Friday, October 21, 2016

Moving On to the Next Pile of To-Dos

I will get to those election and election-issue related essays. Especially those of us whose overall righteousness was subject to question anyway are being called to account for themselves in the wake of this ongoing debacle that has revealed the presence of so much rancidness in the body politic. But I have to make quick notes on all these movies and then I should be set on that for a little while.

Julia (2009)

This was pretty good, it had a plot that was both different and edgy (by bourgeois standards), professional grown up acting, much of it takes place in Mexico, which seems on film like a more free flowing and natural, and therefore in many ways more alive, place than the U.S. at this point. I thought the ending was anticlimactic, if perhaps the most 'realistic', though the film had not been particularly realistic up to that point. Tilda Swinton is the star, and I must say she is quite aggressively good as an abrasive, middle-aged alcoholic wastrel with no evident family, or career, or interests outside of drinking. Most of the characters in this movie come from this down and out milieu, or are professional criminals. The main plot involves Julia's kidnapping a child, the grandson of a well-known millionaire, with some vague idea of collecting a ransom. It held my interest.

Traffic (2000)

Before the Fall

This won the Best Picture Oscar in its year, which I still think of as recent, though in fact it was over a third of my life ago. It takes on the cross-border drug trade, and also has a good portion of it set in Mexico. It has some entertaining aspects, though a bit over the top, particularly the storyline where Michael Douglas's daughter goes from being an Ivy League-bound straight A student at her prep school to whoring herself out to vicious drug dealers in the hood to support her coke habit. Maybe this really happens a lot, but to me it is a sign of how the times have changed just since 2000. There kind of was a perception, certainly in the 90s, that hard drug use tended to be concentrated among spoiled upper middle class brat types and was something of a problem. But I don't perceive this to be the case now, while of course in poorer rural areas the rates of drug addiction and even drug-related death have soared to levels that I think would have been shocking in 2000. So the movie also is dated in the sense that the serious problem it was trying to address seems only to have gotten gradually worse, at least up to this time.

Rear Window (1954)

More my scene

This is, thus far, my favorite of Alfred Hitchcock's later (post-1950) movies. Sitting at a window in a big important city looking out at people, with my beautiful girlfriend attending me and engaging with me in ongoing commentary, appeals to my sensibility anyway, and then there are the various fascinations that whatever version of the past I am watching hold for me. So this one is very easy for me to get into. The plots of most of these Hitchcock films, and especially their resolutions, always seem rather simple and almost primitive to me, but of course the style and composition and the intelligence and wit of the dialogue are where their main value lies for me. I know there are endless critical studies that explain the intricacies and hidden depths of these movies in excessive detail, and I have read some of them, but I am rarely struck by anything in them that seems important. What is important here are the simple activities of seeing, and thinking, and talking, and noticing, and offering something for others to notice.

I missed the Hitchcock cameo in this. I have to assume he was at one of the songwriter's parties, or passed by the alley.

Since Donald Trump has now unleashed a scarcely precedented outpouring of feminine rage in this past week, which is probably not going to abate until at least after the election, if even then, I did take note of the especially egregious sexism of Jimmy Stewart's war buddy the detective in his dismissive analysis of the workings of the feminine mind. The popular entertainment of the 50s and 60s, for reasons I have explored elsewhere in my writings, seem to be the most offensive to our sensibilities in this regard. In my opinion the condescension and general assurance of male competence was not as pronounced in the 20s, 30s and even early 40s. The combination of success in the war and the male-centric prosperity that arose after it made American men feel perhaps a little overly good about themselves, at least as vis-a-vis women.

In addition to her other attractions, Grace Kelly is probably the most famous figure to emerge from Philadelphia's Irish Catholic community, with which I have familial connections as well. In other words I am kind of claiming an especial closeness to her.

The Bank Dick (1940)

A W.C. Fields comedy that seems to have claimed the mantle among modern critics as the Most Essential of his titles. I didn't really get it. I thought it was silly, slow, cheap-looking, and not remotely funny. Of course the experts can't be that wrong, so I will assume I am missing something. I had never actually seen a W.C. Fields movie, so I was expecting him to be a lot different, namely a more slashing wit and the kind of, if not manic, certainly aggressive energy that I associate with more modern comedians. None of this is in evidence here, in which the humor, or attempts at it, take fairly mild and languid forms. Not one of my favorites.

