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Sunday, November 22, 2020

Fun with virtual classic film discussions

During the crazy and tragic year that is 2020, more time at home is a great excuse to watch classic movies on TV, DVD, or streaming. And while we can't go to the cinema and then out for discussion, our local classic film group, Reel Classics of Greater Boston, has continued our discussion tradition using Zoom. We've found a process that works for us, and I'm going to share it here. That said, I'd love to hear what everyone else is doing!

Pick a Topic and Announce the Discussion
Following the TCM tradition of featuring a 'Star of the Month', our group has done the same thing, alternating between male and female stars. To engage our members in advance, we will select a few alternate options and put out a poll on Survey Monkey to see which star has the most interest. We then pick one or at most two of the chosen star's films for discussion, and attempt to select ones that are readily available to stream on a platform like YouTube, or similar. 

Once the topic is decided, we announce the discussion on our Facebook page, and also our group's site, which serves as our enrollment tool. The Zoom link is created by the organizer and is only available to those who RSVP to the meetup.

As an example, in October we chose Joseph Cotten as our 'Star of the Month'. We chose Shadow of a Doubt and Niagara as the two films to discuss.

Opening the Discussion + Trivia Quiz
We open our Zoom discussions by welcoming everyone, and if someone is joining us for the first time, we ask if they have any questions for us. We don't require everyone to introduce themselves, as it takes quite a bit of time, and the majority of us know each other. (During the breakout sessions that we build into our agenda, we ask people to introduce themselves to their smaller discussion groups first.)

We prepare a short PowerPoint deck and share an opening slide to introduce our 'Star of the Month'. After that, we use the "Poll" feature in Zoom to share a few trivia/factoid questions on our Star. These questions range from difficult to very difficult(!) - we don't want to make it too easy for those in our group who have a vast knowledge of classic film. But the point isn't for people to get the right answers--it's to generate discussion about the star as well as to inform. (Those of us leading the group and putting the content together need to do some research!) Here is what we did for Joseph Cotten:

Fun Cotten Factoids for Poll
(Correct answer in asterisks)

1. Which of the following Broadway productions, that later became a major film, did Cotten star in? (Hint: he was NOT in the film version).

  Arsenic and Old Lace, *The Philadelphia Story*, The Front Page, or The Barretts of Wimpole Street

          2. Cotten acted in four movies with Jennifer Jones – which was NOT one of them?

 Portrait of Jennie,  Love Letters, Duel in the Sun or *Madame Bovary

3. Cotten was married to this Hollywood actress (2nd marriage) until his death. Who was she?

   Jean Hagen,  Jan Sterling, *Patricia Medina*, or Louise Platt

      4. Which of the following is a direct quote from Joseph Cotton when describing his friend and colleague Orson Welles? (bonus for guessing the subject of the other two quotes)

·       *“His words sprung from his own personal dictionary, which never contained an obscenity. He was eloquent because he was an eloquent human being.”* (accepting the Life Achievement Award from the AFI)

·       “He loved his profession so fiercely that it was impossible to work for him without sharing that love.” (David O. Selznick – Since You Went Away)

·       “Like all of us, this genius of an extrovert had superstitions.” (Hitchcock)

5.      Cotten was a close associate of Welles, playing leading roles in Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, but he played a small uncredited role in one of Welles's major works – what was it?

 Sailor in The Lady from Shanghai,  *Coroner in Touch of Evil*, Onlooker in crowd in Chimes at Midnight, or Passport photographer in The Stranger

Film(s) Discussion
The trivia quiz is a great icebreaker and usually launches some interesting discussion, but at its conclusion, we move on to discuss the actual film(s). After reviewing briefly some basic film facts, we initiate breakout groups of 4-5 people each to meet each other and discuss the film. We usually plan a few discussion questions and share them a few days in advance of the discussion via and Facebook. The questions are just to help with discussion, and we encourage each breakout group to discuss whatever they want to about the film!

Conclusion and Wrap-Up
At the conclusion of the breakouts, which go 20-30 minutes, we bring everyone back and have a large group discussion about anything of particular interest that was brought out in the groups. At the very end, we may preview upcoming discussions and gather feedback.

This is a process that has worked for us, but I would love to collect ideas and suggestions that you may have tried and we should consider! And I'm happy to answer any questions in the comments.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Medium Cool (1969)

 I'm thrilled to be joining the Classic Movie Blog Association's Fall Blogathon, appropriately celebrating Politics in Film. Click HERE to access links to all the blog posts today through Friday of this week. 

“The whole world is watching! The whole world is watching!”
(Chant by anti-war protestors confronting law enforcement in Chicago, August 1968, during the Democratic Presidential Convention)

Opening title in Medium Cool (1969) Click HERE to view 
original trailer.

