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Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Away We Go


The morning before I saw Away We Go I spent some time in a dentist's chair to get some cavities filled. I was more uncomfortable during some of the scenes of the film than I was getting my teeth drilled. Not that all of Away We Go is cringe-inducing, but there's enough stain on it to keep it from being a worthwhile entertainment.

Written by the husband-wife team of Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, Away We Go carries much of what makes them distinctive in the literary world (I've never read anything by Vida, but I read Eggers' Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and know him as one of the main voices in the McSweeney's vein of literature). To be sure, Away We Go is full of a kind of arch sentimentality and self-aware preciousness that overwhelms any hope that this film can resonate with authenticity.

The story concerns a young unmarried couple, John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph. She gets pregnant, and they decide they can live anywhere they want, so embark on a tour of some cities across North America, trying to find the perfect home. This odyssey is kicked off when Krasinski's self-absorbed parents (Jeff Daniels and Catherina O'Hara) tell them they are moving to Antwerp before the baby is born. The characterizations of these two are pretty horrid, but they are mild compared to what's to come.

Starting in Phoenix, the two visit an old colleague of Rudolph's, Allison Janney. This is the first scene in which I wished I was back in the dentist's chair. Janney is a fine actress, but what she is asked to do here is a crime. She plays a loud and obnoxious woman who openly insults her children and makes jokes about her sagging breasts that can be heard by anyone within fifty feet. She and her husband (Jim Gaffigan), who seems to be heavily medicated, take our couple to the dog track, a particularly bourgeois endeavor (we don't see their home, which is no doubt decorated with prints by Thomas Kincaid).

If that scene wasn't horrible enough, Krasinski and Rudolph next go to Madison, Wisconsin to visit a childhood friend of his. She is played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, and here we have another example of a good actress forced to inhabit a character that only exists in the revenge fantasies of writers like Eggers and Vida. She plays a college professor, and when she's introduced breast-feeding a toddler, we know we're in for a litany of new-age quackery. Sure enough, she and her husband (Josh Hamilton) aren't really people, they are a chance for the filmmakers to vent against every cliche of holistic, hippie behavior known to man, even taking it into the realm of the unbelievable, such as Gyllenhaal's objection to the concept of strollers.

These scenes highlight a certain tone that really rankles me--the filmmaker looking back at his audience and winking at us, saying "People! Don't you just hate 'em? Aren't you glad you're normal like us?" There is such vitriol in these scenes that it's hard to contemplate where it stems from, other than that Eggers or Vida must have had some horrible friends in their lives.

Not all of Away We Go is like this. There are some lovely scenes in the film, especially when we focus solely on Krasinski and Rudolph. I liked a scene early on when they huddle in bed, their electricity out, and Rudolph wonders whether they are fuck-ups. Then, toward the end of the film, after they are dealing with Krasinski's brother, whose wife has left him, there is a poignant scene between the two of them on trampoline. But those scenes can't stand the weight of the general misanthropy on display in the rest of the film. I realize that for two people in love sometimes it can feel like they are the only sane people on Earth, but the ugliness of some of the characters in this film is too much.

The film is directed by Sam Mendes, and this is certainly a departure from his more polished and slick films like American Beauty, Road to Perdition, and Revolutionary Road. Away We Go is casually presented, like a shaggy-dog story, and appears to have filmed on the cheap. The look fits the kind of rambling mentality, though.

Krasinski, as the hirsute boyfriend, is fine, though he is asked to use his expression of a mixture of bemusement and incredulity that he specializes in on The Office. Rudolph is very good, excellently potraying the confusion and panic a woman in her situation would be going through.
Finally, there are some logistical problems that nagged at me. Krasinski is an insurance salesman of some type, though he certainly doesn't dress like one (I doubt any insurance company would hire someone who shows up for an interview in a tweed sport coat and Hush Puppies). At the outset, they are living in what looks like near poverty (they have a cardboard window) but have no trouble funding unlimited travel across the continent. And the resolution of the film seems to be a complete real-estate fantasy.

I can't recommend Away We Go, though it does have some admirable elements. In an attempt to isolate just what it is that makes a home for two likeable people, it manages to savage entire classes of people.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Battleground

William Wellman made two of the more important World War II films of the 1940s. The Story of G.I. Joe, from 1945, is said by many to be his finest picture, but unfortunately it is not available on DVD. Battleground, from 1949, is, and I watched it yesterday. It's a quintessential example of the "platoon" picture.

The film details members of the 101st Airborne as they participate in the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944. What's striking about the film is how the soldiers are depicted as regular guys with lots of fears and complaints, sort of like the Willie and Joe cartoons by Bill Mauldin. The heroism shown by these grunts comes from pain and suffering--they are not plaster saints.

The guys are holding the town of Bastogne in Belgium. Though they are Airborne, they are socked in on the ground, with a persistent fog shrouding the area, preventing air support (and supplies). The sergeant, a tobacco-chomping cuss, is James Whitmore. The other main members of the ensemble are Van Johnson, who supplies some comedy with his frustrated attempts to cook eggs in his helmet or woo a French girl; John Hodiak as a newspaperman, and George Murphy as the older guy (inevitably nicknamed "Pop") who has been discharged due to a family emergency but the can't leave until it's official. There's also Ricardo Montalban as the Latino kid from L.A., the Southern guy named Abner, a sourpuss with false teeth who complains about everything, and the new guy.

A lot of this feels familiar today, the stuff of parody, and to be sure the script is full of cliches. But in 1949 that may have all seemed very fresh, what with the war only a few years over. If one rolls their eyes at some of the collegiate patter, which at times seems strained, one can also admire the fluency of how so many characters are ably juggled.

The best thing about this movie is the black and white photography by Paul Vogel, whom I'm glad to see won an Academy Award for it. For almost the entire running time the characters are in fog, and you can really feel it in his work.

A few interesting cast notes: in the opening scene is Scotty Beckett, who was one of the Our Gang kids, and as Hanson is Herbert Anderson (then billed as Guy Anderson) who is best known as Mr. Mitchell in the Dennis the Menace series.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Three Westerns by William Wellman


It was tough to be a busy director in Hollywood during the 40s and not do Westerns, and William Wellman was no exception. I've recently taken a look at three he made in a five-year span. One is a masterpiece, another is an under-appreciated gem, and one is complete claptrap.

The masterpiece is The Ox-Bow Incident, from 1943. Based on a book by Walter Van Tillburg Clark, this short, searing film is a keen-eyed look at mob justice. It stars Henry Fonda and Harry Morgan (yes, Colonel Potter) as two cowboys in 1885 Nevada. They pull into town and take a seat at a bar to wet their whistles. Soon news comes that a local rancher has been murdered and his cattle stolen. A posse grows, and the leader (Marc Lawrence), a friend of the deceased, wants instant justice. An elderly shopkeeper, Henry Davenport, urges that they simply capture the criminals and hold them for trial.

Clark wrote the book in 1940, during the spread of Nazism across Europe, and was afraid that the same thing could happen in America. The notions of a fair trial and justice are derided as womanish. Even the only woman in the posse, Jane Darwell, is depicted as masculine. The bloodlust goes so far as to push aside religion, represented here as an African-American preacher (Leigh Whipper), whose quiet calls for reasonable behavior are ignored (in a pointed bit of dialogue, he tells Fonda that his own brother was lynched).

Three men are found and presumed to be the killers, as there's circumstantial evidence against them. The leader, Dana Andrews, is incredulous as his pleas for waiting for trial go unheeded. The other two are a senile old man, Francis Ford, and a Mexican, Anthony Quinn, who seems resigned to his fate.

Fonda and Morgan are our eyes to the action. They object, as any reasonable person would, but can do nothing to stop the revenge lest they be considered suspects as well. They, along with the viewer, watch in horror as the mob carries out their vigilantism, in what must have been a shock to audiences in those days (a similar early film, Fury, had a kinder ending).

In order to get The Ox-Bow Incident made, Wellman agreed to make two other films for Darryl S. Zanuck of Fox, sight unseen. One of them was Thunder Birds, the other was Buffalo Bill, a biopic of the Western hero and showman. Originally Wellman thought about making a film about the real Buffalo Bill, debunking the legend, but decided he didn't have the heart to do it, and instead went the other way, making a cartoonish film that has practically no facts in it.

I'm coincidentally reading a biography of Buffalo Bill, so I knew immediately it was a load of horseshit in the opening scene, when Bill (Joel McCrea) rescues a stagecoach from Indians and meets the beautiful Maureen O'Hara, who will become his wife. In reality, Bill met his wife in the relatively safe streets of St. Louis, and she was not the daughter of a Senator. At least they got her name right.

Wellman was embarrassed by this film, and he should have been. Although it is sympathetic to Indians, it's in a patronizing manner (Linda Darnell, looking like the maiden on a butter box, plays an Indian girl) and is completely alien to anything that actually happened in the West. The central scene is when Bill kills an Indian warrior, Yellow Hand (Anthony Quinn). That much is true, though the Indian's name was Yellow Hair, and the film discreetly leaves out that Buffalo Bill scalped him.

