Friday, April 28, 2017

Citizen Jane: Battle for the City

Citizen Jane: Battle for the City
seen @ Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, New York NY

I noticed the change in New York very quickly, days after I returned from living in Columbus. I took the subway to Williamsburg. I had worked in that neighborhood for over two years, and I was aware of its growing status as the new cool place to live. When I stepped outside, I noticed something right away: an increased presence of bicyclists. Not just for sport, either, but regular people too, mostly young, their bikes chained to racks in large clusters.

That wasn't all. I had heard talk about how Times Square had been drastically reconfigured. Suddenly there was all this room for people to walk around. I couldn't believe my ears. Times Square was notorious for its traffic gridlock and the way people were overstuffed onto the sidewalks. I went there, though, and I saw it for myself. Broadway, Sixth and Seventh Avenues had been streamlined - several blocks of Broadway were closed to traffic - and there was all this space in the streets for people to loiter. There were actually beach chairs scattered about the area! I had to laugh.

Like many New Yorkers, I had always believed traffic - whether it meant bumper-to-bumper cars clogging the roads, making travel difficult at best, or the other extreme, cars going too fast, injuring or even killing pedestrians - was an intractable fact of city life to be struggled against, without any real solution. Living in Columbus, a much smaller town without 24/7 public transit, forced me to get around on a bike. I viewed traffic from a much different perspective, to say the least.

It also made me aware, for the first time, of the value of streets. I associated with other bicyclists. Through them, I understood cars have had a monopoly on streets for decades, here in America and around the world. I learned it doesn't have to stay that way. It wasn't until I returned to New York, though, that I saw that potential for changing the status quo begin to be fulfilled. In many ways, we have Jane Jacobs to thank for that.

Citizen Jane: Battle for the City documents not only the life and work of the journalist, author and activist, it diagrams the history of the changes the automobile wrought upon city streets and neighborhoods everywhere, as well as how and why they need to be opposed.

The film quotes liberally from Jacobs' game-changing 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Through simple observation, Jacobs argued that neighborhoods viewed as "slums" by some have the elements - variety of businesses, day and night; density of housing; people constantly on the street, aware of each other's presence - necessary for growth, an idea that flew in the face of the wave of "urban renewal," i.e., the tearing down of neighborhoods, sweeping the city at the time, led by Jacobs' nemesis, city planner Robert Moses.

Robert Moses
The film goes into the epic battle between Jacobs, favoring people and neighborhoods, and Moses, the champion of autocentrism and wide, long highways - over the future of New York's development. Moses is regarded as a bad guy now, but the truth is, he did a lot for New York: building bridges, beaches, pools and yes, housing. The high-rise I live in was built by Moses.

It was more the way high-rises were made that was the problem: isolated from the surrounding streets, inefficient use of space, discouraging the spontaneity Jacobs saw out her West Village apartment window. The film goes into the popularity of early 20th century architecture that encouraged these kinds of buildings.

Jacobs' ideas are recognized as valid by many city planners today, but putting them into action - doing things like altering street design to slow speeding cars; reconfiguring streets to allow for other means of travel, including bikes; building more pedestrian space - means facing vocal opposition from folks who benefit from and prefer the status quo established by cars. Many of them won't give that up without a fight.

Former NYC transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, in her recent book Streetfight, advocates wedding Moses' persistence and gumption to Jacobs' ideals in order to build more equitable streets and livable neighborhoods:
...Retrofitting our cities for the new urban age and achieving Jane Jacobs's vision today will require Moses-like vision and action for building the next generation of city roads, ones that will accommodate pedestrians, bikes and buses safely and not just single-occupancy vehicles with their diminishing returns for our streets.... Reversing the atrophy afflicting our city streets requires a change-based urbanism that creates short-term results - results that can create new expectations and demand for more projects.
I saw Citizen Jane with Vija on Sunday and then went to my weekly writing group. On my way home, I passed by a live concert held within a pedestrian plaza in Jackson Heights, built several years ago. At the time, the local businesses were vehemently against it, fearing a loss of revenue from the closing of a single block of a street and the rerouting of a bus to facilitate this new open space. For awhile, it looked like the plaza might not survive.

Sunday night, I saw it packed with people, sitting inside and standing all around the perimeter, with a small group near the stage, children as well as adults, dancing to the music. This is far from the first time I've seen the plaza so busy, but it was the first time I saw such a festive atmosphere so early in the season. Imagine how it'll get come the summer!

Streetfilms charts the path towards safer streets
Why does car-free = loser in movies and TV?
Woody v. bike lanes: dawn of ignorance

Wednesday, April 26, 2017


The 2017 Great Villain Blogathon is a tribute to the greatest, most sinister and most memorable antagonists in film history, presented by Speakeasy, Shadows & Satin and Silver Screenings. For a complete list of participating bloggers, visit the links at any of these sites.

from my DVD collection

Elijah Price? Dude, there's no way he did all the things they say he did. I mean, if he were a billionaire like Lex Luthor, he could've afforded it. If he were a mutant like Magneto, he'd have the physical power, for sure. Hell, if he had some crazy-ass weapon, like Captain Cold's freeze gun or Weather Wizard's wand or like any of a million other small-time hoods, he could do some damage, at least. Price? He was some guy in a wheelchair.

