' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: 1941 (1979)

Friday, May 26, 2017

Friday's Old Fashioned: 1941 (1979)

Steven Spielberg’s pseudo-comic colossus and infamous critical stink bomb “1941”, which has since been re-claimed by some critics as a cult classic, or thereabouts, as a badge of consensus-breaking faux-honor, or something, is not, shall we say, entirely un-interesting. After all, Spielberg would go on to become perhaps the pre-eminent chronicler of The Greatest Generation of our time, winning Oscars for “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan”, executive producing the HBO “Band of Brothers” mini-series, and here he is with “1941”, your archetypal Blank Check movie, made on the heels of “Jaws” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, when Spielberg could essentially ask for a blank check to send a ferris wheel running away and get it, transforming WWII into something less reverent and grandiose and more ripped from the pages of Mad Magazine.


The movie is set in the immediate aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor, in various places along the California coastline, taking real life stories, so to speak, of a Japanese submarine sighting in the Pacific and FAKE NEWS of Imperial landing strips erected in Pomona alfalfa fields to render an extravaganza of far-reaching American panic. It opens with Spielberg parodying his own opening to “Jaws”, as the same actress, Susan Backlinie, who went skinny dipping in the Atlantic goes skinny dipping in the Pacific only to find herself clinging to the periscope pole of a Japanese submarine as it surfaces. It is nigh impossible not to read this as a sort of sexual fetishization of militarism, just as explicitly conveyed in a subplot where a female reporter gets turned on aboard big military bombers, naturally leading to a desperate military pilot getting up by taking flight with her aboard. It feels strange for the guy who wanted to get penis breath removed from “E.T.” Still, he is inherently Steven Spielberg, and while these bits suggest satire, the tantalizing possibility of “1941” as commentary quickly dissipates.

It is mostly just a mess, with myriad storylines all mixed together and no through line, and a jumble of characters, none of whom stand out, except for John Belushi, as Air Force Captain “Wild” Bill Kelso, something of a skewering of the John Wayne archetype, which has potential, except that he just blunders his way in and then right back out of the patchwork plot. Not that anyone is going to a mammoth production like “1941” to see characters, I suppose, except that Spielberg’s comedy has always worked best as an extension of character rather than of circumstance, which is why, say, the whole of “The Terminal” can’t compete with the folksy funniness of Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln wandering into a soliloquy his subordinates don’t necessarily want to hear, or compete with Jeff Goldblum walking between the raindrops dinosaurs.

Pauline Kael has argued that Spielberg’s best side was his mischievously humorous side, as evinced by some of the crueler jokes of “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, and that the critical and commercial failure of “1941” turned him off to such ribald comicality. Except the only real ribald jokes in “1941” are the couple aforementioned ones while the rest of this $35 million comedy is predominantly broad and noisy. It isn’t Indy pulling the gun on the big dude wielding the sword nor is it Marcus Brody haplessly wandering around Iskenderun; it’s the malt shop fisticuffs of “Crystal Skull.” There aren’t jokes, not really, just something like a repeated infusion of bedlam where falling down, fist fights and objects hurling through the air are repeatedly passed off as punchlines. And while it might be tempting to proffer an argument that the bedlam of the movie is meant to emblemize the bedlam that gripped America post-Pearl Harbor, well, that would necessitate ignoring the viewing experience of a movie that despite fancying itself, above all else, a comedy yields comedy that merely yields stony silence. At a certain point, the bedlam just bleeds into boredom.

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