Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Lost Prince

Twenty years ago today, the disappearance of John F. Kennedy Jr. changed the emotional color of New York City almost as much as did 9/11 two years later. And it was another notch on the murder-belt of the American National Security State. At the time of Kennedy's death, he was about to announce his run for the United States Senate (challenging Hillary Clinton) while paralleling an investigation (via his magazine George) into the assassination of his father.

We do not know what would have come from either venture. But we do know it was murder.

Thursday, July 11, 2019


What a life Bulldog had.

Author of the funniest sports book ever (Ball Four), along with four other volumes. Starting Yankees pitcher in three World Series ('62, '63, '64). 1963 All-Star. Starter and reliever for three other ballclubs over a 16-year-career, while becoming one of the great knuckleballers of all-time. George McGovern delegate at the 1972 Democratic Convention. Broadcaster and TV sports anchor. The inventor of the faux-tobacco bubble-gum sensation "Big League Chew." (Making millions of dollars from that.)

And later in life, after the tragic death of his beloved daughter Laurie in 1997, spent much of his time comforting the afflicted.

Perhaps most stunning, Bulldog as Terry Lennox stole the show in Robert Altman's 1973 The Long Goodbye, his first and only movie appearance.

Jim Bouton, RIP.

Monday, July 8, 2019

It Was You, Kazan

"God is not love. God is courage. And love is the reward." -- Norman Mailer

April 1952. Two weeks after the emotionally elephantine Streetcar Named Desire cops four Academy Awards (including Best Actress, Supporting Actress, and Supporting Actor), ex-Red-and-then-Hollywood big shot Elia Kazan, Streetcar's director, testifies before the House Un-American Activities Committee, naming eight former comrades as members of the Worldwide Communist Conspiracy, including Ed Bromberg, Paula Miller, and future snitch Clifford Odets. Eight names already known to HUAC.

Never one to avoid the spotlight, Kazan sends an unrequested letter to the New York Times days after his turning:
I believe that Communist activities confront the people of this country with an unprecedented and exceptionally tough problem. That is, how to protect ourselves from a dangerous and alien conspiracy and still keep the free, open, healthy way of life that gives us self-respect.

I believe that the American people can solve this problem wisely only if they have the facts about Communism. All the facts. Now, I believe that any American who is in possession of such facts has the obligation to make them known, either to the public or to the appropriate Government agency.

Whatever hysteria exists - and there is some, particularly in Hollywood - is inflamed by mystery, suspicion and secrecy. Hard and exact facts will cool it. The facts I have are sixteen years out of date, but they supply a small piece of background to the graver picture of Communism today. I have placed these facts before the House Committee on Un-American Activities without reserve and I now place them before the public and before my co-workers in motion pictures and in the theatre.

I joined the Communist Party late in the summer of 1934. I got out a year and a half later. I have no spy stories to tell, because I saw no spies. Nor did I understand, at that time, any opposition between American and Russian national interest. It was not even clear to me in 1936 that the American Communist Party was abjectly taking its orders from the Kremlin.

Firsthand experience of dictatorship and thought control [Kazan moved to the US, from Greece, when he was four years old.] left me with an abiding hatred of these. It left me with an abiding hatred of Communist philosophy and methods and the conviction that these must be resisted always. It also left me with the passionate conviction that we must never let the Communists get away with the pretense that they stand for the very things which they kill in their own countries.
In a memoir published in 1997, Kazan admits he took a "warrior pleasure at withstanding" his political enemies -- defined in the early-1950s as anyone more threatening than Ike or Dick Nixon. He explains the decision to squeal by embracing his years (1934 - 36) helping to create the legendary Group Theater in New York, and how his beloved Communist Party put him "on trial" because he refused to move the Group in appropriately Stalinist directions. After all, Kazan's devotion was to Art for Art's Sake, not to making messages. . .

In 1954, Elia Kazan directed a highly awarded movie (eight Oscars this time, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay) whose entire existence depends on a defense of squealing. Written by Budd Schulberg of What Makes Sammy Run? fame (who should know since Schulberg also destroyed his Red friends by testifying before HUAC), the scenario is based on the true-life heroics of Anthony DiVincenzo, a whistle-blowing longshoreman who did testify before an actual waterfront commission and was ostracized for it. Even though Schulberg attended every day of DiVincenzo's commission testimony, Schulberg, Kazan, On the Waterfront producer Sam Spiegel and Columbia Pictures itself refused to acknowledge DiVincenzo's contribution. After a lawsuit lasting decades, the studio finally settled.

