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Archive for ‘Classic Schmassic’

My Small World Of Gigantic Film Epics

By , 28 December, 2009, No Comment

With all the bustle of holidays, my film friends and I have had a terrible time getting together for our usual movie watching. I myself have even had little time for solo sofa loafing and watching films; hence the lack of film posts recently. But hubby and I did manage to watch TCM’s A Night at the Movies: The Gigantic World of Epics.

The special discussed Hollywood’s “biggest screen spectaculars,” from the genre’s beginnings to how the genre fell out of favor in the ’70s and ’80s — and how epics were recently reborn with films like The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Gladiator, Braveheart, etc. What I really learned was how few of the classic film epics I really have seen.

Of all the films covered, I’ve only seen Gone with the Wind, The Ten Commandments, and Samson & Delilah. Hubby fared far worse, having only seen exactly zero of the films mentioned, despite a college course on classic film history. (Maybe that’s because in ’93, epics were still out of vogue?) In any case, I decided my movie watching gal pals and I would have to select a few epics and schedule them for our Classic Schmassic film nights.

On my list are The Birth of a Nation, Doctor Zhivago, Ben-Hur, Lawrence of Arabia, The Bridge on the River Kwai, and On the Waterfront (which has been on my list because of Brando in Street Car). But my first choice may just be Cleopatra.

Cleopatra: The Downfall Of Epic Films

Cleopatra: The Downfall Of Epic Films

Not just because it’s an epic, but because, like Let’s Make Love, I’ve preconceived notions — and wish to protect Marilyn. Simply put, I’ve avoided this last of the epic films because of the epic film history behind it: Cleopatra was sucking the studio dry, so studio execs (fearful that Elizabeth Taylor would walk off set, sending the film and studio further into the sinkhole) used Marilyn Monroe as the whipping girl for film and film star extravagance. Maybe now it’s time to finally watch Cleopatra and judge it as a film.

But I’ll have to see how the other girls in my group feel.

TCM’s own page for the documentary is sans input and your’s truly feels too sheepish to write a synopsis (let alone a review) of documentary of classic films — especially as she’s seen so few of the films under discussion. But Mike Hale at The New York Times has posted what I think is a good review of The Gigantic World of Epics.

I could be biased though, because Hale starts his article off naming Turner Classic Movies as his favorite television channel and ends his article with what I call the proper sentiments regarding acknowledging TCM’s value:

They probably would have also been amused at the notion that within half a century, work like theirs would need preserving — that a television channel would be devoted to it, like an around-the-clock museum. We should all take a moment to look up from our cellphone screens and give thanks.

I do thank TCM. If it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t be able to try before I buy movies, nor would I know about a majority of films to put on my ‘to watch’ lists. Including epics.

Lessons In Vertigo (Hitchcock’s Vertigo, That Is!)

By , 22 September, 2009, 3 Comments

Vertigo (1958), with James Stewart, Kim Novak, Barbara Bel Geddes and directed by Alfred Hitchcock, is another “classic film” you may have heard so much about that you’ve possibly avoided it — but that’s not its only problem.

Now 51 years old, Vertigo is a film which has long been playing on late night on television — a position that puts films into the easily dismissed pile, not only for its too-frequent showings, but an air time left to insomniacs and after-bar munchies-eating persons who turn TV on for some noise once back in a too-quiet house. The results are that a film that most people know is a called a classic is now either too old and junky to watch or a film they’ve seen bits & pieces of and were unimpressed.

Sadly, my previous viewings of Vertigo were of the post-bar & trying to fall asleep variety and so were admittedly hampered. While I knew I wasn’t giving the film a proper viewing, I was very bored. For this reason, when my movie club suggested Vertigo, I wrinkled my nose — but once it was suggested as a Classic Schmassic, I had no way out.

