Saturday, May 12, 2007

1941: MAJORITY REPORT


Paul Clark of Silly Hats Only recently read my giddy assessment of Steven Spielberg's 1941 and approached me rather gingerly in the comments column of that post with the news that he was about to finish an article singling 1941 out as one of Spielberg's worst movies. After cursing him out like Yosemite Sam enjoying the afterburn of a dynamite cigar ("Next you’ll be telling me there’s something wrong with The Boys from Brazil!"), I swore I'd keep an eye out for the article and link to it in the spirit of goodwill and free expression of ideas and all that. Well, I'm a couple days late in spotlighting it, but Paul's piece, entitled "When Good Directors Go Bad: 1941" is up and running at Screengrab. Here's a taste:

"The film seems curiously torn between lampooning gung-ho militarism and honoring those who fought for the American way of life. On the one hand, the film’s portrayals of American servicemen aren’t especially flattering, with our soldiers, sailors, and flyboys coming off alternately as crazed paranoiacs and strutting dopes who mostly want to drink and get laid. On the other, the motley crew of civilians who are forced to defend their homeland are bumbling, but they also manage to get the job done their way.

Another problem is the scattershot storytelling. While Spielberg has always excelled at large-scale filmmaking, he tends to be best when his films have a clear narrative through-line. Unfortunately, 1941 has too many plots for him to handle. Spielberg’s best films spotlight either a single hero or a small group of protagonists, but with dozens of major roles to juggle, he is unable to focus on anyone for very long and ends up giving short shrift to everybody. The result is a film that feels less like a war comedy than a cross between the ramshackle anarchy of late-70s comedy and the star-studded bloat of
It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and its ilk."

Ouch! Believe me, I certainly know that my view of the movie is not how most people feel about it. And it's nice to see Paul approach 1941 as a movie instead of a crime against humanity. (Why, I might even buy a sliver of the "against humanity" part, but the movie is no more a crime now than it was in 1979.) But if you're me, Paul makes a lot of points to spark argument here, in the spirit of goodwill and free expression of ideas and all that, of course, and I'll definitely respond to his piece under the Screengrab post. If you're not me (yes, I'm talking to you!), you're likely to shout "Yes!", crack open a beverage and relax into a very good piece about a movie that still resides in that love-it-or-hate-it zone nearly 30 years after its release. Either way, Paul's writing and Paul's blog are excellent places to make a habit, and I hope you do so soon. Give the man a little "rat-tat-tat" salute a la General "Mad Dog" Maddox and read up on yet another very good writer making his home on the Web.

By the way, Paul, what do you think of The Boys from Brazil?

34 comments:

Paul C. said...

While I haven't seen it in years, I like THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL. It's preposterous, but it knows that and has fun with it. It helps that I like Franklin Schaffner- especially PAPILLON and PLANET OF THE APES. BOYS isn't that good, but it's enjoyable in a pulpy sort of way. I'll definitely revisit it sometime down the line.

Thanks for the shout-out, and for being a good sport about it.

Damian said...

I should probably preface what I'm about to say here with a few brief comments.

First of all, you know that I love you, Dennis. I love your blog. I love your quizzes. I think you're an intelligent, eloquent, humorous writer, as well as just an all-around decent guy, and I thoroughly enjoy coming here to read your latest output (I also, as you know, happen to love The Boys From Brazil). So, anything I say here is said with the utmost respect for you and your opinions.

Secondly, just about anyone who knows me pretty well can tell you that Steven Spielberg is my favorite director. I think he is truly one of our greatest living filmmakers, a bona fide genius; the man who, along with Lucas, not only made me fall in love with movies in the first place but who later helped me to appreciate them as an art form. I frequently cite his masterpiece (Schindler's List) as not only greatest motion picture I've ever seen (or probably will ever see) but as the film that literally changed my life. I adore almost all of Spielberg's work. I've seen every single one of his movies and six of them (Raiders, Private Ryan, E.T., Close Encounters, Munich and Jaws) are not only among my all-time personal favorites but will go down in history, I think, as some of the greatest examples of American cinema. Ever. And yet, even many of his so-called "lesser" efforts (Empire of the Sun, Minority Report, Amistad, Color Purple, War of the Worlds, Catch Me If You Can) are vastly under-appreciated in my book. Speaking of which, I've read just about every book I can get my hands on about him and consequently know more about Spielberg's life and work than most people do. So, I feel a little justified when I say that I hold him to be not only a great artist but a truly great man. Spielberg is, no exaggeration, my hero. For some it's Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Bono or Princess Di. For me, it's Steven Spielberg.

Okay, I've made my two disclaimers, so now I feel I can say the following statement. here it is:

I'm gonna have to go with Paul on this one.

I HATE 1941. I think is by far Spielberg's worst movie. In fact, I would actually say that I think it is his ONLY bad movie. Even among the disappointing mediocrity of such films as Hook, A.I., Always and Lost World, there were still elements that made watching them somewhat enjoyable for me. Well, aside from John Williams' music and a few clever moments, 1941 has nothing in it. Absolutely NOTHING. There are few films that are actually painful for me to watch, but this is one of them. I remember trying on THREE separate occasions to view 1941 in its entirety and each time I just could not finish it. Finally, about a year ago (so I could say, as I did earlier, that I've seen every single Spielberg film) I forced myself to make it to the very end of the movie. It was the special DVD extended 150-minute edition too (*moan*). I can honestly say that I will NEVER subject myself to that again. I think Paul's comparison to It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (another long, loud and embarassingly unfunny "comedy") is very apt one. I have often referred to 1941, when not calling it "Spielberg's Folly," as It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad War.

Anyway, I know I didn't get very specific in this rant about what was actually wrong with 1941 and I apologize for that. Usually I'm able to speak with a relative degree of objectivity about a film. There aren't many movies that really arouse my anger, but for some reason this one does. So, I'll save my particular criticisms for another occasion. In the meantime, I think you're gonna have enough on your hands simply addressing Paul's points. To quote Han Solo: "Good luck... you're gonna need it."

