What the Oscars broadcast this year didn’t seem to realize is this: The movies are our national religion. We want to worship those who make them, and those who are in them, as gods. We want to regard the Oscars as a yearly sacrament and bow our heads before it. Yes, we also want those moments of fun when everything goes wrong, and we want the moments when, to our shocked disbelief, a host’s brilliant snark makes us go “Oh no, you din’t!,” but we want them in the context of a show that knows how seriously, deep down, we take the movies. The movies, the good ones and the bad ones, and the glamor attendant to the movies, are the house wherein our culture’s soul resides.
This year—and it wasn’t just the fault of hosts James Franco and Anne Hathaway, gosh-gee-willikers-out-of-place and lacking in decorum as they were—the Oscars seemed to treat the movies as “just the thing we actors and other folks do for a living,” not the national religion the movies are. The whole thing had the feel of a televised trade show. It was as if everyone involved believed that we, the audience, want the movies demystified for us, made real, made ordinary, minimized, stripped bare, made “relatable,” brought down to our level, exposed as operated by a man behind the curtain. No, it’s the opposite. We want the mystery; we want to believe in the Wizard. Stars are called stars for a reason–because they reside in the heavens. Having thrown back the curtain this year, the Oscars may or may not be able to close it again and make us believe. Perhaps the root disease is that Hollywood no longer believes in itself. Banksy was banned from the Oscars this year, but the Oscars spray-painted graffiti all over itself without him.
Two years ago, after seeing Burn After Reading, I identified the one trait that every single Coen Bros. had in common. Romantic comedy or grim film noir, suspense thriller or picaresque romp, screwball epic or journey into depression, every single Coen Bros. movie—all fourteen of them, you pick, I don’t care which one–shared one element:
They all involved characters who thought they were smarter than they were, and suffered for it.
Some of these characters were smart, only not quite as smart as they thought they were, and suffered for it.
Others of these characters were stupid, and fancied themselves smart, and suffered for it.
In True Grit, all the central characters prove just exactly as smart as they need to be, and in some cases smarter than we figured them for. Nobody (with the exception of a minor character in an early scene) does himself in or gets into deep doo-doo for the hubristic sin of overestimating his intelligence.
In all fourteen of the previous movies written and directed by the Coen Bros.—again, I defy you to find an exception—that hubristic sin plagued central (or, in the case of No Country for Old Men, important secondary) characters and drove the plot. The persistence of that element in their oeuvre, whether in stories they created or were attracted to adapting, reflected a strong misanthropic streak in the two brothers.
Many of those movies were wonderful, as misanthropy can be. But True Grit is wonderful in a whole new way for the Coen Bros. It shows that they are capable of admiration for and generosity of spirit toward the human animal, and more important, it succeeds in taking the audience on a journey into these feelings, too. It looks like a new chapter in the growth of these great and still relatively young (53 and 56) filmmakers.
In fact, the movie is essentially a remake of last year’s Clooney film Up in the Air. Both films feature a protagonist who is a traveling assassin for hire. (In Up in the Air, the assassinations are metaphorical, since Clooney plays a corporate ax man, but that’s a minor difference. Whether he’s delivering a bullet to the brain or a severance package combined with outplacement counseling, the effect is the same.) In both films, he’s a man without a soul who comes to realize the price he’s paid for the piece of him that’s missing. In both films, the suspense revolves around whether he’ll find that missing piece of himself before it’s too late.
Up in the Air was a comedy. The American is a quiet, brooding, melancholy, contemplative tragedy. Both movies are among the best films to come out in their respective years.
Watching Inception, I began to realize what director Christopher Nolan was up to. On a narrative level the movie is about a character who can enter the subconscious dream state of another in order to determine its direction; he goes in there with a team who, in sharing the mission, share in the manipulation of the subject’s dream. Isn’t that exactly what movies do? For two hours in the dark we enter a dream state with the other members of the audience, a dream state we have collectively, willingly allowed the moviemaker to direct (in all senses of the word) for us.
