Friday, May 29, 2015

BY POPULAR DEMAND: THE TOP TEN FILMS ABOUT HISTORY!

Well, when I decided to poll some of my most loyal of readers last month, in a desperate attempt to post something that week, asking them to come up with a Top Ten List that they hadn't seen done before or done often, which ended up being my post on the Top Ten Worst Plot Twists, people seem to enjoy that. I do have a tendency to bash our obsessive list culture, especially in the entertainment circles, but I too am list-obsessed but I generally try to repress it, but I am interested in finding new and different approaches to the ideas of creating lists. I still don't want to do the ones that have been done a zillion times before, and since, I am in need of a certain amount of good will towards you, the readers, I decided that, if we keep coming up with some new approaches, then, perhaps it's not such a horrible idea that I go along and be a little more participatory in this list culture of the entertainment world.

So, we're doing it again. Yesterday I posted on the blog's FB page as well as in Cinema Discussion's FB group, (I swear, I'll post in more groups next time) and asked them once again to come with Top Ten Lists that they would like to see, but they simply haven't yet, or have rarely seen. I recognize this is tricky, 'cause we're so list-obsessed that basically there's lists for everything nowadays, (Watchmojo, I'm looking at you) but still, they were able to find some interesting choices, I took the most interesting suggestions and put up a poll asking them which Top Ten List, they'd like to see done, either by me, or in general. I do this, partly 'cause I don't really think it's that good of an idea that I come up with a list topic on my own and then just thrust it onto people. That makes it my more "My List", and I frankly, well, some of you know my stances on this, but I'm not big on my personal preferences being more of a determinate factor than the quality of the work, so I want to eliminate that as much as possible, and the best way to do that, is to take it out of my hands as much as possible, So I like how I don't 100% decide, what I do these Top Ten's on. (What, you think I wanted to do "Worst Plot Twists"?)

Well, enough stalling. It's about time I close the poll and look at the results, so let's see what won, (Scrolls down Cinema Discussions for a few minutes) here we go, and the winner is.... really? Top Ten Films About History? History- wow it won convincingly too. Really, you want history? Huh. I mean, I like history, but I'm weird, I mean, alright. I'll do it, just a little surprised by that one winning. Okay, Top Ten Films About History.

Wait a minute, "About" history. Well, that does, sort-a, narrow it down quite a bit. There really aren't that many movies that are "About" history. The typical combination od film and history, usually means simply, the period piece, or especially the historical epic. Most of those, it's kinda almost laughable to call historical, or at least historically accurate, but besides that, they're really more the setting(s) to tell the story with, instead of the history being the actual story. "The Ten Commandments" for instance, isn't about history, or even The Old Testament. It's about Moses. Or how "Schindler's List" isn't about the Holocaust, it's about Oskar Schindler and how he saved over a 1,000 Jews. The Holocaust is the murder of 6 million Jews, you see the difference? Actually, it's really bizarre to create a movie or any kind of fictional literature that's exclusively or even predominantly about history. (Hell, some could say that much history literature that we have is pretty much fiction, stories rewritten from the winner's perspective. Yeah, I'm a Howard Zinn guy) History is also usually an overall perspective while really telling a story is more, usually if done well, a personal journey. We're following the arcs of one or many characters as they experience and live through or go through these amazing events,- (Huh. Wow, I never realized how much "Forrest Gump" has in common with Homer's "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey" before) It's almost the exact opposite oddly enough, to create work that's about "history", where we'd take out the personal narratives and the narrative instead becomes about the events themselves. Of course, most of the time, if we're watching a film about a past event, then, essentially, we're watching it from a point of view that it's happening in the present, 'cause we're experiencing it. So does that just mean movies that are about history just place events in a historical context? Well, hell, that's just flashbacks; that's not history either.

History by the way,- I looked for a better definition, but this is probably the closest I can find to one I like,  is "A continuous, systematic narrative, of past events, relating to a particular people, country, period, person, etc. usually written as a chronological account". Hmm, I would change "country" to "land", that might be more accurate, but that's the thing, history does relate to us. Events of the past effect us, in many ways that often we aren't even aware of. Sometimes it's the recent past, sometimes it's even older than we are. Actually, this is a lot of what literature is, the ways the past effects us in the present, how the past is still omnipresent in our everyday lives. If I don't make a Chekhov reference here, I'll get in trouble, so think Chekhov, how everything seems to be exposition about the events in the past and how it affects the current stasis. That's about 3/4ths of every one of his plays, pretty much. He's probably the most famous author who writes about history in this sense.

