Thursday, January 31, 2008

Have been at the press screenings for the Film Comment Selects series at the Walter Reade Theater. There's so much going on, screenings of many other movies, but one thing decided me on going to this series. "Production for use": that's the phrase that the convicted killer Earl uses in "The Front Page" (and "His Girl Friday"), and that's how i felt. I felt i needed to see movies which, formally and stylistically, might provide me with ideas. And certainly, Ulrich Seidl's "Import Export" and Heinz Emigholz's "Schindler's Houses" did just that.

I shall definitely have to comment more on those films.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Well, the awards were announced last night at the Sundance Film Festival. In fact, one of the big events this week at the Sundance Film Festival was the so-called reunion of the New Queer Cinema: B. Ruby Rich was joined by Gregg Araki, Isaac Julien, Bruce LaBruce and Tom Kalin (as well as Marcus Hu, Tilda Swinton, etc.)... but when i looked at the photos posted on IndieWire, my immediate thought was "What happened?" Quite frankly, everyone was looking middle-aged! When did that happen? Of course, i'm middle-aged now, too, so what did i expect? When was the last time i actually saw Bruce LaBruce? Maybe ten years ago? Maybe more?

As usual, there's a disconnect at Sundance: every report i read (including Manohla Dargis's wrapup in the NY Times) mentioned Aza Jacobs's "Momma's Man", but almost every mention noted that it was the kind of movie likely to fly under the radar of most distributors. Most of the reports did mention Jonathan Levine's "The Wackness" (which wound up winning the audience award for best narrative feature), but i don't recall reading anything about Courtney Hunt's "Frozen River" (which won the grand jury prize for best narrative feature).

Can't believe it: the Miss America pageant happened last night on The Learning Channel but it went over without any real to-do. And we didn't watch it. We didn't even know it was on. That certainly shows the changes in American culture. The Miss America pageant was one of the biggest television events of the year, and was so for over 40 years. It was big news: the winner was always given the front page on every paper around the country.

This talk of the (now dated) New Queer Cinema (i remember when "post-modern" dance was called "New Dance"; David Gordon joked that, now that it's been labelled "New Dance", what happens next? "Newer Dance? Newest Dance? No Dance At All?") doesn't really go into the theoretical/practical rationale for those films... which i should know, since i was there. But it's like the AIDS play template: it's already passed and people have moved on, and are now doing "other" work (Gregg with "Smiley Face", Tom with "Savage Grace", Todd with "I'm Not There"), that is, work without explicit gay content.

Oh, yes: i wanted to mention that on their blogs, Carrie Rickey ( and Joe Baltake ( have had some lively exchanges, but i've noticed how sometimes these exchanges can get hijacked. That seems to happen a lot on Dave Kehr's blog ( Usually, Dave will start out with a link to his weekly DVD column in the NY Times and then make some comment. Sometimes, it's a comment that furthers his review of a particular DVD, at other times, it's a comment on some film that has opened, etc. For example, there was the week when he reviewed the new Twin Peaks boxset, as well as the Facets DVD of a "minor" Bunuel film, "A Woman Without Love". He then commented on how the Coen Brothers' "No Country For Old Men" had won some of the critics awards, and he explained his antipathy towards that film. Well: once he wrote that, no comments at all about David Lynch or Bunuel, but over 30 comments arguing the merits of the Coens! And people went on and on and on. And Dave finally got tired of these harangues. And said so. And then people wrote in to castigate him some more.

It's like: enough! Most critics are NOT like me (decades ago, when we were sitting at the office of the old Anthology Film Archives when it was located at the Public Theater, i was talking with Linda Patton and Callie Angell, and i was saying how "Faces" was an interesting movie - Linda had declared that Cassavetes was so "commercial", don't you love it, there was a time when Cassavetes could seem commercial to those of us in the avantgarde? - and then i defended Harry Smith's work, i especially loved "Early Abstractions", and Linda and Callie finally just looked at me, and Linda said, "Oh, Daryl, you're just so... generous!" and Callie said, "You always try to find something to like in almost every movie!" Which i still do. Of course, i admit defeat: i sat through "Little Miss Sunshine" and all i could see was commercial calculation and clever engineering; i never could find that much to admire in Ken Russell's movies - though i have to say that i did catch his version of "Lady Chatterley's Lover" on cable TV a few years ago, and i thought it was really splendid, and Joely Richardson was spectacular, and that film seemed truer to Lawrence than Pascale Ferran's lovely but rather decorous new version; and i'm not that much of a fan of the Coens, though "No Country For Old Men" is very well-crafted, because even when they did "Miller's Crossing" and "Barton Fink" there were bloppers that made it seemed as if amateurishness was the aim), and that's the point: if they didn't have a point of view, they wouldn't be critics.

But one thing i've noticed is that... well, one thing is the rudeness of the internet. On so many message boards, people are just so rude. They won't let people have another opinion. I know that Derek Yip (on his blog) noted that he went to see "Juno" and he didn't mind it. When i went to the preview for "Juno", i felt the same way. It was just as engineered as any old Hollywood comedy, and equally unreal, but i didn't mind it, for some reason, it didn't irk me the way "Little Miss Sunshine" did. But now, it's not some "little" movie, it's well on its way to hitting the $100 million mark in domestic box office alone. And the backlash has begun. Big time. And that's ok, too. (It's funny to see "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" constantly being used as the anti-"Juno" in so many of the reviews of the Roumanian movie.) But a few weeks ago, the height of rudeness: someone on one of the boards i frequent to pass the time wrote, is he the only fanboy of Rene Clair? So i wrote that i loved Clair's work, he was one of the most elegant directors of all time... and i was answered with a tirade on how i was an idiot, using words like "elegant" and "well-crafted" and "comic timing" and how i was useless and stupid, and how i didn't have the intelligence to understand Clair, etc. So i simply deleted my post, and yes, that idiot is the only "fanboy" of Rene Clair, because he's such a rude moron.

