Greg Ferrara, the blogger formerly known as Jonathan Lapper, has been plunging headlong into the mainstream of film blogging. First, he revealed his real name. Then he decided to host his first blogathon. Now he’s started a meme, something Ferdy on Films, etc. has yet to do. This one should be interesting to think about. Here’s what Greg says:
I’d like to know what my fellow bloggers think matters about cinephilia. A list, a paragraph, a thought or two. However you want to do it. Just a little bit of what you think is important about studying film, loving film, and discussing it with like minds. Basically, what have you learned? I know I’ve learned more than I ever did from decades of reading film books. How about you?
There are some things that make cinema vitally important—as Gene Siskel said, a film critic has the American Dream beat—in terms of what it reflects about the way we live, how we see ourselves and others, and what fires our imaginations. Cinephilia, however, is full of a lot of nonsense, in my opinion, like compiling lists, watching box office returns, and overtheorizing what the filmmakers themselves saw as factory work done for dough. Blogging about film is a whole other animal. Bloggers have been taken to task by traditional media for everything from bad writing to destroying the economy. But what do they know? They don’t live here—we bloggers do.
So here’s what I’ve learned about film, blogging, and the Internet since starting Ferdy on Films, etc. more than three years ago.
1. You can get free shit and press passes just as easily as a blogger as you can as a print or broadcast journalist. You just have to grovel a little more at the beginning.
2. There are three major camps in the film-blogging world: the young geeks who tend not to write very well, normally don’t consider any film older than 1990, and usually only read their own kind; the snobs who write pretty well, but impenetrably, and stick with their own kind because to do otherwise would be to lower their status in the film community; the rest of us, a decidedly mixed bag, who aren’t on the make and don’t necessarily give a hoot what people think of what we’re doing.
3. Cable “news” has had a bigger effect on blogging than anyone would care to admit, as evidenced by a lot of tempests brewed in teapots all over the blogosphere just to drive traffic.
4. Film bloggers know how to build a sense of community with memes and blogathons, but when they’re over, we tend to go back to the dime or so blogs we usually read.
5. There are a lot of good writers out there with a lot of knowledge about film. Although I have some unique things to offer and Rod and I make a pretty formidable team together, I’m not so special, and that actually isn’t a bad feeling. The world isn’t full of yahoos after all!
6. You never know who is going to read your stuff, what’s going to be popular, or why. I’m still getting hits to How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman from a Russian discussion forum well more than two years after they posted the link.
7. Comment sections are among the best things on a blog. They can be witty and irreverent, more informative than the original post, and include people you never thought would show up. I’ve had the son of the director of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, a full-blown family feud in the comments for the Hank Garland biopic Crazy, and a filmmaker or two, in addition to my usual posse.
8. It’s very satisfying to be the first external review of a film on IMDb. A lot of these films deserve more attention.
9. Once you start a blog, it’s hard to stop or slow the pace of feeding the beast…
10. …leading to Internet fatigue hitting me more frequently than it used to. I just want to turn everything off.
11. Reviewing and theorizing about cinema can be fun, but it’s not really that important in and of itself. It’s more important to me to show how cinematic images shape our attitudes and the world in which we live, and thereby influence hearts and minds.
12. Macs are hundreds of times better than PCs.
13. Having people assign films for me to view is both exciting and painful. So far, maximum pain has not been inflicted on me by anyone.
14. What is it with people clicking a link to this site, reading what’s here, and going back to the original site to comment?!
15. People you don’t know want to control what is said about everything. A blog is one of the best ways to fight back.
A few days ago, Daniel Getahun at the glorious blog Getafilm challenged me and several other bloggers to come up with a post for a meme he dreamed up. We were to choose a place (real or imaginary) and a time (past, present, or future) depicted in one or more films that we’d most like to visit and explain why. Here is what I chose.
Place: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil Time/Period: 1959 As Seen In: Bossa Nova (2000)
This movie is a bit of a cheat as a representative of the period I’ve chosen. It actually takes place in 2000, but the director, Bruno Barreto, meant it to be an homage to the Rio of Antonio Carlos Jobim, a sun-filled, lively boulevard of music and magic. Whether that place ever existed outside of a travel brochure, there is a place in my heart that fervently hopes that it did and that I could drop in at will.
Rio, of course, is graced with natural beauty even today. Its gorgeous white beaches and the creatures who inhabit them inspired the bossa nova classic “The Girl from Ipanema.” In 1959, bossa nova music was breaking through in Brazilian society:
The bossa nova appeared in Rio de Janeiro in the late 1950′s. At first it was played as an intimate music in the apartments of Rio’s middle and upper-middle classes. The music mingled the Brazilian samba beat with American jazz. Later on, bossa nova became a trademark of a new concept of music – a little sad, sometimes sung off-key, and where the lyrics have great importance.
The roots of cinema novo were sprouting, producing exciting films that were giving the French New Wave a run for its money, combining real people and locations with the Brazilian Tropicalism movement that rejected European influences—particularly sexual inhibitions.
In Bossa Nova, the colors are bright, the sea is inviting, the beaches are pristine places to walk and play, the men are passionate and romantic, the women are assertive and comfortable with their sexuality, and everyone seems to be drunk with the love of life. A palpable nostalgia echoes with the strains of the sad, minor-key bossa nova, as Brazil stood poised to move into a socially progressive era that would be suppressed by dictatorship in only a few short years. 1959 was that perfect moment, the carefree pause between the inhale and exhale of history. That’s where I want to be.
I don’t expect everyone knows about or watches the Misogyny Channel, aka Bravo, which through its programming of modeling and fashion competitions, matchmaking, and its “Real Housewives” series in Orange County, Atlanta, New York City, and New Jersey, pushes every button every girl and woman in America and most of the rest of the world has had jammed into her brain stem. And I am no exception.
I enjoy looking at fashion, so until it jumped networks, Project Runway was a winning Bravo entry for me. I think, though, it had more to do with Heidi Klum, a very engaging host, than with the show itself, which is incredibly dumb (let’s make outfits out of stuff at a recycling plant, a grocery store, and a car parts factory—yup, that’s a real test of talent). The rest of the shows have no appeal for me at all. Except The Real Housewives of New York City. For some reason, when I run across this show—and no, I don’t know when its regular time slot is; I gave up on having a constant TV schedule in my head long, long ago when the networks decided to redecorate their line-ups about every week—I have to watch it. None of the other “Real Housewives” shows have rung my chimes; I guess we all have our own psychic dynamics when dealing with female relationships, and as an urban career woman, I find this one works for me.
As with all the shows, the cast is composed of several wealthy women and the people in their lives. Jill has a rich, indulgent husband who runs a fabric business; Jill helps out at the retail store, buys a lot of expensive things, redecorates, and throws charity events. She has a fractious friendship with Ramona, who is married to a tennis pro and has her own skin care and jewelry line. They are friends with celebrity chef Bethenny, who has a food line and just published a book on achieving a thin figure. Luann, a former model, married a count, does charity stuff, and just published an “as told to” book on etiquette. Alex seems to come from a bonafide New York society family; she’s joined at the hip with her effete Aussie husband Simon and works in marketing. The newest “housewife” is Kelly, a former model and editor of Elle Accessories who is, according to Bethenny, the queen of “fabulosity:” the two women can’t stand each other. Everyone but Bethenny has children.
The more I watch this show, the more it sickens me. It’s not the wealth or even the insular bubble of New York society these women inhabit that has them running from party to party, charity event to charity event, and the Hamptons to St. Barts. It’s not even, exactly, about their appearance “touch ups,” their couture miniskirts and dresses (don’t they ever wear slacks?), or working their connections to get what they want (a private school for Johann and Francois, Alex and Simon’s kids; a tennis star Jill plans to fly from California to New York for a grudge match with Ramona and her husband Mario). The thing that underlies this series—and, I suppose, all the series—is that these women seem so immature, so adolescent, so caught up in girl culture:
Relationships are central to girls who depend on close, intimate friendships. The trust and support of these relationships provide girls with emotional and psychological safety nets. … Yet girls can be excruciatingly tough on other girls, particularly at early adolescence. They talk behind each other’s backs, they tease and torture one another; they police each other’s clothing and body size and fight over real or imagined relationships with boys. In so doing they participate in and help to reproduce largely negative views of female relationships as untrustworthy, deceitful, manipulative, and catty. Unlike boys, girls are not encouraged to act out their anger, so uncomfortable feelings often go underground and come out in unhealthy words.
From Lyn Mikel Brown’s Girlfighting by way of Still Failing at Fairness by David & Myra Sadker & Karen R. Zittleman
Watching the RHNYC cast is like sitting in a toilet stall in the girls’ restroom and hearing the reigning clique duke it out. Bethenny screams at Jill, veins bulging out of her neck, to apologize for talking about Bethenny behind her back. Ramona is struck dumb by the appearance of Simon, a man she loathes, as Jill’s tennis partner; Jill smirks at the zing she’s given Ramona. Luann is livid at the bad manners Ramona shows when she says that the count is an old man in front of Luann’s daughter! Everyone wonders whether Alex ever disciplines her sons, who, at 1 and 3 years old, climb all over the RHs at a dinner party. Kelly calls Bethenny all the way across town to meet her at a bar so she can tell her she doesn’t like her and will never be her friend. During this encounter, the infamous, “You’re here (one hand held low), and I’m here (other hand held high)” becomes the moment that characterizes Kelly’s condescending attitude. Her working the extreme hottie Max onto the show as her date is another apparent display of superiority.
More from Lyn Mikel Brown’s Girlfighting by way of Still Failing at Fairness:
Why do girls act this way? The need to belong and fear of rejection are high on the list. They want to be part of a sort of club, a club of innies. Some girls explain they like the excitement and drama of relational aggression, and evidently there is a wide audience for such behavior. Stories about “cruel and nasty girls” have become the centerpiece for magazines, television shows, and popular books. We are now taught how to tame girls, make them nicer, quieter, easier to deal with, sweeter and more pliable. A decade or two ago we feared girls’ loss of voice; now we seem to fear that they have found it. Is this a discussion about “mean girls,” or a discussion about society’s continuing pattern of defining and demeaning females?
Looking at these “successful” women makes me profoundly sad. Their adolescent competitiveness, their focus on appearance (Jill is so pleased that she almost fits in a size 0 dress), their status in a completely traditional female world of husbands, children, dating, and careers in cooking, beauty, and image seem like such a squandering of talent, energy, and considerable resources. When Luann gives Bethenny dating advice, she says, “I think men are tired of having to deal with outspoken women. You should try to be more demure and coaxing.” Oh my god! What is Bravo trying to do to us? What are these women trying to do to other women? If they aren’t really like this, why do they let themselves be manipulated?
And why do I watch them? Why do millions watch them and the other “housewives”? Because we are still part of a system that deranges us in our adolescence. Call this the unfinished business of womanhood, the chance we may be trying to give ourselves to heal the wounds inflicted on our sense of self. People may say they enjoy these shows, but the truth is, they’re not much fun after a while. They become grueling. Jill herself said she found her fight with Bethenny very painful to watch. These women aren’t self-centered, petty, or vain by nature. They’re birds in gilded cages, and whether they think it’s misplaced, insulting, or “doesn’t matter to my life,” I feel a terrible sympathy for them.
One thing that doesn’t happen much around here is a shout-out to other blogs. I read them, of course, but rarely do I call attention to some of the more interesting moments I’ve had. This month, there are a number of blogs I’ve been getting a kick out of, participated in, or kicked out at. Here they are in no particular order:
Mrs. Emma Peel (Justine Smith) at the House of Mirth and Movies has compiled a list of 100 films she calls the Unofficial Female Film Canon. She says, “I decided to make this list, because often looking at consensus and canonical lists, the film is dominated by films exploring or interested mostly in male protagonists. … I’m still not sure what I qualify an ‘essential’ film about women, I hope my list presents a huge cross-section of different kinds of women and experiences, but at the very least I’m looking for films that have at least one female protagonist, which rules out a lot of films that may have interesting or strong female supporting characters and roles unfortunately. I’m also not attempting to paint only a positive portrait of womanhood, I think many of these film reveal many imperfect, even downright cruel women… but that is part of a reality.”
I’m not entirely sure what this list is supposed to accomplish, and I think the criteria are still kind of fuzzy, but I applaud Justine’s considerable effort in compiling this list and look forward to further refinements. Suggestions are gratefully solicited.
Those feisty Tennessee Guerilla Women report that HBO is making a movie about the 2008 election. “Goddess only knows who they will come up with to play Hillary and Sarah. Let’s see, we need an ambitious ball-buster and an ambitious dumb broad. Tracy Flick and Tracy Flick. Ideas? Drop your ideas for leading ladies in the comments and I’ll post them in a poll.” Sounds like fun.
Ibetolis (Ric Burke) of Film for the Soul has started a fascinating project called Counting Down the Zeroes and has inaugurated a new blog to house the content. Contributors are invited to write reviews of the best films of the 00s. I’ve gotten involved in it as have many of the best film bloggers out there. It’s a big job compiling lists of worthy films and coordinating contributions, and so far, Ibetolis has done an amazing job. Take a look.
