Monday, December 28, 2009

Come and be lonely with me

There are a number of ways that you can tell Good Dick (2008) is not a romantic comedy, even though it shares the same subject matter--unlikely people getting together against the odds. They don't meet cute. The male responds by stalking the girl. Both are to some extent desperate and at the end of their ropes. And they are brought together, ironically, over the practice of what our forebears called the solitary vice.

This is one of those films that seems determined to prove that it can't work, continually putting obstacles in its own way and boxing itself in. The writer-director is lead actress Marianne Palka and, without trying to be sexist about it, I wonder if a man would have designed a film that is nearly as agoraphobic as its protagonist. Note to filmmakers--video stores are officially used up as nexuses of romantic engagement. We have had bookstores, music stores (and the resulting mix-tapes), concerts, operas and now video stores as courtship sites. Time to scout out new territory. Starbucks?

The other element that struck me most forcibly is the film's reticence, which seems almost male. Palka does a nice job of presenting her character as is, without back story or explanation, but for one lapse, a brief meeting with a father (played by an unbilled Tom Arnold) who may have been abusive. The film skates toward providing what Paddy Chayefsky called a rubber ducky, then manages to avoid it. What makes this persistent silence work is the overlay of music. I cannot imagine this film cut together without music. It would have been interminable. But the music could not be conventional film underscore. Instead there is a thrumming pop-electronic bed which binds together scenes that would have been just scraps. A good example of film doing what it should, show, not tell.

Wide story

Back in the 1980's, there was a vogue for TV commercials with funny-looking actors shot in extreme short focal length lenses. You use short lengths when you are trying to get the maximum width of the objects in front of you. You use long lengths when you are trying to capture detail on something far away. Long lenses flatten distance and virtually eliminate perspective. Short lenses are given to distortion when people or things move from side to side. In extreme cases, everything looks as though it were reflected in a doorknob.

I never saw How The West Was Won (1962) in true Cinerama. In fact, I probably saw it in a matted-down 35mm print in 1963 or 64, after the roadshow presentation was exhausted. The current DVD release is the first version of the film to try and present the entire image and give a sense of how it felt to have this image wrap around your peripheral vision. Above is what is being called a "smilebox" which uses forced perspective to give a sense of this.

The result is that the entire film, for all its breadth and scope--and it is a not-bad multi-generational Western epic--feels like one of those "doorknob" shot ads. The whole film is fraught with an air of artificiality which was less odd in 1962--all Hollywood films had a veneer of phoniness that we accepted as part of the form. But today it is impossible to imagine that anyone could conceive of a future in narrative film for a system which had an 800-pound camera with 3 27mm lenses in fixed relation to each other. Perhaps if the lenses and relative angles could have been adjusted, although lateral motion was virtually impossible.

Finally, How The West Was Won doesn't feel like the death of a format with possibilities, but like Dr. Johnson's dog: you are surprised it could have been done at all.

Besides, there's way too many Debbie Reynolds songs for a proper Western, with or without John Wayne!

Good for the gander

The Divorcee (1930) is a surprisingly honest examination of the workings and consequences of the double standard in marriage. The story is encrusted with all sorts of late-1920's frou-frou--racy parties, drinking, car accidents--like a pulp writer who had skimmed Fitzgerald and decided to make use of the "juicy stuff." Nonetheless, the story boils down to this: a couple promises to marry and live together honestly, without games, lies, deceptions. The wife, played by Norma Shearer is so modern, she hardly ever wear dresses. and even works outside the home.

Three years pass, hubby (Chester Morris) strays, she suspects, he breaks down and admits it, but tells her, "it meant nothing." He leaves town, greatly relieved. She does not feel relieved, and she returns the favor with hubby's best friend. Forgiveness doesn't come so easy now, and they are divorced. She vows that her husband is the only man to whom her bedroom door is closed! Although this is what is today called a pre-Code film, which allows for such racy goings-on, it is still a Hollywood film, and there is a fragile reunion of the characters at the end.

It's a 1930 film, so the makers were very interesting in having a lot of very smart chat. But today, the most interesting sequence, the staging of her adultery, does not use a word. To non-synchronized sound, we see a bit of hey-hey in a speakeasy, dissolve to couple sitting too close to each other in a cab; dissolve to an exterior view of a bright window with the curtains being drawn; dissolve to Shearer entering her apartment in the same gown accidentally kicking the morning paper, indicating she was out all night. Pictures still tell the story best.

And it does...

I have been following Woody Allen's movies the past few years out of respect for past accomplishments such as Crimes and Misdemeanors, Bullets Over Broadway and Broadway Danny Rose. The last few years his works have been given over to melodrama and expressionism recycled from other authors, decorated with flat fustian dialogue as if the characters were simply mouthing their own subtexts: "No, I cannot love you because I am incapable of feeling love due to my rejection from my mother. Moreover, I have developed a sociopathic distance from the rest of humankind which makes it possible I will murder you for financial gain." Nobody said anything interesting, or did anything which hadn't appeared in a thousand better books and movies.

Whatever Works (2009) doesn't break much new ground, even for Woody Allen. But it does work, for the first time since Small Time Crooks in 2000, which in turn was the first compeltely effective Woody Allen film since Mighty Aphrodite in 1995. One of his problems is his difficulty in replacing himself as leading actor. This time around, Larry David is perfect. Without aping Allen, as Kenneth Branagh unnervingly did in Celebrity and Jason Biggs did ineptly in Anything Else, David delivers Allen's ruminations and wisecracks in perfect comfort. David, as one might expect from the character he has created for himself, is able to be much more spikey and difficult than the "Woody" character. And on the other hand, he is able to speak the philosophical benedictions without apology and hesitation, giving them weight, but not more than they can bear. The whole film feels Shakespearean, given the re-matching of a large cluster of mismatched lovers and a character with a broader point of view than his own particular circumstances.

Evan Rachel Wood proves to be a far better interpreter of Allen than Scarlett Johannsen who was self-conscious and precious in her two outings with Woody. It's been very rewarding to watch Miss Wood grow up onscreen since the TV series Once and Again. She continues to make interesting and astute choices of projects and collaborators.

There are also some wisecracks that harken back to Allen's early 70's golden period, most notably, "I see death by culture shock." Doesn't sound like much--but in context, it's a solid homer.

Allen is revisiting the "smart older man with seemingly dumb young girl" trope that began with Manhattan and continued in Mighty Aphrodite, Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Scoop and in the documentary Wild Man Blues, with his real-life consort, Soon-Yi Previn. Allen's script even mentions and deflects reference to Shaw's Pygmalion. But it all develops in more interesting and plausible ways. And without rejecting his bleak interpretation of the nature of life, the film's conclusion, which is embraced in its title, offers the only hope possible in this sphere.

What is Edward Scissorhands?

It's been called a fable, an allegory, a fantasy, a romance. I watched Edward Scissorhands (1990) with my Film Studies class as an example of a film in which production design (art direction, costume design, etc.) is an integral part of the narrative.

I can't call it a fable, because I couldn't tell you what the moral is. Nor does any likely allegorical parallel come to me. It certainly has elements of the fantastic, but one engages in fantasy in order to arrive at a pleasurable result, such as the triumph of goodness or romance or what-have-you. And the romance is indeed thwarted here. Edward cannot live with people, so he cannot live with love, although he knows what love is, and knows what he has been denied.

