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

September 14, 2016

 

book-revGene Wilder’s recent death has revived Young Frankenstein — not that Mel Brooks’s classic 1974 travesty of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) by way of the James Whale/Boris Karloff film (1931) needed reviving. You could stop strangers on the street in Princeton or any university town anywhere and soon find someone who could quote you a favorite line or describe a favorite scene. Even so, for all those who have not already revisited the 1974 film, it will be shown again on October 5 in a special one-night-only presentation in more than 500 theaters nationwide, with a “live introduction” by Mel Brooks.

A Bizarre Course

What takes Young Frankenstein to a level beyond the gags is Gene Wilder’s kindly, horny, out-of-it Dr. Frankensteen. While a stranger on the street may not be able to name the actor who played the monster (Peter Boyle), no one is likely to forget his loving, fatherly creator. In the new Rutgers University Press book, Monstrous Progeny: A History of the Frankenstein Narratives, there’s an image of a blissed-out Wilder cuddling his “emotionally needy creation”; his expression is the other side of rhapsodic, he might be Chopin caressing the score of a nocturne or listening to the music of the spheres. Co-authored by Lester D. Friedman and Allison B. Kavey, Monstrous Progeny may be the most thorough exploration of the bizarre course the Frankenstein myth has taken since Mary Shelley conceived it 200 years ago this summer. Besides tracing the stagings and filmings through the years, the book looks at “laff riots” like Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, biological mutation movies like The Fly, reanimation films (Re-Animator and sequels), cyborg films (RoboCop), robot movies (Blade Runner and A.I.), and more. more

September 7, 2016

book rev

I’m an actor, not a clown.

— Gene Wilder (1933-2016)

Gene Wilder made his acting debut at 15 with a small role in a high-school staging of Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare was his teacher again at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School in 1955, and his first professional performance was as the Second Officer in a Cambridge, Mass. production of Twelfth Night. After studying method acting with Lee Strasberg, he changed his birth name to Gene Wilder because, according to a 2005 interview in the Daily Telegraph, “Jerry Silberman in Macbeth did not have the right ring to it.” more

August 31, 2016

DVD rev

Responses to Stranger Things, the Netflix summer sensation from Matt and Ross Duffer, have placed the eight-part series in the context of 1980s pop culture, sci-fi/horror flicks, and the novels of Stephen King. There’s more of the same in Monday’s New York Times under a head that refers to how Stranger Things and another show “feed nostalgia with a historical remix.” If that’s so, then the remix goes centuries beyond the 1980s, which means that anyone patronizing the show should heed the message from Hamlet obliquely echoed in its title: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy,”

In addition to Shakespeare circa 1603, Stranger Things evokes the 1970s by way of Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and the early 1990s through David Lynch’s network television landmark Twin Peaksmore

July 6, 2016

dvd revOne-hundred fifty years ago this month Beatrix Potter, the creator of Peter Rabbit, was born in London. Peter entered the wider world in book form in 1902 and since then has reportedly sold more than 40 million copies in as many as 35 languages. Just to keep things in perspective on Britain’s place in that wider world amid the withdrawal trauma of Brexit, it’s worth noting that by 1903, six decades in advance of Beatlemania, there was a Peter Rabbit doll and a board game, the first items in a never-ending outpouring of English merchandise featuring Peter and his “Little England” community of friends.
 more

June 1, 2016

book rev

I grew up with a picture of her in my bedroom hanging over my bed … watching over me … not as the icon, not as a sex symbol, but as an ordinary girl, her arms outstretched, her head back, the sun’s out, she’s laughing, barefoot in the grass, at Roxbury, where she lived with Arthur Miller.

—Michelle Williams, from an interview about My Week With Marilyn 

Pictures of Marilyn are all over Times Square, for sale to tourists who want to take home a souvenir from the sidewalk caricaturists lining 7th Avenue, plying their trade, deftly capturing the essence of someone’s husband or wife, boyfriend or girlfriend, or child.  more

May 25, 2016

Ever since Einstein revealed his special theory of relativity, we’ve known that time travel — at least moving forward through time — is possible. Einstein didn’t pull this theory, or even the notion that time travel is possible, out of thin air. Rather, he took the knowledge of the day, saw an inconsistency — a piece of a puzzle that didn’t fit, so to speak — and thought about possible explanations. — PBS, Nova Online

Viewers immersed in the Starz series Outlander, where a feisty English nurse is transported from 1945 to the mid-18th-century Scottish Highlands, will know why I’m time-travelling back to January 3, 1777, and Brigadier General Hugh Mercer. The most sympathetic figure to emerge from the Battle of Princeton, Mercer might as well have been a time-traveller himself, given the shape-shifting sweep of his story.  more

May 18, 2016

book rev

Charles Mingus and his music gave the impression of howling assurance and terrifying emotions. His bass echoed like a giant’s threat, to be soothed by his balmy melodies…He was dogmatic, pensive, demagogoic, irreverent, furious, nostalgic…He is the best example we have of disciplined turmoil.

