Saturday, February 12, 2011

Frankly my Dear, some half-drunken thoughts on GONE WITH THE WIND

And now for a "Special Saturday Movie Madness", this coming thanks to the February month of 'Turner Classic Movies' 31 Days of Oscar'.  You know the ones, where they trot out ALL of the Oscar winners from the past, erm, 346128492 years that the Oscars have been going on for (though I believe the most recent feature they've had on is Michael Mann's Ali).

So, given this, I decided finally, after years of going back and forth on going to watch it, and even going so far as to rent it out of the library (I might have even had it on VHS somewhere at some point), I hunkered down and watched David O. Selznick's production of Gone with the Wind.  All four hours of it.  With help from my friend White Russian.  And some distracted-disorder-stuff with two short films I made from almost six or seven years ago trying to upload online.  So it goes.

But what of this film?  What of it as I sit here on a fourth mix of alcoholic coffee as I ponder this big-fuck epic of 20-th century Hollywood grandiose cinema?  It is, by my humble estimation (and I do declare, as does the starlet of this picture) an example of the highest class of Hollywood craftsmanship, with all of its production designers and lighting technicians and production set workers and so on working at their top capacity.  It's also impressive considering that it's one of those first color films that really made its mark on Hollywood history.  It's cinematographer deserves a blow-job before an Oscar.  If I had been Selznick I would've been down on my knees thanking him for making his sets looking so gobsmackingly beautiful.  Nay, epic, and iconic.

And Hattie McDaniel's like, "Bitch, you crazy?"

At the heart of the film, however, at the core of this story that spans what seems to be decades (or at least a decade), and includes the Civil war and Reconstruction circa mid 19th century Georgeia, is a cold-hearted bitch who scorns her life based upon not getting ONE man.  Imagine Bella in the Twilight series if she couldn't get Edward.

Just imagine it, you sorry bastard men who have watched that movie (or women too), if that simpering little twat couldn't get the one man in her life that seemed to be all that she wanted and that if she couldn't get him oh holy hell what would happen and fuck that werewolf Indian who keeps hitting on me, sweet Jesus!  No, this isn't some teenager listening to Lynkyn Park on an endless loop, this is Scarlett O'Hara we're talking about here after all, an impetuous woman but one of fiery spirit.  I'm sure more than one man comments on her on that in this film.  Is that code for something else?

Oh, she is brave and courageous, that I'm certain.  In the story of this film, she goes from young girl pining after the dreamy Ashley (Leslie Howard? I believe that's him?), but lo and behold he loves someone else.  What is a poor girl to do, despite being propositioned clearly by TONS of other guys?  Well, pout I suppose, and throw off the advances of the dashingly handsome (and master of eyebrow ceremonies) Clark Gable to the wayside.  After all, it's War(TM)!  She has to look out for her family, of which is becoming much more precious.

Because Gone with the Wind, after all, is historical romance first, with history coming first... that is, in its first half of the story more than anything.  And dear reader, it is riveting history, where Scarlett is thrust into the deep dark belly of the beast that is the backdrop of the Civil War in America.  Sure, she's on the side of the asshole Confederates (you know the ones, the ones that STILL won't put down their flags, fucking douchebags, but besides the point), but she's got more than that to defend.  She's not out in the fields of battle.  She's gotta protect the homestead.  And her Momma!  Momma momma momma!

Sadly when she finally gets back to Tara (sic) her father is mostly all that's left save for Mammy (Hattie McDaniel, the most bravest and honest of the bunch in this film despite being called "Darky" on more than one occasion indirectly or head-on).  Her mother is passed on.  What to do!  As she declares before the intermission comes up (and in the backdrop of one of those sun-lit skies that makes one weep in awe of camera lenses) that she will NEVER go HUNGRY again(!).  So she takes hold of the Tara plantation.

It's this that it should become most interesting, as growth for a character like Scarlett should occur.  And lo and behold, it does, almost despite everything.  But then she has to get that 300 dollars to help out her plantation.  What to do?  Why not reach out to Mr. Eyebrow-Mustache himself, Mr. Rhett Butler, played by the dashingly handsome and painfully sweet and caring if sometimes (can't be helped) sarcastic Clark Gable?  Couldn't hurt.

It turns into the Romance of the Century(TM) as she becomes the unwitting wife of a man who wants nothing to do but be the Gentleman from Charleston and provide for her and their new daughter.  But oh Scarlett just deep down wants Ashley (Howard), who she's always wanted, despite being married to that goody-too-shoes who she helped out give birth in the midst of Confederate Apocalypse, and Rhett, naturally, can't stand it.  This, dear reader, is what's actually at the core of the film.

