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
The Grapes Of Wrath
When Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) returns to his Oklahoma farm after four years in prison, he learns that nothing is what it was. It’s the 1930s, the depression is on, and his family has lost their farm and home to the bank. So begins an amazing journey for Tom - as he sees the social injustice around him he grows from petty criminal to labor activist. The Grapes of Wrath is a monumental film by a monumental director, John Ford, based on a brilliant book by another monumental figure, John Steinbeck. The truths laid out in the book and film may be just as true today as they were then. Tom leads his family from the dustbowl in search of work and a promise for a better life in California, but all they find are lies, police corruption, and corporate exploitation of desperate workers. It sounds a lot like the plight migrant workers from Mexico and Central America still face in search of the supposed American Dream.
The Grapes Of Wrath almost plays like a post-apocalyptic adventure as Tom, along with his Ma (Jane Darwell), Pa (Russell Simpson), and the preacher, Casey (John Carradine), pack the entire Joad clan into the truck and head west, where the world they encounter is a hostile and burnt out place. They are encouraged by pamphlets to head to California, but they get there to find themselves hoarded like cattle in a police state where their every move is monitored (another piece of futureshock, the dystopian state). Tom, at first naive, then confused, slowly realizes that all the cards are fixed against him and all the little people of the country. By the end, on the run from the cops, he tells his Ma in one of the great speeches in film history, "Wherever there's a fight, so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever there's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there..." It’s a dark conclusion for the Joad family (and for the American Socialist dream, as WWII and then the Cold War are just around history’s corner).Continue Reading
One of the most beautifully directed and most gorgeously shot films of the 1930s is this stirring account of an Irishman in Dublin in 1922 who betrays his friend and country by turning informer for the British. Gypo Nolan is a big dumb giant of a man with few options in life. Acting as an agent for the Irish Rebellion he refuses to execute one of the members of the British Occupation and is cut off from the network that sustains the Rebels during hopeless economic times. With a girlfriend named Mary whom he finds reduced to walking the street hoping to keep from starving to death, he takes the only opportunity he is offered—that of informing on his friend Frankie who is wanted by the British. Though Gypo originally plans to use the money he makes from double crossing his friend to take Mary to America he instead throws it around on booze and buying fish and chips for a huge crowd of his fellow Irishmen who cheer him on as a hero. When he is exposed as the one who double crossed Frankie he fingers an innocent man as the true culprit before getting shot by members of the Rebellion for his betrayal.
One of the unusual things about The Informer is the way in which Ford turns the tragic story of Gypo Nolan informing on his friend into an allegory for the betrayal of Christ by Judas, but also making Gypo a kind of Christ figure at the same time. The symbolism is anything but subtle. First the film starts with a Biblical passage about Judas betraying Christ, while the scene of Gypo buying fish and chips for a crowd of revelers is clearly inspired by the story of Jesus and the fishes and loaves. By the time Gypo stumbles into the town church bleeding from a gunshot wound, he raises his arms aloft in a Christ pose in front of a statue of Christ on the cross (in case we weren’t getting the picture—we have multiple examples of a very heavy handed kind of symbolism at work). And yet the film works because of the arresting performances, exquisite cinematography, and, while the symbolism is overbearing at times, Ford’s conflation of Judas and Christ into one character, albeit uneven, is undeniably affecting.Continue Reading
The Loved One
Besides being one of the funniest, yet strangest comedies ever made, The Loved One may be the greatest satire of life in Los Angeles during the 1960s and has one of the most eclectic, but well used casts of all time (including Jonathan Winters in dual roles, Robert Morse, Milton Berle, Rod Steiger, John Gielgud, Paul Williams, Tab Hunter, Roddy McDowall…oh, and Liberace). Morse plays Dennis Barlow, a young British poet who shows up in Los Angeles to visit his uncle, Sir Francis Hinsley (John Gielgud), a film studio worker. After the uncle dies Dennis gets involved with Aimee (Anjanette Comer), an employee at the sinister funeral home, Whispering Glades.
