A great tradition which essentially disappeared when the studio system collapsed was what one might call the variety film. The variety film was a kind of cinematic vaudeville show—a hodgepodge of comedy bits, some singing, dancing, and whatever else a cast of players under contract could fill out the average running time of a movie with. They were goofy, hurried, made on the cheap, and meant to be light entertainment. A great example of this would be International House (1933), a film about a hotel in "Woo-Hoo" China where W.C. Fields, Bela Lugosi, George Burns, Gracie Allen, and Cab Calloway all cross paths in very silly ways.
A variety film with the same spirit as International House but with more urgent purpose was Hollywood Canteen which chronicled a day spent at the famous club for GIs during World War II. The Hollywood Canteen originally came to exist through the efforts of Bette Davis and what she created with it really represented Hollywood at its best. From its opening day the Canteen was staffed with movie stars who volunteered their time nightly to serve GIs coffee and donuts or sign autographs. Girls came to dance with GIs and it was possible to see famous orchestras or comedians on a nightly basis there. Hollywood Canteen was made at Warner Brothers and the film features an all-star cast of contract players at the studio during the mid-1940s. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the entertainment world of the time with delightful cameos from everyone from Barbara Stanwyck, Ida Lupino, and Joan Crawford to Jane Wyman, John Garfield, the Benny Goodman Orchestra, Roy Rogers, the Andrew Sisters, and many more.Continue Reading
The Day of the Locust
Adaptations of quintessentially L.A. novels tend to either work marvelously, as with L.A. Confidential, or don't quite measure up to their source material (a category I’d lump Ask the Dust into). John Schlesinger’s adaptation of The Day of the Locust was a costly misfire for Paramount Studios which spent something like 6 months on the film and a whole lot of dough. It could have been as influential as Chinatown, but it was a flop upon release, though ultimately it had some enduring appeal as a cult film in later years. Nathaniel West’s novel is generally considered to be the very best novel on Hollywood, its more grotesque inhabitants, and its tragic allure as a festering dump where dreams go to die. That makes the novel sound sobering and self-serious but this is a story about fame whores, violently degenerate midgets, sociopathic child actors, cockfights, stag films, and a movie premiere that culminates in the apocalypse. It’s brutally dark and really, really entertaining.
The movie is essentially a literal adaptation of West’s novel and it came under criticism from some quarters for being too literal. Director John Schlesinger was taken to task for supposedly ignoring the arch satire of West's depiction of Hollywood as the epicenter of greed, desperation, and idiocy, and instead ratcheting up the cartoon nihilism to a fever pitch. But when you do a story about America’s pop cultural border town that ends with a murderous orgy of celebrity blood lust I’m not exactly sure "holding back" is the way to go. The Day of the Locust is about a particular kind of American tragedy that West found on Hollywood Boulevard during the 1930s. In the dive bars and diners that lined the boulevard were hundreds of desperate people without a nickel to their name, all drawn to Hollywood in the hopes of making it big. Most, West found, couldn’t even get work as extras. He saw them as a mass of human wreckage under the movie premiere kleig lights. The dark joke beneath the glittering dream that Hollywood came to embody was exquisitely rendered by West as it was happening. The film does justice to the novel with its horror show theatrics under the palm trees and sunny skies of Southern California and ultimately it’s more creepy than campy.Continue Reading
In A Lonely Place
First, there’s the title. Has any movie title ever sounded so vulnerable? And that the film about a man "in a lonely place" was played by America’s hero, Humphrey Bogart, added undeniable pathos to the proceedings. Movie stars have always been confused with who they played in the films that made them famous, and after High Sierra and Casablanca Bogart would be forever known as the world weary tough guy with a heart of gold; the cynical romantic who does the right thing in the end who generations of men have wanted to emulate. Playing an emotionally wounded misanthrope with possibly psychotic tendencies was a risk for him, but in the words of Louise Brooks it was the closest performance to the real Bogart that he ever played. In her memoir of sorts, Lulu In Hollywood, she writes about how the Bogart she knew was an insecure actor forever on the sidelines of productions he didn’t star in. When the light and magic clicked to make him a star in High Sierra he became a legend henceforth and he took to acting the part in real life. But, according to her at least, it wasn’t until playing the embittered Hollywood screenwriter Dix Steele in Nicholas Ray’s In A Lonely Place that the myth and the actor coalesced into something resembling his darker, more emotionally insecure self.
