I was honored to be asked to write this essay on Martin Scorsese for Humanities magazine, in commemoration of Scorsese's delivering the 2013 Jefferson Lecture in Humanities. I'm happy with how it came out. Hope you enjoy it.
I'll admit that I got Planet of the Apes much more than I got 2001: A Space Odyssey in the year I first saw both films, which was in fact the year of their releases, that is, 1968. I have no problem admitting this because I was eight years old going on nine at the time, and of course it totally follows that what Planet of the Apes was selling was a lot easier to "get" for an eight-year-old. That said, I will tell you that I can still remember, without googling, the name of the then-15-year-old prodigy who wrote an exegesis on the Kubrick film that inspired Stanley himself to rave: "What a first-rate intelligence," that name being Margaret Stackhouse. I read about her, and her writings on the film, in that sui generis mass-market paperback The Making of "2001: A Space Odyssey" and have been nursing a major inferiority complex ever since.
Anyway, back to Apes. Yeah (SPOILER ALERT), the Statue of Liberty. That really messed our minds up but good. But even more nightmare fuel came with Beneath The Planet of the Apes,the bleakest, creepiest, most outright sad and nihilistic of the series. I'll never shake the mental picture that forms my recollection of Chuck Heston pressing down on the button that will bring nuclear ruin to our planet YET AGAIN, his actul heart seeming to beat its last as he holds it in his actual hand (the one that's not pressing on the big button) even as he does so. Fucked up, man. Weirder still is that this truly inspired and Dante-esque vision occurs in what is for all intents and purposes a completely tossed-off sequel directed by Ted Post, a guy I identified as a hack of hacks when trying to discern just what it was that distinguished Magnum Force from Dirty Harry. Just goes to prove what the surrealists said about how you never really can tell about these things.
So of course I was hooked on the Apes saga, such as it was, but it isn't as if I didn't notice when the series shifted from a Heston/James Franciscus focus to a Roddy McDowell one. Nothing against Roddy, of course. But still. It was interesting to see how the subsequent films found themselves inadvertently balancing overt cheese with very confused ruminations on present-day "Black Power" activity. We continued to want to believe, but I dunno, Ricardo Montalban as a kindly circus chimp handler wasn't really making it for me. By the time Battle came out, this then-13-year-old just couldn't take it seriously. Wouldn't it be amusing, I thought, if the Apes films were made into an opera cycle, like that Ring thing? "This is the battle for the battle for the battle for the battle for the planet of the apes!" I sang, to the tune of the overture of Bizet's Carmen. "With Caesar as our leader/we know we cannot fail/For with Caesar as our leader/we found the Holy Grail!" I further extemporized. Why not? Since this was to be an operatic work in the Wagnerian tradition, it made sense to link it back to certain themes in that composer's work. As you can imagine, I raised a bit of an eyebrow when I saw that Simpsons episode with the Planet of the Apes musical in it. I am reasonably sure that nobody I went to Dumont High School with went on to write for The Simpsons.
Anyway...I'm not a religious man, but I always thought that a remake of the first Planet of the Apes film was kind of a lousy idea for the simple reason that it represented an irreproducible result. It's like at the end of the 1957 Looney Tune Show Biz Bugs where Daffy finally elicits applause from the vaudeville house audience by, as the saying goes, suiciding right on the stage; as his soul ascends to heaven (surely that can't be correct?) he laments to Bugs that the problem with this trick is that you can only do it once. Hence the essential uselessness of the Burton version, even though everyone is clearly putting something resembling their best foot forward. As for Beneath, I don't know that Hollywood would have the balls to even try, recollecting that the motivating factor behind the original was less balls than profit taking. But the subsequent Apes films strike me on principle as recombinant fair game. Still, I wasn't expecting much of anything from Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which is one reason it's one of the most pleasant surprises of the summer. Another reason is because it's kind of awesome. I wasn't able to discuss it in these terms in my review of the film for MSN Movies, but as you are know doubt aware, I've seen a fair amount of films, and one side effect of that is I don't get a whole lot of "holy shit!" moments in a theater anymore. And by "'holy shit!' moments" I mean parts where I'm watching the film and something happens and I go back in my seat and I say, "Holy shit!" Hopefully not too loud because I don't like to disturb my fellow moviegoers. Anyway, I recall counting at least four "Holy shit!" moments watching this. That's one for every $2.50 or so of your moviegoing dollars. Not bad.
