Archive for May, 2010

Klute (1971)

Posted in Dailies with tags , , on May 26, 2010 by leclisse

I must have seen Alan J. Pakula‘s Klute about a half-dozen times in that last couple of years.  After the first screening or two, I tirelessly searched the depths of eBay for original stills, posters, and lobby cards from the film’s original release, coming away with a rather attractive one-sheet and a trimmed 7×9″ publicity still of Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland.  The cycle of my film obsessions follow much the same pattern; once I have materially sated the initial excitement over an outstanding film, I move on to something else.  In the case of Klute, however, I find that I keep coming back for more.

Like big, beautiful epics, another one of my cinematic weakenesses is for strong female characters.  Jane Fonda’s Oscar-winning turn as Bree Daniels is all at once violently assertive, stealthily manipulative, tirelessly self-confident and a string of other related adjectives.  Bree, an experienced New York City escort has known the heights of Park Avenue but cannot remain content in a life of turning tricks and paying up to Roy Scheider’s mercilessly brutal pimp Frank Lagourin.  Pakula narrates Bree’s ongoing struggle to break out of “the life” through a series of sessions with her psychoanalyst (Vivian Nathan), where she presents the audience with a powerful picture of a woman who knows herself incredibly well.  Bree is in a sense addicted to the power she is able to exercise over each john, confident that for a moment she is the “greatest actress in the world and the greatest fuck in the world.”  That sense of control over life is the key to Bree’s inability to let go of prostitution.  She has no control over her failure as a stage actress, a profession she sees as a tangible escape from prostitution, especially since she is able to utilize the theatrical skills that made her such a success in that life.

Donald Sutherland’s title character, John Klute, meets Bree in the course of investigating a missing persons case, the details of which are systematically revealed throughout the course of the film but at the same time seem almost peripheral to the relationship that develops between these two.  Unlike so many films in which romantic relationships seem anywhere from trite to childish to bizarre, Pakula takes the time to believably introduce these two polar opposites, ceaselessly wearing down their prejudices and defenses over the course of the film.  The interplay that unfolds between Bree and Klute is riveting and the chemistry between Fonda and Sutherland is a perfect synthesis of vulnerability and genuine trust.  Watching Bree advance and retreat, trying to entice Klute to give up his “square” morality and give in and become one of the group of faceless johns that she scorns is one of the most revealing character studies ever committed to film.  Bree admits her fright as experiencing genuine emotions toward Klute, which flies in the face of her hardened sentiment that men are all the same.  Her instinct is to destroy those emotions and retreat to the safety of being “numb.”

Klute presents an interesting social commentary on the ageless question of “square” morality and its attitudes towards prostitution.  The truth of Tom Gruneman’s disappearance and the revelation that family friend and coworker, Peter Cable (Charles Cioffi), is a murderous sexual deviant masquerading under the pretense of being a normal family man turns socially acceptable prejudices on their heads.  The film’s climax is shattering in its brutality, with Cable reassuring himself of his normalcy by venomously casting the blame on Bree and other women like her who have exploited his sexual predilections and threaten to ruin the idyllic work and home life that he has so meticulously built and fought to maintain.  So desperate is he to salvage this illusion, perhaps more for his own sake than for that of his family, Cable sees murder as the only way to silence those with the knowledge of his secrets.  The way Pakula ends this film gives the audience just enough closure to feel nominally satisfied, but at the same time leaves enough open to doubt the direction of any of the character’s lives.  It is a perfect balance between the surety of the Guneman case’s solution and the immediate directionlessness of the lives of Bree and Klute.

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Milwaukee Cinema Graveyard

Posted in Academic with tags , , on May 24, 2010 by leclisse

Like most bustling urban centers at the turn of the twentieth century, Milwaukee, Wisconsin was home to some of the nation’s first neighborhood movie theatres and downtown cinema palaces.  When discussing or reading about local film history, I am always struck by the unity of experiences shared by theatres and moviegoers across the country which always reflect in some form or another the trajectory of film history itself.  From film projections on white canvas backdrops in the earliest claustrophic storefront theatres to the gilded exotic shrines of stone and electric lights that populated major urban thoroughfares, the city of Milwaukee is emblematic of all these landmarks in American moviegoing.

Matt of Pink Angora fame has created a web repository of Milwaukee’s moviegoing past for a graduate class project entitled Milwaukee Cinema Graveyard.  The Graveyard is a collection of photographs and information about the city’s population of theaters, most of which have been shuttered within the past thirty years and often times the victims of razing.  The site is divided into several sections, with the individual theater pages divided between Former Theatres and Featured Theatres.  Those theatres lucky enough to be Featured are treated within an essay-length history as well as a collection of historic and recent photographs (when applicable).  In addition to the wealth of information about the theatres themselves, there is also a section showcasing advertisements from the Milwaukee Journal and the Milwaukee Sentinel for films shown in the city from the 1910s through the x-rated days of the 1970s. 

