Today, November 29, would have been the 93rd birthday of Mr. Billy Strayhorn, one of the greatest composers in American popular music. Make that music, period. The key compositional collaborator of Duke Ellington, Strayhorn graced him, and us, with such tunes as "Take The 'A' Train," "Sophisticated Lady," some of "Satin Doll," the ineffable "Lotus Blossom," and many, many others that you really ought to acquaint yourselves with immediately if you're not familiar with them. An excellent place to start is the tribute record Ellington and his orchestra made shortly after Strayhorn's death—in 1967, at age 52, of cancer of the esophagus—...And His Mother Called Him Bill. Then there's Strayhorn's unusual, intimate, lovely solo album—criminally out-of-print, but available at unpopular prices, and worth them—The Peaceful Side. And so much more.
The heartfelt and eloquent eulogy Ellington wrote for Strayhorn is one of my very favorite pieces of short writing ever. Here is the kernel of it:
...Billy Strayhorn successfully married melody, words, and harmony, equating the fitting with happiness. His greatest virtue, I think, was his honesty, not only to others, but to himself. His listening-hearing self was totally intolerant of his writing-playing self when, or if, any compromise was expected, or considered expedient.
He spoke English perfectly and French very well, but condescension did not enter into his mind. He demanded freedom of expression and lived in what we consider the most important and moral of freedoms: freedom from hate, unconditionally; freedom from self-pity (even throughout all the pain and bad news); freedom from fear of possibly doing something that might help another more than it might help himself; and freedom from the kind of pride that could make a man feel he was better than his brother or neighbor.
You can read the eulogy in its entirety in my friend David Hajdu's splendid Strayhorn biography Lush Life.
To echo the final words of Ellington's tribute: God bless Billy Strayhorn.
I have to admit: when I learned that the first Blu-ray release from Criterion would be of their newly remastered version of Wong Kar-Wai's 1994 Chungking Express, I was slightly puzzled. Don't get me wrong—the film, shot by Andrew Lau and Christopher Doyle, is breathtakingly beautiful. But its beauty is largely of an impressionistic sort. The blurred slow-motion (produced via optical printing rather than speeding up the camera), the graininess of the natural light shots at dusk, the rush produced by the fast cuts and the whip pans—all salutory qualities, but not necessarily the sort of thing to wow certain home theater enthusiasts. I figured the company would come out of the Blu-ray box with something more conventionally impressive; The Last Emperor, say, maybe even Godard's Contempt (I saw sections of the latter in High-Definition at Criterion's New York offices, and it's staggering).
Well, I needn't have been concerned, in any respect. Criterion's Blu-ray of Chungking Express is a revelation. It should thrill cinephiles and tech wonks in equal measure. My camera-shot screen grabs are pretty poor approximations of how the disc presents the film but should give you some sense of it.
Pretty much every frame of the film is packed with vivid, contrasting colors, and one of the strengths of the high-def version is how fixed and solid the colors are. Flesh tones are beautifully exact. (The tones above belong to Faye Wong.) FIlm grain, a bedbug of certain high-def advocates, is spectacularly intact, as the top screen shot attests. Indeed, Chungking Express is one of those films that thoroughly vindicates something film preservationist Robert Harris once said to me: "The grain is the picture."
I haven't delved in to all the extras yet, but did enjoy Tony Rayns' typically well-informed audio commentary. Bottom line: a fantastic Blu-ray debut from Criterion and an essential addition to any High-Def home library.
I don't really keep up with celebrity gossip, so it was only just now, at the newsstand, that the Vogue cover line heralding an interview with puling nonentity Jennifer Aniston registered with me. "What Angelina Did Was Really Uncool." Jeez, lady, move on. It's like, three years ago. If I, or you, still nattered on about the circumstances of a breakup that long in, we'd be looked at as potential stalkers, and told to get help.
Still. I like the way that sentence rolls off the tongue. It could make a good all-purpose rejonder. As in:
"I think Obama's cabinet choices are really undercutting his credibility as an agent for change."
"Maybe so, but what Angelina did was really uncool."
Probably sounds even more convincing coming off of a hit from a bong fashioned out of a used bear-shaped honey dispenser. Incidentally, it really gladdens my curdled heart to see Aniston's latest cinematic venture has her playing third fiddle to an unruly golden retriever.
There are two kinds of people in the world. People who believe Barry Lyndon, and people who believe Forrest Gump. I always figured director David Fincher as one of the Lyndon believers, but he enters full Gump territory with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. This should come as no surprise, as Button's screenplay is by Eric Roth, who with Robin Swicord adopted a rather slight (and frankly not very good) F. Scott Fitzgerald fantasy tale into a generations-spanning Inpirational Tale For The Ages, not to mention The Awards.
As you might have heard already, the movie stars Brad Pitt as some guy who'd born an old man, and ages backwards. For the purposes of this adaptation, Pitt's character reaches peak perfect yumminess in the late '50s-early '60s, which works out great for him; he gets to look cool on both on a motorcycle and a sailboat. He's like a hybrid of pre-crackup T.E. Lawrence, Brando in The Wild One, and Gardner McKay on Adventures In Paradise. (Remember that one, kids?)
