Friday, December 30, 2005

Oh Kay

The Siren loves to discover a kindred spirit, especially in the person of an august critic who doesn't know she's alive.

"My familiarity with the film work of Kay Francis [is] intimate ... appreciation for the screen choreography of Robert Alton unbounded..."

The gentleman's post mentions Francis & Alton only in passing, as he was settling a score with another site. All the same, bless James Wolcott's heart. Alton will be remembered as long as holidays bring scheduled screenings of White Christmas and Easter Parade (the still is from Ann Miller's dazzling "Shaking the Blues Away" number). But few recall Kay Francis, except for her role in the incomparable Trouble in Paradise. That's a shame.

Kay was gorgeous, looked amazing in evening gowns, gave some good performances on the rare occasions that she got a decent script, and had the most alluring lisp in film history, Bogart notwithstanding. She also seems to have been a laid-back, good-natured sort of star, as rare then as it is now. But how intimate is intimate? Did Mr. Wolcott make it all the way through The White Sister? No matter. If he ever blogs about the four-hanky chick flick supreme, One-Way Passage, the Siren swears she will send him a fan letter.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

The Marx Brothers Sum Up Christmas, Cheer Up Siren

Fiorello: What does this say here? This thing here.

Otis P. Driftwood: Oh, that? Oh, that's the usual clause. That's in every contract. That just says uh, it says uh, "If any of the parties participating in this contract is shown not to be in their right mind, the entire agreement is automatically nullified."

Fiorello: Well, I don't know...

Driftwood: It's all right, that's, that's in every contract. That's, that's what they call a "sanity clause."

Fiorello: Ha ha ha ha ha! You can't fool me. There ain't no Sanity Claus. Posted by Picasa

Friday, December 16, 2005

This still from Meet Me in St. Louis comes from the moments after "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." Margaret O'Brien has just taken a shovel and gone after the snow family on the front lawn. This still has lousy color, for which I apologize. Judy's dress in the scene is red, and a gorgeous red at that. Posted by Picasa

Christmas Lurks Without

So the Siren has had a grumpy week. Toddlers with cabin fever and a whacking huge snowstorm have combined to make her far from her usual soignée and carefree self. Over the horizon looms Christmas. Seen from nine days away, sometimes Christmas seems joyous and glittering, like the winter ball in Doctor Zhivago. At other times it seems that, like the Czar's soldiers amassing outside the Moscow mansions, Christmas is waiting for a chance to trample me.

Christmas at the movies is usually a jolly affair. Deck them halls and all that stuff, ho-ho-ho and misteltoe and presents to pretty girls. Even if a Christmas scene starts out sad, few filmmakers can resist the urge to make it uplifting at the end. The Siren has been trying to compile a list of movies that manage to show the dark side of Christmas. Here is what she has so far.

1. Citizen Kane. The boy Kane throws the sled, Rosebud, at Walter Thatcher, the guardian who has come to take him away. Maybe the scene takes place on Christmas, maybe it doesn't; the Siren always believed it took place a day or two after Christmas, and that Rosebud was young Kane's favorite present. The next scene shows Kane unwrapping a replacement sled, and obviously hating it. Flash forward to another Christmas--and Thatcher wishing the now-adult Kane "a happy New Year." The whole sequence is achingly sad, and builds sympathy for Kane by showing his loneliness and isolation. And at least a kernel of that feeling stays throughout the movie, even as Kane becomes less and less loveable. Like no other, this film nails how disappointing and hollow Christmas can be--yet another reason to admire Citizen Kane, if any of us needed one.

2. Stalingrad. The title may be description enough, but the scene the Siren has in mind is a moment of quiet in this bloody, chaotic movie. Having taken a gutted factory with fearful loss of life, a group of German soldiers takes a break from fighting. They huddle around the radio, listening to the Fuhrer's Christmas speech. Hearing Hitler address his nation in an ordinary, conversational tone is almost shocking. Usually when you hear recordings of the man, he is shrieking at the top of his lungs and working his audience into a frenzy. Here, the exhausted soldiers listen to the radio with expressions ranging from numbed apathy to bitter disbelief.

