31 August 2009

Movies Yesterday and Today: The Good, The Bad The Racist

One of the principle reasons I cannot, like some of my film blogging brethren, limit myself to seeing movies from Hollywood's Golden Age, is that I like to allow my imagination to spend time with people of color who are afforded equal citizenship.

My 200 favorite all time English language films boasts more movies from the 1930s and 1940s than any other decades. Not even close, actually. But I do tire of seeing African Americans only being allowed to play porters, maids and buffoons and never being granted a lead role. Similarly Asians, Hispanics and to a certain extent even Jews were given very short shrift in films of yore. Openly gay characters did not exist at all, though it's hinted that some men are "sissies" and thus subjects of derision if not contempt. So here was the great deficit of films in the first half of the 20th century: it was a white man's world.

In social situations women could attain equal status (particularly in the pre code era) but politically and economically they were in the back of the bus. Truth be told women enjoyed better treatment in film than they did in the "real world." And there's the rub. It was not that the film industry that was keeping women, people of color and gays in secondary roles, no they were merely reflecting society. Of course one can counter the argument and say that films were perforce colluding in repression. Films continued perpetuating the negative, hurtful stereotypes of the Jim Crow Era and it can be argued, re-enforced them. Those images, as seen in the video montage from Spike Lee's Bamboozled (2000) (above) are powerful reminders of the role film played in oppression.

It gets complicated.

I've had students say of a film from the 1930s that it was "racist" due to the manner in which it depicted a Black character. Far worse, many adults say and believe the same thing. However when Preston Sturges cast a bug eyed, stammering, African-American cook it was not because the great writer/director was a bigot. (Was it?) This was merely a cinematic convention of the time (So?). In fact Sturges was lauded by the NAACP for his depiction of a black church in Sullivan's Travels (1941). We like to label, classify and file away. One false step by a politician, entertainer or co worker and they're out. Makes life easy. Easy and limiting.

Part of the problem is that we cannot apply standards of today to movies of yesterday. Ultimately they just ARE. We need be sensitive to and aware of how various peoples are represented in films of the past but to then condemn them is pointless. We can, with a great degree of accuracy look back at southern politicians of the time who opposed federal lynching laws and label them racist. Far more important we can examine whether odious creatures like Fox TV's Glenn Beck is racist. In dealing with the past making judgments is a false dichotomy and a fool's errand. Meanwhile understanding how the past influenced today is one of the most important exercises we can engage in. We can trace societal norms and attitudes of yesteryear to twits of today like Beck.

The past is what it is. Films from bygone days needs to be looked at, examined, interpreted and understood. Calling them names is just plain silly. I read a lot about Nazi Germany and have to restrain myself from getting angry at those beasts. Better to reserve one's anger for the dangers of today and better still to channel that anger into productive ways to counter those threats.

One night not long ago, as a diversion from our cares, my wife and I were enjoying one of those silly Mickey Rooney Judy Garland "hey-let's-put-on-show" films. It was all pleasant puffery until the two stars began applying black face for a big minstrel number. We could have stopped the film right there and shook our fists at the screen screaming epithets, but being veterans of such moments we soldiered on. Instead, for the next few minutes we realized that we weren't enjoying a musical but getting a history lesson. That's what those moments do. You heave a sigh and remember for a bit the way our society used to be and are thankful for recent advances. (I've often fantasized about traveling back in time to visit the 1930s. But live there? In an openly racist society where gays were locked deeply into closets? No thanks.)

Of course films prior to about 1967 also suffered from rigid censorship via the enforcement of the production code. There is a glimpse at what might have been for Hollywood had the code been done away with, or continued to be ignored, in the many great films of the pre code era, which ended in 1934. (See this previous post for a guide to pre code films. And this post for part 2.) The stories and characters were far more realistic. People enjoyed sex, even before marriage and even (gasp!) if they were women. A film like Baby Face (1933) would be shocking even today. Other films shone a bright light on society like Heroes for Sale (1934). Then the forces of "decency" (i.e. repression) came along and Bathsheba was replaced by Pollyanna. That great films continued to be made seems a miracle.

I used to think that a person could be shot and killed without any blood or visible mark (my vivid young imagination presumed that the bullet would send some sort of sonic boom into the body thus killing the victim). Then I saw Bonnie & Clyde (1967). Violence can be overdone and lord know it has. But it was drastically underdone for the first 60 or so years of movie history. Sex, nudity and profanity can all also be overdone (though I'd be willing to sit through a movie that tried to overdo female nudity) but they were absent from film for too long. James Cagney managed to portray some pretty despicable gangsters in The Public Enemy (1931) and White Heat (1949) to name but two films without so much as saying, "damn." But it's hard to imagine Joe Pesci in Goodfellas (1990) saying "what the heck is so funny about me" with the same impact as when he said f*ck.

Also limiting was that crime could never pay in films. So you always, always knew the bad guys weren't going to get away with it and it was just a matter of how their grand schemes would be foiled. This might have been morally satisfying but artistically it was pretty darn limiting.

I've seemingly made a case for how and why films are today are better than their forerunners from 70 years ago. But as I said at the beginning more of my favorites are from 30s and 40s. How is that possible? To fully answer that question would require an entire post, however here's the short answer: Characters and story were emphasized over special effects. Also, to a certain extent the limits placed on films back then forced writers and directors to tell a fuller story. Today sex, profanity and bathroom humor often interrupt good story telling, they become a kind of short hand. Modern movies sometimes use their freedoms to shock and titillate, again in lieu of telling the story.

Past or present films? Happily none of us have to choose. Thanks to Turner Classic Movies, DVDs and revival houses and film archives we may enjoy the best of both worlds. There is over 90 years of cinema to watch. Bon appetit.

28 August 2009

Whatchyou Talkin' About? -or- The Curious Case of The Conversation's Harry Caul

He's rather an odd duck, this Harry Caul fellow, wouldn't you say? He's widely recognized as the best in his field (audio surveillance). But he's got all the wit and charm of a hockey puck. Please don't ask him any questions -- he hates that. Here's a guy who listens in on what other people say, who's very particular about his own privacy. The hypocrite. Stay out of his business, stay out of his place, keep your distance. Why he'll even outright fib. Nothing major, mind. Lops two years off his age. Wow, says he's 42 when he's 44. Odd sort of fabrication, don't you think?

He's got a girl. Physically Harry will get real close. But that emotional distance you could drive a semi through. Won't even tell her his occupation. Bristles at her questions (told you he don't like that). Quick to anger and walk right out. And that anger is not the yelling or hitting kind. No it's that frustrating simmering, short with words, sudden shut down type. Can't really engage that, your just out. Harry likes it that way. If your not in you're all the way out no ifs, ands or anythings.

Gene Hackman was the actor who had the daunting task of playing Harry Caul in director Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation (1974). Not the kind of role you can really go nuts with. Easy to play broad, emotional, angry types. But what a challenge to be so contained. So quiet. So bloody baffling. Hackman did it though. Boy I'll say. What a performance.

The Conversation is a fascinating movie. On the surface a pretty straight forward story. Guy hired to do surveillance believes his employers are planning to off the lovely young couple he's recorded. Attack of conscience, massive one at that. He can't let this go down. But can he stop it? Good thriller stuff.

But this film goes way beyond that. Yes it examines issues of privacy, but its so much more than that because you've got this Caul character at the center of the story.

And about that name...You know what a "caul" is? According to that Merriam-Webster bloke its "the inner fetal membrane of higher vertebrates especially when covering the head at birth." And our Harry is always wearing a translucent raincoat. No, no, you make something of it. What do you suppose the significance of that is?

