17 May, 2017

Unlocked


            
          Joss Whedon made a Short Film.

            Those words ought to be cause for grand cheering (and they are) but they’re also cause for me to write a little something more on The Quiet Place.  You remember the last time we were here, two years ago.  That wasn’t because of a Short Film but because he’d made the $250 Million -- grossed $1.5 Billion -- Avengers:  Age Of Ultron and some people had issue with the way he treated its ladies.  I only digress to that because it caused him to leave Twitter for a while.  Then, in September, he returned to Social Media to release a round of Short Films about Voting (yes, against Trump, but mostly just, “Get out there and do it.”)  These were, for the most part, cheered grandly and life seemed to move on (as well as it has given November).  Then, just recently, some people felt he stepped into it again with a Tweet about Paul Ryan (this is the least Alt Right one I could find) and Another on Mother's Day (ditto).  Much like the issue with Age Of Ultron, the fervor was bonfired by people that don’t know Whedon too well -- if at all -- and, well, mountains from molehills.  Of Paul Ryan and his Mother, Whedon himself said, “So I tweeted something that inadvertently offended everyone except the people I was trying to offend. I'm sorry. I'll be quiet for a bit.”  (And I only link to all this so you have full disclosure.  I can’t rightfully support or condemn without acknowledging.)  In any event, grand cheering or not, life moved on again.

            To just this morning when Joss Whedon released his new Short Film, this time in support of Planned Parenthood.  It’s beautiful and poignant and heartbreaking and hopeful -- and, PS, has no Dialogue -- and is the kind of thing we expect from him while still being surprised impressed by his masterful simplicity.  I support Planned Parenthood.  I say that to -- again -- disclose fully.  Because “for or against” isn’t what this piece is about (the Program or Whedon’s Short).  Neither is why I wanted to write this.  No, this piece is about a ridiculous -- read "deserves ridicule” -- part of what I expect to get bonfired from this Short's release:  the inevitable, “Who gives a shit what a Celebrity Millionaire thinks?!"

           Well, a lot of people.  More significantly, there are a lot of shits to give.


             I saw this Short early this morning and as I was driving into work I thought -- this is true now, this is what I was thinking about;  not how important Planned Parenthood is (undeniably so) or how much I liked the Short (admittedly a trivial point) but -- “Thank God there are people out there doing this.”  Doing what?  Saying something.  Thank God there are people that matter saying something.

             Hold on.  Joss Whedon matters?  Maybe not to you, but he sure does to a lot of people.  And there are a lot of Celebrities out there using their stardom for a little greater good.  (And, sure, we can say Stephen Colbert and other Late Nighters comedically spar but that's their job.  Some of it's honest and some of it's ratings and -- I mean this -- good for them, I thank them too.)  But I'm looking at you, Ms. Meryl Streep at The Oscars.  And you, Ms. Leah Remini and your show taking on Scientology.  And you, Mr. Leonardo DiCaprio and your work defending just our, you know, planet.  (Christ, we can even throw one at Scott Baio.  Now you really might not care, but the man stood up and shouted.)  Look, [fill in any name] may not matter to you, but they are voices and they have a stage -- to thousands, millions, countries -- and they are heard.  So while you may not give a shit, there are many people out there whose opinion may very well be swayed by a thank-you speech, a TV Show, a Short Film.  More importantly (I hope) their awareness is raised and they can decide for themselves.  But -- sorry, folks this is the very nature of Pop Culture -- sometimes that very awareness -- much less opinion -- starts with a Celebrity saying something is or isn't cool.  And, me, I'm impressed when Star-Studded So-And-So comes out just for the cause.

            Why is Joss Whedon coming out of The Quiet Place now?  This, from a Huffington Post article:  The House of Representative recently voted to pass a Healthcare Bill that would defund Planned Parenthood, which is a critical provider of women’s healthcare. As Whedon shows in his video, Planned Parenthood provides in the form of general care, cancer screenings, contraception and education.  Most of the clinic’s controversy stems from abortion procedures which only account for 3 percent of its services.  According to CNN, the majority of services are in regards to birth control (about 34 percent) and treatment for STDs (about 42 percent).”  Whedon said, “If politicians succeed in shutting down Planned Parenthood, millions of people lose access to basic health services.  How can these be at risk?”  (This in a statement to Entertainment Weekly.)  Whedon’s Short Film -- titled Unlocked ­-- is what a world without Planned Parenthood would look like.  The piece rewinds to the exact moment that sparked these situations:  when Planned Parenthood closed.  In a reverse reality, where the clinic is open, the women are able to change their future with a cancer screening, birth control and a peer educator program on safe sex.  A girl goes to college, a mother lives to celebrate a birthday with her family, and a teenage girl is able to prevent her friend’s STD with a class on safe sex.  Unlocked asks, “What world do you want?”  Whedon again:  “I’ve supported Planned Parenthood in the past, but until I worked with them closely on this, I didn’t understand how many services they -- and for some, they alone -- provide.”