So, when they say movies that are about history, essentially are we asking, "Films that are about the past"? Eh.... Well, whatever the standards are, I'll do the best I can. I'm only gonna try to figure out the best films about history, only from the films I've seen, so if I'm missing something obvious, ask, it's possible that I probably just haven't gotten around to it yet. Also, I'm not gonna take the easy way out here, for this Top Ten List, I'm gonna disqualify traditional documentaries. I know, I really would like to talk about "How to Survive a Plague", but that's too easy. I could just insert every Ken Burns project into the list and call it a list of history films, so not doing that. Alright, let's get to it, here's the Top Ten Films that are "About" History.

TOP TEN FILMS ABOUT HISTORY

10. THE NEW WORLD (2005)



Coming up with these ten was incredibly difficult I must say, trying to really narrow down movies that were genuinely about history in as many essences of the word as possible, was very difficult. There's a few other movies I considered here, and I guess I could've put "The Tree of Life" up here if I wanted a Malick, but that movie as great as it is, is really more spiritual than historical, even though it does document the history of the universe. No, Malick's best film about history is actually "The New World". I tried putting a few other titles here, but this is the one that really ended up sticking at the end. Yeah, it's basically a historical period piece, a more realistic retelling of the story of Pocahontas, played by Q'Orianka Kilcher, but if the movie was just that it probably wouldn't make my list. It takes place in the 1600s in America, and the movie begins with the settlers struggling to build a settlement and trying intriguingly enough, to not bother with "The Naturals" as they called the Native Americans at the time. We don't even realize the story we're in actually until, the scene where Pocahontas saves John Smith, played by Colin Farrell. It's through this action that the two tribes of people begin to make their first exchanges or traditions and ways and also get into the first of what we know will be many battles. This is a strange film, in that most of the history, actually comes later in the timeline, and we're aware of it. What it's doing is trying to capture the most likely scenarios of how that came about. No stereotypes or blood or goldthirsty villains, people who have heard of a new world and for some reason, have to chosen to abandon their old life and start a new one here. Pocahontas also gets to go throw the experience of course, of going over to England and seeing a place that nobody else of her time got to see or experience after being sent out of the tribe, adopting the name Rebecca and marrying John Rolfe (Christian Bale). It's a movie about experiencing these new worlds, two people, the British settlers and then Pocahontas, leaving their own lives and histories and experiencing and seeing a completely different culture's one and the struggles and the joys of having to embrace it. we know how eventually these will turn out, so it's actually intriguing to see this, as they might have at the time. Ironically this is the only movie that makes what I would consider a real attempt and a successful one at that, at trying to recreate a piece of history. Malick picked the right one too, this is really the beginnings of American civilization which, basically was the, probably the move earth-changing moment in the last millennium.


9. McCABE & MRS. MILLER (1971)



I ended up with two westerns that made this list, both of them are essentially about the same thing, but they go about it in different ways. This film, from the great director Robert Altman, is a realistic approach to the formation of the west, in this case, interestingly the Pacific Northwest. This is the coldest western I've ever seen. Warren Beatty is John McCabe, a local card shark traveler, who's known for having killed Bill Roundtree, who half the people have never heard of, and even those that did, they only know of him because he was killed. That's one of the running jokes in the film about how the mythos and legends of the American west, the outlaw culture of the frontier, is really, much more frontier and a lot less outlaw. Actually, it's more a history of how business came to the West, even the outlaw is a hired gun for Wells Fargo, and the title, "McCabe & Mrs. Miller", with the ampersand, represents a business relationship, as Mrs. Miller, played by Julie Christie, is a madam who offers to bring her stable of women to work at a brothel in the new town that they're building, which is mainly a town that mostly contains just men at the moment. (Talk about smart businesswoman) Both McCabe and Mrs. Miller are business people, and the reason I'm choosing this movie, other than the fact that it's about the building of the west and of the town, so geography aspect of history, but this is the movie that I chose to represent the business history of the world. The economic history, the transition from the Wild West of lawmen and outlaw to the beginning of major companies seeing it as a financial opportunity. Shown here on a small scale of a town, but on a larger scale as well in big business, and how negotiations with them can be just as dangerous and life-threatening as challenging the best dueler in town.


