#371. Stories through Time

The more things change, the more they stay the same. This is partly due to those people who don’t learn from history and are therefore doomed to repeat it. While most movies usually span a short timeframe, there are a few out there that manage to cover almost the entirety of human existence. Some even go so far as to speculate what the future would bring for humanity. After all, if humans keep making the same decisions and mistakes in the past, what could possibly change that habit in the future? These parallel storylines are often used to prove some point to the audience. While it can be interesting to see how people in ancient times acted in the same way we do, sometimes the message the filmmaker is trying to make is beaten home too much. This week’s two films use multiple stories throughout time to tell a story.

IntoleranceIntolerance
Year: 1916
Rating: Not Rated
Length: 197 minutes / 3.28 hours

In telling multiple stories that span a long time period, each individual story is practically a short film in itself. The epic scale of the run-time for these films is merely a product of the multitude of stories that need to be told. During the early days of movies, short films were the norm, so stringing four of them together to tell a larger narrative was certainly doable. D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages (1916) manages to span a timeframe from 539 BC all the way to 1914 AD, stopping off around 27 AD and 1572 AD in the process. This film was so impactful, not only as a form of apology for The Birth of a Nation (1915) but for inspiring at least one parody: Buster Keaton’s Three Ages (1923). Both films highlight the fact that humans have remained the same for a very long time.

Throughout the ages, intolerance has been a problem for humanity. The similarities between Cyrus the Great of Persia (George Siegmann), the Pharisees of Israel, and the Catholics of France all show how being intolerant of others leads to great destruction, pain, and death. Sometimes, the people being affected by the intolerance have their own intolerance against their persecutors, with a few notable exceptions. Even in modern times, money fuels the prejudice between businessmen and the workers they exploit. In the end, this intolerance isn’t necessarily based on the color of one’s skin, but instead on how one group of people has a prejudice against a different group of people who might threaten the wealth and power they’ve grown used to over the years. Aside from the obvious lesson that intolerance has been around for a long time, we also see that absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Cloud AtlasCloud Atlas
Year: 2012
Rating: R
Length: 172 minutes / 2.87 hours

While Intolerance covered about 2.5 centuries of stories, some modern films have gone from the beginning of time to the present day. The Tree of Life (2011) didn’t have nearly as many stories to tell, but the range was much greater. In contrast, Cloud Atlas (2012) only covers just over 450 years. However, Cloud Atlas examines the future as well via its parallel stories. While other movies that cover long timespans in short chunks will use the collective history lesson to sell a moral, Cloud Atlas speculates what the distant future will be based on what we know about human behavior. More to the point, Cloud Atlas shows us how individuals can span centuries in various forms, sometimes taking the spotlight or sometimes acting in a supporting role. Whether or not you believe in reincarnation, I think we can all agree humans have the same basic thought processes that affect global history.

Actions have consequences, even if they’re not immediately apparent. Individuals who support the abolition of slavery in 1849 could affect the post-apocalyptic world of Hawaii in 2311. For instance, the 1849 journal of Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) could influence Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw), who gains credit for “The Cloud Atlas Sextet” via blackmail. This piece of music could influence Luisa Rey (Halle Berry), a journalist in 1973 San Francisco who escapes an assassination attempt after uncovering a nuclear conspiracy. Rey’s life could be novelized and read by Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent), who is accidentally committed to an asylum. Cavendish’s memoir could be turned into a movie that helps shape the revolution of the human clone known as Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae) in 2144 Seoul. This revolution leads to Zachry (Tom Hanks) and his tribal people worshipping Sonmi-451 in 2331.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 timeless tales

#191. The Anthology

The majority of film plots are created by stringing together scenes of dialogue or action to tell a story. These segments cannot stand on their own very well and need the rest of the film’s context to be understood. But, what if a scene contains an entire plot? What if these segments are almost entirely unrelated to each other? Sure, short films have been made that would fit the first description, but what if a movie was comprised entirely of short films? These feature-length movies are known as “anthologies.” Often, the anthology film will have a common theme that will tie the independent segments together, but many times these films are just a way to get in as many gags as possible in the shortest amount of time. This week’s two movies are anthologies but are anthologies for two completely different reasons.

                                                     History of the World, Part 1History of the World, Part 1
Year: 1981
Rating: R
Length: 92 minutes / 1.53 hours

Sketch comedy is perhaps one of the most prolific users of the anthology structure. Most jokes don’t take more than a few minutes to set up and deliver a punchline. Furthermore, if these comedic segments are not related to each other, the anthology is the best way to present them. One of the best examples of the comedic anthology is The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977), which is a series of unrelated comedy sketches. Of course, the comedy group best known for comedy sketches would be Monty Python. The film that best utilizes their skill for sketches, and is perhaps the closest approximation of a Flying Circus movie, would be The Meaning of Life (1983). This anthology follows a bit more of a structure, as it progresses through the stages of a person’s life, albeit not the same person.

