Tuesday, March 22, 2011

When movies make a difference

No one can argue that movies are made to entertain and to make money. Often the latter goal cancels out the former. Just look at some the dreadfully bloated or uninspired movies of recent days. THE TOURIST promises fireworks between Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie, but the movie is a boring dud, unlike its inspiration, the sparkling Cary Grant/Audrey Hepburn comic romantic thriller CHARADE.

We know that entertaining films can be thoughtful and even change opinions, even lives. Consider the big Oscar winner THE KING'S SPEECH, a small tale of courage and an unusual friendship. Or Spielberg's moving SCHINDLER'S LIST, a movie that put the Holocaust in the spotlight for new generations as well as old. Very few viewers were able to maintain a blase cool while watching the horrors and heroism depicted in stark black and white with John Williams' magnificent score illuminating the darkness.

I have been thinking back over some of the films I used in my Cinema and English classes over the years. Obviously, films like PAN'S LABYRINTH, CHILDREN OF MEN, and THE BRIDGE OVER THE RIVER KWAI are films that have important messages that are conveyed with imagination and power. I can honestly say that in each of these films I found ideas of profound depth about war, despotism, loyalty, and love.

But these are obvious choices. I want to go back to several films that changed my attitude or reminded me of what I had forgotten about life. The first is the Bette Davis classic weeper NOW, VOYAGER, in which a repressed young woman suffers a breakdown at the hands of her domineering mother. After her recovery, she makes a life for herself and finally faces her mother's tyranny. The mother threatens to cut her out of her sizable will, but suddenly Charlotte Vale sits back and realizes "I'm not afraid any more." Naturally she has the aid of strings and a voice-over to back her up, but somehow this scene had a special resonance for me at a critical time, and I found myself repeating the same mantra: "I'm not afraid any more."

The other night I watched another Warner Brothers classic, KINGS' ROW, 1942, on Turner Classic Movies. Though filled with soap operatic flourishes, the film succeeds on the strength of its narrative drive and a magnificent ensemble cast. An idealistic Parris Mitchell lives in a lovely mid-western Victorian town, which naturally seethes with dark secrets such as child abuse and even incest. The town has two doctors, one a brilliant recluse and father of his first love, and the other, a sadistic quack who often performs unnecessary surgeries, including amputating the legs of Parris's best friend Drake McHugh (played by Ronald Reagan). The doctors are played by two of the best character actors in the Warner stable, Claude Rains and Charles Coburn. While Parris is learning psychotherapy in Vienna, Drake suffers a terrible accident, which causes him to need the services of his enemy, the surgery-happy doctor. Knowing that his daughter is madly in love with Drake, he ruthlessly cuts the young man's legs off. When Drake wakes up, he utters the film's and Reagan's most famous line: "Where's the rest of me?!"(personal caveat: I've always wondered that as well) Parris proves to be the best possible friend and helps Drake and his wife with financial and psychological support. In the climactic scene Parris forces Drake to face the truth that his surgery was an act of malice, not real medicine. At this moment, the film approaches a fundamental truth that also has meaning for me. One has to accept the reality of his situation and either give up or move on in life, despite the difficulties.

In both NOW, VOYAGER and KINGS ROW, dramatic situations illustrate well-known maxims about life, ones we know but forget. They may seem melodramatic but they have a reality that rings true for all of us. And that's a lot more than most movies offer today.

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