Saturday, July 23, 2011

"Loosen the Ties and Put Some Sweat on Them": 12 Angry Men (1957)

Spike Lee was in my Twitter feed today, saying, "I was NO WAY this HOT when we did Do the Right Thing." Once again my beloved New York is, as Auntie Mame said, "hot as a crotch."

But there is nothing like a heat wave to fill the Siren with love for her fellow New Yorkers. There they are, the grimly embarrassed men daring you to stare at the enormous sweat stains on their chest; the women in varying stages of undress, their hair scraped back in styles you could christen "I Give Up"; the toddlers in their sun hats and smudged sunscreen, clutching their bottles as though wondering how Mommy let things get this out of hand.

The Siren feels for them all, as she unfurls her parasol and hopes the heat doesn't turn the skin under her freckles bright red. We're trying, aren't we? We're trying so hard not to exert ourselves too much by, say, starting a riot. We're just working to avoid the greatest New York City sin of 'em all: becoming a bore on a single topic.

The movies offer several bards of the New York heat wave. Three who really get it, as indeed they get everything about the city, are the aforementioned Mr. Lee, Martin Scorsese and the late, very much lamented Sidney Lumet. When Lumet died the Siren didn't post a tribute, but this weather prompts her to rectify that, in her own small way. The magnificent Dog Day Afternoon has been in her mind for a few days--those people in the stifling bank, willing themselves not to move as they seem to listen to the drip of their own sweat. Even more so, though, the Siren has been thinking about 12 Angry Men, from 1957.

Nowadays it's a well-loved movie, despite its near-incomprehensible box-office failure. The way it was made is well-known too, from the television origins to the two-week rehearsal process (a Lumet trademark) to the way it was shot one angle at a time, to save on camera set-ups. One particularly brilliant moment is the establishing shot of the jury room, which Henry Fonda (in Mike Steen's Hollywood Speaks) said took all day to set up and ran about two minutes on screen. And the Siren dearly loves an even earlier glimpse of the defendant, played by an uncredited John Savoca, who seems to have disappeared afterward. You could argue that the shot tips the movie's hand; the sad-eyed, clearly terrified Savoca draws your sympathy from the beginning. The Siren cannot look at the kid without wanting to drape an arm around his shoulders, give him a motherly squeeze and hand him a sandwich and a Coca-Cola Icee. But it also raises the stakes, putting the audience on board with Henry Fonda's desire to at least give the boy the courtesy of a full deliberation.

But afterward Lumet's methods were different, Fonda told Steen:

Say, the camera would be on two actors for a scene. After that scene was gotten, Sidney would say, 'Now take their coats off, loosen the ties and put some sweat on them, and we'll shoot scene ninety-two,' which is forty pages further, but requiring the same setup or camera and light position.

Let's look at that title, 12 Angry Men. Well, why are they angry? The script gives you reasons for many--Ed Begley is a bigot, Lee J. Cobb has transferred his anger at his own son to the defendant--but on the simplest, most fundamental level they are angry because there's a heat wave on and they are stuck in this deliberations room with a water fountain and ineffective fan and no AC, and Henry Fonda won't let them vote guilty and get the hell out of there. He's fighting not only their preconceptions, but their physical discomfort. At first, the other jurors want nothing more than to go home and, like the Coo-Coo Pigeon Sisters in The Odd Couple, sit in front of the icebox in the altogether. In fact, if you think about it, Fonda is the least angry man there. Mostly he's just rational. But 11 Angry Men and One Rational Guy in a White Suit would have been hard to fit on the marquee, I suppose.

Cold makes New Yorkers bundle up and scurry along and lets us indulge our natural tendency to stay out of each other's way. Heat takes away the physical barriers and leaves us contemplating each other unadorned, and that's by no means always a good thing. Scan the jury room and you will see a full range of the way New Yorkers cope with heat. Some lash out, like Cobb and Begley. Some try to ignore it, like E.G. Marshall. Some crack jokes or work their tails off just trying to be agreeable. Not all of them have pure motivations for their final votes. But in the end, you also see New Yorkers rising to overcome yet another of this city's indignities, its frankly terrible climate, and as Lee would say, do the right thing.

