I used to know Dan Blocker, who played Hoss Cartwright on Bonanza. He was a wise and kind man, and there are tens of dozens of people I would much rather see dead than Dan. One time, around lunch-break at Paramount, when I was goofing off writing a treatment for a Joe Levine film that never got made, and Dan was resting his ass from some dumb horsey number he'd been reshooting all morning, we sat on the steps of the weathered that probably in no way resembled any saloon that had ever existed in Virginia City, Nevada, and we talked about reality versus fantasy. The reality of getting up at five in the morning to get to the studio in time for makeup call and the reality of how bloody much FICA tax they took out of our paychecks and the reality of one of his kids being down with something or other...and the fantasy of not being Dan Blocker, but of being Hoss Cartwright.
And he told me a scary story. He laughed about it, but it was the laugh of butchers in a slaughterhouse who have to swing the mauls that brain the beeves; who then go home to wash the stink out of their hair from the spattering.
He told me—and he said this happened all the time, not just in isolated cases—that he had been approached by a little old woman during one of his personal appearances at a rodeo, and the woman had said to him, dead seriously, "Now listen to me, Hoss: when you get home tonight, I want you to tell your daddy, Ben, to get rid of that Chinese fella who cooks for you all. What you need is to get yourself a good woman there can cook up some decent food for you and your family."
So Dan said to her, very politely (because he was one of the most courteous people I've ever met),"Excuse me, ma'am, but my name is Dan Blocker. Hoss is just the character I play. When I go home I'll be going to my house in Los Angeles and my wife and children will be waiting."
And she went right on, just a bit affronted because she knew all that, what was the matter with him, did he think she was simple or something, "Yes, I know...but when you go back to the Ponderosa, you just tell your daddy Ben that I said..."
—Harlan Ellison, "Revealed At Last! What Killed The Dinosaurs! And You Don't Look So Good Yourself." Introduction to Strange Wine, 1978
This depressing bit came back to me as I was reading a thumbsucker by Frank Bruni in the Times's "Sunday Styles" section, about how some yo-yos got upset that some Glee stars struck hotsy-totsy poses for an issue of GQ, and what it all means. And how that little old lady never died, but actually multiplied, and got younger, and stupider, and more self-righteous. Not that I'm particularly sympathetic to Bruni and the Times' perspective on it: "'Glee' Photo Flap Is Latest In Image Spin Cycle," oh do tell. Bruni displays a thoroughly uncanny ability to overthink on topics that no individual in his or her actual right mind ought even begin to bother with. Natalie Portman playing a stripper to counter the squeaky-clean image she earned from acting in some Star Wars movies? To propose that is also to presuppose that she made any kind of impression in those Star Wars movies (not that I'm saying it's her fault that she didn't). And apparently Jodie Foster took that part in Taxi Driver to "counter Freaky Friday." Um, sorry, Frank, you're maybe a little too young to remember this, but that isn't quite how they did it in L.A. back in the mid-'70s, trust me. For one thing, people didn't pay quite such fucking obsessive attention to child performers; nobody in the media was parsing Foster's career moves or whatnot. Oy.
Did I say "depressing?" Yes, it all is, indeed. Let's cheer up with the inner gatefold of the first Hatfield and the North LP, featuring Robert Wyatt and Hoss and the whole gang.
UPDATE: Adding a much-needed note of hilarity to the depressing proceedings, commenter Ratzkywatzky reveals Bruni's entire premise is built on something less than sand, as the original Freaky Friday came after the supposedly notorious and career-redefining Taxi Driver. "The fact that Disney didn't think twice about hiring her should indicate some difference in public attitudes from today." Indeed. And there's also the fact that being in Taxi Driver is slightly different than posing for Terry Richardson; Bruni seems to believe they're equivalent. Foster's early filmography is pretty interesting; she really mixed it up. It includes Napoleon and Samantha on the one hand and Kansas City Bomber on the other; and of course Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, in which Scorsese "discovered" her, as it were. I'm reminded somehow of a conversation I had with Bill Mumy in 1993, wherein he reflected on the fact that he and Foster came out of the child-actor gig relatively healthy and well-adjusted, and why many younger performers of the subsequent generation and beyond didn't: "We were supervised professionals," he shrugged.
