16 September, 2016

The Brotherhood Of The Popcorn

                 Do you love old movies?  Of course you do, that’s probably why you’re reading this.  Well, do I have a Saturday morning for you.

But first …

Movies are best as a shared experience.  We’ve all watched something by ourselves -- and what with being able to watch on the likes of our phones, the ease of that is getting better or worse (depending on your point of view) -- but nothing matches sitting with someone as the lights dim.  Friend, family, lover, doesn’t matter;  movies are made for an audience.  Jokes want a laugh, scares want a gasp, tears want to be handed a handkerchief.  And not solo, we as a crowd thrive on the camaraderie.  [I’m proof myself.  When my wife Diana and I went to see Double Indemnity (1944) at The New Beverly last month -- a movie we’ve both seen many times before -- I was consciously reminded how funny it is simply because of everyone laughing around us.  I knew the jokes were coming and I knew they were funny but hearing people laugh … didn’t improve the movie but … freshened it all over again.]  Nope, a phone can’t give you that.  (In fact, I can personally example this yet again:  When Diana and I fly somewhere, we split the audio jack on the same iPad so we can watch together.  ‘Cause it is more fun that way;  laughing, gasping … she hands me the handkerchief.  And we bring the iPad so we can bring our titles;  titles from the 30s, 40s, 50s, natch.  But I digress.) 

                Movies are best when they’re shared.

                Well, few people have elevated this to the level it deserves like Woody Wise and his Cliffhangers.  For the past thirty-five years, Wise and seven friends have met twice a month on Saturday mornings to watch movies.  And let me say that again if I need to:  twice a month, for thirty-five years.  They meet at Wise’s home, where he has a small theatre (look at that beauty below, complete with three-sheets!).  They have coffee and bagels and sandwiches and talk about life and movies and their lives with movies and then they sneak off to those theatre seats -- each of the eight Cliffhangers have their regular own -- to watch that Saturday’s lineup:  usually a Double Feature, often with a Cartoon, always with a Cliffhanger (hence their club name;  one of their club names but more on that in a bit).  What’s a Cliffhanger?  A Saturday afternoon Serial from the 30s and 40s;  12 or 15 Chaptered Adventures where at the end of each the hero is inescapably trapped … until the next episode.  Glorious staples for the theatre going kids in those golden years (and as-glorious to kids of all ages today).

Well, Cinematographer-Editor-Director Inda Reid [The Making Of The Nutcracker (2009)] found Woody Wise and his Cliffhangers so charming that she made the 2014 Documentary The Brotherhood Of The Popcorn, an almost-hour-and-a-half look at the eight gentlemen and their Saturdays (and there’s their other club name I was talking about):  The Brotherhood Of The Popcorn (named – like Lauren Bacall’s Rat Pack – by Wise’s wife Sandy).  To call Ms. Reid’s Documentary charming doesn’t do it justice though Wise and friends are just that, from meeting them individually to getting to spend some time at those special Saturdays, both around the kitchen table and in the theatre.  And they’re quite the individuals including a Truck Driver, House Painter, Teacher, two Animators, a Rockabilly Crooner and an Irishman (that’s how he’s tagged) in the mix.  The youngster in the group?  68 this year.  Not that age seems to matter.  All past is indeed prologue to friends getting together to watch movies. 

Reid herself wrote, “For over thirty-five years, Woody and The Cliffhangers have met to watch a double-feature (with a break between for a cliffhanger serial and lunch).  They talk about everything under the sun:  movies, stars, family, their kids, their pets, their surgeries, lives and loves.  And although the rules state that one cannot talk about religion or politics, they end up talking about that too.  Their unique personalities and individual life stories are just as interesting as the movies they watch.  We hope you will join us in the support of this special film that celebrates tradition, friendship, nostalgia and films the good ol’ fashioned way, with some good ol’ fashioned gentlemen.  They definitely don’t make ‘em like they used to.”  (And how easy it is to see how warmly she means the men and their movies.)

