Saturday, December 31, 2011

New Year's Eve with Diana Dors

The Siren didn't get you a Christmas present. Or a Hanukkah gift, or a Kwanzaa offering, or anything else, and she's sorry, because she loves you all, she does. So here's her gift to you, for New Year's: a link. Click right here and watch the 1956 British noir/social drama, Yield to the Night, in its entirety. The movie stars Diana Dors and was directed by J. Lee Thompson, who went on to helm Ice Cold in Alex, Cape Fear and Guns of Navarone. It's on Region 2 (and was screened a couple of years ago at the Film Forum) but isn't available on DVD here in the U.S. The link was given to the Siren by the generous gentleman named Dan Leo. And now she passes it along. The Siren warns you, because she can’t deal with the guilt if she doesn’t, that this downbeat movie will not have anyone clinking the champagne glasses. Still, it does have a New Year’s Eve angle—basically, a PSA—which the Siren will note in due course. But at some point soon, please, carve 90-some-odd minutes out of your schedule and watch. Then come back and read this post. Did you do it? Good. If you didn't, oh, what the hell; this movie is not about plot twists. Whoever programmed for the PBS Alabama affiliate during the Siren’s girlhood had a raging obsession with a children’s movie called The Amazing Mr. Blunden, or perhaps had acquired a royalty-paying interest in it. Whatever, the (wo)man threw Blunden on the schedule on a regular basis. The Siren and her sister saw Mr. Blunden so many times we'd talk back to the screen in Bama-bred British: "Tew layte, Mistah Blunden! Yew're awwlways tew layte!" The Amazing Mr. Blunden meant Young Siren thought Diana Dors was a character actress who looked like this

  and it was a few years before she found out that au contraire, Dors spent her time at the top looking like this: Dors has a small part in David Lean's towering version of Oliver Twist and a larger one in A Kid for Two Farthings, Carol Reed's entry in that great genre, "Cry Your Eyes Out Over an Animal.” Neither movie prepared the Siren for Yield to the Night. It was Dors' big acting break and, despite the way her career played out, melancholy proof that she deserved other parts as good as this one. Yield to the Night boasts a pre-credits opening that starts with a shot of a woman’s feet, surrounded by pigeons, seamed stockings tapering down into high heels. We follow her as though spying, the camera crouching and peering from behind fountains, through banisters and gates. She gets into a taxi and when she emerges we see the back of her platinum head and the sway of her coat with each step. Her black-gloved hand tries a key in an ornate door as a chrome-trimmed car pulls up. The ominous, drumming soundtrack gives way to the cocktail-ready music on the car’s radio as this mink-clad woman’s foot is shown, shoeless on the gas pedal. She slides her elegant pump back on and walks around the front of the car. Through the windows of another parked car, we watch her lean through the open window to gather her packages from the day’s shopping. The mink lady opens her front door, the one we just saw. The blonde’s feet are reflected in a hubcab before we move up to her little cloth clutch, and she takes out what we’ve surely been expecting—a gun. The mink lady reaches through the car window for more packages, and the blonde fires into her back. Then, finally, we get a good look at the face of the blonde as she continues to fire and the victim collapses.

  And what do you know—the blonde is Diana Dors, tossing the gun pointedly between the mink lady’s prostrate legs. As people rush to the scene, there’s a zoom to that sensual face as Dors savors the one moment of heavily qualified triumph this character is ever going to get. The expression begins to dissolve into apprehension almost right away, as a man looks up at her in bewilderment. A socko opening, worthy of being compared to Wyler’s version of The Letter.

As soon as the credits are over, here’s our blonde in prison. No trial scenes. They would be silly anyway, since Mary Hilton (Dors) didn’t exactly try to commit the perfect murder. Yield to the Night is not a whodunit, but on one level a whydunit, Hilton’s time on British Death Row alternating with flashbacks to show How She Came to This, a noirish backstory combined with chilling prison scenes. The film quickly establishes prison’s relentless infantilization of the condemned woman. The male chaplain and lawyer call the prisoner “Mrs. Hilton” and talk to her in an optimistic head-patting way. But to the women who guard her, Mary is “Hilton,” like a schoolgirl. Regal-featured Yvonne Mitchell plays the guard, Hilda MacFarlane, who forms the closest bond with Mary. In her first scene, MacFarlane fetches sleeping tablets, prescribed to get Hilton through the first night of knowing she’ll be hanged in less than three weeks. Then she lays a black cloth across Mary’s eyes; the lights in the cell are always on, probably to prevent Hilton from using darkness to cheat the hangman.

  Hilton can’t choose her books or her pastimes, she can’t even cut her own nails. The guards do it for her while she sits in the bath, perfect skin gleaming with water, arm passively outstretched, in a recurring image that evokes both the birth of Venus and the death of Marat. Yet Hilton still tries to claw back life’s decisions; one of the first things she says to the guards is a peevish, “I don’t want any cocoa.” She demands to go to bed early, she sweeps chess pieces onto the floor, she must be coaxed to eat. Hilton can flash resentment at reminders of her fate, such as late in the movie, when a hapless substitute guard tries to go through the door, always shut and elaborately ignored, that leads to the execution chamber. Dors’s expression and her acid “Not that one” are more frightening than she was when committing murder. Other times, she relishes reminding the guards of their ghoulish duties, telling MacFarlane that a black cloth over the eyes is what you’d put on someone facing a firing squad. The guards fuss over Hilton, making sure she wears her cloak on cold walks, keeping her inside during inclement weather, cleaning and bandaging her blistered heel; it’s an all-female world of denial and futility.

  The flashbacks show Mary as a white-hot beauty who asserts herself much less than does Hilton, the bare-faced, straw-haired, sullen prisoner. She meets the agent of her doom, the feckless, handsome Jim (Michael Craig), and falls in love with him. Mary doesn’t care that when they meet, Jim is selecting a bottle of her favorite perfume (“Christmas Rose”) as a gift for another woman. As her affection for Jim grows, his interest wanes, as it always does with such men. All he wants is an easy road to an easy life. Mary—already married and stuck with a dead-end job in a dead-end postwar Britain—can’t give it to him. The attempts to hold him become frantic after he dumps Mary for the rich woman she’ll eventually shoot dead in the street. Despite his essential worthlessness, Jim is educated, a piano player with copies of poetry lying around his dingy flat. He pretends the books are leftovers from school, but Mary doesn’t believe him. There is, in this wastrel, a thread that she could pick up to a life that isn’t just days behind a counter and evenings with panting men. Those loud, vulgar suitors aren’t altogether bad sorts. They treat her with some kindness, certainly more than she receives from Jim. But Dors’s face as she looks at her lover shows yearning not just for him, but for something beyond the seediness. At the time she made Yield to the Night, Dors herself was married to a man who could be charitably described as not worth the trouble. The Siren wonders if that parallel ever crossed the actress’s mind, or if she was too in thrall to her husband to note the coincidence. Dors’s looks were extraordinary, a boneless oval face dominated by extravagant lips that today’s actresses spend thousands failing to achieve. And her figure, mamma mia. The Siren finds Dors as strong in the flashbacks as she is in the harsher prison scenes, because Dors makes you believe a woman who looks like that would still obsess over a man who doesn’t want her. Now of course, this happens in real life all the time; but on screen, many’s the sex symbol who'd prompt eye-rolls trying to sell such an idea. The climax of the flashbacks comes on New Year’s Eve, as Mary, ravishing in a white lace dress that she spent her last cent on, waits by the telephone for Jim’s call. And here is the New Year’s PSA: if you are thinking of standing someone up for the first time in 2012, watch this scene and repent. If at some point in your dissipated existence, you already stood up someone, watch this scene, then go to your room and think about what you did.

