Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Post Game Hangover

Well that was more fun than I thought it would be. I had a great time doing it and I'm glad a regular won. Not that I wouldn't want anyone to win, but it feels more like a family gift now rather than an anonymous prize for an anonymous player.

I'd like to do this again soon (by soon I mean next three months or so) and will announce the next one much further in advance.

By now, most of you have probably read the other posts on the subject relating as to why I was a little late in getting the first link up and how I blew it by not going to the first blog until after a large chunk of players had stalled there. All will be corrected next time.

And speaking of next time, is there a better time for everyone to do this? I was thinking non-working hours but frankly I'm pretty much offline after work until about ten at night. But if ten is good for everyone then I have no problem with it. The game would be over before 11:30 (8:30 West Coast time) and we could all go to bed. Let me know.

For the curious here are the links to the blogs and their respective riddles. The answer to the final trivia question is contained in the animated banner here.

First Riddle - Answer: The Bridge on the River Kwai

Second Riddle - Answer: Bunny Lake is Missing

Third Riddle - Answer: The Magnificent Ambersons

Fourth Riddle - Answer: My Man Godfrey

Fifth Riddle - Answer: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Sixth Riddle - Answer: A Letter to Three Wives

Seventh Riddle - Answer: The Thing From Another World

Eighth Riddle - Answer: A Countess From Hong Kong

The first riddle caused many problems. I was referring to The Lavender Hill Mob and The Man in the White Suit, both films with Alec Guinness being pursued either by the police or an angry mob, and then "bridging" across "water" as well as "what I've done" were in reference to the answer, The Bridge on River Kwai which contains Guinness' famous moment of realization, "What have I done?" If I did it again I would include the full quote "What have I done" rather than the contracted one "What I've done." I think that would have made it clearer. So, my bad. Yep, that bad belongs entirely to me. Don't ask anyone else to claim responsibility for that bad 'cause I own it. Suffice it to say, "Bad: Mine."

The rest didn't seem to cause any difficulty (or as much) until the last one but that was by design. I wanted the last one to be a little trickier than the others since it was the one that leads the player to the final question. Here it is:

My films are entrenched in the Pantheon

A notable place to be

But who would’ve guessed my last one

Would use the Method on the sea?

I've always found it interesting that Charlie Chaplin, an actor supremely skilled in pantomime ended his career with an actor known for being an exemplar of the modern "method" acting style, Marlon Brando. So that was the reference to "the Method" and since they're on a ship in the film, "on the sea." Which immediately made everyone think of Mutiny on the Bounty. That was by design. I thought more people would be thrown off by the Method line but it seems as if everyone who made it to that riddle immediately thought of Brando. Cool.

Congratulations again to Bill for successfully navigating the riddle-filled waters (riddle-riddled waters?) and making it through. Any thoughts on future games, ideas, times or just general suggestions are welcome. Thanks again everyone for making it so successful.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

We Have a Winner!!!

Thanks to everyone for playing. If you want to keep going please do, just don't look at the comments in the trivia section post or you'll get the answer.

But for everyone who is still playing I must inform you that at this point you are playing for fun only. That's right, we have a winner.

It is...

Drumroll please...

Bill! It was a five way race among Bill, Kimberly of Cinebeats, Adam of DVD Panache, Marilyn of Ferdy on Films and Given to Hyperbole who just baaaaarrrreeely missed out on answering before Bill. Marilyn showed up shortly after that.

And now for things I learned during this game.

1. Next time, hire a staff. My god, the zipping back and forth between blogs to check comments and leave them was maddening. I need a pot of coffee and an entire pack of unfiltered cigarettes right now. I'm frazzled.

2. Never assume. I assumed, like an ass, that the first one was a gimme with the "lavender" (Lavender Hill Mob) and "white" (Man in the White Suit) and "bridge" and "what I've done" ("What have I done" from Bridge on the River Kwai). So I didn't check in on that one until late and some 30 comments had piled up with everyone stuck.

3. The frontrunner doesn't always win. Adam Ross of DVD Panache got to the last riddle so damn fast I figured he'd have the whole thing wrapped up in less than twenty minutes. But then Cinebeats, Bill and Marilyn caught up and plowed forward. After the last riddle, Given To Hyperbole showed up out of nowhere and almost got it.

I hope everyone enjoyed it. I know I did. And one last thing.

I put the rules up around two to give everyone time to read them. I planned on them being up for about two minutes tops. Then someone walked in my office and needed help with something. ARRRRRRRRGGGGHHHHH!!!!!!! I told them I was on a tight deadline for a report and got rid of them as fast as I could. Now you know why no one here knows about the blog. That's not exactly professional behavior but geez, I just couldn't believe the timing. I resolved everything through manic e-mails during the game.

So biggest lesson learned: Next time, I have to take the day off first.

UPDATE: I'm purposely not revealing the answer in case anyone wants to play through for fun.

Also, Bill asked in the comment section how many were playing. I don't know exactly but I do know that between 2:05 and 2:15 I had about 160 unique visitors, which would average out to 23,040 visitors a day and I can tell you I've never had 23,040 visitors in one day. Never. Even. Close. So for a brief period there this blog had one hell of a visitorship. And the page views, wow. With everyone re-clicking while I was trying to get that co-worker out of my damn office, they were through the roof. So anyway, I'd say we had anywhere from 100 to 150 start out. Anywhere between 20 and 40 in that time would be close to normal so they could have just been visitors who happened upon the site. I didn't bother to set up a sitemeter for the riddle blogs so I have no idea how many made it past the first click.

Game Time

Here's the link to start you off. CS Movie Title Game

For those just showing up the rules are in the post below.

Good Luck!

UPDATE CORRECTION ON THE HOUR: Everyone is still in it. Although for latecomers you should know that some have made it to the last riddle, they just haven't gotten the last riddle yet that takes them to the question. That's what I meant to write.

La Règle du Jeu

Welcome to the game which will start shortly. Here's how it works:

Once the game starts you will click on a link I provide to get things rolling. This will take you to a site with a riddle. That riddle will describe a movie or an actor or character clearly associated with it. For instance, let's use this very bad riddle as an example:

People make my blood boil

They make my hands quake

Cause when it comes to drilling oil

I drink your milkshake

Okay, that riddle was pretty sucky but unless you've been completely out of the movie loop for some time you should have immediately thought of There Will Be Blood.

So your next step is to type in in the address bar to go to the next riddle. Don't actually go to that site because it's not mine (it's a Russian blog for the curious).

Each riddle identifies a movie and that movie's title placed in front of takes you to the next riddle.

A word of caution: TYPE IN THE WHOLE TITLE. Don't leave out a "the" or an "a" that comes in front. If you think you know it but didn't get to the right place try a "the" or "a" in front of the title, or conversely, take them off. You'll know you're at the right place because each site has the same banner referring to the game. Also DON'T TRUNCATE. There is one movie that is often truncated but here I use the WHOLE TITLE (don't worry it's not that long). For instance, Sunrise (which is not used) is fully titled Sunrise A Song of Two Humans. Were Sunrise a part of the game (which again it is not) you would have to type the whole title, not just Sunrise.

There are eight movie riddles and then once you get to the eighth you are congratulated and given the link to the site with the question. Answer the question there, NOT HERE, to win the game. First one to answer the question wins a DVD of their choice provided it is $49.99 and under. The DVD pick and mailing will of course be dealt with by e-mail and I won't reveal what you chose unless you want me to but I do want to reveal who won so if you don't want your name used when I announce the winner don't play. And by name I mean the one you go by online. In other words if you're a well known pseudonymous blogger I of course would use the pseudonym (like The Siren or Arbogast) not your real name. I'm just saying I want to let everyone know who won so that's the deal.

