A STAR IS BORN (1937 & 1954)

previous_Star_Is_Born
Technically this is misleading since I didn’t watch Barbara’s but oh well

Warning: this post contains spoilers for the 1937 and  1954 versions of the film A Star is Born. Don’t read this if you haven’t seen the films. And if you haven’t seen them, what are you waiting for? The 1937 version is public domain! Go get it!

I’m what one might call a Lady Gaga stan. I’m not SUPER crazy. But I do love her music and who she is as a person. So when I heard she was doing Bradley Cooper’s remake of the classic A Star is Born, my first thought was “wait, Bradley Cooper directs now?” My second thought was, “hey, this might be pretty good.” And it looks like, once again, I was right.

But before I went and watched it, I decided to watch the originals.

Now you might notice only two years in the title. That’s not a typo.

Listen. I did not watch the 1976 version with Barbara Streisand. But I don’t care. I just didn’t feel like watching it. I’m not a Barbara Streisand fan, I have limited time already, and after watching the same movie twice in a row, I didn’t feel like going through it again! I just wanted to watch 30 Rock! And I don’t have this blog for homework, I have it for fun, to watch the movies I want to see. The 1976 version of A Star is Born starring Barbara Streisand is not a movie I want to see.

But I digress.

Now I hadn’t explicitly seen the whole movies, but I knew what it was about. An alcoholic star of either movies or music meets a young girl who hasn’t truly been discovered yet, he hooks her up at his studio, and soon enough “a star is born” (they literally say it out loud in the first one!) and her celebrity eclipses his. Tale as old as time. Who can’t relate?

I didn’t even have time to talk about how good the night court scene is (it’s so fucking good) 

But I wasn’t prepared for the emotional  gravity that this story has in practice. And my god, is there emotions. I’m basically a robot at this point and I STILL cried. The 1937 was internally sad, yes. But nothing, I mean NOTHING, can compare to the emotional devastation I felt with the last third of 1954. The men are fever pitch. This is one of the most emotionally exposed film roles for men in classic Hollywood. James Mason just lets it all out in his scene before his suicide. Frederic March’s last scene, too, shows the whole depth of knowledge and pain Norman must be feeling as he goes on to end his life. This movie doesn’t let the men just kill themselves; it shows them considering their options and wrongly thinking there’s no way to save Vicki and themselves. Most movies I’ve seen from this time show women talking about the vulnerable men in their lives. The men are going downhill and their wife/girlfriend is hysterical. But this is a movie that shows the men confronting their own fallibility. The women still bear the emotional weight of their husbands’ disease, yes. But the men see the effects of their behavior. They confront how it’s impacting those around them, from their wives to their managers. And it makes it a much more compelling movie, to see

I want to say a few words about the supporting men in both movies. This movie, and the Oliver Niles and Matty Libby characters, should be shown to every studio and used as an example of what a true supporting role looks like. They’re not essential to the plot necessarily, but the movie doesn’t function the same way without them. They very literally support the main cast. (Take notes, cast of The Favourite.) And nobody does this better than both Adolph Menjou and Charles Bickford. Charles Bickford as Oliver Niles shows an empathy largely lacking from everyone else in Vicki and Norman’s life. Adolph Menjou does the same thing in the 1937, walking the delicate line between playing permissive and playing empathetic. And oh my GOD the grandmother in the 1937! She’s perfect! This is a blueprint for every role Beulah Bondi ever played, and frankly it’s a shame that the character of the grandmother didn’t make it into every other version (although Andrew Dice Clay’s role as Ally’s father in the newest edition comes close to filling the role.)

Judy Garland can ACT and SING and good god, she is just fantastic. I’m adding her performance to my list of “actors who were robbed.” (I have one for directors too, but it’s just Spike Lee’s name listed five times. But I digress.) Her mental fragility in the dressing room, with Charles Bickford’s Oliver Niles, is absolutely crushing. Watching a woman fall apart at the thought of the man she loves so much coming undone is devastating. Judy Garland plays this with such naturalism and so convincingly, that you’d think she had been through it. Knowing that she struggled with addiction herself before she let it kill her in 1969 is all the more saddening. Don’t get  me wrong, Janet Gaynor is good! But the 1937 script just doesn’t give her the chance to flex her acting muscles in the same way as the 1954. The script in the 1954 version makes it seem less inevitable that everything may break down for our favorite couple. You think they may still have their happily ever after. But it’s not to be.

