Friday, January 15, 2016

YOUNG ORSON


I guess I'm obsessed with Orson Welles. I was on the fence about this--the question of "Am I obsessed? Or am I just a huge fan?"--until recently. I mean, Welles has long been one of my favorite directors. I own all his movies. I own multiple copies, in fact, of most of his movies. I've seen all his movies on the big screen, and I've seen most of them more than once. So, sure, I'm a huge fan.

But I realized I was obsessed when I recently took a step back from my bookshelf and realized that I've read over two dozen books about the man and his films. That's more books than I've read about any other human being. I realized I was obsessed because, despite this bulk of reading, I always want to read more.

I also realized I'm obsessed because when I finished Patrick McGilligan's brilliant new biography YOUNG ORSON, I wanted nothing more than to pick up another book on the guy.

Of course, some of this is due to the quality of McGilligan's book itself. YOUNG ORSON is the best biography of Welles that I've ever read. It's beautifully written and deeply researched. At this stage of our understanding of Welles and his work, it's also a decisive argument against the longstanding theory that Welles was just a self-destructive boy genius whose late-career hardships were, like his obesity, the result of a deep-seated character flaw.

That theory hammered Welles in his later years and infected much of the discussion of his work for years, even decades after his death. It was promoted by people like Pauline Kael in her famous essay "Raising Kane" which portrayed Welles as a washed-up overrated credit-stealing egoist. It was promulgated by John Houseman, Welles's former friend and associate, in various books and interviews. Most dispiritingly, it was enshrined by the documentary THE BATTLE OVER CITIZEN KANE, which won an Oscar and was included in the official anniversary packages of CITIZEN KANE on DVD and Blu-Ray.

Despite all of that, many cinephiles have long known better. (I wrote about this years ago, around the time of the release of Richard Linklater's ME AND ORSON WELLES.) Most importantly, the myth of Welles's self-destruction never took into account his actual post-KANE film work--from his noirs THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI and THE STRANGER and, especially, TOUCH OF EVIL to his brilliant literary adaptations like THE TRIAL (which is the Welles film I return to the most), THE IMMORTAL STORY, and, of course, his glorious Shakespeare masterpiece FALSTAFF. No one who has contended with those works (most of which were little seen in the United States) could believe that Welles was a one-hit wonder.

Several books have helped to restore Welles to his rightful place in film history. Editor Jonathan Rosenbaum's THIS IS ORSON WELLES, the interview book between Welles and Peter Bogdanovich, is a masterpiece that remains the most important book to date on the man and his work. And ORSON WELLES AT WORK by scholars Jean-Pierre Berthomè and François Thomas did more than any other book to show us how Welles actually made his films. 

With YOUNG ORSON, McGilligan thoroughly debunks the myth of Welles as an ego monster who tore through people in a ruthless quest for power that ultimately destroyed him. The Welles who emerges here is fully human--capable of cruelty but also of great generosity, a man willing to work harder than anyone, a man willing to spend all his time and money and energy on his art. Did he have large appetites for food and booze and sex? Yes, but McGilligan does a nice job of bringing the myth down to size via some rigorous fact-checking. To take one example, he shows how John Houseman would tell a damning story about Welles gallivanting around with a ballerina at some particularly inopportune time...despite the fact that the woman in question was in a different place in the company of her husband.

In many ways, Houseman emerges, if not the villain of the book, then at least as the antagonist. This is a much needed corrective to all the books that unquestionably accept Houseman's word as the disinterested recollections of an old associate. Instead, McGilligan shows Welles and Houseman as temperamentally opposed men whose falling out was something along the lines of a bitter divorce. Houseman spent much of the rest his life conflating facts, spreading gossip as gospel and telling stories that portrayed Welles in the worst light possible. All of this is important to understand since Houseman was the primary source for people like Pauline Kael and Charles Higham, the author of a damaging biography on Welles.

I've only scratched the surface of this book. Among other things, it provides the most detailed portraits yet of Welles's parents, especially his fascinating mother, the crusading suffragist Beatrice Welles. After the deaths of his parents, it charts his course through Todd's School for Boys in Woodstock, Illinois to his sojourn at the age of sixteen to Ireland where he supported himself by writing pulp fiction, painting, and finally becoming an actor in Dublin. From there the accomplishments mount--writing a textbook on Shakespeare while traveling to Spain where he became obsessed with bullfighting before his return to America where he worked as an actor before becoming the most important stage director of his time and then becoming the most infamous radio director in the world before then traveling to Hollywood to make the most influential movie of the last seventy-five years.

