Archive for the ‘Hollywood’ Category

“The Mortal Storm” (1940)

August 22, 2012

This somber anti-fascist tale opened 18 months before Pearl Harbor, when American isolationists, both inside and outside the movie industry, were still calling the shots. As the documentary Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust points out, Germany made up 10% of Hollywood’s foreign market, and the studio moguls—all of them Jewish—felt even more threatened by anti-Semitic currents washing through American society at the time. MGM was also the least political of the studios, so it takes something more than Louis B. Mayer’s love of glossy literary adaptations to explain why he okayed a film version of Phyllis Bottome’s novel.

The film begins on the night that Hindenburg appointed Hitler chancellor of Germany in 1933, and goes on to cover the ensuing years, as history bears down like a freight train on two men: a soft-spoken freethinker (James Stewart) who quietly withdraws from society when his lifelong friends plunge headlong into the Nazi madness, and a Jewish professor (Frank Morgan) who is stepfather to an Aryan family that includes two sons of military age. Despite its gassy, unparseable title, The Mortal Storm avoids the stodginess and stridency of so many wartime pictures, thanks largely to its ensemble work—Margaret Sullavan, Robert Young, Robert Stack and Bonita Granville help round out the cast. The Alps may be represented by obvious models and matte shots, but the characters come with detailed histories and an air of having known each other forever. And that’s something different from most films of the era: an acknowledgement that life under Hitler remained a social tapestry. Though real-life counterparts may have been few and far between, it’s important to the movie’s ethos that even the young man who has cruelly turned on his loved ones can feel a shred of self-doubt.

Frank Borzage’s years in silent cinema can be seen in his gliding camera moves (especially during an invigorating ski race),  and in sequences like the one in which Stewart and Sullavan find themselves in a beerhall surrounded by monsters. When the troops break into one of their drinking songs with their arms raised in the fascist salute, the young couple warily rise to their feet with a perfect mixture of apprehension and disbelief on their faces, and the fact that they’re facing the opposite direction of everyone else seems like a poetic gesture rather than a weighted symbol.

It’s not clear when the story takes place other than sometime before the Anschluss in March 1938. In the movie’s world street-beatings and book burnings are common, and the Nazi regime’s attack on rationality is a close match for what we know was going on in those years. And though the Final Solution still lay in the future, and one might think such an apocalypse unimaginable before it occurred, the filmmakers intuited at least something of what was to come in a heart-rending farewell scene. The atmosphere is one of harrowing, mindless violence, widening fear and a deep and growing sorrow.  [A note: despite the fact that Hitler’s name is tossed about along with the swastika and other Nazi trappings, the word “Jew” is never uttered in the film—“non-Aryan” is the term of choice—and the setting is downplayed (though not denied). The Mortal Storm was still potent enough for Germany to ban MGM films after it appeared—a testament to the power of a movie that was being made even as its vast historical events were still unfolding.]

“The Life and Death of 9413: A Hollywood Extra” (1928)

March 16, 2012

The very Mulholland Dr.-ish short by Robert Florey and Slavko Vorkapich. The “Gregg” who did the camerawork was Toland.

It’s amazing how quickly the industry began loathing itself…

Two Ways of Looking at a Rooster

August 2, 2011

The Coen brothers’ True Grit fills me with a lot of different emotions, not least of which is regret for having waited so long to read Charles Portis’ terrific novel. I avoided the story in all its forms when Henry Hathaway’s film version appeared in 1969 (the paperback was ubiquitous then), but the truth is I was in no position to appreciate it. I had your basic longhair’s bias against John Wayne, whose loud certainty about Vietnam placed him in the enemy camp and made him seem a one-dimensional grouch. It didn’t help either on Oscar night when the sentimental favorite Wayne snatched the Best Actor award away from Dustin Hoffman, whose work in Midnight Cowboy had hit this 15-year old like a hurricane.

But Wayne’s halo and caveman politics wouldn’t have mattered so much had he only been making good movies. John Ford’s 1962 The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was a great film, but it was Wayne’s last great film—in fact, it’s arguably his last good one, with 26 pictures still to go. By the time he directed The Alamo in 1960 all of that American manly-man bullshit was clogging his acting arteries, and by the mid-’60s he was specializing in overripe beer-bust entertainments—McClintock!, The War Wagon, The Undefeatedwhose very titles put you to sleep. His characters kept getting louder, broader, less interesting; both the lively amiability and the pointed bitterness of his great films were gone, along with his figure. He spent his screen-time bawling out the characters around him, he could never be wrong about anything that mattered, and even when he was supposed to be happy he was just overbearing. Who in the world wanted to spend two hours with a pot-bellied scoldand with Kim Darby, wearing that haircut? Even the eyepatch seemed like a dodge for an actor who barely bothered to refresh his wardrobe from one movie to the next.

