MY FAVORITE BOOK OF FILM CRITICISM (Not Quite Random Favorites…In No Particular Order)

The Hollywood History of the World: From One Million Years B.C. to Apocalypse Now (1988)
George MacDonald Fraser
Okay, the competition is not exactly fierce. I respect their work ethic and even their skill with language, but, for ideas and insights, I’ve never been moved much one way or the other by Farber, Agee, Kael, Sarris. I counted Roger Ebert a genial dolt and Richard Schickel something less than that. Stanley Kaufman seemed like a nice man who was so cautious and judicious in his judgments that I could never remember what he thought of a movie ten seconds after I finished his review.

David Thomson? Don’t get me started on the clodhoppers.

Graham Greene was clearly slumming.

I like Molly Haskell a lot and I need to read more of her stuff.

Even so, I doubt anything she’s done would replace this. It’s the only book of film criticism I really like–and I like it a lot.

It probably helps that film criticism was the least thing Fraser did. Before and after that he was a novelist, essayist, memoirist, historian, screenwriter and all around exemplar (one of the last) of that old-fashioned breed: The Man of Letters.

It helps, too, that among Men of Letters, he was one of the best–not least because he took himself and the world less seriously than almost anyone else who ever earned his way into that club where no legitimate membership can ever be given.

And he was uniquely qualified to write his one book of criticism. The list of first rate novelists (he’s justifiably famous for his incomparable Flashman series, but don’t sleep on Black Ajax, a superb historical novel which recounts the rise and fall of Tom Molineaux, the ex-slave who, in the early nineteenth century, was the first great African-American boxing champion), who are also professional grade historians and accomplished screenwriters (he did Richard Lester’s Musketeer films and a personal favorite, Crossed Swords, among others) is not long.

Like a lot of his other writing, The Hollywood History of the World occupies a space all its own–in this case, defending Hollywood’s take on history. That’s not something I’m sure anyone else has ever even attempted, but I have a reasonable confidence that it has never been carried off so well.

For starters, Fraser knew that History itself is contested, often hotly so. For closers, he knew how to write it–so it’s not surprising that he knew how to write about it. The Hollywood History of the World then, works on three levels: as straight film criticism, as a back way into a historical worldview (the author’s own) and as a front way into the manner in which Hollywood, from the silent era to the 1980s, presented history as both History and Mythos.

That’s a lot to take on, but Fraser did it elegantly and forcefully, without coming off as being too full of himself. The book’s a great read–and it did for me something no other book of film criticism has done. Similar to the way Lester Bangs, alone among music critics, made me hear with new ears, Fraser made me see with new eyes.

Fraser wisely sequenced his book as a history of film itself, proceeding chronologically from the prehistoric era to Viet Nam, pairing up films from different eras by their subject matter, not their production chronology.

Along the way, he showed his grasp of the large scope of history without short-shrifting his own tastes and biases, both cultural and cinematic. Of course, not being a Leftist made him stand out. (Fraser once described his politics as whatever was dead opposite of the most recent attempt to convert him–a true kindred spirit.) But that never helped John Simon, or anyone else who was no better or worse than the competition.

Fraser stands out because he said things no one else said, and said them with the authority of someone who knew of whence he spoke. Perhaps most significantly, he spoke in the voice of one who was not concerned that others might have got it wrong and needed correcting.

In that respect, he really stands out from the crowd.

Hence…

From the introduction (a concise explanation of what film really does do better than any other art form):

It is worth remembering that the often-despised film moguls were the greatest patrons of the arts since time began; Hollywood employed more scholars and experts and diverse talents than any philanathropic or learned institution—and, incidentally, paid them better. They gave, and got, their money’s worth, and in the process they built us old Baghdad, new and shiny, and the Pyramids, and the Colosseum; they refought Trafalgar and Thermopylae for our benefit, and sent Columbus to the sands of Watling Island, Marco Polo to the courts of Cathay, Major Rogers to St. Francis, Rowan to Garcia, Drake around the world, and Stanley in search of Livingstone (to the tune of ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers’, which hadn’t been written then, but sounded wonderful); they brought Clive and Zola, Lincoln and Saladin, Buffalo Bill and Catherine the Great, Wellington and Dick Turpin, Florence Nightingale and Calamity Jane, to life again; they showed us Argonauts and Mountain Men, Vikings and Jane Austen’s ladies, gladiators and Roundheads, Chinese warlords and Pilgrim Fathers, Regency bucks and Zulu impis. Really, it was the greatest show on earth.

