Sometimes you just don’t know where the time went. That’s kind of how I’m feeling about this past week – what was I doing? Was I even alive? Did I do anything over the past seven or so?
Fortunately, that’s why I have this weekly list: to remember, to recall. There may not have been SO MUCH STUFF, but there was stuff, alright. And here it is:
I begin with Unspooled – an excellent new podcast from the excellent Earwolf podcast network – because this week’s list is heavily concerned with the very topic of this pod: classic movies.
A bit about the pod: After years of co-hosting the (also excellent) podcast How Did This Get Made? – a schadenfreude-fest that analyzes and goofs on some of the worst movies ever made – Paul Scheer decided he wanted to visit the flipside of the film conversation and take on some of the best movies ever made. Teaming up with film critic Amy Nicholson, Scheer has decided to tackle the American Film Institute‘s ranked list of the 100 greatest American films ever made. Each episode of the pod pours a good hour or so of serious analysis (those looking for the goofy Scheer of How Did This Get Made? may want to look elsewhere) into one of those canonized pieces of American celluloid, starting with the crème de la everything, Citizen Kane. They spice things up with listener comments, interviews, and bits and pieces of context that bring these old films to life in ways that we used to rely on Roger Ebert’s Great Movies column to do.
A bit about me: When I was in high school, I was obsessed with old movies. I can’t italicize that hard enough. Ever since one of my teachers gave out a copy of AFI’s original 1998 list, I was weirdly captivated. There was so much I didn’t know about this medium that a century’s worth of intrigue to offer. I took that list and went to work, devouring as many movies as I could stomach, from classic screwball comedies (Bringing Up Baby) to ’60s musicals (West Side Story, My Fair Lady) to the ’90s indie explosion that would blow my absolute mind apart (Fargo, Pulp Fiction). I began reading Roger Ebert every week, a religion that would soon open up another, broader canon that went beyond American film, throwing me into Italian neo-realism (Bicycle Thieves) and the French New Wave (Breathless). I quickly discovered that I was a list person, and these mysterious, historical lists sparked a hunger in me unlike anything I’ve experienced before or since.
I’ll probably talk more about Unspooled in the coming weeks – it’s only ten episodes into its quest to 100 (and it bears mentioning that they’re using the updated 2007 edition of AFI’s list). But what’s most wonderful about it for me is that it’s reopened this hunger that I haven’t felt in full force in more than ten years. As a consequence, this week’s list deals heavily in classic movies, and I very much hope that this trend continues.
Stagecoach (1939 film)
There’s a solid argument to made for 1939 as the biggest year in movie history. I mean take your pick: Gone With the Wind might be the biggest commercial success of all time; The Wizard of Oz might be the most inescapable piece of American pop culture writ large; I’ve yet to see a political film that improves upon Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The fourth head in this cinematic Mount Rushmore tends to be Stagecoach, and for a few reasons. Most notably for American culture, it’s the film that gave John Wayne his first serious starring role. Most notably for film historians, it’s seen as the western that made westerns legit. Once a simple niche for simple audiences, the western had its masterpiece, and accordingly its auteur, John Ford.
As with so many pathbreakers, however, this film suffers from the side effects of false novelty. (There must be a better name for this condition, and maybe you can find it if you Google hard enough.) As Roger Ebert wrote in 2011, the film no longer “seem[s] very original” because “it influenced countless later movies in which a mixed bag of characters are thrown together by chance and forced to survive an ordeal.” And boy howdy. This trope isn’t even limited to westerns; it’s the thread that holds together films as diverse as The Exterminating Angel and The Breakfast Club and Saw II. But Stagecoach also relies heavily, in its early scenes, on the audience’s recognition of its star actors. Maybe I’m just out of practice with old movies, but the scenes that set up the main action feel like they’re all over the place here, because we’re jumping back and forth between several sets of characters who have nothing to do with each other. Only when they finally board the stagecoach do they appear to settle comfortably into their assigned roles.
This was my first leap back into classic film so I don’t have much of value to say on it. I dozed off for a minute around the part where John Wayne declares his love to the prostitute-with-a-heart-of-gold played by Claire Trevor, who somehow got top billing despite having like six lines. Mainly worth a watch for the goofy set of characters and the insane battle sequence, in which John Wayne (or some badass stuntperson) jumps from the stagecoach onto a horse onto another horse onto another horse. Orson Welles supposedly watched it forty times before making Citizen Kane, probably because there’s a scene where you can see the ceiling.
The Killing (1956 film)
Now we’re talking. Though he’d made a couple of films prior, this is Stanley Kubrick’s true debut as a filmmaker, the one where he winds a story so tight that it combusts out of pure tension.
There’s plenty to be said about this movie, but what sticks out to me is the performance of Sterling Hayden. Is there a more underrated actor in film history? He pops up constantly in the Great Movie canon, but mostly as a colorful character actor – the cool but demented General Jack D. Ripper in Dr. Strangelove; the crooked cop who never got to finish his bolognese in The Godfather. Here he carries that same sardonic composure, but it’s his confidence that does him in. He tries to pull off an elaborate heist with about sixty thousand moving parts, none of which are reliable.
