Archive for May, 2010

Riding Shotgun

May 26, 2010

Stagecoach has never been one of my favorite John Ford movies, but that’s only because Ford made so many good movies that something has to rank farther down the line. Still, it’s everything that everybody says it is: the first modern Western, a perfectly cast, perfectly detailed ensemble piece, a not-too-pushy allegory about the opening of the West, the movie that made John Wayne a star, and just a gaudily entertaining picture in general. But while watching it last night it struck me how much of a woman’s picture it is: Claire Trevor’s top billing wasn’t just a default move owing to the fact that she was a bigger star at the time than any of her male cohorts. It really is her—or rather, her character, Dallas’—story, with Dallas’ liberation from her life as a crib prostitute the one indispensable movement in the entire picture. Even beyond that, Stagecoach, which never strays far from its central proposition that empathy is the supreme virtue in human society, is a physical demonstration of feminist, or at least feminine, values—values which form the bedrock of practically every great movie I can think of, from Broken Blossoms to A Day in the Country to Contempt to There Will Be Blood. American movies went to pot at about the same time (and for many of the same reasons) that feminism lost its way, and instead of guys growing the fuck up and becoming reasonable about subjects like sex and money and emotional confrontations, things got turned around and it was the women who wound up changing, with far too many of them turning into the same kind of entitled, short-fused, sexually psychotic clowns we are, with the end result that the same culture which once paid good money to see Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and A Woman Under the Influence now gets wet over Kick-Ass and Sex and the City 2.

Ah, well—at least some of us are safe from the blessings of civilization.

No, but we WILL call you a dipshit

May 25, 2010


May 25, 2010

I’m feeling pretty bogus today—not enough to do and so on—but, hell, I’m in the doldrums anyway. I keep meaning to write a bunch of stuff—on how 30 Rock has gone from being the funniest show on TV to a negligible suckfest, and on how Justified just keeps getting better and better, and on the stack of books I’ve been reading and on Satyajit Ray and on Sarah Fucking Palin—but instead I’m just going to tell you up-front that right now I got nothin’.  I did just get handed the Criterion edition of Stagecoach, though, so you probably have more maunderings about John Wayne and desert landscapes heading your way. Hey, I can feel your excitement from here.

Anyway, since it just came up with a friend who’s never seen it before, I give you…

Just a deck of cards and a jug of wine

May 21, 2010

It was a quick trip—two or three days in Phoenix and three or four in Santa Fe—and now I’m back in S.F., already at loose ends and itchy and staying up late and so on, which is just about where I left off. The trip itself was tedious and rushed but only fitfully as stressful as it might’ve been. I promised myself beforehand I wasn’t going to have any eruptions or meltdowns no matter how aggravating or claustrophobic things got, and I kept my word. It wasn’t always easy.

Dad’s how I remember him, more or less—a busted-down rake, but bony now, with silvered hair and skin that’s been trashed by the Arizona sun. He’s basically a handsome version of me, but if I ever needed serious proof that he’s my dad, I’d have it every time he opens his mouth. This genetics stuff is some serious shit, people: not only does his voice sound exactly like mine, we both favor certain speech patterns and even particular figures of speech, while sharing a delayed, dryly sarcastic reaction to the world around us—all this from two guys who’ve spent less than a week of waking time around each other in the last fifty years. But he’s a strange guy, a kind of sexual recidivist. He gets it that he committed a fundamental wrong against his wife and kids—he brings it up almost too much at this point—but he still has a gristly streak of 1950s-vintage misogyny running through his veins. At one point I mentioned an annoying habit that an old girlfriend of mine had, and he took an absurd amount of pleasure from my Girl Problems, as if they were proof-positive that women, when you get right down to it, are mostly a pain in the ass. And when he told me the woman who lives next door is only a month younger than he is and I joked that he ought to ask her out, he shot back, “Just because I’m hungry doesn’t mean I’m starving.” I didn’t argue with him about any of this stuff—I wasn’t there to fight the old dog for its bone—and in any case I’m hardly the best candidate to highlight the sexism in another man’s remarks. He’s pretty accessible considering everything he’s been and done, but twice he choked up and had to stop talking—both times while discussing the flinty, frosty woman who raised him. (At one point he said he’d never seen his mother smile—not once in his lifetime—a notion which certainly jibes with my memory of Nanny.) He did his best to answer the five or six or seven big questions I’ve been toting around for years, and finally being able to scratch them off my tattered mental checklist and put that shit to bed for good…well, that was a savory little process.

