30 June 2009

Happy 92nd Birthday, Lena Horne!

Lena Horne is 92 years old today. That's her and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson in Stormy Weather (1943).

29 June 2009

Film Gangsters, They Do Indeed Pre Date the 1970s

Yesterday I wrote a post (went off on a tangent) after reading an article in the San Francisco Chronicle's entertainment section that claimed to list the top ten gangster performances in film. Ever. None of the roles mentioned was from a film made before 1972. I was understandably outraged.

During my tirade I said that I could easily come up with a top ten made up solely of performance before the 1970s. Always one to put my money where my mouth is (never mind that it's quite unsanitary). Here it is.

10. Clark Gable as Blackie Gallagher In Manhattan Melodrama (1934). Known as being the film John Dillinger had just seen when shot down outside of Chicago’s Biograph theater, Manhattan Melodrama features a strong performance by Gable as a powerful gangland boss. The performance suggests that Gable could have had a fine career playing heavies.

9. Robert Taylor as Johnny Eager in Johnny Eager (1942). Johnny is so slick he’s got the authorities fooled. They’ve bought his line about going straight and being a cab driver. Suckers. Eager’s back in the rackets after a stretch in the pen and the D.A.s daughter has fallen for him. Taylor too could have played the bad guy a few more times to good effect.

8. Edward G. Robinson as Rico in Little Caesar (1931). Robinson couldn’t have imagined what he’d started with his bravura performance. He not only spawned countless imitators but locked himself into a lifetime of similar roles. Its a rags to riches story gangster style, which means a return to rags and “the end for Rico.”

7. Lee J. Cobb as Johnny Friendly In On the Waterfront (1954). Technically he’s a union boss but we know better. Friendly lives up to his name if you play ball. If not this is one tough S.O.B. who can be as loud as he his mean.

6. Alan Ladd as Philip Raven in This Gun For Hire (1942). So what is this guy, friend to kitties and children or cold blooded killer? How about both. Raven was cooler than a cucumber. The trench coat and hat inspired legendary French director Jean-Pierre Melville.

5. James Cagney as Tom Powers in The Public Enemy (1931). This was the quintessential sociopath. Likable, even lovable to some. A momma’s boy who stood for nothin from nobody. His hubris caught up with him in the end but what a show he put on en route.

4. Paul Muni as Tony Camonte in Scarface (1932). This is not the over top Tony of the re-make but he’s no shrinking violet either. A man who wouldn’t hesitate to dispense with those in his way. And don’t mess with his sister!

3. Humphrey Bogart as Duke Mantee (1936) in Petrified Forest. This was a more studied, mannered gangster than the ones Bogie usually played. Fatalistic, not unreasonable, but deadly.

2. Edward G. Robinson as Johnny Rocco in Key Largo (1948). We meet him while he’s soaking in a tub, all big belly and bigger cigar. He’s not only a heartless gangster but he whispers what are obvious obscenities into Lauren Bacall’s ears. What a rat! Robinson could have played this one on his reputation but he gave Rocco a little something extra.

1. James Cagney as Cody Jarrett in White Heat (1949). Makes Pacino’s Tony Montana of the second Scarface look like a choirboy. Shoots people in trunks, kicks others downstairs, but he too loves his ma and she’s no Little Miss Muffet either. For her he makes it to “the top of the world.” Never mind the cost to others or even himself.

Runners Up: Bogart as Roy Earle in High Sierra (1941), Kirk Douglas as Whit Sterling in Out of the Past (1947), Bruce Gordon as Frank Nitti in The Untouchables TV Series (1959-1962), Vic Morrow as Dutch Schultz in Portrait of a Mobster (1961), George Raft as Hood Stacey in Each Dawn I Die (1939), Ricardo Cortez as Leo Darcy in Midnight Mary (1933).

28 June 2009

Those Who Cannot Remember the Past Are Missing Out

I suppose for a lot of people anything that happened before their lifetime doesn't really matter. I came across two examples of this today, the second of which I'll address at length.

In the first instance Sports Illustrated's online edition had a list of the ten most memorable moments at the Wimbledon tennis championships. Wimbledon has held its tennis championships since the 1880s, yet Sports Illustrated is apparently of the opinion that nothing memorable happened until 1970. Evidently those first 80 years were pretty tedious.

The second list appeared in today's local rag, the San Francisco Chronicle and offered the 10 Best Screen Mobsters. Every single film gangster that this writer deems worthy of mention appeared in a film released in or after 1972. The same is true of the six runners up he offers. Evidently the author has heard of neither DVDs nor Turner Classic Movies.

This poor bloke has missed out on some stunning James Cagney performances. How else to explain his omissions of Cagney as Cody Jarrett in White Heat (1949) or Tom Powers in The Public Enemy (1931)? He might also have considered Cagney as Rocky Sullivan in Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) or as Eddie Bartlett in The Roaring Twenties (1939).

He's also evidently unaware of a certain fellow by the name of Bogart, Humphrey. He's thus been deprived of seeing such gangsters as Duke Manttee in Petrified Forest (1936), Roy Earle in High Sierra (1941), Bugs Fenner in Ballots or Bullets (1936) to name but a few.

Then there's Edward G. Robinson who played some pretty nasty gangsters himself. Because Eddie G had the bad luck to be born in 1893 and thus had a film career that was all but over by 1972, the author missed him playing Rico in Little Caesar (1931) (photo above), Johnny Sarto in Brother Orchid (1940) and Johnny Rocco in Key Largo (1948).

Am I making myself clear?

Here's the deal, I've named 10 gangsters using just three actors. You want me to name another ten from before 1970 using different actors? Go head and dare me.

