Jun 17, 2014

Book Review--Stella! Mother of Modern Acting

Stella! Mother of Modern Acting
Sheana Ochoa
Applause Theater and Cinema, 2014

You should have to pay to go to church and the theater should be free.
-Stella Adler

I have to admit I wondered how interested I would be in the life story of actor, director and teacher Stella Adler. Though I know something of the theater, most of my knowledge in that area has to do with the movie stars who began acting on the stage. I was drawn to Sheana Ochoa's biography of this legendary woman mostly because I wanted to learn more about how film actors like Brando and Shelley Winters developed their talents under her guidance. I ended up being entranced by Adler herself: her quirks, adventures and all-encompassing love for the theater.

Adler lived as a star: possessive, imperious, demanding and magnetic. She was a challenging personality, but she made up for that with a ferocious dedication to acting, and helping others to develop their craft, that was astonishing. Stella was born into the theater; she lived it, nurturing it tirelessly and for a lifetime.

She was the fourth daughter of Jacob and Sara Adler, two legends of the Yiddish Theater in New York City. She also had two brothers and numerous half siblings from Jacobs other marriages and affairs. Her father was the king of this wildly popular form of entertainment. The Yiddish stage was warm and lively, a more socially-conscious alternative to the operettas and melodramas that dominated Broadway in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The form was highly influential. In the book, John Barrymore is quoted as saying, "I did what everyone else did to learn how to act. I went to the Lower East Side to watch the Yiddish theater."

Stella! explores Adler's journey from a childhood performing with her family on the stage to renown as an acting teacher. Along the way she developed her chops as a founding member of the Group Theater, was one of the few female stage directors of her time and even attempted to find international stardom via Hollywood. She was also a devoted activist for her fellow Jews, performing in benefit shows, smuggling fake passports in the lining of her fur coat to save Europeans attempting to escape World War II death camps and even running guns for a Jewish resistance group.

Adler led a life more exciting than a movie, but whatever else she did, she truly lived for the stage. When she felt that her colleague in the Group Theater Lee Strasburg was misinterpreting the works of Russian actor and director Constantin Stanislavski, she traveled to Paris in order to study with the master himself. Then, for the rest of her life, she struggled to communicate what she had learned, first with fellow performers and eventually in her famous acting workshops. It was a quest that kept her vibrant and healthy, always looking years younger than her true age.

Ochoa communicates Stella's driving passion for her craft with visceral flair. No matter how imperious she could be, how entitled, Adler's determination to lift the theater also humbled her. Her personal relationships would suffer, and particularly that with her daughter Ellen and long-suffering second husband and theater legend Harold Clurman. She would do as she pleased, pursuing her passions with little consideration for others, but on occasion, she could also be remarkabely selfless. Stella! explores all these facets of Adler's personality against a rich historical background of theater in the United States and, to a lesser degree, Russia.

While I still haven't got a particular interest in the stage I was fascinated by both Adler's story and that of the theater world that nourished her. I understood why so many were captivated by her, and the meaning behind that name that I'd often heard, but whose significance I didn't understand. While I did perk up a bit more when I came across a good tidbit about Marlon Brando or Adler's dinners with Hollywood stars like Joan Crawford, I really enjoyed the book as a whole. It should be heaven for theater lovers and an engrossing read for anyone else.

Thank you to the Hal Leonard Performing Arts Publishing Group for providing a copy of the book for review.

Jun 10, 2014

SIFF 2014: Boris Karoff stars with Boris Karloff in A Masque of Madness (2013)

Directed by: Norbert Pfaffenbichler
Starring: Boris Karloff

I was delighted to end SIFF 2014 with a movie that combined two of my favorite things: classic movie stars and experimental film. Austrian filmmaker Norbert Pfaffenbichler's ode to the madness of Boris Karloff is one of my favorite films from this year's festival. I was so mesmerized that I sat forward in my seat the entire hour and twenty minute running time.

The concept of the film is simple, though it is then developed into more complex extremes. Pfaffenbichler has edited together dozens, if not hundreds of shots from Boris Karloff movies. This means that Karloff will often have a conversation with Karloff. Sometimes one of them in color, the other in black and white. Other times with the actor in drag and a bright orange wig or as an animated puppet. His entire career, from the silent days to the age of television is covered.

These images dance around each other in different ways. Sometimes it looks like Karloff is chasing himself through a dreary castle. In other cases, he is more relaxed, engaging himself in a game of chess with a slightly sinister edge. He attacks himself, laughs at himself and occasionally he talks to someone else off screen, though you are by then so used to seeing him interacting with himself that you assume he's talking to Karloff.

Though you'll only see the briefest glimpse of other humans, A Masque of Madness is full of animals, most of them wild, pulsing with deadly energy. They all seem to be after Karloff, with the exception of a mellow cat purring on his lap.

In line with his many mad scientist roles, there's also plenty of flashing machinery and gurgling lab equipment. In one scene, different cuts of buzzing, beeping equipment are blended together in such a way that it sounds like a musical number.

The movie is divided into sections, each of them with different titles, though all are cheekily labeled "Chapter 1." While all of these chapters make wild detours and unpredictable turns, they do have a certain structure to them. Certain sections amplify the horror of Karloff and his quiet menace. Others show how vulnerable he could be. It's fascinating, because in his own words, but without his own participation, the actor shares his persona in a new, fresh and revealing way.

Though I love experimental film, this is only the second time I've had the opportunity to watching one in a theater (the first was a program of Quay Brothers shorts that I still think about ten years later). Much like silent movies, I prefer the immersive experience of the theater while watching this genre.

The Masque of Madness was like Joseph Cornell's Rose Hobart (1936) gone mad. Though many people were already at the closing night festivities, the small audience in the theater was spellbound and I think in its own devious way, it was a hit. It was a dark, mysterious and surprisingly charming way to say goodbye to SIFF. I cannot wait to see what this amazing programming staff comes up with for SIFF 2015.

Jun 9, 2014

Book Review--Dangerous Rhythm: Why Movie Musicals Matter

Dangerous Rhythm: Why Movie Musicals Matter
Richard Barrios
Oxford University Press, 2014

Movie musicals have been responsible for some of the most memorable moments captured on film, but the genre has never had a smooth ride. You could never expect them to have a steady presence like comedies, horror or dramas. They almost seem too fragile, easily killed by changing times or too-grand productions, and yet they keep returning to theaters, with varying levels of success.

In his new book, Richard Barrios covers the history of movie musicals, roughly from 1929 to the present, with humor, passion and a firm understanding of the genre. He throws in his own analysis, which is fascinating because of his own depth of knowledge. While Barrios is serious about the facts, he keeps the tone light, because he's well aware of how absurd music on film can be.

With a funny, but not jokey tone, Barrios digs into famous titles, attempting to find the true worth of these films beyond awards, critical reception and box office. Why does a mega production like Evita(1996) ring false, while Chicago (2002) manages to strike the right chord? Why is it so often difficult to translate a Broadway success to the big screen? While I had already answered a lot of questions like these for myself, I felt like Barrios tapped into a lot of issues with these films that I always sensed, but was not able to put into words.

Dangerous Rhythm works partly because Barrios is able to judge films fairly according to their vintage. He gives proper praise to movies that have not aged well, but were important in their time. Those works that have endured get deeper analysis, which I occasionally found tiresome, but I was surprised to find that there was so much more to be said about classics like The Sound of Music (1965) and The Wizard of Oz (1939). I also loved that Barrios gave almost as much attention to the bad films as the good. He seems to understand that sometimes there is nothing so fascinating as a huge misstep.

Several of the key elements of movie musicals get a spotlight, from larger subjects such as dance in film and musical cartoons, to the treatment of homosexuality and race. These are all approached critically, but with compassion for the performers (though I was sad to see the bizarrely-talented Stepin Fechit once again given the brush-off).

The beloved stars of the genre also get lots of attention and this is where Barrios really gets it right. He crowns Fred Astaire the king of the genre and gives a compelling argument for his choice. I also liked his concise, but spot-on descriptions of musical performers. Of Esther Williams he writes, "She was a big and pretty and amiable young woman, healthy as all get-out." That pretty much sums up at least her superficial appeal for me.

Dangerous Rhythm covers an extensive history, with lots of background and fascinating tidbits, but it reads like an upbeat monologue. Its academic elements float along, buoyed by Barrios' humor and lively passion for his subject. It was fun to read, but I finished the book with so many notes about new things to explore that it was as if I'd just taken a film history course.

Nobody needed to tell me why musicals matter, but I now I have a renewed interest in the genre and lots of ideas to consider.

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

Jun 8, 2014

Quote of the Week

All you have to do is say you want to be alone--and the whole world thinks you are exotic and glamorous. It never occurs to them that you are simply tired.

