Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Kate

Happy Blogiversary, Bully!


The funnest comics-readin' bull in the blogosphere celebrates four years of posts today, over at Comics Oughta Be Fun! That's right, Bully turns four today, so break out your favorite issue of The Thing and raise a cup of steaming cocoa in honor of the world's best comics blogger! Bully's gift, which he gives out with every post, is to remind us that "fun" is crucial to our critiques of pop culture, so the least we can do to repay this debt is to mosey on over to his place and wish him well. Oh, and maybe bring Jane Wiedlin with us.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

James

Staked

As Buffy The Vampire Slayer's great truth-teller, Cordelia Chase might say, "Know your losers. Once you can identify them all by sight they're a lot easier to avoid."

Because, really--there are bad ideas, and then there are bad ideas.

A Buffy without Joss Whedon or any of the actors from the TV show isn't Buffy; it's not even this Buffy, which at least benefitted from Whedon's script and a game (if misused) cast. I was going to say it was kind of the Beatlemania to the show's Beatles, except Beatlemania at least pretended it was "using" John, Paul, George and Ringo, whereas this reboot would jettison all the supporting characters from the TV show. It's more like CCR without John Fogerty, or the Beatles without John Lennon. And we know how that turned out.

I'm not one who particularly needs a Buffy movie, or an Angel reunion: I like the way Angel ended, and think Buffy was running on fumes by the time it reached its overpraised final episode (a feeling borne out by the hit-and-miss "Season 8" comic). I'm happy to catch up with Dollhouse and wait for the Dr. Horrible sequel. But if you are going to make a big-screen Slayer film, it just seems like bad form to do it without the people who made the show popular in the first place.

UPDATE (4:55 p.m.): Fellow Whedonite Bob also has some thoughts on the matter.

UPDATE II (5/27): Over at More A Legend Than A Blog, CZR makes some interesting points about the irony of a Buffy revival being inspired by the success of the Twilight series. Here's the money passage:

The insanely popular series by Stephanie Meyers is now on target for a Harry Potter/Spider Man level film franchise, which has everyone scrambling for their own hot starlet-on-vampire series. Of course, Whedon's Buffy had nothing but contempt for the "Vampires are cool and I totally want to be one!" crowd that is a significant part of the Twilight fan base. Remember Season 2's excellent "Lie To Me" episode where those goth kids are waiting to be slaughtered by Spike's crew? Buffy referred to them as "The All You Can Eat Moron Buffet." Also, the Twilight series, unlike Whedon's Buffy, has drawn a lot of fire for the troubling messages that it sends out to teenage girls. A good friend of mine, let's call her "Leslie," breaks down what's wrong with Twilight's gender politics with pitiless accuracy. This is her eight-part critique, in its entirety.

"1. It's okay if boys stalk you and watch you while you sleep
2. If you like a boy become totally consumed by him and pretend your friends don't exist (unless you need them for something)
3. If boy leaves you, try not to kill yourself. Lapsing into severe depression and cliff diving is okay.
4. Your parents will get over it if you decide to have your boyfriend kill you and turn you into a vampire
5. It's okay for a boy/werewolf to force you to kiss him b/c you'll realize you kind of love him
6. Be home in time to cook dinner for your dad
7. It's romantic when your boyfriend makes you ask permission to do anything without him
8. It's romantic when your boyfriend is patronizing and treats you like a child

Plus there's something that werewolves do called imprinting, and it's really creepy and I don't want to get into it."


Compare that to Sarah Michelle Gellar's in-charge Buffy Summers, who essentially lived her life according to Fred "The Hammer" Williamson's Three Hollywood Rules (See my About Me up at the top right hand corner). She was always treated as an equal (or more) by friend & foe alike and if anyone forgot to do that, or took her for granted because she was blonde & pretty....she rectified that situation with the quickness.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Buzzer Beater



So much of Cleveland sports culture is encapsulated in this video from Friday night's local news broacast: the mournful faces when they think the Cavs have lost; the passive-aggressive responses to that loss ("I would not blame you if you changed the channel"; "I'm canceling my Sports Illustrated subscription!"); the over-the-top elation when they realize the Cavs won (complete with dancing guy in the background). As a Browns fan, I know Ohio sports can be summed up by that line from They Might Be Giants: "If it wasn't for disappointment, I wouldn't have any appointments." But I do like the arc of this video, as hope screams its way in at the buzzer.

