Come the Revolution!

The was nothing good about Jan 6, 2021 when a group of violent morons, incited by the President, attacked the U.S. Capitol Building. Nothing. What it says about how low our country has sunk cannot be overstated.

Taken as fiction, the events of this last week would never have seemed possible. “A group of angry, white guys, directed by the the President, and lead by a guy with a painted face and wearing a viking helmet, easily pushes past security and make members of Congress flee for their lives as they ransack the Capitol.” It never would have gotten past the intern assigned to read scripts. Just too stupid and implausible.

And it was. Stupid and implausible. And never, ever….ever, should have happened.

But, those scenes did remind me of things I had seen before. In the movies. Where they belong.

Tragic events, distanced and fictionalized. Violence and chaos created exclusively for the purpose of pure entertainment in a place where nobody really gets hurt. A place where nobody really dies.

Maybe watching some of these films would make me less angry. Maybe watching them would remind me that such things are fine and entertaining as long as they are fiction. As long as they are not real.

Then again, that may be too big of an ask. The way things are going, it’s getting harder and harder to tell reality from fiction.

A guy in a viking helmet? Really? WTF?!

MARIE ANTOINETTE

Directed by Sophia Coppola, this is the story a young Ivanka….Sorry, I couldn’t resist. Anyway, Sophia Coppola came out with this film back in 2006 to, as they say, “mixed reviews.” I was actually disappointed myself, at the time.

Part of that disappointment was almost inevitable. Sophia had made her debut with her dark and compelling adaptation of Jeffery Eugenides’ VIRGIN SUICIDES. That was followed up by 2003’s LOST IN TRANSLATION, a movie which propelled her to worldwide acclaim and respect as filmmaker to be reckoned with.

Expectations for MARIE ANTOINETTE were high, to say the least. Something apparent from its key slot at the Cannes Film Festival where it was both applauded and jeered.

It’s not a bad movie. It’s just not anywhere nearly as good as LOST IN TRANSLATION and VIRGIN SUICIDES.

When I first saw it, I remembered feeling like I was watching the outtakes to some other movie. They were lavish, lush, beautiful images set to a soundtrack every hipster could love. Absolutely amazing in terms of art direction, lighting and editing. But, like, where was the, ya know, story?

Sophia Coppola’s films are all very gentle in terms of dramatic arc. It’s one of the things I think makes her a unique director with a very unique sensibility.

Even when it comes together perfectly, as in LOST IN TRANSLATION, there are still some people that watch it and just don’t get it. They’re looking for bigger, more structured, more traditional. Sophia just doesn’t tell stories that way.

The problem is that in MARIE ANTOINETTE that story arc is so minimal it gets absolutely lost under all the pretty gloss. It is there. Something I can appreciate now more than when I first saw it. But it’s damn hard to find or really care about.

In Sophia’s defense, it’s also damn hard to make a movie about characters who are ignorant, unaware and completely absorbed by the trivial dramas of their own luxurious, sealed-off little world instead of being in touch with reality.

Which is a shame. There seems to be a lot of new source material out there for such films.

LES MISERABLES (1934)

Please ignore all other versions of this film. Seriously. They are crap. Cheezy, over-the-top, ridiculous, crap. This version, the 1934 French version by director Raymond Bernard, is the only one you should ever bother with. And, the thing is, it’s great.

It is the only film version which comes close to representing the scope and depth of Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel. Like the others, it follows the life of Jean Valjean as he steals bread, goes to prison and tries to rebuild his life while pursued by obsessed police inspector, Javert.

However, unlike the other film adaptations, it also captures the complexity of those characters, the world in which the events unfold, and the dramatic, sometimes violent, changes that took place in that world.

In short, it’s fantastic filmmaking. Which is probably the time to prepare you, some would say warn you, that you’re going to have to work a little as a viewer.

The 1934 version of LES MISERABLES is not particularly obtuse or radical at all. It’s very straightforward story telling. But….it’s old, black and white, French and four-and-a-half hours long. Yep, four-and-a-half hours.

Many people would say these are not obstacles to any but the laziest viewers. I don’t agree with that. I think even people that can appreciate slower, more difficult movies still need their distractions (see my last post, THE CRAP I WATCHED IN 2020).

