Thursday, December 18, 2014

Holy Night

"There is such an amazing tragic stillness about her. She never steps out of it, and she never puts it on. It is always there." -- Douglas Sirk
The most romantic and tender-hearted Christmas movie I know is Mitchell Leisen's Remember the Night (1940), a storybook comfort written by Preston Sturges in his directorial debut year of The Great McGinty and Christmas in July. A jewel thief (Barbara Stanwyck) is arrested days before Christmas and her trial, because of the holiday, is postponed. With nowhere to go and without money, she is taken by her prosecutor (Assistant DA Fred MacMurray) back home to Indiana, where the girl is also from, to spend the holidays with his family and friends. Back in New York after New Year's, both now in love, he tries to throw the trial -- but she pleads guilty to prevent him from hurting his career. In between is an enchantment road movie, with two detours: a meet-up with a vicious farmer and a small-town hanging judge (whose chambers Stanwyck tries to set on fire); and a terrifying "reunion" between daughter and mother. Ultimate destination: hope and transcendence and elation.

Curiously hating what Leisen did with the script, but embracing Stanwyck and promising he would write her a great comedy, Sturges would give us the incomparable Lady Eve in '41. Compared with Eve, the Leisen movie is less smart and less funny (in fact, it isn't a comedy at all), less knowing and brilliant, less artful. Less a work of "genius." For me, however, Remember the Night is the higher and richer work. Perhaps because the culture has turned against what makes the movie great: kindness, forgiveness, redemption, quiet. All of the picture is set in the enthralled emotional key with which The Lady Eve ends; and in the scene where Hopsie (Henry Fonda) declares his love for Stanwyck in the moonlight: "I saw you here and at the same time further away and then still further away and then very small. . ."

Remember the Night (thanks in large part to the great Ted Teztlaff) is all moonlight. And with an ending worthy of Dreyer.

At the movie's center is Stanwyck. Our current screen harridans, like the culture producing them, pimp for toughness and "independence" and smarts. Without a whiff of contradiction allowed. Stanwyck, the real deal, never moves without the light of ambivalence shining through. Her voice -- both flat and expressive, both nasal and husky; not the huskiness of booze, debauchery, or a come-on. But tears, fully wept. The voice of someone cried out. And what the guardians of Personhood don't have: a simple, straightforward sincerity; something immovable and deeply reserved; a tension between experience and innocence. It's what gives her her glow -- the agony of consciousness. Here she dwells in the enchantment. And is alienated from it. Yet there is a promise throughout, especially at the end, that she may break free altogether, to have at last a time purely for her own joy. And ours.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014


Friday, December 12, 2014

Right in the Teeth

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Oh, What a Life It Was!

TimeWarner in partnership with Google (we're definitely heading toward a place where we'll feel perfectly fine saying things like "My baby was born, in partnership with Google" and "I went to the bathroom in partnership with Google" or "I got my girlfriend off last night in partnership with Google" and "My mom was buried yesterday in partnership with Google") --

Where was I? TimeWarner in partnership with Google has released the entire Life Magazine Archive from 1936 - 1972.

Politically, the issues are a Cold War mess, but still. Looking at these covers and words and images (and ads!), one can only ask: "What happened here?"  Where is this vivid, colorful, funny, masculine, confident, feminine, stylish, warm, sexy, youthful, bright, completely self-involved yet still modest nation?

How did we get so old and so stupid so fast?

Sunday, December 7, 2014

This Girl is a. . .

Happy 10th Birthday
to the
Best Daughter in the World!

Friday, December 5, 2014


Thursday, December 4, 2014


Black days have a history as long as the calendar, and attach to many events, but they have one common attribute: reversal, subversion, undermining. In modernity it has attached itself to financial collapse, natural disaster, terrorism, and military defeat. In the Roman calendar, a “black letter day” was one marked with charcoal on the wall calendar, one to be waited out with circumspection. By the time "Black Friday" stuck in the eighties, it had acquired a new meaning that cemented it. It was allegedly the day that retailers finally “went into the black” — made a profit — and shopping thus acquired a civic and patriotic dimension.