(1963, 1966, 1967, 1969, 1970)

Of course no home video market existed at the time, and repertory houses didn’t screen Wayne’s older movies—the ones that might’ve opened my mind about him—precisely because young audiences couldn’t relate to an ever-stiffening movie star who, like a hero out of Peckinpah, was losing his race against time. (Kael, in her review of El Dorado: “Wayne has a beautiful horse, but when he’s hoisted onto it and you hear the thud you don’t know whether to feel sorrier for man or beast.”) Most of the people I knew were so poisoned against him for cultural reasons that they would have simply denied his charm in Stagecoach and his bewitching watchfulness in They Were Expendable. They certainly wouldn’t have admitted that he showed any guts by visiting Harvard University.

My favorite Wayne performance can be found in Ford’s perfectly rounded Fort Apache. Awakening to her first morning at the fort, Shirley Temple runs out onto her balcony and stares with giddy awe at a parade ground teeming with men and livestock, and the movie gives us a top-to-bottom view of this society, ranging from the officers as they lay out their war-plans against Cochise, to their wives, engaged in the no less serious work of furnishing Temple’s quarters, to the hard-luck troopers mucking out the stables. The story required a foil for the Custer stand-in played by Henry Fonda, and the result—Captain Kirby York—allowed Wayne to air all of his best qualities. York the character and Wayne the actor were both in their prime, able to draw on a veteran’s larder of experience yet young enough to perform their duties with great dash. (Near the movie’s midpoint York and a cavalry sergeant go on a scout of the territory, and their long ride over river and mesa, backed by Richard Hageman’s zesty score, is a celebration of movement through the great outdoors.) York is a study in moderation, virile and decisive without being macho or rash. An ultra-competent soldier, he’s also decent, sensitive to the Indians’ needs and their thinking, and encouraging, even nurturing, to those around him. Wayne gave more powerful performances in his career but he never gave a sunnier one—he warms every scene he’s in. I’d take Captain Kirby York over any action hero of the last 60 years.

With the onset of the New Hollywood, Kirby York gave way to a new rootless protagonist who was guided by a personal and often fungible morality. Jeff Bridges, as unmistakably American in his multivalent way as the monolithic Wayne had been, got his break in The Last Picture Show a mere two years after True Grit appeared, then set to work building a career out of roles which Wayne wouldn’t have touched with a ten-foot pole—assuming, of course, he could have played them in the first place. Losers, stoners, ex-cons, club fighters, army deserters, gunmen, has-beens, deadbeat dads, and even (once) a wife-killer—that was Bridges’ speed. He was morally unfit to serve in any John Wayne movie precisely because he was as wild and anti-authoritarian as the Ringo Kid, except that he stayed that way.

He had a keen eye for parts that suited him, and over the years he rode the crest of changing film tastes in a way that Wayne, James Stewart, and James Cagney couldn’t approach. Fat City, The Last American Hero, Rancho Deluxe, Hearts of the West, Ivan Passer’s gimlet-eyed requiem for American idealism Cutter’s Way, Jagged Edge, American Heart, Fearless (with that pure, time-stopping airplane crash), Wild Bill, The Contender—all of these films are worth seeing for what Jeff Bridges brought to them. He seemed especially drawn to post-Vietnam dropouts, knockabouts and paranoids, a quality which made his eventual casting as Jeffrey Lebowski just that much more fitting. And yet talented and adventurous as he was, he never attained the star voltage of a De Niro or Pacino, perhaps because his insistently heterosexual demeanor was offset by irrepressible ripples of femininity, courtesy of his full lips, a mane of hair that required constant fussing with, and a voice that approached a falsetto when he giggled. (Michael Cimino absolutely tortured this side of Bridges’ image in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, dressing him, for one long scene, in all too convincing drag.)

He was 61 when he took on Rooster Cogburn, a year or two younger than Wayne had been when he assayed the role. Yet where Wayne’s performance is interchangeable with a dozen others in his scrapbook, Bridges’ Rooster is fresher than Adam. Speaking in a half-asleep yowl which I’ve never heard him (or any other actor) use in a picture, he outfitted Cogburn with a series of tossed-off gestures which together add up to a personality: the fathomless hard/soft gaze he aims at LeBouef that quells one of their arguments, the way his finger rises like a compass needle to indicate where “the federal house in Detroit” is, or the way he sprays self-deprecation all over the line “Aw, it’s just a turkey shoot” to tamp down a compliment from Mattie. For the clearest difference between them, listen to the two Roosters react to Mattie’s claim that a frivolous coon hunt has prepared her to chase Tom Chaney through the Indian Territory: Bridges absolutely bays in ridicule while Wayne’s comeback is generic canned corn. Bridges, who knew he was the favorite to win an Oscar for Crazy Heart before True Grit was in the can, didn’t have to go to all this trouble; Wayne, having finally landed a plum part after almost a decade’s worth of losers, couldn’t understand why Kim Darby cared about keeping the tone of the book intact.

