Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Voila  La Ceremonie, the corking little Claude Chabrol thriller that the Siren watched this weekend. Brilliant acting from Sandrine Bonnaire and Isabelle Huppert, as one expects. Nice surprise was Jacqueline Bisset, who was wonderful in her role as a upper haute bourgeiose, pure Whit Stillman by way of Brittany. (Jacqueline, may I ask politely--where was all that ability in "The Deep" or "Class"?) This movie was a huge hit in France in 1995, so as usual the Siren is a little late. La Ceremonie is done in the European manner, quiet and purposeful, where the personalities on view make you know something is coming, but the something takes its time arriving. The Siren says no more. It's really best to see this movie as she did, knowing as little about it as possible. Don't even read the DVD jacket copy. Just pop it in and enjoy.


But if you have seen it ... how about those credits? Marvelous twist. Posted by Picasa

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Tear Down the Draperies: Gone with the Wind

Over at The News Blog there was a thread recently on a circulating meme of "10 Movies I Hate." Steve Gilliard's number one was Gone with the Wind. Here's his pungent take:
1) Gone with the Wind
Everything to hate in one movie. Best scene...Atlanta burning to the fucking ground. Getting upset about that would be like getting upset about the destruction of Berlin in 1945. Even Birth of a Nation is less offensive because it's up front in its racism.
The Siren has a movie-trivia quibble here, described in a sidebar below. But Mr. Gilliard's post prompts her to write up some deeper, long-simmering thoughts about this movie. She doesn't share his hatred for the movie. That doesn't mean she dismisses his point.

Gone with the Wind's virtues include an indelible love story, two leads at the absolute peak of their good looks and acting ability, a fabulous supporting cast and, perhaps above all, matchless beauty. (The names of production designer William Cameron Menzies and cinematographer Ernest Haller should be as familiar to GWTW lovers as that of David O. Selznick.) The sweep of the movie is so epic that the Siren has talked to several perfectly alert people who swore there were battle scenes in it (there aren't).

But...the politics. The view of history.

Oy, as we used to say back home in Birmingham.

The Siren is from Alabama. She hasn't lived there for many years, but her roots in the South go back about 200 years on either side of her family tree, and that's serious Southern. It stays with you, which is why Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams could leave to live here, there, everywhere and anywhere but the South and still be identifiably Southern to anyone with two eyes and a pulse. Gone with the Wind embodies the mythology of my native region like no other book or movie. Love it or hate it, the one thing you ain't gonna do is ignore it.

The Siren read the book at about age 11 and saw the movie that same year. For years, I loved book and movie without reservation. My Christmas present one year was a copy of Scarlett Fever by William Pratt and Herb Bridges, a big compendium of all things GWTW. Rhett was my romantic ideal, Melanie my pattern of ladyhood, but Scarlett was my heroine. Ashley did lead her on terribly, I was convinced of that. (Still am.) And look at how she got men to do things for her. Look at how hard she worked, how brave she was. Look at all her gorgeous dresses.

And look at how she suffered! Look at how the South suffered! That rat Sherman. Those carpetbaggers. Everybody insisting on making the war all about slavery, when we knew it was about states' rights. Slavery was terrible, but slaves were an investment, and they were treated a lot better than Northern factory workers.

Incredible, isn't it? The Siren was raised in a dedicated pro-civil-rights household, daughter of two of the proudest liberal Democrats you ever saw. They loved Kennedy and loathed Wallace. They sneered at the Southern strategy. My mother still likes to boast that she hated Nixon before Nixon-hating was cool: "Watergate. Ha! I hated the man while he was vice president." They voted for McGovern. (One old friend, told this piece of information, responded, "Well, I guess those two votes in Alabama had to come from somewhere.")

All that good solid upbringing, and I still believed all the myths. And the depressing thing about GWTW, and what makes it--I choose the adjective carefully--pernicious to this day, is that there are an astonishing number of people out there who still believe its dishonest view of history. Check out the IMDB boards. Start a conversation at your local bar. You'll still find someone, and possibly a lot of someones, bringing up the hoary lies.

