Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Dardos, and Other Ramblings from the Far End of the Subway Car

(updated 1/28)

Holy shit, January 2009 is shaping up to be a month I wanna forget, and fast. I know, I know, the inauguration was great but now it's over and la famille Campaspe is still recovering from whatever the hell virus hit us. The economy is still dropping like a stone, the weather is bad, I can never get everyone well enough to get anything done or (almost) anything watched. The Siren went to the doctor yesterday. Ever had the kind of cough that makes someone change seats on the subway to get away from you, even though you are diligently covering your mouth?

Worst of all, my solace in all times of trouble, Rumpole, will never solve a new case again, because the great John Mortimer died Jan. 16.

February, the Siren wants to kiss you full on the lips when you finally get here.

So this post is the Siren, trying to find the silver lining. We begin with the Siren's proud acceptance of

The Dardos Award, bestowed first by Flickhead and next by Glenn Kenny.

Here's the purpose: "The Dardos Award is given for recognition of cultural, ethical, literary, and personal values transmitted in the form of creative and original writing. These stamps were created with the intention of promoting fraternization between bloggers, a way of showing affection and gratitude for work that adds value to the Web."

There are rules, however:
1) Accept the award by posting it on your blog along with the name of the person that has granted the award and a link to his/her blog.
2) Pass the award to another five blogs that are worthy of this acknowledgement, remembering to contact each of them to let them know they have been selected for this award.

The Siren is tickled pink, especially since not only did she not snag a Weblog Award nom this year, none of the blogs she was rooting for won their categories either. The Dardos comes with the happy obligation to pick five other worthy blogs. Some of the Siren's best choices are already chosen but there are a lot of good ones out there, so here goes. She's expanding the definition of "writing" by the way, since a picture is worth a thousand words:

Marilyn and Roderick at Ferdy on Films, for always raising the tone

Operator_99 at Allure, for always making things more beautiful

Shahn at Six Martinis and the Seventh Art, for the best screen captures ever

David Cairns at Shadowplay, for constantly reminding us of more awesome old movies to see (check out this one, a noir starring George Sanders that I'd barely heard of)

Jacqueline T. Lynch at Another Old Movie Blog, for loving old movies (and Dorothy McGuire) as much as I do.

Update: The Siren has been informed that David Cairns and Marilyn Ferdinand were already tapped for the Dardos. So the Siren isn't replacing them--no sirree, they are irreplaceable--but she is adding two exceptionally worthy bloggers who, so far as she knows, haven't received a Dardos yet. If she's wrong, and they have, well shoot, the Siren can play the Dardos Shell Game long as it takes. So, two more Dardoses to:

Ivan G. Shreve for Thrilling Days of Yesteryear, because he mixes nostalgia with pungent wit, watches great movies, has cool taste in noir and because I can't stop staring at whatever the heck he has on his banner.

Chris Cagle at Category D, because he writes about film on a very high level and because his still-going-strong 1947 project is one of the Siren's favorite things in the film blogosphere.

Tuesday's New York Times has the great Dave Kehr doing what he does best: writing up a set of classic-era DVDs that might otherwise be overlooked or consigned to the nostalgia shelf, and paying due, unironic and well-argued respect to those films. It is a beautiful thing to open a mainstream publication and find a critic willing to argue for the aesthetic and social importance of Delmer Daves and Troy Donahue. The Siren does not always agree with Kehr, although she agrees 100% with this review of the Warners set, and is now thinking she needs to buy it. But Kehr doesn't condescend to the old, and thank god for that.

The Siren wants to be polite in bring up her next topic, because she is trying not to worsen her condition with stress, but do you suppose fellow Times writer Sarah Lyall could make more of a point of reading Kehr and learning from his approach? Look at this line, in a Sunday article about the Guy Ritchie version of Sherlock Holmes due in November, describing Basil Rathbone as "sexlessly debonair in the way Hollywood liked its leading men in the 1930s and 1940s." In his Sherlock Holmes movies, yes, because the role was written that way. But in Rathbone's other movies, like the one above, NO and as for leading men--okay, I won't rant, if you're reading this blog you don't need me to elaborate, just scroll down to the 20 actors meme or any other classic-film-blogger's 20 actors meme. This is the kind of line about old movies that instantly brands you as someone who needs to watch more old movies.

