Friday, March 21, 2008

CRUMBS FROM THE SLIFR NOTEBOOK



A few moments, related and unrelated, spent with some of the things of cinema on my mind in the past few days...

First things first: Thanks to all of you who have offered such positive thoughts and support regarding my teaching exam. I got through it on Saturday well enough, I think. I did not, to use Bill’s colorful metaphor, kick it squarely in the balls; in fact, the blow during the science and math section may have been a bit off the mark—if I have to redo any part of the test, it’ll be that part. But the rest was much more solid—I started off with English/History, which went well, surprisingly so did the history part. I actually had a glimmer of a panic attack after answering about 10 questions, but then marshaled my nerve and carried on. At that point I thought about doing the math/science section first. But I’d already started English/History, so I just kept going. I took a little more time that I should have on Math/Science—the multiple choice section was better than the essays here. I could reason through most of the math and come up with an answer that was among those answers offered, so I felt pretty confident. But having to create mathematical expressions in the essays to illustrate how I came to my answers was much tougher than I expected, and I have to say I floundered on those questions. I was behind on the clock when I began the third section, which turned out to be Physical Ed/Theater Arts! Suddenly I was glad I got the other sections done first. As you can imagine, the essay questions in this section came much easier, and having to answer multiple choice questions like “The difference between a theatrical performance and a film is…” was not a mind-bending challenge. So the test ended on an up note at least. I’ll find out my actual grades on April 7, and though I don’t have the sense that I aced it, I still think I did well enough. And if I do have to go back, for Math/Science or even English/History, I’ll know what to expect.


From last year's Mission Tiki opener: Death Proof under the stars...

After I finished the test, I really needed to unwind. First a long nap. Then I took the girls out on what the local weather geniuses assured us was going to be a cold and rainy night to start another drive-in season off at the Mission Tiki Drive-in in Montclair, California. The Mission Tiki is, of course, the hub of activity for the Southern California Drive-in Movie Society, about which I’ll have more to say in a later post. I took my daughters out for a double feature of Horton Hears a Who! and the movie that just won’t go away, Alvin and the Chipmunks. (I will not confess to you, without plying by alcohol, just how many times I’ve seen this film.)

We got to the drive-in late, which on any other Saturday night would have spelled disaster in terms of finding a decent spot on the lot. But since the weather was up till even then still threatening, many folks who would normally be packing the pavement were not out and about. So when we pulled in at 7:00 for a show that started at 7:30, we joined a stalwart band of families, their minivans pointed hatches toward the screen, and settled in. The snack bar was relatively quiet for the same reason, which gave us ample time to treat up and return to the van before the previews started. The night air was chilly, and the sight of the snow-covered San Gabriel Mountains looming behind the drive-in lot was spectacular in the dying sunset. But though it was cold, it did not feel like rain, and the late arrivals that eventually filled the lot must have realized this too. My daughters and I jumped in the back of our van, loaded up with sleeping bags, pillows and blankets, porta-pottie at the ready, and snuggled in for what turned out to be a terrific double feature. After a potent line-up of trailers including Speed Racer, Nim’s Island, Ice Age 3: Dawn of the Dinosaurs (in 3-D), Kung Fu Panda and Iron Man (scored, to my eight and five-year-olds’ delight, to the Black Sabbath classic), Horton unspooled and turned out to be a delight. As A.O. Scott observed in his otherwise too dismissive review, Horton breaks the Dr. Seuss movie curse by turning out, unlike the live-action Grinch and Cat in the Hat atrocities, not to be one of the worst movies ever made, but instead an inspired CGI comedy that honors the spirit of the good doctor’s story even as it expands upon it thematically. It was, to our eyes, as good as we could have reasonably hoped, and the laughter from all three of us rung out into the chilly night air for 85 solid minutes. I was less engaged in Alvin, though my girls continue to love it. I settled for reclining back on a pillow and allowing my girls to tuck in on either side of me, watching, laughing and occasionally bursting into choruses of “The Christmas Song” (“We can hardly stand to wait/O Christmas, don’t be late!”). As tempted as I was to stay and see Horton a second time, we packed up and drove home after watching the Speed Racer trailer again (Some have derisively described the preview as looking like the second coming of Tron, which is not a bad thing in my book, though I will admit it does look like a movie that, if it goes bad, will do so painfully.)

The next morning I took the little ladies to breakfast at a diner on Eagle Rock Boulevard in Glendale called Pat and Lorraine’s. A tiny greasy spoon serving ridiculously portioned, delicious, authentically Mexican-influenced early-morning dishes, Pat and Lorraine’s is also famous for being the restaurant where the opening scene of Reservoir Dogs was filmed, the diner where the famous tipping debate took place.



