Monday, June 25, 2007

The Siren's Alterna-List

First off, let us all admit it: Lists are fun. People like lists, and even more than lists, people like second-guessing lists. But the more the Siren thought about the American Film Institute's 100 Greatest American Films, the more she thought, isn't this a bit wrong-headed? Movie lovers, no matter what their spiritual leanings, are evangelical about the movies they love. Here the AFI had a golden opportunity to promote something a little different, and instead there they are, telling us all to watch Vertigo again.

The whole list isn't like that, of course, and if even a few people put Sunrise on the Netflix queue then the AFI exercise was not in vain. Still, there was an element of inevitability about the selections that was irksome. So the Siren spent a couple of hours this weekend amassing some alternatives. Her one requirement was that the film must not only have missed the AFI Final 100, it also must be missing from the ballot of 400 eligible films. (The one exception to the ballot rule is The Crowd, which I couldn't bear to leave off. Note: AND The Magnificent Ambersons. That was on the ballot too, but on it stays. Thanks, Michael.)

This list is not, most definitely not, a gathering of the All-Time Greats, though there are certainly some that could qualify. I'm just saying that if you have a big soapbox, you could shout about a few orphans. Besides Sunrise.

So, organized by category, here are 100 American films the Siren would love to see get some love from the AFI. She admits right off the bat that this group tilts heavily to pre-1960 because come on, so does the Siren.

Should Have Made the Final List, Never Mind the Ballot:
The Crowd
Letter from an Unknown Woman
The Magnificent Ambersons
Nightmare Alley
Crimes and Misdemeanors
The Asphalt Jungle
Scarlet Street
The Shop Around the Corner

Famous, But Where Is the Love?:
The 25th Hour
Some Came Running
Dressed to Kill
A Letter to Three Wives
Point Blank
Being There
The Bad and the Beautiful
The Lady from Shanghai
They Shoot Horses, Don't They?
Dinner at Eight
The Roaring 20s
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon
Casualties of War
The Last Detail
North Dallas Forty
Shock Corridor
Captain Blood
Advise and Consent

The Molly Haskell Honorary "Where the Hell Are the Women's Pictures?" Corner:
Shanghai Express
The Enchanted Cottage
One-Way Passage
Portrait of Jennie
Stage Door
Back Street (1941)
Love Affair
Random Harvest
Dance, Girl, Dance
The Old Maid
The Letter
Imitation of Life (Sirk)

People like Noir, and They Would Like These, Too:
Pickup on South Street
The Woman in the Window
The Big Clock
Brute Force
Crime Wave
His Kind of Woman
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers
Angel Face
Dark Passage
In a Lonely Place
The Hitch-Hiker (Lupino)
Edge of the City

Darn Sight Wittier Than Forrest Gump:
Ball of Fire
Easy Living
Libeled Lady
One, Two, Three
Design for Living
Unfaithfully Yours

Replace Rocky With:
Body and Soul

The Kevin Brownlow "Silence, Please" Corner:
Street Angel
Seventh Heaven
The Unknown
Way Down East
Show People
He Who Gets Slapped

Do-Re-Mi Has Been Done-Done-Done:
The Pirate
Yolanda and the Thief
The Gay Divorcee
Les Girls
On the Town
Footlight Parade
It's Always Fair Weather

We've Already Seen Saving Private Ryan:
Beach Red
The Big Red One
They Were Expendable

And We Saw High Noon Too:
Forty Guns
Johnny Guitar
Ride the High Country
The Gunfighter
Bad Day at Black Rock
The Last Hunt

The Sixth Sense? Are You Kidding Me?:
The Black Cat
I Walked With a Zombie
The Picture of Dorian Gray

In Order to Admire These Movies, the General Public Needs to Know They Exist:
Cotton Comes to Harlem
The Strawberry Blonde
History Is Made at Night
The Southerner
Medium Cool
Three Comrades
Hold Back the Dawn

Note: The Siren was, as she usually is, a bit sleep-deprived when she made this list, so if she accidentally included something (besides The Crowd) that was on the AFI ballot, do let her know. She's got plenty more where this came from.

Edward Copeland has his own top 100 list up, and it's a honey. The Siren loves his number 1.

