Friday, October 24, 2008

Unquote, Please

The Siren reads way too much about movies, although the fabulous Sheila O'Malley may have her beat. After a while you start to come across the same quotes again and again. Some are still funny ("I think that 'e' made the whole fuckin' difference," mused Carole Lombard, born plain old Jean Alice Peters.) Some are just true. ("It's the friends you can call up at 4 a.m. that matter," said Marlene Dietrich, a theory she tested quite a bit in later life.)

But the Siren realized this week that there are several very famous remarks made by famous movie people that she never wants to hear again, although she will, she will. In reverse order, here they are, starting with the one that triggered this post:

5. "After 40 you must choose between your face and your ass."

This is usually attributed to Catherine Deneuve, but the Siren thinks Zsa Zsa Gabor is a more likely source. We have it on Brian Aherne's authority that Zsa Zsa is quite funny when she wants to be and she was always making remarks like this. One reason to hate this quote is that the age at which you must make this decision is always changing. In this month's InStyle it's pegged at 30. Thirty!! So Amy Adams, currently igniting newstands everywhere on the cover of Vanity Fair, chose one or the other four years ago? Rubbish. Mere mortal women figure on losing both the face and the ass at some point (a point well past 30, thankyouverymuch) unless we're blessed with superb genes and/or an unlimited plastic surgery budget. But for most actresses it isn't true at 40, or even 50. The Siren's favorite example is Diane Lane...

but there's plenty of others. Please, let's not pull out this tired old saying every time we see a woman who's dieted too much or has a face that's been injected too often with the scary stuff du jour. And one last thing. This quote is always applied to a woman.

If that's fair, then tell me, which did Mickey Rourke choose?

4. "For attractive lips, speak words of kindness.
For lovely eyes, seek out the good in people.
For a slim figure, share your food with the hungry.
For beautiful hair, let a child run his fingers through it once a day..."

Usually attributed to Audrey Hepburn. There's more like that afterward but it always turns the Siren into a version of Daffy Duck, muttering "Easy stomach, don't turn over now," so that's all you're getting. Reason number one to hate this "poem" is that it's insipid nonsense. The Siren feeds hungry children every day and they run their fingers through her hair, as well as anything else that's less than five feet off the ground, but the Siren assures her readers that it has no effect on her looks one way or another. The second reason is that although Hepburn apparently liked this tripe and used to quote the whole thing, in public even (which we will let slide because Hepburn really was a generous lady with otherwise impeccable taste), she didn't write it. It was written by someone named Sam Levenson.

If we are going to talk sensible beauty quotes, let's talk about the wonderful Bette Davis vehicle, Mr. Skeffington. Claude Rains, in the title role, tells his vain, selfish wife that a woman is beautiful when she's loved. Davis retorts, as only Davis can, "A woman is beautiful when she has eight hours' sleep and goes to the beauty parlor every day. And bone structure has a lot to do with it, too."

3. "Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, backwards and in high heels."

Often attributed to Ann Richards, but it predates the late, great Texas gov by some years. Rogers included Bob Thaves' Frank and Ernest comic strip, which appears to be the source, in the photos for her autobiography. The Siren cited Ginger for The Performance That Changed My Life, and will defend her abilities against all comers. But as for this quote--it's cute and all, but again, not true. She wore high heels, sure, although take a good look below--compared to today's skyscrapers they're practically flats.

Rogers also rehearsed on slippery Bakelite floors until her feet bled and she probably fantasized about stuffing Fred's top hat up his nose. But she did not do everything Astaire did. Together they were dazzling, but he was self-evidently the greater dancer, which Ginger herself probably would have admitted if you asked her nicely enough. Plus, their duets, carefully designed for maximum beauty on camera, use a lot of forward and side-by-side steps. The Siren is no choreographer, but she's seen these movies over and over, and Ginger doesn't move backwards all that much. Check out "Cheek to Cheek", and see who's moving backwards during most of the first part.

2. "Hollywood is a place where they'll pay you a thousand dollars for a kiss and fifty cents for your soul."

Oh boo hoo hoo, Marilyn. After the past few months of watching our economy do a face-plant, the Siren thinks a thousand dollars for a kiss is a darned good price, even without adjusting for inflation. And meanie-weenie Hollywood sold your soul for cheap, huh. The people standing by the clothing racks and saying "Can I help you?" to grumpy, dead-broke customers, and the ones getting repetitive-motion injuries at their keyboards and jumping every time the boss calls them in the office for fear they're getting the old pre-Christmas pink slip--they all got a much better rate for their souls.