  Movies that stack the deck in favor of an obvious social message seem to fare badly with critics these days, but the Siren simply doesn’t care as long as the drama works. Yield to the Night is a striking movie whatever your beliefs. In 2006 film scholar Melanie Williams paid tribute in The Independent. She quoted director Thompson: "For capital punishment you must take somebody who deserves to die, and then feel sorry for them and say this is wrong. We did that in Yield to the Night: we made it a ruthless, premeditated murder." The filmmakers were aided by real life. The release of the movie came shortly after the execution of Ruth Ellis, a case later dramatized in Dance With a Stranger. (If you scroll down, there is a good account of the Ellis case at this marvelous London history blog, including an ineffably creepy photo of the bullet holes she left, visible to this day on the wall of a Hampstead pub.) Yield to the Night is often described as a fictionalized account of the Ellis case, but that isn’t correct. Joan Henry wrote the book and screen treatment several years before Ellis committed murder. Henry herself had served eight months in two prisons for unknowingly passing a bad check, and she spent years afterward campaigning for prison reform, even making an earlier movie with Thompson, The Weak and the Wicked. That film also starred Dors. In a final, cold coincidence, Ellis and Dors knew each other from Ellis’ brief work on a more typical Dors vehicle, Lady Godiva Rides Again. Life, then, conspired at the time to give Yield to the Night a ghastly relevance. Williams compares its effect to Orwell’s essay on witnessing a hanging, where “it's only when he sees the condemned man do something as simple as walk around a puddle to avoid getting his feet wet on the way to the scaffold, a tiny, futile gesture of self-preservation on the brink of death, that Orwell is struck by the ‘unspeakable wrongness’ of what is about to happen.” More than fifty years on, watching Diana Dors’ last bits of physical affection—a few seconds spent picking up a cat in a prison yard—the Siren still found the movie relevant. She wishes it weren’t.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Christmas Anecdote: "I Was Even More Nuts Than I Generally Am." (With Bonus Links)

The holidays are upon us, and it is time for the Siren's annual rituals. These include, but are not limited to: 1. Preparing to bake, the Siren's annual substitute for baking. 2. Cleaning out rooms in a frenzy that would do the Clean House crowd proud. 3. Forgetting one key Christmas present until the very last minute. 4. Tuning in to TCM to watching holiday movies that she's already seen. This year's selections include The Man Who Came to Dinner, because Ann Sheridan steals a couple of scenes from Bette Davis, and people stole scenes from Davis about once every leap year; It Happened on Fifth Avenue, because of all the character actors and the post-war jokes about not being able to find an apartment in New York; and the really not-very-good-at-all MGM Christmas Carol, viewed because 5. Charles Dickens is the Siren's favorite novelist and everything he ever touched spells Christmas to her, a fact that TCM is acknowledging this month, although technically their tribute is tied to his birthday. 6. Getting weepy over Bing Crosby's "White Christmas," which makes the Siren think of people listening to it during World War II. That last has particular force this year due to the Siren's new Twitter addiction, which dependency she happily passes on to you: Real Time World War II, tweets from an Oxford history graduate, Alwyn Collinson, about what was happening on that day in World War II. (You don't have to join Twitter to read it, by the way, although it's worth the trouble.) The feed made its debut on Aug. 31, on the eve of the war's beginning, so we are in 1939. In the past months, the Siren has learned about Bernard Montgomery's short-lived campaign to get his men to use condoms with hookers, an idea that did not sit well with his superiors; the birth of the Molotov cocktail during the Soviet invasion of Finland; and that the most popular Christmas dolls in London in 1939 were Hitler and Neville Chamberlain. Though there's the occasional bit of comic relief, most of the tweets are as dark as you'd expect. Still, given that the Siren loves movies from that era so much, it's an incredible thing to see the onslaught of news that was accompanying what some say was the greatest year in Hollywood history, Gone With the Wind premiering in Atlanta even as Finland fought desperately for its life. Naturally, all this is leading up to an anecdote, from Rosalind Russell's autobiography, Life Is a Banquet. As Christmas 1942 approached, Russell was about five months pregnant with her only child, Lance. Her brother George was in California, training to drive tanks with George S. Patton's Sixth Armored Division. Russell went to visit him earlier that month and found him eating a mixture of meat, grease and blowing sand as he sat on the ground in the freezing desert wind. Instead of indulging in the Siren's routine at five months into a pregnancy, which included strenuous activities such as reheating leftovers and elevating her feet, Russell went to her brother's commanding officer and said she wanted to organize a Christmas party for the men. She went back to RKO, where she was making Flight for Freedom, and got the money from the studio.
When I think of the logistics involved in that party, I shudder. I was even more nuts than I generally am, because you are more nuts when you're carrying a child. I hired buses. I enlisted hundreds of women--starlets, secretaries, stenographers, pals. We had a meeting on an RKO sound stage, and I told the girls what I wanted them to wear. Flat heels and warm clothes. Not one of them paid any attention; they came with the tall spike heels and the short flimsy dresses and nearly froze to death. We had to figure out where the buses could stop so the girls could use the facilities, and we loaded the buses with coffee and Danish pastries. We sent a truck ahead with a portable dance floor and a Christmas tree. We took a whole show with us, orchestra and all. (Red Skelton came and played Santa Claus.)
The Siren pauses to let everyone digest that last image. 

Informed by George's CO that she couldn't invite one division and just leave out the other, Russell found herself arranging a Christmas party for two armored divisions. George, meanwhile, had been persuaded to go to officers' training camp and departed already. The Siren ponders the fact that it's Dec. 21 and she still hasn't decided what we're having for Christmas dinner, and continues.

Arriving at the base, we got out of our buses and beheld an astonishing sight. The dance floor had been put down, and it was surrounded by great M-4 tanks. The soldiers were studded on the tanks like flies on flypaper… We roped off the dance floor and gave the boys tickets, like movie tickets. Each fellow had four or five, good for a dance apiece. The girls all stood in the middle of the dance floor, and three or four hundred soldiers were allowed on at one time, and they and the girls jitterbugged together. Then those boys would go off and three or four hundred more boys would come on. The girls really had to dance, and they were absolutely wonderful. The boys were, too. We didn't have a single untoward incident. I'd been very worried that if we got some dingalings in there, we'd be hearing screams from underneath the cactuses, but nothing like that happened…. I was the M.C. (I wore a fur coat, party because it got so cold in the desert at night, partly because I was trying to cover my pregnancy.) We had brought spotlights with us, and in the spillover from the lights you could pick out boys sitting all over the dance floor, and other boys piled up on those tanks. Some chairs had been set down in front for the brass, and before General Woods took his, he called for a lot of the soldiers who were stuck way in back to come closer. I remember a boy plumped down right in front of him. There was the general sitting, watching the show, and this kid leaned his head right back against the general's knees. It was very sweet, and I thought, only in the good old U.S.A. A kid couldn't lean against Hermann Goering's knees in Nazi Germany, he'd get killed. Later Santa Claus handed out surprises, and there was more music. It was a great party. On the way home we fed the girls again, at about three o'clock in the morning, in Palm Springs. They'd worked for forty-eight hours without an ounce of sleep. And those boys had been so glad to see something dainty and pretty. They were on their way overseas, and one knew some of them would never come home again. (In 1974, I was named 'Sweetheart of the Super Sixth' and invited to a reunion that was being held down in Disneyland. I went, and there in the convention hall I looked around at all the men with their bald heads and their paunches and their wives, and it struck me with a shock that the Christmas party had been thirty years ago. If a young man had gone into the army at thirty, he'd be sixty now; if he'd gone in at twenty-five, he'd be fifty-five… Now the children of Patton's army smiled up at me with their shiny, untroubled faces. I told them that they must think about some of the men who hadn't come back, but I knew there was no way for them to feel what I was feeling.)
In the holiday spirit of gift-giving, the Siren now shares some of what she's been reading about the blogosphere lately. David Cairns' Late Films blogathon was splendid, and you should read the full lineup. But the Siren is going to point out two in particular, starting with David's analysis of Roscoe Arbuckle's last film. Then, to get all the Christmas weepies out of the way, do read this beautiful post at a blog that is new to the Siren, Robert Donat, written by Gill Fraser Lee. The post is about the great actor's last role, in The Inn of the Sixth Happiness. Now that she has reduced everyone's stash of Kleenex by a factor of five, the Siren turns to more cheery links...or, er, OK, this could be cheery, depending on your mood. One of Kim Morgan's festive obsessions this month is the original (in the Siren's mind, at least) madman-in-a-sorority-house epic, Black Christmas. The Siren has seen and very much liked Black Christmas, and while it doesn't exactly make you want to run out and sing Christmas carols to strangers, it could be a real pick-me-up for the day when you've been at the mall, you heard Wings' "Simply Having a Wonderful Christmastime" for the 217th time and you have some serious aggression to work out. Once you are feeling better, catch up with the TCM festival coverage of the dauntless Dennis Cozzalio, at Slant Magazine's House Next Door blog. If you missed the fest, you won't feel as though you did after you read Dennis' epic tribute. In preparation for holiday dissipation, Peter Nelhaus, at the Siren's request, posted his reminiscences about the Night He Got Drunk With Nicholas Ray. You will definitely want to read. Raquelle of Out of the Past has a review of Piper Laurie's new autobiography that makes the Siren want to read the book, even if Ms Laurie, oddly, does not seem to hold Son of Ali Baba in the same fond regard as does the Siren. At Silent Volume, Chris Edwards has The Wildcat (1921), from Ernst Lubitsch. Not exactly a Christmas movie, evidently, but it has snowmen, and Pola Negri, so, good enough. The Siren particularly loves Chris' description of Paul Heidemann's peculiar smile: "Think of the smile you might put on if your wife ran into your girlfriend at the king’s dinner party, and no one could really afford to look bad, and so things are a little strained, but really, you suspect, you’ll be scoring a three-way out of it later." Ah yes, we all need a specific smile for an occasion like that. The Siren's eternal favorite screen-cap blog (and she loves them all, as a general rule) continues to be Six Martinis and the Seventh Art, from which this year's Christmas banner (any guesses as to the movie?) is shamelessly borrowed. Want some snow scenes? You got 'em. Rachel, who graces the comments section here from time to time, has a great blog: The Girl With the White Parasol, which title alone the Siren loves for reasons she need not explain to her patient readers. Latest post is on The Wicked Lady, the number-one box office hit in 1946 Britain, because it gave the people what they wanted: "...kinky sex. Lots of kink. They wanted to see Margaret Lockwood in corsets so tight they had to be censored for U.S. audiences. They wanted to watch her do wicked, awful things like shooting people and poisoning them and sleeping with James Mason outside on the grass. They wanted to see Patricia Roc and Margaret Lockwood get into a slap-fight. They wanted to see cross-dressing and secret passages and noblewomen seducing robbers." Wait, what? Surely the great British public still wants all that? Well, the Siren does, in any event. The delightful Caftan Woman's choice for Christmas Eve viewing is the same as the Siren's. Finally, should you be interested, the Siren contributed a year-end Top Ten list to Indiewire. Her list is right here and the full lists from 162 critics are here. Now, a Christmas gospel interlude, because the Siren doesn't know when her next opportunity to bring up Mahalia Jackson will arise.
This marks the Siren's sixth Christmas at her old building-and-loan-blog. May the Siren's patient readers all have a holiday season that is even merrier, and brighter, than Technicolor.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