I should know. He came into my comic shop one night!

Okay, before I get into that, let me say something up front: that so-called "superhero" from the papers? The one they say dropped a dime on Price to begin with? Lamest. Superhero. EVER. I remember reading about how he saved those girls from that psycho who had them tied up - and hey, he did a great job there - but a poncho for a costume? Seriously? I'll admit, the hood gives him a certain Moon Knight kinda look, or maybe even the Spectre if he were drawn by Mike Mignola, but it's so... ordinary. He doesn't even have a cool chest emblem like Daredevil or Nightwing that crooks can shoot their guns at instead of his head because, y'know, superstitious and cowardly.

Sorry. Needed to vent about that.

But dude! Lemme tell you how I met Elijah Price - or should I call him "Mr. Glass"? (Semi-dorky, yet kinda catchy, alias. I could imagine a Batman villain with that name.) The boss had left a couple of hours earlier. I had just completed the pull lists for that week, and I was goofing around on the Net, in a Marvel chat room, trying to convince this one douche bag why a Spider-Man movie where he has organic webshooters is the worst idea in the history of bad ideas. (Raimi better not mess it up further.)

I must have been pretty focused because I didn't hear Price come in. I saw his head near the adult comics section but I was too into my flame war to bother with him. I do recall kicking out of the store a couple of kids who thought we sold Donald Duck comics. What did they think this place was?

Anyway, I look up at one point and it's twenty after and I realize I gotta get ready to close! I finished off my douche bag opponent with a brief but detailed summation of the importance of Peter Parker's technical and scientific knowhow to the Spider-Man mythos - along with a gratuitous insult about Douche Bag's mother - and shut down the computer.

I didn't notice Price was in a wheelchair at first. He struck me as being more like the Chief from Doom Patrol than Professor X, at least at first - maybe because of his funny hairdo? He hadn't bought anything. I tried to hurry him along. I was hungry and wanted to stop at Popeye's on my way home before they closed.

Fifteen minutes later and he's still there. He's all quiet and brooding, like Bruce Wayne thinking about his dead parents. You know how it is when customers come in at like, five minutes before closing and take forever to decide what to buy? That had happened to me twice last week!

Enough was enough. I grabbed the handles on his chair and pushed him towards the door, because he wasn't doing anything other than sitting there, not even reading.

Then get this! He jerks his chair to the side and smashes into a table! He does this two more times, causing comics and displays to fall. Finally, I said forget it. I'm calling the cops. Let them deal with this mofo.

Just as I'm calling, though, he finally decides to buy a comic! It was an old issue of Sentryman, of all things: a Captain America knock-off from one of those second-rate publishers from the 70s, Charlton or Gold Key or Dell or one of those. I told him he was better off getting a Simon/Kirby Fighting American trade paperback, but he wanted Suckyman instead.

You know the rest. The police cuffed him later on, after getting tipped by Poncho Man, and the whole story about what Price supposedly did broke in the papers. I went to that art gallery of his, Limited Edition, before it closed permanently. I didn't even know it existed.

There was no one there but some old black lady, but check this out: he had all this original comic art on display. I saw a Curt Swan Superman page, some Neal Adams Green Lantern/Green Arrow covers, some Buscema Avengers, even some pages by Chaykin and Starlin - and wouldn't you know it? There was even a Sentryman page.

Price's trial starts next Monday. They say he'll probably plead insanity. I dunno, dude... he's a comics fan. He's one of us. There's just no way someone who reads stories about heroes, people risking their lives to protect the rest of us, can be evil.

Is there?

Superman II
Robot Monster

Monday, April 24, 2017

Feud pt. 8

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Part 6 Part 7

The years fly by. Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte was made without Joan. Her health declines, and the few movie roles she gets offered worsen. Bette works more steadily, but her growing alcoholism causes the rift between her and BD to expand. As both actresses approach the end of their lives, they look back on their careers and their great rivalry. Can they move past their mutual disdain and be friends before it's too late?

Now that it's all over, what have we learned, Charlie Brown? I think what will stay with me longest from this remarkable masterwork of television is the idea of the drug we call fame, and how easy it is to get hooked. Stardom is a heady allure. Classic Hollywood was all about the glamour, potency and magnetism of stars: shaped, made up and trained to walk and talk like someone special, to be projected on a giant screen and be adored.

We fans devote blogs and websites to them. We buy paraphernalia connected with them. Sometimes we even try to look like them. Most of all, we watch their movies over and over and over and proclaim how much we love them. Is it any surprise a Joan Crawford or a Bette Davis would arise as a result?

Bette and Joanie, for all their talents, were deeply flawed women who were twisted by fame, by the system that created them, and made to despise each other when they could have been friends. When we sensed the enmity between them, we fed on it and demanded more, until they almost became caricatures of themselves.

Time passes, though. The gossip and the scandal and the petty jokes fade and are forgotten... but the work remains. Grand HotelDark Victory. Possessed. Jezebel. Mildred Pierce. All About Eve. And yes, even Baby Jane.

The work is why we still remember.

Feud was my first look at the programs of Ryan Murphy. I understand now why he is so celebrated. This was a top-notch production, from future Emmy-nominees Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon on down - and I haven't even mentioned things like the wonderful Saul Bass-like opening credits! I'm extremely selective with the little TV I do watch. I think I chose wisely with this one.