Most irritating is when this quote is used to illustrate how Marilyn Monroe suffered. She was charming and funny, really good in several movies, certainly she was beautiful, and you could say she had a hard time. Though, it seems to the Siren, not as hard as her colleagues did, standing around on the set waiting for Marilyn to get her act together. But you want suffering, real suffering, the kind to make Melpomene weep? Without Googling: Clara Bow. D.W. Griffith. Orson Welles. Gene Tierney. John Garfield. Dorothy Dandridge. Rita Hayworth. Canada Lee. Charles Boyer. Wallace Reid. Montgomery Clift. Lou Costello. Roscoe Arbuckle. Erich von Stroheim.

1. "He gives her class. She gives him sex."

Oh, Katharine. The Siren hasn't been able to track down exactly when and where Hepburn said this (anyone know?) but it was probably a fairly casual observation, not one supposed to substitute for any other analysis of the all-time greatest dancing team. Even when people don't invoke the quote itself, as David Thomson mercifully did not in his well-written but dead-wrong Astaire piece last Sunday, they regurgitate its assumptions. Astaire was plenty sexy. The routines themselves, as often noted, echo the rhythms of seduction and even the sex act itself, and that ain't possible with a sexless male.

As for Ginger needing more class, the Siren wonders if that was somehow a leftover bit of cattiness because Rogers stole Stage Door right out from under Hepburn. Rogers had a wonderful common-girl persona in the 1930s, but her movies relied on her self-confidence and grace. Check out something like Gregory La Cava's charmingly subversive 5th Avenue Girl, in which Rogers poses as a millionaire's mistress without losing a shred of her honor. The point to Ginger Rogers, and what made her such a perfect on-screen American woman, was that she constantly proved class is a state of mind and not birth.

The Siren has a suggestion for anyone itching to use the above-listed quotes. Look up Tallulah Bankhead instead. Now there's someone who could give you an evergreen yarn. The Siren winds this up with Tallulah, from A Southern Album, on the perils of stardom and election season:

"Be careful how you quote me. No swearing, no naughty cracks. This is a campaign year, you know, and I must be discreet. If I'm not, I'll have the whole goddamn Bankhead family on my neck."

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Anecdote and Links of the Week

Typically upside-down and backwards week at the Siren's place. Working on a bigger post, but in the meantime I did a teensy bit of guest-blogging with an Anecdote of the Week over at The Film Experience. You will want to click on this one, if I do say so myself; nothing but the best for our Nathaniel. The title: "How do you score an orgasm?"

Other things I am reading when time permits:

Fantastic post on Leslie Caron's screening and interview in Los Angeles, over at And Your Little Blog, Too. If you love Lili and Gigi as the Siren does, this one is a must.

Heartfelt, sui generis post from Flickhead, on movies and memory.

Last week the Siren ran into Glenn Kenny on the street in Brooklyn. Glenn waved a DVD at her and asked if she was reading David Cairns. Oh yes Glenn, I'm addicted too, and David is expanding my must-see list exponentially as well. Here he is on the two U.S. movies made by the peerless Jean Gabin, Moontide (just out on DVD) and the Julien Duvivier-directed The Impostor.

Jonathan Lapper is deep into his Kill Fest. The Siren is enjoying it all, but this Universal monster montage will be hard to top.

Do you ever just mosey over to a blog and start digging through the archives? One film blogger who never fails to reward such an enterprise is Dennis Grunes. Check out this piece on The Hard Way. It's typical of Grunes' vivid analysis and intelligence, even if he gives criminally short shrift to the great Jack Carson.

Girish, consistently one of the most original film minds around, has a post on cross-border filmmaker affinities.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Kay Francis Recap

