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, say, indisputable powerhouse of 1964 (Hello Dolly! and Fiddler On The Roof at the same time) or the current Hamilton!  Nor Television per se:  the, say, 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 of 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."




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 often split the audio jack on the same iPad so we can watch this or that 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 and 50s.  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 & Tweety and Tom & Jerry?  I thank you.  [I might pass on Chicago but “Nobody’s perfect.”  That said I do 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 TyronePower 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.



                 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;  especially 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 portrait 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.