Good guys wear white hats

Once upon a time real men were tough, fair, stalwart and patient.  They minded their own business, and they expected you to do the same.  They always treated women with respect.  Even if they had shady moments in their past, they weren’t proud of them.  And in the end they always did the right thing.  They had a code.  And they lived it.  Most importantly, they held to that code, even in the face of all the trouble life could throw at them.  Bandits, rustlers, crooked bankers and railroad men, hostile Indians or just the relentless passage of time.  Nothing shakes the code.  It makes a man a man.  And that’s not something I should have to tell you.  But now it kind of is.  Once upon a time, any eight year old kid would have understood that.  They would have seen Bronco Billy, Tom Mix, Hoot Gibson, Johnny Mack Brown or John Wayne at their local movie theater, and they would have known that it was so.  But John Wayne has been dead for almost 35 years, and it gets harder every year for students to understand exactly what that code means.

Even when the movie industry started to turn away from black and white morality after the Second World War, we didn’t lose the point of reference.  Jimmy Stewart and Anthony Mann (among others) may have been making Westerns featuring  psychologically complicated heroes (who sometimes forgot the code), but Western television shows flooded the airwaves.  Josh Randall and Paladin were bounty hunters, but doing the right thing was still more important than the money.  If they found out that the wanted man was falsely accused, they never hesitated in making sure that justice was served.  It’s what a man does.  The moral compass was a given.

The centrality of the code lasted for roughly fifty years in movies – before the turmoil of the Sixties blew it away.  Films like The Wild Bunch and Little Big Man turned “the code” into a pact among thieves, or, worse, among fools.  Clint Eastwood’s many westerns (starting with the Sergio Leone films of the Sixties) suggested that violence and toughness were the key elements of Western stories, stripping away any moral sense.  When that happened the Western itself withered on the vine.

The film I use in class to discuss this entire subject is John Ford’s valedictory for the Western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.  It’s a work that’s sometimes difficult for students because it expects the viewer to be comfortable with an idiom with which they’re now generally unfamiliar.  If you don’t know the arc of John Wayne’s career, it’s harder to understand how effectively he embodies (quite literally) an entire tradition.  The same is true of Jimmy Stewart, against whom Wayne is placed in a complicated philosophical opposition, and of performers throughout the film from Lee Van Cleef and Woody Strode to Edmond O’Brien and Andy Devine.  The latter clearly illustrates the problem, since invariably someone recognizes Devine as the voice of Friar Tuck in Disney’s Robin Hood, not as a character actor who played a bumbling sidekick in countless Westerns throughout his career – which is, of course, the point.  Even more importantly, if you don’t know the tropes of the Western it’s harder to see exactly how the accepted standards of the form are being undermined, questioned and stripped away throughout the narrative.

Still, it’s the beauty of this film that the various dichotomies which are developed throughout the story (between East and West, civilization and wilderness, formal social structures and casual social structures, and on and on…) can be made clear fairly easily, especially as they relate to the central issue of what is gained and what is lost as we surrender established verities for the “benefits” of progress.  That question continues to resonate with undergraduates, and Ford’s argument is constructed in a way which makes his final conclusions utterly devastating, even when the finer points of his rhetoric are blunted by the unfamiliarity of the form.

In the end, though, I think that’s a brilliant argument for the continued significance of the Western (at least in the hands of a skilled filmmaker).  Even without a thorough familiarity with the setting, the actors or the nuances, the story of two men with competing ideas living through changing times still registers.  We may not quite understand the code of the West anymore, and the loss of that certitude may or may not be an unfortunate thing (Ford certainly has strong feelings on the matter).  What’s still clear, however, is that there’s a choice to be made.  The drama of one man making the choice which upholds his code, regardless of the consequences for himself, lets the film continue to pack a wallop even after the last real Westerner has ridden off into the sunset.

In defense of Opera, Doc…

In America we’re all too quick to dismiss animation as something suitable only for children, and that frequently holds true in scholarly circles as well as the public at large.  I’ve always found that patently unfair, so I make sure to include a parallel history of animation in my introductory film course.  I trace the progress of the art right alongside the development of full-length feature films, starting with Otto Mesmer’s Felix in Hollywood and ending with Don Herzfeld’s Lily and Jim.  Most of these shorts are humorous because that’s the niche the domestic industry has staked out over the years, though I also show things like Winsor McKay’s Sinking of the Lusitania and a clip from Isao Takahata’s devastating Grave of the Fireflies, to demonstrate the range that animation could have if given half a chance.

As always, it’s interesting/slightly depressing to see which films are familiar to students and which draw blank stares, and that’s especially true when vacant eyes greet the mention of something like Chuck Jones What’s Opera, Doc?  In my family (and among many of my friends) we’re weaned on Looney Tunes, so any admission of unfamiliarity with the corpus is greeted not with stares of blankness, but horror.  That’s especially true of something as well-regarded as What’s Opera, Doc?, considered in some quarters to be the greatest cartoon of all time.  It should be clear by now that I put little stock in such rankings, but a discussion of the question in class this week provoked a fascinatingly mundane response from the students, who viewed the film as entertaining enough, without being especially noteworthy.  Either due to shock or to a pierced Wordsworthian haze, I thought it would be worthwhile to offer a brief defense of a fine piece of work, without inflaming passions further with grandiose claims of “bestness”.

