30 September 2009

Five Movies and One Bad Cold -or- the Ancient Art of Film Blogging While Sick *Achoo!*

This is really brave of me. Or foolhardy. I'm on day two of a horrendous cold. I know, its too early, cold and flu season doesn't kick off for another few weeks, but I've got the whole deal. Sore throat, congestion, exhaustion, achiness. I've avoided serious illness and injury my whole life but ever since I became a teacher I've suffered an inordinate number of colds and the occasional flu. So it's silly of my trying to post, but blog I must.

The bright side to colds is that it gives you time to sprawl on the sofa and watch a movie. Let me catch you up with what I've been watching both immediately before this cold struck and during the onslaught. As I write I will be pausing to sneeze, sip orange juice and groan loudly, but you out there in cyber world will never know the difference.

So here's what I've seen.

Closely Watched Trains (1966). First of all that's a great title. But it has a lot more going for it than a pretty name. The film is from Czechoslovakia and won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. It's a touching coming of age story with World War II as the backdrop. Wow. If you're not quite sure what pathos is just rent this film. There is humor aplenty which is really hard to do when you've got Nazis running about and people getting killed. But the laughs are there and not in a way that will offend anyone. There is a young man at the center of the story who mainly just wants to lose his virginity. Jir Menzel directed. Four decades later his I Served the King of England (2006) was a big hit and written about by yours truly. It's a beautiful movie to watch and to think about. To tell the story it does, to end the way it does and not be emotionally manipulative is an achievement in itself. The story telling is restrained in the way many East and Northern European films are. The natural eccentricities of the characters are allowed to come though without any broad strokes from the director. The film is rife with deadpan moments from people just being themselves, whether duplicitous, goofy, or horny. That extraordinary events are transpiring around this collection of souls doesn't stop them from being true to who they are. We get to watch. neat.

Paris (2008). The wife and I caught this at the theater Sunday. In addition to the fact that the film has been well received, we wanted to see it to get another look at Paris the city, where he'd had such a grand time at the end of last year and where we plan to go against soonest. The movie did not disappoint on any count. Juliette Binoche was among the featured cast and that's always a good thing (although I do find it sad that she reportedly has a great crush on me while here I am in a state of marital bliss). Its an episodic movie which means there's a bunch of stories going on. This is a risky kind of film to make but it works here because all stories and characters are strong. There's not point at which you think, "not this jerk again." Any movie that clocks in at well over two hours and seems too short is good. Also in the cast is Melanie Laurent (photo above) who I, and millions of others fell in love with this past Summer for her performance in Inglourious Basterds. This is such a different movie and she's playing such a different person that it took me an embarrassingly long time to recognize her. She's going to be a big star, folks. Yes, of course she can act, and of course she's beautiful, but she's got the requisite film presence highlighted by that captivating face. Romain Duris as the 30 something dancer who needs a heart transplant probably gets the most screen time and he's wonderful. You may recognize from Moliere (2007). Cedrick Klapisch directed Paris and did a terrific job. Much to ruminate on about life and love. There's not overly dramatic score or outrageous behavior to muck it all up as so often happens in American movies. People going about their lives facing love, heartache, death, the possibility of own's one death and even just the day-to-day stuff is plenty anyway. Can't ask for more in movie.

Murder, My Sweet (1944). The cold had hit full force Monday when I returned home from a day's labors and opted for this wonderful film noir. You see enough of Dick Powell as a sappy, constantly smiling leading men in musicals and you're ready to swear him off. But then he turns up as Philip Marlowe, of all people, and all you can say at movie’s end is, "encore!" Based on Powell’s previous work -- whodathunkit. But Powell is second only to the great Bogie himself in playing the ultimate hard boiled detective. Edward Dmytryk (please someone, buy him a vowel) provided masterful noirish direction in one of those films that makes black and white cinema photography stunningly beautiful. Claire Trevor and Anne Shirley co star. Ms. Shirley retired from acting after this, at the ripe old age of 26 and what a loss. She was a looker. Though not quite in the same league as the best of the Marlowe films, the Big Sleep, Murder, My Sweet is still one of the better noirs ever made. It's sufficiently complex without being totally confusing and it's peopled by a wide variety of characters both mundane and creepy. In the latter category, Otto Kruger (wasn't that the name of some Nazi bigwig?) is so slimy, smarmy, disgusting and despicable you just want to reach through the screen and slug him. Yuck! A film worth watching every couple of years.

Un Secret (2007). It'd been about a year since I'd seen this in the theater and its one of those films that begs a second viewing. From France and director Claude Miller, it is the story of a young teen who discovers the family secret, which relates to the Holocaust. We see him as an eight year old, a fifteen year old and as a grown man. The film bounces about between those three time periods as well as a look back to WWII and the events that constitute the big family secret. The ubiquitous Matthew Amalric (A Christmas Tale (2008), The Diving Bell and the Butterfly(2007)) plays the grown up version of the boy. The delicious Ludivine Sangier, plays a tragic figure and Cecile De France is the mother. Here's another movie that takes a chance. Audiences can get impatient with films that bounce around in different time periods, especially when the introduction of certain characters seems confusing. Patience pays off and any lingering confusion can be cleared up with a second viewing. It's not a Holocaust film, per se. In fact just what kind of movie it is is best left to one's own interpretation. It certainly is about family, relationships and the kind of pain that can't possibly go away.

A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy (1982) . Five movies, one from Woody Allen. That sounds about right. If 20% of the films you watch are from Allen you're enjoying life. This however, is not one of his better films. He supposedly wrote it in two weeks and it shows. There are many wonderful parts and characters, as in all of Allen's films, but the whole never holds, if you know what I mean. Based in small part on a similarly named play from some bloke named Shakespeare and to a slightly greater extent on Ingmar Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), its the story of three couples seeking love and sex at a Summer House over the course of a weekend. Allen along with Mia Farrow (in her first pairing film pairing with Allen), Tony Roberts, Jose Ferrer, Julie Hagerty and Mary Steenburgen comprise the sextet. It's wild and whacky and features one of the best lines ever from an Allen film, which is going some, I know. When discussing love one character wonders aloud whether it is possible to have sex without love. Allen retorts that the two may be mutually exclusive. "Sex alleviates tension and love causes it," he opines. In the interests of preserving my marriage I'll refrain from comment.

That's it for me, Mr. Sicky McSickster. Now back to the sofa and perchance another film....

25 September 2009

What a Great Start! My Favorite Opening Movie Scenes (Part Three)

This is the third in final installment of a three part look at my favorite opening scenes. For a fuller explanation as to what I'm on about see the introduction in part one. Also to see the my previous selections check out that post and part two. Without any further folderol, here's four more favorite opening film scenes.

Touch of Evil (1958). Not much need be said when you can just view the above clip. However.... Note how the first frame is of a time bomb. We know good and well its going to go off at some point, but director Orson Welles is going to draw it out a bit and his doing so makes for great cinema. The bomb is planted in a car. Then the camera pans up and away as we watch that car drive off, quickly losing sight of the car but only for a moment. It's one long unbroken shot for the first three and half minutes. Our focus eventually is draw to a happy couple strolling through the streets, the car sometimes in sight, sometimes not. At a border crossing we meet the couple -- just married, and also the driver and passenger in the ill fated car. Our honeymooners enjoy a kiss then: boom! The bomb finally goes off. It's a remarkable scene for a number of reasons not the least of which is that we learn so much in those three minutes. Just the short conversation at the crossing tells us that the man is an important cop who's made a major bust but one that is only part of a broader criminal enterprise. We're also curious about the who and why of the bomb and any possible connection to the couple. We've also got a very strong flavor for the film's setting. Talking about whetting your appetite.