This dawned on me when I realized that Inception’s action set pieces—while unquestionably cool and going beyond what we’ve seen in movies before—are basically not different at their core from what we have seen in other action and disaster films, and even musicals. (One of the set pieces is an homage to, and was filmed in much the same way as, Fred Astaire dancing on the walls and the ceiling in Royal Wedding.) That is to say, they are different, but not qualitatively different; and the realization to which that leads you inescapably is that every action movie, indeed practically every movie, contains sequences that simply never will happen and could not happen in our daily lives, yet which we experience as real for the duration of the movie. Only dreams are comparable. In fact, the state in which a movie puts the mind may be indistinguishable, psychologically and physiologically, from the unconscious dream state. It’s said that Hollywood is a dream factory, but usually when we hear this we think of “dream” in terms of “hopes and fantasies”; we don’t realize the statement is literally true. Even the most prosaic romantic comedy contains moments that cannot happen, yet which feel as real to us while they are happening as dreams do–they are events the likes of which the audience will experience nowhere else but the dreams it dreams in the middle of the night.
I think Nolan wants us to become conscious of this. He wants his action sequences to echo, in their slightly crazier way, action sequences we’ve seen in other movies, because he wants us to wake up to the fact that when we saw those movies we were dreaming then, too. None of us will ever dangle from a helicopter over an erupting volcano, nor will we ever know anyone else who has, nor will we ever know anyone else who knows anyone else who has, yet while we’re in the action movie, we give our tacit assent to the reality of the scene with a silent “yeah, that could happen.” The Leonardo DiCaprio character in Inception, who enters and shapes other people’s dreams, is a proxy for Nolan, and for every movie director; and the members of DiCaprio’s SWAT-like crew who go into the dreams with him are proxies for the writers, actors, cameramen, editors, composers and all the other artists who expand and compress time for us at will, and direct us to places we will never go except in dreams, and the dreams we agree to call movies.
Film historian Rudy Behlmer has done it again—made an invaluable addition to our behind-the-scenes knowledge of important movies, as he did with books like Memo from David O. Selznick, Memo from Darryl F. Zanuck, Inside Warner Bros., Behind the Scenes, and others. (And as he has done in many a DVD commentary and LP/CD booklet.)
The difference is that this time he has done it with a book that is destined to fly below the radar even of the most dedicated film buffs, who would glom onto it if only they knew of it.
Shoot the Rehearsal!: Behind the Scenes with Assistant Director Reggie Callow is based on interviews Behlmer conducted in the early seventies. Callow was the A.D. on 74 films starting in 1930, and they included some of the most important ones in film history: Hell’s Angels, Gone With the Wind, Rebecca, Julius Caesar, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, the remake of Mutiny on the Bounty, and The Sound of Music, just to scratch the surface. Assistant directors are uncelebrated; generally, only others in the business know their names. But they are party to or witness to nearly every decision that gets made on a film (they work out the logistics of a shoot and wrangle the cast and crew moment-to-moment to make sure the director’s bidding gets done), and sometimes they may take over the director’s function for parts of a film. In terms of the “name value” they possess that can help sell a book, a fair estimate might be nil. But in terms of the stories they have to share, they can be a treasure trove.
You have to know the right questions to ask, of course, and with his incomparable grounding in the history of classic film, Behlmer was the ideal interviewer. Callow lived about fifteen minutes away from him, and after an introduction by a mutual acquaintance brought them together, Behlmer would pop over and get Callow talking. For this book, Behlmer has edited the transcripts of those conversations into a compelling read from start to finish. You may think you’ll be tempted to skip around the book, looking for the “good parts” about the films, directors and stars that happen to be your favorites, but the book is so well-constructed that starting on page one and reading it in order is a compelling experience. If only Callow had worked on 150 films instead of a mere 74, the book would be twice as long and still a page-turner.
Leonard Maltin, on his Movie Crazy blog, has written an informative, enthusiastic, and thoroughly deserved appreciation of the book.
Now for a bit of bad news followed by a bit of better news. The book is expensive. The publisher, Scarecrow Press, envisions that the primary customers of the book will be libraries (they are not entirely wrong, as posterity will value this work), and has priced it at $50. However…Amazon is selling it for 28% off, or $36. That is still pricey for a 168-page paperback, but if you are into movie history, you will discover that the book brings you pleasure and learning worth multiples of that.
Toy Story 3 is the best movie ever made.
As you might expect of a good documentary, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work connects you with its subject on a human level, exposes her vulnerabilities, gives you insight into what drives her. But it also does something that may be even more important than that. It makes you laugh your ass off.
