Chris & Don: a love story
The first thing that I loved about Chris & Don: a love story was the DVD sleeve—a black and white photo of two men, the titular love birds, with a clean white backdrop and the title spelled out in red, yellow, and blue lettering in a font that could be described as optimistic looking. It has the effervescent simplicity of a Hockney painting. Even the fact that “a love story” is left lowercase gives clues to the sweet and simple nature of the love story at hand. The film profiles two celebrated men, novelist Christopher Isherwood and artist Don Bachardi, and their relationship together as lovers that constituted as much a marriage as anyone’s. During a time when the idea of a homosexual was someone who was tragic, dysfunctional, and, above all, essentially alone, they lived openly and unapologetically together. And as filmmaker John Boorman points out, they were the only Hollywood couple he knew who actually stayed together.
Theirs is a California story, two men who met on a Santa Monica beach in the 1950s when Don was a teenager from Glendale and Chris was a novelist with a flourishing career. People, even some of their friends, were scandalized by the age difference. Chris was a man of the world. Born in 1904, he had a privileged upbringing in England and was educated at Cambridge before eventually absconding to Berlin to shake off his family’s stifling expectations and to experience the sexual freedoms famously associated with Germany under the Weimar Republic. He later distilled his experiences into a short story collection that became the inspiration for the play and later film Cabaret. Don was a boy who loved movies and movie stars and was in the early days of his first sexual experiences when he met Chris. They couldn’t have been more different, but they were drawn to each other almost immediately.Continue Reading
I think motherhood has been good for Angelina Jolie. Before she started adopting orphans and having kids of her own she was best known as an Oscar-winning knife enthusiast who made out with her brother on television. Well, whatever else that sexy little home wrecker does with her time I now know that she’s also a first class actress who really taps into a primal maternal connection to the sad, sad story at the heart of The Changeling. Fans of true crime and L.A. history should find a lot to get excited about here. It’s a haunting story centered around Jolie’s incredible performance as a mother of a missing child who deals with some extraordinarily weird circumstances above and beyond her heartbreaking loss, and takes on a corrupt L.A.P.D. in the process.
Our story starts in 1928 in a lovingly evoked Los Angeles of a bygone era complete with street cars, rain swept downtown boulevards teeming with pedestrians, and roller skating telephone operators. Jolie, looking like an art deco maven chiseled out of a painting, plays Christine Collins—a single mother raising her nine-year-old son Walter in a middle class neighborhood of L.A. She comes home from work one day to find her house completely empty. At first bewildered she calls the police to report Walter missing and is told that they won’t bother sending any officers over because it’s just not a priority and that furthermore he’s probably just outside and will turn up soon. Days, weeks, and months go by and Walter still has not turned up. Collins finds the L.A.P.D.’s response to her crisis to be incompetent at best and hostile at worst.Continue Reading
Quiz Show is a quintessential tragic American story. The great subject of the film is television and the point at which it came to define American culture for better or worse (mostly worse). With television itself having an almost operatic power as a thematic backdrop, the film tells the story of a son tarnishing his family’s good name, the architects of television’s pop cultural dominance cynically duping an entire nation, the casual anti-Semitism of the 1950s, the cultural clash of WASPs and ethnic New Yorkers, and a young Washington investigator who wants to make a name for himself and winds up destroying his friend in the process.
The year is 1958. An NBC quiz show called 21 is a national obsession that 50 million people tune into each week to see what they think is an honest display of intellectual acumen and knowledge. What they don’t know is that the show’s producer, Dan Enright (played by character actor David Paymer), in cahoots with the show’s principal sponsor Geritol and with the implicit approval of NBC itself, is fixing the results of the show to boost the ratings. The film begins as the current reigning champ of 21, Herbert Stempel (played with wiry desperation by John Turturro), is given the boot for being too goofy looking, too unrefined, and, though they won’t say it, it’s clear that he is too Jewish. As the president of NBC muses, they want a guy on 21 who looks like he can get a table at 21. Enter the elegant, educated, and super dreamy Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes playing the Ralph Fiennes type) who innocently drops by NBC to try out for a different game show at the behest of his friends. When Enright and his sleazy sidekick Albert Freedman (played by Hank Azaria) spot him, they can barely contain themselves. Charles Van Doren is from a celebrated American literary family. His father Mark (played by the recently deceased Paul Scofield) is an English professor at Columbia University, where Charles also teaches. Charles has amazing hair and Ivy League manners. He is the perfect little lamb for Enright to lead to the proverbial slaughter.Continue Reading
Touch of Evil
Touch of Evil is one in a long list of artistic triumphs for Orson Welles that was scandalously treated as a failure from the “lost years” of his post-Citizen Kane free-fall of a film career. Nowadays the film has been accorded the status of an absolute crime film classic usually referred to as the last real film noir of the original cycle. But try telling that to the dumb dumbs at Universal who decided to ignore his 58 page memo on crucial edits to the film and instead cobbled together their own sanitized version of his deliriously sleazy border town saga—a baroque mixture of pulp noir and Shakespearian tragedy as only Welles could envision and execute. Touch of Evil was meant to be Welles’ Hollywood studio return to form after a decade spent in European exile chasing money to fund his mostly dead-ended film projects. But as with so many events in Welles’s Hollywood career the end result was a cold, stilted, even hostile reaction to his exhilarating achievement. He could never shake his reputation as the enfant terrible of tinsel town and this black cloud of notoriety had a habit of eventually destroying any opportunities that lay ahead of him no matter the evidence to the contrary that he generally worked on time and under budget.