My first forehead-smacking moment, of which there will be many, I am sure: Ivan G's wonderfully iconoclastic list reminds me of the existence of the splendid Seconds, a peerless futuristic chiller and the definitive riposte to those who say Rock Hudson never gave a good performance. That one is the perfect example of the sort of film I wish the AFI would promote.

Friday, June 22, 2007

The Siren's Top 9 Objections to the AFI Top 100

Because she likes the number 9 better than the number 10. In reverse order, the Siren's problems with who made it, Ma, and who didn't:

9. This morning, my daughter was playing with a set of wooden blocks. There are 30 blocks in the set. Her twin brother reached out and tentatively grabbed one block. This left her with 29. His sister let out a howl that could probably be heard in Newark: "No, MY BLOCKS! MINE!" And I had the same conversation as always. There are a lot of blocks here. Your brother can have his one block.

What reminded the Siren of this scenario was the presence, once again, of Lawrence of Arabia and The Bridge on the River Kwai on this list. These films weren't merely created by a British director, like Vertigo. They are culturally and thematically British, about British history and British empire. Who cares about which country put up the money? Kwai had one American star and two American screenwriters, it is true, but one writer was in France and the other in London because we had, you know, made them leave in order to get work.

We have a massive film industry. We have our own blocks and furthermore, unlike this morning's combatants, we are not four years old. We don't have to take away movies from the British. (The Siren assumes that the howls over the prior inclusion of The Third Man as "American" must have made a dent, since its omission can't be explained otherwise.) And while we are on the subject, A Clockwork Orange, despite Kubrick, doesn't make much sense as an American movie either.

8. No Fritz Lang. Come on--no Scarlet Street? no Woman in the Window? Well, the second one has been hard to see for some time. The Siren hasn't seen it since the 1980s, but its DVD-less state is about to be rectified.

7. Sophie's Choice really isn't a good movie. It is a pretty bad movie with one great performance and an unforgettable climax. The other movies on the list that the Siren considers unworthy can be justified in terms of cultural impact or later influence--even (the Siren swallows hard) something like The Sixth Sense. But Sophie's Choice was recognized as a deeply flawed movie even at the time, and if it had lasting influence on anything other than subject matter and Meryl Streep's (well-earned) career the Siren has missed it.

6. The Siren loves James Cagney. Worships him, in fact. And she loves Yankee Doodle Dandy. But if you are going to do only one Cagney, the one to do is White Heat.

5. Similar beef with Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. Swing Time is great, but everyone knows Top Hat is the one to beat.

4. You out there, yes you, the one whining about Citizen Kane. Cut it out. No, it is not a "boring movie." No, it did not achieve its status strictly because of "technical stuff." It is one of the most thematically complex movies ever made in this country, an astoundingly rich statement on American success and American failure, as relevant today as it was in 1941. The Siren finds Paradise Lost boring. Nevertheless she does not waste people's time by trying to argue that this means Milton is overrated.

3. If, however, you wish to argue that The Magnificent Ambersons has as much of a right to be here as Kane, the Siren will listen.

2. Famous exchange at Ernst Lubitsch's funeral:

Billy Wilder: No more Ernst Lubitsch.
William Wyler: Worse than that. No more Lubitsch pictures.

While this thought depressed the hell out of Wilder and Wyler, a lack of Lubitsch does not unduly ruffle the mandarins of the AFI. That is ten different kinds of wrong.

1. As Ebert points out, this list is more a marketing tool than anything else, designed to shift DVDs. Given the amount of attention the list generates, and the fact that it is compiled by "filmmakers, critics and historians," does it have to be so SAFE? So many Oscar winners. So many epics and adventure stories, so few women's pictures, so little grit. Everything already widely seen and widely available. Live a little, guys. Is a bit of a surprise too much to ask?

Postscript: Mucho morning-after discussion on this, of course. Edward Copeland tracks the ins and outs on the list, and M.A. Peel at Newcritics looks in depth at the Top 10. Here is Chuck Tryon, giving his thoughts on the value of lists in general, and speculating about the "why" behind some of the MIA. Jim Emerson gives his thoughts, and links to his own list at the bottom of the post. Lots of love to the Reeler for the best two-word summary of the AFI list, and his constructive suggestions for alternatives. A list of "100 Forgotten Films"--now that is something the Siren could applaud.

