Friday, February 29, 2008

I Don't Remember, I Don't Recall

Once again, those filmic gurus at The House Next Door got me to thinking (damn their eyes, I do so try to avoid thinking) about film viewership among cinephiles by linking to this post by Kevin Lee on a rather embarrassing article written by Mick LaSalle. I'm not familiar with LaSalle myself and after reading Kevin's post I feel thankful for my lack of familiarity. But all the talk about canons and holes in viewership among cinephiles got me to thinking about holes in viewership for myself, albeit from a different perspective.

Although I have several films in the history of cinema to go before I've seen them all (oh probably around 487,593) I have seen most of the BIG ones; that is, the ones you're expected to have seen as a card carrying cinephile. I've seen all the films on the various Sight and Sound Polls over the years save a couple here and there, all the Best Pictures save one (Chicago - and I still can't bring myself to put it in the queue) and most of the nominees, the AFI top 100, at least two thirds of the Top Foreign list done this year on Ed Copeland's site (It's here I have my biggest gaps in viewing) and the completest assortment of classic Hollywood and Foreign films. I feel confident I can hold my own in a conversation on film with any acknowledged expert but still feel intimidated by many writers and bloggers out there. I have an unfounded suspicion (perhaps we all do) that they have seen much more than me. Whether this is true or not I do know there are certain bloggers who have seen very different sets of films than I have seen and I visit their blogs for ideas on what to see or just to vicariously experience the film in question through their words.

But as I get older I have noticed unique cinephiliac problems arising with age: Namely, I don't remember half the films I saw between the ages of 10 and 25. Oh I remember seeing them alright, or I should say I remember that I have seen them, but I don't remember much else. This problem is compounded by the fact that movies I did see in my youth that I thought were excellent were seen again in my late thirties and found to be lacking. Other films I thought were overrated bores upon first viewing at 19 were seen again later in life and found to be wonderful.

So I have many gaps to fill but at the same time keep telling myself, "I really have to see that again. I remember not liking it but everyone thinks it's great and I don't remember much about it now." Do I see the foreign classic I've yet to see (Earrings of Madame De) or revisit the foreign classic I did see (Last Year at Marienbad) but frankly can't really remember now? For the record I was nineteen when I saw Marienbad and that is now more than... uh... um... well, it was a long time ago.

There is no set answer and more often than not I will end up revisiting a film over seeking out an unseen one. I'm not sure why. I do know that life experience greatly affects how one looks at a movie, book or painting and that explains my changing opinions on films with twenty year gaps in between viewings. I also now understand that what I thought was complete "life experience" at 20 or 25 was not. And I think I understand now that in my fifties and sixties and seventies I will look back upon my opinions now with some bemusement and perhaps even a little embarrassment mixed in for good measure.

And will I need to revisit films I have seen recently? Will they too become distant, foggy memories? If my experience so far is any indication, the answer is a resounding "Yes!" Which makes me feel better, believe it or not. It means viewing film, experiencing art or reading great literature is not a "once and done" proposition. It is an ongoing cycle that must be renewed regularly. To see a great film but once and never return to it is to turn one's back on the artistic experience. The experience of art is in part the re-experience of art. When I was in college studying theatre we had one line drilled into our heads again and again: Art is an act of communication. The artist, be (s)he filmmaker, painter, writer, architect, musician, choreographer, etc. is communicating an idea to the recipient of the art. That idea, in the best art, is not set in stone and dogmatically applied but malleable and open to interpretation. That is when the recipient begins their part of the communication process. Through interpretation; and through life experience, re-interpretation; the recipient is now in communication with the artist. It may be the reason I return to a film seen but forgotten over a film not yet seen: I want to continue the dialogue. And to have dialogue with someone removed from you by decades or even centuries is one of life's most enriching experiences.

And it can be comforting as well as helpful to solidifying, or at least understanding, a viewpoint. Many people (most?) have had occasion to converse with the same person on the same topic again and again. It is often preferable to striking up a conversation with a new person on an unfamiliar topic. When I first saw 2001: A Space Odyssey I was a teenager. I had read all about it in film books for years before finally getting the opportunity to see it. When I saw it, I watched with a deadly earnestness, studying, analyzing. I watched it again several times on cable and videotape, and each time with the same analytical eye of the cinephile. After several conversations with the film I felt I had experienced it. I was wrong.

In 1990, the Uptown Cinema in Washington, D.C., one of the few remaining movie palaces of the CinemaScope era, showed 2001: A Space Odyssey. I went and saw it with my roommate. We'd each seen it several times but this was the first time for both of us on the big screen with an audience. It was then I realized the conversation was just beginning. Obviously the visuals had a completely different impact than they had on the small screen but that wasn't the biggest difference. What I had missed in my solemn seriousness as an analytical cinephile was Kubrick's humor. There are, I discovered, several parts of the movie that are (gasp) funny. The "Dawn of Man" has a few, the space station a few more and finally, the showdown between Dave and HAL was a revelation. Kubrick understood the humor of someone who is arrogant losing the upper hand. HAL has no time for Dave when Dave is stuck outside. He is dismissive, even, in his monotone serenity, cocky. He ends the conversation. Then Dave figures out how to get in. Now HAL won't shut up. "We need to talk, Dave." "I think you need to take a stress pill." He even does the desperate boyfriend routine about how, sure, he knows he made some mistakes but it will be different this time, really. Members of the audience were chuckling, not laughing heartily, but chuckling at the absurdity of it all (HAL has murdered the entire crew and he's trying to convince Dave that he's learned his lesson, like he forgot to take out the trash). And I chuckled too, for the first time. Then as Dave enters HAL's memory banks and dismantles him there is silence as the humor is turned around and now we feel sympathy with HAL's pleading. When HAL starts singing (singing!) he suddenly feels like a small child who lost his way. And I had missed almost all of this in my previous viewings. In my deadly earnestness I had forgotten to experience the movie, to communicate with it.