              So why do I care what Joss Whedon has to say?  Because, once again, he came out of The Quiet Place.  After Ultron and his Save The Day Campaign and the recent Twitter hits -- and, yes, with, still, a career and wife and children to consider -- he came out at all.  Full disclosure again, I am a fan and have worked with him.  But none of that matters as much as the dude doesn’t need to say anything but still does.  He doesn’t need to make Short Films about Voting (on his own time, on his own dime) but he did.  He doesn’t need to make a Short Film about Planned Parenthood (ditto) but he did.  More significantly than “he can,” he knows he’s going to get flack for it and does it anyway.  You and I post something on Facebook?  We start a hundred(s)-person chit-chat.  Joss Whedon posts something and -- they like it -- his (“nearing a deal”) upcoming Batgirl gets a boost at the box office.  They don’t like it?  Warner Bros gets death threats (and, worse than that, Batgirl doesn’t do as well at the box office).  He knows this, is fully steeped in the consequences (not to mention, probably, berated by his PR People for doing it) yet, still, there he is.  And not quietly at all.  For me, I'm grateful there are still Celebrities using their stages -- and time and money -- to say such things;  to do something about their causes.  Doesn’t matter if you agree.  Joss Whedon says it because he needs to.  And -- as I was driving into work this morning I thought -- that’s something to cheer.
 
           Grandly.


28 April, 2017

The Manchurian Candidate

          It’s interesting that, as I write this entry, The Frank Sinatra Bungalow is back in the news.  This is the little building that was his unofficial dressing room -- more a hideaway -- when he worked at Samuel Goldwyn in the fifties and sixties.  That studio is The Lot now;  if you live in Los Angeles, the studio across the street from The Formosa (yes, the bar in L.A. Confidential).  It’s been The Lot since the nineties.  Before that it was The Warner Annex, before that Samuel Goldwyn, before that United Artists, before that Pickford-Fairbanks (who bought it from Jesse Hampton in 1919).  Some of the movies shot there over the years?  Robin Hood (1922), Stagecoach (1939), Up In Arms (1944) which you can read about in my Danny Kaye Top 5, The Best Years Of Our Lives, Witness For The Prosecution (1957) which you can read about in my Tyrone PowerTop 5, Some Like It Hot, West Side Story, Apocalypse Now, Se7en (sparking a run of Fincher films) and, yes, L.A. Confidential.  In TV it hosted Sinatra and Bob Hope and Lucille Ball (in her final series Life With Lucy) and True Blood and, in 2014, became home to Oprah’s OWN.  It's still a major studio space that few people know even exists.
            
           Without digressing too much from why we’re here today, The Frank Sinatra Bungalow was once part of the lot (whatever its iteration) until -- as happens to all lots -- its land was cut-up yet again and The Bungalow became part of The DWP next door.  And so its future is in question.  The space where Sinatra hid-away while shooting The Frank Sinatra Show (1957-1960), while recording The Concert Sinatra (1962) and while starring in two of his four-picture-deal with United Artists;  one of which is ours today.  That little bungalow is very likely where he learned his now famous memory, “Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life.” 

            The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
            w George Axelrod 
                from the novel by Richard Condon
            d John Frankenheimer

            [MORE]


14 February, 2017

Musical Notes

There’s a moment in 1942’s Yankee Doodle Dandy that defines its genre.  It’s at the end, after George M. Cohan’s meeting with President Roosevelt but before he’s outside in the street parading with the troops … to his own song.  And remember what’s brought him here:  it’s Opening Night of his New Show, back on the stage after years away, and he was summoned to The White House to meet The President.  Cohan’s nervous because in his New Show he plays The President but when he gets to The White House and sits with the man he ends up telling his life story.  Turns out it couldn’t be better because Roosevelt’s brought him there to award him The Congressional Medal Of Honor (Cohan was the first Entertainer to receive the award).  He thanks The President with what’s already become the picture’s heart-tug -- “My father thanks you …” -- and then he’s on his way out.  And that would be a great ending, a beautiful ending.  Even if we cut outside and he stepped in line with those troops on parade (with the great exchange with the soldier:  “Seems to me I do!”) we’d have an appropriately rousing cap to the heart-tug. 

But that’s not the moment. 

It’s him coming down the stairs. 

He’s just come out of meeting Roosevelt on opening night of his new show and he’s told his life story and he’s been given the award.  And that’s when it happens.  While he’s coming down the stairs, he does a little dance.  It’s simple and elegant (not to mention while he’s coming down the stairs) and it ends as it began, without missing a step.  George M. Cohan just came out of being summoned to The President of The United States, and he tap dances his way out the door.

That’s a moment.

I hadn’t thought I’d be writing about this until my wife Diana got me La La Land on vinyl for Valentine’s Day.  I’ve been humming along to the Soundtrack -- on Spotify -- pretty regularly since we saw the film in December so she knew I’d love it:  the vinyl (it’s blue!).  But it was also icing on a cake I hadn’t quite realized was baking;  that I’d have to write about it, you see.  Because Damian Chazelle’s love letter to Jazz and Hollywood and Dreamers and Love -- wrapped up as an original modern Musical -- is impossible to ignore, fan or not.  And I was reminded of another article on the picture (as it’s on Stage And Cinema which hosted Jason Rohrer’s and my series on Billy Wilder) that … well, I also had to write about (and more on that in a bit).  So here we are, dear readers:  

The Musical.