Vertigo Film Poster

Vertigo Film Poster

Vertigo is a rather stylish movie, but it moves slowly…

One one hand, you have lovely details — both for fans of vintage and character points for story lovers. (Early on I was most in love with Bel Geddes who, despite her often poorly written lines, earnestly tugs are your heartstrings; the lack of sexual tension made utterly clear as Stewart takes a look at lingerie artist/designer Bel Geddes’ work.)

Stewart Doesn't Seem To Care About Bel Geddes' Bra

Stewart Doesn't Seem To Care About Bel Geddes' Bra

But on the other, you can’t help but feel a bit impatient for the famous Hitchcock to get going. And even when Hitchcock does get going there are problems.

Novak Clutching Stewart in Vertigo

Novak Clutching Stewart in Vertigo

First, there was the fact that I knew we, as an audience, have become much more sophisticated in our mystery-suspense movie watching. No, it’s not that we wanted more special effects and higher body counts (as if!), but I figured even my 9 year old would figure out the secret identity switcher-roo and basic plot premise. I’m not boasting that my children are gifted; simply too experienced with (and perhaps even jaded by) mystery and suspense films (and books) today to not guess the plot. Maybe audiences back then were too, maybe this was Hitchcock’s intent; I don’t know and I leave such matters to film critics and the like. But I do know that once I got my kids past the slowly unfolding story to a plot they could easily guess, they’d be bored.

This leads us to the second problem.

After the slow-moving pace and the spoon-fed clues, Hitchcock suddenly jerks us like a fish in a line. Stewart is in the mental ward; then he’s out of it. Me and my film-watching friends asked, “Is he dreaming this?” “Is he out?” “Is he out of the ward or out of his mind?”

Stewart is both.

Out of the hospital and out of his mind, Stewart can’t stop looking for the girl he believes is dead, finding Novak’s face and figure in nearly every woman he sees. When he finds her, he doesn’t seem any less crazy because while we know it’s Novak he doesn’t — yet he forces this woman to dress and look like the doomed lady he loves.

Key Players In Vertigo: Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak Times-Two

Key Players In Vertigo: Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak Times-Two

As a woman, these scenes are very uncomfortable to watch and Stewart goes from poor dupe to manipulative, controlling, and abusive boyfriend.

Like how Bel Geddes was just dropped from the film, it may all be done to swing audience favor from Stewart to Novak; but it’s not pretty. Watching Novak be transformed is not a blossoming; it is not movie magic reuniting lovers; it is disturbing and creepy and misogynistic.

And then, when Stewart realizes how he’s been duped, he doesn’t feel pity towards Novak. His anger, aggression and abuse may be the catalyst for curring the very acrophobia which led to his victimization, but it’s not healing; this too is ugly.

Perhaps Stewart would have come around, could have come around (as we the audience would have if we were clued in on a few things, such as the plot holes), but what happens next left all of us sputtering. It wasn’t mere surprise at a (finally) unexpected film twist — it just didn’t seem to make any sense.

“Did his film budget run out?”
“Did we miss something in the back story — all those spoon-fed bread-crumbs?”
“Are we dumb?”

A serious WTF? movie moment — and then the film ends.

My first thought whilst writing a review of Vertigo in my head was, “Watch it and be surprised!” but while actually writing this review, I find myself feeling cheated. And angry. Should a sudden and inexplicable WTF? ending equate to a good mystery and/or suspense? Can you call a film “classic” when the mystery and suspense are so out of character and random that it feels slapped-together?

When the film was originally released, theatre goers didn’t care for Hitchcock’s Vertigo; but since then, film critics have lauded the film classic status, placing it on Top 100 and even Top 10 lists. These film critics have said that audiences didn’t understand the film, didn’t appreciate Hitchcock’s work. But I think the original audiences had it right and that the film critics wrap Hitchcock’s status around the film and make it something it’s not.

