Tuesday, November 27, 2012

A Bookish Cinephile Christmas

Over at Indiewire's Criticwire, the smart, fine and funny Matt Singer has been running a critics' survey for a while, and this week was the first time the Siren participated. The question was, "'Tis the season for gift giving. If someone's looking to buy a film-related book for the cinephile in their life this holiday season, what would you recommend?"

The Siren confined herself to one book, because naming more felt like cheating and because Matt, bless his heart, hasn't got all damn day. So the Siren picked City of Nets by Otto Friedrich, which she's mentioned here often.

But Glenn Kenny, in the same survey, brings up a salient point (as is his wont): what kinda cinephile are we talkin' about? Is our Hypothetical Cinephile someone who adores stars and their foibles? somebody who digs Hollywood history? an auteurist? a writer? an iconoclast? a consumer of deep-and-meaningful critical theory?

So the Siren decided to suggest a few more books she likes and has read recently, say over the past couple of years. And because the holidays don't need more frustration, this is also limited to books that are either in print, or easily available via ABE Books and the like.

(The last three books were written by people the Siren considers friends, but she admired these critics' writing long before she got to know them in person.)

The Lost One: A Life of Peter Lorre by Stephen D. Youngkin
An exhaustively researched book that appears to have taken up a substantial portion of its author's life, with impressive results. You can't imagine anyone wanting or needing to know anything about Lorre that isn't here. The cumulative effect is tragic, as are so many Hollywood stories, but The Lost One is also a conclusive argument for Lorre the artist. Every movie, every play or other work is treated with care, if not always respect--Lorre himself didn't have much respect for the likes of Mr. Moto. Youngkin recreates all of Lorre's worlds in such detail that you feel how strange it was to be uprooted to, say, Paris, and the boarding house where Lorre and his companion Celia Lovsky stayed with fellow refugees in 1933: "He and Celia lay in their twin beds, eyes open, without speaking. Sleep was impossible with the thunderous speeches of Hitler coming over the radio from the floor above and the angry, indignant rejoinders of their fellow Germans: 'False! False!...Lies.'"

Ideal for: The character actor connoisseur and anyone who's intrigued by the emigre experience in Hollywood.

Empire of Dreams: The Epic Life of Cecil B. DeMille by Scott Eyman
You know something? The Siren loves being wrong, when she finds out she's wrong in a good way. Which we will define as: The Siren thought she didn't like someone's movies, but in fact, she hadn't been looking at the right movies, and/or she hadn't been looking at the movies she knew in the right way. Which is a convoluted way of saying that the Siren rolled her eyes over a lot of Cecil B. DeMille for many years, and she shouldn't have. This biography, by the excellent writer and film historian Scott Eyman, helped immensely in knocking some sense into her. DeMille was far more complicated and even admirable as a person than he's usually been depicted, and he was a superb visual craftsman and storyteller. Meticulous detail about DeMille's huge role in Hollywood history, too. Superb opening that describes DeMille rewriting Billy Wilder's lines (yes, you read that right) on the set of Sunset Boulevard. Who else but DeMille would have had the nerve? Who else but DeMille would have gotten away with it?

Ideal for: Smart-alecs like the Siren who haven't been giving the man his full due.

The Sound of Silence: Conversations with 16 Film and Stage Personalities Who Bridged the Gap Between Silents and Talkies by Michael G. Ankerich

The Siren has strong preferences in interview books. She likes to hear from people who were a few rungs down, as well as those at the top. She loves a good story but she definitely wants to hear about the work. Above all, she wants an interviewer who knows his stuff, who has seen the movies. Michael Ankerich fulfills all those requirements. And so you get Billie Dove's tales of Marion Davies drinking to get through a horseback outing with Hearst, or how Blondie of the Follies was recut to make Dove the villain; Barbara Boundess, who had a bit part in the scandal of Paul Bern's suicide ("I learned a great lesson through this. It taught me never to go out alone with a married man"); Marcia Mae Jones ("The minute they say, 'Oh, you're that child actress,' I want to scream, because I know it's going to hurt me"); and the late, elusive Barbara Kent ("I've always thought one had to be an exhibitionist to be in pictures. That wasn't me"). Put it this way: this year, the Siren's asking Santa for Ankerich's other book.

Ideal for: The many people who adore this period.