In Memoriam: Harry Morgan, 1915-2011

The death of Harry Morgan, age 96, brings one movie immediately to the Siren's mind, and it was only his sixth role, made when he was 28, so early in his career he was still billed as Henry.

In The Ox-Bow Incident, from 1943, he plays a Western drifter who blows into town with Fonda, and they are both caught up in a posse that ends by hanging Dana Andrews, Anthony Quinn and Francis Ford, for the crime of stealing cattle. The men they lynched didn't do it. At the end of the film, Fonda and Morgan stand at the bar of a saloon with the guilt-wracked men from the posse. Neither Fonda nor Morgan participated in the killing--they voted to stop it--but they were there, and they feel complicit. Fonda begins to speak about Andrews, in a quiet voice that he knows is carrying all over the silent room. Morgan's face is morose, but his body language fights to be casual, as he hunches his shoulders around his whiskey. After all, he didn't hang the men himself. When Fonda brings up the $500 he's collected for Andrews' widow, Morgan makes a crack, his face trying to relax, one shoulder almost miming the slightest of shrugs: "Not bad for a husband who don't know any better than to buy cattle in the spring without a bill of sale."

The other men shift their eyes to Morgan, almost hopefully--someone whose callousness they can feel superior to. Fonda nudges Morgan with his elbow, then straightens up; he won't let him get away with that. "You should read this letter too," he says, referring to the letter Andrews wrote to his wife just before he died. "You know I can't read," snaps Morgan.

So Fonda reads, his eyes hidden by the brim of Morgan's hat. It's one of the finest scenes of Fonda's career, but Morgan is in the foreground, with only the top of his head and his eyes in the frame. He doesn't move, his expression doesn't seem to shift at all, and yet he is changing before our eyes.

At the end of the letter, the scene cuts to show the opposite side of Fonda. Morgan is off to the left, only a sliver of the back of his head showing. His illiterate character has understood the words as fully as anyone else in that saloon, and we know it from the brim of his hat, as it drops with his head in a gesture that isn't only respect for the dead. Andrews' character spent the last hour of his life knowing he was innocent and he was going to die, and then he did die, strangled at the end of a rope. From the back of Morgan's head, barely in frame, we know the drifter won't ever be able to defend himself from his memories by saying the dead man was a fool. Then the camera, after seeking out the men from the posse once more, moves higher to show the length of the bar and Morgan in the middle. His one good hand is still wrapped around his glass, he still looks in the same direction, but he stands straighter. Then Morgan turns to follow Fonda with a slightly saddle-weary gait.

It was an uncommonly auspicious start to Morgan's career--a great Western for the great William Wellman, playing his best scenes with Fonda, in the same cast with character actors like Jane Darwell and Henry Davenport. With the benefit of hindsight, you can look at this scene and see a gift that was going to mark Harry Morgan's acting, whether he was wordlessly menacing in The Big Clock, having his cozy assumptions worn away in Inherit the Wind, or, year after year, trying to fight insanity armed only with common sense in M*A*S*H.

Morgan listened.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Hugo (2011): The Late Films Blogathon

(Note: The Siren herein discusses Hugo in great detail, so if you haven't seen it yet, you are warned.)

Certain superficial elements of a film can predispose you in its favor, and so it was for the Siren and Hugo. She hasn’t read Brian Selznick’s graphic novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret. But Mr. Selznick is first cousin (twice removed) to the great David O. And because the Siren has an overactive fantasy life, she can daydream of playing that Selznick opposite a contract director named Martin Scorsese, or Marty as she would never have the nerve to call him: “I want two children just like my twins--a gentle, sensitive boy and a girl who’s book-addicted and loves to try out big words. I want an old-movie theme and an impassioned plea for film preservation...Got all that? Because I can send a memo...OK then. Paris, snow, trains, cafes, late 1920s fashion, croissants, a good look at Johnny Depp without any fright makeup, an old-fashioned soundtrack and a bookstore with leather-bound books and a sliding ladder...I think that’s it...No, I guess I can live without a production number or an ocean liner, thanks for asking...WAIT! Don’t go! I forgot. Dachshunds. My favorite dog breed. See what you can do.”

Given all these elements, Scorsese would have had to put conscious effort into making a film that didn’t appeal to the Siren. Thanks be to Thalia, he did no such thing. Instead, Hugo is a gorgeous example of a Late Film, which is why the Siren is writing it up for the Late Films blogathon conducted by that magnificent classic-film blogger, David Cairns of Shadowplay.

Scorsese has just turned 69 years old, which means he’s about to kiss 70 right on the mouth. Age 70 is big stuff, your Biblical allotment “all used up,” as the Gypsy Tanya would say. Though Manuel de Oliveira inspires us all, there is no kidding yourself about 70. Two years ago, when the Siren was having the conversation with David that prompted the Late Films blogathon, one question that came up was that of how a filmmaker approaches advancing age. They often seem to go one of two ways. Option One: Sour. Let all the old preoccupations come storming back in a torrent of pent-up bile. The ne plus ultra of that approach would be Frenzy. Option Two: Mellow out, at least a bit. Realize that while people are no damn good, hey, you’re a director, and you can make them act any way you want in your movie. As Glenn Kenny observed after seeing Le Havre, “Aki Kaurismaki’s transformation into an old softy is a wonderful thing.”

Scorsese is still Scorsese, and he hasn’t become an old softy. Still, Hugo glows with the deep love that comes from cherishing one thing or one person over the lengthening years. More than that, it’s about age and youth reaching out to each other. The film flatly rejects the notion that movies cease to speak to us after the passage of too much time, even after more than 100 years. In doing so, Scorsese also answers anyone who was wondering why, after making so many films depicting adults at their harshest, he would suddenly tackle a kiddie movie.

The orphaned Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) leads a precarious life in a Paris train station, tending the clock, stealing food and trying to stay one step ahead of the stationmaster (Sacha Baron Cohen) who would send him to an orphanage. Hugo’s sole legacy from his clockmaker father (Jude Law) is an automaton, and Hugo has been trying to repair it with parts stolen from an embittered old man (Ben Kingsley) who runs a toy shop in the station. In doing so, the boy befriends the old man’s chatterbox niece, Isabelle (Chloë Moretz). What neither child realizes is that her Uncle Georges is actually film pioneer Georges Méliès, broken and forgotten, convinced that the movies he made with such joy are gone forever, melted into chemicals and turned into shoe heels.

The Siren is no great fan of 3D. She doesn’t actively hate it, but up to now she just hasn’t seen the point. Wall*E and Up, two of the best movies of the past five years, are not much diminished, if at all, by 2D. She appreciated Avatar for reasons that had little to do with the 3D effects. The Siren dislikes the way 3D privileges the foreground of a shot, making whatever happens to be in your lap the thing that you’re focusing on. 3D, in terms of offering the rich, multiple details of a scene and letting the eye discover some brilliant piece of marginal business, hasn’t been a patch on what Gregg Toland or Rudolph Maté could do on an average day on the backlot.