Poor Scarlett, she just wants that unattainable man, the one who is so kind and good and an awesome soldier... but his heart is understandably with a normal woman instead of a selfish little teenager in a woman's body like Scarlett.  Rhett can putt up with her, or does love her indeed, because he says he too is selfish.  I'm not totally sure if that's the case.  Why is he truly in love with her?  Who knows?  Maybe Vivien Leigh is just that good of an actress (and pretty to boot) to do that to the man formerly unswayed by the swaying leg in It Happened One Night.  Or he just is a gullible gimp.  At any rate. my sympathies were more with him (understandably) than her by the end.

Isnt this a face you cant not love? HUH!?!?!
It's not that Leigh is even that bad in the role.  On the contrary I totally believed Scarlett O'Hara's cuntiness due to her believability, and she wouldn't be able to out-do this performance for craziness till her pinaccle in Streetcar Named Desire as the notorious Blanche DuBois.  But it's also hard to feel sympathy for her in such  a bullshit romantic triangle.  Some women may feel for her, or identify with her.  More power to ya, and I'm sure you're out there (it is, after all still, the adjusted-for-inflation highest grossing film of all time, thanks to lack of TV and men at war).

But it's also a conflict of interest.  Dear Scarlett, her stakes are quite high, being abandoned practically with little by the end of the Civil War (she even has to kill a dirty Yankee for trying to get onto her property to steal earrings), and she has to build up the family's fortune again.  Luckily, she does that relatively quickly, so what else is there?  Frankly, hystrionics with the personal side of things.

And I don't mean to come down totally too hard on the film.  Sure, of course it's beautifully made.  Everything about Seznicks' production (and I neglect Victor Fleming though by most accounts he was a hired gun and it was Selnicks' baby from conception to birth), and the perfectionism he practiced shows.

Hard to question - it's marvelous to look at with its sprawling sets and gorgeous skies and shots that move in and out of the depths of field like out of a bright and/or dark dream.  It's style is hard to discredit, particularly when certain shots like when Scarlett and Olivia DeHavilland are in a Church looking over a body and their shadows take over the mis-en-scene.  On stylistic grounds it was a breakthrough that does hold up.

So she came up and was like "I've loved you since I hit puberty, marry me!" and I said 'Yeah, whatever"

But as a piece of theater, drama, acting, I'm not quite sure.  It's most obvious contemporary counterpart would be Titanic, another silly and overblown love story which uses the gigantor-ness of history as a backdrop of elephantine proportions.  I might have liked Gone with the Wind more than Titanic, but not by very much.  Its characters are mostly just as petty and cruel... no, more so here with its protagonist.  I just couldn't stand the bitchiness of Scarlett O'Hara!  She might be endearing to audiences, as clear by the film's immense popularity over seventy years, but I just don't see it.  Leigh helps bring some life and emotion into her, but it doesn't make us care much for her, especially when she becomes shrill and one-note, which is in most scenes.  And it's only near the end, when she's finally FINALLY about to lose her one stable guy in life that she kinda, sorta freaks out, and we get that iconic like that I dare not fucking repeat here!

It's due to this that I can't recommend the film as a full-blown masterpiece, not to mention that many scenes are downright corny and laughable, and not just if you're on several glasses of Vodka with milk and Kahlua.  It's a film that is lush with life and vibrancy, and may well be a classic.  I'm reminded of Dave Kehr's review in Chicago Reader: "It's not really any good, but it's great anyway."  That about sums it up really, a pure epic of Hollywood, full of technical wonder and artistry, and with character who act pretty damn stupid.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011


Fritz Lang.  The Man.  The Myth.  The Legend with One Eye Not John Ford.  That is the Man in the sense of being one of those great crossover stories from Europe to the US.  While he didn't make as many hits as a contemporary like Hitchcock - and he didn't come to the US due to being so enticed to come as opposed to fleeing from Hitler making him his Film Bitch - he was a king in the realm of "B-Movies".  Not all on purpose, but he made a succession of films, some war, a couple Westerns, and a whole lotta Film Noir.  Matter of fact, if Lang hadn't been making the films he made (You Only Live Once, Scarlet Street, Woman in the Window, The Big Heat, Human Desire), the mood and energy and melodramatic mania of the movement would've had a huge gap (plus a lot of bad-ass performers wouldn't get jobs).