And that brings the Siren to a sincere memo to the extremely funny and very popular Tbogg, who has been energetically mocking Big Hollywood, the new conservative film site. An enterprise to which the Siren says, hey, rock on. But there are a number of entries about John Nolte's TCM Pick feature along the lines of "Hey, another old movie on TCM!" Which might, just might give people the impression that there is something, well, mockable about watching old movies. Clearly the Siren disagrees with that as a general premise, but more importantly, John's championing of old movies is the best reason to read the site. That, and Robert Avrech on anything to do with silent movies. Sometimes the Siren finds good movies via John, other times she disagrees, but does anyone want to argue that even the lowest-common-denominator commenters on BH--no, make that especially them--would not benefit from watching Double Indemnity? Please, Mr. Tbogg, if John wants to tell his readers to watch "Paths of Glory," let him.

Edward Copeland, a voice much-missed during a too-long absence from the blogging scene, has been back for a while, gracing us with, among other things, an absolutely classic title for his review of The Reader. (Don't drink anything when you're clicking over, I'm warning you.) Brooke Cloudbuster at The Performance Review has agreed to take up the gauntlet for this year's Oscar survey as Edward continues his recovery. This year's theme, one dear to the hearts of all Stinky Lulu fans, is The Best and Worst of the Best Supporting Actresses. The Siren is looking forward to participating.

Finally, the Siren did manage to slot her two Foreign films of the past two weeks, she just didn't post them, so she is now.

Week 3:

Sous les Toits de Paris, Rene Clair (1930). The Siren wasn't crazy about the articles she read online about this one; she liked it a lot more than did most reviewers. What they found to be creakiness, the Siren saw as deliberate artifice trying to meld silent film and sound. Beautiful to look at and marvelously bittersweet. Updated to add: Gareth has a good post about the movie, the Siren is happy to reveal. Since it is brief, I won't quote it at length, just go read the whole thing.

Week 4:

Une affaire de femmes, Claude Chabrol (1988).

The Siren owes her Chabrol addiction to Flickhead. Here, Dennis Grunes discusses a scene that also cut the Siren to the quick:

Chabrol and Huppert’s Marie isn’t Mama from I Remember Mama but an imperfect mother, a human possibility and being—a glimpse of which we get from the get-go when she administers the first of several light smacks to her young son, Pierrot. When the baby she is carrying, a girl, is praised by a neighbor, Marie responds, “I got it right with this little one.” Chabrol cuts to Pierrot, whose depth of injury at this remark, to which his mother is oblivious, is apparent to us. In their apartment, Pierrot fishes for reassurance, asking his mother, “When I was born you were happy, too?” But Marie’s response is too general, too impersonal, to reassure: “You were a boy. It is always right to have a boy.” Later, Marie will neglect both children for the sake of her illegal work or her affair, leaving them to fend for themselves during one of Paul’s (it is implied) recurrent abandonments of family or, once he has unapologetically returned, with Paul. Still, she is elsewhere shown to be an affectionate, attentive mother. Throughout, Marie Latour is recognizably, sometimes distressingly human.

Finally, the Siren has to admit that David Ehrenstein's birthday greeting was one of her favorites.

Friday, January 23, 2009

"I'll be beautiful again when I'll be well again, won't I?"

The Siren is deathly ill with galloping consumption. Oh all right, it's a cold. But she is drooping around like Marguerite anyway. Be back soon...Call him now, Nanine, call him now...

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Tiger Shark (1932)

For the Early Hawks Blogathon (Jan. 12-23) running at Ed Howard's most excellent Only the Cinema blog, the Siren decided to go with Tiger Shark, a movie she saw last year, took notes on and never wrote up. It's a pre-Code melodrama made at First National, the Warner Brothers forerunner. The Siren will be honest and say she found it dull in spots, but every time she considered changing the channel, Hawks reeled her back in. Ultimately it is more interesting as a way station in his development as an artist than as a movie, but Tiger Shark is still well worth catching for any of the director's fans, not just completists.

