This sticker is dangerous and inconvenient but I do love Fig Newtons

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Mr. Wu

part of the Great Movie Watching Challenge
A 1927 silent feature from MGM starring Lon Chaney (in a duel roll!)

He's Grandfather Wu and (grown-up grandson) Mandarin Wu!

Based on a 1914 stage play by Henry Maurice Vernon and Harold Owen, the film centers around Mandarin Wu's daughter, a young Chinese girl who is betrothed to a young Chinese man but who instead falls in love with the handsome American guy she meets one day in her garden.
It's a pretty thin story for the first two-thirds, where we watch Wu's daughter moon over her American boyfriend, and we learn the American boy's father is a stoopid bigot and that they're moving back to America as soon as possible so say goodbye to romance. But the hitch, of course, is that the Chinese girl is pregnant by her American fella, so it's not as simple as saying, "I'll write to you! I'll always remember our interludes in the garden!" No, the daughter pleads with her lover to stay, and he loves her so much, he really wants to, blah blah romancecakes. The story picks up once Mr. Wu suspects his daughter's illicit affair and he begins spying on her.
When he finds out the truth, Wu has no choice but obey ancient Chinese law and kill his own daughter so that honor can be restored to the family. Mr. Wu also sets up a deliciously evil game of death involving the American boyfriend and his family. It's only in this last third of the film that there's any real tension or dramatic stakes. Funny how death and the threat of violence can suddenly make things so much better.
Best shot of the film is when Wu's daughter willingly kneels down in the great hall so that her father can kill her and we watch as Wu slowly draws his sword and raises it above her head, both father and daughter in total anguish over this "tradition" which demands the restoration of honor through death, and then the camera pulls back and a curtain is drawn over the scene before we can witness the actual beheading. Very effective.
Other than Wu's vengeance in the last part of the film, the only thing to recommend it is Chaney's performance and make-up. As the Grandfather Wu, Chaney is utterly unrecognizable. His ability to be so human and rascally underneath such extensive make-up is what makes Lon Chaney a genius, of course. And in his big emotional scenes as Mandarin Wu, Chaney is able to garner sympathy from the audience, even as he prepares to kill his own daughter or when he plays the twisted game of revenge against the Americans. Even in a story as thin as this, Chaney elevates the material by making his characters real. Grandfather Wu is a wisely mischevious old codger, a loving grandfather who wants to bring the teachings of the West to his grandson. As the adult grandson, Chaney plays Wu as a loving husband and father who is nevertheless bound to uphold his Chinese traditions. When he finally goes over the edge into murder and vengeance, it's hard to hate him. There are no hisses for the sadistic villain; instead, your heart breaks as you witness his descent into cruelty all because he is anguished over the loss of the people he loves.
One thing the film never fully addresses (at least not to my satisfaction) is the contradiction between young Wu's education by a Westerner -- something Grandfather Wu wanted for his grandson so that he might engage more fully with the world -- followed by father Wu's strict adherance to the harsh Chinese law of honor that requires he kill his own daughter. We see Mr. Wu entertaining Americans and respecting his teacher, Mr. Muir, but in the end it seems that none of that Westernization had any effect at all on Wu's thinking as he prepares to murder for the sake of the film's idea of Chinese "honor." It would have been nice if the film had addressed this issue a little more and shown how Wu came to finally reject his Westernized education and embrace the ancient Chinese ways. If they had made the story more about Wu's transformation from Westernized Chinese man to old school honor killing father it would have been far more interesting and challenging as a film. Instead, Wu's Westernized upbringing is little more than a plot device that allows the Wu family and the American family to be brought together in a few scenes. It's like the filmmakers recognized that East vs. West was a big motif lingering around the edges of the film but they were never able to actually capitalize on this motif and explore the issue in its fullest. Perhaps I'm just looking for the film to take what is subtextual and make it into actual text, but I think if they had made this angle more explicit it would have made for a more complicated and memorable film.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The bird in the little bird house in my soul failed to soar and I blame America, a.k.a I hate you all

I have a feeling this is going to come spilling out of me in a gush of words like the way I always ramble on when I meet a new person at a social event and they're all like, "Pleasure to make your acquaintance," and instead of just saying, "Why the pleasure's all mine," I'm all like, "My grandmother's dog ate my favorite stuffed animal bunny named Bun-Bun and then ended up choking on the plastic eyeballs and had to be rushed to the pet hospital where Grammie ended up spending the whole evening cradling her poor pup Mojo on the cold, sterile, metallic examining table while the doctors performed emergency doggie Heimlich on the poor thing to save his life. And did I mention this happened on Christmas Eve?" So, yeah.

And if that style of dialogue sounds familiar, then I hereby name you friend. If it doesn't, then I hate you.

Oh well. If I am destined for word vomit, then I heartily accept my destiny. You guessed it: Pushing Daisies. Dead as Ned's mum, thanks to the suits at ABC and the American people's lack of appreciation for the beautiful.

First of all, why can't people be more like me? Why can't they snuggle up to a warm hot cup of comfort TV in a bright yellow screwball comedy Thin Man package? Is that too much to ask?

I get it. I get why it failed. It's weird. It's "quirky" (if I never hear that word again in connection with this show, I will be forever grateful).

[I hate quirky when applied to Pushing Daisies because it immediately reduces the show to a status of "we don't know how to describe this show so as to make you actually want to watch it, so we're just going to throw it into the catch-all category of "quirky" because we're too lazy to do our jobs as critics and journalists and actually confront something that is both refreshingly different and yet strangely familiar -- (it's the mash-up of genres and the throwback to the 1930s quality of the dialogue I'm talkin' about here) and attempt to discuss what the show is about and what it says, possibly, about our culture. I can't tell you how many articles I read about Mad Men when it was in its first season that analyzed the show like crazy, about how it glamorized bad behavior even as it seemed to be criticizing it, how it played into our desires to embrace our un-PC vices, how it was all-style-and-no-substance, or all-character-and-no-plot, or the-next-great-piece-of-American-television-the-heir-to-the-mantle-of-The-Sopranos. As a fan of Mad Men, I loved it. What did we get with Pushing Daisies? "Oh, it's so quirky! And whimsical! Wow, pretty colors! You should watch! (But it's probably too weird for you. Did I mention it's quirky?)" And then that's it. No exploration of the themes, or the rich cinematic heritage the show borrowed from, or what it says about our culture that a show with a certain counter-cultural (counter to the culture of the 1960s that we are still living with, I mean) approach to romance and the romantic comedy (basically, I mean the no-touching or sexual gratification between the male and female leads) actually made it onto the air and found favor with critics. Some might challenge me by saying that the show doesn't invite a critical appraisal because the show was light fluff, a cotton candy truffle that tasted good while eating but either left one in sugar overload afterward or else was immediately forgotten upon finishing. Some might challenge with that argument, but then some might be absolute dunderheads who think the only things in life to be taken seriously are things which take themselves far too seriously. Pushing Daisies is ripe for analysis; if approached in the right manner, it's as meaty as a plate of prime rib on Mad Men. But for some reason, all the critics saw was some damn good pie and then said, "Dessert was nice, but where's my main course?" I'm as guilty as anyone, I admit. Not that more than a handful of people glance at this blog, but I must mea culpa for not at least trying to draw attention to the significance of the show. But well, jeez o'pete, I'm doing it now!]

But what I don't get is why the show was never taken seriously by the critics. Yes, I know they championed it. Yes, I know it was nominated for awards and received tons of kudos. I know it got great reviews and made top ten lists. But when I say "taken seriously" I don't mean four star write-ups in the newspaper, I mean analysis. Would analysis have saved the show? Probably not, at the end of the day. But it would have given it a little bit more of a chance. Why, you ask? Because when critics analyze a show (I'm talking new media, here, like the interwebs and stuff), it generates buzz, and pretty soon there are write-ups in The New York Times and the New Yorker and a segment on NPR and then everybody gets involved, from the conservative journals to the CNN morning show, and pretty soon the show's not just getting nominated for emmys but it's winning 'em too. And then that gets you even more buzz.

Of course, at the end of the day, even a swarm of buzz probably wouldn't have been enough to save Pushing Daisies because it was this strange combination of being totally out of touch with the times and the culture, while at the same time having been produced in and by the very culture that rejected it (shut up! that sentence makes sense in my brain -- What I'm saying is that Pushing Daisies isn't some lost Howard Hawks movie that failed to connect with a modern audience because it was just too old and weird, it was a contemporary show, produced by contemporary people that was a throwback to an older style of storytelling, while at the same time being thoroughly post-modern, so it was something probably only our culture at this moment in time could make and yet it was rejected at this moment in time by the people of our culture).