The Siren says enough with the apologetics. The movie is racist. Not misguided, not dated, RACIST.

It is racist in big ways, as it shows the "good Negros" sticking around to serve their former owners. The bad ones run off. They ride around Atlanta in fancy clothes or congregate in Shantytown until Ashley and Rhett ride in with the (delicately unnamed) Klan and clear it out. Yes, the great stuntman Yakima Canutt played the white man who attacks Scarlett. His accomplice, played by Blue Washington, is black, and the raid is a lynching party. Defend that if you like.

It is racist in small ways, as the late Butterfly McQueen could have told you. Check out the scene where Melanie is feeding the returning Confederate soldiers. McQueen was talked into cutting a watermelon in the background. She stayed pissed off about it to her dying day.

Even people too sophisticated to take much stock in GWTW's mythology will defend certain of the assumptions behind it, such as the idea that most or even many slaves were well-treated, or better off in any sense than Northern workers. They weren't. Life expectancy for a black slave in the antebellum South was about 21, almost exactly half that of a white person. Life expectancy for a Northern white was higher than for a Southern one.

Sure, the war was about state's rights. And economic factors. And which state's right was uppermost in the minds of those who ran the South? And, whether those who fought owned a slave or not, what was the economy of the South based upon?

It is true that Hattie McDaniel's Mammy is the soul of the movie. The monologue she delivers to Melanie after the death of Rhett and Scarlett's daughter is a moment of utter heartbreak. But Mammy is defined only through her devotion to the white folks. She has personality aplenty, but no existence outside of those she serves. Some people argue that Mammy has a great deal more life and individuality than most black characters in mainstream movies up to that time. Even if you grant that point, and the Siren cites the 1934 Imitation of Life as one counterexample, Mammy was perceived by many blacks even at that time as an insult. McDaniel spent the rest of her life fending off accusations of betrayal. "I'd rather play a maid than be one," she supposedly said. McDaniel did a beautiful job with what she had, but what the GWTW script gave her was a stereotype recognizable even in 1939.

Then there's William Tecumseh Sherman. The Siren has spent many nights downing measures with friends and debating the wisdom of that long-ago march to the sea. Militarily, it worked. It also gave white Southerners a sense of victimhood that for some persists to this day. If there is an afterlife, the Siren wonders if General Sherman has found the time to reflect that maybe giving the South a grievance for the ages wasn't such a hot idea.

Remembering the movie's opening epigraph, the Siren is somewhat amazed Mr. Gilliard made it through to the siege of Atlanta:
There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South...Here in this pretty world Gallantry took its last bow...Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave...Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered. A Civilization gone with the wind...
It's depressing that in 2005 one must still point out to some people that all the gallantry in the world can't pretty up what the South was doing. But the Siren saw GWTW again in a movie theater about five years ago, and she will see it again. Her "dream remembered" is the grand-style moviemaking that reached its apogee in 1939. Scarlett is still a first-class scheming hussy, and the Siren still loves her for it.

If you ever came with her to Alabama, the Siren could take you to the cemetery where many of her forebears are buried. Some of them were Civil War veterans. They sure as hell weren't fighting for Lincoln. For many reasons, some sentimental, some historical, the Siren does not choose to believe that they were anything other than brave in the battles they fought. But sentiment doesn't blind her, and neither does Gone with the Wind, not anymore. As one Union veteran wrote twenty-five years after the battle of Gettysburg, "The men who won the victory there were eternally right, and the men who were defeated were eternally wrong."

The Siren's All-Time Movie Trivia Pet Peeve

Atlanta does not burn in Gone with the Wind.

Got that?

Atlanta burned in real life--AFTER Scarlett fled the city. Scarlett left about two and a half months before Sherman burned the place.

Listen to the dialogue. Rhett makes it clear that the city's depot area is in flames, burned by the Confederates who don't want Sherman to gain access to the munitions stored there.