Sunset Blvd. (1950). Sunset Blvd. was directed by the great Billy Wilder and has a permanent place in my top ten. It starts strong and never lets up. It begins, for crying out loud, with a guy floating in a swimming pool -- face down. Fair enough but he's also providing a voice over narration. The pool is surrounded by cops, some of whom are trying to fish the body of the water. We actually look up from the bottom of the pool at the man. See that he's wearing a suit and looks to be in this thirties maybe. Probably a handsome fellow. The narration is detached, almost amused. There's a hint of cynicism in his voice. But it's a likable tone too. Here's what the guy says: Yes, this is Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, California. It's about five o'clock in the morning. That's the Homicide Squad - complete with detectives and newspapermen. A murder has been reported from one of those great big houses in the ten thousand block. You'll read about it in the late editions, I'm sure. You'll get it over your radio and see it on television because an old-time star is involved - one of the biggest. But before you hear it all distorted and blown out of proportion, before those Hollywood columnists get their hands on it, maybe you'd like to hear the facts, the whole truth. If so, you've come to the right party. You see, the body of a young man was found floating in the pool of her mansion - with two shots in his back and one in his stomach. Nobody important, really. Just a movie writer with a couple of 'B' pictures to his credit. The poor dope! He always wanted a pool. Well, in the end, he got himself a pool - only the price turned out to be a little high.
I defy you to find a sane, mature person who could watch that opening scene for the first time and in turn not be interested in seeing the rest of the film . Impossible.

A Clockwork Orange (1971). Simple enough. Just four guys sitting in the Korova Milkbar drinking beverages designed to set you up for some ultra violence....Say what? Okay maybe simple isn't the right word. Director Stanley Kubrick could create some bizarre yet fascinating scenes. Wild set designs, exotic music choices, very mannered characters. He out did himself in this, the best of his films, and the opening gets us right in the mood and let's us now what we're in for -- or confuses the hell out of us. Either way, we're in for more. The four young men are wearing eccentric outfits that include large codpieces. Narration is being provided by one who gives us the Kubrick stare. Head lowered a bit, at an angle and boring a hole right through us. He's speaking English but there's some words mixed in that are most unfamiliar. What is this all about? Who is this strangely captivating and yet frightening Alex fellow and his, as he puts it, three droogs? What is that they're drinking? What the hell kind of place are they in? And what can we expect in this movie? Answer: anything. It's a weird and wonderful trip, not quite like anything before or for that matter since and this strange opening has us if not quite ready, forewarned.

Monkey Business (1931). Leave it to me to close out with a real odd ball choice. But this might be the best opening to any of the Marx Brothers' films. From afar we see a luxury liner at sea. Then quickly to the captain aboard deck who is approached by the pursuer who informs him there are four stowaways on board. "How do you know there are four?" the captain asks. Because he is told, they've been singing Sweet Adeline. Besides, it's added, they've been writing insulting notes. Then we go to the hold of the ship where we see four barrels from which we hear the strains of, you guessed it, Sweet Adeline, quite off key. The camera pans in on the barrels which are labeled, "kippered herring." When the song mercifully ends, from each barrel emerges a Marx Brother to take a bow. They then, quite naturally break into some of their usual hilarious banter. The movie is set up, the brothers introduced and the chuckles have been begun in earnest. Perfect.

Why Not Me?

The MacArthur Foundation announced it's 2009 "genius" grant winners earlier this week. Why I not get one? Me is smart two. Could by lots pancakes with money. Dam!

24 September 2009

Liar, Liar Pants on Fire - My Open Letter to "The Informant!" Star, Matt Damon

(The latest film from director Steven Soderbergh, The Informant! opened in theaters nationwide last week. It stars Matt Damon as Mark Whitacre, a vice president in an international agri-business company who informs on illegal price fixing activities. Based on actual events, The Informant! is the story of a man who weaves a very tangled web through lie after lie. Below is my letter to the film's star.)

Matt, Just caught your latest movie, The Informant! First of all it's always a pleasure to see you in something other than one of those Bourne films. The first one was fine, but see what happens when you make action sequels? The plots get more contrived as the action sequences get more elaborate. Character gets lost and the editing is too quick and choppy...But I digress.

The Informant! demonstrates the kind of range you have as an actor. You should continue to look for roles, like that of Mark Whitacre that will challenge you. I'm not just talking about the weight gain or even the intentional flatness of your voice (impressive as they are) you played a character who was a serial liar. He lied to his co-workers, his business associates, the FBI, his lawyers, his family and to himself.

That in itself is not a lot to go on in creating an interesting screen presence, especially when your character -- based on a real person, mind you -- is so emotionally and physically contained. And despite the grandiosity of his lies, the very scope of them, he's kind of uninteresting. But you took what was so ordinary about him and made it shine like a beacon. I was drawn to Mark Whitacre. There was sociopathic quality to him that you brought out just by playing him so earnest. So right down the middle of a long and flat Illinois road.

Please let Soderbergh now that I think he did excellent work here too. I loved the quirky musical score and the casting was dead on. Especially important was the pacing which is critical in a movie so heavy in dialogue and bereft of action or scenery. I don't recall emitting a yawn during the entire film. This was an anti-Bourne film. No fight scenes, no romance but a true story thoroughly entertaining with a lot to say.

Yeah Soderbergh gets major props but really you had to carry the movie, you were in darn near every frame of it. Matt, you have a natural and interesting screen presence, a real really high likability rating. You're right up there with that Hanks fella. That allows you to tackle a variety of roles. Take advantage of that my man.

The Informant! succeeded because you didn't just show up. Whitacre is a character you really have to get inside, embody, to convey a lot about and you did. Because, like I said, he's so self contained and he's a big fat liar. Here's a guy with a self delusional pathology who performs at a very high level within society. To play that successfully requires an actor with a lot of self confidence, especially when he's willing to let the story unfold and he remains true to the character throughout. Maybe take it easier on yourself next time and play a drunk or a raving lunatic. This one had to be hard.

So you can see I'm enthusiastic about the film and your performance in particular. Taking a guy like that, a pathetic mess, really, and make him someone we care about and are intrigued by is an acting coup.

Films can offer insight into the human condition. Someone like Mark Whitacre is hard to know or understand and is certainly subject to interpretation. People will for sure have various takes on a guy like that. Through your performance we at least got a good look at him and are thus in a position to draw some conclusions. That's all we can ask. Give us a real good look at the character and what he did. The rest is up to us.

As someone who is 100% Finnish I can't help but flatter our people that your Finnish ancestry is central to your talent. Which reminds me: ever consider playing a Finn? Maybe a Finnish American character is a more reasonable idea. By God that's it! You could play me! There is a film version of my life somewhere in development, right?
Let's talk.
Best to the family.
Your Pal,

23 September 2009

Careers I Considered and the Reasons That I Didn't Pursue Them

Eighteen months ago I left my position as a full time middle school teacher (I know, who even tries to teach those kids, right?) to pursue something that didn't involve a room full of lunatics (no, I'm not referring to a faculty meeting). Before deciding on teaching ESL, I considered a vast number of other careers. Below is a list of some of those careers I considered and across from each is the reason I decided against it. I hope this will prove instructive to anyone out there looking to change careers.

