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 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.


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.


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.

January 2, 2013

dvd revMany might ask why re-release Raga now [2010]? The answer is simple: it was a very special period of my life.

—Ravi Shankar (1920-2012)

The 1960s without Ravi Shankar, who died on December 11 at 92, seems as unimaginable as the 1960s without the Beatles. The headline over the New York Times obituary credits him with introducing Indian music to the West, but what he brought was beyond music; he radiated the style and ambiance and spiritual charm of his homeland. A generation’s passion for India, the fabrics, the gestures, trinkets, artifacts, posters, incense, the very colors of the country, found its brightest, warmest reflection in his presence and his devotion to his art. If it could be said that any one person was India during that period, it was Ravi Shankar, not the Maharishi or any of the other media-savvy sages.

For people in the so-called art house movie audience who had not been to India, the next best thing to being there was to see Satyajit Ray’s great Apu trilogy, where music composed and played by Shankar helped generate the emotional force of Ray’s art, particularly in the opening moments of Pather Panchali; the explosive impact of the father’s death in Aparajito; and the madness of the bridegroom in The World of Apu. For me, after returning to the States from a year in India however, the music that came closest to reviving the intensity of being up to my neck or over my head in the color and the chaos was not the sound of Shankar, but the soaring, swirling voices of Bollywood’s Lata Mangeshkar and Mohammed Rafi. The chance of hearing Shankar’s music in the streets of Calcutta was about as good as hearing Mozart’s in the streets of Philadelphia.

In Person

I saw Ravi Shankar three times in India, twice in performance in Allahabad and New Delhi and once at a table by the window in the Kwality Restaurant in Allahabad. To sit down to order dinner after smiling and nodding hello to Ravi Shankar and his party was like casually nodding hello to Mozart. No surprise, really: he was in town for the great Hindu fair taking place at Sangam, where the Jumna meets the Ganges, and for the concert we would be enjoying the next evening. Among those at the table with him was a disagreeable looking man, typical of the well-fed, patronizing types who would accost us with questions (“And from where are you coming? And what is your religion?”); the most annoying such encounter had taken place earlier the same day, when I’d been cross-examined by a formidably pompous individual who suspected I was a spy because I was taking photos at the railway station (“And why is it please, sir, that you are taking these pictures?”). His excuse was that India and Pakistan were at war. My excuse was being a tourist with a fondness for Indian trains and stations.

Next evening the man I’d noticed having dinner with Ravi Shankar was sitting on the stage next to him looking distractingly like my fat, pompous accuser. There was a scowl on his face, his chin was in the air, and when he wasn’t looking superior, he seemed to be giving me dirty looks, as if he knew what I was thinking, which by then was something like what’s one of those officious creeps doing playing tabla with Ravi Shankar? Needless to say, my knowledge of Indian classical music at this time, about half a year before Shankar met George Harrison, was limited. As the raga commenced, the tabla player was still looking sour and cranky before slowly becoming earnest and intent and downright cocky as he began delivering elaborate rhythmic fills for the sitar’s introductory runs. Then, as the two men got into an incredibly involved and precise passion of counterpoint (so closely woven that “counter” had nothing to do with it), they glanced at each other on either side of the invisible temple of music they were building, and when their eyes met, the tabla player’s face lit up with a smile so broad, so sweet, so full of joy that it instantly shamed my misconception of him. From that point on he was beaming and so was the master. The shock of the transformation from fussy Philistine to happy genius was not unlike what happened, one way or another, at least once a day in India. You almost lose your life in a third-class crush on Indian Railways and a minute later your head is swimming in mindless joy.

The tabla player was Alla Rakha (1919-2000), whom Shankar describes in his 1999 autobiography, Raga Mala, as “a great virtuoso, with wonderful tonal quality and a romantic and humorous quality to his playing” who, “as a person,” has “such a good nature, almost like a child.” Grateful Dead drum master Mickey Hart was more extreme, calling Rakha “the Einstein, the Picasso … the highest form of rhythmic development on this planet.”

You can get some idea of the Rakha-Shankar chemistry by seeing Raga, or by viewing their scenes in Monterey Pop and Woodstock on YouTube.

All Aboard

In the opening image of the DVD of Raga, you’re in an Indian Railways carriage sitting next to Ravi Shankar as he stares out the window, his chin propped on his hand. There are no bars on the window to keep out monkeys, beggars, and madmen, so it’s most likely not one of the third-class coaches of my memory but a first-class car on a special train. This being one of those DVD menu sequences that keeps replaying itself until you hit Play Movie, I let it run over and over again to sustain the illusion that I was actually on that gently rocking train with the man, side by side in the moment. The fact that the haunting song accompanying the first appearance of the menu is never repeated is typical of India, where you occasionally lose moments you know are too good to be true before you have time to begin to fathom them. After the appearance and disappearance of the song, we keep moving, the hypnotic sound of the wheels in a fine subtle balance with the tranquil thoughtfulness of the man gazing out the window, perhaps listening to music of the train underscoring the story of his life as an artist, where the acceptance of the impossible is an aesthetic in itself, a sacred fact of life, as Shankar says or suggests more than once in the film, “always that sadness in a raga, that wanting to reach something that I know I never can and each note is like crying out, searching.”

Thoughtful and Worried

In this “very special period” of Ravi Shankar’s life (he would have been in his late forties) you see him reunited for the first time in many years with his musical guru, Ustad Allaudin Khan, the “tyrant” to whom he movingly admits he owes his life; praying with his spiritual teacher; receiving an honorary degree from the University of California; rehearsing with Yehudi Menhuin; teaching George Harrison and others in California, the blue Pacific in the background; and in his glory performing with Alla Rakha. What makes the film special is Shankar’s narration. His voice is tender, expressive, thoughtful, and worried, for he had much to be concerned about in the days when he was being lionized in the West: “the patterns of life changing everywhere …. The very soul of our music seems to be slipping away, so little concern, so much indifference, the young people drifting away from their roots.” The voiceover throughout is close to the lilt of a song, like a spoken version of the music that comes once and once only with the DVD’s menu. The man who died a few weeks ago is speaking to you, intimately, openly, vulnerably, telling you, and this was 40 years ago, “At times I feel as if I don’t belong today. My roots are so deep in the past; sometimes I feel like a stranger in my own country.”

Even so, as the camera moves along the riverfront in Benares, where he was born, he’s saying, “I feel all the richness of India in our music, the spiritual hopes of our people, the struggle for life …. In the holy city of Benares sound is everywhere; as a child I would spend hours filling myself with the vibrations of this place.”

In the sequence on the train, when he’s on his way to pay his respects to the teacher he loves and fears, he’s telling us how he devoted himself to the raga (working for seven punishing years “until it became alive”), which followed, he admits, the period when he was a young man in Paris (“I dressed like a dandy and chased girls all the time”). He also speaks openly about a lifelong “weakness for women” in Raga Mala, which is edited and introduced by George Harrison. At the beginning of the film there he is, one of the handsomest men on the planet, strolling through a crowd somewhere in the U.S. surrounded by fans, two beautiful girls, one Indian, one American, holding on to either arm. In view at the recent memorial service were two other beautiful women: Anoushka, his daughter, a virtuoso sitarist, and his American daughter, the acclaimed singer, Norah Jones. His final performance was a concert with Anoushka, on November 4 in Long Beach, California.

November 14, 2012

I believe in Walter White, his family and his friends. They aren’t just objects of interest and curiosity and occasional sympathy …. I actually care deeply about whether they live and die.

—Ross Douthat

Ross Douthat’s June 15, 2010, New York Times piece turned up during an online fishing expedition baited with the tag, “Breaking Bad/Dostoevsky.” It’s not that I’m looking to put a Dostoevskian spin on Vince Gilligan’s AMC series about a cancer-stricken high school science teacher turned methamphetamine overlord; it’s just that Breaking Bad has elements and characters that the author of Crime and Punishment would find fascinating. Same for Balzac and Poe and Hawthorne, and don’t forget Robert Louis Stevenson, since anyone watching Walter White cooking up batches of crystal blue meth is sure to visualize Dr. Jekyll in his lab and the macabre fate he meets when the chemically induced Mr. Hyde takes complete possession of the good doctor’s soul.

I came late to Breaking Bad. No one tugged at my sleeve and said, “Don’t miss it.” I was unaware until recently that Bryan Cranston had won the “Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series” Emmy three years in a row. One thing for sure, if I’d read somewhere of Vince Gilligan’s concept for the show — to turn his central character from protagonist to antagonist, from Mr Chips to Scarface — I’d have jumped on board a year or two sooner. The concept, not to mention the acting, writing, and cinematography used to explore it, is what makes Breaking Bad superior to any series since HBO’s Big Three, The Wire, Deadwood, and The Sopranos. HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, which recently launched its third season, is an impressive production but not in the same league as Breaking Bad, which will end its five season run next summer.

Breaking Through

My online search took me to a short essay by Corey Pung quoting Dostoevsky (“Without God, anything is possible”) on Walt’s reaction to the death sentence he receives in Breaking Bad’s opening episode. While his primary motive is to provide for his family (wife pregnant, baby’s arrival imminent, teenage son with cerebral palsy), as soon as he’s told he may have only months to live, he begins to challenge the reasonable, responsible limits that have ruled his life, struggling to make ends meet teaching high school science while moonlighting in a car wash. Most good providers (and Walt becomes a good provider with a vengeance) would still observe the limits, pursuing medical treatment (as Walt does), setting their house in order (this too), or looking for moral support in religion. Religion? Not Walt. He takes the anything-is-possible route. The spectre of death releases the genius seething inside him.

More Than Adrenaline

Writing on Good Reads, a blogger from India wants to know if there is any novel “as adrenaline pumping as the Breaking Bad TV series?” So far the only book that comes close, he says, is Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. He finds the thriller writers like Patterson, Grisham, and Ludlum wanting because “they seldom really make the scenes absolutely memorable along with keeping me on the edge of my seat.” He wants an experience that “stays with” him “long after” he reads it: “Just like Breaking Bad is doing to me.”

That says it: you don’t just watch Breaking Bad; it does things to you, it stays with you, stirs you, moves you, haunts you, and makes you care about the characters as life-and-death intensely as Ross Douthat suggests when comparing the show to AMC’s other hit series, Mad Men.

