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

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Big Knife

part of the Great Movie Watching Challenge

From 1955, directed by Robert Aldrich, starring Ida Lupino, Jack Palance, Rod Steiger, Wendell Cory, Jean Hagen, and Shelley Winters. Whew!

The movie's based on the Broadway play by Clifford Odets, and the lead part of Charlie Castle was supposed to be played by John Garfield, who originated the part on the stage, but Garfield died before the play could be adapted to the screen.

Ida Lupino (who plays Charlie Castle's wife in the film) was pretty much miserable during filming because she was reminded too much of her good friend "Johnny" Garfield. But Jack Palance does a fine job in the role Garfield originated, and Ida's performance is filled with heartbreak and passion, so I would say they both did Garfield proud by their work in this film.

The story is about a big-time actor named Charlie Castle (formerly, Cass) who sold out his New York stage roots to find fame and fortune in Hollywood. Now the studio he's been working for wants to sign him to a fourteen year contract (basically, they're gonna own him till he's fifty) and he's got to decide whether he wants an easy living making schlocky pictures in Hollywood or a return to the legitimate theater and the life of a real artist back east.

Lupino is his estranged wife, and she wants her husband to reject the offer and be an artist again. Steiger is the maniacal studio boss who tries to bully Charlie into the contract; Cory is Steiger's sleazy right-hand man; Hagen is the wife of Charlie's friend, but she wouldn't mind a roll in those fabulous Hollywood silk sheets with old Charlie himself; and Winters is the slushy floozy who knows Charlie's secret.

Funny how a film can hit you hard when you're least expecting it.

I always thought I was one of those writers who wasn't so pretentious as to stick my nose up and look down on the "entertainment for the masses" (as the artistes so snootily call it) (and isn't it just like those snobby types to denigrate something that the average person likes! humph!). You know, those movies that come out of Hollywood (usually in the summer months) that are mostly easy, light bits of entertainment; fun and flashy but not particularly deep. I always thought I was on the side of the common man who prefers his superhero movies to those Oscar-bait snorefests the highbrows like to pump out around Christmastime. I always thought I wasn't the type to get preachy about "selling out," since selling out often means making something that a lot of people like, that brings ordinary folks a little bit of happiness and escapism and what's wrong with that? And "being true to your art" often means making some pretentious crap that only image-conscious hipster-types like. Guess what hipsters? I like comic books! I like Tolkien! I'm against the feces-flung desecration that passes for "art" in the Modern Art museums of the world!

But I'll tell you what, when I was in Hollywood, I did feel an icky sense that it was all about the money, and about the world of power and sex and fabulously rich possessions, and I feared what would happen to me if I stayed out there too long. Not that a person can't work in Hollywood and keep his integrity and morals -- there are brave souls, good, holy souls out there right now doing it for real, some of them are my friends and they can make it, they have the strength -- but I'm weak like Charlie Castle; I'm too easily tempted.

And I too longed to "get back east where they have four seasons" (a line from the film that hit me square in the gut).

So once again a movie confirms undeniable truth #17: New York is better than Los Angeles, always and forever. New York City is where the artists are. L.A. is for wealth, power, and soulless parties. The California sunshine just masks the empty ghostly figures by giving them a nice tan.

Or, at least, that's how this movie made me feel and maybe I've fallen prey to its illusion. Filmmaking, afterall, is about a certain perspective, i.e.: who's putting the camera down and where's he pointing it (and where isn't he pointing)?

This film is a New York playwright's indictment of Hollywood. Take that how you will. But it sure took me for an emotional ride and sorta made me glad I packed up and headed back east.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

What's going on in my brain

I wish I knew.

Spent the whole day sick on the couch watching a marathon of Ann Sothern films on TCM. It's the centennial of her birth today.

What a dream world TCM is! You sit there all day just watching movies nobody but a film geek's ever heard of and in between the features are shorts, trailers, interviews with people who lived the Golden Age, tributes to Richardo Montalban, a movie lover's paradise.