2. Meet Me in St. Louis. Every doggone Christmas-song-video-clip-anthology in creation shows the scene from this movie where Judy Garland, looking more beautiful than she ever had or ever would again, sings "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" to a tearstained Margaret O'Brien. When it's sandwiched between Bing's duet with David Bowie and a clip of Bruce Springsteen singing "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," you can forget how depressing the scene is. And that is even after song was altered before filming to make it a little less misery-inducing. The original lyrics began, "Have yourself a merry little Christmas, it may be your last ..." Break out the eggnog.

At this point in the plot, the Smith family is about to leave their beloved Saint Louis for (horrors!) New York. O'Brien, playing the child Tootie, listens to Judy's song looking as though someone just killed her dog. In fact, Vincente Minnelli, at the behest of the child's mother, had just told her a story about her dog getting shot, bleeding, stumbling around and then dying in order to get a properly devastated expression. (In his autobiography he said he felt like a monster, but added by way of justification that he got the scene in one take.) Everyone talks about the pathos of Judy's singing, but do you remember how well it goes down with Tootie? The kid is so cheered up that she runs out and beheads all the family snowmen. Sure, then the father notices Tootie is having a nervous breakdown and decides to let the family stay in St. Louis, but the scene usually requires a stiff drink and a great deal of Kleenex for the Siren to make it through.

I'm leaving out It's a Wonderful Life because I am on Wonderful Life hiatus, in hopes I will one day be able to watch it without remembering all the stupid commercials it's spawned. Besides, I am not sure it counts. Certainly there is some dark stuff, in the "life without George" sequence, but it's all just an illusion. The real world, according to Frank Capra, is the one where everybody shows up at your house and showers you with money. No wonder the man's films remain so popular.

So, what scenes am I forgetting? There must be others. What other films try to bury Christmas with a stake of holly through its heart? Preference is given to films where the absent father/Santa Claus/milk train/transformed Scrooge does not show up to make it all better.

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

Friday, October 28, 2005

Jitsuko Yoshimura in Onibaba. She's wonderful, but the landscape may be the real star of the movie. Posted by Picasa

I'm including this still only because if you rent Witchfinder General, you really should know what you're in for. Posted by Picasa

Sally Ann Howes and Michael Allen in the Siren's favorite segment of her favorite ghost movie, Dead of Night. Posted by Picasa

Frightening the Siren

Halloween approaches, and the Siren is moved to contemplate which movies have frightened her over the years. Let us be clear: we're talking fright, not revulsion, pity, or "Cool-O! how'd they do that?"

The Siren has found movies to love in every category, but horror has never been one of her favorites. Old-fashioned horror movies play best with her. Recent ones too often devolve into the slasher genre, outside of science fiction easily the Siren's least favorite type of movie.

[While we are discussing this, may I call for a temporary moratorium on serial killer movies? Enough already, people, unless you can bring a fresh vision to it, and I don't mean "Let's play some Bach and forget about lighting the set," either.]

Here, with minimal plot details since surprise is of the essence, are four movies that genuinely frightened the Siren:

Dead of Night (1945) I've a weakness for anthology movies; Tales of Manhattan, The Story of Three Loves, even New York Stories. Dead of Night may be the best one ever. People seem generally to agree that the ventiloquist segment with Michael Redgrave is the strongest and most frightening, but I like them all. Yes, even the golf one. Most underrated, in my opinion, is the quiet but poignant "Christmas Party" sequence with a very young Sally Ann Howes and Michael Allen. Perhaps it works best if you see it as I did, knowing that Constance Kent was a real person. The ventriloquist and the Christmas party sequences had the same director, Alberto Calvacanti.