8. MY FAMILY/MI FAMILIA (1995)



There's quite a few films that deal with family histories, often searching for them, sometimes documenting them, I thought of a few and had trouble picking one, for one reason or another. "Incendies" came to mind, as well "Antonia's Line", there's others as well. This spot technically represents all the good movies about this that didn't make the list, but the one that probably dived into this aspect the best, that also dealt with the changing times and the crossing land aspects of history is "My Family", also known as "Mi Familia" from director Gregory Nava. As told through Paco, played as an adult by Edward James Olmos, the writer in the family, he documents the history of three generations of his Mexican family, as they immigrated from Mexico to California, and would eventually settle in Los Angeles. There's a lot of these historical family epics as well, I can see something like "Giant" here as well, or "Doctor Zhivago" or "Reds" even, but I argue this one is the film with the more rewarding journey, from Jennifer Lopez nearly drowning with her infant son trying to cross a then treacherous river alone, to the comic relief of Paco's nun sister who comes back with a husband one day out of the blue...-; there's an unpredictability that I enjoy. The grandfather's brother, El Californio, is named after the territory, not the state, the territory, he was there before there was a border to cross, and get to modern time where it's almost a shame, to mention how he's buried in the backyard of the house he built for his family, it's moving and sad. There's some cliche moment, like one of the sons becoming a victim of gang violence, but if anything really documents the changes of people in history, it's in the immigration movements around the world, and this movie documents the full experience better than most, it's amazing how much they actually get in. For a movie with so many interesting and great characters, you feel like you know them all at the end and you've gone through multiple rollercoasters of emotions following their fights and trevails. So for the immigrant experience, for the family history, for the historical sweeping family epic, for the documenting of these stories, I think that's enough to make "My Family/Mi Familia" be the one that represents these genres.


7. VANYA ON 42ND STREET (1994)



Alright, remember what I said about disqualifying traditional documentaries? Well,... Like, I also said, Chekhov, when dealing with history, in terms of a having that be the focus of the piece of literature, it's hard to not have a Chekhov piece on here. What ended up being Louis Malle's last film, "Vanya on 42nd Street" is partially a documentary, but it's a performance documentary. Andre Gregory, who you might remember most as, himself in Malle's best film, "My Dinner with Andre," for years, directed and held quiet performances for friends and family of "Uncle Vanya", performed by an amazing troupe of New York stage and screen actors that included the likes of Julianne Moore, Larry Pine, Wallace Shawn of course in the title role, et al., and they would do "...Vanya," as adapted by David Mamet actually. It's "Uncle Vanya", it's the best filmed version of it, even if it, a documentary of a performance of it, the barest of performances at that. It's hard not to put a Chekhov on here, and considering how much and how critical all the exposition in his work is, and how everything is about the past....

From here on it, I think I'm pretty confident in my choices. Up 'til now, I'll confess, it's tough to do this list, much harder to narrow down what is history and what films are specifically about it and why.


6. INTOLERANCE (1916)



I guess I'm stretching a bit with this one. I'm actually not even a particularly big fan of "Intolerance" as a film, I tend to consider "Broken Blossoms..." to be D.W. Griffith's masterpiece, but it's this film that inspired most of the multi-narrative films that came after. Those movies that seem to connect through time, space, locations even that I didn't think we're really about history more than the ways the threads connected to each other. D.W. Griffith actually made this film as an apology for "Birth of a Nation", and it four different stories, told at different time period, connected through the way they show intolerance as practiced through the ages. And, I guess through the guise of cinema. I'll admit, some of the narratives a little bit iffy on whether they actually deal with intolerance or not, but I can overlook that. the movie is about themes and the common practices of humanity throughout the ages. Our prejudices getting ahold of our better angels and deluding our judgments. It's almost Griffith, conceded that while "Birth..." would inevitably have to be looked at through the gaze of time, that we should also consider it and ourselves throughout history too. It's subtitled, "Love's Struggle Through the Ages", with love being the thing that gets in the way of intolerance, and that idea dates back even further than Shakespeare, so you could say it's overall theme is about love, but the most distinctive aspects about the movie are infamous sets that were the biggest and most expensive of their time. One of the largest ones, they couldn't even afford to take down for decades, as the movie had flopped most everywhere and only became more well-regarded in time. It's the distinctive looks of the eras of history that's the real appeal of the film, so I argue that it's the history aspect that's more relevant. If he to just show intolerance through love, he could've made "Romeo & Juliet" or something else. So, I'm calling it a film about history.


5. THE GODFATHER PART II (1974)



Actually, this is not technically the highest-ranked sequel on this list, although you'd think there'd be more. Sequels have a natural history to reference already. I'll get to the other one in a minute, but I'm sure most people would've put this film on their list, not just because of the first "The Godfather" film, which also had a large aspect of the past looming in it, but that's not made as clear until this second one. Now, I'm not one of those who thinks it's a superior film to "The Godfather", but in terms of history, first it has the history of immigration in this country, as we follow Don Corleone from his youth in Italy to Ellis Island and inevitably, as portrayed by Robert De Niro, building his way up in the beginning of the crime world. Then there's the history of the past movie, that does filter in, to the present day material, in more ways than one, not simply in how you "never go against the family", poor Fredo, (John Cazale) but also in how Michael's actions in the previous film, eventually led to the actions in this one. Even going half-way across the country, he can't hide from his actions, or of course, the person he's become, which we see in the movies great final flashback sequence, him remembering just how much and how small he had once been in the family structure. If "The Godfather" is about how Michael became "The Godfather", than "...Part II", is about him, and looking back at how exactly he ended up in this position. More regret I'd say, which is a common theme when talking about personal history.


