Friday, August 30, 2013

The Music Man

The Music Man
seen on TV @ TCM

I was a door-to-door salesman once. Yeah. It's true! Of course, it lasted all of one day... Not even one day. This was sometime in the early 90s, before my entry into the exciting and glamorous world of video retail. Yes, it was a different time in the Big Apple...Times Square was still recognizable as Times Square (but not for long!), bike lanes were still only a pipe dream, and the Village Voice was still a readable newspaper. 

And it was in the Village Voice that I found the ad for this sales job, though at the time I didn't realize the full extent of what it involved: going from one store to another with a bag of cheap Disney knock-off children's books and trying to peddle them on unsuspecting customers, canned sales pitch and all. It was demeaning, it was humiliating, it was in the summertime, so it was hot, and after less than an hour, I knew it was not for me. I walked and never regretted it. In my defense, I can only say that I was young and completely ignorant and I actually thought I could do this... for a moment.

Anyone who's ever worked retail will tell you: the level of success you have is directly proportional to the passion you have for your product. Of course, if you're just a cog in the giant corporate machine, so to speak, in it only for the money, you're probably not gonna care one way or the other, but there are exceptions. When I worked in a comic book shop (I've done just about everything one can do in the comics industry at one time or another), I was totally passionate about selling comics, not just because I loved them, but because I believed I could make a difference in this particular shop, which could've desperately used the boost - but that's another story.

It was similar in video retail, although eventually it got old. I loved talking movies and recommending videos to people, but at the same time, there were other considerations. When I worked at the Third Avenue store (hi Steve!), we would have dozens of copies of new releases and we were expected to move as many as possible. Most of the time, that wasn't hard, but if, let's say, The Birdcage was all out, then the creative selling part came in, the part where I get to actually use my brain and recommend something similar to the customer, like La Cage Aux Folles instead, or a different gay comedy, or a different Robin Williams movie, or what have you. So while there were times I felt like a cog in the machine, at least there was room for passion.

Which brings us to The Music Man and Harold Hill, the ultimate salesman. Yeah, he's a con man, and he was totally ready to skip town with everybody's money after hustling them into buying musical instruments they can't play, but part of being the ultimate salesman means being able to sell yourself, and that's what makes him such an intriguing character, so much fun to watch. It helps that he never comes across as malicious. This is simply what he does, and I can't imagine anyone else doing it better than Robert Preston. Can't believe he wasn't nominated for an Oscar.

But I love this whole movie to death. Great, great songs, great dancing, funny, well acted; it's got it all. I imagine if Harold Hill tried to pitch his wares to my mother, she would've fallen for it easily; she was already half-convinced her children had to be musicians, I think. She was half right - my sister got the music bug and stuck with it. As for me, well, I tried learning an instrument in my youth - guitar for a little bit, then the Hammond organ, and even in the clarinet in fifth grade. In high school I had a keyboard and fancied myself a singer-songwriter for a brief period, but it didn't last, and I can't say I regret it much. Some people, like my sister, are musically inclined. I'm not, and that's okay.

Can I say a word or two about librarians? I mean, I love that song he sings to Shirley Jones in the library - and I know so many librarians! There's Vija of course, who works in a law library, and there's also Bibi - two of my best friends right there. A few years ago, I donated a number of old graphic novels to Bibi's library because she was lamenting the fact that they didn't have many. It's a small library.

When I lived in Columbus, I used their award-winning library system fairly often. Nancy was this girl who worked in the main branch downtown, and I saw her often enough that we became friendly. I only saw her twice outside the library, though: once when she was riding her bike in a parade, and the other time when she came to the opening of a art exhibition my friends and I had in a coffee shop - with her husband. So much for getting something going there.

I don't remember which library Sue worked at (different Sue than the one married to my old buddy John), but she was part of the circle of friends I hung with while over there. Delightful older woman. I adored her so much. I loved talking to her about all manner of things and we kept in touch for a few years after I returned to New York (she had a Facebook account but she never used it). She had some personal issues that kept her from hanging out with us often, but I'm grateful for the times she did and I still think about her from time to time.

At one point, the Columbus libraries were facing budget cuts and I not only attended a rally in support of the libraries, I even made a City Mouse poster. I don't know how the situation has changed, if any, over there, but Columbus really does have one of the nation's best library systems.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Gone With the Wind

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 entries, visit the home site.

Gone With the Wind
seen on TV @ TCM

I've loved classic movies ever since the first time I saw Sunset Boulevard in college and became fully aware of what movies can do. In the three years I've worked on this blog, I've made some good friends who share this love. Thing is, though, loving classic movies means accepting the fact that they were made in a less enlightened era, to say the very least. Most of the time, I can deal with this. Sometimes, though... sometimes it's a little bit harder.

With rare exceptions, black actors from the Golden Age of Hollywood tended to fill one of two roles: either they sung and danced and made music, or they were servants, and if they were servants, often times they were little more than one-dimensional caricatures. I'll look at them every once in awhile and wonder whether it would've been better to not have them in these movies at all, than to have to see such skewed and distorted images?

