Blog Directory CineVerse

A French confection with familial themes

Thursday, September 21, 2023

Mon Oncle, a French comedy helmed by and starring Jacques Tati and the second in a trilogy featuring the Monsieur Hulot character, made its debut in 1958. The film received widespread critical acclaim, clinching the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1959 and garnering a Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival during the same year.

Click here to access a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of this movie, conducted last week.

What makes Mon Oncle distinctive, different, memorable, and resonant? The Hulot character is funny and fascinating. Tati had introduced Hulot in his earlier picture, Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday in 1953; this well-meaning yet clumsily endearing personality frequently clashed with the modern world, delighting audiences for standing out as a humorous nonconformist misfit. Hulot symbolized an older, more traditional way of life struggling to coexist with the swift modernization and technological advancements of post-war France. Mon Oncle offered him an ideal platform to expand upon the Hulot character while also delving into key themes and ideas, including the impact of modernization and consumerism on society.

Mon Oncle, as in other Tati movies, emphasizes visual humor, clever manipulation of sound, and a not-so-subtle social commentary. The film leans on physical comedy rather than dialogue, skillfully utilizing the characters' physicality and their interactions with the modern world. The movie also abounds with clever and inventive visual gags and comedic set pieces.

It’s obvious this is a meticulously designed and arranged film that relies heavily on careful blocking, precise acting choreography, focused art direction, and preestablished spatial dynamics. Every shot appears painstakingly planned to ensure maximum comedic payoff with the characters and situations in each sequence, and proper comedic timing is key, especially with multiple characters and objects competing for our attention in most shots. Mon Oncle is a triumph of fastidious direction and synergy between well-rehearsed actors.

Tati was famous for his scrupulous attention to detail and unwavering commitment to crafting a one-of-a-kind cinematic experience. The director went to great effort to shape and personalize each scene to achieve his preferred comedic and thematic effects. Roger Ebert posited: “He was a perfectionist whose precise construction of shots, sets, actions, and gags is all the more impressive because he remained within a calm emotional range; Hulot doesn't find himself starving, hanging from clock faces, besotted with romance or in the middle of a war, but simply puttering away at life, genial and courteous, doing what he can to negotiate the hurdles of civilization.”

The framing and lensing of Mon Oncle is noteworthy, too; Tati commonly uses long shots, without close-ups or zoom-ins, to tell his story, as well as long takes, allowing typically multiple characters grouped within most shots to interact and interplay or contrast with divergent action. The result is that the actors are permitted to let a scene unfold organically, without excessive editing to advance the narrative, and we the viewer must often choose which characters and actions to concentrate on in a busy shot.

Tati’s camera choices also lend the film a voyeuristic feel. In his Criterion Collection essay, Matt Zoeller Seitz wrote: “Much of Mon Oncle is…a voyeuristic comedy in which the only person spying is the audience; Rear Window played for whimsy. Like the characters in Hitchcock's apartment complex, Tati's people are sketches of urban anthropology. The film's situational humor encloses them—boxes them, figuratively and sometimes literally, like zoo animals (though at least zoo animals know they're caged). We study them, realize how much we share with them, and smile.”

Per Slant Magazine reviewer Christian Blauvelt: “For much of the film, we see his alter ego, M. Hulot, from the back, so that the camera—and, by extension, we the viewer—are forced to share his puzzlement over the functional architecture and ludicrous gadgetry that have taken over his world.”

Mon Oncle also plays like a silent film; we don’t necessarily need the subtitles to contextually comprehend what’s going on with the characters and what they are communicating. Interestingly, Tati created both a French language version and an English version of Mon Oncle, the former nine minutes longer and the latter employs slightly different staging and performances.

Granted, there isn’t much of a plot to this movie. The overarching themes are the primary narrative thrust, and the story unfolds as more of a series of vignettes focused on Hulot and his sister’s family.

A noteworthy theme is the schism between modernity and tradition. This movie subtly critiques the relentless march of modernization and contemporary society's preoccupation with technology and progress. Monsieur Hulot, Tati's character, embodies an endearing, old-fashioned charm that starkly contrasts with the overly mechanized and sterile environment of his sister's modern home. Seitz further wrote: “Keenly aware that modernization eliminated some cherished virtues—solitude, contemplation and a sense of connection—Tati’s comedies show us how technological changes dismantled the old idea of community.”

Additionally, Mon Oncle explores the consequences of dehumanization and disconnection, which can occur in the wake of excessive reliance on technology and adherence to contemporary norms. The Arpels are too focused on shoehorning the latest gadgets, styles, and innovations into their lives, preferring form at the expense of function and letting these trappings define them at the expense of living as fallible but authentic human beings.

Similar works

  • Other Tati films with the Hulot character, including Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, Playtime, and Trafic
  • The films of Charles Chaplin featuring the Little Tramp, especially City Lights and Modern Times
  • The Graduate, another film critical of a “plastic” society and a patriarchal generation overreliant on materialism and hollow values.
  • Mary Poppins
  • The Party


Take a rock around the clock 50 years later

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Fifty years ago, George Lucas hit one out of the park with American Graffiti, a comedy-drama film that serves as a memorable coming-of-age story. Set against the backdrop of the last night of summer vacation in 1962 in Modesto, California, the film follows a group of young individuals as they share their final evening together before embarking on separate journeys into college and adulthood.

The film boasts an ensemble cast and is renowned for its period piece details, its memorable soundtrack featuring iconic rock and roll tunes, and its exploration of themes related to youth, rebellion, and the inexorable march of time.

Premiering on August 11, 1973, American Graffiti achieved both critical acclaim and commercial success. It garnered multiple Academy Award nominations, including a Best Picture nod, and ultimately secured the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. The film's triumph played a pivotal role in shaping George Lucas's career, providing him with the resources and recognition necessary for the development of his subsequent project, Star Wars.

To listen to a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of this film conducted earlier this month, click here. To hear the latest Cineversary podcast episode marking the 50th anniversary of American Graffiti, click here.

American Graffiti is deserving of commemoration five decades onward for numerous reasons—not the least of which is it’s an incredibly fun and entertaining work that balances comedy, romance, and light thrills with more serious underlying themes like the uneasy transition into adulthood, ambition versus comfort and complacency, fear of obsolescence, and more—evergreen messages that can transcend generations.

Long before the first Star Wars film, it’s a movie that proved George Lucas had real talent—maybe not so much as a director than as a storyteller with big ideas and a knack for innovating narratively and technologically, as he and his collaborators demonstrate in American Graffiti with its groundbreaking sound design and cross-cutting between four main characters, which was considered controversial at the time.

American Graffiti is among the most influential films ever made, especially when you consider its soundtrack, its heavily copied story template, and the way it helped fuel the 1950s nostalgia craze in the 1970s.

For a film depicting adolescents on the cusp of adulthood, it’s also the rare coming-of-age picture that isn’t heavily focused on teen rebellion or overtly critical of the establishment or older generations. This is primarily about kids having fun while also having to face difficult choices, but there are no serious conflicts. No one dies, gets arrested, protests authority, or delivers a teenage angst sermon.

American Graffiti is also worthy of respect and admiration because, even 50 years later, it serves as that rare example of a little film that became a huge cultural phenomenon on the strength of a fine script, excellent casting, good acting, great music, and zeitgeist luck. It’s one of the most profitable motion pictures ever made considering its meager initial budget, which reminds us that unlimited financial resources certainly don’t guarantee a work of lasting quality. In our current era of Hollywood bloat where sequels, remakes, superhero movies, and films tied to products and brands rule the roost—yielding diminishing box-office returns—it’s refreshing to remember that some of the best movies ever made were small productions lovingly crafted by talented mavericks and visionary filmmakers.

Getting back to that thespian troupe, it’s incredible to think that so many of these actors were relative unknowns back in 1973. American Graffiti catapulted the careers of Harrison Ford, Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, Cindy Williams, Charles Martin Smith, Mackenzie Phillips, Paul Le Mat, Candy Clark, and Kathleen Quinlan. This is one of the most impressive young casts ever assembled.