I read one description of Harry Caul as "paranoid." Ya think? That sure comes out at the end of the film (which I'll not reveal here for those who are about to enjoy their first viewing of this wonderful film and hey it's about time you did) when he goes practically mental with paranoia. But is that really an important adjective for this Caul fellow? Paranoia is an exaggerated or unrealistic fear. This guy isn't so much afraid as he is concerned and his concerns are based on real world stuff of which he's an expert having listened to so much of it, don't ya know.

It's an odd business listening to other people talk. Subject to so much interpretation and so very easy to get it all wrong. Maybe better just to get your recordings and fork em over to those who really care. Come on Harry, leave it, they're paying you plenty and not a dime of it is for your opinion. You might just muck it up in the end.

The Conversation is a very 1970s film. Which is in my book, high praise indeed. Very character driven. One of them high falutin' "important" stories. And there's a strong dose of political paranoia (there's that word again). Seventies films betrayed a strong suspicion of governments, corporations and shadowy men behind the curtain that you should just ignore for you own health. These are forces Mr. Caul faces, with predictable results.

Did I say that I really like The Conversation? Well this is my reiteration. In addition to Hackman, it features John Caazale who was only in great films during his all too brief career, an impossibly young Harrison Ford, Cindy Williams, Frederick Forrest, Robert Duvall, Terri Garr and the wonderful Allen Garfield. Garfield who was also grand in The Candidate (1972), was made to play the schmoozy, sycophantic, wiseacre, hail fellow well met insider. There, I said it.

I could go on about the film and Caul in particular, but better you should watch it. What do you think of this endlessly uninteresting man who's such an endlessly fascinating character? Is he really all that aberrant? I mean for all I've said he's got some everyman bona fides. Really he walks the fine line between normal and wacko that most of us traipse along (those who don't are just plain nuts). And the story has resonance today and likely forever after. It's the type of film to re-visit every so often if only because you find something else each time. Just like Harry the obsessed does with his repeated listenings to that one conversation.

Anyone hear that? What was that?

25 August 2009

Excuse My Continued Exuberance and How About Some Cake With Your Movie?

In writing about Inglourious Basterds (again) on his Scanners blog, Jim Emerson referenced an Alfred Hitchcock quote in which Hitch said that his films are not slices of life but slices of cake.

I am a big fan of neo realism and gritty tales of everyday life. Whether from the Pre Code Era or a recent independent film, I like a good movie that shines a light on life's truths, however unseemly they may be.

But I also like ice cream and dancing and raucous celebrations and a toe tapping rock songs from the 60s. Most of all I like art, in whatever form, that wakes me up, shakes me up and takes me up, up, up. Move me, man, move me. I don't always wanna just sit here, mind alert but feelings numb. A bite of good rich chocolate, The Who singing Behind Blue Eyes, watching His Girl Friday (1940) things that make my senses stand up and shout, "yipeee!"

Why am I addicted to working out? The endorphins, man. Totally high off them for hours after. I don't walk after a work out, I strut. Hear the music before turning on my iPod.

What good is sitting alone in your room? Come hear the music play. I don't know if life really is a Cabaret (1972), old chum, but it can be a real gas. Sometimes you've got to touch it. Grab it. Then hold on for dear life. Cool ride.

Tarantino totally did it. Right up there with his own Pulp Fiction (1994) and works of so many auteurs, he did it with Inglorious. Not off the high yet, 24 hours later. A work out in between so I'm buzzing. Bees be jealous. Oh sure I'll come down. Come down and sit for a bit. Gotta get a dose of reality. Read the news and see what...but not yet. Not now....

See, this is what movies can do. Be the cake. But no calories, no starch, no fat just the deliciousness. The yummy. You get it from the Marx Brothers, from Preston Sturges, Ernest Lubitsch, Cary Grant, Bonnie & Clyde (1967), Goodfellas (1990). The nerve and the verve. They dared to be different. They dared to be good. And they were. No they ARE. Great art is eternal. The paintings of Jan van Eyck and Sandro Botticelli ain't going nowhere. They, like ET are right here.

A terrific film like Inglourious Basterds will have me appreciating other films, and music, dark chocolates all kinds of stuff. It's like its contagious. Our senses are heightened and we want more. The soul is hungry and must be fed. Nourish it. With cake!

Great art offers the unexpected or gives you a different look at the expected. That's it! It's different. Sturges, the Beatles, Ben & Jerry's ice cream. Unexpected. Different. Not just rock n roll or vanilla or a comedy. Not just anything. You know where else you get that feeling? From love. That's why falling in love can be so scary. You've got the rush of the roller coaster and you're not sure its safe. It's actually riskier than a roller coaster, more danger of getting hurt. But the ride is sooooo fun. Thing with love is, that it may hurt you but the rewards! Love makes you experience your life. You're not walking by it anymore. You're in it. Deeply involved with your existence. Great art (and you and only you can be the judge of what's great) involves you. Can't just watch or listen or taste or feel. It's more.

Am I serious that a movie can be so profound? Maybe not for you. Maybe you don't like chocolate. We're all different. Me I don't go backpacking. I don't listen to punk. Don't do it for me. But a great film touches a part of me that's not easy to access. If you've spent some time on this planet and you've seen some difficult times (affirmative to both for me) then you really, really appreciate what you love. I mean it lingers after the moment. And I don't want to go all R rated on you but its the difference between making love and just having sex. Sex good. Love making goes beyond the moment of apogee.

So all this from a Quentin Tarantino movie? No, no, no that was the spark, great on its own terms but of a larger picture. One in which the senses are alive and enjoying. Let us eat cake!

24 August 2009

The Glories of Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds

I saw Quentin Tarantino's new film Inglourious Basterds this afternoon. As you will read, I loved it. I felt compelled to write about forthwith but hardly am up to the task of a full blown review. The experience of this particular film is too immediate. To write anything truly meaningful of any sort of length would require more perspective and perhaps a second viewing (can't wait). There is quite enough about it on the internet to keep you busy anyway. However, I did want to share some scattered thoughts of mine and have done so below. Since the movie has only been in theaters for a few days I've been careful to avoid spoilers.

The biggest risk Tarantino takes in Inglorious Basterds is in the length of some scenes and the amount of dialogue in those scenes. It is a risk that pays off handsomely. Far too many modern directors like to jump hither and yon, not confident that they can direct a long scene or that their audience will sit through one. Tarantino has no such fear. In fact the movie's first scene contains a lengthy dialogue between two men, a French farmer and an SS officer. It is totally compelling because of the true nature of their discussion ( the farmer is hiding a Jewish family) and the bravura performance of Christopher Waltz as the officer.

Tarnatino is clearly a man very much in love with cinema. There is thus an exuberance to his film making and its never been more evident than with this film. He positively loves the story he is telling and the characters he has created. He wants us to love the film too but doesn't pander, he trusts in that story and in those characters. He doesn't manipulate scenes but let's them play out. I love it when a director trusts his story because it also means he trusts me. Tarantino is a true auteur.

The previews are misleading. The focus of the film in not on Brad Pitt and his merry band of Jewish American Nazi hunters. Their escapades are certainly central to the story but they are but one part. They in fact never even cross paths directly with a few other featured characters.

Roger Ebert had a great line about the film. He said the actors didn't chew the scenery but they did lick it. I couldn't have said it better myself but I sure as well wish I had said exactly that first. Waltz is especially mannered. It's one of those boundary pushing performances that is so good for being so daring. I love it when actors challenge conventions without lapsing into parody or caricature.

One of the things that I particularly like about Tarantino is that he is so good with his female stars. First Uma Thurman and Pam Greier and now Melanie Laurent and Diane Kruger. It's surprising to learn that he has only recently come to the films of Joseph von Sternberg who veritably made love to Marlene Dietrich with his camera in their many collaborations. Tarantino knows how to utilize, direct and film women. There are many great directors who never worked particularly well with female stars.

