Sunday, November 27, 2011

Performing a Public Service:
Cab Calloway in The Blues Brothers

Whatever one may think of John Landis or Dan Aykroyd as either artists or people, they both deserve kudos for preserving a modern day performance of Minnie the Moocher by Cab Calloway on film in The Blues Brothers (1980).   Aykroyd wrote him into the script and Landis gave him full attention for a lavishly filmed performance on stage.  Watching the movie the other day on Netflix, and seeing John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd perform with Cab Calloway, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Steve Cropper, Donald "Duck" Dunn, John Lee Hooker* and Ray Charles, I wondered to myself, "Did they appreciate the talent amassed for this film that would never be together again?"

Of course they did.  How could they not?  I've never been a cult-follower of The Blues Brothers like many others (though I do like it) but I'm glad it exists.  I'm glad it's out there and so many performers who weren't connected to film got a chance to be preserved on film forever after.  Besides, where else can you find Charles Napier, Carrie Fisher, Twiggy, John Candy, Paul Reubens, Steve Lawrence and Henry Gibson all playing bit player back-up in the same place at the same time?   If there were ever a film whose preservation of talent on celluloid surpasses the importance of the film itself, this might be the one.

*He doesn't actually perform with them but he's there just the same.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Movie's Good, I Just Don't Like It

"Greg said it's not about that so shut up, stupid!"
The laws of film criticism would seem to dictate that when a movie is good, demonstrably good, we should like it or, at least, appreciate it in all its glorious excellence.  I'm not talking about those recent brouhahas and kerfuffles and, dare I say it, foofaraws that erupted after that one critic wrote a piece about how he didn't like those movies he was supposed to like, but found boring, only to be told by two other critics exactly why those movies were likeable.

It's not about that.

No, it's about a movie that seems well-done in every possible way but is still quite unlikeable.  The writing is literate and tight, the plot works well, the acting is uniformly good, the direction clear and efficient, the musical score, editing, photography, sound, etc. are all top-drawer, as my non-existent prep school friends would say (their names are "Chip" and "Skip").  And yet, I simply don't like them.  And I don't mean "it's not my cup of tea" (Chip and Skip again), I mean, "Damn!  I really hate this movie!"  See, that's kind of confusing because when a movie has everything going for it, it seems like somehow, someway, I should like it.  But that's not the case nearly as often as it should be.

Back in 1996, everyone in the world of film criticism (well, it seemed that way but it was before aggregate shit sites like Rotten Tomatoes so what in the hell do I know) was lying on the floor recovering from spasms of nirvana after watching The English Patient.  Seriously, I'd read a review and the critic would be all like, "English Patient? Touch me... there."   So I saw it and found it to have fantastic acting, a really tight script, good clean direction and breathtaking cinematography.  And, brother, did I hate that fucking thing!   And I don't really know why because I've never taken the time to go back and watch it again which I probably should because it seems like I'm constantly hating or loving movies that I end up reversing my opinion on in weeks, days, sometimes hours.  I do this because, as best I can tell, I've got some kind of mental problem but, you know what, that's for another post.

So, again, I can't claim The English Patient is bad.  I think everyone involved should be proud of their accomplishments on it.  It's not easy to make a movie, really it's not and something like The English Patient shows the kind of skill and talent that we should all be so lucky to possess.  It takes time, patience and a butt-load of money and I'm not here to dismiss any of the movies discussed in this post, just say that, inexplicably, I don't like them while acknowledging they're all well-done.

"This movie is bullshit! Good popcorn, though."
What got me thinking about this again was my recent viewing of The Road.  Is it well done?  I'd say, exceptionally so.  The post-apocalyptic landscape is, for one, so convincing, so dead, so grey, so lifeless that I'd swear the art director and set designer had somehow seen the coming end of the world and replicated it for the film (how they would have done this I'm still working out but I'm strongly leaning towards a time-helmet of some kind).  The lead performances by Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smitt-McPhee are both excellent and the story has a lean, efficient quality to it.   A no-frills kind of feeling that is perfectly fitting for such an enterprise.  And yet, by the end, I couldn't help but think the entire viewing was a complete and utter waste of my time.   I've felt that way ever since.  Here's what I got from it:  Nothing.

