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Thursday, December 31, 2009

Some Like It Hot

"Nobody's perfect," is the last line of Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot, one of the most famous punchlines in cinema history, and the irony is that the film is an example of perfection, a comedic souffle that is light as a feather but rich as well. The line capped a sequence that Wilder and co-writer I.A.L. Diamond wrote at the eleventh hour, as a cover for the unreliable Marilyn Monroe. They both wondered whether it was strong enough to end the picture. It was.

I end my look at films of 1959 with my pick for the best of that year, at least among those that I've seen. As I watched it again for the at least the fifth time, I couldn't remember the first time I'd seen it, and envied those who will see it for the first time, to experience the giddy comedic thrill as something new. While watching one feels in the hands of a maestro, as Wilder was at the top of his game. This film doesn't have the bite of some of his other great films, instead he simply gives us a valentine.

Valentine's Day is when the film begins. Joe and Jerry, two down-on-their-luck musicians, have just escaped a raid of a speakeasy in 1929 Chicago. While in a garage they witness the Saint Valentine's Day Massacre, which in this picture is orchestrated by mobster Spats Colombo (George Raft, sending up his tough-guy image). They escape, but not before Spats and his gang identify them. They have to get out of town, fast, so take a job in a band that's heading to Florida by train. The catch? It's an all-girl band.

The idea came from a German film, but it was Wilder and Diamond that added the gangster element, and it was Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon who gave Joe and Jerry and their distaff alter-egos, Josephine and Daphne, the memorable characterizations. That first cut, from Joe and Jerry on the phone to the talent agent to them walking down the train platform, wobbling in heels, is the first of several genius moments. The next is the first appearance of Marilyn Monroe as Sugar Kane, dodging a blast of steam, and looking "like Jell-O on springs."

This is the definitive Marilyn Monroe role, the one that best typifies the indelible legend she would become. The stories of her difficulty are legion, but somehow Wilder got out of her a magical performance. "Real diamonds! They must be worth their weight in gold!" she says, her voice a wispy breath. She never looked better, even in black and white (which annoyed her, but they had to do it to avoid the greenish tint of Curtis and Lemmon's makeup) and when she says she's not too bright and she always gets the fuzzy end of the lollipop there's a bit of sorrow in the humor.

Men dressing in drag is a gag as old as the hills, and on paper I'm not sure I would have bought this story, but boy does it work. The humor is frequently of the simplest nature:

Sugar: I come from this musical family. My mother is a piano teacher and my father was a conductor.
Joe: Where did he conduct?
Sugar: On the Baltimore and Ohio.

But there was also a sophistication to the zaniness, perhaps best expressed in the marvelous scene when Lemmon returns from his "date" with Joe E. Brown and announces his engagement. Watching this scene during the apex of the discussion over gay marriage makes the writing seem even more gifted, as it doesn't take cheap pot-shots of revulsion. Instead Curtis asks Lemmon, "Why would a guy want to marry a guy?" Lemmon answers, simply, "Security."

There are also classic elements of farce. I can't help but crack up watching Curtis, in his guise as Shell Oil Junior, riding a bicycle in his sailing togs but still wearing earrings. The climax, with gangsters chasing the boys through the hotel, is wonderfully scored with jazz saxophone. Raft, in a bit of metafiction, chides another hood for flipping a coin (which was Raft's trademark). The gunman that pops out of the cake at the end is Edward G. Robinson, Jr., son of the actor who played many a gangster in his day.

The film was named the best comedy of all time by the American Film Institute. I have other favorite comedies, most of them by Woody Allen, but I can't quibble with the selection.

Room at the Top

Finally I'm able to conclude my articles on the Best Picture nominations of 1959 with Room at the Top. The DVD is out of print in the United States, so I had to buy one off of eBay that came all the way from Hong Kong. It was worth the effort, because in the final analysis I think it's the best of the five films that were nominated.

Directed by Jack Clayton, in his feature debut, Room at the Top was one of the prime examples of the British New Wave, an outgrowth of the "Angry Young Man" movement in British theater in the fifties, that led to films that were stark, gritty views of working class people. Based on a novel by John Braine, the film was shot in black and white and you can almost feel the soot in the air. It was also brazen for its time, and it's frank portrayals of pre- and extramarital sex earned it an X rating in Britain.

The story centers around Joe Lampton, played by Laurence Harvey. He's just arrived in a middle-sized mill town, but it's a metropolis compared to where he came from--the house he lived in that was bombed during the war hasn't been rebuilt. He has a job working for the town government, but his ambitions exceed his class. Therefore, he turns his eye on the pretty young daughter of the local bigshot (Heather Sears), vowing to marry her, even though he doesn't particularly love her that much.

Joe has a chip on his shoulder, and resents anyone acting superior to him, particularly Sears' erstwhile boyfriend, who was a hero during the war (Joe was a P.O.W.). Joe schemes to win Sears, but when her father sends her away to France to try to cool the romance Joe falls into an affair with an older, lonely married woman (Simone Signoret). Much to his amazement, he realizes he loves Signoret, but her husband won't grant a divorce.

What I admired most about this film was its honesty. Harvey's character is a prick, which is tricky business when the entire film hangs on him. As an audience, we don't really root for him, but we can identify with his struggle. When Sears' boyfriend continually calls him "sergeant," or when he's beaten up by teddy boys, we can feel a pang of empathy for this guy, who has been shit on all his life and just wants a leg up.

More sympathy is for Signoret, who won an Oscar for her portrayal. She's an outsider, a French girl who is stuck in a dingy English town. She strives for some culture, participating in the local amateur theater group, but suffers in an unhappy marriage with a philandering husband (chillingly played by Allan Cuthbertson). When Harvey asks him why he won't let her go, Cuthbertson replies, "Because she's my wife," asserting pride of ownership over any human emotion.

In addition to Signoret, the screenplay won the Oscar (beating Ben-Hur). Harvey was also nominated, as was Hermione Baddeley as Signoret's friend. According to one source, it's the briefest performance ever to get a nomination--two minutes and twenty seconds of screen time.

As I was watching the film I wondered if Woody Allen had seen it recently before he wrote Match Point, as the similarities are striking. Allen added a murder, but otherwise they're both clinical studies of the class structure of British life.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Kennedy Center Honors

Last night I watched one of my favorite annual TV shows, The Kennedy Center Honors. I've been a regular viewer of this program almost since its inception thirty-some years ago, and last night's edition was as rewarding as usual.

This show gets hammered by some critics, and I see their point. It celebrates artists across the spectrum of the performing arts, but is heavily balanced toward a television audience. Thus artists who represent classical music or are otherwise not as well known tend to get short shrift. Last night was no different, as the segments for Mel Brooks and Bruce Springsteen went over a commercial break, while the opera diva Grace Bumbry got one aria in recognition of her. These charges are true, but what are you going to do? I can only hope that we saw an edited version of the show, and that there was more tribute to Bumbry during the live event.

But those criticisms aside, these shows really get to me. There are a couple of factors at work here. The celebrated artists are not called upon to give a speech, instead sitting in the box of honor and looking down as colleagues deliver heartfelt encomiums. Many of them are moved to tears. I would imagine the feeling is similar to being able to attend one's own funeral. Secondly I love the mix. Where else would you see Dave Brubeck tapping his hand to "Born in the U.S.A." or Springsteen nodding in appreciation at "Take Five?" Finally, I love that the president and first lady attend these things, no matter who the chief executive is. I have this strange habit of wondering what other people think of things--if I'm at a play or concert and somebody famous is in the audience, I speculate on what they think of the very thing I'm watching. So last night I wondered what Barack Obama thought of "Springtime for Hitler."

The show does have some drawbacks. Those performers who are not musical get dry tributes--Robert DeNiro got reminiscences by Harvey Keitel, Ben Stiller, Edward Norton and crazy Sharon Stone, who as usual turned it into something about her. This doesn't have to be--I remember when Warren Beatty was honored they got a wonderful singer to perform his favorite song, "Over the Rainbow," and he was weeping. Doesn't DeNiro have a favorite song?

The best moment of last night's show was the cap of the Mel Brooks tribute, when Matthew Broderick, no great singer, movingly performed "Til' Him," and Brooks, who had previously been laughing it up in his box, seemed suddenly transformed. Perhaps he was thinking about his late wife, Anne Bancroft, or thought back on his long career, but something got to him, and the emotional look on his face was genuine. It's moments like that have me tuning in every year.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Pillow Talk

Perhaps the biggest outrage of the 32nd Academy Awards, which bestowed honors to films from 1959, was in the Original Screenplay category. Nominees included such time-tested classics as The 400 Blows, North by Northwest, and Wild Strawberries. The winner was Pillow Talk, a frothy Doris Day-Rock Hudson comedy. At least Operation Petticoat, the fifth nominee, didn't win. Of course Stanley Shapiro and Maurice Richlin, the writers of that film, were the guys who won for Pillow Talk.

