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“Can You Ever Forgive Me?”

16 Dec

“Can You Ever Forgive Me?”—directed by Marielle Heller. BioPic. 106 minutes Color 2018.
★★★★★
The Story: How will the biographer of Katharine Hepburn, Dorothy Kilgallen, and Tallulah Bankhead pay the rent now she has run out of fashionable subjects?
~
After committing some drunken atrocity, Dorothy Parker would write to her horrified hosts, “How can you ever forgive me?”

Since there is nothing worth holding onto blame for, those poor hosts probably did forgive Dorothy Parker and they probably invited her back— but not Lee Israel. Never to write for such forgiveness, Lee Israel evidently preferred to be unforgiven—to live as a hermit in spiked isolation.

Her agent, perfectly played by Jane Curtin, tells her so, and also wonders why Lee Israel wants to write a biography of Fanny Brice when no one is interested in Fanny Brice? Lee is a good writer who has written popular enough biographies, but she has run out of advances and ideas.

Poor Lee has no friends and none of her enemies enjoy her enough to spring for her, so how is she to pay the rent?

Her answer is to steal.

And she does this in two ways.

She lifts the styles of writers more famous than herself and writes letters they might have written. She then forges their names to them. Then she sells them for rent money. She is very good at this mimicry. And to this day, her forgeries are found in collections and quoted in biographies.

She also enters the special collections of universities and actually lifts literary treasures and replaces them with duplicates and sells the originals.

As I watch this thrilling imposture, I admire her skill, resourcefulness, and cunning. For she well understood the greed of collectors and the willingness of rare book store agents to be duped.

I also felt like a thief. For, as a writer, was I not a thief of every fine writer whose influence I had admitted into my being to breed me into a better one?

And I also wondered—doesn’t Lee Israel know that the jig will soon be up? For certainly she can’t go on like this. Rare book dealers are not as common as hockshops. Won’t she run out of fences?

What ameliorated my discomfort was when one turned up in the person of Richard E. Grant, a rogue and roué she befriends and who partners her. Grant is wonderful in this role, and the film lifts off when he appears. Indeed, one hopes he never goes away. Grant Grant an Oscar.

Melissa McCarthy is no more Jewish than my cat. So her casting as Israel is odd, but also a useful way around the issue of anti-Semitism, had the part been played by, say, Linda Lavin. I do not own a television, so I had never heard of Melissa McCarthy, but she is an acceptable receptacle for Lee Israel. Melissa McCarthy is never off-camera, and her plump pudding personality never grates, as it might had the role been played another way or by another actor. So I was glad to go through Lee Israel’s adventure with her.

Lee Israel’s woes and her past are not jammed down our throats, nor is her Lesbianism. In fact, I myself wished she could hook up with someone, and she almost does. At one point we even meet her former mate, beautifully played by Anna Deavere Smith, so we get a better inkling how Israel really cannot earn a living—is intolerable as a personality, infantile, and a drunk.

Yet, in the end, Lee Israel is so far from being impenitent about her forgeries that she confesses that writing those masterpiece letters was the greatest high she ever got in her writing life.

What this gives me is the validation for why I have been rooting for this impossible and foolish woman all along. For, I say, if the larceny was worth it to Lee Israel, it was worth it to me, too, and let the devil take the hindmost.

 
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The Favorite

07 Dec

The Favorite—directed by Yorgos Lanthimos. Historical Biodrama. 119 minutes Color 2018.
★★★★★
The Story: An All About Eve story in which Eve ends up, as usual, as a snake in the grass.
~
Males are born innocent. Females—never.

Nothing could be plainer in what assails and jades our eyes in The Favorite. Shot at Hatfield House standing in for Hampton Court, we stalk down looming corridors in which 18th Century courtiers all wear the same color, black, white, and midnight blue—a masterful trick to focus our attention not on the wittily and lavishly embellished wigs and gauds of the day, but rather on the faces of the three women raving inwardly and outwardly for dominance in that day.

Queen Anne Stuart, protestant daughter of Catholic King James II, was in real life a wise and competent monarch. She attended more cabinet meetings than any British monarch before or since. She succeeded the reign of her sister and brother-in-law, William and Mary of Orange. But she also suffered the tyranny of her close friendship with Sarah Churchill, the loss of 17 children, one a son and heir of 11, and chronic illness which exhausted her.

What this film gives of Queen Anne is Sarah Churchill, exhaustion, and bunny rabbits as surrogate children—to occupy a woman with a lot of time on her hands and absolute power. What would anyone possibly want from this collapsed person?

The immense popularity of Sarah Churchill’s husband the Duke of Marlborough may have been the force behind Sarah’s Churchill’s political ambition for his influence and the money it could produce. But no.

We never learn. And we do not need to. What Rachel Weisz gives us is unmotivated power-playing, as from an inherent greed for it. Put someone like Sarah Churchill next to someone like Queen Anne and you will bring out ferocity in the Duchess and capitulation in the queen. An addiction.

Thrust into this unhealthy pairing, a third woman finds herself made use of by both women. And takes over. Why? What drives her?

All we see, in her case, is a need for power as a tool for survival. But why then is she not contented by survival when the Queen marries her to a baron? Why does she have to go further? Why does she have to make an enemy of Sarah Churchill?

Not because of a cause. But because that’s the way she is.

We don’t know her etiology. What we see is the mania of her obsession, her addiction to more. More than that we do not see and do not need to see.

Because what we see is all that we have to see, which is the three women in operation in the present tense. Now. At the time. Then. With no exposition, back-story, past, the film is executed as spectacle from beginning to end.

And therefore a wonderful vehicle for all three actors. Emma Stone as the interloper is perfectly cast and I can’t imagine she will ever have a more suitable part. Starting from her desire to care for the Queen, Emma Stone without one obvious move, transforms her character from Florence Nightingale into Nurse Ratched.

Emma Stone is an actor whom you never know the truth of. Who can pin her down? Certainly not Ryan Gosling in La La Land or Joe Alwyn who plays the fellow who wants to marry The Favorite. Her huge wide-spaced blue eyes always tell the truth that she is not telling the truth. She is a cold actress—nonetheless, she is that rare cold actress you want to root for.

Olivia Colman as the queen leaves out nothing that will disgust us. Everything in the story depends upon what this actress can bring to a character who rules the Great Britain as a baby. An ugly baby. A baby squalid with disease and rudeness and self-indulgence and dependency and self-pity. Out of this messy character arises the only code of love in all the claims made for it in the picture by all the characters in it—a love for helpless creatures.

Don’t hold back from this degree of ruthlessness. Warm yourself by standing on its glacier. Learn. Admit. And smile.

 
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Tea With The Dames

14 Nov

Tea With The Dames—directed by Roger Mitchell. BioDoc. 1 hour 24 minutes Color 2018.
★★★★★
The Story: Four senior leading ladies of the British stage gather in the home of one of them in the garden on a sunny day and in the house on a rainy and gab about their love lives, theatre lives, and lives.
~
And they never drink tea.

They begin with lemonade, for their chat is tart. One of them, Maggie Smith, has wit. Judi Dench and Eileen Atkins and Joan Plowright each have a good sense of humor, all willing to laugh at the situations of age, acting, fame, and the personalities they’ve come across in their award-laden lives.

Film clips of them show them as young women starting out in the ‘50s. How young and fresh and pretty they were! And one looks at them now, to observe that all of them have lost their lips. Age seres lips. But once they were kissable. And they still are, but not in the same way.

We see snatches of performances, some are laughed at by the star under observation, but it is astonishing to see how bold they were when they started out, and to realize that their boldness increased with time. In her twenties, Judi Dench is luminous and eager in The Cherry Orchard with Ashcroft and Gielgud, and we see glimpses of her as Juliet, and hear of her terrible reviews.

How did Eileen Atkins and Maggie Smith start? We hear the strictly constricted encouragement they were given at the outset. And none of them were considered conventionally beautiful. Though on the stage, each of them behaved as though they were. And each of them feared the theatre every night. Why didn’t Eileen Atkins play Cleopatra when she was offered it so often? What happened when the others did play it. “I was frightened of it,” said Maggie Smith. “That’s why I only played it in Canada.”

Joan Plowright is now blind, which may be why it is in her home the filming takes place. Each of the actors performed with Olivier and we see them do it. And we hear good old stories about that famed tiger—and others. About all this and themselves, the four dames are hilarious. Highly competitive in their day, but chums, they regale us with their gossip, their lack of solemnity, their life wisdom.

Tea with them is delicious. They never drink tea. They end with champagne.

 
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Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool

03 Nov

Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool—directed by Paul McGuigan. 106 minutes Color 2017.
★★★★★
The Story: A faded American film star has a great love affair with a young actor in her rooming house, becomes part of his family, and is welcomed by them when she grows ill.
~
Elia Kazan declared female actors were more daring than male actors (with the exception of Marlon Brando). He was referring to Mildred Dunnock, Jo Van Fleet, Geraldine Page, and, in her way, Vivien Leigh. Had he worked with her, he would have also meant Annette Bening in Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool.

She is at the top of her bent—which is pretty high as acting goes, and acting goes very high. She does not miss a measure. She bares all, or enough for anyone to take her as fully exposed as the character of this woman.

That the film is based on an actual film star, Gloria Grahame, does not matter if you do not know Grahame’s work. The treatment of the character has the truth of fiction rather than the mere verisimilitude of fact. And Bening does not do an imitation of Gloria Grahame. She simply plays up her tragic failing: her vanity. It was Grahame’s vanity that caused her, when young, to have such extensive plastic surgery done on her face, to make her beautiful in a way she never could be, so that her mouth became frozen with dead nerves—and her major film career ended because of it. Bening does nothing with this, thank goodness.

But, boy, do you see the in and out and up and down of this character in Bening’s gleeful attack on the role. If you love Bening, you must see the picture. She has that rare capacity of an actor to surprise and not surprise you. She not-surprises with a smile of shocking loveliness, but what lies around it and behind it and instead of it is what truly surprises.

Jaimie Bell, who in 2000 danced into our hearts as Billy Elliot, the boy who would dance ballet, is exactly in balance with Bening—meaning he has to be off balance a lot of the time because Bening’s character is. He’s tops. Bening’s character is in her late 50s, Bell’s in his late 20s, and the unlikely bridge over that 30 year span is absolutely convincing to behold in its strength and fun and rarity.

Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool is beautifully told, directed, filmed, and cut. It even has the incomparable Julie Walters again playing Bell’s mother. As soon as Walters appears on screen, in no matter what, you know you’re really in for it. She does not disappoint. But the film’s leading performance is Bening’s. She’s a much better actress than Grahame, whose range was narrow—although it’s interesting to see Grahame come alive in Man On A Tightrope, just to see what she was willing, for once, to have a great director, Elia Kazan, make of her.

 

John McEnroe: The Realm Of Perfection

02 Sep

John McEnroe The Realm Of Perfection – directed by Julian Faraut. SportsDoc. 95 minutes 2018.
★★★★
The Story: What drove the great tennis player to his many victories?
~
“I heard him announce the matches this afternoon. He knows what he’s talking about. He makes everything clear and understandable.” I hear this said as I take my seat to see this movie about him and I think: so that is what has become of him in the 30 years since he held sway! Good, I’m glad he can take care of himself.

However, in the documentary of him, I expect to see chaos on the clay, and, since I had never seen him play anywhere at all and knew him only from what I’d heard of his grumpy disposition, I was surprised to see how well reasoned he was in his complaints and to notice that every referee he spoke to on foul calls looked like a fool – even though McEnroe had no intention to cause him to.

Why did they look like that? Probably because their call was wrong.

Why did McEnroe bicker with them so? Probably because his call was right.

And why was he right? Probably because he was born that way, an Enneagram #1 if ever there was one.

And (whatever Enneagram #1 might be) why should that matter?

Enneagram #1 is the sign of those born as righteous perfectionists, and if you are a born perfectionist you expect others to be so also, and others are born something else and are not. That’s what’s imperfect about perfectionists.

Theories as to McEnroe’s character are aired in the film which was 30 years in the making and is the result of reels and reels of high-level tennis play shot by the now 90-year-old filmer of them, Gil de Kermadec.

To be a perfectionist means, not that one is perfect, but that one aims for perfection.

The error for the perfectionist is to assume one is perfect and to ask others to be perfect.

Is this what McEnroe did in his quarrels?

The voice-over says McEnroe took exception to make sure he had a thick enough wall of negativity around him to goad him to a level of play sufficient to pass through it. He invoked imperfection to produce perfection. I saw Allison Janney do this for her figure skater daughter in Tonya.

But I notice other factors.

McEnroe apparently deplores mess. He enters the court head lowered to blinker him to the mess of the crowd, the mess of the referees, the mess of the cameras, the mess of the noise of the recording devices, and the mess all around him of fame. He looks at the ground.

Is he shy? Quite possibly. His outspokenness is not hysterical or dramatic. “Why won’t you look at the line?” he insists over and over to the referee. He does not seethe or tear his hair. Only at the end of a lost game does he collapse in dismay.

Is shyness a protection of the treasure inside him that knew how to play tennis so well that it is obvious that it is as instinctual in him as walking?

We are told his forté was not power but rather the knack of returning the tennis ball so his body did not betray to his opponent by its posture where his return of his ball would go.

And his early charge to the net. There I see feats that seem impossible.

I know nothing of tennis. I like to watch it though. On TV. In this film what I like is what it teaches about this particular player’s tennis genius. And that I learn through the action of one player alone. For what’s different in this film from TV is that the camera does not encompass the full meadow of the court. Except for the end, I seldom see both players at once. Indeed, not till the end do I see a game played through.

What I see instead is McEnroe himself shown serving and playing, full body, as in an Astaire movie. He serves and he leave the ground! He flies forward into the ball! Often when he returns shots, he is airborne!

The camera seldom abandons his form, moving, leaping, running, skidding, turning. It is hard to believe anyone could be so agile.

Which leads me to another observation: he has good strong legs. Indeed, they make him seem bottom heavy. But they give his game stamina, litheness, and improvisational wit. They enable him to run in one direction full tilt, turn on a dime, and attack the opposite end of the court.

McEnroe is a great champion. But he is not a pretty one. You cannot empathize with him. You cannot sympathize with him. You cannot like him. He wouldn’t want you to. He will not stop to autograph a little boy’s program. He will not pose for an agreeable instant for a publicity shot. He will not stop griping.

Nor is his face one of particular beauty or masculinity. In fact, he reminds me of the Spanish tennis player I saw this morning: Rafael Nadal, with a mouth so snarling nothing can persuade one to root for him save a perverse attachment to the malformed underdog or the overruling fact that he is simply marvelous at tennis.

McEnroe’s face is not ugly. Nor is his intelligence. Nor is his voice. Nor his insistence that nothing invade his privacy of excellence on the court. He is or wishes to be unavailable to anything else but the finesse of his game. He is a star who does not wish to be a star, to him stardom is an interference. And he is right. His skill on the court depends upon a startling sensitivity.

John McEnroe:The Realm of Perfection is a portrait in motion. I watch it with the respect I afford to The Grand Canyon – a phenomenon inexplicable in its expression – and with the distance which true respect rewards and demands.

 
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Mountain

15 Jun

Mountain – directed by Jennifer Peedom. Nature Documentary. 74 minutes Color 2018
★★★★★
The Story: Hold your breath!
~
To do what movie film only can do: to take me into people and worlds I would never approach.

Renan Ozturk, record-breaking mountain-climber, took much of the film. Zooming into and among declivities, cliffs, precipices, peaks, ranges, sierras, glaciers, avalanches, cascades that I would destroy myself to get near to, but relish to see, here, in the marvelous world of worlds we never knew were here.

What beauty! What glory! What perilous heights! And who are those lunatic goons leaping off of them in sails or goating up their flanks with their fingernails?

There’s a sort of mischief in their hopping from pinnacle to pinnacle with nothing below but cool, impartial air.

I witness with gratitude every instance of splendor. I am dumbstruck with thanks to watch the massive intricacies of a thousand feet of ice doing nothing but waiting there, not interested in me at all.

What keeps a mountain high? What urge, still in it, retains? What gigantic cause brought it into being. Where it remains as a dictatorial urge on the horizon of the imagination of humility.

For what can you do but succumb with wonder at the imperious style, the posture assumed, of a pinnacle!

To call the film beautiful is to diminish the meaning of the word to its cause in nature — mountains that arise within with thrills of longing, fraternity, and imperishable distance. Unconquerable they are! That’s why they lure.

And we see a number of folks venturing on them from one motive or another. But the mountains themselves undiscoverable, unscalable. And the scale of the film is designed to prove it and does prove it. You witness in this film, the inconceivable. Majesty over everything. Nothing darling is here. Only the exhilaration that ends in respect and the miracle that one has been spared.

 
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Sunrise

06 Dec

Sunrise – directed by F.W. Murnau. Marital Drama. 95 minutes Black And White 1927
★★★★★
The Story: A young farmer, in midst of a mad affair with a cosmopolitan woman, follows his wife to The City, and their lives are changed forever.
~
It’s the only film allegory I know of. Allegory is a favorite mode since reading The Faeirie Queene, because the truth of how we humans actually live our inner lives is deeply explorable in allegory.

Anyhow, the film is a masterpiece for other reasons, not least because of the performance in it of Janet Gaynor. Sunrise won the first Oscar for best film and Gaynor won it for a collection of performances she gave that year, Seventh Heaven, Street Angel, and this. She certainly deserved it.

Watch what she does when he takes her out in the boat to drown her. Watch her when the boat is at the shore.

Gaynor was an actor of charm. One gets tired of charm. But not here Charm connects to the child’s approach to the vicissitudes of life. Its passport carries its bearer beyond the point of: “I know you won’t hurt me,” into an irresistable triumph. You can understand why George O’Brien is drawn to the porcelain sexuality of Margaret Livingston, with its core of brutality and greed. Such love is a complete system with no outside view. So they plan to murder the wife. Gaynor knows he is having the affair, but she then senses he means to kill her.

The film begins, as in Shakespeare, in the middle of all this and goes from sin to sin, as it shifts to The City with its luxurious barber shop, its mashers, its piggishness, is vagrant fun, its glistering pleasures. And Murnau has these two pass through these worlds, anyone of which could destroy them, somehow protected by the charm Gaynor exudes – charm as an armor, on an Amazon innocent of it and even ignorant she is an Amazon.

The picture was made by the old Fox studio then under the guidance of the sound-pioneering William Fox, so it has a sound score and sound effects. But you don’t need words. Not for the first time, the silence speaks louder than they.

Sunrise is generally considered to be one of the greatest films ever made. When you see it, or see it again, you probably won’t have any trouble with that conclusion.

 
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Detroit

12 Aug

Detroit – directed by Kathryn Bigelow, Race Riot Docudrama. 163 minutes Color 2017.
★★★★★
The Story: Seven innocent people are tortured and murdered in Detroit’s Algiers motel during Detroit race-riots.
~
I speak of difficulties I had with this extraordinary film. I found them damaging at the the time and in retrospect. But I do urge you to see it. The director brought us The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Seven. Her gift to us is the rare one of ruthlessness.

So you will hold onto your seats at the same time as you lean forward into what is happening to the people and to the city set fire around them and by them.

