Recently, while feeling gastro-enterologically unwell, I found myself being rewarded by the same treat I have experienced as an incapacitated person since childhood – the opportunity to watch TV in the daytime.
And there, reveling in sanctioned laziness, after a night of acid reflux and projectile expulsion of previously ingested comestibles, I discover to my virtually squealing delight that Turner Classic Movies is about to unspool The Black Swan, not the most recent “Black Swan” with the tutus and the dancing, but a superior 1942 pirate picture – one Internet survey rated The Black Swan the “Number 8” pirate picture of all time – starring Tyrone Power and Maureen O’Hara.
I could not believe my incredible good fortune. The anticipation of this seafaring distraction instantly elevated my spirits, helping me forget the nearby desecrated bathroom, resultant of my failure to reach the porcelain oasis before “Blast Off!”, and my current inability to ingest anything beyond the occasional Saltine and sips of stomach-soothing herbal tea.
Pirate pictures rank as my second favorite movie genre, behind only old-time westerns (courtroom dramas – the best of them at least – sharing that penultimate rung in a statistical dead heat.)
Aside from the charm of their buccaneering uniqueness – the magnificent old ships, the billowing sails, the endless seas, the expansive skyline stretching to the horizon – as I watched it play out, for the first time, The Black Swan bowled me over with a monumentally satisfying unexpected element – its impeccable storytelling.
How flawlessly they delineated that story! Intricate but clear. Never jumping a plot point, never rushing a transition, a tale of high seas shenanigans, unfolding smoothly and seamlessly, like a classic children’s fairytale. Like a classic tale of any kind.
Follow the trajectory:
He’s a pirate, he’s an increasingly impatient servant of the King, he’s a servant of the King posing as a pirate – or had he always been a pirate, posing as a servant of the King? – he’s the now-revealed “Good Guy” engaged in a desperate struggle for his life, from which he triumphantly emerges – our hero to the end!
Paralleling this loop-hole-free narrative, lies a circuitous love story in which the throb of the swashbuckler’s heart first hates him, then hates him more, then despises him (after he kidnaps her), then betrays flickering moments of ambiguity, then affords him the benefit of the doubt and finally, she comes to him, not as a passive object of subservience, but as a fully-empowered (for 1942) equal.
I know it’s action-adventure foolishness. But I am telling you, watching that movie unfolding so eminently skillfully made me nigh swoon with appreciation.
Inevitably leading to my Old-Guy “Disgruntlement Paragraph” – which I encourage you to dispute publicly in your comments – asserting that, from a specifically storytelling perspective, this somewhat silly seafaring saga from 1942 stands tall above the most prestigious “A” pictures of today – I am talking about the stuff that gets trotted out in December for Oscars consideration, not just the “School’s-out”-released kinderfare of summer – in categories of clarity, cohesion, consistency and comprehensiveness.
And those, ladies and gentlemen, are only the “C’s.”
From a storytelling standpoint – he argues, perhaps not for the first time – even the commercial crowd pleasers of yesteryear were more conscientiously constructed than what are purported to be the highest caliber movies the studios put out today. This deterioration saddens me. Argue if you will, but I am aware of no other art medium where the quality can be graphed to be sliding consistently, and seemingly deliberately, downhill.
Movies today, especially the major studio ones, are like a poet who has forgotten how to rhyme.
Okay, not all poetry is supposed to rhyme. New forms evolve, and it is necessary to evaluate them on their own terms. But is that also what’s happening with movies?
Is there a new form of storytelling where it is no longer the movies’ highest priority to make simple and believable sense, their unassailable logic becoming instead merely a “Writer’s Choice” alternative? (Those “Matrix” movies. Did they make any sense at all?)
Until the next time.
On Best of the West, we did an episode that contained a communal square dance scene. I mentioned proudly that the barn dance was a reliable staple in many classic John Ford westerns, adding however than, unlike in our version, Ford’s square dances invariably evolved into bare-knuckled donnybrooks.
My boss at the time, the sagacious Ed. Weinberger, immediately chimed in,
“That’s because Ford knew where the money was!”
Pirate pictures knew they needed more than a fluidly told story – or even tight-fitting pantaloons – to get audiences into the theaters. The “pirate version” of the donnybrook was the elaborately choreographed, steel-against-steel, hero-versus-villain, life and death swordfight.
In pirate pictures, the swordfight is where the money is. (It’s like the final shootout in westerns, but it lasts longer.)
And so, thinks I, why not end this with a swordfight?
It’s not the movies.
But why should it not work equally well for blog posts?