Posted by gregferrara on February 13, 2013
The other day I was having a conversation with Lou Lumenick on Twitter (I use the term “conversation” loosely for Twitter as it is really just 140 character bursts that go back and forth between several people and I often get confused as to who’s replying to what after only a couple of minutes) and he mentioned that he enjoyed How Green was My Valley very much upon viewing it again and felt much more emotional power from it than Citizen Kane which infamously lost out to Valley in that year’s Oscar race for Best Picture. It’s a sentiment that’s been expressed before, that Kane is more cerebral and Valley is more emotional. I would concede that basic assumption and further concede it is far more likely for the Oscars to go with emotional over cerebral. But beyond the bets lost on Oscar pools, why should we care one way or another if something like How Green was My Valley wins? It’s a great film and while it may not have the endless inventiveness with lighting, sound and photography, it more than makes up for it with warmth and a real emotional connection. And what’s wrong with that?
I watched Valley again a couple of years and really loved it. It’s a great film that happened to win in the year Citizen Kane was nominated so it stands out as the spoiler of Welles’ party. But, in the end, it’s the age-old fight between the warm heart and the cold brain. There can never be a winner because both sides have great achievements and stunning failures making it easy for someone on either side of the argument to point the bad to make their point. Personally, I think you can have it both ways, it just takes a little finessing.
When people deride the emotional film as beneath the intellectual film, what they’re really doing is confusing ham-handed sentimentality for emotion and they’re two different things. Case in point, Kes, directed by Ken Loach and released in 1969. It’s a story of a young boy in Yorkshire, England whose life seems destined to be one of broken dreams and shattered self-respect. His home life and school life are awful and the one thing he finds that gives him a sense of peace is raising a kestral he finds and takes from a nest. While the story is almost exclusively downbeat, it has a great warmth about it and not a drop of sentimentality. These people are real, with hard lives and no real promise for any future. There is no cerebral manipulation going on here, no intellectual jumping through hoops. Just a boy, his kestral and an absolutely heartbreaking ending. With no sentimentality attached.
Now that’s a warm film, it is. And it’s better than just about anything else from 1969, even the winner that year for Best Picture, Midnight Cowboy. But when people complain about the non-cerebral films what they really mean is the goopy sentiment filled movies, like Love Story. That was made within a year of Kes and goes off the scale for sentiment. The theme song along is enough to do the trick and that combined with the opening narration, “What can you say about a twenty-five-year-old girl who died? That she was beautiful and brilliant? That she loved Mozart and Bach, the Beatles, and me?” makes for an opening so treacly you want to kick in your tv right then and there.
On the other hand, when people are complaining about cold, cerebral films, they usually mean one of two things: Either it’s a very foreign movie to them (as in the attitudes and story lines as well as, possibly, the language) or it tells a story that is moving but not using any of the usual road markers. Let’s go back to Kane for a moment and play it against Casablanca. One tells the story of a boy taken from his parents, raised as the ward of a bank and left to wander through the world (literally, the whole world) collecting things and people to try, desperately, to fill the void left by his family and his life being taken away from him. The other tells the story of two people, once in love, whose feelings for each other are rekindled just when they know it can’t possibly work. For the greater good, they agree to part and she flies out of his life.
Both of those stories are very emotional stories on the surface but told in distinctly different ways. Kane uses masterful lighting and photography, flashbacks that repeat themselves from different perspectives, overlapping dialogue and lots of other inventive and intelligent ways of telling the story both narratively through the plot and dialogue and visually through its compositions. Casablanca has most of the same (although the flashback is more a “one and done” deal) but it focuses less on inventiveness in structure and more on actors and music cues, like any good melodrama should. They both work magic, just differently with different results. I have no doubt that Welles directing Casablanca, with himself in the lead, and Curtiz directing Kane with, say, Walter Huston in the lead, would have flipped the situation and Casablanca would be the “cold” work and Kane would be the heartbreaking “warmer” one. I think William Wyler directing Kane with Fredric March would produce the same “warm” results.
But like the sentimentality getting confused with honest emotion, I think inventiveness in contrast to melodrama gets confused with coldness. When I think of a movie as cold and cerebral, I think of something like The Andromeda Strain. It presents its story as a series of factual exercises, deductions and observation-based conclusions. It’s about science and, I think, very good at it but it doesn’t bother connecting us to the characters. They don’t have a lot of background to work with and there’s no small talk. So it’s colder, more “just the facts, ma’am” than “here’s some tissue, ma’am.” But it’s still good. Very good.
Which brings us back to the problem of placing one above the other but no one would ever honestly put Love Story ahead of Citizen Kane because one is perceived as being cold. But someone could place How Green was My Valley or Casablanca over it because they’re both superb movies so it matters less, much less, how they decide to fashion their story.
In the end, of course, they all coexist whether we want them to or not. Every movie ever made (and not lost) now belongs to us all so there’s no reason to bother about who wins what or how prestigious the award is because the great movies have a way of lasting. The bad ones do too. Pop culture has a relentless habit of preserving everything for all time. But whether they’re warm or cold, the quality comes from something completely different. Something… intangible. And when any movie is done well, it fills me with a warmth that gets me through even the coldest days.
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