Friday, August 16, 2013

Cleopatra: 50 years later

There can be no doubt that 1963 was a year for significant movies. Frederico Fellini's 8 1/2 was a tour de force artistic achievement now beloved by film fans and critics, Dr. No began the James Bond film franchise that has since enjoyed an excellent 50 years, and Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds became an instant classic thriller. Big budget epics were also popular that year but by far the biggest, and the highest grossing, was Cleopatra, now probably best remembered as the film that nearly ruined 20th Century Fox. Much of the film's infamy also stems from Elizabeth Taylor's million-dollar salary, the first in Hollywood. Blaming Taylor
Movie Poster for Giant
Source: Wikipedia
was unfair, the film was over budget because of its size, not its star. However, Taylor's salary and the production of this film were milestones. They marked the beginning of the end for the epic as a movie genre and the rise of "star power" in Hollywood.

Elizabeth Taylor began her career under the old studio system where "movie moguls," the producers and studio owners, controlled the movie business in every aspect. Actors, even major celebrities like Clark Gable and Myrna Loy, were completely at the mercy of the studios that owned their contracts. These contracts limited the choices actors could make, and the salaries they could command. At age 15, Elizabeth Taylor realized that for her at least, things could be different. After publicly reprimanding Louis B. Meyer for verbally abusing her mother, Taylor stormed out of his office. While a lesser star would have been fired for standing up to a producer, Taylor suffered no recriminations. In an interview with Johnny Carson many years later, Taylor remarked that it was at that moment she realized "Elizabeth Taylor the commodity" was a source of strength. She realized that movie moguls could not act with impunity if a star's marketability was powerful enough.

By 1963, Elizabeth Taylor was a screen icon, with success in critically and popularly acclaimed films. She had worked alongside legendary actors including James Dean, Marlon Brando, Rock Hudson, and Paul Newman. She had attained the stature necessary to command a record-breaking salary. More actors would follow Elizabeth Taylor's lead; now, a million-dollar salary seems like only a modest fee for a star.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Movies to watch before you go to college

Have you graduated from high school this year? Do you plan to attend college? Are you wondering what to do with the last days of summer? If the answers to these questions are "yes," then you are in luck. The following is a list of movies that make for great viewing before you head off for college.

The Freshman

Image Source: Wikipedia
Reasons to watch it:  Marlon Brando's performance (a sly parody of his role in The Godfather) is wonderful, Matthew Broderick and Penelope Ann Miller are very funny, and the movie is cleverly-written, full of excellent character performances and references to other films. 

Keep an eye out for: References to Marlon Brando's past roles and The Godfather films, including a cameo of actor Gianni Russo near the end of the film.

Life lesson: If someone offers you a ride to college in a classic sports car, don't take it.

If you liked this: Check out director-writer Andrew Bergman's other fine comedy The In-Laws.

Say Anything

Reasons to watch it:  John Cusack plays a very likable hero and the movie makes a lot of funny and insightful observations about growing up. Last if not least, the movie predicts the rise in popularity of MMA. Who'd have thought?

Keep an eye out for: Joan Cusack's uncredited performance as Lloyd's older sister

Life lesson: Guys who hang out at the "Gas'n Sip" are not probably the best people to get relationship advice from.

Dr. Strangelove

Reasons to watch it: Lots of great performances (including one of George C. Scott's greatest roles), witty dialogue, prime political satire, and probably some of the funniest quotable movie lines. Academics and film snobs love to reference this movie. 

Keep an eye out for: Peter Sellers' humorous multiple roles.

Life lesson: Whatever you do, don't let them see the "big board."

The Graduate

Reasons to watch it: Incredible cinematography, editing, and set design, plus a chance to see Dustin Hoffman's first major role in a film.

Life lesson: Plastics!

Monday, August 5, 2013

The End of the World as We Know It: Our ongoing fascination with stories of the Apocalypse

Source: Wikipedia

According to popular interpretations of the Mayan calendar, the world was going to come to an end sometime last year. Ultimately the week the world was supposed to end came and went without fanfare. Knowing, 2012, World War Z, 28 Days Later, Day After Tomorrow, and television series such as Falling Skies, and The Walking Dead draw huge audiences. Even James Bond has jumped on the bandwagon with the franchise's latest film installment Skyfall striking a rather apocalyptic note with Adele singing "This is the end... hold your breath and count to ten." Books prophesying the Apocalypse (often promising tips for survivors) fly off the shelves. This preoccupation with an end or near-end to the world is clearly a popular fantasy for several reasons.This "scare" was not our first, however. There was a sizable group of people who believed the world would come to an end in the year 2000. Before this, going back to ancient times, other have speculated or prophesied the end of the world.

