Aug 28, 2020

Must-Watch on TCM: Mark Cousins' Epic Documentary, Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema

In the opening scenes of Mark Cousin's 2018 14-episode documentary series Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema, narrator Tilda Swinton says that “most of the so-called movie classics have been directed by men.” For its television debut on TCM, each episode includes this in the introduction, acknowledging an exclusion of multiple dimensions, from an active desire to suppress female voices, to ignorance, to an incurious carelessness in distributing opportunity. This basic injustice should always be remembered, but the beautiful thing about Women Make Film is that while it acknowledges the struggles of woman filmmakers to make their work and be recognized, it focuses almost entirely on their craft.

Presented like a leisurely road trip through cinema, in which the past is viewed from a different perspective, Women Make Film is a deep appreciation and wide exploration of female filmmakers who have been making art as magnificent as the most celebrated male directors. The work of over one hundred women is sampled in brief clips, their form and effect discussed in the narration. The variety is stunning, demonstrating that “female” filmmaking has innumerable characteristics.

Instead of narrating himself as he did with the equally epic The Story of Film: An Odyssey (2011), writer and director Cousins has wisely chosen to have women take the reins this time. The pleasingly varied voiceover talents of Tilda Swinton, Jane Fonda, Adjoa Andoh, Sharmila Tagore, Kerry Fox, Thandie Newton and Debra Winger do much to enhance the equally diverse films and perspectives discussed.

The series is divided into chapters, about two or three are covered per episode, with subjects ranging from editing and tonal transitions, to themes like love, death, and politics. These explorations probe deep and some can be quite intense and adult. I am guessing that there will be outrage on the TCM message boards about parts of it, but that boldness gives the film an uncompromised potency.

Ultimately, Women Make Film succeeds because it gives the viewer reason to celebrate and encouragement to explore. The injustice and the horrid waste of cinema being so long the domain of white men can never be overcome, but there is still much to enjoy. From the most mysterious experimental works to heart pounding genre flicks and every conceivable form in between, Cousin’s film gives us many reasons to celebrate women who make films and a solid basis from which to reinvent the cinematic canon.

The film, which originally debuted at TIFF 2019, will run on TCM one episode at a time each Tuesday, from September 1 through December. Each of these nights will also feature a wide range of films directed by women. It’s a wide-ranging selection, covering a rich array of nations, races, and styles. TCM hosts Alicia Malone and Jacqueline Stewart will team up to present the films and given how effectively they have collaborated in the past, I am sure they will make this an exciting and illuminating series.

 Many thanks to TCM for providing access to the series for review.

Aug 27, 2020

Podcasts for Classic Film Fans: August Round-up


I’m especially impressed with the quality of the podcasts I listened to this month. This wide variety of shows all had something extra interesting or new to offer. Episode titles link to the show: 

The Marx Brothers Council Podcast 
July 23, 2020 

The story of producing a documentary can be just as dramatic as the material being covered, and the production of the definitive Marx Brothers doc The Marx Brothers in a Nutshell follows in that tradition. This conversation with producer Robert B. Weide and writer/editor Joe Adamson is packed with great stories about the challenges of making a documentary before the digital age and the many other aspects of filmmaking that remain difficult, if very possible to overcome. Interesting for anyone, but extra helpful for aspiring documentarians. 

Hollywood Party 
July 17, 2020 

This is an interesting concept for a show: profile a Hollywood star and then ask at the end, would you want to party with them? Lauren Semar is a natural, engaging host and would probably be quite the party guest herself. She knows her history and she shares it in an entertaining way. As much as I’ve read about Rock Hudson over the years, I learned a few things from this episode and I appreciated the compassion Semar showed in telling his story. And yes, Hudson would have been a great party guest. 

DWT (Drinking While Talking) 
July 30, 2020 

My dear friend Jill Blake and her partner in the RetroSet website Wade Sheeler have a great discussion about the newly revived concept of drive-in movies. They talk about the challenges of going to watch a show at a drive-in (watch out electric car drivers) and then share a fantastic list of ideas for having your own outdoor screenings at home. 

Book vs. Movie 
July 27, 2020 

I’m a longtime fan of this podcast because the co-hosts, Margo D. and Margo P., billed as “The Margos” are sharp-witted, funny, and have fantastic chemistry. I especially liked their comparison of C.S. Forester’s novel The African Queen with director John Huston’s adaptation because the book has a more modern perspective than I expected and it was fun to hear them talk about why. 

