...or so he seemed, both as an actor and as a goodwill ambassador for show business in general and Tinseltown in particular. Van Johnson, seen above in 1949's In The Good Old Summertime with Judy Garland and Baby Liza Minnelli, passed away today at a senior citizen's home in Nyack, New York, age 92.
Johnson took some credible stabs at toughening up his nice-guy screen image with such fare as Wellman's Battleground (also '49) and Dmytryk's The Caine Mutiny ('54). The damn thing was, he was just so very good at being agreeable that once you warmed up to what he brought to the screen, you didn't necessarily need much else from him. You didn't want him to give you some idea of his range.
And now he's gone—another one of the last remaining flesh-and-blood links to another world, as it were. Bettie Page, whose world was a different one from Johnson's, and whose illness I wrote of last weekend, has also left the building. A friend remembers that earlier in the year, the artist Dave Stevens, the creator of the comic The Rocketeer, whose work did so much to revive contemporary interest in Page, died of leukemia; he was only 52. "Sort of taking the spirit out of the season," my pal notes of these passings. I know; death is sad, but still, as they say, inevitable, and until our own meeting with it, we will have to, as Van's co-star above famously sang, muddle through somehow. Might as well find some way to be cheerful about it. Maybe settling in with a nice old Van Johnson picture, some eggnog, and a cozy blanket could help...
UPDATE: My esteemed colleague Joseph Failla chimes in with three cheers for Johnson's more ambitious outings, and an appreciation of his later work:
Even though Van Johnson was a quintessential Mr. Nice Guy, I always liked him just as much in his tougher roles, in films such as the exciting Thirty Second Over Tokyo and the classic The Caine Mutiny. In Caine, he's very convincing as a diligent officer who's manipulated into bringing charges against the much maligned Capt. Queeg. The way he conveys the damage his conscience suffers during the course of the film is most believable.
But he was also a picture of elegance, as he managed to hold his own while performing song and dance with Gene Kelly in Brigadoon. He even had a notable dance number with Lucille Ball on an episode of her TV show in the '50s. They do a nice little duet that's not only one of the series' shining moments, but also nothing short of the kind of professionalism you'd expect from an MGM movie musical of the same period.
And of course, I'll never forget the role that introduced him to me as The Minstrel on the '60s Batman series. I admit not the most threatening of Bat-villians but there was something about the way he sang his lines to the Caped Crusaders that still strikes me as funny and worked preciously within the show's campy design.
The last role I recall seeing of his was in Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo, as one of the characters "trapped" on film. I thought he looked great in that tux and his presence was just what was needed to convey a bygone era through imeasurable charm and class.
Harry Carey and Elmer Booth, The Musketeers of Pig Alley, directed by D.W. Griffith, shot by G.W. "Billy" Bitzer, 1912
The above image never ceases to startle me. I mean, just look at it. And of course it also works like mad in its context, the thrilling D.W. Griffith Biograph short that's often cited as the very first gangster picture.
But this shot. WIth its sliced-off face. The negative space. The attitude. It could have come out of Breathless. Which, of course, is entirely the point. Of Breathless. And a whole lot of other things. In a sense, that is. And to think this picture is almost 100 years old. Of course, Marcel Duchamp's Fountain is almost 100 years old as well, and it's still, um, pissing people off.
About the light posting: Been rather busy. Tending to the exigencies of making a living—said living, as many of you might have inferred by now, not being made in film criticism—and such. Some writing projects, too: an essay on White Light/White Heat for a forthcoming coffee-table book on The Velvet Underground—yes, yes, I too, chuckle at the irony...although it's an irony that dissipates upon close examination—and a remembrance of David Foster Wallace for The Sonora Review. Also compiling and weighing choices for the inevitable best-of-year surveys I may be contributing to. And also, I've been picking a fight with Scott Foundas. Okay, actually, I'm probably gonna not pursue that last thing too much because, you know, what's the point, and also because My Lovely Wife doesn't much cotton to my picking fights (although she didn't mind my swipe at a certain strain of derrierism last week).