On the morrow, in the dusk of evening, Mr. Weevle modestly appears at Krook's, by no means incommoded with luggage, and establishes himself in his new lodging; where the two eyes in the shutters stare a him in his sleep, as if they were full of wonder. On the following day Mr. Weevle, who is a handy good-for-nothing kind of young fellow, borrows a needle and thread of Miss Flite, and a hammer of his landlord, and goes to work devising apologies for window-curtains, and knocking up apologies for shelves, and hanging up his two teacups, milkpot, and crockery sundries on a pennyworth of little hooks, like a shipwrecked sailor making the best of it.
But what Mr. Weevle prizes most, of all his few possessions (next after his light whiskers, for which he has an attachment that only whiskers can awaken in the breast of a man), is a choice collection of copper-plate impressions from that truly national work, The Divinities of Albion, of Galaxy Gallery of British Beauty, representing ladies of title and fashion in every variety of smirk that art, combined with capital, is capable of producing. With these magnificent portraits, unworthily confined in a band-box during his seclusion among the market-gardens, he decorates his apartment; and as the Galaxy Gallery of British Beauty wears every variety of fancy-dress, plays every variety of musical instrument, fondles every variety of dog, ogles every variety of prospect, and is backed up by every variety of flower-pot and balustrade, the result is very imposing.
But, fashion is Mr. Weevle's, as it was Tony Jobling's weakness. To borrow yesterday's paper from the Sol's Arms of an evening, and read about the brilliant and distinguished meteors that are shooting across the fashionable sky in every direction, is unspeakable consolation to him. To know what member of what brilliant and distinguished circle accomplished the brilliant and distinguished feat of joining it yesterday, or contemplates the no less brilliant feat of leaving it to-morrow, gives him a thrill of joy. To be informed what the Galaxy Gallery of British Beauty is about, and means to be about, and what Galaxy rumours are in circulation, is to become acquainted with the most glorious destinies of mankind. Mr. Weevle reverts from this intelligence, to the Galaxy portraits implicated; and seems to know the originals, and to be known of them.
For the rest he is a quiet lodger, full of handy shifts and devices as before mentioned, able to cook and clean for himself as well as to carpenter, and developing social inclinations after the shades of evening have fallen on the court. At those times, when he is not visited by Mr. Guppy, or by a small light in his likeness quenched in a dark hat, he comes out of his dull room—where he has inherited the deal wilderness of desk bespattered with a rain of ink—and talks to Krook, or is "very free," as they call it in the court, commendingly, with any one disposed for conversation. Wherefore, Mrs. Piper, who leads the court, is impelled to offer two remarks for Mrs. Perkins: Firstly, that if her Johnny was to have whiskers, she could wish 'em to be identically like that young man's; and secondly, Mark my words, Mrs. Perkins, ma'am, and don't you be surprised Lord bless you, if that young man comes in at last for Krook's money!
That the low-budget sci-fi thriller refuses to die remains, I think, a heartening state of affairs; that the low-budget sci-fi thriller insists on touting its ostensible high-mindedness, on the other hand, is something of a problem. My review of Gareth Edwards' Monsters, for MSN Movies, elaborates.
I saw Lena Dunham's debut feature Tiny Furniture back in late August, thought slightly well of it with some qualifications, and wrote about it here. Since that time I don't think half a week has gone by without my getting an invitation to yet another screening of the film. Some of these are special screenings, which see Furniture writer-director-star Lena Dunham and some of her colleagues hosted by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, or MOMA, or Her Serene Highness The Princess of Monaco, or some fucking person/thing or other. Very festive, and I don't go; because I've seen the film already.But the invites keep on coming, to the extent that I'm beginning to doubt whether IFC actually intends to really open the film theatrically. An interesting marketing strategy, for sure, if that's the case, but let's not get ahead of ourselves.
In any event, I suppose IFC's persistence with the screenings is paying off in some respects, as it's succeeded in attracting at least one internet film writer who normally expresses little to no interest in Films Made By And About Young Jobless Urban Americans. I speak, of course, of my colleague and sometimes traveling companion Jeffrey Wells, who saw it the other night and who, in the fashion of Mikey in those Life commercials, liked it. "Dunham is a fine, real-deal actress. I liked her right away, and believed her acting to the extent that it didn't feel like 'acting'," Wells writes. And it's funny, he and I have never discussed his feelings concerning James Mason and...oh, never mind. Anyway. In between a sentence that would make James Agee, Manny Farber, and Otis Ferguson proud were they alive to read it (that would be "The undertones felt a bit lezzy sometimes, but not in a pronounced way") and the obligatory rumination on Dunham's looks (she used to be a chunkster, but she's taken off a little weight, yeah, yeah; down, boy), Wells delivers his verdict on the film's main male characters: "The two guys are 'nice' and interesting to talk to, but they're both kind of into themselves and really not much of a catch." To which I reacted (once I wrapped my head around the weird case issues in that sentence), "What the—?"