(h/t Deadspin).

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Goin' After Some Lipstick Chicks



A live performance from The Replacements at the International Rock Awards (no year listed, but I'm guessing '89 or '90, around the time Don't Tell A Soul was released). The song and performance rock, of course, but I especially treasure two extra-textual moments: Paul Westerberg's deadpan cry of "What the hell are we doing here?" as the song begins; the way he sticks his tongue out as the camera gives him a close-up (very John Lennon).

Monday, May 18, 2009

What's My Line?


Poor Tucker. But I'm sure he'll find a way to blame it on Jon Stewart.

On a related note, James Harrison once again makes me proud to be a Browns fan. The list of pro athletes who've skipped Presidential greetings contains stars both illustrious (Michael Jordan, Larry Bird) and infamous (Mark Chmura, Manny Ramirez), so I don't think it's a particularly awful thing to skip out on the ceremony. But man, at least make your reason coherent, James.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Recently Viewed: Barcelona


Where you going?


Barcelona.

Oh.

Don't get up.

Do you have to?

Yes, I have to.

Oh.

Don't get up.

Now you're angry.

No I'm not.

Yes you are.

No I'm not.
Put your things down.

See, you're angry.

No I'm not.

Yes you are.

No I'm not.

Put your wings down
And stay.

I'm leaving.

Why?

To go to--

Stay.

I have to--

Fly--

I know--

To
Barcelona...


Images from Vicky Christina Barcelona (Woody Allen); lyrics from "Barcelona," Company (Stephen Sondheim).

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Friday, May 15, 2009

The More We Know



What happens when a character's persona overtakes the real-life actor or actress? I like Jane Krakowski-- she somehow kept her comic chops sharp as everything on Ally McBeal fell apart around her; she sings a lovely version of Stephen Sondheim's "Barcelona" on my Company cast album; and she's a delightfully self-absorbed star on 30 Rock, where she seems to be having a lot of fun trying to top Tracy Morgan in sheer craziness.

The problem is, she's so good in her 30 Rock role-- and the show itself is so wired into its through-the-looking-glass satire of NBC's backstage politics--that the PSA above no longer works the way it's intended. Instead of being a touching reminder to be environmentally conscious, it plays like a parody of such an ad, its shallow response to larger social problems (use reusable bags, and we'll never have these problems again!) coming off as the dilletantism of sitcom diva Jenna rather than the surely sincere plea of Krakowski herself. At least Alec Baldwin seems in on his own joke, offering a wickedly deadpan spoof of celebrity endorsements that highlights the silliness of such corporate advice-giving, and skewers it for all it's worth.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Charm Monster

Christopher Hitchens, ever the gent:

By the end of the night, Christopher Hitchens was of course the last man (barely) standing, and he had some choice words for the evening's headlining comedian, Wanda Sykes. "The president should be squirming in his seat. Not smiling," he said. "The black dyke got it wrong. No one told her the rules."

(h/t Steve Benen).

Mid-Nineties Music Flashback: You Float Like A Feather

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Strange Remixes

ALF as Surrealist horror film...

(h/t Deadspin).

Mary Worth as deadpan staged reading, with computerized images based on children's toys...

(h/t Mary Worth & Me).

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Pirouettes: Notes On Intertwined Arcs

The world's most elegant dancer and one of Hollywood's most influential producers were both born today, their careers linked by a famous screen test report: "Losing Hair. Can't Sing. Can Dance a little." That was the dire estimation of one RKO executive about stage star Fred Astaire's chances in Hollywood. But David O. Selznick, then in charge of production at the studio, would sign him anyway, loan him out for a small number in MGM's Dancing Lady (1933), then pair him with Ginger Rogers in Flying Down To Rio that same year. The rest is history.

