Thursday, January 04, 2024

The Power of Film, on TCM

UCLA Professor Emeritus Howard Suber retired over twenty years ago, but like Michael Corleone, they keep pulling him back each semester to teach his popular film studies courses. For well over fifty years, he has arguably shaped the field of study more than any other academic. Now Suber gets his turn in the spotlight, adapting his book and lectures for television in the 6-part The Power of Film, which premieres tomorrow on TCM.

Suber focuses solely on American films that were popular in their day and remain memorable over time. In the first two episodes provided for review, he zeroes in on common themes and elements that make such films appealing and enduring. They tend to revolve around families, either of the biological or surrogate kind. In most instances, the central character is “trapped” metaphorically and often physically.

Even though romances nearly always end tragically, American films also deliver a good deal of fun. That is why people around the world watch them. Defiance of authority is usually a crowd-pleaser too and it is a uniquely American inclination.

Inevitably, Suber’s terminology and selection of films will invite challenges from some critics. For his purposes, being a “good” film is not enough. It needs to continue to resonate with audiences over time, like
Casablanca, The Godfather, or, like it or not, Gone with the Wind. Nobody would begrudge him for respecting Kramer vs. Kramer or Norma Rae (clips of both are incorporated in the first two episodes), but their lasting cultural footprints are debatable. (Ask the first 50 people at your local multiplex if they have watched either Oscar-winner in the last five years. Then try The Godfather.)

The thing about film is that we all have our biases, because tastes and preferences are so personal. Frankly, most viewers will just be watching for the clips, hoping for a new edition of
That’s Entertainment. It is enjoyable to watch the collage of iconic scenes as they wash across the screen.

Yet, sometimes the great Obiwan of film studies somewhat misses the point, perhaps in part due to his own ideological biases. Suber is absolutely correct Oliver Stone deliberately intended
Wall Street to be a visceral critique of capitalism, but the film became a classic because Gordon Gekko’s “greed is good” speech took on a life of its own, undermining Stone’s baked-in ideology.

Based on the first two episodes, many of Suber’s principles feel like safe generalizations. Yet, some might breakdown when applied to horror movies, which is probably the strongest genre getting theatrical releases, whereas all forms of comedy are increasingly rare on the big screen. Arguably, this is largely due to woke sensibilities, which make it difficult to crack jokes, but that is beyond the scope of Suber’s discussions. It is a mostly pleasant thematic survey of American film, but thus far Suber has yet to produce any epiphanies or eureka moments. Recommended for older TCM viewers,
The Power of Film starts tonight on the network.