Tuesday, March 29, 2011
Todd Haynes opened his mini-series MILDRED PIERCE rather quietly Sunday night. For fans of the 1945 film noir version (and I certainly include myself in that club) that quietness might have come as something of a shock. Michael Curtiz opened his film with a murder, followed by a quick plunge into the mystery surrounding the killing. Haynes has kept his promise to hew closer to the book by James M. Cain. This ain't your mommie dearest's MILDRED PIERCE.
No, this is good old fashioned slow groove mini-series melodrama. The central conflict of the first two episodes isn't murder or mystery; it's a woman's attempts to find a job. If that seems like low-voltage stuff, it is.
But what makes it so interesting is that Haynes, like Cain before him, is taking the inherent class conflict seriously. If the Curtiz version of the story has a problem it's that Joan Crawford's Mildred is a long suffering saint. Her wicked daughter Veda is simply devil spawn, the most ungrateful child ever put on screen. Kate Winslet's Mildred, on the other hand, seems much more like Veda's mother. You can sorta see where Veda got her class snobbishness from. Like many parents, Mildred has passed on the worst of herself to her child and must watch in horror as it gradually becomes the child's defining characteristic. What Cain got at--and what, at least on the basis of the first two episodes, Haynes seems to be trying to get at--is the terrible way children can become ghoulish mirror images of their parents.
Veda scores a laugh in the first episode when she berates someone as being "distinctly middle class" but this contempt for the middle class makes sense in light of Mildred's reluctance to take a job to support her children. Crawford's Mildred hopped to work when the opportunity arose. There was no way that a Hollywood heroine was going to insult her audience by implying that manual labor was for an inferior breed of people. Winslet, on the other hand, ends up puking in a toilet at the thought of debasing herself. At the outset of the Depression, she's still clinging to a bourgeois image of herself. When she takes the job it's more an act of desperation--one which Veda cannot understand or forgive.
Part 3 debuts Sunday, April 3rd.
Saturday, March 26, 2011
Roger Ebert isn't just my favorite critic, he's one of my favorite writers. I was thirteen when my mother bought me a collection of his four star-reviews, a prophetic impulse-buy for her burgeoning cinephile of a middle child. I studied that book like scripture and through it I discovered many films.
One of the films Ebert introduced me to (either in that book or in one of the dozen or so of his guide books that I bought afterward) was John Huston's bizarre REFLECTIONS IN A GOLDEN EYE starring Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor. Years later, I'd get to see the film on the big screen at the AFI Silver.
Is it brilliant? Is it awful? Is it some kind of camp masterpiece somewhere in the middle? To be frank, you could make a compelling argument for any of these points of view. One thing is for sure: Huston and his stars fearlessly pursue Carson McCullers's southern gothic vision exactly where she wanted it to go. Huston might well have been the greatest adapter of books in the history of cinema--think THE MALTESE FALCON, THE ASPHALT JUNGLE, THE TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRE, THE MAN WOULD BE KING, WISE BLOOD--and this movie should be on the list of his notable accomplishments. Love it or hate it, I bet you you've never seen anything like it.
Taylor's death brought the movie to mind, and it brought to mind the impact of Ebert's essay. Lo and behold, it must have been on his mind as well because he posted his review over at his website. To get a sense of it's impact, the impact of a great critic on one's perception of a difficult film, read the essay here.
Wednesday, March 23, 2011
From child star to sex symbol to most famous woman in the world to washed-up tabloid punchline and now to a legend for the ages, Liz Taylor really did everything a movie star could do. She stayed famous longer than nearly any woman in show biz history, and she was one of the first people whose personal fame somehow eclipsed even her fame as a movie star. She got so famous that in a sense she quit being a movie star long before she stopped making pictures. She was just famous.
That is what it is, I suppose. There's no use arguing against it, but happily what will live on are the films themselves. My favorite Liz Taylor movie is the 1951 A PLACE IN THE SUN. Not a perfect movie, but she's perfect, a vision. When Goddard said that the history of cinema was the history of boys photographing girls, he might have been talking about the way Elizabeth Taylor walks into this movie and displaces everything and everyone around her. If you want to know what movie star quality looks like, you need look no further than the scene where Montgomery Clift turns around and sees Taylor for the first time. It's not just beauty--Clift himself is as beautiful a man as she is a woman--it's her palpable energy, her knowledge of and command over her affect on other people. It's star power, and it's what now lives on after her.
To see the moment I'm talking about, go here and skip ahead seven minutes: A Place In The Sun
Sunday, March 20, 2011
The private eye was always a fiction. Sure, he had his real life counterpart, but the average working investigator had about as much in common with Bogart's trenchcoat-wearing hero as actual smelly herd-riding cowhands had with John Wayne. I don't make the comparison offhandedly. In the fiction of Hammett (who had been a Pinkerton detective) and Chandler (who had been...a mid-level oil executive), the private eye became a modern day equivalent of the heroic cowboy: stationed out west, lonely and honest, grudgingly brave, squinting into the California sun and trying to see his way to moral clarity.
Of course, the PI was always a darker figure. Onscreen, he was epitomized by Bogart in THE MALTESE FALCON and THE BIG SLEEP, two full-tilt masterpieces with distinct tones and character. Bogie is slightly sinister in the first--befitting the combination of Hammett's character and John Huston's direction. In the second he strikes a far more heroic pose--which, again, results from the combination of talents behind the camera, in this case novelist Chandler and director Howard Hawks.
But the PI didn't live and die with Bogart. Actor Dick Powell and director Edward Dmytryk actually got to Chander ahead of Bogie and Hawks with their excellent adaptation of FAREWELL MY LOVELY, retitled MURDER MY SWEET.
