What happened to Jonathan Demme? He used to make the best movies. I’m talking about the films he did before Silence of the Lambs changed his life and career options for good. Perhaps regretting his film's instigation of a wave of serial killer-based entertainments, he got very high-minded after Silence of the Lambs and kept returning with more Oscar bait in the form of Philadelphia, which continued his winning streak, and Beloved, which did not. Since then he has alternated between director-for-hire projects and small scale documentaries, before returning to something like his old style with last year’s Rachel Getting Married. But nothing he has done in years has been as good as the comedies he did in the late 1980s. They were exuberant life-affirming spectacles. He brought a New York downtowner’s aesthetic to mainstream comedy and lifted up a dreary end of the decade—a time best remembered for comedies that celebrated getting rich or blowing shit up—with an offbeat sensibility. He was like an American Pedro Almodovar in love with the idea of New York as a melting pot of bohemians and working class immigrants, all tuned in to the same Afrobeat soundtrack. His New York was full of loud colors, Jamaican beauty salons, and cool people—one big punky reggae party.
Something Wild is his best film. It’s a film that celebrates a life lived without rules before segueing into darker territory exploring the same themes. Jeff Daniels plays Charlie, a nice guy yuppie in Manhattan that gets his kicks walking out on his lunch bill. Melanie Griffith is Lulu—she’s got the famous Louise Brooks bob and lots of Voodoo priestess jewelry on. She’s an edgy chick who catches on to Daniels’s pathetic act of rebellion immediately. She threatens to rat him out if he doesn’t get in her car and see where the day takes them. She’s going to teach him a thing or two about wild. Pretty soon they’re naked in a hotel room and she’s making him call his office while she otherwise distracts him. The scene is playful and sexy, rather than obvious, because Lulu isn’t objectified as Charlie’s "manic pixie dream girl" who teaches him to live; instead she’s the one in charge. The scene is more about Lulu’s fetishizing of Charlie’s straightness than anything, though we get the feeling that Charlie has been looking for someone like Lulu all along. It’s the complete opposite of how most straight male directors would have played the scene and just one of the details that make this film unique.Continue Reading
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is a movie lodged right into our pop cultural DNA somewhere between Psycho and Stonewall, and I would wager that its reputation as a “camp classic” might precede it to the film’s detriment because its greatness is in spite of its cultural baggage as a Hollywood Babylon-style punch line. Throughout the years since its release the film has been referenced, paid homage to, and parodied more times than I probably know about. There’s just something about the premise of two notorious aging movie queens tearing into one another—no one seems able to resist that glamorously morbid premise. By the early 1960s Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were at the point in their careers where they had to spoof themselves in a Hollywood horror story to get the attention of an audience that had long since deserted them. It was a risk that paid off and ultimately redefined the kinds of roles being offered to aging movie stars. …Baby Jane? was more than just a sleeper hit that resuscitated a few careers; it became a phenomenon that helped spawn a whole cottage industry of films starring has-been actresses pouring on the fake blood and brandishing pick axes. People wanted to see these one-time "it girls" playing murderous grandmas. It was the age of the Hagsploitation horror flick and …Baby Jane? was the one that started it all.
But let me reiterate, I come to praise What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? as a sharp Hollywood satire, not to bury it under more faint praise as a “camp classic,” though there’s no denying it’s the Shakespearian gold standard for that. The problem is that identifying something as camp tends to negate it as anything other than a joke—even a knowing joke— and what makes What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? memorable goes far beyond its kitsch value. It’s a darkly comic satire in the vein of Sunset Boulevard but with weirder and more compelling characters. And it’s not just Davis and Crawford who remind us of why they were great to begin with. The supporting cast is just as good as they are—Victor Buono as the portly would-be suitor and artistic collaborator of Jane is particularly excellent. And in Robert Aldrich the film has a curiously awesome choice for a director. Aldrich could be described as a man’s man kind of director who made war pictures and nasty offbeat noirs like Kiss Me Deadly. Hiring him to direct a movie about two old Hollywood legends at each other’s throats was an inspired choice. Aldrich liked perversity and clearly the innate perversity of the film’s premise must have appealed to him. But he also locates the pathos in the characters and makes us care about what happens to them. It’s hard to categorize What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? as anything other than a classic. It’s a Hollywood satire, it’s a lurid tragedy, a gothic noir of sorts - kind of horrific, certainly camp, and very funny. It has much to say about the two legendary leads and their notorious dislike of each other as it does about an industry that treats women terribly.Continue Reading
Bad Day at Black Rock
I wish the screenplay for Bad Day at Black Rock was taught in screenwriting classes as a model example of how to craft a perfect thriller. Ideally it might inspire a confidence in economic storytelling that students today would have little familiarity with. An incredibly suspenseful movie that lasts just 81 minutes, Bad Day at Black Rock could be the perfect corrective to every lousy impulse by movie executives to lard up a story with overkill. I think that’s the real problem with modern studio fare. Lest their movies be ignored by an increasingly fractured and distracted audience, movies nowadays are oversold into oblivion. Even trailers are exhausting to watch. It’s a simple case of too much information at every turn. As far as Hollywood is concerned, a film that treats the audience like adults with the capacity to figure things out for themselves is a risky prospect for the 15-year-old fan boy market and, at this point, what’s not good for the fan boys is not good for Hollywood’s bottom line. And this all-pervasive tendency for movies to be too long and too obvious even extends to the contemporary thriller where it tends to spoil them from the outset.