This also remains a highly revered and critically acclaimed work, placing #62 on the AFI’s top 100 films list and garnering a 97% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

American Graffiti’s approach to music was pioneering. Using pop tunes in Hollywood films had been done before in works like The Graduate and Easy Rider. But perhaps taking a cue from Peter Bogdonovich’s The Last Picture Show two years earlier, Graffiti is that rare film that used popular period songs as diegetic music (heard by the characters in their world), with no traditional score or original music written for the film, with spectacular results. The early rock and roll tunes are perfectly chosen to accurately represent the late 1950s and early 1960s; like a Greek chorus of sorts, their lyrics are often used to comment on the mood, action, or character in that given scene. The vintage rock and roll music laced throughout American Graffiti serves as a character unto itself (Elvis's music is noticeably missing because they couldn’t afford the rights to his songs). This was one of the first soundtracks that became a blockbuster album, a trend that would continue with the Saturday Night Fever and Grease soundtracks later in the decade. The music becomes a character unto itself in this film.

Additionally, the sound design by Walter Murch moved the goalposts by demonstrating that you could make the music and audio effects sound three-dimensional and realistic within the universe the characters inhabit. Murch called this effect “worldizing,” and it involved not only creative editing but also blending a song’s original recording with a re-recorded take of that song played in a space where a character might hear it, such as within a school gymnasium. Murch also added aural directionality, echo, acoustic depth of field, and other effects to the sounds and songs, allowing us, for example, to hear what it might sound like in a passing car playing that music. Lucas said that he “used the absence of music, and sound effects, to create the drama.” The aural aesthetics in this film likely inspired the innovative sound designs in The Conversation, Nashville, Apocalypse Now, and other films of the 1970s and beyond.

American Graffiti also includes one of the most memorable postscripts (a text epilogue informing us what happens to one or more characters in the film) in movie history. We learn the fates of Curt, Steve, John, and Terry, one of whom will die soon, another who will go missing in Vietnam, and only one of whom escapes his hometown for a presumably bigger, better life. Famous postscripts were used previously in movies like A Man For All Seasons and Army of Shadows. Perhaps American Graffiti’s decision to use a postscript epilogue inspired the postscript endings for Barry Lyndon, All the President’s Men, Animal House (also set in 1962), and several other later films.

The popularity of American Graffiti was a strong catalyst for the 1950s revival trend that caught fire in the 1970s. In the wake of American Graffiti, the TV series Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, and Sha Na Na got the green light, and several films depicting this era were released, including The Lords of Flatbush, Cooley High, American Hot Wax, The Buddy Holly Story, and the box office smash Grease. Wolfman Jack, a DJ synonymous with the early rock n roll era, also enjoyed a career boost. Later, other films set during a similar late 1950s/early 1960s period proved popular, including Diner, Stand By Me, Back to the Future, and Dirty Dancing.

American Graffiti can be credited for kicking off the nostalgia craze—a trend that continued in subsequent decades. Movies like Forrest Gump, That Thing You Do, Dazed and Confused, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Licorice Pizza, and Lady Bird, and TV series like That ’70s Show and The Goldbergs likely owe a debt to this work, which proved that audiences long to revisit bygone times from their younger years or yearn to be immersed in an interesting cultural era that may seem simpler, safer, and more enjoyable than our modern stressful times.

Little White Lies writer Daniel Allen wrote: “Here (nostalgia) is a force explicitly deployed by Lucas – gazing back towards a specific period and the music, fashion, movies, and events that came from it. These tap into the fond memories and positive associations of those in the audience who lived through the era, using the viewer’s sentimental affection to bolster the film’s emotional impact. Nostalgia is such a potent tool because it is a form of escapism from aging or the bleak present. If you’re suddenly feeling rather old or unsettled by the modern world, why not watch a movie that captures your teenage years? It helps that the 1950s saw the arrival of popular culture as we know it – shaped by the youth and defined by film, television, celebrity, and music. The baby boomers were the first generation to benefit and American Graffiti became the first film to capitalize on their affection for their teenage years.”

This movie also contributed to the subgenre dubbed “one crazy night,” in which the events occur over a single day or evening. After American Graffiti, similar “one crazy night” narratives included Porky’s, After Hours, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Dazed and Confused, Can’t Hardly Wait, Superbad, Project X, and Booksmart.

As far as precedents, American Graffiti was inspired by Fellini’s I Vitelloni and has drawn comparison to other earlier works like 8½ (which also has a beautiful angelic muse character), The Last Picture Show (another period drama with characters stuck in a dead-end town), and The Wizard of Oz (which, like this film, features a magical “man behind the curtain”).

American Graffiti is, of course, a strong reflection of its creator and the talents he lends to this film. Lucas infused his upbringing and memories of cruising culture into the story and personalities. He set the tale within his hometown of Modesto and wrote three characters who personified Lucas at different points of his adolescent/young adult life. Terry serves as the nerdy high school Lucas; John is Lucas as a hot rod-driving junior college student; and Curt is the ambitious Lucas who needs to escape his hometown to fulfill his creative dreams.

Per Lucas: "It all happened to me, but I sort of glamorized it. I spent four years of my life cruising the main street of my hometown, Modesto, California. I went through all that stuff, drove the cars, bought liquor, chased girls...a very American experience. I started out as Terry the Toad, but then I went on to be John Milner, the local drag race champion, and then I became Curt Henderson, the intellectual who goes to college. They were all composite characters, based on my life, and on the lives of friends of mine. Some were killed in Vietnam, and quite a number were killed in auto accidents."

Working with a small budget on a tight 27-day schedule, Lucas had to improvise some of the filmmaking. He encouraged his cast to adlib some of their lines and movements, often choosing flubs, mistakes, and happy accidents in his final cut. He rigged a two-camera system between two adjacent moving cars to capture crosscut shots between two drivers, for example. And Lucas employed Techniscope cameras to lend the film a 16 mm appearance and more of a documentary look.

Quentin Tarantino was particularly enamored of Lucas’ directorial choices. He said: “Lucas invokes the candy-colored pop ephemera of the fifties in his visual scheme. The green hues of the fluorescent bulbs that light the liquor stores, hamburger stands, and pinball arcades that the characters loiter around. The bright colors of the jukeboxes, diner neon signs, and the candy apple red and canary yellow of the hot rods that cruise up and down the main drag. Lucas poignantly parades all this in front of us with the added knowledge that all this glorious chrome and paint and pomade is about to go out of style and be replaced by space-age sixties chic.”

Interestingly, Lucas threw in meta nods to creations by him and producer Francis Ford Coppola, including John’s license plate (a reference to THX 1138) and Dementia 13 (Coppola’s first film), listed on the movie theater marquee.

Among several prominent themes plumbed from American Graffiti, the end of innocence permeates many scenes. This period is carefully chosen, signifying the conclusion of a simpler, safer, and more innocent age: the “golden” period of the 1950s, just before the British Invasion changed pop music forever, Kennedy was assassinated, the US entered the Vietnam War, and political and cultural turbulence took over. The postscript epilogue adds a somber tone to all we’ve seen prior: We’re told that Terry dies in Vietnam, John is killed by a drunk driver two years later, and Steve never leaves Modesto; only Curt makes it out of his hometown (living as a writer in Canada, suggesting that perhaps he chose that country to escape the draft).

Sun-Times critic Richard Roeper wrote that 1962 was considered by many to be the “spiritual end of the 1950s…In that same vein, the film’s release in 1973 coincides with the spiritual end of the 1960s. The period piece setting and the timing of the release were just perfect…So much had transpired in our world that the relatively short, 11-year span between the time when the story is set and the release of the film seems vast.”

Ambition versus acquiescence, or growth versus stagnation, is another evident subtext. Curt is the only major player who departs his hometown. Tellingly, he’s also the sole character who finds and receives wisdom from Wolfman Jack, a Wizard of Oz-like sage who tells Curt “It’s a great big beautiful world out there.” His friend John, on the other hand, serves as the cautionary tale dramatis personae: the young man living on past glories, four years post-graduation, who knows he’s fallible and not having much luck in the ladies department.