The Moment of Truth

At this point it’s necessary to announce a modified spoiler alert, since the scene I’m about to focus on concerns the death of a character, a sad, ugly, needless death that occurs late in the second season and could have been prevented. The sequence, in its subtle but stunning way, is one of the defining moments in this savage series where violence explodes, bloodily, outrageously, gruesomely, sometimes with gory black comedy overtones (like the notorious raspberry slushie sequence in the first season). Not to worry, nothing’s going to blow up in your face in this small, hushed room where a young couple lies cuddled together, spoon style, deep in a heroin stupor on a mattress at Walt’s feet. He intends them no harm. There’s even a sense that as he looks down on these two kids, he’s touched, briefly bemused, and a bit embarrassed to have invaded their privacy, for they really are like two children, innocent, helpless, vulnerable (“Shades of Romeo and Juliet,” was Gilligan’s comment in an interview about the scene).

Then the female, the Juliet, turns over on her back and begins softly coughing. She’s choking, and he knows that if he doesn’t do the right thing, the simple obvious human thing anyone else would do, she might die. Yet he’s hesitating, holding back, you can see the pressure of the thought closing in on him as he realizes that a solution to the problem that brought him to this place is at hand: a threat to his enterprise is about to be nullified. If he allows it. This death will be to his advantage. So he thinks, he hesitates, allows it, and watches, in pained amazement, as death happens. It takes less than 30 seconds. As he watches, he has to press his hand over his mouth to keep from crying out, tears spring to his eyes, he’s torn, hurting, because what’s left of the father, the teacher, the good provider is appalled and ashamed and sick with sympathy, as if he’s been standing by and watching, allowing, the death of his own child.

Why You Care

I found the loss of this character, this Juliet, truly hard to accept even after I’d moved on to the third season. This is the “caring deeply” that Douthat’s talking about. The loss hurts not just because you liked her, cared about her, and even valued her as a rare glimmer of sweetness and light in her lover’s life, but because you know her death is going to devastate if not destroy a character you care about a great deal more — Walt’s partner in meth cooking, Jesse Pinkman, who is played with an intensity second only to Bryan Cranston’s by Aaron Paul (winner of two Supporting Actor Emmys). By this point in the second season you can’t help but share some of Walt’s quasi paternal/fraternal feelings for this seemingly hapless loser, the F student forever even though he’s earned his half of a fortune, survived brutal beatings and unthinkably dire near-death dilemmas with the science teacher who flunked him years ago. One of the most lovable things about this series, which may be the most bizarre buddy movie ever made, is that after all they’ve been through together, Jesse still calls Walt “Mr. White.”

The repercussions from this same scene are immense, and it’s here that Breaking Bad does what great shows do, it transcends probability, defies reason, takes an already shameless coincidence (a meeting in a nearby bar between Walt and his victim’s father) one giant step forward. With the wound of that silent death scene still smarting, the consequences of Walt’s moment of deadly hesitation explode like an action-movie version of God’s wrath writ large on the bright blue sky as a passenger plane collides with a private plane, hundreds die, and all of it, the bodies and body parts and personal odds and ends in effect descend on the man who stood by while someone’s child died, and in case you doubt that he’s culpable, you’re taken up to the sky, to the point of impact, and sent down down down with the debris of the explosion, the target below a small blue rectangle: the swimming pool in the Whites’ back yard where the man responsible is standing, staring upward, once again watching death happen.


By the time a dead child’s stuffed dog falls from the fiery collision into Walter’s swimming pool — the charred toy, one eye out, an image that has been flashed ominously forward from the first episode — you’ve been hammered by explosions, shootings, stranglings; you’ve been dazzled by the cinematographer Michael Slovis’s artistry; you’ve enjoyed the sleazy ingenuity of one of the most charming shyster lawyers you’ll ever see, Saul “Just Call Saul” Goodman (Bob Odenkirk). You’re half in love with Skyler, Walt’s beautiful resourceful wife (Anna Gunn) and handsome disabled son (RJ Mitte); you have an insider’s knowledge of his extended family, including his blustery Drug Enforcement Administration brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris) and Skyler’s ditzy kleptomaniac sister Marie (Betsy Brandt). For four seasons, you’ve been horrified, shocked, touched, and amused by these people and the things they do. To quote Douthat again, from his column explaining why he thinks Vince Gilligan’s creation outranks Mad Men as the best show on television (and why I think it ranks with the best shows ever), “what’s struck me watching Breaking Bad is how much more invested I am in its characters as human beings.”

August 15, 2012

If I were asked to choose a film that would justify the existence of Hollywood, I think it would be “Rio Bravo.”

—Robin Wood in
Howard Hawks (1968)

“One of the most purely pleasurable films ever made,” says Dave Kehr of Howard Hawks’s 1959 western Rio Bravo in a recent New York Times round-up of metropolitan area film fare. Kehr is absolutely right, though some may find the choice of words problematic. How does one find pure pleasure in a picture that begins with a drunk groveling for money in a spittoon and goes on from there to a beating that causes the mindless murder of the man who intervened? Then there’s the lethal mayhem that results when the jailed killer’s wealthy brother hires a small army to liberate him. The joys of Rio Bravo, however, have less to do with gunfire and violent death than with the enlightened direction of Howard Hawks and the embattled camaraderie of a group of unlikely heroes led by John Wayne as Sheriff John T. Chance.

Whatever the genre — western, gangster, film noir, newspaper, war, musical, screwball, or romantic comedy — pictures directed by Hawks belong at or near the top of the list, and if anything demonstrates the massive insult to cinematic intelligence that is the American Film Institute’s ranking of the 100 Best Films, it’s the fact that Bringing Up Baby is the only work by Hawks that made the list (and barely, at that). Worse yet, High Noon (1952) is ranked 27th while its hands-down superior, Rio Bravo, the picture that one of the most intelligent and literate writers on film, the late Robin Wood (1931-2009), put at the top of his death-bed list of great films, didn’t even crack the almighty 100.

The Anti-High Noon

John Wayne once called High Noon “the most un-American thing” he’d ever seen. While he’s referring to the fact that it was written by Carl Foreman, a black-listed ex-communist, and produced by Stanley Kramer, a liberal, Wayne also shares Hawks’s thought: “I made Rio Bravo because I didn’t like High Noon. Neither did Duke. I didn’t think a good town marshal was going to run around town like a chicken with his head cut off asking everyone to help. And who saves him? His Quaker wife.”

Hawks is talking about characters played by Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly. The idea of an “un-American movie” with a steady, stalwart American icon running around in it like a “chicken with his head cut off” is ridiculous, as Hawks would no doubt agree, if he’d had a chance to reword what he was saying. For Robin Wood, High Noon is “the archetypal ‘Oscar’ film,” the product of three men (director Fred Zinneman, writer Carl Foreman, and producer Stanley Kramer) “whose work has been characterized by those Good Intentions with which we understand the road to hell to be paved. Mental intentions [Wood’s italics], not emotional or intuitive intentions: intentions of the conscious, willing mind, not of the whole man.” According to Wood, the emotional and intuitive wholeness that High Noon lacks is what makes Rio Bravo superior “as a record of lived and felt experience.”

The Moment

“In films, what everyone is striving for is to produce moments,” James Stewart told an audience at the British Film Theatre in 1972. “Not a performance, not a characterization, not something where you get into the part — you produce moments.”

Rio Bravo is full of choice moments like the ones in which Angie Dickinson’s card sharp, Feathers, sexually disarms John Wayne, the seemingly implacable “tower-of-strength” she affectionately, half-teasingly calls John T. And there are fractured moments as swift and subtle as the range of looks — compassionate, disappointed, proud — the sheriff gives the recovering-alcoholic Dude (movingly played by Dean Martin) as he falters, begins to find only to lose himself, and finally shows signs of pulling himself together.

There is one moment, one sequence, that particularly illuminates “the lived and felt experience” Wood refers to when comparing the virtues of Rio Bravo with the limitations of High Noon. It also happens to be the sequence most often cited by people like those responsible for the AFI list as evidence that Rio Bravo is unworthy of serious consideration. When the news got round that the terminally ill Robin Wood ranked Hawk’s western at the top of his final Top Ten, the reaction was disbelieving and scornful. A typically sloppy reaction (from a film blog called hollywood-elsewhere) begins, “What is that? You’re about to leave the earth and meet the monolith and the greatest film you can think of is Rio Bravo? A zero-story-tension hangin’ movie that constantly subjects viewers to screechy-voiced Walter Brennan, and which features the very soft-spoken, adolescent-voiced Ricky Nelson singing a duet with Dean Martin?” A similarly patronizing if somewhat less klutzy response comes from Wood’s hometown newspaper, the Toronto Star, two months after his death in December 2009: “John Wayne plays a small-town sheriff who rounds up a drunk (Martin), a punk kid (Nelson), and a raspy codger (Brennan) to battle bad guys who are threatening his town …. Pop stars Martin and Nelson crooned together on the sappy ditty, ‘My Rifle, My Pony and Me.’”

The “sappy ditty” and the way it simply, nicely happens is the point at which I bonded with Rio Bravo. People with a biased or limited view of what “art” is supposed to be instantly write off the singing scene as a crass attempt to exploit two pop stars whose presence is intended to bolster the box office: Dino, the forever sloshed Las Vegas Rat Pack crooner, and Ozzie and Harriet’s Ricky, America’s favorite kid brother and 1959’s latest Teen Idol.

For a start, no one “croons” in this scene. Martin’s Dude is on his back smoking a cigarette, his hat brim down over his eyes, when he starts to quietly sing, and as he does, it’s as if he’s making the song up, feeling it, as he goes along. Nelson, as a young gunfighter called Colorado, warms to the song and the singing with a smile from the heart, strums his guitar, and at a nod from Dude takes the next chorus while Stumpy, the “screech-voiced Walter Brennan” plays the harmonica and Wayne looks on, a tin cup of coffee in his hand, smiling, simply enjoying the harmonious spontaneity of the moment, like a stand-in for the audience, or that part of it not predisposed to dismiss the scene as Hollywood hype.

