Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Goofs on Goofs



1) to blunder, make an error, misjudgment, etc.


2) a foolish or stupid person

One of my favorite websites - and I'm guessing one of the favorite of many film bloggers - is I use the site for many reasons, whether it be checking the filmography of an actor or director or finding a lot of valuable information about a particular movie, as to when it was released, the complete cast and crew as well as images from the film. Often I find myself watching an old film at home and then see a character actor whose face is familiar, but whose name is not. I immediately go to the site and look up his or her name. That's a neat benefit of this site and one can then follow up and see a list of other films this actor appeared in over the course of his or her career.

There are other features on and some I love - such as the trivia section as well as memorable quotes - but there is one section that drives me nuts. That is the "goofs" section, where mistakes in a particular film are pointed out. Some of these mistakes are in continuity, while others are visual, such as a microphone being visible in part of the shot or an historical error, such as current automobiles in the background of a scene set in the 1930s or '40s.

This listing of mistakes is supposed to be all fun and games and let's face it, this has been going on for years, even before the internet was with us. Books have been written about film gaffes, so this is nothing new. Yet it's never been as detailed as this, which of course comes as no surprise, given the sensory information overload we deal with via the internet (as well as media outlets) these days. So of course, every possible mistake is singled out for a listing.

Except some of these mistakes really aren't mistakes at all. I noticed this the other day when I saw this listing for a few of my favorite films. Let's start with L.A. Confidential. Here is an actual entry from the goofs section on the site:

At the end when Ed Exley received his medal, he walks Lynn outside. When they are walking outside to the car, Ed doesn't have his medal throughout the end of the movie.

Ok, you've caught the filmmakers in a continuity error here. While it's possible that Exley removed his medal, he'd realistically have no place to put it (it's a large medal worn around his neck), so this is most definitely a mistake. Congratulations, you caught this one.

But then we have this gem:

When Jack Vincennes finds Matt Reynolds's body, there is a close-up shot on Matt's face. In that shot you can clearly see that the vein in his neck is still moving.

I went ahead and watched that scene several times and have yet to see this. Seems to me this is a very realistic shot of a dead man. But if they say they saw it, they must have seen it, right? Perhaps some wishful thinking here?

No movie escapes the wrath of the people looking for goofs, not even a classic such as Chinatown. A few trivial mistakes (such as the sound of the 1930s police siren!) are written about, but here's one that boggles the mind:

When Gittes is driving through the orange groves, the sign says "No Trepassing." "Trepassing" should be spelt "Trespassing."

Did the person who wrote this ever think that the sign was written that way on purpose? That the misspelling of the word "trespassing" as "trepassing" was deliberate to show that the individuals who took care of the orange groves were farmers and perhaps not that well educated? This is listed on the site as a "possible deliberate error by the filmmakers", so the site does realize this, but why even list this at all?

Then there are the goofs for the film Key Largo, the classic Bogart/Edward G. Robinson film directed by John Huston. Now this is one of my favorite films and I've probably seen this at home more than 20 times. I love the film (obviously), but watch just about any film that often and you're bound to notice a few errors, such as the string supporting the model palm trees in a hurricane or the length of Robinson's tie in several continuous scenes. These are pointed out on the site, so they've done their job.

But consider this one:

Describing the summer heat in the Keys, Mr. Temple says that it will cool down in November: "The thermometer will drop to 100 (F, about 38C)", implying that summer temperatures are consistently above 100. This is incorrect. The climate is humid, but the adjacent waters moderate the temperature. Average summer high is 87F (31C). According to the Keys official tourism website, "The hottest it's ever been in Key West is 97º F (36º C), and that was way back in 1880."

Ok, you've done your research on this, good for you! But come on, this is a movie about a gangster taking control over guests at a hotel, it's not a documentary about the climate of Key Largo. When Mr. Temple says that the temperatures will cool down to 100 F, it's a line the audience or viewer can idenitfy with; in other words, it's extremely hot during the summer. Would you rather have him say, "The thermometer will drop down to 87 degrees"? Imagine that line and how it would sound! Please, lighten up here will you?

Finally, the critique I couldn't believe I was reading:

The hurricane passes by unrealistically quickly.

Approximately two minutes of the film are scenes of the height of the hurricane. Apparently whoever wrote this wanted 15 or 20 minutes of hurricane footage. Note to this individual - this is a movie - it's not actual footage of a hurricane! Do you criticize Spartacus for only taking three hours to cover the slave revolt? We all know that took years, right?

Also, did the person who wrote that the hurricane paased by too quickly notice that dissolves were used in the editing? In case you don't know film grammar, a dissolve is used to denote a passage of time. Thus the two minutes of screen time showing the hurricane actually represents a much longer time, perhaps 20 or 30 minutes.

One thing to remember here is that the people who watch these films for goofs (I'm convinced there are people who deliberately look for mistakes) are watching on DVDs, where they can freeze frame or watch at half speed. That's just a bit different than watching this movie in real time in a theater or even at home. Do you think that the filmmakers of the 1940s or even the 1970s knew that their films could one day be watched in this manner? I compare this to baseball umpires who have to instantly judge a bang-bang play at first base and rule safe or out. Watching on tv, we get the luxury of seeing the replay, as often as three or four times, slowed down to a freeze frame. It becomes a little easier this way, doesn't it? The umpire doesn't have this option and it's amazing how often they get it right.

So can we stop this over analysis of every detail in every film? Can we instead focus on what's truly important, such as the film's themes or whether the screenplay is well written and the acting is special? To the goofs who write about goofs in movies, here's a suggestion - get a life!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A Study in Kindness

Lilith (Dir. Robert Rossen, 1964) is a film that deals with the world of mental illness in a most remarkable manner. Unlike too many works that have focused on "lunatics" screaming and acting in an angular way, this film quietly examines how a young female patient changes the life of a wet-behind-the-ears therapist. It's an intelligent film that hasn't received the attention it deserves; it's one of Rossen's most challenging films and it's one of his finest.

