Thursday, April 28, 2016

Never Saw It Coming

Even the greatest of television shows give us too much information -- sound and visual; and certainly story. Strange, considering we do not require background for most characters going in. The locations are normally familiar to us. So is what might be called the "moral architecture" of the show: we grasp in terms of style and meaning where it will go, and where it will not. The best episodes in the best series, usually by miracle, seem to contain these presumptions almost as distraction, using them to deepen and complicate the mysteries already at the heart of the matter.

For the first 20 minutes of its 48-minute length, "Counter Gambit" (an episode of The Rockford Files from the middle of its initial season) gives us nothing but false information. Two ex-cons with sudden new freedom hire private investigator (and ex-con) Jim Rockford to find a missing girl and her $250,000 of missing pearls. They expect Rockford to locate the girl, soften her up, get the lay of her apartment, then grab the loot. The only question seems to be whether the P.I. will return honor among thieves, or turn the necklace over to the cops.

Not exactly. The story begins way past middle and only after wrap-up can we understand what's really happened. "Counter Gambit" -- originally premiering for NBC on January 24, 1975, written by Howard Berk and Juanita Bartlett, directed by the fine actor Jackie Cooper -- is one of the great con episodes in TV history. Secretly dense and complicated, it feels like it was set up by the Rockford crew that week in about six seconds, the story was shot out of the trees, and no one ever saw it coming. It is perfect.

So many nice turns. Ford Raines as Manny Tolan. The wonderful Noah Berry Jr. twice briefly. M. Emmet Walsh as a particularly sweaty "insurance investigator." Garner throughout. Mary Frann luscious and seven years away from becoming Newhart's Joanna Loudon. And Stuart Margolin's first meaningful appearance as Angel Martin. (Margolin had directed a previous Rockford episode.) Not yet the corrupt and sniveling Angel we all know, "Counter Gambit"'s Angel is more endearing and smarter. (The scene inside the 1970s porn house is one of the funniest in the series.)

Eddie Fontaine steals it as Moss Williams.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Killjoy


I've bled Laker Purple-and-Gold since before they traded for Shaquille O'Neal, since before they drafted Magic Johnson, since before they traded for Kareem Abdul-Jabber, since Jerry West was the head coach and not the general manager. And I know I say this for all true members of Laker Nation: good friggin' riddance to Kobe Bean Bryant. Just as Kobe Bean -- the Almighty One -- hung a "good riddance" sign on the backs of Shaquille, Phil Jackson, Glen Rice, Rudy T, Pau Gasol, Steve Nash, Dwight Howard, Robert Horry, Karl Malone, Gary Payton, Horace Grant, Andrew Bynum, Trevor Ariza, Jordan Hill, Josh McRoberts, Jodie Meeks, Ed Davis and Jeremy Lin as he shoved them all out the door. (Not to mention all the great and good free agents who would never consider playing in L.A. if it meant sharing the same space as Bryant.) He was a tight-ass, a bore, and he sucked all the joy from what was the most joyous franchise in American sports history.

Now let's open the windows.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Blood-dimmed Tide


First, the New York Times article.

                                             + + + +

And Joseph Kishore.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Ode to Joy


Do you know the game Smoke? It's sort of a Twenty Questions only with no limit to the questions and with more verve and flavor. There's one: If Grace Kelly were a flavor, which flavor would she be? (The taste of an over-ripe pear?) If JFK were a car, which one? If Obama a city? (Gotta be someplace bland, smug, predictable, middle-brow, and entirely safe. Portland. No wonder Robert Kennedy lost Oregon.) If Oliver Hardy were a building? The Chrysler Building a person? Cary Grant a drink? (The 50s Cary Grant. The screwball Grant?) The movie Vertigo a flower? A wonderful game. It brings you closer to the heart of the answer and of the question.

Here's an easy one. If my daughter Saya were a movie. . . .