And that's it. Personally I think the riddles are quite simple, in line with the ease of There Will Be Blood above. I used movies from the thirties on, but nothing past the seventies. However, they are all well known movies, nothing obscure. However, if you are stumped on one go ahead and comment there on that blog and if enough people are confused and comment I'll make the clues blunter so that everyone can move on.

And remember, it's a game of speed. When you get to the trivia question, don't spend time writing about how you knew what it was or you just watched it the other night or some other thing like that. By the time you hit "publish comment" someone else could have put up the answer. And the first comment with the right answer is the winner.

Good luck.

I'll put up the first link in a couple of minutes.

I Like to Play Games...

... as Lisa Boyle once said (bet you never thought that movie would be referenced here - neither did I quite frankly). But it's GameDay so I can't help myself.

The Rules of the Game (much better reference) will be outlined shortly before the game starts (which is 2:00 P.M. Eastern Standard Time today). ** It's very simple and very easy, at least I think it is. In fact, the more I look over the sites the more I think this is going to be a game of speed more than skill. None of the movies are obscure and have enough fame attached to them that even if you haven't seen them you probably know the basic plot.

Anyway, I'll see you shortly.

** which I suppose is actually Eastern Daylight Savings Time but you get the picture: 2:00 o'clock on the Atlantic Coast of the States.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Gameday's Coming Soon

Mark your calendar and put on your thinking cap because tomorrow's the big day: The Cinema Styles DVD Giveaway Trivia Game. All the rules will be explained tomorrow. I certainly hope as many people as possible play. I'm not getting anything out of it (actually I'll be losing something - the cost of a DVD) but I have connections and I like playing games. So please stop back by tomorrow at 2:00 (or maybe a little before for some rules heads up, or maybe not). I'll see you then.

Game begins at 2:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, Tuesday, April 29th.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Can Anyone Make Sense of This?

So there I am checking in with old Arbogast when I see his newest post giving the what-for to Armond White, someone whose job title, film critic, desperately begs for quotation marks. After seeing a quoted excerpt on Arbo's immensely entertaining blog from the White-penned piece in question I figured I'd read the whole thing. The quote Arbo provides has White basically calling film bloggers a chattering gaggle of dimwits. See, we're all solipsistic. First a Google search took me here, to Glen Kenny writing about it as well, which piqued even more interest. Apparently White also went off about print critics. Finally I got to the White piece itself here and read it. And... well... um, here's the thing. I was all set to go off on White myself but after reading it I really only have one question: Was White drunk when he wrote this?

Jesus, what a mess! How messy? Here's a sentence I have written as a sample: "Let cigar discombobulate wallet the cd in coffee your speakers."

There. That sentence is clearer than most of what White wrote. He does have a few salient points but as soon as they're made he... um... this is kind of weird... he tears them down himself. It's kind of confusing. Let's see, best I can tell, bloggers bring down the conversation. They're too conversational. And you don't want conversational in a conversation. Or something like that. Print critics have responded by dumbing themselves down too. Ebert's too conversational for instance. Except, "today’s criticism isn’t real conversation; on the Internet it’s too solipsistic and autodidactic to be called a heart-to-heart. (Viral criticism isn’t real; it’s mostly half-baked, overlong term-paper essays by fans who like to think they think.)" So... it's good to be conversational? Or bad? Maybe bad because bloggers spend too much time "intellectualizing" that which is merely a hobby. And then there's... ah, to hell with it, just read it for yourself and when you figure out where he stands let me know.


Ed. note: Of course, in all seriousness I know where he stands. His overriding point seems to be, "I am right, you are wrong. Only my opinions are of value." It reminds me of a definition I've read before that goes something like this: "a theory holding that the self can know nothing but its own modifications and that the self is the only existent thing; also : extreme egocentrism" What's that definition for? Oh yeah, solipsism.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Hear Ye! Hear Ye! Hear Ye!

The proprietors of Cinema Styles, all one of us, have decided that a game must be held. It is a movie game and it comes with a prize, provided there is a winner.

The game is open to all and hopefully all will compete in the spirit of international peace and camaraderie and all that stuff. The game begins next week so keep your calendars open. This is not a game of obscure movie screengrabs but of movie knowledge.

I will not describe the rules until the game begins, lest some nefarious gamester get a heads up. Suffice it to say you will be provided with a riddle that will, hopefully, bring to mind a movie title. That will lead you to an undisclosed location on the interwebbing netting tubes where you will receive another riddle. Once you have successfully navigated the oh so clever minefield of websites and their various riddles you will at last be directed to one more undisclosed location where you will be presented with a trivia question. A single, solitary trivia question. The first person to answer the question in the comment section is the winner. And I don't care if you know it or have to look it up, as long as it's the right answer. The prize, as with the last picture game, is a DVD of your choice with the following caveats:

1. It must be $49.99 or under. I am not a rich man but I do have some DVD ordering tricks up my sleeve. Which leads me to ...

2. It must be available on, because that's where I'm getting it from, due to certain shipping deals I have as well as credits.

And it is open to all! Ladies, gentlemen, bloggers and commenters alike. And don't worry if you're an anonymous blogger like The Siren or Arbogast and you want to play but think, "Oh no, if I win he will have my real name and address." I'm anonymous too, as we all now know, and I can tell you absolutely and wholeheartedly I don't care to ever discuss your real name with anyone, anywhere at any time so don't worry. If you don't believe me just ask Larry Aydlette. I knew who he was long before anyone knew him as anything other than The Shamus and trust me, I didn't tell anyone. I do not gossip and I do not divulge anonymous identities to anyone for any reason. Really, I truly don't. I know how important they are.

So come one, come all to the First Annual Cinema Styles (insert clever movie trivia game name here) Game Thingy. Play as often as you like, although I'm not sure why you would because there's only one winner: Whoever gets that comment answer up first.

The game will begin Tuesday, April 29th at 2:00 P.M. Eastern Standard Time. That places it in the middle of the day so that those up late on the other side of the world can play, those on the East Coast just coming back from lunch and having no intention of doing any more work for the rest of the day can play and those on the West Coast who will be only an hour away from lunch and, in all likelihood, have no intention of getting any work done before then can play. It's a win-win situation all around.

Tuesday, April 29th, 2:00 P.M. EST. Be there!

Monday, April 21, 2008

A Diamond as Big as the Ritz

That's the world of blogging to me, to borrow a phrase. I try to add my little chips to it but it's huge and sometimes can feel so overwhelming I find myself struggling for survival like John T. Ungar trying to keep himself alive in the unsurveyed hills of Montana. There is much to be done and much that is being done.

There are two upcoming Blogathons that I will be participating in that I am very excited about. One is the Invitation to the Dance Blogathon hosted by Marilyn Ferdinand at Ferdy on Films, Etc. I have my posts all ready to go with clips in tow. As with all blogathons there is an apprehension on my part that my entry will be duplicated by several others. You think, "I don't want to do something too obvious but if I go for cutting edge, how many others will too?" It's the same feeling you get when you're stuck in traffic and think, "A-Ha! I'll turn down this little known sideroad and run end-around everyone!" Then you turn and realize 17,346 other drivers had the same thought.

