Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Their Reputations Precede Them

Earlier this fall, the Film Forum down the town held screenings of the amazingly beautiful Coppola Restorations of both The Godfather, Part I and The Godfather, Part II. I spent a solid seven hours--including a thirty-minute break between films, and a ten-minute intermission within the second film--with Al Pacino and company. It was a glorious Sunday.

It was also my first experience watching a classic film in such a public setting, amidst somewhat serious film connoisseurs. The setting was weird, because most everyone in the theater had already seen the films. But, more important, even those who hadn't actually seen these movies had almost seen them anyway. I've never seen all of The Shining (it's on my queue), but I've seen enough parodies and tributes that I feel as if I have. The same is true of Jaws, The Graduate, etc. I'm all for the appropriation and incorporation of previous elements of our culture, but things get a little sticky when we then need to return to the original.

During the The Godfather afternoon, I heard a whole lot of laughter coming from the audience. The films do have a touch of comedy, but lines like "I'll make him an offer he can't refuse" aren't meant to elicit laughter. I think people laughed at that line more out of sheer recognition than humor, the recognition that this is the original context for such a famous phrase.

This is a case in which a film is viewed by an audience which possesses probably too much previous knowledge. I hate previous knowledge when it comes to movies. I like, if at all possible, to experience a film in the way the director intended, with the chronology intact. That's why I don't read movie reviews until after I've seen the movie.

I think something similar happens to well-established actors all the time, even in brand-new movies. John Wayne is always the tough guy. That's why I love when movies use the audience's previous knowledge against them. JCVD seems like an excellent example, even though I haven't seen it. (I know this much about it because--try as I might--it's damn hard to not hear about movies.) Jean-Claude Van Damme, in this movie, plays Jean-Claude Van Damme, the movie star who plays tough guys in his films. JCVD the actor--who is, of course, acting--finds himself in the middle of a bank robbery, and everyone expects him to live up to his movie persona. It's a pretty clever concept, one that recognizes the preconceptions that viewers bring with them to the theater.

And this is why I think Gran Torino might be the best new movie I've seen this year, even though much of the audience giggled the laugh of recognition when Clint Eastwood's character, the movie's protagonist, did any stereotypical Eastwood thing. As David Denby so nicely put it in The New Yorker issue dated December 22 & 29, "The movie was not written for [Clint] Eastwood, but it still seems to be all about him--his past characters, his myth, his old role as a dispenser of raw justice. Growling and muttering, Eastwood appears to be offering a satirical critique: this hoarse-voiced, glaring, absurdly nasty old man is what Dirty Harry might have become." The cool part is that the film progresses beyond the classic Eastwood character, showing some serious myth-development. The film reads as the mature Eastwood--still a bad-ass, but now with some perspective--reflecting on his career and the state of America. It's a perspective worth paying attention to.

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