My finger is not on the pulse of current commercial film-making. My movie watching is currently directed elsewhere. I am discovering, and at times,revisiting some gems from postwar European cinema. An entrancing indulgence. So I confess that I have felt no urge to consume the items listed on this year’s Academy Awards roll. I tend to steer clear of biopics devoted to still living characters [who is going to make Hawking anything other than a secular saint at the moment? Remember that Charles Lindberg was given the hero treatment by Hollywood but later revealed himself as a crypto-fascist] I am equally doubtful with regard to assigning a legend of Arthurian proportions to Turing. It sounds too close to the previously unrevealed American victory at ‘Pearl Harbor’ in 2001. Beyond a sketchy background, I knew next to nothing about any of this year’s top rated movies.[I will however at some time cross hot coals to watch Julianne Moore -in anything!] So I am probably the only viewer on the planet who had no notion of what to expect from ‘Grand Budapest Hotel’ which I watched accidentally last evening..
If actor spotting is your thing, this is the film for you. In this respect it reminded me of that most self regarding of Hollywood products; Huston’s ‘The List of Adrian Messenger’ . Look carefully and yes, that is Frank Sinatra, all ‘Gypsy’d up’. If you would like to engage in parlour games of this nature, fine: if you prefer to see your Hollywood A-listers actually earn their corn with a bit of acting, look elsewhere. This is obviously one of those projects all involved in will recall with great affection. A shame that some of this pleasure could not have been transmitted through the film to this particular viewer beyond its base level of slapstick.
I found myself drifting from the plot [if the progressive movement through painfully over-composed scenes can be described as such] to the image of a queue of stars lined up to bank salaries after a careful balancing of dollars per syllable delivered onscreen had been completed. Thence to the makeup and costume departments to be used as mannequins to model some impressive outfits. This is not the most imaginative use of acting resources; Goldblum, Keitel and Murray have proved themselves elsewhere and their cameos are small enough to cause little concern; Swinton successfully pressed in her contract for almost total anonymity behind prosthetics, but it is almost heartbreaking to watch the fine lead actor of both ‘The English Patient’ and ‘The Constant Gardener’ here reduced to transporting a ludicrous moustache from one frame to the next. Too much gurning, too much posturing. Indeed, there had been much disquiet in the insurance bond offices when news came through from the set reporting the alarmingly high numbers of brow muscles pulled as a result of repetitive arch syndrome.
No matter how good the actor, they are nothing without good lines and good direction. This film is essentially a Tintin style adventure -just look at any of the chase scenes and cardboard villainy. What it cries out for at every turn is the intellectual rigour and logic of an Herge script. And yet..
I read a few reviews this morning to gauge the critical response GBH has elicited. A staggering 92% positive feedback across the cinerati occupying planet “Rotten Tomatoes”. Amazing. On what grounds are these views offered?
References to impending catastrophe on a continental scale have been cited as evidence for darker notes playing below a light surface confection [a constant visual accent through the movie]. I don’t buy into this. A few black banners with lightning symbols and a tank parked in a field do not a fascist atmosphere conjure. A couple of punches on the nose can not play substitute for innumerable acts of atrocity. Ruritanian/Fredonian military uniforms do not immediately conjure images from Somme or Marne. The outside world barely infiltrates a hackneyed caper scenario, providing only the merest of nosebleeds here and there.
If one wants to validate the view that suave manners can conquer the world’s tendency toward conflict and fascism [a claim laid elsewhere on behalf of GBH], look to the masterpiece of a real directing talent. Ernst Lubitch’s “To Be, or Not To Be”  covers broadly similar territory but uses script and acting talent to achieve its effect. The characters are human and the dialogue crackles with an edginess that wrong-foots one into laughing at lines like, “So they call me ‘Concentration Camp Erhardt’?” If you are looking for a synecdoche to represent the 20th Century European experience, see how Lubitch directs his ‘spear-carrier’ reciting the pivotal speech from the ‘Merchant of Venice’. That delivery of the lines from “Hath not a Jew eyes?” is a minute of film which encapsulates the human cost paid to totalitarianism.
My initial thought was that GBH might be an example of a thin film looking good in a week of poor offerings, but that does not explain how this film has consistently garnered ratings which put it on a par with “Bicycle Thieves” and “The Battle of Algiers” [for God’s sake!] I refer you to Paragraph one of the Artist’s and Film-maker’s Handbook: Never trust the views of a critic. [mine included!]
If pressed, I might offer up GBH as evidence that at least part of current cinema-goers are now jaded by pictures driven by slick, seamless, high budget special effects. Perhaps GBH has been seen as a return to the screen magic of an analogue age, when the special effects department reached for a brush and canvas rather than a mouse and console; where watches still have hands and the surface noise of vinyl still crackles in the ear. Of course, the people who rave about this flimsy eye-candy have probably never seen a film made in that earlier time because they would never dream of watching a film shot on black and white stock. And as for silent cinema…..one can go only so far back before retro chic becomes something retrogressive…..
But I do hope that anyone who does respond to this aspect of GBH will be tempted to delve back in cinematic time and discover what the medium of film really can achieve. Once they do, Wes Anderson’s self indulgence will be seen for the triviality it really is.
Book in at the Grand Budapest Hotel? Save the ticket money. I confidently predict that you will pick up a near mint copy of this in a year’s time at a charity shop near you. Look on the DVD shelf and you will find it between ‘The Artist’ and ‘Argo’ [two other recipients of critical hype which have now settled into obscurity] . Only viewed once…..