Wednesday, March 07, 2007

The Humanist

I missed making an entry in the filmscreed sponsored Billy Wilder Blog-a-thon this weekend, but thought that I'd take some time now to reflect on the work of my favorite director. I'm hard pressed to say exactly why Wilder is my favorite, save to say that I've never been truly disappointed in a Billy Wilder movie. Even personal favorites of mine such as Capra and Preminger have their misfires (A Hole in the Head, and The Man with the Golden Arm, respectively), but Wilder didn't, at least not that I've seen. Granted much of his work, especially post The Apartment, might be seen as less ambitious then the work of other great directors, or even the output of Billy's golden age at Paramount. However, beyond consistently delivering entertaining and well-crafted work, Billy Wilder also prompted thought from his audience, and brought his highly developed sense of cynicism to bear, in stories that challenged their contemporary conventions. The hub-ub surrounding the now relatively inaqueus Kiss Me Stupid is a prime example of this latter phenomena. Yet Wilder still managed to make a comedy about French prostitutes the biggest money maker of his career ( Irma La Deuce), and receive great accolades from the mid-century American press for films about alcoholism (The Lost Weekend), coded homosexuality (Some Like it Hot, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes), moral corruption in the insurance industry (The Apartment), Hollywood (Sunset Blvd.), and the newspapers (An Ace in the Hole, admittedly not appreciated in its time), as well as lots and lost of work dealing with the problems (both serious and comic) of sexual infidelity (see almost any Wilder film for an example). As a contranarian though, Wilder also made some wonderfully light pictures like The Major and the Minor, Sabrina, and Love in the Afternoon, not to mention the almost Capra-esque Spirit of St. Louis.

Some found Wilder at his most extreme to be rather off-putting in his cynicism, feeling his world view to be overly dark and unforgiving. I however find Wilders work to be the opposite, it's all very human, and being human it means the characters are both greatly flawed and yet endearingly compelling. Perhaps the most consistent thread in Wilders story telling is 'the tale of the sell-out' (which is all of us to one degree or another), someone whose doing wrong, knows it, struggles with it, but do to any number of circumstances, has a difficult time working his way out of it. Sometimes the sell-out redeems himself (The Apartment), sometimes he dosen't (Double Indemnity), sometimes he must die to be redeemed (Sunset Blvd), sometimes the point is to go on living (Stalage 17). But the characters have to make choices, important choices that determine who they are. But even when they make the wrong choices, we see them as being of value, and empathise with them. What demons if any Wilder was working out in his films is hard to say, but while he effected a somewhat crusty persona, I think it's evident that he was a man who felt deeply, someone who understood intemently mankind at both our most repulsive and charming extremes. Billy Wilder was a writer, a director, and a person who lived up to and embodied his famous mantra, "Nobody's Pefect", and that's why his films nearly where.


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