—Gary Giddins, from Visions of Jazz

On midwest radio nights around the middle of the previous century teenagers up past their bedtime could pull in clear-channel stations like CKLW in Toronto, WLS in Chicago, and WLW in Cincinnati which, legend had it, beamed a signal so powerful it could be picked up on backyard fences and, some said, on the fillings in your teeth. In a college town 200 miles south of Chicago, a high school sophomore listening to a station in Dallas/Fort Worth on “a little crackerbox AM radio” picked up the music that changed his life. more

May 11, 2016

A little over a year ago, the morning after Donald Trump announced his candidacy, a Photoshopped image of his red-nosed circus-clown face filled the front page of the Daily News next to the massive headline CLOWN RUNS FOR PREZ. A little over a week ago, the day after Trump won the Indiana primary and became the presumptive Republican nominee, the front page of the same newspaper showed a piggy-bank-sized GOP elephant in a coffin with the words “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to mourn the death of a once-great political party, killed by epidemic of Trump.”  more

May 4, 2016

art rev

Time for some free association: if someone says Andy Warhol, what’s the first thing you think of? For me, the word is face, not Warhol’s bland, pallid, never-quite-there visage, anything but that. I’m thinking of the faces he blew up, daubed, and decorated, like Blue Marilyn at the Princeton University Art Museum and the screenprints of Annie Oakley, Sitting Bull, and Alexander the Great, plus the Polaroid portraits of, among others, Pia Zadora, Sylvester Stallone, and Princess Caroline of Monaco on view through July 31 at the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Museum in New Brunswick in “More than Fifteen Minutes of Fame: Warhol’s Prints and Photographs.” more

April 6, 2016

8d5dRyDiz7_Literary_Classics_Collection-Set_of_80

CLASSICAL BOOK COLLECTION FROM DOT & BO

Give your bookshelf a face lift with these gorgeous editions of your favorite literary classics.

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March 30, 2016

SPOOKS

Head of MI-5 Sir Harry Pearce (Peter Firth) with his most trusted asset Ruth Evershed (Nicola Walker) 

“Hold the right thought,” my father used to tell me. That dated variation of “Look on the bright side” didn’t count for much on the morning of September 11, 2001. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Brussels, we’re better off turning to Shakespeare.  more

March 16, 2016

shutterstock_75462820

Get those baskets ready!

Make Easter fun for the whole family with these personalized Easter gifts. Simply click on each item to purchase. more

February 24, 2016

“She’s a gutsy girl,” says Jennifer Jason Leigh. “A little bit of an animal.” Leigh’s talking about Daisy Domergue, the character she plays in Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, a supporting role that has brought her an Oscar nomination, the first of her long career. Even if she wins, it won’t excuse the Academy’s failure 20 years ago to recognize her once-in-a-lifetime performance as Sadie Flood in Georgia (1995), a film written by Leigh’s mother Barbara Turner and directed by Ulu Grosbard.

In a featurette about The Hateful Eight, producer Stacy Sher says of Daisy, “She’ll try anything, she’ll push it all the way, she’s crazy like a fox: you don’t know if you should feel sorry for her, you don’t know if you should despise her.” According to co-star Walton Goggins, “Jennifer just takes it to a place where we’re all looking at each other, did you see that? did you see what she did with that?” more

February 17, 2016

I fell in love with Shakespeare watching Richard Burton play Hamlet. If there was a specific moment when I “lost my heart” (you could as easily say “found my heart”), it came in the scene where Hamlet tells the players to “speak the speech” the way he pronounces it, and “to hold, as ‘twere, the mirror up to nature.”

In an essay about his youthful love of the plays, William Dean Howells recalls feeling that “in his great heart” Shakespeare “had room for a boy willing absolutely to lose himself in him, and be as one of his creations.” I was in my early 20s when Hamlet’s rousing speech to the players brought me into Shakespeare’s “great heart” and made me feel that the man who wrote the play was in the room speaking directly to his creations. more

January 27, 2016

dvd rev

Stirred from sleep by the sound of something large and loud moving in the night, I thought at first that someone was moaning. Really. It was like the sound of a giant enduring a massively bad dream. We were three hours into the Sunday morning after Saturday’s snowfall but our block-long cul de sac was not under attack; we were being rescued, liberated. Seen from the bedroom window, the larger of the two machines had an unreal immensity that made our little street resemble a road in the Caucasus. No wonder, I’d been reading Chekhov at bedtime after a long afternoon watching Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s mesmerizing Chekhovian epic, Once Upon a Time in Anatoliamore

December 30, 2015

Book Rev

My wife and I celebrated Christmas Day in Simla, the former summer capital of British India. The only catch is it’s not really Simla, it’s the Masterpiece Theatre series Indian Summers, filmed on location — in Malaysia.

As it happens, Rudyard Kipling’s 150th birthday is today, December 30, 2015, and the lively, elegant nightmare of a doomed society that is the Simla Club in Indian Summers (“No Dogs or Indians”) evokes, for better or worse, the writer who put Simla on the map in 1888 in his first and most famous story collection, Plain Tales from the Hills. Half a century later in the PBS series being billed as “Downton Abbey Goes to India,” it’s 1932, Gandhi is on a hunger strike and Kipling’s “imperialist claptrap” is being mocked by two of the most likeable characters in the series, a politically passionate Parsi girl and a haplessly heroic Scotsman. They’re talking about the man George Orwell nonetheless credited for “the only literary picture that we possess of nineteenth-century Anglo-India,” something Orwell claims could be accomplished because Kipling “was just coarse enough to be able to exist and keep his mouth shut in clubs and regimental messes.” more

April 17, 2013

DVD revShakespeare, he’s in the alley with his pointed shoes and his bells ….