-Pola Negri

Quote Source, Image Source

Jun 5, 2014

SIFF 2014: Quincy Jones Introduces The Pawnbroker (1964)

Quincy Jones talks with SIFF artistic director Carl Spence

Directed by: Sidney Lumet
Starring: Rod Steiger, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Brock Peters, Jaime Sánchez, Thelma Oliver

It was quite the tone shift to move from the jovial Quincy Jones to a bleak drama about an Auschwitz survivor's post-war trauma. That's just what I did this week at the SIFF screening of The Pawnbroker (1964) though.

This groundbreaking film has won much admiration over the years. In 2008 it was even selected for inclusion in the National Registry of Film. It's one of those movies that lives way beyond its awards though; it's a harrowing experience that inspires disgust, horror, compassion and the tiniest bit of laughter. Its depiction of a death camp survivor was novel at the time. It was also the first US film under the production code with female nudity to be approved for release.

Quincy Jones made several appearances at this year's TCM Film Festival, and I didn't catch one of them. I was determined to see him at SIFF. While I didn't get to watch him fist bump Leonard Maltin at the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood, it was still a lot of fun to hear what he had to say.

Before the movie, Jones walked out on stage in a matching silver shirt and pants, a long striped scarf and maroon shirt cuffs with matching leather sneakers. There can't be many people who could pull off this outfit. He had the relaxed air of a man who has been living a satisfying life.

Though SIFF artistic director Carl Spence was onstage to chat with Jones, the musician pretty much took over once he had his mike, telling charming, well-rehearsed stories.

Seattle has played an important part in Jones' life. He moved here from Chicago at age ten. Four years later, he had his first gig at the YMCA. Jones laughed when he said that if he hadn't found music, "I'd have been in jail or dead."

The movie theaters on Seattle's skid row became a regular destination for Jones. He obsessed over the soundtracks of the films he saw, learning the particular sound of each composer. While he didn't know of any African American film composers, he was determined to make it happen for himself.

Eventually, his friend Lena Horne hooked him up with Sidney Lumet, who gave the then 30-year-old musician his first scoring job on The Pawnbroker. Jones said he rushed through the recording of the score, treating the session like the record sessions with which he was familiar. He earned praise for his work thoug. The film set him on his way.

The Pawnbroker is the story of Sol Nazerman (Steiger) a World War II death camp survivor who has lost his feeling for humankind. While in captivity he witnessed the rape of his wife and lost her and his two children to death. He has lived a numb existence for nearly twenty-five years, running a pawn shop in Spanish Harlem which he knows is a front for a gangster. Nazerman is repulsed by the human race and treats everyone from his customers to his eager assistant with contempt.

Scenes of his daily life at the shop are juxtaposed with flashbacks, sometimes only a few seconds long, of his life in captivity. A ride in a subway car brings him back to the crowded train car taking him and his family to the concentration camp. The glittering glass of a pregnant customer's wedding ring reminds him of fellow prisoners extending their hands over a barbed wire fence while Nazi soldiers pluck the rings off their fingers. I'm still particularly haunted by this scene, because it shows in such a brutally simple way how these people were stripped of everything: their treasured possessions, control of their bodies, control of their lives.

The flashbacks begin to increase, alarming Sol. As the twenty-five anniversary of his family's death approaches, he tries to hold it off, even refusing to update his daily calendar, but those memories become stronger as more details of the horror are revealed to the audience. Sol begins to realize he cannot escape his emotions and he is not ready to give up on other people. It takes another death to bring him back to humanity, but it is just the shock he needs to feel again.

A nearly unrecognizable Steiger
I've never seen Rod Steiger so completely absorbed in a role. His transformation from empty resentfulness to overwhelmed horror is painful and astonishing. He makes his face quiver in the most astounding way. You can feel the emotion coming back to him, that overwhelming fear and sadness that he thought he had left behind. He knows this is a necessary transition, and he finally gives in to his feelings, but he fights it, perhaps because it means he is losing control of himself again.

A grim film like The Pawnbroker is definitely not what I would associate with the famously funky sound of Quincy Jones, but his style is perfect for the film. While Sol struggles, life on the busy New York streets keeps bursting around him, and Jones' sharp, bright jazz score throbs with that energy. He backs off for many of the dramatic scenes, letting many play without music, which makes the return of those blaring sounds all the more bracing. It's a great start to a legendary career in movie soundtracks.

