Friday, June 19, 2015

One Sunday

Of all the terrible details about what happened in South Carolina, I can’t get over the fact that the shooter went to their bible meeting — Wednesday, when you get the true-blue Christians — prayed with them, and then murdered them. It brought me back a long time, to being a little girl when my father had concluded, and won, a case he was arguing for the congregation of Sardis Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. (Some sort of real estate dispute; didn’t understand it then and therefore can’t recall it now.) One Sunday he announced that we were going to go to services, though we were not a churchgoing family.

We walked in and within minutes my little white-gloved hand was shaking every hand in that church, or so it seemed, and everyone was telling us that they loved my father, he’d done right by them, they were so happy we were there. One lady, who made pearl-beaded necklaces, gave one to me, one to my sister and one to my mother. Dad was the world’s most irreverent joker, and he admitted to me before we went that the pastor was all too aware that the man representing them wasn’t anyone’s idea of an exemplary Christian. And I can still remember a point in the sermon, where the pastor thundered, one arm flung at my father like Moses on Mount Sinai, “We have lawyers to explain the laws of man. But GOD made the lawyer, and GOD made the law!” The congregation shouted affirmation, Dad roared with laughter and I can still see the pastor grinning.

After the sermon, which was the only one I’d ever heard in my young life that wasn’t boring, the choir swung into this song, because my father had requested it. It was his favorite hymn. Mahalia Jackson takes it at about the same tempo as the choir.

All I could think Thursday morning was that there are few places on this earth more kind, more welcoming and inclusive than a black church. How lost in hatred and evil would you have to be, not to feel it.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Kirk Kerkorian Is Dead at 98

MGM's fabled Lot 2

From The World of Entertainment: Hollywood's Greatest Musicals, by Hugh Fordin (1975):

[In 1969] entered Kirk Kerkorian, millionaire head of Tracy Investment [later Tracinda] (controllers of several large Las Vegas hotels), who began acquiring large blocks of MGM stock with the sole intention of overthrowing the [Edgar] Bronfman [Sr] regime. He succeeded in obtaining the necessary majority by fall. That fight cost Bronfman $51 million [in 1969 dollars; about $330 million today] as against Kerkorian's 2.2 million shares. 
Polk was swiftly ousted and [Kerkorian's right-hand man] James T. Aubrey Jr., once head of CBS Television production, was named Metro's new president ... Aubrey then began to dispose of all that had made MGM the greatest and most valuable studio. 
First, he decided that all the costumes and props (i.e., furniture, autos, trolleys, even the show boat) that accumulated over thirty-five years should be sold. Rather than have the studio handle the sale, he made a flat deal of $1.4 million with David Weisz, a California auctioneer. That famous auction began on May 3, 1970, lasted three weeks and netted the Weisz company over $10 million. 
Second, he sold the sixty-eight acres of Lot 3 to Levitt and Sons, Inc., ITT (builders of Levittown, N.Y.). All the famous streets were leveled and in their place stands a modern housing development named Raintree County. Lot 2 also went and Aubrey even tried to dispose of the main lot to an automobile assembly company, but the Culver City zoning board put a stop to that. Then he ordered the music department's library burned, with the exception of one score for every film retained; out-takes, prerecordings, music tracks and the enormous stock-footage library also went. The vast script library was about to go up in flames, but was stopped by someone who cared, and they were sent to the USC library.
Debbie Reynolds at the 1970 MGM auction.

From "The Girl With the Golden Wardrobe: Debbie Reynolds Sells Her Showcase Collection": (at the Theater Historical Society of America website):

Reynolds’s collection began in 1970 after the financier Kirk Kerkorian bought MGM and decided to consolidate the studio. Years before Universal turned its studio tour into a major theme park, Reynolds had the idea to build a Disney-type mecca for film fans out of MGM’s back lot...Every day for three weeks, she waded through more than 300,000 items. She ended up purchasing a large, but carefully selected, array of costumes and furniture. Over the ensuing years, she added items through smaller auctions and individual purchases. When I compliment her prescience, she sighs and says, “It’s not so much that I had vision, it’s that they had none.”

From The Phantom of Hollywood: An MGM Snuff Film, by Kelli Marshall:

But as it happens, this poorly done 1970s TV movie more than imitated reality; it destroyed it, right onscreen, for the pleasure of the viewer. And here I mean pleasure in the Freudian sense—like the perverse pleasure one gets from breaking rules or slowing down to gawk at a gruesome car accident. Yes, for its climax, The Phantom of Hollywood literally bulldozes MGM’s Lot 2, and thus kills the classical film musical.
Kirk Kerkorian in Las Vegas, 1968

"The Commodification of Publishing and Media," a blog post by consultant Dan Black about "MGM and Disney; the former sold some of its most precious assets to fund the building of a Las Vegas hotel. The latter spent money to archive and preserve its history":

It Takes Decades To Build a Brand, Moments to Destroy It 
Today, many companies talk about their valuable “content assets” and the “communities” built over the course of decades. Media and publishing companies change hands constantly, often based on the value of their content and reputation. Like the MGM sale – one result of this is that the most valuable aspects of these brands are slowly dissipated over the years. Yes, some gems are cherished forever, but many others are lost into the ether, a shadow of what they once were – a hollow brand, existing in name only.

