November 7, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner

After three seasons of Amazon Prime’s The Man In the High Castle, I have parallel worlds on the brain. Walking in the city last week, I was acutely aware of the dual realities of the Manhattan of memory and Manhattan 2018. While most people in the midtown crowds were seeing what was there, I was seeing what was no longer there.  more

October 31, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner

Too bad Rory Kinnear can’t join the other Frankenreaders at Chancellor Green for tonight’s bicentenary Halloween celebration of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. For me the finest hour of Showtime’s Penny Dreadful was Kinnear’s portrayal of the Creature, who finds his soul in poetry and names himself after the “outcast” English poet John Clare. As the show’s executive producer John Logan put it in the Sunday New York Times, “I wanted to bring the Creature back to Mary Shelley because it has been so badly used over the years in movies.”  more

September 12, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner

We are stardust

We are golden

And we have to get ourselves

Back to the garden

I’m not a big Joni Mitchell fan. She never moved me the way Kate Bush does when she becomes the spirit of Cathy singing outside Heathcliff’s window in “Wuthering Heights” or the spirit of Emily Brontë herself in all her untapped wildness when she makes albums like The Dreaming and Hounds of Love. But those lines from Mitchell’s “Woodstock” not only capture the best spirit of the Sixties, they speak to the here and now of Princeton in September 2018, where we have a Garden to get back to, and on Hollywood Nights it’s not just a refuge from the breaking-news madness of our time, it’s an escape route to the days when a B-movie gangster became Humphrey Bogart. My wife and I took our time getting to the Garden to see Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place (1950), one of the lesser known Bogarts. But Bogart is Bogart, the house was packed, and we were lucky to find seats together. more

August 8, 2018

How fearful/And dizzy ‘tis, to cast one’s eyes so low!

—Shakespeare, from King Lear

By Stuart Mitchner

It’s primal stuff, the fear of falling, the horror of being suspended in space, left hanging, the vicarious sensation of feeling the fall the way the Duke of Gloucester does as he falls without falling from the “dread summit … the crown ‘o the cliff” in Act 4, scene 6 of King Lear.

Edgar simulates the experience for his blind father, combining force of will with Shakespeare’s language the way a film director manipulates a submissive viewer, taking advantage of that age-old perceptual Open Sesame “the willing suspension of disbelief.”

Flash forward four and a half centuries and vast audiences are willingly giving themselves up to the cliffhanger dynamic of series television bequeathed by Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980), who crafted classic manifestations of that primal fear, most famously in Vertigo (1958), which opens with Princeton alum Jimmy Stewart ‘32 hanging from a San Francisco rooftop and ends as the mystery woman played by Kim Novak falls to her death from the San Juan Bautista bell tower.  more

June 6, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner

As soon as news of the Normandy invasion reached the office of baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the games scheduled for June 6, 1944 were cancelled. According to mlb.com, such a thing had happened only once before, on the day President Warren G. Harding died on August 2, 1923. Go figure: this is the man who until recently was considered by many to be the worst American president. And did you know that future Yankee Hall of Famer Yogi Berra was a Seaman Second class in a rocket boat stationed off the coast of Normandy on D-Day providing fire support for the invasion? Interviewed by Keith Olbermann on June 6, 2004, Yogi recalled, “Well, being a young guy [he had just turned 19], I thought it was like the Fourth of July, to tell you the truth. I said, ‘Boy, it looks pretty, all the planes coming over.’ And I was looking out and my officer said, ‘you better get your head down in here, if you want it on.’” more

May 16, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner

It’s too soon to write at length about A Village in France (Un village français) a television series available on Hulu that at this writing, after five outstanding seasons, belongs in the company of The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, Breaking Bad, and Game of Thrones.

When a series is this unique and engaging, powerful and true, it renews your interest in the nation that for two intense weeks has been at the center of your viewing life. You want to know more about the German occupation and the Resistance. You want to go back to films like Grand Illusion and Army of Shadows, directors such as Jean Renoir and Jean-Pierre Melville, writers like Albert Camus and composers like Claude Debussy, who died 100 years ago, March 25, 1918, the last year of the Great War.  more

April 4, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner

If the seismic impact of the deaths of film stars could be measured, Jeanne Moreau’s might have scored a 7 or 8 on the Richter scale last August. Not so the death last week of Stéphane Audran, at least not in this country, where she is best known as the title character in Babette’s Feast (1987). Her stature in France was such that her passing was announced by the culture minister. Moreau’s was announced by President Macron.  more

