Monday, June 29, 2015

New release roundup for June '15

Love and Mercy. I knew that Beach Boys frontman Brian Wilson had issues, but I never knew the full extent of them until watching this fine biopic chronicling two crucial periods of his life: as a younger man, putting together the seminal album Pet Sounds, and as an older man, fighting mental illness. John Cusack and Paul Dano both play Wilson, and both are quite good. One unusual aspect of this movie is the use of sound: in addition to all the great Beach Boys music, Wilson claims to hear voices in his head, and the film's aural mix combines both dialogue and music into a trippy swirl at different intervals, including the beginning. There's also a slow 360-degree pan of a studio where the rehearsed music comes at you from various angles. Be sure to see this in a theater with an excellent sound system.

Inside Out. I once wrote an autobiographical comic strip years ago that was not unlike this premise - individual aspects of a human personality bickering - only the approach was completely different, as was the story. I seriously doubt I have a case for a suit, and in any event, Pixar has done it a million times better. Actually, this reminded me a whole lot more of the original Toy Story - fantastic beings in service to a human child led by a gung-ho, can-do hero archetype who gets separated from the group with his counterpart. Lots more action and suspense here than I would've expected from a story that suggests something more cerebral and dramatic. And as for the short film "Lava" that preceded it, if Disney is smart, they'll mount an Oscar campaign for that song.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Double Indemnity in one scene

The "...And Scene!" Blogathon involves close analysis of a single scene from an Old Hollywood film, hosted by Sister Celluloid. For a complete list of participating blogs, visit the link at the site.

I've talked about Double Indemnity before, and I think we all agree that it's a terrific movie. (Did you know that it was inspired by a real-life murder that took place here in Queens?) For this blogathon, we're gonna try something different, namely, taking a closer look at one scene in that movie. The scene I've chosen is a pretty important one; it features all three principal actors, albeit in an indirect way for one; and it's a crucial turning point in the story. First, the basic facts:

Double Indemnity (1944)
directed by Billy Wilder
cinematography by John Seitz
editorial supervision by Doane Harrison

For those of you haven't seen the movie (and seriously, if you haven't seen this, don't wait one day more), a quick summary of prior events: insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) falls hard for desperate housewife Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), and together, they plot to murder her husband by secretly getting him to sign an insurance policy in which they'll collect big time on the dough, and them bumping him off as he's about to go on a train trip. The plan seems to work at first. The head man at the insurance company initially believes the husband committed suicide, but Walter's immediate supervisor, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), definitively rules that out as a possibility. That night, Phyllis calls Neff, wanting to come up to his apartment, but before she arrives, Keyes shows up unexpectedly. And that's where we stand as the following scene takes place...

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Edith Head

Okay, so was that character in The Incredibles actually based on Edith Head or not? According to the Pixar Wiki, Incredibles director Brad Bird denied it on Twitter. Whether or not you believe him is another story, although why would he lie about it? I don't know. (The Wiki cites several other possible inspirations for the character.)

In the coming-up-on-five years I've written this blog, I've rarely, if ever, talked about fashion in movies, so what better way to do so than to talk about the industry's most iconic fashion designer, winner of eight Academy Awards and the woman responsible for making some of the most beautiful men and women in Hollywood even more so?

When it comes to a fabulous dress in a movie, I mean one that will be remembered in fifty years or more, my experience is that most of the time, you just know it when you see it: that big poofy number Deborah Kerr wore when she danced with Yul Brynner in The King and I. Those slinky, matching red outfits Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell wore in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Rita Hayworth's strapless body-hugger in Gilda. One could argue that it's not so much the dress as it is the woman who wears it, but I say it's a little bit of both. As for the fellas, I'll be honest, the only time I really notice what a dude's wearing in a movie is in a period piece - or maybe a genre movie! Hollywood has always been about selling glamour, and clothes were a major part of that.

Head achieved the fame she did as a costume designer despite having lied about her abilities. She learned art primarily through night school classes and claimed someone else's sketches for her own when she applied for a costume sketch artist job at Paramount in 1924. It worked, though, and by 1938 she was top dog at the studio's costume department, the first woman to hold such a position at a major studio. While she was occasionally loaned out to other studios, Paramount was her home for over forty years.

