Friday, July 24, 2009

Mrs. Miniver and Mr. Schindler: Best Pictures 1942 and 1993

NICK: Having watched my conspirators in pleasure show such effort and ingenuity in our last two installments to put our disparate films in dialogue with each other, I get to enjoy a ready-made Oscar juxtaposition of World War II dramas: Mrs. Miniver, the first entrant from this AMPAS-beloved genre to swipe the top prize, and Schindler's List, frequently hailed as a highpoint in the Best Picture heritage. Neither film is a battlefield picture; instead, they each focalize the magnitude of the war through the expanding consciousness of the titular character and the subversion of her or his habits of thought and action. Both were the first movies by their pedigreed, Oscar-friendly auteurs to cop the Best Picture and Best Director trophies after multiple winless nods.

Of course there are also clear markers of dissimilarity between these films and the stories they tell. Mrs. Miniver presents the war only semi-directly as a blend of farewells, alarms, thrift, social disruption, and local casualties; Schindler's List boldly reconstructs and scrutinizes the supremacist and genocidal ethics and terrible, sometimes enforced complicities that both inspired and drew force from the Nazi war machine. Kay Miniver is a radiant paragon of noble citizenship and domestic steadfastness; Oskar Schindler is a rake and a profiteer whose unlikely emergence as an objector and protector arrives with all kinds of vagaries and caveats attached. Mrs. Miniver was not in every respect a picture that Wyler cherished; Schindler's List was self-consciously conceived, produced, and received as the technical, cultural, and moral apotheosis of Spielberg's career, even if some audiences were more skeptical than others of its structural existence as a studio-produced Holocaust diorama in wide commercial release, in venues where the floors are inevitably dotted with trodden Goobers and the popcorn odors waft in from the next-door screenings of Beethoven's 2nd.

In fact, Schindler's List is so patently the mightier text and social artifact that those modest, resilient, upper-middle-class Minivers may have a hard time getting out from under Spielberg's shadow—so let's start with them first. I think it's the case that we've all seen Mrs. Miniver twice. What do you guys think about it, and did your feelings change at all from the first to the second viewing?

MIKE: I don't like Mrs. Miniver. I like Kay Miniver at times, but I don't like very much about the film she's in. It's a serviceable propaganda piece, but it's nothing more than that aside from a series of ugly hats perched on stiff upper lips. I don't completely agree with Wyler's longtime collaborator Lillian Hellman that "it's such a piece of junk, and it's below [him]," because there are a couple good scenes in there that have resonance beyond the film's very utilitarian purpose, but I do agree that it is beneath Wyler.

The two scenes I like most take place in the bedroom (a mostly sexless place, because Walter Pidgeon is in it). First is Garson's cautious, teasing reveal of that terrible hat, the one that looks like a sparrow crashed into a beaver; both Garson and Pidgeon seem at ease around each other, and you can believe that this relationship once generated enough passion to produce three kids. The second, and the best scene in the film, is the aftermath of Dunkirk, when Pidgeon, puffed up with pigeonly pride at his accomplishments, is aghast to discover that his pretty li'l wife had some adventures of her own. Pidgeon is looser than he's ever been in his entire screen career, and Garson shows a sexy playfulness that unfortunately few directors let her use.

NATHANIEL: I cherish both the scenes of which you speak but I'd disagree about this particular bedroom being a sexless place, despite the separate beds. The second time through I kept expecting Pidgeon and Garson to make a fourth baby at any minute. This is not to say that they struck me as in lust with each other but that the "old marrieds" feel rang true. That ease of which you spoke is evident in the silences, the way they touched (loved the spank), the way the actors sometimes don't even look at each other but you can see that they're fully aware of the other's presences. And I especially like those sequences you mentioned because they show this comfortable couple creating drama where none really exists—initially hiding things that they totally plan to share—merely for the flirty diversion it provides. My whole life I've been hearing that Mrs. Miniver is nothing but a propaganda piece but I happen to quite like it.

It's not exactly a great movie, I'll give you that. But as war films go, I like that it's light on its feet and sustains its energy well despite nearly being a one set film. (Was it my imagination or was the editing here much busier—more cuts—than in most early '40s movies?) You really do get the sense of war intruding on otherwise peaceful and happy existences. Most war films tend to err on the side of the dully sober. I admire that this one makes no judgments about the frivolity of flower shows, joy rides, college "phases," and expensive hats but instead posits that people should be able to enjoy these things. Freedom is worth fighting for! Yeah yeah yeah. You hear that all the time in war movies, including this one. Frivolity is worth fighting for, damnit! That's something you don't hear as often.

One nagging question though: Shouldn't that "Mrs. Miniver" rose have wilted long before the flower show? You see it in the first scene, already in a vase, and it survives a summer break, a whirlwind courtship and honeymoon and the first months of The Blitz?


MIKE: Neither time nor war nor ugly hats can wilt the Miniver Rose, Nathaniel. Not even Nazis can remove its bloom.

THE BENING Well, I'll tell you, Nathaniel—eggshells and Miracle-Gro!

NICK: You pretty much take her everywhere these days, don't you, Nathaniel? Has she introduced you to Juli yet?