Nothing seemed to dispel Welles’ legend as a colossal money and time waster. We might wonder why he got these deals in the first place if the studios were given to losing faith in him so predictably, but such is the enduring mystique behind the life and work of Orson Welles. He was the real deal, the consummate auteur whose technical and narrative innovations in film we have still not yet caught up to and perhaps because of this he was someone Hollywood was never going to trust. It’s not easy starting at the top of your game with a film like Citizen Kane—still generally considered the greatest film ever made and, as such, something he was never allowed to top. Though his outsized life left us with more questions than answers what we do have is his fascinating body of work or what’s left of it. The uncut version of the Magnificent Ambersons is lost to history courtesy of the malicious meddling of RKO and likewise The Lady From Shanghai will never be seen as he intended due to Harry Cohn’s celluloid butchery over at Columbia. His footage of Carnival in Brazil that he shot for the still unfinished documentary It’s All True is rotting in a studio vault as I write this. The list of legendary lost films goes on and on.Continue Reading
Back in the mid-1990s during the heyday of the American independent film scene there were several films released during the decade that became lightning rods for controversy stemming from their, at the time, risquÃ© subject matter. I use the phrase "at the time" because it's not clear whether movies are really capable of shocking us nowadays. In the age of the "torture porn" genre (Hostel, et al.), where even Law & Order plotlines can get pretty damn sick for prime time television, a lot of what stirred social conservatives to boycott studios over what they deemed objectionable material in movies just doesn’t work them up the way it used to. It may come down to whether or not movies are really the pop cultural force they used to be.
The idea that an indie ensemble drama that features mostly a lot of awkward communicating between the unbelievably dysfunctional could cause so much trouble now seems almost quaint. Happiness, with its empathetic treatment of a pedophile character and it's numerous, uh, money shots, might still seem provocative by today's standards if for nothing else than for its refusal to deny the film’s screwed up characters their essential humanity, but at the time of its release it caused an outright media firestorm prompting its original distributor to deem it too toxic for release. It eventually found a new distributor and did open to equal parts fawning praise for people who think that provocative equals good and righteous denouncement from a lot of people who probably didn’t even bother to see the film.Continue Reading
In The Bedroom
In Hollywood films about revenge a grieving family or friend or lover typically realizes that the only way to bring closure to the loss of a loved one is to turn vigilante and mete out the justice they were denied and we are usually meant to cheer them on as populist heroes. But in the 2001 film In the Bedroom, the "grieving family avenging a loved one" plot may be a familiar one but its execution is decidedly not because the cheap and manipulative tactics that get us as an audience fired up for spilled blood are nowhere to be found. This story of a middle aged couple dealing with the tragic death of their son and falling apart as their anger consumes them is the rare film where the idea of grief is not just a pretext for something “bigger.” The visceral, teeth-gnashing sense of loss that death brings—especially the grief that follows unexpected violent death—is allowed to unfold and hang in the air like the slow heavy unstoppable force of nature that it is and it’s unforgettable. This is the rare film about grief and death and vengeance that has no room for histrionics. It has no false notes. The director, Todd Field, is shockingly assured for what was his first feature length film and the incredible cast including Tom Wilkinson, Sissy Spacek, Nick Stahl, and Marisa Tomei hit rare notes of emotional honesty in their work.
Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek play Matt and Ruth Fowler, a well off middle aged couple getting on in their years in their small coastal Maine town. Matt is a town doctor and Ruth is the high school choir director. Their son Frank (played by Nick Stahl) is home for the summer before he starts college in the fall. He is seeing Natalie, a woman twice his age (played by the gorgeous and intriguing Marisa Tomei) with two small children, and this situation is cause for his mother’s concern and his father’s shy sense of pride in his son becoming a man.Continue Reading
Joan Crawford grabbed at life the only way she knew how—by the balls, baby. She fled a hard scrabble childhood full of the horrors to become the reigning queen of Hollywood. She defied so many odds put in front of her and she almost always came out on top. Joan was many different versions of herself throughout her life: gold digger, jazz baby, Pepsi hawker, perennial MGM shop girl, terrible, terrible mother, the greatest star the world has ever known, poster woman for mental illnesses, bizarre recipe creator, transgender identity pioneer, role model to the uneducated, black market baby taker, dubious advice giver, enemy of slovenly hippies, the world’s most famous neat freak, world class fashion don’t… she did it all. Her crazy life was her greatest work of art.
When people talk about Joan’s essential artifice (and likewise the supposedly superior talents of her chief star rival, Bette Davis) I don’t understand why they mean it in a bad way. Her artifice was the whole picture and it was riveting. It gave her a unique kind of depth. It set her apart. She didn’t want to be liked; she demanded to be worshiped. Whether in a black market stag film early in her career (as was rumored) or any number of MGM prestige pictures or in her obsessive assembling of her bizarre family set up, Joan’s way of life was to attack. Her ambition was her identity. This can be either repulsive or, if she was in the right film, it can be put to very compelling use.Continue Reading
Lady in White
A curious mix of autumn colored nostalgia for a small town early 1960s childhood and a supernatural fantasy with an icky child murderer sub plot to round it out, Lady in White is something of an anomaly. Released at a time when horror films were gorier than ever (think Freddy, Jason, et al.) this quietly creepy little movie made a virtue of suggestiveness rather than overkill and at least the hint of psychological complexity that works to the film’s favor even if the execution is a little clumsy. Still, the film has a couple of genuinely haunting moments that have some of the visual poetry of the classic Val Lewton horror films that he made for RKO (Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie).
Little Frankie Scarlatti (Lukas Haas) is a sensitive kid and a budding writer who loves to scare people with his monster stories. After terrifying his classmates with a special story he wrote just for Halloween he is tricked by some of his bratty classmates into being locked in the school coatroom after everyone else has gone home. He falls asleep only to wake up hours later, trying not to panic in his little Dracula costume, with the glow of moonlight shining in the window. It’s this scene that stays with you—just a simple, almost completely still shot that speaks artfully of the very real childhood fear of being abandoned, of being lost in the darkness that you are too young to comprehend.Continue Reading
Written on the Wind
My description of Written on the Wind that I stuck onto a copy of the DVD in the “Employee Picks” section at Amoeba is that it is a candy colored fever dream of violence and ecstasy. Dave Kehr, writing for the Chicago Reader, wrote that Written on the Wind was a “screaming Brechtian essay on the shared impotence of the American family and business life.” I like both descriptions and I especially like the word “screaming” as it applies to what these desperate characters are really doing.
The first thing you might notice about the film is the colors. They overwhelm. Even if the action of the film centers on the downfall of one of those big oil family dynasties from Texas and the renegade pair of lovers caught in the middle, you might ignore the untamed passions exploding before you and instead fall into a hallucinatory stupor from all the cherry reds and periwinkle blues that flood the action of each meticulously constructed scene. The film is supremely pleasurable to look at. That quality of a luxurious surface of beauty is central to all of director Douglas Sirk’s best known works. The surface appearances—which are always gorgeous—are reflected back on themselves via mirrors used throughout his films and create a grotesquely ironic commentary on the desperate entrapment that materialism and expectations of conformity conspire to create in the lives of his characters. If we want to understand the 1950s in America and what they mean to us now we would do well to watch his films. They reveal a lot.Continue Reading
Charlie Wilson’s War
A smart and funny political biopic for grown ups from director Mike Nichols (The Graduate) and writer Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing) about the likable Texas congressman whose influence led to U.S. involvement in the Soviet-Afghan War of the 1980s. Tom Hanks plays “(Good Time) Charlie Wilson” as a well meaning political hack who watches as his crusade for the U.S. to assist in helping the people of Afghanistan against their Soviet occupiers turns into a Cold War sideshow that inadvertently gives rise to Islamic Radicalism. The film manages to stay light on its feet without glossing over the sobering consequences of what was a complete mishandling of a volatile situation.