Lubitsch’s Final Touch

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 7, 2017 by dcairns

Ernst Lubitsch had a sensational end run, with TO BE OR NOT TO BE, HEAVEN CAN WAIT and the less celebrated but easily equal CLUNY BROWN. Before those three is the less stellar THAT UNCERTAIN FEELING, but then you have THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER and NINOTCHKA. The only blots on this celluloid landscape are the Preminger intrusions, A ROYAL SCANDAL, produced and heavily supervised by Lubitsch, and THAT LADY IN ERMINE which Lubitsch began but died before finishing, with Otto Preminger stepping in to complete, uncredited.

A ROYAL SCANDAL isn’t all that bad, and it does have a wonderful moment where William Eythe (of Who the hell is William Eythe? fame) steps out of a tight two-shot with Tallulah Bankhead, paces the room, distracted, and is then surprised to have himself wind up back in a tight two-shot with Tallulah Bankhead, who has nipped round the back of the camera, unseen, and positioned herself in his path. A witty, self-conscious and wonderfully silly use of screen space.

THAT LADY IN ERMINE doesn’t have the benefit of a live Lubitsch to watch over its late production and post-production, and so it’s a lot more uneven. Still, it’s not exactly terrible. Preminger’s broad, ham-fisted approach to comedy (see SKIDOO and Vincent Price’s delicious line, “Otto had the sense of humour of a guillotine,”) pushes through the smooth understatement of Samson Rafaelson’s script, to create a giddy sense of goofiness that doesn’t feel under anybody’s control.

Hard to know if that script would have played markedly better under Lubitsch’s baton, because there’s a prevailing sense of derangement. The movie is a kind of operetta, with a few songs (by Frederick Hollander, so not bad, but not his best) and a Ruritanian setting. So it’s harkening back to Ernst’s early 30s Chevalier productions at Paramount. But, as they say, something new has been added, or several somethings.

First, Technicolor™! While it’s true that the colour in HEAVEN CAN WAIT is a little ugly and adds an unwanted heaviness to the proceedings (20th Century Fox tended to pump up the chroma to almost Goldwynesque levels of vulgar intensity), it really can’t harm such a surefooted and charming work, any more than the sexism and the contortions to get around the censor can. Here, with less ideal circumstances, the colour does hurt, even though it’s cinematographer Leon Shamroy’s trademark golden honey light and cobalt blue shadows, which I usually like. ladled over fairytale kingdoms and dream sequences and Hungarians, it gets a tad gooey.

Then there’s the cast. Lubistch had a genius for getting adept light comedy perfs out of unlikely thesps. Preminger didn’t. Lubitsch knew he could coast along on the sheer surprise of Gary Cooper being funny, and Jack Benny being dramatic (and funny). Here we have Betty Grable, who’s sometimes funny, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. who can play anything, but can’t BE a husky Hungarian warlord. Preminger has good fun with his fatuousness, which Lubitsch might have tamped down. Further down the list, Reginald Gardner returns from CLUNY BROWN as milquetoast cuckold #1, and Cesar Romero plays milquetoast cuckold #2 a little uncertainly, as if he’s not quite sure why his character’s meant to be funny. His presence along with Grable’s recalls Preston Sturges’ THE BEAUTIFUL BLONDE FROM BASHFUL BEND, another late film, the following year, where “Butch” is even more miscast. Fox films had this problem a lot, it seems to me — the contract players got shoehorned into movies they weren’t suited to. Walter Abel is a skilled farceur, and some of the weird innuendo is pleasing — there’s a sense of a sado-masochistic thing going on between Abel and Fairbanks, his superior officer, which is amusing. Plus, gratuitous Harry Davenport.

Betty sings, several times, a song with the lyric “What I’ll do to that wild Hungarian,” and Lubitsch seems very pleased indeed with his double entendre and with his use of the word “Hungarian” as a kind of all-purpose punchline. Or maybe it’s Preminger’s cackles we seem to hear.

A few gruesome cartoony sound effects showcase Otto’s leering comedy style, but mostly the problem is a subtler one of feeling, a sense that nothing is quite right. The story involves not only the fantasy of musical numbers and mythical realms, but paintings coming to life at midnight and a long flashback and a couple of long dream sequences. Double voodoo, and triple voodoo. And the feeling, as with yet another, but far better Sturges late film, UNFAITHFULY YOURS, that if so much of the movie is dream sequences, what’s left for us to take away rom it? (I never felt this really answered the question of what’s wrong with the often-brilliant UNFAITHFULLY, but it was Sturges’ own pet theory.)

Still, as a vaguely Christmassy (at the end) romance about marriage and dreams and fidelity, maybe you could double-bill it with EYES WIDE SHUT (also completed after it’s auteur’s demise, though at least shooting was finished) for a nice festive Fever-Dream Double Feature?