March 7, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner

In one film the lovers are a mute cleaning woman and an aquatic creature in a top-secret government research facility in Baltimore; in the other, they’re a young, socially retarded quality control inspector and an aging financial director at a slaughterhouse in Budapest. In the first, the lovers communicate by sign language; in the second they dream the same dreams. Which plot is the more improbable? Put another way, which requires a more willing suspension of disbelief? That a lonely mute cleaning woman finds love with a humanoid amphibian god who glows in the dark or that an autistic meat inspector finds it with a man who has a withered arm?  more

January 17, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner

In his 1915-1936 prime, Charlie Chaplin, who died 40 years ago this past Christmas, wasn’t just the most celebrated film personality of his time, he was an international icon. With his derby, his mustache, his baggy pants, and his cane, the Tramp became a secular deity; the sainted spirit of laughter; comedy and humanity incarnate. He was also exposed to a tabloid-driven version of the Hollywood dynamic of sex and power that surfaced last fall with the Harvey Weinstein revelations.  more

January 10, 2018

What shocks the virtuous Philosopher delights the chameleon poet. — John Keats

By Stuart Mitchner

Richard Starkey and Paul Muldoon have a rendezvous with the Queen. Some time in the new year, the Beatles’ drummer Ringo Starr will be knighted by Elizabeth II and the Princeton professor will receive the Queen’s Gold Medal for poetry.

Perhaps it’s too much to expect Her Majesty to dub the Beatle “Sir Ringo,” a pairing of extremes that would surely delight the chameleon poet being honored for his “restless, playful brilliance.”  more

December 27, 2017

By Stuart Mitchner

Some years before Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) became as cherished a Christmas tradition as Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, film-buff friends of mine smirked when I dared to suggest that it was a great movie. Admittedly, it beggared belief that anyone could be as noble as James Stewart’s good banker George Bailey or as evil as Lionel Barrymore’s bad banker Mr. Potter. What really made the cynics sneer was that the whole enterprise depended on a tipsy angel named Clarence (Henry Travers), who offers homilies like “Each man’s life touches so many other lives” as he gives a suicidal George Bailey a tour of Pottersville, the mean-spirited, lawless nightmare his town Bedford Falls would have become had he never existed. more

December 20, 2017

By Stuart Mitchner

When Doug Jones beat Roy Moore in Alabama’s special election last week, viewers who had lived and died, thrilled and chilled, yawned and dreamed through all 18 episodes of Twin Peaks: The Return felt a transcendental connection to the happy outcome. If we were smiling it was not only because a principled man defeated a scoundrel, it was knowing that a miracle was in the stars even before the allegations against Moore saturated the news. Given the power of the narratives and counter narratives circulating on television and the internet, we knew the impossible was possible.  more

October 25, 2017

By Stuart Mitchner

Writing about Twin Peaks in May of 2014, I made special mention of Angelo Badalamenti’s score, how from the first note, the mood created by his music is warm, mellow, musing, inviting, dreamily beautiful, with a subtle undercurrent of menace and dread that comes into play whenever the scene shifts to the interior of Laura Palmer’s home. Above all the music is about Laura Palmer, whose murder is what sets the machinery of the Twin Peaks project in motion with the simplistic but effective tag-line Who killed Laura Palmer? and the answer delivered toward the end of the series’ second season: her father.  more

October 11, 2017

By Stuart Mitchner

Movie actors are not always the most quotable beings. The value of their words depends not on substance or style so much as gossip potential, career-advancement, otherwise known as the publicity quotient. Then you have one-of-a-kind people like Robert Mitchum, who was born 100 years ago, August 6, 1917. Unless Mitchum has a ghostwriter named Hemingway slipping him gems, what he says fits perfectly with the big man dwarfing the screen at the Garden two summers ago in Out of the Past. Anyone who has seen Mitchum in that film or in other RKO noirs like Where Danger Lives will recognize him in these words — “Listen. I got three expressions: looking left, looking right, and looking straight ahead.” I hope Hemingway read that line before he died.  more

September 27, 2017

By Stuart Mitchner

Fifty years ago this week at EMI’s Abbey Road studios, the Beatles were recording John Lennon’s “I Am the Walrus,” a rock and roll tour de force unlike anything in popular music before it, including other Beatles pinnacles like “Tomorrow Never Knows,” “A Day in the Life” and “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Lennon has claimed on numerous occasions that the bizarre, unabashedly nonsensical lyrics were written to baffle listeners looking for hidden meanings, including in particular the English teacher at Lennon’s old school whose class was studying Beatles lyrics.  more