The question is: what kind of history?

Selznick was no stranger to flight: one of his more striking successes at RKO was giving the go-ahead to Merian Cooper's epic folly, King Kong, a film whose climax finds the title character under fire from a squadron of bi-planes (one of the pilots we see is Cooper himself, who had a colorful career as a World War I ace, and later held considerable stock in Pan American Airways). In F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon, set in 1932, Celia Brady narrates her fight from the East Coast to Hollywood, describing, “the world from an airplane I knew,” the “sense of that rip between coast and coast” where “it was vaguely like a swanky restaurant at that twilight time between the meals." Those restaurants and nightclubs are the settings for any number of wonderful Astaire-Rogers films, where the couple do changes and variations on a routinized set of narratives and character types. Selznick is a professional product of such routinization, having come up through the studio system that Thalberg and Mayer perfected a decade before, but even as he thrives in it (moving from Paramount to RKO to MGM, where he produces Dinner At Eight, Viva Villa and David Copperfield), he also longs to break free and start his own company.

In a later passage from Tycoon, the central producer Monroe Stahr (a thinly veiled portrait of Irving Thalberg, who'd fired Selznick from MGM in 1926) talks about filmmaking through the analogy of train travel and surveying: "You have to send a train through somewhere. Well, you get your surveyors’ reports, and you find there’s three or four or half a dozen gaps, and no one is better than the other. You’ve got to decide—on what basis? You can’t test the best way—except by doing it. So you just do it.” That's the assembly line of studio production in a nutshell: a vast, heavy, work-intensive set of interconnected tracks designed to get the movie from point A to point Z as quickly as possible. It's efficient and impressive: but it's also set on one path, with little room for adjustment (you'd have to be as quick, as debonair and agile, as Fred Astaire in Swing Time, leaping from one train car to the next to avoid being tied down by unwanted relationships; Astaire astride a train car in his striped pants and tails is one of the most playfully surreal of all Classic Hollywood images).

David O. Selznick is not Fred Astaire, but he maneuvers pretty well, and the company he sets up in 1935 (just as Swing Time is in production) will allow him an even greater freedom to circulate. Selznick International Productions will be like the bi-plane to the studios' Kong: a quick, swerving and sometimes irritating symbol of how to leave the ground and move through the light air of high-end production. It exists in a symbiotic relationship with the majors, drawing on their talent and their distribution system, but using those resources to make a smaller number of films at high cost, for potentially sky-high returns on investment. As opposed to the straight-ahead tracks of MGM, more independent-minded producers and directors like Selznick, Cooper and Schoedsack have the freedom to go in circles and change course more rapidly (and, of course, run the risk of crashing). It is a working methodology that relies, paradoxically, on veering off-course (Selznick was notorious for delaying on projects, and for endless memos), and Classic Hollywood also depends on such changes of course. It is, officially, a vertically integrated system, but in practice, it is something far less organized, exploiting this sense of whim and circulation, in a manner similar to that of the camera’s effect as described by Walter Benjamin in his “Work of Art” essay: “Our taverns and our metropolitan streets, our offices and furnished rooms, our railroad stations and our factories appeared to have us locked up hopelessly. Then came the film and burst this prison-world asunder by the dynamite of a tenth of a second, so that now, in the midst of its far-flung ruins and debris, we calmly and adventurously go traveling.”