In fact, Hollywood is exactly what’s happening, and the rousing song that follows (“Get Along Home Cindy”) brings everything closer to the terms of Wood’s claim that Rio Bravo “justifies the existence of Hollywood” because “The whole of Hawks is immediately behind it, and the whole tradition of the western, and behind that is Hollywood itself.” Three generations of performers covering a span of 30 years in the saga of American popular culture are coming together in, to use Wood’s words, “a bond of fellow-feeling through the shared experience of the music.”

And what makes the moment, this shared sense of the world in a fine balance, all the more precious is the presence of the killer in the adjoining cell waiting for the invading force of his brother’s hired guns to set him free and destroy his jailers and anyone else who gets in the way. For the duration of the song, this family of men is sheltered from the dead zone of the outside world in the timeless confines of a Hawks continuum of other moments, like aglow-with-love Lauren Bacall singing “How Little We Know” to Bogart in To Have and Have Not, or Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn singing “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love” to an appreciative leopard; or Humphrey Bogart having the time of his life posing as a nerdy bibliophile in The Big Sleep. For Wood, this four-minute scene in Rio Bravo “is perhaps the best expression in Hawks’s work of the spontaneous-intuitive sympathy which he makes so important as the basis of human relations.”

Other Moments

Admitted, there are times early on when Rio Bravo seems slow and stagey and you’re tempted to urge the actors to get on with it. And Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez as the effusive Mexican hotelier is borderline (no pun intended) embarrassing. And Ricky is (just as well) no Brando or even Steve McQueen. And yes, Walter Brennan may grate on the nerves, but he too has a life in the larger culture, not only as Grandpa Amos McCoy in the sitcom, The Real McCoys, but as Bogart’s alcoholic sidekick in To Have and Have Not. Then there’s the mannered, edgily charming performance of Angie Dickinson, whose moves occasionally suggest the quirky body language of Diane Keaton’s Annie Hall 15 years down the road.

There is much much more to be said about Rio Bravo, though the most articulate and intelligent discussion I know of is in Robin Wood’s 1968 book, and the most succinct is in Garry Giddins’s collection of reviews, Warning Shadows, which ends with Dude and Stumpy  “strolling into the fantasy world of incandescent Hollywood, where everyone ends up content and whole.”

July 3, 2012

Season 2 of HBO’s Treme (pronounced Trem-ay) ends, movingly, with sometime DJ Davis McAlary (Steve Zahn) back at the WWOZ microphone from which he was unceremoniously separated in Season 1. If you’ve watched both seasons of David Simon and Eric Overmyer’s extraordinary series about the agony and ecstasy of post-Katrina New Orleans, you will feel the moment with Davis, his face in the shadows as he prepares to put on a CD. What follows may be the calmest, most thoughtful utterance of his life as we know it. “Anyway, New Orleans,” he says, softly, as if the whole city were in the booth with him or bedded down for the night nearby, “we’re all still here, ain’t we? A few more home every day. And even if it isn’t as it should be, even if they make it hard, where else would we go? who else would have us? … Let Pops tell it.”

Pops is, of course, New Orleans’s most illustrious citizen ever, Louis Armstrong, born July 4, 1900, his birth date a glorious fabrication he maintained right up to the day he died. People inclined to scold me for claiming Independence Day as Satchmo’s true 112th birthday can point to Terry Teachout’s biography Pops (Houghton Mifflin 2009), which declares that, according to the baptismal register of New Orleans’s Sacred Heart of Jesus Church, Armstrong was born on August 4, 1901. So, who do you trust, an old ledger, a drama critic for The Wall Street Journal, or the jazz god performing “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams” for the city of his birth as Davis slides home the CD? The dream that began on July 4, 1900, didn’t end on July 6, 1971. Those who doubt Satchmo’s song of himself should listen to Walt Whitman’s: “I pass death with the dying and birth with the new-wash’d babe, and/am not contain’d between my hat and boots,” and “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”

Recorded when Louis and the 20th century were 31, “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams” was in his band’s repertoire as he returned to New Orleans that same year for the first time since leaving his hometown in 1919. Eight marching bands met his train, the crowds closed down Canal Street, and that night when he played at the Suburban Gardens, WSMB was broadcasting live from the club. After the white announcer refused to announce him, Louis took over, later claiming it was “the first time a Negro spoke on the radio down there. For that night and the rest of the gig I did my own radio announcing.”

Though Davis McAlary most likely didn’t know that Louis Armstrong had once played the DJ on a New Orleans radio station, he couldn’t have picked a better song. While John Boutté’s lively theme music for Treme serves the purpose well, Armstrong’s performance of the Depression era hit captures the spirit of Season 2, all its ups and downs and “cloudy and gray … king for a day” moments. As the last note of Louis’s eloquent solo fades and with it the last of a series of New Orleans views (the cluttered makeshift memorial for a busker, a derelict house, a swamp with the skyline in the background), Davis sits speechless — a rare state for him. “Sorry for the dead air,” he says when he can find words. “But that one got me.”

Me, too.

As Louis Sings

During the four minutes the music’s riding the air waves, there are glimpses of some of the key characters in Treme doing what they do, Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce, the irrepressible trombonist, formerly of Simon’s The Wire); his ex-wife LaDonna (Khandi Alexander, formerly of Simon’s The Corner), back to her usual fine and foxy bartending self after a near catastrophic trauma; a couple of should-be could-be lovers, Terry the police lieutenant (David Morse) crossing paths with Toni the widowed lawyer (Melissa Leo, a.k.a. Kay Howard to fans of Simon’s Homicide), who snubs him due to a misunderstanding that Season 3 will have to clear up.

As Louis sings, “Whenever skies are cloudy and gray,” we see one of Treme’s stellar female characters, chef Janette Desautel (Kim Dickens, late of Deadwood) who is inspecting a kitchen she just might be commandeering if and when she returns to New Orleans from the Big Apple. The downside of the song seems especially fitting for Nelson Hidalgo (Jon Seda, another Homicide alum), the wheeling and dealing Dallas businessman who comes to town to make big money and cultivate the powers that be, including the politician whose downfall buries Hidalgo’s schemes and dreams. To real-life citizens of New Orleans, Seda’s character is a hateful reminder of the carpetbaggers who exploited the Katrina aftermath (“I don’t know anybody who doesn’t want to beat the living snot out of that guy,” says one blogger). But Treme’s many virtues preclude one-dimensional characters, certainly among the principals. Nelson’s cocksure ambience has a boyish charm (otherwise he wouldn’t be operating as effectively as he seems to be) and he’s enjoying himself right up to the moment he’s shown gazing unhappily at a vacant lot as Louis sings the chorus of “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams.”

John Goodman

It makes sense that a series about the character of a city would feature vivid characters, some with purely surface impact like the celebrity chefs and celebrity musicians who appear in cameos, while the ones who carry the weight have depths and dark places and rough edges, none more so than Creighton Bernette (John Goodman) as a Tulane professor harrowed and half-mad in the desolate aftermath of Katrina. Being one of the most celebrated character actors on the planet, Goodman gave the show instant media clout as he loomed, brooding and raging, above the music and mayhem of Season 1. In explaining Creighton’s fate to the Times-Picayune’s Dave Walker, David Simon points out that the suicide rate was quadruple the national average for a period after the storm: “What I found on The Wire was, if you’re not willing to kill your babies — to kill your beautiful babies, the characters you create and nurture — and be willing to say they serve the story in both life and death, any show becomes precious and you know that the story is not really speaking to the human condition.”

Davis McAlary’s Angel

You can tell something about the quality of Treme by following the ups and downs of the character granted the privilege of quietly closing out Season 2. Inspired by a real-life New Orleans “wiseass savant” named Davis Rogan, Davis McAlary has provoked as much online vitriol as the savvy opportunist Nelson Hidalgo. Davis is capital-E enthusiasm carried to an often intolerable extreme. Some may see him as a retro nightmare of an “off-the-pigs” hippie radical, others as a gag-me-with-a-spoon New Orleans version of Michael Moore. He’s loud, arrogant, and so in-your-face that whenever you begin to like him, he embarrasses you, the way certain one-track-minded motor mouths tend to do in “real life.” The very qualities that should redeem him — his passion for New Orleans, heart and soul, and its music (he more than any other character qualifies as the cheerleader for Treme) — lead him again and again off the deep end; thus the “Why I Hate Steve Zahn’s Davis” bloggers.

All that said, most reasonably understanding viewers will feel a nagging affection for the Davis character by the end of Season 2. Because of his unguarded effusiveness, his passionate devotion to his musical dreams, the whole world seems to be watching when his “castles … tumble,” so that when he loses his place in his own band or is outshone by a more compelling performer, you can’t help feeling for him as he swallows the disappointment (“that’s fate after all”). But what gives him definitive credibility is the affection of the street violinist Annie Talarico (Lucia Micarelli). Watch Annie’s face light up or go dreaming with eyes closed when she’s playing or smiling or simply being who she beautifully is, and you can’t help feeling that she’s Treme’s angel, the soul of the series, and one of its finest musicians. Not only does she move in with Davis, she enjoys him, roots for him, is on his side and in his bed, a combination sister, friend, and lover.

If Annie is Treme’s angel, Melissa Leo’s pro bono civil rights lawyer Toni might be called its conscience, if she weren’t so busy dealing with her grieving teen-age daughter, Sofia, probably the most wholly touching and vulnerable character in the series. Played by 18-year-old India Ennenga as if she were four years younger, Sofia doesn’t discover the truth about her father’s death (that he took his own life) until halfway through the second season, which further estranges her from Toni, who hadn’t had the heart to tell her. Sofia resembles one of Fellini’s angelic presences, like the girl smiling at Marcello near the end of La Dolce Vita. Her anger, confusion, and sad, wounded beauty haunt the second season. Though she gets drunk and high (and is arrested), the heartsick sadness abides. Not until her mother breaks down when despairingly attempting and failing to explain the inexplicable suicide (a hugely courageous, giving moment for Melissa Leo) does Sofia open up to her.