*

Bringing Up Baby (1938) is silly, sweet, smart, stylish, serious, and interested in only one thing: having fun from dawn 'til dawn. As the song says, the picture can't give you anything but love (baby). Dr. David Huxley (Cary Grant) takes all things very seriously within his very narrow world, a world within which he can barely move without falling down or speak without stammering. Over the course of a miraculous day-and-night, Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn) steals his golf ball, steals his car, rips his tail coat, nearly causes him to be mauled by a leopard, steals another car with David as accomplice, knocks a chicken truck off the road also with David as accomplice, steals his clothes, gets him arrested, and loses his Intercostal Clavicle (plus a million-dollar grant and the fiancée that came with it). By the end of the night, David wouldn't have it any other way. . .

As in all the best works of Howard Hawks -- The Big Sleep, Only Angels Have Wings, His Girl Friday, To Have and Have Not, Rio Bravo, El Dorado, Scarface, Twentieth Century, Red River, Monkey Business, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Man's Favorite Sport? -- the atmosphere thrown around us is the atmosphere in which life and death are equal, the movement is the movement that speeds on its way beyond good and evil, toward elation and transcendence.

Happiness and, I guess, all those things you've always pined for. . . .

Monday, April 18, 2016

Fear

Perhaps the most renowned and surely one of the funniest episodes of The Bob Newhart Show:  "Death Be My Destiny" from February '77.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Starlight


An hour into They Drive by Night (1940), we begin to wonder what could be distracting director Raoul Walsh ~ from his material and from his players. This classic prole story of two trucker brothers trying to survive has much more power and guts in Archie Mayo's 1935 Bordertown. (Then again, prole-wise, 1940 wasn't 1935. . .) Humphrey Bogart as the younger brother and the great Ann Sheridan are both handled as filler. George Raft is allowed to be George Raft. The background characters go through the motions, with the only standout being the lovely and dark Gale Page.

Then Lupino arrives. She plays the dissatisfied wife of a trucking tycoon (Alan Hale) and has the hots for George Raft (!). For the last third of the movie, Walsh just stays out of her way.



Ida Lupino was born in London in 1918 to a comedian father and stage actress mother. After a handful of ingénue roles in British films, she was brought to Hollywood at the age of 16. Mostly decor for a couple dozen pictures throughout the 1930s, she began to breakthrough as the decade turned.

High Sierra (1941) was Humphrey Bogart's breakthrough, yet the film isn't much, with director Raoul Walsh again undershooting the target. While uniquely fierce and frightening throughout, we never get the sense of what Bogart's greatness would be born of: his overwhelming intelligence. The Maltese Falcon is also from '41, To Have and Have Not three years later, The Big Sleep two years after that. High Sierra has none of the playfulness, relaxation, control or wit of that Bogart. His obsession here with the lame (in all ways) Joan Leslie seems ridiculous, a mere device, as if our Bogart could possibly be crushed by this girl. And just as Bogart and Ann Sheridan are tossed aside in They Drive By Night, so here are the very young Arthur Kennedy and Cornel Wilde. (Far more attention is given to "Pard," an obnoxious mutt.) Even with top billing, Lupino herself is underused. She's still the best thing in the movie, trying to open up new doors and directions along the way, doors Walsh this time keeps shut.



The Man I Love (1947) is Walsh again. And great. And Ida Lupino, fully born.

Musicians and singers musically quote and pay tribute to other musicians we never see on screen, a regular daily occurrence but one rarely glimpsed in movies. The cadre we meet at the working-class Long Beach apartment house is so connected, the relationships so well done and dazzling, it takes us awhile to understand who is related to whom, who is dating or married to whom: three sisters and two brothers, a brother-in-law and sister-in-law, twin infants and a little boy with a perpetual black-eye. There's a heavy: a nightclub owner played by the cartoonish Robert Alda who trips over himself throughout in pursuit of Lupino, the eldest sister.