Another structured anthology film would be that of History of the World, Part 1 (1981). While there’s not nearly the amount of character parallels like in Three Ages (1923) or character cross-linking like in Cloud Atlas (2012), the theme of this Mel Brooks comedy is that of history. As such, the anthology of sketches is arranged chronologically, starting near the beginning of civilization. From the creation of many ideas and products in the Stone Age, the next sketch highlights the events of the Old Testament. Even within these sketches, other sketches can reside. The logical transition for the film is then to a sketch about the Roman Empire, which pulls in some New Testament references. After a brief stop-over at the Spanish Inquisition for a big musical number, the film concludes with the French Revolution, as well as a few previews of the unmade “Part 2.”

FantasiaFantasia
Year: 1940
Rating: G
Length: 125 minutes / 2.08 hours

One of the challenges of animation is continuity. Because characters must be drawn in the same way, and the animation must abide by the same style throughout a film, sometimes these movies would take an incredibly long time to create (obviously, before the heavy use of computers). One way to speed up production would be to have several animation teams working on shorter segments unrelated to each other. Furthermore, the music for a film is usually composed so that it carries a melodic theme throughout. However, if famous pieces of music are the structure of the film, it can be difficult to tie these different musical works together to a coherent narrative. Granted, if the pieces are all performed by the same person, like in Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould (1993), the performer can be the theme of the anthology. However, Fantasia (1940) is not like that.

Anyone familiar with classical music will know the animation of Warner Brothers and Walt Disney have ingrained certain musical pieces into our cultural fabric. Fantasia was meant as an ever-evolving film. New segments were intended to be inserted in subsequent re-releases, thus expanding the film’s anthology as time progressed and the animated sequences were completed. Unfortunately, only Fantasia 2000 (1999) stands as the sequel to this groundbreaking film. Still, Fantasia’s legacy is seen in how easy it is to recognize pieces like Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (Bach), the Nutcracker Suite (Tchaikovsky), The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (Dukas), Rite of Spring (Stravinsky), The Pastoral Symphony (Beethoven), Dance of the Hours (Ponchielli), Night on Bald Mountain (Mussorgsky), and Ave Maria (Schubert).

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 awesome anthologies

#190. History Lessons

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

This famous quote by George Santayana highlights the problem society often suffers: long term memory loss. If something didn’t happen recently, we forget the conditions which led to it. Perhaps the reason for this is because history can be bogged down in details. History can be boring. However, as I’ve written before, history can be tolerable if it’s entertaining. The best times we can learn from our history are if we are open enough to laugh about it. Granted, history can be very brutal and unforgiving at times, but if we allow some of the accuracy to be tainted, these tragedies could be turned into comedies. Although sometimes it’s just fun to see that, as much as things change, some things remain the same. This week’s two films feature some comedic history lessons.

Three AgesThree Ages
Year: 1923
Rating: Not Rated
Length: 63 minutes / 1.05 hours

The more things change, the more things stay the same. There are certain elements of the human condition that tend to reappear, time and time again, regardless of the historical period. This theme can be seen in a number of films, including Cloud Atlas (2012), which even goes so far to show the parallels and connections of history well into the future. However, one of the most famous instances of the historical parallelism plot is that of Intolerance (1916). In this film, we see four different historical eras: Babylonian, Judean, French, and Modern. Each of these eras highlights the intolerance that has caused so many problems throughout history. In doing so, director D.W. Griffith tries to show us that our bigotry is not a new concept, as it has been around since time began. That being said, another human emotion which has been around forever is love.

Buster Keaton took a more upbeat approach to Griffith’s story with Three Ages (1923). Both share the multiple, historical periods, but Three Ages tries to highlight the struggle of man to win the heart of a woman. As such, Three Ages also mimics Intolerance by only using three archetypes: the boy (Buster Keaton), the girl (Margaret Leahy), and the rival (Wallace Beery). In the Prehistoric Age, the rival wins the girl by knocking her over the head and dragging her away. In the Roman Age, the rival wins the girl by beating the boy in a chariot race. Finally, the Modern Age (i.e., 1920s America) has the rival winning the girl over with massive amounts of wealth. Fortunately, it is in this final age when the boy finally gets the girl by stepping up and showing some confidence. Despite his monetary lack, the boy and girl have one thing in common: love.

History of the World, Part 1History of the World, Part 1
Year: 1981
Rating: R
Length: 92 minutes / 1.53 hours

Sometimes, the best way to learn history is to see an incorrect version of it. For instance, the comedy album Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America Volume One: The Early Years takes the stories we’ve all heard in school and puts a humorous and musical twist on them. From Christopher Columbus sailing to Miami Beach to open an Italian Restaurant to the accidental serving of turkey instead of an eagle for Thanksgiving to a very indecisive George Washington as he chooses his boat to cross the Delaware River, each segment is meant to twist history into comedy only because we know what actually happened. Or do we? At any rate, much of the comedy of these historical pieces comes from the use of anachronisms, which are modern items and ideas placed in a historical period before their time.