And, mostly, The Movie Musical.  That is, not Broadway per se:  the indisputable powerhouse of 1964 (Hello Dolly! and Fiddler On The Roof at the same time) or the current Hamilton!  Nor Television per se:  the indisputable powerhouse of 2009’s Glee (which sold 13 million albums and won three Golden Globes and four Emmys, including Best Series).  Of course, no matter what we’re talking about, I can’t do so without talking about how we got here.  So, the current belle of the ball?  Yeah, La La Land was birthed in 1927.

By The Jazz Singer.

No, that movie wasn’t the first full-length Talkie (that was 1928’s Lights Of New York), nor was it the first full-length Musical (that was 1929’s The Broadway Musical;  which, by the by, won the second-ever Best Picture Oscar).  But The Jazz Singer?  No, you can’t help but start there.  Why?

Because it was Al Jolson. 

To say we applaud The Musical for the advent of Sound in Movies is a little bit of a stretch except to say Al Jolson -- the singer named The World’s Greatest Entertainer -- was such a big star that Warner Bros was willing to bank The Sound Gamble on him.  That The Jazz Singer was such a success was three-fold:  the Sound worked, it was Al Jolson, and he was singing.  It was such a success that Warner Bros immediately followed it with another Jolson:  The Singing Fool.  It was only partially a talkie as well but that didn’t matter;  most of that talking was singing.  It too was such a success that -- Jolson or not -- Audiences wanted -- and therefore Studios made -- more Musicals.  Why?  You’ve all heard how Actors were terrified of being heard (yes, Singin’ In The Rain spoofs it wonderfully) so the easy answer is singers could, you know, sing.  Studios could fill a lot of that new sound space with song;  easier to play, easier to sell … and, yes, easier to sync.

The thirties saw the studios outdoing one another;  and however The Great Depression bound audiences, they found time and money for Musicals.  Trick was, however fast the studios churned, audiences were insatiable;  for more and bigger and better.  Enter Busby Berkeley, a Broadway Choreographer plucked by Warner Bros to reinvent the wheel.  And reinvent he did ... with pure spectacle.  Look at his sequences in 42nd Street and Footlight Parade before fully Directing -- launching Judy Garland & Mickey Rooney -- with Babes In Arms and Babes On Broadway (both of which hold up well) and he did an unused Scarecrow number in The Wizard Of Oz (which you can now see on that Blu Ray).  New to Mr. Berkeley?  He didn’t just do Musicals.  Check out his great departure, the John Garfield Noir They Made Me A Criminal. 

Musicals hit their peak in the forties when -- similar to our being wearied by The Great Depression -- audiences fought their way to theatres to escape World War 2.  The forties were a new golden age for Musicals in that -- instead of “the cut-away spectacle” (viz Mr. Berkeley) -- The Movies patterned after Broadway where Story and Character used Song & Dance as an integral part of the narrative.  Now, if Berkeley must be mentioned, so must this gentleman:

Arthur Freed.

He’d been on the MGM lot for a number of years as a songwriter and had done the scores for The Broadway Melody, Hollywood Revue and Going Hollywood among others.  Within ten years he’d head The Freed Unit, given practically free reign to produce Movies.  Musicals.  Sure, he too had a hand in The Wizard Of Oz and Babes In Arms and Babes On Broadway and Girl Crazy.  But let’s jump to his big ones (and when I’ve just listed those four titles I hope these mean something) --

Meet Me In St. Louis
Ziegfeld Follies
                   Easter Parade
On The Town
Annie Get Your Gun
Royal Wedding

Well, now let’s jump to his big ones (and when I’ve just listed those six titles I hope these mean something) --

An American In Paris
Singin’ In The Rain
The Band Wagon
Brigadoon
It’s Always Fair Weather

It’s impossible not to appreciate his contribution to the genre.
           
By the sixties, Television cut into all Theatrical popularity but significantly Musicals;  mostly because of the expense it took to produce a Musical at the level audiences were accustomed.  Aside from Elvis Presley -- who by his cinematic premiere in ‘56’s Love Me Tender had reached a popularity close to Al Jolson -- the studios were reluctant to invest in Originals and the trend of Broadway adapting Movies began to reverse as Hollywood once again looked to The Street for source material.  This resulted in more than a mere recycling and in a number of instances good movies:  White Christmas and Garland’s A Star Is Born (both in ’54) through My Fair Lady and West Side Story and, of course, The Sound Of Music (in ’65).  (Oliver! in ’68 was the last Musical for thirty-four years to win Best Picture, but I don’t think it holds up too well.  Still, ’68 was the year Barbara Streisand won her first Academy Award for reprising Fanny Brice in Funny Girl, and I dare someone to say “Don’t Rain On My Parade” isn’t a great number.)  