This is noir? Indeed, in a world of its own. Cinematographer Sid Hickox puts the Renoir material inside a diamond while Walsh uses the loveliest torch music of the time. All the women, those whose names we get and those we don't, are 10s -- some of them drifting over from the Hawks set: The Big Sleep's little poison Martha Vickers here playing a different kind of baby sister; the bemused yet loyal (and eventually fainting) wife of the Resistance hero from To Have and Have Not Dolores Moran, as the wayward sister-in-law. At one moment, we swear one of the nightclub chorus beauties will let her lovely small breasts fall from her top (49:00). In The Man I Love, no one is shot, beaten up, or imprisoned; no money or jewels are stolen. When the movie dips into straight noir, Walsh immediately (and beautifully) restores his tone with the return of a sister's shell-shocked husband. And Lupino is the ballast: the future director holds the movie in the palms of her hands, causing it to flow from her complex ardency. We believe in the three sisters, in John Lund as the tortured ex-pianist, in his playing, in Lupino's adoration of him.

In the years since High Sierra, Lupino's power and confidence have exploded. She is the magnet pulling Walsh fully into the material, leading him -- as did Cagney -- toward the seething (yet less unique) White Heat of two years later. There is no distraction or lack of attention here by Walsh, no undershooting the target.

(Overshooting, of course, can be worse. Much worse. The Man I Love is the "source material" for New York, New York (1977). Familiarity with both can lead to amazement at just how much Martin "Reichsmarschall of Our Collective Movie Past" Scorsese flat-out stole from the immensely superior earlier work: Alda's character "fleshed-out" for De Niro, the jam sessions, Lupino interrupting a set to sing a number, the way the title song itself is handled, even the damn titles and end-credits. And the thievery is less in homage than an excuse to stick his ever-present directorial finger into everyone's eyeball -- perfectly matched in NY, NY with star Liza Minnelli, another coked-out attention-eater.)

The Lupino/Walsh film is one of the most beautiful works of the post-war period, endlessly re-seeable. There are flaws. The ending is rather conventional. Lupino turning on Lund in the wake of his sorrowful confession is a false note. Worse is Walsh's direction of her lip-synching and the bad choice of original singer (Peg La Centra).

A problem Lupino would not have in Road House. . .



In Road House, she gives us the best voice (and look?) of the American late-40s. Her sound is described in the movie, by Celeste Holm, as great "If you like the sound of gravel" and "She does more without a voice than anybody I've ever heard." Here, Ida Lupino uses her own voice -- not to sing exactly, more a heightened form of her daily conversation set to music. Yet her versions of "Again" and "One for My Baby" are among the best ever recorded.

Lily Stevens (Lupino) is The Man I Love's Petey Brown sans family and friends. When she arrives at the nightclub / bowling alley called Jefty's -- named after the owner -- she enters a world made from the most likable group of people one can find, so detailed and grounded by director Jean Negulesco (for Road House's first-half) it is impossible not to long to be part of it. In particular the relationship between friends and partners Cornel Wilde (coming a long way from High Sierra's poop-a-doop stooly) and the young Richard Widmark as Jefty. We enter their world without explanation or background and believe in it immediately. Both men love Lily, who becomes a complete distraction from what had mattered most at Jefty's: bowling leagues with team names like the Pin Crushers and the 7-10 Splitters. In spite of the extreme style of Lupino's look and performance, from The Man I Love to Road House we move from major to minor key. The movie is very relaxed, and after years of struggle and loneliness, one could not find a better place to land than Jefty's.

For the first-half. Then the atmosphere is lost, and the story takes over, a story small and thin: two friends -- one rich, one working-class -- love the same girl. She doesn't choose the rich man so he uses his powers to frame his ex-friend for theft. Pushed aside is Lupino's singing (and her way of sounding half-exasperated/half-humored at the end of her sentences). Wilde becomes a mere hunk. The four main characters -- including the wonderful Celeste Holme as the spunky gal who gets no attention from men (!) -- begin to move through their paces in wholly expected ways. The biggest loss is the awesome Widmark: the subtle and extremely likable man of the first-half devolves into a cackling maniac. And we never see Jefty's again.

