Posts Tagged ‘classics’

“I Could Never Get Past the Title”

December 28, 2021

That quote from “Batman:  The Animated Series” is Bruce Wayne talking about why he’s never watched the movie that I’m actually going to talk about in this post:  “It’s a Wonderful Life”.  I’ve developed a mild interest in watching some of the classic movies that I never got around to watching, and when I found this one on sale for a reasonable price — it’s labeled as the “Platinum Anniversary Edition”, which would mean that it’s a five year old edition — I decided that I’d give it a try.  And since it’s noted as a Christmas classic, it seemed appropriate to watch it on Christmas Eve (which is when Batman was supposed to watch it).

Now, as a Christmas classic, it’s obviously noted for being at least important, if not really good.  That being said, I’ve heard people complain about it dragging and being boring, although not that many people whose opinions on movies I really respected, so there’s that.  So I was interested in seeing for myself how the movie worked.

The one thing that is accurate is the fact that despite what everyone remembering about the premise is the part with the angel and with the angel showing the main character what his life would be like if he had never been born, that actually takes up a surprisingly small amount of the running time of the movie.  About an hour and a half of the two hour movie is instead dedicated to showing us the main character’s life up to that point and how he got to the point where he was contemplating suicide and all of his friends and loved ones were praying for him to get some help.  What the movie does do well is introduce the angel early and present that part of the story as the angel getting briefed on what he needed to know to help the main character, which then sets that up as a framing device and suggests that we need to know that as well.  The downside of that is that after bringing it up once in the first half of the movie as a reminder, we spend about an hour of the movie just following along with the main character’s life, which then causes us to lose that framing and turns it into more of a straight drama, losing the unique aspect that everyone remembers it for.

What this also does is make it so that there’s an imbalance in the movie between how the main character’s life went to get him to this point vs how things would have been if he had never been born.  The latter is given short shrift, but given the framing device and that it’s supposed to be what causes him to realize that his life really does have meaning it really would have been better to give it more time.  The movies and works that follow tend to do that, balancing showing us his life and all the characters and what has gone wrong to bring him to this point with what life would be like if he had never been born so that we can see that his life has had a strong and meaningful impact on the people around him and those he loves, and in this case on the town itself.  Here, we get a long look at his life up to this point, but what life would be like if he had never been born is a bit rushed.

This also, then, causes some issues with creating an alternate reality that can resolve all of the issues that were raised during the depiction of his life up to this point.  For example, one of the most important things that should make the main character want to live is the impact of his never being born on his wife, whom he clearly does love.  Except that the big issue for her is … that she ends up unmarried and working as a librarian.  Yes, in 1946 that would seem to be a worse fate than it would today, but even still that’s not exactly horrific.  It also doesn’t fit well with the rest of the story, because she was being courted by someone else — a wealthy man — and we would have expected that she would have ended up married to him.  Nothing in their history together suggests that she would have become some kind of wallflower or something, and so the only reason to think that she would end up unmarried is because she insisted that he was the only one she wanted to marry, which would probably not apply in a world where he was never born.  In other works, in general she would marry the rival and it would turn out to be a terrible life for her, but her beau there is actually ultimately a sympathetic character so that wouldn’t work here.  But it’s still a bit odd and a bit of a letdown.

His impact on other people is also a bit short.  He saved his brother’s life as a child, and the main thing they focus on is his saving a transport as a pilot in the war, and while their deaths when he wouldn’t be there are tragic, given the deaths in the war itself and that it didn’t seem to impact the battle at all it doesn’t really add any impact beyond the brother being dead itself would, which makes it superfluous.  While the impact on the pharmacist that he worked for is greater — he stopped him from making a mistake that would kill a child and get him sent to prison for a number of years — that’s just an aside in the story.  We don’t really see the huge impact that he’s had on individual lives that such a movie would generally demand.

The impact on the town is a bit better, as his work at his father’s Building and Loan business allows people to rise up from the “slums” of Potter and be able to own their own homes, which is something that they could take pride in.  However, again that only becomes clear because Potter is just a terrible person, and so seeing him win would make us want to see a world where he didn’t.  But the issue with this is that there was an underlying thread throughout the recollections of his life that the main character always wanted to leave Bedford Falls, but circumstances kept him there.  So there was an undercurrent that he cared for the people but not the town of Bedford Falls, and that if it wasn’t for the obligations that he felt to the various people in the town he would have left.  So at the end, what we would have liked was to see that he came to appreciate the town as it was and resolved that issue.  Instead, what we get is a callback to an earlier scene where he gives his honeymoon money to keep people afloat and keep the business open, as when his uncle has the money they need to keep the business running stolen and that loss would end up with the main character being arrested his wife manages to rally the town to put together whatever money they can to bail him out (and his wealthy friend also is tracked down and authorizes a loan to deal with more than the entire amount) and so we get to see that the people in the town repay him for his generosity in the past, which works well because Potter — who stole the money and called the police on him — actually says when the main character begs Potter for help that the main character should turn to the deadbeats that he supported in the past, and so they ultimately do indeed prove his faith in them.  But while that is heartwarming and fits with the movie, it does leave the thread of his constantly wanting to leave the town unresolved.