Grand Illusion (1937)

Regularly celebrated as one of the greatest movies of all time, and among the most poignant. If one of the themes of the film is the passing of the aristocratic ethos of old Europe as a result of World War I, it is experienced by us as being made with a particularly old European, and especially old French, sensibility of its own that was itself about to pass away forever. I had seen this a very long time ago, and I'm sure I liked it, or the atmosphere of it but I had not remembered it all that well, and doubtless almost all of the class and historical symbolism must have gone over my head. But I was more attuned to that this time. I should note, it also helps that I have a new television that is about five times as big as the one I used to have, so watching movies now is much more like a theatrical experience. Jean Gabin made the strongest impression on me that he ever has (I assume I must have seen him before in something besides this; on the other hand, after perusing his 'filmography', perhaps I haven't). He has a great star presence. The role of the enigmatic von Stroheim of course is also legendary, but it is borne out in the viewing, his signature and unusual combination of haughtiness and deep melancholy is very affecting. I had not recognized Pierre Fresnay, whose work as Marius in the Fanny trilogy I remember praising, as Captain Boldieu, nor Dito Parlo, the German farm widow, as the newlywed from L'Atalante. I note these trivialities because all of these movies represent something important to me--indeed, in some ways the entire purpose of this whole project is as an excuse to see certain films without appearing to unduly favor them--and I like to be conscious of the relation and continuity of the artistic people involved in them.

While I am willing to believe this may be one of the twenty or so greatest films ever, I cannot with honesty rank it there on my own list, because for all of its depth of character and generosity of spirit I have not been able to reach the point with it where it has resonated with me emotionally, in terms of true love. But I do admire it.

The Awful Truth (1937)

Even though I do my best when finding a movie to put on my list to have as random and eclectic a selection as possible, there are periods when by whatever coincidence certain actors seem to turn up multiple times within a very short space. I have gone through a Toshiro Mifune period, a Burt Lancaster period, even a mini-Fernando Rey period. For the last year or so I feel like I have entered a heavy Cary Grant period, after almost never encountering the man over the first forty-five years of my existence. To my mind he has not aged as well as a movie star as some of the other golden age titans like Spencer Tracy or Jimmy Stewart or Bogart, because he is either strangely impersonal (queue the famous Mel Brooks monologue about going out to lunch with Cary Grant) or because his persona is not really like that of anyone nowadays not only in show business but in life itself. My wife likes him however, and in addition to the movies I write about here we have seen quite a few of his other ones with the children (whom we periodically subject to oldies as a supplement to whatever other education they might have picked up over the years), such as Arsenic and Old Lace, Room For One More, etc. And of course a lot of his movies are pretty good or otherwise have some interest about them, but him personally I don't really find appealing at all. Something about him makes me uncomfortable. Not like Jean Gabin or Erich von Stroheim. I'm very comfortable around them.

Getting back to the subject at hand, The Awful Truth is I guess one of the more celebrated of the 30s screwball comedies, in which genre Grant was one of the true mainstays. His foil in this one is Irene Dunne, whom we have also been seeing a lot of lately (Anna and the King of Siam; Life With Father), though about ten years younger than she was in these other roles. I like it--I don't love it, the screwball comedy not being a genre I have fully taken to (yet). Maybe I will watch this again soon, as part of the children's classics series. I am not sure if my wife has ever seen it, and she often has very original insights about things, because she is intelligent but is not mentally in the same rut as everyone else because she reads very little contemporary media, criticism, and social commentary. One thing I have to admit is that, as much as I love a lot of 1930s Hollywood product, the over the top depiction of wealthy characters that flourished in this era I often find to be wearying. All the furs and jewelry, the enormous doors and dining rooms, the silver table settings, the silk bathrobes and the top hats, the dogs of the ladies, when there is one. I don't find it attractive, I suppose.

The Crowd (1928)

Hitting a little too close to home at times

Great late silent movie about mediocrity in a mass society and its feeble consolations that is surprisingly modern and still packs a considerable emotional punch almost 90 years later. It isn't available on DVD for some reason (it was one of the first 25 movies designated for preservation by the Library of Congress, so it's not like it is that obscure) so I sprung for a VHS copy. I can't recommend it enough, though it is a little depressing. My wife found out that a child dies in it and refuses to watch it on that account, which is unfortunate, since I would have valued her observations and perhaps reassurance about the film, since the two lead characters are quite similar to us, the man being delusional and lacking the drive to advance in life, eventually becoming an unemployed and unemployable loser, the woman (played by notable silent star Eleanor Boardman) being supposedly ordinary but appearing to her husband of course as the most beautiful girl in the world, which she in fact is close to being, more responsible and harder-working but too indulgent of her husband's flaws and, the movie suggests, culpable in their situation by not taking a more hard-headed stand against his frittering away of money on entertainments and other frivolities. There are just so many famous scenes that are painful to watch, because the director is not wholly sympathetic to his subjects; he is a little, and they are to some extent victims of circumstance, but they also walk blithely into every trap the world has set for them, and we can't really admire that, can we? It is an all-time great movie though, and in its time very innovative.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Return to Nothing

Not much time left before the election. Like so many people nowadays, I feel, between the fate of the Republic being possibly at stake and my own special place in society due to various superiorities of my person, personally obligated to make at least one concluding statement about it. But I am not going to do that tonight, because I am so far behind on my movie notes that I have to take a couple of posts just to bring those semi-current.