Tarantino said of Curt’s soul searching: “Curt’s not really questioning going to college. He’s questioning the idea of leaving all the people he’s ever known. But even more than the humans he leaves behind, Curt’s questioning leaving the rituals of community that the young people of Modesto partake in… He’s the only one who realizes how temporary these rituals are. Curt knows if he gets on that airplane tomorrow morning – everything that the film so nostalgically celebrates – he can kiss all that goodbye. The town and the life he leaves, won’t be the town and the life he returns to. If he even does return, which in all likelihood, he won’t. Curt seems to know once he leaves he’s not coming back. Curt knows the boy who exists today will no longer exist even two years from now. That’s why he’s contemplating staying too long at the party…Personally, I think Curt always knew he was going to get on that airplane. He just wanted it to be his idea and not some pre-ordained destiny. His wandering around all over town all night was just Curt’s way of saying goodbye.”

Ponder, as well, how American Graffiti promulgates the “strange bedfellows,” or “opposites attract” message. Each of the main characters, or their partners, is pushed out of their comfort zone and forced or coerced to pair up with someone unexpected or opposite to their nature—usually with positive results. John is obliged to escort the much younger Carol around in his Ford Deuce Coupe but in the end doesn’t detest her company; Curt is trapped to spend the evening with a street gang but is ultimately accepted into their ranks; Candy agrees to cruise with Terry and, despite his embarrassing exploits, indicates a willingness to date him again; Laurie breaks up with Steve and drives away with bad boy Falfa, and Steve is tempted by a carhop friend, but the pair eventually reconcile.

Lucas’ work is also a rumination on the pervasive influence of pop culture and contemporary technology on our generation. American Graffiti’s adolescents live their lives around cars and cruising, radio and rock and roll, and fast food. The movie reminds us of how the suburbs burgeoned in postwar America with the building of mass highways and the proliferation of automobiles, and how dominant pop culture became geared around teenagers and their interests. Roger Ebert testified to the importance of the film as a sociocultural artifact, saying “American Graffiti is not only a great movie but a brilliant work of historical fiction; no sociological treatise could duplicate the movie’s success in remembering exactly how it was to be alive at that cultural instant.”

Lastly, consider how the film dabbles with that Melvillian trope of the elusive search for the “white whale”—or in this case, a T-Bird-driving blonde whom Curt pursues over most of the runtime, fueling his carpe diem passion and serving as a motivating muse but always remaining out of reach.

How can American Graffiti possibly feel resonant in 2023 and beyond? Many viewers can’t help but feel nostalgic for what had to be a less complicated and stressful age: a time when the joys of riding around in cars, tuning into the radio, hanging with friends minus any gadgets or social media, and hoofing it at the school dance were popular pastimes for young people. Hearing the vintage music, in particular—all-time classics by Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Bill Haley and the Comets, and The Beach Boys—makes one ponder how vital and powerful those songs must have been in their original era. American Graffiti’s greatest gift continues to be its power to transport us to a simpler time when 21st-century stressors didn’t exist. Of course, every period and generation has its advantages and disadvantages; if you were from an ethnic minority or female in 1962, it probably wasn’t such a golden age, and teenagers 60 years ago certainly faced their own unique sets of challenges. Yet as subjective and myopic as this retro vision of a departed culture may be, American Graffiti allows us to live vicariously through some captivating characters who engage in downright fun escapades and experience epiphanies large and small while also revisiting the emotional urgency, delicious self-indulgence, and motivating angst of our long-passed adolescence. As far as time capsules go, when swallowed correctly this one remains fairly potent.


Cineversary podcast throws golden birthday party for American Graffiti

Thursday, September 14, 2023

In Cineversary podcast episode #62, host Erik Martin sends golden birthday wishes to American Graffiti, directed by George Lucas. Riding shotgun with him for this 50th birthday party is Barna Donovan, film professor at Saint Peter’s University and author of several books on the cinema, including Conspiracy Films: A Tour of Dark Places in the American Conscious. Erik and Barna go cruising back to the early rock and roll era to explore the moviemaking, music, and messages behind American Graffiti, why this film is deserving of our attention five decades later, and what we can learn from the picture today.
Barna Donovan

To listen to this episode, click here or click the "play" button on the embedded streaming player below. Or, you can stream, download, or subscribe to Cineversary wherever you get your podcasts, including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, AudibleCastboxGoogle Podcasts, Pocket Casts, PodBean, RadioPublic, and Overcast.

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An arthouse classic that certainly doesn't conform to the norm

Tuesday, September 5, 2023

The Conformist, a 1970 Italian film directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, is an adaptation of Alberto Moravia's 1951 novel bearing the same title. The narrative unfolds within the backdrop of Fascist Italy, centering around Marcello Clerici—a man of feeble resolve who ardently seeks validation by adhering to societal norms of the era. Crafted during a time marked by profound societal and political upheaval, the film is a probing exploration of themes like identity, political manipulation, and the individual's tumultuous endeavor to conform to oppressive ideologies. Bertolucci's directorial finesse, coupled with the dazzling and innovative cinematography of Vittorio Storaro, synergistically forges a film that is both visually captivating and artistically intricate.

Click here to listen to our CineVerse group discussion of this film conducted last week.

What makes this film memorable, different, and worthy of admiration? First, the cinematography by Vittorio Storaro is game-changing good, boasting curious colors, shades, and filters that accentuate a given shot or scene as well as fantastic lighting aesthetics that sometimes employ strong contrasts between light and dark or that capitalize on stunning beams and pools of naturally sourced light. Recall the scene outside the restaurant kitchen where the swinging light fixture creates an oscillation of light and color, or the lovemaking scene where the hues quickly change, or the flashing neon across Marcello’s face in in the opening shot. The movie’s look and lighting schemes serve as quintessential proof of how cinematography can provoke emotions and enhance the story.

The fascinating compositions in The Conformist continue to enthrall, as well. Often, characters are placed within the center of the frame, visually isolated or trapped within an imposing or vast milieu. This film benefits significantly from interesting and creative camera angles, giving us curious spatial perspectives from, for example, overhead, the corner of a room, or a canted streetscape view. Likewise, the filmmakers employ distinctive mobile camera shots and camera movements that linger long in the memory, from the low tracking shot of the blowing leaves to a sudden crash zoom to the jarring handheld camera shots as the assassins chase Anna. The filmmakers also borrow liberally in particular from two highly influential cinematic visual approaches: German Expressionism, and film noir.

This is a bold film, as well, in how it makes a political statement – arguably one that, although it focuses on the Fascist Italy of the 1930s and 1940s, would have been resonant and attention-getting in 1970, a time of political and social unrest in Italy. Interestingly, the movie provides lessons to be learned in today’s political climate, perhaps suggesting that there are many Marcello types among us right here in America who fall into a particular ideology just for the sake of conforming or repressing deeper problems.

The Conformist also remains fresh because it so effectively explores the psyche of a person at battle with himself. This is more of an intricate character study, in which we gradually piece together, through multiple flashbacks and a fragmented narrative, the reasons why a man has chosen to adopt conformity and fascism without fully committing to the cause. This film’s plot will likely disappoint those looking for a conventionally comprehensible narrative and traditional three-act structure. It challenges the viewer to remain engaged, ask questions about Marcello and his motivations, and determine why he makes the choices he does.

Per Vox writer Aja Romano: “In any other film, the driving tension would be the obvious question of whether Marcello will be morally bankrupt enough to kill the professor, simply to adhere to his vision of normalcy. But…it’s not the central question…Rather, Bertolucci is interested in a deep-focus look at Marcello’s path to the assassination, and when, exactly, he stops ironically participating in the game he’s signed up for and begins, for all intents and purposes, actually operating as a weapon of Italian fascism — even if he’s an ineffective one.”

Further proof of The Conformist’s many merits is how it inspired and influenced other filmmakers who have echoed, honored, and copied elements from it, including Francis Ford Coppola in The Godfather II, the Pine Barrens episode of The Sopranos, and works by the Coen brothers and Steven Spielberg.

