Each week (or thereabouts) The Film Experience, Goatdog's Movies and Nick's Flick Picks will be looking at two Best Picture winners. We're pulling Oscar's favorites from the shelves from both ends, starting with the very first year of Oscar (Wings) and the most recent (No Country For Old Men). We'll work our way eventually to the 1960s, smack dab in the middle of Oscar's 80 years of back-patting.
Wings (1927), the first film to ever win Best Picture, is an epic silent which tells the story of two young aviators from the same hometown, Jack Powell and David Armstrong (Charles "Buddy" Rogers and Richard Arlen), who fight the Germans and fight over women (sort of) in The Great War. No Country For Old Men (2007), more familiar to today's audiences, is the Coen Bros rendering of Cormac McCarthy's nihilistic spare novel about a death dealer drug kingpin Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), the man who stole his money Lewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) and the Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) who is trailing them both.
Nathaniel: These best picture twins that we'll be discussing --well, these pairings were never intended to be. We're warping the chronology. It might provoke conclusions that are indefensible in the natural timeline of cinematic history, but two things I noticed straightaway.
First, both films have no real room for women (despite the bubbly presence of the silent era's "It" girl Clara Bow in Wings) but it's probably not a secret to anyone that Oscar prefers "guy" movies; Second, Gary Cooper's cameo in Wings is really jarring. He was not yet a movie star but as Cadet White he offered proof that he would be. He felt so modern compared to the other players. For a split second I felt like he wandered in straight from chewing the fat with Sheriff Bell. You see, the novice soldier boys of Wings are patriotic and sentimental. They carry good luck charms and dream of wartime valor. Cadet White can't be bothered with lockets or teddy bears. Without sentiment or menace he tells the boys
Luck or no luck. When you're time comes, you're going to get it.It's not quite as bluntly poetic as No Country For Old Men's signature "You can't stop what's coming" but it'll do for a cold splash of reality.
Goatdog: It's odd: the first time I saw Wings, I was convinced that the chocolate bar Rogers picks up off Cooper's now-vacant bunk was a good luck charm of some sort. But no, it was just a chocolate bar. Cooper's modern style was indeed jarring (god he was pretty when he was that young), and he's a good snapshot of the tonal weirdness of Wings. There's the tension between sentimentalism like that saccharine (but lovely) deathbed scene and manly action like the great aerial combat footage. There's also a tension between a sort-of could-be antiwar statement (at least at the end) and the fact that the combat was so thrilling. And let's not forget the "I want to punch you" vs. "I want to kiss you" tension between the two handsome young leads. On second viewing, I'm not as sure Wellman was uncomfortable with the softer stuff as I used to be.
Watching Old Country for Buddy Wings again, I felt more of a strain between silly Coens and serious Coens. Toward the end, the peripheral characters seemed to stray too far into Silly Coen (Carla Jean's mom, the sheriff Ed Tom talks to after Llewellen dies), as if the writer / directors were losing control of things. I still like it quite a bit, but it doesn't hold together as well as it did the first time, when its plot twists and the novelty of Chigurh left me dazzled.
Nick: The Smart vs. Silly tension holds as another connecting thread here: Wings is often a very earnest picture, whether affectingly or mawkishly so, but throw in Herman Schwimpf's dancing flag tattoo and Clara Bow spazzing around in the Shooting Star [the name of Jack Powell's car... and later his plane, too -editor] , and it starts to seem like Wings wants to be a lot of things to a lot of people, AND that Oscar might have jazzed itself up about the movie for exactly this reason. Wings and No Country both offer remarkable technical proficiency, often distilled into really compressed and well-edited action/suspense sequences, but they make numerous small concessions to Entertaining us even as they reach for larger moral or philosophical messages (and I'd throw Woody Harrelson's and Garret Dillahunt's entire performances and some of TLJ and JB's line readings in as discordantly facetious elements in the Coens picture). Trying to cover all these bases weakens both movies for me, Wings much less so than No Country, but I'm curious how often we'll see this attempt at tonal diversity in our winners, even when the movie "seems" as distilled in tone as No Country does whenever it clocks into its favorite mood of brooding menace. Whereas it's clear over the years that you can win an acting Oscar for a single sequence, I doubt that's as true for Best Picture, and I wonder if it's categorically untrue - that the movie needs to hop around a bit to give lots of hooks to lots of audiences (and voters).
My favorite resonance between these two movies is that with all due respect to Skip Lievsay's stunning sound effects work on No Country, the movie plays as the closest thing to a silent film among Best Picture winners since Wings. My favorite stuff in No Country are graphic elements: the black blood on the sandy ground that leads Josh Brolin to the scene of the crime, the black streaks on the linoleum floor, the mar on the Mosses' trailer wall from the deadbolt that's been blown across the room, the tracks in the dust of that air-duct, that implacable dog swimming down the river. Sometimes the foley work in No Country even plays like very early sound film, like the gratuitous cut to that candy bar wrapper unfurling on the gas station attendant's counter, though that moment undeniably ups the tension in that scene. I love the simplicity and retro-ness of all of this, even though I still think No Country is sorely overrated, and plays too often like a self-consciously macho retread of the more surprising character and regional dynamics in Fargo.
