Archive for August, 2009

Absentee Fathers

August 27, 2009

It was that visionary sage Frank Costanza who once observed, “You got the hen, the chicken and the rooster. The rooster goes with the chicken, so who’s having sex with the hen? Something’s missing!”

Something’s missing alright, Frank. During the Sixties the Left had a power higher than William O. Douglas—hell, it was even higher than Maynard G. Krebs—and that was the clergy. Reverend King, Ralph Abernathy, the Berrigan brothers, the hundreds of forgotten pastors and nuns and seminary students who participated in the Freedom Rides and marches and peace rallies…Together they projected a moral authority which everyone except racist crackers and J. Edgar Hoover—but I repeat myself—felt bound to tiptoe around. The hateful sludge emanating from today’s radio talk-show hosts and elected representatives is troublesome mainly because it’s grown so overt since Obama’s election; people are saying things out loud that would’ve gotten them drummed out of civilized society a mere 20 years ago, but they’re doing it today with impunity. The grade-school pettiness, the obsession with obscenity, and the potential for violence that were bulwarks of the conservative movement during the Clinton years have hardened into something even shriller and more fear-driven than all the Vince Foster conspiracy theories combined. For sheer and utter nonsense the Birther, Tea Party, and Sarah-for-Whatever mobs are the contemporary equivalent of the America Firsters or the John Birch Society, with the crucially important difference that in the 1960s mainstream conservatives actually rejected Birchers as the paranoid, incoherent nut-jobs they were.

But that was back in the day of the Rockefellers and Lodges, when the party’s leaders still resembled human beings; since that time the GOP has resembled one of those charts showing mankind learning to walk upright, except in reverse. Even high-visibility Republicans get away with racial slurs and reality-challenged policy claims because the media’s fragmentation has made it all but impossible to corner them with a spotlight and force them to explain to a wide national audience just what the hell it was they meant when they called for “a great white hope” to challenge Obama. A Congressman caught tweeting racist jokes simply scampers into the friendly confines of Fox News to “clarify” his remarks and that’s the end of the episode. What’s missing are the authoritative moral figures who can spot a euphemism or a dodge when they see one, who don’t turn a deaf ear to vileness, and who have enough standing to put some shame on these yahoos and make it stick. But where are they? Are you telling me that in all of America there’s not even one minister, priest, rabbi, shaman, nun, or—gulp!—archbishop who has both a conscience and a way with words? You mean we don’t have even one Mother Teresa or Desmond Tutu, someone who can stand up and explain in simple English why poor people deserve a living wage, and just why it is that Michele Bachmann is going to spend eternity roasting like a hot-dog in the darkest cracks of Hell?

America pays no end of lip-service to God but the truth is we’re one of the least spiritual countries on the planet; as we’re worshiping the paragon of humility and meekness with one hand we’re re-electing Rambo with the other. Our clergy have been all but invisible throughout our Middle Eastern misadventures, and all but silent during the otherwise raucous debate about torture; what we do have is no end of showboats and mountebanks, whether their name is Al Sharpton or Joel Osteen. George Tiller was serving as an usher at his church when he was assassinated by a right-wing lunatic yet America’s religious establishment, far from flocking together to express collective outrage over the fact, instead had exactly boo to say about it. And even though people remain traumatized by what went down in Dealey Plaza nearly 50 years after the fact, today’s gun-nuts carry assault rifles to Obama’s appearances as their pastors openly pray for the President’s death. If that doesn’t rattle your faith in the world, only God knows what will.

Catch-up 22

August 23, 2009

It hasn’t been the greatest 10-12 days–nothing that blew my socks off–but still some pretty good stuff.

The best:

Colorado Territory – Raoul Walsh’s Western remake of High Sierra with Joel McCrea and Virginia Mayo in the Bogie-Lupino parts. Slow to get going but the last 30 minutes are for goddam real, including a uniquely downbeat tone and a fucking unbelievable location for the surreal and haunting climax. Walsh did outlaw psychology as well as anyone, and that includes Sam Peckinpah.

Lifeboat – Seen it a million times and still don’t get why it’s considered second-tier or lower Hitchcock. For wartime propaganda it’s amazingly humanistic without being self-congratulatory about it; its questions and very tentative answers seem extremely honest, especially its final question, unanswerable by any of the characters, which fixes a hard, cold eye on the evil things men do.

