Saturday, November 14, 2015

November films

I should be getting back to the blog more again.  I'll explain later.  But I thought I would come back with a quick romp through some movies we like to watch during that often overlooked month of November.  My first take on movies we watch for Halloween was quite a hit in the day.  But November is often overlooked as a month with 'required viewing' for movies and film.  Being film buffs, that obviously can't be the case with us.  So below are some movies that, at different times and in different years, we try to watch during this month.  Two are every year no questions asked (I'll leave the good readers to figure out which those are).  The others are nice when we get the chance. 

Last of the Mohicans. 

As brought to life with Daniel Day Lewis as Hawkeye, Last of the Mohicans hearkens to that colonial time that, by my feelings, still resonates with the fall.  I would probably watch this closer to October or late September, but given our penchant for watching spook movies and supernatural fare during that time, there just isn’t room. So it’s off to the month of November. The movie is based, fairly loosely, on the book of the same name.  But in many ways it simply takes the basic story arc and discards much of the nuance that Cooper brought to the novel.  Cooper’s novel was a celebration of American life on the frontier, a critique, as well as an attempt to understand the lives of the American Indians whose lands we were quickly overtaking.  In this film version, there is little subtlety.  Released in the shadow of Dances With Wolves, there isn’t much imagination needed to figure out who the bad guys are.  Or, at least, who the incompetent guys are.  Watching this, you’re almost shocked that the Europeans could in any way overtake the far superior Indian society.

Unlike the novel, where Hawkeye is a bridge between the two cultures, observing and critiquing both while also advocating their better parts, in this version, Hawkeye is Indian in all but genetics.  He has virtually no connection to the Christian Western culture, contempt for everything to do with it, and joins the other Indians and frontiersmen in their basic loathing and disregard for almost everything to do with their English and Western roots. 

Yet it was still in the 90s, and so the actual settlers were still considered innocent victims, and the sinister Magua, played brilliantly by Wes Studi, reminds us that not all Indians were capable of dying for the sins of humanity.   Something that, by today, most treatments have forgotten as the Native is elevated to almost godlike status, and the hapless frontiersmen to the role of the demonic.

The Hobbit (Rankin/Bass version)
For my money, still the best film adaptation of a Tolkien work. Rankin and Bass’s The Hobbit is required viewing for our family in November.  It was in November that the special originally aired.  I only paid scant attention to it then.  I had not heard of Tolkien at that point in my life.  Nor was I overly interested in fantasy or myth.  That would come later.  My interests were mostly in history, especially the history of WWII.  If anything, my imagination had just taken a turn thanks to that little film about some spaceships and aliens in a galaxy far, far away.  Still, I remember sitting in our family room (which was really just an old bedroom), with the TV on.  I was playing with some toys, and this came on.  Didn’t interest me then. 

By college, I had discovered Tolkien and read his works.  At first LoTRs more or less bored me, but I did find the Hobbit enjoyable.  And what’s more, I remembered the special when I first read the book, and was pleasantly surprised at how it established a basic understanding of the plot and the characters and the basic themes.  Sure, there was no Arkenstone nor was there Beorn.  But there was nothing added (hello, Peter Jackson).  If nothing, I was bothered by the short treatment Thorin received.  Otherwise, the acting talent, the background scenery, and the fealty to Tolkien’s ‘old world antiquity’ that the basic design has, still holds a place in my heart. 

I know many can’t stand it.  Even in its day, it had its detractors, especially when it comes to the conceptual design of some of the character classes (dwarves and wood elves especially).  Still, after Jackson’s introduction of beardless, beefcake dwarf heartthrobs with elven love affairs, all of that license seems rather tame today.  For us, it is a throwback to a time when fantasy was not yet mainstream or a billion dollar genre, when concepts of Toklien didn’t include endless CGI murals, but instead had a simple candle with an open codex to remind us of the pre-modern world that the author himself envisioned.

Devil and Daniel Webster
Based on the short story of the same name, and originally released under the title All That Money Can Buy, this film is most enjoyable when the late, great Walter Houston is chewing up scenery as none other than Old Scratch himself.  It’s really a retelling of sorts of the old Faustian Bargain.  James Craig is capable enough as Jabez Stone, a New England farmer who is down on his luck, and lashes out in a fit of rage that he would sell his soul for a break.  In comes Walter Houston with just the answer: Money and all it can buy.  Of course we know how that goes.  At first fortune shines on gentleman farmer Stone, but pretty soon the lures of Hell begin to corrupt him.  Eventually he finds his life falling apart and tries to get out of the bargain.  Old Scratch will have none of it, and it’s the almost godlike Daniel Webster, played wonderfully by the always solid Edward Arnold, who steps in and saves the day.   

In addition to being seeped in old colonial era frontier feel that I associate with fall, and the New England life that one naturally places at the foot of traditional Thanksgiving, the movie is noteworthy for being positive in its appraisal of America, while not hesitating to speak to its sins, albeit through the mouth of the Devil himself. 