The film takes necessary time to home in on its eventual action by displaying the background and foreground of the dreadful riots that ruined a great deal of Detroit some years back. All this is brilliantly and thoroughly done, some of it with footage from the events themselves.

We then telescope in on the abuse by a member of the Detroit police, two cronies, and a National Guardsman who corral a group of black folks and two white girls in the house of an annex to the Algiers motel. These folks are beaten, degraded, and murdered. A big police force and the Michigan State Troopers and The National Guard surround the house which the corrupt cop insists houses the gun of a sniper.

A stupid show-off had simply fired blanks out a window with a starting gun.

Difficulty number one was that I had no idea the gun was firing blanks. The gun he fired out the window had a white handle and I did not see the white handle when he fired a blank at one of his buddies earlier, as a trick. So, when he fired out the window, I thought he fired real bullets out of a different gun.

Second problem, those being brutalized know a gun has been fired in the house and that it fired blanks. Yet they endure hideous torture without mentioning this gun when all the cop wants is evidence of a gun on the premises.

Third, the man wielding the gun now lies dead in the next room. Why don’t the tortured tell the cop to look on his body for the gun? The gun is probably on the body.

Fourth, why doesn’t the cop think to do it?

Fourth, and very important, in the torture the cop and his henchmen scream racial curses at the black men, and at the girls who are accused of having sex with them. But their attack has an even more towering object, which is to exercise power over others, including the power to murder them. With this the film leaves racism and the realm of docudrama and enters the realm of video games and the notion of “enemies”.

Fifth, and most important, the cop is played by an actor whose performance is more riveting than any other element before us. Will Poulter builds a performance of a psychopath in extremis that is a wonder of such passing excellence it holds pride of place in one’s attention. His performance outstrips the film he is in. There was probably no way for the direction to deny attention to it. The result is that one’s interest in this actor’s ability supersedes one’s sympathy for the lives of his victims, although these are played superbly. It is a histrionic performance of a great monster. Who can turn aside for scheduled compassion, when mad fascination looms?

Sixth, these lapses in narrative focus and balance of treatment and presentation divide attention among violent racism and police brutality and great acting and anything else that might be thrown into the hopper, including special effects.

It depletes the film and it’s a shame, because watching Detroit I never thought I was not present at the time in the events shown or the dreadful difficulties the characters endured.

Technically the movie is momentous and gigantic. It is a hugely orchestrated symphony inside of which an octet concerto is played with agony, depth, and beauty.

John Boyega is perfectly cast for the presence of mind he brings as a security guard. Algee Smith, playing the lead singer of a quarter hoping for a shot at Motown and caught by accident in the mania at the motel Algiers, moves into every mode and mood of the part with exactly the right measure. Hannah Murray is brilliant as one of two fearless young ladies trapped there too.

Despite these minuses, the film leaves a larger impression than its flaws. The impression it leaves is not of wounds from foul racism and judicial injustice and promiscuous riots. The impression it orates throughout is that, on all souls involved by these deeds, immortal scars are made.

Detroit aims and and achieves a ruthlessness greater than this criticism of it. See it.

 
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The Mother

05 May

The Mother – directed by Roger Mitchell. Drama. 112 minutes Color 2003.
★★★★★
The Story: An English grandmother takes up with the sexy, young carpenter her daughter is sleeping with.
~
What’s remarkable about this movie is the performance of Anne Reid as the mother.

She’s an actor of wide and long experience on British TV, but I have never seen her before now.

I look upon her with wonder now. For the woman she plays is extraordinary in being ordinary. Driven by a lust she welcomes and has never known before, nonetheless she is a quiet soul, biddable, and modest. Her voice is a quiet plaint. She takes life smack in the belly, and never raises an objection. She plays a woman who is used to having gotten nothing great from life, not looks, not career, not love, not the devotion of children – and just put up with it. For that was her temperament.

It is amazing to witness her story.

The whole movie is beautifully directed, produced, and made, and all the actors are grand.

Fourteen years ago, the young man who plays the sexy carpenter was a Daniel Craig fourteen years younger too, a dish, and perfectly cast. He’s not an actor I am moved toward, but his body language, his use of himself, his sexual sovereignty in this role, as they slowly emerge, have a vitality that writes its own ticket for both character and actor.

Most American films I see are not about anyone I might come across. I adore Tom Cruise and Emma Watson and the rest of them, but never in my life would I ever come across a one of them, and neither would anyone else. Nothing wrong with this. In real life, you would never actually come across Cary Grant. For in real life there is no such person.

But here is a story of a woman who we might come across at any time. And it is a pleasure and a relief to do so.

Do see The Mother!

 
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The Jungle Book

22 Apr

The Jungle Book – directed by Jon Favreau. Fantasy/Adventure. 105 minutes color 2016

★★★★★

The Story: A wild child reared by wolves in an East Indian Jungle faces comic characters and tragic perils as he faces his life head on.

~

I have never seen a movie like this!

This was my first impression and my last.

For there are now film processes which make of this Disney jungle a realistic world, not a cartoon one. The animals appear to be real animals. The water real water, the jungle real jungle.

This enables innumerable craftspeople to make this world move at their will. It moves as it would move, but at their will.

Thus granting one infinite security in a dangerous environment, I sit back and view Kipling’s Mowgli fight for his life and the lives of others with and against animals which abound.

It is the story of an eleven year old miniature Tarzan reared by the wolves, fostered by a black puma (Ben Kingsley) and adopted by a lazy nonchalant con artist bear (Bill Murray).

Mowgli is torn between two moralities, the ethics of his wolf training on the one hand and on the other his own human natural craftiness. Central to his dilemma is that he is also the favored and predestined prey of a tyrannical tiger (Idris Elba). He has other opponents equally large: Kaa (Scarlet Johansson), an endless Indian python who takes a liking to him, and King Louie, a Gigantopithecus Orangutan with a strong Queens accent (Christopher Walken).

But the chief charm of the film is the boy who plays Mowgli. He is a real boy, Neel Sethi, not a machine-made one, and he is delightful. He is so good I thought he was a machine-made one because his body fit seamlessly into the settings and fur. Besides, no one could do that racing through the trees and jungle. Yet, we learn he underwent parkour training to develop the alacrity, resourcefulness, and finesse to speed across high boughs, leap boulders, fly through the air, and outpace a leopard.

A number of movies of The Jungle Books have been made. The first one I saw I remember best, the 1942 version with the great Sabu and real animals. If you’ve never seen Sabu, see it; see anything with him. But all versions are enjoyable because of the fundamental necessity of the story to our lives. We need to be entertained by this vision of human inventiveness and resourcefulness and probity – in a child. It encourages us to be cunning and wise and persevering in what we are and do. It tells us that it is never too late because we are never too young. We could do this from the start!

So the story is a tonic and the film is a miracle. The version I saw was in 3D, and I recommend you see that too. I am a very old man and I adored it. Not a moment of it was lost on me. And if you are any younger than what will turn you into a very old man one day, you will have a wonderful and important recollection in your tummy if you go.

 
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Breaking Bad

07 Apr

Breaking Bad – various directors and writers. TV crime business serial. 6 Years Color 2008 – 2013.

★★★★

The Story: A high school chemistry teacher stricken with cancer manufactures methamphetamine and many unforeseen consequences.

~

One great gift of the series lies in the acting of the supporting players. To list only some of them:

Mark Margolis as the stroke victim godfather of a Mexican drug cartel, hell bent on revenging the deaths of his three nephews. His face is eloquent with power not just stymied by his stroke but by a strategy for murder which shall not be pacified. The little bell he rings is the toll of death. I hate him, I understand him, I wouldn’t want to come across him. The actor brings to bear in his ruined eyes a sense of implacability rich to behold.

Krysten Ritter as the beautiful girlfriend with the black hair and outfits whose wit and learning tell us so much about her boyfriend, the leading actor played by Aaron Paul’s character Jess Pinkman. Here is a performance of subtlety and distinction, and I miss the promise her very being held out for Jesse Pinkman.

David Constable as the substitute meth chemist for Aaron Paul. He plays the character as open as a baby. The character’s naiveté is so out of place in the great world of anything, and his presence is so endearingly funny that we miss him terribly once he is gone.

Robert Forster as the creator of new identities for criminals. Always welcome, always perfect, Forster, an actor of great reserve, introduces the same blind integrity he brought to Reflections In A Golden Eye years ago as the object of Marlon Brando’s lust.

R.J. Mitte is lovely as the adolescent son, Flynn. Sixteen when the series started and twenty-one when it ended, in its five seasons, whose time range is perhaps a year and half of story, he does not seem to grow taller or change physically. When the series starts he is already at his full height, which is a form of casting mischief. Besides, his being taller than his parents and the baby soon to be born present a useful constant paradox for the entire series. (By his eyes, it looks like the young actor got laid toward the end of that time, and it makes one glad for him.) He plays Flynn such that one can take the character seriously and to one’s heart. That the character and the young actor have cerebral palsy does not factor into the story at any point, which is a writing error but which adds to the paradox. That is, he plays a character sold short by the writers. At the wrap-up we do not see the consequence of the story upon him. It is an error of omission and a wicked one.

Another such error is committed against the character of Marie, the nosy, spill-the-beans sister-in-law who is the wife of the DEA agent. She is an infuriating person played perfectly by Betsy Brandt. She is one of the two sisters engaged in unlawful activities, but the writers make nothing of her shoplifting once her sister also becomes lawless. The character’s qualities drift away as the writing of the series goes on. Her character is eventually written as “the loyal wife of a difficult man,” but she plays it as in complete command of herself even while acceding to him – no easy task for an actor. We are not given enough at the end to imagine what her life now will be, and I wish we were, for she’s excellent. We are, however, given a wonderful close-up of her as one perpetually life-stricken by what her brother-in-law has done to her.

Bob Odenkirk’s character of the shyster lawyer Saul Goodman brings riffs of vaudeville into the swirling bowl of the story. As an actor he is a tonic, unpredictably predictable. He’s a good example of an actor’s ability to physicalize a character into life. He puts the character on the move to mobilize its mental moves. He is a perfect antidote to the heavies with which the series is well populated. His is probably the best-written part in the series.

Jonathan Banks heads the list of heavies, whose number is by no means exhausted by those praised here. In stillness his face, tells all; tiny movements of his mouth reveal worlds. His character as fixer presents us with a professional hit man most experienced and wise. He has a face for which he and we all must thank God, and a bearing that cannot be synthesized. He is best in quiet scenes and becomes one of the murderers we root for and do not want anything bad to happen to in the end. This is part the doing of the writers, but mostly something in Banks’ skill.

Giancarlo Esposito plays the tsar of all drug tsars, and he accomplishes his task of terrifying us all by never blinking his eyes during the entire time he is on camera, an old actors’ trick, but a good one. Elegant in his motions and manners is how Esposito sees Gus Fring, always calm, always intent, always watchful. It may be an easy part to play, but we only wonder – and are only given room to wonder – if he will ever die or if he is really as immortal as Esposito appears to make him.

 

 

I believe this series owes its main success to the casting skills that gave us these performers. Sharon Bialy and Sherry Thomas cast them and, besides them, the three supporting principals. I watch these three actors with amazement, respect, delight. I am reminded how great are American actors, and these in particular. I hang on their every scene. I hang on the outcome for their characters. These actors have had serious work behind them, although I have never heard of one of them. So their work comes fresh to fresh eyes. Again, praise and attention to the casting directors who were aware of them and brought them together Into Breaking Bad.

 

 

Anna Gunn is an actor of inherent reserve intelligence. She plays the wife of Walter White, the leading role, and in casting her the directors may have seen the balance that would be drawn between the leading character, White, whose intelligence is nil, but whose intellect is large, whose range of information larger, whose ego larger still. White is essentially stupid, as Macbeth is essentially stupid. Macbeth knows it won’t work but tries it anyhow; Lady Macbeth is stupider; she thinks it will work. The character Anna Gunn plays, Skyler White, is not Lady Macbeth; she is not stupid. Gunn plays it that the thing she is loyal to is an inner collation of her husband, her work, her children, her home, her relations, all of which give her a lifestyle that satisfies and pleases her soul. That is her stake.

Years ago, she married her chemistry teacher. Probably impressed by his mind. She must have found long before this story opens how banal and defeated he was, how isolated by his mind, but decided to be endeared by it rather than repelled. I watch Gunn’s responses to her slowly or strikingly changing situations to be a miracle of digested reality. Since it is TV, what we mainly have is her face. It is moved by the outer wind of chance. But what is moved? What is moved is the violation to her always envisaged inner lifestyle, which she took to be her being. What was permanent as a lake now becomes threatened by the crack of a dam she never imagined was there. Her vitality in the part is always complete, always subtle. This is an actor I look upon with admiration and wonder.

Dean Norris plays the Federal drug agent who is the antagonist of the leading character. the story is essentially about the covert battle of his character Harry’s relentlessness to find the kingpin and the cleverness of the kingpin to not be found. At the start he is written as cruder than he ends up being. That is to say, an error in the writing is corrected. Crudity is not his essential ingredient, although Norris does it as to the manner born. For we don’t need this character to be tougher than Norris already appears.

Dean Norris has a beautiful face, a beautiful mouth, ready eyes. As an actor he makes many moves and never a false one. I am astonished by the ability of an actor of this presence and power to allow something actually happen to him. To see in his face a realization contradict everything expected. To see in his eyes arise a determination fixed by outrage. To see something in the motion of his mouth that I had never expected to see in a man of this type, a defeat into weakness. I bow before such delivery. I am amazed by the actor. I hope he never hears that I have said this, for it might suggest to him that he has achieved all. In acting, there is no such thing as achievement. Actors’ praise should arise parallel to what they have done as a gate to the next thing they do. One great thing about this performance is that at a certain point he actor finally allows the character to be driven by swelled head, by ego, and dogged, personal totalitarianism, such that he mounts a two-man posse to take down his rival, and is ambushed by a gang set to bring down that same rival. He operates without back-up. Shot to the ground, the actor nonetheless dies standing up with the wonderful line, “These guys decided fifteen minutes ago what they were going to do,” and is shot dead.

In seeing these actors, I wince, lest here they find the roles of a lifetime, and never again, so I look upon Aaron Paul’s performance with pity and wonder. It is one of the finest acting performances I have ever seen. And one of the most unusual. Ah, but let me temper that praise. Let me simmer it to a roux.

Aaron Paul’s character Jesse Pinkman is more intelligent than the drug maker he works for but he is not nearly so smart. Pinkman’s street-smarts are small potatoes to what one must have to prevail in the world of big-time drug manufacture and sales. His boss and former high school chemistry teacher is devoid of intelligence and of love, but is smarter than anyone alive. There is no one Pinkman’s boss cannot outwit or foresee. His boss is capable of violent improvisation at a moment’s notice and then will service the public with the fob of an unanswerable riff, “I promise you: everything will be all right; you are perfectly safe.” All Pinkman can do is register vehement outrage at the display of his boss’s cunning, but he also can do nothing but abide by his harsh teaching.

What lies inside the actor Aaron Paul registers as beauty. He plays a punk such that we know the actor knows inside exactly what the resentment that drives a punk is and knows the dumbness the brick wall instills on the punk’s skull that he is always hitting with that resentment. He is an actor whose love-nature opens like a flower in his eyes towards certain people, his first and second girl friend, the second girlfriend’s son, so that you know that he alone of these characters has a natural morality in him; not a remembered one, but one open to every season.

As an actor he sibilants his Esses, which is fun to hear, and gratifying to me who likes actors to chew their consonants. He gives himself fully, bodily, vocally, emotionally, intellectually. He drapes the character within him. Unlike the main actor, his boss, when Aaron Paul enters a scene he enters with something already going on inside him. He is never making something up in a vacuum. He is always charged in some direction or other, so that the circumstances of the scene skid him or veer him. He is an actor adding to what is already there, not an actor only playing a scene for all it is worth and for its story value alone. For there is more to a story than a story; Goldilocks enters the three bears’ house already disobedient and strengthened by disobedience. Aaron Paul’s character of Jesse Pinkman is the one I mainly care about and want to see escape final harm.

Pinkman has a moral intelligence whose power he himself cannot resist, neither with drugs nor in waiting it out, and Aaron Paul finds this in himself and brings it to us. It is everything for this story. The moral force in Jess Pinkman drives him to sabotage his own take. And it drives the entire enterprise to its own destruction before our eyes. It is what is in Pinkman that does this, and what is in Aaron Paul’s talent to release to the role what makes Jesse the only triumphant and free character remaining. Inwardly, I gasp.

 

 

I cannot say the same for the actor Bryan Cranston or for the writing of the character he plays, Walter White. The disappointment of Breaking Bad as a series is due, in my experience, in part to this actor’s performance. Or rather is partly due to the lie of this performance; a lie in the writing of it; a lie in the writing as a whole.

The script of Breaking Bad is sometimes over-written. An actor enters a room, the second actor says, “Shall we have bacon for breakfast?” The first actor then says, “Sure. I guess. If you like.” It’s over-written. You only need one of those three things. One’s enough. Not two. Not three. (See?) The actor could supply anything else needed. Breaking Bad is television writing at its worst.

It’s also television writing at its best. Mostly at its very best. For there are wonderful turns to the story. The fun it has with solutions dependent upon chemistry is delicious. The reaches it goes to to explore the growth and cunning of White’s ruthlessness are startling and delightful because so imaginative and just. It does a good deal of marking time and drawing out of episodes, but its treatment of characters is terrific.

Directorially it is superb. But directorially, the actor is often allowed to milk responses, and this is true of Cranston’s work throughout. He never stops hemming and hawing. He never stops going through four fits before asking for the ketchup. It’s Olivier’s old trick and it’s older than Olivier of course, but I find Cranston wearisome to watch going through these hesitancies and gyrations. These facial gesticulations. These massive, monumental moues. Television acting at its worst.

However, what wearies me most about the performance is his playing every scene as isolated from every other scene. He enters with nothing, and makes something up to fit the scene, and, of course, Cranston can act like a jackrabbit. But essentially I find him to be a workhorse.

This is especially true for me in that both the character and the actor appear to be lying from beginning to end. In Cranston’s readings of, “I do it only for my family” and “only for you” I hear an empty actor. Right from the start, I never feel White loves his family. I never believe his physical touching of either child. It’s always done when it shouldn’t be done, wouldn’t be done, or done to indicate an affection whose display we are supposed to take as earnest. This maudlin attitude to children and family and relations is not only his, but present in other actors. Always overdone, always false, it is a directorial and acting error, misled by the script.

I feel that Cranston never believes the words he is saying, because there is never a real character created in him. I believe that Cranston has figured things out about Walter White, but I never believe in the truth of his playing of these strategies as internal lines of a real character. The costumes and makeup support his strategies efficiently, but they do not make them breathe. He plays the part as one plays a Hammond organ expertly, a machine. Perhaps this is the sort of actor one needs for a part of this weight and length. Perhaps you don’t need truth; perhaps you need stamina. But I feel cheated.

As to the lie “I do it for my family” – I wait to see if the writers will cop to this. Will they wake up to this bunk? Will they allow White to admit the truth about why he really does what he does?

In the final episode, he confesses to his wife. The reason he went into drugs was not for his family but because he liked it and was good at it.

But this is flimsy, not selfish enough, not big enough, not human enough, inadequate to tragedy, and not true.