In the novel Rooster is only about forty, and Mattie barely alludes to his one sightless eye. The decisions to age him and give him a eyepatch served to particularize him, and the fact that they were conceived for Wayne’s interpretation only makes Bridges’ ability to retain them and still bury the older performance that much more impressive. But Bridges had his advantages. Where Henry Hathaway tried to flatten all meaning, the Coens enlarge things, to the point of filling in physical details—the measured rise of the tree branch when Mattie cuts the hanged man loose, a small apron of dampened pine needles under the water bucket—which give actors and viewers both a toehold onto their fictional worlds. Nothing says more about Hathaway’s lackluster intentions than his pressing the Rocky Mountains into service as Oklahoma or the casting of non-actor Glen Campbell as LeBouef—the worst kind of commercial pandering there is. By contrast Barry Pepper, as Lucky Ned in the Coens’ version, infused an outlaw caught in the wilderness with a synthesis of some of our greatest Western performances.

It’s hard to think of another movie about revenge that takes less pleasure in its accomplishment; even when Mattie pulls the trigger and blows Tom Chaney over a cliff, the movie doesn’t give us time to crow before the gun’s recoil has knocked her into a snake pit. The feeling of regret and missed opportunities that permeates the movie practically enshrouds LeBouef, the vain Texas Ranger played by Matt Damon, who’s pursued Chaney for months and come close to him a single time—only to miss his shot. LeBouef, a peacock in buckskin, is another solitary wanderer, and his sharp campfire exchanges with Rooster pop with emotional firecrackers thanks to the men’s unspoken suspicion that they have wasted their lives. It’s a doubt which throbs throughout LeBouef’s farewell to Maddie, in a beautiful scene invented by the Coens. “The trail is cold, and I am considerably diminished,” he admits to her, though he must struggle to get the last phrase out.

It’s a confession John Wayne could never bring himself to make. I’ve been hard on him here, I know, but nothing I ever say can blunt his image: he was too great, and too many people take it on faith that no modern-day star, not even Eastwood, will ever top the legendary Duke. Fort Apache appeared in 1948, as the curtain was still rising on the Cold War, and while guessing at what-if’s is a sucker’s game, I’d give anything to know what directions Wayne might have gone in if he hadn’t spent World War II making movies in the States. He spent the rest of his life living down that evasion, and without it, just maybe, his movies wouldn’t creak so heavily under the armor of self-righteousness.

The Odd Couple

September 8, 2010

How bad are the Oscars? How about this bad: even when they do something absolutely righteous, they can still turn your stomach. It’s been known for a week or two that the Academy wants to give Jean-Luc Godard one of those honorary Oscar doohickeys, and when the decision was announced it actually hit a soft spot in me, for if there’s one sure bet in this world, it’s that Godard’s feelings about the tinseled, self-congratulatory, power-stroking side of Hollywood are no pose or put-on, but represent a case of unalloyed Pure-D Real McCoy disgust. Surely, the Academy’s decision-makers understood this, too, just as they must also understand that there’s actually a negative percent chance that the 80-year old director would fly all the way to California just to thank a bunch of dozing, half-drunk millionaires.

And yet they did it anyway. Well, bully for them, I thought. I like people who can climb down off their high horse for a good cause, and Hollywood has no better cause than letting the most important director of the last 60 years know that, however much they courted William Friedkin and Clint Eastwood in that time, they’ve always kept one eye on him and his accomplishments. That they’d give this skinny little avant-garde frog the same award that Gish and Chaplin and Bob Fucking Hope all took home, knowing full well what mischief he could wreak with the opportunity should he choose to—well, it all bespoke a bigger, less hidebound Academy than I’m used to seeing. I liked it even better when I heard they’re giving the same award to the film historian Kevin Brownlow, a move showing that someone’s definitely awake at the switch.

As it turns out, though, the train is pulling back into the same old station. There was no risk, no big moment planned after all. The awards for Godard, Brownlow, Eli Wallach, and Francis Coppola are all to be handed out in a separate ceremony in November, three long months before the televised gala that everybody in the world thinks of as “the Oscars”. This would be a pisser even if it affected only Wallach—a Hollywood man if ever there was one, he’s still answering the bell at 94 in The Ghost Writer—but this is the thanks Kevin Brownlow gets? That freaking Godard gets? Well—fine, then. To paraphrase another bunch of undervalued losers, “You can take your trophy and shove it straight up your ass.”

