Tuesday, August 30, 2005

How Orson Welles Saved the Siren

So remember when the Siren said she was taking some days off to untangle some things? She was being inauthentic with you. The reality was, she was taking the Landmark Forum. And now she is enrolled in a new realm of possibility. The possibility of realizing she went to a for-profit New Age outfit, knew it was a for-profit New Age outfit, spent the whole time realizing it and thinking, "wow, this is a for-profit New Age outfit," and still damn near got taken.

Several things saved her. There was her longtime suspicion of evangelical life-changing experiences. There was her background in business journalism, which means she knows corporations will try anything to separate you from your money. There was the influence of her late father, whose passion for the English language would have had him walking out of the room when the leader used a nonword such as "impactful" or "ongoingly" (each time the Siren heard that second one, she found herself hand-to-forehead as if to ward off a physical blow). There was her basic cussedness.

But what probably saved her, as much as anything else, was Orson Welles and Citizen Kane.

Settle in, folks. This will be a long post.

For some forty hours over the course of three days, the Siren was in a room with a bunch of total strangers and heard some things they probably haven't told even their best friends. She even got up to the microphone herself. She made a handful of nice and probably useful discoveries about herself. She is presently trying to incorporate some of those into her life. Which wasn't bad before she took the Forum, but needed some improvement in some areas. Once she gets her head screwed back on straight, she will continue to work on those areas.

But the Siren is also majorly, majorly pissed off. The Landmark Education Forum is run on a pyramid model. Think of it like the old shampoo commercial. "So I told two friends, and they told two friends, and so on, and so on ..." as the screen divides up into an infinite number of models with great hair. Only Landmark isn't selling shampoo. Landmark is selling "transformation." But (here's the beauty part) if you want transformation, you have to transform other people, who show up to your "graduation" with credit cards and also invest in transformation by signing up for the Landmark Forum (C$500 including sales tax). And they tell two friends with credit cards, and they tell two friends with checkbooks, and so on, and so on, until the screen is filled up with an infinite number of transformed people with smaller bank balances.

As an alumnus of the world of capitalist journalism, I have to admit it's one hell of a business model.

Back in New York City, I encountered some people who took this thing. More than I really wanted to encounter, to tell you the truth. The hard-core Forum acolytes spout a lot of stuff about how it will change your life. That is pretty much all they spout, which is why conversations with them tend to be dull. But they're thin on the details. They say you have to experience it to understand it.

I hope most of my patient audience will agree that you don't have to experience everything to understand it. Why else do we go to the movies? I have never experienced desperate poverty, but when I watch Pather Pachali I understand perfectly well that it is horrible. Let the Siren save you C$500 (I think it's about $350-$400 in the States). Here's the Forum, blow by blow.

You settle in with about 150 other transformation-seekers. You hear a lot of rules. The three sessions run from 9 a.m. to anywhere from 10 p.m. to midnight. You get two half-hour breaks and one ninety-minute meal break. Why does it take so long? According to your energetic Forum leader, because it does. Say hello to tautology, tell it to pull up a chair and get comfortable.

You get the dictionary definition of integrity, then you're told it's really about keeping your word ("being your word," in Forumspeak). You're told to be on time (okay, not a problem), not to take notes (some of this stuff looks mighty goofy written down, as the Siren's readers are about to discover), not to talk amongst yourselves (familiar from grade school, also has the advantage of stopping any "wow, that's mighty goofy" conversations).

So here's the talk.

1. All meaning is derived from language. Life is empty and meaningless.

2. Because all of life is meaningless, events have no intrinsic meaning. There is what happened (your mother beat you, your wife ran away with the mailman, your children haven't spoken to you since the Reagan administration). And there is your interpretation (your mother was an abusive cow, your wife was a slut, your children are ungrateful brats). People collapse the events with their meaning. We are meaning-making machines.

3. People deal with life by developing persistent complaints, or "rackets." Your racket reinforces your need to look good, your need to be right by making other people wrong. You are inauthentic with people. You don't tell them what's really happening.

4. If you can look at the events as simply events, you will be free of them. You call a new and powerful mode of existence into being. And you can enroll other people in those possibilities. You do it by getting them to hand over their money and go to the Forum.

Are you still awake? The Siren was nodding off, but pay attention. We've been told that meaning is derived from language. But have you noticed that Landmark is creating its own language? Landmark is a neologism-making machine. And you have to love the fact that they took the great word racket, meaning a dishonest business, and instead coupled it to the little things that drive you crazy about life. Landmark isn't a racket. Landmark is freeing you from rackets. Either you "got it," and understand the concept, or you are being "resistant."

So that's the gist. It gets repeated over and over again, until your ass is numb and your mind is reeling. There's some other stuff, like an exercise in which you are supposed to close your eyes and be afraid, of the person sitting next to you, of everybody in the room, of everybody in Toronto, then everybody in Canada. This did nothing for the Siren because try as she might, she couldn't see anything frightening about Canadians.

Anyway. During the Forum, you are encouraged to call people that you are "incomplete with," Landmarkspeak for "pissed off at" or "have wronged." You're encouraged to tell them you have been inauthentic, and "share the possibility" that you could create a new phase in your relationship.

Why, that's sweet, isn't it? How is that sinister? It isn't. Except, that isn't the whole story.

When you call, you're also supposed to share the Forum experience. And later on you're supposed to share it with bloody everybody you've ever met.

