Jun 30, 2013

Quote of the Week

...what is interesting about Susan [is that] she is so Irish. An interview with her calls for agility, because you never know when you might get hurt.

-journalist Bob Thomas, about Susan Hayward

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Jun 26, 2013

Book Review--Lee Marvin: Point Blank

Lee Marvin: Point Blank
Dwayne Epstein
Schaffner Press, 2013

Lee Marvin was born to perform. He was magnetic, theatrical and always in need of a way to burn off his considerable energy. It was natural that he would have been invited to act on the stage, which he was for a community theater in upstate New York when he was working as a plumber's assistant after World War II. The whole town was already enjoying his performances: his voice, walk and curious shorthand way of speaking. So why not put him in a spotlight?

That doesn't mean Marvin was an effortless performer. Maybe some things came to him easily, and he certainly didn't believe in intensive techniques like The Method, but you can't tell me that his understated and controlled performance in Monte Walsh (1970) didn't take work, or that he bristled his way through Point Blank (1967) without thinking carefully about that character. He was born an actor, but he never took his gift for granted.

I never knew much about Lee Marvin personally before I read Point Blank, except that he spoke his mind, drank and had a nasty common law support battle with his former live-in girlfriend Michelle Triola. Reading the random bits of set gossip from former co-stars, I got the impression that he was a good person, but I essentially saw him as a rough-living wild man. The book didn't steer me away from any of these ideas, but it did give me a lot more to consider.

This is the first comprehensive biography of Marvin, and it reveals a troubled man who approached his career with diligence and professionalism, but never seemed to believe he deserved the happiness it brought him. There are plenty of stories of Lee getting kicked out of schools and bar fights, the kinds of things that are well-known about him. It was more surprising to learn of Marvin's sensitivity, such as how he was loyal to agent Meyer Mishkin for his entire career, the way he subtly watched out for a young actress on a set full of rowdy men and his enduring respect for the role his first wife Betty played in his success.

Marvin may not have been a topline star for long, but he didn't struggle to find work. Under Mishkin's brilliant guidance, he steadily advanced from clear-cut bad guy supporting roles to starring as counter culture antiheroes. Though these parts increased in complexity, there were many common elements among them. Marvin wasn't a romantic hero, so there was always an edge, some action and plenty of violence.

That last element played a powerful role in Marvin's life. He served as a Marine in World War II, and while the discipline was necessary for a schoolboy who could never settle down, the violence he witnessed scarred him for life. Extensive excerpts from his letters home during the war describe some of the horrors that he experienced, and there are incidents so terrible that even in this day they could not make it to the silver screen. For this reason, Marvin insisted on authenticity in screen violence. In an interview he said, "I say make it so brutal that a man thinks twice before he does anything like that." That said, Lee itched for the turbulence of a rowdy tussle. Many times he would throw himself into a bar fight just to work out his demons.

Marvin drank most of his adult life, in varying degrees of intensity. Sometimes he was a party boy, maybe a bit too wild, but capable of maintaining his daily responsibilities. As he got older, that balance became uneasy, and his relationships and health suffered, though he managed to maintain his professionalism. Epstein is careful to note that PTSD likely contributed to Marvin's alcoholism without attempting to place full blame on the condition. The war did its damage, but an inborn restlessness and growing youthful cynicism in reaction to his parent's troubled relationship took their toll as well. And then there's that mystery about any person, who's to say exactly what goes wrong?

Epstein's sources try to answer that question, and they do have some interesting insights. They range from costars like Angie Dickenson and Woody Strode, to his loyal and proudly ethical business manager. Overall they're loyal to Marvin, but often also exhausted, and sometimes traumatized by his behavior.

Marvin's first wife Betty is all these things, and she talks about her ex-husband with a wryly acidic mixture of affection and exasperation. She is a constant presence in the book, and while normally I would be skeptical of a single source being given this much weight in a biography, I think it was for a good reason in this case. The original Mrs. Marvin is tough, but fair and she seems to understand the father of her four children better than anyone else. (She wrote her own book by the way.)

