The Cold (vs Warm) War

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?

howgreenwasmyvalley

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.

casablanca

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.

23 Responses The Cold (vs Warm) War
Posted By Arthur : February 13, 2013 12:09 pm

A lot of interesting angles, cross currents and insights here! In reality, though, works of art are not athletic contests in which there can only be one winner. There is something flawed about giving out Oscars. That being said, I agree with the way you blur the hard and fast supposed categories. . . I always compare Cassablanca to To Have And Have Not. Two very similar movies starring Humphrey Bogart. Cassablanca is the more polished, recognized and celebrated, but To Have And Have Not to me is a far better film, in my estimation

Posted By Arthur : February 13, 2013 12:09 pm

A lot of interesting angles, cross currents and insights here! In reality, though, works of art are not athletic contests in which there can only be one winner. There is something flawed about giving out Oscars. That being said, I agree with the way you blur the hard and fast supposed categories. . . I always compare Cassablanca to To Have And Have Not. Two very similar movies starring Humphrey Bogart. Cassablanca is the more polished, recognized and celebrated, but To Have And Have Not to me is a far better film, in my estimation

Posted By Doug : February 13, 2013 2:01 pm

Greg,I haven’t seen Kes, but from your description I think I would appreciate it.
One of the most egregious ‘sentimental’ films that I’ve endured
recently was “August Rush”. I much prefer another film by the same director, “Disco Pigs”.
Possibly (I imagine this has already been done) the relative ‘warmth’ and ‘coolness’ of pictures could be symbolized by their placement on a thermometer-Citizen Kane at the bottom,How Green Was My Valley near the top.
Maybe the best films are those that are inventive but choke you up a little, as the throat is halfway between the head and the heart.

Posted By Doug : February 13, 2013 2:01 pm

Greg,I haven’t seen Kes, but from your description I think I would appreciate it.
One of the most egregious ‘sentimental’ films that I’ve endured
recently was “August Rush”. I much prefer another film by the same director, “Disco Pigs”.
Possibly (I imagine this has already been done) the relative ‘warmth’ and ‘coolness’ of pictures could be symbolized by their placement on a thermometer-Citizen Kane at the bottom,How Green Was My Valley near the top.
Maybe the best films are those that are inventive but choke you up a little, as the throat is halfway between the head and the heart.

Posted By DevlinCarnate : February 13, 2013 2:35 pm

How Green Was My Valley does have warmth,sentiment,and some humor as well,i’ll always tune in when it’s on….it’s one of those movies you can miss the beginning,but still get the plot 20 minutes in…not so much with Kane,although it is undoubtedly one of the greatest films ever made,i’ll make the analogy of it being a gourmet meal in a chi-chi restaurant,a one of a kind experience,whereas How Green Was My Valley is meatloaf,mashed ‘taters and warm dinner rolls…comfort food

Posted By DevlinCarnate : February 13, 2013 2:35 pm

How Green Was My Valley does have warmth,sentiment,and some humor as well,i’ll always tune in when it’s on….it’s one of those movies you can miss the beginning,but still get the plot 20 minutes in…not so much with Kane,although it is undoubtedly one of the greatest films ever made,i’ll make the analogy of it being a gourmet meal in a chi-chi restaurant,a one of a kind experience,whereas How Green Was My Valley is meatloaf,mashed ‘taters and warm dinner rolls…comfort food

Posted By Gene : February 13, 2013 2:37 pm

So true, the film that grabs the audience’s emotions usually wins. I think both CK and HGWMV are great films in different ways. The only thing about the latter I dislike is the summary at the end. I always have felt it should have ended as the mother expresses her vision of her husband and son walking off into glory. We make such big deals over award shows but it’s the movies that are remembered long after that really matter.

Posted By Gene : February 13, 2013 2:37 pm

So true, the film that grabs the audience’s emotions usually wins. I think both CK and HGWMV are great films in different ways. The only thing about the latter I dislike is the summary at the end. I always have felt it should have ended as the mother expresses her vision of her husband and son walking off into glory. We make such big deals over award shows but it’s the movies that are remembered long after that really matter.

Posted By missrhea : February 13, 2013 6:42 pm

Thanks for this post, Greg. Personally, I watch both Casablanca AND How Green Was My Valley EVERY time they are broadcast even though my DVD case has copies of both. I love them both and can’t really explain why except for the warmth they bring (and the Welsh singing). I have watched Citizen Kane in the past and came away with a shrug. I can appreciate Welles’ artistry but it left me cold.

During TCM’s 31 Days of Oscar this year I’ve been trying to look at films that I’ve ordinarily dismissed because they aren’t my taste. I found myself watching Rebel Without a Cause when sick with the flu. I couldn’t help but think that Sal Mineo looked like a little kid and both he and James Dean’s characters were bullied and I was sad. I re-watched Cabaret (even tho’ I dislike the film version) and found myself thinking about how very corrupt Berlin was before Hitler took over and I was disgusted. Warmth, cold, sadness, disgust – all things I don’t usually think about when choosing a movie to watch. Thanks for the insight.