The Siren feels as though she's Auntie Mame. Vera Charles just swept in and asked "have you spoken to your broker?" and when the Siren asks what's happening, Vera replies "Oh, not much, just that nothing is WORTH anything anymore." In this version, Vera adds, "And Siren darling, you just bought yourself a nice big banking system." Perhaps it's time for the Siren to get a job in the roller-skate department. So what better period to be looking at right now than the 1930s? and what better actress than our own dear Kay Francis? The Siren has been planning to recap the Kay movies she caught during TCM's September Star of the Month festival. In order of preference: 1. The House on 56th Street (Robert Florey, 1933). There was a teensy bit of grumbling about this one going on in the comments to the Siren's earlier post and elsewhere, and Kay herself didn't seem to think much of the movie. Most Kay sources tsk-tsk that it was originally intended for Ruth Chatterton, as though film scripts are like evening gowns and shouldn't be handed down lest they get shabby. After revisiting the film the Siren informs everybody, as diplomatically as possible, that she's right and you're wrong. This is an excellent movie, not a standard sudser at all, with a remarkably grim plot that links Kay's fate to the declining fortunes of a New York City townhouse. (For the record, Filmbrain likes it too.) Lawrence Quirk calls it a "sociological romance," a good way to put it; the device of connecting Kay's declining fortunes to the house off Park Avenue is unusual and very effective. When the Siren tries to pin down what she likes about a movie like House on 56th Street, she always comes back to structure. It's 68 minutes, and there is not one extraneous scene. Director Robert Florey (later of Beast with Five Fingers fame) quickly establishes his set of visual symbols--the house as both Kay and New York itself, the cherub as the dream of family love she will never have, the gambling as a rigged and unwinnable system--then deals them out with careful economy, like the cards that recur through the plot. Since it's a Kay Francis movie, the best analogy the Siren can use is clothing. An item at a typical mall store may look all right on the hanger, but turn it inside out and you'll find a mess: seams unpressed, unfinished and raveling, no tape on the hems, threads escaping from the buttonholes, great big scratchy tags everywhere just in case you forgot the BRAND NAME. Turn a vintage item inside out sometime and you'll be shocked at the difference. The seams are perfectly sewn down and pressed in, there is hem tape on the hem, the buttons are firmly attached and the lining is as beautifully tailored as the outside, with tiny stitches holding down certain folds so they won't bulge. Here our Kay starts out as a brunette showgirl, dancing on tables and falling in love with a wealthy, upper-class New Yorker, who buys the house for her and tells her she belongs there "forever," as she touches a melancholy little cherub engraved in the plaster over the fireplace. But his family dislikes her, as families do. The plot plays out with such fatalism it might have served as noir if made 15 years later. Kay is imprisoned for 20 years for a crime that she not only didn't commit, but was trying to prevent. Her husband is killed in the Great War, her daughter is told she is dead. And all the while we see the house, earlier connected to innocence and happiness, becoming grimier and shabbier. When Kay is first sent to prison the house's windows are boarded up; the shot is like looking at someone who's been blinded. She gets a terrible blonde dye job explicitly to cut all ties with her past self, and its harshness adds to the theme. Both Kay and the house are still beautiful, but permanently marked. Kay runs into an old shady acquaintance and winds up dealing cards in a gambling den that's run out of the very house she once lived in. Over at IMDB you can see some viewers rolling their eyes over this, but the Siren has zero patience for such Gradgrindian quibbles. There's a difference between things that make mathematical, logical sense and things that make poetic, symbolic sense. In the world of the movie, no course other than Kay's return to the house would be possible. And her daughter's appearance in the illegal casino is also needed to maintain symmetry, as is the daughter's mistake that occurs after Kay tries to help her, as Kay was trying to help the man whose death sent her to prison twenty years before. Margaret Lindsay as the daughter is, as usual, grating to the nerves, but that is also deliberate. The point is the quality of Kay's love and sacrifice, not the worthiness of the object. It's very much a Depression movie, one that looks back at past gaiety, beauty and love and can't stop grieving for the way it's all been snatched away. The sheer bloody unfairness of what happens to Kay must have been so real to an audience whose hopes for comfort had been brutally rescinded through no sin of their own. 2. Jewel Robbery (William Dieterle, 1932). Also a Depression movie, and how, but with a far more pleasant conceit--rich people making clowns of themselves and getting taken right down to their garters by someone more clever. William Powell makes off with the rocks of the title, but also with the "jewels" of Kay's virtue, all with criminal panache ("I studied in Paris," he explains). As John McElwee pointed out, this movie must have been great escapist fun in 1933, and still is. It seems to be the favorite of everyone who caught it last month, and if the Siren has a slight preference for The House on 56th Street that's probably due to her mood. Jewel Robbery is a pip, falling just short of