The careful reader may have inferred from my glib tone that I am not one of the film reviewers who was emotionally transported by Benjamin Button. I am afraid that the careful reader would be correct. It sure didn't get up my nose the way Gump did—partially because of its disinclination to social commentary, and partially because it's so damn cinematically attractive that it's kind of difficult to resist on that level—but make no mistake, it's just as much of a simpering crock.
The opening shot of The Grapes of Wrath, John Ford, 1940
In his recent video appreciation of this film, The New York Times' A.O. Scott admits to being a little gobsmacked: "I'd never thought that The Grapes of Wrath would strike me as the most topical movie for right now." Ain't it the truth, brother—and incidentally, can you spare a dime?
Shameless formalist that I am, I'm always blown away by the pictorial aspect of Grapes, shot by the great Gregg Toland. The whole thing looks like some incredible confluence of Walker Evan and F.W. Murnau. DIg the spectral quality of the shot below, the faces reflected in the windshield as the Joads trek through the California desert by nightfall.
Ford's—and Steinbeck's—love of the sheer bountiful hugeness of the American West is palpable during the traveling scenes. I also love the contrasting attitudes of the various fellow Americans the Joads meet along their way to California—the generous folks at the diner, including the seemingly cynical truckers; the bigoted, all-dressed-in-white gas station attendants; the sympathetic agriculture inspectors. And I love the detail of the production design. Every last object in the below shot, seen from today's perspective, seems—well, to me at least—positively numinous.
This really is one hell of a magnificent film. If you haven't looked at it in a while, I strongly suggest you get on it.
UPDATE: Joseph Failla sends his thoughts:
It's hard for me to imagine that The Grapes of Wrath would need a nudge to get anyone to watch it, especially with it's timeliness today. But I think you're on the right track speaking of it pictorially. It's literally filled from start to finish with images I'll never forget.
As you pointed out, Henry Fonda at the crossroads.
Fonda, John Carradine and John Qualen speaking in almost total darkness with only their faces illuminated in the shadows.
Qualen raising his rifle to an oncoming bulldozer threatening his home.
Qualen kneeling in the dirt ranting about the importance of a man's land "...and some of us died on it."
The family leaving the farm by way of an overloaded truck before the dust bowl engulfs them.
Grandpa Charley Grapewin's death on the road to California.
The endless caravan of families making the same trip along the highway.
The arrival at the first camp and the desperate look on the faces of those already there.
An innocent woman accidentally shot by policemen pursuing a "troublemaker".
Ma Jane Darwell looking at her reflection in the mirror, putting on earings she wore as a girl.
The murder of John Carradine under a bridge at night.
Fonda's silhouette as he crosses the horizon along an empty field.
I'm sure because of those images and many others, Grapes has always attracted me back for more and more viewings. It never seems to get old and remains just as forceful a piece of Hollywood studio movie making as I've ever seen.
At this point you may want to take another look at Bound For Glory, it's not nearly as visually breathtaking as Grapes, but it does cover the same era with a similiar proletarian point of view. Also you get two generations of Carradines giving great performances which link these films together for cinephiles forever.
So last night I had the privilege of moderating a Q&A with several cast members of Revolutionary Road at a special SAG screening. (Jeffrey Wells took some pictures of the event, here.) I did what I usually do at such things: ask a few questions up front, most of them pitched to the ensemble—the ensemble here consisting of Kathryn Hahn, David Harbour, Michael Shannon and Kate Winslet—then open it up to the audience and try to stay out of everyone's way. It seemed to go pretty well, and the actors were very engaging and very frank about the emotional demands of the material. After the panel, as folks milled about, a rather looming and obese youngish fellow approached me. "That was a great Q-and-A," he said. "Thanks," said I. "Yeah," he continued. "It was really great to hear you validate yourself over and over again." At which point the individual turned around and ran up the aisle to the exit.
Now prior to the screening I did notice that the house contained at least two movie writers with whom I'm on distinctly unfriendly terms, and I wondered for a moment if one of them had ducked into the men's room and put on a fat suit before approaching me to harsh my mellow. But no.
Anyway, the cast members seemed reasonably pleased by how it went. So there's some validation in that...
If you're in Manhattan this Saturday night and you have the scratch, I doubt you could find a better entertainment/enlightenment opportunity than The King of Comedy: Jerry Lewis In Conversation With Peter Bogdanovich, sponsored by The Museum of the Moving Image. The man who did for the ascot what George Will did for the bow tie—that would be director/author/actor Bogdanovich—will try to guide Le Roi du Crazy, as the French call him, through a survey of his remarkable career. Although it's likely that Bogdanovich will have his work cut out for him reining the King in—accounts of like events worldwide find Jerry taking matters into his own hands, and mouth, schticking it up, wandering through the audience, and just being Jerry. Should be fun. Alas, a prior engagement will prevent me from attending, or else I might have asked Lewis what he makes of the very acute Chris Fujiwara's musings on the auteur over at the Moving Images "Sources" website, in the hopes that Lewis might respond along the lines of "Ladeeeeeee! What's these 'zones of indetermincee' you're talking about???" or some such.