Monday, December 31, 2007

Happy New Years - Almost


So it's New Year's Eve...



You're amongst friends and strangers and figure you'll have a good time...


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Maybe the band's even playing some hot music...


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You pull up to the bar and knock a few back...


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And then, you know, um... things start getting a little weird...


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Have a Happy - AND SAFE - New Years. Enjoy yourself, but remember, there's got to be a morning after. And unless you drink a lot of water and take several aspirin before you go to bed, it's gonna suck.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Oscar Snubs: Myrna Loy


I make no bones about it: I love Myrna Loy. I think she was beautiful, charming and witty. And she had a sweetness and honesty about her that I admired. But when I say I love her it's not what you think. What I mean is, I love her like you love your mom. And if she had been my mother I would've nominated her for at least half the movies she made. Which of course puts me in direct opposition to the Academy, because you see, they didn't nominate her even once. Not once. For anything. She got an honorary Oscar in 1991 for all those performances the Academy didn't seem to care for at the time. That's something I suppose but honorary Oscars are like those doctorates they hand out to Roger Staubach after he's made a commencement address at his daughter's college where he compares life to playing in the Super Bowl against the Steelers. It doesn't really mean anything (the address or the doctorate). *1*

Early in her career she played the femme fatale until Hollywood realized she could play loving patience to a pain in the ass husband better than anybody (Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, Best Years of Our Lives, The Thin Man series). One moment of hers has always stuck out for me. It comes in The Best Years of Our Lives. She is in the kitchen doing dishes and hears the door open. Her husband, played by Fredric March, has just returned home from the war. She asks her children who it is. They don't reply. And then, beautifully, her face tells us that she realizes who it is. What a wonderful moment played by such a wonderful actress.

Often times we project what we want to believe about an actor onto them. It reassures us perhaps or helps confirms biases we have for or against them in our own minds. I admit I do this with Myrna. I imagine that her friends and family would console her after the yearly nominations were announced and her name was always absent. And then I like to imagine that within minutes she would be comforting them, telling them the awards meant nothing and she was happy with all that she had and stop worrying about such pointless things. She was a great actress and a great lady. It would've been nice if at least once the Academy had let her know they thought so too.


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*1*

Roger Staubach's daughter did indeed graduate from the University I attended and he gave the commencement address. It was insufferable. If given the choice between sitting through it again and being forced to smell the unwashed underwear of a hobo, I'm telling you, I'd have to think about it.

Cinema Still Life: Buster. Yes, Buster. Again.



I mean really, how can you not love this guy?



As always, click to enlarge.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Book and Film: The Shining

There is an old adage in film that goes something like this: The person who knows what they're talking about leaves the theatre and says, "I loved that movie, it was nothing like the book." The obvious inverse would be, "I hated that movie, it was exactly like the book."

Books and films are two different mediums of artistic expression. One paints a picture with words, the other put words in your head using pictures. That is, makes you think about what the character is thinking. One old warhorse that has been trudged out endlessly is that with books you have to imagine everything and with movies it's all given to you. Well, maybe. It depends on what aspects of the work one is talking about. For instance, a book has the great advantage of telling the reader exactly what the protagonist is thinking, either through first person narrative in which we literally get a story from the unique perception of the protagonist or in another form, third-person omniscient, where we are entitled to know what everyone is thinking. When the protagonist walks up to an outwardly beautiful woman who is inwardly cold and hateful, the writer can tell us, "As he walked up to her all he could see was a miserable, wretched woman, not the beautiful face she showed the rest of the world." Translate that to film and you have to rely on the actor to provide enough subtle expression to make us understand that. To which I ask, which requires more imagination?

When most people say books require imagination what they're really saying is that the reader decides what characters and places look like. What they think is provided for you. In film, what characters and places look like is provided for you, what they think requires the mind of the viewer. I'd say that requires a little more imagination.

On the other hand, a book is not constrained by running time. As a result the author is free to explore deep feelings of characters and delve into multiple subplots. By their freedom of length books have a great advantage in providing more exposition useful to the reader in determining all the motivations and nuances of the characters. Films, constrained by length, often forfeit deeper development of character that would be useful to the viewer in understanding the character in favor of highlighting only that which is necessary to thrust the story forward. Here, literature easily wins out by allowing us a full and rich exploration of the characters.

So obviously by these two differences we can see that books and film are clearly at odds with each other as to how to tell their story. Which is why filmmakers often make decisions when adapting a film from a book that baffle the faithful reader expecting to see a page by page translation up on the screen. Sometimes it is necessary for the visual translation to work, sometimes it is an artistic decision and, yes, sometimes it's just laziness on the part of the filmmaker.

All of this leads us to Stanley Kubrick's 1980 masterpiece The Shining, adapted from a book by Stephen King. The changes Kubrick made from the book to the film were extensive. King was not pleased and eventually wrote a miniseries based on his own book that faithfully transposed the page to the screen. But Kubrick's is better, much better. Because Kubrick understood film was a visual medium and as such allowed possibilities that did not present themselves to the author, King, writing the book. Oddly, some of the most visually expressive moments of the book were exactly what Kubrick nixed.

