23 January 2023

I Watch a Film With a Famous Director Then We Have a Chat (actually I just asked a question from the audience)

Here's the director with his wife, Frances. You may have heard of her.

He’s tall with a large shock of unkempt hair, a beard and glasses. You’d assume he was a professor at Cal or a psychiatrist. He seems totally self-assured yet humble and unpretentious. He clearly enjoys his work but it doesn’t define him nor does his success -- which he attributes in part to luck. His name is Joel Coen and he’s responsible for some of the best films of the last thirty plus years.

Coen was at the Pacific Film Archives last night as part of a series of films he’s co-presenting (many of his own direction). Last night’s fare was Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), my favorite picture of the preceding decade by any director.

I arrived early so got a seat in the third row middle. I’ve seen Llewyn Davis at least five times (I own the Criterion edition). It’s a perfectly constructed film, the kind of movie that you watch and afterwards think you wouldn’t change a thing about it. No scene lasts too long, no character is underdeveloped, no camera angle is a bit off, its a masterclass of directing. It’s bolstered by a bravura performance from Oscar Isaac in what was then only his third film. The cast also included the great Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Justin Timberlake and Adam Driver, who like Isaac, had yet to hit the big time.

Inside Llewyn Davis is the story of failure. The title character is a folk singer who has enjoyed some success, mostly with a partner who has since committed suicide. As a solo act he’s remained small time, struggling to make ends meet and indeed rotating through an address book of friends whose sofas he crashes on. The year is 1961 and as a young singer who appears at the end would note, the times they are a changing. But Llewyn isn’t. He won’t compromise but has no leverage because his talent and reputation don't match his out-sized ego. He’s dismissive of other acts (and for that matter of people in general) with a too-cool-for-school attitude about most everything, especially other singers. Llewyn is not warm and fuzzy so it’s a wonder we root for him. But we do. There’s also a cat in the story in a subplot that Coen admitted was added so that there would be some kind of plot. 

Llewyn is kicked around by life but his own foot is in on the action.

In the Q and A after the showing Coen sang Isaac’s praises. It seems that if not for him there would have been no movie. He and his brother Ethan (with whom he co-directed, co-wrote and co-produced the film) first looked for a musician to play the lead as they wanted to be sure that they had someone who could sing and play the guitar well enough to avoid dubbing. But they found no one with the acting ability to carry a film. So they looked “for a needle in a haystack” and sought an actor who could do the music. “We found the needle,” in Oscar Isaac. 

The legendary T Bone Burnett was executive music producer for the film and Coen mentioned how great it was to work with him (they'd previously collaborated on O Brother Where Art Thou?) he later noted that Timberlake is a “musical genius” who made contributions to the film beyond acting. Indeed, Llewyn Davis remains one of the most enjoyable working experiences in his film career and one of his favorite of his films. Evidently working with cats is not particularly easy but neither is working with horses as he has done before. Coen sited horses and weather as two variables that can make filming difficult.

One young female audience member asked him about the scene in which the nightclub manager tells Davis that a woman got to sing at his club because she slept with him. “Why did you feel the need to include that?” (Dear me, would someone ask Spielberg why he included gun violence in Saving Private Ryan?). Patiently Coen explained that these were the type of choices people have had to make in the music and film industries and the movie is in no small part about the choices we make in trying to attain success. Maybe the woman was “triggered” by the scene, which is something I wouldn’t make light of, but doses of harsh reality are always going to be included in films.

Yours truly asked two questions. One was about the scene in the subway car in which some of what we see is from the cat’s perspective. How did you come up with that bit of genius, I wanted to know. “I don’t know,” Coen confessed. But he described the making of the scene, which included utilizing a subway museum. I also asked if he knew of Bob Dylan’s reaction to the movie, as a fictional Dylan appears at the end. Coen said that Burnett told him about the film and he knows Dylan saw it but has no idea what his reaction was. (Someone needs to find out.)