Comes now Scorsese (and cinematographer Robert Richardson) to take 3D’s oddities, laugh at them, and use them more intelligently than ever before. There’s such mischief in fitting a newfangled technique to a movie that pays tribute to the earliest days of film; it’s on a level with Billy Wilder, assigned to write a vehicle for Gary Cooper, the most notoriously laconic actor in Hollywood, and making him a professor of linguistics in Ball of Fire. Scorsese frequently sticks something in front that’s cute but irrelevant, like the camera crew at the Méliès studio who barely distract from the Andy Hardy energy of the people putting on the show in the back of the shot. Dave Kehr said something about Raoul Walsh that stayed with the Siren--that Walsh was a master of suggesting there could be a whole different movie going on in just one corner of his frame. So Scorsese’s camera dances around designer Dante Ferretti's vast train station and the 3D, for once, adds to the sense of all the corners of the shot, as the passengers and the workers merrily play in their own movies.

And the fullness of the images fleshes out the themes as well. Hugo scurries around the station and maintains the clock that keeps everyone on the hop, but he’s apart from it all, a fact thrown into vivid relief when the film shifts from the yearning gaze of Butterfield and his ghostly blue eyes, to what he yearns for: the world as expressed in a panoramic shot of midwinter Paris at night. The city looks so beautiful in that moment that the Siren felt bereft when the camera cut away. But Hugo is as isolated from Paris as a prince in a tower; or, say, as isolated as a boy in bed with asthma while his schoolmates play in the street. His drunken uncle drops him off at the station and goes out on a permanent bender; no truant officer comes to see why Hugo isn’t in school, no station worker knows Hugo also labors there, let alone tries to feed or shelter him. Scorsese knows that a child’s fears of abandonment, the reality of his neglect, are close kin to the fears of age--that no one cares anymore, that your accomplishments won’t even survive as long as you do.

Hugo returns again and again to impermanence and loss, and yet it uses 3D to show delight in the solid, tactile feel of physical objects. The Siren has seldom seen a film that takes such relish in filmmaking’s paraphenalia, the reels, the canisters, the props, the camera. “I would recognize the sound of a film projector anywhere,” says Méliès.

As omnipresent as the stuff of movies is, though, there is a secondary presence almost as important, that of books. Words are Isabelle’s favorite toys, her refuge and her first resort in trouble, as when she staves off the stationmaster with a determined recital of Christina Rossetti. And Hugo mourns his separation from books too; witness his pained reaction when they visit that gorgeous bookstore and its benevolent monarch of a proprietor (Christopher Lee). Later, when the bookseller gravely hands a beautiful copy of Robin Hood to Hugo, and tells the boy that the book is meant to be his, that’s the moment that reconnects Hugo to humanity, the thing that prepares him to perform the same service for Méliès.

It’s all storytelling in this movie, you see. There is so much insistence nowadays on the primacy of form, the constant reaffirmation that film is a visual medium. Yes, yes, yes--no one needs to remind Martin Scorsese of that. Hugo is as lushly visual a picture as any he’s ever made, and it isn’t as though he had been in the habit of neglecting the look of a film before. But story counts, too. Audiences hunger for it, they try to construct one even when the film insists on withholding it. Méliès’ movies told fanciful whirligigs of stories, and Hugo says that is a fine and noble thing.

Scorsese, it’s always said, obsesses over sin and salvation, though his characters indulge in the former far more than they receive the latter. Redemption is Pyrrhic for Travis Bickle. It stays out of reach for Jake La Motta, is never even sought by Henry Hill, is thrown away with both hands by Newland Archer. Even in the warmly affectionate Hugo, the happy ending comes with qualifiers. Isabelle’s parents are still dead. Hugo’s father still died horribly. And Méliès has had 80 films come back from the dead, but 420 are gone for good. Yet it’s surely no coincidence that when Scorsese makes a movie about the love of film, it’s then that he tells us that the imperfect can still be quite, quite beautiful.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

For the Love of Film: Story Conference (Your Vote Counts)

Together with her dauntless blogathon partner, Marilyn Ferdinand of Ferdy on Films, the Siren has been discussing plans for the next film-preservation fundraiser, For the Love of Film III: Breaking Dawn.

No? For the Love of Film III: Dream Warriors?

How about Abbott and Costello Meet For the Love of Film?

Geez, tough crowd. All right, why don't YOU come up with something?

No, really, why don't you? You see, Marilyn and the Siren decided to throw the key question at our patient readers, as we determine who should be the recipient of our 2012 largess. We've narrowed the possibilities down to two.

Bright Idea No. 1 would be our old friend the National Film Preservation Foundation, through whom we were able to save two silent films and see those two films become part of a great DVD set, Treasures 5: The West.

Bright Idea No. 2 is something different. One problem faced by film preservationists is the difficulty of finding sufficient numbers of trained people to do this sort of highly skilled, time-consuming and very demanding work. Accordingly, our second option is to have the blogathon funding for 2012 go to fund a scholarship for some Bright Young Thing who wants to study moving-image archiving.

So, all opinions are welcome. As you consider where to put your film-preservation support in the coming year, which Bright Idea is more likely to catch your fancy, and your dollars?

The Siren and Marilyn await your opinions.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Thanksgiving with Loretta, Bing and the Gang

Fall is by far the Siren's favorite season. As soon as the temperature drops, her energy goes into overdrive and her family is confronted by the spectacle of the Siren, once so listless in the heat of the summer, standing in front of the pantry proclaiming, "I know! Let's alphabetize the spice rack!" From October to December is the best part of the year, as far as the Siren is concerned.

And Thanksgiving is the Siren's favorite holiday, elegant in its simplicity, devoid of anxieties like presents and whether you should put colored or white lights on the Christmas tree--although, for the record, the correct answer is colored. Anyway. Thanksgiving. You get together with people you love, and you eat. A lot. And the prospect of this happy event always makes the Siren philosophical. She walks around the house pulling unwatched DVDs off the shelf and instead of thinking, "Oh criminy, I haven't seen anything," she thinks, "Oh criminy, I haven't seen anything. Isn't that marvelous? Look at all these unwatched entries in the filmography of Hedy Lamarr, just out there waiting for me. Hey Mom! Whatcha doing? Let's watch Experiment Perilous!"

So the Siren thinks back over this year's moviegoing and reflects that in her view, a certain generosity of spirit is by far the most rewarding way to approach film. There will always be names in the credits that make the Siren's heart tingle with joy, and others that cause her to mutter something along the lines of, "All right, Gina Lollobrigida, get it right this time." The great philosopher Wile E. Coyote once said, "Even a genius can have an off day." The flip side of that is, as another great philosopher once said, "Every movie is another chance." Maybe the Siren has seen twenty movies in which Buddy Ebsen irritated the ever-loving hell out of her. (Technically, that's more like ten movies, but hear a Siren out.) Who's to say that number twenty-one won't be the time when she finally says, "Well played, Jed Clampett!"

It could happen. In fact, it has happened. Well, not with Buddy Ebsen, but with others. Three years ago the Siren, in a puckish spirit, put up a list of actors who usually fail to charm her. But now that the Siren has alphabetized her spice rack and rearranged her scarf drawer and she is feeling all cozy and right-with-the-world-ish, she finds herself moved to recall that making a film is incredibly goddamn difficult. It is, and always has been, miraculous that great ones get made. It is miraculous that good ones get made. The Siren is thankful for that, and thankful to those who do good work, even in mediocre films.

The spirit of Thanksgiving, says the Siren, is the spirit of being happy with what you've got. Turkeys are nonrefundable. And not all of those actors served up turkey every time, far from it. So, in celebration of the Siren's favorite holiday, she offers an amended list of amends to 11 of the 20 actors she once griped about. Ebsen, Red Skelton, Dan Dailey, David Wayne, Dolores Del Rio, Betty Hutton, Helen Hayes, Maureen O'Sullivan, Ruby Keeler, even (though this last is a faint, forlorn hope) Sonja Henie, who knows--the Siren hasn't seen their every movie, and better things may await.

1. Bing Crosby. Kim Morgan's wonderful post on him, and The Futurist's enthusiasm for the Road movies, make the Siren realize she was too way hard on Der Bingle. He was a lot, lot more than Father O'Malley. The Road movies are, in fact, some kind of genius, at times as weirdly surreal and funny in their way as the Marx Brothers, if bereft of the Marxes' full-on insanity. And while Bob Hope is most of what the Siren loves about the Road movies, they don't work without the very Bing Crosby "phoniness" that the Siren was bellyaching about. Furthermore, the Siren loves White Christmas.

