The 1995 Project continues…
A Little Princess (Directed by Alfonso Cuarón)
One of the weirdest facts about cinema is how hard it is to make a good (let alone a great) movie that is told from the perspective of a child. It gets harder when the movie is not only told from a child’s perspective but has children as its target audience. And it gets even harder if the movie in question is not an animated movie. One of the few movies that succeeds on all of these levels is Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece of childhood adventure E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, but most movies are not E.T. Making a movie that fits all those criteria is incredibly hard. Even children’s movie that I would call great have apparent weak-spots that must be addressed when trying to think about them critically. ‘A Little Princess’ is such a movie. The movie’s limitations are apparent, but that doesn’t keep it from being one of the best children’s movies ever made.
These days we know Alfonso Cuarón as the director behind the Oscar-winning Gravity, but he started out his Hollywood career with this adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel about a creative little girl and her adventures at a strict boarding school. Although by most accounts, Cuarón’s version owes more to the 1939 Shirley Temple adaptation than to the original novel. Like that previous movie adaptation, Cuarón transposes the plot from London to New York, and he changes the ethnicity of Becky, the young servant girl who befriends protagonist Sarah once she falls from grace, who is a cockney girl in the original, but becomes an African American in this version. It’s a change that strengthens the class difference between the boarding school girls and Becky, and gives the movie a social justice undertone that wouldn’t be there if Becky were white while not hiding away from the politics of the period in which the movie takes place.
Indeed, it is quite fascinating to see how Cuarón presents the interactions between the girls by clearly establishing the “social hierarchy” that these children have built based on how the adult world has taught them to behave, and how it is different for the white American students, Becky, and Sarah, who was raised in India. You know, like it so often happens in real life, the children in this movie only do the things they think to be right based on their surroundings. Cuarón’s commitment to put himself and the movie in these girls’ shoes is one of ‘A Little Princess’s biggest strengths, and why it is so emotionally effective despite its limitations.
So, what are those limitations? It’s mostly the fact that, while incredibly cute, the girls in this movie are way too young and inexperience to carry a movie by themselves. There are a lot of flat line readings and awkward bits of acting, but considering how hard it is to get a great performance out of a small child without traumatizing them for life, I think Cuarón made the right choice to value emotional truth over realism. A decision that serves to work around the movie’s other limitation: the sometimes clunky screenplay (which may or may not owe some of said clunkiness to the source material). The movie is largely about Sarah being a story-teller, and thus, Cuarón wisely directs ‘A Little Princess’ as if it were being told by a child. It is so earnest and honest in its emotions that one can’t fail to be charmed by it.
Just to clarify, I’m not saying that only a movie that fits these criteria can be a good children’s movie. I can think of thousands of examples that defy that logic. Classic masterpieces like The Wizard of Oz or Toy Story, for example. I’m just saying that trying to capture a child’s point of view is incredibly hard, and that is one of the reasons why ‘A Little Princess’ should be regarded as the treasure that it is. There is honest and beauty in this movie. You see it in the movie’s most emotional moments: When Sarah consoles a little girl whose mother has died recently telling her that she has become an angel, and towards the end, when an angry Sarah gives a speech to Miss Michin about all girls being princesses.
These moments sound incredibly saccharine on paper, but they play beautifully on screen thanks to the full-on commitment of the people that made this movie. Sarah’s consolation of the girl comes out of the wisdom she’s gained from personal experience, and her speech to Miss Minchin is much more a way for Sarah to cling on to what little she has left than a way for the movie to make some big pronouncement about the magic of being a child. Sarah is not a magical cheery fairy, she is a real girl.
Crimson Tide (Directed by Tony Scott)
If nothing else, Crimson Tide is notable for being the first collaboration between Denzel Washington and director Tony Scott. Denzel would define Scott’s latter career, seemingly sharing a predilection for relentlessly stylized action, quick cutting, and a mix of old-school genre seriousness and popcorn-friendly sensibilities. I am not the kind of person who was made to enjoy the bulk of their collaboration. Their movies seem to come from a tradition of manly action vehicles I was too young to get into in my formative years. Having said that, I understand how much of a cornerstone Tony Scott’s filmmaking style is in contemporary action cinema, and thus, I was very curious to take a look at the movie that started this relationship.
Crimson Tide ends up being a very different movie from what I’d expected. I found Scott at his most restrained, working off of a very minimalistic screenplay that doesn’t shy away from the staples of its genre. This is, after all, a submarine movie about militaristic men trapped in a confined environment. It is a battle of wills, moralities, and personalities between the experienced all-powerful captain (Gene Hackman) and the young and idealistic second in command (Denzel Washington), which seems to stand in for a fight between emotional absolute belief and passion versus measured rationality.
The situation is the following: a submarine is dispatched with the intention of keeping an eye on a recent Russian revolt. The submarine is ordered to fire nuclear weapons with the intention of hitting Russian soil, but right before the order can be confirmed, the submarine loses all communications. The Captain insists of carrying out the order before it’s too late, the second in command asks for the crew to hold back on reacting until they re-establish communications and can confirm the order. A battle of ideologies on the brink of human annihilation. Like Dr. Strangelove, but played straight.