Christian Brando has died; with the deaths of Bobby Fischer (Jan. 18) and Brad Renfro (Jan. 15), this is one of those bizarre "celebrity" deaths, and this is the third in two weeks.

All i could think when i read of Christian Brando's death was that this is what all those dreams that Dodie Brando had (her frustrations of being stuck in Omaha, Nebraska; her desire to get out; the alcoholism which gave form to her frustrations; her children's love for her, and their attempts to fulfill her dreams, Lisa by being an artist, Jocelyn and Marlon by being actors) have come to: this very sad end.

Of course, Dodie Brando never lived long enough to see any of her grandchildren.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

When i was coming out of the press screening of "Don't Look Back", ran into Ronnie Scheib, who was coming out of the final press screening of Pere Portabello's "The Silence Before Bach". And we talked about "The Silence Before Bach" (which we both liked). I mentioned how surprised i was by the film, because my idea of a film "about" Bach has been so colored by the Straubs' "The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach" (which i adore, it remains one of my favorite music films of all time) that i anticipated an austere film. But Portabello is not a rigidly intellectual director: he's someone prone to sudden surreal inspirations, and "The Silence Before Bach" is a series of vignettes which often use Bach's music as a pretext. It's a collage, and there are a few inexplicable moments, which seem to suggest a subconscious intent.

So i went in expecting something like "The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach", and i came out with something more like Francois Girard's "32 Short Films About Glenn Gould".

(Just as an aside: it seems as if people have really rigidly preconceived ideas about what is proper in relation to biography, etc. I bring this up because so many people who didn't like "I'm Not There" always refer to the fact that it doesn't seem to be "about" Bob Dylan, but then it seems that the "Bob Dylan" that these detractors want is some very specific figment of their own imagination. I can sympathize with that sentiment, i remember feeling a little that way about "32 Short Films About Glenn Gould", but i also remember feeling quite delighted with the smoothness with which the disparate vignettes - straight documentary, dramatized moments, flights of fancy - were put together by Girard. And i feel the same delight with "The Silence Before Bach".)

Went to the press screening of "Don't Look Back" on Thursday, was amused to see how much of that film was used as a template for the Jude Quinn section of "I'm Not There"; have seen the film before, but remembered that, in the 1960s when i saw it, there was something very distressing in the highhandedness with which Bob Dylan seemed to deal with people. But when the film was rereleased in the 1990s, it seemed different somehow... and what's interesting is that the press kit that was prepared had a lot of the reviews from that late '90s revival, and the terms that so many critics used (Hoberman, Matt Zoller Seitz, John Anderson) are the terms that provide the raison d'etre for "I'm Not There". One of the funny things: in his review in Newsday, John Anderson says, "an exchange with a Time magazine writer, which probably seemed subversive then, now seems terribly bratty and, worse, sophomoric", but the fact is, even when "Don't Look Back" was originally released, there were many who felt that Dylan wasn't being cool, but bratty and smug.

But i enjoyed "Don't Look Back" even more this time.

Yesterday, simply watched a bunch of mystery shows: "Monk", "Psych", "Marple: A Murder Is Announced", and "Rosemary and Thyme". "Psych" was particularly clever.

Today, finally received the Independent Spirit Award ballot and information. Can't find the way to access the Netflix queue, but went online and found out that i can stream the films. Have seen most of them....

The voting has changed! Now, you take the ballot, and you check your choice. In the past, it was a weighted ballot, where you gave "1" to your top choice, "2" to your second choice, and so on, until you finished the five nominees. This meant that, if you wanted to vote on all five nominees, you were supposed to see all five films. But this way, it's simply a vote for your favorite. I have to say this (and no, i'm not revealing my vote) but in some categories, it's really tough for me. For example: Best Director. Well: i know four of the five nominees. Todd Haynes for "I'm Not There", Tamara Jenkins for "The Savages", Julian Schnabel for "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly", and Gus Van Sant for "Paranoid Park". The only person i don't know is Jason Reitman for "Juno".

This year, i'm not going to be surprised: at this time, when "Juno" is an indie which is nearing the $100 million mark at the box office (and that's just US domestic!), if it doesn't sweep at the Independent Spirit Awards, i don't know my fellow IFP and Film Independent members!

But just to get back to the people i know: i think that Tamara did a good job with a very sharp script (which she wrote herself), and it shows her particular sense of humor (which was present way back when she did that short "Family Remains") and the timing is really crisp. I think that "Paranoid Park" is almost supernally elegant, and the dissonance between the formalized style and the subject matter is eerie and emotionally potent, and Gus Van Sant really knows what he is doing.

I have to say that, no matter what i think of Julian Schnabel, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" is just superbly done, stylish and enticing and directed with real flair and imagination. And i think that Todd has really gotten it together in "I'm Not There": all the themes and obsessions from his past films are now taken over in this one film, and it is an exhilarating pastiche.

As for "Juno": it's the one real feel-good comedy of the year, and now there is a backlash, but before that... it's the kind of indie-comedy that i'm usually suspicious of, but i was more taken with it than i was with (say) "Little Miss Sunshine" and it's clever and done with panache and sentiment. And Jason Reitman's direction was just on the money: he made sure that the timing was spot-on, and it seemed as if every laugh line hit its target.

But that's why it's tough...

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Missed a press screening this afternoon, somehow i had the time wrong. My fault, just seemed to space out.

Yesterday, did watch the documentary about Sargent Shriver, "American Idealist", on PBS. It was on late, and i did fall asleep before the end, but it was fascinating to get information about so much of the politics of the 1950s and 1960s. Tom Brokaw (on "The View") did mention how this country was an apartheid society until the civil rights act of the 1960s. And Shriver actually did so much to try to change that, though a lot of his programs were credited to his in-laws.