I was glad to get out of there but it wasn’t because of Dad. Phoenix, or at least the part of north Phoenix that I was in, sucks in extremis. I’m a desert man to the core of my being, and even the landscape left me unmoved. There was exactly one moment when I saw anything that might be taken for beautiful: sitting on Dad’s back patio on my first evening there, I looked across the miles of nothingness to a distant mountain, and silhouetted by the fading sun the line of trees marching over its peak looked like a Mohawk haircut. That’s it. Otherwise I saw a wasteland of K-Marts and strip-mall karate schools, discouraged looking people standing on street corners and spinning giant handheld arrows advertising barber schools and brake specialists, and ugly RVs and low-riders grinding out loud obnoxious music. I couldn’t even find a decent cup of coffee. At least I timed the trip right, because my dad and I were just starting to snap at each other my last night at his place. That was when we got onto politics, and he told me that Obama was the first Democrat he’s voted for since Truman, a fact which lost a lot of its coolness quotient once the discussion moved to Vietnam—my bright idea—and we began acting out one of Archie and Meathead’s lost routines.

New Mexico is for real, though—God’s backyard if ever it existed. My sister picked me up at the Albuquerque airport and took me back to Santa Fe via a winding route through the mountains, pausing for lunch in Madrid (accent on the first syllable), an old mining town now taken over by latter-day freaks, giving the place the most genuine longhair atmosphere I’ve seen since Austin in the early ’70s. Then a slow descent until the salmon-colored pueblo homes and neo-colonial buildings started popping up…

When we reached Santa Fe I checked into my motel and, needing a little downtime, I went out on my own that first night, heading directly over to the Plaza—the old center of town. It’s where the Santa Fe Trail ended, and what with the Governor’s Palace and a handful of cathedrals dating back to the early 1600s all nearby, the stench of history is enough to make your eyes water. A band on the stage was playing ranchera music and the Plaza was filling up with people, mostly tourists and Indian souvenir vendors, but also about a score of guys in Bandido jackets and their skinny girlfriends, each of ’em sporting a bad shag haircut. A long row of second-story windows in an office building overlooking the length of the square suddenly came to life, lighting up first over here and now down there with rear-projected images of actors reading the words of long-dead pioneers, their amplified voices competing directly with the music and people’s conversations so that every corner of the plaza was buzzing with noise. Every vacation has that one pure moment that justifies the cost and hassle of the whole experience—that moment when the world of hapless jackass cares and woes falls away from your shoulders, when you know no one on the face of the earth can find you for this one second, and your entire body relaxes. This here was that moment, with twilight just slipping into darkness, Venus and a crescent moon shining overhead, and me sitting on one of the square’s wrought-iron benches, smoking a butt with my legs stretched out and my hands clasped behind my head, checking out the band and the German tourists and the nutty woman who was dancing around by herself in front of the amps and the even nuttier kid who tried to join in the merriment by banging his head against a tree. Eventually I drifted a couple of blocks away, to the old De Vargas Hotel. It’s been all spiffed up and goes by a different name today, but in ’73 its style was what might best be called Gothic Colonial, and I spent a night there sprawled across one of its faded old bedspreads reading Faulkner’s “The Bear”—one of the best reading experiences any man will ever have. After that I kept poking around downtown until 11 or so, when I finally found the type of divey little bar I like to do my drinking in. There was a three-man band playing indie rock and their first number was a killer but it was the only decent thing in their set—their other stuff was a bunch of monotonous yowling glop. I didn’t care. I sat back, put away three or four margaritas, and forgot about everything.

