Sunday, March 19, 2006

Quick jottings.

On Friday night, watched "Charlie Rose" with his interview with Russell Feingold, the Democrat from Wisconsin who is now pushing for a measure to censure George W. Bush for breaking the law re: wiretaps. The New Republic has already done an editorial where they've tried to paint Feingold as some sort of lunatic and opportunist for grandstanding on this, but listening to Feingold, his points were (i think) very solid. One point he made was that no President can decide what laws to uphold and what laws to ignore: the president is not above the law. But George W. Bush's claims are that he is, in fact, above the law, because of the state of emergency that the country is in. Feingold's reasons for censure rather than impeachment (though he feels that many of the President's actions qualify as "high crimes and misdemeanors") were also solid: with the current Republican majority, hearings for impeachment would be a distraction and lead to greater divisiveness.

On Thursday, i didn't go to ND/NF; instead, went to a screening of "Lonesome Jim", directed by Steve Buscemi. Not bad, but another InDigEnt production, so looked like crap. Because people are used to digital films being so bad (technically), when they see a digital film which actually looks good, so many people can't believe it's not film. "Lonesome Jim" raised an interesting question: in terms of casting, can you cast someone "against type" if they can't stretch to accommodate that role? Mary Kay Place was supposed to be the overbearing mother, but she's too lightweight a presence, and Seymour Cassel is supposed to be the distant and disapproving father, but he always seems too emotional. So the psychology of the film doesn't really make sense.

Also watched "Operation Bikini" and "He Laughed Last" on TCM, the latter one of the earliest films written and directed by Blake Edwards. Just to prove a point: it was pretty dreadful, but it proved that not every director starts out a winner, most of them have to work up to it. That's why Orson Welles was such an anomaly: very few people start out with a masterpiece.

Saturday spent trying to write. A jumble of impressions. One problem with the auteur theory was that the directors favored were then conflated with moral heroes. Yet who was a "good" person? I remember reading John Houseman's article in Sight & Sound decades ago, when he wrote about the making of "Letter from an Unknown Woman". Houseman (who was used to a lot in terms of behavior, having worked with Orson Welles on the Mercury Theater) was a little shall-we-say astounded when Max Ophuls came in with his wife and son... and mistress! And then it turned out that Ophuls didn't have just one mistress....

Even Houseman was a little taken aback by the continental nonchalance of the whole arrangement.

I think men and women see things differently. Or that's another way of saying, the witty, marvellously entertaining, highly intelligent little troll that i met in the last decade of his life... this Joseph L. Mankiewicz was reputedly one of the real lady-killers in Hollywood history? This was a man that Joan Crawford considered one of the best lovers she ever had? This is the man who caused a number of adolescent girls under contract to MGM to lose their virginity so they could offer themselves to him (one of them being Judy Garland)? This is the man who was the great love of Linda Darnell's life?

But in some cases (such as the case of Linda Darnell), it was very easy to understand. By the time he worked with Darnell, she'd been used to working with directors who weren't really concerned with her work. They regarded her as decorative, and didn't treat her seriously. Or (in the case of Otto Preminger) they bullied her. So when she got to work with Mankiewicz, and he showed her some consideration, and talked to her like he really thought she was intelligent.... she was a goner! And then, after "A Letter to Three Wives", he cast her in his drama "No Way Out", and she was ready to give up everything to run away with him. Which is exactly what she did: she put her daughter Lola in boarding school, she left her husband Pevrell Marley, and she ran off with Mankiewicz. And the lure was that Mankiewicz claimed that he was writing one of the greatest female parts for her, a movie that would cement her reputation as a major actress (she had gotten excellent reviews for "A Letter to Three Wives" and "No Way Out"). After Mankiewicz got through with directing "All About Eve" and "People Will Talk", Mankiewicz and Darnell went off to London, where Mankiewicz had to make arrangements for his next projects, "Five Fingers" and that screenplay he had talked to Darnell about, "The Barefoot Contessa".

Here's where Mankiewicz and John Houseman coincide, because during the making of "Five Fingers", Mankiewicz made a deal to work for Houseman at MGM, to direct "Julius Caesar"; part of the deal involved the loan of one of MGM's stars for Mankiewicz's production of "The Barefoot Contessa".

And so Linda Darnell finds out in the trades that Ava Gardner is cast to star in "The Barefoot Contessa". So there she is, in London, having left her husband, and now she's publicly humiliated, because everyone in Hollywood knows that Mankiewicz claimed that he wrote "The Barefoot Contessa" for her!

So Mankiewicz leaves her, and goes off and makes "Five Fingers" and "Julius Caesar" and "The Barfeoot Contessa", and Linda Darnell is stuck in London, where she makes "Island of Desire" with Tab Hunter (in his second film, after a bit in Joseph Losey's "The Lawless").

But the idea that, in Hollywood, women are treated like... trading cards! And they're constantly humiliated and degraded. And this is normal! This idea is something that is part and parcel to Hollywood's history, and it's still a part of the Hollywood ethos. In the documentary "A Decade Under the Influence," Julie Christie talks about the fact that, in the 1970s, American movies were a "boy's club" and that's why it was tough for women to find roles. And the situation isn't that different, though there are more opportunities because the fragmentation of the market has allowed for the niche marketing of films made by women.

It's knowing how to manipulate the current market situation that makes some people winners. Right now, James Schamus and David Linde are "winners" in the Hollywood game, while Ted Hope remains mired in IndieWood.

