What Doesn’t Work With George Stevens, Shane, The Boys From Brazil and Blue Velvet.
I doubt that anyone would disagree that details make or break a movie. Films are on average only ninety minutes long, so anything that happens in the course of those minutes cannot possibly be minor. There are a finite number of shots, unlike in say, television, and they all tend to mean something. As may become a bad habit in this particular forum, I’ll give examples of small details that change a whole film for me. Because truly, nothing is too small to deeply, deeply annoy you.
First, the (shudder) Blogosphere has been lighting up in its intensely hermetic and compartmentalized way over Raymond De Felitta’s attempt to rehabilitate the career of one George Stevens, director of such films as Giant, Woman of the Year and A Place in the Sun.
De Felitta, who is himself a director, having been the man behind the film City Island with Andy Garcia, has a multiple part deconstruction of various scenes throughout Stevens’ filmography and is attempting to show, step by step, why this man deserves his own place in the canon.
Alright, fine, what does that have to do with the first paragraph? Well, I have an issue with one of this Great Man’s films that I simply can’t do away with. When I mention what it is, the great face of the film criticism Gods will turn away in shame (No, Mr. Farber, come back, I swear I’ll be good…).
I cannot watch that classic of all classic Westerns, Shane. Shane makes me want to go and jump from a tall, tall place, and I’m sorry, I cannot help it. To be more precise, Brandon De Wilde does. Brandon De Wilde, who plays the small child Joey, who follows the titular Shane like a whipped dog, makes the movie literally unwatchable for me. Every time I try and watch this movie all the way through, Mr. De Wilde stops me dead in my tracks. It’s one word, the again titular Shane. The boy seems completely unable to say that word without making me just fall right off the rails. I can’t even get thirty minutes in. Because De Wilde says it at the end of practically every sentence that he speaks. Even when Shane isn’t in the room. It’s like he knows he’s hurting me, and likes it. This, by the way, isn’t true for all of his roles. De Wilde got older, and he is one of the best things in the incredible modern western Hud, which if you haven’t seen, see it now. It is just this role that puts the man into my pantheon of unwatchable child actors.
On to the next nitpick that drives me absolutely bughouse nuts. Have any of you out there ever seen The Boys from Brazil? The original Nazi Clone movie, this film stars Laurence Olivier and Gregory Peck as a Polish nazi hunter and Joseph Mengele respectively in a desperate race to see if Olivier will be able to stop Peck from creating a clone Hitler. I mean, as premises go, that’s a great one. Frankly, if people have to remake something, I would put The Boys from Brazil at the top of the list, but… yes, there’s a flaw in this work that means I can never get fully behind it.
To be fair, the problem is not one original to the film itself. It is, in fact, a basic Hollywood storytelling expediency that is taken to the point of parody during the course of this picture. I mean, I would be shocked if anyone reading this never saw a movie set in another country where everyone spoke English in varying degrees of the appropriate accent. Heck, Audrey Hepburn made a career out of having an accent that no one could identify, and therefore stood in for whatever country they would set the film in.
Boys from Brazil takes this standard trope and runs it into the ground. There are many instances where the disconnect bothers me, but there is one sequence that blows my mind. The Polish Nazi hunter who lives in Israel is being told a story by an American Student about a conversation he overheard in Brazil involving a series of Nazi expatriates. There are about eight language barriers being crossed in one scene in one leap of faith that is given no comment. And that was when my incredulity broke. And I know, expecting Laurence Olivier to speak Polish, or Yiddish or Hebrew fluently is about as ridiculous as thinking that Gregory Peck would break out in perfect conversational German, but this is my list, so I will make my own rules.
Finally, why don’t I get to something positive, Blue Velvet, if that’s alright. Many people revere David Lynch in a way that borders on the cult-like. I, frankly, do not. I personally feel that his movies often fail under the weight of their own artifice. This is not the common opinion, yes, but it is mine. Blue Velvet though, for me as for many others, is his masterpiece, the one that holds together as more than a collection of oddities.
This, frankly, is not all David Lynch’s fault. Like, say, Robert Rossen’s original All the King’s Men, Blue Velvet is all about one performance dragging the film forward out of whatever snags of dialogue or acting get in the way. In All the King’s Men, it is Broderick Crawford as Willie Stark; in Blue Velvet, Dennis Hopper as Frank Booth. When those characters are not on screen, the movie slows to a crawl.
The detail that always fascinated me, that David Lynch’s style of filmmaking allows for, is the fact that three of the leads share physical characteristics. Dennis Hopper, Kyle Maclachlan and Laura Dern all have the same chin and nose. In a movie obsessed with paternity, with one father in the hospital, and one father stolen and mutilated, the resemblance seems important, making the Dennis Hopper character actually seem like the father of the two leads, who are in fact romantically entangled.
This always made the ending seem to me, even before the famous end sequence of a bird with a beetle in its mouth, dark and twisted, and that the Maclachlan character had simply learned to cover his real emotions with a veneer underneath which the horrors of Frank Booth still lurked. This is my point. A good detail can spin a film in a whole new direction, while a bad detail simply distracts from whatever was there in the first place.