Wednesday, June 18, 2008

No Country For "It" Girls

Welcome readers to the first edition of the travelling circus known as Best Pictures From The Outside In.

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)



RJ said...

I cannot wait to see what possible connections can be made between The Departed and (ick) Broadway Melody. :)

Love this series already.

Anonymous said...

Hm.. I wonder what the unknown-till-now relationship will be between Cimarron and Million Dollar Baby. Did Cimarron also star the devil? Who was the '30s era Swank anyway?

Great post you guys! I look forward to the rest of the series!

Anonymous said...

Interesting...I did not even know that there was a 'second category' for artistic merit that first year. Obviously, following these discussions will be good for me. And also didn't know the "we wuz robbed" controversy dates from the very first Best Picture winner. That might be another audience participation question you might try, Nathaniel (if you haven't already) - which of the many criminal miscarriges of Best Picture voting justice was the most egregious? Who knows, maybe something besides "Crash" vs. "Brokeback Mountain" might even top the list.

RJ said...

I wonder if stairs cure racism in All Quiet on the Western Front

Brian Darr said...

Love this series already. Great discovery of the rhyme of "Luck or no luck. When you're time comes, you're going to get it." with "You can't stop what's coming."

If No Country For Old Men and Wings share a male-centric point of view, I wonder what my two favorite nominees that DIDN'T win the category in those years share: There Will Be Blood and Seventh Heaven. Well, first thing that comes to mind is that both films are something of a battleground between godly faith and godlessness. Also both share something of a more "poetic" visual approach, at least at times.

Thanks for the delightful read, all three of you.

Dame James said...

I find Wings to be a solid enough film- and Clara Bow never looked better- but if I had to choose a silent WWI epic, I'd have to go with King Vidor's 1925 The Big Parade. Not only does it boast John Gilbert's breakthrough (and possibly best) performance, but both the romance and war sections are equally affecting.


rural i can't imagine we'll be this focused on twinning when we get to pairs that are totally incongruous like that ;)

but it was hard to avoid this time.

brian interesting. I love Seventh Heaven too but i never would've paired it with There Will... but those silents sure are earnest in comparison to anything now.

djh i've never seen The Big Parade. So i'm glad to have the recommendation. Part of the point of this series is to get me (and others) to see things that i need just a slight push to see.

Marshall said...

Is Gary Cooper the best looking movie star in history?

Michael Parsons said...

Wings is going on my list now. I rarely delve into the black and white era.

This will be interesting, just for the fact you will have to relive black Sunday all over again. Going through the list of winner I realise you really have some drek to sit though. My thoughts are with you all, and your families.


hmmm, isn't that, um, paul newman, monty clift, warren beatty, natalie wood or liz taylor?

there are so many. the beautiful people. the beautiful people.

i also want to say that I feel like i didn't properly defend NO COUNTRY from Nick's vicious attacks (just kidding --he's always so convincing even when I disagree... even though i don't totally disagree. I just think the off-tone stuff makes the movie better most of the time. Though I do agree that the grandmother is too comedy sketchy... i don't doubt her commitment to sparkle motion at all. but i do doubt her commitment to this movie) because I was so into talking about WINGS.

Catherine said...

Loving this new feature and those neat gifs. I actually haven't seen Wings but I hope to seek it out soon.

Cengiz said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ctrout said...

I watched all of the Best Picture winners a few years ago (maybe 2000 or 2001). I have to say that Wings is still one of the best ones and it's in my Top 20 all time favorite films. I watched it again last summer and that viewing assured me that my taste hadn't changed with the passage of a few years. I'm so glad to see that other Oscar movie lovers found it to be great as well.

Here's how my rankings showed up in 1927-28 and 2007:

1927-28 (all nominees are good)
1. Wings
2. The Last Command (I know some say it wasn't up, but I'm a child of Inside Oscar, so I'll include it anyway.)
3. The Racket
4. Seventh Heaven
5. The Way of All Flesh (Haven't seen, but who has?)

2007 (all nominees are also good and that's the first time for me since 1986)
1. Juno
2. No Country For Old Men
3. Atonement
4. There Will Be Blood
5. Michael Clayton

The Jaded Armchair Reviewer said...

I wonder how the discussion will go once we hit Terms of Endearment.


sean... i hope you saw my rundown. you'll also see that 2007 is my first "all good" year in ages.

js what brings ur mind to ToE. that's so far from now. Like 24 weeks.

Anonymous said...

Great post. I loved Wings too when I saw it about 5 years ago, a bad copy on video. I was also amazed by the homoerotic ending.

I almost couldn't believe I liked Wings so much, I always thought it had a bad reputation. Watched it again a year or two ago and still liked it. Great to read of so many others who feel the same. A decent DVD release would be nice...

Glenn Dunks said...