Cantet’s The Class – Another slow-starter. Worth hanging in there for, but its complication reminded me of Mamet’s thing, I’m blanking on the name, about the professor and the student who accuses him of rape, i.e., it was a little too much of an imposed he-said-she-said, gee-don’t-both-sides-have-a-point-after-all kind of thing, as opposed to the more organic, less textbooky dilemmas of Human Resources.

The Silence of Lorna – Engrossing but didn’t hypnotize me like Rosetta or make me feel like I was fighting for my life the way L’Enfant did. I knew the major plot point that was coming in advance but the Dardennes outfoxed me–the way it came was still a body-blow. My mind wandered here for the first time in any of their movies but there’s still 2-3 incredible, transcendent moments.

God’s Little Acre – Anthony Mann’s adaptation of the Erskine Caldwell novel, and another contender for the second edition of Hick Flicks. Robert Ryan is “Ty Ty,” the patriarch of a Georgia dirt-farm family–Granddad told him on his deathbed that he’d buried a pot of gold somewhere on the farm but died before saying just where, so Ty Ty’s spent the intervening years digging hole after hole all over the north forty looking for it. Not no small holes either: his front yard looks like the aftermath of the Somme. Much of the story is given over to the troubles brought on by Idiot Son #1 (Jack Lord) and Idiot Son #2 (Vic Morrow), with Lord’s wife, an almost comically carnal Tina Louise, being the source of most of the misery. (She spends the early part of the movie in a thin dress that’s scooped down to her navel; Mann usually waits until she’s backlit by the sun before training the camera on her.) The other female presence, just a whit less distracting, is called Darlin’ Jill, and she’s played by Fay Spain, better known in these parts as Mrs. Hyman Roth. A key scene that got cut from many prints in ’58: Jill taking a bath in an outdoor tub and asking Buddy Hackett (playing sheriff’s candidate “Pluto Swint”) to pump some water into the tub while she’s already lying in it–with one of his arms pumping rythmically up and down, he peeks down at her and begins grunting “Well, darn my sox…darn my sox…” Despite some late-going dramaturgy it’s worth seeing for the, um, extremely folksy humor, especially the subplot involving a pre-Bonanza Michael Landon, unrecognizable as an albino, and even more unrecognizable for being genuinely funny. (He enters the picture after Hackett tells Ryan that albinos–who he describes as having white blood and white ear-wax–have dowsing powers, so Ryan kidnaps Landon from the local swamp to make him find the gold; when Darlin’ Jill drags Landon off into the woods, Ryan runs frantically around the farm roaring “Whar’s my ‘bino? Whar’s my ‘bino?”) Worth seeing if only because Anthony Mann was a genius who could make an ant-hill interesting.

Siegel’s The Killers – Boorman must’ve watched it a hundred times before making Point Blank. Great work by practically the whole cast–especially Lee Marvin, Dickinson, Cassavetes, and Claude Akins–but a certain Ronald Wilson Reagan stinks up the house like peanut-butter farts, and this is supposed to be Reagan’s good performance. Made for TV, it’s sodden with rear projection work that lacks the pizazz which gave surprising boosts to The Lineup and The Big Steal, the only movies I know of that turned the scroungiest of devices into lemonade.

Nobody Lives Forever – Fine grifter movie with John Garfield. Less good but still interesting: The Prowler, directed by Joseph Losey of all people. Van Heflin’s a L.A. cop who develops a fixation on hot, bored housewife Evelyn Keyes after she spots a prowler outside her window one night. It’s crude and cheap, like its subject, but it’s actually pretty hip about male narcissism and how much weight relationships can bear before catastrophic failure occurs. It kept me guessing.

Some good things in them but a rough ride overall:

Borderline – Another H’wood flirtation with Mexico, a mixed-tone comedy-crime drama about two undercover cops–Fred MacMurray and Claire Trevor–chasing drug-runner Raymond Burr south of the border. MacMurray and Trevor fall in love, of course, but the twist is, neither of them knows they’re on the same side. Quite a twist, eh? Still, it’s decent, with MacMurray in his likable Remember the Night persona.

