30 July 2010

One Flew East, One Flew West, The Book or the Movie, Which Was Best?

Crazy, man, crazy.

Finished reading Ken Kesey's novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest last night. Hadn't read it before (hey, it's only been out for 47 years!). Moments after finishing the final page I realized that I'd read what has been correctly labeled a classic of American literature.

Today, courtesy of Netflix, I popped a copy of Milos Forman's 1975 cinematic version of the book into ye olde DVD player. The movie I had seen -- though not for many, many years -- and very much admired.

So now it's time again to play: so what did you like better, the book or the movie? Not so fast. I don't like to play that game. Books and films are two very different art forms and indulging in comparisons creates a false dichotomy. After all would one compare a song with a painting? But people do compare books and movies when the latter is based on the former, after all they are both forms of narrative so the question can be raised: which did a better job of telling the story?

Sounds a reasonable posit, but again misleading. After all each medium has very different ways of telling that story. One can utilize visual imagery, the other can explore the mind's of characters and give deeper background.

So the debate rages on....

But I confess to this, I'm slightly less impressed with the film after seeing how it diverged from Kesey's novel. Kesey told the story from the perspective of  Chief Bromden and it was very much an allegorical tale about the United States. Adding a character, dropping one compositing a few, taking out scenes and changing others is often a necessary evil when translating literature to feature film, but here the tone of Kesey's novel is changed.

Kesey was reportedly very upset about the way his story was treated and has steadfastly refused to see the movie. I understand his frustration. He told a very important story in a manner that is the equal to what the greats of American literature have accomplished and its largely missing in the movie. On the other hand he's missing one helluva good show.

Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher as McMurphy and Nurse Ratched respectively brought the two main characters to life. It is impossible to imagine any actors doing more justice to the roles. (That they won the Best Actor and Best Actress Oscars, demonstrates that the Academy does sometimes make the right choice.) The rest of the cast is similarly inspired, including up and comers named Danny Devito and Christopher Lloyd who would share small screen time in Taxi, one of the great sitcoms of all time.

The film catches much of what Kesey was saying about institutions, rules, rebellions, power and any number of related topics. The pacing, the very rhythm  of the film, its occasional bleakness and sometimes manic moments are cinematic gold.

It's what is missing, however, that was evident to me. I believe the filmmakers took the easy way out. They put the focus on Nicholson and Fletcher and made some easy points through their relationship and the whirlwind of activity and emotion that their psycho dialectics wrought. For their troubles they ended up with a critical and commercial success. Not too shabby.

But the large sums of money the movie made must have been cold comfort to Kesey. This did not reflect on the thoughtful story he was telling of American power as symbolized by "the combine" described in the book. Chief's feigned deafness, the McMurphy vs. Ratched battles and the mental institution itself were all powerful metaphors. You could have told that story in the movie. Because of the movie's success it has become iconic and will not be re-made in a way that Kesey would find more pleasing.

So am I in fact yielding in my long-held position that you cannot compare a book and a movie based on that writing? No. Particularly when said movie is almost invariably described as "based on..." That the film One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is not of the caliber of the book upon which it is based does not make any less of film. They are independently and separately outstanding pieces of art. Let's leave it at.

(By the way I'm well qualified to make judgments on books and movies that purport to tell stories set in insane asylums. You see, I taught middle school for nearly 20 years....)

20 July 2010

What is a Human Life Worth? Evidently More than $17!

Here's a headline from today's San Francisco chronicle: "Man in Bay Area for job interview killed for just $17."

The victim was the father of three. He was in the Bay Area for a job interview with google. This slaying was one of a seemingly endless series of tragic crimes that plague America's urban areas. But I have question about how this particular story was handled: why the emphasis on the fact that the perpetrators only got $17?  Would this be any less of tragedy if $5,000 were taken? How about $500? Maybe $100? At what number does someone decide: "that's not a heck of a lot of money to kill someone for"? Do the victims three sons mourn the death of a father over a lousy 17 bucks or is it possible the amount of money does not come into their grieving equation?