Posted By missrhea : February 13, 2013 6:42 pm

Thanks for this post, Greg. Personally, I watch both Casablanca AND How Green Was My Valley EVERY time they are broadcast even though my DVD case has copies of both. I love them both and can’t really explain why except for the warmth they bring (and the Welsh singing). I have watched Citizen Kane in the past and came away with a shrug. I can appreciate Welles’ artistry but it left me cold.

During TCM’s 31 Days of Oscar this year I’ve been trying to look at films that I’ve ordinarily dismissed because they aren’t my taste. I found myself watching Rebel Without a Cause when sick with the flu. I couldn’t help but think that Sal Mineo looked like a little kid and both he and James Dean’s characters were bullied and I was sad. I re-watched Cabaret (even tho’ I dislike the film version) and found myself thinking about how very corrupt Berlin was before Hitler took over and I was disgusted. Warmth, cold, sadness, disgust – all things I don’t usually think about when choosing a movie to watch. Thanks for the insight.

Posted By DevlinCarnate : February 13, 2013 7:37 pm

Gene hit the nail on the head,it’s the memories generated by films,not the awards,that keep us coming back to the same films over and over,the tone and perspective they offer is what makes me,personally,gravitate to movies like How Green Was My Valley …Kane IS a great and historical film,i first saw it in a film class back in ’79…the first time i saw it without commercials,and i’ll continue to watch it,despite the fact i have it on DVD like many others,but i don’t have How Green Was My Valley ,because it’s such an ingrained experience i enjoy it better as a surprise…Citizen Kane,i first heard about in the mid-70′s…it was a really big influence on the original Batman by Bob Kane,and greatly influenced the cinema that followed a few years later,but as you get older,see more stuff around you,you tend to gravitate to the familiar and comforting

Posted By DevlinCarnate : February 13, 2013 7:37 pm

Gene hit the nail on the head,it’s the memories generated by films,not the awards,that keep us coming back to the same films over and over,the tone and perspective they offer is what makes me,personally,gravitate to movies like How Green Was My Valley …Kane IS a great and historical film,i first saw it in a film class back in ’79…the first time i saw it without commercials,and i’ll continue to watch it,despite the fact i have it on DVD like many others,but i don’t have How Green Was My Valley ,because it’s such an ingrained experience i enjoy it better as a surprise…Citizen Kane,i first heard about in the mid-70′s…it was a really big influence on the original Batman by Bob Kane,and greatly influenced the cinema that followed a few years later,but as you get older,see more stuff around you,you tend to gravitate to the familiar and comforting

Posted By jennifromrollamo : February 13, 2013 11:29 pm

Recently researched Casablanca again, but to focus on the supporting players this time around, Rains, Veight, the piano player(shame on me for not recalling his name.). HGWMV like that movie a lot and I read the book before I saw it; book was followed very well when adapted for the screen. In research for another blog, the first Academy Awards were begun by Louis B. Mayer, and a few others, to put the art of movie-making in a better light and to drown out the negative vibes that had been popping up in the mid and late 20′s against the studios and their output, and against their stars.

Posted By jennifromrollamo : February 13, 2013 11:29 pm

Recently researched Casablanca again, but to focus on the supporting players this time around, Rains, Veight, the piano player(shame on me for not recalling his name.). HGWMV like that movie a lot and I read the book before I saw it; book was followed very well when adapted for the screen. In research for another blog, the first Academy Awards were begun by Louis B. Mayer, and a few others, to put the art of movie-making in a better light and to drown out the negative vibes that had been popping up in the mid and late 20′s against the studios and their output, and against their stars.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : February 14, 2013 9:14 am

Dooley Wilson plays Sam in Casablanca.

I love both How Green was My Valley and Citizen Kane and would probably watch either if they were on but Kane does grab my attention more.

Doug, I first saw Kes on TCM a few years back and it’s a pretty amazing film but you should know, it’s also pretty bleak. This isn’t some “boy and his pet bird” story where he grows up and out of his suffocating world. It’s more that the kes provides him a brief respite from the dreary realities of his life. But it is, without a doubt, excellent.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : February 14, 2013 9:14 am

Dooley Wilson plays Sam in Casablanca.

I love both How Green was My Valley and Citizen Kane and would probably watch either if they were on but Kane does grab my attention more.

Doug, I first saw Kes on TCM a few years back and it’s a pretty amazing film but you should know, it’s also pretty bleak. This isn’t some “boy and his pet bird” story where he grows up and out of his suffocating world. It’s more that the kes provides him a brief respite from the dreary realities of his life. But it is, without a doubt, excellent.

Posted By Doug : February 14, 2013 11:00 am

Hi Greg-’bleak’ is what piqued my interest. I love happy movies too, but they showcase only one part of the human experience.
“Disco Pigs” is also excellent,detailing the bond between two soul mates so intertwined that they shut out the rest of the world. They are each others ‘Kes’. It’s a sad dark fable with an ending which compliments the rest of the movie.