No one walked the boulevards like Astaire: David Thomson would later note the perversity of On The Beach's odd decision to keep this most elegant of performers cooped up in a race car: why not make him a golfer, Thomson asked (his tongue, I assume, only partly-in-cheek), walking the post-apocalyptic golf courses of Australia? At least then, Thomson rightly noted, we could watch him swing a club or two. 1939 finds Astaire and Rogers doing their final film for RKO, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle; following that release, Astaire is a free agent, and he goes to Paramount for two dazzling films with Rita Hayworth (one of his most underrated screen partners), You'll Never Get Rich and You Were Never Lovelier. Hayworth brings out Astaire's sardonic edge, the romantic schemer that we only caught glimpses of in his films with Rogers: the narratives of both films are so well-worn that just a touch of this more cynical tone is enough to make the familiar feel a bit postmodern: they know that we know the arcs of the fairy tale stories they are presenting, and that self-awareness gives the movies a cool charm (somehow, winking at the camera burnishes the film's rich romanticism, rather than undercutting it).

While Astaire was wrapping up his time at RKO and making his modern-edged musicals, Selznick was figuring out his future by lingering in the past. Only a year after starting his company, he bought the rights to Gone With The Wind, the book that would secure his legend. Of course, we say that knowing the future that, in 1936, David O. Selznick is still trying to figure out. He delays constantly, doing screen test after screen test; pushing screenwriter Sidney Howard on rewrites (and bringing in everyone from Ben Hecht to our old friend F. Scott Fitzgerald to do further work on the script); doing Technicolor tests with a team of cinematographers. He doesn't have the money or the resources to make this epic, but also feels that, as he says in one memo, only an independent film company such as SIP can do it justice. He is using the most advanced storytelling technology ever devised to translate a novel about a long-gone (and in many ways, never-was) world to an audience on the verge of World War II, and the endless future it will bring. And success lies in slowing the whole thing down. Selznick had a tendency to get lost in details, and an epic prestige production like Gone With The Wind offered him plenty of chances. The search for Scarlett O’Hara alone took nearly two years, $92,000, and 162,000 feet of film for screen tests (for a total running time of more than 24 hours; the famous crane shot of Confederate wounded at the Atlanta train station utilized 1,500 extras and 1,000 specially rigged dummies; production designer William Cameron Menzies created 3,000 sketches for the film, which were used to design 200 sets; 59 leading cast members and 2,500 extras would wear 5,500 items of costuming, ride 1,100 horses and utilize 450 vehicles; and the production would shoot 449, 512 feet of film, cut to 20,300 feet to create a 222 minute movie whose budget would swell over the course of three years from $1.5 million to $4.25 million. When they burn Atlanta (the first sequence shot for the film), they are burning the old sets of King Kong on the back lot.

Finally, after years of dallying, planning, shooting and re-shooting, previews and more re-takes, the film has its premiere in the real Atlanta; the cast flies down on a DC-3 with "MGM's Gone With The Wind" stenciled on the side. Gable’s never flown before, and wife Carole Lombard holds his hand, joking “if we’re going to crash, we might as well go down together." It was a sadly prescient joke—Lombard would die in a plane crash three years later. Today, however, they arrive safely, just after the arrival of Vivien Leigh, who hears the band playing “Dixie,” and declares in all earnestness that it is a “good omen” for the film’s success that its theme music is already so popular. Her plane had to circle for hours, like one of the bi-planes swatted by Kong, because the flowers that were to be presented to her by Atlanta’s mayor had not yet arrived. Selznick was so nervous about how it would all go that he doctored an important photo: the famous publicity still of the cast in front of the theater for the premiere is actually a composite, created in Hollywood because Selznick was afraid he wouldn’t get good shots with all the large crowds sure to gather.

Gable gets bored during the movie, so he chooses not to return to the theater after intermission, instead consuming two bottles of Chivas Regal with Lombard, Raoul Walsh, and Marion Davies. It was clear that Selznick had a “blockbuster” on his hands, even though that word would not come into use until the world war that had been precipitated on the day of Wind’s first preview: it was a term would be coined by British pilots for the aerial bombs dropped on German cities. One of the stars of Gone With the Wind, Leslie Howard, would return to England soon after the movie's premiere, and throw himself into propaganda efforts for the Allies. He made films, gave speeches, and wrote articles for the war effort, until he was killed in 1943, when a plane returning to London from Lisbon was shot down by the Nazis; according to Wind historian Herb Bridges, “It was speculated that either they thought Churchill was aboard, or they knew the actor was on a secret intelligence mission for the Allies."