(The real) Olivia de Havilland on Feud

Saturday, April 22, 2017

The Talk of the Town

The Talk of the Town
seen @ Greater Astoria Historical Society, Astoria, Queens NY

I've written about a number of George Stevens movies here, but I haven't talked much about the man himself. Thanks to Mark Harris' book Five Came Back, we know Stevens was one of several prominent Hollywood directors who documented World War 2.

He chose to go to war. He enlisted after completing The More The Merrier in 1943 and considered himself retired from film at 38. The things he saw in battle changed him profoundly. His post-war films, as a result, were more somber and reflectful than his fluffier pre-war work. To quote Harris in Five:

...Stevens hoped, more than anything, to find a project that reflected his changed understanding of the world. "Our films should tell the truth and not pat us on the back," he said that year [1946]. Otherwise, he asked, "isn't there the slight chance that we might be revealing America as it is not? Would that be encouraging us in our delusions about ourselves?"

He had already begun to take a step in that direction in 1942 when he made The Talk of the Town. Cary Grant is a political activist framed for arson. During his trial, he escapes and hides out at childhood pal Jean Arthur's place, but she's renting it out for the summer to law professor Ronald Colman. Eventually, Grant and Arthur conspire to get Colman involved in Grant's case to clear his name, as well as to learn more about the world beyond his law books.

There's a very Capraesque quality to the story, in which themes of the dangers of demagoguery and mob justice abound in what's a romantic comedy at heart. Stevens and Capra were colleagues at Columbia, so perhaps that's unsurprising.

Stevens was notorious for his taciturn nature on the set, yet he also drove his actors to plumb the depths of their talent. A quote from him in Five sums it up: "I have often humbled actors, creating stories that will bring a kind of humility out of them, rather than letting them come forth on the screen in their established aura." That explains Grant's Oscar-nominated performance in Penny Serenade. In Talk, he's cast again in an unexpected role, that of a political agitator, verbally jousting with Colman at first before befriending him. Arthur is once again at her lovable, scatterbrained best, but over a decade later, Stevens would get a gentle, touching dramatic performance out of her in Shane.

I saw Talk with Sandi last Saturday at the Greater Astoria Historical Society, an organization devoted to chronicling and preserving the long history of Astoria and the surrounding neighborhoods. They also show old movies from time to time. Their offices include a gallery filled with photos, assorted memorabilia and artifacts from the area. Astoria was settled in 1659, so there's plenty of history to explore. I know the Society mostly through my friend Rich, who's a staff member. He was there briefly. We talked for a bit. I've gone on guided tours led by him through parts of Astoria. 

Lately, Sandi has been paying attention to the treatment of servants in old Hollywood movies. Rex Ingram, the head demon in Cabin in the Sky, plays Colman's valet, whom Colman almost treats as an equal, asking him advice on women and such. Ingram gets strangely emotional when, at one point, Colman shaves his beard, which Grant and Arthur mock as a sign of fuddy-duddy-ness and intellectual intransigence. Stevens gives Ingram a long close-up, in fact. Sandi was unsure whether or not his tears were meant as comedy. Was he sad or happy for Colman? I was unsure myself. I would've guessed it was meant as humor, but it didn't seem to play that way. Odd moment.

Afterwards, we met and had coffee with the only other person to attend the screening (who stayed, anyway), an old Romanian woman named Cleopatra, if you can believe that. She was nice. She's into fitness. She practices yoga and tai chi. I went back with Sandi to her place, we had dinner and watched Doctor Who.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

The Good, The Bad and the Ugly
AMC viewing

I remember, in the time before I got into movies, seeing snippets of The Good, The Bad and the Ugly on TV and wondering why it was dubbed. It wasn't like the Chinese kung fu movies or the Japanese monster movies I'd also watch. It was obvious the actors in those movies weren't speaking English, hence the dubbed voices. In this movie, though, while I was no lip reader, it sure looked like everyone was speaking English. So why did their lip movements not match up perfectly with the audio track?

Clearly this was long before I had ever heard the phrase "spaghetti western."

Sergio Leone is rightly revered for making some of the most iconic westerns of all time, films that redefined the genre and made a superstar out of Clint Eastwood, but did you know he only directed seven movies total? The Italian, the son of a director and an actress, toiled as an AD for many years in Italy and the US before switching to screenwriting, and ultimately, directing. There were precedents for westerns made in Italy and the rest of Europe, but when Leone made A Fistful of Dollars in 1964, that was when the sub-genre busted wide open.

I saw A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and GBU during my video store days, as well as Once Upon a Time in the West, but one day I'd like to see any of them on a big screen. My new flatscreen TV is big, and it provides a measure of the grandeur of the movie's sprawling mountain vistas and desert terrains, but this was shot in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio. That's wide, folks. I mean hella wide. A film like this kinda demands to be seen the way the director intended.

As enjoyable as GBU is, it's really long. I think last week was the first time I had seen the whole thing through, start to finish. By the time Blondie and Tuco reach the bridge and the Union soldiers, I was beginning to zone out. When Tuco runs through the cemetery, the spinning camera shots are long and practically vertigo-inducing. And the final showdown between Blondie, Tuco and Angel Eyes is dragged out to an almost ridiculous length. All those shots of their eyes in super close-up, over and over - oy!

