Thursday, April 30, 2009

Wednesday, April 29, 2009


Over at Comics Should Be Good!, they are doing an issue-by-issue look at "Cool Comic Book Moments" from Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli's epic Daredevil run, "Born Again." Published in 1985 and 1986 in issues #227-233, this is the definitive Daredevil story, the one that uses the character's obsessions and contradictions to their utmost, and the one space where Miler (who can be frustratingly erratic) makes the best use of his talents, merging art, language and narrative into perfect pulp poetry. You should really read the whole thing (which was collected in trade paperback a few years ago, but can also be found in single issues at your local shop), but if you want a taste, check out the website's recaps, which do a good job of boiling the tale down to its essential moments.


Monday, April 27, 2009

Capes & Legends

Over the course of 204 spectacular posts, Comics Should Be Good! blogger Brian Cronin has been exploring the myths and rumors that attach themselves to comic book history in a feature called "Comic Book Legends Revealed," reminding us that truth is often stranger than fiction. Whether it's the self-inflating fabulisms of Batman creator Bob Kane, the eerie prophecies of writer-artist John Byrne, or last week's tale of a double-sized superhero comic re-drawn in the shadow of a hurricane, Cronin does a yeoman's job of interviewing participants, hitting the archives, and trying to confirm or correct the records that conventional wisdom creates. His posts-- usually starting from a question written in by one of the readers-- span everything from superhero comics to children's book illustration to newspaper funnies to odd commercialized offshoots, all written about with wit, depth and grace.

This week, a collection of Cronin's "Legends" columns-- plus a lot of brand-new material-- is being published as a book, Was Superman A Spy? And Other Comic Book Legends Revealed! That wonderfully pulpy title should give you a sense of the playfulness of Cronin's work, and how well he manages to walk that line between critical distance and colorful investment. Cronin is not going to let fandom get in the way of the facts as he can find them, but every post is written out of a sense of love for the medium and respect for his readers-- he's genuinely geeked by this stuff, and I suspect it's that endless enthusiasm that gets so many famous people to open up about so many odd and obscure stories. If you have any interest in the stories behind the comic book stories, you owe it to yourself to check out Cronin's work: his anecdotes pop like a four-colored adventure on a rainy day.

Monday Music Flashback: Miles

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Bea Arthur, R.I.P.

(h/t to the Lovely Companion for sending the clip!).


Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Jack Cardiff, R.I.P.

Campaspe writes more about the brilliant cinematographer here.

Picture Shows

He doesn't work as much as a director these days (although when he does, he can be spectacular), and his most high-profile public profile of late has been as an actor in films like Broken English and television shows like Law & Order and The Sopranos (where he played the shrink to Lorraine Bracco's shrink, to wonderfully deadpan effect). So it's easy to forget just what a remarkable directorial run Peter Bogdanovich had between 1968 and 1981.

It started with Targets, a film generated by producer Roger Corman's desire to not waste cut footage from an earlier film, The Terror: he told Bogdanovich he could make any film he wanted as long as he used Karloff and the footage, and stayed under certain time and budget constraints.

Together with his then-wife and close collaborator Polly Platt, Bogdanovich came up with an eerie thriller that weaves together a cinephiliac love of Hollywood's past and a sardonic take on its present (Karloff is working in B-movies for a Cormanesque producer). He then drops those characters into a contemporary Los Angeles whose populace will become sniper targets for a disaffected Vietnam vet. Released just two months after the RFK assassination, the film had a mixed critical and commercial reception, but it's available on DVD, and it's worth looking at again-- for a young director, Bogdanovich has a remarkable sense of pacing and tone, and he gets wonderful performances out of his cast.

That love of actors would serve Bogdanovich well on his next film, The Last Picture Show. According to the take-it-with-a-grain-of-salt book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Targets caught the eye of Bob Rafelson, Bert Schneider and Steve Blauner, the producer-director-businessman team who'd formed BBS in the late sixties (the company was made possible through Schneider and Rafelson's success creating and producing The Monkees TV show, and it's one of my favorite movie ironies that this most hipster of film companies owed its existence to bubblegum pop). BBS had made Head, and then scored big with Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces, and it functioned as a kind of post-graduate hive for Corman alums like Jack Nicholson. BBS told Bogdanovich they wanted to work with him, shot down his initial idea for a thriller, then agreed to make The Last Picture Show, an adaptation of a Larry McMurtry novel that, according to writer Peter Biskind, Bogdanovich had not even read when he blurted the title out.

Shooting on location in Texas, and following the Targets model of older character actors (Ben Johnson, Cloris Leachman) and relative unknowns (Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd and Timothy Bottoms, among others), The Last Picture Show had a tumultuous birthing process (involving several romantic triangles, an affair between Bogdanovich and Shepherd and many arguments about the raw sexuality of the film, and its black-and-white look). It was captured best by journalist Grover Lewis, a childhood friend of McMurtry's who agreed to play a small role in the film, and did a magisterial piece for Rolling Stone, "Splendor In The Short Grass," on the making of the film; amidst lyrical descriptions of the craggy Texas landscape, and atmospheric anecdotes about cast birthday parties (where "Mexican hors d'oeuvres are making the rounds, and Jagger is bleating 'Sympathy For The Devil' on a tinny cassette machine"), one of the running jokes of the piece is that cast and crew members would yell out "Academy!" at different points during the shoot, in both sincere and sarcastic tones, to break up the tension or raise the spirits. It turned out to be prophetic: the movie was a huge hit on release, and scored eight Oscar nominations, eventually winning supporting awards for Leachman and Johnson. A year later, it was still playing in New York when Bogdanovich's next film, the screwball pastiche What's Up, Doc? was released; Bogdanovich has told the story of going to New York in 1972, seeing both films playing in his hometown and feeling like a conquering hero: "It was a peak," he says in Raging Bulls (between the two films, Bogdanovich would also release his auteurist documentary, Directed By John Ford).