being good enough to be called "Lubitschian," but coming damn close with moments like Powell explaining how he lifted a necklace at a charity ball: "The lady stood beside me. The Prince of Wales was announced. I could have removed her dress." The Siren was sure she was going to like this one from the second she saw Kay in the bubble bath--not a chaste Hays office bubble bath, but a heels-kicking, whoops-that-was-close bath. Francis is so lively and happy in these early movies. Powell is deliciously funny although maybe he had pissed off the cameraman, as his overbite was never more obvious than here. 3. Confession (Joe May, 1937). The Siren has her own confession, that she missed the end of this one, but it was going swimmingly up to that point. It's similar in some ways to House on 56th Street, including the theme of mother love and sacrifice, once so common in American movies and now about as frequent a film element as wipes or noble politicians. (In current big-budget movies mothers with plot prominence usually turn out to have committed infanticide. Mothers who actually give things up for their kids are confined to Lifetime, a channel so ghastly that when the Siren sees it advertised as "television for women" she feels like suing for libel on behalf of her gender.) Anyway, Kay appears rather late in this movie, but when she does show up the plot goes from zero to sixty in a scene that reminded the Siren of both The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Letter. Kay's love scenes in flashback are very well played, as she's aided a great deal by Basil Rathbone, who gives a perfect take on the familiar role of "I am an Arteest and therefore a Tomcat." It's said to be an almost shot-by-shot remake of the German original, Mazurka. Julius Epstein had a hand in the screenplay, as he also did with 4. Secrets of an Actress (William Keighley, 1938). One of the supposed throwaways Kay made when Warner Brothers had her with one jeweled heel out the door and the other on a banana peel. But it's very bubbly and cute, with some nice snappy dialogue. Kay plays an aspiring actress with no discernible secrets, so I don't know what that title was about, much less the plot, which hurtles so hard toward the denouement you no more notice the holes than you do bird poop on the rollercoaster. Part of the reason I liked it was--wait for it--George Brent. I swear I'm not saying that just because it's been a while since we've had a good George Brent debate. He was good in this movie, very funny in the scenes with Gloria Dickson as his scheming not-yet-ex wife, and he had some nice chemistry with Kay. 5. Allotment Wives (William Nigh, 1945). One of the three Monogram cheapies Kay made as her career reached its close, this is a well-executed B picture that shows Kay might have made a good noir dame if only given more of a chance. Here she is running a criminal scheme that has women in Europe marrying multiple GIs for their allotment checks. She has a daughter, of course, and tries to keep the girl out of harm's way at a private school. This works about as well as it ever does in the movies. Paul Kelly, more than fifteen years past his real-life role in a memorably violent and sordid Hollywood triangle, plays the hardboiled investigating major in the same way he'd have probably played it if he'd gotten the Otto Kruger role as Kay's accomplice. Kay gets a fabulous B-noir exit, too. 6. Dr. Monica (William Keighley, 1934). Not a good movie, but has some historical interest for those who want to see how unwed motherhood, infidelity and infertility were treated just on the cusp of the Production Code's implementation. Kay plays the eponymous ob-gyn, and sports the most amazingly chic outfits you ever saw as she glides from office to operating room to drawing room. Her husband (Warren William, so underused his biggest scene has him trimming a Christmas tree) has had an affair with a young friend of Dr. Monica's (Jean Muir) and gotten her pregnant. He doesn't know that. Dr. Monica at first doesn't know that either. Later Dr. Monica does find out but Jean Muir doesn't know Monica knows. Nobody really knows anything in this movie. 7. Transgression (Herbert Brenon, 1931). Stagey tale of a wife straying, then moving back. The Siren thought it was pretty dreary and Kay was not at her best. But I did like the scenes in and around Ricardo Cortez's Spanish country house, which had a nicely sinister air somewhat redolent of the Mitteleuropean settings of Frankenstein and Dracula. 8. Cynara (King Vidor, 1932) and 9. Raffles (George Fitzmaurice, 1930). Hardly Kay Francis movies at all, these are both about Colman, and therein lies the reason the Siren didn't much care for them. Colman, she has recently realized, usually bores the everloving bejesus out of her (A Tale of Two Cities and Random Harvest are notable exceptions). He's so clipped and restrained and polite, there's no underlying pathos and sensitivity, as with Robert Donat, and no dash either, as with Grant or Flynn. If Colman withdraws from the room with a bow, the better to preserve your virtue, he isn't doing it with a wink and a sexy little flash of regret. He's doing it because he really truly does care about your virtue. No wonder David Niven was so much more fun as Raffles. No wonder the Siren didn't believe for a moment that Colman would actually succumb to Phyllis Barry at a swimsuit competition. Like McElwee, the Siren did enjoy Kay's sleek chic and "butched-out hair" but that was about it. I also expected more snappy direction from the Vidor than I got. The Siren couldn't resist re-watching One Way Passage and a bit of Trouble in Paradise as well. All right, your turn. Any Kay discoveries to share?

