Archive for July, 2009

Hiatus

Posted in eBay with tags , , on July 31, 2009 by leclisse

Things have been slowing down here at l’eclisse, mainly due to some disruptions in my personal life. I just moved this past Monday, so between unpacking, rearranging, cleaning, and working full time I have not been able to enjoy much time to watch movies. Alas.

So that is how things stand as of right now. This weekend looks to be rather full as well, but hopefully I’ll be able to devote some quality time to my DVD collection. I found a seller on eBay who specializes in rare and out-of-print titles from such silent favorites as Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford, as well as some schlock offerings from Sal Mineo, Carol Lynley, Christine Jorgensen, and many others.  I bought the Gish and Pickford sets, so I’ll have enough in my silent film library to keep me busy for quite some time.

Hollywood Outlaws: A second look at Public Enemies (2009)

Posted in Dailies with tags , , , on July 19, 2009 by leclisse

 

Johnny Depp as John Dillinger, viewing himself in a "Most Wanted" newsreel

Stranger stop and wish me well,
Just say a prayer for my soul in hell.
I was a good fellow, most people said,
Betrayed by a woman dressed all in red.

It’s taken me some time to gather my thoughts on Michael Mann’s Public Enemies (2009).  I actually went to see the film twice — the first time being two weeks ago at Milwaukee’s Landmark treasure, the Oriental Theater, and the second time at an IPic theater at Bayshore Mall.

Initially, I was incredbly disappointed in this production.  I made my way to the Oriental with high hopes, eagerly anticipating what I thought would be a stellar production filmed, literally, in my backyard.  I was in Columbus, WI in early 2008 when they were filming the getaway after John Dillinger’s second prison break.  You can see the downtown area retrofitted to 1934 as Johnny et al. cruise out of town in a stolen Ford coupe.  That being said, I still don’t think I had wildly unrealistic expectations about this film.  What I saw, however, was a visual mess.  The lighting in almost every scene was dingy, the camera movements jarring and unnerving, and the sound jagged and piercing.  All the actors appeared haggard, above and beyond the grit that is called for in any gangster picture.  At least twice, the digital picture pixelated.  I felt as though this was quite possibly one of the ugliest films I had ever seen.

Coming in to work the following Monday, I discussed the film with a friend of mine who had also seen it that weekend, but at a different theater.  She was incredulous when I told her my disgust with the production, which rather surprised me because I know there is no way she could have loved the same film that I saw.  After doing some internet digging, I came across an article describing how some theaters are not equipped to properly show digital films.  This immeditely caught my attention, and I decided that I would give Public Enemies another shot, but this time at a theater that I knew could handle digital.  And boy, am I glad that I did.

Christian Bale (center) as G-man Melvin PurvisMichael Mann’s 142-minute adaptation of John Dillinger’s two-year crime spree across the Midwest must have been a daunting prospect to tackle.  Over five hundred pages of history had to be condensed into a two-hour feature film, a task that required some blurring of fact and forsaking of significant character development.  Johnny Depp really shines as the swaggering, self-assured Dillinger, expertly capturing the charisma that held the public’s attention and adultation, despite the fact that it belonged to a criminal.  This charisma remains largely on the surface, however, because the scripted events of Dillinger’s life do little to reveal much motivation beyond infatuation (his love for Marion Cotillard’s Billie Frechette) and perfunctory loyalty to his criminal comrades.  Christian Bale is G-man Melvin Purvis, driven to prove the FBI’s worth as first-rate crime fighters on the strength of utilizing “scientific techniques.”  Bale’s Purvis is really not given much to do, other than appear concerned when his officers are gunned down by Dillinger and Baby Face Nelson or artificially confident in the face of the Bureau’s glaring lack of field experience.  This isn’t Bale’s fault — his Bruce Wayne/Batman is an excellent update of the legendary comic book hero, example enough of his skills as an actor.  I think the fault lies largely with the screenwriters, who seem rather hesitant to provide this film with a real focus and instead resort to the thrills of firefights and chase scenes.  Cotillard speaks with only traces of a French accent, which is a rather nice touch for her turn as Billie, who is half French-Canadian.  The rather sorry upbringing that the real Billie Frechette had is only glanced at during the film, explained in the minutes following her and Dillinger’s first night together.  Frechette and Dillinger were drawn to each other in part because of this shared desire to escape from their personal histories, but this motivation is lost during the film.  Their relationship is consequently reduced to a whirlwind romance, cemented with the motions of love rather than the emotion itself.  Dillinger’s farewell to Billie is poignantly played, however, as Cotillard softly weeps at his final words: Bye bye, blackbird.