Just to prove I’m not a hard-hearted man, here’s some news that’s a little more encouraging to the human spirit, the obituary for Deputy Inspector Seymour Pine, passed away age 91:

In 2004, Inspector Pine spoke during a discussion of the Stonewall uprising at the New York Historical Society. At the time of the raid, he said, the police “certainly were prejudiced” against gays, “but had no idea about what gay people were about”….When someone in the audience said Inspector Pine should apologize for the raid, he did.

The context of that apology gets fuller airing in this account, which also contains Pine’s classic line: “If I had known that Judy had died at that point, I wouldn’t have had the raid.”

Paint It Black

August 14, 2010

When I was 24 or 25 the woman I was living with dumped me and started seeing other men, and it sent me spinning out of control. For six or eight months there, I did every stupid thing under the sun and then some, and I made it through those days without any life-changing fuck-ups—for me or for anybody else—through pure dumb luck. But the frame of mind I was in back then never did evaporate completely. It only takes the crumb from a madeleine—a song, a situation—to bring back the anger and smallness and pain, and I can’t help but feel for anyone who ever goes through the process. I didn’t come close to stalking or hurting my ex (basically, I took my shit out on everybody around me except her), but when I hear about the TRO type of guys, even the violent ones, I simply can’t write them off as the social garbage that law-and-order nuts and women’s rights groups insist they are. Some of it’s a “There but for the grace of God…” thing, but I also know they’re just trying to obliterate the pain, and that they don’t want to be this way either.

Jealousy and the indignities of being left behind make for great film subjects because shitfits and degradation look so good to the camera’s eye: Emil Jannings humiliating himself in chicken feathers for Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel; Edward G. Robinson tormented by the sound of Joan Bennett’s voice calling another man’s name in Scarlet Street; Albert Finney driving a one-man Indy 500 all over Diane Keaton’s brand-new tennis court in Shoot the Moon. The titles alone—Raging Bull, Blood Simple, Love Me or Leave Me, Smash Palace, Contempt, Bitter Moon, In a Lonely Place—are emblems of bitterness, alienation and violence, while even comedies on the subject can’t resist coloring what happens when Aphrodite uses your brain as her pincushion.

And they keep tumbling down the chute. Malcolm Venville’s hard-to-pigeonhole 44 Inch Chest opens with a closeup of its hero lying flat on his back, sweaty hair pasted to his forehead, and surrounded by the shards of a room which he’s just finished demolishing. It’s a signature view of the primal, endlessly battered Ray Winstone, who’s embodied just about every form of moral depravity there is—hooligan, drunkard, daughter-rapist, mankiller—while keeping his inner yuck alive in fresh and interesting ways.

44 Inch Chest finds him hitting bottom again, this time as the car salesman Colin Diamond. Colin has just learned that the wife he adores (Joanne Whalley, looking better than ever) has been cuckolding him with a studly young French waiter, and in his distress he turns to his mates, a circle of friends played by Ian McShane, Tom Wilkinson, John Hurt, and Stephen Dillane—casting decisions which clue us in that this support group won’t be telling Colin to use his words. After hearing the news, the quartet brazenly snatches the Frenchman and delivers him to an abandoned house where Colin—and, vicariously, his friends—will take their revenge on him. With “Loverboy” now safely trussed to a chair, Wilkinson helpfully explains the situation to him: “You should have got your own fucking wife to fuck.”

The role of Colin was written specifically for Winstone by Louis Mellis and David Scinto, the duo who created the great part of “Gal” for him in Sexy Beast, and the two movies have the same staccato volubility, the same fierce contest between jokes, asides, argot and belligerence. Set mainly in a gutted room dressed in mustardy tones of decay, the film plays out over a long, talk-filled night, as Colin searches himself for an answer potent enough to satisfy the codes and imperatives of his gender as represented by his friends, a spectrum of masculinity ranging from McShane’s wanly hilarious gay gambler to Hurt’s perpetually outraged aging gangster. 44 Inch Chest boasts yet another of Angelo Badalamenti’s haunting scores, and it freely dips into both surrealism and straightforward theatricality. By the end of it we can see the glimmers of a better world, one in which even the most scarred among us can find a way to hold his head upright.

Nothing says more about how drastically the movie industry has changed than the fact that in the year 1964 Columbia Pictures gave an unlimited budget to a French director for a foreign language film about marital infidelity. This came about for a number of reasons. Columbia had just tried the same strategy with a black comedy about the threat of nuclear annihilation, and Stanley Kubrick had come back with Dr. Strangelove. European cinema, and French cinema in particular, was big at the time. And Henri-Georges Clouzot was a prestigious and reputable director.