When going to see a film for the first time we cannot divorces ourselves from our preconceptions or current mood. Being exceptionally happy, anxious, sad or preoccupied can and often will be a filter through which we see a movie. I always go to a movie hopeful that I'm going to see something fantastic (seriously, who goes to a movie thinking they're going to hate it other than, perhaps, professional reviewers?). I was in a good movie viewing mood today, glad to be taking oldest daughter to a film. However I carried the burden of extremely high expectations. This is often death to a movie. Anything less than perfection can ruin a perfectly good movie saddled with unrealistic expectations. But Inglourious Basterds was so good it didn't matter. It's the best film I've seen in theaters since No Country for Old Men (2007).

Films based on actual events often get blasted for straying from those actual events. Inglourious Basterds doesn't so much stray from history as re-write it in toto. Don't know that anyone has squawked about it so far but anyone who does shouldn't be taken seriously. As Tarantino has explained, he was letting the story be driven by the characters. Good for him. Artists often feel too hemmed in by empirical fact. Live a little. There is a time and place for historical accuracy. This film was clearly not one of them.

Nice to see Mike Myers in something other than one of his own disasters. Maybe he'll settle in for awhile as a character actor. He clearly needs to stop writing and directing for a bit (he hasn't made a really good movie since the first Austin Powers film, though the second was passable). He's too good to go away entirely for any length of time.

There is the small part of a waitress played by a young French actress named Anne-Sophie Franck. She's got such a captivating face that I'll bet you a donut you'll be seeing her in more prominent roles in years to come.

I love the shot of the cream and the strudel. That was a nice touch that shows a film maker who is patient and meticulous. Reminds me of the Coen brothers shot of the uncrinkling wrapper in No Country.

23 August 2009

3 Dot Film Blogging...

Item: An Indonesian woman was mysteriously spared the caning she was sentenced to receive today. Her offense was drinking beer in public. And why would I make something like that up? Wouldn't...

Item: Finally watched Design for Living (1933) an Ernst Lubitsch film starring Miriam Hopkins (have a major crush on her) Frederic March and Gary Cooper (the photo above is from the film). One of my first responses to the film was "why the deuce haven't I seen this before?" It is very pre code, very funny and totally engaging. Can't wait to watch it again...

Item: Watched bits and pieces of Miss Universe tonight. Beauty pageants go against most of my core values especially as the father of two daughters. It's the type of deal that I hate while I'm enjoying and hate myself for watching. Still, I like to pick the finalists and am pretty good at it. Comes from having watched these damn things since I was a kid. I still remember as a little kid thinking that the evening gowns were supposed to be the same as night gowns and wondered how rich women slept in such outfits...

Item: Watched the much ballyhooed preview for James Cameron's Avatar which is set for a December release. Assuming no one will pay me to see it, I doubt very much I'll be interested. Looks heavy on the next generation of super spectacular special effects and of course very light on story...

Item: Meanwhile the trailer for the Coen Brothers next film, A Serious Man, has been called by some the best film preview ever. It certainly has helped guarantee that I'll be among the first to see the movie in October. Another interesting preview is the one for Sherlock Holmes. Robert Downey Jr. stars as the title character with Jude Law as Watson. Any film that casts Downey has my attention. Look for it around Christmas...

Item: Tomorrow oldest daugher and I are going to see Inglourious Basterds and it's been awhile since I've looked forward to seeing a film this much. Virtually every reviewer I respect is raving. I only worry that my own expectations will have been raised to too high a level. Preconceptions can muddle the first (which is often the only) viewing of a film...

Item: No one asked, but my favorite columnist is Frank Rich of the New York Times. He is clear, cogent and because he writes once a week his columns are long and seem well researched and measured. I always feel like he's the voice of reason and the perfect antidote to the shrill voices on the right...

Item: A recent post of mine, If I taught "Introduction to American Film" ,was featured on IMDb's hit list the other day. In it I listed 13 films I'd show in such a class with a brief comment explaining each choice. I got a lot of response and much of it came from people who had evidently just left town hall meetings on Health Care Reform and weren't yet through spewing vile. I swear none of my choices are likely to foment insurrection or genocide but you've never know that from some of the angry comments I received. About movies! Some people...

Item: Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are on vacation for three weeks. Thus my ability to maintain perspective and sanity will be challenged. I'm counting on you David Letterman....

Fred and Barney do Scorsese

21 August 2009

My Special Back to School Post In Which I List My Ten Favorite Cinematic Teachers

Now we're really into an area of my expertise. I dedicated 20 years of my life to teaching in an urban middle school. In fact I still dabble in the profession as a substitute ( a position a notch below dung shoveler). One might think that my experiences have made me jaded and cynical. One would be correct.

Quite honestly, teaching is a profession that serves as a perfect metaphor for life. There are incredible highs and lows and if you pursue it with any sort of passion there's never a dull moment. One minute you feel like banging your head against a wall, the next you want to skip merrily down the lane singing a happy refrain. The key is to show up each and every day.

Teaching is a world of constant and glaringly evident contradictions. Good teachers take their work very seriously and don't take themselves seriously. Good teachers love their students and hate their students and love their students and don't give a damn about their students. Good teachers prepare meticulously and then improvise. Good teachers dread the teaching day, that is to say they live for it. Good teachers are introverted extroverts. Most of all good teachers defy classification.

You should not be surprised that my list of ten favorite teachers in American films is somewhat eccentric and certainly irreverent. You will not see any of those ridiculous only-in-Hollywood teachers that I find so insulting. No Glenn Ford from The Blackboard Jungle or Sidney Poiter from to Sir With Love or Michelle Pfeiffer from Dangerous Minds or Edward James Almos from Stand and Deliver or for Gods sake's especially no Richard Dreyfuss from Mr. Holland's Opus, the single most depressing movie ever made and you have no idea how sick I got of people asking me if I'd seen it.

I'm dealing in the real world people (as viewed by a teacher). Not only are we safe to assume that these were teachers good but by God they were interesting people. Here goes.

Ryan Gosling as Dan Dunne in Half Nelson (2006). Hands down my favorite all time teacher on film and the one I could most relate to. Like me a middle school history teacher who coaches a team. Half Nelson was a terrific film in large part because of Gosling's amazing performance. Dunne was clearly a good teacher who cared about his students. A little time in rehab and he'd be good to go until total burnout or relapsing.

Matthew Broderick as Jim McAllister in Election (1999). Okay so he cheated in a school election and on his wife and fantasized about a student, nobody's perfect. Election offered one of the more realistic looks at schools you'll ever see, so of course it had to be in the guise of a comedy. Election launched Reese Witherspoon's career but to me Broderick stole the show as the totally conflicted teacher. He is a model for how flawed we teachers are and he provides a blueprint for what not to do.

Kevin Kline as Howard Brackett in In & Out (1997). True story, I had Kevin Kline's niece and nephew as students (the nephew confirmed that Uncle Kevin included a fairly nice check with his birthday card). Brackett is a high school teacher outed on national TV before he himself knows he's in, so to speak. Forget for a moment though whole outting business, any teacher who gets thanked in prime time is living the dream, baby. He had to have been good. On top of that, the whole community rallies around him. Also watch Bob Newhart as the quintessential administrator, ready to lean in any direction the prevailing winds blow.

Dick York as Bertram T. Cates in Inherit the Wind (1960). Cates did not waver from his convictions. The man believed in something called evolution and taught it. In Tennessee! In the 1920s! You have trouble getting away with that in parts of Kansas today. Plus he was smart enough to sit back, shut up and let his lawyer do the talking.

Vivian Leigh as Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). So she had a dalliance or two with some students, we've already established that nobody's perfect, not even teachers (though we're expected to be). Can you imagine the love she could inspire for her great poets and playwrights? The readings she could give! Sure Ms. DuBois might seem a tad odd to some of her students, but others must have been captivated by her, shall we say, unique interpretations of literature. I'd sit in on that class. She could be the drama teacher and curriculum all in one.