It's one of the reasons I never know when to post in a blogathon. Should I do it the second it begins so I'm out there first or should I wait a few days and see where everyone's going with it? I must be the only blogger on Earth that actually gets anxious about Blogathons. I can't even imagine hosting one.

The other blogathon will be Cerebral Mastication's Indiana Jones Blogathon from May 16 - 23, hosted by Ali Ariken, CM's Blogger and frequent Scanners and House commenter. This one is a little different for me for one big reason. This blogathon is centered around the release of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and I am probably one of the few cinephiles who is not looking forward to its release. I know that plenty are and I know that plenty found the trailer exhilarating but I did not. I loved the opening where Jones is introduced with his silhouette against the car as he puts on his hat. And then it took on the look of CGI cutscenes from the latest PS3 game and my heart sunk. It looked too hyper kinetic, too rushed, too fake, too... 2008. But that's the great thing about a blogathon. I get to write about the Jones character, or serials of the thirties, or my favorite adventure movie and how it relates. I don't have to write about The Legend of the Crystal Skull for which I am grateful. However, I should make it clear that I am holding out hope that it will be a fun time at the movies, although nothing could match the experience I had as a young lad seeing Raiders of the Lost Ark in the theatre upon its release. Still, I've got hope. It's just that with the trailer and the fact that I fear Spielberg's heart wasn't in it (just a sneaking suspicion that he did this more for Lucas and Ford than himself, having devoted more time to less action oriented projects lately) my hope is quite thin and dangling by a thread.

As for me nothing's different here although I am dividing up my time creatively lately (another reason I had to streamline things with my blogging). I'm working on a couple of films right now. One centers around movement in film and is very time consuming but thoroughly enjoyable to do. I had hoped to have it ready for the Dancethon but it will take at least another month. At least. The other is a fiction piece that you probably won't see at all because it would require putting myself in front of everyone in connection with this blog and that's not something I'm willing to do yet. But for those who know what name to search on YouTube, hopefully it will be fully edited with music compositions added and up by the end of summer. As for video posts here I haven't forgotten about them, I just haven't had a performance or actor that I've felt like doing recently but when I do, it will be video post, as promised.

So that's my biweekly Monday update. And if you live in Pennsylvania (and it seems like an inordinate amount of movie bloggers do) be sure and vote tomorrow in the primary. Everyone will be watching. Everyone.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Does anybody here remember Vera Lynn?

Donald Stewart with Vera Lynn in One Exciting Night(1944).

Remember how she said that

We would meet again

Some sunny day?

Vera! Vera!

What has become of you?

Does anybody else in here

Feel the way I do?

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Edge of the Art Form

***This post contains spoilers, but only of the first third of the film.***

Thank God for Movie Bloggers. If there's one thing you can count on with Movie Bloggers it's screengrabs. Lots of 'em! And I don't mean that flippantly, I'm being perfectly serious. Before we bloggers came along you got the same old pics from the same old movies all the time. There was Gone With The Wind. You know, the double profile pic of Clark Gable and Vivian Leigh. There was Casablanca. Again with the double profile pic. There was Citizen Kane, one of the most abundant sources for jaw dropping stills in the history of film and what would you get, again and again? Kane in front of his huge campaign poster at the political rally. Every time.

Then we bloggers came into the picture and changed all that. Do a search on a classic film now and you're likely to strike gold with different shots and vantage points and if you click on a pic, chances are it will be located at an address supported by Blogger, Wordpress, Blogsome or some other blogging server.

In fact, this blog wouldn't have the look it has without them. If I couldn't pop in a DVD to get just the right screengrab for a new banner design or find a great screengrab on the net then, well, I wouldn't be changing my banners every other day. And dammit, I like changing my banners every other day. I'm too much of a photoshop geek and a bad pun addict to ever stop. I've done so many of them that if I didn't change them every other day I'd never get them all up in ten years. I put up one the other day which can be seen at the top of this post. It's a screengrab from Amarcord, watercolored in Photoshop and subtitled "Some artists paint with film."

After I put it up I started thinking about that very idea, the fact that many great directors and cinematographers really do create beautiful art on film. My wife is an artist* and has even done a series of drawings based on John Huston's opening shots of the poor and downtrodden in Fat City. There they are, in a desolate urban environment, hunched over in doorways and cradled against chainlink fences. Most people see this as a series of establishing shots (although they probably wouldn't think about it that specifically) but cinephiles and artists see the beauty that a great director and cinematographer (Conrad Hall was DP on Fat City) bring to every frame of a well thought out film.

Many film bloggers have used screengrabs for shot by shot posts as well as for a variety of other purposes (like my banners for instance) and I'm no exception. One of the first posts I ever did here at Cinema Styles was a shot by shot look at Sol Nazerman's (Rod Steiger) first substantial Holocaust flashback in The Pawnbroker. Without screengrabs I wouldn't have been able to relate the feeling of that scene nearly as well.

I haven't done much with screengrabs since doing those posts months ago but I'd like to start it up again, and for me, there's no one better to start with than Michael Powell.

Of course, I could do all the big, colorful beautiful Powell's; The Red Shoes, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Black Narcissus, Peeping Tom. But instead I'd like to highlight an earlier black and white Powell, The Edge of the World, made in 1937. His cinematographers were Monty Berman, Skeets Kelly and Ernest Palmer. Each had different jobs on the film operating cameras in different locations whether it be cliffside, ocean or interior. Powell himself set up the shots.

Unlike later Powell efforts, in which artificiality is part of the storytelling template, The Edge of the World employs realism in it's settings (almost everything is filmed outside and on location) but true to Powell the manipulation of those settings photographically foreshadows his later efforts in which the placement of the camera and the choice of lenses used give the story new meaning.

As an example of this I'd like to use three pivotal scenes early in the film that set the story for the final clash of families and island tragedy in motion.

On a tiny Shetland island the fishing community there is threatened by the trawlers and commercialized fishing of the mainland taking away their livlihood. Two men, Robbie Manson and Andrew Gray argue over evacuating the island or staying on. Their argument, before the village's fisherman, takes place outside on of the grand sloping cliffsides.

First, a long shot of the group gathered on slope.

Then Powell brings us in close to listen to the group. Throughout the scene the perspective shifts. Here we see an elder, Peter Manson, standing in the center, defiantly against any ideas of leaving the village. His son, Robbie, is seated on the rock to the right.

But dissent is sown by his own son. When this happens the camera goes into a closeup on Manson who eyes his son with contempt.

As his son speaks we see him alone, to the side, but then...

... his father confronts his views and comes directly into the shot standing over him.

Robbie does not back down and the perspective shifts. Robbie is now on the right. Notice the man with one leg on the rock and where he was in the first close shot to orient how the perspective has shifted.

As Robbie pleads his case, for leaving the island, the camera goes into him, giving him a solitary closeup.

As he speaks his father recedes into the background. Note the direction the men are looking as they listen to Robbie. He is once again on the right, the perspective having shifted again.

Finally, a decision is made to have a contest to settle the matter. Robbie and Andrew Gray, who is to marry Robbie's sister and supports staying, will race to the top of a cliff. The first one there will decide whether the village is abandoned. The father no longer has a say. The perspective now shifts with the camera on the seaside looking inland. Robbie's father stands alone on a ledge, looking into the distance.

The shifting perspectives mirror the shifting attitudes and arguments of the group. Like a classical actor using mannerism and inflection to help the audience understand the Elizabethan dialect, Powell uses his camera to make visual the debate at hand.