No one who believes that the dawn of mankind was in 1970 should be taken seriously. Motion pictures have been entertaining us for about 100 years. To to make a list that purports to have the best of something yet totally ignores the first 60 years of that something's existence deserves nothing but contempt. And the same goes for SI's silly list which pretends that tennis legends like Don Budge, Althea Gibson and Bill Tilden didn't exist or that any match they were in had to be a yawner.

As someone who taught young people for 20 years I'm all too aware of the how little respect recent generations have had for the past. We need not only remember our political history but our social and cultural pasts as well. You want to fully understand and appreciate a sport, music, paintings, film or anything else, recognize if not study its past. I'll spare you a long winded spiel on how the past shapes the present because I'm hoping you know that. But before I step down from my soapbox I'll say that if a person makes an individual decision to enjoy only gifts from the present or very recent past that's their business and their loss. But to publicly ignore those blessings is an affront and needs to be called out.

"History is the witness that testifies to the passing of time; it illumines reality, vitalizes memory, provides guidance in daily life and brings us tidings of antiquity." - Cicero.

27 June 2009

What's It To You? The Different Ways of Viewing the Same Film

I couldn't believe I missed it. Because the starting time of youngest daughter's graduation was moved back and because it then ran for three hours and because my destination was so far away, I missed it. I missed a party I'd looked forward to for nine months. It was the year end party held by the faculty of the school I used to work at. Most of my former colleagues, many of whom I'd not seen since late last Summer were there and I was to be honored for my 20 years of service to the school. But circumstances conspired and I missed it.

What did it mean?

For the two weeks since then I've tried to derive meaning from failing (through not fault of my own) to make it to the party. I could simply decide that it was the bad fortune of two important events overlapping and, though it was a crying shame, had no further significance.

But no, I must find meaning, import, symbolism. Clearly this was open to interpretation.

So it is with films. I wrote about this in a post yesterday about Holiday (1938) a supposed romantic comedy that I view as an attack on the moneyed class and an endorsement of people "finding themselves."

The true magic of art is that the same example of it can mean different things to different people. I don't know if this is especially true of films but it most definitely is true of films. I've never be one to disabuse someone of their notion of what a particular movie means; however we should all be ready and most willing to share our perspectives.

It's also interesting to note that our own interpretations of a film can change from one viewing to the next, often depending upon our state of mind when we see it.

I first saw Sunset Boulevard (1950) as a horror story. That creepy house, the monkey burial, the way Norma Desmond talked and walked. Next I viewed it as a indictment of Hollywood. Another viewing convinced me I was watching a story about how desperate people sometimes find one another and form a symbiotic relationship that can destroy both hosts.

That's what makes a film a classic. You can view it countless times and each time see it as if through a different prism.

I find that many of favorite films have myriad layers. The Searchers (1956), The Godfather (1972) and Jules and Jim (1962) are examples of films that give me something new each time. I love The Sting (1973) but haven't watched it nor wanted to watch it in years. I've exhausted its possibilities.

Most of my favorite foreign films, and particularly those from France, and most particularly those from Francois Truffaut are worth repeat viewings just to derive something new each time. Part of this is the subtlety of the work. Characters are less mannered in a lot of French cinema. Stories are less reliant on action scenes. Plot points are more carefully developed.

As an audience we intuit more in our initial viewings, then start to discover more "facts" relevant to the story. We can even be influenced in subsequent viewings by reviews we've since read or conversations with others about the film or, in the case of movies based on real events, from having learned about the "real story." We can also come to feel comfortable with the characters, as I have, for example with The Searchers' Ethan Edwards.

With I Loved You For So Long (2008), I was struck the first time by the amazing performances, particularly from Kristin Scott Thomas. I was also curious to watch the story unfold. When I saw the same film again I was able to watch how the story unfolded and, though still blown way by the acting, paid closer attention to how those great performers related to each other. Consequently I saw the movie in a different light, which I can't go into without spoiling the ending.

Of course knowing how a story is going to turn out strips away a distraction, so that with subsequent viewings we're able to focus on other aspects of the story. It's not always easy to appreciate camera angles and dolly shots when you're sweating out what's going to happen to the hero.

Today I watched John Ford's My Darling Clementine (1946) for the third time in a year and found myself struck by how beautiful a film it is. There's an amazing shot just before the shootout of dawn breaking, we watch the light come up simultaneous with seeing Old Man Clanton raise his head. His face goes from darkness to full light, dominating the frame. It's Walter Brennan's face, big as life and its a great shot.

So if someone asked me about the film right now I'd talk about some of the camera shots whereas as few months ago I'd have gone on about something else, such as Fonda's performance. It's actually quite common to to be initially taken in by the actors and later appreciate the director's part in the film. I almost never hear anyone rave about Michale Curtiz, the director, when they talk about Casablanca (1942) and that's a great injustice. Curtiz did a remarkable job, something that has become increasingly evident to me.

So which is it? Is All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) an anti-war film, or a study of very young men in extraordinary circumstances? Is Do the Right Thing (1989) a look at latent racism, or the impossibility of living up to its title? Is Wings of Desire (1987) a celebration of life or a meditation on death? And is Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men (2007) supposed to represent death, pure evil or is he just one bad ass killer? And what sticks out, is it Javier Bardem, the cinema photography or the Coens' attention to detail?

I'll put it thusly: When I was a history teacher and would give a test I would always include an opinion question at the end. "How can there be a wrong answer to an opinion question?" I'd often be asked. "There are no wrong answers." I would reply. "But you will only get credit if your answer is well thought out and if you can offer some evidence for it."

