Sunday, September 4, 2011

Yes, Really with Wilde.Dash #24: Giant (1956) vs. On Golden Pond (1981)

The usual caveat: Believe it or not, for someone totally obsessed with movies, I do a lot of selective editing, snubbing, and ignoring. That is to say: there are a whole lot of well-known movies I've actually never bothered to watch. I've spent a lot of time hunting down obscurities and not quite as much time seeing the movies you've probably been watching since you were 10 years old. Because of this, in conversation I frequently have this interaction. Me: "I've never actually seen that movie" You: "What? I've seen a movie you haven't?" Me: "Yes" You: "How have you not seen that movie?" Me: "I never wanted to" You: "Really?" Me: "Yes, really." Thus: Yes, Really with Wilde.Dash a feature in which I fill in my pop culture education, watch all the boring basics, and let you know whether or not I decided they were worth my time. 



Two films enter, two films leave.  This may make for one of the most anticlimactic cage matches of all time, perhaps because pitting the all-too pointlessly epic Giant against the decidedly epic-proof On Golden Pond is a decision made more as a timesaver than debate.  On the Venn Diagram, the two films would find their overlapping centers in their focus on family.  When it comes to scope and scale, Giant is the heavyweight.  We’re talking 210 minutes of open landscape after open landscape with a trio of deceased, glamorous titans.  George Stevens directed this 3+ hour Texan spectacular, in which Elizabeth Taylor and her violet eyes take on the role of ranching matriarch, marry a gay man playing Southern straight (Rock Hudson), fends off the stealthy advances of James Franco’s squinty predecessor (James Dean), and gives birth to a future Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper).  While I’m not particularly well-versed in the work of George Stevens, it would appear I’m not partial to the content he liked to toy with.  Shane puts me to sleep, Giant made me space out.  If half of the events detailed had actually occurred in the context just mentioned, this movie would have been a postmodern explosion of awesome.  Unfortunately, it’s far more cut and dry a mannered saga than all that.  On this ranch, we concern ourselves with proper marriages, battling with old enemies, and maintaining our respectability at all costs. 

There’s a tedium to the overwrought acting here that comes, I think, from lack of a real plot to rest the Technicolor efforts upon.  Taylor, Hudson, and Dean bicker and boast each other off the screen until their hair is powdered white and we have to marvel at just how far old age make-up has come.  My parents had always told me I didn’t need to see Giant, that it had bored them both to tears when they were younger. Recently, though, they’d changed their tune.  They said “wait, you’ve never seen Giant?” like all these years I’d been remiss.  Mom, Dad, in many ways I believe you were right the first time.   Giant may seem like a heavyweight king, but it’s a reputation largely based off of rumor.   When you gather that many big names (and it’s one of Dean’s only performances) people are blinded by the names in lights.  In memory, we think that it must have been good because it simply couldn’t have been anything else.  In reality, viewing it is a heavy, brain-cell killing affair in which old-Hollywood soap operatics are chronicled at length.


By comparison, On Golden Pond is a distinguished, good-guy prizefighter.  On Golden Pond is a little like throwing Rocky Balboa into the ring.  It’s a nice, quiet affair with actors who have trained hard and are established not only by reaching tabloid levels of glamour, but by acting (on stage and screen) for decades and decades.  Their wrinkles are not the pencil drawn ones of Giant, they’re real and earned.  In many ways, the film is a product I would prefer to avoid.  Its dramas are minimal, its nature too sugary sweet, and it does nothing of any great appeal to a pessimist.  On Golden Pond may claim to be a drama in which a father and daughter attempt to communicate against all odds, but we all know that’s not so.  Jane Fonda tries, here and there, to bait her real life father into a tense scene, but she comes off as an overripe brat too full of her own self-importance to understand that Henry Fonda’s Norman is just a stubborn curmudgeon going about his business.  Truth is, I would hate this movie if it weren’t for the two seasoned veterans at its helm.  I love watching Katharine Hepburn in nearly anything, and there’s a great comedic element to her performance here that gave way to a million late night impersonations.  She runs around the screen just being your batty old relative, repeatedly referring to Norman as an “old poop” and making honest sentiment something we feel like we should maybe care about instead of deride.  Somehow, Hepburn and Fonda can make the Hallmark Special caliber of the material into something special, even when followed around by a cringe-worthy score chock full of cheeseball piano elevator music.

Still, while I didn’t love On Golden Pond and certainly couldn’t find much that didn’t qualify as wholly predictable within it, somehow, it’s difficult to nitpick at and harder to hate.  Sometimes, I suppose, it can be nice to see a film in which the conflicts are minimal and families bounce quickly back from their arguments.  It’s more real, I suppose, than much of the heightened drama surrounding those rip-them-to-shreds tales of suburbia I tend to gravitate towards.   It so happens that in reality we do often have marriages that age gracefully and couples who love each other despite their individual faults.  The actors are strong enough to remind us that this can be so without the film feeling forced or false, though the set pieces and narrative action are so self-contained and humble that they become almost frustratingly wide-eyed.  I can only watch separate generations bond on a fishing boat for so long before becoming weary; which means that though it may technically topple the bland Giant, in terms of rewatchability, On Golden Pond meets it with a draw.

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