Films of a Bygone Era

email 20 Nov 2008

And The Bygone Era is the 1980s.  There were a group of films that came out around the same time period where I see connections.  I’ve written of this before, connections of one film to another that others may have not made — connections which would seem tenuous or abstract if you just wrote the titles on a list.

First on the list is a movie I first glimpsed on TV in my dorm room freshman year at Tropicana Gardens, Brazil (1985, Jonathan Pryce, Robert DeNiro, other stars).  I saw just a few minutes of it and thought, what is this?  My suite-mate Dan Gibbons (whom I wrote of in my college stories) commented on the various gadgets depicted in the film as things that never quite worked being brought to the center of this society’s technological paradigm.  What specifically he was speaking of were the magnifying screens placed in front of CRTs; this film is lush with such hackneyed apparatuses.

Brazil is a gorgeous, exceptionally rich film, a great cinematic masterpiece.  It is the magnum opus of director Terry Gilliam from the Monty Python school.  I had become certain that it was a version of Orwell’s 1984, but I’ve read that the writers did not have that in mind at all.  There are enough differences, but the over-arching storyline is identical as far as I am concerned.  This film, as I said, is rich – a visual feast.  Humor runs throughout the film, and not generally dark, but more farcical.  The comedy plays in complementary relief to the more serious tones of the film, which surround a great, romantic, compelling story.

That story, very briefly, involves our hapless hero Sam Lowry (Pryce), a bureaucrat stuck in the midst of one of the several ministries which comprise the giant overbearing government.  On a field trip to return a payment to a citizen, he catches a glimpse of a girl, becomes enraptured, and the romance begins.  At the same time he becomes snarled up, literally, in the government tangles that he has shown to be adept at managing.  As I said, the general storyline follows 1984, but less the hopeless oppression and with enough differences to keep you wondering what will develop next.

This is one of my favorite films of all time, as Rebecca can attest.  I had it on VHS and watched it repeatedly; then she gave me a 3-DVD set.  It is highly recommended to all; Laura, I imagine you are the only one reading this now who may not have seen it.  Make sure you watch a DVD optimized for wide-screen TVs.  It is one of those films like Casablanca that merits another full viewing if it’s been 10 years since the last time.

Now how is it that I draw a line from Brazil to Kiss of the Spider Woman?  I think more than anything it is the lush, lovely, highly cinematic visions that each draw.  These are films that make you think that this is what movies are all about – the definition of what I call “cinematic.”  Movies for people who love movies.  They also both hail from 1985, and seem to speak to me about that time in my life.

As is Brazil, Kiss of the Spider Woman is a gorgeous, lush film.  It takes place in a South American prison.  Now right away, if someone told me that, I’d say no way am I watching that.  But there is nothing at all gloomy about it.  Most of the story is dialogue between two cell mates, one of whom is a homosexual (William Hurt), the other a political prisoner played by the now-deceased Raul Julia.  Hurt, in the greatest, most quintessentially William-Hurt-like role of his life, performed while at the height of his career, also delivers the film-within-a-film, a black and white movie about a performer in Nazi-era Europe, the Spider Woman.  This film-within-a-film adds greatly to the cinematic punch of the overall picture, as it is lauded and lavished upon by Hurt.  The Spider Woman also serves as a sort of alter ego to Hurt, and in turn the B&W picture serves as an alternate telling of the story of the cell mates.  A brilliant movie, a must see, exceptionally rewarding.

William Hurt followed Kiss with Children of a Lesser God and Broadcast News, each recommended, though the latter more so than the former.  What a string of greats he was on.  I remember at the time thinking he was the biggest star around.  He then starred with Geena Davis in the delightful comedy/romance, The Accidental Tourist.  A charming movie, though it’s been a while since I’ve seen it.  Recommended, as is Broadcast News, which I remember seeing in Westwood – the triumphant debut to most audiences of Holly Hunter, who draws you in so strongly with her pluck and charm.

Along these lines, and again I’m not sure why I make this connection so strongly – maybe it’s the utter delight that all these films are imbued with, I think of the giant blockbuster of 1985, Back to the Future.  I know we’ve all seen this, but I just wanted to draw that connection.  1985, but I think of it as 1986, because when I went to college there were flyers all over the place advertising a showing of Back to the Future at UCSB’s main auditorium, Campbell Hall.  The electricity in that audience was as if the movie had just been released.  It was the first campus showing of a movie that I had experienced (other than a much, much smaller showing of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, many years before at UCR with my folks), and I thought wow, have I got a lot of fun times ahead of me here in college!  Well, I did, but not so much because of the movies being shown on campus.

* * *

As I’m skipping along on this road, the next stop is a movie you probably have not seen, for a change – The Brother from Another Planet.  This feels to me like a true blast from the past, of an even further bygone era – the 70s!  But in fact it was made in 1984 by the director John Sayles, generally thought to be most well known for Lone Star (1996), and is also responsible for other films of some acclaim which I have not seen.   Regardless of all that, Brother has a special place in my heart.  It was a homework assignment for my first quarter freshman English composition class at UCSB, a class that was monumentally influential on my appreciation of the arts.  In this class we read Heart of Darkness and Tristan and Isolde, as well as a collection of fantastic short stories.  I believe I still have that short story anthology in my box of books.

As part of his instuction, James Houlihan (I believe that was his name), a young teacher who I believe did not have any sort of professor status, played music in class, including, you guessed it, Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde – the overture at least, and in connection with that story, Dire Straits’ tragic, bleedingly romantic “Romeo and Juliet.”  I completely fell in love with that album, probably a little too much as it may have unduly affected my ability to think regarding the opposite sex — but I can talk more about that later.  Houlihan even played Wagner as part of the final exam.

Along with the music, he directed us to see two films that were showing on campus.  One was a Japanese film, I believe, that I have only vague memories of now.  I wonder if could dig out the old notebook from that class and find what that movie was.  The other one left an indelible impression on me – The Brother from Another Planet.  It is about a lanky, young black man who arrives in NYC from outer space.  Where does he crash land?  Ellis Island, of course!  He begins to make his way around the streets of New York, picking up the cultural do’s and don’ts and gaining some friends and employment based on his special abilities.  This a great masterpiece in its own small and quiet way.  Its unique telling of the classic story of a stranger in a strange land acts as a parable to the greater challenge that immigrants or refuges have faced at any time in history, and eloquently captures the concept of attempting life as an outcast.

Only problem is, I forget how it ends.  I guess I need to get a copy myself pretty soon.

Finally tonight, I wanted to reiterate my recommendation of Casablanca.  I know we’ve all seen it, but it’s worth a fresh look from beginning to end if it’s been some time since you’ve seen it.  I do not feel compelled to provide any criticism at this point, as I think one or two people may have commented on it already.  I group it with these other movies, especially when I think of Kiss of the Spider Woman.  There is that sense of wonderment in Casablanca, that cinematic beauty, which these films share.  And all these films I write of tonight fit I think with the holiday time that is upon us.  It feels to me like a good time to re-visit these cheerful classics as we celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas with a frugal perspective which, instead of burdening my mood, I intend to turn into vigorous advantage.

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One thought on “Films of a Bygone Era

  1. Pingback: Topical Tuesday: Brazil and the Boston Bombings | movies remark

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