Once the race to the top of the cliff has begun Powell again shifts perspectives throughout. Two men race up opposite sides of a cliff. The outcome to determine an either/or situation. The perspectives shift from left to right to illustrate this.

The local priest watches from his window, to the left.

Townswomen observe the action as well, looking to the right.

Robbie's sister and Andrew's fiancee, looks upward.

And finally, when Robbie falls to his death, the grandmother stares straight ahead, then looks up to the right.

This scene is followed by one of the most beautiful and moving funeral scenes ever shot. Despite the crisp and natual outdoor photography of the rest of the film, the funeral scene is shot in the style of silent films. It employs irises and gels on the lens to create a surreal look and mood as Robbie Manson is laid to rest. In keeping with the silent movie device, no dialogue is heard, simply a plaintiff and beautiful hymn, heard over the action. Watch the clip of the funeral below to see how an artist truly can paint with film. Watch the whole movie to see a filmmaking genius early in his career showing the first signs of greatness that would later define him as an artist.



*In case anyone's wondering, the oil painting on the sidebar, "Blue Lady on the Sea," is one of my favorites of her works.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Your Favorite President Sucks

Or maybe he just doesn't feel right. I'm not talking about real presidents, I'm talking about the President of the United States as portrayed in the movies. And I'm not talking about Henry Fonda or Raymond Massey playing Abe Lincoln at any age or in any state. I'm talking about that wonderful Hollywood tradition, the Genero-President! As in, we need a President because the script calls for it so find some guy with white hair and a strong chin and we'll call him the President for a day. That's what I'm talking about: The Great Generic Presidents of the movies.

It's a noble tradition that really got jump-started by the science fiction genre. Before Sci-Fi got on-board movies like Yankee Doodle Dandy actually had someone play real Presidents like Franklin Delano Roosevelt and actors like the aforementioned Fonda and Massey played the Great Emancipator onscreen. But eventually Hollywood needed some guy to order an A-Bomb attack on the invading force from the planet Kulltar, and when that happened they got the guy with the white hair. For years it was a pretty standard model but eventually even Genero-President grew into something much grander and deeper.

By the sixties Stanley Kubrick gave us perhaps the greatest Genero-President in history, President Merkin Muffley, played by Peter Sellers in the now classic Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. It was an eye-opener. Genero-Presidents could be actual characters, not just talking marble statues with three lines, usually ending with, "My fellow Americans, it is with a heavy heart that I surrender our nation to our new rulers, the Tashderians of Mokdar." In fact, 1964 produced a triumvirate of character driven Genero-Presidents, or GP's: President Muffley of Strangelove, President Jordan Lymen (Frederic March) of Seven Days in May and simply The President (Henry Fonda) from Fail Safe. Hell, in that very same year Henry Fonda even played a fake candidate for the nomination of the presidency in The Best Man, written by Gore Vidal. It was a banner year for the GP and brought him into the limelight as never before. To hell with portrayals of Washington and Lincoln, with a GP you could do and say things with the character that you could never do or say with a real president, except maybe Nixon. And it provided the "starved for portrayals of fake politicians" masses with endless hours of entertainment. And damn, I love me some good fake politicians.

But then something disturbing happened. By the late eighties and into the nineties, the Genero-Presidents became "real" people. Actors like Michael Douglas gave us warm, nurturing portrayals of the Commander in Chief in The American President and television got all deep and thought-provoking on us with West Wing. What the hell? I don't want my Genero-President dealing with his motherless daughter and dating a lobbyist. I don't want him having a crisis of faith on the eve of his decision to run again. I want him fending off a military coup staged by Burt Lancaster. I want him talking to a drunk Soviet Premier on the phone in the War Room (where you can't fight). I want him calming the nerves of J.R. Ewing so J.R. can tell the Russians that we're gonna bomb New York, just to make things square and all.

Hollywood made some half-hearted attempts to revive the great tradition of kick-ass GP's with vehicles like Air Force One, where the President is a Harrison Ford type, amazingly enough played by Harrison Ford, fighting off terrorists on his plane, but I don't know. Unless a military coup or A-Bomb attack is imminent the new Hollywood model just doesn't do it for me. Even when Sci-Fi got back into the act with Deep Impact and Independence Day the GP's left me underwhelmed. Sure they were fighting for survival with impending asteroid destruction or invading alien forces but once again they were too soft, too touchy feely for me. I'm not saying GP's can't be great anymore, just that it's been a long time since I really connected with one of them.

And that's why I've saved my two favorites for last. They're the last two GP's that I really liked. They're not fully fleshed out characters like the 1964 Banner Year GP's. They're Standard Model Sci-Fi GP's and among the last of their kind. I'm talking about E.G. Marshall in Superman II and Donald Pleasence in Escape from New York. There be some damn fine Genero-Presidents.

First, let's understand and spread the love for E.G. Marshall as President Bad Wig in Superman II. Three years before, Marshall had played fake Senator Joseph Paine in Billy Jack Goes to Washington, a clear reference to Claude Rains' fake Senator of the same name in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. But now it was 1980 and Marshall had graduated from fake Senator (yawn - who cares) to GP (woohoo - G-P! G-P! G-P!). Why is his GP so good? Because it is the model of GP simplicity given gravity by actually casting a respected actor in the role. And the wig? I'm thinking the producers accurately predicted that Ronald Reagan would take the presidency at the time they were making the movie and decided to put a Reagan wig on poor old E.G. Marshall. And man did he look ridiculous! But let me just say this: Thank God they did it! That wig completes the character in a way a bald, graying E.G. Marshall never could have done on his own, despite all of his talents. That wig, I mean really, I don't know what to say: it's the end-all be-all. And Marshall plays President Bad Wig as if he were playing O'Neil on the Great White Way, full of solemnity and stoicism, which makes it just that much better. And - AND - he gets to do the classic all-time GP Sci-Fi shtick: Surrender the United States to a bunch of aliens. You can kiss that re-election bid goodbye:

President Bad Wig: "My opponent, Senator AbScam, has ruined his state's economy, been caught red-handed in at least three bribery stings and eliminated all public works from his state in a bid to line his pockets."

Senator AbScam: "President Bad Wig surrendered our nation to two guys and a chick from outer space in two seconds flat."

Winner: Senator AbScam.

But as good as Marshall is, to quote Yoda (and I don't do that often so mark this day on your calendar) "there is another." So now let us praise famous men, or at least one: Donald Pleasence as the President in Escape From New York. Now this is a GP! He's got the whole range going on here. He's conniving and crafty (like a real politician), self-concerned, a little on the cowardly side when he needs to be and finally, when he's all safe and secure, goes Tony Montana on the Duke of New York mocking him as he shoots him to ribbons: "You're the Duke of New York. You're A-Number One. A-NUMBER ONE!!!!!!!"

My only beef here is at the end. He's got to deliver this speech that's going to save the world or something (it's not made very clear) and Snake Plissken's busting his balls and getting all whiny about his treatment after saving him. Look Snake, I understand, I really do, but he's the President and now that he's safe and secure he needs to concentrate on saving the world with that mix-tape he got from the United Nations discount bin so can you take your whiny, "woe is me" shit and shut the hell up please? The attempt to make President Montana look ungrateful here is transparent and doesn't fly in my house. Donald Pleasence is the President of the United States in my book. He cowers when he has to to stay alive because he knows the country needs him. And once his survival is assured he can tear a man to shreds with an M-16 and five minutes later deliver a calm and composed speech complete with a Maxell-60-Gold prepped to save the world. That's a guy who understands responsibility to the greater good. That's a guy who wouldn't switch out tapes on somebody cause he felt all dejected and sad. And when I see Plissken walking away tearing up that tape I think, "Screw you cry-baby, you couldn't wipe this President's ass if you were white and linty and wrapped around a cardboard cylinder."