So, even though critical analysis wouldn't have saved the show, it would've and should've been worth a try. At the very least critical analysis would have helped secure a few more episodes to close out the season and give the story a somewhat satisfying conclusion. (Did I mention that the very last episode ever made of Pushing Daisies is a freaking cliffhanger???!!!! I mean, even Arrested Development and Freaks and Geeks got to end their shows with some measure of completion.) Even more than getting us a few more episodes, though, critical analysis was worthy in and of itself for a show as fascinating and powerful as Pushing Daisies. Yeah, that's right. Powerful.

What? You don't think a screwball comedy can be powerful? Too bad for you. I can't say it's as weighty and "powerful" as The Sorrow and Pity, but Annie Hall is potent stuff. It's funny and sad and poignant and true and yeah, it's not a straight up screwball, but it owes some debt to the great witty romantic comedies of the 1930s. Same thing with When Harry Met Sally. Or, take a trip with me, how about The Philadelphia Story? My Man Godfrey is the silliest darn thing you'll ever meet, but I bet you a dime to a dollar that there's oodles of essays written and being written about that one. Same goes for It Happened One Night and His Girl Friday and The Awful Truth. These movies are powerful. Yes, their themes are different from Citizen Kane's or 2001: A Space Odyssey, but just because the theme might deal with love or romance or social mores doesn't make it less powerful. I guarantee that more people have been affected and moved by the end of Some Like It Hot than have by the end of There Will Be Blood. Maybe they're not crying there eyes out or contemplating the meaning of life, but they are delirious with the joys and comedies and paradoxes of life. And I guarantee you there's some movie critic blogger out there right now working out a rough draft for a Some Like It Hot essay.

So where are the Pushing Daisies essays? Maybe I've missed them. It's entirely possible; the Internet's a big place and even though I try to keep up on stuff like this, I can't read everything. And let me be clear again, I'm not talking about good reviews. I'm talking about analysis. Nerdy essays that agonize over what it means for there to be a romantic comedy on television in 2008 in which the boy can't touch the girl or else she'll die, literally, and what that implies about sexual relations as they've developed in the early 21st century. Essays with titles like: "Is the sexual revolution dead, Or did the Pie Maker touch chastity and bring her back to life?" Like I said, maybe there are essays out there and I missed them. Cool, whatevs. But usually the essays that are out there lead to more essays which lead to more essays which lead to cover stories in the NY Times. Again, think Mad Men.

Of course, essays don't lead to essays unless at least a few people out there are actually watching. And my gut tells me that not only weren't normal Americans watching, but most critics (even ones who praised the show) weren't really watching (or they weren't watching with a analytical eye) either. Could be that the show just wasn't very good, I guess. That I'm in the minority because I like not very good things that just happen to push my aesthetic buttons. I mean, don't I know that The Wire's the best show on TV? Stop messing about with cream pies and cartoonish art direction already. Sure Pushing Daisies is delightfully whimsical (say the stealth haters), but it's just a little "too much," dontcha think? It's clever (say the stealth haters), but it's easily forgotten fluff. I blame the fanboyish nature of nerdy criticism today.

Science fiction-y shows and/or "guys shows" like Sopranos and Entourage get a lot of play on the Internet because they appeal to guys. Girly shows like Grey's Anatomy survive and thrive on TV not because they're being written up by the dorks on their blogs but because they're mainstream chick shows about relationships and feelings, and they're familiar. Familiar shows usually succeed if they're well-written. Weird and envelope-pushing shows need the help of the nerdy analyzers and/or lots 'o buzz. The nerdy analyzers didn't feel like analyzing a sunny, funny, kooky romantic comedy/cartoonish murder mystery show so Pushing Daisies had to survive on the initial buzz of its first wave of newspaper reviews and advertising push. Unfortunately, that lasted for about 60 seconds of frenzied media culture time, and Pushing Daisies dropped dead with the touch of a million couch potatoes' fingers as they switched to something else.

So that's why I blame America. Even if the critics had analyzed the shit outta this show, it still wouldn't have made it. It's not really America's fault, of course, and I'm being kinda cold for hating on people who just want to relax and enjoy themselves after a hard day's work. I can't really relate to people who don't find Pushing Daisies relaxing and enjoyable, so I guess that solves the mystery as to why this show failed to find an audience: Not enough people are weird like me. But then I have to ask myself: Why aren't more people weird like me? I mean, a few million people are, 'cause Pushing Daisies managed to draw 4ish million viewers a week. But why not more? Why can't a show that draws on such classic (popular) fare as Dr. Seuss, The Thin Man movies, 1930s screwball comedy, Broadway musicals, Looney Toons, Charles Dickens, and Tim Burton be more popular? Why are so many people turned off by "cutesy," and "whimsy," and "sweet," and "sentimental"? Of better yet, why are so many people only seeing the cutesy, whimsy, sweet, and sentimental instead of also seeing the black humor and innuendo and morbidity and human pain? I mean, this is a show about a woman who was brought back from the dead by her childhood sweetheart who also, by the way, killed her dad when they were little because he decided to bring his own mom back from the dead and the universe must have balance so it balanced the scales by killing someone else (the dad) and also there's unrequited love, a cynical father who hasn't seen his daughter in years, and two aunts who are in misery because the niece they raised as their daughter was murdered (and she's in misery too, because she's been brought back from the dead but she can never let her aunts know that). (There's plenty more darkness besides, but this is the general idea. Did I mention there's hilariously gruesome murders every week?) And to top it all off, the guy and the gal who are totally in love and want to spend the rest of their lives together can never touch or else the gal will die, forever. That's heartbreaking stuff. That's powerful. But gosh darn it, those characters over there are wearing silly hats, so this show must be candy-colored goof-twaddle!


Pushing Daisies is the closest thing to a great romantic comedy (in the classic sense) that we've had since When Harry Met Sally. The question on every female film critics' mind for the past few years -- Where have all the good Rom Coms gone? -- is answered in Pushing Daisies. They're gone to television. Certainly, Pushing Daisies is not a traditional Rom Com, since it's so utterly fantastical, but despite the mash-up of Comedy, Murder Mystery, and Fantasy, the will-they-or-won't-they (with a twist!) romance between Chuck and Ned, the good-natured pining of lovable Olive Snook, the delicious snark of Emerson Cod, and the general all-around madcapness and wit of the show all add up to the wonderful elements that made classic films by Capra, Hawks, Wilder and co. so enduring.

Or do they endure? I bet if you took the average American television viewer and had her watch Bringing Up Baby or Ball of Fire, she'd say "Corny" (and black and white, ugh!) and pass. But ask the average moviegoer in 1940 to watch 'em and watch out box office returns! Are we just a bunch of mush brained thickheads today? Have we devolved in terms of what entertains and satisfies us? The snob in me says "yes," and I really do try hard to strangle that snob whenever she appears. Truly. I hate snobs because snobs look down on things like The Sound of Music and J.R.R. Tolkien. The Sound of Music is beautiful in its own corny, sentimental way. Tolkien is one of the great writers of the 20th century. Snobs can stuff it.

But when I look at the sad case of Pushing Daisies, my inner snob surfaces. Why don't people love witty, rapid-fire dialogue anymore? Why don't people delight in a romantic comedy with real sexual tension, where the lovers don't actually jump into bed five minutes after they've met each other? Why don't people want to spend time with a happy (and yet sad), sunny (and yet dark), weird (and yet filled with relatable human emotion) television show every week? Why don't more people love Pushing Daisies? WHYYYYYYYY?!!!!!!

Deep down I know the answer. For all of its mainstream cultural borrowings (from Seuss to Lubitsch to Pee Wee Herman), when you put 'em all together it equals Weirdsville and most people just can't hop on that last train. Intellectually, I get it. I get why the show failed to find an audience.

But every week I watch the latest episode (and soon it will be the last), and I just can't seem to get over the fact that Pushing Daisies is a little masterpiece of a show and hardly anybody noticed outside of the critic's desk and us 4.6 million. And it makes me sad that most TV watching people in America weren't able to notice. Like I said, it's not their fault. Our culture isn't there anymore; the place where it would need to be to appreciate a clever and complicated romantic fantasy. Maybe it was never there, even back when Capra was king and zany comedies were filled with double entendres and daffy dames. Like I said, Pushing Daisies is a throwback, but it's also so thoroughly post-modern that it couldn't have been made in any other era. It draws from the past; it's outside of time; and yet it's the product of artists in 2008. Too bad the audience of 2008 didn't understand what all the fuss was about.