To the matter at hand: I feel like I come down somewhere between the two of you, a snug and lovely place to be. I appreciate Mrs. Miniver's sincere-feeling investment in domestic rituals and in personalizing the homefront. Having been a homefront kid while my dad was gone commanding a unit in a war, I am probably well-disposed to the blend of dogged optimism, worried fright, and the odd layer of "business in usual" that Mrs. Miniver showcases. I think the film is better, though—and this is where I see Wyler's gift—at capturing those frictions in specific images and textured performance choices than in the blocky, overstated ways in which the script aims to tackle this stuff. I mean, the whole flower competition eats an awful lot of time on its way toward a fairly certain outcome, but Wyler and Whitty pull out some comic and even some poignant tension in it as she debates with herself. The movie never convinces, or should I say never pretends, that there's much at stake in dime-a-dozen conflict scenes like Teresa Wright lobbying for her grandmother's victory or Garson and Whitty going to toe-to-toe about the engagement, and even the famous scene of the German pilot skulking into chez Miniver is so baldly telegraphed and unsubtly conceived.

But even in these scenes, and in many others, I do admire the layered characterization: headstrong Wright nervously stroking the upholstery when meeting Vin for the third time, the slightly harrowing way in which Vin's little brother likes to play-act being a dive bomber, Garson relentlessly sewing in her fake but admirable cool inside the air-raid shelter. I admire that Wyler punches up the German-intruder scene by starting it off in such incongruously bright light and wide-open space, and having the superficially intrepid Garson so awkwardly handling the gun by its barrel, upside-down, when she's retrieving it for the police. Like you guys have said, the actors are often really great with spontaneity, ensemble playing, and crisply humanizing detail, which are pleasures in themselves. But then, they sometimes backfire into making me wish the whole movie were firing on more cylinders to really get the most from this team, and they can't always compensate for all the obnoxiously haloed lighting and the pathetic miniature-models in the river patrol scene, or the dialogue teetering from chunky bits of "patriotism" to little dime-novel ejaculations ("Good old, Vin!").

And if Mike hates the hats, I don't like that Greer Garson—to me, one of the most beautiful women in Hollywood's past—has to make her big entrance in a scalloped-doily hat and a dress that has spaghetti stitched to the neckline. But then she heads right into that delicious, charming convo with the guy who feels as guilty about buying cigars as she does about her beaver-sparrow hat. Again! You're always getting the good with the bad in this pic.

"I survived the London Blitz, and all I got was this hideous ensemble."

NATHANIEL: Funny you should say that, for "the good with the bad" is how I'd describe quite a few of Steven Spielberg's hugely beloved pictures. But it's hard to describe the magnificently controlled Schindler's List that way. Unless you're referencing the pink coat but I'd rather not start off with the one blemish. That's not just spaghetti on an otherwise beautiful dress, it's the tomato sauce, too.

MIKE: The red-coated girl was part of what displaced Schindler's List from its position at the top of my top 100 list. (New list forthcoming!) I think it's one of few places where Spielberg underestimated his audience's ability to comprehend the extent of the ghetto liquidation. I know he used it to show Schindler himself finally understanding, but surely this man didn't need such a specific reminder.

The other reasons stem from how even in the middle of its undeniably horrific events, it backpedals at times, as if Spielberg were too wedded to Hollywood tropes to carry through. To start out, I don't think it downplays the extent of the Holocaust to tell about the lucky survivors, so I'm not in the Claude Lanzmann camp that views this film as a misguided attempt to dramatize an event that cannot be dramatized. But there's a line in there somewhere, and Spielberg crosses it in two major scenes. First is the old man whom Goeth chooses to execute, but every German pistol within a stone's throw somehow jams, saving his life and stretching believability too far. Second, and much more egregious, is the scene where the women are led into the shower rooms at Auschwitz but are greeted with water instead of poison gas. This, for me, is unforgivable: if there's a single image that sums up the Holocaust's mechanized, efficient destruction of humanity, it's the gas chamber, and the cheap "gotcha!" when that water comes down is among Spielberg's most cowardly mistakes as a director.

And I'm not sure what I'd think if it turned out to be true. This feels like melodrama, not reality. The film is certainly melodramatic at times, especially the scene on the train tracks where Schindler weeps about how many more people he could have saved, but that scene tears me up every time. I don't mind being manipulated if it's done so well.

NICK: Wow! And I so often feel like the carpy one. Admittedly, I agree with a lot of this: the shower scene at Auschwitz and the failed execution of the rabbi are highly dubious and feel like Spielberg devices. Then again, that brutal kick that Goeth gives the old rabbi at the end of that scene registers very strongly. Even stronger to me is the haunting shot of the naked women running into that cavernous shower; the enormity of everything the scene and the film have conjured up to that point is so profound that I don't think the sequence or the film escapes paying tribute to what we all know about the gas chambers. But yes, it's a major stretch, on very thin ethical and narrative ice, and I can see taking major exception. Whereas the girl in the red coat has never really bothered me. Neither of her appearances goes as far into sentimentality as they could have, and seeing her dead—especially in the fairly offhanded way that the moving camera frames her, in the barrow with several others—makes her a somewhat important ballast against the film's decisions elsewhere to focalize so many characters who don't die.

I have my own caveats, but given that this feels like one of the most considerable films ever to win the prize, I get to play the annoying do-gooder who says, Surely we want to foreground the positives. And I know you both hold the movie in very high esteem. I'll start with some of the peaks and strengths that really stood out to me this time. The production design is uncommonly persuasive and detailed, from apartments to camps to cellars to exteriors to cabarets to trains to the extraordinary range of palette, even within the monochrome scale. The mournful Itzhak Perlman theme is as powerful as it always was, but I was almost as struck this time by Spielberg's and Williams' astonishing and risky irony of using hard, dogged piano in the cross-cutting between the establishment of the factory and the assemblage of the ghetto, as though both grow out of the same grinding, mercilessly bureaucratic urge. I saw a much more rounded, bullish, many-sided character coming from Liam Neeson than I had remembered in the past—to include that, rather like the Minivers, he rarely stops believing in the value and defensibility of casual, "frivolous" pleasures, though he's obviously an epicurean and a spendthrift in ways they aren't.

