Friday, January 5, 2018
I've been on a big Simenon kick for the last couple of years. It started out with his noirs like THE WIDOWER, DIRTY SNOW, and ACT OF PASSION, but it eventually led me back to his Maigret novels. The result of all this reading is a new series over at Criminal Element where I'm going to be rereading the best Maigret novels. You can check out the first installment of the series, Georges Simenon and the Top 6 Maigret Novels here.
Tuesday, January 2, 2018
In 2017, I saw 125 movies on the big screen. That breaks down to a movie every 2.9 days. This is, I am quite certain, the most times I've ever gone to the movies in the course of the year. I'm pretty happy about that.
Of course, in the real world, 2017 has been a horrific year. God help us all, it's been the year of Trump, a year of daily outrages both petty (the bizarre spectacle of the White House spokesman transparently lying about inauguration size) and monumental (the travel ban, the stolen seat on the Supreme Court, the plutocratic tax bill, Charlottesville). And, under it all, there has been the steadily building of pressure of the Russia investigation.
So it's been a good year to seek solace at the movies, not just because the world has given us so many reasons to seek solace, but because it's been a great year for the movies themselves.
There's a prevailing notion that the movies themselves are in dire trouble--that the act of going to a theater to see a film is something that won't last much longer. The most oft-cited reasons for this decline are changing viewing patterns among younger moviegoers, the rise of ticket prices, the popularity of streaming, and the ever increasing consolidation of the industry itself. As someone who loves going to the movies, I worry about these things, too, but I take a lot of comfort in the robust nature of filmgoing that I witnessed over the last 12 months.
The most emotionally explosive movie I saw this year came early, Raoul Peck's I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO, the James Baldwin essay film that went into wide release in February. The film has the power of a great Baldwin essay, fierce and honest and brilliant. You could feel an electrical current ripple through the screening I attended. In terms of sheer impact, I'm sure I didn't see a better film this year.
At the other end of the spectrum, when I saw Patty Jenkins's WONDER WOMAN, I got to ride along on a wave of pure joy. The film is, of all things, old fashioned--an epic, romantic, funny, exciting adventure yarn. It was the best popcorn movie I saw this year.
I got to see other films where the crowds were brimming with excitement. I thought IT was okay, but I can tell you that the crowd of mostly teenage moviegoers I saw it with had a blast. GET OUT, which is one part serious social commentary and one part pure popcorn flick, was another film that blew the roof off the theater where I saw it.
Smaller films had a fantastic year. When people saw that movies are going downhill, that they don't make 'em like they used to, I have to respond that I just don't see it that way. I see a lot good movies. I saw A LOT of great movies this year, and small productions by serious filmmakers are as good as they've ever been.
THE FLORIDA PROJECT, from director Sean Baker, is a masterpiece about a young girl living in poverty on the outskirts of the Disney's sunshine state empire. It is a hilarious and heartbreaking film, a work of cinematic art. A very different film-- though a film cut from something of the same cloth--is the thriller GOOD TIME from Benny and Josh Safdie. This was the best crime film of the year, pure exhilarating neo-noir filmmaking.
Of course, a huge part of my filmgoing life is consumed by classic film retrospectives. Chicago is rich with venues for the classic film geek: the Music Box Theater, the Gene Siskel Film Center, Doc Films and the Chicago Film Society showings at NEIU. I've had nothing less than an extraordinary year at the movies. I've gotten to enjoy old favorites like WRITTEN ON THE WIND, UGETSU, BLOOD SIMPLE, DRIVE A CROOKED ROAD, THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE, A PLACE IN THE SUN and so many others. Even more exciting, though, are the new discoveries I've made. A classic film geek's job is never done, so I got to catch up with some films that I'd either never seen before or films that I hadn't seen in decades. These films included PANIQUE, LEON MORIN - PRIEST, WHEN YOU GET THIS LETTER, GIRLFRIENDS, TIME TO DIE, and CANYON PASSAGE. This was the year I got to see one of my favorite films (1979's neo-noir HARDCORE) on the big screen for the first time, and it's the year I discovered an old film (the 1946 melodrama TO EACH HIS OWN) that instantly became one of my favorites.
I could go on, but the point is already clear: it was great year at the movies.
I'll close with a couple of lists. My top movie experiences new and retro.