Young and somewhat punchy ex-prizefighter Terry Malloy is pressured by older brother Charlie (Rod Steiger) and Charlie's gangster union associates to lure friend Joey Doyle into a physical confrontation with union thugs -- thugs who immediately murder Doyle by throwing him off a high rooftop. Stunned, realizing Doyle was eliminated to keep him from talking to a waterfront commission investigating union corruption, Malloy is pulled in dangerous directions by the dead man's lovely young sister Edie (Eva Marie Saint) and by a crusading local priest (Karl Malden). After another longshoreman is murdered to maintain silence, Terry goes to Father Barry and confesses that it was he who "set up Joey Doyle for the knock-off." Now in love with Edie and pushed hard by the priest, Terry decides to testify but not before brother Charlie tries, and fails, to buy him off with a cushy new job -- a failure that leads to Charlie's death. Full of wrath, Malloy testifies, is shunned, beaten up, threatened with death -- yet he wins the girl and his testimony does seem to break the back of the criminal union.

On the Waterfront is an egg with the shell of ruthless (almost hysterical) ambition, a layer of sleazy justifications on the part of its twin-stoolies Kazan and Schulberg, a driving desire to please its contemporary Masters, particularly Columbia Pictures head Harry Cohn, the biggest pig in the trough. (Rumor had it Cohn once ordered Sammy Davis Jr.'s eye poked out for sleeping with Kim Novak, a Cohn favorite. Funny how Steiger would basically play Cohn in 1955's The Big Knife, written by Odets.)

Yet inside the shell is the yolk of a beautiful and tender heart. It may be the only great film ever made in service to social evil. (As Salt of the Earth, its 1954 bizarro Doppelganger, is a rotten movie in service to social good.) The shell, as we watch, cracks and falls away, leaving the exposed heart. Schulberg and Kazan's "Local 374" bears no relation to any union local known to man. Its cartoon "leadership," whose waterfront headquarters seems to be the same shack used by Widmark and Thelma Ritter in 1953's Pickup on South Street, is made up of mumbling meatballs who say things like "I'll top the bum off lovely." Local boss John Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) is never seen as a union official (negotiation, tactics, goals). His early economic explanation to Terry in the bar about his own source of power and payoff is nonsensical. Friendly is more of a 1940s gunsel whose only antagonism is directed toward his own workers. This is a center of labor corruption? The workers themselves are all whipped, passive, castrated, afraid to do or say anything; and they are put in their place by accents, vocabulary, dress, shabbiness, and dirt. (Kazan and Schulberg's class prejudice is stunning. Is this the 50s or the 30s?) No one talks about anything interesting. But for brother Charlie and Pop Doyle (John Hamilton), there are no families here. No small groups of friends. No clubs or associations. No American Legion posts or bowling teams. No fun or enthusiasm. Pigeons -- frozen, scared, alienated, and helpless.

Did America win the war or not? Early-50s Hoboken is presented as a place where some invading army marched through leaving devastation and despair in its wake. Did Schulberg and Kazan, covering themselves, understand their projected solutions? The Catholic church seems one of them, a church seen as wholly apart from social action (beyond private and public confession), embodied by Father Barry, played in full car-alarm mode by Malden. (His speech in the hole after K.O. Dugan's death makes the movie go splat.) All secular political action is denied, except through cooperation with witch hunts. (And through the love of a beautiful young woman.) The writer and director seem to have forgotten the neighborhood roots and networks of their own upbringings. There is no sense of corporation, company, owner. (The shot of "Mr. Big" watching commission hearings on television must've been a salve to someone's conscience.) The word MONEY is never mentioned. Here the manufacturing and spreading of communalist terror is marked. It is the 1930s turned upside down. Kazan and Schulberg identify completely with Terry (who seems to have no second thoughts): under threat of death, a man testifies against gangsters vs. Kazan/Schulberg  -- men who sold out their friends and their pasts in service to McCarthyist tools. And so rewarded for it.

Important moments make no sense. Why is Charlie murdered? What has he done to endanger the local? Killing him would only guarantee, as it does, Terry's "ratting." (A theatrical and very moving device.) As is the ending. Friendly wants his men to start unloading the waiting dock shipments. And, after having Terry beaten up, the men do, with the mauled Terry leading the sheep around John Friendly, into the arms of a much more fearsome-looking character -- presumably the owner of the waiting cargo. Edie and the Father smile. "The End" The iron door shuts.

It feels intended as a triumph, of sorts. Did Kazan and Schulberg really look at this? Is it possibly an underground blast at 50s US capitalism, where the workers truly have no escape? No, it isn't. And in the time of John L. Lewis, A. Philip Randolph, James Carey, Cy Anderson, David McDonald, and the brothers Reuther, what a lie it would be. We really are supposed to feel that the Good Guys win in the end. Hence, the shell.