As thoroughly as Point Blank examines its subject, there were a few omissions in the book that mystified me. Though Marvin was married to his second wife Pamela Feeley for seventeen years, there was so little detail about her that it is almost impossible to determine what kind of a person she was. There are hints that it wasn't a brilliant marriage, and maybe even on the skids by the end of Marvin's life, but there's no explanation as to why. You also get the barest hint of information about his three daughters: Courtney, Cynthia and Claudia, though his son Christopher gets several mentions, and even wrote the afterward. I wondered if these women had wanted to be excluded, but there's no explanation one way or the other.

I expected to finish Lee Marvin: Point Blank liking its subject. As wild a reputation as he had, I never got the impression Marvin was a disagreeable man. What surprised me was to learn how deeply sensitive he could be. Nobody makes excuses for him in this book, biographer included, but all agree that he had a good soul and was capable of remarkable kindness. The devil never left him, but it didn't rule him either.

Deepest thanks to Schaffner Press for providing a review copy of the book.

Jun 23, 2013

Quote of the Week

Charles was devastated by bad notices...He would take to his bed in agony, reading them again and again. Finally, he devised a method for exorcising them from his soul. He taught a Shakespeare class here at the house in his studio and he would gather the notices and perform them for his students...He'd act the review with tremendous power and vitriol, exhausting himself and then burn it in a bucket. It was very entertaining.

-Elsa Lanchester, about her late husband Charles Laughton, as told by Frank Langella

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Jun 16, 2013

Quote of the Week

I went to a sneak preview...I was sort of stunned by it, because you don't realize what you've done. I never knew what was going to happen, but they knew. Warners knew, and Howard knew.

-Lauren Bacall, About her film debut To Have and Have Not (1944)

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Jun 10, 2013

SIFF 2013: The End

I enjoyed my experience scooting along the edges of the 39th Seattle International Film Festival, giving just a little more attention to those older films that can be forgotten in such a large event. The eight archival film screenings* at SIFF 2013 formed the tiniest piece of this grand celebration of over 400 movies. In a record-breaking year for the event, the screenings were well-attended, and the passion of these audiences more than justified their inclusion in the mix.

When I applied for my SIFF 2013 press credentials, I had some partially-developed ideas about promoting the classics at large festivals and boosting recognition of our already world-renowned film scene in Seattle. I hoped to give my international audience a reason to come visit, and for those of you who are local to carve out a little time on the weekend to see some interesting flicks.

While I promoted all these things as planned, I found a new overall focus as well. Holy cow people, seeing movies with a festival audience is amazing. I had become so accustomed to seeing virtually whatever I pleased at home, that I'd actually forgotten how fulfilling it can be to see a great movie with a crowd that is as happy to be there as I am. You definitely find these people at a film festival. These folks aren't just looking for a way to fill time on the weekend, they are passionate about cinema. If you ever have the chance to see a classic film in a theater, and especially at a festival, go!

Movies were made to be a communal experience, and while it can be pleasant to enjoy films alone, there is nothing like seeing them on the big screen and getting that audience reaction. I'm grateful to SIFF for giving me the opportunity to experience that with such a diverse group of films and people. I can't wait to see what they'll come up with for SIFF 2014.

Here for the last time is the full archival line-up and my completed coverage. Thank you all for reading. I'm pleased that so many of you took an interest in the festival.

*I was unfortunately unable to attend the screening of Port of Shadows.

Jun 9, 2013

SIFF 2013: Saul Bass Directs Phase IV (1974)

(d: Saul Bass c: Michael Murphy, Nigel Davenport, Lynne Frederick, USA/United Kingdom 1974, 92 min)

I can't even remember the last time a movie stunned me like Phase IV (1974). This bizarre, oddly-paced science fiction flick had me so mesmerized that I lost track of time. Sometimes that doesn't even happen with a film I love. That feeling of leaving the theater in a daze, confused by the sunlight and activity outside, had become almost foreign to me. It was the perfect way to end Seattle International Film Festival 2013.

