Critique Me, Kate

It’s summer, and theaters are amok with films labeled “critic proof.”  Summer blockbusters are often a dime-a-dozen bunch made to draw a few big weekends and fade quickly away like so many Fourth of July fireworks.  Does anybody still remember Superman Returns or the last Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film?  There are notable exceptions to these flash in the pan films, but they are just that — exceptions.

Critic proof means that despite the general panning of movies like Terminator Salvation or Night at the Museum 2, the films will draw audiences.  This gives rise to many questions about film as quality entertainment (who is qualified to judge? What makes it a “good” or even worthwhile film?) and about the role of the critic.  Are critics necessary? Should they simply review (i.e., describe the content and form) or make qualified judgments?  If judgments are to be made, how much is arbitrary, or based on taste?   “The Film Talk’s” Jett Loe recently interviewed Gerald Perry (who made a documentary on the subject called For the Love of Movies) about the waning days of print criticism and the rising tide of bloggers (thanks for reading, by the way) and podcasters.  It also says something about what audiences are looking for.  If the critics are right, why do people choose to see these films anyway?  Is it because the marketing and advertising are so appealing?

Cinema is the literature of our age.  It says much about our culture, and plays a subtle but meaningful role in how we live our lives.  These are our stories, our myths, our history.  Writing is fairly democratic; anyone can write (although not everyone can find a publisher, but again, new media changes things) and perhaps this is one of the greatest assets of the independent film movement, Youtube, and more affordable equipment.  Now almost anyone can make a movie.

That doesn’t mean that everything out there is great or worthwhile, however.  And it brings us back to the question of quality, and who is qualified to determine what is worth watching.  All of this has been eternally complicated by the knowledge that the vast majority of films produced are made not to tell a story, but to gain an audience.  They are not made to last or endure or be well made.  They are put out there to get people in the seats once or twice and make money for their investors.  How do we lump films that are mere product in with films that are art and try to create standards?

The strange and wonderful thing about movies is that amid all of these questions we still watch them for fun, and in doing so find the exceptions.  They are product, yes, but the people who made them took some time or some skill and created a quality meal under a brand name label.  That’s what I love about classic Hollywood.  In the 30s and 40s, at the top of their game, the big studios were putting out something like 500 films a year.  A lot of them were terrible, and have happily been forgotten.  But others have become a standard.  It’s why 1939 is still called the high water mark of American (and perhaps worldwide) filmmaking.

I was thinking about all this last night as I watched the 1953 movie version of Cole Porter’s classic Kiss Me, Kate.  Porter wrote the songs for the Broadway production (which was a huge hit late in his career) and was very involved in the making of the film (he’s even written in to the film version as a character in the first scene).  The film was an MGM Freed Unit musical, will the full treatment of splashy costumes, named stars (Howard Keel and Kathryn Grayson as leads), and the big treatment.  It was filmed for 3D, but opened in the waning days of the fad, so only half the prints were sent as 3D.  As a side note, I had the chance to see it screened in 3D when I lived in Boston, but opted for Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder instead.  Hitch’s film only had about 5 minutes of fun 3D (Grace Kelly reaches over her head, seemingly into the back row of the theater, and pulls up a pair of shears to defend herself against an attacker!) and I now regret the decision, but I digress.

Kiss Me, Kate is a fun musical, especially for anyone who knows and loves musical theater (another side note, my college produced it when I was a sophomore.  Don’t be fooled, I wasn’t in the show.  I was carting around scenery and running into the stage manager with a cumbersome set wagon).  The book by Samuel and Bella Spewak (the screenplay by Dorothy Kingsley only slightly modifies it) is an inspired contemporary 1930s version of Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” with the plotline interweaving between the backstage action and the performance of Shakespeare’s classic within the narrative.