Inside is something else. Despite the brutal Methodism of much of Steiger's, Cobb's, Hamilton's, and (especially) Malden's performances, On the Waterfront's greatness is born from the calm, quiet beauty of all things between Edie and Terry. (And, of course, he and Charlie in the back of that cab.) Their moments seem from another work, for there is no felt connection between the blaring power struggle outside and what the young couple have together. Terry is not turning against his past to protect or to please her. He rejects her hopes to move far from the waterfront. (Edie: "To a farm, maybe. . . " Terry: "A farm??") Instead, even after his testimony and shunning, his hopes are to hurt John Friendly -- the man who killed his brother -- even more. It doesn't matter. Their scenes together contain some of the loveliest and most moving moments in film.

Kazan's behavioral genius is present throughout in other ways. The way Edie walks by herself along the railroad tracks on her way to Father Barry, and her search across the rooftop looking for Terry, to give him her dead brother's jacket. The tenderness Terry shows toward his birds and toward his young Golden Warrior followers. Terry's shy, heartbreaking way of moving when he's alone, as if not worthy of being among others. His look up to the night as he unknowingly sends Joey Doyle to his death. The sad, ripped coat he wears to his testimony. His attempt to warn K.O. Dugan before the hit. The heart-stopping hesitation as he at last sees his brother ("Hey, Terry! Your brother's down here. He wants to see ya. . ."), now crucified against a wall with bullet holes surrounding his heart. And there is Bernstein's beautiful, dirge-like score. And Boris Kaufman's liquid, enormously detailed photography -- beyond noir.

Or is it all Brando? (Perhaps it is, since Waterfront's quiet ardency is nowhere to be found in previous [or future] Kazan works.) Most things iconic do not deserve to be. Brando's Terry Malloy is not only worthy of its legend, but is probably the greatest lead male performance in US postwar cinema. Written and seemingly played as a dumb and tender animal, Brando's Malloy -- among many things -- contains within itself a subversive power deeply at odds with the movie's "point" -- a man who has suppressed his soul in a kind of mechanical despair, following orders and enduring all the rest. But the girl and the situation is releasing his soul from its bondage. And Brando gives us a promise that it may break free altogether, to have at last a time purely for its own joy.

"Salt of the Earth came out at the same time as On the Waterfront, which is a terrible movie. And On the Waterfront became a huge hit, because it was anti-union. See, On the Waterfront was part of a big campaign to destroy unions while pretending to be for Joe Sixpack. So On the Waterfront is about this Marlon Brando or somebody who stands up for the poor working man against the corrupt union boss. Okay, things like that exist, but that's not unions. I mean, sure, there are plenty of union bosses who are crooked, but nowhere near as many as CEOs who are crooked, or what have you. But since On the Waterfront combined that anti-union message with 'standing up for the poor working man,' it became a huge hit. On the other hand, Salt of the Earth, which was an authentic and I thought very well-done story about a strike and the people involved in it, that was just flat killed, I don't even think it was shown anywhere. I mean, you could see it at an art theater, I guess, but that was about it. I don't know what those of you who know something about film would think of it, but I thought it was a really outstanding film." -- Noam Chomsky
Ummm, no. Presented by the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers, written by Michael Wilson (blacklisted), produced by Paul Jarrico (blacklisted), directed by Herbert Biberman (blacklisted), and starring the immortal Rosaura Revueltas and Juan Chacon, Salt of the Earth is a black-and-white cross between a 1970s identity politics screed by Norman Lear or Alan Alda and Ed Wood without the magic or mystery. There is really nothing good to say about it. It does matter after all, beyond one's sincerity and intended meaning, what one does with the camera, with the light, at the editing table, with the actors.

In a place called Zinc Town, New Mexico, close to the Mexican border, a miners strike breaks out over safety and sanitation issues, and over preference being given to "Anglo workers" (who are nowhere to be found). When the men are forced to end the walkout via a Taft-Hartley injunction (not explained by Salt), their wives (!) take over the picket line for them, while the men go back home and do the dishes. What this accomplishes is unclear. On the movie's own terms -- and on reality's own terms -- it is absurd. One thing it does accomplish is the "empowerment" of the women. Toward what end is also unclear, except for the obvious further misery of the poor husbands. Based on the actual 1951 strike against Empire Zinc, Salt was denounced on the floors of the US Senate and House, boycotted by the American Legion and its members, its financing was investigated by the FBI, film labs refused processing, union projectionists were ordered not to spool it, right-wing vigilantes fired gunshots at the set, low-flying aircraft buzzed noisily over it to prevent recording, and the lead actress was deported back to Mexico. Since the movie would convince nobody of nuthin' (except for the already convinced), one can only marvel at what must have been the diseased and cowardly dark heart of mid-50s USA -- at a time when the world truly was America's oyster.