The liquidation of the ghetto is so indelibly shot, edited, mixed, choreographed, and performed that I don't even know what to say about it. While I'm feeling speechless for a moment (it never lasts), rattle off some more high points.

NATHANIEL: You've barely scratched the surface of its many triumphs. I hadn't seen it since December 1993 and the things I most loved about it then were just as impressive: the harrowing liquidation sequence you've mentioned, the harsh beauty of the cinematography surveying all that ugliness, the framing device (which was so moving and earned here but unfortunately regurgitated without inspiration for Saving Private Ryan), and that astonishingly cruel performance by Ralph Fiennes. He seems to have swallowed whole the too-often-abstracted concept of evil. It can't be fully digested—who can ever fully digest the enormity of man's inhumanity to man that the Holocaust represent?—so it seems to have just settled in his lazy gut, completely rotting him from the inside.

The thing that most struck me on this second viewing that I know I didn't appreciate or fully grasp in 1993, before I had any real experience of the corporate world, was how the film is in many ways as much of a business thriller as it is a war drama. And a hugely successful one at that: you're tense with fear at Schindler's political missteps (the kiss at the party), you're gripped by the intricacies of his game plan and game face, and you're caught up in the power struggles. I love that Amon Goeth seems so untouchably powerful at first only to be understood, gradually, as something as banal and impotent as a middle manager. Mostly importantly to this war drama's parallel business thriller is that you're rooting for Schindler to succeed but this makes you so complicit in all of his awful compromises and the dehumanizing deals he's continually making. He grasps the humanity of the "enemy" more than the other men sporting swastikas, but he won't let that get in his way. At least at first. I feel certain that a third viewing would reveal yet more intricacies about the dehumanizing business of war.

NICK: Genius! I love this take on the movie. I totally agree, and it opens so many things to think about. Related to your great point: in this last viewing (my third), I seized on that moment when they've just banged out the list, and Stern can't figure out how Schindler is going to secure all of these "indispensable workers," and he looks at Schindler and suddenly says, "You're not buying them." Kingsley's ambiguous reading of this line is so artful, because you can't tell just then whether he's appalled at the obscenity of purchasing these people, or whether he's thunderstruck at the moral gesture to which this profligate hedonist is actually committing himself. Obviously the movie and even the scene wind up tilting toward (b), but the implications of (a) are never completely removed.

Couldn't help interjecting. Mike, what do you love?

MIKE: Did I mention that it's still in my Top 10? I agree with everything positive you guys have said; it's almost easier to enumerate the few flaws than to get a handle on how amazing this film is. Foremost for me are Ralph Fiennes's performance as Amon Goeth and Janusz Kaminski's impeccable cinematography. Fiennes is the most-ripped-off supporting actor in the history of the category, not because Tommy Lee Jones wasn't great, but because Fiennes gave one of the two or three best supporting performances ever.

And I, too, am in awe of your "business of war" take on the film, Nathaniel. Bravo! It really nails something that I hadn't thought about—Schindler's complicity, for most of the film, with the Nazis, and our complicity with him. But I can't quite accept Goeth as a banal middle manager. There's a fervor there, whether it's mental illness or genuine belief in the cause, that you'd never get at ConHugeCo. He's not just putting in his time.

I know we try to stick to the films and avoid what went on outside them (Oscar campaigns, etc.), but with both these films, it struck me how much their internal self-importance translated to their public reception. Judges sentenced hate crime perpetrators to watch Schindler's List, and Spielberg released a teacher's guide to be distributed with free copies of the film to high schools; for Miniver, BBC Radio played the vicar's closing speech to British troops, and Roosevelt and Churchill requested special screenings of the film to increase support for the war effort. It's pretty convenient for this series that we have two films that took on such political importance; what do you guys think about that?

NATHANIEL: Doesn't "internal self-importance" often translate to public reception? Or rather, isn't it always aiming to do so? I guess the difference here—with your well-chosen but, I assume, not isolated examples—is that both films were bulls-eyes in their respective eras.

People don't talk about Mrs. Miniver much anymore but it was a huge success in its time. The IMDb even references this tagline for the film: "Voted the Greatest Movie Ever Made!" Now, I'm not sure who was voting (Greer Garson?) but the picture was beloved and respected. And we all know how quickly Schindler's List started to show up on "greatest movies of all time" lists.

I've often groused about the "Subject Matter = Quality" equation with Oscar (and with critics and audiences to some extent, too). Subject matter never automatically equals quality. Subject matter is just wallpaper. It's how you decorate the rest of the room that counts. So in the cases when artistic ambition lives up to the grandness of certain subjects or themes, which excite people even when the artistry isn't much to rave about, it's easy to see why the public reception borders on ecstasy.

NICK: I know exactly what you're both getting at: it's totally weird that Schindler's List beat The Piano, one of the greatest films of all time, perhaps the greatest, for Oscar's top prize. I couldn't agree more. And without that sense of Schindler's internal self-importance? Never woulda happened. I appreciate the tact you both showed in hinting at this point without wanting to hurt me by spelling it out, but I think transparency is important.

