Wednesday, June 20, 2012

In Memoriam: Andrew Sarris, 1928-2012

Last year, my friend Lee Tsiantis took me to have tea with Molly Haskell and Andrew Sarris in their home. It was a beautiful afternoon, of which I will tell one thing only: At one point, I mentioned John Ford.

I will cherish my memory of the way Sarris' face lit up at the very sound of that name for the rest of my life.

Andrew Sarris, from the Partisan Review, No. 3, 1972--an issue dedicated to art, culture and conservatism. I found the journal second-hand a few years ago, and saved it for this passage alone.

As a film historian and working film critic, I find most contemporary articles on film to be reactionary and philistinish not so much because of ideological influences, but rather because of the lack of sympathetic insight and dedicated scholarship. When I read a piece on any subject, and especially on film, I do not ask myself if the writer is swinging to the right or the left, but rather if he is writing out of a genuine commitment to his subject...For myself, I remain wedded to the notion of narrative cinema, and that is a view that is regarded as very conservative in some quarters and quarterlies. I do not argue this view on the basis of a unified field theory for all the arts, but merely on the single level of cinematic expression, a unique amalgam of the objective (the camera) and the subjective (the mind behind the camera). And in no other art is the lure of pastness so vivid and compelling. No matter. Only the most naive radicalism insists that we forsake the past in order to claim the future. And only the most strident journalism demands immortal masterpieces every season.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Anecdote of the Week: Blondell Crazy

Alas, the Siren has been up to her step-ins in work and has consequently been missing you all terribly. Since April, she's been doing some freelance film reviewing for (drum roll) the New York Post. The Post's Website is a strange and wonderful thing, but you should be able to access most of her efforts here. Last week's review of Bel Ami, in which Robert Pattinson and his cheekbones attempted to erase memories of George Sanders and his can-can, may be of particular interest. So anyway, between that and the blogathon and the usual demands of life chez Siren, opportunities to dig into a nice big post have been thin on the ground.

The Siren did manage, however, to spend a wonderful afternoon watching pre-Codes with Imogen Sara Smith, an extravagantly talented writer whose reverence for pre-Codes, noir and the art of classic-film acting should endear her to everyone who's ever visited this blog. Imogen has a book out now, called In Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the City, available from McFarland here. The Siren recommends it highly and plans to write more of it anon. Meanwhile, you can read Imogen's ode to the Pre-Code era at Bright Lights Film Journal.

One movie we watched was Blondie Johnson, starring Joan Blondell, everyone's favorite Depression blonde (right? right?). Imogen billed it as "the ultimate Blondell" and she's probably on the money. It's a blast watching Blondell go from desperate poverty to running a con-artist syndicate, even if you never do really believe Chester Morris would get past first base with this gum-snapping goddess.

Naturally this is all leading up to a story, one the Siren believes to be as trustworthy as the World Almanac, but like all good yarns, you can take it or leave it, toots.

Years ago the Siren worked for a venerable man (Will would have snorted and said, "Honey, I'm fuckin' old") who'd had as fascinating a life as you can imagine. One of his many incarnations was as a stage manager for a series of regional and summer-stock theaters in the early to mid-1950s. Through his productions rolled many a faded star, some trying to duck the blacklist, some trading on the last vestiges of a marquee name, and some of them just troupers who couldn't imagine not working.

To that last group belonged Joan Blondell. At that point in her career, Will said her off-screen persona had become very like the one she had on screen; whether the difference had ever been huge, he couldn't say. He adored her, naturally. Decades after he'd met Blondell, he still chuckled at the memory of her at a hotel-room party, shoes off and fully dressed, holding court on the bed with her then-paramour.

According to Will, Blondell enjoyed a post-rehearsal nightcap with cast, crew, whoever, it didn't matter. He said (and isn't this precisely what you want to hear?) that Joan Blondell didn't have a snobbish bone in her body.

What she did have was a gift for improv, which Will discovered one night when Blondell, out with a group that was all male and rowdier than usual, slipped on the floor, went straight downand stayed down in a heap, apparently out for the count.

Her rather woozy drinking crew crowded round for a second, debating. Had she hit her head? A concussed star was no joke, but neither did they want "Hooched-Up Joan Blondell Passes Out in Saloon" as tomorrow's headline in the East Nowheresville Gazette, there to be picked up by the wire services. Someone went to the bar to get a glass of water, which took a minute as it wasn't what they were used to serving, and the bartender may have needed directions to the tap.

And while the water was being fetched, Will, who was kneeling closest to Blondell, saw one enormous blue eye fly open to half mast, and shut almost before he was sure what he'd seen.

So when the glass was raised to Blondell's lips, and she snatched it and said cheerfully, "What took you so long?", Will was the only one who didn't jump two feet.

The Siren believes this story; don't you?

Sunday, June 03, 2012

For the Love of Film III: Onward and Upward, With the Help of Fandor

The Siren, Marilyn Ferdinand and Rod Heath have joyous news for all of us who labored on the For the Love of Film III blogathon to benefit the National Film Preservation Foundation: the good folks at Fandor have come through in the last reel.

For three months, from mid-November through mid-February, the three surviving reels of The White Shadow will be streamed on the NFPF website, free to all. The warmest of thanks and appreciation to the fine, dedicated folks at Fandor, for recognizing that access is a major part of film preservation, and stepping up to the challenge.

As you recall, our effort raised a total of $6,600 to create a digital copy of The White Shadow, a 1923 silent directed by Graham Cutts that is also the earliest surviving feature worked on by the great Alfred Hitchcock. It was also enough to record the score by Michael Mortilla. Fandor recently donated web hosting for the NFPF's streaming of Let There Be Light, a searing, long-unavailable John Huston documentary about post-traumatic stress suffered by World War II veterans. Fueled by the success of that endeavor, Fandor will be giving the NFPF the funds it needs to stream the presentation.

Fandor is an on-demand independent film service, long committed to providing access to the underseen and the artistically challenging. From the beginning, they've also been offering critical essays on their site; the Siren herself has written for them, as has Marilyn. Says founder Jonathan Marlow: “Fandor was created to enable audiences to experience important but difficult-to-find films. Not everyone has the ability to attend archival screenings of The White Shadow in Los Angeles, Washington or New York. We’re thrilled to collaborate with the NFPF, the Academy Film Archive, and the New Zealand Film Archive in making this fascinating discovery available to Hitchcock fans around the world.”

So, a round of applause for us all--the more than 100 bloggers who contributed their time and talent, the folks around the Web who worked hard to spread the word, and of course the wonderful, bighearted people who dug deep and gave. Once again, we did good.