Posted by gregferrara on September 29, 2013
In the fifth episode of The Story of Film: An Odyssey, airing Monday night, Stanley Donen talks about how much he hated all that impersonal, geometric choreography of Busby Berkeley. He disliked it so much that when he put together Singin’ in the Rain with Gene Kelly, they even inserted a whole montage mocking it. And no, they weren’t paying homage to it. Donan himself makes clear, they were mocking it. But the thing is, years later, Donan came to appreciate what Berkeley did and now he loves it. I’ve had the same experience countless times with film where hate turns to love. Sometimes, how you finally feel about a movie is a lifelong journey.
It’s almost embarrassing to admit how many movies I’ve turned around on, or how many actors. It’s such an immense list that I like to keep most of it to myself for fear that people will think I’m too fickle or not discerning enough to figure out what’s good and bad upon first seeing something. But that’s the important point: There is no good or bad in the evolution of an education on film, because art tends to change from our perspective as we change. The film stays the same the whole time. As a result, I’ve found that most of my views on film in my teens and twenties are miles away from how I feel today. In my youth, I was especially hard on films that weren’t told in obvious, straightforward ways. I thought anything not out of the Classic Hollywood Storytelling Playbook was pretentious or trying too hard. Many foreign films I felt this way about I viewed again, later in life (most in the last five years), on the big screen at the AFI and thought, “Wow, did I miss the point of this movie!”
Other movies occupied the canon and I took great pleasure in showing how much more clever I was than the critical establishment. ”What’s that? This is one of the greatest movies ever made? Hardly. Let me explain to you why.” Ugh. Thank God the internet wasn’t around then. Seriously, thank the heavens! I don’t have any hard evidence on how stupid I was sitting out there in cyberspace.
But it was the movies that weren’t in the canon that I was particularly hard on and that bugs me the most. Kind of like how Donan feels now. I look at movies I was derisive of and realize how much greatness they contained, if only I’d looked past my own smug self-satisfaction. When I saw a movie like Ben-Hur, I’d deride how dull it was or how leaden or how wooden Charlton Heston was. And you know what, I was wrong on a lot of that. It doesn’t mean the movie itself is great but that it has many great elements to it that I can appreciate now that I couldn’t then. For one thing, it moves along at a much faster clip than I gave it credit for and I didn’t give it credit for that because it worked against my self-serving narrative. For another, the sea battle and chariot race sequences are still two of the best action sequences I’ve ever seen in any movie. And finally (and I don’t wanna hear no guff), Heston isn’t wooden. In fact, Heston was pretty damn good. There’s a difference between wooden and stoic and Heston fell towards the latter. I’m sorry but, as much as I made fun of Heston’s acting in my youth, as if everyone is supposed to be Jimmy Cagney or Bette Davis, I’ve never been disappointed by the man. From the truly dull Greatest Show on Earth to the always fun The Omega Man, Heston always delivered and whatever I said about him when I was younger, I officially take back here and now.
Then there’s musicals. Oh sure, it was always cool to like Stanley Donen/Gene Kelly/Fred Astaire stuff. But the big musicals, with the big stage productions and even bigger film adaptations, like West Side Story, Oklahoma or The Sound of Music? That was never as cool and for years I didn’t give them the proper credit they deserved. I’m still not as big a fan of them cinematically, where I prefer smaller, cleaner, faster but musically I love them. I even have the entire orchestral suite of West Side Story, conducted by Leonard Bernstein himself, on CD and Surrey with the Fringe on Top from Oklahoma? What a great song! Oh yes, and my last example, The Sound of Music? Well, I’d mentioned it here before in the last couple of years and even had some readers take me to task for dismissing it. I watched it again and, yes, it did seem a lot better than I’d remembered it. And here’s why: When I was younger, I had a tendency to dismiss movies with happy endings, thinking hard, gritty realism was always the preferred method. But not every movie can be that way and I wouldn’t want them to be. I’m not as a big a fan of The Sound of Music‘s score as I am of West Side Story or Oklahoma (by the same songwriting team as The Sound of Music, Rodgers and Hammerstein) but the film itself is gorgeously shot and beautifully acted. No, really, it is. And I’m fine with that now.
And the movies. Oh, how many movies I’ve turned around on. And again, I’m talking about so-called non-cool movies. Movies with Doris Day, movies with silly romantic plots, movies with songs performed with Arthur Godfrey and scenes of Paul Lynde in drag. In other words, The Glass-Bottom Boat. How can that be a cool movie to like? But guess what? I like it. And I always liked it, I just couldn’t admit it to myself until I was a little older and had somehow proven my street cred as a critic, or some such nonsense.
Then there are other movies I’ve talked about here and elsewhere, movies that got mediocre to bad reviews that I parroted for years until looking at them again and thinking, “This isn’t bad at all.” One that I’ve mentioned many times online is Tora! Tora! Tora! If you asked me thirty years ago, I’d parrot the bad reviews it got and tell you how dull and stiff it was. Then I rewatched it a few years back and thought, “Hey, this is pretty good. What the…?” And Tora! Tora! Tora! is exactly the type of stolid war movie I also dismissed for years. If it wasn’t harrowing, it wasn’t good. But then I really started to appreciate all the great war movies from the forties and fifties and sixties. Propaganda? Sure, a lot of them. Still damn good though. Adventure movies using war as a cartoon backdrop? Yep, and now I can see the good in them even if they aren’t All Quiet on the Western Front. And who the hell wants every war movie they see to be All Quiet on the Western Front anyway?
Someone once wrote (just last year, I think, but I can’t remember the writer) that when he read Ulysses as a teen, he hated it. When he read it again in middle age, he loved it. The book was the same, he just needed 10,000 or so days in between readings to appreciate it. That’s how I feel from the other way around. It wasn’t the great stuff I wasn’t appreciating, it was the good stuff I was missing because I was too busy acting like the great stuff was all I was interested in. So I was glad to see Stanley Donan come around to Busby Berkeley. There’s a lot out there to appreciate in the cinema, from all different levels of quality. They’re always there for us to see, when we’re ready to see them. Sometimes we see them right away but sometimes, it takes years. And when we finally see them, see them for what they really are, we realize, as we always do, it was worth the wait.
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