It must be a fairy-tale, a strict descendant of the sweet melancholic tales of Hans Christian Andersen which end in death or other forms of terminal loneliness. Psychologist Bruno Bettelheim taught us that fairy-tales that last do so because they speak to very deep and true things in the human psyche, disguised in sheep's and wolves' clothing. I loath to try and state the meaning of Edward Scissorhands in words--if one could do that, there would be no need for a film, but I know it is strange and human and true.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Sensory deprivation

Faithful filmed versions of stage plays are always odd ducks (Andre Bazin called them "mixed cinema"). But a faithful version of a Russian play filmed in Japanese is, for an English-only speaker, a good example of making art with one or more arms tied behind your back. We have already dispensed with many of the aspects of cinema--montage, variety (of setting, costume, pace), and we are leaning heavily on the spoken word, which is a translation of a translation of a translation. So I'm surprised to learn that Kurosawa's film of Maxim Gorky's The Lower Depths (1957) has a following, even in America.

I haven't seen this play in the theater; it's not often done in the States, but evidently it's very popular in world theater, as it provides a wealth of roles for an evenly distributed ensemble. This makes sense for Japan, as a consensus culture, in which "standing out" is frowned upon. The characters are all denizens of a flophouse in the 19th century. In the film, Kurosawa is at some pains to develop the part of the thief into a decent role for alter ego, Mifune. The American play that most closely corresponds to it, The Iceman Cometh, is built around a central, star role, Hickey. Moreover, Iceman has a clear dramatic action--Hickey urges his flophouse friends to take action to change their lives, they try, they fail, they realize their "pipe dreams" are the only thing that keeps them alive.

Gorky's characters act as though they are trying to get out, although only one does--the actor who commits suicide. As in the play, the film sets this action outside; sets all action outside. The film is nothing but talk, and talk in Japanese. There is some mise-en-scene; an interior with canted supports that lend a strange atmosphere, an exterior which feels open and closed at once, the scurrying of the characters around the rat-trap. But there is little in the film that could be done as well or better in television, which would have moved closer to the actors' faces and revealed more, especially to the viewer in other languages. One can't help feeling that this film must have been a pot-boiler for Kurosawa, the way Hitchcock sometimes turned to readymade commercial properties such as Dial M for Murder biding his time between more commercial pursuits.

Kurosawa's film has a strange companion in film history, an earlier adaptation of the Gorky by Jean Renoir. Viewing the latter, one gets the sense that Renoir didn't care one way or the other about The Lower Depths, and was using the well-known title to build a film of his own on top of it. He has the charismatic stars Jean Gabin and Louis Jouvet, and took small suggestions from the text to build a new story for them. Unfortunately, undigested bits of Gorky still cling to the film like bits of stew burned to the sides of the pot. Unlike the Gorky and the Kurosawa, Renoir's characters are on the move--into the Lower Depths or out of them, which in a sense completely contradicts the idea of the piece. It doesn't work, but ninety minutes with Jean Gabin are almost always ninety minutes well-spent.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Who was Ann Dvorak?

The chief asset of Three On A Match (1932), which circulates today as an example of the kind of racy storytelling that was possible before the Production Code took firm hold in 1934, is the surprising performance of Ann Dvorak.

I said it 13 years ago, and I reiterate it today--the Internet proves there is at least one person who is obsessed with anything one can think of. No sooner do I ask the question, "Who was Ann Dvorak?" than I find there is a website devoted to her work. Surprised to learn she started off as a hoofer, but maybe I shouldn't be. I think everyone at Warner Bros. started off as a hoofer, including Humphrey Bogart and Sidney Greenstreet!

What a delight to see a film like this, so rapidly-paced that the fade-outs look like lap dissolves and with a hard lesson and no punches pulled--no last-minute redemption or turnaround.

Who did they think they were fooling?

Watched The Rare Breed (1966) which is included in a James Stewart western package I acquired mostly due to the presence of three films directed by Anthony Mann to be discussed later.

Rare Breed holds some interest as an early example of a Western from the feminist viewpoint, and manages never to condescend to or ridicule the female characters for their independence and intelligence. But while showing respect for its audience in that regard, the film demonstrates contempt in another way. It is almost shocking to see a Western at this late date the relies so heavily on cheesy indoor sets in lieu of real outdoor locations, matte shots and even rear projection. Were these things still fooling anybody in 1966? I was 10 years old at the time and I can remember being annoyed by rear projection even years earlier. Was rear projection EVER convincing? To whom? Rare Breed goes so far as to have long shots in location intercut with inserts shot on a stage. Did something go wrong with the shooting schedule? Did Jimmy Stewart have a cold? (He couldn't have gotten one sitting in the fake snow used in this movie.)

One of the points of a Western is to get outside--see some mountains and grass and watch horses gallop around. An indoor Western is a violation of form. (One reason I've never cared for the revered Ox-Bow Incident.) It's bad enough when a weekly TV show like Bonanza shoots everything indoors. There's no excuse for a theatrical feature to do so.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Could have been worse

Sheldon Harnick, beloved Broadway lyricist of Fiddler On The Roof was famously quoted as he watched a terminally bad scene being polished during an out-of-town tryout, "The problem with washing garbage is that when you're done, it's still garbage." The Andrew Lloyd Webber popera Phantom of the Opera is not precisely garbage, but it's not actually very good. To begin with, the source story is a ridiculous mess, an opinion shared by the authors of the musical, according to interviews. To take the simplest point, the title character lives in catacombs below the opera house which no one can find. Until they actually try at the end of the story, when they find them rather quickly. Because the author needs them to. This is the sloppiest kind of story-telling. (By the way, what makes the Phantom's basement pipe organ operate--water power?) But to take apart this dreadful story at this late date is like kicking a cripple; the fact is that Lon Chaney made the story compelling back in the mid-1920's.

The musical takes the weaknesses of the story and makes them weaker. The title song, setting the stage for an 1870 story, sounds like disco. The most famous song, "Music of the Night" is a re-working of the melody of "Come To Me, Bend To Me" from Brigadoon. "Angel of Music" borrows heavily from "Chanson" from The Baker's Wife by Stephen Schwartz. Scraps of melody, such as "Angel of Music" and "I Remember" are endlessly re-cycled in the Webber way until one is nauseated. When he does write an attractive and semi-original melody such as "All I Ask of You" it is saddled with a diffuse and generalized lyric in which Raoul promises to be the heroine's freedom, her light, her shelter, someone to share her life. What is this song actually about? When Marian sings about "My White Knight" in The Music Man, we know what she wants. When Fred Astaire sings "They Can't Take That Away From Me," we get that single, strong unified idea. "All I Ask of You," says Christine in this slop-pot of a lyric, is to be every freaking thing the lyricist can think of that rhymes.

The fact is that Lloyd-Webber's shows will not be produced fifty years from now because the man couldn't tell a good or a bad lyric if either one slapped him in the face. He steamrollers over new lyricists for each show because his sheer lack of respect for the craft. Any old thing will do, and other than enjoying huge paychecks, there is nothing for a self-respecting lyricist to enjoy in this process.

At least the film version of Phantom of the Opera (2004) doesn't make anything any worse. Former costume designer Joel Shumacher was a canny choice as director, since he is bound to pay lavish attention to the lavish decor (which seems spot-on) and will not be handicapped by considerations of quality or skill in the script. The backstage atmosphere and Minnie Driver's over-the-top diva are quite enjoyable. The crashing chandelier has little of the effect it has in the theater, but that was to be expected. Emmy Rossum, the Christine of the moment is not unpleasant, but hardly the kind of singer to rivet anyone's attention or command devotion. Gerard Butler sings no worse than any other Phantom, which is to say, not very well.