Questions of the future are always enticing because there is no way to know the answer without going there. Films that are praised upon release are rarely outright panned in retrospect but what happens more often is that films that received lukewarm receptions grow in stature as time moves ahead. Or perhaps a praised film takes on the mantle of masterpiece as the decades go by. Will cinephiles in 2100 find our conversations about No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood amusing because Zodiac will have cemented a reputation as one of the greatest films of all time, leaving them to wonder how we all missed it so badly even though we all thought it was excellent? Will some other film that none of us has discussed become a giant in film history? Will a movie that was panned gain a reputation for being ahead of its time? I don't know. I do know that the only way to understand any of it is to keep having the conversation. For me that includes rekindling conversations long forgotten (Last Year at Marienbad) and striking up new ones (Earrings of Madame De). And I look forward to many more years of great dialogue with great directors, great movies and great art. Art is an act of communication. Let the conversation begin.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Cinema Still Life: Above It All

Alfred Hitchcock gives some lofty direction to Paul Newman during the filming of Torn Curtain (1966). Hitch's Cold War efforts weren't as successful as his films before (The Birds and back) and after (Frenzy) but Torn Curtain did have one hell of a kill scene in the farmhouse kitchen. Problem is it didn't have much else. Nothing else in the movie plays nearly as well as the murder scene so it's all downhill after that.


As always, click to enlarge.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Credit Where End Credit's Due

The winner of the 2007 Oscar for Best Song went to Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova for Falling Slowly from the film Once. It's perfectly integrated into the film and marks the first moment in the film where a palpable emotional connection is made between the two characters. As it should be for a Best Song winner it is truly a part of the movie, a part of the story, a part of the characters. The same can be said for the other four nominees of 2007. All integrally part of the film.

But it wasn't always that way.

Sure that's how it started out in the thirties but by the sixties musicals were starting to fail at the box office and thus by the seventies began the advent of the Closing Credit Song winner. That's the song that has nothing to do with the film (except perhaps managing to mention the film's title in its lyrics) that plays over the closing credits. For almost two decades this was the lot of most of the winners of Best Song. These were the dark years for the category and it was Disney, of all studios, not MGM, the former Musical clearinghouse, that brought the category back to reality. But for two short glorious decades Best Song meant absolutely nothing to the filmmakers themselves. The songwriters weren't a part of the process of making the film. They were hired almost as an afterthought to give those folks who stay through the credits something to listen to.

It all started in the mid to late sixties with opening or closing credit winners such as Windmills of Your Mind and Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head* winning for The Thomas Crown Affair and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid respectively. Then came the uber-cool Isaac Hayes (The Duke of New York) singing Shaft for the non-musical Shaft, the movie. As a result, producers started hiring top musical performers to record songs for the credits. After all, now it was possible for a non-musical to win in this area, but more importantly, it meant you could make a low-budget movie with no expensive stars or special effects and still come home a winner.

The seventies and eighties saw many decidedly non-musical movies take home the Oscar for Best Song including The Towering Inferno (We May Never Love Like This Again), Norma Rae (It Goes Like It Goes), An Officer and a Gentleman (Up Where We Belong) and Top Gun (Take My Breath Away). But the nadir of this period for me has always been Arthur's Theme (Best That You Can Do) from Arthur. It was written (in part) and performed by Christopher Cross and if there were some way to UN-hear this song I would. I'd pay good money to have it's musical memory erased from my brain. But, alas, I cannot. I have heard it as did millions of others... and it won an Oscar.

Since The Little Mermaid revived the musical in the animated world and then later films like Moulin Rouge revived the musical in the live action world the Best Song Oscar has usually gone to a song integral to the film with a few closing credit exceptions popping up from time to time (Philadelphia from the movie of the same name, My Heart Will Go On from Titanic). Gone is the short-lived era of the Closing Credit Song winner.

And I say - Bring it BACK!

Oh, don't get me wrong, I don't want to eliminate the real category. I want a new category created for Best End Credits Song. If they can have two screenplay categories and four acting categories then by God they can have two Best Song categories. I realize major problems could arise from this. For instance, no one but no one wants to see ten songs performed at the Oscars. Thus, I would propose a new rule that states only snippets of each song will be played as the nominees are read (See, it would actually help the broadcast to create this new category).

