Thursday, August 27, 2015

THE GLORIOUS RETURN OF FORBIDDEN GAMES (Rene Clement, 1952)



It’s 1940, and the Nazi invasion of France is fully under way. A mother, father, a five-year-old girl and her tiny dog are among a throng of refugees fleeing Paris and jamming roads across the French countryside while German planes drop bombs and strafe their path with a relentless rain of machine gun fire. Soon the girl will be completely alone, her parents and that beloved dog all cut down in front of her eyes. But before she even has the chance to process what has happened (if she even can—on the most immediate level, she believes they’re only asleep), she’s given a ride by an older couple, one of whom cruelly flings the animal’s corpse, the only thing the girl has been able to save of her now-devastated familiar world, into a creek. The girl, Paulette (Brigitte Fossey), jumps off their wagon, retrieves the dog’s body and is discovered by a young peasant boy, Michel (Georges Poujouly), who brings her to his parents’ farm where she is taken in, cared for, and where in Michel she discovers perhaps the first and only friend she has ever known in her brief life.

The remarkable forthrightness and lack of sentiment that provides the foundation of Rene Clement’s tenderly realized debut feature, the 1952 film Forbidden Games, extends not only to the clear-eyed way in which it represents the horrors visited upon Paulette early on, but also to the friendship that develops between her and Michel. The understanding these two forge will be familiar to anyone who can reach back and remember the natural empathy which can exist between two playmates, even ones with little or no history together. Paulette seeks comfort and reassurance, and Michel, by far the youngest member of the Dolle family, sees someone younger than himself for whom he can be the provider of care, guidance and sympathetic attention, which is itself in short supply from his own mother and father, preoccupied as they are with their family’s survival in the path of the German insurgence.


Paulette has overheard the family discussing the disposal of the bodies of those killed in the ongoing attack, and Michel takes it upon himself to reluctantly, but no less matter-of-factly, explain to a sleepless Paulette that yes, her parents have probably been deposited into a mass grave and covered with dirt, a thought that surprisingly calms her. Now they are safe, she seems to think as she drifts off into a night’s rest. It’s a thought that facilitates the pattern of denial she’s already established, carrying her past the actual confrontation of her parents’ absence and what it really means. In the morning she has retrieved the stiffening corpse of her dog, determined to at least provide the same degree of comfort and safety for him.

With Michel’s help, she buries the dog in the bowels of an abandoned mill, under the watchful eye of an observant owl Michel claims to be at least a hundred years old. But she worries that her dog, without the sort of company her parents can provide each other in death, will be lonely in his grave. So the two friends begin burying all the dead animals they can find—a mole, a cat, a bird—next to the dog, creating a makeshift cemetery in the mill which they lovingly tend and decorate, first with handmade crosses and then with crosses they’ve begun to steal from the burial sites of the local (human) deceased.  

 

Clement’s scenario establishes childish play as an almost reasonable and certainly justified way for these children to reduce the scale of the horror they find their families and themselves mired in. In fact, subtracting that opening sequence, the only engagement Clement orchestrates with the grim aggression of the war itself lies in the occasional thrum of a plane passing overhead and the almost incidental sound of ever-threatening explosions in the distance. The director, working from a screenplay adapted from Francois Boyer’s novel Le Jeux Iconnus by Jean Aurenche, Pierre Bost and Boyer himself, brings the war down to the scale of children, but the film’s point of view regarding it is the furthest thing from childish. It’s a subject that would seem to lend itself to easy sentiment and jerked tears, but Clement, fashioning a sort of poetic realism in the wake of Italian neorealists like Rossellini and De Sica, steers clear of exploiting the grim reality of war just as deftly and confidently as he manages to portray the interior world of these children and their concerns with clarity and empathy, without a tearjerker’s instincts. (Upon the film’s original screenings at Cannes and Venice in 1952, though the film was generally lauded and in fact won the Independent Grand Prix at the Venice Film Festival, the director was also accused by some critics of trivializing the circumstances of war, presumably by showing it primarily through the eyes of children.)


Brigitte Fossey would grow up to be an accomplished actress, appearing in such films as Francois Truffaut’s The Man Who Loved Women (1977), Bertrand Blier’s Going Places (1974) and Robert Altman’s Quintet (1978), among many others, but considering she was a five-year-old appearing in her first film for Clement, the degree to which she’s able to embody Paulette as something other than a child actor craftily manipulated by professionals (which most certainly was the case) approaches the astonishing. Fossey actually won the award for Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival, and those who voted for her weren’t honoring a stunt—Clement uses Fossey’s natural innocence to inform and complement that of Paulette, of course, but Fossey’s performance is, independently, a remarkably expressive one, precocious and wounded at the appropriate turns with little in the way of obvious directorial interference to destroy the illusion of dramatic empathy she manages to create. She and Poujouly, who was only 10 at the time of shooting, pull us into the enveloping fantasy of happiness that Paulette and Michel create together. The buffer from wounding reality those fantasies provide require secrecy because they’re too fragile to survive exposure, and Fossey’s countenance reveals the tender, unformed life that lies in the balance, one watched over by no more benevolent force than that considerate, becalmed owl who gazes down with indifference from the rafters of the mill over the children’s makeshift memorial.

Few films I can recall have had the courage to present the innocence of childhood, and that innocence’s concomitant and inevitable conclusion, in such honest terms—Victor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive (1973), Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies (1988) and Jacques Doillon’s Ponette (1996) come to mind. (In an echo of Forbidden Games’ triumph, Ponette also won awards at the Venice Film Festival for Doillon and for its four-year-old star Victoire Thivisol, who was awarded the same Best Actress prize Fossey had won 44 years earlier, touching off a somewhat heated discussion of just how cognizant Thivisol may or may not have been about the performance for which she had been honored.)

