Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Baby Face (1933)

Pre-Code movie starring Barbara Stanwyck as a very bad girl, that is, if you believe that sleeping with whomever you need to at any given time to rise in the world is bad. Many people probably don't believe this, especially nowadays, but enough did in 1933 that this is credited as one of the main films that precipitated the establishment of the Code, which of course restricted the amount of moral deviancy that could be shown, especially in anything resembling a celebratory manner, until well into the 1960s.

Aside from the more egregious deviancy, the America depicted in Baby Face in general is a much rawer, uglier, cruder, beastlier place than that depicted in the polished classics of the Code era that was to begin within a few years, and which has a tendency to induce nostalgia for many aspects of that era in some people. The dingy, firetrap speakeasy, supposed to be in Erie, Pennsylvania, where Baby Face works (and lives) when the movie begins, with its rotting walls and peeling wallpaper and tiny window looking out on a row of smokestacks barely visible through the thick pollution, in which she cannot walk more than three steps without being molested by sweaty, violent, and uninhibited factory workers in various states of undress (and in which she later gives out her father has been pimping her out to the clientele since she was fourteen), is convincingly appalling. Life in this ghetto has little object beyond day to day survival and the periodic satisfaction of one's animalistic urges. Such ambition as there is consists entirely of schemes which involve either exploiting or swindling whomever lays conveniently to hand for the purpose. Baby Face eventually makes her way to New York, and that is not quite as hopeless, but even the atmosphere there, with its characteristic 30s emphases on sleek modernistic and art deco designs and the massive gulf in wealth between the elite and the ordinary schmoes, is cold and forbidding compared to how it would be depicted once the New Deal ethos began to kick in towards the end of the decade.

When I say that Baby Face sleeps her way to the top, she really has to start from the bottom. The first lucky fellow is the guy whose job it is to throw vagabonds out of the boxcars, whom she has to placate to even get to New York; and then when she gets there it's the fat slob whose job is to sit at the reception desk and keep the unemployed hordes at bay's lucky day. (That guy is at about my occupational level--today of course any woman ambitious enough to be willing, and alluring enough to be able, to rise by this means would at least be able to start out much higher up the ladder and get to skip these gross early steps). The further up she goes, the more havoc she wreaks in careers and personal lives and the less able the men seem to be either to resist her initial advances or to get over her once she has gotten them fired and broken up their engagements, and moved onto the next guy on the chain.

By the way, back in Erie, there is a German-accented old-timer in the 'hood who, in spite of his own seemingly lowly station, is into Nietzsche, and introduces Baby Face to some of that philosopher's most famous concepts, though the application of these in the film strikes me as the product of a decidedly sub-Straussian interpretation.

I don't love this movie, though I don't think it is supposed to be a great work of art so much as an interesting artifact of the zeitgeist of its period, as well as a showcase for the talents of Barbara Stanwyck, whom many connoisseurs of both film and women consider to be one of the greatest movie actresses of all time. I have to admit I do not really get the mystique of Barbara Stanwyck yet either. Some people think you either get something right away or you never get it--there is never any in-between ground with such people--but I often find that after multiple exposures to or efforts with poets, directors, actors and so on that I will begin to see something that I can appreciate or perceive some hint of greatness in.

I was going to write something about the folly of imagining what past times were like based on their presentation in movies, using the pre-Code/post-Code divide, when all manner of vice and bawdiness suddenly took on much more subdued and socially marginalized forms, as an example of this. But I am not sure that I believe it is all folly. The Depression era, especially after the election of Roosevelt, was a period of dramatic change. The centralization and overall tighter organization of society compared to what had existed previously could not fail to insinuate its effects into movemaking and other artworks. The crime rate did begin to plunge precipitously right around the time the Code was instituted (and ironically did not start shooting up again until the time it was lifted). We are so well trained to be suspicious now of the boldface narratives that formerly held sway in this country and assume they were all lies to cover up what was really going on that you almost have to look at what is not calling attention to itself or perhaps even conscious of itself in these old books and films to try to give yourself a persuasive idea of what was authentically happening or important at the time.


Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Separate Tables (1958)

While I have noted before that I am not much of a fan of movies set in courtrooms, ones set in hotels I cannot get enough of. When the lodging in question is of the shabby variety, populated by patrons clinging by their fingernails to the bottom rungs of the respectable middle class, and located in a second rate British seaside resort town, I am usually overcome by the second scene with the feeling that I have missed one of my true callings in life by not having passed through the purgatory of a year or so as one of the permanent inmates of such an establishment. Given the currents of the modern society and economy, it is hard to make a rational case either for the utility or attractiveness of this mode of living; but given how many books, plays and movies have adopted this setting as a milieu, creative types have obviously seen in it attractive possibilities related to our civilizational condition that productive and less static activities and pursuits have a tendency to mask and blur.

Separate Tables was nominated for seven Oscars in 1958 and won two (for best actor and best supporting actress). It also has an star-studded cast that is especially heavy on people who have been enthusiastically celebrated on this site. I had never heard of it. Certainly it does not come up at all in most channels of conversation about movie history and lore that I am aware of. It is dated in the sense that it is so heavily steeped in the conventions and themes of its particular time, and has no anticipation of the concerns that in 1958 were approaching rather rapidly. But in my current state of mind I do not look on that automatically as a fault even through a critical lens, and in this instance it accounts for a considerable amount of the charm of the movie.

The film is set in a hotel--functionally really more of a boarding house--in Bournemouth. The way it is presented in the movie it looks rather cozy, but we are supposed to have the impression that most of the characters have ended up there due to some misfortune, and would really rather find themselves in other circumstances. The title refers to one of the hotel's selling points, that you don't have to share a table at meals with other guests, a practice which evidently was still common in England in the 50s (it seemed to have died out there by the 90s, but it was still in practice on the continent, especially in the East). Leading the spectacular cast are Bourgeois Surrender Hall of Famers Burt Lancaster, Wendy Hiller, and Deborah Kerr. They are joined by David Niven, who won the best Actor Oscar referenced above (beating out Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier in The Defiant Ones, reviewed here formerly, as well as Paul Newman & Spencer Tracy). I don't know what I was expecting from him--a full-on helping of arch British suavity, I suppose--but in this he plays a pretty sad sack character and really goes to work to endear himself to the sympathy of the audience. Obviously it worked, and not only on me. Rita Hayworth adds more star power and some Hollywood glamour to the proceedings, and the less famous (but far from lesser) players include numerous highly skilled veterans of the British stage, most notably Gladys Cooper as Deborah Kerr's suffocating mother (typical of the popular 50s themes with which this movie is suffused), and Felix Aylmer as the retired headmaster who detects the fishiness of the Major's public school reminiscences (among his other trangressions, the Major--Niven's character, who is not, in fact, a major either--claimed a more exalted background for himself than he had a right to do) when the latter is flummoxed by Aylmer's quoting of Horace.

This is adapted from a play by Terence Rattigan, who was popular in the immediate postwar era but whose overall style, as hinted at earlier, could not weather the transformations towards the edgier theater ushered in during the Angry Young Man period of the late 50s. His middlebrowness, in this movie at any rate, is almost pure, undiluted by any element either of cleverness or edginess or crassness or vulgarity (or visible anxiety about this, for that matter). He was apparently very gay, but nothing of that nature is remotely suggested in this plot that even our super-attuned modern sensibilities can readily discern. None of the characters really rise above being types; they don't possess much depth or roundness. However there are tropes and rituals, and gentle jokes, as well as various fumbling, Freudian-tinged 50sish explorations of human relationships. I liked the couple of the medical student and his girlfriend, though they were minor characters did not appear much in the final cut; I am assuming there was more of an explanation as to how she went from being dedicated to creating art and, it is implied, committed enthusiastically to free love in the opening scenes, to her abrupt decision at the end of the movie to get married and start pumping out babies as quickly as possible. The Deborah Kerr character was kind of ridiculous, especially for her to play, but this is the kind of movie where you go along with it, kind of like when the major gets arrested for harrassing women in a darkened movie theater you go along with the premise that, hey, he's not a bad guy, he's just lonely.