I don't mean to dump on Pillow Talk, which is a perfectly acceptable entertainment in the light romantic comedy field, and today is something of the standard that defines that era. But let's face it, it doesn't come close to the skill exhibited of the other three nominees.

Though they are thought of as a team today, this was the first pairing of Hudson and Day, and it was departure for both. Hudson had never done comedy before, and Day had never played a role in which it suggested she might have sex. They were both the biggest stars of their era, and they would go on to make two more similar films together, along with Tony Randall, who was typically the best friend role. Watching scenes of Hudson and Randall talking about babes is snicker-worthy today (although it should be said that Randall did actually father children, despite his fancy-man demeanor).

Pillow Talk today plays like a relic, not only due to its period decor, costumes, and attitudes (which Peyton Reed paid homage to in Down With Love) but also because the plot hinges around the obsolete concept of a party-line. Yes, kids, once people, even in Manhattan, had to share phone lines with complete strangers. Day, an interior decorator, is infuriated with Hudson, who hogs their shared line by wooing countless girlfriends. Randall is Hudson's friend and Day's client, and through him Hudson finds out Day is a dish, and seeks to woo her by pretending to be a humble country boy from Texas. Hilarity ensues.

This all goes down fairly easily, especially enjoyable when Randall is on screen. The dialogue is bubbly and often inane, but not offensive, even the laughs about Hudson ducking into an obstetrician's office to elude Day, and the running gags thereafter about him being a man having a baby. The attitude about Day's single status being an aberration are typical of the Mad Men period.

In addition to Shapiro and Richlin, Day was nominated for an Oscar, as was Thelma Ritter as her hard-drinking maid, who provides some of the best comedy (she frequently upbraids the elevator-operator for going too fast). Elevator operators, party-lines, they're all gone now.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Suddenly, Last Summer


Also from 1959 was Joseph L. Mankiewicz's Suddenly, Last Summer, with a screenplay by Tennessee Williams and Gore Vidal, adapted from the one-act play by Williams. It is astonishingly lurid, but not in a high-toned way. The film starts with a lobotomy, and ends up skirting around the topics of incest, homosexuality, pedophilia and cannibalism. The effect for moviegoers must have been similar to a tourist trip to the Tenderloin.

The film starred three big names: Katharine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, and Montgomery Clift. Hepburn is the eccentric but very wealthy Violet Venable of New Orleans. She offers to bestow a substantial amount of money to the local state mental asylum, who has just recruited a hot-shot neurosurgeon, Clift, who specializes in lobotomies. She will lend the money but there is a string attached--Clift must treat her niece, Taylor, who lost her mind while vacationing with Hepburn's son, who died on the same trip. It seems that Taylor saw something when the son died that traumatized her, and Hepburn wants her brain operated on so she will never bring it public.

Clift examines Taylor, and realizes she's not insane. Like a detective, he tries to piece together the mystery of how Sebastian, Hepburn's son, really died. Hepburn lionizes her son in an unseemly fashion, and eventually we learn that she procured young men for her son to play with. When she grew too old to do so, he took Taylor instead. In a coastal village in Spain something went horribly wrong.

This film plays like a parody of Williams. There's some brilliant metaphors, especially in a monologue of Hepburn's about baby sea turtles trying to make it to the sea before being eaten by birds, but most of this is eye-rollingly laughable. Clift, who had suffered from a serious accident a few years earlier, is stiff and probably doped out of his mind. Hepburn is very good, in a transition to the roles she would end up playing in her later years like Mary Tyrone and Elinor of Aquitaine. Taylor makes a very fetching mental patient (she is allowed to roam the hospital freely wearing her own clothes, which was probably a decision not to have her dressed in an unflattering smock the whole time). She also looks damn good in a white bathing suit. Both women were nominated for Oscars.

It's intriguing to posit that Williams is just playing a good joke on us all. Apparently there was a real incident that took place in Morocco when local youths tore apart a man who had been seducing them. It all seems to be a kind of self-loathing homosexuality, as the character of Sebastian, who is exalted by his mother, is slowly revealed to be a degenerate. There is nothing rewarding or insightful by any of this, instead it leaves an unpleasant taste in the mouth.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Me and Orson Welles

I had a wonderful time at Richard Linklater's Me and Orson Welles, a valentine to the theater, particularly the can-do spirit of the Mercury Theater, the company founded by Orson Welles and John Houseman in 1937. The film is full of zest and period atmosphere, and is nothing more than a trifle, but is very tasty.

At the heart of the film is Christian McKay's performance as Welles, the incomparable genius who had already made a name for himself as a radio actor and the director of two famous New York productions: the "voodoo" MacBeth and Marc Blitzstein's opera The Cradle Will Rock (which itself was the basis of Tim Robbins' film of the same name). Welles, using the money he earned from radio, formed his own company with Houseman (who later earned a spot in American culture history as a spokesman for Smith-Barney) as his producer. Their first production was Julius Caesar using modern dress and setting the play in the very contemporary jack-booted world of European fascism.

That's the setting, but the story is told through the eyes of a high school boy, Zac Efron. He lives somewhere in the suburbs, but trains into the city to absorb the wonders of culture. He happens across the theater a week before the opening and manages to charm Welles into getting a small role (he says he can play the ukulele, a bluff, and Welles seems to know it but doesn't care). Thus we get a tried and true plot device--the vision of a great man seen from someone of the periphery, which has been used in such diverse films from Ben and Me to The Stunt Man.

Efron becomes friendly with the cast, some of whom, like Joseph Cotten and Norman Lloyd, would go on to make names for themselves. He is sweet on the theater's office manager, sparklingly played by Claire Danes, and its easy for us to vicariously feel the giddiness of what it must have been like for him, as the company, under Welles mercurial brilliance, struggle to get things ready for opening night.

McKay, a British actor, is a bit too old for the part (Welles, one must keep reminding one's self, was only 22 during the events depicted) but otherwise gives a titanic performance. He has Welles' voice down pat, as well as the moon-face and quicksilver eyes, but also manages to embody the largeness of the man's intellect, as well as the failings of his personality. A lot of the details are amusing, such as the way he rides an ambulance around town or how he improvised speeches during live radio broadcasts (sometimes lifting unattributed passages from Booth Tarkington), as well as his mammoth ego.

Efron, to his credit, provides a character that serves mostly as eavesdropper--nothing takes place that Efron is not witness to. I admire that a big star in the teen world took on a low-key project such as this, and he's spot-on. Danes plays the girl who any guy working in the theater would love to meet. There's also wonderful performances by Ben Chaplin, James Tupper, Eddie Marsan and Leo Bill as other members of the cast and staff.

Where the film is less successful is a framing device involving Efron meeting a young would-be writer, played winningly by Zoe Kazan (granddaughter of Elia). These scenes were surely intended as a grounding for Efron's character, who after all is a fictional character who doesn't become a big acting star, but they seemed a bit tacked on and unpersuasive. Perhaps, during these scenes, I was just anxious for the action to return to the theater, which made me remember my days of long ago, when there was no better place to be than an empty stage, just before rehearsal.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It


For the fourth consecutive year, it is my intention to read and discuss here the ten books named the best of the year by the New York Times Book Review. I start with a short-story collection, Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It, by Maile Meloy.

The eleven stories in this collection add up to a positive experience, but they didn't strike me as the kind that are best-of worthy. They are carefully considered slices of life of mostly middle-class people, several of whom live in Montana. They carry both an edge of whimsy and danger, and I'm not surprised that two of them appeared in The New Yorker, as they reek of writing workshops. Still, a few of them are absolute gems.

The first three are kind of rambling meditations. "Travis, B." concerns a cowboy who develops a crush on a lawyer teaching an adult-education class, but she has to quit because she has a nine-hour commute. "Red on Green" is told from the point of view of a teenage-girl on a camping trip with her father, but I found it's lack of focus unnerving. That is followed up by Lovely Rita, an interesting but ultimately disappointing story about an industrial accident and the disturbing aftermath when a woman auctions herself in a raffle. This story first appeared in Playboy, but is sexy only to someone who isn't paying attention.

"Two-Step" is an intriguing story that might work better as a play--a woman suspects her husband of cheating, so calls over a friend for comfort, not knowing that the friend is the one who is sleeping with her husband. Adultery is also the theme of "The Children," when a man who is ready to leave his wife for a younger woman has second thoughts, and is reminded of the poem that contains the collection's title. "Liliana" is the fanciful story of a man who gets a surprise visit from his eccentric grandmother--a surprise because he thought she was dead.

I think the least successful story is "Agustin," perhaps because it set in Argentina, far afield from Meloy's other stories. It, however, contains one of the best lines of the collection: "Children were experiments, and his had failed."

The best three stories are "Nine," "O Tanenbaum," and "Spy vs. Spy," all dealing with inter-family relationships. "Nine" concerns a young girl observing the relationship her mother is having with a college professor who isn't quite right. "O Tanenbaum" deals with a man and wife out chopping down a Christmas tree who come across a stranded couple in the snow. Meloy makes what appears to be a deadly mistake of naming the stranded couple Bonnie and Clyde, but gets away with it.

