Friday, May 30, 2008

Harvey Korman, R.I.P.

The Carol Burnett Show was one of those great television programs that I was almost too young to understand when it first aired: when I caught it in syndication, as a slightly older child, I marveled at the dexterity of Burnett's physical comedy, loved Tim Conway's genial goofiness, and never quite knew what to make of the man whose imperious snottiness made him seem so much meaner than everyone else.

Now, of course, I realize that Harvey Korman, that imperious joker, was one of the program's linchpins, and one of the best comedic straight men of his era. Korman, who died Thursday at the age of 81, took the fussiness and deadpan on-stage "selfishness" of an earlier generation of comics and comedic actors like Jack Benny or Edward Everett Horton-- their constant need to be right, to control an uncontrollable situation-- and merged it with a more ironic, self-aware sensibility of that persona's limitations; it's no accident that some of the most beloved moments on the Burnett Show came when the three leads broke the fourth wall, let the audience in on the mechanics of their humor, and struggled to keep from laughing at one another's jokes. This style of humor makes it easier to see Korman as the missing link between that 30s and 40s era of comedy and a later sketch comic like Phil Hartman.

Korman had some success in film, most notably for Mel Brooks, who, in the Times obit, praised Korman's talents: "I gave him tongue twisters because I knew he was the only one who could wrap his mouth around them,'' Brooks said. ''Harvey was such a good solid actor that he could have done Shakespearean drama just as well and easily as he did comedy...He could lift the material. He always made it real, always made it work, always believed in characters he was doing.'' Indeed, like many masters of onstage snottiness, he was apparently a thoughtful and generous man in real life, and loyal to his old television companions. Whatever his success in movies, though, it was on TV that he really thrived: one of his early television appearances was, in fact, on The Jack Benny Program, which lead to a supporting role on The Danny Kaye Show; after the cancellation of The Carol Burnett Show, he appeared on everything from Mama's Family to Ellen to the Garfield cartoon program. One of his most recent roles was a dramatic turn on ER, a reminder of Brooks' praise for his range as a performer.

To me, though, he will always be the man becoming outraged in Blazing Saddles when people called him "Heddy," or closing his eyes on the Burnett Show, sighing, then unleashing a nasally complaint upon Tim Conway in the face of yet another Conway character's screw-ups. He made imperiousness into an art form: arch, deeply felt, and yes, funny.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Scrambling The Troops

The mockumentary comedy Military Intelligence and You! is at its best when it lets its striking imagery do the talking. Designed to look like a World War II-era training film (but meant as a commentary on current foreign policy), the movie constantly displays a tension between style and narrative that recalls the famous line from This Is Spinal Tap: "It's such a fine line between stupid and clever."

Director Dale Kutzera, cinematographer Mark Parry and editor Joseph Butler have expertly woven new black-and-white material (shot in a combination of high-key lighting and shadow reminiscent of Dr. Strangelove) with scenes from 1940s and early 50s war films and Army training movies, so seemlessly blending the two that only the occasional presence of stars like Alan Ladd, William Holden, Ronald Reagan and Elisha Cook allowed me to distinguish one from the other. It's a dizzying achievement, especially for a film shot on a smaller budget (according to IMDb, Military Intelligence was made for $400,000); it makes good use of limited sets and a small cast to suggest something much bigger in scale, while still having some tongue-in-cheek fun with its indie sparseness (the exaggerated maps, rickety props and absurdly elaborate tracking shots or wide angles that all call attention to themselves).

The actors are quite game, too-- in addition to those nicely deployed "cameos" from 40s stars, the film's actual cast deftly underplays the often obvious, Naked Gun-style jokes in the script. As the square-jawed Major Nick Reed (the good-boy-gone-hard head of intelligence), Patrick Muldoon is all steely-eyed, overly tough grit, his every squint or mutter designed to evoke a combination of Robert Mitchum and James Dean. Mackenzie Astin is underused as Major Mitch Dunning, Reed's unctuous rival, but he deploys his toothy grin, puppy eyes and dashing Errol Flynn mustache to good effect. John Rixey Moore has the Leslie Nielson role as the general in charge of the operation, and should be commended for never once winking to the camera: he's so completely straight that he almost seems like he walked out of a real war film, and is all the funnier for that. Most impressive is Elizabeth Ann Bennett, who takes the thankless (and thanklessly named) role of love interest Lt. Monica Tasty to an almost surreal place. Designed to be Nick's conscience during wartime, she expertly keeps her chin up, her eyes dewy, and her upper lip patriotically stiff; but all of this is conveyed in a breathless manner, whose sincerity so often crosses over into scarily intense earnestness that the film really threatens to become the kind of melodrama it's parodying: Bennett's line readings roll up and down in volume and timbre, and her intonations land on odd spots, like waves of real emotion crashing against the script's forced snark. It's sometimes a bit much, but, like the film's visuals, it mixes registers and thematic meanings more deftly than the writing does.

It's on the level of narration that Military Intelligence and You! fails, which is unfortunate, given that it's designed to carry the weight of the film's message. That might be its problem-- there are some wonderful one-liners ("Sending a man off on a dangerous mission from which he might never return is the second hardest job in wartime...Of course, the hardest job in wartime is to be the man going off on the dangerous mission from which you might never return"), Clive Van Owen does a good pastiche of a 1940s newsreel narrator, and there are moments when the combination of voiceover and stock footage finds precisely the right level of humor and horror, transforming the movie into a kind of Futurist poem. But too often, the script settles for a too-knowing, post-hoc smugness, shooting off har-har jokes about Iraq war planning and "Look how silly those folks were in the 40s!" that felt tired and dated, even if I agreed with some of their politics. In its insistence on trying to control meaning through dialogue and voiceover, Military Intelligence and You! seems to miss the metacommentary that its own image manipulations convey: in an age of photography, an image's meaning is far more elusive, ambiguous, and unsettling than any stern, self-righteous caption can convey.

Special Affects

The fine film blogger and Friend to Bubblegum Aesthetics, Jonathan Lapper, has just posted a montage he's made called Frames of Reference; it's a striking piece of work, and I'd suggest checking it out at your earliest convenience. Set to an orchestral jazz piece by Oliver Nelson that echoes Duke Ellington and Henry Mancini, the film structures its clips not by narrative, chronology or genre, but by intuitively matching on facial expression, camera movement or bodily gesture, creating a conductive effect across the clips that short-circuits traditional notions of film history and instead opens our view to a more subconscious, secret history of film style. As Jonathan put it in his run-up post to the film, "What I wanted to do, and did, was take advantage of the language of film, the words and letters, and the fact that so many films, whether consciously or not, use the same shots, the same angles, the same movements when telling their story." Beautifully matched to the swinging, percussive score, this kind of ordering allows for several different kinds of responses: the first, just a cataloging in one's head of all the repetitions and variations of a certain gesture; then, laughter at just how often a certain trope is deployed by filmmakers; then, a sense of fascination with the almost hypnotic, hallucinatory piling up of the similar images, and how this lexicon of gesture and affect transcends cliche to become something magical. It reminded me of Jack Lemmon's comment on Inside the Actors Studio several years ago, decrying the constant complaint of film critics and audiences: "He/she always plays the same role!" (an example, ironically, of how cliched such smug responses can become themselves). Lemmon's response was, "Yes-- but how did they play it?" Like a jazz musician working changes on an old standard, Lapper reminds us that one of the delights of cinema lies precisely in this balance of repetition and variation, of talented actors, directors and technicians discovering new ways to structure the beat.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

A Bond-A-Week: Centenary (Updated)

Author, journalist, intelligence officer, friend to Presidents, brother-in-law of Celia Johnson and creator of the world's greatest fictional super-spy: raise a very dry, shaken-not-stirred vodka martini to Ian Fleming, who would have been 100 today.

Fleming was born in London in 1908, the son of Tory MP, Valentine Fleming, who was killed in action in World War I. Ian spent two unhappy years at Eton (he'd later make James Bond an Eton dropout) before transferring to Sandhurst Military College. He was a good cadet, but, according to Raymond Benson's essential James Bond Bedside Companion, "as the time approached for him to take his commission, it was reported that the army was going to be 'mechanized.' Fleming, along with a few other cadets, decided he didn't want to spend his time pushing buttons and levels in the army, and refused his commission" (one wonders what such a man would've thought of the 70s Bond movies, which could be described in exactly this "pushing buttons" manner). Benson continues, "[Fleming] even had the audacity to write his refusal on a postcard, drop it in the mail, and then simply leave the college. Needless to say, his mother was not pleased."

Fleming completed his education on the continent, at a private school in Austria, where he entered a rigorous program in French and German languages, and began to write. Instead of a miltary career, he applied for and was rejected by the Foreign Service, and became a reporter for the Reuters News Syndicate, a position that took him to the Soviet Union for a number of years. He was a good correspondent, but quit that job in 1933 to become a junior partner in the banking firm of Cull and Company. Benson again: "It seems odd that Fleming would be happy as a stockbroker, but London held a particular fascination for the young man...It was life after hours that held his interest, and the thirties was Fleming's period of bachelor paradise...He soon had a reputation for extraordinary ruthlessness with women, yet these same women found him irresitible."

