Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Unearthing the Uncool

So yesterday the Siren was feeling puckish and she posted the following on Facebook: "It is much easier to proclaim dislike for a popular movie than to admit to liking an uncool movie." Which sparked quite the lively discussion. So the Siren has skedaddled back to her wider audience chez blog and is posting it again.

As always, it's best to define terms. By uncool, the Siren doesn't mean "slightly offbeat" or "quirky" or "underrated." She means "courting hoots of derision from critical colleagues." Picking a lesser work of a widely admired auteur doesn't cut it, because after all, even late Hawks is still Hawks. And picking a film that was once lambasted, but is no longer, is also not exactly what the Siren had in mind.

When the estimable Girish Shambu called for one of the first blogathons, and designed it around Showgirls--now that's what I'm talking about. Larry Aydlette on the great Burt Reynolds, Dennis Cozzalio resurrecting 1941; these kinds of judgments take some nerve. The Siren ventures to say that her championing of Titanic and, in the comments section over at Glenn's place, Casual Sex? also fall in this category. (Her one error was being timid about it, due to her distaste for online fisticuffs.) Others like Glenn Kenny speaking up for the reviled Ishtar also count. The Siren said, and still thinks, that the ideal candidate for this exercise would be Crash, possibly the most hated Oscar winner in history. Unfortunately, Glenn and Dan Leo popped up to explain gently that the problem with Crash (which the Siren still hasn't seen) is that it really, truly is a turkey. Still, if someone wants to drop by and extol the virtues of, say, Indecent Proposal, the Siren is all ears.

Don't be shy. After all, James Wolcott took his impeccable cool credentials and used them to champion the much-maligned chick flick to the million-plus readers of Vanity Fair. Gerard Jones had this to say about that:

For decades hip cineastes valorized every kind of old formula Hollywood movie—western, crime, comedy—except the "women's picture," which everyone took for granted was beneath consideration. Still hard to get people to care about them, unless they're pre-Code and naughty.

The Siren would add that when people do praise them, it's often as camp, not as serious, skilled moviemaking. The Siren spends a lot of time trying to bring a respectful tone to discussing the women's picture. She thinks of it as her pet project, which is why you will never, but never see her using the execrable perjorative "weepie" over here.

Anyway, to get the ball rolling, here is a small list of films and filmmakers that won't get me into the pages of whichever hip cinema publishers are still publishing. But I love 'em all the same. I'm not listing Yolanda and the Thief. I've been banging the drum for that one so long it's starting to seem hip to me, and besides, it fits the "lesser-known auteur work" category.

1. Abbott and Costello. Hat tip to John Nolte, who said they are funnier than Duck Soup. They are NOT, but they're funny all the same. The "Niagara Falls" routine still slays me.

2. Mother Wore Tights.

3. Three Coins in the Fountain. And Clifton, too.

4. The Enchanted Cottage.

5. Valley Girl. If I want Nicholas Cage I would take this over that John Woo picture in a heartbeat.

6. Anatole Litvak. (Does he count? I am listing him anyway, because nobody talks about him and I'm telling you right now I love Anastasia.)

7. Merchant-Ivory, specifically Shakespeare Wallah, Heat and Dust, A Room with a View and Maurice. Hey guys (and I do mean guys, not girls), you can have strong emotions and pretty things at the same time.

8. While we are at it, if we may sidle over to television for a moment, it pains the Siren that Masterpiece Theatre has become a synonym (a lazy one) for "dull and middlebrow." Is everyone who does this familiar with a lot of MT productions, or do they just see a corset and think it's strictly for Mom and Grandma to watch before turning in for the night? I could give counterexamples all day, but here's just two: Upstairs, Downstairs, so often used as shorthand for historical soap opera, took on the class system in an intelligent and challenging way. And rent the harrowing "Testament of Youth" and tell me whether that's tea-cosy TV.

9. Pride and Prejudice (1940). Okay, okay, the costumes are all wrong and they messed around with Austen's plot. The Siren would still take this one over Colin Firth AND Keira Knightley any day of the week.

10. Susan Hayward. Easy to make fun of how stiff she was when the part didn't suit her, and the way Brooklyn never left her voice. The Siren herself has a strong memory of doubling over at Susie's attempt at "begorrah" in the Henry King South Africa epic Untamed. But damn it, her performances in I'll Cry Tomorrow and I Want to Live are terrific. And, Salinger fans, I'm willing to bet My Foolish Heart is a good women's picture. I remember liking it as a girl but it is hard to re-view at the moment.

11. Kevin Costner. A good-looking and charismatic actor who could use an old-style studio boss, as he frequently doesn't seem to know which films are in tune with his abilities and image. Yes, he's limited, but so were Errol Flynn and Gary Cooper. The Siren loved him in Bull Durham, Wyatt Earp, Open Range, The Upside of Anger, and above all A Perfect World. And I did not hate Waterworld.

12. The Siren is patiently waiting for critical opinion to come around on Heaven's Gate, as she strongly believes it will.

13. Leslie Howard. Time has shown he was right to resist being cast as Ashley Wilkes, because that one role has eclipsed his sexy and subtle turns in The Scarlet Pimpernel, Pimpernel Smith, It's Love I'm After and Pygmalion.

