So I'm at the gym yesterday, and I'm on the elliptical, because goddamnit, the cold weather really makes my whole hamstring issue more irritating, and I'm reasonably content, and on one of the gym's monitors TNT or whoever is screening Catch Me If You Can, which I'm fine with, because, you know, it's a really good and maybe even great movie. So. It's early in the picture and there's that scene where Frank Sr. and Frank Jr. try to pull that scam at the bank, and as their car goes around the corner to pull up at the bank I see that Duane Reade storefront and I wonder if it's actually period-accurate (the scene is set in the early '60s), and then it hits me; that Duane Reade is a real store and still there, because it's at the intersection of Court and Joralemon in Brooklyn, which means that the building I am in at the very moment I am watching that vintage car in a 2002 movie turn the corner of that intersection is just a hair outside of the frame on the left hand side, because my gym is pretty much two doors up from the corner of the south side of that intersection on Joralemon.
The location holds for a subsequent shot of stars Christopher Walken and Leonardo DiCaprio:
So while I am on an elliptical machine in the year 2012, two floor down and less than a football field's length east of where I exercise, DiCaprio and Walken stand in the year 2002 enacting a scene recreating events of 1963. How freaky is that?
I was going to point this out to other denizens of the gym, but I've already got kind of a "that guy" rep over there.
"Teachers of Literature are apt to think up such problems as 'What is the author's purpose' or still worse 'What is the guy trying to say?'"—Vladimir Nabokov, "On a Book Entitled Lolita," 1957
"Spielberg’s movies are undeniably powerful. His films function as supreme audience entertainments, almost by definition. But when I revisited them, I wanted to find their ideas: What, after all these features, has Spielberg really said?"—Bill Wyman, "I Watched Every Spielberg Movie," Slate, January 30, 2012
Every film is somehow circumscribed, if not defined, by the conditions of its making, and of course by the conditions of its makers. A big part of what makes Lionel Ragosin's 1959 Come Back, Africa so engaging and fascinating has to do with the multiple factors that circumscribe it. Rogosin, a white American with a passion for social issues, had made his first picture, 1956's On The Bowery, at least in part as a kind of rehearsal/training ground for this subsequent picture. Bowery is a rich, raw, and sometimes almost semingly deliberately clumsy exploration of alcoholic misery that has precedents in both Brecht and early Rossellini. Come Back, Africa would use a similar strategy under far more risky conditions. For after scouting their locations and performers, Rogosin had to wrangle official permissions to film in Johannesburg, and he certainly wouldn't get it from the government by telling it the truth about what he wanted to do. So he pitched it as a musical documentary about "happy natives." And truth to tell, there's an awful lot of music in the finished film, all of it wonderful—a favorite bit has a group of buskers on a sidewalk playing Elvis's "Teddy Bear" in an exuberant township-inflected version. But it sure isn't about "happy natives." Rogosin and company concocted a narrative concerning one particularly unlucky black from Zululand. Zacharia is bounced from job to job, hassled by racist white employers, menacing township gang leaders, papers-demanding cops, and more. He goes from mines to domestic work to destitution trying to hold his small family together. He finds occasional solace in late-night drinking and talk sessions with angry township artists and intellectuals, and it's during one of these evenings that a young woman named Miriam drops by and favors the guys with a couple of songs.
Miriam is, of course, Miriam Makeba, and it's bracing and a little surprising to see her in this context, before she was elevated to the position of the musical conscience of South Africa. While ever a wonderful, illuminating, and engaging performer, here she has an earthiness and a a sensuality that was somewhat subsumed, in subsequent years, by the message of her music. Because the segments of Come Back, Africa that treated the film's actual theme had to be shot in secret, and because its "actors" were in substantial part not performers at all, there's a kind of provisional feel to the acting in the film that both underscores the film's didactic (and I mean that word in the best sense) mission and also adds to its emotional power—you get the feeling that pretty much everyone involved is acting on behalf of his or her own life. Which of course is the case.
