Hello, I Must Be Going

girl on bus decasia small

As the old year fades out, here’s a look at Bill Morrison’s beautiful and provocative “Decasia,” a film entirely assembled out of carefully chosen strips of decaying celluloid. Morrison reminds us, among many other things, that movies are at once glorious illusions situated outside the normal boundaries of time and space and highly fragile physical objects, subjected to a life cycle of their own. The fine new Blu-ray edition of Morrison’s 2002 film from Icarus brings his work into the digital realm, which is of course subject to its own kind of decay, possibly even more devastating in its effects than that which afflicts celluloid. No future Morrisons will be making movies of misaligned 1s and 0s. When a digital file goes, or when the technology to read it slips into obsolescence, it is gone completely and forever. It may well prove that the films of 2012 are more ephemeral than the films of 1912.

As has become custom in these parts at the end of the year, I’d like to invite everyone to submit their ten best lists, be they of new films, newly published DVDs, or older movies you’ve seen for the first time in these last twelve months. My next New York Times column won’t appear until Jan. 7.

177 comments to Hello, I Must Be Going

  • Robert Garrick

    This thread has spun off in some bizarre directions.

    First as to Capra: I think X has got it right. Capra voted Republican, but he was hardly a reactionary. He was just a Republican. And I don’t know how anyone could watch his films and figure out what his personal politics were.

    Moving to “Wonderful Life”: Earlier in this thread I mentioned that Sarris considered “Wonderful Life” a great film. He also had a problem with the film, and I have the same problem. It’s this: Nothing happens to Potter. Yes, James Stewart is saved, and it’s wonderful and life-affirming. But Potter, who did a bad thing, is ignored in the film’s ending. Shouldn’t there be at least a little pain?

    Gore Vidal said: “It’s not enough that I succeed. Others must fail.”

  • Barry Putterman

    Alex, of course there is an ideological point of view shaping the particulars in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. There is an ideological point of view shaping the particulars in all works of art.

    However, (1.) You never demonstrate how the ideology plays out in the film. (2.) You refer to McBride’s discussion of films other than IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. (3.) The objections that McBride is raising in your examples is ideological but (4.) Your objections, you insist, are aesthetic.

    So, what is anybody to make of that jumble? One thing is certain, the fact that Capra opposed the policies of the New Deal, something he had in common with Hawks, McCarey, La Cava and many other notable directors of the period, is pretty much irrelevant to any aesthetic and probably any ideological argument about the film.

    And if you thought that Joseph McBride was more right than left leaning than you weren’t paying much attention to his posts at this site. Which would also raise doubts about how thoroughly you understood his Capra book.

  • David Cohen

    Chiming in a little late, I am surprised that there are not more comments like the one from Jeremy White. This site often seems like an oasis among all the vitriol of the Web, particularly on political news sites such as the one that employs me. Still, folks are bound to wander in now and again. Mr. White, I hope he might come to realize, could learn a lot about film from reading this site even if he disagrees with our host’s judgment on every single movie he sees.

    About IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE: Has it ever struck anyone as odd that Potter gets to keep the money he basically stole? That is a straight violation of the Production Code, right? It would have a hard plot point to sort out, but harder plot points were sorted out in the interest of upholding the Code.

  • Barry Putterman

    Not really David. A central piece of Capra’s ideology is that community is more important than money and/or power. That is why Deeds will give away all of his money and Potter can keep the money since George Bailey has what Potter doesn’t, the love of the community, which makes him “the richest man in town.” If Potter had to give George Bailey back the money, then the ownership of the money would become the central point.

    And that is why somebody on the extreme left such as x can embrace Capra despite the fact that ultimately Capra belongs to the political right.

  • Robert Garrick

    Can anyone (Barry?) cite a central, recurring theme of Capra’s that evidences his supposed status as a creature of the political right?

    Above, Barry notes that “a central piece of Capra’s ideology is that community is more important than money and/or power.” Is that a right-wing notion? There are populists on the left and on the right, and until you get to the specifics it’s pretty hard to tell the difference.

    Capra’s personal politics were unremarkable and middling-to-Republican. (We should also recall that Capra was better educated than most directors–he graduated from Cal Tech.) Did Capra’s politics seep into his films? No doubt they did to some degree, but so probably did the politics of Sidney Buchman, a Communist who wrote “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” and Robert Riskin, who was an enthusiastic supporter of FDR’s economic policies.