Marion Cotillard as Billie Frechette at Arizona's Hotel CongressThis second time around, I saw incredibly pleased to see cinematography that did not assault my eyes.  The scenes of Dillinger and Frechette’s vacation in Arizona is bathed in this wonderful yellow glow, softly saturating the picture with warmth and sunlight.  As long as the camera remained relatively still, the picture revealed a crystal focus.  I could see the pores and textures of skin as well as the minutest details of costume fabrics.  The sound was much smoother as well, with more polished variances but just enough roughness to suggest the grit of a gangster flick.  The explosions of gunfire took on a rawness that lent very well to a realistic feel, not the usual cleanliness of a more stylized picture.  I was still bothered by the hand-held movements of the camera in some scenes, such as the woodland battle at Little Bohemia.  The time spent with this jarring movement was minimal, however, and excusable in the larger scheme of the film’s camerawork.

The bottom line: definitely go see this film if you have not already done so.  However, please make sure your choice of theater is equipped for digital — call ahead if you have to.  You will not be sorry.  Public Enemies is one of the finest offerings of the summer box office.

The Pink Angora Series Presents: The Buster Keaton Story (1957)

Posted in Guest Blogger with tags , , , , , , on July 17, 2009 by mjprigge

Here it is, the first installment of “Pink Angora” here at l’eclisse.  By popular demand, Matt has chosen The Buster Keaton Story (1957) as his topic.  Read on!

They say that Buster Keaton could do more with his eyes between blinkbkss than most Hollywood screenwriters could with pages of dialogue. If Keaton was the master of the subtle glance, his on-screen doppelganger in 1957’s “The Buster Keaton Story” is a cross-eyed spastic. There is nothing about The Buster Keaton Story, clever title aside, that makes it the Buster Keaton story. The film’s gross inaccuracies are infamous; Buster’s three wives are portrayed as one (Ann Blyth), his early films are shown as studio pictures when there were indeed independent productions, even the titles of his films are changed, presenting him in such works as “The Criminal” and “The Gambler.” Of course, artistic liberties must be taken with any historical film, but TBKS approaches Oliver Stone territory in its appraisal of Buster’s life and work. Yes, there was an actor named Buster Keaton, who did in fact wear a flat hat and own a big house, reality pretty much ends there. Oh yeah, and the booze. The real Buster liked booze too.

The movie opens with the Three Keatons on tour. The poster outside a ratty old vaudeville house advertises their “Pantomime” routine, although the only time we see them on stage, Mr. Keaton (Dave Willock) is singing opera. Perhaps they did a kind of dada-esque pantomime in which you could talk. Anyway, some time passes and we see a newspaper headline, “Movies kill Vaudeville.” My theory is that they hired the cartoons to drop an anvil on Vaudeville’s head. Theatre, being the older brother of Vaudeville, would forever hold a grunge over the killing and seek revenge on numerous occasions.

With vaudeville as dead as, well, vaudeville, Buster (Donald O’Connor) is forced into the moving pictures business. The year is 1920 (in reality, Buster had been making short films with Fatty Arbuckle since 1917 and was an established actor), and Buster is turned away at the studio gate. “Famous Studios” reads the sign on the gate, and like foods that use “Delicious” in the brand name, you are forced to take them at their word. Buster ends up sneaking past the guards by balancing a wooden plank on his head and following some workmen into the lot. This is actually surprisingly honest, playing on the little-known fact that security guards are unable to see anyone with a wooden plank balanced on their head (for more on this phenomenon, check out the 1930’s bank robber Billy “Plank Head” White). Once inside, he manages to impress the studio brass with own kind of “Folsom Prison Blues” moment, and is signed to a contract.