Some movies have a well-paced, transparent narrative that satisfies on first viewing, and others can leave you scratching your head, requiring you to watch them again to fully appreciate them. Haskell Wexler's politically charged docudrama, Medium Cool (1969), falls into that second category. Wexler presents us with a sensory collage of seemingly disconnected scenes tied together with the most tenuous thread; the only establishing shots come in the opening credits, telling us with both images and titles that we’re in Chicago in 1968. And then the film jumps back and forth to other locations with no introduction, which, to 2020 viewers with only a cursory history of social and political events of the 1960s (including me), will likely not be recognizable. Add to that our wondering what's real and what's fake, and it emerges as a film that rewards digging into its history, and context, and rich themes.

Considering the film blurs what remains of lines between fiction and reality, it’s appropriate that our experience with it asks us to confront a fundamental question in media and in life – how does an observer of events integrate and translate those observations into meaning? Like a set of Russian nesting dolls, the question appears on multiple levels.

First, a bit of context. When shooting Medium Cool, Wexler (1922-2015) had already made his mark on Hollywood as a cinematographer, winning an Oscar for Who’s Afraid of Virginia WoolfBut he was also an activist, identifying himself with leftist causes and dissatisfied with not being able to translate his activist passion to art with his camera lens. His foray into documentary film-making was a step in that direction, especially with The Bus, from 1965, documenting a bus trip of a group of San Franciscans on their way to the March on Washington in 1963 during this historic time in the Civil Rights Movement.

Haskell Wexler

His big opportunity to make a political narrative film arrived, ironically, with the novel The Concrete Wilderness, about a young city boy’s love of nature. The film rights were sold to Paramount and native Chicagoan Wexler was hired to helm the project for the big studio. Wexler seized the moment in 1968, and over the course of production, he and his documentary crew envisioned a different kind of story, as they roamed the city filming with hand-held cameras the real-life struggles of poor whites, Blacks, and the increasing civil and political unrest during that fateful summer. According to Wexler in an interview produced for Criterion's release of the film, “the electricity of real events in the country wasn’t being captured by anyone’s camera.” 

So what *happens* in Medium Cool? In 1968, a moving-image cameraman, John Cassellis (Robert Forster) is employed by a local Chicago TV station to film news as it’s happening. Along with soundman Gus (Peter Bonerz), Cassellis's TV assignments range from horrific highway crashes to political rallies, and at least in the beginning he's entrenched in his non-interventionist philosophy. 

Robert Forster with a camera

As the summer of 1968 marches on, Casselis's assignments intersect more and more with the social and political paroxysms of the time - MLK's and RFK's assassinations, struggles by Blacks against racial-profiling and oppression, and Chicago Mayor Richard Daley’s authoritarian crackdown on anti-war protestors surrounding the contentious Democratic National Convention at the end of August. In the midst of his work, Cassellis meets Harold (Harold Blankenship), a 13-year old Appalachian kid in the Uptown slums, who loves to care for pigeons, and his single mother, Eileen (Verna Bloom). The family is just trying to survive after being displaced from the West Virginia coal-mining country, part of an 'Appalachian migration' in the 1950s and 60s. The warm relationships developing the three contrast with the scenes of unrest, but the film culminates with all three being quite literally caught up in the violent street clashes between protestors and police and the National Guard on August 28th. 

A tender moment between Cassellis and Eileen

An explorer of 'cinema verite', Wexler placed his actors in real events, to observe and react – to be present, certainly not to influence the action. These included a roller derby match with punches thrown and bodies flung; the bloodied protesters in Lincoln Park; the Illinois National Guard going through simulation exercises of confronting protestors, throwing fake canisters of tear gas; speeches being recited on the convention floor, and ultimately the Democratic Convention and the real confrontations with police. Inserted into and between these scenes are scripted ones still filmed in actual like a Chicago TV news station and an apartment in Uptown. In this unique docudrama hybrid, how do we interpret the decisions Wexler's making and what we're seeing from his camera? 

As a classic film fan with less exposure to cinema verite, I found it fascinating that Wexler got away with this approach, and I retroactively feared for the safety of the cast and crew during those violent episodes they were in. Yet Wexler's choice of observation and the ultimate editing of the scenes into the final film were not neutral - they betrayed his strong sympathy with the disadvantaged citizens and antipathy toward the authority figures. Even in the short scene of one of the speeches at the Democratic convention, the audio that was captured was a rebuke of Mayor Daley's "police state" outside the Amphitheater. 

Wexler's filming for Medium Cool caught Jesse
Jackson at the 'Resurrection City' anti-poverty protest in Washington, DC.

