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Million Dollar Movie


In the latest issue of the New Yorker, David Denby reviews Mark Harris’ new book, Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War:

In early 1944, John Huston made a film about an infantry unit’s tortuous struggle to clear the Germans out of San Pietro, a small town northwest of Naples, and the surrounding countryside. When “The Battle of San Pietro” came out, in 1945, it was hailed for the power and the grit of its combat scenes and for its portrait of civilian misery, and Huston was praised for his courage. The film has been honored in those terms many times since. Yet, as Harris reports, the scenes in “The Battle of San Pietro” were largely re-created after the town had been taken from the Germans. Huston had access to official accounts of the struggle, culled from interviews with soldiers who had fought in it, and he used maps and a pointer to keep the American tactics and the chronology straight. But the bloody progress of the G.I.s across fields and along a stony ridge outside the town was staged; Huston’s actors were soldiers whom the Army assigned to the project. The men certainly look the part, their faces fatigued and worried. Huston asked them to stare into the camera now and then, as people do in newsreel footage. At times, the camera jerks wildly, as Ford’s camera had in Midway. Huston turned the signatures of authenticity into artifact.

“San Pietro” ends with text that demurely admits that some of the footage was taken before or after the actual battle—which hardly amounts to full disclosure. Harris has seen the mass of uncut footage, and he’s indignant about the imposture. Yet the issue remains complicated. Certainly, it’s dishonest to claim that something is authentic when it’s not. But all movies are illusions of one sort or another, and perhaps it’s best to say that some illusions are truer than others. In the case of war, what kind of representation brings you the most vivid and the most accurate sense of a terrible event? Steven Spielberg, staging the D Day landing in “Saving Private Ryan,” delivered a greater sense of the deadly turmoil on Omaha Beach than either John Ford or George Stevens, both of whom were in Normandy during the landing, with multiple crews and hundreds of cameras. Many of the cameras were unmanned or didn’t work; the footage recorded that day is largely out of focus or grisly in a fragmentary way.

The War Department wanted morale-building movies for the home front, and, under pressure, both Ford and Wyler softened their groundbreaking work. Ford added hokily reassuring dialogue (spoken by Jane Darwell and Henry Fonda) to “Midway”; Wyler included scenes of ceremonial visits to the Memphis Belle by top generals and by the King and Queen of England. In “The Battle of San Pietro,” Huston offers no such reassurance. As the soldiers advance through smoke and mist, many of them falling to machine-gun fire, the tone of the narration, which Huston himself speaks, is grim. The beautiful old town, when the Americans get there, is nothing but rubble. The survivors look exhausted—not jubilant but merely relieved that their part of the war is over. Huston not only presents the physical hardships of battle; he creates the war as a cultural and moral catastrophe. The sense of desolation is broken only at the end of the movie, by a scene of children playing in the street, their innocent faces making a minimal claim against despair. Even if the images are mostly contrived, “San Pietro” is aesthetically of a piece—and magnificent.

Million Dollar Movie

I can’t bear to watch movies directed by Baz Luhrmann. They are frenetic and dizzying and unpleasant. David Denby, reviewing Luhrmann’s new version of The Great Gatsby in this week’s New Yorker, says “Luhrmann’s vulgarity is designed to win over the young audience, and it suggests that he’s less a filmmaker than a music-video director with endless resources and a stunning absence of taste.” Denby also notes that “when Luhrmann calms down, however, and concentrates on the characters, he demonstrates an ability with actors that he hasn’t shown in the past.”

Leonardo DiCaprio looks like a good fit for Gatsby, doesn’t he? I’m curious to see his performance but I don’t know if I could sit through the rest of it.

Denby concludes:

Will young audiences go for this movie, with its few good scenes and its discordant messiness? Luhrmann may have miscalculated. The millions of kids who have read the book may not be eager for a flimsy phantasmagoria. They may even think, like many of their elders, that “The Great Gatsby” should be left in peace. The book is too intricate, too subtle, too tender for the movies. Fitzgerald’s illusions were not very different from Gatsby’s, but his illusionless book resists destruction even from the most aggressive and powerful despoilers.

For more on Gatsby check out this post by the late Roger Ebert.

Million Dollar Movie

“The Social Network” is getting rave reviews. Check out this gusher from David Denby in The New Yorker:

“The Social Network,” directed by David Fincher and written by Aaron Sorkin, rushes through a coruscating series of exhilarations and desolations, triumphs and betrayals, and ends with what feels like darkness closing in on an isolated soul. This brilliantly entertaining and emotionally wrenching movie is built around a melancholy paradox: in 2003, Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), a nineteen-year-old Harvard sophomore, invents Facebook and eventually creates a five-hundred-million-strong network of “friends,” but Zuckerberg is so egotistical, work-obsessed, and withdrawn that he can’t stay close to anyone; he blows off his only real pal, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), a fellow Jewish student at Harvard, who helps him launch the site. The movie is not a conventionally priggish tale of youthful innocence corrupted by riches; nor is it merely a sarcastic arrow shot into the heart of a poor little rich boy. Both themes are there, but the dramatic development of the material pushes beyond simplicities, and the portrait of Zuckerberg is many-sided and ambiguous; no two viewers will see him in quite the same way. The debate about the movie’s accuracy has already begun, but Fincher and Sorkin, selecting from known facts and then freely interpreting them, have created a work of art. Accuracy is now a secondary issue. In this extraordinary collaboration, the portrait of Zuckerberg, I would guess, was produced by a happy tension, even an opposition, between the two men—a tug-of-war between Fincher’s gleeful appreciation of an outsider who overturns the social order and Sorkin’s old-fashioned, humanist distaste for electronic friend-making and a world of virtual emotions. The result is a movie that is absolutely emblematic of its time and place. “The Social Network” is shrewdly perceptive about such things as class, manners, ethics, and the emptying out of self that accompanies a genius’s absorption in his work. It has the hard-charging excitement of a very recent revolution, the surge and sweep of big money moving fast and chewing people up in its wake.

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