One of the film's mistakes actually contains the kernel of an interesting idea. Out of fear of frightening its pubescent audience (physically and/or mentally immature), the Phantom's disfigurement, so ghastly (and based literally on the novel's description) in the Chaney version (Lon, that is, not Dick) now looks the result of a slightly distressing kitchen accident. It is as though the Phantom has exaggerated his grotesquerie in his mind as a metaphor for all men, who believe there is something ugly about themselves which they must conceal in order to be loved; a thing which, while perhaps unattractive, would hardly scare a robust woman away. That idea, alas, is not taken up, and it is probably merely my own projection, so you can take from that whatever you wish.

For a property which aspires to the heightened state of opera, it does emulate one aspect of the parent art form very well: everything takes way too long. But I can't imagine anyone who likes the play seriously disliking the movie; it feels as though it used a fansite bulletin board for a screenplay.

Ugly is right

As I've written before, and am likely to write again as long as my wife continues to want to watch them, romantic comedies are not written or produced; they are engineered. They are highly artificial constructs which have little contact with human life as actually lived, but run along in parallel with our experience, perhaps as a detached, fantastical comment upon on it. There is a comedy to be made about a person who actually subscribes to these things as a guide to living.

That might be what they started with when The Ugly Truth (2009) was first conceived. Certainly the idea of what we used to call in the 70's a male chauvinist coaching a romantically challenged woman on what a man expects from a woman is reasonably promising in this farcical universe called romantic comedy. The seeds of what will go right and wrong are pretty clearly established within such a strong idea. But the film shows signs of suffering in post-production. Ideas are established and abandoned. Gerard Butler's character wobbles from being a complete pig on television to a decent guy with his nephew to a decent, but piggish pragmatist in his interactions with the Catherine Heigl character. (By the way, we are supposed to believe that Catherine Heigl has trouble getting men!) Set-ups have no payoff and punchlines lack set-ups. In a social-aesthetic breakthrough, three female screenwriters demonstrate that they can compete in the raunch-stakes. It all feels erratic and careless, and therefore the final result is annoying when it should be satisfying.

Director Robert Luketic's resume includes Legally Blonde, Monster-in-Law, With a Date with Tad Hamilton and 21. He must be stopped.

The Sound of their Own Voices

Watching Network (1976) and His Girl Friday (1940) in immediate succession as part of our Film Studies unit on screenplays (specifically, dialogue-driven screenplays) brought out some interesting parallels and contrasts. Both concern the control of information and its use in seduction. The seductions themselves, however, differ

Network's seduction is partly that of good old Max Schumacher, William Holden's mostly straight-arrow point-of-view character that today nobody cares about. William Holden has faded as a screen personality, despite his anchoring important films such as Sunset Boulevard and Bridge on the River Kwai. That's the problem--he anchors them, but doesn't drive them. That's up to crazy nuts like Norma Desmond, Colonel Nicholson and in Network, Howard Beale and Arthur Jensen. Yes, there's a crazy woman and she has mixed her obsession with words and numbers with her failure of a sex life, but that seems to be there to be dismissed. The ultimate seduction is of Howard Beale by Arthur Jensen, a liebestod that precipitates Beale's death. And director Sidney Lumet has said that the film itself becomes corrupted, from a straight-forward recorder of events at the outset to a stylish glamorizer at the end.

Nobody cares what the news is in Network. They're just interested in what it does for them; therein, the common bond with His Girl Friday, where the battle for eyeballs is just an instrument in Walter Burns's endless seduction. This was always true in HGF's source material, The Front Page, in which Hildy was a man. But the seduction was clearer and more palatable when it was made into a conventional romance. And here also, the romance of words is probably a liebestod. At the end of the film it seems clear that Hildy will not have an actual life, but race from scoop to scoop in the effort to hold onto her man--and her eyes glitter at the prospect.

Neither film has a music score--where would you put it? Although, I must admit that Network's super-pompous TV theme music (by Elliot Lawrence, a veteran arranger/conductor of big bands, Broadway pits and TV award shows) always makes me laugh aloud--it is so dead-on, not an ounce of exaggeration or mockery. But that is a grace note. Both films are finally about people who will, if allowed, talk themselves to death.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

No explanation

Under the self-imposed rules of this blog, I am required to reflect on every feature film I see. The only reflection I can record for Bubba-Ho-Tep (2002) is "What were they thinking?" I am all in favor of more Bruce Campbell films--but I say, more and better Bruce Campbell films.

It's not a bad premise, or rather, it's such a bad premise that it ought to be good. Bruce Campbell as either Elvis or a deluded Elvis impersonator teams up with an old black man in a wheelchair who claims to be JFK in order to defeat a good ol' boy mummy who is killing the old people. Not bad premise, right? I mean right there you already got 20-25 minutes of material.

Problem is, there's nothing else in this movie. What is enough of a story idea for a decent student film is stretched out to 85 interminable minutes. Bruce realizes something, chuckles, nods to himself. Then either he or I has gone senile, because he realizes it again, says it again, chuckles, nods to himself again. This goes on over and over. The only conclusion possible is that the movie itself has dementia and belongs in an old age home with its characters. Life is short. Skip this.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Great Movie Teachers

I wrote a post at my other blog, Kerrikulum, about the best movie teachers ever. I was guided by educational criteria, not aesthetic judgments about motion pictures, but it might be of interest.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Proud to say I've seen them all

Pardon me, your seams are showing

I was really looking forward to The Brothers Bloom (2008), as it was written and directed by Rian Johnson, creator of Brick, one of my students' best-liked films in my Film Studies course. And I love con man movies, going back past even Hustle and The Sting to The Flim-Flam Man, Hot Millions and perhaps any of W.C. Fields's movies where he plays a crooked carney. (I confess I have never warmed to David Mamet's films such as House of Games and The Spanish Prisoner because the cons were so simple and obvious, and the manner of speech and action so deliberately stilted, sacrificing the quality of glibness which is one of the pleasures of the genre.)

But there is a built-in problem with con movies, especially since Matchstick Men. An inherent element of the genre is deceiving the audience. The result is that we audience members have been trained to trust nothing we see. We never can relax and enjoy the characters, so focused must we be on who is lying and how we are being misled. I was glad to see they had steered clear of the Bedtime Story/Dirty Rotten Scoundrels trope, in which the mark is actually the con. But the final con in Bloom rests on something which is impossible--love and trust between two cons. True, these two are brothers, but one thing becomes clear as you delve into con literature--the real professional con lives in a world devoid of other people. So I saw the wrap-up of this one coming (a first for me) and didn't buy it a bit.

It didn't help that the film has a choppy, disjointed quality. I was not surprised to learn that the rough cut of this film was quite long and that a lot was discarded--that appeared visible in the final result. Brick, although it existed in a make-believe time and place, rooted that time and place in a plausible, continuous reality. Brothers Bloom is so steeped in deception that when the title says "New Jersey" we KNOW it's a lie. (Especially if you've seen real mansions in New Jersey, like I have.) Never was I invested, never carried along.

Notwithstanding, the film is fun to watch, and there are much worse ways of spending two hours. It has a theatrical quality (Maximillian Schell appears to think he is performing in an opera) which is emphasized in the way it uses the 2:35 widescreen, often as a proscenium, especially when framing the two brothers together. Mark Ruffalo is always an asset to any movie. And this movie has two completely infalliable assets:

1. Rinko Kiyuchi -- Awesome. I would say that every movie needs one but then she would not be so special. Imagine if Harpo Marx was Asian and had dynamite.