Better to let this man dying of cancer say, “I wanted the money, I wanted to leave it after me. Because I didn’t want to die.” It was the same as what fuelled Frick and Carnegie and Mellon to do the same. With an endowment names last forever. “Remember My Name” the last season is called. But the writers have not seen that that was Walter White’s only understandable and adequate motive.

So in watching Cranston do this part, I am impatient with the lie of Cranston’s performance itself, with the lack of a pre-existing character in the actor, which is one lie, and impatient with a character who does nothing but lie from the first season to the last. And then, with an even larger lie.

The big lie of Breaking Bad is that we never see the devastation by crystal meth done to anyone not already well along the primrose path. We see people at the end of their addiction, none at the start. We see established addicts all. But we never see any young person, any person fresh to it, start out with blue meth. We never see a teen-age girl or male college sophomore being inducted. We never track the road they run, then stagger on, then die on. That is, we watch Breaking Bad as we watch The Perils Of Pauline as a series of cliff-hangers for this situation or character or that. And we hang on those cliffs with Walter White and the story, when in fact we are rooting for merchants of moral and physical murder. We want the blue meth to be pure, because blue’s the team we have been persuaded to fan. How nice! What fun! How entertaining!

What we never see is what meth does. Where does it go? Into whose body? And how? And how is it passed on, when it is well known that meth becomes an addition almost immediately incurable, fatal?

I know someone who died of it young. I saw that good soul go before my eyes. But Breaking Bad does not really break bad. It does not give us the lowdown. The script sprays this pink deodorant of omission over the matter. Except for comic relief, the addicts are kept out of sight.

The obvious character for this dissolution would be Walter White’s son, the upstanding, handsome, and tender Flynn, aka Walter Junior.

Flynn needs to become a meth addict for Breaking Bad to bring to us the most entertaining thing of all: the truth. Mr. White’s son’s addiction, not White’s death, would be White’s come-uppance. And we, if we were given that truth, would watch with fascination the same show, with this difference, that we are not duped into feeling that the drug business is ever, in and of itself and no matter how vivacious, merely entertainment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
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Daddy’s Home

15 Jan

Daddy’s Home – directed by Sean Anders. Low Comedy. 85 minutes Color 2015.

★★★

The Story: The real father of two children returns to the household and undermines the effort of their stepfather to get them to like him.

~

Something is wrong here. It lies in the playing of Will Ferrell who plays a fatuous oaf as though he were a fatuous oaf and not a human being trying in the wrong way to win the affection of his stepchildren. I suppose this is done so as not to frighten the audience.

It seems to work for them. They laughed at everything, as though they had gone through basic training to learn how. I have never seen Will Ferrell before, but they have their laugh cards installed by now and know how to behave. I laughed at nothing.

There is in the writing scarcely a single scene that is humanly credible. The script is overwritten – in the way modern screen comedy is overwritten, which is that it does not content itself with one stunning situation; instead it seeks to pile one on top of another. These modern screen comedies are too much cotton candy. They sicken before Coney Island is halfway over.

I went to see it because Mark Wahlberg was in it, and he is an actor I enjoy. And I did enjoy him. He never exaggerates. Never pushes. Never fakes. He plays the intruding real father.

I suppose the story is a take on Tennyson’s Enoch Arden, which produced My Favorite Wife with Cary Grant and Irene Dunne, a film which had its own problems, their chief one being that all the characters were non-committal but that the film also was.

In Daddy’s Home, you know perfectly well what will determine the outcome, what will be said, and who will say it. That’s all right. There’s a certain satisfaction in things turning out according to plan. But this satisfaction is scorched at birth by hyperbole; it does not need a motorcycle to be driven up the stairs of a suburban home and fly out the window and land on a station wagon. It would work if in a Buster Kean movie, because you would see Buster Keaton doing the whole stunt. With Keaton it would the delicatest of ballets; here it is gross.

But don’t listen to me: the theatre was packed and they’re still sitting there laughing.

 

 

 
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The Hateful Eight

02 Jan

The Hateful Eight – directed by Quentin Tarantino. Western. 187 minutes Color 2015.

★★★★★

The Story: Eight suspect characters find themselves snowbound in a haberdashery in a Wyoming Wilderness.

~

Well, I saw it in 70MM, for which some 100 theatres have been equipped, and the ticket cost $11, and it was sure worth every penny. The theatre was jammed. There was an intermission because three hours is too long to sit without peeing.

The usual Grand Guignol buckets of blood style Tarantino is partial to was on view when you came back from the bathroom. But all along he gives us remarkable sequences of dialogue, argument, and gallows humor. The piece is beautifully written for adult audiences. I hope you realize you’re reading a rave.

The whole picture is magnificently produced and shot and scored (Morricone), and we get plenty of time to let things sink in. What a pleasure!

So what then? We have been surrounded by terrifying beauty of a blizzard interfered with only by a six-horse stage coach galloping through it. We have been let into the interior of a great big 1870s stage stop in the middle of nowhere. And we have been introduced to eight dangerous people.

Samuel L. Jackson plays a bounty hunter; I have never seen him better. Bruce Dern plays the old Civil War General who argues the old war out. Michael Masden is great as the cowpuncher. Wolton Goggins is dangerously funny as a suspect sheriff to-be. Tim Roth is priceless as an English crook. Kurt Russell is startling as a wild ass abuser bounty hunter transporting a criminal to her hanging. Channing Tatum plays her brother. And Jennifer Jason-Leigh plays the criminal in a manner that declares that this is a role she was born to play.

Tarantino does pour gore, but it doesn’t bother me, and everyone else, I believe, found it comical. And it’s just as well because the gore is not the horror he is evoking or concentrating on for us. The battle of race goes on. The battle is witty but never glib, never merely clever.

The Hateful Eight is one of the better entertainments of the season.

 
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So Proudly We Hail & American Guerilla In The Philippines

28 Dec

So Proudly We Hail – produced and directed by Mark Sandrich. WWII Drama. 129 minutes Black And White 1943.

★★★★★

American Guerilla In The Philippines – directed by Fritz Lang. WWII Drama. 105 minutes Color 1950.

★★★

How marked they are in excellence from one another!

Both are about the final days of occupation of the Philippines in WWII. So Proudly We Hail is the story of the nurses left on Bataan and in the great tunnel at Corregidor, while the Japanese bombed their hospital and strafed the wounded. The great thing about it is that it is completely convincing, although it was all made in California in 1943. And another great thing about it is that it was made in black and white, more proper to the mood of war than the glaring distraction of Technicolor in which American Guerilla In The Philippines was shot on site and which turns the Philippines into a tourist attraction. Technicolor does not lend itself to war.

Fritz Lang’s direction of American Guerilla In The Philippines is flatfooted. And the story itself is flaccid, for it follows the sketchy, thick-headed doings of a group of GIs left behind in Leyte and finally mobilized by the native Philippine commander to radio spy reports on the Japanese to San Francisco. It has the considerable and only merit of having as its leading actor Tyrone Power, an always welcome presence, with his warmth and personal beauty.

So Proudly We Hail stars Claudette Colbert, Paulette Goddard – and Veronica Lake whose personal sacrifice I vividly remember from the time the film first came out in 1943. Everyone in the film is wonderful. The story is informative and suspenseful. The ladies’ romances hold one’s attention and convince. The movie is a vivid picture of the time and events it records.

So Proudly We Hail lives today. It is a great story about brave and resourceful women, and a fine film. If you are in any way drawn to the films of The Golden Age, you can hardly do better.

 

 

 

 

 

 
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The Wire

19 Mar

The Wire – various directors. TV Series. Color.

★★★★★

The Story: A Baltimore cop moves through the worlds of the waterfront, public schools, newspaper publishing, and politics to bring a drug cartel to justice

~

Well, now I’ve seen it all.

And so I must bid a fond farewell to certain characters. I say “to certain characters,” rather than to the story itself, for I found the characters more taking than the stories abounding.

The seasons are five. One story deals with the lives of stevedores on the waterfront. A second with the public schools. A third with the world of politicians. A fourth with that of newspapers. Laced through these are stories of the drug business on one hand and on the other stories of the police who seeks to dismember them.

All of this set in the city of Baltimore and shot there.

The star of the series Dominic West, an English actor in perfect voice for an Irish- American cop, I liked very much. He’s good looking, sexy, interesting, and a darn good actor. His Jimmy McNulty has a rapscallion-eye, and the daring to inaugurate rash plans, but we learn he does not really possess the imagination to execute them. A flaw.

For this he needs the doll-house-furniture-maker cop Lester Freamon, played by the inestimable Clarke Peters, also English, whom we shall see again in the producers’ Treme, as chief of the New Orleans Indians. He’s an actor who has to function around machines yielding delicate information – he it is who runs the wire taps – and it is a credit to his skill that you believe everything he does in relations to them. He brings the undramatic alive.

Deidre Lovejoy is the great looking DA who outsmarts the politicians, the judges, the police, and she is always a welcome sight in the doings. Frankie Faison also reappears in Treme in a similar role of a corrupt functionary, and he is just wonderful in this sort of part. Also in Treme, Wendell Pearce, with his easy searching eye, is a comfort to civilization as Bunk Moreland, McNulty’s chum.

As drug lords we have the perilously handsome Idris Elba as Stringer Bell, the brains fronting The Barksdale drug consortium. He is sorely missed when he leaves the story, as are J.D. Williams as Bodie, who leads the street hawkers. I began by disliking him and ended by rooting for him. As, at the last moment, I rooted for the incomprehensible Felicia Pearson playing the gender-unidentifiable Felicia “Snoop” Pearson. Roland “Prez” Pryzbylewski, the ex-policeman now high school teacher played by Jim True-Frost, grows on one too. Proposition Joe, the local drug connection with the waterfront smuggler, The Greek, I also much miss. How could one forget him. He is played brilliantly by Robert F. Chew. Michael Kostroff is super as the drug lord’s lawyer, Levy. And we have Aiden Gillen as the newly elected mayor of Baltimore an actor perfectly suited one day to play that other unworthy worthy, George W. Bush.

One hopes to see these actors again and often.

But the three characters I’ll miss most are Bubbles, the shopping cart salesman hop-head, played with wide-eyed wonder by Andre Royo. What a wonderful actor. How fascinating he becomes! How real!

It is he I will miss most, along with Michael K. Williams as Omar Little, the efficient, highly ethical sawed-off-shotgun-toting robber of the druggers.

And the boy who protects his three brothers as best he can from the fates awaiting them.

For the most part the main story lodges in front of the background of a U.S. Senator’s overthrow and the entrapment of the drug kingpins. This main story is the feud between Omar and a newcomer to the Boston Drug field, one Marlo Stanfield whose icy eyes execute everyone around him who blinks the wrong way. His presence directs the style of seasons four and five. To watch Jaimie Hector act him is fascinating because of his perpetual petrifaction. He shall not be moved. His two eyes are beautiful and not quite even, which gives him a gaze of incalculable power.

These actors, in parts a little more well-written than the stories which house them, hold my attention, curiosity, and care. This is why I watch their stories to their outcomes so loyally. A series like this affords us full immersion. And here, as later in New Orleans’ Treme, the city of Baltimore allow us to visit and explore streets and scenes and persons we would know nothing of, perhaps even if we lived there.

Many interesting conclusions are to be drawn, many significant inferences. For all these worlds are worlds of double-conscience. And none of these worlds are familiar to me in any way whatsoever. If they are veracious, and I sense they are, it is a view of America harsh, but worth all the entertainment the series affords.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Salò

14 Jan

Salò – directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini. Drama. 116 minutes, Color 1975.

★★★

The Story: A group of teenagers are forced into sex school by a coterie of autocrats.

If this is denounced as pornographic, it is enduring a terrible because irrelevant wrong. For no one has a good time at all in sex here. Everyone is either too mean or too horrified to feel or even pretend any pleasure. So, taken at its face value as pro-church and anti-pleasure – since any natural and easy pleasure that seeps in is punished morbidly – one must assume that Salò is about something else.

Watching it, my notion was that it is about sexual addiction, that is to say the imperious, internal compulsion that forces one to have sex rather than by normal inclination. For everyone is strong-armed into it here. All the young players are between 14 and 18 years old, and they are first kidnapped and then roughed into various sexual congress. But it’s never any fun and always unlovely, for, as it is based on a work of De Sade, it is, perforce, sadistic. The only beauty is that provided by a pianist who accompanies their lectures in degradation by playing Chopin. The exit of this pianist from the proceedings is typical of the director’s rigorous anhedonic message.

So, in terms of the actual material, Salò would seem to be The Allegory Of Rough Trade, which was Pasolini’s fancy and by which he soon was soon slain.

You have to go to the Extra Features to learn that the film was meant to be an allegory of neo-capitalism, the fascism of consumerism. There we learn that we are all being put under the trance of pleasant things. Pasolini himself tells us so. But you may be sure that when a director tells you what he intended to be in a film that he has failed to include that intention in it.

For no pleasant things are in the film itself. Or I should say, there are certain pleasant things, but they have nothing to do with neo-capitalism. We have such pleasant things as the nude bodies of the children who act in it, a bouquet of inviolable adolescents. And we have the sets, which are more interesting than the events which take place in them, for they are often big spare rooms decorated with elaborate old wallpaper. Pasolini has a classic eye for the formality of spectacle. And Pasolini’s set-ups and the arrangements of the personnel in them reveal a fine old-fashioned enjoyment of ritual. All these are pleasures to be sure. But sexual pleasure?

Pasolini himself says that power is anarchic, since it can do what it wants. And he’s right, and this is cogently illustrated by the rites of anarchy we see before us here. For fascism, dictatorship, absolutism, fundamentalism must have tremendous regimentation in which to do as it pleases. Too bad that, having achieved that level of power, doing what one pleases results in no pleasure whatsoever. The only two young people who slip out and take sexual pleasure are slaughtered.

What is it like seeing Salò? There are virtually no closeups, the camera seldom moves, and there is no focal character, only groups. Individual personalities do emerge, because Pasolini likes humans and is shy of them, both of which make him a good voyeur, so he is able to capture persons at true and characteristic moments. But that still leaves Pasolini as a bigot – the commercial classes being his detestation – since he sets them up as The Corrupt Against The Innocent – but bigotry is bigotry no matter what class you hate, and especially, as always is the case, you are fervently partial to your own notion of virtue in doing so.

Besides there is a technical problem with his Allegory, for you cannot have an allegory without a focal dupe. You cannot have a Duessa without a Red Cross Knight, a principal innocent. When in Allegory, even aimed at groups, a single person must carry us through it, as through a supermarket of abuse and temptation. For it is we, the reader, we the audience, who must pass through it with that dupe and therefore wake up to the trance of vice we are permitting ourselves to repose in. Here we witness a crowd from a distance beyond Pasolini’s own distance to it.

So the allegory is lost. But it is lost mainly because a sexual arena leads one to look for sex. It’s the crude but natural thing to do. Setting up A School For Orgy is such a bind on the imagination that the message about consumerism is somewhere over there off-campus. Yes, one is offered bread and circuses, if only in the shape of a starved clown and a crust, but still they are offered in the Circus Maximus of sex. In it, one cannot simultaneously overhear too well a homily from Saint Peter’s down the street. A different internal mob attends.

It has been elaborately re-released in a two-disc box, the second disc of which containing professors talking to professors about what professors talk to professors about. All this keeps professors in business professing, but has little to do with the actual picture, Salò, about which they are endeavoring to make a case. Although there are interesting inclusions by actual participants, such as actors, designer, original writer, and Pasolini, who is handsome, rather dear, very masculine, and genuinely reserved. A booklet of essays includes itself. I have not read it.

And why shall I read it? To prove myself wrong in all that I have said here. For why on earth would anyone read anything at all, save to be seriously disabused? For perhaps I too am lost in the vicious pleasure of consumerism. And what would it be that I consume so hungrily?

Why films, of course. Which is why I watched Salò, just as Pasolini asked me to, wanted me to, and why he made it for me to consume to begin with.

 

The George Stevens Seminar — The More The Merrier

21 Jun

By the early 40s Stevens could write his own ticket. Harry Cohn begged him to come to Columbia, saying he would never bother him, he would never even speak to him, if he would only come there and work. But Stevens said that he would value Cohn’s experience and point of view, and Stevens did go, and Cohn did not bother him.

He was to make three pictures there with Cary Grant, Penny Serenade, The Talk Of The Town. and The More The Merrier. The last of these, however, did not have Grant in it, thank goodness, for he was not available, and it really needed a middle-class regular American Joe to play Joe. (Could Grant ever play a character called Joe?) Instead it had Joel McCrea, who Katharine Hepburn said was in the same category as an actor as Bogart and Tracy, and so he was.

Jean Arthur made three pictures with Stevens, The Talk Of The Town, The More The Merrier, and her last picture, Shane. She  was tiny, but unlike most tiny women actually looked good in clothes. Like Margaret Sullavan and Kay Francis, she had a catch in her voice, but that wasn’t all that was appealing about her, for she was naturally endearing and a highly susceptible comedienne.

Stevens was eager to get into WWII, for this was 1942. He left for service before The More The Merrier opened at Radio City Music Hall, as had his other two Columbia Pictures. Like them, it was an enormous critical and popular success.

WWII took Stevens into North Africa, into the Normandy Landing, and eventually to Dachau when it was first liberated.He took color movies of it, which we have to this day. The only color movies of it.

When the War was over, he came back to Hollywood and scheduled a comedy with Ingrid Bergman. He couldn’t bring himself to make it. Katharine Hepburn always scolded him for not making comedies, for which he had such a gift.

The War had changed him.

The More The Merrier is the last comedy he ever made – and one of the best.

It’s a model for study, for camera arrangement and for directorial latitude to allow natural human comedy to arise between and on the faces and in the bodies of performers. The director has to have tremendous strength, patience, and the ability to watch in order for this rare and essential relation to arise. Perhaps no one has ever done it better than George Stevens.

 
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Melancholia

25 Apr

Melancholia – directed by Lars von Trier. Drama. Two sisters faced with their own futility also face the end of the world. 130 minutes. Color 2011.

★★★

An artist must be judged by the atmospheric conditions he himself creates. So that looking at this story, one is at a loss to place one’s compassion on the spectacular catastrophe of the end of the world which it gives us and in the beauty of the aura surrounding that, because no one inside the aura of the piece and whom the aura sets off is human enough to warrant our care. Neither actress possesses intrinsic interest. They want words; they want temperament. Who hired them?

In terms of what they do as actors, we can see them as competent, but there is no special value in either to allow them to stand for all humans about to collide with the great finality. They are flat. They are ordinary. They lack even the interest of simplicity. They lack even the charm of children, as does their child, a numb little boy. No matter how technically proficient they may be, and these two women are proficient indeed, actors in starring roles must stand out on the basis of who they are before they are positioned. Stars gleam; these two do not. Technical proficiency is nice, but, in fact, is not even a minimum standard for stardom. And here, especially, we must see them as special when they are in competition for our very interest with two planets colliding.

Indeed, even on the grounds of technique, we are faced with an inexplicable inadequacy. Charlotte Gainsbourg’s and Kristin Dunst’s parents are played by John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling. But Dunst plays with a flat American accent. If the idea is to present her as without liaison with her family, it is an irrelevant maneuver. For Kiefer Sutherland, who is superb and right, also speaks with his native accent, which might be understandable because he married into this family. The problem is not whether they relate to one another but whether we relate to any of them. But because of the language disparity there is too much sorting out who is related to whom. I don’t know whether Dunst does not have the technical prowess or does not have the energy to speak the Queen’s English, but it does not matter that I rather suspect the latter, because either way the flaw is fatal.

