Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Shrike (1955)

The Siren, after musing here several times that she would like to see The Shrike, was able to achieve that goal via the kind offices of a reader. She has no idea why this picture is so goshdarned hard to see. Given that it's based on a 1952 Pulitzer-winning play by Joseph Kramm, the Siren is inclined to finger our old friend the ULP, or underlying literary property, as Lee Tsiantis once explained here. The Siren usually feels bad about writing up movies that are more or less completely out of circulation, but she’s offering some thoughts on this one for several reasons.

One, some patient readers have also expressed interest. Two, it’s interesting in ways that don’t necessarily demand seeing it. Three, it stars Siren nemesis June Allyson.

And what you undoubtedly want to know is, “Is she any good?” Why yes, she is. If you’re a June Allyson fan who hasn’t quit reading this blog in disgust, you’ll admire her on the merits. If you dislike Allyson’s screen persona as the Siren does, then you will probably agree that here we have the definitive June Allyson performance. She’s perfect. That gurgling voice, like an anemic Jean Arthur; that pageboy bob, the demure gaze, the button-nosed girlishness — all of that creating a portrait of a woman who will TEAR YOUR SOUL APART.

Jose Ferrer, who directed and starred in the play on Broadway, knew what he was doing when he cast Allyson as Ann Downs. This gal is subtle. Joan Crawford’s Harriet Craig drifts around her house like an iceberg in search of a liner to sink, and everyone knows she’s a bitch, she’s practically got it embroidered on the sofa cushions. In the few analyses you can find out there of The Shrike, Ann Downs is usually described as a shrew, a different bird from the prey-impaling one of the title, but you get the idea. But played by Allyson, Ann isn’t very shrewish at all. As she torments poor husband Jim (Jose Ferrer, who also directed) right into an entrée of phenobarbitol and a subsequent holiday in the state mental ward, she rarely raises her voice. All her little undermining remarks, even her small displays of temper, are delivered with the same kittenish mannerisms that Allyson brought to everything from Good News to that ghastly remake of My Man Godfrey. It’s pretty seriously brilliant.

Misogyny is a word that the Siren deploys with caution, to avoid lessening its impact; usually a simple sentence such as “The heroine was a complete dingbat” will suffice. Discussing The Shrike without misogyny, though, would be the equivalent of discussing Gone With the Wind without bothering to mention the Civil War. It’s the essence of the movie, an unshakable male conviction that the little woman full of advice for your career is really trying to eat your entrails like an after-dinner mint.

Ann is onscreen plenty, as when she’s visiting Jim in the loony bin, making it clear he must stay there until he’s knuckled under to all her demands. Or, she’s in his flashbacks, bugging him to give her a part in his play (he’s a theater director), carefully clipping out his bad reviews or sweetly bringing up ways he can metaphorically shoot himself in the nuts. Her perspective is nowhere to be found, though. She’s a frustrated actress, but if she’s frustrated that’s her problem. At no point, not even after a miscarriage leaves her barren, does it occur to Jim to tell Ann to get a hobby or just get the hell out of the house. Yeah, yeah, it’s 1955 — she could at least go out to lunch or volunteer at the Junior League or something. Instead, the movie’s attitude toward Ann is summed up by a shrink who asks in a sort of Congressional-hearing tone, “Mrs. Downs, are you familiar with the term, castrating?”

No, no, it’s all about Jim’s suffering, which Ferrer underlines in black magic marker via extravagantly long takes of his own tortured and sometimes tear-stained face. As the director of this film, Ferrer cares about himself, at a suitable distance he cares about the other actors, and that’s pretty much it. The Shrike exhibits Joshua Logan levels of camera cluelessness. At one point Ferrer emerges from a hospital room and walks across a hall that stretches away into a geometric film-noir grid. And the Siren yelled from her cozy perch on the living-room sofa, “You idiot! That’s a great shot! Hold still a second!” But Ferrer the actor keeps moving. And that means the camera must, too.

He is, however, good in this, as is the entire cast, including Mary Hayley Bell, a.k.a. Juliet and Hayley Mills' mom, playing an ancestress of Nurse Ratched who’s possessed of a Karo-syrup Southern accent. The Shrike, then, is a well-acted sociological artifact and not really a neglected gem. But if you can track it down, it will give you plenty to think about, including whether Allyson was miscast in all those other movies, and not this one.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

What the Siren Will Be Doing on the Night of Feb. 26

To her recollection, the Siren has never posted about an Oscar race, as opposed to the ceremony, but there's a first time for everything. This year, there are two movies up for Best Picture that are deeply concerned with film history: Hugo and The Artist. The Siren worshipped Hugo, as you know. The Artist was not as accomplished but she still found it a lovely movie, albeit one with parts that didn't work.