By far the best story is "Spy vs. Spy," which depicts the struggle between two brothers who can hardly stand each other sharing a weekend at a ski lodge. It's funny, angry, and rings completely true. The title is a reference to the ever-warring spies in the comics of Mad magazine, and Meloy paints her brother characters as similarly locked in a cosmic battle: "They were bound like two dogs with their tails tied together, unable to move without having some opposite effect on the other, unable to live a single restful minute without feeling the inevitable tug." It would make a great movie.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Up in the Air

I once temped for an outplacement firm. Their fortune rose when those of other companies fell, as they provided services for newly terminated employees. While I worked there, though, I never heard of a "termination specialist," which is the occupation of Ryan Bingham, played by George Clooney, in the film Up the Air. He jets around the country, doing the dirty work of firing employees, giving them empty words of comfort and a packet outlining their severance packages.

I'm not sure this job really exists, or whether companies that are in the shitter would hire a firm to send someone on a plane to come and fire people. But in the long run that doesn't matter--there is no moon (that we know of) that has nine-foot-tall blue people who live in trees, but Avatar seems to be doing okay. If you can get past the notion that it's a fantasy, Up in the Air is a brilliant film.

It was directed by Jason Reitman, who has now made three pictures that I have enjoyed tremendously--Thank You for Smoking and Juno came previously. He has developed a style that incorporates a certain winking at the audience--showing what a character is describing, such as when Clooney explains what fired employees might do and Reitman gives us quick cuts with Zack Galifiniakis pouring bleach into the communal coffee pot or taking a sniper's position with a rifle on a nearby rooftop. In Juno we got tastes of this when the title character describes her favorite bands, or when Aaron Eckhart in Thank You for Smoking tells us what he's all about. This style is manna for smart viewers and those who have ever attempted to write a screenplay, I can only hope that it also appeals to others, because his films crackle with life and immediately draw me into the story.

Clooney's character, in addition to firing people for a living, gives seminars on how to discard unwanted things and people from one's life. He travels almost all the time--his Omaha refrigerator has nothing in it but some A-1 steak sauce and miniature bottles of booze from the airlines. He lives to travel, luxuriating in the rhythms of airport life--the people movers, the over-priced restaurants, the rituals of homeland security. He has it down to a science, with Reitman and his editor providing some zippy scenes of Clooney packing. All of this travel has Clooney close to a goal he has long harbored--10 million frequent-flyer miles.

Of course, a character this smug is due for a fall. His firm listens to an idea by a hot-shot newcomer, Anna Kendrick, to do the firings by video conference. Again, one must shoulder suspension of disbelief. It's hard to contemplate that a firm such as this wouldn't have thought of that long ago, and then it's harder to believe that Kendrick would be sent out on the road to shadow Clooney to learn about the business that she presumably has been doing for some time. But the situation is a goldmine, as Clooney's cynicism is matched with Kendrick's chirpy efficiency. Only they don't fall in love.

Instead, Clooney, who believes in forming no romantic attachments, has fallen for Vera Farmiga, who follows the same philosophy (she tells him to think of her as himself with a vagina). They meet in a hotel bar and compare loyalty cards from hotels, airlines and rental cars in a scene that is blissfully written. But when Clooney starts to think of her as more than a casual fuck-buddy, he faces a crisis.

This film works on several different levels. At the surface it is a breezy romantic comedy, but beneath the lovely patina of Hollywood (this film looks great) there is a more sinister core--unemployment. It's based on a novel by Walter Kirn that was written before the current economic crisis, but the film hits on a sensitive time in American history, as there will surely be some squirming at the many scenes of employees being let go. But the film is never glib about it, and in many of these scenes Reitman uses actual unemployed people to play the roles. Whether by accident or design, Up in the Air has becomes something of a Grapes of Wrath for our time (well, maybe the Sullivan's Travels), a film that will be shown in college history courses when discussing the early part of the twenty-first century.

I haven't read the book, so I don't know how much is Kirn and how much is Reitman and co-writer Sheldon Turner, but it's all lovely. The screenplay is full of quotable lines, and in addition to the Clooney-Farmiga meeting, there is a knockout scene in which Kendrick, dumped by her boyfriend by text message, seeks advice from Clooney and Farmiga, who seem to her to be both sages and fools. There is also a wonderful moment when Clooney, who has already spoken against marriage, is shamed into trying to talk his future brother-in-law out of a fit of cold feet. The irony is just too delicious.

Up in the Air is also exquisitely acted. Kendrick, like an eager chipmunk, is terrific, while Farmiga is smooth as silk. I had some trouble with her character at first, as she is initially presented as an idealization of a Playboy reader's fantasy--she wants sex, puts up with almost everything, even to the point of attending Clooney's sister's wedding and tagging along when he visits his old school. I knew she was to good to be true, but when the other shoe drops it both surprised me and made perfect sense, which is essential to good storytelling.

But Clooney is the story here. He is the pre-eminent film star working today. He makes mistakes (Leatherheads) but on the whole is taste in script-picking is divine. He is adorable to women and likable to men, and when his character faces his crossroads it is written on his face. I particularly liked a scene in which he is on the phone with Farmiga (probably for the last time) and his face becomes awash with disappointment when she describes him as a parenthesis. If we think of ourselves as punctuation marks, parentheses would probably come pretty low on the totem pole. Coupled with his voice work in Fantastic Mr. Fox, Clooney has had a bang-up year (I haven't seen The Men Who Stare at Goats yet).

This is the kind of film I could watch again and again. For those who buy me Christmas or birthday presents, remember this when it becomes available on DVD.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Imitation of Life


A hit from 1959 that did not receive critical acclaim at the time was Imitation of Life, which was Douglas Sirk's last major film as a director. Sirk was known for his melodrama's of the 1950s, usually involving women's issues and over-saturated with color. He was largely derided during his career by critics, but has experienced a rethinking by subsequent generations.

Imitation of Life is a remake of a film from 1934 that was one of the first to depict African Americans as complex characters and not just maids or shoeshine-boys. That films reflects certain attitudes from the time period, as does the 1959 version, which was forward-thinking for its time but is now wince-inducing. One of the critics contributing to the supplemental DVD documentary calls it one of the greatest American films ever made. To that I say WTF?

The story begins when two single mothers meet at the beach at Coney Island. Lana Turner is a widow who aspires to be an actress, and has moved to New York City with that goal. She has a six-year-old daughter. Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore) is the mother of Sarah Jane. Annie is African American and appears that way, but Sarah Jane is extremely fair complected, and Turner assumes that Annie is her nanny. Moore explains that her father was very fair, but abandoned the family, and they have no place to live. Turner reluctantly takes them in for a night, but it will turn out to be a life-long relationship.

Moore, it turns out, is the perfect maid, and this is part of the problem with the film. The performance is very good, but I was annoyed that Annie is given very little interior life. She is like some sort of super-domestic, an Aunt Jemima type that is the perpetuation of a fantasy stereotype that whites had about blacks dating back to slavery--they are put on this Earth to cater to white people's needs. Late in the film Moore tells Turner that she has hundreds of friends, and is the member of her church and two lodges. Turner says "I had no idea," and Moore responds, "You never asked." It's a telling line, a cutting to the quick of a white audience who didn't think twice about the hired help, but also applies to the film itself, which has up to that point ignored Annie except as a plot device.

The meat of the story involves Sarah Jane and Susie. Turner becomes a successful actress, and we flash forward to when the girls are teenagers, and now played by Sandra Dee (Susie) and Susan Kohner (Sarah Jane). Dee is bubbly and irrepressible, but also wounded by the inattention of her ambitious mother. The career aspirations of Turner are treated as a character flaw--her on-again off-again boyfriend (John Gavin) at one points orders her to give up her dreams, which I'm sure ticked off Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem.

Sarah Jane's problems with her mother are worse. Because she can pass for white, she wants to leave behind the struggles of a life as a black person, but that means denying her mother. There are instances when others learn she is black and turn on her (particularly a lurid scene with Troy Donahue, who slugs her when he finds out she's black) so she escapes from her dutiful mother, breaking her heart.

This film is more interesting as a social document that as good cinema. The melodrama is ladled on thick, and is often cringe-worthy. Annie's deathbed scene is especially excruciating, like something out of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Through all the suds there occasionally are some well-done scenes, such as the one where Annie tracks down Sarah Jane to a Los Angeles nightclub to say goodbye, but the gauze surrounding these scenes is hard to penetrate.

Moore and Kohner were nominated for Oscars. It's interesting that in the 1934 version, a light-skinned black woman, Fredi Washington, played the daughter, but in 1959 they got Kohner, who was part Mexican, part European. Any good intentions seemed to undercut in that casting. Kohner quit the business a few years later to raise a family. Her kids are Chris and Paul Weitz, Hollywood directors responsible for films like American Pie and About a Boy.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Black Orpheus

The 1959 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film went to Black Orpheus, which was shot in Brazil but the award went to France (the director was Frenchman Marcel Camus). It's an engaging film, full of the charm and color of the Carnival in Rio, but I can't begin the discussion of this topic without noting that The 400 Blows, Wild Strawberries, or The World of Apu were not even nominated.