Splendor in the Grass – I watched this for a particular reason and was surprised–based on its pedigree (Inge/Kazan) I always thought I’d hate this movie, but that wasn’t the case at all. I can’t say I loved it, but it’s got a handful of fine moments, Beatty (in his debut) is the most natural I’ve ever seen him, and as a Freudian ’50s study of teen sexuality it beats Rebel Without a Cause with the Ugly Stick. It’s also the only movie I’ve ever seen that made me understand why Natalie Wood was a star–she’s fetching as hell and projects an actual personality here. Lots and lots of of good acting from the secondary players, especially Audrey Christie and Zohra Lampert. Beware, though, there’s plenty of inexplicable human behavior and Pat Hingle must’ve thought Gadge hired him to play Godzilla.

Take a pass:

Woman on the Run – Ann Sheridan in yet another thriller set in 1950s San Francisco. Ann shows her age, and it’s a heartbreaker.

Highway 301 – Steve Cochran thingy about the “Tri-State Gang” wreaking havoc on the East Coast. Negligible, but the group shots of the gang make them look like a gang of hard-core killers, so there’s that.

Slander – Cochran again, this time playing a J.J. Hunsecker-type tabloid publisher who zeroes in on child-idol Van Johnson as his next target. (Johnson plays a puppeteer whose singing cowboy routine is guaranteed to make you urpy.) The movie that explains why Steve Cochran never cracked the big time.

The Good Die Young – Brit heist movie, with Laurence Harvey, Stanley Baker, and Joan Collins, but also Richard Basehart, John Ireland, and Gloria Grahame. By-the-numbers stuff (right down to Gloria playing a slut), but there’s one astonishing closeup of psycho Harvey caught at his most psycho-y. If he could make that face at will, his children are still in therapy today.

Blood on the Moon – The week’s big disappointment: Robert Wise Western with Mitchum riding into a range-war and hooking up with old pal Robert Preston before realizing he’s joined the wrong side. Starts out fine but dribbles away to nothing.

Background to Danger – One of many Greenstreet-Lorre packages Warners threw together during the war when its A-list stars were gone. This is supposed to be one of the best ones; I don’t want to see the worst.

Unsung Heroes: Ray Teal 1902-1976

August 13, 2009

It’s almost certain that Ray Teal gained his widest visibility as the gruff, avuncular Sheriff Roy Coffee on Bonanza, an unchallenging, largely expository role that must’ve offered little satisfaction beyond a steady paycheck. The well-meaning but party-killing sheriff, with his familiar moustache and round-brimmed hat, usually appeared whenever one of Ben Cartwright’s boys had been caught playing with matches again (he never seemed to bring good news to the Ponderosa), and Teal’s cookie-cutter contributions so resembled each other from one week to the next that even after 400 some-odd episodes of the series it was impossible to imagine Roy Coffee having a life beyond the TV screen.

But when he was given half a chance, Ray Teal had some game in himfor starters, he walked away with his single scene in William Wyler’s Carrie despite the singular disadvantage of having to play it against Laurence Olivier. He appears halfway through the movie as the slimy corporate detective Mr. Allen, who’s been pursuing the $10,000 which Olivier’s George Hurstwood, in a moment of love-addled folly, embezzled to finance his ménage with Jennifer Jones. When the detective materializes in the couple’s swanky hotel room just as Hurstwood is bestowing a closetful of dresses on his mistress, the mortified, frightened embezzler does his best to stammer his way out of the mess, but Mr. Allen, who knows better than Hurstwood himself which games he’s going to run, demolishes each gambit with lascivious relish before they can even get off the ground. It’s the palpable, lip-smacking pleasure that Mr. Allen takes from his work, and the distress it produces in others, which makes him so repellentafter emasculating Hurstwood in front of his lover, he chuckles and offers the man a cigar. Only a talented actor could believably reduce Laurence Olivier to jelly in a few minutes’ time, but Teal sails through the task, even while maintaining the guise of a New Yorker from some number of generations past: it’s easy to imagine Mr. Allen’s grandsons debating the relative merits of Mantle, Snider and Mays.

Teal also shows up in Phil Karlson’s forgotten classic Gunman’s Walk, playing a horsetrader and perjurer who casually shakes down Van Heflin for a string of ponies, and in Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives he’s the original black helicopter wingnut who buttonholes Harold Russell at a drugstore lunch-counter. (His voice dripping with condescension, he hectors the maimed veteran to “Just look at the facts!” while brandishing what’s either a rolled-up newspaper or a FOIA request for Harry Truman’s birth certificate.) Teal was pushing 50 when he appeared in the earliest of these movies, so he may have been a late bloomer after a long run of uncredited performances. Whatever the case, it’s simply bass-ackwards that people remember him today, when they remember him at all, as frumpy Roy Coffee. This man was born to play shit-heels of the first order.