Jun 4, 2014

SIFF 2014: Director Richard Rush Talks About The Stunt Man (1980)

Director: Richard Rush
Starring: Peter O’Toole, Steve Railsbeck, Barbara Hershey, Allan Goorwitz, Alex Rocco

The house was packed for The Stunt Man (1980), something I've rarely seen for an archival presentation at SIFF. This was a fanatical audience, and the prospect of seeing Richard Rush, the director of this unusual, clever film seemed to increase the excitement.

Rush came out for a brief chat with SIFF artistic director Carl Spence before the film began. It was hard to believe this hip, spry man wearing shades and rocking a Giorgio Morodor mustache was 85-years-old. I liked the way he prepared the audience for the film, telling us that we tend to live life peeking through a keyhole, with a limited view. Because of that narrow perspective, we invent things: enemies, rules, gods. He finished saying, "this seems to be the substance from which this picture is cut." After that introduction, I could hardly wait for the interview with Rush after the film. Fortunately I was also very excited to see the movie.

In the first scene of the film, the grain was heavy to the point of being distracting, but eventually it lightened up enough to fade into the background as it should. Film restoration is definitely not Peter O'Toole's friend. In his first appearance his eyes are red and bloodshot; he looks like he's been on a bender, which he probably had. Still, while hard living was beginning to catch up with him, I don't think I've ever found O'Toole more alluring. He looks a bit like your favorite aunt, slouching around in a belted tunic and a long gold necklace (clothing that was reportedly based on Rush's style), but I've never found him more sexy. It certainly helped that Rush filmed him like a god, often placing the camera below the actor so the audience can gaze up at him.

O'Toole is Eli Cross, a talented, controlling and vaguely frightening film director who is on location at a beachside hotel to make a World War I movie. When a car plunge off a bridge kills his stuntman (played by Michael Railsbeck, brother of star Steve) he quickly employees Vietnam vet Cameron (Steve Railsbeck) to replace him. Never mind that he is wearing broken handcuffs for bracelets. After all, that makes him easier to control.

Almost right away, Cameron suspects his director has little regard for his safety and may even wish to kill him with a dangerous stunt. Even being pursued by police (for a crime that is revealed in one of the movie's funniest and most bizarre scenes) does not persuade him to stay. Watching the film's glowing star Nina (Barbara Hershey) within the frame of a door window does something to him though. He is mesmerized by her performance. He decides to stay.

That kind of framing is one of my favorite aspects of The Stunt Man. Whether or not the camera is rolling, the actors are often captured in frames of some kind, reflected in windows, always performing  and projecting images, while reality becomes increasingly more difficult to grasp. Though Cameron senses he is in danger, the truth constantly shifts before him, until he cannot be sure of anything. It's all in the staging, which is just another way of talking about perspective.

It's easy to see why so many filmmakers, from Bergman and Truffaut to Antonioni and Spielberg, adore this film. The Stunt Man treats the craft with reverence while it simultaneously rips it to shreds. I kept thinking about what Rush said before the screening though: film is the perfect way to move beyond our limited views and the fear we feel of the truth beyond them.

I've always loved this film because of the way it overflows with these ideas while entertaining on the most basic level. It's got action, comedy, mystery and romance, but it all serves a great concept. I can see why Rush didn't get many breaks as a commercial filmmaker. He's capable of taking big, messy ideas and turning them into something intense, disorienting and impossible to categorize. Scary stuff for a studio.

Richard Rush chatting with William Arnold
After the film I got another treat, Rush was interviewed by William Arnold, a retired local film critic whose reviews I read in the Seattle PI for years. He also wrote a fantastic book about Frances Farmer called Shadowland.

It turns out Arnold played a huge role in launching The Stunt Man to the public. He was an early fan of the film, writing a review so glowing that Rush said was, "as if my one mother had written it." His support helped to fill three screenings of the film, encouraging the studio to give it a chance in a wider market. Eventually, the film would play to an enthusiastic crowd at SIFF, 35 years ago.

Arnold reminisced about the Seattle premiere of the movie. He paced the lobby of the theater as if it were his own film, anxious that the audience would embrace it. An enduring fan of Rush's achievement, he said, "to me it's a perfect movie."

