Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Home Viewer (6): The Cruellest Month

T.S. Eliot's old-timey spelling notwithstanding, our local paper thought I should do a little something on spring--which in the baleful Midwest we haven't really experienced yet--mostly bursts of fitful sunshine followed by straight winds. But I decided to consider it a Silly Season, and tunefully wedged my way into the narrow margin springtime seems determined to maintain this year.



As we turn–at last!–toward spring, stuck in my head is a relentlessly joyful tune written back in the 1920s by Harry (“I’m Lookin’ Over a Four-Leaf Clover”) Woods entitled, “When the Red, Red Robin Comes Bob, Bob, Bobbin’ Along.” The lyrics are famous for repeatedly entreating the “sleepyhead” to “get up” and “cheer up,” and commanding that we “live, love, laugh and be happy.” So we better get to it.

Live

Federico Fellini saw life as an epic dream, a memory recovered so passionately it melts the boundaries between past and present, reality and imagination. Amarcord (1973) (literally, “I remember”) looks back on the director’s childhood with equal parts affection and irony. In his hands, even the rising fascist culture of 1930s Italy becomes part of his small town’s circus procession of love, rage, longing, mischief, departure, and renewal, with a peacock in the snow, a fever-inducing encounter with first lust, a giant animated Mussolini head–and the airborne puffballs of spring. Amarcord climbs the tree of life and, like mad Uncle Teo, shouts its demands for more.

In Richard Linklater’s lucid dreaming grab-bag, Waking Life (2001), a multitude of philosophical observations/rants are delivered by a host of rotoscope-animated thinkers, freakout-artists, slackers, and crazies–dreamers all. As Speed Levitch observes, “Life is a matter of a miracle that is collected over time by moments flabbergasted to be in each others’ presence.” OK, maybe a bit clich├ęd and/or overblown. But as the dreamer (played by Wiley Wiggins, whose name alone evokes Wonderland) falls awake into further dreams, he gives himself the chance to live many lives, sometimes merely by listening to his fellow dreamers.

To truly live, then, one life may not be enough. But each, as we see in Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter … and Spring (2003), has its trials. This South Korean film by Ki-duk Kim, set in a monastery floating on a lake, follows the seasons as it explores the Buddhist injunction to show infinite compassion while striving for detachment. Beautifully filmed, hushed in contemplation, it gazes at lives that, like stones tossed in the water, spread inevitable ripples.

Love

In honor of spring, let’s agree that love is revival. One of my favorite comic versions of this is Born Yesterday (1950), in which a racketeer (Broderick Crawford) gets more than he bargains for when he insists his moll, “Billie” (Judy Holliday), receive an education. Enter William Holden as the Henry Higgens-esque tutor, who gives Billie the chance to exercise the independence she already had: Just watch the scene in which she beats Crawford in a game of gin. Smartest dumb blond in movie history.

Love is also rejuvenation. Four years after Al Jolson bawled the talkies into existence (Edison’s 1895 Kinetophone notwithstanding), Charlie Chaplin made a “silent” film (with music and sound effects), City Lights (1931), marking the final appearance of the Little Tramp. Not only is this movie unashamedly sentimental, it reminds us of the beauty of silent films and the universal appeal of the Tramp. At forty-two, Chaplin seems as fresh and eager as he did back in 1914, in Kid’s Auto Race, ready to dazzle with his nimble frame and surprising attention to the small gesture. City Lights keeps the promise that the cinema so often breaks: that seeing a movie can be like an openhearted return to youth.

Laugh

Knowing what’s funny is one slippery fish to grasp. There is, of course, a simple rule: If it makes you laugh every time, it’s funny. For me, that includes The Producers (1968) and every 1930s Marx Brothers movie–but I’ll settle for Monkey Business (1931). I’d also like to add an Honorable Mention: The Imposters (1998), in which Stanley Tucci and Oliver Platt, more than willing to be ridiculous, combine Max Bialystock with Groucho to produce a farce that either of their anarchic, over-acting predecessors would be proud of. Filled with verbal sleight-of-hand and giddy disregard for life and limb (and propriety), these movies place no demands on higher brain functions–but plenty on your stamina.

Be Happy

Some movies, such as A Hard Day’s Night (1964), make being happy look easy. It’s obvious how much fun Paul, John, George and Ringo are having: You can see it on their faces. And there’s more than a little Marx Brothers in their one-liners and blithely awful puns.

Then again, happiness can be a life-and-death battle–but that doesn’t mean you can’t sing and dance. Consider Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony (2002), a documentary that celebrates the relationship between music and the struggle to destroy apartheid in South Africa. Whether in mourning or joy, tragedy or victory, the comrades unite in their song of “amandla” (power), their bodies rising and falling–and rising again, like their lives, faces upturned in melodic defiance and joy.

The Pursuit of Happyness (2006) depicts the struggle for freedom as a middle-class nightmare, perfectly capturing (thanks to Will Smith’s portrayal of Chris Gardner) the anxiety of poverty and the burden of the American dream–and a triumph that is not only financial. All in all, an idea that, even misspelled, Gardner asserts is worth pursuing.

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