In 1939, Fleming joined Naval Intelligence as the personal assistant to its director, Rear Admiral John Godfrey. After a peripetetic life, the war seemed to focus and bring out the best in Fleming: working in "Room 39," a space in the Ministry of planning, subterfuge and propaganda, Fleming was finally able to combine his dreamy imagination and personal charm with his talent for language, his organizational skills, and his Boys' Own taste for adventure and intrigue. He would be involved in numerous joint English-American planning operations during the war, would shuttle back-and-forth between London and New York, would play a role in Operation Overlord and the establishment of the OSS, and would get to know such figure as "Wild Bill" Donovan and Sir William "The Man Called Intrepid" Stephenson. Benson quotes Fleming's boss, Admiral Godfrey: "Ian was a war-winner."

After the war, Fleming would work for the London Times, get married (Noel Coward was his witness), build a house called "Goldeneye" in Jamaica (where he would write all of his Bond books), and really begin his career as a novelist. The aporcryphal story is that he was looking for the "dullest name imaginable" for his fictional hero, when he spotted a book Birds of the West Indies on his coffee table. Fleming was a keen naturalist, but it was the bland name of the author-- James Bond-- that caught his eye.

Fleming's experiences as a spy and a globe-trotting reporter would both inform his fictional writing, and he was always keen on research about food, weaponry, the details of travel locations, the proper governmental terminology.To folks who know only the fantasy world of the Bond films, this might sound strange, but Fleming's books are tonally different from the movies they inspired: grittier, more realistic and almost existential in their combination of terse language, noirish derring-do and fatalistic ennui. It was Fleming's insistence on the almost fetishistic power of the well-described detail that grounded the novels' more fantastic elements in a recognizable world (and which, paradoxically, made that world all the more surreal). This research-- and his writing for the Times-- took him all over the world, which was just as well: his marriage to wife Anne was often difficult, and stories suggest they both cheated on one another. Whether or not, as some have claimed, Bond was Fleming's alter ego, it seems apparent that he at least became an imaginative escape valve for a writer who, like his hero, often dreaded the stifling boredom that domestic life entailed.

As early as the mid-fifties, and despite the novels' mixed response in the American markets, Fleming was already fielding offers to adapt Bond for film and television. He was keen to do so, but aside from a 1954 telefilm of Casino Royale, these various negotiations and screenplay drafts constantly hit road blocks. The most promising project was one with producer Kevin McClory called James Bond of the Secret Service, not an adaptation but an original screenplay starring the character, and introducing a new villain, the international terrorist organization SPECTRE. The two men started work on the film in 1958, hoping, as Benson notes, to use McClory's connections in the Bahamas to give them a quick leg up on production. Fleming was also working on some teleplays for CBS (some of this would become the basis, several years later, for The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and Fleming would graciously let CBS use the name he'd devised: Napoleon Solo). According to Raymond Benson, McClory and Fleming would go through at least ten outlines, treatments and scripts before production stalled, due to financial problems, mixed response to McClory's most recent film, The Boy and The Bridge, and Fleming's declining interest in working on the script. Eventually, Fleming would transform the work into a novel, Thunderball, but give no credit to McClory or co-scenarist Jack Whittingham, which would lead to lawsuits that severely harmed Fleming's reputation and health in his later years.

Before that occured, however, the most famous bit of Bond historical lore was about to happen: Fleming's pal, Sen. Jack Kennedy, became president, and did Fleming a huge favor by naming From Russia With Love as one of his ten favorite books in a Life magazine article. Sales of the books skyrocketed in America, just as Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman were optioning Fleming's book for a movie sale. The Kennedy plug was a financial boon for the recently-published Thunderball, all the more reason for Whittingham and McClory to pursue their suit, which would finally be resolved in the mid-sixties.

By now, work was beginning in earnest on the first film, Thunderball, but anxieties over the still-pending lawsuit caused the producers to switch to Dr. No. Fleming hated their choice for leading man, Sean Connery, and said so in public-- this former lorry driver couldn't be an Eton dropout! But, as Raymond Benson notes, when he met Connery, he quickly changed his mind. While he'd hoped for something less tongue-in-cheek, and more like, according to Benson, Wages of Fear, Fleming publically expressed his happiness with No, and the subsequent From Russia With Love. The latter would be the last Bond film he'd see: his declining health, exacerbated by all the public attention and stress of the lawsuit, suffered another heart attack in August 1964, and he would die on August 12.

Bond, of course, lived on and even thrived: one of the very best Bond novels, You Only Live Twice, had just been published in March, and another, The Man With The Golden Gun, would see posthumous publication in 1965, followed by a short story collection, Octopussy, in 1966. Kingsley Amis would take over the reins (writing under a pseudonym) for Colonel Sun in 1968, and John Gardner and Raymond Benson would also pen Bond books in the 80s, 90s and 00s. And of course, there were the movies, which would vary in their faithfulnes to the narratives and tones of the books, but which have kept Fleming's name in the public eye for 44 years since his death. I think he would've especially appreciated the last one, Casino Royale: after three very different tries, they finally got it right, crafting an adaptation that was not only faithful to the book's story (with some sly updates for a post-9/11 world), but finally nailed that uneasy tonal mixture of charm, fatalism, violence and regret that defines the literary Bond. It seems appropriate that it took a return to the very beginning to allow everything to fall into place, but it suggests the continuing hold that the "original" Bond, and his remarkable creator have on the public imagination.


Just thinking, on the way home from work, about further reading for those interested:

--Raymond Benson, The James Bond Bedside Companion: out-of-print, but worth tracking down-- it's the single best book on Bond available, with rich critiques of the films and books, and extensive information on Fleming and the overall Bond phenomenon.

--Andrew Lycett, Ian Fleming: Those in the know tell me this is a wonderful, definitive biography. Shamefully, I haven't read it yet, but it's on my bedside table, and I can vouch for the kindness of its author, who I met at a Bond symposium several years ago.

--James Chapman, License To Thrill: A smart, extensive look at the Bond books and films, and their places within filmic and literary traditions, as well as history more generally. I think it's one of the best academic books on the character.

UPDATE II: Well, this will teach me to check the Intertubes before I post: Jeffrey Hill also has a fine tribute, which covers some of the same ground but with wonderfully richer detail, up over at Edward Copeland on Film. I especially like the details about Fleming's research into Chicago gangsters, the further insights into his rocky marriage, and the fine analyses of how Fleming used and played with "formula" in the Bond books. Get thee to the post posthaste, and stick around to check out the rest of Edward's fine site.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Smartest Guy In The Room

“It is not impossible to make mainstream films which are really good. Costa-Gavras once said that accidents can happen.”
-Sydney Pollack

What I'll always remember about Sydney Pollack was how grown-up his work felt, as both a director and an actor. Watch him in his first scene in Michael Clayton, the quiet center amidst the chaos of a late-night boardroom session: we come across him in mid-conversation, and he's so focused that we long to know what was said before the camera reached him, what the rest of the conversation was. His minion tells him a reporter's on the phone; he looks at the minion with an annoyance he can't quite repress, sighs with his eyes and takes the phone. His conversation-- a telling-off of the reporter that in another actor's hands would be player for gotcha-style laughs or mustache-twisting villainy-- is delivered in matter-of-fact, banal tones.

That unobtrusive, highly professional and very smart style was a hallmark of Pollack's best work. Sydney Pollack died Monday at the age of 73, after a long battle with cancer. He started as an actor and an acting teacher, working as an assistant to Sanford Meisner at New York's Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theater. This training as both performer and educator would serve him well in his later career as a film director: actors trusted him implicitly (and he in turn would guide them to acclaimed, award-winning performances), and Pollack's most interesting movies function as explorations of different genres. In his lovely remembrance, Roger Ebert quotes one of Pollack's self-deprecating remarks: "I am not a visual innovator. I haven’t broken any new ground in the form of a film." That's true (although as Matt Zoller Seitz points out in this comments section, Pollack was an underrated formalist), but looking at Pollack's ouevre, one can see a keen eye exploring-- not deconstructing, but poking around with a curious and sympathetic eye--the possibilities of everything from comedy to conspiracy thriller to romantic melodrama. Films like Tootsie, Out of Africa, and 3 Days of the Condor are not only great movies, but almost perfect examples of each genre: Pollack's work then functions as a sort of cahiers du cinema for mainstream film.

