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E-C-Dub! E-C-Dub! E-C-Dub!

20. Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942)

So I was reading the autobiography of 1930’s film star Myrna Loy (who is not merely ballin’, but straight ballin’), and she was talking about the Hollywood studio system. She noted it was essentially a factory where films were made by fitting each piece together. You would have a script written, they would find a director and then start casting. You would say try and get a Clark Gable-type(strong, macho, fast-talker) and maybe a Claudette Colbert-type(glamorous, but tough, and funny), but failing that you find two other name actors who fit into that kind of archetype. It was essentially a puzzle and the studio execs would just fit every part together in hopes of making a popular film.

Loy noted that such a system was flawed in that it gave actors and actresses little chance to take risks, and performers were simply at the mercy of the studios who picked there roles for them. But on the other hand she noted, that if an actor was really good in a certain role, studios would try and replicate those kind of roles for that actor. This often ensured the repeated success of many actors, and protected them from the risk of failure that might come from taking a risk. It’s not a great system, but in some ways it is advantageous because if a studio found what worked it would stick with it and protect the star from the possibility of being exposed as being terrible or really limited. Comedians did comedies, serious actors acted serious, etc. It was all very workmanlike and efficient.

This whole attitude reminds of Paul Heyman‘s abilities as a wrestling promoter. Heyman famously started up a renegade independent wrestling company called Extreme Championship Wrestling in 1993. Now Heyman as a businessman has proven to be an abject failure, ECW went bankrupt in 2001 amid numerous allegations of not paying his wrestlers, and a massive debt load. Conversely, Heyman is lauded for his booking(creating matches and storylines and wrestling gimmicks) prowess in which he often hired and promoted cast-offs from major feds, or guys who had never done anything of note, and turned them into big stars.

ECW became a successful cult promotion that eventually threatened the mainstream. For a lot of fans it became a way of life, something special and meaningful and transcendent. If you were to simply see the list of names in the promotion, you would hardly be impressed, but they created something that far outlasts the company. It was a spirit, and an attitude that was created in spite of the limitation of the talent. ECW became greater than the sum of its parts.

Heyman’s greatest talent was being able to see the strengths and the weaknesses of a wrestler, and promote them accordingly. Most of Heyman’s biggest stars were guys who were very limited in there abilities or had other significant flaws. Taz became Heyman’s biggest star despite being about 5″5. The Sandman had no wrestling ability to speak of so he became a violent, brawling, alcoholic who could take a beating. The Public Enemy where to fat middle-aged white guys, yet became big stars because they put people through tables and had catchy theme music. Mikey Whipwreck and Tommy Dreamer likewise were two unathletic looking white dudes who had heart, so they would take beatings but never give up. 911, was a 6 ft 8. monster who couldn’t do anything but chokeslam people, so he would simply enter the ring during other people’s matches and chokeslam them.

ECW was filled with these misfits, and all of them ended up going to either WWF or WCW, and failing miserably because they were exposed as being talents with significant limitations. Paul Heyman made them look better than they were achieved remarkable success for such a small promotion. He took what resources he had and made something great with it. Not only that but he did it repeatedly, despite suffering from continual raids of his talent. He could take almost anyone and get something out of them.

Now “Casablanca” is not ECW, but it was a factory film, designed in effect to capitalize on the strengths of the people involved, but not in fact dependent on any single part. The film would have been made regardless of who starred in it. It wasn’t an art film, it wasn’t particularly groundbreaking, it was simply the product of a studio trying to make some money.

Michael Curtiz who directed the film wasn’t the first choice, Ingrid Bergman wasn’t the first choice to play Ilsa, and Humphrey Bogart was a moderately successful leading actor. Nothing about the making of the film suggested it would go on to have such a cultural impact. It was simply another studio film. Everyone was picked for the film simply to fill a type or because they were available. The fact that it worked is just one of those cases where the sum is greater than the parts. Much like ECW.

On filmaffinity.com, I initially had the film as a 7/10 based on my watching it about 4 years ago and being underwhelmed. I re-watched on the weekend which brought it up to 8/10, but in the last day or two I have been thinking that it’s really a 9/10. It has a couple parts that drag, but there is enough stuff that had going pretty good, and the ending in spite of being so deeply ingrained in popular culture still got to me.

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It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Hurrancarana to Cry.

11. Singin’ in the Rain (Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, 1952)

There is so much I want to write about this film. I could write about how I really like musicals, how I think Gene Kelly is pimp, how this was another movie I watched in film class at Mount Royal, or how I love movies about making movies. I could write about how this movie depicts the struggles some silent stars faced in transitioning to sound, and then I could write about silent star “Marie Prevost“, drank herself to death in 1937, and was found dead in her apartment with dog bites all over her. Then I could drop a Nick Lowe reference from his song Mary Provost: “she was a winner who became the doggie’s dinner”. But instead I will narrow my focus to the ridiculously awesome “Make ‘Em Laugh” sequence starring Donald O’Connor.

The whole sequence has an anarchic quality, where rules of physical movement are ignored, and the effect is for me pretty mind blowing. Just to sound pretentious, I will call it “audacity of movement”, basically meaning the O’Connor in this sequence is audacious enough to try physical things that seem impossible, and yet he does them beautifully. From flipping off walls to being tossed around by a dummy, anything seems possible. Hell, he even does this, I didn’t even know it was possible. The only thing I can compare it to is watching Rey Mysterio Jr. wrestle, and just being in awe of what is happening. The amazing thing isn’t simply that a man can move like that, but rather that a man can even think up moving like that. It’s the kind of thing that can bring tears to my eyes, just the sheer imagination of it.