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The Final Shot

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 6, 2017 by dcairns

Thanks to Matthew Wilder for alerting me to W.S. “One-Take Woody” Van Dyke’s final film. I’m a fan of the THIN MAN films and have delved lightly into his other ’30s work, particularly the first two TARZANs and SAN FRANCISCO, but I haven’t been systematic and I didn’t even know JOURNEY FOR MARGARET (1942). It’s basically the film that properly gave us Margaret O’Brien, phenomenon.

The movie is MGM’s first “children in war” drama of WWII, predating Zinnemann’s emotional THE SEARCH, but giving the subject a soupier, more Hollywood approach. It’s really good, though. The great Franz Waxman’s score is really the most problematic part, suffering from a literalism that didn’t usually afflict this composer — the little boy with the toy lamb is accompanied by lachrymose variations on Baah Baah Black Sheep wherever he goes. Awful.

Woody, credited as MAJOR Van Dyke here, handles the action with his trademark efficiency, though the fast cutting of disparate talking heads which predominates each THIN MAN denouement has now spread to most of the film. Considering the director was, apparently, in constant pain at this time, he does great.

Robert Young and Laraine Day are an attractive couple of Americans in London during the Blitz. He’s a journalist. They’re smart and witty and she’s even called Nora, so there’s a strong tie to Woody’s earlier (in fact, ongoing) work. However, there’s no Asta here — Day is expecting a baby, but she loses it in a bombing, and loses also the ability to have more kids. As she’s passing out under sedation, she intuits everything that’s happened to her even though Young has been told (appallingly) to keep it from her ~

 

“They’ve killed our baby. All our babies. Tomorrow’s baby. The day after tomorrow’s. All our babies. Forever dead.”

“Who told you such nonsense?”

“No one told me. It’s true.”

“Please, darling, go to sleep now.”

“What did I want babies for? I’ve been a bad wife. Trying to hang on when there wasn’t any use trying. Making snug little homes in the midst of hell. I’ve been a bad wife because I’ve been a good one.”

“[…] Think about going home to Connecticut. The leaves will be turning, and snow on the ground… Think about that, and -“

“OH NO! That’s not my life! […] I’ll be a ghost. You’ll be a ghost. The whole world, crawling with ghosts…”

David Hertz & William Ludwig scripted this from William L. White’s novel, and Day puts it over powerfully. It’s a remarkable transformation for a typically bright, light, starry performer.

Now the pair embark on a months-long bender, going about their lives merrily squiffled, a tragic version of Nick & Nora (though he’s called John). Best friend Nigel Bruce tries to give Nora a wake-up call, a pep talk on the subject of pain.

“I have known soldiers after they’ve left hospital with a bad wound, they’re so dazed they can’t even sign their names the way the used to. Perhaps it’s nature’s way of escaping pain. They think some other fellow got hit. Not them.”

The cure arrives in the form of the little lamb boy (William Severn) and O’Brien, Hollywood’s best weeper. The bereaved couple’s best course of treatment is to get involved in the lives of other people whose need is greater, and so they adopt this waifs and must now get them to America somehow. Surprisingly, the structuring principle of the film is not the kids’ trauma (MO’B doesn’t appear until midway), but the parents’.

The ending has the kids arriving in New York just as a blackout is tested, and the Manhattan skyline goes dim. Cue inspiring speech about turning the lights back on for the next generation. It’s sentimental and manipulative but effective. I seem to be hardwired to respond emotionally to the Blitz. I have a queasy love of Hollywood effects shots of searchlights panning dark skies.

Van Dyke became seriously ill — cancer and heart disease. And, as a good Christian Scientist, he forbade himself pain relief. In 1943, he put his sidearm in his mouth and shot himself through the head.

Woodbridge Strong Van Dyke, 1889-1943.

LATE IT WAS, HOW LATE

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics, Radio, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 5, 2017 by dcairns

Regular Late Show participant Matthew David Wilder is a screenwriter (Paul Schrader’s DOG EAT DOG) and director, but I first became aware of him as one of the few people using reviews on the early IMDb as vehicles for actual ideas. Here he is on the way we live now, in these late days ~

HOW LATE IT WAS, HOW LATE

by Matthew Wilder

I’ve noticed a little nervous squinch—that tiny pulse at the far left side of my left eyeball—that usually comes from too much caffeine. It starts annoying me because I shuttle in a most annoyed way from close-up-vision glasses to far-off-distance glasses. Right now, as I feel the squinch, I am shifting from close-up glasses to far-off glasses as the monitor I am looking at is now a little bit farther than it is close. The picture I am staring at is Regarding the Case of Joan of Arc, a movie I shot in July that features, in almost every frame, a great but only moderately well-known actress named Nicole LaLiberte, best known as the femme fatale we assumed would be around for a long time in Twin Peaks: The Return, but who was dispatched with terrifying swiftness by the Bad Agent Cooper.