So, the Film Forum has been doing a wonderful retrospective of his work in the twenty years (1936-56) that he was in the good ol' US-of-A, doing his part to turn the dramatic mirror back on to us.  And these were two somewhat more obscure works, "B-movies" if you will, with its biggest stars in the second film.

Sometimes in Film-Noir you had the villain as the 'lead'.  The Third Man notwithstanding, they were out there, and some more sympathetic than others (one that jumps to mind right away is a character who becomes a villain over the course of the story, Fritz Lang's own Scarlet Street).  What's notable about his low-budget film House by the River is how nasty the main character is, and how much he loves being it.  Even before plot point numero-uno where writer Stephen Byrne (Louis Hayward) "accidentally" strangles his maid after trying to force a big fat kiss on to her and gets his limping, weak-but-not-stupid brother to help him dump the body in the river, he looks creepy.  He gazes out his window like a bourgeois monster.  If you'd told me Luis Bunuel had directed these opening scenes I'd believe you.  He's so much a jerk at the start, and whatever sympathy we might feel at first for being an "accident" (must use quotes) goes away pretty fast.  He makes Jack Torrance look peachy-keen by comparison.

There is a story that does unfold in some melodramatic fashion - mostly involving the guilt Stephen's brother John (Lee Bowman, perhaps by default more subtle with some of his acting save for a courtroom scene where he always clenches his fists) - but it's more about mood I think for Lang here.  He didn't have much money to play with, and it shows in some moments, not to mention limited sets and a cast that has no one, frankly, I could recognize.  If anything I had to think that he cast Hayward as Orson Welles was unavailable (he seriously resembles him if not totally in appearance than in facial mannerisms and speech, that or the grown-up version of Vincent Kartheiser on Mad Men).  Hayward is Lang's wild-card here; if a scene isn't quite picking up steam or the dialog is a little average, Hayward will puck up and just eat the scene around the actors.

You ever heard of the healing power of writing about your own crimes?
How much you dig that depends on how much you dig scene chewing.  Considering how much we are certainly NOT meant to identify with this character, that he's a murderer who keeps trying to get away with shit (not to mention WRITING ABOUT IT in a new book where he feels "free finally) and getting a look on his face like "Hmmm, oh, yeah, that's... cool" after Stephen realizes the burlap sack holding the ex-maid has his brother's initials all over it.  I dug it, and I kept looking forward to the next moment when he would get a little wackier and more deranged.  To be sure this did lead to a hilariously warped ending - a factor from the Hayes Code days perhaps, though it does allow for a fun little "surprise" gag involving another character. But it's all in creating good tension and suspense, which, while not ever "great", is decent for such a story where circumstance and trust issues are a big thing, how the wife loses trust, grows closer to John Byrne, the brother becomes an outcast, etc.

What does save it from being just a pot-boiler in Victorian-era garb, or it being a bizarre tale of the breaking of writer's block (or lifts it up as that), is Lang as director.  He just has a way about framing faces and places, getting the most buck from the darkness that surrounds these people.  It goes a way to explain how at times characters, like Stephen's wife Marjorie, comments upon the darkness all around.  This is in the era before most lights were electrical, which allows for a lot of scenes of characters hiding in the shadows of rooms without the aid of a lamp, peering around the side as a person comes knocking at a door or goes walking down a hallway.

If Lang does anything to try to get the audience to understand (as opposed to identify) with Stephen, and successfully, it's that, the paranoia, the growing delirium of this dead body creating horror all around.  It's not supposed to be a horror movie, but it's hard not to shake it, especially when Stephen has to go by boat at night to try and find that burlap sack.  By the way Lang frames and edits Stephen in his little boat, it's a wonder the river doesn't eat him up and burp up a soiled dickey.  This is a case where a script isn't ever "bad", but the direction certainly elevates it from what it could have been, which was forgettable.  It's hard to forget some of these images, almost despite the predictable melodrama.


The Blue Gardenia - I'd heard of this movie years back, obviously, from looking at Lang's filmography.  I was always curious to see it just by the title, as it sounded akin to The Blue Dahlia, another 'Blue' film-noir type of movie that involves murder and deceit, only this not being via Raymond Chandler.  Finally coming around to it, it surprises as one of Lang's most involving American film-noirs.  It might suffer a little at the end by a 'twist' that has to make one think back to a tertiary character from earlier in the story and how that factors in, and makes some sense but not a lot to be totally credible, but it's its only real flaw.  The rest of it is simmering with tension and dread as this story could be something audiences nowadays could identify with.  It's like The Hangover shot by John Alton (yeah, take THAT cross-referencing film buffs!)