Sunday I went down to Old Fort Sumner, where Garrett shot Billy the Kid, and where the Kid lies buried in a common grave with his playmates Charles Bowdre and Tom O’Folliard. (Or Charles Martin Smith and Rudy Wurlitzer, if that makes it easier for you.) Except for the historic plaques nothing’s left of the fort or Pete Maxwell’s house, where the shooting occurred, but I’d totally forgotten that the garrison was stationed there to keep an eye on the 8,000 Navajo who’d been force-marched to their new home from the Canyon de Chelly. Unsurprisingly, I guess, Bosque Redondo is in the one ugly corner of New Mexico that I saw: flat, hot and dusty, with the only available water source—the Pecos—swimming in disease and given to flooding. The road back to Santa Fe goes through Santa Rosa, a ghostly little town that looks like a leftover set from an Irwin Allen movie. It sits on a highway juncture so it does see traffic, just nowhere near enough of it. I have no idea what the hell happened there but it couldn’t have been good; I’ve never seen such a high percentage of closed and abandoned businesses anywhere in the world, and while some of them look like they went down in the recession, most of them look like they’ve been vegetating by the roadside for decades. Whatever the case, the decay and dilapidation were almost spectacularly picturesque: I first noticed it in the ochre motel sitting atop a series of ravaged terraces and a drained swimming pool, and then the package liquor store looking dignified despite the plywood sheets covering its windows and at least a score of gas stations crumbling luxuriously away. Of course, it didn’t hurt anything that Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour was on the air at that moment, or that the show’s theme that day was road songs, or that the particular song playing just then was “Lost Highway”…

My sister and I got along like dykes and dogs. On Monday we drove to Taos and compared a lot of notes about the folks. Since she was the one who stayed in Houston after Dad rematerialized in ’83, she got to tell me what it was my mom said when she laid eyes on him for the first time since he skipped out on her 20 years earlier. Mom came out with a question that sounds prepared as all hell but given the circumstances is still pretty damn funny: “Alan! Where the hell have you been?

he’s your huckleberry

May 12, 2010

This got by me at the time but Glenn Kenny just linked to it over at Some Came Running. It’s a certified jawdropper, with a mangled fact, false assumption, bad faith argument, or reductio ad absurdum anchoring almost every single point of Stephen Metcalf’s argument. He may be a chucklebutt! But I digress. I’m splitting in the morning or I’d conjure up a longer response (I still might do it later on just because I’m one of those deluded simps who sees something more than “excruciating necessities” at work when Ethan Edwards gets his first view of the burning cabin), but anybody who understands why I’d care in the first place can probably fill in the blanks themselves. However, since Metcalf slings the terms around so freely, I’ll just quickly mention how sickly the whole concept of the Fill-in-the-Art-Form “geek/nerd/dork/fanboy” has become. You really want the world to see you as some adenoidal twerp who likes slapping his hands in his own shit and then rubbing it in his hair? Well, then, baby, have at it. It doesn’t really look good on you, though, and you aren’t doing the arts you claim to love any favors either.

“Nightmare Alley” (1947)

May 11, 2010

[I admit it, I’m not going to finish this damn thing, at least not any time soon. I do want to clear the decks, though, so I’m just gonna post what I’ve got and maybe come back to it later. Just forget the rough patches below—it’s really a good movie.]

Before the dork and the nerd came along, there was only the lonely, lowly geek. Unloved, unkempt and undernourished, prideless to the point of wallowing in his own filth, he spent his days biting the heads from live chickens to make paying customers feel better about themselves. “How’s a guy get to be a geek?” a fascinated, and not completely repulsed, Stanton Carlisle asks early on in Edmund Goulding’s Nightmare Alley. The gruff carnival owner answers as best he can, but it’s a literal, A-B-C explanation that doesn’t address the core of Stan’s question. Nightmare Alley is the story of how Stan Carlisle—“The Great Stanton”, as he’ll be known to the world for one brief shining moment—learns the hard way that some people are just made for it.

Nightmare Alley is a specialty number from Hollywood’s Golden Age: it came about only because Tyrone Power, sick of dancing around with swords, scooped up the rights to William Lindsay Gresham’s clammy 1946 novel and told Twentieth Century-Fox that the golden goose had a wish of its own. The finished movie failed to elevate his career as he hoped, but it remains a potent experience today, with a troubling power to call up shadowy, sludge-like feelings. The tale of a young carny worker who rises through the ranks of the mentalist racket, only to have it all come crashing back down on him,  it captures the feeling of lives ready to implode from their own emptiness, and the brash physical odors of canvas and sweat and grain alcohol. Goulding’s deceptively simple direction works hand in glove with Lee Garmes’ photography. Garmes, who captured most of  the iconic views of Marlene Dietrich which you carry around in your head, is especially good here with times of day, such as a pre-dawn truck ride between towns, and the movie’s opening shot—a bored Joan Blondell eyeing the suckers at twilight—is a textbook example of how to quickly establish a complex mood.

