Wednesday, August 22, 2012


Well, the Skuriels Award winners turned out to closely resemble, with some exceptions, those of the BFI Sight and Sound poll. Vertigo and Citizen Kane, the newly crowned BFI champ and the deposed ex-champion, jostled it out in the runners-up position, while 2001: A Space Odyssey managed the most love from our august body of voters. All in all, an admirable list, if not too surprising. (My own submissions to the list of 20 potential Skuriels candidates can be seen here.)

But there were real surprises in the Honorable Mentions, and especially among the Skuriels Orphans, the movies that, as Paul Clark wrote in introducing the collection, "only received one vote but which their supporters saw fit to champion anyway." Among these orphans you can read Kent M. Beeson on The Brood, Phil Dyess-Nugent on Fires on the Plains, Joshua Rothkopf on Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia and, perhaps the entry for which I'm most grateful-- for the excellent writing but also for the jog of my memory-- Zach Ralston on Gus van Sant's damnably beautiful Gerry.

These are the passionate defenses I most enjoy reading, and there are, of course, many others, including my own submission, republished below, on one of my favorite cinematic evangelical causes, Steven Spielberg's much maligned and underappreciated 1941. I have written about this movie many times, here and elsewhere, and this latest effort is likely to be the springboard to a larger consideration of the movie that I've been threatening to tackle for a while now. Nevertheless, I was most grateful to be asked by Paul to articulate some of the reasons why I genuinely love this movie and, with absolutely no ironic winking involved, believe it to be a great achievement. If you will indulge me again on Spielberg's great satiric indulgence then, here is what I wrote for the Skuriels about 1941.


I know it probably sounds like hopeless contrarianism to see 1941 on any list of the top 20 greatest movies ever made. I’ve already made my reasons clear elsewhere here as to my own criteria for the list submitted, and I have no business pretending that I’m seasoned enough to suggest the 20 greatest anythings, let alone movies, based purely on “objective” analysis.

But after perhaps as many as 25 viewings of Steven Spielberg’s notorious big-budget, epic comedy since its release in December 1979 I’ve come to the conclusion that if this movie doesn’t in some way represent what makes a “great” movie, then I need a radically revised dictionary.

Spielberg has intimated in the past, and it has been reported endlessly, that he felt like he was losing control during the production of 1941, that he was in over his head and that the production was subsumed by creative anarchy and/or at the very least a lack of consistent direction. Well, I would submit that the last thing I would want to see is a movie about the freewheeling anarchy of an optimistic America, under enemy besiegement that is only partially an imagined product of a volatile cocktail of patriotism and paranoia, that is itself measured and controlled and tamped down around the edges. The blistering satiric punch of the script, penned by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale when the duo still had some real fire in their bellies, is exacerbated by anarchy—anarchy is its fuel, its lifeblood. 1941 is exhilarating in part precisely because you feel Spielberg flying by the seat of his pants and still marshaling some of the most marvelous, breathtaking comedy (and musical) set pieces imaginable amidst the chaos. Even the perceived bloat of that production seems to work in its favor, not, as traditionally presumed, against it.

But 1941 is not, unlike John Landis’s similarly indulgent The Blues Brothers, all just chaos and cacophony and waste, nor does 1941 share that film’s insistent deadpan delivery of its best material. There’s an eye-boggling grace in play too, from the way Wild Bill Kelso’s fighter plane is shot gliding through the sky over the Grand Canyon or shooting out across the night-lit skies above a twinkling (miniature) Los Angeles; to the sight of a bomb rolling toward a gaggle of reporters gathered at Santa Monica Airport to welcome General Stillwell to town; to the way Kelso leaps up onto the wing of his plane and tumbles over the other side to the ground; or to the sight of a Ferris wheel unmoored from its structure careening down Santa Monica Pier like a gigantic ghostly toy escaping from the clutches of its owner.

There’s wit in a miniature-scale skewering of the bigotry of the day when a racist soldier gets his face smeared with engine smoke and “switches places” with a Negro soldier who has been similarly dusted with flour (You must see the movie to understand how this comes about), and in a simple moment during which the smoke puffing from the end of Kelso’s mangled stogie is synchronized to the momentarily ethereal orchestration of John Williams’ hilarious, inspired score (one of his best, easily).

And there is, of course, the movie’s centerpiece, justifiably praised by even many of the movie’s detractors, the thrilling USO dance sequence, matched for musical buoyance and insouciance in Spielberg’s career only by the “Anything Goes” number that opens his equally maligned (and equally masterful) Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. At one point, leading up to a key change in the “Swing, Swing, Swing” number, Spielberg uses a lighter-than-air crane shot to lift the camera up above the dance floor, where it is revealed that the dancers are hoofing it on the painted image of Hitler and Tojo, a shot which is again followed immediately by a similar vertically-- and then horizontally-- oriented camera move up and over the backs of some of the orchestra players and out across the floor above the dancers. The simple beauty of this combination of camera and action and musical choreography is so blissful, so chill-inducing that the last time I saw the movie it caused me to burst into tears.

1941 showcases a Spielberg not yet burdened by the need to make grand statements, whose entertainer instinct remained at the forefront despite whatever personal insecurities he may have had during its production. And yet time has proven, at least to me, that the director, who seems here to be firing completely on instinct and willing to look foolish for perhaps the only time in his career, might have been better served had he not always been so keen on following the guidelines prescribing what was expected of him. (Temple of Doom displays a similar disregard for expectations.) Like all of Spielberg’s best movies (including Jaws, Duel, A.I., Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, War Horse and even Munich), 1941 is evidence of the director playing with all the Hollywood toys at his disposal, bending or sometimes outright disregarding the rules to his own purpose and creating something unique, something unrepeatable, something great in the process.



W.B. Kelso said...

"I don't think you're gonna hit him, Ward."

Floors me, every time.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Lionel Stander is priceless here. But this is one of many that never fails to get me:

"We're gonna put the Sarge to bed, we're gonna paint the scratches on this tank, and we're gonna forget this night ever happened."

Here's more!

Adam Zanzie said...

This reminds me that I totally need to revisit 1941. I've seen it once, and remember liking it and even finding it very funny at times -- if overlong and crammed with more slapstick than it could handle. It's certainly Spielberg's most anarchic film. I especially would like to see it again because I seem to have forgotten the Sam Fuller cameo.

W.B. Kelso said...


Also patiently waiting for the extended Director's Cut that finally solves the mystery over how Claude and Herbie switch sides on the Ferris Wheel.