Monday, June 19, 2006

Movie Review: The Sting

My friend and Chief Critic, pg, is constantly berating my "movie reports" as uninformed, superficial and not worthy of the time it takes to write and read them. Other than that, pg likes my writing. Friday night, I went to see the grand old movie, The Sting, a movie classic, which was shown in our classic theater,The Virginia Theater. To satisfy, pg, I have decided to do a real movie review, worthy of the name and the time. So read and enjoy, pg. The rest of you might want to come back some other time for something a little more readable.

The Sting is a movie about an elaborate con game, but at a deeper level the movie itself is an elaborate con of the audience. It was made in 1937 (you can tell by looking at the automobiles) but held by the studio, Sony Pictures, for nearly 40 years until the time was ripe for its release. More remarkably, the lead actors, Robert Redford, and Paul Newman, were only one year and 12 years old, respectively, when the movie was made. They were made to look 25 and 37 years old, respectively, through an extraordinary makeup job by the great Henry Bumstead, no relation to the famous Dagwood Bumstead of Blondie comic book fame. In a little-known fact, a stunt man, John Scarne, doubled for Paul Newman's hands during the famous card shark scenes because Newman was actually pretty clumsy at cards. Even more amazingly, the famous stunt man, Mickey Gilbert, (no relation to the famous cartoon character, Mickey Mouse) did all of Redford's walking scenes, as Redford, at the time the movie was made, was still getting around by crawling. Redford didn't need a stand-in for his standing scenes, having just mastered the art of standing two weeks before shooting started. (The practice of using "stand-ins" for actors too young to do their own standing dates from the earliest days of film.)

But what makes the movie great is its innovative use of the French theorist,Guy Debord's concept of the "society of spectacle." Debord was only six years old when The Sting was made but became acquainted with its director, George Roy Hill, when he was four, attending a day care in the Sixth Arondissement in Paris, run by Hill's parents. Debord was a leader of the "Situationist Movement," and even wrote a book and made a film about situationism, although neither was nearly as successful as the prime example of situationist movie-making, The Sting. Debord's first book, Memoires, written when he was in kindergarten, was bound with a sandpaper cover so that it would destroy other books placed next to it.

For Debord, spectacle unifies and explains a great diversity of apparent phenomena. As he said in a much-quoted passage, "The opposition that must now be united against this ideological decomposition must not get caught up in criticizing the buffooneries appearing in outmoded forms like poems or novels. We have to criticize activities that are important for the future, activities that we need to make use of. One of the most serious signs of the present ideological decomposition is that the functionalist theory of architecture is now based on the most reactionary conceptions of society and morality. That is, the temporarily and partially valid contributions of the original Bauhaus or of the school of Le Corbusier have been distorted so as to reinforce an excessively backward notion of life and of the framework of life."

The noted film critic, Kevin Sweeney, however, criticizes the Debord approach to film making as exemplified in The Sting. In an epoch-making epistle, he said, "In recent years, film theory has seen the emergence of a cognitive theory of narrative comprehension and interpretation. The theory arose from a dissatisfaction with poststructuralist theories of narrative that emphasize the film viewer's unconscious or ideologically coded responses to screened images. Rejecting this Lacanian-Althusserian model of film narration and viewer response, cognitivists such as David Bordwell, Edward Branigan and Noel Carroll analyze cinematic comprehension in terms of active viewers' ordinary psychological processes and strategies of problem solving. Narrative film viewing, they claim, consists of the same sorts of top-down (conceptualizing and inferring) and bottom-up (sensory, data-driven, automatic) psychological processes that perceivers use to understand events in the world around them." Sweeney refers to this general theory as "cinematic cognitivism."

I personally think that Sweeney is too quick to reject the Lacanian-Althusserian model of film narration and viewer response. As shown by the opening shots, in The Sting of a spiffy pair of shoes walking through depression-era Chicago streets, there is still life in the Lacanian-Althusserian model. The switch of the money in Redford's pants, when he is still a street grifter, is another example of Lacanian-Althusserian cinematography at its finest. (Another little known fact is that the paper in the bag is actually Redford's shredded diaper.)

So, PG, you're not the only person who can write intellectual movie reviews. I rest my case. I hope you're satisfied.


PG said...

The Crockhead, as the leading (and perhaps only) proponent of postintellectualism, attempts to review George Roy Hill's 1973 film, The Sting, in what might be considered a "con" review, a sting, a trick to fool readers by mocking what he feels are the conventions of serious film criticism. The result, alas, is more akin to The Sting II, an inferior sequel (directed by Jeremy Paul Kagan, even lesser an auteur than Hill). It would have been a lot funnier had Crockmeister shown a more firm grasp of the theories he was attempting to mock emulate.

For example, he might have mocked the auteur theory itself, invoking other films of GRH and making linkages of style and attitude. The "strained seriousness" (phrase cribbed from Andrew Sarris) of Period of Adjustment (1962) and Hawaii (1966) eventually gave way to the attempted comic view (although always a little plodding and overcautious) that defined the later pictures of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), The Great Waldo Pepper (1975), and The World According to Garp (1982). The individual style he sought really only soared with unexpected flight in Slap Shot (1977) and the sweet A Little Romance (1979) before he started slumping again in his final years.

In 1984, I wrote the following about George Roy Hill for a book published by Consumer Reports called (ugh!) Movie Trivia Mania.

"Some critics have seen Hill as a Renaissance man, accomplished in many fields, and that broad base of talent can sometimes work against him, making his films appear glossy-surfaced, superficial, and less substantial than they really are. Woven through his style, one finds a thread of attractive pansexuality: Hill's characters are not macho, feminine, or seductive as much as they are simply sensual, sometimes maintaining physical relationships on the most innocent levels. Beneath the most entertaining stories, each of Hill's movies contains some expression of child-like sexuality..." And then I go on to explain that aspect of his individual movies. (Of The Sting, it is the strength of the buddy-buddy relationships.)