It is embraced in some corners as a piece of Rossellinian neo-realism, a homeland version of the incomparable Europa '51 (one of the great political films). Bunkum. Most of the cast were union regulars involved in the actual Empire strike. Unfortunately, the regs can barely speak let alone "act." (Professionals such as Revueltas and Will Geer are just as poorly directed.) Most scenes revolve around pronouncements such as "The installment plan is the curse of the working man" and "Brother Boris here, of the International, will lead us to victory" and "You treat your wives the way the Anglo bosses treat you" and (my favorite) "Guns are not people -- people are people." Again, on Salt's own terms, it is not progressive. It does not argue for solidarity. There is no whiff of perhaps joining up with the no doubt equally aggrieved Anglo miners. The enemy remains undefined. And the righteous sisters show lots of awareness of their own rights but none toward the frustrations and helplessness of their striker husbands.

Let us compare two scenes from Waterfront and Salt, across two sections of each film. First, having a beer:

The bosses struggle to get their men back to work:

There are many great political films, as obvious in their message as is Salt: Europa '51, Even the Rain, Casualties of War, Weekend, October, Pigs and Battleships, Berlin Alexanderplatz, Crimson Gold, Good Men Good Women, To Sleep with Anger, Do the Right Thing, Los Olvidados, even Syriana. But all of them, to varying degree, go to that place where the heart touches the beyond. They all genuflect, for all their brave ideologies (and despite the communal nature of the movie-making process itself), before the Mystery: movies -- through the demands of isolation and selectivity -- are a deeply private, anti-communal art form.

Elia Kazan kneeled before his Masters; and before the Mystery. Salt does neither; and it is chum.

Friday, July 5, 2019

The New Ugly

Barack Obama -- lying Wall Street pimp and droning mass murderer-- was bad enough. Now it seems as if the vampiric mass media is  preparing us for an even worse, in Brother Malcolm's phrase, corporate house n*gg*r.

Caitlin Johnstone explains.
California Senator Kamala Harris won the Democratic presidential debate last night. It was not a close contest. She will win every debate she enters during this election cycle. If she becomes the nominee, she will win every debate with Trump.
Night two of the debates was just as vapid and ridiculous as night one. Candidates interrupted and talked over each other a lot, questions about foreign policy were avoided like the plague to prevent NBC viewers from thinking critically about the mechanics of empire, and Eric Swalwell kept talking despite everyone in the universe desperately wanting him not to. Buttigieg and Gillibrand did alright, Bernie played the same note he’s been playing for decades, and everyone was reminded how bad Joe Biden is at talking and thinking.
Biden has been treated kindly by polls and regarded as a “frontrunner” in this race exclusively because for the last decade he hasn’t had to do anything other than be associated with Barack Obama. Now that he’s had to step out of that insulated role and interact with reality again, everyone’s seeing the same old garbage right-wing Democrat who sucks at making himself look appealing just as badly as he did in his last two presidential campaigns. By the end of the night, even Michael Bennet was slapping him around.
The moment everyone’s talking about was when Harris created a space for herself to attack Biden on his citing his collaboration with segregationists as an example of his ability to reach across the aisle and “get things done”. Harris had not been called upon to speak, and once given the go-ahead by moderator Rachel Maddow after interjecting went way beyond the 30 seconds she’d been allotted in tearing Biden apart. She skillfully took control of the stage and engineered the entire space for the confrontation by sheer dominance of personality, and Biden had no answer for it.
The goal of a political debate is to make yourself look appealing and electable to your audience. You can do that by having a very good platform, or you can do it with charisma and oratory skills. It turns out that Kamala Harris is really, really good at doing the latter. She made frequent and effective appeals to emotion, she built to applause lines far more skillfully than anyone else on the stage, she kept her voice unwavering and without stammer, she made herself look like a leader by admonishing the other candidates to stop talking over each other, and she hit all the right progressive notes you’re supposed to hit in such a debate.
Unlike night one of the debates, night two had a clear, dominant winner. If you were a casual follower of US politics and didn’t have a favorite coming into the debate, you likely went away feeling that Harris was the best.
This wasn’t a fluke. Harris has been cultivating her debate skills for decades, first in the Howard University debate team where she is said to have “thrived”, then as a prosecutor, then as a politician, and she’ll be able to replicate the same calibre of performance in all subsequent debates. There’s more to getting elected than debate skills, but it matters, and in this area no one will be able to touch her.
Harris won the debate despite fully exposing herself for the corporate imperialist she is in the midst of that very debate. While answering a question about climate change she took the opportunity to attack Trump on foreign policy, not for his insane and dangerous hawkishness but for not being hawkish enough, on both North Korea and Russia.
“You asked what is the greatest national-security threat to the United States. It’s Donald Trump,” Harris said. “You want to talk about North Korea, a real threat in terms of its nuclear arsenal. But what does he do? He embraces Kim Jong Un, a dictator, for the sake of a photo op. Putin. You want to talk about Russia? He takes the word of the Russian president over the word of the American intelligence community when it comes to a threat to our democracy and our elections.”
Harris is everything the US empire’s unelected power establishment wants in a politician: charismatic, commanding, and completely unprincipled. In that sense she’s like Obama, only better.
Harris was one of the 2020 presidential hopefuls who came under fire at the beginning of the year when it was reported that she’d been reaching out to Wall Street executives to find out if they’d support her campaign. Executives named in the report include billionaire Blackstone CEO Jonathan Gray, 32 Advisors’ Robert Wolf, and Centerbridge Partners founder Mark Gallogly. It was reported two entire years ago that Harris was already courting top Hillary Clinton donors and organizers in the Hamptons. She hasn’t been in politics very long, but her campaign contributions as a senator have come from numerous plutocratic institutions.
Trump supporters like to claim that the president is fighting the establishment, citing the open revulsion that so many noxious establishment figures have for him. But the establishment doesn’t hate Trump because he opposes them; he doesn’t oppose existing power structures in any meaningful way at all. The reason the heads of those power structures despise Trump is solely because he sucks at narrative management and puts an ugly face on the ugly things that America’s permanent government is constantly doing. He’s bad at managing their assets.
Kamala Harris is the exact opposite of this. She’d be able to obliterate noncompliant nations and dead-end the left for eight years, and look good while doing it. She’s got the skills to become president, and she’ll have the establishment backing as well. Keep an eye on this one.

