Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The last few days, it has been cold in New York City, and the news has been hysterical, with bailouts and (possible) bankruptcies and more news on Obama's possible cabinet. (Tom Daschle for Health... it used to be called Health and Human Resources, but i think the name has been changed.) The buzz is about Hillary Clinton: will she accept Secretary of State? This has become a whole soap opera in itself, with everyone weighing in. The attempt by the executives from GM, Ford and Chrysler to get a bailout from the government was some sort of comedy: the men are such rich idiots that they didn't realize that their $20 plus million salaries look mighty bad when they're asking for $25 billion. And they flew to Washington in their own private jets. Which didn't sit well with the congressmen. In fact, it was a publicity fiasco. And Paulsson is an idiot: he went to Congress to explain why the Treasury should bail out companies and Wall Street, but not homeowners and small businesses. The situation seems clear: the government can take over the factories and the companies and kick the executives out. And that's it. The government can then decide to use the factories to manufacture whatever is really necessary for the country. And not hideously designed gas-guzzling cars. But then you hear all these idiots saying that the bailout is necessary. Well: the damned bailout of Wall Street was "necessary" and it doesn't seem to have stopped the bleeding of the economy. And will Wall Street (or GM or Ford) pay back the American people? I think not.

So much for that.

Well, tonight is Janet Gaynor night on TCM. Just watched "Small Town Girl" (1936, MGM, directed by William Wellman) and now watching "Sunrise".

Yesterday, watched "First Comes Courage", the last feature film directed by Dorothy Arzner. It was actually not bad, it's one of the more credible World War II Resistance melodramas. And Merle Oberon is also not bad. She's looser and less stiff and artificial than in most of her 1940s movies. The thing is: over the years, i'd heard Arzner being used as an example of a "terrible" director, yet her pre-Code movies are fast and quite well-done (movies like "Anybody's Woman" and "Sarah and Son", both starring Ruth Chatterton, or "Merrily We Go to Hell" starring Sylvia Sidney, or "Working Girls" which actually didn't have any big-name stars, but was one of her best movies); during the retrospective that Jytte Jensen put on at MoMA, for me one of the revelations was "Craig's Wife" because it was trim and streamlined but very elegantly crafted. (Because of "Harriet Craig", "Craig's Wife" had been long unavailable; it deserves to be more widely known, not just because it's one of Arzner's better movies, but it has a very fine dramatic performance by Rosalind Russell, the first one where you can tell she's going to be a star.)

On Monday, TCM had its Charles Laughton night (he's the Star of the Month) and i watched two movies (both of which i'd seen before): "The Old Dark House" (directed by James Whale) and "The Canterville Ghost" (directed by Jules Dassin). In terms of "The Canterville Ghost", Dassin had been directing programmers like the low-budget propaganda melodrama "Nazi Agent" (1942) and this was his first "A" budget movie. It's entertaining enough, Charles Laughton gets to show his comic talent, and Margaret O'Brien was still fresh (her next movie would be "Meet Me in St. Louis", also 1944).

But the interesting thing was to see Whale's "The Old Dark House", because there are so many things that are so odd and fey; in addition, there was almost a self-conscious decorative quality to a lot of the scenes, where the set-ups and the lighting were obviously patterned.

I guess what i'm trying to say is that, if you didn't know Whale was gay, would you suspect it from the comic and expressionistic overtones of "The Old Dark House"?

And this is hard to say, because the apparatus of the Hollywood machine was so strong.

Some obits: Grace Hartigan died over the weekend, Clive Barnes's death was just announced.

Anyway, it's been hard to get out, it's so cold (and it's only the middle of November), but tomorrow there's the screening of "Milk". And on Friday, "Wendy and Lucy" as well as Ferzak Ozpetek's "A Perfect Day".

The other important political news has been the sudden appearance of a new gay activism. Especially the passing of Proposition 8 in California (though similar measures were passed in other states, such as Florida and Arizona). This ban on gay marriage seems so retrograde. It's like this is the 21st Century, and we're still mired in prejudice. Yes, Obama was elected, but it's sparked a lot of hate crimes (especially in the South), and now, if black people are now "acceptable" (we've got a black president), well, there must be somebody that can be discriminated against, and gay people are just the perfect targets.