The interesting part of the Forum doesn't come from listening to your leader yack. The interest comes from seeing people get up and "share" about their lives. And pretty awful some of them are, too. It's amazing how much suffering one room can contain. And, the leader told us Sunday night, look at it now! It's gone! isn't that amazing? How do we know it's gone?

Because we say it's gone. It was just a story. Your interpretation of events.

Got that? The Siren almost got it. She was sitting there Sunday afternoon, actually wondering if she should go to the "graduation," though the real purpose of the evening is to bring others to sign up for the Forum and maybe sign up for more Landmark stuff yourself, at steadily increasing prices.

Then the leader brought up Citizen Kane.

How many people had seen Citizen Kane, he asked. A gratifying number of hands were raised (the Siren was worried about that). He proceeded to summarize the movie. The opening death scene, Kane uttering the single word "Rosebud," the globe falling from his hand and shattering. The arc of Kane's life, as he goes from lonely little boy to newspaper magnate endlessly acquiring things and objects. The magnitude of Kane's failure. Then, the great shot where the camera zooms in and reveals the sled Kane had ridden long ago, the one he threw at the man who came to take him away to school. The camera lingering as the fire in the furnace consumes the sled. The leader said, here the audience realizes that Kane had spent his entire life trying to recapture a moment from his childhood. Kane's life had been empty and meaningless, the leader said.

Okay. Welles himself described Charles Foster Kane as "a hollow man." But the Siren snapped to attention and said to herself, wait a minute.

Citizen Kane is a tragedy at its core, meant to evoke pity and terror. The Landmark Forum certainly can cause terror, although that works better in Toronto if you're scared of Canadians. But there's no pity. What happened to you, to anyone, is a story. The Forum leader would have looked at Kane, after the wrenching scene where he trashes Susan's room, and said, "She left you. That's what happened. Your rage and pain is just a story. It doesn't mean anything. The meaning is just what you attach to it." All the feeling, all the compassion the movie has for its characters, is impossible in a Forum-ized world.

And there's more.

Female reporter: If you could've found out what Rosebud meant, I bet that would've explained everything.
Thompson: No, I don't think so. No. Mr. Kane was a man who got everything he wanted and then lost it. Maybe Rosebud was something he couldn't get, or something he lost. Anyway, it wouldn't have explained anything. I don't think any word can explain a man's life. No, I guess Rosebud is just a piece in a jigsaw puzzle. A missing piece.

Yes, after this scene the audience finds out what Rosebud means. But the reporter Thompson is still right. You can't reduce the mystery, poignance and failure of Charles Foster Kane to one word. Kane wasn't all about getting back to Rosebud. There was a great deal more to him, more than anyone could ever know. The complexities of human beings can't be reduced to one word. They can't be reduced to a bunch of "powerful" "possibilities" and jargon, either.

So the Forum leader viewed one of the pinnacles of American art, and missed the whole goddamned point.

And the Siren said, there's no way I am going to my "graduation."

Last night, I spoke to a dear friend as I tried to decompress from the whole Landmark experience. I told him that one of the most outrageous aspects of Landmark, to me, was the presence of volunteers at the Forum. Volunteers? At a for-profit company? I told my friend that I liked some of Ang Lee's movies, but that doesn't mean I am going to go down to his set and volunteer to do stuff like hold the door open.

My pal chuckled. "But you'd hold the door open for Welles," he said.

"After this weekend," I replied, "you bet I would."

Thursday, August 25, 2005

The Siren will be untangling some matters this weekend and will probably be online very little until Monday. While she's gone, why not Make Your Own Dolph Lundgren Movie? Posted by Picasa

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Lizabeth Scott, modeling "Mid-West clothes," for her sins no doubt. This dress is so ghastly it could well have been designed by the Too Late for Tears gown perp. Posted by Picasa

Murder at Midnight (1931) and Too Late for Tears (1949)

Still trying to recreate Turner Classic Movies, Siren got something called the Mystery DVD Pack (about $32 including shipping and handling), 50 movies of wildly varying quality on 12 double-sided DVDs. When she's bored or wants a hour's relaxation she's been watching an old B movie or noir. Murder at Midnight (1931) is a lumbering relic of a film that's interesting mainly to show how fast acting technique evolved in the early '30s. But it does illustrate an unusual police interrogation technique. One cop is eating peanuts, cracking them and scattering the shells on the floor. "Will you STOP eating those things! Stop it, I tell you!" the suspect yells. "He'll stop eating them," another officer says grimly, "when you start talking."

I had better luck with Too Late for Tears (1949) (a.k.a. Killer Bait), directed by Byron Haskin and starring Lizabeth Scott, Dan Duryea and Arthur Kennedy. Scott plays Jane, an average housewife--average, that is, for about one-half of the first scene. Then someone tosses a satchel full of cash into the backseat of the convertible she's riding in with husband Alan (Kennedy). The second they open the case, Jane's sole aim in life becomes hanging onto that money.

Like most film noir femmes, Jane doesn't suddenly go to the bad. You find out fast that she always was bad, just putting on a good act with nebbishy, middle-class Alan, who knows why. Alan warns Jane that the money has an owner who'll be coming back to collect. Sure enough, here comes Dan Duryea, in full-dress bad guy mode, wanting his money. But Jane's sex appeal is a little too much for him. Instead of just beating her until she squawks, he gives her a chance ... and another, and another. Yep, he's hooked.