The Burt Lancaster-Rita Hayworth-Wendy Hiller love triangle was not believable in any of its aspects, perhaps because it was overloaded with all kinds of postwar class and emasculation issues that come off as ludicrous now at the expense of any kind of natural feelings. I love Burt Lancaster, and I know the presence of the American stars was probably considered exciting at the time, but he seems kind of out of place in this odd and dated but watchable and often interesting movie.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Buffalo Wild Wings

While I do for the most part lead a comparatively retired life in a dusty old house among dusty old books and shabby and mildewed old tables and cabinets, I still like to drop in once in a while--usually it ends up being quite a long while--at some loud, brassy modern barroom with a hundred gigantic televisions, video game consoles on the tables, frat party music pumping through the restroom, and cute young waitresses. I had forgotten to do this for several years until I was in the grocery store a few weeks ago and saw one such attractive woman** there who was wearing a Buffalo Wild Wings work shirt, at which the thought occurred to me that perhaps I ought to go there sometime. Of course I have long given up entertaining any thoughts of having any meaningful interactions even with women my own age, but for all that I am still biologically somewhat alive, and it still affects my spirits positively to see a few attractive women* on occasion, maybe (of course?) especially ones whose own spirits don't appear to be weighed down yet by children or bitter experience or the other cares of deep maturity***.

I found that I enjoyed indulging, for a little bit, in the overwhelming stimulation of the televisions, almost all of which were turned to sports stations. I have not had cable TV for years, and I have never owned a giant flat screen television, so the immensity of the picture and the scope of modern media coverage of sports are amazing spectacles for me to behold. I was especially drawn to the NFL Networks replaying of the previous week's games in 30 minute condensations. That would have seemed like Elysium to me as a ten year old. Once in a while I will sit down to watch a little bit of a football game at home, but my wife, who hated football long before it was fashionable, can only endure about a half an hour of this before some crisis or theretofore unsuspected (by me) necessary household project is found to exist which necessitates leaving off the game. Shortly after we were married my wife actually began taking down one of the walls of the living room in the middle of the NFC championship game--this had been planned, but it hadn't occurred to me that the demolition could, or would, begin during the game. This was what a football coach would call 'setting the tone' in the marriage. In truth the games are too long for any new age husband and father to reasonably give up more than a couple of Sunday afternoons for in a year, and those only if the weather is too bad to do anything outside. So I am not very attuned to the ethos of the man-cave lifestyle that is supposedly prominent in current society.

The food was not very good, which if I noticed it means it must have been beyond terrible. I know that refined opinion holds that all these kinds of places are atrocities against human culture, but usually I am either so hungry or otherwise stimulated that the awfulness does not make a pronounced impression on me (also I have no real idea what good food in the United States is supposed to taste like, or where to consistently go to get it,**** but that is another article). The excessive saltiness really did strike me this time, however. I think it is more that I am getting older and need less salt and am more sensitive to it. So I doubt I will go back there very often, if at all, is one of those places, contrived and phony, though not wholly ineffective, that holds out some kind of tantalizing promise that Fun really does exist, and that maybe you, or somebody anyway, could have it at Buffalo Wild Wings. They won't discourage you from pretending or imagining it to be the case, anyway.

As a case in point with regard to this, when I was in the restroom I saw a truly awesome poster the absurdity of which made me nearly double over with laughter at the time, and caused me to suppress chuckles throughout the rest of the day. Here it is:

The humor of course lies in the fact that the guy in the picture is experiencing a level of ecstasy at indulging in the Tuesday night beer and chicken deals at Buffalo Wild Wings that no one ever experiences in real life. People are not this ecstatic when they win Olympic gold medals or Nobel Prizes. Maybe some men are this ecstatic if they get somewhere with a woman a level or more of desirability higher than they really merit, but this almost never happens. Maybe desperate authors and academics who land a publisher or tenure track position feel something like this, but the glory they feel may be more delusional than that brought upon by the arrival of the basket of hot wings. Top line rock stars are never this ecstatic; nor are even second rank rock stars. John Tesh is said to get pumped in this way during a concert, but I cannot find any photographic proof even of that.