What makes all that enjoyable, though, is the distinctive music of Ennio Morricone. Melodramatic, yet emotional, memorable and sweeping, it's everything you want a film score to be. The tension in the final standoff is induced by the music, as it gets higher and more intense, waiting for someone to shoot somebody. It's marvelous.

Is Blondie really "good"? He runs a scam on people, one that puts his partner Tuco in serious danger every time. Then he betrays Tuco for no good reason. Is it any wonder Tuco wants revenge? I would say Leone was being ironic with that title, but this doesn't strike me as that kind of movie.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

A few words about Doctor Who

Sandi and I watched the season premiere of Doctor Who last Saturday night. It was the endpoint of a long day together. She's a fan. I'm... well, I've had an interest in the show in the past, but it never stuck, so I doubt you could call me a fan. A lot of my friends like the show, however. Given its great longevity and staying power, I feel obliged to provide a few, perhaps long overdue, observations about this, the granddaddy of SF franchises.

I first discovered the show as a kid in the 80s, on one of the upper-band UHF channels from somewhere out of state. It might have been the first foreign TV show I ever watched. Don't ask me which Doctor it was; they all look alike to me anyway. I remember thinking it looked low-budget and kinda cheesy (which Sandi agreed it was). I watched it for a little while, but I don't think I fully understood what was going on most of the time. Plus, the picture quality was never great. I gave up on the show and forgot about it shortly.

Then came the Internet. Suddenly it seemed like Who fans were everywhere. I re-learned the very basics about the show - long-lived alien, travels in a spaceship disguised as a phone booth, reincarnates in different bodies, etc. - from online conversations and articles. John and Sue are uber-fans. They love talking about Who. Being the contrarian that I am, however, my lizard brain automatically looked upon it with suspicion: if it's popular, it can't be that good.

Peter Capaldi, the current Doctor
I might have watched an episode or two with John and Sue, but otherwise, I've felt no compulsion to get back into the show. John has tried explaining it to me more than once, but because it's been on so long, there's a great deal of continuity that I can never get straight.

Sandi said last Saturday's ep was atypical. Doc's laying low, teaching at some university on Earth. He meets this chick named Bill (not Billie). She has a friend who gets sucked into a puddle of goo (which may be a two-way dimensional portal of some kind) that changes her into some kind of non-human, liquid creature. Bill needs Doc's help to save her. Sandi said Doc's new status quo as a professor, the pace of the story and even the music seemed like a departure from how the current Doctor, played by Peter Capaldi, had been depicted previously. I certainly couldn't notice anything different...

...unless you compare the show to how it looked in the 80s. The current model is much less cheesy. It looks and feels like a modern SF show, with impressive special effects. Thing is, though, there are so many genre shows on TV now, on so many channels, that Who no longer appears unique. I find I'm almost nostalgic for the low-budget look.

As for the content, Sandi gave me the impression that Doc's a quirky character. He did seem that way, but even in this he's no longer as distinctive. Joss Whedon writes his characters with a similar sly, knowing, cockeyed sensibility. Kevin Williamson of the Scream franchise is the same way.

In the ep I saw, Doc spent more time running from the monster-of-the-week than anything else. He didn't have much of a plan for saving Bill's friend. Sandi said Doc's weapon of choice, the sonic screwdriver, can do anything (though I find this hard to believe), yet he only used it to scare off a Dalek. Captain Picard would've studied the creature's behavior to determine what it wants, tried to communicate with it, and if that didn't work, and he thought it was a threat, then he'd attack it. Doc just ran until he couldn't run anymore. I'll allow for the possibility this was an unusual ep, but if so, is that how you wanna present your star character the first time out of the gate in a new season? The little bald guy wasn't much help either.

I did like Bill - I understand she's the first gay girl Friday of the Doctor's - though it's unclear what assets she'll bring to the show. My impression was that Doc's companions were ordinary people, but they pulled their own weight somehow.

I don't hate Who (though I do get sick of hearing about it from Fandom Assembled all the time). I just don't see what makes it different from the hundred other genre shows out there. Nothing about it makes me go "Yeah! Awesome! I want more of that!" and I suspect at this point it doesn't know when to get off the stage. Perhaps the producers don't know how to end the show, or more likely, it's cruising on its reputation, knowing the TruFans® will stick around no matter what.


Monday, April 17, 2017

Feud pt. 7

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Part 6

Aldrich's affair with Bette continues. He names her an associate producer on Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte - an honorific, really, but you can imagine how it makes Joan feel. Production is halted when she contracts pneumonia, but is it real, or is she faking it as a form of protest? The studio is unsure, and their patience with her is running out. Meanwhile, Bette's teenage daughter BD wants to marry an older man.

It's time to finally talk about Mamacita! Jackie Hoffman, who looks very different in real life, portrays Joanie's sour-faced, Teutonic maid/valet/girl Friday. In looks and character, she has so much specificity that she's got to be based on a real person (I wasn't sure at first). Hoffman has had some good scenes with Jessica Lange, providing a stern, level-headed contrast to Lange's icy emotionalism. Plus, Mamacita was the one who encouraged Pauline to continue pursuing a directing career in Part 4. Last night she finally reached her limit with her mistress. Mamacita has been an important part of this story, in her own way. Kudos to the writers for making her a person, not just an extra.

