Wednesday, August 31, 2011

From Great Open Spaces the Figures and Faces are Certainly Best

Murder at the Vanities (1934)
directed by Mitchell Leisen
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

You could argue that parading this much female flesh in front of the camera is the height of objectifying the form, but nowhere except these Pre-Code extravaganzas is the viewer as aware of what the extras in a film are up to, precisely because they're always around. In a movie like Murder at the Vanities, the star of the picture rarely stands alone in front of the camera, and so our eyes are inevitably drawn to the small gestures of the chorus girls behind him: how a brunette picks up a glass in a particular routine, or where she looks when the number is over. However much the women might be taken for granted, they are anything but anonymous.

The plot, in which a mushy European nightclub singer inspires the jealousy of a leading lady, pivots on Victor McLachlan as a well-meaning but corrupt cop. He bumbles charmingly about and makes sure to take time every few minutes to set aside his investigation in order to watch the show. We follow suit, captive to a run of musical numbers that make up Vanities' backbone. One features Duke Ellington but relegates his Orchestra to the unfortunate "Ebony Rhapsody."

"Sweet Marijuana" is the most famous cut (literally, since it was excised from most prints not long after release), but also, along with a tropical island reverie, one of the most effective. The stage is stark, full of desert moonlight and shadows. A giant cactus appears in the darkness. Naked women crouch inside the rose buds - "Ever seen a real rose, Hallie?" - but as the music calls them into flowers, drops of blood fall softly from the rafters. The stain alights on a set of shoulders, a scream shatters the easy pace, and melodrama is regrettably restored.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Stick with Ida Lupino Every Time

Search for Beauty (1934)
directed by Erle C. Kenton
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

From the director of one of my very favorite horror films comes this health oddity and cheesecake introduction to fascism. Three criminals team up to bring a fitness magazine back into production, then hire two Olympic champions to front as honest editors. Tensions flare when the Olympians discover that the criminals are making use of their good names to publish racy stories and scandalous photographs of models in skimpy clothing.

Ostensibly, we root for bland Barbara and Don to give the ex-cons their comeuppance, but it's clear that the "healthy living" the Olympians preach amounts to a quest to open their own exercise summit on a private estate in the countryside. The ex-cons, in a bid to party with the pretty boys and girls that Don and Barbara bring in as counselors, wind up prisoners at a boot camp, unable to smoke a cigarette in peace or, frankly, escape to freedom. It's cute until the credits role and you realize that they'll probably die there.

Kenton's sympathies, in spite of the fate he decrees for Larry, Jean, and Dan, lie with the criminals, who are loyal to one another through a brief stint in jail and don't beat around the bush as to what they're after: money and a date for Friday nights. They're sleazy but not cruel. The same can't be said for Don and Barbara, who seem like good sorts, but like everyone who, in the immortal words of Kenny Powers, wants to "be the best at exercising," are complete creeps.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Signs Without Wonders

Wise Blood (1979)
directed by John Huston
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Huston's good taste in books was routinely upset by his obsession with literary adaptations, and while I've been generous about some of them in the past, Wise Blood is a mess. Most of the absurdity that probably works on the page falls apart onscreen, but Macon, Georgia, and Brad Dourif - oh, and Harry Dean Stanton, because wherever you go, there he is - hold it together as long as they can. I'm not a religious man but I can respect a thoughtful struggle against the void. It goes some way in making sense of what people do, and why, not that any answer is ever clear.

But instead of the Doc Cochran I always want Dourif to be, there's an air of the overly serious actor in Hazel Motes, as if Dourif can't wait to arrive at the scene where he's blind. I get the same vibe from Richard Dreyfuss in The Jaws Log and Bryan Cranston anytime he talks about Walter White in interviews. Amy Wright is the real surprise, and her first unsuccessful seduction of Hazel is easily the movie's highlight. She reclines suggestively in a forest glade while Hazel impatiently ignores her. With each turn of her hips, the broken, dead leaves on the ground amass on her stockings, her dress, and her hair, until she rises like a victim from The Evil Dead, ravaged by the woods.