Maybe there's a slickness involved that I just don't connect with.  It's possible.  All the films that produce this kind of reaction in me feel perfectly done in some vague, technical way.  In fact, a lot of Best Picture winners fall into this category for me as well as almost the entire career of Ron Howard.  I see a Ron Howard movie and everything in them seems just right, you know?  As in, no chances taken, no going outside the constraints of the familiar, no bold exploration of new ideas.  They all have that prepackaged feel to them.  A sort of "Paint by the Numbers" where all the colors are right and in the right place but it feels forced, stiff, dead.

By contrast, when I watch something like Stroszek, it feels like Werner Herzog was making it up as he went.  And that feels great!  It's like he said, "Okay, let's film you driving away.  No! Wait!  Drive the truck in circles first.  Then get out.  Then get back in.  Set something on fire.  No!  Wait!  Is there some kind of crazy theme park or arcade around here?  What?  What's that?  Dancing chickens?  Perfect!  Let's go there and film that!"

It's the same when I watch early Scorsese.  Mean Streets and Taxi Driver have a dirty, messy, sloppy feel to them, a feel I really like.  The Aviator, on the other hand, is excellent on all levels but I just don't like it.  It feels so clean, so polished, so... so not Scorsese.  Same with The Departed.   All of these films, from The English Patient to (oh, let's pick a Howard film) Frost/Nixon seem so very uninspired.  They feel like the work of people who all know exactly what they're doing and they do it well but they don't let any part of themselves become a part of the equation.   It's like the recording of Born Free by Andy Williams (Huh? What?  Just bear with me, okay?).  In the song, he sings every note exactly as written and it's a running joke for my wife and me to take note of the one part in the song where he doesn't, the very last verse where, instead of singing the word "free" he kind of speaks it, boldly.  It's unintentionally funny because it's the one, single, solitary moment where he lets any kind of personality enter into his rendition.   Rather than phrasing the words to fit his feelings, emotions and instincts, like a Billie Holliday or Ella Fitzgerald or Frank Sinatra, he does exactly what he's supposed to do.  Zzzzzzzzzzzzz.

"Nothing I said applies to me.  Now get off my lawn!"
So maybe that's it.  Maybe when a film does exactly what it's supposed to do, it turns me off.   Maybe that's why I'm a fan of so many scratchy, ugly, thrown-together movies from the seventies and so little a fan of so much from the eighties on.   From the eighties on, thanks to technology in filming as well as post-production editing and special effects, even crappy, low-rent movies have a slick, polished look to them.  But that can't be the whole story because as much as an Out of Africa, The Last Emperor, Shakespeare in Love, American Beauty or Chicago don't work for me, practically everything Hollywood did in the forties does and if anything ever fit the definition of "people who know exactly what they're doing and doing it well", it's Hollywood in the forties.  I mean, those guys and gals put together movies like Tin Lizzies rolling off of Henry Ford's assembly line and, somehow, most of them do feel inspired to me.  Maybe that's because they were inserting themselves into the films (oh shit, it's that theory -  RUN!  Save yourself before it takes over the whole discussion!).   Or maybe there are too many people involved in the post-production now to keep any kind of individual directorial vision up there on the screen for anyone to even notice.  Or maybe I'm just a grumpy old curmudgeon and this is the dumbest idea I've ever had for a post because, in the end, there can be no possible answer to the question, "How can a movie do everything right and feel so wrong?"

Friday, November 18, 2011

Facebooking the Demise of the Wicked Witch (of the East)

I imagine at this moment on Oz Twitter, #CelebratedTooSoon is trending wildly.

By the way, you just know when it comes time for the Mayor's re-election, his campaign's going to be all over the fact that both wicked witches died on his watch.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

What I Learned Today

Mary Carlisle is still alive.  She was one of the WAMPAS baby stars and is the last remaining one.  Reading up on the WAMPAS baby stars is the kind of thing I actually do so, if you're not as weird as I am and are unfamiliar with them, simply go here.