In A Lonely Place is ostensibly a murder mystery, but what haunts isn’t really the murder or even the possibility that Bogart’s character killed someone. Instead it’s the way Dix’s good qualities are forever doomed to be overshadowed by his alienating and self-destructing tendencies. He has good friends around him who, even in the face of a murder investigation where he is a suspect, refuse to give up on him. But his insecurities and "artistic temperament" wear those around him down to the point where he really is totally alone. There’s no real lesson to In A Lonely Place. In another less complicated thriller Dix would be the villain whose downfall signals the triumph of societal values over the chaos caused by anti-social malcontents. But this is a film with no solution to the problem of Dix Steele, just a melancholic depiction of a certain type of man whose great curse is to be eternally misunderstood.Continue Reading
Busby Berkeley Bonus Disc (Busby Berkeley Collection)
It may seem like cheating to skip over the five films featured in the first Busby Berkeley Collection and single out the bonus disc included with the collection as a “Movie We Like,” but the very fact that Warner Brothers bothered to include the extra disc comprised solely of the musical numbers from Berkeley’s films indicates that they were eager to facilitate the pure rush of cinematic delirium that occurs when watching the crazy things back to back. Berkeley didn’t write or direct most of the films included in the box set collections that bear his name but his authorial hallmark is stamped right across all of them. He created and staged the musical numbers for the films and it’s these musical numbers that gave him immortality as one of the great film architects of glamorous spectacle and Hollywood mythology. The best of Berkeley’s musical numbers are pre-Production Code wonders of erotic reverie and paradisaical splendor. They looked like nothing that had come before though they have certainly been imitated and paid homage to by directors entranced by their bizarre majesty ever since. Berkeley turned song and dance numbers that bridged the scenes of what could have been generic studio musicals into glittering ecstatic pageants that rendered the lovely legs of chorus girls into a kaleidoscopic “ballet mechanique,” filling the entire screen in one hallucinatory art deco fantasia after another. There is beauty to Berkeley’s approach but there is also darkness that creeps in, such as in the desperate city-dwelling throngs killing, thieving, and hustling to the title song of 42nd Street. Fellow practitioners of the dark arts of Kino Delirium, Kenneth Anger and Guy Maddin, owe this guy a lot and I would assume that they would be the first to admit it.
The plots of Berkeley’s films are mostly variations on the backstage musical archetype with a make it or break it “let’s put on a show!” finale. The films themselves - such as 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933 with stars like James Cagney and Ruby Keeler - are a lot of fun, if a little slow between the numbers. I once saw Gold Diggers… screened at Hollywood Forever Cemetery and seeing the film with booze, surrounded by the graves of Hollywood luminaries at night was several great things made more so by their combination. But it’s the musical numbers that everyone wants to see, and so to get the purest expression of Berkeley’s genius it’s nice to be able to skip right to the whiz bang heart of it and luxuriate in the delights of “We’re In the Money,” “By A Waterfall,” and the very weird and wonderful “Pettin’ In the Park,” which serves as unimpeachable evidence, if any was necessary, that the 1930s was as sexually frank an era as any before or since.Continue Reading
Blur: No Distance Left to Run
You will never convince me that there was a more definitive group for the 1990s than Blur. With a manifesto to astutely chronicle pre-millennial anxiety in sharply observant pop songs such as "For Tomorrow," "Girls & Boys," and "The Universal," they were three impossibly good looking young men (plus possibly good looking drummer Dave) with wildly different personalities who created some of the most memorable songs of the last decade of the 20th century. As is so often the case with the best bands their personal clashes made for some wildly explosive creative tension. In Damon Albarn they had a singer who looked like Leonardo DeCaprio reconfigured as an anime character—Britpop's very own Astro Boy; he of the vintage Adidas zip-up, artfully messed up hair, and burning ambition to front the biggest band in the world. His good looks and arrogant attitude were coupled with an extraordinary talent for writing catchy tunes that were every bit as good as their obvious influences—Bowie, Scott Walker, The Kinks, Syd Barrett, The Buzzcocks, et al. In Graham Coxon they had "the most talented guitarist of his generation," the indie kid obsessed with American hardcore who played raggedy chords that bled emotion and aggression all over Albarn's sterling compositions. Graham gave Damon’s songs soul and in his shy demeanor and anti-pop tendencies was seen as Albarn's main adversary within the group. Alex was Blur’s jet setting bon vivant bass player. He was gorgeous, tall, gave the best press quotes, and seemed determined to cultivate a reputation as a champagne Charlie always looking for a good time with people equally famous and beautiful. Simultaneously detestable and wholly endearing at the height of his explorations into the decadence of celebrity culture, he was also the most charming member of the group. Dave the drummer was just lucky to be there, I think, though his egghead presence gave Blur some of their singular cache as the thinking boy and girl’s pop star pin ups.