According to Swedish blogger Jonas Nordin, “I just wasn’t made for these times.” His blog All Talking! All Singing! All Dancing! is a real delight for fans of silents and early talkies. Take a look at this great photo of Charlie Chaplin. He currently has an appreciation of Garbo called When Greta Gustafsson Changed Her Name. Browse the site and enjoy.
I’m not a fan of the Oscars, or awards in general, but most film fans are. One of them is Nathaniel R., who does some early handicapping for 2009 at The Film Experience. See if you agree.
A lot of us have taken part in the 10 Favorite Character Meme, but nobody has blown through the rules to create a long list of fascinating characters, that is, until MovieMan decided to do so at The Dancing Image. Just Because You Are a Character Doesn’t Mean You Have Character is heavy on those delicious villains we all hate ourselves for loving.
Greencine Daily tackles what it calls a faux controversy regarding the was-it-or-wasn’t-it-rape sequence in Observe and Report. “Now, why didn’t it occur to me this would strike most people as date rape? Mainly because Brandi isn’t a real person,” says article author Vadim Rizov. I admit I got more than a little hot under the collar about this one. Take a look and decide what you think.
Peter Nellhaus at Coffee, Coffee, and More Coffee takes double entendre to new heights in his keen analysis of love among the brown shirts in Fucking Nazis. His observations are right-on as ever. Scroll just below his article for a stunning photo of Maggie Cheung in In the Mood for Love. l
Both Greg and Flickhead tagged me for this meme. I thought it would be fairly easy, but as with all things “favorite,” I’m reminded of why I avoid that word when it comes to movies. Here are my “favorites” in alphabetical order:
Lily Bart. Lily hopes to trade on her beauty for money and social significance, but she’s far too honest a person to survive in “polite” society. A woman trained to be an ornament, revealing how destructive society is to women, she remains an example of personal integrity to me. Gillian Anderson impresses in this role in The House of Mirth.
Virginia Brush, played by Rita Hayworth as the perfect bombshell-next-door in The Strawberry Blonde, is the opposite of Lily Bart, yet she ends up with my admiration, too. Socially correct, she can’t quite hide that beating heart of passion and ambition. She never counted on marrying money and a hypochondriac, but somehow she remains magnificent, exacting a small revenge and realizing how foolish her goals were.
Cowardly Lion. Bert Lahr created a loveable king of beasts whose fear we can all relate to and whose eventual show of courage surprised even him. A great character, particularly for kids.
Daffy Duck. Cocky and foolish, irrational when things inevitably go wrong, Daffy keeps me chuckling no matter what he’s up to. And what a great, great voice and crazy quack!
Ed from Shaun of the Dead, played by Nick Frost, is lazy, oblivious, and casually courageous. And he plays a mean Playstation. Everyone’s “I like him in spite of himself” kind of friend.
M. Hulot, Jacques Tati’s comic creation, is like a newborn babe in a trenchcoat, his ever-present pipe available to chew on as he ponders the mysteries of modern life. I know how he feels.
Ulee Jackson. Not a very well-known character created by not a very good actor, Peter Fonda, yet he really got to me in Ulee’s Gold. He feels both the negative and positive effects of age—physical infirmity and wisdom—does what he has to do, and truly loves his work as a beekeeper. The hubby and I have become acquainted with an Illinois beekeeper, and he’s just like Ulee. Great guy, great character.
Merlin, as played by Nicol Williamson in Excalibur. One of the truly eccentric performances on film, Merlin seems half-drunk most of the time. He sees the writing on the wall that the age for his type of being is past, but would rather not acknowledge it in full. He becomes more relevant to me with each passing birthday.
Scarlett O’Hara. A real Sourthern belle (played by a real English diva, Vivien Leigh) who’d just as soon shoot you as look at you. Fiddle-dee-dee, I wish I were so pretty and plucky.
Max Schreck, aka Dracula, in Shadow of the Vampire is comic and melancholy all at the same time. You really feel for him when he says how sorry he felt for Dracula in the Bram Stoker book for being so lonely. You can also imagine F.W. Murnau telling him not to eat the writer. Willem Dafoe created a memorable vampire in a crowded field.
This weekend, the hubby and I roused ourselves from a rain-induced stupor and decided to do something we both like enormously—poke around some second-hand stores. We drove down Lincoln Avenue, easily my favorite street in Chicago, and pulled up on a block that had three antique stores, one used clothing store, and a used record shop. We waded around the clothes, buying nothing but enjoying a lovely conversation with the owner, who was celebrating her birthday that day. We scored a few records at the used record shop and again, enjoyed the company of a real music/record enthusiast. We bought a vintage-looking table fan to replace our actual vintage fan that stood precariously on an ill-designed pedestal, and again, talked with the owner who lamented the inadvertent sale of a directory from Rogers Park filled with the names of Jewish businesses in the formerly Jewish neighborhood. In the last store, populated mainly with antique furniture, we scored big time. A family had unloaded its collection of stagebills spanning performances from the 30s to close to the present, perhaps 300 in all.
Now, I’ve seen at least that many plays and used to collect my stagebills until they just started taking up too much room. Therefore, I understood this collection and thumbed through it with great interest, wondering what this family had taken in over the years. I actually found a stagebill from one of the first shows I ever saw, The National Health, or Nurse Norton’s Affair (1972), with a very young Frank Galati in a memorable role as the white-coated nurse. He now is part of the Steppenwolf Theatre Ensemble and directed their Tony-award-winning production of The Grapes of Wrath. I also found the stagebill for G. B. Shaw’s Don Juan in Hell, a reader’s theatre production from 1972 starring Paul Henreid, Ricardo Montalban, Edward Mulhare, and Agnes Moorehead (“in her original role of Dona Ana”) and directed by John Houseman, whom I would interview just a couple of years later. So good were these actors that when Henreid lit a cigar on stage while Montalban was expostulating, I didn’t even notice. I was delighted to reclaim these bits of my past.
The real pleasure of going through the stagebills was seeing just how many movie stars trod the boards in days gone by. The oldest stagebill I acquired was from 1939—Walter Huston in Knickerbocker Holiday at the Grand Opera House, book and lyrics by Maxwell Anderson, music by Kurt Weill. Do you suppose Huston sang well? I saw not one, but two stagebills featuring Edward G. Robinson on the cover. I bought this program of his 1951 production of Darkness at Noon, based on the book of the same name by Arthur Koestler that is one of my favorite novels of all time. It played at the Erlanger Theatre, which I had never heard of. I think the State of Illinois Building might be standing on the site of the old theatre.
Others are Constance Bennett in Without Love (1943); Paul Robeson in Othello (1945), costarring Jose Ferrer and Uta Hagen; Audrey Hepburn in Gigi (1953); and Cyd Charisse in Once More with Feeling (1967).
I’ve left you with a couple of puzzles and one surprise. I’ve put up two photos. The young lady was starring in Over Twenty-One, a 1944 comedy staged by George S. Kaufman. The elegant couple was appearing in The Cherry Orchard, also a 1944 show. Can you tell me who these stars are? HINTS: Both women had their brightest moments in film later in life, with the actress on the left becoming quite well-known beginning in the late 60s. The other actress spent almost her entire career on the stage, but was nominated for an Oscar in her third, and last, film; she also has something in common with Mrs. Ronald Reagan. The actor won an Oscar, and I wrote about him recently. ASKED AND ANSWERED BELOW IN THE COMMENTS.
Finally, the surprise. The characters on this cover are of ZaSu Pitts and Guy Kibbee, who were starring in the 1947 production The Late Christopher Bean. One of the players in the cast is none other than Nancy Davis, aka, Mrs. Ronald Reagan. Here’s what the program biography has to say about her:
NANCY DAVIS (Susan Haggett), comes naturally by her theatrical bent because her mother was an actress and her God-mother was Alla Nazimova. After graduating from Smith College, where she majored in drama, she made the usual preparatory flights in summer stock and repertory work. These neatly completed, she landed her first professional job with Miss ZaSu Pitts in the touring company of “Ramshackle Inn.” This lead to her first Broadway engagement in Michael Myerberg’s enchanting production of “Lute Song” where she played Si-Tchun, lady-in-waiting to the princess. The following season again saw her on the road with Miss Pitts in “Cordelia,” and last summer she toured the stock circuit in her present role in “The Late Christopher Bean.” Her only contact with the flesh-pots of Hollywood occurred recently when she appeared in a documentary film for RKO.
She’d have a little more contact with a particular flesh-pot soon enough.
The above statement is what my esteemed friend and blog partner Roderick Heath had to say about the woeful countenance of Illinois’ newly deposed knight errant—former Governor Rod Blagojevich. Yesterday was a big day for taxpayers in Illinois, the day when one of the thousands of crooked politicians past and present who have had their hands in our pockets got kicked out of office. Despite Blago’s protests that the state senate had usurped the power of the voters who twice elected him to the highest office in the state—a fact he repeated so many times that I thought he was on the verge of making a run up to Canada to buy us all cut-rate hearing aids—they unanimously booted him with our blessings. According to Politico, a poll conducted in December 2008 showed that 70 percent of Illinois voters believed that Blagojevich should resign immediately; a 73-percent majority supported his impeachment—including a majority of Democrats—with 58 percent “strongly supporting” his impeachment; and only 7 percent of Illinois residents and 13 percent of Democrats approved of Blagojevich’s performance as governor.
I’ve been following the trial all week with the help of The Beachwood Reporter’s Steve Rhodes, who live-blogged the proceedings on NBCChicago.com, and his entertaining and enlightening commenters, particularly one with the moniker Blago Sphere. As television (or in my case, streaming video to my computer), the evidentiary phase of the prosecution’s case was a little dull. Various senators asked questions that went beyond the scope of the investigator’s ability to reply. Of course, things picked up when the secret FBI tapes were played during which Blago discussed various pay-to-play schemes, pressure on the Chicago Tribune to fire an employee critical of His Hairness, and, of course, his bartering for President Obama’s U.S. Senate seat.
Finally, the day of reckoning arrived yesterday. House-appointed prosecutor David Ellis delivered his summation, replaying part of a tape in which Blago discussed a pay-to-play arrangement with a lobbyist, pausing it several times to explain various parts of the scheme, and then playing it again uninterrupted to allow listeners to take it all in with full knowledge of its implications. His summation built logically, much the way the evidentiary phase built, addressing each point of the articles of impeachment with examples and compelling punctuation, like the tape. Although the senate proceedings didn’t offer much in the way of visual variety, the content of Ellis’ explications was more than compelling enough to make for riveting television.
The pièce de résistance, of course, was Blago’s closing argument to a defense he never mounted. The reason that he didn’t put on a defense is that he would not be allowed to lie with impunity without committing perjury. And lie he did from the start to the end of his 47-minute speech. He started off awkwardly, trying to curry favor in the senate chamber by thanking them early and often for allowing him to speak on his own behalf. This toadying was negated, however, by his repeated assertions that he had not been allowed to present a case and evidence that would clear his name—a bald-faced lie that was designed not to appeal to the senators, but rather to the viewing audience outside of Illinois and to potential jurors in his criminal trial. It worked, too, if comments left on the NBCChicago.com site and phone-in calls to CNN are any indication. Blago effectively confused this trial with a criminal trial—a fairly easy thing to do since impeachment and removal are extremely rare and, therefore, unfamiliar processes. The crucial difference is that holding a public office is a privilege, not a right—a privilege, like driving, that can be revoked if there is evidence of unlawfulness and recklessness in its exercise. In essence, the senate fired the governor, and we all understand the limits to protection against firing. Nonethless, Blago was offered the chance to mount a defense. Let me repeat that: Blago was offered the chance to mount a defense. He chose not to.
The former governor continued to try to address each point of the articles of impeachment, but couldn’t stay on point because he had no real defense. He repeated an anecdote about a little old lady needing medication—probably made up, and certainly embellished with novelistic flourishes about how she goes about her day—and believes this is evidence that he was right to go around the state legislature and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to buy drugs from Canada. One Canadian supplier never received payment, though funds were transferred to pay for them, and more than $1 million were wasted on promoting a program that never happened. He also said how much he cares about children and how he tried to provide flu vaccines to save lives among the young and old. He doesn’t mention how he tried to shake down Children’s Memorial Hospital for $50,000 in exchange for his support for $8 million in additional funding. Then he punted to the overwarm rehash of his immigrant Serbian background, how he’s in it for the little guy who works so hard to give his children a better future. His script needed editing to remove the redundancies, but that would have left him with about 20 minutes of talking points. Still, he’s telegenic and knows how to feign sincerity. I’d cast him in the Law & Order ripped-from-the-headlines story of his future criminal trial.
In Ellis’ rebuttal to Blago’s closing argument, he said, “When the camera’s on, the governor is for the little guy, the little people. When the camera’s off, what are his priorities?” Ellis asked, pointing behind him to a poster board containing words extracted from intercepted phone conversations. “‘Legal, personal, political,’” Ellis said. “Nothing in that statement about the people of Illinois.” This moment, and Ellis’ fiery rebuttal charged with passion, were the climax of the trial closing. All of the rage, indignation, and disgust I and others feel for the ex-gov and all the Illinois politicians like him were channeled into this one moment.
