Saturday, July 10, 2010

50 Years On...What an anniversary says

This seems to be a year of 5o year anniversaries. Among them is Chubby Checker's "The Twist." But let's look at two milestones that came out within the same summer in 1960. One of them changed the look and subject matter of movies forever; the other was a milestone in our country's understanding of racism. Of course, these cultural events are Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho and Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird.

One of the obvious similarities is that both are mysteries and operate on a "we want to know what happens" basis. They both deal with heinous crime, a form of madness, and strong characters. But here the similarities taper off. Psycho is a purposely low-budget horror flick that Hitchcock shot quickly on old television lots, almost as a joke. But the joke was on American moviegoers. Viewers went into the film cold and quickly identified with the main character Marion Crane, played by Janet Leigh. After 30 or so minutes of involvement in her theft and her growing psychosis, we are horrified to watch her (SPOILER ALERT) brutally knifed in a motel shower. More bloody murders occur until the final denouement when we find out the weird truth behind the Bates Motel murders. So why should such a lurid film be considered a cultural milestone. Obviously, Psycho unleashed the never-ending stream of much bloodier, more sadistic, and less thoughtful movies such as the Halloween series, the Elm Street franchise, and even the lowest of the low--the wretched Saw movies. But Hitchcock's film also proved to be a truly deep exploration of the depths of mental illness. Its extremities of horror emphasized how easily "normality" can sink into madness. The central scene of the film takes place in Norman's parlor where he and Marion Crane discuss their backgrounds and the traps they are in. Norman points out that Marion stepped into her trap while he was born into his. Ironically, she declares she will try to correct her mistakes just minutes before her death; Norman never gets the chance. Through brilliant writing, lighting, and acting, Hitchcock pulls us into a foreign world, horrifying but enthalling as well. For better or worse, movies grew up and addressed issues only hinted at during its golden age.

The now legendary To Kill a Mockingbird came at an auspicious time. Racial tensions were rising throughout the country, especially in the South. Civil Rights marches, sit-ins, riots were already on the horizon as the turbulent sixties began. Millions have read Harper Lee's revealing and all too human look at the South of an earlier time, and many of them began to understand the complexities of the racial situation that media could only hint at. Perhaps they trusted the author because she was a Southerner from a small town in Alabama. The novel addressed controversial issues such as rape, racial prejudice, and mob violence while telling a gentle tale of a child's emergence into a difficult world. Fortunately that child, Scout, has a wonderful mentor and single parent in the lawyer Atticus Finch. Finch raises his two children in a loving but Socratic way, urging them to "get into another person's skin" to understand him. For Scout, that includes her neighbors; Tom Robinson, the black man accused of raping a "white trash" girl; and Boo Radley, the reclusive, perhaps mentally ill man who lives nearby. Lee pulls these diverse strands together masterfully and gives us a novel of purpose, empathy, and compassion. Few works have had the powerful influence on American thinking that To Kill a Mockingbird has had.

Fifty years ago the world was rapidly changing. Hitchcock and Lee mirrored those changes. Today their works, Psycho and To Kill a Mockingbird , still resonate with modern audiences.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Repression, Punishment, Guilt...ah, movies to love.

The front-runner for the 2009 Best Foreign Film Oscar were Germany's The White Ribbon and Argentina's The Secret in Their Eyes. Both are dramas that deal with repressive communities where people must watch what they say and who they see. Michael Haneke wrote the story and screenplay for The White Ribbon, which he also directed. It's a strange film, shot beautifully in stark black and white with allusions to Ingmar Bergman in themes and characters and to the westerns of John Ford in images and compositions. A small village in northern Germany in 1913 begins to experience disturbing events: a doctor and his horse felled my a wire near his home, the local baron's small son tortured, a suicide. Is this a parable for what is to come for Germany or a commentary on the innate evil in men as seen in their children, a la Village of the Damned? Or is it just a really creepy movie with no clear answers. The director cuts from story to story without a seeming logic, but the feeling engendered is that of a vise that will finally strangle the community. The White Ribbon is worth seeing, but one is relieved when it is over and would not want to experience it again.

The same could not be said for The Secret in Their Eyes, the Argentinian filmItalic that surprised Oscar viewers by winning over The White Ribbon. Directed by Juan Jose Campanella, it is a moving meditation on politics, repressed love and speech, and the need to punish. This drama is in color and switches time periods as it releases the details of its mystery. It involves a low level legal counsel and his near obsession with solving a murder-rape case and his long unspoken love for his superior officer. After his retirement 20 years later, he tries to write a novelization of the crime. The more he investigates, the more labyrinthine and dangerous the search becomes. To say any more would perhaps give away too much, but this film is full of surprises, all of which are valid and work towards its stunning climax. The performances of the principal actors are deeply affecting so that they seem more real than most Hollywood film performances.

Both The White Ribbon and The Secret in Their Eyes are films that explore the darkness of repressed societies and desires that lead to violence and death, but only The Secret in Their Eyes offers redemption and even hope. If you rent any foreign film this year, make it this one.