So what made her so in-demand? Let's look at five examples of her work (click on the names to see the costumes):

Note the sketch for Bette Davis'
All About Eve dress on the right.
- Ginger Rogers in Lady in the Dark. This eye-catching red sequin and mink number is the highlight of Head's work in this Technicolor musical based on a Broadway show. Head worked on this movie's costumes with art director Raoul Pene du Bois and ballet designer Barbara Karinska, as well as director Mitchell Leisen. There's a back and forth between the real world Rogers' character inhabits and her dream world, which explains the over-the-top context. Leisen claimed credit for designing this particular dress, but Rogers insisted it was Head. Regardless, Paramount's publicity campaign relied heavily on the dresses, especially this one.

- Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday. Wardrobe was also a key factor in Audrey's Oscar-winning breakthrough role, both as a princess and as a regular woman. Here's Head on the TV show You Asked For It talking about her experience with Hepburn on that movie:

- Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief. And speaking of princesses... There's no shortage of fabulous outfits that Kelly wore in this one, but I've chosen to highlight the blue gown she wears when she meets Cary Grant for the first time. (Grant chose his own outfits.) I like the way that sheer sash-type thing covers one side of her upper body. 

The movie was released in 1955, but it's set less than a decade earlier, and Kelly's blue dress was inspired by Christian Dior, whose post-war "New Look" was a game-changer in women's fashions. Head enjoyed her time with Kelly to the point where she called Kelly her favorite actress to work with. Head worked with director Alfred Hitchcock on a number of other films, including Rear Window, The Man Who Knew Too Much and Vertigo.

- Wayne & Stewart in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Head was no stranger to Westerns (Shane, Hatari! and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, among many others), and in this one, while fashion isn't necessarily a highlight, John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart both come across looking quite well. Duke's cowboy gear is pretty spiffy, what with this bib shirt and neckerchief, and he gets to dress up formally too. Jimbo, meanwhile, gets attired in some crisp and natty suits that are appropriate for his long, tall frame.

- Redford & Newman in The Sting. This film, on the other hand, was all about style, and the outfits for Robert Redford and Paul Newman were the jewel in the crown. Head worked with Peter Saldutti, Andrea Weaver and Vincent Dee, though Head's role was more of a supervisory one. While there's no truth to the story that Redford & Newman both wanted to wear blue shirts to match their eyes, what they do wear - fedoras, pinstripes, suspenders, berets, etc. - help evoke the atmosphere of Depression-era Chicago, and they wear it all very well, during a period in time when they were both immensely popular. Head's Oscar win here was her eighth. She neglected to thank her co-designers, though, and she took out an ad in the Costume Designers Guild newsletter later to rectify that.

As more information is unearthed about the Golden Age of Hollywood, what is fact and what is fiction is becoming better known, and even if the legend of Edith Head may not have been entirely earned, hers is the name people remember.

Next: Joel McCrea

Films credited to Edith Head:
Remember the Night
The Lady Eve
Here Comes Mr. Jordan
Sullivan's Travels
Double Indemnity
Sorry Wrong Number
The Heiress
Sunset Boulevard
A Place in the Sun
Road to Bali

Jack Lemmon
Jean Arthur
Edward G. Robinson
Rita Moreno
Frank Capra
Bernard Herrmann
Joan Blondell
James Dean
Ethel Waters
William Powell
Tod Browning

Monday, June 22, 2015

Stalag 17

The Billy Wilder Blogathon is an event celebrating the life and career of one of Hollywood's greatest writer-directors, hosted by Once Upon a Screen and Outspoken & Freckled. For a complete list of participating bloggers, visit the links at either site.

Stalag 17
YouTube viewing

According to the book Hogan's Heroes: Behind the Scenes at Stalag 13, in 1967, Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski, the playwrights of the original play Stalag 17 (and both former World War 2 prisoners-of-war themselves), filed a lawsuit against Bing Crosby Productions and CBS, claiming that the long-running sitcom was the plagiarized result of the playwrights' pitch for a series of their own, based on their play. While the jury ruled in the playwrights' favor, the judge overruled the decision.