Wet Nurse - Am wrong gender.
Philanthropist - Must supply own money.
Town Crier - Thought it was just a matter of sobbing a lot.
Pope - Am not Catholic.
Socialite - Must be social.
Handyman - Not particularly handy.
Taxidermist - Turns out it has nothing to do with taxis.
Francophile - It's the love of French culture not a paid profession.
Shipping magnate - Must supply own ships.
Gruppenfuhrer - Neither German nor a Nazi.
Typewriter salesman - Business is surprisingly slow.
Serf - The pay is awful.
Masseur for Padma Lashmi (pictured above) - She has a restraining order against me.
Musketeer - Don't own a musket.
Iceman - People tend to use refrigerators these days.
Soda jerk - My experience being a jerk not applicable.
Groom of the stool - Not as glamorous as it sounds . See link.
Fox News Commentator -Disqualified due to functioning brain.
Catapult operator - Actually still considering this one. Would be fun to hurl huge boulders against and inside castle walls.

21 September 2009

Liking the Actor While Loathing the Man, John Wayne and Me

"I believe in white supremacy until blacks are educated to a point of responsibility." - John Wayne, 1971.

My first recollection of John Wayne is as Davy Crockett in The Alamo (1960). He was a heroic fighter for his country, gallantly going down to defeat against overwhelming odds. Though I can't recall specific films, I'm quite certain that as a young lad I saw Wayne in many other movies, always wearing the proverbial white hat, standing up for justice and waging the good fight. He was no hero to me like Steve McQueen ( I was into "cool" early on) but he appealed to a young boy's sense of morality, confirmed by the principle of might makes right.

Then I became politically aware. Growing up as I did in the Sixties and Seventies in the People's Republic of Berkeley, it is not surprising that I was influenced by leftist politics (I'm a confirmed lefty to this day). We had heroes aplenty in popular culture, notably in rock 'n roll. Most villains were politicians, many conveniently placed in the White House or other seats of power. But there was also Mr. Wayne.

Other conservatives stars were benign like Bob Hope. People so embedded in the establishment that we could only strongly suspect their political leanings. We interpreted their silence on the Vietnam War or Civil Rights as tacit approval and disinterest, respectively. But Wayne opened his big yap, and promptly stuck his foot in it.

Wayne was the poster boy for the conservative backlash against the emerging counter culture. In that tough guy drawl he would issue homilies that evoked mom's apple pie. To wit: "Sure I wave the American flag. Do you know a better flag to wave? Sure I love my country with all her faults. I'm not ashamed of that, never have been, never will be." Love it or leave it. My country right or wrong. United we stand.

But the man born as Marion Morrison was not just going to talk the talk. He walked the walk. His response to dissent over U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War included making a film in support of that war, The Green Berets (1968). It's tagline: "They had to be the toughest fighting force on earth - and the men who led them had to be just a little bit tougher!" It's one of those taglines that actually says a lot about film. It was a pro war propaganda plain and simple in which a cynical reporter is shown the light about the virtues and necessity of US actions in Nam. Americans were the heroes rescuing women and children from the evil Viet Cong. Forget what you heard about the Mai Lai massacre.

The film was widely panned, perhaps in part for its message but mostly because it was a lousy movie. Conservatives rallied to it and to Wayne.

A year later Wayne won a gratuitous Oscar for the schlocky True Grit. This in a year that Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight were nominated for Midnight Cowboy along with Richard Burton for Anne of a Thousand Day. It not only was a horrible choice, but it ticked a lot of us for political reasons. It also further demonstrated how silly claims of Hollywood's liberal bias can sometimes look.

It was two years after that career high point that Wayne's infamous Playboy magazine interview hit the stands. As the quote at the the top of this post indicates, Wayne managed to insult every African American in the country. He also took pot shots at Native Americans, ones more lethal than those imaginary one fired by his many Injun-killing characters: "I don't feel we did wrong in taking this great country away from them if that's what you're asking. Our so called stealing of this country was just a question of survival. There were great numbers of people who needed new land the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves.... I'm quite sure that the concept of a Government-run reservation... seems to be what the socialists are working for now — to have everyone cared for from cradle to grave.... But you can't whine and bellyache 'cause somebody else got a break and you didn't, like those Indians are." Take that you whiny Indians!

So now the bete noir of the left had lost a lot of mainstream love. He still made another eight films before succumbing to cancer in 1979 and his box office numbers remained credible. He was, after all, a star and the public will forgive much greater transgressions from its film icons than a few ill-timed, albeit racist, remarks.

For what it was worth I completely turned my back in the man. Not that it made any difference to anyone. Anyway I had already refused to watch anything featuring Wayne for several years. The grudge was to last couple of more decades.

But to stay away from Wayne is to stay away from the great director, John Ford as Wayne featured in many of Ford's best films. That is to say it's cutting off your nose to spite your face.

John Wayne was never a great actor. He was a great star. One of the best. He had a presence that helped make some good films masterpieces. The classic Ford Western, Stagecoach (1939) is immeasurably enhanced by Wayne as the Ringo Kid. Indeed his screen entrance in it is one of the greats of all time (pictured above). Ringo Kid is a few shades different than the characters that Wayne came to be mistakenly identified with. For one he's wanted by the law and he's got vengeance on his mind. This is a younger, hipper Wayne who of all things falls in love with a hooker (one with a heart of gold, of course).

Wayne is also a dark character in Ford's greatest film The Searchers (1956). Again he's seeking vengeance. There's something shady about his Ethan Edwards, namely how he came to have so much money. Then there are the looks he exchanges with his brother's wife. He's also plainly a bigot and this is portrayed as a no- question-about detriment to his character. This is surely Wayne's best performance.

Wayne featured in a few films by another great American director, Howard Hawks. Most notable of these is Red River (1948). Again there is nuance to a Wayne character: obstinacy, temper and (here it is again) vengefulness. His adopted son is played by Montgomery Clift and it's hard to imagine two more different actors working closely together. Part of the reason they succeeded was an agreement not to talk politics.

Ford's last great film was The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). He is Tom Doniphon, the unbeatable force of good. No liberal milquetoast, but a man willing to throw a punch, issue a threat or shoot his gun to make things right. Talk is cheap. He's everything appealing about John Wayne, even to a repeal-the-second-amendment radical such as myself. The fact is that American films need an occasional brutish gun toting fighter, even if he's ham fisted and intellectually derelict. Inglourious Basterds wouldn't have been nearly so good if Brad Pitt and his men had gone into Germany to rehabilitate Nazis.

So Wayne didn't just happen to show up in some pretty good films. He played a type of role that is central to American mythology. That he bought into it as real life philosophy was to his detriment as a human being and should be irrelevant to our film going pleasure. Wayne, in fact, reflects the macho American style that emphasizes brawn over brain. They're the type of people we want taking the orders of cooler heads. They thus develop a resentment at having to follow orders and only being able to exercise the power of their fists or guns and not of their intellect. It is a type of rage evident today among conservative Americans who bristle at another intellectual liberal in office seemingly entrenching power in Washington and away from them (never mind that this fear is poppycock). Americans don't want to just kick ass, they want to dictate the terms. Wayne's characters often did both. It's also no accident that he was often settling scores. Americans like to see the tit for tat. Our very un Western support of capital punishment is a reflection of a basic eye-for-eye philosophy at the heart of the American ethos. Many Americans also find their feathers ruffled over such niceties as due process, preferring a simple sock in the jaw. Wayne did not play lawyers or professors. He was never loquacious. He was all about taking action. Seriously, who'd want a Wayne soliloquy? We want him meting out justice from the barrel of a gun. Ford had the good sense to give Wayne as few lines as possible. Interestingly, Wayne is perhaps most thought of us as a plain old fashioned good guy in Westerns and war films. In truth Wayne's more memorable characters had some moral complexity to them. Even Doniphon was a tortured soul who suffered greatly at the loss of his one great love. Wayne's greatest attribute as an actor was always surprising us with the different shades to his character, just as often revealed with silence as words.