Cute boys writing old fashioned pop songs may seem kind of typical now but circa 1993 when Blur became Blur as we know them it started nothing short of a British pop cultural revolution. They hit their stride by railing against grungy yank dominance and waiving a Union Jack as a slightly ironic act of defiance. Their third record Parklife was a massive hit and their fantastic songs showcasing a scrappy post modern grab bag ideology was as influential in Britain as the first wave of punk. It was all downhill from there of course and they disappointed themselves and their original fans with a hollow if massively successful follow up LP called The Great Escape. After a year or so despairing about spawning the xenophobic watershed of Cool Britannia they managed to redeem themselves and even win over the U.S. in the process with a moody and reflective self-titled fourth album that harkened back to their scruffier beginnings. Two more records followed the last without contributions from Graham who had left the group or was kicked out. No one is absolutely sure what happened. At that point Blur was over and no one expected them to return. But rumors started circulating last year that they were going to reunite for some summer shows in England. No Distance Left To Run is a documentary chronicling their reunion shows and finds time to tell their story from their Goldsmiths Art College origins to the rise–fall–redemption– reunion story arc the band dutifully followed.Continue Reading
The Big Heat
Film noir is a style, genre, atmosphere, whatever, often synonymous with a dizzying amount of plot twists, shadowy visuals, and double and triple crosses interwoven into spider web of a plot. But in some of the most memorable examples of film noir certain filmmakers took a more, well, direct approach. The Big Heat is a lean, stripped down revenge story without the murky lighting and wafting smoke of rotten glamour that permeates many a classic film noir. The visual style is flat, the plot is relatively straightforward, but make no mistake, it’s a film that pulsates with paranoid intensity. Lang would return over and over to the trio of themes best spelled out in the title song of his weird western, Rancho Notorious: “murder, hatred and revenge.” He liked to chronicle the way that an obsessive need for revenge can turn men into that which they despise.
Before Dirty Harry there was The Big Heat’s Sgt. Bannion, an honest cop in a nameless city in the stranglehold of corruption at every level. Bannion doesn’t mince words and takes relish in stepping on the toes of every person he’s not supposed to mess with. A police captain dies under mysterious circumstances. His mistress meets Bannion for a drink and tells him she thinks he was murdered. This sparks Bannion’s investigation into a conspiracy that ensnares almost everyone in power surrounding him. When the mob retaliates in the most horrifically personal way imaginable Bannion’s crusade takes on a deranged quality. He’ll stop at nothing until he takes down Italian dandy crime boss Mike Lagana any way he can. When a ditzy girlfriend of one of Lagana’s thugs decides to help Bannion she becomes just one in a line of many victims whose personal sacrifice for Bannion’s crusade means almost nothing to him.Continue Reading
As this year’s Academy Awards approaches I find myself trying in vain to understand how Public Enemies didn’t garner a single Oscar nomination. The film was gorgeous to look at, featured a career-best performance from Johnny Depp, and avoided the clichÃ©-ridden territory of the period piece biopic for something more ambiguous and relatively challenging. Was that why the film was a relative critical and box office disappointment? Clearly the film did not satisfy as Summer blockbuster entertainment. Universal Pictures didn’t quite know how to market the film and seemingly tried to sell it almost like a comic book adaptation a la The Dark Knight with a larger-than-life image of Depp in a trench coat and fedora, shotgun at his side, stretching the length of office buildings on the huge banner posters that draped L.A. prior to the film’s release. It didn’t work to sell the film because the film they were selling wasn’t exactly the movie that we got. It’s a movie with beautifully shot bank robberies, shootouts rendered in symphonic splendor, and plenty of compelling narrative, but somehow in its fly-on-the-wall approach to following Dillinger it left audiences cold.