More on Heath Ledger. Quite frankly: it makes me more suspicious of prescription medications of any kind.

But when i was rushing to the press screening, saw a big billboard advertising "The L Word" on Broadway... and have to mention that, aside from Jennifer Beals, Katherine Moennig and Daniela Sea, Rose Rollins is just impossibly beautiful!

Tom Brokaw is unbelievable: he's on "The View" and trying to make like he was a working-class kid from the midwest in the 1950s. Oh, really? If so, why is his cousin Pan Brokaw? (Pan Brokaw was the daughter of Frances Seymour and her first husband, George Brokaw, the millionaire who owned the Morgan Guarantee Trust Company; after George Brokaw died, Frances Seymour Brokaw would marry Henry Fonda, and have two more children, Lady Jayne, who would change her name to Jane, and Peter; the information on the family connection to Tom Brokaw comes from Peter Fonda, from his autobiography "Don't Tell Dad". Pan's real name is Frances, but she's always referred to by her nickname Pan.)

That reminds me of the moment when Barry Ellsworth explained that his mother (Sally Bingham) told him and his brothers how they were middle-class. Todd and i thought this was very funny: If Barry Ellsworth was middle-class, what were the rest of us?

Why are people so deluded or plain ignorant when it comes to class issues in America? Robert De Niro and Al Pacino may be two actors with Italian surnames, but they are not the same class. When De Niro did "Meet the Parents", a lot of critics commented that, though De Niro's performance was funny, he just wasn't believable as a WASP... when (in fact) that's exactly what De Niro is. His mother was Virginia Admiral, a WASP whose family was part of the original listing of the 400.

And when it comes to the movies, people get absolutely delusional. Yes, now big stars negotiate contracts to get the most out of the deals. When Elizabeth Taylor, and then Marlon Brando, and then Audrey Hepburn made $1 million plus for a single picture in the 1960s, it's just escalated from there.

But in the studio contract days, the salaries stars would make would come to an average of about $200,000 a year. And that's it.

So when people write about Frances Brokaw Fonda that she amassed a fortune from her control of her husband's finances, are these people crazy? When Frances Fonda died, she left a fortune of about $60 million, to be divided evenly between her three children (Pan, Jane, and Peter) with Pan as executor (not her husband Henry). The $60 million came from the Morgan Guarantee Trust Company and other investments that Frances Fonda had made, but it did not come from the money that Henry Fonda was making on contract to 20th Century Fox.

As the saying goes, do the math!

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Well, it's true: Heath Ledger's death trumped the Academy Award nominations. Sad, but true. In other entertainment news: the WGA backed off from threatening the Grammys, tentative talks are now in the works between the studios and the WGA, who knows what will happen with the Oscars, but i (as a member of the Independent Feature Project) registered with Film Independent so that i can vote for the Independent Spirit Award, but after that, i received... NOTHING! No e.mail telling me my PIN# so that i can: 1) get screeners on my Netflix queue; 2) vote. So today i went to the Spirit Award website, and put in my e.mail address and my name, and then clicked on the line which states that i would get e.mailed my PIN# if i forgot it. No e.mail.

I think that Film Independent is trying to disenfranchise the IFP membership. The problem is: the Independent Spirit Awards were started by the IFP, it's registered/trademarked by the IFP, and Film Independent can't just hijack the awards, even if Film Independent (which used to be IFP West, then IFP L.A. when other major branches, such as IFP Seattle, were developed) broke off and is now its own organization.

But i shall wait and see if i get any response in the next 24 hours.

(Actually, i've seen most of the films, but i do like seeing a few that haven't opened in NYC yet, and the screeners make it so easy!)

Well, today was a shocker! Quite simply: the news of Heath Ledger's death is overwhelming.

Of course, the reports (NY Times online; AP online) are sketchy, but it's still a shock. Ledger wasn't known as someone who was having trouble with drugs or alcohol; he was one of the people cited as part of making Brooklyn chic, when he and Michelle Williams moved to Boerum Hill. Of course, over the summer, when he and Williams separated, and he moved to Manhattan, i remember a picture (one of those photoshop jobs) where he was shown walking across the Brooklyn Bridge in the direction of Manhattan.

This sort of supercedes the announcement of the Academy Award nominations. Well, Julian Schnabel can breathe a sigh of relief: his film was not the French submission for Best Foreign Film (the French selection was "Persepolis", which didn't make it to a nomination as Best Foreign Film, but did make it as Best Animated Film), but it wound up with nominations for Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay (Ronald Harwood).

Saw Andre Techine's "The Witnesses"; loved it, but thought it was amusing to see the tropes of the AIDS drama done yet again. The reason it's amusing to me is that, unless Theatre Communications Group is incorrect, i was the very first person to have ever written an AIDS drama (in 1982; i should add that it was produced and Larry and i directed it in November of 1982 at Theater for the New City), and the tropes (such as having one of the characters be a doctor, and then, either at the end of the second act or the beginning of the third act, having the doctor explain to another character the symptoms, the (at that time) possible causes, and the available treatments) are so familiar. TCG published by play in 1983, but when they did an anthology of AIDS works in 1989, i was informed that TCG would NOT mention my play, not because it wasn't the first (as far as they knew, it was) but because i could NOT get credit for everything i've done, i would have to get credit for what THEY decided i would get credit for, and they had categorized me as an Asian-American and NOT as a gay playwright (as if these were mutually exclusive designations). But can you beat that: TCG would tell me how i must view myself!

And people wonder why i gave up theater....

The show business legend is that death comes in threes, and today there was the obit in the NY Times for Lois Nettelton. Which prompts the question: what makes a Christmas perennial? Or: why isn't "Period of Adjustment" a Christmas perennial?