Suzanne Pleshette as Annie Hayworth in The Birds (1963). First of all we're talking about a 26 year old Ms. Pleshette and you'll just have to excuse my momentary lapse into pure animal lust. Hubba hubba. Anyhoo you may not recall from the film but she had admirable control over her roomful of charges when a flock of birds with murderous intent came a calling. She was cool, collected and easy on the eyes (oh my that rather bad pun was unintentional).

Tom Hanks as Capt. John H. Miller in Saving Private Ryan (1998). Remember the big deal among the soldiers wondering what Miller did as a civilian? Then at a moment of extreme tension he settles everyone down by quite suddenly revealing that he was high school English teacher. Given the outstanding leadership he provided his men, Miller must have been one whiz bang teacher. And he's Tom Hanks for crying out loud, who wouldn't want him or one of his characters as your teacher? (Another true story: my first principal was, still, is for that matter, Hanks' sister-in-law.)

Cathy Downs as Clementine Carter in My Darling Clementine (1946). No such list is complete without a good old fashioned school marm and who better than the lovely Clementine? She essentially lost two men in the course of film but was tough enough to stick it out in Tombstone of all places and stay on as a teacher. You know good and well she'd have no trouble with a bunch of snot nosed kids.

Arnold Lucy as Professor Kantorek in All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). Talk about inspirational! You see him exhort his students to join the army and fight for Germany's glory? Magnificent! A teacher who can inspire a room full of students to do anything is to be admired, but to fight in a war? Awe inspiring.

Robin Williams as John Keating in Dead Poet's Society (1989). Hollywood keeps trying to ram inspirational teachers down our throats. At least for yours truly it flat out hasn't worked. The closest thing to an exception would be William's Oscar nominated performance as Mr. Carpe Diem himself. I was just embarking upon my teaching career when this film came out and it actually influenced me. I did the whole standing on desk routine, the tearing a page from a text and the whole tick off the administration thing (not hard, just express an original idea). Keating inspired a love of poetry and he did it by urging students to dare to see the world though their own eyes. He actually tried -- successfully I might add -- to inflame their passions. Plus he coached the soccer team -- just like me.

19 August 2009

The Audacity of A Streetcar Named Desire

Some movies create worlds with completely different realities. Dogs talk or monsters breath fire or cars levitate. That's okay.

Other movies try to replicate reality. People go about doing and saying things that are quite typical of the sorts of things people say and do. Situations depicted are not only possible but probable. That's okay.

Still other movies stylize reality. Take the ordinary and stretch it. A motorcyclist fleeing an assailant manages a fantastic leap over a chasm. A hero miraculously fends off a pack of armed enemies single handedly. That's okay.

Finally there are those movies that stylize the ordinary. Example: A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). There is nothing that happens in the course of the movie's two hours that is at all extraordinary. A woman might come stay with her sister. Men work, and bowl and play poker. People argue loudly, forgive readily. Men court women. Women get pregnant. There are plenty of instances of insanity. Garden variety stuff.

Oh but to watch these people talk!

Vivian Leigh as Blanche DuBois and Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski in particular among the stellar cast are not just acting, they are not just becoming, they are not just interpreting, they are total living, breathing affectations of characters. As such they are utterly mesmerizing.

Indeed there is a hypnotic quality to director Elia Kazan's film. Yes it's mostly Brando, Leigh and company, but Streetcar had to be black and white. It had to feel increasingly cramped. You had to feel the humidity. How did Kazan make the movie seem so humid? Somehow you watch the movie and you sweat. The "action" is so often set in one place at a time (not surprising given the film's origins as a play) but there's such a sense of movement. 

It's a lot of talking. But the way they talk is so damn compelling. You don't hear every word. You'll even miss a snatch of dialogue here or there because you're so taken in by the sheer bravado of the performances. Anyway, many of the words are just props. It's the way they are spoken that's important. Watching Streetcar is like listening to a great singer. The lyrics can be secondary at times to the manner in which they are conveyed.

Brando embodies masculinity and sexuality. It's not just the torn shirts, the muscles or the bluster. It's the delicacy too. The tilt of the head, the gestures, the softness and even tenderness of his movements. Imagine a man at once macho and delicate. The template for thousands of actors since. Anyone who is going to depict losing his temper on stage or screen would be wise to watch him. But don't miss his contrition either. The bully whose conscience always shows up too late.

Leigh gets away with murder. She positively devours the scenery. It is a highly affected performance. I mean the woman's crazy, right, what do you expect? But watch her for awhile with the volume off. Is she trying to be 12 or 72? Coquettish one second, dismissive the next. Flitting about then contracting into herself. Look at her eyes. They look everywhere but at nothing. Dull while always moving. No more under control than her brain. Leigh tapped into her own experiences being bi-polar to play Blanche. Scary to watch her get lost in the part. But exhilarating too. The whole movie is that way. A term the kids used to use "a rush." And again it's not just that it's such a good film but -- here it is -- the way it's a good movie. There was a real commitment by all involved to take story telling to a different level. They busted loose, couldn't be contained -- like Brando's muscles refusing to stay within the confines of a shirt.

It's one hell of a risky movie to make. Who would be audacious enough to go so broad? Well, evidently Brando, Leigh and Kazan. They took reality and teased it from straight, limp roots into a while afro and bouffant and my God it's something to behold.

17 August 2009

What was Your Favorite Part?

Back when oldest daughter was a little girl I regularly took her to the movies. Inevitably upon leaving the theater she'd look up at me and ask, "What was your favorite part, Daddy?" I'd dutifully answer then ask the same question of her. It is not the type of query most adults pose to one another. But I don't see why they shouldn't.

A sure sign that you've just watched a bad movie is that once the closing credits roll you quickly start to forget everything you just saw over the preceding two hours. I saw the 4th installment of the Indiana Jones series last year and not only can't I tell you a blessed thing about today, I couldn't have recounted a single scene the day after seeing it. Great movies achieve their status because they are memorable and they have scenes (or "parts") that are indelible.

Many such scenes became part and parcel of our culture. For example the "you talking to me?" scene from Taxi Driver (1976), the "I coulda been a contender" scene from On the Waterfront (1954) or "the frankly Scarlett I don't give a damn" scene from Gone with the Wind (1939). Those are cinematic moments we share within our society and for that they are special. But there are also personal favorites, some of which may have only a handful of fans. Below I share some of mine. And I'm so taken by the idea I'd like to start a website called "What was Your Favorite Part?" in which people submit a brief description of a favorite film scene with a few words about why it resonates with them. I was careful to say "I'd like to" start it because frankly I don't have the time to. Classes start for me later this week and I'll be working again soon and I've got the great American novel to finish and then there's the demands on my time from adoring fans. I'm hoping one of you out there will pick up on the idea. It should be fairly easy to start and manage and should be a lot of fun. Whattaya say? Someone? Anyone?

In any case I've gotten the ball rolling. Here now, as promised are a selection of my favorite parts of movies. Some are well known, others more obscure.

I like the part in To Be or Not to Be (1942) when Joseph Tura (Jack Benny) in the guise of a Nazi dignitary meets with Gestapo Colonel Erhard (Sig Ruman) and plays him like a drum. He even feigns indignation at a joke made at the Fuhrer's expense, putting the bumbling Colonel on the defensive. He also flatters the colonel by saying that in London he is known as "Concentration Camp Erhard." Benny is masterful in the scene, Ruman the perfect stooge and of course they were directed by Ernst Lubistch so no wonder its so good.

I like the part in Follow the Fleet (1936) when Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers are doing their final dance number. It is my favorite of all their cinematic dances together which is saying something considering how many great ones they performed. The song is "Let's Face the Music and Dance." It's elegant, athletic and elevates the rest of the movie from cheesy musical to poetry. Everything from the set, to the costumes to the orchestration are perfect. Most of all Fred and Ginger are perfect.