So yes, I'm obsessed, but how could you not want to know more about that guy. Welles lived an absolutely fascinating life from beginning to end, and Patrick McGilligan has charted the incredible first leg of that life's journey in beautiful detail.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

THE CLOCK (1945)


I think Judy Garland might well have been the greatest performer in the history of motion pictures. We all know she was a great singer, but she was also a superb dancer (Gene Kelly rated her as his most gifted partner) and one of the great underrated comic actors of classic cinema. She was also, not incidentally, a fine dramatic actor. She didn't do many non-musicals, unfortunately, but her work on pictures like A CHILD IS WAITING (1963) and JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG (1961) nicely demonstrates that as an actor she could draw on the same depth of feeling that made her a great singer. The best example of this is probably found in George Cukor's 1954 musical drama masterpiece A STAR IS BORN, which called on every skill that Judy Garland had, to glorious results.

But Garland's most underrated dramatic role was the one she gave in Vincent Minnelli's fascinating 1945 war drama THE CLOCK. Judy plays Alice Mayberry a young secretary in New York who meets solider Joe Allen (Robert Walker) who is on a 48-hour leave before he'll be shipped off to war. The two walk around the city together, flirting and fighting and falling in love, until they decide to get married in a rush. In the end, Alice sees Joe off at the station as he returns to war and she returns to her life.

With this kind of material, one would expect the romance to be lush and light and thick with sentiment. Yet the script by Robert Nathan and Joseph Schrank, from the story by Paul and Pauline Gallico, grounds things in a kind of reality. Alice holds Joe at arms length, afraid of being "picked up" by a solider, and thus being thought of as "that kind of girl." (The film hints that this is a constant danger of single young women in the city.) Their whirlwind romance is marked by uncertainty about the future, and their rush to get married is hampered at every turn by a bored bureaucracy that regards their love affair as just another pile of paperwork. This lack of sentiment is a Minnelli specialty. Even in something as heartwarming as MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS, the mood is complicated by dark humor and sudden flashes of anger and violence. In THE CLOCK, the romance between Alice and Joe is placed in a decidedly unromantic context. This juxtaposition has the effect of making the romance all the more moving.

Garland and Walker are excellent. Judy gets to play a street smart young woman, a nice change of pace from all the doe-eyed innocents she had to play for MGM. She's eminently believable in the role, perhaps because Judy herself was far from a doe-eyed innocent in 1945, despite her public image. She was, in many ways, a shrewd working girl, closer in spirit to Alice Mayberry than to OZ's Dorothy Gale. Walker compliments her nicely because there's an edge to his performance. Walker was going through a painful divorce during the making of the film (his wife Jennifer Jones had already left him for producer David O. Selznick), and he gives Joe an unsettled quality. He's not just a nice kid from Indiana. There's something slightly dangerous about him. Watching him here, you can see why his most famous role would be as a psycho in Hitchcock's STRANGERS ON A TRAIN.

The most fascinating element of THE CLOCK is the unsettled quality of the romance between Alice and Joe. You can believe that they fell in love and you can believe that they got married in a fever, but you can also believe that the marriage might not work out in the end. There's a lot unresolved at the end, and not just because Joe is shipping off to war. There's the fact that Alice and Joe seem to want different things. She seems very happy working in the city and doesn't seem in a rush to have kids, while he wants to go back to where he came from. The ending is sweet but restrained, with the newlywed couple telling each other, "See you soon." Then Joe boards his train and Alice turns and walks into the crowd at Penn Station, merging and disappearing in the crush of people.

In its quiet way, THE CLOCK is one of the best romances of the wartime period. It's not epic like CASABLANCA, but it's also more nuanced and, in some ways, more mature. It's about two small people whose love affair is insignificant to the outside world. They marry out of love and fear and a sense that time might run out on them. It's the kind of movie where you can be happy for the crazy kids while not being altogether sure that they're going to make it as a couple. If you can appreciate the fragile beauty of their love affair then THE CLOCK takes takes on real resonance as an artifact of World War II.