Still don't believe me? Believe David O. Selznick. He was famous for his memos, and this one was a list of don'ts directed at the publicity team (quoted in Scarlett Fever by William Pratt and Herb Bridges). The capital letters and italics are Selznick's:

Most importantly, DON'T refer to the BURNING OF ATLANTA as such. The scene in the picture is not the burning of Atlanta but rather the burning of certain buildings containing war materials. The city in general was not touched by these fires!

Carry on. Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

From her perch in the snowy North, the Siren wishes us all a Happy Thanksgiving. Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Some posters are worth 1000 words, as well. You have no idea how much the Siren wants to buy this poster. Posted by Picasa

Cast the First Stone

The Siren has adored Johnny Cash since childhood and looks forward to Walk the Line. She also wants to see Truman. So two of her must-sees are biographical pictures, a genre that is currently the redheaded stepchild of cinephiles everywhere. Those dreary, earnest, plodding biopics. So seldom do they have any verve or daring, says prime detractor David Edelstein, who brilliantly summarizes the good and the bad of biopics in one paragraph, here.

The Siren has a certain fondness for biopics, even bad ones. No one is saying they are all bad, not when one of the pinnacles of cinema, Abel Gance's Napoleon, is a biopic. But biopics have recurring flaws, including one Edelstein doesn't mention. The Siren believes the truly fatal, albeit frequently entertaining, mistakes are made when moviemakers cast a "hot" actor who doesn't fit the subject.

Hollywood violates casting logic in ways big and small. One minor irritant: someone reedlike playing a woman with heft. See Jessica Lange as Patsy Cline, or Diana Ross as Billie Holiday. Mind you, those two ladies gave good, serviceable performances, but the Siren wonders crankily if they'd cast skinny John Malkovich as Winston Churchill.

Maybe they would. Here is

The Siren's List of All-Time "What the Hell?" Biopic Casting Decisions:

1. Clark Gable as Charles Stuart Parnell in Parnell (1937) One sort of wishes James Joyce had commented on that one.
2. Kim Novak as Jeanne Eagels (1957). Lush-figured, somewhat wooden Kim as a sylph-like junkie acting legend.
3. Kay Francis as Florence Nightingale in The White Angel (1936). This one makes the Siren sad, because the good-hearted, well-liked Francis hoped this role would break her usual mold of enduring great sorrow whilst wearing fabulous couture. She just wasn't up to it, though, and was furthered hampered by a script that ignores Lytton Strachey and goes straight for the sainthood angle.
4. John Wayne as Genghis Khan in The Conqueror (1956). You've probably heard the rumors about the filming of this one near a nuclear test site, and the actors and crew members who later died of cancer. A straightforward summary is here.
5. Cornel Wilde as Omar Khayyam (1957). A twofer--a Baghdad-and-boobs biopic! Wilde's turn as Chopin in A Song to Remember (1945) is also cited sometimes as dreadful miscasting, but the Siren thought he was all right in that one, just fighting a risible script.
6. Jean-Pierre Aumont as the nationalistic Russian composer Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov in Song of Scheherazade (1947). It's hard to find, but the Siren has seen this turkey twice and loves it to death. It gives you a French-to-his-toenails actor cast as a simple Russian sailor, "Nicky." (Would you call this guy Nicky?) In true Hollywood fashion, Nicky the sailor has a song in his heart and a big urge to sing it--but he's got to find a piano first. Yvonne DeCarlo's dance to "Capriccio Espagnole" at the end is so transcendently campy it would have flummoxed Susan Sontag.

But, you say, these are all old flicks. Of course casting back then was often ridiculous.