Most of the time I think the answer, looking through the lens of hindsight as I am, is yes, although I'm sure the justification would've been that any work is better than no work. I try not to judge those actors; I don't know all the things they went through, all the sacrifices made, all the pride they had to swallow, just to make it in Hollywood. Hell, to share a soundstage with the likes of Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, Bette Davis, even if only for a few scenes? I'll bet they thought it was worth it.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Books: I Do and I Don't

The 2013 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge is an event in which the goal is to read and write about a variety of books related to classic film, hosted by Out of the Past. For a complete list of the rules, visit the website.

I had been eagerly looking forward to reading Jeanine Basinger's I Do and I Don't: A History of Marriage in the Movies ever since Raquel first wrote about it, because it addresses a topic, the way marriages are depicted in movies, that I had observed on my own, however indirectly.

I first started seriously watching classic films in the mid-90s, when I worked in video retail, so I can't say I grew up immersed in their images and ideas of relationships in general, and marriage in particular. Still, I had absorbed enough pop culture to formulate my own ideas about romance, and movies were part of that.

At one point in my life I believed I would get married. I've written here before about my childhood sweetheart and how we thought we would get married one day, after high school. I know I believed it would happen. I loved her, but I pushed her away... and I've been paying for it ever since.

So when I first started watching old movies about love and marriage, it was easy to fall for them, to believe that things could work out in real life like they did in front of the camera. Every now and then I'd see a movie that would have that effect on me. Not just the old stuff, but the newer stuff too. Movies have that power.

In watching more old movies in recent years, I found what seemed like mixed messages. Here's what I wrote, for example, about the Jack Lemmon comedy How to Murder Your Wife:
...The movie goes out of its way to sell us the idea that marriage in general is not all it's cracked up to be, framing this notion within the context of the eternal battle of the sexes. Well, if marriage ain't so great, then why do we as a society place so much value on it? Can it really be as simple as women hoodwinking men into it? God knows we men go to absurd lengths to impress women, but Murder would have you believe that we men value our freedom even more. Nothing in the film addresses this paradox head-on; it prefers to dance around the issue, or side-step it altogether. We never see Stanley struggle with his feelings for the Italian girl he marries. We never see him doubt his commitment to the bachelor life, which he upholds so stridently.
Jeanine Basinger
Basinger's book acknowledges these contradictions as part of a constantly evolving narrative within American movies about the concept of marriage. (She discusses foreign movies here and there, but I Do is primarily about American ones.) She takes the stance that "marriage movies" is an undeclared genre in film history that has deliberately gone unrecognized as such. More often than not, they've been presented as movies about love and/or romance, even though marriage usually plays an integral part in the stories. Indeed, I myself have a label for this blog called "romance" that I have often used to classify what Basinger would likely call "marriage movies." I'll probably use that label for this post!

Basinger cites numerous examples throughout American film history, with a huge emphasis on the Golden Age of Hollywood (I'd estimate about 80%), of how certain notions of marriage have evolved depending on certain circumstances, such as outside events like World War 2, cultural changes like the sexual revolution, and more. I Do reads very much like an alternate history of American film, and as a result, familiar films suddenly seem fresh. 

It's also worth mentioning that Basinger touches upon gay marriage late in the book, as well as non-romantic, same-sex relationships in the movies that function almost like a marriage. She cites Laurel & Hardy as an example.

I Do is written for the casual film fan, as opposed to the hard-core cinephile or academic, so it would make a nice gift for anyone with a moderate interest not only in movies, but media in general and its effect on society - or, indeed, anyone who's ever wondered why relationships work the way they do. This is one of the best film books I've read in quite awhile. It's well worth checking out.

For Whom the Bell Tolls
Twinkle Twinkle Little Star

Thursday, August 22, 2013

To save the drive-in, you must destroy it

...As a baby boomer, I grew up in the heyday of drive-ins. I remember my parents putting my brother and me in our pajamas and toting us off to the outdoor screen in Paramus, New Jersey (now long gone), where we would usually fall asleep at some point during the program. I can’t forget the garish ads for even more garish-looking refreshments, and the fact that when you looked up a movie’s showtime in the local newspaper, chances are it would say “dusk.” I vividly recall the crackling of the always-inferior portable speakers that hung in our car window, but my strongest association with drive-in movies is the constant presence of mosquitoes. So why should I have any fondness for this once-forward-thinking, now quaint presentation of movies? Call it rose-colored nostalgia, if you like, but it was an experience like no other, a genuine slice of Americana.
Let it be known: if the drive-in were to die tomorrow, I would not shed a tear. I am not a baby boomer, and I do not feel warm and fuzzy and nostalgic about what was a beneficiary of the urban sprawl period of the 50s, where cities became decentralized and America created more and more highways and thoroughfares, cutting through our neighborhoods, spreading us further and further apart, and most of all, making us more and more reliant on cars, which led to greater air pollution, the decaying of our downtowns, increased reliance on foreign oil, et cetera. 