Pollack's work is full of grace notes. Tootsie is full of moments of wonderfully broad comedy (all of Dorothy's scenes with Charles Durning, for instance) and romantic angst, but what I remember are the tinier moments that came, in part, out of Pollack's trust in his actors' improvisations: "I don't like when somebody comes up to me the next day and says, 'Hey, man, I saw your play. It touched me; I cried,'" Bill Murray's self-absorbed writer pontificates in the film's opening party scene. "I like it when a guy comes up to me a week later and says, 'Hey, man, I saw your play... what happened?'" In a single moment, Murray (and Pollack) has embodied, then punctured all of the pretensions about acting, theater and meaning that the film will go on to explore in more earnest fashion for two hours. Or think of how good Pollack was with small, everyday moments: for all the twists and turns of The Firm's labyrinthine plot, I am always more drawn to the movie's first hour, its shapshots of Memphis life and its delight in the tiny business of Ed Harris ordering sandwiches to go in a greasy, late-night diner. Dave Grusin's jazzy, New Orleans-inflected score is the key to Pollack's approach in that film: light, percussive, crafting sly grooves around the melody instead of getting caught up in its melodrama. Everyone benefits from Pollack's professionalism on that film, whose combination of sleek narrative unfolding and rich character detail make it the best of the Grisham adaptations. One of Pollack's last films, The Interpreter, showed that age and illness hadn't destroyed his skill with actors: it contains some of Sean Penn's most subtle recent work (he's quiet and controlled and very sad here-- much more affecting than in his overwrought Oscar turn in Mystic River).

Pollack's most famous long-term collaboration was with Robert Redford. I don't love all of the films they did together (I found Havana unwatchable, although I wonder if I shouldn't return to it), but The Way We Were, for all of its bizarre combinations of bathos and McCarthyism, is a touchstone for contemporary romance, and Pollack and Redford do a very good job of making Hubbell more sympathetic than he has any right to be (I find his conflicted politics and grace under pressure far more affecting than Katie's self-righteousness); The Electric Horseman would then take that pretty-boy image and turn it on its head, playing the melodrama for laughs while still allowing the relationship between Redford and Jane Fonda to be real and deeply affecting.

Their two best films together go a bit deeper. Out of Africa used Isak Dinesen's stories as the basis for a grand and deeply romantic historical drama. Some of the film's massive success no doubt came from timing-- the sense that "they just don't make them like that anymore" (consider that Out of Africa was released the same year as The Goonies). But it was also a testament to Pollack's skill, his ability to draw superb performances from Redford, Meryl Streep and Klaus Maria Brandauer, to expertly combine David Watkin's epic arial photography with John Barry's magisterial score, and to believe wholheartedly in the material. If there's a throughline to Pollack's work, it's its lack of snide refusal. There's irony, to be sure (you can't make Tootsie without a strong sense of irony), but it's not of the defensive sort; Pollack's love of actors and his teacher's curiosity meant he was always on the side of engagement, rather than distance, and Out of Africa threads its lush travelogues to a sad and searching tale of love lost, found and denied. It would be a huge influence on films like The English Patient, and indeed, Pollack and the late Anthony Mingella would enter a producing partnership in the 90s that bore fruit like Iris and the aforementioned Michael Clayton.

The best Pollack-Redford film-- and arguably the best movie Pollack ever made-- was 3 Days of the Condor. It's a movie that teaches us a lot, most of all: always be the one who goes out to pick up the sandwiches.

Released in 1975, just as Watergate made the conspiracy thriller a trendy genre, Condor is sometimes forgotten amidst Klute, The Parallax View, All The President's Men, and Executive Decision. But it's a smart, moving, and surprisingly complex film that holds its own against those honored masterpieces. Its opening sequence, in particular, benefits from Pollack's no-nonsense style: we watch as Redford bikes to his job as a CIA analyst; walks through the townhouse that hides their offices; says hello to the receptionist and fellow analysts; flips through the paperwork on his desk; ducks out to grab lunch before it rains. He rides a bike, wears a ratty ray tweed coat, has a geeky knowledge of weather patterns. It's all so banal, and that makes it all the more horrifying when the assassins show up, and all hell breaks loose. I don't have the DVD with me, but if I remember right, Pollack doesn't use any music here-- all we hear are the silencer-muffled sounds of the gunshots, and the bodies hitting the ground: the lack of melodramatic pull makes it so much creepier.

Redford comes back, finds the bodies, and goes on the run, as Pollack expertly maintains the suspense. But the trick of the film is what happens next: Redford abducts a random woman (Faye Dunaway) off the New York streets and convinces her to let him hide out in her tiny apartment. He can trust no one-- not even (perhaps, especially not) his CIA superiors--and doesn't know if he can trust her either, but a wary respect and affection develops between them, which eventually turns into a kind of attraction. It's all very strange-- romantic, ironic (that word again), and very unsettling if one ponders the context-- but no less affecting for that strangeness. What Pollack and his collaborators have somehow done is to slip a romantic melodrama into the middle of a conspiracy thriller, each acting as a commentary on the other. The two genres exist uneasily, but that's the point-- in a movie about how you can trust nothing, Pollack most unsettles his audience by twisting his narrative in this unexpected direction, then asking you to make sense of it all. It's a masterful tonal shift, and the best example of the kind of mainstream surprise Pollack notes in the epigraph above.

As an actor, Pollack was an even more valuable commodity. I love a lot of his films, but I treasure his performances in movies like Michael Clayton, Eyes Wide Shut, and Husbands and Wives. Brilliant in delineating men of power-- arrogant, stern or exhausted--Pollack would prove equally adept at comedy, making his exasperated agent in Tootsie one of the film's most sympathetic characters, and quietly raising everyone's game with his deadpan recurring role on Will & Grace. In interviews, Pollack claimed he never could've been a leading man, but these too-few turns suggest that he might have been one of his generation's leading character actors, had he pursued it full-time.

I rather pretentiously dropped a "cahiers du cinema" reference in earlier, because I really do think Pollack's work is (to use a loose translation of the term) a "workbook" of a certain kind of filmmaking. I'm even tempted to say that Pollack-- in his skill with actors, his no-nonsense visual style, his fluidity across genres, his preference for long-term collaborations with certain stars, his abiding optimism about the value of everyday work-- might be the Howard Hawks of the TV age. But Hawks was an auteur, to be sure, while Pollack is definitely what Truffaut might have called a metteur-en-scene: a skilled craftsman. It'd be hard to locate in Pollack themes or a "tension between the director and his material," those qualities that Andrew Sarris said defined an auteur. That said, Pollack's body of work suggests the pleasures that a such a metteur can provide, the advantages of being a curious craftsman. In an age of hipster positioning, it's easy to scoff at the values of "good mainstream movies"-- until you realize how rare they are, and what we lose when a talented adult like Pollack leaves us (indeed, I've gotten this far in my post, and still haven't even mentioned Absence of Malice or They Shoot Horses, Don't They?). His last film, Sketches of Frank Gehry, might have been his most unlikely: a documentary about the postmodern architect whose work feels so different than Pollack's own. And yet, there Pollack was, not only directing the project but appearing on camera as a good-natured questioner. The film works precisely because of the differences between the two men: Pollack comes, not as disciple or stern interrogator, but as what he always was: an inquisitive man eager to see how something worked, to see what might happen. And it was this combination of curiosity, skill, and humilty that always made Pollack the smartest guy in the room. R.I.P., Sydney Pollack.

For more remembrances (besides those linked above), see Larry's site, Forward to Yesterday, Glenn Kenny, Dave Kehr, Kim Morgan, and this photo/essay tribute from Entertainment Weekly.

Notes On Blogging Aesthetics XIV

I say everybody, screw the masses/We only want 2 have some fun...
-- Prince, "D.M.S.R."

Better Him Than Rory Gilmore

Well, well, well --he's feeling fine!

Paul McCartney, the most gifted musician of his generation, was rightly rewarded with an honorary doctorate in music from Yale University this past weekend (in a nice bit of serendipity, he was honored on the same day as one of my favorite poets, John Ashbery). I might have played the jaunty "I've Just Seen A Face" during Paul's walk, rather than the lovely but too-slow-for-a-processional "Hey Jude," but this otherwise strikes me as a well-earned honor.

(h/t to The House Next Door for the news).

Monday, May 26, 2008

Charm Monsters

Movie reviews up over the next couple of days-- including Iron Man! Daisy Miller! Leatherheads!--but in the meantime, enjoy this clip of everyone's favorite cinematic superhero bantering with everyone's favorite talk show host.

A festival of snark!

Memorial Day Grooves

Two recommendations to keep you cool (in all senses of the word) on a scorching hot Memorial Day weekend (at least here in sunny Cineville):

1) Eagle-eyed readers will notice several new additions to the blogroll the last couple of weeks, including a mysterious new shiny object called "Roger Ebert's Journal." Linked to, but different than the that has been hosting his reviews, essays and "Ask The Answer Man" questions for several years, this is Ebert's weblog, where he ruminates on films, criticism, American politics, and his personal life (at least as it relates to his work). Ebert is, of course, a gifted writer, and I'm actually enjoying his blog more than his reviews right now-- the latter are excellent, but the blog gives him the freedom to roam and make offbeat connections, a reminder that this Pulitizer Prize-winning critic is also an outstanding journalist and essayist. His most recent post is an appreciation of Chicago legend Studs Turkel (on the occasion of Turkel's 96th birthday), that is funny, observant, and extremely touching in the way it tells us so much about Turkel, Ebert, and the utter necessity of writing for both:

Studs has gotten a limitless number of people into things. I am one of them. He has taught me that if I break my other hip next week, I will simply learn to walk again, and continue do what engages me the most, which is to write about movies. Life might have taken me in many other directions, but this is the one given me, and if I stop following it, I will have lost my way.