Perhaps most importantly, The Conformist is a film rippling with big ideas. The risks of blindly following or committing to a trendy movement, cause, or ideology that you can’t see with objective clarity is a thematic centerpiece. The Conformist symbolically uses the blind character of Italo and his sightless friends as a reminder that Marcello can be influenced by those who lack the foresight and vision to observe the truth or to see fascism for what it truly is. The film shows us that blind allegiance to the wrong cause, faith in bad leaders, and trying too hard to fit in at the expense of personal values can lead to regret, disillusionment, and existential crisis. Recall how Marcello unexpectedly falls in love with the professor’s wife—a woman who is his ideal and a type he has fantastized about before (as evidenced by how the prostitute resembles Anna)—yet he doesn’t follow his heart nor ultimately prevent her killing. His loyalty to Mussolini’s politics, even if it’s halfhearted and inconsistent, leads to the suffering and deaths of others.

Moreover, The Conformist explores objective reality versus subjective fantasy, as exemplified in the retelling of Plato’s cave allegory. That philosophical lesson reminds us that those who are surrounded by shadows and who don’t face the light can be fooled into believing falsities about the real world, truth, and facts. We learn that Marcello is one of these people, trusting erroneously in his flawed memories and succumbing to self-imposed pressure to adopt normality and conventionality to allay his doubts and fears and keep his past trauma buried. It isn’t until the very end of the film that Marcello internally acknowledges his error: that the valet who sexually molested him as a child whom Marcello believed he shot to death had survived, which deflates one of his motivations for becoming a fascist and trying desperately to conform to normalcy. In short, he realizes he’s been living a lie. The bars shown between him and the camera suggest that he’s now imprisoned by this harsh truth, damned to suffer for his lack of vision and lack of morals or conviction.

Vox writer Aja Romano wrote: “Throughout the film, we see Marcello deploying an ironic, cool detachment as he marches through his life; it’s this kind of passive participation without real participation that he thinks will allow him to conform without truly conforming. It’s not until the climactic final moments that he realizes, to his shock but not to ours, that this morally bankrupt approach has been built on self-deception all along.”

The famous last shot, in which Marcello turns to stare at the naked man on the other side of the bars, intimates perhaps that Marcello can free himself from his self-imposed prison of emotional repression by exploring his bisexual side.

But because Marcello is so confused throughout the story, he can be an unreliable narrator, which means we the audience can also be perplexed by his motivations. Per Andrew O’Hehir of Salon: “This movie has a profoundly damaged protagonist whose perceptions cannot be trusted. Whether the erotic triangle between Clerici, his wife, and Anna or the triangle of violence between Clerici, the professor, and Manganiello should be understood literally or as fantasy – and whether Clerici’s memories of sexual abuse reflect objective reality – is never clear within the frame of the film. Indeed, it cannot be clear in this kind of film, which is meant to illustrate a psychological and political phenomenon that is still very much with us, in which an individual surrenders his autonomy, his sense of right and wrong, and his ability to tell truth from lies, and willingly enslaves himself to a dominant ideology.”

The dangers of duality or trying to live two lives and the confusion it triggers is another major takeaway. Essayist Lucas Neumeyer posited: “There are two movies fighting for attention in The Conformist. These two stories diverge and intersect throughout the narrative creating a feeling of unbalance and confusion. One is a cold drama documenting a man’s insecurity and failures. The other can be described as a convoluted and tragic love story focusing on how uncomfortable a lonely man is around extroverted people and how lost he is confronting his own bottled-up passion. This conflict occurs in the head of a man who has ideas of self-fulfillment and happiness, but has trouble achieving them when his ambition battles with his conscience. It frames a story of inner exploration and outer isolation during a period of political turmoil and reform. It is a story that can reignite the emotional core of anyone who has felt confused for even a small portion of their lives… Marcello’s struggle to either conform to a higher power or lead an unfulfilling life is reminiscent of the classic premise of existentialism. The appeal of fascism and a higher order is a promise of prosperity and normality, but also a path of lack of responsibility.”

Lastly, ponder how effectively The Conformist conveys isolation and estrangement visually and thematically. Time and again Marcello is depicted within the frame as alone or distanced from others. We see how the swirling crowd of dancers single him out as separate from their group, we observe him frequently by himself in the backseat of a car, and we notice how he is often separated from others by glass.

Similar works

  • Reds
  • Taxi Driver
  • The Damned
  • The Night Porter
  • La Notte
  • The Seven Beauties
  • Ashes and Diamonds
  • Army of Shadows

Other films by Bernardo Bertolucci

  • Last Tango in Paris
  • 1900
  • The Last Emperor
  • The Sheltering Sky
  • Little Buddha


The Soup to nuts breakdown of a Marx Brothers masterpiece

Tuesday, August 29, 2023

Duck Soup is deserving of high praise 90 years later because it’s pure Marx Brothers, start to finish, without any tacked-on song-and-dance numbers, boring romantic storylines, sentimentalism, or reliance on plot that often bogged down many of their later movies. It’s a wall-to-wall machine of comedic efficiency and absurdist perfection.

Crammed to the brim with verbal humor, slapstick, satire, and anarchic amusement over a mere 68 minutes, Duck Soup is the purest distillation of Marxist humor on film and is still regarded as one of the downright funniest flicks ever created. Declaring which Marx Brothers movie is the best is a very subjective exercise, but arguably this picture is more densely layered with jokes, gags, and witticisms than Horse Feathers, A Night at the Opera, Monkey Business, Animal Crackers, or any other contender for the crown. 

It contains probably the most well-remembered Marx bit ever in the mirror sequence, among the best running gags in Marxian cinema with the “his excellency’s car” routine, superbly delivered one-liners from Groucho, a wonderful two-part pantomime diversion involving skirmishes with a lemonade vendor, some of the very best malaprops from Chico and some of the finest props period from Harpo—who carries on his person at any given time a mousetrap, blow torch, phonograph record, scissors, multiple squeeze bulb horns, and various body tattoos—and a handful of the greatest songs in the brothers’ filmography, including the Just Wait til I get through with it number and The Country’s Goin’ to War song, which, according to USC film professor Drew Casper “uses every musical style that was known at this time…from Gilbert and Sullivan to operetta, you move into jazz, you move into negro spirituals, you move into square dancing, bebop—it is amazing.”

Click here to listen to a recording of our CineVerse group discussion on Duck Soup, conducted last week. To hear the latest Cineversary podcast episode spotlighting Duck Soup, click here.

Duck Soup is the product of meticulous craftsmanship, featuring fine-tuned humorous personalities at the heights of their powers, impeccable comedic timing, and undeniable multi-faceted talents embodied in each Groucho, Chico, and Harpo.

These characters are indelibly etched into our pop culture consciousness and remain timeless. This is possibly Groucho’s most memorable persona in Rufus T. Firefly, whose verbal jousting and brilliantly risqué and fourth-wall-breaking wisecracks linger long after the credits roll. And, as minimal as his part is—also his last film role ever—this is debatably Zeppo’s best turn in a Marx Brothers motion picture.

Actually, this was the final of the brothers’ pictures to include all four siblings and the only one in their filmography where the foursome performed together musically.

Turner Classic Movies wrote on its website: “Duck Soup is a crucial chapter in the Marx Brothers' oeuvre because it marked the best and last opportunity for them to be at their most outrageous. But more than them running amok in front of the camera (and they had plenty of experience being let loose in front of an audience in vaudeville and Broadway), the Marx Brothers made a comedy that was cinematic. Their comedy avoided the stagey aspects of their early pictures like Animal Crackers (1930). The Duck Soup plot was absurd, but it was not so ridiculous that you didn't care what was going to happen to the characters.”

Many credit the Marx Brothers, and partially this film, with helping to set a more modern relentless comedic pace and ushering in a new era of absurdist cinema, which is characterized by extremely silly and wildly irrational plots and characters who don’t necessarily follow logical reasoning. Its rapid-fire cut-and-paste style editing toward the end—best exemplified when stock footage shots depict fire engines, motorcyclists, runners, rowers, divers, monkeys, elephants, and dolphins rushing to aid Firefly—helps Duck Soup feel like a funny flick far ahead of its time.