The drive-in is certainly not to blame for all of that, but it did contribute to the mythology, and dare I say, fetishization, of car culture, that "genuine slice of Americana" that Leonard Maltin talks about in the preceding quote. That said, however, I have no desire to see a legitimate movie venue die off, and so I've given the matter of how to keep drive-ins alive some thought. My conclusion: it must die...

... and be reborn. The problem with drive-ins is that they're generally located outside the cities, which means depending on the car to get there. That may not have been a big deal back in the 50s, but in recent years, the effects of urban sprawl are being deeply felt. (Also, studies have shown that there's an increasing demand for transit support on the federal level.) This is obviously a problem that goes far beyond the scope of this post, but to bring it back to drive-ins, if they are to survive, and perhaps, even thrive, there needs to be less of an emphasis on cars as a means to get there. 

The drive-in must be reinvented as an outdoor movie theater, accessible via a variety of methods. It needs to be able to compensate for bad weather. It needs more to offer than a nightly picture show or two. Above all, it needs to foster the kind of community that picture shows specialize in.

- Multimodal transportation options. This is the single most important change drive-ins must make, but implementing it doesn't have to cost a fortune. How about investing in something as simple as a school bus or a van? It could make round trips from the downtown to the drive-in, perhaps stopping at the mall or other, similar locations to and from the drive-in. Charge a small fee to help pay for gas and maintenance and you're good to go. (Half price for seniors, kids 12 and under free?) 

Patrons can still drive to the drive-in, of course, but there needs to be a limited amount of parking space set aside for their cars, and a fee should be charged for the privilege, one slightly higher than the bus fare. I would also encourage carpooling.

Plus, the new drive-in must do everything in their power to encourage bicycling. Provide bike racks, maybe even valet parking. Advertise in bike shops. Offer weekend discounts on admission for bikers. Encourage "bike trains" to the drive-in - basically large groups of bikers traveling together, because biking is safer when one travels in groups. The drive-in could even sell a limited amount of bike helmets, locks and chains, and night lights depending on the demand.

People in the cities need to feel that the drive-in is not so far away and can be easily reached even if one doesn't own a car.

- Pre-show entertainment. If the new drive-in will be asking people to travel out of their way for a movie, it needs to offer a little more than two shows a night. There are lots of "warm-up acts" one can put together, at relatively low cost. It can be as simple as a dance party, maybe with music to match the theme of the evening's movie; or perhaps live music on the weekends (with an extra fee to help pay for the band). It could be games and contests for the kids. Some drive-ins used to have playgrounds; that's an excellent thing to have. It could be a celebrity appearance. It could be practically anything, and it wouldn't have to cost that much (and if it does, you can always charge an extra fee). The point is to provide the patrons with an experience that would justify making the trip out beyond the downtown.

- Outdoor seating and rain protection. Aluminum or wooden bleachers could easily accommodate large crowds, and some manner of tarp can be pitched above them when rain threatens. This will cost a little more, but with the patrons out of their cars, it'll be a necessity one can't do without.

- Cultivating a unique group experience. By watching a movie in your car, surrounded by others doing the same thing, you're isolating yourself from the rest of the audience, and the net result is that you might as well be watching the movie on TV at home - and if that's the case, why bother going out at all?

By getting patrons out of those cars, not only can they re-engage in the natural audience behavior associated with movies (laughter, tears, cheers, etc.), but they can also enjoy the warmth of a summer night. Yes, audience behavior has deteriorated in recent years (texting, cell phone conversations, crying babies, etc.), but as with any indoor venue, proper monitoring by theater staff can make all the difference.

There are other suggestions I could offer, but these specifically address the drive-in experience. Upgrading to a digital projector has, regrettably, become a necessity for showing today's movies, and the fundraising drive mentioned in Maltin's original article is certainly an important part of the effort to keep drive-ins going. Still, I believe this alone is not enough. A modern drive-in must reflect the changes inherent in modern America, and the 1950s model won't do anymore.


My dream movie theater
Could variable ticket-pricing work?

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Tingler

The Tingler
seen @ Film Forum, New York, NY

So... who has two thumbs and recently said something along the lines of how William Castle movies don't get played often anymore?

[this guy]

For a brief time during last month's Castle-thon, it seemed like there was a bit of a resurgence in the horror director's popularity, at least on Twitter - though both Monstergirl and Goregirl had something to do with that, I'm sure. Castle may never attract more than a niche crowd of cinephiles, but if nothing else, they're devoted cinephiles.

I was reminded of this again when I (finally!) saw The Tingler on Sunday at Film Forum. It was part of an end-of-summer classic sci-fi series, with lots of great old genre movies that, if I had the time and money, I'd probably spend on the whole thing. The line for admission, as you might imagine, was out the door and far down the street. Good thing my pals John & Sue got there before me so I wouldn't be too far back. I invited the two of them along; I hadn't seen them in awhile and I knew they'd go for this.

Now, the Forum advertised this showing as being in "Percepto," which, as we learned from my Castle post, requires sticking vibrating motors underneath random audience seats and activating them during the movie. I had speculated that if this sort of thing were done today, there'd be fighting over seats and people would leak the locations of those seats online. 

