JUST GRAND

My sister and I took her kids to see the Grand Canyon last week — their first visit to the National Park.

The park started its life as a National Monument because Teddy Roosevelt, frustrated by his inability to get Congress to preserve the canyon as a National Park, realized that he had the power to declare a site a National Monument by executive fiat.  The power was meant to apply to buildings of historic interest but Teddy simply called the Grand Canyon a monument and ordered it protected.  That was in 1908, the year D. W. Griffith started making movies.  In 1919 it finally achieved full National Park status.

Teddy said it was “the one great sight which every American should see.”  His wishes have been amended in the 21st Century to apply only to non-smoking Americans — smokers are not welcome at the Grand Canyon.  No accommodation is made for them, apart from a few cigarette receptacles located in inconvenient places, far from all restaurants, lodges, cabins and even park benches.

Teddy, who enjoyed an occasional cigar, would not have been allowed to light up in the Rough Riders Bar at the Grand Canyon Lodge, or even on the porch outside the bar.  The place really needs a new name — like the Soft Riders Bar.

In 1877, Rutherford Hayes became the first Chief Executive to ban
all forms of smoking in the White House during his tenure there.  Curiously enough, he
insisted on sitting in the smoking car when traveling by train, saying he enjoyed the stimulating conversation of smokers.  This will give you a pretty good idea of the sort of conversation you can expect to find in the Soft Riders Bar.

We visited the North Rim of the canyon, which has fewer but more spectacular points of interest, and far fewer tourists, than the more developed South Rim.  Its higher elevation also makes it more comfortable in the summer than the South Rim, though it's closed during the winter months because of snow, which makes the road leading to it impassable.

It was awesome, even though my share in the ownership of the park, as a tax-paying American, has been unceremoniously canceled.  I visited it as a tourist from another country — Teddy's country.

THE STORYTELLER'S VOICE

D.
W. Griffith was a product of the stage, an actor and a failed
playwright. But he was also a product of the Biograph years, where he
honed his craft as a filmmaker in short self-contained stories, which
often have an anecdotal quality. In his feature work Griffith frequently used stageplays written by others as source material — he never mastered this formal discipline in stories
he wrote by himself . . . but this is a crucial failing only if you think
movies need to be tightly-plotted narratives with an overall structure
which the individual scenes all serve and to which they are subordinated.



This
ideal became the Hollywood norm, but Griffith was at his best when he
didn't follow and didn't need to follow it — which is why his later
films, when he was trying to fit in to the standardized studio style,
are so inferior to his earlier work.



The
Birth Of A Nation
is a rambling, disjointed film narratively — more
like a collection of tales than a unified story in its own right — and is least satisfying when it narrows its focus in its final episodes
to the melodramatic mechanics of its theatrical source. Only the pure
cinematic beauty and power of the Clan ride redeems it from this
reductive derailment of its epic expansiveness.

Intolerance
of course takes this narrative expansiveness to wild extremes, but even
Griffith's great small films, like
Broken Blossoms and True Heart
Susie
, have an anecdotal quality. There may be a heart-stopping final
action climax or melodramatic denouement, but the films as a whole
don't build towards it with the kind of precision and economy and
momentum we have come to expect from popular movies since the onset of
the studio era.



This
is a criticism one could also level at
Huckleberry Finn, which lies
somewhere between the delightful, rambling yarn-spinning of
Life On
the Mississippi
and the tauter formula fiction of Tom Sawyer. It is
a criticism one could level at
The Odyssey, too — and the Bible. All
of these works use narrative formulas, with a more or less developed
overall structure, but proceed episodically, like a series of related
tales told by the fire over the course of many evenings.



One
can see why the studios resisted this sort of storytelling in movies.
It's too hard to predict in advance how movies made this way are going
to turn out — they depend too much on the instincts and the genius of
the storyteller and they lend themselves too much to improvisation.
Griffith's style of anecdotal epic was still fresh in the mind when one
of his truest disciples, Eric Von Stroheim, tried to emulate it in
darker tones in
Greed. From his perspective, the experiment of Greed probably didn't look that outrageous — Griffith's method had,
after all, led to astonishing success both critically and commercially.
Greed was longer and grimmer, but followed the same loose-knit narrative
strategy.