This is not an isolated case of one newspaper singling out the robber's tiny haul. I see it all the time and it gets increasingly infuriating.

Is this what we're saying: Folks, if, in the course of a robbery you're going to kill someone, you know, snuff out their earthly existence for ever and ever, make sure you get, oh let's say two grand. Killing someone, you know terminating their life and sending their family and loved ones into paroxysms of grief, for anything less is just plain sick.

By the way, the murder took place In Oakland which has a very high incidence of homicide. Within approximately 24 hours of this crime, a man pulled over by the CHP opened fire on officers. Later in a separate incident a police officer was shot at by a sniper. And across the Bay in San Francisco a man was charged with killing a 17 year old with said teen's own rifle.

Let's all take a moment to thank the NRA for their continuing efforts to defend our second amendment rights. Isn't it great to live in a country in which seemingly half the citizenry are armed to the teeth? Thank you NRA for fighting, at every turn, efforts to introduce any sort of gun control legislation. That's one powerful lobby you've got there. As powerful as a .45 magnum that blows the brains right out of a human being leaving that person's wife an early widow. What I'm trying to say NRA, is f*ck you!

19 July 2010

I Shoulda Just Watched Citizen Kane -- A Post Wherein I Express Disappointment With My Last Two Movie Choices

Saturday evening I wrote about the trip I made to the Beat Museum in San Francisco that day with my darling wife. Careful readers of this blog (there is one, isn't there?) will recall that I announced the film we were going to watch later that night and the one I was going to go to see the next day. In baseball parlance, I went oh fer two.

I'm always very careful about the movies I choose to watch. I have shelves full of DVDs of films I love that I can watch over and over again. If I'm going to watch something new, whether recorded, rented or at a theater, it better be worth passing up a Fellini or Ford. As evidenced by the last two movies I endured, I'm not careful enough. They couldn't be more different. Their common denominator being that I cared for neither.

From Netflix came Wedding Present (1936), a Cary Grant film that is relatively new to DVD. It shoulda stayed unreleased. Cary Grant has been in more films that I consider very good, great or absolute classics than any actor I can think of. From Blonde Venus (1932), through Holiday (1938) to Notorious (1946) and right up to Charade (1963), he appeared in 21 films that I would put into one of those three categories. If I were to include just plain old "good" movies, well....

Suffice to say Wedding Present is not among these revered films. It does currently hold the distinction of being the worst Cary Grant movie I've ever seen. Let me put it this way: it stunk. When you've got Grant starring opposite Joan Bennett with a supporting class that includes William Demarest, it takes a lot of mucking up to make a stinker out of it. The director was one Richard Wallace who will never be confused with Cukor, Hawks or anyone else with talent. But the writers, Joseph Anthony and Paul Gallico deserve at least equal blame for this mess. Wedding present has all the continuity of a badger fight.

Grant and Bennett play newspaper reporters who are as rebellious as they are good and as good as they are in love. First they're going to get married, then they're not. First Grant is a scam artist always looking to get out of work, then he's a no-nonsense city editor, then he's not. Characters motivations and their very personalities change at the drop of the hat. Actually someone dropping a hat would have been a highlight in this mess. Story lines and characters came and went. Developed then gone never to be seen again. The best part about Wedding Present was that it lasted only 81 minutes, though it felt like 81 hours.

I committed a greater sin the following day by joining the hordes to see Inception. A film about people invading dreams for purposes of industrial espionage -- what a great idea! Its cast included Leonardo DiCaprio, Marion Cotillard, Ellen Page, James Gordon-Levitt the underrated Tom Hardy and a cameo by Michael Caine. Director Christopher Nolan had made Memento (2000), a film I much admire and so I was anticipating more of the same sort of inventive and thought provoking mind games. Plus, the critics were positively raving!!!

But Nolan was also at the helm for the last two Batman films where he buried character development under layers of action scenes.