The Three Davids

In the post-millennium cable reign of the three Davids — Chase of The Sopranos, Milch of Deadwood, and Simon of The WireTreme puts Simon in a class by himself, at least until we see what David Milch does with, say, William Faulkner’s Light in August, now that he’s signed a contract with HBO and the Faulkner estate that will allow him to adapt whichever of the author’s stories or novels he chooses.


Both seasons of Treme are available on DVD at the Princeton Public Library and Netflix, where there is a long waiting list for Season 2. The most informative websites on Treme belong to Alan Sepinwall of the Newark Star-Ledger and Dave Walker of the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

June 27, 2012

Borzage never needed dream worlds for his suspension of disbelief. He plunged into the real world of poverty and oppression, the world of Roosevelt and Hitler, the New Deal. and the New Order, to impart an aura to his characters, not merely through soft focus and a fluid camera, but through a genuine concern with the wondrous inner life of lovers in the midst of adversity.

—Andrew Sarris (1928-2012)

Several reviews of Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom have pointed out the title’s seemingly inadvertent reference to Academy-Award-winning director Frank Borzage’s Moonrise (1948), the film numerous critics and filmgoers consider to be his last masterpiece. Borzage, who died 50 years ago this month, June 19, 1962, is still, incredibly, the dark horse among major American directors as well as the most shamefully under-represented on DVD in spite of Fox’s massive 2008 box set of his silent work. Thus, sadly, this is a “DVD review” in name only.

Last week also brought news of the death June 20 of Andrew Sarris, the critic who alerted the film world to the director he hailed as “that rarity of rarities, an uncompromising romanticist.” Writing in his highly influential compilation-as-manifesto, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968, Sarris saw Borzage’s abiity to make the most of “the glorious opportunity of Moonrise” as a vindication of “the moral of the auteur theory.”

Citing Moonrise in his Chicago Reader review of Moonrise Kingdom, Ben Sachs suggests that both films “are love stories about social outcasts” that “advance the optimistic message that we become better human beings through loving others.” Sachs calls Borzage “one of the most stalwart romantics in movies. Even when his stories feel contrived, the director’s sincerity comes through overwhelmingly.”

What comes through overwhelmingly in Moonrise Kingdom, however, is Anderson’s directorial panache, which is expressed on the grand scale, with flashily orchestrated set-piece flourishes like the life-sized doll-house opening and wildly implausible, borderline cartoonish action sequences. The adult characters, with the possible exception of Bruce Willis’s kind, thoughtful, sad sack sheriff, are little more than caricatures, and even the two 12-year-olds, Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward), whose scenes together are the essence of the film’s charm, sometimes seem to be reciting their lines like pre-teen automatons. On the other hand, their romance is one Borzage would have appreciated, and quite probably have been moved by, for Anderson’s young lovers do find their own version of that “wondrous inner life … in the midst of adversity.”

The Heart of Darkness

Books on film noir generally include Moonrise, in spite of the fact that it takes place in the backwoods of Virginia rather than in the urban setting typically associated with the genre. Take the term literally, as black film, and few pictures can match Moonrise for pure, swamp-deep, unremitting blackness. Orson Welles’s wild night ride, Touch of Evil, comes to mind, not to mention films like Producer Val Lewton’s Cat People, where Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur use darkness to disorient the audience, the better to break down its defenses and, in effect, its hold on reality. More often than not, the “noir” in film noir is the substance of its mood, its atmosphere.

Night is the primary element in Borzage’s most characteristic pictures, from Street Angel’s Neapolitan murk to the nocturnal Devil’s Island wilderness of Strange Cargo. He has no interest in mood for mood’s sake, nor in scaring or titillating the audience with shocking or menacing effects. Borzage plunges his stories into the element of night because night is the lifebreath of romance, and he’s the “uncompromising romanticist.” In Moonrise it’s a manifestation of the dark night of the protagonist’s soul. But in the heart of this film’s darkness, there is a place for “the wondrous inner life” Sarris was talking about.

The embattled lovers are a schoolteacher named Gilly Johnson (Gail Russell at her most warmly alluring) and a fugitive wanted for murder, Danny Hawkins (Dane Clark, the Brooklynite who reportedly got his film name from noir hero Humphrey Bogart). Danny is the benighted soul in need of saving, since he’s responsible for accidentally-on-purpose killing his nemesis, Jerry Sykes (Lloyd Bridges), who has never stopped taunting Danny about the fact that his father was hanged for murder. The couple’s trysting place is an abandoned mansion where, at the teacher’s insistence, they play out a Civil War fantasy of a ball as she executes Scarlett O’Hara moves as Mrs. Blackwater, the lady of the house (one of the film’s most rapturous moments involves a high-angle shot looking down at the dancing couple) — until his pursuers and the baying hounds arrive.

That a woman as beautiful, sensible, and intelligent as Gilly could ever have been engaged to an obnoxious bully like Sykes (the banker’s son, wouldn’t you know) is hard enough to accept, but for her then to become so suddenly and devotedly in love with the slayer of her fiance without losing our sympathy or her credibility is further evidence of Borzage’s mastery. What draws the teacher to Danny even as it repels and frightens her is the mixture of rage, anguish, fear, and remorse overflowing from the killing, that and his lot in life, the feeling that he’s been cursed from birth by his father’s fate. It’s the wildness in Danny that stirs and compels the teacher (much as similar qualities in James Dean a decade later attract Julie Harris in East of Eden and Natalie Wood in Rebel Without a Cause); Gilly doesn’t want to reform him, she wants to save him, and so she does, with some help from Mose, a black sage (Rex Ingram) who has “withdrawn from the human race,” a deafmute named Billy Scripture (Harry Morgan), Danny’s grandmother (Ethel Barrymore), and a sympathetic, philosophical sheriff (Allyn Joslyn).

To Save a Soul

The mission driving the plot of Moonrise is to save a soul.

Does saving or restoring a soul sound  presumptuous? Melodramatic? Old Fashioned? Dated? Without commercial viability? Probably. Why else has so worthy a mission been so rarely attempted in Hollywood, let alone accomplished?

While it’s possible to think of major American writers whose ambitions are on this level (most obviously, Faulkner’s “human heart in conflict with itself”), it’s not so easy to find the moral equivalent among landmark American films, including those made by Andrew Sarris’s pantheon of directors, where the attempted saving of souls is rarely on the agenda (exceptions being, among others, D.W. Griffth’s Broken Blossoms, Josef vonSternberg’s Docks of New York, and F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise).

Frank Borzage has beamed his soft, steady, sympathetic light time and again on the “souls” mentioned in the opening title of Street Angel (“Everywhere … in every town … in every street … we pass, unknowing, human souls made great by love and adversity”). It happens when Charles Farrell’s Chico saves Janet Gaynor’s Diane in 7th Heaven. It happens in Lucky Star, with a couple again played by Farrell and Gaynor. It happens with the couples in Man’s Castle and Little Man, What Now? and Three Comrades and Strange Cargo and with the nun and the soldier in Till We Meet Again.

You could even say that some soul-making is going on, at least superficially, in Moonrise Kingdom, where Suzy and Sam save one another in love and are saved from an impersonal society by the sheriff, who, like the sympathetic sheriff in Moonrise, perceives the human truth beyond the law.

Book and Film

The novel by Theodore Strauss from which Moonrise was adapted, title intact, was published by Viking to good sales in 1946. Compare the opening of the book with the first three minutes of the film, and the difference is stunning. The novel begins with Danny looking down at the man he has just killed; the first paragraph ends with a trope right out of the hard-boiled private eye playbook: “Jerry could almost be asleep and dreaming. Only he wasn’t asleep, and dead men don’t have dreams.”

The movie begins with grim music, a death march accompanied by nightmare imagery, dark pools of slime three dark figures are walking through, no faces, just the legs of three men plodding across a mire of gleaming darkness. Next a clearer view of the men walking toward you, the man in the middle in prison garb, still no faces, the figures casting shadows on the black gleam of the water. As the three men climb the steps in the foreground, more people come into view, a group holding umbrellas over their heads, all looking upward at the same time. What they see we see in silhouette: a gallows, the noose being fitted over the victim’s head, no faces, only the ink-black figures, one of them the executioner whose hand is on the lever that will drop the body, and down it goes, done with a fierce finality, after which the film cuts to the shadow of a hanged man swinging back and forth over white bedclothes, a baby crying, it’s a crib, and the hanged man is some sort of doll suspended overhead. Then the screen clouds up, a mass of ominous chaos, all floating shadows until you’re looking down at the lone figure of a boy walking across a school yard of kids chanting “Danny Hawkins’s dad was hanged.” As in a nightmare, young Jerry Sykes looms up with his hands clutching his neck in a gagging hideous mockery of hanging, his enormous shadow looming behind him against a stormy sky. Danny jumps on Jerry, they fight, the other kids gang up, jeering as Jerry rubs dirt in Danny’s face, all this intercut with images from the march to the gallows and the executioner slamming the lever down.

One minute and forty seconds into the film, the motive essence of the novel has been expressed with a force few if any writers, including Theodore Strauss, could have approached. At this point, you enter the present with another dark half-formed figure pacing in a deeply shadowed woods. A dance is in progress on the other side of a pond; you can see the lights and hear the music. Now you hear contentious voices, it’s Danny and Jerry, grown-up now, Jerry sneering, “It’s about time you had another beating,” followed by a crack about the hanging, and so begins the fight that leads to Jerry’s death.

You can see this opening sequence on YouTube, and if you’re inventive and persistent, you can probably view the film in its entirety. Again, it’s appalling that there is no DVD of Moonrise or Man’s Castle or History Is Made at Night, or any number of other classics by this great director. Meanwhile, you can see Moonrise Kingdom at various area theatres.

April 25, 2012

So far I’ve watched the unsinkable ship sink in the German Titanic (1943), in the Hollywood Titanic (1953), in the British docudrama, A Night to Remember (1958), and, most spectacularly and convincingly, in the 1997 blockbuster that was just re-released in 3-D.

