Friday, March 27, 2009

Shitty Movies By Great Directors, Episode 4: Steven Spielberg's "1941"

I suspect that I'm not going to have a lot to say about Steven Spielberg's 1941, because my complaints about the film generally boil down to the same thing over and over again. We'll get to that later; first let's talk about Spielberg's body of work.

Spielberg may be my least favorite of the directors I'll cover in this column. Which isn't to say I haven't loved a lot of his movies, I am classifying him as a "great director" after all. I just don't think his output has been as consistent as the other directors we've gone over. Wedged in his filmography, between admittedly numerous and noteworthy good and great films, are some unremarkably decent films (Hook, Catch Me If You Can, arguably Minority Report), several mediocre misfires (AI, The Lost World, The Terminal), and a beloved classic that I like but have never been a huge fan of (Jaws). And he has made at least one other irredeemably shitty movie, War of the Worlds, which I seriously considered writing up but had to disqualify because it actually seems to be well liked by the majority of people. Despite the objective fact that it sucks ass. It's probably for the best that I don't write it up; it's such a perfect example of dynamic filmmaking paired with an embarrassingly awful story/script that my post would probably end up too much like my post for What Lies Beneath.

Still, I'm not going to deny that the man is a genius. Even a mediocre Spielberg movie tends to feel like an achievement on a technical level. The man knows how to tell a story visually. My personal favorite of his is probably Munich, because I think it represents the perfect combination of his blockbuster skills (it is a superb thriller) with his artisitc and intellectual sensibilities (it's the most moving and effective movie I've seen about our post-9/11 concerns about war, revenge, terrorism, etc.).

In a four way tie for second place would be the Indiana Jones series, even my least favorite of which kicks the balls off the vast majority of films that pass for "event" movies. (And no, I'm not referring to Crystal Skull as my least favorite, asshole). The rest of his best stuff tends to be a mix of movie magic/delight with strong suspense/thrill-ride overtones (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Duel, hell even E.T. is kinda intense at times).

I used to be a huge fan of Saving Private Ryan. Over the years I think I've slowly realized that it has a greatly flawed script that relies too much on silly coincidences and the overstatement of dramatic themes, but I still love the performances and the relentlessly intense and convincing staging of the battle scenes.

That's the thing about Spielberg, his best films are just so fucking exciting. Lots of movies, lots of good movies, it's easy to tune out during or not pay close attention to. But when Spielberg is on his game, his movies command your undivided attention. You sit forward in your seat, your heart rate increases, you don't want to miss a second. Maybe sometimes it's just empty spectacle, but when the spectacle is this great why does it need to be anything more?

The problem with 1941 isn't that it's an empty spectacle (although there's no denying that's what it is), it's that it confuses spectacle with comedy. Over and over again. In every scene of the movie. This is a sprawling, nearly 2 1/2 hour long epic WWII comedy with a cast of I'd say at least 20 major characters, but there is scarcely a laugh in it. Where most comedies have jokes, 1941 has explosions and gun fire and large set pieces involving choreographed dance routines and full-scale riots. It's presented in a manner that suggests it's supposed to be funny, but I'll be damned if I could find the humor.

It's perplexing to me that this mess was written by Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis. They wrote my favorite movie of all time, Back to the Future, and the humor, structure and complexity of its screenplay is a monumental part of why. It's tightly constructed, perfectly paced and jammed full of little jokes and clever references, hidden details that reward multiple viewings. 1941 is a big, sloppy mess, with a plot that drags on, filled with too many characters to keep track of and a load of needless tangents.

The movie is set just after the Pearl Harbor attack, and the plot revolves around the pervading paranoia in California that the Japanese may be planning an attack on the coast (and, as it turns out, they are). Instead of just zeroing in on one group of characters to see how they react to the situation, the filmmakers opt instead to try to cram in as many different characters as they can possibly imagine might have been involved. There's numerous soldiers, a local family that allows the Army to park a tank in their yard, a bumbling pilot, some supposedly likable young men trying to get laid, a conniving Tim Matheson trying to get laid by Nancy Allen, a submarine full of Japanese, an evil German commander, some locals playing lookout on top of a giant ferris and like a billion other people all vying for a lead role and failing. It's possible, and I'm being generous here, that a few of these characters had some potential for comic shenanigans, if only Spielberg and co. had focused in on them. Instead, no one feels substantial enough in 1941 to make an impact.

Another thing about Back to the Future: it's a charming movie with a lot of likable characters. The characters in 1941 are mostly pains in the ass. I think the film is aiming to make a lot of them lovable, mischievous scamps a la Animal House (hence the presence of John Belushi and Tim Matheson), but they end up coming off as obnoxious dickheads in the vein of Mahoney in Police Academy. Let me give you a for instance. Early in the film, in an attempt to establish a pair of young dorks (who, for a time seem like the main characters until you slowly realize that there are no main characters, only varying degrees of cameos) as likable scamps, there is a whole bit of mischief involving stealing some suits from a department store in order to have nice duds to impress some babes. A pretty basic comedy setup. Problem is, their theoretically hilarious plan to steal the suits involves the dorks setting off a phony air-raid siren in the middle of a crowded department store. Just days after Pearl Harbor.

Think about that shit for a minute. It's like if just a few days after 9/11 some guys pulled the fire alarm in a college dorm and screamed "Al Qaeda!" as a pretext for starting a panty raid. What a couple of assholes. Someone could get hurt.

Most of the scenes in the films are elaborate setups for explosions or car crashes or tank crashes or other such acts of mayhem. The problem is, none of these things are inherently funny. Perhaps the biggest and craziest of all these moments is the finale, when a Japanese submarine attacks an empty amusement park, causing the giant ferris wheel to become unhinged and roll down the boardwalk towards the sea. It's certainly a magnificent sight to behold, and it's energetically staged and clearly and comprehensibly pieced together by Spielberg. But is it funny? Not really.

Most damning to the film, the few moments of mild amusement during 1941 come not because of the elaborate set-pieces, but the occasional charm and wit of the cast. Slim Pickens, playing a farmer abducted by the Japanese, made me smile not so much because he said anything funny, but because he's Slim Pickens and he's likable. Same goes for Dan Ackroyd and Robert Stack. Spielberg and co. blew tens of millions of dollars on elaborate sets and props and special effects, and the only worthwhile parts of the film involve the basic chemistry of the cast.

If you want to get the basic sense of 1941, but you don't want to waste 2 1/2 hours of your life, see if you can just watch the opening. Spielberg attempts to poke a little fun at himself with a Jaws parody. A young, naked woman goes swimming alone. There is ominous music on the soundtrack. Suddenly, something surfaces below her! It''s... it's a submarine! And it lifts her up in the air, naked, stuck to a pole. See, the joke is that it's a sub and not a shark. You were expecting a shark because you've seen Jaws, only you're not really expecting a shark because you know you're watching a comedy. It's big, expensive and impressive looking, and never really leads to a solid laugh. That, ladies and gentlemen, is 1941 in a nutshell.

1 comment:

Fred Topel said...

Good analysis, Dan. If you haven't seen it, there's a TCM documentary on Spielberg, basically an extended interview which is great because he rarely gives them. He knows what went wrong with 1941 and it's fascinating to hear his self-reflection.

BTTF is your favorite? Good call, man. I can get behind that. Tells me a lot about you. You're clearly good people. :)