Friday, April 30, 2010

Twitter and Other Links

For what it is worth, and as she re-reads her own contributions the Siren must truthfully answer “not much,” the Siren is on Twitter, until such time as she decides not to be on Twitter anymore. Right here: http:/ No second “e” in “selfstyldsiren.” The Siren’s rightful title was usurped by someone, hence at least part of her Bad Twitter Attitude.

And a while back the Siren received some very kind words from City Island director Raymond de Felitta, whom she is happy to call a friend, over at Salon.

We veer away now from self-promotion to what the Siren has been reading and watching around the Web, mostly a little out of date, but this is the Siren, so out of date is a way of life.

Further to our Bonjour Tristesse discussion, the Siren has been remiss in not thanking Vertigo's Psyche for putting up this link to part of an interview Jean Seberg did with Mike Wallace just before the movie's release. Her youth and beauty and the unconscious foreshadowing will send your heart careening into your ribcage.

So you think the Siren is mysterious, do you? Well, she isn't, she's just paranoid, which isn't really the same thing. You want mysterious, go with That Little Round-Headed Boy. We all know he's actually Larry Aydlette, but he comes and goes like the Shadow, leaving no archives, just fond memories of how his intelligence and wit lit up a subject like Burt Reynolds or, in this instance, the criminally underappreciated George Roy Hill. Start here and work your way through. You will not, repeat not be sorry.

The best analysis of the sublime Sullivan’s Travels you could ever hope to read, at David Cairns’ place. Read the comments too.

David Ehrenstein earns the envy of film lovers everywhere by interviewing the too-fabulous-for-words Anna Karina, right here in the LA Weekly.

Glenn Kenny on The Shanghai Gesture, at the Auteurs. She said it at Glenn’s place, the Siren will say it again here—god how I love this crazy-ass movie.

At Allure, Goldwyn’s Folly, the ill-starred Anna Sten, with an addendum here, as always with rare pictures from Operator_99’s vast collection.

Vadim Rizov gives You Can’t Take It With You the fisheye at the Indie Eye, and boy did that movie have it coming.

Raquelle at Out of the Past, true to the film her blog is named after, has been blogging like crazy about lesser-known corners in the career of Robert Mitchum: beautiful screen caps from Ryan’s Daughter (and a meditation on CGI), Mitchum’s son James in Thunder Road, and not one but two posts on Mitchum’s Calypso album (she’s a glutton for punishment, is Raquelle).

At L’Eclisse, a fun post on a topic the Siren loves: classic comfort movies.

At Carole & Co., How the Cold War Aided Film Preservation.

The Siren's latest Youtube obsession: The Tired Old Queen at the Movies. Steve Hayes is a familiar face to the Siren—we knew each other a while back, when he was doing a hilarious one-man show that included such gems as a dead-on imitation of Susan Hayward’s Brooklyn-Meets-Dublin accent mashup in the unforgettable Untamed. Now Steve is doing for Youtube what he used to do for cabaret, and I'm working my way through them. Favorite so far: the Queen's exegesis of Lana Turner's driving in The Bad and the Beautiful.

Finally, the Siren hasn’t mentioned this before, but she has a sister, and her sister has a blog. The Velveteen Hamster has nothing to do with movies; that obsessive gene passed mostly to the Siren. My sister’s blog has mostly to do with raising three boys—my nephews. Two have a serious medical condition, and the third is autistic. Please excuse the familial pride, and Rebecca, please excuse my language—but goddamn it, this is a beautiful post.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Bonjour Tristesse (1958)

What an up-and-down experience was Bonjour Tristesse, the film based on Francoise Sagan's brief novel about a young girl with an unhealthy jealousy about her alleycat father. The Siren loved the book as a teen, but it had not aged well when she revisited it. Still, artistically the 18-year-old's debut book was more cohesive than Otto Preminger's movie.

Preminger is no great favorite of the Siren. Of what she has seen, the Siren wholeheartedly loves Laura, Angel Face and Advise and Consent; likes somewhat but does not understand the fuss about Daisy Kenyon and Anatomy of a Murder; withstood Carmen Jones only for the sake of Dandridge and Belafonte and River of No Return for Monroe and Mitchum; was bored or repelled in varying measure by The Man With the Golden Arm, Where the Sidewalk Ends, Whirlpool, The Moon Is Blue and Bunny Lake Is Missing; and loathed Saint Joan, Exodus, Hurry Sundown and The Cardinal.