—Bob Dylan

You read me Shakespeare on the rolling Thames, that old river poet who never, ever ends …. —Kate Bush

Whatever, whoever he may be, Shakespeare is everywhere. Locally, he was just the subject of an early birthday celebration at the library. Universally, besides being caricatured in Shakespeare in Love (1998) and deified in Berlioz’s Memoirs (1865), he’s in Dylan’s alley “stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis blues again,” whispering poetry in Kate Bush’s elegant ear in “Oh England My Lionheart,” and now and forever, or so I like to think, he’s moving “with sweet majesty” among us like King Henry among his troops the night before the battle of Agincourt in Laurence Olivier’s film, Henry V.

If I were asked this week’s Town Talk question about a favorite work by Shakespeare, I’d give the lazy, easy, obvious answer. But Hamlet was more than a favorite, it was the great insurmountable mist-shrouded summit of graduate school, and by the time I bowed out of the program, I felt like the pilgrim in the old joke about the quest for the meaning of life who finally finds the master’s cave and throws himself at the enlightened one’s feet only to be told “Life is just a bowl of cherries, my son,” except instead of cherries the answer is Shakespeare. Just Shakespeare.

Berlioz knew. The great French composer’s avowed master was not a man of music but a man of words, of whom he wrote after the death of Harriet Smithson, the Irish actress he fell in love with watching her play Juliet and Ophelia: “Shakespeare! Shakespeare! I feel as if he alone of all men who ever lived can understand me, must have understood us both; he alone could have pitied us, poor unhappy artists, loving yet wounding each other. Shakespeare! You were a man. You, if you still exist, must be a refuge for the wretched. It is you who are our father, our father in heaven, if there is a heaven.”

Besides being the subject of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, the actress inspired the love scene from his choral symphony Roméo et Juliette that Toscanini once said was “the most beautiful music in the world.”

In Love

When I was lost in graduate school Elsinore, prowling in and out of the nooks and crannies of Hamlet’s castle, I had a fantasy where, very very late at night, I would zone in on one small glowing window, creeping close enough to peer over Shakespeare’s shoulder as he writes, watching the words being shaped on foolscap in ink as fresh as the moment. My fantasy came to life in Shakespeare in Love, at the end where the young poet is shown scribing two words in Shakespearean script at the top of a fresh white page, “Twelfth Night,” the play he’s writing for and about Viola, as Berlioz wrote for and about Harriet Smithson. Viola’s his muse, the love of his life, who smites him, as Smithson did Berlioz, when she’s playing Juliet. Sure, it’s only a high-tech Hollywood facsimile of the moment of creation, but that doesn’t make it any less thrilling to see on screen, the perfect ending for an unashamedly imperfect film, a brash, broad, wildly romantic, never uncolorful journey. After the words, “Scene One: A sea coast,” are formed, there’s a closeup of the playwright’s hand, thumbnail black with ink, scribing “Viola,” the image fading but still visible as his Viola appears striding along a distant shore, seemingly given life and motion by the movement of his pen.

A great many people, old and young, left Shakespeare in Love feeling good about life and Shakespeare and half in love with Gwyneth Paltrow. Although I had doubts about Joseph Fiennes in the title role, he played it with passion and panache, and who could complain about Geoffrey Rush’s vivid comic turn as Henslowe except maybe Henslowe? Paltrow’s lovely, spirited Viola won the Best Actress Oscar as much for sheer presence as for her performance; it’s her energy, charm, and beauty that gives the film its glow. And on top of that, this piece of commercial bardolatry scored at the box office and won seven Academy Awards, also including Best Picture. “Best” was a poor choice for Paltrow. It should have been “Most Radiant.”

However, having just seen Shakespeare in Love for the first time in 15 years, I find that the glow has faded somewhat, and the film now and then seems forced, sloppy, bogus, and too amused with itself (as in the nasty-kid-who-grew-up-to-be-John-Webster gag). But then I came to it the day after seeing a vastly superior work with a similar subject and setting. Resplendently remastered in the Criterion DVD, Laurence Olivier’s Henry V makes the newer film’s charm, color, warmth, and Shakespearean ambience look one-dimensional.

Higher Ground

When Olivier was advised to film Henry V in “battledress,” — this being wartime, with D-Day looming — he said, “No, it’s got to beautiful.” Given the prevailing conditions — the need to shoot it in Ireland where sufficient numbers of men (650) and horses (150) were available and the sky was free of Luftwaffe planes on their way to the bombing of London — Olivier was too busy to know that his film would develop into one of the most beautiful ever made. Henry V also provided the Shakespeare of film reviewers, James Agee, with one of the great assignments of his life when it opened in the U.S. in the spring of 1946, a year and a half after its inspirational 1944-45 run in wartime England.

In his April 8, 1946 TIME review, which included a cover profile of Olivier, Agee was not as circumspect as he would be months later in his two-part article in The Nation. Under the one-word heading, “Masterpiece,” the review begins, “The movies have produced one of their rare great works of art.” No one distrusted freely dispensed superlatives more than Agee, but he must have known he was making journalistic history. The purpose of the first part of his Nation review was “getting off his chest” all he “could possibly find to object to.” In the TIME review, Agee pulls out the stops: “At last” there has been “brought to the screen, with such sweetness, vigor, insight, and beauty that it seemed to have been written yesterday, a play by the greatest dramatic poet who ever lived,” “a magnificent screen production,” “one of the great experiences in the history of motion pictures … a perfect marriage of great dramatic poetry with the greatest contemporary medium for expressing it.”

