Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Toilet Buildup

The Alfred E. Newman of Late Capitalism.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Calvino

"The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and attention: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them love." -- Invisible Cities

Friday, February 14, 2020

The River


Two young lovers, Henriette and Henri, have a brief but intense tryst during a holiday in the country. Years later, for a moment, the two meet again; then she is called back to her real life by her inadequate husband. People do bold things and make mistakes. How can anyone tell which is which?

What is realistic in the story is the basic, pitiless understanding that this is the way of the world. Here the river is much more than mere radiance. For ships that pass in the night, or in the day, the river is a facilitator without memory or morality. So this 40-minute movie needs only one brief reunion to measure the mistake, and the way in which the girl will never forget it. Jean Renoir's A Day in the Country (1936) becomes a work about memory, destiny, and time -- and a river that is always the same, always transient, like the present tense: beautiful but indifferent.

A perfect subject for a moving picture.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Adagietto

Sunday, February 9, 2020

You Can Call Me MISTER Fane


This pretty much sums it up. . .



The hysteria of Russell Rouse’s The Oscar (1966) – and what a strange 1966 it is: no Vietnam, no Beatles, no drugs, no black people – is the hysteria of the Hollywood Studio Sytem as it was passing away. For the movie photographs only those who've already passed on: has-beens and never-weres days from the Monrovia Rest Home for Retired Actors: Jill St. John, Elke Sommer, Broderick Crawford, Ed Begley, Eleanor Parker, Milton Berle, Joseph Cotten, Jean Hale, Edith Head, Hedda Hopper, Peter Lawford, Ernest Borgnine, Edie Adams, Walter Brennan, Merle Oberon. The movie seethes with the bitterness and panic of all those no longer getting phone calls returned, no longer getting the good tables at Chasen’s (as it then was). And yet. Two hours of rug-chewing by desperate actors trying hard not to go down for the count gives us a heightened reality and earnestness more true and human than over-produced “this is Hollywood” Artworks such as Sunset Boulevard, Bad and the Beautiful, The Last Tycoon, The Player, Mulholland Drive, Short Cuts, and the god awful Barton Fink. In The Oscar, every actor plays every scene as if the house were burning down with only ten minutes left to collect the valuables.

In particular, the two leads: Stephen Boyd as Frankie Fane and Tony Bennett as, yes, Hymie Kelly. The Irish-born Boyd’s self-loathing and rather insane self-involvement must've been well-earned. A remarkably talented and noble actor, his movie career (much like Frankie’s) the result of pure accident, his life was short, unappreciated, and tragic. (He would die at the age of 45.) Though the movie is shot full of speed and smarm, there isn't a moment of camp or dishonor in Boyd’s performance. Neither is there in Bennett’s. Saddled with that ridiculous character name, and often hooted at by the superior types who take all their cues from Vanity Fair, Bennett’s accomplishment here at times approaches the tone and greatness of his singing: sincere, gentle, with good cheer and naked emotion that seems grandly modest. There is no ego in Tony Bennett’s sound, nor in this his only movie role.



A berserk, cheap, buggy opera of rot (Percy Faith’s score is at one with the movie’s major key: it oozes), The Oscar seems like some preposterous combination of Visconti, Sirk, and Harold Robbins. A combo of lust and disgust toward a Hollywood already gone.

Thursday, February 6, 2020

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, playing the dissatisfied wife of a trucking tycoon (Alan Hale) who 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 a sense of what Bogart's greatness would be born of: overwhelming intelligence. The Maltese Falcon is also from '41, Casablanca from '42, To Have and Have Not two 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 such a 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. Still, she's 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 taken. When the movie dips into straight noir, Walsh immediately (and beautifully) restores the 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 of 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 for Scorsese 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-1940s. Her sound is described in the movie, by Celeste Holm, as perfect "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 have, 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 of The Man I Love (and so much else from late-40s Hollywood) 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're 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 night. For a good part of the film we're 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. (Important 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 TV culture.

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) -- 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 around?): 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 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 of '59.



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.

Monday, February 3, 2020

Sacred Heart


Born 111 years ago today, The Saint was perhaps the deepest and most beautiful thinker of her century.

Simone Weil left us with these five self-judgments:
1. Not to be dishonored.

2. Not to die without having existed.

3. To traverse this somber age in manly (or womanly) fashion.

4. To perish with a clear vision of the world we shall be leaving behind.

5. To work toward a clear comprehension of the object of our efforts, so that, if we cannot accomplish it, we may at least have willed it, and not just have desired it blindly.
Her essay on concentration ("Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God"), concentration being the ultimate act of love, puts the reader in a state of Grace.

Monday, January 27, 2020

Doctor Redux


Happy Birthday, Michael Parenti.

From late '93: "The JFK Assassination and the Gangster Nature of the State"

Friday, January 24, 2020

Did LBJ Do It?


No, he didn't.

The great Rob Clark, aka Lone Gunman, with a typically deep and funny podcast on the question.

For all of Rob's priceless casts, go here.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Unwoken

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Semper Fi


Major General Smedley Darlington Butler:
War is just a racket. There isn't a trick in the racketeering bag that the military gang is blind to. It has its "finger men" to point out enemies, its "muscle men" to destroy enemies, its "brain men" to plan war preparations, and a "Big Boss" Super-Nationalistic-Capitalism. I spent thirty-three years and four months in active military service as a member of this country's most agile military force, the Marine Corps. I served in all commissioned ranks from Second Lieutenant to Major-General. And during that period, I spent most of my time being a high class muscle-man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for the Bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism.

I helped make Mexico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefits of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests. In China I helped to see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested.

During those years, I had, as the boys in the back room would say, a swell racket. Looking back on it, I feel that I could have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.
On the other hand:

Monday, January 13, 2020

Dial "S"

During a set in New York City, he died of a heart attack at his piano, fifty-five years ago tonight.

Sonny Clark was 31 years old.



Thursday, January 9, 2020

Pick Yourself Up

We must.

One way. . .



Or.

Monday, January 6, 2020

Next Stop, Mass Murder


Chris Hedges on Iran.

Friday, January 3, 2020

Great Satan Indeed