While the Graveyard pulls  much from existing scholarship about Milwaukee’s cinematic past, it offers for the first time a navigable Google map of 130 theatre sites within the city’s limits.  Viewing this for the first time, I was astounded by the concentration of theatres within the downtown area, especially along the city’s main thoroughfare, Wisconsin Avenue.  Today, only three of Milwaukee’s original stand-alone theatres currently operate as such: Times CinemaOriental Theatre, and Downer Theatre.  While none of the downtown palaces remain, I am grateful that Milwaukeeans are able to experience at least part of the city’s rich theatre legacy.  The Oriental is perhaps the best preserved of these theatres, still offering patrons something of its gilded past as a neighborhood palace.

In addition to the Google map, many of the Featured Theatres offer contemporary photographs taken by Erin Dorbin, a current graduate student in the History program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.  Erin has an impressive resume as a freelance photographer, and uses only film cameras for her work.  The photographs taken by Erin that are included in the Graveyard are but a sampling of her portfolio, which runs the gamut of theatres, motels, diners, taverns, bowling alleys, laundromats, and various roadside signage across the country.  She has several digital repositories for her work, all of which are linked below:

Milwaukee Cinema Graveyard is more than merely an object of local interest.  It is a mirror through which any other urban area in America may view its own cinematic past, comparing and contrasting the elements of change that have irrevocably altered the landscape of moviegoing and ultimately our relationship with cinema itself.

Crazy Heart (2009)

Posted in Dailies with tags , , , on May 23, 2010 by leclisse

I rarely make it to the theaters for first-run movies.  This is usually due in large part to the fact that I need to be convinced to spend almost $10 to see a film that I know I can probably get much cheaper on DVD through Netflix or my local library.  I don’t usually regret this decision, but that may be the case after settling down to watch Crazy Heart last night.

The first chords of world-weary Bad Blake’s (Jeff Bridges) whiskey-inspired songbook provide the soundtrack to the striking New Mexico landscape.  The expansive sky reveals an incomparably rich blue, studded with the whispy illusions of clouds.  The endless roads wind their way through this rocky country, leading Bad toward his next gig, hundreds of miles away from his last.  Bridges’ portrayal of Blake reveals an unapologetic drunk who still manages to make an appearance at his concerts, even if he has to run out midway to vomit the toxins that have been coursing through his bloodstream day after day.  He has obviously seen better days but somehow manages to not convey the bitterness that so often befalls entertainers in the last throes of their careers.  As long as Blake can get drunk and laid once in awhile, he seems content to let life continue as it has been for these last few years.

Not too long after this introduction, Blake meets an accompanying piano player in Santa Fe and agrees to an interview with the man’s niece (Maggie Gyllenhaal) for a local newspaper.  Jane Craddock (Gyllenhaal), recently divorced with a young son, presents herself as someone who knows a bit of Blake’s world-weariness.  Her bad luck with men has not hardened her attitude toward them, but rather seems to have made her all the more vulnerable.  She and Blake obviously like each other, although Blake’s initial flirtation appears to be born more out of animal instinct than any developing emotional entanglement.  They both seem to recognize the emptiness in each other’s lives and are drawn to that — if not to fill it, then at least to ease some of that loneliness for a little while.  The performances of Bridges and Gyllenhaal succeed in making this love story so much more tangible than a mere plotline.  It is obvious that both characters approach the situation tentatively, first as almost something of a one-night stand, and gradually building into a friendship more than anything else.  Sex is not some perfunctory benefit of their time together, but rather an outlet for both of them to find some kind of comfort without the judgments of family.  While their sexual relationship is obviously not going to last the length of the film, it is clear that they do love one another and probably will always have that lifelong regard.

As I mentioned above, the soundtrack to this film is truly phenomenal.  Jeff Bridges has done some previous musical work and  provides his own vocals.  His voice perfectly marries the raw talent of early country music with the indescribable beauty of the film’s locations in the Southwest.  His music carries the purity and genuine simplicity that is mirrored by and also contrasted with Blake’s approach to life.  He is a broken-down drunk, yes, but he never denies this fact.  And with this same honesty and conviction, he turns his life around by getting sober and penning the film’s title song for Jane.  Colin Farrell plays a supporting role as Tommy Sweet, who represents young country music and has eclipsed Blake’s celebrity, even though he readily admits his debt to Blake’s musical teaching and guidance.  Sweet’s character is without a doubt something of an essential addition to the plot of this film, if only to show how far Blake’s star has fallen and the very real trends in country music today.  Honestly, Sweet could have been played by almost any other actor and have been as effective as Farrell’s portrayal.  I guess I haven’t seen Farrell in very much so I am unable to compare his performance here with an array of other films, but I suspect that my conclusions would doubtlessly be the same.  He does provide his own vocals for the film, just as Bridges does, but they are at best average.  Mediocre is probably a better assessment.

It’s refreshing to witness a doomed love story that doesn’t fall into the trite traps of tragedy and self-consumption that make for good box office rather than substantial storyline.  More often than not, chance encounters do not necessarily work out for the long run, but almost always have the potential to provide some meaning for those involved beyond the physical relationship itself.  In the case of Crazy Heart, they can be a literally sobering experience and a foundation from which to reach for better things.