Phase IV (1974) was the only feature-length film directed by legendary title sequence designer Saul Bass. Apparently it bombed so badly on its initial release that he was never allowed to direct again. It found new life on television though, where a generation of film fans found it via late night showings, and possibly wondered in retrospect if it had all been a dream. Sometimes television is the best way to discover a movie like this, so maybe everything happened as it should.

It starts with a mysterious cosmic event that causes the ants on Earth to evolve, and gradually begin to dominate the planet. In hopes of stopping this invasion, a pair of scientists set up operations at a high tech compound in the Arizona desert, where the creatures have spread chaos while constructing strange towers and sweeping crop circles.

They are joined by a teenage girl who is a traumatized refugee from the insanity outside, and the catalyst for even more trouble inside the once impenetrable haven. The scientists butt heads; one wanting to kill the queen ant, the other wishing to communicate with these new intellectual superiors. As it turns out, they don't have much control over what happens. The ants have already decide their fates.

I don't want to tell you any more about what happens, because I am sure that part of the reason I enjoyed the movie so much was that I learned so little about it beforehand. There are plenty of familiar animal invasion clichés, but they play out in this eerily subtle way, slowly and quietly. That overall atmosphere of dread had me on edge the entire time, trying to anticipate what would happen next.

You learn more about these invaders than in a typical invasion flick. There are really two stories: that of the ants and that of the humans. Often they are kept meticulously separate, and I found an amusing difference in attention to detail between them. The human story is a bit of a mess. Our teenager from rural Arizona occasionally slips into an English accent, and after a long talk about the powdered and dehydrated food being the only thing available at the compound, there is a shot of the control room strewn with plates of uneaten, very non-dehydrated-looking sandwiches.

The ants, on the other hand, get careful handling. Their world is precisely filmed, with close-ups that somehow manage to capture, or at least make you imagine you are seeing, their emotions. I don't know how they made these creatures look like they were trained to perform, but it couldn't have been easy. In one particular scene in which a spider is attacked by a swarm of ants, I was certain I saw an "oh shit, I'm toast" look on the unlucky arachnid's face before it met its doom.

One of the legends of Phase IV was that it had a lost psychedelic ending which somehow managed to simultaneously explain everything and create even more mystery at the same time. This much sought after ending was found in Paramount Archives and restored for the screening, to be shown after the theatrical version.

The SIFF screening already had an eager audience. It was by far the most enthusiastic crowd I'd seen the entire festival. While waiting in the long line to enter the theater, a man shouted, "I guess Seattle really likes ants!" (Someone behind me mumbled, "What does that say about us?") Once the introduction for the screening began, there were whoops of excitement, loud applause and lots of people leaning forward in their seats, ready to catch every moment.

This wild crowd was rewarded with a great movie, and when the original ending credits rolled, there was more applause. Then for an unbearable minute, which felt ten times longer, we waited to see the ending Bass really wanted.

We had been told this version was trippy. Yep, it was. And if I hadn't seen much to remind me of the famous avant-garde Saul Bass design, it was because so much of it had been saved for this absolutely mind blowing, surreal sequence. Judging from the reaction in the theater, the crowd must have shared my feelings. It's like the first ending was a cupcake, and the extended version was a birthday cake with sparklers.

I don't think this unique flick would have flopped at the box office with a crazy ending like that. Maybe it wouldn't have been a huge hit, but it would have caused a minor sensation.

So Criterion Collection--are the rumors true? Are you really interested in Phase IV? Because this is one film that definitely needs a well-crafted DVD release.

All screen captures by KC from the trailer.

Quote of the Week

You know, when I first went into the movies Lionel Barrymore played my grandfather. Later he played my father, and finally he played my husband. If he had lived I'm sure I would have played his mother. That's the way it is in Hollywood. The men get younger and the women get older.

-Lillian Gish

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SIFF 2013: A New Score For The Wind (1928)

(d: Victor Sjöström c: Lillian Gish, Lars Hanson, Montagu Love, Edward Earle, Dorothy Cumming, USA 1928, 95 minutes)

The Seattle International Film Festival 2013 presentation of The Wind (1928) was not just a screening, but one of the signature events of the festival. In its two peformances at the Triple Door in downtown Seattle there was dinner, live music and an introduction by Mayor Mike McGinn. The Seattle-based country-alt band The Maldives also debuted its score for this masterpiece that was one of the last great MGM silents. You couldn't find a flick more worthy of all the fuss.