During the run-up to Oscar season (a long series of ceremonies fused in the Siren's mind as the "You Can't Make Me Care" awards), there's been a lot of venom directed at both these pictures online. (Greg Ferrara recently discussed that phenomenon under topic 5 of this post.) Why this is happening, the Siren couldn't tell you. There's a lack of proportion when some critics dislike a middlebrow, well-received movie, a type of anabolic rage that the Siren works mightily to avoid. She doesn't hold back because she aspires to become The Blessed Siren. She tempers her words because she wants to have some white-hot invective left if she should ever have to review something like, I don't know, Human Centipede 2.

The Siren has no quarrel with those who find Hugo or The Artist to be flawed to one degree or another--well, beyond marshaling cogent and irrefutable explanations of why with Hugo they're wrong. Marilyn Ferdinand was resolutely uncharmed by The Artist. Comrade Lou Lumenick responded to Hugo with, in essence, "meh." But there is one strain in the anti-Hugo, anti-Artist camps up with which the Siren will not put. That could be called the "ugh, a film about film history" strain.

It probably isn't Slate's fault that the Siren reached the outmost limit of enough when she saw these two discussions. It was bound to happen at some point, but that point came when in part two, Dan Kois weighed in with:

Are you ready for the most self-important Oscars ever??? Troy, you’re absolutely right that this year’s nominations skew oooooold. They’re also cinema-obsessed. Glen Weldon of NPR had it right when he tweeted that nods for The Artist and Hugo have essentially guaranteed that this Oscar ceremony will be well-nigh insufferable. ('The cinema. Dreams made of light, flickering in the dark. Film is the very language of the soul …') On Oscar night, I’m playing a drinking game in which I down a cocktail every time Martin Scorsese calls his movie 'the picture.' We've already made a reservation in the penthouse suit of our local hospital.

Mm-hm. Let's rewind the reel. Dave Kehr and others write frequently about the legions of films that have dropped out of circulation. We write about how hard it is to see some films even from major auteurs such as Raoul Walsh and Ernst Lubitsch, let alone someone arcane like Alfred E. Green. Huge swaths of the general public don’t want to see a black-and-white movie (and for that reason alone, the Siren doesn't think anyone should "barf" over an Artist win). Outside the major cities, the revival house is on the verge of extinction, and the people running the few that survive tell bloodcurdling tales of their struggles to obtain prints. Thirty-five millimeter is about to bite the dust (read here and sign the petition, the Siren hasn't even the heart to summarize). There is an overwhelming tilt toward the new on the big, high-traffic movie sites. About four years ago, Internet film writers--cinephiles, in other words, mostly young ones--were surveyed to compile a list of the 100 best films; two-thirds of the films selected were produced after 1970.

In light of all that, if you have a problem with a few minutes of people talking about light passing through film or the magic of the movies or whatever, while some old clips scroll by at the Kodak Theatre, then what the Siren says to you is suck it up.

The Siren stated her, ah, displeasure on Twitter and got a very polite and collegial response from Dana Stevens and Kois himself, Kois asking "Can't we lobby for the Oscars to deliver the message without the rhetoric?" and adding, "Use video. Use storytelling. Build an appreciation for film history without lectures." Fair enough, although the Siren thinks complaining about pompous writing in an Oscarcast is like complaining that the soy sauce is salty. The Siren will take Mr. Kois at his word, and has no hard feelings.

Even so, the Siren hereby declares her rooting interests ahead of the 84th Academy Awards in Los Angeles on Feb. 26. Forgive her language in advance.

The Siren wants an Oscar ceremony so stuffed with old-movie clips that the fanboy contingent chokes on their Cheetos. She wants tributes, she wants high-flown overwritten paeans, she wants audience reaction shots of dewy 20-year-old starlets looking puzzled as shit at the sight of Janet Gaynor.

The Siren will go further. If Michel Hazanavicius wins, she wants him to take that list of silent-movie inspirations he did for Indiewire, name-check them all and cause Wikipedia to crash from all the people looking up "King Vidor" at the same time. Then, she hopes Hazanavicius praises City Lights, which he said inspired The Artist more than any other film, and then she wants him to spell out the URL for The Chaplin Collection Volume Two letter by fucking letter.