But that seems accidental, though I suppose it wasn't. Dan Shor roaming downtown in his stolen Gonga the Gorilla costume is sweet, but mostly due to the crowd of happy and expectant kids that surrounds him as he stands in line. I like the idea that the costume, once worn, might liberate him in a way that the shrunken corpse he steals from the city museum did not, and I do not accept that Gonga is merely a continuation of his feelings of isolation.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

You Can't Go Home (to Malibu) Again

Hot Saturday (1932)
directed by William A. Seiter
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Cary Grant looks like a 28-year-old teenager in this, the film that introduced him to Randolph Scott. Each is at odds with the other over the affections of a working girl, but let me just preempt my jokes about Bachelor Hall with a robust defense of Pre-Code Hollywood as a staunch ally of honest-to-goodness feminism. Nancy Carroll, as Ruth Brock, is a secretary at a small-town bank. She is routinely harassed for dates by a dozen co-workers, and routinely settles on one of them - the best-looking cad - for dances on Saturday nights.

At home, Ruth gives money to her no-account dad and takes unnecessary heat about her behavior from her mother, a middle-class terror obsessed with the neighbors. Scott is a one-time sweetheart who left the state to learn geology and returns with a respectable career. Grant (alias Romer Sheffield), grist for the rumor mill, spends money on parties at a mansion by the lake outside of town, where he lives with a woman he isn't married to.

Grant, the playboy, wants Ruth, in a grand, romantic, and imaginative way. Scott wants her, too, but for a wife in the rather routine sense. The cad Conny, offended by one of Romer's soirees (complete with a tamale stand done up as a liquor cart), takes it on himself to try and rape Ruth in a secluded cove. She escapes, flees to Romer's mansion, and returns home the next morning to face the slander that Conny spreads around.

Romer, for one, hopes Ruth is wrong about the morals she was taught regarding "security and happiness." She wants to be wrong, but she's willing to put up with a lot - too much - to try and make her parents proud. Happily, amazingly, director William Seiter doesn't side with mom and dad. Ruth's parents are social climbers, the geologist is a dullard, and not one of them is really much better than Conny, timid and selfish to a T. Romer doesn't win Ruth over or convince her of anything. He's simply the man she chooses when she decides who and what she wants.

He does get the best line, though, and it's this, just as Ruth thinks she's off to marry Bill Fadden because she has to: "There's not much to say, is there? Well, I've never lied to you, so I'm not going to congratulate you, or wish you happiness, just good luck."

You can't blame a woman (or a man) for falling in love with someone like that.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Western Sky and Western Memory

Rocky Mountain (1950)
directed by William Keighley
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Errol Flynn was the right man to play the Southern ideal of Confederate chivalry when it was still okay for Hollywood to openly glorify the Lost Cause. Or maybe it still is, but not in a way that ignores the principal historical argument for secession: slaves. Flynn excelled at the part of a beaten man with his head held high; unlike Duke, who rarely died onscreen, Flynn died routinely, and well.

I don't know if the premise of Rocky Mountain - a run-down group of Rebel soldiers attempt to lead an uprising of Confederate sympathizers in "California" - is true. But when Flynn's Captain Lafe Barstow (CSA) reminisces about his plantation with a view of the river, I just don't believe him. The movie was filmed near Gallup, New Mexico, on a hill so true you recognize the unmistakable click of boot heels on sandstone.

Most of the second half takes place at night, with war drums beating in the background. A slim Slim Pickens, in his first role, corrals his fellow stuntmen/actors to their own slaughter, when the mission to save the Confederacy inevitably becomes a mission to save a girl. One speaks a love letter to eating oysters, and one tells a story of serving Robert E. Lee a plate of food post-Gettysburg. The cook apologized for the lack of greens, but Lee, gazing into the distance, responded with only "It's elegant."