And that's even more awe-inspiring, when you think about it, than the film's time-capsule value, which is considerable. Rogosin's individual images of dusty Soweto and the teeming mines are striking and poignant, but the views of the center of workday Johannesburg are the most disarming and, finally, unsettling. The cars, the clothes, all very indicative of a completely up-to-date metropolitan locale. One big movie theater's showing The Prisoner of Zenda, another is showing Fiend Without A Face. It's almost nostalgia-inducing, until you remember that this is Johannesburg...apartheid central. And then it hits you that, lack of particular skyscrapers aside, the place doesn't look all that much different than pictures of New York City in the same period. And that's terrifying.
Come Back, Africa plays at New York's Film Forum through February 7. Go see it if you can, and look for the Milestone release in an arthouse near you. I'm sure a DVD is forthcoming. Martin Scorsese speaks the truth when he calls this "a heroic film."
Apparently the Internet believes that anyone who accesses it is some kind of a human content maw that requires endless feeding, because there's really no other way to explain the reason that Oscar coverage proliferates like poison ivy despite the fact that said coverage almost invariably obsesses over how lame the Oscars are. I don't often point to myself as a positive example in any respect, but after Ordinary People...well, I don't need to go on, do I? (And yes, before you contemplate getting shirty about it in comments, Ordinary People is, by a certain yardstick, not a bad, or "bad," movie. All right?) After that, "Won't Get Fooled Again" became my Oscar theme song and, until such point as watching the ceremony became something like a professional obligation, I didn't let it trouble me.
Recently the internet film journalist/gadfly Jeffrey Wells complained that the film producer Gavin Polone was usurping his (Wells') curmodgeonly throne by deigning to outline for New York magazine what he considered to be the problem with the Oscar "farce," as he calls it. Polone's piece is quite the earnest little finger-wag (were you aware, incidentally, that the Miss America pageant is "misogynistic?" Man!), and I suppose we're all supposed to be impressed that a MAJOR HOLLYWOOD PRODUCER is waxing so frank on the irrelevance of the event. Watch as he throws down about acceptance speeches: "by the third speech of someone thanking his spouse, agent, manager, psychic, dog walker, and the person who clears his chakras, I am always bored and left wondering why he couldn’t just have a private conversation with the person to whom he wishes to express his gratitude, and then find something more interesting or entertaining to talk about on television."
Yes, God forbid anyone should bore the eternally tetchy Polone. Anyone remember that great profile of him in the New York Times Magazine some years ago, in which he volunteered that he and his girlfriend would never have children because the human race sucks and it's better to rescue dogs or something, and how he and said girlfriend were such monkish ascetics in spite of their Hollywood riches that they regularly breakfasted on DIRT (or wheatgrass or wheat germ or something like that, I forget what) and so on? Yeah, that makes it pretty funny that HE should be bitching about people who believe in chakras. Polone is somewhat more interesting on how awards actually skew the business itself, so at least he's complaining about something he has an actual stake in. Somewhat more mystifying is the "Fix The Oscars" interactive thingie going on at Slate, overseen by the ever-engaging Dan Kois, wherein readers and Slate's own delightfully insouciant contrarians offer exciting suggestions on how to make the televised ceremony less stodgy and dull.