Bel Geddes Tries To Make Herself Something She's Not

Bel Geddes Tries To Make Herself Something She's Not

Stewart did a fine job of making himself unlikable (no easy task); Novak may never have done such fine dramatic work as she beautifully did in her two complicated roles; and Bel Geddes was (surprisingly to those of us who only knew her as the aged matriarch of TV’s Dallas) simply heartbreakingly wonderful as the taken-for-granted-girl-who-is-a friend-but-not-a-girlfriend. Had Hitchcock only crafted a real ending that made sense — or left us some of those giant bread crumbs to follow into whatever madness he was thinking — Vertigo could have been good, grand even…

As it is, I suspect you’d have to be a male to look past the creepy misogyny and slapped-on ending to appreciate Vertigo; this is one classic I’m still calling a schmassic.

Monday Movie Meme: Trauma In Your Drama?

By , 15 June, 2009, 3 Comments

This week’s Monday Movie Meme is all about trauma — and the minute I read it I knew just what I was going to say!

Just this past weekend, the girls & I in film club watched Easy Rider (1969) for our latest Classic Schmassic screening and, because there’s very little glamour and fashion to discuss, I wasn’t sure I’d mention it here… But now I have an excuse *wink*

Easy Rider was an easy choice for our Classic Schmassic viewing because it’s not only a film we’ve all heard glorified so much (it’s a “touchstone for a generation,” the start of “mockumentaries,” etc.) but it’s such a “male film” (motorcycles, traveling by two cross country — something even today that two women would be too vulnerable to do, and more motorcycles) that we all wrinkled our noses when the title was suggested; the collective nose wrinkling made it mandatory viewing.

For the first, what, quarter? half? of the movie, I (and the rest of the film club) were bored out of our minds. The two main leads, Peter Fonda as Wyatt & Dennis Hopper as Billy, were not particularly likable to us; selling drugs is not as glamorous to women who have children, and then there’s the rather sexist regard of women (no matter how accurate, it’s not likable). The trip itself makes some commentary on “others in our society,” both conservative powers that be (“The Man”) and those living on the fringe (sometimes supposedly “Utopian”); but we just found ourselves faced with further dislike of the characters (who really didn’t know how good they had it). It was becoming intolerable to watch (exhibited by our increasing talk) — and then Jack Nicholson appeared on screen (as George Hanson).

The Boys On Bikes In Easy Rider

The Boys On Bikes In Easy Rider

Easy Rider is supposed to be the movie that made Nicholson a star, so matter what your thoughts on him (and in my film club, they vary to the least flattering thoughts you can imagine!), you are sort of compelled to see what the fuss was about. As good as Nicholson is (and we all agreed that he was good here), even his charming performance wasn’t quite turning this movie into something we were all glued to.

We were anxious, shifting in our seats, trying not to talk when we desperately wanted to entertain ourselves somehow, when finally one scene pulled us all in.

It’s the scene were the three guys stop to eat in a Louisiana restaurant. Here we actually found a level of unpleasant realism which made us shift in our seats for completely different reasons; it was the sort of extreme vulnerability that we’d each felt at one time or another — the sort of fear which keeps us from trying to travel cross country in such small numbers.

This kept us riveted to the movie from then on.

And once engaged, we were shocked with what happened next.

I won’t tell you what it was. Doing so would be more than a spoiler; it would completely destroy your viewing of the film.

Part of our shock was wondering how we’d each managed not to know this about the film… Had everyone who talked about the film provided the same “non spoiler” respect? Was most of the chatter about this film perpetuated by those who had never even seen it? Or had each of us been living under rocks?

In any case, from that moment on we were in shock — the medical kind. We were cold, some of us were shaking, and we were aware that other things were happening on the screen — but we weren’t quite sure if we were seeing them or interpreting them right.

By the time we got to the doing drugs with hookers (played by Karen Black and Toni Basil) in the cemetery scene, we were already feeling disjointed and confused…

Perhaps the DVD spiked our Diet Cokes? We sure felt like we were on a trip.

But the movie doesn’t end there; and neither did our trauma. Again, I won’t go into details; if you’ve managed not to know the entire plot, I won’t be responsible for ruining it. Instead, I’d much rather be responsible for encouraging you to stop resisting this film. Easy Rider, for all it’s bluster & bluff, is legendary stuff.

