Saturday, October 24, 2009

Meet John Doe (Frank Capra, 1941)

Sometimes after watching a movie—or even while watching—it's hard to resist the temptation to admit the truth of the cliché that there are only a few plots. Here again it’s the intensely smart, independent, brassy woman exploiting the simple, good, tall man.

This time it’s Barbara Stanwyck who’s leading Gary Cooper on; she’s a newspaper-woman (yes, again) with a great headline grabbing story. She's dreamed up a populist Everyman to give voice to her ideas—and her father’s ideas—about simple decency in hard times--it's a Great Depression story. Her character, Ann Mitchell, is losing her job because she's too mild-mannered, so she fires off a piece of fiery writing, supposedly a letter from an anonymous man out of work, out of luck, and without any hope or confidence in society or big business. Her invented "John Doe" announces he's going to jump off the tallest building in town on Christmas Eve. The piece provokes an uproar, saving Ann's job, but now the people want to know more--so she hires a likely prospect to pay the part. Uh-oh!

As it happens, Long John Willoughby (Cooper), an out-of-work minor-league pitcher
chosen to play the part, really is a decent guy at least as sympathetic and, well, noble, as the one Ann invented. Inevitably she falls in love with him at the same time as her position gets more and more compromised, so that in the end she can only operate on emotion, not intellect. It's as if Capra imagined some sort of universal power that operates on smart women to reign them in, requiring them to become less voluble and peppery and daring , and then to become more “womanly.” Perhaps this is unfair, since falling in love transforms Long John, too, first making him act against his conscience and then making him risk everything to do the right thing.

Stanwyck is most compelling when she’s talking, and talking fast, with strong traces of Brooklyn still uncontrolled in her vowels. She’s not quite as pretty as some other comedic heroines, but she is very engaging in the speed of her talk, and the crispness of her movements, and her eyes are smart. I found this quotation somewhere online: “Eyes are the greatest tool in film. Mr Capra taught me that. Sure it’s nice to say very good dialogue, if you can get it. But great movie acting – watch the eyes!” Cooper, too, has good eyes, and a remarkably expressive face, which Capra uses to good effect with close-ups: dignified, sad, bleak, amused, desperate. He’s tall and rangy and surrounded.

The story of Meet John Doe is a populist confection for wartime—the newspaper story becomes a campaign against the ills of contemporary society (graft, corrupt government, callous big business, the tendency to dislike one’s neighbours), in short, a vague nod in the direction of treating people decently. Capra cuts between scenes with the principals and short scenes in which ordinary people in the street react to the John Doe story. Even though some of them are cynical and others panicky, they have an innate sense of right and wrong--so that even if they are misled by demagoguery, they can make it back safely to their real values.

The film opens with a workman using a jackhammer to remove the stone inscription about freedom of the press from the front of a newspaper building, replacing it with a big new ownership sign, and then everybody inside gets fired. The new owner, D.B. Norton (Edward Arnold), is a large, calm tycoon with a rich, attractive voice—the contrast between his assured calm and Stanwyck’s rapid-fire delivery is cleverly handled. Norton, however, is a fascist, and exploits the John Doe movement, then tries to destroy it when Long John refuses to help him become the next (right-wing) president. The people, though they’re temporarily swayed by Norton’s attack on Doe, come back to his values, and fascism is stopped.

There are some great character actors, most notably Walter Brennan as John’s hobo sidekick, the Colonel, Irving Bacon as the innocent clumsy gofer, and Warren Hymer as Angelface, the eternal wiseacre gangster-bodyguard. And there are wonderfully dotty sequences, especially the pretend baseball game in the hotel room, in which everybody is totally engaged. By mixing in screwball routines with a more serious story, Capra manages to keep the brush with disaster compelling and the return to ordinary life uplifting and sweet. With Capra, it's just when he seems not to be taking things seriously that the true serious heart of his work emerges.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Young Mr. Lincoln (John Ford, 1939)

How do we make and then remake our heroes? That’s a topic for another discussion, but the many versions of Abraham Lincoln devised by historians, novelists, poets, painters, and film-makers are fascinating in their diversity. Each one is constructed to address something in what has come to be called the “American character,” and Lincoln, apparently, serves as the sort of culture hero who embodies the best of what we would like to be true about our potential. In this case, John Ford fixes on Lincoln’s formative years, but of course he meant to project what Lincoln became by showing his qualities already strong at an early aged. Somehow Henry Fonda manages to pull off a decent impersonation of Lincoln as a young man, shy and tall and shambling and given to feats of strength and wit and storytelling.

Most of the plot is g
iven over to what is supposed to be one of Lincoln’s first trials as a lawyer. He pulls off a coup, freeing two innocent young men and pinning the crime on an obnoxious sheriff’s deputy. Along the way there are some proleptic bits, like Lincoln twanging “Dixie” on his mouth-harp, and a walk to the top of a hill as thunder booms nearby, suggesting battlefields of the future. Mary Todd shows up, too, as does Stephen Douglass, but their part in the story is not taken up. There’s a lot of the old-timey music, some good, and some (refurbished and diluted with lame 1930s style orchestral scoring) not so much.