Of course, the Siren hopes Scorsese wins. And if he does, she wants him to talk about the tragedy of decaying film stock. She wants him to point at the executives in the audience like Burr McIntosh ordering Lillian Gish into the snowstorm and demand to know what the hell they think they are doing, trashing 35 millimeter. She wants him to mention projection speeds, she wants an explanation of three-strip Technicolor and dye-transfer, she wants black-and-white deep-focus and a history of lenses from the Lumiere brothers on, she wants him to tell the suits to let poor Frank Borzage out of the vaults. She wants Martin Scorsese, one of the greatest film-preservation champions this country has ever produced, to get up there and talk longer than Greer Garson, talk until the violinists dangle their bows and wonder if they should grab a cup of coffee, talk until one single human being out there who has never seen a silent film sits up and says, "Gee, I should check one of these things out."

It won't happen. But if the Siren were a true pessimist, she'd blog about politics, not movies.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Out of Line

Prompted by Letter From an Unknown Woman, below, the Siren has been thinking about line delivery. In that column the Siren talks about the way Joan Fontaine as Lisa tells her soldier suitor that she has someone else. Fontaine doesn’t play that as a lie, which would be the obvious choice. She plays it as truth, which to Lisa it is.

One thing that defines a talented actor is the ability to take a line in a script, recognize the straightforward way to play it, then pull the words in a direction that the audience doesn’t expect or that reveals something hidden about the action. A perfect line delivery transfixes the Siren, causes her to go back later and say, “What is this actor doing here?” This no minor skill. It’s crushingly hard. Those critics who talk about actors primarily as vessels of the film director’s vision--like Bishop Berkeley who said, as Martin Gardner put it, that we are all just “ ‘sorts of things’ in the mind of God”--have they ever sat for hours watching an actor struggle to put something under a line, even if the director is standing there repeating the words exactly as he wants them? The Siren has not only watched that, she’s been that actor on a couple of long-past occasions. That’s a big part of why she writes about acting the way she does.

The Siren isn’t necessarily talking about simple negation, where the line is angry, so you play it cool, or the line is sweet, so you say it like an insult. The Siren is thinking about layer and nuance that are so full and so natural that once the actor speaks, it becomes hard to conceive of the line being said any other way.

Take Rhett Butler’s kiss-off, probably the most famous line in the history of cinema. The way Clark Gable utters that sentiment isn’t the way Margaret Mitchell describes it at all. In the novel, during the long speech where Rhett tells Scarlett that his feelings for her are dead, he shrugs, sighs, and then: “He drew a short breath and said lightly but softly, ‘My dear, I don’t give a damn.’ ” Mitchell had no “frankly”--that was David O. Selznick’s contribution. Gable still could have played it Mitchell’s way, but he didn’t.

The Siren always thought the novel Gone With the Wind made it clear that Scarlett wasn’t getting Rhett back. You can fight to keep a man who’s angry at you. You will never, ever, ever have a chance in this world with one who has grown indifferent. Now look at Gable, above. That isn’t indifference. There’s only a little anger, mostly from the way his eyes snap. But the touch of venom in Gable’s voice, and the twist of his mouth, and his stance, show a man who’s trying to wound. And when a man cares enough to want his words to hurt, he presents a possibility. A faint, feeble one, but a possibility nonetheless. Whether it was because the director(s) and Selznick didn’t want the door to slam forever, or because Gable himself didn’t want to play love extinguished, the line as Gable says it gives Scarlett a chance.

So, for her own amusement, and she hopes yours, too, the Siren came up with an off-the-cuff list of lines--some famous, some that the Siren just happens to like--that exemplify what she's talking about. This isn’t meant to be definitive in any way; it’s just a start. The Siren feels certain her patient readers have their own entries.

Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce: “You might as well get this straight. Those kids come first in this house. Before either one of us. Maybe that's right and maybe it's wrong. But that's the way it is.” The whole movie turns on this admission. It could be said angrily, defensively, self-righteously or apologetically, especially since this marks the climax of a nasty fight with her husband. Crawford, so often accused of overplaying, opts for blunt resignation, as though Mildred’s reminding Bert Pierce that the rent is due.

Maureen O’Hara in The Quiet Man: “But--that was just by way of being a good Christian act.” Mary Kate Danaher has, to this point, shown a harridan streak you could measure in square acres. She’s made her attraction to John Wayne’s character obvious--as a matter of fact, he just kissed her, and she gave him a “wallop”--but this line shows the heart that we’ve been hoping would turn up. Sean Thornton tells Mary Kate that he appreciates her cleaning his cottage, and O’Hara responds with gentle sincerity, suddenly becoming the woman he saw all along.

John Wayne in The Searchers: “That’ll be the day.” Of course, he says that at least three times, often enough to pique Buddy Holly’s interest. The Siren particularly likes the line as Wayne’s rejoinder to Jeffrey Hunter’s half-strangled, furious “I hope you die.” There isn’t a crumb of machismo or even warning. It’s the factual declaration of a man who knows a boy hasn’t a prayer of besting him, or even waiting him out. Ethan Edwards has torments and raging neuroses aplenty. Fear of someone else’s anger isn’t one of them.

