Saturday, June 09, 2007

It's been a week since i've blogged, and it's been a very strange week. There were only two press screenings that i went to this week, the documentary "Gypsy Caravan" (ok, an ITVS project, but one of those works which kept cutting from the musical numbers to do interviews, etc. and after a while, you just wanted to see part of the concert all the way trhough, because the music was so marvellous) and Richard Wong's "Colma: The Musical" which is finally being released. "Colma" was actually inventive and fun, and i was glad i finally saw it. (I hadn't remembered that it had played the Asian-American Film Festival last year; i have to admit that i didn't go to the film festival last year, just as i didn't go to NewFest last year... and i'm not going this year, either!)

One of the problems with NewFest is that most of the (better) movies have been at other festivals, such as: Rendez-vous With French Cinema, New Directors/New Films, Tribeca. In Gay City News, Gary Kramer reviews the notable feature films... and almost all of them are the ones i saw at Rendez-vous (cf. "One or Another"), ND/NF (cf. "Glue"), etc. So it means trying to decide on some of the American indie films which don't sound too promising (i admit, after seeing "Another Gay Movie" and "Adam & Steve", i still haven't recovered, and i don't know if i'll ever recover).

Larry and i watched two films which we rented from Netflix: "Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont" (ok, so we loved it, so sue us, we like these English movies with various Dames in the cast) and "Shortbus". To begin with "Shortbus": it's not very erotic. It's a curious movie, because it has explicit sex, yet it's totally unerotic. How can sex be photographed so flatly? After watching "Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont", i was surprised when i realized it was directed by Dan Ireland. Dan Ireland is an American who has one of those peripatetic careers in film, starting out as a film critic, then founding the Seattle Film Festival in the 1970s, then working as an exceutive for Vestron when it was trying to branch out into film production, then being a producer (on such films as John Huston's "The Dead"), and finally getting the chance to direct in 1996 with "The Whole Wide World" with Vincent D'Onofrio and Renee Zellweger. How he wound up in England directing "Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont" is a bit of a mystery, but it was charming.... Joan Plowright was delightful, and the supporting cast (including Millicent Martin, Georgina Hale, and Anna Massey) was lively, giving the kind of shamelessly lovable character performances that make these films so endearing. But then there's Rupert Friend... and i turned to Larry and said, when i fall down in the street, i want him to take care of me.

(It reminded me of a little discussion i had with Michael Giltz... it was about movies with street hustler characters, and why is it that the movies always cast people like Joseph Gordon-Levitt in "Mysterious Skin" or Kevin Zegers in "Transamerica", and my response was simply, why would anyone pick up an ugly person from the street? In "Mrs. Palfrey", as in "Ladies in Lavender", the boys are quite beautiful... well, do you expect any of the great Dames of the British theater to be the aging muse of someone ugly?)

In "Mrs. Palfrey", as in "Ladies in Lavender", circumstances bring the old women (Joan Plowright in "Mrs. Palfrey", Maggie Smith and Judi Dench in "Ladies in Lavender") into contact with a young man, who (it turns out) is a struggling artist (a writer in "Mrs. Palfrey", a musician in "Ladies in Lavender"). And (of course) they helped to nurture that talent.

I guess i have a soft spot for those stories, because of all the women in my life who gave me encouragement.

But today was a dismal day. However, i'm now watching "Return to Paradise", a rather bum movie from 1953, but one that was referenced in Jacques Demy's "Lola" (because of Gary Cooper as someone dressed in white who was cast ashore on a Pacific island).

It's been a weird, rather dismal day, because i was exhausted. And Larry was exhausted. He went to openings, but when he came back, he fell asleep almost immediately. (Exhaustion is one of the causes of gout, and, sure enough, my feet have had slight tingles all day, but i still have some of the pills from the last time i had a full-fledged gout attack, so i took them.)

Thursday (as an example) was a good day, because i had a screening ("Colma"), then i had a meeting at ACV (very interesting), then there was the Industry Party for the NewFest, then Larry and i watched "Shortbus" when we both got home....

And i've been watching a lot of the movies in the Screened Out series on Turner Classic Movies. Larry and i watched "Our Betters", and it was better than i remembered. When i saw it years ago, it seemed rather too brittle, but now that brittleness and the almost heartless bitchery are much more amusing. Over the years, Cukor would be rather uncomplimentary to Constance Bennett (though he worked with her five times!) but she's quite stylish and elegant in "Our Betters". And her astringency is a relief.