Interesting to me was the germ of the idea for the film: Dave Van Ronk being beaten up outside a club. That was it, that’s where it came from. The famed musician was the inspiration for the the main character. Early in production Isaac slicked his hair down so he’d look more like Van Ronk. When Isaac asked Coen what he thought, the director responded, “you look like Adolph Hitler.”

Coen gladly answered all questions: Him and his brother get along well and rarely disagree, and never on important decisions, they may work together again. Casting is critical to making a good film. He rarely does a lot of rehearsal before filming. William H. Macy auditioned for a different role in Fargo then asked if he could read for Jerry Lundegaard. He wasn't what they were looking for but they gave him a shot. He was perfect. He joked about how in so many of their pictures -- as in Llewyn Davis -- John Goodman plays a pompous loud mouth. Many asked questions about symbolism. Evidently people see a lot more in movies than the director intended. That's okay though.

Filing out I passed by Coen and thought about stopping to say a few kind words but there were others around him likely waiting to do the same. It was late and I was anxious to get home having been to a basketball game immediately before the film and it being a “school night.” I somewhat regret my decision now. Joel Coen and his brother’s films have been important parts of my cinephilia. I own DVDs of Inside Llewyn Davis, The Big Lebowski, No Country For Old Men, A Serious Man, Blood Simple, Oh Brother Where Art Thou? And The Man Who Wasn’t There and have greatly enjoyed others such as Fargo, The Hudsucker Proxy, True Grit, The Tragedy of MacBeth and Hail Caesar! It’s rare to chance upon — in any circumstance — someone whose professional work you’ve admired, enjoyed and been inspired by. Kinda wish I told him.

16 January 2023

I Learn of the Death of a Former Comrade and Share Regrets

Mark was a singer too. Photo courtesy of the N&R

Another lesson learned too late.

When I knew Mark McKinnon he was in his mid and late twenties. Mark was six feet five inches tall, muscular and looked even bigger with his long blonde hair and beard. His body was not sculpted like a body builder but lean and hard. We were writers for the Wildcat, the student newspaper at Chico State University. Mark was a few years older than me and a couple of decades wiser. He was always, kind, generous and thoughtful and had robust sense of humor. Like most of us in that time and place he had a fondness for getting high but he was generally able to show restraint and I never saw him wasted.

I believe Mark had been a baseball star in high school. I saw him hit monster home runs in softball games. He could have been physically imposing but that wasn’t his style. He was too nice a bloke. Befitting his size he had a deep rich voice that would have been good for voice over work or narration.

On hot days Mark generally went shirtless and wore shorts. He couldn't very blend into a crowd.

For a time Mark ran the Associated Students film series. This was back in the days before streaming, DVDs or even VCRs. If you wanted to watch an old film you had to wait for it to show up on television, where it would be constantly interrupted by commercials. You couldn’t record anything then so whenever it was on was when you watched it. The AS film series would allow you to see a classic film or two every weekend sans commercials. My wife and my first movie date was to see The Thin Man at the series. Anyway Mark was a classic film buff — rather a necessity for the job. He would write a preview for whatever film he was showing in the Wildcat. One weekend he had Duck Soup. Knowing I was a Marx Brothers aficionado, he let me do a guest write-up.

Mark and I were at the Wildcat went it went into negotiations to go independent, free from the strictures of the university. This was in the shadow of the Sixties and there was still an air of rebelliousness on college campuses. Coming from Berkeley and being a veteran of campus riots (I suppose I earned a purple heart for having been tear gassed) I was all about sticking it to the man but more than that people like Mark and myself were idealists who saw the desperate need for the community to have an independent newspaper, that unlike the town's daily, told some hard truths and did some series digging.

Along with a dozen or so others, Mark and I were co-founders of the Chico News & Review which is still extant today. Those were heady times and I had great affection for most of my comrades, Mark and Bob Speer in particular. They were like big brothers to me and I doubt either ever had any idea how influential they were in my life or how much I admired them. I remember Bob (who ultimately served on the N&R for decades) with great admiration and affection. Both Bob and Mark were quintessentially nice people. They were never snarky, only gently teased and were always thoughtful. 

