The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942)

I like to go to plays. Not Broadway extravaganzas, but community and university theater productions. Unfortunately, my spouse doesn’t share this interest, which cuts back on my dramatical attendance, except when our daughter comes home for a visit. Fortunately, stage plays find their way onto the silver screen, and found their way to it even more in the 30s and 40s than today. Modern examples of the play-on-film would be Bug (2006) and Doubt: a Parable (2008), which I have reviewed. Unfortunately, we are not living in the age of Eugene O’Neill, Thornton Wilder, and Tennessee Williams, except insofar as revivals and remakes allow us to do so. With all due respect, John Patrick Shanley, Tony or no Tony, is no Kaufman or Hart, the two who wrote the play from which  The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942) derives, via the Epstein twins’ screenplay(the Epsteins of Casablanca fame).

TMWCTD is a comedy of great verbal energy, many fun cogs and wheels and conversational gizmos, jokes, gags, all done on the level of a New Yorker parlor drama. They don’t make them like this anymore – so dense, so many moving parts. As I watched Married Life (2007) the other night, I detected faint echoes from those lost days. Do I subscribe to the theory that civilization is headed downhill because of this and other portents? Nope, and besides, weighing and judging civilization and its components is far beyond my capacity to grok, at least in 1,000 words or less. (Do I believe the planet and the human race are headed downhill? Ulp!) But just because I don’t expect another TMWCTD to roll off the assembly line in 2010 doesn’t mean that I’ll have no chance to laugh at a movie. I watched Reno 911:Miami (2007)  again the other night with my spouse, and because she liked it, perhaps I’ll get to watch all 5 seasons again. Yay! In my defense, I think that the Marx brothers would like it too. And She’s Out of Your League (2010)? Not in TMWCTD’s league, but still, life is still good on the couch.

Most of  the topical content in TMWCTD has aged out, evaporated, leaving behind in the dialog a foundation of basic comic ideas: gone for most of us are an appreciation of Lucius Beebe’s penguins and octopus, Lana Turner’s sweater, Zazu Pitts, Noel Coward and Gertrude Lawrence, and the larger-than-life Alexander Woolcott, who spent a weekend with Moss Hart, prompting Hart to wonder out loud, My God, what if he never left? and the play’s premise was born.

In TMWCTD, Jimmy Durante is funnier than I remember. Younger, too. Who fills the Durante niche in comedy today?  There’s bound to be someone. Early Jim Carey? It’s got to be someone who mugs outrageously and with unflagging energy. Vintage Robin Williams? Durante, suddenly seeming more  modern to me, makes me doubt the trope that some classic aspect of  screwball stage comedy is gone and isn’t coming back; perhaps it’s all just cycles and cycles and only a matter of time before we’ve gone in retrospect from Touch of Mink to Mash to Airplane to Knocked Up and back to Coconuts again. An extra four billion folks have arrived on the planet since TMWCTD was written. Even if they simply act like monkeys with typewriters, lost or missing dialogic brilliance ought to crop up now and again, out of the chaotic randomosity of crowds. Or will we just keep getting more video games instead? Great Britain bans EA’s Medal of Honor because it allows you to play on the side of the Taliban. That’s comedy, isn’t it?

Glenda the good witch works in TMWCTD without her wand.

Anne Sheridan plays the whole movie overdressed, but shows up 30s style for one scene in a thin silk blouse, confronting the camera face-to-face, so to speak, and proving without a doubt that she’s a mammal.

I’ve noticed more than once that watching two movies at the same time, interleaved as it were, or one after the other, offers perspectives that might otherwise go unnoticed. For example, I saw Ameracord (1973) one Friday night in San Diego, followed by The Godfather (1972) on Saturday. Fellini’s artistry made The Godfather, seen so soon after, seem rather amateurish to me. Now that The Godfather has entered the pantheon of great films, any crudeness in its fabrication goes largely unnoticed. Every so often, when I stop to think about this, I feel privy to a cinematical secret, just because of that Friday and Saturday a long time ago. In the present instance, the two overlapping movies are TMWCTD and Repo Men (2010). Sure, there are chuckles in both, but in this example we learn that just talking at each other real fast can pack a punch greater than that felt by  cutting the other guy open, reaching inside him, and hauling out his mechanical stomach while wise-cracking about it. Just sayin.