[THE BENING murmurs inaudibly to NICK]

NICK:: So it turns out that it's not that weird, and that a lot of people think Schindler's List is also one of the greatest movies of all time. And apparently – wait – [one more whisper from THE BENING] – apparently miscarriages of justice are pretty frequent in Oscar history, especially recently. Very interesting, Annette.

Given that AMPAS was so swept up in patriotic fervor in 1943 that it was giving plaster statuettes so as not to waste the country's valuable metals, it's even less surprising that internal self-importance + Oscar's frequent Anglophilia pushed Mrs. Miniver over the victory line. If you scatter-plot that year's ten nominees, it makes sense as a consensus pick, sharing the propagandistic fervor of 49th Parallel and Wake Island but with healthy doses of the sentimentality you see in Random Harvest, The Pride of the Yankees, and The Pied Piper (which is sort of Mrs. Miniver starring an old codger instead of Greer Garson). Schindler's win needs no more contextual explaining than you guys have already provided, and there's every reason for Oscar to feel proud about that one. Since you both confessed to your reservations, I'll say that the story does feel weirdly disproportioned to me; Spielberg and Zaillian start wrapping things up just when Schindler has published his list, short-changing our curiosities about how he got away with his factory being a "model of non-production" and how their lives as Schindlerjüden actually looked and felt, to include their relations with him. The movie suddenly races to its own finish line: marital reunion, European cease-fire, big farewell, and we're done! But in and of itself, and especially by comparison to many other Best Picture winners, the selection of Schindler's List comes close to being an absolute good.

As always, readers, we want to know your thoughts: are you more of a Nathaniel or a Mike in response to Mrs. Miniver? If you're a Lillian Hellman, let it all out. What do you think of Schindler's List? Which of its virtues have we still not begun to evoke, and what reservations do you feel compelled to express?

Also don't forget the Best Pictures Tournament that's an ongoing accessory to this series. We last voted five installments ago, which means it's now time to vote on your favorite winner from 1938-1942 and from 1993-1997. The collective favorites and rankings among the three of us are already posted, but you've got 90 days to change our minds!

This Week: Nathaniel's post

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; ep.12: Gone with the Wind & The English Patient; ep.13: Rebecca & Braveheart; ep.14: How Green Was My Valley & Forrest Gump

Compendium: My ongoing "Best Pictures" Special Section, with reviews, rankings, polls, and links to all of our discussions

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Blogger Guy Lodge said...

What a triumphant return for a wonderful series. How I've missed it.

I won't comment on "Mrs. Miniver," since I last saw it even longer ago than I saw "Schindler's List." (And that's a LONG time -- like Nat, I haven't seen Spielberg's film since its theatrical release, and I was 11 years old then. I've long been meaning to renew my acquaintance with it, but it's not a film you dive into lightly.)

Anyway, my 11 year-old self agrees with everything you say about the film's tremendous power -- I saw it with my entire family and I vividly remember the four of us filing out the cinema and into the car, struck somewhat dumb by what we'd seen. And the Perlman theme could reduce me to tears even before we used it at my grandmother's funeral a few years ago, so you can only imagine the effect it has on me now.

But I'm somewhat surprised that you don't make more of the final act, which struck me at the time as calculatedly lachrymose and running somewhat counter to Neeson's exemplary avoidance of canonizing Schindler himself. THAT, for me, was its one significant blemish that has always kept it out of "all-time" territory for me. I'll admit to being quite wowed by the red coat at the time, though it now reminds me uncomfortably of that mawkish series of popular Geddes-esque greeting cards in the 1990s that featured B&W moppets carrying red roses.)

So I was hoping to find out if I am/was alone in my reservations there -- it's quite possible it wouldn't bother me now, given that I'm more open to cinematic manipulation these days. (I was MUCH cooler at 11 than I am now.)

Anyway, an inarguably worthy film and a credit to the Best Picture category, even if I still wouldn't have given it the prize myself. (Yes, I'm on Team Nick here.) What a year 1993 was.

3:39 AM, July 24, 2009  
Blogger Glenn said...

I... haven't seen Schindler's List. I don't know why, either.

Mrs Miniver though I really liked and Garson in it too. Although I can't actually remember that much of it, which is worrying since it wasn't that long ago that I watched it.

4:27 AM, July 24, 2009  
Blogger Bill C said...

I wish I still had awe for SCHINDLER'S LIST, but it looks near fatally evasive to me in the rearview--especially stuff like that silhouette created by Nazi gunfire at the top of the stairwell, which strikes me as glibly expressionistic. Also worth noting that this is the rare Spielberg movie panned by Armond White (in a review written before he really went off the deep end), his main problem that the Jewish characters are a collective and one-dimensional saints. I doubt much more moral complexity than that would've served the movie's purpose, but it's food for thought.

9:19 AM, July 24, 2009  
Blogger Bill C said...

P.S.: I'd be remiss if I didn't say I also found Nathaniel's "corporate" reading of SCHINDLER'S inspired and fascinating. Still haven't seen MINIVER, alas.

9:30 AM, July 24, 2009  
Blogger Guy Lodge said...

"Also worth noting that this is the rare Spielberg movie panned by Armond White"

Oh, so THAT'S why it's one of the few Spielberg films I like!