As my young daughters and I walked into the small dining room, I noticed a Reservoir Dogs poster on the wall near the kitchen. Below it there was also a poster for another movie starring film noir icon Lawrence Tierney (who appeared memorably in Reservoir Dogs). It was the one-sheet image for Robert Wise’s nasty 1947 thriller Born to Kill, which my daughters watched with me late one night a couple of weeks before Christmas. We stood waiting near the door for someone in the crowd of young hipsters and Mexican-American families to finish up at a table so we could get seated, and as we did my youngest daughter caught sight of the poster and pointed. “Hey, I saw that movie!” she yelled with excitement. Many of the people in the restaurant looked first at her, then up to the wall where the Reservoir Dogs poster slightly dominated the ad for the older film. I looked sheepishly back as many pairs of eyes met mine with a look of “How could you, you irresponsible bastard?!” bolting out of them like icy knives. I thought of protesting, but then decided to just take the medicine of the misunderstanding. Somehow, I reasoned, it probably wouldn’t have made much difference if I’d defended myself by saying, “No, she didn’t see Reservoir Dogs. She’s talking about seeing Born to Kill!” The delight I took in my daughter responding to an old classic likely would not have translated, so I kept quiet and took my psychic lumps. The huevos rancheros were awesome, however.

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In the wake of my oldest daughter’s enthusiasm for Burt Lancaster and Nick Cravat in The Crimson Pirate, I’ve been trying to expand her palate a little bit in the hopes of honing her appreciation for classic films. I bought The Crimson Pirate for her birthday, along with the other Lancaster/Cravat vehicle, The Flame and the Arrow, directed by Jacques Tourneur. We haven’t got to it yet, but I’m sure she’ll love it. Both daughters now know the Star Wars films backward and forward, and they love the 1980 Flash Gordon too. I’m developing a list of movies to show them, include Buster Keaton, Jackie Chan and some screwball comedy of the ‘30s and ‘40s. But I fear I may have inadvertently undermined myself slightly here. In the afterglow of the initial Crimson Pirate screening, I pulled out What’s Up, Doc? (1972), figuring they’ve have a good time with it. They did, and they showed a remarkable patience for what I thought was a bit too clunky and graceless set-up (the first two-thirds of the movie!) for the big slapstick chase finale through the streets of San Francisco. They movie is far patchier than I recalled from having seen it on its release, and despite it being well received it is nowhere near the grace, timing and generally divinity of the movie that inspired it, Bringing Up Baby (1937), not to mention just about any other slapstick screwball comedy of the period. I just wonder if I haven’t done a disservice to the possibility of my girls enjoying Baby by serving up the canned, Color by Deluxe homage first…

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When fans and cineastes alike talk about great war movies, certain arguable titles always come up-- All Quiet on the Western Front, They Were Expendable, The Steel Helmet, Paths of Glory, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Das Boot, Saving Private Ryan, The Big Red One, to mention just a few. But one that ought to be on that short list is very rarely mentioned, and it deserves to be. Samuel Fuller, who directed The Big Red One and The Steel Helmet delivered Merrill’s Marauders in 1962, and having just seen it on the big screen recently, I am flummoxed as to why this movie hasn’t a reputation as being one of the best war movies ever made. Built around Jeff Chandler’s raw, sympathetic final performance as the titular Brigadier General Frank Merrill, it showcases Fuller’s idiosyncratic staging and nail-tough editing to full advantage. Merrill leads a group of volunteer soldiers on a brutal endurance test of a mission across Burma, and the movie’s style, lean and crisp to begin with, gets more fevered, off-center and lyrically delirious as the men’s stamina, and their minds, begin to wither. Yet Fuller delivers the goods, as might be said of a great action director, and his stylistic concessions to the dementia and horror of war is never self-conscious; it’s practically subliminal. Merrill’s Marauders also represents some of the best work ever from its prodigious cast of character actors, including Claude Akins, Ty Hardin, Peter Brown and Andrew Duggan. And the movie affects you in ways you may not even be aware of until you start hashing over sequences in your head on the way home. I hope you get a chance to see this on the big screen, but a nicely packaged top-drawer Warner Brothers DVD release would certainly suffice.

UPDATE: 3/31/08 5:44 p.m. Guess what! Yes, it seems to be true. My only reservation is Amazon's listing of the aspect ratio being 1:33:1. I sincerely hope that's just a typo and that Warners have not made a very atypical blunder in releasing Merrill's Marauders cropped. I assure you, the print I saw two months ago was very much glorious 2.35:1. And I also see that Amazon has packaged MM in a deal with another great movie finally showing up on DVD, Andre de Toth's spectacular Day of the Outlaw, with Robert Ryan, Burl Ives and Tina Louise. This is surely one of De Toth's best, and it'd make a fine double bill with Merrill's Marauders, to be sure.

