Monday, August 31, 2009

Happy Birthday Jack Thompson

One of my favorite actors for years, Jack Thompson turns 69 today. The Australian actor first came to my attention years ago in Bruce Beresford's Australian football film The Club. Shown on a seemingly continuous loop on Showtime back in the early eighties I must've watched it a dozen times. Up There Cazaly is as familiar to me now as any movie song out there. And Jack Thompson made a hell of an impression: Strong, rugged, commanding. His was a presence that did not go unnoticed. It's currently available as an import DVD in the PAL format but I'd love to see it get a full release here in the States by Criterion, a wish I'm sure will go unfulfilled.

The very same year Thompson made The Club with Beresford the two worked together on the more notable effort Breaker Morant, for my money every bit as good a film as Paths of Glory, Stanley Kubrick's examination of military justice meted out in war that mirrors many of the same themes. Breaker Morant is a stunning film that rewards the viewer upon multiple viewings with a depth not normally present in courtroom dramas, in part because it resists many of the standard cliches associated with the genre. And again, Thompson as the courtroom defender of three Australian officers (two of which are played by Edward Woodward and Bryan Brown) is simply terrific, displaying the same strength he had in The Club.

Thompson never became the star in America or Europe that he was in Australia but his career never lagged as a result. He's made dozens of films and if you're unfamiliar with his work I heartily recommend both The Club and Breaker Morant. You won't be disappointed. So Happy Birthday once more to Jack Thompson. Here's hoping there are many to follow.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Gloury of Cinema

I avoid writing reviews of new movies for many reasons, not the least of which is that everyone writes about the same movies at the same time. Would a blogger rather be one of a hundred reviews for the latest blockbuster or the only guy putting down his thoughts on Floods of Fear? I'll take the latter almost every time. Sometimes though I feel it necessary to express my opinion on a new film in a greater capacity than simply joining in the conversation on someone else's blog. This is one of those occasions. But there is another reason I don't do reviews of new movies often: They're so fresh it's hard to pin down what is spur of the moment exuberance and what is thoughtful, measured analysis. And so this will not be a review but an expression of my joy in seeing the cinema itself celebrated so cunningly and masterfully in a recent trip to the megaplex. The film is Inglourious Basterds and it's one dazzling piece of work.

Like I said in the first paragraph though, this isn't a review, this is an expression of joy tempered by a slight bewilderment. There are 214 reviews for Inglourious Basterds on Rotten Tomatoes, 188 positive, 26 negative. I have no idea what movie those other 26 critics saw. One of them is Manohla Dargis. I'm speechless. I've read complaints that parts of the film or perhaps the film as a whole is over the top and this is levelled against it as a criticism. As a fever-pitched celebration of the art of cinema itself I find this criticism as baffling as someone criticizing a musical for containing songs. If that's your criticism then somewhere between the opening and closing credits you missed the point. Severely. I find the sheer and blissful exuberance with which Quentin Tarantino, a non-favorite of mine for full disclosure's sake, shoots his film to be evidence enough that this film is less revenge fantasy and more a study in cinematic technique made whole by a filmmaker who has finally matured. How many filmmakers could mash up as many different aural and visual signatures and come away with a coherent and complete piece. The credits, the music cues, the visual tips of the hat would make for a chaotic mess if the overall style wasn't deeply ingrained in cinematic formalism. The long take and steady tripod-mounted camera compose the glue that holds the mash-ups together. Steady developments of character through dialogue and reaction assure that the formalism is complete and leave audiences too accustomed to the 17 second scene looking at their watches. Poor basterds. A lesser filmmaker would have adopted a quickly edited, hand-held camera style as a part of the mash-up. Tarantino isn't that stupid. He is more than aware for the mash-up to work, for the experiment to succeed, it needs to exist within the confines of standard cinematic continuity. One must subvert the system from the inside out, not haphazardly attack it from outside the lines. Tarantino subverts from within and succeeds mightily.

I know not everyone feels that way and certainly I have found myself as the minority opinion more times than I care to recall so I understand that those gentle souls are as baffled by my reaction as I am by theirs. I don't know what else to say. I just wish, deep in my heart and sincerely, that they could have seen the movie I saw. That's all.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

I've got a lot of reading to do

Joanne Woodward reading to two children at speech therapy center in 1958.