But the heartrending conclusion of Clement’s film may also remind some viewers of another picture from a director who has traditionally been less allergic to sentiment than the Frenchman was in his debut—Steven Spielberg and his underrated 1987 epic Empire of the Sun. The reunion of mother, father and child in Spielberg’s film was remarkable (and remarkably moving) for its refusal to gussy up the moment in cheap uplift—there was a haunted numbness in young Christian Bale’s face which assured us, though he’d been returned to some semblance of the world he remembered, that nothing was or would be the same. Clement’s film reverses the circumstances that conclude Empire of the Sun and leaves us with the image of a child becoming lost, unnoticed in the throng of a bustling Parisian train station, in desperate pursuit of two adults she may see as ghostly embodiments of the parents wrenched from her so early on, one of whom shares a name with the only friend she’s ever had. “Michel! Michel! Michel” she cries, pleading to the man and woman who can’t possibly hear her above the noise of the crowd (and might ignore her if they did). It’s of course also a plea to the memory of her young friend, now also absent from her world, and with it Clement puts the finishing touch on the poetic and supremely empathetic endeavor of thoroughly breaking our hearts.

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Forbidden Games (1952), which won the Independent Grand Prix at the Venice Film Festival and eventually an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, has been playing sporadic theatrical engagements throughout the year, and Rialto Pictures’ new digital restoration of the film will play in Los Angeles at the Nuart Theater for a one-week engagement beginning tomorrow, August 28. Check the Rialto Pictures Web site for more information on other possible upcoming screenings as well as the movie’s future on home video.

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Thursday, August 13, 2015

HONESTLY (NO LIES!)-- 2015 MOVIES (SO FAR!)

So here we are, smack dab in the middle of the dog days of summer (and if you don’t get that little saying, try lying out on the sidewalk in 100-degree heat for 15 minutes or so, like Fido does, and see if a light bulb doesn’t go off). The dogs are often howling in movie theaters too—at times it seems as though August has replaced January in the hearts of moviegoers as the dumping ground for pictures not really worthy of our attention (or a serious investment in the marketing department). Movies like Pixels and Fantastic Four have their perverse fascination—just how bad can they possibly be? Both were greeted with reviews so scathing and unyielding in their acidity that studio heads can only pray nothing in October, November or December will be perceived as worse, and I have to admit a certain curiosity. But that curiosity is fortunately not so strong as to encourage me to pay full admission prices to find out for myself, an act which I fear would only be interpreted by the studios as a vote of confidence that they're just giving the public what it wants. (That’s what Redbox and discount movie houses are for.)

And even that August dumping ground rap seems not particularly applicable when you look at what’s out there this month. F. Gary Gray’s Straight Outta Compton, the docudrama retelling of the origins of the pioneering gangsta rap group N.W.A., and Guy Ritchie’s retooling of The Man from U.N.C.L.E., both of which are getting good-to-very good reviews, make their debuts this weekend, and if we’re smart we’ll get out there and catch Diary of a Teenage Girl, Goodnight Mommy, Phoenix, Best of Enemies, The End of the Tour, The Gift, Tangerine, Listen To Me Marlon, She's Funny That Way, Mateo and The Shaun the Sheep Movie, all either already in theaters or scheduled to appear in August, before they disappear down the swirling drain of audience indifference to make room for Oscar bait season. Los Angeles residents also have a week with the digital restoration of Rene Clement’s 1952 classic Forbidden Games to look forward to before August folds its tent. See? Plenty of reasons to get into a movie theater when it’s hellishly hot and let someone else pay for the air conditioning.


And with pictures like Black Mass, Sicario, Stonewall, The Walk, Steve Jobs, Bridge of Spies, Crimson Peak, Spectre, The Hunger Games: Mockingkjay Part 2,  Snowden, The Hateful Eight and that low-budget space opera everyone seems to be aflutter about just waiting in the wings, it still seems a bit early to pronounce judgment on whether or not 2015 has been a “good” movie year.

But I’ll go ahead and say that it’s certainly had some better-than-good movies in it so far, and, dare I say, some of them might not even be on the wide-ranging radar screens of the box-office or the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. While I have your hearts and minds, let me run down a quick list of the best things I’ve seen in 2015. I’ll keep it to movies that were actually released to theaters or streaming systems in 2015, and not revival stuff or old favorites. And keep in mind that though I see a lot of movies, I’m not privy to advanced screenings or other critic-type privileges, so there’s a lot of stuff I have yet to catch up on myself. (Again, thank you, Redbox, Netflix and the Regency North Hollywood discount house!)

Here then, in ascending order, are 20 titles I've seen so far this year that made experiencing movies seem like a blessing and not just a ticket to get my ears and eyes pulverized.


A Poem is a Naked Person (Les Blank) I’m not sure if the appearance, after 45 years of exile, of Blank’s free-form documentary on Leon Russell (his first feature-length film) amounts to the discovery of a major work, as some have claimed, but it’s certainly a fascinating look at Russell’s creative process and the wild peripheral Southern (and Southern country-rock) culture surrounding it and a must for Blank completists.


Ant-Man (Peyton Reed) A superhero movie that, at its best, seems almost tossed off, loose and light, refreshingly unconcerned with the end of the world. It takes its protagonist’s shrunken perspective to heart and grabs us with a wittily rendered story in which the stakes are apocalyptic only if the thought of being run over by a toy train set gives you nightmares.


Spy (Paul Feig) Probably the year’s best flat-out laugh generator, with Melissa McCarthy getting her mojo back (playing all those different personas in the espionage game is a plus) and Rose Byrne stepping out as a comic actress who can, and does,  go toe-to-toe with her costar in winning the audience over.


Tig (Kristina Goolsby, Ashley York) Comedian Tig Notaro fashioned a life of loss and a diagnosis of cancer into a groundbreaking moment of comedy and a pivotal point for her own life, and this intimate documentary tells her story in a way that is, much like her onstage work, neither maudlin nor deadpan dismissive, but instead inclusive and invigorating. (Available now on Netflix Streaming)


Kingsman: The Secret Service (Matthew Vaughn) This vividly, hilariously violent shagging of the legacy of British stiff-upper-lip espionage (pop culture division) is a riot and a tonic. It’s also a high-water mark for director Vaughn, who made the first Kick-Ass, star Colin Firth, and maybe even for super-creepy-villain Samuel L. Jackson.