In response to duty — to the alleged abandon disguised as duty — Black Friday has developed as the sly alternative. The activity is, by its very nature, as anti-Thanksgiving as you could get. Thanksgiving is, after all, a subject, even an abject celebration, in which one acknowledges submission to the whims of a distant God. Its role is in part to balance out Christmas and the practice of giving to children, in which non-reciprocity is celebrated: the child receives gifts without any expectation of reciprocal action on its part. The child’s role is simply to be. As adults we take our joy from that — Christmas Day without children is worthless and sad.

In that respect, Black Friday has a mutant aspect to it. It has taken the cornucopia effect of Christmas, and applied it to adults. It is, or was, a release from the duty of giving thanks, into a day of infantilized desire. Everything about Black Friday in its high phase acquired a ritual meaning: the drive to the mall, the lining up in the snow, the fist fights, the local news crews there for the fist fights, the rush as the doors opened, the carting away, the staggering under the weight of seventy-inch plasma screens.

The actual utility of the discount goods really functioned as a McGuffin for the activity of acquiring them. What possible improvement in viewing could a seventy-inch plasma screen offer that exceeded the sheer joy of carting it away at a major discount? You enacted the Dinoysian ceremony, but then all the shit stuck around, silting up your house. Black Friday participants, if they had any sense, would buy their goods, leave the store, and dump them straight in waiting garbage cans. They would never feel as good in their adult lives.
Go here for the rest of Guy Randle's very important essay.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Under the Influence

"I dwell in possibility
A fairer house than prose
More numerous of windows
Superior of doors
Of chambers as the cedars
Impregnable of eye"

- Emily Dickinson

An orchestra conductor has murdered his mistress; and has covered his tracks well. But for the loss of a boutonnière. He confesses, into the blue blaze of Blythe Danner's eyes.

Peter Falk and John Cassavetes first worked together on the director's 1970 masterpiece Husbands, beginning a six-year sunburst of collaboration that would include perhaps the greatest American movie of the 1970s, A Woman Under the Influence (1974) (as Love Streams [1984] is perhaps the greatest of the 80s), Elaine May's jaw-dropping Mikey and Nicky (1976), and the three best episodes of the TV series Columbo: "Etude in Black" and "Swan Song" -- directed by Cassavetes under the pseudonym Nicholas Colasanto -- and "A Friend in Deed" -- the best 100 minutes of 1970s American television, with Cassavetes and Elaine May both on set (both Woman Under the Influence and Mikey and Nicky were in post-production / pre-production during the making of the episode), directed by Ben Gazzara.

Gazzara, of course, was the third element of that sunburst, also first working with the director on Husbands -- and beyond. He would be with Cassavetes on Opening Night (1977) and Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976) (another masterpiece). Ben Gazzara was the roué of the trio: the most glamorous, largest, the most "star-like," the warmest and most romantic, the most corrupt and least loyal; and the weakest. If we include Killing of a Chinese Bookie and take a vision of the whole, what Cassavetes has given us (among many other things) is a kaleidoscope of 1970s white American middle-age maleness (strangely ignored by such gruesome mythomaniacs as Tarantino and P.T. Anderson): each man changing and exchanging shapes, colors, roles, names, jobs.

Gazzara's direction of "A Friend in Deed" is very beautiful. As he was a generous-hearted actor, so as director. He balances the overall perfect structure (there's not a false note in the almost 100-minute episode, leading to the astonishing ending, certainly the best of any Columbo) with out-of-story detail and constant memorable moments: the beautiful girl attached to the Commissioner at the backgammon table; Columbo almost burning up the Commissioner’s limousine with his cigar; the detective's first visit to Janice Caldwell’s bedroom, before first fade-out, washed in Kubrickian light and sound, as he instantly recognizes the set-up; the street bar – "place of business" to Cassavetes veterans Val Avery and Eleanor Zee; how ready Columbo's colleagues are to believe anything out of laziness and rote; Artie Jessup’s fence dressed like a drop-out from The Real Don Steele Show; the detective's reaction when told by the coroner what was found in Margaret Halperin's lungs ("Soap, Lieutenant. Soap."); the very funny visitor from Holcombe House, wandering onto the LAPD murder scene; Falk trying to buy a new watch-band from the lovely Arlene Martell; Columbo's handling of the used-car salesman stud, and the salesman's handling of the detective; the strange little bald guy who rushes Jessup as Mark Halperin’s bar set-up begins; Columbo's fear as he tries to stop the Commissioner from destroying himself, by framing Jessup; Val Avery’s look of deep respect toward Falk as the trap is sprung on Halperin.

