>The Problem of the Period Piece

>The Courtier has a habit of not watching films when they first come out in a flush of reviews and awards, but rather letting them ferment and catching them sometime later. Last evening’s viewing, for example, was of 1997’s “L.A. Confidential”, a movie that garnered the adapters of James Ellroy’s novel an Oscar for Best Screenplay and Kim Basinger a Best-Supporting Actress Oscar, for reasons which he does not understand. The film is, quite simply, a jumbled mess of a plot, and having not read the novel on which it was based, The Courtier is in no position to judge how well the celluloid adapted the paper version of the story. Moreover, there is nothing particularly noteworthy about Ms. Basinger’s performance to have earned her an award, let alone a nomination, for what amounts to little more than simply slinking about in silk gowns towering over the petite Russell Crowe, and duly taking her clothes off – though mind you, none of the other nominees that year had done anything particularly remarkable upon the screen either.

Given that “L.A. Confidential” is set in the 1950’s, a great deal of attention is paid to detail in order to evoke Los Angeles in the post-war period. However, as can sometimes happen in epic period films where things get out of hand, there are certain details of the movie which seemed rather jarringly inaccurate. Again, having not read the novel, The Courtier is constrained to examine the film alone, but would draw the viewer’s attention to a couple of points.

From the beginning the choice of Veronica Lake, as the film star on whom Kim Basinger’s prostitute character is based, seems rather odd for the time period. Lake’s career as a pin-up and box office draw was more or less over by 1950. Her popularity, both as a fashion icon and as an actress, peaked during World War II. Her last film with her frequent co-star, Alan Ladd, was made in 1948. She subsequently made only film in 1949, none in 1950, and made one poorly received film in 1951. Apart from a few subsequent appearances and a couple of forgettable projects in the 1960’s, that was pretty much it.

While there were a number of details in the film, such as interiors, which were clearly painstakingly researched, some of what actually takes place struck The Courtier as being very unlikely for the 1950’s. For example, when the elderly mother of a slain prostitute arrives at the morgue to identify what is believed to be her daughter’s body, she does not recognize the girl on the slab at first because of plastic surgery and hair dying her daughter had undergone. She is asked by the police whether her daughter had any distinguishing birth marks, and she replies that yes, her daughter had a birthmark on her hip.

At this point the coroner pulls back the sheet over the corpse down to the hip, revealing the birthmark, but at the same time giving the mother (and the audience) a full view of the dead girl completely unclothed. The Courtier openly scoffed to his fellow viewers at the way this was presented. Even in a corrupt and somewhat callous L.A. police department of that particular era, it is very hard to believe that the girl’s chest would not have been at least partially covered with something for the sake of modesty, particularly when an elderly lady is the identifying witness, and even more so when the elderly lady is the mother of the deceased.

Historical accuracy in cinema is always a difficult burden for the filmmaker to bear, because sometimes the problem is an anachronism, while at other times it is a matter of taste or feel. As time passes details which do not seem jarring at the time of a film’s release, later on come to take on something of a comic effect. Think for example, of the very beautiful Julie Christie’s rather 1960’s hairstyles and make-up in “Doctor Zhivago”, which is set during and after the Russian Revolution in 1917. Or sometimes it is the sound of the actor which seems jarring, such as that of John Wayne in his cameo as the Roman centurion witnessing to Christ’s divinity in the Crucifixion scene of 1965’s “The Greatest Story Ever Told”. Again, like “L.A. Confidential” itself these are BIG films, with many actors and subplots, and the more complex the action the more likely it is that some parts will simply feel out of place.

It is interesting to note that oftentimes, though admittedly not always, period pieces made for the small screen are often far more likely to engage the viewer into believing they have traveled back in time. Take the recent success on this side of the pond of the BBC miniseries “Cranford”, based on the group of novels by Mrs. Gaskell, or American efforts such as the television series “Mad Men”, which for its part has done a great deal to bring back interest in a certain “look” to popular dress among the more discerning citizens of this country. No doubt keener eyes will detect anachronisms in these productions, but on the whole the viewer does not find himself scratching his head and saying, “Really?” while watching these works.

As with any artistic endeavor, it is easy for the armchair critic to, well, criticize. It is not to say that one can make a period piece with the odd anachronism and necessarily have it fail. Many historically-based films have certain inaccuracies to them which we brush aside for the sake of the good story we are enjoying and the overall “rightness” of the efforts. The much-beloved musical “The Sound of Music” for example, set in the 1930’s, is full of errors both in its adaptation from Maria von Trapp’s book “The Trapp Family Singers”, and also in certain elements of the Nazi anschluss into Austria. Yet the film itself is so charming and so familiar, that most viewers simply overlook these things and never question what they are seeing.

The kiss of death, in The Courtier’s opinion, is to have a viewer start to shake his head during the film, for ultimately that is when the maker of a historical film fails. Once the audience is no longer willing to suspend its disbelief, it will spend the rest of the picture finding points to criticize and pick at, waiting for the piece to be over. Such is the risk a filmmaker takes in setting his work in a bygone era: when done well, the escapism which all viewers seek in the cinema is satisfyingly fulfilled. When it is not handled well however, no amount of flashy antique automobiles or Richard Neutra interiors can return the viewer – or at least, this reviewer – to the filmmaker’s fantasy world.

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