Still more--Daniel at Check the Fien Print has no tolerance for the D.W. Griffith entry, and a lot of skepticism over how it was chosen.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The Forbidden Street (1949)

Enough bloodshed. The Siren caught a movie called The Forbidden Street (1949) a few weeks ago on the Fox Movie Channel. Here they occasionally show movies that the Fox studio, for whatever inscrutable boneheaded business-suited reason, has not deigned to release on DVD. (You can read Dave Kehr elaborating on this here and here on his blog.) The original title was Britannia Mews, and it was directed by Jean Negulesco.

I love Negulesco. Some people have guilty-pleasure movies; the Romanian is my guilty-pleasure director. He helmed some genuinely good movies, like Three Came Home and the 1953 Titanic. But since I spent some time mocking Eli Roth, I should step up and admit that my beloved Three Coins in the Fountain and The Bestof Everything do not exactly measure up to Jean-Pierre Melville, either. (Thanks, Noel, for reassuring me that I am not the only person crazy enough to find good stuff in The Best of Everything. And here is a nice take on Negulesco's Woman's World, which the Siren has not seen yet.)

Anyway, like most interesting movies on the Fox channel, Forbidden Street is shown at hours the Siren usually slept through in her pre-mothering days. It opens by showing us Adelaide, a girl from a high-toned family who becomes fascinated with the teeming life of a slum street, Britannia Mews, that lies behind her house. The girl soon grows into Maureen O'Hara, and she remains enthralled with the street. Adelaide falls in love with an alcoholic and penniless artist, Gilbert Lauderdale (Dana Andrews). She marries him against her family's wishes, and together they move into a house in the Mews.

Several things make this movie worthwhile, particularly Andrews, who winds up playing a double role, first as Adelaide's downfall and then her salvation. O'Hara does well with a character who goes through several mutations, some of them rather abrupt, and Dame Sybil Thorndike is a treat as a hideous slum dweller the Mews residents refer to as the Sow. The plot has surprises, as threads are not drawn out the way you would expect. Instead the conflicts come one after the other, the one constant being the street and how it evolves. It is really the story of the Mews, and not Maureen.

But what had the Siren hooked was the beauty of the movie. From the beginning, when the camera looks over Adelaide's shoulder, through a window and down onto the Mews, I couldn't get over how gorgeous the darned thing was. The street is poor, but the camerawork is rich, full of velvety blacks and the glow of the Victorian lamps. I missed the credits so I spent a long while marveling at the way the photography preserved a childlike perspective, from the way we see the marionettes carefully fashioned by Gilbert, to the way Maureen is pictured in her lodgings, a doll in a house she must grow into. A mews has its lodgings on the second floor, as the first one is given over to horse stalls and a carriage house. The characters frequently play scenes in front of the windows in O'Hara's rooms. The camera shows you the other shabby buildings across the narrow street, but the life of the Mews is usually heard and not seen. Adelaide remains suspended above it even as she is trying to join it. Who did this? Was I about to write a scintillating blog post on the wonders of a previously unknown DP?

Eventually the Siren's morning coffee kicked in and she remembered she had IMDB. The site informed her that the cinematographer was Georges Périnal. Yes, Blood of a Poet, The Thief of Baghdad, À Nous la Liberté, The Life and Death ofColonel Blimp, The Four Feathers, that Georges Périnal. The Siren felt as though she had been reading a short story and thinking, hey, this is brilliant, I can't wait to tell people about this unsung genius that I, Campaspe, have discovered, and then she turns to the index and realizes it's Tolstoy.

Due credit also to the art director, Andrej Andrejew, and screenwriter Ring Lardner Jr., who did the screenplay based on Margery Sharp's novel. Like a cinephile version of Justice Potter Stewart, at least the Siren knows it when she sees it.

P.S. In her autobiography, Maureen O'Hara dismisses this one, saying the only reasons to catch it are Andrews and Thorndike. Well, she disses Sinbad the Sailor, too, and the Siren thinks it's swell. O'Hara also says the British and American versions are cut so differently they almost amount to different movies.

(Above, Dana Andrews, handsome and successful as he was in the 1940s. His career later skidded due to a crushing alcohol problem. Unlike a lot of other actors, he eventually overcame his drinking. He was admirably candid about his recovery in an era when admitting to addiction was still stigmatizing.)

