Monday, August 24, 2015

Lawrence of Arabia

The Blind Spot is an ongoing series hosted by The Matinee in which bloggers watch and write about movies they've never seen before. For a list of past manyies, visit the home site.

Lawrence of Arabia
seen @ The Museum of the Moving Image, Astoria NY

In my writing group, there's this delightful woman named Jennifer who is not only a very good writer, but is a big old movie fan. As you can imagine, we've become pretty good friends. Hitchcock is her particular favorite director, but her tastes are pretty wide-ranging, from what I can tell so far. 

Anyway, I told her that MOMI was showing Lawrence of Arabia in 70mm and asked her if she wanted to see it with me. She declined because it's not one of her favorite movies. She said she thought it was too long (she fell asleep at one point) and she couldn't identify with Peter O'Toole's character. This, as you might imagine, gave me pause, since I've come to respect Jen's opinion on movies. I had never seen Lawrence before, and while I wouldn't say I was pumped up for it, I had expected it to be worthy of a four-hour investment of my time, especially since I was seeing it in 70mm. Still, I bought my ticket and hoped for the best.

I could tell that the MOMI crowd on Saturday night was full of cinephiles. There were a lot of dudes wearing movie-related T-shirts. I overheard a conversation about Marvel movies. There was definitely a feeling of anticipation in the air for this multiple-Oscar-winning epic. People were saying it was a sellout, but there was an empty seat next to me, as well as a few other empty seats scattered around the auditorium - but not many.

Let's start with what I liked about the movie. First of all, O'Toole was robbed. I cannot believe he lost the Best Actor Oscar, not even to someone like Gregory Peck. Granted, they were both iconic performances, but O'Toole had so much more to do, physically and emotionally, and he had the burden of carrying a four-hour movie on his relatively unknown shoulders. 

Seeing it in 70mm made a tremendous difference. All those sweeping vistas of the desert and the mountains were breathtaking. Director David Lean apparently spent two years in pre-production and 14 months shooting the picture in multiple locations, including Jordan, Spain and Morocco. You could almost feel the heat in some of those desert scenes, and I suspect that was Lean's intention.

I knew that Maurice Jarre's score has become pretty famous as well, and while the main theme was certainly repeated often enough, it was certainly stirring. MOMI played Lawrence with the overture and the intermission music, so it was nice to hear it independent of the movie. It has a strong Arabian flavor to it. One can picture the rising of the desert sun as it plays. That said...

... did this movie really need to be four hours long? Jen was definitely right about the length! I didn't fall asleep, but I did a lot of twisting and turning in my seat, trying to stay comfortable and awake. Normally, I have no problem with the seats in MOMI's theater, but sometime around the hour and a half mark, I think, it began to be a chore to sit still. And while there were exciting moments in the film, especially in the first half, there were also long-ass shots of the desert landscape and the sun that slowed the action down for me to the point where I kept anticipating the intermission. 

Was T.E. Lawrence hard to relate to, like Jen said? Well, I more or less understood what he was doing and the stakes involved, but I couldn't quite grok what made him go from a nebbish in the very beginning to a badass soldier busting caps in dudes like he was the Punisher. I liked that we saw him struggle with his feelings about violence, being both attracted to and repulsed by it, and that he goes through what looked kinda like post-traumatic stress at one point, which probably had a lot to do with some of the people he's forced to kill. 

At the same time, it kinda looked like he was getting a big head, thinking that he was the one who was gonna lead the Arab people into freedom all by himself. When you strip away all the spectacle, Lawrence is ultimately one more white-man-saves-the-darkies movie, which Hollywood has and continues to specialize in for generations, but one would think that in devoting four hours to a film about one man's life, I'd be able to pin him down a little better.

It was hard to care a great deal about Lawrence. In Gone With the Wind, another marathon movie with a difficult main character, I could at least get into Scarlett's love affairs if I didn't want to think about the racial politics of the film (not that the racial politics were all that easy to ignore). Lawrence's story was interesting, but it was difficult for me to feel for him as a person, PTSD issues aside. So is he hard to relate to? I'd say yes and no.

So maybe I was better off not seeing Lawrence with Jen. Next time I'll have to think of a comedy instead!