There's a heat-related plot point that the Siren always relished on a personal level. She's written before about her years in a non-air-conditioned apartment in Harlem. It was right over the elevated part of a subway line. So a key revelation--that witnesses who claimed to have heard something during the murder couldn't have possibly, because the noise of a passing elevated train would have muffled it--was spotted immediately by the Siren and her two roommates when we watched this one long-ago sweltering summer. The noise made by the subway in our apartment when the windows were open was, in fact, so deafening that we watched a lot of foreign movies. You could read the subtitles.

One last thing. The Siren notes that yesterday's temperature of 104 in Central Park broke the New York record, of 101 degrees, previously set for that date in….


Saturday, July 16, 2011

On a Veranda with Myrna and Tyrone

The Siren’s dearest wish for the summer holidays of her patient readers is that they will bring along a book so good that they are utterly absorbed, and they sit by the pool or beach or lake or whatever and forget to get into the water, unless dragged there by a trio of urchins (ahem). Such was her experience on vacation in Lebanon with Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.

The great migration Wilkerson refers to is the move made by about six million black Americans, from the South where they were concentrated at the beginning of the 20th century, to cities in the North and West. The exodus took decades, from 1915 to 1970, and Wilkerson argues that the changes it wrought were as profound as those brought about by the immigrants who came through Ellis Island.

To bring her narrative down to scale, she focuses on three who made the move: Ida Mae Gladney, who went from picking cotton in Mississippi to a home in Chicago; George Starling, who left brutal oppression in Florida for Harlem; and Robert Foster, a doctor who moved from Louisiana to success in California. This trio gives The Warmth of Other Suns the emotion and sweep of a great novel. It is not a perfect book; the author has a couple of style tics, and Wilkerson’s faith in the historical importance of her story (and she sure convinced the Siren) also leads her to the journalist’s habit of repeating her points. But those are quibbles. The Siren loved these people and finished the book deeply sorry that she could not ever meet them herself.

“Their migration was a response to an economic and social structure not of their making,” writes Wilkerson. “They did what humans have done for centuries when life became untenable...They did what human beings looking for freedom, throughout history, have often done. They left.” A large part of The Warmth of Other Suns is given to showing what they left--the violent, pitiless racial caste system of the South. A native Southerner herself, the Siren is well versed in that history. It’s one thing to have the general knowledge, though, and quite another to be hit with Wilkerson’s accretion of detail. Story by story, she shows the cold horror of what African-Americans endured, from the ghastly beatings and lynchings, down to the endless petty humiliations.

And so we come to a passage that has stayed with the Siren well past finishing the book. The Siren’s deepest cinematic love is for Hollywood films made before the mid-’60s. This story of Robert Foster (then called by his middle name, Pershing) attending the Paramount theater in Monroe, La., in the 1930s, shows what some Americans went through just to see those movies.

He could see the double glass doors in front and a crowd forming outside. He knew to ignore the front entrance. It was off-limits to people like him.

He went to get his ticket. It was a more complicated affair than it had to be, owing to the whims and peculiarities of how Jim Crow played out in a particular town or establishment. For a time, there was a single ticket agent working both booths--the window for the colored and the one for the white. The agent swiveled between the two openings to sell the movie tickets, a roll to the white line and then a pivot to the colored. It created unnecessary confusion and waiting time for one line or the other, the waiting borne more likely by the colored moviegoers than the white, as waiting to be served after colored people would have been unacceptable to the white clientele. By the time Pershing was nearly grown, the swiveling ticket agent was dispensed with in favor of altogether separate windows and ticket sellers, which would cost a little more but would move the white and colored lines along more quickly and more in keeping with the usual protocols of Jim Crow.

The Paramount fancied itself like one of the great opera houses of Europe with its crimson velvet curtains and pipe organ rising from the orchestra pit. A double-wide staircase ushered theatergoers to its box seats. But Pershing would not be permitted near them. He followed the colored crowd to the little door at the side entrance, while the white people passed through the heavy glass doors...

The side door opened onto a dark stairway. Pershing mounted the steps, anxious to get a seat before the lights went dim. He went up one flight, two flights, three, four, five flights of stairs. The scent of urine told him he was getting closer to the colored seats.

At the top of the stairs, there was Bennie Anderson, the colored ticket taker, ready to take his stub. The urine aroma was thick and heavy now. The toilet was stopped up most of the time, and the people did what they had to. Some relieved themselves on the way up. Pershing thought they did it on purpose--a protest maybe for the condition of the place, not registering that it was other colored people who had to suffer for it. He could understand it, but he didn’t much approve.

Pershing sat hard in the wooden seat and tried not to notice the stuffed upholstery on the main floor below. Sometimes the kids would rain popcorn and soda pop on the white people. At last, the place went dark, and Pershing left Monroe. He was on a bright veranda with Myrna Loy and Tyrone Power out in California. It was a perfect world, and he could see himself in it.

Now the Siren admits that many, if not most, of Wilkerson’s readers do not encounter that story and wonder afterward which movie Foster was seeing, but around these parts that reaction is perfectly understandable. The passage is in a section dated 1933, a year the Siren’s readers will immediately identify as off. Myrna Loy made one movie with Tyrone Power, and it was 1939’s The Rains Came. The material comes from Wilkerson’s interviews with Foster, conducted in 1996 and 1997 when he was almost 80 years old, and it’s possible his memory telescoped the movies he saw as a teen. Still, it’s intriguing that Foster’s mind lit on an image from that particular film, so please excuse the Siren for a moment as she riffs on it.

The verandas were shot in California, but the setting is colonial India. The Rains Came depicts an interracial romance between Tyrone Power’s aristocratic Indian, a doctor like Foster, and Myrna Loy’s adulterous Englishwoman. In the banner year of 1939 it can’t be said to stand out as a masterpiece, but the movie holds up as good entertainment via the talented Clarence Brown. It’s a handsome picture, shot by Bert Glennon and Arthur C. Miller, two cinematographers whose genius with black-and-white could take anyone out of Monroe, La., or anywhere else.

The Siren hasn’t been able to track down exactly how The Rains Came made it past the Production Code’s miscegenation clause. This grimly simple statement (“Miscegenation (sex relationship between the black and white races) is forbidden”) was long interpreted as barring interracial love affairs whether they came via script or casting. (The rule cost Anna May Wong the lead in The Good Earth, scuttled Lena Horne’s chances for Show Boat, and was no doubt a big reason for Merle Oberon’s silence on her own Indian roots.) Thomas Doherty’s biography of Joseph Breen offers no help, and if anyone has information, please share. It’s possible that the story’s origin, in a bestselling novel by Louis Bromfield, and the star power of the white leads for once rendered it a moot point. Ronald Bergan, reviewing a book on images of India in the movies at Bright Lights Film Journal, also points out that Loy’s character “has to die in the end to avoid breaking the taboo.”

Still, anything Foster saw in a cinema in the 1930s would have had to clear not only the Hays Office, but the network of local censors crisscrossing the country, people like Lloyd T. Binford, whose father wrote the Jim Crow laws for Tennessee and who, as head of the Memphis censorship board, banned the 1947 comedy Curley for showing a white teacher with a racially diverse class. Doherty quotes Binford: “I am sorry to have to inform you that the Memphis Board of Censors was unable to approve your Curley picture with the little Negroes as the South does not permit Negroes in white schools nor recognize equality between the races, even children.” This piece of madness caused embarrassment even at the time, and enabled Breen to pose as the broadminded defender of art, saying that “we are opposed to political censorship from outside the industry” and pursuing a lawsuit against the Memphis board, which Doherty says the MPAA lost on a technicality. You see the Siren’s point; a segregated theater was far from the only obstacle facing a black movie-lover (and Foster did love movies) seventy years ago.

The Rains Came’s most celebrated moments are a series of natural disasters. The special effects used to create an earthquake, torrential rains and a dam bursting won an Oscar, and they still look great. The Siren thinks CGI has only the slightest edge, if any, over certain movies shot with miniatures and, in this case, sets that were destroyed one by one using a 50,000-gallon water tank. (She would think that, wouldn’t she, although others agree.)