The story begins as a young man named Vincent Bruce (cooly played by Warren Beatty) looks for a position at an East Coast mental institute. This is not a location with dungeons and dark settings, but one located amidst the splendor of a lovely forest; this setting is meant to act as a settling influence for these patients, many of whom are diagnosed as schizophrenics.

Vincent has recently returned from the service and is, as many movie characters are at the beginning of dramas such as this, "trying to find himself." But lest you think this film is going to repeat so many clichés, strong writing (one of Rossen's strengths, he adapted the screenplay from a J.R. Salamnaca novel) presents us with a marvelous story as Vincent meets Lilith (Jean Seberg), a beautiful woman in her mid 20s, who appears very normal and rather quaint on the outside, but is a bit of a devil on the inside.

One of the things I like about the screenplay and the way the story unfolds is that we are not told in specific detail why Vincent wants a job as a therapist, especially as he had had no experience. "They'll train me," he tells his grandmother at dinner, in one of the many quiet, relective scenes of the film. It is at that point we learn that Vincent's mother died. A scene soon after has Vincent meet his old flame Laura (Jessica Walter) who is now married (we assume she married during his time away in the military). So we are going to follow a young man, clearly uncertain of who he is and what he wants to be, try and learn about his identity by studying mental patients. I like this conception and it's well managed throughout the film.

Though he has no experience dealing with mentally ill people, Vincent uses his kindness as a way to their soul and it's this quality - and the ease in which he does his work - that makes him a success at his job. He is able to win over Lillith's trust and soon takes her on adventures outside the institute's grounds, where the two of them become more emotionally attracted and attached.

Lilith is not schizophrenic, but rather a nymphomaniac, something we learn over time. Her initial love scene with Vincent is quite erotic, as they embrace near a stream, just a few yards from other patients. Their encounters become more passionate over the course of the film and Rossen films these scenes in a highly charged emotional, yet quiet, manner. Their final love scene is a stunning moment in the film as it takes place in her highly claustrophobic room at the institute. Rossen films the scenes in extreme closeups and there is no music; the only sounds we hear are breathing and other utterances by the actors. At one moment, Lilith lets out a quiet hiss like that of a cat in heat; she is on the prowl here with Vincent lurking next to her. Their kisses here are deeply passionate with tremendous raw energy, much like that of two animals. This scene in particular is aided by the stark black and white photography of Eugen Schüfftan, whose overall work here is excellent in expressing the gray moods of the characters.

Lilith is also carrying on an affair with Yvonne (Anne Meacham) another female patient at the institute. Lilith is also the object of the affections of Stephen (Peter Fonda), a tender, but confused patient; she leads him on, but is clearly not interested in his passions. In one peculiar scene midway through the film, Lilith kisses a young boy of no more than nine or ten years of age when she cannot pay him for a treat he is selling. The young boy is quite happy to kiss her, but she then whispers something in his ear and he pulls back, clearly embarrassed by what he has just heard (thankfully we don't hear what she says, so we can use our imagination). It's a subtle touch that helps us understand how mischievous - and clearly troubled - Lilith truly is.

Jean Seberg's performance in this film is marvelous. It's quite a surprise to see her on screen here, especially if you are used to her pixie haircut and baby face, as witnessed in previous films such as Saint Joan and Bonjour Tristesse. In this film, she has grown into a marvelously beautiful young woman with her glowing eyes and long, blonde hair (she is especially beautiful in the first scene she has with Beatty, wearing a pretty summer dress with an attractive floral pattern). While she admittedly was frightened by her inital experiences on screen, she developed into a talented actress and she gives a very special performance here. This is the type of role that could easily slip away into parody, but Seberg is always cool and under control here, even in the one scene where she vents her anger at Beatty. Her performance is among the many high points of this film and it's not a stretch to say that the film largely succeeds because of her presence.

(It is a shame that she was not given more challenging roles such as this, as she was a gifted actress, as the French had discovered a few years earlier, when Jean-Luc Godard cast her in his film Breathless (1960). She would never have similar acting challenges again after Lilith; tired of the inconsequential roles she was given, she soured on her career and sadly, committed suicide in 1979, at the age of 40.)

The film ends on a troubling note, as Vincent must face the consequences of his actions. The film's final shot and line are memorable in summing up the subtle path this film takes in its efforts to take us into the minds not only of the mentally ill, but the so-called sane individuals (we, the viewers) as well.

Postscript: Lilith was the final film of Robert Rossen, who had one of the more unusual Hollywood careers. An exceptional screnwriter (The Roaring Twenties, The Sea Wolf), he turned to directing in the 1940s and became a success in both fields, most notably for All the King's Men (1949) and The Hustler (1961). Both of those films dealt with the downfall of a man and how that decline came via a woman's charms. While the downfall of Vincent in Lilith - due largely to his interaction with the title character - is not as rapid as that of Willie Stark and Eddie Felson in these other two films, it is nonetheless, just as emotionally shattering.

Final note: Rossen was twice called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, in 1951 and 1953. At his second appearance before the commmittee, he divulged more than 50 names of former or current Communists. Because of that, his name was removed from the blacklist in Hollywood and was able to continue to make films. As mentioned before, Lilith was his last film, He died in 1966.

I've often wondered why Elia Kazan, who gave the same committee names at his appearance in 1952, has been vilified by some in Hollywood for his willingness to name names, yet Rossen who did the same thing, has been spared this criticism.