Thursday, July 4, 2019

Piece of Cake

Sunday, June 30, 2019


There are collectivities which, instead of serving as food,
do just the opposite: they devour souls.
In such cases, the social body is diseased, and the first duty
is to attempt a cure; in such circumstances,
it may be necessary to have recourse to surgical methods.
-- Simone Weil, The Need for Roots

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Know That There Are Witches

"And what do witches drink?"
-- Robert Mitchum, Angel Face

In Angel Face (1952), Jean Simmons wants to drink deeply of everything Robert Mitchum. To be more exact: of Frank Jessup, Mitchum's character. And is Frank glad. Until Diane Tremayne, Miss Simmon's character, becomes an inconvenience; she and her crooning, insane, very true love.

It is perplexing, and somewhat motiveless, Diane's love. A luscious 19- (going on 20) year-old, lovely, slender, stylish, very smart and very rich and motherless -- yet she is her own island within Beverly Hills. There is no hint of any current or past sexual or romantic connection around her, an island she literally dives off of to chase down Mitchum's departing and empty ambulance. The heart wants what it wants. And so does the vagina. How else to explain Diane Tremayne's immediate swoon? For Frank Jessup is a singularly (for a 50s leading man) repulsive character, the most repulsive of Mitchum's career. (He is evil and the very opposite of repulsive in Night of the Hunter [1955] and Cape Fear [1962].) Jessup is a shaggy seedy slob (and seems much older than the Jeff Bailey/Markham of five years before). He jumps at Diane's chauffeur offer. At the chance to drive Diane's race-car at Pebble Beach. At the chance to grab some of her stepmother Barbara O'Neil's loot for his would-be foreign car repair shop. At Diane's first scent, he drops his buddy Bill, his girlfriend Mary, the hospital and his job. And drops Diane herself once he's cleared of murder charges, an acquittal mostly achieved through a fake marriage to Diane. He drops her to run off to Mexico, a place he's never been before. (But only after betting Diane for her car, with Frank putting up nothing.) Much of what he says rings hollow. This lazy guy a former race-car driver before the war? Now driving an ambulance, seven years after war's end, to save up for his shop and his marriage to Mary (she clearly a pit-stop)? (His idea of a warehouse-type garage servicing all foreign makes is pretty dumb for L.A. where every foreign car owner brings the car to shops specializing only in that make or model.) Frank is a user and a blank.

But never more on the prowl than after his phone call to Mary aborted by Diane's arrival. Frank wants to fuck Diane very much and cheat on Mary very much, once they can flee the greasy diner. (Her entrance is to "I Guess I'll Have to Change My Plan.") He goes out of his way to sound as much as a lying prick as possible to Mary, his manner of showing-off before Diane. Yet how they treat each other is the reverse of the good. She acts toward him as if he is a shining prince. He treats her like a skank, something dirty and dangerous and impure. "With a girl like you, how can a man be sure?" he asks her.

A girl like her?

So he refuses Diane's love because of the one thing he is sure about: that she gives it away. That her falling for him is cheap and common. Worse. That her love can be stolen from him at any time by a night beneath the moon, one that goes from dusk 'til dawn. For strange, unexplained reasons Diane insists on nights of separation: Jessup is in deep sexual panic over these nights. ("I'm very tired, Frank." "Yeah, that I can believe.") ~ while director Otto Preminger shows us her playing chess with her worshipful father Herbert Marshall.