14. Alexander's Ragtime Band and In Old Chicago.

15. Stewart Granger. Even Errol Flynn's Westerns are getting respect from the likes of Dave Kehr, but Granger, not so much. The Siren will happily plump for him in Captain Boycott, The Man in Grey, Saraband for Dead Lovers (his personal favorite), the fabulous Scaramouche, Moonfleet, Beau Brummell and the criminally underseen and underrated The Last Hunt.

Some others mentioned on Facebook: The Sons of Katie Elder (aside to Dan Leo--the Siren loves that one); Flashdance (the Siren was contemptuous of it when it came out, but now she's inclined to like it); Zorro, the Gay Blade; Big Trouble in Little China (it's pretty hip now, but wasn't for a long while); 1941 (slowly reviving but still takes some nerve to defend); Edward Dmytryk (unlike Elia Kazan, whose career continued apace, Dmytryk fans can make a real case for his having been damaged by persistent political ill-will).

And some of my loves were once uncool, but now (based solely on my blog reading) seem to be acquiring more and more fans: Kay Francis, early Joan Crawford, Sandra Dee, Jean Negulesco, Henry Hathaway, Clarence Brown.

All right, talk to me. Are my uncool picks truly uncool? Mother Wore Tights definitely is.


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DavidEhrenstein said...

Never got into Satyajit Ray, alas. But he holds a special place in my heart for his appearance on the Oscar broadcast where he was given a life achievment award. Bedridden (his deathbed as it turned out) he lay on his back looking up into the camera, thanking the Academy and pleding his eternal devotion to hsi very favorite movie star --

Deana Durbin.

Now how can you not love someone like that?

Henry Holland said...

No matter what the merits are of the rest of their filmography, Merchant - Ivory are absolute Gods to this gay man. When Maurice was released, it blew me away. On screen was the usual gay angst --the closet, pretending to be sexually interested in women to deflect attention etc.-- but at the end, Maurice rejects all that for the man he loves. I completely identified with the character of Maurice and it didn't hurt that James Wilby was quite handsome in this beautifully lit and filmed movie.

After years of stuff like Boys in the Band, the repulsive Looking for Mr. Goodbar and the odious Cruising, it was revelatory to see a gay-themed movie with a happy ending, not death or suicide or psychosis or crushing unhappiness.

In the movie, if not the book, it's the closeted, self-loathing, ambitious Clive who is the object of pity, not the gay man who rejects the narrative that society has laid out for him, a gay man who is dead inside until he accepts his homosexuality.

Easily one of my favorite movies ever.

Yojimboen said...

Dunno quite which of the three threads running to post this news. This is probably the most appropriate:

Lucky Jim is dead. Or the actor who played him, Ian Carmichael. No question but he was cool - by way of his perfectly-toned uncool Bertie Wooster.

But he wasn’t as cool as this guy – in post-war British music nobody was cooler – Beatles, Stones… nobody.
(Okay, maybe his wife.)

He scored some biggies, not the least of which was Darling; The Servant; Saturday Night and Sunday Morning

Bad weekend.

Vanwall said...

M. Yo -

Agreed, a tough weekend. Carmichael was one of my faves, his TV work being like a second life from his interesting film days. Dankworth has my admiration, not least for music and Cleo, but he essayed to play on a Grafton Acrylic - the man had brass, for playing with plastic.

Mary said...

The silent ENCHANTED COTTAGE is also wonderful, with a subtle Blanche Sweet and Richard Barthelmess in the lead roles.

Ronald Colman

Joseph Cotten (best in POJ and SHADOW OF A DOUBT)

William Powell

Fredric March

Jennifer Jones

Ned Sparks

Guy Kibbee

Thelma Ritter

Charles Boyer

Teresa Wright

Gloria Grahame

Franklin Pangborn

The Rush Blog said...

Pride and Prejudice (1940). Okay, okay, the costumes are all wrong and they messed around with Austen's plot. The Siren would still take this one over Colin Firth AND Keira Knightley any day of the week.

I'm sorry, but I wouldn't. I've always enjoyed the 1940 version of "PRIDE AND PREJUDICE". But in my eyes, it doesn't beat the 1995 miniseries that starred Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle.

hallie_j said...

I'm surprised to learn that George Brent is considered notoriously wooden and uncool.

Working my way through a Bette Davis boxset at the moment in which he turns up in no less than three of the six movies.

Having recently seen him in 'The Great Lie' I thought he was wonderful. Mary Astor has the great character and all but it was his chemistry with Davis that really drew me in. They just seem so natural as a couple, I was delighted when I looked up IMDB and learned that they had in fact been involved in a love affair and that I had so many of their cinematic pairings to look forward to.

I'm not saying he's overwhelmingly charismatic and or dominates the screen, but in that film and the ones I've seen since he just seems so gloriously unperturbed by it all. He doesn't try to out do these great leading ladies and he's masculine and solid enough not to be completely overwhelmed. His solidness reminds me of a great dance partner, having the strength and elegance to lead the dance in order to show the lady off to her best advantage as she does the flashier moves.

I'm eager to check out more of his supporting work with the great leading ladies of the day and to my eyes at least Brent is proving to be a bit of a cool cat.

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