Saturday, December 19, 2015

How Green Was My Valley

Samuel L Jackson, Jennifer Jason Leigh & Kurt Russell in The Hateful Eight 
If you love movies as I do, the December holiday season is one of the best times of year for both new releases as well as the classic films that must be seen time again and again.

With both schools and places of work closed during long stretches of December and January, it's the ideal time for families, kids (college and otherwise), visiting relatives and roving singles like myself to take time out to catch up on films either at the theater, or at home. 

For Hollywood studios looking to premiere popular franchise films that appeal to all age groups, or the kinds of prestige, art-house, or highbrow fare looking to contend for an Oscar - a December release date is highly coveted.

My feelings on the biggest release of the year (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) were made quite clear in my previous blog post Thursday night, and aside from some very minor story structure issues which only die-hard Star Wars and Sci-Fi fans will obsess over, I think everyone is going to dig the movie; no spoilers here, but I strongly advise you to see the film before said spoilers start to leak out.

But I'm also looking forward to seeing Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight which will get a limited theatrical release on Christmas eve before going wide on December 25th.

Personally, I've been a Tarantino fan since Resevoir Dogs and I admire him for using the power of his professional status as a director to speak up publicly on the issue of the excessive use of police force against people of color in this country.

Quentin Tarantino marches against police brutality 
So in some small way I also hope to help counterbalance calls by some police officers to boycott The Hateful Eight in protest over Tarantino's comments about police officers who shoot and kill unarmed African-Americans.

In light of this, it's even more appropriate that the film's subject matter explores the complexities of race in this nation in a way that only Tarantino can.

As far as new releases, I'm also looking forward to seeing another big Oscar contender set in the past, The Revenant directed by Alejandro Gonzales Inarittu which stars Leo Dicaprio and Tom Hardy.

But December is also time for catching up on classic films too.

To me, a classic film does not have to be centered on Christmas or any other holiday to be a great holiday film; The Sound of Music, Fiddler On the Roof, Lilies of the Field, The Philadelphia Story, or A Tree Grows in Brooklyn are just a few examples of my favorites that make great holiday films.

In my view, a "holiday" film is any film with a meaningful story and good characters that that the whole family can get together and watch without worrying about a plot that depends on excessive on-screen vulgarity, nudity, sex or violence.

Villagers watch a coal mine accident in How Green Was My Valley
How Green Was My Valley, the 1941 black and white classic directed by John Ford is one of my all-time favorite films.

The story revolves around the fictional Morgan family, whose lives at the turn of the century are centered on the coal mine in their village in Wales (North England) where the father Gwilym Morgan works with five of his sons.

The film centers on the youngest son Huw, played brilliantly by a young Roddy McDowell, and chronicles the gradual decline of idyllic village life as strikes, layoffs and union conflict begins to divide the members of the close-knit community.

It's a film that evokes a nostalgic longing for family and simpler times that's not afraid to explore controversial topics like religious hypocrisy, infidelity, labor strife and class conflict even as the plot is punctuated by wonderful traditional Welsh choral music sung with a haunting beauty.

The film won an Oscar for Best Picture in 1942 over contender Citizen Kane - a decision which still divides and angers some film critics and fans to this day.

I was reminded of How Green Was My Valley on Friday morning as I was making breakfast when I heard an interesting story on BBC radio reporting that the last active deep coal mine in England (the Kellingley Colliery)  has ended operations, ending centuries of an industry that changed not only Great Britain but the world as well.

How Green Was My Valley was made in 1940-41 on the cusp of the second world war, but the issues it explores are still relevant today, whether it's the decline of the coal industry, wages or the family.

My feelings are mixed about this story.

On the one hand I think the need to transition to renewable energy sources like solar, wind and nuclear is paramount to save our environment.

But at the same time coal was essential to the transition of the global economy into the modern age - it's helped to heat our homes and provide electricity for generations.

But the mining of coal has also represented the exploitation of labor, horrific accidents that claim lives and the poisoning of our environment - even though it's provided jobs for generations of workers around the world.

Coal has been a significant part of human society and evolution and millions of people around the world still depend on it's production.

So the news that the last mine in England will close evokes a feeling of melancholy (and for some in England, anger) even though it's an inevitable part of the future - coal is a finite resource that will be gone one day.

In many ways coal is symbolic of the complexity of human evolution; nothing comes without a price.

In the same way the film How Green Was My Valley looks back with nostalgia on simpler times and compels us to reevaluate the blessings we had in times past, the decline of the coal industry forces humanity to face the reality which climate change data and science have told us for years.

Nothing lasts forever.

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