Elegiac, he meant, at the press conference for Rocky Mountain, but too explicit in its loyalties for me. A late-1940s sedan pulls up to a historical marker as the movie begins, before the camera cuts back through time. The desert looks exactly the same.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Piggyback Freighters and Jimmy the Gent

Other Men's Women (1931)
directed by William A. Wellman
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Talk about trains and movies and people think of metaphors for power and control. Nazis, The Iron Horse, sex. But Other Men’s Women might even beat Hitchcock for the elegance of chrome, and it does it in a lazy, breezy-day way, not five miles from the train yards of Los Angeles. There, Joan Blondell works at a coffee shop beside the tracks, and makes dates with engineers on their way into town.

One in particular - a bit of a booze hound - likes her company, and slows his train to a crawl in the coffee shop's vicinity. He leaps from the engine, runs inside, and counts the cars that pass while wolfing down a plate of eggs and flirting with the waitresses. Two cars from the end, he sprints out the door, climbs the caboose, and runs the length of the train on top of the train to resume his seat for the home stretch.

The second joy of Other Men's Women is James Cagney in his second role. He's up on high with the engineer, ducking beneath bridges they pass so he doesn't have to climb down in the coal and dirty up his glad rags for Saturday night. Not even Fred Astaire wore a tuxedo like Cagney.

If you see a train in the middle of nowhere from a distance, it doesn't look big or out of control. It looks easy, like a good way to pass the time. Those trains inspire romantic thoughts, and bad songs don't say them half so well as the opening stretch of this otherwise melodramatic little picture.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Never Mind the Main Chance

A Matter of Life and Death (1946)
directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Carnegie Library

A Matter of Life and Death is not my favorite Archer production, but it is the most subversive of their famous films. Anglophilia remains prominent enough in 2011 that wartime British propaganda looks like a coat of polish on an already familiar mythology. None of the names invoked by heavenly counselors in the course of Peter Carter’s trial are unfamiliar, but they are as dull in the context of his celestial dreamscape as they are in a middle-school history class today.

But amid the American-English hokum, the grandstanding and oratory, one thinks back to the opening scene. Peter’s plane is going down, and his last act on earth is to fall in love with a stranger on the other end of his radio transmission. She, in turn, cannot help but fall in love herself. The fire in the cockpit is why Technicolor was invented, and will never be beat: a bloody heart in the sky.

When Peter doesn’t die, and Heaven holds a trial, Peter and June argue that they deserve the time on earth mistakenly allowed them. Heaven disagrees, but we can see immediately that nothing in its clear, cold plane looks anything like the roaring confines of Peter’s Technicolor doom. Heaven is not Heaven, next to love. Like all great love stories, sooner or later, A Matter of Life and Death is about letting go. Peter and June don’t want to, and not even Heaven can blame them. We have too little time as it is.

Powell and Pressburger, patriots both, allow their Allied All-Stars. Heroes through the ages are greeted with lusty cheers by the limitless dead that line Heaven’s halls. But Powell and Pressburger were not fools. They did not see glory in war, only the end of relationships like Peter’s and June’s. And Heaven, whatever it is, could never be finer than that first spark between them.

So there, by a door where Peter’s crew waits for him to die, is a pair of pilots newly dead, in a moment that passes quickly but not unnoticed. One, a mid-west type, looks about Heaven in amazement. “Boy oh boy,” he says. “Home was nothing like this!”

He is followed close behind by a friend, and it is impossible, upon hearing his reply, to not think of every waiting sweetheart and every sunny day, and be glad, above all else, that you are alive.

“Mine was.”

Saturday, August 13, 2011

S for Fake

Close-Up (1990)
directed by Abbas Kiarostami
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Carnegie Library

As here, it is sometimes said of Kiarostami’s characters that the action of asking for directions evokes disorientation in the mind of the viewer. That is a door through which one might approach Taste of Cherry, but there is no suggestion of disorientation here, in a scene where a man on the street offers to sell a turkey to the passengers of a taxicab who stop to ask him where they are. In spite of the journalist’s insistence that he is nervous about the impending arrest of a man accused of impersonating a famous Iranian film director, those first fifteen minutes pass easily, even amiably. We do not see the arrest itself because we wait with the cab driver as he turns the car around, then off, and stands by the curb kicking at a soft pile of dead leaves.