But is Wings underrated? I enjoyed it even more this time than the first time I saw it. What did you guys think of the movie on the whole?
Nathaniel: I personally love it. Part of that is surely nostalgia. It was, I believe, the second silent film I ever saw (in the 1980s when I started getting truly curious about le cinema) and I managed to see it on the big screen which invariably helps to sell real motion picture experiences. But I also think it's moving. Not just for the oft-discussed homoeroticism or the beautiful death bed scene. I think the movie is dramatically effective even before Jack and Dave leave for war. There's the push and pull of opposite but wholly charismatic forces in Jack's adorable cheer and Dave's penetrating glower. And there's particularly resonance in the scenes in The Armstrong household. The dark costuming and the closeup of that pathetically tiny stuffed animal, the unbearable stiffness of Dave's parents. It's like death is hanging stubbornly over that household even while the movie is still in its glorifying war stage.
I'm not sure whether the mixed messages are always successful or intentional --I welcome the comic relief of the Paris jaunt but my god it goes on forever -- but I think the film is more challenging and less simplistic than its reputation suggests. Like a lot of Academy Award Winning Pictures, the burden of that "BEST" stamp can create an animosity that's disproportionate to a film's weaknesses.
Goatdog: It's funny, but I wasn't including Dillahunt or Harrellson in my "silly vs. serious," although it makes sense to include them. With Dillahunt, aside from his Barney Fife reaction to the bottle of milk, I thought he was a perfect character -- kind of silly, but also really competent (like his analysis of the shootout). And aside from the silliness involved with being Woody Harrelson, I thought his character fit the mostly serious with a slight dash of black humor feel of the film when it was working.
I'm 100% with you, Nathaniel, about the pre-war Wings segment, especially Dave's household. Notice how different the shot framing treats them than it did Jack's. I didn't really get that the first time around, so now I think you've nailed it. It's a much better film than a lot of people are willing to give it credit for. I think the whole "what's the real first Best Picture?" controversy hurts its reputation immensely--but just because Sunrise is one of the best films ever made doesn't mean Wings isn't also really good.
Nathaniel: That "controversy" has always felt forced to me. The Artistic Quality of Production prize (which went to Sunrise) was only ever awarded that first year and the Academy itself considers Wings the first winner. So where's the controversy? Wings it is. But, that said, on a rainy day I sometimes get curious how the movie history books would look if the Academy had kept trying to have two and keep differentiating between "Artistic Quality" and "Best", by which I think it's fair to assume they mean "Favorite". Maybe pop culture history was forever altered by their choice to try and select a shortlist of movies that would work as a compromise between those two competing ways of thinking about their product.
Nick: Well, then, we've got lots of stuff to test as trends in our many future pairings: Is Best Picture a no-fly zone for woman-centered movies, give or take Greer Garson and Margo Channing? How many movies will delve into the possibilities of male-male friendship and warmth, as Wings does, and how many will sequester their men into little existential isolation tanks, like No Country does? How often will "Best" Picture pull together the double helix of popularity and "artistic quality of production"? How many Best Pictures set out to be all things to all people, vs. those that attempt to stick within one genre and nail it? And from David Armstrong's fuzzy little bear to Llewellyn Moss' canine nemesis, what kind of menagerie, nice and naughty, do the Best Pictures yield?
For now, though, it's exciting to hear that all three of us agree on a three-gun salute to Wings, which really is gripping viewing - and I'll join the consensus, too, about that early scene Chez Armstrong, which looks like it's going to be a clichéd indictment of the rigid upper-crusters until the reveal on the bear suddenly changes the temperature of the room, and the film. (Something similar happens in the surprising trajectory of the boxing scene between the male leads.) And though I haven't expressed much enthusiasm for No Country for Old Men, I do think it's at least a solid selection. So what's the better, more opportunistic pun to conclude this first post and to celebrate the strong pairing we're lucky enough to start with? Our feature has lift-off, up up, and away! You can't stop what's coming!
You, Reader, You: "....[in the comments. You know what to do]..."
Wings was nominated for and won 2 Oscars (Best Picture and Best Effects)
No Country For Old Men was nominated for 8 and won 4 Oscars (Best Picture, Direction, Screenplay and Supporting Actor)
Episode 2 coming 6/25:
Broadway Melody (1928/29) & The Departed (2006)
Broadway Melody (1928/29) & The Departed (2006)