I've always loved Stalag 17 and its sharp mix of both humor and pathos, but I've never seen Hogan's Heroes. I had heard of the show, of course, though a sitcom based inside a WW2 POW camp always struck me as a dubious premise. After re-watching Stalag 17 again earlier this month and doing a little reading about the movie, though, I wondered: was there any merit to Bevan and Trzcinski's case?

I watched a few episodes of Hogan from the first season. The pilot, like Stalag 17, involves flushing out a German double agent from within the barracks, though his identity is no mystery. It's a mildly amusing comic variation on the movie. The approach Colonel Hogan and his unit takes to deal with the spy is completely different, and naturally, being a comedy, it stands in tonal contrast to the film's take on the similar premise. Also, the prisoner characters are nothing like the ones in the film. There's no character similar to William Holden's - the black sheep of the group who's the prime suspect.

It's tempting to chalk it up to coincidence, except the Stalag 17 playwrights did come to CBS with the idea first. Would CBS have come up with the idea on their own? We'll never know for sure. Still, I don't want to turn this into a comparison between Hogan and Stalag 17. While the former isn't as bad as I thought it might be, I'd much rather talk about the latter. 

Holden won the Oscar for his work here, and you all know how great an actor he was, but can I also get some love for Robert Strauss, who was also Oscar-nominated? I didn't know this until I saw the IMDB page for the movie. He played Animal, the lovable goofball slob with the Betty Grable fetish. He was certainly memorable and funny, but he was also paired with Harvey Lembeck, who played Shapiro, the whole time. To me, it seems wrong to favor one over the other because they played off of each other the whole movie, and Lembeck was, in my mind at least, every bit as good as Strauss. (For what it's worth, they were both in the original play.) It's always nice to see a comedic role get recognized by the Academy, but I would've voted for Sig Ruman as Schultz. Great comedic actor; always stood out in a cast.

Director/co-writer Billy Wilder made Stalag 17 after the failure of Ace in the Hole, a film that would not be fully appreciated for many years. This one, however, was a hit. It was made during the period between Wilder's breakup with his first primary writing collaborator, Charles Brackett, and his union with his second major writing partner, I.A.L. Diamond. He adapted this from the play with Edwin Blum, but according to Wilder, Blum brought little to the table, so Wilder never worked with him again. He has said that you can always tell which writers he had the best rapport with, because they were the ones he worked with repeatedly, like Brackett and Diamond. The ones he didn't get along with as well, he never worked with again. Like many of Wilder's films, it's tricky to classify: it's too funny to be a drama and too dramatic to be a comedy... but then, that's part of what made Wilder unique among filmmakers.

Other films by Billy Wilder:
Double Indemnity
Some Like it Hot
A Foreign Affair
One Two Three
Sunset Boulevard

Friday, June 19, 2015

Broken Blossoms

Broken Blossoms, or The Yellow Man and the Girl
YouTube viewing

How do I talk about D.W. Griffith? How do I talk about the guy whose innovative directorial techniques revolutionized film, yet left an indelible stain on that medium with a movie so toxic in its racism? (I don't need to invoke its name, do I? We know which film I'm talking about.) It so happens that 2015 marks the centennial of That Movie, and Time wrote a piece earlier this year to commemorate the occasion.

I have written here before, when talking about other controversial filmmakers like Woody Allen and Mel Gibson, that the work is all that should matter in the end - and indeed, history shows that Griffith was the one who made motion pictures into more than just filmed plays. That cannot and should not be discounted. Still, it's difficult, to say the very least, to draw that line in the sand when it comes to Griffith. Maybe I should just stick to his other movies.

I'm reading a biography of writer/director Ernst Lubitsch (which I'll talk about soon), who had a blossoming career as an actor turned filmmaker in Europe before he came to America. There's a passage where he cited the Griffith film Broken Blossoms as not only one of his favorites, but the film that encouraged him to come to America to continue his career. A cursory look at some of the articles written about it shows that it has stood the test of time and is considered a major masterpiece of the silent era.