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Is Alexander Mackendrick's 1957 The Sweet Smell of Success really a film noir? The Clifford Odets-Ernest Lehman scripted picture isn't a crime movie per se, although it does feature a supremely slimy corrupt cop, a very nasty frame-up, intimations of incestuous feelings, and a constant stream of back-and-forth recriminations and resentments and sublimations of guilt and obsessions that it can't really be anything BUT a noir, can it? As The Siren herself put it when I was hashing out with her whether I was gonna discuss this picture for her and Marilyn Ferdinand's very worthy blogathon, "you've got fate, dark deeds, twisted motives, great shadowy cinematography, what's not to noir?"
Right. Of course there's also the problem that Sweet Smell has already been written about pretty much to death, and if you're a fan of it (and good lord, if you're not a fan of it, what are you doing reading this blog?) basically all you want to know about it right now is how good the new Criterion discs of it (standard def and Blu-ray editions) are, and they are very damn good indeed, by my estimation. In any event, there really isn't, to my mind, all that much new to say about the picture...unless I bring things into the putatively actual, and possibly personal.
The picture establishes its snappy, practically breakneck, pace—and seedy/glamorous Manhattan milieu—in its credit sequence, which shows us a bustling Times Square as the latest editions of the Globe, the paper for which columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) acts as "The Eyes of Broadway," are loaded onto trucks that will deliver that edition far and wide...and, in one case, to a newsstand literally around the corner from these loading docks, before the feet of hungry press agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis), who will be quite disappointed to see and mention of his clientele once again absent from Hunsecker's jottings. The avid amateur historian of New Amsterdam will know that newsstand is literally around the corner via a visual parsing of the locations captured by Mackendrick and James Wong Howe for their montage. By gum, those docks look very much like the ones that were on the ground floor of the old New York Times building on West 43rd Street between Broadway/7th Avenue and Eighth Avenue. There they are from street level facing west, behind Curtis' credit.
If we need any further confirmation of the location, it's provided within a couple of shots; the visual closer is hard to catch when watching the film in a theater, but easy to nail with the tech capabilities of DVD. The trucks of "The Globe" have big ads on their sides advertising Hunsecker's column; but the prop department didn't cover every truck at that loading dock. And as one of the trucks moves out, another truck is visible...
...and this truck bears a plaque with the New York Times' "All The News That's Fit To Print" motto, and an advertisement for that paper.
...and off the truck goes.
"I love this dirty town," Hunsecker famously intones a little later in the film, outside and a little down the block from the still-extant restaurant "21," over on 52nd Street. The town would get a lot dirtier in the coming years, and the trucks leaving the Times' loading dock would get a lot bigger. Across the street from the Times' building was a hotel first known as the Dixie, and then known as the Carter (and no, I'm not making that up); never exactly the Waldorf-Astoria, it was for a time the home of the frequently down-on-his-luck writer and race enthusiast known as Colonel Stingo, immortalized by A.J. Liebling in his wonderful book The Honest Rainmaker. By the early 1990s, what had been the hotel's ballroom, I presume, had become one of New York's truly great trannie dives, Sally's II, yclept Sally's Hideaway. It opened its doors at around five o'clock every afternoon, around the time the vast majority of the isle's transgendered population was just getting out of bed, really, save for a handful of stalwart gals whose circumstances necessitated a slight boost of spring to the step. Okay, I'm exaggerating/romanticizing a bit, but you get the idea. While a fair amount of business, that is, hustling, went on at Sally's from the late rush hour onward, its main function was as a place for the indigenous community, such as it was, to socialize. Which also kind of made it a great place for a non-transgendered heavy drinker and substance abuser to isolate, and watch life's rich and strange pageant go by. And so I did, on way too many nights than I sometimes care to recall.