I've been gone for a while and my desire to return has been reluctant at best. Sometimes one needs a vacation from even a cherished pastime lest it grow into a dreaded obligation. I noticed a couple of my favorite blogs had anniversaries while I was out (Arbogast on Film and The Kind of Face You Hate) and though I commented on them I wish I could have engaged a bit more. And it wasn't just my own blogging that ceased, I wasn't even online except to watch movies for much of the past week so I have little idea what anyone has been doing. Facebook? I went on briefly to respond to a tag and that was it. Frankly, I'd like to take another month or so offline but I cherish the community of which I have become a part and don't wish to find myself on the outside looking in. In short, I'd miss the conversation too much. So I return but with little to say at the moment. Oh I have reviews to write, new movies to see, trailers for October to put up and under appreciated actors to highlight but all of that needs to find structure first in the dusty recesses of my idle mind. I even have a piece on a topic I've never really broached here at Cinema Styles that I hope will provide for an engaging conversation, even if I do believe most everyone will disagree with me. But that's for a later date. For now, hello again. It's good to back.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Down Time

I shall return in a few days. Until then please visit Tractor Facts where Fox will be glad to welcome any thoughts you have on The Merchant of the Four Seasons, this month's TOERIFC selection. I was unable to participate in the capacity I desired yesterday and find myself unable to participate in even my own blog updates today or tomorrow so an intermission is in order. I shall be back soon.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Frische Birnen!

And so we arrive at Toerifc Eight, this time hosted by Fox of Tractor Facts. The film is Händler der vier Jahreszeiten, aka The Merchant of the Four Seasons, directed by Rainer Fassbinder in 1972. Remember, no rules to join except having recently viewed the film or knowing it well enough regardless to jump in. It's available on Netflix Instant Viewing and at only an hour twenty eight minutes in length you could watch it right now and still have time to take part in the conversation. Hope to see you there.

Friday, August 14, 2009

An Early Happy Birthday to Maureen O'Hara

It's Maureen O'Hara's birthday on Monday. The Mighty Maureen will be 89. I'll be busy with TOERIFC on Monday discussing The Merchant of the Four Seasons at Tractor Facts so I'd like to put up my picture tribute to her today and leave it up all weekend. Pulled from the public domain files these should be new to everyone. I hope you enjoy them and Happy Birthday in advance to Maureen O'Hara!

At airport departing for Ireland, 1951.

With brother James Fitzsimmons as he gets his citizenship, 1958.

Promoting Treasury Bonds, 1954.

Previously posted on my Facebook account, Maureen looking annoyed at a hearing in 1958.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

History and the Movies: Eugenics and the "Dumbing Down" Factor

William Shockley died 20 years ago, August 12, 1989. He brought computers into the modern age by co-inventing transistors, an achievement that earned him a Nobel Prize in physics and spent decades bringing about further innovations that make the world we live in the electronic interconnected world it is. He also believed that intellectually deficient undesirables were reproducing at a far faster clip than those deemed to be intellectually sophisticated and should be sterilized. This despite that fact that going back to the earliest moments of eugenics there were biologists arguing that intelligence could breed stupidity and vice versa. He ignored facts in favor of belief and dressed it up in a cloak of pseudo-science to convince himself he was right. And many people, from Francis Crick to Roger Pearson, were likewise convinced. Convinced despite the Flynn Effect which states that intelligence as measured by intelligence tests continually improves over time as does semantic and episodic memory. Convinced despite the fact that all around them are examples of parents smarter than their children and others of children smarter than their parents. Convinced despite the fact that perfectly healthy individuals have children with Down Syndrome (gaining higher possibility as the woman ages. Intelligence of the mother is not a factor). Convinced despite the abundant knowledge that breeding only certain traits leads to a loss in genetic diversity which leaves a population vulnerable to biological and environmental factors that can lead to their extinction. In the end, all of this simply goes to prove once again that an individual can possess a high order of intelligence in one area and still be fundamentally lacking in overall reason, logic and common sense.

