Like most people, I tend to see movies more in the summertime. Not only because that’s when the majority of the most anticipated movies are released by the studios, but also because that’s when I have more time for extracurricular outings in general. Unfortunately, that seems to be the case with everyone else, too. And the thing about everyone else is…well, they suck. Nowadays it’s a roll of the dice as to what kind of an audience you are going to have with you in a theater. Sometimes you end up with a disaster of texters, talkers and—worst of all—children. Other times, you can have a nice quiet screening with only a handful of old people and maybe some bored teenagers who know how to behave. I used to know how to predict these crowds and know what times of the day to avoid, but more and more this is becoming harder to calculate.
I have always been the type of person who requires many conditions to enjoy my media. For example, when discovering that a certain kind of music sounds a lot better when heartbroken, I will specifically wait to break out certain CDs until the day I am left in shambles. I can’t only watch one part of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings without watching the whole trilogy, and I WILL NOT watch a Christmas movie unless it’s within the months of November or December—and, yes, that includes Die Hard (1986) and Batman Returns (1992).
It doesn’t seem that long ago that James Cameron released his behemoth Titanic (1997) upon the unsuspecting public. I say unsuspecting not because he wasn’t well recognized—quite the contrary. At that time, Cameron was one of the world’s most popular genre directors, having a string of huge successes behind him. In gaining those successes, he reinvented the spectacle and bombast of the blockbuster. Films like Aliens (1986) and Terminator 2 (1991) set a new standard for special effects, and simultaneously set an expectation for achievement and personal competition within the mind of its creator.
Year in and year out, whenever I am revising my worst-of list, I usually notice that the majority of the filth is made up of someone’s poor definition of comedy. Though I certainly have a standard for what I consider to be a good movie, I am open to watching a good-bad-movie every now and then. Cheesy science fiction and horror will always have a place for well-intentioned irony, as proven by years of the successful heckling of Mystery Science Theater 3000. But for me, a bad comedy is unbearable and unwatchable under any circumstance. What makes it worse is that a lot of the time these movies are not only tolerated, but genuinely enjoyed by less-than-discerning general audiences. Films like last year’s Jack and Jill or The Hangover 2 were box office successes and further proof of the end of civilization.
What is in a look, a stare, or a knowing glance? What is an emotion? Ideally in film, emotions should be expressed in actions, since it’s a medium of moving pictures and all. However, over the decades directors have struggled to define the actor’s interior sense without words to do some of the heavy lifting. A long time ago, in the 1920s and before, sound and words were not taken for granted. The silent film era is still considered one of the most important, not only because they were the ones who were still making all the rules, but because they had to work within their limitations. Besides the obvious technological disadvantages, the actors had to come up with ways of showing emotion and moving a scene along with just their actions and expressions. Some of these now-silly acting techniques were acquired by overly melodramatic theater and have since been seen as a dated way to build a character. But perhaps there is something to be said for being able to get a scene from point A to point B without ever saying a word.
The common misconception about our society is that now we have iPods and antibiotics we are a more progressive, forward-thinking culture. But if we only look back into our inconveniently well-recorded history, we can see that might not have always been the case. When Americans think of Germany in the early-to-mid 20th century, we tend to only remember Hitler, goose stepping, and The Rocketeer fighting that guy with the weird face on top of a giant red swastika blimp. The truth is, before the Nazi regime, Germany was one of the most important homes for forward-thinking Jewish filmmakers of the silent era. What they gave us was the Expressionist movement; dark, thematic, adult fantasies with a visual interest in jarring lighting contrasts and a kind of disorienting angular production design. Of these filmmakers, the name Fritz Lang has become iconic, as he made many emblematic Expressionist films, most famously the dystopian science fiction film Metropolis (1927). But before fleeing Nazi-occupied Germany in the ’30s to make genre movies in Hollywood, he made one of the most prescient and fascinating thriller precursors with M (1931), his moody indictment of the mob mentality. Living in a post-Psycho (1960) world of exploitation serial killer entertainment, we can only look at M and take it for granted, but even with this water being so thoroughly tread-upon, one can still recognize the complicated themes and characterizations as being anything but stock pulp archetypes.
In a darkened space below the deck of the Orca, a fishing boat that probably isn’t big enough, the Ahabesque character of Sam Quint relays a chilling tale about a mission to deliver an atomic bomb to Japan during World War II. While drunk and still laughing, Quint (played by Robert Shaw) begins to deliver this strange and haunting monologue to his two fellow crewmates, and while the music fades and the camera pushes in closer to his face, the tone of the movie makes an important shift. Carefully worded and with deep sincerity, Shaw explains in great detail about the night his character watched the other soldiers get picked off one by one by a swarm of tiger sharks while they waited in the Japanese waters to be saved by the US military. To anyone who has seen Jaws (1975) more than once, this scene quickly becomes their favorite. Steven Spielberg himself has admitted that this scene, consisting of only dialogue and a few reaction shots, is the moment from Jaws that he was most proud of. What this now-famous boat scene underlines is the dichotomy of its creator.