And of course, there's the real risk that another Arthur's Theme will pop up but that's a chance I'm willing to take because the Closing Credit Song has brought home Oscars to Donna Summer, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Isaac Hayes. And folks, none of them are going to be in a Disney musical anytime soon. We need a category that will help the future Donnas and Bruces and Bobs and Isaacs bring home their Oscar too. We need the Best End Credit Song Oscar and we need it now. Isn't it time we gave credit where end credit is due?


*This would more accurately be dubbed a "montage song", the forerunner to the music video, as it appears in the movie as background music while those crazy kids ride around on that bike.


Best Picture - No Country For Old Men

Best Director - Joel and Ethan Coen (No Country For Old Men)

Best Actor - Daniel Day Lewis (There Will Be Blood)

Best Actress - Marion Cotillard (La Vie en Rose)

Best Supporting Actor - Javier Bardem (No Country For Old Men)

Best Supporting Actress - Tilda Swinton (Michael Clayton)

Best Original Screenplay - Diablo Cody (Juno)

Best Adapted Screenplay - The Coens (No Country For Old Men)

* I wrote this on December 13th before there were even nominees: "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." Holy Crap! Someone give me a special award.

*I also wrote this just two days ago, "So the fact that I think There Will Be Blood will win Best Picture almost certainly means it will not." So I kinda got that one right too. Sorta. Otherwise, as usual my predictions blew. I was disappointed that No End in Sight did not win Best Documentary and that In the Shadow of the Moon wasn't even nominated.

* Roger Deakens split the vote all by himself. There Will Be Blood has the bigger, epic look that the cinematography branch loves giving Oscars to. I thought it looked magnificent but I would have preferred to see Deakens win for No Country For Old Men.

Musically speaking I'm very glad that Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová won for Falling Slowly from Once. I thought Once was a terrific simple little movie. As for Musical Score I couldn't help recall Johnny Greenwood's score for There Will Be Blood which was played briefly when it won its Oscars. It's another controversial aspect of the film with many people feeling it was, like Daniel Day Lewis' performance, too "big" and intrusive but I found its dissonance with the images on the screen to be quite captivating and the other nominees just felt blasé. I wish it hadn't been disqualified.

* There has of course been a lot of back and forth over Daniel Day Lewis' performance in There Will Be Blood. Personally, as you all know, I love a big over the top performance by a great actor. Big over the top performances by mediocre actors are insufferable but by great ones they're pretty damn entertaining and I was pretty damn entertained by Lewis. I'm glad he won.

* First double win for Director since Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise for West Side Story, 1961.

*Finally Best Picture. I'll make it short and sweet: They picked the right movie.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

No Way Out

There are two annually televised mega-events that my wife never, ever watches and that I never, ever miss. The kids always watch them with me so she's the odd one out. Although only for these two occasions. The rest of the year we both avoid television with a passion, but not for the pretentious reasons most people who avoid tv give. We never watch tv because of two things: The time trap (as I call it) and commercials. I have nothing against tv shows I just don't like my schedule being controlled by them ("I'd love to do that with you on Tuesday night but my show's on at 9:00 and I can't miss it."). That's the time trap. The other is the commercials. I like watching everything uninterrupted which is why I do watch tv, but I watch it after everyone else has already seen it, on DVD. Or I record it and watch it after it's aired so I can blitz the commercials. For instance, I've watched The Simpsons since it began in the late eighties but I don't know if I have ever seen even one episode during it's actual air time. So I see the big shows like everyone else, I just do so at the conclusion of the season when I can watch them without commercials and as quickly or slowly as I choose. That's why TIVO wouldn't really help me because I like to watch the whole season at once, so to speak.

Except for these two events, because they're live and dammit, commercials or not, I have to see the outcome right then and there. The two events are the Super Bowl and the Oscars. Hopefully, I'll enjoy the Oscars a hell of a lot more than I enjoyed the Super Bowl this year. If you know who my team has been since childhood you understand why this year's Super Bowl sucked sausages for me.

So Sunday night it's me and the kids and the Hollywood All-Stars. And don't expect any predictions because I suck at them. I am notoriously bad at calling the Oscars. Almost every Best Picture prediction I have ever made has been wrong. But I'm excellent at predicting them after the first ten awards have been handed out and you can clearly see what everyone has been voting for. So the fact that I think There Will Be Blood will win Best Picture almost certainly means it will not. But who cares? There will be dip, there will be chips, there will be beer and soda and larditudinous amounts of snacks and candy and ice cream and hot fudge. And there will be moaning and groaning at people winning something that could be once in a lifetime and spending their 45 seconds in the limelight listing names instead of telling us all what it means to them. There will be forehead slapping at "comedic" moments so awkward you wonder how anyone ever thought it would play at all. There will be excitement for the big awards and shock at the one or two upsets of the evening. And there will be montages. And yes, I love those damn montages.* And then it will all be over and I'll be back to watching television on DVD or online for another year. Until the next two events happen again and the cycle renews itself.

But for now I watch. I watch it live. There's no escape. No surrender. No way out.


*I promise, no more cliched There Will Be... references ever again. Just had to do it one more time.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Orson Welles: Man About Town

Orson with Nancy Valentine


Orson with Lucille Ball


Orson with Lovely Rita (the actress, not the meter maid).


Orson with Tony and Janet.


Orson with someone. Not sure who, the photo doesn't credit it. It doesn't look like Paola Mori his wife at the time but her head's down so who knows? I don't. Anybody?