Cary Grant in His Girl Friday: “What were you thinking with?” This endlessly funny movie, so wise about journalists and what makes a man and a woman right for each other, turns that throwaway remark into a shimmering romantic gem, a love declaration that ranks well up in the Siren’s pantheon. “I thought you didn’t love me,” sobs Rosalind Russell. And Grant replies with a mixture of irritation, tenderness, reproach and a bit of hurt--he's hurt that Hildy thought he was going to be noble. He loves her, and nobility is for chumps, and come on Hildy, what did you think he was, a chump?

James Cagney in White Heat: “Oh, stuffy, huh? I’ll give ya a little air.” Whereupon Cody Jarrett fires about four or five shots into the car trunk that holds the man who was complaining he couldn’t breathe. The Siren includes this because it’s such a template for all the merrily psychopathic gangsters to come: gunfire as self-amusement. Cagney doesn’t telegraph the joke, he just makes it, and he speaks with his mouth still full of chicken, so off-hand that you know the decision was made just that fast.

Joan Bennett in The Reckless Moment: “Everyone has a mother like me. You probably had one, too.” Lucia Harper says that to the blackmailer, Donnelly (James Mason), who could destroy her life. He is already half in love with her, this woman who deploys all her intelligence and courage to protect her feckless daughter and absent husband. Donnelly tells Lucia that her daughter is lucky to have a mother like her, something the audience has been thinking for quite some time, and she doesn't respond with indignation or rebuke--it isn’t ”would you treat your own mother this way?”--or confusion or modesty at the compliment. Instead, it’s almost like she’s blurting it to herself, because she’s annoyed with Donnelly for forcing her to point out the obvious.

Herbert Marshall in Trouble in Paradise: “And let me say this, with love in my heart: Countess, you are a thief. The wallet of the gentleman in 253, 5, 7 and 9 is in your possession. I knew it very well when you took it out of my pocket. In fact, you tickled me. But your embrace was so sweet.” The Siren could have filled her entire list with lines from Lubitsch movies, where a huge part of the humor comes from playing around with expectations. (Like Jack Benny, dead serious in To Be or Not to Be: “Maybe he’s dead already! Oh darling, you’re so comforting.”) An actor could easily take this line toward dry, ironic or mocking. Marshall tells the Countess she’s a thief like he’s the Dueling Cavalier telling Lina Lamont, “I love you, I love you, I love you.”

Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday: “Would you do me a favor, Harry?...Drop dead.” No nastiness, no anger, not even triumph--it’s childlike glee at her own daring.

Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate: “Why don't you pass the time by playing a little solitaire?” A serenely maternal suggestion. Any line, and the Siren means that literally, any single line of Mrs. Iselin’s could be included here, Lansbury is that good. This one, though, sums up the performance as a supreme example of underplaying. Give the ornate speeches of this megalomaniac even a touch of the cartoon villain, and the whole movie collapses like--OK, the Siren will resist that one.

Orson Welles in The Third Man: “Don't be so gloomy. After all, it's not that awful. Like the fellow said, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love. They had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock. So long, Holly.” A deservedly immortal speech, as fine a summation of a cynical outlook as exists in any medium. And how does Welles speak it? With boundless good cheer. Harry Lime does not consider himself to be delivering bad news. That’s why you learn more about Lime’s utter amorality from this little pep talk than you did only a minute or two earlier, when Harry points out that he could easily throw his old friend off the top of the Ferris wheel.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948)

(Ahead of Turner Classic Movies's Max Ophuls in Hollywood night, the Siren is posting the first column she did for the now-defunct Nomad Wide Screen. The Siren posted an excerpt last year, but this is the original column in its entirety. It concerns Joan Fontaine's performance in Letter From an Unknown Woman, which airs at 11:15 pm EST. Our old friend Lee Tsiantis popped into comments to mention, if you did not see it, that immediately after the 1 am screening of The Exile, TCM will show the alternate, "European" ending to that film, straight from the vaults of the Library of Congress. Lee is too modest to mention, so the Siren will do it for him, that TCM's first screening of Caught came about because he chose it for their Employee Picks series. All this, plus The Reckless Moment. And exactly one week from tonight is Joan Fontaine night, which includes the just-rescued-from-rights-hell-by-TCM treasure, The Constant Nymph. The Siren suggests a tagline: "TCM takes the sting out of Monday.")

