Friday, December 31, 2010

New Year's Eve with Tay, Kay and Bill

Since she can't buy champagne for the house, her Internet house being somewhat too large for the bartenders to navigate, the Siren offers this instead: a small, year-end lagniappe to her patient readers.

Presenting the script to the greatest New Year's fadeout in movie history. (Yes, more so even than The Apartment. And the Siren worships The Apartment.)

From the screenplay One Way Passage. Tay Garnett, director; starring Kay Francis as Joan and William Powell as Dan. Story by Robert Lord; written by Wilson Mizner, Joseph Jackson, and an uncredited Tay Garnett. This one is finally on DVD via Warner Archives. And it's on sale. Cheaper than champagne, and no hangover, although it smudges the Siren's mascara something terrible.


upon which is printed:


A crowd roars and hollers, "Happy New Year!"

A band plays a lively version of "Auld Lang Syne."

Someone sticks a cigarette in the balloon and we hear but do not see it burst.

Instead, we CUT TO a fast TRACKING SHOT that runs parallel to a nightclub--part of the Agua Caliente resort in Tijuana, Mexico. The place is packed with well-dressed revelers: tuxedoes and evening gowns and party hats. Streamers and balloons and noisemakers are everywhere. They dance, they drink, they sit at tables and order food, they make merry.

We SWOOP PAST them all to the far end of the club which is nearly deserted. Two bartenders stand together, polishing glasses at a bar. At one end of the bar, a lone figure sits on a stool. We don't recognize him at first.

But then we abruptly leave our parallel track and RAPIDLY GLIDE IN and PAST the man for a brief, seconds-long glimpse: it is Skippy as we have not seen him before -- well-groomed in a black tux, nursing a drink but looking very sober, lost in thought.

In a moment, he is gone and we catch a short view of the partying mob behind him as we PAN OVER to the two bartenders, wiping their glasses nearby.

I'll be glad when this thing's over.

You're telling me? These holidays are dynamite.

They hear the sound of glasses shattering.

Hey! Look out for them glasses with your elbow!

I never touched any glasses.

Confused, the bartenders turn in the direction of the noise. We hear Dan and Joan's theme as we PUSH FORWARD and between the bartenders to discover the stems of two broken glasses crossed on the countertop, dancing couples visible in the background.

After a moment, the broken glass vanishes, ghost-like, into nothingness.



The Siren wishes everyone a gloriously romantic New Year.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Fandor: Simone Signoret

An actress who loses her looks should not be a matter of distress for a critic, unless she loses her talent or a limb along with them, but Signoret’s rapid descent from siren status has always drawn comment. The up-all-night beauty of the prostitute in La Ronde, one of her first major hits, can barely be glimpsed in the exhausted Resistance operative of Army of Shadows 19 years later. Yet the latter film (directed by Jean-Pierre Melville) also revealed that Signoret’s acting, always good, had only deepened.

Blunter than most was David Thomson in the 1975 A Biographical Dictionary of Film: “Gallantry cannot conceal the thought that few women, so dazzling at thirty, have faded so much by fifty.” And reading that entry, few women can conceal an ungallant thought such as, “Hey, Mr. Clooney, at least Signoret started out gorgeous.” Still, Thomson may be grasping an actual point by the wrong end. There’s something heroic in a woman–-Brigitte Bardot, Anita Ekberg, Marianne Faithfull–-who takes great beauty, smokes it down to the filter and grinds it out under her sole.

Refusing to preserve beauty tells society–-tells men-–that the thing valued above all in a woman is what should be discarded, and not the woman herself. Perhaps Thomson isn’t wrong to write of the “cinematic tragedy” of Signoret’s lost loveliness as though it were a personal affront; in a sense, it is.

From the Siren's essay about Simone Signoret, which can be read in its entirety here at Fandor. Please do leave a comment there as well. This one was a pleasure to write for many reasons, primarily because Signoret's best movies are so good, and Signoret so marvelous in them. One of her best performances, in Marcel Carne's modern version of Therese Raquin, can be viewed through Fandor's subscription service. But the Siren also confesses that as a fan of Signoret, she has been waiting a good long while to express her opinion of Mr. Thomson's entry on the great French actress. Now that the Siren has done so, death--well, it will still sting. But somewhat less so.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Repost: Christmas With the Talmadge Girls

A repost from December 2008, for two reasons. One, it still cracks up the Siren. Two, it reminds her of how very grateful she is to be spending this Christmas in New York--so grateful that she accidentally misquoted Miss Loos last night on Twitter and Facebook: "There is nothing in this whole world that can warm the human heart like a Christmas in New York." The Siren's copy-editing memory trimmed an adjective, as you shall see. She isn't sorry, though. If the formidable Anita were alive, the Siren would tell her it's a sentence that doesn't need qualifying.

Merry Christmas, from the Siren's favorite city in the world.

Last year the Siren was traveling from New York to Seattle with four-year-old twins and her 14-month-old in tow. Should you ever attempt this, the Siren has one word for you: Bribes. Our bribes consisted of factory-sealed juice and milk boxes, one for each kid, which careful reading of the relevant airline guidelines seemed to indicate was permissible.

The security guard, however, must not have read the same Web page, because she hauled out all of our toddler baksheesh and arranged it on the table with a scowl that said we were about to get busted, big time. "I'll have to call my supervisor," she said, with the air of one who says, "I'll have to call Judge Jeffreys." Said supervisor arrived, a small and stressed-out man in his uniform shirtsleeves. The guard took him aside and the Siren heard her saying, "It's too much, they're trying to bring way too much." But instead of glaring at the Siren and her rule-bending brood the supervisor cocked an eyebrow at the guard and the Siren heard him say wearily, "They're traveling with three kids, f'Chrissake. Let 'em take in the juice."

He turned and started to walk away and the Siren cupped a hand to her mouth and called, "HEY!" He turned.

"MERRY CHRISTMAS!" called the Siren, with gusto that would have befitted the Cratchits. The supervisor grinned and mouthed, "You too."

To that supervisor, and all those who are willing to bend the rules to make a holiday brighter, the Siren dedicates this story.

It's from Anita Loos's completely charming book about her relationship with silent stars Constance and Norma, The Talmadge Girls. Anita, Constance, the third Talmadge sister, Natalie (who would later marry Buster Keaton), and the formidable Talmadge mother, Peg, decided one year during their 1920s heyday that a warm California Christmas just wouldn't do. So the four ladies took the storied Twentieth Century to New York City and arrived just after midnight on Christmas Day. They found a Christmas tree on Vanderbilt Avenue, but no decorations. They deposited the tree in their hotel suite and Peg went to bed but Constance, Natalie and Anita, being more adventurous sorts, went out determined to find something with which to trim the tree. After wandering the deserted streets they found a drugstore in Grand Central that was open and staffed by a handsome, but sleepy clerk. He immediately recognized Constance Talmadge, but sadly admitted that his drugstore had nothing for tree-trimming.

And we were on our way out when the clerk, seeing romance about to disappear from his life forever, called, "Oh, Miss Talmadge! Come on back!"

He proceeded to unearth a box of small objects wrapped in silver foil, which glistened in the light. When Nate asked what they were, he said evasively, "What does it matter? They look like icicles, don't they?

Dutch [Constance's nickname] agreed eagerly and purchased all he had of them. The young man now ventured further. "Could you use some balloons?"

"Terrific!" Nate piped up. At which our benefactor produced a package of small deflated balloons, which he explained could be blown up and secured with dental floss. After which our young friend bethought himself of surgical cotton to serve as snow. Then, in a parting gesture, he presented Dutch with the two strings of colored lights that were blinking above the cash register.

The drugstore clerk, utterly in love with Dutch at that point, carried the "decorations" back to the hotel suite where he, Anita and Talmadge girls decorated the tree.

"Let's wake Peg up to see it!" dared Nate. And it was agreed to risk Peg's fury. When she entered, wearing her nightie and sleepy-eyed, we waited breathlessly for her reaction.

"Why," she exclaimed, "it's absolutely gorgeous!"