Daniel Mendelsohn’s piece in the April 16 New Yorker examines the Titanic in the context of metaphor and myth, as a parable of money and class in the Gilded Age, and through the conflating of tragic archetypes (idolized protagonist brought down, thing of beauty shattered). Besides previewing some new books on the subject, Mendelsohn cites various films (“the yoking of romance to the disaster narrative”), including History Is Made at Night, which he calls a “bizarre 1937 tragicomedy” ending on an ocean liner “that hits an iceberg on its maiden voyage.” I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen Frank Borzage’s picture, one of the great films of the 1930s, and I’d have mentioned it along with the others, except that the collision with the iceberg isn’t the subject, it’s merely the table-setter for a couple’s moment of death-defying intimacy amid the human drama of panic, cowardice, bravery, impending doom, and, anyway, the ship doesn’t sink.

Getting to the Heart of It

The material compiled in Richard Davenport-Hines’s nicely crafted Voyagers of the Titanic: Passengers, Sailors, Shipbuilders, Aristocrats, and the Worlds They Came From (Morrow 2012), provides what Julian Fellowes calls “a new and heartbreaking story” (Fellowes’s own miniseries about the event has apparently been a disappointment). Much of the “heartbreak” in Voyagers is experienced later in life by the survivors in the lifeboats who had to endure “for an hour” the “anguished death cries” of other passengers who were drowning and freezing to death all around them. “Sometimes the cries receded, but then the chorus of death resumed, with more piercing despair.” One teenager said he “was traumatized by the memory of that ‘continuous wailing chant, from the fifteen hundred in the water all around us. It sounded like locusts on a mid-summer night.’” A boy of nine at the time, whose mother “held his head in her hands so that he would not hear the horror,” was still hearing it a decade later while living near Briggs Stadium in Detroit, where “the roar of the crowd when a player hit a home run never ceased to remind him of the cries of the … people freezing to death in the Atlantic.”

Briggs Stadium seated 30,000 in 1923, when the boy would have been 20, which means that for him that most apple-pie-American moment, the joyous acclaim of thousands upon thousands of cheering fans when a Tiger player lofts one into the stands serves only to send the survivor back to the chorus of death in the chill of that April night when the sky was said to be so bright with stars and the sea so still. The same teenager who heard the sound of locusts in the wailing said, “I have never seen the stars shine brighter …. I have never seen the sea smoother than it was that night …. It was the kind of a night that made one feel glad to be alive.”

Reading of a beautiful night overarching that grisly scene rouses thoughts of the clear blue sky over Manhattan on the morning of September 11, 2001. In James Cameron’s Titanic, released four years before 9/11, there’s an eerie foreshadowing of the terrorist attack in the tower-like looming of the two immensely steep sheer halves of the Titanic when it splits and sets the tiny human figures falling, leaping, sliding, like rag dolls.

While no other cinematic depictions of the sinking that I’ve seen can match Cameron’s Titanic, his bravura filmmaking (a veritable epic of special effects) seems cold and overblown compared to both Roy Ward Baker’s A Night to Remember, where the focus is primarily on the impersonal development of the event, and Jean Negulesco’s Titanic, in which Barbara Stanwyck and Clifton Webb are the primary instruments in a shameless but highly effective piece of emotional choreography.

One of the supreme moments in A Night to Remember occurs when the ship’s designer, Thomas Andrews (Michael Goodliffe) quietly informs Captain Smith (Laurence Naismith) that his ship, Andrews’s creation, is doomed. As the Captain absorbs what he’s just been told, the look in his eyes is truly frightening; it’s not that he’s afraid  for himself but that he’s been struck a mortal blow and is beyond fear, appalled by the magnitude of his fate and his duty, all this in the few seconds before he sweeps into action and delivers the requisite commands for readying the life-boats and telegraphing for help.

Nothing as subtle happens in the very Hollywood Titanic where the life-and-death reality of the crisis transports the estranged husband and wife back to the dawn of their relationship, and again when the briefly estranged father and son are reunited but doomed, clinging to one another facing death, brave with love (his arm around his son, Webb says “I feel as tall as a mountain”). Thanks to the performances of Stanwyck and Webb, the screenplay, the editing and cinematography and the director’s refusal to overplay a situation that begs for it, everything works; the emotional call rings loud and clear.

What the documentary approach of A Night to Remember lacks is the magnetic pull of a character like Clifton Webb, who fascinates us the moment he, as Richard Ward Sturges, a wealthy, world-class snob, strides unstoppably on board the ship. He has no ticket. The only way he can get aboard is to offer an immigrant husband in steerage a small fortune in cash (relatively speaking), convincing the man to take another boat. After being admitted aboard with the wife and baby, Sturges leaves them in steerage and goes straight to his rightful place in first class. He hardly gives us time to be appalled by the air of absolute entitlement with which he engineers this transaction. He has a compelling motive, having only just learned that his wife, Julia, is attempting to escape with their children to the real-folks down-to-earth midwest (where the P on a college boy’s sweater stands not for Princeton but Purdue), so that her son and daughter won’t become the “ruthless, purposeless, superficial” people Sturges has been grooming them to be. Webb’s behavior on the ship seems to bear her out. When during a fight over custody Julia confesses that his beloved son who idolizes him is not his son but the offspring of a one-night stand, the deeply wounded father viciously determines to behave as if the boy no longer exists.

The instant this unapologetic snob comprehends that the ship is doomed, however, he doesn’t merely rise to the occasion, he transcends it by pushing through the tide of panic-stricken passengers and making his way down to steerage to save the wife and child he so cavalierly separated from their husband and father. It might seem a wildly improbable turn for such a manner-bound man to take, but somehow it makes beautiful, moving sense, and you come to share his wife Julia’s thought, that the disaster has not transformed him so much as it has brought forth the nobility beneath the veneer of sophistication and style and privilege that she saw in him when they first fell in love.

A real-life moment of truth for Barbara Stanwyck came during the filming of the scene that followed the couple’s reconciliation. A bitter cold night had been replicated on the set at Fox’s Century City studios. The actress was suspended in one of the lifeboats swinging on davits some 50 feet above the “heavy rolling mass of water” in the outdoor tank. Looking down, she thought, “If one of these ropes snaps now, it’s goodbye for you. Then I looked up at the faces lined along the rail — those left behind to die with the ship. I thought of the men and women who had been through this thing in our time. We were re-creating an actual tragedy and I burst into tears. I shook with great racking sobs and couldn’t stop.”

The Great Borzage 

In the hands of another director, History Is Made at Night could have been unimaginably worse than the “bizarre tragicomedy” Mendelsohn brushes off in passing. In then-dialogue-director Joshua Logan’s account of the filming, a couple of foul-mouthed madcap “geniuses” named Gene Towne and Graham Baker were “talking the story” to producer Walter Wanger: “If the thinnest boredom appeared to cross Wanger’s eyes, they pepped up the story by sexing it up.” When a slam-bang denouement was needed, they decided to “sink the Titanic.”

For Borzage, the situation was a natural. He had the right actors, having already drawn career-best performances from Charles Boyer as a great headwaiter whose genius for his profession you never doubt for a second, Jean Arthur as an unhappy wife from Kansas whose life-altering love for Boyer you never doubt, and Leo Carillo, a human-comedy delight as “the great Caesar,” whose gifts as a chef you believe in absolutely, and Colin Clive as the insanely jealous husband Bruce Vail, owner of the ocean liner Princess Irene, named for his happy wife (once she’s found Boyer). What better situation for Hollywood’s greatest director of romances than to have his lovers huddled together in the tragic fog sharing a surpassingly intimate moment on a sinking ship, all the life boats lowered, their choice made, to die together, the soft floating haze lending their faces a ghostly radiance as if they were already in some limbo between life and death, while the other, mostly male passengers doomed to go down with the ship are praying, weeping, and singing “Nearer My God to Thee.”

For an uncompromising humanist romanticist like Frank Borzage, it was the ultimate have-your-cake-of-life-and-death-and-eat-it-too opportunity. Not only would he bring his lovers back from the brink of death, he would do the same for everyone else on the ship and would show them experiencing the news of their salvation in a mass delirium of joy. The film closes with a swiftly edited montage of jubilant faces in close-up: a man inhaling a cigar as if it were sweet with the breath of new life, people hugging one another. You want a Hollywood ending? This is the Sistine Chapel of Hollywood endings.

In a review for The Nation, Mark Van Doren called History Is Made at Night “easily the best of its kind in recent years” and then pointed out one of the characteristic qualities of actors in a Borzage film: “Jean Arthur and Charles Boyer as the lovers whom nothing can ever quite succeed in keeping apart … are charming not so much because they act with restraint, but because they know how to act as if nothing restrained them.”

Sad to say, Borzage’s classic, like his even greater film, Man’s Castle, is still not available on DVD in this country. History Is Made at Night can be seen online at hulu,among other resources. Just google it at imdb. A Night to Remember is at the library.

April 4, 2012


It is the Hamlet of horror roles.

—Anthony Perkins (1932-1992)

Question of the day — if James Dean had lived, would he have been brave, crazy, or desperate enough to play Norman Bates in Psycho? Put it another way. Can you imagine anyone else but Anthony Perkins chatting with Janet Leigh in those first scenes at the Bates Motel? Montgomery Clift maybe? One look at that scarred, haunted countenance and Janet would be backing out to take her chances with the rainy night. As for James Dean, even if he’d trimmed the flame of his method actor’s ego down to a flicker, it’s hard to believe he could have kept a believably straight face while watching Janet nibble at her last supper, not with lines like, “You eat like a bird,” or “My hobby is stuffing things. You know, taxidermy,” or “It’s not like my mother is a maniac or a raving thing. She just goes a little mad sometimes.”

In The Making of Psycho, screenwriter Joseph Stefano describes the key change he suggested to Hitchcock, which was to make Norman Bates “a vulnerable, young, handsome, kind of sad character” instead of the pudgy middleaged man in the Robert Bloch novel on which the film was loosely based. As soon as he heard Stefano enumerate the qualities of the ideal Norman Bates, Hitchcock said, “Tony Perkins!” Picking Perkins for Norman was the true “making” of Psycho. Any number of female leads besides Janet Leigh, as good as she is, could have played the doomed Marion Crane; the same holds for the other roles. Tony Perkins, who would be 80 years old today, is nearly as vital to the film as Hitchcock himself. No one else could have brought the same devastating mixture of shy, sweet solicitude and sinister unease to that intimate, fiendishly understated scene Marion and Norman share in the motel office among stuffed birds of prey. “We scratch and we claw,” Norman says, quietly, thoughtfully, politely (his guest is eating, remember), “but only at the air, only at each other, and for all of it, we never budge an inch.”