True, after all that surgery, I still lack the power of speech. And after all those interviews, Studs is now, in his own words, "Deaf as a post." But I can still write about movies, and thanks to "a nifty little thing-a-ma-jig" device hooked to his hearing aids, Studs can still hear people and write about what they say. You hear about people retiring and then dying a month later, maybe because their life has lost its purpose for them. The lesson Studs teaches me every day is that to live is to live is to live.

2) If your cable system carries the generally excellent OvationTV network, you're in luck-- they're doing a Memorial Day weekend music festival of some of their best, pop-related programming, including marathons of Artists Den (kind of like a New Wavish Austin City Limits) and re-runs of Later with Jools Holland (the ep I'm watching now includes performances from Morrissey, The Beta Band, and Holland's old Squeeze mate, Glenn Tilbrook).

And if a ten-ton truck kills the both of us, I can't think of a groovier set of background tunes.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Cineville Graduation: Campus Illumination

A Political Crack-Up In Three Acts (Updated)

The Statement:

The Back-Pedal:

The Aftermath:

firedoglake has more.

UPDATE: Apparently, Sen. Clinton is so "sorry" for her remarks that she and her staff have now fired back at the coverage they've received. Short summary: she's in it to win it, she still has not included Sen. Obama in her apologies, and (of course) this is all Obama's fault, anyway, and she is the real victim here. I hate to re-use that Elizabeth Bennet quote, but it just feels so appropriate: "Yes-- go, go. I would not wish you back again."

Images Sing

When I was first becoming interested in movie history as a young teenager, I had the good fortune of catching Hollywood: A Celebration of The American Silent Film on PBS. Directed by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill for British television, it initially aired in 1980, then was re-run several times (I saw it around 1988), and released on VHS. Drawing extensively on Brownlow's magisterial book The Parade's Gone By, the thirteen-part documentary covered nearly every important aspect of Hollywood in the teens and twenties, including:




Romantic Idols...

Vamps and It Girls...

Doomed couples...

and Stuntmen...

The entire program, running more than twelve hours, is incredibly detailed, and so rich in clips, interviews, historical context, and deeply felt passion for the period that it almost makes you mourn the coming of sound:

It's currently out of print, and sadly has never been released in the U.S. on DVD, but for a movie-besotted kid, it was the perfect introduction to a glamorous, mysterious new world of art. I very much wish some enterprising company (perhaps those silent movie aficionados at Kino?) would make it available once again; in the meantime, I was happy to find the above clips on YouTube, and more can be found here.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Take-Home Exam

Professor Cozzalio just passed out the final exam before summer, so I guess I should stop chatting with my other blog topics, and stop passing notes to Jonathan, and get down to business. Geez, this one looks pretty hard..Guess I should've been studying more...

(As always, feel free to copy the list over and offer your own responses in the comments section, or copy it over to your blog-- but link to Dennis's original post, please!)

1) Best transition from movies to TV (actor, actress, producer/director, movie/show)
Wow, cool question, and one with many different possible answers, depending on what one means by "best transition": is it someone who's able to take those qualities we liked in film, and make them work on TV (in which case I'd vote for Burt Reynolds, immensely charming in the early seasons of Evening Shade)? Someone who had only a middling career in films, but found him/herself unleashed by the possibilities television offered (in which case I'd vote for character actors like Raymond Burr or Ed Asner)? Someone who had mixed success in films, but works well in TV, where he has more control over the final product (in which case I'd vote for writer/director/producer Joss Whedon, whose natural home is on the tube)?

Ah, who am I kidding? The best movie to TV transition is actually a TV-to-movie-and-back-to-TV transition: I am speaking of course, of that Cary Grant of the smaller screen, that charming rogue, that card sharp-cum-beach bum detective, James Garner.

2) Living film director you most missing seeing on the cultural landscape regularly
This one stumped me for a couple of days, as I pondered the questions Dennis had offered up this time, and while I was tempted to list Francis Ford Coppola, I finally settled on Whit Stillman. Stillman has made two perfect comedies (Metropolitan and Barcelona) and one mixed success (Last Days of Disco, but in Stilman's defense, it's hard to make a good movie when Chloe Sevigny plays your heroine). And then he's disappeared for the last decade. The recent Criterion disc reveals a man still in full command of his verbal gifts and still passionately interested in the mechanics of cinematic storytelling-- so what gives? In an age of Ashton Kutcher, Stillman's graceful, Austen-like observations make him a crucial national resource, one which should be tapped far more often.

3) Eugene Pallette or Charles Coburn:
"Let us be crooked, Jane, but never common."

4) Fill in the blank: “I pray that no one ever turns _____________ into a movie.”
The Sopranos.

5) Jane Greer or Veronica Lake
Ooh, that's a tough choice-- how can one decide between Sullivan's Travels and Out of the Past? I'm giving the edge to Greer, but only because her introductory walk through that Mexican bar is so alluring, and the single shot I would choose if I had to define film noir.

6) What was the last movie you saw in a theater? On DVD? And why?
In theaters: Then She Found Me
On DVD: Daisy Miller (the 1974 Peter Bogdanovich version).


Two weeks ago, my girlfriend and I were supposed to go see Radney Foster in concert. We drove into Cleveland on a sunny afternoon and arrived at the Beachland Theater (the newspaper article said tickets would be available at the door). It was still a few hours until the show, but we thought we could get our tix early and then maybe grab a bite to eat. There was no one at the box office, so we decided to head to the basement record store that was also housed in the club. It was a very cool atmosphere, with stacks of vinyl, lots of vintage t-shirts, and a new wave/hipster ambience that felt inviting, rather than closed off. We asked the young man behind the counter how we might get tickets, and found out that the show had been cancelled, due to the sudden death of Foster's father.

Shaken by the news, we decided to stay in the Cleveland area for the night, anyway, and maybe catch a movie. The Cedar Lee, Cleveland Heights' fabulous old (circa 1926) theater, which now shows indie and foreign films, was only about 20 minutes away, so we headed over to see what was playing. A number of good films were there, and we finally settled on Then She Found Me as one to see. It's very good, by the way, especially if you like your romcoms to be a bit prickly and uncertain.

As for Daisy Miller...That had been sitting on my tv table for a couple of months (thank god Netflix doesn't have late fees!), and I finally got around to it the other day. The film has a bad reputation, since it was a commercial flop, and since some folks can't imagine Cybill Shepherd in the title role. But I love Bogdanovich's 70s/early 80s work (They All Laughed is a lost masterpiece), and have been fascinated by Henry James ever since I read Rachel Cohen's brilliant anedotal study A Chance Meeting (in which James plays a central role) and I was curious. It's not bad, actually-- it's full of beautiful long takes and lush location work in Switzerland and Italy, and Shepherd isn't terrible in the role, although I think she's miscast. The rest of the cast is excellent, especially the quietly controlling Eileen Brennan.

7) Name an actor you think should be a star
One of my earliest blog posts pondered the mystery of why no one's heard of Katie Finneran. I also think Lauren Graham is one decent film role away from stardom, wish more people knew of Giancarlo Esposito, and find Lee Pace much more interesting than Josh Hartnett. Still, isn't one of the joys of cinema the character actor who makes the film so much more interesting than it otherwise might be (I know when I see Stanley Tucci's name in the credits, for instance, that the film will be at least partially interesting).

8) Foxy Brown or Coffy
(*Hangs head in shame*) I've never seen either, but can either be bad if they both star Pam Grier?

9) Favorite TV show still without its own DVD box set
Ooh! Too many to list, starting with Frank's Place, one of the most interesting and textured looks at race ever to air in the sitcom form, moving through Thirtysomething (a show I was just too young to get when it aired), China Beach (far better than any of the 80s movies about Vietnam), and finally ending with a request to box any surviving "Golden Age" filmed plays (from Playhouse 90 and so on) so I could see those shows I wasn't even alive to catch.

10) Jack Elam or Neville Brand
Aside from Stalag 17, I'm honestly pretty unfamiliar with both, which says something about me, I guess, and also about the generational gaps that sometimes exist in the film blogosphere.

11) What movies would top your list of movies you need to revisit, for whatever reason?
Rules of the Game, the richest movie ever made; Breathless, the one which most radically re-shaped my cinematic imagination; anything from Errol Flynn's late 30s period; nearly anything by Howard Hawks and Francois Truffaut; and The Godfather films, which stop me cold and force me to watch them whenver they appear on TV.