Watch a sufficient number of silent films—particularly in a block—and you do get a renewed sense of how silent cinema represents an art form that's almost completely distinct from the sound film. In a really beautifully made silent, you get the sense of the camera noticing more—certain nuances of gesture, movement. Bresson, I think, tried to recapture some of this "knowledge" with his particular cinematic strategies—closeups of hands and feet, and such. It's something I really love about silents, something I think contributes greatly to the almost mystic quality I find in many of my favorites.
Another thing I love about silent movies is Zasu Pitts. I write about her eloquence of gesture, and how beautifully it's captured in Frank Borzage's Lazybones, over at The Auteurs' Notebook.
The good news is that there's finally now an official DVD of Antonioni's Zabriskie Point, and as the screen grab above attests, it's taken from a very nice print. But there's also bad news. For the whole story, check out today's Foreign Region DVD Report, over at The Auteurs.
Tomorrow, Zeitgeist releases a new, improved domestic DVD of Olivier Assayas' 1996 Irma Vep, an exhilarating, sometimes acid comedy about movies and moviemaking, in which Hong Kong superstar Maggie Cheung stars as...Maggie Cheung. She's in France to make a "modern" version of Louis Feuillade's seminal silent crime serial Les Vampires, to be helmed by a very fraught director played by Jean-Pierre Leaud. I've already written here about how, to my mind, Vep fits into a line of films that includes Truffaut's La Nuit Americaine (Day For Night) and Fassbinder's Beware of a Holy Whore, and as you'll see below Assayas has some very definite ideas on that perceived continuity himself.
As Assayas acknowledges, it was with Vep that he made a real impact on the international film scene, Several of his subsequent pictures would probably not have been possible, or maybe better we sould say "likely," had he not first mixed milieus and langauges as he does in Vep. While his most recent film, the sublime Summer Hours is more of a pure French project (although not entirely—it does, after all, feature Kyle Eastwood as Juliette Binoche's American boyfriend), his picture prior to that, the underrated Boarding Gate, stars Italian-born Asia Argento in a mostly English-language thriller that jumps from France to Hong Kong.
Assayas, who'll turn 54 in January, is both an incredibly thoughtful and almost boyishly energetic guy, and our recent conversation was a brisk, enjoyable one.
Assayas, on the set of Vep, from a brief documentary on the Zeitgeist disc.
SCR: When it came
out, Irma Vep seemed to be at least in partan
elegy for a certain aspect of French cinema.And I'm wondering how you see the situation now 12 years
ASSAYAS: ...12 years later.It's a very difficult question, actually.Because when I was making the film it was not like I was
making a statement and I had some kind of coherent analysis of what French
cinema was about.It was very
instinctive—more like a Polaroid of the contradictions of French film making at
that time, where I was dealing both with the beauty of it and some of the more
irritating aspects of it.And also
it was a comedy so, you know, I was just trying to turn theory into comedy in
A bad weekend for some distinctively lovely women of film, and their fans.
Not a day after the death of Nina Foch, the glamourous Netherlands-born star of My Name Is Julia Ross, Illegal, You're Never Too Young, and so many others, comes news of the passing of Beverly Garland. The B-Movie queen, who graced the likes of Not of This Earth, It Conquered The World, Gunslinger, Swamp Diamonds, and other low-budget fare before bringing some heterosexual cred to TV's My Three Sons as a new wife to widowed Steve Douglas, was known, among other things, for her almost preternatural good-nature and good humor. Adored by fans, she adored them right back.
We also hear today that Bettie Page, for whom no introduction ought to be necessary, was hospitalized yesterday after suffering a heart attack. The indefatigable Page is 85. We wish her the best. We also wish we could run the above shot in its uncropped version, as it is a unique communication of Yuletide sentiment, but it's also unsafe for work and family environments.
As dramatic as Klaatu's descent from his spaceship is in Robert Wise' 1951 The Day The Earth Stood Still is, I'm always even more struck by the alien's appearance at Mrs. Crockett's boarding house, in the dark, as the boarders, including Helen Benson and son Bobby are gathered around the television, transfixed by the news reports of a strange visitor.
One of the first of countless post-nuke sci-fi parables, Earth was set in the then-present day, the better to preach its pacifist creed. Still, it was every bit a movie about the future. Klaatu has an entirely human appearance and bearing; he also has advanced technology, a "salve" that heals a bullet wound overnight, superior reasoning ability and more. He represents Earth's, or more specifically given the film's provenance and milieu, the United States' potential. Watching the film today, one can conceivably mourn both the cozy-looking past of the American '50s and the never-to-be realized future that Klaatu represents. I somehow doubt the coming remake will stir any such feelings.