According to Roger Ebert: “Although they were not taken as seriously, they were as surrealist as Dali, as shocking as Stravinsky, as verbally outrageous as Gertrude Stein, as alienated as Kafka. Because they worked the genres of slapstick and screwball, they did not get the same kind of attention, but their effect on the popular mind was probably more influential…(Duck Soup) has moments that seem startlingly modern, as when Groucho calls for help during the closing battle sequence, and the response is stock footage edited together out of newsreel shots of fire engines, elephants, motorcycles, you name it. There is an odd moment when Harpo shows Groucho a doghouse tattooed on his stomach, and in a special effect a real dog emerges and barks at him. The brothers broke the classical structure of movie comedy and glued it back again haphazardly, and nothing was ever the same.”

This film benefits greatly from ahead-of-their-time absurdity: Consider how zany, unpredictable, contextually rebellious and disrespectful, and visually inventive many of their films and individual scenes are. The Marx Brothers, best represented in Duck Soup, deserve credit for helping inspire several generations of comedians and filmmakers and new styles of comedy in their wake, including the classic Looney Tunes animation style showcasing absurd and sometimes surreal humor in cartoons featuring Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and others; Monty Python-esque humor that veers into surrealist/illogical territory; visual cut-and-paste-style comical montage: think of the stock footage-sourced rampaging elephants and animals intercut with the war scenes in Duck Soup; daring political satire, from Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator to Sasha Baron Cohen’s The Dictator; comedy that isn’t afraid to break the fourth wall and defy the traditional structure of film comedy—such as talking to the audience and a doghouse tattoo that reveals a live-action dog; Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, another war comedy and political farce that employs irony and verbal humor in similar ways; The Beatles’ brand of silly, cheeky comedy; they credited Duck Soup as an inspiration for their movie Help!; the films of Woody Allen, particularly Bananas and Hannah and Her Sisters – the latter of which features a scene in which a character abandons thoughts of suicide after watching Duck Soup; modern comedy sketches, TV shows, and films that dare to break the rules without the Marxes.

Contemporary comedy director Judd Apatow revealed: “The first movie that had an impact on me as a person interested in comedy was Duck Soup. I was a fanatical Marx Brothers fan as a 10-year-old. It might have been because I loved their rebellion - it seemed like they were flipping the bird to everyone.”

Ponder, too, how the famous mirror sequence has been copied and reimagined multiple times in cartoons featuring Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, the pink panther, Tom and Jerry, Garfield, and Family Guy, and in an episode of I Love Lucy costarring Harpo.

Per Deep Focus Review critic Brian Eggert, “Much about the Marx Brothers and Duck Soup in particular flies in the face of conventions, both in the 1930s and today. The sheer relentlessness of the humor leaves nothing to gloss over, no perfect moment to get a snack or use the restroom. There’s barely time enough to laugh and hear the next joke. It operates at three hundred miles an hour, and it does not slow down until the end credits. Most of their films have a few moments of greatness and a few scenes the viewer could do without, but most of the fat has been trimmed from Duck Soup… It respects the audience enough not to (slow down) and assumes we’re smart enough to keep up…Duck Soup might be the only Marx Brothers film that feels completely in tune with their brand of humor, which, then and now, is downright radical.”

The movie can also be seen as eerily prescient and predictive. Ponder how Firefly fashions himself as a fascist dictator in a film shot just months before Hitler came to power. Eggert noted that, “When Firefly kills his own men and then tries to cover it up, he does so two years before Humphrey Cobb wrote his book Paths of Glory, a real-life account of a French general who did the same thing during the First World War. When Firefly sings, The last man nearly ruined this place/He didn’t know what to do with it/If you think this country’s bad off now/Just wait ‘til I get through with it, try not to think of someone like Hitler or Donald Trump. Mussolini even banned Duck Soup in Italy after a twinge of recognition. To be sure, the film, either through intentional or coincidental circumstance, underlines a historical pattern of insane people taking over bankrupt nations.”

Duck Soup was likely controversial in 1933. It is, after all, bold, brash, insolent, cynical, irreverent, and unafraid of inciting controversy or offending audiences. Consider that Hitler and Mussolini had recently risen to power, yet the film skewers their fascist tendencies over the coals. It mocks warmongers and the absurdity of war. It ridicules jingoism and patriotism, even labeling soldier volunteers as suckers. The film parodies government bureaucracy, subtly poking fun at Roosevelt’s cabinet and initiatives during the Great Depression. It flips a middle finger to the Hays Code and expected film censorship standards of the time; you couldn’t show a man and woman in the same bed together, but Duck Soup has Harpo in bed with a horse. Duck Soup also pushed the envelope with risqué material, including double entendres, sexual put-downs, and a sinfully showcased Raquel Torres in her low-cut dresses.

Film critic Leonard Maltin wrote: “Many right-thinkers laugh themselves silly in 1933 – but a large number didn’t…The unrelieved assault of Marxian comedy was simply too much for some people.”

What is it about the Marx Brothers individually and as a collective that works so well? Groucho’s talent toolbox included a razor-sharp verbal wit, a curmudgeonly demeanor, expressive eyes and eyebrows, a ludicrous greasepaint mustache, a stooped gait and rubbery body language, a short stature, surprising guitar-playing savvy, and a self-deprecating off-key singing voice. Chico’s gifts consisted of a deliberately over-the-top Italian accent, pun-dominated exchanges, a quirky pistol-fingered piano performing style, playing the straight man when paired with Harpo, and unfailing ability to exasperate Groucho. Harpo’s forte included mastery of clownish physical and nonverbal comedy, pantomime primacy, the use of humorous props, a crowd-pleasing childlike charm and innocence, sublime harp-playing that instantly transformed him into a sensitive and loveable character, and a now terribly dated hankering for chasing and taking physical liberties with women.

Their blend of comedy, which synthesizes the finest funny elements from vaudeville, silent movies, and radio, was anarchistic, silly, satirical, absurd, irreverent, and improvisational. Duck Soup, like all Marx Brothers films, incorporates a variety of styles, such as slapstick—a boisterous form of comedy marked by chases, collisions, and crude practical jokes; sight gags—a comic bit or effect that depends on sight rather than words; verbal jousting that includes puns, insults, nonsensical arguments, quips, epigrams, and double entendres; running gags that we return to throughout the course of a Marx film; satire in the form of irony, sarcasm, or caustic wit used to attack or expose folly, vice, self-importance, and stupidity; consider how their comedy lampoons institutions like the government and military, authority figures, upper-crust snobs, dictators, and film censorship itself; and comedic songs.

Theirs is a team-based comedy in which each brother has a unique comedic styling and talent set that works well together or separately; unlike Abbott and Costello, the Three Stooges, or Laurel and Hardy, Groucho, Chico, and Harpo don’t always have to be in the same scene together; each can work solo scenes to outstanding results.

Director Leo McCarey was an essential element responsible for making this picture a cut above. His filmography includes an impressive variety of comedies and melodramas, including The Awful Truth, Make Way For Tomorrow, Love Affair, Going My Way, The Bells of St. Mary’s, and An Affair to Remember. While McCarey’s biggest job may have been to simply get out of the brothers’ way and let them shine, he did make key contributions to Duck Soup, including inserting the famous mirror sequence and largely improvisational lemonade stand scenes into the picture and coming up with the title, which was a colloquialism at the time that meant anything easy, simple, or easily duped, including a country that would put Firefly in charge. This filmmaker also helps transform Duck Soup into a lean, mean movie machine pace-wise by trimming out excess musical numbers and employing quicker cutting, especially during the combat sequences near the end.

As with any old film, some aspects of Duck Soup hold up better than anticipated nine decades onward, while other elements are more problematic. As an absurdist film with timeless comedy bits and an anti-war message at heart, Duck Soup transcends any era. However, there are some wince-worthy archaic artifacts, including Harpo’s sexually aggressive physicality toward women, Chico’s ethnic stereotyping, and the line “that’s why darkies were born” (which, in all fairness, was the title of a popular song at the time that Groucho was referencing).