Monday, January 4, 2016

My 2015 At The Movies


I went to the movies 61 times in 2015. That's about my average, and it's better than a movie a week, which makes me happy. I saw two movies (MAD MAX: FURY ROAD and SPOTLIGHT) twice, so I saw a total of 59 films. 30 of the films were released in 2015, while the other 29 were older films. The first movie I saw was PREDESTINATION (2015) and the last I saw was CAROL (2015). The oldest movie I saw was DW Griffith's WAY DOWN EAST (1920).

2015 was the centennial of Orson Welles, so I got to see a lot of Welles films in the theater, the mark of any good moviegoing year. Of course, that included favorites like CITIZEN KANE and FALSTAFF (CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT) that I've seen in the theater many times, but it also included THE IMMORTAL STORY, which I'd never seen in a theater before. Now that was a damn highlight. (Sadly, I didn't get to see THE TRIAL.)

My biggest find of the year was to rediscover the grace and beauty of Satyajit Ray's APU TRILOGY. I first saw Ray's films in my early twenties when I was consuming as much classic cinema as I could. I discovered a lot of lasting loves that way (Ulmer, Bergman, Kieslowski), but some things fell through the cracks. I liked Ray's films, but perhaps I was too young, too immature for them back then. Whatever the reason, I discovered them anew this year when APU was rereleased in theaters. Deeply moving and beautifully made, they instantly became films that I treasure and am eager to return to as soon as possible.

Of course, man does not live on classic film alone. I had a great year with the new stuff. I loved SPOTLIGHT, a smart and tightly controlled piece of outrage. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD was the best action film I've seen in years. I really do think it's some kind of crazy masterpiece.

I think I saved the best for last, because the final film I saw this year was CAROL, the romance directed by Todd Haynes and written by Phyllis Nagy. Set in the fifties, the film is based on the 1950 novel THE PRICE OF SALT by Patricia Highsmith, and stars Cate Blanchett as a married woman who meets and falls in love with a shopgirl played by Rooney Mara. Haynes, one of our best directors, is a classical filmmaker whose devilish streak compels him to keep making movies like FAR FROM HEAVEN or the mini-series MILDRED PIERCE that rescue genre pieces from the past and reinterpret them for modern audiences. With CAROL he's made perhaps his best film, taking the kind of story that was once dismissed as lesbian pulp. As with MILDRED PIERCE, though, a big part of what Haynes and screenwriter Nagy do here is to simply respect the integrity of the original material. The result is an instant classic.

All in all, it was a great year at the movies. Here's what I saw:

1. Predestination (2015)

2. Selma (2014)

3. Jupiter Ascending (2015)

4. A Girl Walks Homes Alone At Night (2015)

5. Hogtown (2015)

6. She's Beautiful When She's Angry (2015)

7. 7th Heaven (1927)

8. Mildred Pierce (1945)

9. The Woman On The Beach (1947)

10. The Duke of Burgundy (2015)

11. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

12. Magician: The Life and Career of Orson Welles (2015)

13. Falstaff, or Chimes At Midnight (1965)

14. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

15. A Woman's Secret (1949)

16. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) 2nd time

17. The Immortal Story (1968)

18. Magnificent Obsession (1954)

19. Un Chien Andalou (1929)

20. Othello (1952)

21. The Set-Up (1949)

22. Pather Panchali (1955)

23. Citizen Kane (1941)

24. Aparajito (1956)

25. Apur Sansar (1959)

26. The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

27. Touch of Evil (1958)

28. The Birds (1963)

29. Spy (2015)

30. Way Down East (1920)

31. The Third Man (1949)

32. Ant-Man (2015)

33. Inside Out (2015)

34. Trainwreck (2015)

35. Falstaff, or Chimes At Midnight (1965)

36. Black Magic (1949)

37. Mission: Impossible--Rouge Nation (2015)

38. Amy (2015)

39. Dark Places (2015)

40. Pushover (1954)

41. Takin' Place (2015)

42. Woman On The Run (1949)

43. Hangover Square (1945)

44. Ladies In Retirement (1941)

45. Queen Of Earth (2015)

46. Coming Home (2015)

47. Phoenix (2015)

48. Goodnight Mommy (2015)

49. The Martian (2015)

50. The First Legion (1951)

51. The Walk (2015)

52. Her Sister's Secret (1946)

53. Spectre (2015)

54. Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965)

55. Victoria (2015)

56. Spotlight (2015)

57. Spotlight (2015) 2nd time

58. The Killing (1956)

59. In The Heart Of The Sea (2015)

60. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

61. Carol (2015)