Gently, gently, Kiarostami acquits a man accused of fraud in such a way that even the victims – outraged by the verdict in real life – embrace Hossein Sabzian as the dreamer that Kiarostami wants him to be. Movies inspire the man’s actions and draw the family in. Movies give voice to his poverty and encourage Sabzian to be brave. “Legally that might be an acceptable charge,” he says as the charge of fraud is read from the bench, “but morally it is not.”

Intentions matter in episodes in which embarrassment is the worst of the harm done. Thus the advice that Close-Up imparts is specific, but Kiarostami is deeply generous in seeing it through. The reunion at the end need not be related to the trial, or the stories of these people, but it shows a better way to be a part of the world.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Heaven is for Heroes

The Flame and the Arrow (1950)
directed by Jacques Tourneur
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

There is a moment in this Technicolor adventure that encapsulates the many facets of my affection for the liberal, liberally-toothed gem that was Burt Lancaster. Tourneur, who spends too much of the movie filming a maudlin family adventure, turns out the lights – the way he used it, at RKO, or in the forest twilight of Canyon Passage – and in that blue-beyond-black that only Technicolor knows, a great line in a film without them whispers in the keep. “Now, Marchese, we’re in the dark, where a sword is just a long knife.”

It is delivered like a hiss, but Lancaster’s smile radiates through. The threat is not lost on the victim, nor the laughs on us. But to love that one-time A-list giant is to love the threat and the laugh together. One need not take him as seriously as he took himself, even dressed like Robin Hood in Italy, bandying words with towheaded boys, but be generous, reader. That isn’t a stuntman leaping from horseback or castle chandelier, but the main attraction, reunited with his partner and good friend Nick Cravat from old acrobat days before the war. When an archer’s arrow sings down a hawk, it’s Lancaster's Dardo Bartoli (the jokes write themselves) who first rends the bird’s flesh with his big, bright chompers.

I’m making that up, but The Flame and the Arrow is a backlot jungle gym for a man like Burt Lancaster, who probably abhorred the histrionics of the Method actors who replaced him but never would have missed a chance to fence or somersault or climb. Clark Gable always clocked out right at 5:00, and never faster than when Burt asked for that after-work drink each afternoon on the set of Run Silent, Run Deep. But you can’t say either one of them didn’t love his job.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Point Doom

Five (1951)
directed by Arch Oboler
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Five begins from a helicopter, the camera unsteady as it tracks a woman stumbling barefoot and fearful up a dirt road in the mountains. She is worn out and scared, one of only a handful of survivors of a nuclear disaster. The rest are men in a “world without bills,” as someone lovingly describes it, but the science is as off-balance as the mother-to-be. Made with a small budget and hurried script in the wilderness vicinity of the director’s own Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Malibu beach house, Five trades above its shortcomings on a horror film’s pace and the lighting of an acutely nightmarish noir.

The woman, thin and frail, only looks pretty asleep by the fire. She thwarts the first rape attempt by announcing her pregnancy, but the baby doesn’t live long out of the womb. Her anger emerges in shrill exclamations, directed at no one except the husband who did not share her immunity to radiation. She is treated like the tender shoots of a new crop planted on the hillside, but the choice she must make of a new man to love is the undercurrent beneath a less threatening philosophical question: do the five want a simulacrum of the lives they left behind, or a new world with its own rules?

They can’t agree. Bottom line is, no one wants to leave that house, and I can’t blame him. Life after the apocalypse seems like a moot point, and I inevitably think of a former employer’s wistful memory of seeing Planet of the Apes for the first time. “He’s got a gun, a horse, and a girl who can’t talk. It’s perfect.”