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Writers and moviegoers were up in arms last week over the American remake of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, delivered (or some might say perpetrated) by the director himself. The major question raised for me by the brouhaha is, why would a director who fancies himself an artist be satisfied with simply redoing his own movie without rethinking it? But then the myriad interviews with the director accompanying this new release go a long way toward suggesting that Haneke was bloody satisfied with the motives and methodology of his original movie. By all reports, his reason for the remake is one of positioning his thesis on our tendency to slurp up movie violence with Pavlovian intensity so that the right audience—bloodthirsty, benumbed Americans—would get a chance to ensnare themselves in his contraption. There’s a certain hypocrisy at work here, of course-- Funny Games is the work of a director (one who I've appreciated in the past) who wants to indict the audience for gulping down the tripe he’s dishing out, and any outrage over his methods plays right into his strategy—like any good sadist, he wants you to get pissed off. I wonder, though, how Haneke’s little experiment would play without all those interviews in which the writer sits at the feet of the imperious genius and scribbles down his every comment without much in the way of challenge. Are Haneke’s ideas so sophisticated that we wouldn’t “get it” without his guidance in the press? Or worse, would his movie seem just like a routine meta-shocker amidst far more graphic competition? (Haneke says that if you don’t need this movie, you get up and leave, or you don’t go at all. I’ve seen the 1997 Austrian version, so I’m pretty sure I don’t need this new dub.)

All this puts me in mind of Pauline Kael’s comments in her review of Paul Schrader’s Cat People, a movie I happen to like a lot, but one she found exasperating. She made notice of how Schrader at the time (not so much these days, as the advent of a new Paul Schrader film doesn’t get too many people excited anymore) used print interviews, like the one in Film Comment re Cat People, to orchestrate a response or a reading of the movie, as if he didn’t trust viewers to do it on their own. Kael characterized Schrader as a bit of a huckster, selling a vision of his film in interviews with self-serious film journalists who would accept his Olympian perspective without getting too nitty or gritty about bothersome specifics. Her view, finally, was that Schrader talks such a good movie that the interview becomes the movie that, one way or the other, doesn’t end up on the screen. Haneke’s ideas aren’t all that tricky—it’s pretty obvious what he’s up to, and there have been some pretty fruitful discussions about them as a result. But I wonder if the table isn’t being set a bit too handily for Haneke’s pontifications, designed to lend a certain grave seriousness to what might otherwise be mistaken as a routine post-Kubrickian slice of imperious gamesmanship, the work of a stylist who wants to play God and insist upon his absence at the same time.


That said, Nathan Lee in the new Film Comment, has an article which I have not yet finished on the resurgence of horror remakes. Lee starts off with a few paragraphs on Gus Van Sant’s Psycho that have made me eager to reconsider that movie, a feat I thought would have been impossible in the past. But that was before I saw Gerry

(Meanwhile, the remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre seems to be pulling away from the pack in our “Most Repelle-dundant Remake” poll. Voting ends Sunday!)

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I love Cyd Charisse. But in the insinuating film noir Tension (1949), directed by John Berry, this incredible icon of kinetic sexuality who is the stuff of erotic daydreams in movies such as The Band Wagon and Singin’ in the Rain, is cast as the good girl love interest who hopes to rescue milquetoast pharmacist Richard Basehart from a mess of his own making. Charisse is given a great introduction in the movie: Basehart spies her as he approaches an apartment building—she’s spread-eagled mid-air, feet holding her between two gate posts as she shoots some photographs. She and Basehart meet cute, he causes some physical calamity involving her lights and equipment, and she jumps down, then jumps back up several times, showcasing those spectacular gams and her incredible, yet delicate athleticism, raising hopes that she’ll be utilized by the film in such a way that will cash in on the come-on of all that jazz. But alas, it is not to be. Instead, the sexual heat comes from an unlikely source—the smoldering, fascinating, almost homely Audrey Totter as Basehart’s cuckolding, gold-digging bitch of a wife. One look at her and you know she’s trouble, like Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis Dietrichson was trouble, only what Totter lacks in glamour she makes up in sheer aggression. She’s not in the least subtle in her attempts to humiliate Basehart or suck up to her sugar daddy, a shady hulk played by Lloyd Gough—she wants what she wants, and no china-shop etiquette is going to get in the way of her getting it. And damned if she doesn’t sell the sexy after a while too—Totter digs deep and makes you see why someone as initially spineless as Basehart would be enthralled by her. She’s a demonic life force, and when she fixes those gigantic saucer eyes or that curvaceous, almost matronly figure in his direction, it’s comedy and tragedy all in one full-to-bursting package. Audrey Totter is the femme fatale attraction that makes up the primary source of the movie’s tension, and she sells it for all it’s worth. Hers is an iconic performance that never quite slips into the self-parody it sometimes flirts with. She’s a devil, the real thing.