The same year that Wind triumphantly blows through Atlanta, Rules of the Game has a less auspicious debut in Paris. It, too, finds its central metaphor in flight, and its tragic denouement is the logical dark end that, with a bit of tweaking, every Astaire-Rogers movie might have had. The characters Astaire is currently playing for MGM have a bit of darkness around them: the con-man of 1945's Yolanda and the Thief (whose surreal dream sequences are echoed that same year by Selznick's Dali-designed Spellbound) or the jewel thief of The Ziegfeld Follies' best number, a poignant, open-ended dance-as-short story with Lucille Bremmer. Astaire announces his retirement as the war comes to an end, but agrees to replace a broken-legged Gene Kelly in Easter Parade, and continues to dance for another decade.

Selznick slows down in the mid-forties, too: following the back-to-back Best Picture triumphs of Wind and Rebecca, he stops producing films and concentrates on loaning out his impressive stable of stars and directors (including Alfred Hitchcock, Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck) to other studios, a low-effort/high-reward business that keeps him flush while he plans his next move. That move is a war movie, of a sort: there are no battle scenes in Since You Went Away, no scenes of marching men or gathering war clouds; there is a scene in an aircraft hanger, but it's the setting of a war bonds dance, not a bombing mission. Because of the absence of so many of the war film's tropes, though, the movie is forced to open up to other, extraordinarily resonant emotional spaces: like Wind, this is a movie about life on the homefront, but a far richer and more rewarding one.

I think it's the best movie about World War II that Hollywood made while the war was still occurring. From the pieta of Claudette Colbert and her two daughters (Jennifer Jones and Shirley Temple) gathered in the living room to read a letter from their "Pop" who's overseas; to the almost Rossellini-like images of the girls hoeing their Victory Gardens in the bleached sunlight; to Joseph Cotten's dry interactions with Monty Woolley; to that extraordinary moment when Jennifer Jones chases after the train carrying a gawky Robert Walker, and then is framed by shafts of light in the station, weeping, Since You Went Away is a powerful testament to the power of melodrama to express absence, longing, and a need that is at once personal and political, national and individual. And its narrative is organized not around the plane, but the train-- from departing soldiers to families racing to meet loved ones, and just missing them.

It feels so different from so many of Selznick's films for two reasons: one, it's the space where this most literary of producers (who generally preferred adaptations) gives himself over to the visual (Lee Garmes's images are beautifully shaded, occasionally noirish); and it is one of the last times that Selznick addresses the present. Wind is an historical piece, Duel In the Sun a Western, Rebecca and Spellbound set in the headspace of Hitchcock's obsessions. By 1949's Portrait of Jennie, this drifting through an uncertain space and time will be narrativized in the tale of a painter (Joseph Cotten) who falls in love with his youthful model (Jennifer Jones), who barely seems to age, and who dresses in clothes from the turn-of-the-century.

The mysteries and ravages of time have become Selznick's obsession, and the film is a surreal and evocative mystery tale whose narrative flow seems secondary to its delicately anachronistic tone and impressionistic camera framings. The film is set in 1934, that moment when Selznick was pondering that move from MGM to independent production, and it's hard to resist reading some of the Cotten character's longing and regret as Selznick's own.

Four years later, Astaire will also engage with the past-- and his own sense of aesthetic mortality-- but his will be unsurprisingly jauntier: it's called The Band Wagon.