Recently on these pages I reviewed Homo Sapiens 1900, a documentary on the history of Eugenics. The very next day Roger Ebert published his post on the gathering Dark Age of Cinema, a post fundamentally lacking in overall reason, logic and common sense. It falls into the same traps that Shockley and company fell into: We're all getting dumber and if we don't stop it now it will be too late. The post has already been covered and analyzed and dissected by far better writers than yours truly but what hasn't been called to the fore is the disturbing nature of these types of beliefs, and I find his post both disturbing and insulting. I am not implying that Roger Ebert or any of the well over 700 people who agreed with him in his comment thread are ready to start sterilizing people. I am simply suggesting that a worldview based on ones intellectual superiority to the great huddled ignorant masses is not only egotistical but intellectually counterproductive (how could it not be counterproductive since you're never engaging those you look down upon - they're simply not worthy). Ebert uses no hard evidence or scientific study to support his point, merely the box office numbers for the film The Hurt Locker. It is a searing drama about a bomb squad unit in Iraq. Like multitudes, hell, legions of other searing dramas made in the last 100 years, teenagers are not flocking to see it. No big surprise there. And yet, somehow, this spells doom for the future of cinema. Why this film? It's an unanswerable question. When one decides that the world is filled with dolts common sense usually goes out the window. Inadvertently funny is the post-script in which Ebert writes, "There has been an overnight outpouring of response to this entry, and most of the posts are from young readers who sadly agree with me about their generation." He has written a post on the lack of intelligence in the next generation and then receives an overwhelming response from the very members of that generation, responses he calls "eloquent and reasoned." The very response itself disproves his entire piece and yet... well, I think that speaks for itself.

I would like to ask a question now, one in which I believe there is no answer but I will leave that up to you: From 2000 to 2008, America apparently went through a "dumbing down" period due to our President George W. Bush. I was certainly no fan of President Bush and viewed him, quite frankly, with contempt, but I would like to know what exactly got "dumber." I did not. I continued to read daily and educate myself in multiple areas of interest. My youngest son went from six years old and a basic understanding of the world to 14 and an active interest in politics, science and art. If one would like to discuss current government policies with him, one could. It would not be in-depth but it would suffice for casual conversation. Television, literature and film look to my eyes to be about the same. In fact, one of the movies that Ebert and others have been railing against, Transformers, was released under the current administration, after the supposed dumbing down ended. The point being that casual assumptions based on beliefs and not fact can lead us all down a very divisive and hostile road in which have and have-nots (in this case, intelligence is the desired item of possession) are sectioned off.

As I stated in my review of Homo Sapiens 1900, the idea of a society constantly diluting the intellectual gene pool until stupidity runs rampant may make amusing fodder for a film like Idiocracy but in reality it just doesn't work. The idea makes the assumption that when a societally deemed "stupid" couple has a child that child will never have the intellectual ambition to move beyond his parents level of intellectual curiosity. Abraham Lincoln's father not only refused to learn to read but tried to stop Abe from reading. And yet, few people would consider Abraham Lincoln a stupid man. But how could that be? His father was unintelligent, uneducated. Shouldn't Abe have been as well? No, because biology isn't that simple but there is a danger in thinking it is. A century ago eugenics was looked upon, briefly, as a possibly valid method of insuring a brighter future for the human race. Today there is no danger of falling into a eugenics program again but the same intellectual smugness remains. And I find it sad. I find it sad that a critic I once admired has fallen so far and is spewing such mindless, ageist garbage. When someone decides to exalt belief over fact, to hold on to cherished assumptions over verified data, it becomes difficult to see the reality of the situation: We're not "dumbing down" we're "smarting up" if you'll excuse the awkward phrasing. And we have been, for millennia.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Ain't She Sweet

Whenever I feel discouraged vintage photos make me feel better, something I believe I have stated before on these pages. A simpler time? Perhaps. Mainly, it's just the ability to see the past at all. The knowledge that you're gazing upon something that no longer exists. I love this shot of Blanche Sweet, date taken unknown. There she is, kneeling over a crystal ball, turban on head ready to predict the future. But what does the future hold? What does it hold for any of us? I'd like to work in film but I question whether that is a realistic desire. I will continue to strive for it nonetheless and continue to hope. Until then, the past provides comfort to an ever fleeting present and an unforeseeable future.

Monday, August 10, 2009

TOERIFC August: The Merchant of the Four Seasons

Don't forget: Next Monday at Fox's place will be August's TOERIFC discussion of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's The Merchant of the Four Seasons. Usual posting time is around 10 a.m. and the discussion should be, as always, fast and furious so be ready. The movie is available on Netflix Instant Viewing so it's about as easy as can be to watch it before the discussion although if you can get it on DVD that's preferable as the picture quality is much better and the adherence to proper aspect ratios with Netflix Instant Viewing is hit or miss at best.

Also, my final October trailer has been completed, the one in which you find out what's going on with all that "they're coming" stuff. I always get excited about October, my favorite month of the year, and this year's Octoberfest will be another day in, day out celebration of the world of horror culminating in... well, something. I don't know what yet because I haven't completed all the montages yet but I will, promise.

For now, remember - The Merchant of the Four Seasons, next Monday at Tractor Facts.