                  And what movies!  Look at the lineups for their last three get-togethers -- 

                  Saturday, 9/10/16
                  Chicago (2002)
                  The Falcon In Hollywood
                  Chapter 8 of King Of The Texas Rangers

                  Saturday, 8/27/16
                  The Front Page (1974)
                  Saps At Sea
                  Chapter 7 of King Of The Texas Rangers

                  Saturday, 8/13/16
                  My Darling Clementine
                  Charlie Chan At The Olympics
                  Chapter 6 of King Of The Texas Rangers

                  Sorry, I’m having so much fun typing these, here are two more --

                  Saturday, 7/30/16
                  Murder, My Sweet
                  Horse Feathers (1932)
                  Sylvester & Tweety in Canary Row
                  Chapter 5 of King Of The Texas Rangers

                  Saturday, 7/16/2016
                  The Thin Man (1934)
                  Spite Marriage
                  Tom & Jerry in Texas Tom
                  Chapter 4 of King Of The Texas Rangers

                  I don’t know about you, but I’m jealous;  I want to sit in that theatre on a Saturday morning and watch those Cartoons and Cliffhangers and Double Features!  I’m a big Falcon fan (particularly the Tom Conways), plus you have a quintessential Noir, Murder, My Sweet, and a quintessential Ford, My Darling Clementine (not to mention my wife Diana is a big Buster Keaton fan and you have his final Silent, Spite Marriage).  Plus Billy Wilder?  And Sylvester and Tweety and Tom and Jerry?  I thank you.  [I might pass on Chicago but “Nobody’s perfect.”  That said I do, believe it or not, like that it’s not just the 30s, 40s & 50s in there, and a quick glance at other Saturdays (Wise posts each lineup on the Brotherhood Of The Popcorn Facebook Page) shows a healthy dose of James Bond (always a treat).] 

                 Speaking of their Facebook Page, that’s how I first came across this Documentary and, believe it or not, Wise himself.  [I say believe it or not here because Wise has been involved with The Lone Pine Film Festival for twenty years and I didn’t know it until this year (I write embarrassingly).]  The Brotherhood Facebook Page was suggested to me in my feed;  probably because most of the pages I like circle Movies, Theatres, Los Angeles and Conservancy:  Nostalgia (including, yes, the great-if-you’re-a-fan Character Actors In Classic Films).  I “liked” Brotherhood on Facebook and started to see the Saturday lineups:  all these great titles scrolling by.  And I learned about The Documentary and wanted to get to a screening -- it’s been awarded at many Festivals -- but kept missing it.  Well, then there was a post on the Lone Pine Film Festival’s Facebook Page that Rawhide (1951) would be screening this year.  I’d done a write-up on that for my Tyrone Power Top 5, so I commented with a link.  And who should write back that he enjoyed it?  Mr. Woody Wise … who has been running films at The Festival for twenty years.  Woody and I started chatting and he was very kind to send me The Documentary on Blu Ray ... and here we are.

                 If you read my Blog regularly at all -- and I thank you -- you know I’m not one to particularly critique anything.  I’m continuing my Top 5s with Janet Leigh because I like them and want to share.  That’s it.  [Dad did the same with his Lone Ranger book (From Out Of The Past:  A Pictorial History Of The Lone Ranger), Lone Pine book (On Location In Lone Pine) and – particularly – two Lone Pine videos (On Location In Lone Pine, Vols 1 & 2).  I don’t think he disparages anything in any of them.  And what’s wrong with simply sharing?]  Well, if there’s a critique to be made at all with Brotherhood Of The Popcorn, it’s that I wish a little more time was spent at a given Saturday;  around the table, in the theatre.  Hearing more of their chatting.  More of their favorite Stars, Genres, Serials.  Those wonderful “arguments” that come out of days like these.  Their sitting in the theatre right after a screening and hearing them talk about those Films, that Serial.  As charming as the gentlemen are -- those Saturdays are -- I just wanted more there.  And maybe I’m being picky.  Maybe I am just jealous I don’t get to sit there too.  To listen … and talk with … and learn. 

What Inda Reid set out to document -- and she accomplishes it beautifully -- is herself share the charm of it all;  and, yes, there’s that word again.  I don’t know what else to call it but charming.  As Leonard Maltin himself wrote, it’s “An affectionate portait of friends from a wide range of backgrounds whose common interest is a love of old movies.  Brotherhood Of The Popcorn is disarming and enjoyable, especially if you happen to share that love.”  Disarming?  Perhaps in how enjoyable you find a seemingly simple subject as this to be for the almost-hour-and-a-half.  This is not groundbreaking cinema, nor should it be.  Where Reid & Co excel is in appreciating the material, knowing their audience, and writing a love letter to both at the same time.

That we get to be Reid’s audience and therefore – even if just by proxy – get to sit with Woody Wise and his Cliffhangers? 

That’s a happy Saturday morning indeed.