  • Barry Putterman

    Robert, although Capra believed in the ideal of the community, he also feared the reality of it turning into an unruly mob. The recurring notion in Capra’s films is just that; the bank runs in AMERICAN MADNESS and IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, the John Doe followers turning on Gary Cooper in MEET JOHN DOE, etc.

    The tug of war for the soul of the community against the forces which would delude its gullible nature (the political machine in MR. SMITH, Potter in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, etc.) demands strong leadership. And it is Capra’s emphasis of the leadership figures rather than the community itself which puts him on the right. And probably accounts for his attraction to the strongman figures that Alex cites in his personal life.

  • David Cohen

    Barry (answering the 10:20 post), I understand your point from a Capra perspective – I am still surprised that he was able to work around the Production Code like that. This isn’t the same as the typical evasions of the 1940s, when you might be able to chalk it up to a knowing glance or an actor’s emphasis on a particular word, but an important plot point. The film is better for it; I am merely surprised Capra was able to pull it off.

  • Gregg Rickman

    As a political thinker, Capra is muddled, as I would hardly be the first to point out (the ending of DOE is the obvious example, but there are multiple examples throughout the work). As a filmmaker, Capra is astonishing, a master of both image and sound, with again multiple examples to be drawn from every film, or at least every film through 1948. (About a year ago saw his obscure silent POWER OF THE PRESS, and it was a course in just where to place your camera for maximum impact.) The former (Capra’s politics) is always overtalked, with the same points usually being made over and over again; the latter (Capra’s filmmaking) always cursorily mentioned and then ignored. Occasionally there’s an insight, as with some of the comments above, as for example Barry P’s just above.

    One area where Capra WAS prescient was in his awareness of the power of the media, a theme he returns to many times. Thought about this after catching up with the last day’s comments. There was a (surprise) funny segment on a SNL rerun last night. During the parody news segment Seth Myers had on a cast member who, in the guise of a “new media” advocate, proclaimed the equal value of some jeering, vulgar tweets, and the reasoned musings of a columnist in the New York Times. I think you see where I’m going here…

  • Robert Garrick

    Barry makes some good points, but they don’t skew politically to me. Who doesn’t fear an “unruly mob”? And short of a pure democracy–which we haven’t seen since ancient Greece–we have to find leaders, preferably strong ones, to represent the community. I suppose you could disagree with these ideas, but are they controversial?

    Capra had some nice things to say about Franco and Mussolini. So did FDR, and so did many other Americans back in the 1930s, when these figures were seen as bulwarks against communism.

    McBride covers this ground in his book (see pages 257-263), and it’s a pretty balanced view. Capra was not a political person, and his politics were not particularly well-known in Hollywood. Katharine Hepburn came out of “State of the Union,” for example, thinking that Capra was “quite liberal.” That was in 1948, after Capra’s most important films were already in the can.

  • Foster Grimm

    Greetings,
    As this current thread winds down as we await our host’s next upload, let me write that I just finished IT’S a WONDERFUL LIFE thirty minutes ago. I’m still sorting out my thoughts and feelings, but I caught up with the most recent discussions.
    To prepare I had hoped to take a second look at AMERICAN MADNESS (same setup) but I couldn’t get hold of it, so I viewed LADY FOR A DAY (first time) so I could compare one of Capra’s depression era films. I also read some critiques of IAWL, pro and con, before viewing. (I noted that Elliott Stein in his entry on Capra for “Cinema A Critical Dictionary” writes about “Capracorn.”)
    IAWL obviously meant a lot to Capra. I didn’t buy it, but I’m glad to have finally seen it.
    Robert G points out that nothing happens to Potter. In the early Capra films I’ve seen, the Plutocrat figures generally seem to come around to the protagonist’s point of view – or, at least,show a human side (the bank directors in AMERICAN MADNESS, the mayor and governor in LADY FOR A DAY, the Edward Arnold character in YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU. Could this earlier take have been Riskin’s influence as FDR was regarded as a plutocrat who betrayed his class?) Potter is unredeemed.
    Barry P – I’m not sure I would I would agree that the community in IAWL is gullible. Everyone in Bedford Falls realizes what Potter is. If Pottersville turned out the way it did is it because no one knows anything else and Potter owns it all anyway? There are no choices. And certainly George Bailey is no strongman figure.
    One amusing point to me was that the beginning bit in the heavens brought to mind the ending of HOLY MOTORS.
    Regarding LADY FOR A DAY – is it possible Riskin or Capra or Runyon were aware of THE THREEPENNY OPERA? Apple Annie’s only friends are (real) beggar’s or
    “underworld” types. And Warren William would have been a fantastic Macheath.
    Well, it has been an interesting week and I thank everyone for the beginnings of a HAPPY NEW YEAR.
    Now on to THE MOON IS BLUE for me, Buster Keaton for us all.