After filming his first movie, Buster becomes a man-about-town, dating blonde bombshells and ordering his beers two at a time. In a bit of dialogue that could have come from an upcoming American Pie sequel, the bombshell asks Buster about his desire to direct his own pictures. “Do you like to do EVERYTHING yourself?” Buster: “Well, not everything…” Heh, heh, heh.

That is the real Buster Keaton on the LEFT. Just to clear it up...

That is the real Buster Keaton on the LEFT. Just to clear it up...

Like any good (or awful) biopic, TBKS has a musical montage. Newspaper clippings show Buster’s star on the rise, with films both real and imagined. I cannot for the life of me figure out why they used some real titles (The Frozen North, The Ballonatic, The General), and some of the previously mentioned fakes. In any case, the real ones do not occur in their actual order, and the re-created routines often borrow from several sources and add heavy doses of dumpy ad-libbing on the part of O’Connor. In TBKS O’Connor looks more like hippie-kissing, presidential also-ran Dennis Kucinich than the title character. He wears Keaton’s famous outfit (often anachronistically), but brings nothing in the way of the physicality or voice of the man. I can hardly fault O’Connor (a very talented actor in his own right) for not being able to match Keaton in his pratfalls and comic grace. No one can be expected to do that. However, O’Connor lacks the basic fearlessness Keaton took into his work. In Marion Meade’s biography of Keaton, she writes that during rehearsals with Keaton, O’Connor flat-out refused to do many of the stunts the sixty-one year old was showing him. O’Connor called them “scary.”

So after a quick and steady rise, everyone knows what comes next in a biopic… rock bottom! Buster hits his with the help of the bottle, his condition being aggravated by the smashing success of the Jazz Singer. His latest silent is a flop, while the line snakes around the block for the new talkie. Distraught, Keaton meets up with his old pal Don Lockwood, and they get drunk on rye and speed down Alameda Boulevard, smashing mailboxes with a baseball bat (although I might have just dreamed that last part).

On a particularly wicked bender, Keaton marries his old casting director Gloria (Ann Blyth). She marries him to try to clean him up, I guess, but it doesn’t work so well. Buster tries talkies, but that doesn’t work so well, either. He is brow-beaten by director Peter Lorre, who plays a kind of bored, Nazi version of Ed Wood. Unable to nail his lines (not even after take four!!!), Buster kicks over a table, shouting “Rehabilitated! Rehabilitated!” the word he kept tripping over. I am told that in an early version of the “Dog Day Afternoon” script, Al Pacino was to chant “Rehabilitated!” instead of “Attica!”*

Out of chances with the movies and Gloria, she leaves him all alone in his “Italian Villa.” Genuine exterior shots of the famous residence are used in the movie (and were also used in the famous horse head scene in The Godfather). However, indoors, the massive house seems to only have two rooms (a foyer and library). They are the only two rooms in which any of the characters spend any time, and combined with the office of the studio head, about half of the film’s action takes place there. No one in the entire film seems to move very much at all. They are always in the same rooms, always dress the same, no one ever ages or cuts their hair. Time passes only in the newspapers and hammy dialogue. By the end, Buster quits drinking (he pours a brandy which he does not drink to illustrate this point) and goes back into vaudeville, reuniting with his wife and once again wowing audiences. Meanwhile, Don Lockwood isn’t returning his calls.

Perhaps the most astounding thing about The Buster Keaton Story in that, in its time, it was a rather successful film. Audiences enjoyed it and it had a rather long run years later as on television. Keaton himself hated the movie. He was shut out of the production process and claims to have never even read the script. After TBKS’s release, Buster was embarrassed by its portrayal of him as a dopey drunk, especially considering he was simultaneously appearing in TV and print ads for liquor and beer. Keaton’s second wife even went so far as to file suit against the filmmakers, claiming defamation over the wife character. She was forced to drop the suit, probably stemming from the fact the character was so far from the truth, it couldn’t be considered to be representative of any actual person. Buster received $50,000 for the rights to his name for the picture, and used the money to buy the ranch in California’s San Fernando Valley in which he lived out the rest of his days. So some good came from it. And yes, movie fans, this picture was actually not as bad as it could have been… also in consideration for the role of Buster were Jerry Lewis and Bob Hope. The horror…