Anyway, she's 99 and will turn 100 on February 3, 2012.  She was born almost 100 years ago but when she was born it had only been 86 years since Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died.  So there were people alive when she was born who were alive when Jefferson and Adams were alive.  On top of that, consider this:  86 years ago from this time, Joan Crawford was starting her Hollywood career in the silents and Charlie Chaplin was making The Gold Rush.   Wrap your head around that for a little while.

And while you're at it, visit this picture gallery for dozens of great photos of Mary Carlisle.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Synthesized Accompaniment

I watched The Long Good Friday again about a month ago for the first time in years. I had forgotten how much movie music from the late seventies and early eighties relied so heavily upon pop-oriented synthesizer sounds, regardless of whether they fit the mood of what was on the screen or not. Listening to the opening and closing themes of The Long Good Friday, it seemed downright odd to choose such music for a gangster film until I thought of other eighties movies, like To Live and Die in L.A. and Manhunter, that also have heavy-handed synthesizer pop loudly ushering in the closing credits, despite wrapping up tragic loss or disturbing violence just moments before.

The funny thing is, watching the closing scene (several times over, no less), all I could think was, "Thank God!" I mean, seriously, there comes a time when you're just thrilled that every goddamn score under the sun in the late seventies/early eighties didn't sound like another John Williams rip-off.  The pop music may sound odd given what it's playing behind on the screen but it's such a signifier of its time and place, I wouldn't change it for the world.

Oh yeah, and this guy?

Damn!  Honestly.  Just, damn!

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Pola's Back and You're Gonna Be In Trouble

80 years ago, in 1931, Pola Negri returned from Europe aboard the S.S. Paris to start her talking picture career in Hollywood after bad times in marriage and movies, with her most recent one, The Way of Lost Souls, her final silent film, not doing well at all.  After coming to Hollywood to act in sound pictures, and leaving again, her career went all over the map, including a period working for Universum Film AG (UFA) in France, then under the control of Joseph Goebbels, until she fled to America after the Nazis invaded.

Her career in Hollywood during the forties didn't go very far and within a few years, she retired.  Later, Billy Wilder would use her as the basis of the titular character Fedora in an old-fashioned mystery (Fedora, 1979) that I saw years ago and have been curious to see again for years but, sadly, it's unavailable.  Is it any good?  I have no idea.  I last saw it in 1979 but I'd love to see it again.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

You Can't Stop What's Coming

Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, Leslie Caron, Francis Ford Coppola, Maggie Smith, Joanne Woodward, Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, Jane Fonda, Glenda Jackson, Sophia Loren, Clint Eastwood, Burt Reynolds, Gene Hackman, Al Pacino.   Know what they all have in common?  They are all the names of actors and directors I grew up with as the big stars of the day and soon, sooner than you think, they're going to die.  Sorry for that, maybe I should have cushioned the blow more.

The cinematic stars, in front of and behind the camera, that I grew up with will soon be dead and not freakishly so, like John Belushi, in which the death is a shocking and tragic loss.  No, when they die, it won't be surprising.  No one will say "they were too young to die."  They will be in their seventies, eighties and nineties soon, very soon.  Some already are.  No one is very shocked when someone in their seventies, eighties or nineties dies.

In the last couple of years, I've already lost Peter Falk, Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman and a host of other actors that were the big stars of my youth.  The thing is, when a star dies, I often have little to say, not because I didn't care for them but because I didn't feel personally connected to them.  With Peter Falk, I did and it took me a few weeks to come up with a proper remembrance of him on this blog.  Charles "Bud" Tingwell and Edward Woodward felt the same way.  And I know others will feel more so.

Woody Allen, for instance.  If you don't like him, now's not the time to tell me because I'm here to simply say he means a lot to me.   So I'm not looking for a debate on merits or whether you agree on this movie or that, I'm saying his films, particularly ones like Manhattan, Stardust Memories, Hannah and Her Sisters, Broadway Danny Rose and Crimes and Misdemeanors are very powerful emotional experiences for me and when he goes it won't be the same as any other.  It will be a seismic shock to my sensibilities.