Orson with Gary Graver and Oja Kodar.


As always, click to enlarge.

Monday, February 18, 2008

The Name of the Game

"I... like to elicit responses, put questions on the table that can be approached by the community, instead of thinking about something for a while on my own, writing up a steel-tight thesis and posting it to have two comments saying 'Hmmm, interesting.'" Ed Hardy, jr.

That's from a recent e-mail exchange between myself and Ed Hardy, jr of Shoot the Projectionist. It came to mind after my last post on "The Kelly Astaire Paradigm" in which I put forth the idea of two schools of acting. Among the many comments received was this well written and well thought out comment by Camorrista:

I understand that you meant this as a sort of on-line parlor game, but I find it too reductionist even for that.You've erected two schools which--except in your playful imagination--nobody attends. As you know better than most, there's truthful acting and untruthful acting, and it can arrive in all sorts of guises, sweatless and understated, sweaty and bravura. (for the full comment please visit the comment section of the previous post).

I can't disagree with a single word written but it got me to thinking about the nature of blogging and reductivism with blog posts. One of the reasons I blog is to engage in conversation. I have a number of blogs that I comment on and usually what keeps me coming back is the give and take. It's not for everyone, I understand, but for me the joy of being a part of the online film blogging community is the conversation. So when I go to a blog, read an interesting post, make a comment and then receive no response I usually don't comment much more after that. I'll still visit and read the posts but I don't want to force conversation on someone who doesn't want it. That's just rude. If they are blogging simply to write about film and have people read it then I respect that choice and have no problem with it. But...

For me, it's all about the conversation and often times that means reductivism is the name of the game. Setting up two schools of acting is an impossible task and thus becomes ripe for conversation and argumentation. Within the comment section of that post it became quickly evident that many actors fit into both "schools." Actors began to be divided up according to periods of their careers and then according to certain roles within those periods. And I enjoyed reading and responding to all those comments. And in many ways, a comment like Camorrista's is exactly the type of comment I was hoping for. Many times commenters like Bill, Kimberly, Ed, Cinephile, Sheila, Marilyn, Rick, Andrew and so on will disagree with something I've written and (as long as no one is mean-spirited - so far they never are) it's completely welcome. Just look at my inclusion of Laura Linney in the Astaire school for an example of what I mean.

I enjoy writing movie reviews and posting pictures from my plethora of movie books but it's the posts that elicit discussion that I enjoy the most. When I read A Clockwork Orange and decide I like the way the book ends better than the way the film ends I write about it because I know my preference will not be everyones and I want to know what they have to say. It more often than not helps me understand my own preferences and sometimes even changes them. And I consider myself very lucky that I get as many comments as I do and have so many intelligent readers well versed in the language of film. It allows me to do the posts I want to do at a consistent rate.

Currently Jim Emerson has been putting up deceptively simple posts at Scanners. Two of them have concerned the best and worst Best Actor Oscars and the best and worst BIG performances, which discusses ham acting, so clearly something's in the air (and I think that something is the upcoming Oscars). I say "deceptively simple" because Jim does not write lengthy volumes on acting in either but sets it up for the readers to take over. And once that happens you'd be surprised at how many different modes of thought there are on the subject. In many ways, bloggers like Jim Emerson at Scanners and Matt Zoller Seitz and Keith Uhlich at The House Next Door have been an inspiration to me in doing this kind of post.

When I started this blog I had an idea that I would write reviews and post lists. I still enjoy doing that but what I didn't foresee was that engaging with others on film subjects would be far more satisfying to me than slapping a recommendation on a film and moving on to the next post. So thanks to everyone for engaging in the conversation with me and thanks to Camorrista (who I hope becomes a regular commenter) for helping me understand better why I do it in the first place.

Friday, February 15, 2008

The Kelly Astaire Paradigm

There I said it. I used the word "paradigm." I vowed I never would but I did. It simply fits for the discussion. And what's the discussion? Acting.


A little history first. When I first starting doing this blog in July of 2007 (that means everyone still has four months to pick out a nice one year anniversary gift for me) I didn't exactly break the site meter dial for daily hits. I pulled in Oscar posts that I had done on another blog to fill up the first part of the month and then starting posting new material. My first widely read post was in this second batch in July. It was linked to by Kim at MSN Movies Filter and people finally started showing up and looking around. It was on acting. To be more specific, ham acting. You see, as I explained in the post, as an actor myself I fully appreciate the subtlety and nuance of a great understated performance. But sometimes I really love a great over the top hammed up performance.

I was quick to explain that a bad ham actor (the kind most people think of) is a bad actor period, someone who overplays, overemotes and overinflects every move, tear and shout. They're bad, they don't know how to do anything else. But a great ham actor is also a great actor who is in possession of so much skill and talent they know when to go over the top and how far to take it. The example that I gave of a truly skilled ham, a great actor who relished in overplaying a role, was Charles Laughton and I stand by it. He was a great actor and one who knew the "whens" and "how fars" of ham acting.