The biggest regret of my life — which still pains me today — was leaving the N&R after two years to take a position with the Cal State Students Association. It was a job I was ill-suited for and sent me into a spiral of excess drug and alcohol use and wandering the country taking menial jobs only righting myself six years later.

By then I’d lost touch with everyone at the N&R, including Mark. I probably last saw him in 1979. I googled him once a few years ago and saw that he was teaching at Butte College (just as I was — and still am — a teacher). I meant to write to him but put it off. That was a big mistake. I googled Mark again his morning already mentally composing an email to him. But before I could find an email address I saw his obituary. He’d died six weeks ago at 71 of cancer. Among his survivors was his wife Wendy who I remember Mark dating.

As obituaries do, it highlighted what a marvelous person he was.  But there were no embellishments or exaggerations, you could tell that he was genuinely loved. I’m sorry that I never saw him in the past forty plus years and sorrier yet that I didn’t email him after googling him. I could have told Mark how fondly I remembered him and what a sweet and positive impact he’d had on me. I wish I’d gotten to know Mark better and I wish I’d met more people like him in my life. I would have liked to update him on my life -- I know he would have been interested -- and heard more about his. 

If you’re thinking of contacting someone you haven’t heard from in a long time, don’t hesitate.  Don’t think you might be bothering them. Don’t think it’s not a good time. Don’t think they might not remember you so fondly. Don’t think. Just bloody well do it. You'd hate to reach a day when it was too late and you were saddled with a regret. Trust me on this one.

07 January 2023

"Don't forget, every Cinderella has her midnight." Midnight -- A Classic and Under Appreciated Screwball Comedy

Midnight (1939) Liesen is among the better screwball comedies from the 1930s and certainly among the most under-appreciated. Claudette Colbert stars and evidenced by her work here and in such films as Palm Beach Story (1942) Sturges and It Happened One Night (1934) Capra, she was a natural comic actress. Colbert plays Eve Peabody who we meet at the beginning of the movie arriving in Paris by train on a rainy night. She just lost everything at a casino in Monte Carlo and has nothing beyond the elegant evening dress she’s wearing and a purse with pawn ticket in it.

Enter Don Ameche as Tibor, a Hungarian-born cabdriver. He takes pity on Eve and drives her gratis to various nightclubs where she unsuccessfully auditions for singing gigs. Tibor is both a world weary cynic and devil-may-care free spirit who's clearly taken a shine to our heroine. When Tibor suggests Eve use his apartment for a good night's sleep (while he works) she feels that her new acquaintance is getting too attached so makes her escape. It won’t be the last they see of one another. 

Eve stumbles into a swanky party where she meets the extremely wealthy Georges Flammarion (John Barrymore in a typically brilliant performance) and his wife (the always delightful Mary Astor). This is where the story begins to, shall we say, get really screwball. No spoilers from me but I will say that Eve has a second suitor as she finds herself hobnobbing with the upper crust of pre war Parisian society who believe that she is a baroness. 

The movie ends pretty much as one would expect (comedies, screwball and otherwise, will do that) but the surprising twists and turns it takes getting there are great fun.

The brilliant team of Billy Wilder (in his pre-directing days) and Charles Brackett wrote the screenplay which explains why it’s so bloody good. Legend has it that the studio wanted re-writes to their original script and uknowingly gave it to the original authors to polish. They did nothing, handed it back and studio heads were reportedly well pleased with the "changes."

Mitchell Leisen directed Midnight. Little remembered today he directed other crackerjack films including Easy Living (1937) (another brilliant and underrated screwball comedy) Death Takes a Holiday (1934) and Remember the Night (1940). Leisen was one of three gay men involved in the film. Monty Woolley (best known for The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942) Keighley) appears as an irascible judge and Rex O’Malley plays an effeminate male friend of the Flammarions. I must say that Rex O’Malley is hardly the name one would associate with a gay man — he looks more like a Lawrence Chitwell or Gregory Vandover. According to the website, Queerplaces, O’Malley was “an effeminate stage actor known for playing parts of 'the suave, sophisticated Noel Coward type.'"