Certainly, the two films demonstrate his range: in contrast to the sad elegy for a dying way of life that we see in Picture Show, Doc is effervescent fun, all quick dialogues, winky double-entendres and expertly timed pratfalls; Cinematographer Robert Surtees crafts Picture Show in a Dust Bowl black-and-white, while Laszlo Kovacs' camerawork on Doc is a bright, summery Technicolor; and while both owe a lot to Classic Hollywood models (Robert Altman-- no stranger to genre play himself-- would derisively refer to Bogdanovich as "Mr. Xerox"), Picture Show aches with reverence and longing for patriarchal models like Johnson, while Doc is hell-bent on using its Hawksian play to pinpoint and make blossom the off-kilter appeal of its very contemporary stars, Ryan O'Neal and Barbra Streisand.

I blow hot and cold on Streisand as an actress, but there's no question that she's a delight in What's Up, Doc?. As she walks in a gangly hippie manner across a San Francisco street, chewing gum while a boating cap throws shadows across her face, she really does have a quirky sex appeal, and it's hard to resist the pull of her character, Judy, as she lures stuffy academic Howard Bannister (O'Neal) out of his shell, and away from his fiancee Eunice (Madeline Kahn). She crashes a conference dinner (where she ends up underneath one of the tables); she "seduces" him on a piano while singing "As Time Goes By" (just before she falls off); she gets him involved in a high-speed chase around San Francisco whose escalating sight gags make it a worthy hommage to Buster Keaton; but like Susan Vance and Ellie Andrews and other great screwball heroines, her self-absorption and full-steam-ahead craziness somehow make her more lovable, not less. "Love means never having to say you're sorry," she coos to O'Neal at the end, in a play on the famous line from O'Neal's last hit, Love Story; after a perfectly timed beat, O'Neal responds, "That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard."

I first saw Doc when I was seven or so, when it was on TV one night; I didn't understand a lot of it, of course, but its offbeat mixture of high comedy, sweet romance and occasional melancholy stayed with me, and I remember thinking about the film for days afterwards, and wondering what happened to its characters after the screen went dark. That juggling of tones is central to a lot of Bogdanovich's best work, but also to those films that are more of a mixed bag. His next two movies, Paper Moon and Daisy Miller, fall into the latter category, but they're both worth watching.

Moon is very funny until you stop to think about the actual darkness of its tale of a father-daughter con team on the run. I haven't seen the film in five or six years, but I remember it as balancing between the mournful and the manic. It's full of narrative twists and fast-talking performances, but the deep-focus black-and-white and the beautifully ornate set designs of Polly Platt always pull the viewer back into something slower and more textured: the tonal sleight of hand that occurs as the viewer's eye moves from the comedy in the foreground to the drama in the background is the movie's best embodiment of the cons its characters are pulling.

Miller, an adaptation of Henry James' novella, was savaged upon initial release, but it's aged well: Bogdanovich uses elaborate long takes and deep focus shots as a surrogate for the dense description of James' prose, and if he can't quite translate the interiority of James' voice (who could?), his close-ups and the understated sadness he pulls from his cast (a better-than-advertised Cybill Shepherd, a brilliantly cold Eileen Brennan and very quiet Barry Brown) at least suggest the kinds of impenetrable depths and walled-off aesthetics that trap and doom James' characters.

Alberto Spagnoli's location photography artfully balances the bright exterior light of Italy with the heavy shadows of the bedrooms and drawing room parties where a single glance can cut open an emotional vein; Frederic Raphael works hard to capture and naturalize the ornate dialogue of the characters, and can't be blamed if the more modern timbres of the actors are occasionally jarring. It's not a perfect film, but it is an admirable one.

Bogdanovich would return to these themes of class, urbanity, art and doomed love in a brighter, more contemporary setting in 1981's They All Laughed. It was meant to be his American comeback after the set-in-Singapore thriller Saint Jack (itself his first film in three years), but he failed to find a distributor, decided to distribute it himself, and was bankrupted by its commercial failure. Far worse was the tragedy that haunted the film: Bogdanovich had fallen in love with Dorothy Stratten, one of the film's stars, and Stratten's jealous husband killed her in a murder-suicide. This was a series of blows it would take years for Bogdanovich to recover from, and the film's sad history and poor box office (despite some glowing reviews) meant the movie was unavailable for years.

It was finally released on DVD in 2006, and it's an amazing film, for my money the best thing Bogdanovich has done to date. The title refers to a Gershwin song, and the Manhattan setting set me up for something screwball and jazzy. So, of course, the first shot is a taxi headed into Manhattan, accompanied by the sound of country music on the radio. The voice is that of Colleen Camp, who also stars in the film as a singer and go-between for many of the film's mixed-up romantic triangles. She's delightfully dizzy, and the embodiment of the movie's desire to constantly throw curveballs your way: just when you think you've got its narrative and tone sussed out (quirky pop detective film! OK!), it goes somewhere else (fizzy tale of love across class boundaries! Got it!), only to end up somewhere else again (quasi-New Wavish integration of NYC location work and delicate narrative piece! No problem!), then somewhere else still again (intentionally unstable mix of bright romance and sad, doomed love! Sure! Please don't change on me again!).