All of that being said … the movie does work.  The threads of the main character’s life are interesting enough and let us get to know him and his family enough for us to want to see him not commit suicide and get out of the jam he’s in.  Potter is also villainous enough that we want to see him defeated and can see it as a conflict between big, impersonal business and the local guy who cares for the people he serves.  So despite it running longer than we’d expect, the recollections of his life aren’t boring and aside from a few things that seem like asides do indeed seem to be things that we need to know to understand how he got to this point.  Once it gets to the point where we are seeing how life would be different if he had never been born, again the only real complaint is that it’s too short, and perhaps at times a bit too frantic and manic.  But the ending follows from a lot of the movie and is, indeed, heartwarming in its own way.

The movie, overall, is well-written and well-performed, which is why it could keep my interest for two hours despite losing the framing device for a while.  One oddity is that Mary — the main character’s wife — is supposed to be upstaged in terms of attractiveness by rival Violet, but Mary is actually always better looking than Violet is, although that can be explained by the fact that Violet is far more flirtatious than Mary.  Still, I think that most people and most people at the time would definitely prefer Mary to Violet.  At any rate, the movie is entertaining enough and I will likely watch it again at some point, although it is unlikely to become a full Christmas tradition for me.

Thoughts on “Casablanca”

January 9, 2020

So, as part of my new schedule I carved out an evening a week to watch the growing stack of movies that I had bought and never bothered to watch, as well as some that I wanted to rewatch. One of those was “Casablanca”, that I found for a good price in a store — it might have been a “Bestsellers” type store that closed and has now, no kidding, been replaced by a sock store — and figured that people rave about the movie and so it was probably time for me to watch it and see if it was as good as people say. So for my first run at a movie it seemed only appropriate to watch it.

Yeah, it’s as good as people say.

The movie, for the most part, is emotionally-charged and dramatic exposition. There’s very limited if any action and most of the movie is people talking about things. What is happening now. What happened in the past. What will or might happen. A movie like that could be boring, but Casablanca makes it work with great performances and interesting character interactions that keep us interested in what they’re saying and in finding out what happened and how it’s all going to work out … even if we already know the ending. The movie takes the time to establish that Rick is a cynic but also someone who deep down wants to help people — he constantly claims that he’ll stick his neck out for no one but people constantly point out that he is willing to do that at times, and the only case where he clearly doesn’t is one where the guy got himself in trouble and is someone Rick doesn’t care for either — which allows us to see his dilemma and yet completely understand how the movie ends. Even the police captain is presented as someone mostly amoral but whom we can see would be willing to ignore Rick’s actions and help him out at the end for various reasons. As all the character motivations work, we can simply enjoy the interactions between them and the rather minimal plot, which is there only to provide a reason for everyone to come together and to set-up the final character climax.

About the only thing I dislike about the movie are the musical numbers. I didn’t find the singer that great a one, and the musical numbers are okay at best. “As Time Goes By” works the best, but only because that’s a theme for the movie and effective as that.

I would definitely watch this movie again, and it’s made me wonder if I should look for other classics and try them out as well.

Thoughts on “The Complete Sherlock Holmes”

December 26, 2019

So, yesterday, I commented that I had finished reading “The Complete Sherlock Holmes”. I had read that collection at least once and probably twice before, but as part of reading classic works I wanted to read it again. It was also interesting because of a couple of other things that had been going on around that time, including reading a puzzle book themed on Sherlock Holmes.

And the post talking about that raised some interesting points in the comments. First, from natewinchester:

Funny, because I was just reading up on the “clueless mystery” tropes the other day:

And Holmes’ stories apparently fell under that style back in the day. Apparently the “fair play” type of mystery stories didn’t become popular until after his era.

Responded to by malcolmthecynic:

The Holmes stories are less mysteries and more adventure stories, for the most part.

After re-reading them, I have to agree with malcolmthecynic. The stories can be a bit unfair — there are times when Holmes will go off on his own to investigate something and will only tell us the results as he’s revealing the crime — but even then you could figure out what was going on as soon as Holmes reveals the details. Still, sometimes he reveals the villain beforehand. But what really makes them more mystery adventures is the fact that in many of them Holmes only identifies the basic details — who is doing it and what their very basic motivation is — and then much of the story is that person explaining the backstory of how they got there (generally only for sympathetic “villains”, of course). This will take up at least half the story and is generally the most interesting and dramatic part of the story. For the most part, the Holmes stories seem to be aiming at doing two things: showing off the deductions that Holmes is famous for (some of which might be a bit dubious) and building dramatic and adventurous stories around those deductions.