A realization begins to take hold as we follow Rivers through a year of her life, and see archival material of television appearances going back to her beginnings: Joan Rivers is one of the great wits of our time. Dorothy Parker wrote poems, stories and criticism for Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, and delivered bon mots to Robert Benchley and Alexander Woollcott at the Algonquin Round Table, while Joan Rivers works on nightclub stages and television talk shows; Dorothy Parker was constrained (in her work at least) to be more lady-like while Joan Rivers lives in a time that requires her to be more frankly ribald; but they have more in common than separates them. In the film there’s a clip from a television appearance with Johnny Carson in which Joan, by way of unacknowledged homage, updates Parker’s famous “men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses” in a way that’s every bit as true, as epigrammatic, and as concentratedly witty. I won’t spoil the line for you (one of this film’s great pleasures is rediscovering Rivers’ ability to craft observations that have the power to level you in an economical eleven or twelve words), but suffice it to say that Carson is so surprised by it that he has to jerk back and turn away from Rivers and the audience so as not to lose control of himself.
Barnard-educated, this smart Jewish girl (Parker, incidentally, was half-Jewish, and more covertly) has been delighting our minds for almost fifty years now. Some of the laughs in Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work come from lines that Joan delivers in the public appearances the film documents, but many are from remarks she tosses off as we follow her through her days. (She’s always working, even when she’s not. One of the inspiring messages of the film is that “always working” is as good a prescription for happiness as any of us is likely to find.) Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work has the potential to cause a general re-appreciation of Joan Rivers, an awareness that she is not just a comic but a wit who is the rightful heir to Parker in her mining of the territory of loneliness, possessed of a comparable talent and deserving of the same respect from the culture. I suspect that Rivers knows this and that it’s one reason she agreed to let the filmmakers in her life. The bottom line is that as emotionally connected to Joan Rivers as this documentary made me feel (and it did), I laughed out loud during it more than at any comedy I’ve seen at the movies in the last five years. I was not alone.
It turns out that the answer to the question, “Do I really need to see Casablanca and Sunset Boulevard again?” is “Yes.”
This is my conclusion from having attended the TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood last week. In four days of films in four theaters (including the festival’s flagship, Grauman’s Chinese) — preceded or followed by talks by the stars, filmmakers, and film historians — I discovered new meanings in films I’d seen hundreds (if not thousands) of times before.
I discovered that when you see these films on the big screen, with excellent projection and sound, you pick up on visual and auditory details that deepen your understanding of what the films are about. The bits of atmosphere in the background and the small gestures and the muttered remarks of the minor characters that always escaped your attention before — because of seeing and hearing them now, you are at a deeper level of immersion in the film’s world, and this turns out to hold the keys to surprising epiphanies. I know, I know, I wouldn’t have believed it myself. That’s why it’s surprising.
Then, too, nothing focuses your mind on a movie like sitting in an audience of several hundred fellow film fans all paying as close attention as you. In live theater, we know that the audience, in the quality of its attention, writes the play as much as the dramatist and the actors on the stage; the give-and-take of mental and emotional energy may even result in the actors discovering things about the material they didn’t know. A change in the actors’ performances won’t happen in a film, but the collective energy in a movie house can have a potent impact on each audience member. It’s like the power of religious ritual and collective prayer. If I believe in God, I can reach out to Him (if I so choose) while walking to the corner to pick up my dry-cleaning, but my most deeply religious experiences are likely to occur in the presence of ritual and several hundred of my fellow congregants. It’s why organized religion still exists, in the face of centuries of complaints about its “meaninglessness.”
Also deepening the experience of films at the TCM Fest were the chats before and after by the surviving stars and filmmakers. When I was a boy, and walked out of the Crest Theater in Baltimore with my knees shaking after North by Northwest, what would I have made of the knowledge that one day I’d be in the presence of Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) and evil henchman Leonard (Martin Landau), telling me anecdotes about the making of the film before a screening of it? My mind would have been blown. Well, it was. The sheer pinch-me-osity of it made me look at the film with new intensity. The same with the interview with “Betsy Schaefer” (Nancy Olson) before a screening of Sunset Boulevard. The same with the interview with Mel Brooks before The Producers, and with the interview with Jean Paul Belmondo before Breathless.
On the last night of the festival, at a screening of a newly-restored Metropolis, when Robert Osborne announced that the decision had been made by the TCM powers-that-be to put on the festival again next year, a cheer went up from the 1100 sitting in Grauman’s.
You know those “what was I thinking?” moments we all have? (I have them all the time; I assume I’m not alone.) I had them repeatedly during the four days of the festival, when I asked myself, “What was I thinking when I thought I didn’t really need to get a better camera to take with me on this trip?” Alas, I had the camera I had. But I’ll show you some of my snapshots.