4. MANON OF THE SPRING (aka MANON DES SOURCES) (1987)



Okay, "sequel" is a bit misleading- it's not really a sequel so much as the second part of a story that begins with a film called "Jean de Florette". Both films were made at the same time, one after another by the great French director Claude Berri and are usually paired together when you see them, it often came like that when it was released on VHS even. Both films are already in my Canon of Film, so I've discussed them before, and while "Manon of the Spring" is the better movie, you do need to see the first film to completely understand the actions and complications of this second film. Manon (Emmanuelle Beart) was a child of Jean de Florette, an outsider and a hunchback who inherited a piece of land on it that was prized by Cesar Soubreyan (Yves Montrand) and his son Ugolin (Daniel Autreil), they're farmers and they want to use the land to start planting flowers. There's a spring on the land, but they close it up in the first film, unbeknownst to Jean, who inevitably loses his life trying to get the land to farm, trying everything he can to coax water onto the land. "Manon..." takes place years later after Cesar and Ugolin have bought the land and now have started to successfully grow flowers on it. Manon is now a young adult and Ugolin wants to marry her, but Manon eventually stumbles across the source of the mysterious spring, and clogs it up, not only drowning Cesar of water, but of the entire town as well in revenge, not only for their actions in costing her father a fortune and inevitably his life, but also the entire town suffers, for basically watching it happen and nobody stopping it from happening or stopping them. I'm not gonna lie, this movie feels like it's history, it's a slow-paced movie, but it's also a long, long play for a father so greedy that he's willing to wait out for years until he can possess the land. Plot-wise this movie actually has more in common with modern day business films like "Margin Call" or "The Wolf of Wall Street" when you really think about the business practice side of it, but it's in her revenge, for these past sins and actions, (Especially when, there's a particularly Greek twist that comes at the end of this story,although if you know your hunchback symbolism you might be able to guess it)  that adds more history to this and puts it into another light. 'Jean de Florette" is about the actions, but "Manon..." is about the result of those past actions, not only for the perpetrators but for those who did nothing but let it happen and that's why I'm only putting "Manon..." on here, and you can watch "Manon..." on it's own, but it doesn't have the power without first seeing "Jean...".


3. ONCE WERE WARRIORS (1995)



Kudos first of all, if you've even seen or heard of this film, and you don't or have never lived in the southern hemisphere. It's in my Canon of Film,  so I've talked about it, but I haven't discussed the history aspect of the film. It's a New Zealand film, often considered the best the country has ever produced (And I agree) and it takes place in modern day about a lower class Maori family that's struggling financially and everything, although it's mainly about domestic violence. Brutal domestic violence, fair warning if you haven't it, it's sudden and it's hard-to-watch. Temeura Morrison is the brawling Jake Heke, who has a short temper and is not afraid to use his fists above anything else, and his wife Beth is played by Rena Owen. These are two of the greatest acting performances of all-time btw. But, they're also Maoris, they're kinda the Aboriginals or Native American of New Zealand, and a crucial part of this movie is how the film is about the state of the Maoris people and culture at this time. One son, is learning the warrior ways of his ancestors, complete with facial tattoos and whatnot, while part of Jake's psyche, during a moving speech on the reservation where Beth grew up was how he was never accepted by her family as his ancestors were slaves, and were beaten and tortured and whatnot, and now that behavior is inflicted onto his wife. Nothing happens in a vacuum as most sociologists will tell you, and it is the history and ancestors of the past that do effect how you grow up. Even the title, "Once Were Warriors", is a callback to the place of honor Beth's family and the whole Maori people once were and how they lived. A personal call for inner strength as well as a general call to members of the Maoris. It's also that past that inevitably leads to Beth leaving Jake after a sudden and shocking tragedy, strikes the family. This is history, essentially through the eyes of what the past, both the good and the bad parts of the history, and necessarily how it lead to now, but it's a look at the history of a family and of a people, through the perspective of where they are now.

And before anyone asks, no I haven't seen the sequel, will try to at some point; I do want to see it. And also if anybody was wondering I'm using U.S. release dates for these.