2001

I notice that 2001 is #22 on the AFI list. Various blog posters have it on their top-five sci fi lists. Just a quick post here to ask why.

Disclaimer: I write here only of my subjective reactions to the movie. No absolutes. No measure of Kubrick as visionary or master filmmaker. If 2001 is your favorite sci fi flick, I’m down with that. I don’t expect everyone to respect my favorite movie as the #1 of all time, not if they aren’t into horses and the young girls who ride and feed and groom them like I am. Because one day that girl grows a little older and loses interest and then you’re stuck with half a ton of knickering, piebald… but I digress.

I haven’t watched 2001 in several years, but I’ve seen it more than once and I do have my lasting impressions. Perhaps, given the adulation enjoyed by the film, I’m forgetting something important. I saw the film in Boston in 1968 when it came out. Played at the Cinerama. Might have been the first movie shown there. Prices jacked up, I remember that. We sat in the balcony. Course, we didn’t know that we would be watching THE #22 MOVIE OF ALL TIME when we went. There was more interest in the whole Cinerama thing, which as I recall turned out to be no big deal.

Anyway, the movie… Did I use the word “visionary”? I’m just remembering here that it’s 2010, as I write. In 2001 I was still driving my ’67 VW with the sunroof. But the trip to Jupiter required that we find the black thingee on the moon and, well, we didn’t go back to the moon. In fact, x percent of Americans don’t think we ever went to the moon in the first place; twas all a hoax. So instead of the Jupiter trip and HAL, we get Nixon, Ford, Carter, Bush, Clinton, and Bush (“Let’s go to Mars, right after we finish with Iraq.”). And a head of NASA who thinks that it’s presumptuous of us to consider our current climate as the best of all possible climates. But whoa. I’m going to pretend that the movie’s title is 2101, just to give myself a little room here. And 2010 can be 2110, for those who dug the sequel.

Anyway, I settle back in my seat and we get the cavemen and the black thingee, and then the bone tossed in the air and it turns into a spaceship, and right there I’m annoyed. I wanted more ape. This is it? A little ape and black thingee and we’re done? And btw, what happened to that black thingee? It’s buried out there somewhere? What would that thing bring on Ebay? Did I mention that I read Arthur Clarke in paperback (Ballantine Books) back in the 50s? He was ok, more than ok, but a little staid. Childhood’s End, as I recall, had a great cover. The covers were almost as important as the books, back in the day (my fave companies: Bantam, Ace, and Ballantine). Anyway, we don’t just leave the apes, we get the Strauss waltz music and flight attendents (in 60s stewardess mode). The reality: 2007, Southwest Airlines, a tiny bag of greaseless peanuts.

Then another black thingee but nothing really happens. The Cinerama has worn off. Did I mention we were up in the balcony? My girlfriend at the time… jeez, by now she’s a grandmother. I don’t think she cared that much for the movie either, but who knows? I was too self-centered to care what she was thinking about it anyway.

Ok. HAL. Finally. A gay voice like that was totally unusual in the 60s. A breakthough of sorts, except that his breakup with Keir was a little heavy. Holy Cow! Keir played a senator in The Good Shepherd. Still working. But anyway, lbgt was all code back then. Pulling those circuits out, one by one. Homophobia at its worst.

Don’t get me started on that light-show thing. Went on forever. Checking my watch. Those colors wouldn’t have passed muster in The Wizard of Oz.

And then the ending, which Clarke hated, and still hates (in heaven).

Paths of Glory

This Stanley Kubrick film (1957) is listed in AFI’s top 200 movies of all time. Paths of Glory tells the story of a company of World War I French soldiers accused of cowardice after the men refuse to advance during an attack on the German lines. Three soldiers chosen at random from the ranks are court martialed, tried, and shot, to provide a warning and example to the rest of the men.

In WWI, following an initial burst of enthusiasm and optimism on both sides, a static front of trenches developed, stretching unbroken from the Atlantic to Switzerland. Soldiers from Germany, France, and England populated these trenches from 1914 to 1918. Periodically, one side or the other would send forth a wave of men to be slaughtered while attempting a breakthrough. Casualty numbers ran higher, far higher, than had ever been seen before in human history (although the patterns of battle and loss reflected those of the US Civil War, with respect to death vs the development of new weaponry). The lines hardly moved over the entire course of the war.