The film retells the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice during Carnival. Orpheus is a streetcar driver, and one day a beautiful young girl stays on his car to the last stop. He's entranced by her, but is engaged to the high-maintenance Mira. Orpheus is something of a playboy and, as befitting the myth, is a musician. The young boys who follow him believe that his guitar playing makes the sun rise.

The young girl is portentously named Eurydice. She has come to Rio to visit her cousin and to flee a mysterious man whom she says is trying to kill her. This all leads to the night of Carnival, when the actors are in costume. Orpheus and Eurydice consummate their love, invoking Mira's wrath, and Eurydice's stalker, dressed in a macabre costume (it looked kind of like Spider-Man's black costume) chases her. Eventually she dies, and Orpheus searches for her, but instead of going to Hades he goes to an Afro-Brazilian religious ceremony, and also befitting the Greek myth, he finds Eurydice, but loses her when he fails to observe the rule not to turn and look at her.

This is a very colorful film, and is full of music, as the characters are almost always dancing the samba. As such it makes a better travelogue than a drama. The performers are attractive and brimming with sexuality (it was a bit racy for 1959) but for some stretches of it I was bored. The 400 Blows it ain't.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Nun's Story


One of the interesting things about looking back at 1959 is trying to imagine how or if some of these pictures could be made today. One of the nominees for Best Picture, The Nun's Story, was a big hit back then. I imagine today the idea would be a laughed out of the studio. It is a respectful, high-concept drama, a movie that people probably dressed up to see--an event. Today, an event picture has loads of CGI and action, and doesn't spend the first forty-five minutes with an almost documentarian's approach to how a woman becomes a nun.

I should say that I liked this film much more than I thought I would. I think that's mostly due to the excellent direction by Fred Zinneman, a consummate pro would made many great pictures, as diverse as High Noon and A Man For All Seasons. His direction, as well as the script, takes a clear-eyed view of what it takes to be a nun, a calling that earns both admiration and bafflement.

Audrey Hepburn stars as the daughter of a great doctor. She wants to be a nurse in the Belgian Congo (she is Belgian) and also wants to serve a higher calling, so she enters a convent as a postulant, then as a novice. We see an almost anthropological study of the protocol of such an undertaking, and it's kind of fascinating. In some ways it's like a cult, with women being stripped of their individuality, giving up everything from their life before they entered the walls of the convent--their possessions, their memories, even their names. The key things they are striving for are poverty, chastity, and obedience. Hepburn's father thinks she'll have no problem with the first two, but wonders about the third, as she is a headstrong girl. For the rest of the film, she does struggle with that, as she has pride and thinks of her patients ahead of the rules of the Church.

After serving for a while in a Brussels mental asylum (which includes a brief but memorable turn by Colleen Dewhurst as a woman who thinks she is the Archangel Gabriel) Hepburn is sent to the Congo. She works alongside a brilliant doctor (Peter Finch), a non-believer who admires her dedication but questions her appropriateness as a nun. There is the slightest hint of attraction between the two, but it's so slight that one could choose to ignore it. Today it would have been rendered as a full-blown love affair.

Hepburn is asked to return to Belgium, and because of the outbreak of World War II she can not return to Africa. The country is conquered by the Nazis, and it is here that she finally faces the ultimate test--the nuns are told to be neutral, and not favor one side over the other. She knows she must do her part to defeat the Germans, and thus makes an important decision. I won't give it away here, but I will say the final shot, which is similar in tone if not in substance to the last shot of John Ford's The Searchers, is pretty devastating.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Diary of Anne Frank

One must grow a callous around one's heart to critique anything based on the life of Anne Frank, the Jewish teenager who hid for more than two years from the Nazis in an Amsterdam attic, before being caught and dying in a concentration camp. I'm reminded somewhat of Schindler's List, which was able to withstand this sort of thing by virtue of being very good. The Diary of Anne Frank, which was one of the nominees for Best Picture in 1959, is so-so, but I find it interesting that collective guilt wasn't enough to catapult it to a win over the colossus that was Ben-Hur.

Of course, America was a different place in 1959 than it was in 1992. Anti-Semitism was still out in the open, and organizations could still be restricted. Gentile audiences could go see The Diary of Anne Frank and feel bad and sniffle when Anne Frank says, "Despite everything, I still believe people are good at heart" and then go home and avoid contact with Jews.

The film, adapted from the stage play, was directed by George Stevens with utmost respect. Parts of it are quite good. The claustrophobia of eight people sharing a small space having to be quiet is palpable (though Stevens shot the film, curiously, in CinemaScope). Some of the performances are very good. Shelley Winters won an Oscar as the materialistic Mrs. Van Daan, and Lou Jacobi, who only recently passed away, is excellent as her husband, who craves cigarettes and is caught stealing food. Ed Wynn, known as a comedian, was also nominated as the fussy dentist Mr. Dussel, and Joseph Schildkraut expressed the dignity of Mr. Frank quite well.

The problem at the core of the film was the performance of Millie Perkins as Anne. She was a teenage model who had never acted before, and it shows. I was interested to read that she received good notices at the time, but I wonder if that was just critics being kind (which seems impossible, I know). Anne in the film is a complex character--a willful, spoiled Daddy's girl, and Perkins just isn't up to the task of handling that. She was also about five years too old for the part. Her scenes of romance with Richard Beymer, the son of Winters and Jacobi, are a disaster, and are best utilized as a bathroom break.

As I watched the film I admired much of the craftsmanship and skill of Stevens as a director, but wasn't particularly moved. I thought that maybe the story of Anne Frank is just too well known to hit me on that level. But then, while reading her Wikipedia entry, I started to get choked up. Sometimes just the facts of the thing are enough, and a big Hollywood production is overkill.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Avatar


There’s a scene in Barry Levinson’s Diner in which a man tells Daniel Stern he doesn’t like the new color TV sets. He says he watched Bonanza and “the Ponderosa looked fake.” Avatar, to me, looks fake.

I should say that it's Pandora that looked fake, for that is the setting of James Cameron's much-ballyhooed dozen-year follow-up to Titanic. I will say this, the man does do things on a large scale. Pandora is a moon that in the future Earthlings are hoping to mine for a mineral called unobtainium (unobtainium? Is this a contribution from Mel Brooks?) There is the sticky problem that Pandora is populated by large blue people called the Na'Vi. The business interests, led by Giovanni Ribisi (a copy of a character played by Paul Reiser in Cameron's Aliens) spouts typical heartless corporate-speak, defying the scientists (led by Sigourney Weaver) who want to study and negotiate with them. The security is led by a gung ho Marine colonel, Stephen Lang, who seems to have wandered over from Starship Troopers.

To study the Na'Vi, a technology has been developed where humans can use remote-controlled bodies that are a hybrid of human and Na'Vi DNA. Weaver has one that wears a Stanford sweatshirt (most of the Na'Vi go close to naked). One of the other intended avatar users is killed in a robbery, so his twin brother, Jake Sully, who shares the same DNA, is enlisted. He is played by Sam Worthington. A golden opportunity was missed in not casting a disabled actor as Sully. Sam Worthington is pretty much an uncharismatic hunk of meat, and since his character is a paraplegic who never has the use of his legs, why not use a real paraplegic? It would have been a newsworthy casting choice, and might have made it all a bit more poignant.

So what we have here is a liberal allegory against Western imperialism, whether it be on the plains of Dakota, the interior of Africa, or the ride paddies of Vietnam. Its heart is in the right place, as the villains are the military-industrial complex, but it’s ham-fisted and patronizing. The Na’Vi are depicted as some sort of combination of Middle Earth’s Elves, the Comanche, and natives in a Tarzan picture. They are noble savages, in touch with the land and creatures all around them (they literally link with the creatures they ride) and infantilized as so often exotic peoples are in films.

Worthington, who loves being in a body that has full use of its limbs, gets separated from the others and is taken in by the Na'Vi, who for some reason know he is a spy but don't kill him anyway. A female voiced by Zoe Saldana takes him under his wing, teaching him the ways of the indigenous. This is all an echo of Dances With Wolves, and any of a number of other films that have been sympathetic to Amerindians (Little Big Man also comes to mind). Since Worthington's body is actually back at the Earthling base (thus he really can't "die" when he's in his avatar, which makes some of the perilous scenes lose their tension) he conspires with Lang and gives him military intelligence. Soon enough, of course, he comes to love Saldana and the Na'Vi ways, and turns against his own kind, leading the Na'Vi in a rebellion.

I have news for James Cameron–in the instances where aboriginal people have defeated Western interlopers decisively–the Little Bighorn, Dien Bien Phu, the Battle of Hattin–there wasn’t a white expatriate who leads them–they did it all by themselves. The film's overt suggestion is that without Worthington's help, they would be helpless to fight for their existence. Furthermore, the voice-actors of the Na'Vi are minorities--Saldana, Wes Studi, CCH Pounder, which hammers home the parallels with the struggle of indigenous people on Earth. Studi, a fine actor, doesn't get a chance to play characters who aren't Indians often, and then when he gets a voice-actor job he's playing essentially a wild Indian.