I'd forgotten all that long ago. I strongly favored the auteur theory. It made filmgoing more fun for me.

Then came semiotics in the 1970s. Noel Burch, I believe, the Crockhead references. But if he knew what he was talking about, he'd have thrown in a little Christian Metz or Roland Barthes. I'd have enjoyed hearing what Barthes thought about The Sting.

There are a lot of ways to dissect The Sting, I'm sure. The Crockhead didn't find one. I hope he enjoyed the movie. I understand the projection and the audience -- although it was in a big old movie palace -- left much to be desired. He would have enjoyed the movie much more and been able to study it with greater depth and understanding had he simply rented the DVD and watched it at home. He makes a mean bowl of popcorn, I know.

Although there is no such thing as "Lacanian-Althusserian cinematography" (or at least I certainly hope not), there is a place for a semiotic deconstruction of The Sting and I hope someone undertakes it. If I had gone to the screening, I'd have been tempted to put the movie in its place -- how the cultural and sociological references of the movie were reshuffled to fit society thirty years later, compared to the way it was understood when originally released; how the economics of the movie, then and now, come into play yet again at the box office (my parents, for example, went to see this movie at the same screening because of the cost of the tickets, compared to paying three times as much if they'd gone to see Prairie Home Companion); how the political situation of the era compared to today, where I think there may be some interesting parallels to be made; how the buddy film has changed, or not, since those years when it seemed that The Sting was released as a kind of nostalgic hopefulness...

Other than those thoughts, I have no idea what in the world Crockhead thought he was trying to do with this review. But I hope he tries again some day, but taking a movie seriously by using his eyes, ears, and head instead of Google.

Amishlaw said...

Thank you, pg, for posting a comment that outdid the post about which you were commenting. (Oh, and by the way, the "Lacanian-Althusserian" theory actually does exist.)

PG said...

I know (of) Lacan and Althusser. I was skeptical that their perspectives could be applied to cinematography. You're welcome.

Amishlaw said...

Well, of course, all of us intellectuals know Lacan and Althusser like we know bacon and eggs. I'm sorry that your education did not inform you of their theory's relevance to film making. Glad to be of service.

PG said...

No, you still don't get it. I was talking about "cinematography," like photography, the shooting of the movie, the work of the camera, not filmmaking in total. If there really was a reference to Lacan and Althassur in relation to camerawork, I'd like to read about it. Defining terms is what so much of theoretical criticism comes down to. I thought L&A were about psychology mostly, but I don't know for sure. Maybe they found psychological relevance in pans and crane shots; they could have. It seems to me you are equating cinematography with filmmaking in general.

Dan S said...

I saw The Sting once. I don't know what either of you are talking about, but I liked it real good. I especially liked the trick ending - that was so surprising.

If you want to see Paul Newman at his best, go see Cars. He sure was convincing as an old car in that movie. Pretty good for an 80 year old, I'd say.

PG said...

Well, by now everyone has surely stopped reading this, but there is yet another thing worth pointing out, and that relates to Guy Debord and the Situationists. These anarchists were the direct descendents of Dada and, as such, beings after my own heart. Their actual group disbanded two years before The Sting was made and nothing I know about them would indicate that they would care to fart in the general direction of movies at all. Once again, my curiosity is piqued. What would a Situationist take on The Sting have been? I know the Surrealists of the 1920s used to go to movies in the middle and watch with great joy and appreciation -- until the moment when they made sense of the narrative, at which point they left abruptly. The movies have barely changed today. The predictability is deadening. The one twist in The Sting is predicted in the very title. Why bother?

The Decider said...

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

At the end of 1967, Guy Debord in _The Society of the Spectacle_ and Raoul Vaneigem in _The Revolution of Everyday Life_ presented the most elaborate expositions of Situationist theory which had a widespread influence in France during the 1968 student rebellion. Many of the most famous slogans which were scribbled on the walls of Paris were taken from their theses, such as FREE THE PASSIONS, NEVER WORK, LIVE WITHOUT DEAD TIME. Members of the Situationist International (SI) co-operated with the _enrages_ from Nanterre University in the Occupations COmmittee of the Sorbonne, an assembly held in permanent session. On 17 May, the Committee sent the following telegram to the Communist Party of the USSR:


rdl said...

I do intend to come back and read all of this (when i have more time), in the meantime I think maybe you guys ought to take up boxing.

Amishlaw said...

Good idea, rdl. (The boxing, not reading all the b.s. that has been strewn around.) Will you be my second?

PG said...

Wait a minute. You started it. The only b.s. was of your own making. I saw Prairie Home Companion tonight. It is a great movie and I'll tell you why tomorrow morning, on my own blog, on my own terms, in my own inimitable auteur way.

Debra Hope said...

From Macbeth's soliloquy in act 5, scene 5 of William Shakespeare's Macbeth:

"Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
''Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing..."

Amishlaw said...

Debra, Debra, Debra, who are you calling an "idiot?" I Hope it's not me; whom you've known for 35 years. (I Hope it's not BECAUSE you've known me for 35 years.)

Debra Hope said...

This was just my reaction to this post and all the incongruous, incoherent, indecipherable, inconsequential and inconsistent comments (yup, I've got a thesaurus, too!). I watch movies to be entertained. Period. I soon forget most of them. I much prefer books. But, hey, if the shoe fits . . .

Jess said...

Gosh, kids, The Sting hasn't been this much fun since 1937! Er, -73! Whenever! I'm a sucker for a good twist!