And if ABC would just let Bryan Fuller and the cast shoot ONE MORE EPISODE so they could wrap up the show in a somewhat rumply bow of resolution for the story and our characters, instead of leaving us fans with the anguish of a cliffhanger, I would hit the delete button on this post faster than you can say Darling Mermaid Darlings.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

My Dad Is 100 Years Old

part of the Great Movie Watching Challenge

Directed by Guy Maddin of Winnipeg, Manitoba (part of America's Hat, if you were wondering), but more importantly, written by and starring Isabella Rossellini, which means the centenarian "Dad" in this case is Roberto Rossellini, he of Italian Neo-Realism fame. It's a short film that explores Rossellini's "Neo-Realist" philosophy of cinema and compares/contrasts it to the philosophies of Hollywood's Art-for-Entertainment's-sake ethos, Fellini's dream-centered cinema, and even to the great master of silent film himself, the Angelic Tramp, Chaplin. But "My Dad Is 100 Years Old" is also a loving tribute to a father from his daughter. By the end it's hard not to feel one's throat catch in emotional response as daughter tells father just how much she loves and misses him.

Isabella Rossellini shares with her audience deeply personal memories and observations about her father and laments both his death and the seeming death of his ideas about film (i.e.: "Ignorance hasn't been defeated;" today Rossellini's films and philosophy are forgotten). Have Rossellini's ideas been abandoned? Is Isabella Rossellini's film a rebuke to all modern filmmakers, a challenge to return to a cinema that embodies the "need to know," the "quest for knowledge," a cinema of morality and reality that Roberto Rossellini believed in so powerfully?

We learn that Isabella loved her father's large, fat belly, rotund and bulging like a pregnant woman's. She tells how she and her siblings would lay on his large belly in perfect contentment and love, embracing their father as his stomach would rise and fall in the methodical and soothing motions of breathing. We learn that he loved to stay in bed all day and just think and write and work. Isabella compares him to a seahorse because male seahorses are the ones who give birth. She reveals that her father wished he, the man, could have been the one to nurse his children. Father Rossellini, in this case, is a demanding and powerful piece of masculinity, the artist-philosopher, but he's also the soft, spongy, warm and protective belly of happy motherhood. It's quite a contrast to Isabella's mother, who appears later in the film as a projection on the movie screen, an ethereal film goddess, imposing at fifty feet tall, otherworldy, out-of-time and beyond the mere mortal world of fat Italian men's bellies and cigarette ashes next to the typewriter and rumpled bed sheets.

Of course, it's not really Ingrid Bergman in the movie; it's Isabella playing her mother in all her Casablanca-esque glory. In fact, Isabella plays all the characters in the movie (she even does the voice of her father, though he's represented visually in the film by a giant talking fat belly, provided courtesy of Isaac Paz Sr.'s big ol' gut). Isabella is Ingrid Bergman, Alfred Hitchcock, David O. Selznick, Fellini, and even Chaplin. In addition to writing a witty and wonderful script, she's also fabulous as each in this motley crew of cinema greats.

And Maddin's style is all delightful cinema tricks and enchantments. Shot in black and white, he gives us the great characters of cinema's past not as talking heads or members of a roundtable discussion. Instead he gives them to us as we remember, as creatures of the screen. We meet Hitchcock as a silhouette straight out of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents;" Chaplin is as silent as one of his films and speaks only in title cards; and Ingrid Bergman, mega-movie star that she is, appears only on a giant movie screen. For a film about the great Neo-Realist director, Roberto Rossellini, Guy Maddin seems to be copying the carnivalesque spirit of Fellini. It's a fascinating dichotomy.

"My dad was a genius. Maybe."

I wish I knew more about Rossellini's films and his filmmaking philosophy. I know the standard Intro to World Cinema stuff about Italian Neo-Realism, but I've only seen a few clips of "Rome, Open City" and I've never read anything about Rossellini's philosophy specifically. Watching "Dad" has made me want to find out more (luckily, in my collection of movies on DVD, there are a few Rossellinis mixed in, so I should be finding out more about the man and his films in short order).

"My Dad Is 100 Years Old" is fascinating not only because we witness the touching heartbreak of a daughter calling out to her father across time and celluloid. It's fascinating not only because of the paradox between subject matter and style, of Rossellini's realism versus Maddin's madcap fantasy. It's fascinating because Rossellini's belief in the power and responsibility of cinema is a challenge to the viewers as well as the filmmakers of the world. What do we expect from our cinema? What do we demand from our filmmakers? What do filmmakers believe in when they set their camera down and start shooting? Does the filmmaker have a moral responsibility to show life as it is, to educate his audience, to bring knowledge about humanity's struggles to the world? Does a cinema of dreams, or a cinema of fun, or a cinema of pleasure distract from the troubles of the world, from the lives of people struggling to be human, which is, afterall, the proper subject for an art that seeks to be moral? Is there a place in cinema for both entertainment and morality?

Hitchcock gets off the best line in the film: "Morality? Roberto, you should have been a priest."

In the end, we get a glimpse into the mind of both Rossellinis, father and daughter, and we learn that if nothing else, cinema can be an expression of love. The love Isabella Rossellini has for her father is what lingers after the credits have rolled, it's what stays and gives the film its ultimate power, and that is a cinematic philosophy I can believe in.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Self Titled Album

Light and dark. Soul and flesh. Spirit and the world. "Elton John" is an album of dualities. It's part Elton John the soulful bluesman, part Reginald Dwight the English lad. Later, John and lyricist Bernie Taupin will be able to meld these two sides of the coin into a brassy bronze whole, but on this second album, they're still flipping the coin back and forth.

It makes "Elton John" a strange listening experience. Later albums like "Tumbleweed Connection," "Madman Across the Water," and especially "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" and "Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy," are practically concept albums (and "Captain Fantastic" actually is), a sign to today's generation that Elton John was as much a rock artist as other 70s greats like Zeppelin and Bowie. But Elton's reputation among the young and hep has steadily declined since the early 80s, partly owing to the break up with Bernie Taupin (meaning the music's gotten less Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting and more Saturday night's the night for drinking wine and listening to soft rock radio) and partly owing to Elton's continued transformation into the world's slightly daffy and rotund but still fun at parties middle aged gay uncle. A listen to his early and mid 70s output, however, quietly dispells the myth that Elton John's music is fit only for the dentist's office or Princess Di funerals.

Even a messy masterpiece like the self-titled second album shows that Elton and Bernie were caught up in a swirl of rock and blues and sad English strings, teetering between being the soundtrack for a road trip across a sun-soaked and Southern-fried U.S. heartland or the soundtrack for a European art film. Both are compelling musical identities in and of themselves, but when combined together they would become the signature sound that would define the originality and brilliance of the 70s Elton John era.

What makes "Elton John" such a compelling record is that we, the listeners, get to hear the struggle within Elton as he seeks to find his musical identity. The duality of the album tugs at the duality in our own souls, between the soulful uplift of the blues-influenced tunes and the plaintive greyness of the English harpsichord ballads. We hold these identities within ourselves too: the sunshine promise of a new day, the yearning for the sun that comes from Elton's brand of sunny blues, and then it's opposite, the rain-swept overcast that clouds our hearts as we face the heartaches and regrets of life. Only in "Your Song" does Elton harmonize the two natures. "Your Song" is a slight smile and a small sorrow; it's yellow-blue sunlight peaking through the grey clouds; it's an English love song by way of a New York rooftop. A 1970s New York rooftop, naturally.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

How to cure writer's paralysis

First: Go to Trailers From Hell

Next: Listen to some oldies 50s rock 'n' roll, like this

Then: Read some Kerouac poetry:
Pull my daisy
Tip my cup
Cut my thoughts
for coconuts

Jack my Arden
Gate my shades
Silk my garden
Rose my days

Bone my shadow
Dove my dream
Milk my mind &
Make me cream

Hop my heart on
Harp my height
Hip my angel
Hype my light


Pope my parts
Pop my pet
Poke my pap
Pit my plum

And then finally: Rest assured that nothing you write could be worse than what you just read.

Tumblr blog updated

Get back to the stuff that dreams are made of!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Great Movie Watching Challenge!