I also commented before that Holmes should deal with his issues of an idling mind by taking up philosophy. It turns out that he actually does that when he retires, combining it with beekeeping. Which is an interesting little note.

Anyway, I still did enjoy reading them, and will probably read them again.

Thoughts on “And Then There Were None”

October 29, 2019

“Remington Steele” referenced it at least twice, once directly and once by naming most of the characters after the characters in the book. I hadn’t read it, I think, since it was actually read to my class in grade school. Put that all together and I was inspired to buy and read Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None”, which in the modern-style removes all references to Indians and replaces them with Soldiers … which doesn’t in any way change the impact of the book.

Of course, I know how it all ends, and pretty much all of the twists. So I wasn’t going to be able to read it to enjoy those again. So I decided that I’d focus on seeing what was interesting to me knowing how it all turns out.

One thing that was interesting is that Christie drops a lot of hints as to who the killer is outside of the ones listed at the end. As stated on TV Tropes — I’ll spare you the link — a lot of Wargraves’ inner thoughts are ones that at first blush look like an innocent person but in hindsight are really indications of his real status. In the beginning, for example, he re-reads the note he “received” and notes that it does sound exactly like what that person would say or do, which can be seen as him re-reading it to assess whether the odd invitation is credible, as some of the others were doing. In hindsight, though, it’s an assessment over whether his situation will seem credible and almost congratulation himself on coming up with such a good ruse. And this is important to him, since some of the people invited moved in the same circles as the person who purportedly invited him and so it has to seem believable … a fact that Christie highlights by having there be a minor family connection revealed in the initial conversations and referenced again later. There’s also a number of references to Wargraves looking reptilian or predatory, things that it might seem odd at first but could reflect his “hanging judge” personality but which also, later, can be seen as hints that he might be the murderer.

It’s also easy to see why the play, when it has people survive, has those two be Vera and Lombard. As the last two left on the island, that’s obviously made easier, but Christie herself seems to treat them the most sympathetically. Vera’s the most obvious — and it’s pretty easy to explain her thoughts as misplaced guilt — but Lombard is also portrayed in a manner that would incline us towards him. Outside of Wargraves, he’s the smartest and comes up with the most ideas, and also takes the most direct actions. Everyone else is either passive or annoying or both. Blore is probably the biggest example of this as despite being a police inspector he’s portrayed as being dreadfully unimaginative and needlessly and often ridiculously confrontational. Lombard’s crime is also one that shows at worst his survival instinct and a disdain for native people that, well, most people at the time probably also felt, whereas the others tended to be either careless, self-interested or cruel. Lombard would have died if he hadn’t done what he did, but none of the others had such an excuse.

Overall, it is an interesting and well-written book, one of the better ones of the genre. Of course, it is far less interesting when you know the ending or, rather, when you know exactly how the murderer did manage to be the murderer. Which I haven’t told you, so you might get some interest out of the book yet. Just don’t watch “Remington Steele” first.

Thoughts on “War and Peace”

October 22, 2019

For the past few weeks, I’ve been posting about some Stephen King adaptations — to movie — in this spot. I intended to do the same thing this week, but the next movie in the pack that I’m currently working through is 167 minutes long. I just didn’t have the time this weekend to watch a movie that long. However, I had just managed to finish reading “War and Peace” and since I had planned to talk about it decided that today was a good day to do so.

I’ve been reading “War and Peace” off and on for about four months now. I finally managed to finish it about a week or so ago. It was a long and rather heavy book, and again as usual I kept getting distracted by other things. The pace, therefore, was incredibly slow. Some days I’d manage to read a whole four pages before putting it aside for the night. This was mostly because the book was detailed and deep enough that I had to focus more on it than I would otherwise and so when I got distracted I did have to make sure that I went back and caught the details of the parts that I might have skimmed over otherwise, especially since a lot of it was in French where I had to make sure that I read the translations to figure out what was going on.

Now, this is a very famous work, and is well-known in literary circles. There’s a lot of literary analysis that can be done and has been done for this book. I’m not going to do any of that here. Instead, I went into this with the attitude of “Okay, so this is labelled as an incredibly wonderful book that stands the test of time. I’m going to just sit down and read it and see how it works simply as entertainment from someone who likes to read books”. So, I was reading it for fun. Was it fun?

I’m going to start with the good points, segue into some of the bad points, and then give an overall assessment at the end.