Monday, June 11, 2007

Hostel Part II: "You Think I'm Hostile Now ..."

Many critics have a terror of going down in history like Bosley Crowther, as the relic who looked at a seminal moment in movie history (in Crowther's case, Bonnie and Clyde) and reached for the smelling salts. The Siren has no such anxiety. She wears her fuddy-duddiness with pride. Describe her taste as 1950s and she will be flattered. Call her Depression-era and she will buy you a drink.

The film of the moment is, god help us, Hostel Part II, and some excellent critics either love it or expect to. Michael Guillen and D.K. Holme loved it. Kim Morgan, Cinebeats and The Bleeding Tree are eager to see it. Dennis Cozzalio has posted a thoughtful consideration of the movie and what it means for the horror genre.

Still, the Siren examines her end of the bar for the other relics and finds some good company. Here is Filmbrain, a blogger the Siren unreservedly adores, and a man no one can accuse of having a low bloodshed threshold. James Wolcott looked at the "Quentin Tarantino Presents" imprimatur on the Hostel Part II posters and summed up the erstwhile wonder boy as "a pimp for geek sadism." Jeffrey Wells and David Poland could definitely use a double martini after sitting through the movie. The Siren believes she owes S.T. VanAirsdale a drink now, should she bump into him. And Damian Arlyn posted a most eloquent defense of his refusal to see Eli Roth's minimum opus. I didn't think I could add much to Damian's piece. Do read it, he does a splendid job. But for some reason--maybe it's those repulsive print ads I keep stumbling across, maybe it's this impromptu blogathon we seem to have going--I have to say my piece anyway.

The Siren won't be seeing Hostel or its sequel, or Saw and its spawn, or The Hills Have Eyes remake or Wolf Creek, or any of the antecedents like Cannibal Holocaust or I Spit on Your Grave, for that matter. First Amendment absolutist that she is, the Siren in no way argues for the banning of these movies, although when she reflects that Martin Scorsese had to spend many long days cutting down Goodfellas to avoid an NC-17, the irony just about asphyxiates her.

When the Grand Guignol shut down in Paris in 1962, its final director remarked, "We could never equal Buchenwald." The likes of Eli Roth and Greg McLean can't equal the Iraq war, but that hasn't stopped people from flocking. Well, the Siren requires no elaboration on the "why" behind the grosses for Hostel or its siblings. Our time has no need for catharsis or satiation that plausibly can be called unique. Read William Makepeace Thackeray's description of the crowd at a London hanging in 1840, and you will have all you ever need to know about what draws us to the most brutal side of horror. It is as fundamental a human taste as any other.

And the Siren doesn't think having that taste says much about a person. Her longtime roommate in the 1980s adored slasher movies. This was a man who never saw a baby he didn't want to cootchy-coo at, apologized to his cat when he moved it off the couch and wouldn't eat in a restaurant on Thanksgiving because he felt sorry for the waiters. He's the reason the Siren saw a long list of slasher flicks in the Nightmare-Freddie-Jason-Chucky-Hellraiser era, until she finally gave up trying to see the point of them and started retreating to her room with a book.

Most of us have a limited amount of viewing time relative to what we like to call "real life." Netflix just sent me L'Armée des Ombres, and I have not watched it yet. Anyone want to tell me that Hostel Part II is worth my time as much as that one? Is there a single performance in the latest round of jolly little splatterfests that can withstand comparison with one in Jean-Pierre Melville's movie? How about the dialogue, the camerawork, the editing, the sound, the art direction, the goddamn costumes even? Is there "social commentary" in any of the gorefests that could sustain an intelligent discussion for more than ten minutes?

You can argue that "torture porn" movies entertain. Rock on. So do a lot of things. Say that they are really about survival; the Siren does not buy that one, but you can argue it. You can point out that some of the techniques make their way into more mainstream fare. Fair enough. Dickens was influenced by the Newgate Calendar. That doesn't make Dick Turpin into Oliver Twist.