The unanimous vote to remove him from office and bar him from ever holding another public office in Illinois was the second great moment of yesterday’s coverage. While it was preceded by far too many 5-minute statements made by about half of the 59 senators who make up the Illinois Senate, many of whom did a bit of electioneering and who were definitely pots calling the kettle black, nothing could take away from the satisfaction of the final verdict. Watching the lights shine from the voting board was a Mr. Smith Goes to Washington kind of moment. The people of Illinois, so pissed upon for so many years, finally were heard.
Right after a phone call to CNN from a non-Illinois resident who said the prosecution had not made its case (again, confusing this with a criminal trial) was a call from one Illinois resident who lives not far from Springfield, the state capital. She said, “You have to live here to understand.” I sincerely hope not. I know there are many other states riddled with horrible corruption. Perhaps this will be the beginning of a movement across the country to try to clean up government. l
A while back Rick Olson and I talked about running a film ethics blog together. We both have an interest in philosophy and ethics—his, a professional one, mine, a personal one—and are constantly seeing ethical dilemmas, both overt and covert, in the films we see. Unfortunately, there’s really not enough time in the day to keep up with our respective blogs, let alone another one, so that idea went the way of the dinosaur. From its ashes rose The Oldest Established Really Important Film Club, whose members choose films that have some provocative ideas or themes that can spur a lively discussion. That seems to be working out pretty well, if the results of the first film club movie, The True Meaning of Pictures, are an indicator.
Now I find through the most excellent Bluegrass Film Society that the syndicated radio program Philosophy Talk has developed a new film award that is unlike any I’ve ever heard of (and in this lackluster Oscar year, we need something substantial to chew on): The Dionysus Awards. Here’s what they are and how YOU can participate:
The First Annual Dionysus Awards
Philosophy Talk is initiating a new movie award.
I know; I know. Do we really need yet another movie award? We’ve got the Oscars; the Golden Globe; the National Society of Film Critics, the People’s Choice Awards …. So what’s the point of another, you ask?
Well, it’s fun to talk about movies—at least the good ones. But more importantly, nobody really explicitly applauds movies for their philosophical merits—though filmmaking can sometimes be a highly philosophical art form. So why not an award that does just that? Finally, what could be cooler than winning a Dionysus Award? Sounds much cooler than an Oscar or a Golden Globe—at least to me.
So on February 8th, we’re going to inaugurate our Annual Dionysus Awards for the most philosophically interesting movies of the year. Our main guest will be noted film critic David Thomson. But we’ll also be joined briefly by some of our favorite philosopher-cinemaphiles who will give their takes on the philosophically most interesting movies of the year.
We’d love to have you join in the fun. Submit your own nomination for a Dionysus Award to email@example.com. Tell us which movies of 2008 you found most philosophically gripping and why. If we find your nomination compelling, we just may include you as a special guest on our on-air broadcast on the 8th.
Sounds like a winner to me. I’m planning to enter and listen. Why don’t you join me. l
There’s something going around the online world that’s even more viral than the Valentine’s Day virus from a few years back. I’m talking, of course, about the Dardos Awards. Never having heard of them until I was presented with one by blogger extraordinaire Jonathan Lapper, I found it a rather strange sensation to have actually won something, or kind of. See, I never win anything. Whenever there’s any kind of raffle, drawing, or other event of chance, I make the hubby enter it. He always wins stuff. I don’t even try anymore. Maybe that’s the secret. Or maybe I just intimidated Jonathan with my Amazon warrior cry. Yup, probably.
Anyway, so what did I win? Well, it’s not as good as wealth beyond my wildest dreams nor as bad as those parting gifts they give game show losers. Actually, it’s a pat on the back. A very nice pat on the back. A solid-gold pat on the back:
“The Dardos Award is given for recognition of cultural, ethical, literary, and personal values transmitted in the form of creative and original writing. These stamps were created with the intention of promoting fraternization between bloggers, a way of showing affection and gratitude for work that adds value to the Web.”
Dardos winners must do the following:
1) Accept the award by posting it on your blog along with the name of the person who has granted the award and a link to his/her blog.
2) Pass the award to another five blogs that are worthy of this acknowledgement, remembering to contact each of them to let them know they have been selected for this award.
I’ve made some great comrades among film bloggers, some of whom I would gladly name for a Dardos Award if someone else hadn’t named them first. I do have a couple of film bloggers that richly deserve this award, as well as bloggers in other subject areas. I’ve cheated and named six because I just couldn’t cut any of these great blogs. In alphabetical order:
One of the most knowledgable film bloggers I can think of is Peter Nellhaus. His blog, Coffee, Coffee, and More Coffee, reflects his vast cinematic experience, particularly his specialty in Asian films. He gets a lot of views, I’m sure. What he doesn’t get are a lot of comments—it’s because you’re way ahead of us, Peter.
Nick Plowman makes me sick! How can a high school kid be so damned talented, intelligent, and productive? Fataculture is a great blog no matter how much Nick obsesses about not keeping up with the “big guns.” He could splatter most other blogs to bits with his x-ray vision or whatever it is that keeps him going.
Daniel Getahun consistently provides great, thoughtful, self-questioning content on Getafilm. He keeps me current on what’s new in the film universe and has the most ingenious film-rating system I’ve seen. Sometimes I even think I can hear his great “Minnesota, eh” accent through the screen. (You do have one of those, don’t you, Daniel?)
I met Anna Brady Nurse from Move the Frame when I invited her to participate in the Invitation to the Dance Movie Blogathon I held last May. I really wanted to get some dance bloggers involved, and she was eager to join in. She does a great job of promoting New York City’s Kinetic Cinema and admirably fulfills her more general mission statement: Where Dance Meets the Camera.
The Tennessee Guerilla Women have been fighting the good fight for women in Tennessee and around the world. Some feminist sites are bitter, some are funny and bitter, some are confused. These women just tell it like it is with style, relevance, and wit. Onward sister suffragettes, or something like that.
Joe Valdez at This Distracted Globe does something I’ve never seen on any other blog: he provides a comprehensive production history of every film he reviews. He’s started to do the same with unsung character actors and actresses as well, with whom he probably identifies. Joe keeps a low profile, but I’m here to expose him to all the world! Get used to it, Joe. You’re about to be really appreciated. l
I know this is going to sound incredible, but not a day after I wished for a commentary by Colleen Moore, a reclusive Chicagoan who knew Ms. Moore very well produced a wire recording of her talking about Ella Cinders that includes some long-buried remarks about this seminal comedy. Here’s an excerpt:
“When I did this scene, it was from a painful memory. That s.o.b. director, Ally, that’s what I called Al Green because he was such a tomcat, didn’t think I could get that surprised look on my face. He broke in on me in my bath, and that’s what he said he wanted. That s.o.b.
“That’s the crew for the film. You can read my lips in this. ‘I’m awfully sorry. I didn’t know this was a movie.’ I stuck to the lines. I remember Mary Pickford getting caught out talking like a sailor in The School Teacher and the Waif, and guess who she played. She wasn’t much fun after that, I can tell you. You can’t do that with movies these days. Sound killed the inside joke.
“Oh, and here’s sweet Harry Langdon. A pity what happened to him. He was a real gent, even if he did pinch me under the blanket in this scene. I had a hard time getting the timing right for the up and down part. He pinched me to keep my cues in this part, too. Now that I think about it, Harry had a few problems. I guess it’s not so surprising what happened to him after all. The s.o.b.”
1) What was the last movie you saw theatrically? On DVD or Blu-ray?
Theatrically, part of Rachel Getting Married. Got vertigo from the handheld at about the 40-minute mark and left. On DVD, Lady Vengeance.
2) Holiday movies—Do you like them naughty or nice?
Nice. I love all the holiday trappings, music, snow, etc. It’s magic to me.
3) Ida Lupino or Mercedes McCambridge?
Mercedes McCambridge: “I’m going to kill you.” Joan Crawford: “I know. If I don’t kill you first.”
4) Favorite actor/character from Twin Peaks.
Never watched it.
5) It’s been said that, rather than remaking beloved, respected films, Hollywood should concentrate more on righting the wrongs of the past and tinker more with films that didn’t work so well the first time. Pretending for a moment that movies are made in an economic vacuum, name a good candidate for a remake based on this criterion.
My fondest wish is for Nelson Algren’s Man with the Golden Arm to get a good screen treatment. The Preminger Abomination should be obliterated.
6) Favorite Spike Lee joint. School Daze.
7) Lawrence Tierney or Scott Brady?
Lawrence Tierney. He’s so good in his early and late movies. I especially like his grizzled father of Ryan O’Neal in Tough Guys Don’t Dance.
8.) Are most movies too long?
In general, yes. When you see how much filmmakers used to be able to say in 80 minutes, it’s obvious how self-indulgent a lot of “auteurs” are these days.
9) Favorite performance by an actor portraying a real-life politician.
Paul Scofield as Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons.
10) Create the main event card for the ultimate giant movie monster smackdown.
The monsters from The Host and Cloverfield.
11) Jean Peters or Sheree North?
Sheree North. She’s so cute.
12) Why would you ever want or need to see a movie more than once?
If I really liked it. If I really liked the actors in it. If I needed to write an essay for my blog about it. If I wanted to accommodate the hubby or a friend. If it’s a tradition, like watching Sleepy Hollow on Halloween.
13) Favorite road movie. Sullivan’s Travels, because comfort was never more than a few hundred feet away.
14) Favorite Budd Boetticher picture. Seven Men from Now.
15) Who is the one person, living or dead, famous or unknown, who most informed or encouraged your appreciation of movies? My mother.
16) Favorite opening credit sequence. (Please include YouTube link if possible.) Ed Wood.
17) Kenneth Tobey or John Agar?
18) Jean-Luc Godard once suggested that the more popular the movie, the less likely it was that it was a good movie. Is he right or just cranky? Cite the best evidence one way or the other.
Somewhat cranky, but essentially right. How the hell is A Beautiful Mind, the Best Picture Oscar winner for 2001, better than Mulholland Drive or even Ghost World? This is the rule, not the exception.
19) Favorite Jonathan Demme movie.
Tough question. I like so many. But I’ll pick Something Wild for the “extra credit” of Ray Liotta’s performance and the marvelous soundtrack.
20) Tatum O’Neal or Linda Blair?
Tatum O’Neal. Linda Blair was a parody before her first movie was over.
21) Favorite use of irony in a movie. (This could be an idea, moment, scene, or an entire film.)
I’ve grown to quite hate irony. Its potency has been debased. Before it was, though, I think The Conformist has the most devastating ironies, showing a man trying to conform because he really thinks he’s different, and finding out he was never different at all.
23) The best movie of the year to which very little attention seems to have been paid.
I don’t know if it’s the best movie of the year—in fact, it’s probably not—but it was quite good and fairly overlooked: What We Do Is Secret.
24) Dennis Christopher or Robby Benson?
25) Favorite movie about journalism. His Girl Friday.
26) What’s the DVD commentary you’d most like to hear? Who would be on the audio track?
I don’t listen to these, but if I could, I’d love to hear Colleen Moore’s voice, perhaps while watching Her Wild Oat. I think she’d be charming company.
27) Favorite movie directed by Clint Eastwood. Bronco Billy. “I’ve got a special message for you little pardners out there. I want you to finish your oatmeal at breakfast and do as your mom and pa tell you because they know best. Don’t ever tell a lie and say your prayers at night before you go to bed. And as our friends south of the border say, Adios, amigos.”
28) Paul Dooley or Kurtwood Smith?
Paul Dooley. You got a thing for Breaking Away in this quiz? If so, I’m on board. It’s one of my favorites.
29) Your clairvoyant moment: Make a prediction about the Oscar season.
That it will be even more boring and irrelevant than usual.
30) Your hope for the movies in 2009.
That some new independent distributors like The Shooting Gallery come on the scene and distribute all the great films I see at festivals for everyone to watch.
31) What’s your top 10 of 2008?
I don’t make lists, and if I did, you wouldn’t recognize most of the films on my list for 2008. Let’s just make it easier on both of us and pretend I did.
32) What was your favorite movie-related Christmas gift that you received this year?
We don’t exchange gifts or celebrate Christmas. But just because, the hubby got me the complete “Cop Rock” series. It’s a TV show, but I count those.
If you want something done right, do it yourself. I’ve lived my life believing that adage. Nonetheless, I have been persuaded from time to time to delegate. Sometimes it goes well. This time, it was disastrous. I told my contractor time and again which one needed to be removed from office: a goofy-looking guy with helmet hair and a delusional look in his eyes. And did I say anything about rifles? I don’t remember anything like that. Just drive him across the Illinois border; take his shoes, cellphone, and wallet; and make him get out of the car. We’ll have him impeached before you can say “Rod Blagoe… Blaga…, uh, Blugah…” oh, never mind.
Considering that I’ve always taken more pleasure in digging through the ephemera of the past and the detritus of pop culture more than pretending that right now is so bloody important, I don’t think I should feel as phony as I do writing this. For starters, there’s the absurdity of the notion that we all have the same “year”. This year saw my enrollment in a Film Studies class that played like a Gary Trudeau satire (now kids, you are to analyse the awesome artistry of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone). It also saw the release of a stupefying number of films, few of which I’ll ever see. And I inevitably wonder what’s being made today that will provoke interest, excitement, the thrill of the unexpected, the signs of the artful, in 40 years? Where amongst the avalanche of films released this year are the little gems, the future cult films? Are there any? What, in short, will last? Wasn’t it only a few years ago when people thought films like A Beautiful Mind or Crash were important in some fashion?