Guilty again. There are a lot of characters here and we really only get to know one but never fully understand him. How can we when there are runaway trains and gun battles aplenty to bore/excite us?

I always single out Steven Spielberg's Minority Report (2002) as a classic example of a director using special effects and action sequences to support a story. On the flip side you have Peter Jackson's King Kong (2005) in which the story is only an excuse for  the director to show off the latest  in special effects and action.

Inception is doing boffo at the box office. One of Hollywood's hottest directors, along with an A list cast, a seemingly deep and meaningful plot, lot of action and critical acclaim guarantee that this will be the Summer's biggest money maker, if not the year's. I can't imagine it will be long before we hear of a sequel in the works.

If I'd taken a moment or two more to research Inception before running off to see it I wouldn't have run off to see it. I thought I'd learned a lesson from that God awful Sherlock Holmes film from last December. If Hollywood is willing to take a cerebral character like Holmes and make an action hero out of him, nothing is sacred. I can see it now, Sigmund the Fighting Psychiatrist, he'll interpret your dreams and go into battle with your personal demons!

Now if you'll excuse me I've got some movie watching time blocked out later this afternoon and I aim to use it wisely. Time to visit my DVD collection.

17 July 2010

Me and The Wife Go to The Beat Museum -- Plenty of Stuff Here About Movies Too

Went into San Francisco with the wife today. Took BART, the local subway system. The initials stand for Bay Area Rapid Transit system but after waiting 12 minutes for a train going to the City and 14 minutes coming back, I'm convinced that they should drop the R. Kathryn and I reminisced about how in Paris we once had to wait six minutes for a train. Once.

Our destination was The Beat Museum which neither of us had been to before. This would be my opportunity to further worship one of my greatest heroes, Jack Kerouac, not to mention gents like Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady who I also revere.

(I'm excited about the forthcoming film, Howl, with James Franco starring as Ginsberg. Especially so after seeing the trailer. Meanwhile I'm trepidatious about plans for a cinematic version of On the Road. Shooting is scheduled to start next month. It's hard to imagine that any sort of film could do justice to the book, my favorite of all novels.)

So from BART we took the bus in the direction of the museum. We got off said bus and I immediately espied our destination and exclaimed, "there it is!" Kathryn was horrified as I'd come off sounding like a tourist. Point taken.

The museum is nice and has some wonderful memorabilia including one of Jack's old coats. There's a lot of other stuff like old typewriters for which there are no tags. I love the old photos and the display of copies of On the Road in all manner of foreign language edition. There's also a canceled check Kerouac wrote to a liquor store in 1961. I want it.

There's a store affixed to the museum with the usual tee shirts, hats, posters and stuff (but no mugs, I'd have bought one!). There's also rare editions of Beat related books, records and tapes. If I were a wealthy man (I'm not?) I'd have gladly walked away having made many a purchase. The museum was like a lot of things for me in this world -- I wanted more! That said, visiting it was well worthwhile.

A few doors down from the museum are some of San Francisco's more well known strip clubs. Including one I patronized with a phony ID when I was 20, after consuming a great deal of spirits. Outside of one of these establishments stood a lovely young lady whose obvious purpose was to entice men to see more lovelies inside.  Of course, the ladies inside would be wearing little or no clothing. She stood atop these ridiculously big platform shoes that would give an ordinary person vertigo. She was clad in the shortest possible skirt that barely covered her bum. I was of two minds: as a heterosexual male I found the sight of her a perfect delight, as the father of two daughters I was appalled. The tie breaker was being with Kathryn. In other words: shame on you young lady.

From there we crossed the street to visit the famous City Lights Bookstore. It's a swell place but we've got a biblio freaks dream in Berkeley called Moe's that's not nearly as famous but is twice the place for browsing and buying.

We next strolled over to the Caffe Trieste where Francis Ford Coppola wrote the screenplay for The Godfather (1972). We'd have had a coffee there but there was a $7 cover charge for the musical act which was a little band of older folks playing and signing traditional Italian music. At no cost I'd have gladly endured them but for a seven bucks, no dice.