A Self-Made Enigma

One of the preconceived notions Hitchcock counted on to maximize Psycho’s shock value was Tony Perkins’s image in the summer of 1960. While not yet a major star, he was clearly being groomed for superstardom. Young, attractive, oozing sensitivity, slightly off-center (“quirky” would be the word of choice in 2012), neither the rebel nor the anti-hero, he received a magnum shot of publicity in the March 3 1958 Newsweek cover story that began by quoting a Paramount executive (“We’ve invested 15 million bucks in this kid”) and some co-workers (“Let’s face it, he’s odd,” “He’s mystical,” “He’s a self-made enigma”). When it wasn’t recycling rumors, the article provided a fair summary of Perkins prior to Psycho: he was going to be “the next Gary Cooper or Jimmy Stewart,” “possibly the most gifted dramatic actor under 30 in the country,” starring in a Broadway hit (Look Homeward, Angel), capable of playing “young men at the brink of maturity” with “dignity and a certain elevation of spirit.”

Although Newsweek lets Perkins speak for himself at the end, the piece is full of gossip, much of it unfounded and unflattering, including comments that might have caught Alfred Hitchcock’s eye: “I thought the crazy kid was trying to kill me,” one actor recalled after the filming of a fight scene; another said, “Everything about him is immature. He’s like a 12-year-old …. I think he ought to meet a good psychiatrist.”

Probed by Mike Wallace

The Newsweek piece led to a long, characteristically probing interview on CBS with Mike Wallace. Fans of Mad Men should see this interview, which is available in full online, if only for the spectacle of Wallace lecturing the audience on the scientific virtues of Parliament cigarettes (“with the recessed filter” and 30,000 traps “set deep down” so that “nicotine and tar can’t get on your lips”). Wallace goes at it no less pedantically than the psychiatrist hauled absurdly in at the conclusion of Psycho to explain the fine points of Norman’s psychosis.

The Wallace interview could have served as Perkins’s screen test for the part of Norman Bates. All the tics and intonations are there, the quick smile, the nervous laugh, the stammering, the measured, thoughtful manner that shades toward the dark side every time Wallace hits a sore spot, as when he refers to the “good psychiatrist.” Perkins’s sudden unguarded response is almost identical to Norman’s when Marion Crane seals her fate by suggesting that his mother should be put away someplace. “People always call a madhouse someplace, don’t they?” he snaps. “Have you ever seen the inside of one of those places?”

A Role Model

Around the time of the Newsweek story, I had entered into an imaginary relationship with Tony Perkins, the fourth of my teen-age role models, after James Dean, Holden Caulfield, and Thomas Wolfe. It didn’t matter that the only movies of his I’d seen were inconsequential compared to Dean’s big three. The way he looked, moved, and spoke appealed to me, and seeing him play Wolfe’s alter ego Eugene Gant in Look Homeward, Angel on Broadway (his final performance) sealed the one-way friendship. We were in the same building, two Eugene Gants breathing the same electric theatrical atmosphere.

Being several inches shorter than TP, I had less to “gangle” with (he was always described as “gangling”), but I was right there when it came to being awkward, restless, and sensitive, among the other adjectives that followed him around. I liked the way he described himself in the Newsweek story, “a young boy, searching, not aggressive, but introspective — the representation of Everyman’s youth.” I also adopted his way of hugging his own shoulders, arms crossed, high up (as if posing for a straitjacket, now that I think of it here on the other side of Psycho), and I did it so well that some girls I met one summer paid me the ultimate compliment (“hey, you remind me of that actor” etc. etc.). I also had the voice down, having shared his greatest moment in Look Homeward, Angel, praying for his dead brother Ben at the end of Act Two: “Whoever you are, be good to Ben tonight.” Three times he said it, like a litany or a poem. I could do it just the way he did, in a sort of plaintive rush, running the words together. I also knew when he was going through the motions and could do a decent parody of his lovemaking with Audrey Hepburn in Green Mansions (“Oh Rima you are so beautiful Rima, oh God, oh Rima, Rima!”).

Meanwhile, the protagonist of the novel I’d started writing at 17, originally based on James Dean, was, no surprise, becoming a taller, skinnier, more introspective, less aggressive type who could, like Tony Perkins, sing. When the novel was published, I sent him a copy and got back a typed note thanking me, promising to read the book, and suggesting that we meet after a performance of Greenwillow if the Broadway musical was still running in June (it wasn’t). He also thanked me for my “kind remarks” on what had been his “closing performance” in Look Homeward, Angel.

Along Comes Norman

Tony’s letter was dated May 9, 1960, a little less than two months after he’d completed filming Psycho. Of course I knew nothing of this at the time. Given the secrecy cloaking the project, neither did anyone else.

Four months later I staggered out of a London movie theatre. It was broad daylight but the walk from Mayfair to Bloomsbury might as well have been through dark streets with gangling, cross-dressing psychopaths lurching out of doorways and Bernard Herrmann’s relentless music pounding and slashing at my back. My days of identifying with Tony Perkins were over, needless to say.

After maybe half a dozen viewings of Psycho over the years, with all the film’s wonders, its unparalled directorial dynamics and musical genius (arguably the most compelling score ever written), the scene I most admire is that cozy dinner conversation between Norman and Marion in the motel office. Just a few minutes of quiet dialogue before the bloodbath and in that time Tony Perkins gives the film warmth, depth, and an unlikely measure of humanity. “I do have affection for Norman as a person,” Perkins told Steve Biodrowski in a Cinefantastique interview. “It is the Hamlet of horror roles and you can never quite get enough of playing Norman Bates. It’s always interesting … it’s identified me …. People who see me and think of me in terms of this role usually, as they’re talking to me, will also say, ‘Oh but I also liked you in this or that.’”

The post-Psycho typecasting that hurt Perkins in Hollywood didn’t prevent him from doing a lot of interesting “this or that” in Europe, including Kafka with Orson Welles (The Trial), Greek tragedy with Jules Dassin and Melina Mercouri (Phaedra), December-May romance with Ingrid Bergman (Goodbye Again), two films with Claude Chabrol (The Champagne Murders and Ten Days Wonder), and an acclaimed performance as Inspector Javert in Les Miserables. At home, he laid claim to Norman Bates by making three sequels to Psycho, the second of which he directed himself. After a series of affairs with other men, he married at 41 and raised two sons before dying from complications of AIDs on September 12, 1992. His widow, photographer Berry Berenson, died in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, on American Airlines Flight 11.


The Making of Psycho is included in the Collector’s Edition of the film, which can be found on the DVD shelves of the Princeton Public Library. Turner Classic Movies is marking Perkins’s birthday by showing five of his early films, beginning at 10:45 a.m. today with his first, The Actress, and ending at 6:30 with Pretty Poison. Alfred Hitchcock and The Making of Psycho, with Anthony Hopkins as Hitchcock, is in pre-production for Fox Searchlight.

February 29, 2012

At this time, many Iranians all over the world are watching us and I imagine them to be very happy …. I proudly accept this award to the people of my country, the people who respect all cultures and civilizations.

—Asghar Farhadi on accepting the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film


Giving Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation the Oscar for Best Foreign Film is a contradiction in terms. What makes the Iranian director’s picture the best I saw this year — what lifts it above The Artist and the rest of the mainstream competition — is that it is un-foreign, human, universal. It’s about us, not them.

The regime in Tehran has been steeling itself for months against the shameful prospect of yet another Western honor, this the ultimate accolade, for a film that state-run television has dismissed for depicting “the image of our society” as “the dirty picture westerners are wishing for.” Farhadi’s perceptive, unbiased, seemingly apolitical observation of the human condition — Faulkner’s “human heart in conflict with itself” — confounds attempts to tie it to a politically subversive point of view. It was also hugely popular in Iran. So the best the regime can do is disapprove of Farhadi’s “passivity.”

Farhadi did have at least one close call. In 2010, Jafar Panahi, the director of The White Balloon and The Circle, was sentenced to a six-year prison term and banned from writing or directing films for 20 years for allegedly attempting to undermine the government. When Farhadi spoke up on behalf of Panahi, the regime temporarily removed permission for production of A Separation.

More Iranian Magic

For what it’s worth from someone who has no compelling interest in Iranian cinema, the second best film I saw in 2011 was Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy, his first picture made in the West with Western actors, notably Juliette Binoche. When Binoche was voted Best Actress at Cannes in 2010, she raised hackles in Tehran by tearfully dedicating the award to Jafar Panahi and writing his name in capital letters on a sign that she left on the podium, where it remained in view throughout the ceremony.

By all rights, Certified Copy and its star should have received Academy nominations in 2010 (if not 2011, the year of its American release). There’s no doubt Meryl Streep deserved the Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher, which I have not been able to bring myself to watch. I’m sure Streep could do wonders with Pat Nixon and Nancy Reagan and maybe even Callista Gingrich, but consider what Juliette Binoche does in a part written for her by an Iranian director. Kiarostami gives her no name, just “Elle,” presumably because he sees her as a kind of feminine ideal. Not that she’s meant to be perfect, far from it. She’s vividly French (lots of expressive gesturing and body language), a single mother with a young son who enjoys teasing her, and she lives in Italy where she runs a cavernous shop specializing in art and antiquities. During an outing to a Tuscan hilltown with James, an English writer (opera baritone William Shimell in his first film role), she does the driving; that is, she’s behind the wheel in every sense of the phrase as James becomes the dour straight man she weaves her charming, infuriating, but invariably natural and believable performance around. She also leads the way when they act out what appears to be a casual, spontaneous charade of marriage seeded with hints that they might really have a married past. Act or no act, Binoche is the real thing. She’s intelligent, sophisticated, open, guarded, flirtatious, argumentative, funny, arrogant, sweet, romantic, and cynical, and can express all those qualities — spinning like a Catherine Wheel of unbridled femininity — in the space of a single scene. For instance, the cafe sequence, where James is making an ass of himself with an indifferent waiter and either fails or obstinately refuses to appreciate her when she comes back after disappearing to “fix her face” — a moment in which the audience becomes the mirror she’s looking into as she applies lipstick, puts on earrings, and checks herself out approvingly. In that brief sequence where she’s “making herself beautiful for him” (as she frankly admits), she lends poetry to that feminine ritual.