According to Todd McCarthy's Hawks bio, the original script contained a great deal of the then-current dispute between small-time Portuguese fisherman and the big cannery bosses with their large-scale fishing boats. Hawks, never much interested in any type of political filmmaking, largely dropped that angle. Instead, Tiger Shark, like eleventy gazillion other Hollywood movies, has a plot blatantly borrowed from Sidney Howard's 1924 play They Knew What They Wanted. It opens with Edward G. Robinson's character, a Portuguese fisherman named Mike, losing his hand to a tiger shark. The hand is soon replaced by a hook--shades of J.M. Barrie, but we're supposed to think more Melville. Mike soon falls in love with dark-eyed Quita (Zita Johann, to make The Mummy later that same year and essentially give the same performance). Quita marries him on the rebound from a broken affair with a married man. For Mike she feels a misguided combination of gratitude, compassion and yearning for security, but naturally she soon regrets marrying him. Instead she falls in love with Mike's best friend, the upright and handsome Pipes (Richard Arlen). And of course Mike finds out, so what will the volatile and sometimes violent Mike do?

Hawks, together with Wells Root, redid the original story outline to conform more to his own interests, and they eked out a script that followed the lines of Howard's play without ever being obvious or actionable. Hawks didn't even bother to tell Root which plot he was trying to steal. When Root's dialogue proved lacking in spots, especially for some of Mike's speeches, Hawks went out and got Scarface scriptwriter John Lee Mahin to polish the dialogue during filming. On set Hawks would feed Robinson lines and suggestions and Robinson would eagerly incorporate them, thinking the material was coming from his genius director. Meanwhile Root had no idea another writer was off doing a polish. To top it off, Johann's new husband, John Houseman, later claimed that Hawks also paid him to hang around in hotel rooms and write up different versions of scenes, not one line of which were ever used. That Hawks managed to take all of these cooks and come up with a movie that runs under 80 minutes shows you his superb focus. The film's tight, linear construction and thematic unity are two of its strengths. On the other hand, despite Mahin's intervention many of Mike's speeches are still full of overaccented whimsy--whimsy! in Hawks!--and missing the bite that is usually the director's hallmark.

McCarthy quotes Hawks talking about how he and Robinson worked out the way to play Mike:

'We started the picture with a dour man, thinking it'd have more drama and chance of violence when he found about his wife's unfaithfulness. We shot until about three in the afternoon the first day,and I stopped things and said to Robinson, "Eddie, this is going to be the dullest picture in the world. We have nothing to relieve. All we've got is a dour, unpleasant man."' Hawks told the actor about a man he knew who talked quickly and constantly to cover up his shyness, and suggested Robinson make Mike a blustering, happy-go-lucky fellow whom 'you felt kind of sorry for and who could also be pretty tough.' For Hawks, the 'whole tenor of the picture changed' due to the alteration, much for the better, and it also made Mike something of a brother to Muni's Scarface--brutal, insensitive, but also somewhat innocent.

Robinson, a sensitive man ever alert to real or perceived slights, at first found the upper-class mien of Hawks a bit snooty. But the actor later said, according to McCarthy, that he "didn't know anything about the difference between stage and screen acting until he worked with with Hawks." That alone is enough to make Tiger Shark a landmark film. Hawks brings along a rather Melvillian theme, in Mike's fear of and fascination with the sharks, and gives it his classic twist. By making Mike a chatterbox he's able to inject humor into a fearsomely dangerous job performed for a subsistence living.

Much more than Mike's occasional speeches about what he was a-gonna do when he encountered the Great Fisher of Men at the Pearly Gates, the trouble that the Siren had with Tiger Shark largely concerned its romantic leads, Johann and Arlen. They bored her stiff. Ed Howard finds Johann full of "emotionally rich realism" and the Siren can only respond that she wishes Johann had come across that way to her. Johann had a lovely, penetrating gaze but after a while the Siren decided there was nothing behind it. The actress is like the store clerk who's standing 10 feet from you and looking, it seems, right in your direction, and yet she sees nothing and reacts to nothing. Arlen is warm and stolid and basically adequate but combined with Johann he could do nothing to emphasize the stakes in the triangle drama--you care about Mike, but the lovers could live, die or elope to Lake Tahoe, it doesn't much matter. Robinson has to carry the entire weight of the film's interest, something even an actor of his stature can't do when he isn't on screen.

