Broadcast News (1987)

Broadcast News

Broadcast News – 1987

Director – James L. Brooks

Starring – Holly Hunter, William Hurt, and Albert Brooks

Every few years, maybe once or twice a decade, there is a movie that is a watershed moment for the audience.  Specifically it fundamentally changes how the audience perceives their relationship with how they see the world.  A film comes along, and playing with delivery, intention, or the pre-conceived notions of the audience, turns the world on its head, and shows us something familiar in a whole new way.

Films like the Lumiere brothers short “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat”, “The Man with the Movie Camera”, and “12 Angry Men”, sideswiped their audiences by manipulating what they were expecting and adding what they never saw coming, in the process waking them up to a whole new way of looking at things.  Shit, even the Sixth Sense caused a whole generation of movie goers to not only watch out for twists, but to almost expect them.  The visceral reaction inherent in the unknown is an addictive, and revelatory experience. It is just this sort of reaction that all films try to go for, but few ever really manage to pull off, not to mention on the scale that is required of a cultural event.

So it was with a certain amount of excitement that I approached seeing how the media shapes and packages the information we consume, making it more palatable, while all the while leaving us craving more.  Broadcast News was one of those films that tried for, but for my money, didn’t quite reach that sort of cultural status.  While I found the actors fun to watch, the script funny, and the story engaging, I felt like it was never able to accomplish its goal of revealing the drive and desires of the media structure that existed in the late 80s and early 90s.  Where the 24 hour news channels of today seem almost theatrically and blatantly disingenuous about their goals and motivations, the news culture that this film seeks to expose was one hiding behind the impression of integrity and virtue, so I felt like I kind of already knew the ending to the story.

The focus of the film is focused squarely on truth in journalism, in particular with the relationship between popularity, ratings, and honesty in the reporting of the news.  Holly Hunter plays Jane, a producer and champion of ethics at a big television news station, who ends up butting heads with Tom, the dumb yet likable reporter who knows that he hasn’t earned what he’s given, feels bad about it, yet succeeds and advances despite himself.  William Hurt is the perfect actor to play Tom, because, truth be told, I liked him simply based on the fact of who was playing him.  To further complicate matters, Aaron, Jane’s workplace confidant, and secret admirer, immediately distrusts Tom based on the budding attraction between him and Jane.

Basically, in the eyes of Jane and Aaron, Tom represents all that is wrong with how the news is presented and delivered.  Attractive faces with little to no knowledge of or interest in the details of the actual facts, delivering the “stories” that are really more geared to engage and attract viewers than to disseminate information.  Seeing this as a personal affront to her code of ethics, Jane, tries first to take a stand against him, then to educate him, and finally, after relenting to his obvious charms, starts to compromise her beliefs and principles.  The false, yet believable emotion that Tom brings to his reporting, begins to win her over proving just how effective he is as a voice-box for the network.

Ironically, I don’t know that Tom’s use of false tears during a story about date rape was really any more or less manipulative than Jane’s juxtaposition of a picturesque Norman Rockwell painting with the less than dignified life of a newly returned veteran.  At best they are equally manipulative, and at worst Jane actually takes it a step further by hiding it a little better than Tom was able to.  And therein lies one of my problems with this film.  The message wasn’t ambiguous enough that it wasn’t obvious what they were pointing at, yet it wasn’t black and white enough to end the film convinced about one side of the argument or the other.  The film had a certain selective subtlety that seemed a little too inconsistent for my liking.  Ultimately I would have liked the film to take a bit more of a stand, whether I agreed with it or not.

Few people in Hollywood are so simultaneously revered and nearly as unknown as is James L. Brooks.  Famed for being one of the original writers and a producer of one of my favorite shows, The Simpsons, that is really where my knowledge of him ends.  To look at his list of movies that he’s directed is to be rather disappointed.  The Adam Sandler film Spanglish was one that I thought was supposed to be pretty awful, but  As Good as it Gets, with all of its Oscar wins, was supposed to be pretty great.  Despite all the acclaim,  I never had a real urge to see it, so for all I know it’s equally as good as Spanglish.  And of course, Steel Magnolias.  I’ve heard of it, but that’s really about it.  Now that being said, everyone else I’ve talked to about Broadcast News seemed to really love it, and the fact that I was only luke-warm on it leads me to believe that I must be missing something, or that perhaps I need to watch it again.

Like I said, William Hurt is fun to watch, Albert Brooks is funny, and Holly Hunter plays a character that is just like other characters of hers that I like a lot.  Unfortunately, those positives still don’t make the “just okay” movie that it was, the “exceptional” movie that I was hoping it would be.  Rather disappointing.

Chelovek S Kinoapparatom (AKA: The Man With the Movie Camera) (1929)

TheManWIthTheMovieCamera

Chelovek S Kinoapparatom (AKA: The Man With the Movie Camera) – 1929

Director – Dziga Vertov

Starring – Mikhail Kaufman

From a history of film point of view, the Russian masterpiece The Man With the Movie Camera, was revolutionary.  One of the first films to truely utilize the power of editing, it helped to form the bedrock of what we know as the modern movie today.  When it is watched without that revolutionary, ground-breaking context, unlike a lot of it’s peer films from the infancy of the artform, The Man With the Movie Camera holds up suprisingly well.

