Monday, February 23, 2015
When it was released, no one really cared about everyone's favourite movie. The Shawshank Redemption was a box office flop. In 1994, top movies included Dumb and Dumber, Ace Venture: Pet Detective, and The Mask. Maybe if Jim Carrey had starred as Andy Dufresne – breaking out of prison by turning into a human tornado, leaving a cartoon silhouette in the brick, or proclaiming "Get busy living or get busy dying" through his ass – Shawshank would have been a smash hit. It was only when it wound up on VHS and on TV that Frank Darabont's movie based on Stephen King's story became what's now considered a classic.
It's hard to say why movies don't stick right away. Pulp Fiction was one of the other huge films of 1994, as violent as it was cool, and one of the few movies of the American indie renaissance that made good on its author's early promise. For all its affectations, though, Tarantino's sophomore film made for one of the most narratively innovative experiences most mainstream audiences had by then encountered. But of course the biggest film of that year was the time-trotting, saccharine Forrest Gump, as famous for its camera tricks as it was for its folksy wisdom. Narratively interesting and with triumph of the human heart written all over it, it is a wonder why Shawshank wasn't better received.
Browsing the popular movies of the year, it occurs to me that, while all very fine flicks in and of themselves (isn't Bill Pullman pissing himself in True Lies one of the all-time classic movie moments?) the biggies are generically clear. You've got uncomplicated action, uncomplicated comedy, all streamlined for their audiences. But Shawshank stands out for it's mix of depressing and uplifting. While it's no Hunger, it is primarily about incarceration, and as much as it is about the success of the human spirit, it's also about the destruction of said will to live. It's a nice buddy story, but it also has its share of beatings, and rape, and suicide.
The movie's fidelity to Stephen King's original story might have a lot to do with its slow motion success. We could sit here until the killer clowns come home arguing about King's literary merit, but the fact is that the guy's probably one of the most stalwart post-war storytellers in North America. He's got an undeniable knack for the yarn. As a horror writer, he's most distinguished for placing his characters in a pot of water and bringing it to a slow boil. In his less talked about monster-less writing, King cooks the water the same. In "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption," incarceration, false or otherwise, is the creeping ghoul. Without the danger being clear and present in the adaptation (Clear and Present Danger did better than Shawshank in 1994, too), I can't help but wonder if the movie was as immediately compelling for audience being offered more defined, blatant – which is not to say not good – fare.
King's novella reads like a corked, classic narrative. The movie has this classic feeling, too. Which might go a ways to explain why The Shawshank Redemption found its audience on home video. Even watching it for the first time, you can't help but feel like you've seen it before, like it's been around forever. It's just my opinion, but the top movies I've mentioned feel so tightly tethered to 1994, whereas Shawshank lives freely on that beach in Zihuatanejo.
Monday, February 9, 2015
Get busy livin', or get busy watchin’ movies. That's god-damn right. For the second time in my life, I am guilty of committing a crime.* Parole violation.* Of course, I doubt they'll toss up any roadblocks for that. Not for an old movie club host like me...
I find I'm so excited I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head. I think it's the excitement only a free man can feel, a free man at the start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain. I hope I can make it across town. I hope to see my friends and watch a movie with them. I hope the Cinema is as full as it has been in my dreams. I hope.
Whoa. I got a little Morgan Freeman there for a minute. You’ll have to forgive me. The Guelph Movie Club selection for February is The Shawshank Redemption. We hope you’ll join us on the 26th at 8:45 p.m.
Sure, you could see Shawkshank 106 times on television between now and then. But, great movies are better on the big screen, with friends. So forget the crappy TV edit. See it with us.
If you don’t know, we, the people, choose the movies we show at Movie Club. That's kinda awesome. You know what else are awesome? Bill Murray movies, that's what. So, we’re making March all about Bill Murray. Help us decide which of his films we see by voting in the poll below.
Which Movie Starring Brian Doyle Murray's Brother Bill Do You Want to Watch In March?