I have over 500 movies that I burned to DVD or that are recorded on my DVR and I haven't watched most of them. So I've decided to undertake the great task of spending the next year watching all of these movies and writing about them here on the blog. I don't really have any grand reason why I'm doing it, I just figured I should probably watch all these movies since I took the time to record and burn them in the first place. And it might be kinda fun to watch a bunch of random movies that I wouldn't otherwise get around to watching (why I recorded these randoms in the first place is anyone's guess). I also figure that by writing about them and making it a blog thing I won't be as tempted to give up or forget about it. So there 'tis: The Great Movie Watching Challenge to watch all the movies I recorded to DVD or DVR and then write about them on the blog. I'm giving myself 365 days.

Here are some titles in my collection as preview for what is in store:
The Mad Miss Manton
The Cat and the Canary
Mr. Arkadin
Harold and Maude
Escape from East Berlin
I Know Where I'm Going
Sherlock Jr.
Kiss Me Kate
The Incredible Shrinking Man
Spider Baby
La Jetee
Bluebeard's 8th Wife
The Kids Are Alright
Broken Blossoms
No Time for Comedy
The Crimson Kimono

and much, much more!

Friday, October 24, 2008

Those who get it will understand

It's no wonder that Scarlett is my favorite film character:

It is from this I get my strength, the red leaves of Autumn...

And remember, you'll never get away from me:

You're gonna see, you're gonna not at all get away from me. IMing, text messaging. Email, baby.

And I'm still a writer.

Watch out for my rocks, though. I'm gonna need all the help I can get.

Saturday, October 11, 2008


OH my, how flows the brain as it wastes an hour in past shadows! Rome atop a hill or seven, I wonder if there could ever be such an exotic and familiar villa. Roman blood in my veins? At least vulgar Italian blood, blood of pickpockets and Neapolitan thieves.

Better movie than The Godfather? Godfather Part II. I stand by it! "You can never lose your family." Is it a question? "You can never lose your family?" What if you do? Or is it a command: "You can NEVER lose your family" (or else)?

I take the cannoli and leave the gun! I keep my friends at arms length and my enemies in my back pocket! Hyman Roth was behind it all! Or was it Cicero and Brutus in the shrubbery on the Appian Way? I prefer John Milius's Antony to Shakespeare's. I prefer beer to wine. It is very unItalian of me. It is my British nature. My Potawatomi side wants whiskey. I'm not Russian but I like vodka martinis. I loathe rum when it is all alone, but still I dream of piracy. I have my pirate name and it is Mad Jenny Kidd! Arr!

(This was written on a used napkin):
That HBO show, Rome? Fucking awesome. And even better better when drunk. Like a time travel to brilliant. What does that even mean? I dunno. I'm wasted. Don't demand so much.


I just made that up.

There's a giant stack of magazines on my television screen. And Frank Sinatra is next to them. I'm not lying! It's a really big stack. I don't know what it means, but it could either be ominous or exceptional. I vote exceptional. I'm an optimist like that. I hate to think the magazines are coming to destory our world, so I refuse to believe it. Sing me a song Frank! Don't let the world be a dreary place. The shower is for singing! Without a song, I would be buried under the gigantic stack of magazines!

What's your favorite song? That's like asking if I like steak instead of ice cream. I just stole that from The Chairman of the board. So sue me, sue me, what can you do me?

Brahms Piano Concerto no. 2 (Sarah)

Fingertips by They Might Be Giants (Kara?)

I'm not sure what my favorite song is. I'm not sure I have a favorite song. It's probably a Beatles song, if I could think coherently at this point. Lady Madonna. Rain. Total Eclipse of the Heart. No!

Mozart's Alleluia from Exsultate Jubilate (Me)

That's some highbrow shit right there. I'm feeling elite tonight.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Whatever happened to the backyard? (this is weak tea poetry)

Whatever happened to fireflies in my mustard? A picnic elegy.

Whatever happened to The White Album afterschool? A cloudy sundae.

Whatever happened to the Putt-Putt ticket sweepstakes? An orange ball hole-in-one.

Whatever happened to my wooden sword? An empty refrigerator box.

Whatever happened to a ghost-tag flashlight? Eaten by pixie stix.

Whatever happened to a dirt-rubbed ruler? Trapper Keeper.

Whatever happened to Arthur Pendragon's 20-sided dice? Rusted dragon teeth.

Whatever happened to banana slides? An October sunset.

Whatever happened to One-Eyed Willy's restaurant? Buried in my living room couch-fort.

Whatever happened to the candy bookstore? Not till after dinner.

Whatever happened to dog-eared Dragonlance paperbacks? Sitting in a moldy Elven knapsack.

Whatever happened to Mop Tops on cassette tapes? Mom's old station wagon.

Whatever happened to Englishmen in my Muppet forests? Finally on DVD.

Whatever happened to tracing paper airplanes? Eaten by evil cartoons.

Whatever happened to purple clouds in my yesterday? A two month haiku.

Whatever happened to the backyard? Rusted leaves fell. And came back to life.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

I'm voting the BSG ticket this year

Seriously. Is this frakking crazy or what??? Someone who has the time and the brilliance should do an "Election 2008 as Battlestar Galactica" thing. Off the top of my head, I'm thinking Hillary is Admiral Cain. Heh.

Best election ever.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

"The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of" has been reborn!

I really like the tumblr blog thing, so I'm restarting "Stuff..." as a tumblr blog. It's basically just youtube clips of old and foreign movies. That either sounds like paradise or a trip to the dentist, depending on your point of view. Anyway, it's here.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

I really don't have an excuse

for not posting more. Except, to borrow (and slightly alter), a quote from Family Guy: "Olympics must be street for crack."

Monday, August 18, 2008

Writers block means posting something somebody else wrote

from Essentials of Spontaneous Prose:

"LAG IN PROCEDURE No pause to think of proper word but the infantile pileup of scatalogical buildup words till satisfaction is gained, which will turn out to be a great appending rhythm to a thought and be in accordance with Great Law of timing."

courtesy of my teenage idol, Kerouac.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Heartache Plane Ride

I wish I could write about it. But some things are too deep, too fearful, too sublime. If only life were surface, then we could just scrape the memories and the friendships off, we could peel back the tremblings of doubt and hope. How can I write when there are no words for such tremors and ecstasies? I wish I could write but some things are too deep to write. Some things are only meant for feeling.

Maybe we can't stay in L.A. forever...
(this next part was written on the plane)

I don’t know what this is, this plane traveling between two lives. I don’t know where I’m going even though I’m flying at 30,000 feet. Sure, sure Detroit is what it says on the ticket, sure I’m going back home, back to the warm bosom of family and familiar faded faces, places. But where am I really going? Where is my heart pulling me? The city of angels, the darkness drifts in as the sun sets and I can see it out my plane window, the plane going for darkness, the plane going for obscurity, for a small quiet life, nights spent slowly disappearing, in the dark of my Michigan living room, each day like the next just wasting away a little at a time until there’s nothing much left but an old Harrison football t-shirt, smelly and poked with holes, holes where my dreams slowly escaped, they flew, hitchhiked across the country and out to sunrises, but there’s me, flying on a plane back home and watching as the sun sets.

Below, the clouds linger, cottonball blankets, soft-edged mountains poofing their way near the wing, brushing past just to remind us all that Man can only fly if he keeps his head a little in his dreams. I wonder… I’m so giddy -- nervous or insane? -- irrationally charging off into who knows where, looking out into heaven and wondering if that was God speaking to me at mass this morning as the words of Jesus sounded across the stormy sea: “Oh man of little faith, you couldn’t even walk out on the water and come to me! Where is your Trust?” Am I St. Peter, testing the water with a big toe but untrusting, unwilling to take the step and let God lead me across the surface of the deep sea, sinking because of my fear? Won’t I just take that step, that stride, that leap into the deepness of a life on the edge, a life as an artists for God?

It’s too much sadness. It’s too much grey. The clouds are a murky sea now, and I’m waiting to hear the voice of God. Will He be an earthquake, 5.4, me rolling on the sixteenth floor of 5455 Wilshire Blvd? Will He be fire and flame, the light of a candle in the dark as we sit in a West Hollywood paradise? Yeah, sure, only my cousin’s back patio, but like a Buddhist temple, palms overhead and the sound of falling water, us eating pizza, talking about boys and life and fears and secrets, and the candlelight was all we could see, and it was enough, as I saw the faces of endlessly fascinating new friends (Will they stay with me, I wonder? Will we ever sit around the candlelight again?).