Just don’t drive any deserted roads alone. Not after viewing — maybe not ever.

Easy Rider is one move that I can safely dub as Most Traumatic Film I’ve Seen.  I’ve cried more, I’ve been more depressed, I’ve been angrier; but I’ve never physically suffered from shock from a film before.

I’ve Had A Strange Love Affair With Silent Films.

By , 1 May, 2009, No Comment
Phantom Scene

Phantom Scene

Like Simon Cowell I have this aversion to theatrical performances. Unless the play is a comedy or a campy musical, I just can’t stand most live theatre performances.

My husband, the theatre major, has forced me to defend articulate (over & over again) my dislike of most plays and stage performances, so you’d think I’d be better at this than I’m likely going to be…

First of all, I get that in theatre the actors stand, under a spotlight, on a stage with rows & rows of seats and other real excuses for vast physical feet between them and the audience, which means that they need to exaggerate & make dramatic gestures in order to be seen… They compete for audience attention & comprehension.

But I’m not *ahem* emotionally retarded; so I can “get it” without all the drama of obnoxious teenagers and attention seeking media whores of today. All that wild-arm-swinging, loud sound & fury that struts & frets an ungodly-long hour upon the stage, signifies nothing.

Nothing, perhaps, but loud laughter. Or eyeball rolls, signs and whines of, “When can we go home?”

I prefer to see shades & subtleties, little nuances, which communicate and guide me along in the performance. I even adore being swathed in the confusion of multiple at-odds-with-one-another layers — because most of life is living in the ambiguity of shades of grey. So I don’t, for the most part, enjoy all-white heroes & all-black villains. (Unless it’s a comedy or campy satire work — and in those cases the over-simplification of such all-or-nothing assumptions and caricatures only drives home the very fact that life is not as simple as the color of our hats.)

Characters & the portrayal thereof ought to be as complicated as real life human character — that’s what makes it compelling. At least that’s my opinion. Which is why film is such a marvel to me.

Using the perfect lighting, the lens, focus, editing, sound & music, costumes — all the technical things that are magic to me — applied to amplify and echo, peel & mask, hide & hint, like eyes behind a lady’s feathered fan. Ooooh, just what does it all mean? I stare. Drinking it in, absorbing every detail the filmmakers & actors give me, assembling it into The Big Picture.

(I’m no film scholar; don’t pretend to be. I don’t even know how to fake enough of the tech lingo to sound like one! I could try to figure it out, but I don’t care to understand how the magic is created — I just want to marvel at the rabbit popping out of the hat! Oh, when I think of it all — and I often do! — I get dizzy. I experience the same sense of wonder and amazement that I imagine those at the dawn of film felt when they first witnessed moving pictures.)

Lyda Borelli

Lyda Borelli

But theatre performances, to me, are anything but subtle, shaded and rich in complexity. Theatre is gaudy & loud. It is one part wooden — and one part flamboyant beyond belief. Like performances on wooden stilts. And the action & motivation of theatre performances are driven home with all the delicate finesse of a two-by-four to the head. Ouch!

And this, my friends, is often what I saw in silent films. At least in the beginning.

Historically speaking, many of the early (and dubbed “Great”) actors of the silver screen were favored sons and daughters of “the legitimate theatre,” so naturally they brought their unnatural-to-me acting skills with them. Film quality and movie making techniques being more “primitive” than the lush productions we have today, it’s something I intellectually understood — but I still didn’t like them.

And it doesn’t necessarily help if your earliest exposures to silent films were Laurel and Hardy works.

At least, not if you’re a girl, who by virtue of her gender is apparently missing the slapstick gene (closely related to, if not actually, the pull-my-finger comedy gene). Double the trouble when this girl finds grandiose theatrical exaggeration downright unpleasant.

