Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Best Years of Our Lives

Classics become classics for a reason, and afterwards, what made them great gets duplicated and reproduced for years to come. There was one little movie that had a few scenes of torture porn in it that made a lot of money, and for the next fucking decade the only thing we saw were Saw sequels.

It's not worth our time to discuss whether this whole process is good or bad, but instead just accept that this is how the way movies get made. The worst part about this though, is that the classics, the movies that inspired the somewhat repetitive things you'll see for years and years, don't appear as fresh or innovative as they were when they first came out. Bart Simpson actually said it best talking about horror movies back in the 90s: The originals seem pretty tame by today's standards.

I've been slowly making my way through the IMDb Top 250 list, in an attempt to increase my general film knowledge, and I've been doing it in chronological order, in an attempt to diminish that "duplication effect" that some innovative movies create. It has had mixed results.

For example, all modern romantic comedies stem from the same movie: It Happened One Night. It stars a guy and girl, who start off the movie hating each other, but due to wacky circumstances, are forced to spend a lot of time together. In they end, they go their separate ways, only to discover that they love each other and return to each other's arms. This movie came out in 1934. 1934! And yet the formula has been reproduced for over 80 years. Again, mixed results: I'm glad I saw this movie that worked so well it has yet to go out of style, but it was also the most painful, boring watching experience that I've had in a long time. I've seen this story play out dozens of times in the modern era, usually to greater effect than this one film from the 30s could ever accomplish. The net result is that I recognize the importance of It Happened One Night, but cannot bring myself to enjoy watching it. Depending upon your own personal philosophy for watching movies, this can be counted as a success or a waste of time.

Another example of this is the films of Hitchcock, which dominate the IMDb Top 250 list for a few decades and whose films I have never enjoyed watching, save one. I can see where Hitchcock uses a specific style of shot (he usually only has one special "trick" shot per film) and I know that this was the first time this shot was ever made. For example, that "zoom in focus out" thing that you see all the time in films came from Hitchcock, so when I see it Psycho, it just doesn't have the same effect on me that it did on audiences back then.

Anyway, what I'm getting to in a roundabout sort of way is that the 1946 film, The Best Years of Our Lives somehow avoided this "duplication effect", which made for a very pleasant watching experience. It is a war movie in perhaps the best possible way, that focuses on the effects World War II had on three soldiers who all came from the same town, but didn't meet until they're sharing a trip back home. In general, the three soldiers are no longer fully acquainted with the world from which they came, and instead find more solace and comfort with each other, despite the fact that they didn't know each other until now. It's tragic, but in a light-hearted way, like watching a virgin have fun playing World of Warcraft.

This is, truthfully, the first film I've seen that is entirely about war, but doesn't show a single scene of it. The only thing that I can even compare it to in the creative realm is The Sun Also Rises, where all the characters are suffering from the results of a war never once directly described in the book. The oldest soldier here, with a wife and kids, returns home and says hi. Later on, when he stumbles across his fellow soldiers that he just met yesterday, greets them as though were lifelong friends, and really, the movie is trying to tell us that they are. The conflict posed in this movie is whether the bond of war and its effects are stronger than the bonds of family and love. After greeting his soldier buddies and drinking too much, the oldest soldier dances with his wife, and it's not quite clear whether he recognizes her or not. She may as well be a stranger at this point.

The youngest soldier isn't even a "soldier" in a strict sense of the word; he spent his time during the war below deck, repairing ships. And yet the youngest of them, with no battle experience loses both his hands and has them replaced with hooks. He starts off the movie with no remorse or shame of this fact however, in one of the best scenes in the movie: One character hands him a pen, which reveals the hook for the first time. He looks visibly shaken, but the young soldier doesn't seem to mind, putting him at ease. And then the second hook comes out for the first time, and the weight of the sacrifice this young man made becomes fully clear. After returning home, it becomes clear that the hooks don't bother him, but he knows that they bother everyone else. He knows that he's a burden, despite his fiancee constantly reassuring him that he is not. He lives under the impression that his army friends understand him, yet the love of his life does not and can not.

The final soldier became a decorated war hero during his time overseas, and yet comes home to a wife eager to go out and party all the time, with no concept of the immense amount of growing up he did during the war. He always faces no real job prospects, and in fact, is working the same job he had when he left. The people who used to work with him are now his bosses, while he's still working the same lowly position he was years ago. Not only did the war pause his life for years, it actually left him in a position worse off than if he would have stayed in his hometown making sandwiches.

While the film does eventually conclude that the bonds of family and love are stronger than the experiences of war, and that hope does exist for soldiers returning from active duty, it doesn't explicitly say what the best years of their lives actually are. The war hero's wife, understandably frustrated at being suddenly broke and married to a struggling husband, comments that she gave him the best years of her life, but I don't think that's what the title is in reference to. It may be a tongue-and-cheek reference to the time at war, that perhaps once you enter into that world, everything else fades away and you can't be anything other than a soldier. War is the only place where soldiers' lives make sense, and these years are therefore the best they'll ever have. I tend to think the answer is more optimistic than this, however, as all the returning soldiers receive fairly happy endings. Perhaps the time spent directly after the war are the hardest, and the best years of their lives are the ones taking place after the movie ends.

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