Thursday, March 7, 2019

The Ugliness of Modern Films, Part 1: Butchered Bodies and Vomit

The silent film is a beautiful art form.  Since my early days, I have found the greatest pleasure watching films like The Kid Brother or The General.  But, at times, I could not help but feel sad about these same films because I knew that I was watching something special that had been lost to us forever.  In the last two years, I have felt sadness watching most films made in the twentieth century.  The Hollywood film, once transcendent, is now something far less special.  The Hollywood film today is ugly and pointless.  It moves me just as much as muddy water running down a gutter drain.

It's wrong just to blame the Hollywood film.  This trend has gone global.  Let's take a look at U.K.-U.S. co-production, The Favourite (2018).  The Favourite, a costume drama set in the early eighteenth century, examines the relationship of two cousins vying to be court favorites of Queen Anne.  Everything about The Favourite is, by deliberate design, grotesque.  Nicholas Barber of the BBC website wrote, "Yorgos Lanthimos's The Favourite is a filthy, violent and outrageous period comedy that drips with bad language and worse behaviour, and will appall anyone who is expecting a more conventional royal drama." 

Two minutes into the film, we are introduced Emma Stone's character Abigail Masham, who looks bedraggled as she travels in a carriage en route to her new home in London.  Abigail takes notice of a man sitting across from her.  The two politely smile at each other.  But then the man reaches down inside his pants and happily masturbates.  The actor is acknowledged in the film credits as "The Wanking Man."  Am I supposed to believe that men in Eighteenth century England casually masturbated during public carriage rides?  No, that is just something out of the nasty imagination of the film's scriptwriters.  The vast majority of the film is nasty fake history.

Dominic Green of The Spectator praised Callum Lewin for his performance as "Nude Pomegranate Tory, a nude Tory who dances around in slow motion while being pelted with pomegranates."  This depiction of a drunken, fruit-throwing parlor game is, plainly, a fiction.  An actual parlor game that Queen Anne played was a word game called "News," which incorporated elements of verbal invention and gossip.  But "News" did not meet Lanthimos's filthy, violent and outrageous standard and, therefore, was not part of the film.

We learn early in the film that Queen Anne suffers from gout.  A pivotal scene of the film involves the queen's swollen and inflamed legs being wrapped in slices of beef to relieve the pain.  Later, the queen gorges on blue-frosted cake and then vomits in a pot provided on cue by a servant.  We are led to believe that the woman vomits often due to a weak stomach.


Alfred Hitchcock said that he was unwilling to make a costume picture because he needed to get detail into his stories and these sort of films lack detail. "Nobody in a costume picture ever goes to the toilet," he said.  The Favourite is a film for those people who, like Hitchcock, think a baroness taking a dump or a queen vomiting is a detail that costume pictures have lacked for too long.  Vomit-loving people do exist, as hard as it for me to believe.  Ann Hornaday of The Washington Post, evidently a vomit lover, called the film "rapturously vulgar."

The most popular user review on IMDb (545 of 930 people found the review helpful) opens as follows:
Let me preface my review with me saying that I have never had a film experience where I have been genuinely uncomfortable in.  I have watched The Human Centipede series, Saw, and plenty of other gory cinema that has hardly made me cringe.  But for some odd reason, The Favourite made me cringe and feel sick half of the time.
The film, itself, suffers some cinematic form of gout. 

The film has nothing to offer but ugliness.  This becomes obvious very early in the story.  Abigail has just started her new job as a scullery maid.  A plump kitchen maid hands her a bucket of lye and instructs her to wash the floor, but she neglects to tell her that lye is dangerously corrosive and she needs to use gloves to handle it.  Abigail is on her knees scrubbing the floor when she suddenly feels the chemical burning into her hands and she screams out horribly.

The kitchen maid grins as if she planned all along for the pretty new girl to burn her hands.

Only a misanthrope would believe that people behave in this manner.  The scene transitions from Abigail screaming to the Queen screaming.  Unbearable pain exists in every room of the palace.

A few minutes later, the kitchen maid grins again when Abigail is whipped for misconduct.

Last year, I was told that Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a comedy.  I didn't believe it.  This year, I was told that The Favourite is a comedy.  Are you kidding me?  Abigail is repeatedly shoved into the gloppiest of mud and comes up with her face splattered in copious flecks of soil and manure.  But these few slapstick moments, more disgusting than funny, fail to nudge the film into the category of comedy.

Abigail's pain is not pratfall pain.  Her pain is real pain.

Even in a rare moment that she smiles, cuts and bruises are visible on her face.

And, trust me, it won't be long before she can't help but howl out in pain again.