Can He really be a Longing, this almost-sickening tug of the heart, a string that’s tying me to that sun-drenched land, where madmen and poets and hucksters make up dreams out of key strokes and celluloid? Where is that call I yearn for? Is it a whisper, like Elijah on the mountain, that whisper I strain to hear but can actually feel like a brick in my stomach, that voice that calls me out to my dreams by somehow ordaining that today’s mass readings -- readings for the last mass I might ever hear in L.A. -- that they're readings about hearing the voice of God and trusting completely in the plan of Jesus, readings about Elijah and the whisper of God and Peter and the sinking into the sea? Is this how God speaks, in ordinary coinicidences and well-timed stories? Can it even be a question, that God would speak to a poor, confused storyteller like me through His holy stories?

The sun’s light is a sliver of pale yellow on the horizon. The land below is all black. I imagine slipping down into my seat, slipping so deep and so long that I slip down into that darkness, swallowed up by the unseen dark desert below. I’m not anxious about it. It seems like it might be peace, if I could just close my eyes and slip into that hole of the unknown and simply trust in the unseen One, me all blindness, God the divine Vision.

Maybe in a couple of weeks, I'll be driving through that desert on my way back to L.A.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The New York in the Movies Blog-a-thon (Updated! 2/24/09)

See below for updates

Welcome to the "Grand Central Station" of the New York in the Movies Blog-a-thon. This is the post that will have links to all the other posts both here at 12 Grand in Checking, and elsewhere around the 'sphere. Things start on June 29th, and they'll continue all week. Look for my Highly Personal Top New York Movie Moments, which will be a continuous series all week, and also my Favorite New Yorkers (a few of them, anyway!), who will be mentioned throughout the week as well. And also a variety of other pieces of interest, if I can -- I'm not quite sure why I decided to do a blog-a-thon the week before I leave for Los Angeles!

Anyhoo... If you have something you want to contribute to the blog-a-thon, drop me an email and I'll link it in the main body of this post, or just put the link in the comment box. And a big Thank You to those who got the word out and linked to this blog-a-thon; those who have written or are planning to write something; and those who have taken the time to stop by and read a few lines.

The New York in the Movies Blog-a-thon (updated 2/24/09):
Noel Vera takes a look at King Kong Old School and King Kong 3.0
Filmbrain says: "New York, I love you, but you're bringing me down"
Self-Styled Siren looks at the New York City of the Mind
My NY, a musing on New York as "the biggest collection of small towns, jammed close togther" and the movies that show us this New York, over at gee bobg
Hercules in New York(!) at Pluck You Too!
Radiator Heaven's look at the comedy Quick Change with Bill Murray, Geena Davis, and Randy Quaid
James Bond's New York City Movie at Ultimate James Bond Fan Blog
The Derelict's Highly Personal Top New York Movie Moments: #1 and #2
The Derelict's Highly Personal Top New York Movie Moments: #3
A few of My Favorite New Yorkers (updated 7/1)
New York Actualities
A Footlight Parade of Gold Diggers on 42nd Street (update coming)
No Time for Comedy (also part of the Great Movie Watching Challenge)

"In the end, the linkage [between New York and the movies] is fundamental. Like New York, film is big. Like New York, it is larger than life. And like New York, it embodies -- even defines -- qualities of romance, glamour, danger, adventure. What New York is, film by its very nature has tended to extend and heighten. If possible, film has transformed New York -- a city that looms so large by almost every measure -- to an even higher plane. It becomes an elemental force, transcending any earthly place: a super city, a mythic city, a dream city."

James Sanders, Celluloid Skyline: New York and the Movies

Monday, July 14, 2008

Do you know who the coolest people in L.A. are?

The people at Act One, of course! I'm in the writing program this summer and I can't believe how utterly, amazingly, fascinatingly cool the people are. The instructors, the people who run things, my fellow students: all awesome. I'm wondering who let the bum (me) in here, frankly, because I don't deserve to be with such talented people. So if I'm not writing a lot for the next few weeks, it's because I'm hanging out with all these awesome Act One people and having the best time of my life.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Woody's New York

"I selectively show my New York through my heart. I'm always known as a New York filmmaker who eschews Hollywood and in fact denigrates it. No one sees that the New York I show is the New York I know only from Hollywood films that I grew up on -- penthouses, white telephones, beautiful streets, waterfronts, going through Central Park on carriage rides. Locals say to me, 'Where is this New York?' Well, this New York exists in Hollywood movies of the 1930s and 1940s. The New York that Hollywood showed the world, which never really existed, is the New York that I show the world because that's the New York I fell in love with. A friend said to me after seeing me walk out of my house in Hannah and Her Sisters -- showing beautiful black-and-white doors over on East Seventy-second Street -- 'Where are these places? I saw New York in your movies with foreigners and fans in Belgium and France and Italy. When I came to New York I wanted to seee the New York I grew up loving in your films. It's more beautiful in them than it is in reality.'

"The fact is, when I first chose to portray New York as a character in a movie in a significant way, in Manhattan, I made the film in black and white because most of those movies I grew up on were in black and white. In those films you would see nightclubs and the kind of streets we'vev been talking about; actors would be walking on Riverside Drive or on Park Avenue, or coming out of their houses with furs on and getting into cabs. And, you know, where Jimmy Stewart goes through the park in that movie [Born to Dance, 1936] singing "Easy to Love" -- the Cole Porter song -- is exactly where I placed the scene with Mariel Hemingway and myself in the horse-drawn cab in Manhattan, because that's where I got it from. I feel I owe nothing to reality in my movies in that sense. That's my vision of the city and I'm creating a work of fiction, and that's what I want to create."

from Conversations with Woody Allen by Eric Lax (p. 266)

Monday, July 7, 2008

Coming into Los Angeles...

So, I didn't really finish everything I had planned for the blog-a-thon. Yeah, I failed. FAIL!

But, I'll be getting around to it eventually. The problem, you see, is that I'm in L.A. right now. And I'll be here for a month. So last week I was preparing for my trip and the whole watching movies and writing inane comments about them thing just wasn't always possible amidst the packing and the whatnot. But now that I'm here and settled in, I'll be able to get back to the blogging.

Even though I'm in Hollywood for the time being, it's still gonna be a New York state-of-mind around here.

Monday, June 30, 2008

My Highly Personal Top New York Movie Moments: #1. Big and #2. Home Alone 2: Lost in New York

Highly Personal Top New York Movie Moments: #1. Big and #2. Home Alone 2: Lost in New York

My idea for the Highly Personal Top New York Movie Moments was to pick certain scenes and/or sequences from various movies that were my favorite movie “moments” of New York (or “New York” as the case may be with some of the older ones). These movies aren’t necessarily my favorite New York movies (though a couple of them are); some of these movies aren’t even particularly good (though I think most of them are). But in each, there’s a particular scene, a particular shot, a certain moment that has infiltrated my imagination and added a piece to that mythic image of New York City that swims around my brain.

So it’s kind of awkward then, that I start my list not with two movie “moments” as I described above, but with two actual, whole movies. The cinema we watch as children has a powerful effect, because it’s often these early films that form and shape not only how we approach the movies, but how we approach the world. The New York of my imagination was created in large part thanks to these formative movies of my youth. I watched Big when I was eight years old; Home Alone 2 when I was eleven. Together, they formed a version of New York City that was part playground, part slum. Playground if you had tons of money in your pocket; scary slum if you had none. Together they showed me that New York was the place where you went when you wanted to be on your own, to be independent and free. You went to New York to grow up; but with a lot of money, the city wasn’t a world of responsibilities and work (I had conveniently forgotten how Josh turns responsible and “grown up,” or how Kevin has to thwart the bumbling crooks again); it was a world of toy stores and junk food and pop machines in your living room and room service in the Plaza. New York in these two movies was only a scary place of hookers and bums when you had no cash.

"It's pretty scary in here too, kid."

With money in New York, even you could have your very own loft apartment filled with toys and a giant trampoline. With credit cards in New York, even you could stay at the Plaza and eat ice cream in bed while watching old black and white movies on tv.

Big is probably the single biggest reason why I’ve been in love with New York since as long as I can remember. I watched it when I was fairly young, and together with the creepiness of the Zoltar machine and the fact that the movie opens with Josh playing a computer game about wizards and dwarfs (I‘m a fantasy nerd), it was pretty much inevitable that I would be caught under the movie’s spell. But once Josh turned big and entered the city, he lived a life that was my dream come true. When you’re eight, the thought of playing with toys all day and getting paid for it, and living in that amazing loft, and being able to eat at fun Italian restaurants, and just basically doing whatever you want -- it’s the perfect life.