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Red Dawn (1984)

No one sent the Siren a PR notice, but we're having a Red Dawn moment. David Plotz of Slate has written a DVD review of John Milius's 1984 evergreen actioner that has Jonah Goldberg of the Corner and Dirty Harry really, really, really irritated. (The Siren recently had a very courteous exchange with Dirty Harry and she hopes he will understand that she's just trying to put Red Dawn in its cinematic place, not get him back to hating her all over again.)

The Siren once named this movie as a Howling Dog for the Ages, and by any aesthetic standard that's what it is, but no movie that retains such a hold on people after the span of almost a quarter-century should be completely dismissed. The Siren would love to defend Mr. Plotz's article out of her general tendency to resist mouse-wielding mobs of commenters, but he has, in fact, missed the point of Red Dawn. He does seem to realize it's no more about resisting Communism than it is about John Galliano's 2009 resort collection. Riddle me this. Why, before mid-movie, are we informed that Americans are fighting alongside China, and pointedly told that China's population is now reduced almost by half? This was 1984, Deng was in power, Wei Jingsheng was in prison and the laogai, to quote Scrooge, were still in their useful course (as indeed they still are). We're allied with those guys, to fight Communism? I don't think so.

But Plotz's Iraq comparison, which is what has people firing up the keyboards, doesn't withstand scrutiny, either. The Wolverines don't have to confront any part of a guerilla campaign's moral questions, even to ignore them as the Iraqi insurgents do. For one thing, the fact that partisan attacks on a ruthless enemy invite civilian reprisals is dispensed with after a couple of incidents. The Soviet commander is happy to turn Denver into a charnel house but eventually, we are asked to believe, sees retaliation against noncombatants as counterproductive. The Russians conveniently ship most everyone off to camps, so our heros need never deal with the reality of attacking soldiers in the middle of a still-fully-populated town. If Gillo Pontecorvo ever saw Red Dawn it probably sent him to bed with a sick headache.

So this film isn't a bold piece of anti-Communist agitprop, nor is it some sort of weirdly prescient view of an occupying force. Red Dawn--and this is the key to its appeal--is a me-too World War II wish-fulfillment fantasy, with Russia doing double duty for the megalomania of the Nazis and the treachery of the Japanese. You missed out on the Greatest Generation? Not any more, kids! Here's our old friend, the soldiers-lost-behind-enemy-lines movie, given a teenage twist (brilliantly smart marketing, the Siren admits) and gussied up with a bunch of Resistance-movie tropes for good measure.

Skeptical? Pull up a chair. (What follows is a mess of spoilers, if you still plan to see Red Dawn and believe that plot twists are bound to be part of its virtues.)

First there's the sneak attack, a la Pearl Harbor, and incidentally the movie's one really inspired visual sequence, as paratroopers descend on a high school campus. The sight of the soldiers dropping to the lawn is authentically chilling. But then we get into full WWII-nostalgia swing. There's the brave schoolteacher and the civilian executions, as well as the treacherous mayor (This Land Is Mine, with a dash of The Moon Is Down). Ordinary people retreat to the hills to resist (Dragon Seed). Kindly shopkeeper helps out with supplies (One of Our Aircraft Is Missing). Everybody sings in the face of the enemy (Casablanca). The Russians shoot people in the back (Gung-Ho). The Wolverines go through small towns laid waste by the enemy (Objective, Burma! and about a thousand others). They pile up huge enemy body counts using nothing but guns, hubris and spit (The Dirty Dozen). The Americans admit that they're just a bunch of scared kids, and discuss that several times more. ("I'm no hero, I'm just a guy," says William Bendix in Guadalcanal Diary.) The Americans fight to the last man (Wake Island and Bataan). Powers Boothe dies saying to the Americans, "Come on buddies! come and get 'em!" (Robert Taylor dies in Bataan yelling to the Japanese, "Come and get it, suckers!") And then there's Jennifer Grey's death, as she rigs herself as a grenade booby-trap, a remarkably direct crib of Veronica Lake's demise in So Proudly We Hail.

There's also a real-life reference in the phrase on the radio, "John has a long mustache," a code used by the French Resistance that also popped up in The Longest Day. Its placement here is, I suppose, intended to be lacerating irony since we're told the spineless Europeans are sitting this one out. But it doesn't matter, since this is a world where the references are not to real-life countries or issues, but to other movies, down to the Russian officer's name (Strelnikov, as in Doctor Zhivago).