2. Pat O'Brien. The Siren liked him a lot in several things she didn't mention, including Bombshell and Virtue.

3. Robert Taylor. Rewatched bits of Party Girl, Undercurrent and High Wall; saw him in Conspirator. Asexual Taylor was not, at least not at his best, and as the man also said, it's by our best work that we all hope to be judged.

4. Richard Conte. The Siren was thinking mostly of I'll Cry Tomorrow and Whirlpool when she listed him, although she did acknowledge his terrifying work in The Big Combo. But Conte was also good in New York Confidential and marvelous in The Godfather. Not a particularly versatile actor, but since when did that matter to the Siren, if the performances within the range were good?

5. Ronald Reagan. The Siren should have emphasized how very much she does like him in Dark Victory and King's Row.

6. Glenn Ford. Made a great villain in 3:10 to Yuma. Should have played more heavies, thinks the Siren.

7. Peter Lawford. The Siren loves the way Cluny Brown plays with his layabout image, and gets immense pleasure from his final line in Easter Parade: "Nadine, get out all the hounds. We're going for a walk."

8. Jeanette Macdonald. She really is swell in those Lubitsch musicals.

9. Gina Lollobrigida. Love her in Come September, one of those Mad Men-era confections that the Siren can't resist.

10. June Allyson. Yes, the Siren said JUNE ALLYSON, and it's Trish's fault. Trish reminded the Siren about Executive Suite. All right, the Siren isn't crazy about Allyson in Executive Suite, but she does not ruin the movie. And the movie is good. And the Siren is still trying to see The Shrike.

11. Last, but most certainly not least, the woman who inspired this entire post: Loretta Young. Gretchen, the Siren Done You Wrong. First off, was any other actress so utterly hobbled by the advent of the Production Code? There's Young, keeping unwed house for Spencer Tracy's ghastly character in Man's Castle, and committing adultery with no less a wolf than Warren William in Employees' Entrance. And she's fresh and natural and unaffected and sexy and when she's on screen you are perfectly happy to have her stick around as long she wants. Next thing you know, it's 1937 and she's in Cafe Metropole and what the Siren mostly thinks about Young in that movie is "Siddown, you're blocking my view of Tyrone Power." Still, even Loretta's later career was unfairly treated by the Siren. Cause for Alarm! is an extremely tidy, suspenseful domestic noir and Young's later buttoned-up, tightly controlled manner works perfectly for the suburban character. As indeed it does in The Stranger. The Siren caught Young last year in Wife, Husband and Friend which was fun--it won't stir the lumps out of your gravy or anything, but a very diverting comedy. And, as the Siren remarked at Laura's Miscellaneous Musings, if the Siren absolutely has to watch a nun movie, Come to the Stable is pretty cute. Hand on heart, the Siren is going to be much kinder about Young in the future.

Wait a minute…"Hey Mom! Whatcha doin'? Do you realize neither one of us has ever seen Zoo in Budapest?"

Happy Thanksgiving. May all your turkey be on the table, and not on the screen.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Gone to Earth: A Conversation With Tony Dayoub

From Nomad Widescreen, an excerpt of my conversation with the very fine writer and critic Tony Dayoub of Cinema Viewfinder, about the sublime Powell/Pressburger movie Gone to Earth, with Jennifer Jones. (This demonstrates also that the Siren was still indulging her classics habit in the midst of the New York Film Festival.) You can read more of the Siren and Tony and Gone to Earth at his place, in a post that covers some additional excerpts. More about Nomad at the end of the post.

Farran Smith Nehme (FSN): In September, after a long day of screenings at the New York Film Festival, Tony Dayoub and I decided to trek downtown to catch a one-shot showing of a 1950 film neither one of us had ever seen. It was Gone to Earth, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s ill-fated adaptation of a Mary Webb novel. Film critic and programmer Miriam Bale was screening a rare 35-millimeter print at the 92nd Street Y Tribeca, and Tony and I were flabbergasted to discover a film we both consider a masterpiece.

The likely reason for Gone to Earth’s rarity, compared with the many well-known and frequently revived Powell-Pressburger classics, is that it has a troubled history. Powell preferred developing his own stories over adapting those of others, and he also found the romantic 1917 Webb novel faintly ridiculous, remarking that it was a town-dweller’s overheated view of country folk. But producer Alexander Korda believed the book was a sounder commercial bet than an original screenplay, and Powell’s objections were brushed aside. The movie stars Jennifer Jones as Hazel Woodus, a half-wild, half-gypsy girl who roams the Shropshire countryside with her pet fox, and is loved chastely by a Baptist minister (Cyril Cusack), and carnally by a ruthless squire (David Farrar). She marries the reverend, and he refrains from consummating the union, in the belief that Hazel’s innocence shouldn’t be profaned. But the squire has no such scruples, and he continues to pursue Hazel, even as it remains clear throughout that she belongs not to men but to the earth of the title.

Jones had married the producer, David O. Selznick, just before shooting started. Powell wrote about the making of Gone to Earth in volume two of his autobiography, Million Dollar Movie; he was assaulted with a barrage of the trademark Selznick memos, which the director cheerfully ignored and left to “accumulate in some pigeonhole.” (Pressburger read the memos, “then went back to reading Time and Life.”) Selznick had been reasonably cooperative during filming, just showing up from time to time to check on Jones and take her on weekend jaunts. But when Powell and Pressburger screened the film for him, Selznick popped a Benzedrine and said, “I’m not satisfied with your cut, boys. I’m going to take this picture over.” Powell explained that the Archers, his production company, owned the rights. Selznick listened politely and the parties wound up in court, where Selznick lost that round.

But Gone to Earth didn’t do well upon release, and Selznick had obtained the North American rights. He reshot a third of the footage with Rouben Mamoulian at the helm, slashed away another half-hour, and re-released it in 1952 with the groanworthy title of The Wild Heart. That version, hopelessly marred by all accounts except possibly Selznick’s, flopped, too. There is a Region 2 UK DVD available of the original Gone to Earth, but it has never been available on Region 1 in the US. You may consider this discussion as a plea from Tony and me for someone to give Gone to Earth the full US restoration and DVD release that it deserves.

One thing that goes to show how much of Selznick’s savvy had disappeared by 1952 is that Gone to Earth contains one of Jones’ best performances, possibly her very best. She was coached in the regional accent; it’s probably impossible for an American to judge how accurate the results are, although Powell thought she sounded fine. You can hear inconsistencies and note the fact that Jones’ accent isn’t much like that of Esmond Knight as her father. But Hazel isn’t an ordinary girl; when she first appears she’s dressed half in rags, searching for her fox, and the camera finds her among the hills as though she just emerged from a tree like a figure of mythology. Her strange voice is completely in keeping with her strange nature, and her half-pagan belief in demons, spells and ghostly voices.

Tony Dayoub (TD): It’s ironic that Selznick commits the same crime as the film’s male protagonists. Like them, Selznick, who saw enough spirit in Jones to make her his wife and muse, tries to stifle her rough luminescence, reworking Gone to Earth into his subpar version. Much of the charm of Jones’s performance in the Powell version is reportedly (because I’ve never seen it) lost in Selznick’s The Wild Heart. Why Selznick was unhappy with her portrayal of Hazel is a mystery. Her performance is far superior in Gone to Earth than are her grating histrionics as the similarly wild Pearl in Selznick’s much better known Duel in the Sun (1946). I chalk up his Svengali-like interference to the fact that Selznick’s affair with Jones was in full swing by 1945, with the two marrying a year prior to the UK release of Gone to Earth.

In any case, Hazel’s central dilemma, the subjugation of her wild, feminine spirit by two men — the roguish squire Reddin and Marston, the well intentioned minister — is very reminiscent of ballerina Vicky Page’s inner conflict in Powell and Pressburger’s more famous The Red Shoes. In that film, the talented Page is forced into a triangle where she must choose between sacrificing her career for her composer husband or leaving him behind to continue her rise to stardom under the direction of the dictatorial director of her dance company. Powell and Pressburger also explore similar themes in Black Narcissus, where a group of nuns living in a convent in the Himalayas start succumbing to the lusty temptations offered by their natural surroundings. As it was with the female protagonists of both of these previous films, Hazel’s state of mind is often reflected in the increasingly expressionistic lighting by Christopher Challis (whose camera operator in this film, Freddie Francis, would become a renowned cinematographer in his own right). As Hazel falls prey to the seductive advances of Reddin, who whisks her away to his cluttered, castle-like retreat, the night sky turns a lurid shade of orange, aflame with erotic intentions. This until the milquetoast Reverend Marston summons enough gall to come rescue her from the arrogant Reddin. (At which point Reddin’s servant — played by the reliably comic supporting player Hugh Griffith — enters his master’s drawing room to needle him, “Will there be three for dinner or one?”)