We found another Italian cafe with no cover. Kathryn had a latte and I a mocha. Yummy. It was cool to have some authentic older Italian men outside chatting in their native tongues.

There were tourists aplenty wherever we went. This is understandable. Living just across the Bay we take San Francisco and all its sights for granted. It's a great city, though Kathryn and I prefer Paris.

We're home now and Netflix has provided us with a Cary Grant film we've never seen before, Wedding Present (1936) which is fairly new to DVD. It'll be a nice way to cap off our day. Tomorrow I'm off to see Inception and am looking forward to that.

In between time I'll be doing some reading. Of Kerouac, of course.

12 July 2010

I'd Like You to Meet Some Friends of Mine

Left to right these are my buddies Federico, Marcello and Sophie. We recently vacationed together.

10 July 2010

My Frustrations With Film Goers, My Love of a Film Character

Some people think I'm a bit of a grump. In my defense...I am. But yesterday's experience would have tested anyone's patience. It left me to conclude that I should only go the cinema when there's something playing I really, really, really really want to see.

I saw a terrific film yesterday, Winter's Bone, more on that later. Sadly my ability to truly appreciate the film was hindered by some of my fellow audience members. First there was the couple who brought a five course meal. It seemed that every morsel was tightly wrapped in the most crinkly paper ever made. When they weren't rifling through and undoing the bags, they were loudly unscrewing bottle caps and doing what sounded like tearing down a load bearing wall. Finally and simultaneously me and some other patrons expressed our outrage and they put a stop to the cacophony.

Meanwhile and throughout the film, there was a gentleman seated towards the back of the theater who on occasion let loose gargantuan yawns (if they reflected his feeling about the film I'm sure he was brain damaged). I'm equally certain that it is possible to, if not totally suppress a yawn, at least not exaggerate it.

Not to be outdone, one patron's cell phone started ringing and, wouldn't you know it, she had trouble finding it and then turning the bloody thing off. Here's a tip: turn of your cell phone before the movie starts.

The last straw, and yes the very one that fractured the camel's back, came during the climactic scene of the film. Two ladies thought it a good time start discussing the movie. Here's another tip: wait until a film is over before talking about it.

It would have been a really good occasion to see a terrible film, but darn the luck I saw a real corker. I just can't justify spending nearly ten bucks to sit where my fellow man or woman are liable to ruin my experience. At the same time I can't yet give up the big screen experience nor can I stand to wait for the DVD to see certain films. Maybe I should start packing a taser....

As for the film I'll just say I fell in love with the heroine and the actress who played her (and I don't mean in some icky romantic way, she's a 19 year old playing a 17 year old). The character of Ree Dolly and the actress who played her, Jennifer Lawrence, should rightfully be among the iconic screen personas of all time. She was that good. Her creation was that good. That's what I fell in love with. The performance.

Ree is tough times ten. She's in a seemingly impossible situation but doesn't give an inch, or for that matter a millimeter. The setting is the Ozarks, Ree's a high schooler who must raise her younger siblings as her father is physically absent and her mother mentally so. They will lose the house, which was put up for bond, if dad doesn't show up in court and he's nowhere to be found. Ree must find him, dead or alive. People who might help are more than just a little reluctant to do so. Dad and others are, after all, in the business of cooking meth.

It's a bleak landscape full of ignorance, danger and hard simple truths. Ree navigates with an unrelenting purposefulness. She will not back down or be intimidated. So she's a young girl among mean tough men, what of it? She'll look 'em square in the eye then go back home, skin a squirrel and teach her brother and sister how to use a rifle.

Hardscrabble existence? Damn near apocalyptic.

Lawrence will be in a film called The Beaver, directed by Jodie Foster starring...oh my goodness...Mel Gibson, to be released later this year. She has two other films in pre production. If she doesn't become a major star then I'm an even bigger idiot than you originally thought. But at least I don't make noise in movie theaters.

09 July 2010

Experience the Sixties Through Contemporary Music, Films and Novels -- Power to the People!