Such an Old Soul 
August 12, 2020 

In her new podcast, host Dominique Lessing talks about love of vintage culture from the perspective of a twenty-something. I enjoyed her affectionate tribute to the short-lived Honey West television show which starred Ann Francis. Despite its limited run, it was a stylish, fascinating program and Lessing explores what made it interesting and groundbreaking.

Aug 20, 2020

On Blu-ray: The Magnificent Esther Williams and Victor Mature in Million Dollar Mermaid (1952)

Before I saw Million Dollar Mermaid (1952) for the first time, I read the passage in Esther William’s juicy memoir about the hot after hours affair she had with co-star Victor Mature. For that reason, this film has always been extra spicy for me. I’ll never know how much of my enjoyment watching it has to do with me looking for sparks between those two.

It is a magnificent production though. This was a decade in which MGM reliably crafted boldly-colored, extravagant spectacles meticulously crafted to absorb the masses. While Esther Williams was hired for her abilities as a swimmer and performer in water extravaganzas, she was more than a pretty duck in a bathing cap. She didn’t have designs on being a great actress, but the camera loved her and she had charisma.

My favorite Williams flicks are the fluffiest: like Neptune’s Daughter (1949) and Dangerous When Wet (1953), where she flirts a bit on land, there’s a few musical numbers, and then she does her thing in the water. Million Dollar Mermaid is more ambitious than that; it’s a biopic of Williams’ sister in the water, Australian swimmer and vaudeville star Annette Kellerman. Of course it’s the glossy, MGM take on biography, with a light rendering of the contours of reality shined up with big romance and pretty production numbers.

While it doesn’t go down quite as easily as William’s lighter films, Million Dollar Mermaid works. It contains some of her most magnificently outrageous production numbers, designed with surreal flair by Busby Berkeley. The swimming star had great chemistry with Mature, and Walter Pidgeon is pleasantly avuncular as her father, so the rest of the film flows along nicely, but the unique magic of Williams in the water is timelessly fascinating and is what makes the film a must-see.

As far as Williams was concerned, this was her best work. There are photos of Kellerman visiting the set, posed happily with the star, so I am guessing she approved.

There's a a brief bio of Annette Kellerman and few clips from her films here in a post I wrote several years ago.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Aug 18, 2020

Book Review--Cinematic Cities: New York, The Big Apple on the Big Screen

Cinematic Cities: New York, The Big Apple on the Big Screen
Christian Blauvelt
Running Press/TCM, 2019

In a recent frenzy of pandemic purging and organizing, I was delighted to find a copy of TCM’s Cinematic Cities: New York, The Big Apple on the Big Screen, written by IndieWire managing editor Christian Blauvelt. I’d gotten it in my media bag for the 2019 TCM Classic Film Festival, but as inviting as it looked, I was too busy to read it then. But now? It’s the perfect time to indulge in some armchair travel.

I suppose New York had to be the first choice for the series. It’s by far the most cinematically represented city in the United States, and maybe the world. A lot of the locations included here are to be expected too: The Empire State Building, Times Square, and The Statue of Liberty among them. When it comes to the films though, there’s a lot of material to draw from and Blauvelt chooses wisely, achieving a good balance of the popular and lesser known.

Most of the book focuses on the most popular NYC filming location: the many neighborhoods of Manhattan. The other boroughs are grouped into a section that makes up the final quarter of the book. Blauvelt looks at the city in a variety of ways: via its hotels, restaurants, tourist sites, and institutions. A map at the end of each section provided basic orientation for film fans interested in touring the locations discussed.

It would be outrageous to omit the cheerful, catchy opening number of On The Town (1949) in which Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, and Jules Munshin dance through the great landmarks of the city. It was an ideal opening for the book, but I loved how some of the entries got more obscure.

The Hotel Chelsea section alone touches on a silent film about the Titanic which starred an actress who survived the disaster, the Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen scandal, and 2001: A Space Odyssey author Arthur C. Clarke. An especially fruitful passage that begins with Andy Warhol and his superstars touches on avant garde filmmaker Marie Menken, speculation as to the inspiration for Elizabeth Taylor’s character in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?(1966), and even contains a reference to the brief affair Leonard Cohen and Janis Joplin had there. A bustling scenario, just like the city.