I liked the snappy plot in which nearly all of the characters have more going on than it seems, even fuddy-duddy Alan. I also liked the dazzlingly pretty Kristine Miller, who's interesting despite playing Alan's nice-girl sister. (Her career seems not to have amounted to much, which is a pity.) The performances are good right down to the minor characters, and the script has wit enough to compensate for gaps in logic.

Too Late for Tears doesn't have the intensity or complex themes of a top-notch noir like The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, which had made Scott a star three years earlier. And then there's the lackluster, cut-rate look of the thing, despite top-notch cinematographer William C. Mellor. Every room looks like a floor model from a furniture store, right up to the motel room where Duryea hangs his fedora. And the movie also shows why costumes matter. Even when she's supposedly spending the cash, poor Lizabeth has to vamp it up in some of the frumpiest, most ill-fitting ensembles imaginable. Outdated too; you'd never know this movie was filmed two years after Dior's New Look hit the scene. Whoever heard of a femme fatale with such lousy taste? Even trampy Phyllis Dietrichson had a better wardrobe.

A word about this Mystery DVD Pack. The print quality ranges from appalling to adequate. I spent much of the late 1980s watching movies at Theatre 80 St. Marks, where the prints were church-basement-movie-night quality. So I can overlook some glitches, the same way I don't mind the hiss and pops on an old sound recording. Too Late for Tears doesn't look awful in this version, but has a lot of splices that annoyed even me. (So far the worst was The Man on the Eiffel Tower, a DVD transfer from a print so bad I'm unsure whether to discuss it here, since in some sense I can't be said to have seen it. I probably will write it up anyway, as part of my Charles Laughton series.) Anyway, the per-movie price boils down to about 64 cents a movie, so you can decide if that's worth the so-so prints.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Walk This Way

Looker has a post that nicely evokes the crushing, poignant moment when you realize the movie you are watching wasn't worth the effort it took to get to the theater. At this point, the question becomes: To walk, or not to walk?

The Siren almost never walks, which may prove she's an optimist after all. Or it may prove she's an indolent little thing at heart. Maybe both. It definitely proves I'm stingy with film dollars and plan carefully before I go to the cineplex. I can recall only three movies I ever walked out on. All of them were in the days when I'd see four or five movies a week, and so could afford to view a few stinkers.

The Moon in the Gutter. The music swelled, and for the third time, Nastassia Kinski turned around with one tear rolling down her face. The Siren said to her companion, "I don't have time for this," and went out into the East Village night to grab a drink, a decision she's never regretted.

Once Upon a Time in America. The Siren knows there are many cinephiles who admire this one. Well, I did not like it, Sam I am. Here's the point where I walked: Robert DeNiro rapes the girl of his dreams, Elizabeth McGovern, in the back of his limo after a party. He gets out of the limo, the chaffeur drives McGovern home, he's alone on the beach, the violins sigh ... and I realized that Sergio Leone wanted me to feel sorry for this guy.

Rather than comply, I left.

(Years later some people tried to tell me that I had seen the first-release butchered version, and really I needed to see the uncut version. So instead of 140 minutes of linear structure, misogyny and straining for the The Godfather's profundity, I'd get 226 minutes of flashbacks, misogyny and straining for The Godfather's profundity. I think I was better off the first time.)

One of the Nightmare on Elm Street movies. My tenderhearted, well-mannered roommate had an unaccountable love for slasher movies and I went thinking it would be some kind of a campy diversion. I have blanked out whatever it was that made me leave, but I told him I was going home and I did. After that we stuck to attending the middle-to-highbrow stuff together and he took dates to the slasher movies.

That's it, near as I can remember. I don't think the time I stomped out of the living room while some relatives were watching Jackass counts. (God I hated that movie. It wasn't enough that I wasn't watching. The idea that anyone, anywhere, let alone in the same house, was watching it was well-nigh unbearable to me.) It's certainly much easier to turn off a DVD player than to walk out of a movie. There are a few I wish I had walked out on, including Broken Arrow and Baise-Moi.

So the Siren asks her patient audience: ever walked out on a film? what was it? Anything you should have walked out on, but didn't?

Yoko Uemura (left) and Isuza Yamada in Sisters of Gion. Posted by Picasa

Another week, another hard-to-find Japanese movie at the Cinematheque Ontario, Sisters of Gion from 1936. (My thanks to Alex for pointing this out on the schedule.) If the Siren has a favorite Japanese movie director, it is probably Kenji Mizoguchi. His movies are gorgeous, emotional and a useful counterexample for anyone who maintains men are incapable of understanding women. This film makes brilliant use of the narrow walkways and crazy-quilt construction of the Gion quarter of prewar Kyoto, evoking a beautiful but cramped and complicated world. Sisters tells the story of two geisha. The older sister (Yoko Umemura) clings to tradition and selflessly devotes herself to a bankrupt former patron. The younger (Isuza Yamada, in a flawless performance) views men as vile, declares that she owes them nothing and will use any means available to secure a comfortable life for herself. For much of the brief movie you enjoy watching this latter-day Becky Sharp connive on nothing a year. But Mizoguchi is a social critic, not a satirist like Thackeray. In the end, it becomes heartbreakingly clear why the younger geisha is named Omocha, which translates as "toy."