1. I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO (technically 2016)
1. THE FLORIDA PROJECT
2. GOOD TIME
3. LADY BIRD
5. WONDER WOMAN
6. ATOMIC BLONDE
7. BLADE RUNNER 2049
8. THE DISASTER ARTIST
9. GET OUT
10. THE SHAPE OF WATER
Retrospective and Classic Films
(This is not a ranking of how "great" these films are--in other words I could just put CHINATOWN down as the best movie I saw all year and be done with it--but rather this is a ranking of my experiences at the movies. This is a list of the great experiences I had at the movies this year.)
1. TO EACH HIS OWN (1946) Chicago Film Society showing at NEIU
2. OPEN SECRET (1948) Gene Siskel Film Center
3. WORKING GIRLS (1931) CFS showing at NEIU
4. HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940) Music Box Theater
5. IXCANUL (2015) GSFS
6. DRIVE A CROOKED ROAD (1954) Noir City Chicago at MBT
7. A PLACE IN THE SUN (1951) Doc Films
8. COOL HAND LUKE (1968) MBT
9. LEON MORIN, PRIEST (1961) GSFC
10. WENDY AND LUCY (2008) DF
And the honorary mentions would include the collections of Buster Keaton Shorts (1918-1921) I saw at a boisterous showing at the Music Box, and the packed showing of LA CONFIDENTIAL (1997) at Noir City Chicago (hosted by Eddie Muller and James Ellroy), just shortly before the Kevin Spacey scandal broke, making me one of the last people to see that movie in a state of relative innocence.
All in all, 2017 was a great year at the pictures. Here's to 2018.
Sunday, December 24, 2017
I've just completed my semi-annual viewing of Vincente Minnelli's MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS. I've lost count how many times I've seen this film over the years, but it's become something of a Christmas tradition for me, a film I can return to again and again with the same level of joy, admiration, and, frankly, wonder.
Here are ten reflections about this great film.
1. It was Judy Garland's biggest hit. Of course, today Judy is best known and most beloved for THE WIZARD OF OZ, but at the time of its release OZ was an under-performer. (While it did well at the box office, OZ cost a lot to make and distribute, and it didn't actually turn a profit until it was rereleased in the late forties.). MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS, however, was a massive hit right out of the gate. It established that Judy Garland--freed from her childhood costar Mickey Rooney--was a box office powerhouse.
2. This was peak Judy Garland, Movie Star. As an icon, there's no greater Garland movie than OZ. As an actor, there's no greater Garland movie than A STAR IS BORN. But if you want Peak Judy, if you want Judy the Star, then there's no greater Garland film than MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS. She's never looked more beautiful in a film--in every Technicolor frame Minnelli is telling us "Here is a movie star". She's also never been funnier in a film. Perhaps because of the pathos surrounding her tragic life, it's easy to forget that Judy was one of the funniest performers of her era. As the whip-smart boy-crazy Esther Smith in MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS, she's hilarious. And, of course, the music by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane, overseen by Judy's trusted friend and arranger Roger Edens, is some of her best, letting her do yearning in "The Boy Next Door" and melancholy in "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas". The joyous "Trolley Song" sequence might be the most exuberant four minutes Judy Garland ever on film.
3. It was MGM's biggest hit to date. The studio had part ownership of GONE WITH THE WIND, but that film was first and foremost the work of independent producer David O. Selznik. It was in no real sense of the phrase an MGM production. MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS, on the other hand, might well be considered the ultimate MGM production.
4. Its Christmas scenes are an outlier. Like a lot of people, I usually watch MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS at Christmastime, and the film has become something of a holiday classic due to the incredibly potent Winter section of the film that culminates in Judy singing "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" to Margaret O'Brien. The song would become a standard, forever linking the film to the holiday. The film itself, however, is told in sections, and the Winter section is simply one among four.
5. Somehow it's a perfect Christmas movie anyway. The thing about Christmas is, it's super fake. Fake trees in the living room, fake Santas at the mall, fake nativity scenes in the front yard. And the thing about MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS is, it is a dreamscape, a sentimental vision. Many Christmas songs are steeped in nostalgia for a distant past, a past where treetops glisten and children listen to hear sleigh bells in the snow. MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS is just such a vision of the past, a past where everyone is funny and happy and breaks into song when the spirit moves. A past where a child's greatest concern is that she might have to miss the St. Louis World's Fair if her family moves to New York. The whole thing is as fake, and wonderful, as a great Christmas tune.