Last night's episode was directed by Helen Hunt. You remember her - the Oscar-winning actress from As Good As It Gets and the TV show Mad About You? (I recently re-watched Cast Away. She plays some big, deep emotions in that one.) Turns out she's been directing in television over the last several years. Good for her.  Here's an interview where she talks about Feud.

In yet another great Bette & Joanie scene, we get to the heart of the difference between the two: one, a supremely gifted thespian who was never made to feel beautiful, the other an intensely gorgeous star who never felt like a legitimate actress. There's an unacknowledged thread of envy, mixed with respect, between the two that stops short of being made explicit. It's the entire series in microcosm.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

My Cousin Vinny

My Cousin Vinny
HBO viewing

What do Judy Davis, Joan Plowright, Vanessa Redgrave and Miranda Richardson all have in common? They were the four capital-A Actresses who lost to Marisa Tomei in the Best Supporting Actress Oscar race in 1993. They were all nominated for serious thespic performances. Tomei had the lone comedic role, in My Cousin Vinny.

At the time, people couldn't quite believe she won. (As recently as 2015, the controversy over her win was still being talked about.) Comedy tends to get the short shrift when it comes to the Oscars. Even today, her win seems anomalous. It's like when Judy Holliday won Best Actress for comedy over four powerhouse dramatic roles.

As someone with a little acting experience, I can tell you that the phrase "Dying is easy, comedy is hard" is true. Comedy requires a different kind of awareness of yourself, your cast and your setting, a different sense of timing. You'd think the Academy would be more sensitive to this, but they tend to respond to drama more. So when a comedic performance wins an Oscar, it's significant.

Watching Vinny again last week, I was reminded of what a sharp, witty and charming performance Tomei gave. Her subsequent career has proven it was no fluke, either. She has grown into a fantastic actress who was Oscar-nominated two more times (for drama, naturally). She hasn't quite reached Sandra Bullock-level superstardom, but anyone who has seen her post-Vinny work knows she's the real deal. (It's a little depressing, however, to realize she's now old enough to play Aunt May in the Spider-Man movies.)

Vinny was a vehicle for Joe Pesci that came along at the right time, in the wake of his GoodFellas success. It was a fish-out-of-water, R-rated comedy, meaning he got to be his gleefully profane self.

Pesci is the kind of actor who wouldn't exist back in the Golden Age. Cagney comes close: short, motormouthed wise guy with an attitude, but the lack of profanity aside, Pesci's shtick is specifically, quintessentially Italian, not Irish. Cagney had roguish charm. Pesci's just roguish. In a comedy like Vinny, though, it's appealing.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Feud pt. 6

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5

It's 1964, and Aldrich, resigned to making another "women's picture" after the failure of his Baby Jane follow-up, chooses to adapt another book by the Baby Jane author, Whatever Happened to Cousin Charlotte? Jack Warner strongarms Aldrich into reuniting Bette and Joan, but Aldrich does an end run around him and makes a better deal at a different studio. Against their better instincts, Bette and Joan both sign on for this movie, but Hedda Hopper tips off Joanie to a rumor about a porn movie going around that might feature Joanie in her youth. Meanwhile, Aldrich's marriage is crumbling, and the only one he can turn to for comfort is Bette.

John Waters as William Castle? That was quite a surprise! Not that I believed he was the PT Barnum of horror movies in the opening scene, where Joanie appears at a screening of Strait Jacket - he might have shaved his mustache, for one thing - but clearly, this was a bit of stunt casting. Waters' love for Castle and his films, especially his bizarre promotional stunts, is known. I imagine Waters must have leapt at the chance to play one of his idols.

Castle, and the kinds of films he specialized in, are better appreciated today, thanks to home video, cable TV, and cult movie magazines like Fangoria, but for an actress of Joanie's caliber to appear in one in 1964 must have been jarring. She belonged to a different era, where she made different kinds of movies. Small wonder she felt humiliated in not only making it, but promoting it. Warner talked about "hagsploitation" - apparently Joanie wasn't the only Golden Age actress making horror movies - and it must have been a sure sign the studios were in decline, something Warner also talks about when he says he's the last mogul standing.

It was good to see Alfred Molina as Aldrich again, especially when he finally stood up to Warner. Aldrich's failing marriage was established earlier; last night was the sad payoff. Molly Price plays Harriet Aldrich. I really like her scenes with Molina. Harriet tries to be supportive of her husband, but even when he's with her, he's not with her, as that final scene in Part 2 exemplifies.

The scenes with Joanie and her brother seemed even more melodramatic than usual for this series, like it was something out of Dynasty. Frankly, I didn't care much for that subplot. It just seemed like a tangent that, while it may be historically notable, didn't add much to the overall story.