The film also depicts Bill as a reluctant celebrity, which is laughable, since he was on stage cashing in on his legend in the 1870s. The film ends right before he starts the show, but has an epilogue as he retires from the stage. He says, waving his hat while on horseback, goodbye to the crowd, and a small boy (on crutches no less) says, "God bless you, Buffalo Bill." When discussing this scene years later Wellman looked physically ill.

Finally there's Yellow Sky, a fascinating morality tale from 1948. The film starts very similarly to The Ox-Bow Incident, with some men on horseback (one of them Harry Morgan) pulling into town and walking into a bar. They ogle a sexy painting on the wall, as Fonda and Morgan did in Ox-Bow, and even the bartender and town drunk are played by the same actors. But these cowboys are actually bank robbers, led by Gregory Peck.

After pulling off a job they are pursued by soldiers into a salt-flat, and they have no choice but to surrender or attempt to cross it. They push on, and soon are out of water, their horses starting to falter, their faces blistered by the sun. It looks like the end for them until they see a town in the distance, but when they get to it they find it's a ghost town.

But there are two residents--a grizzled old prospector (James Barton) and his tomboyish granddaughter (Anne Baxter). She is reluctant to help them, but Barton insists on sharing food and water. Peck's colleague, Richard Widmark, suspects that they've found gold, and he wants it, and at first Peck agrees, but he's attracted to Baxter and the good man deep within comes to the surface.

I'd never heard of this film before my Wellman retrospective, and I'm glad I saw it, as it's a fine example of the genre, utilizing just a few characters in a simple setting and drawing sharp psychological distinctions among the characters. The dual between Peck and Widmark is especially well done. And there are the typical Wellman touches, such as the final shootout, as in The Public Enemy, taking place in a building but viewed from the street, as the viewer can only see muzzle flashes through the window. When all is quiet Baxter goes inside, and she provides the view for us as to who is dead and who is not.

The black and white photography by Joe McDonald is excellent. You'll get very thirsty watching the scenes of the bandits crossing the desert.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Michael Jackson

I suppose I will chime in and add to the bloviating on the death of Michael Jackson. As someone who was not a fan of his, the passing has not effected me emotionally, but as the non-stop coverage has gripped the world I've been forced to come to terms to what he meant to American culture.

One of the newscasters mentioned that he was likely the most famous entertainer in the world, and after a moment's thought I had to agree. Even though he's been out of the spotlight for quite a while--and when he was last in it he was being tried for child molestation--he was certainly the biggest celebrity on a global scale. There was no corner of the world he wasn't known, as music is much more universal than films. Furthermore, Jackson was famous for four of his five decades, and this fame ultimately consumed him. Like Anna Nicole Smith, who worshipped Marilyn Monroe and ended up dying like her, Jackson, who sought to emulate Elvis Presley (why else would he have married his daughter?) ended up succumbing the same way.

As I said, I am not a fan, but that has more to do with my particular music tastes. I can agree with anyone who declares him a genius, and a hugely important person in the history of music and American culture. Perhaps most importantly, he and MTV found each other in the early eighties and both were transformed (he was the first black performer to receive regular airplay on the station, something that seems incredible now).

I'm just not into his type of music. R&B and dance music doesn't hold a big sway over me. When Thriller was released in 1982, and I was in college, I sneered at it. I was listening to classic rock and college-radio stuff like Peter Gabriel, Talking Heads and The Police. I don't own any of his records, but even my grandparents bought a copy of Thriller. Then, as his lifestyle became more bizarre and grotesque, Peter Pan mixed with Phantom of the Opera, any admiration I had for him was replaced by a general sense of disgust. He may have been acquitted five years ago for sexual crimes against a child, but O.J. was acquitted for murder, too. Nothing will dissuade me from thinking him a pedophile. I'm somewhat amazed that this hasn't tempered the adulation of more people.

In watching all the coverage of Jackson's death, I'm struck by a few things. One is the interesting contradiction of his life: he was a precocious child, but as an adult he grew more and more childlike. Most TV chatterers imagine that he was in search for the childhood he never was allowed, which is certainly a sad way to live. Also, after seeing a lot of clips of him as a boy performing with his brothers, I think that his best stuff was those early days. The hit singles of the Jackson Five--ABC, I Want You Back, I'll Be There--were brilliant, and he was a mesmerizing performer. It's a shame that he was destroyed by his demons.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Twelfth Night in Central Park

This is the second production of Twelfth Night I've seen this year (you can find my review of a production at the McCarter Theater in Princeton dated March 11 on this blog). I mentioned that it's my favorite of Shakespeare's play, and it's tricky to direct because it's a screwball comedy that is haunted by the spectre of death. I've seen at least five productions of this play over the years, and the one I saw this week at the Delacorte Theater in New York's Central Park is the best. Daniel Sullivan, the director, strikes just the right balance between the giddy romantic comedy the melancholy meditations on loss.

To recap briefly, Twelfth Night concerns twins, Viola and Sebastian, who are separated in a shipwreck and believe each other drowned. They come to shore in Illyria, where the Duke Orsino loves Olivia, who will not entertain suitors because she is grieving for her dead brother. Olivia's uncle, the drunkard Toby Belch, is host to a foppish friend, Andrew Aguecheek, which annoys her Puritan steward Malvolio. Viola, out of concern for her safety, poses as a man and goes to work for Orsino, whom she is attracted to. He sends to her Olivia to press his suit, but Olivia ends up falling for Viola, whom she believes to be a man.

Sullivan, along with costume designer Jane Greenwood and set designer John Lee Beatty, have created a verdant world of comic delight. The set is a series of grassy knolls, and characters slide down them like children (the set is also convincing enough to confuse local wildlife--a raccoon has made a home there, and I saw it make a quick entrance and exit, but it did not appear at the curtain call). The production is also very musical, with a Celtic flavor. Many of the characters sing, and quite well.

The draw of this production is film star Anne Hathaway as Viola, and even from my seat in Row U she lights up the stage with star power. I thought she was a little too nimble with the language, rushing through the "Fortune forbid my outside hath not charmed her," speech, but those quibbles aside she was very assured in her Shakespearean debut.

Hathaway is surrounded by an able cast. Audra McDonald, a mult-Tony winning musical performer, makes a more robust than usual Olivia, but hits many comic notes (upon seeing Viola and her twin brother on stage at the same time, she gets big laughs saying "Most wonderful!"). Raul Esparza makes Orsino terrifically moony, and David Pittu was a crowd-pleaser as the fool Feste, who of course is the most sensible character in the play.

As for the clowns, there is a great assemblage here. Jay O. Sanders nails Toby Belch, and Hamish Linklater is terrifically physical as Andrew. This part is hard to mess up, and any actor would probably give his eye teeth to play him, but Linklater goes the extra mile, tossing himself around the stage like a rag doll. I also appreciated that Sullivan allowed a beat following his line, "I was adored once" to remind us that even this silly character has his pathos. Julie White makes a vivacious Maria, Olivia's lady in waiting.

Michael Cumpsty, who I've seen many times in Public Theater productions, is a marvelous Malvolio. One of the highlights of any production of Twelfth Night is the scene in which he reads a letter, written by Maria and purporting to be in Olivia's hand, declaring her love for him. It can make for low comedy, as the clowns spy on the preening steward as he convinces himself that Olivia loves him. At the McCarter Theater in March, the scene was like something out of a bedroom farce, with characters moving around the stage. In this production, Malvolio stands in one spot, and the clowns hide in a tree. It's a much more static approach to the scene, but worked well I think because it properly focuses on Malvolio's vanity, and ultimately his downfall.



Thursday, June 25, 2009

Moon


Warning: This review contains mild spoilers about a plot point that occurs very early in the film, but you may want to experience it without knowing that, so tread lightly.

Duncan Jones has directed a nice quiet sci-fi film in Moon. It is not the most original piece of work, though, and as I watched it I counted the films that it reminded me of, including Silent Running, Solaris, and most especially 2001: A Space Odyssey, with the use of a computer with a spookily level speaking voice and its own agenda.

However, the nods to 2001 are, by the end of the film, clearly part of Jones' plan, and he uses those cinematic references to catch snarky viewers like me off our guard.

The simple premise of the film is that a new form of energy is being mined on the moon. A one-man crew, assisted by a computer, looks over things. That crewman is Sam Rockwell who, we are told, is near the end of a three-year contract. He is looking forward to returning to his gorgeous wife and their adorable little girl. At first you may wonder why a guy would leave a family like that to spend three years in isolation on the moon, but don't get too critical, all will be answered.