12) Zodiac or All the President’s Men
Oh, All The President's Men, no question! Zodiac is ok, but Men is one of the three best American films of the 70s, and one of the most inexhaustible suspense films ever made (it's also a great teaching tool).

13) Using our best reviewer-speak, what is an “important” film comedy? And what is to you the most important film comedy of the last 35 years?

"Hey LAAY-DIEEEE!": Foucaultian Repression and Freudian Desire in the Le Cinema du Hilary Duff, or, When Is Hair Gel Just Hair Gel?." Movie Journal, vol.6, issue #4, May 2008. 35-55.

Abstract: Why...laughter? Thinking through the gendered problematics inherent in the capitalist construction of "tween" (and its relations to a Butlerian conception of the body as performance), this paper seeks to understand the intertwined notions of humor, femininity and "masked" identity in the works of Hilary Duff, in particular the plays with fairy tale imagery in A Cinderella Story, the "policed" notions of "cool" and "nerd" in The Lizzie McGuire Movie and the role of cyberspace avatars in A Perfect Man. Related topics will include The Mickey Mouse Club, the marketing of Dinsey Channel programming and the Barthesian mythologies of "Come Clean (Let The Rain Come Down)."

(Just out of curiosity, Dennis, what caused you to choose the 35-year limit?)

14) Describe the ideal environment for watching a movie.
This is such a cliche-- sorry!--but it really depends on the movie. For a big blockbuster, or even a cult film (like Pulp Fiction) that's eagerly awaited, it's hard to beat a packed multiplex on opening weekend, as the anticipation spills over onto the screen, and the screen fulfills or shatters it. On the other hand, one of my fondest cinema-going memories was watching Jules and Jim, L'Atalante, and The Bicycle Thief on back-to-back weekends at The Music Box, a gorgeous art deco theater in Chicago; unreeled in pristine 35mm prints in a tinier screening space, the smell of popcorn mixing with the smell of espressos, it was the perfect place to get caught up in the movies, and to not only see but feel the links between the films. There are some movies I can't watch with an audience, because I don't want to deal with the possibility that they might not like it (Some Came Running, for example, which I showed to a derisive cinema class one year), and some (like mediocre action films or B comedies) which find their ideal home on my TV screen on a free, rainy weekend day.

15) Michelle Williams or Eva Mendes
Despite Dawson's Creek, I'm gonna have to go with the actress who graced Dick with her playful blankness, and Brokeback Mountain with her bruised patience.

16) What’s the worst movie title of all time?
A Million to Juan. Yes, it's real, and when I worked in a video store, its crappy punning was a constant target of our snark. Also, Signs.

17) Best movie about teaching and/or learning
Six Degrees of Separation, Surviving Desire, and The Paper Chase.

18) Dracula (1931) or Horror of Dracula (1958)
Love the first one, and the second is in my Netflix queue. But what-- no love here for The Hunger or Angel?

19) Why do you blog? Or if you don’t, why do you read blogs? (Thanks, Girish)
I've actually been thinking about this question a lot lately, as I've started to ponder blog comments, and why I do or don't get them on certain posts, why some folks seem to post a lot and some hardly at all, and how that affects what I write. I guess that means there are two, intertwined answers to the question: one, I like the sense of community and sharing that exists in the film blogosphere (so different and less hostile than, say, political blogging) and the chance to connect my passions and obsessions with someone else's. Two, in the end, no matter what connections are made, I really do this to sort out the ideas and contradictions and weird nagging questions that rumble about in my brain (I once joked in a post that an alternate name for my blog could be "An X-Ray of My Head", and I think that's still basically true) (or, to put it another way, and to paraphrase Pauline Kael, I write because no one else is saying the things about movies I want to say). If that stuff touches other people, that's fantastic, and I love that sense of feeling like I'm not alone (and that I might be telling someone else that they aren't either) in my sometimes counter-intuitve tastes, but if not, I'm still having fun, and getting to do lots of different kinds of plays with writing and imagery.

20) Most memorable/disturbing death scene
Well, Psycho, of course, and Citizen Kane's opening, and the "I'm not dead yet!" chopping of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and Kong's death (both versions). But I was always kind of struck by the quiet and absolute stillness of Kevin Spacey's expression, after he's shot, in L.A. Confidential.

21) Jason Robards or Robert Shaw
When the hell is somebody gonna go on the goddamn record here?!? Well, I will-- from my first glimpse of him as the magical uncle in Max Dugan Returns to that creepy deathbed scene in Magnolia, Robards' gravelly cool was one of my favorite cinephiliac pleasures, which takes nothing away from my love of Red Grant.

22) A good candidate for Most Blasphemous Movie Ever
Shakes the Clown: As Michael Powell once said of Forty Guns, "I don't wish to see my religion treated that way."

23) Rio Bravo or Red River
Both spectacular, but despite my abiding love of Dean Martin, it has to be Red River-- Clift is just too cool, and Wayne just too perfect as the psychotic patriarch. Despite its botched ending, Hawks' sense of narrative sweep was never stronger.

24) Werner Herzog is remaking Bad Lieutenant with Nicolas Cage—that’s reality. Try to outdo reality by concocting a match-up of director and title for a really strange imaginary remake.
The Bicycle Thief, directed by Baz Luhrmann and starring Adam Sandler and Dakota Fanning.

25) Bulle Ogier or Charlotte Rampling
Rampling, if only because she was in an episode of The Avengers.

26) In the Realm of the Senses— yes or no?
Haven't seen it, but I like the other Oshima I've seen.

27) Name a movie you think of as your own (Thanks, Jim!)
Riffing on what Emerson wrote, I would have to say the overall body of work of Vincente Minnelli. Casablanca and Rules of the Game are my favorite films, but I feel protective of Minnelli because students sometimes don't know what to do with his inimitable blend of color, lushness, melodrama, humor and passion. That doesn't mean they are 'wrong' in their responses, but that, when they laugh at the heightened emotions during the climactic fair scene in Some Came Running, I feel like Michael talking to Fredo in The Godather, Part II: "You broke my heart...You broke my heart!!" And that's true of The Band Wagon, Meet Me In St. Louis, Father of the Bride, The Band and the Beautiful...some of these movies get good responses, some bad, but they are immensely dear to me, and even if I hate the feeling of disappointment when folks reject their pleasures, I love the feeling when they connect with a student, and those passions get translated from screen to audience.

28) Winged Migration or Microcosmos
I didn't care for the latter, so I never saw the former.

29) Your favorite football game featured in a movie
Either M*A*S*H or Horsefeathers, although the recent Leatherheads is also quite fun. The trick, I think, is to not take football seriously-- as in the atrocious Any Given Sunday-- but to use its absurdities as a jumping-off point for character and comedy.

30) Wendy Hiller or Deborah Kerr
They're both quite wonderful, but the edge goes to Kerr, great in nunneries, musicals, wheelchairs, and military uniforms. Plus, you can't beat starring in Otto Preminger's best film.

31) Dirtiest secret you have that is related to the movies
I like surfing movies, and Fassbinder bores me silly.

32) Name a favorite film and describe how it is illuminated and enriched by another favorite film.
I was fourteen or fifteen when I first saw Casblanca: we'd rented it from the local video store, and had it on in the background as we decorated the Christmas tree. Despite this bifurcated viewing situation, I was immediately drawn to its relaxed cool-- it wasn't just the stars or the romantic narrative that grabbed me, but the film's tone, and the sense of a whole world of glamour and witty repartee that it evoked. I wanted to live in that world, move through that stylish nightclub, exchange quips with Louis and play chess against myself. I also loved that I could understand the snippets of French that played as voicover as the Nazis marched through Paris: I might have been struggling with French in the classroom, but the magic of cinema could make everything comprehensible.

Four years later, I saw Breathless (which I blogged about here), those links between cinema, desire and comprehending new worlds made even stronger. The film famously references Bogart, of course, when Belmondo stares at the publicity still outside the theater, and tries to rub his lip in a Bogartian manner. But it was, again, the whole sense of a world created, and that even cooler sense of cool that it evoked, that drew me in. Here was a movie that was not only an object in and of itself, but one that also referenced and "spoke" to other movies, and in that gesture reconstituting the very glamour it was deconstructing. The movie and the experience of the movie were another lesson in cinephilia as a way of seeing the world, and understanding my place in it.

Place is strong in Rules of the Game, its Parisian apartments, country estates and midnight landing strips defining, expanding and inhibiting its characters. Famously booed and almost destroyed in its initial release, it would escape Nazi persecution by having a near-complete print hidden in the bathtub of Henri Langlois during the war, even as its star, Dalio, escaped to Hollywood, where he hides out in the gambling room of Rick Blaine ("I'm so sorry Monsieur Blaine, I don't know how this happened"). It's the greatest movie ever made, but when I first saw it, I didn't get it: I was nineteen, and I needed a few more years of life and heartbreak and maturity to really understand its visually and thematically layered elegance. I also needed a better print: Henri Langlois saved Rules from being destroyed in 1940, but it was the Criterion Collection, with their amazing, essential DVD a few years ago, that brought the film home to me, allowing me to at last comprehend Godard's famous quote: "Some directors start from documentary and move towards fiction, while some start from fiction and move towards documentary...Renoir occupies both positions at once, and that is why he is Renoir."

