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Sunday, June 18, 2017

The African Queen

Movie #2 from recommended list. So, movies like this in the past are why there are movies like Boyhood now, right? We go from total unconcern for basic believability to total obsession with realistic minutia.

For many years now, I've felt that there was some fundamental shift in the American aesthetic sensibility around 1968*, and that all movies made before then seem foreign to me, and all movies made after seem intuitively intelligible. I think I arrived at this conclusion during one of the summer film series at EPPC many years ago, when they were showing Bonnie and Clyde. We had already seen some older crime films, and Bonnie and Clyde was supposed to be the turning point in James Bowman's universally-applicable Arc of Decline: films was great before this, and terrible afterwards. And everyone heaped contempt on it, because it celebrated the criminals and made them seem cool rather than miserable. That all may have been true, but the problem was that Bonnie and Clyde was the first one of the movies that I got. It spoke to my (apparently modern, amoral) sensibility. Everything before it had been stilted and weird, like the actors were all trying way too hard to express themselves and haven't they ever heard of just talking? It wasn't that post-1968 Americans couldn't follow pre-1968 movies, but that following was more labored, the way reading for school assignments is different from reading for yourself. A post-1968 cultural prole like myself could be instructed about the virtues of pre-1968 movies, and from that instruction learn a method of viewing them appreciatively, but that appreciation is never intuitive.**

All that said, The African Queen is a very pre-1968 movie. Not just in the overdone acting, but in the sense that one is dogged for the entire movie by the suspicion that, if this were made in 2017, the characters would not do a single one of the things they do. They'd just park their boat in the shade and have sex until the war ended.

*Bonnie and Clyde is actually from 1967, but 1968 is the year the Hays Code was abandoned, and that seems to be a broader indicator of the times than just one movie.
** There might be exceptions to this, but the only ones I can think of are Wizard of Oz and the Disney movies I watched as a little kid. But it's hardly surprising that what you see first doesn't strike you as weird and stilted, even if it's pre-1968, because at age four, what do you have to compare it to?

11 comments:

Helen Andrews said...

I too have noticed that my peers do not hold their conversation to the standards that obtained prior to 1968, but it is the experience of talking to them, and not old Hepburn movies, that is therefore alienating.

This is hard to prove, but I think the diction, coherence, clarity, etc., that you find so off-putting in Humphrey Bogart's dialogue reflects actual standards of conversation at the time. People really did used to talk better! Maybe not like in Noel Coward, but like in a novel by John P. Marquand, John O'Hara, or some other realist.

Oral histories are a place to start testing this theory. In Edie: An American Girl, the first hundred pages are all transcripts of her older Sedgwick relatives, and the rest of the book is all younger people. Both groups are mostly well educated. When the generations shift, the quality of the English on the page takes a nosedive.

Miss Self-Important said...

Oh, I don't doubt that people spoke differently. I've heard audio of presidential speeches over the 20th Century, and pronunciation has definitely...evolved. FDR sounds like he's speaking in a dialect, although he in particular may not be the best example of standard English at any point. Maybe diction is also part of what doesn't ring true to me about pre-1968 movies, but I've always thought it was the theatrical delivery of the lines. There is a lot of sigh heaving, exaggerated breathing, gesticulating, and face-making that no one in real life does when they say the things the actors are saying, and I'm skeptical that anyone ever did. The prime example is the way that women dramatically turn away their heads in pain as if they've been slapped in the face when a man insults them. Real response of a previous epoch?

Andrew Stevens said...

For what it's worth, I do think acting in older movies was more stylized. Modern acting is more naturalistic or, if not that, at least differently stylized. The naturalistic style begins with James Stewart, who is fairly sterile and certainly still has some stylization to his performances, until Marlon Brando begins a revolution in the 1950s.

Nobody ever talked like the characters in His Girl Friday, for example, just like nobody ever talked like Shakespeare's characters. Nevertheless both are delightful.

Andrew Stevens said...

I think the gesture you're talking about evolves out of theater acting. Pure screen actors become more common as the century goes on and the acting moves from the body to the face.

Withywindle said...

It's been a while, but I thought Bogart was supposed to be cynical, amoral, natural, modern, American, in contrast to Hepburn's Victorian character. Making pre-1914 mores comprehensible to a 1950s audience no longer in tune with them. Is that effect still perceptible to a modern audience? Which evidently did not include me at age 12.