So what does this have to with Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire? Well, recently with the passing of Roy Scheider there have been multiple tributes from various bloggers and commenters and almost all saying the same thing: Scheider was a great understated actor, an actor who embodied a role but never made it showy. In a post at the Siren's place, there was a discussion/comparison of Roy Scheider and Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man and while reading and engaging in the discussion I kept thinking, "Kelly and Astaire."

It's been said that Fred Astaire made dancing look easy and Gene Kelly made it look hard. Both were skilled and both shared similar gifts. Astaire could tap his way through a room full of mousetraps without setting one off and Kelly could do graceful ballets with his co-stars where not a shoe was tapped. But they were known for just the opposite. Astaire worked and rehearsed tirelessly to make his dancing appear graceful, elegant and effortless. Kelly worked and rehearsed tirelessly to make his dancing appear athletic, vigorous and difficult. Both have their supporters and detractors and yet neither has ever fully taken the lead in the "who's better" game. There's room for both.

And so we're back to acting: Gene Kelly actors and Fred Astaire actors. Not necessarily hammy and understated as in that July post. No, no. More, a performance or performer that is athletic and another that is graceful. Vigorous versus Elegant. The obvious starting point for me with this is Dustin Hoffman and Roy Scheider. Hoffman attended the Kelly school, Scheider the Astaire school. And I probably prefer the Astaire school but I get a big kick out of many of the Kelly school graduates too.

I'm still in the process of thinking this through; that is, who fits where, who attended which school? So for now I'll throw out some names of actors (excluding silent actors because that's a style all its own) for each and you tell me if you agree or not, or who should be on the list.

The Kelly School:

Dustin Hoffman

Meryl Streep

Paul Muni

Bette Davis

Burt Lancaster

Jack Nicholson

Susan Hayward

The Astaire School:

Roy Scheider

Greer Garson

Spencer Tracy

Irene Dunne

Laura Linney

Deborah Kerr

Cary Grant

That's my initial "off the top of my head" list. Some actors, like Katherine Hepburn, I feel attended one school and then transferred halfway through their term. They can be either. Others, like James Cagney, I can't place at all. He had an intensity to his portrayals, and yet he felt very natural at the same time. So that's the list for now but the Spring Semester starts soon and we've got to get these kids enrolled. Someone else take over the schedule from here. I've got to work on my syllabus.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Before there were Femme Fatales...

... there were vamps. Vamps were the dangerous women before those fatales came along. The main difference was the femme fatales mixed in with the bad boys to get what they wanted. The vamps went after the rich kids and broke their hearts (or just pitted best friends or brothers against each other for the hell of it). Of course they almost always died at the end too. Garbo goes through ice in The Flesh and the Devil pictured at the bottom. The fatales usually got killed too, but more often than not it was by getting plugged in the gut with a couple of rounds of lead.

Below are three of the leading vamps from the late teens through the twenties: Louise Brooks, Theda Bara and Greta Garbo. Only Garbo had a successful sound career but vamps never grow old on screen and before long Garbo called it quits and went into seclusion in New York City. Doesn't sound so bad.


As always, click to enlarge

Saturday, February 9, 2008

What's It Going to be then, eh? A Clockwork Orange: Book to Film

Viddy this well O my brothers (and with appy polly loggys to Anthony Burgess - my sisters as well). For this Sinny Styles edition of Book to Film I will be doing Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange. Previously I had done The Shining by Stephen King, adapted to the screen by Stanley Kubrick. I could have gone with another choice I suppose rather than load up on Kubrick adaptations, but I pulled the book off the shelf and the dvd from the cabinet and figured, "What the hell, it's not like I'm getting any pretty polly for this cal," so I plopped down on my sharries and decided to write it up, real horrorshow like.

The book and the film are both admirable pieces of work in their respective forms and offer insights into the characters that complement each other well. There are minor differences between the two (in the book the rape of the writer's wife is more extensive and cruel and Alex reflects on it later that night (wishing he'd hurt them more); the girls he takes home from the record store are ten years old but much older in the film; Alex himself and his droogs are a couple of years younger in the book as well). However, on the whole, the film pretty much trods the same path as the book with one jarring, glaring momentous difference: The movie ends one chapter short of where the book ends. Unless you've got the wrong edition that is. If you have a Ballantine published edition prior to 1986, you have a copy of The Clockwork Orange that is twenty chapters long. The original British edition is twenty one chapters long. The American publishers felt the last chapter softened the impact of the story and excised it. Burgess was furious. When Kubrick started writing his screenplay he didn't even know there was a twenty-first chapter.

So how can we compare the two if Kubrick didn't even know? Because he found out before finishing the screenplay and decided he liked the American version better. He found the original version too staid, too dull.

Ahem... I beg to differ.

The original end to the book may not be as exciting and jawdropping as the end to Chapter Twenty or the film but it completes the story in a way the film cannot hope to do. Kubrick should have taken the story all the way.