Some of it was historical nonsense; most of it was not. If some of the images were blemished, they were better than no images at all. Samuel Pepys has given the most brilliant and finely detailed memorial of Restoration London that could be imagined–but imagined in the word; we must form our mental pictures from what he tells us, and from artists like Lely and Kneller; is it sacrilege to suggest that Forever Amber, Frenchman’s Creek, and Hudson’s Bay add something worthwhile, if it is only a visual impression? All the world knows that when the Light Brigade charged in the San Fernando Valley, it was as the climax to a film that had no more to do with Raglan, Cardigan, and Balaclava than with “Little Women”–but even Lord Tennyson might have had his imagination enlarged by the most spectacular recreation ever seen of cavalry going neck or nothing into cannon fire. Bette Davis or Flora Robson could play only an imaginative personation of the Elizabeth, but they gave us something that the historian cannot. Personally, I always doubted that an army could be stopped by flashing polished shields until I watched it on the screen; I envisaged the Gordian knot as a vague tangle of rope until Richard Burton was confronted with something that looked like a spherical doormat. What the beginning of the Exodus was like, no one will ever know–Demille brought it to life. The sight of old Vladimir Sokolov perishing in the snow while Charles Boyer made sympathetic noises, conveyed some sense of what the Retreat from Moscow was like; the scene in which Jack Palance pulls on his glove while Elisha Cook stands wary and angry in the mud is art of a high order; it is also as true an impression of a Western gunfight as we are ever likely to get.

There is something else that the costume picture has done. I have lived long enough in the world of historical fiction to know how strongly it can work at turning readers to historical fact; Hollywood, by providing splendid entertainment, has sent people to the history shelves in their millions.

And, on specific movies:

True Grit

Having seen True Grit my one regret is that John Wayne never had a shot at Falstaff; Rooster Cogburn, the boozy, disreputable old rascal of a marshal hired by an adolescent girl to track down her father’s murderer, is his best performance, possibly because the script is quite the most authentic ever written for a Western picture. Whether the principal credit should go to the screenwriter, Marguerite Roberts, or the original novelist, Charles Portis, (NOTE: For the Record, Portis, though Roberts also got off several wonderful lines that weren’t in the book). I don’t know, but for once the voice of the Old West is heard strong and clear; its splendid imagery cries out for quotation, but I will cite only Rooster’s final raging challenge to Ned Pepper (Robert Duval)–not “Reach!” or “Draw!” or “Go for your gun!”, but: “Fill yore hands, you son-of-a-bitch!’ Never mind the plot, listen to the characters–not only Rooster and Pepper, but the game little bantam of a girl (Kim Darby), the Texas Ranger (Glen Campbell), the renegade Chaney (Jeff Corey), and the superbly articulate outlaws encountered along the way; actors seldom get the chance to speak so well, and they rise to the occasion.

The Wild Bunch

..a foul film which for some reason received enthusiastic reviews. One critic wrote of it: ‘The bloody deaths are voluptuous, frightening, beautiful’, and described it as an ‘imagistic epic’. I don’t know if that critic has ever seen bloody death, but it is not beautiful at all, and there is nothing clever or artistic or worthy about its portrayal ad nauseum. (NOTE: The critic was Pauline Kael…and, no, she hadn’t.)