So it is with films. There are no wrong interpretations. But you owe it to yourself to think it through. And, oh by the way, be prepared to have a whole new interpretation next time.

26 June 2009

How About a Little Perspective - Or - The Subversive Message of Holiday

So Holiday is a comedy, right?
The 1938 film with Hepburn and Grant?
Yeah that's the one.
Well there are certainly comic elements in it....
It's a romance too.
So you’re saying it's a romantic comedy?
Of course, what else?
What else indeed. It's a movie with a very strong anti business, anti greed message.

In Holiday (1938) Cary Grant stars as Johnny Case a man of 30 who's worked his way from the bottom rung of society to the verge of greatness in the business world. However instead of pushing on and amassing a great fortune, Johnny wants to find himself.

He tells his future sister-in-law, Linda Seton (Kate Hepburn): "As soon as I get enough money I'm going to knock off for awhile. The world's changing there's a lot of new exciting ideas... I want to know where I stand, how I fit into the picture, what it's going to mean to me. I can't find that out sitting behind some desk in an office. (I'll) come back and work when I know what it is I'm working for."

Obviously impressed Linda replies, "you haven't been caught by it yet you haven't bit bitten by it.... The reverence for riches."

While on his first ever Holiday taken at Lake Placid, Johnny has just met Julia Seton (Doris Nolan) and they've fallen instantly in love an mean to marry. Unbeknownst to Johnny, Linda comes from an extremely wealthy family. Johnny's plans to to make some quick dough and go find himself will not sit well with Julia's father, the stuffy widower, Edward Seton. Nor for that matter will they meet with the unsuspecting Julia's approval. She tells Johnny, "there's no such thrill in the world as making money."

The free spirited Linda however is entranced by Johnny. Her besotted and philosophical brother, Ned (Lew Ayres) also takes to him.

Johnny and Julia's engagement is to be announced at the the Seton's New York mansion during a New Year's Eve party which will be attended by all the best people. That is, those of good breeding and huge bank accounts.

At the party we meet a cousin, Seton Cram (Harry Daniell) and his wife Laura (Binnie Barnes). They talk and walk as the very embodiment of cultured conservative society. Each word they utter sounds coated in brie. Since their cousin's intended is an unknown they hypothesize that he is "a common climber who nobody knows." And Seton scoffs that this Case fellow "doesn't even belong to the Harvard Club."

Also among the cast are two old friends of Johnny's, Professor Nick Potter (Edward Everett Horton) and his wife Susan Elliot Potter (Jean Dixon). We meet them at the beginning of the movie sitting in front of their fireplace reading. We find them to be convivial, intelligent fun loving sorts. The Potters represent the sort of intellectuals that conservatives abhor.

These same Potters are at the party and feeling quite out of place until they come across "the playroom" and meet Linda who wants nothing to do with the big shindig going on downstairs. Of course they form an instant bond and are later joined by Ned then Johnny, who's sent to coax Linda into joining the other revelers (though their form of revelry is as raucous as a spelling bee). The playrrom assemblage form "the 5th avenue anti stuffed shirt club and flying trapeze club." When Seton and Laura enter the room, our friends not so subtly give them the fascist salute.

Ignoring this, Seton congratulates Johnny on his business venture which he has just learned is going to bring instant riches. Johnny's delighted as it will mean he can follow his heart, quit business for awhile and go into the business of figuring out the world and his place in it.
There's a joke about making million at which point Seton says, "mark my words with the help of the right sort of people you'll make more than that within two years. It wouldn't take that long if we had the right kind of government."

"Like which country for example Mr. Cram?" asks Mrs. Potter.

Keep in mind that Holiday was released early in Franklin Roosevelt's second term. He had won re-election by a landslide but was still reviled by many of the wealthiest Americans who considered him a "traitor to his class." while he was helping millions out of the Depression, tens of Americans were whining about losing a few cents of their profits and having to lay off a chauffeur.

In the penultimate conversation with his prospective father-in-law who's anxious to set Johnny up in banking, our protagonist says, "I'm afraid I'm not quite as anxious as I might be for the things most people work towards. I don't want too much money."

"Too much money?" the shocked multi-millionaire responds.

"More than I need to live by. You see its always been my idea to make a few thousand early in the game and then quit for at long as it lasts and try to find out who I am and what goes on and what about it while I'm young and feel good all the time."


Meanwhile it has become increasingly obvious to us and to the Potters and Ned, that Linda and Johnny are a much better fit than Julia and Johnny.

How does it all end? Likely you've seen Holiday and know, but on the off chance you haven't I'll not spoil the ending -- just promise you'll rent it post haste.

Holiday was based on a Phillip Barry play and no, Barry was not a radical, he was in fact a member of the upper crust which made him all the more qualified to comment on them.

So as you can see Holiday may have some romance and a few yucks in it but it's clearly a film that carries a very strong message.

You know I never really noticed it but you're right.
I know the first few times I saw it I was more taken in by watching Grant and Hepburn.
And Lew Ayers, God he was terrific.
Yes George Cukor directed and he brought all the elements together.
But you're right it really is a powerful indictment of the monied class.
And a call to arms to explore the world before getting bogged down by possessions.
Great film. Thanks for helping me see it it in a whole new way.
You're welcome!

25 June 2009

You Know You Really Like A Director If... (Part Six)

A sure sign you really like a director is that you can come up with a list of ten films he's directed that you really like. As regular readers of this blog (both of us) know my look at favorite directors has become a weekly series and today's post on Martin Scorsese marks part six. Previous directors that I've recognized are Woody Allen, Alfred Hitchcock, William Wellman, John Ford and Howard Hawks.