If Wexler had a strong point of view, his main characters did not. They were mostly observers rather than influencers of the action around them. In fact, Cassellis and his colleagues make a point of saying that their role as media is to document, not get involved. The argument about the role of media, in general, is front and center early in the film where a group of real journalists, along with actors-as-journalists Cassellis and Gus, gather socially and discuss this very point, often heatedly. Gus says at one point he’s doesn’t have a point of view – he’s the extension of his microphone. 

Cassellis at the 1968 Democratic Convention

This philosophy puts Cassellis at odds with his first girlfriend Ruth, the Black activists he decides to interview against the wishes of his news boss, and possibly, Eileen. Some film critics see Cassellis on a clear journey to political activism during the course of the film's events--I didn't see this. What I did see was the slow melting of some of his cynicism as his relationship with Eileen and Harold tapped a repressed empathy and piqued in him more of an interest in the political events he can't ignore. Another jolt to his worldview was when he learned that his news footage was being shared with police and the FBI - a point that even Cassellis sees as a breach of his neutrality and a betrayal of those he's filming. Yet, this awakening is subtle, as Cassellis still goes about his work without much comment. Here I give Wexler credit, considering his own philosophy of the importance of anti-establishment causes, for resisting the temptation to overdo Cassellis's conversion.

Cassellis is confronted by "Black militants" played by
Barbara Jones and Walter Bradford (?)

The relationship between media and observer is, of course, reflected in the title of the film, specifically inspired by contemporaneous media studies guru and professor, Herbert Marshall McLuhan. McLuhan’s seminal work Understanding Media (1964) discussed different mass media as “hot” or “cool” – with TV being considered a “cool medium.” Essentially he meant that TV requires more effort by the viewer to derive meaning than other media, like movies. It's somewhat ironic that Wexler himself, despite Medium Cool's deep foray into media ethics, said he never really ‘got’ the finer points of McLuhan’s writings (interview on the Criterion Collection DVD release).

As fans and film lovers, we also bring observation to bear on the movies we watch. We evaluate the beauty or artistic quality of the shots or the production design. We critique the actors’ performances and directorial choices. We react emotionally to the images that we take in while sitting quietly and absorbing. For  Medium Cool, I’ll offer my critique. First, the film is stunning to look at. Vivid colors abound, capturing the 1960s fashion and lifestyle, both of the wealthy and economically deprived. One of my favorites was the myriad of colors of cars filling a parking lot. 

Second, the performances were strong, especially Forster (a revelation), and young Harold Blankenship, a non-actor who was just playing himself as a WV migrant in the slums of Chicago. Wexler got the most out of Blankenship’s naturalness – he’s a street-smart kid, but an innocent, one just on the verge of a journey to adulthood. Sadly, Blankenship never got his education, moved back to WV, and died of cancer in 2009 at only 54 years old. 

13-year old Harold (center) teaches his real-life brother 
Robert how to play poker in their Medium Cool flat

At times amusing and other times annoying, Wexler often broke the fourth wall or got overly creative with images: multiple instances of characters (usually the minor ones) speaking directly to the camera; a camera that nods up and down to answer the question of a character; the famous "Look out, Haskell, it's real!" added after the fact to the soundtrack when a canister of tear gas exploded near Wexler and his crew; Wexler himself and his camera pointing at his audience as the last shot of the film; a psychedelically-toned "America is Wonderful" flashing on the screen; a shot in homage to Godard in which Forster posed with a cigarette next to a poster of Jean-Paul Belmondo doing the same from Breathless. Vincent Canby of the New York Times wrote in 1969 that while the film had value, it was "an awkward and overly pretentious movie." 

Wexler turns his camera on his audience at the
end of Medium Cool
Forster as Cassellis channeling Godard

Certainly, as 2020 viewers we are distant from the historical events that were captured, or alluded to, so vividly by Wexler in Medium Cool. But today's viewers will no doubt compare the happenings and messages of the film to today’s tense and polarized socio-political climate, in which protests, often on the same issues like racial justice, are endemic in many of our cities, and real concerns exist that a sitting president may not leave office peacefully if voted out. Given these parallels, could a film like Medium Cool be made today around the current events? A recent essay for the Chicago Tribune articulated some thoughts about if a filmmaker went for a similar approach:

“What happens when you insert actors into real protest environments and let the intensity of that play out on camera? Does this create too many ethical complications in 2020? Today, information isn’t funneled through legacy media only; social media and camera phones have upended that dynamic. There are distrust and skepticism, as well as a savvy and a sense of agency that activists have about determining how their message is shaped and how their images are used. And because of that, I wonder if they’d be willing to be turned into background players in someone else’s movie. The questions become especially fraught if the project in question is a studio movie that has the potential to enrich shareholders and executives who uphold the kind of structural racism that activists are protesting against.”