Platoon

Platoon is terrifying. Not because of its horror and violence, but because I suspect it is a true picture, and that makes me tremble for the safety (to say nothing of the good name) of Western civilisation. I would prefer to believe it is a grotesque fiction, but good authorities have claimed it an honest portrayal of the Vietnam war, and if it is, then there is no doubt why America lost. On this showing, they didn’t have an army….like all the blood, carnage, and pretentious talk with which the film abounds, the danger is that audiences may regard it as typical of all warfare, and the conduct of the principals as acceptable, even excusable. They may even tell themselves that Barnes, with all his beastly faults, is a darned good soldier; he isn’t. He is a rotten soldier, and I wouldn’t bet on his platoon to beat the Band of Hope..

…I am reluctant to believe Platoon, because the Americans of 1942-45 (NOTE: with whom Fraser, a Brit, had served in the Pacific theater) were not like this; they were good soldiers.

Even within this small sampling, I don’t agree with all of Fraser’s assessments. I would not, for instance, fault the soldiers in a badly led army and leave any criticism of their leadership implicit. There is much else in the book I would dispute more strongly.

But every assessment made me think–and not just about movies.

They still do.

As a historian, Fraser understood that, at a certain point, events consist not merely of the facts (whether agreed upon or disputed) but of the stories we make from those facts. As a first-rate novelist and screen writer, he understood film has become, for better or worse, the principal means of conveying those stories.

His best quality, though, was that he kept his head, and stuck to what his extraordinary life had taught him.

As a result, his criticism had the sting of moral authority, astringently applied.

And, in an age when the theater at the strip mall is filled every weekend with “imagistic” violence that makes The Wild Bunch look like Renoir’s Impressionistic Paris, his warnings about allowing our worst instincts to run free were prescient.

MY FAVORITE ODE TO A FLOWER CHILD (Not Quite Random Favorites….In No Particular Order)

I posted something a little while back which contained a fleeting, somewhat sardonic reference to flower children.

Shortly thereafter, Neal Umphred and I had a brief but interesting exchange on the definition of “flower children,”  which amounted to his associating the term with its original meaning in the sixties, when it had a generally positive connotation of early hippies pursuing admirable dreams of peace, love and harmony.

I, on the other hand, grew up in the seventies, by which time “flower child” was mostly associated with impossible, easily exploited naivete…if not something worse (for which I refer you to Pattie Boyd’s autobiography, where she recounts the less-than-idyllic experiences she had with George Harrison in Haight-Asbury).

Ever since, that split has mostly remained in place, with mileage varying depending on which vibe your experience has channeled you to prefer.

Neal was right that my reference was a bit careless and too easily misunderstood, though. It was actually a specific reference to something I had just read on Nancy Sinatra’s twitter feed that day (where she linked favorably to one of the Never Trump neocons–it doesn’t matter which one) which was representative of dozens of other twitter links I’ve seen in the past year between Hollywood liberals (all of whom, like Nancy, now profess flower children ideals even if they don’t live by them and even if, like Nancy, they once represented the antithesis of the concept, a fact Neal also pointed out). I mostly didn’t make the reference specific in the post because I like Nancy, both as a persona and as an artist, and we all tend to make allowances for those we like, even if they start channeling Max Boot** and company.

Not a Flower Child!

The exchange was interesting mainly because it forced me to think on the use of terms that morph into different usage over time for one person while retaining their original usage for those who first encountered such terms in their original, unblemished state.

Which brings up the question of authenticity.

I’m not sure how “authentic” my favorite Ode to a Flower Child is. It’s a master class in disciplined Popcraft, provided by people who probably regarded hippiedom (and its music) with, at best, a bemused smile.

The singer was no ways cool, though that was a serious misunderstanding on the part of the tastemakers, whether in print or on the street, because he was one of Rock and Roll America’s greatest singers…and purest self-made products.

The writer, Kenny Young, became a big-time environmentalist, which was interesting because his mastery of craft–what gave him the bones to be big-time anything–was capitalism at its finest.

The band was the Wrecking Crew.

So it was like that.

I’m sure the Grateful Dead, or somebody, must have recorded a more authentic, real life Ode to a Flower Child. And someone must have delivered a more straightforward lyric than one that begins by questioning everything the Flower Child stands for before giving way to her charms before starting to act like her dad again!