Ironically in another Ford classic, Fort Apache (1948), Wayne's character is the one who cautions restraint and urges negotiations with nearby tribes while the real life liberal Henry Fonda plays a Custer-like officer who wants to charge in and fight. Today the movie can and has been seen as a metaphor for U.S. adventures in Vietnam and Iraq. Or any place where American forces have ignored local custom and policy at their own peril.

John Wayne is a seminal character in my film watching experience and a supporting player in my political development. Thankfully I've matured enough, at long last, that I can separate the two.

19 September 2009

They're Out to Get Me! I Swear, They're out There! Paranoia in Seventies Films

"Paranoia strikes deep
Into your life it will creep
It starts when you're always afraid
You step out of line, the man come and take you away."
From "What It's Worth" by the Buffalo Springfield

We are not in control of our lives.

The institutions that we count on cannot be trusted.

Our lives are cheap.

We are expendable.

Especially if we know too much.

Or maybe if we don't know a thing.

It's "us" against "them" and they are all powerful.

Who are we? A resident in a Kafkaesque Soviet Satellite perhaps?

No. We are a character in a 1970s film and we're living in the United States of America.

We are Warren Beatty in The Parallax View (1974) trying to uncover the perpetrators of political assassinations. But will we live to tell the tale?

We are Robert Redford in Three Days of the Condor (1975) a government employee who only escapes death by literally being out to lunch when an assassination team hits our office. They are after us now and moreover they are members of our own government!

We are Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man (1976) a graduate student caught in a web of international intrigue and duped by our own older brother, who we didn't realize is a government agent.

We are Gene Hackman in The Conversation (1974) tearing up our own apartment in search of a bugging device planted by someone within a mysterious corporation. One that hides behind a veneer of respectability.

We might even turn up in a combination sci fi/horror film like Alien (1979) where we are Sigourney Weaver watching as our fellow crew members on a space ship are killed by a monster and finding out its all been planned by a corporate power and that we're not supposed to survive the journey either.

What factors within our culture were in play that spawned such a high level of paranoia in films? First of all it wasn't technically paranoia. In all cases the fear was quite real. One of these characters even died as a consequence of what he knew. All save one had attempts made on their lives and one even endured torture. None ever really understood the whole story they were wrapped up in.

Some have claimed that the growing revelations of Watergate influenced these movies. But that's mistaken because the implications of Watergate were just beginning to be understood in the middle of the decade and it takes several years for historic events to really impact film.

More likely the answer can be traced to the 1960s when there was an increasing willingness to question government, especially in light of the disastrous war in Vietnam. America had undergone a period of tremendous social upheaval in the Sixties. Our institutions were no longer considered benevolent protectors. Indeed in light of a spate of assassinations in which the government might have played a part or at least did not adequately respond and especially in light of questions about conspiracies related to to those assassinations, there was a growing sense of distrust.

The Pentagon Papers, leaked in 1971, had proved beyond doubt that the government had at least misled the American people and in the eyes of many had outright lied to the public.

Americans weren't willing to blindly trust their government anymore. They also increasingly became aware of the unfettered power of intelligence agencies and the supplanting of small businesses by massive international corporations.

While spies had been heroes in films of the 1960s, ala James Bond, now many were taking a more realistic, less romantic look at cloak and dagger activities. The Cold War was less of a concern to most Americans, many of whom felt that the far away Soviet government wasn't as much a danger as their own. Besides, not all Americans still believed that "we" were, in all cases, the "good guys."

Of course, American film was enjoying a renaissance during the Seventies. Story telling was much more imaginative and themes were increasingly likely to be relevant and to mirror the new willingness to question authority. The old production code (read censorship) had been toppled. Meanwhile a new group of directors were emerging, including Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Steven Spielberg, who came out film schools and had been influenced by the French New Wave.

In 1967 Bonnie & Clyde and The Graduate had changed the tone of American film ushering a sort of US New Wave. Bad guys could be heroes, whether bank robbers or disaffected adulterous college grads. American film was ready to cast its heroes as something other than guys in white hats defeating a clearly identifiable foe. The changes in society and film allowed for villains to be shadowy, mysterious figures, even omnipotent corporations or government agencies.

While in reality challenges were being issued to "the establishment" by organized groups, the narrative of film was more suited to isolated individuals challenging a powerful enemy in an recasting of the David/Goliath theme. In some cases these were people who could be accused of "asking for it" like Beatty's investigative reporter; but they could just as easily be someone who'd been happily minding his own business, like Hoffman's graduate student, when circumstances conspired against (pun intended.)

While these films required the protagonists to act heroically, there was no leaping tall buildings or utilizing extraordinary talents or gadgets. They survived by wits and perseverance, and perhaps a little help from a friend.

These were entertaining films from directors like Coppola, Sydney Pollack and Alan Pakula. Part of these films' appeal was that they seemed to know something. Surely someone had a hint of a corporation resembling the one depicted in The Parallax View. And there must be rogue government operations as seen in Three Days and Marathon Man. It was as if the filmmakers were letting us in on some dastardly secret they had uncovered. The films were fun, thought-provoking, but also seemed to cast a light on some very dark corners of the country. They fed a hunger to know and understand more. The paranoia was not being experienced so much by the characters as it was by us. Could that really happen? Has it?

There was even a hint of this at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). After a rollicking good adventure story we were left with the rather dour sight of evidence of a great biblical find being stowed away by the great bureaucracy that is our government.

What else do they hide? What else do they know? What else might they do? Could I be trageted next? What if I find out something? My God, what if I just learn something by accident? (And say, what glamorous star will play me in the film?)

16 September 2009

My Cheap Ploy to Get Lots of Comments -- I Say What's on My Mind

I haven't had a post that engendered a lot of comments recently so I'm resorting to a cheap trick: telling just what I think. I figure one or two of my opinions will raise some hackles. Should you find anything I say here objectionable, please, please leave a comment.

I believe that puppies should be boiled alive, especially the cute ones.

All breakfast cereal should be heavily laced with hallucinogens.

School playgrounds should be veritable minefields. This way only the very lucky will survive into high school.

Death panels are a great idea but should not just be for the elderly. Everyone should have to go before one and panelists should be heroin addicts in the throes of withdrawals.

Henceforth all adults must perform their own colonoscopies.

Free speech is highly overrated. Limit it to every other Tuesday, say between noon and three pm.

Jean-Claude Van Damme is our greatest living actor.

That Glenn Beck fella seems like a sane, reasonable, rational human being.

Answering the question, "what's up" by saying "the sky" should be punishable by death.

All snowflakes are identical.

South Carolina shouldn't be the only state that allows the brain dead to enter politics.

The single most important thing a person can do for society is to maintain a film blog.

Hopscotch is the greatest sport in the world (the photo above is from last year's national championships in Hazelton, Pennsylvania).

Fridays and Wednesdays should be forever switched. If I have to explain the rational for this you're beyond hope.

Boys most definitely do not have cooties.

I think the whole story about Abe Lincoln beating a street mime to death is probably true.

(That ought to do it. Post a comment and you will be sent $5,000 in gold coins or my name isn't Vlxczy P. WF7uioennie.)

Note: Normal film blogging will resume with my next post.