Danny, has a friend, Tony. No one else can see or hear this friend. In the book he is a shadowy figure in the distance communicating with Danny. In the film, this visual motif is abandoned and Tony instead lives inside Danny's mouth. In the book, topiary animals on the grounds of the Overlook Hotel come to life in menacing, threatening ways. In the film, a hedge maze is substituted, standing still and lifeless. Or perhaps just indifferent.

There are many other minor changes but this post will deal with the big difference, that is, the ending of both stories. *1*

In the book, King makes more than a few story choices that are inconsistent logically with his characters or their situation. For starters, he gives us a grand hotel, a jewel of the west, a pride and glory to its owners. It is a palace that is to be cared for with a delicate touch. And, oh yeah, there's this decades old malfunctioning boiler that needs to be adjusted every day or the hotel will blow up. I'm sorry, what? Huh? Can the reader honestly believe that if the owners of the Waldorf Astoria were dependent upon daily adjustments to a rusty old boiler to keep their hotel from blowing up that they wouldn't just get a new boiler? To the even halfway perceptive reader this signals immediately how the story will end. So much for surprises. Wisely, Kubrick cut the boiler subplot out completely.


Then King takes the boiler subplot a step further off the precipice of disbelief. They are several ghosts at the Overlook. Since the hotel is their old haunt, so to speak, and it is in their vested interest to keep it from blowing up, they must make sure that the caretaker, Jack Torrance, adjusts it every day. Why? Because, as ghosts, they cannot do this themselves. They are non-corporeal. Except for when they move bottles and furniture around the place to signal to Torrance that they are there and bring inanimate topiary animals to life. But for some reason unknown to sentient beings everywhere, they just can't adjust that damn boiler. Disbelief officially unsuspended.

And finally, it seems, the whole reason Jack becomes unreliable at adjusting that boiler is because the ghosts seem to be driving him towards insanity. Hmmm. "We need him to adjust the boiler. Hey I know, let's send him off the deep end." Disbelief still unsuspended. Now I'm getting angry.

Unless you haven't been paying attention, you can see where all of this is leading: Jack goes crazy, boiler goes unadjusted, hotel blows up. About as mystical, spiritual and haunting as sticking a flashlight under your chin and shouting, "Boo!"

Now let's look at Kubrick's ending.

By dropping the boiler subplot completely we now have a hotel (and it's ghostly inhabitants) not keeping themselves from destruction but ensuring themselves new life, an important distinction. Now it would seem their slow maddening of Jack Torrance has a purpose. He is the caretaker, and the caretaker will provide fresh blood. The caretaker will give the hotel a sacrifice, his wife and child. And that will keep the hotel going.

Jack has a conversation with Delbert Grady, who has already given his wife and children, and then himself, in sacrifice to the Overlook.

Jack Torrance: You WERE the caretaker here, Mr. Grady.

Delbert Grady: No sir, YOU are the caretaker. You've always been the caretaker. I ought to know: I've always been here.

Jack doesn't understand but Grady insists: Jack was always the caretaker. As Jack falls deeper and deeper into insanity, spurred on by the ghostly Lloyd the bartender and Delbert Grady, he becomes murderous. He pursues his wife and child with the intent of killing them. Because of no boiler subplot, we are allowed to witness the devolution of Jack into a psychopath with no distractions. The ghosts are allowed to push him further, with no obvious contradictions of the Overlook's health being put into jeopardy as a result. As Jack pursues his son through that lifeless, indifferent maze his insanity begins to work against him. Danny has taken him out of the hotel that has protected him in his madness and into the environment where he must fend for himself. His confusion is apparent, the maze simply becoming the personification of it. He gets lost, and wandering aimlessly, freezes to death.

Then Kubrick takes us into the hotel. The camera begins a slow zoom into the main ballroom. As the far wall gets closer, pictures can be seen. Finally, we arrive at the center picture, a photo taken at the 1921 4th of July Ball. In the front of the crowd, with champagne glass held high, is Jack. He has always been the caretaker. And he will be again. In some other person, in some other life, he will return and give new life to the hotel. In this final moment Kubrick turns the story arc upside down and makes it clear that the Overlook, not Jack or his family, is the main character of the story. The hotel is everything, and the hotel will keep going. It will remain a vortex that draws in misery and sadness and desperation.

The ending is at once mystical, spiritual and disquieting. It was an artistic choice made by a director that gave the story and the hotel an eternal time frame.

Not every book made into a movie has such clear cut opposite choices working against each other and certainly not every movie exceeds the book. Surely, most King fans would agree that the movie versions of his works rarely hold up to the original source. And in the cases of other authors there is simply no contest. I have read the works of Twain and Poe extensively and no film version of any of their works has ever even approached the wit and poetry and artistry of their written words. Likewise, any filmmaker adapting Dickens or Shakespeare would be wise to keep the story just as it is. But sometimes a movie can make major changes to a book and come out (no pun intended) shining on the other end. This is one of those cases. Kubrick made drastic changes to the end of the story, and by doing so, drastically changed the motivations and fates of the characters. He made a movie from a book and the movie won. Handily.