Still -- that first half. One could use it and all The Man I Love (and so much else from the late-1940s) to argue that here is where movies peaked, as popular art. And that once it fully flowered, should have been put to rest. The movies' post-Romantic period was not the end-of-the-20th Century. It was the 1950s. Ever since, we have been picking the bones.



On Dangerous Ground (1952) is Nicholas Ray at his most tender. L.A. police detective Robert Ryan is punished for excessive brutality by being sent to the snows of mountainous California. His assignment is to help capture a disturbed young man accused of murder. The detective meets the fugitive's sister, a blind girl played by Lupino. She knows she must give up her brother. Can she trust the detective? The fearsome (and fearful) Ryan warms and comforts himself in the beautiful light of her nature.



Ida Lupino's first chance to direct came as a result of tragedy. In 1949 she and her then husband Collier Young formed a production company called "The Filmmakers." Not Wanted -- a movie about a working-class girl forced to give up her out-of-wedlock baby -- was the company's opening project and when director Elmer Clifton suffered a major heart attack on set (he would die soon after), co-producer/writer Lupino took over. It would be the first of what wags of the time (and since) would dismiss as her string of "issue pictures for women": Not Wanted (1949) (out-of-wedlock pregnancies); Never Fear (1949) (polio victims); Outrage (1950) (rape); Hard, Fast and Beautiful (1951) (stage mothers); The Bigamist (1953) (adoption). Not so, for each film is highly individual and goes beyond any theme or category. (They would never be considered for Lifetime or Hallmark.) Each can be uniquely felt as a Lupino experience: take the measure of everything and still give your cheer because you are there; be fiercely independent, but only if it leads toward communion. The Bigamist would be the penultimate feature she would be allowed to direct. (The Trouble with Angels, 13 years later, would be the last.) 1953's The Hitch-Hiker is her lone non-"woman's picture" and her masterpiece.

There is no story, no arc. Just 70 minutes of William Tallman holding a gun on Edmond O'Brien and Frank Lovejoy. Lupino's atmosphere is a moonscape, by day and by night. For a good part of the film we are inside O'Brien's beat-up '51 Plymouth, and when it ends the three main characters return to where they were before it began: the hitch-hiker to jail, the two kidnapped husbands to their jobs and families. Everything is stripped to essentials. One could mistake the film for some meta-noir con job by the likes of Jim Jarmusch or the Coen Boys©.

It is the opposite. Lupino as director and co-writer believes so strongly and sincerely in the material and genre she goes straight to the heart of the matter. No layers of interpretation or camp, no audience winks. She directs as if there is no audience -- completely in service to the story and the actors before her. The director as bride.



Two years later, Lupino again directed William Tallman for a segment of Screen Directors Playhouse: a lovely noir in which Tallman, and the story, beat to the rhythm of Teresa Wright's heart. (And a very funny Peter Lorre.)



The Big Knife is the minor half of Robert Aldrich's 1955 film blanc set. (Kiss Me Deadly being the decidedly major half.) It is one of the most important American movies of the middle-50s -- and a corrupt failure. (Because it is a corrupt failure.) Both director Aldrich and Ida Lupino (playing the separated stay-at-home wife of a major Hollywood star) wind up buried beneath the concrete of Clifford Odets's gutless psychobabbling avoidance of the Blacklist, the takeover of Hollywood by Eisenhower's national security state, and the gigantism caused by television culture.

The magnificent Jack Palance isn't buried at all. In one of the most passionate performances of the post-classical period, he plays Charlie Castle (née Cass) -- ex-prizefighter, ex-New York theater bum, ex-1930s radical (typically reduced by Odets to support for the New Deal/Fair Deal. Yeah, right) -- a movie star under the boot of studio head Stanley Hoff. As performed by Rod Steiger, Hoff is the third Dulles brother, or perhaps a sort of Ariel Sharon in dark glasses (or is it the other way 'round?): a fascist gargoyle part of nothing but his own power and conspiracies. (Carried out by Wendell Corey as the ultimate fixer.)