Dutch's suitor now felt safe enough to introduce himself to the mother-in-law of his dreams. "Mrs, Talmadge," said he, "my name is Lester Noonan and I'm honored to make your acquaintance."

As Peg blinked at him, Dutch placed a caressing hand on his arm. "Lester dug up all the ornaments for our tree!" she announced.

But she spoke a little too fondly, for Peg immediately began to assess the young man's attractions. As if he were not even present, she asked, "And where did you dig him up?"

"At that all-night drugstore!"

"Drugstore!" Peg repeated in a tone that placed all drugstores in a category with cesspools. Suspiciously, she turned to remove one of the icicles from the tree, examined it, and then in smoldering fury she addressed Lester.

"Why you sonofabitch!"

"Peg!" we all remonstrated.

"Do you know what this thing is?"

"What?" asked Dutch.

"It's a suppository!"

Lester blanched and looked flat enough to creep under the wall-to-wall carpet.

"What's a suppository?" inquired Nate.

"That's right! show your ignorance!"

Now Peg yanked one of the small balloons from the tree. "And d'you know what this object is?...It's a goddamn contraceptive!"

"What's a contraceptive?" asked Dutch.

"It's only due to my upbringing that you don't know!" Again Peg turned on Lester. "It's scum like you who give movie stars a filthy name!...Take that nasty thing apart before Walter Winchell gets wind of it! Or Town Topics! Or, God help us, Louella Parsons!"

We removed the unholy objects from our tree and Lester found a trash bin in the back hall where he could bury them.

We had scarcely finished when Norma and Joe [Schenck, later Norma's husband] descended on us from Atlantic City...

"Merry Christmas!" exclaimed Norma. But then, spotting the tree with its unlit bulbs and gobs of cotton snow, she gasped, "What is that thing?"

...But at that point Joe was already coming to the rescue. He picked up the phone, called the hotel management, and commandeered the enormous Christmas tree that decorated the downstairs lobby.

By that time the bells of St. Bartholomew's were chiming 'O Come, All Ye Faithful' and through the windows we saw snowflakes drifting like a benediction. There is nothing in the world that can warm the human heart like a snowy Christmas in New York. And as Lester forlornly approached Dutch to say "Well, Miss Talmadge, good-bye," Peg, in an upsurge of Christian spirit, invited him to join the family party. In reaction, Dutch's gaze took on the nearest thing to love light I had heretofore encountered.

Happy Holidays and a joyous New Year from the Siren's family, to yours.

(Above, the Talmadge girls in San Diego. Left to right: Constance, Natalie, Buster Keaton, director Clarence Brown (identified for the Siren by Rudyfan1926), Norma, Peg. Middle, Constance. Second from bottom, Anita. Bottom, Norma.)

Friday, December 24, 2010

Speak Out for Panahi and Rasoulof

For each year's celebration of Christmas, the world prepares a reminder that peace and goodwill are guiding stars, not destinations where we can stop and rest. This year's reminder comes in the form of the ghastly regime in Iran, where filmmakers Jafar Panahi and Muhammad Rasoulof have been sentenced to six years in prison and banned from filmmaking for 20 years. There is no point to naming the government's charges against them. Panahi and Rasoulof have been imprisoned for being artists. They join thousands of other Iranians who have struggled for freedom in that country.

The Daily Notebook at MUBI has been tracking both the news of the filmmakers' struggle, as well as the outrage from people of conscience worldwide. As awards season starts, giving those who make movies the means to speak to millions in their own voices, we hope as many of them as possible seize the chance to support one of their own.

Meanwhile, those of us who watch and love film, and who care about freedom, seek to contribute as best we can. I urge you to add your signatures to the online petition here.

As always, I wish my patient, and most beloved, readers the happiest of holiday seasons.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Christmas Week with Marty Robbins, John Ford and the Siren's Thought Processes

So Sunday night the Siren admitted on her Facebook page to having this Marty Robbins classic on the brain all weekend and not something more holiday-appropriate, like "Frosty the Snowman." At the time, she couldn't figure out why. Peter Nelhaus popped up to point out that Marty is, of course, way cooler than Frosty and the Siren also bethought herself that Marty looks better in white. All true. But not a full explanation.

Then, during a two a.m. bout of insomnia that also featured guest appearances by the UPS truck that is hoarding one of the family's toy shipments as well as fresh turkeys that go bad and frozen turkeys that won't defrost, the Siren realized there was, after all, a Christmas connection here, and she wasn't as far afield as she thought. You see, Marty Robbins did the definitive version of "Streets of Laredo."

And "Streets of Laredo" figures in the Siren's favorite scene in John Ford's 3 Godfathers, from 1948. Harry Carey Jr. is dying, and as he asks to hold his godson, the canvas of the covered wagon stretches out behind him like the white linen in the song. We see a yellow blanket around the baby's head like a halo, and a blue blanket wrapped around that like a Madonna's robe. John Wayne's grief and guilt are plain though the camera shows mostly his back, as he walks away with that unique loping grace--tell the Siren all day that he was always John Wayne, but how many actors can do that? As Carey starts to sing and pace with the baby, the top of a chair in the foreground seems odd for a second, until it suddenly becomes a brief vision of the headstone Wayne and Pedro Armendariz won't be able to give their friend. Wayne and Armendariz are kneeling to one side; the Magi. They stand as though to pay respects. Now Carey crosses back through the shadow cast by the wagon. And, in a directorial choice that prompts all sorts of Christmas thoughts about the miracle of genius, the camera stays exactly where it is, as Carey sits down with the baby, and the wagon and the white canvas and the shadow embrace him and the child and hide them from sight.

In the giant clip-retrospective ever unspooling in the Siren's head, that, my friends, is one great Christmas scene.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

In Memoriam: Blake Edwards, 1922-2010

A handful of the Siren’s work colleagues read her blog, and she sits next to one, an economist who visits the site from time to time when he isn’t unraveling the mysteries of GDP and U6. Thursday afternoon as the Siren was stashing her pocketbook in her desk this gentleman greeted her with, “So, when can I expect a Blake Edwards tribute?”

The Siren stammered that she doesn’t, indeed she can’t write something for every great movie figure who dies. The Siren memorializes people when she has something to say, and contrary to what her longsuffering sister might tell you, she doesn’t always. Blake Edwards has a long, varied and important filmography, but many of the films that make his reputation--the Pink Panther series, 10, and even S.O.B.--are not to the Siren’s taste.

But her colleague’s question made the Siren think of an exchange on Glenn Kenny’s blog a while back, concerning Carol Reed, where the question came up: “How many great films does it take for someone to have auteur status?” Well, the Siren absolutely does not set herself up as an arbiter of such matters, but she pointed out that Reed has three great films, and others she loves, too. And Thursday, after telling the economist she wouldn’t post about Edwards, she afterthought that she should. Because Edwards made three films that are firmly ensconced in her personal pantheon.

The first is Days of Wine and Roses, a movie that belongs to that category of film that’s so harrowing it’s hard to analyze. In the Siren’s mind, it caps a whole cycle of alcoholic/AA films that begins, roughly, with The Lost Weekend and Smashup: The Story of a Woman and continues through I’ll Cry Tomorrow and other slide-into-the-bottle films such as The Joker Is Wild. Not one of those came close to the effect this movie had on the Siren. (Neither does Leaving Las Vegas, for that matter.) The other films either plunk you down in media boozus, or show alcoholism as something that’s triggered, essentially, by a run of bad luck. Days of Wine and Roses, with a skilled purveyor of slapstick at the helm, has the nerve to start when the drinking is still fun and the drunks are still charming--and not just because they’re the intensely lovable Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick--and then take them to where all smiles stop together. The Siren isn’t sure when or if she’ll watch it again, ever, because then she’d have to watch Lemmon smashing the greenhouse, or trying to persuade a breastfeeding Remick to have a drink with him. Frankly, just the opening bars of the credits kill her. But it’s a great movie.