Moviezzz said...
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The Shamus said...

First off, Always and Hook are by far Spielberg's worst movies. Hell, I'd take 1941 over Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom any day. 1941 is fun, in a grab-bag sort of way. It has some lovely directorial set pieces by Spielberg, especially that opening in the diner and the big Hollywood Blvd. sequence. It's Animal House Goes To War, and Dennis' well-known ties to that movie probably helps his fondness for this one. But 1941 is best looked at as series of SNL-style sketches: Some work, some don't. But no movie that has Belushi chewing the top off a coke bottle, Tim Matheson seducing Karen Allen in a cockpit, Slim Pickens and Toshiro Mifune on a Japanese sub, Robert Stack weeping while he watches Dumbo and Ned Beatty, Warren Oates, Treat Williams, John Candy, Dan Akyroyd, Elisha Cook Jr., Ned Beatty AND Sam Fuller can be that bad. It just cannot.

blaaagh said...

I had a blast watching 1941 when I first saw it in a theater upon its release, and yes, I was annoyed by some of it (I didn't really think Belushi was funny at all), but compared with all the moments in other Spielberg films where characters gaze awestruck at something while the camera moves in on them--this drives me crazy--nothing in 1941 really annoyed me too much, especially as it was clearly supposed to be a big, fun, colorful, fast-moving, Hollywoodized romp. I ought to see how I like it now; it's been a long time. I have to say--and Dennis, this is no news to you--that I, too, love THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL, for its bombast, its many ultra-silly and quotable moments, and its incredibly hammy performances by some of the finest actors of the century.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Good evening, Conrads!*

Sorry I've been so late to check in, but I've only just finished wrestling with a hairy, mutated beast of a school assignment that I really thought I'd be through with three or four hours after I posted this little divertissement last night. But, as Johnny Cash once said, it ain't funny, but I guess things happen that way.

As a result, I'm far too incoherent to even begin to reply to Paul's article, but reading that, and then Damian's impassioned comment, has made me want to sit down and do something I've never really done before, which is write about why this movie, of all Spielberg's movies, has such a hold on me. So I'll refrain from getting into that for now.

Damian, thanks very much for all the disclaimers! When next I visit the Willamette Valley (which, if Blaaagh and I have any say about it at all, will hopefully be sometime long before the big ball drops in Times Square about eight months from now), I'm going to have to make my way up to Corvallis and stop by for a visit. Maybe I can lead fellow blogger and pal PSaga to your store's door. She's a big fan of and frequent visitor to the Darkside Cinema and would probably enjoy meeting another Corvallian via SLIFR.

But I have to say, we are definitely coming at Spielberg from diferent perspectives. I won't say that the Woody Allen model holds true for me (I don't only like his early, fun stuff), although the movies of his I enjoy most-- Duel, Jaws, 1941, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T.-- certainly qualify as early works. It's just that as he got older the little visual cues and button-pushing moments like the ones Blaaagh describes began to feel at various times stale and desperate to me. (I'm thinking particularly of Kick the Can, his embarrassing episode from the Twlight Zone movie, and The Color Purple.)

I have very high regard for Empire of the Sun in particular-- that movie may be, in its own fashion, as dismissed and underrated as I believe 1941 is. Of his later movies, I think Amistad, Catch Me If You Can, Munich and A.I. are all exceptional works that I would welcome seeing again. And again I seem to be amongst only the tumbling tumbleweeds in thinking that The Lost World has all the directorial joy juice that was largely missing from Jurassic Park. (For that matter, I think Joe Johnston's JP III outstrips the original too.)

But despite coming of movie age right alongside cultural touchstones as Jaws and Close Encounters, Spielberg has never been the cinematic icon for me that he obviously has been for the majority of my generation, and obviously yours too. (That was a time when I was busy discovering the masters of film that were influences on Spielberg, and even though I was enthralled by his movies, I tried to take a wait-and-see attitude even back then.) To me, the '80s showed him up as a director with technical proficiency and increasingly musty storytelling instincts-- his failures were always ones that landed on the side of his mile-wide streak of creative conservatism, which is why I've always preferred Brian De Palma to Spielberg-- at least when De Palma fails, there's always something to watch. Raiders was a well-oiled machine, and as the Shamus is right to remind me, it had the spitfire ember of Karen Allen to keep Spielberg and Ford honest. But when all is said and done, its just a machine, evoking big-budget versions of familiar, hoary thrills without much of a hint that Spielberg and Lucas were cognizant of what those thrills meant. (I think you have to go to Mike Hodges' Flash Gordon, released six months before Raiders in 1980, for a whiff of that sensibility, as well as some low-down fun and eye candy that ranges from Danilo Donati's set design to the way Ornella Muti slinks across the screen in one of Donati's costumes and makes you forget EVERYTHING else in the movie for a few minutes.)

But if Temple of Doom and The Last Crusade were tiring and tired, in that order (and I'm not hopped up at all about Indy 4), they were still movies that moved. I do think The Color Purple is as maudlin and desperate (for Oscars) as anything he's ever done. And I have to agree with the Shamus that both Hook and Always-- particularly Always-- were big wet blankets in the shapes of movies. I honestly thought that Spielberg had lost it and would never return whole after seeing that disaster. And maybe he never has for me. (Always gets my vote for the director's worst.)

Jurassic Park had some good set pieces, but on the whole it felt directed by a man who had other things on his mind. Considering that Schindler's List was next for him later that same year, I'd say he probably did. Schindler is probably the best movie that I've never, ever wanted to see again, and I've spent the last 14 years trying to think of why. Perhaps only another visit will help me along in that quest. I can certainly understand how you and many others would be convinced of its greatness, and I think it's a remarkable feat from a man who spent his career earning tons of money from movies nobody would ever take seriously, that he would dare to get as grim as he did with Schindler (though some would say, and I might agree, not grim enough at times). It got him his Oscar, though, and ever since there's been that air of Oscar bait around Spielberg's movies in a way there never was when he made Jaws and Close Encounters, Oscar-worthy movies if ever there have ever been ones.