But that’s what makes it poignant. Its placement–both in time (1970) and cosmic space (between the sixties’ definition of a flower child and the interpretation that would become standard in the cynical decades to come)–between two world views that could never hope to be reconciled and which, in their subsequent pursuit of dominance, could only become mutually and hopelessly corrupted.

This is one record that does what music does better than anything else…let’s you feel one with a moment in time that won’t come again…

…still wish I’d never looked up the lyric, though, and been forced to hear the scrupulous craft of “cut off your Indian braids” where the pure poetry of “come off your Indian ways” used to be.

But at least the dread lyric sheet couldn’t take “get off your eight-ball blues” away….not that I would have let it!

[NOTE: **I don’t know if it was Boot who Nancy linked that day and I’m too lazy to look it up. I know it was someone of his ilk. I use him as a euphemism for “war-mongering neocon”–i.e., someone no Hollywood liberal would go anywhere near except in the throes of Trump Hatred–because, in a hyper-competitive field, he is my  pick for the most shamelessly vile. Previously relegated to think tank publications and the like, either the Post or the Times just hired him. Does it matter which?]

MY FAVORITE MUSICAL (Not Quite Random Favorites….In No Particular Order)

Gigi (1958)
D. Vincente Minelli

Gigi has had a curious critical life. Upon release, it gained wide acclaim, including nine Oscars (though there were no acting nominations–Maurice Chevalier did win a special Oscar for lifetime achievement in the same year).

It’s reputation remained safe for a generation or so, then it began to slip down the charts. When the American Film Institute named its Top 100 films in 1997 and, again in 2007, Gigi was nowhere to be found. Same story when AFI named its 25 Greatest Movie Musicals in 2006.

A more typical modern take might be represented by TV Guide‘s 3.5 out of 5 stars (whilst accusing the French stars of a French writer’s story set and filmed in Paris of being….too French–I don’t make this stuff up folks).

David Thomson’s “It makes me sick,” is a little on the harsh side but, were you to accuse him of being the Donald Trump of the crit-illuminati, he and his supporters would probably just claim he’s only saying what others are thinking but afraid to say out loud.

Well, TV Guide is middle-brow mush and no one familiar with David Thomson’s writing has ever been surprised to learn there’s such a thing as a crackhead.

The earlier consensus that Gigi was Hollywood’s last great classical musical, and perhaps the peak of the form, was spot on. There was no need to revise it.

What struck me on my most recent viewing (I’ve probably seen it a dozen times, but it had been a while), was how not one of its special qualities could be replicated today–or for many years past.

I know I beat a dead horse when I write of lost culture, but to watch Gigi in 2017 is to be grateful for its power to transport. Because if one got stuck on the distance we’ve traveled from the century-gone world it depicts, or the half-century-gone world in which it was made, something–either the film or your life–would be unbearable.

Which is all the stranger for it being the story of a prostitute in training.

Okay, a courtesan in training. A classy prostitute.

But still….

It isn’t where you’d think to find echoes of a Lost Civilization.

They are there, though.

Leslie Caron–26 and a new mother when it filmed–got no love from anyone but the public for embodying the edge between sixteen and womanhood. She was famously hypercritical of herself, and there were no major awards and no Oscar nomination. But, in 1958, only Shirley MacLaine in Some Came Running (Minelli’s other big picture of the year) matched her (she didn’t win anything either, though at least she scored an Oscar Nom). Even with her singing voice dubbed–the film’s one mistake–and Minelli disappointed that he couldn’t get Audrey Hepburn (who had starred in the part on Broadway years earlier), Caron brought the magic.

There are people who don’t get it. Crackheads mostly.

In the fifties, Caron lit up everything she was in and never shone brighter than here. From that, everything else flowed.

The cast–the non-Oscar cast–was perfect even in their own time and it’s unimaginable now, that anyone living and age appropriate could play a single role as well.

The sets and costumes, perhaps the most lavish and detailed in Hollywood’s glorious history of paying almost absurdist level attention to such things, fill the eye in shot after shot.