2. Hats -- Best hats of any film since Bob Fosse died.

Monday, December 14, 2009

"Fine" means "end" in Italian. Did you know that?

If, like me, you've seen the ads and trailers for Everybody's Fine (2009), you may think you know what it's going to be like. It's not like that.

I was expecting a touch of About Schmidt and a bit of Harry and Tonto. Widowed father, being pushed aside, misunderstood, learning to be sensitive to this children in his gruff, but loveable way. What is remarkable about this film is the way it manages to steer away from cliché. And that goes straight down to Robert DeNiro's acting, which was threatening, with films such as Analyze This and Meet the Fockers to degenerate entirely into Jack Nicholson-style reflexive vaudeville. DeNiro manages to inhabit the screen without the usual feeling of threat and danger. His character rides his children and worries for them, but without projecting his own ambitions on them. And he is a man without anger. DeNiro plays a man without anger, without recrimination.

And my wife and my daughter and I all cried at the same place in the movie. It was without words, no big hugs, no facial close-ups. It was extremely crafty. DeNiro's character is a blue-collar fellow who has raised all creative people. He spent his working life coating telephone wire. At first you think it simply labels him as a working man, and it is handy because he can look at the telephone wire as he rides the train. The director and editor can even lay in the sound of phone calls over the traveling shots of the wire to bridge sequences.

But the wire is a true visual metaphor for the connections that DeNiro's character's wife once provided and now DeNiro himself needs to make with his family. And that metaphor comes up and whacks you in the face when you're not expecting it, and damn you, Kirk Jones (writer-director), you made me cry.

Also there's some...what, surrealism? expressionism? Anyway, past and present blend in a way that seems gimmicky at first but is at last eloquent, and while I don't usually worry about spoilers, I think you should experience it yourself. To use an adjective that my son once used about a work of mine, it's satisfying.

Laughing watch needs winding

Romantic comedies are not so much made as engineered. Even more than action films, which can always fall back on fight sequences the way a musical film can always throw in a dance number, romantic comedies are the most dependent on the strictures laid down by the grand gurus of the film writing trade such as Syd Field and Robert McKee (neither of whom has written a hit film--the fact that many of their students have is a testament to Field and McKee's marketing skills, not their precepts).
If, as Walter Kerr wrote, farce comedy is a watch that laughs, The Proposal (2009) runs down about two-thirds of the way through. Two critical failure points: (a) A "zany" scene in which Sandra Bullock stumbles upon Ryan Reynolds's "wacky" grandma (Betty White now plays all of these characters, no matter the ethnicity of the other actors) performing a "kooky" Inuit chant. Not only is this scene a refugee from a 1960's sitcom (and presumably demeanting to Inuits) it reveals nothing about any of the characters, does not move the plot and is not funny. That scene is followed shortly by a scene in which we are meant to believe that Reynolds's character's father has paid for an INS agent to fly from New York to Alaska in order to threaten his son with jail. What??? Can you pay beaureaucrat's expenses in order to have them further your personal vendettas? Do you show your son you love him by threating him with five years in federal prison? Because your son refuses to go into the family business?
Oh, I forgot the scene where Bullock ditches Reynolds at the altar to uphold a principle, thereby leaving him vulnerable to arrest for criminal fraud.
I don't understand this because these scripts supposedly go through acres and acres of analysis and rewriting and testing and what-have-you. Please someone tell me that these idiotic ideas were improvised on the set. Because no one should have gone into production with a script as dreadful and implausible as this.
Too bad, because Bullock continues to prove herself the grand master (mistress?) of this type of material, and the contrast with The Blind Side is quite impressive. But Sandra Bullock the actress should fire Sandra Bullock the producer for putting her into this shabby mess.

One good shock can be enough

Judging horror from the 1940's is a tricky matter. I grew up on 1930's horror--old grave-haunting monsters and 1950's horror--new atomic monsters. But the 1940's were delicate, perhaps because the audience was living through real horror at the time. It was an era of benign ghosts, of angelic and other fantasy assistants helping people get through--perhaps a projection of the guardian angels the people who fought World War II were hoping for--either to guide them in difficult times or to bring the comfort of time with a departed loved one.

This was not the time to be gruesome, and so the horror films of the era (other than Universal's endless monster re-matches) tend toward the wispy and fey. Shadows, footsteps, windgusts--these are the stuff of 40's horror, especially as exemplified by RKO producer Val Lewton.

Reportedly, RKO executives pressured Lewton to use Boris Karloff in order to push him toward more conventional horror. In an act of artistic jiu-jitsu, Lewton did indeed use Karloff; he used the actor better than he had ever been used before (or since)--as an actor careful of subtle and darkly humorous effects. Freed of the monster make-up, he is a literally barefaced scoundrel in these films.

True to their nature, there are not a lot of shocks in The Body Snatcher (1945) by modern standards. There's an interesting character study by Henry Daniell, who usually was confined to playing sneering snobbish villains, but here plays the protagonist. Karloff has a lot of fun skulking around and even killing Bela Lugosi (again). But the one sequence that is likely to grab an audience even today comes within the last three minutes of the film. Daniell, an early 19th century anatomist who needs cadavers for teaching purposes has murdered Karloff and assumed his body-snatching duties. As he races his phaeton through a howling storm, bearing the body of an old woman he has taken for his students, his guilty mind conjures up the corpse of Karloff, literally white as a ghost, clutching him in a hideous embrace from behind as Daniell lashes his horses furiously. I am not worried that my description will spoil the shock of this moment--I have been reading descriptions of this scene since my high school days and never seen it until now. Here's a good scare that still holds up.

It's got horses and cowboy hats and dynamite--it's great!

I am enjoying catching up with the Clint Eastwood movies and the westerns that I should have seen in high school, which I skipped because those things were Not Cool. Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970) finds him offering the same generous team-playing spirit he demonstrated in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, and this time he's a cowboy. Well, not a cowboy. He's the Clint Eastwood Western Guy. Cynical, this time with more humor than in the Leone films, but with dynamite and a sincere desire to get paid.

So many things about early-70s films are hard to judge today because it is hard to tell the difference between style and laziness. Is Shirley MacLaine's eye makeup overdone because we're supposed to guess she's not really a nun, or is it because we're still in the era when make-up is overdone and scenes are overlit? Actually, the scenes are not overlit, because the film is beautifully shot by the legendary Mexican cinematographer, Gabriel Figueroa, who made John Ford's The Fugitive so beautiful, he helped ruin a bad film. (That's a story for another time.)

In a similar betwixt-and-between vein, it is hard to tell if the film is meant to be light piffle, counter-cultural, or a bit of genre bending. Today, it feels like a puff pastry that went a little flat, making it a perfectly good croissant. Bring your own butter or jam and you'll have a good time.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Just the facts, ma'am

Memento (2000), the famous "backwards" movie apparently poses as great a dilemma for writers on film as it does for audiences. In the course of preparing to show it for Film Studies, I was looking for a decent piece of analysis of the film, element by element. What I have found is that nobody writes ANYTHING about Memento other than recounting the fact that it is backwards (except for the parts that are forward) and recounting exactly how that works. Cinematography, acting, music, editing, none of these seems to get any attention whatsoever from writers about film. It's all story structure all the time. Only celebrity "journalists" rehashing the latest scandal display this level of utter unanimity.