The Criterion release of this version is actually broken down into three separate films, which is the way I watched it. I watched one each evening for three nights in a row and had no problem being totally engaged. It’s not boring in the least. Quite the opposite. It’s a really good story, told really well.

It’s not only a “great” movie, it’s extremely entertaining.

WAR AND PEACE (1966)

Although not so much a film about revolution, it would be remiss to talk about historic adaptations which captured turbulent times without mentioning WAR AND PEACE.

There are several adaptations, many of which are entertaining, but only one which captures the massive scale of Tolstoy’s novel. The Russian version from 1966, directed by Sergei Bondarchuk.

This film is the ultimate epic.

When I say epic, this is the kind of thing I am talking about: A running time of over seven hours. The use of over twenty-thousand extras. The use of historic sites and monuments, including the Kremlin, throughout Russia. Battle scenes unrivaled in terms of the numbers of human, horses, uniforms, cannons etc. (remember, this is long before CGI). There is just nothing small about it.

Keep in mind, this is a theatrical release we are talking about. Something seen in theaters. Not a made-for-television event. It was released as either four separate theatrical films, to be seen one after the other, or combined into just two, longer releases.

The thing is, this wasn’t just a movie. This was a Russian state project. One designed to show the entire world the greatness of Russian history and culture, and the capabilities of its state-sponsored film industry.

It worked.

It’s not the greatest film of all time. There are parts of it which are wooden and slow. Lots of them, actually. None of which matters once you see the ballroom scenes of hundreds of people in period dress waltzing, or the burning of Moscow, or the absolutely mind-blowing battle of Austerlitz scene featuring thousands upon thousands of extras sweeping down the hills in period Napoleonic uniforms.

It was an incredible spectacle in its day. Given that today’s blockbuster movies are all about quick-read characters and expensive computer effects, it’s even more amazing to see now.

DR. ZHIVAGO

Only David Lean could make a film about the Russian Revolution in all its brutality and make it this romantic and pretty.

This in one of my least favorite David Lean films. I much prefer LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, BRIDGE OVER RIVER KWAI, HOBSON’S CHOICE or GREAT EXPECTATIONS.

There is no doubt that he is a great filmmaker. Yet, I always found DR. ZHIVAGO kind of weak. It’s just so stiff and artificial that I can never forget it’s a movie. And the prettiness is a big part of that. The Russian Revolution was barbaric and violent, no matter which side you were on. Something this film seems to just kind of ignore.

I guess you could make the same criticism about any historic event depicted in films. The French Revolution was no picnic either but somehow made palatable in the version of LES MISERABLES that I keep going on about. But, somehow, it’s just not as bad.

Maybe it’s those obviously fake sets. Maybe it’s Omar Sherif. Maybe it’s the catchiness and beauty of the music. Or maybe it’s the focus on the love story over all else, historical fact be damned!

But, it has its fans. A lot of them. And even won a bunch of major honors and awards. So, there’s something to it, I guess.

If you have three hours to kill, which, given Covid, is highly possible, I recommend you give it a try and judge for yourself. You may find a new favorite. Or, like me, you might be wondering how such a slick, sappy film ever got so much acclaim.

CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES

One might be tempted to compare the apes who revolt in CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES to those who attacked the Capitol on January 6th. Please don’t. It’s a real insult to the apes.

Shot almost entirely on location in a Mid-Century-Modern shopping mall, this is a story about a revolution that is actually noble. The sort that is worthy of honor and admiration. It did, eventually, mean the enslavement of mankind to apes but whatever.

It’s hard not to cheer for Cornelius, the ape from the future who can think, speak and reason far better than most humans. He suffers indignity, violence and even torture at the hands of the humans determined to keep apes subjected. Without apes as slaves, the humans would have no one to carry their many purchases from the mall, for one thing. Obviously, unacceptable.

There’s a great, extended riot scene in the mall when the apes have finally had enough. There’s police lines. Molotov cocktails. Angry mobs. And then, in one final moment when the apes have clearly won the night, they prove, once and for all, that they are clearly superior to humans.

Given what happened recently at the Capitol, it looks like they may have been right.