Thursday, December 31, 2009
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.
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
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
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
Sunday, December 27, 2009
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
Thursday, December 24, 2009
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
Tuesday, December 22, 2009
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
Sunday, December 20, 2009
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
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.
Friday, December 18, 2009
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
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
Tuesday, December 15, 2009
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
Sunday, December 13, 2009
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
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
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
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
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.