The fact is, there is some remarkable acting, editing, cinematography and music in Memento. Everyone involved seems to have been intrigued by and committed to the concept. Actor Joe Pantoliano reportedly made a critical contribution to the montage of the opening scene. Moreover, the structure of the film has implications other than that of the manipulation of story. By viewing extreme violence backwards, we are able to look at its horror dispassionately, without the cheap recoil of our own squeamishness, and contemplate its dreadful consequences more thoughtfully than in a conventional film. I was particularly taken by the editing by Dody Dorn, which must, as a necessity, constantly hover between revelation and concealment. Never has the syntax of knowing looks been more critical to a film.

I see Memento is making a lot of lists for the best of the decade (2000-2009)--because of its story structure. How much longer will it take to see all the good things in this fine film?

Sunday, December 6, 2009


Attempting to address yet another gap in my film history knowledge, that is, the legendary RKO horror cycle produced by Val Lewton famous for suggesting its terrible subjects rather than showing them, both out of aesthetic conviction and budget considerations. These films, which were produced in the shadow of Citizen Kane and which bear its mark, at the very least visually, are also famous for spawning such talents as directors Jacques Tourneur, Robert Wise and Mark Robson.

Judging by the first I've seen, I Walked With A Zombie (1943), they are going to be hard to judge as horror films. This film was unable to raise the mildest apprehension in me. It was very pretty to look at, has one creepy looking dude, Darby Jones, pictured here and dialogue that is less stupid than in most 1940s horror movies. But it really seems to be a romantic melodrama about an ill-fated triangle with a somewhat morbid ending. I found the out-and-out soap opera Leave Her To Heaven way more scary. I could understand the cult following if the film was no longer effective as horror, but had some other remarkable elements to recommend it, but to my mind it really doesn't. It exudes a pleasant competence and literacy--but if we're talking about great "B" pictures, the most routine film noir holds up far better.

I will withhold judgment on the Lewton cycle until I've seen a few more, but this was not a promising start.

What were they thinking? I mean really, what?

When you set out to make a thing (and I use the word "thing" advisedly) like Four Christmases (2008), how does the thinking go? Do you start out with, "Well, I'm going to tell the studio I'm making a cheesy slapstick holiday movie like Lampoon Vacation or Home Alone but then I'll slip some relationship stuff in when they're not looking." And then do you get about 19 days into the schedule and realize you'll have no time for the relationship stuff, so you just skip it?

Or do you start with the nice relationship stuff and the evil studio (and in this case, it's New Line, and they ARE evil) makes you shoot a bunch of crap about falling off the roof while installing the satellite dish and 9-year-olds streaking and (wait for it--god, this is so-o-o-o-o funny) babies emitting fake projectile vomiting. Who the heck is this supposed to amuse?

Or is it unfair to blame any of the filmmakers for what they wound up with because, no matter what the script said, Vince Vaughn wouldn't shut up with his endless irritating unfunny adlibbing? (And how come Reese Witherspoon has to be reed-thin, while Vince Vaughn goes on getting fatter and fatter? Is he going to start auditioning for those Orson Welles parts?)

Not for children

As a film teacher, I want to celebrate the continuing success of Pixar as a re-assertion of the primacy of pure cinema in popular narrative. Wall-E (2008) was functionally a silent film for 35 or 40 minutes, without a peep of complaint from its rapt audiences. An audience that enjoyed Wall-E is completely ready for The Kid or City Lights.

Up (2009) features a couple of the most touching sequences in the history of animated film (and more affecting than most live action in the last few years), all told entirely by pictorial means. This time, the images were either still images or so brief as to be still images for all practical purposes. Yet the narrative, and the emotion underlying that narrative was utterly clear.

It is heartening, when one reads some of the things written 25 or 30 years ago about the dismal future of animation. In those days, imited animation was becoming more and more limited. In those days, leading to what was called "illustrated radio" as TV cartoon shows had less and less action and more and more (banal) chatter. It has been thrilling to see how new technologies have revitalized old values in storytelling.

In the case of Up I can't remember an animated cartoon since Bambi for which more people talked about how they cried than how they laughed.

Parting shot--I still find that Pixar leans on melodramatic story devices (e.g., the cartoonish villain in Up) to sustain their stories past the one-hour mark. I look for the day when they will be able to discard such crutches, and build stories entirely on character.

An addition to the pantheon (seriously)

If you have an hour and a half, sit down and watch this movie. I'm not kidding. It is the stunning The Cranes Are Flying (1957), directed by Mikhail Kalazatov and photographed by Sergei Urusevsky, the team the created I Am Cuba . I would place it in my list of the Top 5 movies filmed in black-and-white. (Don't try and nail me down on the others. The Long Voyage Home and Touch of Evil would be in there, for sure.)

If you don't have time to see the whole film, let me point out a few key sequences.

First, starting at about 24:46, the heroine is on a bus to say goodbye to her fiancee, who has volunteered to fight in World War II (in Russia, that was damn near suicidal). We start with her on the bus, then, without any fuss, follow her through the crowd in the street, and suddenly, as she bursts onto a street filled with tanks, the camera cranes up to take in the whole scene. There is no air of "showing off" about this shot--it's just what the story wants.

I also recommend the entire botched leave-taking, in which man and woman never meet. It begins at about 28:25. If Kalazatov had directed Gone With The Wind (and he would have done a hell of a job), it could be taken seriously as a film (David Lean must have been seriously jealous of this sequence).

Next is the death of the young man, Boris, which begins at 50:14. Boris is being sent back from the front to be disciplined for fighting. With him is the man he was fighting with, who Boris has been carrying for a while now. Suddenly, the sniper shot comes. Boris looks up and sees the sky recede. Then the forest begins to swirl before his eyes and the swirl merges with the swirling motion of the camera as he remembers running up the stairs to see his beautiful fiancee. The memory merges into a dream or a wish of a wedding, until Boris finally collapses into the swamp. Here Kalazatov's roots in silent film are evident, as the sequence rivals Murnau.

Finally, at 1:07:56, we see the heroine, filled with shame and regret for marrying the sexy but amoral brother of her fiancee, runs into the street, apparently outruns a train, apparently with the intent of throwing herself under the train in the manner of Anna Karenina, but instead rescuing a toddler who has about to wander into the path of a truck. Here Kalazatov shows himself a worthy son of Eisenstein, the father of Russian cinema. If you have time, stick with it for the darkly humorous scene that follows as a group of women cluck over what to do with this lost child in overlapping and simultaneous dialogue as they loom into the foreground, foreshortened with a short lens and then and just as quickly recede into the background, nearly spinning in hysterics as the heroine quietly bonds with the child.

But these are bravura sequences and do not justly represent the balance, the restraint, the poetry of so much of the staging, photography and acting of this film. It is virtually a perfect romantic melodrama, with a heartstopping tearjerker of a final scene.

Why did our college professors start us on foreign film with the impenetrable Bergman, the surreal Fellini, the languid Satijat Ray? We got the idea of foreign film as hard work. We should have started with The Cranes Are Flying, with a familiar type of story, albeit with deeper resonance and more genuine emotion than in most American commercial films, certainly those of its era, but with a bold and expressive vocabulary that had become dessicated and stultified in the American film factories. Then we would have seen the real kinship among humans that is celebrated and indeed fostered by the best of international film. And the beautiful Tatiana Samoilova would have been a movie star anywhere.

