Saturday, August 28, 2010

Gettysburg (Ron Maxwell - 1993)

I'm not sure how many times I’ve seen Gettysburg. This isn't a perfect movie, and the current form shows remnants of a much longer film that probably would've been better. (The film could've easily been six or eight hours long.) For example, the scene where General Tremble complains to Lee about General Ewell is apparently historically accurate, and it's very, very well played by Morgan Sheppard. The problem with the scene is that General Ewell doesn't even appear in the existent cut of the film, so the conflict doesn't really mean much, especially to someone who doesn't know the particulars of the battle. The general idea—that there were Confederate officers who saw the importance of taking Cemetery Hill after the first day of the battle—is an important one, but it would’ve been more resonant if we had seen Ewell (an interesting historical figure) at some point before then. Maxwell also falls into the trap of including several heavy-handed monologues. Most of these were lifted directly from the novel, but books are a different medium than film, and they worked there. Here, except for the character-developing monologues, Maxwell doesn’t quite know how to approach them, and so it’s basically a character declaiming about some theme (The Cause, Duty, Honor), with music in the background.

On the plus side, though, Randy Edelman's score is appropriately epic, and his arrangement of “Kathleen Mavourneen” is lovely. Tom Berenger is at times too subtle and too withdrawn as General Longstreet (Longstreet had suffered a great personal tragedy—the loss of three of his children within one week due to scarlet fever—not long before Gettysburg, so it does kind of make sense) but he's excellent at other times, as Longstreet sees things, and has insights that his fellow officers can't see, as he feels compelled by duty to order attacks that he knows will fail. Sam Elliott, as John Buford, the unsung hero of the battle, is at his best, and Martin Sheen is pretty excellent overall (his final monologue is devastating). Best of all is Richard Jordan as the tragic Lewis Armistead. Of all the monologues in the film, he gets the best one (with Longstreet in the tent), and he absolutely kills it. Jordan’s performance in general is emblematic of a great strength that Gettysburg shows—the way it emphasizes the humanity of everyone involved in the battle. Even Edward Porter Alexander, an artillery commander who appears in just a few scenes, emerges as a fully-formed, believable person. However, I think the best thing about the movie is the way it handles the geography of battle. Movies and miniseries hardly ever get this right. Whenever we’re following a particular unit, we often wonder: Where is this unit with respect to the rest of the army? Where is this army positioned with respect to that army? You know that here; it's all made very clear, and everything in the battle scenes unfolds with amazing clarity. Unusual for a war film, the battle scenes aren't confusing at all, and that's a pretty amazing accomplishment.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

A Generation (Andrzej Wajda - 1954)

On the most basic level, A Generation is a coming-of-age story, about a young man, somewhere between adolescence and young adulthood, who joins a communist resistance group to fight the Nazis during World War II. Wajda bookends the film with scenes showing innocence and experience, with Stach, our protagonist, representing innocence in the beginning, and representing experience, as a hardened veteran at the end of the film, and overall the film makes for a very good, and very gripping look at the way a person evolves while managing a day-to-day, sometimes minute-to-minute type of existence. Most of all, and most impressively, we see Wajda’s skill at creating set pieces on full display, a skill still apparent in that shattering, nearly heart-stopping finale of Katyn.

It is impossible to divorce A Generation completely from its political baggage: Scenes where one character nobly expounds the wonders of “the cause” to another character are hard to take at anything beyond face value. It’s a piece of socialist realism, and during some of these scenes, it seems to be operating in a similar vein to some of the pro-Soviet films that Hollywood churned out during World War II, albeit more skillful in execution. A Generation also overstates the size and scale of the communist resistance fighters in Poland at the time: They are depicted as the only group resisting the Nazis, when in fact they were a fairly small group (much smaller than Poland’s Home Army) and did absolutely nothing to resist the Nazis when they were preying on Jews and fellow Poles; they only joined the anti-Nazi fight after the Nazis attacked the Soviet Union. Much of this, Wajda has said, was due to political pressure from the Soviet Union, and a close reading of the film will show a few sly subversions of the State-mandated ideal: The Cause is shown destroying the individual, often turning a blind eye to the Nazi extermination of Jews, and one major character essentially gives his life for The Cause that has both literally and figuratively abandoned him. In that scene, the character in question, who had shown serious misgivings about the Cause and who had rejoined only out of loyalty to friends, is chased by the Nazis through town and ultimately up a winding staircase. When he gets to the top the only door opens to prison bars, a visual metaphor that powerfully suggests, among other things, the impossibility of escaping fate. This casts the remainder of the film in a completely different, much more fatalistic light. Even the happy ending with Stach being joined by some new partisans is not really a happy ending because of what we have seen happen to the other resistance fighters over the course of the film.

Visually, I think Wajda was just finding his way at this point (he credits Italian Neorealism as a heavy influence, but this seems to have more in common with late-40’s Hollywood Noir), and the fairly dishonest political baggage does hinder the film somewhat. At the same time though, it would be pretty easy for someone to look at A Generation—Wajda’s first feature—and Katyn—his forty-first—and tell that they are works of the same man, and I don’t think that statement can be made about many “major” filmmakers.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Recent Musical Discoveries

Some of my favorite YouTube videos recently have been from ITV's Transatlantic Sessions, featuring mixtures of American, Irish, and British musicians performing everything ranging from traditional American and Irish folk songs to modern folk and country songs.

Rosanne Cash recorded country standard "500 Miles" for her album The List, and this is just one example of what a fantastic interpretive singer she is. I think Cash has an unfair reputation of being someone who owes her career to being the daughter of Johnny Cash, but she deserves full credit for being a perfectly legitimate singer/songwriter in her own right. I'd definitely say that her albums Interiors (from 1990) and Black Cadillac (from 2006) stand proudly alongside anything her father recorded.

This is from one of the early Transatlantic Sessions back in the late 90's. Maura O'Connell is someone I discovered on YouTube, and this was my introduction to her. O'Connell's alto voice doesn't have the massive range that we see in most singers today, but she's got so much authenticity to her voice that it doesn't matter at all. (I love the pure, natural tone of her voice.) "Trouble in the Fields" is a song that most singers couldn't sell, but O'Connell completely sells it.

Despite an Oscar nomination at 26, a successful sister (Shelby Lynne), and a voice that could shame most singers in Nashville, Allison Moorer never quite made it in mainstream country music. "Send Down An Angel", a completely mainstream single she released to country radio in 2000 (and one of the finest singles in any genre of the decade), peaked at 66 on the charts. Her performance here is of the old sentimental Irish folk song "Carrickfergus". It doesn't require commentary.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Reboot, again....

I'm going to try to get this thing going again and keep it going.