"It should have been a soufflé, but it turned out a pancake." So director Sidney Lumet described his 1968 film Bye Bye Braverman in his entertaining book Making Movies. Andrew Sarris, describing the film in his book The American Cinema, is a bit kinder, citing "marvelous" and "affecting" work by some of its cast; still, Sarris says, the picture is "as courageous in its conception as it is vulgar in its execution."
What's so courageous about it's conception, you may ask. And I'll then ask you: how many studio pictures do you know of concerning the mid-life crises of a small group of New York Jewish intellectuals? So there. And this one's plot—in which the aforementioned fellows convene for the funeral of an old pal—seems to take its cue from the "Hades" section of Joyce's Ulysses. At least that's what Stanley Edgar Hyman said of the Wallace Markfield novel upon which the Herb Sargent script is based. (Markfield himself: "I can't say that Joyce is important to me. But what writer has not been influenced by Joyce?") Again, pretty highbrow for a Hollywood picture. Then again, the town was opening up at that time.
Given its milieu and the fact that Lumet is one of the most indefatigable cinematic chroniclers of NYC, the movie maintains a very distinct curiosity value, one which can now be satisfied via its DVD release from the Warner Archive. After checking it out for the first time in decades—I think the first and last time I saw it was in a truncated version on WABC's "The 4:30 Movie" or some such program—I somewhat regret having to report that Lumet's a pretty good judge of his own work. Braverman has its moments—quite a few of them, in fact—but on the whole it's a bit of a botch.
I review Sam Raimi's Drag Me To Hell—which I dig, and I dig Alison Lohman in it—over at The Auteurs'. Be warned, the spoilers begin after the first graph. So go see it before reading. Or not. The choice is yours.
"She's b-b-b-b-beautiful," a flummoxed WIlbur—Lou Costello in a signature role—exclaims mere seconds after receiving an entirely unexpected kiss from Joan Raymond. Little does he know that her proclaimed "love at first sight" is hardly real, and that she's in fact a shrewd insurance investigator named Joan Raymond, hatching a scheme to entrap poor Wilbur. The film is 1948's Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, and the indeed beautiful actress is Jane Randolph, whose death earlier in the month at age 93 just hit the papers today.
I know, I know, it's Cat People that everybody knows Randolph for, and Cat People every tribute to her is gonna lead off with, so why not commemorate her participation in this (some would say low-rent) comedy classic? Point of fact, she's pretty amusing in it, playing poor stupid Lou for a sap.
As for 1942's Cat People, the menace-in-the-pool scene is a showcase for her, and deserves to be widely cited, but one ought not forget the through-Central-Park "chase," which ends with a fantastic shock sound effect that turns out to be...the hiss of a bus pulling up. So effective was this fake-out that for a while any such scares in subsequent films were referred to by pros and buffs as "buses." Randolph's Alice Moore has an appropriately harried and harrowed look on her face as she boards the vehicle.
I always thought there was something kind of sociologically interesting about the shift in the portrayal of Alice from the '42 Cat People to the '44 sort-of sequel The Curse of the Cat People. In the first film she's the co-worker and eventual romantic interest of unhappily married Oliver Reed (Kent Smith). She's a touch wise-crackerish, a tint bohemian, full of sympathy and hail-fellow-well-met bonhomie, as implied by this smoke break by the water cooler:
The exemplary Manhattan career woman. Of course, give her a few more years and pathetic spinsterhood no doubt beckoned, at least by the lights of the zeitgeist.
In '44's Curse, Reed has married Alice, and since it's '44, there aren't quite suburbs to move to yet, so the couple head upstate, to Rip Van Winkle territory, to spawn. Still, Alice is now quite matronly, and the whole setup has a whiff of Revolutionary Road (the book or the movie, take your pick) avant la lettre to it. (Of course, Curse turns into something wholly other, and wholly wonderful.)
Judging from the news reports, Randolph herself married pretty well after a screen career that, for all intents and purposes, spanned less than a decade. There's always something intriguing about the actress—because it usually is an actress—who makes a strong impression as a young woman and then, for whatever reason, deigns not to grow old on screen. Mary Duncan of Murnau's '30 City Girl springs to mind—she made her final film in '33, and lived until 1993. Someone ought to do a survey of such figures. Maybe the Self-Styled Siren takes requests...
Movie reviewers tend, at least in private, to get ever-so-slightly blasé about the output of Pixar, Disney's computer animation arm. From Toy Story to A Bug's Life to The Incredibles to Ratatouille to, well, you get the idea, the stuff functions on such a high level of quality, from a certain perspective, it gets a little boring to write about. It's always so imaginative, so funny, so full of real heart, so visually and technologically innovative, one almost gets flummoxed. (Then there's the integrity thing—that hardly every Pixar picture functions as a pretext to create lots and lots of expensive ancillary merchandise.) One could almost hear a collective critical sigh of something like relief when Cars turned out to be just okay—albeit just okay on a very high level.