"Cousin Charlotte," of course, would go on to become the film Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte. I saw it under somewhat trying circumstances. I didn't get much of a sense of it at all. Perhaps I'll rewatch it before Feud ends, though I doubt it'll be as essential as Baby Jane since Joanie ends up leaving the film.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Feud pt. 5

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4

It's Oscar time! Bette's performance in Baby Jane is up for Best Actress, but Joan is not nominated, and she's not exactly handling it with grace and humility. She and Hedda Hopper conspire to make sure Bette loses by starting a whispering campaign within the Academy against her. That's nothing, though, compared to their plan designed to ensure Joanie walks off the stage with an Oscar, even if it's someone else's.

In Feud, the story of Bette & Joan is set within the framework of a fictitious documentary set years later. Among those interviewed include two contemporaries of the actresses, Olivia de Havilland and Joan Blondell, played by Catherine Zeta-Jones and Kathy Bates, respectively. They act as a kind of Greek chorus throughout the series, providing insight on Bette & Joan, actresses, Hollywood, and stardom. As with Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon, it's a bit jarring at first to see such familiar modern film stars portraying equally familiar classic film stars, but you just have to go with it for the purposes of the story. Then again, modern audiences may not be as familiar with ODH and Blondell as we film fans, so this may not be that big an issue. (Bates as Blondell is inspired casting, especially if you've seen pictures of Blondell later in life. The resemblance is striking.)

To this point, ODH had been outside the narrative. She joins it in this ep, offering moral support to Bette throughout the Oscar campaign. She even discusses her own feud with her sister Joan Fontaine. I thought CZJ as ODH was fine. I can't speak to how accurate her portrayal is or how much she does or doesn't act like her.

I had been fairly sympathetic to Joanie up till now, but last night, she acted despicably. Again, assuming what we see here is accurate (none of this is based on a single source, like a book), she goes before the Academy, demanding to present a major award, on her terms, and she plays on the sympathy of the other Best Actress nominees in a blatant attempt to manipulate them into doing what she wants. There's a great scene that sums it all up, set on Oscar night, between her and George Cukor. He tries to talk her out of making a spectacle of herself. He says, "You're better than this." She says, simply, "No, I'm not."

There are tons of celebrity bit roles in this ep. Some are speaking parts, like Cukor, Geraldine Page, Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke. Others are non-speaking, like Gregory Peck and Lee Remick. One can imagine the casting call for this ep, trying to find extras who resemble or could be made to resemble such big Hollywood stars. Ryan Murphy, who wrote and directed this ep, splurged on the budget: make-up, wardrobe, catering, sets, so many extras - it even looks like he filmed the Oscar scenes in the same place it was held, the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. This may be the high point of the entire series so far.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

The links and the furious

Years ago, when I saw the adoration the classic film bloggers had for Robert Osborne, my first thought was a snarky one: yeah, he can read from a teleprompter really well. That was before I watched Turner Classic Movies more often. In time, I, too, got to appreciate his presence as the prime time host and public face of the network. In reading the reports from the TCM Film Festival (which will be a somber one this year, I imagine), especially from people like Raquel and Aurora, I got to understand how much he knew about film history, film preservation, and film culture, and how sharing that knowledge with others was his mission. Film fans everywhere owe him a debt of gratitude.

Thanks once again to everyone who took part in our Jack Lemmon Blogathon. I wanted to devote at least one to an actor I admire. Perhaps next year I'll do the same for an actress. Any suggestions?

Covering Feud hasn't been a problem so far. I haven't had to rearrange my schedule to accommodate the program; I get home from my writers group with time to spare. I did have to pass on a Queens World Film Festival after-party, though, which was a real bummer since Opening Night was canceled due to the snow. Oh well. I am eager to hear what you think of Feud, so let's talk about it. (BTW, I should have said this in the beginning, but in case it wasn't obvious: assume spoilers. Though I'll do my best to not give away too much.)

I'm thinking of doing another weekly series this summer, only not about a TV show. I've gotta make sure I can do it properly, but if I can, I'll let you know the details.

Yes, I, like everyone else on Planet Earth, saw the Justice League trailer, against my better judgment. (I'm sure there are a couple of Kalahari Bushmen complaining that the Flash's costume looks all wrong.) If WB insists on giving Zack Snyder the keys to the car, so be it; that doesn't necessarily mean I'm gonna let him drive me. I finally saw Batman v. Superman and it was exactly what I expected: big, loud, unsubtle. And dark. I think this movie will be more of the same. Will I see it anyway? I mean, this is the Justice League... I dunno. Ask me again this fall.

So this month: Feud continues, another blogathon, and I dunno about any new releases. The slate looks clean at the moment until Guardians 2 in May (oh boy!).

Your links:

Raquel shares her memories of the times she'd seen and met Osborne in person.

The Lady Eve plays with these classic movie star dolls.

Why doesn't Pam go to the movies much anymore?

Le provides a cinematic history of the Beauty and the Beast story.

Ivan looks at the debut film from director Robert Altman.

Aurora has a gay-all time with The Flintstones.

This obscure horror movie marked the first screen appearance of the late David Bowie.

And then there was that time when Barbara Stanwyck filled in on Jack Benny's radio show.

A film came out last year that re-imagined the life and career of director Fritz Lang.

Which living authors have the most film adaptations?

Thursday, March 30, 2017

The Jack Lemmon Blogathon begins here!