Donald Pleasence is the Genero-President of the United States! He's A-Number One! A-NUMBER ONE!!! Hail to the Chief!

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Blondie of the Follies

A great still from the 1932 production Blondie of the Follies. Blondie, the stern looking one on the left with the incredibly tall hat, was played by none other than Susan Alexander Marion Davies. Her friend Lurline, the other stern looking one, on the right, was played by Billie Dove.

Blondie joins the cast of Lurline's stage show and quickly gets the attention of Lurline's man, Larry Aydlette Belmont, played by Robert Montgomery. I've never seen it but I assume hijinks ensue. Perhaps even madcap hijinks. Oh, that's probably chasing too big a dream, I'm sure it's just ordinary hijinks. Nevertheless, I really like the still, scanned from A Pictorial History of Film Musicals by John Kobal, published in 1972.

I have seen the other movie done in 1932 by Blondie's director Edmund Goulding, Grand Hotel. Goulding himself was never nominated for Best Director (no, not even for Grand Hotel) and does not have much of rep as far as cinephiles are concerned but he did tackle Dark Victory, The Great Lie, The Razor's Edge and Nightmare Alley, the last one considered one of the finest noirs ever made.

Still, I'd like to see Blondie of the Follies. I have a fascination with the early sound period and the ever so slight musicals the period produced. I'm positive that it's no match for the other films listed above but we're talking hijinks here folks, hijinks. And there's just no substitute for hijinks.


Click above picture to enlarge.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Anecdotal Review: A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)

I was a theatre major in college at the Catholic University of America, not because I was Catholic but because they have a highly touted Drama Department. At the Drama Department on campus was an area we students called "The Fishbowl." It was a lobby area with two offices on either side, one with a receptionist's window and on the far side glass walls with a glass door leading out to the courtyard. When you sat in there you were in full view of the receptionist sitting at the window and anyone in front in the courtyard, or just passing by in the hall, hence the name "The Fishbowl."

The Fishbowl was a place to congregate, talk about class, discuss new plays, smoke and relax. It was also an area to observe fellow students going into the office of the Chairman of the Drama Department, Dr. William Graham, who had one of those offices on the side. Students would discuss plays, acting or class schedules with Dr. Graham, a gracious yet gruff man. He was large and imposing with grey hair and a voice that was booming even when he whispered. If you want to get a good visual representation of him in your head for this story, simply cross Brian Dennehy with Jackie Gleason, or just choose one or the other to be your visual representation of Dr. Graham.

Dr. Graham was a determined man who never (it seemed at least) went anywhere or did anything without a purpose. He had no time to dilly dally, as it were. One phrase of his that lives on in my household, and probably in the household of anyone who went to college with me, is "walk with me." If you saw Dr. Graham leaving his office and needed to ask him something he would not stop for you. He would say, "walk with me." Forcefully. Not scarily, although to new students he was quite intimidating, but forcefully. "Walk with me." It meant, "I'm not stopping but if you can get your question out and I can answer it before I reach my destination I'll oblige you." And so you walked with him. And you walked quickly.

I had the pleasure of having Dr. Graham as an acting instructor in my senior year and it is the best acting and one of the best learning experiences I have ever received. He taught Classical Acting and he was a master. First, we watched videos of actors at the Old Vic telling stories of past performances and demonstrating how to properly do soliloquies and scenes in Shakespeare. Among those present in the video were Ben Kingsley, David Suchet, Judy Dench, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen. Those videos alone were worth going to class for. Then we did soliloquies and scenes from Shakespeare and Johnson and were guided by Dr. Graham as to how to best capture the moment in each reading.

He did something invaluable for we students as actors. He told all of us that if the very first reading of our soliloquy was not absolutely one hundred percent over the top he wouldn't even pay attention. Odd, you may think, but the point he was making was that too many actors attempt to hone their performance from the get go and Dr. Graham knew that you must first explore wild abandon and then, and only then, start to edit and refine and pull yourself back in. What was amazing was that when we would watch the videotapes (he recorded us) none of us were nearly as over the top as we thought we were. When you grow up in an age of naturalistic acting you quickly lose the beauty of the classical acting art form. You don't understand it. The classical actor needs to play his role differently than the naturalistic actor. The classical actor is reciting lines that in many cases are completely unfamiliar to the average theatre goer if they are to simply read them. So the classical actor must make greater use of emotion and mannerism to convey what the words mean to the audience.

During one of those classes I was front and center doing a soliloquy in which I had to show anger. I do not now recall the piece now or even what play it was from. I simply remember the emotional experience. I performed my piece for the class and naturally, to my mind, thought I did a splendid job of hitting just the right notes of fury with my reading. Dr. Graham was not impressed. He got up and walked over to me. He knew that the first step was feeling the emotion. As a trained actor you are not supposed to feel it every time (that would necessitate a lack of control), instead you should recall the emotion for your performance later, but to recall it you need to first feel it. Dr. Graham was not one to employ tricks on actors where one goads them into doing something by deceiving them as many lesser directors feel it necessary to do. No, not Dr. Graham. But he did understand that simulating an emotion sometimes required a physical act to set it on its course. He held his hands out in front of him and told me to slap them as hard as I could as I read the piece. I chuckled at this, thinking it overly simplistic. He insisted. I started slapping. Hard. He told me I wasn't slapping hard enough and to start over. I began again and was shouting my lines at this point. He would shout back (much louder than me) "No good! Start again!" I would start again. I would get into a rhythm. He would stop me. "Harder! Start again!" This went on two or three more times. As I said at the beginning of this paragraph I do not recall the piece now, all I remember is this: By the end of my exercise with Dr. Graham, I - WAS - ENRAGED! Veins were popping out of my forehead, my body was shaking, I was sweating. And Dr. Graham? He was at ease, collected. "Excellent. Sit down."

So now you should have a pretty good picture of Dr. Graham. To use the old cliche, he was a man of bold strokes, not gentle flourishes. He believed in speaking one's mind, in strength of character and actively pursuing one's own purposes. He was a great teacher and mentor and an admirable role model. Which brings us back to that fishbowl that started this whole story off in the first place.

There we were, myself and my theatre student compatriots, huddled around as always, smoking cigarettes (back in the day when you could smoke indoors) and talking. Fellow student Patrick walked into the fishbowl and towards Dr. Graham's office. He needed to talk to him about points being taken off a paper because it had been turned in late. As best as I can recall he had what he felt to be a suitable reason for turning it in late. He wanted to get the points back and was there to argue his case with Dr. Graham. Once in his office we heard nothing as the office was fairly soundproof with it's concrete walls and two-ton wooden door. But whenever that door was open Dr. Graham could be heard. Always.

Inside Patrick argued his case to Dr. Graham. As we soon found out Dr. Graham was not impressed with his reason and stood by the docking of points. Dejected and defeated Patrick emerged from the office, hand on door knob to close the door behind him.

And then, at that moment, an extraordinary act of fate occurred.