On a cheerier note, the original's been spiffed up for both standard and high-def DVD, and the Blu-ray of the film is really peachy.
I never met the man who coined the term "sci-fi" and founded and edited the magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland, but it's safe to say that had I not made his acquaintance via the aforementioned publication, I rather doubt I'd be...well, sitting here writing this.Or rather, that I would have done all the things that led up to my sitting here writing this. Which is to say that there are probably more than a couple of cinephiles out there whose love of film grew out of an early love for fantastic film, and that in the '60s and '70s nothing fed a kid's jones for fantastic film like Famous Monsters. Ackerman's enthusiastic evocations of horror pics from the golden age could set one off on wild flights of fancy about the films themselves if you hadn't yet seen them. I vividly remember his in-depth article about the above-pictured Werewolf of London. I hadn't seen the picture before I'd read it, and I'm not sure if the picture itself would have taken such a tight hold of me when I did see it had I not read Ackerman's rhapsody first. Even today, watching the film has a peculiarly galvanic effect, and it's always tied to the recollected anticipation of actually getting to see it, which was roiled by the Famous Monsters article.
The treasure trove of arcana that spilled from the pages of every issue of that mag also constituted one of the very best escapes one had from the tedium and humiliation of life as a spindly, bookish, suspected-of-being-spastic grade-school outcast in '60s suburban New Jersey. Or at least so I've been given to understand.
In any case, I owe him a lot. He passed away today at the gratifyingly old age of 92. The Los Angeles Times blog has an excellent obituary, and I'm sure there are more than one or two of you out there with some thoughts.
My friend Joseph Failla hasn't seen Gran Torino yet, but from what he knows about it he infers a thematic continutiy that I didn't touch on in my post about the film yesterday. Take it away, Joe:
You know I always took a beating because of my high regard and respect for Clint Eastwood's films and performances. For years, the easiest way for me to lose respect as a film enthusiast was to bring Eastwood into the discussion. This was at a time when he had started directing, but was primarily known as a western and action star. Even today, with all the critical attention he's garnered, some folks still consider him a slight filmmaker and actor of little notice. Once again, I'll take the opportunity to disagree.
Much more than concluding a trilogy, Gran Torino appears to continue a theme which figures prominently in Eastwood's work ever since he moved behind the camera about the importance of family and the protection of our children. It dates back not only to personal projects like Bronco Billy and Honkytonk Man but to popular crowd pleasers such as The Outlaw Josey Wales and Pale Rider, both of which show a loner joining with other outsiders to form a new family of sorts. I don't think he really brings it into full focus till A Perfect World but from that film on he seems passionate enough in his convictions to make anyone reassess his long career up to that point.
I was having a bite with my buddy Andrew "Filmbrain" Grant the other day, and he said to me, apropos of nothing, "Have you looked at the reviews section of Premiere.com lately?"
"No," I replied. "Why would I wanna do that?"
"Well," he said, "It's just such an atrocity. They have this unbelievably lame new format for the reviews, where they break it up into little thematic modules, like 'The Pitch,' and 'The Not-So-Good,'' 'A Personal Fact About Us,' and stuff like that. It's really horrific."
A little later I checked it out, and sure enough, it was just as Andrew said. Only, seeing as for the past few months I've been trying to break out of my so-called "print mentality," I didn't find it lame at all. No. It was brisk, it was punchy, it was to the point, it was funsy—in short, it was very "new media" (Tah-rah!), and, thus, something that I feel I really need to be a part of.
So. Despite the fact that when I parted ways with Premiere.com I vowed that I would have nothing further to do with that enterprise, I'm thinking that I might want in again. I'm writing to you because I infer that you, a recent hire from over at Maxim, were responsible for this new, innovative editorial tack, so I want to go to the source. To be perfectly honest, I also see here an opportunity to update some of my other ossified attitudes, which I understand is necessary in order to survive in the brave new digital media world. To that end, I've drafted an audition piece, if you will, using as my subject that old French chestnut Au Hasard, Balthazar.