Curious, I decided to give it a look. Chinese pacifist dude immigrates to London and befriends poor local girl, who has been abused by her adoptive racist dad. She comes to our hero for shelter when Dad gets too hard to handle, but when Dad finds out who she's been shacking up with, that's when shit gets real.

Okay, first of all: how old, exactly, is Lillian Gish supposed to be? I was under the impression that her character, Lucy, was a teenager, even though Gish would've been 26 when she made this movie (something about silent film actresses - they were all really short!), but Richard Barthelmess' character, Cheng, sure looked like an adult to me (I've already made my feelings about whites playing non-white characters in old movies known; let's not go into that again). My point is that I feel a bit uncomfortable calling this film a romance, not that alleged romance is consummated or anything - they don't even kiss - but it sure comes across as one, cradle-robbing or not.

I know that this movie is a relic from an entirely different time in American history. I know that 1919 audiences saw it completely differently, and that looking at it with 21st-century eyes does it a disservice... but what is the big freakin' deal about this movie? First of all, Griffith making an interracial love story does not let him off the hook for That Movie by any means, especially not when he casts a white guy as an Asian and refers to him in the title cards as "the yellow man." I mean, damn, even Lucy calls him "Chinky" at one point (yes, yes, she's a product of her environment and she can't be expected to change her prejudices overnight and blah blah blah).

Cheng has this weird, languid stare that he makes all throughout the movie that I suppose is meant to make him look like he's deep in thought, but most of the time he just looks like he's stoned - which he actually is in a couple of scenes, after hitting the opium pipe, and I couldn't tell the difference one way or the other! Granted, Lucy is probably the first white woman he's ever seen this close, but does that mean he has to look at her like she just sprouted a second head? It makes the jailbait-y aspect of the story even creepier!

I also understand that Lucy's not gonna have an easy time standing up to her father, a professional boxer, but she is so slight and so passive that having sympathy for her is too easy. She's a Woobie, basically, and from Griffith's point of view, there can't be much of a challenge in writing a story around one.

Give Griffith credit - spoilers for a hundred-year-old movie - for having the guts to actually have Dad kill Lucy and to have Cheng sell out his pacifist principles by killing her dad in revenge (though the irony of that decision isn't dwelt on). But to have Cheng kill himself too? I mean, he doesn't even try to escape from the cops; it's just BAM, my life is no longer worth living without Lucy, goodbye cruel world. He makes such a point in the beginning about wanting to spread his Buddhist teachings to the western world, and yeah, he sees a fair amount of man's inhumanity to man and all that, but Lucy's death doesn't seem like it should be the last straw for him. I would've thought he was stronger than that. 

In the end, what's the point that I'm supposed to be left with? That mean people suck and you can't win against them? I have nothing against downer endings, but I need a little more than this to chew on. And do Griffith's title cards have to tell us everything happening on the screen?

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

A Liebster hat trick

Thank you, Paddy, for this latest incarnation of the beloved and well-traveled Liebster Award (my third), and let me take this moment to say how much you and your blog have meant to me in the almost-five years I've been doing this. I consider you an inspiration as well as a friend, and I'm deeply grateful for all you do, so thanks for just being around.

Okay, enough of that sappy stuff! Let's answer Paddy's questions...

1.  What is your favourite book? I can't pick one. But if I had to pick one, today I'll go with Ball Four by Jim Bouton.

2.  Who is your desert island director? Why? That's easy.

3.  If you had a choice, would you live in the past or the future? Definitely the future, so I can live on the moon and have all the cheese I want.

4.  Who is your favourite performer to lip-sync to? Whichever one whose songs I know all the lyrics to.

5.  Cats, dogs or lizards?

 Does he count as a lizard?

6.  Where do you get the majority of your news? Print? Television? Online? Definitely online.

7.  Which juror are you in 12 Angry Men? Probably the guy who was eager to make it to the ballgame.

8.  Your favourite holiday? Why? New Year's Eve, I guess, because it's an excuse to stay out late and party.

9.  Do you play a musical instrument? Sing? As a matter of fact, I played keyboard in high school. Fancied myself the next Billy Joel, but I only wrote a couple of forgettable songs and did a lot of covers. I leave the singing to my sister.

