25 August 2013

Life is Miserable Horrible and Awful But I Can Easily Cite 100 Reasons From the World of Entertainment to be Happy

It’s just an accident that we happen to be on earth, enjoying our silly little moments, distracting ourselves as often as possible so we don’t have to really face up to the fact that, you know, we’re just temporary people with a very short time in a universe that will eventually be completely gone. And everything that you value, whether it’s Shakespeare, Beethoven, da Vinci, or whatever, will be gone. The earth will be gone. The sun will be gone. There’ll be nothing. The best you can do to get through life is distraction. Love works as a distraction. And work works as a distraction. You can distract yourself a billion different ways. But the key is to distract yourself. - Woody Allen
Life goes by incredibly quickly and that's if you manage to survive it for several decades or more. It can of course end suddenly even tragically. So at best our time here is fleeting. It is rife with misery horror and sorrow and that's assuming that all goes reasonably well. If we ourselves enjoy good health and fortune we are bound to come across friends relatives and acquaintances who suffer terrible fates. In addition we must face the vicissitudes of ill fortune that confront humanity as a whole. Cancer. Drug Addiction. Mental Illness. Molestation. Child slavery. Starvation. Disease. War. Terrorism. Crime. If we escape all of these horrors and more we are forever reminded of them. Our existences are under constant threat. A drunk driver or deranged killer or earthquake could spell our instant doom. Meanwhile we struggle to make meaning of our lives. Many of us refuse to find false comfort in wild mythologies cloaked as religion. Life sucks folks.

But many of us wouldn't dream of stepping out of it so much as one day early. We do whatever we can to extend our time on this planet. True the love of relatives and friends is reason enough to continue to enjoy the ride but there other sources of joy. I now take a minute to appreciate them as a reminder not to ever wallow too long in despair. I give you 100 reasons -- in the form of names -- from the field of entertainment who have and continue to bring a smile. Each name represents hours of entertainment. In some cases an incalculable number of hours. I restrict this list to entertainers knowing I could add a like amount from such fields as literature art and sports.

Woody Allen  Groucho Marx  Charlie Chaplin  Josephine Baker  Dick Cavett  Ingmar Bergman Barbara Stanwyck  David Letterman  Alfred Hitchcock  Michael Jackson  Paul McCartney  Harold Lloyd   John Cleese  Jack Benny  Stephen Colbert  Janis Joplin  Cary Grant  Jimi Hendrix  Federico Fellini  Carole Lombard  David Bowie  George Carlin  Michelangelo Antonioni  Bill Evans  Jon Stewart  Ricky Gervais  Jerry Seinfeld  Michael Palin  Benny Goodman  Chris Rock  Jean Harlow  Frank Sinatra  Tina Fey
Martin Short  John Ford  Julia Louis- Dreyfus  Amy Winehouse  Aki Kaurismaki   Fred Astaire   Richard Pryor  Steve Martin  Rodney Dangerfield  Marlene Dietrich  Mary Tyler Moore  Lenny Bruce  Martin Scorsese  Sidney Bechet  Scarlett Johansson  Bill Murray  Eric Idle  Freddie Mercury  Ginger Rogers  Anita Baker  Debra Messing  Jean Renoir  Neil Young  Jonathan Winters  Alec Baldwin  Ingrid Bergman  Edith Piaff  Marilyn Monroe  Roberto Rossellini  Bob Newhart  Django Reinhardt   Jean Gabin  Monica Vitti  Marcello Mastroianni  Robin Williams  John Lennon  Penelope Cruz  Stanley Kubrick  Johnny Carson  Carol Burnett  Jason Alexander  Lena Horne  Al Pacino  Harpo Marx  Pete Townshend  Rod Stewart   Jimmy Stewart   Joan Blondell  Rowan Atkinson  Diane Keaton  Max Van Sydow  Bill Cosby  Winona Ryder  Billie Holiday  Freddie Mercury

Phil Silvers  Charlize Theron  Myrna Loy  Daniel Day-Lewis  Terry Jones   Bibi Andersson  Preston Sturges  John Belushi  Faye Dunaway  Grace Slick  Jeanne Moreau  Johnny Cash.

See life is great.

Now here's my suggestion: don't complain to me about who I left off. After all this is my list. What you should do is make your own. Seriously sit down and type the names of people -- probably most of if not all of whom you've never met -- who've given you a smile or made you tap your toes or caused a good old belly laugh. Or maybe make a list of people you do know. Some maybe you haven't seen in awhile or who have shuffled off this mortal coil. Or even things you like or places or events or celebrations. It's a good way to keep the blues at bay and there's nothing wrong and everything right with that.