I like the part in Goodfellas (1990) when Joe Pesci asks Ray Liotta "what's so funny about me?" It is a deservedly famous scene that Pesci reputedly wrote. The first time you watch it you get nervous right along with Liotta. Indeed the second and third and 20th times have the same effect. You sense the danger of Pesci's character and in turn the danger of the world in which they live. It builds and builds and then releases wonderfully into laughter.

I like the part in The Great Escape (1963) when Steve McQueen as Hilts takes on the whole German army in Germany, no less, with nothing but a motorcycle and his wits. This is the first film I ever truly loved and this scene is part of why. McQueen hadn't a chance but that he gets as far as he does is absolutely thrilling. His last desperate attempt to jump the last fence ends with him tangled in barbwire but he accepts his fate with a wry smile. What a cool guy!

I like the part in Animal House (1978) when Bluto (John Belushi), D-Day (Bruce McGill) and Flounder (Stephen Furst) kidnap the horse and take it to the dean's office. Belushi is hilarious running head of the others, stopping, squatting, looking left, looking right, eyes wide arms and legs out as if ready to pounce. Bluto and D-Day send Flounder back in to shoot the horse though its just a gag as the gun holds only blanks. What a surprise when the horse dies anyway, from a heart attack. All Bluto can say, over and over, is "Holy sh*t," in Belushi's inimitable style.

I like the part in The Aviator (2004) when Leo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes takes Cate Blanchett as Kate Hepburn for a plane ride. The music is Benny Goodman's "Moonglow" as Hughes gives his date the controls and the plane soars over Los Angeles. We feel like we're right there in the cockpit enjoying the thrill as the plane approaches a hill then elevates comfortable higher to safety. Exhilarating.

16 August 2009

Everything You Needed to Know About Men and it's All in a Movie

You visiting from another planet and wanna get a sense of what the male species is like round these parts? I've got just the thing for you. Will take just under two hours, Earth time. You sit yourself down and watch a film called From Here to Eternity (1953). Pretty much everything you need to know about guys, fellas, dudes, lads, men, chaps and gents is revealed in this movie.

Here's some of what you'll find out.

Men can be unreasonably stubborn like Prewitt (Montgomery Clift). He doesn't wanna box so by god he won't and there's nothing you can say or do to him -- and they try plenty -- to make him change his mind. You tell him to halt and you gotta loaded gun pointed at him, well if he doesn't wanna halt he's gonna keep going, damn the consequences.

Men can be stupid like Maggio (Frank Sinatra). Get stuck with guard duty when you'd rather be heading into town? He'll just go AWOL and get himself stinking drunk in the process. Damn the consequences and the consequences do damn him.

Men can be cruel. Get a load a Fatso Judson (Ernest Borgnine). Gets a guy he doesn't like in the stockade and he'll beat him mercilessly. Not a whit of conscience about it. Fella dies it's his problem, probly deserved it, he figures.

Men can cheat. Watch Warden (Burt Lancaster) diddle his CO's wife. He's not just having an affair with a married woman. The woman is married to his boss. And that very CO is no bargain either. He's squiring around another woman. Men do that sort of thing. They swear to one code, violate another.

But ya know what else? Men can be tough. They can take a licking and keep on ticking. Prewitt took all the abuse meted out to him and stuck to his guns, didn't squawk. Maggio endured some severe beatings but wouldn't holler. Not once. You could say men just don't know any better but the point is that they are durable.

Men are passionate and loyal. Yeah sure the love may be for a married woman or a hooker but the point remains. The loyalty may be for the army or to your buddies but it's deep and it does abide. Men can be tender and sentimental. Oh sure in some cases it only comes out during advanced states of intoxication but come out it does. Men put on a show but a lot of them are old softies.

Yeah men break one helluva lot of stuff, they're incredibly skilled at destruction. Start by breaking toys and not always accidentally. Later break blenders, cars, pencils, you name it. Some even advance to breaking bridges, buildings and whole cities. Oh men are a caution. But men can also fix things that are broken and by God can build too. I guess it's a push. Men build about as much as they destroy. Check it out, those were men in the planes reigning destruction in the movie. On a place other men built. That men came along and re-built.

That leads into another thing men do a lot of: fight and even kill. All those guys from the movie I mentioned did some fighting and some even killed. Sad to say men are really adept at physical confrontation. In the movie you'll see everything from fisticuffs, to knife fights to bombs from airplanes. The whys are for another time, fact is most men are natural born fighters and can easily advance to being killers. Sad, I know.

Here's another thing you'll see that come to think of it pretty curious. A lot of women really dig men. Least ways some men. Warden and Prewitt both had some pretty good looking dames totally gaga over them. Men can, after all, be handsome, kind, witty and even charming.

From Here to Eternity is a good place to start in anyone's look at male behavior. It's also a way to see some really good actors at the top of their game. Not just the previously mentioned gents but Donna Reed and Deborah Kerr too. The film's real success stems from how finely drawn the characters are. Ernest Borgnine as Judson is as no good a bully as you'll ever see on film. Sinatra was, as he correctly believed, born to play Maggio, the madly impulsive carouser, good time Charlie and hot head. Clift never gave a bad performance and was especially good as Prewitt, an ultimately complicated, perhaps even tortured soul. Lancaster's Warden was the ultimate man's man. Big, handsome, agile and a sergeant who was absolutely unflinching in doing right by his men. But it would have spoiled the movie if he was perfect. Nope, he had to be sleeping with a married woman just as he had to get rip roaring drunk on occasion to seem real.

You watch From Here to Eternity and as a guy you wanna slug Fatso, ya wanna hang out with Maggio, you relate to Prewitt and aspire to be like Warden. You also want to hook up with Reed or Kerr. You re-visit the movie because even if you never did a turn in the armed forces, you've been in those heavily male situations. You've seen how guys preen and strut and mark their territory with each other. You size up the other guys and find your buddies and become aware of your enemies and rivals. You also love each other in a manly sort of way. There are leaders and followers and thinkers and connivers and outcasts and you. The observer.

Course if you're here visiting from Saturn, you're not familiar with that stuff. So you just watch the movie to learn. And did I mention you'll be entertained in the bargain? It'll happen, trust me.

12 August 2009

A Darker Shade of Cary

Who are you, Cary Grant? Are you just the constantly befuddled scientist snared by daffy Kate Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby (1938)? Are you the carefree, if recently deceased, prankster bon vivant of Topper (1937)? Maybe you're the conniving and indefatigable editor from His Girl Friday (1940). Or how about the witty sophisticate with peculiar marital issues in The Awful Truth (1937) and My Favorite Wife (1940). Say, it could be that you're the free thinking wunderkind from Holiday (1938) or perhaps the dashing sergeant from Gunga Din (1938).

Surely you are a happy, breezy sophisticate. Adored by and adoring of women. Fond of children and animals and a man always adhering to the laws of the land though never prudish about doing so.

Yes, we've seen a darker side to you both in Suspicion (1941) and Notorious (1946). But these were Alfred Hitchcock films and you ultimately proved to be morally beyond reproach. But I'm confused after seeing you in Mr. Lucky (1943). That was you alright. Same handsome face and lean solid build. As charming as ever and always one step ahead of the game. Maybe it was the tone of the movie but you seemed so very dark. In fact, I know part of it was the movie. So visually dark; it felt as though the entire film were shot with black borders.

You seemed to emit dark light. Sure, that's an oxymoron but that doesn't stop it from being properly descriptive. I guess a gun-toting gambler who wouldn't bat an eye at swindling charities out of their dough has to have an ebony hue. Yeah, sure, you're a charmer and a dame falls for you and you for her. But that's a bit of sideshow to your shenanigans, don't you think? You're just having a bit of fun and providing a diversion to your nefarious intent.n'est-ce pas?