I liked the concept for this book, and I thought it was well-executed. It's mostly for fans of the mainstream and definitely contains lots of expected material, but it satisfies more esoteric tastes as well.

Many thanks to TCM for providing a copy of the book for review.

Aug 12, 2020

On Blu-ray: Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967), Sweet Bird of Youth (1961), and Inside Daisy Clover (1965)

I recently had a personal viewing party full of dysfunction thanks to a trio of new Blu-ray releases from Warner Archive. Inside Daisy Clover, Reflections in a Golden Eye, and Sweet Bird of Youth are a messy, but fascinating trio cataloging the many ways being a human can go off the rails.

Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967)

With his typical respect for the work of great novelists, director John Huston filmed friend Carson McCullers’s second novel with the plot essentially intact. This story of illicit passions and mental strife on a southern army base has drawn a few laughs over the years for its over-the-top dramatics, but I’ve always thought the high temperature of many of the performances suited the characters.

As the foursome at the center of the film, Marlon Brando, Brian Keith, Julie Harris, and Elizabeth Taylor are a well-balanced quartet of contrasting vigor and frailty. Taylor in particular seems to understand the psychology of the dim-witted, but emotionally blazing woman she plays. In a calm, nearly wordless performance, Robert Forster cools the proceedings, thought his chill is clearly only on the surface. Richard Burton, Montgomery Clift had both circled Brando’s role, but I can’t imagine anyone but him capturing the mixture of bluster and shame necessary to play an officer who craves control, but can’t even get a handle on his own desires.

One of the best features on the disc is the option of watching the film in standard color as released or with a wash of gold as Huston had originally planned. I like both versions, but the golden hue is effective in making these characters seem trapped in their uncomfortable, insular world, like fish circling a dirty bowl. The disc also includes a short film of silent behind-the-scenes footage, which documents what appears to be a pleasant, professional set in total contrast to the turmoil of the drama being portrayed.

Inside Daisy Clover (1965)

Natalie Wood was under contract to Warner Bros when she won the lead in Columbia Picture’s Inside Daisy Clover. The studio forced her to star in The Great Race (1965) in exchange for doing the film, which reinforced why playing a juvenile film actress who suffers under the control of her employers would have appealed to the actress. She also recognized Daisy’s isolation.

It’s a bleak film. Daisy Clover (Wood) rises from poverty, but doesn’t escape her suffering. Every time she thinks she has found love and affection, be it from her mother (Ruth Gordon), a lover (Robert Redford), or her employer (Christopher Plummer), it is cruelly taken away from her. Daisy needs to learn to love herself, but she’ll need to move through a lot of emotional clutter to understand that.

Wood is at her best in her scenes with Gordon and Redford. She insisted on casting her friend Gordon as her mother and their closeness comes through on screen. In the first of two movie pairings with Redford, she found one of her best costars. They relax with each other in the most delightful way, as if they are at play.

Special features on the disc include a trailer for the film and the classic cartoon War and Pieces.

Sweet Bird of Youth (1961)

Based on the Tennessee Williams play, this production is packed with the passions and power struggles typical of the playwright’s best work. It centers on Chance Wayne (Paul Newman), a never-was in Hollywood who has returned to his small Mississippi hometown with the drug-addicted, alcoholic star Alexandra del Lago (Geraldine Page), to whom he has been serving as procurer and nursemaid, among other things. He pines for his childhood sweetheart Heavenly (Shirley Knight) though her corrupt political bigwig father Boss Finley (Ed Begley) is dead set against their reunion. Rip Torn is quietly frightening as his son and reptilian fixer.

Newman, Page, and Torn performed in the Broadway production of the play, and their familiarity with the material and each other gives the film an added emotional vibrancy. They could all be caricatures, but have lived with these characters long enough to view them with humanity. Begley earned his Best Supporting Actor Oscar for this performance; he’s a superficially charming, self-absorbed monster, full of rage that he cannot control the world around him and determined to bully his way to success. Knight is in an essentially thankless role, but she has a way of looking both into and through others that draws attention and gives her authority.

The play was sanitized a bit for the screen, resulting in a less-explosive ending, but it retains plenty of heat, mostly thanks to its particularly intelligent cast.