The second is Victor/Victoria. The Siren loves everything about this film. What Dennis Cozzalio describes, perfectly, as its “expansive cabaret energy.” The fairy-tale Paris Edwards conjures, where sex is so delightfully pervasive you’re free at last to take the a la carte approach you’ve always dreamed of. Julie Andrews and the cockroach. James Garner getting hugged by Alex Karras. Lesley Ann Warren, each screech perfectly modulated in a dumb-blonde performance the Siren would rank right alongside Jean Hagen in Singin’ in the Rain. And above all Robert Preston, a great actor who never got the long run of film parts he should have, capping the movie with one line: “You bitches.”

And then the Siren cycles around to Breakfast at Tiffany’s. This film brings up a different question: Howard Hawks’ dictum aside, how many great scenes does it take for the movie itself to be called great? The Siren recuses herself from the bigger argument, again. But she knows how many great scenes it takes for her to overlook every single flaw in a movie, and love it anyway.

It takes exactly one.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

No Greater Glory; Or, Is Subtlety Necessary?

Last week Tom Shone asked when uplift became a quality reserved for children’s movies, and wearily observed, “We toast the misanthrope. We ask for morbidity's autograph.” James Wolcott issued a hearty second, and the Siren votes in favor of the motion.

Today, however, she has a different, but perhaps related query: Is subtlety necessary? We don’t seem to require it when the plot slams into ways in which we humans are, frankly, a bunch of slobs. But when the subject is the yearning for love, home and friendship, or the virtues of peace over war, suddenly modern audiences are all about a lighter touch--unless, as Tom also notes, we have a bit of distance lent by CGI animation. Wanna show the beast within? Hit me with your best shot, baby. (As the very first commenter on Richard Brody’s 25 Best of the Year puts it, “What’s wrong with unpleasant?”) But dial up the emotion on the love scenes, and some--not the Siren’s distinguished company in comments, but some--are going to squirm, especially if you’re unlucky enough to be in a snickering moviehouse audience, as the Siren has been on a couple of occasions she’s complained about too much already.

This meditation is inspired by the Siren’s second viewing of No Greater Glory, the 1934 Frank Borzage masterpiece that she urges you once again, in a most unsubtle way, to just click over and buy, please. Themes are spelled out in line after line, big moments are brandished like the flag the young characters fight over, the sentiment and melancholy are grand and conspicuous. The film is not subtle, and that’s why it’s great.

In an Eastern European city just after World War I, a gang calling itself the Paul Street Boys is fighting a rival group for control of a lumberyard that serves as their sole playground. The Paul Street Boys are just that, no more than ten or eleven years old. Their enemies, the Red Shirts, are maybe three or four years older, larger and tougher as well. At first young Nemecsek (George Breakston) seems the weakest of the Paul Street Boys, but the film gradually shows that he is, as Lawrence Quirk put it, “the one pure spirit of the lot.”

Quirk included this in his collection of The Great Romantic Films, and for years the Siren thought it a rather odd choice. What’s an antiwar allegory doing side-by-side with Death Takes a Holiday and The Life of Vergie Winters? One viewing showed her why, of course. Nemecsek’s devotion to the Paul Street leader, Boka (Jimmy Butler) is irrationally romantic and very like a women’s picture, where the love object is often unaware, undeserving and unable to respond until the woman does something drastic, such as catch her death. Boka doesn’t seem to deserve Nemecsek until the end, and perhaps not even then. It’s the leader of the rival gang, Feri (the handsome and quite marvelous Frankie Darro) who declares to Nemecsek, “You’re all right,” and treats him with respect from then on. But as in other classic Hollywood love stories, the appeal of a rival is beside the point. When Boka realizes, too late of course, that the devotion he’s been mocking is the worthiest he’ll ever experience, he goes to Nemecsek’s bedside--and Nemecsek rears his head off the pillow with a light in his eyes more blazing than Camille’s.

The movie starts with stock war footage, then cuts to an embittered soldier raging about war: “They made me fight.” Then we see that same soldier, older now, in front of a class lecturing the boys on the old lie, “dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.” It’s a loud echo of a similar scene in All Quiet on the Western Front, but the switch also prepares the ground for No Greater Glory’s tonal shifts.

Nemecsek’s ineptitude gets played frequently for laughs, underlined by a rather bouncy score that includes some Strauss late in the movie when the gangs swing into their version of war. But Borzage switches emotions during those scenes with ease, as when Boka chews out Private Nemecsek, and it’s amusing until Nemecsek starts to cry, gets mocked for it, and we remember the agony of such moments from our own childhood.

Take the scene in a greenhouse where Boka, Nemescek and another Paul Street boy are hiding from the Red Shirts. Nemecsek, already shivering and soaking wet from falling in the lake, is ordered into the greenhouse pool to hide and, absurdly, he covers his head with a lily leaf. The camera shows us a frog on another lily pad, and the first cut to Nemecsek shows his nervousness as funny. Then we see the frog closer, and the croaks get louder, and the cuts back to Nemecsek reveal the boy’s genuine terror, and the way he’s fighting not to scream. But he stays in the pool, big-eyed and fearful, even after the Redshirts have finished their search and left. Nemecsek won’t get out until Boka tells him to. Subtle, no--the scene’s effects are obvious--but it’s an astonishing feat of tone, ludicrous childhood fears giving way to the movie’s purest example of courage.

What knocked the Siren sideways in both viewings of No Greater Glory was just how ravishing it is. George Breakston’s weak-chinned, big-nosed face takes on the aspects of a Christ child. The boys shoot marbles, their arms lined up in perfect rhythm. Lamplight turns the scenes in the botanical gardens into glimpses of the supernatural. Nemecsek climbs a pile of lumber to see whether someone is trying to steal their flag, and the camera follows him with a movement so lovely and precise the Siren gasped. The simplest shots, like one looking down a row of boys being inspected by Boka, are so immaculately balanced the Siren drank them in as though she were spending the afternoon at the Frick. There isn’t a single graceless frame, not one shift of the camera that doesn’t give complete aesthetic satisfaction. On that basis alone, the Siren would happily call this her favorite Borzage movie (and the Siren loves Borzage in general, she loves him very much indeed).

If the Siren wants to irritate herself, via the same impulse that has some of her Twitter pals live-tweeting certain talk-show hosts, she can look up a treasured old romantic film and find someone sneering. And not necessarily a modern critic either; there’s always Bosley Crowther, so consistently, flamboyantly wrong the Siren has developed a weird affection for the prosy old bore (scroll down for a nice example). So it’s really quite heartening, in this holiday season, to note this movie’s fervent support in unexpected quarters, and look at the IMDB ranking, and see the comments from all sorts of viewers who get it. Perhaps, pace Tom, we don’t need to “lighten up.” Maybe we just need more romance--obvious romance.

Note: Several people have commented on the new banner, from Desk Set. It comes from the splendid Six Martinis and the Seventh Art, which the Siren has been praising a lot lately, for excellent reasons. If you want a larger dose of Christmas cheer, in black-and-white and even (unusuallly for the blog's proprietor) color, just click over to Shahn's series from December 2007.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

A Letter to Elia: From the Siren's First Column at Nomad Wide Screen

East of Eden, however – that one is a bit surprising, for a minute or two. A literary adaptation of a flawed John Steinbeck novel set in rural California, a Biblical allegory writ so large and plain even the character's names ring a cathedral bell for Cain and Abel--what big link is there to the man who made Taxi Driver and Goodfellas? And yet, it isn't surprising at all. East of Eden is crippling in its level of emotional violence, James Dean's need for his father's love so raw it's like a third-degree burn. Scorsese makes several references to his own relationship with his older brother, never spelling out particulars. Eden spends a lot of time with the Bible-reading scene, where Dean's father, played by Raymond Massey, tries to force a confession as to why Dean had pushed blocks of valuable ice down a ramp. Richard Davalos as the brother watches Dean's agony with a bit of sympathy, but mostly relief that he's the good one. Even without the cagey tidbits about his own brother, it's clear Scorsese admires the film's ruthless eye for the way men simultaneously seek connection and cut themselves off from it.