None of this necessarily makes Red Dawn a bad movie. No, that's the job of the stilted dialogue, the banal direction and the atrocious acting, as the young performers emote all over the place like they're doing sense memory at Interlochen summer camp. Indicating? My god, it's like watching a bunch of cars with their turn signals stuck. But what really makes Red Dawn a bad movie is the way all those old plot points are just applied willy-nilly to a different villain, with messy details like nuclear weapons waved away ("Whole damn thing's pretty conventional now," drawls Boothe). Pulse the old bread crumbs, shake and bake with a new chicken, like 1940s Hollywood sticking the Nazis into a Sherlock Holmes movie or a Western.

Now excuse me, I have a Kay Francis post to finish.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Newcritics Wednesday Night at the Movies: Serpico and 25th Hour

Here we are folks, the last call for Newcritics Wednesday Night at the Movies. This post in no way goes into everything that can be said about Serpico and 25th Hour--it's more like quick thematic notes, the whole truncated by some domestic goings-on chez Campaspe. But the Siren will be at Newcritics at 9 pm Eastern time tonight, and she hopes many patient readers will join her to fill in the many large blanks.

The past decade has proved that any idiot can set a movie in New York. Or a television show. Pan up the building, pan down the building, crowd shot, shopping montage, colorful locals, done. Is the rest of the country getting tired of this? The Siren sure is. She would really much rather see a weekly drama set in Pocatella, Idaho (which is very scenic) than another show set in New York City that reduces it to a few downtown exterior shots and some wildly improbable apartments.

Making a movie that gets not only the look of the place (for the last time guys, Toronto exteriors look like Toronto) but the unique mentality of the residents--now that's hard. Two filmmakers who've been able to do it many times over the years are Sidney Lumet and Spike Lee. And the two movies for tonight, Serpico and 25th Hour, embody a certain spirit that is completely characteristic of New Yorkers, whether or not the quality is uniquely their own. You could call it persistence, or even flat-out cussedness, depending on your attitude. The Siren likes to think of it as resilience. The earlier movie concerns the celebrated police officer who torpedoed his own long career on the force by simply refusing to take bribes. The later film is aboutdrug dealer's last day of freedom before he goes to do a stretch in prison. Despite protagonists on completely opposite sides of the law, the Siren sees the two movies as pendants.

First, Serpico. You just saw a post and thread where the Siren got all damp-eyed about the 1980s, which also, let's be real here, was an era of crime, class and racial resentment, and saddest of all, the AIDS epidemic, which means that some of the Siren's memories concern very beautiful, funny young men she will never see again. Well, no matter how nostalgic the Siren gets about the 1980s she can't equal the amount of nostalgia people around in the 1970s pour over THAT era--witness David Edelstein's piece for New York magazine. Serpico (along with The French Connection and most of the ones that Edelstein mentions) does give a sense of a city that was just that much grittier, less expensive and less uptight. Still, it was probably harsher even than the 1980s, a dark time when the city's fiscal and social underpinnings were rotting away.

Judging by Serpico, New York had a bad case of nerves in 1974. It's not really an action movie, it's more of a character study, with each incident clicking into place until Serpico has nowhere to go but the Times and the Knapp Commission. The movie has enormous dramatic tension throughout, some of it due to the audience wondering when Serpico is going to get shot, but also from looking for the next betrayal from the next seemingly friendly cop. Lumet ping-pongs back and forth from Serpico's job--a string of police precincts, each revealing its rotten payoff system with depressing speed--and his offbeat, arty personal life, full of high-spirited blonde girlfriends, books, opera and white wine. Both sides of his life become progressively harder to maintain. At no point, though, does Serpico seem to consider taking the money he's offered. He just keeps trying to find new ways of refusing it.

As for 25th Hour, made in 2002--is anyone in New York ever going to be nostalgic for the early 2000s? What a terrible time, and the dark palette and somber mood of Lee's movie reflects that, from the memorial lights at Ground Zero right down to the mechanical, joyless partying in the club sequence late in the film. Monty Brogan (Edward Norton) is a drug dealer, betrayed by someone (he doesn't know who) and sentenced to seven years in prison. His terror of being raped and abused in prison marks his every action. The question of who betrayed him gets a fair bit of screen time, but it's subordinated to the real suspense--will Monty go to prison, or jump the bail his father put up for him and go on the run?