There was no fighting that I saw on Sunday, and as for advance knowledge, well, I admit, I asked Will, who had already seen Tingler at the Forum, if he remembered where the rigged seats were. He was convinced there were very few of them, if any, and as it turned out, he was right. I didn't see any rigged seats to the left and the right of me, nor did I see any in the row in front of me. Needless to say, I was bummed... but what the Forum offered turned out to be not so bad. 

In Tingler, Vincent Price plays a scientist who discovers a parasitic life-form that resides at the base of the human spinal column and grows whenever somebody gets scared, and only screaming can control it (just go with it). To test his theory, he shoots himself up with LSD - which may make this 1959 film one of, if not the very first, films to depict LSD use. I remember thinking at that moment that gee, it would be cool if we could see him tripping in color. Sure enough, the print was overlaid with a color filter which looked like tie-died liquid squishing around. It was a nice touch - and it was just what I wished for!

There's a skeleton in Price's lab, and naturally, that made me think of "Emergo" from House on Haunted Hill - the skeleton that pops out from behind the screen and hovers over the crowd during a key moment. Well, wouldn't you know it, during a big "scary" moment in Tingler, what should come out of nowhere but the Emergo skeleton, to the cheers of the near-sellout crowd? It hung from a wire running at a diagonal above the auditorium. It dangled around back and forth for a few moments, and at one point an entire arm fell off the skeleton and into the crowd! That got a huge roar of approval! 

This scene is supposed to be colored this way.

Eventually it stayed in place, hanging in front of the screen as the movie continued. It stayed that way for several minutes, as whoever was in charge of it twitched it first one way, then another, as if unsure which way to pull it. One guy in front shouted "Wrong way!" when it moved away from its hiding place. Personally, though, I suspect that it was deliberately kept out a few minutes longer than necessary, just for the hell of it.

The best was yet to come, though. In the film, the Tingler parasite is extracted from a human corpse, and in a bit of meta-narrative, it eventually escapes into, of all places, a movie theater, and since screaming is supposed to neutralize it, Price implores the theater audience - and by extension, us - to scream like crazy. This is when the buzzers are supposed to go off, but what happened on Sunday was the ushers stormed into the auditorium with flashlights, frantically running around looking for the "Tingler" as everybody screamed like madmen. Somebody - a plant, no doubt - pretended to grapple with something that looked like the Tingler and wrestled it out of his seat and down the aisle and out the emergency exit and everybody went bananas over the whole thing, myself included.

The movie itself is not that great. Besides the questionable (at best) premise, one can clearly see the wire used to make the Tingler move, and Price on an LSD trip can never be taken seriously. As I've said before, though, Castle's films are less about quality than they are about entertainment, and even if this wasn't really presented in "Percepto" as I understood it, I was entertained.

Tingler played as part of a twin bill with Homicidal, complete with a Coward's Corner which two more plants escaped towards at the appointed moment in the film. I was glad to see it again because now that I knew the secret of that film, I could look at it again and see how the pieces of the puzzle fit, which I totally missed the first time. John had seen it before, but Sue hadn't, so she was surprised by the big twist towards the end. 

Castle himself, from his introduction to Tingler

Plus, this screening had people I knew in attendance; I saw an old comics acquaintance, Abby, who was there with a friend, and Will was there too, which I didn't expect, since he had seen it already. When it comes to movies, though, he really gets around; after this twin bill, he went into Brooklyn to see another movie! He told me later on Twitter that he has memberships at many New York film theaters, so he gets in cheap. That would explain it.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

SUTS 2013: Hattie McDaniel

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 Sittin' on a Backyard Fence and ScribeHard on Film. For a complete list of participating blogs, visit the links at either site.

Welcome back to my continuing coverage of the 12th annual Academy Awards. We're now down to two weeks until the magic night - February 29 at the Ambassador Hotel's beautiful Coconut Grove, and at this point, Gone With the Wind continues to look like the frontrunner with its thirteen Oscar nominations. A lot could change, though. Wuthering Heights remains a strong contender. It has the New York Film Critics Circle honors, and like Wind, is on the National Board of Review top ten. It also has, like Wind, one of the five coveted Best Director nominations, for William Wyler, and in a field of ten best Picture nominations, that counts for a great deal. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, by the ever-popular Frank Capra, can't be counted out either; it's also on the NBR top ten, and Capra too, has a Best Director nomination. We'll get into a deeper discussion of the Best Picture race later on in this series.

Today, however, we'll wrap up our look at the acting nominations with the Best Supporting Actress field, and once again, Gone With the Wind is a dominant factor, with not one, but two contenders in the following five-woman group:

- Edna May Oliver, Drums Along the Mohawk. One of two John Ford Westerns in contention for this year's Oscars, along with Best Pic nominee Stagecoach, Oliver steals the show as Mrs. McKlennar, the widow who puts up Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert after they lose their home to a Mohawk raid. A memorable role, but the lack of widespread support for the film as a whole is liable to hurt.