Turn the page.


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*1* I think it was Neil Sarver who said he couldn't stand the "Talking Finger" choice for Danny in the film and I agree. Having Tony appear shadowy in the distance is a much better device where the book has the upper-hand. There are a few more small choices like that where I think the book is better. I also like that Tony is Danny's future, which isn't explored in the film at all.



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Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Oscar Snubs: Sam Peckinpah

*Kevin Costner, Robert Redford, Richard Attenborough, Warren Beatty, Mel Gibson, Ron Howard.

*All started as actors before moving to the director's chair.

*All have Oscars for Best Director.

*None are considered among the all-time directing greats, though some have done some very good work (Reds, Quiz Show).

Sam Peckinpah started as an actor as well, in bit parts and small roles (Invasion of the Body Snatchers 1956, Chain of Evidence 1957) and is considered among the all-time greats. He has no Oscar for Directing. He has not even one nomination. He was nominated for screenplay, once, for The Wild Bunch. That's it. Say what you will about the above mentioned directors, good or bad, but none of them is Peckinpah. In fact, nobody else was Peckinpah, ever.

In a previous Oscar post I wrote about The Wild Bunch,

"If Bonnie and Clyde brought violence to the forefront of American cinema,Peckinpah made it the centerpiece. With the final barrage of gunfire and bodies upon bodies piling up as William Holden goes through belt after belt of machine gun ammo before being hit multiple times himself (and all done in slow motion), Peckinpah devised violence as an artistic set-piece, not merely action to move the plot along but in many ways becoming the plot itself. Hollywood being Hollywood, within two years every innovation in The Wild Bunch (The beginning walk, the intermittent freeze frames of the opening credits, the slow motion,the massive gun battle) was cliche and Peckinpah the innovator never got as much credit as he deserved."

The Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid - It's not just an impressive list, it's a formidable one. Peckinpah died too young at the age of 59 before the Academy could even think to give him a lifetime achievement award. Not that that would have mattered one lick to him. It was the movies, and changing them and challenging their limits that he cared about. Pauline Kael once wrote, "Pouring new wine into the bottle of the Western, Peckinpah explodes the bottle." Then everyone picked up the broken shards and started making them the same way themselves.

He was also known as an abuser of alcohol and drugs. He lived a hard life (Ida Lupino hired him after she discovered him sleeping in a shack behind her property) and didn't mince words. After Pauline Kael wrote that he was condoning rape in the film Straw Dogs, he remarked, "she's cracking walnuts with her ass." I don't know what that means exactly, but it sounds good.

Sam Peckinpah died twenty-three years ago on December 28, 1984. He never got his richly deserved Oscar. He probably never wanted it. He's in damn good company.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Monday, December 24, 2007

Cinema Retro: Celebrating Movies of the Sixties and Seventies


Cinema Retro celebrates classic and cult films from the sixties and seventies. Currently issue number 10 is making its way to the states through nasty Atlantic weather. I was contacted recently by Cinema Retro about a write-up on Toshiro Mifune, who died ten years ago today. The post is currently up both here and there. It was a pleasure to write about such a fine actor and have a great Retro cinezine like Cinema Retro post it.

Cinema Retro has an impressive list of luminaries engaged with the publication. They include Christopher Lee (do I really have to tell you) , Richard Kiel (The Spy Who Loved Me, Moonraker) , Raymond Benson (author of several James Bond novels, post Ian Fleming), Caroline Munro (Dracula 1972 AD, At the Earth's Core, The Spy Who Loved Me), Lee Pfeiffer ( The Complete Idiot's Guide to Classic Movies 1915-1969, The Essential James Bond, The Films of Clint Eastwood), Jon Heitland (The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Book: The Behind the Scenes Story of a Television Classic) and many more. Read about the full team here.

I highly recommend giving it a read (and not just because of my post, really) if you have an interest in films of the sixties and seventies (and if you don't - what's wrong with you?). You can't go wrong. And if you're not a fan of that period, you will be after thumbing through the archives. Whether cult or classic, they've got it covered.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Oscar Snubs: Toshiro Mifune


Toshiro Mifune: Actor.

Selected movies: The Hidden Fortress, Rashomon, Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, Yojimbo, The Life of Oharu, Downtown, Theater of Life, Red Sun, Winter Kills.


Oscars: Zero.


Oscar Nominations: Zero.