Patrick stumbled and lunged forward. He held onto the knob to keep from going face down which resulted in the door slamming as hard as any door has ever slammed in the history of door slams. It practically shook the building.

Immediately Patrick went into a panic. "Oh my god, " Patrick said to we huddlers, "he's going to think I slammed the door because I was angry with him for not taking my side."

Being sympathetic twenty-something college students, we laughed. It was just too beautiful a conundrum not to. He asked us if he should knock, open the door and explain what happened. "Sure why not," we said, "if it'll make you feel better," but honestly we didn't care. Patrick hemmed and hawed for a few seconds then gently knocked on the door, opened it and explained what had happened. He apologized profusely and said it was wholly unintentional.

And then... then there was silence. For Patrick, an unbearable silence. One second passed, two, three, four seconds until finally Dr. Graham spoke. The door was open. We all heard that familiar booming voice:

"You should have left it with the slammed door. It made more of a statement."


This has been a Cinema Styles Anecdotal Film Review of Artificial Intelligence, directed by Steven Spielberg.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Only Connect

I've got stories to tell but don't we all? As my cat would say (long story), "Here's the thing." I've always connected stories in my life to movies. Not right away mind you, in fact, sometimes not at all. But often, I'll think back to something that happened to me and think, "That makes me think of this movie." Now to be clear here's what I'm NOT saying. I'm not saying, "Remember that time I was trapped on that bus with the bomb underneath that would go off if the bus dropped to below 50 m.p.h.? That always makes me think of Speed." What I'm saying is something happens to me that has the same feeling I got from a given movie. The events themselves have nothing in common but produce a similar feeling.

I'm sure none of this makes too much sense right now but it will, hopefully, once you read my first Anecdotal Film Review tomorrow. I'm going to review films by relating a story. Nowhere in the story will be any mention of the film whatsoever. It's up to you, the reader, to interpret the story with the film any way you wish but hopefully, if you've seen the movie or even if you haven't, you'll understand why the story connects to the movie for me. But more than that, I do not intend this as a gimmick. I intend it as a legitimate way to review a movie. I don't see it as something many others would want to do, but I like the idea of it. I'll hope you'll agree. Sometimes the best way I can describe how I feel about something is to describe my feelings about something else. I certainly hope this makes sense to someone out there.

Part of this may come from recent experiences where I felt out of control with what I want to do, and so in an effort to distinguish this blog, personalize it. Maybe. Maybe not. I'm starting off with a story from my theatre days in college. It tells of one of my favorite teachers ever, what he meant to me and finishes with an event of happenstance that ended so perfectly it felt as if someone had scripted it. It has been burned into my memory since the day it happened. Years later the movie to be reviewed was released and after seeing it I thought of that story. Ironically, it's a recent film. Why is that ironic? Because I just had a comment discussion yesterday about blogs not covering old movies enough with Girish, who correctly assured me they do, on The House Next Door and here I am doing a recent film (well, recent if you consider the last ten years recent. I do.) Which movie it is you will see tomorrow. See you then.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

100 + 10 = How Old Paul Robeson Is Today

Paul Robeson and Peggy Ashcroft as Othello and Desdemona in the 1930 London production of Othello.

Paul Robeson was born on this day, April 9th, 1898 making him 110 years old today. Robeson was an astonishingly accomplished man. Only the third black student ever admitted to Rutgers University at the tender age of 17 he was in the Phi Beta Kappa fraternity there, graduated a four-letter man in athletics and led his class as the Valedictorian. From there he went to Columbia University where he earned his Law Degree. But his commanding voice and stage presence soon found him fame. Most memorably in Show Boat, singing Ol' Man River, and in Eugene O'Neil's The Emperor Jones.

In 1930 he starred as Othello in a marred London production at the Savoy Theatre with Peggy Ashcroft as Desdemona. It's producer, Maurice Browne, cast himself as Iago and to make things even worse, brought in his wife, Ellen van Volkenburg, as the director. By all accounts both he and she were incompetent and brought the whole production down. Ashcroft called Volkenburg "a pretentious dud". Apparently Volkenburg had the set designer cram the stage so full of ornate props and set pieces that the whole thing rustled and made noise that wouldn't die down after set changes. Robeson was the only one with a strong enough voice to be heard over it.

But still, he was noticed. The London Observer's critic Ivor Brown compared Robeson and the idiot producer Browne thus: Robeson was "an oak... a superb giant of the woods for the great hurricane of tragedy to whisper through, then rage upon, then break." Next to him, Browne was "a gimlet". To make that even funnier here's Merriam-Webster's first definition of a gimlet: "a small tool."

Controversy raged of course with Robeson being cast in the play. To her everlasting credit, Peggy Ashcroft had this to say in an interview in 1930 during the production: "Racial prejudices are foolish at the best of times but I think it positively absurd that they should even come into consideration where acting is concerned. Ever so many people have asked whether I mind being kissed in some of the scenes. It seems to me silly. Of course I do not mind. I see no difference in being kissed by Mr. Robeson than being kissed by any other man." She didn't become a Dame for nothing people.

Robeson would have to wait until 1943 before he would be allowed to play Othello in the United States, although by then it was a much better productions and the reviews were raves. It ran on Broadway from 1943 through 1945 with Jose Ferrer as Iago and Uta Hagen as Desdemona. But the controversy only grew. Robeson was passionately outspoken about human rights throughout the world and civil rights for Black Americans here at home. He was harassed for having Communist sympathies and eventually did almost all of his performing in Europe. His last performance of Othello came in 1959, at the Stratford-on-Avon in England.

Although he did not have much of a film career and his acting was better suited to the stage it must be said that there are few other figures in film history who did more to elevate the perception of the African American actor than Paul Robeson. Some other early figures come to mind, most notably Rex Ingram, but none of them, not even Ingram, had the erudite lineage of Robeson. While future actors like Sidney Poitier receive due credit for breaking down the color line in American film, Paul Robeson has not received nearly enough. And he did it at a time when it was a hundred times more difficult to have an African American character portrayed with dignity on the screen.

Robeson spent most of his career abroad due to prejudice and red-baiting at home but he always loved his country of birth and returned in the late fifties. Because of his intelligence, erudition, athleticism and artistic talents he could be said to represent all the good that America has to offer. He died in the year of this country's Bicentennial, 1976 in Philadelphia, PA. Somehow, that just seems right.

Monday, April 7, 2008

I Felt a Little Like a Dying Clown

It's Monday and I'm here to provide some updates. I've been doing this more often recently and I like the idea of using a grab bag post to work through thoughts and ideas in an attempt to organize them. Mainly, it gives me an opportunity to understand the nature of blogging more completely. And the nature of blogging is what this is about, in a roundabout way. A few of you may have noticed that Synchfish and Toys of Desperation are gone. Well, I know at the very least that Brian and Rick noticed because they asked me about it in my comment section. Yes, they're gone. I deleted them yesterday along with a lot of other things.

I went through a bit of a crisis yesterday in which I, as is often the case, questioned whether I should be doing this at all. I do it because of a love of writing about film and a love of interacting with film enthusiasts on a range of topics. But personal issues take center stage sometimes and since this is not my job it always seems like the first thing that should go.

First of all, some background. I blog a lot. I have had at any given time multiple blogs or websites but Cinema Styles is the big one, the one that I love. I sold photographic art on Etsy as well under a different name and I record music and make short films under a third. I say "I sold" in the past tense because I deleted my Etsy account yesterday too. And except for putting some stuff up on YouTube, I've never made any serious attempt to get any film work in the public eye. But I keep coming back here, to Cinema Styles, which by the way, almost disappeared too. I got as far as the "are you sure" question for deleting Cinema Styles, which after a few seconds of thought, I decided against and hit "No." Obviously, or you wouldn't be reading this.