The Salt of the Earth (Juliano Ribiero Salgado, Wim Wenders) Beautifully rendered chronicle of photographer Sebastiao Salgado’s 40-year career across the continents. Wenders and his co-director (Salgado’s son) capture with rigor and sensitivity the quality not only of Salgado’s visual intuition and sense of observation but also the humanity that eventually transformed him as an artist.


The Ocean of Helena Lee (Jim Akin) From my review of this gorgeous and ethereal paean to a girl’s summer of discovery: “There’s real tension here between being set loose and aimless in a sun-splashed paradise to contemplate the world, the idle idyll of summer, and the vast indifference with which these days of heaven seem to be enveloped… This is a movie that is, at its heart, very European in its storytelling temperament—that is to say, it rather proudly stands outside the sort of narrative behavior one usually encounters in a movie populated with and made by native Southern Californians.” (The Ocean of Helena Lee is available on Blu-ray and DVD and on iTunes, all through Shootist Films.)


Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (Alex Gibney) A fearless, maddening, illuminating documentary that throws enough light on the inner workings of Scientology, Tom Cruise, John Travolta and the strange biography of its founder, L. Ron Hubbard, to make you shiver in broad daylight.


I’ll See You In My Dreams (Brett Haley) From my review: “(Haley’s) storytelling becomes even more confident as the movie goes along, and he guides us through the sorts of developments and possibly disabling narrative traps that have been mishandled so frequently since the cringe-inducing likes of Terms of Endearment. His touch is confident, so disarmingly light and marked with such ease that by the time (the movie) arrives at its overwhelming and beautifully modulated final shot, the whole thing seems even more like a minor miracle.”


Love and Mercy (Bill Pohlad) This bifurcated look at the life and legacy of Brian Wilson, split between his Pet Sounds years and the devastated path of Wilson’s middle age under the scurrilous influence of Dr. Eugene Landy, looked on paper like a recipe for disaster. But against all odds, Pohlad’s disquieted, elliptical visual style and the miraculous coexistence of Paul Dano and John Cusack’s portrayals of Wilson, which makes sense immediately upon seeing them juxtaposed on screen, coalesce into one of the most original screen biographies ever made.


Tomorrowland (Brad Bird) Here’s a movie that has some deadly serious things to say about our pop culture’s romance/infatuation/obsession with all things dystopian, and does so with Bird’s customary deftness, visual invention and spirit of confrontation. The director’s ability to conjure access to both the grandeur of classic sci-fi and the swift grace and sharp wit of his animated features is at a peak here.


The Wolfpack (Crystal Moselle) The story of the Angulo Brothers, held virtual prisoners in a Lower East Side Manhattan apartment for their entire lives by their alcoholic father, who learned of the outside world only through exposure to violent movies on DVD, is probably the most unlikely of harrowing, inspirational tales you’ll ever see. Moselle’s touch guides the narrative away from exploitation and fully toward illuminated empathy.


Ex Machina (Alex Garland) There will arrive a moment in human history when we’ll find ourselves staring into the eyes of a replicant, unable to scan the difference between man and artificial intelligence. Garland stages that moment, graced by sharp, original work from actors Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson, with a surfeit of cool style, razor-laced comedy and an escalating, eerily apt paranoia regarding the seductive powers of the ghost in the machine.


Wild Tales (Damian Szifron) An electrifying black comedy anthology consisting of six stories constructed around themes of revenge and how that singular emotional impulse can often escalate out of control, far beyond its original intent, or perhaps to its own morbidly logical ends. The movie is tipped in the sort of poison that inspires ferocious, convulsive laughter to accompany the portraits of crumbling societal pretense and bureaucratic black holes in which the characters find themselves ensnared.


Inside Out (Pete Docter) Alongside The Incredibles and the Toy Story trilogy now sits another Pixar masterpiece. It’s a supreme act of narrative empathy, not to even mention the biological and emotional sort that gives the movie its unique heart, built around the psychological development of an 11-year-old girl as seen and felt from the inside. The girl’s individual temperaments are personified by a host of brilliant voiceover talent, of which Amy Poehler (Joy) and Phyllis Smith (Sadness) are standouts among a cast of standouts.


Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller) From my review: "Part of the joy of the movie comes from recognizing the degree to which its chaos is precisely modulated, our eyes being offered exactly what we need to see. Yet the movie never plays like a control freak’s vacuum-packed vision... It’s like an epic summing up of everything that has ever compelled Miller to put images on film. Essentially one long, extended chase, Fury Road is so dynamically, startlingly choreographed that you begin to feel as though Miller himself is possessed by the glorious promise of unchecked propulsion."


An Honest Liar (Tyler Measom, Justin Weinstein) The movie of the year for me so far. It’s an engrossing and moving documentary about the life of magician/skeptic James “The Amazing” Randi, who has dedicated his life (he’s currently 87 years oldan engrossing and moving documentary about the life of magician/skeptic James "The Amazing" Randi, who has dedicated his life to exposing tricksters claiming to possess actual psychic powers. Randi has long held that aside from the credulousness of those rubes who seem so desperate to believe, even the most intelligent person can be fooled, and what turns AN HONEST LIAR from merely interesting to deeply fascinating is seeing just how thoroughly his maxim proves true. an engrossing and moving documentary about the life of magician/skeptic James "The Amazing" Randi, who has dedicated his life to exposing tricksters claiming to possess actual psychic powers. Randi has long held that aside from the credulousness of those rubes who seem so desperate to believe, even the most intelligent person can be fooled, and what turns AN HONEST LIAR from merely interesting to deeply fascinating is seeing just how thoroughly his maxim proves true. an engrossing and moving documentary about the life of magician/skeptic James "The Amazing" Randi, who has dedicated his life to exposing tricksters claiming to possess actual psychic powers. Randi has long held that aside from the credulousness of those rubes who seem so desperate to believe, even the most intelligent person can be fooled, and what turns AN HONEST LIAR from merely interesting to deeply fascinating is seeing just how thoroughly his maxim proves true.) to exposing tricksters claiming to possess actual psychic powers. Randi has long held that, aside from the credulousness of those rubes (like you and me?) who seem so desperate to believe, even the most intelligent person can be fooled. What turns An Honest Liar from merely interesting to deeply fascinating is seeing, courtesy of a truly unexpected development in Randi’s own life, just how thoroughly his maxim proves true. (You can see it now on Netflix Streaming.)