- Maria Ouspenskaya, Love Affair. In Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer's tender love story, Ouspenskaya plays Boyer's grandmother. This is the second nom for the 63-year-old Russian, only two years after her devastating breakthrough role in Dodsworth. A win here would make for a wonderfully sentimental story, but I think the competition is tougher.

- Geraldine Fitzgerald, Wuthering Heights. In this adaptation of the Emily Bronte literary classic, Fitzgerald plays Isabella, Heathcliff's consolation prize after his lifelong love Cathy spurns him. Some of my fellow movie columnists are predicting Fitzgerald to win here. Between this and her role in another Best Pic nominee, Dark Victory, she has had an outstanding year and the Academy may want to reward that. If the Wind duo splits the vote, which is quite possible, Fitzgerald could very easily slip in and take the crown. Being young and beautiful certainly doesn't hurt her cause, either. Still, I think she'll have other chances.

Which brings us to the one-two Gone With the Wind punch, and in a move that will no doubt shock all you readers out there, I am not going with the consensus favorite to win, Olivia DeHavilland. I've given this a great deal of thought. Her performance as Melanie provides the film its living heart, and though it may be overshadowed at times amidst the pyrotechnics of Rhett and Scarlett's fiery relationship, it remains a vital element. The critics realize it, as do the fans. Plus, she's a beloved actress; she and Errol Flynn are one of Hollywood's great screen duos. Is it her time? Is her win viewed as an inevitability? Maybe. I suspect she probably will win, and I'll look like a total dummy for not picking her. I'm prepared to have egg on my face, though...

... because I'm here to tell you that I'm predicting Hattie McDaniel to win. Now, understand - I don't believe for a minute that the Academy is deliberately out to make history. Being the first Negro actor to receive an Oscar nomination is an outstanding achievement, and I certainly hope there will be more from other Negro stars to follow. Between such names as Paul Robeson, Louise Beavers, Fredi Washington and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, among others, the talent is there, and it is my belief that it will get recognized, sooner or later.

And it isn't even any one particular scene that tips the balance in her favor, although her moment with Melanie after [SPOILER]'s death is certainly an emotional one. It's more her overall presence within the film that does it for me. If Melanie is the heart of Wind, then Mammy is its conscience - the way she can keep her "spider," Scarlett, in line with a simple look. It's a showier role than Melanie's, and I believe the Academy will respond to it more as a result.

Indeed, the 44-year-old McDaniel does what she does best in Wind. Those of you who remember her as Hi-Hat Hattie on KNX's "The Optimistic Do-Nut Hour" will attest to her ability to hold her own against white performers, long before she moved from behind the microphone and in front of the camera. She has appeared opposite some of Hollywood's best, from Marlene Dietrich to Mae West, Barbara Stanwyck, Katharine Hepburn and Shirley Temple - in subservient roles, yes, but always taking the wind out of the sails of the pompous upper-class types her characters work for and bringing them back down to earth.

As for her Wind role, perhaps you've read the story of how McDaniel met uber-producer David O. Selznick in full costume as Mammy, which clinched the role for her. Selznick ordered script changes specifically to reflect McDaniel's style. As reported here back in December, Clark Gable was prepared to boycott the Atlanta premiere unless McDaniel would be allowed to attend. He only changed his mind at McDaniel's urging.

When McDaniel attends the awards ceremony, she will be the only Negro there as a guest. As a result, she will probably be seated somewhere in the back. Still, don't forget about her; if there's enough support for her within the actors' branch - and given the wide range of stars McDaniel has worked with, I think there could be - she may be the one who walks home with the gold in this category.

Tomorrow, we'll examine the contenders in the brand new category of Visual Effects. Will The Wizard of Oz, with its cyclones, witchcraft and flying monkeys take the top spot? Or can Wind capture the crown here as well? Join me as we size up the nominees!

Many thanks to Brandie (a fine girl) for her assistance.

Catherine Deneuve

Friday, August 16, 2013

Fruitvale Station

Fruitvale Station
seen @ Kew Gardens Cinemas, Kew Gardens, Queens, NY

In my life, I've had encounters with police twice - however, they turned out to be misunderstandings both times. The first time was here in New York, in my Queens neighborhood. I was walking down a street; I forget where I was headed, but it doesn't matter. A cop car from the opposite side of the street turned around to my side, and one of the cops asked me to approach. Hesitantly, I did so, heart pounding in my chest as I prepared to break out my identification. I asked what the problem was and as soon as they got a good look at me, and more importantly, heard my voice, they apologized. They were looking for a missing person, they said, a mentally retarded man who must have strayed from home or something. I clearly wasn't who they were searching for, so they let me go on my way. I gladly did.

The other time was when I lived in Columbus. It was late at night, and I was on my bike, riding home down a wide main street in a lower-class neighborhood. As I passed beneath an elevated train track, I heard the bleep of a siren. A cop car was indicating for me to pull over. I did, and this time they wanted to make sure my tail light was on. It was a little bit dimmer than usual, but it was definitely on and flashing red. They apologized; they were either mistaken or didn't see my bike from their position. They let me go and I continued home.