As passe as it can sometimes be for a picture of 90-year vintage, Duck Soup remains refreshingly contemporary in its irreverent attitude and radical style—one in which structure is created from, ironically, chaos, anarchy, and nonconformity. It’s a work that dares you not to laugh or at least crack a smile, even if you’re a sourpuss scoffer or strict adherent of current-day pop culture. Groucho’s merciless putdowns still land, Chico’s preposterous word salad squabbles continue to delight, and Harpo’s impish demeanor and mimetic slapstick don’t date—for the most part, anyway—if you surrender yourself to the mirthful magic of the Marxes and appreciate how influential they’ve been to comedy across all media in the 20th and 21st century. The best present Duck Soup can give is to remind us how classic comedy can transcend time, endlessly entertain, and motivate new generations of comedians and filmmakers to look to the past for future funnybone inspirations.

Duck Soup’s second greatest gift is its mirror scene, an all-time tour de force of film clownery that spans a mere 167 seconds but which has been continually mirrored in its own way by imitators and admirers for nearly a century. This bit taught me long ago that some comedic moments are on a higher plane than others: certain scenes, jokes, or images are so powerful that they can make your stomach sore from over-laughing, cause you to literally lose your breath, and moisten the corners of your eyes by being the complete opposite of sad. And it’s all the more impressive to learn that the mirror scene – which relies on perfect comedic timing – only took two hours to shoot.


Sink your teeth into this modern vampire film classic

Tuesday, August 22, 2023

Directed by Tomas Alfredson, the 2008 Swedish horror film Let the Right One In—an adaptation of a novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist (who also penned the screenplay)—centers on the dynamic between a young boy named Oskar and Eli, a vampire child who appears to be Oskar’s age but who has lived for centuries. The film unfolds against the backdrop of a small wintry Swedish village, contributing to its distinctive visual approach and ambiance. Through a blend of horror, romance, and themes related to coming of age, the movie crafts a one-of-a-kind and thought-provoking storyline.

Let the Right One In garnered significant critical and popular praise thanks to its inventive take on the vampire genre, capacity to elicit both fear and compassion, evocative cinematography, deliberate pacing, and deep exploration of the intricacies of human emotions and connections.

Click here to listen to a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of this film, conducted last week.

This work defies our expectations for a vampire film in several ways. First, it’s debatably less a horror movie than a brooding, aching coming-of-age, loss-of-innocence, or tragic romance film. It doesn’t fall into the trappings of conventional vampire fare. Admirably, the filmmakers eschewed big-budget gruesome special effects, in-your-face camera shots, hyperpaced editing, jump scares, and gratuitous nudity and violence. The viewer benefits from restrained moments of quiet and stillness suddenly upended by eruptions of violence. Excessive blood, gore, graphic violence, and CGI/visual effects have become stale and cliché, overused in horror fare, and too easy to rely on. This film likely satiates the palates of those who prefer less frequent carnage and gore, delivered instead in sudden bursts.

Additionally, Let the Right One In wields an emotionally cool, detached tone by employing an unconventional style for this genre. Consider the frequent static camera shots that offer very little movement, allowing us to linger and reflect on the characters and situations. There’s ample use of wide shots, often in which the violence, horror, or supernatural elements are obscured or off in the background or periphery. Cases in point: Eli climbing the side of the building far in the distance, and the severed head and limbs unexpectedly appearing during the underwater pool shot. Arguably, it’s more effective to adopt this subtler horrific approach and maintain a more subjective shot from Oskar’s POV than to rely on grandiose gross-out effects to graphically depict this massacre.

How refreshing it is, too, to have the monster take the presumed form of a diminutive, emotionally vulnerable, and pre-pubescent girl—or perhaps this is an androgynous boy, as suggested by Eli’s scar and insistence that “I’m not a girl” (in the novel, this character is a male who has been castrated, but the filmmakers leave much to your imagination). Here, we get an awkward, pitiable, and grimy/foul-smelling waif who is forced to commit heinous acts to survive but who also evokes empathy.

Let the Right One In also doesn’t attempt to tie up all the loose ends or answer every question posed; it avoids prolonged exposition, excessive dialogue, and backstory flashbacks. Instead, several questions remain unresolved, like how did Eli become a vampire? Why does Eli occasionally look like an older person? Who is Håkan, the man who helps Eli, and why does he perform terrible crimes for her? For that matter, how could Håkan have tended to Eli’s needs for so long without capture yet prove to be so careless and sloppy in his gruesome work? And is Oskar’s father gay or bisexual, and does this possible realization by Oskar encourage him to embrace Eli romantically, regardless of gender?

One could argue that the gory/violent nature of vampirism isn’t the real horror to be feared in this picture. Other frightening real-world themes and subtexts examined here include the scary uncertainty that accompanies the adolescent onset of awkward physical changes and sexual feelings and our struggle to understand the complexities of this life stage. The blood the youngsters shed and are stained with could, after all, be a metaphor for the loss of virginity/innocence.

The film also explores a child’s yearning to belong and feel accepted by peers. Let the Right One In continually reminds us of the true life horrors of childhood—what it’s like to be alone, outcast, picked on by bullies, and the challenges of trying to fit in within an alienating world.

The power of true friendship and young love, bonded by trust and interdependency, is another major message posited. And the movie further suggests that love can bloom in even the harshest of environments: The striking juxtaposition of the frigid, snowy surroundings and the heartfelt intensity of the characters' feelings produces a visually enthralling journey in this film.

Similar works

  • Let Me In (the American remake)
  • A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
  • The Orphanage
  • Only Lovers Left Alive
  • Ginger Snaps
  • Thirst
  • Byzantium
  • Interview With the Vampire


Cineversary podcast proves Duck Soup still quacks us up 90 years later

Wednesday, August 16, 2023

Robert Bader
In Cineversary podcast episode #61, host Erik Martin commemorates the 90th anniversary of the Marx Brothers’ comedy classic Duck Soup, directed by Leo McCarey. His copilot this month is Robert S. Bader, director of the documentary Groucho & Cavett and author of Four of the Three Musketeers: The Marx Brothers on Stage. Erik and Robert will examine the lasting comedic power and influence of Duck Soup and the Marx Brothers and what makes this film worthy of kudos nine decades since its release.

To listen to this episode, click here or click the "play" button on the embedded streaming player below. Or, you can stream, download, or subscribe to Cineversary wherever you get your podcasts, including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Audible, Castbox, Google Podcasts, Pocket Casts, PodBean, RadioPublic, and Overcast.

Learn more about the Cineversary podcast at and email show comments or suggestions to 


Ryan still shines bright on its 25th anniversary

Thursday, August 10, 2023

In the summer of 1998, filmmaker Steven Spielberg unveiled what many consider his best work of the last 25 years, Saving Private Ryan, a war epic that is celebrated for its gripping and realistic combat scenes and depiction of ethical dilemmas faced by men during wartime. The film’s narrative centers on a perilous odyssey: locating and rescuing Private James Francis Ryan (Matt Damon). The mission's urgency is underscored by the tragic fate suffered by Private Ryan's three brothers, all of whom perished in the line of duty. Retrieving him from the heart of enemy-held territory is deemed imperative to offer solace to a grieving mother. The movie meticulously chronicles the expedition led by Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) and his unit, charting their tumultuous passage through enemy-occupied France to find Ryan.

To listen to a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of this film, conducted last week, click here. To hear the July episode of the Cineversary podcast, which celebrates Saving Private Ryan's 25th anniversary, click here.

Why is Saving Private Ryan worthy of kudos and commemoration 25 years later? This could be the finest movie yet made about the soldier’s experience in World War II, and, for that matter, a candidate for an all-time great in the war film genre. Benefiting from incredible realism, period-authentic details, intense violence, and immersive filmmaking techniques, Saving Private Ryan doesn’t pull any punches with its truthful and brutally honest account of the carnage, casualties, and consequences of warfare.