And somehow, all of this fits together like a movie master class, as Bogdanovich and a sterling cast that includes Stratten, John Ritter, Camp, and the pitch-perfect pairing of Audrey Hepburn and Ben Gazzara (who apparently fell in love, in a doomed manner very similar to the way their fictional narrative plays out on-screen) expertly negotiate a story that unfolds as a series of incidents and accidents as much as a "proper" narrative.
Looking at his IMDb credits, I noticed that Bogdanovich likes to cast himself as a DJ in his films (he does so in both Laughed and Picture Show) and it's interesting to think about that as analogous to being a film director: instead of worrying about arcs and themes, he offers us movies and scenes as musical variations on a larger set of cinephiliac concerns. It's not surprising that Wes Anderson conducts a fascinating, lengthy interview with Bogdanovich on the Laughed DVD: you can see how the film's mixture of fairy tale fantasy and occasionally harsh reality would influence Anderson's own aesthetic.

Between Miller and Laughed, Bogdanovich went through a period of flops and reassessments. Miller was Bogdanovich's first commercial failure, and he'd follow it with an even bigger one, the can't-sing/can't-dance musical At Long Last Love. I'm on record as saying I'd love to see this film, if only someone would release it on DVD; even if it's bad, I can't resist the perverse pleasure of Burt Reynolds 'singing' Cole Porter. Bogdanovich followed that up with Nickelodeon, a look back at the creation of Hollywood in the 1910s and 20s, and Saint Jack, a thriller that was his first collaboration with longtime friend Gazzara (they had a mutual friend in John Cassavetes; I can't think of two more opposed sensibilities among 70s filmmakers, but in his book about directors, Who The Devil Made It, Bogdanovich has a lovely remembrance of Cassavetes, and moving anecdotes about the latter's friendship and support after Stratten's murder).

None of these films has been available for years, but I was delighted to read, via Dave Kehr, that Nickelodeon was released as part of a two-disc set this week, and includes both the theatrical release and a director's cut (the latter in black-and-white, rather than the color that the studio forced on Bogdanovich). It sounds great, and the comments section of Kehr's post extends the discussion about the film into a broader conversation about pastiche, history, and Hollywood's obsession with a mythical American past. Now that the late sixties/early seventies moment in which Bogdanovich began is itself as mythologized, as floating in a misty past as the world that Nickelodeon recreates, I'm very curious to see Nickelodeon, and to fill in one more blank in this remarkable director's career.

Pop Bliss

Monday, April 20, 2009

Sound & Vision

Co-written and co-directed by John Hubley, Faith Hubley, and Garry Trudeu, A Doonesbury Special aired on NBC in 1977, and was subsequently shown at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won a Special Jury Prize. I'd always heard about the special, and was delighted to find it available on YouTube.

Looking back more than 30 years after it aired, it feels like a splice of Bill Melendez's work on the Peanuts specials, and Ralph Bakshi's adaptation of Fritz The Cat (it has the sharp voice characterizations of the former, and cleverly abstracted animation of the latter, as well as Fritz's conflicted nostalgia for a lost '60s idealism). It's fascinating to see how the cartoon opens up the visual spaces of Trudeau's strip: movement of camera and animation of the figures necessarily gives us a wider view of the house and grounds of Walden commune than we got in the 1970s comic, and the Thudpucker concert sequence's inventive angles and reflections point the way to the more baroque visuals Trudeau would begin using in the mid-1980s. Much of the script is based on older Doonesbury strips, and the best sequences are those that find a way to animate the absurdities of Trudeau's situations without losing the sardonic pitch of his phrasing (the best example is the scene with the hilariously inept Yale football team).

More than anything, though, it's the voices that make the difference. Hearing Mike, B.D., Zonker and the gang "speak" for the first time, I felt like a silent film audience hearing Garbo or Gilbert in their first talkies-- that's what they sound like? I liked Zonker's almost Dude-like lazy drawl, and the preppy midwestern flatness of Mike's voice, but I wasn't expecting Mark's New Yawk phrasing, or the pinched timbre of B.D.'s whining (I'd always heard him as more of a bass, actually, maybe because of his omnipresent helmet-- it's interesting how much cartoons play on those kinds of stereotypes).

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Bronze Age Stash

All of our emotion exists for those dear old American adventure films that speak of daily life and manage to raise to a dramatic level a banknote on which our attention is riveted [sic], a table with revolver on it, a bottle that on occasion becomes a weapon, a handkerchief that reveals a crime, a typewriter that’s on the horizon of a desk, the terrible unfolding telegraphic tape with magic ciphers that enrich or ruin bankers…
--Louis Aragon

It was Tax Day, and what better way to celebrate than heading off to the comics shop? In a nice bit of serendipity, April 15 fell on a Wednesday, which meant it was time to see what the pull list had brought in. Little did I know that my local shop, the excellent Infinite Monkey, would also have just purchased someone's collection, a long box of 70s pulp treasures that the Monkey's co-owner, Josh, let me rummage through. I found the issues shown above, as well as many more fun 70s comics, all at relatively inexpensive prices (and thanks again, Josh, for tossing in those extra Black Lightning issues free of charge-- you are a mensch).

I would've enjoyed finding these issues, anyway (I've always liked the Black Panther), but there was something extra-fun about encountering them in such a surprise fashion. In this post, "Comics Should Be Good!" writer Greg Hatcher explores the arcane pleasures of collecting, noting that it's not just the objects themselves, but the search for them that brings pleasure: "Apart from the 'smart shopping' factor involved in buying used and the great deals you can get, though, the plain truth is that I love the hunt. I get a big kick out of the act itself, of browsing through old bookstores and thrift stores, and most of the people I know feel the same way."

I think that's true-- although I have also acquired back issues through online dealers, there's something magical about rummaging through the long boxes, flipping past the garishly colored covers, feeling the object in your hands. It has to do with the relationship between knowledge and fetish, not just (per Barthes) the "pleasure of the text," but the pleasure of the texture, the thingness of the thing. To borrow a Surrealist phrase, it's about the "chance meetings" between collector and object, and the frisson of stumbling across that magic cipher.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

That's So Fetch

Cineville is a breeding ground for hipsters, so this blog made me laugh.