Saturday, August 20, 2005

In Memoriam: George Fasel

I am sad indeed to see that George Fasel of A Girl and a Gun, a favorite film blog and one of the first I ever linked to, died this week of cancer at age 67. It is strange how glowing an impression you can get of an individual, merely by observing his film taste. George's was exquisite. His writing was elegant and erudite, always done at a high level that demanded engagement from his readers. I am glad to see that his site will remain up, because I refer to it often. His correspondence, and his responses in his comments threads, showed a gracious and thoughtful man. My deepest sympathy to his family.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Charles Laughton as Earl Janoth. Ricky Gervais has nothing on this guy. Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Perfume at the Movies Goes Off-Screen

Having covered movies where perfume figures in the action, the Siren now turns to perfume in the audience. Today is Top 10 Scents of Summer Day for the Siren and some of her Magnificent Fellow Obsessives (links above). The big summertime movie-season is almost over, but I am grabbing my chance to talk about summer perfumes as they should be worn by the moviegoing public. I confine myself to perfumes for women, but I hope this isn't altogether without interest for a man. If it is, stroll around the archives. This won't take long.

Let's start with a general observation about which perfumes are suitable for wearing to a movie, and which are not. Above all, you want subtle application and low sillage. (Sillage, for those who don't speak perfumefreak, is the trail of scent left by a perfume.) And when I say low, I mean LOW. Does your date lean close to sneak another handful of Junior Mints, close his eyes and murmur, "Mmmm," then continue? Good job. That's low sillage. You aren't bothering anybody. On the other hand, did you just hear someone two rows back ask loudly, "What the hell are they putting on the popcorn these days? It smells like chocolate," then that is high sillage. Off to the restroom for a good scrub. Furthermore, if it's chocolate, you're wearing Thierry Mugler Angel, which should never, ever be worn in closed spaces, period. There are other perfumes like that (Coco Mademoiselle, I am talking to you), too strong to ever be suitable for any theater unless applied in amounts measurable only with nanotechnology. With one exception, discussed below, save those super-wafters for that charity ball you're attending next month.

The Siren's Top 10 Perfumes for Summer Movie-Viewing:

1. For an evening at an art house, watching the revival of The Conformist or a Mizoguchi film: Guerlain Apres L'Ondee, a refined blend of violet and anise.

2. For venturing out to the corner video store, to cut through the heat and humidity during the walk: Serge Lutens Fleurs de Citronnier, a clean and slightly soapy floral.

3. & 4. For snuggling under the air conditioning with your man of the moment, watching a Sergio Leone flick solely to make him happy: The soft jasmine seductiveness of Chantecaille Frangipane, or the smoky-sweet warmth of Serge Lutens Daim Blond. With any luck you'll distract him and won't have to sit through all three hours.

5. & 6. For an evening watching The Aristocrats: Annick Goutal Petite Cherie or L'Artisan Parfumeurs La Chasse aux Papillons. At least something in the theater will be sweet and innocent.

7. & 8. For an outdoor screening of a classic--say, a film noir like Double Indemnity: Yves St. Laurent In Love Again or Annick Goutal Les Nuits d'Hadrien. Citrus and patchouli don't attract flying insects, and both these slightly tangy, sexy scents work well on a summer evening.

9. For that big, sold-out summer blockbuster: Robert Piguet Bandit. I know, I know, I said subtle, but here is the exception. If you are seated next to one of those awful people who talk to the screen, a big whacking dose of Bandit might get rid of him. Marlene Dietrich wore this. Bandit doesn't mess around.

10. Any movie, any time, any place: Caron Tubéreuse. It's that perfect.

Friday, August 12, 2005

This week, the Siren also watched James Cagney in Great Guy, a low-budget crime drama produced by Grand National in 1936, when Cagney was on suspension from Warner Brothers. He plays an inspector for the Bureau of Weights and Measures. See how innovative movies used to be? You don't catch screenwriters nowadays tapping the dramatic value inherent in, say, the Federal Reserve Board of Governors. Our man unmasks a crime syndicate that seeks to cheat families by shorting them on things like bags of strawberries. Cagney gets a scene where he compares the amount lost to scams with the national debt. Sounds silly until you consider the Depression, or even Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickle and Dimed. The highlight in Great Guy comes early, when Cagney busts up a grocer's after he discovers lead weights in the chicken. This movie is no classic, but you could do worse than watching Cagney toss a plucked chicken around the store. Mae Clarke, of everlasting grapefruit fame, plays the love interest. What you really notice in an admitted antique like Great Guy is the dialogue. Here's a B picture from a Poverty Row studio, and you still get great lines like this one, from Cagney: ""My best friend gets hit by a streetcar, there's Civil War in Spain, we have an earthquake in Japan--and now you wear that hat!"  Posted by Picasa

Thursday, August 11, 2005


In a previous post, The Siren's Compleat Anatomy of Cinematic Badness, I cited Showgirls as Exhibit A for category number 5, "Howling Dogs for the Ages." That is incorrect. Exhibit A in this category is Red Dawn (1984). The Siren regrets the error. She thanks Spike TV for bringing this to her attention with a screening of Red Dawn last night, and for showing the movie the way it should be shown, with a little "SPIKE" logo in the bottom right-hand corner and lots of commercials for Ultimate Fighting. Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Chieko Higashiyama and Setsuko Hara, in one of the Ozu film's most poignant scenes.

