Thursday, March 31, 2011

Nomadic Existence: In Memoriam, Elizabeth Taylor

This week's Nomad Wide Screen is devoted entirely to Elizabeth it should be. Free 30-day trials are available here. The issue includes Glenn Kenny's "Auteurist's Guide to Elizabeth Taylor," Tony Dayoub's tour of Taylor on DVD, and Vadim Rizov's analysis of the many Taylor obituaries and two extensive photo galleries.

An excerpt from my own tribute follows.

...It's odd to comb through old pieces about Taylor and discover how frequently people — usually men — felt the need to say hey, she wasn’t that beautiful. There’s Rex Reed’s vicious description of her “enormous derriere” in Hammersmith Is Out (1972), a movie in which, whatever else you want to say about it, the 40-year-old Taylor was still breathtaking. Or Raymond Chandler, complaining about too many close-ups of Taylor in A Place in the Sun (1951): “I could have gagged.” “Plumply pretty” was how the New Statesman waved off her supernal looks in Cleopatra (1963). Even Richard Burton once remarked that she “has an incipient double chin, her legs are too short and she has a slight pot belly.”

This is what’s known as a defense mechanism, I suppose. Elizabeth Taylor was beautiful all her life, and for a period that lasted into the 1960s, she was the most beautiful woman in movies. She never needed to blossom, she was a goddess from the cradle — ravishing as a child, stunning as a teen, heart-stopping through adulthood and middle age, through weight gain and weight loss, bad hairstyles and caftans, whether lacquered up at the side of a senator or, as she often was in the final years, ushered into an event in a wheelchair. Her looks were the central fact of her life, and she must have been used to that, and occasionally bored with it, quite early on. An ordinary woman hears someone say she’s lovely and glows with pleasure; to Elizabeth Taylor, it was probably like hearing, “My goodness, you have teeth.”

There were riders to that awestriking gift, however. There was the minor matter of her voice, an unexpectedly girlish, high-pitched mew that had charm when she gave a good performance, but grated when she did not. Stewart Granger noted the “rather squeaky voice,” but added cheerfully, “You can’t have everything, can you, and she had practically everything else in abundance.” True. Unfortunately for Taylor, that also included an abundance of health problems, usually tied to random catastrophes of some sort. Back injuries, an emergency tracheotomy, hospitalizations — the problems occurred with such regularity that it seemed the gods scheduled meetings to plot revenge on Taylor because they gave her too much in the first place.

“Everything else” also included a life that was never, in any real sense, private, despite the fact that she was far from the most forthcoming of stars. She got a great deal from that bargain with fame, but what it cost her was brought out by Bob Geldof in his memoirs. Geldof described speaking to a photographer who had been in the scrum of paparazzi at Richard Burton’s grave after the actor’s death. Taylor had pleaded with them to let her pay her respects to her former husband without the flashbulbs popping. And, uncharacteristically, they all agreed — except one, who said his job was to take a picture and that was what he intended to do. The others couldn’t agree to be scooped, so no deal. And Taylor left without visiting the grave.

Kitty Kelley called her Taylor biography The Last Star, but she had it the wrong way round. Taylor was instead the first star of the modern era, the first whose fate it was to have the public image smother the one on screen. Particularly for any movie she made after Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), it requires conscious effort to watch Taylor without her legend intruding. Curl up on the couch with Franco Zeffirelli’s 1967 The Taming of the Shrew — one hell of a problematic Shakespeare play in any case — and just try to crowd out the images of Burton and Taylor falling in adulterous love, marrying, separating, then marrying again. It would require an exorcism. Even early movies like Father of the Bride (1950), or Conspirator (1949), with Taylor as the almost indecently young bride of Robert Taylor, arrive with her immature marriages to Conrad Hilton Jr. and Michael Wilding hovering around like escorts who don’t know their place.

The way to judge a Taylor performance, then, is to seek out the ones for which the headlines and the gossip discreetly exit the cinema and don’t come back until the lights go up...

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Ten Movies the Siren Should Love…But Does Not

So, Tony Dayoub of the terrific blog Cinema Viewfinder has been tweeting his tour of Elizabeth Taylor's filmography, and having a good time doing it. Last night he watched Father of the Bride, Vincente Minnelli's beloved 1950 comedy, starring Taylor at her most gorgeous and featuring one of the most imitated bridal gowns of all time. And the Siren tweeted back that she should find this movie charming; after all, it stars Joan Bennett, who was ten different kinds of fabulous, and Spencer Tracy, who had a fine, laid-back and natural way to his comedic acting. And it's Minnelli, and the Siren adores Minnelli to the point where she can mount a ringing defense of Brigadoon's being shot on the back lot. And yet the Siren is firmly uncharmed, although she was unable to explain why in 140 characters or less.

This led to her thinking of other movies that have classic status and a number of elements that should hit all her sweet spots, and yet she's never tempted to sit down and get reacquainted with them when they pop up on Turner Classic Movies, or when someone posts or tweets about them. So, for the sheer undiluted hell of it, she came up with ten.