Thalberg,
a corporate functionary with taste, but a corporate functionary first
and last, really had to destroy the film — not just as a warning to
profligate directors but as a signal that the days of Griffith's method
were over. Enter Rupert Julian and the era of the sensibly-made,
pre-visualizable film. That era produced its own kind of treasures, but
I think one of the reasons we are attracted to the silent era is
because it was the last time the ancient voice of the storyteller could
be heard it all its eccentric, iconoclastic, unclassifiable glory.

Its
echoes took a long time to die out. It was last heard clearly, I think,
in
The Godfather, Part II, with its parallel storylines that
reflected each other elliptically and suggestively rather than
according to some formal narrative dialectic. It's a messy film, on one
level, but unified by the passion and conviction of the storyteller's
voice — and the same is true of Griffith's messy masterpieces.

VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA

Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a trivial, shallow film about trivial, shallow characters, played by extremely capable and fascinating actors.  It's basically a goof on François Truffaut's Jules et Jim, an updating and transposition of its wry, deadpan ironies about self-involved Bohemians, or would-be Bohemians.  But Truffaut's film is both more exuberant, with a young man's high passions, and more mature, in its uneasy sense that a price will have to be paid for the feckless adventuring of unmoored hearts.

Woody Allen borrows Truffaut's humor and attitude but uses them solely for diversion — and Vicky Cristina Barcelona is diverting enough, with amusing situations and dialogue.  There's nothing at stake in the film, however, or in the lives of its characters, except the gratification of passing moods.  The two artists in the film, whom Allen might possibly see as positive characters, in fact produce generic “modern art”, abstractions as devoid of meaning as their lives.

One of the title characters is interested in Gaudi, and Gaudi's work is featured in the movie from time to time, but filmed in such a way that its architectural forms are unreadable.  Barcelona, itself one of the title characters, is never evoked with any precision or enthusiasm — the film has no real sense of place or atmosphere, or no more than one could get from a tourist brochure.

We are left with the pleasure of watching some very fine actors go through their paces.  Javier Bardem reveals a deft sense of comic timing — he seems to realize that the character he's playing is an idiot, even if you're never quite sure Allen does.

The three female characters are all portrayed as immature, weak and neurotic — they have none of the self-possessed willfulness of Jeanne Moreau's Catherine in Jules et Jim, her sense of joyful romantic nihilism.  Scarlett Johansson and Penélope Cruz are always intriguing to watch on screen but the real bravura performance here is by Rebecca Hall, who was so wonderful in The Prestige.  She's just as wonderful in this film, in an entirely different role and performing with an entirely convincing American accent.

She has none of the glamor or obvious sex appeal of Johansson or Cruz, but she rivets attention by the truth of her performance, and her subtle erotic awakening is far more vexing than the overt sensuality of her co-stars.  Allen seems to recognize this, which makes it all the more infuriating that Hall's character has no development.  None of the characters do.  They have “experiences” which leave them all essentially unchanged.

I suppose this can be read as Woody Allen's philosophical view of life — as an exercise in marking time — but it's profoundly superficial and profoundly undramatic.  The bleak future that Hall's Vicky walks off into at the film's end seems like a punishment Allen is inflicting on the actress herself, for suggesting, through her art, that the experience of living might add up to more than Allen can bring himself to admit.

THE LIBERACE MUSEUM

My sister and her kids are in town and two days ago we decided to visit the Liberace Museum, something I've wanted to do ever since I moved to Las Vegas.

The museum is located in two buildings in a mini-mall on Tropicana Avenue.  Visiting it is a deeply American experience, like Liberace himself.

Liberace was a flamboyantly gay performer in the days when gays were violently persecuted in this country.  He stood up before the nation and said, by every means available to him except words, “I'm gay!  I love being gay!  Isn't gayness fabulous?” and America, in its kindhearted hypocrisy, answered back, “Yes!  Yes!  Yes!”

In the Fifties, until the arrival of Elvis Presley on the scene, Liberace was the most popular concert performer in America — he could fill stadiums as easily as the hottest rock group today.  The phenomenon is still hard to understand, because if Liberace had announced his sexual preferences openly, he would have been unemployable — he and his act would have been denounced from every editorial page and pulpit in America.