Going out to investigate a mechanical problem, Rockwell crashes and is injured. When he awakens in the infirmary, the computer (called Gerty, and voiced eerily by Kevin Spacey) tells him that he will be fine in a few days. But Rockwell is suspicious, and when he goes out, against Gerty's instructions, to the scene of the crash, he finds something shocking--himself.

I won't go any further than that, but I needed to reveal that bit of plot to discuss the notion that the bulk of the film consists of Rockwell playing two parts, and the special effects involved to have both characters on screen at the same time. This is accomplished most effectively because Rockwell, even though he is playing two characters who are the same person, manages to make us see separate individuals. But the camera tricks are interesting. Jones starts with having them simply share the screen, but then it gets more complicated--they play a game of table tennis. Finally they are physically interacting, such as dressing each other or having a knockdown drag-out fight.

But I don't mean to suggest that this film is about special effects. Instead it's about identity, and what makes each of us unique. Discovering one has a doppelganger is surely very disquieting, and Jones and Rockwell both express this notion effectively.

I wouldn't say the film is excellent, though, just good. At times it seems like an extended Twilight Zone episode. Though I understand what Jones was trying to do with Gerty vis-a-vis the HAL 9000 in 2001, I couldn't help but spend half the film thinking to myself, "It's been done" (but I did like the monitor on Gerty which showed his mood with a changeable Happy Face application).

Appropos of nothing, Jones is of course the son of David Bowie. I can only be grateful he did not name his main character Major Tom.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Summer Hours

Before this film I had seen two of Oliver Assayas' work: Demonlovers, which I found incomprehensible, and Boarding Gate, a standard and seamy thriller. Therefore I was totally surprised by Summer Hours, which on first glance appears to be a pastoral drama about artsy-fartsy French people, but on further investigation is a metaphor for the crumbling of European culture.

We begin at a gathering of the Marly family. The widowed mother, celebrating her 75th birthday, is obsessed with how her house and pieces of art will be distributed after her death. Her uncle was a famous painter and collector, and she seems to regard his legacy and these objects with more affection than her own family.

She has three children, played by Charles Berling, Juliette Binoche, and Jérémie Renier. Berling is an economist who doesn't consider economics a science, Binoche is an edgy designer of housewares, living in New York and working for a Japanese department store chain and Renier works for Puma sneakers in China. The matriarch, Edith Scob, recognizes that Binoche and Renier are unlikely to ever live in France again, so she urges Berling, who lives locally and will be the executor of her will, to sell everything.

When the old lady dies, the film goes into how the three siblings deal with her inheritance. Berling, sentimentally, wants to hang on to the past as much as possible, but recognizes the wisdom of Binoche and Renier, who tell him that having a country house in France is not a benefit to them. Binoche is marrying an American, and Renier is accepting a promotion that will keep him in China for the foreseeable future. His children speak French at home, but go to an English-language school and have a fondness for American culture.

This film says a lot of smart things and in clever ways. For example, the film is bookended by parties at the country house. The opening has children in a treasure hunt, romping through the verdant grounds as their ancestors could have. The close finds one of these same children, a teenage granddaughter, throwing a party for her friends, who arrive on noisy motorcycles, play loud music on their laptops, and pass around joints. Assayas shows us the global economy has chipped away at the vault of French culture (and by extension, the other old world nations) and is being replaced by a world culture that is like a rude guest at a garden party.

There is much to admire about this film. The script is like a Swiss watch in it's structure and economy of parts. We hear Binoche and Renier say that they are unlikely to return to France, and then we realize that they have disappeared from the film. Asssayas also skillfully uses the camera. At times it is unmoving, as if we were seated at a party, and characters move in and out of frame. But then, as if we got up and are mingling, the camera moves through space, and his choice of when to do each are spot-on.

The acting is restrained and very good. Berling is the emotional center of the film, the man who tries to hold his family culture together at impossible odds. After some of his mother's things are donated to a museum and he visits them, he remarks that they look like they are caged. Binoche is also very good as a woman who has more going on than she's willing to tell us. There's a fragility beneath her steely exterior.

I think the thing I most appreciated about this film was that it didn't go where lesser films would go. After the mother dies there are numerous discussions of how the property should be divided, but for the most part the siblings come to accord. A lesser film would have been all about screaming matches, and the opening of old wounds. Assayas isn't interested in simple family melodrama, though. There's more afoot.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Roxie Hart/Thunder Birds


These are two William Wellman films from the early forties, made by Twentieth-Century Fox.

The plot of Roxie Hart will be familiar to many, as it's based on the same source material as the musical Chicago. Ginger Rogers is the title character, a gum-snapping good-time girl who is trying to break into show business. When her sad-sack husband (a very good George Chandler) shoots her lover (and also her manager), Roxie takes the blame in order to get her name in the papers, as female murder suspects are big celebrities in this period, the roaring twenties. She engages the sharpest attorney in the city, Adolphe Menjou, who doesn't care if she's guilty or innocent, just if she has $5,000.

This film is a lot of run, a fizzy confection that tells us right away its tone with this title card: "This picture is dedicated to all the beautiful women in the world who have shot their men full of holes out of pique." Then we see a series of newspaper headlines about murderesses, including "No Recollection of Picking Up Axe, Jilted Girl Testifies." The script, by Nunnally Johnson, crackles with electricity. I liked this exchange by Roxie's parents, upon hearing she's been arrested for murder: "They're gonna hang Roxie, Ma," says her father. "What did I tell you?" says Ma, not pausing in her knitting.

Occasionally the frenzy of the action gets a little too giddy, such as when the entire jailhouse breaks into a spontaneous dance (this is not a musical picture). But Rogers is great--we see lotso of her gorgeous gams, as is Menjou, who is always slightly ruffled (it does the make the mind reel a bit to consider that he and Richard Gere played the same role).

Thunder Birds is a routine military picture, which is interesting more for its connections to Wellman's biography. Set in Arizona at a flight school, Preston Foster plays a hot-shot veteran of World War I who takes a job as a civilian flight instructor. Conveniently, his old girlfriend, Gene Tierney, lives on a ranch down the road. Foster's students include a number of Brits, one of whom, John Sutton, falls for Tierney. He has a problem--he has vertigo, but he wants to fly to live up to the legacy of his father and brother, both aces who were shot down in their particular wars.

The action is an uncomfortable mixture of testosterone and Harlequin romance. Tierney has one of the loveliest faces in film history, so it's easy to see why men would fight over her.

Wellman was a World War I ace who was injured during the war and ended up as a flight instructor. There's a scene in the film when Foster, who was a friend of Sutton's father during the Great War, hands him a photograph of Sutton's father. The photo happens to be of Wellman during his war days.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Deep Springs



It was thirty years ago this week that I graduated from high school. At the time I had no idea what I wanted to do--I had some notion that I was going to be a great writer, and imagined myself the next Woody Allen. Now that I'm well into middle age, and edging into my eighth month of unemployment, it's easy to brood about what might have been, and wish, like that recent movie with Zac Efron, to be able to go back and do it all over again, or at least be able to address the young me and advise him where not to screw up.

A particular place has come to be a metaphor for this feeling. Some years ago I learned about a college called Deep Springs, which is in the California desert, tucked between Death Valley and Yosemite, right on the border with Nevada. I had occasion to think about it again while reading an article on William Vollmann, the writer, who is an alumnus. If I had to do it all over again, I would have liked to attend this school.

Now, when I was eighteen, this place would have been the last school I'd have wanted to go to. For one thing, I wouldn't have been able to get in. They accept a class of about a dozen a year, and my grades were strictly state-school level (an F in Geometry one marking period surely would kept me out of private schools, had I the gumption to apply). Secondly, it is all-male. I had zero success with girls back then, but I would have liked to have the opportunity. One of the main reasons I chose the school I did (SUNY-Stony Brook) was reading in one of those underground guide to colleges that the "dorms are like brothels." This, of course, didn't turn out to be true (by the time I got there, the experiment in co-ed roommates was over with). Deep Springs is also completely isolated, and students live a life that is somewhat monastic, in that they don't interact much with the outside world. Today, with the Internet, that may be a tough thing to enforce, but in my day it would have meant no TV, and that's something that would have been very traumatic for me.

But what would have disinclined me the most about Deep Springs is that it's a working college. They run an alfalfa farm and cattle ranch, and students work hard while they learn. At that point in my life, manual labor was anathema to me. Plus, livestock would have played hell with my allergies. No, I'm afraid the 18-year-old me wouldn't have thought twice about such a place.

And that's a shame. I don't regret the experience I had at college, in many ways they were the best years of my life, but I do wish I had shaken the lethargy that I had then, and still occupies to me this day. Most of my problems stem from a passivity on my part, a reluctance to act boldly. I would have also appreciated time getting into good physical condition, and learning basic chores such as how to fix things. No doubt I would have also been required to acquire more intellectual rigor, something I find lacking today. I am well-read, but not nearly as much as I would like to be.