OUT OF THE PAST cast Robert Mitchum as a PI in love with the wrong woman (but ill-advised love affairs were pretty much Mitchum's rasion d'etre in the forties and fifties). The film marked the romantic high point of the fedora-wearing hero. After this, things got nastier, even more confusing.
As the old boys began to die off and retire in the fifties, the private eye changed. This was inevitable: since he'd always been an urban cowboy, he would change with the times. Paul Newman played a gum-smacking version of Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer in 1966's HARPER (opposite Lauren Bacall, for good measure), and he reprised the role in 1975's THE DROWNING POOL. The tangle that our hero must cut through may have altered, but Newman's Harper is very much of a piece with Bogart, Powell, and Mitchum. If anything, he may be the loneliest of the four.
By the seventies, of course, the private eye was operating in a California that was known for the Manson family and Jim Jones, civil unrest and drugged out teenagers, and--not incidentally-- the reactionary rise of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. The moral thicket that Bogart hacked through in the forties had never stopped growing.
Into this mess came a new kind of PI. He was less assured, more likely to lose, and lose big. CHINATOWN might be set in 1937, but it's every bit the seventies film, its ending mandated by a director who'd lost his wife to Charles Manson's acid-fueled insanity. Jack Nicholson is terrific as private eye JJ Gittes, but he's about as 1937 as a pair of bell-bottoms.
Writer Keith Phillips has nice piece over at the AVClub CALLED "New Hollywood Gumshoes" about three other seventies private eye flicks: THE LONG GOODBYE, THE LATE SHOW, and NIGHT MOVES. Of the three films, THE LATE SHOW is the most entertaining. Color me a classicist, but I've always hated Altman's THE LONG GOODBYE--I get that it's deconstructing the genre but, yawn, wake me when it's over--and NIGHT MOVES indulges Arthur Penn's tendency toward joylessness. THE LATE SHOW strikes me as the best example of the private eye genre in abeyance, hanging in the balance, as it were, waiting to be claimed by the next generation. (Director Robert Benton would later make the 1998 private eye flick TWILIGHT starring Paul Newman and Gene Hackman). As goes the culture, so goes the lonely private eye. In fact, it's not surprising given our youth-obsessed culture that the most notable private eye flick of the last few years was the 2005 BRICK which relocated the action of a private eye plot...to a California high school. Hey, a PI just follows the trouble where it leads, and trouble never sleeps.
To check out Phillip's piece, click here.
Monday, March 14, 2011
Author Nigel Bird hosts a fun series called Dancing With Myself wherein he asks writers to interview themselves. He's had all kinds of folks interview their bad selves, from big-timers like Lawrence Block and Maxim Jakubowski to scrappy legends-in-the-making like Eric Beetner and Paul Brazill. Normally, this kind of self-pleasuring is best kept behind closed doors, but when Nigel asks you to do something, it's wise to say yes. The man was a primary school teacher in the UK, for god's sake. He accepts no guff.
You can check out my interview--a kind of meta-essay ramble containing big news and juicy tidbits--over at his blog, Sea Minor.
Saturday, March 12, 2011
She could play the bad girl if she had to (her drug-dealing nurse is easily the best thing about the underbaked THE SLEEPING CITY), but Coleen Gray almost always played a dependable gal in a pinch. She tried in vain to steer Sterling Hayden away from his final doom in THE KILLING, saved what was left of Tyrone Power at the end of NIGHTMARE ALLEY, and she helped John Payne wade through a river of thugs in KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL.
She got her first star-billing on one of the flagship noirs, 1947's KISS OF DEATH, serving as both narrator and star. Pretty almost to the point of unbelievably--in NIGHTMARE ALLEY she looks like a goddess--she exuded a certain playful innocence. She was the girl next door who probably wouldn't get boring after the honeymoon. Sadly, this quality wasn't recognized by the brass and despite being in a spate of fine films (she was John Wayne's lost love in RED RIVER), Gray was soon relegated to low budget crap like THE LEECH WOMAN. Her legacy as noir's premiere good girl, though, lives on.
Essential Coleen Gray Noir:
KISS OF DEATH
Best of the rest:
THE SLEEPING CITY
LAS VEGAS SHAKEDOWN
Finally, check out the Film Noir Foundation's recent video interviews with Gray. Good stuff.
Tuesday, March 8, 2011
David Goodis, noir's bad luck poet, is that rare kind of crime writer who inspires real obsession in readers. Maybe that's because his books were so seldom about the mechanics of crime and more often about people. Sad, defeated people, yes--but people. This makes him rare among post-war crime writers. Unlike Spillane, he rarely wrote about tough guys. And unlike Thompson, he even more rarely wrote about psychos. Goodis wrote about losers. Where Spillane was a sadist and Thompson was a nihlist, Goodis was postwar noir's premiere existentialist. In the end, he seemed to say, we all lose. If that sounds depressing, what makes Goodis's novels snap is their rich humanity. He seemed to love his characters. A warm humanity in the face of encroaching oblivion--what more could you want?
These reflections were inspired by a new piece over at davidgoodis.com concerning Goodis's marriage to Elaine Astor. Go check it out, and then stick around to root through the website. It's a treasure trove for fans of Goodis's work. Be warned, though, that it may very well make you dash out to buy some of the great man's books. I suggest starting with Street of No Return.
Tuesday, March 1, 2011
Cullen Gallagher has kicked off his new Silent Film Chronicle with a piece on the great Janet Gaynor. It's exciting that Gallagher--the brains behind Pulp Serenade--has devoted his new blog to one of the most fascinating but least understood areas of filmmaking, the silent era. Go check out his essay on Gaynor, as beautiful and charismatic an actress as ever worked in movies, and tell him what you think.