The Siren begins to track her movie viewing with short posts, and leads with a heavyweight champ in the awestriking Tokyo Story. I saw this last week at the Cinematheque Ontario, a nice space that has defrosted my Bad Toronto Attitude quite a bit. There was a long wait to get into the theater and so I overheard the following conversation, varying only slightly, three different times from three different couples:

"The paper said it's better than Citizen Kane."
"But I didn't like Citizen Kane."

There is some sort of Kane-hating epidemic happening in this town, and the Siren intends to write the Toronto City Council and advise them to nip that in the bud, but quick. I am confining myself to the briefest of remarks, for fear of killing Tokyo Story with kindness as some apparently have managed to kill the Welles film. For the record, the two movies have little in common except greatness. The Ozu film has the stately pace of a long novel, giving you the same inside-out understanding of its characters that you get from a great book. Its power lies in the slow accretion of detail, until something as simple as a child picking flowers or an old couple taking a bus tour has more impact than many a battle scene. The closing images will haunt the Siren for a long time. Posted by Picasa

No Room at the Inn

The Siren suspects a lot of people buy this DVD thinking "Great! a Hitchcock I've never seen!" But Jamaica Inn (1939) is far more Laughton's movie, featuring a performance that makes the other characters shrink toward the edge of the frame whenever he's around. Like diners who know the waiter sees them, but despair of luring him back to their table, actors make vague gestures in Laughton's direction but don't seem to have any real hope of engaging him. Since the cliche about acting being reacting is quite true, I can't label this a great Laughton performance. I do recommend the movie, though, because flawed as it and Laughton are, Jamaica Inn has its good points.

I have read the Daphne DuMaurier novel the film is taken from, and like most adaptations of the period the book has been hacked to pieces. Novel and movie concern a band of wreckers on the Cornwall coast. The gang lures ships with false guiding lights, and when the ships founder, they loot the cargo and kill all survivors. The movie opens with just such a scene, and it offers one of the few moments of real fright in the film. (I especially like playwright/actor Emlyn Williams as the most heartless wrecker in this bad lot.) Maureen O'Hara says the opening and a later shipwreck scene were the only parts Alfred Hitchcock seemed to enjoy shooting. Otherwise, he was phoning it in, waiting to finish the thing and go to America to make his fortune (this was his last movie in Britain).

O'Hara plays Mary Yellan, whose parents have died and who is being sent to live with her aunt. The aunt is married to the sinister proprietor of the inn. When we first see Mary, she is in a coach headed for the inn, and this is where the film itself starts to lurch. The coachman, terrified at the mere mention of Jamaica Inn, whips his horses so they race past, tossing Mary around the carriage and delivering her several miles beyond her destination. Fatally, this is played for slapstick laughs, and the mood built up so nicely in the earlier scene shrivels and dies. From here on, very little of DuMaurier's atmosphere and sense of danger is retained.

Mary fetches up instead at Sir Humphrey Pengallan's place. This squire (we learn rapidly) actually leads the wreckers, running this criminal enterprise to maintain his life of luxury. In the novel, the leader is an albino vicar, which reads a lot scarier than it sounds. But it was 1939, there was censorship in Britain as well as the U.S., and an evil mass-murdering clergyman would never make it past the Pecksniffs. So Laughton, who O'Hara says was all for playing an albino vicar, was stuck playing a sinister squire. And play it he did, for all it was worth, apparently working even the redoubtable Hitchcock into a state of "Fine, Charles, do it your way."

Laughton's way creates a monster of the English gentry, convinced that his privilege is divine will, and that his appreciation of the finest objects and food justifies anything he may do to keep up a steady supply. One of the best things about Jamaica Inn is watching Sir Humphrey enjoy his private jokes at others' expense. They're nothing to him, just ants; the squire is another Harry Lime, moved back some generations and up a few rungs on the social ladder. Like Welles, Laughton had a face perfect for conveying sensuous depravity, with that overlarge lower lip doing half the work for him. When Maureen O'Hara walks in, you believe he wants her, but not in bed. O'Hara's beauty makes her another object to be acquired and handled, protected from the peons who won't appreciate her properly.

One reason Laughton overwhelms Jamaica Inn is that the actors he shares the screen with, including Robert Newton as the good guy, can't hold their own. Maybe they didn't have the chops, maybe Laughton's vision of his character never gave them the chance. Despite the fun to be had in watching Laughton, you wish his director had taken enough interest to rein him in a little and build the sense of menace. The suspense doesn't build again until a second shipwreck scene, far later in the movie, and by then it's too late. And Sir Humphrey's last, desperate maneuvers are fantastically over-the-top.

Definitely one for the Laughton fans. Look for his best work in something like Hobson's Choice or Witness for the Prosecution. Think of Jamaica Inn as what might have happened if Captain Bligh had directed Mutiny on the Bounty.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Resquiescat in Pacem, Once Again

Some sort of publicity shot for How to Marry a Millionaire, the Siren's personal favorite among Marilyn Monroe's performances.

Annie over at Blogdorf Goodman has drawn my attention to the latest story about Monroe's death. An 86-year-old gentleman has come forward, forty years after her death, to proffer a transcript of a tape he says Monroe made for her psychiatrist. Alas, this gentleman is the only living person who heard it, and the tapes were destroyed. But aren't we the lucky ducks, because in that transcript Monroe just happens to discuss every rumor about her. Yep, addressed every one of them, right on down to the old queries about whether Joan Crawford made a pass at her. And while she was at it, she told the shrink her views on Freud and James Joyce, because shrinks love that sort of stuff.