Excepting the first three movies (and to a degree the second two), there is a funhouse-mirror aspect to the Siren's discussions of Preminger with just about anybody outside of James Wolcott. Where Preminger's fans see sophistication, the Siren sees coarseness and an unpardonably leaden way with jokes large or small. Where they find moral complexity, the Siren finds herself repeatedly poked in the eye with The Message. When admirers talk about the beauty of his compositions, the Siren does see the point in many instances; still, the Siren frets over lack of flow, occasional bizarre framing, particularly in the late movies, and how a scene or even a shot can wear out its welcome until pacing and its sister, suspense, clutch their hearts and keel over. Others talk of Preminger's women; the Siren thinks his movies push almost all of them into one side of a nympho/frigid label and when the film doesn't, as with the title character in Daisy Kenyon, Preminger keeps the audience so far from the character that she never seems quite real.

Now that the Siren has gotten that off her chest, and has royally pissed off all the Preminger fans (I'm so sorry Glenn, I swear I love you anyway), some good, if qualified, words for Bonjour Tristesse. Plot: Seventeen-year-old Cecile sashays through Paris in the black-and-white present, moving from flirtation to flirtation while accompanied by her aging roue of a father, Raymond (David Niven). Flashback to the Technicolor Riviera in the previous summer, where Cecile finds her idyll interrupted by Raymond's marriage proposal to the refined Anne (Deborah Kerr). Unwilling to have her frolics cut off by Anne's prim insistence on things like studying, and prompted also by sexual jealousy over her father, Cecile plots to break up the engagement, with sad results.

One pleasure that maybe should be minor for the Siren, but wasn't: It was shot in France. The locations are a little bit of heaven and Preminger does not stint in using them. The Siren found herself cheering for the characters to get into another car or take another walk, because it meant another fabulous shot of a street, or a beach, or Cecile and Raymond's villa, the most swoonworthy beach house this side of Contempt.

And then there's Jean Seberg, a limited actress whom the Siren will nonetheless watch in anything. (I mean anything. I sat through Paint Your Wagon for that woman.) She had a vividly original beauty and give Otto credit where he deserves it, he shot her like a man bewitched. She walks away from a scene and Preminger leaves the camera on her backside like he can't bear to see her go. Seberg is breathtaking, and Bonjour Tristesse gives you every angle on her that you could possibly have in 1958.

What is interesting about Seberg in this film is the way she handles her obvious insecurities as an actress. Most inexperienced and/or nervous actresses (think early Ava Gardner or Linda Darnell in most things) will concentrate on getting the line readings just right and neglect the whole-body approach you get with someone truly in possession of her craft. Seberg does the opposite. Her movements in Bonjour Tristesse are perfection, or close--whether she is planting a kiss on the boy she's chosen to take her virginity, reaching her arms out to her father on a dance floor, chucking a picture into a drawer in a fit of temper or just getting ice cream out of the icebox, Seberg's every bit of body language plays as truth. But--her voice. Seberg started with a handicap, a thin voice further marred by a field-flat Midwestern accent, but she makes it worse with intonations that suggest she's reciting in class rather than expressing any kind of emotion. The lines all sound the same--a world-weary remark to a suitor gets the same type of expression she gives to joking with her father or plotting Anne's downfall. In Breathless, Godard took Seberg's affectless delivery and married it to a character for whom it made perfect sense. No such luck in Bonjour Tristesse.

The vocal problem is particularly acute because Seberg narrates large chunks of the movie. When we are flashing back to the Riviera summer, she tells us how very happy they were, and how they didn't see anything coming, and now she wonders if it all could have been prevented. And when we move from the Riviera back to Paris, Seberg tells us how very very triste everything is, and where did it all go wrong, and now she and her father are just pretending to be happy. And she also has occasional thinking-out-loud-on-the-soundtrack narration, like where she's chasing after someone and thinking "should I tell her? no, why should I tell her! then again..." All right, I am caricaturing, but only slightly. The narration is dull, at times risible, at least 95% unnecessary, and it's an open question as to whether Danielle Darrieux or Barbara Stanwyck at the height of their powers could have made these interjections work. Seberg, in only her second movie, didn't have a prayer.