33) It’s a Gift or Horsefeathers
Horsefeathers: Marx always trumps Fields.

34) Your best story about seeing a movie at a drive-in
Drive-ins were on their way out as I was growing up, and so many of my "memories" of them come from seeing them in other films: the hilariously campy projections in The Thin Blue Line, the re-creations of 50s teen lust in Grease, the assassin's bullet cutting through the night sky in Targets. My own drive-in memory is connected to The Empire Strikes Back, and seeing it on a warm summer night's re-release, and enjoying the serendipity of night falling just as the Millenium Falcon roared into space: sky and screen blending into one glittering, star-ridden space.

35) Victor Mature or Tyrone Power
Ah, the age of the mid-forties beefcake: dull, shirtless, and so much less interesting than Gable, Grant or Stewart. Well, in this contest among the Brad Pitts of mid-century Hollywood, I will have to go with Tyrone Power, an excellent Zorro, and someone with the good fortune to star opposite Linda Darnell.

36) What does film criticism mean to you? Where do you think it’s headed?
Needs more cowbell.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Climbing Up On "Violet Hill"

The members of Coldplay don't do themselves any favors with their new video for single "Violet Hill," which dramatically swipes from the Beatles' late sixties, Magical Mystery Tour-era short films and feels loaded without a strained, psychedelic Goonishness that's archaic, to say the least. This mop-toppy approach is further enhanced by the feedback-heavy guitar chords and big drum sounds that recall "Helter Skelter" (even as Chris Martin's filtered vocals sound more like Plastic Ono Band-era John Lennon, a tone which intertwines nicely with the clipped, Lennonesque usage of nursery rhyme-phrasing-as-political commentary in the lyrics). I can't quite decide if the climb up the mountain at the end is an hommage to Lord of the Rings or to Coldplay's other big influence, U2 (specifically, the snow-drenched videos for War).

Maybe this game of spot-the-reference is an unfair way of judging the video's effect, but it's one the band itself invites with their deliberate aural and visual pastiches; but where earlier Coldplay singles and albums used those influences as launching pads for their own material-- quotations you could hear, but only in the context of Coldplay's own, deeply pleasurable melodic gifts-- the weight of all that past seems to weigh "Violet Hill" down. It transforms the lyric's oblique swipes at Bush/Blair era political maneuvering ("When the future's architectured/By a carnival of idiots on show/You'd better lie low... /Was a long and dark December/When the banks became cathedrals/And the fog /Became God") into an ironic self-critique about treating bands as churches, and past pop songs as a liturgy to be endlessly recited and recycled by the next generation.

Thursday, May 22, 2008


Nothing about The Visitor should work, which is why it's a small miracle that everything does. A quick summary of its plot-- a white, widowed, burned-out professor travels from his home in Connecticut to Manhattan to deliver a conference paper; meets two illegal immigrants who are squatting in his apartment; moves from cautious respect to friendship with them over the course of the film; watches in horror as one of them is arrested and placed in a detainment center, works hard to get the man released, and bonds with the man's mother--sets off any number of alarm bells for me about heavy-handedness, smug political hectoring and Hallmark Hall of Fame-style sentimentality. But this film from Thomas McCarthy (the writer and director of The Station Agent) is so assured in its tone, so striking in its visual arrangements, and so breathtakingly generous to its actors that it reminded me that cinema is so much more than plot, and that the best films are often composed of tiny grace notes layered in offbeat patterns, like the drum circles that power so much of The Visitor's narrative.

We first encounter Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins) in his Connecticut house, its bright white walls and highly symmetrical doors and windows almost entombing him in silence and propriety. An elderly woman (Marian Seldes) arrives at the home, and after some stiff conversation, suggests they get down to business. Is she a lawyer? A family friend? Someone coming to look at the house, which seems so immaculate that it might be up for sale? Nothing is revealed in this initial dialogue, which exists less for the sake of story than to reveal Vale's character: polite, proper, well-intended, but with a quiet frustration boiling beneath. So much of The Visitor will follow this scene's model, creating tiny vingettes, especially in its first half, that barely push the story along, but are rich in feeling and detail.

As it turns out, the elderly woman is Walter's piano teacher, but he's not very good (as we see in the quietly humorous scene that follows). He's not very good at anything anymore: he's distanced from his students (to whom he has not yet given a syllabus, despite it being the mid-point of the semester), avoids his colleagues (note his withdrawn body language and frustration when his department chair tells him to attend a conference he'd rather skip), eats alone in his home and seems like a cipher walking through the crowded college campus. These early scenes continue the symmetrical patterning that we saw in the house, framing Walter in such a way that his environment seems to engulf him: they're tableau-as-trap.

Even the bustle of New York City can't break the spell: as Walter drives or walks through the city, we see patterns of horizontals, diagonals, verticals, perfectly laid out. None of this is to suggest that the filmmakers themselves are boring, or trapped in a Kubrickian lust for perfect stills: if slightly schematic, these framings serve a purpose, and their order actually allows us to notice the life within the frame (students jostling and chatting, leaves falling, neon light reflecting off the lens), to let those tiny details that Walter is missing breathe in a way that a more hyperactive cutting might not; this juxtaposition only serves to make Walter's voluntary withdrawal from life more acute.

The shift comes when he meets Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and Zainab (Danai Jekesai Gurira), the squatters in his apartment. They initially think he's an intruder-- he stumbles upon Zainab in the bathtub, and Tarek grabs him by the collar, jostling his orderly life. Again, the tightness of the framing is effective here, trapping everyone in a space of visual and emotional claustrophobia. When they discover that they've been renting the apartment under false pretenses, Tarek and Zainab depart, but are invited back by Walter, who lets them stay "for a few days" while they find a place to live. One night, Tarek is going to a club to drum with his band, and he invites Walter to come (much to the chagrin of his more cynical wife); Walter declines, but changes his mind a few minutes later. That's the real turning point of the movie, both visually and narratively: all of the other, more melodramatic turns the plot takes stem from that willingness to join in and engage once more, and McCarthy signals this with his first off-kilter framing in the film: Tarek and Zainab in the lower left/center, standing on a stairwell, everything orderly-- then Walter suddenly popping his head out from the upper right, over the stairwell railing, a jagged diagonal that breaks the scheme.

The remainder of the film, despite its many crushing sadnesses, offers a joyous spirit that is, in the less tendentious meaning of the term, ennobling. McCarthy's looser framing allows the vibrant colors of Manhattan to flood the screen, and tracking shots and quicker cutting become visual correlatives to the symphony of noise that crams the soundtrack: jazz, pop, world music, voices in the park, subway cars screeching underground, laughter ringing everywhere. This will change once more in the final third of the film as Tarek is arrested and imprisoned-- the vibrant colors will turn gray and pallid, the joyous cacophony will become eerily silent--but the bonds between the characters, and between the film and its audience, doesn't fade.

If anything, the quiet that surrounded me a couple of weeks ago at the Cedar Lee screening (even the chatty Ya-Yas behind me stopped their monologuing) spoke to the film's power, and to the desire to have that earlier joy return. Just as in The Station Agent, McCarthy suggests that life is rarely that simple: for all the drama of its plot twists, they still come to us is tiny, quiet, deeply felt moments of juggled pain and hope, propriety and inappropriate gesture. Even the film's ending is less a resolution than a new beginning, where resignation and possibility play co-equal roles. Despite that, I'm utterly certain that The Visitor is a film of abiding optimism, and that this optimism is what makes it one of the best films I've seen in a long time: in the face of an overwhelming cynicism about the state of the world, The Visitor not only suggests the possibility of connection, love, and vibrant life in the face of tragedy, it embodies it and offers a model for it, a new set of songs and beats for a post-9/11 American cinema.

It Figures...

I miss Top Chef last night, and of course it's the episode where Tom Colicchio disappears, and Anthony Bourdain takes over. Oh, well-- at least I know Bravo will run it a few googles more in re-runs in the coming week. But why can't Tony replace the odious, faux-Michael Chiklis every week?

Not Another Teen Movie

Well, this is interesting news.

I'm a big fan of Runaways, which does a much better job of translating a Whedonesque aesthetic into the comics form than the current Buffy comic does (intriguingly, it was Vaughn's arc on the Buffy book that felt the closest to the TV show). And given those televisual influences, taking it to a live-action setting shouldn't be too hard (I do wonder if its lengthy arcs and detailed character development over several issues doesn't make it better suited for TV than cinema, though).

Still, given Marvel's recent track record, and the quality of the source material, I'm certainly looking forward to it. Casting suggestions, anyone?