10. What are the first three films you would induct into your personal Film Registry? You mean my Blue Ribbon films, perhaps? I dunno. Pick three from there.

11.  Boris Karloff or Bela Lugosi?

"We come to him for help, and he tries to shake us down. Besides, he said I looked like Boris Karloff!"

I did this last time, so I'm gonna try it again: here are eleven statements about me. Only three of them are true. Guess all three and win a cookie!

- Back in college, I once dyed my hair blonde after losing a bet. No, you may not see the pictures.
- I jog for about a couple of hours on the weekends. That's about the most I can manage!
- I saw someone get shot in my neighborhood last year.
- I played a chess grandmaster once and almost beat him!
- I can't snap, no matter how hard I try.
- I met Susan Sarandon in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
- I "owned" a car for about two weeks and drove it deep into Nassau County once, even though I don't have a driver's license!
- I've recently started eating french fries with mayo. Better than I thought!
- While living in Columbus, I lectured to a high school art class.
- I recently joined a second writing group, one devoted to genre material.
- My sister is going on an audition for The Voice next month.

Any takers? No one solved the previous one, either...

Monday, June 15, 2015

Cinematic World Tour: Black Orpheus

YouTube viewing

Greetings from Rio! 

I had gotten an invite from my pal Le to a party to celebrate her new book. So my pilot re-fueled the jet, loaded up the bar, and we flew down to her neck of the woods in Brazil!

The party was great! I was really excited to meet Le in person for the first time. But then she told me that Carnaval was about to go down in Rio in a couple of days.* I said, well, hey, as long as I'm already down here - let's go!

Friday, June 12, 2015

Tod Browning

Maybe I should have waited until Halloween to write about Tod Browning. Though I didn't know much about the director prior to writing this post, I associate him with films dealing with the macabre and the weird. He spent most of his career in the silent era, when the medium was still very much in its incubation period, but it's his talkies that he may be best remembered for - in particular, two films that may not be as shocking now as they were in his day, but remain memorable and influential over eighty years later... but we'll get to those in a moment.

The Louisville native spent the early 1910s acting in single-reel nickelodeon comedies under the direction of fellow Louisville native D.W. Griffith, at Biograph in New York, and continued working with Griffith when the director left Biograph and moved to California. (He had a bit part in Intolerance.) Browning tried his hand at writing and directing, alternating back and forth with acting and eventually moving back to New York later in the decade.

Browning made ten films with Lon Chaney Sr. during the silent era. I think it's safe to say that there's never been another actor quite like Chaney, before or since. Long before CGI and sophisticated makeup transformed modern actors like Andy Serkis and Johnny Depp from one bizarre role to another, Chaney was able to do the same thing with an uncannily flexible body and a marvelously expressive face, in conjunction with his own makeup techniques.

Monstergirl at The Last Drive In wrote a long and detailed piece about one of the greatest Browning/Chaney collaborations, The Unknown, from 1927, which also featured a young Joan Crawford. She goes into extensive analysis about the themes of amputation and Freudian sexual anxiety which inform the story, about the bizarre relationship between the daughter of a circus ringmaster and one of the performers, an armless knife thrower who is not what he seems. In her essay, Monstergirl includes this observation about The Unknown and Browning:
...While Freud had his pseudoscience fix for every mental ailment boasted, but discontents but [sic] Tod Browning favored themes of a visceral sexually charged plot surrounding resentment and revenge. He screened [scenes of] overt manipulation of disturbing sexual symbolism in order to shock his audience into consciousness. The threat of castration is a particularly violent notion and [a] repressed emotional impulse. Freud’s Uncanny (which I seem to love films that echo this work), the idea of disembodied limbs, severed heads, hands cut off at the wrists all have something particularly uncanny about them. Especially when they are show [sic] as capable of independent movement. It all springs from the castration complex. [Link added by me.]
Browning (l), with Lon Chaney Sr.
A couple of years ago, I had the great privilege of seeing Dracula with a live score by Philip Glass, and as I mentioned when I wrote about it, seeing this all-time classic on a big screen made me more aware of it as a movie, and I had a greater appreciation for elements of it that I had taken for granted for years, having only seen it before on television.

