Thursday, May 25, 2006

Movies, Movies, Movies

Last Friday night, Daughter Number 2 and I went to the Loews Cineplex at Boston Common to see Mission: Impossible III (me for the second time). Across the street from the theatre was a crowd of militant Catholics protesting The Da Vinci Code, which opened that same day. All of the demonstrators held placards denouncing the movie as false and evil. In the middle of the group, a layman recited prayers through a bullhorn while priests of different ages, attired in their natty black suits with white clerical collars, stood off to one side looking on. At the very front of the gathering, facing the theatre, were a dozen nuns aligned neatly along the sidewalk curb dressed in traditional black and white habits.

“What are they doing?” asked DN2.

“They’re protesting the movie.”

“What movie?”

“Well, from the look of it,” I replied, “I’d say it was March of the Penguins.”

********

The missus and I did wind up seeing The Da Vinci Code the following night at the same theatre. Have you seen it? I keep hearing the critics hate it, but I thought it was pretty good. What was funny to me was how much I forgot of the book version of The Da Vinci Code. I read it just a little more than a year ago, but throughout the entire movie I kept going, “Oh yeah! That’s right — I forgot about that.” Evidently my last remaining brain cell is not quite up to task anymore. Toward the end of the movie, the hero, Robert Langdon, has to figure out the answer to a riddle, a simple 5-letter word (the whole story, by the way, is a riddle inside a conundrum inside an enigma inside a brainteaser inside a puzzle). I remember when reading the book I felt sure it was “venus,” only to be proven completely wrong. So what did I do when I watched the movie? I kept guessing it was “venus.” Maybe if I watch it again I’ll be right.

********

Mission: Impossible III is by far the best Mission: Impossible of them all. It’s smart and it doesn’t rely solely on action (although action, of course, is its raison d’etre, let’s not forget that). At one point the Laurence Fishburne character complains that the super bad guy in the movie (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) is like the invisible man. Then he adds: “Welles, not Ellison” . . . to the delight of myself and possibly two others in the audience. And this time around they didn’t overuse those darn masks. I hated that about the show and especially the second Mission: Impossible — the answer for everything is to impersonate someone by quickly sticking a voice simulator chip to your Adam’s apple, tossing on a mask and wig, and presto! their own mothers couldn’t tell the difference. How cheap. In M:I 3 they actually made the process seem a bit difficult. One agent had to photograph the bad guy from all angles and send the images to a computer. Then a mask was constructed in a kind of mask-making kit that — as a nice touch — looked like it had been used a few times before. Finally, we saw Ving Rhames help Tom Cruise put the thing on (TC was already wearing a fat suit). It was well done and made me think impersonating someone might not really be that easy after all. I appreciated that.

********

Everyone has heard of the famous director D.W. Griffith and his landmark 1915 film, The Birth of a Nation, right? Pop quiz: how much do you actually know about the movie? What is it about really? I always assumed it was supposed to be some major, patriotically-themed celluloid masterpiece that pushed the limits of filmmaking — which is true as far as that goes, as it was technically patriotic and it did break new cinematic ground. Let me tell you all the good stuff first: the movie, three hours long, was shown in playhouses — not cheap nickelodeons, mind you — and ticket prices ranged from 75 cents on up to a whopping two dollars. The movie was brought from city to city by touring companies who traveled with their own projection equipment and orchestra (a complete score was composed for the movie). In the first two years it ran, The Birth of a Nation grossed 10 million dollars, which, if my calculations are correct, comes out to exactly one billion kerjillion bazillion dollars in today’s money. Modern film editors must certainly get a kick out of how the scenes were strung together (I think they used blunt hatchets back in those days) and historians undoubtedly enjoy the funky tableaus faithfully copied from photographs and paintings, such as the Confederate surrender at the Appomattox Courthouse. The acting is good and, let’s face it, Lillian Gish, who played the heroine, is the cutest little thing you ever did see. It’s an entertaining film.

Here’s the bad part: The Birth of a Nation is, hands down, the most blatantly racist movie I have ever seen. Ever. I restrict myself not to just today’s standards when I say this. Even in 1915 the film was considered outrageous and extremely controversial — and the publicity resulting from that unquestionably accounted for much of the movie’s revenue. I even learned a new word from reading the background material: negrophobic. Based on a play called The Clansman (can you see where this is heading?), the film follows the fortunes of a Northern family and a Southern family from before the Civil War on through its aftermath. During Reconstruction, the viewer is acquainted with how the North rubbed the South’s face in it, sending down scalawags and carpetbaggers to take advantage of the South’s stricken white race by promoting the rise of the Negro — who were portrayed in the movie mainly by white men in blackface. Soon we see that all the Negro wants to do is get drunk, bust up the town, and lecherously pursue white women while the poor, huddling white inhabitants remain in the South at their own peril. What’s a Southern gentleman to do? Obviously, he needs to put on a white sheet and fight back.

Yes, for all of you who might not have known, The Birth of a Nation, the first full-fledged cinematic extravaganza in our country’s history, is a film that glorifies the Ku Klux Klan. It shows how the KKK saved the South from being crushed under the heel of the Black Man. There is a heart-rending scene where a young white girl jumps from a cliff to her death rather than suffer molestation from a black Union soldier. There’s the radical Northern politician who found out too late the evil designs of his mulatto protege, Silas Lynch (interesting name, eh?). And then there’s the heroic founder of the Klan saving Lillian Gish just before a forced marriage to said mulatto. It has it all, folks. Everything, that is, except decency, respect, and the truth.