But if women have been treated badly in Hollywood, so have men. Right now, "The Bachelor and the Bobbysoxer" is on TCM, and Johnny Sands is on. When he died, his children said that he refused to ever talk about his Hollywood career. The only other information that i ever had about Johnny Sands was that he had been part of Henry Wilsson's "stable" in the late 1940s, and that it was Johnny Sands that brought Rock Hudson to Wilsson's attention (this according to Rock Hudson in his autobiography). After Sands stopped getting roles (he'd outgrown his juvenile prime), he went to Hawaii, where he worked in real estate and got married and had several children. But whatever happened in Hollywood, it was such that he refused to ever discuss it with his family, even though he played the juvenile in movies like "Till the End of Time" (with Dorothy McGuire and Robert Mitchum) or "The Bachelor and the Bobbysoxer" (with Cary Grant, Myrna Loy and Shirley Temple) or "Adventure in Baltimore" (with Robert Young and Shirley Temple). Just as an example of sloppy research, Johnny Sands is not mentioned in Robert Hofler's book "The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson", even though, in the two extant books about Rock Hudson (including "Rock Hudson: His Story" which - supposedly - Hudson coauthored), it was mentioned that it was through Johnny Sands that Hudson got to meet Wilsson. (In "Rock Hudson: His Story", Hudson mentions how he was amazed at the fact that someone who was his age could be in the movies, acting opposite people like Cary Grant, Myrna Loy and Robert Young.)

On Friday, when i was coming out of the last ND/NF screening ("13 Tzameti"), i ran into Larry Kardsih, and i mentioned i was on my way to see "Drawing Restraint 9" (i joked, i've sat through three movies, now i'm going to catch up on my sleep; almost every Matthew Barney movie has caused me to fall asleep). But Larry Kardish wanted to know what it was that caused art people to love his work. What is the difference in terms of the way people look at painting and sculpture and the way people look at film, and what is it in terms of the aesthetic of painting and sculpture which would make people appreciate something that film people consider sloggy, turgid, woefully pretentious? What's the difference?

Well, in contemporary art, the idea of creating a "vision" (an entire world, filled with its own creatures, and a entire mythology) had been so discredited that to encounter something like that was revelatory. In addition (i hate to mention this) but the art world really is one of those places where there is a "homosexual conspiracy". That is: a lot of the art critics, curators, art dealers, are gay men. And when Matthew Barney started, the main "line" about Barney was that he was a male model (he had modelled for the J. Crew catalog). And you had all these curators and art dealers swooning over this (supposedly) gorgeous young man. (That he was straight was also part of the allure: look but don't touch, which is symptomatic of the art world.) Now, right off the bat, if you work in film, beautiful men (or women) are a dime a dozen (Henry Wilsson made his career out of finding people like Guy Madison, Rory Calhoun, Johnny Sands, Rock Hudson, Tab Hunter, Troy Donahue, ad infinitum), so that's nothing new. Also: people going off, half-cocked, with some addlebrained idea about "a vision" is something that we encounter in film all the time. And (fortunately or unfortunately) in film, some of these idiots are actually given the money to go beserk with their ideas, hence "film follies" as Stuart Klawans has written about in his book. Sometimes, people go beserk without a budget (like Jack Smith). But (in film) we've seen Peter Jackson with his "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, we've seen Coppola with "Apocalypse Now", we've seen Bertolucci with "1900" and "The Last Emperor", we've seen Visconti with "Ludwig"... we've even had Jodorowsky, Borowczyk, Wojciech Has... there's been a lot of these damned "visions" up there on the screen, and most film people have seen 'em all.

So the fact that Matthew Barney was a male model doesn't cut it for film people; the fact that he has a "vision" doesn't cut it, either. And (in terms of his "film" technique) Barney has no sense of "flow": he has no idea how to edit his sequences so that they have any sense of movement. The images are simply blocky, inert single images which don't "move". The temporal dimensions of his work are virtually nonexistent: he doesn't have any idea how to make one thing flow into another. But in the visual arts, the idea of the single image which is "held" for an eternity is something expected. It's how people look at a painting. So Barney's blocky construction... art people don't seem to notice it. But it's agony for most film people, who expect the damned thing to move! (But his lack of a rhythmic sense works when his images are played in the background of his installations; the entire "Cremaster" installation at the Guggenheim Museum was really cohesive, even though the individual "films" were intolerable.)

I must admit i wouldn't have even bothered to try to figure out the difference in response if Larry Kardish hadn't asked that question. In terms of art people: when Larry (Qualls) and i went to the press screening, Phyllis Tuchman was there; she was one of the only art critics in the crowd, and then Peter Schjeldhal showed up. Phyllis said to Peter, i'm so glad you're here, because i don't know anybody! (There were mostly film critics at the screening.) He sat right in front of us! And Peter snuck out after an hour and a half! (The damned thing was 2 hours and 25 minutes!) He didn't even make it to the part where Barney and Bjork start cutting each other (the better to eat each other, my dear). One thing i have to say about "Drawing Restraint 9": it was better paced than any of his other "movies", it didn't knock me out the way all the others have, i actually stayed awake throughout. Just goes to show: you work at something long enough, you do become competent.

Which brings to mind the way women are treated in Hollywood, and Julie Christie's comment about Hollywood in the 1970s (the fact that, in order to get a role, you basically had to be somebody's girlfriend), and the fact that Diane Keaton became a star in the 1970s. And the fact that, in her last appearances (in "Something's Gotta Give" and "The Family Stone" and the TV movie "Surrender, Dorothy"), she's amazingly skillful. Enough said!


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