I'm almost reminded—and this is gonna sound weird, but bear with me—of a certain period in the career of the reliably dyspeptic post-punk band The Fall, whose run of albums from the early '80s to 1990 was so staggering that by, say, 1985's This Nation's Saving Grace, one ceased to be quite so staggered. "Ho-hum, another great Fall album," one would say. Which isn't to say one was ungrateful. Anyhow, not to go off on a tangent, as The Fall and Disney/Pixar really have little in common (although Fall frontman Mark E. Smith did pen a lyric entitled "Disney's Dream Debased," about [I think] an ill-fated trip to Disneyland, back before Pixar even existed). But still.
So it's not likely that I'm going to surprise anyone by saying that Up,directed by Pete Docter and Bob Peterson, is terrific, but I will cop to that fact that the film—you'll excuse the phrase—had me at "hello," and for reasons that are largely extra-critical. As you probably know from the trailer, Up is about Carl, a grumpy old fellow who escapes from a worse-than-humdrum existence by making a flying ship out of his house, with the assistance of a shitload of helium balloons. His unwanted companion on the trek is an eager-beaver of a simulated Boy Scout named Nelson Russell, who only lacks an "Assisting the Elderly" badge to complete his vast array of such awards.
But the movie begins with Carl as anything but a grumpy old fellow; it depicts him as an adventure-obsessed (but shy) little boy who finds the ideal playmate, and eventually soulmate, in an equally adventure-obsessed (and not shy) little girl named Ellie. One of the most affecting scenes in the film, and one of the most brilliant things Pixar's ever done, is a wordless montage depicting the great ordinary love story of these two souls. And I have to admit it gave my heart more than a little tug that the adult Ellie—seen with Carl in the above still—reminded me an awful lot of My Lovely Wife. Who aside from being as smart and lively and beautiful as the cinematic Ellie, also has a similarly adventurous streak—while I was grilling basil, tomato, and mozzarella sausages this last weekend, she was off in Belize, snorkeling, cave-tubing, and zip-lining. (I would have joined her on the trip, which also included a wedding, save for a schedule conflict. But I sure as hell wouldn't have gone zip-lining.) Carl and Ellie's story ends sadly—hence Carl's grumpiness—but then, thanks to a wonderful reveal at the end of the movie, an end is shown as a potential new beginning, as Carl is reinvested with the couple's sense of adventure and...well, I don't want to reveal much more. But the moving stuff here is rich in sentiment as opposed to mere sentimentality, and it works like a charm.
As for the rest of the picture, well, I don't want to give away too much of that either, except to say that as Pixar stuff goes it's a lot more overtly cartoony than many of its prior features. Which, cartoon nut that I am, is cause to celebrate. Once Carl and Russell leave the U.S., they find a realm of high cliffs and funny animals, two staples of the genre. The sight of our duo and a couple of their guests being pursued by a pack of dogs whose alpha has an amusing glitch will no doubt remind fellow animation aficionados of the 1947 Looney Tunes gem, A Hare Grows In Manhattan, in which Bugs Bunny is chased by a similarly goofy group of canines. And the action set pieces have the same combination of creative lunacy and meticulous timing that distinguished the can-you-top-this? toy train sequence in Nick Park's latter-day Wallace and Gromit classic, The Wrong Trousers.
In short, great stuff. And nothing to be blasé about.
UPDATE: A reader in comments asked if I had seen the picture in 3-D. Yes, I had, and was pretty impressed. The technology is used in a pretty subtle and nuanced way, more in the planes-and-depth vein of Hitchcock's Dial "M" For Murder than like the comin'-at-ya! pyrotechnics of Zemeckis' Beowulf. Is it essential to see the film in that format? No, but I'd say it's desirable.
Hey, look, guys! It's Fred Ward, years before Gus Grissom, Hoke Moseley, Remo Williams and Rocco DIllon, here playing Niccolo di Conti, a Venetian turned Florentine who explains how he faked his conversion to Islam in episode two of Rossellini's 1972's The Age of Medici. Ward's subsequent career would see him oddly toggling between gruff character roles and peculiar attempts at franchise-building (sure, we all remember Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins, but who among us can lay claim to first-hand knowledge of Timerider: The Adventures of Lyle Swann?) before settling into the gruff character roles and parodies thereof. Medici was his first film and it's kind of funny just how fey his characterization is (which I hope is reflected in the screen cap above); that's not really a quality too often associated with the fellow and his roles.