I think a lot about making Guelph Movie Club something people love. So, if you’ve got a suggestion for a movie, or something else we can do to make it great, you can email (williamson[dot]d[at]gmail[dot]com] or tweet [@dcwllms] me any time.
Until then, see you at the movies.
- Danny W.
*Very not really
Sunday, February 8, 2015
On March 7, 1965 ABC news interrupted its Sunday movie, Judgement at Nuremberg, to show footage of peaceful American citizens being gassed, chased down, and beaten by newly deputized white male citizens of Dallas County. Incidentally juxtaposed with what were still fresh, but by then also historic, crimes against humanity (the film included real footage from inside the concentration camps), the rightness and wrongness of the reach for and denial of civil rights in America must have appeared all the more stark to TV viewers. Present ambivalence must have seemed all the more repugnant in the sudden context of the results of past ambivalence. Here was history, the type of thing they make movies about years later, happening in real time.
Of course, violence was to be expected when civil rights activists from Selma, Alabama attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge (named for a US Senator and popular Grand Dragon of the KKK) en route to Montgomery. It was tragic that it had to happen, but, through the lens of history, necessary that it be witnessed by a nation that had seen and supported changes in the laws, but were mostly (whether willfully or not) ignorant of how little impact those improvements had made. When the footage of the unprovoked brutality was supplemented with news of the murder of a white Unitarian minister, James Reeb, the nation's hackles were suitably raised. The stain of ancestral, systemic racism will probably never been full scrubbed out, but the greater moral transgressions in Selma and all over the country seemed, at least for a time, to trump - or, sadly, amplify - personal prejudice. "There is no Negro problem," President Johnson was compelled to declare. "There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem."
Selma zeros in on this national tipping point, focusing on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s role in both boots-on-the-ground assistance in Alabama's micro struggles while orchestrating that strife in a way that could be understood and diagnosed, in a macro way, as what Johnson would afterwards call an American Problem. The film doesn't delve into so much as portray this important place, this important period, and these important people of history. Most historical films - especially portrayals of American history, it seems - tend to supercharge their stories with the bombast and certainty of hindsight, will limn every action with the confirmed importance of its outcome. But there's a realist, history-not-yet-written tone to Selma that makes it feel unique. It's not a depiction of an historical event so much as it is a depiction of an event becoming history.
David Oyelowo's Dr. King feels especially human, frangible and fallible - a hero in his own time, living at once in history but also in the everyday minutiae that gets sloughed off with time. His countenance is not constantly sturdy - the way real characters often are in histories where we know the end - but instead is open to the nuances of doubt and worry as he tries to both assist the personal goals in Selma and urge forward the national ones.
Because not many films have resulted from this decade of change in American history (I'll bet more movies have been made about the 30 seconds of gunplay at the OK Coral), it's difficult not to compare Ava DuVernay's Selma with Spike Lee's Malcolm X. Both films tell their story under the contemporary pall of ongoing struggle. Malcolm X opens with footage of Rodney King being furiously beaten by the LAPD. It's a troubling context to begin in, morally as well as narratively. Beginning with that violence tethers the progress made by Malcolm X and other civil rights pioneers to ongoing setbacks. Effectively, a story of steps taken forwards opens with steps taken back. Selma of course arrives after half a year of confounding and heartbreaking fruition, with our cozy culture gobsmacked by the fact that what so many thought was a self-evident truth that Black Lives Matter needs to be pointed out and fought for still. In Selma, the past and present similarities don't need to be stressed. The near-mirror image of the Bloody Sunday clashes in Selma and those in Ferguson are not a choice of the filmmakers, but a troubling byproduct of how little has changed. The tone of Selma is never triumphant. The film knows that it's the story of battle won, and a war ongoing. Things are changing, but nothing has changed.
Maybe the most troubling anecdotal parallel between that battle of 1965 and the one we're in now, forty years later, is that when ABC delayed Dancing with the Stars to cover the not guilty verdict in the death of Michael Brown it did so not with the certainty that this was a story that demanded we drop whatever we were doing and pay attention, but with an apology and an assurance that the show about washed-up celebrities dancing would start shortly. What's that if not an American Problem?