More from Queerplaces: "Leisen remembered: 'I made him play his part in Midnight as straight as he could; it's about the straightest part he ever did.' But his queerness came through nonetheless. When Leisen attempted to use O'Malley as a model for other players, one actor balked because 'he didn't want to get established as that kind of faggoty character.'

Playing a smaller role in the film was Elaine Barrie. I found her IMDb biography fascinating. Her it is in toto: 

Elaine Jacobs was a 16-year-old high school student in New York in 1931 when she went to see the John Barrymore film Svengali (1931). From that moment, she later said, she fell in love with Barrymore and vowed that one day she would marry him, even going so far as to change her name to Elaine Barrie. A few years later she read in the newspaper that Barrymore was in a New York hospital due to an "illness" (he was actually undergoing one of his periodic "cures" for his severe alcoholism). She sent him an adoring fan letter asking for an interview, and Barrymore wrote back and granted her one. After that first interview she returned to see him every day for more "interviews", and when Barrymore was finally discharged from the hospital he moved into the Jacobs' family apartment in New York City. Barrymore's divorce from actress Dolores Costello was still not final, and Elaine was 30 years younger than Barrymore, and when the press discovered the situation, they had a field day. Barrymore took Elaine and her mother out to nightclubs, parties and theaters all over the city, with reporters and photographers in hot pursuit. The coverage of the pair was so extensive that in 1935 the Associated Press named Elaine (along with presidential candidate Alf Landon) as one of the people who made that year most interesting.

Barrie and Barrymore were finally married in 1936, and it turned out to be a stormy one. She appeared in one of his films and made two shorts (one of which, How to Undress in Front of Your Husband (1937), was made by low-rent exploitation legend Dwain Esper) capitalizing on her status as Barrymore's wife. She also co-starred with him on Broadway and in several radio dramas. However, Barrymore's heavy drinking and serial infidelity resulted in several trial separations, and they finally divorced in 1940.

After the divorce Barrie wrote a book about her life with Barrymore, "All My Sins Remembered", and took a job at a New York brokerage firm. In the early 1950s she and her mother went to Haiti for a vacation, and they wound up staying there for nine years, developing a successful business exporting straw hats and handbags to high-end retail stores in the US. However, the worsening and dangerous political climate in Haiti resulted in their returning to New York in 1963. A few years later she and her mother moved the business and their residence to Trinidad. After her mother died, Elaine returned to the US.

Midnight has everything going for it: screenplay, direction, cast, art direction and editing. It might be selling the film short to call it a terrific screwball comedy, it’s a terrific film, period.

Could it have been better? 


Originally cast to play Eve was Barbara Stanwyck who had to drop out due to scheduling conflicts. Make no mistake about it, Colbert was excellent but Stanwyck was in another league (for more on her comedy bona fides see The Lady Eve (1941) Sturges, Ball of Fire (1941) Hawks and Christmas in Connecticut (1945) Godfrey, to name a few). 

But Midnight it too good to indulge in what-might-have-beens. In the tradition of the best screwballs it manages to be both smart and silly with a surprisingly sophisticated screenplay and a wonderful cast that can demonstrate acting chops while being a little bit wacky. A redoubtable supporting cast also features.

Barrymore steals every scene he’s in, but then he is Barrymore so what do you expect? Colbert is no Stanwyck but then who is and she is after all, not exactly chopped liver. Ameche proves to be charming, handsome and possessive of deft comic timing.

The city of Paris is also a co-star and here is further evidence of the magic of Hollywood for, of course Midnight was filmed at Paramount Studios though some actual (and occasionally delicious) shots of the real city of light are interspersed. 

Midnight was released in the United States in March, 1939. Tensions were raising in Europe but there were faint hopes that war could be avoided, and a strong belief that the U.S. would stay out of the next conflagration. Midnight thus very much captures the late period between the wars when one could still try to convince oneself that all the nastiness would remain confined to Germany and even there might soon die out.

Midnight was a film of its time but one that is just as funny today. Damn good fun.