We're here! This year's WSW blogathon is for Jack Lemmon, a rare and inspirational actor like few we've seen in Hollywood. We got a lot of posts lined up for the next two days. I'll handle the first wave today. Leave your link in the comments, or tweet me at @ratzo318. Tomorrow, we go south of the equator and my pal Le will continue the blogathon. On behalf of both of us, thanks for taking part and enjoy the posts!

You can start with my post on The Out-of-Towners.

Love Letters to Old Hollywood
Bell, Book and Candle

Days of Wine and Roses

Charlene's (Mostly) Classic Movie Reviews
Glengarry Glen Ross

Caftan Woman

The Midnite Drive-In
How to Murder Your Wife

The Stop Button
Short Cuts

The Old Hollywood Garden
It Should Happen to You

Musings of a Classic Film Addict
You Can't Run Away From It

Movies Silently
The Great Race

Critica Retro
12 Angry Men (1997)

Crimson Kimono

Moon in Gemini
Some Like it Hot


Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The Out-of-Towners (1970)

The Jack Lemmon Blogathon is this year's WSW event, spotlighting the great actor. My thanks to Le for co-hosting with me. Check both our blogs for a complete listing of everyone taking part!

The Out-of-Towners (1970)
YouTube viewing

I'm glad I traveled as much as I did when I was younger. When I was still into comics, I had self-published several different titles, and to promote them, I appeared at conventions around the country. I flew. I took the train. Mostly, I rode the bus. It's hard, sometimes, to appreciate the scenery when the AC is on high, a baby's yelling two rows behind you and the guy next to you has fallen asleep and is snoring loudly again, but you pick your moments of tranquility where you find them.

The concept of the "staycation" grew, strangely enough, around the time I was about to move out of New York! I think I've since learned the value of local excursions, in this case, meaning state-wide. Through Bibi & Eric, I've seen more of upstate New York than I would normally, to the point where I've developed an interest in seeing other upstate towns on my own. Last summer I visited Nyack, for example.

Everyone loves to travel, but do it often enough and you anticipate bad things happening along the way. You endure them and they drive you crazy and you laugh about them afterwards and you talk about them at parties for the next twenty years. First, though, you have to endure them. 

This brings us to The Out-of-Towners. Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis go through more hell trying to get to New York in this movie than two people have a right to, but it's all in the name of laughs. That final scene may not be as funny in a post-9-11 world, but overall, I liked the movie.

I wanna talk about the penultimate scene, in particular, Dennis' speech to Lemmon. Take a look at it and then come back here. (Begin at around 6:40.)

First, it's a bit shocking to hear a Neil Simon character put down New York so completely, with such finality. It's almost like that scene in Quiz Show where Queens-born Martin Scorsese says, "Queens is not New York!" (Some of us still haven't quite forgiven him for that one.)

History shows, however, that Gwen was expressing a very real feeling, not only about New York in 1970, but cities in general at the time. Urban renewal, white flight, an increase in inner-city crime, labor unrest, civil rights protests, and more: New York wasn't the only American city experiencing such changes, but it was the most prominent. After 1970, it would only get worse before it got better.

In the movie, George's reaction to the indignities he suffers is to want to sue everyone in sight, while Gwen can only watch stupefied and say "Oh my god" over and over. It's all meant to be funny, but there's a lot of truth in these characterizations.

Fast forward forty years or so. We're slowly re-learning the value of cities: as sustainable sources of green energy; as multimodal hubs that move more people more efficiently; as political asylums for foreign refugees. Robert Moses' way, of building straighter and wider roads that fracture neighborhoods and displace communities, has been proven wrong. 

I learned that while living in Ohio, where George and Gwen come from and where they're eager to return in the end. They probably benefit from the effects of urban sprawl I witnessed while living there: a decentralized core, increased use of the car at the expense of public transportation, more space given over for parking and less for people. Their children may feel differently about it, however, once they grow up.

It's interesting to note that Steve Martin's 1999 remake ends with him and Goldie Hawn staying in New York. But why not? The city had long since begun to clean up its act by that point. Now it's the opposite extreme: an over-priced, gentrified tourists' paradise that squeezes the lower classes further and further towards the margins. I <3 NY!

Other Jack Lemmon films:
Mister Roberts
Some Like it Hot
How to Murder Your Wife

Monday, March 27, 2017

Feud pt. 4

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3

Against all odds, Baby Jane is a box office hit. Bette and Joan still struggle for work beyond that success, however. Joanie's resentful of whatever small victories Bette achieves, deciding to pin her hopes instead on an Oscar nomination. This week's episode is mostly about Aldrich and his assistant Pauline, who both aspire to bigger and better things post-Baby Jane, but come up against some hard truths about the industry, and themselves.

First things first: that song Bette sings on TV: TOTALLY REAL. Behold the proof. And I think it says a lot about the difference between the two women that Bette could do something so silly, on television, and Joanie never could, in a million years.

By the time you read this, I'll have already seen Baby Jane. Long story short: I thought it was a pale imitation of Sunset Boulevard. Aldrich actually refers to Sunset last night by way of comparison, saying the difference between the two films was Bill Holden.

I wanna give a shout-out to Stanley Tucci as Jack Warner. I've always loved Tucci; I'm so glad he's part of this series. He's exactly how I've always imagined the head of Warner Bros. to be, based on what I've read about him: ruthless, vindictive, womanizing, and coldly brilliant. Last night he had some particularly great scenes with Alfred Molina. I'll come back to that in a moment.