Today, TBKS is a rather obscure film, never released on video or DVD (although bootlegs can be found) and off of TV for many years. The movie is worth seeing once as a curiosity for the true Keaton fan, but once is really enough. A drinking game could be made from the movie if you can get enough Busterheads together to watch it… every time something inaccurate happens in the film, someone shouts it out and everyone else takes a drink. If the inaccuracy is refuted by someone else in the room, the person who made the false claim takes three drinks… and, as always, double for flinching.

*I was not actually told this.

Summer Silents – Mary Pickford and Sparrows (1926)

Posted in Silent Film with tags , , , , , on July 14, 2009 by leclisse

Mary Pickford (center) as Molly, with brood in tow Sparrows (1926) presented a radical departure from what audiences of the day expected from a Mary Pickford film.  The looming influences of German Expressionism cast a deathly pallor over Pickford’s usual bouquets of dimples and cheer, so much so that Variety groused, “There isn’t a ray of brightness.  For once, a Pollyanna is submerged, smothered and muffled in sinister gloom.  There are reeks of agonies and the cumulative effect is oppressive.”  Members of the public even complained, with some questioning the safety of the film’s child actors.

Pickford and husband Douglas Fairbanks visited Berlin, Germany in 1925, and the effects of this visit reverberate in nearly every aspect of this film.  Sparrows‘s cinematographer, Charles Rosher, was hired by Germany’s UFA studios to serve as photographic consultant on F. W. Murnau’s  Faust (1926), and he went on to serve as one of the photographers on the magnificent Sunrise (1927).  Aside from the hunching, grotesque character of Mr. Grimes, the film’s sets convey the aged and exaggerated settings of a nightmare world.  The swamps and baby farm appear as the products of some terrible dream; the wholly evil world that Mary and the children inhabit is one the exists in the absence of God or goodness of any kind.  The use of Expressionism in the film extends to the minutest of details, even down to Mary’s and Gustav von Seyffertitz‘s makeup.  Mary is almost a ghostly (or saintly, if you prefer) white, while von Seyffertitz is painted in shadows.

Mary Pickford as "Mama" MollyMary plays “Mama” Molly, a teenaged orphan who cares for a troupe of grubby urchins in the Southern swamp.  The lot of them are under the thumb of Mr. Grimes (von Seyffertitz), a satanic villain in the mold of Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922).  The dichotomies of good and evil are as clearly established as the struggle between Rachel (Lillian Gish) and Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) in Charles Laughton’s 1955 masterpiece, Night of the Hunter.  Molly, as the earth mother, bears the weight of childish goodness as she keeps the baying hounds of hell at bay (literally, at several points she protects the children from Grimes’s vicious, bloodthirsty dog).  Molly and the other children are forced laborers on the Grimes farm, trapped by surrounding swamps and the menacing figure of Grimes himself.  Tragedy is no stranger to Molly, who finds comfort in the words of the Bible. 

The children are so malnourished and overworked that, inevitably, one of them dies.  The child slips away while being cradled in Molly’s arms.  This scene is a splendid example of the Silent era’s achievements in film technology.  The barn wall that Molly faces while rocking the dying child fades away to reveal Christ in a sheep pasture.  He steps out of the picture, toward the dozing Molly, and gingerly takes the child away in his arms.  Molly stirs, unsure of what has just happened.  In one movement, she conveys a sense of wonder while still groggy with sleep; effortlessly, she regains a hold on her surroundings and glances down at the dead child in her lap.  Her sorrow is diverted toward feelings of peace as she realizes that her dream was no dream at all, and her countenance takes on a position of relief at the safety of one more child from the clutches of the Grimes farm.

The escape of Molly and the other children is one of the most harrowing scenes in any Pickford film to date.  Having escaped the danger of quicksand and the swamps, they must now shimmy their way across an unstable tree branch, hanging perilously low over a pack of snapping aligators.  The shot was achieved through a double exposure, with Pickford and the children shuffling across the tree branch, well away from the hungry aligators who were actually filmed in a separate scene and spliced together to achieve a seamless vision of terror.