I've mentioned the "different works under the different names" thing before here and on other blogs in their comment sections but I don't think it's fully clear. Some time ago on Brian Doan's blog, Bubblegum-Aesthetics, I mentioned it again in a discussion Brian, Larry Aydlette and I were having on Blogger identities. The question was, from Larry specifically, which name was mine. The short answer is "They all are." The long answer's a bit more complicated.

I have a job at a high-profile institution in Washington, D.C. It is internationally recognized and often the subject of media attention. And much of the time I'm at work I am (ahem) blogging. And commenting - a lot - on other blogs. You might say I'm addicted to it. And blogging and surfing on the job are definite no-no's. If anyone at work were to discover I was spending valuable time on the job commenting about which actors belong to the Kelly School and which actors belong to the Astaire school I'd most likely be shown the door. And with my current financial situation and a family to support that would be devastating. So why am I even taking the chance? Well, for one thing I am fortunate to be in a position that deals with confidential information. As a result, no one is allowed to access or monitor my computer without my permission. There's even an icon that changes color if anyone has accessed my hard drive. Very convenient for blogging on the sly. Still, it's foolhardy and I should make an attempt to pull back a bit. There's plenty of time to blog at night. And I plan to make such a change, in fact, I already have. I don't like the idea of doing something I shouldn't and given the ample breaks I get at work there's plenty of time to blog and comment then. Some of you may have even noticed a more conspicuous absence by me in the comment sections on your blogs recently. That's why. Personal responsibility always reels me back in and this is no exception.

Which leads us to the name thing. I've written short stories over the years and even had a few small things published, but in no big venues, mainly local paper kind of stuff. I have a pen name that I took from a character I created years ago that I use for my writing. And since blogging is writing... well, you get the point.

So am I Jonathan Lapper? Yes, I am. I also have two other names but I am only one person. And I assure you, I am Jonathan through and through. The name may not be the one my parents gave me, but the man with the name is no different than the one you read here. So what's in a name? I don't know, I just know that I have used different names my whole life. Maybe it came from my love of classic movies and the knowledge that so many stars did not use the names they were born with. Maybe I wanted to emulate that. I don't know. I do know this: If you Google "Jonathan Lapper" you will be flooded with links to posts here and comments, thousands of comments, I have left at other blogs, all dated and time-stamped. I can't afford to have my employer Google my work name and discover the same thing.

So why not go the "handle" route? You know, adopt a handle as so many do. Larry Aydlette used to be "The Shamus." The Siren goes by Campaspe on her great blog The Self Styled Siren, her real name unknown. And Arbogast is a published critic who prefers anonymity while blogging. So why didn't I adopt "Movie Guy" or "Charlie Kane" or some other clever handle. Because I have used the name "Jonathan Lapper" for so long in connection with myself that it feels like me. It is me. It feels like I'm not using a pen name at all. And that was important to me. I wanted to feel a connection between my readers and myself and between other writers and myself on their blogs. Nothing against using a handle you understand. I have no problem with it at all, so please, for all those who use them I'm not implying anything negative whatsoever. It's just that already having a pen name that I was familiar with and that was close to my heart gave me another option.

So I hope that makes things a little clearer on the name front. I'd mentioned it before but got the distinct feeling it had gone largely unnoticed and I didn't want anyone to think I was trying to hide it. As Samuel Clemens made no attempt to deceive anyone with the name "Mark Twain" I make none myself with "Jonathan Lapper" (and dear lord don't think I'm egotistically comparing myself to him - just the name part). Larry Aydlette began an e-mail exchange with me after the discussion at Bubblegum-Aesthetics and he now knows my name as well. I told him because quite frankly I don't care who knows it, I just don't want it coming up on a search in connection with this blog.

As for the deleting of blogs and websites that's a different story. I may yet again (if fact, I know I will) have other blogs that I post to but for now I just want one. This one. Events occurred yesterday that made me feel powerless and out of control with what I want to do artistically in my life and I felt that the only way to get the feeling of control back was to streamline things. Simplify. So I did. I don't think many people were stopping by Synchfish anyway to tell you the truth but for anyone who found my useless commentary on YouTube clips and old pictures of The Rat Pack invaluable, I apologize. I tried to make it into a catch-all pop culture blog but didn't have the time or talent to succeed at it like Larry and Brian. I think Welcome to L.A. and Bubblegum-Aesthetics are two of the best pop culture blogs in existence and I just wasn't talented enough to play on the same stage. It was becoming a place for quips and jokes and nonsense commentary and the thrill of it all had gone away. As the song says, I felt a little like a dying clown. And if you know the song that comes from you know why I chose it for the title of this post. Now let's just hope I don't start throwing punches around and preaching from my chair.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Bette Davis at 100: The Courage to be Wrong

Bette Davis on April 5, 1941, the occasion of her 33rd birthday.

Many of you (or at least some) may have noticed I don't really do tributes here at Cinema Styles. When it's someone's birthday or an important figure in film history dies Cinema Styles usually comes up empty. Come looking for a birthday remembrance or an obituary and you'll likely wander into a barren landscape of curiously absent posts on the subject. It's certainly not because I don't have immense respect for artists like Jules Dassin or Richard Widmark, the two most recent important film figures to leave us. It's because, more often than not, I feel inadequate to the task. Except for some very specific figures I never feel that I'm a big enough fan or historian of the given artist's career to do them the proper justice. Along with this comes the knowledge that many very good writers will be giving their impressions and saying far more, and more eloquently, than I ever could. Having read some of the tributes to Richard Widmark I knew it was best that I stay out of it. There was nothing for me to say that so many others hadn't already said, and said so well. Add on to that the fact that when I hear of someone's death it's usually halfway through the day, I've got projects due at work and a family I want to share my time with at home and the last thing I want to do is slap together an insincere rush job.

But birthdays are a little different. At least with those, you know they're coming. You can prepare something with a little more care than an obituary (unless you're a major media outlet that prepares obits in advance). Still, I don't really do birthdays either. I did one, once, for Alfred Hitchcock and I enjoyed it (it was a sampling of Hitchcock's superlatives such as Best Location, Best Chase, etc.) but I haven't done one since.

Until now.

And I'm having the same problem. Bette Davis turns 100 years old today and she is, in my opinion, a figure in film history that cannot be ignored. When she hits a milestone like 100 (even if obviously she's not here to celebrate it with us) it has to be acknowledged. But I know that the other cinephiles out there will have much more to say about her than I do. With a figure like Davis it's difficult because so many of the stories about her, like storming off the set of The Letter only to return shortly thereafter out of respect for William Wyler, are already so well known. What can one say other than give personal remembrances? And my personal remembrances are not unique. Like so many others I was amazed at an early age by how utterly unappealing she was willing to make herself look on the screen, time and time again, if it fit the character. When I listen to people talk with reverential awe about Robert de Niro gaining weight to play Jake LaMotta or Charlize Theron uglying herself up to play Aileen Wuornos I think (with all due respect to DeNiro and Theron), "Davis did that every other movie."

