Bwog’s “surprised and humbled” film guy Mark Hay is back with this week’s movie recommendations.
So Obama got a Nobel Peace prize – how very strange. One might be tempted to say that the Norwegians are just trying to have a bit of fun at the expense of Americans by placing our wonderful, but rather green, president on a roster with such names as Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and Aung San Suu Kyi. Then again, if they can give the peace prize to Henry Kissinger, why should we be so surprised? Regardless, now that Obama has the honor, what should he do with it? What should we do with it? Here are three films about honors, deserved or otherwise, and the guilt and opportunity that they present, for better or for worse.
Barton Fink (1991)
Actually a side project of the Coen brothers during the writing and production of “Miller’s Crossing,” Barton Fink tells the tale of the young Broadway playwright (John Turturro), who, after early success with one great play, decides to cash in on his honors and sell out in Hollywood to finance a long artistic career. Once in Hollywood, the idealistic Fink gets a case of writer’s block and struggles to write a wrestling picture that will stress his obsession with lionizing the common man. All the while, a series of strange and eventually supernatural events begin to unfold around Fink, driving him further and further into an estranged self regard until, in one moment of unexpected and demonic revelry, Fink’s whole life is turned upside down and he is forced to face himself as the one-hit-wonder that he truly is.
While “Barton Fink” serves as a cautionary tale to aspiring writers, it is above all – in grand Coen brother’s style – a black comedy. The story unfold through a series of disconnected vignettes: Fink’s interactions with his jovial (and secretly twisted) neighbor, the “insurance salesman” Charlie Meadows (John Goodman, in a role that serves as a strange precursor to Javier Bardem’s future Coen brother’s appearance); his meeting and disillusionment with his idol, writer W.P. Mayhem (John Mahoney as a vaguely disguised caricature of William Faulkner); and his hurried appointments with superficially flattering studio head Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner). Eventually, these dark and strange side notes all congeal into a sudden shattering explosion of blood, fire, violence, and possibly a hint of fascism. And, in this sudden illuminating chaos, the Coen brothers have embedded a warning for themselves, Hollywood wunderkinds that they are – that writers must be cautious, and not let success distance them from their focus.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
When asked to list three people he considered great filmmakers, the extraordinary Orson Welles responded, “John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford.” And, of all John Ford’s films, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is one of the most iconic.
Liberty Valance is told as a flashback of a respected Senator and Vice-Presidential hopeful who has returned from D.C. to the town of Shinbone, in some stereotypical dusty western state, for the funeral of an unknown man. The Senator reveals his origins as young Ransom Stoddard (James Steward), an attorney moving out west to set up practice in what was then just a lawless western territory. Stoddard refuses to carry a gun and believes in the power of law, for which he is beaten to near death by a bunch of ruffians led by Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), the iconic villain terrorizing Shinbone on behalf of greedy ranchers who wish to prevent it from becoming a state. Stoddard is saved by the only man willing to stand up to Valance, Tom Doniphon (John Wayne, naturally). Doniphon and Stoddard are united by their hatred of Valance, but hold opposing views as to how to deal with him. Eventually, Stoddard is forced to face off, gun to gun, against Valance, an encounter that forms the cornerstone of his political career – but, the aged Stoddard reveals, while many believed that his shot killed Valance, this is not the full truth.
Liberty Valance is a gruff meditation on the places of law and of force in the world. Does nobility or strength win the day? Can pure good triumph over unabashed evil? And should we even seek the true answers to these questions at all? Certainly, it is an introspective Western, and we may all find our own answers to Stoddard’s dilemma, but Ford offers his own clear opinion through the character of reporter Maxwell Scott (Carleton Young): “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007)
It is hard to believe that this is a documentary. The black and white rivalry, the archetypal characters, the deep drama and plot twists, and the absolute absurdity of the situation are just too contrived for nature. But it is true – this really happened, and thank God director Seth Gordon caught it all on tape.
This is a story of rivalry between (I shit you not) hot-sauce tycoon and overzealous American patriot Billy Mitchell and downsized Boeing employee turned science teacher Steve Wiebe over (once more, I shit you not) the high score on the 1980s arcade game Donkey Kong. As the story goes, in the 1980s Mitchell achieved the high score of 874,300 on the game, a record set down by the authoritative Walter Day, founder of Twin Galaxies, an organization tracking high scores on arcade games (it really exists … my God, it really exists). Then, almost twenty-five years later, a kind and simple engineer down on his luck in Redmond, WA buys an old Donkey Kong machine to fill his time and achieves a score of 1,006,600.
An open and shut case to most of the world, and one we would wish to brush off as a tiny human interest story – two seconds on the local news – but not to Mitchell- who questions the validity of Wiebe’s score. The viewer is plunged into a strange world of espionage, corruption, allegations, and video forensics as Mitchell and Wiebe devote their lives to beating each other’s scores. Mitchell plays seemingly without any self-conception, the absolute cad – touting himself publicly, but unwilling to face the earnest, gentle and unbelievably intelligent Wiebe in person.
Light and dark, good and bad, Wiebe and Mitchell. You may think it impossible, you may think it absurd, but watching this movie, you will care about who holds the high score on a 1980s arcade game, and you will be willing to devote two hours of your life to what should be the most absurd, but becomes one of the most compelling rivalries known to mankind.
Besides, it will make you feel better about what you do with all your time.
Photos via IMDB.com