Monday, June 01, 2015

La Verité sur Bébé Donge (Lost & Found for Sight & Sound)

This is the Siren's essay for the "Lost and Found" column in the June issue of Sight and Sound magazine, reprinted (with slight differences) by kind permission of the editors.

Last year’s darkly amusing Gone Girl was often described as an indictment of marriage, which is true, to the extent it warns us all not to marry sociopaths. But David Fincher’s expert thriller also reminded me of a much harsher film — one that shows a union of essentially normal people, where murder is the fated outcome of years spent with infidelities, sulks, absences, and insults, all lodging in the skin like splinters.

That movie is La Verité sur Bébé Donge, Henri Decoin’s noir from 1952, in which we know from the beginning that François Donge has been poisoned by his wife. And in between scenes of Donge helpless in a hospital bed, we get a series of flashbacks to explain why.

Wife Bébé, played by Danielle Darrieux in full flower, begins as a dreamy and naive young woman, who says she wants “to live openly, like a book, like a window, with nothing between us.” Jean Gabin is François, a rich man almost entirely preoccupied with getting richer, when he is not using and discarding a string of mistresses. Despite all that, he marries the dowry-less Bébé, whose youth and idealism at first intrigue him.

Worse mismatches than this have endured. Yet, as critic Imogen Sara Smith puts it, “at a certain point the viewer not only understands why his wife put poison in his coffee, but feels she was quite right to do so.” It becomes evident why Bébé doesn’t love their son (who’s never shown), why François’ own brother is covering up the attempted murder, and why the attending doctor looks at his patient with ill-concealed loathing. “It was him or me,” Bébé calmly tells the magistrate who’s trying to penetrate the family omérta surrounding her crime. He kisses her on the cheek, and this too is a gesture whose meaning is clear.

And like the source of the spiked coffee, the reason this richly layered movie is rarely shown and even more rarely discussed is also a non-mystery. It flopped at the box office. The fashion for noir was abating in France, and audiences didn’t care for this unsympathetic version of Gabin. Still, it got good reviews, and its excellence might ordinarily have kept it from dropping out of sight.

But Decoin belonged to the “tradition of quality,” the French filmmakers whose reputations crumbled under sustained attack from what The New Yorker’s Richard Brody loves to call “the young critics of Cahiers.” Wrote Dave Kehr in 2009, “François Truffaut’s 1954 ‘A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema’ really was the atomic bomb of movie reviewing, obliterating an entire artistic landscape in one blast.”

Having successfully argued that the prospective home-grown competition was old and out of it, the New Wave (and their few pre-approved French antecedents) ever since has dominated revival houses, home video, and film discussions. For those of us trying to seek it out, pre-1960 French cinema is not so much a wave, but a trickle.

Decoin was not named in Truffaut’s essay, but he and screenwriter Maurice Aubergé certainly committed Truffaut’s sin of “unfaithfulness to the spirit” of what they adapted. They took George Simenon’s novel and jettisoned nearly everything but the basic idea of a man who knows he’s been poisoned by his wife. Together with its vivid dialogue and complex characters, the film has great visual allure: The cinematographer was Léonce-Henri Burel, who was a DP on Abel Gance’s towering Napoleon and who went on to work with Robert Bresson.

Bébé is forced to visit her husband daily for appearances’ sake. Decoin shoots Darrieux in the sickroom door looking like the angel of death, face alight, body in shadow, wearing a perfect black suit — graceful, chic, implacable. The couple’s first official meeting, at a matchmaker’s afternoon tea, plays out in a gilt-edged mirror, as though they’re exchanging portraits like the nobility of old. Their first kiss gives way to a wedding shot from the back of the church. The camera glides up the aisle, declining to show faces, thus suggesting that good match or bad, it’s all one to the church. When François speaks to his mistresses, and indeed the first time we see him address Bébé, his dialogue is inaudible. For such moments, words don’t matter. It’s all in Gabin’s predatory look.

Still, François isn’t entirely a monster, but rather a certain type of husband: inexpressive of emotion, uninterested in conversation, with a roving eye he feels no obligation to rein in. Bébé, like many another woman, at first believes it’s only a matter of time until she unlocks her man’s emotional side. And it is, in fact, a side that exists — once he’s been poisoned. We hear it in François’ self-reproachful interior monologues, and see it in his face all the times he pleads for another chance with his wife. Bébé looks back at him, and changes the subject to their annual party. “I feel nothing anymore,” she tells her husband. In the devastating final shot, a car pulls away into the night, growing smaller until distance snuffs out the headlights.

Perhaps the long view can make other things recede. After sixty years, Truffaut’s arguments about “le cinéma de papa” are themselves looking dated. Who nowadays is outraged by anti-clericalism, by negativity or blasphemy? La Verité sur Bébé Donge is far from the only one of “papa’s” films that deserves to be retrieved from the attic.