Tuesday, February 12, 2013

What's It Worth

Many years ago I purchased 1001 Movies to See Before You Die. If you don't personally own a copy (or two, given the multiple editions that have come out since its 2004 printing), you may surely know of it given its tome-like length and grabby title. I don't use it as bible regarding films I should or should not see, but ever since I received it as a Christmas present back in the mid-200s, I have kept tabs on all the films featured within it that I have seen. I don't think one can simply see a certain list of per-ordained films and suddenly think they've seen all that cinema has to offer. Nor does seeing those 1001 films mean that they are instantly smarter or know anything about actually reading and understanding the films they just watched. Hell, I think there's probably more to learn about cinema from Paul Verhoeven's Showgirls than anything in Mike Newell's Four Weddings and a Funeral, but there are some who don't quite see things the same way. I couldn't tell you the exact number that I have seen - I'd estimate more than 400, less than 500 - but there are films found inside it that I thought were brilliant, and those I thought were terrible. Some I have noted as needing to revisit when my brain is better equipped to truly understand them better, and some that I can't possibly imagine being anywhere near the powerful examples of cinema that the book's contributors suggest. Still, follow it I shall.

Meanwhile there are films missing that seem like baffling oversights. I mean, they had 1001 slots and they chose Deconstructing Harry? Why just last week I watched Pier Paolo Pasolini's Teorema and Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom and was surprised afterwards to find only the latter of the two featured within the pages, despite decades of history having proven that the former is as thematically potent as anything else from that period. It was equally surprising then to discover William Wyler's Dodsworth from 1936 hidden amongst its pages. A film that I had wanted to see for many a year - its availability is somewhat sketchy - and finally got around to doing just last night, Dodsworth is a lavishly assembled adaptation of Sinclair Lewis' acclaimed novel. It won an Academy Award for art direction, and was nominated for many more included Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor. As fine as the film is - and fine is, surely, too understated a word - it is not a film that is as frequently hailed as its 1930s siblings, and for all of its strengths (such as the way Ruth Chatterton forces audiences to see the reason behind such a wantonly unappealing lady, or the free-flowing ease with witch Sidney Howard's screenplay examines a crumbling marriage) perhaps doesn't overtly scream out as a vital piece of filmmaking that begs for essential status.

Perhaps its the legacy of director Wyler and a cast that includes the Oscar-nominated Walter Huston, as well as Mary Astor and David Niven, that made for its inclusion in the book. It's certainly refreshing to see what is essentially a marital drama placed alongside such heavy-hitting classics, a film of such feminine qualities and yet one that primarily tells a man's tale. If the journey of these two yammering marrieds feels episodic then that's surely just a product of the time when famous book adaptations were hardly the place for radical flights of filmmaking fancy. It's an enjoyable film, and one that makes great use out of the Ruth Chatterton character as she spins from doting wife with understandable dreams to travel abroad and experience life to then a ravenous, selfish society-pecker, and somewhat back again. If the performance has too many scenes of single mindedness, then Chatterton is certainly given some meat to chew on in her big confrontation scene with Maria Ouspenskaya's Baroness Von Obersforf that kicks into the gear Dodsworth's final act.

Which brings me to Ouspenskaya. Call me baffled, but how on Earth was this Russian lady nominated for an Oscar for this performance. I can certainly see the appeal in the character - an aged lioness whom seemingly does little but inform woman that they're not good enough for her son and, here's the kicker, they too are getting old. She's a mother only a son could love, I suppose. And even then... Still, the performance is brief and singularly toned. I'd hazard a guess and she's she's barely on screen for five minutes and without any of the range of, say, Viola Davis in Doubt (or Viola Davis in Antwone Fisher, or Viola Davis in World Trade Center for that matter). Or even Beatrice Straight in Network for that matter, although that's a whole 'nother kettle of fish wouldn't you agree?


I'm not quite sure why some song about mother-in-laws has been put over the top of this clip, but it thankfully stops soon enough.

Ouspenskaya enters the film looking practically embalmed, swathed in black fabric and hanging a crucifix on her neck that would scare Catholics three ways from Sunday. The Academy was certainly fond of this type of craggily old aristocratic ladies who don't seem to do much other than act like they're above it all. Stinkylulu's supporting actress round table has certainly taught me that, although they generally all came down somewhere in the middle over Ouspenskaya's particularly rendition of the role. And as I've already said, given Chatterton is doing some marvellous things in the scene directly opposite her, it's amazing they could focus on Ouspenskaya's black widow. Alas. It's strange for a scene in any film to have one of the best and the worst performances going on at the very same time, but Dodsworth appears to manage that feat. So, er, congratulations some 77 years later. The rest of the film is just aces though.

1 comment:

NATHANIEL R said...

one of my all time favorite movies.