Unfortunately, those hoary old maxims about us having only one life to live are achingly true. All I can do is to keep trying to learn (I am taking a course in technical communication, in the hopes that will open some lucrative career paths for me) and live in the present. It's just that the present isn't a very good place for me right now, a re-imagined past is much better.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Nothing Sacred


William Wellman made films in all genres (he even made a Tarzan picture) including one of the first examples of the screwball comedy, which became a staple of late-thirties and early-forties moviehouses. It was called Nothing Sacred, and was released in 1937.

The story centers on a newspaperman, Fredric March, who is in the doghouse with his editor (Walter Connolly, playing a character coincidentally named Oliver Stone) after a hoax is exposed (he was passing off a Harlem shoeshine-man as an Oriental sultan, a sequence that is unfortunately tinged with racism). March gets demoted to the obituary department, but spies an opportunity for redemption when he reads about a small-town girl who is dying of radium poisoning.

March goes to her Vermont town and runs into some taciturn Yankee hospitality (including a general store proprietress played by Margaret Hamilton, later the Wicked Witch of the West). He finally tracks down the girl, Hazel Flagg (Carole Lombard) and offers her an expense-paid trip to New York. She eagerly accepts, even though she knows that she is not dying--the town doctor, a drunken quack (Charles Winninger) misdiagnosed her.

Hazel becomes a big celebrity, and is toasted by everyone in New York for her courage. March falls in love with her, but of course we know that eventually she will be found out.

This film is viewed by many as a classic of the genre, but I was somewhat unimpressed. The script is certainly bouncy. Credited to Ben Hecht, a former newspaperman (he also wrote The Front Page and its remake, His Girl Friday), there were also uncredited contributions from some of the greatest wits of the era: Ring Lardner, George S. Kaufman, and Dorothy Parker among them. It's hard to top a line where a character is compared to a combination of a Ferris wheel and a werewolf. But it's interesting that Wellman, who so often used a moving camera, chooses to keep it static here. It's as if he's filming a play, and the lack of sense of movement leavened the zaniness.

The performances are wonderful, though, especially Lombard, who may have been the screen's greatest combination of beauty and comic ability. She would of course die in a plane crash on a trip selling war bonds during World War II.

This was just one of many films of the era to take a cynical gaze at journalism (Meet John Doe was another example). As a newspaperman, Hecht frequently made up stories, which is shall we say frowned upon. All of the "journalists" in this story are more interested in building up a story than presenting the truth.

As with A Star Is Born, Nothing Sacred is in bad need of restoration. The print is badly faded, and the Technicolor is now a pale watercolor. It was one of the first to use rear-projection and montage in Technicolor.

Friday, June 19, 2009

A Star Is Born


The only Oscar William Wellman won was for co-authoring the Original Story for 1937's A Star Is Born, the oft-remade show-biz fable that today, some seventy years later, seems like it could have never been original. But somebody had to dream up the plot that sees a young girl from the sticks become a star, while the man she loves slides into oblivion.

Janet Gaynor plays Esther Blodgett, a star-struck girl from North Dakota. She heads to Hollywood and finds that girls like her are a dime a dozen. She befriends a fellow trying to make it as a director (Andy Devine), and the two live in a boarding house and eke out an existence.

Devine gets Gaynor a job as a waitress at a big Hollywood party, and it's there she meets Norman Maine (Fredric March), a major star who is now a hopeless drunk. He takes a shine to her, and gets her a screen test. This leads to co-starring in his latest picture, but when it's screened, everyone loves her, not him. Eventually she wins an Oscar, and he interrupts her speech with a drunken tirade. She sticks with him, though, and he overhears her say she is going to quit the movies to take care of him. Not wanting to stand in her way, he walks into the ocean so she can have her dream.

I found it hard to enjoy this film for a number of reasons. Primarily it's a very dated concept. Some of it is enjoyably nostalgic, recalling the era of movie magazines and the most glamorous era in Hollywood (Gaynor does some nice impressions of Greta Garbo, Katharine Hepburn and Mae West), but most of it is strictly corny. Secondly, the two lead characters are very sketchy. Gaynor is a paragon of virtue, infinitely patient with March and seemingly without a flaw. March gives a canny performance, but we're left wanting more. What turned him into a drunk? The script tells us he's slipping, but we don't know why. And this film would rankle feminists. Gaynor only becomes a star because March wants to get in her pants, and the film's famous last line, "This is Mrs. Norman Maine," is not exactly a manifesto for a woman's individuality.

A final note: this film is in dire need of restoration. It was shot in Technicolor, and surely must have looked glorious at one point (especially the scene in which March wades into the surf as the sun sets). But the print used for the DVD I viewed is so dark in places to be almost incomprehensible.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Call of the Wild

After viewing William Wellman's 1935 adaptation of Jack London's The Call of the Wild, I took the occasion to read the story, which I had somehow gone all this time without reading. While the film is an excellent adventure, it's instructive to see how little relation it bears to the source material.

The film centers of Clark Gable as Jack Thornton, one of many men who went to the Yukon during the gold rush in the 1890s. He has gambled away the last of his winnings, but is approached by an old friend (Jack Oakie) who was jailed for reading people's mail. In one of those letters was the map to a large gold-strike, and he wants Gable to join up with him. They borrow some money and get outfitted.

While buying dogs for their sled-team, Gable sees a vicious St. Bernard, named Buck. It is too wild to use in a team, but after the dog attacks an English dandy (Reginald Owen), who wants to buy the dog only to kill it, Gable steps in and says it belongs to him. Eventually Gable and Buck reach an agreement, and the dog becomes his faithful companion.

As Gable and Oakie are headed to the mine, they come across a young woman (Loretta Young) surrounded by wolves. They rescue her, and discover that it is her husband, who has been missing for two days, that is the rightful owner of the mine. They tell her he is likely dead, and offer to cut her in on the deal if she will provide the missing information to find it. She reluctantly agrees, and of course she and Gable eventually fall in love.

At the end of the picture, Buck succumbs to the title condition, answering the howling wolves and siring some hybrid puppies, while Gable does a noble thing for Young.

The book bears little resemblance to the film, other than it is about a dog named Buck and he is owned at one point by a man named Thornton. London's story, of course, is told from Buck's point of view, beginning with his cushy life in the home of a California judge. He is stolen and sold several times, fighting with other dogs for supremacy, and he eventually leaves his master and joins a wolfpack. London's tone is almost elegiac, a reminder that nature eventually retakes its own.

The search for a goldmine, the romance with Young, the evil Englishman, are all creations of the screenplay. The only sequence that is in both is when Thornton bets that Buck can haul a thousand pound sled for a hundred yards.

So, if you are going to do a book report on The Call of the Wild, don't base it on the film, or you will get a bad grade and be embarrassed. The book doesn't take long to read anyway.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Night Nurse


Night Nurse is a prime example of pre-Code Hollywood. Released in 1931 (after a 22-day shoot by William Wellman) it's lurid and saucy, and also has a bizarre sense of humor mingled with violence.

Barbara Stanwyck is Lora Hart, who joins a hospital as a nursing student. In the early part of the film, the tone is comic, as she and her roommate, Joan Blondell, engage in some hijinks (such as an intern leaving a skeleton in Stanwyck's bed) and treating bootleggers for bullet wounds (one of them, Ben Lyon, becomes enamored of Stanwyck).

But at the halfway point, the film makes a melodramatic turn. Stanwyck graduates from school (in a scene that recalls novitiates taking the veil) and is assigned night duty for a rich woman, taking care of her two daughters, who are suffering from anemia. Stanwyck quickly surmises that the girls are being starved to death. The doctor in charge is a twitchy scoundrel who is in league with the real villain--the chauffeur, played with supreme reprehensibility by Clark Gable.

The film makes little sense, but it's fun to watch, particularly the clashes between Stanwyck and Gable, who is only missing a moustache to twirl. The girls' mother, Charlotte Merriam, has some delectable drunk scenes (she is introduced to us sprawled out on a bear-skin rug, a champagne glass in her hand), especially the one in which she repeats, "I'm a dipsomaniac and proud of it!"

Since it's pre-Code, there are also gratuitous shots of female flesh. Stanwyck is called on to undress to her skivvies at least three times. And the depiction of Lyon is extremely bizarre. He is a bootlegger, but is also the hero of the picture. He gallantly breaks into a Jewish deli to steal milk for the girls, confronts Gable and forces him out of the apartment at gunpoint, and then, in an ending that would never wash after the enforcement of the Code, he kills Gable ("takes him for a ride"), telling Stanwyck she won't be seeing him anymore while they have a light-hearted comic moment in his car.

As with other Wellman pictures of this period, he has taken standard fare and done his level best to make it interesting, using some interesting compositions and a moving camera. The film opens and closes with a point-of-view shot from the inside of a speeding ambulance.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Stoya

This year the AVN award for Best New Starlet went to Stoya, and I've been spending some happy time viewing several of her films. She's unusual for an adult star in many respects.

