A Star is Born (1937)

Directed by: William A. Wellman

Written by: Wellman, Robert Carson, Dorothy Parker, and Alan Campbell 

Note: New Zealand has recently issued a content warning to go with the 2018 remake of the film. I will not name it in the interest of dramatic surprise, however, those who would benefit from such warnings should know to look into it.

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While the fourth iteration of A Star is Born takes its turn on the big screen, I figured I should see the original picture. The 1937 piece has a perfect Rotten Tomatoes score, but it is undoubtedly an old movie. It opens in a somewhat over the top fairy tale fashion (think The Wizard of Oz without the magic), and doesn’t do much beyond telling its story along the way. Nonetheless, it is an enjoyable work and a telling historical document.

It would be a bit of a truism to call A Star is Born dated, so I say it, not to imply a limit, but simply to note one of the film’s interesting qualities. The titular star is a woman: Esther Blodgett aka Vicky Lester (Janet Gaynor), and from a distance it’s hard to say if the film’s gender politics are subversive or not. One of the film’s central themes is emasculation, as Lester’s star rises above that of established Hollywood icon Norman Maine (Frederic March). Whether audiences at the time were more likely to read this plot as an endorsement of women’s equality, or a tragic tale of a man losing his place (or none of the above) is unclear from the way the plot resolves itself. And perhaps this ambiguity is a good thing, adding tonal richness to a simple plot line.

While the film may be dated in its depiction of gendered relations, perhaps the more interesting way in which it’s dated is in its depiction of celebrity. When Vicky and Norman star alongside each other in the same picture, audiences leave praising Lester and laughing off Maine’s forgettable performances. One of the notable qualities of this scene (and of A Star is Born as a whole) is its expository dialogue: the characters tell you with painful bluntness what they think of Maine. The more important point, however, is the very fact that the audience obsesses with Maine’s perceived inferiority to Lester. While we still live in a world where actors are praised or critiqued for their craft, the weight of that critique is far less substantial than A Star is Born makes it out to be. Adam Sander hasn’t lost his stardom just because most of his roles don’t share the prestige of Punch Drunk Love or The Meyerowitz Stories. And Sandler isn’t even a great comparison here. As far we are lead to believe, Maine’s acting isn’t particularly bad: the audience has simply, with shocking unanimity, declared him Lester’s inferior.

A Star is Born is a satisfying Hollywood story with a pair of replicable and adaptable themes. As such it doesn’t surprise me that it has spawned three re-makes. Are the remakes justified? For now I’ll have to plead ignorance. Part of me wonders, however, whether contemporary stories can match the odd, yet somehow historically believeable melodrama contained in this simple 1930s tale.

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Breathless (1960)

Directed by: Jean-Luc Godard, Written by: François Truffaut

À_bout_de_souffle_(movie_poster)“What does <dégueulasse> mean?” is the final line of new wave classic Breathless. I won’t say more about the line’s context, in the hopes that you’ll forget it and appreciate it anew when you watch the film. However I will tell you that dégueulasse is the French word for vomit. That’s right, a film you’ll probably watch with an air of pretentiousness ends with the line “what is vomit?”

One of Breathless’s trademarks is its plethora of “What does _ mean?” lines. The film stars two characters Michel Poicard (Jean-Paul Belmondo), the ant-hero protagonist and Patricia Franchini (Jean Seberg) his love interest who speaks French with a heavy American accent. Patrica’s “What does __ mean?” lines are of course comic, but they also get at one of Breathless’ deeper ideas.

Atypical, a dramedy about a teenage autistic boy, features an episode in which his girlfriend tells him she loves him. The boy, however, is unable to reciprocate without coming up with a precise definition of “feeling love” and determining if he meets the criteria. The implication of the episode is that neuro-typical people aren’t faced with such dilemmas, as they are able and happy to understand emotional concepts on an instinctive level. Of course, the neuro-typical/atypical binary is not absolute, and the desire to break down the human experience into component parts can exist in all sorts of minds. Breathless is interesting because it is not, at least not explicitly, a film about neuro-diversity. Nonetheless, its two characters question everything from what love means to what crime means to what vomit means. This questioning does not render them emotionless robots: Michel displays a regular playful joie de vivre, and Patricia displays ambition, frustration and guilt. It does, however, give their emotions an uncanny, misplaced quality to say the least.

Breathless, one could say is a stylized film. It is a noir with protagonists who hide behind dark sunglasses and clouds of cigarette smoke. The scenes are shot in front of a range of interesting backgrounds, including some dystopia-lite neon in its final moments. Nonetheless, Breathless’ undeniable aesthetic character does not mean its dialogue should be written off as empty, unrealistic filler. Rather, what Truffaut’s script seems to do is take extreme, but relatable human impulses (romantic indecisiveness, poor sense of priorities, escaping darkness through playfulness, and the desire to question everything) and bring them all out at once.

Another important line in the film comes when an author, in a great press-scrum-scene, states his ambition is “to become immortal and then die.” Put differently, the author’s ambition is to escape reality and return to it once more. This is in a way, what Breathless’ viewers are exposed to: a world that is a bit too-rule free to be realistic, but is still recognizable. Breathless may not allow viewers to acquire immortality, but it provides a plausible idea of what it could feel like.

Rife with references to classical music, literature and philosophical questions, in the midst of a existentalist story, Breathless is an archetype of what many of outsiders think of as French art, and an entertaining one at that. It offers viewers a chance to see the writing of one of France’s leading auteurs, and the direction of another (a glimpse at his skills before his works became more niche). It’s by no means a safe recommendation for all viewers, but if you’re looking to make a casual film fan more adventurous it’s a great gateway drug.