It's weird being part of an obscure fandom like the classic movie fandom. You rarely meet a fellow member face-to-face (grandmas don't count), so you seek them out on the Internet in various soggy corners. But even then, it's not exactly what you'd call a robust online fandom. A few bloggers and a couple of dull message boards isn't really enough to get your fix, if you follow me.

It's such a lonely hobby, which I guess makes sense since it's just you sitting on your couch alone watching images flicker in the dark. But I'm the type who doesn't care much for being alone. Watching and talking about a movie with someone else is always better.

Also, I'm one of those conservative freak-types who loves movies and television and entertainment, so how come I can't seem to warm to Big Hollywood. Actually, that's not fair: I do click on it everyday and read at least one or two posts. But something's missing over there; it's not quite living up to what I wanted it to be. I can't quite put my finger on it yet, so I'm gonna hold off on too much commentary until I can figure it out. Maybe it's just that there's not enough John Nolte?

Or maybe I'm just in the midst of Internet/blogosphere fatigue. It hits me every once in awhile, where I just look around cyberspace and yell, "Say something interesting already! Something original! Stop the same tired endless echo of talking points!"

I need a drink.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Soddy Odds

  • I once read somewhere that writers shouldn't do their writing in bed. It keeps you up at night, or something, 'cause your brain thinks bedtime = worktime. I'm writing this post in my bed, btw.
  • Recently rewatched We Are Marshall and cried like a little girl about 50 times. My brain knows it's not a very good movie, but it just can't seem to pinpoint exactly why it's bad. Instead, just as The Brain is on the cusp of finding that elusive badness, the music swells, Matthew Fox cries, and pretty soon I'm unleashing my sinuses all over the couch and the carpet and sniffling, "This is such a good movie!" McG, you magnificent bastard!
  • Trying to read more books. So far I've finished America: The Last Best Hope, Vol II by William J. Bennett, Jesus of Nazareth by Joseph Ratzinger (aka Pope Benedict XVI), The Forgotten Man by Amity Schlaes, and I've got about 100 pages to go in Jane Austen's Emma. I'm also attempting to wade through A Theology of History by Hans Urs von Balthasar and yes, it's exactly what it sounds like: crazy hard philoso-theology that makes my brain hurt. Poor Brain has had quite a time lately, what with high-level theology books and sappy sports movies driving it into a tizzy. I'm also reading the Gospel according to St. John and a book about the Church Fathers. So, you know, light reading. (Seriously, do I sound like the stuffiest conservative pretentious twat ever with these books or what?! I mean, seriously, even my "light reading" novel -- Emma -- is by THE great conservative Women's writer, Jane Austen. I'm gonna have to go straight-up Jack Kerouac/Philip K Dick/Grant Morrison/Lester Bangs after this to strike the proper intellectual balance.)
  • I'm working on a horrible, horrible novella right now. It's really bad. It's warmed-over beat, stream-of-consciousness drivel, but for some reason I can't seem to quit it. It's like I have to finish it in order to finally say, yes, I can write long things that aren't movie scripts. For some reason it seems like when you give someone a hundred page "book" to read they're more impressed than when you give them 120 pages of screenplay. At least, that's how I think people will react when I give them the novella. Whenever I finish it, that is.
  • Watched Definitely, Maybe tonight. Read some mildly positive reviews so I thought I'd give it a chance. I'm susceptible to Romantic Comedies, though I always hate myself afterwards. Is that the same kind of self-loathing that follows bad sex? I wouldn't be surprised... Anyhoo, I have to say [SPOILERS ABOUND FROM NOW ON, including spoilers about The Umbrellas of Cherbourg], I always root for the married couple to stay (or get back) together. Being Catholic, what with that no-divorce thing, I've always considered divorce a tragedy. I just can't find a happy ending in stories where we're supposed to root for the hero/heroine to end up with someone other than his/her spouse. It's why, at the end of the day, I'm a Don/Betty 'shipper despite the fact that, yeah, Rachel Menken is just too cool with her cigarette holder and feathery pink hat. If Don and Betty don't end up together in a relatively happy marriage, then my heart will break a little, even if the show tries to make it seems like they're happier with other people. That's just how my brain works, and my heart too.
  • [SPOILER WARNING CONTINUES] So when Definitely, Maybe tries to be oh-so-modern and have Ryan Reynolds' character get a divorce from his wife and mother of his child only to have the girl he really loved the whole time just happen to be available and still totally into him it set both my "Yuck!" meter and my "Cop-out!" meter to red. It's obvious from their first scene together that Reynolds' and Isla Fisher's characters are in love with each other, but when it's (predictably) revealed that Reynolds has actually married his college sweetheart Elizabeth Banks (predictably, because his daughter makes a comment at the beginning that the college sweetheart simply can't be her mom, since the first girl in the story is never the girl the guy ends up with, which is such a total anvil that you just know Girl Number 1 is definitely, not maybe, coming back and she's going to be your mother, kiddo, what a tweest! -- and btw, if you want a for-reals synopsis, go here, I ain't got time for that blah blah --), the movie at this point has only two options: The modern-day, divorce is no-big-deal approach to "soul mates" and "happiness" and other such selfish garbage, or the Umbrellas of Cherbourg way. Of course, Definitely, Maybe takes the first option and why shouldn't it? Divorce is such a no-big in our culture nowadays, I'm the odd one out for wanting the married, though-maybe-not-as-happy-as-they-once-were couple to stay together.