Really, Cary, I've never seen you so willing to not just skirt the law, but brush off morality. I can't discuss the ultimate resolution of matters and whether you opt to, shall we say, "do the right thing" because there may be those eavesdropping on our little chat who've never seen the film. But nothing changes the fact that you come from such a dark place. (Was this closer to an Archie Leach character than a Cary Grant one? Is that it?)

There is a real sense of danger to you and your avocation. You deal on the fringes of society while being able to mingle with the very upper crust of that society. Gracious, you can even sit down at a table of older society ladies and knit. But all in pursuit of lucre. You're not vamping around either. You're full of intent. Not even cynical. Calculated.

You're a cheat, you're a draft dodger and you're a grifter. There is a sense of doom and foreboding to your story. Yet a woman loves you. It is from her (Laraine Day) that light emanates. You could bask in it, but at one point choose to run instead. You may have been oblivious to Hepburn in Baby but for the most part you've been in active pursuit or already blissfully joined with the women in your films. Who is this Cary Grant willing to dispense with so eligible a woman? Ms. Day is not just a very pretty face who has fallen for you in a big way. She's clearly a likely partner. Smart, charming and sophisticated herself. Every bit a worthy partner to you. Or is that just it? You, Cary Grant, feel unworthy of her? Can it be that this darker Cary has a conscience? While doing business outside the law do you need to adhere to a code? A code that forbids the possibility of risking taking advantage of so fine a woman in other way than collecting ill gotten gains? You were afraid weren't you? That's why you ultimately took the path you did. Could you have been living to these words not yet written, not in fact to be written until over 30 years later by a rock band, The Who?
But my dreams
They aren't as empty
As my conscience seems to be
I have hours, only lonely
My love is vengeance
That's never free
Ya know, I think I like this darker shade of Cary. Oh sure, I'll always love the Cary of screwball comedies. You're at once comfortable, interesting and entertaining as hell. Simply one of the best characters in film. But it's nice to see a maybe more nuanced character. The darkness becomes you. It's a sharp edge that never manages to cut. It's the knowing that you can, that you might, that you're capable that's so bloody arresting. Capable, that is, of..well we don't know what. We can imagine though. And that's just what you have us doing. Imagining. You're not right out there, your essence so clear and welcoming. We can't be sure what to make of you. How fun is the Cary of comedy? How fun is this Cary of mystery? Answer to both: very!

Who are you, Cary Grant? More than we know, I reckon.

11 August 2009

If I Taught "Introduction to American Film"

I've been a teacher for most of my adult life with decidedly mixed results. I've always enjoyed creating and teaching lessons and have had wonderful and fruitful relationships with most of my students. On the other hand there have been those many students who in addition to not caring to learn would just as soon no one else did either. Often, spineless administrators prove to be an encumbrance.

But what if I had a teaching assignment with guaranteed attentive and interested students and without bureaucratic interference? And as a further change of pace, let's imagine that this was not a course in American History but in American film. What fun!

A term is usually about 13 weeks long so I would have that number of sessions to give what would at best be a cursory introduction to American film. Let's put aside for now what reading I would assign and the manner in which students would be graded (maybe a paper on a particular director, genre, studio or time period). Let's just look at the films that would occupy the vast majority of instructional time.

A film a week. I would only select films that I liked. Each would have to represent a different time period and trend in films. I'd give a brief introduction and perhaps a short wrap up and take questions at the end. Picking only 13 films to represent American film is next to impossible. But teachers are used to that sort of challenge. Here's what I'd show and a brief explanation of why. Think of it as part of my course syllabus.

Week One A Collection of Charlie Chaplin Shorts. I've diverted from my intended path in the first week but for the only time. These shorts would show film in its relative infancy. It would be a look at early comedy in particular a style that has influenced future generations at that. More particularly we'd see the genius of Chaplin and his use of pathos.

Week Two The Big Parade (1925). The highest grossing silent film of all time, The Big Parade was both a powerful anti-war picture and a blockbuster. It melded a realistic depiction of war and a love story. Directed by King Vidor. An intimate story told on an epic scale.

Week Three Baby Face (1933). The very best example of pre code Hollywood. Barbara Stanwyck plays a young woman tired of being pimped out by her father. She flees to the big city where she cynically sleeps her way to the top. It's like would not be seen for another 40 years. Shocking in any era, it is an excellent film. Indicates the direction American film could have gone were it not neutered by the enforcement of the code.

Week Four Jezebel (1938). Bette Davis and Henry Fonda starred. William Wyler directed. Its a costume drama struggling under the strains of the strict enforcement of the production code. Classic example of the sophisticated Golden Age melodrama.

Week Five Citizen Kane (1941). Well duh....

Week Six The Band Wagon (1953). My one example of the Hollywood musical and the early 50s sensibilities of mainstream film. Features Fred Astaire. It's glossy and fun with toe tapping numbers aplenty. Light, airy without being totally bereft of artistic merit.

Week Seven The Searchers (1956). The flip side of Hollywood in the Fifties. Also represents the Western and the work of John Ford. Rife with meaning and an early challenge to racism in film. Breath taking cinema photography.

Week Eight Psycho (1960). An Alfred Hitchcock film at last. The famous shower scene, the very idea of a star being killed off half way through the movie. The forerunner of a kind of film that is made so poorly today, the slasher movie. The closest thing to a noir I've got.

Week Nine Bonnie & Clyde (1967). Helped shake Hollywood out of a long stupor. Introduced violence, albeit somewhat stylized, and a very different look at sex. Two gorgeous stars, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway in an anthem to the anti establishment ethos of the late Sixties.

Week Ten Taxi Driver (1976). In some respects the quintessential Seventies film and from one of the great directors of the era, Martin Scrosese. Featured an important star in Robert DeNiro. Powerful and very adult themes and memorable scenes. Social commentary told in a totally compelling style.

Week Eleven Star Wars (1977). For better or worse Star Wars revolutionized films. Special effects were front and center. Sequels and prequels were to come along with merchandising tie-ins. The Summer blockbuster would be a permanent fixture. Ridiculous amount of money made. All this and a rollicking good movie too.

Week Twelve JFK (1991). Hugely controversial in subject matter, totally unafraid to take on multiple targets at once. Very impressive cast of stars directed by Oliver Stone. Brilliantly edited and regardless of one's view of Stone's message it was bravura story telling. Actually helped create awareness of questions surrounding the Kennedy assassination and led to some documents being de classified by the government.

Week Thirteen Monster's Ball (2001). Very explicit sex, interracial at that, but not at all gratuitous. Though boasting a major star who would win an Oscar for her performance, Halle Berry, this was clearly not a mainstream Hollywood movie. Enjoyed critical success and did only moderately well at the box office. Like a lot of the best films of this decade it straddled the line between independent and mainstream.

In future posts I'll provide syllabi for intermediate and advanced courses, and maybe even for a graduate seminar.

10 August 2009

Whattaya Lookin At?

Damn you. There you are out there waiting for me to write something. You check every so often to see if I've posted something new. Like I need this pressure.

You probably know that I saw The Hurt Locker (2008) last week. You're waiting for me write about it. What's the matter, you wonder, didn't care for it? On the contrary. The Hurt Locker is the kind of film going experience that helps one realize that yes, good films still get made. There's hope. The Hurt Locker also guaranteed that I would never, ever wish that I had served a tour of duty in Iraq -- not that I ever had. But no, I'm not going to devote a whole post to it. I just don't feel like it, okay?

You also are wondering if I'm going to write about Hitchcock in general or one of his films in particular because, after all, there were a couple of his films on TCM yesterday. Both of those movies starred Cary Grant, and it was Grant's day on Turner so doesn't it stand to reason I'd be writing about him? Fact is that I watched To Catch a Thief (1955) for the first time in many moons. I still don't particularly care for it. Love Grant, love Grace Kelly (huhha hubba) and Lord knows I'm a huge Hitchcock fan but that particular movie just doesn't do it for me. And I don't feel like writing about why.

