Like its protagonist, It’s a Wonderful Life has its own redemption story. Released in 1946, the film received tepid reviews from critics and was famously a box office flop, failing to earn enough revenue to break even with the budget, contributing to the bankruptcy of the production company Liberty Films and its eventual sale to Paramount. Twenty-eight years later, a clerical error allowed the movie to enter the public domain, at which point television stations started airing it solely because they could do so without paying royalties. Just as Uncle Billy’s clerical error was the catalyst that pushed George Bailey to find new appreciation for his life in Bedford Falls, that mistake at Paramount allowed a new American audience to find and embrace Bailey’s story, turning the forgotten film into the perennial classic it is today.
Author: Jessie McAskill
David Lynch is the type of director that is nearly impossible to separate from his movies. His presence is infused in all his art, of which the varieties range from collage, sculpture and painting to film, television and furniture design. His public persona embraces his Montana hucksterism to such an extreme degree it can be difficult to determine if it’s genuine or if he’s peeking out at us from between cracks. The gee-whiz quality he depicts can feel like an alternate representation of the grinning elderly couple in Mulholland Dr. that Betty meets on the plane, an omnipresent facade masking something more sinister and troubled underneath. Lynch has a creative prowess that is rare and his art embodies a commitment to creativity over entertainment and narrative.
I like to imagine moviegoers seeing a talking picture for the first time. The union of pictures and sound into a seamless experience is a seminal moment in the history of movie magic, and I harbor some jealousy toward the generation of people who experienced that revolution first hand. After the resounding success of The Jazz Singer in 1927, it’s no surprise that talking pictures quickly became the new normal. Two films that stand the test of critical time and represent this shift from dramatically contrasting viewpoints are Singin’ In the Rain (1952) and Sunset Boulevard (1950).
Ace in the Hole opens on a young Kirk Douglas behind the wheel of a convertible, carelessly engrossed in a newspaper, as the New Mexico desert sun drenches the setting through the blazing light of the black-and-white imagery. When the camera pans to reveal a tow truck pulling the car, Billy Wilder’s fingerprint jumps off the screen – no shot is wasted and there’s always something more to see in every scene. Wilder’s wry sense of humor sometimes disguises the somber themes in his work, similar to Wilder’s direction in Sunset Boulevard, the comedy and leading man draws the audience into a false sense of comfort before exposing the darker intentions at the core of those sentiments.
Raiders of the Lost Ark is at once timeless and transient. Directed by Steven Spielberg and released in 1981, there is something specific to the styling of the film that makes it inextricable from the time period in which it was produced. Like many other pre-millennial Spielberg action films, the current of adventure in Raiders is traversed by a rugged male lead who forsakes convention and assistance. He is motivated to embark on his journey by self interest, but ultimately he embraces the role of hero. In 2019, we’ll have the opportunity to witness Spielberg and Disney again revive the franchise for the contemporary audience, but part of what makes Raiders of the Lost Ark distinctive from its counterpart productions is that it strikes a chord that balances the seriousness of a formidable, realistic enemy against an almost juvenile insistence that the romp will be fun in spite of its gravity.
It might not be an utter coincidence that The Maltese Falcon and Citizen Kane were released within a month of each other in 1941, as both films jockey for the title of American film noir’s founding father and have stood the test of time with critics for over seventy five years. The two films of course share their contemporary cultural moment: the depression was ending, a second world war was rising, and the nation was enduring a rumble of emotional unrest while struggling to forge a path out of desperation. Part of what makes both films so poignant is the braiding of that unrest, repression, and ambiguity into the characters of their leading men, atmosphere, as well as the flow of the camera movement and cinematography.
SUNSET BOULEVARD accomplishes the difficult task of being an intriguing story primarily focused on endings and false starts. The film begins with the conclusion, protagonist and narrator Joe Gillis floating dead in the pool, immediately followed by a flashback of Joe giving up on his dying career as a film writer. His first meeting with former Hollywood starlet Norma Desmond occurs over the corpse of her dead pet chimpanzee – a vacancy soon to be filled by Joe himself. Norma had already witnessed the cessation of her career on screen, predicated by the overall demise of silent pictures. SUNSET BOULEVARD depicts the collision of these endings and its aftermath, including a doomed resistance movement lead by Joe and Norma to jumpstart their flagging occupations which results only in tragedy and a sense of inevitability.
The first time I watched CITIZEN KANE I was motivated purely by a sense of obligation. After years of hearing references to “Rosebud” and seeing the film top almost every list of the best movies ever made, I took the dive and watched the story of Charles Foster Kane for the first of many times. The layers of complexity that make the film so enduring for film lovers are the same qualities that make it intimidating to write and talk about. It’s difficult to extract the heart of CITIZEN KANE from its legacy, compounded by equal parts brilliance and decades of praise. In this way, I’m tasked with a mission similar to Jerry Thompson’s, the reporter who guides us through Kane’s life story, to add a new perspective to a subject that has been, “as loved and hated and as talked about as any man in our time.”