Regardless, Medium Cool is a thoughtful, engaging film that provides much to digest and discuss. I recommend researching the specific events that played out in front of Wexler’s (and Casselis’s) camera before watching. Along with the political assassinations, movements, and protests going on around the country in 1968, research the phenomenon that was the Appalachian migration of displaced workers to big cities, like Chicago, where they lived together in tenements, not unlike NYC’s Upper East Side of the early 20th century. This knowledge, and a second or third viewing, will make the experience of Medium Cool a much richer one. And remember...:

Medium Cool can be seen on DVD and Blu-Ray from the Criterion Collection, or can be streamed on YouTube here.

Friday, July 31, 2020

Answering some fun classic film preference questions for the Sunshine Blogger Award!

I'd like to thank Leah of Cary Grant Won't Eat You and Rachel of Hamlette's Soliloquy for nominating me for the "Sunshine Blogger Award"! Even if I'm a little late with this post, I hope you enjoy reading my answers to their great questions below. First, here are the rules:

1.     Thank the blogger who nominated you.
2.     Answer the 11 questions the blogger asked you.
3.     Nominate new blogs to receive the award and write them 11 new questions.
4.     List the rules and display the Sunshine Blogger Award in you post.
5.     Notify the nominees about it by commenting on one of their blog posts.

Now, on to the questions!

Leah asked:

  1. Which party you’ve seen on film would you want to join? 
    Oh my. There are so many fun and interesting parties in film. I'm a sucker for "oldies" rock and roll and I would love to hang out at a sock hop with the gang from American Graffiti or the gang from Back to the Future. (I'm trying to think of a movie *made* in the 1950s with a fun sock hop, but coming up empty! Anyone??) Putting on a poodle skirt and dancing to 1950s music played live sounds like a blast to me.
  2. Which cinematic character would be the WORST party guest? I was just talking with my Mom the other day about A Clockwork Orange (1971). I'm not gonna lie, if violent gang-leader Alex (Malcolm McDowell) showed up to a party I was hosting I would be more than a bit stressed about the various illegal substances and the home clean-up I'd be required to do afterward!
  3. Which Hitchcock scene do you find the creepiest? Is "all of them" an option? I'm going to go with the first one that popped into my head and stayed there -- it's the meeting between Guy  (Farley Granger) and Bruno (Robert Walker) in Strangers on a Train (1951). This scene starts like an innocent conversation and then you realize something is "off" about Bruno - at about the same time that Guy realizes it, too. Both actors are perfect here and just the way Hitchcock induces that creepy feeling in you in real-time is a stroke of genius.

4. Which film’s writing blows you away? I love absolutely everything about Trouble in Paradise (1932) directed by the great Ernst Lubitch. A sophisticated, double entendre-ridden European comedy of class and manners. The screenplay is credited to Samuel Raphaelson, adapted by Grover Jones from the play by Aladar Laszlo. Apparently Lubitsch himself contributed to the screenplay.

5. What actor (past/present) does the best job throwing a (funny or serious) tantrum onscreen? This one was hard for me. I finally decided this was the place to highlight Toshiro Mifune's unhinged and partially improvised performance as peasant-turned-samurai in Kurosawa's classic The Seven Samurai (1954). The scene where his character gets drunk and throws his body around threatening his comrades with violence to prove his mettle is about as intense as tantrums come. 
Don't mess with Mifune when he's mad
6. Who is your favorite movie sidekick? It was an acquired taste, but I absolutely love Una Merkel in the 1930s whenever she is cast as the 'best friend' of the movie's heroine. She always brought sweetness, sass, and common sense at exactly the right time. She was the best friend of such stars as Jean Harlow, Ginger Rogers, Irene Dunne, and Myrna Loy, just to name a few.
Una Merkel (IMdB)
  1. What classic movie should become a TV series on Netflix/Hulu? One of my issues with the otherwise good film adaptation of Wuthering Heights (1939) is that the film ended about halfway through the novel. What about making a series that continues the stories of the occupants of the remote English moor through to and even past the novel's conclusion? I can imagine many more adventures, illicit romances, revenge plots, etc., to make at least one season on Netflix, Hulu or Amazon Prime!
  2. Which of your go-to films is one others don’t appreciate? I absolutely adore Billy Crystal's made-for-HBO baseball movie 61* (2001). It chronicles the 1961 New York Yankees' season and the national and personal drama that was the home run race between Mickey Mantle (Thomas Jane) and Roger Maris (Barry Pepper) with equal parts nostalgia, humor, pathos, and irreverence. It's an absolute delight for film fans and baseball fans. I wrote about it HERE.
  3. What is the best sports scene in a film? Building off my answer to #8, the scene in 61* in which Mickey Mantle (Jane) is at the plate trying to fight through injury to hit a home run to stay in the race is heart-pounding and uplifting. Crystal did a wonderful job recreating the old Yankee Stadium from the point of view of the batter.
  4. What’s the funniest scene on film? So tough to narrow this down, but one of my favorites is in the underrated Buster Keaton silent feature Our Hospitality (1923). Buster is "stuck" as a guest inside in a house of his sweetheart in which her two brothers are looking to kill him for a perceived grievance. The only issue is that their social code says they cannot kill him while he is physically inside the house. The scene mid-way through the film in which Buster is trying every trick in the book to stay inside while his guests are trying to usher him out has me giggling every time.
  5. What’s your favorite (or one of your favorite) one liners/small bits of dialogue? Going back to Trouble In ParadiseFans of this film will no doubt cite the pickpocket games between the two leads or the "Tonsils! Positively tonsils!" line from Edward Everett Horton's character. I giggle when the 'Colet and Company' radio jingle is performed by Tyler Brooke: 
    "Cleopatra was a lovely tantalizer; But she did it with her little atomizer; We'll make you smell like a rose; Ev'ry nose in Paris knows Colet and Company"! 
Rachel asked:

1.  What movie house would you like to live in? It may be the 'recency effect' as I just watched the film for a film group discussion, but I adore 'Gull Cottage' in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947)It's a beautiful traditional home impeccably kept, on the coast of England! If it's good enough for Gene Tierney, it's good enough for me! And if Rex Harrison wanted to visit from time to time I wouldn't mind ;-) 
"Gull Cottage": a screen grab from The Ghost and Mrs. Muir
2.  What movie pet would you like to own? Um, maybe "Baby" the leopard in BringingUp Baby (1938) if it would land Cary Grant for me like it did for Katharine Hepburn!
Katharine Hepburn and "Baby"
3.  What book do you wish your favorite actor or actress could have starred in an adaptation of? One of my favorites, Alan Ladd, was apparently tapped by director George Stevens to play Jett Rink, the role in Giant (1956) that went to James Dean. Ladd turned it down. The two were such different actors, but I would love to see what Ladd could have done with the role. 
4.  Are there any movies you like better than the book they were based on? This is a tough one! I recently watched The Heiress and concurrently read Henry James' novella Washington Square, from which the film was adapted. I can't fault the novella, but I thought the film adaptation was more taut and suspenseful. Certain plot points were altered slightly for effect, but in a good way. I also thought the character of the father, played by Ralph Richardson in the film, was more nuanced than in the book.

5.  What's your favorite movie that's set in the decade you were born in? Dr.Strangelove was made the year I was born - 1964- and it's a favorite of mine. I talked about it briefly in my post on my favorite films from the 1960s. There are so many others, but I'll go with this one. I love how the script and actors just pull out all the stops in this black comedy. 
6.  Do you collect movie memorabilia of any sort? Not really, although I pick up occasional books and photos when inspired (I have a signed photo of Herbert Marshall!--shown below). I wrote about my top Herbert Marshall performances here and reviewed a new bio here.

7.  What actor and actress have never made a movie together, but you wish would have? How about George Sanders and Maggie Smith? Two incredible English actors who could dish out the snark with the cleverest wit imaginable. Too bad Sanders wasn't around for a guest part on Downton Abbey!

8.  What director would you like to have direct a movie based on your life? It would probably be a pretty dull movie (!), but I would feel comfortable entrusting my life story to Ida Lupino, the classic era director who made sensitive, character-driven dramas, but could also handle noir, mystery, and comedy.

9.  Do you ever like a remake better than the original film? Another tough one, especially for me as I tend not to watch many remakes...but I did like the 2006 version of The Painted Veil better than the 1934version. Both were based on the Somerset Maugham novel of the same name. The former starred Greta Garbo, Herbert Marshall, and George Brent, and had its moments, but it rushed through many plot points and mangled the ending. The later version, with Naomi Watts, Edward Norton, and Liev Schriber in the same roles took its time, but was absolutely gorgeous to look at, and ultimately more tragic.

10. What's your least favorite movie genre?  My least favorite genre is probably film musicals, as I find them tedious at times and want to skip the musical numbers when I'm caught up in the narrative. Sacrilege, I know! On top of that the plots of these films are often thin or silly.
11.  Are there any movies in your least-favorite genre that you do like? I love The Sound of Music (ironically!). My Fair Lady is a close runner-up. Maybe also the 1930s Busby Berkeley musicals such as Golddiggers of 1933.

This was fun! Thanks again, Leah and Rachel.