I'd love to see Wings, but as far as I know it's unavailable down here.

Nat, if one of the best pictures is also one of your "personal canon" (and we know there's some correlation) will these pieces act as entries in that feature as well? Two birds / one stone.

Anyway, loving this feature. Can't wait for more.


wings was actually part of the personal canon on the first draft. but i've been restructuring. the short answer is: i don't know ;)

jahs34 said...

You are gonna see Crash again? don't do this to yourself.

Janice said...

I think I get where JS is coming from Nat (excuse my JS for being presumptuous - If I'm wrong, correct me.) When I read this great conversation, and especially this line //but it's probably not a secret to anyone that Oscar prefers "guy" movies// I thought afterwards of the backlash against Shakespeare in Love that rose up immediately (after the film and the Weinsteins/Miramax) when it won the BP Oscar instead of Saving Private Ryan, and that seemed related somehow - that a "girly" pic was given the prize instead of the "man's man" pic (and I am sidestepping quality for the moment. Maybe it was a mistake on the order of BM/Crash, I don't know, I admit I enjoyed SIL greatly - I saw it because I heard so many people in Asheville, NC where I lived at the time, raving about it - but never saw SPR.)

But that's a discussion for that particular year. Actually, that could be a whole series in itself - the film that won vs the film we think should have won. I bet it's going to be difficult when you watch Crash again because you'll be thinking of BM the entire time. (Actually, I was thinking "this is a Magnolia ripoff" the entire time - so where is PT Anderson's Oscar?)

Getting back to the gender issue, this year the Academy seems to have gone out of their way to avoid anything "womanly" in BP (Juno being the exception, and it's telling it's about a pregnant teenager and abortion never enters the discussion) - and I think that there are probably shifting demographics of AMPAS voters that might be responsible for that (as older voters die off).

Anyway, great conversation (although I admit I would have loved to have at least one female blogger included, like Kim Morgan for instance); and I have to confess that I've seen neither film, so this and the reader comments have given me plenty of titles to add to my list already.


believe me when I tell you that I'd love to have Kim Morgan in more conversations ;) but alas, not many people are as Oscar devoted/crazed/insane as nick, goatdog and moi (we came up with the series together)...and willing to watch 80 BP movies in a row! Yikes.

ctrout said...

Nat, I have seen your rundown and I'll post my 1928-29 and 2006 rankings wen you do The Broadway Melody/The Departed next week. Thanks for doing this really cool project. I can't wait to see what you think of other obscure favorites of mine like Cimarron and Around the World in 80 Days.

Anonymous said...

Women! There are women next week! At least two of them! And they have lots of lines. Of course, this will probably turn out to be a blip on the Oscar radar. Although, despite how easy it is to formulate rules about what Oscar likes and what Oscar dislikes, there are always so many exceptions. Oscar is a shifty character.

DJH: I have The Big Parade, and I keep meaning to do it for my Silent Sundays, but I always end up in a rush and watching something short. Hopefully, I'll see it soon.

Brian Darr said...

I would never have thought to pair Seventh Heaven and There Will be Blood either, but for me it became a quasi-logical extension of your surprisingly fruitful pairing of Wings with No Country For Old Men.

On a related note, I just read that the first-ever silent era film on Blu-Ray is an oil documentary placed on the There Will Be Blood Blu-Ray release.


i love it when DVDs have actually interesting / non self-congratulatory extras like that.

I wish i had a blu-ray player. But i'm not really ready to give up DVDs.

Chris Na Taraja said...

This is Hysterical! Are you going forwards and backwards in order, or are likely to see things like..

Amadeus and Braveheart

Gone with the Wind and Rocky

Titanic and All about Eve

Oliver and Silence of the Lambs

NicksFlickPicks said...

So glad to hear people are enjoying the discussion, and the future prospects. Chris, in answer to your question, we'll be sticking to our two-track chronology, so the pairings are already set in stone. (That Gentleman's Agreement/Rain Man week is not one I'm looking forward to...)

Classicfilmboy said...

Love the concept and execution. Admittedly, I like Wings but don't love it. I agree with the person who recommended The Big Parade -- a much better World War I silent movie and not quite as mawkish as Wings can be. In terms of 1927-28, it was a great "year" for movies, with Sunrise, Seventh Heaven, The Circus and The Crowd. I suggest watching The Last Command, which I saw last summer and would appeal to us movielovers, as it concerns a fallen Russian leader who ends up as a movie extra.

As for the Artisitc Quality of Production, if that category still existed, I'd like to know what film from 2007 Nat, Nick and Goatdog would have selected to win in this category.


I don't think Nick has announced his 2007 top ten yet... but I know Goatdog chose ONCE as best of 2007 and i chose THERE WILL BE BLOOD for my top prize.

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