Tuesday, November 22, 2005

When in Rome...

Subject: Cinema
...do like the Romans. Well, some Romans; others, maybe not so much.

The Romans to "do like": the ones who cavort all day with runaway princesses eating gelato on the Spanish Steps, buzzing around on a Vespa until stopped by the police, and dancing on barges on the river until a fight breaks out and someone gets dunked in the Tiber. Good times, I'm sure. At least, "Roman Holiday" made it seem that way.

Granted, all the principle characters weren't actually playing Romans, but hey, when in Rome!

I hadn't ever seen this quintessential classic proto-"chick flick", oddly enough. And really, the only reason I did finally get around to it is because it was specifically mentioned in two of Koichi Mashimo's shows, "Tylor" and ".hack//SIGN", which can only mean that he must really dig it. So, I needed to see what the fuss was about for myself. Especially now that I know the difference between "Holiday" director William Wyler, and same-era, similarly-named director Billy Wilder.

Wyler is apparently infamous for making his actors go through dozens of takes for particular shots, with precious few hints beyond "it stinks, do it again". However archaic that technique may sound today, it seems that he gets results from it -- I was able to get caught up in the characters, and actually be drawn into the story through them. It was all very basic, simple, and straightforward.

And, of course, the best parallel I could find for what I think Mashimo has been trying to do: the story that's being told with just the eyes, the facial expressions. In fact, with the whole climax at the end, on the surface is the scene and dialogue of a stuffy royal press conference. But the real dialogue was actually in the eyes of Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck. Good stuff.

In general, though, it is a rather dated bit of historical curiosity. There's a pacing and an overbearingly glossy sheen that are unmistakably 1950's Hollywood. And I can't say that I'm really the sort that takes to light romantic comedies very well, no matter what era they're from. But there's good things to learn from it, so I have no regrets with my purchase.

Now, on to the other kind of Romans. Or, at least a continuation of the Rome theme with -- go figure -- the season finale of "Rome". HBO's short "Sopranos-in-a-toga" epic finishes up with a bang... or, perhaps, a squishy thwump. In that the obvious historical climatic event was enacted in its full knife-wielding bloody-frenzy glory. Jealousy, betrayal, remorse and revenge are all packed together in practically every shot. Despite the series' slow start, and a few overall imperfections, it really did build up a nice bit of tension, bring a nice depth to most of the characters and to the world they inhabit, and it really played up the details to make for an involving texture and mood.

One thing particularly outstanding with the climax, though, was how it played out. We all know Julius Ceasar is going to get it. But in a lot of ways, we have a lot of expectations as to how that happens, mostly set up for us by William Shakespeare and Cecil B. DeMille. So when the actually flurry of flashing knives starts, the bloodlust of the conspiring senators overcoming their initial trepidation is shocking -- animalistic and brutal, even. Brutus, destined to play the role of his lineage as "Tyrant slayer", is palpably shocked along with the rest of us. When he's finally thrust forward to finish the job on a bloody, thrashing, desperately dying dictator, the two look each other in the eye.

And it's quite a powerful moment. I think it's made even more powerful by the expectation in the back of your mind for that one little famous line that everybody associates with the event: "Et tu, Brute?". But, obviously, Ceasar can't actually say it; he's gurgling and convulsing and staring Brutus in the eyes with a mixture of fear and shock and betrayal that's just heartbreaking. And the look in Brutus' eyes as he finishes the deed... heartbroken, horrified. The dialogue between them is all in the eyes. Brilliantly done. The entire sequence.

So there you have it! I actually managed to draw a connection between a 1950's light romantic comedy and post-modern graphicly-depicted shock-drama. Tune in next week when I expose the obvious parallel between Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life", and David Lynch's "Blue Velvet", just in time for the holidays!


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