Let's get back to the queen's attack of gout.  The queen is feverish, mumbling deliriously about an incident from her childhood when a boy held her down and dribbled his spit into her face.  Everything about those few minutes are designed to nauseate the viewer.  The music consists of screechy strings.  The camera captures the action with a distorting fish-eyed lens while it unsteadily roves about the palace chambers.  The scene lapses into a disorienting series of dissolves.  This could be designed to convey the queen's delirious state of mind.  Maybe, maybe not.  The editing is deliberately jumbled.  Footage spliced into the middle of the scene shows something that hasn't happened yet: Abigail in the woods collecting an herbal remedy for the Queen's gout.  It is an abrupt flash-forward that serves no purpose except to flout conventions of common sense chronology and disorient the viewer, who might otherwise lose interest in the Queen's gouty legs.

Then, we have Lanthimos' frequent use of whip pans in the film.  Lanthimos' director of photography, Robbie Ryan, said, "There was only one shot where that whip pan happens, and I think he really enjoyed it.  So he goes, 'Ooh, I want to try that a bit more.'"

Lanthimos piles up the technical gimmicks until all that is visible are the gimmicks.  Giovanni Marchini Camia of BFI saw through these contrivances, writing:
And although Lanthimos employs fisheye lenses, whip pans, extreme slow motion, creeping dollies, showy dissolves and other such devices with desperate abandon – not to mention a bombastic soundtrack implemented with Greenaway-levels of insistence and production design Visconti might have deemed too baroque – no amount of ostentation proves sufficient to spruce up the insipid narrative, which strains to fulfil its two-hour running time as if it were a requirement of seriousness.
According to Chris O'Falt of IndieWire, it was in an effort to "[push] things further" that he "deviat[ed]. . . to use a fish-eye 6mm lens that creates very noticeable distortion."  He noted, "It brings a garishness to a period film that would make other cinematographers balk."

Ryan said, "[Lanthimos] hates the idea of conventional film coverage — that would be hell to Yorgos.  He couldn’t handle that.  The idea of a shot-reverse, as far as two over-the-shoulders, he'd run out of the building.  He'd be very disappointed if that's the way the journey was going to go."  His objective was to give the film an exciting and different new look even more than it was to tell a good story.  Ryan said, "When we were in prep, we were working through Panavision in the UK, and they were very cool to us."  He explained to the people at Panavision that Lanthimos wanted the widest lens they had.  He said, "[L]uckily, it’s the classic story of the lens that has been on a shelf for a long time.  We dust it off, and it's this beautiful 6 mil lens, which Yorgos really enjoyed.  He loved it once he saw it.  To look at the lens is like looking at a piece of art, but it's very, very big, convex glass.  I'd never seen it before, and we all had lots of fun clearing the film set from everybody when that lens went on — because it saw everything, really."

Lanthimos fully committed to the lens.  Ryan said, "[W]e weren't shooting on other lenses. We weren't maybe doing the safe version of that.  It was, a lot of the time, the kind of balls-out version of that.  I thought that was very brave and I was going, 'Oh my god, okay.'"  He told interviewers that he was thrilled to be working with the director.  He said, "You don't know what’s coming next with that film, which I think is really nice.  You're constantly surprised, and I think that's difficult in a costume drama, and very refreshing to see in a costume drama." 

Ryan made it sound as if everything insightful about the film and everything funny about the film came from the lens.  How did the lens make the film insightful?  He said:
If you read between the lines what the lenses did for the film, the thing I [took from] watching the film was it felt very claustrophobic.  By the nature of being able to see everything in front of you, you then get a sense that the characters are almost imprisoned in the location.  Even though they have all this luxury and power, they are a little bit isolated in this world. . . [Y]ou get a feeling of no escape.  I think one of the critiques of the film said it was like a playground that turns into a battleground that turns into a prison.  I think that's a very good explanation of what the film tries to get across with these characters.  I think the wide lenses are pretty integral to that, as well.
How did the lens make the film funny?  Ryan told IndieWire: "There's an absurdist thing about that lens that it's kind of almost comical, but it's fantastical as well – it’s not totally out of place in the film, which you never would imagine."  He told Deadline, "It's a comedy as well, so it lends to a bit of an odd aspect.  I just think it’s a brave choice.  It's a fun film, and I think he was certainly having fun when he put those lenses on.  We were like, 'Whoa, that looks kind of mad.'  But it definitely fitted." 

Ostentatious, yes.  But I can look past the ostentation of the film.  What I find unforgiving is the overriding ugliness of the film in both its look and attitude.  Lanthimos has suggested that he set out to immerse the audience into the madness and decadence of Queen Anne's palace.  Ryan said, "This period was very much a decadent time.  That's sort of what attracted Yorgos, this decadence and totally off-the-radar madness that these people were let have.  Life was so polarized — the poverty was extreme, and the rich was extreme.  You can say that about nowadays, but I don’t think it’s even touching the levels of what society had back then."  A filmmaker cannot be fond of his audience if, for two straight hours, he rubs their faces in decay, depravity, misery and psychosis.  He's like the kitchen maid.  He thrusts a bucket of a caustic solution at an unsuspecting victim and grins as the solution burns into their flesh.