BEST MOVIE EXPERIENCE OF 2015 SO FAR:



The Apu Trilogy (Satyajit Ray), comprised of Pather Panchali (1955), Aparajito (1957) and The World of Apu (1959). The last time I saw these movies was about 35 years ago, on rickety, well-worn 16mm—seeing them again, having grown-up in the manner (if not the circumstances) of Apu in the interim, makes me feel like I was experiencing these luminous treasures for the first time. Ray’s remarkable achievement is in telling the story of Apu, who begins life well after the first film has gotten under way, completely absent any pandering sentiment, through the prism of a world represented for its beauty as well as its unforgiving harshness and indifference, and then expanding the vision of the world’s possibilities so we might understand them in the way Apu does, each tiny revelation absorbed or ignored organically, without the telltale signposts of assigned significance. For every moment of joy along the way, there is also the pain of loss and the struggle of everyday existence, of survival, all of which is rendered with such observational confidence, such almost offhanded grace, that the movies feel more lived in than simply seen.

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Tuesday, August 11, 2015

ON HIS 18th BIRTHDAY



Dear Charlie,

I wish I could say, as many do during the years that pass after a profound loss, that I sense your spirit with me every day, the ethereal sense of you misting my thoughts and influencing my actions. But the truth is, 18 years after what was not your birth, I feel your absence so much more emphatically than I do your presence. And not just in these dark and lonely days of late summer, when it becomes so much more difficult to remember the things worth memory than to forget the shattered remnants of a life that could have been.

One of the questions your mom and I used to wrestle with all those summers ago was, why? Why did we have to go through the months of excitement and anticipation of your arrival, only to have you snatched away from us by some random abruption of biology? And since what happened wasn’t something at all preventable, the only answer I could come up with that made any sense to me at the time was that we lost you because the conditions by which your death occurred were all within the realm of the possible. It happened because it can happen.

In his book Divinity of Doubt: The God Question, which I reread this summer, Vincent Bugliosi, a very smart guy who I wish you could have encountered for yourself, went a step further than my own attempt to calm the waters with reason. “Why do we have to die? Why can’t God let us live forever?” Bugliosi wrote. “Shakespeare said that ‘every person owes God a death.’ But Shakespeare didn’t stop to ask himself why death was a debt we all had to pay. If he had, the answer could not have been a good one.”

These are really good, pertinent questions, and the awareness of their implications raised by this impertinent, audacious writer has stoked my anger, of course, but also offered a strange sort of comfort—I’d much rather believe in random chance, and in a return in death to the sort of endless quiet and emptiness that seems analogous to the state we’re in before we’re born and have become conscious, than in a God who could be so indifferent to suffering, who, as Bugliosi points out, has created death using the ravages and circumstances and horrors of life as an agent for the delivery of oblivion, who is content in his plan to have us all snuffed out, regardless of where we may or may not end up in the afterlife. (“I am the one who kills and gives life.” – Deuteronomy 32:39.)

Bugliosi himself died this past summer, Charlie, so either he now knows the answers to these questions, and the many others he posed in his angry, salient and fascinating book or, as I suspect is probably the case, he no longer has the conscious capacity to care.

As for thoughts of you, I try to keep moving forward— what else is there to do? Yet as more and more years keep being deposited in the gap between that day and this day, the creeping conviction that I’m not really getting anywhere becomes harder and harder to refute, that black hole in my heart where you should be now more difficult than ever to ignore. Perhaps the saddest thing to realize, since we never had the chance to be anything else to each other, is that the pain of losing you has become what you are to me, Charlie. But is that really, given the options, such a bad thing? Maybe it’s time to embrace that pain, to take it with me rather than dread it or try to avoid it, in order that I’ll continue to sense your presence, for as long as I have left here anyway, even though I know you’re not really there.

Sounds like a plan. So then we shall travel together and share company, you and me, Son. And as I dedicate myself anew to remaining present and engaged and a source of love of support for your mother and your sisters, I will also try to remember that the ache in my chest at the thought of you is actually something to treasure, the only thing I have left from a sorrowful summer I wish had turned out much differently than it did, and I will welcome it as I would the snugness of your arms around me, the heat of your cheeks, the sight of the smile on your face. As the man in the white suit once so famously said, “Here’s lookin’ at you, kid.”

And now, where shall we go next?

Love, Daddy.                                                                                          


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Friday, August 07, 2015

THE MURIELS HALL OF FAME CLASS OF 2015: HOWARD HAWKS' HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940)



(The following is my contribution to the Muriels Hall of Fame Class of 2015 essay collection commemorating the 17 films voted in this year by the staff of Muriels writers and voters. For daily updates and all-new writing on the inductees, please visit the the Muriels official Web site, Our Science is Too Tight.)

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God help the poor uninitiated soul who, in turning on Turner Classic Movies and encountering Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday (1940) for the first time, knows not enough about this dizzying reshuffle of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s The Front Page to at least take a few deep breaths before jumping in. It’s hard to imagine a faster, more breathless and whip-quick movie, from any genre, that all at once feels so fleet, dense and confident, without betraying even the slightest whiff of desperation, as this one.