6. It's a war film. What's not in the film is any mention of what was happening in 1944 when the production was underway. America was in World War II, and the war was going poorly for the Allies. The film, then, is escapist -- quite literally a way to escape the world and its worries. Yet its most famous scene, Judy's rendition of "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" takes on added poignancy when one considers its context. The song is, more than anything else, a prayer that "from now on, all our troubles will be far away." When she comes to the verse "Through the years, we all will be together, if the fates allow" you can practically hear the moviegoers of 1944 wiping away tears. Today, the film remains a joyful celebration of life, but its key emotional scenes retain their bittersweet quality, even if the audience has forgotten their context.
7. The Halloween sequence is one of the strangest things MGM ever put onscreen. There's a stretch of, I don't know, twenty minutes or so, where the film gives over its plot to the Halloween machinations of the youngest daughters of the Smith family, Agnes and Tootie (Joan Carroll and Margaret O'Brien). I'm always shocked that these scenes were allowed to stay in the movie. Because they are weird, really weird. The sequence takes place entirely at night, with the girls donning costumes ("She's a horrible ghost and I'm a terrible drunken ghost") and telling ghoulish tall tales about the neighbors (one neighbor is said to have a "box of dead cats" that he "burns in his furnace at midnight" when he's not "beating his wife with a red hot poker"). The girls assemble with local kids in the streets and burn old furniture and throw baking flour in the face of the reputed wife-beater and cat-murderer (the jolly way the guy takes the face full of flour leads us to suspect that he's been the object of Halloween pranks for a long time). After this strange sequence, the film gets even darker when Tootie turns up bloodied and crying and says that Esther's would-be boyfriend John Truett (Tom Drake) attacked her ("He tried to kill me!"). After a scene where Esther storms over and beats the crap out of John Truett (Judy is wonderfully ferocious), we learn that Tootie simply fell down. She's just a little fibber, and the whole thing is laughed off. What is bizarre, though, is that for something like five minutes of this movie the audience thinks that the romantic lead, the titular boy of Judy's ballad "The Boy Next Door" is something like a murderous child molester.
8. About that boy. God, I hate John Truett. What a dullard. What a boring, boring, boring man. Esther Smith is gonna be in for a long haul married to this blank slate.
9. Judy almost didn't do the film. At first, the star actually turned down MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS (the first project she ever turned down at MGM, in fact). She wanted to make her mark as a mature leading lady, and she thought the part of Esther was too close in nature to the kind of thing she'd been doing with Mickey Rooney. Plus, she suspected that little Margaret O'Brien, as the hilariously demonic little Tootie, would steal the movie. Judy was partly right. O'Brien was indeed a sensation in the film and even won a special Oscar for the part. But director Vincente Minelli took care of his star, so that the film became a showy debut for Margret O'Brien AND the perfect showcase for Judy Garland.
10. Minnelli and Garland fell in love during the making of the film. The marriage of the great star and her great director has always been an object of fascination. Minnelli was gay, but then again so was Garland's beloved late father, and while it may be Freudian shorthand to suggest that Judy fell in love with Vincente because she was looking for a father figure, it's also almost certainly true. What better father figure could there be than the kind and soft spoken director who guided her to her biggest (and most glamorous) hit? What exactly Minnelli saw in Garland has always been more of a mystery, though, because Minnelli was as much a closed book as Garland was an open one. What we know for sure is that for the next few years, the couple was in the business of being a couple. They worked together on THE CLOCK, ZIEGFIELD FOLLIES, TILL THE CLOUDS ROLL BY, and THE PIRATE. None of these projects could duplicate their success on MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS, though the THE CLOCK is a moving romance with an excellent performance by Judy, while the uneven THE PIRATE has become something of a cult classic. Aside from Liza Minnelli, though, MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS remains the pair's greatest accomplishment. It is beautiful and buoyant, a hymn to human emotion.
Friday, December 8, 2017
We need to cycle the cliche "one of the greatest ___ of all time" out of our language. Of all time is a long time. It's a long ass time. It's forever. It is literally forever.
I am guilty of this myself. I'm just a sinner who's seen the light. For instance, in the past I have referred to the odd film as "one the greatest movies of all time" as if the movies themselves were ancient pillars of culture rather than an art form that came along at basically the same time as the toaster oven. (I've seen certain comic book flicks referred to as "one of the greatest superhero movies of all time" which makes the point even more strongly, since, historically speaking, the superhero movie is still teething.)
Like all cliches, the greatest whatever of all time cliche is just a dumbing down of language, an empty superlative in place of an actual opinion. This kind of inflation of language serves different functions. For one thing, it imbues the speaker with a sense of superiority. After all, if I declare some novel one of the greatest novels of all time, then I am claiming for myself the authority not just to declare a novel good or great, but to declare its virtues to be eternal.