  • [Side note: The other problem with D,M is that they never show why exactly Elizabeth Banks and Ryan Reynolds were ever together in the first place. They simply "were in love," but we never see them fall in love, so there's no emotional attachment to them as a couple for the audience member. The problem for a viewer like me is that I still think of marriage as a sacred bond, so if two people are married in a romantic comedy that means they must have once been in love and that that love is worth saving, even if the filmmakers couldn't be bothered with showing us how that love came about, and so the story is only a satisfying happy ending if the married couple stay or get back together. It's also a problem because we never see what drove them to divorce. So all the (old-fashioned) viewer like me gets is a married couple that (we presume) was once in love (yeah, it might not have been a big passion, but there was certainly tenderness and affection), who have a child, and who are now getting a divorce but are amicable enough to spend the day together with their daughter at the Central Park Zoo and share a few laughs and smiles and faces of longing and regret. Why are these two people getting divorced?! Their daughter wants them to get back together. I want them to get back together. And yet, at the end of the film we're supposed to gush and sigh when the man goes back to his "one true love" just so we can have a happy ending and make sure the two stars get their final romantic embrace?
  • [AGAIN, WITH THE SPOILING] The Umbrellas of Cherbourg way, instead, is the more realistic, and yet for my money, more emotionally satisfying way to end things in a movie like D,M. In Umbrellas, the young lovers try to make things work, but time and distance and circumstances all interfere and by the end of the film both have moved on with other lovers and other lives and even though they can still remember being in love with each other -- maybe they still harbor feelings of love, even after all these years -- they're both adults now, with children and spouses and adult responsibilities and the lives they have are actually pretty good and they're happy, as happy as people in this fallen, mixed-up world can be. It's a sad ending, to be sure, but it's also hopeful, because the movie is saying that we can still be happy even if we don't get the fairy tale ending.
  • D,M, on the other hand, wants to play like it's realistic (he's getting divorced! he's jaded and settled into a stifling career! he's got a lot of emotional problems and makes mistakes!), but it cops-out with the fairy tale ending just the same. Ryan Reynolds loves Isla Fisher and even though he has married someone else, he's gonna end up with Isla no matter what, and we're supposed to sigh and love it. A better movie would have made us see why Reynolds goes back to Banks's character and marries her (instead of stopping just on the brink of that moment). It would have shown us why they get divorced (obvious motive is on Reynolds' still carrying a torch for Fisher's character). And then finally it would have shown us that Fisher had moved on, that it was too late, and that Reynolds was throwing away a perfectly ordinary happiness to try to recapture something from his past. And then to satisfy me and my need for married people to stay together and be (pretty much) happy, he could have gone back to his ex-wife and realized that not all love stories have to be the grand passion, that sometimes we miss the ordinary realistic love while we're off searching for the Romantic Comedy-version of it.
  • I just rambled on incoherently about Definitely, Maybe for twelve paragraphs it seems, so take a much more succinct view from Victor Morton, who nails why this movie creeps me out in three awesome sentences: "But still, never have I seen in a conventional romantic-comedy, a child spend the movie’s last reel trying to get her father back together — not with her mother — but an old girlfriend whom the child had never met. And not because her mother is abusive or somehow “out of the picture.” Now, we consider divorce so routine (a reason for the one in this movie is never even hinted at, as if there’s no need) that we consider it an acceptable fantasy for a child of divorce to express, not the natural wish about her parents, but about a step-parent. If there’s been a conventional romantic-comedy with that rather self-rationalizing-for-adults premise (”it’s what the kids WANT”) — I’m unaware of it."
  • Finally, I'm sorry, but January Jones and Jon Hamm were robbed of Golden Globes the other night. The Globes are a joke award anyway, but still, it sucks to lose, no matter how stupid the award is. My sidebar has a quiz about the whole situation, since Sookie Stackhouse or whatever her name is is the worst character on True Blood and Betty Draper and January Jones's performance this past season of Mad Men was revelatory. And yeah, that word is overused when it comes to things like this, but it truly was a revelation to watch Jones in this role. I mean, she used to model for Abercrombie and Fitch for gosh sakes, and now she's rocking the socks off with her performance on TV's best drama!
  • Watched Beyond the Rocks on TCM (eh, wasn't too bad, but nothing special really; formerly lost films often seem to promise more than they deliver) and decided to read up on Gloria Swanson who I only really know from Sunset Blvd and that she used to be a big silent movie star. Turns out (according to imdb) that she made nearly $8 million between 1918 and 1929 and spent almost all of it. That's got to be at least, like, $80 million dollars in today's money, or something. Crazy.