Bonjour Tristesse gets a big boost from David Niven in a role that hit uncomfortably close to his real-life reputation. The Siren loved how Niven shows the slight seediness of Raymond's charm, the character's calculation and essential callousness. And Niven gives Raymond just the right amount of flirtatiousness with Cecile--enough to suggest the man is sublimating something by going with his younger girlfriends, but not enough to be repulsive. Deborah Kerr starts off low-key but ends up heartbreaking as Anne, who is rendered a lot less comprehensible and substantive than in the book.

Many of the factors that put the Siren off Preminger are present, though. Attempts at banter among these idle, intelligent people are remarkably slow and unfunny and an extended joke about three maids with similar names is DOA. There was an improbable dance on the docks that reminded the Siren of much that she hated about Carmen Jones. The way Preminger splits up focus in widescreen can strike the Siren as crude, attention jerked hither and yon rather than smoothly drawn from one spot to another. During several conversations there was an odd motif of chopping off the tallest actor at the crown of the head, but that was nothing compared to Kerr and Niven's first big love scene, played in a convertible. This was shot through the windshield in a way that planted the rearview mirror bang in the middle of Kerr's forehead. The Siren simply cannot fathom the reason for this, unless Kerr had somehow incensed her director, a possibility that should probably never be discounted with Preminger.

But the shots that the Siren is complaining about are layered between others of great beauty; in particular the black-and-white scenes are put together with impeccable visual grace. The Siren was delighted with the long swoops of the cars around the Paris streets and Seberg's eyes over her dance-partner's shoulder.

Preminger has a wintry approach to love; romance is usually a distant bat-squeak, if it's there at all. Some directors who don't believe in love do believe in sex, and plenty of it, but despite his vaunted frankness Preminger usually isn't that sexy, either, his camera hanging back as if to say, "Now, if you will, please observe this procedure." But Preminger's attitude is not that far from Sagan's, and Bonjour Tristesse has some heat. The sensuality is almost entirely reserved for Seberg and her young men, with an occasional fatherly embrace from Niven that seems to linger just a hair too long.

Kerr, on the other hand, has her hair scraped tightly off her face, wears clothes that usually don't flatter her and is placed in two-shots with Seberg that emphasize her age (all of 37) in a way that borders on the cruel. Anne's intelligence and intrinsic worth as a person, very much a factor in the novel, are scaled back in the movie. When she reminds Cecile that a seaside tryst "can end up in the hospital" (a pretty goddamn reasonable reminder for a teenager even now) she just sounds prissy. The Siren forgave all this, though, when she saw the final sequences.

Lured by Cecile, Anne stumbles upon Raymond as he tries to lure back his much-younger former flame. As she listens to the man she had planned to marry mocking her age, her looks and even her love, Preminger keeps the camera on Kerr's face, and it's a brilliant choice. You watch this woman's agony grow and grow until you can't bear it any more than she can, and she runs off. It's so beautifully played by Kerr that in no way do you question Anne's suicide later, despite her eminent common sense to that point--what else do you do with that kind of betrayal?

And even more than that, the Siren loved Cecile and Raymond's car ride after he gets the inevitable phone call. They jump into his convertible and wind down the road, and for once Preminger's buildup isn't too long--the car stops in front of the roadblock at exactly the right moment, and its lurch throws you back even though you already know what you're going to see.

Then...back to Paris, and more narration. Lots and lots of narration. But it does build to a superb shot of Seberg, taking off her makeup and staring into the mirror, facing a future already bleak and loveless at the ripe old age of seventeen. That shot, and Kerr's last sequence a few moments earlier, make up for a great deal, even if they don't change the Siren's overall view on Preminger.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Myrna Loy: "Something That Made Them Trust Me"

My favorite Myrna Loy story.