12 August, 2016

Citlalli's Prayer

The Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire has been better documented by more learned scholars than me;  suffice to say it was the significant event in the colonization of The Americas.  In 1521, Hernán Cortés took control of Tenochtitlan and the Aztec kingdom became the colony of New Spain.  On its rubble, Mexico City was born.  “Social historians like to focus on the fact that Cortés destroyed Tenochtitlan,” says Historian Felix D. Almaraz, “but what they conveniently overlook is that out of the rubble Cortés created Mexico City [which] became the political, religious and cultural center of New Spain.” 

Floods of Missionaries poured in, evangelizing the native Indians.  More than just a religion, The Church permeated Mexican society.  Long accustomed to the powerful priests of the Aztecs, the Indians readily adapted to the icons and rituals of The Roman Catholic Church.  Even the fundamental belief -- Christ’s sacrifice on The Cross -- was easily meshed with the Indians’ ancient belief in the power of blood sacrifice.  Several Indian Gods were Christianized, taking on the identity of The Catholic Saint.  Most significantly, the Aztec Goddess Tonantzin was resanctified as The Virgin of Guadalupe, an Indian incarnation of The Virgin Mary.  “There’s no question,” says Historian Raquel Aubio-Goldsmith, “that The Virgin of Guadalupe is connected to the indigenous past because of where she appeared, on a hill where there had been a temple to Tonantzin.  The person who sees her was an Indian, Juan Diego [this is now 1531], and her appearance opened the possibility of bringing people into Christianity.”

By the end of The 16th Century there was a wide network of shrines to The Virgin of Guadalupe throughout Mexico, and Her appearance to Juan Diego was documented by Miquel Sánchez in 1648.  The devotion continued to grow, especially when She was credited with ending a deadly epidemic that ravaged Mexico City in 1736.  In 1737 She was proclaimed Patroness of Mexico City, and in 1746 her patronage was accepted by all the territories of New Spain (which by then included part of present-day California as well as regions in Guatemala and El Salvador).
But The Virgin of Guadalupe’s role in Mexican history is not limited to religion, as She played an important role in Mexican Nationalism.  In 1810, Miguel Hidalgo named Her the Patroness of his Spanish revolt;  their battle cry, “Long Live Our Lady of Guadalupe.”  During a religious revival in the late 19th century, preachers declared that She not only freed Her people from idolatry but reconciled the Spanish and indigenous peoples in a common devotion.  In 1914, Emiliano Zapata carried Her banner when he entered Mexico City.  And in The Mexican Civil War (1926-1929), the rebels again championed her image. 

She is more than just Mexico’s Patroness.  She is the country’s mother. 

                   What does this mean to the enchanting tale of a young lady dreaming of something more in present day Los Angeles?  For Citlalli, the lead character in today’s story -- as well as Diana Kongkasem, its Writer-Director -- I imagine a great deal.

                   But we’ll get to that.

                   Citlalli’s Prayer, an eleven-minute Short from Kongkasem’s 2002 New York University Film Program, is the story of a young girl who is bullied at her new school and looks to a certain magical mother as her safeguard and safe-haven.  It is a simple story but that’s part of its strength.  I’ve already called it enchanting, and it’s easily that, but -- as a fairy tale, a parable -- I’ll also call it magical indeed because -- while the audience is left impressed by the artistry (crucial to all entertainment, even magic) -- Kongkasem wisely leaves us wondering what has happened.  More significantly, she lets us decide what it means.

                   It may seem trite to say the story is told from Citlalli’s point of view, but that’s not quite accurate.  Instead, it feels as if Kongkasem -- clearly comfortable in a child’s world -- has made us Citlalli’s invisible friend and we’re going through Citlalli’s life directly beside her.  To wit, when we see her Mother, we never quite see her face, as if we never raise our child’s head that far;  alas, I wish this was the same for The School Teacher.  (It’s also worth pointing out that even when we see the embodiment of our magical mother, we never quite see Her face either.  But more on Her in a moment.)  Whenever we interact with the world, being right next to our child heroine, it’s always from that level.  When we do experience another, the change is pointedly personified by … well, faith.