Robert De Niro will feel the same.  He's not quite seventy yet so I feel secure that he will be around a while longer but still, when he goes, a generous piece of my acting soul will go with him.

And I bring all of this up because I think, "Maybe I should start writing obituaries now, so I'm prepared when they go."  Or maybe that's a dumb idea.  Maybe I should just let it happen as it happens.

But, mainly, I think I bring it up because I realize I'm getting older.  Aren't we all?

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Chaplin, To-Day

Looking at this photo from April 1936 reminds me of how slow the release process used to be.  I've written about it before, as recently as last year, but this really brings it home.  The movie playing, "to-day", is Chaplin's Modern Times.  That film premiered in February in New York but now, in April, it's still playing (or just opening at this particular theatre, The Lyric) and the one of the other films playing, The Headline Woman, opened over a year earlier in March of 1935!

That tradition of holding over bigger movies and rotating older ones in and out at discounted prices, is what I grew up with.  Sometimes I would wait months to see a movie instead of ponying up the new movie price at the first-run theatre.   No, not because I knew it would be on cable or out on videotape, there was no such thing!  Rather, I knew that after a few months it would be playing at later hours at the respectable theatre for half-price or all throughout the day at the second-run theatres in the area.  Seeing a movie at the second-run theatre was kind of like waiting for it to come out on DVD is now.  Only better because at the second-run theatre I went to with my brother, The Pinehaven, you could pretty much do anything:  Drink, smoke, bring in food.  No one cared.   There was no concession stand.  If I traveled back in time and went to it now I'd probably get nauseous but at the time it was a pretty sweet deal.    Ah, the good bad old days. 

Monday, November 7, 2011

Mank Was Born Today

Herman J. Mankiewicz is 114.  I mean, he's dead, sure, but that doesn't make him any less 114.  People often ask, "What else did he write besides Citizen Kane?"  Well, you can find out here but, really, does it matter?  He co-wrote Citizen Kane.  Isn't that enough?

Also born today were Leatrice Joy and Dean Jagger.  I'm not as familiar with Leatrice's work (although I have seen DeMille's 1923 The Ten Commandments) but her name was "Leatrice Joy" so didn't she already win the lottery anyway with that name?  And she lived to be 91.

Dean Jagger I mainly know from Twelve O'Clock High, Bad Day at Black Rock and X: The Unknown, which I watched again just last year.   He had a simple, straight-forward demeanor and delivery.  He wasn't flashy or showy and never a star but reliable to the end.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Carl Boehm Or Not Carl Boehm, That Is The Question

I came across the black and white photo on the right during a search of a photo archive that listed it as, "Hamlet, unknown actor."*  I'd swear that's Carl Boehm, or Karlheinz, as his peeps call him.  I don't know if it is or isn't (I did a perfunctory search, as in "half-assed google search," and came up with nothing and, as seen below, it's probably, most definitely someone else) but no matter because, somehow, he seems a perfect fit for Hamlet.  Or maybe he wouldn't be.  Maybe I'm just reading too much of the weird Mark Lewis character he played in Peeping Tom into it.   Or maybe the fact that his dad, renowned conductor Karl Bohm, sent him to Switzerland during World War II so he would never be associated with Nazis while dad stayed with ... um... the Nazis.  But he didn't like them.  Or did he?  Who the hell knows?  Hey, we got a great Peeping Tom performance out of it, right?  Maybe I'm asking too much to believe the Nazi-sympathizer-dad thing could have played out for a great performance of Hamlet, too.

*In the comments, Vanwall Green thinks it might be Innotenki Smoktunovsky, renowned for playing Hamlet.  Stills from the production would bear this out.  I still think Boehm could have played a great Hamlet.  As for Boehm and Smoktunosky, are they candidates for "Switched at Birth" or what?