Three the not-so-hard way

Not a whole lot to say on the third anniversary of WSW except thank you for reading and I hope you continue to do so. (Also, I've learned that Dorian launched her blog a mere six days after I did, so we agree that this makes us blogger-cousins in some weird way.)

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Magnificent Seven (1960)

The Magnificent Seven
seen on TV @ TCM

There's a wonderful novel that came out a few years ago called Into the Beautiful North by Luis Alberto Urrea. It's about a small Mexican town in which most of the menfolk have gone north to America to find work, because little can be found in town. There are these three teenage girls who come up with a plan to save the town - a plan inspired by The Magnificent Seven.

They, along with the rest of the town, see the movie one night as part of a Yul Brynner twin bill, and they decide to take a trip over the border themselves and find seven men they can bring back to settle into town and (eventually) help repopulate it. They've never even left their town before, but their quest gets everyone's blessing and they set off on an unusual, but important, adventure.

The book is warm-hearted and very funny, with a lively and unique cast of characters, and though M7 is only the springboard for the main plot, Urrea makes good use of it. For example, there's a small rivalry between fans of Brynner and fans of Steve McQueen which rears its head during the screening of M7. Also, there's a character who's under the mistaken impression that Brynner himself is Mexican (he was actually Russian). Little things like these that help flesh out the townspeople. It's a delightful book that's well worth seeking out.

I thought I had already seen M7, and maybe I had, but I don't remember. Nothing looked terribly familiar as I watched it, but at least that meant I could watch it fresh. I've seen Seven Samurai, of course, though that was awhile ago. (Interesting that the opening credits acknowledged that it was based on 7S - you hardly ever see that in Americanized remakes of foreign films these days.)

Mostly, I thought of my father as I watched it. He loved his Westerns, and I feel fairly confident in saying that M7 was his kind of Western. I never had as great an appreciation for them while he was around, and I certainly wouldn't have known who Brynner was, other than the Pharaoh from The Ten Commandments. I wish I could've watched this with him. I imagine it would've given us a lot to talk about in terms of movies.

Not a whole lot more I can say about M7 other than it's a fun movie. I would make more comparisons to 7S except it's been a long time since I've seen it and I don't remember the details, although I'm sure M7 follows it closely. Never saw the sequel, don't feel like I need to - or do I?

Monday, August 12, 2013

SUTS 2013: Catherine Deneuve

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 Sittin' on a Backyard Fence and ScribeHard on Film. For a complete list of participating blogs, visit the links at either site.


While I've always had great admiration for Catherine Denueve, don't assume that the following is me talking. This is just something I've wanted to do for awhile, for laughs more than anything else - though you wouldn't believe how hard it is to find words that even come close to rhyming with Deneuve...

"If I Only Had Deneuve"
[sung to the tune of "If I Only Had The Nerve" from The Wizard of Oz]

There's a lady from the movies
An enchanting Gallic beauty
That's got my heart astir

The whole world would envy me-oh,
From Cherbourg down to Rio
If I only had Deneuve!

She can move your soul to tears
Or play upon your fears
With spirit and with verve

Hair of gold and eyes so bright,
How I long to hold her tight
Oh, if I only had Deneuve!

Oh I, am just a guy,
Who's never even been to France
Could I take a chance on something so much more?
Cherchez la femme?
Toujours l'amour!

But my destiny is only
To be so sad and lonely
A fate I don't deserve

One thing that I know for sure
She would be my belle de jour
If I only had Deneuve!

Look for more entries in this series throughout the month.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

The Butler (advance screening)

Getting kinda tired of seeing posters
for black films that don't show faces.
The immense success of Lee Daniels' film Precious still bewilders me after all this time. It's a totally unsubtle, feel-bad movie that revels in its misery. It has one of the most horrifying antagonists in recent film history, yet it undermines her villainy with a shamelessly bait-y eleventh-hour attempt at redemption. And it has pretensions at hoity-toity "Art" with scenes that take you completely out of the reality of the film. Yet (white) people ate it up, to a degree I would not have thought possible.

Still, I respected Daniels' skill as an actor's director. Anyone who can make serious thespians out of such unlikely stars as Mo'Nique and Mariah friggin' Carey deserves his props for sure. So I was willing to give him another chance. The Paperboy didn't look appealing (although I am told it's underrated), but The Butler - or, Lee Daniels' The Butler, as it's now officially titled after a fight over the name - seemed more my speed, despite its Oscar-bait look.

My friend Reid, a SAG member, alerted me to a SAG screening of the film in midtown Manhattan last month and off we went to it. It was nearly a full house, which attests to the anticipation for this movie.

The Butler is "inspired by a true story" about a black guy who was the White House butler for over thirty years, and the film tries to juxtapose his life with the events of the civil rights movement. Obviously, he couldn't be a direct part of it because of his job, but the movie would have you believe he made a difference too, in his own quiet way.