Likewise, they all seem to live together in a big ugly palace – or do they? – for none of them relate to it as a familiar milieu. First you think it is a golf club? Or is it a country hotel? Or a former mansion on hire? So the actors fail to bring us into human relationship with the loss of an Eden because they themselves do not belong in it. We never feel this is their house, their home. It is a failure of acting technique. Eden must be not just exquisite but exquisite to those who are to lose it.

The director’s desire was to present the nature of depression, because it is a state he himself has known. This is justifiable. This is done well. It is well filmed. The story is there, although the script is underwritten. Underwriting is always a form of overwriting, which is why its simplicity always looks pretentious. But never mind. His job is still to make sure the actors come alive in the piece. They don’t. They are adequate. But Adequate is always inadequate, is it not?

Von Trier’s films are heavily influenced by Tarkovsky. They are empty and inert. See Tarkovsky instead.

 
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Altman On Altman, interviews by David Thomson — introduction by Paul Thomas Anderson

26 Mar

★★★★★

Really, you can’t do better than this to inform yourself about the Altman films you’ve seen, and introduce yourself to those you have not seen — for instance, for me, Secret Honor, Philip Baker Hall’s brilliant performance of Richard Nixon in extremis.

This book, as with all David Thomson’s books, is a necessary text, for which I am grateful to Altman and Thomson both.

The book covers as much as David Thomson’s knowledge extends, which is pretty far. So you get insights into some of the technical challenges and tricks Altman used, you get a good sense of Altman’s business deals, his sense of actors, and how things got to the screen and how things did not get to the screen. You also find yourself in the presence of Altman’s unusually permissive personality and his equally rigorous standards for adventuring forth on projects new and unexpected, by this the most forgivable of workaholics.

Altman is quite open, and does not make a case for himself at all. Neither are we at the mercy of being told how wonderful everyone else was. Warren Beatty certain was not wonderful.

Thomson tells Altman’s story from the start, so it serves as a satisfactory biography. The book has good illustrations, a thorough bibliography, an index, and a full personnel list of Altman’s film and stage work, including his non-credited work and TV work. Wow!

Most directors do not get to continue working to the age he worked. And yet, he became well known only with M.A.S.H., when he was well into his 40s, and was still at the end of his life making good movies, such as Gosford Park and A Prairie Home Companion.

I can’t recommend the book more highly than to say I can’t.

 
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Top 40 Films 61-66 Reviewed in 2012

04 Mar

Top 40 Films 56-60 Reviewed in 2012

61.- Two Lovers – 2008. A man is drawn between two women, one of whom everyone wants him to marry and the other of whom no one wants him to marry. He wants to marry both. Gwyneth Paltrow is one of them. Joaquin Phoenix in another extraordinary characterization.

62.- Waterloo Bridge – 1931. A streetwalker finds true love in the devotion of a Yank soldier in WW I. Mae Clark is just extraordinary in the role. I’d never heard of her, but don’t miss her. Bette Davis emerges.

63.- Wife vs. Secretary – 1936. Snappy Dialogue: “Have you been faithful while I was away?” he asks. “Yes,” she says. “Twice.” Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Myrna Loy, and James Stewart command the screen in this nifty comedy.

64.- Wings In The Dark – 1935. What made Myrna Loy so great? Here she plays a stunt pilot opposite Cary Grant as a blind ex-pilot. Melodrama but watchable and Loy is lovely.

65.- Woman Of The Year – 1942. The first of the Hepburn/Tracy duos and by a long shot the best. Don’t miss it. It is the establishing movie for women’s lib, and Hepburn is fun and masterful and sexy in it. They were very funny together. George Stevens directed.

66.- Won’t Back Down – 2012. Backed by the great Rosie Perez and the great Holly Hunter, Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal effort womanfully for school reform. Gyllenhaal is one of our great ones. Don’t miss her. Never miss her. She’s better than a weekend at the spa.

 
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Top 40 Films 56 – 60 Reviewed In 2012

02 Mar

Top 40 Films 56 – 60 Reviewed in 2012

~ ~ ~

56.- The Wind Will Carry Us –1999. A documentarian from Tehran finds himself in a rural Iranian village to film its post mortem death rituals, but the old woman simply will not die. Very funny and radiantly beautiful.

57.- Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy – 2011. Gary Oldman takes this story to the screen once again. He is one of the most remarkable actors alive, always dangerous, always true. It’s a John Le Carrée spy thriller. Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Ciarán Hinds, John Hurt support.

58.- To Rome, With Love – 2012. We have the genius of Judy Davis to amaze us as Woody Allen’s wife, sitting there doing nothing, but stealing every scene. Roberto Benigni, Alec Baldwin and the juicy Penelope Cruz support in four unrelated delightful stories.

59.- Trouble With The Curve – 2012. Clint Eastwood directs and stars as a baseball talent scout, rivaled by his own daughter, Amy Adams, the most versatile actress on screen today. John Goodman, always a welcome presence, supports.

60.- Two-Lane Blacktop – 1971. Warren Oates is the reason to view it, but the story of this road-race has great beauty, fun, surprises, and a great theme. Let’s talk about what it is.

 
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Top 40 Films 51-55 Reviewed In 2012

01 Mar

Top 40 Films 51-55 Reviewed In 2012

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The Master – 2012. The stunning Paul Thomas Anderson directs the story of the Philip Seymour Hoffman’s battle for the soul of a cracked guttersnipe played and greatly played by Joaquin Phoenix, in a remarkable characterization.

The More The Merrier – 1943. You cannot do better than George Stevens WWII comedy set in a housing shortage in Washington. The delightful Charles Coburn won an Oscar matchmaking Jean Arthur and Joel McCrae, wonderful actors at their best, certainly in the funniest and most sensual courting scene ever filmed. Treat yourself good. See it.

The Roaring Twenties – 1939. James Cagney gives a performance unique in his career, real, slow, measured and deep. My favorite, Raoul Walsh directed it.

The Talk Of The Town – 1942. An escaped prisoner hides out in the summer home of a famous law professor, and both fall for their landlady. Cary Grant is the escapee. Ronald Coleman the professor, and Jean Arthur the landlady. The great comedy director in charge is George Stevens.

The Tall Men – 1955. Clark Gable at his most iconic and authoritative. Jane Russell and Robert Ryan as well, in one of the most beautiful color Westerns ever made. Raoul Walsh directed.

 
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Ingrid Bergman — by David Thomson

22 Feb

RADIANT — a book review by Bruce Moody of The Great Stars Series — Ingrid Bergman by David Thomson

★★★★★

I was sitting outside Kay Brown’s office covering for her secretary who was at lunch, and Ingrid Bergman stood out in the antique furnished lobby of the New York headquarters of MCA. She was in a simple suit. In profile, she was as slender as a wafer and as mundane. She stood there, modestly, humbly, quietly, waiting. She had come to see Kay Brown. She needed.

A story Dirk Bogarde tells of her. He kept a beautiful home in England where his actor friends loved to visit and sometimes stay. It was a sort of refuge for them. One day he went out into the garden and saw his guest weeding it. “Ingrid, what are you doing?’ “Waiting for a part,” she said.

The only time I saw Ingrid Bergman was this moment in the late `50s around the time of her Anastasia comeback. It was said she was the only actress in the world who could open a film on her name alone. But she was in need.

She was in need of the thing that kept her going on living – which was being an actress, and to do that she had to act, and to do that she had to get a part, and to do that she had to wait for her agent, Kay Brown.

She had never interested me as an actress. But she does interest David Thomson, which is why he writes about her. But when he writes about her, he sometimes smears his watercolors and one doesn’t always know what he means. They sometimes drip down the page irrelevantly. And that may be because he is actually in love with Ingrid Bergman and cannot therefore see her plain. His judgment is perhaps misted by his amour.

Much, of course, this being David Thomson, is good, richly spoken, witty, and always in a voice arising from great knowledge of film and the fun of film and film business. His statement that she had made 12 movies by 1940 is an important statistic in weighing her arrival in Intermezzo her first American film, which I remember at the time. She appeared so fresh that we all thought she must be inexperienced. Not so.

He has done his homework. He is not always accurate about Ingrid Bergman as an actress, but he is always to be trusted. For instance, he cites several movies she might have made had she not taken up with Roberto Rossellini: A Streetcar Named Desire (Kazan), Lola Montez (Ophuls), Vertigo (Hitchcock). The idea of her being in any of them is preposterous. For he does not seem to understand the sort of actress Ingrid Bergman was. But he does understand the glamour that obscured him from that knowledge. And his investigation of the films she actually did make with Rossellini is helpful, loving, perspicacious. You can’t do better than to read him, on these matters.

Ingrid Bergman was an actress of the old school, who usually played everything to the second balcony. Biographically she had a fine relationship with her father, who died when she was young, but provided for her training and support as an actress. She probably wanted to be an actress more than to act. Her stance of being an actress was terribly important. More important than being a character. She understood her charm well. No one ever could lower their eyes with such effect. No one could resist her bashful smile. No one photographed so well in full sun.

When she was to appear on radio playing famous women of history, she was sent for accent coaching to the great actress Mildred Dunnock, who was a master at accents. When Mildred Dunnock suggested that she drop her accent to play these parts, Ingrid Bergman said she would not do it. “People like me for my accent,” she said, and the session was over.

That’s the sort of actress Ingrid Bergman was. Aware of her power and unaware that it limited her. When she tried to stretch her craft with Rossellini, she could not do it. She ruined his career; she admits it.

She was radiant. She drew you in. Aside from Casablanca and Notorious her vehicles are no longer watchable, and sometimes neither is she. When her youth faded, when she returned to America a matron with four children to support, her talent, which was a sort of grandstanding “naturalness,” flattened out to a single power, which she had always had and which was still great – her power as a woman.

Even so, people remembered they had loved her. They forgot she had made them do it. She still had her audience. Which is what being an actress necessitates.

Thomson’s book on her brings to bear the business and technical background that helped make Ingrid Bergman a star. It is very good in this regard. His book on Bette Davis is better, because his critical acumen fires fewer potshots at Davis, so his aim is sometimes inaccurate here. But as a brief and yet penetrative examination of this lady, you don’t want to deprive yourself of visiting Ingrid Bergman with him. What David Thomson says about films and film people is always arresting, always worth reading, and always enjoyable to read.

A simple, good, and necessary list of Ingrid Bergman’s pictures closes the book, along with a list of further readings about her.

 
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Top 40 Films 46-50 Reviewed in 2012

19 Feb

The Top 40 Films 46-50, Reviewed On moviemoody.com in 2012.

~ ~ ~

The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus – 2009. Heath Ledger subbed by cutie-pies Johnny Depp, Jude Law, Colin Farrell in a whirwind, entertaining fantasy.

The Iron Lady — 2011. Meryl Streep in her most extraordinary impersonation, Margaret Thatcher in her heyday and dotage. The craft of acting at its finest.

The Ladykillers – 1955. Alec Guiness and Peter Sellars arrange a robbery headquartered in the home of a little old lady, played to perfection by Katie Johnson, who steals the show.

The Last Station – 2010. The seductive Helen Miren takes this film and enlarges it with the truth and power of her performance. She and Christopher Plummer play the Leo Tolstois in their last days.

The Life Of Pi – 2012. Ang Lee directed this exquisite parable of an adolescent boy adrift in a lifeboat alone with a Bengal tiger. Can they, since they are both mammals, come to terms?

 
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41- 45 Top 40 Films Reviewed In moviemoody.com in 2012

13 Feb

41 – 45. Top 40 Films of 2012 Reviewed in moviemoody.com

Talk To Me – 2007- Don CHeadle does a wonderful turn as a mephistophoclean dj.

Thank You For Smoking – 2006 – Aaron Eckart and William H. Macy as a tobacco PR guy and the senator opposing him are brilliantly funny in this superb satire.

The Artist – 2011 – It won many awards and has all the beguiling charm of a silent screen comedy – which it is.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel – 2012. What fun. A bunch of British retirees can’t afford to live in England any more, so they are beguiled to India by a wild young man, Dev Patel. Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkerson, Judi Dench, and other stars amuse no end.

The Color Of Paradise – 2000 – A difficult beautiful picture about a blind boy and his father who is ashamed of him. Not to be missed.

 
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36-40. The Top 40 films reviewed on moviemoody.com in 2012

09 Feb

36-40. The Top 40 films reviewed on moviemoody.com in 2012

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Shortbus – 2006. An early madness directed by John Cameron Mitchell. Sex rampant is the coat of arms here, so don’t pretend it isn’t. If you ever wondered how you would behave at an orgy, you may never find out by watching this. All you have to do is behave at an orgy.

Snatch – 2000. Brad Pitt plays a bad Brit in this low-life gangster caper-comedy. Brad Pitt is an actor who can do no wrong except to wear a shirt and tie. He is excruciatingly funny.

State Of The Union – 1948. One of Frank Capra’s few post WW II pieces, and an excellent one. With Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy as a couple headed for the White House, with a powerhouse performance by a barely out-of-her-teens Angela Lansbury.

Swimming To Cambodia – 1987. Jonathan Demme directed this docudrama of Spalding Grey performing his great sit-piece. Don’t miss this master at play.

Swing Time – 1936. George Stevens directed this, probably the best of the Rogers and Astaire white telephone musicals. Gerome Kern wrote the score (“A Fine Romance.” “Pick Yourself Up,” “Just The Way You Look Tonight”), and it contains as the jewel in its crown, the greatest romantic dance number ever put down in film. Excellent Extra Feature, too.

 
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31-35 The 40 Best Films Reviewed in 2012

04 Feb

31-35 Top 40 Best Movies Reviewed in 2012

31.- Penny Serenade – 1941. Well, Cary Grant was up for Oscars twice, and never for a comedy, and this is one of those times, and you can easily see why. I recommend that you do. The remarkable George Stevens directed it, sufficient reason in and of itself.

32.- People Will Talk – 1951. A prominent professor is attacked by a bigoted colleague. Cary Grant again. Joseph L. Mankiewicz (All About Eve et al) directed.

33.- Roadhouse – 1948. Not to be missed for the character Ida Lupino creates. So funny. So true. Richard Widmark does one of his crazies, and Cornell Wilde plays sensitive hero. Celeste Holm immediately after her Oscar win.

34.- Rock Of Ages – 2012. Tom Cruise as the rock and roll superstar pushing fifty – a sort of combination of Iggy Pop and Robert Newton, a walking Parnassus Of Sex, his jewelled crown a codpiece of rubies. It’s an astonishing turn by an astonishing actor – who once again throws himself into a role hook, line, and sinker. His joy in his craft is abounding. His actor’s imagination is unfathomable. He is not to be missed. Nor is Paul Giamatti in one of the funniest scenes ever.

35.- Seven Men From Now – 1956. One of the great Budd Boettecher Westerns. Randolph Scott is super, as is the sumptuously beautiful and endearing Gail Russell. Surprising, witty and imaginative.

 
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26-30 TOP 40 FILMS REVIEWED IN 2012

31 Jan

26 – 30 THE 40 TOP REVIEWED FILMS ON MOVIE MOODY OF 2012

Here’s a few more to pick over. You won’t regret spending time with any of them. None of them are earth-shattering, but then you don’t want your earth shattered all the time, anyhow.
~ ~ ~

Lock, Stock, And Two Smoking Barrels –1989. A brilliant gangster comedy from Great Britain.

Lockout – 2012. The remarkable Guy Pearce, upon whom I am writing The Guy Pearce Papers, as an examination of excellence in modern acting. Keep up with him. This is a sci-fi hootnanny. Here he is a smart-mouthed superhero, and brings it off proudly.

Marly And Me – 2008. Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston. I look at them and am filled with wonder and admiration for their craft. There is a dog involved.

Objective Burma – 1945. A favorite director of mine, Raoul Walsh, frequently worked with Errol Flynn. This is tip-top WW II movie, a demolition tale using actual footage from the Burma campaign.

Old Joy – 2007. An odd and necessary story about two hippy pals ten years later. You will find it tender and endearing.

 
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40 Best Movies Reviews on moviemoody.com in 2012 — 21-25

27 Jan

Top 40 Films Reviewed on moviemoody.com in 2012 – 21 – 25

21.- Hedwig And The Angry Inch – 2001. An extraordinary performance by the author of his sexual immolation before us all, and we are the benefactors of the fire.

22.- I Remember Mama – 1948. George Stevens masterpiece. His first film after his war experiences. Set in the San Francisco of his youth, he offers an American classic with Irene Dunne at her best. A must.

23.- In This Our Life – 1942. Bette Davis in one of her best and most extreme performances as the bitch you have to love. John Huston’s second movie. Charles Coburn and Davis are brilliant together as fatal flirts. Olivia DeHaviland and Hattie McDaniel costar.

24- Killing Them Softly – 2012. Brad Pitt lends his great skill and charm to this hit man, aided by James Gandolfino. Pitt, within his range, is one of the finest actors alive.

25.- Lincoln – 2012 – Steven Spielberg with the resplendent words of Tony Kushner brings Lincoln personal and up-close. Sally Field plays Mary Todd with rapt attention to detail, and Daniel Day Lewis brings forth another virtuoso characterization. This is the picture of the year, unless you don’t count The Beasts From The Southern Wilds. Both are best seen in movie houses.

 
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Top Reviewed Movies of 2012 – 16-20

26 Jan

Best 40 Films Reviewed in 2012 – 16-20.

All of these pictures are available to order at your local library for free.

End Of Watch – 2012. A brilliant cop/buddy picture with Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña bantering in a cop car. Oscar-worthy work.

Enemies, A Love Story – 1989. The cast includes Judith Malina, Margaret Sophie Stein, Lena Olin and The Great Anjelica Huston, the last two of whom were nominated for Oscars for this film. Paul Mazurksy directed it.

Flight – 2012. Denzel Washington presides over the excitement of this examination of a rash salvation move by a passenger jet pilot to save it from a crash.

Frozen River – 2008. Melissa Leo is an actress to clutch to our hearts as a natural standard-bearer of her craft. You have met the woman she plays before; you have never known her till now. Don’t miss it.

Gunga Din – 1939. George Stevens is never better than when outdoors. This is a famous action adventure show with Cary Grant, Ray Milland, Joan Fontaine, and Victor McGlaglen. It’s a lot of fun and good watching for the whole family.

Have a look and see if you might contribute a small sum to the donations tag on moviemoody.com

 
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11-15 Top Movies Reviewed In 2012

16 Jan

Dear ones, here more of the best films I reviewed in 2012. Watch ‘em, and let me know you how like ‘em.

11. – Buck – 2011. A Documentary about a horse-whisperer – and what a guy!

12. – Coriolanus – 2012. Ralph Fiennes is quite great as the most difficult of all Shakespeare’s heroes.

13.- Dark Command – 1940. he is re-united for the first time since The Big Trail with Raoul Walsh who discovered him, and he is also reunited with Claire Trevor his costar in the hugely popular, Stagecoach. She plays a lady of property, and Wayne plays the sidekick of George “Gabby” Hayes who runs an itinerate dentistry. Wayne’s voice sidles through the film so unobtrusively that he steals every scene he is in.