That is the Siren writing about the excellent A Letter to Elia, the documentary about the art of Elia Kazan from Martin Scorsese and Kent Jones. It’s from her first column for Nomad Wide Screen, and for now it is available here. The column, scheduled to appear bimonthly, is called Retro Fit and will deal with, well, what you’d probably expect the Siren to deal with, only in first person. She'll still be here in third person. Nomad Wide Screen is an online magazine that forms part of Nomad Media. You can check out the first issue here and read about the contributors, who include my esteemed pals Vadim Rizov and Simon Abrams. The editor of Wide Screen is the great Glenn Kenny.

The magazine will be subscription-based, and the Nomad Media founders explain the philosophy thus:

Nomad Editions represents a new business model for digital media. We believe that readers will pay a fair price for high-quality, original and exclusive content, delivered in a superior format, to mobile devices.

Nomad Editions also wants the creators of that content — writers, photographers, illustrators, and editors — to be well rewarded for success. Nomad Editions shares a substantial percentage of our revenue with the contributors and editors, so that everyone who's part of Nomad Editions has a direct and substantial stake in the success of the business.

The Siren hopes her patient readers will check it out, and sign up. Free trials are available here.

(The screen cap is from a brief but wonderfully heartening post at 24 Frames Per Second, about the reaction of college students to Dean's performance in East of Eden: "He's still got it.")

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Repost: Changing

Every once in a while, the Siren reposts something; this is from December 2007. She will not trouble her patient readers with why she is reposting this. Trust her. She just needed to.

Every day I try to write. It is most difficult at home, where there are telephone calls, Linn, nursemaids, neighbors. If I had been a man it would have been different. A man's profession is respected much more, as is the work he does at home, his fatigue, his need to concentrate.

Try telling a child that Mamma is working, when the child can see with its own eyes that she is just sitting there writing. Explain to the nurse you pay dearly to do what is expected of you--explain that this is important, is supposed to be finished by a certain date--and off she goes, shaking her head, convinced I am neglecting my child and my home. Success in one's profession and trying to write a book do not compensate for domestic shortcomings as obvious as mine...

I doodle on a piece of paper and my conscience bothers me. Because I am a bad mother, because I am inadequate, don't answer letters, don't mend the faucets but allow them to go on dripping for months on end.

I have coffee with a neighbor and make excuses for everything I am doing, because I know that she will never understand why this is important for me. This terrible "female guilt." I dare not have music on when I am in the basement, writing, lest upstairs they think I am just sitting here loafing. I feel that to be respected I must produce pancakes and home-baked bread and have neat, tidy rooms.

These are my thoughts as I try to write about how good it is to have a life that gives so much freedom, so many choices...
--from Changing by Liv Ullmann

Liv Ullmann's autobiography has always been one of the Siren's favorites. She read it in high school in Alabama, when she had never seen an Ingmar Bergman movie, and indeed had barely heard of him. The Siren saw the front cover, and liked the looks of Ullmann. That was it. Later, after reading the book and falling in love with the actress, the Siren tried to watch Persona on whatever was passing for pay TV back then. She didn't understand a single frame. When the Siren looks in the mirror she can still see the line between her eyebrows that had its genesis all those years ago, as she furrowed her brow over Persona. Guess that one is due for another viewing. [Note: Persona still awaits that second date.]

Anyway, it was the account of Ullmann's youth and her struggle to become an artist that fascinated the teenage Siren, not the book's references to work versus home. Certainly the Siren registered passages like the one above, as that is how she was able to pull the book down and find those paragraphs in a matter of minutes. But back then, she read Ullmann's words and thought, "Poor Liv. Oh well, won't be that way for me."

In the words of Daffy Duck, "Ho ho and ha ha."

This is primarily a film blog, and the Siren has always operated on the assumption that people don't particularly want to hear about her personal life, which includes a devoted husband, three children under the age of 5 [now 7] and glorified hospice care for an ancient cat. [Said cat has now passed on, bless her sweet, ineffably patient and loving soul.] But this week, the Siren thought you might want a few words on exactly what takes her so goddamned long to write anything.

Partly it is control-freakdom of a very high order. When it comes to writing, the Siren is a slogger. She looks at bloggers like Lance Mannion and Glenn Kenny, able to turn out thoughtful posts almost daily, and she has no idea how they manage it. To write a paragraph, for the Siren, is to re-write it, flip it, delete a sentence, insert another, move the graf to the top, shift it again to the bottom and then delete the thing altogether. Afterward it is quite possible she will be flipping through blogger tutorials trying to figure out how to retrieve it.

Under the very best of circumstances the Siren might be able to write two or three things a week. Mostly the Siren doesn't have the best of circumstances. Rather than boring her patient readers with her domestic travails, the Siren thought she'd let Liv explain things for her.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

"People who think they don’t like classic movies just haven’t seen the right ones."

Last month the Siren did an interview with Victor Ozols of BlackBook Magazine, which is up today at their online edition. It demonstrates several things, among them that Victor (whom the Siren has known for years) is a charming man, and also that the Siren doesn't look one damn thing like Joan Fontaine in Suspicion. Many thanks to Victor for his time and graciousness, for giving the Siren yet another forum for her ramblings, and for letting her tout For the Love of Film (Noir) at some length.

P.S. It's also been drawn to the Siren's attention that her line, "Film noir often plays really well to modern audiences, because we relate to the cynicism and the dialogue and the dark deeds," may reveal something about her view of modern life...

P.P.S. Esteemed Shadows of Russia Comrade Lou Lumenick of the New York Post and the Siren have been indulging in a bit of crowing over the appearance of Leo McCarey's flawed but fabulous My Son John on Netflix Streaming; check out that and Lou's other streaming discoveries at the link. Warm thanks to Vadim Rizov for pointing out My Son John's Netflix bow to the Siren; spasibo, Tovarisch.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Five Big Yearnings

The Siren doesn’t usually post about the truly random movie thoughts constantly flitting around her brain, but she’s been pondering this all weekend and wanted to hear what her patient readers had to say. It’s prompted by looking at the schedule for Fritz Lang in Hollywood, an incredible series scheduled for the Film Forum in January/February 2011. Now the Siren has Lang on the brain anyway, what with For the Love of Film (Noir) working to preserve a remake of a great Lang movie, and writing about the terrific House by the River at Fandor--available here, and no firewall anymore. The Siren has a hell-or-high-water must-see series list that includes (but is not limited to) The Secret Beyond the Door, You and Me, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (Joan!) and An American Guerrilla in the Philippines, none of which she’s seen yet. But there’s also Moonfleet, which she saw again recently on a very good DVD, but yearns to see on a big screen.

So the Siren got to thinking. Of all the movies she’s already seen on DVD, TCM or VHS, which ones would she most like to see on a big screen in a great print?

Here are five. This list is just for starters, of course, but these are very serious yens. The fact that they’re all black and white is...interesting. And unplanned.

1. The Crowd. The Siren’s twins were about seven months old and still waking up in the middle of the night from time to time. The feed/change/settle routine for a total of two (2) babies usually equaled about 90 minutes of activity, and ended that morning at about 5 am. The Siren was in the habit of putting on TCM during this process. So she gets the last baby to sleep and is about to collapse back in bed, and goes back to the living room to turn off the TV. And noticed The Crowd was about to start. And thought, “Let’s take five minutes to see how this looks.” A little over 100 minutes later, it was time to get ready for work. And when the Siren, so sleepy she was swaying slightly on her feet, ran into an equally movie-mad colleague (we used to share custody of a VHS of Letter from an Unknown Woman), she chattered at him about The Crowd to the point where he put up both hands and said, “I have never seen you like this about a movie.”

Perhaps it isn’t the sort of quote people pick for an ad in Variety, but “So good mothers of infant twins choose it instead of sleep” is one hell of a recommendation.

The Crowd isn’t on DVD. Now the Siren is very, very cognizant of the special issues involved in preparing a good DVD release of a movie as old as The Crowd. She knows she whines a lot. But this isn’t merely the best silent movie the Siren has ever seen. Without hesitation she will name it as one of the greatest movies ever made in this country or anywhere else. So hearing that there is no Crowd on DVD is like planning a trip to MOMA, only to have them tell you that Starry Night has been stashed in the broom closet. Well, let’s hope Warner Brothers is on the case.

If, however, the Siren could see this one on screen, hand on heart, she promises to shut up already about the DVD.