Hawks kicks the movie off with one of the great introductory scenes ever—reporter Hildy Johnson (embodied, the way God surely intended, by Rosalind Russell) swooping through a big-city newsroom, the camera in hot pursuit, acknowledging past colleagues of the reporting life with the breezy assurance of someone who thinks she’s cast off a whole litany of childish and corrupt things in favor of stability and a more conventional life. (One 1.5-second-long exchange has Hildy blithely asking a columnist friend, “How’s ‘Advice for the Lovelorn’?” The columnist’s response: “My cat just had kittens.” Hildy: “It’s her own fault!”)


Of course, Hildy couldn’t be more wrong. She’s on her way toward one final encounter (or so she thinks) with her ex-boss, the charming, abrasive, brilliantly shifty and manipulative newspaper editor Walter Burns (Cary Grant), who never met a story, or an employee, or a local politician he couldn’t bend to suit the paper’s ends. In a fatefully brilliant move, Hawks commissioned ex-newspaperman-turned-screenwriter Charles Lederer to rewrite Hildy, the co-lead character of The Front Page, as a woman after hearing his secretary run some of Johnson’s lines in preparation for a proposed remake. 

But it was Lederer’s inspiration to make Hildy and Walter a recently divorced couple, upping Hecht and MacArthur’s astringent newspaper satire with a jolt of screwball comedy energy, and factoring in Hildy’s hayseed fiancĂ© Bruce Baldwin—you know, looks like the fella in the movies-- what’s his name? Oh, yeah, Ralph Bellamy—as one more toy for Walter, and Lederer, to play with. The script was added to and subtracted from by actors and writers alike throughout the shoot and ultimately fashioned into the basis for what has arguably eclipsed Hecht and MacArthur’s original to become the definitive version of The Front Page, one of the biggest hits of the American stage.

None of it would work nearly as well as it does without the inspiration and thorough commitment of the entire cast, from Bellamy and his exasperated mother, played by Alma Kruger, to the stalwart character actors Clarence Kolb and Gene Lockhart as, respectively, Chicago’s corrupt mayor and sheriff, to the press room overflowing with cynicism and nasty wit provided by the likes of Porter Hall, Ernest Truex, Cliff Edwards, Roscoe Karns and Regis Toomey, to John Qualen as poor, rattled radical Earl Williams, around whose impending execution for murder the entire movie churns and crackles.


Cary Grant’s comic timing and inspiration has never been better, or more the beneficiary of a relentless pace, than it is here. What other actor could possibly even approach Grant having dinner with Bellamy and Russell, enduring her shin kicks under the table, and shooting microsecond-long bursts of perturbed glances back at her, all while patronizing Bellamy as he prattles on about the honor of his chosen profession—the insurance industry? Grant set an impossible standard for every comic leading man as Burns 75 years ago, and even in the modern cinema of information overload his work has yet to be bested.


But the movie belongs to and rests on the padded shoulders of Rosalind Russell’s Hildy Johnson, who manages to stand out in Hawks and Lederer’s conception as a career woman who plays cynical and callous and single-minded as a way of keeping up with the boys, because she has to, of course, but also because she feeds on the energy of a business teetering on its own razor’s edge of morality and excess. (It’s clear she can outwrite them all too.) Hildy isn’t considered a soulless shrew for being tough and smart (think Faye Dunaway’s  Diana Christensen), and she gets points for style—one of the things I used to love about watching His Girl Friday growing up was the havoc that outrageous zigzag pantsuit and hat she wears during the opening sequence would wreak on my TV’s horizontal resolution. This is Russell’s movie; she breathes life and precious fire into it.

And together with Grant and the others, she realizes a seemingly impossible level of locomotion and grace with the movie’s dialogue that becomes its own almost hallucinatory joke— the speed itself can make you laugh hysterically. One can imagine Robert Altman, whose own sense of a bustling, often claustrophobic community of individuals often seemed a naturalistic, loose-limbed extension of Hawks, watching and listening to the rapid-fire, often overlapping delivery of the actors in His Girl Friday, his own facility with how dialogue and information could be delivered taking root.


One great hazard of writing about His Girl Friday is resisting the temptation to devolve into the simple retelling of the movie’s countless dazzling setups and payoff lines (I’ve indulged here just the once), but the jokes are too many and too layered into the material to possibly be perceived in one sitting—no enthusiastic critic could possibly spoil them all. If you see it in a theater (highly recommended, if you can swing it), you’ll have to see it again to catch all you missed because of the laughter of the audience. And each time I’ve seen it, in whatever format, I’ve noticed and been surprised by something new. If you have the sort of retention ability for comedy that I have, which is little to none, then a movie as rich and rewarding as His Girl Friday becomes its own self-sustaining, self-rejuvenating fountain-- American farce pitched with a complete lack of pretense that fulfills the highest standard of the art of the screwball comedy, which can be revisited again and again, playing as hilariously and as exhilaratingly the 15th time as it did the first.

So see His Girl Friday tonight! It’ll knock you on your classified ads! I said ads! (Sorry. I couldn’t resist.)


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THE MURIELS HALL OF FAME CLASS OF 2015



Achtung! The Muriels Hall of Fame inductees, class of 2015, have arrived!

Paul Clark, co-founder of The Muriel Awards, developed this offshoot of the annual awards group (of which I am one of the original members) as a way of acknowledging the cream of international cinema and giving us a shot at writing about some of these great and enduring works. And now, with the voting completed and tabulated, Clark has begun rolling out each of the honored films—each class in the past usually numbered around eight,  but the class of 2015 turned out to be quite a lot larger. 

Clark explains: “When I took a look at this year’s top vote-getters, I noticed that not a single one of them was in a language other than English. Seeing as how the goal of the Muriels HOF (and the Muriels proper, for that matter) has been to cast a wide net… I looked at the next highest vote-getters in the bunch and noticed a number of foreign-language films there.”