14. – Diary Of A Mad Black Woman – 2005. Have you never seen Tyler Perry? You mustn’t miss him, and this is a classic example of his masterful wit. Don’t hold back. He doesn’t. It is low comedy at its funniest.

15. – Elegy – 2008. Mis-titled badly, so don’t be misled. Penelope Cruz and Ben Kingsley and Dennis Hopper explore modern love and sex and desire and the whole bottle of madness.

 
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Best 40 of 2012 — Films 6-10

12 Jan

Again, I love the craft of acting, and that’s what I love writing about best. Every one of these films is acted remarkably in one way or another. From Cary Grant who always underacts to Robert Newton who never underacts.

40 Best Films Reviewed In 2012 On moviemoody.com. Films 6-10

Amazing Adventure – 1937. Light Comedy. Cary Grant. Here he is in the last of his tuxedo roles, and it is a perfect moment to take in the sort of actor he was. Read about that on moviemoody.com, and check out the movie and see if you agree.

Argo – 2012. International Thriller. Ben Affleck is not supposed to be everybody’s favorite, except when the big-hearted lug plays a part like this – a docu-caper, being the actual story how eight members of the American Embassy hid out at the Canadian Embassy and were spirited out of Iran by the mad scheme of a fake movie being shot there. Yes, it actually happened. Affleck directs.

Autumn Reunion – 2007. Drama. Many years after he saved them from the gas chamber, three Jews reunite in Canada with their savior. A stirring grown up movie, beautifully told and acted by Susan Sarandon, Christopher Plummer, Gabriel Byrne, and Max Von Sydow.

Big Brown Eyes – 1936. Comedy. Fast talking dames like Joan Bennett should be framed and hung in the Smithsonian. This is vintage perfection. Cary Grant plays her slippery boyfriend. If you like His Gal Friday, this should entertain you no end. Raoul Walsh directed it handily.

Blackbeard, The Pirate –1952. Swashbuckler. Robert Newton raves through this technicolor high-seas tale, with the sumptuous Linda Darnell aboard with the hoard. Directed by Raoul Walsh who had directed Errol Flynn’s piracies. Don’t deprive yourself. The bows and furbelows in Newton’s beard alone are with the price of admission.

Did you think of making a donation? Take a look at the upper right hand corner of this blog.

These films are easily obtained at your public library. For free. Check it out.

 
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40 Best Films

04 Jan

The 40 Best Films I Reviewed In 2012

I reviewed over 200 films in 2012, and rather than say what was the best and second best and so forth – denominations which have no meaning to me nor maybe to you either – I thought I would list all those I felt possessed various kinds of merits.

Some of them came out in 2012. Some, as you can see, hale from years past, although not past my past, since I am contemporary with all but one of them, Waterloo Bridge of 1931.

The main focus of these reviews is the acting. That’s what fascinates me, and that’s how I aspire to be useful to you. I like exploring that craft. In the process, I hope we both may benefit.

Some of these movie reviews are more about a particular actor and what that actor’s quality and craft might be. I mean, who has ever heard of Big Brown Eyes of 1936, but you might want to read there about Cary Grant as an actor. Besides, both he and the film are quite entertaining.

This year I wrote a series of reviews of Bette Davis films, and in doing so had a good deal to say about her craft, too, and what happened to it. But I here included only one, In This Our Life. If you want to know about my notions of Davis’s development as an actor, you can go back and look her up in particular pictures on moviemoody.com .

This was also the year I wrote The George Stevens Seminar, because he seems important, momentous, and moving. None of that seminar is on this list, although each film is associated with a section of it, but some of the films he made are reviewed here, so be sure not to miss Shane and A Place In The Sun and The More The Merrier.

I also began The Guy Pierce Papers. But these are a series of reviews of this fine actor’s films, a series which shall continue over the years, as I bring in his films for you. Talking about a single actor over time is helpful to me to articulate what I can about The Actors Craft. Some of it is hunches. Some of it I know from experience as an actor. Some of it is as plain as the nose on your face.

Guy Pierce’s work is worth dwelling upon, and I hope you learn something about the rubric of the craft by reading about him. To find him and his pictures, just go to the index on the right of the blog.

This month, I am going to give you brief precis of these pictures, maybe five at a time, so you can figure out for yourself if you might fancy them.

They are all available for free from your public library. Netflix has most of them, too.

By the way, on the blog site, at the right top. is a place for DONATIONS. If you read these reviews and are helped and entertained and enlightened by them, do you think you could find your way to droop in a sum? – no amount too small, none too large.

Thank you.

~ ~ ~

A Late Quartet – 2012

A Place In The Sun – 1951

A Private Function – 1984

A Separation – 2011

Air Force – 1943

Amazing Adventure – 1937

Argo – 2012

Autumn Reunion – 2007

Big Brown Eyes – 1936

Blackbeard, The Pirate – 1952

Buck – 2011

Coriolanus – 2012

Dark Command – 1940

Diary Of A Mad Black Woman – 2005

Elegy – 2008

End Of Watch – 2012

Enemies, A Love Story – 1989

Flight – 2012

Frozen River – 2008

Gunga Din – 1939

Hedwig And The Angry Inch – 2001

I Remember Mama – 1948

In This Our Life – 1942

Killing Them Softly – 2012

Lincoln – 2012

Lock, Stock, And Two Smoking Barrels –1989

Lockout – 2012

Marly And Me – 2008

Objective Burma – 1945

Old Joy – 2007

Penny Serenade – 1941

People Will Talk – 194

Roadhouse – 1948

Rock Of Ages – 2012

Seven Men From Now – 1956

Shortbus – 2006

Snatch – 2000

State Of The Union – 1948

Swimming To Cambodia – 1987

Swing Time – 1936

Talk To Me – 2007

Thank You For Smoking – 2006

The Artist – 2011

The Beasts Of The Southern Wild – 2012

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel – 2012

The Color Of Paradise – 2000

The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus – 2009

The Iron Lady ­– 2011

The Ladykillers – 1955

The Last Station – 2010

The Life Of Pi – 2012

The Master – 2012

The More The Merrier – 1943

The Roaring Twenties – 1939

The Talk Of The Town – 1942

The Tall Men – 1955

The Wind Will Carry Us –1999

Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy – 2011

To Rome, With Love – 2012

Trouble With The Curve – 2012

Two-Lane Blacktop – 1971

Two Lovers – 2008

Waterloo Bridge – 1931

Wife vs. Secretary – 1936

Wings In The Dark – 1935

Woman Of The Year – 1942

Won’t Back Down – 2012

 
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Christmas Day In The Morning

15 Dec

What delight!

A charming and funny Christmas story from your own beloved blogger moviemoody.com.

It’s on Kindle. It’s only $2.99.

If you already have a Kindle gizmo, good.

If not, all you need to do to get your free Kindle application is go to Amazon and following the free Kindle application directions — for mac or PC.

And then go to http://amzn.com/B00AA59P5G and there you will find Christmas Day In The Morning.

Here’s how it goes! A nine year old boy naughty, of course, and greedy for Christmas goodies, goes through his own night before Christmas with his family, opens his stocking Christmas morning, and then, going downstairs, what does he find under the Christmas tree among the glittering plenty?

Well, just you wait and see.

Christmas Day In The Morning is a good old-fashioned Christmas story that entertains the whole family. It’s fun to read out loud. It’s fun to hear it read. It’s fun to read on Kindle. Even the baby Jesus plays a part.

Christmas Day In The Morning stands next to Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas In Wales and The Night Before Christmas as a perennial yuletide favorite. A happy and humorous wassail of the season.

The author’s work has appeared in The National Lampoon and The New Yorker. He is the author of prize-winning poems and criticism and books. If you like what you read here on movie moody.com, you will love Christmas Day In The Morning, and so will all you love as well.

Find it by going to

http://amzn.com/B00AA59P5G

 
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Christmas Day In The Morning

14 Dec

What delight!

A charming and funny Christmas story from your own beloved blogger moviemoody.com.

It’s on Kindle. It’s only $2.99.

If you already have a Kindle gizmo, good.

If not, all you need to do to get your free Kindle application is go to Amazon and following the free Kindle application directions — for mac or PC.

And then go to http://amzn.com/B00AA59P5G and there you will find Christmas Day In The Morning.

Here’s how it goes! A nine year old boy naughty, of course, and greedy for Christmas goodies, goes through his own night before Christmas with his family, opens his stocking Christmas morning, and then, going downstairs, what does he find under the Christmas tree among the glittering plenty?

Well, just you wait and see.

Christmas Day In The Morning is a good old-fashioned Christmas story that entertains the whole family. It’s fun to read out loud. It’s fun to hear it read. It’s fun to read on Kindle. Even the baby Jesus plays a part.

Christmas Day In The Morning stands next to Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas In Wales and The Night Before Christmas as a perennial yuletide favorite. A happy and humorous wassail of the season.

The author’s work has appeared in The National Lampoon and The New Yorker. He is the author of prize-winning poems and criticism and books. If you like what you read here on movie moody.com, you will love Christmas Day In The Morning, and so will all you love as well.

Find it by going to

http://amzn.com/B00AA59P5G

 
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Autism Is A World

03 Dec

Autism Is A World – directed by Geraldine Wurzburg. Documentary. The emergence and education of a radically autistic girl, Sue Rubin. 40 minutes Color 2004.
★★★★★
Astonishing is the revelation of the heart and soul of this young woman, who as a child was a dangerous pyromaniac, violent, unreliable, and dense. She was taken to the office of a Harvard specialist in her condition who gave her a keyboard, and presently the girl began to communicate. To read. To spell things out on the keyboard for others to read. Eventually, to our astonishment, she graduates from college, still not being able to utter a word.

Mind you, although as an adult living separate from her parents, she still requires round-the-clock attendance. She understands her condition full well, however. She understands and she tells us, how, for instance, the autistic urges come upon her – to wander mentally, move oddly, roll her eyes, and so forth.

Very few of us have the opportunity to be familiar with an autistic person, to live around one, to grow accustomed to one, and to treat one as a human being, and ask from the autistic person that one be treated as such too. I happen to be fortunate in that regard. But if you are not, here is a thrilling opportunity to break through that disadvantage and visit with this fine young woman up close.

 
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Christmas Day In The Morning

22 Nov

Here’s the best Christmas present you could give yourself and me and another.

It’s the story of a rather naughty and perfectly greedy little boy of nine who opens his Christmas presents to find among them — of course — a lump of coal.

Christmas Day In The Morning is a short KINDLE book, about 30 pages, a story really, nostalgic and funny, rather like Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales – a story for children, grownups, and the whole family. Great for reading out loud. Just go to:
http://amzn.com/B00AA59P5G

And, tomorrow, on Black Friday it’s free!

It’s my newest, sweetest baby, and it welcomes your care and attention. Please read it for free or buy it — love it, give it to your friends.

And when you love it, well, then toot and tout your joys and put up a review. And tell your friends about it and buy it for them and everything! Help others you don’t know find it by reviewing it. Speak up for this little book. Your response means everything to me – yes, both to me and to its sales.

I do hope you love Christmas Day In The Morning. It’s a warm-hearted, humorous tale that may bring you back to your own Christmas mornings.

So Happy Holidays!

Make them more happy still with Christmas Day In The Morning.

And with my hug from afar.

Love ya,

Bruce

P.S.: IF YOU’RE LIKE ME AND NEED MORE HELP NAVIGATING THIS ON THE SITE, HERE ARE SOME INSTRUCTIONS EVEN I CAN FOLLOW:

You will find the book:

http://amzn.com/B00AA59P5G

Go there, click the book, and the purchase opportunity page appears.

To the far right, you will find a BUY BUTTON and a GIVE AS A GIFT button, which make for good sense and ease.

It doesn’t matter if you or your loved ones do not have a Kindle device. The site enables anyone to get A KINDLE BOOK READING APPLICATION FOR THEIR PHONE OR COMPUTER for free! immediately.

Sample for free is below on the right.

Or you can do the same on the upper left of the page — just above the cover at LOOK INSIDE.

And if you want a free KINDLE — on the right you will see a box: FREE Kindle Reading apps. It’s easy to follow the instructions, and with your free application you can buy or read all sorts of Kindle books – especially Christmas Day In The Morning — for free tomorrow on Friday – or any time.

Right under, “Bruce Moody (author)” you will find blue letters where you can respond to it. Also down below, Big Orange Letters say “Customer Reviews,” where you can write even more extravagant praise.

If you want more information about me as the author, just click my name, under the picture of the book itself, and there you will find all revealed.

Or scroll down to the Orange Letters “More About The Author”.

And even jump down further into The Orange “Forum” and start a discussion. What madness! What delight!

 
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The Guy Pearce Papers Introduction

18 Oct

Hey, everyone, I will be giving us a series of reviews on the interesting and talented actor Guy Pearce. He is one of four great modern actors (among whom are Joan Allen and Lee Pace) who fascinate me. I want to you to love them and be amazed by them, as I am.

Guy Pearce was born 5 October 1967, which makes him as of 18 October 2012, today, 45 and a Libra.

He is of English/Australian origin. When he was three, he left England with his older sister, who is mentally impaired, and his mother, a teacher, to live in Australia. His father, a test pilot, died in a crash when he was nine.

In Australia at 15, he became a prize-winning body builder and a soon a teen TV throb. To this day he is part of a rock band. He is long married and has no children. He has worked for 25 years as an actor, and appears on the stage frequently in his homeland.

You perhaps have seen him in:

L.A. Confidential

The Adventures Of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert

Factory Girl as Andy Warhol

The King’s Speech as King Edward VII

The Hurt Locker

Mildred Pierce [Emmy for Best Supporting Actor]

Death Defying Acts as Houdini

Memento

The Proposition

Rules Of Engagement

The Count Of Monte Cristo

A Slipping Down Life

And many other films. I won’t write preliminary essays as I did in The George Stevens Seminar, but simply write the reviews. At the bottom of each I will talk briefly about the sort of role he played in it. For he is an actor of considerable versatility.

To start that process, I offer a little piece about actors roles, which follows, itself followed by a review of the new Horror Film, Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark.

 
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The Guy Pearce Papers — 1

18 Oct

Why should I be thinking you might want to read about this actor?

I write of him and send to you my views because I imagine you to be interested in the art of acting itself.

It’s a curious art. That man of the theatre, Voltaire, called it the most beautiful, the most difficult, and the most rare of all the arts. And so I believe it to be.

But here we have an actor who seems to embody the craft to an unusual degree. Because it seems he can do almost anything – rare – as Voltaire told us.

Actors fall into certain categories, or roles as they are sometimes called.

Supporting Actor
Jeune Premier or Ingénue
Leading Man, Leading Woman
Character Lead
Personality Star
Character Star
Star

Do all actors fall into all categories? Can they play in all categories?

Meryl Streep, for instance, is not a leading lady. She does not have the personality for it. But, boy, is she is ever a Character Star. One doesn’t want to see her be herself. One wants to see her be someone else.

Katharine Hepburn is a Personality Star, but she does not play Characters. When she plays The Madwoman Of Chaillot, she is great, but she is not mad – what she is is The Madwoman of Hartford.

Marlon Brando might have been a Jeune Premier as a teenager, but he has more weight to his essence to sustain it, whereas Tom Cruise, a very good actor, is probably always a boy, or Jeune Premier.

There are no hard and fast rules about these things, but these categories help us see something about acting, and they help us see what each actor is suited to and not suited to.

Guy Pearce seems to fall into more of these categories than any modern actor I know of.
Character Star, Supporting Actor, Jeune Premier, Character Lead, Leading Man, Star.

So I thought you and I might like to go on this journey together with him, and take a look at this remarkably versatile actor’s work. We do it for our enjoyment and entertainment – and for the amazement of both of us at the miracle of acting itself.

 
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The George Stevens Seminar — Part 14 — Conclusion

01 Oct

The George Stevens Seminar – Part 14 – Conclusion.

What happened to George Stevens in the films that ended and exhausted his career?

Did something go wrong with him?

I think the progress of Stevens last work is towards a grandeur of social consciousness for which his instrument was not well suited and could not compass. Issues, not bigger than his talent, but of another sort, commanded him. His talent is poetic not polemic. From the last half of Giant on, he is engaged in what is Right, except that he is wrong for what is Right.

I wish it had not happened, but it probably had to happen, for he felt responsible for what he saw in Dachau. He was repulsed by the suffering – the dead and the dying and the decrepit and the diseased – and so he therefore took himself to be no different from the Nazis who had caused that suffering. It was in him too. He was just like them. He faced himself and he did not like what he saw. What he did not see was that the Nazis were not repulsed by the people they tortured and killed; they were not repulsed by suffering; they liked it. But Stevens, in his immediate lack of compassion for what he saw, did not recognize or know that repulsion to horror is a natural first response to it. He felt irresponsive and therefore irresponsible. And so, responsible.

Amends had to be made.

Except amends cannot be made.

But still the result was the deed of honesty of Giant Part 2, The Diary of Anne Frank, and The Greatest Story Ever Told. The preachment of the last half of Giant, about bigotry and the persecution of minorities, lead to a second persecution story, The Diary Of Anne Frank, also about the Jews, and then to the most famous persecution story of all, The Greatest Story Ever Told.

In this, it lead to subjects outside of American subjects –– and outside America which were his true and only realm and place. Holland? the Holy Land? and a movie shot in Paris? His films then also forsake simplicity for the simplistic. Stevens at best is a front porch type of director. He is a great director of comic or serious love stories. That is all, but it is enough to make him our great director because he does it so greatly. It is enough, also, because that was what his talent was most truly for.

What happened to George Stevens after the colossal collapse of The Greatest Story Ever Told is that he seems to have wandered. He seemed to want to make another film, and eventually he did so, but it was an odd choice. It was a job-of-work film, the story, considerably lacking in grandeur, of a gambler and a showgirl in Las Vegas. Frank Sinatra was set to do it, and Elizabeth Taylor then applied for the job, and when Sinatra dropped out and Warren Beatty was signed, naturally Elizabeth Taylor would have been wrong to play opposite Warren Beatty at any time, and by this time many years had gone by since Giant. Besides, Elizabeth Taylor was a trophy woman, not a showgirl. She never really could convincingly play someone who had a job. She was the show or she was nothing. She was too fat and too old and too short and too wrong for it. Besides, with her, the film had to be made in Europe so she could keep her eye on Richard Burton and make use of the tax haven they needed for their vast revenues. When she heard they were considering Julie Christie, she confronted Stevens, and, well, you know what Our Liz was like – there was no talking back to her. Besides, she had served Stevens well in the past. Everyone threw up their hands and said, “Okay, it’s all wrong but we’ll try it anyhow.” None of them had ever read Macbeth.

The Only Game In Town was the last of his three failures. I saw it when it came out. Everything that could be missing was missing, including Las Vegas.

If you look at Stevens’ story at this time, what occurs to you also is that he was defeated by the boundaries of Hollywood itself. He was limited by the choice of the sort of stories that came to Hollywood and the actors who worked there. His career was top-heavy. He was too successful.

Perhaps he didn’t realize that?

What else mightn’t he not have realized?