Toshiro Mifune died ten years ago this December 24th. His career was long and varied but his greatest performance for me came in Yojimbo. Made in 1961 by acclaimed director Akira Kurosawa it both gives and takes from the Western genre: It's landscapes, crime lords and desolation clearly borrow from the genre while its virtual creation of the future Clint Eastwood "Man with No Name" persona invents something new. Mifune is terrific as the ronin, or bodyguard, who turns the crime lords against one another until peace is restored. It's a great role greatly played but Mifune made movies in Japanese and the Academy isn't known for its graciousness when selecting performances across the language lines. It's happened (Sophia Loren, Two Women; Robert DeNiro, The Godfather, Part II and Roberto Benigni, Life is Beautiful) but it's rare. When he finally got around to making movies in English they were, more often than not, war bores like Midway or Inchon in which Mifune could play the one dimensional Japanese nemesis.

Mifune was a great actor and received acolades throughout his career including two Best Actors from the Venice Film Festival, one for Yojimbo and the other in 1965 for Akahige. But he never got an Oscar. Hell, he never even got a nomination. He did win one American trophy, the Emmy for his work in Shogun. But with a career as long and impressive as his, that just wasn't enough. His is one of the great snubs of all time. And yet when you look at the body of work that emcompassed his career there are no regrets, no tinges of pity. Long after the Oscars given to so many lesser performers are forgotten the world will still remember Yojimbo. And Rashomon. And Throne of Blood. And Toshiro Mifune. It's easy really. He's unforgettable.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Cinema Still Life: Fred and ... Adele?



For 25 years (starting when Fred was only seven) brother and sister Fred and Adele Astaire danced as a team. In 1932 she went off to England and married a British Lord. He went to Hollywood when the team split and I think he even got a few parts.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Oscar Snubs: Modern Times


Before the Age of Consumerism took hold in the fifties and corporations gained power selling goods directly to the public, the real money was made with the monopolistic giants in steel, textiles and rubber by names like Rockefeller, Morgan and Dupont. Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times takes place in that era, during the depression when labor could be fully exploited because people were desperate to work. It marked the end of one era and the beginning of another. In film that is. It was Chaplin's last attempt at a silent film and even then only partially silent. The score was pre-recorded and voices, dialogue and singing could be heard. Even the Tramp is heard for the first time, though in gibberish, in a song.

The film opened to great reviews and surprisingly good box office despite the fact that it was years into the sound era. The New York Post reviewer Thornton Delehanty said, "The picture is a brilliant succession of gags and stunts, strung together on the priceless tradition of Chaplin himself. There is no doubt that Modern Times is the season's motion picture event." But my favorite is New York Times reviewer Frank S. Nugent, who despite his last name was not known for his bow-hunting prowess. He said, "... a rousing, rib-tickling, gag-bestrewn jest for all that and in the best Chaplin manner." There are few things in life better than the gag-bestrewn. Truly. How many times have you left a comedy shaking your head thinking, "It was okay, but it would have been better had it been gag-bestrewn."

And yet despite the box-office success, the great reviews and its official gag-bestrewn status there was no nomination for Best Picture. There's a word for that: Snub. For the next two months leading up to the Oscars (with which I have an embarrassing obsession) I will be highlighting films, directors and actors who got the snub. To get things rolling I present you with the closing scene of Modern Times, which provided one of the most iconic images in movie history, as the Tramp and the girl walk down that lonesome road, headed for the hills. As an added bonus I've included a nice shot of what movie marketing was like back in the day. Enjoy.











Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Cinema Still Life: I think it's so groovy now that stars are finally getting together

Tis the season for getting together with family and friends. Some out of desire, some out of obligation and some because, well, why the hell not? Here are some pics of the stars hanging together for the holidays, or at least having a nice cordial dinner.


Now I like Van Heflin, don't get me wrong, but he's got to be thinking, "How in the hell did I get lucky enough to be partying with these three titans?"
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William Holden and wife Brenda Marshall chatting up couple Robert Mitchum and Dorothy Spence.
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Joan and Barbara bring along hubbies Franchot Tone and Robert Taylor for a nice dinner out. Joan apparently didn't know where the camera was.

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Meet the Schwartz's. Janet Leigh home for a visit with Tony Curtis' mom and dad, Mr. and Mrs Schwartz. Clearly something very entertaining is taking place to the right of the camera. I think Jamie must be doing a cute little holiday dance for everyone.

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As always, click to enlarge

Monday, December 17, 2007

Unseen Images: Day One

"Eureka" moments are myriad in literature and film but rare in actual history. Inventions and concepts are often the result of hard work, building upon the research of others and trial and error. But "eureka" moments do occur. One of the most extraordinary occurred on September 12, 1933. As documented in Peter Wyden's excellent volume, Day One, and later dramatized in the film of the same name, Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard was walking in downtown London. He came to an intersection and stopped. He had recently read H.G. Wells The World Set Free (1914) in which Wells envisioned the use of what he called "atomic bombs," bombs that exploded like ordinary bombs but because of their core material, Americanium, continued burning for years after their initial explosion, effectively producing a residual heat so intense that the entire area would melt. He had also read Ernest Rutherford writing on the possibilities of achieving a nuclear chain reaction that could possibly, in the future, become a source of energy. Szilard stared at the traffic lights and began putting the pieces together in his head. Within seconds his brain conceived of something no other human brain had ever conceived: If one could produce a run-away chain reaction in fissionable material using conventional explosives as a trigger one could produce an explosion of extraordinary immensity. The thought so immediately terrified him that he bolted straight forward to develop his nightmarish idea only to be stopped by a fellow pedestrian before he was hit by a bus.