Faced with the exclusion of many foreign-language titles, Clark decided to fold that next highest ranked group of films into the other films already chosen, ballooning the number of Muriel Hall of Fame inductees in 2015 to a quite unusual 17.

Which just meant more work for him, as the editor and coordinator of the project, but twice as much fun for faithful readers of the Muriel adventure. And now that fun has begun. Paul began rolling out this year’s honorees, one each day, last Saturday, and the hit parade continues. Here’s what has already been revealed of the Muriels Hall of Fame menu, v. 2015:




Sam Juliano on City Lights (1931)


Craig D. Lindsey on Trouble in Paradise (1932)


Jeff McMahon on Duck Soup (1933)


Donald G. Carder on L'Atalante (1934)


James Frazier on The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)


Coming soon, more updates on the Muriels Hall of Fame class of 2015, including my own MHoF piece— the movie I was assigned is all about ethics, small-town politics, the media, gender reversal and a costume worn by one of the leads that likely sent your own analog TV into a horizontal tizzy when you used to catch it on the late show. Wouldn't you like to know what it is? Stay tuned!

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Friday, July 31, 2015

ON GREEN FOR DANGER, THE THIRD MAN AND THE POTENTIAL FOR CLASSIC MOVIE HERESY



Digging through the shelves last night I put together quite a little program for myself. Since I wasn’t able to see the recent theatrical rerelease, I pulled out my Blu-ray of Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949) and combined it with Sidney Gilliat’s Green for Danger (1946), making for an impromptu Trevor Howard double feature (which wasn't my intention, no disrespect to Howard intended).

If you haven’t seen it, I can’t recommend Green for Danger highly enough. It’s a sly wink in the direction of the conventions of murder mystery fiction, Alastair Sim sending up with gusto the notion of the omniscient investigator who manipulates witnesses and suspects alike and who seems to be entirely on top of the situation, except when he isn’t. To make things even more interesting, the movie is set in a wartime hospital in the English countryside, German V-1 bombs dropping all around while Sim’s Inspector Cockrill tries to figure out why a postman entering the operating theater after being injured by a V-1 ended up dead, which one of the surgical staff (among them, Howard, Leo Genn, Sally Gray, Rosamund John, Judy Campbell and the wonderful Megs Jenkins) did him in, and who is next on the killer’s list. I've seen this over and over again since I discovered it for myself about eight years ago, and even though I know whodunit, the fun of finding out sustains me every time.

Green for Danger went over extremely well as the second feature following The Third Man and its wholly different sort of murder mystery. There’s just no denying how breathtaking and entertaining this movie is, or how thoroughly the presence of Orson Welles affects the film, as Harry Lime of course, who gets perhaps the greatest extended introduction in the history of cinema, but also as a director in his own right. Welles claims he had nothing directly to do with Carol Reed’s conjuring of an eerily seductive nocturnal Vienna through which Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) and Harry’s lover, Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli) pursue the not-quite-believable story of Lime’s accidental death and the vaporous trail of murder and corruption left by his ghost. But certainly the influence of Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, The Stranger and The Lady from Shanghai can be felt through just about every frame of this gorgeous, chilling picture, which only seems to get stronger as both it and Reed’s critical standing seem to recede further into movie history.

(Spoiler alert: This time around I was shocked by how hard I was hit by the fate of poor Sergeant Paine. Paine, played by Bernard Lee, is the underling of Howard's cynical, brusque but patiently efficient Major Calloway, a stand-up fellow and apparently the only one in Vienna with any genuine appreciation for Martins' talent as a writer of pulp westerns. I went to sleep last night wondering why seeing him face down under the streets of Vienna felt like such a punch in the gut.)

My only complaint: I like “Harry Lime’s Theme” as much as the next guy, but at the risk of being labeled a heretic at the altar of classic cinema, I don’t much care for what Anton Karas’ indigenously styled zither score does, or doesn’t do, for The Third Man. I’ve always found it both heavy-handed and dramatically ineffective, and it often seems to exist on an entirely different plane from the action of the images and the story. I think using Karas’ strings was a bold choice and an interesting experiment, but I don’t think it’s much of a success, and it’s a tribute to what Reed and Graham Greene and cinematographer Robert Krasker and film editor Oswald Hafenrichter and the movie’s stars all brought to the table that even over Karas’ incessant strumming the movie works masterfully to hold the audience in its spell. Karas drops out entirely once the movie hits the sewers, and The Third Man becomes even more taut and suspenseful for the music’s absence. It made me wonder what the movie would have been like with no conventional score at all.

Okay, heresy registered. You may now commence telling me how I don’t know my zither from a hole in the ground.

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Thursday, July 30, 2015

MOVIE HISTORY CATALINA ISLAND STYLE



A long time ago, sometime around 1912, a director by the name of D.W. Griffith packed up his filmmaking wares and took his crew, including favored cinematographer Billy Bitzer and star Mae Marsh, across the water to a relatively mysterious island off the Southern California coast to shoot a short film.

The project, Man’s Genesis, subtitled A Psychological Comedy Founded upon the Darwinian Theory of the Evolution of Man (Is that Woody Allen I hear whimpering with envy?), isn’t one for which Griffith is well remembered, in the hearts of either academics or those given to silent-era nostalgia. (One comment on IMDb suggests that no one would ever mistake Griffith’s simple tale of a landmark of human development—man discovers his ability to craft and use tools in order to achieve a specific goal-- for “a serious work of speculative anthropology” and wonders “what the director and his players actually believed they were doing.”) But even if Man’s Genesis comes up short in the science department, and maybe even the cinema department, it is nevertheless notable for being the first Hollywood movie ever shot on the shores of Santa Catalina Island, a location that would become a popular destination for movie companies for the next hundred years or so.

During the silent era other more notable titles were filmed either partially or entirely on the island, including Cecil B. DeMille’s Male and Female (1919) and The Ten Commandments (1923), Fred Niblo’s Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925), Old Ironsides (1926) starring Charles Farrell and Wallace Beery, The Black Pirate (1926) starring Douglas Fairbanks, and the earliest filmed version of Treasure Island (1918).