I'd like to nominate the following bloggers:
Marianne of Make Mine Film Noir
Kellee of Outspoken & Freckled
Elise of the Film Perspective blog
Gabriela of Pale Writer
Julia of Cinema Crossroads

Here are my questions:

  1. What is your favorite silent film?
  2. How do you describe your love of classic movies (and/or your blog) when someone you just met asks you about your hobbies?
  3. What film that many people love would you not bother to watch more than once?
  4. What key plot point in a film would you alter to make the film more impactful, enjoyable, or just make more sense?
  5. Time is short - what one question would you most like to ask of your favorite director?
  6. Your favorite film score?
  7. What TV series would you most like to see adapted into a film?
  8. Who is your favorite film comedian or comic team?
  9. What movie surprises you in how emotional you become when watching?
  10. Favorite child actor performance in a classic era film?
  11. This is a popular question - but what movie do you recommend to someone new to classic film?

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Six favorite films from the '60s

I'm pleased to participate in the annual 'Classic Movie Day' Blogathon hosted by Rick at the Classic Film and TV Cafe. If you love lists, head to his site by clicking the image below, to get your fill of cinephiles' recommendations for this fabulous decade.

Similar to last year when I posted 5 favorites from the 1950s, my list spans genres and countries of origin. I selected what some may see as 'obvious' picks and then others that are lesser-known in hopes of raising their profile and getting some folks to check them out. Here they are, in chronological order of release date as reported in

These offspring don't seem like normal children to Mr. Sanders
Village of the Damned (1960) Kicking off my list is a quaint British sci-fi/horror/thriller set in a small town in England and made by MGM's British Studios and directed by Wolf Rilla. One of my all-time favorites, George Sanders, is the lead, a middle-aged schoolteacher about to become a father for the first time. Sanders usually played suave, cynical cads, but here is the hero and plays it completely straight. That's right--he may convince you he has a broader acting range than you may have thought.

It's the first of series of films that build from society's paranoia about a nuclear catastrophe that pervaded the fifties and reached into the early 1960s. In this fable, a supernatural phenomenon causes a new species of killer blonde children to come into the world all at the same time. Only some clever planning and quick acting can save the village -- but at what cost? With children being both victim and perpetrator, will society ever recover? It's filmed in glorious black-and-white and captures mid-century small town British life charmingly, while the menace is growing first in the background, and then the foreground. It will only consume 77 minutes of your time.

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
Angela Lansbury and screen son Laurence Harvey
I came to this film rather late--but what an introduction. At the 2016 Turner Classic Movies Film Festival in Hollywood Angela Lansbury was there for this late-night screening. I nabbed one of the last seats in the sold-out Chinese Theater and I'll never forget the experience. (It was my second time seeing Dame Angela in person, and she is an inspiration.)

The communist menace is still front and center in this lauded surreal political thriller directed by John Frankenheimer. There is a deep malaise and cynicism in the USA of this film, which adds to its timeliness even if the circumstances are different. No one can be trusted, and our protagonists, played by Laurence Harvey and Frank Sinatra, seem at least a little complicit in their misadventures. Angela Lansbury is great as a Lady Macbeth-like character, and her husband is expertly played by James Gregory. Janet Leigh, a big star at the time, has a supporting role as a cipher who inserts herself into Frank Sinatra's character arc. At the end of the film, some issues are resolved, but the ending is far from a happy one. It's a trippy and enjoyable ride.

Dr. Strangelove (1964)
The "War Room" in Stanley Kubrick's satire
"Gentlemen! You can't fight in here! It's the war room."

What a biting piece of satire this film is, while being about as hilarious as any movie ever made. The irreverent take on diplomatic and military authority ushers in the transition from a simply cynical view of the post-nuclear societal order to a fully anti-establishment one that characterized much of the decade of the 60s. Renowned director Stanley Kubrick chooses, once again, a B&W palette to illuminate his bleak world.

Peter Sellers is at the top of his comic game playing multiple roles, from an ever-optimistic U.S. president trying to sweet-talk the Soviet ambassador to the title role of a truly mad scientist.  The parade of stars is impressive -- all of them terrific, from Sterling Hayden to George C. Scott and Keenan Wynn.

A match made in heaven?
The Sound of Music (1965) Now for something completely different...The 1960s saw a number of great classic musicals put on film, with long running times and huge budgets intended to bring TV-struck patrons back to cinemas. This film won the Best Picture Oscar in 1966, and I was a tad surprised to learn that it isn't universally appreciated among classic movie fans or even critics at the time (Pauline Kael had some harsh things to say about it). For me, though, it's really wonderful, and probably because I had two very different experiences of it separated by decades. My first experience was when I was taken to the theater in the 1970s to see it in a theatrical release. I was in grade-school at the time, and my recollection was having witnessed a children's adventure story with great music and scenery. As a 30-something adult I caught it on TV and found it wasn't that at all - it was a romance! Everything else was secondary.