The genius of the scene is that David Lynch and Mark Frost have Nicole’s character repeatedly ask, within the same scene, “Are you gonna kill me?” to which Bad Coop says “Yes…” There is something terrifyingly childlike about that notion of re-asking a terrifying question and hoping to get a different answer. Eventually Bad Coop makes good on his yeses.

The squinch keeps pulsing as I look at a scene of Nicole’s character being waterboarded.

In our picture, Nicole is Joan of Arc, an alt-right Christian militia terrorist who blows up federal buildings because her voices have told her to take back America for Jesus Christ. As a result of her purity of purpose and her virginal character, she has the same kind of supporters Trump has, but more. She owns a good fifty percent of the populace. Even people who disagree with her politics respect her self-sacrificing and rigidly uncompromising vision.

In the scene, Joan says “I don’t, and can’t, know what is in their hearts.” We have dropped in a version of the line that sounds more Middle American and less precise, like “I doand, and cand, know what is in their hearts.”

As the doand and cand are about to go in, a little ting, like a coin falling in a cup, lands on my phone, and I see an email has arrived. It’s from a film festival in Texas, asking “a number of people who think a lot about movies” to answer the question “Is cinema over?”

A few moments before “Is cinema over?” landed in my lap, some other events came to me by phone. The Republicans passed a tax bill generally considered a wild looting of the Treasury by many sane, centrist people, a giant redistribution of money upward that involved such gleeful moments as lobbyists writing in special dispensations for special friends in pen during the sleepover party at which the Senate passed the bill.

In the same moment I discover that a host of National Public Radio, someone I’ve never heard of before, is being fired for “inappropriate behavior,” one of which is signing an email “xoxo.” The portrait of this gentleman depicts him looking somewhat enfeebled in a wheelchair, which somehow—is this intentional or just my interpretation?—scores as “See? We’re gettin’ ‘em ALL!” rather than “Isn’t this just too sad?”

Joan’s head is seen on a sort of dentist’s-chair-cum-surgical-table-cum-torture-device. Her head is down low and her feet, out of frame, are up high, as if she were lying on an upended seesaw. Are you gonna kill me? ……Yes.. I look at the phone again, which gives me evidence from a friend of people piling on Richard Brody’s attack on Woody Allen’s character in a review of Wonder Wheel. The Texas question sticks with me: Is cinema over?

Immediately there is an attempt to evade the question. Over what? is one way. What difference would it make if it were over or not? is another. But the intention is clear. We know what the guy who wrote this question was thinking. Is “cinema”—that thing where people gather in an operahouse-like setting (which runs the gamut all the way from majestic to degraded) to see moving pictures, together, historically on celluloid, in a communal experience of laughing or crying or being bored together—over? As in dead.

I pull out my notebook. The page I am about to write on is full of little mispronouncements in our picture’s dialogue. You said you wanted to meet with a spiritual advisuh. Some of them are crossed out, done, some of them persist. Next to them, on the next page, I write Is cinema done? and under that EXAMPLES OF NOT DONE.

Here is a pause.

I think of all the things I have enjoyed in recent times in that big room with people I don’t know in it, and most of them are rather effete, culturally anodyne art objects. Frederick Wiseman reflecting on the good deeds done by idealistic public servants. Bruno Dumont making a kind of comedy so broad it becomes a meditation on the nature of comedy itself.

Stuff someone could write a long, thoughtful article about. But how about cinema itself, invader of the unconscious ¹. Something that hits us on a gut level, as Woody Allen once said, the thing that appeals not to our ideas but to our emotions and senses. Is that still around? I searched the hard drive of my brain for recent examples and could only find one.

I scratched on the page:

guardians vol. 2

It is a commonplace in Los Angeles that everything in movies is story story story, but, as anyone who has seen studio movies in the last 20-odd years knows, that’s not really the case. The story is pro forma, usually a somewhat banged-up and disfigured version of a very generic story (the Boston critic Sean Burns made a delightful case for JUSTICE LEAGUE as an almost exact reworking of THE AVENGERS, somewhat like Gus Van Sant’s PSYCHO, a reworking that got away scot-free because no one could remember the plot of THE AVENGERS enough to see the similarities). The picture that stands out as the most cinematic, in the old-fashioned sense of “pure cinema,” a perfect storm of camera movement, staging, editing, color, sound and score, is James Gunn’s GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2, and it’s maybe six months since I’ve seen the picture and I can barely remember what it’s about—except that Kurt Russell is a godlike figure who wants Chris Pratt to join the family business, to accept a bear hug from him, to shape up and start doing things like his old man…Except, of course, we discover that the ever-lovable Kurt is not, in fact, an example of lovable old-school manhood but turns out to be a diabolical villain.