I was there. And I still have the cloth I used to cover my mouth from tear gas. Growing up in Berkeley during the 1960s did not make for a typical childhood. After all, for a short time we had the National Guard bivouacked across from Berkeley High School. Drugs of all variety where readily available and cheap ($1 for a tab of LSD). Attitudes and mores were changing as fast as our teenaged hormones.

There were no pep rallies, even though we had the number one basketball team in the state. The prom was sparsely attended (I assume so anyway, I didn't know anyone who went). Instead of social events we were concerned about social issues. The times were a changin' and doing so in our very midst.

I made frequent trips up the street to the University of California campus for demonstrations.  There were the People's Park demonstrations and anti war and anti draft demonstrations. I saw young people literally thrown into paddy wagons and struck over the head with billy clubs. I also saw a helicopter overhead with streams of tear gas pouring out of it flying directly above me. "My God, my own government is attacking me!" I said aloud. At that moment I became a radical forever. (Some of that tear gas wafted down the road to the junior high school where some years later I would teach.)

The Sixties represented a cultural revolution, the reverberations from which are still felt today. Its roots ran deep and included the Beat Generation of the 1950s and the Civil Rights Movement. It's catalysts were the Kennedy Assassination, the Beatles and outrage over U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. (In terms of the "spirit of the Sixties" I consider the decade to have been from 1964-1973, as will be reflected throughout this writing). So of course it was also a time of, as the cliche goes, political unrest. Never before have politics and culture been so inextricably intertwined.

Protest songs that were birthed in folk music became integral to the ever changing strains of rock and roll. Young people's music became less about puppy love and more about the times they lived in. Long hair was in and it, along with fashions, became a personal expression not just of individual style but of political leanings. It was a time of free love, hippies, be-ins, open drug experimentation, liberation movements and peace signs.

I was in the heart of it. Living in Berkeley and across the bay from San Francisco where hippies were so prevalent and the Summer of Love took place in 1967.

I remember the time fondly because of the incredible sense of hope and purpose so many of us enjoyed. We believed that we were part of positive change, that mountains could be moved and we could some day live in a world of love not war. While its true that today the world is as violent as ever, significant progress has been made in many areas. Out of the Sixties came an acceptance of humans in all variety. Witness the changing roles not just of women and African Americans but other ethnic minorities, gays, the handicapped and both the young and old. The Sixties forever put a dent into the monolithic power held by older, straight, white Christian males.

The impact the Sixties had on our culture is incalculable. As with politics, everything felt new and important. However we did not have an LBJ or a Nixon in opposition to us, just our hopelessly square parents.

Absent a time machine there's no way to truly experience what a time was like but one can certainly get a sense of a bygone era. It can be fun too. You need not read non fiction books, watch documentaries or visit museums (although those are all wonderful ideas). You can sit back and watch movies, listen to music and read novels.

I have provided 12 movies, songs and books to choose from, all contemporary to the period. Disclaimer: this is not meant to be a comprehensive list. Especially in the case of music where I could have offered five, six, even ten times as many choices.

The problem with films is that the movie industry didn't really catch up to the Sixties until a few years into the next decade. This is mostly a reflection on the nature of film production. The first film on the list is the definitive Sixties movie, the Strawberry Statement. Sadly it is not available on DVD and TCM rarely airs it. However you can watch it on Amazon On Demand and I highly recommend you do so. It is the story of a young college student who finds love and a social conscience though the protest movements then taking place on his campus. I watched it recently for the first time since it its initial release and was amazed at how well it holds up and how accurately it captures the time period. It also features one of the best soundtracks in film history. Other than Getting Straight, a rather weak entry I admit but one that does concern itself with campus protests, none of the films I've listed deal with Sixties per se. However they were all popular then and emboldened our counter cultural beliefs. Especially If..., M*A*S*H and Harold and Maude.

