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

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"?