Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Sneak Peak: AFI Part III of IV (50 & 49)

Greatness Lies Ahead

      Stellar terrain is within grasp. We're moving from A New Hope to Empire Strikes Back, from Magic to MJ, from greatness to extreme greatness. We have officially touched down in the "Mere Mortals Do Not Reside Here" district, so take a good look at your neighbors, all fifty of 'em, and feel free to engage your inner Mr. Curious.

50). The Bridge on the River Kwai
      David Lean is a master of detail, his imprint visible to those whose interests in film extend beyond simple entertainment. Though his films perpetually reside in the highbrow hotel, they also project, unapologetically, an affinity for emotional honesty, affairs neither lightweight nor overtly abstract. The Bridge on the River Kwai is a biting testament with one scene in particular solidifying this critique. 
      Lieutenant Col. Nicholson, played by the brilliant disappearing act, Alec Guinness (Kind Hearts and Coronets, anyone?), meets with Col. Saito (Sessue Hayakawa who is, according to Ebert, "Hollywood's first important Asian star") atop the completed bridge. Framed by the bridge's meticulous architecture and the setting sun, these two vessels of obsession share a poignant moment, which is highlighted by Nicholson's deep stare into the soul of his life's work: "But there are times suddenly you realize you're nearer the end than the beginning. And you wonder, you ask yourself, what the sum total of your life represents." 
      Nicholson is a man whose abiding faith rests not in a higher power, but a purpose. Achievement and the order of human progress are, in his world, the measure of men. If what man achieves impedes the cause of the men and the very country he represents, so be it. What's remarkable about this scene is not Nicholson's ideology. The gravity of his reflection, his studied expression, is what is most impressive. Lean harnesses this dramatic energy, allowing the sequence to unfold organically without obstructing the tonal or narrative flow. 
      Saito casually acknowledges the "Beautiful!" scenery, but Nicholson interprets his remark as an appraisal of the bridge itself. So, in this quiet moment of achievement, surrounded by the sun's glare and mountains' husk, Nicholson is lulled into a deep reflection encompassing the breadth of his service. Lean's painterly composition supplies the emotional depth, evoking real power; symbolism simmers beneath the surface as the dialogue, delivered by Guinness with his back to the camera, ratchets up and then concludes rather abruptly with a close-up of Hayakawa, whose face tells us all we need to know. In this instant, Nicholson becomes human again. Saito, once a bitter foe, is also overcome with humanity. The moment is fleeting, but Lean's direction makes it impossible to forget. 

49). The Deer Hunter
      There are films that occupy a reality so desperate, hardships so unbearable, you find it impossible to shake the experience. Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter is one of those films. It embodies what's most extraordinary about film. One scene, depicted with an arresting visual energy, best demonstrates this principle. I'm referring of course to the Russian Roulette sequence. 
      Projecting the heart of human despair, Cimino transplants this insufferably tragic moment from celluloid to consciousness, imbuing it with sorrow and melancholy imaginable, I would suspect, only to those who lived the nightmare of Vietnam. Film moves to the rhythms of the director. Therefore, the world our minds inhabit, how we decipher and process what we see on screen, is a calculated distillation of the director's doing. And Mr. Cimino distinguishes himself as a striking visual stylist. 
      But the Cimino story, once hailed as the "Second Coming," would end disastrously. The dedicated visionary responsible for such a masterpiece would parlay his meteoric rise into his greatest failure, Heaven's Gate. The erosion of his oeuvre marked by the greatest excess of his career, creative powers afforded to a man of his stature ruptured virtually overnight. It is a cautionary tale of cinematic obsession, which for Cimino would further devolve into creative malaise. Contemporaries may recognize a similar trajectory in M. Night Shyamalan's career. The recognition of genius is so immediate, it gradually evaporates into a vortex of self-indulgence. While I do not subscribe to the notion that Heaven's Gate expunges the genius of TDH, I do acknowledge that the former did trigger genuine criticisms concerning the ability of a man so enamored by his own style to tell a story.

*****Stay Tuned for Part III: 48-26*****


  1. I love both of these movies. It really is too bad Cimino bought into his own legendary praise. He put onto film the darkest secret of war, that of broken minds of heroes who have seen too much. My dad was in Nam, he served on board a destroyer escort that transported wounded. He became a heavy smoker during that time. Vic, a man who is like a father to me, served in country for two tours and all he'll ever talk about is the fish sauce and the rats.

    BOTRK is definitely a favorite war movie for me. I love the chemistry of the cast and just the whole story. The British definitely do have a different way of seeing the trenches so to speak. There's a proper manner about the soldiers even under extreme conditions.

    Stellar choices, Matt.

    1. Thanks for sharing some powerful personal insights, Melissa! I'm always fascinated by the stories-within-stories of war. That's where the greatest truth resides.

      And the cast of BOTRK was remarkably well-assembled. I read Lean was initially underwhelmed by the casting of Guinness because he was not his first choice. But, of course, Guinness quickly amazed Lean with his delicate portrayal. It's hard to imagine a Lean film without Guinness' presence. They brought out the best in each other.

      Thanks :)

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