Colors

24 07 2009

At what point do we have to raise our arms and scream, “Well, that’s a perfectly stupid reason to like a movie,” consequently ignoring our positive reaction as utter silliness? Is there such a point? Does it matter? Is there a “right” way of enjoying something? Where is the limit? Because at some point, it does become odd to praise a film because, say, a background is fun, or the sky shines forth with a particular hue, or the doves cocoo endearingly. Yet, despite the oddness, if a film has gone to a great deal of trouble, as is the case with The Adventures of Robin Hood, to charge at us with a candy-colored universe of inconsolably unrealistic and deliriously enjoyable costumes and sets, then is it not sensible to praise the film for the fruit of its efforts? Well, I maintain that it is! And, at any rate, any reason for enjoying a film, in as so far as it is a reason, and that reasons are often interesting in and of themselves regardless of how logical they might or might not be, any reason for enjoying a film is worth appraising.

So, The Adventures of Robin Hood is in many ways a bad and decidedly dated movie. However, and get this, it becomes good because it is dated, so that maybe, it is better now than it was then. I know, it sounds crazy. How can it be better now than it was then when it was more popular then than it is now? Perhaps, because our modern viewpoint of the film enriches it with meanings it never had. Consider the opening paragraph of Roger Ebert’s write-up of this film for his Great Movies Archive, and in particular, consider this passage: “In these cynical days when swashbucklers cannot be presented without an ironic subtext, this great 1938 film exists in an eternal summer of bravery and romance.” The appeal of the movie, then, is that it is a fly stuck in amber, a really well-preserved mummy that has lingered in an icy respite for hundreds of years, thus maintaining its physical shape. The Adventures of Robin Hood exemplifies a moment in time and that moment’s movie-making philosophy, and it is that containment of a moment that makes it special. When it was released, it didn’t have this added quality, because it was not yet history. It was just a film. Now, it is a film and a document. It has become fascinating, a relic. They simply “don’t make them like that anymore.”

Of course, there’s some good reasons behind why they “don’t make them like that anymore.” If released today, some of the prevailing characteristics of the film would be savaged by critical minds. Would anyone really accept the paper-thin villains? Would anyone really stand for Robin Hood’s shockingly forced laugh? What about Lady Mariam’s incredibly rapid acquisition of social consciousness? Or the “innocent” comedy which is also dumb comedy? Or the fact that they handle ostensibly weighty swords as if they were rapiers? Or, and this is crucial for what is to follow, the everlastingly beautiful outfits? Dirt does not exist in The Adventures of Robin Hood. In this magical universe, you can wander all over the forest without worrying about splinters, mud, and other unfortunates. All clothes have been perpetually dry-cleaned, not yesterday, but five minutes ago. Now, here’s the rub: we would lambaste a modern film for this absence of real-world grit, and yet, if The Adventures of Robin Hood had real-world grit, it would not be very entertaining and all, and in fact, it would lose its main attraction, which is, if the title of this note is not clear enough, colors! They “don’t make them like that anymore” because nowadays you can’t do an historical epic without conceding that climbing a tree and subsequently dropping down twenty meters below to scuffle with a soldier will probably ruin your uniform. Back in “those days,” though, you could pretend that, indeed, costumes are always perfect no matter what you do, and if that is not the case in the real-world, well then, guess what, it’s better-looking this way and, anyhow, this is a movie, not the real-world.

Thus, The Adventures of Robin Hood provides pleasures that are no longer available. It allows itself to offer psychological motivations on the level of kindergarten morality handbooks – stealing is bad, give to the poor, the poor are poor – and instead focus on all those more important things like gowns, banners, tights, headdresses, well-cooked dead animals, and Olivia de Havilland. What makes this fact special is how completely movie-ish it all is: you can really only get this at the cinema. The parade of colors takes precedence over a story that is not very intriguing anyway because we’ve heard it a million times before, and this parade of colors is the stuff of film, absolute and practically independent visual pleasure. Nothing is really that colorful, but the Technicolor process makes it so. You can forget the dialogue – although, admittedly, this is a strong point, being that the film has some darn good lines – and focus on the variety of fabrics that change as often as the setting. Let’s go back to Olivia de Havilland. Every time she appears, she has something new on, and everything she wears is imbued with absolutely sublime fashion sense. You get lost on the abstract shapes embroidering her small and wonderful body. What, there’s plot going on? Who cares, look at that cut, those greens, reds, and blues! At one point, Lady Mariam is captured and held in a cell. For the first time in the movie a new scene, logically enough, does not result in a new dress, since she can’t change inside the cell, it being a cell. It’s shocking. The horror! What are they doing to Lady Mariam? Do anything to her, fail to feed her, cut her head off, but depriving her of trying on a new dress, why, that’s just cruel! You see, watching The Adventures of Robin Hood means to worry about issues that are typically negligible. A different sort of storytelling emerges, one based on visual patters and rhythms that we recognize throughout the running time, patterns and rhythms that have little to do with the story or the themes. It’s practically avant-garde, not because the film is avant-garde, but because our interaction with the film takes a turn for the plastic – it’s all about the fluctuating surfaces and how they make us feel. Why, that’s marvelous, absolutely marvelous.

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One response

13 08 2009
Max

Excellent essay, Guido! I have not seen “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” but you touch upon one of the most appealing aspects of film: it is a visual-based medium (audio notwithstanding, though it has to be connected with the images), but film does not have to be tied to the limits of reality. Film, as you say, is a malleable art, where the focus on the image, on the aesthetic, lends us an avenue for escapism.

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