At a screening by the pool of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel of the Esther Williams movie Neptune’s Daughter, Esther Williams shared anecdotes, along with co-star Betty Garrett. In between the Q&A and the showing of the film, a group of young synchronized swimmers called The Aqualillies performed for Esther, Betty and us. Through serendipity, my friend and I were positioned directly across the short dimension of the pool from the classic movie musical stars. In the photo at the top of this post, Esther is the poolside figure at the center of the frame in red; Betty Garrett, her face in shadow but her hair a white halo, can be seen to your left.
The next morning, Mel Brooks received his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Carl Reiner was part of the tribute. Mel asked, “Carl, did you have garlic for breakfast this morning? Folks, I don’t know what it is, but this man has been my friend for sixty years, and he always smells like garlic.” At the screening of The Producers in the afternoon, Mel told a story about the backer of the film, Joseph E. Levine, and how he offered Mel $50,000 to fire Gene Wilder after he viewed the first dailies. Mel solved it by telling Levine he’d fire Wilder for $60,000, knowing Levine wouldn’t go higher than his original offer. (When the film was finished and started to receive good reviews, Levine decided Wilder had something, after all.)
You’ll have to take my word for it that this is a picture of Eva Marie Saint and Martin Landau being interviewed before the North by Northwest screening by Robert Osborne. Landau said it was his idea to play his character as gay, to give it some dimension beyond “evil henchman.” In response to the performance taking shape before the cameras, screenwriter Ernest Lehman added a line of dialogue for him to help make this explicit, “Just call it my woman’s intuition.”
You’ll have to trust me on this one also, but this is Tab Hunter being interviewed by Ben Mankiewicz (grandson of Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz) after a screening of the musical Damn Yankees. Gwen Verdon in the film is a force of nature, but I was surprised how not-bad Tab was. At the time, he didn’t get a heck of a lot of respect, but looking at his performance in the film now, it’s pretty much exactly what it needs to be. I’d go so far as to call it unimprovable. I hadn’t seen the film from beginning to end on a big screen since the year it came out, 1958.
The saboteur who hung by a thread from the Statue of Liberty in Hitchcock’s 1942 Saboteur was played by Norman Lloyd. (You may also know him from the television show St. Elsewhere.) Here, turning 96 in November (my God!) and robust and sharp as the day he was 70, is Lloyd being interviewed after a showing of the film by Leonard Maltin. Lloyd worked for Hitchcock again in the fifties, producing and directing many episodes of Hitch’s television show, so he had some good Hitchcock observations to share.
At the closing party after Metropolis, TCM host extraordinaire Robert Osborne pressed the flesh. TCM programming head Charlie Tabesh can be seen just behind Osborne and slightly to your right:
Those of you who watch TCM know that the channel projects, for our age, unusual intelligence and competence in its presentation of classic film. The TCM Classic Film Festival was the spirit of TCM made manifest. I’ll be back.
Greenberg is a comedy about depression that dares, in fact, to be depressing. Why would you go see it? Among many other reasons, for the best final line of dialogue in a movie since Joe E. Brown said “Nobody’s perfect” in Some Like It Hot.
Some movies you just roll the dice on. You buy your ticket more-than-half-expecting the movie to disappoint you, but the faint pilot light of hope flickers just bravely enough to get you into the theater. Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island is one of those movies.
The long (two-hour-twenty-minute) running time of the movie is not promising. Most of the reviews from the respectable critics have not been promising. The fact that Leonardo DiCaprio has been unconvincing in a whole slew of movie roles (including in Scorsese’s films) is not promising. Yet Scorsese has hit it out of the park just often enough that you think he might do it again. It’s been a while, but he still might have it in him. So you attend this tale of two federal marshals dispatched in 1954 to Shutter Island (in the middle of Boston Harbor) to investigate the disappearance from an asylum for the criminally insane of one of the patients housed there.
In fact, for much of Shutter Island‘s first half, thoughts about Scorsese’s having lost his touch several films ago are never far away. All I can tell you without spoiling the movie is that it goes somewhere you don’t expect it to go, and when it does, you get what this intense exploration of mental illness has been about; every previous image in the film changes from dismissible to indelible. You walk out of the theater with a feeling of compassion mixed with terror, a sense that sanity/insanity is a cliff’s edge we all stand on, and the feeling stays with you.
A shutter on a window keeps light out. But a shutter on a camera lets light in. Shutter Island is Scorsese’s island, the insular turf he singularly occupies in today’s film world by his determined use of his camera to expose the interiors of the human mind. The movie has power. Scorsese has done it again.