It’s been a while, and I figure I need to write something to keep this thing alive, so here goes.
I watched On the Waterfront last night. I was expecting a tour-de-force of a film, driven by a powerhouse of a performance by a young Marlon Brando. Well let’s just say I didn’t get either of those!
What is this teleplay that is somehow universally loved by critics? My living stars man, the quality was just not there. The film has mediocre character development, no sense of place, no sense of style, no cinematic aesthetic, and worst of all – THE ACTING WAS HAMMY AND OVERDONE.
About the only performance worth watching was Karl Malden (somehow I knew his name when he appeared on screen, I believe I recognized him [and his crazy-looking bulbous nose] from his turn as Omar Bradley in Patton) as the hard-ass priest who stands up brazenly against the crooked union. Marlon Brando just came off like a doofus, both his character Terry Malloy, and his portrayal of said character.
Even the “It was you Charlie” scene was just a little character development thing that happened, then passed quickly away. Seeing that famous scene in the flesh got me thinking though. I mean, my first exposure to it was via Raging Bull, when pathetic, fat, creepy, washed-up boxer Jake LaMotta is quoting the scene to try to make sense of his own decline. It really got me thinking, and I ended up with a gratitude, and a personal theory.
The gratitude is this: Thank you Movie Brats / New Hollywood (Scorsese, Lucas, Coppola, Spielberg, Polanski, Kubrick et al.) for saving us from Old Hollywood, and it’s corny, safe and ultimately banal methods of filmmaking. Thank you for destroying a studio system that churned out reel after reel of formulaic leading man, shot-reverse-shot, soft focus, dialogue driven pabulum for the infirm and unimaginative to easily follow and digest. Yes, the era of the blockbuster became its own horrible beast, but at least it wasn’t just a bunch of white people with perfect hair having dramatic conversations in black and white!
But enough polemic, time to get personal! Because really, it’s all a matter of opinion, and some people really dig like that “classic” Hollywood stuff. What is it that draws me to more experimental films, or rather, what is it that repulses me about the old style? My ten-minute theory is this:
I generally only find films interesting if they are not adaptable to other forms of media
So for example, On the Waterfront was boring and dumb because it could have been effortlessly adapted into a play. Hell, it might have even been a play before, or after. I’m not going to look it up, because I’d rather look foolish to prove a point. But seriously, movies that are just dialogue and people adjusting their postures inside rooms or in reasonably controlled outdoor environments do nothing for me. Maybe this is why I can’t stand Wes Anderson. Maybe this is why the parts of Tarantino movies that aren’t extreme violence strike me as incredibly indulgent.
What were the films that hit me the hardest when I was getting into movies? Ah yes, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Requiem for a Dream, Memento. These could be adapted into plays, or books (Requiem came from a book, I know, but probably wouldn’t work so well going in the other direction). Any play or book or radio program or video game or whatever adapted from these source works would be missing essential information. The long shot that follows LaMotta from the locker room to the ring! The edited cascade (props to Thelma Schoonmaker) of traffic lights passing over Travis Bickle’s head! Leonard Shelby’s story being backward! The thousands of disorienting, exhilarating cuts that make Requiem so intense!
I could go on, but suffice it to say that for me to be interested in a film it has to show some awareness of its means of production, and the inherent capabilities and possibilities therein. It should attempt to use film technique or experimentation as a way of telling the story or revealing a character in a novel way. This is why I’d rather sit down to Tree of Life – big silly warts and all – than yawn my way through an alleged classic like Casablanca.
And this is why On the Waterfront failed to impress me in any way, and why Scorsese’s one minute homage was all I ever really needed.