Tag: Black Narcissus

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

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With The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger concoct a war film which features almost no acts of war. There is not a shot fired nor a saber rattled. They pull the camera up and out of the one fight scene in the film in favor of showing a nice, peaceful shot of a model of Berlin in winter, with idyllic snow falling via an overlay that makes everything look like a snow globe. The film cares more about the in between bits than it does the macho adrenaline stuff. It favors a more ideological look at the concept of what war does to a man, or what man does to war.

Made while WWII was still raging on and the Blitz still an open wound to the British soul, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is an odd duck and a controversial one. It features as its most intriguing character a “good German” who grows to be friendly with the film’s main character, Clive Candy (Roger Livesey). Livesey is fine, great even, at portraying the bluster of his proper English soldier as he climbs the martial ladder from the Boer War through WWI and into WWII. It is in a furlough from that first war that he meets the heart of the film, Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook). They are the participants in that duel that happens off-screen, and in their recovery process, they become fast friends. Walbrook plays his good German with a reserved dignity that allows him to absorb all the bravado from Livesy and reflect only his good elements. It’s a performance not at all similar to his in The Archers’ later The Red Shoes, but equally great.

I admit to being more than a bit confused in the early goings and I mistakenly believed that to be the fault of the film. In fact, it is actually a highlight. There are three sections to the film and each starts in media res, so it took me up to ten minutes each time to really orient myself in the situation. This feels deliberate, though, as it was almost always at this point that the “war” stuff was over and the character stuff began. I’ve gotten to paragraph three and haven’t even mentioned Deborah Kerr, who plays three roles over the course of the film’s three time periods. The first becomes the model for the following two, as she marries Walbrook and leaves Livesey to realize she’s his perfect woman only after he lets her go. Later, in WWI, he spies a woman who looks and acts just like her in a convent-cum-hospital and later still she plays his army chauffeur. Each role is not quite like the last, but Kerr imbues all of them with a life and verve that befits her 20 years but also a grace that belies them. It’s no wonder that Powell and Pressburger went back to her for Black Narcissus four years later.

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The last section, in World War II, syncs up at a certain point with the opening of the film. It is here that all earlier confusion is given context and meaning, and it brings the entire film into clarity. This is not just the story of a man, it’s the story of the British Military. From “right is might” proving that following the rules will undoubtedly lead to winning the war in WWI to the bombed out shell of Livesey’s decadence filled with water while he languishes in the Home Guard and is made to look like a fool by his younger, brasher comrades. Clive Candy is a man who doesn’t change, and his way of life has been made obsolete by forces beyond his control. Whether this film is a lamentation or a celebration of that fact is probably left up to the viewer, but there is no doubt about its powerful effect, its effortless charm, its love of Britain, and its compassion for people of all backgrounds.

The Necessity of Mediocrity

Wrong Turn is the epitome of mediocrity.

Mediocrity is climbing molehills without sweating. ~ Icelandic proverb

As I’m sure I don’t need to remind you, I’m reading Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan’s vampire book The Strain. It’s kind of pulpy fun, but it is no great shakes. And that’s okay. Recently I’ve found that things are divided into two categories: The Best Thing Ever and The Worst Thing Ever. There’s no middle ground. No room for a wide spectrum of quality. When you read a book or watch a movie or listen to a song you put it into one of those two boxes and then bash it or shout its merits from the rooftop. But is that really the best way to talk about art on the internet? Isn’t there some stuff that’s just okay?

Let’s get this straight first, though. There are some things that are just that awesome. Magnolia, my number 1 movie of all time, is super awesome. The National’s High Violet is super awesome. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is super awesome. Awesome things exist. So do crappy things. I really hate Idiocracy. I really hate Logicomix. But most things aren’t awesome, and most things aren’t crappy. Most things are pretty mediocre. Most things have good parts and bad parts and middling parts that mesh into a fine, gray, blobby blob. These things are worthy of conversation. They let us know where artists go right and where they go wrong, often in the same scene or song or whatever. They provide a case study in mediocrity, show us the ways they can be great and the pitfalls that sit waiting for us to fall into them.

I watched a few movies over the past weekend. Outside of Black Narcissus, none of them were very good. Dreamcatcher, based on one of Stephen King’s lesser books, has a few tense moments and some pretty good performances but the movie is mired in silly dialogue and sillier aliens. It doesn’t work very well as a film, but there’s something to learn from it. I, for example, learned that what might work on the page as quirky dialogue that has developed among friends over many years doesn’t work when real people have to say dumb phrases over and over again. Cujo, too, is a movie full of great moments that suffers from a bad ending. The final attack on the mother by the rabid dog is super intense and scary. However, the ending kind of leaves you with a bad taste. The book ends with the kid dying, and it is bleak as hell. But that works. The kid shouldn’t survive such an ordeal. In the movie he seems like he dies, but he gasps for another breath right when you think he’s toast. Ugh.

Cujo almost avoids mediocrity, then it doesn't.

See? There’s room for the stuff that’s just ok. Not all art works as it is supposed to. If it was easy to create great art we’d have nothing to judge it against. Everything would meld together into one big boring mess. The bad stuff serves to tell us what to avoid and how to do it. The mediocre stuff fills the space between those great and crappy works. They are like our lives. In general, every day is kinda mediocre. There are bad days and great days, but most end up as a mix of the two. You spill coffee on your shirt, you find some money in a coat pocket. You have a good meal, you have a boring meal. You watch a good movie, you watch a bad movie. Or, you watch a mediocre movie, because most of them are just that. Mediocrity is our lives, our norm. It’s the way we’re able to distinguish good from bad, by knowing what’s in between.

By the time Poltergeist 3 came around, it was almost inevitably going to be mediocre. Just look at that mediocre car!