But no matter how they’re filmed, disasters serve but one, and I do mean one, purpose in Hollywood movies, new or old: They're a conspicuously flashy way for the characters to reassess their lives. (Here the Siren casts a sidelong glance at the much-discussed Contagion trailer, and wonders whether Steven Soderbergh will break this rule. The movie looks good, but judging by Matt Damon’s tormented demeanor out in the woods, she’s gonna go with no.) Rama Safti (Power) is torn between his calling as a doctor and his position as heir to the Maharajah; Lady Edwina Esketh (Loy, in a role she beat out numerous other actresses for) is married to a rich, but boring old duffer (Nigel Bruce, bien sur) and cheating on him as blatantly as the Code will permit. By the time the dam breaks, Lady Esketh is in love with Safti. And the plague (yes, plague, because an earthquake, flood and a busted dam aren’t enough to get these two to shape up) that follows the other calamities prompts Lady E. to don a nurse’s uniform and minister to the sick, a job that also lets her be close to the man she loves. Witnessing suffering alters Lady Esketh's selfish nature, and Safti falls in love with her at last. Lady Esketh’s death from the plague, and the death of the Maharajah, show Safti he must accept his responsibilities.

Unlike the other two people profiled in The Warmth of Other Suns, Foster came from a prominent family, and he was expected to make a name for himself. The treatment meted out to him in the South, however, always galled this proud man, and in 1953 he left for California. There his highly successful practice eventually grew to include Ray Charles; it was Dr. Foster who sewed up Charles’ hand after the singer put it through a glass coffee table, thereby preserving Charles’ piano-playing. We all owe the doctor for that.

So there is Foster in a segregated movie theater, watching a story that was daring for the time, about an Indian doctor with distinguished roots, who makes it through hardship and loss to claim his rightful legacy.

It fits, doesn’t it.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Fandor: Lillian Gish

From "Four Times Truer Than Life," the Siren's post about the very great Lillian Gish, at Fandor. The piece can be read in its entirety at Fandor's Keyframe blog. Please do comment at Fandor, too.

3. “Richard Schickel…thought The Wind verged ‘on the ludicrous’ and continued by saying that Gish failed the ‘basic obligation of stardom, which is to be sexy.’ Whereupon, Louise Brooks rolled over in her gin-soaked grave.” –Dan Callahan, “Blossom in the Dust,” Bright Lights Film Journal

I’ve always been fascinated by the idea that Gish isn’t sexy, considering that she spent her entire silent career playing women (and, in Broken Blossoms, a child) who are desired by men, and often wind up seduced and abandoned. It’s no harder to get past Gish’s thin lips and flowing hair to her beauty, than it is to overlook Garbo’s eyebrows or Clara Bow’s oddly drawn mouth. Do those who find Gish a “silly, sexless antique” (Louise Brooks’ sarcastic phrasing of such criticisms) wonder what the male characters are after? Nowadays, are innocence and purity so despised, or so transient, that no trace of their appeal remains? Surely not. Perhaps in our day, those qualities are so firmly relegated to childhood that modern audiences aren’t comfortable with an erotic attraction to innocence–or, in The Wind, with how a young virgin’s terror of sex can coexist with an equally primal yearning for it.

At this point it really may seem as though I am picking on Mr. Schickel, but hey, Dan started it this time. Do read Dan's entire piece on Gish; it is beautifully written and argued, as always, even though I don't agree with him at all on Griffith.

Also, here is a lovely post by Robert Avrech, about Gish's meticulous preparation for her roles. The silent cinema has no more appreciative, sharp-eyed and passionate advocate on the Web than Robert.

Adding: Sheila O'Malley takes on The Birth of a Nation without fear or favor.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Two Weeks in Lebanon: A Dossier

Being a partial account of my 15-day stay in Lebanon, with my family. Some names have been changed. Note that most major historical sightseeing, including the ruins of the Alexander Gate and Hippodrome in Tyre, the Sea Castle in Sidon, the Beirut Historical Museum and the ruins of Heliopolis in Baalbek, was accomplished on prior trips. This was more about...well, read on.