Doomsday; The Strangers
Many of the best movies I’ve seen in the past 18 months are strange mutts produced by similar lines of thought. Films like An Old Mistress, Boarding Gate, Doomsday, and The Strangers are works made by intelligent filmmakers hunting for the scent of real blood and bone in the suspect qualities of old-school trash, florid melodrama, film noir, and no-budget horror. The year that saw the death of “termite art” theorist Manny Farber could be called a vast aesthetic tribute to his ideas. Or is the increasing tendency to nail films as “Oscar bait” the final process in the dumbing down of pop culture, a great excuse to ignore everything except the new comic book movie, which, by the by, has to provide the requisite amount of “darkness” and “relevance” in “parable” in compensation for the dearth of serious cinema? Sometimes our contemporary culture feels like the victim of a car crash learning to walk again.
Either way, I suppose in the next couple of months I may work up the enthusiasm to pretend that David Fincher is some kind of artist and that I care anymore about Clint Eastwood. There’s a host of said Oscar bait that’s been jammed into the last weeks of this year like a wholesale clearance at a high class but unprofitable carpet warehouse, and many other films anticipated still nowhere in sight (Hurry up, Let the Right One In. Avanti, Gomorrah. Please move your arse, Rachel Getting Married). More than ever, ambition in Hollywood has become a wage-slave in an Oscar-hungry boutique, trading desperately in the Christmas build-up and abandoning the rest of the year, like the Romans did their empire, to hordes of ravening cinematic barbarians.
I saw some of the best films I’ve ever seen in the past twelve months—trouble is, they were all from last year. My world was appropriately rocked by the glory of There Will Be Blood, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, & 2 Days (which both went on my all-time list), Death Proof (my current favourite film), Verhoeven’s gutsy Black Book, and Francois Ozon’s delightfully weird Angel, and I did not demand my money back for the likes of Atonement, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead; Eastern Promises; Romance & Cigarettes; Lust, Caution; No Country for Old Men; and Sweeney Todd either. Good, bad, and ugly, these were all works of real cinema that demanded at some point during their running time for us to ask just what our definitions of quality, invention, art, and entertainment are.
10,000 BC; Get Smart
Nonetheless, I know I’m not alone in kissing goodbye to one of the dullest years of cinema in living memory (and I lived through 2001). What can one say about 10,000 BC, the most boring caveman flick ever made (and that’s saying something—seen Clan of the Cave Bear lately?) or the utter catastrophe of Australia? The limp Get Smart? The pointless The Edge of Love? The instantly forgettable The Other Boleyn Girl? The last two especially would have been prime Oscar nets if they’d had the slightest idea of what they wanted to achieve.
If 2007 was the year for works of grandly calamitous art, reflecting the fullest measure of an anxiety-wearied age by mixing fury and fear in many measures, 2008 reflected a year of transition—it didn’t know what it was about, but knew it wanted things to improve. The strongest fare came from some tried and tested sources. My favourite for the year was Catherine Breillat’s Une Vieille Maîtresse, which forcefully interrogated assumptions about the past, about gender and love, and certain genres of film-making. Mike Leigh’s deft Happy-Go-Lucky, which was badly marketed and even more badly described by most critics, was his most entertaining film since Topsy-Turvy and his most sleekly assembled since Career Girls. More importantly, it extended artfully on themes long crucial to Leigh—the necessity of communal existence and the unnoticed but vital presence of the people who make that existence possible.
The Mother of Tears
It was impossible, after watching Asia Argento lick the blood off Fu’ad Ait Aattou’s bullet wound, to take the likes of The Duchess seriously. It was Asia’s year: as well as Maîtresse and her dad’s The Mother of Tears, she possessed the screen in Olivier Assayas’ gorgeously cryptic Boarding Gate. Assayas’ overcooked dialogue hardly obscures that he’s one of the few directors trying to stare modern dislocation dead in the eye; whereas Tom McCarthy’s The Visitor represents, to my mind, where indie cinema is, for better and for worse. Intense, well-acted, real-feeling, and a movie with something to say, it still leaned heavily on familiar props of the cute little film where people of different backgrounds come together, someone learns a life lesson, and our worthy multicultural fantasies come (temporarily) true—a kind of mix-tape for middle-age wannabe radicals. Still, it sported probably the year’s finest romantic coupling, and could be remembered as the signal Obama Year film. At least it wasn’t Juno.
As far as blockbusters went, I found it a year of mixed blessings. Steven Spielberg didn’t quite nail his return to his finest franchise, with the badly structured, anti-climactic Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. But it delivered a master class in how to shoot comedic action scenes, and had a kind of breezy, throwaway sense of humour (particularly in the delightful support turns of Karen Allen and Cate Blanchett) that stood in high contrast to the dour, lacklustre pretension and sloppy edits of the year’s most astoundingly overrated blockbuster, The Dark Knight. The latter film operated like a straitjacket on one of the age’s finest actors (Christian Bale) whilst liberating another (Heath Ledger, in a good year for Aussies playing villains) all too briefly.
More entertaining than Knight and more solid than Indiana Jones was Jon Favreau’s Iron Man, a neatly done, disposable superhero flick that ended up looking like a masterpiece by default, and sporting some of the year’s best acting, even though it wasn’t really as good as we said. Timur Bekmambetov’s Wanted had the potential to be the year’s greatest thrill ride, with its Fight Club-rapes-The Matrix set-up, but something went wrong thanks to garish cinematography and plotting so dumb (did the hero really bring down his enemies with a horde of explosive rats?) a five year old would have been offended. As far as genre bollocks went, Neil Marshall’s giddy, unconscionable Doomsday kicked all their arses: it dove head first into revved-up car chases, gross-out effects, and ’80s references so obvious that the film finally became something of a mix-tape of the films I grew up with—indeed, it’s a film that’s testimony of the unshakable effect of disreputable but fascinating movie-making of the past. I wouldn’t exactly call it good, but it wasn’t dead either.
The Black Balloon
Aussie cinema’s desperate straits yielded, under the great cloud of Luhrmann’s Australia, Elissa Down’s The Black Balloon, a meat-and-veg little-people film that won a bunch of Australian Film Institute awards chiefly because it made money. It told us that retarded people are occasionally irritating to be around, and that Gemma Ward is awfully cute. Yes, we knew that. Ward was better used—even though she had about three lines of dialogue and spent the whole film wearing a mask—in the best horror film of the year, Brian Bertino’s The Strangers. A thin but beautifully handled exercise in pure dread that proved that someone, at least, remembers what the cinematic frame is about, The Strangers offers the possibility that the horror genre may escape its dreadful rut. Of any of the films I saw with a chance of being remembered as the cinemaniac’s dirty little secret, it’s the type that could fare very well.
Andrei Rublev; Bend in the River
What else? The greatest film I saw this year—possibly ever—was Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev, a titanic work of eccentric artistry that managed to be both austere and implacable, and yet immersive and accessible. Films like that only come along once in a generation. What else? Kurosawa’s Sanshiro Sugata, Kagemusha and The Bad Sleep Well; Rivette’s Paris Belongs to Us; Val Guest’s The Abominable Snowman; Sirk’s The Tarnished Angels; Reed’s The Key; Godard’s The Little Soldier; Carne’s Hotel du Nord; Spielberg’s The Sugarland Express; DeMille’s The Plainsman; Jack Hill’s Spider-Baby; Jesus Franco’s Vampyros Lesbos; Anthony Mann’s Bend in the River; Franju’s Eyes without a Face; Grèmillon’s Stormy Waters; and Fleischer’s See No Evil. These films all remind me that, in the end, cinematic culture is far from being only the mediocrities and minor triumphs of the moment—it’s an evolving thing, depending not just upon what comes out at the moment, but also on the perspective we gain from discovering its history. l
Once again, I was faced with trying to come up with some criteria that could help me choose 20 noteworthy actresses. Should they be the most beautiful? Should they be the finest at their craft? Should they be of a certain age? Again, I decided to choose 20 actresses I find fascinating to watch, actresses who draw my eye to them no matter what else might be going on, actresses whose work I’m always ready to sample. Here they are, in alphabetical, order.
Louise Brooks is the American Garbo, but with more range. She could play temptresses with an American wildness Garbo lacked, but also was believable in comedic and sentimental roles. And, she’s stunning!
Billie Burke always captivates me with her birdlike voice, her apple cheeks, and her charm. She’s one of the great character actresses of the 1930s who deserves to be remembered for more than playing Glinda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz.
Leslie Caron has the gamine appeal that I am always attracted to in actresses. Beyond that, she is the definition of grace, with a wise innocence that comes through in her best films. I could watch her in Gigi over and over and over.
Peggy Cummins is a face you see every day on this blog. I was so taken with her in Gun Crazy and I so wanted to project what she had in that film, that I took her as my stand-in. As you can see in this picture, she’s not only naughty, she’s also nice, very nice.
Laura del Sol may not be a familiar name and face unless you have seen the dance films of Carlos Saura. Once viewed, she’s unforgettable—an intense beauty and passionate dancer. I’ve seen Carmen more times than I can remember. She’s just amazing.
Catherine Deneuve is easily one of the most beautiful and talented women who ever lived. She can delve deeply into sexual perversion, madness, and bitterness. She can also take a bourgeois character and bring out unknown courage. I always want to go wherever she leads.
Gloria Grahame has a face you never forget. Interestingly beautiful, she often played women whose looks play strongly into their fate, from Violet in It’s a Wonderful Life to Debby in The Big Heat. I can’t pass on a film she’s in.
Shirley Henderson is an actress you’ve seen more than you think you have. She’s been in Trainspotting, 24-Hour Party People, Yes, and even one of the Harry Potter films (as Moaning Myrtle). I was completely captivated by her performance in Topsy-Turvy, where she works her beautiful soprano voice and coquettishness as an alcoholic singer who is the personification of Yum Yum in The Mikado. She puts me into a trance whenever I watch her.
Wendy Hiller is a versatile actress who has had a long career, still as interesting today in look and demeanor as when she was a fresh-faced, cheeky Scots actress in Pygmalion and I Know Where I’m Going. I like her a lot!
Isabelle Huppert is a force to be reckoned with in any film she’s in. Utterly fearless and frequently diabolical and intimidating, she lends authority to any film in which she appears. She’s a miracle.
Milla Jovovich is a little hard to explain. Yes, she’s beautiful and charismatic. But even in her strictly popcorn films, she brings something more than a model’s presence to bear. She’s got a kind of vulnerable command that I find very compelling. So sue me.
Katy Jurado has charisma up the yin yang. It is impossible to take your eyes off her when she’s on screen. She even managed to upstage Grace Kelly in High Noon. She’s a singular and memorable actress.
Nancy Kwan burst on the scene in The World of Suzie Wong. It was a memorable debut film for one of the iconic actresses of the 60s. How can you not enjoy her being a girl!
Angela Lansbury, the thoroughly pleasant Jessica Fletcher on TV, often shows up on most evil villian lists for her turn in The Manchurian Candidate, one of the few women to have this distinction. I love her ruthless Mrs. Iselin, but she always breaks my heart as sweet, doomed Sybil Vane in The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Anna Magnani wears her heart on her sleeve, her hips, her legs, and most especially, her face. A symbol of martyrdom in Rome: Open City, her natural intensity and earthiness were often on display in such films as The Rose Tattoo. She’s simply unforgettable.
Colleen Moore just had to make my list, didn’t she. My love of her is well known and will continue as long as I can watch her perfect comic sensibility and adorably versatile face in action. And then maybe longer.
Cathy O’Donnell is one of those actresses who always seems to pop up in older movies, and I’m always delighted to recognize her. They Live By Night, Side Street, and of course, The Best Years of Our Lives reveal her as a sympathetic, sweet presence. I just always feel warm when she’s around.
Christina Ricci is my favorite contemporary actress. There’s nothing she can’t do. She even made being tied up half-naked in Black Snake Moan interesting. She’d be my only choice for the part of Molly O if The Man with the Golden Arm is ever made into a decent film. I just wish she hadn’t gotten so skinny.
Theresa Russell is a subtle, mysterious actress I’m completely fascinated with. Black Widow is a minor masterpiece of the 1980s because of her duel with Debra Winger.
Michelle Williams is not an actress I ever thought I’d find so watchable when I saw her first film forays. She’s grown into a mesmerizing presence for me, and has improved exponentially as an actress. Only a little more time and she’ll lose all those youthful mannerisms and enter the major leagues.
The “baker’s dozen” silhouette at the beginning of this article is Greta Garbo.
Over the past few weeks, a few of my fellow movie bloggers have revealed parts of their home movie libraries. They weren’t big show-and-tells, but they provided a glimpse at the person behind the curtain, so to speak. Now, I’ve never hidden my identity or a lot of the details about my life, but I am a bit private when it comes to my home. Not that it’s some kind of sanctum sanctorum, mind you, though the computer room/den comes very close to being a staging area for macabre rituals thanks to the hubby’s delight in collecting gargoyles, mini-guillotines, pagan altar pieces, and other bizarreiana. But I’m ready to show you just what kind of a film geek I am.