The story concerns a woman, not too young but not too old, played by the very talented and naturally sexy Anne Baxter, who is looking forward to hear back from her lover who is overseas in the army, and discovers by letter that... she's dumped.  So, she goes to drown her sorrows away (her fellow girl-roommate friends aren't around that night), and she goes with the first guy who propositions her, heavy Raymond Burr (yup, Perry Mason himself), and he takes her to a Chinese restaurant full of exotic beverages, Nat King Cole (actually present and pleasantly singing the movie's theme song in person!), and Chinese food.  He makes himself out to be a cool dude with lots of paintings of women, but really he's a lothario, and his scheme to take her back to his place to liquor her up more and have-his-way backfires as she resists and knocks him with a poker!

She wakes up the next morning back at her place and doesn't remember a thing... but then little flashes happen, a mirror breaking, coffee, little signs, and the Blue Gardenia, leading up to the news headlines about the murder!  It then turns into a story of when-and-how as a newspaper man played by stone-faced Richard Conte tries to get the Blue Gardenia Girl to come forward.  But throughout Lang pumps up the dread and paranoia in the situation, and how it is not something so far out but could happen to women out there.  And because of how douche-like Harry Prebble was, she's not so unsympathetic.  This makes things a little different than the usual 'crime-doesn't-pay' aesthetic in these crime stories.  She's just a dame with bad luck, and Baxter plays up this part of Norak Larkin very well.  She is as she sounds to one of the waitresses: a nice, soft voice.  And 5 1/2 shoes.

There is comedy here, too, that shouldn't be forgotten.  Some of it may be funny just by the passage of time, the way stuff in The Big Heat is amusing as well just by the changing of some attitudes.  Other times it is funny quips and exchanges, mostly by Norah's chatty roommates who have their own male issues they deal with (nothing as serious as her of course).  And Lang has some fun here and there; my favorite was a riff on Mickey Spallane crime novels, and we see a cover for one called "My Knife is Bloody" (how that is not a horror movie yet I haven't the slightest).  But mostly, The Blue Gardenia is wonderful at expressing how tough it is for a woman to get by in such a situation, not just as a murderer/murderess.  The roles reversed it'd be a different ball-game, but her story makes it into a punchy-headline grabber that even throws its own newspaper writer off-guard.

Sorry I can't make this larger, google-images can't stand it's magnifi-fuckyes-ness
What matters for Lang are those scenes showing Baxter's Norah in distress, and in the unease of trying to trust in a world of men after such a double-header of a) being dumped, and b) basically killing a guy after attempted rape.  Some of the predictable beats happen after this, with an ending that is almost kinda quaint and cute if not kind of stupid by today's standards (again, silly twist, though still staged excellently by Lang).  But the nature of how this character has to operate in this city and place, how she walks around at night in the fog on a dark street (oh what a great shot that is, you'll know it when you see it), and how the casual life of a woman can turn into a nightmare so quickly and in the dicey stuff of memory of a drunken night.  It's one of the director's more insidious looks at humanity, all the more distressing behind the entertainment of the pot-boiler aspects, in that it's all so average with jobs like switchboard operators and painters and casual dating.

Again, The Hangover done super hard-boiled 1950's style, and with less Zach Galifianakis.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Happy Birthday, Francois! THE MAN WHO LOVED WOMEN

"She's got legs,
she knows how to use them." (ZZ Top: "Legs")

Sometimes a womanizer can be an obsessive compulsive at the same time.  Maybe that's what is at the heart of The Man Who Loved Women, Francois Truffaut's 1977 film which is not based on a book (could've fooled me, but besides the point).  Bertrand Morane (Charles Denner) has a fixation on women, all women, any one really who isn't under 15 or over 65 and has a pulse.  And while he may love them, or have some affection for them, or not after a while, he can't stop himself, even after (presumably) after he gets gonnorea from one of half a dozen women he slept with in the past week before being diagnosed!  He's something of a Ladies Man, yet he keeps each one in check with mementos, pictures, receipts, whatever, in a drawer in his apartment.  Some of them he might not even be genuinely attracted to, but there's always something that he might spot- a leg, a heel, a friendly face- that draws him in.  How he stops, or tries to stop, from being so compulsive with most women is to write a book.