Number of buses you must take to change planes from Air France to Middle East Airlines at Charles de Gaulle airport: Two
Who on earth designs an airport that requires buses to get anywhere: The designers of Charles de Gaulle airport
Time delay due to lateness of bus, whose passengers included a visibly ticked-off head flight attendant: Two and a half hours
Best airport I have ever been in: Rafik Hariri International, in Beirut
Distance to Southern port town of Tyre, in Lebanon, from the Beirut airport: About 70 kilometers
Time elapsed en route: Two hours

Number of cups of Nescafe consumed by me over 15-day stay in Lebanon: About 48
Number of cups of Turkish coffee consumed: About 16
Availability of American-style coffee in Lebanon: Low
Reason I didn’t consume more Turkish coffee in Lebanon: More than one cup and I’m suddenly Ray Liotta in the helicopter scene in Goodfellas.
Response of Aunt Raja, upon hearing me wonder out loud whether I should cover up more to blend in with that afternoon’s coffee guests: “Eh. You are young and pretty. Why bother?”
My favorite in-law: Aunt Raja

Bottles of sunscreen brought to Lebanon: Nine
Number consumed: Five
Sunburns sustained by family: Zero (I am proud of this.)
Attitude of native Lebanese to sunscreen: Detached amusement
How to spot UNIFIL personnel at a beach resort: They are paler than me, and they glisten with sunscreen
Days at beach or pool: Seven
Diet staples consumed by my children in Lebanon, in descending order of preference: Kibbeh, lahme bajine, kafta, cucumbers, watermelon, pita bread, rice pilaf, chicken soup.
Diet staples consumed by me in Lebanon, in descending order of importance: Fattoush, tabbouleh, labneh, kussa, fish, pita.
Pounds gained by me on vacation: Zero

Number of treehouses in the locally famous garden of Aunt Hana and Uncle Zein, in Tyre: One
Number of ornaments made from Roman pieces salvaged from destruction at construction sites: About four
Likelihood of hitting Roman ruins no matter where you try to put a building in Lebanon: High
Number of ornaments made from spent and salvaged ordnance in Uncle Zein’s garden: Three, including a cluster bomb.
What my Uncle Zein made during the Israeli invasion of 1982, when he couldn’t work in the garden: A carefully polished coffee table from a salvaged olive tree stump
Dimensions of table: About four feet by two feet.
What my son and I found in the garden upon returning from an outing: A bride and groom posing for wedding pictures
What the maid of honor was wearing: A skin-tight black satin spaghetti-strap dress, over a nude-colored, tight, neck-high, full-sleeved shirt, and a hijab headdress over what was obviously an elaborate hair-updo
What the bride was wearing: A halter dress with a full tulle skirt and a tight, silver-embroidered bodice, over a tight, white, neck-high, full-sleeved shirt, and a hijab headdress like a white version of the maid of honor’s, only with a veil attached to the back.
My son’s reaction to the bride: “There’s a princess in Aunt Hana’s garden!”
Aunt Hana’s reaction: “Oh, it’s July. They’re here almost every weekend. Sometimes they call, sometimes they just show up.”
Amount Aunt Hana charges for use of the garden in photo shoots: Zero.

Number of car wrecks sustained while I was a passenger in Lebanon: One
Accident caused by: A man turning directly, and without any signal, into the path of Aunt Hana’s car
Reaction of culprit: Handed Aunt Hana her crumpled license plate and a piece of her fender
Damages requested by an entirely serene and polite Aunt Hana: An apology
Damages paid up: Yes (grudgingly)
Driving advice proffered by Aunt Hana to my husband: “Just remember that everyone else on the road is completely crazy.”
Number of cars in Lebanon spotted with people riding on the luggage rack: Three
Number spotted with open sides and children riding inside unsecured: Two
Number of motorcycle helmets spotted, in a country full of mopeds and scooters: Two, in Beirut
Number of cars with infant in lap of front seat passenger: Five
Number of cars with infant in lap of driver: Two
Number of car seats spotted: Zero
Number of car seats we hauled to Lebanon: Three

Distance from Tyre to Tripoli, in the north: 195 kilometers
Worst traffic in Lebanon, by common consent: Outside the resort town of Jounieh, north of Beirut
Possible cause of bad traffic in Jounieh, aside from number of cars: Drivers’ desire to cram three lanes of traffic onto each two-lane side of the highway
Best view on the road from Tyre to Tripoli: The sweeping vista of Jounieh and its bay, as you’re leaving

Number of black canvas bags left on sidewalk in downtown Tripoli while I struggled to strap three not terribly cooperative children into three car seats: One
Contents of black canvas bag including, but not limited to: A laptop
Hours elapsed in villa of our good friend Mansur’s uncle before bag was missed: Two and a half
Calls made by Mansur’s cousin Sami to ask someone to look for the bag: One

Transcript of Sami’s conversation with the doorman of apartment building in downtown Tripoli:
Sami: [Arabic] (to me) What was in the bag, besides the laptop?
Me: Um...sunscreen. A toy car. Baby wipes.
Sami: [Arabic] baay-bee wipes [Arabic]. (To me, slowly and significantly, both eyebrows raised and mouth twitching) What kind of baby wipes?
Me: (an embarrassed squeak) Pampers. (afterthought) Sensitive.
Sami: [Arabic] Pampers [Arabic].