What was going on?  I suspect it had something to do with the tension between the official culture's position on gays and the fact that almost everyone in America had a family member or family friend who was gay and o.k., except for that one little thing that couldn't be talked about.

Liberace couldn't talk about it, either, but he could celebrate it, celebrate the fact that it was o. k.  This must have offered the culture some sort of deep psychic relief, an acknowledgment that kindly uncle Ralph in New York, who curiously never married because he “never found the right girl”, wasn't a hateful freak.

Liberace was a lovable freak, who curiously never found the right girl, either, despite a string of planted rumors in gossip columns that he was engaged to marry some decorous starlet or other.  The sleazy tabloids told the truth about him often enough, but America preferred not to believe it — or rather, preferred to pretend not to believe it.

At the Liberace Museum, along with the mirrored pianos and Rolls-Royces, the two-hundred pound costumes made of feathers and monkey fur and sequins, the harness Liberace wore when he flew on stage, out of the closet and through the transom that were always just out of sight, is one of Liberace's prize possessions — the world's largest rhinestone.

It weighs over fifty pounds.  It looks almost like a diamond but not quite.  It's a real, honest-to-God rhinestone — and it's fabulous, like Liberace.

[Photos © 2008 Harry Rossi]

GERTRUDE STEIN ON SCREENWRITING

You have to remember in writing film stories that it is not like
writing for the theater — the film audience is not an audience that is
awake, it is an audience that is dreaming.

                                      [This is Stein quoting advice from screenwriter Jacques Viot (Le Jour Se Lève)]

The portrait of Stein is by Picasso.

MANNY FARBER

I was sorry to hear recently about the death of painter and critic Manny Farber.  I love Farber's paintings but must confess to having decidedly mixed feelings about his film criticism, for which he's generally better known.  He strikes me as someone who had acute intuitions about movies but was never able to find a critical language capable of explicating them.  He came up with wonderful terms like “negative space” but their meanings shifted so mercurially that you could never be sure exactly what he wanted them to convey.  I defy anyone to come up with a definition for “negative space” which applies to all the contexts in which Farber used it.

Farber also lapsed frequently into language so obtuse that no meaning of any kind can be teased out of it.  I don't think this was the result of pretension, or lack of intelligence — I think it was the result of frustrated passion.  He knew something extraordinary was happening in the film or scene he was discussing, he knew there was no conventional critical language with which it could be described, so he just riffed, out beyond the limits of rational communication, and hoped to get the sense of what he felt across.

This sort of approach can work — but so can simply shouting, “Hey, look at this!”  Farber's writing about film is an odd mixture of sublime insights, many opinions eccentric for their time which subsequent generations of critics have vindicated, and bouts of incoherent shouting.  Threading your way through the maze can be exhausting.

Farber's admirers will tell you that his incoherent passages are attempts to produce abstract literary equivalents of the non-verbal effects found in movies — which is academic nonsense of a far more objectionable type than Farber's.  His approach to movies was simply emotional and impressionistic, rather than analytical.  It's instructive to note that when Farber did try to describe images precisely he sometimes misremembered what he had “seen”.

It must be said, though, that Farber really cared about movies, and responded deeply and honestly to them, which is nine tenths of what good criticism is all about — but for some reason he felt the need to supply, or try to supply, that last tenth, an intellectual comprehension of cinematic means, which he lacked.  That makes him, for me, more frustrating, less enjoyable to read than other critics, like Kael and Agee, who tended to write within their limitations, which were very similar to Farber's.

With his passing, I rejoice in the paintings (like the one at the head of this post, a tribute to Budd Boetticher) which he left behind.  I believe they will long outlive his writings about film.

ANITA O'DAY: PAGAN LOVE SONG

The ever-intriguing web site Potrzebie reminds me of the incomparable Anita O' Day — the coolest West Coast jazz singer of all time.  Her real name was Colton — she changed it to the Pig Latin version of “dough”, because she hoped to make a lot of it.  Just about everything she did make went up her arm in the form of heroin, which she finally kicked after a fifteen-year habit.  She did it cold turkey on her own in Hawaii — “when I got the chills I lay out in the sun, when I got the fevers I jumped in the water.”