Two more brief excerpts, because Tony and the Siren really did flip for this film, big time:

TD: Powell and Pressburger’s films almost feel like musical compositions with certain audio cues indicating the start of a new movement. This one launches the dreamlike chapter I discussed earlier. But there are other such cues that indicate a supernatural undercurrent. Two immediately come to mind that bookend the film. We discussed the first one soon after watching Gone to Earth – a “phantom” hunting call I think you called it – in which we hear a group of unseen hunters utter the film’s title, an expression which alerts others that their quarry (in this case, Hazel’s Foxy) has hidden itself in a foxhole.

A dreadful symmetry occurs when we hear the call again in the film’s finale, this time referring to a fatal accident that befalls one of the characters. Though there are hunters present, this is definitely not a call coming from them. If not from them, then who is it from?...I’d like to think it’s the pagan spirits that Hazel and her mother believed in. Though I don’t think it’s as clear onscreen, Webb’s novel depicts a bewildered Hazel fleeing from Squire Reddin and his hunting partners, believing they are mystical huntsmen of Welsh lore. Though Hazel’s pet, Foxy, manages to evade Reddin in Gone to Earth’s opening scenes, it would appear that Hazel and Foxy’s fate are inextricably linked by a primal atavism. Observe earlier in the film how Reddin chases Hazel through a county fair while on horseback, the way he would one of the animals he hunts. Even the minister’s intentions in marrying her are apparently more a matter of taming her free-spiritedness than having any romantic or sexual motivation. The final utterance of “Gone to Earth,” can then be attributed to those same pagan huntsmen, finally laying claim to Hazel after she quite literally has “gone to earth.”

FSN: When Selznick was battling the Archers in court, Powell asked Pressburger where they’d gone wrong with the man — what did he want? “Sex,” Pressburger told him. “You’re not serious,” responded Powell. “Why, the film reeks of sex.” And so it does, just not Selznick’s kind of sex, as Pressburger pointed out.

The movie also evokes the border of Wales, the land of Powell’s ancestors, with wonderful beauty and clarity. Powell was pleased with Gone to Earth and thought Jones was “splendid.” He formed a close friendship with the troubled actress and later told her, “you were the most beautiful woman I ever worked with”—one hell of a tribute from a man who immortalized many stunning women. Thelma Schoonmaker, the film editor who has worked with Martin Scorsese ever since her Oscar-winning efforts on Raging Bull in 1980, was married to Powell from 1984 until his death. She screened Gone to Earth in Seattle in 2007. Schoonmaker told a reporter that her husband “loved the eventual movie, but he was afraid you could hear the crackle of the page whenever they did a movie based on a novel.” I’m convinced that if this movie were more widely known, most viewers would respectfully disagree.

The Siren notes here that Nomad Widescreen, where she could be read alongside Tony, Glenn Kenny, Simon Abrams, Kurt Loder, Karl Rozemeyer and Vadim Rizov, is no more. The editors and writers at Nomad were uniformly excellent, and the Siren was always proud to be associated with them.

(Updated 11/17/11, with correction and the fourth photograph above, courtesy of the ever-courteous Yojimboen. Also a link to Tony's excerpts at Cinema Viewfinder.)

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Noel Coward Tells Marlene, "Snap Out of It, Girl"

The patient readers of this blog deserve their reputation for good manners, but all the same, the Siren has been sensing some faint, far-off clouds of discontent over the past six weeks. A certain bewilderment, you could say. There’s a sense of people restraining themselves from saying: “Siren, the last time I came calling you were talking about Mid-Atlantic accents and Gene Tierney’s overbite and in the comments people were complaining about Wendell Corey and everything was right as rain. Then, without warning, for a month it’s been crime and pink films and sex addicts and now you’re quoting Pauline Kael writing about Brian De Palma and Siren [a deep, ragged breath] I just don’t know who you are anymore.”

Fret not. Like Judy Holliday in It Should Happen to You, the Siren is the same as she’s always been, only in a different way. And to prove it, here is one of the Siren’s favorite letters of all time, reprinted in Maria Riva’s book about her mother, Marlene Dietrich.

By the end of 1956, Dietrich had been carrying on a five-year affair with Yul Brynner, which was starting to wind down in an acrid funk of infidelity, ennui and Dietrich’s endless dissections of her lover’s behavior and motives. She wrote her dear friend Noel Coward a letter about a transcontinental flight she had taken with Brynner. The lovers had been having some “where is this all going, don’t you love me anymore” encounters. She arranged to get herself on the same plane with Brynner and was despondent when he downed three drinks without talking to her. Later Dietrich took some sleeping-pill suppositories, which she called “Fernando Lamas,” because like Lamas' acting, they put her to sleep so quickly. She awoke (or so she thought, she acknowledges she might have dreamt it) to Brynner trying to climb into her berth, and she became distressed when he said “there’s too many people around” and climbed back out, that striking Marlene Dietrich as being no kind of obstacle to real desire.

Dietrich’s letter tapers off in a series of laments about her unhappiness, how can she perform in Las Vegas, etc. etc. It is, in short, one of those humorless messages only people clinging to a waning relationship can produce, a microanalysis of behavior that requires only momentary thought to understand. Astonishing, and comforting, isn’t it--Dietrich, a real Siren, not just one on the Internet, indulging in the kind of “why do you think he did that? what does it mean? what is he trying to tell me?” conversations that mere mortal women, and men, have all the time.

Coward wrote her back immediately, in the greatest rejoinder to such moaning that the Siren has ever read. So perfect is this response that when the Siren read it years ago, she marked the page and later re-read it several times when her own love life was demanding it. The Siren has handed the book, open to that page, to lovesick friends, and read the letter over the telephone, too.

Here it is, Coward’s advice on getting over “Curly” (his nickname for Brynner), punctuation, capitalization and spelling as in the original.

Oh, darling.

Your letter filled me with such a lot of emotions the predominant one being rage that you should allow yourself to be so humiliated and made so unhappy by a situation that really isn’t worthy of you. I loathe to think of you apologizing and begging forgiveness and humbling yourself. I don’t care if you did behave badly for a brief moment, considering all the devotion and loving you have given out during the last five years, you had a perfect right to. The only mistake was not to have behaved a great deal worse a long time ago. The aeroplane journey sounds a nightmare to me.

It is difficult for me to wag my finger at you from so very far away particularly as my heart aches for you but really darling you must pack up this nonsensical situation once and for all. It is really beneath your dignity, not your dignity as a famous artist and a glamourous star, but your dignity as a human, only too human, being. Curly is attractive, beguiling, tender and fascinating, but he is not the only man in the world who merits those delightful adjectives...Do please try to work out for yourself a little personal philosophy and DO NOT, repeat DO NOT be so bloody vulnerable. To hell with God damned ‘L’Amour.’ It always causes far more trouble than it is worth. Don’t run after it. Don’t court it. Keep it waiting off stage until you’re good and ready for it and even then treat it with the suspicious disdain that it deserves...I am sick to death of you waiting about in empty houses and apartments with your ears strained for the telephone to ring. Snap out of it, girl! A very brilliant writer once said (could it have been me?) ‘Life is for the living.’ Well that is all it is for, and living DOES NOT consist of staring in at other people’s windows and waiting for crumbs to be thrown to you. You’ve carried on this hole in corner, overcharged, romantic, unrealistic nonsense long enough.

Stop it Stop it Stop it. Other people need you...Stop wasting your time on someone who only really says tender things to you when he’s drunk...

Unpack your sense of humor, and get on with living and ENJOY IT.

Incidentally, there is one fairly strong-minded type who will never let you down and who loves you very much indeed. Just try to guess who it is. X X X X. Those are not romantic kisses. They are un-romantic. Loving ‘Goose-Ex.’

Your devoted ‘Fernando de Lamas’

The Siren is sorry to report that when Dietrich read Riva the letter over the phone, and Riva gave it a hearty second, the great woman snapped, “Oh, you two Sagittarians! You always agree! Neither of you can understand how one man can a be a woman’s whole life!” Dietrich followed that up with an off-color description of Coward’s sexual activities and hung up.

