Friday, May 24, 2019

These are the days: Sitcom king Norman Lear

I have vague memories of watching All in the Family in syndication, but my family and I definitely lined up every week for The Jeffersons. George & Louise were nothing like my parents, and I never projected myself into their fictitious lives, but even to my young and highly impressionable mind, I believe I was aware of the significance of seeing them, an affluent black couple, on television. I may not have been able to fully process the racial and sociological politics at play, but I recognized George as a dude who took no shit from fools and was true to himself. Though I liked Weezie (I regret not knowing well anyone named Louise so I could call them Weezie), I identified more with George. I loved Florence, the maid. She was awesome.

The Jeffersons was the first time I saw an interracial couple. It was the first time I saw black people interacting with people from wildly different cultures (if you can call England wildly different). It gave me a sense of black history as a tangible thing, not just something you read about in books —even if George tended to exaggerate his upbringing, calling himself the son of a sharecropper. It showed me how diverse black people can be within a single program: Weezie was different from Florence, and they both were different than Helen. And nothing, I mean nothing, beats that theme song

The significance of this show wouldn’t register in my mind until much later in life, but looking back, I can appreciate how much it meant to me back then — and for that I can thank Norman Lear.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Classic Movie Tag

Raquel wants to know about her readers’ classic movie viewing habits, and I haven’t written anything in awhile, so I’ll play along. If you haven’t visited Out of the Past lately, it has grown considerably in the past year or two. Raquel has developed it into a smart, professional and dare I say essential blog for learning about Old Hollywood. More than any other blogger I know, those movies, that industry, that era, truly inspires her.

1. What’s one classic movie that you recommend to people over and over and over again?

You really can’t go wrong with Billy Wilder and The Apartment. Equal parts comedy and drama, complex characters, a story that feels modern without coming across as too highfalutin’, featuring one of the greatest actors in American cinema, Jack Lemmon. I still haven’t written a post for it in all the years of this blog, which seems odd, but maybe now I don’t have to.

2. What was the last classic film you saw and what were your thoughts about it?

I guess that would be Marty.

3. Name a classic movie genre you love and one you dislike.

I’d imagine the film genres of the past are still in use today, but when I think of Old Hollywood, one thing that comes to mind are the rom-coms. From the European sophistication of Lubitsch to the battiness of Sturges, they’ve been as ubiquitous as they have been versatile. Fred and Ginger dancing the Continental. Powell and Loy trading bon mots as they uncover whodunnit. Spencer and Kate redefining the battle of the sexes. Rom-coms have never been done better than in the classic era.

As for a genre I dislike, well, “dislike” is too strong a word, and Paddy will no doubt slap my wrists for saying so, but while I appreciate Westerns, I still haven’t developed a great love for them. Yet.

4. Name a classic movie star with whom you share a birthday or a hometown.

How about five? (Okay, they’re not all from the old days.)

5. Give a shout out to a friend or family member who shares your love of classic movies.

I’ve talked about how Sandi and I have watched old movies together. For any newcomers here, Sandi is one of my writer buddies. She writes mostly poetry. She also lives here in Queens and she’s become a good friend. She’s a TCM fan and she’s absolutely devoted to Errol Flynn. I tried to tell her about Becky once, but Sandi bows to no one in her love of Flynn!

6. Name a classic movie star who makes your heart skip a beat or whom you admire greatly.

Oh, you mean my crushes? (Again, not all of them are classic era.)

7. Describe one memorable experience watching a classic movie.

Wow. Take your pick. The time I watched a DVD with friends on a ratchety player? The unsettling things I learned about my mother based on a movie we watched? The thrill of seeing a great film in an old movie palace?

8. Describe the craziest thing you’ve done because of your passion for classic movies.

Besides starting this blog? I suppose devoting all of 2015 to classic film seemed pretty far out for me. At the time, I had given serious thought to making the switch permanent. This seemed like a reasonable compromise that would give me an idea of what bloggers like Raquel go through. Among the things I learned in the end was I preferred blogging about Old Hollywood only part of the time.

9. What’s something classic movie related that you love to collect?

Nothing, other than books. I’m currently reading one about the making of All About Eve, which I’ll write about soon. Check the “books” label on the sidebar for other film books I’ve read.

10. What’s your favorite way to share your passion for classic movies?

This blog.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Marty

Marty
TCM viewing

I don’t think it matters who you are or where you’re from; on some level, everybody can relate to Marty: coming up short in certain people’s eyes, feeling pressured to be something you’re not, fearing your luck will never change. If you wanna talk romance, I have a friend in his sixties who got married a few years ago. Sweetest guy you’d ever wanna meet: witty, smart, extremely talented.