For the trannie prostitute, Sally's was the prelude to Edelweiss, down the way west, next to the diner on 43rd Street and 11th Avenue, which was much more of a "real" nightclub, and had a more sex-tourist/regular-tourist friendly vibe to it. A friend of mine from the transgender world had strong connections to the larger demi-monde, and was frequently asked to act as docent to the celebrity class in their quasi-slumming activities; one night he was deputized with squiring Tim Burton, then-cohort Lisa Marie (this was 1996, around the time of Mars Attacks!), and Francis Ford Coppola to Edelweiss to see the gorgeous dancing Dominican not-girls. Lisa Marie went down a storm with the queens, as you might imagine; Coppola, apparently, walked around marveling at how "theatrical" it all was, and was frequently mistaken for a potential john by some of the working girls, on account of his having kept his overcoat on for the whole visit. Anyway. So on a particularly lucky night, any given girl working at Sally's could hook either a regular client or a new friend and get him to shell out consistent cash for blow, and drinks, and possibly some partying later. This entailed sticking around for the evening "show" at Sally's (lip-syncing in fabulous gowns, natch; my Southern belle pal Miss Gina Germaine really sold Reba McIntire's "Fancy," as you might imagine), waiting around for whoever was dealing the always badly stepped-on coke to show up, and, after that transaction was completed, skipping down to Edelweiss for several nightcaps or more blow or someone to bring to the party later or whatever. Except. (I bet you were wondering where the hell this was leading, right?) If you'd try to catch a cab from Sally's to Edelweiss between one and two-thirty or three in the morning, chances are you'd have to wait outside for some time, because taxi traffic was frequently halted by the fleet of now eighteen-wheeled trucks backing in and pulling out of the Times' loading docks. This activity led to considerable interludes of anxiety for both hunter and game, hustler and hustled; if the john started feeling pangs of conscience (I probably don't need to tell you that good number of these fellows were leading some form of a double life) or, you know, budgetary concerns, this break in the momentum of their, um, headlong rush into sybaritic degradation could conceivably provide them with an exit strategy, escape hatch, what have you. And the queen, left in a relative lurch, would have relatively short notice from then until closing time (which really just meant a dash to some after-hours joint in many cases) to find another sugar daddy for the evening.
Yeah, it sure was a dirty town, and it still is, but not that way, not anymore. I always thought it was not insignificant that Sally's was padlocked for good on November 13, 1997, the night of the official opening of The Lion King. The photographer Brian Lantelme has a reasonably fabulous website commemorating the joint here. Its contents are not thoroughly NSFW, but still...you might be the type who worries that your work cohorts will take you for a trannie-chaser. Some of the people pictured therein are still my friends; and too many of those pictured therein have died.
In my below-cited-and-linked review of No Strings Attached for MSN Movies, I refer to the film as "yet another these-two-wacky-kids-belong-together-and-they're-the-last-ones-to-know-it narrative." WHich, it occurs to me now, makes it sound like I'm judging. Which I am, of course, but the problem is that there's nothing really inherently wrong with the narrative per se, or with its predictability. In fact you could go so far as to say that it is the rock upon which the church of the American cinematic romantic comedy was built. Indeed, the semiotics of stardom were such that in 1940, I imagine that you could guess exactly who was gonna end up with whom at the end of His Girl Friday just be reading the names of the leads: Cary Grant (duh), Rosalind Russell, and Ralph Bellamy. Was poor Ralph's place as the nice fellow who never gets the girl quite so firmly established at this point? Wasn't there, don't know. But I presume so. Thus, it's almost axiomatic, I suppose, that the mediocrity of No Strings Attached can't be ascribed to its predictability.
One thing that distinguishes a great romantic comedy such as His Girl Friday from a mediocre one such as No Strings Attached is perversity. No Strings Attached has none. In a way, watching the new film is like watching the ridiculous ending of Gilda stretched out to nearly two hours. For all the hot-and-heavy sort of free-loving and embarrassingly "frank" talk going on during the film's main section, the ultimate point is that Kutcher and Portman's characters, besides being human and needing to be loved just like everybody else does, are at heart just two healthy American kids who believe in monogamy and marriage and all that kind of good stuff. Things are a bit different in His Girl Friday. Walter Neff and Hildy Johnson "belong" together, all right, because at heart they're both driven neurotic messes who are in true fact married to their rather filthy profession. Hildy's betrothal to Ralph Bellamy's nice but rather boring Bruce is her last stab at a "normal," or what the college kids call "normative," life. The film's "happy" ending—the image above is from the final shot of the picture—consists of Walter winning Hildy back and, immediately upon doing so, conning her out of their honeymoon, detouring their trip to Niagara Falls to Albany so Hildy can cover a strike up there. Bliss.
Edgar Wright's Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, which I do think of as a romantic comedy, and a good one, has a similarly foreordained "gets the girl" ending, which sticks in some folks' craw, as they think that Scott's a bit of a callow jerk who doesn't deserve to get the girl, and also because he was so shitty to Knives, who's so sweet and young and so on. I wasn't particularly bothered by this aspect of the film largely because I was so delighted by its comic inventiveness and overall sense of play that, to be completely honest, the emotional content of the picture never really hooked into me. But I believe that the filmmakers were not at all unaware of all this, and I think in fact in a sense the film's final shot, seen below, addresses the issue of potential audience dissatisfaction with the happy ending...