Browning started production on Dracula after Chaney's death in 1930. Browning had worked with Bela Lugosi on the former's first talkie, The Thirteenth Chair, from 1929. Also, he had made a silent vampire film called London After Midnight, with Chaney. Lugosi had played Dracula on Broadway, to rave reviews, but Browning thought an unknown would be more appropriate for the film version. Lugosi had to lobby for the part and accept a mere $500 a week. 

Browning was distraught over the death of his friend Chaney at the time of production and had turned to drink, and as a result cinematographer Karl Freund became an uncredited co-director, taking over whenever Browning would leave the set. In the end, the film was re-cut by producer Carl Laemmle Sr., to Browning's dismay.

When Browning was sixteen, he literally ran away to join the circus. He had developed a fascination for the circus and its denizens. The Unknown was set in one, as was another Browning/Chaney film, The Unholy Three. Browning also made The Show, set in a sideshow. Nothing, however, prepared audiences for his 1932 circus movie Freaks.

ClassicBecky recently wrote a piece about Freaks, in which she discusses the film's impact and its legacy. Here she talks about Browning's motivation for making it, as well as the film's initial reception:
...In his production, Browning filmed this fictional story of circus freaks using not actors, but real men and women who had been born with deformities and made their living traveling the sideshow circuit. In many ways, the movie was a source of pride for most of its stars. They had lived their lives being stared at and vilified, and made their living in the only way open to them -- as circus attractions. The idea of being wanted for a mainstream Hollywood movie appealed to most of those who appeared in Freaks. Browning himself believed not only in the monetary interests of a shock value movie, but also in spotlighting the fact that these are human beings with the same feelings as anyone else, kindness, love, anger, bitterness and rage. His intentions met with complete failure in 1932. Stories abounded of people fainting and running screaming up the aisles during the first few minutes of the movie. Freaks was considered so disgusting that theatres throughout the country pulled it and refused to show it. It was definitely a box office dud, and only decades later was it met with interest and perceptive observation.
One of the most unique-for-its-time things about Freaks, which I alluded to when I wrote about it, is its depiction of physically deformed individuals forming a community of their own, despite being looked down upon by the rest of society. Circumstances force them to become the unlikely heroes of this story, and though individuals like these seemed repulsive to audiences once, time and society have changed people's attitudes, to the point where a man can change his gender and not only receive public support for it, but make the cover of a major magazine.

In this and other ways, Browning was ahead of his time with his films, and now that he has received the credit due him, more people have come to appreciate him as a director of great vision.

Next: Edith Head

Films directed by Tod Browning:

Jack Lemmon
Jean Arthur
Edward G. Robinson
Rita Moreno
Frank Capra
Bernard Herrmann
Joan Blondell
James Dean
Ethel Waters
William Powell

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Endless Summer

The Beach Party Blogathon is devoted to the grooviest and swingingest beach-related movies around, hosted by Speakeasy and Silver Screenings. For a complete list of participating bloggers, visit the link at Speakeasy.

The Endless Summer
Netflix stream viewing

I've never had any great interest in surfing. When I think of the beach, I'm reminded of my days in summer camp as a child, and we did a whole lot more splashing around and dunking each other than we did surfing. I vaguely recall experimenting with a boogie board once or twice.

I learned the hard way that swimming in a beach is nothing like swimming in a pool, and the difference, obviously, is in the waves. Not that I'm that great a swimmer to begin with, but at least with a pool, the conditions are much more controlled and predictable, and swimming always felt more relaxed and natural there, not like on a beach, where the waves can do anything - and to be honest, I still find the waves to be a little scary sometimes.

I remember being envious of the counselors who would go further out into the waves than we campers. At this one day camp, whenever we'd go to the beach, the counselors would form a "horseshoe" perimeter in the water within which we would have to stay, and the counselor who was the best swimmer (I think it was always the same guy; not sure) would be in the center, the farthest out from the shore. It would be a challenge for us to swim out to him and try to mess with him in some way.