It’s exceptionally well structured as a three-act story that begins with the D-Day invasion, shifts to a second act focused on trying to find Private Ryan, and propels to act three wherein Ryan is found and saved. The exact midway point of the runtime is when the company learns where Ryan is. And the film is bookended by two mirroring sequences: the opening and closing shots of the American flag waving in the breeze, and the subjective shots of Miller being concussed by an explosion, which temporarily halts his hearing.

The thespian troupe recruited for this endeavor is among the most impressive in the last quarter century, with each performer and face perfectly matching his character. Ponder the prescience of assigning yet-to-be big-namers like Matt Damon, Bryan Cranston, Vin Diesel, and Giovanni Ribisi in juicy parts, making the filmmakers look like geniuses. Saving Private Ryan even gets the bit players exactly right, casting weighty actors in marginal roles, including Paul Giamatti, Ted Danson, Dennis Farina, and Harve Presnell.

The movie matters, too, because it gets the small details right, enriching this epic story – one replete with colossal themes, all-time great battle sequences, and a cast to die for – with comparatively insignificant images and relatively inconsequential touches that actually can be more memorable than the momentous moments. Case in point: Horvath scooping up and collecting dirt from the various countries he’s fought in; the little French girl slapping her father’s face; and Henderson asking Mellish for some of his chewing gum. These small brushstrokes add invaluable depth and dimension to the characters.

Saving Private Ryan transformed the way war was depicted in cinema by delivering an exceptionally accurate and disturbingly violent representation of armed combat. Spielberg utilized an array of techniques to achieve this realism, including using shaky handheld cameras, fast cuts, jarring juxtapositions, creative sound effects and an immersive sound design, desaturating colors, and skipping frames of film to create a sped-up, unsettling kineticism.

The raw viscera, cascading graphic violence, brutality, queasy camerawork, and unrelenting pace – which doesn’t allow wounded soldiers or shocked viewers time to properly process what they’re experiencing – combine to create unforgettable sequences, particularly in the beginning 27 minutes. No one had ever seen warfare so credibly and viscerally rendered on screen in a scope this epic and extended. Previous recreations of World War II battles lacked the verisimilitude, production values, and/or creative talent to bring them to life so convincingly. Earlier movies often sanitized the true realities of war and its casualties. This was a more honest facsimile of 1940s-era fighting, which even younger generations who have never wielded a weapon or served in the military can appreciate.

The film also devoted serious attention to character depth, examining the feelings and experiences of the American G.I. in a believable and humanizing manner. These weren’t stock characters or archetypes; every personality in Private Ryan has the capacity to surprise and mine thematically rich territory, thanks to savvy screenwriting and impressive acting.

Saving Private Ryan had a profound effect on the war film genre, leaving an indelible mark on later films and popular culture. After a long period during which no significant World War II movies were released, it rekindled national interest in that war from people around the world and helped intensify the spotlight being increasingly shown on what was now being called “the greatest generation.”

Saving Private Ryan surely paved the way for subsequent war pictures that also employed a more visceral and convincing approach and infused depicted soldiers with greater character development. For proof, consider the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers and The Pacific, Enemy at the Gates, Black Hawk Down, Fury, Dunkirk, 1917, Hacksaw Ridge, and the 2022 iteration of All Quiet on the Western Front.

The film can further be credited with helping to launch or propel the film careers of several top actors, including Matt Damon, Paul Giamatti, Giovanni Ribisi, Vin Diesel, Edward Burns, and even Bryan Cranston.

In addition, this picture was a game changer – literally – in the way it inspired popular video games like Call of Duty and Medal of Honor, two violent titles both set during WWII.

Here, we are in the hands here of a master filmmaker at the peak of his powers. Spielberg had already proved his ability to faithfully recreate powerfully plausible World War II scenarios with Empire of the Sun and Schindler’s List, and his seemingly effortless cinematic command of epic scenes of colossal scope in works like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Jurassic Park was evident. Having already conquered the science-fiction and action-adventure genres, he crafts a war film for the ages.

Spielberg continually showcases incredible prowess as a puppeteer of emotions, perhaps never as convincingly as he does in Saving Private Brian. The picture delves deep into the characters’ emotional journeys, exploring their fears, bonds, and sacrifices. The director enhances the emotional impact of the narrative, enmeshing audiences in the soldiers’ experiences, humanizing and adding complex layers to many of the characters, and forging a profound bond between the protagonists and the viewers.

Additionally, his personal connection to the second world war, driven in large part by his familial history and his father’s service during that conflict, fuels his passion for this subject matter.

Spielberg’s work is particularly noteworthy for its fidelity to WWII detail and authenticity. The narrative is loosely based on the true account of the Niland family, who had lost three of their four sons in World War II, in which the War Department dispatched a platoon to find the fourth Niland son and send him home.

The movie’s recreation of the Omaha Beach landing during the D-Day invasion is widely lauded for its accuracy. Spielberg and his collaborators meticulously restaged the harrowing combat after reviewing historical records, collaborating with military historians and subject matter experts – including war veteran Dale Dye – and investigating testimonies and accounts by veterans. Consequently, the depiction rendered realistically captures the intensity and chaos of the invasion.

This film does an admirable job, as well, of representing the emotional and psychological turmoil, ethical conflicts, and fear experienced by soldiers during wartime. Many World War II veterans who screened Saving Private Ryan commented on how realistic and triggering these portrayals are.

The filmmakers also worked hard to source and re-create the uniforms, weapons, tanks, and equipment used during this conflict, and the lines, vernacular, and jargon delivered by the characters – including FUBAR – are intended to be period-accurate.

Still, it’s important to remember that this is a work of fiction and an interpretation of what soldiers likely experienced during and after the D-Day invasion; it’s not a documentary or a verbatim retelling of a true story.

Many regard Saving Private Ryan as the most detail-accurate Hollywood feature film ever made about World War II and combat in that war. Roger Ebert wrote: “Spielberg and his screenwriter, Robert Rodat, have done a subtle and rather beautiful thing: They have made a philosophical film about war almost entirely in terms of action. ‘Saving Private Ryan’ says things about war that are as complex and difficult as any essayist could possibly express, and does it with broad, strong images, with violence, with profanity, with action, with camaraderie. It is possible to express even the most thoughtful ideas in the simplest words and actions, and that’s what Spielberg does. The film is doubly effective, because he communicates his ideas in feelings, not words.”

Slate reviewer David Edelstein posited this: “What Steven Spielberg has accomplished in Saving Private Ryan is to make violence terrible again… The opening battle might be the most visceral ever put on film… The images are supersharp, as if viewed through too-strong glasses, yet they streak and pixilate–break into shards–as the camera jerks wildly left, then right. Color has been drained from the frame: The greens of uniforms and browns of earth are muted, the sky rendered a neutral gray. Against this monochromatic palette, the brackish blood leaps out of the screen…For nearly half an hour, the horrors come one upon another, unaccompanied by music and unrelieved by any point of view except that of the soldiers in the middle of the slaughter. There are no objective, “establishing” shots and no possibility for emotional distance…Death can come at any instant, from any direction…(Spielberg) shoots battles so that we can’t always see what’s happening, our vantage is frighteningly restricted, and the world of combat is reduced to pure sensation.”

Among its greatest achievements, Saving Private Ryan helped advance serious thematic discussions about the consequences of combat, morality versus immorality during wartime, and how battered combatants struggle to hold onto shreds of humanity amid constant violence and brutality. Perhaps the film’s most central thesis is uttered by Captain Miller: Earn this. The message here is clear—honor the extreme and selfless sacrifices others make to protect and preserve your life. Ryan asks his wife if he was a good man who lived a good life, and her affirmation of such assures him that he has done his best to keep Miller’s promise.