Praising the most gore-splattered subset of horror becomes supportable only by drawing in movies that really don't fit, such as the original Halloween or the wildly overrated Psycho, both of which achieve their effects far more through suggestion than through explicit violence. You could draw in John Ford--this John Ford--or John Webster , but there is, shall we say, a certain difference in script quality. The only other way to argue for these movies as anything other than disposable crap is to compare them with other blood-soaked horror films (comparing them with something like Val Lewton only exposes their limitations further). Hostel Part II may look great judged by the standards of Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Is it--or any other torture porn flick--great relative to Melville?

P.S. Guess I have my answer. Ian Pugh, of the very good site filmfreakcentral, compares Hostel Part II to Bunuel. Scoot over, Bosley. The Siren owes you a drink.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Farewell, Cinemarati

The Siren bids farewell to the Cinemarati site, which is closing forever after a long and happy run. She was happy and proud to be a part of this site and its roster of dedicated, smart critics. The member sites have shifted to other parts of her blogroll, and the Cinemarati themselves will be around at a new Yahoo group. You can read the goodbye posts until June 12.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Pandora and the Flying Dutchman

Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, from 1951, marks the final gasp of an odd 1940s micro-vogue for romantic movies about the afterlife. Hollywood, that most doggedly carnal of places, has produced these little fantasies from the early days (Smilin' Through from 1922 and 1932, Outward Bound from 1930, 1934's Death Takes a Holiday) to our time (Martin Brest's 1998 remake of Death Takes a Holiday, Meet Joe Black, which should have been called Death Now Takes Three Hours).

The 1940s, however, were the years when the theme reached its zenith. There's A Guy Named Joe, Here Comes Mr. Jordan, A Matter of Life and Death, Cabin in the Sky, Between Two Worlds, Heaven Can Wait (the Lubitsch one), Portrait of Jennie, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir ... the Siren may be forgetting a few, feel free to jog her memory. There are obvious reasons why supernatural themes might appeal during a decade when the world was first an abbatoir and later struggling for a way to cleanse. And the films range from pretty good, to highly entertaining, to at least one (admittedly English) masterpiece. The idea of love that vaults time and even death seems to have drawn good work from the decade's directors and screenwriters.

These are movies for specialized tastes, but if you happen to have those tastes, Pandora is a doozy. If you are an ardent admirer of more than one of the following, then by all means, rent it:

1. Directors With Highly Eccentric Visions. Albert Lewin had already made an unforgettable film from a delicate supernatural theme when he directed The Picture of Dorian Gray in 1945. (The final scene in that one never fails to terrify the Siren.) Pandora, however, was what he had waited for, the one he was determined to pour heart and soul into. Lewin wrote, directed and produced in an effort to craft a different kind of movie, one that would take the surrealist art he collected and fuse it with the cinema. He wanted a movie that was not merely romantic, but mythic. For that reason one wishes this were a truly great film, instead of a mesmerizing collection of the great, the singular and the ludicrous.

2. Love That Transcends Our Earthbound State. Pandora opens with a simple scene of fishermen hauling their nets and joking around in Catalan, until one of them looks down at his catch and blanches. Cut to a majestic shot from the top of a bell tower. In the foreground, the bell tolling grim news; far below on the beach, the tiny figures of people gathering, slowly then faster and faster, to see what has been hauled from the sea.We cut to the scene on the beach, where Nigel Patrick (playing a narrative device named Stephen Cameron) has stopped his car to look. The camera shows a tangle of fishnet, and two entwined hands, one male and one female.

So we know from the beginning that our main characters will love unto death. This is not a movie where suspense is important--you are watching a great love unfold, and that is supposed to suffice.

2. Plots Which Jettison All Pretense of Realism. The Siren is a skeptical mortal who believes in neither ghosts, nor psychics, nor ancient curses, nor Flying Dutchmen. Paradoxically, however, she loves a good ghostly plot. Pandora Reynolds, nightclub singer, has a bad case of anhedonia. So she runs around Spain ensnaring men, then breaking their hearts. One night she sees a tall-masted ship anchored in the bay, and she skinny-dips out to see who's on board. Lo, it is Hendrik van der Zee (James Mason), painting a picture, utterly nonchalant as Ava walks in wrapped in nothing but insouciance and a sail. That's because he already knows Ava's face--it is the one he is painting. Hendrik has been waiting for her, alone of all women, down through the lonely centuries. He is, of course, the Flying Dutchman, doomed to sail the seas of the world until he can find a woman who will love him enough to die for him. Pandora and Hendrik do fall in love, but will it be enough to save Hendrik?