I love listening to Scorsese talk about films. He can be seen and heard in film documentaries and featurettes aplenty. His love of and appreciation for films from all parts of the world from all decades is as evident as the brilliance of his directing. Scrosese doesn’t just talk about films and directors and stars, he enthuses about them. This enthusiasm is infectious. I liken it to two people who’ve seen a film that you haven’t caught yet. One tells you, “you’ve got to see it.” The other tells you how great the experience was of seeing it and how much they loved it. Invariably the type of recommendation the second person provided will be the more convincing to me.

Scorsese’s unabashed love of film comes through in his style of film making. He holds nothing back. Stories are told with great verve and excitement. And honesty. Is there now a more honest filmmaker?

Controversy has followed Scorsese, as it does many great filmmakers. In his case because of the violence depicted in some of his movies and the supposed unflattering portrayals of Italian-Americans. Suffice it to say his movies are not politically correct, that would corrupt the process. Many of his films, such as Mean Streets and Goodfellas draw from Scorsese’s own experiences growing up in New York. Along with several of the great gangster films ever made and other dark subjects explored in films like Taxi Driver, Scorsese has made Kundun (1997) about the dalai lama and the The Age of Innocence (1993) a costume drama based on an Edith Wharton novel. He’s nothing if not versatile.

Here are my top ten:

Goodfellas (1990). At the top of my list of Scorsese films and near the very top of all films ever made. Rich with unforgettable scenes, lines and performances. See my post from last February for more.

Raging Bull (1980). Scrosese has had the good fortune and good sense to surround himself with some exceptional talents. Among them actor Robert DeNiro who gave the performance of a lifetime as boxer Jake LaMotta and editor Thelma Schoonmaker, a three time Oscar winner, one for Raging Bull. This is utterly uncompromising film making. Both brutal and balletic. Considered by many critics to the best film of the 1980s.

The Aviator (2004). I seem to love this film more than anyone. I’m so clueless that I’ve never understood why it did not receive more critical acclaim and sweep that year’s Oscars. It’s the story of Howard Hughes over a 25 year period beginning with his filming of Hells Angels. It includes Hughes’ affairs with Kate Hepburn, Ava Gardner and Faith Domergue, his unsuccessful battle with OCD and his successful battle with congress. Most of all the Aviator, as its title suggests, is about Hughes the pilot and innovator in airplanes. Leonardo DiCaprio starred and is letter perfect, as is the film.

Taxi Driver (1976). This is a real poser. I mean trying to summarize Taxi Driver. Jeez, saying anything about in a few sentences seems wrong. Travis Bickle is a mentally unstable cab driver who vacillates between wanting to be an assassin or a vigilante killer. He takes an interest in a beautiful campaign worker and later a very young prostitute. How's that? For chrissakes just see it. DeNiro stars along with Cybill Sheperd, Jodie Foster and Harvey Kietel as one of the slimiest pimps you'll ever see.

Mean Streets (1973). It’s telling that a movie saw raw can be so damn good. An excellent film on its own terms it presaged much more to come. See my post from last Summer for more.

The King of Comedy (1982). Creepy, unsettling, embarrassing, uncomfortable. Yet I love it. Wrote about just the other day, see that post.

Gangs of New York (2002). DeNiro isn’t the only actor who gives brilliant performs for Scorsese. Just see Daniel Day-Lewis in this film. Also see some amazing set designs, costumes and special effects that re-create the Five Points Section of New York in the 1860’s. DiCaprio starred, though Day-Lewis stole the show. Yes its about the various gangs of mid 19th century New York but it's also about immigration, city bosses and the draft riots. Wonderful history and story telling.

The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). Immediately raised the hackles of people who hadn’t seen it, never would and wouldn’t understand it if they did. Based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis adapted for the screen by Paul Shrader, it pictured Jesus as what he was, a man. Some will argue that he was far more and the film allows for that too. Makes all those biblical epics of the 30 years prior seem like cartoons.

The Departed (2006). The only Scorsese film to garner him a Best Director Oscar and his only Best Picture winner too. Featured a rich cast of A list male actors, DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Mark Whalberg, Jack Nicholson and Alec Baldwin. It’s the Irish mob, good cops, bad cops, people working undercover for both sides. Plenty of tension, violence and drama.

Casino (1995). Draws inevitable comparisons to previous gangster film from Scorsese and inevitably suffers as a result. DeNiro and Joe Pesci are back this time the setting is Las Vegas at the tail end of the mob’s control of the gaming industry. A very good film in its own right. 

Also be sure to see A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies (1995) in which he discusses some of the American films he has most loved and been influenced by and Il Mio Viaggio in Italia (1999) (aka My Voyage to Italy) a similar look at Italian films.

23 June 2009

Even The Orchestra is Beautiful!

I'm one of those. You know the type. People who don't go in for conventionality. I accept "all kinds" and I'm all for a good time. Live and let live, I say.

Gay, straight, bi, whatever.

Fun? I'm in. In my younger days you couldn't keep me in the house. Too much to explore, too much to do. Too many people to meet.

Sex? Hell yes. Booze? Let's have it. I was a risk taker and for the most "got away with it."

A movie like Cabaret (1972) spoke to me. Loud and clear. You had the woman, Sally Bowles. "Divine decadence." Talented. Flamboyant and ready to party. Yeah party became totally a verb back then. Multiple lovers not a problem. Big dreams aplenty. And the truth? Not as important as what it could get you which was not always as much as exaggeration or outright fibs could get. All this and she could belt out a song too.

Then there was the English gent, Brian Roberts. A studious type from Cambridge. Well read, smart as hell. But not adverse to a drink or 12 and some sex or lots of sex and with whoever, gender not so much an issue. Not my thing, mind you, but I was totally cool with what other open minded souls wanted to do. The notion of an academic being a party animal was especially cool. Bohemian.