John Hughes’ Body Lies A-Mouldering in the Grave…or, Talkin’ ‘bout My Generation

August 8, 2009

I really hate it when these nostalgia cases go—it’s even worse than when some piece of media-dubbed royalty drops dead at 50—for the same reason it’s hard not to shudder thinking about what PBS pledge-drives are going to look like in 20 or 30 years. I mean, the pledge-drives today are already a horrorshow, what with the pot-bellied, balding buzzards and their mamas in Khaftans swaying back and forth—in their chairs—whispering “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” But where Boomers are commonly thought to be lost in the past, they have hearts of stone compared to every generation that’s succeeded them. It’s the post-Boomers who pony up for the Woodstock revivals and carry skateboards around in their thirties, and who’ve been fueling the whole superhero boom in movies. If we’re already having nostalgia crazes for the Nineties, their dotage promises to be one long orgy of retro navel-gazing, and by the time their grandkids roll around, we’ll be celebrating nostalgia crazes for yesterday.

I’ll go to my grave believing that American Graffiti had something seminal to do with kicking over the first domino here, for that was just about the time that nostalgia became such an aggressive force in our society, and when growing numbers of people (with a lot of prodding from the media and entertainment industry) began thinking of themselves in terms of “their” generation (and their youth), as opposed to simply remembering the past, and being content to recognize, with nothing more tangled than fondness at stake, what part it played in creating their adult selves. I’d also lay some of the blame on that whole “Where were you when JFK was shot?” thing. Each succeeding generation has yearned accordingly, even wistfully, for its own “defining moment.” It’s important to remember, though, that nobody was looking for—and certainly nobody wanted—the JFK “moment” to happen, and its meaning only was agreed upon (we’ll never know what it truly was) until well after the Vietnam debacle was underway. Today it’s common for people, when asked why they’re sitting on the courthouse steps waiting for the Michael Jackson verdict, to say that they want to “be part of history,” as if one of the final dips in a fading pop star’s career somehow equates to Hiroshima or the end of apartheid.

Nobody ever flew off the handle when Fess Parker or Edd “Kookie” Byrnes was ridiculed, but if you dis Star Wars, The Brady Bunch, Bruce Lee or Spiderman today, you best be ready to go to Fist City. The pop loves of childhood and adolescence have become the keystones and buttresses of a million personal sagas, the foundations of a romantic myth that’s been twisted into a definition of selfhood, and because this Vaseline-smeared view serves as their mental armor in the world, it makes the people who engage in it insanely protective of their personal taste even though its bedrock is sentimental goo. That’s why there’s no percentage in going after someone like John Hughes no matter how false his view of the world was: too many people will take it as an attack on their parentage.

“Man on a Tightrope” – Elia Kazan (1953)

August 5, 2009

I went back to the well last night, and wound up paying the price for it. After reading some positive things about Elia Kazan’s Man on a Tightrope, and checking out its anti-Kazan-y cast—Frederic March, Gloria Grahame, Alexander d’Arcy, who it kills me just to look at, and a needle-thin Richard Boone (as opposed to Eli Wallach’s Method-ist eye-rolling or Karl Malden sticking his alky’s schnozz at the camera)—I decided to give it a shot.

Ah, well, this movie-watching stuff, it’s a tricky business.

March plays the harried manager of a broken-down circus that’s roaming the countryside in Communist Czechoslovakia, and in an Elia Kazan movie that alone should set off the air-raid sirens. The rudderless story shifts this way and that until March, out of the blue, announces his plan to lead the troupe on a “desperate, daring” (read: “suicidal, couldn’t possibly succeed outside of a movie”) escape over the border—“to Freedom.” Sigh…There are complications, of course: the weasely apparatchiks led by real-life Red-baiter Adolphe Menjou keep yanking March’s permit and otherwise fucking with him, his wife is making whoopee with the lion-tamer (a new low, even for Gloria), and his daughter is falling in love with a mysterious young worker who might be a police spy. The actual escape takes up only the final few minutes of the movie, but the build-up to it lasts a full half hour, which is an awfully long time for people in clown makeup to keep yelling “Let’s get ’em rolling!” with any kind of enthusiasm, or to watch a caravan of jalopies crawling down a hill at, literally, an elephant’s pace. But the movie is filled with “Did they really mean that?” touches, including the characters’ names (Grahame’s “Zama,” Boone’s “Krofta”) and Grahame’s antic-filled friendship with a gravel-voiced midget. (When she puts her perfume on him, he kicks his little legs and giggles.)