We cite ‘72’s Cabaret as great -- and Bob Fosse rightly won for his work there -- but the seventies reversed the turn Warner Bros made in the thirties.  Spurned by Vietnam, audiences looked to darker stories such as The Godfather (which beat Cabaret for Best Picture) and Bonnie And Clyde and The Graduate and Easy Rider and it wasn’t until ‘77’s Star Wars -- not a Musical, of course -- that there was a light in that tunnel.  The eighties didn’t fair much better for Singin’ & Dancin’ until Jeffrey Katzenberg was given the reins at Disney and wonderfully turned that tide with some true greats;  and Animated.  Look at his run in seven years:

 The Little Mermaid (1989)
 Beauty And The Beast
 Aladdin
 The Nightmare Before Christmas
 The Lion King
 Pocahontas
 The Hunchback Of Notre Dame (1996)

Interestingly, this is about the time Broadway rebounds with her best run since the mid-sixties: 

A Chorus Line (1975)
Cats
Les Misérables
The Phantom Of The Opera
Chicago (whose film won Best Picture in 2002)
The Lion King
Mamma Mia!
Wicked (2003)

How big were those hits?  Five are still running.

There would be movie versions of some -- Chicago, Phantom, Les Miz and Mamma Mia! come to mind -- but, to be fair, they aren’t very good.  And then you have the bizarre hat trick of The Producers which started as a Movie (and won Mel Brooks an Oscar his first time out) then became a Hit (and Tony-winning) Show which then became a Movie of that Show (which, fairly, you may have forgotten).

The one Movie Musical in recent years that truly stood out was 2001’s Baz Luhrmann smash Moulin Rouge!  A kind-of original in that it was an Original Screenplay with two Original Songs, its genius -- and success -- lay in peppering Hit Pop Songs as Musical Numbers;  including one of the best medleys ever filmed as Christian and Satine climb the elephant.  A lot of people called it a crutch, a gimmick -- Elton John and Madonna in Bohemian Paris -- but it’s exactly what a Musical should be;  what The Jazz Singer did almost 75 years before.  It gave the audience something brand new … that they could sing along to.

                   So.  This year’s smash, La La Land.

                   Love it or hate it -- love or hate the genre -- it's an unarguable commercial and critical success.  Now, one of the things I mentioned at the beginning of this was that other article.  Why?  Because of how grossly inaccurate it was and my feeling I needed to address.  Of course, I don’t believe in firing shots across any bow without justification so, as quickly as I can:

               Mr. Corti wrote, “The zig-zagging camerawork is reminiscent of Robert Elswit’s in Boogie Nights.”  Robert Elswit was the (very talented) Cinematographer on Boogie Nights but Director Paul Thomas Anderson asked for the shot while Steadicam Operator Andy Shuttleworth made it happen.  Sticking with the technical for a moment, Corti wrote, “‘Another Day In The Sun,’ a single-take wonder of 100 performers that impresses thanks to Linus Sandgren’s swift cinematography and Mandy Moore’s choreography.”  Here again the Cinematography and Choreography are extraordinary but to suggest this was a genuine oner isn't just spotlighting a naïve eye but takes away from Sandgren and Moore designing how much to do where and when as well as Chazelle conducting and Editor Tom Cross orchestrating.  Praise the end result, even incorrectly, at least praise the whole team.

Corti wrote, “[Sebastian] fastidiously memorizes facts about Charlie Parker and learns songs off an old vinyl LP by ear [but] can’t remember the night when his girlfriend’s passion project production opens.”  Sebastian didn’t forget, he was busy at work – he chose not to give up what he had to do at work – and rushed to her afterward.  This wasn’t bad memory but intentionally part of his character’s flaw, and therefore their relationship’s.   

Corti wrote, “What’s amusing about old movie musicals is how the lead performers are triple threats (equally great at acting, singing, and dancing) but they struggle to make it either as an entertainer or a love interest. Here is a film where the leads don’t sing great [sic] or even dance basic choreography adequately, but their characters’ prospects look more and more attainable as the film plays on.  This is a tremendous obstacle because it undercuts the story about how tough it is to make it in Hollywood.”  Now, I wouldn’t have nitpicked his mentioning Mr. Elswit and Boogie Nights had that early faux pas not spawned an accumulation.  But by this point I’d realized Corti knew little of Story and Technique and even less of Old Movie Musicals;  that he likely only screened a few to prep his article.  So let’s just use examples from the films it seems he’s seen.  In Singin’ In The Rain, Debbie Reynolds couldn’t dance, could barely sing (Gene Kelly got her around the floor and Betty Noyes dubbed her vocals).  Catherine Deneuve in either of Jacques Demy’s famous, wonderful Musicals?  Moves as necessary and is dubbed as well.  (Though I’m sure Mr. Corti knows almost everyone was dubbed back then.  And I’m not attacking the ladies as we could as-easily discuss Oscar Levant or Georges Guétary or Van Johnson but let’s keep moving.)  La La Land is a movie where the leads sing and dance themselves, better than adequately, and whose plot prospects of course look more attainable as we go.  That -- very much a part of how tough it is to make it in Hollywood (and very much Chazelle’s point) -- is the demon in the dream.