Turns out to be. I look at a text from yesterday. I asked a girl who used to work with Garrison Keillor, “Did he ever do anything to you?” I recall her never having a bad word to say about him. She was the only cutie under 50 in his vicinity during the tapings of the show; if he did something, she must’ve known about it. The response I get to the text is “Do I know u? Think u got the wrong #, ”

I write underneath GUARDIANS the following phrases: SHANG-A-LANG + LAKE SHORE DRIVE.

What’s cinematic in GUARDIANS is that the director, James Gunn, somehow got the global commercial juggernaut of Marvel to sign on to a movie about a motley crew of humans and creatures whose universe is lit up in the fluorescent psychedelia of a Gaspar Noe movie, and whose whiz-bang action set pieces are all scored to…nearly forgotten AM-radio hits.

Here is the key to what’s powerful here. It is tiresome, albeit sometimes funny, to repurpose overfamiliar pop songs—see John Lithgow coming down the escalator to some cheesy Barry Manilow in DADDY’S HOME 2. But what is truly powerful—what is the excavation—is when something you’ve almost entirely forgotten comes zooming back in the form of a physically exhilarating set piece: see the tour of alien worlds scored to Aliotta Haynes Jeremiah’s “Lake Shore Drive” in GUARDIANS 2.

Hold on a second—the words don’t fit the mouth. I doand. And cand. Know what is in their hearts. I ask the editor to hit pause. He was born in 1993. “Can I ask you something? Do you remember the song ‘Lake Shore Drive’ in GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY 2?” This chap loves STAR WARS movies—I think he wears a different hoodie with a Sith on it every day—but second to that really digs Marvel movies. He doesn’t, so I play it:

“Ring a bell?”

“Nah, not really.”

“Does it work, though?”

“Oh my God! It’s genius!”

I find this often. Young kids respond to Led Zeppelin or Stevie Nicks as if it had just come out yesterday. No baggage attached to it—they just like it more than the Autotuned things they are offered today. I think there is a certain extra something, however, that comes from being aware of the craziness of that admixture of Liberace twinkling piano, folk-rock shuck ‘n’ jive, and reference to “comin’ on by on LSD” that makes its placement in a 2017 corporate product all the more endearingly insane.

I stare at the notebook. Guardians 2 SHANG-A-LANG + LAKE SHORE DRIVE. Well, there must be something more to it, right? That is “cinema.” It’s just a bunch of ricocheting, highly digitized, extremely artificial-looking set pieces scored to earwormy ditties that remind me of grade school in the Gerald Ford era?

“Can’t we get one of these ‘doand’s to fit with where her mouth opens?”

“I’ve tried all of them,” the PHANTOM MENACE fan says, “but they’re all too late. She’s slower on the ‘doand’ version than when she’s saying ‘don’t.’”

We go back to the earlier, cleaner, nicer, hard-T sound of don’t.

I try to find more reasons for this movie I vividly but only partially remember, reasons other than fleeting euphoric moments in which all the elements of cinema harmonize to make something that crashes into every one of your pleasure centers—but I can’t find any more.

“Matthew, I think I’ve run out of don’ts.”

Someone texts me that there was supposedly a mass shooting at a “You Will Not Replace Us” rally near Roy Moore’s home in Alabama, but it was some fake news.

I find out that a grad-school professor of mine has nine women complaining against him. It’s always nine.

I’d try to make the words fit again, but it’s too late.

You may press me to know what my people are planning, but I can tell you I have no answer. I don’t and can’t know what is in their hearts.

(1). The night after this encounter with “Is cinema done?” I saw Edgar Ulmer’s THE AMAZING TRANSPARENT MAN at the Echo Park Film Center, a room filled with seemingly flammable stacks of super-8 film. An abject, Skid Row invisible-man movie, with one interesting exception. The scientist in it—not a mad one, but the other archetypal kind, the kindly Mitteleuropa Einstein-accented genius who is extorted by evil men to do evil things—we discover cracked, spiritually, because he was forced to do experiments in an Auschwitz-like camp on women with masks on their faces; and, of course, he discovered that one of them was his own wife. At the end, he tells the no-account roughneck whom he has invisibilized that he is to be “a sacrifice,” a Judas goat for the atomic age. Somehow it is as if, in the script form, the real concerns of the artist Ulmer leaked onto the screen. In other words, it’s as if Ulmer’s movie excavated his own unconscious without his being aware of it—a kind of naïve Lynch-ism. (While watching TRANSPARENT I was also at all moments half thinking of the stormy exit from the theatre of a recent ex-friend, at one time the about-to-be editor of JOAN, who came to watch a series of tortured shorts by international arthouse directors, then left in a huff when the tawdry TRANSPARENT come on.)