The movie is not about the heist so much as how the human element in any well-laid plan can throw everything into chaos. The characters here aren’t colossal fuckups – they’re regular people, with human needs and relationship problems and social anxieties. Sterling’s Johnny Clay treats his paid accomplices like machines, and in doing so he’s too trusting. He assumes that everything will go off without a hitch as long as everyone does their part without stepping on any toes. Clearly he doesn’t realize that people are people, no matter what role you try to assign them. Maybe he’s seen too many movies like Stagecoach.
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001 movie)
The movies I was most comfortable with when I was younger were the screwball comedies of the 1930s and ’40s. These movies were built on pretty standard archetypes, so you never had much confusion about who was who and what was going on between the characters. Obviously I’ve seen plenty of new and old stuff since then, but I’ve always had a discomfort with the sci-fi and fantasy genres because they involve much more world-building than something like The Lady Eve. So as much as I’ve always appreciated the emotional journey of the Lord of the Rings trilogy – particularly the hours-long, gut-twisting finale of The Return of the King – I confess I’ve never fully grasped the logistical journey. Just who these people/elves/hobbits/etc. are and why they’re together and what they’re really trying to accomplish has always been a bit grey to me, and so I needed to return to the first movie in the series – The Fellowship of the Ring – to clear these things up for myself.
Do I get it now? Remarkably, YES! Or at least I think so. What I think was essential for me on this most recent viewing – in addition to simply grasping the different races, their different roles in this world, and just what exactly Sauron is and how he’s connected to Saruman and the ring and Mordor, etc., etc.- was this idea that the ring has a will and a drive of its own. I knew that it was a device that corrupted men with the insatiable lust for power, but I don’t think I understood that it actually seeks out people to corrupt, that it sort of has a mind of its own and gravitates toward those who it knows will be most susceptible to its sinister charms.
This, of course, changes everything. Rather than simply journeying to destroy an object, the odyssey of Frodo and the fellowship becomes a hostage mission. They’re not just carrying a piece of precious (lol) cargo; they’re bearing an aggressive, hostile, incomparably seductive presence across the most treacherous landscape in Middle Earth. This understanding allowed me to feel the stakes of Fellowship much more deeply than I had on previous viewings. I now look forward to revisiting the other two films in this context.
The Great British Baking Show (BBC series)
It couldn’t be all movies. I’m not quite there yet. But for the dull and humid summer weekends we’ve been having, where the air conditioner’s running all day and you forget what fresh air feels and smells like, I need some TV comfort food. And while I typically hate reality competition shows, there’s something relentlessly comforting about The Great British Baking Show.
I’m not sure I’ll ever quite understand the relationship that the British Broadcasting Company has with our stateside TV and streaming services. For some reason, we across the pond seem to get every season of GBBS several years after the fact. The fifth season (sorry, “series”) aired on BBC in 2014, but has only just been made available on our PBS streaming service. Luckily, this means that we Americans can live in blissful ignorance of the fact that the cheeky and delightful hosts Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins left the show in 2016. In our world, Mel and Sue are still very much present, along with charming old Mary Berry and stonefaced male judge Paul Hollywood. The show they present together demonstrates a remarkable ideological difference between British and American approaches to competition.
Turn on any elimination challenge, from Chopped to Project Runway, and you’ll see similar attitudes revealing themselves. We have the condescending, sometimes downright demeaning judges. We have the cutthroat relationship between the competitors. You get “chopped” or are asked to hand in your apron – elimination rituals designed to (at best) humble and (at worst) humiliate the dear departed. It seems as if our American approach to reality competition is a natural extension of our meritocratic, Atlas Shrugged-like philosophy of competition as bloodsport and as vital to every aspect of life. But of course, most of our shows were inspired by British ones in the first place. It’s no wonder Simon Cowell and Gordon Ramsay moved over here; Merrie Olde couldn’t handle their hard truths.
These shows may perform the acrobatic task of making crème brûlée seem like a high stakes thing, but they also promote and glamorize the ugly human behaviors that underlie that unhealthy competitive spirit. The Great British Baking Show keeps us mindful of the benefits of healthy competition – chiefly, that it exists and is arguably a better, more productive philosophy. The hard parts are still there – the work still has to be judged honestly, and someone has to go home at the end of each episode – but competitors treat each other with respect, admiration, and curiosity, even as they try their damnedest to outperform each other. That spirit of loving the work and embracing the competitive atmosphere rather than butting heads with it leads to bakes that are more elegant and technically sound than the gaudy, fondant-laden monstrosities you’re likely to encounter on most of our stateside baking shows. It’s a unique pleasure to watch people competing and doing their best work while enjoying each other’s company and keeping in touch with their most positive emotions. There are lessons in this show for anyone driven bananas by our cold, American meritocracy.