...and Dennis Cozzalio, who was one of the people initially befuddled by Pilgrim, discusses it with director Edgar Wright in a really fun interview over at Dennis' exceptional blog, Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule, which is over on my blogroll, there.
It's taken me a while to get to it, but right now I'm enjoying the hell out of Jimmy Breslin's brisk, droll The Good Rat, which is, among other things, a kind of summation of a lifetime of crime reporting. I was particularly tickled by this passage on the sloth of the typical gangster:
These people are not attracted to work even in illegitimate places. Sal Reale had his airline workers' union office just outside Kennedy, and it was all right, except he had to hire people highly recommended by the Gambino family. Sal had a list of employees' credentials. Typical was:
"Harry D's son-in-law—$200G"
"Harry D's wife—$150 G"
Each morning the list ruled the office, particularly when work orders started to fill the in baskets.
"The morning starts with sixty-two people in the office," Sal recalls. "By ten o'clock there were twelve people working. We had a lot of paperwork. You had to fill out insurance forms, various federal formseverything you think of that they could put down on paper. We were left with twelve people to do the work. Where did the others go? Here's a woman who gets up, picks up her purse, an walks past me without even nodding. I call after her, 'Couldn't you give us a hand?' She says, 'I was told I didn't have to do any of this work. I have to get my hair done. I'm Paul Vario's cousin.'"
As the Mafia "dissolves," Breslin continues, "you inspect if for what it actually was, grammar-school dropouts who kill each other and purport to live by codes from the hills of Sicily that are either unintelligible or ignored."
It lasted longest in film and print, through the false drama of victims' being shot gloriously with machine guns but without the usual exit wounds the size of a soup plate. The great interest in the Mafia was the result of its members being so outrageously disdainful of all rules that just the sight of a mobster caused gleeful whispers. Somebody writing for a living could find it extremely difficult to ignore them
The Mafia became part of public belief because of movie stars who were Jewish. This dark fame began with Paul Muni playing Al Capone. After that came Edward G. Robinson, Tony Curtis, Lee Strasberg, Alan King, and on and on, part of an entire industry of writers, editors, cameramen, directors, gofers, lighting men, sound men, location men, casting agents—all on the job and the payroll because of the Mafia. Finally two great actors, Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino, put a vowel in there.
One could cinephile-nitpick, but the core conceit is sound. What's interesting to my mind is that The Godfather doesn't turn into anything less than a great film even with the knowledge that its core assumptions as they pertain to the reality that inspired it are, as it happens, utter horseshit. And I think Breslin understands that too. And even the mob movie that comes closest to showing "grammar school dropouts who kill each other," Scorsese's Goodfellas, can't quite scrub its characters clean of the movie-star veneer of a certain glamour that they carry. Part of the glamour, of course, is embedded in the wickedness of their actions: the outrageous disdain for the rules that so appeals, in a sense, to some part of all our ids. It's refreshing that Breslin has the good sense to call the popular culture depiction of mobsters out, but not get into much of a lather over it.
This evening's too-rare U.S. screening of Chantal Akerman's wonderful 2000 La Captive at New York's Alliance Française has occasioned some new and interesting contemplations of the film, which Akerman freely but in her way quite faithfully adapted from Proust's La Prisoniere. My reason for chiming in here is just to note, in a friendly way, that these contemplations miss one crucial thing, that is, that the film is rather mordantly hilarious almost throughout, at least until its admittedly tragic and haunted/haunting ending.
There's the very odd old-money-Parisian domestic setup to begin with, in which the Albertine stand-in Ariane (Sylvie Testud) is in a menage with Marcel stand-in Simon (Stanislas Merhar)...and his elderly aunt. And then there's Simon himself, who combines an obsessive sexual jealousy worthy of Raging Bull's Jake LaMotta with a ridiculously effete aesthete's delicacy that yields remarkable comic effects throughout. Particularly when he launches into a rhapsody on Ariane's erotic aroma which he interrupts with a complaint of the pollen she carries into their apartment, and how it makes his allergies flare up. What a drip, as it were, and quite the inspired cinematic creation.