Monday, January 5, 2009

No Time for Comedy

part of the Great Movie Watching Challenge

From Warner Bros. in 1940, this picture starring Roz Russell and Jimmy Stewart and written by the Epstein Brothers of Casablanca fame, has the alternate title of "Guy with a Grin." I guess "No Time for Comedy" works better, though, since it's got more truth in advertising.

The picture starts off with a cast and a logline and a first act that seems to say, "Romantic Comedy," but pretty soon Comedy's left the highrise apartment and the romance is all one-sided on Russell's part as Jimmy goes off searching for his soul and his art and to have his ego stroked by a sycophantic New York socialite bee-yotch who wants to have an affair with him. No time for comedy, indeed. By the end of the thing, Jimmy's an asshole lush who wants to suffer and make "great art" and the delightfully superior Roz just stands by her ass of a man and makes him feel all "important" and "genius" and the whole story just ends in a big pile of mush. The tonal shifts in this thing were so big you could fit every pretentious artiste's sense of self-importance inside them.

The premise is that Stewart is a Minnesota small-town guy who has written a witty New York comedy of manners even though he's never even been to New York before. When he finally arrives in town to oversee rehearsals for the play, nobody can believe that he's the author and the producer wants to cancel the whole thing. But Roz falls for Stewart's "Jimmy Stewart Ways" almost immediately and she convinces everybody in the cast and crew to work on the play anyway because she believes it'll be a big hit. The play is a hit and Roz and Jimmy share a charming and romantic late night in Central Park where they decide to get married and that's about it for the comedy part. I should have known there would be trouble when the characters ended up getting married about 25 minutes into the picture. It's very hard to do a romantic comedy about marriage and so of course, comedy takes a back seat to marital troubles and "art." Was Preston Sturges thinking of this movie when he wrote Sullivan's Travels? A girl can only dream!