At 23 (her birthday was yesterday), Stoya began in the business as many do, by posing for web sites (especially those that deal with BDSM). Due to her fair skin and goth runaway look, she ended up getting pegged as an "alt-porn" star, but then she signed as a contract girl with Digital Playground, so almost all of her 23 films have been with that company (and 23 films in a couple of years is actually a pretty paltry amount for the adult world).

Though Stoya does have the frog-belly white skin of a goth chick, little else reflects that. She has no tattoos, and only in her recent films have nipple-piercings been evident. Indeed, her performance style has a winsome, girl-next-door quality, with a ready smile and seductive oeillades. Digital Playground lately has been making films that seek to fully explore certain porn tropes, and Stoya has been in two of them: Cheerleaders and Nurses. It turns out that she looks right in home in both a cheerleader outfit and a nurse's uniform.

Most of her films for Digital Playground are simply collections of scenes with generic titles like Stoya: Heat, or Stoya: Very Hot (the latest is Stoya: Scream). Typically she plays a young lady who coquettishly angers her boyfriend (in one she puts the juice bottle back in the frig with only a little bit left) and he playfully rebukes her before they engage in their business.

Stoya also has an advantage of an appearance that suggests mainstream actresses. She has a little Kate Beckinsale, a dash of Neve Campbell, and most strikingly resembles Anne Hathaway, especially as she appeared in Rachel Getting Married. For those who would like to see Miss Hathaway in flagrante delicto, watching Stoya is the next best thing.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Public Enemy


In a post in July of 2007, I wrote about a collection of Warner Brothers gangster pictures. As part of my William Wellman retrospective, I have occasion to discuss in further detail one of those films, 1931's The Public Enemy, the film that made James Cagney a star.

Warner Brothers cornered the market on the gangster picture, and tried to make them as gritty and realistic as possible. This earned calls from some for censorship, so the studios added title-cards at the beginning and end to place the film in a sociological context.

The Public Enemy is the story of Tom Powers, who grows up on the streets. His father is a cop (we see him in only one wordless scene, where he beats Tom with a razor strop for stealing), his older brother (Donald Cook) is an upstanding citizen, and his mother (Beryl Mercer) babies him. He and his friend Matt (Edward Woods) steal goods for a local fence called Putty Nose, and eventually gets jobs with a local bar owner and gangster (Robert Emmet O'Connor) as enforcers during prohibition. We see how good Tom is at his job when he visits a local saloon owner who is using the competition's beer.

Tom gets rich, but his brother, who returns from World War I with shell shock, is disgusted by his younger brother's lifestyle. There's a wonderful scene at Cook's homecoming party, which has the comedic sight of a large beer keg sitting in the middle of the table. Cook acts out, smashing the keg and crying out that the beer has blood in it.

Tom is oblivious, and lives the high life. He has one girlfriend, Mae Clarke (who is the famous recipient of a grapefruit in the face) and then he takes up with the glamorous Jean Harlow. But of course Tom will end up paying for his transgressions. When Woods is killed by a rival gang, he seeks revenge, engaging in a shoot out in a storefront during a torrential downpour. He stumbles out, a gun in each hand, wounded, and falls into the flooded gutter, uttering "I ain't so tough." He's not dead, though, and ends up in the hospital, but then gets kidnapped by his enemies. Cook and Mercer wait at home for news, and Cook gets a call that Tom is being brought home. Mercer, still denying her son's criminal enterprises, merrily goes up to his room to get it ready. There's a knock on the door and Cook answers it, and Tom is indeed back--trussed up and stone dead, and he falls forward to the floor.

That scene was extremely shocking in 1931, and still has a powerful impact today. The way it's shot, head on, with a completely black background behind Tom, recalls something out of a Universal horror picture. The shootout scene is also vividly rendered. Of course it is in the rain, a Wellman trademark, and furthermore is done off-screen. Tom goes into the storefront, and we can only hear the gunshots and the screams of those he kills. In fact, much of the violence in this film is off-screen. Putty Nose, who has betrayed Tom, gets his while playing a piano, but the camera pans away and focuses on Woods, who watches with an expression of horror as Tom pulls the trigger and we hear Putty Nose falling against the keys.

Cagney had made a few films before this one, and was initially cast in the part of Matt, while Woods was slated to play Tom. After a few weeks Wellman realized the mistake, the switch was done, and film history was made. Woods would go on to obscurity, while Cagney would become one of the biggest stars in the Hollywood pantheon. Cagney was a different kind of actor, a guy who still had some of the streets in him. A lot of actors in the early sound period over-enunciated their lines, and many were British because they were better trained in diction. But Cagney had none of that--he spoke with the rat-a-tat rhythms of the Upper East Side of New York. In some ways, Cagney was the beginning of naturalistic acting in films.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Wild Boys of the Road

William Wellman followed up Heroes for Sale with another film about the economic woes of the nation, Wild Boys of the Road. This one has stood the test much more than many other films from the period, and is something of a classic.

The film opens with the hijinks of two high school buddies, played by Frank Darro and Edwin Phillips. Darro lives a comfortable middle class life, while Phillips' family is struggling to make ends meet. But Darro learns that his father has been laid off, and he wants to do something to help. He sells his beloved jalopy, but that's not enough, and he and Phillips decide they don't want to be a burden and hit the road, hoping to go to a big city where they can find jobs.

They hop a freight train and meet a fellow traveler, Dorothy Coonan, who is dressed as a boy. They visit Coonan's aunt, but she turns out to be the operator of a brothel. They keep pressing east, dealing with railroad cops. Coonan is raped by a railroad employee (Ward Bond), and the increasing large tribe of kids mete out justice. Then Phillips meets with a grisly accident, leaving him with only one leg.

The kids set up a camp in a yard full of sewer pipes outside Cleveland, but the local authorities flush them out with the use of firehoses. The three friends move on to New York, and Darro has a line on a job, but before he can start he's arrested for robbery. A happy ending occurs when a kindly judge promises to do all he can to give the kids a break.

Wild Boys on the Road is a startlingly effective bit of social commentary. It has the trappings of a teen comedy (the opening scenes involve the boys sneaking into a dance) and there are Andy Hardy-like gags about eating large portions of pie and cake. This makes the subsequent scenes of poverty and desperation all the more keenly felt. The scene in which Phillips loses his leg is very poignant. Wellman used close-ups sparingly, equating them with exclamation points, so when he uses them as Darro comforts Phillips just before his leg is to be amputated the effect is powerful.

As for Coonan, she was the fourth (and last) wife of Wellman's, and the mother of his children. She was a dancer with Busby Berkeley who caught Wellman's eye. She refused to date him until his divorce was final, and even after that was reluctant to succumb to his charms. In an interview he said that he implored her to "give me a chance to make your life miserable." Coonan would only make a few more films before becoming a full-time mother.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Heroes for Sale


During the darkest days of the Great Depression, movie studios took on different approaches. MGM, for the most part, pretended that it wasn't going on at all, and put on a happy face so moviegoers could forget about their troubles. Warner Brothers, on the other hand, was a studio more connected to the proletariat, and didn't shy away from making stories about what was going on in the country. William A. Wellman's 1933 film, Heroes for Sale, is a prime example.

The story begins in the trenches of World War I, when Tom Holmes, played by Richard Barthelmess, performs a heroic act, but it is wounded and taken prisoner by the Germans. His cowardly colleague takes the credit and gets a medal. After the armistice, Barthelmess returns to normal life, and his friend, guilty about what happened, gets him a job in his father's bank. But Barthelmess is hooked on morphine and has to go to a rehab asylum (drug references like these were abolished after the institution of the Code).

He gets clean, though, and finds a job with an industrial laundry. He lives in a boarding house and falls in love and marries a young woman (Loretta Young) and has playful debates with a rabid Marxist (Robert Marrat). The film turns on Marrat's invention, which improves washing machines, and means that many workers from the laundry are laid off. This leads to a riot by the workers, which Barthelmess tries to stop, but he's arrested and convicted for inciting it. When he's released Marrat tells him he's now rich (Barthelmess invested in the invention), but he chooses to give his money to the hungry, and hits the road, living as a hobo.

Heroes for Sale is not great cinema--it's overly melodramatic and has some hammy acting--but it's of interest to anyone who is interested in the cultural history of the 1930's. There's a lot to digest here, from the treatment of returning veterans to drug addiction to the prevalence of communism during the period. This last one is interestingly portrayed in the character played by Marrat, who starts praising Lenin, but when he becomes rich he does a one-eighty, saying that the destitute should be killed. There's also some pointed scenes involving a "Red Squad" that throws suspected communists out of town.

Students of Wellman will also notice some trademarks of his. One of them was his fondness for rain scenes, and Heroes for Sale is bookended by them. The war scene that opens the film is in a rainstorm, and the ending, in which Barthelmess and some fellow hard-luck men are rousted from underneath a bridge, is during a storm. As he and his friend walk along the road, the rain stops and Barthelmess says, "Things are getting better. It's stopped raining."