This leads my thoughts to the romance of the South Seas and a song O'Day once recorded, “Pagan Love Song”.  Many currents flow through the number.  It was written by Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown for the 1929 film The Pagan.  It became the title song for a film Arthur Freed produced in 1950 starring Esther Williams.  O'Day recorded it two years later, perhaps to capitalize on its familiarity from the film.  It's kind of a silly song but O'Day doesn't goof on it — she sings it straight . . . laid back but straight.  “Pagan love,” she seems to say, “yeah, that might be amusing.”

O'Day was a tough lady — she was never interested in “acting girl”, as she called it.  When traveling with all-male jazz bands she carried her own luggage and picked up her own checks, as a matter of principle.  She can sing a ballad in a way that breaks your heart, but she never asks for sympathy — her style is a kind of antidote to the “broken but brave” emotionalism of Judy Garland in her later concert years.

Check out “Pagan LOve Song” sometime, and the rest of O'Day's work.  She hardly ever recorded a bad side.

A QUOTE FOR TODAY FROM PHILIPPE SOLLERS

Une femme qui tolère votre sommeil fait plus que vous aimer, elle vous pardonne d'exister.

(A woman who tolerates your sleeping does more than love you — she pardons you for existing.)

                                                                              — Philippe Sollers

[With thanks to Femme Femme Femme for the quote -- image by Cabanel, a Victorian painter famous for his historical and mythological works, which tended to be florid and a bit silly, but whose portraits could be very fine, indeed.]

AN IMAGE FOR TODAY: LUNA PARK

The above is a lovely image I found on a wonderful web site, Vitaphone Varieties, which summons back the early days of talking pictures, when some of the last of the great vaudevillians were recorded for posterity on film.  The site is a treasure house of photographs, posters, film clips, recordings and newspaper articles relating to the world of show business in the early 20th Century.

Check it out.

The image shows the entrance to Luna Park at Coney Island around 1912.

JOHN EDWARDS: CREEP

Back at the beginning of this year's Presidential campaign I was talking to some friends who were John Edwards supporters.  I told them that while I liked all the issues Edwards was talking about I just couldn't get past his “someone-is-tickling-my-ass-with-a-feather” smile.  I said it reminded me of the smiles you see on the faces of crooked used-car dealers.

Bingo.


LARRY MCMURTRY ON COMIC BOOK MOVIES

An industry that seems to have concluded that its best hope is to
dramatize the comic-strip literature of an earlier and more vigorous
era is one whose fevers have finally destroyed its nerve. With rare
exceptions the pictures coming out of Hollywood today are the last
resorts of the gutless.

              — Larry McMurtry, foreward to Film Flam: Essays on Hollywood (Simon and Schuster)

This quote is from 1987.

[With thanks to More Than Meets the Mogwai]

VICTORIAN SENTIMENTALITY AND THE CINEMA

The popular audience of the 20th Century never lost its appetite for the straightforward, heartfelt sentimentality of the Victorian era.  This was so much the case that all art forms which eschewed such sentimentality — painting, sculpture, concert music, opera, poetry and, for the most part, fiction — ceased to be popular arts at all.  Serious new works in all these forms were addressed to smaller and smaller elites.

20th-Century intellectuals, especially those associated with the academy, rejected frank sentimentality as a kind of outdated perversion, as something as unhealthy in its way as the supposed repression of sexuality in the Victorian era.  To be labeled a sentimental artist was as incompatible with intellectual prestige as being labeled a prude.

In the arts where “serious” intellectuals and the academy had no particular authority, such as movies and popular music, frank sentimentality continued on its merry way, commercial success with large audiences being considered sufficient compensation for intellectual disrepute.

When highbrow intellectual critics began to take movies seriously, they naturally tended to favor those films which relied least on sentimentality, or which rejected it to one degree or another.  This has resulted in a canon which reflects a skewed picture of popular movies.

It's all very silly, of course, and will someday be seen as one of the charming but lunatic quirks of 20th-Century intellectual fashion.  Meanwhile, however, it's interesting to imagine how the field of 20th-Century popular movies will look to future generations, who will have moved on to some other form of cultural myopia.