Interesting to learn what Jeff considers nice, or "nice," because as far as I was concerned the male love interests of the film, such as they were, constituted pretty much the most repellent white male characters in cinema who aren't Charles Manson in Helter Skelter. Okay, that's an exaggeration—neither of these characters has the energy to contrive mass murder, really—but it's not a stretch to say that these two fellows could just as well have been named "Douche 1" and "Douche 2." There's Jed, the perpetually broke, snide mooch portrayed by Alex Karpovsky, and there's the even more despicable "chef" Keith (David Call), who's got a girlfriend, and is clearly mostly interested in manipulating Dunham's character into stealing pills for him, and whom Wells allows is "a bit of a dick." A bit? Man. These characters make a convincing case that not only is chivalry dead among male heterosexuals in their twenties, but that actual, you know, conversation is as well. These are cats whose idea of a romantic dinner is probably rest-stop Arby's in a drainage ditch. I gathered that part of the film's whole point was that its lead character Aura was sufficiently beaten down—by her self-image, her privileged but non-enriching circumstances, and her uncertainty on "life" "direction"—that these losers came to look like desirable/viable choices to her, and that was part of the film's poignancy. But what do I know? Jeff Wells thought they were "nice."
Incidentally, Wells' commentariat, inasmuch as it weighed in, seemed less than impressed with either the prospect of seeing the film or the film itself as seen. "...middling 'woe-is-me' young-ish, white person of privilege film...", "rich entitled New York douchebag translates her money and connections into a career by crapping out shallow self referential garbage...", "once you've stripped mined [sic] what little your 20-something life has to offer, that vein is tapped out..." Wow. Some very bitter characters over there, huh? But this speaks, I think, to a real problem facing younger filmmakers of this vein, such as it is, or the vein represented by Kentucker Audley's recent Open Five; for all the critical plaudits such films garner, they are often met with reflexive suspicion and/or outright hostility not just by, say, bitter old people, but by potential members of their ostensible target audience who, rather than seeing artful depictions of situations they can "relate" to, see wasteful indulgences. I just wrote "for all the critical plaudits such films garner," but in fact part of the problem can be brought on by such plaudits, which can look like addled overkill or self-interested special pleading. And that's all I've got to say about that, at the moment. (Except that I am tickled by my pal Richard Brody's description of Open Five's Jake Rabinbach as a "rocker;" the guy looks like he'd drop dead of a heart attack forty seconds into a Mission of Burma number...a slow Mission of Burma number...) For the micro-indie filmmaker who's not promoting his or her work as a ticket into the mainstream (which Dunham herself is, as her recent deals with Judd Apatow, HBO, and Scott Rudin indicate), genuine audience-building remains a huge challenge.
One imagines that certain Ingmar Bergman skeptics and out-and-out detractors might find cause to term his 1958 picture Ansiktet, also known as The Face, and released in the United States as The Magician, as the writer/director's first substantive self-pity party. Because it is, for all intents and purposes, something of a parable of The Misunderstood Artist. Max von Sydow stars as Vogler, a self-proclaimed—well, not really self-proclaimed, as he pretends to be mute, but he has a spieler who extols his abilities, and loud—mesmerist who works a variety of mysterious and mind-boggling entertainment miracles in an appropriately chiaroscuro-laden 19th-century landscape, via the appropriately mystifying-by-19th-century-standards powers of "magnetism." He and his troupe are waylaid by an impetuous petit-bourgeouis bureaucrat and a pompous, sadistic rationalist physician determined to expose Vogler as a charlatan. Vogler's "art," such as it is, is eventually both vindicated and revealed as "mere" trickery; and Vogler himself, stripped of all his artifices, is revealed as something of a pathetic, grasping figure, more or less reliant on the credulity and/or kindness of the strangers he bamboozles as he and his entourage shamble from one engagement to the next.