The Horror of Dracula (1958) Him again. Need I say more? Vampires have been done to death but the Siren always loved the Technicolor lushness of this Hammer version and parts of it give her some pleasant shivers. Bela Lugosi was a better Count than Christopher Lee, in my very humble non-horror-buff opinion, but the supporting cast here is much better than the one in Tod Browning's version.

Onibaba (1964) The Siren is very pleased to see that this Japanese film has gained a following. She is convinced that's because it was made widely available at video stores; even her local Blockbuster in Manhattan had a copy. (There is a lesson there, Mr. Studio Suit.) Director Kaneto Shindo and cinematographer Kiyomi Kuroda take an apparently featureless landscape--a large, marshy plain full of reeds--and show you how day and night, wind and shadow give it a thousand aspects, most of them terrifying. All this from something that, I suppose, is technically a serial killer movie.

Witchfinder General (1968). I saw this on American Movie Classics so long ago that benighted channel didn't even have commercials, under the name The Conqueror Worm. (The American distributor of this English film threw in some Edgar Allen Poe recitation to capitalize on the success of Roger Corman's Poe cycle.) Some debate whether this belongs in the horror category, but it certainly horrified the bejesus out of me. It was showing in the 10 am to noon slot and when bedtime rolled around that night I was still trying to calm my shattered nerves. Vincent Price plays the titular 17th century witchfinder, Matthew Hopkins, who was a real person, god help us. Price was never scarier. In fact, this is one of only a handful of Price performances entirely free from camp or humor of any kind. There's an old, possibly apocryphal anecdote associated with the making of this movie. Price and director Michael Reeves didn't get along. One day Price, trying to put Reeves in his place, said, "I have made 70 films. What have you done?" "I've made three good ones," snapped Reeves. Extremely funny, even if Reeves was forgetting The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, Laura, Leave Her to Heaven, The House of the Seven Gables and Dragonwyck.

So the Siren asks her patient audience: Which films frightened you?

Friday, October 21, 2005

Julie London welcomes fall in a "sweater girl" shot from the year The Red House was released. Speaking of smoking, check out this archeological find: a link to a Real Player file of Julie singing a Marlboro jingle. Posted by Picasa

Little House in the Big Woods

Autumn is the Siren's favorite season, by a mile. Perhaps that's because she grew up in the heat-soaked Deep South, where you look forward to the cooling breezes of fall the way those up North yearn for spring. But she would probably like this time of year anyway. She can put on a sweater, the sky turns a brilliant color, the wind picks up and so does her energy during the day. At night the Siren finds herself wanting to wrap up in a quilt on the couch, sip a soothing drink and watch something that will suit the mood, as the days rush on toward Halloween. So the other night she pulled out her unwatched copy of The Red House, Delmer Daves's thriller from 1947. 

The movie stars Edward G. Robinson, which was reason enough to buy it. Martin Scorsese discusses this movie in "A Journey Through American Film," but the Siren remembers nothing he said. Anyway, if it is autumnal atmosphere you are after, this movie is the business. 

The red house of the title is out in the woods, in a location so remote that the characters discuss it for a long while before anybody locates it. Allene Roberts is Meg Morgan, the sheltered teenage niece of Wisconsin farmer Pete Morgan (Robinson) and his sister Ellen (Judith Anderson, who apparently hadn't changed hairstyles since Rebecca). Nath Storm (Lon McAllister), comes to work at the Morgan farm as a part-time hired hand, and despite his ludicrous name Meg has a raging crush on him. Nath lingers too long at dinner one night, time comes for him to go home, and he decides on a shortcut through the woods. Pete, who obviously knows too much about the forest, tries to dissuade Nath, yelling "Did you ever run from a scream? You CAN'T!" 