(But it also proves that no one is infallible: Constance Bennett was better working with Gregory La Cava in "Bed of Roses" and "Affairs of Cellini" than she is working with Cukor. Cukor may have been the noted "woman's director", yet there were some actresses that he was hopeless with: he couldn't get a performance out of Lana Turner in "A Life of Her Own", Claudette Colbert tries but is miscast in "Zaza", and there's nothing he can do with Norma Shearer, who is saccharine in "The Women", terribly affected - rather than affecting - in "Romeo and Juliet", and hopeless in "Her Cardboard Lover", and Joan Crawford is arch in "Susan and God".)

But today i feel very isolated.... and i did something stupid, i looked through the IMDB message board on Classic Film, and answered two of the posts, one about how there have been no "stars" since 1967, and the other about Jean Simmons. I shouldn't have bothered, it's hopeless, there are no critical standards anymore. (I.e., in the case of Jean Simmons, just read any one of the "serious" critics from 1946 on, from James Agee to Manny Farber to Dwight MacDonald to Wilfred Sheed to Stanley Kauffman to... well, yes, even Andrew Sarris, to come upon statements about how Jean Simmons is ravishingly beautiful and potentially a great actress, while there is a concurrent mocking fo Elizabeth Taylor's efforts. One of my favorite articles was the one by Wilfred Sheed from Esquire in 1969, titled "Burton and Taylor Must Go", where he has such wonderful comments such as "But her acting closed up shop long ago, as one's handwriting does or one's walk, and she cannot do anything with it, short of contortion or shrillness" or "She was now the most beautiful girl in the world, but no more so than hundreds of others"... but his conclusion is hilarious and so apt: "Of course, there is always one other possibility: that what a thousand bleating critics have failed to do the iron laws of history may one day do for them - namely, split the megacelebrity back into its component parts. For some time now we have been getting hard rumors (as opposed to the usual soft gossip) that an astronomic convulsion is already in the works - new groupings, new names to memorize.... If so, will Miss Taylor continue to wrestle with Thespis, or devote herself to good works, or simply become a force for world peace?" Well, Elizabeth Taylor did give up the ghost of any pretense that she was an actress and she did devote herself to "good works", i.e., the cause of AIDS research, and now she's enshrined in Anglo-American culture, even being made a Dame to prove it. That's what's hilarious: that better actresses such as Claire Bloom and Jean Simmons (two other born-in-Britain brunettes who also started out in their youths, though perhaps not as children, Bloom and Simmons were teenagers when they became famous, Simmons with "Great Expectations" and Bloom with "Limelight") have now been downgraded, while Elizabeth Taylor is now a standard for... well, it's a sign of how little regard we have for culture, so that someone like Anjelina Jolie can give an interview and say how she hopes she is not remembered as an actress, that being a "mere" actress is utterly unimportant. But that's like saying that art is utterly unimportant.) And trying to explain those standards (or trying to explain why Jean Simmons and Claire Bloom are preferable to Elizabeth Taylor) is hopeless, because those standards no longer exist....

The standards by which John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson, as exemplars of the true "classic" tradition in the English theater, were regarded as "great actors"... those standards no longer exist.

And it's fascinating to see what replaced those standards. I think i'd like to end by quoting Stanley Kauffmann from his essay on John Gielgud, "John Gielgud: The Actor as Paragon", written in 1977:

"The most questionable line that Brecht ever wrote is in 'Galileo' - on the subject of heroes. A disappointed disciple says, 'Unhappy is the land that breeds no her,' and Galileo replies, 'Unhappy is the land that needs a hero.' Unknown is the land that needs no hero. Unknown is the interior land that needs no hero.

"Brecht's line becomes even more doubtful when we see that what we have chiefly left to cheer us, in the whirl and disorder of these days, are some heroes, heroines: not mouthers of ideals but practitioners of excellence, men and women who have made personal wrolds in which the centers hold. They help us. Any excellence that gives us a model, however distinctly analogous to our lives, is a testament of possibility.

"Art is still one locus of such excellence, whichever art it is that speaks to you most directly. The epigrams above show that one art, acting, has long had such a voice. But our age, just because it is flooded with acting - theater, film, television and (still) radio - pays less attention to acting than past ages did. There is so much more acting these days, so much of it bad, so much of it glibly veristic and immediately trivial, that the very idea of finding models of excellence in acting as we do in other arts has become obscured: or has come to seem somewhat foolish."