The action in Paths of Glory occurs halfway through the war. It could have been set anywhere on the line, on either side of the line. Kubrick lays out the basics with a nighttime reconnaissance sequence, scenes of the general officers planning the next attack, a fruitless assault, the trial of the three men for cowardice, the executions.

I watched this movie again several weeks ago and asked myself, does it deserve its stellar reputation as an effective antiwar movie?

The question occurred to me because I was in a contrarian mode, having just written a review (q.v.) of 2001, explaining why I thought the movie was not as good as advertised. If Kubrick could win accolades with 2001, could it be that Paths of Glory was similarly defective? The generals behave badly. Death is a statistic. The war, it is clear, is symmetrical, meaning that right and wrong do not apply when weighing the reasons to fight. Some die and the rest move on. Meaningless. In “All Quiet on the Western Front,” the protagonist returns home from the lines for a visit and finds the old men in the tavern arguing over the war as if it were a soccer match. In Paths of Glory, we are not even provided the neocons’ cold-blooded, realpolitick, simple-minded explanations of the benefits of political change by force.

The moral, ethical, non-cynical man’s view is provided in the film by Kirk Douglas, who might as well be living on another planet for all the good he does here. Idealism can only be used as contrast by Kubrick here, can only be grand and shining but febrile in effect, if war is to remain absurd, mechanical, final.

A soldier is killed because of an officer’s criminal malfeasance; ironically, the officer is spared retribution by having a witness to the killing executed. A soldier is near death from a head injury incurred in a fight; ironically, he is saved so that he can be shot. A young German woman sings to the French troops and ironically brings them to tears. Kirk gives up at the end, with that Kirk look on his face, and ironically, I find myself grinning.

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964)

I’m a film gourmand, not a film gourmet. If it’s not The Matrix or Smokin’ Aces, somebody needs to take me by the hand and lead me through the movie. Otherwise I’m lighting up and watching something that I can understand. I watched a movie last month, Mon Oncle Antoine, about a boy in a small town out in the woods. It was an allegory. “Allegory is a form of extended metaphor, in which objects, persons, and actions in a narrative, are equated with the meanings that lie outside the narrative itself. The underlying meaning has moral, social, religious, or political significance, and characters are often personifications of abstract ideas as charity, greed, or envy. Thus an allegory is a story with two meanings, a literal meaning and a symbolic meaning.” See what I mean? The boy in Mon Oncle had to help somebody pick up a dead body and put it in a coffin: the boy is the populace of Quebec; the dead body is the old repressive government; the coffin is the history books. It’s like… it’s like… Obama picking up a squirrel carcass in the street and burying it by the flagpole in the back yard.

So as soon as Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (aka Wild Horses of Fire (WHOF)) started, I knew that I was going to require guidance of some sort. Because the Janus Films logo came up and I know from long experience that that logo of yesteryear, as with Criterion today, signifies some sort of heavy load in the offing. And also, a subtitle said that the movie would take place in the hoary Carpathians (the Carpathians are shaped like a sickle, with the middle of the blade, the eastern part, being the Ukranian, or hoary, part). And because the movie then starts with a jew’s harp orchestra and a mother with an ax and a man saying “There is no devil in church… only in man.” And mustaches right out of Karl’s House of Fun (“Jokes, Gags, and the Perfect Bong”). And a man is killed, and then another. Who’s who here? What’s going on? Ear-piercing folk music rattles me. So I hit the Pause button and consulted my series of pipes. “The tall, thin trees create an exaggerated linearity, a sense of continuity, that provides a paradox to the brevity of their existence, and also symbolizes the eternity of true love…..the pervasive religious images are transfigurations of the purity of love… The color composition suggests emotional incongruence… the film is a testament to the inexorable power of destiny.” Does this mean it’s an allegory? I checked in with my artisically- and politically-aware friends Ivan (Ukranian) and Igor (Russian). They told me that the director, Sergei Paradjanov (1924-1993), was a trusted regionalist moviemaker (Georgian/Armenian) who quietly praised the glories of the Soviet Union and burlap underwear, but then suddenly unleased WHOF on an unsuspecting Russian Empire in 1964, to the horror of the apparatchiks in the Kremlin, and was lucky that he didn’t earn himself an immediate trip to the Gulag on the first string of cattle cars pulling out of the trainyard adjacent to his editing studio. In the years to come, he was accused of incitement to suicide, trafficing in art objects leading to homosexuality, and much more, and did spend fifteen years unable to work and five years in the Gulag. In the end he made three more major films (available boxed by Kino) – The Color of Pomegranates, The Legend of Suram Fortress, and Ashik Kerib. There is a documentary about him, Paradjanov: The Last Spring (1992).