What with the wind picking up, Robinson's bullfrog mouth stretching his face into a gargoyle and Miklos Rozsa's fantastic score building the menace, the Siren would have said, "You win, Pete. Let's call a cab." But this is a thriller, Nath insists he isn't afraid, and with Pete, the wind and Rozsa howling after him, off he goes into the woods. Nath's journey through the woods takes him through thick and threatening underbrush, snapping branches and leaves that seem actually to pursue him down the path. Eventually Nath, exhausted and terrified, runs right back to the Morgan farm and takes refuge in the barn. It's a gorgeous sequence. The next day, Nath and Meg decide to unravel the secret of the woods and the red house. 

The Siren found throughout the film that each time the camera entered the forest, the tension grew and the effect was beautiful and menacing indeed. Scenes outside the woods are sometimes equally interesting, but not always. Part of the fault lies with the Siren's fellow Alabamian, Roberts, who is what novelist Georgette Heyer used to call a "milk-and-water miss." Pete's interest in his niece seems unhealthy from the beginning, but Robinson has little to play off with Roberts since she has the appeal and personality of a plucked chicken. Robinson was an incredible talent, and he mostly gives a fine performance (I don't think he gave any other kind). But the part requires so many abrupt changes of mood and motivation it's a wonder the man didn't get whiplash. 

Judith Anderson as a Wisconsin farm frau just doesn't wash. Her queenly bearing kept giving her away, and every time she opened her mouth the Siren expected either iambic pentameter or something like "Why don't you leave Manderley? He doesn't need you." 

The Siren was most touched to see that the cast included Ona Munson in a brief part as Nath's mother. She made a vivid impression as Belle Watling in Gone with the Wind and Mother Gin Sling in The Shanghai Gesture, but she was in a typecasting straitjacket and this was her last role. She had major surgery in the early 1950s and suffered from depression afterward. In 1955 she committed suicide with an overdose of barbituates, leaving a note to her husband that read, "This is the only way I know to be free again." Munson looks wan here, and while she does a good job, her scenes make for sad viewing. 

Still, there are a lot of reasons to see The Red House. There's Robinson, always fascinating even when the script demands the impossible. There is the gorgeous soundtrack, skillful building of atmosphere by Daves and the beautiful cinematography by Bert Glennon. And there's an actress whose future fame was much more as a singer, Julie London. As Tibby, the town bad girl, she is just luscious. Nath is going steady with Tibby, and when Meg is around it's rather like setting a rag doll next to Botticelli's Venus and asking who's gonna get the guy. London was a real eyeful, and in The Red House her seductive speaking voice and masses of tumbling hair do half the work. She walks off with every scene she's in.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Orphans of the Storm (1921)

The Siren wishes everyone could see D.W. Griffith's take on the French Revolution as she did, with a Parisian-bred movie fan at your elbow. She usually has one handy, having had the foresight to marry the gentleman. Consequently, she could look over and see his befuddlement at the intertitle calling Danton "the Abraham Lincoln of France." Even better was the expression on view when the Parisian mob were described as "Bolsheviks." Ah well, as they used to say in the Cold War days, all revolutions after 1776 were Marxist-Leninist anyway.

Griffith's politics in Orphans of the Storm are all over the place, but the film is certainly better in that regard than The Birth of a Nation. (Then again, barbed-wire bra straps are less painful than the politics of that 1915 opus.) Griffith was a superbly innovative 20th century director. But the artist Griffith also had his head and heart in the 19th century, for better, as in Broken Blossoms (the Siren's favorite Griffith), or for worse, as in Birth. Lillian Gish said this film was heavily influenced by Thomas Carlyle, as well as Charles Dickens, Griffith's favorite novelist. Some sequences are so melodramatic, you could believe you were watching the Crummles theatrical troupe from Nicholas Nickleby.

Orphans is gorgeous, though. Nobody did epic, teeming crowd scenes quite like Griffith, and there are precious few directors who ever conveyed the sweep of history with the same flair. Given Griffith's overwritten intertitles, the Gish sisters do remarkably well as the orphans of the title. Lillian, of course, was a peerless artist who could pull at your heart like no other. Dorothy, as a blind girl forced to beg in the streets, probably has the better role for once. The other performances vary wildly in quality, from Joseph Schildkraut as a rather effeminate hero (Dorothy remarked tartly that he was prettier than she was) to Monte Blue acquitting himself quite well as Danton.