Previous Blind Spot movies:
Gone With the Wind
Charlie Chan in Paris

Friday, August 21, 2015

Dr. Strangelove

Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
seen @ "Movies With a View" @ Brooklyn Bridge Park, Brooklyn NY

If I were to pick one word to describe the films of Stanley Kubrick, I would pick "tense." Even in a comedy like Dr. Strangelove, there's a palpable sense of tension that Kubrick always knew how to generate. I've always thought it was the result of his cinematography - the way he framed certain shots and then held them, shooting long takes with minimal cross-cutting. It looks simple, but the way he did it was so distinctive. I'm thinking of the scenes between Sterling Hayden and Peter Sellers in Strangelove; the "Open the pod bay doors, HAL" scene in 2001; the scenes between Jack Nicholson and Danny Lloyd in The Shining, the bathroom scene with Vincent D'Onofrio in Full Metal Jacket, the bedroom scenes with Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman in Eyes Wide Shut - if you know these films, you probably understand what I'm talking about. You can always spot a Kubrick film.

Kubrick got his start as a photographer, at a very young age, before he became a director. In this random selection of some of his photos, you can see hints of the greatness to come in the field of filmmaking. Like the best photography, they look both spontaneous and posed at the same time. Composition is also key; knowing where to shoot and how to frame the shot is something you have to have an eye for, but it also has to be well-trained.

I remember taking a photography course in college, back in the prehistoric days before digital photography. Yes, sports fans, I learned how to develop pictures in a darkroom - chemicals, machinery and all, and I remember finding it a wonderful challenge. It was fun going all over Manhattan with my uncle's old Nikon, just snapping shots of anything and everything, and then figuring out how to make them come alive in the darkroom. I paid attention to things like composition and light and shadow, but not too much. I tended to save that for the developing end. 

Of course, photography was an expensive medium back then, particularly for a college kid who was much more of an illustrator than a photographer anyway, so I never stuck with it - and now, these days, anyone with a cellphone can fancy themselves the next Vivian Meier. Indeed, a few of my friends have been experimenting with digital photography through their cellphones, posting their work on their Facebook pages. 

Taking pictures with my phone was, like most of my forays into digital media, something I begun with the most tentative of baby steps - a random shot or two here and there, posted on my page as if they were kindergarten finger paintings. Now I take photos in bunches whenever I go someplace unique. I do wish I were a little better at it - if you've seen some of my film festival photos, you probably wish the same thing - but it's not a priority in my life.

Getting back to Kubrick: like contemporary filmmakers such as Steve McQueen and Andrew Dosunmu, a background in photography served Kubrick well in film. Strangelove is a good example. Some of the most memorable shots include: the wide shot of the war room, with that halo of light shining down on the circular conference table, and the Big Board in the background, makes for a startling and memorable image. This shot of Sellers as Dr. Strangelove looks like a Frank Miller comics illustration. The worm's-eye-view close-up of Hayden as he rants about "purity of essence" emphasizes both his menace and his madness. These shots linger long after one has seen the movie.

Much has been written about Kubrick's meticulous process in not only setting up a shot, but making a movie in general. This epic video highlights his use of one-point perspective, for example. The recent documentary Room 237 goes deeper than deep into the perceived meanings behind The Shining, based on Kubrick's cinematography, set design, and many other subtle cues. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. You can probably count on one hand the number of directors who inspire this level of obsession. Something about Kubrick does, though, probably because he never tried to explain his process in any way. What is it they say about staring too long into an abyss...?

Nothing much to say about seeing Strangelove at Brooklyn Bridge Park. It was a beautiful night, another huge crowd, the usual plethora of bugs (my bug spray did little to fight them off). At one point about a third of the way or so into the film, a great big sailing ship passed behind the inflatable movie screen, slowly making its way up the East River towards the bridge. I should've taken a picture; it was a nice sight.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Regal Cinemas attacks symptom, not disease, with bag checks

Regal Cinemas has started checking bags in the wake of two separate movie theater attacks this summer. The move from the country’s largest theater chain comes amid a larger debate about safety measures that has provoked calls for metal detectors and armed guards. Most major exhibitors haven’t followed suit. While National Amusements has banned backpacks in its theaters, insiders say most chains are hesitant to institute bag checks. 
On its website, Regal acknowledged that the move could inconvenience some customers but said in a statement: “Security issues have become a daily part of our lives in America. Regal Entertainment Group wants our customers and staff to feel comfortable and safe when visiting or working in our theatres.”
This is not a political blog and I have no intention of turning it into one, so I'm gonna make this short by leaving this links for you to peruse and to decide for yourself whether security checks at movie theaters are the real solution to this problem.