You also probably recall that I had recommended Marked Woman (1937) starring Bette Davis and that it was shown on TCM Saturday. Surely I'll be wanting to write about that. Yeah, well I guess I could discuss it and if I did I would remark on what a fine performance Bogart gave as a good guy in a movie replete with bad guys. But I think I'll pass on that. Don't wanna.

If you're really in the know you maybe aware of the fact that earlier last week I recorded a couple of Harold Lloyd films when it was his day on TCM. (Which reminds me, how do you know so much about me?) These were my first Lloyd pictures and I loved them. I was thunderstruck in The Freshman (1925) to see my home away from home, Memorial Stadium here in Berkeley right there in the middle of a 1925 movie. Memorial Stadium is where I've been going for eons to see the University of California Golden Bear football team do battle. Some of the football scenes in The Freshman were shot there just a year after the stadium was completed and yes, smarty pants, that's well before my time. Loved The Freshman but enjoyed Safety Last (1923) even more and only regret that I didn't record more Lloyd films. But as for a whole post on it...not gonna happen.

So I know what you're doing now. You're wondering, is something the matter? Does the guy have one of his cases of writer's block or has he been sick or is he down in the dumps about something? None of the above. I could write a novel so absent is any writing obstruction (and indeed I'm trying). My health has never been better and I'm tearing up the treadmill and the weight machines at the local YMCA. As for my spirits they're soaring. Happy days and all that. Ya know there's actually two things I do better when times are tough: sleep and write. Depressed, busy, or in a grind? I sleep like the proverbial log (say, have you ever seen a log actually asleep?). In those circumstances I also write with the ferocity of Proust on cocaine. ( I gotta know, does that line about Proust on coke make sense?)

Please don't get your panties in a bunch. I'll be writing stuff and nonsense and much a do about something related to films soon enough. I'm just not going to force it. You've done enough by making me feel guilty for not writing in three days. You and your prying eyes. Your nosiness. Your needs. I've got needs too, ya know. Like tomorrow, fer instance. I'm taking one of my day long excursions to the ocean (Pacific, if you must know). It's a long ride on public transport in which I do a lot of reading. Then I walk along the beach totally in awe of the waves and the vast expanse..blah, blah, blah. I even wrote a post about such a day last Summer.

So that's that then. I feel kind of bad about how harsh I was at the beginning. Actually, I quite appreciate your interest in this blog and thank you for reading. I just need my space. (Now why do I feel like I've been talking to myself?)

07 August 2009

Coming Soon To A Theater Near You!

A synopsis of coming attractions at any U.S. movie theater at any time.

The apocalypse soon! Alien invasion, polar ice cap melting, huge meteor striking Earth. Fortunately one of your favorite and most handsome movie stars is on the case (with a lovely female co star). There is a gruff but lovable general or president or prime minister played by a favorite character actor. But most of all there are frightening special effects. See the Statue of Liberty blow up. The Golden Gate Bridge submerged under tidal waves. The Eiffel Tower shake, shimmy and roll. All the scarier because IT COULD HAPPEN! Peter Travers of Rolling Stone raves: "The must see hit of the Summer!"

Arty indy schlock. See one of Hollywood's most glamorous stars slumming in this off beat look at lower middle class struggles. Yes, the accompanying music reminds you of the soundtrack from your worst hangover, but its a perfect accompaniment to this touching story of regular people in rural communities facing love, disaster and oddly tinted shaky hand held camera shots. What these people go through you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy. An official entry at the Yankton, South Dakota film festival and a winner of the Hanoi Festival's Grand Jury prize. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone raves: "If you see one movie this year make it this one."

Quirky off beat romance. This is a different kind of love story with an oddly matched pair of misfits. They may feel like society's outcasts, but they find solace in one another. Not another gross out teen comedy, this is the melding of a director's vision and two extraordinary actors ready for stardom! Soundtrack replete with appropriately off beat and quirky songs. The actors ride bicycles and laugh. Even though they have mean parents and cruel classmates and boring teachers!!!! Peter Travers of Rolling Stone raves: "The greatest love story of this, or any other generation!"

A sequel! Finally someone not just out to make a buck, someone with a novel idea. Get this: take a movie that did boffo at the box office and create a continuation of it! Use the same actors, people will be familiar with them and their characters. Sure it may not make a dime but such creativity! Imagine the mind that thinks this stuff up! Plus they'll be plenty of 'splosions and cool CGI special effects. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone raves: "The greatest film ever made. Ever. Period."

Two sexy stars in a thriller! International intrigue and two beautiful leads. They may be on other sides but they'll find themselves in the same bed. Exotic locales. Suggestive dialogue. Quirky co stars. Heroes extricating themselves from seemingly possible situations. You can't be sure but it looks like they'll be a twist or two in the story and just maybe the stars will wind up together in the end with everything being okay. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone raves: "This is not a movie, this is an experience that will rival the greatest orgasm you've ever had."

A documentary few of you will ever see. Here's a probing documentary into how really eccentric and obsessed some people are. Look at the odd things they do with such passion and how they talk endlessly about it. See the corporate and political meanies who try to stop them. Watch our hero speak up at a local council meeting. They're not only off beat, but brave! We come to admire them in what is an oddly heart-warming story that will inspire people of all ages. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone raves: "Not since the resurrection of Christ has their been such an important experience."

Seemingly incomprehensible foreign film. From a different country where they don't speak English comes the story of a boy and his quest for something. Not sure what. Looks kind of like a documentary but it's probably not. The locations are in a couple of different European countries. The film has won like a gazillion awards, but just in Europe so far. There's a lot of arguing and hugging and some of the actors are old people. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone raves: "S' Okay."

Your Homework Assignment is to Watch "Marked Woman" on TCM

Marked Woman (1937) starring Bette Davis is on Turner Classic Movies tomorrow (Saturday 8/8) at 9:30 PST.

If you've never seen it before I absolutely insist that you watch or record it. Don't get TCM? Then now is the time to rent it. Don't have a DVD player? Well for crying out loud what's the matter with you? And by the way, if you have seen it before I absolutely insist that you watch it again.

Marked Woman features one of Davis' four or five best performance and given the kind of career she had I obviously mean that as high praise indeed. Davis plays what is euphemistically called a "party girl" (you'll get what she really is) working in a mob run joint who decides to name names. Humphrey Bogart plays the crusading district attorney which is interesting considering that this was a time in his career when he usually portrayed guys on the the other side of the law.

Marked Woman is too little appreciated and too little known so let's make sure we all watch it. If enough of you do I may even write a post about it next week. Or hell, maybe one of you will beat me to it.

Any questions about your homework?

06 August 2009

You May Be in a Movie Made 75 Years ago But...Oh Can't You See What I'm Trying to Say? I Love You!

If you have outrageous luck in life like I have, the one time you really fall deeply in love it ends up being for keeps. I had crushes that ranged from microscopic to titanic. But the real thing only hit me once and I've been married to the woman for many happy years since. (At least they've been happy for me.)

For some there's a downside to finding your one true love -- never experiencing the dizzy elation of losing your heart to another person ever again. But that's not a problem for those of who us also find passion and enchantment in movies. I fall head over heals regularly while watching films. Often with the same dame over and over, sometimes in the same film.

We experience a lot vicariously through movies. Action, horror, space travel and of course romance. How often do even the most jaded and cynical of us go gaga over someone on screen? Yes, maybe it's the actor or actress we love, but real movie love is when we fall for the character. It's a delicious kind of fantasy that we can indulge in at any age and without regard to our "real life" romantic status.