Now, as to the technology. I'm not one of these fanboys who tremble with anticipation at every advancement in special effects. I can be gripped by a film, like Diner, that has nothing more fancy than a bunch of guys sitting around a diner talking about nothing. Avatar supposedly has the most advanced use of this, that and the other ever, and cost a quarter-billion dollars to make. All I can say is that if this is the future of motion pictures, get me a time machine, because I want to go back in time.

I saw the 2-D version. I intended to see the IMAX 3-D version, and even though I got to the theater almost an hour ahead of time, it was sold out (I had intended to see it today, but we’re getting hit with a snowstorm and I might be housebound). I had already had my dinner at Burger King and didn’t want to go home or wait three hours for the next show, so I went into the 2-D version. I don’t know how the 3-D looks, and I never will, but I can counsel against seeing the 2-D version, because it looks terrible.

This may be because the theater didn’t show it properly–the images frequently flickered, as if the bulb wasn’t bright enough, and several times the focus was off. It was as if they showed the 3-D print and didn’t give us the glasses. That’s the problem with state-of-the-art technology–we all can’t see the movie at the Arclight, so we’re at the mercy of twelve-dollar-an-hour projectionists. That’s why I prefer films where the drama exists with a few characters sitting in a normal setting talking (like Diner, for example).

So anyway, the images didn’t impress me. It looked like, as another critic points out, an aquarium screen-saver. I liked the sense of flight when the Na’Vi are on the winged creatures, and I give credit for Cameron creating a complete world, with a menagerie of exotic creatures and a vertiginous forested-world, but that's not enough to sustain the dramatic tension. The predictable showdown between Worthington and Lang has moments of nice action, but it all seemed kind of hollow.

There are also numerous plot holes that can be fodder for a spirited game of "Wait a minute, what about..." that can be played with friends after seeing the film. Marco Trevisiol of Gone Elsewhere points out a problem with the character of Michelle Rodriguez, a Marine pilot who switches sides without being disciplined by her commanding officer. This is just the tip of the iceberg. There's also Cameron's legendary clumsiness with dialogue. I suppose its his massive ego that has prevented him with working with a writer who has facility with language, but even Noel Coward couldn't have helped Avatar.

This film is getting ecstatic reviews from all quarters, and most assuredly will get a nomination for Best Picture Oscar. I heartily disagree.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Champlain's Dream


A few years ago I read a fascinating history book titled Washington's Crossing that was incredibly thorough on the subject at hand. The author was David Hackett Fischer, and his succeeding volume, Champlain's Dream, is similarly exhaustive. More than that, it is engagingly written--rigorous in its scholarship, but entertaining to a general audience.

Essentially, the book is a biography of Samuel de Champlain, the French explorer and geographer who almost single-handedly was responsible for the French settlement of Quebec. Those of us in the U.S., if we know of him, it is for the lake nestled between New York and Vermont that bears his name, but in the grand scheme of the establishment of a European presence in North America, he is a key figure.

Champlain led an extraordinarily adventurous life. Born circa 1570, as a young man he was a soldier in a series of religious civil wars in France, between Catholic and Protestant factions. Fischer raises the possibility that Champlain, a commoner by birth, may have been the bastard son of the eventual king, Henri IV, but doesn't declare this definitively. Henri changed from Catholic to Protestant and back again like he was changing shirts, and France was torn apart by the wars.

Champlain had the itch to travel, and made a long journey through the Caribbean. He was put off by slavery, though, and ended up forming the dream of the title--a New France--to be settled in northern climes. He traveled down the St. Lawrence River, mapped the coast of Acadia (today what is Nova Scotia down to Maine) and got as far as Lake Huron to the west, but decided the best place to raise a settlement was in what is today the city of Quebec.

It was not a dream shared by all. The initial start of the settlement was in 1603, but it wasn't until the late 1620s that Quebec began to have a significant population. Champlain was adroit dealing with the court intrigues of France. His benefactor Henri was assassinated in 1610. His son, Louis XIII, was only nine years old, so his mother, Maria de Medici, served as regent. Later, Champlain had to deal with Cardinal Richelieu, who was always trying to remove him, but eventually named him governor.

What is perhaps most remarkable about Champlain was his attitude about Indians. Fischer puts it thus: "The French deliberately settled very near the Indians and were comfortable in their presence. In a country of enormous size, they did not attempt to drive the Indians off the land or to push them away...It was very different from the English in Massachusetts and Virginia, who settled apart from the Indians, kept them at a distance, annexed large tracts of land, and cultivated an attitude of trust and contempt." Champlain even encouraged inter-marriage between European and Indian, and the results were the Metis, an ethnic group that still is a significant part of Canadian demographics. Much of today's Canada can be traced to those early settlers: "The French population of Quebec and its kin in North America now number in the millions. One careful study of this large population finds that it grew from a small genetic base. More than two-thirds are descendants of 1,100 French women who came to Quebec between 1630 and 1680."

Champlain's Indian allies were the Montagnais, the Algonquins, and the Hurons, but not the nations of the Iroquois, who were at constant war with their neighbors (Iroquois is a word taken from their enemies which means "killing people"). Champlain participated in some adventurous campaigns against them, particularly a battle with the Mohawks. It was on this campaign that he explored and named the lake named after him.

Much of Fischer's research was aided by Champlain himself, who wrote of his adventures and published a popular account. He was an interesting writer, and Fischer begins many of the chapters with Champlain's words that indicate he was quite the aphorist. I liked these two: "Those that know the least shout the loudest," and "The advice I give to all adventurers is this: seek a place where you can sleep in safety."

As with Washington's Crossing, Fischer has included copious information in a multitude of appendices. He writes a detailed history of the memory of Champlain throughout the succeeding years (including a section of the statuary depicting him throughout Canada and northern New York), an examination of the evidence of when Champlain was born, a careful listing of all Indian nations in the area, and a log of all of Champlain's voyages. The man crossed the Atlantic close to thirty times and never lost a ship, which may be his most remarkable distinction.

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in early-American history.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Beethoven's Ninth


As any devoted reader of Peanuts knows, yesterday was Ludwig Van Beethoven's birthday (Schroeder made sure all the kids knew how many shopping days were left). To honor the occasion, I put on my CD of the most sublime music ever written, his Ninth Symphony. I poured myself three fingers of tequila and listened, coming close to bursting into tears.

I know almost nothing about classical music, but I know what I like. I have always responded most to the muscularity of Beethoven's work, and the Ninth Symphony is both muscular but also heartbreakingly beautiful. I suppose the first time I ever heard of it, at least parts of it, was when ABC used to carry the Olympic Games and at the end of them would play a highlight reel scored to the first portion of the fourth movement, the theme that is familiar to most, the "Ode to Joy."

Beethoven took about six years to write it, and he was stone deaf at the time, an accomplishment that is too mind-boggling to consider. It premiered in Vienna in 1824, and would be his last symphony. Beethoven conducted, but the musical director told the musicians to ignore him (he was deaf, after all). At the conclusion of the symphony he was turned around to see the enthusiastic crowd, who gave him a standing ovation.

The first movement, a sonata, begins as if the orchestra were tuning up, and then the main theme enters, sounding like some waking behemoth, yawning and stretching. The second movement is a scherzo that is familiar to many (it was included in Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange--Alex DeBarge loved Ludwig Van!) and is impish in nature. It includes lots of tympani and a repeating rhythm that leads one to think of mischief-making.

I used to think the third movement was dull. I remember talking about it with my friend Nick (now deceased, bless him) who said something like, "Ah, the underrated third movement!" He's right, it is underrated. It's quite and meditative, and is the music to be borne on by angels' wings.

Finally comes the fourth movement, which is like a mini-symphony itself, with four distinct sections. It starts like someone bursting into a room to bear important news, then settles down and breaks into the theme, played by cellos so low you have to strain to hear it. Slowly more instruments are added, and we get the full effect, in my mind the most serene melody ever written. Then the voices kick in.

The Ninth was the first symphony to use voices. The text is the "Ode to Joy," a poem by Friedrich Schiller. This was Beethoven's attempt to create a musical representation of universal brotherhood. I think it goes beyond that--the music is a representation of the bliss of being alive. Soloists begin the choral portion, but when the full choir kicks in with "Freude!" (Joy) a person can get chills.

The poem doesn't sound great in English:

Joy, beautiful spark of gods
Daughter of Elysium
We enter drunk with fire,
Heavenly one, your sanctuary!

And so on. But when sung in the original German by a choir it grabs you by the throat.