Time elapsed after Sami’s phone call: About 15 minutes.
Number of black canvas bags containing a Lightning McQueen toy, sunscreen, Pampers Sensitive baby wipes and a laptop retrieved from a Tripoli sidewalk by an apartment doorman: One
Sami’s laughing reaction to profuse expressions of thanks: “I own this town.”
Sami’s occupation: Journalist
Sami’s employer: Al Jazeera
Location of the villa of Mansur’s uncle: About three kilometers from the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp.
Ressponse of Sami and other relatives to Mansur’s proposed visit in 2007: “Not a good idea this summer. The crossfire keeps setting the orchard on fire.”
Parting gift of Sami to the Nehme adults: One bottle homemade arak.

Biggest attraction in Tripoli: St. Gilles Castle
Second biggest: Tripoli souk
Third biggest: Al Hallab pastry shop
Purchased at Tripoli souk: Locally made soap and one pair of traditional silver earrings
Haggling: None. Price was already low.
Best ice cream at Tripoli souk: Scoops, a good place to get a massive dish of multi-colored ice cream while you wait for a friend (in this case Mansur) to bring your car down.
Mansur’s problem with bringing our car: It wouldn’t start.
What happened when our car wouldn’t start: A man appeared and told Mansur to pop the hood.
Number of times Mansur had seen this person before: Zero
What Mansur did: He popped the hood.
What the man did: Fiddled around with the engine for a minute and yelled, “Don’t you have a rag back there or something?”
What Mansur handed him: My son’s swimming trunks.
Man’s reaction: “What is this? Are you kidding me? Oh all right, never mind.”
What happened when the man closed the hood: The car started.
How long it took to haggle payment for the impromptu auto-tune-up: About two minutes
What happened next: An altercation with a merchant who didn’t want Mansur parking in front of his shop
Mansur’s mood upon arrival at Scoops ice cream in the Tripoli souk: Stressed
Did car continue to work after ministrations by total stranger outside St Gilles Castle?: Yes.

Number of times we got lost in downtown Beirut: Two.
Outcome the first time: Got good directions from a man hanging out in front of the Armenian cultural center in Bourj Hammoud.
Outcome second time: Said “what the hell,” stopped for lunch at a cafe overlooking Pigeon Rock, then followed the sea back to the highway.
Number of buildings seen with visible gun and mortar damage in Beirut: Two, including the still-abandoned Holiday Inn.
Number of buildings spotted with mortar damage on first visit to Beirut, in 2000: About twenty.

Location of Beirut apartment of my husband’s close childhood friend Maher: In Hamra, not far from the Corniche, and close enough to where Rafik Hariri was assassinated to have the windows blown out by the explosion.
What Maher likes about his neighborhood: “It has always been very mixed. Before the war, nobody even asked what religion you are. You found out at Christmas or Ramadan or if someone got married.”
Maher’s occupation: Head chef at a restaurant in Hamra.
Highlight of lunch with Maher and his adorable mother Isnat: Maher’s tale of a five-month stint as a chef in a remote part of Nigeria.
What the Nigeria job included: Slaughtering his own goats every morning and doing the marketing armed with a semi-automatic weapon. (Let’s see them try that on next season’s Top Chef.)
Maher’s comment on why he left: “It occurred to me that it would not really be all that funny to survive the civil war in Beirut and die in Nigeria trying to buy groceries.”

Number of international phone calls made by me in Lebanon: Zero.
Number of emails sent: Zero.
Number of blog posts, comments, Facebook updates or Tweets posted: Zero.
Number of movies seen: Four. In descending order of preference, Win-Win, Morning Glory, True Crime, The Kite Runner.

Return trip to Brooklyn: Uneventful.
How jet-lagged am I?: I am typing this at six a.m. EDT.