For the songs I've for the most part selected music that not only is of the time but speaks to it. I've included some lyrics in a few cases to illustrate that point. The books start off with two by Jack Kerouac that were written in the Fifties but they certainly were important to the Sixties and popular then. The other books were released in the Sixties and had particular popularity among the young and disaffected.

At the end of included some photos from protests. Mostly from ones I attended, though I know of no picture of me at a demonstration. Perhaps I should check out the FBI files.

It may seem presumptuous of me to dedicate a blog post but in this case I'm going to go ahead: This is dedicated to James Rector, an innocent bystander killed during the People's Park Demonstrations in Berkeley on May 15, 1969. The last photo shows that tragedy.


The Strawberry Statement (1970)
Getting Straight (1970)
Easy Rider (1969)
M*A*S*H (1970)
2001 A Space Odyssey (1968)
If.... (1968)
A Hard Day's Night (1964)
Band of Outsiders (1964)
Bonnie & Clyde (1967)
The Graduate (1967)
The Last Picture Show (1971)
Harold and Maude (1971)

(Also see the Smothers Brothers TV show on DVD. They were cutting edge and constantly embroiled with censors as they took on the war, the administration and all facets of the power structure. They were also very funny and among their guests were the hottest musical acts of the time.)


What's Going On, Marvin Gaye
Father, father, everybody thinks we're wrong
Oh, but who are they to judge us Simply because our hair is long
Oh, you know we've got to find a way
To bring some understanding here today
Oh Picket lines and picket signs
Don't punish me with brutality
Talk to me So you can see
What's going on

Something in the Air, Thunderclap Newman
Call out the instigators
Because there's something in the air
We've got to get together sooner or later
Because the revolution's here, and you know it's right
And you know that it's right
We have got to get it together
We have got to get it together now

Ohio, Neil Young
Tin soldiers and Nixon coming,
We're finally on our own.
This summer I hear the drumming,
Four dead in Ohio.
Gotta get down to it
Soldiers are cutting us down
Should have been done long ago.
What if you knew her
And found her dead on the ground
How can you run when you know?

For What its' Worth, Buffalo Springfield
What a field-day for the heat
A thousand people in the street
Singing songs and carrying signs
Mostly say, hooray for our side
It's time we stop, hey, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down
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
We better stop, hey, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down

Vietnam Rag, Country Joe and the Fish
Come on all of you big strong men
Uncle Sam needs your help again
he's got himself in a terrible jam way down yonder in Viet Nam
so put down your books and pick up a gun we're gonna have a whole lotta fun
And it's one, two, three, what are we fighting for don't ask me I don't give a damn,
next stop is Viet Nam
And it's five, six, seven, open up the pearly gates
ain't no time to wonder why,
whoopee we're all gonna die

My Generation, The Who
White Rabbit, Jefferson Airplane
Light My Fire, The Doors
San Francisco, Scott McKenzie
Can't Find My Home, Blind Faith
American Pie, Don McLean
Purple Haze, Jimi Hendrix

(Also listen to Janis Joplin; Simon & Garfunkel; Crosby, Stills and Nash; folk singers such as Joan Baez and the Mommas and the Poppas; the British Invasion especially The Beatles as well as such bands as the Kinks and the Dave Clark 5; and soul music like The Temptations, the Four Tops and Smokey Robinson.)


On The Road, Jack Kerouac
Dharma Bums, Jack Kerouac
Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut
Catch 22, Joseph Heller
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Ken Kesey
Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert Heinlein
A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess 
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Tom Wolfe
Portnoy's Complaint, Philip Roth
Myra Breckenridge, Gore Vidal
The Graduate, Charles Webb
Cat's Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut

08 July 2010

Evil Sometimes Wears a Nice Blue Suit

There's something particularly scary about evil disguised as ordinary looking middle aged men in nondescript clothing. For one thing it suggests that evil can be anywhere Danger may lurk within the guy standing behind you on line at the pharmacy.

There are two such regular looking fellows at the heart of Bullitt (1968), a film better known for its iconic car chase scene and its star, the late great Steve McQueen.