19 August 2013

Having a Wonderful Time Wish You Were Here -- Hitchcock Silents and I at the PFA

I was in line Friday at the Pacific Film Archive's for Alfred Hitchcock's The Lodger (1927). Surrounding me were other film goers. Most of whom looked as though they were part of the cast for a Grapes of Wrath remake. One that would feature dozens of Ma and Pa Joads. I live in Berkeley, California where informal attire has morphed into slovenliness. I've seen gents (that's stretching a word) at fancy restaurants wearing a Pendleton over tee shirt old jeans and sandals sans socks. It's not a generational thing either. These are often old geezers who look like they just finished gardening and couldn't be bothered changing for going out on the town. Some of my fellow film goers looked like they had spent upwards of $5 on a haircut -- once. A long long time ago.  Most appeared not to have taken exercise since the Eisenhower administration. On the plus side they were a group who clearly had good taste in film and were probably all peace loving community minded citizens as many of my fellow Berkeleyans in fact are. I've never been anything but proud of Berkeley even if you have a deuce of a time distinguishing the homeless from the city elders.

As I said at the beginning of my digression I was queuing for a Hitchcock film. This was night one of nine in which the newly restored Hitchcock silents are being shown. They of course represent the great director's earliest works. They've been available for sometime but in pretty shabby condition indeed. The British Film Institute led the restoration of these films a couple of years ago and they've been making the rounds of important cinematic venues around the world for over a year. I've been anxiously awaiting their arrival here having never seen a one of them.

So over the weekend I saw the first third of the films (alas I will miss the very last one on 31 August owing to a prior commitment at the football stadium just blocks away from the PFA). The Lodger is probably the best known of the the Hitchcock silents and for me the most eagerly anticipated. It did not disappoint. Ivor Novello starred as the mysterious lodger who fit the description of the murderer preying on young blondes in foggy London town. Novello was a very very famous British entertainer of the period much lesser known in the US and today mostly known as a fictionalized character in Robert Altman's Gosford Park (2001). He was a singer/songwriter/actor who even a straight man would have to readily acknowledge was incredibly handsome. Novello himself was not straight and was in a 35 year relationship with another man at the time of his death. He is perfect in The Lodger which is a very good film that turns into a brilliant one by virtue of a twist that I wouldn't dare reveal.

You may have heard that Hitchcock is known as the master of suspense (and if you haven't heard that I've got to wonder about you). It's interesting to see how soon in his career this mastery was evident. The Lodger is a suspense film a love story a mystery and -- as was typical of Hitch -- a bit of a comedy. Hopefully you'll get a chance to see it on the big screen. If not I would suspect it's newly spiffed up self will be coming out on DVD in due time.

Saturday nights' showing was The Ring (1927) and no this was not the ring of recent horror films it refers to the "squared circle" where pugilists bash away at one another. Yes a boxing film from Hitchcock but more than that a love story -- of the triangular kind. The three principals are a reigning boxing champ a would be champ and the girl that they both love and who -- despite marrying one -- loves both the big lugs. The climactic scene is predicable but artfully done. Hitch proved nothing if not that he was a versatile director. I thought that The Ring dragged at times as the great director hadn't developed the wonderful economy in shooting scenes that marked the majority of his work. While a few scenes took a bit too long the movie itself was a good one and if it dealt in a cliche or two at least Hitch handled them artfully.

The weekend concluded with The Farmer's Wife (1928) which was darn near a straight up comedy. The story concerns a widower who, after marrying off his daughter, decides to get himself a wife. He even sits down with his housekeeper and composes a list of candidates. The farmer (Jameson Thomas) takes the approach that he will just walk in and ask each prospective bride until one says yes. This he attempts with hilarious consequences. Well maybe not quite hilarious but there are some very funny moments in The Farmer's Wife as this mule headed temperamental man lumbers his way through courtship. A wonderful supporting cast help make for a delightful romp. This is lighter Hitchcock fare but again displays his many talents and his growing comfort with using the camera as a key component in story construction.

I've got five more Hitch silents to go and I can't wait. If time permits I'll write about them -- sans digressions on my sartorially challenged fellow film goers.