    Cheers,
    Foster

  • mike schlesinger

    In addition to Riskin and Buchman, another key Capra writer was Jo Swerling, an admitted Communist. If memory serves, McBride’s book notes that in his later years, Capra regretted some of his less liberal beliefs, especially after the FBI investigated HIM for supposed Communist ties.

  • Robert Garrick

    “It’s a Wonderful Life” is an interesting sideways reworking of “A Christmas Carol,” but it’s darker. In the Dickens work, Scrooge is redeemed, things turn out better for the Cratchit family, and the world is a happier place as we close the story. (Leo Tolstoy’s biographers say that he was more moved by “A Christmas Carol” than by perhaps any other work.)

    There’s no transcendence for Potter at the end of “Wonderful Life,” and, as far as we know, he gets to keep the money. Initially, this can be jarring, as it was to me and to Andrew Sarris. But it tells you a lot about what Capra was up to in the film. The world is not remade at the end of “Wonderful Life,” but George Bailey is made to “see” more clearly, and his greater understanding makes him ecstatically happy. Learning to deal with the evil in the world, rather than expecting to see it always eradicated, is a fairly realistic approach. It’s perhaps not as satisfying as the standard “happy ending,” and it probably explains why “Wonderful Life” was not a success on its first release. But the treatment of Potter is a key to understanding the film. In the end, Potter simply doesn’t matter.

    The misplaced $8,000 in “Wonderful Life” turns out to be as important as the stolen $40,000 in “Psycho.” “These were crimes of passion, not profit,” said Simon Oakland in “Psycho.” The $8,000 (which–remember–was not stolen by Potter) also turns out to be a MacGuffin, as Stewart’s suicidal depression over the money gradually turns into a complete lack of concern. Capra cheats a bit by showering Stewart with money from friends in the final scene–bills still have to be paid, after all. But by the time that happens, Stewart has already been changed.

  • Alex

    “Alex, of course there is an ideological point of view shaping the particulars in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. There is an ideological point of view shaping the particulars in all works of art.
    “However, (1.) You never demonstrate how the ideology plays out in the film. (2.) You refer to McBride’s discussion of films other than IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. (3.) The objections that McBride is raising in your examples is ideological but (4.) Your objections, you insist, are aesthetic.”

    Barry, You are somewhat opaque. (1.) The ideology plays out in the film as the voluntaristic giving at the heart of LIFE’s finale is the dramatized “voluntaristic giving” of Capra’s ideology. (2.) McBride’s uses “voluntaristic giving” as a general ideological characterization of the latter Capra of roughly MR DEEDs on that is quite –indeed manifestly– applicable to IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. (3.) The objections raised by McBride that I draw upon may be ideological but my application to IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE is (4)aesthetic in the straightforward sense that the ideology is IMPOSED by Capra on the design of LIFE’s narrative (culminating in the film’s resolution via “voluntaristic” giving”)
    I introduced mention of Capra’s ideology as a response to your point that the finale was all concrete particulars grounded in character to the exclusion of ideology which you accused me of dragging in and imposing. So, I object to the design not because it is “Republican,” but because it is the sort of imposition on the narrative that you charge me with imposing my viewing. That a design that resolves cumulative personal crisis with sudden neighborly largesse would be limp with sentimentality even if created in a pre-New Deal about an isolated community –and thus innocent of serving as the sort of red herring it serves as in LIFE.
    Of course, sufficient aesthetic satisfaction from Capra’s salvation of neighborly largesse may incline one to see Capra’s ideological side trumped by the sheer artistic force of the moment. If so, then I recommend repeated viewing of the youth-for-Smith-on-bicycles- segments of MR. SMITH and turning to the death of little Nell in Dickens’s “Old Curiosity Shop,” as well as dropping health insurance coverage after securing residence in a locale where Charity health care is assured.

    Of course, you might simple turn to a reviewing of LIFE. How especially enjoyable to see the film in a state of critically unalloyed enjoyment.

  • Alex

    Critically unallayed enjoyment as well!

  • Barry Putterman

    Foster, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE sets up a tension between The Building and Loan as the institution of community development and Potter’s bank as the intrument of individual gratification. The film depicts how George Bailey has to continually sacrifice his personal ambitions of world travel to stay in Bedford Falls and run The Building and Loan, thus preventing Bedford Falls from turning into Potterville.