The symphony is a long one, over 70 minutes. There is lore that it was the length of this symphony that determined how much information can be contained on any one compact disc. Supposedly the creators wanted to make sure that Beethoven's Ninth could fit on one disc, and designed it accordingly. We may have Ludwig Van to thank for the size of CDs.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Mad Men

There are a lot of decade-end articles in magazines and blogs these days, listing the best of this, that and the other. Emily Nussbaum wrote in New York that this decade in entertainment has been distinguished by a flowering of greatness in the arena of television, a tough thing to say in a crowd of aesthetes but one, as I am coming to learn, that is essentially correct.

While the Hollywood film has degenerated into a mindless pursuit of teenage dollars, TV is experiencing a renaissance unparalleled since the golden days of live TV in the fifties. Of course this is not true of broadcast television, where aside from Lost and some NBC sit-coms, the name of the game is reality TV and entertainment contests. But on cable TV there has been a giddy production of thoughtful, intelligent series that accomplish what a two-hour film can not: a more developed arc of characters and storylines.

Most believe that The Sopranos is the best example of this, along with The Wire. I've seen the first few seasons of the former and none of the latter, so I can't judge accordingly. There has also been highly acclaimed shows like Oz, Deadwood, Rome and The Tudors, which are all in my Netflix queue (I don't get HBO for financial reasons, and besides I don't like the idea of appointment TV any more--I like getting the DVDs and watching it them straight through).

HBO passed on Mad Men, which has been running on AMC for the past three years (I do get AMC, but I don't want to start a show in the middle). I'd heard a lot about it and just finished watching the 13-episode first season, and I must say it's equal to the hype. It's incredibly written, beautifully acted, and as good a realization of the zeitgeist of its era as one could hope for.

It is, of course, about advertising in the early sixties. As explained by the creator, Matt Weiner, in the supplementary documentary, advertising was a glamorous career then--high-paying, creative, and with a casual office culture. It attracted men (and some women) who were aspiring writers (Joseph Heller wrote Catch-22 while he was an ad man) and they enjoyed living the high life in Manhattan. This is the world of Mad Men.

In watching this show, though, there were a few jarring things I had to adjust to. It is set in 1960, and that was a different world (I was born in 1961, which is closer in spirit to the 1940s than it is to the 1970s--just look at the cars and fashion of those days). To start with, everyone is smoking. The pilot episode concerns the agency of Sterling Cooper handling the Lucky Strike account, when health warnings were starting to pop up about tobacco use. The second is the attitude about women. There are two types of women on Mad Men: the housewives and the office staff. The former are treated like dolls, and they watch over the children like June Cleaver and are expected to have dinner on the table and be content with the suburban splendor their husbands provide. The office staff--secretaries, switchboard operators, etc. are supposed to be working in an office in order to snag a husband, and are like chum in the water for the circling sharks--the men.

Of course this is how it was in those days, before the surgeon general warning and The Feminine Mystique. Over the course of the first season the major female characters show that life was not so good for them in 1960, and it is readily apparent how the seeds of feminism were shown, particularly in the characterizations of Peggy Olsen and Betty Draper.

But when I start mentioning characters, I must begin with Don Draper (Jon Hamm), the hero of our story. He's got it all--he's handsome, talented, and rich. But he's also a sphinx, both to his co-workers and his wife. His best friend is his boss, partner of the firm Roger Sterling (John Slattery), and even he urges Don to open up a bit. But Don plays everything close to the vest, and the story progresses, we learn why--he's an advertising man who not only peddles lies to the American public, his entire life is a lie, as he is not who he says he is.

Draper is only one of many superbly-etched characters. His wife Betty, January Jones, is fascinating. She's a stay-at-home mother, a young woman who once modeled but now struggles to enjoy domesticity. As the season begins, she has unaccountable hand tremors and sees a psychiatrist, which was still something of a taboo in 1960. Jones is either a bad or a brilliant actress, as Betty is frequently stiff and bottled up, a woman just a hair-trigger away from a breakdown. I think the casting here is exquisite. Jones probably couldn't play Lady MacBeth, but she nails this character.

The office of Sterling Cooper is peopled by other great characters. There's the weaselly Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), who resents Draper's success and works to undermine him. He is newly wed, but like the other men he has affairs, including a brief encounter with Peggy Olsen (Elisabeth Moss), the mousy, frumpy secretary to Draper. She's another enigma, who appears to be a doormat but harbors surprising talents and cruelties. The penultimate scene of the season, which I certainly won't spoil here, is a fantastic reveal about her character.

Then there's Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks), the office manager, a va-va-voom redhead who cruises the office like a battleship. She's having an affair with Sterling, but after hitting thirty and still a party-girl, she's starting to have regrets (and tells Sterling he should go see The Apartment, a new movie at the time). A trio of account execs, played by Michael Gladis, Aaron Staton, and Rich Sommer, were somewhat indistinguishable as the season began, but slowly became ever more interesting, particularly Gladis as Paul Kinsey, a would-be novelist who smokes a pipe and is envious when Staton's character publishes a shorty-story in a literary magazine. The art director, Bryan Batt, is a closeted gay man, and in the first few episodes this is handled rather obviously, and he wasn't allowed to grow as much as the others, perhaps this occurs in seasons two or three. Finally, there is Robert Morse as the other partner, Bert Cooper. He is an eccentric, walking around the office in his stocking feet and recommending Ayn Rand to everyone. The casting is delicious--Morse made his reputation by playing an idealistic ad man in the Broadway show (and film version) of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.

The greatest character of all is the time period. Mad Men's production design team is to be exalted to the heavens for recreating the distinct period, starting with the James Rosenquist-inspired title sequence, which combines advertising symbols with a stylized rendering of a suited man tumbling. The show begins in March and ends at Thanksgiving of 1960, which includes the presidential election (the staff are all Republicans, and the episode which has them partying while watching election returns is priceless). The sets and costumes are precisely rendered, but the spirit of the times is also deadly accurate. There are few black faces--they are the elevator operators, janitors and maids. Anti-Semitism is rife--one of Betty's friends didn't like Boca Raton because she felt "outnumbered." Don has affairs with two women during the season, one is a Jewish woman who runs a department store, and the other is a Bohemian artist who lives in Greenwich Village. His visits to her world are terrific, as she runs with a beatnik crowd who but heads with Don, who they say is "spreading the lie."

Eventually I'll get around to watching the next two seasons, and when season four starts I may actually watch in real time. The show is that good.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Scarecrow

I've read a few of Michael Connelly's novels (review of The Lincoln Lawyer and Void Moon can be found on this blog) but not enough of them. Every one I've read has been tough and exciting, and I wasn't disappointed by The Scarecrow, a tale of a serial killer who is also a cyber-criminal.

Connelly dusts off his character Jack McEvoy, the crime reporter last seen in his excellent novel The Poet. McEvoy is the victim of a very contemporary problem--he's been downsized from the L.A. Times, given two weeks notice and asked to train his replacement on the crime beat, a perky blonde who is clearly interested in future work on television. In a bid to go out with a flourish, he gets interested in a teenage gang-banger who's been arrested for the murder of a white stripper. At first he thinks he'll write a feature on how the young blacks of L.A. end up living a life of crime, but then he stumbles upon a similar crime committed in Las Vegas. He suspects a serial killer is at work.

Chapters of first person narration by McElroy are alternated with the perspective of the killer--we know who he is right away, and he's a baddie. I read parts of this book white-knuckled, as identify theft through manipulation of computers is pretty scary stuff--scarier even then murderers. The killer (the "Scarecrow" of the title) is an expert in preventing hackers from infiltrating storage-servers, therefore he knows how to do things like cut off someone's credit cards or download child porn onto someone's laptop. When McEvoy and his friend and lover, an FBI agent named Rachel Walling, get on to him, the killer knows it and is constantly one step ahead of them. By the end of the book it's not clear whether the killer will be abducted.

The writing here is just about perfect, with Connelly's great ear for dialogue and a horror writer's knack for suspense. I'm a bit leery in believing that the FBI would allow him as much access as he has, and at times he enters into the story for the sake of the narrative, and not because it would be realistic, but this is a work of fiction after all. I was also surprised to learn about a sexual fetish I'd never heard of before--abasiophilia, the use of leg braces in sexual fantasy. It takes all kinds.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Ben-Hur


The Best Picture Oscar for 1959 went to Ben-Hur. It won 11 Oscars, then a record (it has since been tied by Titanic and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King). It was the most expensive movie made up to that time, and it had the largest single set ever constructed for a movie (the circus for the chariot-race scene--18 square acres). In an era when films were creating spectacles to compete with television, Ben-Hur was the biggest of them all.

It had been a gamble for MGM. They hired William Wyler, who was known more for intimate dramas, to direct, and let him have all the money he needed ($15 million), but it was the equivalent to an all-in bet in poker, as if the film flopped MGM would be in bankruptcy. The gamble paid off, as the film made five times back its cost.

As yesterday was a rainy Sunday, it was a perfect time to put in the DVD for the film, which runs over three-and-a-half hours. I don't think I had ever seen it all the way through before. I'd certainly seen parts of it--they used to show it on the 4:30 movie, but it would take them all five days of the work week to do it. I don't think I saw it when it debuted on network television, back in 1971, when CBS showed it in a four-hour block on Sunday night, one of the few times 60 Minutes has ever been pre-empted.