Chaplin vs Keaton by damianblake

Chaplin vs Keaton by damianblake

(I don’t know why Laurel and Hardy & the like are what people most often use to introduce youngsters to silent film… To reach boys, maybe? Because I don’t know a single woman who, when asked, said she fell in love with silent or classic films because of any slapstick production. Better, in my opinion, to start with Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin as The Little Tramp, where you still get slapstick — but with an additional depth and poignancy that can break a girl’s heart.)

Anyway, it took at least a decade for me to submit to another silent film viewing. I wish I could tell you what it was… But I can’t. I can tell you that it was one of those go-to-the-silent-film-screening-at-college-so-you-can-look-cool things. I don’t know if I garnered any “cool clout” as a result, but, whatever the film was, I know I didn’t hate it. And so I consented to see more silent films after that, eventually coming to adore many of them to the degree that silent film titles appear on many of my top film lists.

Yes, there are a number of “The Greats” that I must “forgive” for their inherited theatrical flamboyance before I can really enjoy their performances… But for the most part, I no longer grit my teeth as I sit and await the wooden two-by-four laden performance to the head; I just watch them with joy.

Somehow or other, some of the actors and filmmakers alike transcended the simple act of filming stage enactments in those early moving picture shows… Which means that often the real joy lies in watching the discoveries made by the actors and filmmakers themselves — watching as they created something new, subtle & moving.

Without words, they learned to collaboratively speak via the intimate framing of emotionally imbued faces or hands — something visually & physically smaller than the totality of the entire person yet still able to convey the largest of emotions.

Finally, for example, the soundless sigh of “futility” was wordlessly given it’s weepy due as magnificent drops of dew held in the corners of eyes above weary slack faces… We saw it, felt it’s miserable weight on our shoulders.

And it was vastly different than the overstated dramatic chest-heaving, foot dragging, antics of theatre actors.

Now we would begin to see such things as “sly,” “cheeky,” “sorrow,” and “giggle” become the whispered shared intimacies of delight that we now know them to be, rather than the gross weighty extravagant luggage of live theatrical stage performances.

In some ways, the birth of film was even more magical than it is today. All they had then were their bodies — silent bodies — and the camera…

I’ll let Carol Burnett, as the cleaning lady (The Charwoman), and Gloria Swanson, as Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp *, show you.

Before you begin part two of this classic television clip on classic film, it’s interesting to note that this was filmed in 1973 — years before the complete influx (and overshadowing impact) of special effects in films. Such changes do not change the sentiments, but strengthen them for me.

And get the tissues ready — Burnett’s song makes me cry every time.

* I didn’t know it at the time I first saw this on television, but this was not the first time Gloria Swanson (then aged 76) had played Charlie Chaplin; she had done so in scenes in Sunset Boulevard.

Gloria Swanson As Charlie Chaplin In Sunset Blvd.

Gloria Swanson As Charlie Chaplin In Sunset Blvd.

Recalling that, and my shame at my previous dismissal of that film, I’m struck all the more. Yes, that means I cry harder. But sometimes that’s what you do when you’re in love. And I am a lover of silent film.

Buster Keaton Playing Cards In Sunset Boulevard

Buster Keaton Playing Cards In Sunset Boulevard

PS Buster Keaton was also in Sunset Boulevard — which thrilled me to no end, I might add!

Image credit: Chaplin vs Keaton by damianblake.

PPS Don’t forget to enter my The Get Fab-U-Lush Eyelashes Contest!

Don’t You Sometimes Hate Yourself?

By , 19 March, 2009, No Comment

Recently I posted about my movie watching group and how we were going to push past preconceptions regarding certain films and watch them — finally. This past week was our first effort and we watched “my” former rejection, Sunset Boulevard (1950).

I’d previously rejected this film because I thought I knew it. That most-mocked line from the (nearly) final scene, “Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up,” has become such an over-used quip that I shuddered when people dropped (forced) the cliched line into conversation. But I was more than bored with the film…

The parodies of Gloria Swanson as Sunset Boulevard‘s Norma Desmond, the aged and forgotten silent movie star who lives in the past, have so permeated pop culture that I actually thought of Gloria as that character. Sure, I thought she was beautiful, but I just knew Gloria had failed when the talkies came out just as her character, Norma, had.