Good advice is seldom appreciated at the time that it’s given. But Coward remained a friend to Dietrich a lot longer than Curly did. In 1973, when he made his last public appearance, Coward had Dietrich on his arm.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Lucking Out and Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark

October is Pauline Kael month, with three major books released in one transom-crushing batch. One is The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael, which I haven’t yet received, although I’m familiar with most of what’s in it. Another is a biography, Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark, by Brian Kellow. And the third is James Wolcott’s memoir, Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in Seventies New York.

Wolcott has long been a friend to this blog (and, as Tom Watson points out, a friend to many other blogs). He is a personal friend to me. But I was reading Wolcott long before I met him, and this book shows why I still pounce on every word he writes. I turn his sentences this way and that, I flip clauses, I analyze word choice, only to give up, as Bluegirl did. I can’t imitate his prose, I can’t even claim it as an influence; all I can do is hope that if I read him long enough, osmosis might help me out.

As if that weren't enough, he also has an impeccable sense of structure. Lucking Out is built of five parts and a coda. The first deals with Wolcott’s arrival in New York to work at the Village Voice, after being granted a wish by the world’s most unlikely fairy godmother, Norman Mailer. The third covers his years on the punk scene at CBGB’s and sundry other downtown crawlspaces. The fourth examines (a carefully chosen verb) his encounters with the hyperventilating world of 70s porn, and the fifth circles back to the writing scene. The second section, and the coda, focus on his long friendship with Kael; those sections are the heart of the book.

I’ve read some reviews suggesting Wolcott has folded his switchblade for this one and avoided the kind of verbal slashings that helped make his name. Maybe those reviewers read over phrases that reduced me to unbecoming cackles, like “John Simon, then at the unpopular height of his Dracula impersonation;” “Renata Adler, she of the bell-ringer braid;” or “Sontag gagging with laughter is not a picture to linger over.” And maybe stories like John Cale trying to strangle Wolcott when he didn’t understand Cale’s beer order are one of those male-bonding things that I don’t get; Jim does remark afterward, “I didn’t take it personally.” Then again, those reviewers are right that Lucking Out is essentially a warmhearted book. No excuses are made for difficult people--such as Lester Bangs, James Agee’s only rival in the “Self-Destructive Critic” sweepstakes--but they’re still drawn with sympathy and due appreciation for talent.

That’s why I say the Kael sections are the centerpiece, written as they are with affection undimmed by more than thirty years. Reading the book, I thought, god, no wonder the woman drew so many writers into her orbit: She was fun. She’s hilarious during a talk-show foray, where Ed Asner and his stomach acid sour the mood before Kael and Wolcott even get a chance to go on camera. Just sitting around the offices of the New Yorker with her, listening to her read letters from people outraged by her pan of Seven Beauties, sounds like fun. Accompanying her to a screening even of a catastrophically bad movie, like George C. Scott’s The Savage Is Loose, must have been a hoot. Wolcott describes it as “a Darwinian allegory that was like Gilligan’s Island goes Lord of the Flies.” Asked by an overeager, protocol-violating publicist what she thought of the film, Kael chirped, “Tell him to bury it.”

Clearly Wolcott’s own refusal to hold his fire must have been reinforced by sustained contact with Kael.

I can almost hear Pauline’s characteristic, pithy response: ‘Tough.’ (Which sometimes, depending on the situation, had a ‘shit’ attached.) It was often what she said when someone expressed queasy apprehension on some point of possible offense, a retort that was made not with anger or defiance but with a snorty impatience for euphemism, false shirking the truth, or, worse, killing a joke.

Kael took keen interest in her friends’ romances, too, although she had some odd ideas about courtship; Wolcott describes her coming out of Blue Velvet and saying, “It might make a wonderful date movie.” On another occasion, she suggested that he ask out a mutual acquaintance. When Wolcott reminded her that the proposed date was a lesbian, Kael responded, “Oh, that. So what. Aren’t you up for a challenge?"

I cherish this book. It isn't nostalgia, that tattered paper valentine that arrives sometime around St. Patrick's Day. It's a chance to visit another world with a critic supreme, who's as generous here as he's always been to struggling writers.

Reading Lucking Out before A Life in the Dark is a good idea. You go from Wolcott’s time when “there was no happier calling than making Pauline laugh,” to a view of her whole life. I was familiar with Kellow’s calm, meticulous writing and research from his biography of the Bennett sisters, which I also recommend. It’s good to see Kellow bring his determined “on one hand...on the other hand” approach to Kael in this excellent biography. Because with Kael, there is always another hand. She was controversial from the moment she picked up a pencil.

She was, and this should never be under-emphasized, a self-made woman, born into none of the literary or Ivy League connections that can elevate a critical career to this day. Her early childhood, on a chicken ranch in Petaluma, California, was marred by financial catastrophe, after which her father moved the family to San Francisco. She went to Berkeley, never finished, and worked at a strikingly disparate series of jobs, including cooking, sewing and, significantly, running a repertory house. In between she pursued an ill-judged taste for relationships with gay men, and had a daughter, Gina, whose father refused involvement in her upbringing.

Stints of writing at City Lights, McCall’s and The New Republic followed, as well as “Circles and Squares,” Kael’s attack on what she saw as the absurdities of the auteur theory as propounded by Andrew Sarris. That essay caused a longstanding feud--sort of. In this, as in her other bridge-torching opinions, Kael said her piece and, at least publicly, moved on. “There was a certain clean detachment to many of her broadsides against other critics; she was often astonished to learn that the objects of her critical wrath were under the impression that she hated them personally,” writes Kellow.

The fame she gained from articles like “Circles and Squares,” as well as her bestselling first book, I Lost It at the Movies, led eventually to Kael’s job at The New Yorker. She was forty-eight.

Here Kael’s highest point as a critic begins, and her personal life forms the pattern it would follow afterward. Kellow writes that by the time she was at The New Yorker, Kael was through with men--dating them, anyway. Pauline Kael never once in her life lacked for the presence of men. She constantly cultivated friendships and became famous for out-of-the-blue phone calls to other writers, even to people who had simply written her a letter.

But at this point Kellow’s book also shifts in tone, and becomes almost an intellectual history. Kael’s reviews dominate Kellow’s book as they did her life. All the famous pieces swing back to please or irritate in turn, with Kellow reconstructing the stories behind them. Did she really dislike Badlands and rhapsodize over Yentl? Yes, she did. She also proclaimed Steven Spielberg’s promise all the way back with Sugarland Express and raved over Michelle Pfeiffer when the actress was considered just another blonde. Kael saw Casualties of War as the best of the late-80s cycle of Vietnam War movies; Kellow quotes her review, and shows that no one could give you more of what it’s like to watch Casualties of War than Kael, with her emotional response and that “we” that Renata Adler found so irritating.

We in the audience are put in the man’s position: we’re made to feel the awfulness of being ineffectual. This lifelike defeat is central to the movie. (One hot day on my first trip to New York City, I walked past a group of men on a tenement stoop. One of them, in a sweaty sleeveless T-shirt, stood shouting at a screaming, weeping little boy perhaps eighteen months old. The man must have caught a glimpse of my stricken face, because he called out, ‘You don’t like it, lady? Then how do you like this?’ And he picked up a bottle of pink soda pop from the sidewalk and poured it on the baby’s head. Wailing sounds, much louder than before, followed me down the street.)

Kellow’s scrupulous approach means that his book can be read with pleasure by a Kael fan, and profitably combed by a Kael detractor looking for unflattering stories. The worst episode in the biography concerns the “Raising Kane” essay, published by the magazine and later expanded into a book. Several writers, particularly Peter Bogdanovich, later showed that Kael, in her zeal to promote Herman Mankiewicz’s role in Citizen Kane, had seriously misunderstood the process of making the film. Even more distressing is Kellow’s account of how Kael used research from UCLA assistant professor Howard Suber without crediting him in the article, and without more than a single $300 payment to him.

Kael’s relationship with The New Yorker’s Olympian editor, William Shawn, varied from mildly fractious to hugely frustrating. Shawn, shown here as a towering figure in the history of passive-aggression, never got used to Kael’s blunt writing, nor even her opinions. While her negative review of Badlands was still being printed, Shawn told her that Terrence Malick “is like a son to me.” Kellow records Kael’s response--“Tough shit, Bill”--in a perfect echo of Wolcott’s memory.

There were ruptures in later years, including one with Wolcott, who wrote a piece about the Paulettes for Vanity Fair that angered Kael. (Those who know the story will see its melancholy foreshadowing in Lucking Out.) I attended a panel on Kael at the New York Film Festival, where Kellow took exception to Manohla Dargis’ remark that the Kael of his book lacked “an equal passion for, and pleasure in, life beyond the screen.” It wasn’t like at all, he said; Kael’s life was full of music, books, art and friends.