Clouzot’s script for L’enfer was about a pair of newlyweds—Serge Reggiani and Romy Schneider—and the husband’s growing (but wrongheaded) suspicion that his wife is being unfaithful to him. Clouzot is often called the French Hitchcock, and besides bringing awesome levels of craftsmanship to their suspense films, the two men favored linear storylines that were almost too generic for the good of their reputations. By the time of L’enfer, Clouzot, having taken to heart the work of avant-garde painters and musicians, wanted to try something radical—and here was Columbia Pictures, with all that money. He envisioned L’enfer as two movies harnessed together: a series of black and white segments offering a conventional external look at the marriage and, intercut with it, Marcel’s hallucinations about Odette and her trysts, which were to be shot like a fever dream.

The shoot turned out to be a debacle. The production team spent weeks on expensive lighting tests for the dream sequences. Location shooting followed a quixotic, whimsical schedule as Clouzot demanded retake after retake of shots that depended on impossible timing schemes. He hired three camera teams, each of them stacked with first-rate talent, which he planned to use in a staggered fashion; however, when he kept getting caught up on the shot in front of him, the other two teams could only cool their heels. And though the manmade lake he was shooting on was scheduled to be drained within days, he insisted on reshooting scenes he already had in the can while leaving others to die on the vine. Reggiani grew uncooperative, then disappeared from the set; while searching for his replacement, Clouzot suffered a heart attack and the production was shut down.

The 13 hours of footage that survived the experience—some of it silly but much of it extraordinary—came to light only because the French filmmaker Serge Bromberg found himself trapped in an elevator with Clouzot’s widow one night. Bromberg has used it to create both an approximation of Clouzot’s film and an account of its making, under the doubly accurate title Henri-Georges Clouzot’s ‘Inferno’. It’s an incredibly seductive work, at once sensual, saddening and maddening. All that redundant, futile footage suggests that Clouzot, like Coppola on the set of Apocalypse Now, could never find the crucial handle on his material, but Bromberg has assembled it into something well worth seeing.

And thanks to Jonathan Rosenbaum, I just saw Peter Bogdanovich’s The Cat’s Meow, a what-if retelling of the 1924 party on William Randolph Hearst’s yacht that ended with the mysterious death of the director-producer Thomas H. Ince.  Because Ince’s body was cremated before an autopsy could be performed, the rumors wouldn’t go away that Hearst had shot Ince, but by mistake; his true target, supposedly, was Charlie Chaplin, with whom Marion Davies, Hearst’s mistress, was thought to be having an affair. Kirsten Dunst as Davies and Edward Herrmann, who has Hearst’s trapezoidal jowliness, give a pair of the most convincing historical portrayals I’ve seen; I completely accepted that this was how those people acted, or could have acted, over that weekend. Dunst, only 19 at the time, is particularly good, not just at playing a woman eight years older than her actual self, but at conveying the spirit of Davies’ character as it’s filtered down to us over the years. The movie may look like a cheaper version of Gosford Park but it’s good from beginning to end, and it’s at its best in its melancholy final half hour, after the shooting has occurred, when an entire social circle can be seen sinking into collective shock.

The screenwriter Steven Peros gives us something we’re not really prepared for: a William Randolph Hearst with emotional context. “Willy,” as Marion calls him, may do monstrous things, but he’s clearly no monster: if anything, he wears his humanity like a yoke. His emotional tyranny is but a poor disguise for his neediness, making it easy to understand his agony when he spots Davies and Chaplin exchanging a loving gaze, and his horror when Chaplin jokingly announces to the roaring-with-laughter guests, “I give you Marion Davies—the New Tramp!” Peros, Bogdanovich and his cast treat these characters—or people, rather—with a decency rare for historical dramas, especially one revolving around such grotty affairs.

Bogdanovich, of course, has seen the other side of the coin. Bob Fosse’s Star 80 focused on Paul Snider, a penny-ante Hefner wannabe who killed his estranged wife, Playboy Playmate Dorothy Stratten, and himself, after she and Bogdanovich fell in love on a movie location. Fosse goosed up Snider and Stratten’s tragedy with the same facile gimmicks—time-jumps, shock cuts, varying film stocks, portentous-ironic fake interviews—that he’d ladled onto poor Lenny Bruce’s head a few years earlier, just to ramrod home his inflammatory and untested ideas about life in a materialistic, sexually loose America.

There may well be some worthwhile takeaway from Paul Snider’s story—who knows, it might’ve even been king of the jealous man genre—but Fosse never bothered to seek it out, and as a result Star 80 is a posturing, hypocritically lurid work, condescending to its characters and audience alike, and 180 degrees away from the respect Bogdanovich paid to his material. The Cat’s Meow ends by echoing one of the great closing shots in all of cinema—the last shot from The Rules of the Game—in a way that’s both earned and poetic in its own right. Scott Fitzgerald himself might have applauded the gentle way these children of the Charleston, power, and far too much money are ushered off the stage and into the history books.