Monday, January 21, 2008

In the last three years, there has been a real shakeup in terms of film distribution. Many companies have folded (most particularly, Wellspring, ex-Winstar, ex-Fox Lorber), and many have reorganized, and there are now companies with day-and-date deals... in which the films are given a (brief) theatrical run, at the same time that they are offered as video-on-demand, so that they can have a theatrical run in the "big" centers (New York City, Los Angeles) and also be available in other markets.

But the other day, Damian Bona came up with the master list of 2007 releases in New York City, and the list came to 635 titles! 635! In the 1960s, the average number of releases was less than 300. So the number of films getting some sort of theatrical run in New York City is now more than double what it was in other decades. (This list is for the IRAs; for more about the IRAs, check the blogs of George Robinson - - or Michael Giltz - - and find out about this most singular of critics awards.)

And how are people supposed to see even half of these movies?

So it's not my imagination, there really are too many movies out there!

(And now, so many people i know are in Sundance, looking for the next big thing in film.)

Will have to write about some things that i've seen lately, including Pere Portabello's "The Silence Before Bach" (which was quite delightful).

Suzanne Pleshette's death reminds me that, though she was one of those people who finally did achieve some measure of renown (playing Emily, the wife on "The Bob Newhart Show"), she was a very talented and quite lovely actress who was seen as an also-ran. Her biggest success on Broadway (and she was quite young at the time) was as the successor to Anne Bancroft in "The Miracle Worker"; she was then signed by Warner Brothers as the sort of second-rung Natalie Wood (small, petite, pretty brunette), and put into some of the programmers that Wood had outgrown (cf. "Rome Adventure"). She's quite charming in "The Birds", though her character is secondary to Tippi Hedren's (in the same way that Diane Baker is secondary to Hedren in "Marnie", and you can see Hitchcock setting up the contrasts in the same way)... now that reminds me of something someone wrote, about Hitchcock and his preference for the (untalented, uninteresting) blondes, as opposed to the more talented and more interesting "brunettes" (though not all of them were brunettes). In "To Catch a Thief", there's Grace Kelly as opposed to Brigitte Auber, in "Vertigo", there's Kim Novak as opposed to Barbara Bel Geddes, in "The Birds", it's Tippi Hedren as opposed to Suzanne Pleshette, and in "Marnie", it's Hedren as opposed to Diane Baker. But who wrote that? I know it wasn't Stanley Kauffmann (i know Stanley never gave Hitchcock that much thought), but was it Wilfred Sheed? Dwight MacDonald? But Suzanne Pleshette was an example of the problems at the end of the studio system, and the talented people who really didn't get a chance.

Last night, watched the full-length "The Bullfighter and the Lady"... realized that i had only seen it sometime in the 1970s at a Boetticher retrospective (where? The Gallery of Modern Art on Columbus Circle? The Thalia?), and that it had run 87 minutes, so it was a treat (after all these years) to see the full-length version. Very impressive. As for blond love objects: if Robert Stack isn't one in that movie, i don't know from love objects. I had always thought that in "A Date With Judy" he was to swoon over (and Jane Powell and Elizabeth Taylor did a good job as audience surrogates), but in "The Bullfighter and the Lady" he is simply to die for. But the authenticity (which Pauline had cited in her recommendation of the film) is really apparent in the full-length "The Bullfighter and the Lady", and Boetticher's impulse towards documentary (which would try to fulfill itself in "Arruzza") is very much present in the very detailed and meticulous sequences of the bullfights and the preparations. It was also nice to see Joy Page.

Larry and i watched "Superstar", because we got a new DVD-VHS player over Christmas (our old VHS player died on us at the end of the summer) and we hadn't yet tried it out. So we put in the old VHS tape that Todd gave us decades ago. Of course, we were afraid that the whole thing would be a mess (it's been almost two decades since Todd gave me that tape... probably, what? 1989?) since VHS tapes have been known to disintegrate... but it's ok!

After "The Bullfighter and the Lady", TCM played "Fiesta", the inane comedy with Esther Williams and Ricardo Montalban as twins! There are some movies that you really shouldn't admit that you've seen, i think "Fiesta" falls into that category. And Esther Williams doesn't even get to swim! (Was it Fanny Brice who said of her, "Wet, she is a star, dry, she ain't"?)

But we watched "The L Word" on our other TV, so i spent time going back and forth, watching "The Bullfighter and the Lady" and "The L Word". The little "Charlie's Angels" parody at the beginning was charming, but what was really nice was seeing Katherine Moennig with different hair and makeup. That is one very pretty girl. (I, of course, have a crush on her, and on Daniela Sea.)

But this reminds me that over the weekend, on some board i posted, i made a comment on how so many people (the person under discussion was Rita Johnson, but it could just as easily be Frances Dee or Kay Johnson) really never had opportunities under the studio system, and this kind of waste of talent highlights the problems that existed under the studio system. And someone wrote in, yes, but why did the studio system make so many great movies?

And (of course) the answer is: did they? Are those movies really great, or have we been educated to think that (say) "Gone With the Wind" is a great movie, or "Casablanca"? And if so, isn't it a sign of the degradation of our tastes that we would accept this crap as art? And that we wouldn't know "art" when we see it?

It's like when i was trying to explain why Leslie Caron would be so angry about her MGM contract, and why she hated her days at MGM... she was a Frenchwoman, raised in France, and when, in 1954-55, she was contacted by Rene Clair and Jean Renoir about possible projects, wouldn't she (as a Frenchwoman with some degree of knowledge of French culture) be thrilled? And wouldn't she be furious when MGM told her she couldn't do them? That MGM controlled what she could do? What she did do was marry George Hormel and stop making movies for a while.