Corti ends with, “Chazelle’s ambivalently nostalgic and arbitrarily cynical La La Land has an exciting start, but it falls hard quickly and doesn’t recover.”  Ambivalently nostalgic?  Chazelle’s homaging multiple classics is hardly indecisive.  And arbitrary cynicism?  Chazelle’s outset was to make a classic musical set in real life “where things don’t always work out.”  Continuing to quote Chazelle, “[both Whiplash and this film are] about the struggle of being an artist and reconciling your dreams with the need to be human.  La La Land is just much less angry about it.”  But you can find all this with easy Google searches.  Or, you know, watch the movie.  Because Chazelle gives us the wonderful end fantasy of “how things should be,” underlining his inherent optimism.  Indeed, we should all fall as hard and quickly.    

At press, La La Land has grossed $300 million worldwide (on a $30 million cost).  It was nominated for seven Golden Globes and won all seven.  It was nominated for eleven BAFTAs and won five (including Best Film).  Emma Stone brought home The SAG, Chazelle The DGA and Producers Fred Berger, Jordan Horowitz & Marc Platt The PGA.  It has fourteen Oscar Nominations -- tying All About Eve and Titanic -- and is, on the 26th of this month, expected to win Best Picture.  If it doesn’t, we’ll see the biggest upset since The Super Bowl.  Which is the biggest upset since The Presidential Race.  Which is …

Money and Awards have never defined Art, so let’s move passed those to the simple fact that La La Land is a good movie.  It is a good story.  It is told well, both in front of and behind the camera.  It is intelligent, well crafted, thought-provoking and emotionally stirring.  It is a respectful and passionate homage to its genre’s past, and at the same time a strong step forward in keeping the genre relevant, and therefore alive. 

You’re going to hear and/or read a lot of references, none of them wrong:  Chazelle loves and champions Jazz -- viz Whiplash as well -- and God bless him;  The Young Girls Of Rochefort for the Jazzy numbers (particularly comparing opening with “Another Day Of Sun” with “Maxence’s Song”);  An American In Paris for having a lead be talented in his art yet yearning for something more;  Singin’ In The Rain for centering on Hollywood (and parody-homaging with as much love);  Both of the Babes and Star Is Born (any of them) and Funny Girl and, really, any of the wonderful tales of a young lady dreaming of stardom birthing Mia and her “Audition;”  The Band Wagon for the end fantasy;  and The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg for the pathos in the end itself.  And that barely scratches the surface but it doesn’t matter because most of all La La Land is an original Musical that’s immediately hummable. 

Yes, hummable.  And if that isn’t a good definition of a successful Musical, it’s a perfectly fine start. 

Diana and I went to Amélie at The Ahmanson here in L.A. last month because we’re both big fans of that picture.  Suckers for Musicals as well, it was an easy win-win;  or should have been.  Amélie The Musical wasn’t bad -- we enjoyed ourselves while sitting there -- but there wasn’t anything we took away from it.  I equated the evening to cotton candy.  Tasty and fun but right after?  (Keyser Söze gesture)  Gone. 

Well, there’s nothing gone from La La Land.  We the audience are submerged in its world and are thrilled to soak it in, clinging to it from dripping off us even as we skip out of the theatre.  Yes, skip.  Humming.  I’m telling you, that’s the thing.  As I write this, I’m humming along to my new vinyl.  And I can go on and on about how well the picture’s crafted, at those homages to bits of genre past, at how we’re rooting through the reality of it all, and how two newcomers to Singin’ & Dancin’ pull off their tasks as naturally as they do (at how their being natural -- not professional -- helps the picture) but, really, it’s all about how that picture makes you feel.

 There is a moment, just prior to the now famous “A Lovely Night” number (it’s the movie’s one sheet), where Mia changes her shoes.  Because she anticipates dancing.  It’s a simple thing and doesn’t mean much -- isn’t supposed to -- except, for me, it sang two things. 

One, Chazelle specifically wrote the moment, even shot it, and however many months later when screening cuts decided to keep it.  It meant that much to him.  And it’s (at least to my mind) the only time we’ve seen it.  Boy and Girl meet-cute and have their first number, light and flirty, and it leaves them wanting more?  Seen that a bunch.  But have we ever seen one of them change shoes in the movie because they’re about to dance?  (My mind keeps tugging on a moment with Cyd Charise in The Band Wagon but I don’t think it’s the same.  And then I think of her in It's Always Fair Weather leaping six feet off the boxing ring in those six-inch heels so ...)  I do think Mia’s moment -- right there on the screen -- is a very telling thing about the kind of picture La La Land is:  a tip-of-the-hat to the backstage, the behind-the-scenes;  showcasing Hollywood by her Dreamers.

And, two, it goes back to how we opened:  George M. Cohan dancing down the White House stairs in Yankee Doodle Dandy.  In La La Land, Mia, our ingénue who may be frustrated by her life yet still has hope enough to dream, meets a guy who’s cute and more than that loves art and more than that is talented himself and makes her laugh and think and feel and maybe this one’s worth her time.  So she changes her shoes to dance with him.  It’s not the same level of moment as Dandy’s --

                 -- except they’re both the kind of moment we want from them.

I wish I could give proper credit but there was a great quote I heard or read that went, “Musicals are how life should be.”  And that’s even better than “hummable.”  I just came out of meeting The President who gave me The Congressional Medal Of Honor?  You bet I’m going to tap dance down the stairs.  I’m young and a little bit lonely but even more hopeful and here’s someone I’m gonna dance with, that I really wanna dance with?  Hold on, I just gotta get my right shoes.