For those familiar with either the American published version of the book or the film the ending is the same in both and quite spectacular. Alex has been "cured" of his violent tendencies in prison through a special program that causes him to grow violently ill at even the thought of violence. He has been programmed by the state to be a peaceful citizen. As the film (and American book version) ends Alex is recovering in a hospital after his attempted suicide. This was brought on by the torture inflicted upon him by the writer whose wife he raped and killed. Since he could not defend himself lest he grow violently ill, he opted for suicide instead. But the attempted suicide changed him. The illness no longer occurs when he hears Beethoven's Ninth Symphony (a side effect of the treatment) and he imagines himself "carving the whole litso of the creeching world with my cutthroat britva." That is, cutting the whole face of the screaming world with his razor. Rather than use this quote in the film, he instead imagines himself raping a woman in front of a cheering crowd. Either way, it's clear: He no longer gets sick when he hears the music or thinks violent thoughts. And then in both book (Chapter Twenty) and movie he delivers the final ominous/hilarious line, "I was cured all right."

It's a clever wink and a nod to the reader/viewer about the state no longer having control over Alex, no longer able to supress his free will. But Burgess' ending is far more meaningful and, yes, far more defeatist. Defeatist, but honest.

Chapter Twenty One begins the same way Chapter One (and each of the books three parts) begins: "What's it going to be then, eh?" Alex says this at different times to his droogs, himself, and the reader. It is his general question, his statement of free will. At the end, Alex is addressing his new droogs; Len, Rick, and Bully. His new droogs are two to three years younger than he is and look up to him as their leader. They are in a familiar setting, the Korova Milkbar. Alex narrates:

Suddenly I felt both very very tired and also full of tingly energy, and I said:
'Out out out out out.'
'Where to?' said Rick, who had a litso like a frog's.
'Oh, just to viddy what's doing in the great outside,' I said. But somehow, my brothers, I felt very bored and a bit hopeless, and I had been feeling that a lot these days.

Alex is bored with the ultra-violent lifestyle and when his droogs tell him of a setup they have for that night he tells them to go on without him. They don't understand.

'Where to, then?' asked Rick.'That know I not,' I said. 'Just to be on like my own and sort things out.' You could viddy the old baboochkas were real puzzled at me going out like that... "

He's older and restless. He works at the National Gramodisc Archives and even enjoys it for the music he gets there plus the money. As he wanders he meets up with one of his old droogs, Pete who is now married. He tells Alex that Georgie's dead and Dim is still a brutal cop. Pete's wife comments on how funny Alex's speech is and asks Pete if he used to talk like that too. They leave and Alex is left pondering his future. He envisions he may settle down and marry. And then comes this passage in which we get from Burgess his true intent of the novel and its title:

Yes yes yes, there it was. Youth must go, ah yes. But youth is only being in a way like it might be an animal. No, it is not just being an animal so much as being like one of these malenky toys you viddy being sold in the streets, like little chellovecks made out of tin and with a spring inside and then a winding handle on the outside and you wind it up grrr grrr grrr and off it itties, like walking, O my brothers. But it itties in a straight line and bangs straight into things bang bang and it cannot help what it is doing. Being young is like being like one of these malenky machines.

My son, my son. When I had my son I would explain all that to him when he was starry enough to like understand. But then I knew he would not understand or would not want to understand at all and would do all the veshches I had done, yes perhaps even killing some poor starry forella surrounded with mewing kots and koshkas, and I would not be able to really stop him. And nor would he be able to stop his own son, brothers. And so it would itty on to like the end of the world, round and round and round, like some bolshy gigantic like chelloveck, like old Bog Himself (by courtesy of Korova Milkbar) turning and turning and turning a vonny grahzny orange in his gigantic rookers.

It is youth that is the clockwork orange, not the peaceful Alex programmed by the State. By ending the novel and film at Chapter Twenty the point is lost. Burgess was not making the point that the State takes away our free will but that in youth we have no control over it. Take away this final chapter and you have fundamentally altered the meaning and purpose of the book. No wonder Burgess was furious.

Both the film version and the American published version of the book offer a scathing commentary on comtemporary society and State control and I think it can be said that they both do it well. It is not that the film version is a bad film at all. For what it chooses to tell it is quite good. It is simply that by omitting the last act, comparing the two becomes a case of apples and (no pun intended) oranges. In a way, it's the best of both worlds. We now have a film version offering us a telling satire of State control over the individuals free will as it programs him to become a clockwork orange. And it's ending affirms that the individual can overcome this.

The book on the other hand tells us we already are clockwork oranges until life experience expands our minds and then ends by reminding us there is nothing we possess in our power that can change this. It is decidedly a downer, more defeatist, more of a hit in the gut. It is odd that one of Kubrick's complaints about Chapter Twenty One was that it gave the book an "optimistic" ending. That, I think, is a misreading. Burgess did not consider it optimistic nor do I. But I don't consider it despairing either, just honest. No one ever wants to hear that they have much less control over their life than they think they do.

As Alex wanders off in his thoughts he bids his farewell to the reader:

But where I itty now, O my brothers, is all on my oddy knocky, where you cannot go... And so farewell from your little droog. And to all others in this story profound shooms of lip-music brrrrr. And they can kiss my sharries. But you, O my brothers, remember sometimes thy little Alex that was. Amen. And all that cal.

Alex can now finally exercise his free will. Age has granted him that. He's moved beyond the clockwork mechanisms of his youth and must now deal with it (youth) from the other side. But at least he understands that. I guess he was cured after all.



Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Cinema Still Life: Audrey

From the November, 1956 issue of Coronet Magazine, Audrey Hepburn rehearsing in the dance studio. Be sure to check out her salary in the article. Paltry, no?