The first thing you need to know is that this account is fictionalized. The character Forrest Whitaker plays is given a different name than the real guy, and some details are changed. Now, of course, this is far from the first time Hollywood has taken liberties with someone's life story when filming a biopic. Still, I always find it more than a little egregious, even though there are fictionalized biopics that I do like, despite the futzing with history. I guess it's a matter of whether you think the alterations are justified or not.

I was a little let down by this movie. Once again, Daniels gets great performances out of his cast, but the bottom line is that The Butler doesn't really say anything new or different about the civil rights movement. It goes through its march of history, checking off all the important events along the way: JFK, Emmett Till, sit-ins, the Voting Rights Act, Vietnam, MLK, Nixon, etc. Seriously, it really did feel like going through a checklist of things we've seen before, in other movies, on television, and in books. Daniels tries to give the film an epic sense of grandeur, but it never looks epic, though that may simply be a result of a low budget.

Then there's the all-star cast. I'm sure it seemed like a good idea at the time to cast so many major stars in supporting roles as historical figures, but all that ended up being, from my perspective, was a distraction. Look! There's Robin Williams as President Eisenhower! Look! There's John Cusack as President Nixon! Look! There's Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan! It took me out of the film because I never saw the characters, I only saw the actors, and in some cases, like Fonda as Nancy Reagan, there's obviously an element of ironic stunt casting. It called more attention to itself than it should have...

... because the heart of this story is about an estranged father and son who view civil rights from two entirely different sides. Let me be the first to campaign for David Oyelowo for Supporting Actor. Whitaker is a shoo-in for a Best Actor nomination, but Oyelowo, who has quietly been turning in strong performances over the past couple of years, finally gets a big and crucial role here and he is superb. 

I would've preferred to have seen The Butler take a tighter focus and narrow the story down to the father-son element instead of the long, sprawling life-story approach. That would've been different. That would've given this film a more personal feel, although I can kind of understand why screenwriter Danny Strong took the approach he did - a black butler serving in the White House for thirty years is a compelling and irresistible premise to build a story around. As it is, though, The Butler comes across as little more than this year's The Help, a film which I'm sure many will make comparisons to when this is released.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Blue Jasmine

Blue Jasmine
seen @ Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, New York, NY

Another year, another Woody Allen movie. The surprise success of Midnight in Paris a couple of years ago - his biggest financial hit ever as well as a Best Picture nominee - hasn't altered his cinematic vision in any significant way. The man knows how to stay out of the Hollywood limelight and not get caught up in the glitz - most of the time. We all know that he's had his share of controversy over the years. Like I said when I talked about Mel Gibson, though, one has to figure out how to separate the artist from the art, because the latter will ultimately outlive the former.

Woody's track record as a writer/director speaks for itself - not that I think he's perfect. Do I wish he'd work with more actors of color? Yeah. Do I think his vision of New York is, on the whole, narrow and seen from a position of entrenched privilege? Definitely. But I still love Hannah and Her Sisters. I still love Crimes and Misdemeanors. I still love Annie Hall. At the end of the day, Woody makes the films he wants to make, and there's no point in trying to get him to change just so he can fit my needs, especially when I can look elsewhere for films that can do that.

That said, I hadn't planned on seeing Blue Jasmine. There was (and still is!) other stuff I wanted to see sooner, and though I had heard that Cate Blanchett is terrific in the film (which she totally is), I was gonna pass because I hardly ever go out of my way to see a Woody Allen movie anymore. Even with Midnight in Paris - I kept putting it off and putting it off because I saw how huge a hit it was becoming and I figured, oh well, I'll get to it sooner or later. It played at the Kew Gardens for months and I kept telling myself, it's got to end eventually, you'd better get over there and see it - but I didn't. Can't give you an exact reason why.

These days, unless it's one of his old movies (I saw Manhattan at Brooklyn Bridge Park a couple of years ago, for instance), I end up going to a Woody movie because my friends want to see it. Still, I don't mind because it means hanging out with them - like when Andi and I saw You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, one of Woody's more forgettable films.

Vija, Andi and I are part of this little movie-going club initially started by this chick named Alicia (whom I mentioned here), but she abandoned it after awhile. Maybe she thought there wasn't enough participation; I'm not sure. Anyway, Vija has taken over and there's been a bit of a resurgence as a result. She hasn't done anything that differently, but there have been more outings, which is good. Nobody, however, is willing to stray from the art house. I doubt I could ever convince any of them to take in a film like Pacific Rim, for instance. That's not really a problem; I have friends I can see movies like that with, but just once, it would be nice...

Jasmine is about the wife of a Bernie Madoff-type character who must learn to adjust to doing without all her riches and wealth after her husband, like Madoff, was indicted for fraud. She moves from New York to San Francisco and lives with her working-class sister. Tensions arise when it becomes clear she can't adjust to this new life well. Like I said, Blanchett is astounding and the movie as a whole isn't bad. I liked the ambiguous ending.