As a collector, I’m as piddling as someone who never goes to the movies. I don’t have a lot of books or DVDs. I had a lot of videos, mostly recorded off my TV; it was hard to rent or buy them at a reasonable price for quite a while, so my VCR was once my best friend. I don’t have a lot of memorabilia other than ticket stubs, because I live in a condo without a lot of storage space and I really hate the feeling of clutter. So what you’ll see here represents the items I’ve deemed worthy of taking into my home, some rather randomly, some foisted upon me by others, but mostly because I feel better knowing they are giving off energy in the place I am most relaxed and inspired.
I have a lot more artwork than I have room to hang it, but this piece will always have a place of honor in my home. The advertising cards are all from films I’ve seen, and none of them ever made a big splash, though most film buffs will recognize them and may have seen them. The card on the right in the second row is my version of historic preservation—the 2001 line-up of films from the late, lamented Shooting Gallery; two of the cards in the frame, The Low Down and The Day I Became a Woman, are from that series. I have the most awesome framer who I’ve been going to for decades, so I’m really pleased with how this looks.
On to the memorabilia. Above is one piece in a small collection of Rudolph Valentino items that includes a couple of vintage photos and a paper doll collection. I keep the bulk of the collection at work, but this cookie tin kept rolling off my desk, so I brought it home where the hubby has surrounded it with other vintage items from my mother and his.
Now the ticket stubs. Here’s what holds them:
I can’t show them all to you, so I’ve selected some that have some special interest for me. The first Ebertfest had some beautiful tickets. (They got grayer and more subdued over the years.) A three-piece band from Michigan called Concrete played their own score for Battleship Potemkin. Director Paul Cox did a Q&A about his wonderful A Woman’s Tale.
Here’s one from the Silent Summer Film Festival. Do you know that I forgot I saw Twinkletoes? Unbelievable. But going through all these ticket stubs, I saw a lot of film titles I didn’t recognize at all, including, believe it or not Bunuel’s The Milky Way, which I claimed not a week ago to never have seen and, in fact, to have avoided! However, the other two on this page, Lost in Translation (Did I really see that at the Siskel Center? How odd.) and Cloverfield, I remember well.
Here are a few from the defunct Taos Talking Picture Festival. Sorry I didn’t get a better picture. The significant ones for me are Vera and Whale Rider, which was unknown in the States when I saw it. It didn’t stay that way.
Below are some different styles of Chicago International Film Festival ticket stubs. I quite like the first ones, with elegant type for the festival name over a grayscale image of the festival logo—Theda Bara’s eyes. By 2004, the stubs were the usual Ticketmaster style they are now. No character. Oh well. The stub for The Exiles is not from the CIFF; it’s sort of my way of bragging that I discovered this film a long time before the hordes of cinephiles who now, thankfully, have easy access to it.
Finally, I’ve got a smattering of films I saw at the Siskel Center. The tickets not only tell what film was shown, but what series it was a part of; for example, Sound of the Mountain was part of an extensive Naruse retro. The Iberia ticket means a lot to me because Carlos Saura was there for the screening, where I got a chance to thank him for his unique dance films and get his autograph on a VHS tape of Carmen and a DVD of Blood Wedding.
I like to go to films when I’m on vacation. I had a few stubs from Hawaii, but the photo didn’t come out. I wish I had the stubs from my trip to Johannesburg, where I remember seeing Center Stage and the first X-Men movie. Then again, I wish I had all the stubs over the decades. “What we’ve missed, Lucia, what we’ve missed.”
On to the DVDs. This is pretty close to all of them; a couple of photos didn’t come out. Yeah, I know: “Is that all?” Hey, I’ve got a kickass library collection and Facets to rent from. The hubby is responsible primarily for the horror films and stuff like Mondo Bubba, Dogville, and Dogma. A number of the films have Chinese characters on them; those came from my Shanghai connection.
I was going to put up pictures of my books, but there are only about 35, and none of them is all that “important.” Nonetheless, I have a few favorites: Silent Star, Colleen Moore’s autobiography, Foster Hirsch’s Film Noir: The Dark Side of the Screen, and Andrew Bergman’s We’re in the Money: Depression America and Its Films.
Whew, I’m glad that’s over! It’s not as easy as I thought it would be to put this out into the world. I don’t exactly know what you’ll make of all this. Let me know. l
In 1949, Nelson Algren published his literary masterpiece, The Man with the Golden Arm. It won the very first National Book Award in 1950 and caught the attention of John Garfield, whose production company bought the rights to make the film version. Algren produced a script, but Garfield died before the production got off the ground. In 1954, Otto Preminger discovered the book and decided it would be the perfect thing for him to use to break the back of the Production Code against the depiction of drug addition in films. After dismissing Algren and his script, Preminger hired Walter Newman, a talented writer who worked in radio and had collaborated with Billy Wilder on the screenplay for Wilder’s gritty, cynical masterwork Ace in the Hole. When Preminger’s film was released in 1955, Frank Sinatra played the protagonist Frankie “Machine” Majcinek, an ex-GI with a golden arm for dealing cards, a dream of maybe becoming a drummer, and perhaps most deterministic of all, a monkey on his back.
I quote from Chris Fujiwara’s latest book The World and Its Double: The Life and Work of Otto Preminger, (2008, Faber and Faber) by way of Noir of the Week to give some background on the short acquaintance of Preminger and Algren:
Algren’s unsuccessful association with the film was a personal catastrophe that, according to his biographer, Bettina Drew, “marked a turning point in Algren’s life.” For Algren, Preminger would become an obsession, a symbol of the crass arrogance of power, an enemy with whom he would grapple again and again in his writing and his reminiscences. Oblivious to Algren’s enmity, Preminger merely said, “He was an amusing, intelligent man but he couldn’t write dialogue or visualize scenes.” Algren countered: “The book dealt with life at the bottom. Otto has never, not for so much as a single day, had any experience except that of life at the top.
Algren’s enmity was not misplaced. Preminger, the most producerly of directors, could be said to have followed a formula the poet e.e. cummings noted after his encounter with an editor at Reader’s Digest: “Eight to 80, anyone can do it, makes you feel good.” The gut-wrenching story of failure and life on the skids Algren had poured his experience, heart, and talent into was transformed into a tale of redemption brought on by self-reliance and the love of a good woman. The woman Algren created as Frankie’s soft shoulder was Molly “O” Novatny, a 20-year-old stripper and occasional prostitute with gradual decline and decay written all over her. In Preminger’s film, she is played by that exemplar of gritty realism, Kim Novak, as a woman who didn’t seem to do much of anything to make a living, giving her plenty of time to save Frankie from himself and his shrewish wife Zosh, played by Eleanor Parker.
OK, sure, I’m just another reader complaining about an unfaithful screen adaptation of one of her favorite novels. Happens all the time. Why should this book’s treatment merit special attention? Why should this film, which a lot of people really like, come in for particular scorn?
I think this is a special case, and not because Nelson Algren was reviled by many and condescended to by others (in its amazing gaucheness, the history section of the National Book Award’s website doesn’t even mention him or his book). I’m not here to defend Algren and his place in literature—only the integrity of his vision and the respect that it ought to have received from Preminger. Instead, the director chose to make a Hollywood picture with Hollywood stars and a Hollywood ending. He could have done that with hundreds of books. He chose The Man with the Golden Arm because he wanted to blow a raspberry at the Production Code—it’s just that simple. He, like so very many other producers and directors, had no use for the lives Algren felt worthy of notice. Even today, you won’t find the kind of lives Algren wrote about much in film unless they are created by documentarians, directors interested in gawking at the seamy side of life without really understanding the people they seem to care about, or occasionally, by our most sensitive film artists (Akira Kurosawa’s Dodes’ka-den comes to mind). Newman is a case in point:
Newman … said, “I worked very hard to use as much of the book as I could, as many of the people, as much of the dialogue, as many of the incidents as I could—except that I turned them upside down.”
The care Newman took to retain details from the book, something he seems very proud of, unfortunately, means absolutely nothing when placed against the emotional dishonesty of the script he produced. According to Fujiwara’s book
Newman enjoyed working with Preminger: “I found him to be endlessly patient, always courteous.” After about a month of research and another month of writing, Newman gave Preminger his first 50 pages of script. After reading them, Preminger called Newman and said, “I’m delighted,” which Newman considered “extraordinary behavior for a director or a producer. Almost all of them, at this point, would have begun the conversation by saying, without even a hello, ‘On page eleven there’s a misplaced comma—on page fourteen I don’t understand the motivation’—and so on and so on. This is Standard Operating Procedure and it’s meant to put the screenplay writer in his place—in other words, to put him down.”
It’s pretty obvious that this kind of rank pulling wasn’t necessary: Preminger had already put a writer in his place by throwing his book and screenplay out the window and finding another guy who was compliant to his world view for the film.
Why does it matter? There are any number of reasons, but the one I’m struck by always is that Algren’s people weren’t happy, weren’t given chances or choices, always seemed to find a way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. This is a vision completely at odds with the film Otto Preminger produced. It is utterly ridiculous for a director to take a title, character names, certain situations, and drug addiction and slap them around until they’re more shattered than the face on the barroom floor. This misappropriation, this identity theft must be noted. An auteur does not have the right to compromise an author with a genuine vision, a vision that differs so drastically from his own. There is license and then there is rape; it’s clear to me what this “adaptation” was.
The people Nelson Algren wrote about have few champions in this world. They’re the rummies and chippies and suckers and sinners who never get an even break. The fact that Preminger, in his zeal to exploit the lot of the junkie for the entertainment of a curious and ignorant middle class audience, stomped all over this underclass yet again, creates, to my mind, a problem of legitimacy in the auteur theory. Should a film auteur be allowed to practice cannibalism? No, no way.
OK, so Piper tagged me for this meme started by Fletch at Blog Cabins. The meme’s simple concept is to pick a favorite film for each letter of the alphabet. Simple for some letters, of course, like “X,” not so easy for others. In order to whittle down my choices, I set myself a few rules, the first of which I broke because it was simply unavoidable:
1. Exclude films I have reviewed on this site.
2. Choose films that I truly enjoy viewing over and over again.
3. Use English title translations unless the title was a proper name or the term had become common in the English lexicon.
What I found by being honest with myself and sticking with these rules is that a lot of the films I greatly admire, the ones that would assure my cred as an astute cinephile with impeccable taste, didn’t make the list. This is a very personal list that includes, I think, some very fine films that even the snobbiest cinephile would approve, and others that maybe nobody but I can enjoy repeatedly.
Note: This list has been revised to be more accurate, changing “A” and “J”. I have included the original entries at the bottom of the list.
American Graffiti (1973). It’s hard to believe I forgot this classic from Francis Ford Coppola. Like The Outsiders listed below, it’s an archetypal teen story with a load of actors who would later become household names. The soundtrack is one of the greatest ever.
Bossa Nova (2000). I love the music of Antonio Carlos Jobim, and this romantic Brazilian film that was a gift of its director Bruno Barreto to his then-wife Amy Irving is chockful of it. Wouldn’t you love to have a man woo you by making a beautiful tangerine blouse for you?
Crossing Delancey (1988). Another Amy Irving film, I watch it again and again mainly for the evocation of Jewish life in New York and the pretensions of the literary crowd it skewers. Interestingly, Amy is also wooed in this film with a garment (“Vat is voo?”).
Dark Victory (1939). I’m a sucker for this film of a caustic society girl (Bette Davis) who finds love only after she learns she’s dying. Great last scene that always delivers no matter how many times I see it.
El (1953). This isn’t Luis Buñuel’s best film, but it is, for me, his most memorable. Arturo de Córdova is perfectly ridiculous as the obsessed buffoon who actually plots to sew his wife’s vagina closed to keep her from straying. Yowza!
Funny Face (1957). Fashion, Fred Astaire, Audrey Hepburn, and Paris. Need I say more?
Gregory’s Girl (1981). This was the first Bill Forsyth film I ever saw, and it’s still my favorite. Will Gregory get the most popular girl in school—who’s also the best soccer player on the school team—to go out with him? Will spelling “Caracas” correctly on their homemade sign help Andy and Eric hitch a ride to Venezuela? Will the kid in the penguin costume ever find the right room?
High Noon (1952). A savage study in hypocrisy filled with suspense and dread, this is my all-time favorite Western. Gary Cooper was never better.
Ikiru (1952). Akira Kurosawa’s moving film about an ineffectual bureaucrat who decides to make a difference only when he learns he is dying gives a deep and persuasive look at what life really means.
Jour de Fête (1949). The first film by Jacques Tati I ever saw on the big screen, its silent-film qualities, including a Ben Turpin lookalike, won me over and made me a rabid Tati fan.
Kiss Me Deadly (1955). The ultimate film noir for the nuclear age, I never get tired of watching Velda open her Pandora’s Box or of Cloris Leachman darting in front of a car, her thin arms raised high to get the driver to stop.
Lolita (1962). Stanley Kubrick’s wry and worldly comic adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s study of, basically, a pedophile and the nymphet who does know her own strength is the work of a cinematic dream team composed of James Mason, Shelley Winters, Peter Sellers, and wonderful newcomer Sue Lyon. Oh, and Nabokov wrote the screenplay.