September 20, 2017

By Stuart Mitchner

When my wife and I checked into the Library Hotel in New York eight years ago, we were installed in the Paranormal Room. We didn’t ask for the Paranormal Room. If we’d known about the hotel’s subject area concept, we might have requested a room on the 7th floor (the Arts) or the 8th (Literature). Even so, we were okay with being in room 11.05 on the 9th floor (Philosophy), though neither of us has ever been seriously into fantasy, science fiction, or the occult unless you count teenage readings of Ray Bradbury, a few seasons of Star Trek, and a brief fling with Carlos Castaneda (a copy of The Art of Dreaming was on the bedside table, along with volumes on ghosts, ESP, and UFOs).  more

August 23, 2017

The first time my wife and I saw Bonnie and Clyde, the gunfire-driven dance of death at the end left us limp, wiped out, we couldn’t move. We’d been married less than a year. For a couple destined to see thousands of films together over the next 50 years, it was a defining moment. If one of us had started to get right up and leave as if it had been “just another movie” or if one of us had raved about it only to be greeted by a blank look, it wouldn’t have augured well for the future of the marriage. more

August 9, 2017

Jeanne Moreau and Sam Shepard died in the same week, the playwright at 73 on July 27, the actress at 89 on July 31. Their obituaries were paired in the pages of the New York Times and Antonio Banderas posted their photographs side by side with his message on the Los Angeles Times remembrance blog: “thank you for enlightening us at 24 frames per second.”

In 2001 when Moreau was 73 she told the Times: “The cliché is that life is a mountain. You go up, reach the top and then go down. To me, life is going up until you are burned by flames.”  more

June 28, 2017

The best time of all was Monterey. It was one of the highest points of my life.

—Janis Joplin (1943-1970)

“Everyone thought the Beatles were at Monterey in disguise,” said Derek Taylor, the group’s close friend and onetime press officer. “Three of the four, no one knew which three. But they were there. Well, they were and they weren’t.”

It didn’t matter that the Beatles were in England that mid-June weekend 50 years ago. People wanted to believe they were at the festival, so they were, and if any entity on the planet could be two places at once in the summer of 1967 it was the creators of Sgt. Pepper, which had come out on the first day of June, like a preface to the glory of Monterey Pop. Plus, Paul McCartney was on the festival’s Board of Governors and George Harrison’s “Within You, Without You” was spreading the life-flows-on mantra through speakers all over the fairgrounds.  more

June 7, 2017

Thinking, writing, talking constantly about the poem as a way of life …. —William Carlos Williams, from  The Autobiography

Imagine pitching this idea to a Hollywood producer: “It’s a film about a week in the life of a New Jersey bus driver who writes poetry, he’s living with a lovely woman and her English bulldog and when he goes out at night to walk the dog, he stops by a bar and has a few beers.” Long pause. The producer is waiting to hear when does the guy hold up the bar or turn out to be a serial killer who leaves poems attached to his victims, or at least, when does the girl get raped or killed. No such luck. Nobody gets hurt, unless you count what happens to the notebook the bus driver writes his poems in. When the producer’s eyes stop rolling, he asks what happens to the notebook. “Sorry,” says the writer/director. “I don’t wanta give away the plot.” Then, seeing that the producer is hyperventilating, he fills him in: “It’s the dog. The dog’s jealous of the poet. His name is Marvin. He’s amazing. Looks like Winston Churchill after a full meal.” Pause. “It’s, like, a slice of life film about poetry and love and dogs and things like that.” more

April 19, 2017

I love poetry. I love rhyming.

—Chuck Berry (1926-2017)

If he had not become such an extraordinary director, Jim would now be a rock star.

—Wim Wenders on Jim Jarmusch

Several times a week I drive up the hill into Kingston, always with music on the stereo. One morning it’s Ella Fitzgerald singing “Lush Life,” and I take the hill nice and easy, true to the late-night flow of the lyric about “those come-what-may places/where one relaxes on the axis of the wheel of life/to get the feel of life.” But when Chuck Berry’s singing, the axis is tilting, the wheel of life is spinning, the come-what-may places have gone south, the car’s “rocking like a hurricane,” Beethoven’s rolling under the wheels, Tchaikovsky’s running for his life, and my CRV is a Coupe de Ville with mad Maybellene in the passenger seat urging me on (“go, go, go!”) as Chuck comes up from behind in his Ford V8. Now we’re side by side, Kingston’s turned into Cape Girardeau, and we’re motorvatin’ down I-55 on our way from Chuck’s St. Louis to Elvis’s Memphis, the setting of Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train. The method behind my vehicular madness is simple: one of the wisest, most interesting, most humane filmmakers in the world is in town today, Wednesday, April 19, and will be appearing on campus at 4:30 in McCosh 50. more