(h/t to The Lovely Companion).

Punditry Fail

Over at the Washington Monthly blog, Steve Benen does a good job of documenting how the worst, most inept and craven sorts of commentary won't keep a well-connected pundit from getting another good gig.

ESPN is no stranger to bloviating, of course, so it's nice to know that competence is also not required for a job in sports broadcasting.

Shot for Shot

Just saw this on TCM, and wondered-- why can't today's trailers be this much fun?

Thursday, April 16, 2009

"We'll Have No Choice But To Switch To Digital TV"

The above is a funny parody of this odious anti-gay marriage ad (an ad which, as it turns out, used actors instead of "real" doctors, teachers, etc.).

In the parody video, I especially like the "Iowan" who worries about the loss of his farm subsidies.

(h/t Andrew Sullivan).

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Apropos of Nothing...

...except that Campaspe mentioned the lovely Linda Darnell in her "10 Favorite Heretofore Unmentioned Movie Characters" post, and reminded me of what an underrated screen presence Darnell really was in the 1940s. So here's an evocative image of Darnell from her best film, Otto Preminger's haunting Fallen Angel.


"Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society," Oliver Wendell Holmes famously noted, but I guess some people didn't get the message on this cold and rainy April 15. Al Giordano has a detailed dissection of the fabulisms and phobias of today's "Tea-bagging" parties (and quotes this fabulous James Wolcott post, an example of how rewarding Wolcott can be when he uses his snark for good). From the opposite end of the political spectrum, Andrew Sullivan challenges the seriousness of the TB's, arguing that

...the substantive critique must remain the primary one. Protesting government spending is meaningless unless you say what you'd cut.

If you favor no bailouts, then say so. If you want to see the banking system collapse, then say so. If you think the recession demands no fiscal stimulus, then say so. If you favor big cuts in Medicare, Medicaid, social security and defense, then say so. I keep waiting for [Glenn] Reynolds to tell us what these protests are for; and he can only spin what they they are against.

All protests against spending that do not tell us how to reduce it are fatuous pieces of theater, not constructive acts of politics. And until the right is able to make a constructive and specific argument about how they intend to reduce spending and debt and borrowing, they deserve to be dismissed as performance artists in a desperate search for coherence in an age that has left them bewilderingly behind.

Crooks and Liars has been gathering reports of how the parties are going (and how hard it was for them to get their party started). Field Negro, meanwhile, documents just how far some politicians are willing to go to live that crazy Glenn Beck dream.

Finally, isn't it funny when those who claim to hate Washington fight so hard to stay there?

Monday, April 13, 2009


Random Musical Thought At Midnight

I downloaded a bunch of Electronic from I-Tunes the other night, suddenly feeling a real urge for the music I listened to during my freshman year of college (Electronic was the too-brief partnership between ex-Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr and New Order mastermind Bernard Sumner, with occasional assists from Pet Shop Boys' Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe). Listening to tracks from their 1991 eponymous debut-- with that wall of sound created by the interplay of thick keyboards and omnipresent drum machines, the atmospheric color of Marr's guitar licks, and the moody melodrama of Sumner and Tennant's multi-tracked vocals--I kept thinking that this was the perfect score for a Bond movie that never was. The Bond series was on hiatus in the early 90s while various legal snafus were sorted out, but it's not hard to hear this highly cinematic music offering an ironic buttressing to what, in Never Say Never Again, was described as the "gratuitous sex and violence" that are Bond's bread and butter. The spirit of John Barry is far more present in "Get The Message's" melange of insistent blues licks, synthesized horn-and-string sections, and processed vocal whispers than it is in a million bad Madonna or Chris Cornell title songs.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Star Gazing

As someone who talks and writes about movies for a living, I'd like to be able to tell you that my first film magazine was Film Quarterly, or Film Comment, or Cahiers du Cinema-- something that would make me sound really cool and smart and hip, something that would allow you to picture the eight-year old Brian moodily smoking Gauloises and cursing the journal's jejune take on mise-en-scene.

In reality, though, my first film magazine was far less highbrow than all that, but no less intelligent or passionate about its subject matter. My first film magazine was Starlog.

I was eight, and I saw the magazine's cover, with a photo of Boba Fett pointing his gun at the camera. The headline screamed, "Boba Fett Unmasked!" Well, naturally I had to have it-- I didn't know how this magazine I'd never heard of had gotten such an interstellar scoop, but what kind of respectable sci-fi nerd could pass up something like that? Not me!

Of course, I soon found out the "unmasking" was an interview with Jeremy Bulloch, the actor who played Fett (and the smiling, sweatered man in the accompanying photo certainly didn't look like a rogue bounty hunter). Part of me was disappointed, but another part was intrigued: in addition to the Bulloch interview, the magazine also included a multi-part interview with Steven Spielberg and George Lucas on the set of Raiders of the Lost Ark (which had promising tidbits about the then-upcoming Revenge of the Jedi), an article about a movie I'd never heard of called Outland, and a piece on a British show, Dr. Who, that I knew only from the terrifying images of Tom Baker's 'fro that followed my daily viewings of 3-2-1 Contact on PBS. I knew movies weren't real, of course (despite my still-unquenched desire to glimpse beneath the "real" Fett's helmet), but I'd never really thought about the people who made them. Here was a magazine that peeked behind the scenes of my favorite genres-- science fiction and fantasy-- and let me learn about the actors, directors, writers, and special effects people that created all that magic.