Anyone who can make me cry while looking like this deserves an Oscar

Where the script and the acting are at their best in both versions is in the pivotal scene at the Academy Awards. Everyone is on their A game as Norman Maine is in front of his peers and the world, begging for a job. This is all made perfect by the sound of these scenes. Sometimes the best sound a scene can have is silence. And the silence in these scenes is deafening. It’s obvious how alone Norman is, how the industry he once dominated has passed him by. No one but his wife wants to defend him anymore, and even as she goes to do it, on the happiest night of her life, he accidentally slaps her. This scene is what made me realize that this film has the greatest supporting cast of all time. Everyone watching this go down and switch from shock to utter sadness and then to horror without giving more than a gasp is true excellence.

Is this the first movie that features the Oscars?

The 1954 version is a product ahead of its time to me. 1937’s is clearly a studio movie, though it’s still a fantastic one. But 1954’s cinematography and the frankness of its discussion around the downsides of Hollywood is at least 10 years ahead of its time. The opening scene in 1954 is so good, I checked to make sure I was watching the right version and not the 1976 by mistake. The shooting into the light and the use of the ambient noise of a red carpet as a soundtrack instead of a traditional score looks so out of place for a Golden Age movie. On top of that, the coloring of the movie looks so natural compared to most technicolor. Obviously, it still has that vibrant quality of all Technicolor movies. But it’s Technicolor turned down a notch and a half. It’s a color film that still feels grounded. This is a 60s movie with a big band soundtrack.

Both movies show their age of course. I truly didn’t expect to see blackface in the 1954 movie (but then again, Mickey Rooney played Asian in Breakfast at Tiffany’s in 1963, so what do you expect). I’m actually surprised I didn’t find more articles mentioning the Swanee River number, because it’s truly an appalling display of racism in an otherwise flawless movie. Call me an SJW who is obsessed with political correctness, but scenes like that truly take me out of a movie and remind me that a movie is not timeless. And not only do they talk about “Injun devils” in 1937, but their talk of the movies is so quaint. Movies are sinful! Moving to LA? To live amongst the vagabonds and cowboys? Unthinkable! In an age where social media has allowed stars to expose their own shortcomings themselves and publicity teams are less vital, this hand-wringing about the movies themselves is truly outdated.

But this will always be an issue with any old Hollywood movie. When the power players were all white men, the casual racism can slip into even the simplest love stories. When I say it’s a tale as old as time, I mean it. There’s a reason that this movie can be remade 3 times and even its 2018 version can be a smash hit. There’s a reason we’re all still swooning hearing “I just wanted to take another look at you.” Perhaps one day, in 2052, if the world hasn’t been devastated by a climate disaster or a poop shaped meteor, we’ll remake A Star is Born one last time. Perhaps a 21-year old then will be writing a post just like this, questioning the gender politics of the 2018 version (a totally valid criticism!). But in 2052, we’ll once again be hoping somebody wants to take another look at us  and sobbing at the suicide of a man who, if he had just been loved a bit more may  have been saved. In 2052, young folks will know the plot of A Star is Born just as I did. But damn it, we’ll be a sucker for it again.

JURASSIC PARK (1993)

 

jurassic park

The entrance to the park……and this post

Jurassic Park is a legend. I understand. That’s the reason we’re still allowing Chris Pratt to frolic among the creatures that are UNDENIABLY shown to be dangerous and unstable in this movie, and literally every other sequel.

However, in the 25 years of its existence, I’ve never seen it. Jurassic Park, like many Spielberg blockbusters, is one of those movies that you almost feel like you don’t NEED to see it. It’s so ubiquitous, you know what happens, right? Scientists go to a rich man’s theme park with dinosaurs, the dinosaurs escape, chaos reigns, Jeff Goldblum is shirtless, yada yada yada.

But alas, I was wrong. I did need to see it. And I want to see it again. I watched it on demand on Showtime, before it left on September 11th. Even seeing it on my big screen TV in the living room was not big enough. I see why this was at one point the biggest grossing film in history. You need the big screen. This is a blockbuster of the highest order. This combines thrill and humor in a way movies these days can’t seem to balance.

See, I didn’t want to watch this because I honestly expected it to be boring. I know the dinosaurs will escape, why do I need to watch them do it? I’ve procrastinated so long on this, I OWN the freaking movie and didn’t watch it. But alas, my VCR is now broken and I must rely on premium channels’ on demand selections.

img_8534

A first run copy of Jurassic Park that sits in a storage cabinet, forgotten about by all in the household.