The movie is at war with itself, with Aldrich and Lupino, and Corey and Everett Sloane against the Method-Trumpeting of everyone else. The trumpets win out. At one point, Lupino hectors Palance -- whose performance is above the war -- about Stanley Hoff not being one of those filmmakers with guts and integrity like "Stevens, Mankiewicz, Huston, Kramer, Wyler, Wilder, and Kazan." Kazan! This in a movie about standing up to power and being true to your friends. Aldrich and Lupino must have thrown up afterwards.

The director tries his best. The story is almost entirely placed in Charlie Castle's livingroom -- and there we can see Aldrich as the anti-Dreyer. Where Carl Dreyer stripped all sets to their spiritual essentials, Aldrich drapes them with as much contemporary decoration and sound as he can, pinning the work to its time. Echt 1955.

In the Odets straight-jacket, all the women are wasted. Lupino is dulled-out. The magical Jean Hagen is thrown away. And Shelley Winters seems to be playing Rod Steiger's twin sister. Yet there is Aldrich's design. And the heroic Palance. In material better left to finks like Odets and Elia Kazan.



The best western series of all time: eight HGWT episodes directed by Lupino. This one was the first, and was the first American western story -- movies or TV -- directed by a woman. Much like Hitch-Hiker's Baja hills and deserts, here atmosphere is everything -- as our Knight (Richard Boone) tries to separate the innocent from the guilty. "The Man Who Lost" from April 1959.



Also that year, she appeared as an aging star in episode 4 of the new Twilight Zone. Trivially tarnished, per usual, by Rod Serling's narration ("struck down by hit-and-run years and lying on the pavement, trying desperately to get the license number of fleeting fame" -- no joke!), Lupino brings devotion and commitment to the overall silliness, Martin Balsam is very good as her agent -- and the story is directed by Mitchell Leisen! In 1959, American film was already mourning its own death.



Here, Lupino's camera is very close. The Fugitive was born during Assassination Autumn, and no other American television series has ever been as drenched in sorrow and loss. This episode, called "Fatso," would premiere three days before Dallas. A broken family, on a Kentucky horse farm. Two brothers who hate. The story's healing is Lupino's, and Janssen's. The star's warmth and honor (and melancholy) is fully embraced by the director. (And by Glenda Farrell as the mother.)



Even with all of Pauline Kael's orgasms, Sam Peckinpah remains the greatest American filmmaker of his generation. (And has any major U.S. critic dated more than Miss Cruet?) Much like Nick Ray and Takeshi Kitano, Peckinpah is a deep mixture of tenderness and extreme violence -- and like Ray and Kitano, both extremes are in service to honor, dignity, and comradeship. Junior Bonner (1972) -- one of the great movies of the Kael era -- occupies a middle ground. All of Peckinpah's form here (and does anyone have greater range?) is an attempt to embrace and express a single consciousness: Steve McQueen's as Junior. The trance rhythms caused by exhaustion and confusion; the stillness and longueurs caused by separation; the terror of what may lie just ahead, and the occasional hatred felt by a busted older brother for a younger, more "successful" one (the editing, sound, speed and size changes of the brother's [Joe Don Baker's] demolition of Ace Bonner's [Robert Preston's] home, seen in a movie theater, is one of the most frightening sequences in all movies); what Junior loves and notices; what he turns away from; and most beautifully, his overall acceptance of the way things are: Peckinpah's form gives us all of this. The middle ground is Bonner and his people, the rodeo horses and clowns, the spectators, the bar fighters and musicians, Barbara Leigh as the hottest girl who ever lived, the trailers and gusto with which folks enjoy their food. (Has biscuits and gravy ever seemed so delicious?)

Lupino, as Junior's mom, is heartbreaking. The director uses our memories of her past beauty, slenderness and style to deepen her son's acceptance. For she is very beautiful here: the beauty of fresh coloring, smooth complexion, well-ordered features is commonplace. Here Lupino is lit up, by turns, with love, and grief, and a ravage of sorrow -- a woman for whom life is real only through feeling.