I was hooked, and I started getting Starlog off the newsstands as regularly as I could. Pretty soon, I had a subscription that I kept until I was fifteen or so. It was from reading Starlog that I learned about Star Trek (the magazine had begun as a Trek fanzine), The Prisoner, The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone, as well as the contemporary blockbusters I'd already been devouring. And without the magazine's well-researched histories, I never would've been spurred to investigate the sci-fi and mystery serials from the 30s, 40s and 50s (like Flash Gordon and Charlie Chan) that the magazine devoted a surprising amount of attention to (how many other mainstream popular magazines of the day took such loving care with Hollywood's pulpy past, at least in 1985?).

And it wasn't just films and TV: I learned about science fiction literature from reading Starlog. Without the magazine's admirable devotion to books as well as visual texts, I never would've read Harlan Ellison, David Gerrold, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Ian Fleming, Stephen King, and so many of the other authors who made adolescence a lot more bearable. I'll never forget the shock of encountering Harlan Ellison's Starlog interview in 1985, around the time he was working as a consultant on the Twilight Zone revival. I didn't know what to make of this man who dissed several of my favorite movies, yet spoke with such a funny, engaged, passionate voice that I couldn't help but want to pick up one of his books and read more. And so I found Shatterday at our local bookstore, which led to another of his collections, Stalking The Nightmare, which led to Ellison Wonderland, which led to his absolutely brilliant collection of journalistic pieces/essays, An Edge In My Voice; that last book (which feels like a blog 20 years before the term) has almost nothing to do with science fiction (except for some reviews of science fiction and fantasy films that are interspersed among really funny restaurant reviews, defenses of Ed Asner, attacks on censorship, and critiques of Ronald Reagan), but it's easily my favorite Ellison book, and I never would've been spurred to find it if Starlog hadn't given him a forum.

It was that kind of magazine-- smart, diverse in its interests and passionate in its coverage. It wasn't afraid to wear its fandom on its sleeve, but that wonderfully geeky advocacy of the genre didn't compromise its professionalism: it was almost always a well-written, tightly edited and beautifully laid-out thing. From Kerry O'Quinn's optimistic editorials at the front of the magazine to Howard Zimmerman's wry commentaries at the back, Starlog was devoted to exploring a vast range of science fiction and fantasy-related texts, giving fandom a coherent voice and encouraging its readership to see life as a similar adventure into the unknown.

By the time I reached high school, my interest in science fiction and comic books was waning (it would take me a few years before I was mature enough to enjoy them again). I was tired of reading about Star Trek: The Next Generation in every issue, and I let my Starlog subscription lapse. Ironically, it was a quote in Starlog that caused my fandom to taper off: they were interviewing John Cleese (I can't remember why), and when asked why he wasn't a big science fiction fan, he said something like, "I've always felt that life on earth was so interesting and mysterious that there was no need to explore outer space." That resonated with me when I was fourteen, and it was the more earth-bound mysteries of life that I wanted to explore in 1987. I would occasionally see issues at the bookstore, and maybe flip through one if the cover caught my eye, but even after I returned to the escapism of comics and science fiction, I wouldn't really return to reading Starlog.

So, it was with a slight sense of sadness that I read, via Mark Evanier's blog, that Starlog was ceasing publication, at least as a paper magazine. It will continue on as a web publication, but I share Evanier's pessimism about that venture, especially in an Internet universe where there are so many other news options for science fiction fans, and where blogs and other websites provide those fans with a more immediate and personal voice. I do hope that Starlog continues on in one form or another, and that its writers and editors continue to have the opportunity to do the kind of interesting work for which the magazine was known. There's something to be said for the optimistic and open spirit that Starlog propogated, and for the way it encouraged a generation of readers to reach for the stars.

Friday, April 10, 2009

You Don't Hear That All The Time

Overheard while standing by the elevator this afternoon:

"No, there's no profit in orange stealing."

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Synthesize, Always Synthesize

I am teaching Robert B. Ray's The ABCs of Classic Hollywood in my CINE 101 class this semester, so I was delighted to mosey over to Girish Shambu's blog (a place I hadn't moseyed to in far too long) and find that he was thinking about Ray's work in a new blog post (Full disclosure: Ray was my graduate school mentor, and he's kind enough to cite me in the footnotes of the book).

ABCs is a wonderful book, and Girish talks about it more here, but after briefly citing it, he moves to a different Ray essay, "Eight Film Studies Problems for the Twenty-First Century," which is collected in New Media/New Methods: The Academic Turn from Literacy to Electracy. In this piece, Ray thinks about film studies' place within the academy (and the academy's place within broader social discourses) by zeroing in on eight related issues of film writing and pedagogy. Girish-- one of the best film bloggers you will ever encounter-- chooses to focus on the question of "narrative synthesis," or how academic writers speak (or choose not to speak) to divergent audiences. As Girish notes

For Ray, film studies resembles the Civil War in having at least two distinct audiences: academic scholars who only or largely read books and articles written by other scholars; and a non-academic cinema-interested audience of readers who typically don't read academics. Ray proposes that we need scholars who can devise a ""narrative synthesis" that will "propagate professional knowledge about the cinema" to a non-academic audience-at-large.

What is meant, exactly, by the term "narrative synthesis"? I would say that, in the context of film writing, it names an approach that does two things: (a) it is simultaneously "high-level" (broad in scope--drawing upon a number of specialized subfields within cinema studies) AND "low-level" (paying attention to individual films and their details); and (b) it weaves together a "story" of sorts--just like a good piece of film criticism always "tells a story"--that interests and engages the non-academic reader.