As Always, Click to Enlarge.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Storyboarding Taxi Driver

From Scorsese on Scorsese by Martin Scorsese (edited by David Thompson and Ian Christie, London: Faber and Faber, 1989.).

"Travis really has the best of intentions; he believes he's doing right, just like St Paul. He wants to clean up life, clean up the mind, clean up the soul. He is very spiritual, but in a sense Charles Manson was spiritual, which doesn't mean that it's good. It's the power of the spirit on the wrong road. The key to the picture is the idea of being brave enough to admit having these feelings, and then act them out. I instinctively showed that the acting out was not the way to go, and this created even more ironic twists to what was going on. " p 62.

Below are the original storyboards for the shootout at the brothel as drawn by Martin Scorsese (pages 55-59). On the whole, the finished film follows them very closely with only minor changes as noted. I have highlighted one frame from each storyboard to compare with the corresponding shot in the completed film.

Upon hearing the gunfire Iris appears to be lifting only her head from the bed in the storyboard but in the film she sits up completely.

The shooter's gun is about two feet from Bickle's arm in the storyboard and his torso completely within the frame. In the film, he shoots from point blank range and only his arm is visible. When Travis fires back it appears in the storyboard that Scorsese planned to have his victim shot in the eye(?) but it's difficult to tell. He is shot in the forehead in the film.

Two reverses from the storyboard: In the first shot, Iris is on the left side of the room but in the storyboard she is on the right. In the second, Bickle puts his "gun" to his head with his left hand in the film, his right hand on the storyboard.

Scorsese does not elaborate in the book on the reason for any minor changes. Minor changes from storyboard to completed film occur regularly during the shooting process and many directors have been known to draw up a new storyboard during the shooting. Most of these changes probably occurred from necessity more than anything else. For instance, in the story board Scorsese has the shooter with glasses shot in the eye. Perhaps that is why he gave him glasses, to conceal the squib that would go off but it proved more difficult than thought so his forehead was used instead. When Bickle sits on the sofa in the film his right arm is bunched up against the corpse of one of his victims and so going with his left hand was probably just easier. And yet it created an iconic image: I cannot imagine Bickle's right hand at his head, it has to be the left.

Scorsese's storyboards confirm the importance of the director to the visual result of the film. True, a good cinematographer must still set up the shot, properly light it and make it work. But a good director has already shot the movie in his head and on paper before the camera ever rolls. Think of Orson Welles two masterpieces Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons. They each had a different cinematographer (Gregg Tolland on Kane and Stanley Cortez on Ambersons) and yet have remarkable visual similarities as well as visual flourishes not found in other Tolland or Cortez shot films. However, a director can have all the visual ideas in the world and without the right cinematographer those ideas may end up unrealized. Tolland and Cortez were brilliant cinematographers and had the talent to give Welles what he wanted. Just as Scorsese had Michael Chapman (Invasion of the Body Snatchers 78 and Raging Bull 80) help him create one of the most stunning climaxes to any film of the seventies. It was a final brutal entry into the world of Travis Bickle but without Scorsese's storyboards and Michael Chapman's camera work, it might have been just another shootout.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Cinema Still Life Revealed

Back in December Hedwig of As Cool as a Fruitstand (great title for a blog) asked me where I got all my pictures for my Cinema Still Life feature. I said that I got some from the internet but mainly, I prefer to go with photo books in the hopes of getting pictures up that others haven't seen online before. The only requirements are a scanner and a great secondhand bookstore. Since I've talked about books recently due to a tag from Sheila and her great blog, The Sheila Variations, I've decided to sing the praises of secondhand bookstores for just a moment.

There's one about ten minutes from my house that's just fantastic. It's in the basement of one of the Montgomery County libraries here in Maryland. Books are donated by the truckload and of course, old library books that don't get checked out regularly make their way down as well. Just recently I went out and stocked up on three more photo books, pictured at the top of this post. The one on the left covers Jean Harlow's career, the one in the middle is all about Hitchcock and the one at the end, Spencer Tracy.

Each is filled with wonderful photos. Here's a couple of pages from the Spencer Tracy book.

Each page has high quality glossy photos from almost every film Spence ever did as well as great personal and behind the scenes photos from his life and career. I can hardly wait to start scanning. But here's the best part about secondhand bookstores - the price. Here's a closeup of the Hitch book.

That's right, 50 cents (and the MC stands for "Montgomery County", not McDonalds). The other two were a buck fifty each. Some books there cost as much as two whole dollars. And when you start building up too many (we brought home about 15 new books on our last visit) you simply grab a box, load it with books you're done with and donate them to the store so others can dole out 50 cents for their copy. It's recycling at its finest.

So go down to the nearest secondhand bookstore and start grabbing some books. If you're in Maryland, check out the ones in the county libraries for the biggest selection and the best prices. One of the great things about the prices is you can explore new areas of interest. For instance, I'm excited about several books there on Oceanography (sea life, shipwrecks, old lore). Why? Well, it looks interesting enough and at 50 cents to a dollar a pop if they bore me I'll just donate them back. But let's face it, if I'm in a Borders or a Barnes and Noble and I see an Oceanography book that might be interesting (or could be dreadfully boring) I'm not going to risk the thirty dollars - I have a family to support. But 50 cents? What the hell. And the amount of out-of-print books available is simply amazing.