As for the others, despite its groundbreaking technical bravado, Saving Private Ryan gets less impressive to me every year, just on a story level; again, I don't care if I ever seen Minority Report or War of the Worlds again, even though they have individual sequences in them that are undeniably among the director's best; and I find The Terminal unwatchable and have marveled that some very smart people I know find it sweet and interesting, whereas I can't get past the insistent hot flashes of embarrassment whenever I recall it.

But, as our friend Matt Z. Seitz likes to say, your mileage may vary, and I think when we're talking Spielberg, Damian, you're getting much more to the gallon than I am. Except when it comes to 1941! I appreciate you guys checking in because it keeps me honest too, and after all this I'm ready to plunk in the old 1941 DVD and laugh it up all over again. I've even sold my oldest daughter on it-- for weeks after seeing it for the first time, she would walk around the house yelling, "HOLLYWOOD!!!!" and pointing at the hills. (We live in Glendale, on the back side of the hills where the sign resides.) I've said it before and I'll say it again-- I couldn't be happier to be part of a community of bloggers and writers and film fans who can disagree agreeably and actually contribute something to a conversation without fear of being flamed or otherwise mocked and disregarded. I'll try and cobble a response to Paul's post this week, as well as my own consideration of the movie.

Shamus: Yeah, in a way I look at 1941 as the last gasp of what was good/great about Animal House, before the torrent of subpar knockoffs like Porky's and Gorp and Meatballs started clotting the screen, and before Belushi and Akyroyd started the long slide down with the inexplicable deadpan of The Blues Brothers (an inexplicable deadpan that John Landis turned in to a specious directorial style) toward increasingly inane and lazy comedies and, in Belushi's case, death. Nothing that came in the shadow of Animal House was much of a pretty picture, excepting, I guess, Stripes and the uphill trajectory of Bill Murray's career. But rather than think about 1941 as Animal House Goes to War, I'm always hooked in by those actors and moments-- Robert Stack blubbering over Dumbo and acting especially indignant at being interrupted to endure a report of the chaos ensuing on Hollywood Boulevard; Belushi (or his reasonable facsimile) stumbling out of the cockpit, falling and landing head first on the tarmac on his way to meet Colonel Maddox (Warren Oates); Slim Pickens ("You ain't gettin' SHIT outta me!"); Toshiro Mifune ("This has not been honorable."); John Candy and Frank MacRae in the tank, one doused with flour, one with exhaust fumes, for the moment switching their pigmentation, and then Candy's shriek of horror and MacRae shouting "Get to the back of the tank!"... I could go on, and I probably will when I give myself the chance. And that Nancy Allen (not Karen this time) does have some legs! Stop me!

Blaaagh: When next we meet (May we conspire? May we?) I propose a 1941/Boys from Brazil double feature. I can't think of a better way to start off a two-week vacation in Eugene. (Now I'm really dreaming!) I won't write anymore, because I'm still trying to get you on the phone-- I called Wednesday, but, alas, got only a machine. I always respected you for standing up for 1941 when even I didn't like it. Maybe if you see it again I can pull you back more completely to the dark side...!!!

* This is a reference to a seminal story I heard upon my entry into the slap-happy world of closed-captioning, which occurred 20 years ago this coming June. The story involves a very sincere (and sincerely sheltered) caption editor who turned in her project-- the show was a war movie that took place in Russia during the height of the Cold War. She was discussing the movie with another editor after her shift and admitted that, although she liked the movie and found creating the captions for it relatively easy, she was still a bit confused about why everyone in the movie was named Conrad. "Every time anyone meets up with someone else in this film, they always say 'Hello, Conrad' or 'Good morning, Conrad' to each other!" Just goes to show you that a solid base of general knowledge is never a bad thing!

Damian said...

Thank you for the thoughful response, Dennis. I am pleased to see that you hold Empire of the Sun (one of his most underrated movies IMO) in such high regard and that you also find Amistad, Catch Me If You Can, Munich, Jaws and Close Encounters to be exceptional films. I am even glad to hear that you are not one of those who thinks A.I. is a "massive dud." Although I personally do not find it to be a great film (it's biggest flaw, in my eyes, being that Spielberg tried too hard to "be Kubrick" rather than just be himself), I think it is unfairly villified by many. Furthermore, I can concede that "Kick the Can" is awfully lame and, like you, I also greatly admire Brian DePalma. He happens to be one of my favorite filmmakers and although he may be "one up" on Spielberg as a visual stylist (although I would say even that's debatable) as a storyteller, I'm afraid he doesn't hold a candle to his colleague.

In the end, I think you and Matt are right about the mileage idea.* I suspect I probably am getting more "miles to the gallon" when it comes to Spielberg, while other people get more "miles to the gallon" on different filmmakers. I was confronted with this reality recently when, despite the fact that I have long respected the man's work, I was actually surprised to discover after his death just how beloved and influential Robert Altman was to people of a slightly-older generation than mine. So, I freely admit that I am more willing, with certain Spielberg films (such as Always and Hook, films which other people find absolutely horrendous but which I find only disappointingly mediocre) to overlook more and see them as "half full" rather than "half empty." Spielberg's signature "awe-struck face looking at something off camera," for example, does not bother me at all. In fact, I think it is more or less indicative of one of the qualities that makes him such a brilliant director (I even wrote a post on the subject on his 60th birthday).

*Incidentally, Matt may actually be someone who (and I never thought I'd say this about anybody) appreciates Spielberg even MORE THAN I DO!