"No and we don't love the same either. It wouldn't matter to me what you were or what you did."
-- Jean Simmons, Angel Face

The question hangs over the movie, it is perhaps the only question we care about: how new is this for the both of them, how unique are these feelings for Diane, for Jessup (not at all), for post-war Los Angeles? Whether Diane monkeyed with the stepmother's car, or had help from Frank, is gone over in the flat middle section of the movie, when the trial and throttle retractor springs and shift levers and goofy DA Jim Backus make it stop dead. We also never learn what went down in Barbara O'Neil's bedroom at the beginning of the story.

But oh that "murder" scene. . .

The suffocating assumptions around Diane of amorality, corruption, debauchery have driven her insane. In a work about complete erotic love, everyone is afraid. Herbert Marshall is a man with a daughter-complex married to a castrato, who fears murder from her step-daughter. Bill, Jessup's red-headed buddy (Ken Tobey), hasn't the guts (or the sex) to go after the girl he loves, Frank's Mary (Mona Freeman). Until Mary runs to him afraid of the inevitable sexual wounds Frank would inflict on her. ("I'm the one afraid of the competition.") Mitchum hopes to runs to Mexico, fleeing Diane's burning. All are afraid.

Except Diane. All the way, for Frank, is the trueness of her heart and vagina. Her nature is clearly isolate. When we see her at piano, her face is still and remote. Strange and amorphous, Diane yearns though her troubles in a warm vagueness, her soul and otherwise throbbing for Frank, because he does not want her, not her. In a five-shot, four-minute sequence, she walks across her mansion barely seeing the house around her, drifting, quiescent, in a state of metamorphosis, darkening -- as if a light inside her has gone out. Preminger's and DP Harry Stradling's wonder-light fades, cold air breathes down. She has crossed to the other side.

Joining her sisters in the coven of extreme movie love: Josette Day in Beauty and the Beast (1946), Annie Starr, Mabel Longhetti, Anne from Day of Wrath, Gertrud, Lola Montes and Madame de, Rose Hobart, Madeleine/Judy, Rose Balestrero, Bunuel's Lya Lys, Mrs. Soffel, Dragnet Girl. (Perhaps Preminger's most remarkable achievement in Angel Face is his appearing to not take sides.)

As safe, sexually-insecure Mary tells Frank: both he and Bill went on that ambulance run to the Tremayne mansion. Yet only Frank drank from Diane's cup. Even though Frank had a girlfriend and Bill did not. And so the world, the movie says, is divided between those who would stir Jean Simmons, and those who would not. Then divided again -- between those with the guts to take her and those without. Those who taste victory and those who do not. And, the movie warns, do not enter a marriage or intimate relationship with those who do taste because though they may be tasting you now, how long before it's someone else? In Angel Face, sexual passion is love for a woman. For a man, a warning sign that she cannot be trusted.

There are other views.

Tag Gallagher is one of our great movie writers. His books on Rossellini and John Ford are among the best director bios (and readings of their works) we have. Lately, he's been creating video essays about specific movies.

In a 26-minute work called "A Moment's Inattention," Gallagher breaks down Angel Face.

His interpretation is rather straight. There's no mention of the trial, the parents, or the background friends. Dumbfounding is how Gallagher sees Frank Jessup, calling him "practically the same man" as Mitchum's Jeff Bailey/Markham from Tourneur's Out of the Past (1947). (The last third of the essay makes iconic connections between the two Mitchum movies, falsely in my opinion. Out of the Past is that rare masterpiece concerned almost not at all with romantic love or sexual ardor.) Jeff Bailey/Markham is one of the strongest moral agents in movie history. Frank Jessup is a pig.