And people were saying how she was an ingrate, because MGM made her a star. But is being an American movie star really the aim for a French girl who was training to be a ballet dancer? In 1949, Caron was signed by Marcel Carne for a movie, that was to star Gerard Philippe. What happened was that scouts from MGM saw the screentest (since they were looking for someone who could dance), and MGM bought out the contract that Caron and her parents had already signed. (The Carne movie was made, it turned out to be "Juliette ou la Clef des Songes", and the replacement would be Suzanne Cloutier, who also wound up being Desdemona in Welles's "Othello" for the same reason, the various actresses Welles tried to get to be in his film always had to leave, and she was the one who was able to stick it out.) So instead of working with Gerard Philippe, Caron is in Hollywood working with Gene Kelly...

But so many people think that Hollywood is the aim, and (really) it's not for a lot of people. That's what people don't understand. It wasn't for Leslie Caron, and she wound up resenting the whole process (especially when she missed things like the chance to work with Renoir).

It reminds me of one time when Kenny was trying to talk to David... David was in jail at that point, and he wanted Kenny to send him some books. And David wanted... i don't know. Something like Stephen King or John Grisham. And Kenny was trying to explain why David should read Victor Serge's "Men in Prison" or even Norman Mailer's "The Executioner's Song" (two of Kenny's very favorite books), and they're talking on the phone, and Kenny said, "But they're more better!" And then Kenny tried to explain the difference, how some books try to be profound and make you know how other people really think and feel, and not just how people just get in trouble.

I was very touched by that moment.

But so many people think that Hollywood represents the summation of "art" in our culture. And perhaps they're right, because (of course) that was Warhol's point.

Oh, yes, the other day, when i was walking downtown, i saw Matthew Barney, and he was with his little daughter (whom he put on his shoulders), and she was dressed in a little parka, but she also had on a little pink hood... with little cat ears on it! I couldn't help it, my immediate thought was, well, like mother like daughter, she gets her fashion sense from her mother (Bjork).

Sunday, January 20, 2008

OK, last night, while TCM had its Greer Garson night, i watched "Goodbye, Mr. Chips" again. Well: if there is a sentimental comedy-drama from 1939 i'm going to like, "Goodbye, Mr. Chips" might as well be the one. And Robert Donat's performance is simply perfect.

I bring this up because in 1939, his Oscar win for that performance was one of those generally well-liked awards. Clark Gable had already won an Academy Award, and he wasn't considered such a great actor to begin with; James Stewart was the leading contender for "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington", but this was a case of studio politics: Stewart was an MGM star and he was in a movie on loan-out to Columbia. At that time, the Academy was just getting started in terms of having a membership, and there really was block-voting, i.e., Jack Warner or Louis B. Mayer would tell you who to vote for. Obviously, Robert Donat got the support from MGM that might have gone to James Stewart.

(This accounts for what happened next year: Stewart was nominated for "The Philadelphia Story"... for the second lead part! Cary Grant was playing the lead... but Cary Grant was not an MGM star, he had signed a one-picture deal, for a huge salary - at the time - for "The Philadelphia Story". Grant had non-exclusive contracts with RKO and Columbia, but he was NOT on "loan-out" to MGM, he had the ability to sign outside deals. Cary Grant was one smart cookie: he was one of the first free agents in Hollywood. Anyway, Louis B. Mayer wasn't going to nominate Cary Grant for the top grossing movie for MGM in 1940, and the nomination of Stewart for "The Philadelphia Story" was also a rebuke to Margaret Sullavan, because Louis B. Mayer hated her. Sullavan was one of the few who always stood up to Mayer, who always disagreed with his ideas, Mayer couldn't see the potential of James Stewart, but Sullavan did and worked to make her friend a star. The reason his nomination was a rebuke was that in 1940 Stewart also appeared in "The Shop Around the Corner" and "The Mortal Storm", two of his best performances, but Mayer would not have him nominated for those movies, which led to the erroneous idea that "The Shop Around the Corner" and "The Mortal Storm" had been failures.)

But Robert Donat's inherent reticence and elegance as an actor help to keep the mawkishness of the material from slopping all over the place. (Just imagine if someone like Lionel Barrymore had played the role!) It's a truly heroic performance. (The New York Film Critics Circle did give their award to James Stewart for "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington".)

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Award season hysteria.

Now it seems that the WGA will not grant a waiver for the Grammys. In my opinion, this is stupidity: part of the reason seems to be the resentment that ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Arrangers and Producers) and BMI (Broadcast Music, Inc.) have always gotten compensation (residuals, percentages, etc.) for their members. The WGA is trying to penalize another show business industry (the recording industry) for the fact that the WGA had to accept the copyright ownership of the studios for any written work done.

So far, the WGA has granted a waiver ONLY to the Screen Actors Guild. This is starting to look patently unfair. The Academy Awards: ok. Picket all they want, the AMPAS deserves it, just historically the AMPAS deserves to be picketed. And deserves to be stopped. But the Grammys? Ok, there was a lot of crossover and a lot of recording artists did become movie stars (Bing Crosby, Doris Day, Frank Sinatra). And the first Grammy given to an album was to the LP of Henry Mancini's score to "Peter Gunn". But most composers (pop, jazz, classical) have nothing to do with the movies or TV... though the major record labels are tied to the same multinational corporation as the studios.

But when you start to seem punitive, you lose the high ground. And the WGA better watch it, because their p.r. isn't so secure. Striking back at the Golden Globes was funny, but if the WGA angers ASCAP and BMI, they're really in trouble.

But going back to the Motion Picture Academy: i went and looked it up, and, sure enough....