Stormy Weather: The Life of Lena Horne by James Gavin
Admiring but unflinching account of Horne's great talent and also her flaws. Full of first-hand interviews with people who knew Horne. You get not only Hollywood, but also the simultaneous glamor and sleaze of the nightclub circuit and the people who frequented it. And my god, the stories in here--like Horne, called a "nigger bitch" by a 30-year-old white man at the Luau in Beverly Hills in 1960, throwing first a butt-filled ashtray at his head, then a hurricane lamp, then another hurricane lamp. The man wound up bleeding from a cut over his eye, and when the cops arrived and reproached her, Horne flashed back, "What do you want me to do? Apologize?"

Ideal for: Those with a passionate interest in music to go along with movie madness; anyone who wants/needs to know more about the history of black performers in Hollywood.

The Film Criticism of Otis Ferguson
Until a couple of years ago the Siren had read Ferguson only in snippets. Like all late converts, she's now an evangelist. The legendary New Republic critic joined the Merchant Marines at the outbreak of war and was killed in 1943 at age 36. While his collected film criticism is criminally out of print, it's still pretty easily obtained, and if the used bookstores of America experience a colossal run on Otis Ferguson, maybe somebody will reissue him. To his weekly reviewing duties Ferguson brought scalpel-clean perception and a supremely graceful prose style. Just now, at random, trying merely to pick a passage that would show off the man's writing, the Siren rediscovered the best description of James Cagney she has ever read:
He is all crust and speed and snap on the surface, a gutter-fighter with the grace of dancing, a boy who knows all the answers and won't even wait for them, a very fast one. But underneath, the fable: the quick generosity and hidden sweetness, the antifraud straight-as-a-string dealing, the native humor and the reckless drive--everything everybody would like to be, if he had the time sometime. But always this, always: if as a low type he is wrong, you are going to see why. In spite of writers, directors, and decency legions you are going to see the world and what it does to its people through his subtle understanding of it. And in The Roaring Twenties this genuine article has had the chance of his life; he has deliberately done much that a star would refuse to attempt, because hell, he isn't a star, he's an actor; and in this actor's range of life and death he is not only an actor but an intelligence. You do not even have to like that quicksilver personality to see its effect in art here. And if you do appreciate his personality-legend, his face on this screen will haunt your dreams.

Ideal for: The Siren is considering a program to leave this in hotel desk drawers at film festivals, à la the Gideons.

Mabel: Hollywood's First I-Don't-Care Girl by Betty Harper Fussell
In the early 1980s Fussell became entranced with Mabel Normand and set out to talk with just about anybody who was still alive and had known the actress. This twisty, highly idiosyncratic book chronicles not just the high times and ill fate of Mabel Normand, but also Fussell's relationship to the idea of Normand; what she saw on screen, what she learned from investigating. In many ways this is an exploration of what happens, good and bad, when an admirer digs deep into the life and myth of a star. Piece by piece, the actress whom audiences so adored emerges--not as a role model, a notion Mabel would have hooted at after you explained what the hell you meant, but still a warmhearted, talented woman laboring through some very, very bad breaks.

Ideal for: Silent movie lovers; lovers of a good mystery.

Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman by Dan Callahan
Anyone who's hung around these parts long enough knows the Siren's high opinion of Dan Callahan's writing on film. The Miracle Woman does something that is very unusual: The life is the backdrop to the work, and not the other way around. You want to know about the marriages to Frank Fay and Robert Taylor, the old rumors about Stanwyck's sexual preference, the sad story of her relationship with her son? It's all there. But the focus stays on the movies, with chapters organized around periods and themes in Stanwyck's work: "The Rough-and-Tumble Wellman Five," "Screwball Stanwyck," "Stanwyck Noir." Within those sections, Dan gives detailed looks at the choices Stanwyck the actress is making--the way each character walks, moves, gestures, reacts. He compiles sources to suggest what kind of thinking and goals the actress was bringing to each part, like Stella Dallas: "A fury rises up, crests, then falls as she pulls Laurel away from her father...'Get out,' she says to her husband, making it sound like a choked afterthought. Laurel is crying hard, and Stella takes the child on her lap and tries to comfort her. The little girl keeps on crying, and Stanwyck's face takes on a distant blankness as she says that Mummy is right here."

Ideal for: Stanwyck fans (so, everybody) and any cinephile who takes acting seriously.

In Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the Cities by Imogen Sara Smith
Also mentioned briefly here before. The Siren has often backed a fairly tight definition of noir, usually seen as an urban genre. Imogen argues, persuasively, for how noir "flourishes in marginal places...there are recurring noir images out here, too, evoking a transient, brutal, melancholy world." She traces noir in the suburbs (notably in a chapter delightfully titled "Maximum Security: Domestic Noir"), branching out through buses "with their miserable enforced communities of travelers," roaming down interstate highways, even into the plains and saloons of the Western. And brother, can she write.

Whether playing flawed heroes or redeemable villains, Dana Andrews found his niche as film noir's uneasy conscience. He was the most repressed of all tough guys. "It's not difficult for me to hide emotion," Andrews said, "since I've always hidden it in my personal life." His suits seem welded to him like armor. With that boxy mid-century silhouette, further fortified by the fedora, the glass of bourbon, the cigarette that stays jammed in his mouth when he talks, he looks oppressed by the masculine ideal of granite-faced impassivity. Those critics who called him wooden or monochromatic must not have looked into his troubled eyes.

Ideal for: The true noir fiend, the one who's been known to snap, "Why don't you quit cryin' and get me some bourbon?"

When Movies Mattered: Reviews from a Transformative Decade by Dave Kehr
Every week in the New York Times, and every month in Film Comment, we have an eloquent voice for film preservation, an advocate wandering the back rooms of studios worldwide to see what's unjustly been left on the shelf. Dave Kehr is, simply, a very great critic and one of auteurism's best advocates. This book of reviews from the Chicago Reader, spanning 1974 to 1986, consists solely of raves, or near-raves. You can pull When Movies Mattered off the shelf again and again, like any great collection of essays. When she read it, the Siren couldn't resist starting with The Leopard, even though that one's in the back: "A social portrait is only successful when it ceases to be strange--when we have the sense of sharing the characters' world, seeing it as they do. If the world of The Leopard seems extraordinarily real, it is because Visconti sees it as ordinary."

Ideal for: Discerning auteurists; aspiring film critics who want to See How It's Done, Kids; the many fans of Dave's splendid writing.

That ends the Siren's list. For the movie-lover who might require something a bit more esoteric, a handful of suggestions: Things I Did...and Things I Think I Did, by Jean Negulesco (not much on the movies but he gives good yarn); anything by Oscar Levant, but the best is The Memoirs of an Amnesiac, one of the most howlingly funny autobiographies of all time; Marlene Dietrich's ABC (contains her astrological, love and wardrobe advice as well as her recipe for schnitzel); An Orderly Man by Dirk Bogarde; any of Anita Loos' three books on Hollywood, but especially The Talmadge Girls.

The Siren has over the years found a large number of great film books via the kind suggestions of patient readers, so if you also know a good one, speak up.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

For the Love of Film III: The Payoff (and Bonus)

We've had a few months for laurel-resting after the hard work and great results of our third "For the Love of Film" blogathon. Together with the dauntless Marilyn Ferdinand and Roderick Heath, we raised money for the National Film Preservation Foundation to stream the three surviving reels of the six-reel silent movie The White Shadow, from 1924.

Its director, Graham Cutts, is a key figure in early British cinema. Even more important, The White Shadow is the earliest surviving feature on the towering resume of Alfred Hitchcock, as well as the earliest surviving film on which Hitchcock collaborated with his future wife, Alma Reville. Hitchcock worked on this movie as assistant director, art director, editor and writer.

Now it's time to savor our results. The two-month run of The White Shadow, which critic David Sterritt calls "one of the most significant developments in memory for scholars, critics, and admirers of Hitchcock’s extraordinary body of work" begins today, folks.