9:34 AM, July 24, 2009  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Guy: So glad you're glad to have us back. The dual farewells at the factory and the train depot are indeed rather lachrymose, and when Schindler starts quantifying how many more lives he could have saved, object by object, in an almost "I Spy" way, Neeson comes dangerously close to losing control of the performance. It's an important flaw but no longer bears the brunt of my reservations because a) there is something to be said for emotional release at the end of an experience like this, b) moments within these scenes are still very moving, as when Kingsley presents him with the ring, and c) the overall haste and blurriness (for me) of the final half-hour or so actually create the questions about how unduly lachrymose this ending actually is, since it's the first time we're really seeing Schindler interacting with the people he saved and gauging their affect in relation to each other. To go from Zero to High Pathos feels more problematic than if Spielberg had fought for a fourth hour and really built that final chapter.

@Glenn: Get on it! You won't be sorry, I don't think.

@BillC: For sure, there are other lapses. The nighttime gunfire didn't bother me, but I did absolutely cringe when a Jewish man who has successfully hid inside a piano gives himself away by stepping right on the keys as he exits... and then the soundtrack explodes into barreling Mozart melodies as a next wave of Nazi sweeps of the ghetto begins. An astonishing bit of bad taste, no less so once Spielberg (eventually!) attributes the music to a diegetic source. Still, for me, the overwhelming, overwhelming experience especially through that passage of the film is of its extraordinary eloquence, severity, and respect.

I do find White's argument in that piece very thought-provoking, even though, as so often, there is some room to question his contrarian motives. I don't think the Jews are quite the undifferentiated mass that I remember White claiming them to be. In fact, I was newly struck this time by how some of the actors playing the Jews, like Miri Fabian (who plays the sharp-browed mother of the girl with the spectacles... almost everyone who sees the movie remembers her face), are so subtly vivid and detailed in rendering individual traits for their characters, even within the film's (appropriate) focus on their collectivity.

9:35 AM, July 24, 2009  
Blogger Bill C said...

@Guy: Ha! Yeah, Armond's a useful barometer for sane people in that way.

@Nick: Yes! The piano bit! But indeed, that sequence--and the movie itself--has a cumulative power, and maybe I'm trying to protect myself from it!

9:54 AM, July 24, 2009  
Blogger Unknown said...

Just an interesting note:

It's been a while since my days studying history in undergrad, but I do recall learning that many (if not all) of the camps used large shower rooms like the one used in Schindler's List. Prisoners would have had to shower upon their arrival, often as an excuse to get them to give up their clothing/belongings. Depending on the camp, and the stage of the war, new arrivals may have heard rumors about the gas chambers (though I think only a few of them were actually disguised as showers - but again, it's been a while).

So, that particular scene doesn't strike me as "false" in the way it does for you guys.

That said, I agree that The Piano should have won. My favorite movie, though even I feel bad for snubbing Schindler's List, certainly another all-time great. There may be another that I can't remember, but has any other film represented an intersection of populism, quality, and "importance" as this one?

10:02 AM, July 24, 2009  
Blogger Calum Reed said...

Woohoo! I'm so glad this is back...

I too prefer The Piano to Schindlers, but both of them are really great films.

Spielberg's direction sometimes annnoys me. The visual saturation makes me feel like I'm viewing the film through a puddle rather than a TV. It's incredibly valuable in the more archival moments (of which there are many) but particularly near the beginning it put me off. Also I think that Schindler has too much influence over Goeth, or at least his influence is expressed in very straightforward terms. When he tells Goeth that letting someone live makes him more powerful Goeth adopts this strategy instantly, whereas I think that he would have struggled with the idea a litte more, if not balk at it. It's a strange turn-of-events given that, on the whole, the film is keen to highlight the motivations and psychology of both characters rather than limiting them to the dumb brute and the shrewd hero.

11:26 AM, July 24, 2009  
Anonymous goatdog said...

Cal, the fact that Goeth attempts to take Schindler's advice makes sense to me, because it's obvious that Schindler is the only person in Goeth's life who he respects, and wants that respect reciprocated. This is illuminated by Nathaniel's reading of the film as a corporate thriller; Goeth, as the middle manager, is dazzled by the rich industrialist who chooses to spend time with him, so of course he's going to at least attempt to follow his advice. It is strange that Schindler would think he'd be able to affect Goeth's behavior, but that's consistent with Schindler's self-importance.

I don't understand the "visual saturation" you're talking about, though. The film is shot with crystal clarity, which is what Spielberg and Kaminski were going for--a documentary look.

Stephen, I think the shower scene strikes me as so false because both the characters and the audience have been instructed by this point in the film (if they didn't already associate showers in death camps with gas chambers) that showers equal death. Spielberg lingers too long on their terror for me to accept that he wasn't going for the kind of "gotcha!" we're citing.

And I don't buy Armond White's argument that the Jews are one-dimensional saints; so many of the actors create memorable impressions, and not always good, with the limited screen time they get that I'm actually impressed by how much detail and humanity Spielberg and his actors managed to highlight, given the number of characters they were trying to follow.

12:43 PM, July 24, 2009  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Cal: For sure, there are moments where the mobility of the camera or the low-contrast lighting&#151or the blow-out effect of shooting into the sky, as in the shot reproduced above of Nazis emptying suitcases over the balconies of the ghetto apartments&#151creates a cruddy or blurry effect like the ones you're remembering. As Mike says, this kind of photography is less preponderant in the film than I had remembered, but it is also true, isn't it, Mike, that Schindler's List moves through quite a gradient of visual textures and of contrast and exposure levels? I was often impressed with Kaminski's and Spielberg's diversity of photographic effects, and with Michael Kahn's ability to cut it all together so fluidly. It's the rare camera set-up that you wish were more layered or imaginative&#151like the slow push toward the center-framed Embeth Davidtz during Helen Hirsch's big monologue, which isn't a scene I like much anyway.