Monday, August 08, 2011

The Lusty Songs of Singing Swords

The Duellists (1977)
directed by Ridley Scott
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

It's impossible to watch The Duellists and not think of Barry Lyndon, good soul. Barry, we're told, returned to the continent and then to gambling, though "without his former success." Ridley Scott followed, to France, and went so far as to cast Gay Hamilton as another spurned middle-class love interest. In that pursuit she is joined by Diana Quick in a second, equally unsatisfying female role, but Scott did not borrow so much epaulet-centric Napoleonic finery for women. No, the more convincing romance by far is that between Harvey Keitel and Keith Carradine, both in braids and both in love. They dally across decades, with swords and, finally, a pair of pistols longer than any colonial musket. They'd rather kill one another than say goodbye.

There is the same rough charm here as among the father-son highwaymen who steer Redmond Barry on his road to adventure. Those ragged officers uniforms donned by the Pogues for Rum Sodomy & the Lash would not be out of place, and although I never quite understand why Harvey Keitel was ever a star, Carradine is great - high enough on his horse to be just the sort of man a flat-footed sociopath like Feraud would aspire to. As an existential war picture, it's fun. As an exercise in location shoots, it's a lesson in thrift. After The Duellists came Alien, and it's possible, if not easy, to see why Ridley got the job. Certainly he never directed a more convincing valentine, unless to darkness in long-quiet rooms.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Matches, Marbles, Money and Women

Only Angels Have Wings (1939)
directed by Howard Hawks
rating: 5 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Carnegie Library

My dad's mother keeps boxes of photos and carefully labels all of them. On my mother's side, there are pictures but no names, and except for a portrait of my grandfather and the men he served with on an LCI in the Pacific - each man's name is written in his own hand around the border - all but my most immediate relatives are already mysteries. My dad's mom enjoyed pictures more. She was estranged from her father at an early age and grew up poor with her mother - a woman whose porch was always filled with geraniums - on San Antonio's West Side.

My dad's parents met at Brackenridge High School and dated on and off while my grandfather went to college at Texas A & M and at some point spent time in the Navy. There is a funny souvenir photo of him in Service Dress Whites at the "Starlit Terrace" of the Olmos Dinner Club in San Antonio, looking younger than I ever did when I began to date, and some pretty stranger on his arm. The pretty stranger is not my grandmother, but ask her about this and she will say only that she did much better than her future husband in that regard.

It is nice to see pictures of the people you knew only in their old age as men and women in their teens and twenties. My grandmother especially seemed to enjoy those years, and one of my favorite snapshots of her is a wallet-sized image taken on a humid Texas day. She wears a dress made of a heavier material that is tailored perfectly to fit her - she sewed, of course - and a pair of white sandals with a thin strap across each ankle. Her hair is up, and she leans with her hands behind her against a flagpole, anchored in a small marble square to a closely cut lawn. A row of cars is parked against the curb; there is plenty of chrome but also an old Model-T. It looks like a car show, but no one is there.

My grandmother is smiling, and though she is not a beautiful woman, she is radiant. She reminds me of Jean Arthur, who does not dress like Rita Hayworth in Only Angels Have Wings. Hayworth's Judy is the show-stopper, but she is flightier than Arthur's Bonnie Lee. Bonnie is practical but romantic, wise but gentle. You don't quite believe her when she says she performs in bars, but she knows how to put the rough men in that South American tavern at ease. That was my grandparents' gift, and the same thing has been said about Howard Hawks' movies by more astute writers than me: guests were friends, and the house was always a home.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

A Shack Slap Spang On the Sea

Age of Consent (1969)
directed by Michael Powell
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

There's something very British going on here, between the buddy who likes the horses and the old crone with her gin, but, closing credits song notwithstanding, there's nothing at all unhealthy about Michael Powell's investment in the natural world. From the vantage of a Pennsylvania summer, humid and still, James Mason's holiday on the Great Barrier Reef looks like paradise. The "famously nude" Helen Mirren - a Frank Frazetta princess of Atlantis - is a part of that, and there's a joke somewhere about underwater photographer Ron Taylor no doubt preferring Queensland and Helen to Massachusetts and Bruce.