I'm kind of obsessed with these questions-- it's why my dissertation is written anecdotally, and it's one reason I blog-- and the post at Girish's site kicks off a really fabulous discussion in the comments section. I recommend going over there if you are interested in points like the one Christian Keathley raises here:

In the 1955 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, there's a magnificent moment, early in the film, when Doris Day and Jimmy Stewart are entertaining their mysterious new friend, Louis Bernard, in their hotel suite. There's a knock at the door and Doris Day goes to answer it. She opens the door and we see a close-up of an Asian man, partly obscured by shadows. The next shot shows the reverse angle, looking back into the room, with the characters positioned in distinct planes: Doris Day in the foreground right, Jimmy Stewart in mid-ground left, and Mr Bernard in the deep background center. In a carefully choreographed action, Day and then Stewart turn their heads to look at Mr Bernard, and then turn back again. It's a chilling moment that gains effect from the use of the frame -- both its depth and breadth -- and the coordinated rhythm of their heads turning. I've thought a lot about this shot and spent a lot of time in class with students, discussing its power.

But most current film scholarship would opt instead for "The Orientalism of Hitchcock's Marrakesh." It's much easier to adopt a posture of cultural superiority to great works, especially those of the past, than trying to think about the complex ways that they achieve their aesthetic power. Even if our recognition of that power is just a product of 'culture and history.'

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Mitts, Bats And Mothers

Keith Olbermann has a nice tribute to his mother (who passed away from cancer Saturday night) up at his blog, and it's full of sweet anecdotes about how she passed her love of the game on to him.


Media Matters caught this delicious exchange between Rush Limbaugh and an irate caller. I don't know how this guy got through Limbaugh's Ditto Filter, but I think it's great he did. It's clear Rush doesn't know what to say in response-- his angry lashing-out reaches its fever pitch with this nice bit of projection:

You pose -- you and your ignorance are the most expensive commodity this country has. You think you know everything. You don't know diddly-squat.
You call me a Nazi? You call me somebody who supports torture and you want credibility on this program? You know, you're just plain embarrassing and ludicrous. But it doesn't surprise me that you're the kind of Republican that our last candidate attracted. Because you're no Republican at all based on what the hell you've said here.

(h/t Andrew Sullivan).

Monday, April 6, 2009

Opening Pitch

It's baseball season! While the first game was last night, today is the official "Opening Day," and it's a nice thing to come home to, especially as it's snowing-- yes, snowing-- in Cineville right now. But not even the inclement weather can spoil the crack of the bat. Why, it's such a magical day that I turned on ESPN's coverage of the Yankees-Orioles game to disover Vice-President Joe Biden chatting with baseball 'analyst' Joe Morgan...and for at least five minutes, neither of them said anything inane.

If that doesn't prove the miraculous power of baseball, nothing will.

Spidey Sings!

I wrote about the Julie Taymor-Bono & Edge super-musical in one of my very first blog posts, and now it's getting closer to becoming an actual reality, with this preview poster released this week.

And I still don't know what to think of the idea.

Thoughts from you all?

River Walks

Roger Ebert has posted a very nice, anecdotal reminiscence of his early days at the Chicago Sun-Times at his blog.

By The Numbers

And later sampled by De La Soul.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Character Studies

Ages ago, in blog terms (weeks, at least!), the excellent Edward Copeland tagged me with the "10 Favorite Characters In The History of the Movies" meme. Bill just tagged me, too. Here are the rules:

1) Name 10 film characters that are your favorite and explain why. We aren't talking about the actor who played them. Hamlet, Sherlock Holmes or Bond may be your favorite filmic sight on screen but you may hate the Mel Gibsons, Basil Rathbones or George Lazenbys who've played them. Of course no one's stopping you from mentioning your favorite players if you like.

2) Tag 5 more film bloggers when you're done, e-mail them, let 'em in on it, link back.

3) Read their posts and enjoy!

It took me awhile to get around to this, in part because of time, and in part because, well--this is impossible, of course. How can any true cinephile limit himself to ten? How can I separate the characters from the actors? Is it fair to limit it to just movies, when television shows generally give me a far greater investment in certain characters? Why should I subject my wall to the kind of damage it will no doubt receive when I think of ten other characters I should have mentioned, and start to bang my head against it? Poor, poor wall...

With that in mind, this is my "10 Favorite Characters In The History of the Movies That I Thought Of When I Sat Down To Do This, With The Caveat That I Will Later Think of 10 More, Dammit."

(Oh, and like Bill, I cheated, as will be apparent along the way.)

In alphabetical order:

1. Alvy Singer

I wrote more about him here (scroll down to question #12), but suffice to say that he's the character with whom-- for better and for worse-- I've probably had the most intense identification over the last twenty years.

2. Antoine Doinel
The remarkable thing about Antoine is how sympathetic he remains, despite doing any number of things that would seem to make him unsympathetic. He's self-involved, immature, dreamy-to-the-point-of-obliviousness, pretentious, irresponsible, impulsive. And yet there's not a moment across five films that I don't have at least a bit of sympathy for him. I think that's due to three things. First, the overwhelming impression that his sad face makes in those final moments of The 400 Blows, abandoned by his parents and running alone on the beach. Second, for all of his bad traits, he's hardly ever mean-spirited-- Antoine's behavior might create hilariously awful situations, but much of the humor arises from the gap between Antoine's actions and his intentions, and his own obliviousness at the mess he creates (he's like a youthful, verbal M. Hulot).

Finally, of course, there's Jean-Pierre Leaud, whose handsome-yet-awkward face and almost tangible angst allowed him to embody Antoine's uncertainties with a great deal of irony and grace. By the time the final film, Love On The Run came along in the late '70s, Leaud had tired of the role, and worried he'd be forever typecast as the clueless young man (he was right to worry). He insisted that Doinel reach some kind of maturity in the film, and Truffaut agreed, but interestingly, Run is the weakest film in the series; perhaps that's because a big chunk of it is clips from the previous films, but I think that desire for resolution is also fatal-- what we want is not a settled-down and happy Antoine, but the geeky searcher for truth who's forever lighting out for the territories, our Tin-Tin of the soul.