What does gun violence really cost? By the numbers

Trainwreck actress Amy Schumer speaks out on gun control

Right-wingers' solution to movie theater shootings: more guns

Preventing movie theater violence: Why extra security - even if we're willing to pay for it - isn't the answer

(For the record, I don't go to Regal Cinemas if I can help it. Too damn expensive.)

Some men just want to watch the world burn

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

'Preacher' and John Wayne

The TCM Summer Under the Stars Blogathon is a month-long event corresponding with the Turner Classic Movies annual presentation, in which each day in August is devoted to the films of a different classic film star. The blogathon is hosted by Journeys in Classic Film. For a complete list of participating blogs, visit the host site.

Preacher was one of the greatest comic book series of the 1990s, acclaimed by a wide variety of pop culture critics and one of the titles that firmly established the fledgling DC Comics imprint Vertigo - home of Sandman, Hellblazer, and many other edgy genre books - into an industry powerhouse that is to comics what HBO is to television. With the recent news that AMC will adapt Preacher into a TV series, it's poised to capture a similar audience as AMC's other series adapted from a comic book, The Walking Dead.

Classic film fans have a reason to be aware of this book as well: John Wayne, the legendary hero of many cinematic Westerns over a career that spanned half a century, plays a prominent role as a character within the comic. I talked about this once before, when I wrote about the movie The Searchers, but now I want to go into a little more detail about how the Duke figures into the book. 

First, though, I feel I should issue a disclaimer: Preacher is absolutely not for everyone. Given the success of recent TV shows such as Mad Men, Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones, which feature morally questionable lead characters (to say the least) and much more adult themes, perhaps mass audiences are ready for a Preacher TV show. We'll find out soon enough - but even so, Preacher really pushes the boundaries. It casts a harsh and sharply critical eye on organized religion in general, and Christianity in particular, and it does not pull any punches. In addition, there are copious amounts of sex and violence and severely twisted imagery. It's not for the squeamish or the faint of heart. Still, if you approach it with an open mind, a willingness to re-examine certain beliefs long held up as truisms, and most importantly of all, a sense of humor, you'll be rewarded with a breathtaking adventure story unlike anything since the likes of Watchmen.

I will attempt to avoid too many spoilers, but it won't always be possible, so if you think you may want to read this someday (maybe before the series airs), consider yourself warned: some key plot points will be brought up here.

WSW @ FlixChatter: comics vs. movies

I guess it was inevitable that I'd want to write about something related to current movies this year. It's like an itch in a spot that I can't quite reach in order to scratch. Fortunately, my friend Ruth at FlixChatter has been kind enough to accommodate me, so head on over to her blog to read my piece about why I think some comic books shouldn't be made into movies.

Monday, August 17, 2015

#TCMParty: Monkey Business (1931)

So last Friday night, the 14th, marked a return for me to the #TCMparty, the Twitter feed in which fans of the classic film network Turner Classic Movies (TCM) congregates virtually to live-tweet during movies aired by TCM. As I've said before, I'm of two minds about live-tweeting: I dig the social aspect of experiencing a movie online with other movie fans, but I don't like dividing my attention between my TV and my cellphone - and while I enjoyed taking part in it, I'm afraid my attitude on this hasn't changed. Hats off to those that do this sort of thing all the time, but I don't believe I want to do this more than a couple of times a year. Still, there's something about it that can be a lot of fun, which is why I join in the event.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Gloria Swanson

The Anti-Damsel Blogathon salutes inspirational women filmmakers and characters throughout film history, hosted by Movies Silently and The Last Drive In. For a complete list of participating bloggers, visit the links at either site.