Under those long raincoats are weapons, including a shotgun that is used to blow two people nearly to kingdom come. These are not raving lunatics in sheep's clothing either. They are as placid and calm as a full moon though portending as much menace. We see nary a hint of emotion from either. They are methodical men going about their jobs. Because they are hired assassins it does not follow that they are erratic or colorful. Quite the contrary. They are virtually wordless, expressionless deliverers of death.

But there is one other more nattily attired man in a suit. While he is not nearly so deadly in person, his power is far more insidious and far reaching. He is the power hungry D.A. Chalmers. This is the quintessential slimy politician who sees his fellow man in terms of what they can do to ease his own climb to the top. Robert Vaughn played Chalmers and he was perfect. All clipped talking points, overdone and totally insincere flattery and politeness. Utterly ruthless and callous and all too realistic to be dismissed as just another character in a film.

Some might say Chalmers represents the prototypical ambitious politico, but he's an extreme and virulent strain of that species.

Countering these sartorially resplendent men is the more casually attired and infinitely cooler title character played by the coolest of the cool, McQueen. A turtleneck and sports jacket will do nicely for him.

Bullitt is a man of very few words, indeed a man of hardly any syllables. The 1950s and '60s were the golden age of silent leading men who betrayed little emotion. Like McQueen's Bullitt, they nonetheless were successful in both their jobs and with the ladies. Bullitt's girl is the utterly gorgeous Cathy played by the then 24 year old Jacqueline Bisset. Finding a lovelier woman at any time and place would be no small task.

This is a film with a wonderful economy of words but a similar and quite striking absence of a sensible plot. Yet over 40 years on Bullitt is a film much beloved by many people, including yours truly. While it makes little sense, it does a wonderful job of telling its confusing story. The chase scene is not aged a whit in all this time and in fact has yet to be outdone.

Director Peter Yates did a masterful job of pacing the film, his cuts from one scene to the next were especially effective. Yates also knew to slow things down occasionally and focus on the mundane. The scene were Bullitt and his partner are inventorying a victim's luggage is a prime example. While today I enjoyed my umpteenth viewing of Bullitt, I recently enjoyed my first screening of a later Yates film, The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) with Robert Mitchum as an aging crook trying to stay out of prison. It's a film that demonstrates a similar willingness to contrast the ordinary and the everyday with extraordinary events. It's a film I'll be re-visiting.

Bullitt owes much to the star power of McQueen and its other star, the city of San Francisco. It too is cool and more casual than others of its type.

Other supporting players were regulars of the time period often seen on Tv, Simon Oakland and Norman Fell both played Bullitt's superiors. A young Robert Duvall also features as a cabbie.

But among the star power and the character actors and the chases and the tension, there lurks those guys in their suits. A banality of evil all their own.

06 July 2010

Trying to Make it With Marlene on the Shanghai Express and Loving Being Taken for a Ride

(I watched Shanghai Express (1932) today, a film which holds a place on my list of 100 favorite English language films. I previously wrote about the film on this blog a few years back. This entry will be a tad different.)

I want on that train. Hey! Let me on board! I'm totally imaginary so the fare is not a problem. Thanks, man, I won't forget this. Let's check out my fellow passengers.

There's this guy Captain Harvey, aka "Doc," who's got a past with Shanghai Lily (my girl, Marlene Dietrich) He is a tool. I mean the only thing I don't get about Lily is what she ever saw in a walking paste board like him. No doubt he's a good doctor, officer and gentleman but his voice and manner have all the charm of yesterday's oatmeal. This Harvey (Clive Brook) is a walking yawn.
But dig this, I've also got a fall back on this trip. He Fei (Anna May Wong). If I can't take laughing boy away from my Lily -- that'd be a shame -- I'll see if this dish will give me a tumble. Yummy. There'd be one helluva lot of consolation in that consolation prize.