Special features on the disc include a featurette about the film, a screen test of Page and Torn, and a theatrical trailer.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing copies of the films for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Aug 5, 2020

Must-Watch On Blu-ray/ DVD: The Vibrant, Independent Vision of Spring Night, Summer Night (1967)

In 1968, J.L. Anderson was invited to show his debut feature, an Appalachian-set drama about an illicit love affair, Spring Night Summer Night (1967) at the New York Film Festival. His film was later bumped for John Cassavetes’ Faces (1968). Cassavetes would go on to a prolific career as an independent director, while, with all other promotional efforts for the film falling flat, Anderson would fade from public view.

It’s frustrating to realize that a lack of spotlight may have been all that deprived us of a great cinematic oeuvre, but thanks to the support of Nicolas Wending Refn’s byNWR, at least Anderson’s fascinating and moving rural masterpiece has been restored and is available on DVD/Blu-ray from Flicker Alley.

The film is set in Ohio coal-mining country, in the actual homes, bars, and fields of its residents. Anderson was a film professor at Ohio University and he took his locations seriously, embracing the lonely clotheslines, porches piled with belongings, and peaceful dirt roads of the southeastern region of his state.

Ted Heimerdinger and Larue Hall star as Carl and Jessie, half siblings, or least so they think. There is deep affection and sexual tension between the two. One night, after Carl objects to Jessie’s flirtations in the local bar, he rapes her in a field. Ashamed of his actions, Carl leaves abruptly for Columbus to look for work. Two seasons later, in the summer referred to in the title, Carl returns home to find Jessie is pregnant with his child and the pair tries to determine their own true parentage in the hopes they haven’t committed incest.

In the midst of their conflict, we learn about the people of the town, among them Carl’s, and perhaps Jessie’s father (John Crawford) and Jessie’s mother (Marjorie Johnson). These parental figures are emblematic of the worn spirit of the town. Both are nostalgic for the prosperity and hope of the war years, where it was possible to travel the world and visiting soldiers offered fun and a little luxury. In a pair of devastating monologues each of them express how they, like many in the town, live in sad longing for what might have been.

Despite this depression, the people of Spring Night, Summer Night are not pathetic characters. Poverty may bring them misery, but it isn’t unrelenting torture. They’re humans in search of joy and sometimes they find it. Anderson weaves these scenes of happy escape throughout his film: shared laughs and lively dancing at a local bar, the camaraderie between friends sharing a fast food meal in a park, or the easy pleasure of a young couple riding a motorcycle together through the countryside, sharing licks from an ice cream cone.

Anderson captures these moments with a simple naturalism similar to that of Italian neorealism, a stylistic vision he chose intentionally. Though the production was low-budget, it was high quality, with a sharp crew hired from the photography department of the university and a cast full of actors he’d handpicked from various stage productions. He joined forces with grad student Franklin Miller (who he met via his father, with whom he made a series of short films about physics) and friend Douglas Rapp (his involvement was brief, as he died in a motorcycle accident before filming began).

With a solid cast and crew, Anderson was able to concentrate on craft and that shows on the screen. He was a hands-on director, always close to the camera and certain of the details he wanted to capture. As a result there isn’t a moment that feels wasted or careless in Spring Night Summer Night. There is a sensuous beauty amid its worn characters and settings that can only come from careful observation.

The Flicker Alley set provides a solid primer on the background of the film and Anderson’s career. A trio of the short films he made with Franklin Miller: the fast-paced and humorous Football as It Is Played Today (1961), How Swived (1962), and Cheers (1963) are dramatically different from the feature. A 2016 Q&A at the Cleveland Cinematheque and the short documentary Spring Night Summer Night: 50 Years Later both offer valuable insights from the cast and crew. A slideshow gallery and a remarkably extensive reel of 16mm behind-the-scenes footage give an excellent perspective on the production of the film, showing camaraderie and a vigorous work ethic throughout the group. The short film I’m Goin’ to Straitsville is a tour of the film’s locations as they look today and In the Middle of the Nights: From Arthouse to Grindhouse and Back Again explores the ill-advised decision (not approved by Anderson) to edit the film into the exploitation flick Miss Jessica is Pregnant in a bid to make more money on the film.

It’s an impressive set in tribute to a remarkable film which is profoundly deserving of classic status.

Many thanks to Flicker Alley for providing a copy of the film for review.