Ford is interested in American epic; here he represents Lincoln as a force of nature, a man made for his time, all wrapped up in a gangling, long-legged, craggy, folkloric, back-country lawyer with a strong attraction to justice. Meanwhile, Fond
a looks Lincolnesque partly because of the lofty haircut, some nose adjustment, a mole, and something that makes his eyebrows prominent, cheeks hollow, and to this he adds a drawl and a bit of sprawlingly lazy movement. His best lines sound casual and off-hand, fitting the notion of the man of the people anti-sophisticate. All in all, it’s a pleasant exercise, more iconic than profound.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Baabul (Ravi Chopra, 2006)

Another Bollywood contemporary fantasy, beautifully filmed and featuring some excellent music and some interesting ideas. But at first in some ways the movie seems overlarge, with palatial homes, ultramodern offices, and the pageantry of the materially successful. It is hard to be sure what the significance may be of such expansive wealth, obviously meant to be significant in some way. Several possible answers occur to me. First, the assumption may be that there is nothing wrong with wealth itself, especially wealth earned by ingenuity and hard work. Second, the display of entrepreneurial success—the Kapoors run an internationally prosperous jewelry firm—may be seen as an upbeat affirmation of the possibility of thriving in India. Third, Bollywood long ago took a hint from Hollywood, recognizing that in hard times glamour is especially attractive—witness the spate of movies made about wealthy, glamorous people during the depression. And fourth, Bollywood may well be furnishing their audiences with the comforting notion that the wealthy have personal troubles just like the rest of us ordinary mortals.

In Baabul there are
several plots, and the merry love story of the first half nearly obscures them, though key themes are signalled carefully from time to time. The primary plot is simple enough: young Avinash Kapoor (Salman Khan) returns to India after seven years in America. His parents, Balraj and Shobhna Kapoor (Amitabh Bachchan and Hema Malini) meet him at the airport. Young Avi is exceedingly handsome and high-spirited, brisk and headstrong and playful in the “American” way. He and his father call each other “Buddy.” This is supposed to indicate good-natured teasing intimacy, and for the most part it works, though largely because Bachchan holds back a little to let Khan run with the part. Right outside the airport the games begin: the father gives the son a fast car, suggests a race, and wins with the help of an amusing bit of cheating. Jokes abound, in the luxurious office, at home, and on the golf course. There Balraj’s ball hits the canvas of a young painter, Malvika, known as “Mini” (Rani Mukherji). Balraj is thickheadedly insulting, but Avi is drawn to the pretty girl. He follows her, pretends he is not wealthy—for she has an aversion to arrogant, selfish rich folk. Their courtship blooms, and is only momentarily set back when she discovers Avi was lying. Balraj follows Mini as she leaves in tears and negotiates a settlement, and they are married with much pageantry. A young man who grew up with Mini, the singer Rajat (John Abraham) gives her away. His rueful smile declares he’s in love with Mini, too. The wedding meets with the approval of the head of the Kapoor family, the dictatorial Balwant (Om Puri), except for one thing. Balraj insists that Pushpa, a widow living with Balwant’s family, should attend the wedding. This goes against tradition and is inauspicious, and Balwant is angry.

Years pass, a cute boy with overlarge glasses is born, and Avi and Mini live happily in the Kapoor household, though work keeps him away a little too much. Hurrying home to the son’s birthday party, Avi jumps out of his taxi and threads his way through traffic, and a taxi hurtles into view, killing him at his doorstep. The entire tone of the movie shifts, and sadness overtakes it. Here Mukherjee comes into her own as an actor. In the early scenes of the movie she wears western clothes and acts sparky and self-willed, matching Khan’s westernized playfulness. But as sorrow overtakes her she begins to glow with a tragic light, and she is much more convincing and much more beautiful. For a long time Balraj, her late husband’s father, watches her with sad eyes. It turns out that Avi’s parents have really accepted Mini as their daughter, and Balraj especially is worried that she is wasting away. She weeps out in the rain, and she appears to get more and more fragile. So Balraj travels to the west to find her friend Rajat, begging him to come home for Mini needs him. He does, and she is happy to see him, but she is hurt by the way Balraj, whom she loves as a father, has thrown them together as if he wanted to be rid of her. Her reproach is very sad indeed.

Though the obstacles are great, after some time Mini is moved to accept Rajat, and wedding preparations begin. But the older brother arrives and forbids the wedding, shouting about the dishonor to the family of allowing a widowed daughter to marry again. He and his sons threaten Balraj and his family, and Mini offers to retreat upstairs so the wedding can be called off. But then Balraj steps forward and quietly defies the commands of his elder brother. There is a brief exchange of arguments, and then Balraj speaks with quiet intensity about the cruelty of this tradition. Mini is his daughter, and for a father to deprive a beloved daughter of a chance at happiness is unthinkable. The old custom of confining widows in the prison of the family is pointlessly cruel, for their lives do not end with the death of their husbands. Indeed, he insists, though the custom of burning widows on their husbands’ pyre is no longer acceptable, the imprisonment of widows is just another kind of suttee. He apologizes to Pushpa for saying nothing all the years when she was deprived of a chance at happiness. Everyone is struck with admiration and everyone weeps and the head of the family praises his younger brother’s good heart and his wisdom. The wedding goes forward, and the movie ends with a quiet close-up of Bachchan, serious and kind and alone. His acting is quietly impressive. He is still capable of monkey business (see his comic turn in an early dance scene) and he still has the impish smile, but in the serious parts of the movie he holds still, and keeps his expression under control. This reserve pays off in the scene when he speaks up for what he knows is right, with a soft-spoken but passionate eloquence.

A cynical view of Baabul might suggest it has everything: riches, pretty people, music, dancing, comic figures, jokes, tragedy, a cute kid, and a socially conscious message to lend it some gravitas. I don’t care. I like the omnium-gatherum way it is put together.