Now, George Stevens, by a sort of silent personal attrition, was the sort of person who could get anything he wanted. He was very strong. He knew, and everyone knew, what a film master he was. And people were perfectly willing to make movies with him even after failure. Because not only do Hollywood people know that movies are a crap shoot, they also attract people who like a crap shoot. What you see in a George Stevens’ film is consummate craft becoming great film art. Stevens knew he had this craft. He knew how to make films. He knew how to make them his way. He knew how to cut a script the night before. He knew how to prepare. He knew how to overshoot, and to use that footage to piece together in the cutting room the film he wanted. He understood audiences and trusted them. What he did not know, perhaps, was what was meant when you saw huge and ahead of the title when the credits came on: THE GEORGE STEVENS PRODUCTION OF. Maybe I am wrong about this.

When he was shooting The Diary Of Anne Frank and it was pointed out that it had no star, he said something like, “Well, I guess I’ll have to be the star.” But somehow I still don’t think he realized that, as with only a few other directors – Hitchcock, Kazan, Ford, Zinnemann – his name alone could open a picture. It did not seem to occur to him that his own skill and craft were sufficient: he did not need stars. But he was stuck with star-mentality. He used movie stars to cast his pictures and he sometimes cast them carelessly, and they are sometimes unnecessary. He also sometimes cast them incorrectly and oddly.

For instance, he wanted Montgomery Clift to play Shane. Clift was a huge star at that time, but a crazier idea cannot be imagined. He also wanted Katharine Hepburn to play the wife, which is equally nuts. Katharine Hepburn and William Holden as her husband meet Montgomery Clift as Shane. To contemplate it is enough to give one a stroke. In the end, when all that fell through, his casting was quite off-hand. He asked for the contract players roster at Paramount and – Alan Ladd, Van Heflin, and Jean Arthur – quickly and luckily checked off three names.

In taking on Shane, Stevens in his own mind was just taking on a job of work. He had a contract with the studio and he had to make a movie. Giant was another matter. He instigated it, and he was no longer under contract. The book was well known, and many actors vied for the leads. The problem in casting was the age range the leads went through, going to 50. Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly were not about to appear to be 50, nor did they have the technical know-how to do so. Elizabeth Taylor had to politic Stevens for the role. I suppose Stevens could not foretell that Elizabeth Taylor, although the most beautiful woman in the world, was not particularly vain, so being 50 was nothing to her – that wonderful anecdote about her saying to Stevens at the shoot in Marfa, “Oh, yes, George, but what happens when I am no longer Technicolor-pretty and Technicolor-young?” No one who is vain about their looks could make such a remark.

The casting of the male lead may have come first, and actors in the middle age range were considered, John Wayne, for instance, who would have been marvelous as Jordan Benedict ten years before, as would even better have been Joel McCrae. But with Taylor, aged 23, in the role they were looking for younger actors for Jett Rink than Robert Mitchum and for Benedict. Trouble was there was a scarcity of young straight leading actors. Rock Hudson was not one of them, either, and the film suffers from it. He was not straight but the role carried it because the role said he was, and Elizabeth Taylor carried it, because she was able to play her love for him as a swain and a husband.

Stevens, strong as he was, could not envision casting outside Hollywood’s limited casting possibilities. Besides, if you have Elizabeth Taylor you can’t have an unknown playing opposite her. And if you cast her first, you can’t cast Joel McCrae opposite her, even though it is the more important role and needs to be cast first.

Stars…if available…not always an advantage.

The Diary Of Anne Frank on the other hand had no stars in it. You could cast anybody as Anne. A big campaign to find an unknown went on. For funny-looking little 13 year-old Anne Frank, he cast a girl with no acting experience at all – but she was a cover girl! – on every fashion magazine in the world! What standard was seducing him here? Her presence is completely in conflict with Anne Frank and how everyone knew she looked. Well, he saw the movie, mistakenly, as a romance, while all it is, at most in that regard, is a crush. The movie failed badly. If you watch the excellent BBC version of “The Diary Of Anne Frank,” you see what the casting and playing of that part should have been. What was wrong with Stevens? Had he lost his casting sense?

The Greatest Story Ever Told is jammed with stars, and, with the exception of Sidney Poitier, none of them add a single thing to the story of Jesus, an unknown outsider wandering through the desert with a cortege of unknown outsiders. These are good actors, but what did he think Van Heflin or José Ferrer or Charlton Heston had to offer that would not overbalance the material, or Brooklynite Shelley Winters (one of the few Jewish people in it)? He casts Max Von Sydow, an Ingmar Bergman company member, as Jesus. Such blue eyes, too! Von Sydow is better than good in the part, but better-than-good does not mean right.

Finally, the mad admixture of Elizabeth Taylor and Warren Beatty, both of them admirers of Stevens, but, opposite one another, miscast. Why? Because the picture, again, is a romance, but they were the sort of people who in love and sex both did the choosing — yet no comedy is made from that conflict.

In his days with the studios, Stevens’ films were perhaps cast for him. But as an independent producer, while he seems in firm mastery in all matters, he seems not so in the casting. This either means either that casting never was one of his strengths, or that he felt that the telling of the story, at which he was the greatest living master, was more consequential than the human beings called upon to enact the drama in the story. If so, in this he was wrong, and his, perhaps unconscious, laxity in or shunting aside of proper casting, I believe, confirmed the decline of the life of his work and leading to the ending of his career.

It may have also ended because by the time he finished The Greatest Story Ever Told (surely the worst title for a movie ever made), he would have been worn out. It was way over-budget; it was way over schedule. (His friends Jean Negulesco and David Lean towards the end had to shoot scenes for him.) It was the most expensive movie ever made in America. The public hadn’t come. His inspiration may have gone threadbare.

And his energy too. For film direction is a young man’s gig. It’s an enormous undertaking. Directing a film is pole vaulting over an Everest, and you may not, particularly after the failure of your touch with your last three films, have wanted to dare the daunting venture again.

Stevens was still much in demand as a director after The Only Game In Town, and various projects presented themselves. But nothing was started. He had worked on Giant for no salary, but his percentage of the profits must have been hearty. He probably did not have to work to pay the bills, and he certainly could fill the role of director emeritus marvelously. He died at 70 in 1975.

~ ~ ~

About the last part of his fine work I write with a regret he himself may not have felt. After all, he had a lot of successes under his belt, and those failures were not the first he had ever had.

For, of course, I write of him at all, not because of what might have been, but because of those vibrant masterpieces which still hold our love, awe, and delight. His work as a whole is a gift to us, and the central portion of his work is his great gift of that gift.

Woman Of The Year, Penny Serenade, The Talk Of The Town, The More The Merrier, I Remember Mama, A Place In The Sun, Shane, and the first half of Giant are why I write here.

I write because he is the film director whose work is still the most poetic of any American director, and, because it is, it speaks deeply to me. Beauty is the path in. Beauty is the sweet knife to the heart.

He is also the master of the American subject. He is the film poet of its possibility. No other director can touch him in this regard. When you walk down a street with George Stevens you awake to what you forgot was always there and nowhere else.

His films speak also to the outsider watching them.

Are all Americans outsiders?

In Europe countries are called states. But in The United States regions the size of European countries are called states, giving the sense that each state is a sovereign country, and so the inhabitants of each state become outsiders to all the other states, each one itself being sovereign, regionally particular, and hugely distant geographically. Are we all outsiders to one another? With our racial and religious distinctions, ethnic differences, heritage and nationality heterogeneity, are we not all outsiders?

As an outsider, as of the first generation of immigrants, I saw myself in his films about outsiders. By seeing them, I was allowed in. The poetry of them showed me the way into America. He opened up the America in me.

And I too could love as those who loved Elizabeth Taylor loved. I too was allowed that beauty in me to be.

His films also joined that love with palpable sexuality.

They awoke capacities in me dormant. I saw them as a young man, and they brought with those capacities, also out of that dormancy, a responsibility to them and to that love and for it.

~ ~ ~

When I play a piece of classical music for a friend, I always want them to feel in it just what I felt. For that’s what I play it for: the beauty it arose in me. It is a foolish ambition, since everyone will feel what they do. Nevertheless, I want them to be exactly like me at that moment.

I feel the same way about George Stevens work. That is why I write this. I want you to see his pictures; I want you to see his work. I want you to love it. But I also want you to love it exactly the way I loved it — pricelessly. I want you to see it and be thrilled as I was. And to find in it exactly the beauty I know is still there.

Yes, I know I am fool in wanting that.

But it is the only gift I have to offer.

And, fool as I am, it is why I have written all this for you.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

 
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The George Stevens Seminar – Part 13. The Diary Of Anne Frank

28 Sep

The George Stevens Seminar – Part 13. The Diary Of Anne Frank.

The is the first of three final unsuccessful movies Stevens made, and the last work of our seminar. If you remember we began this seminar series with a discussion of his work during World War II and with the film that comes after this I Remember Mama. At the time he started The Diary Of Anne Frank he had three successes behind him, A Place In The Sun, Shane, Giant. He was probably the most powerful director in Hollywood. He could ask for what he wanted and get it. The Diary Of Anne Frank was an international best selling book, which it remains to this day. Who would have thought it could fail as a film?  The picture got rave reviews but the public did not come.

He took three years to prepare, shoot, and edit. And the groundwork works for it marvelously. The Amsterdam exteriors were shot by no less a photographer than Jack Cardiff. The body of the film was shot by William Mellors, who had filmed with Stevens in The War, on D Day, the liberation of Paris, and the day Dachau was opened. He also filmed Stevens’ A Place In The Sun for which he won an Oscar, as he did for this.

And, although it was shot in Cinemascope, because it depicts narrow confinement, it perhaps benefits as none of his other films of this time do, by being sceen in the narrow confines of a TV screen.

Stevens and his son met with Otto Frank at the original Amsterdam house. Evidently it was the first time Mr. Frank had been back. He took them upstairs to the loft where the eight had hidden some thirteen years before. Stevens copied the entire building and built it, one storey above the other at Fox in Hollywood. It was huge. It was set on springs, so it would actually shake during bombing scenes.

The film took six months to shoot, and the cast was kept close to the work the entire time, and the set was kept quiet at all times. Stevens could actually play the German music for them to prepare, which he would also turn on while they shot, as he would the the dreadful sirens of the Green Police and the big bells of the cathedral nearby.

I saw Schildkraut do it on the stage, and he is really better in the movie. Susan Strasberg had a grating stage voice, an important detail since it made her difficult as a person, as was Anne herself, and it demoted her prettiness, which in any case at the distance of the theatre was not in evidence as strongly as it is in another actress here.

This DVD has a full account of its filming by those involved. The background and its production is honored, as is the director, Mr. Frank, the diary, and Anne Frank herself.

Shelly Winters is discussed in detail, her unruliness and lack of confidence. I remember coming to her West Side apartment door at exactly this time. “Oh just look at me!” she cried. She was in curlers. She was on the phone with her agent and beckoned me in; I was delivering a contract. “Well, I did Diary Of Anne Frank,” she said into the phone, “and that didn’t work out.” I was a delivery boy; she was concerned with her hairdo: she had not been nominated yet for the Oscar she won: miscalculations in every direction.

The film is disastrously miscast.

The film is also perhaps the greatest example of Stevens’ constant subject of The Outsider.

Miscasting the outsider would continue with the next picture, his greatest effort and greatest failure. I don’t know what went wrong with Stevens. He had been affected by The War; he spoke of this and Shane to be his War films. Perhaps he had become too serious about his seriousness and so lost scope. Perhaps his due date was up.

 
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The George Stevens Seminar — Part 12 — Giant

24 Sep

The George Stevens Seminar  – Part 12 – Giant

Mildred Dunnock had played Elvis’s mother in Love Me Tender, and certain scenes had to be reshot. In rehearsal for a play in New York, she was flown first class fast to Hollywood to do the takes and get back. The return trip was one of those luxury flights on which everyone had a Pullman bunk to sleep the night. She entered and took her seat. The plane did not take off. And it kept not taking off. “It was clear it was being held up for ‘Them’.” Of course, it still did not take off.

When they got on the plane, their excuse for their lateness was that Mike Todd had to go to a local Jewish Delicatessen for corn-beef sandwiches, which he passed around for everyone. “Great for your sex life,” he said handing one to Mildred Dunnock one. She declined.

His conduct remained as the flight went on. “He took the orange rind and he threw it on the floor,” Millie said, meaning it in both the figurative and the literal sense. But, while Millie was known by the actors on the plane, being an Actors Studio actor and familiar to the New York gang, it was Rock Hudson, whom she did not know, who gentlemanly took her under his wing as protection. In the morning Todd gave full particulars as to the fucking he and Elizabeth Taylor had done in the bunk the night before. “Elizabeth Taylor would quiet him,” said Millie, “‘Now Mike,’ she would say, and play sleepy.”

They were on their way to the world premier of Giant.

~ ~ ~

The Roxy was built by a man called Roxy and, seating over 5,000 people, it was the biggest movie house in the world – until, having built it, he built a bigger one, Radio City Music Hall. The Roxy no longer stands, but it was a very great picture palace, quite different in style from Radio City, which was Art Deco. Known as the Cathedral Of The Motion Picture, the Roxy featured a soaring golden, Spanish-Moorish auditorium, and a lobby in the form of a vast columned rotunda called the Grand Foyer, plus on the mezzanine the world’s largest oval rug. Off the rotunda was a long entrance lobby that led to the theater’s main entrance at the corner of Seventh Ave. and W. 50th St.

The theater included a rising orchestra pit which could accommodate an orchestra of 110, which was the largest permanent symphony orchestra in the world, and a pipe organ with three consoles which could be played simultaneously.

The film projection booth was recessed into the front of the balcony to prevent film distortion caused by the usual projection from the top rear wall of a theater. This enabled the Roxy to have the sharpest film image for its time.

The Roxy presented major films in programs that also included a male chorus, a ballet company and a line of female precision dancers, the Roxyettes. Elaborate stage spectacles, fresh each week, accompanied the feature film.

The Roxy was a Picture Palace Madness. In it lobbies rose into the interiors of vast turbans, studded with decorations. Surfaces were encrusted, balconied, parapetted, ramparted, gilded, silvered, bronzed, coppered, jeweled. Bulbous lobbies lead not into the theatre but into other bulbous lobbies, as into endless coming attractions. Carpeted staircases swept up and around to balcony upon balcony. Acres of excess. Lakes of luxury. In the Depression, going to a movie was an incursion into regality.

~ ~ ~

I was a James Dean lover and was hit badly by his death. East Of Eden, was the only film of him that had been released at the time of his death; Rebel Without A Cause had been released the week of it. In any case, the release of Giant was long in coming. I had no idea of the story, or what his relation in it with Elizabeth Taylor might be. So I bought a ticket to the world premier.

I took a girl who had become a friend the summer before on the Cape where we both worked waitering. To her, I think the premier meant nothing, which was all right with me, because I cared enough for two. Peering over and around a big crowd, we waited inside the lobby to watch celebrities walk the carpets and into the theatre. A rush of appreciation and recognition went up as each one arrived. Virginia Mayo – I was struck by her radiant complexion, as I was of that of Natalie Wood – maybe it was world premier makeup, but if it was it was teacup lovely. Ethel Waters capacious in brown. On they came one after another. As each one passed, a breaker of sound rose and crashed, swept toward and through us. Who would it be? On we waited for the next one. Who would it be?

It was time for the movie to begin. It was time to go inside.

But clearly nothing was going to happen. Clearly the movie was not going to start until it did happen.

Then, finally it happened.

It was them. It was them the movie had been waiting for to start.

Like a glacier calving, the rush down toward the ocean of them grew in bulk, moved a huge wave of itself in their direction as they made their way slowly and against and inside the mob as against an element. They were surrounded by uniformed theatre guards and ushers. They were surrounded by the police, who actually separated Todd and her, a cordon who pressed forward further and further against a crowd wild to get at them. No, not them. Her. To get at her. She stood in a white ball gown, her hair shoulder length at the center of a maelstrom, calm and frightened. People reached over the arms of the guards to get at her, to touch her, to realize themselves with the autograph of contact with her. She moved slowly in the center of this storm, she herself an island of calm fear, phalanxed inside the reef of linked uniformed arms. Bit by bit the guards pressed their pod toward the entrance to the theatre, a jewel inside the ring of their forbiddance. She looked back for him. I have never seen anything so beautiful in my life as her face.

People wanted to touch her with their hands – for the same reason as I with my eyes – to prove to themselves that such a creature actually existed.

~ ~ ~

There are many stories about Giant, how it was cast, what happened during the three years of its making, and people’s response to the death of James Dean, which took place after his last scene was shot. But all of that is present in books and a lot of it is also present in the many fine Extra Features that accompany the DVD. My task is not that. My task is not scholarly. My task is critical. And my bent is to look more at the acting. My task is to offer the film as a film to you as I see it today.

What I saw this time round is that what has happened to Stevens in Giant and his three subsequent films is that he has taken on social issues larger than his ability to experience them on film. He has also lost his touch in casting. He has also lost his touch with characters and drama. And lost his touch with the script. And he does not realize any of this because he seems preoccupied only in the preparation and editing. I assume all this because of the results on the screen.

In the case of casting Giant, one has to take who was available at the time and out of various contractual jails. They thought of Robert Mitchum for the James Dean role – but Dean campaigned for it and got it. Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly both were asked to do it, but declined, and Elizabeth Taylor had to make a pitch for the part. She was 23 and in advanced pregnancy, but Stevens had worked with her before and knew her worth.

As to the male lead, the problem was there seemed to be no Hollywood actors at the time who were young enough and who were also straight enough and had weight enough and talent enough to play the role. George Nadar, Tab Hunter? Clark Gable wanted to do it, but he was too old. William Holden was middle-aged looking. Tony Perkins? A boy. Tony Curtis? Too urban. Paul Newman? He might have been good. What was really needed was Joel McCrae, who would have been perfect for it, since he had the looks, the horsemanship, the humor, the heterosexual glint. Perfect. Too old. John Wayne was considered, and might have been Jim dandy. Also too old. You would have thought there would be somebody around at the time, but look for yourself. Who was there? Rock Hudson got it, and his presence in the film all but empties it. Here as elsewhere, Rock Hudson as an actor is fatuous.

~ ~ ~

Working with slow-working Stevens had frightened all the production houses away from the project, and Ferber’s novel had also offended a great many people. It had been very popular, but no one would buy it. Then she and George Stevens and Henry Ginsberg formed a company to produce it, except they would charge themselves no salary. Jack Warner knew a good deal when he heard it, so he backed it and gave his studio and its financial and technical resources for it.

~ ~ ~

The film took longer and longer to make. It was three years in production. It goes hugely over budget. Without his knowing it, letters go back and forth as Warner Brothers calculates how to take the film away from Stevens. But of course, they cannot do it. Legally they can, but what good would it do? They have to let him finish it. They do, and then it takes a year alone for him to edit it. And when it is done, it is three and a half hours long. Not since Gone With The Wind has an audience been asked to sit through a film so long. They preview it one Wednesday night in San Diego at a surprise showing, without intermission. The audience is rapt. They love it. Fred Zinnemann makes a few suggestions about scenes to be taken out, and Stevens removes them. Jack Warner does not like the film, but the local folks in Marfa, Texas, where it was shot have been used in it, and made part of it, and words gets around. Texans love it. The world has been waiting for it. Everyone loves it.