And what material he can have!  Right at the start Truffaut shows us how cunning Bertrand is: he sees a woman with a particular set of legs walk by, and he must pursue.  He gets down the license plate but the secretary won't give her information.  He wrecks his own car just to find out her information from the insurance company.  This leads him to a rent-a-car company who also won't give her information.  Then another woman there offers him her contact info, and he gets in touch with her... her cousin, that is, and they meet, but despite finding her somewhat attractive he goes on his way without her.  And then that secretary from the rental-car place gets in his mind as he drives (literally, Truffaut makes a super-imposition of her on the sky as he drives).  Just another day in the life for Bertrand, until he sees that next pair of legs, that wavy hair, or those eyes that seem kind or alluring or neglectful - until she sees him.  So it goes.

French Black Dynamite conquers again.
Bertrand isn't a malicious guy or sleazy either.  He's handsome in the way professors and (as he is) scientists are, not as a super-Don Juan but as an everyman.  He's just, as most would like to be and sometimes are, a man with a hankering for the women and with all of their complexity and wisdom and insecurities.  Sometimes the script gets flipped on him, so to speak, as one woman in particular, whom she is cheating on her husband with Bertrand, becomes obsessed with him, and makes it as if he is the controller when she is having sex with him in public, in cars, everywhere but his apartment.

There's a really touching moment, perhaps expected, when she does come to his place and makes remarks about his couch.  "My friends sit on this couch," he says.  She retorts, "You don't have friends!  Just mistresses."  Touche.  Bertrand resolves to write a book about his many, many female conquests, going back to his youth (shot, as memory sometimes seems to be with art-films, black and white like in the French Nouvelle Vague) , and yet leaving out one crucial woman... the one who started all of this introspection and contemplation.

Truffaut's film is a serious-light-hearted look at obsessive romance, if that makes sense.  He's not one to make it too dark or too sardonic- this isn't Deconstructing Harry about a hopeless horndog- but it's also not too despondent about its character's situation.  We like him and want him to do well almost in spite of himself at times.  And we're told this quite a lot, mostly by Bertrand in narration but sometimes by other women (mostly one, his book editor at the end, which is most illuminating).  It may be a surfeit of narration; it's not badly written and often gives a good indication of what the character is going through and thinking, but it's just too much.  Some of it could've been trimmed.  I feel like an ass even suggesting this for Truffaut, being one of those towering filmmakers of his era, but there are times when as a director 'show, don't tell' could be used for better effect, despite (or because really) it's a guy writing his memoir of sexual conquests.

Thankfully Bertrand, though sometimes sullen-faced or with that disposition of 'well, I love you, you're everything, thanks, will call again', is more complex than I would've given credit for.  At first I thought, by starting at the end with his funeral and a slightly Bunuel-esque touch of sexy-surrealism as all of the guests at the funeral are his former flings and loves, that the character wouldn't grow all that much and that by the end we would have a simple study of a man compulsive in love and lust.  But it isn't that simple.  Bertrand does change by the end of the story, though not without the temptation to go back to his old ways.  He grows and understands what he went through to get to this point; one of the finest scenes of the film (thinking more about it after the fact, one of Truffaut's finest scenes as a director period) is when Bertrand talks with Vera, a woman he once loved, but now that love is no more.

It's a long conversation, and it may seem to drag on first watch, but it gets to the heart of what this character is about, and what other women around him are about (that is, the ones that do genuinely care for him, not just the one-night flings or cuties or prostitutes).  Truffaut handles this so well it almost might seem the rest of the picture is better in hindsight.  This is not entirely the case.  The film has its virtues, like pleasantly fetishistic shots of women's legs (nothing too hot, just enough to get one born in 1902's blood racing), and a story that moves along episodically but every episode has something of fun or drama to it, from the women who turns out to be a murderer (the cuckolder I mentioned before) and his secretary at work, who he found at a restaurant take a man physically flirting with her to task (that is to say she flips him over kung-fu style!)

The Man Who Loved Women could have been dull, with its look at a man who should be without redeeming character as a flagrant womanizer.  But its the character's drive to find what it is inside of him- ultimately that he's something of a grown-up child if that makes sense- and Truffaut's as well that elevates it from being like a paperback book made cinematic.  It's got romance, wonderfully full-human characters even if they're only on screen for a few minutes, and an ending that has resonance and heart.  It should be a ridiculous ending, and it is, but it's nevertheless tragic at the same time.  Ah, Romance!  It is French...