Posted By Doug : February 14, 2013 11:00 am

Hi Greg-’bleak’ is what piqued my interest. I love happy movies too, but they showcase only one part of the human experience.
“Disco Pigs” is also excellent,detailing the bond between two soul mates so intertwined that they shut out the rest of the world. They are each others ‘Kes’. It’s a sad dark fable with an ending which compliments the rest of the movie.

Posted By Stacia : February 15, 2013 9:46 am

My father’s favorite film was How Green Was My Valley, which evoked in him memories of WWII (he served in the Navy) and life growing up, and the memories of seeing it while overseas. Mom would literally laugh at him and call it sentimental rubbish, though mom didn’t really care for movies and dismissed a lot of films.

You probably also saw the “sentiment vs sentimental” argument on Twitter Tuesday about HGWMV, so you know some people vehemently disagree that the film is sentimental — I think it is, not only because of the portrayal of the family earlier in the film, but because of the deliberate emotions evoked in the audience. Like the instrumental finale of “Layla” or Love Story or any number of things, HGWMV was meant to make one wistful, bring back memories, and I think it very much succeeds. For those of us our age (and I think you and I are similar in age, Greg) it can’t bring back memories, the war was over for decades before we were born, but it does bring warmth.

All that said, I don’t think Kane is a cold movie, and (unless I’m misunderstanding) I don’t think you do, either. Kane is incredibly emotional on repeat viewings. Once you see the ending, you can’t re-watch the film and not see Kane’s behavior as heartbreaking, as an extreme case of abandonment and loneliness. Every camera angle, scowl on Orson’s face, sharp shadow, bizarre song-and-dance moment and wry overlapping dialogue is about human loneliness, and it’s not happy, but it is warm, at least to me. (HGWMV isn’t all that happy either, of course.)

And I very much agree about Twitter, the character limit hinders conversation. I remove punctuation or abbreviate words to make it fit, and look like a dingus.

Posted By Stacia : February 15, 2013 9:46 am

My father’s favorite film was How Green Was My Valley, which evoked in him memories of WWII (he served in the Navy) and life growing up, and the memories of seeing it while overseas. Mom would literally laugh at him and call it sentimental rubbish, though mom didn’t really care for movies and dismissed a lot of films.

You probably also saw the “sentiment vs sentimental” argument on Twitter Tuesday about HGWMV, so you know some people vehemently disagree that the film is sentimental — I think it is, not only because of the portrayal of the family earlier in the film, but because of the deliberate emotions evoked in the audience. Like the instrumental finale of “Layla” or Love Story or any number of things, HGWMV was meant to make one wistful, bring back memories, and I think it very much succeeds. For those of us our age (and I think you and I are similar in age, Greg) it can’t bring back memories, the war was over for decades before we were born, but it does bring warmth.

All that said, I don’t think Kane is a cold movie, and (unless I’m misunderstanding) I don’t think you do, either. Kane is incredibly emotional on repeat viewings. Once you see the ending, you can’t re-watch the film and not see Kane’s behavior as heartbreaking, as an extreme case of abandonment and loneliness. Every camera angle, scowl on Orson’s face, sharp shadow, bizarre song-and-dance moment and wry overlapping dialogue is about human loneliness, and it’s not happy, but it is warm, at least to me. (HGWMV isn’t all that happy either, of course.)

And I very much agree about Twitter, the character limit hinders conversation. I remove punctuation or abbreviate words to make it fit, and look like a dingus.

Posted By robbushblog : February 17, 2013 1:32 pm

I watched HGWMV for the first time about two years ago. I found it a beautiful, nostalgic and touching story, not lacking in sentiment, but also not overly sentimental. It’s not sappy like some of today’s biggest offenders. I will never forgive Robin Williams for the offense of Patch Adams or the makers of Volcano for that tragic line reading, as a young boy notices all of the gathered citizens of Los Angeles covered in ash, “Look at them. They all look the same.” Yech! What utter hack trash. HGWMV can never approach the overly manipulative, overly sentimental, eye-rolling offensiveness of today.

Posted By robbushblog : February 17, 2013 1:32 pm

I watched HGWMV for the first time about two years ago. I found it a beautiful, nostalgic and touching story, not lacking in sentiment, but also not overly sentimental. It’s not sappy like some of today’s biggest offenders. I will never forgive Robin Williams for the offense of Patch Adams or the makers of Volcano for that tragic line reading, as a young boy notices all of the gathered citizens of Los Angeles covered in ash, “Look at them. They all look the same.” Yech! What utter hack trash. HGWMV can never approach the overly manipulative, overly sentimental, eye-rolling offensiveness of today.

Posted By How Green Was My Valley (1941) and the Black Slag of Time | Immortal Ephemera : February 11, 2014 5:42 pm

[…] Falcon, I watch How Green Was My Valley to feel alive. It works your heart more than your head as explained by Greg Ferrara in a recent post to TCM's Movie Morlocks […]

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