Available to be read in full at Fandor's Keyframe blog, my list of highlights from the Illuminating the Shadows conference at Northwestern University's Block Museum. Below, the moment that may interest my readers the most; should it prompt a comment urge, the splendid Fandor editor Kevin Lee would love to hear from you over there.
3. Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, co-host of Ebert Presents At the Movies with Christy Lemire, mischievously remarked during the panel on the art of writing that he considered Jean-Claude Van Damme to be a movie artist on the level of Buster Keaton. Or near the level of Buster Keaton. Worthy to be mentioned in the same declarative sentence with Keaton, anyway. I don't remember the precise phrasing; I was on stage next to him for the same panel, and PTSD caused me to lose track of my pen. Despite my own appreciation for Van Damme (perhaps one day Fandor will hire me to write up Universal Soldier), I believe I gave Vishnevetsky what is usually referred to as the "side-eye."
At Nomad Wide Screen, my two most recent Retro-Fit columns. First, a piece on Raoul Walsh's fabulous pre-Code, Sailor's Luck, which was screened at the Block conference by the great Dave Kehr.
In a March 6 [New York Times] column about distributors and viewers’ move away from DVDs toward Blu-ray discs and streaming video, Kehr acknowledged the lack of enthusiasm many old-movie hounds feel for yet another shift in format. We greet these shifts, he wrote, with “a mixed sense of hope and fear. Hope, to the degree that the new distribution strategies may make it economically feasible for a broader range of movies to enter the marketplace; fear, grounded in past experience that suggests format changes invariably leave legions of once widely available titles in limbo.” Last week, at a conference held by Northwestern University’s Block Cinema, Kehr introduced a screening of a brilliant movie that is stuck in that very limbo.
The film, Sailor’s Luck from 1933, was directed by acknowledged master Raoul Walsh during the freewheeling era before the Production Code was implemented.
Since it’s a Pre-Code feature, there are elements in Sailor’s Luck that would disappear just a year or so later, including Sally Eilers putting on her underwear and Esther Muir leaning over a crystal ball and giving Walsh a chance to point the camera more or less directly between her breasts (albeit from a tactful distance). Enormous hip flasks are brought out at intervals. Jimmy [James Dunn] climbs in a car with possibly the drunkest driver in all of 1930s cinema — giving Walsh an excuse to demonstrate just how good early rear-projection could be, the camera whirling around for queasy-making views of walls, the curb, lampposts, unwary pedestrians.
A scene between Dunn and Eilers dwells on the possibility that they might sleep together; it’s played quietly, in her furnished room, and blocked with enthralling precision, as Eilers sits in a chair across the room, Dunn plops on the bed, Dunn invites her to the bed, she moves only to a closer chair, Dunn lowers the window shades, she raises them. Also startlingly frank is the way the movie deals with the physical peril Eilers finds herself in when she encounters overeager men; confronting Baron Portola (Victor Jory, in the first role of what would be a career full of such parts), she opens the door that he just closed with a mixture of sass and uneasiness.
Next up at Nomad, another postcard from another conference, a film-noir fest at Manhattan's New School that was hosted by celebrated director Guy Maddin and the fine film writer and all-around goddess Kim Morgan of Sunset Gun. Guy presented The Chase, from 1946, starring a not-bad-at-all Robert Cummings (stop giggling); and Kim gave a loving introduction to Wicked Woman from 1953, starring the mesmerizing Beverly Michaels:
Morgan is a huge partisan of this work, calling it a “Poverty Row masterpiece,” and the film lived up to its introduction. Wicked Woman has a naturalistic feel, its low-rent atmosphere giving it a sense of realism that you don’t get from most higher-budget studio films of the era. Morgan particularly loves the movie for its star, whose character Morgan described as a woman “overcompensating for being in a man’s world"...Her character, Billie Nash, steps off a bus in a one-horse town early in the film, and just watching her lounge into the station and ask where she can find a cheap room is enthralling. The maintenance routines of a down-at-the-heels blonde are right up front, with Michaels rummaging around for something to wear and touching up her platinum roots with a slight grimace over the burning bleach. The movie constantly uses Michaels’ height (she was five-foot-nine, but looks taller), as she folds her limbs into a cheap chair that’s too small or stretches out a lanky arm to grab something from the fridge. (“I could watch her open a beer all day,” says Morgan.) Michaels’ stature gives a piquant flavor to her interactions with neighbor Charlie Borg (Percy Helton), one of the oiliest lechers I’ve ever seen—as Morgan put it, “every sleazy man who ever hit on a woman rolled into one.” Helton is so short that his bald head is level with Michaels’ collarbone, and his conversations with Michaels find him mostly talking to her breasts.
Raymond De Felitta, the Siren's email correspondent below, has put part one of his George Stevens musings online at Movies Til Dawn. The Siren has an abiding love for anyone working to resurrect a neglected or downtrodden reputation in classic film, and this promises to be a great effort. The Siren herself has a high opinion of Stevens, especially Shane, A Place in the Sun, Giant, Gunga Din, Swing Time, The Talk of the Town, Penny Serenade, Vivacious Lady and The Diary of Anne Frank. She loves Raymond's contention that Stevens' "sense of time and space within an individual scene became increasingly abstract and--paradoxically--more emotional as his work went on after the Second World War." Worth reading even if Stevens has not been a personal favorite--perhaps particularly if that's the case. The Siren also realized, looking at Stevens' filmography, that pre-1935 and Alice Adams (another good film), his credits are a viewing black hole. So if anyone has a recommendation for early Stevens, let us know, by all means. Update: "There is nothing about this that even vaguely resembles what was then considered 'normal' directorial staging": Part Two is up, with a close look at scenes from A Place in the Sun and The More the Merrier.
Libertas, the Website run by Jason Apuzzo and Govindini Murty, has undergone a remake over the past year. Once marked by a hectoring tone that was not to the Siren's taste, Libertas is still very much an explicitly conservative film site--which would appeal to some of the Siren's readers, and not to others. But Apuzzo and Murty have worked to turn it into a place that's focused on pointing out films they love, rather than decrying films they can't stand. In terms of the Siren's own cinematic inclinations, she has long been a fan of Jennifer Baldwin, who has commented here from time to time as The Derelict and has her own blog at Dereliction Row. She's a good writer who covers classic film with a passion anyone here can identify with, and the Siren recommends her essays to one and all. The Siren, a Fritz Lang freak from way back, was especially smitten with Jennifer's post about Human Desire; she focuses on the great Gloria Grahame.
At Laura's Miscellaneous Musings, another pre-Code that ties in neatly to a couple of things I screened recently: Made on Broadway, from 1933. Haven't seen it. Sounds nifty. It stars Sally Eilers, so fresh and adorable in Sailor's Luck, and Laura says it has overtones of Chicago.