Thing is, the Academy Awards have ALWAYS been largely stodgy and dull; their whole reason for being, the initial screwing-over-organized-labor thing aside, was to confer a certain air of respectability to the filmmaking industry. One watched the awards at least in part to have a lit of a laugh over the extent to which they didn't get it. Hell, even the streaker who "disrupted" the 1974 ceremony was at least a few months behind the curve, as it were. This is acknowledged right off the bat in the intro to the Slate thingie: "Academy Awards ceremonies are laughable, even to those of us who love them." This admission begs several questions, but the answers have less to do with the actual Awards than with the civilians who believe they can improve them. They are film lovers, but not in that starry-eyed way; they have gone on record that talk of the "magic" of cinema makes them break out in hives. No, what's most important to them is their vitality in terms of identifying trends, staying on top of the latest modes of snark, embodying a sensibility that makes them not the ideal Entertainment Weekly reader but some form of an ideal Entertainment Weekly senior editor if Entertainment Weekly were still hiring, or ever likely to hire again. BUT. These people, who still talk of drinking games despite being at least a decade and a half out of college, who still bleg for recommendations of karaoke bars, are intuiting that their time in a desired or even really respected demographic ain't long. No, their coronaries are not coming like Christmas (H/T: Phillip Larkin), no, not quite yet, but they understand that they are approaching a certain age. And so are their children. They will soon be past the age when they're complaining about their snooty friends and Phineas and Ferb and one day they will wake up and not only despise the parents they were once coddled into unconditionally adoring but they will also deem all of the enthusiasms of said parents irredeemably quaint, and WORSE, they will unerringly regard every effort their parents make to adopt enthusiasms of a more contemporary variety as entirely pathetic and feeble. And as their (the parents', that is) waistlines grow even puffier and their hair thinner, the only thing that they (the parents, that is) will be able to cling to with any kind of demonstrable credibility whatsoever will be their claim that they are indeed "hipper," if not actually more "relevant," than the Academy Awards.
And then, like you, me, and Gavin Polone, they will die.
"It's not an accident that the prank caller preys on a fast food joint, the province of minimum wage workers supervised by dues-paying lifers. Not only are even those at the top of this food chain unlikely to be well-educated, but everyone from the top to the bottom likely needs their job too much to risk questioning authority."—Karina Longworth, "Sundance Film Festival 2012: Beasts of the Southern Wild and Compliance,"L.A. Weekly, online editon, January 25, 2012
"16. How many times in the last year have you eaten at one of the following restaurant chains? Applebee’s, Wafﬂe House, Denny’s, IHOP,Chili’s, Outback Steakhouse, Ruby Tuesday, T.G.I. Friday’s, Ponderosa Steakhouse.
"Four points maximum. Score a point for each time you ate at one of them up to 4.
"However much they disapprove of fast food in theory and restrict their visits, almost all members of the new upper class at least know what the inside of a McDonald’s looks like. But how about the chains of sit-down restaurants that form such an inte-gral part of life in most of America? The nine I listed are the ones with the most outlets in the United States.
"I could not get statistics on meals served by them, but given that these nine chains had revenues of more than $12 billion in 2009 (probably much more),and all of that comes from dinner checks that ran around $5 to $25 per person, the aggregate number of meals served by just the top nine chains has to be in the high hundreds of millions, at least.
"Why a list of nine chains instead of the more natural top ten? Because one of the top ten is Chipotle Mexican Grill, which is to the casual-dining genre of restaurants as Whole Foods is to grocery stores." —Charles Murray, from Chapter 4, "How Thick Is Your Bubble?,"Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, Crown Forum, 2012.
It's interesting that he began his career as an almost relentlessly contemporary kind of actor, known for his radical reinventions within the classics; and that, as far as his film work is concerned, he's best remembered for seemingly unselfconscious, very lived-in portrayals of legendary characters that are all the more timeless for their, well, coziness. It's lamentable that a good deal of his film work is either accessible to us only in indifferent iterations (The Seven Percent Solution may not warrant Criterion treatment, but still...) or hardly at all (he's really wonderful in Preminger's odd and oddly affecting The Human Factor, and I've never been able to see Richardson's Laughter in the Dark). Williamson spent the last fifteen years out of the film world, working on his music (which I'm curious to hear), and he was missed, and he will be missed more.
Spoiler alert: Both of the linked texts fall into the category of writing about writing or reviews of reviewers or what have you, and specifically deal with ruminations published on Slate. If such content tends to not appeal to you, you might not want to check out either of the recommended pieces. But, you know, if it DOES appeal: