Contemporary film does not offer much to think about. Themes are simple and straightforward, often to the point of bludgeoning the audience with their self-righteousness. Love is good. Tolerance is very good. Peace is extra good. Businessmen are usually bad, and certainly up to something sinister. Racism is very bad. Religious people are usually bad, unless they are followers of some non-mainstream or Eastern religion. Nazis are always bad. War is bad (or at least nasty). Drama, one in which an idea is dissected and scrutinized, peered at and questioned and considered in different contexts, is nearly extinct. Hell, dialog is almost extinct. Watch a fifty year old movie, even a bad one, and watch how much time people spend talking to each other. Today's films, eyeing overseas audiences that don't speak much English (or maybe that's contemporary "teenangers"....) use the spoken word as if each utterance costs money.
Nope. Now the word that apparently sells is "controversial" but what passes for controversial is usually merely "pushing the envelope", either increasingly explicit sex, inter-generational or inter-racial relationships (a lot of this pushing seems to be Hollywood "educating" the prudish rubes who foolishly continue to believe sex should be kept in relationships defined by something more than proximity, possibly even consenting adults), graphic violence, increasingly gross body parts/fluids humor, or other trivia. Ideas have been replaced by breasts, battles, and belly laughs. If you choose to define controversial as "Some people find this disgusting and wish it were not in film" well, so be it, but controversial means to me a serious examination of an idea about which there is controversy (rather than about an idea about which there is very little) and examining options and possible solutions.
Directors were once limited by their inability to use the language or images freely available today. So they used what was available but were able to explore the great themes of literature and drama in a medium that offered unlimited visual opportunity. And they did so in intelligent and provocative ways that made their fans long for their next work. What director today makes films that ask interesting questions, and offers interesting solutions? What director makes films that could pass for intellectual. Not "bizarre" or "incomprehensible". Shakespeare is neither, though students, critics and fans have been finding meaning there for 400 years. And the only tool he had at his disposal was dialog.
The mere proposing of a question is not art. I have seen enough films that "explore" an idea, by saying "What about this?" To which they usually answer "It's a good thing" or "It's a bad one." A theme, an idea that can be agreed or disagreed with, must be presented. I hear things like "It explores the theme of love." Well, what does it say about love? To merely propose "This is complicated" or "Love is tricky" does nothing to add to our understanding. It may make us feel good and justified as we do things we know are not good, divorce or revenge, for example, or even, as Hollywood gleefully "pushes another popular envelope", murder (see In The Bedroom for yet another vindication of murder). Boy, see how complicated it is? See how, if all these circumstances were stacked exactly right, you would do the same thing? Therefore, it is an OK thing to do.
No thanks, give me something I can chew on, savor, and either swallow happily or spit out. The pap, the soft, tasteless mush passing for film these days, neither satisfies, nourishes, nor interests me. It is disposable gel, meant to be consumed effortlessly, and forgotten instantly.
The Greatest Film Ever Made battles usually allow reigning champ Citizen Kane to retain the title. Ah yes, good ol' Kane, the poor boy who achieves, through the always deadly combination of skill and hubris, fame and notoriety. And inevitably discovers money can't buy him love. No, real love arrives from elsewhere. Ahhh, there's also that clever little inside (or nearly inside) joke about Rosebud. Snicker, snicker. The dissolves, the composition! Oh! A masterpiece.*
My own suggestion probably doesn't make anyone else's top 100 list, but I would offer Bedazzled as the finest film ever made. This little piece of movie making from the Sixties has everything a great film should have. A delightfully clever script that is fun to watch. Other than the droll but somewhat wooden Peter Cook (certainly no worse than Joseph Cotton...the worst actor ever to appear in a great film), and the (thankfully) briefly seen (and briefly garbed) Raquel Welch, the cast is a delight. It is wonderfully directed by Stanley Donen. But, most importantly, it is theologically brilliant. It says everything one can say about man's relationship with God and the need for forgiveness, and says it concisely, effectively, and in a devastatingly apropos ways.
Bedazzled opens with Stanley Moon, a failure who's been working at a Wimpy Bar for three years, deciding life is no longer worth living. Church offers nothing more than some mindless droning, a ritual without meaning or hope. His highest aspiration is to be loved, and not just loved by anybody, but loved by the remote, aloof, and callous Margaret Spencer, a woman who embodies to his imagination all the word "woman" contains. It is not enough that he love her; she must reciprocate his love. Though we see her as she is, a coarse and callow girl with limited intelligence, she is all that Stanley can hope to have. He loves her from afar, too cowardly to speak to her, inhibited by his inarticulateness and ignorance. Aware that he can never have her, he decides to opt out. And, in a brilliant little touch, combs his hair before he leaps off his chair with his badly-formed noose around his neck. The last manifestation of vanity.