BTW I would love for you to drop by DVD WORLD if you're ever in Corvallis (I had someone who filled out your most recent quiz stop by just the other day and ask "Are you Damian?"). Heck, even if you're in Eugene for a spell, feel free to let me know. I only live 45 minutes from it and, having gone to school there for four years, know my around that town pretty well. I'd be willing to sit through half of your 1941/Boys From Brazil double feature with Blaagh. Just make sure you watch Spielberg's movie first and I'll show up in time for the second one. :)

Sal said...

Dennis, do you mean to say that this person turned in her project with the captiond reading "Conrad" instead of "Comrad", the entire film? Holy shit I am laughing my ass of at that.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Damian: Matt is definitely one who takes Spielberg seriously, and it's always a worthwhile delight reading him on the subject, even on those occasions when I can't agree. That's one of the marks of good film criticism, I think.

And I probably should have mentioned that, yes, Altman was the one filmmaker who I connected with in a strong way during my, shall we say, formative years, though even that was a struggle at first. But his vision is the one that grabbed me most completely, not long after Close Encounters made its thearical debut, and I have, on more than one occasion, been accused of having too soft a spot when it comes to his work. For example, I think Pret-a-Porter (Ready to Wear) is slight, but delightful. But I don't think I'm blind-- Altman had plenty of weaknesses, and there are no better compendiums of them, I think, than Quintet or A Wedding.

As for Corvallis, that's great about being recognized from the quiz! I continue to be amazed by the little tendrils and connections that get made through the blogosphere. Who was it that recognized you? And most definitely we will get together when next I come to Oregon!

Damian said...

It was Weigard who came into the video store. I already knew he was a fellow Corvallis-ite because he answered "the Whiteside" to your question about what we would call our own personal revival theatre. We didn't get to talk for as long as I would've liked to but it was fun. It's always nice to put a face with a name I think.

aaron said...
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aaron said...

Perversely, this was the first film I’d ever seen of Spielberg’s (mainly because the local rundown movie house steadfastly refused to take down their one-sheet until the building was about to be demolished in 1994! I would peer in almost every day to stare at a cigar-chomping John Belushi on my way to school, so eventually I gave in to temptation and rented it around the age of 11 or 12), and I recall even then not knowing what to think, alternately amused and touched by Robert Stack’s few hours of solace during DUMBO, and awestruck over the cantina dance contest, with the impressive choreography and catchy big band-esque score courtesy of John Williams. Today, I think the last hour’s tumultuous assault on the senses is what breaks the film for me; everything leading up to the air raid works, with the gags appealing to different people’s idea of funny (Slim Pickens’ scenes inside the Japanese submarine and, forgive me, Murray Hamilton/Eddie Deezen up on that ferris wheel are hilarious, while the Tim Matheson/Nancy Allen subplot feels stagnant). On the whole, as some pf the above have responded, the mere fact that the film showcases small (but sometimes larger) parts for Warren Oates, Sam Fuller, Robert Stack, Toshiro Mifune (!), and Christopher Lee save it from being an unmitigated disaster, and not even Audrey Hepburn coming out of retirement for ALWAYS can save that one from being Spielberg’s definitive nadir.

Dennis, given your admiration for the film, have you ever checked out the Bob Gale novelization? I’m curious to find out if Gale (and Zemeckis) had different intentions that were perhaps retained in the book, as sometimes is the case when screenwriters write those things, with the need to fulfill a page quota.

Ted Pigeon said...

Great discussion, guys! I thought the post was interesting enough, and then I read all of the lively responses and got so wrapped up.

I'm always up for discourse about Spielberg. I don't think the man's movies are talked about enough, quite honestly, because while he is the most popular filmmaker alive, it's amazing how his work is pigeon-holed to fit into a box of "cute and cuddly," as if that's the only thing he's capable of. It's just fascinating that often times the most popular artists are the least understood.

I plan to write several posts on Spielberg in the future, one specifically addressing the notion of Spielbergization, as mentioned in that awful Hobermann piece a couple of months ago. But now I'd like to address a few films being discussed, the first being 1941.

Damian, your first post was kind of scary to read because it could have easily been written by me, word for word. I am another member of the Spielberg generation of kids who grew up on Spielberg and Lucas. I grew up worshipping his films, and when I hit my teen years, I devoured everything he made, and loved it. I've since studied cinema a great deal and (I'm trying not to operate in a journalistic reviewing sphere here - "good" and "bad" films) found my appreciation for his films only heighten, while my perspecitve on others became more negative. As others have said, even his failures are of interest to me. Spielberg's films represent a cinematic journey, for me, that is like the movies themselves. There are highs and lows, sublime and ridiculous, good and bad, and those relationships among them are why he is so unique. If every movie he made was a masterpiece, his work wouldn't be nearly as interesting.

I find Always and Hook to be his personal biggest losses. As for 1941, I think it is a lovably strange film. Sure, it's not as laugh-out-loud funny as it tries to be, but it's overall atmosphere is like a great big romp of nostalgia and smiles. Even though some sequences fall undeniably flat, I think the overall charm of the movie remains intact. That bar fight in the middle of the film will always remain one of Spielberg's gems as far as set pieces go.

The Jurassic Park films are really interesting to me, actually. It seems to me like JP gets such a bad rap for having "hollow characters," but I don't find them any more hollow than most genre picks. Maybe I love the movie so much because I saw it in the theater when I was ten years old and was thoroughly amazed by its world. But, even now, I think it's a fairly decently structured movie with great action set pieces, and a sense of good old fashioned adventure about it. The Lost World, for me, is more about those set pieces. Its narrative and plot design are borderline awful, but I think the movie is more about moments, and there are plenty of great ones. As Dennis says, it has directorial juice. It's like Spielberg just wanted to have fun, come up with some staggering sequences and forget the plot, a little bit like 1941.

I'll save my discussion of his more recent fare (SPR and beyond) for my own post, but I just wanted to make light of a few points. Hopefully, this discussion stays alive for a while so we can continue to read and write these wonderful thoughts.

Bill said...

I’m always up for a good discussion about Spielberg, but unfortunately, I’ve only seen “1941” one time, and that was many years ago. For the record, I didn’t care for it very much, but I agree with Dennis about one thing: that Nancy Allen is a looker.

