Saturday, January 29, 2011


Caught three old(er) movies the last few nights I think of as "classics" in their own ways.

Or at least I did the last time I saw them (or first and only in the case of YOUNG VICTORIA).

But after watching them again this time, it became clear to me that only one of these really holds up (at least for now and for me) as truly a classic: THE ASPHALT JUNGLE.

Directed by John Houston and shot by Harold Rosson, it is an extremely stylized example of "film noir" at its darkest and most potent. Every shot is framed like a work of minimalist expressionism, and every line of dialogue (Houston shares credit for the screenplay, adapted from a "pulp fiction" novel) like an existentialist hipster's line of poetry.

Yes, sometimes some of the acting seems over the top and some of the lines melodramatic, but the directing is so restrained within the framework of the genre that it comes across as a kind of introductory course in mid-20th century philosophy, Wittgenstein and all.

Anyway, I used to think it was worth it just for Marylin Monroe's first real exposure as the dumb blond bombshell but with her own unique twist on that, but it's worth it for everything about it. A true work of art.

BEING THERE I used to feel the same way about. And it's certainly worth watching. Sellers is at his peak as another unique movie star, and Melvyn Douglas is so good as the dying conservative gazillionaire (and at the time he was not only dying but was still courageously standing up to the real conservative gazillionaires and their lackeys in real life) and Shriley McClain as his trophy wife that it still works for the most part.

But ultimately, there's a lot about it that's dated and not in the beautifully stylized way of ASPHALT JUNGLE, more as in the way TV shows from the '80s are dated, uninterestingly for the most part and sometimes uncomfortably.

And it isn't shot near as artistically, though director Hal Ashby is obviously going for that (and some scene do pull it off). It's meant to be pretty stark in its own way, as ASPHALT JUNGLE is perfectly. But BEING THERE comes across in some scenes as not as pictorially focused or thought out, while in others as too calculated to impress. And some scenes seem almost randomly framed rather than deliberately, and not in the good "randomness" of chance or inspiration or deliberate rawness but rather in the bland and overlit way of, again, bad TV of the 1980s.

And THE YOUNG VICTORIA is still a small gem of a movie, directed and shot and acted to match the best of that kind of royal Brit cinematic drama. But, as beautiful as it is to look at, the intimate scenes between the young Victoria and the handsome young Prince Albert in their marriage bed, seemed like something out of a cable serial from the beginning of this century, rather than the real private life of "Victorians" from two centuries ago.

I felt like I was watching two hot young British actors of these times rather than Victoria and Albert, unlike say the Cate Blanchett movie about Elizabeth the first, or Helen Mirren's about the present Queen Elizabeth, where the private and public lives seem consistent with what we know about the actual people and their times.

I got great pleasure from watching all three movies, as I do from any move that has something worthwhile in it to watch. But if I ever get the urge to make a list of movies I consider to be true "classics"—only THE ASPHALT JUNGLE of these three will be on it.


Robert G. Zuckerman said...

"I like to watch..."

-K- said...

I went to a DVD sale a few weeks ago with the express purpose of buying "The Asphalt Jungle." To me, its a movie where all the characters just jump of the screen with authenticity. I attribute this to John Huston as both co-writer and director in that so many of his films share this depth of characterization.

And he got great performances from Louis Calhern, Sam Jaffee and of Sterling Hayden.

I've never had the patience to sit through "Being There." The premise is prepostorous (sp?) and there's a unpleasant tone to it (glib snideness?) that I think you might have mentioned.

But maybe I'm just not as big of a Peter Sellars fan as I thought I was. I watched some of "Lolita" the other night and kept thinking "More James Mason, less Peter Sellars please."

Lally said...

Yeah, I always thought BEING THERE was on some levels a commentary in the form of a fable on Reagan's presidency and era. The the guy without a clue who's over simplistic analyses and statements are taken for deep and he becomes popular and is made the spokesman for the interests of a conservative corporate cabal that puts him in office, etc.

As well, obviously, as a satire on what was becoming a passive audiences for expanding media options etc. But the story was paper thin and despite some stylized shots and art direction a lot, as I see it, of the shots seemed randomly framed and the lighting and set ups seemed TVish (maybe deliberate given the theme) and though the acting was well done, the emotions and thoughts being acted were too broad to sustain any satisfaction in continued viewing. Which is the test, at least mine, for a "classic"—am I drawn to watch it again and again. In the case of BEING THERE the answer is a resounding no.