Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Audient Auscars: Patton

This is the 12th in my 2015 series Audient Auscars, in which I'm making quick work of all remaining best picture winners I haven't seen.

We're into the decade I was born now with Patton, the 1970 best picture winner. Which is the only best picture winner from the seventies I hadn't seen.

Patton does not, however, fully feel like a seventies movie -- which may not be surprising, given that the sixties only just ended. It does show progressive signs of moving to the next level in terms of structure and presentation, and it ended up being one of my favorite movies in this challenge so far.

Patton is old-school in the sense that it has an intermission, and that -- on the surface -- it appears to glorify the exploits of a heroic general in World War II. Not too many years before this, a movie like this would have starred John Wayne and it would have been a straight-up jingoistic lovefest for a Great American Soldier. (Or maybe it wouldn't have -- I haven't seen a single John Wayne war movie, so I am only making assumptions about those movies that may not be supported by the evidence.) It also has a lot of mid-level shots of characters in closed shooting environments that were popular throughout the middle decades of last century.

But George Patton, as portrayed in this movie, is not portrayed just as a hero or just as a Great American Soldier -- though he may be both of those things. He's also presented as an irascible bastard whose ability to lead effectively may not be merely a function of his tactical strategies and how much he can motivate and intimidate his soldiers. Truly old-school ideas of military courage and leadership have it that you get the most out of your men by driving them hard and reminding them of the sacredness of their duty. Patton, on the other hand, anticipates the era of greater sensitivity and political correctness in which we now find ourselves, where the psychologies of soldiers must be coddled if you want to get them to perform -- and where fragile psychologies may alone excuse them from performing. It's interesting how many of Patton's fortunes turned on an incident in which he slapped a soldier in front of a room full of people, calling him a coward when the soldier said his nerves were frazzled from the explosions and other combat-related emotional trauma. I fully expected Patton to be the kind of movie in which Patton is considered to be in the right for this reaction, not punished for it.

In fact, I suppose part of me was expecting the same kind of over-the-top portrayal we saw from George C. Scott in Dr. Strangelove six years earlier. The famous opening sequence, in which he gives a rousing speech in front of a backdrop consisting entirely of an American flag, certainly prepared me for that kind of over-the-top performance. (And also let me know the origins of that part in Homer's "Forget it Marge, it's Chinatown" speech that talks about the pile of goo that was your friend's face.) Surely, his casting in that movie was the type of thing that made him a candidate to play Patton in the first place. But while Kubrick's film is a comedy -- a very black comedy -- this is more a tragedy, as the very human-scaled Patton suffers from his failings to understand that he is not fighting battles in the centuries of antiquity, but in today's world, where soldiers' frazzled nerves are something he must contend with. He's a self-stylized man from another time, and says as much on numerous occasions. Oddly, this does not affect his success rate in the field almost at all, but it severely damages his knack for public relations, which end up being a more important factor in his ability to rise, or fail to rise, within a military structure governed as much by politics as battlefield results. And his social failings are ultimately one of the things that most characterize his legacy.

Scott is really good. He's actually understated more often than he is loud and manly, which gives texture to the kind of tragedy we see here. I mean, it's a happy tragedy -- we won World War II, and George Patton was a big part of that. But something is lost on a personal level, and Scott really makes us feel that. Interestingly, in the course of reading up on Patton I learned that Scott refused his Oscar win for this performance, which was apparently a protest of the dog-and-pony show that is the Oscars rather than any kind of response to this particular movie or its content.

I was surprised also by two other things: 1) the amount of time this film spends with the Nazis, showing us their perspective on the events unfolding, and 2) how funny it is at times -- often in scenes involving the internal discussions of the Nazis. Two more things I didn't expect from a movie that was frequently unexpected.

And it's a nice way to end this series. Or is it?

Yes, it's a nice way to end it ... but I don't think I'll end it after all. I've only got three best picture winners I haven't seen left -- that is, until they crown a new winner in late February. So I hereby intend to extend Audient Auscars into the first three months of 2016, after which I can then finish this series off properly by ranking all of the best picture winners in order -- all 89 of them, at that point.

But that won't stop me from starting a new monthly series in 2016. Stay tuned to The Audient for my reveal of my 2016 monthly series, sometime before Christmas. It'll leave you speechless. (That's a bit of a hint.)

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