    When George’s father dies he is prevented from going off to college by the board of directors who will vote with Potter unless George stays to run The Building and Loan. When the stock market crashes, the depositers panic and George has to spend his honeymoon money to keep The Building and Loan from going under and into Potter’s hands. All through the film George has to abandon his personal plans to save the community from its own worst instincts.

    At the climax of the film George is suicidal not primarily because the money has been lost, but because he has sacrificed his personal ambitions for what he believes to be a worthless effort. He momentarily gives in to Potter’s judgement that he is “worth more dead than alive.” However, he is shown in fantasy how without his actions Bedford Falls would have become Potterville. And then he is shown in reality how the community recognizes his efforts on their behalf and are willing to sacrifice their personal interests for him in retribution. The image from the resolution that always sticks with me is of the man who had angrily insisted on drawing out every last dollar he had in The Building and Loan during the panic chuckling while he throws his money into the pot while saying “Another run on the bank George?”

    In the left wing version of this story the community would find the strength within itself to run The Building and Loan and save themselves from becoming Potterville rather than relying on an individual savior like George Bailey. And, in his personal life, Capra also was looking for individual saviors rather than the community taking control in his political thinking.

    And Alex, I hope that the preceding was of value to you as well, wherever you are.

  • Alex

    There have been an average of over 1,000,00o persona; bankrupcy petitions and 1,000,000 mortgage forclosures per year in recent years (in the U.S.). Much has been reported on this, yet news of neighborly and (and ” individual”) saviors for the bankrupt and forclosed has not been very evident.

    However, on the health insurance front there was encouragement from Ron Paul during a Repub;ican Primary debate of 01-09-2012 that –ab ove and beyond ER access– Charity health care was available to the uninsured.

  • Barry Putterman

    Alex, thank you for the Politico news. And this relates to a fictional film made in 1946 in the following ways: ?

  • JP Santiago

    To Dave: I have been hovering around your website for years and wanted to say how much I appreciate the site and the informative and enlightening discussions that your colleagues and cinephiles create.

    Two Questions: I know some of the people who comment by reputation, but others I am not so familiar with. Are the majority of the people coming from film criticism backgrounds? I would imagine since the discourse that transpires is very astute.I consider myself a cinephile, however, never on the level of the people who comment on this site. That’s why I’m so hesitant to put my two cents in.

    Final question: I think everyone at this site would love to see a list of your own (of course I mean Mr. Kehr) insights on the movie year of 2012. Whether it be of new discoveries of past cinema or some of your enjoyments, suprises, and dissapointments of recent releases. Lists, top ten, and year end polls serve only one purpose for me and that’s the discovery of films that were off my radar. That being said I now will amuse with my evaluations of the past year.

    2012 (In no order)

    Deep Blue Sea
    Oslo, August 31st
    The Master( a baffling film I’m still trying to work my through)
    Bernie
    The Grey(our me and A.O scott alone on this one) Anybody else?
    Life of Pi
    Flight( Thank you Dave for moving me toward the joys of Zemeckis)
    Moonrise Kingdom
    Sister( How can anyone not love Lea Seydoux)
    Lincoln(but with many reservations)
    Kid with a bike

    New Discoveries

    The Hanging Tree(Daves)
    The One That Got Away(Baker)
    Time Out and Heading South( Cantet)
    Exiled(To) Can’t wait to watch Life without Principle)
    Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance(Park)
    Un Flic(Melville..not his best but worth a look)
    Run for Cover(Ray)
    Sylvia(Douglas)
    Matinee(Dante)

  • mike schlesinger

    “In the left wing version of this story the community would find the strength within itself to run The Building and Loan and save themselves from becoming Potterville rather than relying on an individual savior like George Bailey. And, in his personal life, Capra also was looking for individual saviors rather than the community taking control in his political thinking.”

    Already done:

    http://www.hulu.com/#!watch/4267

  • Foster Grimm

    Barry, Robert, Thank you both for your insights.
    I must say that if I had come to IAWL cold, I would not have been able to tell if Capra was left, right or in the middle.
    My own feeling is that George’s actions towards the end are dramatically forced. But, then, that applies to a number of dramatic scenarios we know and love.
    For a film I never thought about for many years this whole discussion has put these fading brain cells to work. Cheers to all.

    Foster

  • A terrific DVD set first watched last year is “Treasures 5: The West, 1898-1938″. First learned about this from Dave Kehr’s column.
    All the treasure sets are great.
    Everyone here would perhaps like best WOMANHANDLED (Gregory La Cava) from this set.
    Showed this to my computer club. These guys were soon totally caught up and laughing their heads off.