The World and Its Double is the best and most comprehensive book we have on Otto Preminger. While not as astonishing as Fujiwara's masterpieces on Tourneur and Jerry Lewis (mainly because Preminger's art is less interesting than Fujiwara's), it is consistently jaw-dropping as the writer again and again improves on what he's seeing, or matches its greatness. The only disappointment with his Angel Face chapter (the best sections of the book are on Anatomy of a Murder, Advise & Consent, and Skidoo) is its brevity. Imagine a chapter controlled by a vision such as this, for all the scenes (30:00):
In an extraordinary sequence of Angel Face, Preminger gives us a model of how to see his characters. The sequence begins with a shot of Diane and her father, Charles Tremayne, playing chess in his study. The shot is partly framed by the open balcony door, a frame that freezes the moment in time and makes of it an idyllic and emblematic scene. The chess game is intercut with shots of Frank alone in the room outside his bedroom. He looks out the window, then goes to the phone and calls Mary's workplace. Failing to reach her, he discontentedly removes his tie (the camera tracking forward to a close shot), darting glances, as he does so, offscreen right (in the direction of the window). (His look offscreen repeats the look by which he first sees Diane and is drawn into her world for the first time.) The staging of the scene implies that Frank has been waiting for Diane to emerge from the house and that, disappointed, he instead calls Mary, still wishing, no longer with much hope, for Diane to appear. (That instead of Mary he reaches a third woman, one Janey, shows that women are interchangeable for him at this point.)
Or this (1:21:30):
The scene of Diane's attempted confession in Barrett's office is one of the greatest scenes in all Preminger's work, not only because of the hopeless truth made vivid by the contrast between Diane's stern, slow, dreamlike gravity and Barrett's indomitable cynicism, worldliness, and superficiality, but because, to form a triangle with the two principals, the scene introduces the key Preminger figure of the impassive witness, incarnated by the stenographer, Miss Preston. The mystery of this figure, who is reduced to the function of recording witness, permitted in no way to express any opinion or feeling about the drama that unfolds before her, will engage Preminger in several films, notable Advise & Consent, in the shots of functionaries during and after the Senate subcomittee hearing. The impassive witness has a similar function to that of the interested but silent observer, incarnated in another scene in Angel Face by Bill when he and Mary listen to Frank's attempt to renew his relationship with Mary. . .  Frank's words are directed to Mary alone, who alone responds to them, but they also fall, so to speak, on the blank and thoughtful face of Bill.
Or this (32:00):
. . . She goes to the piano, on whose lid sits a framed photograph of her father, at which she pauses to look. Then she sits at the piano and begins to play the film's theme as the camera (which has followed her across the room) tracks forward into a close-up. At first she looks downward; as she plays, she raises her eyes slightly, then looks up and stares at a point just below the level of the camera, so that light reflects from her pupils. . . This shot dissolves slowly into a close-up of the face of a clock, whose glass, too, reflects points of light (during the dissolve, the stars of Diane's pupils seem to become part of a larger constellation, with the stars of the clock face). The camera tracks back to reveal that the clock is sitting on a table outside Frank's bedroom; Diane, in a nightgown, enters hurriedly up the stairs and knocks at the bedroom door. Frank emerges, and Diane proceeds to tell him that her stepmother has just tried to kill her with gas.
Humbling, from the best film reader I know.

Angel Face.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Friday, June 21, 2019

Summer Place

Fauré and Bonnard.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Angels Flight

Yet if you should forget me for a while
And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
For if the darkness and corruption leave
A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.
-- Christina Rossetti, Remember

“There’s a new art in the world and this doctor’s starting a collection.” – Velda

That Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly (1955) is a great American film, one of the greatest ever made, only a rash or foolish person will deny. While its greatness seems now to be generally recognized (contemporary critics of the 1950s all trashed it), the core of the greatness appears not to be. It is normally taken up by the Quentin Tarantino / Martin Scorsese types who embrace it as little more than director Aldrich, in this only his third big studio picture, sneering around with private eye / tough guy / sexy girl genre works of the post-WWII period ~ a meta P.I. movie. It is much beyond that. Kiss Me Deadly seeks to capture and does, via early-50s Los Angeles and the private eye and science fiction genres, a moment caught between a dying Deco / FDR culture -- a culture which intensified the individual while strengthening the community beyond -- and the cold technical Modernist world to come.

The movie is based on one of the better jobs done by the most popular hack writer of the time, Mickey Spillane. Erstwhile Mike Hammer picks up a hitchhiking girl on the highway, a lovely girl wearing nothing but a trench coat. After gassing up and moving through police checkpoints, they're immediately hijacked, the girl killed, Hammer left for dead. It seems the girl (Berga Torn in the book, Christina Bailey in the movie) knows something very important and everyone wants to know what it is: the "Great What's It?" in the movie's words. Practically everyone (and in Robert Aldrich's original movie ending, everyone) winds up dead. The differences between the Spillane world and Aldrich's are enormous. In the movie, New York City becomes Los Angeles. Four-million dollars in heroin becomes a box of atomic power. The Mafia becomes the Dulles Bros. national security state. Most important, Spillane's thematic vacuum becomes a work about one era dying and something sinister and incomprehensible struggling to be born.