Though we've gone to different theaters around New York, Lincoln Plaza seems to be a favorite within our little group. The movie started twenty minutes earlier than expected, but I got there just in time. Andi, however, didn't make it; I think she got a late start from the Bronx or something. Vija and her boyfriend Franz were there, as well as this woman named Lynn whom I had never met before. 

I hadn't seen Vija in awhile and was looking forward to dinner afterwards, but she had other plans, so that left the three of us to eat at a cafe. Franz couldn't stop raving about the film. He kept comparing Jasmine to the work of Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini. Not being familiar with his work, I couldn't tell you how accurate that comparison is (I tried watching Salo once and did not get very far at all), though I suppose Jasmine did have a sort-of Neo-Realist feel to it. I guess. 

I gotta say a brief word about Andrew Dice Clay, who's also in Jasmine. Lynn told me afterwards that Woody had recruited Dice for the movie after seeing him on the TV show Entourage. He's in only a few scenes in the beginning and one towards the end, but he acquitted himself well. Granted, his character wasn't too far removed from himself, but still, he fit into this movie better than I would've expected. I'm almost tempted to take back every bad thing I said about him.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Behind the Candelabra

Behind the Candelabra
seen @ Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center @ Film Society of Lincoln Center, New York, NY

So earlier this year Steven Soderbergh got in front of a microphone and said a bunch of things about what's wrong with modern moviemaking. He's a successful director, he's been in the game a long time and he's made movies both with and without the studios. Personally, I haven't been as interested in his output in recent years (one can only see so many movies), but I respect his knowledge about the industry and I have no doubt that he spoke from a position of authority. 

Much of what he said is not news to anyone who pays attention to what goes on in Hollywood these days: studios prefer to play it safe regarding story content in order to appeal to a wider, international audience; one can't always rely on test screenings to determine success; there's less of an effort to make long-term investments in young talent; and more indie movies are competing for a smaller slice of the box-office pie.

At one point he briefly made a reference to Behind the Candelabra, the Liberace biopic that played on HBO because he couldn't get a theatrical release for it. He explained part of the reason why from a economic perspective:
...Point of entry for a mainstream, wide-release movie: $30 million. That's where you start. Now you add another 30 for overseas. Now you've got to remember, the exhibitors pay half of the gross, so to make that 60 back you need to gross 120. So you don't even know what your movie is yet, and you're already looking at 120. That ended up being part of the reason why the Liberace movie didn't happen at a studio. We only needed $5 million from a domestic partner, but when you add the cost of putting a movie out, now you've got to gross $75 million to get that 35 back, and the feeling amongst the studios was that this material was too "special" to gross $70 million. So the obstacle here isn't just that special subject matter, but that nobody has figured out how to reduce the cost of putting a movie out.
And by "too special," he means too gay.

I'll admit it: while I am 100% behind gay rights, be it in marriage or anything else, my mind could be a little bit more open when it comes to the everyday reality of gay life. It was a shock to see Matt Damon reaming Michael Douglas in this movie (it wasn't explicit, of course, but the way it was shot still made it pretty damn obvious). Gay sex is not a sight I'm familiar with. Yeah, we used to laugh and make jokes about gay porn when I worked in video retail, and once in a blue moon, late at night, we'd even put a tape on for a minute or two when the boss was long gone, but that's not quite the same thing. 

In Candelabra, it's in the context of two men who genuinely love each other, and I suspect that may be something that gets lost whenever a film about gay people comes up: some only see the sex act and not the love. Like many people, I had been conditioned to think that homosexual love was unnatural, and while I now know otherwise, it's still gonna take time to overcome that mentality.

The extraordinary nature of this film, however, enabled me to see the love these two men had for each other. I was jealous! I wish I had a love like that. Yeah, Liberace got all possessive and started fooling around with other dudes later on and that wasn't cool; and Scott Thorson let himself be molded in Liberace's image, and that was just bizarre, but it was clear that there was something deep between the two of them, if only for a little while. 

Besides, I understand what it means to let yourself be manipulated into doing unusual things by someone if it means getting to be with them, to love them. I understand giving so much of yourself to someone to a degree that may not be entirely healthy. I don't think one needs to be gay to get something like that, and that's what ultimately matters, because gay love is not that different than straight love where it really counts. The Supreme Court finally realized that, and more and more Americans are realizing it too.

I saw Candelabra at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. This was the first time I had been there. They're currently showing recent HBO movies for free throughout the month, and this was the first one in the series. Hadda wait on a long line for them to give out free tickets. This is a classy joint, which isn't surprising. I used to go to high school near Lincoln Center, and even though they've made some changes to the surrounding area since, I still see it the way I did back then.

The screening room was nice. Wooden floor and walls with long, cushioned benches arranged stadium style, and low-angled steps. The air-conditioning was aggressively employed. I didn't eat, but there was a small cafe on the opposite side of the lobby. The lobby itself had autographed posters of famous film directors from around the world. A British dude who was part of the FSLC staff introduced the film, talked about other exhibits. Instead of a canvas, there was a giant video screen on which Candelabra played. Audio was perfect. Nice place. I'd go back there.