Yeah, that’s a moment too.

I think everyone expects La La Land to win Best Picture at The Oscars this year and that will make me happy.  (Nostalgia always makes me happy, as when Woody Allen won for Midnight In Paris and The Artist won its year.)  But I’m already thrilled -- especially in times like these -- that a really good movie -- a Musical that’s as much original as nostalgic -- is doing so well.  That it's adored.  

And, yes, hummed. 

Because I think we all like to be reminded how life should be.



14 October, 2016

Touch Of Evil


           I’ve been looking forward to this one -- and dreading it -- for some time. Both for the same reasons. It’s the same reaction I had when beginning Tyrone Power’s Witness For The Prosecution (1957), another big one. ‘Cause this is Janet Leigh in arguably her best performance. This is Charlton Heston (whose name, yes, always sounds like he’s speaking as Moses). This is Charlton Heston playing a Mexican and everything that’s been said about that. This is Marlene Dietrich (again)! And Russell Metty and Henry Mancini! This is the film with the famous three-and-a-half-minute opening shot. This is the film that was rebuilt in ‘98 from a 58-page memo. And, yes, this is the first film in these Top 5s from -- Starring & Written by & Directed by -- Orson Welles.

           No, this one isn’t going to be easy. But, like all the rest, it sure is going to be fun.

          I say this often, but there’s a lot out there written about x and y that you don’t need me regurgitating. Well, that’s not been more true -- certainly in these Top 5s -- than this film and its Writer-Director. If you want to read more about Mr. Welles and his Movies, go straight to the top: Peter Bogdanovich’s Interview Book (Edited by Jonathan Rosenbaum) This Is Orson Welles (1992) and Simon Callow’s three -- rumored four -- volume Orson Welles (1995, 2006 & 2015). These two gentlemen are the best archivists we have; and not just archivists, for Welles & Bogdanovich were friends (at one point living together).

          For today, we’ll talk Touch Of Evil as best I can; with, hopefully, a few new insights. To start? How about at the beginning, from Mr. Welles himself:

          "I had just acted in the Jeff Chandler Western for Universal [Man In The Shadow (1957)] and they sent me another  script -- a very bad one that took place in San Diego, with a crooked detective in it. And they said, 'Do you want to play it?'  I said, 'Maybe,' and I was still wondering whether I could afford not to make it when they called up Chuck Heston and said, 'Here’s a script -- we’d like you to read it. We have Welles.'  And he misunderstood them and said, 'Well, any picture that Welles directs, I’ll make.'  So they got back on the phone quick and said to me, 'Do you want to direct it?'  And I said, 'Yes, if I can rewrite it.'  Well, they said they’d let me do that if I wouldn’t get paid as a director or a writer -- just my original salary as an actor.  So I had about three and a half weeks to go before it began, and I locked myself up with four secretaries and wrote an entirely new story and script."

          Touch Of Evil (1958)
          w Orson Welles
          based on the Novel Badge Of Evil by Whit Masterson
          d Orson Welles

          To begin, let’s talk briefly about the ’98 Recut. Because, if nothing else, I hope these Top 5s entice you to visit or revisit these films.  Ready for this one?  Please be sure it’s that Recut, as close to Welles’ vision as we can infer.  Like Criterion’s impressive Mr. Arkadin from 2006, the Touch Of Evil Blu Ray includes three versions of the film: the Pre-Release, Theatrical Release and ’98 Recut (supervised by legend-in-his-own-time Walter Murch).  Is it exactly as Welles intended?  I don’t know I’d say that if Welles himself supervised [and there’s an argument to be made for and against the Blu Ray’s Aspect Ratio of 1.78 -- intended 1.85 in 1958? -- versus Welles’ preferred 1.33 ... but I’ll leave that for another day].  I believe Murch & Co’s work indeed represents Welles’ intent and is the best version we should be watching.

          For no other reason than the famous opening shot which strips the titles and rebuilds the music as we travel with the car / meet The Vargases.  Stripping the titles was an easy choice.  We know Welles never intended for opening titles, but why?  This is 1958, remember.  Titles open movies.  Well, they weren’t, per se, paid attention to;  not usually, at least, what was happening behind them.  “Titles are on?  Okay, it’s time to get settled.   Titles have finished?  Okay, I should start paying attention.”  Not so with our film today where the whole world is setup in those three-and-a-half minutes.  Not to mention -- like Mr. Hitchcock’s famous “bomb under the tea table” analogy -- not having titles here focuses us on that world.  And the music?  Instead of the (admittedly, appropriate) Jazz, we’re now given some cinéma vérité:  the car radio, music coming out of clubs as we pass, even silence;  all specifically punctuating the picture:  the bomb, the car, the couple in the car, The Vargases as they walk with it, around it, stopping at the border gate, the crowd there.  Without titles and without typical Score, we’re immersed in those three-and-a-half minutes.  Waiting for the bomb to blow.

          Ideally not even thinking it’s one single shot (and more on that later).