The mantra of a good screenwriter is "show, don’t tell" but the inclination of most movie people nowadays is show, tell, and then add a commentary track to the DVD that spells out even more useless information. It can be said that independent film has created a forum for more offbeat storytelling, but there was a time when a good story was enough reason for a big studio such as MGM to produce it. Which brings us to the case of Bad Day at Black Rock. It represents the antithesis of the overkill approach.Continue Reading
“A mob doesn’t think. It doesn’t have time to think.” - Sylvia Sidney as Katherine Grant
Fritz Lang wasted no time in establishing his reputation in Hollywood as the master architect of the thriller. His first American film after having fled Hitler’s Germany is a searing indictment of the dark side of the American character that pulsates with an almost unbearable tension for its first half as a collision of combustible elements in a small town ignites into a shocking act of cold blooded mob violence. Lang wanted to do a film about the culture of public lynching in the U.S. and the curiously grotesque party atmosphere that has historically accompanied them. He felt that his protagonist would have to be guilty of the crime for which he was being lynched and that he should be African American in order for the story to truly resonate in this country and for the film to have the maximum impact. MGM would never agree to either of these stipulations, so he geared his story around a young Spencer Tracy as an American everyman in the wrong place at the wrong time, who faces the full unhinged brutality of a mob of townspeople calling for his blood.Continue Reading
"The enemy of art is the absence of limitations." — Orson Welles
“I like the dark. It’s friendly.” — Simone Simon as Irena DubrovnaContinue Reading
Anthony Mann had a storied career as a director of westerns, many of which starred Jimmy Stewart (Winchester ’73, Bend of the River, The Naked Spur). He directed one of the most ecstatically bizarre examples of the genre—The Furies starring the great Barbara Stanwyck. But before he made his name with westerns and sprawling epics such as El Cid and The Fall of the Roman Empire, he is best remembered as one of the original progenitors of the noir style. Mann made some of the most classic films associated with noir in the late 1940s and, for my money, nothing beats his shadow-drenched masterpiece Raw Deal. With its rich expressionist visuals and eerie Theremin score, Raw Deal is a poetic depiction of a world in perpetual twilight.
Dennis O’Keefe —one of those beautifully rough hewn actors in the Burt Lancaster and Sterling Hayden mold—plays Joe Sullivan, a guy doing time in jail for a crime he didn’t commit (as a favor to a local crime syndicate boss with the promise of $50,000 coming his way if he plays along). Joe’s girl Pat is played by Claire Trevor, who provides a haunting voiceover throughout the film in a whispered voice that suggests she’s mourning Joe before he’s gone. She would do anything for him, and he is happy to let her. She shows up for a prison visit with information about how she’s going to spring him from jail. Rick, the crime boss of Corkscrew Alley, a.k.a the bad part of town, has engineered a scheme to bust Joe out of jail and have him snuffed out before he can claim his 50 Gs, but all Pat knows is if things go as planned he’ll be out of the big house and back in her arms that night. Joe has another woman in his life complicating his relationship with Pat, though. Marsha Hunt plays Ann, his case worker, a prim brunette to Pat’s life-hardened blonde, who believes that the real Joe Sullivan is a decent guy who deserves a second chance in life if he agrees to play by the rules. But Joe never had much luck from the start and he has no intention of going straight now. At dusk he makes his escape, barely outrunning prison guard gunfire to a waiting car and, once inside, Pat and Joe make their getaway. But before they can get out on the lam Joe insists they first take Ann hostage and force her to play along until they get to the hideout (which is really a set up) that Rick has arranged for Joe.Continue Reading
The Shanghai Gesture
The Shanghai Gesture is an impressively sordid film noir with the gauzy atmospheric haze of an opium induced nightmare. Director Josef von Sternberg went admirably overboard in depicting his idea of an exotic horror show. As in his most famous film and the one that introduced the world to the Teutonic splendor of Marlene Dietrich, The Blue Angel (1930), Sternberg had a thing for dropping weak-willed characters into dens of iniquity, only to let those poor suckers become enslaved by their obsessions and get taken for every nickel. He seems to enjoy the spectacle of their descent from flawed innocents to vice-addled wrecks. Whereas The Blue Angel was about a priggish professor led into ruination by the low rent charms of Dietrich’s Lola Lola cabaret chanteuse, in The Shanghai Gesture it’s a beautiful young woman (Gene Tierney) who starts out as the privileged daughter of a British developer abroad and ends up a raving gambling and who-knows-what-else-addict. Although the play on which The Shanghai Gesture is based is reportedly far racier and more explicit than the film, Sternberg still finds lots of shadows to explore in the material, resulting in a film slightly less disturbing than The Blue Angel but still a lot stranger than most studio fare of its time.