The Siren wonders when, precisely, the journalistic response to "Because I said so" became "Really? Okay, let's run the story then!" She suspects--suspects, mind you--that it might have been around the same time Paula Jones poked her proboscis into the nightly news. Call the Siren a fussy old cynic, but this alleged transcript reads like Harold Robbins circa The Carpetbaggers..

Since nobody else, from the UK Daily Telegraph to the Los Angeles Times, has bothered to look at whether the style of expression seems to match Marilyn's, the Siren would like to point out something for her small audience. One thing we do know about the actress is that she had a lively sense of humor. Her best work was in comedies, and the record (the substantiated record, that is) is full of her snappy, even witty remarks. There's no real humor in this thing at all. When the subject is sexual, the "transcript" is deadly earnest in its prurience. At other times it's just stuffy. It is good to know that Monroe took pains to remind people that the line about "hell hath no fury" is Congreve, not Shakespeare.

And, of course, it's perfectly logical that if Monroe were making a tape for the purposes of getting her mind straightened out, she'd want to tell the doctor about how great Clark Gable was in Gone with the Wind and not dwell on trivia like her miscarriage after Some Like It Hot.

Question for the Los Angeles Times, which broke this news: Did no one think to call a reputable Monroe biographer like Barbara Leaming or Donald Spoto, and ask whether the transcript passes the smell test? Spoto's biography neatly debunked the "Kennedys killed Marilyn" tripe by tracing that rumor to its source, Norman Mailer. Mailer has confessed that he hadn't a single concrete reason to float that idea, other than the knowledge that it would sell books and help him make his alimony payments.

More even than her supposed paramour John F. Kennedy, Monroe and her tragic end attract the credulous. See them lined up to buy this latest bit of gold-plated rubbish. The Siren finds it all about as appetizing as watching people dig through Monroe's lingerie drawers.

Marilyn Monroe made some excellent movies, all of which are available on DVD. An evening spent with even the least of these would be far more constructive than exhuming her corpse for one last peepshow.

[Note: This post has been edited with additional material to accomodate the Siren's growing indignation.] Posted by Picasa

Friday, August 05, 2005

"As an actor, Laughton painted a physical portrait," says Maureen O'Hara. The Siren recently acquired and watched a number of movies on DVD that star Charles Laughton, one of the select number of actors she will watch in anything. Absolutely anything, as you shall see. Next post: Jamaica Inn. Posted by Picasa

'Tis Exhausting

Maureen O'Hara was not a great actress, but the Siren seldom realizes it when caught by her charm. She had marvelous presence and arresting beauty, and in many of her films that was all it took.

Despite her wondrous looks she has never been a pin-up icon, perhaps because her greatest pictures, with only one or two exceptions, were costumers. She lives in the Caribbean, and last year she published her memoirs. She has much to say about co-stars and directors. Briefly: They were out to get her, but she wouldn't let them.

The Siren has read a lot of Hollywood memoirs, but none weirder than this one. Usually when you read a star's autobiography, it all sounds pretty plausible until you fact-check. Even someone like Errol Flynn presents difficulties only when you must figure out which picture he was filming by seeing who he was getting drunk with that year.

With O'Hara, you wonder about your narrator's reliability by page 4, when she recounts a grievance against two teachers who must have been dead since De Valera was Taoiseach. OK, the Siren thought, I can still remember plenty of schoolroom slights. But that sets the tone. O'Hara was beset, plotted against, undermined, and eventually she emerged triumphant, having either forgiven her tormentor or exposed his perfidy or, on a good day, both. It's exhausting, and it's why it has taken me so long to write this one post.

Always the classic man's woman, O'Hara had a "boys will be boys" attitude that can be endearing at times, infuriating at others. Tyrone Power tricked her into telling dirty jokes to director Henry King during the making of The Black Swan, but Ty was a good guy. Errol Flynn amused himself one night by whispering disgusting innuendos to her at a formal function, but during Against All Flags, she "respected him professionally and was quite fond of him personally." In that scene in The Quiet Man where she is half-marched, half-dragged home, John Wayne and John Ford arranged to cover the hill in sheep dung. She had the warmest feelings for Wayne until the day he died.

If you're a John Ford hater (I know you're out there, probably socializing with the Mozart haters), buy this book. She depicts him as a lying, posing, bullying creep, and that's before the director punches her in the face at a dinner party. O'Hara also thinks Ford was in the closet; at point she catches him kissing a big-time (and unnamed) Hollywood actor. Ford, who spoke almost no Gaelic, would murmur gibberish into O'Hara's ear at public events to pretend they were both conversing in the language of the old country. Did I mention his alcoholism?

The picture of Ford is so monstrous that several reviewers have wondered about its accuracy. I've read enough about him to think much of what she says is true. His humiliation of Wayne, for example, has been well documented. Though she doesn't say so outright, it's easy to surmise that O'Hara's friendship with Wayne had roots in their both surviving Ford's displeasure on set, which she refers to as being "in the barrel."