    Other early cinema: saw FANOTOMAS (Feuillade) for the first time.

    Brian,
    Just saw CAROL FOR ANOTHER CHRISTMAS (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1964). Fascinating talk-fest on Big Issues. Have you seen this? Written by Rod Serling.

    LIghter old TV: The original musical CINDERELLA (Ralph Nelson, 1957) with Julie Andrews. Great fun. And with the creative camera movements often found in 1950′s live TV.

    Happy New Year everyone!

  • jbryant

    Mike: I have to say I thought Serling’s script for CAROL FOR ANOTHER CHRISTMAS was pretty awful. I know Mankiewicz often (always?) rewrote the scripts he directed, but I’m guessing Serling had a free hand in this one. Visually, however, it’s often quite something, so no one can accuse Mank of slumming.

  • alex

    Barry,

    LIFE strives for social allegory without a wit of social truth, descriptive or prescriptive. None now any more or less than in 1946.

    Perhaps it has some truth as fantasy — a realistic social crisis resolved with a fantasy suited to the reality. Out of a market failure a saint, and then an outbreak of Christian action to shame that run on the bank.

    After all there’s the fanciful presence of Clarence. And commercial success did arrive for LIFE with its metamorphosis as — yes, once again– a Christmas movie.

  • alex

    Robert Garrick,

    Interesting viewing Bailey’s epiphany of a wonderful life as a stand alone wrap up with the arrival of those baskets of money as a rather incidental filigree (cheating or not) rather than integral to the happy ending. Doing so brings the film down to earth, marginalizing the film’s final fancy. (But, to only slightly paraphrase you, “the bills MUST be paid.”)

  • Alex

    “Capra voted Republican, but he was hardly a reactionary. He was just a Republican.”

    The merits of LIFE aside, yes, Capra may have been mainly soem kind of Republican, perhaps not a reactionary as one could have time travelled forward from the 1930s and 1940s and found the type just a Presidential election of two ago:

    “…. for Smith that idea is to love thy neighbor, and it has led him to propose the establishment of camps for homeless boys to be paid for by private contributions and not by the state. In “Meet John Doe,” the reluctant hero (played by Gary Cooper) is a free-spirit hobo whose words (written for him by Barbara Stanwyck) inspire the formation of John Doe clubs dedicated to justice and the spreading of good-neighbor citizenship. In “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,” the title hero (again played by Gary Cooper ) resolves to give away an inherited fortune by offering 10-acre farms to down-and-out families who agree to work them. In “State of the Union,” an industrialist-turned-politician (played by Spencer Tracy) withdraws from a presidential contest because he will not be owned by or beholden to a party; he wants to speak in his own voice.
    In each of these films the forces of statism, corporatism and mercantilism are routed by the spontaneous uprising of ordinary men who defeat the sophisticated machinations of their opponents by declaring, living and fighting for a simple basic creed of individualism, self-help, independence and freedom.
    Does that sound familiar? It should. It describes what we have come to know as the Tea Party, which famously has no leaders, no organization, no official platform, no funds from the public trough. Although she only mentions the Tea Party briefly in her book, Palin is busily elaborating its principles, first in the lengthy discussion of Capra’s Jefferson Smith and then, at the end of the same chapter, in an equally lengthy discussion of Martin Luther King. ”

    – STANLEY FISH (Exceptionalism, Faith and Freedom: Palin’s America, New York Times, The Opinionater, JANUARY 17, 2011, 8:00 PM )

  • Yann Heckmann

    One more addition that hasn’t been mentioned (cheating a bit because I just watched it, but it’s a 2012 release):

    Thomas Vinterberg’s JAGTEN (“The Hunt”) – it was an incredibly intense experience and should have been an Oscar contender.

  • Arsaib

    My Top 15 of 2012:

    Amour / Michael Haneke
    Barbara / Christian Petzold
    Farewell, My Queen / Benoît Jacquot
    Flight / Robert Zemeckis
    Gangs of Wasseypur: Part II / Anurag Kashyap
    Holy Motors / Léos Carax
    In Another Country / Hong Sang-soo
    Inside / Zeki Demirkubuz
    Magic Mike / Steven Soderbergh
    The Master / Paul Thomas Anderson
    Moonrise Kingdom / Wes Anderson
    Motorway / Soi Cheang
    On the Road / Walter Salles
    Penance / Kurosawa Kiyoshi
    Rent-a-Cat / Ogigami Naoko