While obviously how the work is translated can play a big part in this, nevertheless it’s clear that Tolstoy’s writing style is very good. His conversations generally flow, his asides generally work, the pacing is normally fairly good — more on this in the negatives — and his descriptions generally work. Character-wise, Tolstoy is generally able to describe them well-enough and to speak well-enough in their own voices to make them distinct and also relatable and sympathetic. There are a number of characters in the work that I really liked — Marya and Sonya in particular — and that I grew to like later like Pierre and Natasha. Most of the background characters work even if they often don’t really get any resolution to their character arcs. For the most part, Tolstoy does a good job of mostly describing people going about doing things and talking about things that they would talk about, and exposing them for their strengths and foibles, which makes it seem like a description of Russia at the time and not so much a work of fiction at all. That he uses the actual historical backdrop of the Napoleonic ways only adds to this; without knowing the actual detailed history, you probably won’t notice the differences in characters or events that Tolstoy hints at in his epilogue, nor will at least some of the prominent characters that he invents seem out of place as prominent characters. There are some rather major discrepancies as Tolstoy notes, but as a work of fiction it works well to make all of those discrepancies at least seem like things that could have happened.

Tolstoy also at times takes a rather cynical view of wars, politics, history and historians, and a number of other things. While these are generally asides, they also usually work pretty well. Tolstoy is a master of expressing what he sees as the foibles of people and institutions in a way that’s interesting and somewhat cynical but still leaves them as mostly human. He also always spends some time arguing for his positions which puts him ahead of many cynical people today who seem to want to say “This is stupid!” but never want to talk about why it’s stupid. Tolstoy always says why it’s stupid or at least wrong, even if you don’t agree with this assessment. A big part of the work, in fact, is Tolstoy’s rather pronounced views on how historical changes actually happen and what they are actually caused by, which is an interesting theory in itself that I don’t have the time to explore in detail.

This, however, leads to the major problem with the work, by Tolstoy’s own admission: it’s disjoint. There’s no real central plot or narrative to follow as you read it. The major progression is the Napoleonic Wars leading up to the famous taking of Moscow and subsequent retreat of the French from Russia with that infamously disastrous Russian campaign — also infamously repeated by Hitler in WWII — but it’s clear that that’s the framing device and not the plot of the work. But, then, what is the main narrative here? You could say that it’s the story of the Rostovs, but while the story keeps touching their lives and all the main characters that survive end up in their family either directly or through marriage for the most part the Rostovs are too unimportant to be the focus of the work. The character who plays the most important role in all of the proceedings is probably Pierre and he does have a character arc, but as he plays almost no role in the war that would leave much of the work mostly extraneous. Tolstoy in an afterword does point out that people have objected to this sort of thing in the work, so this isn’t unknown to him and is likely partly intentional. But the problem is that in such a lengthly and heavy work we really want to have a set narrative, even if a small one, to focus on and help us push through to the next scene, especially when the book shifts to things that we don’t care as much about. All that we have here is the desire to find out how things for certain characters will turn out, but this hits the same problem that I noted with “Legacy of the Force”: that sort of structure means that when the work is focusing on events and characters that we aren’t interested in, we’re going to be bored. This is epitomized in the Epilogue, where after he resolves the issues for the characters and explains what happened to them, he goes on and on for a number of pages about his personal theory of history, which is repetitive and boring and only something I struggled through at all because I was wondering if he was going to talk about the characters again at some point. While his pacing is generally good, when it goes wrong it’s usually because he stops talking about the interesting characters and goes off to talk about something less interesting.

Also, a number of events require people to be idiots, which can be problematic. At the political or military level, it isn’t an issue — there has obviously been a long history of people at the highest levels acting stupidly and causing disasters — but it is a bit of an issue when it happens to the characters. It’s hard to remain sympathetic to characters to act hypocritically or idiotically and cause massive problems because of it. And it builds from characters that we would expect to act that way — Natasha is one of the biggest idiots in the work, but she’s a vain and emotional teenage girl when she does so so we can forgive her for that — to characters that should probably know better later on. That being said, Tolstoy does manage to pretty much rescue all of the important characters and shows their human foibles to, in fact, be nothing more than human foibles, but it can get irritating at times.

Still, it’s a pretty good book. The characters that we end up with are the ones that Tolstoy has spent time making sympathetic, and they mostly end up with the sort of life that they’d want in the end. The only real downers are Prince Andrei dying and Sonya getting passed over for marriage by the man she loves and never really finding love herself, but again both of those are clearly supporting characters that you have to remind yourself of to get that downer feeling. Most of the asides are interesting and Tolstoy usually leaves enough mystery and threads around to push you through the parts that you may not be all that interested in. Except for the length of time it takes me to read it, this is a book that I’d consider reading again.

I’ve turned away from Russian classics towards mystery, having both “The Complete Sherlock Holmes” and Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None” on the go at the moment.