It’s worth noting that Henry V arrived in America at a time when Shakespeare was considered box office poison after the financial debacles of elaborate major-studio productions like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It, and Romeo and Juliet. Between the complaints of censors worried about suspect references to God and exhibitors concerned with the film’s excessive length, the powers that be in the States seemed to be conspiring to tarnish Olivier’s triumph, but to no avail, thanks in great part to Agee’s send off in TIME, the most widely read magazine in America.

Agee is still the only writer I know of whose weekly film reportage endures as literature. Surely no one but he would make the effort to envision a future moment when “after many more seeings,” the setting and the casting, “which now seem as nearly perfect as I have ever seen in a film,” might seem “perhaps … a little predictable,” and where “Renée Asherson’s performance as the French princess, which now seems to me pure enchantment, will … look a little coarsely coy.” In fact, Agee is only cleverly covering all the bases, as the next sentence makes clear: “But if this time ever comes I fear also that I will have lost a certain warmth of spirit, and capacity for delight, which the film requires of those who will enjoy it, and which it asks for, and inspires, with a kind of uninsistent geniality and grace which is practically unknown in twentieth century art, though it was part of the essence of Shakespeare’s.”

In addition to indicating why Olivier’s Henry V will never cease to delight him while subtly prescribing the perceptual virtues that make an audience worthy of it, Agee is describing qualities in Shakespeare like those that Berlioz is responding to in his prayerful cry from the heart to the one who “alone of all the men who ever lived” could understand him.

Among the numerous instances in the plays and sonnets where Shakespeare’s humanity has been cited and celebrated, Henry V contains a passage in which the author not only seems to be speaking to us but visiting us, moving among us, a monarch of art in the guise of a king passing anonymously among his troops, a presence at once human and divine. On the night before the Battle of Agincourt, the film delivers a storybook image showing the lights of the French and English camps burning opposite one another like two encampments in a world of night as the chorus — read by Leslie Banks as if Shakespeare were truly speaking through him — sets the scene: “Now entertain conjecture of a time/When creeping murmur and the poring dark/Fills the wide vessel of the universe.”

The image held onscreen for the time it takes to speak those richly resonant words lives and breathes with its own mysterious beauty and suffuses the scene that follows, as the soldiers “by their watchful fires/Sit patiently and inly ruminate/The morning’s danger.” Borrowing a cloak to disguise himself, “the royal captain of this ruin’d band” walks from “watch to watch, from tent to tent … with cheerful semblance and sweet majesty,” so that “every wretch, pining and pale before,/Beholding him, plucks comfort from his looks.” As Olivier’s disguised king brings to life the words of the chorus, he embodies the virtues Agee finds in Shakespeare, “geniality and grace” and “sweetness, vigor, insight, and beauty.” He also has the benefit of one of the most endearing lines in literature, spoken like a father to all the children of the world as the chorus continues, with reference to “A largess universal, like the sun,/His liberal eye doth give to every one,/Thawing cold fear,” as “mean and gentle all/Behold, as may unworthiness define,/A little touch of Harry in the night.”

And a little touch of Shakespeare, still and forever moving among us.

 

February 27, 2013

DVD revWhile channel-surfing the other night, I found myself watching the beginning of a film I’d already seen and had no intention of seeing again. That’s Fred MacMurray slumped at a desk in the film noir shadows of the headquarters of the Pacific All Risk Insurance Company. He’s talking into a dictaphone, about to confess to his boss his part in a sordid tale of claim-rigging, murder, and betrayal. The room onscreen is so deep in the murk of its mood it seems to be glowering at me from the third dimension. Never mind that the man slowly bleeding to death is being played by one of my least favorite actors, he’s sinking his teeth into the role of a lifetime, a mortally wounded insurance salesman named Walter Neff mouthing the hardboiled poetry of Raymond Chandler, with contributions by director Billy Wilder, from a novella by James M. Cain. That’s all she wrote, I’m stuck, can’t turn it off, can’t stop watching, can’t change the channel, Turner Classic Movies scores again.

As the scene shifts to a daylight flashback that shows Neff driving up to a nifty little Spanish colonial hillside chateau, I shout out, “It’s Double Indemnity, Barbara Stanwyck’s house in Los Felix!” and my wife, who grew up in L.A. and loves this movie, comes running.

The house is still there, though according to underthehollywoodsign.com, the reality is not in Los Felix but in the Hollywood Dell. “It was one of those California Spanish houses everyone was nuts about 10 or 15 years ago,” Neff is telling us. The interior, according to the screenplay, is “Spanish craperoo in style” with a wrought-iron staircase curving down from the second floor.

And look who’s coming down that unworthy staircase.

By now my wife’s sitting in her usual place beside me to enjoy one of the seminal moments in film noir played to tawdry perfection by a woman we feel as close to as we would to a glamorous beloved relative who’s been dead for 22 years. We’re familiar with every nuance of her voice, with the way she walks, and moves, and we can imagine her having a laugh with the crew about that big blond wig she’s wearing and the ankle bracelet or “anklet,” as Walter Neff calls it, his eyes fastened on the ankle it’s fastened to while he snidely fields sinister queries from the shady lady about her husband’s life insurance policy. Call it what you will, the effect that little adornment has on Walter is devastating. Stanwyck’s anklet is to Double Indemnity as Rosebud is to Citizen Kane, everything evolves from it, and Walter’s a goner the moment he sees it, as is Stanwyck’s about-to-be-double-indemnified husband.