The fact that, even barring its status as a cultural zeitgeist, one can be amazed and delighted by this film proves its worthiness as a touchstone of the 90s.

And oh how painfully 90s it can feel. I mean for Christ’s sake, Lex gets onto the ride and is amazed how an “interactive CD ROM” and the informational video looks like the shit I got shown in 8th grade sex ed.

Sidenote: I fucking love that video, and Richard Attenborough’s “oh, I have lines here”. Actually, scratch that, I love Richard Attenborough in general. He’s a goddamn DELIGHT in this movie. He’s so confident in his creation and so happy to show it people, and this performance is FANTASTIC. It’s a performance that makes me feel sympathy for this rich white man, which is hard for a working class Puerto Rican girl like myself to do! But he’s just…god, the only word I can think of is CUTE. He’s just downright adorable.

Actually, everyone’s performance is exactly what the characters need. None of this feels phoned in. Laura Dern KILLS IT (both in her acting and in her slightly less painfully 90s outfits). Jeff Goldblum plays an asshole, and oh what a delightful asshole he is. Wayne Knight could show up in any movie and I’d say “yes! I’m so happy Wayne Knight is here!” He’s like a 90s John C. Reilly. You’re amazed how he’s in everything everywhere and you’re never not happy to see him. I really want to be Samuel L. Jackson’s cigarette. And both kids make it a true family film. The girl who plays Lex could have been Drew Barrymore’s competition in the “blonde child actress” competition, but alas, she seems to have decided to pursue a career in painting instead and we got 50 First Dates. Everyone wins!

But for me, the proof that the movie doesn’t play it safe and truly takes risks is the special effects and the set and production design.

Think of this summer’s blockbuster action movies. Skyscraper, Rampage, The Meg, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. Sadly, these movies haven’t gone much further from the effects shown in this. (I mean, The Meg is such an obvious cash grab for the China market it hurts. I have a lot of feelings on that subject though).

It’s 2018 and I’m watching Jurassic Park for the first time and I’m still amazed by the dinosaurs and how realistic they look. They blend right into the landscape, and make you look with the same amazement as Dr. Ellie Sattler. It leaves you wondering “how did they do it?” while not wanting to look it up and ruin any of the movie magic. It puts modern CGI to shame. They’re not just trying to amaze (like the animals in Rampage), they’re trying to convince. They clearly spared no expense with these effects and that love and effort shows.

amazementr

Same Laura Dern. Same.

I can’t speak for the scientific accuracy of the film. I’m sure Neil DeGrasse Tyson has something to say, but I don’t want to look. (Okay, so I looked. He did talk with Bill Nye about Jurassic World. Oh, how that man loathes suspension of belief!) But who the fuck cares! There’s DINOSAURS! Eating a man on the toilet! It’s fun and frightening and riveting and it’s a gumbo of popcorn and I want more. It’s the perfect summer blockbuster. So hold onto your butts and watch this movie with fresh eyes. Or for the first time. This film holds up, and it’s a fucking delight.

METROPOLIS (1927)

title 1.png

Title Card from Fritz Lang’s 1927 Masterpiece

I lived in New York for a couple of years and I used my time there to get a New York Public Library Card. Aside from offering me far more materials to check out, as opposed to my small town library, it comes with other perks. Libby, an e-book and audiobook app, is amazing (I’m currently listening to Silver Screen Fiend by Patton Oswalt). The other service it gives you access to Kanopy. Kanopy is a free site that gives library card holders access to thousands of films and videos for free. NYPL gives one 10 viewing credits a month and it’s more than enough, I’ve found. I’ve used the service twice. The first time, to watch FACES PLACES which I, uh, wasn’t too hot on.

But I just used it to watch METROPOLIS, Fritz Lang’s 1927 magnum opus. And whew boy, do I have some FEELINGS on it. A film that gives you this much emotion for free shouldn’t be legal. Just more proof that having fun isn’t hard when you got a library card. 

It’s a 2 and a half hour whirlwind, a German fever dream of what the year 2026 should look like. The greatest part of this all is how antiquated this future looks. The machines look like a steampunk’s dream and the city seems to be denser and containing more transit than the average large city can dream of. If only a working class employee could simply walk to work in New York City today. Alas, we’re stuck to ride the same tracks that existed when this movie was released. But I digress.

lamp

I can’t stop thinking about this light bulb

The cut I watched is the most complete ever, a 149-minute version with restored scenes and shots thought lost until found by the Museo Cine in Argentina. However, the print was badly damaged and it shows. You can tell which scenes and shots are only in the film because of their recovery, as they have a markedly different quality from the original German print. And honestly, the large majority of the scenes found……are unnecessary.