Mel Brooks’ slightly askew history lesson comes in the form of History of the World, Part 1 (1981). Instead of showing all the different historical eras together in a parallel format, like in Three Ages, Brooks takes the very standard, chronological approach. Starting with the Stone Age, we see a world filled with firsts, which inevitably creates the first critics. Next, the Old Testament is parodied with Moses (Mel Brooks) bringing down the Fifteen, scratch that, Ten Commandments. Continuing on to the New Testament, the Roman Empire is shown to be filled with excess as Comicus (Mel Brooks) escapes certain death. Bet you didn’t know the Spanish Inquisition was a musical. Nobody expects that. Finally, in a case of mistaken identity, we see the French Revolution where “it’s good to be the king.” If only the sequel was real, we’d also get to see Hitler on ice.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 hilarious history lessons

 

#189. Buster Keaton

I have mentioned a few times before in previous posts that there was a triad of comedians who excelled in silent film slapstick. First came Charlie Chaplin, then Harold Lloyd. Finally, Buster Keaton rounds out the list with some of the best-known stunts in cinematic history. In fact, with each successive actor, the stunts seemed to become more impressive. While Chaplin did a lot of his slapstick with people, Lloyd hung from buildings, and Keaton let buildings fall on top of him. The trick was that all three actors were working in the same time period. Even though they were offset by a few years, there was definitely some cross-influence between them, as well as competition for box office sales. Even with this competition, Buster Keaton made a unique name for himself. This week’s two films highlight a few of Keaton’s classics.

Sherlock, Jr.Sherlock, Jr.
Year: 1924
Rating: Not Rated
Length: 45 minutes / 0.75 hours

Part of Buster Keaton’s success was due to his branding. Chaplin had his “Tramp” with the short mustache, rounded hat, and cane; Lloyd’s characters wore his trademark glasses, and Keaton’s brand was the pork pie hat he wore in most of his films. This, of course, was a bit of a reference to Lloyd’s characters, who also wore a similar hat. Another theme Keaton used often was that of the underdog. Chaplin might have idealized homelessness, but Lloyd’s wealthy characters were often contrasted by burly antagonists, like in The Kid Brother (1927). Keaton’s few “Junior” films pulled from Lloyd, creating characters who were against the odds, but not because society had been hard on them. Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) came four years after his first “Junior” film, but still maintained the underdog aspect.

What was almost more impressive than Keaton’s stunts were the special effects used in many of his films. In the aforementioned Steamboat Bill, Jr., the front of a house falls on top of Keaton, his only salvation being an open window in the façade. In Sherlock, Jr. (1924), he actually broke his neck when a load of water from a water tower fell on him. Fortunately, his underwater escapades in The Navigator (1924) later that year were performed safely. Obviously, some effects need to be performed in person, but scenes like walking into a movie from the stage could be done with early camera tricks. The need in Sherlock, Jr. to enter a film was the main character’s daydream that he could solve a case involving a stolen item. As he transposed himself with the detective in the movie, he was trying to recreate the circumstances that would help him get the girl.

Three AgesThree Ages
Year: 1923
Rating: Not Rated
Length: 63 minutes / 1.05 hours

Intellectual property theft was big in the early days of film, which was why Keaton’s stunts ended up being so difficult to copy: he thought the best ones up himself. Furthermore, while we are all familiar with parody films, having a vast array of popular culture to pull from, this genre is by no means new. Even in 1923, with major motion pictures only having been around for a few decades, parodies were being made to highlight a film’s cultural significance. At over three hours long, D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916) gave moviegoers a look into three different historical eras to show that persecution and bigotry were rampant throughout time. This allowed Buster Keaton to easily break into cinema from the Vaudeville stage. With Three Ages (1923), Keaton began his slapstick career, seven years after Intolerance hit theaters.

At a third of the length, Three Ages stole the central plot device of using parallel storylines from Intolerance, but instead to show that man has always loved women, instead of the moral browbeating of its epic predecessor. The first of the Ages is that of the stone age, where a prehistoric man (Buster Keaton) would use whatever primitive tools necessary to convince the woman (Margaret Leahy) that he loved her. Unfortunately, as we would then see in the age of ancient Rome, it’s not so simple as that. There are rivals (Wallace Beery) who will compete for the love of the woman, often leaving the weaker and less-athletic men to think up more elaborate schemes to win the heart of a girl. Finally, in the “modern era” (in this case, the Roaring Twenties), the audience sees that things have not changed between the three ages: love has always been the way it is.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 Keaton classics

Bacon #: 2 (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn / Patty McCormack -> Frost/Nixon / Kevin Bacon)