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Sometimes, You Have to Come Back
The Tree of Life (d. Malick, 2011)

There have been many times in my movie-watching life that I have been displeased or unsatisfied with a movie only to make a complete 180 degree turn, sometimes in less than 24 hours.  I have long since trained myself to never venture an opinion of a movie immediately after having watched it.  Of course, that hasn't stopped me from doing just that, many times over.  It's one of the reasons I hate the question, "So what did you think?" immediately upon finishing a movie.  I hate it because I foolishly answer the question when I know I shouldn't.

Over the summer, as I was leaving lunch with Bill Ryan, he asked me if I had seen Tree of Life, directed by Terrence Malick.  I hadn't, at the time.  I also said, plainly, that I wasn't one of Malick's biggest fans.  Certainly, I don't think he's bad, I just don't connect with his style of film making as much as others do.  Bill said something to the effect of, "Maybe you shouldn't see it, then, because it's about as 'Malicky' as you can get."

Well, I did see it, not long after that.  I didn't tell Bill, or anyone online for that matter.  I discussed it with my wife, however (who did not see it).  My discussion started minutes after I saw it, on the phone with her.  My views were, to say the least, not positive.  By the time we were both home and I could talk to her face to face about it, my feelings had changed a bit.  The movie was lingering in my mind.  I got a copy of it, streaming, from Amazon and watched it again.  I watched key scenes with her.  I showed her how this was done and that was done and how Malick told everything in short, clipped moments rather than full, formal scenes and how, when I thought back on the movie, that made it seem like I was looking back on the actual lives of people I'd known, not movie characters.  I remarked how we remember our lives in snippets, not fully realized afternoon's worth of conversation.  By the time I had finished talking to her about it, going over separate moments in the film with her and watching it again, I was of the mind that Tree of Life was one of the most extraordinary pieces of cinema I have ever seen.

I'm still of that mind.

This is a movie that is easy to resist.  It's easy to push against it and call it out as a piece of self-important "art."  It's easy because it doesn't present its story in any recognizable way and so the viewer can take that as an affront to their sensibilities and roll their eyes (even Altman's snippets felt more like whole scenes most of the time).  People claim it's not linear but, really, for the most part, it is.  Just because it moves around a bit in time, that is to say, it doesn't start right at the beginning but a little after and then goes back to start at the beginning, doesn't mean it's not linear.  For the most part, the story of the boys and their mom and dad is told from their birth through their old age and/or death in a fairly straight line. There may be detours, where we find out "where we came from" but that doesn't alter the linear momentum of the main story at all.  If anything, the movie simply stops telling that story, for a short while, here and there, before returning to it.

Nevertheless, for a lot of viewers, this one included the first time around, that can be tedious and, as a result, resistance becomes the defense mechanism of choice.  So, yes, I understand when I read some reactions that call it "pretentious" and "arty" and "self-important." But sometimes, you have to come back to a movie, just as Sean Penn's character comes back to his family in his thoughts.  What can be easily dismissed or resisted sometimes simply depends on how we have decided to view it.  I decided to view it a certain way but, in my memory, the movie forced me to view it another.  And it was that memory, reinforced by further viewing, that won the day.

For a more precise way to explain the film's storytelling technique, I quote Roderick Heath of Ferdy on Films:  "[Malick is] less interested in dramatic explorations of character, though there are intimations of character, than in articulating the archetypal through the specific, an example of T.S. Eliot’s formulation of the poetic sensibility as one that senses how everything is connected."  Tree of Life works only by watching the entire movie.  That sounds obvious (what else are you going to do with a movie?) but what I mean is, there's no getting bored and thinking, "Oh, he's not telling me anything important here!  I get it, the oldest son doesn't get along with dad!" and, then, as a result, kind of blanking out most of the movie.  It must be watched with full attention and taken in because only then can the sense of it, the connection to it and the feeling of the characters become viable to the viewer.

It's been a long time since I saw a movie that doesn't necessarily require you to take an active part as much as it, more than anything else, wants you to!  And that's an important distinction.  Malick wants you, the viewer, to engage with him, with the characters, with their lives.  He doesn't want you to just watch.  You can, if you want, but you'll miss a hell of a lot.  Once I started taking part in the movie, it won me over solid and, even now, weeks since I last took a look at it (but I will again soon, it looms so large in my mind) I think of it daily.