15 September 2009

The Difference Between Joe Wilson and Kanye West

Kanye was a jerk at a video music awards show.
Wilson was a jerk during a presidential speech before a joint session of Congress.

Kanye's claim is debatable.
Wilson's can and has been proven to be empirically false.

Kanye issued a sincere apology.
Wilson, not so much.

Kanye was vilified by one and all.
Wilson is a hero to many.

Is America a f*cked up country or what?

What a Great Start! My Favorite Opening Movie Scenes (Part Two)

Last week I brought you the first of a three part look at some of my favorite opening scenes. As I said then a great opening is no guarantee of a great film and some of the best of movies develop slowly. (See that post for the full introduction.) The opening sequence of a film should not only capture our immediate attention but set the tone and mood for what is to come. Here are four more of my favorite opening scenes.

The Searchers (1956). Not without justification it is the closing scene of this John Ford film that has been widely celebrated throughout the years. But the opening bookends it perfectly. From complete darkness a door opens and the figure of a woman stands in silhouette. Slowly she moves forward looking out onto the bright colors of a rugged and picturesque countryside. She's looking at something though we can't see for sure what. Now the camera focuses on her from the front and we see that she is a handsome woman of middle age. Next, in the distance, we see what she's been looking at it. It's a man on horseback. The horse is meandering towards the house. She is joined on the porch by another man who asks "Ethan?" and walks past her to meet the horseman.
It's a beautiful opening and has us immediately curious about the man on the horse. Surely he is of great importance to these people. The movement from darkness to wide open spacious color sets the stage for the story about to be told. This is the scene to watch for students of any class entitled "John Ford Appreciation 101."

Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933). We open with a lavish musical number. Right smack in the depths of the Depression a huge stage production fully costumed of "We're in the money." A Busby Berkley extravaganza all the way. The lead singer is no less than Ginger Rogers. The spell is momentarily broken by a shot of the audience section where we see but one man (Ned Sparks). He's looking on with interest but seems a wee bit glum. A huge cigar is clenched between his teeth. All this is a rehearsal. But then its back on stage where there are girls, girls and more girls in elaborate costumes. Then its just Ginger again and what's this? She's singing the song in Pig Latin! Back to standard English and a very non standard lavish production number. Another shot of the audience. This time we see a few more people in the audience and the orchestra. But the real downer comes when a man with a badge leads a group into the theater to "collect." Everything must go. The creditors are closing the show! The set and costumes are being taken lock stock and barrel, sometimes for laughs.
So what is this anyway? A musical? A story about the Depression? A comedy? Yes on all counts. This first and best of the Gold Diggers film from director Mervin LeRoy wastes no time introducing us to all three of its aspects. We can't wait for what happens next. Will it be in Pig Latin?

To Be Or Not To Be (1942). As we watch placid street scenes in what is clearly a large city, a narrator tells us we are in Warsaw. He adds that it is August 1939 and Europe is still at peace. We know that the following month war would break out and Poland would be the first country to truly suffer, Warsaw included. This adds pathos to the scene. But our narrator's voice suddenly quickens with excitement and alarm as we see strolling citizens stop in their tracks and look in wonder. At what? We see cars stop, as the narrator says, "Are those Poles seeing a ghost? Why does this car suddenly top? Everybody seems to be staring in one direction. People seem to be frightened, even terrified, some flabbergasted. Can it be true? It must be true, no doubt. The man with the little mustache. Adolph Hitler." And yes, there he is, Der Fuhrer. All by himself in Warsaw. What the....? The narrator now explains that it all started in the Gestapo's Berlin headquarters and that's where the scene shifts. There ensues a rather odd scene with Jack Benny playing a Gestapo officer. Eventually Hitler enters the room and receives the obligatory "Heil Hitlers" answering with a "heil myself." At this farcical moment we see a man in a suit rise from a table and realize that we've just been watching a play rehearsal. We further realize that the Hitler in Warsaw was an actor.
Maybe they didn't have us going but they sure had us wondering. Part of the charm of this opening is that the film was made in 1942, as war raged throughout Europe and the world. To Be or Not to Be, from director Ernest Lubitsch and starring Carole Lombard along with Benny, manages to be funny about Nazis and the war while both are very much a going concern, so to speak. A seemingly impossible feat. The opening establishes this and prepares us for a wonderful satire.

Annie Hall (1976). The opening credits end and there's Woody Allen from the chest up looking right at us and he's just starting in on an old joke. It's a classic one about an old lady complaining about bad food at a resort and her friend agreeing saying "and in such small portions." Allen explains that that's life. Full of misery and heartache and all over too quickly. Another couple of jokes and then Allen veers course by telling of his break up with Annie; it has clearly effected him deeply. He also talks about aging then segues into his childhood. As he talks about growing up in Brooklyn during World War II the scene shifts there. We see a young Allen and his mother.

At the time of its release Annie Hall was a revolutionary film in many ways not the least for the opening. Imagine the chutzpah of a star/writer/director to start a film by talking directly to the audience. It worked in large part because the star in question was a well-known figure, initially famous for his work as a stand up comic. Allen's daring gambit succeeded wonderfully. We met a funny and engaging character who obviously had a love story to relate, a love we knew had ended. The story would be full of humorous asides and nostalgic looks back. We were immediately interested and had a sense of what we were in for -- a classic film.

(Part three next week.)

14 September 2009

Uncle Tom's Cabin on Film Then, Why Not Now?

Last night Turner Classic Movies showed the 1927 version of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Many films reveal as much about the times in which they were made as they do about the times the story depicts. After the opening credits we get a picture of Robert E. Lee and an 1856 quote in which he calls the institution of slavery "a moral and political evil." He nonetheless fought for the Confederacy in the ensuing Civil War out of loyalty to his home state of Virgina.

The story begins on the plantation of the Shelbys "whose gentle rule of the slaves was typical of the South." Let's allow for a moment that people who keep others in involuntary servitude may have encomiums of any sort bestowed upon them, but this nonsense about typically gentle rule of slaves is utter balderdash. Indeed the movie pretty well goes on to prove the silliness of such a claim. We meet all manner of cruel and lascivious slave master, most notably one Simon Legree. Profiteers and slave catchers are also introduced. Gentle indeed.

The very notion that harsh treatment of slaves was the exception rather than the rule is a product of the film's times and the 50 or so years preceding it. The fiction of happy slaves, singing in the fields and reaping the benefits of serving benevolent masters was created in the antebellum period and persisted among many for a full 100 years after slavery was abolished.

The heroes of the film are George and Eliza whose wedding is the focus of attention as the story begins. Both are very light skinned (they and their child were played by white actors). Any slave with such light skin is the product of a few generations worth of miscegenation. This was generally in the form of nonconsensual sex between a master or overseer and a slave. It was one of the greatest tragedies of slavery.

Another great tragedy of slavery was the selling off of family members from one another. The supposedly kind and gentle Mr. Shelby sells Eliza's child away from her, prompting them to escape. As part of the same transaction, Uncle Tom is sold away from wife and child. Anyone who wonders why the term Uncle Tom came to be used by African Americans to describe their brethren who "sold out" to whites need only see this subservient character "in action." That being said, many slaves found that such obsequious behavior was their ticket to an easier life. It was a Hobson's choice.

The film ultimately steers so far from Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel that we see the Civil War break out and triumphant Union troops marching through the South. Yet it has much of the novel's power and every bit of its sentimentality. Despite his worst intentions, director Harry Pollard's film is about as searing an indictment of slavery as one could hope for from a 1927 film. For all intents and purposes Jim Crow was still the dominant figure in relationships and laws between whites and blacks in the 1920s. This would remain so until the Civil Rights Movement attained success.