You know that sentiment expressed in the song, "life is a cabaret, ole chum...." I heard that. And not it wasn't any good sitting all alone in your room. "Come here the music play." And so I would.

There was a guy in the movie known simply as The Master of Ceremonies. Kind of fun, kind of creepy. One bodacious talent. Was he supposed to be symbolic? Like did he represent something, cause he never actually talked. He was just always on the stage or in the wings. He welcomed us at the beginning and said auf wiedersehen at the end. He was a leering, singing, fast talking whirl of activity. Sometimes just the mouth moving, sometimes just the tongue. Weird but so interesting. Really.

Course that whole deal with the Nazis was scary. So damn real. After all the story was set in Berlin in 1931 just a couple of years before the Nazis were running the whole show in Germany. So at first they're kind of lurking in the background, then they're beating people up and singing in the countryside. Gathering support, scaring, intimidating people. By the end of the movie there they are, swastikas and all, the center of the frame. That was heavy stuff.

In the middle of this wild wonderful movie there was the love story of the two Jews. Amazing how they could meld that in so effortlessly and not only not detract from the film but enhance it. Added to the humor. To the pathos. To the whole "coming of the Nazis" message.

Cabaret came out just about the time I was planning my big adventure to Europe. I even saw it again there. The sense of adventure spoke to me. As did the sense of danger. And the sense of fun. The whole free spirited business of it. Those amazing musical numbers. The whole show!

Many years later -- today -- I love it just as much. Even though, in the words of youngest daughter, I'm an old geezer. Happy to stay at home and settle in on the sofa with a book or a movie. But about Cabaret, funny thing, I understand it more. I know the stories upon which it was based. Know more about Germany and the rise of the Nazis, like that kind of music in the movie even more.

Kind of metaphor for life, isn't it? We can really feel it when we're younger, we can go experience it. Older we "get it" you know, understand it. That experience counts for a lot. I've got a lot of "been there, done that" to my credit. Lot more yet to do and learn, mind you, but I think I'm finally starting to understand stuff.

When I was a lad Cabaret was telling me to go out and do. And by God I went out and did. Joie de vivre. Today it recalls those days and entertains every bit as much. No, maybe more.

I now know that life is in fact a Cabaret. We need to hear the music play and there's no good to sitting all alone in our rooms. What a gas to have that perspective; to not just know something is right, or fun or cool but to know why.

Cabaret, a movie so good its spoken to me at totally different part of my life. Ya know what its told me? That its a great movie, that's what.

(Cabaret was directed by Bob Fosse and starred Liza Minelli as Sally Bowles, Michael York as Brain Roberts and Joel Grey as The Master of Ceremonies. Minelli, Grey and Fosse all won Oscars and the movie won eight in all. It lost the Best Picture Oscar to The Godfather (1972), one of only six American films that I actually like better than Cabaret.)

22 June 2009

Out of the Closet Onto the Big Screen, 10 Films for Gay Pride Week

I am second to no one in my love for films from the first half of the 20th century. A greater proportion of classic films were made in the 1930s and early 1940s than at any other time in history. But there was something missing from that era, actually quite a lot. Namely positive roles for African Americans, Asians or Hispanics or any depiction of open homosexuality. Oh sure there were a few characters and actors who were pretty obviously gay such as Franklin Pangborn and sometimes Edward Everett Horton. But same sex relationships were strictly taboo as were such words as homosexual or lesbian.

Change did not come until the 1960s and it was very very slow. Most depictions of homosexuality were negative. Gays were either limp-wristed nancy boys or perverts with "a problem." Positive change came with the confluence of Stonewall and the cinematic revolution of the 1970s, right? You'd think. The Gay Rights movement has been lagging behind others in acceptance through no fault of its own (see the victory of California's hateful Proposition 8 in last November's election). No, non stereotypical gay characters did not start appearing regularly in films until well into the 1980s. Barely 20 years ago.

TV and Hollywood have been taking baby steps, but at least most of those steps are forward and not backward. Here are ten movies from the last 25 years that have had positive depictions of gay characters. Included are three documentaries. One about this very topic of gays in the movies, one about a gay politician and the other about a gay couple. This is by no means a definitive list and I apologize in advance for including only one film that focuses on a lesbian couple. This inequity probably reflects both on Hollywood and yours truly. The films are not offered in any particular order.

Philadelphia (1993). It was a huge moment for gays and Hollywood and the twain meeting when Tom Hanks won the Best Picture Oscar for this film. And his eloquent acceptance speech capped it off. Philadelphia is the story of a gay closeted lawyer who sues the law firm that fired him. He claims his dismissal was prompted by the discovery that he had AIDS. Philadelphia tackled both homophobia and AIDS discrimination. If you've never seen it have a hankie near by; hell, if you have seen it be sure a hankie is handy. While Hanks was fully deserving of the Oscar and all other accolades, Denzel Washington gives a bravura performance as the ambulance chaser who takes his case. His transformation from macho homophobe to compassionate friend is the center of the story.

In & Out (1997). Let's see a comedy about a man who reluctantly comes out of the closet on the brink of his straight wedding. This could be trouble. The potential for stereotypes and exploitative humor is great. But with Kevin Kline starring and Frank Oz directing a script by Paul Rudnick there was no such problem. In & Out explores coming out, homophobia and acceptance and does it all with a sense of humor.