The Shanghai Gesture takes place in Shanghai but is unmistakably shot on a studio set. The artifice of smoke machines and dimly lit indoor streets create a wonderfully nocturnal atmosphere that is perfect for the material. Realism has no place in this story. Gene Tierney plays Poppy (yes, Poppy) a rich girl who shows up at a Shanghai gambling house run by proprietress ‘Mother’ Gin Sling (Ona Munson). ‘Mother’ Gin Sling’s gambling house is the center of the action for most of the film. It’s circular in shape with multiple levels surrounding the main casino floor and blindingly white. It’s a temple of vice where anything can happen. Poppy takes an almost sexual pleasure in the illicit activities of the tuxedo-clad gamblers—wealthy denizens of a lawless town—and the money and alcohol all around her, and tells her date for the evening, “It smells so incredibly evil! I didn’t think a place like this existed except in my imagination.” Dialogue like that makes a film easy to love. As it turns out, Poppy’s father is a developer intent on forcing Mother Gin Sling to shut down her casino and vacate the premises. Gin Sling, with her terrifying Medusa hair and vindictive nature, discovers one of her new regulars is the daughter of the man who wants to shut her down and sets to work on destroying her as a way to get back at her father. Victor Mature, playing a cape clad minion to Gin Sling, is assigned with the task of leading Poppy astray. Poppy proves to be easy prey, getting hooked on gambling and losing her father’s money by the thousands while boozing it up night after night. Gin Sling keeps advancing her money to gamble with until she essentially owns her.Continue Reading
I enjoyed Pillow Talk but I’m wracking my brain on how to justify why I liked it. It shouldn’t be that hard. It’s a colossally stupid movie to be sure, but then is profundity really the hallmark of a well made Hollywood film? A lot of the best movies produced under the studio system were always the end result of a delicate interplay between cynical studio ridiculousness and genuine artistry. No one would confuse Pillow Talk for a work of art even by Hollywood standards. Frankly I’m not even sure I’d call it a smart romantic comedy. Doris Day and Rock Hudson aren’t exactly Tracy and Hepburn. She is frighteningly perky and he has no comedic instincts whatsoever. What they embody isn’t really depth or wit or chemistry, but instead I think what sold the public on them is how happily “normal” they seemed during a tumultuous era in American history. They were movie stars for the age of television. They weren’t so much of the 1950s as of a perrenial 1950s mindset. If the fifties were the decade where conformity was next to godliness then conventional wisdom has it that Day and Hudson were its thoughtless, grinning poster children—Mr. & Mrs. McCarthy Era.
But their first onscreen pairing in Pillow Talk wasn’t until 1959 which leads me to conclude that instead of being a kind of cultural apex for a dull decade, Pillow Talk was really a last gasp of a reactionary hold over Hollywood. Bonnie & Clyde and the rise of a more sophisticated European art house influenced American cinema were only 7 years away. By 1959 Americans in-the-know were already getting their first taste of cinema in a radically different idiom from the likes of Fellini, Antonioni, Godard, and Bergman to name a few. Pillow Talk, then, is retrograde even by 1959 standards and, as such, was already shorthand for how out-of-touch Hollywood filmmaking had become, fair dismissal or not.Continue Reading
The Girl Can’t Help It
The Girl Can’t Help It is a pop art explosion of retina melting Deluxe Color insanity built around several incredible performances from some of rock 'n' roll’s earliest and best groups. It could have been just another teensploitation picture meant to capitalize on American teenage culture of the mid-1950s and the “fad” of rock 'n' roll music, but in the hands of director Frank Tashlin it becomes a delirious candy colored satire of the music industry and the commoditization of sex to sell records.
Frank Tashlin started his career as an animator for Looney Tunes, and it is said that his cartoons were more like films and his films were more like cartoons. There is a gleeful anarchic streak that runs through his movies, and the clever satire of American life that was his directorial hallmark can be as essential to understanding the America of the 1950s as the work of Douglas Sirk (Written on the Wind, All That Heaven Allows). Tashlin worked with a lot of musical comedy performers that we consider pretty hokey now (Bob Hope, Martin & Lewis, Doris Day) but it’s surprising how smart and genuinely funny the films in which he directed them are. He was a proto pop artist using the shiny gaudy images he created as a send up of celebrity, advertising, and pop culture and their detrimental effect on the American public. Although he had no great love for rock 'n’ roll, with The Girl Can’t Help It Tashlin inadvertently made one of the best rock 'n’ roll movies of all time.Continue Reading
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