The following year, after he had worked out the details, he filed a patent and gifted it to the British Admiralty. After studying and living in Berlin since 1922, he fled in 1933 to escape Nazi persecution. Even though the scientific world was still six years away from a successful test of fission (when everyone else finally got the idea) he was afraid that someone in Nazi Germany would have the same epiphany he had. He wanted the British to have the patent. They didn't take him seriously. No one understood what exactly it was he had patented. Later he would take a teaching position in the United States and contact his old friend from Berlin, Albert Einstein. He explained his idea to Einstein and urged Einstein to alert the United States government. Since Einstein, and most other physicists at the time, was unsure of what Szilard had envisioned, Szilard penned the letter to President Roosevelt himself and Einstein signed it as if he had written it. You can read the full text of the letter here.

But there was another physicist that understood all of it. Unknown to Szilard, on January 29, 1939 Robert Oppenheimer heard about the first successful attempt of fission in a lab. Within minutes he surmised that with the bombardment of excess neutrons upon a fissionable core, an explosive chain reaction would occur, and a bomb with almost unimaginable destructive force would be possible.

Robert Oppenheimer was a man of unique intellectual ability. He was fluent in both the writing and speaking of English, Greek, French, German, Portuguese and Sanskrit. He was proficient in several others. He could learn the basics of a language and its alphabet within six weeks. But he was no isolated intellectual savant. He was also well-versed in politics, poetry, classical literature, art, music, history and more. As General Leslie Groves later said, "He's a genius. A real genius...Why, Oppenheimer knows about everything. He can talk to you about anything you bring up." While he is best known in scientific circles for formulating the Born-Oppenheimer approximation (which is so far above my head I cannot even summarize it for you but I do know it does not involve Matt Damon) he is most highly regarded in science today for his work on gravitational collapse, work he did in the thirties. Work that would not be done or continued by any other physicists until the sixties when people like Stephen Hawking would use it as a jumping point to build a theoretical model for black holes. Oppenheimer understood things decades before everyone else. It is important to understand these things about Oppenheimer, to understand fully that this was no government scientist lackey put in charge of a weapons program. There were a few of those later to come. This was a thoughtful and astoundingly intelligent human being who served science and his country, and unlike so many others in his field, found himself devastated by guilt.

These are the two central figures of Day One, the book written by Peter Wyden and later made into a film for television in 1989. There is a third figure of course, one that looms large over the whole affair, that of General Leslie Groves. But it is the moral and ethical battle between Szilard and Oppenheimer that provided the book, the film and history with one of the most extraordinary crises of conscience ever recorded. 1989 saw the release of another "Atomic Bomb" movie, Fat Man and Little Boy but to say that film got everything wrong, everything, would be an understatement. The facts are wrong, the motivations of the characters wrong, the personalities wrong. All wrong. But Day One, directed by Joseph Sargent and starring David Straithern as Oppenheimer, Michael Tucker as Szilard (an absolute dead ringer!) and Brian Dennehy as Gen. Leslie Groves gets it all right. And it was a made-for-television movie at that. The difference was in deciding early on to follow the source material to a word. If you've read Wyden's well researched Day One, you have essentially read the screenplay for the movie. And what the filmmakers understood was that telling everything precisely as it occurred required no further dramatic padding. Fat Man and Little Boy gives us plenty of padding (and many a fictionalized character) and none of it is as nearly as dramatic as what really happened. I'm not sure why they felt this story needed anything added to it at all.

The film covers much of the historical material that everyone is familiar with but also deals with the minutia of life at Los Alamos and the clockwork political machinations that culminated in the most devastating decision made by a politician in the twentieth century: The engagement of nuclear warfare on a civilian population. Twice. It's been said that Hiroshima showed our capacity to do what we had to do to win and Nagasaki showed our capacity for cruelty. Some would argue they both showed determination and/or cruelty.

As the physicists readied their creation the politicians argued the finer points. Harry Truman (Richard Dysart) was now President of the United States after the untimely death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and he made James "Jimmy" Byrnes (Hume Cronyn) his right hand man. Byrnes had been the Assistant to the President under Roosevelt, a position no longer used. It was only used because of Byrnes, one of the most accomplished statesmen of the twentieth century. Hailing from South Carolina he was at one time or another House Representative, Senator, Governor, Secretary of State, Assistant to the President and Supreme Court Justice. Just try and find another resume like that. Truman put his trust and decision making in Jimmy's hands. Hume Cronyn, who played Oppenheimer in 1947's The Beginning or the End, plays Byrnes brilliantly, displaying just enough homespun charm mixed with the right amount of "my way or the highway" arrogance to make Byrnes alternately amusing and terrifying.