It stars Lillian Gish as a young woman who flees her presumably unhappy home in Virginia to live with her cousin and his family on his ranch. She's envisioning a lovely place. After all, it's called Sweet Water. But it ain't so sweet. It's a desolate, grim place where the wind always blows like mad, blasting sand against the windows and into every crack and corner.

Gish tries to make the best of her new life, enjoying time with her cousin and his children, but it doesn't last. Certain that she is faced with a challenger to her place in the family, his wife banishes her, forcing her to choose between two local suitors who quickly take interest in her innocent beauty. She makes her pick, but her troubles aren't over, and that innocence will soon be lost.

Though I was inspired by the excitement of this event, it actually took me a while to settle into the show. I'd been spending the month watching movies in a darkened theater with no outside sounds or visual distractions. Though I was anticipating a much different experience this night, it wasn't easy to make the transition from that quiet setting to such a lively presentation. There was loud, amplified music, servers rushing back and forth with food and drinks and the sounds of silverware clinking on plates. It was overwhelming at first, and I wondered if I would be able to get as lost in The Wind as I usually do.

I did eventually become mesmerized by the performance; Gish will always get me in that role, whatever the setting. The sounds of diners noshing faded away as I got used to them, and I began to appreciate the beauty of The Maldives score. This isn't the first time the group has tried its hand at silent film scores. They debuted another original score at SIFF 2010 for the Tom Mix western Riders of the Purple Sage (1925).

The music worked for me, because it helped me to see the movie in a different way after multiple viewings over several years. Whenever I think of The Wind, Lillian Gish's wide eyes come to mind. Her haunted face, and the madness that whistling wind arouses in her wrap around the film like a whirling tornado. That frenzy has always wound me up so much, that I never quite felt the loneliness of the film.

The Maldives score effectively captures the emptiness of Gish's surroundings. I felt the sadness of this young woman who thinks she is escaping to a better life, only to remain unsatisfied and perhaps more alone that she was before. The lazy plucking of a banjo lends the music the right melancholy, rural feel, while the synthesized sounds of rushing wind give it an appropriately menacing feeling.

The band also made effective use of vocals in a couple of scenes. It was here where I felt the group truly understood the tone of the movie. It was a chills moment.

Watching The Wind with an audience for the first time was a revelation. I never noticed how funny this movie can be. Yes, it can get pretty dark, but there were a lot of laughs throughout. It's easy to understand why those lighter moments were necessary; without them, this would have been an unbearably tense tale. When Gish is afraid, everyone is afraid.

Though I will always prefer to watch movies in a quiet theater, I did enjoy the excitement of this show. It was the most popular archival presentation I'd seen at the festival and the crowd's enthusiasm for this amazing film was encouraging. I think events like this will be important for the preservation of classics, because they'll draw people who may not necessarily go to a theater to watch an older film, let alone view one at home. It was a unique, beautiful night, and a great boost for the golden age of movies.

Click here for more information about the films at SIFF 2013.

And here is my full coverage of the event.

All screen captures by KC

Jun 6, 2013

Book Review: The Studio Age Reign of Actresses Lives on in France

The Beauty of the Real:
What Hollywood Can Learn from Contemporary French Actresses

Mick LaSalle
Stanford University Press, 2012

I love Mick LaSalle's books about the stars in pre-code movies, Complicated Women and Dangerous Men. Both have been bedside table staples for me as I continue to be obsessed with this period in film. For this reason, I was intrigued by a comment LaSalle made on Twitter about his most recent book. He said that it was "kind of like Complicated Women only they're all alive and talking to me." Well I had to see what that was all about.