Now lists like this are risky, in that people do not generally care to have their beloved favorites maligned. The Siren apologizes in advance, and assures her patient readers that she sees virtues in all of these movies, even if it's just the presence of a great actor. You will also notice that the list is almost entirely comprised of some of the Siren's most beloved directors. And nothing here alters that devotion, but you'll have to accept that as a given. The Siren isn't going to clutter things up by waving around her Billy Wilder-loving credentials, for example.

Still, something about each of these films irks the Siren to the point of nonenjoyment. Usually that's related to deficiencies of humor, theme or performance, although there's a couple of films that, in the words of X. Trapnel's grandmother, "don't have looks eyes like."

So if the Siren's list includes a deep personal favorite, go ahead and take your revenge in comments: "Oh yeah? Well I'VE never liked [insert name of movie the Siren has praised to the skies]." Just remember the one rule at the Siren's place: No dissing Citizen Kane. That is not and never has been a joke. Otherwise, have at it.

P.S. Over at Some Came Running, Glenn Kenny has posted a response, in which he links to his defense of the second Man Who Knew Too Much and offers his approving thoughts on Kiss Me, Stupid. Check it out! The Siren loves the post title alone.

1. Father of the Bride (Vincente Minnelli, 1950)
The Siren hastens to say that the late Elizabeth Taylor is the one thing she really does like about the movie. Taylor makes the most of an underwritten role, and you really believe she loves her Pop. However. For one thing, it bothers the Siren that Taylor is so young, although she realizes full well that this is the age at which many people got married in the 1950s, and Taylor herself was married when it was released. Still, it's off-putting. As is Tracy's open jealousy of his son-in-law, and if you ask the Siren, his character talks down to Joan Bennett way too much, and she's clearly a lot smarter than he is. More than anything, the comedy falls short of the mark, both too sour and not sharp enough. The Siren's final curmudgeonly observation is that Taylor's celebrated wedding dress is way too mid-Victorian for her taste.

2. You Can't Take It With You (Frank Capra, 1938) Back in his IFC blogging days Vadim Rizov took this one apart. Heart of the matter:

Grandpa Martin Vanderhof (played by Lionel Barrymore) [is] a lovable old coot who lets whoever wants to follow their flighty impulses and desires (fireworks! mechanical dolls! ballet!) take up space and pursue them, no matter how impractical or unsafe.

Like all free spirits, Grandpa Vanderhof doesn't believe in paying the income tax. In [one] infuriating scene… he plays rhetorical cat-and-mouse with a frustrated representative of the IRS, demanding to know what good his 22 years' owed back-taxes would do. The representative says they need warships, but crafty grandpa -- three years before World War II -- says we haven't used those since the Spanish-American War. Nor does Grandpa use the roads ever, and he certainly doesn't believe in Congress because, you know, Congress, haw haw.

The Siren agrees with Vadim in every particular. We're both Capra fans, but You Can't Take It With You is for the birds.

3. Woman of the Year (George Stevens, 1942) To the Siren, this will always be one-half of a great movie. My word, Katharine Hepburn is gorgeous in it. The Siren would say it's tied with The Philadelphia Story for the title of Hepburn at Her Most Ravishing. And if the Siren is lucky enough to catch the first half, she'll watch it for the way the actress lounges down a hallway and swings her legs off that desk. The chemistry with Tracy would give Antoine Lavoisier a heart attack. But the ending--oh my stars and garters, that ending, in which Hepburn is humiliated because sure, she can wear the hell out of a chic suit and write circles around any man in sight, but what that does matter if she burns his breakfast--that ending is so hideous, so cringe-inducing that the Siren can't watch it. She can't even watch much past the midpoint because she knows the finale is coming. TCM says the ending was changed after an audience preview. And before you go after the Siren for imposing 2011 viewpoints on a 1942 movie, let it be said that when the rewrite was presented to Hepburn, she "termed it 'the worst bunch of shit I ever read.'" God, don't you love her even more for that?

4. Kiss Me, Stupid (Billy Wilder, 1964) The Siren likes Kim Novak very much in this movie; Pauline Kael was 100% right that "her lostness holds the film together," to the extent that it hangs together at all. People tell the Siren to just try to get past Ray Walston, but how, exactly? He's all over the movie. As is Dean Martin, a hit-or-miss talent for the Siren; here his character is just too creepy for words.

5. The Trial (Orson Welles, 1962) This is one movie the Siren would watch again in its entirety because it's so damn beautiful, and that is no small virtue in her eyes. But the truth is that she finds the dialogue, and the performances of Anthony Perkins and Jeanne Moreau, mannered and dull.

6. Sergeant York (Howard Hawks, 1941) The Siren doesn't believe that the indisputably great Hawks had much of a feel for Tennessee or its inhabitants. Nor does she care for the preachiness of this movie, or find Alvin York's conversion to Army superhero to be particularly convincing on screen, even if it did happen in real life. For what it's worth, co-screenwriter Howard Koch later expressed something of the same doubts: "If you render under all the Caesars, past and present, what they demand of us, there is little left for God. They get what they want--power, glory, money or whatever--and He comes out on the short end." The Siren does like the "Give Me That Old Time Religion" conversion scene a lot, though.

7. Guys and Dolls (Joseph Mankiewicz, 1955) Truly, the Siren does not get any of the love for this one. You want to revive an unjustly neglected Mankiewicz, the Siren suggests The Late George Apley or Five Fingers, both terrific. Guys and Dolls' abstract sets might--might, although the Siren has her strong doubts--have worked had the casting had been better. But look, people say it all the time because it's true: Frank Sinatra should have played Sky Masterson, not Nathan Detroit. Vivian Blaine, by all accounts a marvel as Miss Adelaide on stage, never quite catches fire here, and her fights with Sinatra are mechanical. Brando mangles his every love song, none worse than "A Woman in Love." The one saving grace for the Siren, aside from her beloved Jean Simmons dancing in Havana, is the marvelous Stubby Kaye.

8. Where the Boys Are (Henry Levin, 1960) The Siren can happily deal with retro attitudes toward sex and marriage in Jean Negulesco's "three girls" movies, like Three Coins in the Fountain or The Best of Everything. But there's one problem with this movie right there: you get four girls, and that's one too many. Darryl Zanuck would have made them take one out. Robert Avrech argues that Dolores Hart is quite good here, and she is. But the way poor Yvette Mimieux is treated makes the Siren's skin crawl, and there just isn't enough laughter or romance to make up for it in any way.

9. The Pink Panther (Blake Edwards, 1963) Great look to the film, and a great-looking Capucine, who is high on the Siren's list of Actresses She'll Forgive Anything Because They Are So Ridiculously Beautiful. But just not funny to the Siren; too slapstick, and a lingering cruelty under the humor that rubs the Siren the wrong way. Man, the Siren loves that song in the ski lodge, though.

10. The Man Who Knew Too Much (Alfred Hitchcock, 1956) This married couple just basically hate one another, don't they? The Siren vastly prefers the original.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Elizabeth Taylor, 1932-2011

When someone hugely famous dies, social media explodes, and the Siren’s mind in turn goes into some sort of over-linked shock. The flood of tributes can be too much to process along with your own sadness.

One good place to start reading about Elizabeth Taylor, who died yesterday age 79, is as always The Daily Mubi. From there, the Siren always progresses to Dan Callahan. He focuses a great deal on the latter-day Taylor, post-Richard Burton, and does so without a trace of condescension. Dan has a deep appreciation for actors, for how bloody hard it is to do what they do, and that is how he approaches writing about them.

Sheila O’Malley reminds us of "one of Taylor's greatest legacies."

The Siren loved Sunset Gun first for Kim Morgan’s passionate, witty, unapologetically personal style, every line informed by a deep knowledge of film history. But this post really shows a particular talent Kim has, for grappling with the difficult. By that, the Siren doesn’t mean merely dark or depressing, although god knows Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is both. She means that Kim will take whatever aspect of a movie causes the most discomfort--whether it’s campiness, violence, experimentation, datedness, it doesn’t matter--and go straight after it. And you finish reading, and you see virtues in the work that you never spotted before, and you realize you need to see the movie--even if you already did.

Finally, M.A. Peel has a lovely post about her love for The Sandpiper. The Sandpiper is, it must be acknowledged, the Siren’s least favorite Vincente Minnelli film, but she loved the post anyway.

The Siren’s own tribute to Elizabeth Taylor will be in Nomad Widescreen next week.

Monday, March 21, 2011

DVR Alert: Max Ophuls' Caught, Tonight on TCM

The Siren is happy to remind her patient readers that tonight at 10:15 pm EDT, Turner Classic Movies will be screening Max Ophuls' superb, hard-to-come-by Caught. The movie boasts Barbara Bel Geddes in the best screen role she ever got, Robert Ryan playing a marvelously sick spin on Howard Hughes, and James Mason as a gentle doctor. Mason always makes the Siren hyperventilate at least a touch, but this character appeals to her romantic side as do few others. Also, watch for a marvelous sequence in a jazz club, Ophuls' direction underscoring a casual nonsegregated atmosphere that's a wonderful surprise in a film from 1949. And the ending shocked the Siren right down to her ankle straps. (To anyone who knows the film--no spoilers in comments, please! The end really should be seen cold.)

The reason we're getting to see Caught on TCM: my old friend Lee Tsiantis of the Turner legal rights department. Lee is demonstrating his amazing taste by requesting this as his choice for TCM's Employee Picks series. Some time back, as part of the first film-preservation blogathon, I interviewed Lee about his crucial role in unlocking the RKO Six, films that had been in legal limbo for some time.

Well, Lee has not been lounging around Atlanta in the meantime. There are two longed-for titles that he has recently helped bring to our eager embrace. They'll both be screened at the TCM Film Festival next month, before slipping into rotation on the channel itself. One of them is Clarence Brown's Night Flight from 1933.