So I think the poster is kind of genius. It sums up what all ordinary--i.e. non-cool--men deep down want their night at their bar to feel like, and that they imagine must be what they would feel if they could suddenly transform into a cool guy--and makes them believe what ordinary bars are too real and honest to pretend, that this feeling is what they are selling, and that it truly can be bought. Of course I know it cannot really be bought. Or can it, provided one is emotionally shallow enough?

* I know that in much of the country the waitresses at these kinds of establishments tend towards a more extreme bimboish or sorority girl model that is beyond what a person like me could really relate to. However that extreme type doesn't really exist in New Hampshire, and the women at the place I went to were quite normal-looking, young and thin and with regularly proportioned bodies, this being really almost the whole source of their attractiveness, as they were otherwise almost entirely normal in their appearance.

**I did not see the person from the grocery store on the day that I went to the restaurant. She was probably slightly prettier than the ones who were there, but really as I say they were all of a very similar type and the overall effect was little less pleasing.

***It is telling how pitiful the state of modern manhood that I seem to be experiencing this as some kind of revelation. Of course I always have imagined it must be so in theory, but have had vanishingly fewer and fewer occasions to test it in practice.

****I have always wondered about whether the women frequenting and working at vegan and other alternative/new age establishments would be of the sort to provoke this mood boost in me. The problem is, I either really can't abide the food at all (veganism) or don't have the habits/rhythms/ sense of purpose to effectively hang around trendy coffee shops or those arty/organic/raw milk anti-mainstream America type restaurants. Yet I still believe this is where my natural crowd and all the friends I should have in life are really to be found.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Were Freaks Really What Made New York City Great?

I have links to a few other blogs in the right hand column of this page, but this has been a rather desultory process. Some of these have not published new material in upwards of a year, and the quality of some of the others, after my initially finding something in them that piqued me, has not remained consistently engaging. I suppose I will keep adding to the list whenever I find something that both publishes relatively regularly and has the sort of intelligence or humor or interests that I like. I come across very little that fits this description however, though I am sure there is a lot I would like out there, if I could manage to find it. I have not exactly cast any very large nets in this regard; it is more that I have turned over a few things that happen to have washed up on my little shore and seen something that made me want to put them on the shelf for a time. The links have never been a strength of the page and I almost never refer to them in my posts.

Today however I am going to refer to the 'Vanishing New York" blog, which is written by a guy named Jeremiah Moss, some of whose work has actually been published in real newspapers and magazines, including the New York Times. For those who are unfamiliar, the blog chronicles old-style Manhattan places, mostly restaurants and other small businesses such as barber shops and newstands, that are being/have been steamrolled by the ongoing gentrification and transformation of that island to its new identity as a luxury playground for the global elite. Moss deplores these changes. I find the economic forces at play in them unsettling, and as my affections for the city are mainly directed by a kind of patriotic nostalgia, change of the sort that is happening now threatens to make me feel even less at home and happy there than I have always been (and actually I almost never go there in real life. Still, I imagine there will be a time when my children are not little or I will have enough money and time to be able to go down for a few days a couple of times a year and go out to dinner and do other things I have always imagined I wanted to do there, though probably this will never be the case). I will admit to being impressed on recent visits with how clean the steets and parks are compared to the 80s and early 90s (let alone the infamous 70s), when one of my main impressions, doubtless from the circumstance that on those visits I didn't have anywhere to stay or any money to spend and therefore spent about eighteen hours a day walking everywhere in between catching the occasional nap on a park bench, was of the overwhelming amount of garbage and filth and the seeming physical impossibility that it could ever be eradicated. But Moss seemingly cannot bring himself to find much cheer or romance even in the lovely prospects that the restoration and brightening-up of older and architecturally preserved streets and landmarks offer, because he is too conscious of the costs, mainly in accessibility and character, that have made it possible.