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Star Power

I went upstairs again and sat in my chair thinking about Harry Jones and his story. It seemed a little too pat. It had the austere simplicity of fiction rather than the tangled woof of fact.
-- The Big Sleep

Criticism through serendipity...

On this day, 28 years ago, The Empire Strikes Back was released in theaters. I think Jonathan nails it when he writes:

Back when I was a kid the blockbuster was an event. Each year promised a high profile movie that some studio would sink all their money into and everyone had to see it. Since the success of Star Wars was unanticipated by the movie going crowd (that is, we weren't waiting and waiting for it to be released, it just kind of happened) my first recollection of an anticipatory blockbuster was The Empire Strikes Back. Oh Dear Lord I couldn't wait to see that damn thing. My friend, Chris, had read the Star Wars fiction released in between the two and told me all about Darth Vader falling into a volcano and that's why he had to wear the suit. Wow! How cool was that? Little did I know when I finally saw it happen in 2005 I would be stifling yawns during the climax. And of course the Star Wars fiction made absolutely no mention of Vader's name or who he was so the whole "Father" moment was absolutely flooring (although since Vader actually means 'father' I'm curious why this was not picked up on sooner by the adults seeing the movie. Were people just that un-curious and intellectually lazy back then? Nowadays the 'Vader' thing would've been blown after the first showing of the first movie).

Star Wars is connected to my earliest filmgoing memories-- it was the first film I saw in a theater (at the tender age of four), and my memories of it are no doubt exaggerated, like Alvy Singer growing up beneath the Coney Island roller coaster in Annie Hall. Remembrances come in sensual flashes, quick cuts: rummaging through the closet for coats and shoes, standing in a long line outside the much-missed Beacon Theater in Kalamazoo, becoming engulfed by the massive darkness of the theater itself. I was four, so I was a Bad Cinephile, talking and asking my mom and older brother questions, roaming the aisles, hardly looking at the screen, whose bright colors and fantastic spaces seemed (if you'll pardon the pun) alien, anyway.

And then the moment burned in my memory: somehow, I've made it to the front of the theater, just as the famous Mos Eisley cantina scene begins, and (as if the screen calls out to me), I finally manage to look up and focus on the screen. And I'm terrified-- the various aliens in the bar scare the hell out of me. I remember yelling, and running back to my seat. It's a moment of simultaneous alienation and bonding: despite my initial terror, I somehow know I will be hooked on movies for the rest of my life.

And Star Wars becomes a big part of that. After catching the 1978 re-release (I'm am now a much more mature, worldly five-year old), my imagination becomes fueled by Jedis, dark villains, beautiful princesses, and charming scoundrels. Star Wars action figures, space ships, posters, comic books and novelizations fill my bedroom. Anything sci-fi-related, from Buck Rogers to The Black Hole, becomes a must-see. Even the snoozy Star Trek: The Motion Picture can't break the spell.

My fandom takes the usual boyish paths of play and make-believe (pretending to be the characters), but also spurs my interest in behind-the-scenes material: as I get older, I start to read books about the making of the films (and other movies), watch promo documentaries about Industrial Light & Magic, scour back issues of Starlog for more data. I don't know what a film scholar is when I'm seven or eight, but that's what I'm becoming, without even thinking about it.

The beautiful one-sheet for The Empire Strikes Back (which remains one of my favorite film posters) promises something magical, dark, romantic (the latter wouldn't have meant much to me at seven, but I am still struck by the central image of Han and Leia, which years later I will realize was borrowed from Gone With The Wind). I get lost in its shadowy, mist-covered corners. In an age before VCRs and the Internet, moviegoing still feels like an event, one that's larger than life, one you have to anticipate and imagine, one you can't predict.

Which is not to say I didn't try-- even at the age of seven, I am ravenous for spoilers, and somehow get my hands on a copy of The Empire Strikes Back storybook the day that I am going to see the film. I shudder at the memory now-- I couldn't have waited five whole hours to find out what happens?-- but I'm honestly not sure I understood the big twist revealed in the clip above when I read it on the page: I knew what it said, but not what it meant-- it needed the full power of its visuals, of sitting in a cavernous movie theater with hundreds of rabid fans gasping, to really signify its import.

My uncle and his girlfriend take my brother and I to the much-missed Campus Theater for the evening show.
As its name suggests, it's a gigantic theater on the WMU campus, packed with kids, adults and college students; within five years, it will have been converted to a dance club, a reminder that Star Wars was the the tail-end of an earlier cultural era. Cheers erupt when "A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away..." come up on the screen. Empire is stranger, darker, more adult than the earlier film. I love it, but feel distanced from it at the same time-- it doesn't ingratiate itself the way the first film did (or the way Return of the Jedi will, ham-handedly, three years later).

Of course, this supposed "chilliness" is a red herring-- for all its visual and thematic darkness, The Empire Strikes Back is easily the most human of all the Star Wars films, the most gripping and involving, and the only one that truly convinces me, all these years later, of the wholeness, depth and rich feeling of its vision. When Yoda raises that X-wing out of the swamps of Dagobah, the visuals and special effects and John Williams' wonderfully delicate score combine to make you believe that there is, in fact, a whole universe unfolding before your eyes: if there is a Force, it's the power of cinema. I'll see Return of the Jedi three years later at the much-missed Plaza Theater, and while I'll enjoy it in bits and pieces, and love the energy of the crowd, something is missing (I'm already a very jaded ten-year old). I can't place my finger on it, and I certainly don't have the vocabulary at that age to articulate it, but I know that this is a half-assed, pandering conclusion to the epic of my childhood, that the narrative feels rushed, that the Ewoks are lame, that the Death Star imagery is a retread. Could George Lucas have let me down? I'll ask the same question a year later when I see Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (also at the Plaza Theater, which, within a decade, will be turned into a clothing outlet store). A year later, I can better explain why the second Indy film disappoints: "Indiana Jones needs a stronger villain," I tentatively explain to my father. "Belloq is like...he's like his opposite, so means more than the guy pulling hearts out of the chest." I will later shift my opinion on Temple of Doom-- it's deeply flawed, but I love its go-for-broke spirit-- but these two failures herald the next step in my transformation: from film fan and trivia geek to budding critic.

These sorts of responses are why I've always taken the Biskindian myth about "Lucas and Spielberg killed American cinema" with a grain of salt. I get the evidence-- the rise of the blockbuster, the strangling importance of television ads, "concept" pitches and ancilliary marketing, the squeezing out of "more personal" cinema (on the other hand, I also remember the response of a friend when she finally caught up with one of those "personal movies," Midnight Cowboy, on DVD: "Wow..." she said, as she shook her head and relayed her impressions of the film's bleakness. "No wonder Star Wars was so popular a few years later"). But the Biskind reading is one that's as much generational as it is actual, driven by boomer nostalgia and a false binary between the "personal" and the "epic" (and a convenient overlooking of both the self-destructive excesses of that generation of filmmakers, and the more long-term affects that the Reagan administration's loosening of vertical monopoly rules with regards to theater ownership played in squeezing out crucial independent theater chains as sources for offbeat cinema). A critical response and methodology can start from a love of the sci-fi blockbuster as much as it can, say, the Western.

Anyway, it's not like a love of spectacle and glamour--at the expense of precious, precious narrative-- begins with Spielberg and Lucas. Take The Big Sleep, for instance. By odd coincidence, today is also the 63rd anniversary of the marriage of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, a ceremony which happened as they were filming that classic screwball noir. Famously hard to follow, The Big Sleep is a film carried almost entirely by star power-- not that of spaceships and light sabers, but no less able to distract, confuse, and allure in a deeply fetishistic way--and one which will confuse genre boundaries and audience expectations just as powerfully as Star Wars thirty years later.

Much of this was by design, and the various apparatuses which would build up around film studies (fueling the ideologies of that more "personal" seventies cinema, and later turned on the blockbuster landscape that Star Wars would help create)--including such approaches as auteurism, genre critique, industry analysis, and reader/audience-response--would often return to a famous anecdote in discussing the film.

“Who killed the chauffeur?” Bogart asks one day. It’s a reasonable question, seeing as the death of chauffeur Owen Taylor is a major plot point (and Bogart is, after all, playing the detective on the case). Director Howard Hawks admits to his star that, well, you see-- I have no idea. But if Hawks doesn’t know, he’ll go to those collaborators who should: screenwriters Leigh Brackett and William Faulkner. But this is proving a tough nut to crack-- they don’t know either (and how would they? The two writers adapted the film as if playing an Exquisite Corpse game, as recounted by one history of the film:

The morning that she checked in at Warners, Faulkner handed her a copy of the novel and said, “We will do alternate sets of chapters. I have them marked. I will do these and you will those.” And so it went. The two screenwriters labored alone in their separate offices; Brackett never saw what Faulkner wrote, and he never saw what she wrote. “Everything went in direct to Mr. Hawks,” Brackett recalled. “Beyond a couple of conferences, we never saw him”) .