2. MUNICH (2005)



I've talked a bit about Steven Spielberg's "Munich" before, I probably will bring it up again at some point. When I went through the Top Ten Films of each year of the last decade, I had #1 for 2005, and that didn't change from when it first came out for me. I remember, 'cause everybody liked all the independent movies, that was a huge Indy year, especially at the Oscars and, people rewrite history, it really was 50/50 "Brokeback Mountain" or "Crash", I don't get the "Crash" backlash since, but it was even split at that time, most were on one side or the other, and here I was in the middle of the Oscars doing their best Spirit Awards impersonation saying that Spielberg did the best film that year. Anyway, my anecdote aside, this has to go up there 'cause there is so much about history here. First of all, it's about the massacre at the Munich games from Black September killing 11 Israeli athletes, which in turn, causes the formation of the secret bomb/death squad to kill the members of the group, the financiers at least. Let's not forget, this is the Israeli-Palestinean conflict, this is one chapter in otherwise long battle in history that literally stretches to the beginnings of time, so there's history on top of the history of the single events, that these characters have grown up and still, in the Eric Bana character, he's filled with these nightmares of the events at the Munich, which are interesting those are all in his mind, effecting him. The reason for him to feel justified, for a while, in this eye for an eye approach, yet those are images that aren't things he witnessed or anything, just him filling in the gaps of what we saw and do know and whatnot. History effecting, too much our behavior. I claim that the film was actually a metaphor for America's reaction after 9/11 and it does hint at that at the end, as we see the Twin Towers, in the background, so it's recent history and our reaction and blah, blah blah, but even if you take that out and play it straight, the movie is very much how history effects us and our actions, and in some ways, how the farther away we get from the event, the more relaxed and calm we are about it, and it still shows this escalating of terrorism in Asia and Europe eventually finding it's way onto American soil. History is really the catalyst that leads to everything else essentially. It's one of Spielberg's best films and it's starting to get that recognition now, it kinda did then, but there was some backlash against it, but now it's getting recognized for how great it actually is.


And now the #1 FILM ABOUT HISTORY....

So, when you actually do look into history, there's really two kinds of history out there. There's the stuff that you learn about in history books, and then there's what really happened. We don't always like to talk about this, but first, history happens, and then there's the people telling everybody about, the event that happened, the documenting of the history. Now, even if it's unintentional however, we're still filtering the events through our perspective, the people who document history at least. Sometimes people really filter it, often to the point where it doesn't even remotely alter back to the actual event. (INSERT YOUR OWN FOX NEWS JOKE) But history gets written and recorded all the time, it comes from different perspectives, and hopefully it's remembered at all, and if it is, it's that perspective that becomes remembered. So if that perspective, isn't exactly what happened.... well, does it really matter? Maybe to some, but.... well, you all should already know where I'm going with this, but it's true, when the legend becomes the fact, print the legend.


1. THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE (1962)




I think I could argue this as John Ford's best film, but when I think about history, this is the film I really think about. Told in flashback Jimmy Stewart's Ransom Stoddard in now a Senator, but he's talking about the old days when he came out west to, what wasn't even then a state, to be a teacher. This in a world where the outlaws ruled and the prison didn't even have a cell to lock and the sheriff slept in it during off hours. John Wayne play Tom Doniphan, the only gunfighter in town who the outlaw Liberty Valance, played by Lee Marvin is afraid of. He runs roughshot over the town from across the borderline whenever he feels like. In between teaching the Constitution and law and the history of America to some of the kids and other uneducated in the town, Stoddard tries to bring law & order to this town, that's barely a town, and this man, who frankly doesn't like or know how to shoot guns, has to compete in a shootout against Valance. What happens isn't unpredictable, although I won't give it away, but the whole movie is about, how the west and essentially was formed through mythos and legends and the fact is that what really happened might not be what's in those history books that he teaches out of (Or law books, Stoddard's actually a lawyer too, if I remember correctly and teaching human rights essentially, law themselves that were created through history) but that the legends are just as important. It's about the old west, but it really about how history is formed and shaped and that's in most aspect of this movie. They're debating over statehood and the borderlines are still being formed, it's land, it's the people who are finding and carving out a home on the land, and the forming of civilization, it's really all here, while looking towards the future. It honors where we've come from and it honors and nods that where we're going is pretty special as well, even if part of that may have been based on a myth.

Alright, that was rougher than I thought, so I'm gonna take a break now. Once a month is plen-ty for these, so I hope you enjoy them. Remind me, and I will eventually post a link to this and all my Top Tens on the top of this blog. Thanks.
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