3. Bond, James Bond

I don't know if he's my favorite film character, but he's certainly in the top three somewhere, and he seems to be the figure around whom so many of my cinephiliac passions (for glamour, travel, sex, violence, gadgetry, serialized narrative, witty intertextuality, and the dominance mise-en-scene over plot) seem to gather. Connery is the best, of course, but I can make cases for all of them, even poor old Barry Nelson.

4. Captain Rennault

Has any character in Hollywood history had more good one-liners than Claude Rains' Louis? Whenever he shows up in Casablanca, you can almost feel the tingle of pleasure from an audience; I've taught the film several times, and while the politics and romance are definite draws, it's Rennault who they seem to enjoy the most. In that sense, then, Louis poses an interesting question about cinematic desire, and the ability of a good line or a knowing glance to upset the narrative architecture filmmakers work so hard to construct.

5. Elizabeth Bennet (as played by Jennifer Ehle)

Thirteen years ago, I was living in Chicago and working at the American Bar Association. The BBC version of Pride & Prejudice had recently aired on PBS, and a colleague of mine casually mentioned it at lunch. It had been years since I'd read the book, and the recent version of Sense & Sensibility hadn't wowed me as much as others (although I like it much more now). I did, however, like Clueless quite a bit, and the colleague's breathless description of the P&P miniseries made me curious. She said she had taped it, and loaned me the cassettes that Friday. I took them home and put them by my TV, where they stayed until Sunday evening.

"Oh, I'll just watch one," I said to myself.

Several hours later, I'd devoured 2/3 of the episodes, and only the demands of sleep made me stop. Everyone talks about Colin Firth (who is excellent) and Andrew Davies' adaptation (ditto), but for me it's Ehle who holds the whole thing together. She is expert at delivering Austen's witticisms, but so much of the film rests on her face and her movements. I don't mean that in prurient way (although she is quite beautiful), but rather want to suggest how hard it is to look right, in period garb, while sometimes doing nothing.

How many actors can't escape modernity and create a feeling of anachronism, or clutter the space with too many tics or gestures? It takes a lot of courage to remain still, and still seem in character. Ehle does this expertly, and it's her responses to things-- the look of warmth or humor or sadness that can flash in her eyes, as her face quickly rearranges itself into a mask of propriety-- that I remember. They give her Lizzie a weight and texture that other performances in the role simply can't match.

6. Octave

I watched Rules Of The Game again this week with my students. For all of the wonderful characters and performers in that film (I was so tempted to list Dalio's Robert here), and for all of the sense of it as an ensemble piece, I am more and more convinced that it is Octave (Jean Renoir) who is its center. He is an off-center center, to be sure-- both boisterous and sad, self-righteous and sensitive, wise yet foolish, he is no more resistant to the tug-and-pull between love and duty than any of the other figures in the film. And his flaws make him a dubious choice as the film's moral voice.

Then again, doesn't that make him the perfect choice? It is Octave who speaks the film's one certain truth-- that nothing is certain. "The terrible thing in life is, everyone has their reasons," Octave sighs to Robert towards the beginning of the film, and he's not even aware yet of the terrible fates that await. I don't know how Renoir managed to write and direct this masterpiece while also giving a performance that's so touching, so textured, so full of unspoken mysteries. All I know is that, when Octave stands on the steps and mimes his failed life as an orchestra conductor-- raising his arms in mockery, then hesitating (as if he suddenly feels the sadness underlining his self-deprecating), and finally slumping his shoulders in defeat-- it's a tiny masterpiece of performance, and the embodiment of Rules' inimitable layering of paradoxical (yet utterly logical) tones.

7. Roger O. Thornhill

As film theorist James Naremore notes in his essential Acting In The Cinema, it's really all about the socks.

Writing of Cary Grant's Roger O. Thornhill, running through the cornfields in North By Northwest, Naremore admits that his eyes are always drawn to the dapper colored patterns on Thornhill's socks, the cut of his suit, the elegant silk gray of his tie. He notes that Grant is in excellent running shape for a man of 57. He thinks about how it seems incongruous to be running through a cornfield in such a nice suit, yet absolutely right at the same time.

I am one with Naremore here-- it's the witty, surreal elegance of Grant/Thornhill's appearance here that makes the scene work. Crack one smile, let it become campy for one second, and it's over. After all, the suit's already doing that work for you.

"What's the 'O' stand for?," Eve Kendall purrs to Thornhill on the train as she turns his monogrammed cigarette lighter in her hand. "Nothing," he smiles back. It's possible to read that exchange as Hitchcock's playful jab at his old boss, David O. Selznick, whose middle initial also stood for nothing (he added it for rhythm and respectability). It also feels like the best acknowledgment of Hitchcock's method-- Roger is a cipher, a blank everyman upon whom we project our own identities, fears and desires.

The problem is, he's played by Cary Grant, the most elegant movie star in American history, and someone who is the furthest thing from a blank everyman. Look how he dresses in that cornfield, after all.

But is he really that far from us? "Everyone wants to be Cary Grant," Grant himself said. "Even I want to be Cary Grant. I worked at it and worked at it until I became him, or he became me." David Thomson wrote that Grant was cinema's best actor (true) because he was able to show light and dark simultaneously. Another way to say that, perhaps, is to say that he's simultaneously invested in the character, but also letting us in on the joke of his performance ("I became him, or he became me").