Enough-- go to the source. After all, Raymond Chandler lives in Hollywood, even writes for the movies on occasion (his Double Indemnity was recently a big hit). Surely, he’ll be able to help. Chandler, like his alter ego Phillip Marlowe, doesn’t mince words: “I don’t know,” he wires back in response to the filmmakers’ query.

And there you have it-- at the heart of the mystery in a movie mystery, there lies a gaping hole. Even more surprisingly, it doesn’t matter-- The Big Sleep remains an enjoyable piece of commercial cinema, perhaps the most purely enjoyable (and certainly the sexiest) movie Humphrey Bogart ever made. And, like most of Hawks’ output at the time, it was a big hit with critics and audiences.

The anecdote related above is one of the most famous in Classic Hollywood history, told again and again in countless textbooks, case studies, biographies, and popular histories, to the extent that even those who have not seen The Big Sleep may still know this story. Auteurist studies of Hawks use it as an example of the way he transcends narrative and genre constraints to put a personal stamp on the work (a film’s story might not make sense, but we know it is “Hawksian”). Conversely, it is also recounted in histories of the studio system, as an example of the efficiency of the factory method (a film’s story might not make sense, but that doesn’t slow down production). It is registered in studies of audience reception, as an example of camp knowingness (a film’s story might not make sense, but we’re sophisticated enough to enjoy it). It is a funny, playful anecdote, one that seems to confirm the later statement of screenwriter William Goldman that, when it comes to Hollywood, “No one knows anything.”

Everyone loves this anecdote. But this anecdote isn’t true.

The producers of The Big Sleep knew who killed the chauffeur. When the film was re-released in 1996, it came in two versions—one, the 1946 print that everyone knew, with its playful banter superseding narrative clarity (the version that inspired the anecdote above), and the other a 1945 print tested for G.I.’s overseas. This version contained a scene in which detective Phillip Marlowe explains his theory of who killed the chauffeur Taylor. Supposedly, the scene was cut from the final release print because the soldiers felt it slowed down the action, and they demanded more of Bogart and Bacall. Another scene with Bogart and Bacall in a nightclub was shot, and replaced the cut footage.

The most famous scene in The Big Sleep, then, is a replacement-- an improvisation on an already written text, jammed after-hours. Appropriate, then, that it is scored on-screen by a small jazz combo. Captured in a long tracking shot, Vivian Sternwood (Lauren Bacall) walks into the nightclub to meet with Phillip Marlowe (Bogart), accompanied by the jazz band’s rendition of "I Guess I'll Have to Change My Plans," composed in 1929 by Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz. The latter was trained as a lawyer and composed music on the side, eventually drifting, like The Big Sleep, from a strict interest in legal affairs to a more intense interest in stylish, witty entertainment. He initially wrote the melody to an earlier lyric by Lorenz Hart, and its redeployment by Howard Dietz with new lyric seems to match The Big Sleep's "rewriting" of Chandler's initial "melody.” While “Plans” remained a pop standard (reappearing even as late as 1953 in The Band Wagon), the quotation of a song from Prohibition days-- the height of gangster glamour and, just as important, the beginning of the sound period, and the modern gangster movies through which Bogart would become a star-- works to remind the audience of that earlier era, even as the film's radical deviations from that tough guy tradition suggest how much the cinematic world has changed.

Vivian finds Marlowe at the bar, captured in a plain americain shot, but before cutting to a two-shot of the couple together, Hawks places a group of mysterious-looking, grim-faced young people in the foreground of the shot. What intrigues me is the air of menace they provide—none look directly at the camera, choosing instead to toss one another conspiratorial glances, and in the midst of the bar’s glamour and relaxed elegance, it is notable that none of them smile, or seem particularly relaxed. It’s an odd moment, almost as if the extras from a Hitchcock film had somehow stumbled onto the wrong set. Like “I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plans,” this framing reminds us of an earlier, grittier style of crime film, while the quick cut to the shot of Bogart and Bacall indicates the film’s desire to push into other, more screwball realms.

After an exchange at the bar, a tracking shot carries the characters to a small table, and a slight reframing once again captures them together in a medium shot (unlike many noirs, The Big Sleep is not interested in visually isolating its characters—even the shot-reverse shots that follow allow for more of the figures’ frames to remain in the shot than is common, the camera shooting from the side rather than over the shoulder). Vivian and Marlowe banter, the smoke from their cigarettes curling like steam heat around their bodies. Their exchange is at once foreplay and self-reflexive commentary on the scene’s lack of narrative utility:

Vivian: Tell me, uh, what do you usually do when you’re not working?
Marlowe: Oh, play the horses, fool around…
Vivian: No women?
Marlowe: Oh, I’m generally working on something most of the time.
Vivian: Could that be stretched to include me?
Marlowe: Oh, I like you—I told you that before.

The banter, with its double entrendres about horse-racing and seeing whether or not jockeys “come from behind,” continues, until, realizing they have to end the scene somehow, the filmmakers take a sharp turn back to the narrative—Marlowe accuses Vivian of “sugaring” him off the case, she becomes indignant, and they get up to leave. As it was in the beginning of the scene, the importance of the group is emphasized at the scene’s closing—a man accidentally bumps Vivian into Marlowe’s arms, they smile and say their goodbyes, and Marlowe goes to make a phone call. There is a dissolve to the next scene.
So many elements of this scene--the Dietz/Schwartz song’s title, the banter, even the “accidental” bumping of Vivian and Marlowe at the end-- comment wittily on the filmmakers’ forced reworking of their text in light of the previews and studio pressure; even the lyrics of “Plans” seem like a great intertextual joke about the film’s many plot threads, dead bodies and cut footage: “I guess I’ll have to change my plans/I should have realized there’d be another man./I overlooked that point completely/before the big affair began./Before I knew where I was at/I found myself up on the shelf/And that was that.”

It was the stars that the G.I.'s wanted, far more than narrative clarity, but the success of Sleep's witty, self-reflexive screenplay and Leigh Brackett's ability to roll with the punches would not go unnoticed: she and Hawks would collaborate several more times, most famously on Rio Bravo. In 1973, she worked on another self-reflexive noir (and one of those damn "personal" films), the Robert Altman masterpiece The Long Goodbye. Their work together was inspired-- Brackett's Marlowe was classical in his sense of chivalrous values, but modern in how he carried them out, causing Brackett to change the ending of Chandler's book: "It seemed," she would later write, "that the only satisfactory ending was for the cruelly-diddled Marlowe to blow Terry's guts out . . . something the old Marlowe would never have done." This fearlessness was further reflected in Altman's style of filming: loose, witty, and improvisational, it is his most jazz-like film (Elliot Gould's line readings, mumbles and funky walk transform Marlowe into a living be-bop solo). One of the film's most famous conceits was Johnny Williams' score, which took the title tune and translated it into a number of different contexts: full, non-diegetic theme song, melody whistled by a security guard gate, pop song blaring out of a car radio. The pop-music-as-intertextual-joke of The Big Sleep has become, 27 years later, a methodology: all the world connected by a single musical thread.

Two years later, "Johnny Williams" will become "John Williams," and his insistent score for Jaws will transform him into the go-to guy for blockbuster music. George Lucas will make use of his talents in Star Wars, and call upon him again for The Empire Strikes Back. After the success of the first film, Lucas desires full independence from the studios, so he self-finances the project with the profits from Star Wars, and sets up a rich distribution deal with Twentieth-Century Fox. It's a tremendous gamble, and the slower working style of director Irvin Kershner, while drawing rich performances and creating gorgeous images (no other Star Wars film will look so good), drives Lucas crazy and will lead to delays and budget overruns. In the end, of course, Lucas's gamble pays off, and as Jonathan noted above, truly creates the template for future "blockbuster events."

In one area, Lucas's choices are strong; screenwriting. He outlined the film's narrative, but turned the scripting duties over to a veteran of both science fiction and the sorts of screwball relationships the film explores: Leigh Brackett. There's debate about how much of her draft survived in the finished film (Lucas would rewrite, and would also turn it over to up-and-coming writer Lawrence Kasdan for a polish; Kasdan's success would lead him to a similar position on Raiders of the Lost Ark, and eventually give him the ability to write and direct his own noir, Body Heat). Brackett was very ill, and never lived to see the finished film (although Lucas did give her screen credit for her work, for which she would win a Hugo). But it's not impossible to see Han and Leia as an integalactic Bogie and Bacall: as Alexa L. Foreman writes in her essay on Brackett's work, "When Solo attempts to kiss her, Leia says, 'Being held by you isn't quite enough to get me excited.' But the attraction was there, and like Vivian and Marlowe, and Feathers and Chance, it is only a matter of time." And in that coupling, the twin threads of two different star powers would finally, spectacularly, meet, suggesting that certain critical and cinematic galaxies aren't always as far, far away as we might sometimes presume.