A lighter moment: Molly ramming Ambrose GrimesIt can be easy to overlook the comic elements of Sparrows in consideration of the weight of its misery.  Molly must referee the intermitent bickering amongst the children, and also protect them from the bullying of Grimes’s son, Ambrose (Spec O’Donnell).  In one scene, Molly is about to wallop him with a farming tool, when the elder Grimes comes on the scene.  The only way out is to pretend she’s using the object to swat flies, and she skips away, pretending to hunt the pesky insects.  Pickford’s touches of slapstick lend the film a fairy tale quality, and serve to temper the more sobering moments of dreariness.  Sparrows is a superb blend of the best of Pickford’s earlier comedic achievements with the stunning maturity of silent film by this time in 1926.  It is a technical achievement of the first order, and the performances of not only Pickford but the entire cast are totally effective and dynamic.

Summer Silents – Mary Pickford and Daddy-Long-Legs (1919)

Posted in Silent Film with tags , , , on July 11, 2009 by leclisse

Insert poster for Daddy Long Legs (1919) Daddy-Long-Legs (1919) is a delight from start to finish.  The film came at a propitious moment in Mary Pickford’s career; tired of the bullying tactics resorted to by the studios through block booking, Mary, Douglas Fairbanks, and Charlie Chaplin would soon break away from this control and engineer the creation of United Artists in 1920.  Although Daddy-Long-Legs was released through First National, it was the first picture on which Mary acted completely independently as producer.

Daddy-Long-Legs is the story of an orphaned baby, Jerusha “Judy” Abbott (Pickford), who is found in a trashcan swaddled in newspaper.  She is brought to a spartan orphanage that is run by Mrs. Lippett (Milla Davenport), a shrewish woman with sadist tendencies that are reminiscent of Valeska Gert’s matron in Diary of a Lost Girl (1929).  In one scene, she reprimands the mischevious Judy for an infraction by scorching her finger on a hot stove.  She admonishes Judy with “God will punish little girls who steal; He will send them into a burning hot hell….”  All this seriousness is outweighed by Pickford’s comic antics.  Judy joins forces with a fellow orphan and declares the “Great Prune Strike.”  Mrs. Lippett is not amused.  Ordered outside with no supper, the two are fed by some sacks of food and a jug of hard cider that is thrown over the wall by someone outside.  This scene reaches slapstick proportions when both Judy and her co-conspirator, clearly intoxicated, stumble back inside the orphanage, leaving the remaining contents of the jug overturned.  An unsuspecting dog feeds his curiosity, and in the next shot we see it walking on two legs, trying to maintain its balance against the wall of the orphanage.  These comic vignettes are balanced by some very poignant scenes, especially when Judy is shown tending to some of the children who are too ill to join the others.  One little girl even dies in her arms; the tragedy inherent in scenes such as this serve to showcase the brilliant range of Pickford as an actress, as well as lending her adolescent characters a very adult capacity for sorrow.

Mary PickfordThe film follows Judy through the rest of her childhood and moves into her young adult life.  She is given a college education, financed by a mystery benefactor, whom Judy calls her “Daddy Long Legs.”  She has no idea who the man is, but faithfully writes him of her progress throughout the ensuing four years.  Director Marshall Neilan makes an appearance as the amorous Jimmie McBride, who competes with the much older Jarvis Pendleton (Mahlon Hamilton) for Judy’s affections.  Neilan was said to have been Pickford’s favorite director, and his skill in bringing out the best in her work is evident in every inch of this film.  Mary’s ability to move from childhood to maturity not only displays her comedic brilliance, but also shows her to stunning physical advantage.  Her famous curls are abundantly displayed, framing her face in a lustrous halo.

At the time of its release, Daddy-Long-Legs was a smash hit at the box office.  Mary knew she could not go wrong with such material; the public clamored for her in these well-loved roles from children’s literature, and her uncanny ability to play children has hardly been matched by any actress since.  Pickford’s collaboration with director Neilan delivers a film that is all at once sweet, disarming, narratively fluid from beginning to end.  This is probably my favorite Pickford film to date.