According to Shadows of Suspense, the documentary accompanying the Universal Legacy Series 2-Disc DVD of Double Indemnity, when Fred MacMurray was offered the part, his are-you-kidding-me response was, “I’m a saxophone player. I do light comic stuff with Claudette Colbert.” Barbara Stanwyck was afraid the film would ruin her career. The beauty of casting a “regular guy” like MacMurray was that audiences would be fascinated by the there’s-a-killer-in-all-of-us aspect, and as a result the glib, regular-guy insurance agent Walter Neff has become one of the rare characters from vintage Hollywood whose name is as much a part of movie lore as the name of the star playing him. If the same can’t be said for Phyllis Dietrichson, the name of the scheming wife, it’s because Stanwyck’s allure overwhelms the impersonation. MacMurray is a mere mortal transcending himself in a killer role. Stanwyck is a luminary from a loftier realm who in 1944 was said to be the highest paid woman in the United States.

Academy Awards 1944

Besides being the only film noir to come close to winning a Best Picture Oscar (it lost to the upbeat, feel-good, priests-can-be-charming box-office smash, Going My Way), Double Indemnity also fits the sub genre of the so-called “buddy movie” most recently represented by Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. The affectionate rapport between Neff and his boss, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson in his prime) creates a sympathetic contrast to the cold-blooded bond between the lovers. Whenever Keyes fumbles to find a light for his cigar, Neff is there to light it for him with a playful but caring “I love you too.” Walter and Phyllis consummate the relationship by killing one another; but when Neff is dying in the hall outside the office where the story began, it’s Keyes who lights his cigarette.

The various talking heads in Shadows of Suspense all agree that the Academy’s recognition of Double Indemnity (seven Oscar nominations), along with its box office success, helped ignite the film noir boom that took place between the mid-1940s and the advent of CinemaScope ten years later. While the wartime American public “had lost its innocence and wanted more adult stories,” according to film noir authority Eddie Muller, the Motion Picture Academy couldn’t stoop to honoring so disreputable and nascent a genre with an actual Oscar. Probably the most deserving of the nominees, along with Wilder as Best Director, was the cinematographer John F. Seitz, who steeps scenes in lavish depths of darkness that are remarkable even for film noir. While Barbara Stanwyck was at least nominated for Best Actress (Ingrid Bergman won for Gaslight), MacMurray and Robinson did not even make the cut for the Best Actor and Supporting Actor Oscars, which went to Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald in the Going My Way landslide.

My only quibble with Shadows of Suspense is that it opens with Muller’s declaration that film noir “for all intents and purposes began with Double Indemnity.” This is a shaky generalization at best when you consider that Robert Siodmak’s Phantom Lady was released eight months earlier in February 1944 and that Murder, My Sweet, Edward Dmytryk’s adaptation of Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely and Fritz Lang’s Woman in the Window also appeared the same year. As far as that goes, noir themes can be dated back to films like Stranger On the Third Floor (1940), I Wake Up Screaming and The Maltese Falcon (1941), Kid Glove Killer and This Gun for Hire (1942), to mention only a few.

Oscar Night

I’ll come clean: we skipped the Oscars this year to watch David Hare’s two-hour-long Page Eight on PBS because we liked the cast, especially Bill Nighy. While I’m all for one night every year being set aside to celebrate the movies, I have a low tolerance for all the glitzy scripted back and forth, the unbelievably tasteless jokes (like the cute one about the assassination of Lincoln), and I have a lifelong aversion to watching “beautiful people” embarrass themselves in public. If there were an over the counter drug that prevented cringing and squirming, I would need half a bottle to get through an hour of Oscar night. Argo was a worthy winner, but I doubt I’ll ever see it again, except maybe to enjoy the great lines dished out by Alan Arkin and John Goodman, who also lent his inimitable presence to Flight. The fact that Goodman has never been nominated for an Oscar, particularly for the role that launched a thousand quotes, exposes an essential and enduring Academy blind spot. Fifty years from now somebody somewhere will be streaming The Big Lebowski and laughing at lines from Walter and Donny and the Dude they know by heart, but will anyone be visiting this year’s big winners? I doubt it. The Dude abides and so does Barbara Stanwyck’s anklet.

Born February 27

When you look at who was born on this date, you might be forgiven for thinking Oscar himself first saw the light on the 27th of February.

For instance there’s William Demerest (1892-1983), one of the best character actors of his time, a man who performed pratfalls elaborate enough to convulse the comic gods. His one Oscar nomination was for Best Supporting Actor in 1947’s The Jolson Story, but he’s at his best in Preston Sturges films like The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek. Another member of the 27 Club is Franchot Tone (1905-1968), who netted a Best Actor nomination in 1935 for Mutiny On the Bounty.

Perhaps the most unlikely nominee ever for a major award was tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon (born 2/27/23), whose rollercoaster career included jazz stardom, drug addiction, prison time, comeback as a dominant player, and then, five years before his death in 1990, being cast by Bernard Tavernier as the tenor legend in Round Midnight, for which Long Tall Dex landed a Best Actor nomination and a seat at the 1986 Oscar ceremonies.