  Shot on 16MM in 1.33 (that wonderful square of old) by Cinematographer Rachel Morrison (Fruitvale Station, Cake, Dope) in a beautifully tinged palette, we find ourselves immersed in Citlalli’s world.  We could easily turn off the Color and find ourselves immersed in Jean-Pierre Jeunet shot by Gabriel Figueroa.  And that feels deliberate;  not decreed by monetary restrictions.  Kongkasem doesn’t take our hand and lead us into her film but instead drops us -- full deep end -- into her painting.  Set-in and shot-in Los Angeles’ Koreatown, there are no -- and consider the subject matter -- postcard pics of The City Of Angels;  no Hollywood sign or Beach or even Downtown … and that’s a good thing.  This is a story that belongs in Citlalli’s bubble.  Not at all claustrophobic (the opening shot is clouds against a bright blue sky) but -- whether inside or out -- there’s little room to breathe … again a good thing.  We feel Citlalli’s yearning to break free right along with her.

                And that painting?  When the palette is truly vibrant, it’s with the splashes of how Citlalli sees the world;  all its beauty in what she finds beautiful:  the Papel Picado hanging like stars in her bedroom, the painting of The Virgin of Guadalupe on the street wall as she walks to school, the flowers in her school’s courtyard.  Even when the bullies are bullying -- a heartbreaking beat in any context (and Kongkasem applaudingly sidesteps cliché) -- we’re not stricken for our hero because we know she’s better than they are.  (Admittedly, “better” is a tough word.  Not just at her Arts & Crafts but smarter, wiser;  wholly purer.)  All wonderful brushstrokes against the canvas.  In fact, so sure are the brushstrokes that Citlalli’s Prayer could be a Silent -- again a good thing -- the nuance of story well balanced by Kongkasem’s hand and in the face of our child hero, portrayed by newcomer Emily Suzuki.  It’s tough not to root for a young lady being bullied, but that doesn’t take away from Miss Suzuki carrying the film;  and us along with her.

               Kongkasem’s mother is Mexican, by whom she’s wonderfully influenced, so it’s no surprise this thesis should showcase that heritage.  But what’s interesting about today’s story is instead of using Mexicans as characters -- and I don’t even mean caricatures -- or religion as pepper to make the plot something “more” -- darker, brighter, sexier, more poignant;  any of the clichés for which it’s too often used -- Kongkasem simply tells her story in that world.  In fact, it isn’t “showcased” at all but portrayed as everyday reality;  likely because that’s simply who Kongkasem is (was at that age).  It’s not difficult to infer Citlalli is a young Kongkasem in the same way Richard Dreyfuss was Steven Spielberg in Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (that film of theirs specifically because of the intangible wonders they -- Dreyfuss the character and Spielberg the storyteller -- face).  Kongkasem uses a very real scenario, untampered by a single drop of “type,” to showcase what’s really important here:  the fantasy;  in my mind, the parable.

               Which brings us round to our history lesson;  that brief reminder of who The Virgin of Guadalupe is, how she came to be, what that means.  Brenda Canela (whose resume ranges from CSI to Little Miss Sunshine to Call Of Duty:  Ghosts) portrays Her embodiment but, really, The Virgin of Guadalupe is in every scene;  just as much as Citlalli.  And Her presence is felt just as much in today’s “institutions:”  instead of New Spain, it’s an urban school;  instead of the conquering of an indigenous tribe, we face school bullies.  And just as much as The Virgin of Guadalupe lifted Her people above the rubble of a newborn country, so does She lift Citlalli above the mediocrity imprisoning her.  And again -- I must stress this -- none of this is in caricature.  Or by type.  Or told melodramatically.  Rather, culture and religion are, here, as part of everyday life as oxygen.

And that makes it even more breathtaking.

I wonder if another great Mexican filmmaker saw today’s film and was as impressed.  His Pan’s Labyrinth -- made six years after Citlalli’s Prayer -- is also an enchanting fairy tale about a young lady yearning to break free from her world.  And Kongkasem certainly foreshadows Guillermo Del Toro’s masterpiece in its magical quality -- its take on magic -- including our introduction by a haunting lullaby.  Both raise the question, “Is the fantasy real?”  While Kongkasem’s Citlalli escapes into the arms of The Virgin of Guadalupe, we then see her walk back into the school;  and while Del Toro’s Ofelia lays bleeding, we then see her find her parents.  Do both child heroes find enough peace in the fantasy to accept reality?  Is that the magic? 

And is that enough?

It’s too often quipped, “Great art should make us think.”  I don’t believe that.  But it should make us feel.  It doesn’t always happen (or to each their own), so when it does with something as simple as an eleven-minute Short Film from fourteen years ago, yes, I’m enchanted.  So, in that, Citlalli’s prayer has whole-heartedly been answered.