"Didn't I do everything in my power to make you feel something?" Vogler begs of his former tormentors directly prior to the film's final and supremely ironic reversal of fortune. Concocting this picture in the wake of The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries could have struck some as an odd way to complete a hat trick, but it is in fact a splendid one—although it's even more splendid if one forces one to see it more or less out of its context. Because in fact whatever self-referentiality it contains needs neither redemption nor justification (although Bergman's splendid prose account of/apologia for the film, from his book Images: My Life In Film, and included in the booklet of the new Criterion Collection edition, provides ample supporting evidence for any such case); and also because, viewed without such stuff in mind, The Magician works like the devil as a fleet, witty, atmospheric entertainment, something of a Bergman genre film as it were (as The Seventh Seal also is, in a way), a sometimes faux-gloomy jest that recalls certain of the vintage Universal horrors as it does Seastrom's The Phantom Carriage and other Nordic touchstones. Its narrative briskness and stiff spine is matched by a loose-limbed playfulness beautifully embodied in the utterly unconvincing way gorgeous Ingrid Thulin attempts to impersonate a teenage boy (she is in fact Vogler's wife). The film feels more alive than most period pieces of the contemporary cinema.
This past July marked the third anniversary of Bergman's death, and the continuing—as opposed to waning—fact of his stature as a cinematic master makes Jonathan Rosenbaum's new-conventional-wisdom op-ed in the Times in the wake of the filmmaker's death seem even more churlish than had likely been intended. With a "case closed" confidence, Rosenbaum stated,"The hard fact is, Mr. Bergman isn’t being taught in film courses or debated by film buffs with the same intensity as Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles and Jean-Luc Godard. His works are seen less often in retrospectives and on DVD than those of Carl Dreyer and Robert Bresson — two master filmmakers widely scorned as boring and pretentious during Mr. Bergman’s heyday." I've never quite gotten over that last bit, which seems to blame Bergman for the scorn straw man Rosenbaum erects. But the more germane self-satisfied faux-"tant pis" occurs earlier in the piece, with Rosenbaum's oh-gee-isn't-that-tough-luck shrug, "Like many of [Bergman's] films, 'The Magician' hasn’t been widely available here for ages." But—ooops!—here's The Magician on DVD, on Criterion no less, in a gorgeous restoration that gives amazing solidity and depth to Gunnar Fischer's black-and-white images—I was practically hypnotized by the steely frames of the eyeglasses worn by Naima Wifstrand's crone and Gunnar Björnstrand's inquisitor. And there's a major Bergman retrospective at, which moved Mike D'Angelo in the L.A. Weekly to insist that coming to grips with Bergman is a necessary "rite of passage" for the "budding cinephile." That doesn't sound like much fun, mind you, but it does sound important. "Like almost any other significant, prolific artist," D'Angelo, slightly adopting Rosenbaum's shrug, proclaimed, early in September, "Bergman produced both towering masterpieces and self-indulgent drivel." There's a different kind of confidence at work in that assessment; as much as I might dislike or object to a particular work of Bergman's or a particular aspect of a Bergman work, I've never been sure that I could apprehend it well enough to dismiss it, literally, as drivel; for me in this respect it's a case of not having enough context. Is the monologue on Mozart from Hour of the Wolf, which Bille August later transposed to A Song For Martin, inspired musicological analysis or just something that sounds nice? I can't rightly say. But someday I may learn. Until that point, I believe that we'll continue to keep arguing about, and learning from, the great Ingmar. And, yes, actually enjoying a good deal of his work. As you should definitely do with this really great disc of The Magician.
I don't make a habit of promoting such stuff, but I'm actually a little bit awestruck by the new wrinkle Warner is adding to its long-standing "trade your old Warner DVD for a Blu-ray version of same" policy (UPDATE: that policy having, I remembered after posting, pertained to trading in old HD format discs for Blu-rays as those became available; ought to have been clearer on that, I see now), for a limited time: now, you can trade ANY professionally pre-recorded DVD that's not porn (wonder what the policy is on those Joe Sarno Seduction Cinema titles, not that I'm contemplating giving those up...) for a Warner Blu-ray disc for only $4.95. And you get free shipping on orders that add up to over $35. The catch, such as it is, is in the selection of Blu-rays; there are only 100 titles offered for trade. But a lot of them are, as they say, cherce, including An American In Paris, The Wild Bunch, Rio Bravo, Superman II, and more. I myself am contemplating cleaning up and sprucing up my own library in just this way. Seems like an easy enough process, too. Just go to the "DVD2Blu" page, which will get you started. Let me know what you're trading and what for.