Friday, August 7, 2009

A Couple of Scream Queens

It's Julie Adams, scream queen of The Creature from the Black Lagoon, and Janet Leigh, scream queen from... well, if you don't know you really shouldn't be here, at the November 1951 premiere of Bright Victory in which the talented Adams co-starred. And judging from the look on his face it appears Tony Curtis is achieving victory simply by not collapsing while holding Janet. With Julie is her screenwriting husband Leonard Stern, a man who brought joy to children everywhere and annoyance to parents the world over when he co-invented Mad Libs in 1953. Financially speaking, that was the brightest victory of any of them.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Homo Sapiens 1900

Homo Sapiens 1900 is a documentary made in 1998 by Swedish documentarian Peter Cohen that traces the history of the Eugenics movement in Europe, Asia and North America in the 20th Century. It is a powerful document of a hideous practice fueled by crackpot science that led to over 65,000 forced sterilizations in 33 states in America and over 400,000 in Germany, before providing an ideological and pseudo-scientific justification for the systematized mass murder that became what is now known as the Holocaust.

It is also one of the most joyless experiences I have ever had watching a film.

I don't say that because of its subject, although it is admittedly a joyless subject, but because of its style, its technique. Cohen interviews not one person, shows not one re-enactment, offers not one hint of insight. For one and a half hours the screen simply shows old grainy, damaged photos and occasionally a film clip while a narrator simply reads a lecture on the history of eugenics. Essentially it is a 90 minute photo album, a virtual reality textbook chapter. Oh, and then there's the black spaces.

Throughout the film the narration is only very occasionally punctuated by music and that music in merely two or three chords played on a piano. Two or three of the most somber, sullen, soul-sucking chords ever written. When a section of the lecture ends the screen goes black. A chord, maybe two will be heard. And the screen stays black. And silent. For ten seconds? No. Fifteen? Nope. Twenty? Uh-uh. My God, twenty-five!? Still not there. The correct answer is thirty seconds. The film is filled with these thirty second dead zones. As I said, this film is a powerful document but it is only so because of its subject matter. The film itself, its style, will test your very will to stay conscious.

The documentary lecture covers the history of the Eugenics movement from Charles Davenport in America to the Nazi Machine in Germany. In the course of this it focuses on the debate between the Mendelists (named for Gregor Mendel) who understood heredity to be carried in the genes, and that any changes would occur over vast expanses of time; and the Lamarckists (named for Jean-Baptiste Lamarck) who believed that something one learns tomorrow could actually be written into their genetic code and passed on to their offspring a year hence. The Lamarckists seem dimwitted to the educated mind of today but at the time genetics were not as widely understood. It was this group that also believed that despite evidence to the contrary, a nation could rid itself of the unintelligent or the physically deformed. Even at the time, according to the documentary lecture as well as abundant information available online, they were many intelligent biologists desperately trying to explain that geniuses could be born to people of average or below average intelligence just as easily as a child with a mental disability could be born to a physically fit thinker of the highest order. The idea of stupidity in the abstract reproducing itself out of control may make humorous fodder for a movie like Idiocracy but in reality offspring are as often remarkably different from their parents as they are the same. Eugenics is crackpot science that does nothing but sterilize people against their will and in extreme cases, murders them.

And this is all very deep and complex and worthy of study if only to realize how far the unresearched guesswork of a group of people convinced of their own superiority can go and how dangerous it can become. But this documentary isn't the place to go for those complexities or their depth. In researching the facts of this film after watching it I found myself much more absorbed in reading about Charles Davenport and compulsory sterilizations in the United States than anything I felt watching the film. I'm not giving it a negative review mind you, it's worth seeing for the information provided, scant as it is, and the bleak tone does help to hammer the point home. I am simply stating up front that if this subject has any interest for you this film will provide only the slightest glance at the history of it, and sans interviewees or the testimony of victims or perpetrators, no real insights. It's a lecture, and a fairly good one but not much more. For real insights you'll just have to do the research yourself.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Delightful Dolores (with Connie and Joan)

Dolores Del Rio, born today in 1905, with Constance and Joan Bennett in 1934. All three would become big stars but Dolores left Hollywood in the forties to make movies in her native country Mexico after a stormy romance with Orson Welles. She left at just the right time as Mexico was enjoying its Golden Age along with Hollywood although I have barely seen any films from Mexico in this period and feel I should definitely correct that situation soon.

During the fifties she was referred to as the Princess of Mexico. She died in April of 1983 in California but during her life was a star in two different national cinemas.

Happy Birthday to Dolores, forever set in the firmament of stars that is the cinema. She would have been 104 today.