April 12, 2017

Every week I spin the online roulette wheel. Round and round it goes and where it stops I always know because what I’m metaphorically spinning is the date of next week’s column. The real game of chance begins with the names that show up on that date, actors, writers, artists, major celebrities, world, or national events. While the second spin sometimes leads nowhere, this week’s number brought up two actors: France’s Harry Baur, who was born on April 12, 1880 and died mysteriously in 1943; and Homeland star Claire Danes, who was born in Manhattan on April 12, 1979, almost exactly 100 years after the man who played the most memorable Jean Valjean came into the world. I might have passed Baur by had I not recently viewed five of his films, all from the 1930s. more

February 15, 2017

“Gimme Some Truth” was never one of my favorite John Lennon songs, certainly not compared to “Strawberry Fields Forever,” which the Beatles released on a single with “Penny Lane” 50 years ago this month. But in February 2017 when truth is being blitzed by the unhinged president and his toxic handlers while the Republican Congress looks the other way, it’s time to listen to a song from the Nixon era that nails “neurotic psychotic pigheaded politicians” and “uptight short-sighted narrow-minded hypocrites.”

Without knowing the numbers, my guess is that the same people who are making a surprise bestseller of George Orwell’s 1984 may soon be searching out this song, with its searing George Harrison guitar break and the passionate singing of a man who might have become a world-class rapper had he lived through the 1980s.

If you want truth with the dimensions of Keats’s “Truth is beauty beauty truth,” however, it can be found in Rectify, the Sundance show that helped my wife and me survive the post-election blues. Having seen all four seasons of Ray McKinnon’s courageous series in the span of a week, as if it were a single work of cinematic art, I’d nominate it for Best Picture and Best Actor of 2016 and throw in a Golden Globe and an Emmy. Given the crowded field, the best Rectify has done so far is a 2015 Peabody Award recognizing it as “a powerful, subtle dramatic series.” Besides some Critics Choice nominations and appearances on numerous Top Ten lists, Rectify is the only television drama to score a rating of 100 percent on Metacritic. more

January 11, 2017

Every now and then certain cliches become not only useful but indispensable. That’s what makes them cliches, after all. In the period since November 8, and to a lesser extent during the presidential campaign itself, “skating on thin ice” has said it best for me. The idea also describes how it is to look for Shakespeare in his play Pericles, the first two acts of which are thought to be the work of a hack named George Wilkins. Then there’s Jacques Rivette (1928-2016) and his first full-length film Paris Belongs to Us (Paris nous appartient), which puts thin ice under your feet even before it begins with an epigraph from Charles Péguy that says “Paris belongs to no one.”

As it happens, the “thin ice” sensation in both works gives them a disturbing relevance to any real-life crisis or turn of events, regardless of time, place, or context.

The greatness of Shakespeare is that he’s always with us, forever pertinent, there to be shaped or tempered or all too often twisted to flow with the currents of the time, even when the work in question is as damaged as Pericles. How “topical” is Pericles? An article by Cynthia Zarin from the New Yorker’s online Culture Desk mentions “the Middle East, refugees, perilous sea crossings, and sex trafficking.”  more

December 14, 2016

We’re just in time for a 100th birthday toast to Jack D. Ripper, and while we’re at it, let’s not forget Bat Guano. In real life, the clinically paranoid general who precipitates the nuclear apocalypse in Dr. Strangelove was played by Sterling Hayden and the paranoid colonel with a thing about “preversion” was done to a dead-eyed turn by Keenan Wynn. Both actors entered the world in 1916 and left it in 1986, and while both had 40-year-long Hollywood careers, their place in cinema history will be forever linked with Stanley Kubrick’s black-comedy masterpiece and its we’re-just-kidding-folks subtitle, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. As for George C. Scott (1927-1999), who was unforgettable as Gen. Buck Turgidson, and Peter Sellers (1925-1980), whose chameleon comic genius infused Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, president Merkin Muffley, and the title character, both Scott and Sellers had roles (i.e. General Patton, Inspector Clouseau) that transcended their association with Strangelove.  more