One of two well-known writers with Hollywood credits born on this date, Irwin Shaw (1913-1984) was nominated as co-writer of the screenplay for Talk of the Town, but the single most prodigious generator of Oscar-winning product was John Steinbeck (1902-1968). Besides scoring nominations for writing Viva Zapata, A Medal for Benny, and Lifeboat, he produced a series of novels that Hollywood feasted on to a degree unmatched by his peers, the biggest winner being Grapes of Wrath, which took two Oscars out of seven nominations in 1940.

Of the three actresses born on February 27, four-time nominee Joanne Woodward (1930 —) won a Best Actress Oscar in 1957 for Three Faces of Eve. Joan Bennett (1910-1990) never won an Oscar, nor was she nominated, but any time you talk film noir, she comes into the conversation as a femme fatale in Fritz Lang’s Woman in the Window (1944) and Scarlet Street (1945). Last but definitely not least, there’s the two-time Best Actress winner James Agee greeted with a notice in The Nation she must have cherished from the age of 12 on. Writing in December of 1944, Agee admits, “Frankly, I doubt that I am qualified to arrive at any sensible assessment of Miss Elizabeth Taylor. Ever since I first saw the child, two or three years ago, in I forget what minor role in what movie, I have been choked with the peculiar sort of admiration I might have felt if we were both in the same grade of primary school.” Later, after giving her performance in National Velvet a more objective analysis, he adds, “She strikes me, however, if I may resort to conservative statement, as being rapturously beautiful.” Taylor, who died in March 2011 at 79, was nominated five times for Best Actress and won twice, for Butterfield 8 (1960) and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966).

The two-disc Double Idemnity DVD is available at the Princeton Public Library.

February 13, 2013

DVD REVSome people wanna fill the world with silly love songs ….

—Paul McCartney from “Silly Love Songs”

By all rights, George Stevens’s 1941 film Penny Serenade should be to Valentine’s Day what Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life is to Christmas. The season of silly love songs, candy, flowers, and date movies could do with a film about a couple struggling to honor the marriage vow, “for better, for worse, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part.”

Not that I’ve got anything against Valentine’s Day. If it didn’t exist, neither would I.

My mother was stone cold sober when she mentioned the occasion of my conception, a date later confirmed by my father. The revelation came when she was telling me the facts of life and my stunned response (“You and Dad did that?”) had less to do with pre-adolescent naivete than with my acute awareness of the lack of physical affection between my parents. Possibly the only reason I’m here in Princeton at this moment is because my father was living up to his part of a nationally accredited romantic situation. Otherwise, the most productive phase of the relationship took place when they were writing plays together the year before they got married. Two of their one-act farces, And Silently Steal Away and Mr. and Mrs. Uh-h, were published by Samuel French, and at the time of their divorce 37 years later they were still receiving small royalty checks. The plan was to move from Hutchinson, Kansas to New York City and write Broadway plays. To make ends meet, she would be a stenographer and he would play piano in a night club. On the way to the Bright Lights they ended up in Bloomington, Indiana, where my father became a Medieval scholar and my mother a legal secretary working for a Court of Appeals judge who put the make on her and later became the subject of a story in the Kenyon Review.

“It’s Love, It’s Love”

In the 1950s my father, of all people, filled the world with some pretty silly love songs of his own that I inherited in manuscript. Several of these ditties are so tuneful that I sometimes find myself whistling or humming the melodies. It’s hard to keep from smiling when I think of my reserved, undemonstrative father writing Tin Pan Alley lyrics like “It’s love, it’s love, it’s love, it’s love, it’s love, it’s love, I’m zoomin’/She caught my eye, I’m not so shy, we’ll multiply, we’re human!”

The period when my father was composing “It’s Love,” “The Magic of Love,” “It Can Happen,” and the others must have been like a reprise of the courtship year when they were collaborating on plays. My mother was actually sitting next to him at the piano singing along one night when some friends were over, an event I witnessed, amazed, from the top of the stairs. The most musically sophisticated and lyrically overwrought of my father’s compositions, “The Magic of Love,” begins, “If I wish, I could swim like a silvery fish,” and ends with four lines that my needy mother almost surely contributed: “Hold me tight! Keep me earthbound and still tonight./Lift your spell — let me breathe the air of the ordinary room we share./The enchantment is with you there/That’s the magic of love!”

Tucked in with the song manuscripts is a royalty statement for $229 showing that And Silently Steal Away was performed in 22 different towns in Minnesota between January and May of 1950 (with multiple performances in Olivia, Windom, and Thief River Falls).

Though this story doesn’t have a happy ending (what real-life story does?), my parents remained close after the divorce and were always there for each other, “till death did them part” fifteen years later.

Another Couple

In Penny Serenade, Roger and Julie, newlyweds played by Cary Grant and Irene Dunne, struggle financially in a desperate attempt to adopt a child when the bureaucratic odds are stacked against them.