My biggest complaint is how long it is. Maybe it’s just my warped not-quite-Millenial-but-not-Gen Z brain that can’t sit and pay attention for a 2 and a half hour silent film. But I swear, when the Prelude ended and I saw we were HALFWAY THROUGH and just hit the intermezzo…Lord I almost gave up. But I’m glad I kept going. The final third is some of the most thrilling, edge of your seat storytelling of the silent era.

Before I go on, a completely unneeded sidenote: how did ALL these dumb fucks forget their children? Not a single one was like “we should keep a couple chaperones behind to watch after the youngins”? They were all SO HORNY to bash in some metal that they forgot about their kids? Maria and Freder better adopt all them little buggers because the workers DO NOT deserve their kids. And the fact that they blamed it all on “the witch” instead of their own fucking selves…..THEY NEED THE HEART INDEED!

But back to the serious film criticism.

The first third of the movie is full of so many long establishing shots, almost as if Lang is showing “look what I did!” instead of allowing one to be amazed by his (admittedly impressive) set. And given the acting work put out by Brigitte Helm in the rest of the movie, it isn’t needed.

Girly can ACT. She plays so many primary and tetiary characters and gives each of them the full bodied characterization needed to pull it off. Her facial expressions as the Machine Man give her a distinctiveness necessary for the Jekyll and Hyde roles she’s playing between the Machine Man and Maria. It’s a performance that should be hailed as legendary, a performance that should be required viewing for any and all aspiring actresses. But that’s not the film’s legacy. Indeed, the visuals of the film are the longstanding triumph of the movie.

machine woman.gif

The transformation of the Machine Man is one of the most famous moments in cinema

Going into this, I knew many of the shots that I’d see. The worker’s city, the Tower of Babel sequence, and most of all the creation of Maria into the Machine Man are enduring images of all of film history. Janelle Monae, a singer, actress, and idol of mine, created a whole EP named after the film with an even better debut album inspired by it. I was unsure if the film would meet my expectations. I mean it’s almost 100 years old, it can’t look THAT good, can it?

But it does. The collages in some of the more horror filled scenes in the second half still dizzy. The perfect synchrony in which the workers move, both during the shift change and as they march and dance during the destruction of the Heart Machine, requires a direction of brutal precision. And rumors are that the filming was brutal abound. It paid off, surely, but at what cost? I don’t want to defend a sadistic dictator of a director, those are too common still today. But the looks of the movie show how his demands for perfection paid off. The flooding of the workers city is a harrowing sight, as abandoned children pour out of the buildings. The burning of the witch is a gorgeous display of revenge, a therapeutic moment of comeuppance for this villain. But knowing how terrible this shoot was for Brigitte Helm and all of the poor children hired by Lang, it makes one feel guilty for enjoying it. One is no better than Joh Fredersen, luxuriating in the beauty at the suffering of others.

But the past is the past. And however this movie was filmed, its visual legacy is enduring. It should be showed in architecture classes as the peak of Art Deco and shown to politics classes about the role of power and labor and their relation to each other.

As a political organizer, I often find myself fascinated by the first two decades of the 20th Century. So much that we take for granted, such as the 40 hour work week, child labor laws, and the holiday we just celebrated known as Labor Day stemmed from the type of workers depicted in the film. Yet, for as much as labor has advanced since then, it’s incredible how it has remained the same. This movie could be remade today. In fact, it almost has. The relationship between Joh Fredersen and the workers is not much different between the often terse relations between Jeff Bezos and the thousands of workers who ensure that the e-commerce giant can continue its Prime promises. That relationship is brilliantly shown in Sorry To Bother YouSurely, Armie Hammer’s Steve Lift and his WorryFree act as both a metaphor for Amazon and as the spirtual successor of Metropolis’ pro-worker message.

I just wish that today, the ending message could be the most defining image. Beyond a display of technical film prowess, Metropolis is a rebuke of Germany’s post World War I industrial transformation. It’s a movie for the common worker, a dystopian future which is almost here. In 2026, will we celebrate the year of Metropolis with protests of our own? Or will the relationship between the head and the hands still be missing its heart? I fear the latter. I hope our own mediator shows up soon, but until then, Metropolis remains a relevant social commentary.

the mediator between head and hands

A Still Relevant Message in This Day and Age

On Friday, I’ll give my review for a much less serious film, but still one I have ashamedly never seen. Jurassic Park, coming soon.