I date my abiding passion for Joan Fontaine to my first viewing of Letter from an Unknown Woman, Max Ophuls' 1948 masterpiece, as pure an example of a woman's picture as exists. Women's pictures--that romantic subset of golden-age melodrama where, as Molly Haskell said, "the swirling river of a woman's emotions is as important as anything on earth"--have always been my favorite genre. One reason for my partiality is that these films stand or fall on the female star as much as on the director. And so it was Fontaine who caught my imagination playing a character, Lisa Berndl, who endures unrequited love from beginning to end. Pain is a key element in women's pictures--the pain of abandonment, of losing men, children, society's respect--but Fontaine recognized that the script and Ophuls' direction would show that for her. She couldn't play pure suffering, a passive course for an actor that risks the audience becoming restive or even contemptuous. Fontaine had to play reckless, willful determination, and she had to play it based on something more than physical or emotional yearning.

I'm always amazed when I read discussions of this famous movie that don't mention a crucial point--when Lisa falls in love with pianist Stefan Brand (Louis Jourdan, also giving his best performance), she falls in love with his art. Her first appearance is as a 14-year-old clambering around a moving cart piled with his books, his scores, his instruments, all the paraphenalia of an artist's life. "I wondered who owned such beautiful things," she says. Fontaine was 30 years old when she made the movie, and while she doesn't look that age, she doesn't look 14, either. But Fontaine has a girl's energy down perfectly, the way movement comes in spurts, awkward one moment and graceful the next. Lisa doesn't yet have the ability to conceal fascination, she doesn't even have the desire to do so. She stops and gives her whole focus. When she sneaks into Stefan's rooms, her face shows a fleeting sense of wrongdoing only at the beginning and when she flees at the end; while looking around she is too thrilled to care.

Lisa has been living in this shabby-genteel boarding house with her mother, a woman who seems nice enough but as ordinary as a bar of soap. We get glimpses of the girl's routine: shapeless clothes, drab furniture, dimwitted playmates, a whole day set aside each week to beat the dust out of the rugs. Lisa is one of those creatures who sometimes arise in such an environment, intelligent and sensitive in a way wholly unsuited to the life laid out for her. And so she falls in love, not with a face or a voice, but with the sound of a piano. Lisa listens to Stefan's practicing with an expression as ardent as any she shows later. When Lisa finally sees Stefan and pulls the door open for him--which Fontaine does not tenderly, but with a swift jerk--she isn't enamored for the first time. She is already in love, her feelings bound up with his music. His handsome face is just the fulfillment.

Her mother finds a fat, affable husband, and Lisa leaves Vienna for Linz. Before she goes, she makes one last humiliating attempt to see Stefan, who comes reeling home with another woman and never sees Lisa waiting for him on the landing above. She is far from resigned, however. In Linz, Lisa is courted by an impossibly stiff, good-looking lieutenant. And again art comes into play--she strolls around the town square with the soldier, listening to a proficient but uninspired military band. They play an amiable tune with none of the febrile emotion of "Il Sospiro," the Liszt piece played by Stefan and heard on the soundtrack again and again. Fontaine moves her eyes between the lieutenant and the band, and her boredom becomes almost frantic. She heads off the officer's proposal by telling him she is already engaged, a scene Fontaine plays not as telling a lie, but revealing a secret truth, relief uncoiling her body as she finally blurts it out.

Later, when she works as a model in a dressmaker's shop, Fontaine again flips expectations. She is ill at ease walking in the elegant clothes, she is tremulous when waiting in the snow to catch Stefan's eye, but she is no stammering wreck when he finally begins his seduction. Of course not, why would she be? These are conversations she has already played out in her head. In the train car at the carnival, she isn't tongue-tied. She wants desperately to hear Stefan, but when she does talk the words pour out like the painted scenery unspooling behind them. Like all great Romantics, Lisa hurtles toward the fate she's chosen. Jourdan kisses her, and Ophuls' camera shows the actor's head blotting out that of Fontaine--but it isn't obliteration, it's apotheosis.

Lisa's later life finds her trapped in a more golden version of the boarding house at the beginning, with a kind but severe husband and a house decked not with pictures and musical scores, but with swords and guns. Fontaine's movements are more assured, but she talks to her husband with the polite distance you might use for a father-in-law. Even when she addresses her son, whom she clearly loves, she seems to talk to herself: "Can't you call him father?" Later, after Lisa encounters Stefan and her husband knows she is going to leave, he tells her she has free will and she replies, "I can't help it." Fontaine won't look at him during this exchange, but her face shows deception, not shame. Lisa claims she has no choice, but she has chosen every step, and she knows it.