The second and third act are basically "Guy with a (bottle of) Gin" as Jimmy's character starts to drink in order to make it through the day as a "suffering" artist who has had a string of light comedy hits but wants to write something "serious" only he can't seem to make it work. The whole thing is like the anti-Bandwagon. Whereas The Bandwagon is a delightful send-up of pretentious Broadway windbags, full of fun and great songs and dance, No Time for Comedy takes itself far too seriously to be anything but a joke of a movie that thinks it has something serious to say. Note, The Bandwagon's theme was truer and better displayed than the mess that is No Time for Comedy. Point is awarded to the musical comedy. Heh.

Yeah, yeah, Stewart's character is convinced by the end that he should go back to comedy, but he decides to write a satire! So even in the end, the movie couldn't quite give up the notion that light comedy is sorta worthless for an artist and that egos still need to be stroked and awards still need to be won, so why not try satire, that always closes on Saturday nights! Blarg.

Russell is simply wonderful in the way she employs a devilish wink or a witty line and even though you can tell she's madly in love with Stewart through the whole picture (even when he's acting assy) she carries it all with an easy-going nature and never gets hysterical (meaning, she acts like a real human being and not an over-dramatic movie character who's being forced to act in an over-dramatic movie). Why she loves a prick like Stewart's character with such steadfastness is never fully explained though.

Stewart is so unlikeable in this movie I simply don't know how to explain it. His character here makes his character in After the Thin Man [beware, there's a spoiler coming] seem almost charming, and that guy was a murderer! [end spoiler]

In No Time for Comedy, Stewart is a cranky drunk who thinks he's a brilliant genius writer of "serious" plays, so he gives up his lucrative job as a light comedy writer to piddle away his time with a drippy woman (who is not his awesome wife, but somebody else's stupid wife) who flatters his every word. Meanwhile, Roz's character is his elegant, sparkling, sexy, and clever wife and she gets dumped on the whole time for having no "feelings," unlike her "feeling" husband, who "feels" so much he has to almost destroy his marriage in order to write a lame-o script about death or something equally predictable and banal. And then to top it all off, Roz apologizes to him in the end! It's like, the film assumes we'll love his jerky ways simply because he's Jimmy Stewart and Jimmy Stewart is just so darn likable why should it matter that we've written him as an insufferable egotistic jerkwad! Gah.

I'm really hating on this movie for some reason. Maybe with the cast and crew pedigree I just assumed it would be a little romantic comedy piece of froth, enjoyable but not particularly brilliant, just the kind of movie I like to lose myself in on a weekday afternoon folding laundry. Unfortunately, by the end I wanted Jimmy Stewart to kill himself or for Roz to leave him and become the toast of the Manhattan theater set again, charming everyone with her sophisticated wit and knowing smiles and down-to-earth elegance. I was disappointed, alas! Reader: they got back together and I had just wasted 105 minutes of my life.

Allyn Joslyn and Louise Beavers co-star and try to do what they can to salvage the "comedy," but it's to no avail. Even Roz -- who gives a delightful and poignant performance -- can't escape a script that's a turgid mess. Poor Jimmy Stewart, though, is the film's greatest victim, as he's made to act the part of a giant turd who gives up a good career and an even better wife so that he can stroke his ego and win awards for writing "serious" (read: pretentious) plays. Screenwriters, heal thyselves. A movie called "No Time for Comedy," starring Rosalind Russell and Jimmy Stewart and with a set-up about a rube who goes to New York to write plays and ends up being the toast of the town should have had plenty of time for comedy.

Oh well. It just goes to show: I don't like every old movie, you know.