And the other? Well, a little 1943 title that's been mentioned here from time to time:

The Constant Nymph. The Siren can now confess that a rather elliptical question at the end of her prior interview with Lee was her not-terribly-subtle way of inquiring after the Nymph's preservation health. The happy answer? She's doing swell.

Tovarich Lou Lumenick has a great interview with Lee at his New York Post blog. By all means, go and read it.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Anecdote of the Week: "I'm just a little afraid of this kind of music."

John Gregory Dunne's classic, The Studio, tracks his unlimited access to 20th Century Fox over the course of what would turn out to be a not terribly good year for them, 1967. Still very much in print, the book needs little introduction to many of the Siren's patient readers. But a viewing this week of Three Smart Girls, directed in 1936 by Henry Koster, reminded her of an episode in The Studio, and since the Siren couldn't get it out of her mind, she's getting it out here.

In Dunne's 1985 preface to his book, he said, "The story of Henry Koster's meeting with Zanuck troubles me more than anything in the book, yet I think I would probably still put it in: a fact of the movie business is that people are used and discarded like so many wads of Kleenex."

No matter how many times she reads it, the story still shrivels the Siren's heart.

Koster arrives for a meeting with Richard Zanuck, then vice president in charge of production at the studio; with him are producer Robert Buckner and three agents from William Morris. As Zanuck toys with a bronzed baby shoe on his desk, and one of the agents starts to nod off, Koster, whose huge hit was the Deanna Durbin vehicle One Hundred Men and a Girl in 1937, pitches his idea for a movie.
The picture would open in Moscow, with a Lenny Bernstein-type conductor performing Shostakovich. The orchestra is scheduled to leave for New York for a charity concert, "for crippled children." Unfortunately, the entire orchestra comes down with a malignant disease that requires quarantine, except the conductor; "I think we can work out that he had the right shots," says Koster. It looks like the concert won't happen.

As it happens, there is a youth orchestra in New York that can do the concert, Eugene Ormandy and George Szell being otherwise occupied. But the Bernstein character sternly says they aren't good enough. The crippled children are out of luck.
Koster's voice softened. 'But then the president of the charity comes to plead with him against cancellation.' Koster's head swiveled around, taking in everyone in the room. 'In his arms, he is carrying a small boy--with braces on his legs.'
Buckner seemed to sense that Zanuck's attention was wandering. 'We have a love story, too, Dick,' he said.
Koster picked up the cue. 'Yes, we have a love story,' he said. 'There is a beautiful Chinese cellist who does not speak a word of English and a beatnik kook who plays the violin.' The words rolled over his tongue. 'They communicate through the international language of music.'
'Don't forget the jazz,' Buckner said.
'We can get jazz into our story, Dick,' Koster said. 'You see, the concert is only five days away and there are not enough players in the youth orchestra, so the conductor--the Lenny Bernstein character--goes out and hunts them up in a bunch of weird joints.'
'Jazz joints,' Buckner said.
The top of Koster's head was slick with perspiration. His voice began to quicken. 'Working day and night, the conductor molds these untutored players into a symphony orchestra. In just five days.' Koster's face grew somber. 'Then we get word from Moscow. The quarantine has been lifted. The orchestra can get back to New York in time for the concert.'
Zanuck gazed evenly, unblinkingly at Koster.
'Here is the crux of our story, Dick,' Koster said. 'Will our conductor use the youth symphony, or will he use his own orchestra, thus destroying by his lack of faith this beautiful instrument'--Koster's hands moved up and down slowly--'he has created in just five days.'
Koster sighed and leaned back, gripping both the arms of his chair. There was silence in the office. Zanuck cleared his throat.
'Very nicely worked out,' he said carefully. 'Very nicely.' His jaw muscles began to work as he considered his thoughts. 'But I'm afraid it's not for us at the moment.' He squared the bronzed baby shoe against the edge of his desk. 'We've got a lot of musical things on the schedule right now--The Sound of Music is still doing great business, just great, we've got Dr. Dolittle and we're working on Hello, Dolly!--and I don't think we should take on another.' He paused, seeking the right words. 'And quite frankly, I'm just a little afraid of this kind of music. You'll get the music lovers, no doubt about that, none at all. But how about the Beatles fans?'
Koster made a perfunctory objection, but the meeting was over. As if on cue, the dozing agent awoke, and after an exchange of small talk, agents and clients departed Zanuck's office, hurling pleasantries over their shoulders. For a long time, Zanuck sat chewing his fingernail, saying nothing.
'Jesus,' he said finally.

Monday, March 07, 2011

An Amateur Among Amateurs: Agee on Film

My two volumes of Agee on Film went missing when a boyfriend went that-a-way (I lost a lot of good books that way). Afterward I contented myself with just Vol. 1, which covers the writings for The Nation and Time Magazine, and that one disappeared during a move to Toronto. During a recent second-hand book-buying binge I replaced it, and reaffirmed what I’ve known for a long time: James Agee is my favorite film critic.