Ha. Moving right along to

7. Colin Farrell as Alexander (2004). The Siren hasn't seen that one, but just the four words "Colin Farrell as Alexander" crack her up.
8. Jude Law as Russian war hero Vasilli Zaitsev in Enemy at the Gates (2001). Not a straight biopic, and not without merit, but despite a valiant effort Law is about as peasant-like as a pair of Gucci loafers. One brilliant piece of casting, however, is Bob Hoskins as Nikita Khrushchev. The movie becomes fascinating as soon as Hoskins shows up.
9. Gary Oldman as Beethoven in Immortal Beloved (1994). Sid's symphonic stylings. Didn't believe him for a moment.
10. For true, throat-clutching horror, let us we hope we never match Jennifer Love Hewitt playing Audrey Hepburn in that 2000 TV movie. This atrocity belongs with "Jackass" in the category of "Movies Whose Mere Existence Moves Me to Despair." Even now, just thinking about Hewitt as Hepburn brings back a twitch in my right eyelid. Ms. Hewitt's career largely has stalled since that outing, and an uncharacteristically vengeful Siren says, "GOOD."

There will always be more on the way. You have probably heard that Sofia Coppola's latest project concerns Marie Antoinette. ("Not that awful woman again," moaned a French lady the Siren knows well. Lack of originality in choosing biopic subjects is another problem altogether.) Coppola's film stars Kirsten Dunst as the doomed monarch, a choice that may well doom the picture as far as the Siren is concerned. Dunst, the epitome of a suburban American blonde, playing the Queen of France? Anything's possible--one of the few decent performances George Hamilton ever gave was as Hank Williams--but I wouldn't put money on it. Come on, she can't even stand up straight. I hope the French are plotting their revenge right now. How about Sophie Marceau as Eleanor Roosevelt?

Just to show she thinks the genre has produced truly worthwhile films, the Siren lists a few she likes:

Julia (good movie, though, as Edelstein says, "the only true thing in this picture is that there were Nazis in Germany")
Yankee Doodle Dandy (the most genuinely thrilling flag-waving fadeout of all time)
Man of a Thousand Faces
Lawrence of Arabia
Love Me or Leave Me (That's three with Cagney. What can I say.)
Ed Wood
Coal Miner's Daughter
Pride of the Yankees
Papillon (Debating whether this one counts. Leaving it in.)
Sid and Nancy
Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould
The Story of Adele H.
Young Mr. Lincoln
The Nun's Story

[Corrected 11/29/05, with thanks to JG]

Friday, November 11, 2005

Addison DeWitt: What do you take me for?
Eve Harrington: I don't know that I'd take you for anything.

Addison DeWitt: While you wait you can read my column. It'll make minutes fly like hours.

Addison DeWitt: In [the theatre] I toil not, neither do I spin. I am a critic and commentator. I am essential to the theatre--as ants to a picnic, as the boll weevil to a cotton field.

--George Sanders, as Addison in All About Eve, doing his bit to elevate the public's perception of critics. Posted by Picasa

Charles Foster Kane: This is Mr. Leland...our new dramatic critic. I hope I haven't made a mistake, Jedediah. It is dramatic critic you want to be, isn't it?

--Orson Welles, demonstrating a deep interest in critics in Citizen Kane. Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Betty Hutton in an undated publicity photo. She is alive and well and 84 years old, and gave a very nice interview on Turner Classic Movies a while back. All the same, doesn't this picture sort of tell you what the Siren is talking about?  Posted by Picasa

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Siren Watches Betty Hutton, Lives

We all have at least one: a performer who, no matter how skilled, famous or beautiful, gives you a royal pain in the neck. Sometimes you know why, as with my anti-Julia Roberts fervor, which dates to her catastrophic turn in Michael Collins. And sometimes you don't. I had a roommate who refused to watch Jack Lemmon in anything, and could offer no real reason for this piece of insanity other than "He irritates me." Girish and I bonded over, among other things, our mutual inability to sit through a Jeannette MacDonald film (unless they kept a tight lid on her, as in San Francisco).