Failure. Yet again. But there is someone to help him achieve his goal. In exchange for his immortal soul, an item that has done him little good so far, George Spiggott, the earthly pseudonym for Satan, offers Stanley all he wants. And thus, the Faust story appears again, though this time our Faust is not a brilliant philosopher, but a weak, uneducated man. One who is easily, and repeatedly, fooled. We, the far-more-intelligent viewers, would never allow ourselves to get into such a mess. Not us!
Unfortunately, dealing with the devil is a tricky business. For when Stanley becomes a business partner with the Prince of Lies, he no longer has any idea what is happening in his life. He wants one thing, and asks for it, but is thwarted at every turn. Stanley cannot out-think George, (just as Americans cannot out-think Satan's minions, the advertisers scheming, focus-grouping and counting.) Stanley continues to believe he is in charge, but he isn't. He believes he is making his own decisions, but ultimately recognizes he cannot orchestrate everything. The world is too complicated, too confusing, and too full of beauty for a man to own it all, no matter how much money he might have.
What is the nature of God in this movie? We see very little of Him. And nearly everything we know is told by the devil. God is remote, living in a lovely but sterile manor. He does visit his guest, when Satan approaches requesting re-entry. Whoa! Satan wants to return to heaven. How can this be? Despite his hatred of God, his sneering condescension and his feeling that the pedestal should be shared, George seeks re-entry into heaven, knowing that the pedestal will never be available to him. He will have to return to his role of praiser without end, and yet he wants to do it. The sordid and ugly world he has assembled for himself cannot offer him much. He wants out. It is a cheap and despoiled place where the satisfactions that seem available are not. There is nothing there for him, and despite his scorn for the fact that God never leaves the postbox, he wants to return to that place and join the sycophantic cherubim and seraphim. When he finds he is rejected, he is spiteful and nasty. Surprise there. "No wonder you have so few friends" shouts George. And God just laughs, the last laugh in this brilliant, funny movie.
Mrs. Wisby is the nicest lady ever placed in film. George and Stanley, the Froony Green Eye Wash Men, show up and offer her a chance to enter a contest. If she will cheat. And, as George points out, she is all too eager to do just that. Though Mrs. Wisby appears to be the kindest and sweetest lady ever, she, in her heart, bears the same cheating, lying core. She is willing to deceive Froony's to get what she wants. It's only a harmless lie. A little lie. Nothing. But it isn't. A lie, a fraud, a cheat is the same whether committed by Stalin or Mrs. Wisby. Not a popular idea, as we prefer to think there are lines of wrong in every action, and the level of evil can only be judged when we know who was hurt by the action. Divine justice looks quite differently at such behavior.
The theological idea demonstrated repeatedly is that all sin separates us from God. There are, in our view, big sins and little sins, and it is important, even for those who reject God and an afterlife, to distinguish (especially as the sins we commit are always small ones). But in God's view (as I understand it), there is only sin, not big sins and little sins, and it all keeps us equally far from him. The only bridge across that chasm is His forgiveness. We cannot do it ourselves. We cannot transcend the gulf, for our sin and our failure make us reprehensible to God. He must forgive. And he does. To those who ask. Thus, when we see George seeking readmittance, it is not forgiveness he desires, but praise. God will not praise us. He has no need to, and though he loves us, and wants to share with us, we are not his equals. We love and worship him. He forgives us. We share communion. George is not content with that deal.
George's job is to reflect the misery and ugliness of all of man's tawdry behavior back to him. He is just a mirror that amplifies when he reflects. He creates nothing; he can only destroy. The bad in man exists; he encourages it to be spread and fertilized. Satan is evil, but his evil can only thrive where man joins him.
In every story, Dudley thwarts himself. He cannot out-scheme Satan, as the flaws in his every plan are the deficiencies of our nature. George allows Stanley's hopes and aspirations, carefully revealed in gradual steps, to create failure. Would it have been possible for him to be happy in those situations? No, for we see the seeds of his failure in each one. Margaret the tycoon's wife is physical, but she is also not a possession, not bought off by things, recognizes that love is not the giving of things but the giving of self, which Stanley does not do and never will do.
George's little outburst about adultery is wonderful. Humans view sin in a very self-centered way. I am hurt by her adultery, therefore it is important. Her going to jail for killing the gardener would hurt me, therefore I must prevent that. What impacts my life is the measure of sin. Our selfishness is the root of much trouble. Children are enslaved and dying by the millions all over the world, but we spend scarce dollars to save one American child. I wish we could save all children, but the local ones are more important to us, and more worthy of our concern. Children in Serbia or Sudan are vague abstractions.
