27 May 2009

"The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living."

This past Sunday I plopped my fat ass down for three and a half hours to watch Reds, Warren Beatty's epic staging of the romance between American Communist John Reed and his wife, Louise Bryant. It was exactly the type of film I love - a whomping historical saga with cluttered, lived-in sets and thousands of outfitted roving extras, a large film that's still able to take its time building the relationships between the main characters and allowing the quiet moments some breathing room.

It's not perfect, no. Beatty and his co-star, Diane Keaton, are too old for their roles, and Jack Nicholson as Eugene O'Neill steals the whole show from them, despite his much smaller amount of screen time. He's actually acting here, by God, something you don't much see in ol' Jack anymore, not since he had the man who performed in About Schmidt taken out back and shot. One of Beatty's more brilliant choices, the periodic intercutting of the narrative with interviews and voiceovers from actual ancient people who were alive at the same time as John Reed and knew him, somewhat undercuts the staged scenes (that is, the bulk of the movie). Actual non-actors discussing these events can't help but somewhat deflate the pomp of Beatty and Keaton's acting, no matter how natural and believeable they are (and I did like them, despite the "too old" thing).

But I don't really want to talk about Reds. Rather, I'm more interested in thinking about how some films just seem better at recreating the past, particularly those of the 1970s and early 1980s. Not coincidentally, many of these films are considered classics today, and are some of my favorites: The Godfather I and II (especially the young Vito scenes), Chinatown, Reds, Raging Bull, The Yakuza Papers, Das Boot, Days of Heaven, and others that seem possessed by a naturalness and an attention to detail that doesn't come at the expense of the actors or the story. They manage the feat of making us believe that we are not watching a movie that happens to take place in a certain era, but that we are watching found footage from that era.

Before I go any further, it must be said that yes, I acknowledge that these films are just as phony in their recreations of the past as, say, Pearl Harbor or Young Einstein or "That '70s Show." It's really just an elaborate trick they're pulling on the viewer, and there are other great movies that don't specify their era, or seem to take place in multiple eras, or even prefer to dwell in the film-versions of those eras, rather than the actual eras. Films like those of Sergio Leone or the Coen Brothers.



Part of me wants to think that films like Reds and The Godfather recreate the past better because they are closer to those time periods than we are today. They were made before cell phones and the Internet and cable television changed our lifestyles, and so they could immerse themselves more fully in a bygone time. But that's not really true, is it? Because if you look hard enough, films are still being made today that give off that "realistic past" feeling. Four of them that spring immediately to mind are Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Zodiac, Max, and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

So how do filmmakers do it? How do they trick us into believing that one recreation of the past is inherently better than another? In my mind, it all goes back to the very basic building blocks that make up great cinema: a compelling story and characters brought to life by thoughtful writers, actors, and directors who have all done their research. The characters in these films aren't historical stereotypes - there are no Gray Flannel Suits or Stoner Hippies or anyone saying "Groovy" or wearing fucking Flock of Seagulls haircuts. They are not identified by their place in time, but by who they are.

Also, the historical events the characters live through are not overly foreshadowed or trumpeted, and they are not turned into HISTORICAL EVENTS. For example, compare the way the overthrow of Batista is handled in The Godfather Part II (Uh-oh, there go our Cuba plans. Hey, where did Fredo go?) to just about anything in NBC's justifiably forgotten miniseries "The '60s" (I'm joining the Marines...TO SERVE IN VIETNAM!!!!!). Great films allow their historical moments to play out as people lived them (or as close as movies can get). Shitty films put exclamation points on the smallest historical details. Hell, "The '60s" even made a relatively minor moment like Dylan's plugging-in (face it) into some sort of monumental event that CHANGED FUCKING EVERYTHING, even the way you live your shitty life, maaaannnn....

Worse yet, they'll throw in small and pointless jokes or references that, at best, momentarily jar the audience out of their warm suspension-of-disbelief cocoon or, at worst, ruin the momentum of the story. Here's an example: Titanic's groanable "Picasso? He won't amount to a thing" and "Do you know of Dr. Freud?" lines. Hey, why don't you just mention how your old friends the Archduke and his wife are so excited about their trip to Sarajevo, and how you hope that rude young Mr. Hitler manages to sort his life out and stops causing trouble? (By the way, Max gets away with that sort of thing because it's specifically about Hitler.) I feel like there have been a million similar lines about Woodstock, but I'm not in the mood to look them up. I've dragged this out long enough.

These things may seem small, but when they play out onscreen, they become big (not to mention all those months of production it takes to create them). I wanted to leave you with two scenes for comparison, but I couldn't find any off YouTube that suited my needs. So I'm afraid you'll just have to use your imaginations. Sorry.

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