So I can give a guy a chance, allegory or no allegory, when he’s paid a price like that. Such as Ye Lou, who made Suzhou River and got sent off by the Chinese government for two years, came back and made Purple Butterfly and then said, oh what the hell and made “Summer Palace” and shipped it to Cannes without permission, earning another five years of punishment. So watching Summer Palace, I got my head in a benign place. Same with WHOF.

And the thing about WHOF is that Paradjanov in filming those forgotten ancestors up there in the mountains, decided to go for the wild-fire-horse esthetic. He throws striking image after striking image onto the screen to the accompaniment of that crazed background mountainfolk caterwauling, plus the harps, fifteen-foot shepherdhorns,and bagpipes with their bags evidently taken from the Russian version of an 1850s Hoover. If you don’t like what you’re looking at, wait a minute because there’ll be something else completely different on the screen a minute later and I must say, some of my favorite movie scenes of all time are to be found in WHOF, scenes that I can loop back over again and again – I’m thinking here, for those of you familiar with the movie, of the barge passing in the river, the rain, wind, snow, fire, and big ball of white cheese in the barn, and Palagna starting to unmount from her horse in order to be mounted, but slipping to the ground completely overcome by passion – and that’s wearing five layers of wool. Word of advice: don’t marry a woman like this unless you’re in that top percentile when the wool comes off.

I should mention that I found a mouldering VHS copy of WHOF at a local library, back behind three Smokey and the Bandits. Strangely, this respected film is hard to find on the DVD shelves, at least where I live. One missing copy is “Claimed Returned,” another is just absent from its little box. But several years ago, the spouse at my request picked up a VCR player at Costco, dirt cheap and at least as obscure and forgotten in the big-box store as WHOF seems to be at the library, for just such an occasion as this. The film, squeaking on its reels, white bands of tape static cutting through it like lightening, might have been produced in the very Carpathians that it features. The primitive here isn’t just the story depicted, but the film style itself. Made not in the 60s, it almost seems, but back in the past that it is recording, with a camera made out of wood and rock. Why so rough? Paradjanov’s movies don’t all present this way. So it occured to me that in WHOF he decided to go stylisticly rustic and having so decided, adopted a type of method directing. That is, he went native behind the camera. Suppose, for example, that you (I’m talking to you. Thanks for reading this far.) decided to make a film about a mentally challenged person, and you included in your directorial esthetic the feeling that you yourself, behind the camera, were somehow in fact mentally challenged. Or suppose that you’re making a western and you let fly a stream of tobacco juice from your director’s perch, into the frame, every so often. Paradjanov acts like a filmmaker hired by the tribe to record its weddings and funerals and herding techniques (which he does), while hiding his camera in a sheep blind.

And speaking of passion, this is the one with Tatyana Bestayeva nude in the great outdoors, who, when she’s approached by a local herdsman stunned by what he is seeing, rather than shrinking away from him, says “Never seen a woman?” “Not like you,” he replies, and I believe him. When she hooks up with the local sorcerer, a tree bursts into flame. That’s sex!

When I watched “10 Canoes,” I happened to know something in advance about the Tiwi culture of Northern Australia; this made all the difference in understanding and appreciating the movie. On the other hand, with “Summer Palace” and “Drifters,” I had the distinct feeling that many subtleties of Chinese culture were eluding me completely. Such was undoubtedly also the case with WHOF. One sees but perhaps does not understand. No matter. There are the images. I thought northern Canada was cold, but now this. Christmas costume frolics with the hero dressed as Death. Snap-brim fedoras in households with a calf under the dinner table. Rain that appears to come down on the heroine’s head from a hose. YouTube provides various clips. The online 5.5GB version features brilliant color and extras that include a documentary about Paradjanov’s friendship with Tarkovsky. And just once, when we get the firing into the air with rifles, I’d like to see chunks of lead fall back and conk somebody on the noggin.