George offers Stanley the chance to do something worthwhile. He can share one of his wishes with the flower people. But Stanley refuses, because they're "his". He could give. But being, just like Mrs. Wisby, the greedy, grasping selfish soul he is, he keeps what he sees as his and allows the picnickers to be attacked by wasps. Generosity would give, but after careful training by George, Stanley hoards himself poor. We know the remaining wishes will be no use to him. Though he wishes he could do something, he won't. Stanley confirms George's opinion of humanity.
God is willing to let even Satan back in, if he truly asks for forgiveness. But George wants to be an equal still. He wants to be God's favorite again, which will put him in a number two position. Works are not good enough-he on the contest.
The final wild party, full of those, who, like Mark Twain say "Choose heaven for the climate, hell for the company", is a dismal affair. The "let's have extravagant fun" just doesn't look much like fun, and all the squabbles, complaints, self-centeredness and ugliness that is the reason those people are there, get in the way. Is it possible to be friends with these people? No, they think only of themselves. I want, I am, I need. Now, you can take advantage of them if their desire is sex, but otherwise, there is not possibility of companionship. There is no communion with such people. Lust and Avarice are the same, just manifestations of different selfishnesses. They are foul and ugly creatures.
The ending is perfect for Stanley as well. No Christmas Carol ending here. Margaret blows him off as she disappears into her boyfriend's car with a "Maybe some other time." George tries to tempt him again, guaranteeing "I can make it happen", but Stanley recognizes freedom of choice is indeed the only way people can be truly happy, and if he had Margaret placed there, she would not be free. He also finally recognizes George has lied every time he' s spoken. Stanley is grateful to be free of his contract, free to make his own life, free to recognize that his life is his to be made. No one anyone can give him, wealth or intellect being the most common cultural choices, can make it for him. He is what he is, and will take that to make his life as he wants it to be. As best he can.
Harry Chapin's "Taxi" was a very popular song in the early Seventies. My wife and I liked the song, and Harry, too. We saw him in concert several times, and each time, at the end, when the narrator sang "I go flying so high when I'm stoned" the crowd cheered wildly. I never could understand this, as the song was a powerful tale of failure. Clearly, this taxi driver abandoned big goals and consoled himself vaporizing his dreams in clouds of marijuana smoke. There was nothing glamorous about his getting high; it was the response of someone who wanted something, but got by selling himself and taking tips he'd rather not take. My friend Ed McCaleb thought the line "I stuck the bill in my shirt" especially lame, but it wonderfully conveyed his futility and the distance he had sunk from his dreams. Whether marijuana was the cause of this failure, or merely the medicine he inhaled to forget it, it was not to be celebrated. It was a sad, sad song. Not really appropriate for a couple's "song" either, one would think. But I sill have two copies of the LP to prove it.
Like Taxi, Bedazzled is described in a way that seems to have nothing to do with its content. Irreverent, sacrilegious, scandalous, all the sorts of words associated with a good skewing of God. But God is not skewed, mocked, or chastised. Contemporary organized religion looks pretty bleak, but God himself is the Big Guy, the one to be with, the Man in Charge. Old Creepy Drawers can't hold a candle to him. Never has, never will. Joining the losers' team makes no sense, when the team owner himself wants off. Best to follow his advice, and go for the Man Upstairs.
* I wonder how often anyone watches this film today, or does Mark Twain's dictum about classics apply here as well? This is not to say it isn't a fine piece of movie making. It is, and I have enjoyed viewing it, though I think the irony of Orson Welles becoming his own creation in later life contributes hugely to the pleasure. He could not avoid the fate he so poignantly pictured.
I am certainly weary of Hollywood working so hard to tell us the life of fame and fortune is ultimately empty. Do they do this so we continue to give them the millions we do? Continue paying way too much money for 90 minutes of inept entertainment? Despite this ever-present theme, which has been hammered at since the silent era, I don't often see people retiring from the grueling hours, demanding schedule and unfair expectations the film industry. Few walk away, though they certainly have--or should have--enough money to do so. (Many seem to complain when they are forgotten, and when, though they achieved their fame on looks alone and no longer have them, younger, prettier actors have taken their place.) No, they continue to struggle on, for the people, I suppose, sacrificing themselves in a moral cesspool where 18 hour days are common and where you're only as good as your last hit. I'm not convinced, but they keep making this film, and keep expecting us to buy in. And we do...hundreds of millions of dollars pour in to maintain the lives of these martyrs on the altar of art.