Monsieur Verdoux (1947). A late Chaplin film has amusement and passion in equal doses. When Charlie hooks up with Martha Raye as one of his long line of wives murdered for their money, you really can’t wait for it to happen.
New Leaf, A (1971). Simply the funniest movie I’ve ever seen. Elaine May is as strong a director as she (always) is a comic lead opposite one of the best comic actors in the business, Walter Matthau. Now that I found a copy of it, it’s a regular in the VCR.
Outsiders, The (1983). I’m a relative newcomer to this teen classic, yet it hooked me right away, and watching so many of the next generation of A-list actors near the start of their careers is a lot of fun.
Pandora’s Box (1929). Fritz Wedekind’s mesmerizing story of the amoral Lulu inspired an opera by Alban Berg. But it was G.W. Pabst’s 1929 film that made Lulu an icon through the abandon of the beautiful Louise Brooks.
Quiet Man, The (1952). I’m not a big John Wayne fan and have mixed feelings about John Ford, but this American in Ireland tale shows off a comedic side of the Duke in a way only Ford could have captured. And it has the lovely, red-haired colleen Maureen O’Hara to add fire to the fuel.
Romeo & Juliet (1968). A story filmed many times, Italian Franco Zeffirelli’s version found the passion in this tale set in his home country and cast the most attractive, charismatic star-crossed lovers by far in film history—Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey. Flawless.
Sweet Smell of Success (1957). A terrific, highly quotable screenplay by Clifford Odets (“In brief, from now on, the best of everything is good enough for me.”) gives Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster lots to work with as an ambitious flak and the New York gossip columnist he wants to replace.
Trouble with Angels, The (1966). Hayley Mills was the Hillary Duff of my generation, and she was never better than in this exceptional movie about girlhood pranks, friendship, and the dawning of maturity, all set in a convent school. Scathingly brilliant. Ida Lupino directs.
Universal Horror (1998). Film scholar Kevin Brownlow directed the must-see documentary for anyone who loves the classic horror films made at Universal Studios.
Vera Drake (2004). This is a pretty depressing film, yet it fascinates me, depicting as it does the era of the illegal abortion in Britain and the abortionist who doesn’t see it as a crime to help girls in trouble.
Written on the Wind (1956). When is a model of an oil well not a model of an oil well? When Dorothy Malone runs her hands up and down it. THE women’s film from Douglas Sirk.
X-Men 2: X-Men United (2003). I imagine if you’re at all a fan of the X-Men films, this would have to be in your meme as one of the few films that starts with “x”. Even so, this second entry in the franchise is truly exciting, suspenseful, and unpredictable, and Jean Grey is a terrific character well realized by Famke Janssen.
Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942). I’ve watched this flag-waving musical more times than I can remember, but I never get tired of James Cagney singing and dancing in this, his only Oscar-winning performance.
Zoolander (2001). A model named Hansel. Male models frolicking with pump hoses in slow motion in a gas station and then lighting a cigarette. It doesn’t get much better than this!
Replaced from my first draft of this post:
Afterlife (1998). An intriguing, gently humorous look at what happens to us after we die is a film like no other from a Japanese director, Hirozaku Kore-eda, whose films are touched by grace.
Juliet of the Spirits (1965). My love of Fellini has grown exponentially over the years, and when I finally saw this film, I knew I’d found my favorite. The love triangle of the film involving Fellini’s wife Giulietta Masina and his lover Sandra Milo is another case of art imitating life in a Fellini film.
As usual, I’m not tagging anyone. l
Note: This essay was composed for academic purposes, in commentary on the proposition by Laura Mulvey that “Citizen Kane explicitly invites us to figure out its puzzle but it also constantly frustrates that desire.”
Citizen Kane begins at the end—the death of its eponymous character uttering a word that becomes the object of retrospective investigation. The attempts to understand Charles Foster Kane and his life will be fractured, and Thompson, the journalist attempting to parse the meaning of his dying word, “Rosebud,” never achieves his objective. His failure reflects his realisation of an idea the film has laid out in great detail—that such words as news, truth, biography, history, and remembering, are infinitely flexible, influenced by perspective, time, character, and purpose. Whilst the audience is finally presented with a solution to the puzzle, it returns the arc in a complete reversal to the opening, still “a situation of total ambiguity,” as one of Welles canniest critics, Joseph McBride, put it in 1972.
Susan Alexander Kane’s love of arranging jigsaw puzzles presents the central metaphor—the story resembles such a puzzle. Pieces are disarranged, and one must place them together to construct the full picture. And yet there is not a sense of intellectual and emotional triumph over the unknown and confused. This fragmentation of the traditional holism of narrative is mediated not merely through linear, but also stylistic, displacement. The film evokes familiar genres, but renders them incomplete, warping traditional shape, thereby serving to make us ponder the purposes genres are put to and the traditions they are supposed to service. “The endurance of relatively stable genres is sometimes assumed to by symptomatic of institutionalised inertia, aesthetic stasis and a more general lack of desire for change,” as Negus and Pickering summed it up neatly in their 2004 volume Creativity, Communication and Cultural Value. Perhaps nowhere was this suspicion held to be more accurate than of classic Hollywood.
It can be broadly observed that the detective genre, to which the Rosebud search could belong, or the heroic-journalist genre, in which Thompson, Kane, and Leland could all be traditional characters, generally posit the idea that the truth will out. The clue will be found, crime unearthed. As Julian Symons described it in his landmark 1972 study of the detective genre, Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel, the shape of social and moral order will be reinforced for the pleasure of those “who have a stake in the permanence of the existing social system.” But in Kane, such certainties are conscientiously erased. Generic quotes in Kane both interrogate, and also utilise, the ideas encoded in these genres.
The film begins with the mood of a horror movie—Xanadu, a wonderland in the newsreel, but here a prematurely decaying castle fit for Dracula. Why the appropriation of gothic style? The gothic genre’s familiar dead castles and haunted mansions are traps for rancid memory, cultural detritus, and the devolution of the consciousness. We encounter all these things in this “monument to himself.” Xanadu and its trove of art and craft, its chasms of ego-cocooning space, are both godlike and oppressive. This is reminiscent of films with haunted house settings. Take the description in Phil Hardy’s Encyclopedia of the Horror Movie of Kubrick’s The Shining, probably the greatest modern example of the genre but highly reliant on its classic tropes, with its “twinning of opposites” for a “tortured ego” in such a “space trap”—exactly the same atmosphere Welles conjures for Xanadu. Likewise, Susan’s wraithlike appearance at the end of her opera tour renders her looking much like a vampire’s victim. Again, Kane borrows a generic motif, but there is no monster here, only a dying old man haunted by memory, undermining the motif.
Still, we never “meet” Charles Foster Kane. We encounter versions of him in biographies and anecdotes, observe his possessions, his dwelling place, signifying the absence of a being. In the newsreel, such men as Thatcher and the labour advocate describe him as both a communist and a fascist, presented as binary opposites in popular discourse. Kane is reinvented even in life according to the needs of others. His wealth, prestige, his sheer scale as an entity not only invite this, but seem to demand it; there is too much of Kane and his world to account in one version.
The dreamlike prologue is followed hard by its stylistic opposite, the News on the March newsreel, which serves vitally important functions. It lays out the agreed facts of Kane’s life, and the audience can access this information during the leaps in period and perspective that pepper the film. We know where each “piece” fits in. It also establishes a thematic schism. The stylisation of the prologue evokes the threat of an unspoken truth, which the newsreel editor, Ralston, senses. The gap between the expressionist dread of the prologue and News on the March seems the distance between artifice and documentation. But this distinction is already rendered hazy. News on the March is supposedly truth unadorned, but is characterised by melodramatic voiceovers, musical cues, and pat title cards. Aspects of Kane’s life are grouped together in the reel to create distinct dramatic acts, bestowing symmetry on Kane’s story, first evoking awe, mystery, exoticism (the tour of Xanadu), epic excitement (Kane’s rise, the expanse of his empire), then, decline and punishment for hubris (associating the collapse of his political career and marriage with his business decline, despite their unrelated causes). The film identifies the news as just another genre, with its own clichés, collusions, and reductions.
Ralston insists that Thompson cross the distance between journalism and art, to find the key to Kane’s personality, which will give life to this story they wish to conjure. News on the March exemplifies a process that Kane himself set in motion—the dramatisation of news and the manipulation and selective reading of facts. Kane’s propensity for inventing truth, as in whipping up fervour for the Spanish-American war, eventually meets its match as Boss Gettys and the newspapers impugn his private life, a distortion that becomes accepted fact. Kane is totally beaten by his own invention. News as narrative, then, is inextricable with mythology, especially political mythology. Kane invents villains—trust magnates, the potential murderer of a missing girl, the Spanish—to embody certain concepts: the betrayal of the working man, the vulnerability of femininity and the home, the manifest destiny of the United States. This could be described as exactly what genre does—create arcs of cause and effect, and manifestations of ideas, which will then be triumphant or repressed, depending on their nature. Thompson sets about his boss’s glibly conceived mission to deduce the meaning of Rosebud and thus give the newsreel a dramatic fullness through psychological insight. Thompson’s search, however, like the newsreel, skims around the edges of Kane’s life, probing friends, business partners, and his ex-wife in pressing closer to a kind of truth, but then coming up against an invisible barrier—the lack of a heart to the mystery.
The narrators of Kane may promise a sought-after veracity, but they, too, frame their accounts with slants of preconception. Each lends a kind of coherent shape and essential pitch to their experiences, whilst shutting out other interpretations. Susan, an innocent, perceives herself as the entrapped plaything of a dark prince, enclosed by seemingly arbitrary decisions of will. Hers is a gothic fairytale of girlhood. Leland, an intellectual and a drama critic to boot, assays his recollections as a cautionary tale, complete with observed themes and critical speeches (“That’s all he really wanted out of life, was love. That’s Charlie’s story, how he lost it.”) extrapolated from Kane’s character and experience. Bernstein, who is never associated with any woman except for the passing illusion of perfect beauty decades in the past, is a nostalgic, a hero-worshipper. Susan is a victim. Bernstein is an idealiser. Leland is, as McBride called him, a “romantic … (who) feels and remembers all of the emotional extremes which the other characters are prone to remember only selectively.” And yet Leland has own blind spots.
David Thomson contended in 1996 that “it was Welles’ way later in life to say that, early on with Kane, they had played with a Rashomon-like idea—that of different versions of one central fact, leaving us uncertain of what happened. But they let go gradually, and it was replaced with the overall perspective of all the reports being voices in Kane’s head.” Be this as it may, though the flashbacks might then be called “accurate,” nonetheless, they are still shaped by perspective, by the egos and prejudices offered by the narrators. These people, like the news, select the relevant facts from any experience. There is the consistent theme of the things we miss in concentrating on our interests, actions and objects that are misinterpreted or unnoticed. Rosebud is the singular example of it, yet it is a motif throughout the film.
Leland only remembers Susan’s debut in terms of what happened to him. The actual performance, for him, is a throwaway joke, a sideshow of Kane’s egotism. Susan recalls the awfulness of performing to people, including the prominently contemptuous Leland, who despised her. In his own account, Leland is a moral hero; in Susan’s, he’s a self-satisfied boor. Susan cannot know the import of the letter Leland sends to Kane, seeing it only as a message from a loathsome man. It has context and meaning for us, but not to Susan. Her estranged viewpoint renders the delivery of the torn check and the Declaration of Principles anything but the crushing moral gesture Leland intended.
Likewise, Susan remembers the sad triumph of leaving Kane, where Raymond sees its aftermath. As with Leland’s letter, this detached sequence presents a fulfillment of other scenes, but removed from the direct flow of consequence. We intuit Kane’s destruction of Susan’s belongings as a condemnation of the futility of objects, and a desperate riposte for an answer to the accusation Susan had made: “You never give me anything I really care about.” His stumbling across the snow globe finally resolves the embarrassing spectacle of destruction because it reminds him of an object, a belonging, a time in life that had an actual, emotional value for him. This means nothing to Raymond, but everything to the protagonists.
The nature of the puzzle, then, changes for each person. Susan’s jigsaws present the journalists, with their love of simplification, and the audience, with our love of neat resolution, with a happy metaphor. Thompson comes to deny the importance of a missing piece, realising that only the whole of Kane’s life is its explanation, and only the man who lived it could articulate it. The film finally slips their perspective and offers an omniscient revelation, which, if David Thomson’s reading is correct, is Kane himself offering the revelation of Rosebud. In terms of technique, it’s a bald rejection of perspective, a final reflex towards the godlike narrators of classical fiction.