Long after the reader has decided actors must have worked with Ford to convince themselves Otto Preminger was actually a pussycat, our Maureen insists she considered Ford a good friend. Odd, but consistent with her lifelong habit of excusing male nastiness. She is less believable when she says Ford destroyed the acting career of her brother Jimmy after the young man failed to show up for a meeting, or when she accuses Ford of single-handedly scuttling her chances for an Oscar nomination for The Quiet Man.

O'Hara had a long break with the director after a dismal experience shooting The Long Gray Line and after Ford directed some racial insults at the Mexican man she was dating at the time. But she still went to see the director in his last illness, and the book shows her straining to reconcile the rather loathsome man with his talent. She goes into great detail about the filming of The Quiet Man , and publishes some love letters she received from Ford while he was writing the script for that classic. O'Hara says he never spoke to her about the letters nor acted on his love for her, if love it was. She thinks he loved her character of Mary Kate Danaher, whatever sexuality he may have been repressing.

Throughout the book O'Hara refers to herself as a strong woman, feisty and wilful, one to brook nonsense from no man. The self-portrait goes nicely with her screen image but, as they say in first-year screenwriting class, what you tell and what you show are two different things.

Tis Herself shows us the first marriage, which O'Hara claims happened because, naive and fearful of giving offense, she didn't have the heart to tell the man to buzz off. Well, O'Hara was very young. But then she marries Will Price.

Price is a type anyone who's ever leafed through an actress bio could recognize at fifty paces in the dimmest-lit bar in Los Angeles. Good-looking in a vacuous sort of way. Knows a bunch of celebrities. Hard-drinking. In desultory pursuit of a career. Wants his famous wife to help him out. Needs all kinds of material goods to keep up their golden image. By the time Price showed up with a "financial consultant" and convinced O'Hara to give the goon complete control of her money, the Siren was ready to throw the book down, but didn't. Not even after the night when O'Hara, days from delivering her daughter Bronwyn, got punched in the stomach by her alcohol-fueled mate.

No, the Siren hurled the book when O'Hara stayed with Price, who later tried (so she says) to con her into having an unnecessary and highly dangerous operation. Attempted murder, in other words. And even when she finally divorced the slob--are you ready for this?--she kept the "financial consultant." And was really surprised when years afterward it turned out that all her money was gone.

Strong, feisty woman? You tell me. Those qualities show up more when she's settling accounts with enemies, which she does with a relish that may explain her support for Richard Nixon. Out comes the old story about Rex Harrison's role in Carole Landis's death. (The gossip is that it was a suicide pact that only Landis bothered to go through with.) Walt Disney gets thumped not for his anti-Semitism or other celebrated flaws, but for billing her second to Hayley Mills in The Parent Trap. Jimmy Stewart was a good actor, but not a generous one, and he saw to it that one of her best scenes was written out of The Rare Breed. Later on, O'Hara had a happy marriage to pilot Charlie Blair that ended with his death in a plane crash. The NTSA ruled it was pilot error. Would it surprise you to learn that she thinks it was a conspiracy linked to hubby's CIA activity?

Ordinarily it gladdens me to see frank talk about gay life in Hollywood, as this is the post-Stonewall era, and if your favorite star was or is gay you need to drag yourself into the 21st century and freaking well get over it. Tis Herself has an unpleasant pattern, though: The people who treated O'Hara badly were gay. That means John Ford, second husband Will Price, and Peter Lawford and Richard Boone. O'Hara says she rescued those last two from some bad publicity Down Under when they were caught in a brothel full of beautiful boys.

But Tyrone Power? He spoke to her often about the kids he wanted to have. Roddy McDowall? No mention of his love life. Charles Laughton? He wanted kids too. When Elsa Lanchester wrote they didn't have any because Laughton was gay, O'Hara says that was "rubbish...whether or not Laughton was homosexual." Lanchester couldn't get pregnant due to a botched abortion.

O'Hara has nothing but praise for Laughton, who started her career by casting her in Jamaica Inn. She describes Laughton, in full Quasimodo costume, reciting the Gettysburg Address on the set of Hunchback of Notre Dame the day Germany invaded Poland. I'm not saying I don't believe her, but wasn't that scene in Ruggles of Red Gap? Still, O'Hara's loyalty to Laughton, and clear-eyed observations about his talent, make you love her as you did in her movies. There isn't enough of that in this book.

When you're done with a star's memoirs, no matter what warts were revealed, you can always go back to the pictures. The Siren wants to go back to a shot of O'Hara in Hunchback. As she is carried off by celebrating Parisians, she turns to look up at Quasimodo for the last time. In that instant, she will always be beautiful, always be kindhearted, always be sympathetic.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

The Siren is working on her "Maureen O'Hara's memoirs" post, but somehow she keeps getting sidetracked.  Posted by Picasa

Baghdad and Boobs

No, this isn't a political post. It is a digression on a Hollywood genre. One IMDB reviewer calls these movies "Grecianized Near-Easterns," others call them sand-and-sandals. The Siren calls them Baghdad-and-boobs.

I have a big soft spot for these cinematic baubles, and Maureen O'Hara is one reason. A fair-skinned redhead myself, flicks like Sinbad the Sailor (1947) assured me that if I pursued an acting career I need not fear typecasting. I envisioned myself at casting calls for a "Scheherazade type." I could even bring my own chiffon, to audition with that cute little see-through square that passed for the veil in these movies.

