Imperious tempers must be delivered with a register of pride, vision and authority. All empires and kingdoms are strongholds of individual pursuits more than world-building enterprises. History tells us the same. Our own retrospective understanding of the grandiose prowess of the ancient world is built from that point of reference.
Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s CLEOPATRA, armed with its verbosity and displays of statecraft, is a proper Technicolor spectacle. But more than anything, it is justly cognizant of the cult of appearance and hubris that defines ambitious undertakings in the name of wars, conquests and riches. Shakespearean in approach, it employs wonderful performers in the form of Elizabeth Taylor, Rex Harrison and Richard Burton to achieve appropriate visual scale and intimacy.
Intimacy, here, is in the interrelationships that unite the titular queen, Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony across continents. The passage of years and eras then reflects itself in the screenplay.
This cinephile is lucky to have watched it. There is a premium to such period pieces, a certain felicity and precision that incorporates the gravitas of indoor sets and outer frontiers captured on camera. They just don’t make it like this anymore.
We often make efforts to decode the grey areas of our life. After finally watching this Orson Welles classic, I am in deeper debt to its understanding of human nature. Its monochromatic lensing, with the thrust on shadows and dark recesses of spaces, is very much akin to a horror-show except that in place of baser instincts, there is a hollowed-out conscience. It’s as if the grey areas of not just one renowned man but of all humanity are being demystified by some hypnotic surrender to this vision of adulthood.
The makings of an individual life, the ascending scales, idealism and national ethos play a vital role behind the man and the myth here. But to this cinephile, the second half is more poignant and relatable as it looks at his internalised demise through those he deeply loves and yearns to make special through their muddled vocations. For him, it’s the pride of his unique station in the cultural lexicon as well as an abiding duty to oversee the personal prosperity of his better half, a failed opera singer. This relationship gives the cinematic work a moral heft that’s complex, just like the pitfalls of human nature.
The journey towards the end-point where every monument of love and power that Kane creates for sanctity ultimately succumbs to emotional compunction is stirring. The monuments- the imposing arches, the grand staircase, hallways, statues brought from all corners of the globe, the opera house and a retinue of housekeepers- become dust, memorials to the fickle ways of time and social mores.
I also relate with the titular man’s middle name ‘Foster’- made to live with his mentor and leave his parents as a child, all the people in his circle are essentially constituents of a foster unit. His childhood and its symbolism through ‘Rosebud’ becomes more exacting. He’s a child who never found a home or a place in others’ hearts. Hence, he’s lonely at the top. There’s the frenzy of success and the haunting, sobering impact of its after-effect here in the editing and overall essence.
THE WIZARD OF OZ(1939)
It had taken me an eternity to finally watch this legendary title. It ties in with another MGM classic in GONE WITH THE WIND which I had only seen in 2017. That both films shared the same director, Victor Fleming and released in the same banner year for Technicolor blockbusters, mark a dual watershed for cinematic history.
Now we all know of this fantastical, fabled yarn centering Dorothy, her beloved dog Toto(easily the sprightliest canine in popular culture before The Artist’s iconic Uggie, the terrier), her journey from Kansas to Oz and her bonds of amity with Tinman, Lion and Scarecrow running parallel to the Wicked Witch of the West’s schemes to outrun them.
If the prologue and the epilogue, shot in brownish sepia tones, teem with Dorothy’s innocence and humble life on the farm, her point of separation from her beloved soulmate Toto and flight from home and eventual return, the crux of the plot is a celebration of Oz’s colourful, irrepressibly charming world of wonders. It is a world where speaking trees, painted landscapes, an army of munchkins and a beautiful ‘good’ witch are all products of authorial imagination as much as a simultaneous confrontation with adult authority. It is a form of escape. The teenage mind explores both ends of the spectrum here.
For me, personally, it’s the intelligence with which the script lets Dorothy’s dream-vision, informed by her separation from Toto and then bout with fever, make way for Oz to materialize so that the three farmhands back home become Lion, Tinman and Scarecrow in her fantasy; while the lady who wants to take away Toto from her manifests in the form of The Wicked Witch of the West.
To me, that affirmation of the dream-vision in the epilogue cements the power of creativity and imagination, to uphold the manner in which every fantasy springs from human psychology, especially if it involves children. The titular wizard’s identity further amplifies motion-picture advancements in early stages of the 20th century. THE WIZARD OF OZ is also a charming musical and all performers are at their agile best.
To watch it is to be in the thick of all the wonder that childhood naturally entails. To watch it is to ultimately be an honorary child at heart.