Based on the book by the big-time British novelist Evelyn Waugh (Brideshead Revisited), The Loved One was adapted for the screen by the American satirist Terry Southern (Dr. Strangelove) and the haughty author and critic Christopher Isherwood (A Single Man). To make this motley crew even more improbable it was directed British filmmaker Tony Richardson who arose to much acclaim during the “angry young man” movement of British filmmaking in the late '50s and early '60s and won an Oscar for Tom Jones. But after The Loved One, he was never able to find his filmmaking footing. The film was shot beautifully in black and white, giving a crisp, yet gothic look to the Los Angeles locations, by legendary cinematographer Haskell Wexler (One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?, Bound For Glory) and it was edited by the soon-to-be-major director of the '70s, Hal Ashby (Harold And Maude, Coming Home). All of these very improbable voices came together to create one of the more unique films of the decade.Continue Reading
The Naked Prey
Lean, intense and pictorially spectacular, The Naked Prey made a big impression when I saw it as a teenager in its original theatrical release. My high school buddy Todd McCarthy – today Variety’s chief film critic – saw it with me, and for years he called me “Gampu” in honor of Morrison Gampu, one of its leading native players.
The story is based on a true incident in which a member of Lewis and Clark’s expeditionary party was tracked by Blackfoot Indians in a tribal “run of the arrow.” Actor-director Cornel Wilde’s film transposes the tale to 19th-century Africa: After the members of his safari are captured and brutally massacred by a native tribe, one courageous member of the party (Wilde) is given a fighting chance, and is released into the bush naked and unarmed, pursued by 10 fierce warriors. In the wild, he is imperiled by human and natural predators.Continue Reading
The Night of the Hunter
Whoa, Daddy if you haven’t seen The Night of the Hunter you really need to. It is probably, along with Vertigo and Citizen Kane, one of the pinnacles of 20th Century American cinema. It manages the rare trick of being funny and scary, stylized and naturalistic. Visually it harkens back to D.W. Griffith’s silent films and to German expressionism, with its constant, shadowy sense of menace, giving this film’s depiction of an American past a sinister daydream quality. It’s the first and only film British actor Charles Laughton ever directed. James Agee, one of the most important writers of Depression era America, adapted the screenplay, and Stanley Cortez, a poet with a lens (he did the incredible cinematography for Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons) was cinematographer.
For all the top tier tinsel town talent, though, this is Robert Mitchum’s show and he dominates the film with a kinky intensity, a murderous, almost supernatural creepiness. There’s a reason Siouxsie Sioux cited Mitchum’s psychotic preacher character as a key reference point for what she wanted to explore with the Banshees’ music. He’s pure evil but he’s such a wild card, a character as much dark myth as flesh and blood, that he is utterly spellbinding on screen.Continue Reading
The Red Shoes
The first time I heard a reference to Powell & Pressburger's The Red Shoes was Wes Anderson discussing it as cinematographic inspiration for the Royal Tenenbaums--one of my favorite films. I knew then that I HAD to see The Red Shoes and wasn't surprised when the film begins with a book being opened, just as Wes Anderson begins his own film. The similarities don't end there, and as I watched I began to see why he was so inspired by The Red Shoes: the film is beautifully shot in technicolor, superbly acted, sumptuously danced, and touchingly tragic.