And that is the picture I got from this biography. There is Kael, the steel-plated critic, criticizing Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, getting a letter from George Roy Hill with the genteel salutation, “Listen, you miserable bitch...” and using the letter to entertain people at parties. And then there is Kael, stricken with Parkinson’s, running into Hill at a restaurant after he received the same diagnosis. She “clutched his hand warmly and gave him the name of her massage therapist.” Despite the title, this was not a life in the dark.


All film writers eventually must deal with Kael, like it or not. I will always love my friend Dennis Cozzalio’s post, in which he details how often he thought she was wrong, but captures what she meant to those of us out in the hinterlands in the Paleolithic times before the Internet. My father had a subscription to The New Yorker, and every week I would pick it up and start an argument with Kael. The argument had to remain in my own head, as that was well before the Web made it possible to storm into a comments section and tell off a critic. Usually, I didn’t want to tell off Kael, not exactly, no matter how much I objected to what she had written, and I objected to quite a lot. I wanted to ask her questions. I wanted some interaction with that brain. I would read her capsules in the front, or her ever-lengthening reviews in the back, and marvel at the syncopated, give-a-damn writing style and her utter faith in her own judgment. The fact that she was a woman mattered to me, too. Growing up in Alabama, I did not encounter many women with that kind of intellectual aggressiveness.

Only gradually did I realize how widely Kael is criticized, even despised. The volume of things for which Kael is faulted begins to approach the size of her own output. She had too much power and wielded it unwisely. She collected acolytes, she started feuds. She overpraised Last Tango in Paris, she was blind to the virtues of Dr. Strangelove. She had no consistent set of criteria. She placed too much emphasis on screenwriters. Her kinship with ugly ducklings meant she gave too much credit to Liza Minnelli and Barbra Streisand. She sent David Lean into a spiraling depression with her review of Ryan’s Daughter. She helped ruin Orson Welles and the piece that did it, “Raising Kane,” showed lack of ethics, as did her stint in Hollywood, as did her rave over the rough cut for Nashville.

She palled around with filmmakers, tuts Dargis, as though friendships with Woody Allen and Robert Altman kept Kael from hating Stardust Memories or 3 Women, the latter judgment prompting Altman to scream at her in the middle of an airport. (Altman got over it; Allen did not.) Others fault her for lack of loyalty to directors we now idolize. She never expounded “a theory, a system, or even a consistent set of principles,” points out A.O. Scott. And my response is, “well, thank god for that.” But the question also arises, is that the highest goal of criticism? Start Your Own -Ism?

The above objections--whether I agree with them entirely, in part, or not at all--can be supported with evidence from Kael’s life and writing. It’s another, patronizing strain in Kael bashing that gets under my skin. I could, if I wanted to indulge in the euphemism that Kael hated, call it a double standard. Jonathan Rosenbaum, for example, can write a dismissal of Ingmar Bergman in the pages of the New York Times, and encounter little more than vigorous dissent. Kael, though, is often presumed to have other motivations wafting around her little head. Gary Indiana, at Artforum (in a piece that Wolcott also quotes) sneers that Kael “clearly had a thing for Warren Beatty, for Paul Newman, for various stars whose worst performances, in her view, paradoxically contained their best work; she rhapsodized over horrible hack directors whose ‘honest’ formulaic dreck she preferred to ‘pretentious’ films by superior directors.” Funny he should mention that. I keep encountering writers who clearly have “a thing for” Kael, like Michael Atkinson, who memorialized her in the Village Voice as “the hot-pants Queen Victoria of American film criticism,” and “the focus of gossip (a film critic!) that speculated on her liaisons with colleagues and with certain testosterone-dizzy filmmakers.”

Richard Brody also vaults to mind. For ages now he has used his perch at the online version of The New Yorker, the magazine that Kael’s marquee appeal helped keep afloat for years, to swat her at every opportunity for a voluminous array of sins. He quotes, with sorrowful relish, the story David Denby told about Kael’s lunch with Nicholas Ray; Denby said Kael spent her time describing the flaws in Ray’s movies, despite the man’s evident illness. To recap the links so far, Kael’s writing was entirely too personal, and her personality was heartless to boot. She appears in a post about John Cassavetes, whose movies Kael consistently loathed. Cassavetes physically bullied Kael, but in the Brody cosmology it is Kael who comes across worse, for denying the greatness of Cassavetes in the first place. Brody's contributions to the latest flurry of interest in Kael include the idea that 5001 Nights at the Movies still weren’t enough for her to write about all the movies that Brody thinks she should have written about. It has long since gotten hard to keep up. Last week, along came an offering that begins with Clint Eastwood and quickly swerves into Kael's dislike of Eastwood. Eastwood once commissioned a psychoanalysis that revealed Kael's supposed attraction to him. Brody says that theory is "nonsense," but apparently not nonsensical enough to be unworthy of block-quoting. The piece ends with a sort of victory tarantella concerning all the many, many ways in which Kael's opinions were wrong and, in an unanticipated bit of felicity, Brody's opinions were right. And why would anyone esteem a critic with whom they frequently disagreed? Because critical opinion is not an unyielding, unanimous and permanent entity? Because the critic wrote well? How quaint.

Nowhere is Brody’s animosity toward Kael more evident than in his discussion of her Shoah review, which he calls “so grotesque as to seem willful.” He continues, The wild subjectivity of her approach to the film—her writing about the feelings of her backside rather than the feelings of the people in the film or of its maker—suggests, overall, the basic problem with her criticism.” How about this for a willful suggestion about Kael’s overall basic Shoah problem: She didn’t like the movie. For the record, my own attempt to watch Shoah when it was screened on PBS in the late 80s ended sometime around the three-hour mark. I didn’t like it either, for several of the reasons that Kael cited; like her, I preferred The Sorrow and the Pity.

In a whiplash-inducing gear-shift at the end, Brody says Kael might have written a swell autobiography, where her “assumptions” and her “prejudices” and her insistence on putting herself in her movie reviews would have been quite apposite. That’s the ticket, a nice little memoir. So much more profitable a use of her talents than puttering around West 43rd Street, being the most famous film critic of all time.

In comments sections, where bloggers and cinephiles flex their intelligence at one another, pretense is abandoned. Jim Emerson, a (qualified) Kael admirer, once excerpted Renata Adler’s attack on Kael and collated some Kael defenses; the brief thread this prompted is illuminating. There’s a comment from one film blogger, alleging that her fans “don't want film criticism, they don't like cinema either, they just want to have fun reading fiction, and inflamatory diatribs [sic].” Someone else remarks, “The problem with Pauline Kael is that one gets the impression that she dismissed films on the basis that they didn't get her sexually aroused.” (Adler went after Kael for what she saw as a hectoring use of the second person. Kael always said she found “one” prissy and disingenuous, and this one agrees with her.) Adds another commenter, “[he’s] right about Kael's sexual fixations, but that isn't the sole problem. There's also the fact that there's no rhyme or reason to her approach. She would, time and again, praise one movie to the skies for certain qualities, and then turn around and trash another that possessed those same qualities;” he winds up by saying Kael had a “borderline psychotic degree of subjectivity.”

When I read threads of this sort, I consider dropping by to say, “I wonder why Andrew Sarris and Manny Farber, both of whom had some blind spots and occasionally reversed themselves, don’t inspire certain people to call them irrational, or psychotic, or to speculate about their sexual fixations.” But I don’t comment, because I don’t really wonder why. I don’t wonder at all.

God knows I begrudge no one the right to tear their hair out over a Kael review, or even over her entire body of work. I disagree with her all the time, much more often than I second her thoughts. That’s the whole goddamn point to Kael. I put my hand over my mouth when she acknowledges the beauty of a woman’s picture I love like Now, Voyager, only to call it “a shlock classic.” I grieve when she refuses to see merit in my own pets, like Joan Crawford--I suppose because I’m emotional about Crawford. Still, I’m not interested in some guy’s psychoanalysis of why she didn’t like Last Year at Marienbad. As a friend remarked to me, once you go there, “you might as well go all the way and speculate whether she was having her period during the screening.”

I’m arguing that through a decades-long career, Kael earned the courtesy of having her film judgments evaluated without veiled sexism. She clearly wanted that herself. My favorite part of Kellow’s biography was the story of Kael’s visit to a hardware store in Great Barrington:

“It happened to be Mother’s Day, and the proprietor gave her a gift, adding in a condescending tone, ‘Because you look like you’re a mother or a grandmother.’ ‘Fuck you, Charlie,’ Pauline replied. ‘Do you know I’ve written ten books?’”