Sunday, April 18, 2010

Captain's Movies

Many who have spent a lifetime in it can tell us less of love than a child that lost a dog yesterday.
---Thornton Wilder

Like just about all of the viewing world I crave the novel or new, but there are some movies that can be enjoyed over and over again, and in fact the more times you see them the more you notice and learn to appreciate them. Meet Joe Black is one that I never tire of watching. To me and the wife, since many of the movies I'll be discussing will be ones we watch when there's nothing else on that strikes our fancy.
This movie has three things going for it: A) a first rate cast. Anthony Hopkins in what I think is by far his best role. Brad Pitt who does a superb job of playing Death as an innocent. Claire Forlani as the daughter and love interest, Marcia Gay Harden as Allison, the other daughter, Jeffrey Tambor as the son-in-law, and Jake Weber as the corporate mole initiating a devious plot to steal the family business. Their performances were sincere and rang true.
B) An amazing musical score by Thomas Newman. This was the first movie soundtrack I had to get that wasn't from a musical. I listen to it all the time. A few years back a fellow teacher asked the teachers lounge if anyone had a CD that would make good background music for his students to study by. I gave him my copy of this CD, he returned it that afternoon and said he was going straight to a music store to buy it. It's perfect soft, relaxing background music. a mixture of symphonic sound, soft big band and it ends with the raggae version of Wonderful World and Over The Rainbow.
C) An entertaining story that touches on very serious themes: Death, love, meaning, purpose, legacy, family.
All works of fiction require a suspension of disbelief. It seems much of the viewing public found it hard to suspend their disbelief that an abstract force of nature, Death, could assume human form and wish to learn what's it like to be alive. When I checked on the move at Yahoo Movies it's been graded at a C by the critics and a B- by the general public, which is rather disappointing. The movie is better than their grades indicate.
Like reading an epic poem you don't understand all of it on the first reading or in this case one viewing. The first time you watch it you get the overall feel and the plot and a gist of the theme. It's an in-depth look at "happiness" and how death and love are intertwined in determining it.
This movie goes beyond the usual superficial Hollywood look at happiness of living happily ever after and delving into the Platonic concept of true happiness only being determined at life's end, when the masterpiece of you life's work is finished and if you are satisfied with what you've accomplished. What Thomas Jefferson meant using the term "pursuit of happiness" in the declaration.
William Parish (Anthony Hopkins) literally had Death (Brad Pitt) come knocking on his door. They strike a bargain that if Bill will let Death follow him around and learn what's it's like to be alive then he can live a little longer and set things right in his life. The next day he changes his mind about selling his company telling his board that he doesn't think it right to sell his life's work to another man for money that the right to his legacy needs to be earned. The board headed by Drew (Jake Weber) is naturally curious about the man with Bill Parish known as Joe Black and become concerned about what this means.
Drew quickly feels threatened by Joe first as a rival for the affections of Susan, Bill's unmarried daughter, and an impediment to the financial merger that he's arranged. Here the movie could have fallen into the melodrama stereotype of the classic villain, but Drew's character is sarcastic, biting, ruthless, but there's no threat of physical violence. He tricks Qwince, the son-in-law to say something to the board they take the wrong way and gets them to vote for the merger and push Bill Parish out of the company.
While this is going on Joe and Susan are having a romantic relationship. There is a love scene that at first viewing feels a little flat, mostly because you're expecting nudity. We watch this movie four or five times a year and it's been out now for twelve years. Every time I see this scene I find something fresh and new and gain more respect for Brad Pitt as an actor faced with a very hard role of being the man as an innocent and showing wonder, joy, excitement, tenderness and love by facial expressions. It's remarkable.
As the romantic relationship develops between Joe and Susan, Bill naturally becomes very upset. Who would want his daughter to fall in love with Death? Or even worse Death fall in lover with her.
It's at this stage that Love is very adroitly addressed. There's the understandable expression of love from father to daughters since he knows there's little time. The pivotal scene in the movie is between Joe and Qwince when he asks him how he knows Allison loves him. Qwince says, "She knows the worst thing there is about me and it doesn't matter... That if you love each other there are no secrets and that sets you free..."
When Joe tells Bill that he loves Susan and is taking her with him they have a heated exchange with Bill arguing that this isn't love. "Love is about doing what is good for the other person not yourself, and most importantly doing no harm."
The most poignant moment comes at Bill's birthday party where he is forced to give a speech. It's short and touching he ends it by saying, "65 years, don't they go by in a blink."
There's subtle humor throughout. The infatuation of Joe with peanut butter, Drews frustration in trying to run a board meeting with Joe always interrupting, and at the end when Joe is complimenting him, Bill says, "Don't blow smoke up my ass, you'll ruin the autopsy."

With more viewings I've started to notice more of the setting and how it playing into the mood and theme of the film. The music is perfect. Of course why talk about love and death among the prols so Bill is very wealthy flying to work in a helicopter, living in a lavish mansion surrounded by servants. At first as you see them walking around in this mansion the thought is that, rich people don't have much taste in art. There are gawdawful painting almost everwhere. Splashes of paint thrown on the canvas is the best way to describe them. This is get you to ignore the art. When you get to the boardroom there is this monstrosity behind where Bill Parish sits or most of the time stands. It's nothing but colors and lines and objects with seeming little sense to it. Then after years of seeing the movie I caught something. When Bill is standing looking at the board after they've forced him into retirement I notice that on one side of his head is this black square box with a round cutout circling his throat and on the other side of his head is solid red. The subliminal message of getting his head cut off. I may be a little slow since I've watched the movie for over twelve years and hadn't caught this and maybe others spotted it right away. Anyway I always find ways of being impressed with this movie. The wife just loves looking at Brad Pitt with his Robert Redford bleached blonde hair and that's enough for her.

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