I read on the internet that Ward was "discovered" by Rossellini, but alas, Tag Gallagher's in most respects quite thorough biography of R.R. contains no mention of the actor. And so we are left with the mere but tantalizing fact of his appearance in the film, and in Rossellini's subsequent Cartesius. Soon, a Quincy episode would beckon, with the role of "Hostage Taker..."
Walk seven hours in their shoes: Tarr's Satantango
Wherein I admit that I both cheated and dropped the ball. As some of you may recall, the provisions of my plan as laid out in an earlier post at least implied that my viewing of nearly 30 hours worth of art cinema would not get started until after My Lovely Wife had departed for a six-day jaunt, last Wednesday. But I gave myself a head start, watching Rossellini's The Age of Medici on Tuesday. Then, feeling my oats and taking advantage of a cancelled business call, I was able to take in the entirety of Bela Tarr's Satantango on Wednesday, finishing in time to go to a screening of Pixar's Up (on which more later)...and then the ferry to Hoboken, to hear Cheetah Chrome backed by the Blackhearts. I was feeling pretty feisty, having packed that much in a day. Cheetah rocked, but the show ended really late, and the schlep from Hoboken to Brooklyn is a genuine schlep at that hour...so Thursday got to a slow start, and when I started up Fassbinder's Berlin Alexanderplatz...well, I have to admit I couldn't, as they say, get into it.
I can't quite say what it was. Having recently finished Hans Fallada's impressive novel Every Man Dies Alone, a fact-based account of a couple's ill-fated attempts at Nazi resistance, I figured I was well-prepared for more Depressing-Stuff-Going-On-In-Germany material, but then again, it could just as well been that I'd had my fill of such material for the moment. And don't get me wrong, Günter Lamprecht's a great actor, but his shambling, frantic character Franz Biberkopf did nothing but get on my nerves. People, it happens—I just wasn't in the mood for the thing. And so it remained for the remainder of Memorial Day weekend, which included even more socializing than I had initially anticipated. And the weather in the New York area was perfect for it. So I went with the flow, asi it were. One of the barbecues I attended was a very large affair, and I was actually stopped on the patio by an older couple who said, "Aren't you that terrible man in that movie," which was quite a kick. (Later at this barbecue I was treated to the sight of master guitarist Richard Lloyd—late of Television and the reconstructed Rocket From The Tombs with Chrome—sticking an accupuncture needle in the top of his head. Interesting. Peculiar.)
As for Alexanderplatz, do not fear. I will stick with it, but probably watch it episodically. It was a television film, after all.
Hubert Deschamps' widowed patriarch trying to hold it together near the end of La Gueule Ouverte, a searing 1974 film from Maurice Pialat that's the subject of this week's Foreign Region DVD Report over at The Auteurs'. If you don't know Pialat, he's worth making into a Subject For Further Research; his pictures present great challenges (and rewards) on both aesthetic and emotional levels. Because of his commitment to emotional truth, he's sometimes cited as a precursor to the dreaded (by me at least) Joe Swanberg, but I believe Pialat is a far greater artist. Which we can discuss some other time.
I know, I know, you're probably sick to death of the current one-stop-shopping-for-all-your-Girlfriend-Experience-needs tack this blog seems to have taken, but put yourself in my position, will ya? I got a movie to promote; doesn't happen every day. So. Over at Green Cine Daily, my close personal friend Aaron Hillis has posted a podcast of a friendly little chat we had the other day.
"The guy...gave me my start in film journalism, damn him," Hillis notes in his intro. I know, I know; I'm kind of shocked he still speaks to me. It's kind of a funny story. Hillis and I both used to hang out in what was no doubt a karmically tainted Carroll Gardens watering hole called Finn, and were carousing buddies before we were each redeemed by the Love of a Good Woman. (Not the same Good Woman. Two different Good Women. Anyway, Our Lovely Wives are pals now too.) Aaron worked at this video store around the corner, where he made hilarious poster collages and put up cards containing really quite ingenious movie synopses/critiques of selected titles. It was on the strength of those, I believe, that I gave him his assignments writing DVD reviews for Premiere. But somehow the story got out that "Glenn is giving freelance work to some guy he met at a bar," which doesn't sound at all good. I can actually see myself, slumping on a stool, saying to someone, "Hic! Yer funny. Ya onna write...fer ma magazine?"
In other news, I knocked off Rossellini's The Age of Medici and Tarr's Satantango, which leaves Berlin Alexanderplatz for the long Memorial Day weekend. I was impressed with Medici and will share something amusing about it with you shortly. I loved Satantango, especially all the many different parts where nothing happens, and fully understand why Susan Sontag said she could happily watch the whole thing once a year forever. Although I'm not sure how much I could stand the bit with that poor cat.
But now, before I do anything else, it's off to the gym. This week alone I've been referred to in print as "gelatinous,"* and compared to Sydney Greenstreet, Shrek, and poor Orson Welles. That's what I call motivation...