Confused By The Classics

I don’t watch a lot of “classic” movies, in part because I don’t *own* a lot of classic movies, and if I don’t own it, I don’t watch it. However there is another reason, and that is, I don’t usually like them.

Actually, that may be overstating a bit. I generally find them to be just fine. But therein lies the problem: “just fine” is not “classic”. Now I am by no means a film buff. I love movies, but I never studied filmmaking, particularly the history of. So while I can appreciate a well-made film, and I can admire groundbreaking films, if I don’t have its groundbreaking-ness pointed out to me, I tend not to get all hot-and-bothered by something that was once “ahead of its time”. For instance, I remember really liking Citizen Kane when I first saw it, but not until I recently re-watched it – this time with the special Roger Ebert running commentary – did I really *appreciate* it.

For years I had avoided checking out what are generally considered two of the all-time great comedies – The Producers and Dr. Strangelove. When I finally did get around to seeing them… I didn’t really laugh much. I’m not exactly sure *why* I didn’t find them all that funny, I just know that I didn’t. It seemed like there were really long gaps between jokes. Now it’s highly possible there were jokes there that are now somewhat dated, and as result I just missed them. It’s also possible that back in the day, that’s the way comedy was made. I remember once reading that we have the Zucker Brothers, and more specifically the Airplane movies, to blame for the current trend of machinegun tomfoolery. That is, the art(?) of cramming as many jokes as possible into a film, and indeed, into a single shot. Whatever the reason, I’ve always found myself wanting more whenever I’ve sat down with a film that is generally considered a “classic”, which brings us to today’s lesson.

I’d recently borrowed a copy of the “Alfred Hitchcock Masterpiece” (is that the same thing as a “classic”? Can I get a judge’s ruling on this?) Vertigo from The Pusher. By recently I mean, within the last couple of months. I’ve essentially sat on it waiting for the proper time to view it. I wanted to be in the right frame of mind as to give it it’s just do. This past Saturday, hunkered down in bed on a cold, snowy night with the wind howling outside my window, seemed like the right time. So I watched it.

Meh.

I liked it well enough. The story was interesting, and there was certainly some nice cinematography going on, but in truth I had a little bit of a struggle staying awake through parts, and at points during the third act, I found myself wishing they’d just get to the point and end it. And then they did, and I went, “hunh?”.

Now I must confess, I’ve never been a huge Jimmy Stewart fan. I got nothing against the man, but by the time I discovered him as an actor, I had already been exposed to a bazillion bad Jimmy Stewart impressions, so when I finally did see the actual guy, he came off as a parody of himself. Not his fault, to be sure. It’s the same reason I could never see Richard Nixon as anything more than a complete and utter cartoon, despite the fact that he was a legit politician for a long stretch during an important part of our nation’s history. Anyway, watching Stewart now, is somewhat difficult. But I tried to give him an open mind, and for the most part, his performance didn’t distract too much. (I found his “faint” off of the stepladder to be totally hokey however. He looked like he was some teenybopper from the 50’s swooning over Elvis. Somehow I don’t think that’s what he was going for.)

His character though? Yeesh. What a creepy motherhumper. And yet, he was the *hero* of the story? Not sure I follow that one. Here’s a guy who openly ignores (and for that matter, uses) this little cutey Midge, who I think even *I* would have a hard time failing to recognize had a thing for me. He gets asked a favor by and old college chum and *immediately* proceeds to lust after the dude’s wife, acting on said lust the moment the opportunity presents itself. Then, after the woman DIES… he hooks up with some other lady who looks like the dead one, and proceeds to bully her into dressing and acting just like deceased. Oh yeah, and inadvertently causes her to fall to *her* death because he’s so whacked out with the idea of re-enacting the first one’s death. Nice guy. I won’t even get into the fact that Kim Novak was ten times more smokin’ hot as a redhead than the albino blonde he forced her to become.

I suppose that was the appeal of Hitchcock. He didn’t necessarily make films with typical heroes. I also suppose its why you cast somebody like Stewart, because he’s automatically likeable, so that by the time you realize you’re watching some nutcase in action, it’s too late to completely hate the man. But I dunno… where’s the appeal? Why do I want to watch something like this?

Two other problems I had with the film. One, I absolutely can’t stand it when in films people start claiming they love each other after a couple of meaningless moments together. Stewart’s character stalks the wife for a couple of weeks. Then he pulls her out of the San Francisco Bay, takes her back to his place (where he apparently strips her down and puts her in bed, a fact she doesn’t seem too bothered by the next day), they have ONE static and awkward conversation over coffee, and the next thing we know they’re taking a long drive out to the Redwood forest and they’re all over each other like Douglas and Close in Fatal Attraction.

“I love you!”

“I love you too!”

Umm, based on WHAT, pray tell? To this point, she’s proven herself to be borderline psychotic, talking about someone living inside her head, that is, in the moments between ice ages when she allows herself to show any form of personality. On the flip side, he’s been STALKING HER, and making really feeble attempts to feel her up. “Here let me get you another cop of coffee, and while I do so, let me reach rather clumsily for your cup and run my hand down the length of your arm.” Oooh, watch the sparks FLY.

I like a good love story. But I want to at least be shown the moments when the love was actually born. It happens in Hollywood all the time; a couple of chance and not-too-exciting meetings leave two people to profess profound love for each other. Initial attraction is one thing, but can we hold off on calling it love until we get some substantial evidence?

The other thing about Vertigo that seriously cheesed me off was the fact that they never really explained at what point the “wife” became “the imposter”. Was Stewart’s character stalking the real wife the whole time, only to have her replaced by the look-a-like on the day of the trip out to the Spanish Mission where she fell to her (faked) death? Or was the look-a-like in place from the beginning, and the whole thing was a ruse by the husband so he could dispose of his wife, in which case, Stewart was really in love with the look-a-like, not the wife, which in turn makes the closing act even MORE fucked up. Why did the husband want to kill the wife? Again, if she was the one through most of the film, are we to understand she was really that screwed in the head, thinking she was possessed? Which again, makes Stewart a fruitcake for ever falling for her. Or did the husband fabricate the whole thing and insert the look-a-like at the beginning, which re-begs the question, why did the husband want the wife dead? Gah, my head is spinning!

Is it too much to ask for a little clarity?

Once again, I’m sure if I were to sit down with a bunch of film scholars, they could provide me with the answers to many of my questions. But isn’t that an inherent flaw of a film if you need a panel of experts just to explain it? Like I said before, I *liked* Citizen Kane when I first watched it. I got it. I followed it. Having it’s film-making brilliance explained to me certainly enhanced it, but it was fine before that. I’m just not sure, when it comes to something like Vertigo, that I’m willing to label something a “classic” when I can’t even follow it’s basic premise the first time through.

Perhaps I should just stick to watching Airplane and leave the “real films” to those more enlightened.

(Fun fact: According to Microsoft Word, while “teenybopper” is in fact a recognized word, it does require two P’s. And knowing is half the battle.)

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