Bogdanovich hasn’t directed a theatrical feature since The Cat’s Meow came out in 2001; in a sick joke whose origins I don’t want to think about, his next credit, three years later, was a TV movie about Natalie Wood’s drowning. I’ve given the man a lot of grief in my time but The Cat’s Meow makes up for a lot of things. If nothing else, it contains the fragrant moment when a flustered Hearst stammers out the blinkered Desiderata of needy men everywhere: “I do not ask much, but the little that I do ask, I must be respected. I don’t say this as a threat. It’s just a wish I have as a man.”

The Morning After

March 8, 2010

Who’d a-thunk that when the heat’s turned on, Kathryn Bigelow would look like roadkill on legs while Sandra Bullock would turn into Lincoln at Gettysburg? Anyway, I’m basically happy for Bigelow, if only because I’ll forever prefer the scale of films like The Hurt Locker to that of Avatar, and without a real dog in the race I was glad to see another bugaboo knocked down if only to make people stop talking about it.

But the fact that a woman has finally won the director’s Oscar is mostly a statistical nugget, even if it was shamefully late in coming. Bigelow’s chances weren’t hurt by her film’s choppy, ADD-inflected camerawork and editing, a style that’s basically interchangeable with that of its fellow Best Picture nominee District 9, not to mention most of NBC’s Thursday night lineup. Mostly, though, she was given a leg up by her approach and subject matter: an apolitical, shallowly existential look at what’s probably the most hair-raising job in our armed forces. To put it as lightly as possible, it’s not a subject requiring a woman’s touch per se, and in no case is The Hurt Locker what you’d call a “personal” film unless you’re talking about the personality of a drum machine. (I don’t see how even Bigelow’s biggest fans could detect her hand in the proceedings without being clued in beforehand.) Unless you’re really that glad that the human who won happens to come with a pair of ovaries, it’s a breakthrough in name only. The day the Academy gives the nod to a film that feels like it really came from a woman—like some of Varda’s films, or even certain parts of Fast Times at Ridgemont High—and picks it over the CGI blockbuster and the relevant action flick which might’ve come from any of a hundred male directors—well, then we’ll be getting somewhere.

That isn’t to say the night was without its pleasures…

Beginnings & an Ending

December 18, 2009

I’m happy to report that Humphrey Bogart’s last movie The Harder They Fall is a worthy farewell for the man who breathed life into Sam Spade and Fred C. Dobbs. In it Bogart plays a retired boxing writer who’s hired by racketeer/promoter Rod Steiger to handle P.R. for an Argentinian behemoth who looks like he could punch a brick wall into sand. There’s only a couple of snags: the “sensation” has the brains of a backward five-year old, he can’t punch, and he has a glass jaw. No problem. Bogie and Steiger put the fix in over a series of fights leading up to a title shot in the Garden, but Bogie’s conscience keeps needling him as Steiger grows more and more ruthless in his pursuit of the payday. Unlike, say, The Misfits or The Shootist, it’s a fitting swan song for a great actor, and as a character Eddie Willis doesn’t wilt even when he’s put up next to Dixon Steele of In a Lonely Place. It helps that Budd Schulberg wrote the novel it’s based on—the movie’s loaded with inside lore about the boxing world, and an unsweetened Max Baer and Jersey Joe Walcott are around to give the room some odor. It’s only incidentally structured as an exposé, missing the self-conscious do-gooder hit of A Face in the Crowd until it’s too late to infect anything, and its world of shiny suits, fast-talking hoods, and dolled-up hookers is of a piece with the sleek fragrant nightworld of Sweet Smell of Success.

I wanted to see it because it was Bogart’s last picture, but also because it was directed by Mark Robson. It will be remembered that Val Lewton got his shot at producing movies in the wake of the troubles brought on RKO by Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons. After Welles had nearly busted the studio, a new production chief was brought in and a pointed new slogan—“Showmanship, Not Genius”—was adopted. The suits looked around and saw the bucks that Universal was raking in from its pictures starring the Wolfman and Dracula, and thought “Hm!”; accordingly, Lewton was plucked from the pack and given a B unit that was to make a series of down and dirty horror movies for $150,000 each. (He’d broken into pictures as an assistant to David O. Selznick after impressing a studio honcho at a party. When the honcho had asked a mutual friend what Lewton did for a living, the man had said, “He writes horrible novels.” The honcho misheard this as “He writes horror novels” and a career was born.) The studio would supply Lewton with the lurid titles he was to use—“Cat People,” “I Walked With a Zombie,” “The Ghost Ship”—some of which were bought, some of which were made up; after that, Lewton and his team were given carte blanche to concoct stories fitting the titles. What RKO didn’t reckon on was that Lewton would give them a string of movies which disdained special-effects and ghastly monster makeup in favor of perils that remained hidden from sight thanks to the judicious placement of the darkest shadows you’ve ever seen, aurally sophisticated films which sometimes bore a whimsical literary gloss, and which were more brooding, more quietly obsessive, than they were conventionally “scary”. For The Curse of the Cat People the studio’s P.R. department beckoned theater managers to paste panther paw prints bearing menacing slogans around town; in the meantime Lewton was turning out a poetic fable about a lonely little girl, shot with enough flair and sensitivity to make it a fitting second bill for The Night of the Hunter.