And for a person like me, the film itself is truly spiritual.  I cannot get my head around the idea of people wanting to take all the grandeur of the universe, all of its beauty and mystery and mind-boggling, stunning complexity and reduce it all to "a supernatural being made it."  That robs the universe and life itself of beauty and meaning, as far as I'm concerned.  But for others, it doesn't.  For others, that supernatural being is a way of personifying the mystery and while that may not work for me, I can understand it working for others.  The beauty of Tree of Life is that there is no dogma, no argument for or against anything which is why, I think, so many people have described it in so many different ways.  I've heard Christians claim it as a movie for them while I've heard agnostics and atheists say it's a movie that appreciates the beauty and mystery of nature.  It works either way because it's not about a specific inroad to any one definition of spirituality but about the existence of humanity and nature and the universe itself and how it all flows in one direction, each step tied to the last.

It begins with a quote from the Book of Job in the Bible that reads, "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?  What supports its foundations, and who laid its cornerstone as the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?"  What a beautiful way to start the movie because, essentially, as we watch the oldest son (Sean Penn) wander through the present as his memories lead us through the past, we realize just as he does that his adolescent judgments were, perhaps, misplaced.  He was not there, as an adult, to understand what his parents were going through.  To understand what work his father was doing, what humiliations he was enduring to keep them going.  How difficult it must have been for his mother, buoyed by her faith and love of her children, to continue in a marriage that must have felt, at times, like living with a distant acquaintance.  This movie is his way of going back and being there this time around.  This time he can be there when the foundations are laid and understand the work that goes into it.

Understanding your parents through memory is something I can relate to deeply.  So many things my parents did when I was young were judged harshly by me until I grew up and had children of my own.  Suddenly, through memory, I could understand why things were done a certain way and how hard it must have been.  That's what God is saying to Job in that opening quote.  He's not saying, "Who do you think you are judging me?! You weren't there!"  He's saying, "Think about it, reflect on it, so that you may understand it."  The great physicist Richard Feynman, when talking about the light waves that weave throughout the universe and all that there is, remarked that these waves are right here, in the room, "but you've got to stop and think about it, about the complexity, to really get the pleasure."  It's not enough to be present, it requires thought, contemplation, reflection.  That's what God wants, that's what the father (Brad Pitt) wants too.  He wants his sons to understand the hardship and learn from it, appreciate it and make it better.

The film's basic story is of one couple, the O'Briens, in the fifties, raising their three sons.  Later, one of them dies and the film does not tell us how (Suicide, like Malick's brother in real life?  Casualty of war in Vietnam?  It doesn't say.)  In the present, the oldest son, Jack (Penn), sees a tree being planted by the office building where he works and begins a long reunion, in his heart and mind, with his family that will take us through the movie.  Along the way, Mallick briefly leaves the main story to answer the question of a character, "Where did we come from?" by showing us the evolution of life on earth in a truly extraordinary sequence that has already become one of my favorite sequences in any movie, anywhere.  We return to the main story but continue to get mere snippets of dialogue, mere glimpses of life as the family moves forward and the boys rebel against their father and bond with their mother and then, over time, bond with their father through reflective understanding and tolerance.

All this is not to say the movie does not rely on cliches that were, at first, what made me so disappointed (although I very quickly got past them).  It was the constant dramatic whispers of narration and the angelic music during the creation of life on Earth that seemed so obvious.  There's no way around it, triumphant choirs of voices while showing the grandeur of space is as cliched as it gets and Malick adopts it full force.  But my reticence, in the face of these cliches, was quickly overcome by the simple beauty of a story told through shared memory.

Tree of Life is, simply put, a grand achievement in film and that's not something I say often when writing about new movies.  Initially, it put me off and I did everything I could to distance myself from it.  But the memory of the O'Brien family, of the beginnings of life and of a universe forever indifferent to our petty designs, and yet filled with our own meaning, turned me around.  As I felt it pull, I found I wanted to take part and I'm glad I did.  Sometimes, as Jack learns, you have to come back.