Saving Private Ryan is a powerful treatise on ethical quandaries one confronts in extreme circumstances. We observe characters like Upham, Miller, and Reiben being forced to make quick life-or-death decisions about POWs, fighting back when your pacifist tendencies predominate, defying authority, and overcoming fear and anxiety in order to save your skin and have your buddy’s back. The viewer is continually challenged throughout the movie via different scenarios that ask questions of them: Would you kill the German POW? Would you take the easier route, around the bunker, in opposition to Captain Miller’s orders? Would you think less of Ryan because of the deaths and sacrifices the company had to endure to find and rescue him? Miller’s discourse with Horvath is especially revealing: “Do you know how many men I've lost under my command? Ninety-four. But that means I've saved the lives of ten times that many, doesn't it?...That's how you rationalize making the choice between the mission and the man… This Ryan better be worth it – he better go home, cure some disease or invent a longer-lasting light or something.”

Grace under pressure, and the personal damage war causes, as exemplified in the sometimes shaky hand of Miller, is another major subtext. Time and again, this character embodies the surprising bravery, intelligence, composure, and honor of a relatively simple everyman who is asked to demonstrate leadership under extreme duress. His unsteady hand suggests the pressure he’s under to perform and keep his men alive; it also reminds his men that he is a flawed and vulnerable human being. Miller’s wobbly hand further symbolizes how soldiers are negatively impacted and forever changed by what they’ve experienced. Miller’s soliloquy captures the essence of this point: “Sometimes I wonder if I’ll change so much my wife will even recognize me whenever it is I get back to her, and how I’ll ever be able to tell her about days like today. If (finding Ryan) earns me the right to get back to my wife, then that’s my mission. Every man I kill, the further away from home I feel.”

FUBAR becomes more than a catchphrase in Ryan; it’s a reminder that, in war, little makes sense. Soldiers don’t play by the rules. Often, you have to pivot suddenly, improvise unexpectedly, and act against your intrinsic nature if you want to survive and safeguard your comrades.

The film also espouses that it’s commonly the small details in life that matter most. The dialogue between Ryan and Miller near the end reveals something interesting: It’s frequently the minor memories and relatively trivial details along our journey in life that resonate the strongest, propel us forward, and ascribe meaning to our existences. Recall how, when asked, Miller refuses to share details with Ryan about his wife or her rosebushes, and how the company is so thoroughly intrigued by their captain’s enigmatic backstory, hometown, and profession.

Maybe this film’s greatest gift is how it reminds us, and hopefully future generations, of the extreme sacrifices that were necessary among Americans of that era to preserve liberty and defeat tyranny. Optimistically, perhaps the movie suggests that this kind of shared sacrifice is possible in future generations if we take the time to learn the lessons of history and properly honor the memories of the fallen. Saving Private Ryan bombards us with visually devastating and acoustically overwhelming stimuli, disturbingly subjective shots, and ethically troubling hypotheticals that illustrate how extraordinarily impactful the second world war was to those who fought it and those who survived it. This is a work, using combat as a canvas, that may not be as poetic as The Thin Red Line, as mythically inspired as Apocalypse now, as antiwar in its DNA as Paths of Glory or All Quiet on the Western Front, as haunting as The Deer Hunter, or as timeless or culturally transcendent as Seven Samurai. But strictly as a World War II movie, it’s the best of its breed.

Another greatest gift is its unwavering ability to thoroughly stir the soul. Perhaps the best quality of a good film is its capacity to effectively evoke an emotional response. And no one does that better than Spielberg. Call him emotionally manipulative – that’s fair. Label him unashamedly sentimental – that’s on point. But I believe Spielberg earns the emotional reactions he arouses in us honestly, by getting us thoroughly invested in his dramatis personae and sticky situations. It also helps that he chooses a setting and context that’s emotionally unimpeachable: World War II, which can instantly conjure up sentiments of patriotism and pride among families of veterans and those who lost their lives in the conflict.


Dancing to an offbeat (but awfully funny) vibe

Tuesday, August 1, 2023

In 2018, actor and filmmaker Jim Cummings remade what was originally a short film into an independent feature-length drama, Thunder Road, for which he served as the writer, director, and lead actor. Thunder Road earned critical acclaim when it premiered at the 2018 South by Southwest Film Festival, securing the Grand Jury Prize for Best Narrative Feature, and for good reasons: The movie serves as a fantastic character study, spotlighting Jim Arnaud—a police officer who confronts a whirlwind of personal and professional obstacles, all while grappling with the recent loss of his mother. Themes of grief, fatherhood, and the intricacies of existence are thoughtfully explored, drawing viewers into an emotional journey of self-discovery.

At its core, the picture centers on the fragile but flowering bond between Jim Arnaud and his young daughter, Crystal. As a devoted single father, Jim's attempts to nurture and connect with Crystal become entangled with his own emotional turmoil and impulsive tendencies, resulting in a captivating blend of laughter and heartache.

Click here to listen to a recording of our CineVerse group discussion on Thunder Road, conducted last week.

What helps Thunder Road stand out as a memorable low-budget indie is that it’s fueled by a distinctive fusion of drama and humor, impressively blending moments of vulnerability, tenderness, and authentic affection between Jim and his daughter. The narrative deftly contrasts these scenes with instances of raw emotional outbursts and social awkwardness, most notably showcased in the unforgettable opening sequence, where Jim delivers a heartfelt eulogy at his mother's funeral.

Speaking of that opening, it was shot in one incredible 10-minute-long single take, which is impressive for a feature-length debut by a filmmaker and a choice that rivets our attention on Cummings’ standout performance.

Cummings isn’t afraid to make us squirm and wince as Jim humiliates himself in one awkward encounter after another, illustrating this character as teetering on the brink of a nervous breakdown from start to finish and lacking a filter to control words and impulses that get him into serious trouble. This is a film designed to elicit laughs, but it can become uncomfortable after a while snickering at this unfortunate soul’s predicaments. The filmmakers have to be careful that they don’t appear to be piling on and pouring salt in the wound.

Notably, the narrative is more a series of strung-together vignettes, which portray Jim as increasingly unhinged and lacking the self-restraint and foresight to prevent his downfall, than a traditional plot, although there’s a clear catalyst that sets the gears in motion right at the opening (his mother’s death) and a ray of hope epilogue that suggests his streak of self-inflicted catastrophes is coming to an end (his daughter seems smitten with ballet, which would have pleased her late grandmother).

Cummings cleverly gets around the sticky widget of securing and affording music rights to the titular song by Bruce Springsteen by having Jim fail spectacularly to play the CD during the funeral, which exacerbates his embarrassment exponentially when he attempts to dance without music.

Thunder Road’s major thematic tenet is that the wounds of grief heal slowly, and sometimes never heal fully. Jim is an emotionally wounded man in the wake of his mother’s death, and he blames himself for taking her for granted. Trying to process this anguish and reckon with his regrets is taxing enough, but he also must handle a fatherhood and divorce crisis which quickly balloons into a job crisis.

Lesson learned #2: We can be our own worst enemy. Jim digs an increasingly deeper hole for himself as the story unfolds by saying inappropriate things and not controlling his temper. As with his mother, he doesn’t follow the advice of his lawyer and he jeopardizes his fatherly visitation rights, for example.

This film also espouses the importance of breaking a cycle of familial failure. We learn that Jim’s mother committed suicide and had her own serious flaws and that Jim rejected his mom. Now, that pattern threatens to continue between his daughter and himself, and Jim must find a way to connect with Crystal.

The difficulty men face processing emotions is also effectively explored. Jim ignores his supervisor’s orders to stay home following his mom’s death, which ultimately leads to his firing. Jim tries hard to make things right at work and with his daughter, but he makes things worse by applying a narrow-visioned masculine approach and old-fashioned family values to complex issues. 

Brian Eggert of Deep Focus Review wrote: “Cummings shows Jim’s most apparent personal failures with and desire to understand the women in his life: his regrets about everything he didn’t say to his mother; his inability to bond with his daughter; his downright antagonistic relationship with his soon-to-be ex-wife, who he not-so-subtly wishes would get hit by a train.”

Similar works

  • Garden State
  • About Schmidt
  • The Descendants
  • The Climb
  • Eighth Grade
  • Manchester by the Sea
  • The King of Staten Island

Other films directed by Jim Cummings

  • The Wolf of Snow Hollow
  • The Beta Test


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