It's worth remembering too, that the film came out less than 70 years after the events depicted. To put that in perspective, today we are a full 70 years from the outbreak of World War II in Europe. The closer one is to a time period the more of a cultural memory there exists of it, however skewed it might be by the dominant political narrative. In other words we have a huge advantage in making movies about Vietnam today that will not be enjoyed by film makers fifty years hence.

Watching this 1927 version of Ms. Stowe's novel got me thinking about why no one has ventured a similar effort since an ill fated 1987 TV production. Maybe the best film version wouldn't be based on the novel itself but on the furor its publication launched. Uncle Tom's Cabin stands as perhaps the most important work of fiction ever published in the United States. It's 1852 release helped add fuel to the burgeoning abolitionists movement and added to the growing schism between the North and South. To sight it as one of the major causes of the Civil War is not an exaggeration in the slightest. Ms. Stowe, abolition and slave escapes would lend themselves perfectly to a cinematic telling.

In fact, there are numerous stories from the time period that are begging to be made into feature films. How about Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad? The Nat Turner Rebellion? A bio pic on Frederick Douglass? Hollywood seems deathly afraid of stories showing chattel slavery in America. One hopes that misplaced fears of violating political correctness doesn't get in the way of telling compelling stories.

The history of slavery neither can nor should be ignored. It is impossible to understand this country's history without understanding slavery's causes, nature and ramifications. This study is, of course, rife with horrific stories that call to question the very nature of man. But there are also inspirational stories about the ability of human beings to survive, maintain dignity and find some solace. I taught U.S. History for 20 years and always exposed my students to the full scope of slavery. This included the very inhumaness of it. But I also hastened to add how slaves persisted in seeking freedom, knowing it to be their true birthright. I also emphasized the manner in which slave communities formed their own culture and through family, religion and customs experienced happiness in the worst of circumstances. Theirs is a remarkable story that should be told cinematically more often.

The 1927 version of Uncle Tom's Cabin is definitely worth a look see as an artifact of its time, if nothing else. It also serves to illustrate the paucity of efforts today to show this most horrible, and fascinating era.

11 September 2009

Finding the Truth Hidden Behind the Facts

In his seminal book on America on the Sixties, Nixonland, author Rick Perlstein wrote of the faith Democrats had in their presidential candidate, George McGovern on the eve of the 1972 election. Polls had shown the incumbent Richard Nixon comfortably ahead for months. Perlstein related liberals undying faith to the film, Twelve Angry Men (1957). "It would end like (the movie) where only the jury's prejudices had blinded them from seeing that they were about to condemn an innocent man, and where the liberal's gentle, persistent force of reason had compelled the brutish conservative, by the last reel, to realize the error of his ways."

Alas, politics is rarely like the movies. Nixon won in landslide. (Twenty months later he resigned in disgrace, but that's another story.)

Twelve Angry Men is the story of possibility. How one man, unconvinced in the face of seemingly indisputable evidence, can gradually bring others around. These men must look at facts and find the truth hidden behind them. That one man (played by Henry Fonda -- who better?) does not use histrionics but reason. It is a triumph of logic and examination over bluster, over pomp over "the obvious."

Score one for the intellectual process. How often have Americans been swayed by leaders and voices who speak from the gut rather than the brain. Indeed as president George W. boasted of utilizing his gut. He and his supplicants, both in government and the media, were able to marshal "facts" to convince the vast majority of Americans about the wisdom of invading Iraq. The results were of course the greatest foreign policy debacle in America's history -- which is going some, I know.

There was no Henry Fonda to reason with W. and the American people. Fonda's Juror #8 from Twelve Angry Men could have calmly encouraged a closer look at the "evidence" being presented as justification for war. Why? It's what we're supposed to do in a democratic system. We're obliged to question the obvious.

The United States is and always has been a country riddled with faults. From slavery to the genocide of native tribes to corporate greed to efforts to block health care reform to Fox News, this country has had some serious messes. But this country is full of promises too and full of potential. Much of which can be found by a close study of the country's constitution (which barely survived the Bush/Cheney's years).

A jury of one's peers can sometimes overcome its prejudices through steady deliberation and render a fair verdict. It happens. Twelve Angry Men presents a case that is a veritable miracle. There is no dramatic movement, slow motion camera work or impassioned speeches. Just folks going over the minutia, looking at at it from different angles, until the truth becomes apparent to even the most bigoted. And even he, that most bigoted of men (Lee J. Cob as Juror #3) is exposed for what he is, even to himself. It is a thoroughly compelling film, with nary a special effect and has held up these past 50 years. Kudos to director Sidney Lumet.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) is another film which presents a miracle forged by a man using the "system." A senator being railroaded by corrupt influences holds a one-man filibuster to expose the truth hidden behind an avalanche of supposed "facts." He wins against all odds.

Those of us on the political left are often plagued by an excess of idealism. We believe in the power of truth to convert. We think that by shining a bright light on lies and hypocrisy -- look there's a man behind the curtain! -- we can help the masses see the truth about a bumbling president or a wrongly accused man.

Movies like Twelve Angry Men and Mr Smith feed our idealism. But so too does our rare success, as evidenced by W's plummeting popularity in his last two years.

What led Juror #8 to question the obvious? It was his duty. His duty as a juror. As a citizen. He took his charge seriously. Imagine if half as many U.S. citizens took seriously their duty as Americans. To too many, patriotism is standing solemnly for the national anthem and perhaps, just perhaps, casting a vote on election day. For news and opinion they seek not divergent views but the words of those who will affirm what they already believe. They are swayed by ideologues (there's Fox News again) rather than their own study of the facts to find the truth behind them.

That's a lot of work. It's work most of us don't want to engage in. Juror #8 was willing to do the work and thus the other 11 gradually followed. Jimmy Stewart as Mr. Smith was on the verge of giving up -- always the easier course -- but was persuaded by his aide and love interest Saunders (Jean Arthur) to knuckle down and do the work that would not only vindicate him but bring down a graft ridden political machine.

Here then is what's so wonderful about these two films. They do not rely on super heroes performing the impossible, but on regular people doing the probable. So miracles do happen. They just require good ole fashioned work. That's how you can find the truth hidden behind the facts.

09 September 2009

What a Great Start! My Favorite Opening Movie Scenes (Part One)

You had me at the opening credits.

Like people, some movies seem a bit ordinary and uninteresting when you first meet them. But as you get to know the film you find it to be quite interesting, perhaps even compelling. Some films seem dazzling, fascinating at first look. But it's all a false come on. They offer no substance. They shot their creative wad in the opening minutes.

Many of my favorite movies take their time developing. They need to set the stage. They build slowly. Novels can be the same way. These are your "once upon a time" beginnings. But other films grab us from the beginning and never let us go. More importantly they set the tone for the movie. Our senses are prepared for what is to come. A visual style is established, perhaps even an auditory one. We are hooked from the first moments and can't wait for more. Even if we've seen the film many times before. These openings are different than anything we've seen before. They may be exciting, but they are certainly unique. Seeing an inspired opening suggests more to come. Here is part one of a look at some my favorite beginnings to films, with parts two and three to follow in the coming weeks.