Understand, the entire film looked like this.


Not just one scene, the entire film.  Does that make any sense to you?  I couldn't believe this when I first saw it.  Honestly, I thought something was wrong with my television or something was wrong with the DVD.  If Lanthimos has every scene turned upside down for his next film, the critics will likely watch the film standing on their heads while applauding like mad seals for this audacious new form of cinematic storytelling.

Lanthimos follows the herd when it comes his ugly and shocking depiction of life and humanity, but he can screw a funny lens on his camera and brag he'd run out of the building before he would do anything conventional.  Nothing could be more pretentious.

Eric Kandel, author of "The Age of Insight," wrote, "Art is. . . a process that leads to an Aha! moment, the sudden recognition that we have seen into another person's mind, and that allows us to see the truth underlying both the beauty and the ugliness depicted by the artist."  But ugliness isn't always the truth.  Sometimes, it is just ugliness.  And, even if it is the truth, it is wrong to give the public an exclusive diet of the ugly truth.

Queen in a 1970 film

Queen in a 2018 film

Queen in a 2025 film 

Wait, how did this pretty image slip past Lanthimos?

Today, Hollywood films are soulless.  Take, for example, the new version of A Star is Born.  The film opens with Jack (Bradley Cooper) singing to a noisy crowd at a California concert.  After the concert, Jack goes to a drag bar, where he sees Ally (Lady Gaga) sing to a noisy crowd.  He goes backstage to see Ally, talks briefly with her (Ally tells Jack her nose is too big and he tells her that her nose is lovely), and he ends up singing to her.  The two leave the club and Ally sings to Jack in a parking lot.  The next day, Jack has Ally picked up in a limousine so she can hear him sing in concert to yet another noisy crowd.  The dialogue is kept to a minimum throughout these scenes (how could you hear them over the din?).  We are expected to like Jack and Ally and accept that the couple is falling in love without learning much about the characters or seeing them make a genuine connection.  No deep romantic relationship is built on nose flattery. 

I was watching the film with my mother.  At the time that Ally is watching Jack's concert performance, my mother turned to me with an unhappy look on her face.  "Are you enjoying this?" she asked.  My answer was a resounding "no."  How does a filmmaker tell a love story without heartfelt emotions or intimate moments?  We turned off the film.

During TCM's recent New Year's Eve showing of MGM's That's Entertainment trilogy, co-host Ben Mankiewicz flatly announced that he hates the MGM musicals.  He dismissed these films as meaningless escapism.  He said that he preferred films that were "confrontational," like Citizen Kane or Paths of Glory.  That's a narrow criteria for films.  The vast majority of classic films are far closer in nature to Singin' in the Rain than Paths of Glory.  Very few classic films would pass the Mankiewicz Test.  This likely explains the reason that Mankiewicz rarely shows affection for the films he introduces on TCM.  He mostly comes across as too cool for the room.  He has the grumpy persona of someone who would really rather be somewhere – anywhere - else.  A new TCM host, Dave Karger, piped up to accuse the producers of That's Entertainment films of being racist for not including black artists in the first film.  He acknowledged that That's Entertainment, Part II featured scenes with two black artists, Lena Horne and Ethel Waters, but he said that the second film was a compilation of B-side musical numbers and Horne and Waters deserved better.  There is nothing second-rate about the musical numbers in That's Entertainment, Part II.  It is a great film.  But Mankiewicz and Karger are self-styled "progressives" who bear disdain for films from Hollywood's Golden Age.  And they didn't care at all if their remarks threw a wet blanket on this joyous celebration.

Also on hand for this presentation were Eddie Muller and Alicia Malone.  I respect Muller and Malone for their work as film historians.  Muller, the author of "Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir," is a leading authority on film noir. Malone is the author of "Backwards and in Heels: The Past, Present And Future Of Women Working In Film" and "The Female Gaze: Essential Movies Made by Women."  Malone defended the MGM musicals against Mankiewicz's foolish assertions.  I wish that I had a transcript of this discussion so that I could quote Malone's remarks exactly.  Suffice to say, she spoke of the joy that an MGM musical brings to a person's heart.

Malone is an ideal successor to the late Robert Osborne.  Osborne was the face of TCM for more than two decades.  I loved the man.  He was graceful, warm and knowledgeable in his capacity as TCM's primary host.  Malone, too, is graceful, warm and knowledgeable.

Osborne was a big fan of MGM musicals, including On the Town (1949), Singin' In the Rain (1952), The Band Wagon (1953) and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954).  He understood the value of these films. 