O'Hara's autobiography dispenses with Sinbad in one line, and the Siren thinks this unfair. It's a most enjoyable movie, with a delicious framing device. There is a lighthearted, almost spoof-like aspect to it that works well. Douglas Fairbanks Jr. has the requisite dash, but unlike his dad he had a certain fey quality that hindered him as an action hero. Sinbad turns this into an advantage by emphasizing the title character's braggadocio. Is he a real hero, or a loudmouth con artist? You find out at the end, after plenty of sparring with O'Hara's trademark feisty princess.

As a girl I also enjoyed Son of Ali Baba with Tony Curtis and Piper Laurie. My memory has faded, but even watching that one on the Turner Superstation in the 1970s I think I realized Curtis was a lot more Brooklyn than Baghdad. They changed the ending of the old story, possibly because someone realized that in 1952, seven years after World War II, mass murder of forty thieves might not play in Peoria.

Piper Laurie even made another Baghdad-and-boobs flick in 1953, The Golden Blade, with Rock Hudson (stop giggling. No, I haven't seen it). Something about redheads seems to have made studio execs think, "Now where did I put that heavily edited edition of the Arabian Nights?" Rita Hayworth got the girdle-and-veil treatment, with a Biblical twist, in Salome. And while it isn't part of the genre, I still crack up when I see Shirley MacLaine as an Indian princess in Around the World in 80 Days. If you look closely you can see her freckles in a couple of close-ups. Wonder why they never got around to Moira Shearer?

Hollywood churned these things out by the urnful in the 1940s (often with poor, doomed Maria Montez) and into the 1950s, with occasional forays even after that, such as The Golden Voyage of Sinbad in 1974.

The only Baghdad-and-boobs saga that the Siren (and possibly anyone else) can consider a masterpiece is the 1940 Thief of Baghdad. Among its advantages were the brilliant Michael Powell, an uncredited William Cameron Menzies (six directors worked on the movie, all told), and dialogue by Miles Malleson that actually managed to evoke some cadences of a Khayyam translation without sounding ridiculous. It had the exacting Alexander Korda who, legend has it, looked at the Baghdad set and ordered, "Tear it down, build it three feet higher, and paint it pink." Finally, it gave us Sabu, a gifted and charismatic child actor who had the rare ability to react without mugging.

In case you're wondering, yes, the Siren does realize these films resemble true Arabic culture about as much as Mamie Van Doren resembles Marie Curie. But she cut her cinephile teeth on Busby Berkley musicals and figures realism is overrated anyway. These are fairy tales. If they teem with appalling Middle Eastern stereotypes (and boy do they), at least the heros are allegedly Arab or Persian too, albeit played by toothy Westerners. Talents like Turhan Bey and Sabu usually had to content themselves with supporting roles. Whereas today, of course, they'd be getting ... supporting roles.

Sabu's career was sadly limited by the typecasting of his time. When the Siren looks at something like The Mummy, however, she has to question whether he would have fared much better today. Perhaps he'd have found a place with independent filmmakers, but there wouldn't be much for him in the standard big-budget offering. The old days gave us patronizing Orientalism, but in the Siren's view, mainstream Hollywood manages to grow worse with age.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Which Man Has the Gun?

One pleasure the Siren has discovered since starting her blog is A Girl and a Gun. George writes about movies as art--the ones that achieve that distinction, the ones that miss it, the ones that never even try. He knows how to start a good discussion, too, and recently provoked one with a post about his ten favorite Westerns. Rather than clog up his comments section, I decided to make my own post. And all right, I admit it, I am happy for an excuse to write about Westerns.

First, the Siren does not believe that the deepest theme of a true Western is the end of the frontier, despite George's eloquent arguments for that view. On the most basic level Westerns are, always and without exception, about manhood. They ask, Who's the man here?* Is it me? How do I make it me? If John Wayne is in the movie, he's the man, but can I still be the other man? If the movie is The Wild Bunch or McCabe and Mrs. Miller, is there any reason why anyone anywhere should even want to be a man?

Since the Siren has never worried about whether or not she's the man, she can afford to be flip. Her womanly insecurities are needled by something like Vertigo (must a woman change utterly to win a man's love?) or Mr. Skeffington (is concern with my appearance sucking out my soul?). But she never tires of watching men work out their own dark nights of the cinematic soul. And a good Western brings many other matters into the complicated business of male worthiness.

Ten favorite Westerns, in no order at all:

1. Stagecoach. One of the few Westerns to tackle class issues.

2. My Darling Clementine. A perfect illustration of the "end of the frontier" idea (but it's still really about manhood).

3. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. History as a bunch of stories told by people who weren't there, a theme Faulkner knew well. Do we ever revere the right men for the right reasons?

4. Unforgiven. See above.

5. Red River.

6. The Ox-Bow Incident. Superb direction from William Wellman, a well-written script and brilliant performances. The Siren has never considered a heartfelt liberal message to be an automatic demerit for a film.

7. The Searchers.

8. McCabe and Mrs. Miller. Of all the Westerns ever made, this is the one to make a viewer say, "My God. It probably did look exactly like that."

9. The Gunfighter. The Siren would pick this, and not To Kill a Mockingbird, as the late Gregory Peck's best performance.

10. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Sheer entertainment. Heir to raucous man-fests like The Sons of Katie Elder, Rio Bravo and True Grit.

*Since we're on the topic (sort of) do check out this fascinating post, from the harrylimetheme blog out of Singapore, about the origin of the phrase "Who's your Daddy?".