I love Preston Sturges, but previously never got around to watching The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, and I will admit why: Betty Hutton. That foghorn voice. That cloying desire to be the cutest thing in the room. Watching The Greatest Show on Earth and being asked to believe that not one, but two men would reject Gloria Grahame--GLORIA GRAHAME, for heaven's sake--in favor of this galumphing loudmouth. I hated her in the The Perils of Pauline, too. So tomboyish, so hearty, so damn wholesome. The Siren doesn't like wholesome. She likes sirens, as a general rule. (Come to think of it, Julia Roberts is wholesome, too. Blech.)

But in Morgan's Creek, genius Preston Sturges somehow took Hutton and made her enjoyable. All that manic energy gets reined in, and frequently Hutton's character is calm and collected while the rest of the farce gyrates around her.

The movie comes with its own parlor game, called "How did he get away with that?" As in, how did Sturges get any of this stuff past the censors? One critic in the Guardian calls it a "mystery on the scale of what happened to the dinosaurs." Past a certain point you just wonder if Sturges got the whole Breen office drunk or something.

Hutton's character, for starters, is named Gertrude Kockenlocker--a last name that sounds like the schoolyard punchline to an off-color knock-knock joke. Trudy is the daughter of the Morgan's Creek constable (William Demarest, doing pratfalls that could cripple many a younger man). She is loved by 4-F Norval Jones (Eddie Bracken, in the full flower of his nebbishness), but feels a star-spangled obligation to entertain the soldiers from the local base before they shove off to foreign fields. One night Trudy goes to a wild round of farewell dances, drinks a little too much and get coshed on the head while executing an ill-advised dance move with her partner. She turns up the next morning, dazed and alone, but with a wedding ring mysteriously on her finger and a vague memory of having wedded a soldier the night before after someone said, "Let's all get married!" She thinks his name was Ratziwatzki. She also thinks she didn't give her right name for the marriage license. Things get even worse for poor Trudy when she turns out to be pregnant. Her younger sister (a superbly funny Diana Lynn) and, eventually, the lovestruck Norval try to help Trudy, but it takes the miracle of the title for things to work out.

The list of forbidden subjects in this film goes well beyond that summary. There's bigamy, in that Trudy at point tries to lure Norval into marrying her. There are thoughts of suicide, revealed in a wonderful, exceptionally long tracking shot, as Trudy unburdens herself: "Oh, Norval, it would be my dying wish that when they fish me out of the water, I would want you to know that my last thought would be of you." The befuddled Norval eventually responds, "Well, there's not much water in the creek this time of year, Trudy."

Other sanctities of American life get the uniquely tart Sturges treatment, too. The denizens of tiny Morgan's Creek are a bunch of sourpusses, not likely to turn up in the last reel for a round of "Auld Lang Syne." And the Siren loved this tender summary of the father-daughter relationship, from Demarest: "Either they leave their husbands and come back with four children and move into your guest room, or their husband loses his job and the whole kaboodle comes back. Or else they're so homely you can't get rid of them at all and they hang around the house like Spanish moss and shame you into an early grave." Diana Lynn gets her digs in, too, as in the famous line, "If you don't mind my saying so, Father, I think you have a mind like a swamp." This a year after Since You Went Away opened with its epigraph: "The Story of the Unconquerable Fortress, the American Home, 1943."

The Siren doesn't believe in using "modern" as an accolade for an old movie--as in, "Why, it's so modern! it could have been made last month!" No, it could not, and when you find another Preston Sturges you may cable the Siren and reverse the charges.

That said, it is true some films date badly and others do not. One reason this movie still seems so fresh is the way it skewers pieties still with us. Sturges said his moral was aimed at "young girls...who confuse patriotism with promiscuity." That particular problem has lost its urgency, but anyone who has ever felt a twinge of seething rebellion over the endless admonishments to "support the troops!" will find a lot to appreciate here.

It's a fantastic movie, and Hutton is great in it.

Does this mean the Siren has to rent The Merry Widow?

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Hallowe'en Postcript: When Dead Film Stars Haunt the Living

"You see, this is my life! It always will be! Nothing else! Just us, the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark!" Posted by Picasa