Robert Aldrich is the anti-Carl Dreyer, in this work. Rather than stripping down all decor until one finds a purified essence, Aldrich floods the film with an excess of mid-50s urban Modernist detritus -- architectures, automobiles, ladies clothes; the interior designs of apartments, hospitals, business hallways -- making all of it seem radioactive, in what may be the first movie to be usefully called a film blanc. (Aldrich's '55 follow-up The Big Knife would also qualify.) While at the same time -- in a vertigo of decoration -- placing us firmly in a destoyed and desiccating Los Angeles: Kaiser Hospital, born in the 30s, seemingly refurbished by Mark Rothko; sweet Nick's dumpy garage where he works on Mike's white '51 Jag, then his '50 MG convertible, and dies working on the Hammer '54 black Corvette; a zinc-white Calabasas gas staion; a haunted mansion on what was once called Hill Place; Bunker Hill, all of it, especially Angels Flight and the flophouse once home to Christina and roommate Lily Carver; the Hillcrest Hotel; Club Pigalle; Hollywood Athletic Club; Hotel Jalisco. All gone. Classical 20th-century Los Angeles, the L.A. of Raymond Chandler and Lew Archer, being destroyed as Kiss Me Deadly was being made, or soon after. In Aldrich's world, Mike Hammer seeks meaning and clarity, similar to Philip Marlowe in Chandler's "The Long Goodbye" from the same time, in a vanishing L.A. of the foreign, the frightened, the lost, the individual (while the authority figures all try to hold it together -- and all authority here, "criminal" or "the law," are interchangeable).

Into a normally muscular and artless genre (especially artless under the insanely butch hand of Spillane), here we are given the feminine and creative: poetry, opera, painting, ballet, sculpture, music both classical and jazz, writings. (Christina's stunning apartment inside the Bunker Hill dive is museum-like in her artworks and books and music.) And the movies. Aldrich and director of photography Ernest Lazlo, from the glowing titles which move backward, as Mike's rocket-ship car (and Nat Cole) moves him and Christina back into the past and toward the future simultaneously, a vertigo of time, an astonishing start to a movie (meaninglessly ripped-off by hack George Lucas to begin his Star Wars) -- from this opening shot everything is made strange, mysterious, beautiful, and unique. Throughout Aldrich intensifies Hammer's confusion and estrangement by intensifying the palette of his own form: extreme cuts and angles, dissolves and freezes and fades and his deep use of sound: the music and the soft protected sounds of homes and apartments, traffic noises always beyond the windows, Hammer's sorrowful wall answering-machine, echoing stone hallways and stairs, concrete sidewalks, the sounds of science and technology, the hollow under-furnished echoing of "Lily Carver's" terrible place. And Frank DeVol's overall score: Caruso, Chopin, Schubert, Johannes Brahms, his own. It is only extreme camera movement which Aldrich foregoes, as his main figure Hammer is frozen between Scylla and Charybdis.

Mike's journey -- movingly played in as beautiful a manner as it is brutal by Ralph Meeker -- is a despairing and failed one, however much he struts and smirks, however much he seems to have a magical power to get himself out of jams and to knock people out or to kill them. There's a greater magic against him, a State of anti-Grace, an occasion of sin. Mike's great love is for cars (and possibly for his sexy operative Velda) and yet most of the people he contacts die via car -- Christina Bailey, Nick the mechanic, boxer Lee Kawolsky, Nicholas Raymondo, the real Lily Carver. Those he touches who don't die by car, die anyway, including Velda and himself in Aldrich's original end-of-the-world ending. Mike Hammer stays tough and super confident, until he doesn't, until by the end he becomes a stunted wounded zombie -- dead too, in a way. Dead to all he knows.

Of all great movies, Kiss Me Deadly is perhaps the one that captures its moment in time the most deeply, beautifully, and mysteriously -- and most shocking: the most concretely. Until at the finish, when the Point Dume beach house explodes and the world ends, we are left with a giant, flaming, American Medusa unearthing her hideous face, freezing us -- as she had Mike throughout -- with an oracle of things to come.

Friday, June 14, 2019


Monday, June 10, 2019

The Warmth of the Sun

1963 would mark the zenith of American moral authority. In a series of six speeches in the months before his death, President John F. Kennedy embodied the belief that government power should be used primarily to protect the powerless; and should be used to increase communion in the world and lessen domination.

June 10th at American University, he calls for an end to the Cold War.

The next night (!), Kennedy announces his intention to help lead the Black Revolution instead of fighting it.

Robert Drew's brilliant Crisis explains the background.

Two weeks later in West Berlin, in Wagnerian Cold War mode.

"Light cuts into the darkness":  the signing of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, July 26, 1963.

Before the United Nations on September 20th, he calls for a world government in the interests of peace, a world center for conservation and food distribution, a world system of health bringing all peoples of the earth under medical protection, and an international manned space flight to the moon.

Kennedy often spoke about his dreams and hopes for a better America, and never so eloquently as his tribute to Robert Frost at Amherst College, October 26th, 1963.

In 1963, John F. Kennedy was both the glory, and the agony.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

What is Swooning?

Frank Tashlin's 1944 answer.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019


Tomoyasu Murata’s stop-motion works are without dialogue: Nostalgia (2000), Scarlet Road (2002), White Road (2003), Indigo Road (2006), Lemon Road (2008). Slow, painterly shots follow characters around on journeys remembering relics of the past -- happy days with a family, a deceased child, a deceased wife.

White Road.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

What is to be Done?

Wolff & Martin know.