As for Spielberg overall, I’m a huge fan – maybe not in the same league as Damian or Ted, but my love of his films has remained undiminished from childhood to now (I’m 31). For my money, his masterpieces are “Schindler’s List”, “Jaws”, “Empire of the Sun”, “Saving Private Ryan” (though I do think it’s deeply flawed), “Catch Me if You Can”, “A. I.” (one of the greatest, purest science fiction films ever made), “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, and probably “Munich” (too much to talk about with that one). “Close Encounters” would probably be in there, too, if it hadn’t been so long since I’ve seen it. His worst movies for me are “The Lost World” and “Temple of Doom”. Again, “Hook” would probably be in that list, if I’d ever seen it, but I haven’t, and may never do so, because it looks appalling.

Everything else for me falls into a very broad gray area of movies that have enough good things going on for me to hate them, or enough bad things for me to call them great, however much I may love them. “Amistad”, to me, is a huge missed opportunity. That whole movie should have been about the slave ship and the revolt. Every time the film is about that, it’s extraordinary. Every time it’s not, it’s deeply ordinary. (And you know what? I think if Mel Gibson had made that movie, he would have had the correct focus.) I also think that has shown a real problem ending his movies lately. “Minority Report” was crippled by the ending, which was simply dull and formulaic when it should have been breathtaking. “War of the Worlds” wasn’t crippled, but I can’t help but slump a little every time I see that damn son of his walking down the street. Although I’m apparently in the minority in thinking that the Tim Robbins stuff worked.

Speaking of being in the minority, what the hell is so wrong with “Always”? I’ve never understood the hatred directed at that movie. I think it’s a perfectly pleasant movie, well-acted, and charming. Also, Holly Hunter is adorable! “The Terminal” ain’t so bad, either.

Sorry if this is all unfocused and not terribly specific, but what the hell, I’m at work! Lay off me!

Bill said...

Oh, and I also like "The Boys From Brazil". Has anyone read the novel? I haven't, but I've read "The Stepford Wives", also by Ira Levin. That guy has a knack for taking absolutely preposterous stories and somehow making them work.

Damian said...

Ted:

First of all, I don't know what's scarier to me: a) the fact that you found my "testimonial" regarding Spielberg so identical to your own (although I'm obviously quite pleased by that) because I had the same kind of response to your piece on Roger Ebert or b) the fact that you were only 10 when Jurassic Park came out, which means you're 7 years younger than me (I'm 30), and already a better writer than I'll ever be. Secondly, I'd love to read your post(s) on Spielberg. Like you, I'm always up for a good discussion on the man and haven't really been in one since that horrible Hobermann article. I agree that his movies aren't talked about enough and when they are it's usually only in the context of what's "wrong" with them. Spielberg really is not given the proper respect I think he deserves as an artist, though very few debate his value as an entertainer.


Bill:

I am also somewhat fond of Always. Though I can certainly understand the disdain people have for it (although I don't understand all the hatred that is directed at Temple of Doom), I don't share most of it. I may find it to be a highly flawed film (like Hook and Lost World), but I do not think it is his worst movie (that "honor" I reserve for 1941). It has moments of sublime beauty and tenderness, amidst all the maudlin sentimentality. I will admit to not being a big Holly Hunter fan, but I still like the film in spite of her. I also, like you, happen to enjoy The Terminal.

Oh, and I've yet to read an Ira Levin novel, but I think you're right in that he does seem to have a knack for telling ridiculously bizarre yet surprisingly effective creepy stories (he also wrote Rosemary's Baby).

blaaagh said...

Someone passed along a copy of the novel ROSEMARY'S BABY to me a few years ago, and it is really good; I read that Roman Polanski insisted on making the film very true to the novel, and now I can see why. Certainly I would put the idea of that book in the preposterous category, but both book and movie are convincing and scary as hell.

bill said...

"Rosemary's Baby" is a great book. I've read that Polanski tried so hard to be faithful that at one point he called Levin to ask him which issue of the New Yorker had a shirt add referenced at some point by the husband character, so he could get a copy for the movie. Levin, of course, had just made it up. Levin apparently ruined everything by writing "Son of Rosemary" in the late 90s. I've heard things about that book that made me decide never to read it.

Another great book by Ira Levin is "A Kiss Before Dying". However, please do not see the film version starring Sean Young.

bill said...

Also, Steven Spielberg.

Mr. Peel said...

I love 1941. I unabashedly love it. More than Spielberg or any ANIMAL HOUSE-BLUES BROTHERS connection, however, I've long looked at it as more of a Zemeckis-Gale film. Putting it alongside I WANNA HOLD YOUR HAND and USED CARS works for me. The anarchic tone feels similar and they share many of the same cast members. Wendie Jo Sperber's work in 1941 in particular remains one of the best comic performances I've ever seen. It's probably my favorite cast recap at the end of a film as well.

For the record, I think HOOK is like a waking nightmare, enjoy THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL very much and the only Levin novel I've read is A KISS BEFORE DYING, which is terrific.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

I remember squirreling away a copy of Rosemary's Baby that I purloined from my aunt's shelf (she was a Book-of-the-Month Club member) and read when I was 10 or so in place of seeing the movie-- I was too young, and no one in my family would have taken me to see it anyway. I liked it a lot, but I remember virtually nothing about it now-- the movie has completely eclipsed it in my memory. But from the testimony here, it sounds like it'd be worth another look. And I'd be VERY curious about Levin's novel of The Boys from Brazil too, obviously.

Ted, I really like your characterizaton of 1941 as lovably strange. I'd never really thought of it as strange before (and I bet most would never think of it as lovable), but it is kind of a strange movie, isn't it? With that jitterbug rehearsal in the diner, it jumps head-first into a kind of overcaffeinated sensibility that could initially be seen as horrifying or annoying or unwieldy-- how could a movie so gargantuan keep up this skippy, restless pace? And I realized just now that the whole movie to me is kind of like the moment in The Blues Brothers when James Brown uses the power of Jesus to give Belushi happy feet. How could a man built like that have those moves? 1941 is a movie built tank-like and overscaled, like Belushi's performance at it's best, and I think it's amazing to see how well it maintains those happy feet.