2. The Long Voyage Home. You know who else wants to see this on a big screen? John Nolte of Big Hollywood. The Siren can’t remember his exact words, but the phrase “crawl over broken glass” may have occurred in there somewhere. Mr. Nolte’s love for John Ford, and appreciation for this lesser-known film, is one of those heartwarming instances of cross-aisle harmony that sustain us all in these partisan times. This is another that the Siren watched by chance on TCM, and the brilliance of Thomas Mitchell, the incredible tenderness and sympathy afforded these men doing a spirit-sucking and lonely job, and above all the deep-focus cinematography of Gregg Toland put her in traction. If John should be in town when this one comes on screen, in a gesture of Ford-loving solidarity the Siren will not only crawl with him to see it, she’ll buy his popcorn, as long as neither one of us brings up Obama. Or Jafar Panahi.

(The screen grab above is from a series posted at Six Martinis and the Seventh Art, always and forever one of the Siren's favorite stops on the Web.)

3. Love Affair. Because Christmas is coming, and the Siren yearns to see Charles Boyer give Irene Dunne her present.

4. The Fallen Idol. The Siren regards The Third Man with the same awestruck reverence as everyone else--more, even. There are, she suspects, not that many fans of the movie who went so far as to name their only daughter Alida. And yet, given a choice between Harry Lime and Baines larger than life, at the moment she’d pick Baines. “We ought to be very careful, Phil. 'Cause we make one another.” “I thought God made us." “Trouble is, we take a hand in the game.” This screened last year at Film Forum--while the Siren was in Paris.

(Gorgeous screen grab is from Coffee, Coffee, And More Coffee, where Peter Nelhaus is in the habit of posting coffee-drinking images from all kinds of movies. Patient readers should stop by and thank Peter for this dose of Michele Morgan.)

5. David Copperfield. David Ehrenstein, where are you? Are you still banging the drum for early George Cukor? Because the Siren is right there with you, and she’s never seen an adaptation of Charles Dickens (her favorite novelist) to surpass this one. Nor will there ever be a Micawber to equal W.C. Fields. And Karen shares the Siren’s love for Freddie Bartholomew.

In conclusion, speaking of movies that deserve restoration, big-screen unspooling, DVD cases with luxurious little booklets and just one whole hell of a lot more respect than they have received in the past, let’s talk about Julien Duvivier’s La Fin du Jour. The Siren mentioned that Dennis Cozzalio posted about it, but she didn’t do his splendid essay justice. It’s an elegant, deeply sympathetic and altogether marvelous piece of film criticism that will make you want to bite your arm off at the elbow in frustration if you haven’t seen this tantalizingly hard-to-find masterpiece. Really, please, go read it.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Hey Diddle, the Cat and the Fiddle, This Time I Think We Go Up-a Da Middle

The Siren does not dig team sports, as a rule, although at various points in her dissipated past she has faked an interest in them for unsavory motives of her own (impressing boys, basically). There is one team, and one team only, about which she does care, for the sake of her late lamented father.

Many years ago that team, the Alabama Crimson Tide, lost a football game to Auburn University by one point. Her father watched the blue-and-orange end-zone celebration for about 30 seconds, switched off the TV, walked into the garage, grabbed a pair of hedge clippers and went out to trim the bushes. Under ordinary circumstances, this was about as likely a scenario as seeing Leslie Howard attempt a field goal. My mother followed and watched him for a minute, and when she started to fear that our hedge would soon resemble a petunia patch she ventured, “Gary. It’s only a game.” He grunted, stopped, then turned to her and said, “No, it isn’t. It’s the end of the whole goddamn world.”

Today’s project chez Siren: Find some goddamn hedge clippers.

Note: The Siren welcomes anyone patient enough to read her maunderings, without regard to differences of background or opinion. Republican or Democrat, East or West Coast, George Sanders fan or George Sanders skeptic, she loves you all. However, today she gives fair warning that until further notice, Auburn fans caught gloating in her comments section will be deleted without mercy.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving: The Siren's Request Results

The Siren was quite gratified by the number of requests she received. She ran into a few little problems, such as the tendency of some treasured commenters to respond with lists, which forced her to go all CEO and select just one request per person for the hat. Duplicates were given separate slips under each name. So after placing 84 small pieces of paper in a straw hat, because the velvet was too shallow, and having the Siren's longsuffering husband draw out four, the results are as follows:

Ball of Fire - Bill Wren, Piddleville; Happy Miser; Oshimoi

Village of the Damned - Laura, Who Can Turn the World Off With Her Smile

The Saint's Double Trouble - Yojimboen

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959) - Ted S. Raicer

The Siren would like to assure those of an unduly suspicious nature that she had a large number of requests for George Sanders movies, and therefore the fact that one-half of the selections do, in fact, star Sanders is quite simply not her fault. She won’t claim it made her unhappy, however. The Siren will be writing these up in the order in which she gets her hands on them.

Meanwhile, she wishes all her patient readers the very happiest of Thanksgivings.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Announcing For the Love of Film (Noir)

It’s been a good year chez Self-Styled Siren, and Thanksgiving week finds me with many fine things to contemplate. Ask me the best part of 2010, however, and I won’t hesitate for so much as a single frame. It was so spectacular that every time I think about it, I lapse into first person. It was For the Love of Film, the blogathon I co-hosted with the indefatigable Marilyn Ferdinand of Ferdy on Films. It’s a wonderful thing to write about old movies week in and week out, and have people swing by to share the obsession. It is, I have to say, even better to see 81 bloggers come together to write about preservation, and watch reader after reader open their wallets and give money to the cause.

I have had no prouder, happier moment in my five years of running this site than when the National Film Preservation Foundation announced the grand total of $30,000 in donations and matching funds and unveiled the silent shorts that will live on thanks to the people who wrote and gave. I know Marilyn, whose birthday request for preservation donations sparked the idea, and whose energy drove the project, feels the same way. So does Greg Ferrara, who donated the graphics and created a commercial. So, in fact, does every person who wrote a post or threw in some dough.

The 2010 blogathon ended Feb. 21, and by oh, say, 9 am EST on Feb. 22 Marilyn and I knew we’d have to do it again. And so it has come to pass. Today we unveil For the Love of Film (Noir), a blogathon to benefit the Film Noir Foundation.

The first blogathon focused on the earliest days of film, where the preservation issues are often the most pressing, but other films from other eras are in grave danger as well. For the second blogathon, Marilyn and I decided to focus on another part of film history. Led by its president, Eddie Muller, the Film Noir Foundation works to preserve the films that form one of cinema’s most creative and deeply loved genres. The FNF has worked to preserve noirs not only from the U.S., but from many other countries as well.

We'll be doing this for Valentine's Day week again, Feb. 14-21, 2011. I’m going to let Marilyn deliver the best news:

Last year, we didn’t know what films we would be helping to restore, but this year, we do! In 1950, a searing drama was released called The Sound of Fury, aka Try and Get Me. The film recounts the same story Fritz Lang told in Fury (1936) and was directed by Cy Endfield, who would run afoul of the Hollywood blacklist. Its star, Lloyd Bridges, never had a better role, and Eddie told me that when Jeff and Beau Bridges finally saw the film, they were blown away by his performance. A nitrate print of the film will be restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive, using a reference print from Martin Scorsese’s personal collection to guide them and fill in any blanks. Paramount Pictures has agreed to help fund the restoration, but FNF is going to have to come up with significant funds to get the job done. That’s where we come in.

The Siren loves this genre, but you knew that, because you do too. Breathes there the cinephile with soul so dead, who never to himself hath said, “Tonight by golly, I’m gonna watch a noir”? And Marilyn, Eddie, Greg and I are hoping this near-universal taste translates into high participation.

Meanwhile, as the holidays approach, think about sharing the loot with the FNF before the tax year ends. Nothing wrong with getting a jump on things--the more money they get, the more noir we have to savor.