Milk (2008). Harvey Milk was the first openly gay man to be elected to public office. Well before that day he was already a mover and shaker in San Francisco politics in particular and the gay movement in general. Sean Penn gave one of the performances of a lifetime (of all lifetimes) in this brilliant bio pic from Gus Van Sandt. While Oscar was more than happy to acknowledge Penn's performance it gave the Best Picture award to the emotionally manipulative Slumdog Millionaire. Sheesh! For more on Milk see my post of last December.

Chris & Don. A Love Story (2007). A documentary about May-December romance that took place among some of the the rich, famous and talented in Hollywood circa the 1950s. The two people in love were gay, which, given our times, is unfortunately not just an oh-by-the-way. It's touching and fascinating. I wrote about it last Summer.

The Times of Harvey Milk (1984). Before there was Milk there was this Oscar winning documentary. Indeed the producers of Milk acknowledged their debt this film. The subject of the film should be obvious. I will add that, if nothing else, watching it after seeing Milk makes one appreciate Sean Penn's performance all the more.

The Celluloid Closet (1995). So far the definitive documentary about gay depictions in Hollywood. Lots of clips from lots of films. Obviously the characters and situations discussed in older films were neither openly "practicing" their sexuality nor identified as gay. Some of the film's claims are a bit tenuous but it's a fascinating film nonetheless. An updated version would be appreciated.

Personal Best (1982). Last summer I saw some jerk wearing a tee shirt that said, "I'm for gay marriage if it's between two hot chicks." It is in that unsavory spirit that many men enjoyed Personal Best and its lesbian love story between two female athletes, Mariel Hemingway and Patrice Donnelly. That's unfortunate because Personal Best, though somewhat dated today, deserves respect. The romance is actually a menage a trois as Hemingway's character is also involved with her male coach. A good movie about sports (track and field) sex and the meeting of these two athletic endeavors.

Brokeback Mountain (2005). Even as recently as 2005 the Oscars proved that they are still well behind the curve. While Ang Lee was awarded the Best Director Oscar for this gay love story, the Best Picture nod went to Crash (Seriously? Crash, why not just give the statuette to Norbit?). Heath Ledger gave an amazing performance in a starring role and Jake Gyllenhaal was excellent as his lover. Despite all the lame gay cowboy jokes that followed, this is still a touching and powerful film.

Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985). William Hurt won a Best Actor Oscar as a man imprisoned for "immoral behavior" -- i.e. he's gay in the wrong place at the wrong time. His cellmate couldn't be much different other than also being unjustly imprisoned. He's a political prisoner. They are the classic odd couple but come to understand and learn from one another. The late Raul Julia played the cell mate.

Before Night Falls (2000). Javier Bardem starred as real life gay poet and novelist, Reinaldo Arenas who was born and lived most of his life in Cuba. All was well when Castro came to power, after all Arenas was a revolutionary himself. However when he becomes open about his sexuality he discovered that the revolution wasn't revolutionary about sexual preference (the kind of thing that Castro apologists decide to ignore). The film follows Arenas triumphs, loves, prison terms and eventual emigration to New York. This was my first exposure to Bardem and I assumed he was gay. No, he's just one helluva an actor. Just ask his friend Anton Chigurh.

21 June 2009

Better to be King for a Night Than a Schmuck For a Lifetime

Oh just to touch the frays of fame's garment. To walk and talk among the famous as an equal. To be publicly celebrated and recognized. Save only power and riches nothing else is so intoxicating so beguiling as fame. And so few ever know it.

Many films have successfully explored the trappings of fame but none have better examined the obsession to experience it, nor what its it like to be outside of it looking in as did Martin Scorsese's The King of Comedy (1982). The only movie I love that makes me really, really uncomfortable.

Robert DeNiro plays Rupert Pupkin, an aspiring comic who cannot take no for an answer. Hell, he can't even take maybe for answer, or even just a minute. He is determined to be discovered by Jerry Langford, a talk show host played magnificently by Jerry Lewis.

Rupert suffers from what has become a common affliction in our culture. He is a man who has deluded himself into thinking he has talent. And indeed he is wildly appreciated and successful in his very own fantasy life. Fair enough, many of us have imagined giving Oscar acceptance speeches or hob nobbing with the glitterati. But Rupert crosses a line. A very fine one. He blurs fantasy and reality. And thus he shows up at Jerry's weekend home with his girlfriend. In fantasy he was invited. In reality, not so much.

Wisely Scorsese shot the fantasy scenes no differently than the rest of the film. In the film they are seamless. Just like with insanity. One of the finest lines many people walk is between knowing what is real and what merely exists in their imagination.

Fine lines is what The King of Comedy is all about. It's where the discomfort comes from. Whether when meeting Jerry himself or dealing with his assistant, Rupert keeps stepping over it. There's always one too many "oh, and one more thing." Actually that would be all right, one too many. With Rupert there's many too many. Everyone always maintains propriety around Rupert for as long as they can. Boundaries take an awful beating from Rupert who is polite but persistent. Then merely persistent. He knows his destiny -- to be a famous comic -- and can't see why he should bother with any of the niceties in his way such as hard work or receptionists.

Rupert expects Jerry to listen to his audition tape and put him on the show. The notion of working on his act in night clubs is unacceptable. After all he's got a basement with a re-creation of a talk show set in it that includes cardboard cut outs of Jerry and Liza Minnelli. It's there where he rehearses his act. Of course he's also created restaurant conversations with Jerry and appearances on his show. Only the voice of his mother yelling at him from upstairs interrupts this rich fantasy life.