In his book Making Movies, Lumet doesn't spent much time on Serpico and when he does, it's to remark that the title character, despite Al Pacino's towering performance, was rather irritating to him, "a kvetcher." Well, the Siren thinks poor Frank had plenty to complain about, what with constantly wondering if a fellow cop was going to off him and all. It has to be admitted, though, that Serpico does complain a lot, driving away his loving girlfriend and at one point his only real friend on the force (Tony Roberts). Monty, too, worries ceaselessly, doubting everyone around him and also tormenting his girlfriend, the improbably named Naturelle. (Rosario Dawson is one of 25th Hour's problems--she is all femme, no fatale, and so the question of whether she actually turned in Monty is never very convincing. Of course she didn't, she's just a real-life Jessica Rabbit.)

One of many things Lumet and Lee have in common is a general refusal to romanticize New York. They love the city as it really is--crass, tough, dingy, crumbling and perpetually in a pissed-off mood--not, as some might argue Woody Allen does, for its romantic illusions. Serpico was filmed in more than one hundred different New York locations, each grittier than the last. It's a feast for anyone who treasures small details about the city, like the way a banister in an old building will sway if you're rash enough to put any weight on it, or the marvelous fact that subway platforms used to have snack machines. Every painted surface is nicked or peeling and it seems that in the early 1970s there was no such thing as floor wax or maybe even mops.

Lee was dealing with a considerably cleaned-up, but far sadder New York. We first see Monty in Battery Park, now very different from the park we saw in Desperately Seeking Susan, the weeds gone, the benches all painted and the trash picked up. The characters hang out in high-end apartments painted dark, trendy colors, with huge picture windows and shiny fixtures. Even the scenes that are supposed to convey a more down-market feel (the Russian mobster's office, Monty's father's bar) are cleaner than anything in Serpico. The air of corruption is still there, however, as is the sense of hollowness left from the opening shot of that terrible hole in the ground.

In both movies, with the exception of Monty's bravura face-to-the-mirror rant about New York and all its many sins, New York's social problems are attacked obliquely. Serpico remarks to his girlfriend that if the cops poured the energy they use on maintaining the corrupt system into actual police work the crime problem would shrink to nothing. The ghastly Rockefeller drug laws hang over 25th Hour, another instance of a rotten system, although the laws aren't used to justify Monty's actions. He was a drug dealer, and his lousy choices in life are faced head-on by his friends and his father.

The Siren re-watched Serpico last night instead of the debate (and what a good choice that turned out to be, huh?) and was immediately struck by the movie's first shots, of Al Pacino, shot in the face, his head lolling back on the seat of the patrol car as he's taken to the hospital. Spike Lee has some remarkably similar shots of a bloody Edward Norton as his father drives him to prison. Ultimately, both movies are about moving past the wrongs that have been done to you--on a personal level, as with Monty's bust and the many cops who refuse to help Serpico, and on a larger plane, as with the top-to-bottom rot of the New York City police department pre-Knapp and the enormity of 9/11. Neither suggests that the past is healed, quite the opposite, just that forward is the only way New Yorkers know how to move. The movies are simultaneously depressing as all hell, and yet reassuring too, in the eternal-ness of their New York viewpoints.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Newcritics Wednesday Night at the Movies: Desperately Seeking Susan

The Wednesday Night at the Movies Open Thread at Newcritics starts at 9 pm Eastern time. Saunter over and join the party.

So when the Siren posted her list previously, it was pretty safe. Some people may dislike The Apartment, but nobody is going to jump up and down and scream about its inclusion.

With Susan Seidelman's Desperately Seeking Susan from 1985, however, the Siren may be going out on a limb. Tonight we will keep it simple, as the Siren presents her list of reasons why this movie deserves the fond regard she still has for it.

Romance. Roberta (Rosanna Arquette, proving it's a shame her career stalled) is an unhappy housewife in Fort Lee, N.J., eating wedding cake at night and enduring a loutish, uninterested husband (Mark Blum). For fun she peruses the personal ads, which I suppose the Internet has replaced now. She has been especially interested in the ads that are "Desperately Seeking Susan," chronicling a woman (Madonna) who roams the globe but always seems to come back to the lover posting the ads. Naturally Roberta decides to go to Battery Park and witness the latest meeting, if it happens. She gets hit on the head, winds up with amnesia as well as being mistaken for the elusive Susan.