Is Rosebud merely the longing for a lost Eden of childhood with its manifold promise? The sled is not an unheralded revelation. It’s part of a signal legend of Kane’s, as we know from when the Congressman taunts Thatcher in the newsreel about being hit with it. It is not merely a sentimental symbol for Kane—it’s the instrument with which he attempts to ward off the fate that ultimately entraps him. Money enables his genius, and yet also cocoons him from becoming a proper, self-actualising human; he theorises, “If I hadn’t been very rich, I might have been a really great man.” Considering how Kane seemed as hemmed in by circumstance as he was a definer of them, and the way he perceives himself as perpetually embattled—“That’s when you’ve got to fight ’em,” he advises Susan when she wants to surrender—it’s easy to see Rosebud not merely as a longing for lost youth but also for the spirit that comes in battling adversity. This spirit has entirely ebbed by the time he signs control of his companies back over to Thatcher’s bank, a scene of his utter defeat in his war with the monolithic world of money and purposeless profit Thatcher ushered him into so many years earlier. The fact that Rosebud still has multiple meanings as a symbol is once again a denial of simple resolution, part of what McBride called the “constant ironic undercutting of the audience’s search for a solution.”
Such meditations invest the film’s “attack on the acquisitive society” (as Welles described it for Cahiers du Cinema in 1966) with force beyond simple political morality. It’s an enquiry into the degree to which any human is shaped by circumstance, and left unshaped, into free will itself. The discovery of Rosebud intensifies the patterns we have observed. We consider other missing pieces. What impact did the death of Kane’s son, along with Emily, in a car crash, have upon him? This presents a gaping hole in the narrative, a private matter only Kane could speak of.
The ability to tell and shape a story is finally associated with power over the perception and thinking of others. Kane’s and the newsreel company’s manipulations are unified with notions of political might, wealth, and influence. Equally, the fragmentation of story, the self-conscious assault on the totality of narrative and the recognition of perspective, is an intrinsically subversive act by virtue of denying power to the shapers, giving power instead to the receptive interpreter. If the completeness of generic narrative reinforces certain social and moral precepts, the rejection of such completeness, whilst still embracing the idea that the metaphors of genre have value, critiques the shape they bestow on reality.
The revelation of Rosebud is, then, a final reclamation of Kane’s story for Kane himself, as well as a conduit for our sympathy, if not our understanding. Rosebud reminds us that for all the tales told about him, his innermost self was only communicated to others in enigmatic flashes. From Thatcher’s recollection of “I always gagged on that silver spoon,” to “Rosebud” itself, his mind was his last domain, unknown and unknowable to others. This is the true impact of the refrain of the “No Trespassing” sign; the mysteries of Xanadu and Rosebud have been supplanted by the impossibility of knowing a man’s inner life, a realm beyond the reach of the power of others, to steal from and reshape.
By now, most people know that Louis “Studs” Terkel died on Halloween at the age of 96. He was known to many as the chronicler of America in his many books that assembled the voices of the mighty, the downtrodden, and everyone in between in their own words. Division Street: America (1967), Studs’ first book of oral history, on urban life in Chicago, took its title from a real Chicago street that in days gone by was a nexus for the poor Poles about whom Studs’ great friend Nelson Algren wrote so movingly in The Man with the Golden Arm and The Neon Wilderness. Division Street became a metaphor for the divisions in American society. Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do (1974) was a love letter to the waitresses, factory workers, and other laborers (though he does give executives their due as well) whom Studs championed tirelessly throughout his life; it became a stage musical in 1978 and has been revived regularly ever since.
He was also known as the quintessential Chicagoan, a label I find kind of funny since I always thought of him as the quintessential New York Jew. Yes, he spent only the first 10 years of his life in New York City, but they say those are the formative years. The starry-eyed way he always talked about the common man, the way he never met a progressive cause he didn’t like, his ambition, his hamminess, and his steadfast ignorance about how to drive a car—these all seem so New York to me. Where was the fascination with clout? Where were the stubborn middlebrow tastes and midline ambition so endemic to the working-class Chicagoans he loved so much?
Even so, as a suburban Chicagoan growing up in what was still a very working-class metropolitan area, I could very well have learned and retained the narrower horizons that many of my relatives and neighbors had. Studs gave me the kind of civic, social, and cultural education I probably wouldn’t have gotten anywhere else, and he may be responsible for my highly eclectic and ecumenical tastes. I got that education over nearly four decades listening to The Studs Terkel Program, a talk radio show broadcast live at 10 a.m. (and rebroadcast at 11 p.m. on Thursdays) for an hour or thereabouts (Studs never watched the clock, nor was he made to by station owners Bernie and Rita Jacobs) on WFMT-FM, Chicago’s Classical/Fine Arts station.
I say talk radio for the benefit of younger readers who think this term only refers to the bigots, shock jocks, and fools who pollute our public airwaves these days—the kind of talk that, in pretending to be the voice of the average Joe and Jane, plays to the worst in us and diminishes us. The Studs Terkel Program really was the voice of the average Joe and Jane, and I mean that quite literally. Studs often broadcast interviews with people on the street, in the taverns, on the train—not those who might have hitched a ride on John McCain’s so-called Straight Talk Express, but rather those going to the 1963 civil rights march on Washington, opening his show with the Woody Guthrie song “Bound for Glory.” His interviews could break your heart, such as the one he conducted through an interpreter of a Japanese victim of the nuclear bombing of World War II. They could remind you of why we celebrate certain holidays such as with his annual Memorial Day (always called Armistice Day by Studs) and Labor Day shows. He would read short stories, play music, read scenes with actors and actresses who had come to the WFMT studios to talk about and promote their plays opening in town. If you wanted to know not just what was going on in town among visiting and local performers, but also hear the performers and creators talk about the work, you had to listen to Studs. I remember going to a sparsely attended screening of Robert Altman’s Secret Honor and finding out that like I, most of the audience had heard about it from Studs.
Studs also was renowned for the famous and interesting guests he interviewed. He spoke with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., musician Louis Armstrong, community organizer Saul Alinsky, director James Cameron, actor Buster Keaton, writers James Baldwin and Gwendolyn Brooks, playwright Tennessee Williams, and thousands (yes, thousands) more. Knowing Studs’ age, I was surprised and delighted to hear him interview avant-garde musician Laurie Anderson and rocker Frank Zappa. He also was one of the earliest supporters of Bob Dylan. He loved classical music as well as jazz and folk, and there was always a parade of opera singers, composers, musicians, and conductors through the studios, from Italian baritone Tito Gobbi to Austrian pianist Alfred Brendel and American composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein.
He did a little acting as well. In the 1950s, Studs had his own TV show in Chicago called Studs’ Place that featured among its regulars Win Stracke, a folk musician and cofounder of Chicago’s legendary Old Town School of Folk Music, who, like Mahalia Jackson and Big Bill Broonzy, was a musician he tirelessly promoted, talked about, and generally drilled into the consciousness of anyone who listened to his radio show. The only feature film he ever appeared in was John Sayles’ Eight Men Out (1988), a film about the Chicago Black Sox scandal that starred Chicagoans John Cusack and John Mahoney; in it, Studs played Chicago sportswriter Hugh Fullerton. You couldn’t miss him—he was the consummate ham.
In his later years, he grew increasingly deaf, and I believe that fact more than anything lead to his retirement from the airwaves. He kept busy speaking at rallies for progressive causes, archiving his radio shows for the Chicago History Museum, and writing more books. Every birthday, the local news would run a tribute to his amazing longevity and accomplishments. The last one I remember was a telecast featuring local reporter and columnist Carol Marin. She got out a couple of questions, but not hearing them, Studs simply launched into an extended monologue that was both charming and a bit incoherent. Marin sat quietly, smiling, letting this force of nature blow.
The last couple of years, I listened whenever I was around to rebroadcasts of The Studs Terkel Program at 7 p.m. on Saturdays. Most of these revived shows celebrated struggles of the past and, of course, lacked the spontaneity of his live shows. Every now and then I’d see he was speaking somewhere, perhaps at the nostalgia fests that tried to recreate the Bughouse Square debates that were a lively forum for soapbox politics, or introducing a documentary at Facets.
And now it is over. He has joined the other Chicago transplants he loved so well—Win, Mahalia, and Big Bill—in dying in his adopted hometown. The last new broadcast of The Studs Terkel Program featured one of Illinois’ few real statesmen—U.S. Senator Paul Simon. I remember listening, dreading the moment Studs would utter his famous sign-off for the last time: “Take it easy, but take it.” You, too, Studs. You, too.
It was Paul Newman’s exquisitely hewn face that first commanded attention—the Romanesque nobility of jaw line and nose punctuated by blue eyes sharp enough to cut paper. Then his voice—sturdy, clean, rich, yet utterly compact in its character, resonant of the American Midwest in its most pleasant contexts, its most manifold gifts. Yet he dodged being identified as a mere beefcake idol, a perception that his sometime costar Robert Redford never quite defeated. No, his eyes communicated a restless awareness too bold in a contemplation of the fault-lines in the world’s fabric, his physique pitched with an insouciance that refused to be merely ogled. He sharpened his mind, his will, his body to a fine edge of commitment and was at his greatest playing men with a raging will to win over something, anything, even if it was purely illusory. He played many men who felt their souls spilling out of their flesh despite all their efforts to keep it hidden within.
He began on stage and in television, and then hit the movies with a monumental embarrassment—the garish 1954 Biblical epic The Silver Chalice, in which only Jack Palance’s Simon Magus made its torpid shenanigans even briefly intriguing. Newman had broken into cinema at nearly 30 years of age in an attempt to make him the next Victor Mature or Robert Taylor—a pitiable fate if ever there was one.
But he was, of course, a New York method actor. Like his forebearers Clift and Brando and his contemporary Dean, he exemplified a new concept of screen actor—gritty, tough, often perverse, slightly dangerous, no longer centred by clichéd machismo, febrile in their manly poses. Unlike these actors, he never seemed to mind the business of being a movie star. He could play a part for laughs, take a pay-cheque role and still turn in a solid job, without guilt eating at his soul. Also unlike them, he didn’t make as quick or big a splash, but he lasted far longer, in far better shape. His view? He told Rolling Stone in 1973, “A plus about making pictures is that you learn something new on every one, whether it’s a good one or a stinker.”
The decline of the studios in the mid 1950s created an atmosphere unkind to many emerging movie stars. Some, like James Garner and Clint Eastwood, had to retreat into television, or, like Anne Bancroft, run back to the stage until times improved. So, too, did Newman, for a short spell, but he returned to movies two years after his disastrous debut in Robert Wise’s Rocky Graziano biopic, Somebody Up There Likes Me, a film to which Sylvester Stallone owes royalties. Newman went to town in the role of street-hardened delinquent who grows into a boxing champeen, all the while never losing his gauche, somehow innocent charm. The film sported spectacular acting from Newman—probably too spectacular. His Graziano is a more athletic version of Ernest Borgnine’s Marty—the previous year’s Noo-Yawk Italian hero—a sentimental rendering of a type combined with dashes of Jimmy Cagney’s neighborhood toughs. Rocky rises to become a champion, but remains buffeted by forces beyond his comprehension.
Newman moved on to The Long, Hot Summer (1958), a corny Faulkner adaptation. During the course of shooting, he cemented his attraction to costar and final wife Joanne Woodward; when they draw together into each other’s arms at the end, it has the unmistakable ring of the truly pleased. Newman then appeared in Arthur Penn’s debut, The Left Handed Gun. As in Summer, he’s a shiftless outsider without trust or favor, driven to gnaw frantically but hopelessly at the edges of the firmly ensconced power of ignoble men. His Billy the Kid expanded on original writer Gore Vidal’s concept as a range-riding edition of a contemporary juvie-hall escapee, dogged by his Eastern accent, his wide eyes glittering with problem-child attitude, his body contorting with oversized anger, avenging his murdered paternal substitute with a righteous fury that seems to have no checks, no mercy. If Anthony Mann’s Winchester ’73 (1950) began the age of the adult Western, Penn’s film was the first post-Western, forerunners of his own works like Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and The Missouri Breaks (1976). Billy is like a tantrum-possessed child, and yet also a cold, precise-minded killer. He erodes the life energy of the people close to him, their fidelity, their moral standards, and is finally gnawed to virtual suicide by his realisation of what he’s achieved, or rather failed to achieve. In the most vital scene, he confronts a shifty marshal during a celebration over amnesty for veterans of a range war; on the pretext of inspecting the man’s gun, he removes the bullets, and then has his grim expectations confirmed when the marshal draws on him. He drops the bullets on the floor with a glowing-eyed wrath that seems almost like a possession.
In his first few defining parts, Newman acts with his whole body—twitchy, mumbly, trying too hard to be the next Brando. It’s stagy, almost a satire on his master’s mannerisms, and works against Newman’s fundamental energy. Working at the tail end of Hollywood’s first, brief obsession with rebellious young men, Newman would retain his fascination for rebels, but he would also take it his rebels into slightly different territory. Playing Brick Pollitt in Richard Brooks’ adaptation of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), Newman was suddenly all there, giving his first truly great performance. Brooks might claim some responsibility for this, as he also drew out some of Elizabeth Taylor’s least mannered acting. Newman’s Brick is a less showy creation than his earlier angry young men, and though a character as equally tortured as Rocky or the Kid, Newman now displays his soul through eyes raw and bold, trying frantically to express what the world wants him to hold in—the desperate love he had for his best friend, and the stark terror he’s facing of being unable to transfer that love to his wife. Though playing a man still cast in the dependent role of son and heir to Burl Ives’ Big Daddy, Newman here nonetheless actually plays a man and not an overgrown boy. Newman soon became sublime at playing characters for whom the men they have become and the men they should be, are a terrible distance apart. Brick is self-loathing and self-pitying, but he’s also in the process of working up the will to become a self-directing adult—something the gauche, likeable, boyish Rocky and the borderline psychotic, self-destructive Billy never did.