It's from her autobiography Being and Becoming, published in 1988. If you had never seen a single Myrna Loy movie, this book would make you forever her slave. Myrna (I hope the first name doesn't seem like lèse majesté --I love her too much to think of her as Miss Loy) put her movie career somewhat on hold during World War II and afterward to do various forms of charitable work. During the war she spent a lot of time visiting military hospitals. Amputees, burn victims, men blinded in battle, eventually even the shell-shocked guys in the mental wards, she went to see them all. "Apparently I had something that made them trust me," she says, with her usual graceful understatement. "The blind boys would hear my name, put their hands over my face, get hold of my nose, and say 'Yup, that's her.' I would have fun with them for a little while and then go to the ladies' room and cry."

Here is Myrna, offering a steadying arm, kind counsel and a well-timed hair of the dog to another star on a visit to Halloran Hospital in Staten Island.

The biggest hit of all was Betty Grable, who agreed to visit Halloran during a brief stop in New York. When I picked her up at the hotel, she flopped limply into the car. 'Have I got a hangover,' she groaned. 'Harry James and I were out on the town last night.' A game gal, direct and unaffected, she tried to make polite conversation on the way to Halloran while obviously suffering. Finally, I stopped at a little roadhouse, and made her take some beer to appease the gremlins.

Then we got up there, and she's a sensation. Can you imagine? This was the pinup girl of the Navy, the Army and the Marine Corps. They were so thrilled, so excited--some of them shy, some of them forward--and she was absolutely terrific, which wasn't easy in her condition, particularly since she hadn't been prepared for all that horror. Overcome at one point in the burn ward, she sat down on the edge of an empty bed, looking up at me like a little girl ashamed of being naughty. 'That's all right,' I said. 'You can sit and rest.' In the last ward, to cap the climax, we ran into a sexy, life-size model of Betty. The men had built it out of cardboard, with the emphasis, of course, on her famous legs. She was a little upset by it, a bit taken aback. Betty was sick and tired of her legs. All the so-called sexpots become aggravated by the preoccupation with their legs or whatever it is that's concentrated on. 'Oh no, don't be upset,' I told her. 'They love you. They're just happy to see you.' So she stayed quite a while and bore the adulation, giving kisses and autographs, putting her lip-prints on plaster casts as the men moved joyfully around her, some on crutches, some legless in wheelchairs, some excitedly clapping their good hands against their legs, in lieu of a hand that was gone. Once you had seen those men and talked with them, watched their faces light up and heard them call you by your first name, once you realized the amazing impact of your presence--to them you were something of home, however little it might have been--you couldn't walk away.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Oscar Levant on Film Music

The Siren is on a major Oscar Levant bender, having ordered A Smattering of Ignorance, Memoirs of an Amnesiac and A Talent for Genius: The Life and Times of Oscar Levant all in one binge. She isn't sure what prompted it, unless it was watching his big encore from The Band Wagon on Youtube and wondering once more what in holy hell was going on with his hands. Still, Levant, with his dangling cynicism and constant cigarette, is a welcome presence in every movie he ever made. And he's a wonderful writer too, stylish and assured, funny as hell and so informative about George Gershwin. (If you put the Siren under hypnosis she would probably admit Gershwin is her favorite composer.)

Anyway, from A Smattering of Ignorance, published in 1942, here are some vintage Levant thoughts on film scores.

It is a tradition in pictures (one of the most stubbornly respected) that nobody in the world goes to hear a movie score but the composer, the orchestrator and other composers. As a kind of compensation, I suppose, they hear every single sixteenth note in the score and are thereafter equipped to discuss its most obscure subtleties. Frequently, however, they have to be told what the picture itself is about.

This has its parallel in another tradition in the movies with which every composer comes into contact as soon as he reports to a studio. It was probably devised by the first producer ever to use a musical score for a dramatic film and runs as follows: If the audience doesn't notice the music, it's a good score. This I could never quite understand...

Perhaps one of the reasons for the low repute of picture music may be found in the words that fill the air when a Hollywood score is discussed by those versed in such matters. You never hear any discussion of a score as a whole. Instead, the references are to "main-title" music, "end title" music, "montages," "inserts" and so on, with no recognition of the character of the complete score. It is much as if one would discuss a suit in terms of its buttonholes, pleats, basting and lining, without once considering its suitability to the figure it adorned...