          We open on the bomb.  It’s the first shot, close up, can’t miss it.  That’s significant not just because it starts “a fun opening scene” but because everything to follow is a bomb waiting to blow.  The town, the motel, their characters, every person, every thing, it’s all a lit fuse;  yes, even The Vargases, but particularly Quinlan who, at the center, is both Protagonist and Antagonist.  He doesn’t place the bomb (or want it to have gone off), nor is he the one we’re rooting for, but he’s key to almost everything that happens;  pushing the plot as well as being pushed by it.

          Which is interesting because we’re dealing with two stories.  The first is The Vargases being on their honeymoon where he’s -- and therefore she’s -- the target of The Grandi Crime Family.  When they happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, the second story -- the murder of the couple in the car (and I’m not getting into plot much more than this) -- explodes in front of them.  Enter Quinlan who, only focused on the second, can’t help but be pulled into the first -- because of Mike Vargas and then, sensing an aid in his plight, Grandi -- and we find ourselves in the midst of some truly glorious Melodrama;  too often overlooked in this “Noir” (and more on that later too).

          There’s the old adage in writing that you must build to a suprising and satisfying conclusion.  Not or, and.  (And do you know how hard that is?)  Well, Touch Of Evil does it better than most.  At this point in what’s left of his life, Quinlan is a man obsessed with winning and losing.  That’s it.  It isn’t booze or candy bars or even Tana’s chili;  all triggers -- even crutches -- sure, but no longer obsessions.   (Even his surface racism is only that, an attack on Vargas the opponent, not Vargas the Mexican ... but that’s for a much longer article.)  All Quinlan has left now is the game which he must win or he loses a little more of himself.  Once a good cop, probably a great one, he’s now what’s left of the job when all its humanity is gone.  So with our world waiting to blow, who ultimately lights the fuse?  Menzies.  Why?  Because it must affect Quinlan as personally as possible.  [I love the shot of Quinlan rising in Tana’s and there’s the bull on the wall with its banderillas;  a bit on the nose -- that’s Quinlan now, only he doesn’t know it yet (or won’t accept it yet) -- but what a great image.]  Menzies’ turn of conscience -- turning on his partner, his only friend -- is both surprising and satisfying.  The fuse lit from our very first image has run its course straight into … well, some kind of man.

          Let’s stay with the opening of the movie for a bit as we introduce our leading lady. I don’t think I’m overselling it at all when I say Janet Leigh as Suzie Vargas is some of her best work.  It should come as no surprise that a lead character is our avatar in the movie;  that is, we the audience, by proxy, live the adventure with them.  And we’re very much Suzie Vargas here.  When we meet her she’s a literal tourist, so as we look in on this world, we see it through its only outsider.  Of all the characters in this Melodrama, she’s the only one that doesn’t belong.  She isn’t naïve or better-than -- she has a great spark to her -- but she’s nonetheless different from this town, its characters.  The personification of “outside looking in.”
           
          What makes Suzie Vargas standout?  For me, it’s Janet Leigh’s transcending what could easily be just a “damsel in distress” role:  how she handles the explosion right in front of her;  significantly how she handles her husband leaving her to deal with it, including having to cross back across the border on her own to wait for him.  For how long?  She doesn’t know and goes anyway; she’s fine going anyway.  And, sure, a lot’s been said about how he treats her thoughout: “Why the hell would he keep abandoning her?”  Well -- for me -- the answer is in how Leigh plays her.  I don’t think she feels abandoned. She’s perfectly okay by herself.  And when Grandi first confronts her -- I think this is a character defining moment -- she’s not pushed-over at all but quips that great, defiant “Yeah” right back at him.  As much as Suzie Vargas may be regulated to a “damsel” role, Janet Leigh regularly fights her way well passed it.

         Before we move on from the opening, a few asides.  Re the explosion and its aftermath, why is the fountain on fire?   I mean aside from looking great.  Okay, moving on from that.  Did you notice the Mercury Theatre Regulars popping up?  Ray Collins as The District Attorney and Joseph Cotten as The Coroner.  And then Akim Tamiroff (Grandi here) would later do The Trial (1962). And -- not a Mercury Regular but -- there’s Zsa Zsa Gabor as The Strip Club Owner (with her sister Eva as One Of The Strippers).  And there’s been a long-standing rumor that none other than Errol Flynn lurks in the background of a shot. True?  I’ve never spotted him, though we know he and Welles were friends; the yacht in The Lady From Shanghai was Flynn’s own Zaca.  And the fictional Mexican town of Los Robles?  All the exteriors were shot in Los Angeles’ own Venice (with lots of great 1957 footage of the famous beach town).

          Staying on our leading lady for a bit, let’s move to The Mirador where it’s tough not to notice Miss Leigh’s bad luck with motels (see, I almost mentioned The Shower Movie again).   And here’s where we the audience take a detour as well. This is an odd section of the picure mostly because of how much time Welles spends on it.  When you take into account how little time Welles had to write the Script -- less than a month, remember -- it’s a great way to kill fifteen minutes (and, plot-wise, justifiably).  But I think it goes to the Texture of the thing.  ‘Cause if there’s one thing this movie exudes it’s that: texture of Plot, texture of Character, of Camera Movement, of Lighting (and those last two indeed different).  And everything at the motel drips it (including the almost over-the-top Dennis Weaver but he does it so well).