The flashbacks that tell the story of Penny Serenade are structured around songs associated with the relationship, each in the form of a record that Julie is playing on the victrola, beginning with “You Were Meant for Me.” The theme is set from the first meeting in a record store where she’s a sales clerk and he buys a big stack of records (78s in those days), which gives him an excuse to spend time in her company. He walks her home, and after admitting he owns no phonograph, invites himself into her apartment to listen to some silly love songs. The next scene, which begins with the playing of another record, shows them shyly talking around embarrassingly relevant fortune cookies (marriage, a baby); then comes a big, rollicking, brilliantly directed New Year’s Eve party where Roger proposes to Julie just before midnight. A newspaperman on his way to a two-year assignment in Japan, he wants her to join him three months after he gets settled. They have only hours before he has to catch a 3 a.m. train. With Hollywood serendipity on their side, they manage to get married that same snowy night and make the train in time. As they’re sharing a passionate goodbye embrace in his compartment (in the picture shown below), the train’s about to leave, she has to get off — but she doesn’t. Next shot shows the train pulling into a station, the camera lingering suggestively on the compartment’s frosted-up, snow-edged window. In case we don’t get the point, a sign says “To New York 115 Miles.” The nudge isn’t necessary; their goodbye kiss makes clear what’s taken place, and the next time Roger sees her, in Japan, she has big news to tell him.

Although Penny Serenade shifts abruptly from romantic comedy to the dramatic mode typed as a “tear jerker” when it gets to the struggle at the heart of the story, it’s one of George Stevens’s finest films, with memorable supporting performances by Beulah Bondi as a sympathetic worker in an adoption agency and Edgar Buchanan as a tried and true friend. Grant and Dunne are even better together than they were in The Awful Truth (1937) and My Favorite Wife (1940). In both those comedies, one of Dunne’s many charms is her knowing laugh, but the half-laugh, half sigh that emerges when she perceives what Grant is up to that first day with the records is so right that it makes you laugh, too. Grant is no less subtle, speaking soft and low when he proposes and then kissing her with words of love we can barely hear.

Roger is the confident carefree Cary Grant that film fans know and love until an earthquake brings the couple’s world down on top of them, destroying the unborn child and Julie’s ability to ever carry a baby to term. After she recovers, they move back to the States and a small town north of San Francisco where Roger uses all of a small inheritance to buy a weekly newspaper that doesn’t make enough money to satisfy the adoption agency’s regulations. Eventually, thanks to the caring employee sensitively played by Bondi, they are allowed a one-year trial adoption of a baby, a little girl “like no other child.” Anyone who’s ever gone through the first days and nights home from the hospital with a baby will be touched and amused by the scenes depicting the panic-stricken inepitude of the new parents. The crisis comes a year later when Roger, still struggling to keep the paper going, appears before an unsympathetic judge and is told that because they’re financially incapable of supporting the child they will have to return her to the orphanage. Grant’s passionate, choked-up, ultimately successful plea is painful to behold. As the New Republic’s Otis Ferguson observes in his wise, eloquent review, the scene is “one of the rightly moving things in the picture.”

Falling Star

The most beautiful moment in Penny Serenade, however, occurs when Roger and Julie’s little girl, Trina, now 6, plays the “Silent Night” echo in her school’s Christmas play. As Hollywood children go, Eva Lee Kuney is about as good as you could hope for in her brief, touching, ill-fated part. Her role in the pageant becomes a piece of cinematic poetry involving a cloud on a string and a falling star. As Julie sadly puts the last record on the phonograph, a letter to the woman at the adoption agency reveals that the child has died after a sudden illness. Rather than inflict a death scene on us, Stevens and screenwriter Morris Ryskind simply show the impact on the parents. There’s no fight left in this couple; the marriage is over. Or so it seems until their guardian angel at the adoption agency gives them a call.

As far as I know, the framing device of a character playing records to accompany the flashbacks composing the picture is unique to Penny Serenade. It’s also one of the most conspicuous examples of product placement I’ve ever seen. All the records have the RCA label and are played on an RCA victrola.

Though it’s in the public domain, Penny Serenade is not easy to find on DVD. You can see it in its entirety on YouTube.

Now if only there were a film of my father playing his silly love songs with my mother sitting beside him singing along.

February 6, 2013

DVD revLast week people all over the country were in mourning for Downton Abbey’s Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay). The brutal, shocking demise from postpartum eclampsia of the youngest and most lovable of the Crawley sisters was a scene worthy of a great or at least very good novel. Looking down from death-scene heaven, Charles Dickens might tip his hat, for not since Little Nell bit the Dickensian dust has a fictional demise had such an impact stateside. All the more impressive is the fact that the blow was so deeply felt in spite of many viewers knowing it was coming, thanks to leaks from the U.K. where Season 3 had already been aired. You have to hand it to Julian Fellowes and the cast for a truly bravura piece of theatre (the great strength of Downton Abbey is in the ensemble playing), as the titled doctor, oozing class, forces through his feel-good prognosis and everything seemingly bears him out, the baby safely delivered, joy reigns supreme, then wham!

Meanwhile there are reports of binge viewers planning weekend marathons of The Wire and The West Wing or viewing a whole 12-episode season of Homeland in one sitting. Denizens of PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre at least have the decency to wait a week for the next episode of Downton Abbey, allowing the plot to steep, as it were, while they quote their favorite lines from Maggie Smith’s undaunted Dowager Countess of Grantham and ponder the future for Upstairs’ Mary and Matthew and Downstairs’ Bates and Anna. No doubt when Downton fans get together, their dinner parties or high teas are more civilized than the Soprano-themed evenings we shared with our neighbors where we ate gabagool and ziti a la Carmela and speculated on great issues like who would get whacked next week. But what a great foil all that Downton decorum is for subtle, nasty little twists like the bar of soap put where a pregnant Lady Grantham will step, or the not so subtle outrages like the dead Turkish diplomat dragged out of Lady Mary’s bed.