When David Thomson wrote about this movie in the Guardian in January, he claimed (after faulting Fontaine's acting, which is crazy talk) that the movie is not Lisa's story, but that of Stefan. This is only half-right. Letter is Lisa's story, but the tragedy is Stefan's. When she goes to see him for the last time, Lisa immediately asks him to play, a request that echos a moment years earlier when she knelt and to hear him play on a creaky, ill-tuned piano, and listened with a face more rapt than when he kissed her later. Now, when she finds his piano locked, Fontaine's face already registers the betrayal that's coming. She's lost him, but he has lost his art to hedonism. Lisa pursues her Romantic ideal; he does not.

There are many great women's pictures about unrequited love, such as The Old Maid, or thankless devotion, such as the 1941 Back Street. The key difference between the female characters in those movies and Letter from an Unknown Woman is Fontaine. She helps turn Ophuls' film into a tale of obsessive love not as masochism, but a heretical, even noble pursuit.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

TCM Alert: Renoir and Ophuls

Two films on TCM this month demand that you record them or, if you aren't equipped to do that, that you find someone with a DVR who is willing to take bribes.

The Siren's sole viewing of the 1946 Diary of a Chambermaid, directed by Jean Renoir, happened years ago via a VHS tape that was in crappy shape even by the crappy standards of VHS rentals at the time. For the life of her the Siren does not understand why this movie is so elusive these days. When she saw it, the Siren thought it was the best of Renoir's American films and, she hastens to tell you, she likes the others plenty. Anyway, TCM is screening it at 1:30 am EST on the morning of Jan. 18, so the Siren will have an opportunity to see if she still feels the same way.

The second film comes as part of a complete "Max Ophuls in America" night on Jan. 23, and kudos to the good souls at TCM for programming this one. The evening begins at 8 pm EST with The Reckless Moment and continues via Caught and Letter from an Unknown Woman, which the Siren won't ramble on about here at the moment, although she may later. But for the Siren, the real rarity is The Exile (1947) at 1 am EST on the morning of Jan. 24. She missed that one at the BAM retrospective a while back and she plans to pounce now. The Exile is, of the four, the most ridiculously hard to see at the moment and to the Siren's knowledge this will mark its TCM debut.

Also noted: Monday Jan. 30 is Joan Fontaine night--five movies, including Born to Be Bad and The Constant Nymph. We addicts have possibly seen all these but, still--Joan!

(The top still comes from the site Notes on Cinema, which has an interesting screen-cap essay about the use of doors in Diary of a Chambermaid.)

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Margaret (2011)

Anyone following a film critic on Twitter has seen the hashtag: #teammargaret. Since early December, Team Margaret has been shaking its pompoms on behalf of Kenneth Lonergan's Margaret, which was shot in 2005 but released only last year. According to the Los Angeles Times, the movie was held up by a protracted legal battle centered on efforts to get a cut than ran for the contractually specified time of 150 minutes. A two-hour-twenty-nine-minute version of Margaret hit a few theaters last fall and promptly vanished. A group of critics requested, via a petition started by Jaime Christley, that distributor Fox Searchlight provide them with an opportunity to see the movie.

So Team Margaret was born, and lives, and Margaret is getting a second chance in a few venues, including the Cinema Village in Manhattan, where the Siren got around to seeing it. Margaret is being championed by people the Siren respects, and the Siren does not, as a matter of temperament or habit, enjoy being the grumpy contrarian who rolls her eyes over the pet hamster everyone else thinks is adorable. But one word that recurs even in Margaret raves is "mess." The Siren concludes that she lacks affinity for mess.

From the opening shots, warning bells sounded for the Siren, along with the plucking, plaintive score. The camera shows people crossing the street in bouncing, wave-like slow-motion that highlights every flaw in movement and appearance. There are eight million stories in the naked city, check out the faces of a few. As prologues go, at least it's honest; this one story out of eight million will be going by at the same slow, unflattering gait.

In the opening scenes, teenager Lisa (Anna Paquin) is accused of cheating by a teacher (Matt Damon). She responds with a sullen I'm-not-the-only-one defense and gets off with "don't do it again." She meets a gangly boy, supposedly her friend, who's trying to ask her out, and Lisa demonstrates the generosity of spirit she will show throughout by refusing either to accept his invitation or to give him a graceful means of ending the conversation. Lisa goes home, brushes off her younger brother and digs an impressive wad of cash out of her dresser so she can shop for a cowboy hat. She goes shopping for said cowboy hat and gazes in shop windows. The shopping trip will change Lisa's life, but even at this point there are overextended scenes and marginal characters.