          And look at everything Miss Leigh does here.  Again, I don’t think Suzie Vargas feels abandoned, or in very much danger.  She really does just want to get some sleep.  She’s tired and annoyed and getting angry at it all but still never a damsel.  In fact it takes a Rape to overpower her.  And not just from Pancho (Valentin deVargas) -- she’d already bettered him back in town -- but a Gang.  It’s horrific, no question -- especially with Mercedes McCambridge’s cold “I wanna watch” -- but it also cements Leigh’s incredibly strong portrayal: what it takes to bring her down.  And then she wakes up in the hotel back in town to Grandi’s eyes and rushes onto the fire escape;  not an escape at all given she’s still in this town, eventually crumbling in the jail cell on the trumped-up charge.  Still she comes out fighting.  There’s the shot of her in the car at the end and we know she’ll be okay.  And I don’t think it’s “a Hollywood ending.”  For my money, when she finally gets a good night’s sleep, her husband and that upcoming trial are the least of Grandi’s problems …

          Welles and Bogdonavich talk about shooting in The Motel in This Is Orson Welles --

          "Bogdonavich:  How was Janet Leigh?

          "Welles:  Wonderful.  And I gave her a very rough time, because she had to change her hairdo back and forth all the time, not knowing why.  We were shooting forty and fifty setups a day, and she never knew where she was in the plot.  I just said, 'The hair down. The hair up. Go to the window.' -- you know -- and she was right there with me. Really wonderful. Because we made it very quickly.

          "Bogdonavich:  You were shooting it out of sequence.

          "Welles:  Not just that -- of course, you have to -- but --

          "Bogdonavich:  You shoot for the way the lighting is.

          "Welles:  Have to."

          Touch Of Evil is widely considered one of the greatest Noirs ever made, except that it isn’t.   Isn’t great?  No, it’s decidedly that;  in fact, this is a movie I actually think improves the more you see it.  But Noir?  Sorry, I can’t call it that. Without getting too far down a rabbit hole, I’ll say the Noir is Out Of The Past (1947).  And for a Neo Noir?  Blade Runner (and I’ll let you deduce what you want from both of those).  But our film today?  Plot, Character, Lighting, it’s all close, but I don’t believe it fits the term.  The easiest, quickest “out” is there isn’t a Femme Fatale, but there’s other stuff too (and if we continue we’ll only get deeper down the rabbit hole).  So what would I call it?  What I have been;  what Welles himself called it:  Melodrama.   (And I use that term with the respect it deserves: like a Rom Com, only bad versions of Genre deserve the negativity of its colloquial.)

          Walter Murch wrote of his ’98 Recut, “Forty years ago, in the spring of 1958, Orson Welles’ Touch Of Evil was released by Universal as a B Picture, the second half of a double bill. (The A Picture was Female Animal, a now-forgotten vehicle for Hedy Lamarr.)  Neither picture attracted much attention, although some reviewers were intrigued by Welles’ first studio work in ten years.  Unfortunately, it turned out to be a commercial and critical disappointment, and Welles -- only 43 at the time -- returned to Europe and never made another feature for Hollywood.  Thus a chapter in Welles’ life that had opened in 1941 with perhaps the biggest bang in cinema history, Citizen Kane, ended nearly twenty years later with Marlene Dietrich’s whispered ‘Adios,’ the final word in Touch of Evil.”

          And, no, not the worst end in the world.

          For our end today, I’ll try something of a bookend.  We opened with what everyone talks about when talking about this picture:  the opening shot.  But there’s another in the film that’s even more impressive:  also a single take, and two minutes longer.  Yes, the scene in the apartment that introduces Sanchez and the planting of the evidence.  It’s five-and-a-half minutes.  And note the number of people in it.  The amount of dialogue.  And that they move throughout the apartment, the camera moving with them;  the lighting involved, both technically and creatively, with kudos indeed to Russell Metty [who’d also shot Welles’ The Stranger (1946)].  I hope you appreciate this scene.  For me -- for story, performace, the technical achievement, all of it -- it’s really the scene of the picture.

          As gregarious a talker as he was, it was tough, believe it or not, to get Welles to talk about his own work.  Questions abound;  perhaps the biggest is, still, “What was lost from The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)?”  Even Bogdonavich had to prod him, and they were indeed friends.  Most of the time Welles stood by his mantra of Art explaining the life of a Man, never the contrary.  Still we ask, as we must.  So we’ll end as we began, from the man himself;  this again from This Is Orson Welles --

          "Bogdonavich [talking about The Lady From Shanghai]:  Probably the slowest dolly shot I’ve ever seen takes place when Rita Hayworth and Everett Sloane are sitting in a corridor before the trial. I had to look at the edges of the screen to see if it was really moving.

          "Welles:  That doesn’t speak well for the film, when you start studying the edges of the screen.

          "Bogdonavich:  People sometimes look at your films and say, 'God what an insane great shot.'  But when I’ve expressed something like that to you, your blank look shows me that clearly to you the shot was normal -- or, rather, not unusual -- simply the way you saw it.

          "Welles:  I like it when you answer your own questions."