Apocalypse Now (1979) . My absolute favorite start to a film. Black screen. The whir of helicopter blades. Jungle. Then a helicopter passes by. Light smoke slowly wafts up from below screen then disappears. Gradually a song begins. "The End" by The Doors. More smoke, a bit thicker now. We hear the helicopter again and then it passes again but only the bottom of it is visible. Suddenly the entire jungle goes up in flames as Jim Morrison sings the words, "this is the end, beautiful friend...." The jungle seems to have burned quite quickly. The helicopter makes another pass. Now a head, upside down is super imposed on the screen. Gradually the jungle fades and the whirring of the helicopter is now the sound of an overhead fan. The inferno continues as does the helicopter. Now the main backdrop to the scene is the man in a room with flames superimposed over his head and the helicopter still making passes. Once more the jungle but it gradually fades as the camera focuses on a glass with an amber liquor in it. Then a gun. Then the man, who looks up to the fan which sounds exactly like a helicopter. The mood  has been set. It's a hell of an opening to live up to, but Francis Ford Coppola's film does exactly that. We have been immediately engaged, intrigued and prepared for the long strange trip this film is.

Manhattan (1979). This is Woody Allen at his best. His uses of narration, music and establishing shots. Gorgeous black and white shots of the New York skyline street scenes and other sights, Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" and Allen himself dictating the beginning of a novel. We see New York in various states at various times of the year. We hear Allen's character try different openings all suggesting very different prose to come, critiquing himself as he goes. When the narration stops, the song's crescendo builds and the percussion explodes we see fireworks over the New York skyline.
Beautiful. The story will mix Allen's trademark humor into a romantic and interesting story.

Goodfellas (1990). The opening credits start. On a black screen, the words, in white, come from the left stop and zip off to the right. The words move to the sound of a car passing by. We see the words, "This film is based on a true story." Then we see a luxury car driving down the freeway in the dark of night. Black screen and the words, "New York, 1970." Back to the car, this time the inside where there are three men. One asleep. The driver quite tired. They hear a noise from the trunk and pull over to investigate. The trunk is opened to reveal a man wrapped in white, only his bloodied head visible. He's alive. One man approaches with large knife, cursing he begins stabbing the body. He pulls away and another man fires several shots into the body. The third man, who was the driver, looking more resigned than shocked, closes the trunk. In voice over we hear him say, "as far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster." As the trunk closes the we freeze frame on his face and hear Tony Bennett sing, "Rags to Riches." Then the credits are back. The movie's title in red.
I'm in. And I think I have an idea for what I'm in for to boot.

The Letter (1940). The opening credits are superimposed over a plantation jungle at night. The opening score is dramatic, suggesting a suspenseful story to come. The first shot after the credits finish is of a full moon. Then a sign tells us this is a rubber plantation. Next we see a white substance lazily dripping from a tree into a bucket. The camera pans to an open air hut where natives are lazing about. One plays what appears to a flute, others play a board game while still more lay in hammocks. It's all quite tranquil. Until the camera pans further and we see in the background the big house. Then we hear gun shots. People outside start to stir. Next a man comes out of the house falling down the steps. He is being shot. We then see the shooter. A woman. She continues, while standing quite erect, to fire until out of bullets. Then she slowly lowers the gun to her side, finally dropping it. The camera slowly moves closer to her until her face is almost full frame. It is an expressionless face. She's attractive, probably in her 30s. Next we see the commotion among the natives. One, however looks up. He sees clouds pass over the moon, rendering the scene that was brightly lit, very dark. The camera is back on the woman. The cloud passes and she's in the light of the moon again. She looks up at it over her shoulder as if surprised. We see the moon. Her looking at it, then she turns her attention to the prone body. But she quickly sidles away from it and back up the steps. Wow. That the woman in question is played by Bette Davis only adds to the effect of the scene. We are full of questions. The film will slowly reveal all and we'll see that moon again at the end.

(Part two next week.)

08 September 2009

Defending Our Movies, Defending Ourselves

Those of us with even the teeniest amount of self awareness all know one thing about ourselves: we are not perfect. We all have varying degrees of acceptance of this fundamental fact, but there is no getting around at least some of our imperfections. We therefore seek transcendence in other things.

Looking for it in other people is futile. Our most celebrated athletes, entertainers, politicians and writers may have a special talent but are, without exception, just as unalterably human as we are. In case this should be forgotten the media is always quite ready, willing and able to report blemishes as they become apparent.

So we look to things. Many people find perfection in their country. This is not patriotism but blindness. A nation state and its government is a construct that even in the best of circumstances will at some (or perhaps for that matter all) times will be exploited by the few for their benefit or in other ways not best serve the many. And of course countries rely upon leaders who are human... and well you know where this is going.

So we look to art. Through songs, paintings and films we can find beauty. Some works of art we enjoy or admire but acknowledge could have done with a change here or there. But others, albeit a precious few, we celebrate, revere, worship. Here at last is perfection. And we adopt it. It is part of our identity. It is of us.

No bloody wonder many react so angrily to criticism of their favorite movie.

The more fragile our ego, the weaker our self esteem, the more angrily we may react. Not surprsingly older teens and fanboys breath fire when one of their chosen ones is blasted by a critic. Film critics who dared question the perfection of The Dark Knight (2008) last Summer were vilified by angry emails, blog posts and the like. A few months ago the Transformers sequel was roasted by critics far and wide. The near unanimity of opinion of the film did not stop the films legions of devotees from screaming foul at critics. Teens and the typical fan boy is at a vulnerable age, struggling for identity. When something they love is not universally adored they feel the self they are just now forging is being questioned.

One would assume that an old coot like yours truly would gladly avail himself of criticism of a favorite film, want to entertain all views. One would be wrong. I have fallen head over heals in love with Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds. If a writer has harsh words for it I don't want to know. And it's not just about current stuff. All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) has been around for 79 years and if someone has written anything negative about it, whether upon its release or yesterday, I ain't interested.

So, how, you ask, am any different than those keening teens? By the very fact that I don't concern myself with attacks on what I love. If I happen to come across some harsh words for a favored film I hurry along to something else. Others will take the time to read opposing opinions and my even engage with civil debate. Bully! Depending upon how you look at it I either don't have the time, inclination or self security to hear what's wrong with what I find infallible. (Hey, I just assume not hear what you don't like about my wife and kids either.) On the other hand I'll gladly indulge every word of praise from others I can find. Let us share our love. Give me more insight into why I love this movie. Let me find new prisms though which to view and love it.

Of course this is movies. When it comes to political systems and philosophies, leaders, programs and aims, it is incumbent on all of us to remain detached and willing to hear all sides. Not that many people are capable of such rational behavior. The right has been particularly guilty of interpreting any dissent against government policy as sedition when it is in fact the privilege if not the duty of all citizens. Indeed some American patriots are quite evidently the most insecure people you'll ever see. The constant yammering about how great America is (Fox News' Sean Hannity even did a series of shows on how America is the greatest country in the world) is positively bizarre. Imagine a relatively young and successful person bellowing to one and all that he is the greatest person in the world and then brooking no criticism. Madness!

Let us all be willing to hear all sides on key issues of the day. Except of course if someone is talking mess about a beloved movie, them we can ignore.

03 September 2009

The City By The Bay, An Ideal Backdrop For Films

I had the great fortune to grow up across the bay from one of the world's most beautiful and revered cities, San Francisco. I've also spent much of my adult life a half hour away from what we affectionately refer to in these parts as The City. I've also gotten to see a lot of the San Francisco in movies. It's always fun to see familiar environs in a movie, or to walk around places you've seen in movies. I believe it safe to assert that no other U.S. city save New York has been highlighted in so many films.