The film juggles the politicians and physicists stories deftly but it is the Szilard - Oppenheimer story that keeps everything afloat. Oppenheimer loved being in charge of so many great minds working together but was uneasy about what that work was. Szilard also worked on the project, doing theoretical work in Chicago. The turning point for all was when Germany surrendered. Most physicists working on the project, including Szilard and Oppenheimer, had naively assumed they were working towards creating an atomic bomb because Adolph Hitler was trying to do the same. Once Germany surrendered and it was revealed that their nuclear program was scuttled, Los Alamos physicists thought their work was done. It was not. They were told to keep working. Szilard was shocked and immediately circulated a petition to be signed and sent to Truman morally opposing any use of the bomb in war. He met with Oppenheimer who assured him that the bomb would be developed but not used. "It's shit," Oppenheimer told him. "this is a weapon with no military significance. It will make a big bang - a very big bang - but it is not a weapon which is useful in war." It may be hard to believe that kind of naivete today, that the physicists at Los Alamos honestly never thought the bomb would be used beyond a demonstration, but the memos, the correspondences and the diaries all back it up. Almost all of them were borderline pacifists and socialists who believed America was the right country to develop the bomb because it was the one country that would never use it.

Szilard finally got an audience with Byrnes and tried desperately to plead the case of demonstration, possibly over the Sea of Japan or at Los Alamos with Japanese representatives present. Byrnes would have none of it. Then there was a meeting of the so-called Interim Committee, the committee set up to decide how and when to use the bomb, with Byrnes, Groves, Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, General George Marshall and others where final arguments were made. Oppenheimer, Fermi and Under-Secretary of the Navy Ralph Bard made arguments for demonstrations and Byrnes shot each one down. Someone suggested giving the Japanese a 48 hour warning to evacuate the city. Byrnes countered the Japanese would simply move all American POWs into the target city. As it turns out, there were American POWs in Hiroshima anyway. And before anyone thinks it was a different time and the decision makers did not understand what they would be unleashing it should be noted that on July 1, 1945 Ralph Bard resigned his position. He said in his letter to Truman that the United States would lose its standing as a humanitarian country and one that ensures fair play if any such weapon was used. Since by July 1st its use seemed inevitable, he resigned. He wanted no historical role in its use. In the film this scene is done with great subtle effect. After his resignation to Truman, the President appears not only unmoved but slightly bewildered.

As it turns out there were more people opposed to the use of the atomic bomb than one might suspect. Among those opposing it were General Douglas MacArthur, General Dwight Eisenhower, Gen. H.H. (Hap) Arnold, John J. McCloy (Undersecretary of War) and even Admiral William D. Leahy, Truman's very own Chief of Staff. Leahy wrote, "I was not taught to make war in that fashion, and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children." Secretary of Defense Henry Stimson did not oppose it but did oppose using it in culturally historical spots. When General Groves presented him with the military's final report on the first target, Kyoto, Stimson flatly refused. "No," he said "It's a sacred city to the Japanese and I will not see it destroyed,". Groves told him it was the perfect location. Stimson said, "I don't care how perfect it is. It's an ancient city and a beautiful one. Pick another target." There are still some who blame Stimson more than any other for the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I've read their articles and read Stimson's diary through the process. It has been suggested Stimson had Truman under his control. Yet when you read Wyden or Richard Rhodes (The Making of the Atomic Bomb) or Gregg Herken (Brotherhood of the Bomb) or any of the relevant letters and correspondences from the period it is clear that there were only four men absolutely hellbent on using nuclear weapons in war. They were Harry Truman, James Byrnes, General Leslie Groves and physicist Edward Teller.

Both the book and the film make this point abundantly clear. When the Trinity test (nicknamed by Oppenheimer) was successfully conducted, exploding the first nuclear bomb in human history, Truman, Byrnes, Groves and Teller were ecstatic. Szilard was not informed of the test. By this point, July 16, 1945, he was considered a risk due to his moral objections of its use. Oppenheimer's reaction was all Oppenheimer. Having watched the test from five miles distant, feeling the intense heat on his face and the rush of wind from the distant shockwave he first said to his brother Frank, a physicist at Los Alamos as well, simply, "It worked." Then he turned to Kenneth Bainbridge and asked if he was familiar with the quote from the Bhagavad-Gita, "Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds." Bainbridge replied, "Yeah Oppie, now we're all sons of bitches."


The film concludes after the surrender of Japan. At Los Alamos the physicists watch the first post war footage of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They are in shock. Some cry, some run out holding their mouths, some close their eyes. Oppenheimer says to his wife, Kitty, "And so finally begins the reaction" to which Kitty angrily and brilliantly replies, "Well what in the hell did they think was going to happen?"