The 1950s are known for spectacles, as they were trying to lure people away from their TV sets, and Biblical epics lent themselves to spectacle. Ben-Hur is not strictly a Biblical epic--it's based on a book by Lew Wallace, a former Civil War general, written in 1880 that was turned into a successful stage show (complete with chariot races!) and then a silent version from 1925. The character of Jesus Christ is on the periphery--the film opens with the nativity, and then Christ's life is like a penumbra around the story of the title character, a prince of Judea, who is betrayed by his childhood friend, a Roman soldier.

Wyler took the picture because he wanted to make all kinds of movies, and this was his chance to, as he put it, "make a Cecil B. DeMille picture." He also earned a million dollars, the highest payday up to that time for a director. And while the film is huge, with elaborate sets, costumes, a sea battle and the legendary chariot race, it's also a character study. There is a cast of thousands, but less than ten main characters.

Charlton Heston, who had already played Moses, is the title prince. Judea is occupied by the Romans, but he has reason for optimism when Messala (Stephen Boyd) takes command of the region, for they were boyhood friends. But Boyd wants Heston's help in putting down rebellion, and Heston won't betray his people. While watching the new Roman governor parade by their house, Heston's sister accidentally knocks a tile loose, which causes the governor to be injured. Even though he knows they are innocent, Boyd has the whole family arrested.

There's a famous story about the relationship between Ben-Hur and Messala. Gore Vidal, who worked on the script, says that he wrote in a homosexual subtext, with Boyd playing the spurned lover. The story goes that Wyler and Boyd knew about it, but Vidal was cautioned not to tell Heston. It's hard to know if it's true, but if you watch the scenes between them knowing this it seems authentic.

Of course Heston ends up a slave in a Roman ship galley, pulling on an oar (and reminding one of the old joke--"There's good news and bad news. The good news is that you are getting extra rations. The bad news is that the captain wants to go water-skiing"). During a battle he ends up saving the life of Jack Hawkins, a Roman consul who is so taken with him that he adopts him and turns him into a first-class charioteer. Heston wants his revenge on Messala, and returns to Jerusalem, hoping to find his mother and sister.

This is one of those movies that fall in the "they don't make 'em like this anymore" category. It was the era of matte paintings, a lost art in the CGI era. It took them a year to shoot it (the chariot race alone took three months) and there's a certain care to the whole thing that seems quaint. Of course there's a lot of eye-rolling while watching, particularly in some of the early scenes. Heston, in some ways perfect for these sorts of parts because he played them without irony, is a huge ham. But as the movie rolled along I got hooked, and though the Christ stuff is bit heavy-handed, it wasn't as obvious as some of the other films of the era, and not as preachy as the novel. I'm a cranky old atheist, but I don't have a heart of stone, so even I get choked up when Ben-Hur's mother and sister are miraculously cured of their leprosy.

The centerpiece of the film is the chariot race, a ten-minute scene that is a clinic in how to make an action sequence. It is impeccably thrilling. It was actually directed by second-unit man Andrew Merton, with able assistance from stunt director Yakima Canutt (his son Joe doubled Heston, and performed the ass-over-applecart stunt when Ben-Hur's chariot jumps over another). The scene is shown without musical accompaniment or dialogue, and is an incredible representation of speed. One notes that during the entire scene, Heston never whips his horses, while Boyd beats his to a fare-thee-well, reinforcing the Christian anti-violence theme.

Wyler takes a hackneyed genre and elevates it, by using subtle lighting and innovative editing. There are still some bones to pick--Hugh Griffith, who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar as the Sheik who hires Heston to race for him, is a British actor playing an Arab with what looks like shoe polish on his face. The sea battle, which was ahead of its time then, now looks dated, as they used miniature ships. But it's the little things, such as Christ's face never being shown, and the moment when Heston recognizes him as the carpenter who gave him water when he was a slave--"I know this man!" Heston says, as only Charlton Heston can say it. Those are the things that stick with a viewer after watching this gargantuan film. I wouldn't put among the greatest American films ever made, as some do, but it is a worthy enterprise, perhaps the greatest epic ever made.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Invictus


In 1995, South Africa had long been in the wilderness when it came to international sports. Blackballed due to their evil system of apartheid, they were awarded the Rugby World Cup after apartheid fell and Nelson Mandela was released from prison, blacks were allowed the vote, and Mandela was elected president. Rugby was a sport beloved by the white population, but hated by the blacks, who equated the green and gold colors and the springbok mascot with oppression (I imagine much like African Americans view the Confederate stars and bars). Therefore, when Mandela publicly got behind the rugby team it seemed by some blacks as a betrayal.

This is the story of Clint Eastwood's corny but effective Invictus. It's not a daring work of cinema--it has no more flair that a made-for-TV movie, but it pushes all the right buttons and is carried by a magisterial performance by Morgan Freeman as Mandela. Freeman, who has played God and the U.S. president, may be the only actor in the world fit to play Mandela, who seems to be one of the few great figures of recent history to deserve the accolades.

What Mandela realizes is that if the entire country, black and white, gets behind the rugby team then it will go a long way in helping him achieve his goals of reconciliation and forgiveness. He surprises many by not firing all the white staff in the capital, and then enlists Afrikaaner men on his bodyguard detail, angering the black leader of the squad (Julian Lewis Jones). Even his chief of staff and daughter are against it. But Mandela persists, meeting with the captain of the team (Matt Damon), who seems to bear no racial animosity (though his father does) and just wants to win the Cup.

This is a good story, and mostly Eastwood stays out of the way, adding no filigree. He does occasionally make things go clunk by adding a ton of exposition (including a scene in which an aide explains the way the Cup tournament works, which seemed unnecessary--I would have liked more explanation of the rules of the game) and scores of reaction shots, as if he were exercising a long-held dream of directing the Super Bowl broadcast. But most of it works, and call me an old softie but I found certain scenes, such as the Springboks teaching a group of black kids how to play the game, to be emotionally powerful.

Invictus (the title refers to a Victorian-era poem that Mandela used for inspiration during his prison sentence) has a major obstacle in North America, in that few of us know about rugby. It appears to combine certain elements of American football--the field goal and the multiple laterals of a last-second kick-off return, with an annoying aspect of soccer--no one but the official knows when time has run out (several times characters in the stands have to turn to others and ask "Did we win?" Still, the final match, between the Springboks and the feared New Zealand squad, is well-edited and exciting (one advantage at being ignorant of the game is that I was unsure of the outcome, something I'm sure every South African would know).

Credit should also be given to Eastwood, Freeman, and screenwriter Anthony Peckham for making Mandela a human being and not a saint. His estrangement from his family is not avoided. He is obviously a great man, but a man nonetheless. I remember the struggle against apartheid vividly, having attended a rally in Central Park back in 1985. To look back and think that a horrible thing was eradicated in relatively short order and has been shoved into the ashbin of history is kind of nice, and if Invictus is by-the-numbers filmmaking, well, that isn't always so bad.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Anatomy of a Murder

Over the next few weeks I will undertake my third annual retrospective on the Best Picture Oscar nominees from fifty years ago, plus other major films from that year. I got a start on it with my articles on The 400 Blows and North by Northwest, neither of which were nominated (also left out was Some Like It Hot). One of the nominees instead was the moderately entertaining but ultimately disposable courtroom-drama Anatomy of a Murder.

Directed by Otto Preminger, who spent much of the 1950s daring the production code. Anatomy of a Murder was a sensation of its time, as it frankly discusses rape. It was banned in Chicago, of all places (the Windy City has a fairly bawdy history) and played to packed houses where it wasn't banned, presumably for the shock value of seeing the esteemed James Stewart say things like "sperm" and "sexual climax."

Stewart, in full aw-shucks mode, is a small-town attorney in Michigan's upper peninsula. He was once the district attorney, but lost re-election and as the film begins fritters his time away by fishing, playing his jazz records, and palling with his dipsomaniacal partner, Arthur O'Connell. He is recommended to a young woman, Lee Remick, who begs him to take the case of her husband, Ben Gazzara, an army lieutenant who plugged a tavern-owner five times with a Luger after the deceased raped his wife. Stewart, despite not taking a liking to Gazzara, agrees to take the case, and he and O'Connell cook up a temporary insanity defense.

The prosecuting team includes George C. Scott as a big-city D.A. flown in from the state capital. He's a mechanical courtroom killer, contrasting with Stewart's homespun theatrics. There are a few mild turns in the case, involving the manager of the tavern (played by Kathryn Grant, who would one day be Mrs. Bing Crosby), but ultimately Scott is foiled by the old bugaboo--never ask a witness a question you don't know the answer to.

Viewed today, Anatomy of a Murder is tamer than a typical episode of Law and Order: SVU--several minutes are spent in titillation over the word "panties." The direction is frequently clumsy, and there isn't much of a mystery at the heart of the story. Stewart acts as if shot out of a cannon--would any other actor make more of the phrase "pitching woo?" It's interesting to see him, a relic of old Hollywood, in scenes with Gazzara, who would go on to star in the films of John Cassavetes, who would re-write the rules of American filmmaking.