Aaron: I'm not surprised that there was one, but I never did see the novelization of the movie. So Gale actually wrote it? That really would be fascinating. He spends a lot of time talking on the DVD about how some of the harsher elements of the original concept were shaved off and smoothed over (wasn't the original title of the movie someting like The Night The Japs Invaded?). Wow, maybe it's time to head off the eBay and see if someone's got one burning a hole in their attic.

By the way, I agree with you about Eddie Deezen and Murray Hamilton-- talk about lovably strange! And one moment I forgot to mention that I always loved, even when I disliked the rest of the movie: Ned Beatty destroys the house with the antiaircraft gun, and his sons ride their double bed through the second floor and land it in the living room. The littlest one (who, later in life, turned out to be the stepson of one of my best friends!) spits out a mouthful of dust and squeals, "That was fun! Let's do it again!" Chalk it up to youthful enthusiasm, Spielberg's way with a sight gag and Michael Kahn razor-sharp editing, but that moment always gets a big laugh from me.

God bless you, Mr. Peel! Your enthusiasm for this much maligned movie is heartening. And I agree that as much as this thread is focusing on Spielberg and how 1941 fits in-- or more appropriately, how it doesn't fit in with the rest of his work-- the movie is far more of a piece with the Zemeckis/Gale sensibility that produced I Wanna Hold Your Hand and, especially Used Cars, a movie that has
to be one of the best comedies of the last (jeez, has it been that long already?) 27 years. 1941 is a jubilant mix of the spiky nostalgia of Hand and the manic, pitch-black acidity of Used Cars, and seen together the movies make a spectacular trilogy of politically incorrect farce and social commentary that, unfortunately, would be watered down by the time the very enjoyable Back to the Future series bowed, a series that would mark the last time the two would work together (as yet, anyway; I'm not counting Bordello of Blood which was, I believe, based on one of their old scripts). Thanks for pointing that out, M.P.

Finally, Bill, I only saw Always once, upon its original release, and I thought everything about its sentimental spirituality seemed forced and unconvincing. To my ears and eyes, Richard Dreyfuss and Holly Hunter, who would be so good together in Lasse Halstrom's Once Around, seemed unceasingly grating and mismatched. Finally, Spielberg didn't seem to display much feeling for the world of these forest fire pilots that he grounded the movie in-- everything about his approach seemed listeless and tired, as if he were the dead guy. I've never seen A Guy Named Joe, the movie Always was remade from, so maybe some of what's clunky and artificial about the remake is there in the source material. But I just can't recall a movie that I felt Spielberg was less engaged in, that seemed so rote and badly constructed. Even Hook, with its inability to decide whether growing up is good or bad, had more conviction than this. Gimme The Lost World, or Empire of the Sun, or Nancy Allen's gams instead any day!

Bill said...

No argument there: both "Empire of the Sun" and Nancy Allen's stems are better than "Always". The movie just always worked for me, although I will also grant you that it seems very out of place among Spielberg's other films.

Not as out of place as "1941", however. All this talk has made me curious to check it out again, as well as "Used Cars" and "I Wanna Hold Your Hand", neither of which I've seen, but have heard very good things about. The problem is -- and please don't beat me for this -- I keep reading about these comparisons to "Animal House", a movie I certainly don't hate, but which I never really got into. I've seen it twice, and was largely left cold both times. In fact, I much MUCH prefer "The Blues Brothers", and I believe Dennis mildly disparaged that movie earlier. Am I just on a different wavelength as far as these comedies go?

And I think when I'm done with "Arthur & George" by Julian Barnes, I might have to finally read "The Boys from Brazil".

aaron said...

Dennis,

The doc's still fresh in my head, so I can recall that the originally proposed title was 'The Night the Japs Attacked' -- no wonder MGM passed!

And I just pulled out my copy of the novelization and it is indeed solely written by Gale. I almost never buy novelizations if the original screenwriters aren't involved (Milius and THE WIND AND THE LION; De Palma and DRESSED TO KILL, though not the arguably more personal BLOW OUT). I'll try to find the time to slip in a chapter here and there in the next few weeks, and write about it either on your follow-up post, or on my own blog.

Looking at the film as a kind of loose "socially irresponsible" trilogy by Zemeckis/Gale is not a bad idea! I've always had the sense that Spielberg wanted to play in other director's sandboxes with the film -- using much of Landis' cast from ANIMAL HOUSE, working from a script by his young proteges who had just set the tone with I WANNA HOLD YOUR HAND, and having General Stillwell somewhere near the centre of it all (Milius, a director at that point, considered writing a bio-pic of the war hero).

aaron said...

"Looking at the film as part of a loose "socially irresponsible" trilogy by Zemeckis/Gale is not a bad idea!"

Chris Stangl said...

I cannot help but feel everyone is describing a different 1941 than the one I see. And a different ANIMAL HOUSE, a different BLUES BROTHERS, a different USED CARS. I actively enjoy holding divergent opinions (HANNIBAL > SILENCE OF THE LAMBS!), but I've gotta go with the party line on 1941. It gives me a headache, and I don't have any fun during these movies. ... And I'm a little jealous.

Spielberg, because he's a generation's Movie Grandpa, makes me very uncomfortable to write about. I don't do it at all, if I can help it. It feels ungrateful to turn on someone who brought you - and anyone of a like age - enormous amounts of childhood joy, and call them out on bad taste, degenerating sophistication, disintegrating storytelling. It also feels dishonest not to do so. Because to be glib, Spielberg hasn't made me happy since JURASSIC PARK, and that is a prechewed blob of Novocaine and SweeTarts, now over a decade old. The six or so pictures I used to believe to be perfection, on revisitation, go down smooth as an Orange Julius, but evaporate from my brain if I try to think about them. JAWS and RAIDERS blow like a summer breeze, and then... whenever I try to express that feeling in writing, one negative word follows another, like gathering storm clouds, until it's all a grumped-out mess.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

"I cannot help but feel everyone is describing a different 1941 than the one I see."

