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Archive for June 25th, 2012

Chariot_Race_Ben-Hur

by Sam Juliano

Note:  This essay on the 1959 ‘Ben-Hur’ is Wonders in the Dark’s contribution to Richard R.D. Finch’s William Wyler blogothon, a venture that launched on Sunday, June 24th at ‘The Movie Projector.’

William Wyler’s Ben-Hur is one of those artistic properties that resists and defies criticism, even those among its detractors will argue till the end of time that is encompasses all that is wrong with epic movie making. The second film based on a potboiler novel released at the turn of the twentieth century by a Civil War commander named General Lew Wallace that sold a then-record 400,000 copies and inspired a stage play that ran for twenty years, Ben-Hur never tried to hide its philosophy that ‘big is better’ and it has more dramatic climaxes than any film in history. Yet what often gets lost in the translation is that it is the most intimate big-budget epic spectacular in movie history, and one that impressed critics as much as audiences upon it’s 1959 release. Naming the film the year’s best the prestigious New York Film Critics Circle, normally committed to smaller and independent films, displayed rare agreement with the Oscars, who honored the film with a record-breaking total of eleven Academy Awards, a feat that has since been equaled twice. With critics and award givers on board, it is little wonder that the film has retained audience popularity for nearly six decades, and in a career of cinematic milestones of every capacity it makes a strong case as the crowning achievement in William Wyler’s storied career.

Such prohibitive success will of course doom any film with the elitist movie intelligentsia, who often equate wide popularity with pedestrian artistry, and are naturally predisposed against the movie epic as a form lacking artistic discipline, and one prone to excesses of every kind.  These observers might also make claim that Wyler forfeited his particular style and personal trademark by holding the reigns on a film by it’s very substance plays to audience emotion and religious fervor in a big way.  The great Italian opera composer Giacomo Puccini was savaged by the critics of his day for wearing his emotions on his sleeves and for pandering to his audience’s insatiable appetite for unadulterated melody and uncomplicated story lines. There are a number of critics today who have steadfastly stood by that unflattering estimation. Yet audiences then and now have shouted down the criticism and have unfailingly filled opera houses year in and year out with the composer’s beloved works, much in the same way that Ben-Hur has ravished audiences for 53 years, by way of theatre revivals, holiday broadcasts on television and the endless releases on video formats since Beta and VHS made their mark in the early 80’s.  The one element or factor that can be found in both the operas of Puccini and William Wyler’s epic is naked emotion. When audiences are moved to this kind of  life-affirming depth, attempts at summary criticism can rightfully be seen as “beside-the-point” in view of the work’s astonishing power to move and enthrall.  Worldwide fans of the film have attested to seeing the film hundreds of times through the years, despite it’s exorbitant length, and have identified it’s famed set pieces as among the most spectacular ever filmed. (more…)

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Legendary critic Andrew Sarris (1928-2012)

by Sam Juliano

Famed auteur critic Andrew Sarris passed away at age 83 during this past week, and movie fans have lost one of the greatest and most intelligent film adherents.  Sarris is one of the last from the generation that first greeted foreign cinema on these shores, and many of his reviews (like the masterpiece he wrote on Bergman’s The Seventh Seal) are models in deft interpretation and thematic assessment.  Of his generation depleted by the passings of Pauline Kael, Dwight MacDonald, James Agee, Vincent Canby and a few others, only Stanley Kauffmann (age 96) and John Simon are still living.  I once got the opportunity to speak to Sarris back in 1998, when he appeared at the Lincoln center Barnes & Noble to sign his new volume on criticism and to moderate a discussion on contemporary cinema.  I asked why the science-fiction film Gattaca seemed to be lost in the shuffle, and he went off on a tangent as to why he loved teh film so much and complimented me on my similar taste,  Indeed, as a close friend reminded me a few days ago, there was no other critic who I agreed with as much as I did with Sarris.  My annual ‘ten-best’ list shown remarkable similarity in choices, and I well remember back in 1987 when Sarris called Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun the best films of the year, and a few years later one of the best of the decade.  It was a position I fully endorsed.  But there are so many more instances, much too numerous to document here.  Sarris was an original, who forged his own path, and wasn’t afraid to engage in contentious dialogue, particular the combative Kael, with whom he engaged in some of the most hearted critic wars on record.  Sarris, who was married to fellow film critic Molly Haskell up until his death from complications of a  fall, was in his element with the French New Wave directors, Bergman, Antonioni and Ophuls.  He’s on record as proclaiming the latter’s Lola Montes as the greatest film ever made.  His most celebrated published volume is The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929-1968, a work in which he asserted that there were 14 essential “American” directors who stood above all others, and this included Europeans who director a number of films stateside: Flaherty, Ford, Griffith, Hawks, Keaton, Welles, Lang, Lubitsch, Murnau, Ophuls, Von Sternberg, Chaplin, Hitchcock and Renoir.  At that time he downplayed the significance and artistry of Lean, Kubrick and Wilder, but later recanted on the latter, elevating him to the top rank with the others.  Sarris had the highest respect for Bergman, Antonioni and the French New Wave, all of whom commanded a good deal of his focus through the years.  Sarris, who is said to have greatly influenced fellow critics Hoberman, Turan, A.O. Scott and Armand White, was in turn influenced himself by the Cahiers du Cinema.  He wtote for many years, including stints for the New York Bulletin, the Village Voice and The New York Observer, and was a Professor of Film at Columbia University. (more…)

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