That makes Thornhill the masterpiece of this most masterful of actors. In a sense, nothing could be further from reality-- a self-absorbed ad man who is thrust into a world of espionage and danger simply because he raises his hand at a gentleman's club. But at every turn, Thornhill seems like a meta-commentary on movie acting (thrust into crazy stories, your wardrobe picked out for you, your name changed, and what does it all stand for? Nothing), and Grant is devilish fun in the role-- just when you think Roger has reached some level of maturity by rescuing Eve and hanging precipitously on the nose of George Washington, he's suddenly in a train car and up to his old seduction tricks again. And we couldn't be happier.

8. Susan Vance

From the moment her golf game begins to unravel David Huxley's world, it's clear that Susan Vance is trouble. "Your car. Your ball. Is there anything that isn't yours?," she asks him with a haughty expression in her eye. "Yes, thank heavens!," an exasperated David responds. "You!"

And yet Susan is so adorable in her energetic, dizzy obliviousness that I can't help but love her. I love her when she conducts quasi-scientific experiments with olives and martini glasses. I love her when her dress rips at the nightclub, and her voice quivers with embarrassment as David must cover her butt with his top hat. I love her when she sings "I Can't Give You Anything But Love" to her leopard in the middle of a nighttime hunt through the Connecticut countryside, and when she plays a mobster moll at the Connecticut jail, and when her good intentions destroy the dinosaur skeleton at the end of the film.

And I love her when she finds out, over the phone, that David is going to be married, and Bringing Up Baby cuts to a close-up of her face in all its sadness and secret planning. Hawks uses the close-up so rarely in the film that there's a real emotional kick when he does-- suddenly, her air of screwball craziness has been punctured, and we see the humanity underneath.

9. The Swashbuckler (Flynn)

This is my big cheat, because I can't pick just one Errol Flynn character-- from Captain Blood to The Adventures of Don Juan, they feel like pieces of one larger prism, through which we can think about the shifting role of the adventure hero in American cinema (I'm even tempted to toss in Gentleman Jim-- it's not a swashbuckler, but Flynn's amazingly energetic performance makes it feel like one).

I can't overstate how important these films were to me in my childhood and adolescence. There was a program on WGN when I was a kid called Family Classics, which aired on Sunday afternoons after church. It showed a variety of Classic Hollywood movies (the Andy Hardy films were a staple), but every year they would show The Adventures of Robin Hood. The conceit of the program was that its "bumpers" took place in a library; the host would take a book off the shelf that had the film's title embossed on the cover, and that would be our entry point into the movie.

This "open the book and turn the pages" format was the perfect way to leap into the fairy tale worlds that Flynn occupied. Whether it was Sherwood Forest, the high seas or a castle's staircase, he had a larger-than-life persona that could only work within the confines of the adventure narrative. I think of Flynn, and endless images pour forth-- Robin Hood pushing his way through the Sheriff's men and dropping dead deer on Prince John's dinner table (Robin's presence announced, before we even see him, by the swelling score of Eric Wolfgang Korngold); his smirk as he puts his legs up on Prince John's table, and in response to Marion's calls to "hold his tongue," replies, "That's a skill I've never learned, my lady"; the almost psychotic delirium of Captain Blood as he swings on the ropes from ship to ship, rapier in hand; the sharp-tongued interplay of Flynn and Bette Davis in The Private Lives of Elizabeth & Essex; the pitched swordfights between Flynn and Basil Rathbone.

Flynn was pitched by Warner Brothers as a possible Rhett Butler, and it's fascinating to think what he might have done with that part-- there's a cruelty that occasionally underlies even his heroic characters that might have been well-exploited by that role (you can also see glimmers of it in The Dawn Patrol and especially in the fabulous Objective, Burma!). But the main thing I always take from Flynn's swashbucklers is joy-- a joy in performing, in fighting, in camraderie, and in finally winning the heart of the girl that you love. It's infectious, and it reminds us of the upside of Hollywood escapism. "In life with Errol, you always knew what you were getting," David Niven wrote of his longtime friend. "He always let you down." In life, maybe, but not in the movies, and certainly not as The Swashbuckler-- here, it's sheer bliss-out.

10. Tony Hunter

"The Girl Hunt"? "That's Entertainment"? "Dancing In The Dark"? "Triplets"? Nah-- those are all fantastic numbers, some of my favorites from the history of Hollywood musicals. But if I could choose just one scene from The Band Wagon to get at why I love Tony Hunter, it would be the moments leading up to his melancholy, two-minute soliloquy, "By Myself".

Tony sits in his private train car and lights up a cigarette as the porter takes his bag. He jokes about not wanting to get off. He jokes, but not really-- he's terrified of what awaits him when he gets off, and even more terrified that nothing will. He pauses a moment, adjusts his tie and hat, and then strides with false bravado to the gaggle of reporters waiting by the train.

Thinking they're there for him, he talks for a minute, until the reporters' real target-- Ava Gardner-- gets off the train, and the mass of newsmen suddenly abandon him. He chats with Gardner for a moment, then begins to walk alongside the train, singing to himself: "No one knows better, than I, myself/I"m by myself, alone."

As Stanley Cavell has noted, this song acts as both self-examination and declaration of independence-- it's not just that he's by himself, but that he'll solve his problems on his own ("I'll build a world of my own"). Hunter's movement is similarly doubled, similarly ambiguous, caught between a walk and a dance. As the number opens, Astaire works a chuckle in, acknowledging Tony's sadness but still facing it with a most elegant display of existential courage.

The song lasts only a minute and 44 seconds, and Tony's darkness is soon punctured by the sound of his friends greeting him with banners and horns. But everything he will be-- indeed, everything the film itself will be-- is expressed in this number, which gracefully offers a pas de deux between hope and sadness, dark and light, laughter and singing, the walk and the dance.

I will tag Brendan, Larry, Bob, Kimberly and that great character of the film blogosphere, Greg (who, for those of you keeping track at home, used to call himself "Jonathan Lapper").