At the beginning of the film, there is a title card (this is a silent film, accompanied only by music) explaining that there is no plot, there are no characters acting out a drama or comedy, this is strictly an exercise in editing, a manipulation of image, rhythm, and pacing.  Despite this warning, however, we are given a throughline from the beginning to the end.  Like the movie’s title explains, we are witness to a man as he goes around with his movie camera, capturing what he sees as he goes through the day.  The imagery is structured to form great arcing patterns, as well as juxtaposing of imagery.  For example, a sleeping woman is paired and intercut with a deserted city scape as it just begins to stir with morning traffic, and the pulsing, pounding gears of a train are mixed and married with still and slowly moving faces of children as they watch something offscreen.  Dziga Vertov, the director, forces us to consider all the connections and similarities contained within a days worth of activity.

The imagery continues to build and wane faster and faster until it seems as though something might break.  And it does…sort of.  We are watching a section of film with a horse drawn carriage bringing a family out and about for the day when it simply stops.  The image is frozen there, and the spell is broken.  At that point, Vertov is drawing our attention to the fact that we are being manipulated.  He is using the imagry on screen to quicken our pulse, or to lull us into a daze, and when it is suddenly forcibly stopped, he begins to manipulate us in a different way.   When the image of the frozen carriage is pulled back a little, we see an editor sitting and cataloging film sections.  There are shelves and shelves of different shots, presumably the shots that we have been watching.  Our editor goes to work splicing sections together and showing us the man behind the curtain, only since this is still being filmed and later on edited, that means there is another curtain with another man behind it.  Our attention is so constantly drawn to the raw elements of this film, from the camera man taking a shot (Mikhail Kaufman, the film’s actual cinematographer), to the editor compiling and re-working footage (the film’s actual editor), that everything is laid bare and hidden in plain sight at the same time.

All the while, when we think we are seeing some really candid segment of the construction of this work, we are infact being led down this path on purpose.  This provides the framework for every piece of visual media that we are accustomed to today, from film, to reality television, to documentary, to stage plays.  There is nothing on display that isn’t supposed to be.

Despite, my obvious appreciation of the content of this film, there are moments where the fact that it is a silent movie takes it’s toll.  With the repetetive nature of it’s construction and this editing trick, at 68 minutes, it still seemed a little long.  The music at times also seemed a little antiquated and simple (not the film’s fault, but still a product of the time that it originated).  By and large, it was a lot of fun to watch, but I was just as happy to finish it as I was to start it.

“Look at all the cool shit you can do with this here camera!”  –  Ashley

The General (1927)

TheGeneral1927

The General – 1927

Director – Buster Keaton, and Clyde Bruckman

Starring – Buster Keaton, and Marion Mack

Buster Keaton stars as a railroad man in the south during the Civil War, who has two loves in his life…his girl (played by Marion Mack, and his train engine (named The General, it’s the movies namesake).   When fighting breaks out in his state, he is compelled through the suggestion of his lady love to join the army, and go into battle.  Due to his importance as an engineer for the railroad, Keaton is turned down for active duty.  Because of this, his girlfriend and her family think he is a coward.  When spys from the north steal his beloved General, he has an opportunity to prove his courage.

 Based on what I know about physics and the danger associated with trains, Buster Keaton is crazy to attempt the stunts, gags and gimmics that he does in this film.  Not only does he repeatedly put his own life on the line, but he has a sort of deadpan humor that he demonstrates the whole time as well.  This ensures that if your jaw isn’t on the ground, it is busy laughing throughout.  Keaton runs from one end of the full train to the other, changing tracks, un-hooking cars, feeding the furnace, and clearing the track ahead of obstacles while he does it. 

I have tried to read up a little bit on this movie, but haven’t managed to find all that much about it.  I have to imagine that, just like Jackie Chan does today, Buster Keaton probably had some accidents, or at the very least some spectacular outtakes from some of his shots. 

The story and motivation is pretty much secondary to the visuals and the action, but that doesn’t hurt this movie at all.  The pace slows down a little in the middle of the film, when he leaves the train set and goes to a house, but it picks up again when they get back to it.  The war scene at the end doesn’t seem to have the gravity or punch of the previous hour or so, but that too can be forgiven due to the fantastic action on display.

Each time I’ve tried to watch a silent film, regardless of whether I chose to watch it or if it was assigned to me for a class, I’ve had trouble keeping awake.  The lack of sound, combined with the rather long takes and over-emotive acting seem to repel my attention.  Despite the ridiculous, continuous piano music or lack of dialogue, my attention was kept the entire time I was watching this film (the scene that was the most difficult was the aforementioned scene away from the train). 

Scenes to watch out for…Keaton steals a train engine to chase a group of Northern soldiers who have stolen his train engine, and he has to constantly run up to the very front of the train to clear a series of obstacles that the soldiers leave on the tracks…and the northern soldiers are trying to catch up with Keaton who has set a bridge on fire as a trap for them.

Check it out, it is totally worth the watch.