And Christopher Plummer was extraordinarily dreamy. But the film has so much else going for it - Julie Andrews is just terrific, and, after all, we are talking Rodgers and Hammerstein here. Despite the nearly three hour running time, director Robert Wise keeps the pace swift and the production values are superb. Who wouldn't want to make a pilgrimage to old Salzburg after watching the film? And the 'true story' angle adds to the poignancy of what's on screen, even if details have been adjusted. Just put aside your skepticism and enjoy the spectacle of mid-century family-friendly Hollywood at its best.

Zbigniew Cybulski (left) and Iga Cembrzynska in an early
erotic adventure.
The Saragossa Manuscript (1965) Another bit of whiplash here - a film that couldn't be more different from The Sound of Music is this Polish cult classic. I saw this film at the Harvard Film Archive a few years ago as part of a retrospective of director Wojciech Has. I was blown away. It's a pseudo-historical surrealist epic starring Zbigniew Cybulski, that some may know from the 1950s films of Andrzej Wajda. He was in the top tier of Polish stars during that era.

Based on the 1847 novel by Polish author Jan Potocki, it's set in the middle ages and describes the adventures of a Spanish officer as written in an old manuscript found by the officer's grandson in Zaragoza many years later. And the adventures are told in 'frame-tale' style, with story embedded in story like the Russian nesting dolls. It's a fascinating and challenging narrative, but Has unfurls it onscreen with a heavy dose of surrealism. Into the various narratives come gypsies, thieves, Moorish princesses, and of course, soldiers of the Spanish Inquisition. Using black and white cinematography and outdoor locations, it's a visual treat but also an aural one, with a haunting, 'electroacoustic' soundtrack by Krzysztof Penderecki. The film has captivated new audiences from the restoration work started by the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia and finished by Martin Scorcese. Scorcese included this film in his traveling exhibition 21 Masterpieces of Polish Cinema. Watch, and don't try to understand it, just experience it.

Le Samourai (1967) On a film podcast a few years back I heard the host say that in his opinion Jean-Pierre Melville is the best director ever. "Who??" I thought. I'd obviously missed something. Over the past few years I've been able to learn a bit more about this French director (who adopted his last name as a homage to the American author of Moby Dick)  through a few of his films. Known now as a precursor to the lauded 'French new wave' of film-making, his output was relatively small -- only 14 director credits from the late 1940s through the early 1970s. There isn't a better place to start exploring his work than through his neo-noir Le Samourai. It's rather a French This Gun for Hire, starring France's biggest, or at least handsomest, star, Alain Delon, who is still with us at the time of this writing. He radiates a coolness rather like Alan Ladd in his breakout role in TGFH. Melville films in color, though, and every shot is interesting, a window into mid-century French style that makes one wish to stop time in a series of freeze-frames that could be admired.

Honorable Mention: The Hustler, A Hard Day's Night

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Revisiting Love Story (1970)

My recent experience has been that mentioning Love Story will generally 1) bring on sneers or giggles, or 2) prompt almost an involuntary uttering of the famous tagline "love means never having to say you're sorry." So with the film a fuzzy memory at best (I only saw it once decades ago as a teenager having been too young to see it on initial release), I decided to attend the 50th-anniversary screening thanks to TCM & Fathom Events. And the film was, and wasn't, as I remembered it, inspiring me to share here my spoiler-filled reasons why the film, while not a great one, isn't the schlocky, saccharine mess that its current reputation may have you believe.

As a brief refresher...the runaway 1970 hit was made from an Erich Segal screenplay that he subsequently turned into a novel to capitalize on the movie's popularity. For the film, the two New England college-student lovers from radically different economic backgrounds are portrayed by Hollywood up-and-coming actors Ali MacGraw (Jenny Cavilleri) and Ryan O'Neal (Oliver Barrett, IV). A small but critical supporting role of Oliver's father is played expertly by classic Hollywood suave leading man Ray Milland. Arthur Hiller directed for Paramount Pictures.
Ryan O'Neal and Ray Milland at the end of Love Story
It's not a bad movie--really!  Despite some script weaknesses, the film is cleverly crafted on several fronts. First, it's a study in storytelling economy with a running time just over 90 minutes: after a brief voiceover intro scene leading into the extended flashback, we are instantly at the lovers' first meeting. From there, months and years pass in leaps and bounds, with milestones in the lives of the characters being the only guide to time--meeting, finishing school, marriage, jobs, moving to a new city, etc. About two-thirds in, the critical, sad news about Jenny's terminal illness is revealed. The pace is quick but consistent and never rushed. Yet there is no unnecessary lingering for emotional effect.