I had the privilege and pleasure over the weekend of revisiting this, a Hitchcock film to which one can justifiably apply the three "U"s of cinephilia: underseen, underrated, underappreciated. This is not a picture that begins with a bang (more on that later), and that its conclusion is a punchline (albeit a very good, funny punchline) rather than a conventionally satisfying tying-up of emotional loose ends is a little disappointing, but for all that, this Man (remade by Hitchcock from his considerably sparser 1934 version; as Hitchcock said to François Truffaut, "the first version is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional") is a remarkably rich and engaging film containing some of the most bravura filmmaking of the maestro's career.
I have to say, though, what really struck me throughout the first half was the nuanced but unsparing depiction of a marriage that could, frankly, go either way given a change of circumstance or two. The film's first scene, with Dr. Ben McKenna (James Stewart), wife Jo (Doris Day), and lively, precocious son Hank (Christopher Olsen), being all normal on the bus to Marakech and having the local ways explained to them by seemingly helpful Frenchman Louis Bernard (Daniel Gelin, Maria Schneider's dad, whose character here notes "The Muslim religion allows for very few accidents") establishes a veneer that starts to crack pretty much as soon as the family disembarks at their station. Jo—later established as "the famous Jo Conway," a stage star who gave up her career for family life—aggressively has at Ben apropos the Frenchman's seemingly intrusive inquisitiveness. She's got a point, as it turns out, but her approach to the issue verges on the paranoid. Subsequently, each little encounter with people or customs that irk the McKennas immediately leads to them lashing out at each other, or acting out in a way designed to embarrass the partner. "Is this going to be our monthly fight?" asks Jo pointedly at one juncture. Ben's worries about Bernard—planted their by Jo—prompt him to pick on Jo in the middle of a restaurant meal, and then tear into his chicken dish in a way that's expressly...well, frowned upon by the locals. And so on. When real trouble happens, the good doctor actually sedates his wife before telling her. On giving her a few pills, Jo looks at them in her hand and says, "Six months ago you said I took too many of these." Whoa.
The marital discord was to continue throughout, but its depiction was trumped by Hitchcock's formal concerns. The picture's huge set piece is, of course, the prevention of an assassination attempt during the middle of a musical performance in London's Albert Hall. The script (an excellent one, by John Michael Hayes and Angus MacPhail, from Charles Bennett and D.B. Wyndham Lewis' story) had Ben and Jo meeting up at the Hall and exchanging any number of cross words before the climactic action occurs. But Hitchcock balked at the dialogue. "I'm not hearing the London Symphony," he apparently groused to Stewart. So, continues Jack Sullivan in his superb book Hitchcock's Music, "[w]hen Ben and Jo find each other, they talk excitedly—but we hear nothing; all speech is obliterated by music, which refuses to recede to the background. Hitchcock's sound notes for the reel are emphatic: 'The main sound will remain exactly as the existing music track from beginning to end.' [...][T]he audience was to hear Ben and Jo's abrasive exchange, as well as other dialogue in the lobby. But during shooting, Hitchcock asked everyone to stop talking: 'Why don't you cut the dialogue and let us hear the music?' Everyone on the set thought he had lost his judgment, if not his marbles, but once the talk was eliminated the sequence became strangely compelling."
Indeed. But it is also here that the film loses that particular thematic thread, Ben and Jo's troubled marriage, and brings definitively to the fore the finding-the-kidnapped-child theme, executed to such wrenching effect in what is, after all, the film's final movement. It is, as Robin Wood notes (in Hitchcock's Films Revisited), the "real climax" of this version, and Wood goes on: "Middle-aged academics are not supposed to admit that they burst into tears every time Doris Day begins 'Che sera, sera,' but in my case it is a fact." Same here, although for me it's actually when Hank returns the singing with a whistle that this middle-aged non-academic chokes up. It's a supremely upsetting moment, and this moment, as well as her entire performance here, represents a career high for Day, who is herself a supremely undervalued performer whose versatility and wit underlies everything she does.
I saw the film at Suffern, N.Y.'s fabulous Lafayette Theater, as part of its Big Screen Classics series. The print was a gorgeous vault print from Universal, featuring the original Paramount logo. While the current DVD begins with a hard cut after the opening credits to the bus ride, this correct version has a nice fade-in from that. It's also more detailed and less loud, color-wise, than the current disc; I would hope that someday a new version might be made (in Blu-ray, even) from the materials that generated this superb print. My next trip to the theater, which I most recently wrote about here, will be on May 8 for the newly-restored version of The Red Shoes. You should totally check it out if you're in the tri-state area.