Anna Christie (1930)
Adaptation of one of Eugene O'Neill's plays, early talking picture, starring Greta Garbo in the title role in what her first appearance in a sound film. Reminiscent of German expressionism, and in fact, the DVD included a German language version of the movie that must have been made concurrently, as it also stars Greta Garbo (though the other actors are all different), and the sets and scenes are more or less identical. I have read the play, but not seen it on the stage. This seems to me a more or less satisfactory adaptation. Apart from being Swedish (Annie Christie is a 1st generation Swedish-American), the glamorous Garbo does not at first seem an obvious choice to play a hard-drinking sailor's daughter who has had a hard time of it in life herself. The characters are still well on the outside of mainstream American society, certainly the respectable part of it. As with many O'Neill plays, the characters are drawn from the rougher laboring classes, and the obstacles they face, with the emphasis in this being on the woman Anna, to make their way through life with any degree of stability and respectability are largely particular to those ranks of society. The movie achieves a grittiness that is suited to the source, an ability that was lost as the 30s went on, largely doubtless as a result of the Code, which facilitated the trend towards 'overstatement' that became dominant as the decade went on,  though I also suspect that due to the inevitable improvements in production values that something of this effect would have happened anyway.

The film was directed by Clarence Brown (active. 1916-1952), who had a solid, if not quite spectacular career. He also directed the film version of the fine O'Neill comedy, Ah Wilderness! (1935) which I have not seen. Others of his movies that I have seen are The Yearling (1946), which had good points about it but was not gripping, and the 1951 version of Angels in the Outfield, a light picture about baseball, Roman Catholics and lady sportswriters, which I once watched with my two older children and they seemed to enjoy it, so I am positively inclined towards it for this and many other reasons particular to myself.

The King and I (1956)

Classic, or once-classic, musical, and the third version of the Anna story which I watched after reading the book earlier this year. While I am often pretty enthusiastic about what is now perceived as popular art from this time period, a lot of the stuff that achieved blockbuster-level success in that era has not aged so well. I would include most of the film versions of the Rogers and Hammerstein musicals in this category (I do think that The Sound of Music, itself much maligned nowadays, holds up better than the others). They do not contain a lot of things that excite me at this point in my life. There is only really one song in The King and I that I like ("Getting to Know You"). I like Deborah Kerr, mainly in her 1940s British movies, and she is likable here, but it feels at times like the production is somehow not in sync with what she has to bring to it. Yul Brynner is so famous as the King and devoted the better part of his life to the role and I respect that, though I think I actually prefer Rex Harrison in the 1946 non-musical version. Even when he is humorous, Brynner comes off as being rather serious and mannered, while Deborah Kerr I think was not that way by nature, but a lot of her roles in the 50s especially took place in movies that had these kind of restraints built into them against which I feel like she was frequently mismatched.

On the whole I like the 1946 adaptation better, not that it was itself a great movie, but it is closer to the feeling of the Margaret Landon book, to which none of the movie versions in my opinion really add anything.

Safe Haven (2013)

Once in a while some odd thing like this, an adaptation of a Nicholas Sparks novel, will manage to land on my list of movies. I will watch them to make sure I am not missing anything worth noting (usually not) and to get an idea of what kinds of things people are into nowadays and how they live or aspire to live or perceive themselves as living. Nicholas Sparks is something of the Thomas Kinkade of literature, and there is nothing in the movie that would be of interest to a sentient person, with the exception of the circumstances that: (1) there is not a single person in the entire movie who is not white. Indeed there is not a single character who is not an American, or at least who identifiably speaks non-American accented English. (2) there are also no people who present as identifying as remotely gay, let alone trans or any of those other in-between genders that most people still need to be brought up to speed on. (3) This is not quite as important, but the present day southern town in which this movie was set was not only devoid of people of color, foreigners and homosexuals, but any sign of recognizable national franchises or even brands. (4) It made quite a lot of money at the box office, over 97 million dollars (it cost 28 million dollars to make), and was the #3 movie in the country on its opening weekend, and not very far behind #s 1 and 2. It's obviously mostly women, and very white ones, and not, I think, particularly old ones, who have to be consuming this slobber. Probably a lot around my age. Probably not terribly intellectual, but suffering from varieties of the same discontents and quiet desperations that afflict their more intellectual sisters, channeled in different streams of frustration, and perhaps not always as consciously apparent, even to themselves...

Given all the seeming brouhaha about the lack of representation of multicultural people in Hollywood, which nearly everyone in the industry publicly at least seems to agree with, I wonder how the actors and other professionals who work on movies like this that are blatantly and aggressively exclusive of non-white people are treated by the good progressives who as far as publicity goes dominate the scene. The star was the admittedly strikingly pretty and very Aryan Julianne Hough, native of Utah, where her father was the chairman of the state Republican party, country music singer, and two-time winner on the Dancing With the Stars television show. She has not appeared in many movies, but she gets some work, most recently in Dirty Grandpa, which just came out this year (and made about the same money as Safe Haven, though Hough was not the star). The male lead, Josh Duhamel, has been in number of productions, most notably the Transformers movies, and appears to be somewhat established as a second or third tier star. He was a fashion model, and is apparently what frustrated 30-something Middle American women envision as an ideal lover/husband. He is originally from North Dakota...

Will stop here. But there is more, much more, to come.