Jacques Tourneur had directed Lewton’s first picture, Cat People, which was so successful it almost singlehandedly saved the studio; for their efforts, Tourneur was kicked upstairs to A pictures and Lewton was told to keep churning out his little horror flicks. Needing a director Lewton’s eye fell on two men in his editing room, Mark Robson and Robert Wise, who earlier in his career had cut Citizen Kane and then assisted in the studio’s infamous recut of Ambersons. Both men would end up making some dreadful pictures—West Side Story, The Sound of Music, The Hindenburg, Earthquake, like that—but before then they’d each turn in some solid work, Wise with The Day the Earth Stood Still, Born to Kill, and Odds Against Tomorrow, as well as the Lewtonesque The Haunting. (He’d also been the director of record for The Curse of the Cat People.) Meanwhile, Mark Robson turned out five pictures under Lewton, all of them winners, including the delightful Bedlam with Boris Karloff. After watching The Harder They Fall tonight, I’ll forgive him for anything, even Happy Birthday, Wanda June. And Humphrey Bogart? He doesn’t need forgiving at all.

I give you…

November 23, 2009

…the cast of Rod Lurie’s remake of Straw Dogs:

You Said It

November 8, 2009

Man, today’s NYT story about Roland Emmerich is full of quotable quotes:

“This is my last, quote-unquote, action-disaster movie,” Mr. Emmerich…said in a telephone interview from his home in London. “I know I can’t destroy the world again. That would be kind of a joke.”

“You know what you’re getting when Roland Emmerich calls,” said Amanda Peet….“You’re not going to be like, ‘Can we go into my childhood in this?’”

Not lost on Mr. Emmerich was the potential outrage from showing realistic disasters…Still, he pressed ahead with annihilation as usual: “If I cannot destroy a big high-rise anymore, because terrorists blew up two of the most famous ones, the twin towers, what does this say about our world?”

He razed Rio de Janeiro; Rome; California; Washington, D.C.; Tibet; Las Vegas; Yellowstone National Park; and more but decided against destroying Islamic symbols. “My co-writer, Harald” Kloser, “said, ‘I’m not writing this to get a fatwa on my head,’” Mr. Emmerich said. “We have Jesus falling apart in all kinds of forms…”

“I think we have become more and more pessimistic about the future,” he said. “I see it in myself. In ‘Independence Day’ the world was something worth defending. In ‘Day After Tomorrow,’ the message was, ‘We’ll go down if we don’t stop what we’re doing,’ and in ‘2012,’ ‘We’re going down no matter what.’”

Enter the ancient Maya, the bogeymen of “2012,” who some believe predicted the world’s demise as falling on December 21, 2012. They’re only a minor reference point in the film, but they’re all over posters and trailers…“It is not the end of the calendar, by any stretch of the imagination, and the Maya never said anything of the sort,” Dr. David Stuart, a professor in the art and art history department at the University of Texas at Austin, who has studied the Maya since he was a teenager, said in a phone interview….Dr. Stuart said he expected to be dealing with Mr. Emmerich’s misuse of Maya history for his whole career.

Roman & the Know-It-Alls

October 12, 2009

At a key point of the movie Chinatown the main villain, Noah Cross, a man who’s raped both the land and his own daughter, gives private investigator Jake Gittes a classic piece of advice: “You may think you know what you’re dealing with, but believe me, you don’t.” That’s a humbling bit of wisdom even when it’s coming from a monster, yet the Roman Polanski case is dredging up memories of both the O.J. trial and Monicagate for the tsunami of shrill certainty that it’s generated. Every four years the Winter Olympics come along and our co-workers become overnight experts on the Triple Lutz, and whenever one of these celebrity morals cases comes down the pike, we suddenly become authorities on events we didn’t witness involving people we never met.