Alison Wright plays Pauline, a character I admit I've paid little attention to until now. I suspect she's fictitious, made to portray the plight of women of the period (early 60s) who aspired to be directors. She cites as precedent the silent film pioneers (whom Fritzi is currently honoring with a blogathon, one I regret being unable to participate in), because Feud is as much film history lesson as dramatic entertainment. Though Pauline's quest is futile, she's left with hope. This is as good a time as any to mention the women who have directed episodes of Feud, Gwyneth Horder-Payton and Liza Johnson.

It's Aldrich's storyline that connected with me most. We creative people imagine ourselves, to some degree, to be exceptional. People tell us so all our lives. They pay us to do what we do. Sometimes they laud us with awards. We don't imagine limits for ourselves because we can't. To be told, therefore, you're only so good; your artistic worth has a cap that won't be exceeded - well, you can imagine how that might feel. It's a moment borne of the marriage between Art and Commerce. It's cold water in the face of Aldrich, delivered by Warner. It's something every professional fears. And it's an outstanding scene between two great actors.

Friday, March 24, 2017

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

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 movies, visit the home site.

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
TCM viewing

I never had any prior interest in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? I've written about Bette Davis and Joan Crawford here before. I probably will again. For years, though, this particular film has had... a reputation. The impression I had was that it was made long after their glory days and it wasn't very good.

Also, I'll admit it: I wasn't comfortable with the way it has been embraced by the gay community. I've discussed how I worked with an older gay man during my years in video retail. I learned a great deal about movies from him. I also discovered a few tidbits about gay culture. I think some things about it, though, such as their connection to movies like Baby Jane, will remain forever misunderstood by me, and I think that was what kept me from watching this movie for so long. 

In my mind, it can't be just another classic film because it's so closely identified with gay camp. It's as if it's "their" movie now. To watch it would be like encroaching on their territory... and it might say something about me also. So there you have it: my own personal bit of prejudice. I'm not proud of it, but it exists.

It's perhaps no surprise, then, that it took an external force to get me to overcome my bias. I knew, from the moment I saw the ads for the FX mini-series Feud: Bette and Joan, that I'd have to write about it for the blog. In addition to my general interest in seeing two modern acting powerhouses, Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon, playing two classic ones, it would also let me do something new: write about a current TV show as it airs, week by week. After the first episode, though, it became clear that while I could watch Feud without having seen Baby Jane, I'd appreciate the former more if I did.

The movie is not that great, but it's not as terrible as I had thought it would be, either. It's basically a Sunset Boulevard ripoff: two has-beens, a former child star from vaudeville and her crippled sister, a former film star, grapple for possession of the house that has been their de facto prison for years. When one sees the opportunity for a comeback in showbiz, the decades of spite and jealousy between the two are exacerbated.

I liked that director Robert Aldrich used footage from actual Davis & Crawford movies to show Baby Jane & Blanche's Hollywood careers. Billy Wilder did the same thing with Gloria Swanson in Sunset, though, so it's not like this was a new trick. Still, I didn't expect to see that.

I also liked seeing the difference television made during this time period, the early 60s. One character says how happy she was to see Blanche's movies on TV again. I believe her words were, "It was like seeing an old friend again." TV has become so integral to everyday life today that we easily forget what it was like when it was new; what it did for the careers of many actors and films who might have otherwise gone forgotten - much the same way Turner Classic Movies does for a new generation of film fans.

An able-bodied person keeping a wheelchair-bound person prisoner is obviously something I've seen in Misery, which came decades after Baby Jane. However, I can appreciate how this angle must have seemed fresh in 1962. Crawford gets to do physical things without the use of her legs, which must have been quite a challenge at her age (she would have been 56 when she made the movie).

Feud has made me aware of how much she needed to make Baby Jane, for personal and professional reasons, to the point where she was willing to bury the hatchet, however temporarily, with her great rival Davis. I recalled the moments in Feud where we see Crawford undermining Davis' performance, like wearing 10-pound weights on her waist when Davis has to carry her, or padding her bra so she'll get more attention. Even if stuff like this is exaggeration, one gets the feeling it should have happened.

As for Davis, again, Feud showed how wearing that gaudy makeup was a conscious choice on her part, an acting decision that was meant to inform the Baby Jane character. You have to admire the guts of someone like Davis to just go for broke, unafraid of how she'll look, in the name of art. Baby Jane is a pathetic character, yet tragic as well. Her look emphasizes that, even in black and white.

All that said, this movie still feels very derivative of Sunset: the reclusive movie star forgotten by modern audiences, the attempt at a comeback through collaboration with a young man, murder and madness. Even the ending, where Baby Jane goes completely over the edge, feels like a carbon copy of Sunset's famous final frames. Davis & Crawford have their moments, but I would have preferred their one team-up to have been for something a little less over-the-top. Would it have been as memorable, though? We'll never know. (Kudos also to Maidie Norman as the maid. She got a fair amount of screen time with both principals.)

Still, I'm glad I finally saw it, as a means to overcome my prejudice, if nothing else.

Feud: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

Previous Blind Spot films:
Gone With the Wind
Charlie Chan in Paris
Lawrence of Arabia