Though its story includes both premarital and extramarital sex, and it freely conflates Christianity with spiritualism and psychoanalysis (and finds all of them lacking), Nightmare Alley doesn’t contain any of the taboo-breaking flourishes that Otto Preminger peppered his pictures with. Instead, its rot is worked into the corners of its being, like dirt grooved into the skin around your knuckles. The filthy undershirts, the ashtrays and whiskey bottles littering a bridge-table used for Tarot readings, the hollow buoyancy of a cheap calliope tune that Stan mindlessly whistles wherever he goes—all these things work together to create the feeling that something has burrowed under your skin, and is festering there.

Jules Furthman, who’d already written some of von Sternberg’s and Hawks’ greatest movies, retained much of Gresham’s dialog, and if it doesn’t look like much on the page, it comes fully alive in the mouths of Goulding’s perfect cast. Lines that look like nothing on the page: (“I don’t want you to tell me anyone else’s business”, “Every boy has a dog”, etc.)

Nightmare Alley’s most fully alive character is Zeena’s broken-down husband, Pete. A former vaudeville headliner, he’s become a bottle-a-day rum-dum whom Zeena must cajole into wakefulness before her performances. That’s when he slides himself into the hidden box beneath her stage, and relays to her the questions which the simple-minded rubes believe she’s divining from thin air.

“He looks like a dog just waiting for a bone,” Zeena says of him at one point, and when the camera cuts to Pete sitting on a prop-trunk, that’s exactly what Ian Keith looks like. Keith, a stage actor whose star never caught fire in the movies, looks as if he marinated himself in brine to play the decent, utterly wrecked Pete. [The spiel—“A dog is with him.” “Every boy has a dog.” Breakfast speech.]

Keith’s wasn’t the only sad-sack story to come out of Nightmare Alley. Edmund Goulding never got a shot at another decent script. The frosty, elegant Helen Walker was already in trouble when the movie premiered, thanks to a car wreck that mangled or killed three servicemen riding with her; Nightmare Alley was part of an unsuccessful campaign to put the scandal behind her, and she’d die of cancer at 47. And once the movie had inevitably bombed, Tyrone Power returned to light escapist fare, and for the most part remained there until a heart attack struck him down while shooting a sword-fight with George Sanders.

As for William Lindsay Gresham, well…Gresham, an intellectual vagabond who tried on all the isms of his day, caught the carnival bug listening to an old carny man he met while serving in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in Spain. The argot and the atmosphere hooked him immediately (he’d recycle many of the stories in Monsters of the Midway, a collection of carnival arcana), but his fascination went deeper: like Stanton Carlisle, he could sense his own sordid end in them, to the point of claiming that “Stan” was the true author of his novel. After Nightmare Alley established his reputation, Gresham wrote a loving biography of Houdini (he was friends with James Randi) and a hospital drama, and contributed stories to Fantasy and Esquire. But he drank too much and he abused his wife, the poet Joy Davidman, until she ran away to England, where she’d later marry a tamer brand of mystic: C.S. Lewis. (Their story is told—with saccharine and imprecision—in Richard Attenborough’s Shadowlands.) Not to be slowed down, Gresham married his ex-wife’s cousin, then continued to drink, and continued to decline, until he was diagnosed with tongue cancer. Using an alias he checked into the Dixie Hotel*, the flophouse off Times Square where he’d written Nightmare Alley almost twenty years earlier, and ended it all.

Thanks to a dispute between its producer and studio, Nightmare Alley was out of circulation for decades; I first heard of it in the ’70s, and whoever it was that told me about it made it sound like the creepiest thing to ever come out of Hollywood. Nightmare Alley isn’t quite that, but it is lovely, dark and deep. Even if the seedy musicality of the carnival scenes gives way to a more standard studio feeling, it recovers in its final passages: the moment when Stan’s great scheme falls apart before his eyes, a double-cross in which we see a true master manipulator ply her trade, and the fine scene in which Stan gives a cold reading to a group of hobos, using a whiskey bottle in lieu of a crystal ball.