One dame I want no part of is that matronly old broad with the little mutt. What a prude. Besides, she's pushing 80 if not 180. Her handle is Mrs. Haggerty (Louise Closser Hale). She's as sour as sugarless lemonade. Being in your golden years is no crime, but being an old biddy is another matter. There's a portly Eurasian gent who's all sophisticated wisdom. Something shady about this character. Goes by the name of Mr. Henry Chang (Warner Oland). Bet I can tell he's up to no good (it helps that I've seen the movie).

Others on this choo choo include a rotund American businessman, a whiny German and a typically holier-than-thou reverend. But my interest is in the notorious Shanghai Lily. She's got a reputation of some sort and I think I know what it's based on: Victorian mores. We're here in the early 1930s but the Brits in this part of Asia have brought their old school prudishness with them. So I'm on board and all I want to do is see Harvey take a hike so I can get cozy with the sultry Lily. Not a problem. Meanwhile I get to enjoy a vintage train ride with as disparate a group of passengers as you'll ever want to meet. My main objective will be to find love in the arms of Lily. Just about the only thing that can stop me is if the Civil War raging across China gets in the way and what are the chances of that? Whattaya mean pretty good!?
Damn all the luck. To intrigue is added strife. My efforts at wooing Lily will be severely hampered by these most dangerous shenanigans. And just as I suspected, that Mr. Chang is not what he claims. He is in fact, a ruthless leader of a warring faction.

Long story short. Once the shooting started I got off the train and returned to reality. I'm a brave man here in the real world (or so I tell myself) but why risk life and limb in a movie, in a fantasy? Course if I really could score with the Dietrich of 1932.....

Twas a fascinating ride on the Shanghai Express. The conductor is no less a personage than Joseph von Sternberg. He created an exciting tale that so wonderfully evokes a time and place that none of us have ever seen but are sure we are visiting. And to think this ride is taking place on a Hollywood backlot! He also caused my infatuation to Dietrich/Lily to increase tenfold. It's the way he photographs her. If her gorgeous puss had an imperfection (it don't) you can bet von Sternberg would never let you see it. The angles, the lighting, the length of shots are all designed to accentuate the world's greatest facial bone structure. It's no surprise that he'd long since fallen for the dame too.

I'm glad I hitched my ride on the Shanghai Express (which is a lot easier since we got a DVD player that plays region 1 &2 DVDs and I got the British DVD). It's one of those deals that's not a ride but an experience. And you don't have to be all girl crazy to enjoy it either. But it helps.

02 July 2010

I Answer the Question: Is it Ever to Early to Talk About Next Year's Oscars? (Hint: YES!!!!)

According to my calender today is July 2nd. Nonetheless in today's San Francisco Chronicle there is an article by film critic Mick LaSalle about the year in film's so far. Fair enough. But the article also includes numerous sidebars about which films have a chance at receiving an Oscar nomination.

With six months left in the calendar year.

Seven months before the nominations are announced.

Eight months before the awards are presented.

Is is ever to early to discuss the coming year's Oscars? I think the day before the show is too early. Eight months? Gimme a break....

I'm open to any discussion on the state of films over the last few weeks, months, years or any other arbitrary time period you care to introduce. While the fact is that there have been more than enough great films released over the past 100 years to keep me busy for as long as I inhabit this planet, I'm always willing to enjoy another terrific new film.

If new pictures had stop being released a year ago at this time I'd have missed out on Inglourious Basterds and A Serious Man, two of my all time favorites. So as much as it cuts into my valuable time, bring me more.

But please, once and for all can we put an end to this fallacy that the Academy Awards have the slightest thing to do with determining the best achievement in films over the course of a year?

And for God's sakes, we're stuck with enough Oscar hype from November through March, can we at least be spared from it in July?

While I'm badly beating a dead horse (God forbid PETA should find out) let me refer  you to last Tuesday's list on the wonderful website, Listserve. It is titled Top 10 Biggest Travesties of the Oscars. It only really scratches the surface and in fact I did a better job a couple of years ago, but it's worth a look in any case.

I better ask my daughters never to name any of their children, Oscar.