Mayflower: Pilgrim’s Adventure
The myth of myths is one of the banes of history.  That is, the idea that people always believed what most probably never did, and therefore we must over emphasize things in ways that are probably as wrong as any myths people are supposed to have believed in the first place.  So we have the now maligned pilgrims, treated as if they were worshiped as gods when, as early as I remember, we merely celebrated their courage and forbearance, and the promise of what could have been with the aid they received from the local American Indians.  That was about it.  And that was as early as first grade, c. 1972.  Yet we must emphasize the scandal, the bad, the negative.  We must do that to offset that pesky myth, which from what I’ve found, has never really existed.  Just like I hear people say we have to stop the myth that Columbus went out to prove the world was flat! The only time I heard that was in Bugs Bunny reruns.  As long as I remember, we were taught that Columbus did not do that.  Same with the pilgrims.  And so this special dared, in its day, to try to show the complexities of relationships between the passengers on that fateful voyage, and expose some of the warts and all of what went on.  Compared to treatments that the poor pilgrims receive today, the movie is almost mythical in its own right.  And perhaps that is what defines a myth.  When a new generation rises up and no longer sees things through the same subjective prisms, the other ways must simply be because of myth.

Nonetheless, the movie itself is credible enough.  Anthony Hopkins does a good job as Captain Jones, and Richard Crenna and the rest of the cast and film manages to maintain a sense of respect without mock sentimentality or that tiresome sense of irony that marks so many modern historical flicks.

The Exorcist
Perhaps the most intense movie of terror ever made. I’m not sure why, but this is November viewing for me.  At the beginning of the movie, some Tricks-or-Treaters are shown running by under some fall foliage.  It must be Halloween at the start of the story.  Since no other holiday is mentioned, I imagine the events unfold over the next few weeks.  By the end, the coldness of the weather is emphasized, trees are bare, but no snow or snowfall.  So I imagine it is mostly through the month of November that the story happens. 

As a result, post-Halloween November is the perfect time for this. Not to mention that November is when the fall becomes the season of dead.  The vibrancy of fall is usually, by now, a thing of the past.   Bare trees, brown and dried leaves, withered shrubs and browning grass all mark the turn toward the deadness of winter.  It is, not unsurprisingly, this season when Satan attempts to explode into the world by seizing none other than strange Regan, daughter of non-religious, morally ambiguous actress.  The acting is first rate, the possession scenes still intense and shocking ever after all these decades. 

It’s a nice reminder of good old fashioned good vs. evil, and so  well known that nothing else needs to be said.

A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving
Between the Great Pumpkin and the Easter Beagle is this Peanuts holiday special.  Introducing the Television audience to the annoyingly buff tomboy character of Peppermint Patty, A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving was the last of the Peanut’s Holiday Specials with close to a heart for the traditional holidays.  Where A Charlie Brown Christmas oozed with Christian meaning an nostalgia, and The Great Pumpkin was covered with all the trappings of a childhood Halloween celebration and atmosphere anyone in the Midwest would have remembered, the Thanksgiving special only touches on such things.  Largely a mixed up series of gags and strange Snoopy skits, it only barely taps in feelings  of the Thanksgiving holidays of old.  The pilgrims are reduced to a costume and a brief Thanksgiving prayer.  Something about being thankful more than wanting the commercial fixings, and friendship.  It showed that whatever Schultz had to tell the world with his fabled Christmas special seemed to be running low on steam, and increasingly all that was left were excuses for coming up with specials for the bucks of it.

Still, it’s not as convoluted as the Easter Beagle, and with its faux colonial style musical score, has enough holiday feel to make it worth the watch.

The Blue Max
What?  Never heard of it!  I get that a lot with this movie.  It’s a bit of a lost gem.  For some reason, I always associate fall with WWI, as I do with most history.  As I’ve written elsewhere, history and fall seem to go hand in hand.  Plus, Charlie Brown’s dog snoopy imagines wandering about the WWI countryside in the Great Pumpkin, so I imagine it’s partly that as well.  In any event, WWI and the fall are associated, and this is one of the better movies to invoke that feeling.  WWI movies are hard to come by, and many that are WWI are so saturated with purpose and message that there isn’t much atmosphere apart from the obvious polemics.  But this, while it does point to issues of war and class, is more about the fictional story of a man obsessed with proving himself, only to end up over his head.  The late George Peppard does well enough as a German, though as always James Mason is there to give umph to the cast, and noteworthy German actor Karl Michael Vogler helps to add a little ‘this is really supposed to be Germany’ feel to the film.  Nothing special, not a bad film at all – and pretty racy in its day.   

Historians can, of course, pick apart the details, as they can with any film.  But for November and fall and a bit of the now forgotten War to end all Wars, not a bad way to spend a couple hours. 

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