[Spain Rodriguez spends seven years on graphic novel,  just last month resurrected again, this time as a musical]

* The Dixie Hotel is still around, though it’s known today as the Hotel Carter. Over the years it’s served as a homeless shelter, seen several suicides, and operated as a more or less open brothel. Whatever its name, it couldn’t have been any worse in Gresham’s day, not even if you were sharing his bed on the night he killed himself there. Here’s just a sampling of comments from the incredible 587 people who’ve given the Hotel Carter a “Terrible” rating, helping it earn its designation as “The Dirtiest Hotel in America”:

1) Blood on the Sheets the first day
2) On the second day the whole hotel completely ran out of toilet paper
3) Day 3 still waiting for toilet paper.
4) They never cleaned my room the 6 day i was there
5) I developed rashes form bed bugs

Our revolting room smelled like a homeless guy’s groin.

We came back to the hotel late at night and got attacked /fondled/groped by a drunk man who hopped in the elevator with us as the doors were closing.

We took a look at the uncleaned beds, one had an ice pack with someone’s blood on it and the other bed had no sheets on it.

The brown-stained bed cover and the rat racing in the hall outside had us thinking we’d need medical attention the next day if we stayed.

While waiting in the reception full of impatient and disappointed patrons, a body bag was pulled out of the elevator and news teams were streaming into the lobby.

You can see the pain in the eyes of the guests.

Smash, smash, smash

May 11, 2010

The odd thing is, this turned out to be a sci-fi flick…

Lena Horne

May 10, 2010

Lena Horne is dead, and I’m sorry. I’m even sorrier to admit that I never could enjoy her as much as I wanted to, at least not in her later years, despite her phenomenal voice and otherworldly beauty. As many of her obits are pointing out, Horne received some truly shameful treatment from Hollywood, which initially refused to let her be seen speaking to white characters onscreen and even cut her numbers out of musicals to accommodate the Southern trade. That’s maddening just to think about; I can only imagine what it was like to experience it. But the effect of it seemed to color Horne’s demeanor, to the point where she often appeared tightly wound and only superficially happy—even in the Sixties, when she was a hugely respected star often seen on TV performing to adoring audiences, or in more recent documentaries discussing her experiences. Hearing that voice when it was just coming out of the family stereo was one thing; seeing it with the clenched chin and tight cheeks and flashing eyes was a pricklier and less happy affair. It wouldn’t surprise me if Horne, like Jackie Robinson, was so hurt and infuriated by the indignities that there was no getting ahead of them for good, ever.

God knows for every wrong I can imagine there must’ve been a thousand more. Right now I’m in the middle of Robert E. Burns’ I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang! It’s the source material for the great Paul Muni movie, of course (but with “Georgia” omitted from the title, in another sop to the South), but it’s mostly fascinating for the details which Burns probably never suspected would be interesting to readers 80 years down the road. While preparing for his first escape from the chain gang (yeah, the sumbitch managed to escape twice), he spots “a certain Negro in my group” who could wield a sledgehammer expertly. Burns’ plan was to have his fellow con hammer the sides of his shackles until they became distended enough to slip over his heels, and in describing how the plan came to him he mentions the “Negro”—always using that word—four different times. But then, when he was on the verge of actually approaching the man, he writes, seemingly out of nowhere: “One day in June when the heat was terrific and the guards were half asleep from the humidity, I spoke to this nigger.”

How casual is that? Burns was no Southern boy. He was a New Yorker (so much so that his accent was a giveaway when he was on the run in Georgia) who’d just declined multiple chances to use the word, yet who brings it up at the precise moment he’s about to ask the man for a favor—a life-threatening one at that. And all of this was related in a book originally published by the Vanguard Press—a left-wing publishing house. The scene continues:

“Sam,” I said. “Would you do me a favor?”

“Boss, if I can, I sho’ will,” he replies.

And after Burns has explained his plan:

“Boss, it sho’ is pretty rough, and I ain’t much for hunting trouble, but if I’s can help you, I sho’ will…Boss, if you can keep the shackle from turning, I can hit it right plump.”