Sure, in the end he goes back to Jersey and becomes a kid again; but for me, it was the playground world of New York that was the lasting image. My secret wish is still to go to New York, get a job with MacMillan toys, and spend all my time playing with toys and getting paid. And to have a loft apartment with a pop machine in it.

Home Alone 2 came along later, and so it didn’t create such a lasting, complete image of “fun New York" as Big had done, but it still contributed. The two biggest impressions left by Home Alone 2 were of Central Park and The Plaza Hotel.

In Big, the city was about fun, fun, fun; whereas in Home Alone 2, the city is about luxury, strangeness (but in a good way), living the high life (though Big had its share of the high life, with the limo ride and hanging out the sun roof):

"Your limousine and ice cream, sir."

Home Alone 2 also had the magic of Christmas. It confirmed my own long-held bias that Christmas should be celebrated in a cold climate, preferably with snow, and with big, wonderful Christmas trees everywhere. Along with Miracle on 34th Street, Scrooged, Elf, and countless other films, Home Alone 2 stands in the great tradition of movies that say: New York is the Christmas town. And since Christmas has always been my favorite holiday, this association between holiday and city has only increased my love for New York. When you’re forming an opinion about the world at age eleven, and you see Christmas and New York so inexorably intertwined, you can’t help but fall in love with the city.

Home Alone 2 also helped create in my mind the mystique of Central Park.

I’ve always been fascinated with Central Park. There it is, this gigantic stretch of wilderness right smack dab in the middle of this huge city. The Central Park of Home Alone 2 was at once beautiful and strange; a bit of a fairy land amidst the steel and reality. Having recently been to New York for the first time (right after Christmas!), I can’t tell you how much I longed to see standing before me the surreal image of the pigeon lady. Alas, she is only a part of movie New York. But in those images swimming around my brain, imprinted there by these movies of my childhood, the pigeon lady of Central Park exists. Drifting along the edges of the real park, I catch a glimpse of her even as I stand in the cold, bright sun of a real December day.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

A few of my favorite New Yorkers...

Claire Trevor, born March 8, 1910, in Brooklyn, New York. The "Queen of Film Noir." Born Claire Wemlinger, both of her parents were immigrants. Her father was from Paris and worked as a tailor in his business on 5th Avenue; her mother was from Belfast. She attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and then began a stage career. Her career in films started right in her own backyard at the Warner Bros.-owned Vitaphone Studios in Brooklyn.

By the early thirties she was in Hollywood, and it didn't take long for Warner Bros. to start her in the roles she would make a career of: the floozie, the hooker with a heart of gold, the gangster's moll, the femme fatale. She earned a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her role as a young girl who turns to prostitutuion in 1937's Dead End (dir. William Wyler). She was nominated again in 1949 for John Huston's Key Largo and won. It's still a chilling performance. The scene where Edward G. Robinson's ganster forces her to sing for a drink is almost too painful to watch. Huston knew Trevor wasn't much of a singer and that she was nervous about doing the scene. If I remember the anecdote correctly, she had wanted someone to dub her voice and Huston had at first agreed. But then on the day of shooting he told her no, she'd be singing herself and they wouldn't dub her voice, and this caused Trevor to be so nervous and tense that her performance in the scene was less actual acting and more real terror. But I don't care. Acting or for real, her ability to be so honest and raw in that scene (and really, thoughout the movie) gave us one of the greatest supporting performances ever put to celluloid.

This was her gift. The bad girls, the low-lifes, the women who just couldn't get anywhere in life: no one could give them the humanity and the depth that Claire Trevor could. Even at her most fatale, she could still make you see the good girl underneath, even if that good girl was only a faded imprint on an image of all black.

She was nominated by the Academy again in 1954 for The High and the Mighty. She was also nominated twice for an Emmy, and won the award in 1954 for her role in the television production of Dodsworth.

Her Oscar and Emmy statues now reside at the University of California, Irvine (Go 'Eaters!), Claire Trevor School of the Arts. Having an arts school named after Dallas from Stagecoach? Pretty darn cool. And that's what Claire Trevor, the Queen of Film Noir was: Pretty darn cool.

Barbara Stanwyck, born July 16, 1907, in New York City. Little Ruby Stevens had a pretty tough life growing up in Brooklyn. Only two years old when her mother died, and not much older than that when her father abandoned the family, little Ruby was raised in foster homes and by her older sister. By fifteen she was a Ziegfeld Girl.

Stanwyck wasn't always one of my favorites. In my early days of classic film watching, the only thing I'd seen her in was Sorry, Wrong Number, and while I enjoyed the movie, and her performance, I wasn't exactly compelled to seek her out in anything else. In those early days I was much more into Vivien Leigh and Jean Arthur and Bette Davis. Stanwyck was good, sure, but I couldn't get a read on her film persona; I wasn't quite sure what to expect from her. In those early days, Stanwyck didn't fit into any of my classic film preconceived notions -- she wasn't the unstoppable acting force of a Bette Davis; or the ravishing, wicked beauty of a Vivien Leigh; or a screwball comedian like Jean Arthur; or a singing-dancing-comedian like Ginger Rogers -- so I put her out of my mind. Stanwyck was great, that's what I'd always heard, but I just wasn't interested.

I'm sure it was Gary Cooper who enticed me to watch Ball of Fire a few years ago for the first time, but by the end of it, it was Barbara Stanwyck who had bowled me over. Her Sugarpuss O'Shea, spitting out snappy slang and doing a drum boogie, was clever and funny and sexy and vulnerable and tough, and finally I was interested. It seems cliche to say that Stanwyck combines toughness with vulnerability (isn't that the way we describe all those "strong women" we're supposed to be admiring all the time?), but I can't think of any other way to put it. In her performances she really does seem tough and real, as if she always had to fight for the things in her life (even when she was playing a matriarch or an heiress), and yet there's always a bit of softness, a sadness or a bit of insecurity, that opens up your sympathy for her characters (even Phyllis Dietrichson). And she's smart. Her intelligence and working-class wit are always a delight. She doesn't crack wise with brass like early Ginger Rogers; instead she's a bit subtler and more flirtatious, smart alecking and cutting you down to size, but with a smile that says, "Yeah, you'll do."

I'm still discovering her films, jumping from noir like The Strange Loves of Martha Ivers to early stuff like Gambling Lady, but with each flickering scene I'm finding myself more and more entranced by Barbara Stanwyck. She's one of my favorite New Yorkers.

New York Actualities

Back in the day, New York -- not L.A. -- was America's movie production capital. Way, way back in the day. Like, one hundred years ago back in the day. The boys who worked for Edison and Biograph grabbed their cameras, plunked them down on some interesting street corner, and started filming all the comings and goings of New York City and her people. This mostly had to do with the fact that Thomas Edison worked out of New Jersey and New York, so naturally he took his new movie cameras to the city; it was simply a matter of practical convenience. But New York was also the ideal location because it provided these early filmmakers with dozens of possible subjects to shoot, all available during the sun-filled daylight hours. Because film stock was so slow in these early days, large amounts of light were needed to get a good exposure, and the sun was about the only thing around that could guarantee a good exposure. Not only that, but the streets of New York were brimming with life and wonderment, with crowds and construction projects, with skyscrapers and street urchins, and it was just the kind of stuff the new movie audiences of America wanted to see. These early films were often the first exposure many Americans had to New York City; they were often the only exposure many of these citizens would ever have to America's greatest city. Even today, everyone thinks they know New York, even if they've never been there, simply because they've seen the city in the movies.

These earliest of films -- called actualities -- were two-minute mini-documentaries, cinema verite-style, that simply recorded the city as it was, as things happened. The earliest actualities involved a stationary camera recording such things as Skating on Lake, Central Park; New York City in a Blizzard; Electrocuting an Elephant (at Coney Island) -- the titles explaining exactly what you were about to see, no artistry or narrative or filmic style, just point and shoot and get it all done during daylight hours. As camera technology developed and the camera could be moved, new actualities featured a sweeping, rolling camera that panned and tilted its way over and through the city's great buildings and streets. Finally, when film stocks improved so that high amounts of direct sunlight were not needed to shoot anymore, the actualities could suddenly get down into the depths of the new subway system, or they could travel to Coney Island at Night for Edwin S. Porter's famous film of "Dreamland."