While she is on the subject of silent movies, the Siren wants to point out two great Websites. Lately she has been losing herself in The Silent Movie Bookshelf, a set of eye-popping primary source material from the period, such as articles from 1927 and 1928 about how The Wedding March and The Crowd were revised after audience previews, and another series written by Charlie Chaplin about his triumphal return to England. She is also enjoying Gilda's Blue Book of the Screen, a fan site that lovingly compiles articles, pictures, links and a wonderful set of organ-music files.
Posted by Picasa

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Ed Harris and Viggo Mortenson in A History of Violence. The Siren wanted a still from the first sex scene, but movie studios are so stingy with those. Posted by Picasa

Now Playing. No, Seriously.

Lately the Siren sees new movies about once every vernal equinox. Thanks to Girish's enthusiasm, Thursday night the Siren hired a babysitter and saw A History of Violence. So here is a rare post about a movie that is still in theaters. If you haven't seen it, the Siren recommends that you do. Even if you dislike the movie, it is a major work by a serious filmmaker and deserves to be loathed on a big screen.

I did like it, however, liked it a lot, and not just for the many wonderful camera angles you get on Viggo Mortenson. The plot can be sussed from the trailers: Nice guy named Tom (Viggo), living in small farm town with lovely wife (Maria Bello) and two kids, saves some folks from a couple of vicious criminals. He becomes a hero, gets his face splashed all over the media. Suddenly, some seriously frightening underworld figures show up (including Ed Harris, terrific as always) and begin to menace him. Are they figures from Tom's past, or he is the victim of mistaken identity?

You can see this film as a straight genre flick, but the Siren thinks you will be disappointed if you do. The IMDB chat boards are full of people who went expecting a well-constructed thriller, and left wanting to wring the neck of Roger Ebert, Kenneth Turan and every other critic that gave the movie a good review. They say they have seen much better, and in terms of thrillers maybe they have.

The Siren does not have much patience for those complaining about the violence. It's David Cronenberg, folks, and he was thoughtful enough to keep the title of the graphic novel the script is based on. He didn't change it to "Fluffy Bunny Ears" and then spring a couple of cross-country serial killers on you. Complaints about the pace puzzled the Siren too. The movie lasts 98 minutes and tells its story with great clarity. Not every thriller has to have a thumping, propulsive, MTV-Cuisinart-editing style.

Other complaints are accurate, so far as they go. There are some cliches and fallacies that pop up, like the Talking Killer, the Seriously Wounded Guy Still Able to Take Out Lots of Scary Dudes, and the Point Blank Shots That Miss. The characters are sharply drawn and extremely well played, but they are mostly archetypes familiar from dozens of other movies: the smart and still sexy wife, the nerdy picked-on son, the bullying jock, the china-doll daughter, the villain who is still royally pissed off about his disfigured face.

The Siren, however, thinks the seeming infelicities are deliberate. The familiar set-ups and characters give a feeling of timelessness and myth. The bizarre humor that some complain about keeps you off-balance. You're shown something horrifying, but it's so deliberately incongruous that the audience giggles. Someone takes an absurd line and gives it a serious reading--not the wink-wink deadpan of Leslie Nielsen, but the grim earnestness of a social worker on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.

Some call the violence very true to life. A few close-ups would fit nicely in a forensics textbook. But the Siren thinks an early sex scene, with some awkward, on-and-off role-playing and an unlovely rendition of soixante-neuf, is probably the most "realistic" sequence in the movie. The violence, on the other hand, comes in manic bursts. And as Girish notes, each confrontation evokes a different audience reaction, from pity to anger to horror to, more than once, total disbelief.