The first five winners of the Best Actress Oscar... well: there was NO excuse for those choices. For example: during the first year(s) of the Oscars (1927-28)... there really were no nominees. The "academy" (a group of what seemed to be mostly studio employees) met and then a few people proposed a name in each category, and then they voted on the one they wanted. BUT if you look at the actual "winners" (and also at the names proposed)... appalling! How (in 1927-28) could anyone NOT put forth the name Lillian Gish ("The Scarlet Letter", "La Boheme", "The Wind") or Greta Garbo ("A Woman of Affairs")? Well: Gish was the highest-paid actress at the time and she was losing her box office appeal and MGM was trying to dump her, and though MGM was building up Garbo, she was proving difficult: she'd already walked out because she wanted to renegotiate her contract. So their names were verboten.

And though the films were superb, Janet Gaynor is not the world's greatest actress. She was lucky to work with great directors (Borzage for "Seventh Heaven" and "Street Angel"; Murnau for "Sunrise"), and she is quite good... but she cannot be compared to Lillian Gish! But rumors abound that she was Winifred Sheehan's "protege" (as in that moment from the "Mary Tyler Moore Show" when Sue Ann - Betty White's character - says "Protege. From the French. Meaning: your place or mine?"). Sheehan (of course) was production head of Fox. Then the second year (1929-30), the award goes to Mary Pickford for "Coquette" (an actual studio head, since Pickford was one of the founders of United Artists and was the most involved in the running of the studio). Then in the next year (1930-31), the award goes to Norma Shearer for "The Divorcee" (only the wife of Irving Thalberg, the production head of MGM). Does anyone smell a pattern here? And the vote in 1931 (now the awards are being formalized into a yearly as opposed to seasonal event) goes to Helen Hayes for "The Sin of Madelon Claudet", an example of Hollywood trying to aggrandize itself, by giving an award to one of the acknowledged "great ladies of the American theater". And then the award in 1932 goes to Marie Dressler for "Min and Bill", an example of the sentimental vote: Dressler had been a big movie star in the 'teens, in the very first decade of the movies, but her career was washed up by the 1920s and then she had a comeback in the late 1920s and became popular all over again. So she's given an award almost as a career award. And those are the first five!

Right off the bat, that should have been enough to disqualify these awards from ANY semblance of credibility. But the movies were so disreputable to begin with, that this was just icing on the cake. And the AMPAS really took the cake.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

The Directors Guild of America is said to be on the verge of a contractual deal with the producers; if this happens, there will be more pressure for the Writers Guild of America to accept terms which are comparable.

I've mentioned it to others, but it bears repeating: the reason this strike is so bitter is that the "producers" now are not the group of moguls (the Warners or Laemmles or Mayers or Goldwyns or Cohns) but multinational corporations where some of the people think there must be a way of outsourcing the work to people with no representation at all. In short: why can't the studios find (say) someone who can write or direct "as well as" some famed writer or director, and just pay the imitation less, and not have to worry that the imitation would want compensation?

It's like the studio idea of Marilyn Monroe: she was the replacement for Betty Grable as 20th Century Fox's blonde pinup girl. And while Monroe was still active, Fox was already trying to find clones, so they signed Sheree North and dyed her hair, and they signed Jayne Mansfield. But this wasn't the same thing: just as Marilyn Monroe wasn't really the same as Betty Grable (Monroe was far more unstable a personality), so Jayne Mansfield wasn't the same as Marilyn Monroe.

The Writers Guild strike has been brewing in Hollywood ever since the advent of television. When television first became a mass market commodity, there were questions about residuals, etc. The model of music was used: BMI and ASCAP had made sure that, if you write a song and it is played on the radio, you must get back some money. With records, there is a (small) percentage which goes to the songwriter.

That is what the writers are now fighting for: if they've done the work of writing the scripts for the movies, TV shows, etc. they feel that they are entitled to "residuals" in the commercial exploitation of new media.

But the studios will not meet (at all) with union representatives. This is incredibly arrogant, but an example of how the studios treat talent: with no respect or regard.

So if the Writers Guild does take down the Academy Awards, it would only be poetic justice.

Well, the panel is over. Again, confidentiality means that can't really talk about it, but one thing happened: i realized that i miss people. Not particular people (though that, too) but people in general.

I was always the type of person who was surrounded by people. When i did my performances, the casts would be huge, just so many people (20 or more) and there would always be the two month period from first rehearsal to the end of the run (usually a three-week Actors Equity showcase). And then there was the whole period of film production, and going to the Apparatus office almost every day, just to help out....

So there were always people. And being on the panel and having to see people every day... i miss that. I miss seeing people on a regular basis, i miss the camaraderie.

Anyway, back to the Academy Awards. I am always amazed at people who wll say that the award "should have gone to" so-and-so. I always ask these people: are you a member of the academy? Can you vote? Do you know people in the Academy? Do you have an idea how they vote?

It's like a few years ago (i don't really care what year)... the year of "Brokeback Mountain" and "Crash" and "Walk the Line"... and Oprah had a pre-Oscar show with Emma Thompson and Diane Keaton (two previous Oscar-winners who are members of the Academy). And Emma Thompson was gushing about "Brokeback Mountain" (and admitted she was busy that year so she didn't get out much to see movies) and then mentioned how she had gone to the London premiere of "Brokeback Mountain" and how brilliant she thought Ang Lee was (of course, he directed her in "Sense and Sensibility"). And Diane Keaton gushed about Reese Witherspoon in "Walk the Line" and then mentioned how she had known Witherspoon since Witherspoon was 13 and was in "Wildflowers" (which is a made-for-TV movie that Keaton directed). And Keaton went on about how she watched Reese Witherspoon grow up, and she's so proud of her, and of course she's going to vote for Reese Witherspoon. Multiply this kind of partisanship by almost 6,000 and you get an idea of how the Academy works.

Another way the Academy used to work was that motion picture people were acutely sensitive to ridicule, so (as an example) if enough people said that Bette Davis's name should have been brought up in 1934 for "Of Human Bondage" (there was not the same system of nominations and then voting on them... it was a faster process of the group meeting, people putting forward certain names, and then seeing if there was a majority in favor of a particular name), then, sure enough, next year she wins.