One of Moss's primary laments is how the forces of ruthless wealth on such a scale that for a normal person to try to contend against it is the economic equivalent of trying to fight a tank attack and aerial bombardment with a bicycle corps, and the development that accompanies it, are clearing the city of freaks and any other free-thinking and challenging people with an eye toward making it attractive to tourists and other people devoid of personality who are more conducive to following the cues the corporate interests set out for them and expediting the processes of money-making.* He longs (along with many, many other people) for the days when the freaks were setting the tone in certain parts of New York City and keeping the kind of people who didn't get them, tourists and otherwise, where they belonged, which was decidedly not there. I have friends who had a similar attitude. If they walked into a diner or bar and there were a few transvestites sitting at the counter it was a great joy to them, a reassurance that they had found a place that was all right, and real. I never felt this exhilaration, I had good 1960ish liberal values, that tolerance was necessary and people should be free to be themselves and not persecuted, and I even had some sense that this was a part of why New York had become and was so great--but still, on a personal level, I found most of the extreme freakishness unattractive and not especially fascinating. Certainly they did not make New York. In the dream New York of my imagination, which is pretty much the 1920-1965 era, the lifeblood of the city are really normal people, some of whom end up doing great things, but most of whom are regular workaday family type people, who are maybe, stimulated by the environment and the institutions and their daily interactions with each other, just a little smarter, a little funnier, and a little more energetic than a similar collection of people would manage to be somewhere else, the cumulative effect producing the possibility that we identify as our own personal dream. I suppose we are all inclined to regard scenarios where people most like ourselves seem to have the most favorable circumstances for professional and social relevance and success, romance of our preferred type, etc, as the ideal, not merely for ourselves but for society as a whole. As indeed it is, from our own point of view.

*Complaining endlessly about tourists is of course a favorite pastime of a certain kind of New York City person, usually one who did not actually grow up there themselves, and whose personal contribution to the city's economic strength or cultural vitality and prowess seems as if it is not above questioning, if they are going to insist upon holding such attitudes. I say this as a person who has been largely relegated to dreaming even about going there as a tourist at this point. All this aside, I have never felt the presence of people who were obviously tourists to be anywhere near as overwhelming as it is in any of the famous cities of Europe. Maybe in the new post-2000 Times Square, but even there it was neither as crowded or as obvious as it is in most popular travel destinations. Even when I went to the Statue of Liberty about 80-90% of the other people on the boat were either orthodox Jews or very diverse school groups who seemed to be from pretty close by, if not perhaps Manhattan itself. And I did not see a single middle-aged fat couple from Iowa. I guess one of the complaints is that the tourists, who are extremely numerous, love chains and bad food generally which drives independent places out of business and causes the most popular areas to proliferate with characterless restaurants serving garbage. I don't think it is quite that simple. I believe most people, tourists or otherwise, want to have meals and experiences, especially in places like New York or Paris or Italy, that make them feel they are living a higher kind of life than they or almost anyone else is accustomed to, as often as they can. Most people have to eat several times a day, and if they have to work, or are on a tight schedule, or have children with them, or, as often happens in great cities, are timid about whether they will be welcomed at a place that looks to be of some quality or even that is populated by cool-looking people, they will probably, statistically, on average (i.e., not you, the way above average, sophisticated reader of exquisite taste) at some point in their life or vacation will for convenience's sake settle for a meal or two at the kind of establishment designed to accomodate this particular reality. Maybe you are pretty good, and you only go to the brand name places (I will include coffee shops in this as well) 3 out of 10 times. But of course if this ratio is repeated among 100,000 tourists, in the aggregate the individual chain locations will do much more business than the scattered and more individually numerous authentic/human places.