When I wrote about the film Sunset Boulevard, I had said that I used to think all silent film characters were like Norma Desmond, the iconic, fictitious movie star brought to life by Gloria Swanson. I might not have been too far off the mark when I wrote that. The nature of the medium at the time required its actors to use their whole bodies to communicate the action, in a manner that might seem melodramatic to one used to watching movies with sound. And in Sunset, Swanson speaks for everyone from that bygone era when she says things like "We didn't need dialogue. We had faces!"

Film history remembers Swanson primarily as a dramatic actress, a reputation cemented by the films she made with director Cecil B. DeMille, but is it possible she missed her calling as a comedienne? In looking at both types of silent films for this post, I found I liked her comedic chops much more. Later in life, Swanson said that she hated comedy at first, but over time, she realized that it taught her timing, which she credited as being the key to learning dramatic acting. That may be true, but I think she was better at it than perhaps she gave herself credit for.

For instance, I watched the DeMille-directed drama The Affairs of Anatol, which was generously provided to me on manufactured-on-demand DVD by the folks at Flicker Alley for this post and this blogathon. I thought it was more of a vehicle for the leading man, Wallace Reid. Swanson wasn't bad in it, though it was too easy to sympathize with her. All she had to do was be the aggrieved wife for most of the movie and look glamorous.

On the other hand, in looking at some of her comedy shorts - I watched The Sultan's Wife, Teddy at the Throttle and The Danger Girl - she's so much more fun to watch! While some of these shorts go so fast, it's hard to follow what's going on sometimes, Swanson herself is active, lively, and engaging. She and frequent co-star Bobby Vernon seem to have a bit of a Mickey-and-Judy vibe at times, but maybe that's just because they're both short.

Swanson was ambitious like few actors of her era. Someone like Mary Pickford was admired, and rightly so, for her business acumen as much as her acting ability, but with Swanson, it was a strong point of pride with her, one that she never bothered to conceal - and which rubbed some people the wrong way. In her book Silent Stars, author Jeanine Basinger quotes several industry magazines of the day who wrote about Swanson. This one, from Motion Picture in 1922, is notable for its stern analysis: "Her career, her work in the studio is as vital to her as the oxygen she breathes... She is beautiful, as flawlessly beautiful as a diamond - and as cold."

Swanson was unapologetic about her naked ambition: "I've always been my own business manager and agent. Mary Pickford had her mother, Chaplin had his brother, [Harold] Lloyd had his uncle, the Talmadges had [Joseph] Schenck, the Gishes, Griffith. I was always alone." Swanson chose to work with DeMille when she decided she had had enough of comedy and wanted more serious work, then left him for Famous Players/Lasky at Paramount when she thought DeMille crimped her style artistically and financially; she negotiated a contract which paid her $6500 a week, a sky-high figure for the time; and by 1926 she had formed her own production company, Gloria Swanson Inc. She did all of this while shaping and refining her public image on- and off-screen as an ultra-modern glamour girl with exquisite clothes - one who got married no less than five times.

Why did her career tank in the sound era? Who knows for certain? I watched a clip from one of her first talkies, a film called Tonight or Never, with Melvyn Douglas, and while it struck me as being really melodramatic, I thought she was good in it. Her voice was a little high, but she had marvelous chemistry with Douglas, and the tension in the scene is palpable. She could even sing. Her talkies just didn't click with audiences. Nor did her career flourish after Sunset, despite roles on Broadway and television. Still, there's no doubt that Sunset raised her profile and kept her in the public eye long afterwards. Check out this clip of her on The Dick Cavett Show from 1970 (with Janis Joplin as another guest!). 

Swanson was a real film diva who reveled in the accolades and the glitz and the affluent lifestyle that came with the stardom. She may have inspired as much resentment as adoration, but it never fazed her, nor did it slow her down. A quote of hers that could have come from Norma Desmond says it all: "I have decided that when I am a star, I will be every inch and every moment the star! Everybody from the studio gateman to the highest executive will know it." And everybody did.

Next: Robert Wise

Films with Gloria Swanson:
Sunset Boulevard

Previously in this series:
Jack Lemmon   Jean Arthur
Edward G. Robinson   Rita Moreno
Frank Capra   Bernard Herrmann
Joan Blondell   James Dean
Ethel Waters   William Powell
Tod Browning   Edith Head
Joel McCrea   Thelma Ritter
Douglas Fairbanks