@Lotsa Folks: Especially for those of you who may not visit our sites often, I should underscore the slight facetiousness of my comments about The Piano. I do think it's one of the best films ever made and that it deserved the top Oscar, but I also have profound subjective attachments to that movie, verging proudly on the unreasonable, and from that perspective I am kidding when I so slantedly misinterpret Nathaniel and Mike as implicitly building up to my own sense of (mostly faux) outrage. Probably most of the commenters here already got that, but I don't want to risk over-selling that particular point, or Mike and Nathaniel's investment in it. (Mike, I'm quite sure, would have been a Schindler voter.)

1:03 PM, July 24, 2009  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

Oh, and @Stephen: That's an illuminating bit of info, and it resonates with things I've heard elsewhere. I'm mostly with Mike, though, that it's the contextual framing and the ratio of emphases in that scene, though, that make it dubious at the very least, regardless of how well it corresponds to things that actually might have happened in the camps.

1:06 PM, July 24, 2009  
Anonymous Chris said...

It's so great to have this series back! How interesting that the two entries complement each other, although I'd like to point out that with "Mrs. Miniver", it's painfully obvious how dated it is; the acting style, the propaganda script, the framing etc. "Schindler's List", on the other hand, will be studied years from now without having any sense of when it was made. It truly is timeless.

No film is perfect, but whatever "Schindler's" flaws may be, they scarcely matter when the achievement is this staggering. Like all great works, it inspires truly passionate responses (see J. Hoberman's and Art Spiegelman's for some of the most negative). In its combination of expressionism and neorealism, I think Spielberg's film conjures up the most visually bold images since the silent era.

The red dress is Schindler's Rosebud, signifying everything and nothing to the story. Neeson never gives a speech on how that girl affected him and yet in her unforgettable second appearance, we know all we need (or can) know. It is the epitome of visual sophistication: expressing emotion and character solely through the image. It is just one of the many reasons why I believe "Schindler's List" to be the most significant cinematic event of the past 25 years.

1:16 PM, July 24, 2009  
Blogger Unknown said...


Oh, don't worry - I'm totally with you guys that the whole shower thing seems calculated, and the "gotcha" moment rings false.

But what I think is interesting to consider, and makes me forgive this possible lapse: how many prisoners actually experienced that very "gotcha" moment as part of their Holocaust experience? The Nazis certainly, in other contexts, played with their prisoners' expectations in similar ways

I don't expect that everyone would let that one slide (I realize that Spielberg was going for the emotional punch, not some primarily historical recreation), but I, personally, give it a pass.

2:25 PM, July 24, 2009  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

yeah i don't have any outrage about SCHINDLER'S LIST winning though I prefer THE PIANO (and i have less of Nick's "profound subjective personal attachments" to the film) -- it didn't change my life but I do think it's one of the most important works of cinema in the past couple of decades and, unfortunately, one of the least discussed in recent years. I contribute this mostly to Campion's vanishing act this decade and the willful drubbing she got from critics (a heavily male profession) who should have taken her subsequent efforts far more seriously than they did... even if they were never going to measure up to The Piano.

stephen -- that play on expectations is exactly why i find no offense in the gun misfiring scene that others object to.

i think it only underscores how much of survival was mere chance. when you consider the millions that died and the few that survived.

it's crass to say it but luck was obviously involved for anyone who survived the hell.

and i don't buy the arguments about one dimensional jewish characters either. Ben Kingsley isn't one dimensional. Embeth isn't one dimensional and you get a wide range of emotions elsewhere. more than you usually get from "crowds"

2:40 PM, July 24, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Schindler's List vs. The Piano --- both are great films that fully deserved their nominations, and a win for either would stand as one of the Academy's smartest choices.

But if there was one category where The Piano deserved the trophy more than Schindler's List it was in Best Original Score. It shouldn't have even been a contest and the fact that Nyman's work went without even a nomination is a travesty.

5:55 PM, July 24, 2009  
Anonymous seasondays said...

@bill c & @nathaniel
the main problem i found with the film was the jewish "crowd"

of course kingsley & davitz are really tridimensional but aside from them you're not really attached to any character and you barely remember any of them [except i think for the girl with the glasses]

i do think the crowd is tridimensional, but composed of multiple but exactly the same tridimensional "clones" who are only remembered as a crowd and not as a group of different characters

7:20 PM, July 24, 2009  
Blogger Andrew K. said...

As much as I can respect the fact that Schindler's List is a good movie, a great one even I don't like it. Individually the acting, editing, cinematography etc are good but I just don't go crazy for it. On the other hand I almost hate Mrs. Miniver. Greer Garson I like, but the film on the
I may be an unreliable critic though my favourites were THE REMAINS OF THE DAY, THE AGE OF INNOCENCE and WOMAN OF THE YEAR.

8:52 PM, July 24, 2009  
Blogger John T said...

Like so many, I too am looking quite distantly in the mirror on these two films. For me, the little red dress though, at my then tender age of 18 (I watched Schindler for the first time in 2003), was highly effective-the entire movie was, and Fiennes was inarguably brilliant and worthy of the Oscar.