12 August 2013

Crazy Eights -- Eight Crazy Ladies Of Film

Here's a topic I'm an expert on. Wacky women. Sadly this expertise derives from having been raised by one. Poor mom was posthumously diagnosed as being schizophrenic. That's a rough one for a kid to take especially when mother is so erudite and intellectual in her lucid moments. But it is what it is -- or so they say. She's been stone dead physically for 12 years now and dead to me in all other ways for many more than that. So perhaps this explains my fascination with insanity (not to mention the fact that I'm a bit of kook myself). I have a great sympathy for people struggling with reality. Especially those who shine so brightly in this often dim world. Besides there's an awfully fine line between bat shit crazy and perfectly normal and many of us precariously tread in the swift waters in between. I'd even argue that those folks that society can safely classify as perfectly normal are the real nut jobs. Imagine going through life without dipping your toes -- inadvertently mind you -- in the roiling waters of madness. Now that's crazy!

Films have long had a fascination with the mentally ill. They make for great subject matter and provide roles that actors can sink their teeth into -- often at the risk of chewing up substantial portions of the scenery. Lately filmgoers have been blessed with one of the best portrayals of a whacko in recent or for that matter distant memory. Cate Blanchett's transcendent performance in the title role of Woody Allen's latest flicker inspired the annotated list below. I could have made a far longer list but that would have robbed me of the clever title for this post. Maybe I'll have to write a part two or make a list of men. Anyway this one will suffice for now. Or am I crazy?

Cate Blanchett  as Jasmine Blue Jasmine (2013) Ms. Blanchett joins a long list of women who have graced a Woody Allen film with a stunning performance (see Farrow Keaton Cruz Johansson Wiest Sorvino Rowlands Ullman and more). But she might have just topped them all. How effortlessly she glides from reality to fantasy. How subtle her insanity and at times broad and obvious. For Jasmine there is madness to her method. Such self-possession often leads to flights of fancy and from there to long soaring journeys to another reality. The happy mix of prescription drugs (they can be the worst kind of drug having as they do the appearance of the medical world's stamp of approval) and booze makes for far easier segues into crazy. The Great Cate has given us one of the great screen performances of all time.

Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd. (1950) Speaking of all time greats....Meet Norma Desmond ex silent film star bent on a comeback that no one is awaiting. Possessing oodles of cash and her very own screen writer (William Holden as Joe Gillis). She also possess delusions -- chiefly that the movie industry and public are hankering to see her again up on the big screen. Ahh delusions. Living in your own fantasies. A world of your own. How easily they can prey upon the mind. She has a butler/ex-husband (Eric von Stroheim) who is a candidate for world's greatest all time enabler. Nothing helps a nut along like someone supporting their madness.

Gena Rowlands as Mable in A Woman Under the Influence (1974) The nutty housewife. A staple of society but so rarely encountered on film. She somehow manages -- most of the time -- to keep house raise children look after her hard working hubby and give the appearance of all being hunky dory. But then there are the many other times when she just can't hold it together and anyone and everyone present sees the kook in action. Rowlands as Mable frankly creeped me out because watching the film was like looking at surreptitiously taken home movies from my childhood. She was manic, she was perfectly fine ,she was inappropriate ,she was dear old mom and loving wife. She was all over the place and it was brilliant.

Vivian Leigh as Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) This has been the gold standard of crazy ladies for over 60 years. There was a wonderful mannered broadness to her and co star Marlon Brando's performances. A kind of why-hold-anything-back approach that turned cinema on its head. Leigh played the classic drama queen nutcase which allows one be a bit of a ham. She took full advantage of the privilege and never crossed the line into vamping.

Kristen Dunst as Justine in Melancholia (2011) No one has quite done depression as Ms. Dunst did in this terrific film from Lars von Trier. There's a real difficulty in doing clinical depression because so much of it is self contained lethargy. You're not exactly bouncing off the walls. So a lot of it is the look and Dunst had it. She also had the faraway gazing zombie walk. It was a criminally underrated performance.

Ellen Burstyn as Sara Goldfarb in Requiem for a Dream (2000) One of the more common "real life" (whatever the hell that is) sufferers of mental illness is the shut-in older woman. Add a little TV addiction and a lot of diet pill addiction to an already unstable mind and you've got the recipe for one whacked out woman and one bravura performance from Ms. Burstyn. While Darren Aronofsky's direction helped heighten the performances, the cast here was superb. In Mrs. Goldfarb we see so many of those mad aging housewives filling their days with TV and fantasy and drugs to plug in the holes where there lives used to be.

Harriet Andersson as Karin in  Through a Glass Darkly (1961) Director Ingmar Bergman loved his crazy film characters and I had plenty to choose from but went with this one as my favorite. Karin is married to a doctor, her father is a successful writer and she has a precocious younger brother. She herself is bright and beautiful. But none of this stands a chance against the mental illness inherited from her mom. Not even a recent stint in a mental institution has set Karin straight. Bergman's fascination with mental illness made for some powerful, evocative cinema and Andersson's Karin is a classic example.