It may be, for example, that True Heart Susie will one day be considered as fine a film as Pandora's Box.  That Meet Me In St. Louis will be considered as fine a film as The Magnificent Ambersons.  That The Ghost and Mrs. Muir will be considered as fine a film as Vertigo.  That Titanic will be considered as fine as film as The Godfather, Part II.  There may even come a day when the Hollywood musical will be considered as cool as film noir.

The good news is that you don't need to wait for this shift in cultural prejudices to work itself out.  You can go right ahead and appreciate great films of frank sentiment for the masterpieces they are.  You can enjoy them emotionally and intellectually to your heart's content.  The 20th Century is over, after all — and good riddance to it!

EXOTICA: THE ENCHANTED SEA

It's hard to explain why I love lounge music so much — it's very silly music played by very professional musicians, background sounds for a vanished world, offering clues to a certain attitude about coolness that seems unrecoverable except in dreams.

Martin Denny more or less invented the Exotica (or Tiki) brand of lounge music in the Fifties.  He lived in Hawaii and played this music in a lounge there.  It must have made Hawaii seem like a movie set — or more like a movie set.  When he recorded the music, his albums swept the nation, making everyone feel as though they were on a Hawaiian movie set.

It's early evening, in 1959 — there's a breeze off the ocean, coming in with the sound of the waves.  You're in an open-air bar drinking something made with coconut milk and rum, remembering what it felt like, back during “the big one”, to get a little shore leave in Waikiki on your way to the bloody islands further west, in the general direction of Tokyo.  Who knew then it would be so bad, requiring something like a miracle just to survive it all in one piece?

A girl is about to walk up to the bar from the beach, wearing a brightly-colored cotton dress, with an orchid in her hair.  She's going to be trouble, big trouble — but you can handle it.

FORCE OF EVIL

This
extraordinary film is, generically, a late-cycle crime melodrama, but
it's quirky and original enough to transcend the genre pretty
thoroughly.  John Garfield plays a crooked Wall Street lawyer who
crosses the line between representing organized crime figures and
collaborating with them.  Like the great Warner Brothers gangsters
of the 30s, he's a tough guy on the make who chooses a life of crime,
but he thinks it's going to be “respectable”, white-collar crime — until he's dragged
into the violence and thuggery that underpins the rackets he believes he
can manipulate.

This distinguishes him from the gangsters of the 30s, gives him a kind
of innocence, though it's innocence of a curious sort.  He and a number of
the film's characters make a distinction in their minds between
“honest”, harmless criminality, mere corruption, and the “evil”
criminality of men who resort to violence.  This takes us very
close to the territory of the true film noir, where all of society has lost its moral bearings, where the lines between right and wrong have been hopelessly obscured.

Abraham Polonsky, who directed and co-wrote the film, is not quite venturing into that territory, however.  His outlook is more political — less concerned with moral bewilderment and confusion than with the wholesale structural corruption
of American society. 
The lines between good and bad are ultimately very clear in Polonsky's universe,
and he posits off-screen forces that are gathering to fight the
corruption of the system, forces which Garfield's character will eventually decide to join.

The protagonist of a true film noir
never has this route out of his predicament.  His plight has more to do with
existential uncertainty than with political or social problems in
need of practical reform.  At the same time, though, Force Of Evil is
suffused with the atmosphere of a true noir,
since the forces of good are never personified dramatically — the
crusading special prosecutor Garfield finally turns to never appears on
screen.

Force Of Evil points the way to Coppola's Godfather films, which, like this one, are in the gangster tradition but with a crucial twist — they concentrate not on the
battle between good guys and bad guys but on the creeping moral decay of the bad
guys, seen from their point of view.

We don't revel in the
transgressive behavior of Garfield's character, or of Michael Corleone
in the Godfather films, as we
reveled in the transgressive behavior of Cagney's bad guys, in
confident expectation that they will be brought to justice in the end.  Garfield's character in Force Of Evil,
like Michael Corleone, is punished by forces within himself and close
to home.  Far from going down in a blaze of outlaw glory, he rots
from the inside, slowly.  Polonsky offers Garfield's character a
way out, through social action and personal reform — Coppola, less
political, less didactic, less optimistic perhaps about American society, offers Michael Corleone nothing.