In fantasy we can be an instant success. Today shows like American Idol fuel this notion. Reality shows in general make our 15 minutes of fame seem so easy to come by. And that 15 minutes can be stretched. Oh to have just a bit of fame. With a touch of fame you have access to more of it. And with fame you have immortality. With fame you are right and everyone who ever doubted you, crossed you or insulted you is wrong. From the song and movie Fame (1980):

I feel it comin' together
People will see me and cry. Fame!
I'm gonna make it to heaven
Light up the sky like a flame. Fame!
I'm gonna live forever

The real pain of watching The King of Comedy is in its powerful observations of what it's like to be close to something and not have it. You can stand outside that building where you want to have an office and look at people going to work there. You can watch that girl you love, the one who doesn't even know your name, walk down the street, you can even say hi to her. You can see a famous person, or know his cousin, or watch him perform or stand where he stood. You can get so very close to all the things you want. But possessing them can be millions of miles away. You're left then with fantasies that you can hone and perfect and add detail too and embellish. "Ain't nothin' like the real thing baby," to quote another song.

When all else fails Rupert takes drastic measures. That is to say, even more drastic measures. He has a ready made accomplice. She's an obviously unbalanced woman who is totally in love with Jerry. She's played to the hilt by Sandra Bernhard. It's a part she was born for. They kidnap Jerry. She to have his way with Jerry. Rupert's goal is get on the Jerry Langford Show by using Jerry's life as a bargaining chip. As Rupert says: "Better to be a king for a night than a schmuck for a lifetime."

I'll not give away the end but will say that the great post movie debate is whether what happens next is all supposed to be reality or part of Rupert's vivid imagination. If it's the former Scorsese has made an even more powerful comment on American culture.

During the closing credits we hear Van Morrison's 'Wonderful Remark' which includes this line: "I sighed a million sighs I told a million lies - to myself - to myself." As Rupert should but doesn't know, those are the deadliest lies of all.

(Epilogue. Actor Delroy Lindo sometimes works out at the same gym that I do. I've seen him four or five times. Twice I've seen people go up to him and ask if he'd look at their screenplay. Once someone stared at him while he showered, finally saying, "your the famous guy, the star." I had nothing to do with these exchanges but nonetheless wanted to crawl into a hole.)

20 June 2009

Three Cheers for Dad! Six Actors Who were Great On Screen Fathers, And Not Just Once

Tomorrow, the third Sunday in June is the day I and many others regard as the most important of the year -- Father's Day.

I have been truly blessed having had a great dad and being myself a not terrible father (you can ask my young uns, but only after I tell them what to say). We've all also been blessed here in film lover land with some truly memorable film fathers. I'd like to honor some actors who've given fine performances as daddies more than once. And none of this crap with guys who were fathers but you never saw the kids. We have to have seen a little parenting going on. To narrow the list down to a manageable half dozen I'm only using performances from the 1930s and '40s. Maybe next year I'll pick pops from other decades.

Walter Connolly. The quintessential flustered father of film. My two selections from his films are as Claudette Colbert's dad in It Happened One Night (1934) and Myrna Loy's in Libeled Lady (1936). In both cases he is the wealthy and protective poppa of a much desired daughter. He'll go to any lengths to keep Colbert from marrying her intended (turns out he's right about the guy). He's closer to Loy who he tries to protect from libel and fortune hunters.

Grant Mitchell. Another frequent father. I'm singling him out for roles in two of my favorite films, Wild Boys of the Road (1933) and The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942). In Wild Boys he plays one of the many nameless victims of the Great Depression who finds himself unemployed and with a family to feed. He is bloodied but unbowed. In The Man Who Came to Dinner he suffers the greatest at the hands of that man. It's his house that's invaded and he never liked the guy from the start.

Eugene Pallette. (Photo above.) The actor invariably referred to as frog voiced. He was the patriarch of the family in two of the most celebrated comedies of the era, My Man Godfrey (1936) and The Lady Eve (1941). In the former he had two daughters played by Carole Lombard and Gail Patrick (their looks clearly came from mom). The two kids were both hell raisers and the missus was no day at the beach either. Like many a good father he persevered among the madness and didn't blow his cool. In the Lady Eve his son was played by one Henry Fonda. He was a brewery magnate and a swell fellow, especially to his son's intended played by Barbara (sigh!) Stanwyck.

Henry Travers. Most well known as Clarence the angel in It's A Wonderful Life (1946) he was also a proud poppa in Shadow of a Doubt (1943) and High Sierra (1941). In the former his daughter (Teresa Wright) was gaga over Uncle until she figured out he was a murderer. In the latter his progeny (Joan Leslie) enthralled a gangster played by Humphrey Bogart. Don't blame him. He was clearly a sweet old dad, if a bit addled.

Frank Morgan. Much more than being the man behind the curtain that we were supposed to ignore in The Wizard of Oz (1939), he was also daddy-o in Bombshell (1933) and The Mortal Storm (1940). His daughter in Bombshell was a film star played by film star Jean Harlow. He wasn't a model father given his love of the bottle and spending his child's lucre. But a more lovable ole cuss you'll never meet. But in The Mortal Storm he is a beloved professor and the much respected patriarch of a large family in Austria. The family is torn apart when the Nazis come to power. He holds to his ideals as does daughter Margaret Sullavan.

Cary Grant. Cary Grant a father? Mister suave, sophisticated ladies man? Yup. See him in My Favorite Wife (1940) and Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948). His favorite wife in the the first film is clearly Irene Dunne who birthed his two darling kiddies. Despite all the nonsense going on he remains a devoted father. In Blandings him and wife Myrna Loy have two daughters who they spare the wackiness of building the aforesaid house.

19 June 2009

The Joys and Sorrows but Mostly The Joys of Being A Child, Truffaut Style

Being a child is the best. Being a child is the worst. Being a child is to know freedom. Being a child is like serving a sentence. Being a child is wasted on the young.