In a respectful but clearly dissatisfied review of the Library of America’s collection, Philip Lopate states, correctly, that “while reviewing the film at hand, Agee always seemed to be willing another kind of movie into existence.” Lopate adds that “Agee could never quit bemoaning the sorry state of filmmaking in the Forties, which now looks like a pretty good era in retrospect.” I’m not about to argue with that, either.

It’s true: Nothing is ever good enough for James Agee. Reading his reviews, you wonder not that he racked up three marriages before his death at age 45, but that he ever found a partner acceptable enough to sign documents with in the first place. Even movies he adores, such as Open City, leave some sort of cracker crumb in his bedsheets.

Yet still I treasure Agee, because he writes so well. As he explains why, for example, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn isn’t good enough, he describes what he does like with breathtaking ardor and accuracy:

There is a shot of the girl hesitant on the curb which has the lovely authenticity of a wild animal startled by a flashbulb--or of the same shot made by a concealed camera in a real street. There is a shot of [James] Dunn, ghastly drunk in his inky waiter’s suit, so painfully malappropriate to daylight, being shoved and shouted along his home street, which is as poetic and individualized an image of a state beneath humiliation as I have seen. There is a shot of Joan Blondell’s bent hustling back, the thin dress propped and ridged through her underwear, as she goes in to help her sister deliver a baby, which is equally successful in its evocation of women in a special and final class and world and predicament.

It’s in such passages, when his intellect, compassion and aesthetics are fused with what’s happening on screen, that I find the Agee I love, and I forgive him those moments when he’s faulting Double Indemnity for not very much, or saying Orson Welles “never was and never will be a genius,” or calling Black Narcissus ”tedious and vulgar.”

He had no lofty opinion of his position, beginning his stint at The Nation with this:

I suspect that I am, far more than not, in your own situation: deeply interested in moving pictures, considerably experienced from childhood on in watching them and thinking and talking about them, and totally, or almost totally, without experience or even much second-hand knowledge of how they are made. If I am broadly right in this assumption, we are on the same ground, and under the same handicaps, and I qualify to be here, if at all, only by two means. It is my business to conduct one end of a conversation, as an amateur critic among amateur critics. And I will be of use and of interest only in so far as my amateur judgment is sound, stimulating or illuminating.

He remained true to that introduction. Devour this book in sequence and you’ll be struck by how personal Agee’s criticism is, how nearly every Nation column involves him as a living, eating, paycheck-drawing New Yorker, one who struggles to accommodate his moviegoing. He apologizes for not seeing Holy Matrimony, which he’s been told is good; he just saw Monsieur Verdoux, and was so thunderstruck he needs to gather his thoughts. He’s reconsidered his overpraise of Cover Girl, and he realizes he underpraised The Ox-Box Incident. He disappears for a bit, apologizes, and says it’s going to take a couple of weeks to catch up. The pay at The Nation being what it no doubt was and is, Agee gets another job (writing features for Time, although he doesn’t mention that), says the new gig is sapping his time, and adds that’s why his next reviews will be brief, assuming his present bosses let him keep his column.

He says he hates religious cant and admits this colors his review of The Song of Bernadette, then praises the film anyway. Even given his employer, Agee's political asides can be startling in their left-wing candor and contempt for home-front pieties, such as a 1943 review of Happy Land in which he snarls about Americans' "nasty-nationalistic self-pitying self-congratulation." Several times he mentions the opinions of his friend Manny Farber with approval; when Bosley Crowther writes a particularly blockheaded review of Day of Wrath, Agee grinds the Times man into the carpet. He compliments Caesar and Cleopatra one week, then takes an elevator ride with some nameless Manhattanite who tells him Caesar and Cleopatra wasn’t all that. As the elevator descends Agee decides that, well, he probably liked the film because he happens to like Shaw, and Claude Rains really was a bit hammy. The column bumps to an end with, “Ground floor.”

Agee is, in short, quite like a blogger, albeit one with perceptiveness and a prose style most of us would sacrifice virgins to acquire. Tom Shone once wrote of his disappointment in some of the film writing he found online, saying, “What I most crave are voices that sound like your friends dissecting the film in the parking lot afterwards: sparky, conversational, unvarnished.” Last week, as I got so absorbed in Agee on Film that I had to turn around at a subway station in Williamsburg, having mistaken the immensely irritating M train for my own, I thought, “Well Tom, here you go. Except James Agee was doing it sixty years ago, in print.”

Also noteworthy are the sins Agee doesn’t commit. He doesn’t use movies to show off his wit, leaving the reader to suspect that he’s slumming, or that he would bring the same zippy style to a discussion of anything from Schubert’s quartets to a ride on the Coney Island Cyclone. You don’t find Agee defending his preferences with Olympian pronouncements about directorial intent, nor does he promote himself as our lone hope for honesty in criticism. Faced with an opinion he wants to revise, he doesn’t shift the place markers fifty feet to the left and declare that this is what he was saying all along, it’s just that we, the readers, failed to understand.