Gazzara and cinematographer William Cronjager's searching, hand-held, close, constantly moving camera captures an undertone missing from all of Cassavetes's work (and perhaps a major failing): the characters are seen through a class-based lens. For all the oppressions and limitations Cassavetes's lost dreamers struggle against, economic forces and structures are not among them. Here Gazzara makes them felt. Commissioner Mark Halperin, intensely played by Richard Kiley, paves the way for LAPD Reichsmarschall Daryl Gates. Halperin mouths word-for-word what would constantly drip from Gates's mouth: trying to balance protection of LA's gated communities with the "so-called" problems of the inner city; bleating about "junkies and losers and welfare-cheats" as Halperin lies back in his Bel-Air bedroom -- bought and paid for by his wife. (Another indication of Gazzara giving everyone his due: as played by Rosemary Murphy, Margaret Halperin is a pretentious upper-class liberal, lacking any genuine warmth and eminently murderable.) As given to us by Gazzara, the Commissioner is seen as a decadent protector of rot, free-and-happy to: gamble, procure prostitution, break-and-enter, plant false evidence, burgle, blackmail, become an accessory after the fact in murder, and actual murder itself. Gazzara opens, briefly and only at times, the immense -- much more immense today (as everywhere) than in the relatively egalitarian 70s -- class divide of Los Angeles -- a place where the strong are allowed to eat the weak, in particular the weak husband cuckolded over-and-over again by the eventually murdered wife (and then getting away with it because of his position, but for the genius of the main character), where the strong husband cheats over-and-over on the stuffy rich wife, lives off her, and murders her. Gazzara's characters are seen as products and agents of class -- something never felt under Cassavetes.

Also, if Cassavetes seeks to "reimagine representation by situating the individual in a matrix of influences and relationships that he or she is unable to rise above" (in the words of Raymond Carney), is it possible we come closer to that reimagination by placing the matrix within a more classical movie structure? Has Gazzara done that? Can we view the Commissioner as representing Columbo's own matrix, one he is trying to overcome?

No, we can't. And Gazzara does not. While incomparable, Falk does not step out of the role we pretty much have assigned to him before the story begins. And the parameters of 1970s network TV (even in this Year of Watergate) are also not breached. "You just lost your badge, my friend." That is where Falk and Gazzara do not go. Even though “Friend” is great popular art, we are left with the knowledge that it would never happen this way. An LAPD Commissioner bagged for domestic murder by one of his own Lieutenants? Perhaps if the up-front, first-day evidence pointed heavily toward the Commissioner, they must run with it. But the Lieutenant uncovering the truth about his boss through dogged brilliance – when all the initial evidence points toward an easily framed three-time loser? Never happen.

But this would (notice the framed photo of Simone Weil on the fireplace mantel).

And so would this.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Head Shots

Thursday, November 27, 2014

And Thank You, Bob!

Newhart. Thanksgiving Day. Football. Moo goo gai pan. And ties, lapels & collars so wide you could rent space on them. What more do we need?

"Over the River and Through the Woods" from November of '75.

Happy Thanksgiving to all!

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Walter White Knows What To Do

About Ferguson and many many other things. . .

Saturday, November 22, 2014

A Man Died That Day

And a husband. And a father. R.I.P.

As the World Ends

The CBS Network, 51 years ago.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Taking Care

Madison Square Garden, May 20th, 1962. (Was Raymond Shaw waiting in the rafters?)

This magnificent document is just a normal speech on a normal day from a man arguing for a healthy labor movement, social insurance, community health, hospitalization plans, and decent housing.

"To break a union is to break yourself."

(For those who have a problem with the sound and video quality, go watch Obama in HD.)

Our Kennedy

Ordinarily filled with little but Obamoid / Zionist / anti-conspiracy swill, here Maher dishes it straight.