Monica Vitti as Giuliana in Red Dessert (1964) A very understated performance for a very understated insanity. To many a person suffering from mental problems is a raving loon pacing up and down streets screaming at squirrels. But there are much more subtle forms as Vitti showed in this great Antonioni film. She was detached, confused, unfocussed and prone to wandering and wondering. This not easy to detect mental illness can race downhill in a split second. It never quite does for Giuliana who holds it together -- fakes it. This is actually quite bad. The mentally ill person who can "pass" does herself no favors.

03 August 2013

Wow! Allen Writes and Directs Blanchett is Brilliant Blue Jasmine is Amazing

Why not step out of reality once and I awhile? Why not go back to old conversations? Why not pop xanax like candy and swill vodka like water? When your world has unraveled your dreams crushed riches gone illusions shattered taking the rest of your life a day at a time is an awful chore. A seeming impossibility. Forging ahead can be an awful headache anyway. In the best of times. Especially if you're a total narcissist.

Oh Jasmine. You.

It's directors -- you know -- who create great films. They are the magicians behind the camera whose vision makes art. There are also the writers who lay the essential building block that inspire the director. Their ideas their words. In some cases the writer and director are the same person as with the genius who is Woody Allen. The most prodigious producer of memorable cinema the art has known. While he has made a few clunkers in his time there are no more than a handful of directors (Bergman Fellini and Antonioni) who might be considered his superior.

Allen's brilliance is --  not surprisingly -- often accompanied by wonderful acting performances notably by women (Keaton Farrow Wiest Cruz Johansson Hershey Sorvino to name a few). But there has been nothing to match Cate Blanchett in Allen's latest film Blue Jasmine.

Blue Jasmine has been called the A Streetcar Named Desire for this generation which would make Jasmine a modern day Blanche DuBois. I can't say that such comparisons are far wrong though Blanchett's performance is less mannered and less ambiguous than Vivian's Leigh. Also better. There is even a bit of Brando to the main character's boyfriend.

Jasmine for many years lived the high life on the East Coast with her wealthy husband Hal (Alec Baldwin) who was a debonair version of Bernie Madoff.  Hal was not only making millions illegally but he was a serial philanderer carrying on his affairs right under Jasmine's elevated nose. Then the walls come tumbling down.

The fortune was seized Hal went to prison and Jasmine took flight to San Francisco to stay with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins). Sally is a lower middle class divorce with two rowdy young sons and a rough and tumble boyfriend (Bobby Cannavale). She and her ex husband (a surprisingly strong performance from Andrew Dice Clay) lost all their dough because of Hal.

There are surprises followed by inevitabilities in Blue Jasmine. Our sad heroine is suffering through what used to be called a nervous breakdown. She meets men and one is even quite a catch. But she is waging a titanic battle against her own demons. Reality is not something she is prepared for. Relationships are often the very worst prescription for the reality challenged.

Blue Jasmine sounds dark and depressing. It is. But is remarkably watchable and enjoyable. There is  humor and it is never forced nor unreal. Allen has crafted a film that is as smooth and irresistible as his own Match Point (2005). Another film that was steadily paced and unavoidable. While much of the story is told through flashbacks and there are an array of vivid characters and the sister's subplot to tell the movie clocks in at under 100 minutes and flows effortlessly. Only a master could make this film.

Of course audiences are also drawn by Blanchett's compelling performance in which she so embodies  her character. I haven't been this taken by an actress since Kristen Scott Thomas in Il y a longtemps que je t'aime (2007). Blanchett is transcendent in that she is not acting but being.

This is a very easy, this is a very difficult movie to write about it. There is so much to say so many themes and ideas. It is an intellectual goldmine. But is is a film to be felt and experienced and brooded over. It resonates....

I keep returning to the film's last image which I'll not spoil for those who have yet seen the film (go to the next showing). Among other things it is an example of how Allen -- like Chaplin -- understands how a closing shot can underscore an entire film. I also recall Jasmine maniacally looking for pills and desperately chugging down liquor and oh my god she has such an awful headache. That toxic brew of downers and reality and disassociation. Leaps from the now and the real to the past the wonderful intoxicating heady past when the world seemed perfect. So entranced by that vision that it intrudes into the now. Sanity can be so illusive when what we have and are is taken out from under us and we are left with the strange and cold. Everything is temporal. The permanent is death and one character manages to attain it. But Jasmine lives on. Survivor. Oh to survive by denying and escaping and eluding and

It was you Woody. And you Cate. You did it. You made it. You did it. Really really amazing.