Yes, I know you imagine me a hard bitten old cynic but I'm a soft touch for a pretty face, especially a good looking dame in a movie and most especially when the movie is from Hollywood's Golden Age. The movies were classier and the women appearing in them were too. They knew how to craft roles for leading ladies back in the 1930s and 40s. Female stars were cultivated and given roles just as substantial as the ones for men.

Below are ten screen sirens I've fallen for. In every case its happened more than once, I've just picked one particularly memorable role for each actress. I've swooned over so many actresses of yore that in narrowing this list to a manageable number I left off such personal favorites as Ginger Rogers, Myrna Loy, Alexis Smith, Joan Blondell, Jean Arthur, Veronica Lake, Thelma Todd and Priscilla Lane. Sorry girls.

Barbara Stanwyck as Jean Harrington in The Lady Eve (1941). Truth be told I've fallen for more of Ms. Stanwycks's characters than any other actress'. It's an odd thing considering that she's far from the most beautiful. But just watching her seduce lucky Henry Fonda in this film makes me rue the day I wasn't born in her era (if such a thing is possible to rue). Ms. Stanwyck was that unbeatable combination of smart and sexy. You could imagine being physically intimate with her (to be ridiculously euphemistic), talking politics with her or just gazing at the stars together. *Sigh*
Loretta Young as Gallagher in Platinum Blonde (1931). We're supposed to be watching Jean Harlow here. She's the star, she's the one the leading man marries. But Ms. Young steals every scene she's in. There are those eyes as big and beautiful as twin full moons. She's young, vulnerable, but capable and I want to skip merrily through a meadow with her. Impossibly beautiful.
Joan Fontaine as Lisa Berndle in Letter From An Unknown Woman (1948). Too pretty for words she is. The face of an angel and not a fallen one either. She looks at the man she loves as if he's the most wonderful creature on Earth. Just as in Rebecca (1940), Ms. Fontaine's idyllic love for her co star is the stuff of every man's dreams.
Ann Sheridan as Goldie West in They Made Me a Criminal (1939). In some respects the actress most similar to my own bride. Totally self assured, bordering on tough, but beautiful and loving and soft. Barring the invention of a time machine I'll never have Ms. Sheridan circa 1940, thank God I've got my own missus.
Paulette Goddard as A Gamin in Modern Times (1936). When I'm looking at Paulette Goddard I'm always afraid that I'll melt into puddle. She cavorts happily with co star Charlie Chaplin, the picture of innocence yet clearly a dame who knows her way on the round block. I wish she'd take me for a spin.
Lana Turner as Elizabeth Cotton in Honky Tonk (1941). It's one of those deals where you say, if you look up such and such a word in the dictionary there's a picture of so and so. You look up gorgeous in the dictionary and there's Lana Turner, from pretty much any movie she made. She's impossibly beautiful with a voice you could bask in. But there's also a bit of guile and attitude. In other words, more than just a pretty face.
Jean Harlow as Vantine in Red Dust (1932). This is a tough one to write about on a family blog. Gentleman, I think you know what I'm talking about, especially during the washtub scene. Talk about a woman who looked like a lot of fun! This is my favorite Harlow picture in large part because she's so damn sexy. But don't mess with her. Ya gotta like a woman who can fend for herself.
Marlene Dietrich as Shanghai Lily in Shanghai Express (1932). Okay I'm going to admit right off that in a one-on-one situation with Ms. Dietrich I'd be a bit intimidated, that's how seductive she is. Fine, I'd submit to her will and take my chances. I like the odds. Ms. Dietrich played a number of uber sexy women and you could have a fun argument about which role was best. I'll go with Shanghai lily. Hardly a politically correct moniker these days but a sexually correct woman in any day and age. (Yahvol, Fraulein Dietrich.)
Carole Lombard as Irene Bullock in My Man Godfrey (1936). You know what makes beautiful and sexy into totally irresistible? When you add funny. Ms. Lombard is a crack up whether here or in Mr. and Mrs Smith (1941) or To Be or Not To Be (1942). And if you're funny you're smart. She's got all that and a body that just don't quit.
Olivia DeHaviland as Hermia in A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935). Ms. DeHavilland was a still a teenager when she played Hermia so I'll extricate myself from an awkward situation by saying it's the teenager in me who's got a massive crush on this version of Hermia. Indeed I get a crush on Ms. D pretty much any time I see her. There's so much verve and happiness to her that a pretty face becomes a complete knockout.

04 August 2009

Of a Wienie King, the Ale & Quail Club and Airports Suspended Over Cities

Last night I needed an antidote to having watched a long movie that took itself way too seriously. Yes, what I needed was a short movie with no pretensions other than to make people laugh. Nothing can fill such a prescription any better than Preston Sturges' Palm Beach Story (1942).

While the dull over wrought film of earlier in the day insisted that life is fleeting and desperate, Palm Beach Story says that life is wild and wonderful and you'd better fasten your safety belts, or not.

There is much to be said for films that starts with the basic premise that stretching a story just beyond credulity can illuminate life's absurdities while entertaining audiences. There is as much to be learned about the human condition from good comedy as from serious scholars. For one thing, the latter can be such awful bores and good comedy keeps us wide awake.

I've written a lot about Sturges, whose directorial career was brief but brilliant. He had an uncanny ability, like the Marx Brothers, of being at once zany and intelligent. His humor appeals to all ages and types. Sturges slyly comments on hero worship and bravery in Hail the Conquering Hero (1944) and on politics and corruption (I know, same diff) in The Great McGinty (1940). While his topics aren't so broad in other films, he manages wry observations on life and love, as with these gems from Palm Beach Story: "Don't you know that the greatest men in the world have told lies and let things be misunderstood if it was useful to them? Didn't you ever hear of a campaign promise?" and "You have no idea what a long-legged woman can do without doing anything."

Palm Beach Story also features a man falling down the stairs and accidentally exposing his bum to an elevator full of people. The Ale & Quail Club is just plain silly but Sturges lets off the gas just before it gets to ridiculous. It's what the great ones can do: push boundaries without crashing through them into the tediously silly.

Let's not forget that no such comedy can succeed without skilled performers. Sturges scored big time in the casting department. In Palm Beach Story he had Joel McCrea and Claudette Colbert in the lead. You can do just as good but no better. Co-starring were Mary Astor (I cannot imagine living so long as to tire of seeing or hearing her) and of all people Rudy Vallee (though you might swear its a young George Will). But with Sturges you also get his usual stock company. Any group that includes William Demarest, Jimmy Conlin, Franklin Pangborn and Al Bridge is plenty okay by me.

(An aside: The cast also includes "Snowflake" in the role of the "Colored Bartender." IMDb has cleaned this up listing Snowflake's real name and calling him George, Club Car Bartender. This raises the issue of whether it is more important to avoid offending people or to be historically accurate. This is one of a growing number of topics I'll promise to address some time in the future.)

McCrea is a an inventor married to Colbert. He has devised a plan by which an airport can be suspended over a city (works for me). All he needs is an investor. Colbert is tired of struggling to make ends meet. They are rescued from their latest gem by The Wienie King. A little old man who's made his fortune in the sausage business. He takes a liking to Colbert and hands her a wad of bills.

The real antics begin when Colbert flees by train from New York to Palm Beach, without a dime to her name. She's taken in by the Ale & Quail club, a group of filthy rich drunken hunters. On the train she meets a zillionaire played by Vallee who falls for her. It gets even nuttier from there. How it all works out at the end is farcical and fun and linked to the opening scene, all of which is open to interpretation and well, you'll just have to see it.
Movies like this are just what the doctor ordered when you've got an occurrence of the miseries or have spent too much time contemplating the universe or, as in my case, have just endured a self important modern film that drags on. But ya know what, Palm Beach Story is good anytime. Don't take my word for it, ask any member of the Ale & Quail Club.