This is a pattern often repeated. There was a backlash because James Stewart did not win in 1939 for "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" (that was the performance that was "expected" to win, not Clark Gable's in "Gone With the Wind") so he wins in 1940 for... "The Philadelphia Story"? In the part of the second lead? In 1943, Ingrid Bergman did not win for "For Whom the Bell Tolls" and she was also the star of the very popular "Casablanca" (which won for Best Picture) so, of course, she had to win in 1944 for "Gaslight".

This is certainly a pattern in the 1930s and 1940s.

But it is true that union membership precluded getting an award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. But as a (crassly) commercial town, this was put to the test in the late 1930s: James Cagney was the biggest box office star at Warner Brothers, yet he was one of the founders of the Screen Actors Guild. What to do? Well, he was nominated for "Angels With Dirty Faces" (he won the New York Film Critics Circle award for that film). Box office trumps union-busting! Such are the convictions of Hollywood, as craven a place as you'll ever visit.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The news just came in: Brad Renfro has died. At the age of 25. Very sad. On the IMDB obit, it's mentioned that one of his last performances was on "Law and Order: Criminal Intent", and i feel terrible, because i saw that episode, and noticed how poor Brad Renfro and also Ethan Embry looked so terrible, so bloated and blurry. Renfro in particular seemed barely conscious, his eyes could hardly focus.

Very sad.

Just a note that while Brad Renfro has become another Hollywood casualty, another child star who couldn't handle the pressure, it was also Margaret O'Brien's birthday: she's 71 today.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Well, ok, it's time for a little comment on movie award season.

In researching the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (what a name! but there it is, the official name), a number of books made it very clear: one of the reasons for the AMPAS was as a union-busting organization. There had been many problems on sets, and by 1927 Hollywood was in a tizzy: changes were happening, and the studios wanted to make sure that their authority went unquestioned. Sound was on the horizon, and there were attempts to sign up talent with the ability to speak. (Many stars who were originally from other countries, such as Pola Negri, Emil Jannings, Lars Hansen, and Greta Garbo, were viewed with caution, as potential liabilities.) Many stage performers were getting signed by the studios (Marguerite Churchill, who would play the ingenue in the original Broadway production of "Dinner at Eight", was signed by Fox; she would marry George O'Brien and their son Darcy would write "A Way of Life Like Any Other", one of the finest novels ever written about Hollywood), and actors had been trying to form a theatrical union (which would result in Actors Equity).

Anything that could be done to stop unionism in Hollywood was tried. And one way was to create awards. In the first years of the Academy Awards, there was an explicit edict banning people who were in trade unions from getting an Academy Award. (This is similar to the edict years later, after the McCarthy HUAC hearings, where any political affiliation deemed subversive meant that you could not even be nominated for an Academy Award. Of course, this was to keep out the Communists, who were supposed to be driven out of Hollywood by HUAC.)

One of the problems was that it was hard to legislate box office: if someone became popular, it would have been ludicrous to prohibit them from being acknowledged in some way. This problem would arise by the mid-1930s.

But initially, it was easy for the bogus organization (the original members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences were low-level studio executives; the heads of the studios, people like Louis B. Mayer, William Fox, Carl Laemmle of Universal, B. P. Schulberg of Paramount, Jack Warner, were loath to make it appear that they were simply giving the awards to themselves) to claim authenticity: there wasn't any competition, so The Motion Picture Academy was it, and it was the organization which presented awards for the film industry, and the egos of those working in film were so fragile anyway, any boost was considered worth it.

So the publicity machine of Hollywood went to work, and conferred respectability and prestige on this organization which was actually made up of hacks (and not even top-level hacks at that).

And here we are, now 80 years into the history of this organization, and this organization is still looked on as a reputable one! As if!

But that's all for now, i'm tired after the first day of panel....

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Watching the end of "Summer and Smoke" on TCM, remembering seeing this film way back in 1961, taken by my grandmother to the RKO Albee in Brooklyn. Now that so many of those movies (the ones based on plays by Williams, or William Inge, or Lillian Hellman) haven't really been much in circulation, it's hard to remember a certain type of film....

Two films which i'd really like to see again are "Toys in the Attic" (based on Lillian Hellman) with Page and Wendy Hiller and Dean Martin in the cast, and "The Stripper" (based on William Inge's "A Loss of Roses")... unless my memory has really betrayed me, it's the best performance ever by Joanne Woodward.

On Friday night, i watched the documentary "Today's Man" by Lizzie Gottlieb on Channel 13; it was reviewed in the NY Times on Tuesday (because it played on some PBS stations on Tuesday) but it didn't get to NYC until Friday. It was obviously a personal work, and a personal expression. It was a little jagged (and we're getting so used to really slick documentary filmmaking now) yet this depiction of the effects of Asperger Syndrome on a family was determinedly emotional.

But it reminds me that last week, i happened to be channel surfing when i caught sight of Colin Ferguson; he was in a made-for-TV movie (done in Canada) called "Playing House". Decided to watch, and was glad i did. Nothing special as a movie, and the plot was rather banal... but there was a young actor named Lucas Bryant who was amazing. He played the hippie-musician who is told that this woman he's had a casual relationship with is now pregnant, and he shows up to take care of her. And he becomes fulfilled by being a father. And this young actor pulled it off. And that's not the easiest thing in the world to play.

There are these kinds of performances, which aren't (really) showy, but which nevertheless seem very truthful. It's like when Larry and i watched "Transamerica" and were really flabbergasted by Kevin Zeger's performance. Playing a certain type of sullen, drugged out street kid, he was just so accurate: the way he didn't quite look anyone in the eye, the way he seemed to shuffle, the way he looked down... Larry exclaimed that Zeger caught the "sullen vulnerability" that characterized those kids. And (of course) we know about it, because of Kenny.