The Siren hands the mic over to Annette Melville of the NFPF:

The opening three reels of the six-reel feature were uncovered in 2011 during research by the NFPF to identify American silent-era titles held by the New Zealand Film Archive...The film was preserved at Park Road Post Production in New Zealand under the supervision of the NZFA and the Academy Film Archive of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

The White Shadow will be presented for free streaming, with the following extras:
· Program notes about the film by David Sterritt
· Newly recorded musical score created by Michael M. Mortilla who, with Nicole Garcia, reprises the performance from the gala premiere at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 2011
· A short bio of the New Zealand projectionist, Jack Murtagh, who salvaged the film
· Slide shows about the film’s discovery, the New Zealand Film Archive, and the Academy Film Archive

The 43-minute presentation, which will run two months, is made possible by contributors from around the world. “Not everyone has the ability to attend the special screenings of The White Shadow in Los Angeles, Washington, or New York,” said Jonathan Marlow, co-founder of Fandor, the curated on-demand movie service that is donating webhosting for the event. “We’re thrilled to play our part in making this fascinating discovery available everywhere.” Fandor’s gift matches cash donations raised through the Internet fundraising drive organized by the 2012 “For the Love of Film” Blogathon, spearheaded by Marilyn Ferdinand, Roderick Heath, and Farran Smith Nehme. The campaign mobilized support from more than 100 film fans across five continent

Almost everybody loves Hitchcock movies. We went one better. We helped get one back in front of thousands of viewers for the first time in decades. No modesty here: This film is online because we worked our tails off to help get it there.

A thousand thanks, Fandor. Mazel tov, NFPF. And kudos, gang. Spread the word.

Meanwhile, in celebration, the Siren decided to do something she has previously hasn't: offer a list of her Hitchcock favorites. She came up with a dozen. This is one of the richest filmographies imaginable, and yes, there are some towering titles missing, out of mere personal preference. There's another four or five the Siren would gladly rewatch this instant, including Foreign Correspondent, Rope, and The Paradine Case. (Yes. The Paradine Case.) Even so, it's marvelous to revel once more in this man's talent.

Consider this list as the Siren's way of throwing confetti.

1. Shadow of a Doubt
Dark, yes, but also comforting: "He thought the world was a horrible place. He couldn't have been very happy, ever. He didn't trust people. Seemed to hate them. He hated the whole world. You know, he said people like us had no idea what the world was really like."

2. Strangers on a Train
In a crowded field of unbelievable greatness, Robert Walker is the greatest Hitchcock villain of them all. Certainly he's the most psychologically interesting. And this film gave the Siren her most potent Hitchcock scare, when the painting is revealed.

3. Rebecca
An exemplary adaptation and a fabulous ghost story, with a touch of demonic possession. Plus twisted sexual yearnings all over the place, plus George Sanders coming in through the window. Pure beauty to rival any of Hitchcock's Technicolor masterpieces, and if you don't believe the Siren, just ask the folks at the magnificent picture blog Obscure Hollow.

4. Rear Window
If there is a heaven, and some good soul manages to get the Siren on the guest list, they'll let her borrow Grace Kelly's wardrobe.

5. Notorious
Hitchcock's sexiest and most romantic film. If you haven't already, please do read Sheila O'Malley on the love psychology of Dev and Alicia.

6. The Lady Vanishes
Left the Siren fated to spend the rest of her life wishing she could take a long, elegant train ride through a charming European landscape...in 1938. And as allegory it's alarmingly prescient, isn't it?

7. The 39 Steps
The only thing that could make a train ride better would be if the Siren were handcuffed to Robert Donat (who in a just world would have worked with Hitchcock again). An extremely funny movie. "And this bullet stuck among the hymns, eh? Well, I'm not surprised Mr. Hannay. Some of those hymns are terrible hard to get through."

8. The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)
The Siren's essay on this one will be in the Criterion edition of the film, due in January.

9. Lifeboat
In addition to borrowing Her Serene Highness' clothes, the Siren will also get to hang out with Tallulah. "The trouble with you, darling, is that you've been reading too much Kipling. 'The sins ye do by two and two ye must pay for one by one.'"

10. North by Northwest
You know who needs a little more love for this one? Jessie Royce Landis, that's who. "I'm not nervous, I'll be late for the bridge club."

11. Vertigo
A dreamily gorgeous movie, but the Siren scratches her head when this one is called romantic. To her, it's a complete negation of the very possibility of romance, telling us instead that men and women are fated to bring one another nothing but agony. Peter Bogdanovich nails the Siren's feelings, but he also acknowledges that Vertigo is a great film, and the Siren agrees there, too.

12. Suspicion
So much more than the milk.

Thursday, November 01, 2012


All are well chez Siren. She's lucky, and grateful. But her city is suffering.

The banner is not a movie, but a shot of a workman on the George Washington Bridge, circa 1930. It seemed appropriate.

The Siren misses her blog, as she always does when life drags her away, and she'll be back very soon.