The train is central here, too-- I earlier described one of my favorite scenes from this film, whose setting against a stopped train is so powerfully thematic. Twenty years later, Astaire will walk through that train set in the documentary That's Entertainment!. Astaire observed that, "The set was a mess. All the windows on the trains were broken….As I walked along, I noticed that the carpeting was torn and the seats of the train were missing. But I suppose nothing should last forever.” Selznick would have a similar response wandering the old spaces of SIP in 1964 with his friend Ben Hecht, and stating with a melancholy finality that only ghosts of an epic Hollywood past remained. But both men faced the past stoically, echoing those remarks from Tycoon's Celia Brady several decades earlier: “At the worst, I accepted Hollywood with the resignation of a ghost assigned to a haunted house. I knew what you were supposed to think about it but I was obstinately unhorrified." A few years after Selznick rejected that limited definition of Astaire's screen test, he really did have to deal with a star who could only "dance a little": Clark Gable was not a good dancer, so for Wind's famous dance at the auction with Vivian Leigh, the filmmakers crafted movable floor beneath his feet to make his appearance smoother. Fred Astaire never had those kinds of problems, and neither did Jean Renoir, whose bounding up the stairs as Octave in Rules of the Game would later be described by Andrew Sarris as the most exquisite kind of choreography, in his seminal piece "Notes On The Auteur Theory in 1962": [Octave] gallops up the stairs, turns to his right with a lurching movement, stops in hoplike uncertainty when his name is called by a coquettish maid, and, then, with marvelous postreflex continuity, resumes his bearishly shambling journey." It is, Sarris writes, a “musical grace note of that momentary suspension."

One could debate whether Selznick and Astaire were auteurs (I would say yes), but they certainly found a way to momentarily suspend the onslaught of narrative and time and intense labor, in order to offer us the spaces within which we could truly appreciate the "musical grace notes" that cinema lives for.

“The filming of Gone With the Wind was like a party on the set that Selznick was giving each day,” actress Evelyn Keyes remembers. “Especially since the dialogue was always being handed to us at the last minute as if he was thinking of some charade to play."The best story about David Selznick comes from his Wind screenwriter Sidney Howard, who arrived in Hollywood in 1937 to begin work on adapting Margaret Mitchell’s novel. Instead, he was roped into rewrites on Selznick’s current project, The Prisoner of Zenda. Howard agreed to help, and asked how Selznick wanted a scene rewritten. “I don’t know,” Selznick replied. “I haven’t read it yet."

“Provided you ignore what you are reviewing, you can successfully devote yourself to false literary criticism,” the Surrealist godfather Andre Breton tantalizingly wrote, and Selznick’s work, often dealing in adaptation, balanced between a faith in words (both written and spoken) and a passionate desire for cinematic excess which words can’t properly convey, offers an interesting litmus test for how one understands movies. What if, far from being a criticism of Hollywood excess, Howard’s anecdote—and, particularly, Selznick’s final line—is the key to comprehending the whole, abnormal game? Or to paraphrase a key line from that key Astaire film, The Band Wagon, should there be any difference in our minds between the magic rhythms of Bill Shakespeare’s immortal verse, and the magic rhythms of Bill Robinson’s immortal feet?

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Chuck Daly, R.I.P.


The great basketball coach Chuck Daly, who led the "Bad Boys" Detroit Pistons teams to two NBA championships in 1989 and 1990, then coached the first "Dream Team" to an Olympic gold medal in 1992, has died of pancreatic cancer, at the age of 78.

When I first became invested in basketball, as a fifteen-year-old in Michigan, it was one of Daly's Pistons teams that I followed-- not the championship team of '89, but the even-better team of '88, who took the Lakers to six games before eventually falling. I loved their combination of physical defense of sleek offense, and at the center of it all was the growling-but-dapper man whose players nicknamed him "Daddy Rich." Like his teams, he seemed an embodiment of various paradoxes: he was tough, yet lovable; gruff, yet smooth; full of high-octane passion and focus during a game (that's why I chose the image above), yet by all accounts the epitome of generosity and kindness away from it. His Italian suits and perfectly coiffed hair were reminiscent of rival Pat Riley, but underneath that slick exterior beat the heart of a blue-collar guy who spent years toiling in the CBA and college ranks before getting his shot at the big-time. He was a great ambassador for the game, but also for the city of Detroit, and I can't help but think that battered city could use some of his smarts, toughness and charm right now.

R.I.P., Chuck Daly.