The movie is finished but the book Day One is only halfway done at this point. The second half of the book documents the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and it is stomach churning to say the least. Peter Wyden interviewed survivors for his book and the descriptions are devastating. In the hospital where victims were being treated the floors were covered with vomit, bile and excrement from the uncontrollable nausea and diarrhea that emerged within a couple of hours as a result of radiation poisoning. Other survivors on the outskirts of the city could not make it into the city for well over a day to search for relatives, loved ones or just to help because the fires and residual heat were so intense that entry was impossible. The Ota river in Hiroshima was filled with the bloated corpses of thousands who had lept into it to escape the firestorm only to die from the excess heat and radiation. One survivor told Wyden that you could have walked across the river on the bloated corpses that filled it from end to end.

Wyden ends his book with a visit to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial and a moving tribute to what he considered in the end, a grave wrong. The debates over the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki usually center around the massive loss of American and Japanese military and civilian lives that would have occurred during a land invasion of Japan. Thus it is argued, by dropping the bombs millions were saved. It's an argument that has no resolution since half of the argument takes place in the hypothetical "what if" of an invasion. But as Day One, the other books mentioned and even now, finally, the history books point out there is a missing factor from this argument that is a deal breaker. A debate ender. Period. In June and July of 1945 the Japanese made entreaties for peace to the Soviet Union, whom it hoped would act as a mediator between Japan and the United States. They were willing to stop the war with only one condition: The Emperor retain his status. Thus Japan would restructure its own government and even eliminate its own military. The United States and its Allies would occupy Japan and oversee the restructuring and approve or disapprove at each step. Just like it actually happened after the war. As early as May 31, 1945 the Japanese had communicated through their embassy in Portugal that only the term "unconditional surrender" stood in the way of peace. They simply wanted the Emporer to be recognized as such. Joseph Stalin presented the mediation request to Truman at Potsdam on July 18. "Unconditional Surrender" remained. The tragic irony being that after Japan's unconditional surrender, the United States decided to let the Emperor retain his status after all to ease the occupational transition. In other words, by mid-July the war would, could and should have been over. Any arguments for or against the use of the atomic bombs versus a land invasion with conventional weapons is rendered moot by July 18, 1945, the day Truman himself got the offer of peace. After that day, the war should have ended and the United States begun its occupation of Japan. But Byrnes and Truman wanted the bomb dropped. Byrnes especially wanted to send a message to the Soviet Union: We have nuclear capabilities and we're willing to use them. On August 8th, two days after Hiroshima, the U.S.S.R. declared war on Japan and starting sending troops towards the homeland. They were hoping for a piece of Japan after the war. Fortunately for Japan, they surrendered before the U.S.S.R. could get in and create a postwar North Japan that would probably be a problem to this day.

The film and book, Day One, have something in common besides the obvious historical details. They are both done straightforwardly in unsentimental journalistic fashion. Joseph Sargent does not employ any special camera tricks or style but simply lets the story tell itself. Peter Wyden does the same. And for both it was a wise decision. It is a story that needs telling and one that requires no fiction to detract from it. It is a complicated and complex story, simply told. July 16, 1945 marked Day One. Everything after has taken place in a different world from the one before it. A world we can never return to again.

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Websites for Further Reading:

NuclearFiles.org The Nuclear Age Peace Foundation

Atomic Bomb Decision

Genuine Artificiality

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger did something extraordinary throughout their films: They never tried to disguise the fact that they were movies. For Powell and Pressburger, artificiality was the path to reality. One arrived there by noting the artificiality all around us. Once noted the only place left to look was in the soul of the character, exactly where they wanted you to look in the first place.

Their films are marked by a visual falseness that confuses some viewers, enthralls others and leaves yet others indifferent and cold. Even in films like The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, where the story follows forty years in the life of Clive Candy (Roger Livesy) and takes us through war and peace, the artificial is present. When Candy's home in London is hit by a German buzz bomb the explosion is animated. Not animated painstakingly in a lab to appear to be a real explosion. No. It is animated, as in jagged lines of red and blue projected out towards the screen. One could easily imagine the word "BAM!" superimposed over it. In another scene on the battefield during World War I there seems to be no attempt to disguise that it is a set. "No attempt" meaning the lighting and shadows have not been designed to look real but to look like a well-lit stage.

Here are photos from three of their films for the Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger Blogathon hosted by Justine of Beyond the Valley of the Cinephiles. These are the three films for me in which the artificial is most present. Where the artificial is the overwhelming reality of the film: The Reds Shoes, Tales of Hoffmann and Peeping Tom. The only one of these three that I was somewhat underwhelmed by was Peeping Tom if only because it wasn't artificial enough. I felt Powell was trying to infuse gritty realism with visual metaphor and while I think it is excellent I'm not sure if the idea entirely works.















Friday, December 14, 2007

Cinema Still Life: Let's play catch


There are two possibilities for what is happening in this picture. Either Charlie Chaplin is giving an utterly zoned-out looking Marlon Brando direction in The Countess From Hong Kong (1967) or Charlie has just thrown a ball to the boom-operator.


I'm going with the ball theory.