This richly nuanced “portrait of a lady” was created by a director from a society where everything about Binoche’s character and behavior would be deemed a violation (not to mention the makebelieve marriage’s violation of reality) — where women must cover their heads, eschew makeup, and know their place.

Warring Couples

A Separation begins with a couple applying (without success) for a divorce because the wife, Simin (Leila Hatami) wants to live abroad while her husband Nader (American-born Peyman Maadi) insists on staying in Tehran with their 11-year-old daughter Termeh (beautifully played by the director’s daugter Sarina), so he can care for his father, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Unable to leave the country without her husband, Simin goes to stay with her family, which means that Nader has to find day care for his father. The woman he hires, Razieh (Serah Bayat), has to bring along her little daughter Somayeh (Kimia Hossieni), who in one scene tinkers with the sick man’s oxygen tank and finds that she can bring him to life by turning a knob; his eyes open, he sees her, she smiles and says “Hi.”

What sets the plot fully in motion is Nader’s outrage when he comes home to find his father in serious distress, on the floor, tied to the bed, possibly near death, with Razieh nowhere to be seen. Between that and his suspicion that she has taken some money, he fires her, and when she vehemently and tearfully protests, he shoves her out the door, she loses her balance, falling back a step or two, nothing serious — except that it seemingly provokes a miscarriage that leads to a murder charge for Nader, who didn’t know that she was pregnant. When Razieh’s hot-headed husband Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini, no relation to Kimia) storms into the picture, the wrangling intensifies, with both men or both couples going at it, separately or together, including a contentious reenactment of the moment on the stairway as the children, Termeh and Somayeh, look on.

Honoring A Separation with the Golden Bear as this year’s best picture, the Berlin Film Festival gave the Silver Bears for actress and actor to the ensembles for each, rightly including Sarina’s Termeh and Kimia’s Somayeh. These children sadly and sweetly bearing witness to the frantic behavior of the adults give the film a full and very necessary measure of grace and poignance. The look that passes between them toward the end of Asghar Farhadi’s picture is as likely to endure as any such moment in the best works of other “foreign” filmmakers like Federico Fellini or Satyajit Ray or Jean Renoir.

Sounding The Artist

No surprise that The Artist won the Best Picture Oscar, as well as best director for Michel Hazanavicius, Actor Jean Dujardin, and original score Loudovic Bource. Hustling Harvey Weinstein (and Uggie the dog) no doubt helped bring home the first three, but take away Bource’s extraordinary musical accompaniment and even Uggie couldn’t save the day: the audience would be gone before he had time to win it over. To be truly great, The Artist would have to live up to its title. Instead of the swashbuckling singing and dancing film star played by Dujardin, the title character would have to be a Chaplinesque director whose great swan song would be a masterpiece (think City Lights) or maybe a failed masterpiece. Even with the music, and Uggie, and its many other charms, The Artist is not in the same league with the silent films honored at the first Academy Awards in 1928, Frank Borzage’s 7th Heaven and F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise.

Nor is it in the same league with A Separation, which is currently playing at both the Garden and Montgomery, or with Certified Copy, a BluRay DVD of which is available at the Princeton Public Library. If you want to see other work by Farhadi and Kiarostami, as well as Panahi, and their colleagues, the library boasts a good selection of Iranian films on DVD.

January 4, 2012

I don’t have the evidence to prove it but I’d bet that the majority of first-run movies made between 1920 and 1950 are set in New York City and that of those, more than half open with a shot of Times Square at night. Since Times Square and New Year’s Eve are virtually synonymous, this, the first column for 2012, features the Times Square fantasia from Love Happy, the last, least shown, and most roundly dismissed and generally disdained of the Marx Brothers’ pictures.

Love Happy opened at the Criterion Theatre on Times Square the first week in April 1950. Among several things the “horrible movie” (Groucho’s comment) has going for it is Marilyn Monroe, who pays a brief, breathtaking, off-the-shoulder-evening-gowned visit to Groucho’s nearsighted private eye Sam Grunion (“Men follow me” is how she explains her predicament). There’s also a classic Harpo routine in which three heavies looking for a stolen diamond necklace search in his bottomless coat, extracting, among other things, the leg of a female mannequin, a welcome mat, an umbrella, a barber’s pole, a mailbox, the mannequin’s other leg, an inner tube, and a dog. In addition to the thankless task of frisking the silent one, the thugs are [my italics] asking Harpo questions: “We have ways of making you talk!” Which is like telling the Rock of Gibraltar “We have ways of making you move.”

Above all, there’s Harpo’s flight. Some might call it a chase scene with the three hoods in pursuit but in truth it’s a Harpo Marx solo, “Swinging on a Star” meets “Racing with the Moon” in a slapstick scramble across the floodlit playground of animated neon above Times Square. First he seeks refuge in the massive company of the yawning, pajama-clad Fisk Tire boy, stifling a yawn himself before blowing out the big sleepyhead’s candle and diving under a Wheaties box the size of a house, only to rise through some mad gremlin power of his own to the flying red horses of Mobil, a flashing sequence of neon steeds, leaving his earthly pursuers falling all over themselves on the rooftop below. Seconds later, with the villains at his heels again, he catches hold of the swinging neon pendulum of the big Gruen clock, a primitive version of the one that marked the 2012 countdown four nights ago with some help from a silver-sheathed Lady Gaga. Hanging on, swinging high and low, he lets the pendulum do all the work; every time the bad guys try to grab him on the downswing, boom, ass over backwards they go, the hands of the clock spinning like a roulette wheel as Harpo flies headlong, arms out, straight into the open beak of Joe Kool, the chain-smoking penguin. When Joe opens his beak to exhale another puff, it’s Harpo’s lunatic gargoyle face and mashed stovepipe hat you see; it takes three tries before he manages to extract himself, climbing out wrapped in a blast of smoke and sliding down the penguin’s wing to the floodlit parapet, where he staggers around, smoke-drunk, pushed to the sheer edge of the roof by the three hoods, lights of cars far below on Broadway, oh-oh it’s all over, he’s cornered, nowhere to go but straight down except that when they punch at the junky inner sanctum of his big coat, he erupts, Mt. Harpo belching forth a fat stream of smoke that blinds his assailants. He’s sated with secondhand smoke, teeming with it, cranking his arms, blowing it out both ears, like some crazed pagan spirit, the god of Pandemonium lording it over the Great White Way.

Bird at the Roost

In the relatively real world down below at the Royal Roost, the House That Bop Built, 1580 Broadway, practically next door to the Criterion at 1530 where Love Happy will open more than a year later, it’s December 31, 1948, midnight’s looming, and Charlie Parker has just completed a solo flight on “How High the Moon” that could be transcribed to score every fast and fluid rise and fall and starry surprise of Harpo’s flight from Fisk to Kool on the big signs overhead. And if that seems like excessive synchronicity, what better occasion than the changing of the years on a square named for the Times? Surely this is the one night out of 365 that begs for the muse of fantasy.

In fact, the music, the time and the place are for real. You can hear the New Year’s Eve Broadcast on Bird at the Roost: The Savoy Years Volume Two, with Symphony Sid sending it out live over WMCA, courtesy of Music Hall Credit Jewelers, which “give up their time just to wish you all a very happy new year from the Original Metropolitan Bopera House.”

The 1911 Club

So here I am looking back on 2011 and realizing that my only celebrity centenary columns were on Ronald Reagan and Ginger Rogers, which is why I’m imagining that the old Times Square magnetism has lured a whole host of 1911 birthmates down the stairway into the cozy confines of the Roost for a New York New Year’s Eve with Charlie Parker. All in their prime at 37, the members of the 1911 club waiting for 1948 to become 1949 undoubtedly suggest a “strange bedfellows” scenario, as scholar anarchist Paul Goodman discusses baseball and Thoreau with slugger Hank Greenberg while Butterfly “Prissy” McQueen shares a shrill toast with Big Joe Turner in memory of Jean Harlow and Robert Johnson, two members of 1911 club who died in the late 1930s. A few minutes ago, during intermission, Roy Rogers and Vaughan Monroe had been prevailed upon to team up for an impromptu a cappella rendition of “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” the song Monroe will put on the musical map later in the new year. Now here comes Lee J. Cobb, dropping in to unwind after weeks of heavy rehearsing for the part of Willy Loman; in a month he’ll be opening around the corner at the Morosco in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Right now he’s talking shop with Broderick Crawford, who will play the role of his life and cop an Oscar in 1949 as Willie Stark in All The King’s Men.

The handsome guy handing his coat to the coat check girl is Nicholas Ray, whose first film, They Live By Night, is due for release later in the new year. Jules Dassin, there with his first wife Bea, has been talking about the location filming he did for The Naked City after hearing from Nick about the controversy he encountered directing Duke Ellington’s interracial musical Beggar’s Holiday a few years back. Ray’s new wife Gloria Grahame has settled down at a ringside table meanwhile and is already flirting up a storm with trumpeter Roy “Little Jazz” Eldridge and the artist Romare Bearden, who has been sketching the scene onstage where Bird and his All-Stars are playing “Half-Nelson” at breakneck speed. Sharing the adjacent table though they appear not to know one another are Marshall McLuhan and L. Ron Hubbard, both busy taking notes.

Also seated at ringside are three imposing women to whom Parker is devoting special frenzied attention as his solo peaks and falls back, appearing to falter only to soar into brave new worlds. The tall redhead in the big hat is Lucille Ball, who is distracted by the fear that her husband Desi may be playing a New Year’s Eve gig in the Never Never Room of The Hotel Showgirl. Next to her is Gypsy Rose Lee, hatless, bejeweled and serenely beautiful in a fabulous Aubrey Beardsley dream of a dress. On Gypsy’s left wearing a confectionary headpiece that doesn’t go with her natural good looks is Tarzan’s first Jane, Maureen O’Sullivan, the only person at the table willing to give herself up to the music.