An MGM musical unfolds before our eyes as a marvelous celebration of humanity.  The Wizard of Oz addresses crucial real world concerns - love, home, family, friendship, loyalty, bravery, evil.  You understand what's most important in life after you watch The Wizard of Oz.  You do not escape the real world, but confront the real world in the fullest and most glorious way possible.  Citizen Kane is clever and stylish, but it doesn't touch your soul like The Wizard of OzCitizen Kane does nothing to inspire the viewer or raise his spirit like Singin' in the Rain.

Mankiewicz probably believes Citizen Kane was designed to confront the evils of capitalism and expose the American Dream as a fraud.  But it wasn't Orson Welles' intention for the film to be seen as a critique of capitalism.  Despite what some critics try to read into it (often quoting Joseph Cotton's remarks about the rise of organized labor), the film is not political.  It is a character study that, in the end, attributes a man's failure to connect with others and find happiness to a damaged childhood and lost youth. 

Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian wrote:
Perhaps it is the fault of Citizen Kane itself, that mysterious, almost Elizabethan fable of kingship, which so seductively posits the coexistence of greatness and failure.  Martin Scorsese, in his brilliant commentary on the film, said that cinema normally generates empathy for its heroes, but the enigma of Kane frustrates this process.  The audience wants to know and love Kane, but can't.
Peter Bogdanovich said, "[Citizen Kane] is about as negative a movie as you can imagine.  Nobody gets what they want, it all ends in tragedy, and it's brilliantly done so that you forget that. . ."

Personally, I do have sympathy for Kane.  The ending wouldn't be so tragic if Welles didn't generate sympathy for Kane.  When all is said and done, the film is intense but it can hardly be called "confrontational."

Paths of Glory, based on a 1935 novel by Humphrey Cobb, presents a sad but important lesson.  In war, the military institution is more important than the individual soldier, so much so that innocent soldiers can be executed by their commanding officers to preserve the institution.   

David Simon, the creator of The Wire television series, wrote:
Humphrey Cobb gave us our last, failed century in a single, basic narrative.  He told us of men devoured by the very institutions they served, without recourse, and for purposes petty, mechanical, and abstract.
Cobb, himself, wrote:
Where all these Journey's Ends and All Quiets fail utterly as anti-war propaganda, indeed where they become pro-war propaganda is in the stoicism, the self-abnegation, the idealism and romantic nobility which they portray.  How the actors hate war, etc. but Christ, how nobly they suffer!  And a regiment marching down a street behind a good band — everybody knows what that does to your reasonableness and logic.  The only available effective anti-war propaganda that I know is photographs of butchered bodies —the more horrible the better.

Paths of Glory has butchered bodies.  Mankiewicz presumably believes that "butchered bodies" films have far greater importance than films about love, joy and beauty.  The uglier the film the better as far as he's concerned.  Ugly films are praised by pretentious people as true and profound films.  But they are usually not true and, if they aren't true, they can't be profound.  Confrontational films are rarely anything more than useless political propaganda.  

Cobb is right to trust only something as real and raw as photographs of butchered bodies.  A variety of carefully staged images meticulously spliced together for a film is something entirely different and something that can never to be trusted by those who truly care about confronting the harsh realities of life. 

It is evident on its face that the artistry of an MGM musical is genuinely beautiful.  Bring back joy and beauty to the cinema.

Reference sources

- "Under the Influence David Simon Unravels the Moral Twists of Paths of Glory," Criterion, (May 9, 2018).

Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian (April 25, 2015).

Giovanni Marchini Camia, "The Favourite first look: Yorgos Lanthimos courts controversy but cops out: Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone play pointless power games in Yorgos Lanthimos’s baroque and profane regal romp that runs out of steam far too soon," BFI (January 7, 2019).

Dominic Green, "Court with its pants down," The Spectator (December 3, 2018)

Matt Grobar, "‘The Favourite’ DP Robbie Ryan Brings Fisheye Lenses & Fluid, Roving Camera To Yorgos Lanthimos' Madcap Period Piece," Deadline (November 6, 2018).

Ann Hornaday, "Imagine 'The Crown' but vulgar and hilariously perverse. That’s ‘The Favourite,’" The Washington Post (November 29, 2018).

Chris O'Falt, "‘The Favourite’: Oscar Nod Likely for DP Robbie Ryan, But Damned If He Knows Why Director Yorgos Lanthimos pushed his cinematographer to extremes with the use of very wide lenses, only natural light, and bold camera moves, IndieWire (December 12, 2018).

David Simon, "Introduction: Paths of Glory by Humphrey Cobb," The Audacity of Despair (April 16, 2010).

Adam Yuster, "NYFF: Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich Talk Orson Welles' 'Exhilarating and So Distressing' Final Film," The Hollywood Reporter (October 1, 2018).

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