Second, the visual symbolism is striking at times. I don't know the reason for nearly all the scenes being filmed in winter, but the abundant snow that required our protagonists to always be bundled up reflected their ongoing struggles with coming to terms with their relationship, their life choices, and tragedy--life can be tough and cold. The brief scenes set in summertime come as quite a shock.

Jenny and Oliver have a serious discussion in the cold
rain; snow is on the ground.
Oliver helps a weak Jenny across snow-covered Central Park
on her way to Mt. Sinai hospital.
Jenny and Oliver in a rare summer scene
The presence or absence of extras seemed significant, too. At the very end, when Oliver has left the New York hospital after Jenny's death, he wanders around in a snow-covered New York City street and Central Park setting that are completely devoid of other people - an impossibility in NYC--but the choice underscored Oliver's solitude in a world without Jenny. In the screenshots below, Oliver is a tiny image in the unmoving settings.

Third, each of the three main characters--Jenny, Oliver, and Oliver's wealthy father--are complex humans with inscrutable, or at least shifting, motives. Every viewer's reaction to each character is likely to be influenced by their age, status, gender, and life experience. Initially, Jenny's tough-girl persona ("the supreme Radcliffe smart-ass") understandably puts earnest Oliver on the defensive, but then later at times he is rigid and unyielding in their relationship. Oliver Sr. is stern and formal and wants Oliver Jr. to be cautious or at worse give Jenny up due to her lower social status; Oliver Jr's reaction to this in abruptly cutting himself and Jenny off from his parents is either appropriate or disproportionate to what is obviously a father trying to do right by his family depending on your viewpoint. Jenny is the voice of reason, trying unsuccessfully to get Oliver to ease up on his father. Roger Ebert references the characters' multidimensionality in his initial (4-star) review: "The movie is mostly about life, however, and not death. And because Hiller makes the lovers into individuals, of course we're moved by the film's conclusion. Why not?" 

Fourth, the soundtrack is really good. Because it has been so overplayed over the years, you can't blame modern audiences for souring on the theme song or other parts of the score. But it is perfectly tuned to the overall melancholy tone of the film, and has both a contemporary and classical feel appropriate for the story of a classical music student. The composer, Francis Lai, received the film's only Oscar. The main themes can be found here.

The film is a window into 1960s feminism. Viewed through a 21st-century lens, the character of Jenny is a study in quaint contrasts, perfectly reflecting the struggles of women of her era. Initially, her brass, smart-mouth persona complements her ambition as a smart young woman trying to make it in a man's world of music. She wants a career, she bucks convention, she's sexually liberated, she rejects her "old-school" Catholic upbringing for atheism. This places her squarely in the 1960s/1970s version of women's liberation. But many women of this era also were drawn powerfully back, by societal conventions, to being a traditional wife and mother, and we see this happen to Jenny as well. She gives up her career to marry Oliver and wants desperately to have his baby. She says to him when dying, "I don't care about music; I don't care about Paris." In her era, women had not fully figured out how to realize dueling ambitions of career and home--a struggle that while not completely resolved today, has shown considerable advancement.
Jenny dutifully pours coffee for Oliver after serving him breakfast
Greta Garbo and Robert Taylor in one of the many film
adaptations of Camille
It's a modern La Dame aux Camélias! Opera fans know that a number of popular operas end immediately upon the dramatic death of the consumptive heroine -- Mimi in Puccini's La Boheme and Violetta in Verdi's La Traviata are probably the most famous. There is no epilogue - just the tragedy leaving the audience gasping for air. Walking out of Love Story, I was struck with how the sudden end of the film after Jenny's death paralleled these operas. But another lightbulb went on - Segal's story is Camille, the English language version of Dumas' novel La Dame aux Camélias that was the basis for Verdi's La Traviata and several film adaptations. The broad outlines of the story match perfectly. The two lovers are from opposite ends of society. The woman is, for a time, pulled into 'higher' class society because of her lover. The man's family's opposition to her causes deep stress and complications for the young lovers. Ultimately, the terminal illness of the woman brings about a reconciliation of sorts. 

I learned I wasn't the only one who saw the parallels; while I couldn't find the original quote, Wikipedia mentions film critic Judith Crist referring to the movie as "Camille...with bullshit." I'm not sure if Segal intended the parallels; a NY Times interview cites his personal experience and that of several contemporaries (including Al Gore!) as providing inspiration for the film, but no mention of Dumas' self-sacrificing heroine.

So if you've always avoided this one, or haven't seen it in decades, consider giving it a look. It's currently streaming on Amazon Prime. As always, I'm interested in what you think of the film, so please comment below!