The Big Sick
Finds that laughter-through-tears sweet spot, often in the unlikeliest of places.
Q. I just watched "The Graduate" for a film class and read your article claiming that Mrs. Robinson is the only strong character in the movie and that Benjamin is simply a lost youth. As a 20-year-old, I could relate greatly to this movie, to the feeling of being lost in a sea of expectation and confusion. I was curious why you felt the way that you did about the film. Will I look back in 20 years and view the movie in the same light? I was raised with this film (my name is actually taken from the movie, as is my nickname, Benjy) and always saw the movie as a film of rebellion and of changing times, but upon reading your article started to question my way of viewing it. Benjamin Greenberg, Eugene, Ore.
A. In my 1997 re-review of the film, I wrote: "The only character in the movie who is alive -- who can see through situations, understand motives and dare to seek her own happiness -- is Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft). Seen today, 'The Graduate' is a movie about a young man of limited interest, who gets a chance to sleep with the ranking babe in his neighborhood, and throws it away in order to marry her dorky daughter." Yes, that's how I see it now. When I saw it in 1967, I identified with Benjamin. In 20 years you may agree with me, unless, of course, you go into plastics. I ran into Anne Bancroft not long after writing that review, and told her Mrs. Robinson was the only character in the movie I thought I could have an intelligent conversation with. "Of course," she said. "That's why I took the role."
Q. A theater chain in downstate Illinois is promoting something called, I think, the "R Card." Here's how it works. Parents can sign a statement authorizing their under-17 children to attend R-rated movies; the children are sold a card with their photo ID on it, and can show it at the box office to get into R-rated movies without a parent or adult guardian. What do you think? Charley Smith, Chicago
A. As it happens, I was in downstate Urbana last weekend for my Overlooked Film Festival at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and one of the guests was MPAA President Jack Valenti, architect of the ratings system. His opinion of the R Card: "Just about the worst idea I've ever heard of." My opinion? This sounds like a ploy to increase under-17 ticket sales for R-rated movies. The ratings system works on a voluntary basis because theater owners enforce it. The theater chain should not have acted without MPAA approval.
Q. In reviewing "Games People Play: New York," you wondered how many turn-downs the contestants encountered en route to persuading off-the-street volunteers to go along with their stunts. (Who would agree to supply a stranger with a urine sample?)
I wondered, too, and asked director James Ronald Whitney that same question after a screening at the Landmark Century Cinema in Chicago. He said there were none! Every person approached on the streets of New York City went along with the stunts and never stopped to ask, "Hey, are we on camera?" That shows how convincing the actors were, he bragged. When each set-up came to its conclusion, the actors pointed out the cameras and convinced these strangers to sign releases. Getting signed releases was a key obstacle for the contestants. Whitney saluted the actors' hard work -- blocking for multiple hidden cameras, following scripts, having almost no rehearsal or sleep, and doing scenes with non-actors. "I look upon this as the Olympics of acting," Whitney said.
He brought along actor Hans Christianson, who will appear in Whitney's upcoming "Games People Play: Hollywood" and testified: "I feel so confident about my acting now. I think I can do anything someone ever asks me." Bill Stamets, Chicago
A. I believe that he can. I'm not sure that he should.
Q. Your review of "Dogville" was the second in a row I have seen which accused Lars von Trier of being anti-American. Do you really think that all the American actors in the film would have participated in the movie if it was as biased and filled with venom toward the U.S. as you contend?
You see, this is another example of a theory I have developed about film critics -- when they come up against a film they either can't understand and/or don't want to put the effort into figuring out, they do one of two things: either wildly overpraise it ("Lost in Translation" is a shining example here, Jim Jarmusch without the soul, leaving a hollow shell of nothingness) and hope that no one has the poor taste to point out that the emperor indeed has no clothes, or find some specific point to criticize that releases them from having to come to terms with the larger context of the movie. "Dogville" isn't one of Lars von Trier's best films but he doesn't deserve to be cast as anti-American because of it. Dewey Carter, Boulder, Colo.
A. What I wrote was: "Von Trier could justifiably make a fantasy about America, even an anti-American fantasy, and produce a good film, but here he approaches the ideological subtlety of a raving prophet on a street corner." It wasn't his anti-Americanism that I was attacking, but his filmmaking. Why the actors appeared in the film is clear enough; he is an interesting and important director. At least two of them (Nicole Kidman and James Caan) have declined to work with him again.
Q. You stated in your Great Movies review of "Sunrise" that as silent films reached their pinnacle, they strove not to "tell a story, but to give an experience." This is what I live by as a filmmaker myself. Yet this approach confuses filmgoers. Some are able to be open to it, and some reject it outright (particularly those concerned or involved with the "industry"). If cinema is to provide us with new images, mythologies and icons, why must it be so rigidly embedded in the formula of strict narrative? The few glimpses of "pure" cinema since the silents have been stunning ("2001: A Space Odyssey" or "The Thin Red Line," for example), yet this form is often characterized as "indulgent" or "pretentious." I believe this form has yet to reach its potential, but generally filmmakers and audiences are uninterested in it. Why is that? In the days before sound, wasn't the cinema still a thoroughly satisfying, moving and magical experience for an audience? Andrew McGowan, Los Angeles
A. I was thinking the same thing while watching a beautifully restored 70mm print of "Lawrence of Arabia" at my recent Overlooked Film Festival. The first hour of the film consists essentially of conversations and long journeys through the desert. When the village is finally attacked, it's in long shot. The movie is mesmerizing. Perhaps the giant image helps; seen on video, the movie loses much of its magic. And as multiplexes and their screens shrink, movies come more and more to resemble television talk and action, but little vision.
Q. I can't understand the reason for giving away The Bride's real name in your review of "Kill Bill, Volume 2." I would understand if revealing it was essential to your critique of the film, but it is mentioned merely as an aside with no apparent purpose. Adam Lenhardt, Slingerlands, N.Y.
A. You are absolutely correct. I don't know what came over me. I guess I just really liked the name.
Q. Why is it that films released before the 1950s are not available on DVD in widescreen? I realize this was the pre-Cinemascope era, but weren't the old movie screens rectangular rather than square like the TV sets?
I ask because the double-disc version of "Casablanca" (for which you provided a commentary) is only available in "standard" form. The recent Chaplin reissues are also full-screen only, not to mention "Gone With the Wind," "The Wizard of Oz," "The Birth of a Nation" and countless others. Why would you participate in a DVD project that would not showcase your favorite film the way it was shown in the cinemas? Dennis Earl, Hamilton, Ontario
A. The widescreen format was not introduced until 1954. Before that, virtually ALL movies were shot in the ratio of 1:1.33. That's not square, and neither is your TV set, but four units wide for every three units high.
The movies you mention are presented correctly on those videos. If they were wide-screen, that would involve chopping off some of the top and bottom of the original picture -- an experiment that was actually tried with "Gone With the Wind" and "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," with disastrous results.