Eventually these actualities gave way to narrative filmmaking, and eventually the movie industry would move across the continent to California, to the studio system and its Hollywood stars; but for the first few years of motion picture production in America, it was New York City and her everyday people who were the stars of the cinema.

At the Foot of the Flatiron:


Sky Scrapers of New York City, from the North River:

Lower Broadway:

Interior, N.Y. Subway, 14th St to 42nd St:

Coney Island at Night (I wish I could find a clip to embed here, but there doesn't seem to be any available. The best I can do is link to a clip from Getty Images)

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Movies recently watched

I still haven't figured out how I want to do these. First there was this crazy ramble where I sound like a freak, then other attempts followed, but I'm still not satisfied. I want a regular thing where I do little capsule reviews, but I want to keep it fresh and un-movie-review-like, if that makes sense. So, once more I reinvent this thing. . .

The Spiral Staircase
Sadly, there aren't any bitchy old women like Ethel Barrymore anymore. This movie is more fun as a comedy than as a thriller, what with Elsa Lancaster hamming it up and Sara Allgood's Nurse playing Felix to Barrymore's Oscar. But those eyes! Those eyes! It's one of my secret phobias, but now everyone will know: I'm terrified of "intense" and/or buggy eyes. Fear:

Johnny O'Clock
Dick Powell: sex on a stick in this one. Oh, why do I love his flat delivery so? It's like he thinks that by delivering his lines in a disinterested monotone the audience will be fooled into thinking he's all tough and shit, and yet, I love it and totally buy him as tough guy! He plays the kind of asshole who gets the chicks because some chicks secretly love an asshole who lives up to the hype. And Powell lives up to the hype with his snappy noirish dialogue (Bad Guy: "You get in my way and I'll kill you;" Johnny O'Clock: "You took the words right out of my mouth"), gun battles and bullet wounds, and the sad, soulful eyes he turns on the hat check girl's sister. And yeah, they totally did it, and it wasn't just the cigarette that told you: She was wearing a completely different outfit when they faded back in after the clinch! Evelyn Keyes, you tramp. Still trying to out-do your sister, Scarlett, eh? Also, could Ellen Drew be any trampier and awesome? No. Someone needed to make a movie all about her character.

The Facts of Life
You take the good, you take the bad, you take it all and there you have a fairly intelligent adult comedy about adultery that did the impossible for me: Made me like the adulterating couple. And it didn't turn the other spouses into jerks in order to do it. And it also didn't make the two cheaters getting together seem like the height of romantic fulfillment. But yet, you still liked seeing these two people being happy together. And then you liked seeing them go back to their respective spouses at the end (spoiler alert!). I'm not sure how the filmmakers did it, but I am sure, in our developmentally arrested times, we'll never see the likes of this movie again. Artistic regression, thy name is Now.

101 Dalmatians
I have seen this one before, so don't think I grew up deprived or anything. But man, seeing it again now as an adult who's obsessed (among other things) with the cool hepness of the 50s and early 60s, this one's out of sight! I could stare at the backgrounds all day long:

Her Highness and the Bellboy
June Allyson has to go. She ruined a perfectly good piece of 1940s cotton candy and turned it into a downer with a stupid fantasy musical number that reminded me of Shirley Temple's fantasy sequence from A Little Princess only bad. Replace cute little Shirley with adult June and yes, it really is that annoying. I'm still not sure what her good qualities were besides being cripple. I know Hedy is in love with that random newspaper guy who shows up for five minutes in the middle of the movie and then disappears until the credits, but who can blame Robert Walker for wanting to trade Allyson's two-packs-a-day smoker's voice for Lamarr's fun little German accent. A more accurate title for this one might be, "Her Annoyingness and the Bellboy and also their Is-he-mentally-challenged? friend who chews a lot of scenery, and oh yeah, also some princess or something, we're not really sure why she's here except as eye candy."

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Quote of the Day

(yeah, I'm still here, just had some computer problems. basically, my whole computer died and I had to get everything reinstalled. fun.)

"In memory, at least life in New York seemed sublime -- the energizing flow of cars and streetcars and people, the chance sidewalk encounters with friends and acquaintances -- especially when compared to the street life of Los Angeles's sunstruck boulevards, where, as one writer put it, it was 'as if everyone had gone indoors and pulled down the shades.' The writers might fondly recall the rush of 42nd Street's pedestrians, or just ordinary stoop life on a typical sidestreet, in the context of the strange, often isolated existence that now engulfed them, their bedroom windows filled with nothing but empty blue sky and a few palm fronds, their days measured by the dozens of miles between appointments and the familiar face of the gas station attendant."

James Sanders, Celluloid Skyline: New York and the Movies (chapter two, "Dreaming the City: New Yorkers in Hollywood")

I'm going to L.A. in two weeks. I wish it were New York instead.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Today was a five movie day

I didn't have to go to work today and I was sick, alright? I'm not totally pathetic. I'd say I'm operating at about 63% patheticness.

The movies?

The Very Thought of You, Delmer Daves 1944 (more on this later, if I'm feeling it)

Turnabout, Hal Roach 1940 (my advise: Don't be fooled by the promise of campy fun. Almost too bizarre, and yet boringly executed, to be either campy or funny. The lame writing doesn't help.)

The Housekeeper's Daughter, Hal Roach 1939 (My new candidate for "mediocre movie that should be remade", only they need to revamp everything but the basic premise of a young woman who flees her life with the mob and comes to live with her housekeeper-to-a-rich-family mother. All thoughts of remaking the Adolphe Menjou/William Gargan barely-funny-comedy-routine should be banished forthwith. Make the movie a romantic drama with some noir elements and you've got a winner.)

The Woman in the Window, Fritz Lang 1944

The Clock, Vincente Minnelli 1945

(Both of these last two are 4 star movies. Window I'd seen before, but it improved so much on second viewing I'm calling it a masterpiece. The Clock was a revelation. I can't explain yet why or how, but it seemed more "modern" -- like a "modern movie" in other words -- than any other 1940s picture I've seen yet.)

Monday, June 2, 2008

I like New York in June. . . (A New York in the movies blog-a-thon, starting June 29th)


How about you?

I'm going to have 12 Grand in Checking's first-ever blog-a-thon later this month, all about my favorite city in the world, New York, and my favorite art form, film. Anyone who reads this blog and wants to contribute is encouraged and very welcome, and even if you don't read this blog, contribute anyway! I'll take anybody. Actually, I'm kinda hoping this thing will boost my traffic, and I'm not ashamed to say so. In fact, I feel very New York-ish for having self-interested motives.

The rules are simple: write about New York and the movies. It can be anything, basically. Films actually shot in New York; films that take place in New York; famous New York filmmakers; famous New York locations; how cinema has affected our perceptions about New York; writers who came from New York to work in Hollywood; movies set in New York but shot in Toronto; actors/producers/composers/etc. who are from New York; other cities vs. New York; the state of things today when it comes to New York and the movies; the state of things in years past when it comes to New York and the movies; movies in or about the different neighborhoods and Burroughs; your most favorite/least favorite New York movie or scene; your impressions of the actual city vs. the Hollywood version of the city; etc. etc. These are just a few topics off the top of my head; I'm sure there's way more out there that could be said and explored. I'm not being picky, so basically anything with even the most tentative relationship to New York and the movies is cool. I'll be writing about my favorite New York moments in the movies; "New York" as a creation of Hollywood; my favorite New Yorkers; Edison's New York; New York musicals; and much more.

The starting date for the blog-a-thon will be Sunday, June 29th, and I'll continue posting stuff until the end of the week, wrapping it all up on Thursday, July 3rd. For anyone who has something to contribute, just send me an email linking to your blog post, or put a link in the comments box on June 29th.

And frankly, since there's only four weeks to get this thing together, I might just take contributions from whenever, even if it's after July 3rd. Heck, I'll probably still be posting my stuff well after the 3rd! So, yeah, New York in the movies blog-a-thon, starts June 29th, goes till whenever.

It's a helluva town, and I hope this'll be a blog-a-thon to match.

On this date in Beatles recording history...

Tuesday 2 June, 1964*

The Beatles continue work on A Hard Day's Night, recording "Any Time at All," "Things We Said Today," and "When I Get Home."