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Midnight Mary

In this 1933 Willam Wellman film, we begin in a courtroom at a murder trial. A prosecutor is giving his summation directly to the camera, so in effect we the audience are the jury. The camera then moves in on the accused, a beautiful young woman who is nonchalantly reading Cosmopolitan magazine. She goes into the clerk's office to await the verdict, and looking at the spines of the bound court records, embossed with their years, she remembers back to how she got in this mess, and we learn her story in flashback.

That's a crackerjack opening, and we learn that Midnight Mary, played well by Loretta Young, barely out of her teens, has had a hard-knock life. Orphaned as a young girl, in and out of jail, she eventually becomes the moll of a gangster (Richardo Cortez). During a robbery of an after-hours club, she meets a blue-blooded attorney (Franchot Tone). Deciding to try to make it straight, she accepts his help and works as a secretary in his firm. But when she realizes her past could jeopardize his reputation, she breaks up with him, telling him that she was playing him for a sucker, and ends up back with Cortez. But when Cortex realizes that Tone is a witness to a crime, he goes gunning for him, and Young kills Cortez to protect her true love.

This is yet another example of a standard double-bill story dressed up a bit by Wellman's touches. The economy of storytelling through visuals is masterful, and Wellman employs a lot of tricks he learned in the silents. Also, the use of wipes to transition scenes gives the film a compelling motion. And I can't say that I'd ever seen a Loretta Young picture before, but she was very good playing a familiar character. Wellman lights her to maximum effect, and she glows with inner light.

Since this was a pre-Code film, there are some naughty bits, such as an unwed mother (Mary's sidekick, Una Merkel), and just the tone of the film in general. In those years, from 1929 to 1934, before films were required to be approved by the Hays Office, female characters were far more interesting, and could express sexuality.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Frisco Jenny


This 1932 film, starring Ruth Chatterton in the title role, was essentially a remake of her first big starrer, Madame X (and was more than a bit similar to the oft-remade weepie Stella Dallas)--a woman of disreputable position sacrifices everything for a child. This one begins in San Francisco in 1906. Chatterton's Jenny works in her father's saloon, where girls hustle customers. She's in love with the piano player, but her father is against the union: "I'd rather she marry a Hottentot." Chatterton has a bun in the oven, though (which was possible in a pre-Code picture). But if you know your disaster history you know what's coming, as the Earth shakes and Chatterton's father and sweetheart are killed.

She gives birth to the baby in the cellars of Chinatown, and eventually turns over the child to a rich couple until she gets back on her feet. She does, but decides to let the couple keep the child as their own. Chatterton goes on to become the queen of vice, running prostitution, gambling, and bootlegging operations (there's a great scene where her madams share high tea with her as if they were all society swells). She keeps tabs on her son, who has no idea she is his mother, even when he becomes district attorney and ends up trying her for murder.

As stated, there is almost nothing original about this film, even at its early date. But William A. Wellman does use some interesting tricks to keep a viewer interested. In the early days of sound, many films had a static feel to them, since the microphone had to be secured on set. Wellman bristled at this, and was among the first to use a mobile boom mike to allow his characters to talk and move at the same time. Also, there is a masterful use of whip pans in the trial scenes of the film at the end.

Also, as we will see in future screenings of Wellman films, one of his trademarks was to have key events happen off-screen. For instance, Chatterton asks her boyfriend to let her tell her father of her pregnancy, but he keeps saying no. She leads him out of frame, and it's up to our imagination to wonder what she does, because he says yes (my dirty mind imagines something pretty racy). Then a key moment in the film, when Chatteron's political backer, Louis Calhern, shoots a man, it happens behind an overturned table. When I take a look at Public Enemy this trademark will reappear, as it will in several of Wellman's films.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

The Hangover


There have been a lot of films about wild Vegas toots, from the abysmal (Very Bad Things) to the sublime (Go!), but the genre may have to be retired after The Hangover, which exhausts all the elements of the blowout Sin City bachelor party. The movie is rude, profane, and very funny--I haven't laughed so much since Superbad.

The set-up is pretty simple--four guys head to the desert for a bachelor party. Three of them, including the groom, are old friends, while the fourth is the bride's brother, who is decidedly weird (I think his defining line of dialogue is when he's told that card-counting at blackjack is illegal, but he replies, "It's frowned upon, like masturbating on an airplane.") They toast the groom on the roof of Caesar's Palace, and the next thing they know they wake up in their suite, the place a disaster area, with a chicken wandering around, a live tiger in the bathroom, a baby in the closet, and the groom is nowhere to be found.

The meat of the film is the three remaining hangover sufferers piecing together what just happened the night before. The hotel room is a classic bit of art direction, and as the camera pans it the audience that I was with was howling with laughter. Evidence of debauchery mounts--the hen-pecked dentist (Ed Helms) discovers he's missing a tooth; the callow schoolteacher (Bradley Cooper) has a hospital bracelet on his wrist, and the Ewokish brother-in-law (Zach Galifianakis) delights in manipulating the baby's arm in rude gestures.

Eventually the baby is returned to his mother, a woman that Helms, to his horror, discovers he married the night before. The drunken wedding-chapel marriage is well-worn territory--it's been done everywhere from the TV show Friends to last year's What Happens in Vegas, but Helms is so pitch-perfect that we can excuse the cliche, even if his new bride, Heather Graham, is right out of a Penthouse Forum fantasy (she's a stripper and a hooker).

As these three hapless guys try to find the groom, they discover more and more of the things they did the night before, such as stealing a police car, locking a Chinese man in the trunk of their Mercedes, and breaking into Mike Tyson's compound. Not all of it is funny--the Chinese character edges into caricature, and Tyson's scenes fall flat. I would have preferred to see the encounters with Vegas personalities Carrot Top or Wayne Newton, which are hinted at in the closing credits.

Another problem is the character of Helms' Xanthippe girlfriend, played by Rachel Harris, who is such a harridan that it's hard to believe anyone would tolerate her for more than five minutes. But any faults the film has are excusable because of the bonhomie created by the laughs generated by the film in general.

The Hangover is directed by Todd Phillips, who specializes in films that are better than their time-worn premises, like the Road Trip and Old School. This one fits right in with his oeuvre.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

The Purchase Price

This 1932 film by William A. Wellman is an entertaining mixture of comedy and melodrama. Barbara Stanwyck, who made many pictures with Wellman, stars a New York nightclub singer. She hopes to marry a rich young man, but her disreputable past scotches things. Wellman adds a nice touch to the breakup scene when through the window we can see a truck picking up garbage.

Stanwyck wants to get away from the Damon Runyon-esque crowd she runs with in New York, and moves to Montreal. But stooges of the racketeer who fancies her track her down. She makes an impulsive decision to swap places with the hotel maid, who used Stanwyck's picture in a matrimonial arrangement with a North Dakota wheat farmer.

The rest of the film finds Stanwyck trying to adjust to the hardships of farm life with her new husband, George Brent. He is pleased to find that she looks like the picture she sent (which of course was sent by the maid), but when she slaps his face and bars him from the bedroom on their wedding night, he descends into a permanent funk. She grows to love him, though, and even tries to entice him to bed by laying out her frilliest nightgown (no doubt this was the "Forbidden" part of this pre-Code film). Eventually she helps him save the farm and presumably it's happy ever after.

As I said, the tone of this film varies wildly. At many times it seems to be a comedy, as there's lots of slapstick, but then it veers into melodrama, especially with a scene in which Stanwyck visits a woman who has just had a baby, her husband having run off. This scene shows the harshness of prairie life, and has an interesting performance by a teenage Anne Shirley as the woman's older daughter. The uneveness of tone could be a problem, but I didn't mind it, and in fact it made the film seem more authentic, as life is pretty much an equal mixture of comedy and drama.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Other Men's Women


William A. Wellman came to Hollywood first as an actor, but before that he was a World War I flying ace, then a wing-walker. Douglas Fairbanks discovered him and got him acting parts. Soon Wellman gave up acting, finding it an embarrassing profession, and got into the production side of the business. He directed many silent films, including Wings, the first film to win an Academy Award for Best Picture. Wings is (still) unavailable on DVD, so I'll move on to some pre-Code talkies that Wellman did for Warner Brothers in the early thirties.

I start with Other Men's Women, which was originally titled Steel Highway, but was given this awkward and tawdry title to spice up the box-office. It's standard fare, the kind of film that rolled off the assembly lines and at seventy-minutes in length, was no doubt was part of a double feature at the local bijou, complete with newsreel, short, and cartoon.

The film tells the story of two life-long friends who are now railroad workers. Regis Toomey is an engineer, and Grant Withers is his fireman. Withers is a single guy, a carefree sort. He dates a lot of women, though a waitress at a local diner (called "Eats"), played by Joan Blondell, wants him to marry her. Withers has a bit of a drinking problem, so Toomey takes him under his wing and invites him to live at his house for a while. Big mistake.