So why subvert your own material this way? In this case, if realism is being stretched and slapped around and sometimes flat-out ignored, it's because you're being invited--hell, you're being pushed--to take a look at everything the story implies.

I want to discuss those implications, but I can't do that without bringing in some plot points. So if you haven't seen the movie, STOP RIGHT NOW, don't spoil it for yourself.

If you're still here, I am going to assume that either you saw it, or are one of those people who peeks ahead in a mystery novel because suspense is an overrated narrative device.

It is pretty obvious from the get-go that Tom is not the purely perfect father figure he seems to be. The amazing efficiency with which he dispatches those criminals tips you off, for one thing. Tom Stall, the salt-of-earth diner proprietor, is the new identity of Joey Cusack, a mobster whose mania for bloodshed went too far even for the underworld when he took out Ed Harris' eye with barbed wire. (You are never told what prompted that, and it's implied that Joey might have done it for any old reason at all.) Joey hid away for three years in some sort of desert purgatory, eventually got a new identity, and wound up in Millbrook, Indiana, with a perfect blonde wife and two kids and a house with a front porch and a mailbox that jauntily proclaims "The Stalls."

So that first encounter in the diner, as Tom dispatches two psychopaths, doesn't draw an essential stalwart and upstanding guy into a situation he would never have chosen. It unleashes a carefully nurtured but long-suppressed ability to kill, fast and efficiently.

Remind you of anyone? anywhere? The Siren thinks it should.

Fundamental to most Americans' perception of themselves is the story we tell about our peacefulness and amiability. Historians may demur, but our movies tell us that we don't go around seeking out fights, no sir. From Shane to Sergeant York to even The Godfather, we see hero after hero who, whatever his past, would be pursuing a peaceful life of farming or turkey-hunting or fooling around with Diane Keaton, were it not for the corrupt and heinous outside world picking a fight with him. But once somebody picks a fight, by golly, the hero's gonna finish it--and so is this country.

Of course, this vision of America, where we are never the aggressor, is a polite, elaborate and ahistorical lie, one that continues right up through our latest exercise in selective umbrage-taking. A History of Violence says we're frauds, and the Siren can't help wondering if some people have a very hard time with that. Cronenberg looks not merely at violence itself, nor even at what prompts it, but at what we must tell ourselves in order to preserve our self-image. "When you dream, do you dream you're Joey?" Ed Harris asks Viggo.

Maybe he does, maybe he doesn't. Not many of us dream of Sand Creek. Our country was founded on violence, it is our original sin and in our DNA. Bloodshed is always there under the surface, as is in Tom.

And violence perpetuates itself, as we see Tom's son able to beat someone nearly senseless, and as one war begets another on our evening news. But Cronenberg is no moralist, and he's willing to acknowledge the Darwinian advantages of being able to kill when necessary. As Roger Ebert pointed out, if Tom/Joey were really the nice guy he seemed to be, he would have died right there on the restaurant floor. The violence is what enables him to survive.

In the end, Joey returns to his family table, and in the silent, tentative offer of food and truce you see the possibility of reconciliation. Joey yearns to go back to Tom, his family wants to let him come back. But looking at the last shots of his wife's haunted face, the Siren wondered how another cherished American ideal--starting over--was going to work out this time.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

The Siren Gets Tagged

The Siren has been tagged by the fabulous Annieytown of the New York Times-touted Blogdorf Goodman. She must now post 20 random facts about herself. All right, here goes:

1. The Siren's first stage disappointment was when, as a fourth-grader, she tried out for a German-language version of The Pied Piper of Hamelin. She wanted to play the Piper. She was cast as a rat.

2. Her first line ever spoken on stage: "Ja, der rattenfanger."

3. Her first cat was named "Little Red Riding Hood Magnolia Blossom," showing a flair for ridiculous names at a young age.