The accident that precipitates the rest of the action is caused by Lisa spying a cowboy hat on a bus driver and asking him where he got it, as she canters alongside the moving vehicle. Instead of ignoring her, the driver tries to respond--whereupon he slams through a red light and into a pedestrian played by Allison Janney. Few pay such a hideous price for a fleeting moment of stupidity, and during the agonizing minutes it takes the pedestrian to bleed to death, as Lisa holds her and two passersby try to help, Margaret briefly takes off. The film offers no better acting and no sharper observations about the behavior of ordinary New Yorkers than in this scene. The confusion and numb shock of the police's arrival and questioning, and Lisa's shattered attempt to bypass her mother when she arrives home, are also well done. So are the moments when Lisa showers off the blood while her mother tries to clean her daughter's boots in the kitchen sink.

At first Lisa lies to protect the bus driver, concerned that he might have a family and could lose his job. Later she goes to visit him and, upon observing that he does indeed have a family and is clearly afraid of losing his job, she decides to retract her statement; later still, she spearheads a lawsuit. Anyway, Lisa's shower marked the end of the Siren's hopes for Margaret. Despite Lisa's total self-absorption and complete lack of self-knowledge, despite her failure to empathize with anyone in this crowded movie save her own spoiled self, it's clear Lonergan loves his heroine, loves her past all reason; indeed he cannot bear to part with her. No walk she takes from point A to point B is too mundane, no phone call she makes too dreary or static for inclusion. What could be Lisa's lone meeting with a police officer is stretched into two or three, plus an encounter with his colleague and some phone chats. Lisa and the accident victim's best friend meet with an attorney--twice--only to be told they require a different sort of attorney. So Lisa and the friend meet with him a few times.

If you do not love Lisa--and the Siren wanted Veda Pierce to eat the girl for breakfast--good luck. There's Jeannie Berlin as Emily, the victim's friend, a real, recognizable performance. And there's a marvelous little scene where a bright student questions English teacher Matthew Broderick's interpretation of a line from King Lear and the teacher responds with lordly annoyance. Otherwise the many--way too many--supporting characters offer scant respite. Some, like Lisa's chilly father, played by Lonergan himself, are merely dull. Some, like Lisa's mother (J. Smith-Cameron), are as nerve-shredding as Lisa. Others are stereotypes, like the mother's boyfriend, a foreign businessman played by Jean Reno with courtly gentleness even up through the scenes where people start arguing over whether he's an anti-Semite.

Even when a conversation achieves a semblance of the rapid, rambling, funny way that New Yorkers actually talk, the movie is so arrhythmic that all humor withers--the Siren's fellow audience members were silent as the tomb. Some classroom arguments center on whether America Deserves What Was Done to Us, a clumsy and slanted way to focus on Lisa's nebulous guilt twinges and how sometimes violence just happens to innocent people. Other classroom interludes bring up apposite literary quotes (such as the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem that gives Margaret its title) in an overdetermined manner that made the Siren wish Lonergan would just throw up an epigraph like Michael Curtiz.

The Siren never warmed to the choices made for script, camerawork or editing. A late, head-scratching reference to an abortion seems worth a smidge more exposition in a movie that finds time for crash courses in Mideast issues, personal-injury law and the correct way to shout approval after an opera. The cousin of the accident victim comes to town and she, Lisa and Emily discuss their intent to sue over the accident. Lonergan puts this on screen--but for the culmination of the suit, the cousin is on speakerphone. During one meeting between Lisa and the luckless police officer who's dealing with her, you get two cuts to the parking lot outside the police station. But when Lisa makes a (reciprocated) pass at Matt Damon, the camera bolts away as soon as she starts to dive for his crotch. Maybe the Siren is a pervert, but she would much rather see how that proceeded than wonder why the hell she's looking at a parking lot.

That question--why am I looking at this?--is one that's seldom asked during a great or even serviceable movie. And that question came again and again. The camera stalls to offer a ho-hum view across Central Park, which is like a ho-hum view across Sophia Loren. The Siren lost count of the pans across buildings. Two highflying helicopters circle, the anxiety of that image diminished by the fact that the movie is still preoccupied with tort law. A boat drifts down the river during a legal meeting; moments later, puzzlingly, the backside of the boat disappears behind a building. Part of the goal, the Siren supposes, is to tie Lisa's dilemma to the larger one that 9/11 gave New Yorkers. But Margaret dawdles so much, its through-line is so slack and its heroine so selfish, that scotch-taped city cutaways can't give the film any connections it hasn't earned.

(Revised slightly 5/12.)

Friday, January 06, 2012

Favorite Old Movies Viewed in 2011

When they were passing out the ranking compulsions, the Siren skipped the line. Oh sure, she makes lists, but they don’t tend to focus on ordinal progression. The Siren’s lists are more like clumps. Never, not once has the Siren left a cinema or turned off a DVD and mused, “I must re-shuffle my Intriguingly Investigatible List for 1939.” It just isn’t how she thinks. Maybe the Siren is too soft-hearted to put artists who pleased her way back in the queue, sternly reminding posterity that their movie wasn’t as good as Rules of the Game. Maybe she’s lazy. Probably both.