But Powell, far from leering at the figure of a twenty-three year-old woman, lets her be a part of the life around her. Mason paints and goes to the mainland, or plays fetch with his dog. He meets his neighbors, few as they are, and each of them is a testament to the small ways and suspicions of people in isolated places. In that sense, Age of Consent is as far from The Edge of the World as a movie about community can get, unless Mason and Mirren are a Shetland island of their own. Then it becomes an Eden again: fishing for prawns by torchlight, sun on top of sun-bleached hair, a fishing shack painted all the colors of the ocean.

Scorsese's affections for this outlier of the Powell/Pressburger glory days are notably vague in a short supplement, and the racetrack humor would be right at home on a BBC sitcom, but it isn't the narrow British picture it seems. For one thing, Powell is an expert at quick, clean cuts as a way to denote the passage of long periods of time. No static shots of tides followed by long fades - just a small place to stay, cleaned up a bit and covered wall to wall in bright blurs. "The Jet Set," the episode of Mad Men in which it's possible to feel the Palm Springs warmth on Don's skin through the television, gave me the same July feeling.

Friday, August 05, 2011

An Old Overholt Won't Ever Let You Down

That Obscure Object of Desire (1977)
directed by Luis Buñuel
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from the vaults

L'Age d'Or (1930)
directed by Luis Buñuel
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from the vaults

There was a time when every movie I watched was famous because well-known titles were the best place to start. That was years ago, and of late I've wanted to return to them. Some I miss, and I've forgotten plenty. That Obscure Object of Desire was my first Buñuel, and I loved it then as much as I do now.

It's one of the movies that David Thomson famously adores. Thomson, like the surrealists, believed that over a long enough footrace, the dreamlike dissonance of motion pictures beats a good narrative every time. "After all," he wrote, "His Girl Friday looks like a newsroom, but it feels like a desert island."

Buñuel was ever gentle and never clever, in the pejorative sense of that word. He had, along with Eric Rohmer, one of the best regular casts in movies. Buñuel was smart, with a sense of humor, and the famous last scene in L'Age d'Or would be funny even without the presence of Jesus. His expression as he emerges from the castle is sublime: weary and elated, it is above all a human countenance, awestruck by the possibilities - even silly, terrible, or dull - of man.

That Obscure Object of Desire adds two beauties from France and Spain in various states of undress, lets the lovable Fernando Rey tap out his doom with a walking stick on the cobblestone streets of Seville, and gathers us in like the passengers in Mathieu's first-class cabin. It is a prickly film right up to the moment when it emerges as one of the medium's most sympathetic love stories. The terrorists' bombs are beating hearts, concussive and badly timed, destructive but sincere.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Let's All Just Meet at Breakheart Pass

Terms of Endearment (1983)
directed by James L. Brooks
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

There's a funny story that led me to the doorstep of this little tear-jerker. It's a tale about a child who liked to watch movies but couldn't find common cinematic ground with his parents, who had of course been watching movies since long before I was born. Well-intentioned recommendations in either direction were met with befuddlement, except where Charles Bronson and Jill Ireland were concerned. In the end, I embraced the happy imperialism of The Wind and the Lion and somehow my folks loved Mulholland Dr.. It's a truce Aurora would be proud of.

When the Terms tip came over the wire, I bit, but I in no way condone plotlines in which a cheating spouse (the oddly ageless Jeff Daniels) has to watch his wife die of cancer, be it in Houston, Nebraska, or anywhere. Through a generous and condescending lens, I can see what Terms of Endearment might have looked like in 1983: tough but romantic, complicated and sometimes sweet. A "smart" film about flawed people full of messy emotions - probably exactly what As Good As It Gets looked like to me when I was 17.

I will say that we can probably agree on Aurora and Emma's cohorts and suitors: Vernon, Garrett, and Sam. Great names, great faces, and each of them more than matched by two women who, under different circumstances, wouldn't have been asked to act around that great big terminal elephant in the room. Then again, when I told my parents I'd "finally watched Terms of Endearment," neither one of them could remember telling me I should.