4. Hearing that, it will not surprise you to hear that the Siren's real name is not Campaspe.

5. The Siren doesn't drive, another reason to feel a deep kinship with Annie.

6. She was married in southern Lebanon.

7. Her husband is a French citizen, but her French is absolutely atrocious.

8. The Siren almost had her handbag pickpocketed because she was trying to get a good look at Catherine Deneuve, who had walked into the store and was back at the dressing rooms trying on vintage blouses.

9. One of my favorite fantasies involves telling Catherine Deneuve about this incident, and her being so charmed that we wind up fast friends.

10. The Siren is literally, physically allergic to cold. She breaks out in hives if her skin is exposed to low temperatures for too long.

11. The Siren has two cats despite being allergic to both of them.

12. The Siren loves snakes, and at age 10 had her picture in the local paper with a boa constrictor wrapped around her neck.

13. The Siren is distantly related to Clyde Barrow.

14. The Siren can't whistle.

15. At age 4, the Siren refused to answer anyone unless addressed as "Cinderella."

16. At age 5, the Siren became fed up with a particularly perfect girl at kindergarten. The child was always clean, never shouted out answers, always colored inside the lines. The Siren decided to write this girl's name down in the teacher's bad conduct book, and was deeply chagrined when the forgery was discovered, possibly because the Siren had printed in crayon with block capitals.

17. The Siren has never read The DaVinci Code or The Lovely Bones.

18. She has never seen a single episode of Sex and the City.

19. She worked for three professors who had been involved with the Manhattan Project.

20. The Siren is still homesick for New York.

Now for my revenge. I am tagging Katiedid at Seldom Nice Nowadays, dear D. at An Alabaster Brow, Koneko at Koneko's Mostly Beauty Diary, Mireille at C'est Chic, and Liz at This Bananafish Smells Like Leaves.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

The Siren has had it up to here with comment spam. It would be one thing if only her current posts were affected, but now the dirty so-and-sos are attacking her archives. The limit was reached when she realized someone had spammed the comments thread on her little memorial post for the late George Fasel. Alas, she must turn on her word verification. Please accept her apologies. Posted by Picasa

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Drink Now, Pay Later

After retiring to her room with a cold compress on her forehead, the Siren felt a little bit better. As long as the Criterion Collection is out there, a chance exists that she will someday see Blowup. All of Blowup.

Seeing that movie again did prompt another train of thought. The actors who came out of Great Britain and Ireland in the 1960s were phenomenonally good-looking. They were also complete boozehounds. Sad to observe this parade of gifted men who wrecked their looks and (sometimes) their talents with too much hooch on too many occasions.

So, even though no contemporary actor will probably ever see this (Russell, Leonardo, I'm talking to you), the Siren has compiled a rough photo essay as a sort of memento mori. Mind you, no one will ever mistake the Siren for Carrie Nation, and she doesn't expect footwashed-Baptist-style temperance from your average thespian.

All she is saying is that drinking entire film crews under the camera crane might not be such a great idea, either.

Exhibit A: David Hemmings, born 1941. Top, in Blowup, 1966. Bottom, at the Gladiator premiere in 2000. Posted by Picasa

Exhibit B: Peter O'Toole, born 1932. Left, in Lawrence of Arabia, 1965. Right, in My Favorite Year, 1982. Posted by Picasa

Exhibit C: Oliver Reed, born 1938. Left, in The System 1964. Right, in Condorman, 1981. Posted by Picasa

Exhibit D: Richard Harris, born 1930. Left, in This Sporting Life, 1963. Right, publicity shot for his song "Macarthur Park," 1968. Posted by Picasa

Exhibit E: Richard Burton, born 1925. (Slightly older, yes, but an essay on actors and drinking without Burton is like an essay on Italy and cooking without tomato sauce.) Left, in The Robe, 1953. Right, in Equus, 1977. Posted by Picasa

Exhibit F: The control specimen. Famously health-conscious, teetotaling Terence Stamp, born 1939. Left, in Billy Budd, 1962. Center, publicity shot, circa Wall Street, 1987. Right, My Boss's Daughter, 2003. Posted by Picasa