Two things remain at the core of its success. One is that for all its size it is about a normal American marriage and a normal American family, that is, a marriage with many of its difficulties and threats of breaking down, and a family with foibles in all its members. And the other thing is the character played by Elizabeth Taylor who remains outspokenly true to her principles. She a women’s-libber, and women of that post-war era knew what it was to be a woman of independent mind.

The American side of it might also have caused its success, by which I mean that its sermon against prejudice speaks to an overriding sense of fairness in the American character, a fairness which predates the Constitution and brought it into being. If a Texan can be fair-minded, well, then, anyone can. So it’s the story of a Texan, and by inference Texas itself, becoming American.

What we have, then, is another story from George Stevens about an outsider, in this case a story of an outsider becoming an insider – an outsider becoming an insider by bringing other outsiders inside with him, all this predating the films of Stanley Kramer.

But it seems to me that beginning in its second half, I see a director losing the knowledge of himself, not being aware of his frayed sense of casting and the absolute necessity for a strong script. He wrote to his collaborator afterwards how grateful he was that they did not have to rewrite the script every night as they had done on all their other films. Too bad, because it is exactly what Giant required.

~ ~ ~

The DVD which I watched Giant on offers excellent assessments of Stevens and others involved. Jane Withers is particularly cogent and fun. Elizabeth Taylor is not present at all. The entire effort is supervised by George Stevens Junior.

At a teenager, George Stevens Junior was brought into the entertainment business by his father, just as George Stevens himself was brought into it by his actor parents, and they by the well-known actress who was George Stevens Junior’s great-grandmother. So we are hearing someone speak of a family business, one which, understandably they are not inclined to speak of with much critical rigor. George Stevens Junior clearly loved his father. He admired him and admired his work, and was right to do so. He has balance and much to offer and good stories to bring us.

~ ~ ~

What you will see in Giant is a small family story about a small family, but their story has giant repercussions. What does that mean? Does it mean that the lessons of acceptance, which are the Rock Hudson character’s torment in this film, convert everyone in Texas in a ripple effect that stops as it slaps the border of New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Mississippi?

No.

It only means that one man alone learns acceptance, but what he does is learn it on his own terms. As he looks at the different colored skins of his grandsons in their crib, he remarks on the racial distinction between them in the same terms as he did before. Watch the alarm on Elizabeth Taylor’s face as he does this. Then watch it change. The diction of the distinction Hudson makes is as always his own. But the tone is new.

~ ~ ~

When I first saw this film, I had come to it with my love for James Dean in high gear. We were the same age. What he was in Rebel Without A Cause and especially East Of Eden was inside me. I saw the beauty of my own hurt seeing his. And I saw the resourcefulness of his charm in escaping from it. So I was disappointed by what I saw on the screen. He was not that young man at all in Giant. In Giant, he was a cantankerous, self-pitying, inconsiderate, insensitive drunken snake.

He and I were just about the same age – but now the James Dean in me has died away. It probably would have left him too, for had he lived he would be over eighty. And looking at the film again after so many years, my James Dean expectations of The Roxy are gone too, just as The Roxy is gone, and I see how fine he was in this performance in the first part of the film. I see how weak Rock Hudson was, as he was in everything, but I saw that even then. But I see a quite different performance from Dean than the one I didn’t see then. And I am glad I do.

What I did not see then is how great an actress Elizabeth Taylor was at this period of her life. Her character is the ground of the picture. She makes it so as naturally as breathing. Her beautifully modulated voice, at this range of playing, is a template of her talent. She is 23 and she will never be better in a film.

As to my romantic attraction to her … ah, well. That remains.

This was the first of the three times I was to be with her in my life. I can see her still, even more vividly than when five years later I sat opposite her as we talked in a cafeteria. No, I still see that young woman, with that crowd cycloning around her, in the lobby of The Roxy, turning to look. Not at me. And I looking.

Forget that? Forget, along with James Dean and the rest of the way I saw that picture back then?

Why would I?

Why would anyone want to? I see her still.

Her standing there.

And I – still looking.

~ ~ ~   ~ ~ ~   ~ ~ ~

 
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The George Stevens Seminar — Part 11 — Shane

20 Sep

The George Stevens Seminar –– Part 11 — Shane

 

He was awarded The Irving Thalberg Award  for it this year, and nominated for an Oscar as Best Director. Brandon DeWilde was nominated as Best Supporting Actor. It won one for Loyal Griggs for cinema-photography, as certainly it should, for it is a film of great beauty, lit with Rembrandt lighting to dismay the musical comedy lighting most color Westerns were filmed in at the time.

The film was revolutionary in all departments, but Stevens really had no idea it was to turn into The Great Classic Western when he made it. It was an assignment, and he just gave himself fully to it. It is a perfect example of the fact that for an artist there is no such thing as art, only craft.

Indeed Stevens seemed to have lost his common sense in casting at this time, a loss which ruined his final four films. In this case he wanted Montgomery Clift to play Shane and William Holden to play the farmer, all of which would have unthinkably crazy. Anyhow each of them dropped out of the project, and Stevens simply asked to see the contract players list at Paramount, and cast Alan Ladd and Van Heflin, and there was Jean Arthur who had always done good work for him, and so he used her. I don’t know how they landed with Brandon DeWilde upon whose particular acting honesty and openness the story depends; he had had a very big success in Member Of The Weddng in New York, and was to make the film of it with Fred Zinnemann. Anyhow here he is, God bless him. The greatness of the film emerged from Stevens’ careful pre-production preparation, his long rigorous editing procedures, and the shooting of takes from every angle possible, giving him a lot to choose from. Victor Young’s score is excellent and modest. The art and set decoration is top notch.

The film must be seen in connection with A Place In The Sun, his other masterwork at this time, in that both films had as their focus the beauty of a human being. In A Place In The Sun it is Elizabeth Taylor whom we see-through Montgomery Clift’s eyes as the ideal of beauty and all that is desirable and delightful in life. Stevens’ camera dotes on her. And the structure of the film is a comment, a pointing to, one of the reasons we go to film, that reason being the privilege to gloat on a face so beautiful we would never have access to it otherwise than in the permissive dark of a movie house. The same is true with Shane.

Here the beauty is male, Alan Ladd, blond in blond buckskins, and the one doting is also male, in this case an 8 year-old boy played by sweet honest Brandon DeWilde.

What does it mean to adore beauty? What does it mean in the human being to have an aesthetic sense? What does it mean to idolize another human?

Allowing us to is one of things a movie does. And these are the matters presented and, of course, not answered by these two great films. But this is what we are offered to enter into and regard.

When the film was finished Paramount thought it was just another Alan Ladd movie. Shane had gone well over budget, and Alan Ladd movies never made more than a little over 2 million. They were going to give it small release. They tried to sell it to Howard Hughes for the cost. That fell through. Then they previewed it. When, having seen the audience’s response, they opened it at Radio City Music Hall, it became the biggest money maker of the year.

Why is that? Because George Stevens had a great faith in an audience’s ability to participate and finish a film by its attention to it. He did not consider an audience to be elite, but he did know that audiences had a tremendous collective intelligence and care as they watched a picture. He counted on it. He counted on the intelligence of this engagement to arise and participate.

One reason we are reading about George Stevens films here, and these two in particular now, one reason why Shane and A Place In The Sun retain their modernity and power, one reason why we have access to them in our souls still is because he let them belong to us.

Their power, beauty and magic remain — undiminished in their mystery and delight to this day.

 

 
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The George Stevens Seminar – Part 10. A Place In The Sun.

13 Sep

The George Stevens Seminar – Part 10. A Place In The Sun.

When screened for him, Charlie Chaplin said it was the best American movie he had ever seen.

It constitutes with Shane, the apex of George Stevens’ career. It’s odd to think of a film director having an apex. Titian didn’t have one. Neither did Beethoven. But film direction like ballet is a younger man’s game. The energy it takes to produce and direct a film is titanic, for it includes his own and everyone else’s art around. Anyhow, with these two films he achieved the highest point any American film director had attained, and his accomplishment generally stands true today.

For me it does. For it is for these two movies in particular that I embarked on this seminar to bring them to you, to bring all his best work. And to give you some sense of the biography that formed it.

He had been reared in a popular acting family in Oakland, going back to his grandmother, and when his parents moved to Hollywood to find work in film, he started a photography business, and eventually jumped over the wall into the studios themselves, starting as an assistant cameraman on Rex The Wild Horse Westerns (Westerns were what he loved best to make) and then filmed and directed a new type of comedy team, Laurel and Hardy in some thirty-five films.

He became a major director when Katharine Hepburn chose him for Alice Adams. He directed the best Rogers and Astaire musical and other comedies, dramas and entertainments of the 30s, at the end of which he made four strong films, beginning with the first Hepburn Tracy picture, Woman Of The Year.

During The War Eisenhower charged him with recording D-Day and the campaign in Europe, so newsreels of the period that you see are what his group took. He also took virtually the only color film of the war on his home camera, and his scenes at Dachau are stunning in their horror.

The war influenced him greatly, and when he came back he made two serious films, and the third, this one.

It won six Oscars: Direction, Screenplay, Editing, Score, Costume Design, Cinemaphotography. Best Director from the Directors Guild Of America. It is the first film ever to win The Golden Globe as Best Picture.

When Elizabeth Taylor, aged 17, walked into the commissary at Paramount where this was made, a hush fell over the entire room. All her film work had been done at MGM. No one at Paramount had ever seen her in person. The silence stood stark still until Billy Wilder dispelled it by hollering out, “How the hell did she ever get into the movies!”

It is her greatest performance on screen, not because she is not as good in The Last Time I Saw Paris, but because the film as a whole is a masterpiece.

I first saw it in London in 1952 where it was playing in a big movie house in Piccadilly Circus. I was dumbstruck. I had never seen anything like it. For one thing, it was the most beatuiful film I had ever seen, and for another, its message of a great life-experience being more important than any law, revealed an overriding human truth, which I knew was true, but which I had never before seen stated. I gathered my American exchange student friends and saw it again.

Famous for its triple dissolves and its revolutionary camerawork by Stevens’ WW II cameraman, William C. Mellors (who won Oscars for it and for Stevens’ The Diary Of Anne Frank), Stevens edited it, not with a moveola, but in a screening room by projecting the rough cut next to the footage, full screen.

There is a good deal more to say about it which I shall not say. It was enormously successful at the time on all counts. But it still is.

It is a film anyone, teenage and up, can watch. Even on the small screen it holds up, although on the big screen it has a power like no other film. It contains the most famous kissing scenes ever shot. Accompanying by Franz Waxman’s beautiful borrowed theme, these scenes are filmed, however, with the lips never shown meeting, but always shrouded by dark, by a shoulder, by a shadow. All the more romantic, somehow, all the more beautiful, all the more loving.

It influenced my life, greatly, and it still does. For one thing, it completely expanded my aesthetic sense. I hope it may do yours.

I wish I could stop desiring to convey its reverberations on my soul. But I can’t. I don’t want to.

To do that I would simply have to stop writing here at all.

 
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The George Stevens Seminar — Part 9 — The More The Merrier

01 Sep

By the early 40s Stevens could write his own ticket. Harry Cohn begged him to come to Columbia, saying he would never bother him, he would never even speak to him, if he would only come there and work. But Stevens said that he would value Cohn’s experience and point of view, and Stevens did go, and Cohn did not bother him.

He was to make three pictures there with Cary Grant, Penny Serenade, The Talk Of The Town. and The More The Merrier. The last of these, however, did not have Grant in it, thank goodness, for he was not available, and it really needed a middle-class regular American Joe to play Joe. (Could Grant ever play a character called Joe?) Instead it had Joel McCrea, who Katharine Hepburn said was in he same category as Bogart and Tracy, and so he was.

Jean Arthur made three pictures with Stevens, The Talk Of The Town, The More The Merrier, and her last picture, Shane. She  was tiny, but unlike most tiny women actually looked good in clothes. Like Margaret Sullavan and Kay Francis, she had a catch in her voice, but that wasn’t all that was appealing about her, for she was naturally endearing and a highly susceptible comedienne.

Stevens was eager to get into WWII, for this was 1942. He left for service before The More The Merrier opened at Radio City Music Hall, as had his other two Columbia Pictures. Like them, it was an enormous critical and popular success.

WWII took Stevens into North Africa, into the Normandy Landing, and eventually to Dachau when it was first liberated.

When the War was over, he came back to Hollywood and scheduled a comedy with Ingrid Bergman. He couldn’t bring himself to make it. Katharine Hepburn always scolded him for not making comedies, for which he had such a gift.

The War had changed him.

The More The Merrier is the last comedy he ever made – and one of the best.

It’s a model for study, for camera arrangement and for directorial latitude to allow natural human comedy to arise between and on the faces and in the bodies of performers. The director has to have tremendous strength, patience, and the ability to watch in order for this rare and essential relation to arise. Perhaps no one has ever done it better than George Stevens.

 
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The George Stevens Seminar — Part 7

10 Jul

The George Stevens Seminar Part 7

He made three films with Cary Grant, all of them extremely successful and all of them quite different from each other. Gunga Din is a huge action/adventure piece with Grant as a ne’r-do-well. Penny Serenade is a marital drama with Grant as a n’er-do-well, and this piece, The Talk Of The Town, is a modern comedy with Grant as a n’er-do-well.

 

The latter two are half of a quartet of films Stevens made just before The War, and, in a way, they are sad to examine since after The War he never made another comedy. Katharine Hepburn scolded him for making no more comedies; and well she might have, for one of those four was The Woman Of The Year, the first and best of her Spencer Tracy films.

 

What you find here is Stevens’ unforced comic style, a style which does not depend on gags or jokes or physical comedy, though Grant was a great physical comedian, but comedy of human response, which Stevens had learned watching Stan Laurel in the many comedies of his he filmed and directed. The first-meeting scene of Hepburn and Tracy is a sterling example of this. And in The Talk Of The Town, Grant’s physical alertness ups the ante in every scene. Watch for it. Grant, as an actor, is always on his toes. He is always leaning into the scene, and this physical force-field from him drives the comedy of the picture. It means he is always slightly intrusive, even when he does not mean to be, and this intrusiveness is the key element playing through the entire story as the determining ingredient of the lives all the characters.

 
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Mikey and Nicky

21 Jun

Mikey And Nicky — directed by Elaine May. Gangster Drama. Two friends from childhood, one to kill the other, amble through the dark streets of a big city. 119 minutes Color 1976.

★★★

That neurotic brat Elaine May indulges herself and her actors in a denuding in which nobody really takes off his clothes. The work by the two principal actors is clearly improvisational, which means that the actors are called upon to actually “write” the script by improvising it. A questionable process, no? The question being, are the two actors good playwrights? Another question being, do the improvisations improve the truth of their performances? Another question being, does the spontaneity of improvisation actually bring depth and key to narrative? In the case of John Cassavetes, a cold actor, the answer is no. For the performance. while showy, never delves beneath the sexy conman with which Cassavetes smirks his way through it. For all his variations on the theme the result is monotony. He makes the character always self-involved and always lying. He is an actor without emotion, and he takes no risks. And what this results in is that there is no moment when what lies inside this liar conman defense and opposite to it has a chance to come to light and importantly tempt his survival. The character never becomes exposed. A sexy conman is the opposite of a sacrificial lamb, but Cassavetes either cannot imagine becoming that or cannot do it, did not have it in him as an actor, and as Elaine May, who is an amateur, is not a real writer either, she simply indulges herself in her entrancement by what is after all no more than the fun of an acting class exercise in Meisner technique. Indeed the brutal and great acting teacher himself is present in the film as the capo financing the hit, and is quite good, without bringing any particular quirk of imagination to the role. Meisner technique is available only in lower class drama, such as this. (Sanford Meisner hated Shakespeare.) But “lower class” does not guarantee drama, and  there is no real drama here, for the Cassavetes character never gets forced to know and so never gets to the point of revealing the truth to his protagonist, played beautifully by Peter Falk, so Falk is never faced with the temptation to spare him. This is the essential drama — will these old best friends spare one another? — and it is missing. The drama is not whether Falk will kill Cassavetes; yes, he will, as far as this film goes; but the drama should be whether he will spare him; this is never available. May supposes that acting exercises write plays. They don’t. Falk, however, is another matter. I acted with Falk in Saint Joan and The Changeling — he was in his early days, his early thirties, but everyone said he was on his way, and he was. He has much more available to him than Cassavetes does. A warm actor indeed, of great natural appeal and no shtick, he plays the co-dependent to Cassavetes dry-drunk. Alas, his exposition scene comes in the last scene of the play and with the wrong character, whereas it should take place with Cassavetes after all those beers. And the revelation scene when Cassavetes learns that Falk is out to kill him comes too early, and is discarded as a subtext. Cassavetes has a brilliant moment with it. And there are brilliant moments throughout the picture. Cassavetes is not a likable actor, just a Mediterranean mug. Falk, on the other hand, is very likeable, and if you’d like to see him in the biggest film role he ever had, take a look. Expect to be fascinated but not be satisfied.

 

The George Stevens Seminar — Part 6. Woman Of The Year

09 May

The George Stevens Seminar – Part 6. Woman Of The Year.

Only one item on this week’s seminar – and why is that?

Because it involves one of the most entertaining comedies ever made?

And why is that?

Because it explores the highly and deeply sexual fun and folly of love-at-first-sight.

As we all know, this is the picture that first brought Katharine Hepburn together with Spencer Tracy for a series of nine films, the majority of them comedies, and for a 25 year relationship. In that time she made only 8 other films. And two of them would had been better had Tracy been in them. The African Queen because he was a better actor than Bogart, and Long Days Journey Into Night because Tracy was lower-class Irish.

But this is not a study of them, but of the most quintessentially American director, George Stevens.

He had made two films with Hepburn, but her choosing him for the first of them, Alice Adams, made him the prestige director he remained for the rest of his career. Hepburn came to Stevens with the first 100 pages of Woman Of The Year in her hot little hand, and wanted Stevens to direct it. He saw it was that rare thing, a perfect script, but they were both attached to different studios. And there were 40 pages missing from the ending.

However, on the one hand, Stevens remembered what she had done for him in choosing him for Alice Adams seven years before.

He asked her to bring Woman Of The Year to Columbia where he was contracted. But she had promised it to MGM. But, on the other hand, Hepburn commanded an easy mutual respect with Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM, one of the few actors ever to do so. She liked him. They could talk turkey together. So she charmed Mayer to hire Stevens to do it. Stevens didn’t like MGM, and this is the only film he ever made there.

Stevens and Hepburn had had an affair while making Alice Adams and Quality Street, and that affair resumed as Woman Of The Year started. It subsided as the film ended and as Hepburn and Tracy were drawn to one another.

And that attraction is what these two fine actors capture in their first scene together and at once. They have had their first fight together on paper as journalists on the same newspaper. Then they meet!

But the film is important because it houses Katharine Hepburn’s greatest film performance. She plays the sort of newspaperwoman we were all familiar with in those days, Dorothy Thomson and Martha Gellhorn. Led by Mrs Roosevelt, it was an era of strong prominent females, and WW II was to enhance their prominence and strength. We liked such women. With the wars in the Middle East, they have appeared again, bravely, as foreign correspondents.

Steven’s simple camera placement, his ability to let a scene improvise itself within the bounds of its script, his latitude with comedy, his brilliant camera eye, his way with a story such that he surprises us the audience into telling half of it for him – all these are radiantly present and to be found delicious by us all, still.