3. The Beauty of Ava Gardner.

In case you still care after drinking in that screen shot, she doesn't give a good performance, which was typical of Gardner until relatively late in her career. In her daily life she was a Siren's siren, a woman who could take a bounder like Frank Sinatra and reduce him to warbling "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning." The part of Pandora Reynolds, for whom a man (Marius Goring from The Red Shoes, in a nice bit of cross-movie irony) kills himself only minutes after the movie starts, was practically autobiography. But just because you are something doesn't mean you can act it. Gardner was never very confident about her acting ability, and it shows. She doesn't suggest the banked-up fires of a passionate woman searching for love and meaning. Instead, Gardner seems apathetic, a risky acting choice even for a great talent. During a scene in which a man pushes his beloved racecar over a cliff for her, Ava recites her lines like she's playing Trilby instead of an all-gifted woman.

Later, when Pandora falls in love, Gardner is somewhat better, but still has an oddly girlish and tentative quality to her lines. Mason, unable to get any real chemistry going with his leading lady, retreats into conveying inner torment at every turn. This was his signature ability as an actor (see Lolita, A Star is Born, Odd Man Out, and probably Bigger Than Life if Fox would ever release the damn DVD), so Mason is quite effective, but the central love affair never soars as it should.

4. Spain's Costa Brava (in a Less Crowded and Touristy Era). Oh my, how the cast and crew must have loved filming this one. The beach, the mountains, the waters, the villas. The Siren is sure the area must be long since built up and despoiled, but seeing it here is pure pleasure.

5. Technicolor. Used by cinematographer Jack Cardiff (another Red Shoes connection) to film nos. 3 and 4 to spectacular effect. There are lots of day-for-night scenes, which can be even worse than lousy rear projection for breaking the mood of a picture. Here, the "night" shots glitter silver and blue, adding to the otherworldly aura instead of killing the viewer's belief in the story. Many compositions are as striking as a Man Ray photograph, as the shot at left demonstrates. Lewin and Cardiff use their location for everything it is worth, skimming over the water, putting you in the lap of a racecar trying to set a speed record on a beach, soaring up into the mountains behind the coast. For beauty and visual originality, Pandora can compare with any other landmark of Technicolor. If you love the process, the Siren would go so far as to say this film is indispensable.

6. Bullfighting. The Siren hates bullfighting. She always cheers for the bull. Despite this very American attitude, she was wowed by the bullfighting scenes, which are filmed with a grace and rhythm that at last gave her a glimpse of what others see in this spectacle. Mario Cabré, a bullfighter in real life, plays one here, his noisy, narcissistic love for Pandora acting as the catalyst for the final pact between her and Hendrik. Cabré can't act worth a damn, but he looks great, his character has a mother fixation that is the funniest thing in the movie, and somehow he strikes more sparks off Mason than does the lovely Ava.

7. Movies That the French Love More Than We Do.
If Pandora reminded the Siren of anything else, it was The Barefoot Contessa, another gorgeously shot movie where the characters talk incessantly and behave in self-destructive ways. (I thought so even before I realized Cardiff also was the DP on Contessa.) Mankiewicz's movie was beloved of the Cahiers crowd even as it was judged lacking by American critics. Pandora, as it happens, had the same fate. Mr. C. entered toward the end of Lewin's movie and recognized it immediately as a film he had seen in childhood on French TV's weekly screenings, complete with a lovingly detailed introduction explaining its importance as a pinnacle of "le surréalisme." The Siren thinks the French are onto something with both movies. Neither is a true masterpiece, but the Contessa and Pandora are both highly worthwhile films, as beautiful, individual and as slightly insane as their heroines.

Friday, June 01, 2007

The Siren Scrutinizes Security

Let us review, shall we?

This guy

was denied a visa altogether in 2002, and this year was detained for questioning for two and a half hours while U.S. officials made sure he gave just the right answers about the health of his 105-year-old mother.

This guy

shows up in a border guard's computer as a strict no-fly risk, complete with a warning to isolate him and don protective gear. The guard waves him through after two minutes.

Heckuva job there. The Siren feels safe tonight.