The rest of the film has a ton great sequences and great music, but nothing really tops the “Make Em Laugh” sequence. The greatness of the film is that the sequences are equally matched by a great screenplay which is both enjoyable but also pretty interesting from a historical perspective. Just seeing a little bit about how films were made in 1927(even if it’s not meant to be accurate) is for me pretty thrilling. This film combine history, music and mayhem into a tight 100 minute package.

On filmaffinity.com I gave this film 9/10, but it’s a really strong 9 which could easily be a 10 with some more thought. I recommend the shit out this film.

I broke through the space-time continuum and all I got was this lousy T-Shirt.

4. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)

Ranking Kubrick:

  1. Paths of Glory
  2. Spartacus
  3. The Killing
  4. Barry Lyndon
  5. Dr. Strangelove
  6. Clockwork Orange
  7. Full Metal Jacket
  8. The Shining
  9. 2001: A Space Odyssey

I think my rankings reveal my love of Kirk Douglas and Timothy Carey, and my general indifference to Science Fiction and Jack Nicholson.

I think it’s best to talk about this film in terms of pro wrestling. Wrestling is about storytelling, namely the battle between good and evil, the babyface vs the heel. A great feud typically involves the prolonged antagonism of the face by the heel. Famous examples include Savage v. Steamboat circa 1987, Hart v. Michaels circa 1997, Austin v. McMahon circa 1998-2000. The fans boo the heel because he is a jerk, and cheer the face because he is being done wrong by the heel. Think of Dr. David Bowman as the face, and HAL as the heel.

Bowman is simply a man on a mission in space, by all accounts a regular guy. HAL in this case was once a face but has turned heel, also known as a heel turn. HAL starts out as a good guy, but soon feels betrayed when Bowman begins to question HAL’s judgment. HAL does a great heel turn by killing off Bowman’s shipmates. The wrestling equivalent is typically the injury angle, where the heel injures the face intentionally. A personal favorite is Randy Savage shattering Ricky Steamboat’s larynx with a ring-bell. The function of this kind of angle is that it establishes the heel as bloodthirsty and unstoppable while causing the audience to sympathize with the injured face. The heel continues a reign of terror until the face comes back to face his enemy.

In the case of “Space Odyssey”, because HAL’s heel turn leaves people dead, another face must come to the rescue. Because wrestling feuds seldom end up with the murder of their participants, there is no direct parallel to HAL’s actions. But the famed Shawn Michaels concussion angle of 1995 gives us something to compare it with. Owen Hart was wrestling Shawn Michaels on a standard televised match when midway through the match, Hart nailed Michaels with an enziguri kick to the back of the head, a move which typically stuns the opponent. In this case Michaels recovered normally and proceeded to throw Hart outside of the ring. It was here that the unthinkable happened: Michaels collapsed and had to be stretchered out. Michaels was diagnosed with a severe concussion which put him out of action for several months, during which time Hart began to gloat about his deeds. Because Michaels was incapacitated it was up to his close friend, partner and former bodyguard “Big Daddy Cool” Diesel to save the day. He wrestled Hart on pay-per-view in December of 1995 and demolished Hart with multiple jack-knife powerbombs, thereby gaining a measure of retribution for his friend.

Bowman is cast as the face because he must avenge his shipmates deaths and ensure his own survival. We sympathize with his plight because we are human. HAL is cast as the heel because he is cold, methodical, and vicious. We don’t sympathize with him because he is a machine. Bowman is the clean-cut babyface, a la Ricky Steamboat, and HAL is the gruff, egotistical, evil heel, a la Randy Savage. HAL has proven he will stop at nothing to get what he wants, he looks unstoppable, he has the power to kill, and he’s smart too. Bowman looks over-matched, he’s got to use every ounce of his intelligence to stop HAL, otherwise it’s over. It’s a great build if I have ever seen one.

Using Steamboat v. Savage as the template, we will find that Savage injured Steamboat by crushing his larynx. Steamboat is out for months and it’s doubtful he will ever speak again, let alone wrestle. Savage in the meantime gloats and continues to dominate. Steamboat has something that Savage doesn’t expect, Steamboat has heart, and through months of rehab he builds himself back up to 100%. The grudge match is set for Wrestlemania III, where 93,173 screaming fans come to see Steamboat v. Savage in a match for the ages. Steamboat goes toe to toe for 15 minutes with Savage and he wins. Great match, Savage is defeated but it takes Steamboat everything he has to win. Good triumphs over evil, but it’s not easy. That’s how you do wrestling, that’s how you do drama.

Compare that with “Space Odyssey”, Bowman realizes he is in danger and starts to plan how he will defeat HAL. So what happens? Bowman enters HAL’s “Logic Memory Center” pulls out a couple tapes, and HAL is down for the count. It takes all of 30 seconds. It’s the film equivalent of Steamboat pinning Savage with a snap mare 5 seconds into the match.

To quote Peggy Lee “is that all there is?”. Does anyone even know who Peggy Lee is? The whole thing is so underwhelming considering how good the build is. And then Bowman goes on a 20 minute acid flashback. What the hell?

So we have chimpanzees, a great wrestling build, a weak payoff, and then an acid flashback. That doesn’t sound like a great movie to me.

On filmaffinity.com I gave the film a 6/10, initially I gave it a 4, but in retrospect the film had a good section in it, it’s just the ending that killed me. To paraphrase Raven, a bad ending kills a good match.