Holden Caulfield described a good book as one that made you want to call the author on the phone; I’d describe a good critic as one whose company you relish. And lord, how I relish Agee’s company. Not for him the movies-are-gussied-up-plays approach of so many 1940s critics. He cared passionately about camerawork, and gave credit, writing of the magnificent opening of The Hard Way that “James Wong Howe’s first few minutes with the camera, in a Pennsylvania mill town, all but floored me with gratitude. “ In assessing The Best Years of Our Lives, a movie that was “at its worst...annoying in its patness, its timidity” but that still required two columns to cover adequately, Agee throws quibbles aside for one genius: “I can’t think of a single shot of [Gregg] Toland’s that doesn’t show the amount of will, creative energy, and taste, and doesn’t add with perfect power and modesty its own special kind of expressiveness.”

You never know what’s going to yank Agee upright in his seat. I love to think of him in a cinema watching Jean Renoir’s The Southerner, enthralled with things that are flashing past the rest of the audience:

There is a solemnly eager, smoky, foggy ‘possum hunt which may have been studio-faked for all I know; it gets perfectly the mournful, hungry mysteriousness of a Southern country winter. There is an equally good small-town street; I have seldom, in a movie, seen the corner of a brick building look at once so lonely and so highly charged with sadness and fear.
And I love to imagine Agee cackling as Bugs Bunny careens down a broken Liszt scale in Rhapsody Rabbit: "It killed me; and when they had the wonderful brass to repeat it exactly, a few bars later, I knew what killed really meant."

He is alarmingly frank about his interest in some actresses:

Linda Darnell, flashing her eyes and teeth and flexing her glands at both men, is probably the weakest of the three so far as performance goes; but since in general appearance, she is a kind of person I can imagine going on all fours for, especially if I were a provincial judge, I thought her not entirely ill cast. [Summer Storm]

And while he doesn’t use reviewing to amass quotable quips, his dry humor is everywhere. “It may be unforgivably decadent of me, but I cannot get much excited about incest," he says, "nor do I feel that any great victory has been won because a story about incest, [The Strange Affair of] Uncle Harry, has escaped from the Hays office in still fairly recognizable condition.” For the Whom the Bell Tolls finds Agee losing patience, as he often did, with Hollywood’s political timorousness, and remarking, “If you are not careful, you may easily get the impression that Gary Cooper is simply fighting for the Republican Party in a place where the New Deal has got particularly out of hand.” He watches Leave Her to Heaven and throws his sympathy to Gene Tierney, "who spends all of the early reels trying to manage five minutes alone with her husband. Just as it looks possible, she picks up a pair of binoculars and sees his brother, her mother, her adopted cousin and the caretaker approaching by motorboat."

Even his corrections are funny: “Three weeks ago I recommended vivacious roles for Susan Hayward. The word should have been vicious.”

Agee was, wrote John Leonard, “not to be read on the subject of race without a wince,” yet one article in which that flaw is much in evidence--a tribute to D.W. Griffith--also shows Agee’s intense, almost spiritual connection to Griffith’s genius. Silent movies brought out the best in Agee. His essay "Comedy's Greatest Era," published in Life, glows with tenderness. His worship of Chaplin was legendary, but that didn’t mean he lacked admiration for Buster Keaton:

With the humanity, the craftsmanship and the action there was often, besides, a fine, still and sometimes dreamlike beauty. Much of his Civil War picture The General is within hailing distance of Matthew Brady. And there is a ghostly, unforgettable moment in The Navigator when, on a deserted, softly rolling ship, all the pale doors along a deck swing open as one behind Keaton and, as one, slam shut, in a hair-raising illusion of noise.

Lopate writes that present-day regard for Agee is tied up with his “thanatoptic mystique”--his looks, his recklessness, his alcoholism, his death. In all honesty I can state that this has never been true of me. Once I learned the bare pitiful outline of Agee’s life, I avoided learning more. It is painful enough to read his review of The Lost Weekend, with its bitter joke of a kicker, and wonder that the insight was so piercing, but the will to get better wasn’t there--or, perhaps, never had time to appear.

It becomes, too much of the time, just a virtuoso piece about a handsome, practically unidentified maniac. In one or two scenes you get with some force the terrible humiliation which is one of the drunkard’s experiences; but considering the over-all quality of the film, it is remarkable how much you seem to have been given, and how little you actually get. There is very little appreciation, for instance, of the many and subtle moods possible in drunkenness; almost no registration of the workings of the several minds inside a drinker’s brain; hardly a trace of the narcissism and self-deceit which are so indispensable or of the self-loathing and self-pity which are so invariable; hardly a hint, except through abrupt action, of the desperation of thirst; no hint at all of the many colorings possible in the desperation.