There are an awful lot of potential topics connected to noir--the photography, the dialogue, the themes, the social history, the influences that shaped it and the influence it wields today, and on and on--take your pick, buddy. Our Facebook page, For the Love of Film , will be continuously updated with suggestions, discussions and news. (And yes, there will be raffle prizes again this year, and who knows what other twists in the plot.) Over at the For the Love of Film blog, Cinema Styles’ Greg has posted banners you can use on your own blog and Facebook page. There’s more than just Joan, although you realize of course that the Siren can’t look at a Bennett and not itch to post her picture.

Like the detective said, it's the stuff that dreams are made of.


And so you may be thinking, “Hey Siren, I could have sworn I spent last week asking you to write about approximately three hundred different movies of varying degrees of popularity, obscurity and eccentricity. What’s up with that, lady?” Well, the drawing was done by the Siren’s husband, the films are selected and the Siren is rustling up copies. It’s just that contemplating film noir set her to thinking about Out of the Past and now the Siren has gone all cold and hard and Jane Greer, figuring if she couldn’t be all bad she’d come close.

No, seriously, today is about the blogathon. Tomorrow is Requests Day.

Meanwhile, Dennis Cozzalio of Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule has written up his own request assignment, La Fin du Jour, and a cracking good job he’s done, too. Please mosey over and have a look.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Siren by Request

Once in a while someone asks the Siren to write about a particular movie. Like the one friend who wants a flapper movie, any old flapper movie, and another friend who wants the Siren to write up Demolition Man (he hasn't lost his mind, the Siren told him she likes that one). The Siren's usual flip response is that she doesn't do requests. She isn't trying to be difficult, honest. It's just that the Siren scrambles to maintain posting around here and besides, she has the cinematic attention span of a cocker spaniel, always rushing from one obsession to the next.

Now we have the holidays coming up, the season of giving, and the Siren had a thought. Maybe she should spend December writing about things other people want, as a change of pace, instead of assuming that everyone will be thrilled to bits to read about Joan Fontaine or Constance Bennett for two weeks running.

So here's the big idea. Email the Siren (address is in her profile) or leave a request in comments. Twitter or Facebook message works too, or even Western Union--the Siren has always wanted to get a telegram. One movie per person please, one she hasn't written about before. Please make it something that is either easily available, or that you happen to know is hanging around the DVR or the DVD closet chez Siren (maybe because you, um, sent it to her).

The request line closes at 8 pm EST, Thursday Nov. 18th. Sometime that evening or the next day the Siren will print out the results, toss them in a hat (yes, a real hat, circa 1950, it's velvet and it has a feather) and draw four. And over the next few weeks the Siren will write 'em up. The total of four is designed to match her usual once-a-week posting pace.

The Siren isn't going to limit this to her favorite eras, but please, do remember her delicate sensibilities. Wags requesting the likes of Cannibal Holocaust or Freddie Got Fingered will not be taken seriously. And listen, if you're dying for another George Sanders movie, speak up, don't be bashful…

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Alert: Rare Joan Fontaine

The Siren got another email from a pal late last week, this time alerting her to a YouTube rarity: Something to Live For (1952). "I've been wanting to see this practically my whole life," said her correspondent; "it's never shown anywhere, at any time." Why should it be, really, directed as it was by Hollywood small fry George Stevens, sandwiched between two pieces of indie esoterica called A Place in the Sun and Shane. Seriously, the Siren has no flipping idea why this one is rare, since it appears to have been written directly for the screen, and come on, George Stevens?

But of course, we know why the gentleman emailed the Siren, and it wasn't to stoke any latent auteurist leanings, although the Siren is a Stevens fan: "It stars Joan Fontaine. As a drunk."

Naturally the Siren watched in one quick hurry, and she suggests her fellow Fontaine obsessives do the same, since who knows when Something to Live For will turn up again. The version posted has Spanish subtitles and one of those cable watermarks that never fail to inspire murderous thoughts in the Siren. The recording is decent, no more, although the Siren warns there are a couple of scenes in darkened theaters that may make you think you're watching The Light That Failed. But overall it's good enough and the film is worth your while, with a warmth and sincerity that grew on the Siren.

Although there's plenty of Fontaine, and she's in good form, it's really Ray Milland's show, a pendant to The Lost Weekend that shows what Don Birnam might have been facing 14 months after going on the wagon. Milland plays Alan Miller, an ad executive whose participation in AA leads him one night to the shabby Times Square hotel room of Jenny Carey (Fontaine), an actress whose crippling insecurity and busted romance have contributed to her drinking. He's drawn to her immediately. Although Jenny's able to stop drinking soon after Alan comes on the scene, her fledgling struggles to stay off the sauce mirror the trouble he's having with his own sobriety.

In fact, what's most interesting about the plot and characters isn't that they fall in love. It's the way the movie bypasses the initial battle to quit drinking in favor of looking at just how hard it is to stay quit. Alan's advertising job is yet another forerunner of "Mad Men" and that show's take on the industry's socializing, so often more grisly than anything that goes down at the office. The hard-drinking nature of the era and the job test Alan constantly--the people who press him to drink a toast, the maitre d' who keeps telling him to wait at the bar where a visibly irritated bartender repeatedly asks him for an order, the office party where the same boss who was gossiping over whether he was "nipping again" pours him a drink. And when Alan goes home, his loving and supportive wife still jerks bolt upright if he happens to stumble on the way into the bedroom. It helps that the wife is played by Teresa Wright, who could make simple feminine decency more interesting and moving than just about any other actress.

Still, it's logical that Alan would fall hard for Jenny, who understands his ordeal in a way no one else does. Plus, Fontaine looks so beautiful that you believe a man would fall in love with her even when she's so sloshed she can barely raise her head off the pillow. Fontaine's part is harder than Milland's--her sobering up is abrupt, her psychology isn't explored as much and the script asks her to go from alcoholic defensiveness to gentle adoration without much of a way station in between. Her talent enables her to pull most of it off, however, and Fontaine's pained reactions at a chic party are especially wonderful.

Downsides include a certain predictably of plot and dialogue and a saccharine, repetitive score that irritated even the Siren, who usually thinks any decent screen kiss should include a full orchestra. The opening is marvelous, with some of the most interesting visuals--lots of "cage" shots through the paned windows and the grille of the elevator. And as the Siren's email pal pointed out, the movie is full of luxurious dissolves and many close-ups of Fontaine and Milland. There's a couple of beautiful process shots of the old Penn Station that will make New Yorkers weep.

AND, at the end, you get Joan Fontaine's bare midriff, with a jewel in her navel. If that doesn't make you click through, the Siren doesn't know what will.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Advice from the Siren

A gentleman has emailed the Siren:

I think you should start an advice column. Here's my first question:

Dear Siren,
I don't understand why Charles Boyer would prefer Olivia de Havilland over Paulette Goddard in "Hold Back The Dawn."
Please advise.
Signed, Cinematically Conflicted

Dear Conflicted,
The Siren is always happy to oblige her patient readers, although she warns some questions are beyond even her mythological powers. Happily, this one she can illuminate, if not solve.

In the studio era, it was occasionally assumed that what a man wants in a life's companion is wholesome sweetness and naïveté, not red-hot rafter-rattling sex. That hasn't been the Siren's personal experience, but then again, she never tried to conduct a love affair under the watchful eye of the Hays Office.

De Havilland was gorgeous, but given her prim character in the movie, Olivia over the much livelier Paulette joins some other puzzling choices. These include Dick Powell even realizing Ruby Keeler is alive when he is right there in the same movie with Ginger Rogers or Joan Blondell; Judy Garland over sultry Angela Lansbury in The Harvey Girls; Janet Leigh over Eleanor Parker in Scaramouche (and in case you're wondering, no, the Siren is never going to get over that one); Donna Reed over Lana Turner in Green Dolphin Street; the Catholic Church over Ingrid Bergman in Bells of St. Mary's; the Welsh church over Maureen O'Hara in How Green Was My Valley; and Margaret Lindsay over Bette Davis in Jezebel.

You may notice a number of these are literary or theatrical adaptations; indeed, this quandary has classic antecedents, e.g. Ivanhoe. Given free rein many, if not most, scriptwriters got it right. Clark Gable, for example, almost always managed to pick Jean Harlow by the last reel.