So expect some great Harlow, Hitch and Tracy pics in the future. And now I'm all set for Spencer's birthday on April 5th. And trust me, with the new ones I bring home each week, I could keep Cinema Still Life going for the next 100 years.

Didn't they do this in High Anxiety?

That is one HUGE photo! The Lord Mayor's procession in Alfred Hitchcock's Sabotage (1936) done on a soundstage with a blown up photo for the backdrop. You wouldn't believe how much Kinko's charged them for this.


As always, click to enlarge (although not as much as the backdrop itself).

Saturday, February 2, 2008

It's Groundhog Day!!!

You want a prediction about the weather, you're asking the wrong Phil. I'll give you a winter prediction: It's gonna be cold, it's gonna be grey, and it's gonna last you for the rest of your life. - Phil Connors.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Oscar Turns 80, Cinema Styles Does Not

Starting today on Turner Classic Movies (TCM) is their annual 31 Days of Oscar.

In celebration of this yearly event here are some picks from the schedule (no not 31 picks - that's too many and this isn't a poll). I've avoided any and all Best Picture winners as they have their own aura of fame about them that renders a personal recommendation list, well, non-personal. Also I've avoided picks like Casablanca (also a Best Picture winner) and Citizen Kane, not because I don't love them, I do, but because if you're reading this you've seen them, probably multiple times. Of course since TCM is doing a month of nothing but movies nominated for or recipients of Oscars there's nothing in the schedule that would be unfamiliar to many readers either. Okay, enough. Here are my ten picks for the month from the TCM schedule.

*The Trip to Bountiful (1985) - Feb 2. It's been a long time since I've seen this so I look forward to watching it again. Geraldine Page gives a remarkable performance that deservedly won an Oscar.

*Atlantic City (1981) - Feb 2. Excellent study of desperate people connecting with each other then moving on with their lives. As directed by Louis Malle it is a beautiful piece of work.

*A Nous la Liberte (1931) - Feb 4. Released in 1931 and directed by the great Rene Clair this film is famous for two reasons (aside from it being excellent that is): One, it was the first non-English sound film to receive an Oscar nomination (for Best Art Direction) and Two, its production company, Tobis, sued United Artists and Charlie Chaplin after the release of Modern Times over plagiarism saying certain story elements (factory workers reduced to cogs in the machine, hitting the road at the end) had been lifted. The case dragged on past World War II and Chaplin finally settled but refused to acknowledge any wrongdoing. And right he was. If you're going to sue people for using "elements" of your story, every fourth film released would be sued by somebody somewhere.

*Libeled Lady (1936) - Feb 6. This is one of the best screwball comedies of the thirties and it's barely known to modern audiences. Even many cinephiles who love My Man Godfrey, The Thin Man and other William Powell comedy classics are unfamiliar with this one. It boasts Powell with regular co-star Myrna Loy as well as Jean Harlow and Spencer Tracy. It's just great!

*The Best Man (1964) - Feb 11. Politicians vying for the Party's nomination battle each other at the convention. Cliff Robertson's men have a never publicized nervous breakdown on Henry Fonda to sling but then Fonda's man, played by Kevin McCarthy comes up with something big on Robertson. Really big. As in political D-Y-N-A-M-I-T-E! Who will blink first?

*Rasputin and the Empress (1932) - Feb 18. Why see this? Because it's got all three Barrymores together that's why: Ethel, Lionel and John.

*The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) - Feb 21. It's not the greatest film in the world and yes, it has some relatively vast breaks with reality (Faye Dunaway figures out Thomas Crown's masterly planned robbery in the beginning in about 17 seconds) but it has a great sixties look to it and a great sixties, streamlined feel. Steve McQueen and Dunaway look great together and there's that song, before Sting recorded it.

*Portrait of Jennie (1948) - Feb 26. Yes, it's a little sappy and schmaltzy but you know what else it is? Addictive! He's (Joseph Cotten) obsessed with a girl (Jennifer Jones)- or is it a ghost - and won't stop until he understands what happened to her leading to one of the most amazing dream sequences ever put on film (especially considering the time it was made - the storm special effects are incredible). Directed by William Dieterle (criminally underrated director of the 1941 masterpiece The Devil and Daniel Webster, which sadly is not on the schedule).

*Seance on a Wet Afternoon (1964) - Feb 28. Career performance by Kim Stanley in a great little film. Easily the best performance of 1964. The next best being Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove, . By the way, neither won. It was Julie Andrews for Mary Poppins and Rex Harrison for My Fair Lady. I'm just saying.

*The Day of the Jackal (1973) - Feb 29. Love this movie! Love it! Edward Fox is excellent as The Jackal and Michael Lonsdale as his pursuer Lebel excels as well.


P.S. A special mention for The Naked Prey, which I will not have a chance to see and which airs today. It has just recently been digitally restored and released on DVD. Since I've never seen it in it's proper form (only on commercial television sad to say) I'd love to see it today but my schedule does not allow and I have no means of recording it (also sad to say). But if you'd like a recommendation from someone who has seen it recently go here now.