Honorable, talented, courteous ­– these are the words Fred Zinnemann uses to describe George Stevens.

Why would you miss so rare a spirit, when he is right there, a Netflix away?

 
 

Swing Time

01 Apr

Swing Time — Directed by George Stevens. Musical Comedy. A runaway-groom meets up with a dance instructor who wont give him a tumble. 104 minutes 1936.

* * * * *

Oh, you may say that Fred Astaire couldn’t act, and in one sense it’s quite true. He seems awkward and embarrassed saying lines. On the other hand, everything he does as an actor is apropos, and every move he makes is a dance, just as with that other Broadway hoofer James Cagney; like Astaire, Cagney is never not dancing. Which means that Astaire’s acting is always physically animated. If there is any problem with his acting, it may be that he is never still, never grounded in his lines. Swing Time is accompanied by a terrific commentary by John Mueller, who takes us through a good deal of what went on to make this piece the greatest of Rogers/Astaire musicals — which has to do with Astaire’s grueling rehearsal work, freedom from chance in the dances, his staff, and the nature of the picture itself. It is directed by George Stevens who was one day to direct Shane and A Place In The Sun and The More The Merrier and who brings to the picture an angle of vision and an allowance for acting excellence in the principals which unify it. Of course, it is a white telephone musical, which means that it is essentially a film in which only the dances are serious art: the rest is flip. This is as it should be, because Astaire is interested in discovering and firming up the musts of movie dance. His discoveries rule to this day. The film contains wonderful numbers of Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields, including a most endearing version of “The Way You Look Tonight” which you will never forget. And at one point Astaire applies blackface and does a shadow dance with 24 chorus girls 12 in black, 12 in white, and then dances to a triple black and white rear projection of himself. Minstrel shows embody and celebrate an exuberance which our negro entertainers alone possess: blackface gives performers freedom: that is what is being enlarged on here, and, because it is respectful at heart, it would be offensive to be offended by it.  Rogers, beautifully dressed for all her numbers, is liquid in Astaire’s arms. She had a wonderful figure, graceful arms, strong square shoulders, a flexible back. And of course she could actually act, so she moves the spoken drama along while Astaire moves the dance drama along. Dancing he led her; not-dancing, she led him, so to say. At the end Stevens directs them in the most beautiful romantic dance ever filmed. A valuable suggestion Mueller gives is to watch the dances in slow motion. What a treat! To actually see for oneself what went into these intricate, witty dances!  Astaire’s body was a genius. That body is the ur of American movie musicals.

 

The George Stevens Seminar Part 4 The Greatest Story Ever Told

13 Feb

The George Stevens Seminar — Part 4 – Regarding The Greatest Story Ever Told

So the question arises, why would anyone want to make a Biblical Epic?

Pardon me, the question I should ask is: why would I, or anyone, want to watch one?

That’s the more realistic question, since, at the time it came out, a fan of him, I did not attempt to see George Stevens’ The Greatest Story Ever Told. There were two reasons for this, the first one of which I have already answered by asking the second question, but the second reason is that the director seemed to have gotten above himself in the last part of Giant. It is the same reason I did not see The Diary Of Anne Frank when he made it. I had seen the Broadway production and I had read the book, and that too seemed an odd sort of subject for a director, whose mastery of contemporary themes in A Place In The Sun and Shane, it seemed to me, should have gone in a direction more gratifying to me personally. The fact was, that I understood the director to be no longer interested in me personally. I treasured him. I would not trash him by attending such films any more.

A Biblical Epic?

A New Testament Epic, in particular.

What is the problem with the New Testament as a story suitable for filming?

The problem is that the “story” of Jesus, AKA The Greatest Story Ever Told, does not have a story at all to tell. It has episodes, it has quotations, it has sermons, it has some miracles, it has a trial scene, and an execution for a crime, and the fact that from this execution of a criminal, many religions and a huge celebrity are raised. But the life of Jesus itself has no story.

Stevens himself recognized this. For, many years later, he said he had seen some of the film again, and that if he had to do it all over again he would do it exactly the same way, but he called it “an exposition.” In the rubric of drama that term means a scene where you learn facts about a character’s past. The “attention, attention must be paid,” scene in Death Of A Salesman, where Linda Loman tells her sons their father is trying to commit suicide, is such a scene. There is no action. There is simply the giving of information and the effect of it on the boys. In this sense, the story of Jesus is not a story of someone; it is a story about someone. It is information. In The Greatest Story Ever Told nothing happens.

Jesus is a person who – from the time he was 12 and was noticed as an ocean preaching to a drizzle in the temple – disappeared from view until he was 30. What happened to him during that time is not known, but it is speculated that he entered training with Essenes, which would be something like the Sufis, in which training something very big would have happened to him indeed, although not something about which a drama could be made. That is to say, he underwent at least one spiritual transformation and probably more. That was the happening, and the only happening, but after that until the time he died, nothing happened to him whatsoever. For he was an already fully realized being.

What happened happened only to the people around him. Because something happened to their characters, you could make a story about Thomas or Andrew or Judas or Peter, but not one about Jesus. They were changed. He was not.

So there is no story. There is only a record, a record by the people to whom the happening happened. He himself wrote nothing.

The record recounts miracles and sermons and parables and sayings and actions and his death. There are events. There is information.

But, except for the temptation in the wilderness (as Milton knew) there is no drama. Because there is no conflict within the person of Jesus. Jesus himself is beyond all persons.

And that is what Hollywood Biblical Epic filmmakers seem not to see. I guess they make Biblical Epics because they are celebrity freaks, and, next to God, Jesus is the biggest celebrity ever. So they think everyone wants to know his inside story. And they’re right. Everybody does. But there is no inside story. The story is over before the record begins. Unlike the Buddha’s, Jesus story is a foregone conclusion. His stuff has happened before it is noticed to be important enough for anyone to pay attention to it. And this is the great difficulty in dramatizing Jesus: as a dramatic character, it has no arc. He does not begin somewhere and end somewhere else. And another problem: he is already too discovered.

 

An additional problem arises, with the original novel: The New Testament.

In George Stevens’ case, here, his script depends upon The King James’ Version, which is very beautiful – in a church. But in a movie house it does not ring true. And for a very simple reason. Which is that in Biblical Epic, no one is allowed to speak like a normal human being. Hollywood Epic diction does not allow normal contractions. A character does not say, “I’m going back to Galilee.” Instead, they are made to say, “I am returning unto Galilee.” Now at the time, in 30 A.D., when someone wanted to go back to Galilee, they’d say, “I’m off to Galilee,” just as we would now. They would not engage in fancy locutions, and if they did, folks would, as now, consider them to be nuts and boring.

Of course, written as a text, “unto Galilee” sounds special and exalted. It is part of glorious high church Jacobean literary usage – not that any 17th Century person would use it in ordinary parlance. Written, it is divine. Spoken, it is foolish.

So when we watch a Biblical Epic we always wonder why these people are so stifled in their diction. What is wrong with them? Why are they such sticks? Is that what meeting with the guru does to folks?

And it is also true that Jesus did not preach in The King James Version, beautiful as it is. He spoke in the diction of his day, which would have been the same as ours: simple. For I don’t believe that he was one of those horse’s ass preachers we see in our tents and TVs. “Suffer the children to come unto me,” is a gorgeous way of saying what probably at the time was said simply. It is so gorgeous; in fact, that it shrouds the dramatic possibilities of the situation that probably inspired it.

A bunch of folks are gathered around Jesus to hear what he had to say, and the kids are getting rambunctious, and the fathers tell the mothers to get the brats out of there. But Jesus says, ”No, let them come right here,” and he sets them forth as examples of the innocence of approach which he counsels their parents to find in themselves, the easiness of the light of God. So, in fact, the grandeur of the language restrains drama when spoken, it does not inspire it. When you read The King James’ Version of The Bible, the language induces a spiritual experience; it does the same in church; in a film it squelches it and makes it suspect.

Of course we are always gratified to hear the beautiful words once again and uttered by a trained performer of beautiful words. But, while this is nice, it has no necessary relevance to the content of drama.

 

The light of God.

That’s the subject of Christ’s life, and his message is that it is in us all right now. And that the name of it in Earthly terms is Love.

So the question is: does the movie produce the presence of God in us. That is to say, is it scripture? Is De Mille’s The Ten Commandments scripture? And, if it isn’t, what is the film doing up there?

Was George Stevens experiencing the presence of God as he took all those years to make this movie?

I don’t think so.

And does the movie induce it?

I don’t feel it.

I don’t sense Stevens to have been a man of much spiritual élan. I like him, I respect him, he is a Fine Artist to be sure, I admire him, and wish to pass along his legacy of beautiful things to everyone. He is a decent man and a man of character. But I do not see in him a man of a particularly Christian or even spiritual texture.

 

Finally, the task becomes how to cast such a film, a film whose focus is Jesus. What actor can play this part?

In making this film, Stevens was mightily influenced by the religious art of the Renaissance, and often by Rembrandt’s use of chiaroscuro, an off screen side light with heavy black shading to frame faces, with a key light under the eye. But what failed to register in Stevens’ interest in this is that Rembrandt, alone among Biblical painters, used real Jews for his models.

Casting was one of Stevens’ strong points, but here you look at the casting with wonderment. Is there a single Jew in this cast? Shelly Winters has a moment in a scene as the Woman Without A Name, and Ed Wynn is perfect as the blind man made to see, but who else? Roddy MacDowell as an apostle? Dorothy McGuire as Mary? Van Heflin? Do they seems Jewish? Where is Edward G. Robinson, Sam Jaffe, Hedy Lamar, Luther Adler, Lauren Bacall? Are we back there in the Holy Land in 32 A.D., with the Jews? Never. So the film is wanting in the right actors, good as those people in it are.

And this has always been the case with Biblical Epic. For, not only the supporting players, but how do you cast Jesus?

Jeffrey Hunter?

The noble Jim Casaviel?

Are they, do they look Jewish; do they even look Middle Eastern?

Or, in this case, Max Von Sydow, a towhead blue-eyed blond?

With dyed hair. Or a wig. Or darkened up.

Or was he meant to look Sephardic?

Sydow is excellent, mind you, in bringing an important gravitas to the part.

But that’s it.

If it was so hard to find a Jewish actor (Paul Newman being unavailable, undesirable, miscast?), why was it not so hard to have found Joseph Schildkraut way back when?

And, once you have cast anyone as Jesus, how can he be expected to embody a person of such advanced evolution, when no one knows what that really is. Granted, an actor does not play I Am The King. Or I am The Savior. The cast around him plays You are the King, You are The Savior. But that’s in the theatre, which does not present the actor and the audience with the danger of The Closeup. In a movie, in order to play Jesus, you really do have to evince an already enlightened being. For people were not transformed by what Jesus said, but by what he was when they came in contact with him, as we in the movie theater are invited to do now. But where is it in this film? You have to see it.

 

What happens is that all these problems forbid dramatic excellence or even possibility. And since they do, what results is amateurism, even on the level of George Stevens, which is a very high level indeed. These wants reduce the film to the level of a church pageant.

Now, there is nothing wrong with a church pageant. In a church pageant, the performers go through one or another event of Christ’s life, the birth at Christmas, the death at Easter. The children get dressed up and perform it. Or the adults get dressed up and perform, as I saw once performed, at the monastery of San Luis Obispo by the Teatro Camposito, The Temptation In The Wilderness with a brilliant and beautiful actor in gold lamé and hung like the very dream of seduction, and a Jesus whom no one remembered. Or performed last year in Richmond, California, where the Hispanic church put on a full scale production, which began in Church with the disciples and Gethsemane, continued into the parking lot where among parked cars Veronica wiped Jesus with the handkerchief, and went on to the baseball diamond where the three crosses were erected on home base, and where the three actors hung in the cold while hundreds of parishioners watched.

Why did they watch?

Because to watch something so amateur is so difficult that we undergo the suffering we see? And Epics take so long.

Because it is an entertainment and entertainments are rare in church?

Because it is good to encounter the events in a different way than purely literary or sermonized ones?

These are the reasons to go to see a Biblical Epic?

One’s own aesthetic suffering.

The entertainment.

The embodiment.

And, perhaps, but probably not, for a direct experience of the presence of God.

A direct experience of the presence of God might occur because such experiences occur while in groups, such as a congregation.

But probably not, because The Passion was not what Christ preached. He was not a sadist. And because a congregation is not the same as an audience in a picture palace.

Their expectation is different.

And, finally, why in Biblical Epics is Jesus always presented as having no sense of humor?

 

In any case, I think it is unlikely that George Stevens considered any of this or even had a chance to consider it.

So one wonders what he wanted from his audience with this material. He had a very great and highly developed sense of the audience’s participation in telling a story and in responding to a scene. He is famous for this, was aware of it, and it is obvious in most of his comedies or dramas.

But his sense of this was filmic rather than spiritual. He made pictures whose stories could be made into something personal to the audience, as well as to him, but how is this material personal to him I fail to see, except as an exercise in technique.

To learn how to light the last supper so that it reflected The Father, The Son, and The Holy Ghost, took him several hours of meditation before the set, but did The Trinity actually happen once lit or was it a self-referential camera trick merely?

In the special feature disc is a sequence of Stevens describing the execution of John The Baptist, which he tells from the point of view of Herod and which takes place all in one long sequence, an anonymous dancer in Loie Fuller veils, perhaps Salomé, flitting in and out from an orgy in the next room, the veils and the music dead to him, Herod a lost soul at the end of it.

But is this what we get when we see it? Not I. It is a very good film sequence in theory, but it is too far away in the distance to register from the point of view of Herod, as played by Jose Ferrer, who had it well within his range to play such a scene, and it is over-edited.

Does his insistence on spectacular setting and landscape in this film actually empower the scenes with spiritual content? I like them. They are amazing. But for me they bear no relation to a particular spiritual moment.

I don’t sense George Stevens had any natural affinity for this material, save as an unconscious opportunity to make another big Epic Middle Eastern movie out of doors in Arizona, as he had once done when he was in his 20s, and directed on horseback the rousing tale called Gunga Din. What a lot of fun he had then! What a lot of fun it is to see that movie! In this movie, there is not a trace of fun and not a trace of human comedy. And because of that and because Stevens had such a sense of human comedy you might say there is nothing really human in this movie at all.

He seems to have confused Christianity with Jesus, and to have some sense of Christ as a Christ, but no sense of him a spiritual being or as Jesus, a human who ate.

Why does he make this film?

Was it the attempt of a senior director for a last great adventure?

Did his seriousness of intent put him above himself? The broad base of the mountain of I Remember Mama, A Place In The Sun, and Shane – did that base lead to the foggy peak of grandeurs at the end of Giant? And then on to “important” subjects, such as The Diary Of Anne Frank and this?

And in those grand and important subjects was he reaching past exclusively American themes to world themes and to make movies for international audiences – which he had never done – unless Gunga Din set in the Middle East could be considered international? Was he shooting, God help him, for the “universal”?

For does he really have a relation to this Biblical material beyond reverence for it? That is to say, does he have a personal exploration necessitating this material?

Well, then did C.B DeMille have one in his Biblical Epics? I don’t sense one. And do you really have to have a spiritual affinity with the Bible to make a Biblical Epic then? Otherwise, you’re not allowed?

You know, speaking of DeMille, George Stevens had a tremendous effect on the Directors Guild in bringing down DeMille during the McCarthy hearings. DeMille wanted to depose liberal Joe Mankiewicz from the chair, and gathered a secret cabal to force through a vote and to elbow through a second loyalty oath. But Stevens, who was not politically active, nonetheless came to the meeting, and there was DeMille deliberately mis-pronouncing the ‘Un-American” Jewish names of Fred Zinnemann and Mankiewicz and other Jews in order to prejudice the vote, when Stevens got up and stopped it cold as the conspiracy it was. John Ford stood up next and said, “CB, I admire your work.  No one can do what you do. You are part of the great history of this industry. But I don’t like you.” John Huston did likewise. De Mille was defeated because George Stevens had the character to stand up to him.

So the question is: did Stevens make a Biblical Epic to outdo DeMille even at his own game of Biblical Epic?

If so, he  did not succeed. Stevens attempted to costume this film in the clothes that might have been worn at the time; he didn’t want the usual Hollywood Biblical outfits. But The Ten Commandments is not just a better acted picture, but a better costumed one, for the simple reason that the actors look comfortable in their costumes and here they look uncomfortable. Did he try to out-De Mille and fail?

Did he even think of that?

Well, whatever the reason, in making such a film he had a challenge, you say?

But I say a challenge is an insufficient and transitory reason to transact a work of art. For every work of art is a challenge. And in art a challenge is never personal. Only technical.

So where in this material lies Stevens’ personal exploration? Where is his soul? Where is his fun?

George Stevens had seen and recorded on film the extermination camp of Dachau shortly after its liberation. He was thunderstruck. He never forgot it. He never understood it. Is this film an extension of Anne Frank in a pleading not to kill Jews, a pleading against bigotry?

Katharine Hepburn in urging Stevens to make comedies again after World War II may have been right, in that with Giant, with Anne Frank and with this picture he has burdened himself with a solemnity beyond his artistic temperament.

But The War had a deep effect on his personal temperament, which, nonetheless, may have not been consonant with his artistic temperament. So did he have a really selfish reason for directing this film? If not, why bother

 

And do I have a selfish or spiritual exploration to make necessitating my seeing it?

The answer is probably no. For two reasons, one is that I do not go the movies for spiritual awakening, and, two, I am a fallen-away Christian with an active spiritual practice belonging to no religion.

Such movies as Biblical Epics draw huge crowds. This one cost $20,000,000 to make and did not draw huge crowds. It took six years to prepare, nine months to shoot, involved thousands of extras, and a city built in the desert to house them, and Stevens was paid $1,000,000 to make it, the highest salary any director had ever achieved. It was made at the same time as Cleopatra, which cost $40,000,000 but made back its nut on foreign rights alone. Why Stevens’ picture failed I do not know. No sex, no gore, no battles? No Burtons?

No interest in his execution of the material?

The day of Biblical Epics was over?

Until the rise of computer generated effects, perhaps the latter was so. Or perhaps the public’s disappointed curiosity in Cleopatra spoiled Epics for everyone else. The general public was sated?

Anyhow, my concern is not with the general public and what they want or do not want. My concern is solely with the person who is reading this at this moment. My concern is solely to open the door.

To what?

To the work of George Stevens and to the possibilities of the nature of the person whose work bears that name.

That’s why we are considering this film before his great dramas and comedies, which chronologically preceded it.

The Greatest Story Ever Told. It’s the worst title ever conceived for anything. We are at a disadvantage from the very first word. We are considering it now, so as not have to do so later. We are getting it out of the way.

But the main disadvantage we are at is that the film is available on DVD and not in the movie theatre. For the spectacle of this film is huge. To hope to digest it one must see in a movie house. And all I can do is talk about it here as I have seen it on my TV screen, where George Stevens had no idea when he made it that it would ever play. Many movies work on TV screens. But some don’t. Titanic is a film which on TV simply looks footling.

And this film on TV is impossible to estimate.

We are considering it now because all of his other films can be seen well enough on TV. Yes, they can. This one alone cannot.

It is the only film of him, I would hope one day to see in a movie house, where I saw all the others. Not to see it there, no view of it can be fair.

 

 
 
 
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