When I learned, secondhand, that he was lonely, I wished I could hook him up with someone, but he doesn’t live in the New York area. Several years ago, he began posting pictures of himself and his new girlfriend on Facebook, and I was pleasantly surprised. When they got married, I was thrilled for him, in part because if he could find love at his age, there was hope for me, right? And then I met Virginia and here we are.

Friday, May 3, 2019

Avengers: Endgame

Avengers: Endgame 
seen @ Cinemart Fiveplex, Forest Hills, Queens, NY

I was gonna pass on this. One friend said on Facebook he was gonna go watch a French New Wave movie playing in his town instead of Endgame (I believe he said it was Cleo From 5 to 7). I was willing to wait until it came to cable, at the very least. Then I rewatched Infinity War and Guardians 2 and Thor: Ragnarok on Netflix out of boredom (not all at once) and decided I needed to tell my grandchildren I was there for Endgame, or some such bullshit excuse. And in all seriousness, I truly wanted to know what would become of the Guardians.

As little kids, we would dream about our favorite Marvel comics becoming movies, but we never conceived it would happen by turning civilization into fans. Fans of the characters, mind you; the kind who would wear a Captain Marvel t-shirt or write a college paper about the Black Panther or eat Pez from a Groot dispenser but not buy the actual comics. Then the movies came: Blade, Spider-Man, X-Men, etc. Some were cool, some sucked, but none of it prepared us for the era that began in 2008 with the first Iron Man film and culminated this year with Endgame. Props to Kevin Feige and everyone at Marvel Studios for creating a series of movies that captured everyone’s imagination — and in so doing, conquering the world.


Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Links and a new challenge

Long before the ascension of the streamers, binge watching TV was a thing thanks to DVD box sets of entire seasons of shows. Now that the streamers distribute their original programming similarly — releasing whole seasons at once — a generation is growing up not needing to wait a week between episodes.

I never saw that as a detriment as a kid. The anticipation of the next episode was part of the excitement of watching TV. The instant gratification of bingeing on entire seasons at once rubs me the wrong way. Sure, there are more programs than ever these days, in multiple media, but we can’t watch them all... can we? More to the point, do you appreciate a show more when you binge?

Over the next month, I’m gonna attempt to find out. I will take two shows available on Netflix and watch them both ways; one the old-fashioned way, one at a time; the other in a day (maybe two), and compare notes on both. Both shows have been recommended to me by friends.

The first will be Ozark, a Netflix original starring Jason Bateman and one of my favorite actresses, Laura Linney. One of my novel beta readers recommended it. This will be the one-at-a-time show. The other show is Longmire, an import from A&E. Paddy mentioned it in the comments here a few weeks ago. That will be the binge show. You can follow my progress on Twitter under the hashtag #bingexpmt. Next month I’ll share what I’ve discovered.

————————

Turner Classic Movies turned 25 last month. Like my classic movie blogger pals, I’m grateful for what they do in providing Old Hollywood movies uncut and uninterrupted, 24-7, and I hope they keep going for 25 more years. My attitude, from the outset of this blog eight and a half years ago, has always been to use the movies of the past to better understand the movies of today, and vice versa. This isn’t something I see in the classic film blogs I read and enjoy; many of those bloggers would rather celebrate Old Hollywood full stop, and that’s fine. Long time readers will remember I devoted all of 2015 to classic film — but that experience made me appreciate more the need for contrast: to see what changes over the years in the industry and what stays the same. For instance, what are the SF/fantasy franchises but the modern incarnation of the serialized films of the past: The Thin Man, Blondie, Charlie Chan, Lassie, etc.

There was a period a few years back when we thought TCM was in danger of either extinction or at least alteration, the way AMC abandoned classic film in favor of original programming. TCM weathered that, and while I know some fans still grumble over the occasional post-80s movie, from what I can tell, TCM is still recognizable as the station adored by many cinephiles. That’s good.

—————————

Your links for this month:

Aurora compiles a list of testimonials in praise of TCM.

Paddy files this report from the Toronto Silent Film Festival.

Fritzie finds evidence of fan nitpicking during the silent era.

The head of AMC Theaters is AOK with the Disney-Fox deal.

The future, under Disney, of Fox archive titles that get theatrical bookings.

Disney’s forthcoming streaming service will edit the original Dumbo and exclude Song of the South.

Two all-star casts will recreate All in the Family and The Jeffersons in a live prime time TV special this month.

Which is more amazing: a high school class putting on a stage adaptation of Alien or Sigourney Weaver visiting them?

What does Avengers: Endgame look like to a Marvel virgin? (Possible spoilers.)