9 comments:

bill said...

I don't have kids, nor do I, or my wife, want any. But I DO like kids, and stories like yours make me (briefly!) re-consider. That sounds like a great time, Dennis, even if you did have to sit through "Alvin and the Chipmunks" again. And I love the part about your daughter pointing excitedly to the poster for "Born to Kill". That's pretty fantastic.

It reminds me of something my brother told me. I bought him the Criterion "Seven Samurai" for Christmas, and he recently told me that it has become one of his daughter's favorite movies. She's around nine or ten (shut up, they live on the other side of the country, and I can't keep track of ages anymore!). He said that he was putting her to bed one night, after watching it, and she said, "You know, Kikuchiyo is as much a wolf as he is a samurai." That particular niece and her brother have also become big fans of "The Elephant Man". Nick, my nephew, now refuses to call Mr. Merrick "John" since he discovered his real name was "Joseph".

Also, don't worry too much about the math portion of the test. I know it's a teaching exam and everything, but seriously, math is for losers.

Anonymous said...

I like the Born To Kill Story too.
Reminds me of Rick Moranis in Parenthood. (relating to her
film education)

driveindude said...

I'll never forget the look of Dennis' older daughter when, on video tape he asked her, "what are you going to see tonight?" and she responds, "ratatouille!" Dennis inquires again, "what was that?" She again responds, "ratatouille!"

Dennis then quips, "I didn't know you spoke French?" Then in one classic move of her tiny head her eyes dart over towards him as if she was responding, "No so funny old man!" Classic kid response. I get it all the time from my three.

You can see her do it right here: http://youtube.com/watch?v=HqTcPfjrt_8

Look for it at the 4:55 mark.

Tucker said...

Thanks for the story of taking your daughters to the movies,and of your introducing them to a lot of great films. I am on the same journey with my seven year old. Recently we have seen The Thin Man, Foreign Corespondent, Bringing Up Baby, and Jason and the Argonauts. We also watched some of Umberto D. - the seen where he tries to beg, but he can't get himself to do it. She just loves these films. It's so wonderful to introduce kids to great films. Now I have to check out Born to Kill.

Anonymous said...

Great post Dennis...my niece and nephew (ages 4 and 9, respectively) responded very positively to Harold Lloyd when I showed them some of the films in the Harold Lloyd Film Collection. My nephew also seems to like Preston Sturges comedies, and last year watched Nightmare Alley with me; he was a little disappointed that Ty Power didn't bite the head off a chicken, but overall gave the movie a thumbs up. gotta start 'em young! Keep up the good work, the blog is one of my favorites!

Larry Aydlette said...

Crumbs? That's a whole box of cookies, Dennis!

Nate Y. said...

...try posting this again.

Hey, Dennis -- were you at the Bava retrospective at the Egyptian last night for Bay of Blood? Thought I saw you (in a ballcap in the row in front of me) but I couldn't be sure.

I'll be at the showings tonight and tomorrow as well. If I see you again, I'll say "hi." I'll be the incredibly tall emaciated looking guy.

Joseph B. said...

Dennis,

Great choices to nurture your children's film-going passions! All I can say is keep them away from the freaky Disney channel tripe that scarred me for life growing up- odd, nightmarish films like "Return To Oz", "Something Wicked This Way Comes", "Neverending Story" and "Invaders From Mars".

stan_cz said...

You have great kids Dennis, obviously. Robin Wood once told me with great happiness that his very young grandson watched the whole of "Duck Soup" and loved every minute of it.

I just came across your contribution to the Muriel 2007 poll and loved your list. Your comments about "No Country for Old Men" strongly echoed mine. It's an astonishing film and I'm glad that there are people like you who can articulate why.
Also, in that Muriel post, it says that "Aguirre, the Wrath of God" is one of your favorite movies. I guess your recent re-view turned you into a huge fan, right? I love the film and have been urging people to seek it out. The first time I saw it at the Munich Film Festival and I was absolutely hypnotized. It was an enormous screen and the whole took possession of my entire being. It's one of the cinema's very greatest achievements, a film I never tire of.

All the best,
Carsten