Newman revealed a rare willingness, for a straight leading man of the time, to expose his nerves for the sake of Tennessee Williams’ complex, lacerating studies in homoerotic aesthetics. Yet it suited Newman’s ironic perspective on his own good looks to play Williams’ fetishised male beauties in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Sweet Bird of Youth (1962). In the latter film, he plays a gigolo in the process of being ground up by the unbounded, vampiric appetites of tyrannical patriarchy, female vanity, and a society obsessed with beauty and youth.
Antihero was a word used often with abandon at the time. Sometimes it meant characters who did heroic things whilst not fitting heroic moulds, or men who occupied the centre of a narrative, but who actively refused to do anything heroic. Newman, Brando, Clift, Douglas, Lancaster, Mitchum, Eastwood all came to specialise in this brute species. Sometimes they could be out-and-out bastards.
After the stilted start of The Long, Hot Summer, Newman reunited with Martin Ritt for two terrific films where he played unlikable, even swinish men. In Paris Blues(1961), he delivered Ram Bowen, a jazz trombonist and hard-sell womaniser temporarily tamed by a school teacher played by Woodward. He’s a bellyaching, often boorish jerk with a compensating factor—he’s riven with anxiety over his artistic worth and eventually chooses to commit himself to growth, rather than retreating into a romantic bubble. The number of taboos the film shatters is startling, all the more so for being blithe about it: Newman and Woodwared leap into a sexual affair, though only after Newman has made clear his preference for Diahann Carroll. As a portrait of the artist as a young prick, it’s formidably accurate. The other, Hud(1963), was an adaptation of a Larry McMurtry novel—a brutal assault on the Western by the modern world, a realm of beaten-up pick-up trucks, fragile-nerved waitresses, dust-swept diners, and the caddish Hud himself. The bland Brandon DeWilde, cleverly cast nonetheless as Hud’s younger foil, reverses the finale of Shane; DeWilde walks away from Newman, refusing to bow to his shit-kicking nihilism.
Paris Blues was well overshadowed by another Newman film that came out the same year—Robert Rossen’s The Hustler. This film represents his greatest part, greatest performance, and greatest film—a near miracle in fusing melodrama with a kind of bitter poetic realism to which modern American cinema owes a great deal, whilst also tipping its hat to the literary traditions of Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis, James Jones. Fast Eddie Felson particularly resembles one of Jones’ philosopher everymen. Like Brick, Eddie is defined by clashing qualities of youthful athleticism, great physical talent and beauty, but also a deeply ingrained self-loathing, a violent internal struggle with his own contradictions and the world’s evil. As with Brick, Eddie is consumed by a clash between his own need for love, stability, and fulfillment on his own terms and the identification of these desires as weakness by a rapacious, viciously macho culture that pays off users and vampires with far more readiness than warrior-poets like Eddie. Like some of Brando’s heroes, he has strong masochistic tones; unlike many of Brando’s, he is, at the core, articulate. Brando preferred figures who can only tangentially explore themselves; Newman liked to play men who know themselves and don’t always like what they know.
The film’s core scene, Eddie’s explanation of his delight in pool to girlfriend Piper Laurie, was rewritten at Newman’s request. He told Rolling Stone that “The way it was originally written, I thought it was a nothing scene—it just wasn’t there, it had no sense of specialness. So I told Rossen he ought to somehow liken what Eddie does to what anybody who’s performing something sensational is doing—a ball player, say, or some guy who laid 477 bricks in one day.” Eddie’s esoteric skill thus could be alchemised to represent talent in all its forms, the drive to use it, but also to respect it, and the clash that often occurs between these two urges. Eddie is sufficiently hardened in the end to win in the terms of the culture about him, but is finally disgusted by it. Rather than take the laurels of that culture, he insists on a victory purely on his own terms. In this period, Newman went from strength to strength, and even initiated his own superstition regarding playing in films with ‘h’ in the title. The Left Handed Gun. Hondo. Hud. Harper. Hombre. Cool Hand Luke. They all seemed to stand for an omnipresent Him—both Newman, but also the type of fractured males he was drawn to play.
In Otto Preminger’s Exodus (1960), he played one of his most effective heroic rebels, a rare figure with a specific cause, culture, and identity to fight for—Ari Ben Canaan, former British soldier turned Zionist warrior for the Hagenah organisation. It was also the only film in which half-Jewish Newman ever played his native ethnicity, and once more made slyly clever use of his appearance as anything but the classic caricature of a Jew. In his confrontation with bigoted British officer (the atrocious Peter Lawford), after the officer has sworn he can tell a Jew by looking in his eye, Canaan invites him to do just this. Newman inhabits Ari with a hardened purpose that stops short of inhuman fanaticism. His attempts to retain a conscious grip on his humanity whilst still keeping an iron-willed refusal to be bossed around for political expedience force him to maintain a cold rigour, as he tries consciously not to indulge himself looking at shiksa Eva Marie Saint whilst conducting his war of nerves with the authorities. In a pointed finale, he leads his soldiers off into eternal battle – not merely a nod to the ever-fractious Israeli status, but to the concept of freedom itself requiring eternal vigilance.
One of Newman’s most perfectly relaxed and entertaining performances came in Mark Robson’s Hitchockian romp The Prize (1963), in which he played party animal Andrew Craig, the youngest-ever Nobel laureate in literature whose challenging early works were commercial flops, forcing him to write trash and drink much. The situation is hilarious and rich enough to be the film’s subject, but Newman’s Craig is soon drawn into the usual shadowy conspiracies, contending with a vividly ironic, yet rather dogged heroism, and some terrifically sexy byplay with Elke Sommer and Diane Baker. This film was certainly preferable to the actual Hitchcock film he made at this time, Torn Curtain (1966), possibly the nadir of both men’s career.
Two of Newman’s most popular and facetious parts came in the late ‘60s. In Cool Hand Luke (1967), he virtually embodied the paranoid, clumsily directed spirit of a nonconformist age, dabbling at the edges of society and seeing his paltry attempts at protest against an unfeeling society punished with force. This punishment is, of course, what he wants: this brand of outsider wants the gloves taken off, the mask removed,from the silent war between outsider and insider. Luke is broken finally, by the chain gang authorities, and Newman’s usually upright frame reduced to a shambling, kowtowing monkey before he regains his last surge of bravery. But he only earns a squalid death. If Cool Hand Luke was a rather morbid, exaggerated portrait of regional, period-American fascism linked by underground wires to the counterculture anxiety, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) represented its transformation into commercialised froth. Designed as a pseudo-satirical deconstruction, it ended up more as a hokey flower-child music video with the customary downbeat finale for false gravitas. It did, however, unite him with Redford as the defining buddy-movie duo, a complementary twining of talents. Redford had a suppleness that Newman had never approached, and Newman had a gravity Redford couldn’t quite grasp.
If the period from 1958 to 1969 had been a powerhouse era for Newman, the early ‘70s saw his golden touch decline briefly. His collaborations now with John Huston (in The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean and The Mackintosh Man, 1973) and Terence Malick (writer of Pocket Money, 1972) produced little fanfare. In 1974, he took a role in Irwin Allen disaster epic, The Towering Inferno, top-billed alongside Steve McQueen, who had been trying to chase down Newman since debuting in a small role in Somebody Up There Likes Me. Newman played Doug Robarts, the architect of the ill-fated Glass Tower, tallest building in the world, studding the San Francisco skyline like a contemporary Babel. Newman’s design is good—it’s the corner-cutting construction that results in disaster, prompting Newman’s desperate efforts to prevent a holocaust of aging movie idols and cheesy TV stars. As some purely mercenary parts can manage, it exemplifies Newman’s on-screen persona: introduced as a triumphant knight of vision, indulging in an afternoon delight with girlfriend Faye Dunaway, he soon finds his success is quite literally built on rot—the low-grade wiring that Richard Chamberlain’s corrupt contractor has filled the tower. Newman sheds his golden allure in favour of angry self-recrimination: “What do they call it when you kill people?” he demands of the Tower’s owner (William Holden). Later in the film, he finds another perfectly complementary male partner in McQueen as they join forces to save the day. Regarding the smoking ruin in the end, Newman muses, “Maybe they should leave it the way it is – kind of monument to all the bullshit in the world,” A more salutary line he rarely uttered.
Newman was aging now. Always a bit older than her looked, his golden hair was now flecked with grey, his face stiffening, his voice huskier. His persona altered again—now his men became old hands, urgently trying to make one last score before inevitable degeneration. As with Martin Ritt, his second two films with George Roy Hill achieved a kind of perfection on a rough sketch: The Sting (1973), a floridly entertaining Depression lark—a contradiction in terms integral to the film’s drama—that saw him play “the great Henry Gondorff,” as he’s contemptuously described when discovered by Redford’s Johnny Hooker sleeping off a drunk in a bathtub. The film makes us cheer a mob of criminals without hesitation as they take on a far worse one, as well as a world that rewards voracious cruelty and greed while leaving everyone else scrabbling in the filth.
The third film was Slap Shot (1977), one of the few authentic comic classics of the ‘70s, a shot of neat bourbon amidst the low-cal soft drinks in the modern comedy pantheon. Written by Nancy Dowd, it captured like virtually no film before or since the peculiar, individualist insanity of a medium-sized, working-class town—the tomboy girls, the foul-mouthed, brutal sensibility that can disguise a rich tolerance and multiplicity of lifestyles. Slap Shot possibly had as much or more impact on modern American indie film as films like The Hustler or Hud. It’s hard to imagine a The Full Monty, a Friday Night Lights, or any of Will Ferrell’s straining attempts to reproduce blue-collar comic value without it. Newman’s Reg Dunlop was the last of his heroes of great physical prowess, now waning, caught inelegantly between the young stud he was and the sad old guy he sees himself becoming.
Dowd’s script is still utterly contemporary in many ways, taking aim at the insecurities of a town seeing traditional values disintegrate and papering over sexual anxieties and false social rituals by concentrating on bloodlust. Dunlop is defined by his impatient bark, his willingness to ignore fragile civility and go for the jugular, when the moment is right, as in the film’s most hilariously gauche sequences. After he listens with bewildered equanimity to a girlfriend’s account of a lesbian orgy with fellow housewives, he will, of course, rock right up to her husband, captain of an enemy team, and declare, to provoke a fight, ‘Your wife’s a dyke!’; or later, when he cuts down the snooty, dismissive owner of the team, by stating; ‘Your son looks like a fag to me!’ It might not be sensitive, but it still seems like some of Newman’s most purely heroic moments in its the refusal to allow a retreat into politeness or euphemism in heartland America.
Entering the 1980s, having gone entirely white-haired, Newman did not actually lose his looks so much as ease into them at last. Sidney Lumet’s The Verdict (1982) saw him in one of his finest elder parts, a pathos-inducing ambulance chaser who seems to have arrived at middle age having barely registered the period since leaving college as anything more substantial than one long advertorial. His rediscovery of moral impetus, and the shocks he receives along the way, are presented with uncommon rigour both by Newman and Lumet. Extending the reach of courtroom drama—doing much the same thing for the genre that Coppola did for the gangster film—they invested the film with a careful visual and rhythmic shading that gave it rare dramatic depth. Newman finally gained a proper Oscar in 1986 for The Color of Money, his reprise of the part of Eddie Felson which I’ve written about in-depth before. It wasn’t equal to his best performances, but neater star turns are still hard to come by.
After The Color of Money, Newman did not go into decline exactly, but almost inevitably, his starring roles became fewer, and the films in which he did appear were box office misfires, like the eminently forgettable Blaze (1989) and Message in a Bottle (1999). Fat Man and Little Boy (1989) was a sticky, not exactly truthful account of the Manhattan Project, though Newman did good work in projecting the steely, unpersuadable Gen. Groves. Two of his last films of prominent billing were Nobody’s Fool (1994), which gained him an Oscar nomination in competition with the likes of John Travolta and Morgan Freeman, and Twilight (1998). Both films were directed by Robert Benton, an authority of middle-brow cinema. The Road to Perdition (2002) presented him in full Grand Old Actor mode working in an inferior project, a state in which one often finds former greats. It’s a dangerous area, for so often what looks like just another part can be an accidental career-capper. What can we say of Newman here? He presents a performance remarkable in its restraint, his blue eyes now seeming as grey as his hair, frigid with a lifetime of contemplating, not backing away, from moral terror or harsh necessity.
Surveying his career, there many more parts and films worthy of looking at in depth: The Rack; The Young Philadelphians; Winning; WUSA; The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean; Buffalo Bill and the Indians; Quintet; Fort Apache, the Bronx; Absence of Malice; Mr. and Mrs. Bridge; The Hudsucker Proxy. And his films as a director, like Rachel Rachel and Sometimes a Great Notion, his badly underappreciated adaptation of Ken Kesey’s first novel, betray a careful, mood-aware craftsman at least as talented as Eastwood behind the lens. For once, surveying Newman’s career is not a task of saving gems from a disordered career, or regretting wasted talent, but of accounting talent savoured virtually to the last drop. l
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