This is just delivering the goods. Earlier on, when Burns was being forced into the stickup that would earn him his years, a two-bit gunman is reported as saying “And say, don’t go pulling any tricks or make any squawk, see? I got the rod in my pocket and I’ll plug you if you try anything funny, see?” These lines sound like something that would’ve come out of a Warner Brothers crime flick, not gone into one, right down to that Edward G. Robinson “…see?” at the end of them. But I Am a Fugitive (both book and movie) came out in 1932, only three years after talkies were born and only a year after Little Caesar made Robinson a star. These passages reek of Burns tilting his style to meet his readers’ expectations: the tough-talking gunsel, the helpful but hopeless black man. Readers already expected their gangsters to talk like Cagney and Robinson, formulations like “I’ll plug you if you try anything funny” didn’t ring hollowly in their ears, and if a country “Negro” opened his mouth, he wasn’t likely to have much more on his mind than “If I’s can help you, I sho’ will.” If “nigger” could be used so offhandedly, so completely unnecessarily, to describe a man who’s saving the protagonist’s life in a muckraking book from a progressive publisher, it’s no wonder if Lena Horne took things as hard as it sometimes looked like she did. It’s only a wonder that more of her generation didn’t do the same thing.

“Red Hollywood” (1995)

May 10, 2010

Thom Andersen and Noël Burch’s Red Hollywood employs the same method of visual film criticism that makes up Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself, and which Mark Rappaport used like a jump-rope in Rock Hudson’s Home Movies and From the Journals of Jean Seberg. It’s mainly composed of film clips from scores of movies, only some of which are famous today, selected to explore, bolster or undermine various perceptions about the times and conditions they were made in. In fact, Red Hollywood is more interesting than most of the movies that make up its central subject, which is the produced output of the Hollywood Ten and other Communist filmmakers before the House Un-American Activities Committee began making paper airplanes out of the Constitution. Neither a history of the Ten (it assumes we know enough about that to keep up) nor a lachrymose elegy for the masterworks lost when they were imprisoned for refusing to kowtow to assholes, Red Hollywood  performs the useful step of examining how much of their progressive politics are actually detectable in the pictures they made. (The answer: “Plenty”.) A wide swatch of their work is given a seductively lucid reading even as Andersen and Burch pointedly withhold judgment on the films’ artistic merit. This refusal to play the thumbs-up/thumbs-down game has to be appreciated even if neophytes come away unsure whether Big Jim McLain or Johnny Guitar is the masterpiece of the two, or thinking that Salt of the Earth is any damn good at all. Red Hollywood may not be as continuously rich or nimble as Los Angeles Plays Itself, but God knows it’s lively enough: in addition to the clips, the movie contains latter-day interviews with a loquacious, profanely funny Abraham Polonsky as well as Ayn Rand’s thuddingly literal deconstruction of the wooden Song of Russia.


just briefly

May 7, 2010

I’m a little fried, it’s true. Between work and staying up late every damn night of the week, and various other fiddle-faddling around, I haven’t been good for anything the last few days. My friends Barbara and Brian are getting married tomorrow, plus I’m heading for Arizona and New Mexico next week, and naturally I don’t have clothes fit for either a wedding or 100-degree heat, so there’s been a lot of running hither and yon looking for duds that’d fit Frankenstein if he had a pot-belly. I’ve also been working on what started out as a short post about a particular movie, but it’s taken on a life of its own, also not unlike Frankenstein with a pot-belly, and now I don’t know if I’ll ever finish the damn thing. (I do know you’re probably overthinking things when you get stuck trying to describe why the size of Joan Blondell’s ass is perfect for her role.) All I really feel like doing is going home and pigging out on the stack of Satyajit Ray movies I’ve got stored up there…

So! This is just by way of saying I’ll be back soon. In the meantime, even though I’ve lost all interest in professional sports, I do want to give a shout of encouragement to “Los Suns” (as well as the NBA for backing them up)—that was a decent thing to do.

And now I’m off for a little grooming…

Make It Stop, Part MMMCXLVII

May 4, 2010

“All you need to start an asylum is an empty room and the right kind of people.” – Alexander Bullock

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