That brilliant (seriously), moving (seriously)  Do Snitch screed called On the Waterfront, which Kazan would make a year later, looks like The Communist Manifesto next to this thing, with its murderous officials who are forever demanding identity cards, perverting the ringhands’ conception of the working class, and duping the clowns into signing up for ObamaCare. We’re told that March is “only” the circus’ manager now because the libtards nationalized it away from him some years back, and the Workers’ Revolution is cited as the reason why the show’s trucks keep breaking down in their tracks. It’s odd, though, that a film so mentally married to the working stiff is so little concerned with what it takes to, say, actually operate a circus; instead we’re given the usual views of the lion-tamer cracking his whip and clowns cavorting with seltzer bottles. Man on a Tightrope is one of those broad, vulgar portraits of totalitarianism that Billy Wilder coughed up like a chunk of gristle every few years, and it feels not so subtly aimed at a couple of hundred of Kazan’s personal, and presumably former, friends. But it’s no less one-sided a picture of society than the worst Soviet propaganda ever painted of the West, with a world so gray and wanting it’s as if the sun itself refused to shine on Communist Czechoslovokia. How the man who created such a frothing, empty work could find his way to Wild River, where he managed to stretch the giving, at-ease manner of Brando and Saint’s swing-set conversation to full feature length, is a mystery, but not one that I feel obliged to investigate. It’s enough to know that, for one movie anyway, Kazan the artist was able to make his way to freedom.

A little catching up

August 2, 2009

Finally saw Man of the West in widescreen (and a good transfer)–sure makes a difference. It’s a goddam dazzling movie, which I never thought before; just wish someone else had starred even though Cooper tries to do something like modern acting. First-rate gang of outlaws, including Royal Dano as a mute gunman who makes his first sound only when he’s been mortally wounded, and Robert Wilke, who 20 years later would play the craggy vengeful foreman on Sam Shepard’s farm in Days of Heaven. The landscapes here even overshadow Mann’s other Westerns. There’s one shot–the gang’s wagons pulling out of the emerald-green valley where their hideout is, with a mountain range in the far background–that’s one of the most beautiful location shots I’ve ever seen.

Also, The Amazing Mr. X, a noir-ish mystery about phony psychic Turhan Bey. I know how that must look and it does have a stale first half, but it gets better as it goes on, and it shows some unexpected imagination (and integrity) when it takes time to show how the guy does his tricks. Another one shot by John Alton, and one of his best; you sit there gaping through the stupidest scenes just because they’re so spectacular looking.

The 2005 King Kong–not as bad as I expected, and in a couple places I was surprised how moved I was. Fantastic score.

A pair of mutts: The Heroes of Telemark (Mann’s last completed film, shot on location in Norway and based on a pretty amazing story about WW II saboteurs, but the script just lays there and the filmmaking doesn’t have any crackle) and Desplechin’s Kings and Queen (please!–life is just too damn short).

Somewhere in the middle: Raoul Walsh’s Western sex comedy The King and Four Queens. Clark Gable hunts gold hidden on a ranch occupied by the four widows of an outlaw gang that got wiped out–it’s overseen by Jo Van Fleet, the outlaws’ mother, again expertly doing her crusty matriarch thing. (She was the old woman in Wild River, too. I didn’t know until after I watched it that she was only 46 at the time–she looks 70 there if a day.) In this one the gals have barely seen a man in two years so having Gable in their midst turns things into Black Narcissus Goes West. Clark necks and dances with, among others, Eleanor Parker, who makes it hard to believe she was Sinatra’s wheelchair-bound sister in The Man with the Golden Arm, and Barbara Nichols, better known as “Cigarette Girl” from Sweet Smell of Success. It’s mellow and human and looks great, but it’s never quite hilarious and it’s barely even a story–pretty darned low-key.

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