When I saw that the book was about contemporary French actresses, I was still interested, but I wondered if it would be of interest to those of you who are kind enough to read my reviews. I've concluded that it depends somewhat on why you like classic films. The Beauty of the Real is ideal for those who turn to the classics out of frustration with the style of modern Hollywood movies. I can also see it appealing to movie fans who admire the strong female characters in studio age Hollywood films.

I went into the book expecting a collection of interviews, but it is more complex than that. LaSalle has used his conversations with several prominent French actresses to get the best perspective on the film industry in France, which is apparently doing a much better job telling stories about women. He profiles these women in varying degrees of detail, while also examining some of the issues that affect them. As much as you may think conditions have improved for actresses in Hollywood, LaSalle is here to tell you that we have a terribly long way to go.

We are far from the days when the movie industry relied on the box office power of women attending the daily matinee. Studios catered to this audience with films focused on issues that concerned them and starring some of the most mesmerizing actresses to appear in films. Think Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford and Bette Davis.

LaSalle argues that this kind of powerhouse acting and attention to women's issues is happening right now in France. He makes a good case too. Female directors are so commonplace there that their involvement in a film does not attract special notice. They simply work, and excel, and they tell stories to which they can relate, just like the male filmmakers that dominate Hollywood.

In France, filmmaking is looked upon as art before business. Actresses like to talk about their craft, and that's fun, because you get a sense of their passion for performing and becoming these rich characters. It never occurred to me how rarely I hear movie stars discuss their work in such detail. I enjoyed learning more about the process of actresses as diverse as Isabelle Huppert, Catherine Deneuve and Nathalie Baye.

These women are enjoying careers that last decades. They are allowed to be sexy onscreen well into their sixties as they are given the opportunity to mature before their public. French movies don't have nearly the budget of a typical Hollywood production, so filmmakers eschew special effects for deeper characterizations that provide a satisfying slice of humanity.

I can see how as a fan of classic Hollywood, the work of these women would appeal to me. Thanks to a few French films streaming on Netflix, I've already had a taste of that.

It took me a while to get hooked by The Beauty of the Real. Isabelle Adjani takes a real beating in an early chapter, and while I didn't necessarily disagree with the criticism, I thought the tone a bit cruel. In many sections I was also reminded of a German exchange student I once knew who was fond of telling me what was wrong with America. The book could almost be called Why Hollywood is Lame, but honestly, these things need to be said. Clearly the most powerful movie industry in the world needs to wake up to the other half of the human race.

Once I got over those bumps, I started to enjoy learning about these women and the kinds of films being made in France in recent years. The overall tone gets warmer and more passionate as the book progresses.

This is a fantastic introduction to current French films; it has everything you need to know to get a basic understanding of the industry. It offers the excitement of newly-discovered treasure. I was happily overwhelmed by the many things I learned reading The Beauty of the Real and I think tracking down and watching these films will keep me busy for a long time.

Deepest thanks to Stanford University Press for providing a review copy of the book.

Jun 3, 2013

SIFF 2013: A Man Vanishes (1967), A Real Unreal Documentary

(d: Shôhei Imamura c: , Japan 1967, 130 min)

I went into A Man Vanishes at Seattle International Film Festival 2013 expecting a documentary, but if you asked me what I actually saw, I couldn't give you a straight answer. I could confidently answer yes, I saw a documentary and no, I didn't.

The movie is supposedly about a Japanese plastics salesman who has gone missing (I had this wrong in my earlier plot synopsis), and his fiancée and Imamura's search for him. It certainly starts that way. We see interviews with the man's friends and associates. We get to know his girl and her sister, with whom she has a challenging relationship.

It is an interesting investigation for the most part, but there is nothing to distinguish it. Then, things suddenly twist. The fiancée falls in love with the filmmaker, and they discuss her feelings coolly, as if they are the weather, or her shopping list. The film starts to feel like fiction, because people don't usually act this way in movies, whether fiction or documentary.

Tension rises between the sisters; they have a trying argument while seated at a table. The conversation is heated, and feels both painfully real and staged at the same time. Then Imamura changes the audience point of view, and you can never be sure again of the difference between reality and fiction.