That being said, you’ve just got see it.

17 Comments:

Blogger LL said...

Yeah... the professor of my movie class said he used to show it to every class because of it's classic nature, but he decided not to show it to ours because he'd been receiving some complaints. Must'a been all those blackfaced mimes you mentioned...

Either that or some secret order who'd spent their life protecting the D.W. Griffith bloodline from discovery. Hmmm... perhaps you need to investigate and write a book about your adventures to uncover the D.W. Griffith code.

Nice line about the penguins by the way, pure genius!

6:55 AM  
Blogger magnetbabe said...

I remember when reading the book I felt sure it was “venus,” only to be proven completely wrong. Haven't seen the movie yet, but thought the exact same thing when reading the book. Great minds think alike.

Nuns protesting March of the Penguins, that's freaking hilarious. I heard there were some penguins in, ahem, adult situations in that movie. That could be it.

7:06 AM  
Blogger Scott said...

I have to check out Birth of a Nation now, after all that. I like to see what it was like in the old days. We take it for granted that we don't see certains things at the theatre. If we see racism, then it's the bad guy, even if he is the protagonist. This sounds interesting, a rare glimpse to how things used to be.

7:22 AM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

"Either that or some secret order who'd spent their life protecting the D.W. Griffith bloodline from discovery. Hmmm... perhaps you need to investigate and write a book about your adventures to uncover the D.W. Griffith code."

Yes, recently discovered manuscripts reveal Al Jolson was the first Grand Master of the Priory of Buckwheat.


"Great minds think alike."

You got that right, Magnetbabe!


"This sounds interesting, a rare glimpse to how things used to be."

It really is fascinating. Please bear in mind that a lot of people were outraged at the time. It's amazing how so much hard work went into such a bizarre story.

7:40 AM  
Blogger boo said...

i saw {da vinci code} in cannes, i liked it. i also saw {fast food nation} but i did not like it. so there.

8:20 AM  
Blogger Shatterfist said...

"I keep hearing the critics hate it, but I thought it was pretty good".

That's the general concensus. No movie could live up to the hype that's surrounding The Da Vicni Code, but some critics just want a blockbuster to do so badly because it's a crowd-pleaser. Not everyone makes movies to win awards; that doesn't mean a movie is going to flop.

9:21 AM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

"i saw {da vinci code} in cannes, i liked it. i also saw {fast food nation} but i did not like it. so there."

I haven't heard of Fast Food nation. The title sounds intriguing though.


"Not everyone makes movies to win awards; that doesn't mean a movie is going to flop."

The last so-called bad movie I thought was good was The Village. It didn't do too badly at the box office as I recall.

9:31 AM  
Blogger Kathleen said...

Until I bought the book 1000 Movies You Must See Before You Die, I just knew it was an old movie. Then I read that and although I want to see it, because it is a classic, I don't know how comfortable I'm going to be watching it. There's a semi-sequel or something. I'll have to look that up.

Re: The DaVinci Code - I wanted to go this past weekend, just to walk past the ultra conservative Catholics boycotting it...while holding my rosary. ;-)

10:25 AM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

I dare you to do that swinging the rosary over your head.

Kathleen, I know you can handle The Birth of a Nation. Once you start, you can't look away.

10:28 AM  
Blogger Kathleen said...

If you'd like, I'd be happy to mail you my copy of Old School by Tobias Wolff to read. I'm used to mailing my books around the country.

10:29 AM  
Blogger Reel Fanatic said...

I can still remember having to watch Birth of a Nation in a political film class at Catholic University ... The professor, who was slightly north of 60 years old, apparently forgot, or perhaps deliberately didn't bother, to tell us what it was really about before hand .. very disturbing, no matter how technically proficient it may have been

12:38 PM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

Kathleen, that's really nice of you! I gratefully accept your offer. Should you email me your email address so I can email you my snail mail address?


"The professor, who was slightly north of 60 years old, apparently forgot, or perhaps deliberately didn't bother, to tell us what it was really about before hand .. very disturbing, no matter how technically proficient it may have been."

You know, I had a pretty good idea of what was in store, but what I saw far surpassed what I imagined.

1:50 PM  
Blogger trinamick said...

I didn't think to mention the mask thing in my review of MI3. That was my biggest beef with the second one. I agreed that it was better portrayed in this one, even if it still was a little fake.

And I was the only one who laughed in our theater at the invisible man line as well. Glad to know I wasn't alone. :)

1:42 PM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

"And I was the only one who laughed in our theater at the invisible man line as well. Glad to know I wasn't alone. :)"

Though the miles separated us, we laughed together on that one, Trina.

2:21 PM  
Blogger Claire said...

I just saw DaVinci last night...I had forgotten the key word too. I kept thinking it was Neveu - Sophie's last name.

10:19 AM  
Blogger Farrago said...

I kept thinking the secret word was "hypocanthus." But I was high on Nyquil when I read that chapter, so I don't know.

I think the movie critics are all secret members of the projectionati, an underground organization of staunch Catholic aestheticists.

Or something.

6:39 PM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

"I just saw DaVinci last night...I had forgotten the key word too. I kept thinking it was Neveu - Sophie's last name."

If I was smart enough, I would have thought of that wrong answer too!


"I think the movie critics are all secret members of the projectionati, an underground organization of staunch Catholic aestheticists."

Ha ha! The "projectionati"! You're too much, Farrago!

6:47 PM  

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