I live near Rockaway Beach, and in recent years I've gone out there in the summer to see the surfers. I wasn't even aware they had a surfing scene. Whenever I used to go out to the Rockaways, I always went to Riis Park, which was much further down the peninsula. (I remember the beach there as always having big waves, in my mind, anyway.) A few years ago, however, I went to Rockaway Beach and was pleasantly surprised to see surfers doing their thing. I don't recall seeing any spectacular moves, but I'm not exactly an expert on the subject. Everything they did looked amazing to me.

Coney Island, by contrast, is a place where I almost never see much in the way of surfers. Every time I go out there, I see way more swimmers, especially kids. Maybe the waves aren't conducive for hanging ten. Maybe it's not allowed down there. Don't know. [UPDATE 6.11.15: A subsequent visit to Coney after writing this, plus confirmation from John, leads me to conclude it's the former.]

It may be that no other film captures the terrifying beauty and exhilaration of surfing better than The Endless Summer, a documentary from 1966 that follows two California surfers as they travel around the world in search of the so-called "perfect wave." Once again, I prevailed upon the Netflix account of my pals John and Sue to watch this one, which is available as a stream. Over burgers and chips, we watched it at their place and got a great kick out of it.

Director, writer, co-producer, cinematographer and editor Bruce Brown follows two surfers, Mike Hynson and Robert August, all over the world and films them taking on the waves in a wide variety of locations, from California to Africa to Australia to New Zealand and Hawaii. A surfer himself, Brown's entire film career has been devoted to the sport, ever since he took 8mm shorts of California surfers while in the Navy in the early 50s. He taught himself how to make movies from a book.

Summer was made on a budget of $50,000 and was turned down by Hollywood. A two-week screening in Wichita, Kansas was a huge success, however, and Brown followed it up with a year-long run in New York, and distributor Monterey Media/Cinema V picked it up. It would gross $5 million domestic and $20 million worldwide.

The cinematography is incredible. We see Mike and Robert hanging ten from multiple angles, and Brown even gets a few subjective shots from a camera strapped to a board while it's in motion in the water! They need to be seen to be believed. John had made the point that while the average person could conceivably take shots like these today thanks to the progression of modern technology, they must have looked strikingly innovative in 1966, a time when Frankie-and-Annette beach party movies were the apex of beach-related cinema, and Jaws was still nine years away. 

Even today, it's thrilling to watch. The skill Mike and Robert, as well as the surfer friends they make during their travels, have in taming the waves is amazing enough, but we also see the majesty and power of the waves themselves. We see lesser surfers getting wiped out, their boards flying in all directions as they escape with their lives. We watch breathlessly as the bigger waves carry the surfers higher and higher up the crest until they tumble over the top, or encircle the surfers within a tunnel of water that quickly closes behind them. It's man versus nature at its most primal.

Summer is not without its flaws. Seeing Mike and Robert, two white guys, coming to African countries like Ghana and Nigeria and teaching the natives how to surf can't help but smack of imperialism to a certain extent, and John, Sue and I were gob-smacked at seeing them in South Africa, apparently completely ignorant of what was going on down there at the time with apartheid and Nelson Mandela. Maybe Americans were too busy fretting about Vietnam to know much about South Africa in 1966 (and indeed, traveling around the world to surf on unfamiliar shores must have seemed like a great away to avoid the draft!), but in hindsight, it's extremely difficult to watch our protagonists interact with white South African surfers who probably benefited directly from the apartheid system, even if they didn't contribute to it, and not think about such things.

It would've been nice to have seen Mike and Robert talk about this, and many other things, but here we come up against my biggest problem with Summer: Brown's narrative, which dominates the entire film. He takes a light-handed, even silly at times, approach to his narration (though it comes across as a bit racially insensitive in some scenes in Africa), but he even puts words in the mouths of Mike and Robert - for humorous purposes, yeah, but it struck me as overkill. Even documentary filmmaker chatterboxes like Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock let their subjects speak for themselves, but not Brown. Also, in some surfing sequences, he really should just shut up and let the power of the waves and the skill of the surfers do the talking.