Only we're not the perfect targets anymore. (What i find so funny is that so many people now are saying that we shouldn't be angry, and we should try to see the other points of view... you know, it's like whites' anger and fear over Black Power... and it still happens. Just watch the hideous "View": Elizabeth Hasselback is always saying that black people are "racist" for expressing anger over white privilege, as if black people have no right to their righteous emotion for the centuries of oppression. Please!)

Anyway, over the weekend, i watched a short film made by Jenni Olson, "575 Castro Street" (which was the address of the store owned by Harvey Milk in San Francisco). It was quite a lovely short... consisting of shots of the (reconstructed) store interior (used as the set for the Gus Van Sant movie "Milk") accompanied by a taped message by Harvey Milk, which was made "in case of" his death. (Milk felt that he would be assassinated, because his stature as an openly gay man elected to public office was going to be under attack.)

Jenni's film brought to mind the attempts (since the 1960s) to find a way to meld "radical" content to formalism. On its own, it's a very evocative short: the "empty" interiors take on a ghostly quality as Milk's words (which foretell his assassination) pervade the space. Milk's own space is devoid of his presence, which is reinforced by his own words which explain the possibility of his absence.

I was reminded of how many people (Straub-Huillet, Marguerite Duras, Yvonne Rainer, Peter Wollen and Laura Mulvey, William E. Jones) have attempted to create disjunctive relationships between sound and image. "575 Castro Street" is a evocative addition to this aesthetic legacy.

Well, now watching the last of the Janet Gaynor films, "Three Loves Has Nancy". Well, it's the kind of too-cute movie that looks like someone is trying to kill off her career: she just so damned winsome in this. (She's lucky that her last starring movies were the two Selznick produced ones, "A Star Is Born" and "Young In Heart" from 1937; of course, she'd return decades later playing Pat Boone's mother in "Bernadine".)

Friday, November 14, 2008

I woke up and my nose was all stuffed up, and i think a cold is trying its best to work its magic.

Anyway, last night i stayed up and watched the Samuel Goldwyn production of "Nana", which is credited as directed by Dorothy Arzner. It was the first of the three movies which Goldwyn would make with the Russian actress Anna Sten. This was the first time it was on TCM, and it was the first time it's been on TV in decades. I have to admit: i'd seen it in the 1960s (if i'm not mistaken, it was at the Thalia on a double bill with Rene Clement's "Gervaise", so it was a based-on-Emile-Zola bill), but i haven't seen it since. (I skipped it when it played at the Dorothy Arzner retrospective which was at MoMA a while ago.) Watching it again, there are three things that were immediately apparent.

The first: i was surprised at how much of the movie i remembered. For years, i'd been reading about what a negligible movie it was, and that it was a major flop... and yet it is a very lavish movie, with some wonderful visuals. And so many of the images are memorable.

The second: i was amazed at what a huge production it was. How much Goldwyn was willing to spend on the movie! Not one, but three credited costume designers (John W. Harkrider! Travis Banton!! Adrian!!!); a song written for the film by Rodgers and Hart; Alfred Newman's score (which is like a dry run for his score for "Wuthering Heights"); Gregg Toland's cinematography (not in his deep-focus or neo-documentary mode, but all gauzy and shimmery, in the Lee Garmes-von Sternberg mode). It's all done in a fast 90 minutes, but it's still mighty impressive.

Finally, what i was really surprised about was how closely "Nana" resembled another movie about a French courtesan. In fact, in many ways, "Nana" seemed like a dry-run for "Camille". And one of the things about Hollywood history is how much has been hidden over the years.

When George Cukor first got to Hollywood, Dorothy Arzner was at her peak: she had directed "The Wild Party" (which was a big hit) and she was one of the big directors at Paramount (where Cukor was first signed). In terms of the social scene in Hollywood in that period, Dorothy Arzner was someone who was never hidden about her sexual orientation: it was widely known (in the industry) that she was a lesbian.

And so Cukor would have been around Arzner, as part of the gay artistic community in Hollywood. (And it would continue, in that Arzner would direct Cukor's "discovery" Katharine Hepburn in "Christopher Strong".)

In the hubbub surrounding the production of "Nana", there were several dierctors who were attached to the project, or who directed some of the movie, but the only one credited is Arzner. (George Fitzmaurice, who had directed Garbo in "As You Desire Me" and "Mata Hari", was one of the directors fired from the movie.)