In the early days of the talkies the idea of writing music under dialogue was so revolutionary that a number of prominent producers (as, for example, Irving Thalberg) countenanced it only under the greatest pressure, and then but sparingly. They were not merely unfriendly to music; they were actually suspicious of its potentialities.

They made a great fetish, for example, of pointing out the conflict between the so-called "reality" of the movies and the "unreality" of music. Always when a situation seemed to demand a heightening by music effect they would come back at the composer with the question, "But where would the audience think the orchestra is coming from?" This was supposed to be the stopper for all arguments. When a musical background was absolutely inseparable from an effect they would go to the most extravagant lengths to relate the music to the scene by having a band playing outside the window, or secreting a string quartet behind a row of potted palms or having the sound come out of a radio. Unquestionably it is an additional virtue to make music an integral part of a dramatic situation, but it always seemed to me an example of remarkable shortsightedness that even the best directors and producers could not reconcile themselves to the thought that they were dealing with a completely artificial medium and adapt themselves to it accordingly.

The second half of that last sentence melted the Siren into a puddle.

Anyway, in honor of Levant, here is a list of twenty film scores. The Siren, at this point, knows better than to give this list a designation like "Favorites" or, god help us, "Best." After much thought, she has decided to call it "An Alphabetical List of Twenty Film Scores I Could Still Recognize and/or Hum After Two Glasses of Scotch," an organizing principle she feels Levant might approve despite his being more the prescription-drug type.

A Summer Place, Max Steiner
Alexander Nevsky, Sergei Prokofiev
Ascenseur pour l'échafaud, Miles Davis
Band à Part, Michel Legrand
Limelight, Charlie Chaplin
Doctor Zhivago, Maurice Jarre
Giant, Dimitri Tiomkin
How Green Was My Valley, Alfred Newman
Kings Row, Erich Wolfgang Korngold
On the Waterfront, Leonard Bernstein
Peyton Place, Franz Waxman
Shaft, Isaac Hayes and J.J. Johnson
Spellbound, Miklós Rózsa
The Bad and the Beautiful, David Raksin
The Big Country, Jerome Moross
The Reivers, John Williams
The Third Man, Anton Karas
To Kill a Mockingbird, Elmer Bernstein
Vertigo, Bernard Herrmann
Walk on the Wild Side, Elmer Bernstein

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Still Here...

just recuperating from Spring Break, which ends today.

Meanwhile, some links for your general edification:

Via Vadim Rizov at The Independent Eye, a call to arms about the arrest of the great Iranian director Jafar Panahi. The Siren followed the links to the donation page and kicked in some money, and she suggests you do the same, if you haven't already. Direct donation link is right here. The maker of The White Balloon and The Circle deserves at least that much.

At Noir of the Week, the fabulous Sheila O'Malley writes up The Killer That Stalked New York and demonstrates how to start a review with a wallop: "We know right off the bat that the blonde woman getting off the train in Grand Central Station is a bad dame." Dear Sheila, we can only hope that people think the same thing about us as we're getting off the subway.

Rupert Alistair posts about Dragonwyck, the uneven but endearing Old Dark House entry from Joseph Mankiewicz. The Siren saw that one recently and was struck once more by the way murderous, drug-addicted, genealogically obsessed Vincent Price is still obviously the only guy in the movie worth sleeping with.

Ivan is back at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear (hip, hip, hooray!) and posting away, including this fond tribute to John Forsythe.

The Siren has read a lot of reviews of Shutter Island, but David Cairns has her favorite right here. Why? Well, look at the quote he starts out with.

Though it is only peripherally about movies, and movie gossip at that, the Siren still recommends this Lance Mannion post to anyone who yearns to see someone plunge a stiletto into the gasbag known as David Brooks.

Update: Siren favorite Dennis Cozzalio wins her heart by submitting half his answers to his own Christmas April, with the words "there's tardy, and then there's tardy, and then there's jaw-dropping, passive-aggressive procrastination of a spectacular fashion." Well, Dennis, you've set the bar pretty high here, but the Siren still thinks she can beat you.

If anyone else has a link to tout (aside from the porn spammers, natch) please post in comments.