Raising the Stakes

Along with as many as 7.9 million other viewers, my wife and I have been enjoying Season 3 of Downton Abbey on PBS and have just finished all of Season 2 of Showtime’s Homeland On Demand, firmly limiting ourselves to two episodes a night until indulging in a minor binge watching the last three straight through. We became curious about Homeland when we were in the midst of the Breaking Bad addiction described here late last year (“Investing in Breaking Bad: A Matter of Life and Death,” Nov. 21, 2012) and learned that a 24-style CIA series (same producers, Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa) had swept the top three Emmys, Best Series, Best Actor and Best Actress. After being mesmerized by 24 for 5 seasons, we fell off the back of that runaway train from sheer exhaustion.

As soon as we were able to get to the top of the library’s DVD wait list, we found that Homeland indeed offered more of the same with its crazily convoluted, high-stakes, terrorism-driven plot, but there were several stunning differences that lifted it to a level above both 24 and Downton Abbey. Kiefer Sutherland’s Jack was a very human superhero but his feats demanded a formidable suspension of disbelief and his love life was a mess. Homeland’s version of Jack, Claire Danes’s CIA agent/analyst Carrie Mathison, performs wonders on a slightly more believable level and her love life is what people have come away talking about. Carrie’s obsessive affair with ex-Marine Nicholas Brody (Damien Lewis), the terrorist disguised as war hero that she’s stalking, creates a fascinating emotional dimension all its own. There’s been nothing like this unique romance in any of cable television’s landmarks from The Sopranos on. It’s in their scenes together that Danes and Lewis earn their Emmys and put the series over the top.

Carrie

Carrie is played to the hilt, taken to the limit, name your superlative, by Claire Danes. Brody is a human conundrum who, as good as Damien Lewis is, could have been played by any number of actors, probably even including Kiefer Sutherland. Lewis’s greatest moments are drawn, coaxed, caressed from him by Carrie, notably in their cozy idyll in a lakeside cabin where she spent childhood summers (“The Weekend,” episode 7 from Season 1) and ultimately and most movingly in episode 5 of Season 2 (“Q and A”), where she, in a manner of speaking, saves his soul, takes the terrorist apart, and puts the real Brody back together again. That’s the calm caring conflicted but ever resourceful Carrie, on task even when she’s turning the love of her life into a double agent.

Saul

What makes Homeland remarkable is not just the improbable Carrie-Brody romance, it’s also the bond between Carrie and her professorial mentor at the CIA, Saul Berenson, played with just the right balance of heart and mind by Mandy Patinkin. Here’s this wild woman passionately devoted to her task as a spy who also manages to be deliriously engaging, silly, slaphappy, hard as nails, funny, fascinating, frantic, disaster-prone, and infuriating. Saul is the falconeer to Carrie’s falcon, the eye of her hurricane, and in the devious world of Homeland, he’s also the emotional and intellectual mean. When everything else is descending into chaos, especially bipolar Carrie minus her meds, only Saul has the patience to sort it out. One of the reasons “The Weekend” is, along with “Q and A,” among the best episodes ever on cable television is the way the cabin scenes with Carrie and Brody are interwoven with the scenes between Saul and Aileen, a member of the terrorist cell plotting the attack that the CIA is scrambling to circumvent. Nicely played by Marin Ireland, Aileen was captured at the Mexican border but deep down she’s a Princeton girl (really) who fell in love with a young terrorist, and while it’s true that Saul is masterfully endearing himself to Aileen in order to secure information, he also is clearly becoming paternally attached to the girl and will weep for her in Season 2.

Mainly, Saul has his hands full with Carrie, who breaks all the rules. When a national catastrophe is prevented only thanks to her last-ditch, frantically determined efforts, she’s scorned, despised, and treated as a nut case. By all rights she should be hailed as a hero (at least within the CIA); instead she’s ousted from the agency, and at the end of Season 1 voluntarily receives shock therapy.

Chemistry

One thing that drew people to Downton Abbey and kept them watching was the teasingly thwarted, drawn-out romance of Matthew (Dan Stevens) and Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery). The positive negative chemistry of attraction was there from the beginning and carefully processed and developed until it produced the wedding that opened Season 3. By comparison, the force of attraction binding Carrie and her quarry, Brody, is complex and explosive, with two wounded people bonding in endgame situations. As Carrie’s professional obsession with Brody becomes personal, you have the feeling that if he hadn’t existed, she’d have invented him.

Real Love

For a bizarre take on Homeland, see Lorrie Moore’s piece in the February 21 New York Review of Books (“Double Agents In Love”), where, besides contradicting her own title, she claims that the “main problem with the show is that the love between Carrie and Brody” (pictured here) is “unconvincing for many reasons having to do with common sense,” that “viewers will sense a lack of chemistry between Lewis and Danes,” that the actors “project only a cold canned heat,” that “this is too tense-making for what purports to be a love story,” that they “lack mutual trust or any palpable erotic vibe,” and that “they are not bonded and they part without any persuasive anguish.” If you turn each of these observations upside down, you will understand why Danes and Lewis and Homeland swept the Emmys. This love story is, as Carrie might say, for real.