The Bay and Golden Gate Bridges, Alcatraz Island, the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay, the innumerable hills and colorful neighborhoods serve to enhance any film shot here. Since the days of the California Gold Rush, San Francisco has drawn poets, novelists, bohemians, beatniks, hippies and anyone looking for an alternative life style. This ain't Kansas, pal. The beat poets were here, the Summer of Love was here and the epicenter of the Gay Rights movement was here.

San Francisco thus adds a colorful history to its gorgeous look. No wonder so many films of such a great variety over so many years have been filmed here. There is a hypnotic quality to The City. It's like that beautiful dame you fall for who tells you straight out she's trouble but you don't care. She's somehow different and you'll put up with anything to get to to know her. Forget understanding her though, that's beyond you. Just be glad you're along for the ride.

Here I offer a list of ten films not only set in San Francisco but in which The City By The Bay plays a central part. I've tried to offer a variety of types of films from a range of directors and including some of Hollywood's greatest stars. From Jimmy Stewart to Sean Penn, from Frank Sinatra to Mark Ruffalo, from Humphrey Bogart to Woody Allen. Just to give a sense of how many fine films have been shot in SF, I offer another 16 titles after this list. Trust me, there's more.

Vertigo (1958). The quintessential San Francisco film. The City is all over this masterpiece from Alfred Hitchcock. There's Nob Hill, there's the Golden Gate Bridge, there's Lombard Street. There are Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak in one of the greatest films ever made. The best of the many films set in San Francisco that features an obsessed character.

The Maltese Falcon (1941). Based on Dashiell Hammet's novel. Hammet lived and set many of his writings in San Francisco. The MF's protagonist was detective Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) whose agency was based in The City. Though much of it was shot on Warner Brothers back lots, you certainly get a feel for mid 20th century San Francisco, hard boiled detective film noir style.

Play it Again, Sam (1972).Though technically not a Woody Allen because he didn't direct, Allen wrote it and was the featured player. San Francisco costarred along with Diane Keaton and Tony Roberts. A hilarious movie about a divorced man obsessed with emulating Bogie, Play it Again, Sam portended even better to come from Allen.

The Conversation (1974). For whatever reason San Francisco is an ideal locale for obsessed characters and The Conversation's Harry Caul is damn near loco with obsession. Various SF locales are featured starting with a wonderful opening scene in Union Square. See this recent post for more on the film.

Zodiac (2007) .Watch San Francisco's growth from 1969 through the early 80s. Watch a city gripped by fear of a publicity hungry serial killer. This is a movie that brings back memories. We were all a little nervous about the Zodiac killer, even this generally courageous writer. Zodiac is a criminally underrated (pun intended) film featuring three stars at their top of their game, Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr. and Mark Ruffalo, all playing real life men. A cartoonist obsessed (what-I-tell-ya-bout obsessive characters in SF movies?) with finding the self proclaimed Zodiac killer, a reporter and a cop, respectively. The cop, David Toschi, influenced police characters in two other SF based films, Bullitt and Dirty Harry.

Milk (2008). Here's your introduction to San Francisco's Castro District which in the 1970s became a gay haven for men from across the country. Their political voice was Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man in the U.S. elected to public office. This is his story and Sean Penn's brilliant performance along with a stellar supporting cast and of course SF itself make it a terrific film. The candlelight march scene is unforgettable.

Barbary Coast (1935). San Francisco in the immediate aftermath of the Gold Rush. A wide open, dangerous town rife with gamblers, cheats, hookers, thugs and rogues of all description. You don't really get an accurate picture of how wild and wholly not to mention dangerous it was from this film, but you do get one especially nasty Edward G. Robinson (with an ear ring no less). There's a meaner than a polecat Brian Donlevy too along with some vigilante justice, of the hanging variety. Miriam Hopkins as a fallen woman and straight as an arrow Joel McCrea provide the love interest.

Bullitt (1968). Worth it for the car chase through the streets of San Francisco alone. Worth it for Steve McQueen alone. Worth it because it's one helluva good cop picture, even if the story doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Filmed all over San Fransisco. Recalls for me memories of the non Haight-Ashbury side of the city in the late 60s.

Pal Joey (1957). Two of the greatest together: San Francisco and Sinatra! As a bonus you get Kim Novak *sigh* and Rita Hayworth. The story is a slight cut above most 50s musical, comedy, romances. You get to see San Francisco and hear Sinatra -- in the same movie! How cool is that!

San Francisco (1936). With a title like that how could it not be on this list? Plus it's Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy and the 1906 earthquake. Actually there's only what IMDb calls, background footage, shot in San Francisco but the film provides a good if somewhat sanitized look at early 20th century San Francisco. The quake scenes are surprisingly good, at least in terms of cinema if not accuracy.

01 September 2009

Somers Town, A Daringly Simple Story

It's easier to tell a story about a punch in the nose than to tell one about picking daisies.

Visual media like films rely on dramatic images. Aliens, gangsters, robots, cops & robbers and their actions are just the stuff for movies. Not much of a story required at all if you've got gunfire, pyrotechnics or spaceships. Never mind that sensational images, particularly of the special effect variety, often detract rather than enhance story telling, the point is that's just plain easier to engage audiences when you've got explosions rather than exposition.

Of course love stories are dramatic too. Ninety nine per cent of your audience can relate to the joys and anguish of romance and if you've got a handsome couple and vibrant musical score you're halfway home.

Now try telling the story of two relatively ordinary teenage blokes. Let's set the tale in a working class London neighborhood. One lad is a Polish immigrant the other a runaway from his dreary Midlands home. Let's go further and say you've got the cheek to film it in black and white and want to wrap the whole story up in 72 minutes. You must be daft.

Or you could be Shane Meadows.

The film in question is Somers Town (2008) which arrived here in the colonies just last month. It's wonderful.

While we do get a glimpse of a brief beating suffered by one of the film's protagonists, Somers Town is otherwise bereft of violence. Both teens have a massive and quite understandable crush on a French waitress, but this is no love story. Meadows, who's previous efforts include Once Upon a Time in the Midlands (2002) and the terrific This is England (2006), manages to not only hold our attention for the full running time, and has us wishing for much more. In fact my only serious quibble with Somers Town is that its too damn short.

The two teens (played by Warsaw native Piotr Jagiello and Thomas Turgoose who starred in This is England) form a bit of cinematic cliche: the unlikely pairing. Their comradeship works because the two lads clearly need each other. One is lonely, the other desperate. Their escapades are not the madcap antics of teen exploitation films. Meadows does not draw our attention through shocks or broad laughs. He does it the old fashioned (and harder) way: relying on the strength of his characters and a strong story.

The immigrant is struggling to learn English and live with just his dad. The runaway is trying to make do day by day completely away from whatever family he left. We don't know the back story of either young man. Do you know the back story of everyone you have interactions with? Workmates, neighbors, causal friends? Course not, but we make do, just as the film does. It reveals enough and let's us discern in our own way what we want. Minus those explosions of other films we are left to imagine. Meadows is the type of film maker who trusts his audience to think for themselves.

A story grounded in reality with well drawn characters is not the stuff of box office gold. But for me it creates a perfect equipoise for my lingering and heartfelt love for Inglourious Basterds. The two films, as similar as broccoli to a root beer float, together reveal that good cinema comes in many forms.

Sadly, Somers Town is the type of film that will not play to huge audiences. It slipped into Northern California without the slightest ballyhoo and I only discovered it by accident (saw a postcard for the film with a character wearing an Arsenal jersey, my favorite footie club, and was initially intrigued just by that association). I could now reprise my quixotic fight against blockbusters and in support of independent films, but in the spirit of the film I'll keep this post short and simple.

Like this.