But perhaps most important to a popular and prevailing legend of the island’s history is the 1925 production of The Vanishing American, based upon a Zane Grey story of the history of Native Americans and their struggle for acceptance after having their land stolen from them by settlers and the United States government. The movie, starring Richard Dix and Noah Beery, is frequently commemorated and mentioned at various historical sites and outposts visible throughout Avalon, the island’s main harbor town, for its unique contribution to the island’s population, that of the 400 or so North American bison that can be found there.

The animals were shipped to the island to provide verisimilitude for the outdoor production and then, once that production wrapped, were left on the island to roam free; this is the official history. But Jeannine Pedersen, curator of the Catalina Island Museum, tells of a curious discovery. She got a look at The Vanishing American recently and wrote that “in watching the film it appears that it was not filmed on Catalina Island,” a revelation that must have come as a bit of a shock. She speculates that perhaps the Catalina Island bison footage was replaced with other footage shot on the mainland, and outside the influence of alien transport this seems the most likely scenario. According to Pedersen the bison have been roaming the hills of Catalina since December 1924, around about the same time The Vanishing American would have been filmed. (It was released in October 1925.)

Many movies, significant and otherwise, were shot on the shores of this lovely island getaway during the last decade of the silent era. But as the talkies approached, there was still no place where one could actually go to see a movie on Catalina Island. Enter chewing gum magnate William Wrigley, who bought controlling interest of the island in 1919. Wrigley, who would also eventually establish a spring training facility for his Chicago Cubs on Catalina Island where the Catalina Country Club is now situated, built a dance hall on a site in Avalon that had been originally cleared for the planned construction of the Hotel St. Catherine. That hotel was eventually realized, but in nearby Descanso Canyon instead, leaving room to build  Wrigley’s Sugarloaf Casino, which served not only as a ballroom and gathering place for island residents and visitors but also as the town’s first high school, until the population outgrew the school’s capacity. And in 1928 the original Sugarloaf Casino itself was razed in order to make room for a newer, bigger, even more spectacular building, one that would fill the need for celluloid dreams on the shores of Avalon.


In May of 1929, under Wrigley’s supervision and direction, the Catalina Casino, designed by architects Sumner Spaulding and Walter Weber, was finished. The first completely circular building of its time, the Casino, at an equivalent height of 12 stories, was and is an Art Deco and Mediterranean Revival masterpiece consisting of three levels—a museum dedicated to the island’s art and history which occupies the lower level, a massive 20,000-square foot ballroom on the upper floor, and on the central, ground-level floor, a beautiful movie theater capable of seating 1,154 people.

The Casino building dominated the landscape of Avalon, easily visible on approach to the island by boat and from just about anywhere else in the downtown Avalon area, and the theater inside it more than lived up to the grandiose expectations the exterior set for it. But the Avalon Theater was not only spacious, ornate and gorgeous to behold, instantly the hot spot on the island for locals and visitors. It was also the very first movie theater ever to be designed with acoustics tailored for the advent of sound motion pictures, and as such was a favorite showcase for filmmakers like DeMille and movie studio bigwigs like Louis B. Mayer and Samuel Goldwyn in which to premiere their new films. There had literally never been anything like it in the history of the movies.


The one thing the Catalina Casino is not and never has been, however, is… a casino, at least as the term is currently understood. The building’s name was given based on the meaning of the word in the original Italian language, which simply connotes “a gathering place,” so it’s unlikely there were ever any visitors decked out in top hats, tails and evening gowns who arrived at its doors in 1929 expecting an evening of gaming and perhaps slightly more decadent, alcoholically enhanced fun.

Not so in 2015, however, at least occasionally. Despite clear declarations in just about any literature you can obtain about the building, either online or on the island, pertaining to its function and purpose, there are still island revelers who sidle up to the dark wood doors of the entryway on a weekend evening, in their beachwear finery of tank tops, sunglasses and flip-flops, and are disappointed when the employee at the entrance informs them that, no, there are no slot machines or black jack tables waiting inside. The look on the faces of the couple who approached the Catalina Casino just ahead of me, my wife and my daughters last Saturday night after being informed of this fact—well, think of a child who’d just been told that there was no Santa Claus, or of a slightly older child who’d just been told that, no, Santa Claus would not be dealing poker for them after all and that they would have to make the half-mile walk back into town to the karaoke bar for any real action.


The Casino building itself stands as majestic and beautiful now as it ever did, perhaps even more so, its cavernous movie auditorium and lush ballroom interiors having been recently restored to their original glories. It’s a place that has always called to me whenever I look at pictures of Avalon Harbor, and it certainly did upon my one previous visit to Catalina Island around 21 years ago. Unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to set foot inside of it during that trip. But when my family and I ventured the short boat ride across the sea to get there last weekend, I was determined to make a movie at the Avalon Theater the crown jewel of our brief visit.

We started our walk from the downtown district Saturday night just a little early, acting on a tip from one of the guides on the zip line adventure I went on earlier in the day (That’s another story!) that on Friday and Saturday nights the movie is preceded by an hour-long concert performed by one of the only musicians, on the island or anywhere, with the ability to play the theater’s massive pipe organ. So we made sure to get there in plenty of time for the musical prelude. Arriving just before 6:30 pm, and after listening to the employee at the door explain the meaning of the word “casino” to the disappointed folks ahead of us, we handed over our tickets and went inside, heads immediately tilting upward to take in the beautiful walnut wood paneling that enriches the ambiance of the theater’s lobby.


But it’s the auditorium itself which is designed, as all great movie palaces are, to take your breath away, and that it did. We entered through the center doors and began the walk toward our seats gazing upward, as everyone surely does, at the beautiful Art Deco murals created by artist John Gabriel Beckman that grace the domed walls, including a figure surfing dual waves (presumably off the Catalina coast) on the stage curtain and a reproduction of Botticelli’s Venus residing on the apex of the proscenium arch just above the screen.

