Thursday, July 23, 2015

Audient Auscars: Around the World in 80 Days

This is the seventh in my 2015 series Audient Auscars, in which I clean up my personal best picture list of shame, chronologically, over the course of the year.

Now this was a chore.

I've approached some of the films I've watched in this series with trepidation and skepticism, but none before now has punished me the way Around the World in 80 Days punished me. The 174-minute running time was pretty much a guarantee that I wouldn't make it through in one sitting, but it actually took me three. And each sitting was worse than the one before.

Among nearly all of the now more than 80 best picture winners I've seen, I have at least recognized the superiority of some aspect of it that made it worth so honoring. The 1956 best picture winner may be the first instance where I really don't get it. Oh, I get why people saw it -- in 1956, they had no better way to see the far-flung locales included here, all of which were shot on location. I suppose that is superficially impressive, though far less so today, when we take the ability to travel the world virtually for granted. And really, the only reason why the shoot was even able to go ahead was because producer Michael Todd did a bunch of the financing with his own money.

But what was so appalling about this movie is how little there is to it. I have seen more attention to character development in a porn movie. The two main characters -- uptight British rich person Phileas Fogg (David Niven) and his goofy manservant Passepartout (Cantiflas) -- remain utterly unchanged from the beginning to the end of the movie. Fogg has been challenged by the poncey, stuffy members of his London club that he can't make it around the world in 80 days. He then sets out to prove them wrong, with a large amount of money at stake on either side. And that's the only motivation this guy has. He has no other character traits that are going to be prodded and tested during the course of the narrative. Oh, things will happen to him, but he maintains a blase detachment from them that is utterly off-putting. His whole attitude to the experience is this appearance of needing to find a clean location where he can drink some tea and eat some crumpets. I think that's supposed to be funny, but the film has no idea how to play it for comedy. Therefore, Fogg just goes through the movie sitting prissily on various transports, nary a ruffle in any of his outfits. The only things we really know about him is that he is famous for being punctual and that he loves the card came whist. Beyond that, he's a total blank.

The guy who does get his outfits ruffled is Passepartout, played by the Mexican film star Passepartout. It's unclear what his heritage is supposed to be because his name is clearly French, yet he is always saying "Si senor" to Fogg and running all sorts of ridiculous errands on his behalf. Throughout this movie, Cantiflas is basically doing his best Charlie Chaplin impersonation, and the set pieces devised for him are at about that level. This is not to suggest that a good Chaplin set piece is not a wonderful thing, just that Cantiflas' inevitably lesser version of that, shoehorned in this epic travelogue, just seems out of place. At least Passepartout is a man of action and gets to do some heroic things, though the film also paints him as a bit of a fool who is always chasing a skirt or doing something that is otherwise illogical and detrimental to the efficiency of their travel schedule. That said, he's the only one who seems to interact with the local surroundings with any sense of wonder or joy. The most Fogg does is smile wanly at some native custom or other.

And let's get into that troubling aspect of the film. It's incredibly racist. Or if not overtly racist, then at least extraordinarily myopic in its presentation of other cultures. In nearly every location where they spend any time, Fogg observes some local custom from some real or metaphorical pedestal and gives it his condescending blessing by seeming to display a paternal sense of pride over its primitive cuteness. I'm sure the movie thought it was being incredibly inclusive and multi-cultural, but the locals are, almost without exception, just paraded out as a curiosity and not presented as real people. And then there are the moments that are just downright wrong. In India, they rescue a princess from being burned on a funeral pyre with her husband by savage locals. She then follows them on the rest of their journey. The movie is excessively cruel to both kinds of "Indians," as Native Americans are later showing attacking the train they're taking across the U.S. I can't think of a better way to underscore the alleged savagery of a people than to indicate that you cannot successfully cross a country as large as the United States by train without being attacked by them.

Giving the movie even more of the feeling of a stuffed shirt is that it is constantly blaring the pompous ode to British might, "Rule Britannia," which gives the whole thing a completely unwarranted sense of self-importance. It's as though only a person of such particularly British perspicacity could tackle such a heroic world conquering as Fogg is tackling. It's almost sickening.

This movie is just shoddy technically as well. The editing is just awful, as many scenes end on abrupt fades that always come a few beats earlier than they feel like they should come. And aside from a few gimmicky camera tricks -- like placing a camera just behind the old-timey bicycle Fogg is riding in London, so it follows him from behind -- it is utterly unremarkable in terms of new technical ground broken. The cinematography, I suppose, looks good, but it's in the service of something completely empty.

Let's discuss a few more aspects of this movie that are worth commenting on.

One kind of weird thing about it, which actually prepared me for something I thought I might like, is that it begins with a preamble by none other than Edward R. Murrow, who introduces the film to us. That's a very dated technique, but I thought it did give the idea that this might be something historically significant I was watching. The whole premise of this preamble is to discuss how Jules Verne imagined the future, but it spends much of its time, curiously, on showing us segments of George Melies' A Trip to the Moon. Like, minutes of footage from that film. Odd, to say the least.

Then there are the celebrity cameos. The movie is a veritable Where's Waldo? of the spot the celebrity game, and I must admit I probably didn't spot half of them, simply because I'm less familiar with who the celebrities were in 1956 than I would be now. But few of the cameos were particularly interesting. One of the most prominent cameos is Old Blue Eyes, Frank Sinatra, who is the piano player in the San Francisco bar/restaurant that I found to be one of the film's most annoying scenes -- Cantiflas and some guy spend most of the scene feeding each other from a buffet. You see the back of the piano player a couple times, but he is otherwise unimportant to the scene. Then at the very end, Sinatra turns around and looks at the camera, symbolically if not actually winking. Isn't the function of a celebrity cameo supposed to be that the celebrity is actually doing something of note? Just playing the piano -- an otherwise meaningless component of the scene -- is not enough for us to have the intended "Oh, wow, that's Frank Sinata!" (Though I was pleased that I was actually able to identify him, unlike many of the others.) It's all just incredibly self-congratulatory.

Oh, and speaking of celebrities -- Shirley MacLaine is in this movie. I saw it in the opening credits, then didn't think about it again until the closing credits when I saw her name again. And then I finally said, "Ohhh, she must have played the princess." That's right, she played the princess saved from the savages in India who meant to burn her on a funeral pyre. Her character is so underdeveloped and such an afterthought, despite having possibly the third most screen time of anyone in the movie, that I was not even able to identify it as MacLaine while I was watching. That's how inept this movie is.

I could never have imagined that I would say this, but the 2004 remake of Around the World in 80 Days, which I saw in order to review it some ten years ago, is actually better than the original. That one I give only 2.5 stars. This one I give a full star less than that.

Okay, let's wipe our palette clean for August. Oops, no wait. I've heard that 1958 winner Gigi is morally reprehensible. This too shall pass.

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