The Siren rises to one small point with Ed and Daniel Kasman, who wrote about Tiger Shark at The Auteurs' Notebook. There is a key part of Tiger Shark that is being attributed to Hawks, but he didn't shoot it. Midway through is an absolutely splendid scene of tuna fishing the old-fashioned way, with individual lines and reels. The men balance precariously on the side of a boat, water covering their feet, flinging lines and huge, wriggling fish around, and damn it looks dangerous, and it also looks familiar. Sure enough, the fishing scenes were shot by our old friend Richard Rosson, who did the splendid logging sequences for Come and Get It (which the Siren wrote about here). Hawks was one of the very few directors in the 1930s willing to consign key sequences to someone else, no matter how talented. Rosson was quite skilled in his own right, and I wish he had made his own features. Instead, McCarthy says, Rosson "almost single-handedly invented the job of second-unit director." It was also Rosson's unit that made the climactic shark battle possible, by capturing two huge ones, freezing them and then wiring them for movement. I wonder if a much-later shark movie, which McCarthy suggested was influence by Tiger Shark, might have been driven less crazy by Frozen Bruce than Mechanical Bruce? The special effects of the last shark sequence work quite well.

In reading about the making of Tiger Shark, you're struck by how the Hawks hallmarks were completely, confidently in place--the use of comedy to lighten the overwhelming possibility of death, the technique of giving actors a few pointers and letting them find their own way, the desire to trim away anything fussy or extraneous to the story. If Tiger Shark is not as supremely accomplished as either The Crowd Roars or Scarface, also made in 1932, it still shows Hawks already in complete command of his talent.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Inevitable 20 Actors Meme

It was as inevitable as the tide, as Oscar-season food-fights, as politicians blaming the media. The 20 Actors Meme, or, as it's known around the Siren's place, more goddamn homework. Mind you, the Siren loves Tony Dayoub, who tagged her, but this time the Siren is doing it her way.

Here are her rules. (Edited to add: These are my rules only, nobody else has to follow them. For some reason I just live to make these things more complicated. The original meme is just 20 actors, 20 pictures. You don't even have to do captions.)

1. No actors who were primarily, or more celebratedly, directors. That means no Orson, though it pains me. That means no Renoir, though his performance in La Règle du Jeu just might be the Siren's favorite of all time. No Keaton, Chaplin, or Eastwood. My rationalization (other than that I need the space) is that they are being saved for the 20 Directors meme, not that the Siren has any intention of starting or even responding to that one.

2. The requirement here is slightly different than for the actress meme. Some of these gentlemen, for whatever reason, have had uneven careers, and the Siren can't in all honesty say she'll watch them in anything. For example, if the Siren ever were to find herself anywhere with Michael Caine, even just a lobby, the force of his brilliance would paralyze her vocal cords so that she could only widen her eyes and point, like Dorothy McGuire in The Spiral Staircase. However, dearly as the Siren loves the man, there is no way in hell she is ever going to watch more than the first 10 minutes of Beyond the Poseidon Adventure.

So the Siren chose actors who always give her a lovely little shiver of "oh, HIM!" every time the name appears in the credits. This is NOT a list about pure acting greatness, otherwise a few of these actors wouldn't be on it. It's about who I love.

4. No comments this time. Just stills. Rather than picking stills that show the actor full-on, the Siren picked some that show him interacting with others, acting being REacting and all that. The Siren chose movies she likes a lot, though in some cases she bypassed a favorite in favor of something more unexpected.

4. Since Tony helped himself to an extra 10, I'm-a grabbing 10 more than that. And I could list 20 after that, but here's the thing. This second group of 20 is no less valid than the first. I could, in fact, flip the groups and be almost as accurate in terms of my taste, save a few that really always have to be on top--those ones my longtime readers can probably guess.

5. Finally--the order. Once the Siren gathered the stills and started uploading them into Blogger, she previewed the post and noticed something a bit spooky. She began to get a sense, as she looked down the vertical line of the photos, that these gentlemen were speaking to one another across movies, that in fact these actors wanted to do an improv. So rather than alphabetical or preferential or chronological order, the Siren felt compelled to let each gathering of photographs have its little meta-narrative, although the story lines probably would have sent Harry Cohn's ass into overdrive.