Really, see this movie.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Sundown for stupidity

As part of my ongoing effort to fill in the gaps in my knowledge of film history, I am trying to catch up on those Other Hollywood Musicals. The MGM canon is well-known from frequent tributes and scholarly appreciations. But few of those films were as popular in their own time as the innumerable Technicolor hoof-a-paloozas at 20th Century Fox, usually anchored around Alice Faye or Betty Grable; or in a later decade, around the splendid tonsils of Doris Day at Warner Bros. These are what most people of the 40s thought of as movie musicals, more than the arty Broadway-style epics with Gene Kelly and the other denizens of the "Freed Unit."

This week I looked at an example that was reportedly a major effort, taking a year to prepare. This is hard to imagine. The result is a silly, lazy romantic comedy, which, like many Depression and post-Depression romantic comedies is not about romance, but money. But the movie can't even take the trouble to stay interested in its own story. I was watching with a person of the generation for whom these films were made and even she thought the story was boring.

Conversely, there are a number of well-written and performed songs and dances which HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH ANYTHING. It's common today to say, "Oh well, that's the way musicals are (or were)." But personally I can't imagine having such contempt for an audience as to starve them of narrative, first by giving them a lousy and indifferent story, and then constantly interrupting that narrative with irrelevant performance pieces which become, in this context, irritating rather than exhilarating. The best one could hope for these songs and dances is that they would distract from the bad film surrounding them.

In retrospect it seems amazing how long it took the creators of musicals to realize that audiences crave narrative--even thin narrative. The much-vaunted Oklahoma has a story of pure tissue paper, but the show seemed revolutionary, because THEY NEVER STOPPED TELLING THE STORY. Evidently the generation raised on the last gasp of vaudeville still retained such a fascination with pure performance skills that these skills were thought to be in tension with narrative--after all, they had originally simply been disembodied performances. "Integration" was the big buzzword of the 1940s after Rodgers and Hammerstein emerged--simply meaning--stick with the story, stupid.

We see this today in martial arts films. Martial arts films are very much like musicals. You have some scrap of a story cobbled together in order to hold together the big entertainment pieces. in musicals, it's dances--in martial arts films, it's fights. (Both have choreographers, incidentally, showing the premium film puts on the action of the human body.) In the 1970s, martial arts films all had the same (revenge) plots and the same endless fights and--even more cliched--the endless training sequences. I contend that Jackie Chan broke through as the greatest superstar in martial arts ever for two reasons, (a) he brought humility and humor to the genre and (b) the martial arts were always in service to the story. He may someday be equalled (I'd have to see that), but he will never be surpassed as his type of filmmaker.

Other than as an historical curiosity, or interest in Betty Grable, who was such a good actress that she made it seem as though having great legs meant she had a pretty face (she didn't), I have no idea what the continuing value of Moon Over Miami is. Film preservation--the argument against.

Getting invested

I can safely say I know Buster Keaton's The General better than any film in existence. Literally. When I grew up in the pre-home-video 1960s, if you wanted to collect film, it meant silent film. Mostly classics from Blackhawk Films, plus some excerpts from Universal Pictures from Castle Films. And they weren't cheap. I saved up $50 dollars--1968 dollars--to purchase, on four 400-ft reels of standard 8mm film--to own my own copy of The General.

And I would watch it every chance I got. If I didn't want to commandeer the living room, set up the projector and screen (and probably record player) and close the curtains, I could put the film on my editing machine and hand-crank it past the magnifying screen. This had the advantage of being able to look at sequences frame-by-frame over and over and over.

So The General became a sort-of internal experience. What fun, then to share it with my Film Studies class (they actually said "yay!" when they saw Buster's face on the menu card). While I was trying to be all analytical and film-studies-ish, but the class--happily--ignored me and became an audience. "Oh!" "Watch out!" "She is SO stupid!" And there were all the laughs and gasps in the right places.

A word about the laughs. The General is not Buster's funniest film. It is his best. How can a film be a comedian's best when it is not his funniest? Because The General never fails to command audience involvement. Laughs, yes. But identification with the characters and hope for Buster/Johnny's success even more. The film is perfectly clear at all times. It needs no explanation, no apologies, no context. It no longer matters that it was one of his least successful features on initial release. I'm happy to say, given its ubiquity (it went into public domain before his other great films), that The General may serve as Keaton's epitaph and summary. You should see it again--but with an audience.

Friday, December 4, 2009

What's with the be-bop vibes?

Just enjoyed watching Some Like It Hot (1959) with my marvelous Film Studies class, laughing at all the same jokes over again. I used to think the punchline, "Nobody's perfect," was just a cheap wisecrack to get off the stage; curiously, so did co-writer and director Billy Wilder. Now it seems brilliantly funny and strangely touching--Joe E. Brown's character loves so deeply and sincerely that gender preference is just not an issue for him--at least that's how we see it in 2009. I doubt Wilder could wrap his head around that idea.

Although we were watching the film as a prime example of classical three-act screenplay structure, I was struck by something about the music for the first time. Frequently throughout, especially in comic chase scenes and other moments of tension, we hear a small bebop ensemble, often featuring vibraphones and sometimes saxophone. The music is anachronistic for the 1929 setting--it is not meant to be diagetic, or even a representation of the Lemmon and Curtis characters. It is simply score music. But Adolph Deutsch, who is credited with scoring the film, is known for fairly standard orchestral work. He came out of Broadway pit orchestras, having been a favorite of George Gershwin. And Some Like It Hot has its share of that type of straight-forward scoring--one thinks of the "By The Beautiful Sea" cue at the beginning of the Florida sequence.

So the question is, whence the bebop? I have not been able to find an answer in the standard research sources or on-line. Does anybody know who this jazz group was--who did the charts, who were the soloists, etc.? etc.? Is it possible Adolph Deutsch was that hip? (Plese don't tell me about Matty Malneck--he has a credit on the film, but it is for writing some of the pop songs used diagetically.)

Off-road trip

As horrendous as many aspects of the story told in
Rabbit Proof Fence (2002) are, it is comforting, as an American of Anglo-European origins, to be reminded that we are not the only people to senselessly abuse their indigenous populations.

When I was a kid there was a show on Saturday at noon, when most of the network cartoon shows had ended called CBS Children's Film Festival. It showed films like The Red Balloon showing children's adventures from all over the world. Once you got over the strangeness of these other cultures--which is always hard for us parochial Americans, especially as children--it was fun and interesting to see our commonality as kid-type humans.

Rabbit Proof Fence (which is rated PG) would be an ideal candidate for such a festival. It is a child's adventure from the child's point of view--the difference is the terrible stakes involved, namely, the integrity of the family versus social concepts of race. A government obsessed with marginalizing people of mixed race and encouraging breeding that will lead children to be identified as wholly aboriginal or wholly white adopts the policy of kidnapping mixed-race children from their families and training them for domestic service to white families. Our principal characters, three plucky sisters, escape from their school and follow the rabbit-proof fence across the near-lunar landscape of the outback to find home and their mother. As one might expect, it is based on a true story, punctuated by footage of the actual people depicted in the story (with much the same startling effect as in The Blind Side, discussed below). Children, especially American children would benefit much from seeing this story.

The filmmaking is mostly self-effacing, other than some canted angles in the scenes with the administrator of the program, played in an appropriately bloodless manner by Kenneth Branagh. Director Phillip Noyce has an interesting trick of moving the camera in a lateral or oblique fashion in ordinary dialogues scenes as if something strange or terrifying was about to be revealed, although no such thing is. It lends an air of restlessness to a film which is almost entirely on the run.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Shrink shrank shrunk

A neurotic young writer in the film Shrink (2009) has the following quotation from novelist Norman Mailer pinned over his writing desk: "I don't think life is absurd. I think we are all here for a huge purpose. I think we shrink from the immensity of the purpose we are here for. " Not surprisingly, the "huge purpose" for this character appears to be completing a screenplay. Sadly, this may also be the philosophy of the filmmakers--that nothing in life is more important than having real human experiences and then turning them into movies.