Source: Wikipedia
Certainly there are many things that lend credence to apocalypse theories. The book of Revelation describes the end of the world in great detail, though the exact timeline and exact meaning of the events described is heavily debated by theologians and historians alike. It is clear from research that nuclear weapons pose a real threat to life on earth.Other issues such as pollution and global warming promise threats. This begs the question, however, of why we gravitate towards fictional accounts of "the end" so consistently.

Perhaps the popularity of "end of the world" theories stems most from the seemingly infinite variety of ways that the world could end or change radically. For zombie fans, there is the "Zombie Apocalypse," for compulsive hand washers (such as myself) there are pandemics, for environmentalists mass pollution or ecological disasters, for physicists there are planetary collisions. For anti-war activists, there is the threat of a nuclear apocalypse. No matter our political, religious, or philosophical standpoint, we can all envision some sort of apocalypse taking place. Much like cable television, the diversification of apocalypse theories brings them to more people overall. However, the finality of an apocalypse also makes it the perfect frightening fantasy (or rhetorical tool). It is the ultimate answer to the question "What's the worst that could happen?" Unfortunately, this post, like all good things, must end. Hopefully, my musings on our impending doom have brought a little cheer to your Monday morning.

Yours til the end...

Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Great Gatsby, The Hunger Games, and what they tell us about Popular Culture

Source: Wikipedia
F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Great Gatsby is widely regarded as one of the greatest American novels ever written. Nearly 90 years after its composition, it remains very popular among readers and, as Baz Luhrnmann's new film adaptation has proven, moviegoers. Suzanne Collins's Hunger Games trilogy is a bestselling series that has been adapted into an equally successful movie franchise. The success of both works has made them pop culture icons. This is ironic since The Great Gatsby and The Hunger Games actually criticize the very aspects of popular culture that popular culture emphasizes in them. Although The Great Gatsby is a biting critique of American materialism, the book has inspired art and films that emphasize the lavish lifestyle of Jay Gatsby. Similarly, although The Hunger Games criticizes the alleged "bread and circuses" atmosphere of contemporary America, the books have inspired movie adaptations (and numerous rip-offs) that capitalize on the inherent violence of the stories, preying on the very voyeurism they claim to criticize.

Gatsby's Mansion from the 2013 film The Great Gatsby
The French critic Baudrillard argued that life was a simulation. He first posited that human concepts of meaning, power, law, and order were only simulations held in place by people who wrongly believe them to be real. However, Baudrillard went on to argue that "the simulation" (what most of us call "real life") would absorb any attempt to prove its existence, reinforcing its own hold on humans. While life itself may not be a simulation, popular culture certainly behaves the way Baudrillard argues "the simulation" behaves. Even successful critiques of American pop culture, like The Great Gatsby and The Hunger Games, ultimately fail to open our eyes to the inherent failings of popular culture. Although these books criticize the failings of American culture (our love of material objects and violent spectacle respectively), they have themselves become icons of the culture they criticize. We sigh as we imagine Gatsby's expensive cars, palatial home, and lavish parties. We thrill to the adventures of Katniss and her fellow competitors. Therefore, we support the very system the books we love criticize.
James Dean plays troubled teen Jim Stark
in Rebel Without a Cause
Source: Wikipedia

Of course, this kind of cultural appropriation is not new. Nor indeed, is this phenomenon confined merely to literature. During the 1700s, in an effort to quell Jacobite sentiments in Scotland, the English government banned kilts, bagpipes, and other symbols of Scottish nationalism, then appropriated these symbols to use as the icons of elite British regiments. Thus, the dominant cultural system absorbed counter-cultural symbols and turned them against the counter-culture. Later, in the 1950s and 1960s, wearing blue jeans became a way of "defying the establishment" as James Dean proved in Rebel Without a Cause (1955). It did not take long, however, for blue jeans to transition from icons of counter-culture, to fashion statements. Instead of defying popular culture, blue jeans came to signify an adherence to popular culture. True, jeans are not as complex as a novel, but the pattern is the same.

On a final note, even Baudrillard's indictment of "the simulation" was, itself, absorbed by "the simulation." His essay "Simulacra and Simulations" became the inspiration for the popular Matrix movies, which, for all their good intentions, quickly devolved into mindless action movies. At the end of the day, The Simulation always wins.