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As always, click to enlarge.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Oscar Notes: Part One

With Oscar season upon us I shall from time to time give a few Oscar notes to keep myself, and you dear reader, up to date. From the L.A. Film Critics to the Boston Film Critics to the National Board of Review there already seems to be an either/or at work. That is, each category seems to have two front-runners going into the final stretch (although of this could be moot once the Oscars - usually fairly clueless to what the critics and cinephiles generally like - nominate in February). For now though Best Picture is a two way battle between No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood. Best Actor seems to be Daniel Day Lewis' for There Will Be Blood to lose. Best Actress between Julie Christie for Away From Her and Marion Cotillard for La Vie en Rose (aka La Môme).

If Julie Christie wins for Away From Her she will receive her second Oscar 42 years after her first (Darling, 1965), a record from first to second. The record from first to last is 48 years for Katherine Hepburn who won her first for Morning Glory (1933) and her fourth and last for On Golden Pond (1981). But this early on I'd lay my money on Marion Cotillard. Why? Because lately the Academy loves honoring actors playing real people. Of the last eight Best Actress Oscars, starting with Hillary Swank winning for Boys Don't Cry, six have been for portrayals of real people. Only Swank in Million Dollar Baby and Halle Berry in Monster's Ball were playing fictional characters.

Same goes for the men. Of the last five Best Actor Oscars, starting with Adrien Brody in The Pianist, only one, Sean Penn in Mystic River, has been fictional. Due to a lack of big biographical portrayals for the men this year, this one will probably be for a fictional character. But I'm sure the Academy is just itching for Martin Scorsese to finish his biopic of Teddy Roosevelt with Leonardo Dicaprio (yes you read that correctly) so they can get back to handing out Oscars for biographical performances.

There have been no noticable trends for Best Picture lately (aside from the fact that I generally disagree with almost all of their choices - that's why I had to stop writing about them). They've done crime (The Departed), social commentary (Crash), drama (Million Dollar Baby), fantasy epic (Return of the King) and musical (Chicago) for their last five. So clearly, no trends. None. No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood are the clear front runners in the nomination stakes and Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd may actually gain a few nods itself, being the only notable musical in the lineup this year. Still, at this point it seems to be a two movie year: NCFOM and There Will Be Blood.

So those are my notes for now. As I actually see more of these films I'll update with more current and historical notes.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Cinema Still Life: Douglas Fairbanks



"Indeed it is possible to stand with one foot on the inevitable banana peel of life with both eyes peering into the Great Beyond, and still be happy, comfortable and serene - if we will even so much as smile." Douglas Fairbanks. Born May 23, 1883. Died December 12, 1939.


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Intermission

Well we're at the halfway point before Winter Holiday is upon us. So let's take a break here at the drive-in.

First things first. Get some coffee to keep yourself awake. Kimberly and Ken enjoy fries in the backseat.




And how about some hot chocolate for the kids. Rare early footage of famous actress Sheila O'Malley taking a swig of cocoa at the end.




A young Dennis enjoys a sandwich while the actor playing his father desperately oversells the role. Warning: This commercial is insanely stupid.




And of course there's yours truly desperate for a snow cone.




And for god's sake folks, if you tear off a speaker, please return it (Bill, I'm looking in your direction).




Now don't forget to come back. In fact, visit us often.





Monday, December 10, 2007

The Inquest of the Century: A Photographic Record

Well they can't all be trials. April 4th, 2008 will mark the 50th anniversary of the murder of Johhny Stompanato by Cheryl Crane, daughter of Lana Turner (Yes, I know, I'm several months early on the anniversary but what the hell). On April 11, 1958 a Coroner's Inquest was held to determine if Cheryl should go to trial. Television cameras recorded away as Lana cried on the stand and told the woeful tale. Johnny was beating her (again) and Cheryl (14 at the time) came in and stabbed him to death. The Coroner's jury agreed - Justifiable Homicide. No trial.

Cheryl was no stranger to a difficult life either before or after. In 1988 Cheryl revealed in her biography that her stepfather, Lex Barker, had sexually abused her for years. When Lana found out she ordered him out of the house at gunpoint. She immediately divorced him but agreed to make no mention of it in the divorce papers. That's quite agreeable of Lana. Most parents would have strung the bastard up by his balls.

After the inquest she was placed in a center for trouble juveniles where she escaped in 1960 and was released in 1961 after recapture. Later in the sixties she was arrested for marijuana possession, which I know for the late sixties is totally shocking.

But she's had a productive and happy adult life since and appeared on TCM with Robert Osborne in 2001 discussing her mother's movies and her biography.




Lana and Cheryl on the set of The Merry Widow.




Lana and A-Hole Stompanato. He was a bodyguard for two-bit gangster Mickey Cohen. I guess that makes him one-bit.




Lana awaiting inquest. Her former husband, and Cheryl's father, Stephen Crane is seated next to her.




Cheryl in custody during the inquest.




The big moment. Lana takes the stand.





Years later in 2001, Cheryl interviews with Uber-Nice Guy Robert Osborne.



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P.S. My favorite spell-check suggestion for "Stompanato" - "Stumpiest."