But, of course, the rest of the article is Stanley going on the elaborate how John Gielgud ahs been one of those paragons of excellence. Stanley does not deny that Gielgud may have made failures, but what he is saying is that Gielgud always strove for quality. "By his excellence he comments on the inferior around him; by his design and his realization of it, he stands against confusion and chaos." Yet now, we accept the inferior as proof of importance.

This is similar to the spectacle in the recent documentary "Brando", seeing all those actors who revered Brando, and their acceptance of the decline in his choices. (I mean: "Morituri" and "Mutiny on the Bounty" are inexcusable choices, no way around it, and his acting in them was even worse.) But Jane Fonda (whom Brando had known since she was an infant) was the only one who spoke up and said how defeated and tired Brando was near the end of his life, how the Brando who had ignited and excited a whole generation with his revelatory performances in "A Streetcar Named Desire" and "On the Waterfront" was long gone....

But Brando began to want something else, and others since then have followed suit. Yes, Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Diana Rigg, Joan Plowright, Helen Mirren (all of whom are Dames) have continued, and have tried to find projects worthy of their talents.... yet the two greatest actresses of their generation (and i mean Vanessa Redgrave and Glenda Jackson, both on stage and on screen) have been dissatisfied with "mere" acting, and have been involved in politics. (In Jackson's case, to the point where she has given up acting altogether to concentrate on politics.) And it's also important to note that neither Redgrave nor Jackson are Dames. (In the case of Regrave, it's commonly known - though she refuses to comment, because of protocol - that Regrave refused when she was offered, and Jackson can't be knighted - or whatever it's called when it's a woman - since she's right now in the House of Commons, but as soon as that's over with, i bet that Jackson will be rushed for her Damehood.) And then you have someone like Anjelina Jolie (who is - potentially - a great actress, at least, she showed such promise in her early work like "Gia" and the George Wallace TV-biopic) who is saying that acting is trivial.

It's all very sad.

But this week, i was e.mailing Dave Kehr (about his review of the "boxset" of Katharine Hepburn), and i realized how much Katharine Hepburn meant to me... but not anything after 1967, but all her work before that. Because, when my sister and i were growing up, when we were about four and five years, we watched movies on TV, and Channel 9 in New York City was the RKO station, and they played the old RKO library, especially from the post-Production Code period (roughly from 1933 to 1950), so the Katharine Hepburn of her RKO days was so vivid to me, and was an exemplar of what an actress could do. (And when she started to go bad, and i mean really bad, which means almost everything from 1967 on, i refused to go see it. I didn't go to see "The Lion in Winter", i didn't go to see "On Golden Pond", i refused to acknowledge that she was giving such lousy performances. Eventually, i saw most of those things on TV, but i just refused to admit that she had a career after "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner", which i did see in a theater - and i was so mortified at how lousy she was, i swore never to see her again, so as not to destroy my memory of her in her heyday.)

David Thomson in his "Biographical Dictionary of Film" (in the early editions; i can't afford to go out and buy it every time he revises it) has written of Katharine Hepburn: "In forty years she has made only thirty-eight films. More remarkable, seventeen of these were made in her first ten years, only twenty-one in the next thirty. The record does not show that this rationing was always the result of discrimination. It is more likely that in the 1940s and 1950s, at least, Hepburn was both hurt and perplexed that her best work - which is to say, the best work any actress has done - only confirmed her reputation as box-office poison. Indeed, there is an irony (of which she is doubtless aware) that she should be lauded, loved and rewarded in films like 'Guess Who's Coming to Dinner', when the dazzling achievements fo the late 1930s only hardened audiences toward her." And it is for those movies, for "A Bill of Divorcement", "Morning Glory", "Christopher Strong", "Little Women", "The Little Minister", "Alice Adams", "Sylvia Scarlett", "Quality Street", "Stage Door", "Bringing Up Baby" and "Holiday", that i will always love Katharine Hepburn. But who the hell thought up an anniversary boxset with "Without Love", "Undercurrent" and "Dragon Seed", by common consent three of the worst films Hepburn made? "The Corn is Green" actually isn't bad at all, and it's the last of the films Hepburn made that would be directed by George Cukor, but the others...! It's a desecration of Hepburn's memory, when movies such as "A Bill of Divorcement" or "Christopher Strong" or "Quality Street" would be much more appropriate.

But Katharine Hepburn (from her RKO period) means as much to me as Gielgud means to Stanley Kauffmann. but what does that mean? And why has it become so trivialized?


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