In short, the above-described character (who is not played by Kevin Spacey--he plays a celebrity psychiatrist experiencing an understandable depression after his wife's suicide) commits a terrible betrayal of two good friends, but all is forgiven when the result becomes what we are told is a good script and a "go" project. If only they had filmed that script.

To be fair, Shrink never bored me throughout its length, which could not be said of the execrable Cheri. But I am so hardpressed to sum this movie up or indeed to say anything definitive about it that it has taken me a couple of days to mull over this blog post. It has Kevin Spacey doing his brilliant self-loathing thing you've seen before, good as it is. It has disparate characters drifting around Los Angeles, in the manner of Paul Haggis's Crash, it has pushy agents and spoiled burnt-out movie stars and aspiring writers and psycho-babble and a sensitive yet troubled young (black) woman and another sharp but likeable ambitious young (white) woman and nothing that makes it necessary to see this film, but nothing that mars it especially. This is one of those projects from which the term "small film" derives. Not bad, just small.

Sunday, November 29, 2009


It is remarkable how a movie can give you almost exactly what you expect, with few if any surprises and still be completely delightful. So it is with The Blind Side (2009) a film of decent sentiment and a refreshing reticence that both mirrors the character's own proclivities and prevents the film from becoming bathetic or self-congratulatory.

There's this thing my sister does when a really good part of a movie is coming. You know, the part where Jimmy Stewart tells off the villain, or Harpo destroys the stuffed shirts or the con men trick the crooked bank president. She drums on her lap very rapidly, sometimes accompanying with a sotto voce "goody goody goody." I know exactly what she means. The anticipation of delight sometimes outweighs the moment of pleasure itself. And one doesn't have to have seen the film before to know when the good bit is coming. In The Blind Side, there is the moment when Michael returns to football practice after a stern but clarifying talk with his adoptive mother (played by Sandra Bullock). You know now he understands what he has to do. And in case we weren't sure, the film slows down and the music begins a low thrumming rhythm. And although nothing that follows is remotely surprising, it is oh, so satisfying, as Michael begins to demolish every tackler in sight.

The film has an odd shape and each of the three acts feels quite separate from each other. And I am sure people are going to comment that the only Black social or family life seen is broken or degenerate. Only individual black characters are allowed dignity or accomplishment--they apparently can't be trusted in groups. That problem may be built into the story, but I am surprised it does not seem to have been addressed by the filmmakers.

You'll see the term "tearjerker" tossed around in connection with this movie--people are bound to make comparisons with Remember The Titans and others of that ilk. But what is remarkable is the film's reluctance to jerk tears. Oh, they may come, but not due to any manipulation. Led by Ms. Bullock's extremely focused, detailed and disciplined performance, the film never begs, never pleads for its characters. It allows them to earn the emotional responses, just as Michael's true-life family and mentors made sure he earned his rewards. Well done.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

River journey

You probably think you've already seen Trouble The Water, a 2008 documentary inspired by the events of Hurricane Katrina. If not literally seen it before, you may feel, as I did, so surfeited by images of that catastrophe, as to have "Katrina fatigue."

Get over it. This is not a re-working of Spike Lee's When The Levees Broke. It does not provide a general survey of the events, nor does it dive into the politics, as Lee's lengthier film does. This sly film is about more serious business. It is nothing less than the spiritual journey of its protagonist, Kimberly Rivers Roberts (pictured here).

At the film's start, we see her sassy and confident, ready to document the big event to come, possibly as grist for her own creative mill, as she is an aspiring rapper. Then events overwhelm her and her family and then she and her husband Scott, who seems to be one notch above street hustler begin to accept responsibility for their own situation, and then, for others. Kimberly, who was just 24 at the story's beginning becomes the central figure in her family, and then begins to build a larger family around here, drawing in others in need. The end of the film does not offer a solution, but it does provide catharsis, as Scott learns to help others rebuild with the help of a willing employer, and Kimberly transforms her ordeal into the stuff of art, as we see her listening to the mix of her new rap.

We may weep for the New Orleans that will never return, but we rejoice for these two strong young people who have found their own strength in this formative experience.

I haven't said much about this from a filmmaking perspective--the film does integrate original footage, news footage and Kimberly's own Hi-8 material in a very wise way, using dry humor and sly irony instead of the sledgehammer polemics one might expect. It is perhaps the best edited documentary I have seen in several years (and documentaries are all about editing).

Sexless sex

W.C. Handy wrote a song at the turn of the century called "Loveless Love" that remains so contemporary:
Oh love oh love oh loveless love
Has said our hearts are goldiess gold
From milkless milk and silkless silk
We are growing used to soul-less souls.
Stephen Frears, who ought to know better, attempted with Chéri (2009) to make a sexless sex film. The story is of a man who falls in love with a whore (and vice versa). There are only two ways to go with this story. Either the man is a fool, and you have a dark comedy like The Blue Angel or Never on Sunday; or else the man has a good reason for falling in love, in which case he is driven by sensuality which must be depicted, if your story is going to make any sense. But if you are too reticent about the scenes which form the heart of this relationship, then the film is going to crater in the center--which is just what Chéri does. The male lead seemed to be completely willing to doff his kit at all times, so I must attribute some of the film's modesty to Michelle Pfeiffer, who is still very very beautiful.

I had hopes for the movie. Frears had fun with sexy material in Mrs. Henderson Presents and the rest of his resumé is even more impressive. There is Christopher Hampton screenplay, some rollicking narration read jovially by Mr. Frears himself, and wonderful production and costume design. But the film has no apparent story, and I am reminded of the original play script of Room Service (best known for the Marx Bros. film version) in which the director envisions an ideal theater of the future (I am paraphrasing here): "No actors, no audience! Just scenery and critics!"

Alas, it is not enough.

Un-shaggy dog story

I want to take a moment to praise the brilliant Frozen River which I saw last year before I began this blog. This very low-budget independent film is a riveting character study of people living at or near the edge, driven by female characters and female creators behind the camera. Add it to your Netflix queue.

I want to say this so that no one will interpret my dismissal of Wendy and Lucy (2008) as an anti-feminist or anti-indie film screed. It's just that there seem to be a lot of reviews which suggest that if you make a film about a young woman with few or no resources and a loveable dog, you should love it. Make no mistake. This film could have been an Academy Award winner for Best Short Subject. It has enough story for 35 or 40 minutes. But at 75 minutes, it is riddled with excruciating shots of nothing much happening (an extra reading a book, an empty street) during which we are supposed to think about...I don't know, what the heck?

Nothing to see here, folks, keep moving.


We think of Italians as the great romantics, but in the last 120 years they have fostered two important movements toward realism in art. One was the verismo movement in opera, which was intended to bring the lives of ordinary people onto the opera stage. Today, the greatest verismo operas (which are among the most popular operas in the repertory) La Boheme, Cavalliera Rusticana and Pagliacci seem highly romanticized to us, but they seemed like documentaries to their audiences in the 1890's.

Then from the terrible rubble of World War II, Italian neo-realism brought the reality of that existence onto the screen. Again, the films seemed terribly gritty, emphasized by the lack of movie stars and the downbeat endings. But to look at Bicycle Thieves today, which I did recently with my Film Studies class, one is struck by the deliberateness of the cinematography, the care of the staging and mise en scene and most emphatically by the beauty of the musical score by Alessandro Cicognini (pictured here). It is completely artificial, in the sense of being full of artifice, nothing like The Third Man's source music, but it perfectly expresses the inner life of the characters. And the idiom is not that of post-War concert music, but that of verismo opera.