Within the first five minutes, Ann Miller is dancing around to a tamed version of “Too Darn Hot” and throwing accessories toward the camera.  Props are hurled camera-wise throughout the picture and there are noticeably shallow-focus shots to make objects or actors “jump out.”  Bob Fosse plays one of Bianca’s suitors (if you know Fosse’s style, you can pick him out quickly) and Hermes Pan (who worked with Astaire on choreography for the Fred and Ginger pictures) let the principle dancers develop their own styles for their numbers.  The result was Fosse’s big break, and he’s a lot of fun to watch.

The musical film is the realm of the performer.  Many of them had come from vaudeville, and were used to performing an entire routine.  A filmed dance or a song is centered on the actor.  The performer does the work, and the camera just dances along.  Musical films may not be noted for sophisticated shooting and camerawork (unless they’re directed by Busby Berkley) and that’s probably why critics in general have never spent much time with them.  But does the lack of sophisticated “film-making” lessen the amount of artistry in a movie, or is it simply a difference in style?  Is using the film medium as a platform for other artistry to shine (instead of the filmmaking shining) less valid?

A musical, or any film, is not supposed to be real life.  Maybe this was easier for audiences who did not have streaming video and home movies to grasp.  Perhaps watching vaudeville performers made audiences more used to the separation of stage and audience.  Perhaps only being able to see the films larger than life in a theater made them obviously fictional.  Documentary, cinema verite, and realism are vital and well used storytelling forms, but as many critics and theorists have noted, no form is completely objective.  Every lens has a point of view.  And for that matter, so does every pen (or blog, etc.).

Kiss Me, Kate foregrounds the artifice of musicals by making the “backstage” a stage as well.  This is heightened by the film form.  Everything is presentational, from the sets and costumes to the staging of the musical numbers and 3D camera coverage.  The final shot of the film finds  the curtain being drawn on the play within the play.  Our leading love interests have resolved their differences while playing their Shakespearian characters (i.e., as Petruchio and Kate “make up” so do Fred and Lilli).   We, the film audience, know that this is not Keel and Grayson making up.  We accept the fiction of the film and that lends an understanding of the fiction within the film.  The two leads are superimposed over the closing curtain.  They zoom larger and life toward the camera.  Stage and screen.  Performance and fiction.  Commentaries on life, not life itself.  But the intention is to entertain.  The commentary comes  because all story is commentary in some way.

This again, is something film can do that other forms cannot.  This is sophisticated storytelling as well as entertainment.  Critics who can recognize a films ability to do both certainly exist, and are gaining wider platforms with new media.  The pantheon of film is so large and so varied that film lovers should be able to find both critics and films which are of good quality, but suit taste.  There is a balance there, somewhere, I’m sure.

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About jenletherer

BA, Theater and Speech Communication; English:Creative Writing. Siena Heights University, 2002. MFA, Film Production. Boston University, 2005
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8 Responses to Critique Me, Kate

  1. Cello says:

    I agree with one of your points, Cinema and literature reflect our day in age. Nowadays people want fast, they want action, and they want toliet humor. It’s what thrives in todays soceity. Michael Bay is our Hitchcock. Sad…but true.

    • jenletherer says:

      Thanks for the comment. The next question for me becomes should people be given what they want? In any other area of life (food, money, etc) to give people “exactly what they want” can yield terrible results.

      • indyted says:

        As with diet and money management, perhaps the people just need to be educated on the history and theory of film.

        That being said, I saw The Hangover yesterday and LOVED it! The characters were interesting and funny and memorable. The potty humor was very low brow and was top-notch. These films have influence on our culture too, but I don’t think it is all bad. These films are mirrors for our society too and I don’t really mind what I see: a society easily distracted in their down time, a society that appears to be most concerned about making fun of and laughing at itself, but ultimately a society that realizes what really matters is their relationships with their friends and family.

        And the story telling is still there. We could draw many parallels between The Odyssy and The Hangover. The quest. The shipwreck. The adventure. The reunion.