The First 20

Cary Grant

James Stewart

Michael Caine

James Cagney

Jack Carson

Jean Gabin

Paul Newman

Charles Boyer

John Barrymore

Edward G. Robinson

William Powell

Charles Laughton

James Mason

George Sanders

Sidney Greenstreet

Peter Lorre

Toshiro Mifune

Montgomery Clift

John Wayne

John Garfield

The Bonus 20

Henry Fonda

Canada Lee

Tyrone Power

Terence Stamp

Basil Rathbone

Humphrey Bogart

Burt Lancaster

Anton Walbrook

Marcello Mastroianni

John Gilbert

Sidney Poitier

Thomas Mitchell

Claude Rains

Jack Lemmon

Kirk Douglas

Errol Flynn

James Dean

Louis Jouvet

Rock Hudson

Peter Ustinov

Oh, and tagging. This one the Siren leaves up to her patient readers. You wanna tag yourself? Your wish is the Siren's command.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Foreign Film of the Week: Week 2

The Siren is having a hard time staying on top of blogging at length, but at least she got in her foreign film of the week. It is really depressing when a New Year's Resolution is gone before the mid-point of January

Last week's movie, sent by Flickhead, whose thoughts on the movie are located here: A Talking Picture, directed by Manuel Oliveira.

What's missing from the table and from much of the picture, of course, is the true (truer, anyway) cradle of humanity, basis of much of even Greek civilization, the Middle East. Iraq, Iran, Syria, Egypt among others are not represented, and while Egypt's monuments are shown and discussed, they're discussed not by an Egyptian but by a Portugese. The silence is overwhelming; we hear secondhand about Muslim civilizations, usually as it relates to and clashes with Western civilizations (the Hagia Sophia, Napoleon visiting the pyramids, the Arabs burning the library at Alexandria (a historically disputed event)). Suddenly the Middle East speaks out (or at least we assume it's from the Mid-East--Oliveira leaves even this ambiguous), in the form of a ship's officer with an urgent message, and the entire ship is forced to react to a neglected
culture's startling response.

--from Noel Vera's review

Sunday, January 04, 2009

The Siren's Cinephile Resolutions for 2009

The Siren staggers back into the room, thoroughly worn out from the holiday rush and traveling to the Pacific Northwest laden with toys and toddlers. She hopes all her patient readers had happy, healthy holidays and are ready for 2009.

Does anyone do New Year's Resolutions anymore? Anyone? Well, the Siren does. She makes them work by trying to pick attainable goals. So, not "I will no longer cuss," but rather, "I will no longer cuss in front of anyone under the age of 10." This year is bringing some changes, including a part-time day job. If I want to continue blogging at my current, medium-regular pace I had better get serious and get organized. Herewith, the Siren's 2009 Cinephile Resolutions, and what prompted each.

1. I will watch more foreign films. I have huge--ridiculously huge--gaps in my foreign-film watching, which was brought home when I was researching which DVDs to buy for my annual Happy Birthday to Me Amazon.com order. I think if I am conscientious, I can see one foreign movie per week, for a total of 52 by the end of the year. To keep myself honest I plan to post as I see them, but I won't be writing full-scale essays on each. The Siren tends to write when the muse raps her over the knuckles, and that doesn't happen for every movie, whether she likes the film or not. Then again, it will feel rather silly to post a string of stars or a sentence like "Awesome flick!" after, for example, I finally get around to seeing Pickpocket. If I don't want to write about the film, perhaps I will just post a still to indicate I watched it. Like this one, which was, indeed, an awesome flick, as I expected:

2. I will watch more silent films. My viewing gaps are not quite as embarrassing for this category, and one per week will be harder, especially if I am keeping up with my foreign-film resolution. So I think one per month will be the minimum goal and if I manage more than that I can always come back and brag about it.

3. I will finally figure out this whole RSS thing so I can keep up with my blog reading.

4. I will go ahead and get the damn Tivo. (No one under 10 just read that, I hope?)

5. I will make more of an effort to stagger outside my Siren lair and venture to the cinema. I will do this, at least occasionally, for new releases. Once there, I will not whine about the inevitable nuisances like over-air-conditioned theaters, the house lights blazing through the opening credits so people can get more junk food, inappropriate laughter or the overgrown person in front of me who refuses to slouch.

All right, let's hear your resolutions, or guffaws at mine. And once again, Happy 2009!

(Top picture from It'll Take the Snap Out of Your Garters!)