I loved what Rush had to say about the production of The Stunt Man and his feelings about film. Remembering O'Toole and the overall experience of filming he said he had " the best actor in the world, playing the best role [he'd] ever written." He called making the movie, "the outer limits." In reference to the anti-war commentary via Railsbeck's veteran character, Rush said, "I believe that movies that are about something are more entertaining." That made me wish so much that he'd had the opportunity to make more films the way he believed they should be made, and all the more grateful that he'd had the chance to make this one.

Jun 2, 2014

SIFF 2014: A Rough Start, But Worth The Wait--Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936)

Directed by: Frank Capra
Starring: Gary Cooper, Jean Arthur, George Bancroft, Douglass Dumbrille, Lionel Stander

I have to admit I had my qualms about going to see a movie on one of the most beautiful days of the year. Not that I wouldn't normally do that on a nice day, but this past Saturday was truly a perfect, the kind that people in Seattle wait for all year. I couldn't miss out on Gary Cooper on the big screen though, so off I went.

Once the credits started rolling, I got that excited, "look how freaking huge the screen is!" feeling that I get every time I see a movie. Even during a festival like this one, where I often watch multiple films a day, I still feel that way whenever that first image appears on the screen. In this case, the bliss would be interrupted.

I was admiring the clarity of the digital presentation, thinking that it couldn't replace 35mm, but that I did like it, when ironically a very digital-related problem came up. About ten minutes into the film, the sound fell out of sync with the visuals, so that a few scenes played out over a series of images from further into the film. For several minutes the audience sat in confusion, then a few stormed out, only to come back in right away, because yes, they were working on it.

Once the SIFF team got a handle on the situation, a staff member came in to give the audience an update. Apparently the syncing problem wasn't due to the projection, but the copy of the film that had been sent. They said they couldn't re-sync with digital as they could with 35mm. So there wasn't much they could do.

SIFF offered vouchers for disappointed audience members who wished to leave, but I was really enjoying the images, even with the wacky sound issues, so I stuck around. So did half the audience, which unfortunately wasn't much on a day as beautiful as that one. We were rewarded for our patience when the movie somehow fell back in sync a few minutes later.

I'm sharing all this because it made me realize how little I know about how digital films work in a theater. I don't even know what a digital projector looks like, which is interesting, because we all know what a film projector looks like. The experience made me curious to learn more about about this format that has overtaken 35mm.

Once things were rolling smoothly again, and they did for the rest of the film, it was not difficult to become lost in the movie. Capra films almost always affect me the same way: I start out laughing, then I begin thinking it's corny, until I realize I'm crying, or all tensed up because I'm worried about the hero, and then I start laughing again, usually while crying. It's all very messy. Mr. Deeds made me feel all those things. It's really the perfect Capra film in that respect.

As Mr. Deeds, the small town man who has a fortune he doesn't want thrust upon him, Gary Cooper is all long giraffe eyelashes and boyish mannerisms. As written, it seems like a simple role, but Cooper reinforces that this is a man with simple values, but that is not the same as being simple. He wants to be kind, but he has no tolerance for cruelty and the way he coils up to defend himself is always a bit unnerving. It is so different from his unguarded self that he almost seems like a different person. It's a difficult balancing act, but he manages it gracefully. The transitions in mood feel plausible.

The rest of the cast offers brilliant support: Jean Arthur with her passionate frustration, George Bancroft as a tough, but also sensitive editor and character actors like Ruth Donnelly who don't seem capable of a false move. And Lionel Stander's gravelly voice always makes everything feel more modern. I remember embracing these actors as a whole when I first saw this movie several years ago.

This time, I was riveted by Cooper. A lot of it was that I felt renewed appreciation for his skill as an actor. I always forget how good he could be, how much he could communicate in his quiet way.

I think I also fixated on Cooper this time around because of how well he voiced his character's confusion about the cruelty around him, and how he couldn't understand how people could get "pleasure out of hurting each other." I've thought about this a lot since Kim Novak and Liza Minnelli were the target of such insensitive bullying during and following the 2014 Academy Awards. The mockery does sometimes feel like a casual sport. We forget we are talking about people with the same feelings as us because they seem so far from our own reality.

I know it can get boring to say that a film resonates as much today as it did when first released, but with its condemnation of cruelty, reliance on rumor and needlessly mocking public figures, I think Mr. Deeds means more now that it did in 1936.

Jun 1, 2014

Quote of the Week

She was an unusual woman--a little ahead of her times. And she didn't know it.

-Ella Fitzgerald

Quote Source,Image Source