        So maybe what people are seeing in these critic proof blockbusters is something that people have been seeing it their story telling for thousands of years. I know you are not arguing against this and would probably agree with me but you might argue that Hollywood’s dumbing it down is denying audiences of intelligent film it can really digest and substituting it will the equivalent of partially hydrogenated oils. My point is that maybe there is some good fat in there with the bad fat and that is important,and maybe even necessary, for nourishment. Nothing is so stale as a culture that takes itself too seriously.

        Anyway, great blog! Can’t wait to read the next one!

  2. jenletherer says:

    I probably would argue that “The Hangover” is more akin to partially hydrogenated oils, but I haven’t seen the film, and can’t fairly say much. I think you have a point in the idea of these films reflecting society, but I do differ in how I see that reflection.
    That my view of the reflection is different than yours is probably also a positive thing. Maybe that’s partly what I mean by a balance of taste and quality. I don’t expect all films to appeal to me. I just wish that those lauded by critics were more often the kind that appeal to me, because critics do carry weight with public opinion, and I find few who have my taste. More of them are film historians like Jeanine Basinger and Robert Osborne–which is why I’m a fan of Turner Classic Movies.

    One last point: Again, not having seen “The Hangover,” I’m not sure I can make a fair judgment. I admire you’re finding the redemptive qualities in the film and in our society. I agree that living in a society that can afford these problems instead of more dire realities is great, and the end realization of the importance of people is wonderful. But personally, I find those positive qualities lukewarm. They’re decent people. Sure. Decent is better than destructive. But I’d rather our society strove toward being a people that were more selfless, giving, and wise. I don’t expect our or any society to ever get there, but it would be nice if that’s what we tried to do. Perhaps that’s why classic movies appeal so much to me. I see a society trying to be more than it is. Sometimes the error was on overlooking the evils of society, and that’s not right either. But it showed a model of what we could be. And in the striving to be more than we are, we dream well, and become more than we thought possible.

    Anyway, I digress. Thanks for the comment!

  3. indyted says:

    Good points. The functions or art and the functions of cinema as art are probably numerous. It seems as though they would vary from one’s own world view and taste. I am infatuated with your idea that a function of cinema is to show society what it could be. I recently read in a blog that one way to affect the future is to share your personal vision of the future. The author of this blog believed that where we are now technologically speaking was influenced by science fiction writers of the past and the most enduring stories these writers told got stuck in the minds of society, or at least geek society, so that it just made sense for them to move in that direction. Perhaps the same is true for the moral fabric of society…

  4. jenletherer says:

    I think it is. Look at other factors: Star Wars envisioned cell phones and other technology. Children who grew up with Star Wars now create and design technology. The dreams influenced the work that was to come.

    The same is true of fashion. Fantasy influences what becomes everyday. Why would it not hold true that the stories we read/hear/see would shape what was possible in our world, both morally and socially. I can’t remember who said it, but there is a quote that is something like “Be the future you want to see.”

  5. SP says:

    I have found a vintage movie I thorougly enjoyed. The movie is “Sabrina” filmed in 1954. I accidentally came across this film because I saw bits of the modern version on TV with Harrison Ford and when going to order it from Netflix found an older version. Aside from Humphrey Bogart being the “leading man”, the vintage version was captivating and entertaining. I now also have in my queue “Roman Holiday”. Is there a list of all the vintage movies that have been remade somewhere?

    • jenletherer says:

      That’s a great question–Probably the best way is to title search in Netflix. It’s problematic, because many films are re-makes of re-makes. The Bogey and Hepburn “Sabrina” is the movie version of a Broadway play called “Sabrina-Fair.”
      “A Star is Born” was first made in 1937, then again in 1954 with Judy Garland and James Mason (this is the version I recommend) and finally in 1976 with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson.

      There are also things like “Only the Lonely” with John Candy, Maureen O’Hara and Allie Sheedy which is a remake of “Marty” with Ernest Borgnine.

      Again, I don’t know if a concise list exists. One just need to keep searching. . .

      Enjoy “Roman Holiday,” it’s a great movie!

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