "half" of the film to call my favorite, especially if you disqualify the inordinate handsomeness of Ralph Fiennes as a deciding factor. I think there's great stuff and weak stuff in both the pre- and post-war sequences. Willem Dafoe gives the one performance I just don't get, as the one character that I'm just not sure the film really needs, but I see your point, Tim, that the sensuality really "pops" from the chilly stone and blue/white palette of the Binoche scenes in a way it doesn't (or doesn't have to) from the almost entirely exoticized desert sequences.

I could never possibly pick between "I don't know anything" and "Am I K in your book? I think I must be" as my favorite line readings in the movie. It would be horrifying to admit how many times in college I Binoched amid everyday encounters. I could. not. stop. saying "I don't know anything..." (Though I still say Allen and Hershey and Jean-Baptiste were robbed.)

6:24 PM, November 17, 2008  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

nick she does say "i don't know anything" quite memorably!

so much to comment on here. --- i do have to ask right off the bat how y'all know which directors or producers did what? Is this from extensive reading on the subject (recommend me a book) or other movie signatures from these people?

like dws i have very confusing memories of 1996 as a film year. could all of them films be both annoying and great? and I wonder about my own top ten list. Would i be horrified if i saw the movies again?

and that's only 12 years ago.

but of the best pic nominees I go like so

1. FARGO (obviously)
2. SECRETS & LIES
3. JERRY MAGUIRE would i hate this now? liked it alot at the time
4. THE ENGLISH PATIENT
5. SHINE ... which i remember really hating. would i like it now?

Guy great point on Hana's lover being a Sikh. I didn't know this had been reduced since I hadn't read the book. But I must heartily recommend that book on sound editing which talks about The English Patient extensively

Conversations: Walter Murch on the Art of Editing

so much to chew on therein.

prova have you uncovered a theory of mine that I didn't even know existed?

nick you're SO right about Vivien as Scarlett in that sequence. It's fascinating to me that a film heroine this beloved by multiple generations is so selfish and gets away with it with audience rapport. She's almost an anti-heroine at times, such a great creation.

8:14 PM, November 17, 2008  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

and i have to ask. is the new banner from Jane Campion's Peel ? or do i just want it to be.

8:15 PM, November 17, 2008  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Nathaniel: Righto!

10:58 PM, November 17, 2008  
Blogger par3182 said...

Kristin Scott Thomas bumping her head on those bleachers

so glad this got a mention; for some reason that's the most memorable scene from the film for me

11:24 PM, November 17, 2008  
Blogger goatdog said...

My ranking of the 1996 BPNs:

1. Secrets & Lies
2. Fargo
3. The English Patient
4. Jerry Maguire
5. Shine

And the 1939 ones:

1. GWTW
2. The Wizard of Oz
3. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
4. Ninotchka
5. Love Affair
6. Stagecoach
7. Of Mice and men
8. Wuthering Heights
9. Dark Victory
10. Goodbye Mr. Chips

I was going to say that you're selling Victor Fleming short, because at least his early-1930s career is dotted with good, even great films (Red Dust, Bombshell, the non-treacly parts of Captains Courageous) but he really was the luckiest bastard in Hollywood to be placed in charge of GWTW.

I'm surprised at all the Juliette Binoche love, and also for the impression that the novel highlights my least favorite parts of the film and slights my favorite parts. But perhaps I'd like the Binoche/muppet/Mr. Thumbless sections better if they didn't feel so perfunctory.

One thing that I think factors into my feelings about The English Patient is the fact that it won too many Oscars, especially in a year that had such a strong lineup. Nine Oscars? More than GWTW? It feels kind of... icky. It's a good film, and maybe it deserved a handful of wins, but not nine, and not the particular nine that it won.

Guy, I love Colin Firth in this too. Probably my third favorite in the film, after Scott-Thomas and Fiennes.

There's no way that Braveheart is the worst Best Picture winner of all time. Cavalcade, Cimmaron, The Life of Emile Zola, Around the World in 80 Days, etc. etc. etc.

12:38 PM, November 18, 2008  
Blogger Hayden said...

Gahh, these posts are so brilliant. You guys are amazing. I don't know that an actress has ever had a more difficult role when it comes to, as Nathaniel said, literally carrying the film on her back. There was such an enormous amount of pressure placed on Leigh, and it's mesmerizing to watch her hit it out of the park.

Sometimes I feel that with epics, particularly in Old Hollywood, the scope of the film and how it visually impressed viewers took precedence over the quality of the performances. But not Gone with the Wind.

5:58 PM, November 18, 2008  
Blogger Kamikaze Camel said...

Embarassing Confession Time: When I first watched Gone with the Wind I put the disc into the player the wrong side around and inadvertently watched the second half of the movie first! It wasn't until a good hour and a bit in that I realised something was wrong. Hah. Oh my.

I do love that movie though. Full of life yet exhaustingly breathtaking at the same time. I haven't seen The English Patient though. I think that Seinfeld moment always haunts me.

1:18 AM, November 27, 2008  

Post a Comment

<< Home