Toomey is married to Mary Astor (pictured), and over the months that Withers lives with them the two fall in love. Withers wants to come clean with Toomey, but Astor doesn't, though her fidgety behavior clues Toomey in soon enough. The two men have it out while in the cab of the train, and they fight, causing a collision. Toomey is blinded, and Withers feels terrible guilt. This leads to a climax during a rainstorm that threatens a railroad bridge to be flooded away.

When you watch a film from 1931, there are certain things you have to be prepared for, and one of them is the heavily-ladled melodrama, and the subsequent style of acting. Everything must be taken at face value, as things go by quickly. We don't really see why Astor falls in love with Withers, we just have to accept that she does. But if you look a little below the surface, you can see where Wellman makes this film more interesting than it has a right to be, especially with the scenes involving trains. The opening scene has Withers hopping off a train in front of Eats, and then he goes in, slaps Blondell on the rump, orders his breakfast, and then finishes it time to go back out and hop on the last car of the train, pull himself up to the top, and run along the boxcars. The use of the moving train is a bit breathtaking. The same can be said for a scene in which Withers talks with James Cagney, as another worker. They are standing on top of a moving boxcar, talking about a boxing match, and casually duck as they go under a bridge. There are clearly no stunt men involved, and it would appear the danger is real.

Of course, there are some things that can't be overlooked, such as Toomey's blindness, which he shows by closing his eyes. Then there's the climax, in which Toomey, a blind man remember, makes his way across a busy railroad yard, boards a train, and drives it onto a bridge. That's a feat more impressive than anything Ray Charles ever did.

As for the pre-Code angle (this film is part of a DVD set called Forbidden Hollywood), well, it's certainly not very racy. Yes, Withers and Blondell would seem to be in a relationship that is not exactly chaste, though Blondell does tell customers that she's "A.P.O.," which stands for "Ain't Puttin' Out." The most notable thing about this film is that it is one of Cagney's first, and his starpower, even in his brief scenes, is plainly evident.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Beau Geste



I first saw Beau Geste twenty years ago at the Biograph in New York City, a revival house that was doing a series on the films of 1939, which is generally regarded as the greatest year in Hollywood history (there are very few revival houses left in New York anymore--they've been pretty much done in by the proliferation of classic films on DVD). At the time I thought it was a grand adventure, and my opinion hasn't changed any by seeing it on the small screen yesterday.

Based on a novel by P.C. Wren, the film opens in North Africa. A company of French Foreign Legion arrives at a fort to find that all the occupants are dead. Eerily, the corpses are arranged at the turrets, propped up holding guns. One dead body contains a letter confessing to the theft of a valuable sapphire. Soon afterward, the place mysteriously goes up in flames. It's a great opener.

We then flashback to the three Geste brothers. They are adventure-loving orphans who have been taken in by a kind-hearted English aristocrat. The boys will end up being played by Gary Cooper, Robert Preston, and Ray Milland (and young Beau is played by the juvenile Donald O'Connor). Money becomes tight, though, and it looks like the family's most valuable possession, a large sapphire called the Blue Water, will have to be sold. But then it is stolen, and the brothers, each claiming responsibility for the theft, run off and join the Foreign Legion.

The Foreign Legion was ripe territory for adventure writers, because they took men from all nations and asked no questions, so it was an ideal haven for criminals on the lam. The Geste brothers run into all sorts of characters, including a cowboy (Broderick Crawford), a sniveling Russian thief (J. Carroll Naish), and a sadistic sergeant (Brian Donlevy, who was Oscar-nominated). While they are stationed in the remote Fort Zinderneuf, the commanding officer dies and Donlevy takes over, leading to a mutiny.

While watching this film it struck me how times have changed. If this movie were remade today (it was originally a silent film in 1926, and then was remade in 1966) it would cost a hundred million dollars and would have a cast of thousands (or be heavily CGIed). The 1939 film is done on a very modest scale--there are few sets, and the desert locations were shot in Yuma, Arizona. Cooper and Preston don't even attempt English accents, and there is no mention of the politics involved. Instead of scene of epic battles, the film suggests sweep, and has such a delicate touch that one doesn't miss the excesses of today. Nothing can top the simple shot near the end of Robert Preston, standing on a sand dune, blowing charge on his bugle, waving his comrades on.

This film was directed by William A. Wellman, and this post kicks off a retrospective I'll be doing of his work. He was a director, like Howard Hawks and Michael Curtiz, who was directly opposite the auteur theory--a craftsman who made all sorts of films, many of them famous, but has faded largely into obscurity today. As I go along I'll be sharing what I learn about Wellman.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Easy Rider


This summer marks the fortieth anniversary of the release of Easy Rider, a motorcycle picture made for $350,000 that has ended up being emblematic of a generation. A big hit when it was released, it's undergone some reappraisals since then, becoming something of a bellwether for attitudes about the sixties. At times, such as the Reagan eighties, it was pretty much relegated to the status of a relic of the counter-culture, like a wizard bong. But today, when Hair can be a hit on Broadway, Easy Rider looks pretty relevant, and darn if it isn't a pretty good movie.

Low budget biker flicks were a staple of the sixties. Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, and Jack Nicholson were veterans of them. Fonda got the idea for the film from a real incident in which two biker hippies were killed in Florida. He got Bert Schneider (the man behind the Monkees) to executive produce, and Columbia put up the money. Fonda produced, Hopper directed, and they both wrote the screenplay, along with Terry Southern (who also wrote Dr. Strangelove, among other films).

Easy Rider is firmly set in the Western idiom, with Fonda and Hopper starring as Wyatt and Billy (names lifted from two heroes of the Old West--Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid). They buy some cocaine in Mexico, and then sell it to a rich guy near LAX (played by the recently convicted Phil Spector, who provided his own Rolls-Royce). They take the cash and hide it in the gas tank of Fonda's chopper, and then head across the American West to Mardi Gras. If we didn't get the Western connections, there is a pointed scene in which Fonda and Hopper work on their bikes while in the foreground a rancher works with his horses. Clearly these two bikers are the outlaws of their day, riding across the land, camping out at night (no motel will rent them a room), and living in complete freedom.

The two ride through Monument Valley, a nod to John Ford, and pick up a hitchhiker, Luke Askew. He takes them to a commune, where naive young escapees from suburban America are attempting to create a utopia. The script looks at them with something of a gimlet eye, as Askew tells Fonda that these are city kids who have no idea how to grow food, and will probably starve. This section of the film is also enlivened by a scene at an Indian burial ground. It was completely improvised (it should be also noted that whenever characters are smoking pot, the actors were really smoking it). I loved when Fonda asks Askew if he ever wishes he were someone else. "I'd like to try Porky Pig," Askew answers.

Fonda and Hopper move on and end up in a jail cell in some small hick town. They meet Nicholson, who shares a cell, coming down from a bender. He is a lawyer who works for the ACLU, and gets them sprung for a minimal fine. He also tells them they're lucky, because this part of the country has a "scissor-happy American beautification" program, taking rusty-razor blades to long hair. When Nicholson hears they are headed for Mardi Gras, he wishes he could go along. "Do you have a helmet?" Fonda asks, and Nicholson says he does--a football helmet, which he wears as he happily rides behind Fonda.

At this time period Nicholson was a star of marginal films, like Roger Corman horror pictures, biker films, and as the author of Head, the psychedelic Monkees film. For Easy Rider he received the first of his sackful of Oscar nominations, and he sure deserved it, making his George Hanson a vivid creation. He's the son of privilege in a redneck town who is sympathetic to the counter-culture without being part of it. In the film's crystallizing scene, he tells Hopper, as they sit around a campfire, "This used to be a hell of a country. I can't understand what went wrong." Hopper says that they are disliked because of their long hair, but Nicholson corrects him, that what they fear is that hippies represent freedom. Hopper says, "What's wrong with freedom?" and Nicholson replies, "But talkin' about it and bein' it, that's two different things. I mean, it's real hard to be free when you are bought and sold in the marketplace. Of course, don't ever tell anybody that they're not free, 'cause then they're gonna get real busy killin' and maimin' to prove to you that they are. Oh, yeah, they're gonna talk to you, and talk to you, and talk to you about individual freedom. But they see a free individual, it's gonna scare 'em."

While they are with Nicholson they stop at a small cafe where local rednecks regale them with an onslaught of insults, while the teenage girls flirt with them. Hopper had his casting director use actual citizens of the small Louisiana town, and told them to say anything they wanted, and the vitriol flows like water. I think the best insult is the older man who says the bikers look like the result of a gorilla love-in. The boys decide they aren't so hungry and move on.