Like others I found her personal appearances to be a mixture of fascination and hilarity. I remember watching her on David Letterman in the eighties (tried to find it online but couldn't) and she mentioned how difficult Faye Dunaway was to work with and Letterman said, "Well we've got a little surprise for you Bette. Faye, come on out here." Bette immediately tensed up and her eyes bulged. Letterman then said, "I was just joking, she's not really here" and Bette replied (I'm doing this all from memory so it's not exact), "I know that David, I'm not an idiot!" The audience burst into laughter and applause. It was clear she had been fooled by Letterman but something about her steadfast refusal to admit it, and admonish him at the same time, made her seem like a giant. Odd, because with anyone else that would probably make them appear smaller.

Then there was the 59th Annual Oscars Ceremony which I only remember because of Bette going on about Robert Wise, who was accepting the Best Actor Oscar for Paul Newman. That one is online here if you'd like to watch it. All Wise wanted to do was say "thanks" for Newman and exit the stage but Davis was going to make sure she sung his praises first. She's old and very fragile in appearance but someway, somehow she's the strongest and boldest person in the building. Again she stands her ground and again the audience loves it. There's something satisfying about watching someone who has no illusions about their dominance, but not in a bad way. Not at the expense or pain of others. Just knowing they're strong and not shying away from that fact.

But strength is often misconstrued with something else. More than once Bette was called "bitchy," "difficult," or just a plain old "pain in the ass." But for every story about an on set incident there are two or three stories about graciousness the give lie to the reputation. As I said when I started this post others say things better than I do when it comes to tributes so I think it best to let Olivia DeHavilland have the last word here.

In a TCM Documentary I watched last year on Errol Flynn, De Havilland was talking about making The Private Lives of Elizabeth of Essex. Anyone who knows Davis knows the stories of how she couldn't stand working with Errol Flynn on the film. She thought he had a lazy approach to acting and did not find the shoot rewarding. Years later, at a birthday party for Davis in which her friend Olivia De Havilland was attending, Davis decided that they should all watch Elizabeth of Essex. De Havilland thought it was an odd choice and was worried that things would be awkward afterwards if someone mentioned Flynn's performance. They all sat and watched the movie and enjoyed it. As the movie finished and De Havilland started to worry about what might happen, Davis stood up and announced loudly, "Damn he was good! I was wrong, he was brilliant!"

Happy Birthday to Bette Davis, 100 years old today.

Friday, April 4, 2008

I Got the Music in Me - Intermission

Carol Reed supervises Anton Karas who provided the entire musical score for the film, The Third Man, with this one instrument, the zither.

The "Harry Lime Theme" sold over half a million copies in its first month and made Karas a star but alas, his popularity was not to last. He was unpopular in his home of Vienna because he had gained his success with a film that portrayed a defeated, divided Vienna. Geez. And every follow-up he did essentially flopped. But he had that one song and it was enough that he could retire a millionaire. If you'd like to read up on the whole story of Karas and how Reed stumbled across him here's a nice bio from


This post was originally run in August of last year but for those who didn't see it then I figured now was as good a time as any to run it again.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

I Got the Music in Me, Part II - In The Mood

The opening strains of Max Steiner's strings as technicolor images of the Old South and the words Gone With The Wind sweep across the screen.

The building crescendo of Bernard Herrmann's orchestral cacophony as we ready ourselves to enter the cloak and dagger world of North by Northwest.

Or the simple bass chords that signal impending doom as the camera moves through the shallows in the opening of Jaws.

Some movies have music that accompanies the opening credits and some movies have music that sets the mood. The above three are examples of scores that do more than give the movie a musical sound or provide something to listen to as the credits roll, they set the mood for what we're about to see. Two years after Jaws, John Williams would create a bombastic triumphal score that would never make for a nice, relaxing evening by the fire but boy did it set the mood for Star Wars. From the opening blare of the full orchestra the music told us, "This is not going to be a low-rent grainy serial chapter, this is going be a space adventure - A Big One."

I have music from movies that I like to listen to outside the films themselves. Scores that contain all the incidental music and cues contained in the film but without the surrounding action. Usually, but not always, they are not the type of music listed above. For me, when a score does a great job of setting the mood it becomes impossible to listen to it for any other purpose than accompanying the movie itself. Which puts me in the odd position of almost never wanting to listen to something I would consider a great score, because a great score to me (and I cannot stress this enough) does not have to be great music. It only has to be great in relation to what is on the screen. Thus I would classify Star Wars as a great score but, with many deep apologies to John Williams fans, I would not classify it as great music. I cannot imagine a moment in my life where I will one day pour myself a drink, bring out some brie and crackers by the fire and say to my wife, "Honey, put on the Star Wars score." I suppose I could imagine it, but in that version I have an odd twitch in my left eye and I drool a lot.

Which brings me back to setting the mood. Further on in this series I will be going into the full range of a score in relation to the movie but for this short post I wanted to take a minute to talk about the opening theme. Usually, but not always, the first piece of music you hear. And in the best cases, it sets the mood immediately. I remember as a kid watching and loving Forbidden Planet. I still do. I've seen it countless times and every time that opening music, with its bizarre assortment of Theremin-like electronic clicks and twangs and hums, lets me know I'm in for some pulpish sci-fi fun. In the credits it isn't even called a "score" or "music by" but "Electronic Tonalities by Louis and Bebe Barron."

Then there's the strings, and strings only, of Bernard Herrmann's score for Psycho. The familiar shrieking strings of the shower scene aren't there for the credits, but the music that is there has a propulsive sense of dread. If one went into the movie blind and missed the actual title, one would still have a pretty good idea of what kind of movie it was, if only in mood. And that's what we're talking about anyway.

And mood can sometimes be set after the fact. The first time one watches M (if one is unaware of the plot of the movie that is) the simple melodic notes of In the Hall of the Mountain King would tell the viewer nothing. It could be one of those Leni Riefenstahl mountain movies for all the viewer knows. But seeing M the second time, and each time after, the viewer knows the theme: It is the theme of the killer, the tune he whistles before the world closes in on him and he must kill again. And when those opening notes are heard, the viewer gets a chill.

As for the inverse it's fairly difficult to ruin the mood of a movie with only an opening theme, unless the music in incongruous throughout the film, and more likely than not movies that don't have great opening mood setting pieces simply don't need them. But it doesn't hurt to have them. There are so many great opening mood setting moments like the great use of Strauss over the title of 2001: A Space Odyssey that I'm sure I could do an entire post just listing them and fill this entire blog. But your sake and mine, I won't do that.

Instead let me close with two of my favorite mood setting openings. The first is from the great Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger film The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp with music by Allan Gray. It's not precisely the first music in the movie. That occurs over the opening credits and sets its own tone. Rather it is the music that occurs directly following the credits as we watch motorcycle messengers deliver their urgent messages to individual base commanders. It immediately sets the mood that, while we know there will be serious story arcs involved, there will be plenty of mischievous fun to be had as well. And don't even get me started on how most of the opening doesn't make sense until the end when the flasback is complete which elevates the film to an even higher level - but that has nothing to do with the music anyway (I told you not to get me started).

Immediately following that is the opening credit sequence from The Shining by Stanley Kubrick. If that distorted Bartok music accompanying those dizzying shots of that tiny car amongst that vast mountainous landscape doesn't set the mood for what's to come I don't know what does. And interestingly, although I didn't notice it until after grabbing both scenes from their respective DVDs, I have chosen two opening sequences in which the music accompanies camerawork in constant forward movement. In both cases, the music and the shots propel us directly into the film.