Though roughly based on the Hans Christian Andersen story of the same name, the story revolves around the struggle between a ballerina, a composer, and the man attempting to make his own dreams come true by bringing fame to them all. Anton Walbrook is dark and impressive as the antagonist, ballet impresario Boris Lermontov, whose standards are so high that he abhors the idea of his proteges disturbing their creative lives by finding love. When the two protagonists, Ballerina Vicky Page, played by Moira Shearer, and Composer Julien Craster, played by Marius Goring, fall desperately in love with each other the Company that Lermontov has assembled begins to fall apart as he loses his own grip on reality. All with the most tragic of results.Continue Reading
The Red Shoes
The tale of a prima ballerina's struggle to stay on top was recently given a fresh face in terms of Darren Aronofsky's newest feature, Black Swan. Several critics made direct references to The Red Shoes because it features a very similar story: a young and beautiful ballerina gets a chance to work for a company of great prestige, ultimately being driven to insanity under the pressure. While this film is similar on a few levels, I venture to say that it does surpass Black Swan on a visual level and has held up nicely in modern tastes. I'd even like to note that the film's surrealism was paid homage to in Black Swan, especially one scene in particular, but I'll explain that in the review of the movie.
This film is perhaps one of the most erotic and sinister pieces of art that I have seen, which is a bold statement when one compares that to present-day cinema. The claim is made simply because of the way love, greed, and desire is executed throughout the story. The saturated and vivid colors remind you of a living creature, and the imagery and techniques will not soon be forgotten by any audience. Comparatively, it is also unique because it not only focuses on the tribulations of the ballerina, but of the composer who is also trying to make his mark.Continue Reading
The Wild One
Though that amazing string of performances in A Streetcar Named Desire, Viva Zapata!, Julius Caesar, and On the Waterfront earned Marlon Brando four straight Oscar nominations (finally winning for Waterfront) and made him the most celebrated acting talent of his generation, it’s actually his work as Johnny in The Wild One that made him an icon of rebellion and helped inspire the youth culture that was just beginning to emerge in America (and abroad). The Wild One was the first “biker picture” to penetrate mainstream consciousness, a genre that would become very popular in independent film ten lean years later.
Though produced by issue-director/producer Stanley Kramer, giving the film an overly dramatic “this is important” vibe, it’s actually a really fun B-movie, carried by Brando’s cocky performance. His Johnny leads his biker gang almost like a cult leader. The gang, with their rowdy antics, tries to impress their messiah, but Johnny, with his southern/ be-bop accent, is a man of few words. Hitting the road looking for kicks, Brando and his gang stumble on a small town where they instantly catch the attention of the law and some uptight citizens, and a saloon owner invites them to stay for beer and sandwiches. The innocent young barmaid Kathie (the very beautiful Mary Murphy) catches Johnny’s eye. It doesn’t help when he declares “I don’t like cops,” even though her dad is the town’s sheriff (Robert Keith, father of Brian), and is actually very evenhanded and sympathetic to Johnny and his pals.
In the film’...
The Women 
I watched The Punk Singer (2013) – Sini Anderson’s adoring biopic of Kathleen Hanna – and, perhaps in a mini-rebellion from her feminist electro orthodoxy, I watched The Women as a follow-up. Of course I mean the original George Cukor-directed The Women and not the roundly panned remake from a few years ago. That big ol’ bomb reportedly tried to assert a more inexplicably positive “sisterhood” sort of tone to this story of caustically ridiculous females - an assortment of Park Avenue trophy wife types scheming, backstabbing, gossiping, and delivering withering putdown after…you get the idea, right? Which is kind of like trying to make the Khmer Rouge camp managers in The Killing Fields a little nicer to their captives.
In Anderson’s documentary and in the writings of chroniclers of Hanna’s work there is a lot of talk of “queerness.” Hanna is a heterosexual woman who has played “feminist electronic music” with her band Le Tigre featuring self-described “gender outlaw” and lesbian J.D. Samson. But “queerness” isn’t maybe entirely best understood through the work of people such as Hanna. For a theoretical perspective of what queerness means in a gay male context it is worth seeking out the work of academic David Halperin and specifically his hefty pink book, How To Be Gay. Halperin seeks to better describe the sensibility of queerness as defined by gay cultural touchstones such as Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce, Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest, and yes, in Cukor’s The Women (featuring Joan Crawford). Queerness in this context isn’t always as friendly to women as queers and their allies might wish and that’s an uncomfortable truth that Halperin seeks to wrestle with.Continue Reading