Given this personality trait, the Siren hasn’t been making lists of Best Old Movies Seen for the First Time in 20Whatever. That’s a little selfish of her, in that the Siren enjoys such lists from other film writers. But she always lacked an ordering principle, a model she could take to heart.

This year, the Siren found one, through Clara at Via Marguta 51. Two things that the Siren liked about this list. One, while it’s composed of links back to Clara's reviews, the descriptions are limited to two sentences or less for each movie. Second, the list is purely about pleasure, its presence or absence. That’s it; no heavy theory or lofty judgments, just pure reaction, posted without any apparent desire to convert or impress. This, thought the Siren, is a methodology ripe for adoption.

In that spirit, the Siren offers her own list of 20 favorite old movies watched for the first time in 2011. The list is based on nothing more than the amount of joy the Siren got from each movie this year, and is ordered by that principle alone.

1. Gone to Earth (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1950). Not just beautiful; it also has soul.

2. The Constant Nymph (Edmund Goulding, 1941). Are you a little weary of the Siren's partisan asides on Jean Negulesco, Fred Zinnemann, George Stevens and Clarence Brown? Rejoice, because this year the Siren will, in addition, be spreading the good word about Edmund Goulding.

3. So Evil My Love (Lewis Allen, 1948). Ray Milland, Ann Todd and Geraldine Fitzgerald at their peak in this glorious gaslight noir based on a celebrated Victorian murder. The Siren recognized the case about midway in, and the windup still shocked her.

4. World on a Wire (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1973). Slow start (some walkouts); then Fassbinder’s hero smushes a fedora down on his head and starts running around this fabulously decorated futuristic world asking nosey questions, like Sam Spade turned loose in the sci-fi section at Comic Con. At that point, of course, the Siren was hooked.

5. Union Depot (Alfred E. Green, 1932). The smuttiness masks a romantic heart--just like Douglas Fairbanks Jr.’s character.

6. You and Me (Fritz Lang, 1938). Fritz Lang could do anything.

7. Night World (Hobart Henley, 1932). One of Busby Berkeley’s first choreographed numbers, “Who’s Your Little Who-Zis?”, particularly fabulous because the dancers are contained by an approximation of a real nightclub stage. Plus, a great performance by Clarence Muse as the one character with real heartache, and heart.

8. Yield to the Night (J. Lee Thompson, 1956). The Siren joins the Diana Dors fan club.

9. La Bandera (Julien Duvivier, 1935) The Siren’s new favorite Foreign Legion epic, complete with transvestites, a topless dancer, and Robert Le Vigan almost stealing the movie from Jean Gabin.

10. Kiss the Blood Off My Hands (Norman Foster, 1948) Enthralling opening, via Russell Metty. Psychologically complex noir with a touching love story at the center.

11. The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry (Robert Siodmak, 1945) Unlike James Agee in his review, the Siren was excited to see a movie about incest that made it past the censors, especially with Siodmak directing. Geraldine Fitzgerald rules and George Sanders is almost as good as in This Land Is Mine.

12. Born to Be Bad (Nicholas Ray, 1950) The Siren is convinced Nicholas Ray loved that staircase as much as the actors.

13. Man's Castle (Frank Borzage, 1933) Only Borzage could take a beautiful young girl’s love for a cruel, selfish jerk and make the Siren root for the girl to get her man.

14. Girls About Town (George Cukor, 1931) Kay Francis is lovely, but it’s Lilyan Tashman’s show, all the way. Chalk this one up for the sisterhood.

15. Roughly Speaking (Michael Curtiz, 1945) Failure can be as loving a bond for a couple as time or triumph.

16. The Strip (László Kardos, 1951) Louis Armstrong, Jack Teagarden and some fantastic jazz-club ambience. And Mickey Rooney is completely at home in it.

17. Lady on a Train (Charles David, 1945) A film to make tough-talking young critics (looking at you, Simon Abrams) clear their throats and say, “Yeah, it’s really cute.”

18. The Sleeping Tiger (Joseph Losey credited as Victor Hanbury, 1954) Losey always strikes the Siren as gall-and-wormwood bitter, and here that's perfect. Alexis Smith vibrates with suppressed sex and rage, as does Dirk Bogarde.

19. Hallelujah I'm a Bum (Lewis Milestone, 1933) The movie that finally made the Siren see what others see in Al Jolson.

20. Moss Rose (Gregory Ratoff, 1947). More Victorian atmosphere, with Peggy Cummins, Ethel Barrymore and above all Vincent Price.