When he’s wrong, James Agee is forcefully, intelligently wrong. When he’s right, his writing can conjure a pleasure so acute it comes close to watching the movie itself. Ground floor.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Nomadic Existence: Von Sternberg's Two Shanghais and Fritz Lang's You and Me

More from my Retro-Fit column at Nomad Widescreen. The Feb. 16 column, on my two favorite Josef von Sternberg movies:

Both stories share a lot more than setting — they bore into the unsavory urges a class-bound and hypocritical society tries to bury. Above all, both movies are preoccupied with duplicity — who needs to use it, and who scorns it. Marlene Dietrich, as Shanghai Lily in Shanghai Express, was once Magdalen, a good woman, or as good as the sensual Marlene could be. Now she’s a grifter working her way up and down (ahem) the China coast. The key to Shanghai Lily, however, is that she’s honest about her dishonesty; indeed she takes a certain pride in it. When she runs into Clive Brook, the stuffy doctor she still loves, he tells her, fatuously, “I wish you could tell me there had been no other men.” And Lily’s wholly unembarrassed riposte is “I wish I could, Doc, but five years is a long time.” Anna May Wong, her performance like a furnace heating the entire movie, shares that disdain for pretense: “I confess, I don’t quite know the standard of respectability that you demand in your boarding house,” she tells the old lady who’s mistaken her for a model of propriety. It’s the other train passengers — Clive Brook and his problems with trust, the French “officer,” the priest whose rhetoric doesn’t match his true nature — who cling to deception. And the good ones can band together only when they abandon deceit.

With The Shanghai Gesture, Mother Gin Sling (played by Ona Munson in the best role that ill-starred actress ever got) manipulates, all right, but her maneuvers can be seen a long way off by anyone not blinded by their own lies. Anyone who isn’t Walter Huston’s hypocritical diplomat, in other words. Nobody bands together in The Shanghai Gesture; if this crowd had been on the Titanic, they’d be the ones trying to steal the life jackets.

Speaking of Fritz--this week's column, in which I delight in LAHNG's You and Me:

There are many adjectives that recur in descriptions of Fritz Lang movies; charming isn’t one of them. Discovering You and Me, the oddball three-song musical comedy Lang made in 1938, is like finding out T.S. Eliot loved Groucho Marx (and he did) — where did that come from? The movie is beyond charming, it’s enchanting, one moment after another of romance and Runyonesque wit, mixed in with a dose of left-leaning social realism that goes down easy in part because it’s sung. Oh, Fritz’s preoccupations are there, all right — double lives, pitiless authority, the tyranny of material needs, the criminal underworld — but the touch is light, despite the shadowy cinematography. I have been a passionate Fritz Lang partisan since viewing M in my early teens, and it was an exhilarating experience to sit in the Film Forum when You and Me was shown as part of this year's “Fritz Lang in Hollywood” retrospective, happily muttering over and over, “He could do this, too.”

The movie opens with a musical number, “You Can’t Get Something for Nothing,” illustrated with a wonderfully abstract set of images of what you can get for something — everything from carrots to one of those terrifying 1930s permanent waves. We then move into the department store where much of the movie is set, and we see Helen (Sylvia Sidney) catching a woman shoplifting and eventually refusing to turn her in. Then comes one of the most purely sexy moments in any film of the era. Handsome sales clerk Joe Dennis (George Raft) is rebuffing the advances of a drawling mantrap of a customer, Joyce Compton, who has a memorable musical cameo in The Awful Truth. As he escorts Compton on the down escalator, we discover why he isn’t interested — here on the up escalator comes Sidney. Their hands meet as they pass, in a touch as erotic as a kiss.

As always, linking to Nomad is as dicey as robbing a department store or boarding a train for Shanghai, but for the time being, this link to von Sternberg seems to work, and you can find the Lang column here. Otherwise, heigh-ho for the thirty-day free trial. By the way, there is a lovely series of screen caps from You and Me, including that escalator, at MUBI.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

The Perils of RTCMP (Updated with Confession)

As one of the Siren's favorite high-school English teachers used to say, "There are certain words, kids, that are in your reading vocabulary, but not your speaking vocabulary. And if you try to use a reading word when you're speaking, you risk sounding like an idiot."

Despite the studio heads' determination to endow old stars with simple names, there are a few Old Hollywood names that fall into this category. The Siren's tendency is to go with RTCMP, which of course stands for Received TCM Pronunciation. If she hears it a certain way on TCM, that's the way she says it.

Trouble is, on TCM, certain names aren't consistently said the same way.

So, for fun and educational purposes, the Siren decided to poll her readers on a group of names that she's heard different ways from different people who should know, on TCM and elsewhere. The Siren will post her own answers, and reasoning, later on. In the meantime, uh, how you say:

1. Tyrone Power. First name--accent on the first syllable, or the second?

2. Frtiz Lang. LANG, as in sang, or LAHNG? (The Siren also hears "Lung" from time to time. That can't be right.)

3. Douglas Sirk. SIRK, as in lurk, or SEERK?

4. Katharine Hepburn. Three syllables in the first name, or two? Or ('fess up) do you just sort of rush through it so people can't tell which you're doing?

5. Franchot Tone. Emphasis on which syllable of the first name? Cho, or Sho? Do you pronounce the t, say it fast so people can't tell if you did or you did not pronounce the t, or do you simply avoid referring to the man at all whenever possible?

6. Alida Valli. The Siren knows how to pronounce the first name, all right, but the second--accent on the first syllable, or the second?