One of the first times I’d ever seen such a parody of the film was when I was a youngster. It was Carol Burnett and her non-too-cleverly-disguised ‘Nora Desmond’ character.

From then on, every parody, quote, reference and mere suggestion of the film’s possible reference made me sigh with boredom.

And when I suggested it to my movie group, there were sighs all around; all of them had done their best to avoid this film too, and none were happy to have it suggested. Ah, the perfect film for our project then, ey? *wink*

Oh, the poetic justice then, that each and every one of us (six women), fell in love with the film.

And Gloria Swanson? Oh, honey do I owe you an apology! You were brilliant!

I’d tell you more about the film and our reactions, but that would be yet another tired review of a film you thought you knew. And I have no desire to do that — to you, or the film. I’d much rather prefer that you just knew that the lot of us ashamedly ate our hats; and I invite you, encourage you, to do the same.

Please.

Oh, and if you or someone you know has been avoiding film noir, our group decided that this would be the perfect film to pop your noir cherry. One of the many delights of Sunset Boulevard is the sublime, nearly perverse, sense of humor which adds the perfect edge to what some fear is the “all melodramatic gloom all the time” that is film noir. (Note: Neither myself not the other members of my film group dislike film noir or feel that’s a fair statement; but that’s the sort of comment we hear from noir nay-sayers, and so we’d like to offer this movie up as a very enjoyable entre to the genre.)

Now, just go watch Sunset Blvd. You’ll be glad you did.

PS The title of this post comes from a great line in the movie:

Betty Schaefer: Don’t you sometimes hate yourself?
Joe Gillis: Constantly.

Do You Watch Or Avoid Classic Films?

By , 6 March, 2009, No Comment

A few of my movie night friends and I were trying to come up with a schedule of films for our next few gatherings and we ended discussing “classic films”. There are just those in my group who think “classic” means “old” — and they mean that in a bad way! — whereas others think that films need to be of a certain age in order to be called “classic”.

Our talk swirled & spiraled around the supposed accuracy of such a label — just who has the right to authentically denote such films as classic?

Individually, we all use that word “classic” to mean different things, including, but not limited to, the use of the word to express a kitsch hilarity which many of my friends and I feel is nearly the antithesis of what film critics intend the “classic film” moniker to mean. We then came up with the idea of denoting such critically acclaimed “classic” films as Classic Film or at least “Classic” with a capital ‘c’; leaving our personally exclaimed “classics” to the little ‘c’.

But this brought up the issue of film snobbery & supposed (or perceived) film snobbery and the related issue of films so famous, so entrenched in popular culture, that we avoid seeing them. As one of my friends said about A Streetcar Named Desire:

The film and that line have permeated popular culture to the point where it has reached iconic status. Not only do we feel we “get it” from this referential culture-point, but the legendary status gives the property such a build-up that one may wish to avoid the film for fear it will not live up to the expectations.

Sometimes, this popularity & intensity hype is rather short-lived. For example, I only had to wait to see E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial until it’s 20th anniversary edition was released — because that’s how long it took the hype to die down enough, to let me forget enough, so that I felt like I might just enjoy it if I watched it.

I know you might think 20 years is a long time — but it’s shorter than the entire lifetimes people avoid some films for.

In my little group of film watching friends, quite a number of us have been avoiding and refusing Classic Films (and probably some classic films too) for all sorts of reasons… Sometimes, the greater the film’s reputation, the more more strongly we dig our heels in and avoid being dragged to see it. But no more.

Now we’re challenging ourselves to watch what we’ve formerly refused for being “too old,” “so iconic”, etc. So keep an eye on my new “Classic Schmassic” category where I’ll be discussing just what films we’re finally dusting off and facing — and why.