Being a child was explored wonderfully by the late great French director, Francois Truffaut in L'Argent de Poche (1976) known to most in the U.S. by its American title, Small Change.

Here's what Vincent Canby said about the film in his review of October 1976:
"'Small Change' has the air of a child's Saturday afternoon when no special activities have been planned. It ambles through the lives of these children, observing them in school, at home, going to the movies, making do on a Sunday morning when parents sleep late, trying to pawn some textbooks, making painful and hilarious discoveries that, by the time we reach the end, have encompassed most of the ordinary expressions of childhood in ways not possible in the conventional fiction film."

The great American sitcom Seinfeld was supposedly a show about nothing. That was, of course, a misnomer, it was about everything. An uncommonly hilarious look at four pixilated New Yorkers that managed to say a lot about relationships, culture and people. In the same sense Small Change is about nothing in particular and everything in general.

It takes a brave director like Truffaut to follow so many different threads in a film of just under an hour and three quarters and to do so with child actors, most of whom had never acted before. To make such a charming and insightful movie in the bargain is a mark of a true genius.

The children of the small French town of Thiers are the stars of Small Change. You may not be surprised to learn that they are no different than children in other industrialized part of the world.

Bored by school and thus adept clock watchers. Always looking for a good time. Curious about the world and their place in it, even ready to be defiant and push boundaries. Children, as I know especially well from 20 years of teaching, are great boundary pushers. Let's see just how much we can get away with before trouble starts is the common credo.

Happily the term mischievous is becoming archaic. It implied that children were "up to no good" though pure at heart. One shouldn't put such a value judgement upon what children are "up to." Who says its no good? We stuffy old adults do and by golly everyone knows the worth of our opinions. No, what children are "up to" is testing. Toes are forever poking into water to discover what's cold and what's hot and what's just right. What children are "up to" is learning, figuring out, negotiating, reconciling. They really want to know what it's all about. And for that matter, what "it" is.

That's the dad blasted thing about adults. Many of us stop looking. We decide rather quickly that we know what it's all about. We develop a world view and stick with it. All actions and events are observed through the same prism. Children take things on their own terms, unfiltered.

This is just some of what Truffuat gives us through Small Change as he follows some of the the young uns around through the last month of a school year. The kiddies range in age from about 18 months to about 14 years. Those are your prime growing up years. No longer a baby, not yet a corrupted teen who knows what it's all about.

Boys and girls are equally represented, as is when their two worlds collide at around 12 or 13. Oh sure they may play together before then but its without the complications that plague the sexes forever after puberty sets in. (There is a first kiss scene in Small Change that is oh so sweet without being at all cloying or exploitative.)

Among its other gifts, Small Change is kind to its adults. Teachers, parents and other oldsters are not the bad guys. Truffuat wouldn't cheapen his story like that, for one thing he's not dealing in stereotypes. Nor types of any kind for that matter. Everything is quite natural. Adults are seen as coping the best they can, whether with a pregnancy, a spouse who's split or a son whose friends cut his hair. Children and adults are not at war here, they just often have conflicting goals.

It is not all Pollyanna sweetness. We do have the abused child who in turn is the local delinquent. Poor lad. Truffaut handles him and his scenes appropriately, that is, without comment. A good director trusts the audience to make up their own minds.

Some films about childhood make one nostalgic for a time that in actuality never existed. That's, I suppose, the definition of nostalgia, a false memory that sanitizes the past. By being more true to reality, Small Change does a greater service to our mental meanderings. Small Change had me reflecting on childhood from the perspective of a former child, a teacher and a parent.

Parenting has been about as rewarding a venture as I could ever imagine. Both my childhood and teaching experiences have been incredibly mixed with much to recommend and much to rue. I appreciate the fact that Small Change does not sentimentalize. It does however capture more the joys than the disappointments of childhood and parenting.

TCM just showed it last night so it'll not be appearing there anytime soon. So jump, hop, skip to your local video store (imagine being part of a great adventure as you go) and rent a copy this weekend. Or if you must, go to your online account and book it for immediate delivery (by a stork!).

As the kids would say: it's fun!

News & Notes from Streams of Unconsciousness

Construction has begun on the Streams of Unconsciousness Museum. That's a picture from last week's groundbreaking ceremony above. The project is due to be completed by June 2010. The museum will feature priceless artifacts from this blog's distant past. Our crack team of archaeologists have done an amazing job....

The restrooms on the mezzanine level here at Streams of Unconsciousness have been refurbished. Also bidets have been added....

All our gift ships are now fully stocked with the Streams of Unconsciousness women's hoodies in all sizes. Thanks for your patience...

As you may have noticed we've loosened our restrictions on outside food and drink here at Streams of Unconsciousness. However the prohibition on gum is being even more strictly enforced. Please take advantage of our receptacles near all entrances....

Streams of Unconsciousnesshas received another honor, one we're particularly proud of. We've been named the number one film blog at this URL. Thanks to the staff, this award really belongs to all of us....

The Streams of Unconsciousness Cafe now features gourmet hamburgers and veggie burgers. The chef says to check em out. Yummy....

I'll be appearing at Ed's Hardware, Dry Goods, Livery Stable & Bookstore in Moosejaw, Saskatchewan this Saturday from 1-5 signing copies of my latest book: "The Agony, The Ecstasy, the Groupies: Film Blogging in the 21st century." Drop by....

Speaking of books, I'd like to recommend "Great Musicals of the Silent Era" by R.D. Finch and Kate Gabrielle's, "Film Making in Colonial America." Both are fantastic....

Once again I'd like to remind everyone to please spay and neuter their pets!