Jacob T. Levy said...

Yeah, acting definitely had a major leap in naturalism. I'm not sure what to think about scripts, though, partly because I have so much trouble thinking of dialogue as a thing that Tarantino and Linklater (two standard references here) have in common.

Maybe Dog Day Afternoon and Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid have people speaking lines that sound natural, but does Chinatown? Does Godfather sound more naturalistic than Casablanca? (Both of those scripts are so "full of cliches" in the Hamlet sense that I suspect it's impossible to now hear what was and what wasn't natural about the speech patterns.) George Lucas came out of the New Hollywood movement, but his ear for dialogue was still so shaped by the old styles that Harrison Ford told him "you can write this s***, George, but you can't *say* it."

FWIW, I ran across another claim that 1968 marked a movie watershed, though in a different way: http://www.avclub.com/article/action-cinema-begins-steve-mcqueen-and-one-incredi-230755 .

I'm suddenly struck by the impulse to try to talk MSI into watching "Love Story" and assessing whether that post-68 movie features people talking like real human beings or not.

Andrew Stevens said...

Maybe Dog Day Afternoon and Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid have people speaking lines that sound natural, but does Chinatown?

No, it doesn't. However, I really like Chinatown and found both Dog Day Afternoon and Butch & Sundance tedious. But then I am decidedly not in favor of naturalistic dialogue. (I probably wasn't clear that I think acting got more naturalistic and dialogue definitely became very differently stylized. I don't think it ever got particularly naturalistic since that would be really tedious.)

Miss Self-Important said...

Andrew Stevens: I don't know anything about the history of movies, but the theater-->movies link sounds plausible to me. And I agree that naturalism is a different kind of stylizing than melodramatic theatrical pose-striking. It can go wrong (eg, Boyhood), but what about Whit Stillman's first four movies? He naturalistically depicts affected dialogue, or the dialogue of people visibly trying to elevate their conversation above the way of talking that naturalistic movies have infused into real people.

Withywindle: I do think that's the intention, but by 21st Century standards, Bogart's character is a prince of chivalry. His great sins are drinking gin and not shaving very often. But he scrupulously observes Hepburn's modesty, calls her "Miss" until she allows him not to, etc. So he doesn't look very natural to me.

JTL: Bullitt was the very next movie in that film series, after Bonnie and Clyde. I recall thinking, these cars are going very slowly for a car chase. But yes, it is also bound up in my mind with the Great Change in movies.

I've never seen most of the movies you refer to, except Casablanca, but it's not just the naturalism of the dialogue, but also the gestures, or whatever the term is for theatrical facial and body language. I do think Helen is right to point out that what is "natural language" changes pretty quickly in America over the 20th C., so it's hard to say if people are trying to sound affected or they just happen to sound that way to a viewer 50 yrs later. I don't think FDR was trying to sound affected in his fireside chats, for example, but he seriously does now.

Love Story...the one they show the incoming Harvard students every year b/c about Harvard students who fall in love, marry, then die tragically somehow?

Andrew Stevens said...

I agree that Stillman successfully uses naturalistic dialogue, but it only works because his characters are trying to speak in an elevated style so he's "cheating" in a way.

I am certainly no authority on the history of movies. I'm merely throwing that out as a plausible (to me) theory. I'm sure a genuine expert would nitpick it into a thousand different pieces and convince me I was wrong.

Having read some early 20th century newspapers, I was absolutely astonished at the way even not particularly educated people (such as professional athletes) are quoted as speaking. It certainly struck me as convoluted and unnecessarily complex, even pretentious-sounding, to the point where I had difficulty believing people used to talk like that.

Andrew Stevens said...

By the way, I have a similarish theory about why I wan't watch films pre-1933 and can't watch most films between 1933 and 1939. I think it's the lack of score. E.g. I find old Charlie Chan movies nearly unwatchable. However, I personally have no problems with films between 1939 and 1968.

Jacob T. Levy said...

"Love Story...the one they show the incoming Harvard students every year b/c about Harvard students who fall in love, marry, then die tragically somehow?"

That's the one. Sounds like you didn't ever go join the ritual. Curious what you'd think. It comes after the Great Change. I suspect it will make you want to watch the complete Hepburn/Tracy catalog to wash the memory away.