But we forget is that 1993's Supporting Actor category was brilliant, one of the best ever, and all five actors would have won in a normal year (considering the brilliance of 1992 and 1993, it makes this decade's representatives that much less).

And Nick, do you think having The Bening around the site is a good idea? What happens when she deduces that you wouldn't have voted for her in any of her trips to the Oscars? :)

9:48 PM, July 24, 2009  
Anonymous Silencio said...

@Anonymous: Thank you!! How did this soundtrack get left behind?? I still play it regularly. Just gorgeous and mature.

11:32 PM, July 24, 2009  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

I just really have to differ about the one-dimensionality or "clone" qualities of the group. The Pfefferbergs, the Rosners, the Dresners... Lisiek, the boy who works in Goeth's house, who meets a terrible end in a brilliant and horrifying pure-montage sequence... Diana Reiter, the architecture student... several faces and personalities become distinctive at different times, and they often have subtly dissimilar reactions to the same events. At the same time, given the enormity and the dehumanizing logic of what the film is portraying, doesn't it stand to reason that the film needs these characters to operate as a massed crowd at many moments. How much individualizing detail do we want, exactly, while they jog naked in the mud to save their lives, or as they react en masse to the trucking-away of all their children?

@Chris: Good points about the girl in the red coat.

@Stephen: I think that is a really valuable point in support of this scene.

@John: I didn't invite her. She's becoming something of a one-woman entourage for Nathaniel. But she does appreciate that I was so impressed with her in Running with Scissors.

@Anonymous and @Silencio: I agree about the stupendousness of that score, but lots and lots of composers and "music people" can't get past the score's overt refusal to stay within period idioms. Based on his interviews, Michael Nyman is still bitter about this. Even I have to admit that, had it been nominated, I still would have had a hard time voting against the score for The Remains of the Day.

9:57 AM, July 25, 2009  
Blogger Tim said...

I have nothing to add of substance, but I wanted to say that having you gents back together like this warms my soul in ways that hasn't been warmed in many weeks.

Also, Mrs. Miniver is a Greatest Hits compilation of everything that people are referring to when they use "English" as an insult.

8:39 PM, July 25, 2009  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

@Tim... you dislike Miniver that much?

@Nick. i don't remember the Remains score (another movie i haven't seen since 1993) but i trust you on scoring. you seem to notice the soundscape of movies so much more than your average critic.

@JohnT ... good point on the supp actor lineup that year. Really impressive (which is saying a lot given the usual blah nature of that category, definitely Oscar's most boring of the major six categories)

2:39 PM, July 26, 2009  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Nathaniel: That is very sweet to say, but my obtuseness about music is what it is. But I loved the Remains score when I saw the movie, bought the CD, and listen to it often. Perfect uses of repetitive motifs for the routines around the household, but with plenty of dramatic gestures toward the political plotting and the emotional rises and falls. Keeps as tight a rein on sentiment as the rest of the movie does. I wish Richard Robbins got more credit as the fourth leg of the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala team; he was often more consistent than any of them, and his music really holds up. (But again, I say this not knowing anything about music.)

3:43 PM, July 26, 2009  
Blogger tim r said...

How great, firstly, to have this series back in such a prize instalment, and also... all these comments! Nick's place is becoming such a fun party venue.

What I've enjoyed most is these back-and-forths on all the various flaws people have identified in Schindler's over the years, and how we all differ on the degree of damage they do to it. I find that argument about the shower scene quite shrewd, and I'm sure it's the one Spielberg himself would use as a justification, but I agree that he goes over the top with it as a kind of deus-ex-machina dramatic coup. He's so often over-the-top even in his best movies, I think -- not Mr Subtle, old Steve. Ditto the girl in the red coat and some of the photographic flourishes you've mentioned: ripe but allowable expressionism, I think. I can't say that the extravagant variety and depth of focus in the images have ever struck me as particularly documentary-ish: monochrome so often tricks us into that equation, no? It's grand and artful, not timid and tactful, and I don't mind that. Like Guy, my biggest bugbear remains the "how many more could I have saved?" scene -- a perfectly valid endnote for the character, but not in this way that's so publicly declaimed, and so obviously intended as emotionally clinching for the audience. Surely Neeson's weakest scene, as Nick points out.

Hardly remember Mrs Miniver, except your hats and flowers, and I only saw it a few years ago. Random Harvest is the Garson offering from that year that sticks in the memory -- it's so much more forthright.

Re Schindler's vs Piano at the Oscars, it's one of those instances where I support the movie I hold slightly less dear (Schindler's) on the basis of its huge achievement and general Oscari-ness: I think The Piano is practically flawless, but Campion's subsequent decline would have been even more notorious had it beaten out such a big-hitter.

And the music: two of the great scores of the decade, right there -- shame they didn't nominate both of them. But even The Fugitive and Firm nods are way above averagely creditable for that category, so it's hard to be too fussed: maybe Nyman just made a tit of himself on the awards circuit, or the voters had flash-forwards to hearing "The Heart Asks Pleasure First" in trailers and commercials non-stop for the next five years.

12:34 PM, July 27, 2009  
Blogger tim r said...

PS. While I'm at it, thrilled by your Hurt Locker grade. I was a hair's breadth away from giving it the same one, and probably would have, were it not for the disappointingly laboured script choices in the last ten minutes or so -- not a fan of either of those closing dialogue scenes, and they're big ones. I'm such a stickler for the way movies wrap up, and when Point Break provides the best ending in your filmography, without wanting to belittle it, it's fair to say you may be letting yourself down slightly elsewhere... Did you have the same feeling?