I was disappointed to be unable to find a modern audio recording of it readily available in the US--I will keep looking--and very intriguted to learn that it was used as a temp track for some scenes during the editing of Star Wars: A New Hope. Next time you see Bicycle Thieves, see if you don't want to sing along with that gorgeous melody. Bravo Cicognini!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Clooney provocateur

The Men Who Stare at Goats (2009) can boast a rare accomplishment in film. It made me laugh aloud. I watch a lot of comedy, and I worship at the altar of Keaton, Lloyd, Laurel & Hardy, W.C. Fields and the Marx Bros. On the other hand, I can sit stony faced through any number of Will Farrell, Adam Sandler or Jim Carrey films. (Actually, most of those are likely to darken my mood, as they are such feeble excuses for humor.) But TMWSAG trades in a type of humor that I thought had vanished with the early 1980s. I can best describe it as political-metaphysical slapstick wrapped in a shaggy dog story. It was good to see it back. It mixes loopiness with straight-down-the-middle gags in a way that I thought Peter Sellers had taken with him when he died. (Doctor Strangelove is the greatest example of this type of film, and one of my candidates for Top 5 all-time films.)

But what struck me in thinking about how this nice little movie got made (although it has four major movie stars, it was released not by a major, or the independent division of a major, but by Overture Films) is the degree to which George Clooney has built his career on edgy politically-oriented films. Well, edgy for a mainstream performer.

It began with the brilliant and dark Three Kings, which was a risk for everyone involved. Since then there's been Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (which has a certain rhyming quality with TMWSAG), Good Night and Good Luck, Syriana and Michael Clayton. These may not be radical calls for revolution, but this clearly is a man who is unafraid to say there is something wrong with our world.

I wish there were more like him, especially if they made funny movies.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Opened up

Odd, considering how long I've been involved with theater, that I have never seen Strindberg's Miss Julie on stage. So my first encounter with this landmark play is by way of the landmark film Fröken Julie (1951), adapted and directed by Alf Sjöberg. This film is one of the prime examples of "opening up" a play, a process to which Alfred Hitchcock objected strenuously.

Whereas conventional Hollywood wisdomis that to film a play literally would be too static, lacking the variety of setting and situation one expects from the film medium. Hitchcock maintained that one of the chief virtues of a play was the effort which the author had expended in compressing the events into a single location and span of time. By opening up the play, that is varying the locations and breaking up the timeline, Hitchcock asserted that the adapter dissipated the energy of the work. He observed those strictures in his films of Rope and Dial M For Murder in particular.

Sjöberg clearly had no such qualms. The play is comprised of three characters confined to a single setting, the kitchen of a baronial estate. As if to mark the fingerprints of the sister medium, that setting in the film is theatrically over-lit. But the rest of the film is far more interesting. The dreams, fantasies and recollections by the two principal characters are shown to us, blow-by-blow. I have not seen the straightforward 1999 filming by Mike Figgis, but it is hard to imagine how these lengthy monologues could be made cinematic. Sjöberg, on the other hand, roams freely about to show these scenes, and they give the film an expressionistic panache that allows oxygen into the story.

Oddly, one of the most effective devices is the presentation of multiple planes in time in a single plane of space. An example is seen above--Julie remembers her mother carrying her as we see the two figures pass behind her. In a moment, their paths will cross with that of her fiancee, years later (but years earlier than Julie's present recollection) presenting her with the gift of a caged bird. When used in an American Film Theater or other "canned theater" production, it seems phony, a clumsy use of a theater device in an alien medium. Somehow, in Miss Julie it seems both daring and graceful. Odd.

But with all this oxygen permitted in, one wonders how far Sjöberg has strayed from Strindberg's concept. Clearly, Strindberg wanted to box Julie into tighter and tighter spaces, given the limited choices available to her and the foreclosure of those choices made by her own neurosis and poor judgment.

So, by the rules of adaptation, is this a good film because it brings the story alive in a way a literal rendering might not? Or is it a bad adaptation because it has played so freely with elemental aspects of the author's conception?

Monday, November 23, 2009

"Story" is right

My friends and family would probably be surprised to learn there was any Hollywood musical I hadn't seen at some point. But somehow The Jolson Story (1946) has eluded me until now. I don't feel deprived.
I grew up in the tail end of the entertainment era one might term "Showbiz." Yes, I know there is still an entertainment business, but that's not what's meant by Showbiz. Showbiz is Variety using terms like "boffo." It's nostalgia about vaudeville and burlesque; it's ancient troupers hauling out their musty old routines on The Ed Sullivan Show. It's broken-down comics swapping old bits at the Carnegie Deli, or, earlier, the original Lindy's. It's Broadway when opening night was the same for the audience and critics and they were all in tuxedos. It's the disdain for art, and celebration of "anything for a laugh." At it's best, it was Jimmy Durante, an entertainer whose act was based entirely on projection of his personality. Durante had talent, but he never needed material, because he was his own material. Today, Liza Minelli represents the last ruined vestige of that world, by virtue of heritage and her own predilictions.
And Al Jolson was monarch of the lost kingdom of Showbiz, called the "World's Greatest Entertainer" and not just by himself. Walter Kerr, for my money the best theater writer of the 20th century confirmed that title. But to me, Jolson's charisma never translated to film. He just seems to be trying to hard.
So in that way, his film biography serves him well. It also tries too hard. It tries to peddle the following:
(a) Jolson was just a lovable brash guy, not a psychotic who hated for anyone else to get attention so much, that when he was in his dressing room and another performer was getting applause, he had to turn on the water so he couldn't hear it; a monster who drove one wife to drink and the other one away.
(b) There's nothing better than showbiz--all that medicine, politics, law, science, all other noble pursuits are just for people who can't cut it in showbiz.
(c) Jolson, like all other entertainers is surrounded by a small group of adoring friends and advisors, including his own worshipful parents.
(d) Jewish entertainers, indeed all ethnic entertainers, would be better off as white-bread Anglo-looking performers like Larry Parks, who plays the title role.
(e) Blackface is a harmless old category of entertainment which should NOT be discussed, just accepted, got it?
(f) Ruby Keeler, a sawed-off Irish woman who tap-danced like someone about to fall over, is actually named Julie Benson and can be believably portrayed by the lanky, graceful redhead Evelyn Keyes. (This one is particularly ridiculous--ALL of the audience in 1946 must have known Jolson was married to Keeler--she was a movie star in the 30's.)
(g) Musicals do not need plot, or indeed any narrative thrust. Audiences will accept any old swill as long as there is a familiar song every once in a while. I suppose it made sense to swipe the plot of Jolson's most famous vehicle, The Jazz Singer, as a structure for his life story--young man torn between cantorial singing and pop singing, but even this cheesy movie gives up on that tired old plotline after the first 40 minutes or so.
(h) The 40s look and feel just like the 20s, except some of the girls had funny hats.
(i) Oh yeah, Al Jolson discovered jazz. Personally, I cannot describe the relationship between Jolson and jazz. Maybe there was some playing in the same room where he was once. But syncopated pop music is not jazz, no matter what they thought back in 1922.
In short, this movie has almost nothing to do with the real facts or even the texture of its purported subject's life, and it reveals far more about mid-1940s America than it does about Jolson.