An interlude of softly swinging pianistic magic from 24-year-old Al Haig gives Charlie a chance to chat up “Jane” before falling into a conversation about Honegger’s “Song of Joy” with Gian Carlo Menotti, whose Medium and Telephone are at City Center, and Stan Kenton, who is still beaming about the nice things Bird said about him (“the closest thing in jazz to classical music”) in a recent Blindfold Test. Keeping his own counsel at the same table is Bernard Hermann, whose score for Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train has just been quoted, with a wink for the composer, by Al Haig. At the next table, Elizabeth Bishop and Tennessee Williams, are talking about Key West, Bishop’s asthma, which is always less of a bother in New York, and her next door neighbor, who happens to be Jessica Tandy’s understudy in Streetcar Named Desire. Williams’s latest play, Summer and Smoke, has just opened at the Music Box.

There’s a buzz in the room as Merle Oberon enters with her new husband cinematographer Lucien Ballard. Haig salutes her with Cathy’s theme from the score of Wuthering Heights. Another gasp from the crowd greets Harpo Marx’s backstage emergence. Out of costume and out of breath after his night flight amid the billboards, Harpo mutely counts down the last ten seconds of 1948 with Symphony Sid as Spike Jones, Robert Taylor, and Vincent Price hurry in with their significant others, fresh from the Times Square crush.

Midnight! 1949! Over the cheering and kissing hoopla, Charlie Parker shouts “If music be the food of love, play on!” as he makes way for Mahalia Jackson, who leads everyone in a spine-chilling rendition of “Auld Lang Syne.”

Note: Everyone I imagined showing up at the Roost that night was born in 1911 (all 26, not counting Harlow and Johnson) with a few obvious exceptions. To see who didn’t show up, google “Born in 1911” (http://www.nndb.com/lists/910/000105595/) which is still incorrectly listing Margaret Sullavan, who was born in 1909 and the subject of my May 13, 2009 column. A DVD of Love Happy was released in 2004 by Republic Pictures. A limited number are available on Amazon.

December 28, 2011

I never thought I’d say it, but the newly released Blu-ray DVD of Vincente Minnelli’s Meet Me in St Louis (1944) has to be one of the most beautiful motion pictures ever made. Before Blu-ray, the beauty was secondary to the original songs by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane (“The Boy Next Door,” “The Trolley Song,” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”), the peerless singing of Judy Garland, and the scene-stealing of Margaret O’Brien as Judy’s little sister Tootie.

When DVDs first came on the scene, people would say, speaking of such-and-such a movie, “You think you’ve seen it, but you haven’t. In DVD, it’s like another film.” David Kehr seems to be saying as much in his recent New York Times review of the Blu-ray Meet Me in St Louis when he celebrates the “pinpoint accuracy that even the original nitrate prints did not possess.” Probably the only way to know if you’re seeing the film in a state true to its original release would be to travel back to November 1944 and see it on the screen at the Astor Theatre.

Depth and Clarity

The colors in the film’s opening sequence showing the stately Victorian homes of a St. Louis neighborhood in the spring before the 1904 World’s Fair have a depth and clarity that make you catch your breath — the effect is so real that it’s almost un-real, and people, seen in motion from a distance, seem to be moving in another dimension. Once you enter the spacious gingerbread residence of the Smith family, the colors are even more stunning; the stained glass window in the grandfather’s room, to name one detail among many, makes you want to hit the pause button and just stare. You have to think that had the film looked this good on its first release, reviewers should have been raving about it. The New York Times’s Bosley Crowther, however, merely refers to “eyefuls of scenic delight” while praising Minnelli for the “period charm” and “rooms lush with golden-oak wainscotting, ormolu decorations, and red-plush chairs.”

In his Nation review, James Agee begins by knocking “the chromium and glucose style” and “colors too perfectly waxen” before going on to admit that he “can’t remember ever having seen studio-sealed Technicolor better used.” He then gives an example that could be describing the Blu-ray effect: a shot “in which a mother and four daughters, all in festal, cake-frosting white, stroll across their lawn in spring sunlight, so properly photographed that the dresses all but become halations.” Later he cites the Halloween scene, where Margaret O’Brien’s acting, “the lovely, simple camera movement,” and “color control” combined to make his hair “stand on end.” As happens when Agee is coming to terms with a film that impresses him, he seems to be contending with the momentum of his own enthusiasm as he suggests: “If the rest of the picture’s autumn section … had lived up to the best things about that shot, and if the rest of the show, for all its prettiness, had been scrapped, Meet Me in St Louis would have been, of all things on earth it can never have intended to be, a great moving picture.” In spite of having effectively rejected everything in the film but that one shot, he takes the implication even farther by suggesting that it would have been “the first great moving picture made in this country” since Modern Times (1936). From a devotee of Chaplin as fervent and outspoken as Agee, that’s a remarkable claim, however much he may qualify it up front.

Even aside from the Blu-ray-brightened and clarified color and the mercurial presence of Margaret O’Brien (“a wholly delightful imp of Satan” croons stuffy Bosley Crowther), Minnelli’s film has a lot going for it. It’s a great family movies, a holiday classic that does full justice to both Christmas and Halloween, a lovesick spring and an ice cream summer; there are no false moves, as each musical number emerges spontaneously from each situation, including the opening title song and an exhilaratingly true-to-life “Skip to My Lou” dance sequence; everyone in the cast is likeable and believable in their own way (Marjorie Main’s tough-talking cook in particular), with none of the MGM goody-goody overkill you might anticipate. What could be cornier, you may wonder, than a boy-next-door theme or a family crisis about the possibility of a suitor calling the eldest sister (Lucille Bremer) long-distance during dinner? Or consider the sentimental potential of a tearful Christmas with Margaret O’Brien’s Tootie in hysterics knocking the heads off snow men after listening to Judy Garland sing her heart-breaking rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” a song whose downbeat lyrics had to be revised (“It may be your last/Next year we may all be living in the past” becoming “Let your heart be light/Next year all our troubles will be out of sight”).

I doubt very much if Agee’s scrapping of “the rest of the show” would include Tootie’s ecstatic rendition of “I Was Drunk Last Night, Dear Mother” prior to the famous cakewalk routine where she and Judy Garland sing “Under the Bamboo Tree.” Nor is it likely that he’d have given up the seductively directed scene where Garland lures the boy next door into the house to help her “turn out the lights” and leads him through the rooms snuffing the gaslit chandeliers and lamps until she has him and us under her spell. “Beautiful” is the only word for it. Presumably that’s part of the “prettiness” that Agee admires but ultimately sees as the enemy of “truth.”

Vintage Agee 

One of the primary attractions of Meet Me in St Louis is the excuse it gives me to share some vintage James Agee. If you know his work, you know he will have little if any resistance to what Margaret O’Brien does as five-year-old Tootie, whose charm is infused with a sort of irrepressible morbidity. You might think Crime and Punishment or Poe’s Tales were her favorite bedtime stories. This outlandish little creature singlehandedly explodes the city-of-dreadful-joy aspect of MGM and somehow succeeds in being wholesome at the same time. So uncannily delightful is her performance, it makes Mickey Rooney’s manic turn as Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream look tame.

Now listen to Agee. After admitting his admiration for “the general intention of the movie, which is to make “the well-heeled middle-class life of some adolescent and little girls in St. Louis seem so beautiful that you can share their anguish when they are doomed to move to New York,” he confesses that he “could have liked it much better still” if the girls in the film had “approached and honored rather than flouted and improved on reality.” This is only a brief summary of the rhetorical maze Agee moves through before he comes to his “childishly blunt point,” which is turned “over and over again, into a heart-piercing sword” by “the incredibly vivid and eloquent Margaret O’Brien.” This may seem a roundabout way of stating that the little girl steals the movie. (She is also the only person in the production who received an Oscar, a special one for the best performance by a child). For Agee, “many of her possibilities and glints of her achievement hypnotize [him] as thoroughly as anything since Garbo.”

It takes Agee two long paragraphs to describe the “glints of her achievement.” After observing the way she manages to “mix stock cuteness with enchantment and with accurate psychology,” he refers to “the scene in which she is lugged in with her lip cut, screaming half-lies and gibberish” as “the most complex and impressive job of crying” he has ever seen.

Reviewing the same film for Time, Agee has to harness his narrative energy. In The Nation he can let go, playfully expanding on the little girl’s “annihilation of the snowmen she can’t take to New York,” which “would have been terrifying if only she had had adequate support from the snowmen and if only the camera could have had the right to dare to move in close.” At this point, the Agee momentum carries him into an inspired delirium no one but the author of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men could survive: “Being only the well-meant best that adult professionals could design out of cornflakes or pulverized mothballs or heroin or whatever they are making snow out of just now, these statues were embarrassingly handicapped from their birth, and couldn’t even reach you deeply by falling apart.” In his own way, Agee is channeling the free spirit he sees in the child to express what he feels is a fatal artificiality in the movie itself. In the Time review, he states it straight up when he concludes by finding the film finally “too sumptuously, calculatedly handsome to be quite mistaken for the truth.”

And in the context of things artificial and “calculatedly handsome,” what would James Agee make of innovations like Blu-ray? My guess is that he’d have taken an even-handed film-by-film approach. For myself, I’m grateful to the new technology for making all-time favorites like The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly look even better than they did when they were first released. Two other Blu-ray enhanced films I saw last week seemed less dramatically transformed. No doubt you need to see Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams in person, in 3-D in an I-MAX theatre, to experience the scale and intensity of detail I was expecting. As for Hitchcock’s black and white The Lady Vanishes, it’s hard to imagine what could have been improved on. How much clearer do you have to see the tweed fabric of the title character’s jacket when you’re already in movie heaven?

I hope the Princeton Public Library will add the Blu-ray version of Meet Me In St. Louis to the collection, so more people can appreciate its beauty. The packaging may make this a challenge for the library, since the DVD is designed as a book with a CD “Soundtrack Sampler,” along with other special features such as an audio commentary that includes Margaret O’Brien; an introduction by Liza Minnelli, and a featurette about the making of the film. Agee’s Nation and Time reviews are available in the Library of America collection, Agee: Film Writing and Selected Journalism.