The plot simply does not bear further summary, it's screwball-complicated with nobody recognizing anybody and a Maguffin in the form of a pair of ugly but valuable earrings. But, while the Siren finds the scenes between Arquette and Quinn adorably sexy, the real romance here is the romance of New York. She began the series by discussing E.B. White's observation that the greatest of New Yorks is that created by the immigrants. Those immigrants don't have to come through Ellis Island, though. Often they come from the vast strip-mall desert of American suburbs. The romance is Roberta discovering New York, and therefore her true, gloriously offbeat self.

That's the New York that the Siren, and probably most of the people she knows here, came to seek. It doesn't matter what a misfit you were in Plano or Marietta or Toledo. In New York you can find your weirdness level, stick with it and be accepted for it. One minute you're wearing eyelet bib-collars and button earrings and the next minute you've got on a ratty 1950s prom dress and you're doing a magic act with a bird. Is this a great city or what?

Nostalgia. Seidelman's greatest accomplishment is capturing this particular moment in New York. Danceteria. Love Saves the Day (still there but the clothing section is almost nonexistent). The Bleecker Street Cinema--oh lord, I could cry when I see those scenes--where are the cinemas of yesteryear? An East Village that had squatters, artists and assorted wannabes, not corporate salarymen on the first rung of the money ladder. It was dirty (and you can see that in the movie) and frightening (muggings were common, and nothing will shake you up like a mugging--burglaries don't compare to having a knife pulled on you). But looking at the old stretch of Second Avenue, at Saint Marks and the Statue of Liberty covered in scaffolding, still gives the Siren an ache for that dear old dirty phase. It reminds her of Joseph Cotten's speech in The Magnificent Ambersons, where he talks of what we will lose with the automobile: "With all their speed forward, they may be a step backward in civilization." It's a cleaner, safer city now, one the Siren is happy to raise her family in. But something of its soul is lost.

Aidan Quinn. In Desperately Seeking Susan the men take the frequent female roles as objects and bystanders, in a nicely executed gender-twist that hadn't been seen that much since its heyday in the 1930s. (Mark Blum has the Gail Patrick part.) Quinn is the one who doesn't know what the hell is going on and spends a lot of time being bemused. It's kind of thankless but his reactions are so well-modulated. Plus, at the time there was no handsomer actor in New York, and he had a beautiful rich voice to go with those looks.

Madonna. Look, I haven't forgiven her for Evita either. She also owes me big time for the two hours I spent watching Shanghai Surprise. But she's just great here, an "indolent, trampy goddess" as Pauline Kael so perfectly put it. What the hell happened? I have absolutely no idea. Maybe the performance was a fluke, supporting Ivan G.'s Blind Squirrel Theory of Cinema. Maybe (and here I think of what I wrote about Paul Newman this week) she just wasn't willing to work at it like she worked at her music and her physique.

Still, I love to watch her as Susan and I always will. The tough-girl accent (so much better than the ersatz Lady Bountiful routine she's adopted now). The snapping gum. The total golddigger vibe, easing toward the door when she tries on a pair of boots she likes. Supposedly the talented Ellen Barkin was up for the part, but Barkin would not have had the same effect swinging her hips into the Daily News offices in a wifebeater, garterbelt and lace stockings slung over a pair of men's boxers. In fact, I am not sure anybody else on the face of the planet could have done that.

A fashion note: sometimes you'll see articles claiming that Madonna and this movie jump-started the whole underwear-as-outerwear thing we lived through mid-1980s. As if. She picked it up from the girls in the East Village who'd been doing it for at least a year or so. The Siren should know; she was one of those girls. It was a poverty-inspired look in part, based on the idea that a camisole or bustier looks pretty and usually costs less than a similarly frilly top.

The Siren always thinks that Susan herself was probably a Roberta at one point--if not sitting in a subdivision eating birthday cake in the middle of the night, then at least practicing her wiles on the local lunks and thinking, "There's gotta be bigger fish to fry."

All right, over to you. Do you see the same things in Desperately Seeking Susan that the Siren sees? or does its romance elude you?

Newcritics Wednesday Night at the Movies: Desperately Seeking Susan

Our New York City of the Mind series continues at Newcritics, with the romance of Desperately Seeking Susan. Come over tonight at 9 pm Eastern time and wallow in the 80s, those halcyon days when Danceteria was still open, the East Village was affordable and raffish, and Madonna showed promise as an actress. Feel free to debate those last two points, and indeed whether this movie should be included at all. Bustiers encouraged but not required.