The boys started the day recording "Any Time at All." They ran into a little problem, though, seeing as John hadn't actually finished writing the song. Seven takes later and they still didn't have a song, so it was decided they'd better take a little tea break and let John write the middle eight, which he did, and they finished it all up before the evening was through. Paul's "Things We Said Today" is a moody bit of minor key work, and "When I Get Home" is pure pop; all three songs showing that the Beatles could churn out infectious pop records with ease back in the summer of 1964.

The second engineer during the session was just a 17-year-old kid named Ken Scott (who would later go on to produce stuff from David Bowie and Supertramp). Poor thing was pretty nervous about working with the Beatles and couldn't help making a mistake. The Beatles wanted to hear a playback of the day's recordings for some friends who had come by, but the four-track machines in those days were actually in a hallway outside the control room (because they were too big to fit in the control room itself) and you could only get communication with the control room through a speaker. So when Ken Scott heard George Martin say "home" through the speaker, he thought that meant things were a wrap, so he switched off the power, put his coat on, and headed for the door. A moment later he ran into Martin who had to explain to him that "home" didn't mean quitting time but "Put When I Get Home on the machine." Scott, utterly embarrassed, booked it back to the machine and put the tape on, all the while, in typical seventeen-year-old-trying-to-act-cool style, pretending like the whole thing was no big deal even as he was having an internal freak out.

*My source for all this is a wonderfully wonkish book called "The Beatles Recording Sessions: The Official Abbey Road Studio Session Notes, 1962-1970" by Mark Lewisohn

Most boring leading man ever?

I just discovered Self-Styled Siren also thinks Peter Lawford is boring.


Is it "film noirs" or "films noir"?

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Quote of the Day

"For a lot of younger audiences -- and I've asked my daughters and their friends about this -- black and white represents an unsettling lack, and not just of color. Compared to the pounding sugar shock induced by media aimed at children, old movies can seem disturbingly empty. The pace is unhurried, the action irregular, the dramatic payoff uncertain or, worse, corny and predictable. Kids thrive on knowing the rules and feeling superior to them, and entertainment corporations are slavish about catering to those interests if only to close the sale. One false move and you've lost them, literally so in the home video environment, which is the only place most kids watch old movies and from which their entire shiny lives beckon them to come away if they're bored for a nanosecond."

Ty Burr, The Best Old Movies for Families: A Guide to Watching Together

Sunday, May 18, 2008

I'm an easy mark, I guess, to be so grateful for centaur star-gazing and Dr. Cornelius, and let's not forget the bear who sucked his paws

Prince Caspian is a summer book, a library book meant to be read in the back seat of your mom's station wagon, windows down, wearing shorts, on your way to the pool, or a forest where you'll splash crawfish in the creek and fight knights with wooden swords, homemade. It's a book that's in a pile next to your bed with Song of Roland and The Egypt Game and a picture book of Greek myths. Prince Caspian is another trip to Narnia, this time all sun and sand and full green forests and warriors in armor and broadsword fights. It's another chance to stay in Narnia forever, even if it only lasts a few hundred pages, that forever of sun-gleamed shields and a golden-maned Aslan, and trees -- trees in a glade, trees that dance and arch their branches into a wild forest cathedral, trees that catch the sunlight and the starlight and make that world into a holy place.

It's my summer book, my summer holiday book, just as the Pevensies get set to return to school, they, and I, we all get pinched and pulled away to a war and a wilderness and woods where Aslan waits for us to finally believe and see him. When I read Prince Caspian, I find I never want to leave Narnia. When I read any of the Chronicles, in fact, I find I never want to leave Narnia. Perhaps that's why we're lucky to have seven books, and why Lewis promised that even the end of his books was only the beginning of the story. That is the one great function of fairy stories, to show us the world of Faerie and stir in us a desire to dwell in that place forever. It's the desire for heaven, enchanted with the trappings of fauns and dwarves and broadswords.

For all the wailing of infidelity and smug denunciations that have come out against the Prince Caspian movie, I myself cannot shake the unmistakably familiar feeling I get whenever I watch either of these two latest adaptations: I find I never want to leave Narnia. Whatever its faults as an adaptation of Lewis's work, whatever its thematic poverty (according to the nitpickers, at least), the Narnia movies affect in me that same longing, that same desire I get from reading the books: I want to stay in Narnia forever.

Patronizing as I'm sure it will sound, I actually feel bad for those who reacted to Prince Caspian with disgust. They are so attached to "the word" of Lewis that they end up missing the beauty and power of the images. It was Lewis himself who said he conceived of the Narnia stories as images in his head which he then fashioned stories around. And what are movies if not images come to life, animated with movement and music, and the flesh and breathe and voice of real people inhabiting our favorite characters.

Yes, the movie leaves things out, it even dares to change things. We don't get to see the part where Dr. Cornelius tells Caspian all the tales of Old Narnia -- but what we do get is the round, twinkling face of the old tutor that betrays the perfect hint of his dwarvish mother. What we do get is the thrill and magic of the moment when Caspian stands before the Old Narnians on the Dancing Lawn and pledges to restore Narnia to them.

We don't get the scene where each of the children finally comes to see Aslan as they each in turn come to believe he is there. But instead we get a beautiful scene of a contemplative Peter, sitting at the foot of the broken Stone Table and silently praying before the image of Aslan, a moment of Adoration almost, in which we know from his sad, meditative face that he has finally realized the sin of his unbelief and is begging for Aslan's forgiveness and help. We get the simple profundity of the moment when Edmund, Peter, Caspian, and Susan finally come face to face with the great lion and they fall to their knees in homage and repentance.

I've read criticism from Christians who say Aslan is just a "magic lion" in these movies, that he's really no different than any of the other animals, only kinda, sorta "more powerful." I can't understand such impressions, not when I've seen the golden mane of Aslan in the forest, the trees parting in the glade to reveal him in all his majesty to Lucy as she seeks him with her simple faith. "Just a dream"? To paraphrase Albus Dumbledore, just because it's happening in her head doesn't mean it's not real. I can't understand the idea that Aslan is just a cuddly creature who roars occassionally, not when his roar is so terrifying, so utterly wild and fierce and dangerous, that I wonder for a moment how he might ever speak in Liam Neeson's dulcet tones again.

The Narnia movie nitpickers have, sadly, missed the forest for the dryads in their criticisms of Prince Caspian. Could more of Lewis's themes have remained intact? Certainly. But very, very few adaptations maintain all of a book's themes when going from page to screen, so why scold Caspian so relentlessly? I left the movie wanting to be a better Christian. The film reminded me of a favorite homily topic of one of my favorite priests: In our lives, whose will are we really following, God's or our own? Caspian reawakened in me the awareness that it must always be God's will that I follow, that thinking I can do it alone leads to nothing.

But yes, let's savage the film because the themes weren't subtle enough, because the breadth of Lewis's theological thinking wasn't explored with enough depth. Nevermind that the film stirred my heart (and I'm sure others') toward virtue, or that it filled me with the same longing and joy that I get from reading the books. Nevermind the beautiful and profound images: the catacomb of the Stone Table; Trumpkin kneeling before the roar of Aslan; the four kings and queens standing amongst the ruins of Cair Paravel; the werewolf and the hag tempting Caspian into evil; Aslan breathing on the Telemarines before they go through the door in the air; Peter and Susan walking with Aslan as he tells them they cannot return to Narnia -- that private conversation we never hear, yet we know from their faces the seriousness, the sadness of that conversation, and the spiritual maturity the eldest siblings have achieved to be able to have had such a talk with the lion. Nevermind all that, I guess, since the filmmakers didn't hammer the anti-Enlightenment theme hard enough for the critics. I guess Miraz calling the Narnians a superstition and Cornelius saying he was "forbade to mention the old tales" wasn't enough for them, nor was Trumpkin's calling Aslan "someone who doesn't exist." I find it funny and ironic, as well, that so many critics are decrying the violence in the film, because the exact same criticisms were (and continue to be) lobbed at the books. Many argued that the books glorified violence and were far too violent to be "Christian," and yet Lewis responded that he was no pacifist, and that the books are violent because life is violent and full of evils that need to be fought and we should not shield children from this fact.

For my part, though, the nitpickers can keep picking their nits in resentment while I bask in the grace of the golden CGI lion and pledge my sword to Ben Barnes's Caspian.

Now the weather gets warmer, the trees fill with green, and soon it's summer. The summer story -- Prince Caspian -- waits at the side of my bed to be opened and enjoyed again, to be read underneath a tree or on a playground swing. And now it's also waiting for me in the darkened theater, the film's summer sun pierces light through those shadows and takes me to a place I never want to leave, to Narnia and to Aslan.