Monday, April 29, 2019

Amazing Grace

Amazing Grace
seen @ AMC Lincoln Square 13, New York NY

Aretha Franklin is gone, but her music will always be with us. There have been many 20th century vocalists of raw talent and uncanny skill, but Aretha was in a class by herself, fusing her gospel roots to rhythm and blues to create a pop sound unlike anything that came before, one that paved the way for Whitney and Mariah and Beyoncé and Adele and just about every pop diva of the last forty years.

In 1972, Aretha returned to gospel to record a collection of spirituals with a choir and a band at an LA Baptist church. The result was Amazing Grace, an album that became the biggest-selling gospel record of all time. There should have been an accompanying film, but it didn’t happen right away, for a number of reasons, until now.

This one wasn’t on my short list, although I had heard of it. I saw it with Ann, whom I’ve mentioned here before —Virginia’s friend who has since become mine, too. Ann’s original companion had to cancel unexpectedly, so she asked me along instead. Like Virginia, she’s a singer of classical music, or “early music,” as they call it — and watching this movie with her made me very conscious of the recent exposure I’ve gotten to religious music.


Over the past year-plus, I’ve watched Virginia perform in a number of choirs, in churches all over New York, singing hymns (as well as secular tunes) from the 17th and 18th centuries, and beyond. I remember thinking initially that this kind of music, stirring as it is, can’t compare to contemporary gospel. I was not raised Baptist, but I’ve certainly seen and heard enough to be familiar with how a typical black choir sounds: raucous, emotionally charged, electric. Both performers and audience are connected and the result is a physical, tangible thing.

The hymns found in early music, by contrast, are typically sung by a chorus that stands perfectly still, sheet music held under their noses, amidst the Gothic architecture of a church with high ceilings and gravid crucifixes (and watching them while sitting in uncomfortable pews!), all meant to impose the solemnity of the occasion and the Deep Meaning of Jesus Christ’s life and death and resurrection (if you believe in that stuff). I mean, seriously, you can’t even applaud after every song. I never know when I’m allowed to and when I’m not and that always bugs me.


Now some people might disagree with that simplification, and the truth is, I have enjoyed the services I’ve seen Virginia in — sometimes I imagine I can even pick her out amidst the chorus, and that always pleases me — but then I watch something like Aretha’s performance in this movie and the difference is like night and day. How can early music compare?

I asked Ann this question after the movie, and her answer was simple: she’s listened to early music long enough to recognize the beauty within it as a separate thing from contemporary gospel. She’s never sung gospel, knows she wouldn’t be able to, and while she recognizes how good it is, it doesn’t take away from her appreciation of the kind of music she prefers. That makes sense — I can listen to, Nine Inch Nails without it taking away from my appreciation of, say, Dusty Springfield — but I haven’t quite reached that point yet in this particular case.


You’d find it tough to disagree after seeing Grace. The 1972 footage, shot over two nights by Sidney Pollack, presents us with an Aretha quite different from the one we’re used to seeing. Decked out in white on the first night, walking down the aisle of the church not unlike an angel, she defers to the MC, the Reverend Doctor James Cleveland, who conducts the service with a combination of solemnity and showbiz hucksterism. On the second night, Aretha’s own preacher father, the Reverend C.L. Franklin, speaks from the pulpit for a moment. At another point, during the performance, he takes a rag and pats his daughter’s face as she plays the piano and sings, which struck me as quite tender.

Aretha is one with the music. I don’t think you have to be a believer to sense the connection, though I wasn’t as moved as, say, Rev. Cleveland was during one point in the film where he has to sit down, his head in his hands, overwhelmed with emotion at hearing Aretha’s voice. The choir, which Ann said she was particularly thrilled with, not only supported Aretha but urged her onward during her best solo moments. Basically, every black choir cliche can be found here — the sweaty singers, the gesticulating conductor, the audience members going nuts — except it’s all real. And damn, Aretha was only 29 when she did this! Is it any wonder she was revered as a legend in her own time?

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Bird Box

Bird Box
Netflix viewing

I first heard about Bird Box on Facebook. Friends would discuss something called “the Bird Box Challenge” and I, naturally, had no clue what they were talking about, nor did I care. I’m not the type to pursue every trend on social media. Then I discovered Bird Box was a movie, and I kept seeing memes of a blindfolded Sandra Bullock in a rowboat. Why hadn’t I heard of this movie that apparently has quite a bit of buzz?

Oh. Of course. It’s on Netflix.

These days, serialized television dramas drive social media discussion more than any one film, so to see this film not only generate talk, but to develop a life of its own beyond the film — especially a movie only available through a streaming service — says volumes about how movies have changed, and are changing. I seriously doubt the filmmakers anticipated how big a hit this would become, and it’s not like it was connected to a gimmick, like The Blair Witch Project, or spoke to a bigger social movement, like the recent gay romance Love, Simon, or was an overhyped genre blockbuster.

It was just this Sandra Bullock horror movie.