Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Unsettling

Great art has resonance beyond itself. A great movie stays with you afterward for hours, even days. Maybe forever.

The experience of "El Cid" is rapturous because of its overwhelming sound and images, accompanied by a magnificent Miklos Rozsa score. Beyond this, the movie is unsettling in ways I can't fully describe.

In part it's Ben Yussef's sweeping screen-filling army with its thunderous drums. In part, the realistic one-on-one combats. In part, Ben Yussuf displaying the Spanish traitor he's about to insert into the Christians' midst. In part, without question, the strange bond of love-hate between Rodrigo and Chimene. Or maybe it's because the film portrays a world where there is no peace and there can be no peace; that in this tale of knights there is no Star Wars fairy-tale outcome. The strange, melancholy ending, better seen than described, is haunting.

5 comments:

King said...

I have several more posts to put up about "El Cid," the 1961 movie which I saw last week on a movie screen in New York.
Remember my point: that the world of criticism in this country is screwed up. Standards have been turned on their head. I'm using "El Cid"-- truly one of the greatest films-- to demonstrate this. To rank a basically trivial albeit innovative work like "Breathless" above it is ludicrous. It shows criticism divorced from sense-- divorced from ART-- and become more concerned with itself. This attitude has harmed no art more than literature.

Harland said...

Well, re/Breathless, I don't know if I agree. A lot of Godard shows its flaws now, but that's part of the deal with innovation. It hasn't been synthesized into craft. The mistakes are there for us to pick at, especially fifty years on. But "The Movies" owe a debt to him, even if Breathless looks, er, out of breath.

I don't know about El Cid. I think it's a better movie than it's given credit for. But I guess I'm an "essentialist" who thinks that what Mann does is inherently interesting.

Harland said...

Oh, hey, King. Next time you're in NY maybe we should have a beer.

King said...

When I was a kid my father would buy boxing magazines. I remember a fascinating article in one of them about film archivist Jim Jacobs. Jacobs dug up some old footage of the legendary Jim Corbett-Robert Fitzsimmons fight. One day he screened the footage for a collection of NYC boxing writers. (This was in the 60's, when boxing was still a major sport.)
The fight journalists had been raised on tales in Police Gazette et.al. about the "Golden Age" of boxing; reportage of the tremendously bloody and exciting fights, and how great "Gentleman Jim" was.
The lights went down. The footage began. The two fighters on screen seemed to be moving in slow motion. The stands, depicted in sketches of the day as overflowing, were half-empty. "Pace?" I remember the writer of the article saying. "There was no pace."
"Who are these guys?" a member of the crowd asked Jacobs.
"Corbett and Fitzsimmons."
Jaws dropped. The tough NY boxing writers had just found out there's no Santa Claus.
"There must be something wrong with the film," they proclaimed in chorus, as the reality set in.
This is the way I felt when I viewed "Citizen Kane," as I've described elsewhere. The same effect with the French New Wave "classics."
They're not as good as advertised.
Sure, they were innovative in their day. So was Jim Corbett.
As the writer of the revelatory article about old-time boxers pointed out, there eventually came along fighters one doesn't have to apologize for-- Jack Dempsey the first one he cited. People will be able to view footage of Muhammed Ali in the future and be amazed, because he was truly amazing.
Innovation isn't enough. "The Jazz Singer" was innovative; important from a historical perspective. No one would try to claim, as critics claim for "Citizen Kane," that it's the greatest movie ever. The simple fact is that "Kane" isn't. Its lauded innovation today resembles a series of gimmicks. Critics are impressed by gimmickry, by technique-- which explains much of the sad state of contemporary literature.
Most damaging, "Kane" has little emotional depth. It doesn't get under your skin in the way great Hitchcock gets under the skin. The character of Kane remains distant, maybe because he's buried under techniques and gimmicks.
Anthony Mann was a subtle director. He made his points without hitting you over the head (though sometimes the sheer art of the movie, like Yussuf's thunderous army, or the thrilling joust, hits you over the head). About "The Far Country" I love the trick of the bell on Stewart's saddle, which humanizes the character, and at the end, brings the happenings of the story together; not in any conscious way, but it's effective.
**************
"El Cid" was critically dissed when it came out because it wasn't "Ben-Hur." Ironically, because "Ben-Hur" itself, for all its attributes, its sheer entertainment value, is now fairly dissed. Shortly after came "Lawrence," which is a masterpiece in many ways-- yet "El Cid" may dig deeper.
*****************
My point is that critics are superficially intelligent, they readily buy the Received Wisdom without examination, and follow the behavior pattern of the standard Herd.

King said...

I like NYC-- a lot of energy there-- but I'm seldom able to get up there anymore. (I usually stop for a beer when I do.)