The soundtrack is put together by a band called The Sandals, and as you would imagine, there's plenty of catchy surf-rock instrumental tunes. The theme song is very mellow, the kinda tune you could imagine listening to as the sun goes down on the horizon after a long day of surfing, and you're lying there on the sand, lounging under an umbrella, maybe with a lemonade in your hand. You can practically hear the waves breaking on the shore. 
The Endless Summer, dated as it may be, will make a surf fan out of you for sure if you're not one already.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Books: Scandalous

The 2015 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.

When the Communist witch hunt of the 1950s drew in Hollywood, battle lines were clearly drawn. Senator Joseph McCarthy stirred up a tremendous amount of fear and paranoia over the alleged threat the Soviet Union and their Communist system of government presented to the American way of life, and within the film industry, even a casual acquaintance with the wrong someone could cost you your career. Still, actors and directors and writers were used to this form of scrutiny, in a way, thanks to the ubiquitous presence of an institution every bit as tenacious as the federal government: the paparazzi.

In this modern information age, we tend to think of TMZ, Perez Hilton, and E! as the ultimate purveyors of celebrity gossip, but in reality they're merely the latest incarnation of a system that goes back much further. Stars in other media are also prone to the unblinking eye of the tabloids, but it may be that movie stars are the most susceptible, due to the glamour and larger-than-life imagery we associate with them - and always have.

The 2004 graphic novel Scandalous, by J. Torres & Scott Chantler, delves deep into the world of Hollywood paparazzi in the time of the Red Scare, the early '50s. A work of fiction inspired by actual people and events, it has a deceptively light touch that hides a darker undercurrent.

The story follows two rival rumor-mongers: one, a former private eye who digs through Hollywood stars' garbage, sometimes literally, for an East Coast tabloid; the other, a thinly-disguised Hedda Hopper type who writes a syndicated column that dishes celebrity dirt through blind items and innuendo, with a special interest in evidence of Communist influence.

For Harry, the ex-dick, he feels unappreciated by his New York boss and wants to write, but he isn't getting the opportunity. For Paige, the columnist, she gets off on the power she has to grind an ax against the power players of the film industry while protecting her friends from potential scandals. The Red Scare changes both of their lives profoundly. Paige is a fervent supporter of the anti-Communism cause, and though her crusade puts her cozy relationship with the studios on shaky ground, she'll stop at nothing to root out the Reds. As for Harry, he sees his friends getting adversely affected by the cause and longs for a measure of control over not only his job, but his life. A decision he makes changes all of that, and puts him on a direct collision course with his more affluent rival.

J. Torres (writer), and Scott Chantler (artist)
Torres' writing uses characterization in subtle ways. A clue planted in one scene will pay off further down the road. A key visual provided by Chantler, dictated through the descriptions in Torres' script, will compliment his dialogue to give you important information about a character, as good comics do. He gives you just enough to indicate who these people are and what they're like - classic movie fans will recognize a number of disguised versions of Old Hollywood stars within Scandalous - and even if the dialogue is a bit corny at times ("You're colder than the meat in my icebox, lady"), given the 50s milieu, it doesn't seem that far out of place.

Chantler's art uses bold lines and judicious gray tones to create rubbery figures that wouldn't seem out of place in an animated cartoon. He nails the double-page spread that opens the book, random shots of Hollywood including the famous sign up in the hills, Grauman's Chinese Theater, the Brown Derby, and Schwab's Pharmacy, a layout that Old Hollywood fans will love, and will eagerly invite them into the story. I would've liked a bit more visual distinction between Paige's world (studio offices, ritzy restaurants, her fabulous mansion) and Harry's world (city streets, seedy bars, his run-down office). Chantler takes the same visual approach in rendering them both. Maybe Harry's world could look more Warner Brothers film noir and Paige's more MGM musical comedy?

There's a lot to like about Scandalous, for both the comics fan and the classic film fan. Well worth a look.

Look for more posts in this series throughout the summer.