Remick replaced Lana Turner, who quit over differences with the hot-headed Preminger. Also in the cast were Eve Arden, playing her usual role of the no-nonsense career woman. Several performers who are recognizable from television dot the cast: Orson Bean, Howard McNear (Floyd the Barber from The Andy Griffith Show--he's the one talking about sperm), and Joseph Kearns, the original Mr. Wilson from Dennis the Menace. An interesting appearance is made by Joseph N. Welch as the judge. Welch is an American hero, the attorney who upbraided Senator Joseph McCarthy by asking him, "At long last, have you left no sense of decency?" and for all intents and purposes ended McCarthyism. His performance is amateurish but endearing.

The film is highly regarded by lawyers, many of whom have called it the best trial movie ever made. That may be true, from a legal perspective, but I prefer Witness for the Prosecution or The Verdict. I think the film doesn't live up to the excitement generated by its opening credit sequence, designed by Saul Bass in his typical paper cut-out style, and the score, one of the first to use jazz, composed by Duke Ellington (who also makes a cameo appearance).

Friday, December 11, 2009

Christmas With the Rat Pack


I only have a few Christmas CDs, but the one I play every year is Christmas With the Rat Pack, a collection of carols, both secular and sacred, by the main trio of that group: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr. Although by the time I was an adult they were well past their prime, over the years I've learned to appreciate what great entertainers they were in the fifties and sixties.

This album is a mixed bag. Sinatra's contributions are mostly tender and almost elegiac. He handles most of the nativity-based tunes, such as "The First Noel", "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear," and "Hark the Herald Angels Sing." He also contributes a melancholy "I'll Be Home for Christmas," and has a perfect version of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" (this approach is apt, since the song's origins are Judy Garland singing it to cheer up her forlorn siblings in Meet Me in St. Louis). He's less successful with the more carefree "Mistletoe and Holly," singing it as if he didn't understand the words.

Davis, perhaps because of his Jewish faith, steers clear of the Christian stuff and stays secular. He has an unspectacular version of "Jingle Bells" and a rather staid turn with "The Christmas Song," especially when compared to the incomparable version by Nat King Cole. A previously unreleased recording of him singing "Christmas Time All Over the World" with a children's chorus is reminiscent of his hit "Candy Man."

The treasure of this album is the work of Dean Martin, who has been criminally underrated due, I guess, to his seeming nonchalance, both as an actor and a singer. His vocals are known by their boozy insouciance, and they are clearly evident here, especially on the cold weather quartet of "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm," "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!", "Winter Wonderland," and "Baby, It's Cold Outside." He handles "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" with typical Rat Pack ring-a-ding-ness, changing the lyric to "Rudy the red-beaked reindeer," and you can hear the Champagne bubbles in his voice as he croons "Silver Bells." But he also had the pipes necessary to belt out a lovely version of "Silent Night."

The album ends with a couple of live numbers from Martin's TV show, accompanied by Sinatra, on "A Marshmallow World" and "Auld Lang Syne." By then these guys had pretty much given up on being artists and were now just clowning around for their own amusement. Even still, they had enough chops to make the season bright, as they still do.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

My High School Crush

Like millions of others, I have a Facebook page, and as a result have been "friended" by my old high school classmates. It's an odd experience, as when I get a friend invitation from them, or if I stumble upon them and then invite them, there's a momentary rush of memory and then, well, pretty much nothing. The Facebook system allows for passive relationships--you can friend someone without exchanging a message. You invite them, they confirm you, and life goes on. I suppose some reunited classmates pursue a non-cyber friendship, but so far that hasn't happened with me, which suits me fine.

Yesterday I saw in the upper corner of my screen a suggestion for a friend, as we had several friends in common. It was an old high school classmate. I invited her to be my friend, and she accepted, and in her list of friends I saw the girl who was my high school crush my senior year of high school. I was a little giddy as I friended her (since she was going by her married name, I couldn't be absolutely sure it was her, but the picture on her profile page looked to be her). She confirmed me as a friend pretty quickly.

After this turn of events I dug up all the memories I could retrieve of her. Her name is Elise, and she was one of the popular crowd at my high school. She was (and still is, to judge by her photos) very pretty, but not to the point of unapproachability. She wasn't a cheerleader or homecoming queen or anything like that, but she ran with the elite crowd of the school.

I, on the other hand, was a pencil-necked geek and painfully shy. I had never had anything close to a girlfriend, and was for most of my time in high school a wallflower, the kid who was in your class but never said anything. I had a few friends but no social life--my parents always knew where I was, because I came home straight from school every night.

But then in senior year I was drawn into the drama kids. We had an ambitious kid, Jimmy, who through his own moxie put on plays, and saw some potential in me, god bless him. I acted in a few shows, and even directed one, Woody Allen's Don't Drink the Water. That's where Elise comes in, as Jimmy thought she'd be a good person to play Susan Hollander in that play. She was also in my history class, but this was a great chance to get to know her even better.

Now, I did all my admiring from afar. Elise had a boyfriend, who was older than her (for some reason the girls in my high school tended to date boys who were two years older--I think in junior year there was some ritual where the boys tapped a freshman girl for mating purposes, but somehow I missed out on this) and like I said, she was part of the with-it crowd, and I was something other. But she wasn't stuck up, and she was nice to me. Over the years I've been inexplicably attracted to women for reasons that are unfathomable to me now, but when I think back to Elise I understand the attraction--she was cute, she was funny, she was nice to me, and we even shared the same birthdate.

There are certain things that stick in my memory. I remember that she was a big fan of the Supertramp album that was hot that year--Breakfast in America. I remember how cute she looked in her winter coat--I remember telling her she looked like a snow-bunny. I don't remember the circumstances, but she did once give me a ride in her car--I think it was a Volkswagen--and she had some miniature stuffed animal attached to the rearview mirror. She commented that it looked like it was humping the mirror, and that gave me a little thrill (I wonder if I blushed).

After graduation I actually called her on the phone and awkwardly asked her out, which was a futile gesture. She politely declined, or somehow avoided the issue, and I'm guessing that's the last time I spoke to her. She wasn't at the ten-year reunion I attended, and I didn't attend the twenty-five or thirty-year reunions that she did attend (she posted picture of the thirty-year reunion on her Facebook page, and while she looks great I'm stunned to see how old some of those people look). I did hear from her some years ago via e-mail when that ClassMates web-site started up. She's married (not to the guy she was dating in high school) and she has a kid or two or three. I seem to remember that she lives not far from me. Maybe a friendly lunch is in the future. Or maybe I'll just be content with the memory.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

The Graveyard Book


If you have a young person on your Christmas list who is partial to the macabre--I'm thinking of Wednesday Addams--you would do well to purchase for them Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book, a ghoulish update of Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book. I should caution that it's not for all children, particularly the very small, who might blanch at the opening chapter, in which a mother, father and daughter are knifed to death by a sinister murderer, and the baby boy escapes and finds sanctuary in a cemetery. As he grows, the assassin continues to hunt for him.

He is named Nobody Owens, and he is adopted by the ghosts of the large, ancient graveyard. A taciturn figure, Silas, who is hinted at being a vampire, becomes his guardian, bringing him food, but otherwise "Bod" as he is called is warned never to leave the grounds of the cemetery.

The story becomes episodic in nature, covering Bod as he learns the tricks of ghosts, such as fading and haunting (which comes in handy when he attends public school and has a run-in with bullies), discovers what ghoul-gates are, makes a friend of a young woman who was drowned and burned for being a witch, and witnesses the eerie danse macabre between the living and the dead. Gaiman excellently gives us a sense of place, as Bod explores and learns the grounds of the graveyard, which dates back to pre-Roman England. I will never visit a cemetery again without thinking of this book. The ghosts, who care for him, are the good guys here, while the living are not to be trusted.

I haven't had too much exposure to Gaiman. I never read any of The Sandman comic books, but I did read the adult novel American Gods and saw and enjoyed the film versions of Coraline and Stardust. There are certain parallels to other giants of young adult literature, namely the Harry Potter series, in that Bod learns the ways, rules and arcana of the dead. A pagan burial mound has a guardian, the Sleer, that is a touch Rowling-like. However, whereas Rowling took seven books of Yellow Pages length to tell her tale, Gaiman gets Bod to manhood in just over 300 brisk pages. He jumps into a scene that has Silas, a werewolf, and a winged mummy holding a pig in a cave beneath Krakow. We have no idea why they're there, or who they are battling, at least until the end of the book, and I kind of enjoyed the sense of wonderment that might have been lost had he spent three-hundred pages setting it up.

I see on Wikipedia that Neil Jordan owns the film rights to The Graveyard book (he also is supposed to be making another horror favorite of mine, Heart-Shaped Box) which is fine, but this book screams to be made into a film by Tim Burton. I was picturing Burton's stylistic tendencies as I read it.