January 30, 2007
Film talk-2: Beatty, Hitchcock, and Oh! Calcutta!
I have been using the Case film library to catch up on some old films that I had always meant to see but missed when they first came out, either because they were made before I was born or because they did not make it to Sri Lanka.
I saw two Warren Beatty films, the comedy Shampoo (1975) where he plays a Beverly Hills hairdresser who sleeps with all his clients, and the drama Reds (1981), based on the life of a radical and idealistic American journalist John Reed, whose eyewitness account of the Russian Revolution was told in the book Ten Days that Shook the World.
I like Warren Beatty and find his films always enjoyable, but as I watched these two older films it struck me that although the settings and stories of his films differ considerably, he is always pretty much playing the same character, an appealing and well-meaning person who is never quite in control of his own life's direction but instead is buffeted by the events and people around him. This is true whether he is playing a gangster in the drama Bonnie and Clyde (1967), an old West entrepreneur in the drama McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), a football quarterback in the comedy Heaven Can Wait, a disillusioned politician in the comedy Bulworth (1998), a hairdresser in Shampoo, or a World War I-era radical journalist in Reds.
Perhaps he stepped outside these characterizations in the films I have not seen but since these are his best-known films, his cinematic persona seems pretty much set. Of all these films, Heaven Can Wait is my favorite, a very good comedy that has, as a bonus, a fine turn by one of the great actors, James Mason.
I also watched the Alfred Hitchcock film Foreign Correspondent (1940). Although I am a fan of Hitchcock and have seen nearly all of his directorial works, I did not think this one of his better films. It may be that I am not a fan of overtly propagandistic films and this film had elements of that. It was filmed in 1940, after World War II had started in Europe and prior to the US entering it. The film clearly aimed at getting Americans to be more alarmed about the state of affairs in Europe but the way it did this was a little too ham-handed. The opening scene which is a paean to the work of foreign correspondents and the closing scene in which the correspondent in London appeals to Americans for action while the lights around him go dark because of the bombing, were both too obvious for my taste. And even the closing credits just after that scene had the Star-Spangled Banner as the soundtrack.
There is nothing wrong with art having a political message and one could argue that all art is political. In fact, I like political films a lot and have already written about my enjoyment of The Manchurian Candidate (the original one, not the ghastly remake) and V for Vendetta.
But the problem I had with Foreign Correspondent is that the politics is not well done. To be fair, though, it was only at the very end that Hitchcock got preachy but that was enough to leave a sour aftertaste.
The final film I watched recently in my old-films binge was Oh! Calcutta! (1972). This was a filmed version of a musical comedy sketch revue that featured a lot of nudity and sexual content and created a sensation when it was first staged in the late 60s. Of course, such plays and films would never be shown in Sri Lanka, which created a great sense of curiosity there about it, so I finally decided to see it.
The film is awful. I found the music uninspiring (even though the credits included John Lennon and Peter ("PDQ Bach") Schickele), the comedy was only mildly funny and that too in parts, and the dances were just ok. In short, it was clear to me that the claim to fame of this production was that it was pushing the envelope of sex and nudity of that time. Now, much of it comes off as just crude, and there is little sense of shock anymore.
POST SCRIPT: Battle in Najaf
The reports of the battle that took place over the weekend in Najaf have some strange aspects to it. Initial reports say that Iraqi forces supported by US tanks and helicopter gunships killed 250 militants in a fierce battle that lasted many hours. There seemed to be very few casualties on the US and Iraq side. Some Initial reports describe the dead as 'militants', members of a Sunni apocalyptic cult that was seeking to kill prominent Shiite clerics in that city. Others argue that it was a Shiite group. The invaluable Juan Cole tries to disentangle the conflicting narratives.
Why an armed militant group would take on the Iraqi military in a relatively open area as a date palm orchard where they could be easily picked off by the supporting helicopter gunships seems puzzling. There seems to be a whole lot of confusion about who the dead were and what they represented.
In any conflict, I tend to view with great suspicion any reports of 'fierce' long battles in which one side sustains huge numbers of casualties and the other side next to nothing. These kinds of lopsided death tolls usually are signs that the side with low casualties is hiding their losses or that mostly civilians were killed, even though there may have been actual militants also among them. Initial reports of battles almost always come from the official military, which has a vested interest in minimizing civilian deaths. I usually suspend judgment on such stories until reporters and medical personnel and human rights workers are able to reach the areas and provide independent and relatively unbiased reports.
Meanwhile, some idea of the methods used by the Iraqi security forces in patrolling Baghdad, and their relationship to the US forces, can be obtained from watching this British TV report. It contains some rough scenes but sadly we have become accustomed to seeing dead and wounded, and people being assaulted. (Thanks to Glenn Greenwald.)