This appeal to the eternal is revealing. Our language so often reveals us to ourselves. For instance, I've rarely seen the "all time" cliche bandied about in praise of the works of art that have an actual legitimate claim to antiquity. Homer's ODYSSEY has as good a claim to the mantle of "the greatest work of literature of all time" as anything (if we shrink the eternity implicit in the phrase "of all time" to mean the few thousand years of human life on earth), but we rarely see it referenced that way. Instead, the "greatest of all time" mantle is usually trotted out for rock bands and quarterbacks. And the relative newness of rock bands and football players is, I think, a key to the cliche's appeal. A lot of people love THE ODYSSEY but even its most fervent fans probably don't feel that the epic poem is evocative of their youth. The kind of people most likely to declare The Beatles the greatest band of all time are the kind of people most likely to feel an personal emotional connection to The Beatles. Ditto Joe Montana (or your quarterback of choice).
The inclination to declare something a part of the canon is an inclination to declare your own feelings part of the process by which we decide the canon. I love the Beatles, too. Will their music really hold the same beloved status in another thousand years? I doubt it. I really do. I suspect music, language, and culture will change so immeasurably that the Beatles will be a historical fragment of a bygone society. It's entirely likely that the feelings roused in me by a great Beatles song will no longer rouse feelings in people a thousand years from now. (The opposite is true. There's no reason to think ancient people would have liked the Beatles anymore than old people did in 1965.) Which is another way of saying that our feelings aren't eternal. It's more than possible that the things I've loved will fade in their impact over time.
Perhaps this is why the things that have lasted the longest (in both duration and impact) are the very works of art that claimed actual divine authorship. John Lennon once said that people tried to make a religion out of the Beatles, and he was right. People are still trying.
We say "nothing lasts forever" but we don't really believe it. We're constantly grasping after the eternal. And these things we declare eternal--books, songs, movies, sports figures--are fragments of an ever scattering past, fragments of our own dissipating lives.
Monday, November 13, 2017
Friday, October 27, 2017
Between the period that he became a groundbreaking theater director and the period when he became a groundbreaking film director, Orson Welles was a groundbreaking radio director. Actually, these periods all overlapped in the mad days of the 1930s when Welles seemed to be everywhere, doing just about everything. His film work has, of course, seized the attention of the most people, if for no other reason than it is the work that's been most readily available to the public. His theater works, as all theater works, live on mostly in reports and stories and legends. (God, I'm pining for someone to put out a new exhaustive exploration of his theater work spanning from the 30s to the 60s.) For those interested in his radio work, however, there is wonderful news from Indiana University.
The Lily Library in Bloomington, the guardian of the largest collection of Welles's papers and archival materials, has a magnificent new resource available to the public.
Orson Welles On The Air collects much of Welles's prolific radio work as a director, actor, political commentator, and master of ceremonies. Included are the series' FIRST PERSON SINGULAR, MERCURY THEATER ON THE AIR, CAMPBELL PLAYHOUSE, THE ORSON WELLES SHOW, HELLO AMERICANS, ORSON WELLES COMMENTARIES, and more. Much more. It's fascinating to see Welles alternate between his roles as an entertainer (mounting a thrilling version of "Dracula" or his famous panic-inducing take on "War of the Worlds") to his work as a social critic (including his five episode campaign on ORSON WELLES COMMENTARIES calling for an investigation into the 1945 beating and blinding of an African American serviceman named Issac Woodard in South Carolina).
Welles is back on the air where he belongs. Go check it out.
Monday, October 16, 2017
I'm really proud to be associated with the Film Noir Foundation and its journal NOIR CITY. Published and edited by FNF honcho and host of TCM's NOIR ALLEY Eddie Muller, it's one of the best movie journals around. The new issue is out and it's pretty damn great. There two pieces by Imogen Sara Smith, who's certainly my favorite writer on film working today. She's got a piece on Jean-Pierre Melville and another on the 1929 silent noir A STRONG MAN. Alan K. Rode writes about the great, if not widely known, screenwriter Frank Fenton. And there's a lot more.
Oh yeah, there's me. I have a couple pieces in this issue. One is a epic overview of the massive influence of Georges Simenon on European film noir. Adaptations of his novels started with Jean Renoir in the early days of sound and have extended to the present, so there's A LOT of territory to cover. It was a blast to write.
The other piece is a look at the film version of ALL THE KING'S MEN, the film about a blowhard populist politician who sweeps to power by inflaming his white rural base. Total fantasy stuff.
You can learn about about the magazine and the Film Noir Foundation here.