The big problem with Crimson Tide is that it’s more than obvious from frame one for the audience to know who is right and who is wrong in this ideological battle. Just the fact that one of the characters is played by Denzel and the other by Hackman (coming off his Oscar win for Unforgiven nonetheless) is enough for us to know who the hero is in this equation. So it’s a testament to the filmmaking at hand that Crimson Tide is as engaging and exciting as it is despite the inherent lack of suspense. I wouldn’t say that this movie has converted me into a Scott fan (it is not a great movie, just a solid entertainment), but it has definitely been integral in my realizing what Scott’s strengths as a filmmaker really are.
Braveheart (Directed by Mel Gibson)
Mel Gibson might be a troubled man and a crazy person, but he is a fascinating filmmaking. Gibson and I have practically opposite views of the world, and yet, I can’t deny the fact that he is a talented man, and that his bleeding commitment to whatever it is that is trying to communicate in his movies is infectious. If I look at ‘Braveheart’s structure, I conclude that it is a bad movie. If I look at its representation of history, I conclude that it is almost entirely made up. If I look at its gender politics, I conclude that it is misguided and hateful. If I look at its action sequences, I conclude that it is perturbingly blood-thirsty. And yet, I can’t help but admire it. It might be a failure, but Mel is giving so much of himself I can’t help but applaud the whole enterprise.
Of course nowadays we have the benefit of hindsight, and we know the tragic end of Mel Gibson’s history as a movie star. Like I said, I’m in opposition to his politics, but ‘Braveheart‘ makes me think that he is in opposition too. At this point in his career he seems to be struggling to reconcile his beliefs and his most basic instincts. ‘Braveheart‘ also continues the 1995 trend of movies concerned with the place of “righteous” masculinity in a changing world. Because even though the movie takes place in medieval Britain, its sensibilities are almost exclusively a product of the conservative eighties and the rugged early nineties. I mean, of the things Gibson’s William Wallace looks like, grunge rocker comes second only to Jesus Christ. Of course Wallace is a martyr and a Christ figure. You know this because of the way he rides his horse with arms wide open after the cruel murder of his wife. Saying Gibson is not interested in subtlety would be an understatement, especially when it comes to symbolism.
Although perhaps the obvious symbolism is there for us to understand that Gibson is trying to say something with this whole thing, because trying to find any coherence in the script and plot will certainly proof futile. Case in point, there is no effort to connect the most culturally prevalent element of the movie, Wallace’s battle cry for “FREEDOM!”, with whatever his character arc is. What exactly motivates Wallace to fight? What does he mean by freedom? (never mind the fact that the movie takes place at a time when the concept of freedom wouldn’t have been something men would fight for) When the English kill his wife, he says is because they want to get to him, but he hasn’t really done anything. At least not yet. You see, nothing really makes any sense. Except the fact that Gibson sees himself in Wallace, and understands him as a noble martyr and savior (what does the fact that all pretty women swoon when they encounter Wallace’s presence say about Gibson’s view of himself? Well, that’s a conversation for another time).
He also sees him as an incredibly manly man. Gibson equates traditional masculinity with excellence in battle and being part of a noble cause. The most obvious example of this is the treatment of the effeminate English prince, and his suggested (as subtly as Gibson can, which is not subtly at all) lover, and the way the movie takes their queerness as shorthand for them being bad strategists and weak warriors. All great warriors, according to this movie, are the manliest of men. The kind who don’t flinch before showing their penises to army standing before them. They fight for what’s right and that makes them heroes. And “what’s right” is their right to be manly men (after all, the conflict between England and Scotland starts when the English kind establishes “prima nocte”, depriving the Scots of their right to not share their wives with noble Englishmen). That’s why we’re also not supposed to flinch when our heroes dispose of the English armies in incredibly bloody and perversely imaginative ways.
And that’s where I think Gibson’s inner struggle comes in. He believes in the redemptive message of Christianity, and he believes in moral absolutes, but he also loves action, and the bloodier the better. There are very few directors (working outside the B-horror genre) that are as passionate and excited about the many possible ways in which you can end a life than Gibson. This bloodlust makes ‘Braveheart’ uncomfortably violent (this has to be the most violent movie to ever win Best Picture), but it also results in some of the best directed action sequences of the 90s, and the high standard for kinetic action filmmaking until Steven Spielberg raised the bar with Saving Private Ryan. It is also a very beautiful looking movie, thanks to cinematographer John Toll, who has a field day making the Scottish highlands look as beautiful as they possibly can. After all, ‘Braveheart‘ is a movie of absolutes. The landscape is beautiful, Wallace is righteous, the English are evil… It’s in the violence, and in the director’s relation to carnage, that ‘Braveheart’ starts to show any sort of nuance, and where the movie starts to become interesting beyond its aesthetic triumphs.