And it was like two years ago, when Lou Taylor Pucci was in several movies, including "Thumbsucker" and "Fifty Pills", and i was in shock, because the nervous bravado of this young actor was so reminiscent of David, the way (initially) that David would always seem to be blinking, hunching his shoulders.

This brings me to something: how do we know what "values" we're bringing to something (especially something like acting). In short: what is good acting? In the case of Kevin Zeger, i'd seen him in some of the "Air Bud" movies he's done, and what he did in "Transamerica" is totally different. It's a different style of acting, he's changed his looks....

But if you don't know that, you don't realize the real care and craft of the performance.

And i thought of that last week, when i thought that Lucas Bryant was really brilliant playing a young father. The way he seemed so satisfied to have his infant son in his arms... that's real acting (since, according to IMDB, Lucas Bryant isn't married and isn't a father).

Friday, January 11, 2008

Good heavens, has it been more than a week? Well, finally, the cold has lifted, though now Larry has a cold. This thing is insidious!

Finally went to some press screenings. The Israeli film "Jellyfish", which reminded me very much of the Flemish film "Iceberg" in that there was a kind of dry surrealism, deadpan presentations of ironic sight gags; another film from the Age of Chevalier series, Klapish's "Le Peril jeune", very charming; the Chinese film "Summer Palace".

Just got an e.mail from Ron Ramsland from New Yorker Films, which talks about the banning of the film "Lost in Beijing" in China. It reminds us that this idea of artistic expression and freedom of speech is not universal, and that there remain many places (China among them) where free speech is dangerous.

My point about the disjunction in terms of the release of "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" (which made many Ten Best lists, even though in NYC the film doesn't technically open until the end of the month) is also highlighted by the fact that there are a number of (now embattled) Asian films which are also opening. I've seen all of them now: "Still Life", "Lost in Beijing", "Summer Palace", and the South Korean "Woman on the Beach". It's a very problematic situation, because there are so many different situations in terms of how films are made and distributed.

The Roumanian cinema is similar to the Czech cinema (and soon there will be a Milos Forman retrospective, which will bring back his early Czech work) in that it is a "humanist" cinema that is devoted to the frissures in a communist society. Technically, it's not a flashy cinema, nor is it particularly innovative, but it takes "realism" to certain limits (this is highlighted in the final sequence in "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days", which follows the actions of the friend; her wandering through the city is a very tense and gripping sequence).

There were a lot of press screenings next week, but i may have to forego them, since i've agreed to be on another panel. Oh, well.....

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Well, finally made it to the Museum of Modern Art; first, went to the press screening of Catherine Breillat's "Brief Crossing" (which i liked quite a lot) and then went through and saw the Martin Puryear exhibition, the Georges Seurat drawings, the Lucien Freud etchings, and the Latin American "multiples". And... i loved it. It was wonderful, and made me remember how much i used to love MoMA. I have to say that all the work was just so interesting....

What i liked was the differences in the different exhibits: the very precise and exquisite craft of Martin Puryear, the evocative quality of the charcoal drawings of Seurat... i'm not that crazy about Lucien Freud's work, but certainly his etchings were personal and professional. But the fact that MoMA could encompass these different aesthetics is pretty amazing.

I'm starting to get curious about the upcoming Whitney Biennial. They've released the list of artists about a month ago. William E. Jones is one of the artists, and so he'll be staying here with us during the week of the opening(s) of the Biennial.

I feel like this cold is finally lifting... but (of course) i went out today on the coldest day of the year (so far).

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Well, last night watched "A Hard Day's Night"; was amazed at how drab the movie looked (i know it was intentional, but still...) especially when compared to what David Watkins did with black-and-white in "The Knack".

The Village Voice came out with the results of the Village Voice/L.A. Weekly poll: "There Will Be Blood" again. Just like the IndieWire poll.

I'll have to go 0nline to see how "13 Lakes" placed, since it was definitely a passion vote among its partisans (of which i was one). May i make the observation that, in the IndieWire poll, Jim Hoberman did NOT list "13 Lakes/10 Skies" but he does (at Number 3 no less) in the Village Voice poll.

Well, tomorrow starts press screenings. There's a screening fo Catherine Breillat's "Brief Crossing", which i haven't seen; it's at MoMA, and it's part of a series "The Age of Chevalier", because the producer Pierre Chevalier was involved in all the movies. He's the one who came up with the idea for "Boys and Girls in Their Time", which remains one of the best series of films ever, with great films from Andre Techine, Chantal Akerman, Cedric Klapish, Claire Denis and Olivier Assayas.

And already i have to start shifting through and seeing some of the new movies. Jia Zhangke's "Still Life" is having a screening; i thought that was a wonderful film. Hou Hsaio-Hsien's "Flight of the Red Balloon" is going to be opening soon. So already 2008 is starting off with some very interesting movies.

The Iowa caucuses are happening tomorrow. I know that it should be exciting, because it's such a crowded field now, both Democrat and Republican. But the only candidate i really despise is Giuliani. It's one of those things where his reputation as mayor has really been very controversial (to put it mildly) for those of us in New York City: he remains a very unpopular mayor, especially among people like the police and the fire departments, people who had to deal with him, and found him to be less than helpful. Yet he seems to believe that if you bull your way through and outright lie, people will simply believe you. And the unfortunate thing is that he seems to have a point. (Like George Sanders saying to Marilyn Monroe in "All About Eve": "You have a point, an idiotic point, but a point.") Giuliani is someone who has zilch in terms of family values (he's an adulterer, he's a terrible parent who is estranged from his children) yet he thinks he can claim to have "family values" by screaming at others. And he seems to be getting away with it!

Well: i wonder what would happen if another snowstorm hit the midwest?