And there's the fascination of films, in a nutshell, Chris, at least for me. It's mind-boggling how many different perspectives and observations can be taken from one movie by a group of people who are ready to look at it as something more than just a procession of bright lights and loud noises. (Remember that Black Dahlia debate from last fall?)

As for your hestitation to be critical of Spielberg, I'm curious: do you feel that way about other filmmakers you've felt were profoundly influential on your sensibilty as a critic/viewer/artist? I'm of an age where I can safely say that my own sensibilities were influenced by his perspective and the kinds of movies that he made (I'm talking now, of course, about the early "funny" ones again). But I never felt beholden to him in a patriarchal way because of that. You're certainly not the first person to have expressed this kind of point of view on Spielberg-- as the movie brat father/grandfather of a movie brat generation or two--and maybe not even the first one in this thread. But what is it that makes you feel he's untouchable in certain ways, even as you clearly have your own experience, nebulous as it may be, about movies like Jaws or Raiders? Do you at all look at it as a battle of unapologetic commercial filmmkaing vs. more adventurous, formally radical work? Or early influences that were formed as a child versus the more intellectually justifiable tastes you have as an adult? Because I know I've certainly jousted with Spielberg on both these levels as I've become more and more film literate, or able to express my own experience with films in words.

And I find it interesting too because as much as I love Jaws and Close Encounters and even E.T., and as much as I so appreciate the crass delight that I take from 1941 or the emotional transportation of Empire of the Sun, I've never felt that kind of reverence, however curdled, toward the man's movies that many of my generation and that which followed me clearly have. But then, I never felt that kind of reverence toward my real movie heroes either-- Altman, Hawks. These were men whose movies were capable of the most sublime, soaring spirit (Only Angels Have Wings, Nashville), but who were also capable of some pretty awful crap (Land of the Pharoahs, Quintet).

Bill, you were wondering about being on a different wavelength too. It's hard to remember that in the hours just before the dawning of July 28, 1978, the idea of taking up with the slob versus the snobs was, if not a radical one, then at least one that had not yet been beaten into pop culture compost. But although many people who love Animal House certainly relate to it on some sort of personal level (and maybe this is, at least as far as this one movie is concerned, more of a matter for my generation and those who formed the last seven or eight years of the baby boom), most who hold it dear I think must love it because they find it simply, broadly funny. What's more mysterious than that? (And I mean that as a sincere question.) To my mind, there's no comparison of the arch, aloof, deadpan cultural appropriation of Jake and Elwood Blues to the warmth and genial, all-inclusive slobbery of the Delta Tau Chis. The lazy, heavy-lidded pacing and general brackishness of The Blues Brothers leaves me cold (don't even mention the execrable Blues Brothers 2000), but for some the rhythm and blues numbers and the slovely 'tude and the unrepentant auto-wrecking-yard sensibility is just the juice. I don't think you're necessarily on a different wavelength as much as your own wavelength-- that's what, I think, can account for me hating 1941 and then, for no discernible reason, doing such a turn-around on it three or four years later. And that's probably why comedy is so hard to create, and why it's often so hard to write about-- the temptation to simply write about the jokes and the funny parts, without examining what about the structure or the direction or the acting or the framing of the shots contributes to the hilarity, is too overwhelming for some writers. (David Bordwell had some interesting things to say-- and see-- about this very subject recently.)

Aaron: This is the best of the day, I think: "I've always had the sense that Spielberg wanted to play in other director's sandboxes with the film..." Yep, yep, yep, yep, yep. Landis even has the cameo as the dust-covered cyclist who brings the urgent missive to General Stillwell in front of the movie theater. And of course Spielberg paid Landis back with his bank-teller cameo at the climax of The Blues Brothers. So whose sensibility is it, really? Given that 1941 is so different from the rest of his movies, tonally speaking, I'd have to say Zemeckis/Gale. But without Spielberg, you don't have the brilliant jitterbug sequence (I'm thinking now of Joe Flaherty and the mouse on his shoulder) or the fighter planes buzzing Hollywood Boulevard, or even the Ferris wheel being bombed and rolling, fully lit, off the Santa Monica Pier and into the sea.

If I haven't mentioned how much I'm enjoying this thread, let me do so now. Thanks, everybody! I hope this ain't the end! (I do have to save something for my response to Paul, and for my own future review...)

Damian said...

I've also enjoyed this thread immensely, Dennis. Thank you for starting it. :)

In fact, this discussion helped me arrive at a decision late last night which I think is long overdue. Stay tuned to my blog for a special announcement later on this evening.

bill said...

I just checked your blog, Damian. That's really cool, and I'll be there.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Damian, I'm glad this discussion was able to spark such a great idea for you. And thanks to Paul for getting me going on finally writing about 1941 too.

In case anyone doesn't know yet, Damian has information at his blog about an upcoming celebration/examination of Spielberg's movies he'll be undertaking that looks to be exhaustive and a lot of fun.

Chris Stangl said...

Dennis, after thinking long and hard, I believe I'm reluctant to criticize Spielberg because his fans are legion, and the elements in his films they most prize seem to be specifically those selfsame elements that shackle his work as the movies reach for greatness. I hold my tongue because the counterargument invariably goes that the critic is too cynical, joyless, has let the child inside them die. I don't need to keep hearing that about myself, maybe?