But if you look at "Nana" now (and in the light of Cukor's "Camille"), it's easy to see the similarities. There are the two sidekicks (Mae Clarke and Muriel Kirkland in "Nana", Laura Hope Crews and Lenore Ulric in "Camille"), who seemed to have been encouraged to overact. There's the beautiful if stolid leading man (Phillips Holmes in "Nana", Robert Taylor in "Camille") while the romantic rival is played with some subtlety and panache (Lionel Atwell in "Nana", Henry Daniell in "Camille"). And as the maid-confidante, there's Jessie Ralph! Giving what seems to be the same performance.

As for Anna Sten: her English is problematic, there are times when she seems to stumble over her lines (especially in the repartee when she's supposed to be cutting down her admirers), but she does have something. It's not what Garbo or Dietrich had, it's not even what Hedy Lamarr had: though she's lit so that she's goddessy-beautiful, she's not a goddessy actress. But she's not a bad actress, though it should be said that it's obvious that she's having a problem in some of the costumes: the final scenes, where she's running through the apartment trying to keep Holmes and Atwell from seeing each other, are particularly difficult, because it's so clear that she's being hampered by the costumes. She's trying to run, and it's absurd.

But she's so much better in "The Wedding Night" but by that point, it was too late.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

It's been more than a week, i'm just getting back to some sort of normal, the election was amazing, no matter what you thought about the specifics of the candidates. By the time Election Day rolled around, the campaigns seemed inordinately long... yet, as Bill Maher said on his program "Real Time", it was also the most exciting campaign in any of our lifetimes. And the results really did say something about the changing America.

Television has become such an integral part of the news. In terms of the elections: two of the most fascinating comments made about the election were: 1) Al Sharpton on the D.L. Hughley Show before the weekend before the election; 2) Gloria Steinem on Oprah the day after the election.

Sharpton's point was that Barack Obama was truly an African-American, he is not a black American who is using that term. But Sharpton's point is that Obama's background is not the typical African-American story, it shows that black America has become "diverse" and that there are different stories, not all black Americans are descended from slaves, etc.

Gloria Steinem's statement was that, ever since the end of the 1960s, it seemed as if those of us who had a belief in progressive ideas, in change, were estranged from our own country. And finally, there seemed to be enough of a margin to believe that change was possible.

But (of course) this positive sign was accompanied by all the statutes to ban gay marriage.

Anyway... have a lot of thoughts about that, but just watched "Hard, Fast and Beautiful" (directed by Ida Lupino) on TCM, and now feel tired.

Monday, November 03, 2008

There's a lot of charm in being in Bay Ridge at this time of year. There are things like the Ragamuffin Parade: a month before Halloween, the kids can parade around Third Avenue in their costumes, and the local high school bands play. Then there's the Third Avenue Fair on the following Sunday. The Bay Ridge Jewish Center has its flea market. then there's Halloween, and then there's the New York City Marathon, which goes through Fourth Avenue. People line up and cheer on the runners: we're actually located at the three mile point. The first year we were here, we had never seen the Marathon close up, and the portapotties were located at the corner, and it was hilarious because some of the runners couldn't stand waiting, and they would duck into the alleys and urinate. What a mess! For the last two years, the portapotties have been located two blocks up, where there's St. Anselm's Catholic Church, the Bay Ridge Jewish Center, and a vacant lot: no places to duck in! So people have to stand in line.

Last Thursday and Friday, i went to see the press screenings for the Manny Farber tribute series that's going to be at the Walter Reade Theater. Among the films: Paul Schrader's "Untitled: New Blue" and Chris Petit's "Negative Space", then Griffith's "A Corner in Wheat" and Michael Snow's "Wavelength". I was really glad to see "Wavelength" again, but it now seems so... dramatic! The little vignettes (the people moving in a closet, the man falling to the floor, the woman at the end on the telephone) are almost distracting. Ernie Gehr's "Serene Velocity" doesn't include any "human" interest, just the visual sensation of the continual oscillation of the corridor.

The next day there was "In the Street", which is now a mystery: Ed Howard is credited in the press release as the director, and that is also how the film is listed on IMDB, yet the actual credits (as they always have been) state that "In the Street" is a film by Helen Levitt, Janice Loeb and James Agee. Then there were Griffith's "The Musketeers of Pig Alley" and Raoul Walsh's "For Me and My Gal". I hadn't remembered how utterly appropriate "In the Street" was for Halloween.

Tomorrow is Election Day. We're going to try to vote early.