Eventually Fonda and Hopper make it to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. They end up at a whorehouse, where they pair off with Karen Black and Toni Basil (yes, the dancer and singer who had a hit with "Hey Mickey"). Here is where the film takes a turn toward the excess of sixties filmmaking that today seems most dated--the acid trip. The four of them drop acid while in a New Orleans cemetery, and we get some surreal images and trippy editing.

The film then ends famously with the two of them being blown off the road by another pair of overall-wearing rednecks (the one with the gun has a monstrous goiter on his neck). Is this the death of idealism? It's hard to say, since the two of them are not really represented as white knights. Hopper is nakedly capitalistic, a guy who always wants to push on and has the ultimate dream of getting rich and retiring to Florida. Fonda is more Zen (and his nickname is Captain America, as his bike and clothing are covered with the stars and stripes), and during the last dialogue sequence he cryptically tells Hopper that "We blew it."

What's amazing about Easy Rider is that through all of the marijuana haze, this is a well-made movie. Hopper took a year to edit it, and his influence from European filmmakers is evident (he utilizes a lot of flash cuts, even giving a quick cut of Fonda's burning motorcycle some ten or fifteen minutes before it happens), but it all works. The cinematography by Laszlo Kovacs is stunning. From what I've read, this is how it was among the hippies. Communes ended up as filthy sties of child neglect and bad nutrition, and it's true that, especially in the South, people were beaten or even killed for having beards or long hair. The division of America was clear and succinct, and if you weren't with us, you were against us. This feeling is palpable in the film, particularly in the cafe scene, which has a rich tension.

Then there's the music. In those days all that was needed to put a song in a movie was the artist's permission, so Easy Rider is full of classic rock songs. The opening credits are to Steppenwolf's "Born to Be Wild," which is a blast of energy, and then there are songs by The Byrds, The Band, Jimi Hendrix, The Electric Prunes, and Bob Dylan. It's quite a time capsule.

Easy Rider ending up being one of the films that marked a major shift in Hollywood, as the old guard gave way to the rebels, which led to the remarkable seventies. If it's true that Hopper and Fonda never made as interesting a film since then (although Hopper shows up as a supporting actor in a lot of fine films) then they certainly did their duty with this one.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Nixonland


Rick Perlstein, in his book Nixonland, asks a seemingly simple question: In 1964, the Democratic Party, behind Lyndon Johnson, trounced the Republican candidate, Barry Goldwater, with a sixty-percent majority. Just eight years later, Richard Nixon, the Republican, won a similar landslide against the Democratic candidate, George McGovern. In between, what happened?

The book, subtitled The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, has a couple of answers. One of them is of course the remarkable comeback of Nixon, who after losing the '62 California governor's race famously said to the press that they wouldn't have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore. How wrong he was. He spent a few years in the wilderness and overcame the image of a loser to come back to win the 1968 nomination and then a close election. Perlstein, who is a liberal, can't help but respect the man, and carefully documents his political genius.

The other reasons for the shift in the political culture had to do with perhaps too much success by the Democrats. Passage of the Civil Rights bill led to ramped up demands by African-Americans, many of whom responded with violence. As the civil rights struggle moved to the Northern cities, riots became a way of life during the long hot summers. Watts, Cleveland, Detroit, and Newark nearly burned to the ground, and the police were often criminal in killing the innocent as well as the guilty. Black leaders like Stokely Carmichael called for an armed black resistance. White America got scared.

Perlstein begins the book with a brief biography of Nixon, the most psychoanalyzed president in U.S. history. He was an unlikely leader, as he was essentially unlikeable. Perlstein uses a theme that started for Nixon at Whittier College. A club called the Franklins consisted of the well-moneyed swells who had their whole lives laid before them, while Nixon started an alternative society called the Orthogonians, which were the kids from modest backgrounds who had to work for what they got. No one personified the Franklins like the Kennedy family, who were Nixon's bete noirs his entire career.

Then the book takes a chronological path through the U.S. from 1965 to 1972. We start with the Watts riots, and Martin Luther King's attempts to integrate Northern cities like Chicago, where white children sang racist jingles while jump-roping. "Chicago could teach Mississippi how to hate," said King. Meanwhile the Vietnam War continued to rage, and eventually the public would begin to sour on it, with LBJ taking the blame.

By the time 1968 rolled around, LBJ would abdicate, Nixon would vanquish Rockefeller and Reagan, and the stage was set for the most tumultuous election in U.S. history. Vice-President Hubert Humphrey got the Democratic nomination despite not winning one single primary, enraging the liberal factions of the country, leading to the riot in Chicago. I've read about the Chicago convention for years, and while Perlstein's depiction is by necessity brief, it's vivid. Every time I read about Abraham Ribicoff, from the podium of the convention, condemning the "Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago," I get chills. Perlstein, citing lip-readers, gives us Mayor Daley's response: "Fuck you, you Jew son of a bitch, you lousy motherfucker, go home." When the dust settled in November, Nixon was president. As Perlstein writes, "The boy who'd spent his childhood cloistered in a tower reading, who hated to ride the school bus because he thought the other children smelled bad, the feral junior debater, this founder of fraternal societies for the decidedly unfraternal, would, come January 20, be the leader of the free world."

Nixon's first term would have peaks and valleys, but he stabilized things in 1971 with a speech in which he gave a name to his supporters--the Silent Majority, the hard-working white Americans who didn't take to the streets and protest. This was the contrast with the counter-culture, which were outraging normal folks. To be sure, a lot of hippie and yippie behavior was immature and naive, and ended up setting back the cause a lot farther than they realized.

If the '68 election, with assassinations and riots, was a Greek tragedy, the '72 election was absurdist like a play by Ionesco. A lot of this had to do with Nixon's dirty tricksters of the Committee to Re-Elect the President, Gordon Liddy, Donald Segretti, and others, who sabotaged the front-runners of the Democrats like Edmund Muskie so that George McGovern, a calm prairie liberal, would win (and would most easily lose to Nixon). Perlstein quotes New York Times columnist Scotty Reston: "The only logical explanation of the Democratic Presidential campaign so far is that is must have been planned by the Republicans." Perlstein comments, "Little did he know his joke was literally true." Of course, one of the dirty tricks, the break-in of the DNC at the Watergate hotel, would bring the presidency down within two years.

This is a big book, and Perlstein paints a huge canvas. He includes all the politics, but also touches on many other cultural markers along the way: Woodstock, Attica, Chappaquidick, the Manson murders, Nixon's trip to China, Jane Fonda's trip to Hanoi, the Chicago 8 trial, the resignation of Supreme Court justice Abe Fortas, John Kerry's emergence in the Vietnam Vets Against the War, the attempted deportation of John Lennon, the shifting of the movie business with films like Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate, and the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy and the attempt against George Wallace.

The book is written in a very breezy fashion, this no academic tome, though it is extensively footnoted. At times it seemed a little too breezy, as if the entire thing were being told as an anecdote by a Borscht-Belt comedian. Perlstein uses some incongruous terms, such as "jujitsu" to describe Nixon's political acumen. A little of this goes a long way, but then Perlstein is a writer who is clearly having fun with his subject, while being somber when it's called for. For instance, though I lived through the sixties (as a small child) it's still jarring to be confronted with how openly racist our society was just forty years ago. Reading this book after the inauguration of Barack Obama is dizzying, and makes one wonder whether all of this really happened or was just a very bad nightmare.

Monday, June 01, 2009

L'Innocente


L'Innocente, a 1976 release, was Luchino Visconti's last film. Based on a novel, it's a stately and sudsy costume melodrama, that only maintains the viewer's interest because of Visconti's skill with the camera.

Set presumably in the late nineteenth century among Italian aristocrats, the story focuses on three characters: Giancarlo Giannini, who is married to Laura Antonelli, but also has a mistress Jennifer O'Neill. We find out quickly that Giannini is the worst kind of cad, as he calmly tells Antonelli that he thinks of her as a sister, and that O'Neill is the only woman who has made him feel such deep and passionate love. Antonelli takes this passively, resorting to taking massive amounts of sleeping pills. She ends up meeting a novelist and she has an affair with him. Giannini becomes disaffected with O'Neill and falls in love with his wife all over again (which allows Antonelli to appear in the buff, a speciality of hers). But when she gets pregnant Giannini realizes he's been cuckolded, as he hadn't slept with her in years.

All of this plays like an afternoon serial, especially after the baby is born and Giannini goes off his nut. But Visconti keeps reins on the proceedings, and his use of color, light and the framing of his shots make the film so visually interesting that one keeps watching even if the action is ludicrous.

The acting is not so great. Antonelli was something of a soft-core porn actress, and O'Neill, a former model who was briefly famous in the seventies, is pretty stiff (I don't know if she's speaking Italian or if her lines were dubbed). Giannini comes across like the poor man's Marcello Mastroianni, and throughout much of the film his eyes are rheumy.

For connoisseurs of Italian cinema, this film will be an interesting view, but beyond that it's not a masterpiece of any kind.