The crimes, in brief:
Spielberg regards childhood as a state of grace, from which we fall, but to which we may hope to return. He confuses experiential innocence and spiritual worth. Sexuality is frightening and squalid when depicted (rarely, rarely), and otherwise Spielberg's desexed characters wander through an utterly neutered world, giving off no heat, not even flirting with the audience. There's too much I feel slick and unquestioning about his nostalgia (and the hilarious cost of Pearl Harbor-mania in California is internment camps full of Japanese-Americans, not a crazy Ferris wheel falling in the water). Something naive and soft-headed about his explorations of evil, failure, frailty. For an artist famous as pop cinema's most effortless storyteller, his stories are increasingly full of holes (MINORITY REPORT, LOST WORLD, THE TERMINAL, A.I.), or too over-inflated for their own good (THE TERMINAL, CATCH ME IF YOU CAN). After his salami-fingered attempts at Serious, Important, Message, and Oscar-B.J. pictures - from PURPLE to LIST to everything after - that namesake light touch ("Spielbergian")? I suspect it was just a lack of sophistication. I suspect Steven Spielberg is befuddled by his own themes and interests.

I'm not sure what "favorites" are worth, but... In terms of his aesthetic bad judgement undermining his ambitions, I think SCHINDLER'S LIST is probably Spielberg's worst film. In terms of botched family entertainment, either I'm with the Shamus, and Spielberg's nadir is probably HOOK, the the schizoid mess of LOST WORLD.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Chris: I can't say I disagree with a whole lot of your points-- in particular, I would concur with the problem of Spielberg's apparent confusion, as you put it, of experiential innocence with spiritual worth. There is recognizing the joys and skewed perspectives of childhood (everything from Harper Lee to Bill Watterson and beyond), and then there is the kind of deification of it that I think you're getting at about Spielberg's work. This wide-eyed wonderland view of childhood is not just discomfiting, but also willfuly dismissive of some of the distinct value of growing up. It also makes Spielberg sometimes seem as if he's incapable of understanding the value of the kind of childhood that, unlike the ones so often depicted in his films, don't lend themselves to glowing remembrance. Empire of the Sun was an exception to this formula, but it was also one that played out its childhood horrors not in suburbia but in the theater of war.

But since you alluded to it in your comment, let me risk being labeled a blind and pretentious apologist by suggesting that I don't think you can rightfully tag 1941 with either this blissfully pie-eyed view of childhood (every kid in it is ruder and nastier and stupider than in any other Spielberg movie), or with making selective excuses for a farcical view of a paranoid populace. The movie's view is one that satirizes precisely the kind of kneejerk jingoism that accounts for both drumming up support for the cause of war (good, in this instance) and, by extension, not by direct comment, the queasy justification for the existence of horrors like those internment camps (not so good). It's your suggestion that the movie sees one of the very real outcomes of the war as a laughing matter that I find objectionable. 1941 is laughing at our eagerness for war, and at our eagerness to justify the most insane behavior in its context.

The movie ends with Ned Beatty's speech on the steps of the house he's about to finally destroy about how we all came together as Americans to fight off this enemy, yet his speech hilariously (and pointedly) sidesteps how that fight brought the Americans in the movie perilously close to destroying themselves. Reflecting on the reality of the camps suggests real-life Americans ended up completing, or neared completing, that job. (That house tumbling over the cliff works as a nice little-- er, big-- metaphor for me.)

Beatty's recast visualization of the night's experience is the clean-up job for public consumption that will get translated into the newspapers. But the movie shows us a populace that can't marshall its forces and instead pushes them, out of nervous frenzy and disdain for the Other, to spiral out of control. It's not a stretch to imagine the hellzapoppin' cartoon characters of 1941 and their desperate quest to vanquish the enemy at all costs, in the face of all common sense, as a funhouse exaggeration of a stateside government and population that did exactly that, only on a much more devastating, human, and inhumane scale (and all without a glittering Ferris wheel in sight.)

I'm not suggesting that such serious concerns necessarily took a front seat in Spielberg's approach as a director-- the movie is primarily a huge toy that one either finds hilarious, enjoyable, obnoxious, insufferable, or perhaps some of all of the above at one time or another. But I think it's within reason to believe that Zemeckis and Gale gave some serious thought to the extremes that a nation might go to, and did go to, in imagining itself vulnerable to attack when they conceived 1941. (Is this not what partially accounted for the camps, the government and citizenry's fear that any Japanese-American might be susceptible to treasonous action based solely on their resemblance to the men who fought for Japan under Hideki Tojo, no matter their actual national allegiance?)

Perhaps Zemeckis and Gale felt that their satirical approach, which embraces the nation's bombast about itself to draw some uncomfortable (and unpopular) conclusions about its behavior under duress, could convey such ideas within that structure without the need for the kind of underlining and speechifying that would hamstring some of Spielberg's later "serious" movies. It's a view that I think lays under the exploding, knockabout surface of 1941, and it's part of what makes it still worth watching today.

Damian said...

Chris:

You make some interesting, if somewhat familiar, points about Spielberg in your post and although I would like to address them now (particularly your stance on Schindler's List), I just started a project for my own blog entitled 31 days of Spielberg and I have little doubt that the issues you raise in your critique here will surface repeatedly throughout it. I would, however, love for you to join in and participate in the conversation. My hope is that critics of Spielberg, as well as fans, join in on the discussion. So, please, feel free to mosey on over to Windmills of My Mind this August for my month-long experiement in Spielberg analysis, because I think you could contribute a lot to it.


Dennis:

You made some good points too about 1941. I'll keep them in mind as I..... *sigh* re-watch it here in the next few days.

Anonymous said...

>I HATE 1941. I think is by far Spielberg's worst movie. In fact, I would actually say that I think it is his ONLY bad movie.

Well Daminan, I'm sorry but I'm going to have to disagree with you there. When you've learned to make a film, I trust you will go and show Speilberg how to make a decent film? Anyway as I say an Underrated classic. But as fro Jurassic Park, there's a film I tryuly detested when it was new. Hated it then and still hate it now. However I wouldn't have the gall to call any of his films bad, becuase they're not. And I am a film maker myself.

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