My first thought was that, with its lack of curtained walls or any of the familiar trappings of an acoustically designed space that we’ve become used to seeing in modern theaters, the Avalon may look beautiful, but the sound coming from the movie, much less the organ, is probably going to reverberate like a nightmare in an echo chamber.

Wrong. According to the Santa Catalina Island Conservancy, because the theater was the first to be constructed with an ear toward the oncoming sound era of motion picture production, great care was taken to make sure that not only was the sound optimal inside the huge auditorium, but also that the theater and the ballroom be exceedingly insulated from each other so that moviegoers were not distracted by the sound of the band or the potential 3,000 dancers that could be in the ballroom above.

In fact, the acoustics provided by the circular domed ceiling have been studied by acoustical designers from all over the country because of the high quality transference made possible by the auditorium’s design. The conservancy claims that a speaker on the theater stage can speak in a normal voice without a microphone and can be clearly heard by everyone seated inside, and after experimenting a bit with this before the organ concert began I can attest that it seems to be true. Yet when the performance was under way on stage, any talking by audience members didn’t seem to be loud enough to distract from that performance, unless the rude chattering was taking place directly next to me (which it was, occasionally).  


And speaking of the pre-show entertainment, let’s just say that arriving early was one of the best ideas we had all weekend. The giant Page pipe organ, one of only two currently in operation in the United States, may have seen better days, but it’s still magnificent to behold and even more magnificent to hear, its massive gathering of sound gliding along the curves of the auditorium and enveloping the listener in a way that has effectively been lost to modern moviegoing audiences. The Avalon’s Page has been in operation since the theater opened. Though the theater was designed for the exhibition of sound movies, the era of talkies was yet to get full in swing by May of 1929, so this wondrous instrument was used frequently as accompaniment for the silent pictures that would still play there. 

But Catalina Island historians, and the residents who are still around to remember firsthand, also loved the organ for the special concerts given before the screening of movies, or sometimes in a separate program during those comparatively lazy island afternoons. (These free afternoon concerts were an Avalon Theater tradition that, except for a break during World War II, extended well into the 1950s.) Much care and refurbishment of the organ has taken place in the years since, including a major overhaul done to coincide with the theater’s 50th anniversary in 1979, and it still feels and sounds like an instrument that enjoys the benefits of a lot of TLC, to say nothing of the tender talents of those who play it.


The name of the man at the keys of the Page before the movie last Saturday night was never made available, either in advertising or at the theater that night, and it’s a notch against me for not pursuing the information. But my zip line tour guide assured me earlier in the day that he was the only one on the island with the ability to coax the sort of music out of it that it was meant to create, and when we finally saw him at the bench, his informal, friendly manner did nothing to diminish the grandeur of his playing. Whether cruising through a medley built around “Blue Moon,” summoning the mystery and romance of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Phantom of the Opera” or cranking out a jaunty melody that made me feel like I’d suddenly been transported inside the world’s largest mock-up of the insides of David Lynch’s radiator, the man’s performance was nothing less than mesmerizing.

At one point I made my way up to the front row of seats directly behind so that I could better see how it was than one person could wring so much out of such a complicated construct. I sat and listened there for at least two tunes, when suddenly, in between numbers, he turned to acknowledge the audience’s applause, saw me sitting there and said “Hello.” In breach of all acceptable audience protocol, I jumped up and took advantage of the opportunity to tell him how much I was enjoying the performance. And then I asked him, seemingly out of nowhere, if he’d ever seen the Vincent Price classic The Abominable Dr. Phibes, hurriedly including, lest my inquiry seem dangerously random, that the movie opens with Phibes at another majestic pipe organ, playing an otherworldly and terrifying arrangement of Mendelssohn’s “War March of the Priests,” and that I was hoping, by some happy chance, he knew how to play it. (Yes, I made… a request.)


(Click here to hear Dr. Phibes play Mendelssohn)

To my surprise, his face lit up. “I love that movie!” he replied. “And that music!” For a brief moment I held out hope that I might actually get to hear him peel off Dr. Phibes’ greatest hit in this awesome venue. But it was not meant to be. He said he’d always wanted to learn it but has yet to take the plunge. “But I love that movie!” he offered, before thanking me for my interest and returning to the Page for his grand finale.

After that, it hardly mattered what movie was playing, which was fortunate because the main feature was Terminator: Genisys, a picture my kids had a loudly professed desire not to see. (They might have actually rather have seen D. W. Griffith’s Man’s Genesis instead!) But what could we do? We were on an island, the ultimate captive audience to the only show in town, and we let the high of the Page pipe organ performance carry us through the latest thoroughly unnecessary installment in this apparently unkillable franchise. The movie’s alternate universe/time travel narrative becomes so abstractly convoluted that it loses all urgency, not a good development for an ostensibly high-octane summer blockbuster. But I didn’t much care. I spent much of the movie’s two-hour running time amusing myself by noticing how much the slab of beef cast to replace Michael Biehn as Kyle Reese reminded me of Chico Marx after a summer workout regimen at World’s Gym.

Soon it was over, the world had once again (for the time being) been saved, and by the time we hit the pathway along the harbor on our way back to our hotel I’d almost forgotten the movie entirely. But somewhere I could still hear the distant chimes and mellifluous waves of chords building to monumental crescendos and then subsiding inside my head and I thought, what a wonderful way to end a family vacation on Catalina Island, a place where so much movie history was born and continues to flourish. I looked at my wife and the faces of my kids as they bopped down past the moored boats toward the bustling nightlife of Avalon and I could see that they undoubtedly would have agreed.

And then I remembered, as I would frequently that night before I went to sleep, that tonight I met a master of the Page pipe organ at the Avalon Theater who turned out to be a Dr. Phibes geek. Top that, Walley World.

SOURCES:

Catalina Casino Wikipedia page

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