This is the oddest film. It's funny, but dull. Intriguing, but tiresome. There's nowhere to rest your mind, and every time you feel about to give up on it, something pops up to charm you again. As I knew Imamura was a New Wave director, I expected a free filming style and a few quirks from Man. What I got was much more complicated.

At one point, I remember wanting to leave the theater because I was getting so frustrated by the movie. Several people in the packed house did just that. I couldn't tear myself away though. I refused to miss a moment of this strange spectacle. As I walked out of the screening, a woman huffed, "that was not a satisfying movie," and I kind of knew what she meant, and yet I'm smiling as I write this. Film is rarely this challenging, and I enjoyed being pushed.

Click here for more information about the films at SIFF 2013.

And here is my full coverage of the event.

Jun 2, 2013

SIFF 2013: Olivier Plots in Bold Color, Richard III (1955)

That English battlefield looked a lot like Southern California to me!

The above was said loudly in the line for the ladies' loo after a screening of the newly-restored Richard III (1955) at Seattle International Film Festival 2013. The lady got a laugh, and aside from the humor of what she said, I think she snapped everybody back into the real world. Olivier's masterwork can put a spell on you, and in its newly restored form you can soak up all its glory without distraction. And just to clarify, the Battle of Bosworth scenes were filmed in Spain.

The SIFF staff member who introduced the film noted that the restoration by Sony was good, but not too good. He explained that sometimes a restoration can clean up the print so much, that it looks too slick and over digitized. Consciously avoiding that problem, this restoration was made to emulate the look of 35 mm. I was so glad he said this, because I'd never thought about it before, but I had noticed that overly-sharp look in some restorations. This one did have a warm, textured appearance that I now recognize as the look of film. Oh man am I going to miss that gorgeous, grainy 35 mm.

My first thought in the opening scenes was gaw--look at all that color! Bright reds, blues and golds. It just smacks you in the face. And Richard opens with a coronation scene, so you have all the power of that ritual to amp up the vivid look of the scene.

For those not familiar with this particular Shakespearean play, Richard III is essentially about a psychopathic duke who will do anything to be king. Once he gets to the throne, he loses it in a gory fashion. Simple plot, twisted execution.

As director, producer and star, Laurence Olivier is an irresistible force in Richard. I swear he looked amused by his big, fake nose and stiff black wig, and he relished every evil maneuver his Richard made. Olivier clearly loves the role. He is serious, but seriously at play as well. The humor makes you relax, and then he hits you in the gut with a dark glare or a smoothly repulsive phrase.

Olivier's Richard seduces almost because of, rather than in spite of his evil. Everything about him stands out, from the blackness of his hair to the sharp hues of his costumes. He's acting with the best of British talent, but when he is off screen, it's hard to care about anyone else.

The cast is mesmerizing though. Holy cow, this movie has everyone. John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, Cedric Hardwicke, Claire Bloom. They perform as if on stage, with that sort of outsized projection, but the style does not overwhelm outrageous proceedings.

In fact, there are moments in Richard that achieve the most startling intimacy. Olivier crafted his masterpiece with the deepest respect for language. Music is used for great dramatic effect, but more often than not the actors speak their lines against a background of silence, and you feel the urge to lean in and capture every nuance.

Most of the film takes place on sets, as if stage bound, so it is startling to see the final battle scenes on location. It's almost too jarring, but necessary. It is as if Olivier is reminding us that while we have been enjoying what has been essentially the performance of a play, this is a film, and it needs to breathe.

Click here for more information about the films at SIFF 2013.

And here is my full coverage of the event.

Quote of the Week

From inside the darkness a white-gloved hand reached out for help and it was given. Then came a face of dizzying beauty, the head slightly lowered to avoid disrupting the spun gold blond hair caressing a white fox collar clutched close to a milk white throat....Once fully standing on the street, she let go of the collar, allowing the coat to fall free, exposing a body encased in a full-length skintight gown made of what looked like tiny white pearls seemingly flung at her in wild abandon and clinging to every pore.

-Frank Langella, about a curbside childhood encounter with Marilyn Monroe who was emerging from a car

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