The Conversation (1974)

Posted in Dailies with tags , on July 9, 2009 by leclisse

Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation is one of those films that, at first, appears to be deceptively simple.  Slow, even.  What emerges, however, is an incredibly nuanced portrait of a man, Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), racked by guilt and conscience over the latest entry in his career as a professional surveillance man.

The conversation: Ann (Cindy Williams) and Paul (Michael Higgins)Coppola takes his time in revealing the character of a man who does not wish to be known, or for that matter, understood.  Harry’s assignment is to tape record the conversation of a young man and woman, Paul (Michael Higgins) and Ann (Cindy Williams), who are apparently engaging in an affair.  They circle a public park, trying very desperately to appear nonchalant, calm, natural.  What Harry hears, however, is a startling indication of imminent danger: “He would kill us if he had the chance.”  Harry is clearly shaken by this revelation, but maintains the utmost secrecy regarding his clients.  He won’t even share details with his partner, beyond the technicalities of the surveillance setup.  Harry comes to the realization that, ethically, he can’t hand over the tapes.  The risk of murder is too real, and he is haunted by the deaths resulting from an operation he undertook some years before.  He steels himself for a confrontation with his client (Ann’s husband), the mysterious “Director” (Robert Duvall), but ends up dealing with his henchman, Martin Stett (Harrison Ford in an early, uncharacteristically villainous role).

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Summer Silents – Some final thoughts on Lillian Gish

Posted in Books, Silent Film with tags , , , , on July 5, 2009 by leclisse

Lillian Gish: Her Legend, Her Life (2002)I accompanied my Lillian Gish marathon with Charles Affron’s 2002 biography, Lillian Gish: Her Legend, Her Life.  Before deciding on this particular volume, I was a bit apprehensive about its accuracy given the rather lukewarm reviews it had gotten on Amazon.  It seemed that the main criticism concerned the author’s apparent antagonism toward much of Lillian’s body of work.  I was prepared for a heavy-handed assessment of some of the most famous films in the silent canon.  What I read instead was an eloquent, level-headed look at not only the life of Gish, but also the history of the movies starting from its infancy as an art form (indeed, even before it was considered to be “art” at all).

Like many actresses, Lillian was known for shaving a few years off her birth date.  She entered film at a time when an actresses’s youth was perhaps her most important asset.  Under the harsh lights of the early Biograph studios, Lillian knew it was in her best interest to not only appear as youthful as possible, but also make sure that those around her believed in this youth as well.  The mythology of D. W. Griffith and the pioneering days of cinema were subjects that Lillian held close to her own personal mythology for the rest of her life.  She seized every opportunity to educate an increasingly fickle public about Griffith (as she called him, the “father of film”) and his revolutionary contributions to film.  She maintained the luminous virginality of her public image to the very end.  Gish never married, but she had several rumored engagements.  One, to Charles Duell, her would-be producer and business manager in the early 1920s, ended in years of litigation.  The publicity did little to damage her saintly reputation with the public, however.  While Lillian cultivated an image of fragility, she was anything but.  Physical health was very important to her (she lived to be 100), and her steely will bolstered her through an incredible career that lasted almost until her death.

Affron’s examinations of Lillian’s films reveals an author who believes completely in Gish’s talents as not only an actress, but a grand tragedienne.  What appear to be stinging commentaries on significant entries in her early work are actually fair assessments by a man who knows that Lillian’s talent far outpaces her material.  The little girl acts that she performs for Griffith are a particular point of criticism, but this is only because Lillian’s talents would be much better served with roles that truly challenged her skills.  Affron affords Gish ample praise for her inimitable performances in Broken Blossoms (1919), The White Sister (1923), La Boheme (1926), The Scarlet Letter (1926), and the masterful The Wind (1928).  This book is not the product of a man who has tired of his muse; rather, it is an evaluation that has the benefit of hindsight and the tempered respect and admiration cultivated after spending years in the company of one such as Lillian Gish.