From the heart of McQueen's consciousness, everyone is lit up this way. Preston as the father, Ben Johnson as a rodeo tycoon, Bill McKinney as "Red," Junior's main rival, even Baker as Curly. And the good people of Prescott, Arizona -- who went about their lives as Peckinpah created this great humanist work.



Ida Lupino infused all she did with her life. Performing or directing, she seems to always have her fingers on the strings of her heart, and of ours. Her glow is that of a woman who has suppressed her soul in a kind of mechanical despair, doing her duty and enduring all the rest. The look of her eyes and the sound of her voice feels as if she has torn free some promise of her soul and has paid for it ten times over in ransom. Yet there is always that music around her, enticing her soul from its bondage, a promise that it may break free altogether, to have at last a brief time purely for its own joy. And ours.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Golden Nichols

Herbie passed 53 years ago today, at 44 of leukemia, unmourned and unremembered. He died very much alone, foretold in his music.

Two of his greatest, of many.

"Double Exposure"



"Cro-Magnon Nights"

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Yes, He Will



Monday, April 4, 2016

Girl II

What a wonderful word. Defamed and discarded along the road toward the Corporatist takeover of feminism, then restored to mean quite the opposite of its original sense (girlzzzz = skanks with Attitude), it embodies a nature yielding, but only toward for what it yearns. Modest and proud; somewhat lost and incomplete. Warm; earnest; open. Seeing the glass as half-full rather than half-empty. Wondrous. Kind. Fetching. And a warrior.

My 11-year-old is a classic in the making; yet is it possible for a youth to pass through the Valley of Lena DumbHam and Kathryn Pigelow and Killary without being punked? Here's a classic: the young Elinor Donahue in a funny, moving and very lovely episode of FKB, "Betty Hates Carter" from Christmas Week 1955. (That's Robert Easton as the goofy and very lucky object of affection.)

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Girl

Please let it stop snowing.

Stan Getz and the Gilbertos 50-plus years on. . . .

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Can You

"Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" wonder Dave Brubeck, Paul Desmond, Bob Bates, and Joe Dodge.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Vinyl

WKRP in Cincinnati (1978 - 82) has been lost to us. A late-60s spirit fighting the crest of pre-Reaganism, the show premiered only weeks after the California passage of Proposition 13 -- the tolling bell of our Big Dark to come (a Big Dark now lasting almost 40 years). Reagan would, literally, kill it. Episodes considered outrageous by members of The Administration caused complaints to be made personally to the always whorish Bill Paley. CBS immediately gave WKRP's skulduggery the ax.

And CBS is still giving it the ax. The first season DVD release was beheaded: "Music rights are too expensive" say the Viacom Vampires, especially for a politically progressive series set inside a small rock-and-roll radio station. Most songs were eliminated or replaced by synthesizer versions. Because of a fan boycott, there have been, and will be, no more releases. Good for the fans.

The Reaganistas went particularly bananas over "Who is Gordon Sims?" -- featuring the great Tim Reid. (Reid's strangled-in-its-crib masterpiece Frank's Place [1987 - 88] has also been disappeared due to "music clearance" issues.) Through the looking-glass: "Who is Gordon Sims?" is a peek into a moment when one could get and keep a job without feeling like the FBI was closing in.

(Due to some fine people on the internet, the episode is restored, complete, with original sound and songs.)

Friday, March 25, 2016

Life

The greatest ending to a 20th-Century movie, the most moving, the most profound.

A beloved wife, mother, daughter and sister has died in childbirth. Her surviving younger daughter asks her uncle -- who believes he is Jesus Christ -- to bring her back from the dead. He does, and the mother returns with new, and terrible, understanding.



A brilliant essay by Chris Fujiwara on the Dreyer masterpiece.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Hellection


Vote for Trump?  in the election between a bullet to the head and cancer . . .

William Blum thinks so. So does John Pilger.

Monday, March 21, 2016