1:08 PM, July 27, 2009  
Blogger PeregrineBlue said...

Very interesting blog. I don't want to be critical since you have put so much love and effort into all the writing and photogrpahy searches. Yet maybe I can suggest a few foreign films that are not on your list which are must sees:

Marcelino Pan y Vino
Los Olvidados
Das Boat
The Little Drummer Boy
Cinema Paradiso
Il Postino
Viridiana (The Last Super Scene is one of the best ever in movies).
The Remains of the Day
The Lives of Others

hope this has you curiously navigating your way into the Foreign film Section

and an all american fave
Fried Green Tomatoes

8:30 PM, July 27, 2009  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Tim: Dealing only with the music comments, I agree that the rest of the field actually turned out well above average; for some reason, the Academy could barely do wrong in '93. I'd also have enjoyed a nod for Zbigniew Preisner's score for Three Colors: Blue, and the Kitaro score for Oliver Stone's Heaven & Earth, which won the Golden Globe, might well have qualified in another year.

As for Hurt Locker... stay tuned.

@Peregrine: Oh, I don't mind criticism. If it helps to know, though, you can poke around the site and discover that I'm already quite a multilingual film lover, and have indeed seen many of the movies you name here, though I'm not as crazy about all of them as you are. (I'm not sure which "list" you mean; if it's the Favorites, there are a fair number of non-English titles in there already, though none of the ones you mention; if the Best list, there are even more, including Viridiana; if it's the list of films for this Best Picture conversation feature, Oscar set the agenda, and there's sadly nothing we can do about it!)

1:44 PM, July 28, 2009  
Anonymous J.L said...

Schindler's list is a masterpiece.

And with "Mrs Miniver", I feel the same way as I feel with Greer Garson. Both were immensely great during their time but has since became the most underrated movie and actress in history.

4:04 PM, August 09, 2009  
Blogger StephenM said...

Glad to see this series back!
I've never seen Mrs. Miniver, though I would like to.

Schindler's List, on the other hand, I regard as one of the greatest masterpieces ever, almost certainly the greatest single film in the last 25 years. One thing I've noticed about its ranking, though, is that it gets a good deal higher on popular lists than, say, the Sight and Sound critics and directors poll. I suspect this is because when directors look at it, they see a very well done movie of an unforgettable story--that is, Spielberg did not redefine the medium with his camerawork or style in a way that other directors could follow. Instead he presented such an unforgettably powerful story that no one could forget it and it became an unstoppable Oscar winner. (Though I would also argue that Schindler paved the way for the multitude of other Holocaust movies we've seen in recent years, as well as the true stories of other atrocities of the 20th century--Hotel Rwanda, etc. These movies nearly always get Oscar recognition, even when most of them are only pale imitations of the original, but their existence testifies to Schindler's List's continued influence on modern film.)

I actually had the benefit of reading the book before seeing the film. The book, by Thomas Keneally, was written in the style of a novel, but was based on hundreds of interviews with all the survivors he could find, as well as independent research, and was well-regarded by other historians. Watching the movie afterward, I can say that Spielberg had incredible respect for the historical accuracy of his portrayal: While a good deal was left out (especially after he got everyone to his factory) and a few minor characters were combined, pretty much every single thing that happened onscreen happened in real life. That includes the little girl in the red coat, whose story is described in detail, and the man who Goeth couldn't kill because all the guns suddenly didn't work--the odds against which I'm sure are in the trillions. There were also plenty of other unlikely escapes that were left out, so I think these are worthwhile to show--as is the man who steps on the piano keys and dies; if there were so many providential escapes, there must have been just as many horribly unlucky deaths.

The one thing I'll give you on that score, is the shower scene: That really is a gotcha moment, and I can see where the irritation, even outrage could come from there. Nevertheless, that's also one of the moments that sticks in my mind most clearly.

8:54 PM, August 24, 2009  
Blogger James T said...

I just saw the film and I need to talk about it even if this post is many months old.

I liked it, I was at times really moved (yes, I cried) but yes, it is flawed.

In the film's defense,

re:"First is the old man whom Goeth chooses to execute, but every German pistol within a stone's throw somehow jams, saving his life and stretching believability too far."

I liked that scene a lot because it showed how lightly Goeth took the killing of a person. He wanted to kill him but he didn't care that much. He just wanted to prove how powerful he was.

re: the "water instead of gas"

I thought it was a great idea. They didn's show the horror of the actual death but horrified us, in a more gentle way, by letting us see the women being happy when we knew how it would turn out.

And I agree with Nick on the "I didn't save enough people" scene. Yes, it felt too sentimental at first but it does make sense since it is not unrealistic that in all his happiness for seeing the gratitude of the people he saved, he recalled how many (who are immeasurably more) people he didn't save (mostly couldn't, but also didn't).

Ummm, I was more interested in writing about the flaws of the film but somehow I forgot them. I mean, I only remember bits of dialogue between some of the Jews that felt ridiculously unnatural and the fact that Schindler appeared to change more than people in the real world are usually able to, but I guess this is what heppened in reality. I also didn't need to see the execution of Goeth since I don't usually get satisfaction by the "bad guy is finally dead" habit but that was also a real event and a piece of information that was part of "telling the whole-or almost-story".

5:22 PM, March 10, 2010  

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