In an unusual example of Hollywood reverse sexism, this problem is rarely encountered when women are doing the choosing. Rosalind Russell prefers Cary Grant to Ralph Bellamy, Irene Dunne prefers Cary Grant to Ralph Bellamy, and in one that must have really stung, Carole Lombard preferred Fred MacMurray to Ralph Bellamy in Hands Across the Table. The Siren can think of two examples where she questions a heroine's taste, although in both cases there are extenuating circumstances. Joan Crawford goes for Henry Fonda over the decidedly more sensual Dana Andrews in Daisy Kenyon, but as Andrews' character is something of a heel, and it was Fonda's job up to 1968 to be a mensch, you see it coming. And in How to Marry a Millionaire, the large age difference between William Powell and Lauren Bacall can be taken as explanation of why Bacall picks Cameron Mitchell, although the Siren always mutters, "I don't care how old he is--woman, are you nuts?"

There's one that will stump the Siren to her dying day, however. In Walk Don't Run, the remake of The More the Merrier, Samantha Eggar picks Jim Hutton over a never-in-the-running Cary Grant. That flaming chunk of crazy was part of what made Grant decide being a cosmetics executive was a much better deal.

In real life it is a toss-up as to who would have won a Goddard/de Havilland Hold Back Your Man smackdown. They both had It. And How.

Best regards,

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Halloween with Joe Breen

The Siren's patient readers know she is, not to put too fine a point on it, a wuss when it comes to horror movies. She'll do "subtly creepy," "atmospheric," and "ghostly" all day, but when we get to "utterly freaking terrifying," let alone "physically nauseating," she starts coming up with excuses. Like, "I can't watch Zodiac because Alida was counting on seeing Stand Up and Cheer." Yes yes yes, the Siren knows it's a procedural, but she'd been told it was a horrifying procedural.
Perhaps it will gladden the hearts of Trish and David E. and Filmbrain and Noel Vera and Tom Shone and and Glenn Kenny and Tony Dayoub and Kent Jones and oh, pretty much much her entire blogroll to hear that the Siren ran out of excuses last night and she watched Zodiac. Alone, with the kids in bed, curled up on the couch with a flannel blanket, a box of Kleenex for her head cold and a small glass of brandy to keep the beasties at bay. And yes guys, she liked it, more than The Social Network even, and the Siren liked The Social Network quite a bit. The Siren had a dilemma, however. She was going to write about something scary for Halloween, and Zodiac didn't scare her. Creeped her out, yes; made her clutch her blankie during violent scenes; showed her that Robert Downey Jr. is sexy even with a ghastly '70s beard; made her reflect that if she were ever to be picked off by a serial killer, and harbored hopes that the wheels of justice eventually would run the guy over, she really had better not get bumped off on the border between police jurisdictions. But scared, no. The Siren didn't even need the brandy, although she drank it anyway. So here it is, Halloween eve, and everybody else is doing scary stuff. The Siren wants to play too, so she came up with a solution. You what's scary?

This guy is scary. Joseph I. Breen, dean of the Hays Office, enforcer of the Production Code, scourge of toilet-flushing, decolletage and the word "lousy."

So grab your blankie and your brandy and return with the Siren to the days when the Great Bluenose From Philadelphia stomped through Hollywood, leaving in his wake piles of balled-up script pages and discarded film stock, as well as filmmakers rubbing their temples and reaching for the bicarbonate.

Let's see how Breen sought to protect us from too much sex in our horror movies, because isn't that what you think about when deciding which one to watch? That's the Siren's first concern with every horror movie, no matter the year: "Gee, I hope there's no sex."

The Hays Office did a great deal of its work before cameras ever turned, going through scripts and tossing out whatever ran afoul of the Code and their interpretation of it. What follows are some excerpts from correspondence about the 1940 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, directed by Victor Fleming; they're taken from Gerald Gardner's The Censorship Papers: Movie Censorship Letters from the Hays Office, 1934 to 1968. These script notations are part of Joe Breen's memo to Louis B. Mayer, Nov. 12, 1940:
Page 38: The scene of the girl taking off her stocking must be done inoffensively and without any undue exposure. Please also do not overemphasize the garter… Page 47: The line 'I want you--want you every minute' is not acceptable… Page 49: Omit the underlined words in the expression 'the little white-breasted dove'… Page 63: The following broken line must be changed: 'Underneath I'm as soft as your white--' Page 56: The dialog that ends the scene beginning 'I'm hurting you because I like to hurt you--' is unacceptable by reason of containing a definite suggestion of sadism…
After the script had been edited to the censors' satisfaction, often a movie would be screened so they could be sure a director wasn't trying to screw them (a verb the Hays Office was striking as late as Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?). Screening Dr. Jekyll resulted in the following memo:
In the scene where Jekyll carries Ivy up to her room, delete the large close-up where Ivy's breasts are unduly exposed… In the first montage, delete all scenes [of Hyde] lashing the two girls. In the second montage, delete all scenes having to do with the swan and the girl, and the stallion and the girl… [Note from the Siren: Damn, I would have liked to see that.] In the scene in the cabaret, delete the crotch shot of the dancing girls...
Breen, ever ready to do a good deed, also warned the filmmakers that the British Board of Censors would probably delete a reference to Buckingham Palace. Fleming & Co. still managed to turn in a great S&M horror flick, even if the Siren prefers Rouben Mamoulian's 1931 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Let us turn now to James Whale's very great Bride of Frankenstein, which began life in 1934, the year the Code came into full effect. Sex wasn't so much the problem with this one, although Whale received notice that the term "mate" was unacceptable as it implied that the monster "desires a sexual companion…we suggest that you substitute the word 'companion.'" No, the real trouble with the script was intrinsic to the very theme of all Frankenstein pictures, the idea of a scientist usurping the role of God--although some sex still had to be scissored, as well as icky words. From a memo sent by Joe Breen to Universal Pictures, dated Dec. 5, 1934, about the script then called The Return of Frankenstein:
Page A-12. We suggest changing the word 'entrails,' as it will be offensive to mixed audiences. Page A-16. We also suggest omitting this scene of the rat, as its portrayal has in the past proved offensive… Page B-7: We suggest omitting the line 'It was like being God.' This line in the past has proven somewhat blasphemous. Page B-20: For the same reason, we suggest omitting the line 'as they say, "in God's own image."' Page B-25: This scene of the miniature mermaid should be handled in such a way as to avoid any improper exposure. [Note: This may well be the Siren's all-time favorite Hays Office line.] Page B-26: You should omit the line 'If you are fond of your fairy tales' as a derogatory reference to the Bible.
James Whale responded to each point, changing the word "entrails" to "insides," for example, and altering the B-7 line to "it was like being the Creator himself." Whale also told the office that the mermaid was going to have very, very long hair.
It's worth noting that the Hays Office was, unbelievably, often more lenient than other censors. Despite all those protracted negotiations and extensive changes, Bride of Frankenstein was banned in Trinidad ("because it is a horror picture"), Palestine and Hungary, and shown only with extensive deletions in Japan, China, Sweden and Singapore. The Siren adds that Mr. Gardner cleared up her confusion about the poison in Ivy: "The word 'arsenic' was struck from many scripts on the theory that, deprived of this information, the moviegoer would never realize that arsenic was a lethal substance." Happy Halloween! The Siren, confident that she has fulfilled her obligation to frighten her readers, adds links with the same aim: Kim Morgan on Strait-Jacket. The Siren can't think of another film writer anywhere who could use this giddily bizarre flick to anchor the most respectful and deeply affectionate tribute to Joan Crawford that any fan could desire.
They Came From Beyond Hollywood, at Peter Nelhaus' place.
Flickhead visits the Hot L Whitewood, with a side trip to Chiller Theater.
The Futurist has been doing a lot of scary stuff for Halloween, but this takes the biscuit. Jacqueline T. Lynch reminds us of what might have been frightening people on other radio channels during that War of the Worlds broadcast. Complete with a newsreel of Orson Welles saying "Sorry, guys," a rundown on the 1953 movie and advice on how to handle a Martian invasion.
Every day is Halloween at Obscure Hollow. Just click over and bask in all the incredible screen grabs. The Siren may not be a horror connoisseur, but she loves this site to bits and pieces.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Intimacy at the Movies

A couple of weeks ago I was two-thirds done with the New York Film Festival. Certified Copy and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives were mind-blowing, especially the former, I loved Another Year, and my favorite, Mysteries of Lisbon, was so good I'd sit through all four-and-a-half hours again. (The camerawork reminded me of Ophuls. I am still trying to write that one up.) It was glorious, it was rejuvenating.