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

Full disclosure: I haven’t read “My Wicked Wicked Ways,” so I’m taking Errol Flynn at face value in this movie. What he did behind those fake castle walls I don’t know and I don’t want to know.

I faced certain hurdles in reviewing the movie:

1. Erroll Flynn looks like my shrink in his younger days.

2. Sir Guy of Gisbourne is played by Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone). You can tell all through the movie that he knows stuff he isn’t saying; I mean, he’s Holmes, you know, thinking, always thinking… Any minute he’s going to take Robin aside and give him a good talking to.

3. The movie is Ivanhoe with no Ivanhoe. What does this mean? No jousting!! (Actually, the movie was to start with a jousting scene, but it got dropped for budgetary reasons.)

Nonetheless, I am prepared to describe and discuss the film. First thing: it has held up over the years. Made in the first decade of talkies, it’s still fresh (it was the top grosserof 1938). The new Technicolor process is more than fine (Dr. Natalie Calmus was on set to handle all color issues). We should only see color like this today. Second thing: that’s Claude Rains under the bright red wig and blond beard. A corrupt senator in Washington, yes; a police chief in Casablanca, yes; a Nazi, sure; but this? Third thing: Rains is eating a pomegranate in England in the 1100s; but that’s ok; pomegranates are mentioned in the Song of Solomon – I’ve heard that Prester John himself brought pomegranates to Great Britain. I didn’t notice what else was in that fruit bowl – bananas?

The movie begins when an old poacher skewers a big buck. The nobles are about to stretch the poacher’s neck when Robin rides up and saves him. With the nobles gone, Robin, up on his horse, tells the old guy, “Fetch the deer.” This is a 200-pound buck. The old guy would have to drag it by one hoof. Presumably it’s dressed out when Robin carries it in later, nimbly,  and dumps it on Prince John’s table. (The exterior shots are done in the California hills near Chico. The forest doesn’t remind one of England, but it does have big oaks in it and it’s dressed up enough not to seem irredeemably Californian.)

Cut to the banquet hall. The first thing to notice is how clean everybody and everything is. Reminded me of Samuel Goldwyn, who insisted that his sets be clean. When Dead End was being made, and the single set was meant to reflect slum conditions, he kept patrolling it, picking up litter, to the discomfiture of the set dressers. Goldwyn would have loved this movie. Immaculate. But who wears chain mail on their head during dinner?

During his escape, after he finishes spouting off in front of the prince, Robin the dead shot unaccountably puts two in the door frame when he could easily have skewered Rathbone. And this paragraph is my nod to Patric Knowles, who plays Will Scarlett in his red getup. No fighting for him. He carries his lute and he and Robin laugh and jest. Ok, maybe there is a little tension with Will when Robin and Little John get it on with the long staves and knock each other about and end up fast friends, but then Robin and Will are back walking side by side again, big grins on their faces. If only Maid Marion hadn’t shown up.

Maid Marion gets the Casablanca line about how England is bigger than just Saxons and Normans. As someone points out, the Saxons were happy (and grimy), living with their pigs, before the Normans showed up. Or am I thinking of Monty Python and the Holy Grail? And by the way, no language problems between the two groups in this one.

Forget Korngold’s musical score, especially Robin Hoods’ March. Recycled by Korngold from 1919. But when the trumpets are lifted in a line, with banners hanging from them, and the trumpeters give a blast, do we ever hear the real thing, or is it always the trumpets in the studio orchestra?

[Spoiler] Robin wins the archery tournement. Did they really have those big, multicolored bulls-eye targets back in the 12th century?

Robin and Maid Marian kissing: After all you hear about the Hayes Code, it seems like you’d be lucky to see anybody kiss anybody in the late 30s, but Robin and Marion smootch it up more than once. I like it onscreen with the mouths closed but you could see, when they pulled back from each other dry-lipped, that they were both wondering, Is the audience going to settle for this?

One of Hollywood’s Top 5 swordfights ensues. But Rathbone will be back, with his deerstalker on his head!

Did this movie make me want to go out and nock up an arrow? No. But next time I’m in Chico, I’m going to stop and remember Merrie Olde Englande.