Chuck Jones was, by all accounts, a very smart man, but one whose humor could be just as sophomoric as that of the next guy.  These two parts of his nature are revealed to their fullest extent in a film like Opera, part of the genius of which is that the plot is as simple as any Bugs Bunny cartoon (Elmer hunts Bugs) while also mercilessly parodying classical music, opera and ballet (including the entirety of Wagner’s fourteen hour long Ring cycle).  Like all of the greatest cartoons (and the greatest work of someone like Jim Henson), Opera functions perfectly well on multiple levels.  It’s funny, but it’s also very smart.  A cursory viewer doesn’t always glean the depth of this, but it’s apparent from the brilliant arrangement of the musical score (which still makes it difficult for me to listen to some Wagner selections objectively), to the tiniest details of visual design.  A few pertinent examples include the careful positioning of Elmer’s hands as he sings:

Or the body positioning of Bugs and Elmer as they dance (which was based on animation sketches of professional ballet stars who happened to be working for Warner Brothers at the time):

I’m also always amused by the carefully considered expressions on the faces of the characters in both instances.  Other specific jabs are taken at the Germanic-ness of Wagner (via the rotund horse):

And at the grandiloquence of the opera sets (both above and below):

And here:

Lastly, Jones shows that he’s entirely willing to send up more modern conceptions of design by being more than a little untraditional about his use of color and shadow:

And, one of my favorites:

Whether or not this adds up to “the greatest cartoon of all time” is open for debate, but what it very clearly demonstrates is that Jones and his team were up to a lot more than making a simple entertainment for children.  They were addressing a much larger demographic, and doing it in a way that packed a lot of very complex visual, aural and narrative jokes into a very short space of time.  And that’s the thing about animation.  The best of it (not all of it, but the best of it) works on multiple levels, and is just as likely to engage adults as children.  It deserves to be taken seriously (no matter how funny it is), and I hope we do a little of that in class.  If you haven’t spent any time lately watching Looney Tunes, Pinky and the Brain, Powerpuff Girls or Phineas and Ferb (among many others) do yourself a favor and re-arrange your schedule.  It’s not just for kids, though it might make it that much harder to keep a straight face when you listen to Wagner.

Play it, Sam…

I usually try to maintain a certain degree of objectivity in class, and I don’t offer a firm opinion about anything I show until the last day (if anyone bothers to ask me).  Casablanca, however, inspires me to make an exception.  I love Casablanca.  Every time.  At this point I’ve probably seen it fifty or sixty times, and it never gets old.  In fact, it’s different every time I watch it.  I might pay particular attention to a performance, the way the music works, how the film approaches the politics of unoccupied France…I never know.  And it’s generally not that I set out with a particular interest in mind.  A few viewings back I became mesmerized by cataloging the various interesting ways that the director (Michael Curtiz) used shadows.  It’s kind of a trademark of his (think about the final duel in the Adventures of Robin Hood), but Casablanca is a masterclass in shadow usage.  This time around, the class seemed to be especially responsive to the humor of the film, so I spent some time thinking about how well-balanced all of the various elements (action, romance, suspense, humor, etc.) are in relation to the whole.

Of course, none of this should really be the case.  Any film is a patchwork quilt of a million things which have to magically work just right to really come together, and that’s especially true for Casablanca.  Even a cursory glance at the production history (there’s a whole chapter of production memos in Rudy Behlmer’s “Inside Warner Brothers”) makes it difficult to believe that the swirling chaos of casting, writing and filming could result in anything remotely coherent, let alone entertaining and beloved.  But that’s one of the things that makes the film so great.  Creating solid entertainment was what studios did during the era of classical Hollywood.  No matter how chaotic it looked, everyone was a professional, everyone did their job, and everyone was so good at it that they could function together to make things work.  And boy do they.

But it’s more than that.  Casablanca captures the particular zeitgeist of its era in a way which few films do, and that’s part of the magic.  As Rick slowly comes around to the fact that he’s the key to the future lives, happiness and success of each of the main characters, he understands that he has hard choices to make.  He also knows that he can’t make them based simply on his own preferences, because there are more important things in life than what he wants.  He has a good stoic attitude about himself, his emotions and his decision-making, and it parallels the kind of choices being faced by people throughout the United States (and the world) during the Second World War.  The filmmakers may have been cognizant of the way they were summing up these themes, or they may not have been, but it doesn’t matter.  These issues exude from every frame of the film, and they continue to give it a striking resonance for viewers who are open to it.

And that leads to a larger point.  If a film really gets under our skin, it doesn’t get old.  Every year my sister and I have the same experience around Easter/Passover when DeMille’s 1956 version of The Ten Commandments airs on television.  We both get sucked in by the compulsive watchability of the thing, regardless of the fact that we’ve seen it a hundred times.  There’s no escape.  If it’s on, we end up watching.  The same is true (for me) of films like Hondo, Galaxyquest or Spartacus (among many, many others).  They are what they are, but they’re also something more.  They really do speak to the human condition.  All of them have moments that give me a little lump in my throat, or make the hair stand up a little bit on the back of my neck, or make me think more deeply about something.  I connect with them emotionally, and trying to figure out how and why that works isn’t just a question of analyzing a film.  It’s also about understanding myself.  And if watching Casablanca sixty times helps me to understand myself a little better, then I consider it time well spent.