But my old-movie habit wasn't being fed. Sometime around the two-week mark the withdrawal became too much and I posted on Facebook and Twitter that I was going to dig up a pre-1960 movie and watch it to the last frame. Maybe some followers thought I was being cute about how much I needed to do this. I was as serious as All Quiet on the Western Front.

And I watched Ivy. And it was good. So good I started to wonder if this was simple addiction. It did feel uncomfortably like I was one of those people who went to sleep in Shreveport and woke up in Abilene. "Come on, Oscar nominee from 1934, let's you and me get drunk." But surely nobody ever wound up in rehab because they couldn't stop quoting Bette Davis movies. I can, in fact, stop anytime I like. Don't look at me like that. I have a Netflix copy of Zodiac right there on my dressing table, you just can't see it because it's under the eyeshadow palette. I've had it three weeks and haven't watched it yet, but I'm telling you I could watch it right now if I felt like it and if my daughter weren't already downstairs watching the 1940 Blue Bird. I just don't want to. I'll watch Zodiac this weekend. Right now I need to keep watching old movies, I have too much else going on to quit something that isn't harming me anyway. Hey, did anybody else notice some benevolent soul has posted Hold Back the Dawn on Youtube?

I'm not going to quit--I don't have a problem--but I often have stretches of wondering why I do this, aside from the prestige of attending swank parties and announcing that I blog about movies a lot of people have never heard of, let alone seen. And I have had a small moment of clarity.

When I find a blog I like, I often read through the archives, and I was going through Tom Shone's blog, Taking Barack to the Movies. He writes mostly about contemporary movies and some politics, in his graceful and very witty style, and I love it even when he's making me feel guilty for not watching Zodiac. I found a post called "Best Films of the 1930s." Not that I am necessarily more interested in that topic than Sam Rockwell or anything, but I read it, and pulled up right here:

The films I most prize are the ones that look normal, and sound normal, and feel normal, but unfurl with the sinuous, sneaky logic of a dream. Movies that cast a spell. I don't mean surrealism — not a fan. I mean a big-budget studio picture that despite the involvement of hundreds of people, from money-grubbing producers to eagle-eyed costumiers, seems to have bloomed from the unconscious of a drowsy Keats...I recently had a spirited debate with my friend Nat about my theory that one cannot know and enjoy a picture made before you were born with quite the same casual intimacy of a film made in your lifetime. That older film can be 100 times better but it still doesn't breathe the same air you do in the same way that even a cruddy picture produced yesterday can.

Interesting. Absolutely bloody fascinating, in fact, because it's the precise opposite of the way I react to new versus old movies. It is this:

Some contemporary films do cast a marvelous spell for me; Avatar, the aforementioned NYFF films. I want to see more that can do the same. But if I want a film to speak to my most secret Siren soul, something to forget my life and the venue and possibly even the day of the week and whoever is sitting next to me, I'm looking at immensely better odds if I go pre-1960. Casual intimacy for me usually comes in black and white or Technicolor. Or sepia. Or Color by Deluxe. I've been intimate with sepia and Deluxe.

I don't want to argue (much), I want to attach an endnote. Clearly, it's true for Tom. Today we had coffee and I told him I was thinking about writing this and he's already got a lovely, lucid response right here. (This has got to be a personal best in terms of slow composition. I am now so slow that someone responds before I post.) His observation is probably true for most moviegoers. A chart based on the moviewatching feelings of the public as a whole might look like this:

    Item 1. Percentage of People Who Feel Casual Intimacy With a Cruddy Picture Produced Yesterday

    Item 2. Percentage of People Who Feel Casual Intimacy With a Movie That's 100 Times Better But Is Older Than They Are

    Item 3. Percentage of People Who Feel Casual Intimacy With Anything That Was Shot Before 1960 and/or Has Bette Davis

But the Siren is smack in the middle of Item 3, with most of her patient readers, god love 'em.

What is with us?

There is a certain Charlie Brown impulse at work for me, definitely. The Social Network is all over the Web, so I don't feel a need to write it up when every major critic and at least a dozen highly talented bloggers got there first. But see this one over here, gathering dust on IMDB with just two cursory external reviews? Not enough people are watching it. This movie needs me, Linus.

I hope nobody brings up nostalgia. I realize I am touchy on this issue, but gad I hate having that word attached to my movie tastes. Here's the moment from my girlhood when I realized nostalgia was bunk. I had just watched some damp-eyed TV documentary about this great swingin' party that I missed called the 1960s. And I said something to Mom along the lines of "Gee, you must have loved the 1960s, it looks like so much more fun than right now." And Mom (she might not even remember this) looked me in the eye and said, "What I remember about the '60s is that every time I got to liking a musician he died. And every time I got to thinking here's a person who can make the world a better place, somebody went out and shot him."

Nostalgia is for people who don't read much history, I think.

I could blame my parents, and have, like when Dennis brought up early viewing a few months back. They left me alone with the TV and gateway drugs like Busby Berkeley and John Ford and Vincente Minnelli and Shirley Temple (is Alida done with that one yet? OK, she's still watching). I could watch anything I wanted if it was old, but if I wanted to go to a current movie, my mother in particular was convinced that explicit sex or excessive screen violence would warp my mental development. See Raging Bull at too tender an age and the next thing you know I'd be under the patio torturing chipmunks or something. I need hardly add that this wasn't ironclad reasoning by my mother. I would watch the original Scarface or Busby Berkeley pushing the camera under the chorus girls' legs and believe me, I got it. My father was a great deal more laissez-faire; when I was about 12 years old he caught me carefully dog-earing the dirty parts of Lady Chatterley's Lover and all I got was a couple of raised eyebrows and "Time for dinner." But when they were deciding what I could go see at the local cinema he deferred to Mom. I'm pretty sure that I am one of the only film writers in captivity who didn't see an R-rated movie until they were actually, chronologically 17 years old.

Result was that I grew up watching old movies and thinking this was the way movies were supposed to look, lush or spare, shadowy or sparkling, the camera lingering or gliding and no such thing as acne or pores. And this was how a movie was supposed to sound, resonant, highly individual voices speaking wonderful dialogue against the gentle sonic hiss of the soundtrack, a score trailing the action like a cloud of perfume. Without those things, I can still be enthralled. But sometimes the lack of them is a small barrier to intimacy. "I see you have pores. Gosh no darling, of course it doesn't matter. I've seen them before. Is that a lamp on the side table, sweetness? You know, if we switch it on, we'll have light coming from three points…"

As usual, I wind up going to my commenters for the real insight. There's the friend who said simply, "There's something in the rhythms of these movies that's in tune with your own." There's David Ehrenstein, who maintains that "the 30s, not the 70s, was the great period for American commercial filmmaking," citing James Whale, Dorothy Arzner and George Cukor as directors doing genuinely experimental work. And there's Arthur S., who once remarked here that it isn't nostalgia if what you're watching is actually more daring and more radical than what's playing at the multiplex. There's an overarching style to classic cinema, but within it you can see astonishing variation and innovation, like poets ringing changes on sonnets or terza rima.

It is, essentially, an aesthetic preference like any other, one that was probably imprinted early by the circumstances of my childhood. Which brings me to my own children, now safely asleep. They watch a lot of Pixar, which is fine--Up and Wall*E? Brilliant. Spell-casters for sure. And heavily influenced by classic Hollywood. I haven't watched that many old movies with my kids. At ages seven and four they are already more in tune with popular culture than Mom. That's good in a lot of ways. Dragging Astaire and Rogers into everyday conversation didn't exactly make me queen of the Alabama schoolyard. Maybe I should just let my brood continue like that.

Fat chance. I'm ordering Chaplin at Keystone for them, and then I'm going to bed.