That aforementioned coldness works both ways. Public Enemies is downright frosty and it’s to Michael Mann’s credit that he refuses to overdramatize the life of an infamous gangster in all-too-familiar ways. Let me explain myself. Mann gives us a completely new kind of period film. He junks the typical sepia-toned melodrama approach and instead, with his digital cameras, creates something immediate, taking us out of the realm of nostalgia and into a real world scenario that actually feels dangerous instead of merely nostalgic. If you are willing to accept the worthiness of this approach it is completely thrilling.Continue Reading
The Reckless Moment
What do a famous film director with a deep appreciation for Korean food and a handful of fellow middle aged customers who shop at Amoeba every single day have in common? They love the import DVD section. The import section is reserved for DVDs from different parts of the world that have different region coding from U.S. DVDs. If you have a region free DVD player you can watch them. What is surprising is how many film titles are only available as imports. 1984, Barfly, and The Magnificent Ambersons are just a few of the titles that either went out of print or were never released on DVD in the U.S. and can only be bought relatively cheaply as imports. Cinephilia can be a lonely and expensive calling made more frustrating by limiting what one watches to what the studios dictate as permissible for one to purchase. I begin this review extolling the virtues of Amoeba’s import DVD section simply because without it I would never have been able to see The Reckless Moment on DVD, which would have been a real shame because it’s one of the best thrillers released during the heyday of American film noir and perhaps one of the strongest feminist films I’ve ever seen. The Reckless Moment stars Joan Bennett as Lucy Harper, an upper middle class Californian housewife who looks after her teenage daughter and pre-teen son while her husband is perpetually away on business. Between her kids and her father-in-law she doesn’t seem to have any time to herself. Although her station in life is a privileged one, with all the perks such a position affords—hired help and a huge house to name but two—she is completely trapped by her situation without seemingly a moment to devote to herself. Her entire identity seems to be subsumed by motherhood. She is perpetually photographed in the film with the silhouette of her home’s staircase and other furnishings casting prison bar-like shadows across her. This isn’t a Douglas Sirk tearjerker about the spiritual emptiness of white American privilege (well, not completely), but rather a classic noir thriller, so let me get to the part of the story where someone gets murdered.
Bennett’s rebellious daughter Bea, played by Geraldine Brooks, is stepping out with a sleazy older guy whom Lucy knows is all wrong for her daughter. Bea is in art school which is shorthand in the film for being surrounded by all the wrong people. Mother and daughter fight but Bea refuses to budge. Lucy takes matters into her own hands by traveling to a seamy part of L.A. from her idyllic lakefront property to confront Bea’s boyfriend, Ted. She is determined to protect her family at all costs, and Ted turns out to be just as much of a lowlife as she thought he was. Later though, when Ted winds up dead just steps away from their beautiful home, Lucy, without knowing what exactly happened, must figure out how to dispose of the corpse and keep her daughter’s name out of the murder investigation. To complicate matters further, a couple of blackmailers turn up demanding $5,000 for Bea’s love letters to Ted which were used as collateral by Ted for a debt he never repaid. When asked by one of the blackmailers why she is doing so much on behalf of her daughter, Lucy looks him in the eye and offers up being a mother as the only reason necessary.Continue Reading
Cradle Will Rock
Cradle Will Rock belongs to that class of movies that don’t particularly offend anyone or bomb big enough to become a notorious flop; nor was it greeted with a ton of enthusiasm. Considering the talent involved with the film—Tim Robbins, Bill Murray, John and Joan Cusack, and Susan Sarandon, to name but a few—the mild applause the film seemed to generate upon its release was kind of like damning with faint praise. I never understood this because I find Cradle Will Rock to be a whole lot of fun, while at the same time serving as a pointed critique of the political apathy prevalent in art today.
The film tells the story of one of the most mythologized theatrical events of the 20th century. No surprise that Orson Welles was directly involved then. We’re in New York in 1937 and the city seems to be the epicenter of a massive upheaval in society at large. There is labor unrest, growing unease about global fascism, and a gnawing sense that capitalism has failed the common interests of the average citizen. (Hey, maybe the film is due for a critical re-appreciation after all…)Continue Reading
Sweet Smell of Success
I tend to sum up Sweet Smell of Success by saying that it’s sort of the alpha male version of All About Eve. It’s a movie about men and envy and wanting to be numero uno at all costs. But really the star and thematic center of the film is New York. It’s sharply written and gorgeously photographed as a city full of shysters, whores, crooked cops, and naïve cigarette girls, with the city’s truly powerful people wielding their influence like back alley thugs. For all the neon-lit corruption it makes the New York of the late-1950s look like a terribly exciting place to be. It’s an after-dark town with a hot Jazz score soundtracking a desperate populace thieving, scheming, and hustling—the quintessential Dark City that Noir dreams are made of. As the terrifyingly important J.J. Hunsucker, New York’s most powerful gossip columnist (played by the imposing Burt Lancaster), says with true affection, “I love this dirty town.”
Hunsucker’s column attracts 60 million daily readers and he relishes his ability to make or break anyone he chooses. He’s a sociopath in a nice suit who strikes fear into the hearts of the major players in the worlds of entertainment and politics. Tony Curtis is Sidney Falco, a hungry press agent desperate for a piece of the Hunsucker pie. His world is a 24-7 confidence game where he feeds the dupes on his payroll line after line about how they’re next in line to get mentioned in Hunsucker’s column. But J.J. likes making Sidney squirm for his supper—he cuts him out of the loop entirely so that Sidney will do just about anything to get back in J.J.’s favor.Continue Reading