7. Elissa Landi. The Siren leaves this one open, as she's heard people say that second name at least three different ways.

8. Sonja Henie. SAHN-ya or SOHN-ya?

9. Myrna Loy. MUHRNA, or MEERNA?

10. Robert Donat. Last name...anybody?

11. William Dieterle. Help a Siren out.

And finally…

12. George Sanders. Plain old Sanders, like the purveyor of fried chicken, or SAHN-ders?

Note: The Siren's assuming we all know how to say Borzage at this point…right?

Note Number Two: If you have a name that consistently gives you trouble, or that hurts your ears when you hear it mispronounced, by all means, share.

Note Number Three: Are you wondering if the Siren went with this oddball post just to give her an excuse to post that mesmerizing picture of TY-rone or Ty-RONE Power up there? Wonder away.


All right, the Siren goes public with her answers. These are offered in the spirit of confession, not correction. Not all of them are right. Some of them definitely aren't.

1. Ty-RONE, but the Siren sounds very Bama even to her own ears saying that one, for some reason. More like Tah-ROHWWN.

2. LAHNG. The Siren's reasoning is the same as commenter Ned; he wears a monocle, it's Lahng. But god no, not Freetz. That would be like one of Mick Jagger's South American lady friends: "Meek! Meek!"

3. For years, it always rhymed with lurk. Then one fateful day, the Siren saw Molly Haskell discussing Written on the Wind on The Essentials with Robert Osborne. And Ms Haskell says "Seerk." This causes the Siren elocutionary anguish to this day. It makes perfect sense, as the original name was "Sierck," but everybody else says Sirk. The Siren switches it up, depending.

4. The Siren hereby confesses that one of the Alabama-isms she cannot shake is putting three syllables in Katharine, much like she can't stop herself from pronouncing the "l" in "folk" or emphasizing the first syllable in "umbrella."

5. The Siren avoids saying his name whenever possible. When it isn't, she says "FRANSH-oh" because that's how Gene Kelly says it in the title number from the anthology That's Entertainment.

6. VAL-ee.

7. LAHND-ee.

8. SOHN-ya.

9. For years the Siren said "Muhrna" like a normal person. Then, one day, as the benevolent shade of William Powell is her witness, she heard one of the TCM announcers (not Osborne, one of the faceless ones) say "Meerna." It confused her no end. She tried it for a little while and has sworn off it.

10. DOH-not.

11. DEE-ter-lee.

12. Another dark night of the vocal soul. The Siren always said "Sanders," as in Colonel. Then she saw Angela Lansbury discussing him and Ms Lansbury, who of course knew the man, said "SAHN-ders." Now, maybe that's just a British thing, and with all love for Yojimboen and the other U.K. natives who grace us here, British does not = correct. British = British. But still, it was Angela. LANSBURY. Now the Siren ping-pongs a bit.

Last notes on names in comments: THAY-da Bear-ah, Robert Osborne says ZAY-sue Pitts (for years the Siren said ZAZ-zu), and SEE-odd-mock, although she intends to adopt David Cairns' "see-odd-mack" since if poor Robert (a great director) had to wear a name tag the least she can do is respect his efforts.

And no, nobody says OH-pools. Nobody the Siren socializes with, anyway.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

For the Love of Film (Noir): End Credits

Time for the end credits to our For the Love of Film (Noir) blogathon, which event was both more epic than most movies in this genre, and has an uncharacteristically sunny coda.

The final total for donations made through the blogathon link comes to $5667, and that ain’t hay.

Here’s the Siren’s favorite stat: This year, we had 159 donors. That, my friends, is almost double the number from last year, and it includes donations from well beyond the borders of these here United States.

The Siren invites everyone--Marilyn, Greg, the bloggers who did such excellent work--to take a bow. This is just that much less the Film Noir Foundation will need to restore The Sound of Fury to its full, shadowy glory.

And the Siren points out, in pride and fellowship, that in addition to taking considerable time and trouble to write something, or even several somethings, a large majority of bloggers (not an avocation known for being lucrative) dug behind the sofa cushions and donated money, as well.

You’re a swell group. Next time someone talks about the blogosphere dragging down the discourse, you tell them, as Sterling Hayden would have, “Don’t bone me.”

And here we have the winners of the raffle prizes. Warmest congratulations to them all!

Full set of 9 NOIR CITY posters: Mike Glancy Auction Co.

Deluxe DVD of The Prowler: Sam and Lucille Juliano

DVD documentary The Czar of Noir plus Eddie Muller's short film starring Marsha Hunt, The Grand Inquisitor: Jason Civjan

Full set of 3 NOIR CITY SENTINEL annuals: John Fitzpatrick

Programs from NOIR CITY 8 and 9: Leanord Moore

Autographed copy of Eddie Muller's first novel The Distance: Andrew Horbal

Signed and framed art photo by R.A. McBride, donated by Donna Hill: Mary Beth Roney

Original watercolor of Lloyd Bridges by Steve Brodner: Stephanie Chadwick