If there’s anyone who I’m happier not to be than Polanski right now, it’s Anne Applebaum, the Washington Post columnist who’s spent much of the last two weeks taking it on the chin for her blog posts defending the director after his arrest in Switzerland. The first one, published under a headline that reads like a kick-me sign—“The Outrageous Arrest of Roman Polanski”—was greeted by a shit-storm of jeering mockery, and that was the polite response. Most of Applebaum’s readers contented themselves with draping giant Day-Glo arrows and smiley-faces around the weak points in her post (it was, as they say, a target-rich environment), but a number of them walked out to the point of wishing that Applebaum—or even her daughter—might receive some moral tutelage in the form of being raped. Applebaum fired back with a spectacularly counterproductive second post whose mealy-mouthed rationalizations of her first post only gave rise to another round of cat-calls and ill wishes. The blog Lawyers, Guns and Money, meanwhile, zeroed in on the factual shortcomings in her arguments, torching each of them in turn and burning them to the ground.

Elsewhere in the Polanski Thunderdome, Salon followed up their earlier takedown of the pro-Polanski documentary Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired with a white-hot Kate Harding article under the unsubtle headline Reminder: Roman Polanski Raped a Child. Whoopi Goldberg unhelpfully offered the idea that Polanski hadn’t committed “rape rape,” Woody Allen unhelpfully signed the pro-Polanski petition, and the rightwing unhelpfully did what it always unhelpfully does: it tried to turn the whole issue into the Antietam of the Culture Wars, except that this time they had a point. Finally, Cokie Roberts, a woman who’s probably thought about Polanski for all of twenty seconds in the last thirty years, but who knows red meat when she sees it, reacted to the sound of his name by suggesting out loud that we “just take him out and shoot him.” Her graceless laughter after her quip didn’t make her look any less inhuman.

The folks who want to string Polanski up alternate between around-the-clock all-caps outrage and wallowing in the pornographic details of the photo shoot on Jack Nicholson’s deck, while his defenders act like frightened octopi, squirting ink in every direction as they dart backwards from the case’s central facts. One side wants to only discuss what happened on a single afternoon 32 years ago; the other side wants to talk about everything except that day. Yet both sides exhibit a breathtaking amount of moral certainty for a case that’s riddled with U-turns and unique circumstances, the most recent being a former D.A.’s astonishing announcement that he lied in the documentary about a critical discussion. The end result is that neither the straightforward nor the complicated elements of the case can give anybody pause because everyone’s having too good a time Being Right, like a dog rolling in its own crap. The Polanski haters think that yelling HE RAPED A LITTLE GIRL should trump everything, even when his victim just wants everyone to get over it already; meanwhile, his defenders never tire of reminding us that PEOPLE GET AWAY WITH MUCH, MUCH WORSE STUFF EVERY DAY. The idea that Dick Cheney—the closest thing to a living, breathing Noah Cross we’re ever likely to see—will never do the perp walk is a galling thing indeed, but that has fuck-all to do with Roman Polanski.

So much of the debate has focused on whether Polanski should have been arrested it’s obscured the fact that he has been arrested—and so where do we go from here? Do Applebaum, Goldberg & Co. really believe he should just be given a handshake and turned out on the street? I have to say, my own feelings on the subject have moved a great deal in the last week or so, largely for the same reason I think it was wrong of Bill Clinton to lie in his deposition no matter how rigged it was. It’s pretty clear that Polanski’s arrest resulted from a series of events—the documentary, the motion to dismiss—which the L.A. District Attorney’s Office looked on as nose-thumbing dares to bust him, but now that he’s in custody I don’t see a viable alternative to extraditing him. He had his reasons for fleeing, sure, but all felons have their reasons, and usually without the chance of getting off with a 90-day sentence. At this point it’s all come down to one of those baseline “What do we expect of our society?” questions, such as “Is it okay for a president to lie under oath?” It doesn’t matter how you get there; once you’re there, things have to go a certain way or you need to junk the system altogether. America’s criminal justice system is wonky precisely because its scales are so perpetually out of balance; letting a 30-year fugitive (and confessed rapist) off the hook isn’t the way to address the fact that the L.A. justice department has some shitheads in it. In fact, letting him go wouldn’t address it at all.

But that’s just me. Chinatown remains a great film—we still agree on that much, don’t we?—because it’s the truest, coldest picture there is about the world’s failure to live up to our ideals. No happy endings awaited Jake Gittes despite his best intentions, and the likeliest outcome facing Roman Polanski can’t help but leave a bitter taste in my mouth. My best guess is that he’s headed to prison, quite possibly for the rest of his life. You’re soft in the head if you think he didn’t bring it on himself, but if seeing a great artist come to such a tawdry end makes you want to whoop and crow, I don’t know what to tell you—it’s probably not anything good, though. Beyond that I’m not hazarding any guesses. That way lies Chinatown.

Roman Polanski Romans Circus

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