That’s shot after shot directed by Vincente Minelli, who has no near modern equivalent. (Gigi and Some Came Running in the same year? Please.)

No one living could write appropriate music for this or any story. And, if they used the old songs, there would be no one to sing them, dubbed or otherwise. In a theater perhaps….but not under the merciless eye and ear of the camera and the sound stage.

And, if, by chance, any–or even all–of that happened, there would be no audience to sell it to.

Judging by how far Gigi has fallen from favor, TV Guide and David Thomson assisting (though hardly alone), it may not be much longer that it holds it public appeal. As time passes, these things fall more and more into the hands of the few. And if they are not there to recommend quality….

Well, we know how that goes.

I’ve always been a big fan of musicals, but I hardly watch them anymore. In a world where even rock and roll is on the verge of vanishing behind a wall of indifference (or perhaps I should say a pose of indifference, since the walling off of all common culture is much desired by people who would rather die than admit that’s a trowel in their hand), they are a step too far.

Two hours of forcing my attention to remain on the moment, when all it wants to do is wonder where the world that could produce this went, is too strenuous, even painful, to sustain the kind of pure enjoyment musicals once delivered.

Everything, even Gigi, has become a bit Wiemar-ish.

Hard to laugh–or even breathe–when they’re fighting in the streets boys.

But it’s not yet impossible to smile.

And that’s not nothing.

MY FAVORITE MOTOWN RECORDS (Not Quite Random Favorites….In No Particular Order)

By major act (and as prelude to a piece on Motown’s real importance in the sixties–coming….some day!).

Since the object is to honor the records, I used mostly studio recordings or lip synchs. The major exception is Smokey solo on “Sweet Harmony.” You know, if you only click one, yaddah, yaddah. I included the important acts who passed through Motown on their way to bigger, better things, because, well, they made great records on Motown, too. I stopped with acts who were at least signed in the 70s.

And I added my favorite one shot at the bottom–because God knows there were plenty of those! 

The Marvelettes “Playboy” (1962)

The Miracles “The Love I Saw in You Was Just a Mirage” (1967)

Mary Wells “The One Who Really Loves You”(1962)

Marvin Gaye “Too Busy Thinking About My Baby” (1969)

Martha and the Vandellas “Honey Chile” (1967)

The Supremes “Reflections” (1967)

The Temptations “Don’t Look Back” (1965)

The Four Tops “Standing in the Shadows of Love” (1966)

Stevie Wonder:”I Believe (When I Fall in Love With You It Will Be Forever)” (1972)

Gladys Knight & the Pips “It Should Have Been Me” (1968)

The Isley Brothers “This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You)” (1966)

Jr. Walker & the All Stars: “Way Back Home” (1971)

Marvin and Tammi “If This World Were Mine” (1967)

Spinners “We’ll Have it Made” (1971)

The Jackson 5 “ABC” (1970)

Diana Ross (solo)  “Upside Down” (1980)

Smokey Robinson (solo) “Sweet Harmony” (1973)

Jackson 5 (solo) Jermaine: “That’s How Love Goes” (1972)

The Commodores “Sail On” (1979)

Rick James “Superfreak (Part 1)” (1981)

Lionel Richie (solo) “Deep River Woman” w/Alabama (1986)

And, my favorite one shot (or, if you like, one big shot), in a close run over Brenda Holloway’s “Every Little Bit Hurts” and R. Dean Taylor’s “Indiana Wants Me” (which I’m guessing not a lot of people remember was a Motown record):

Jimmy Ruffin “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” (1966)

Always loved that there was no question mark.

MY FAVORITE NICOLE KIDMAN MOVIE (Not Quite Random Favorites….In No Particular Order)

The Peacemaker (1997)
D. Mimi Leder

“The truth is, I am not a monster. I’m a human man. I’m just like you, whether you like it or not.”

(Marcel Iures’s Dusan Gavrich in The Peacemaker)

“I’m not afraid of the man who wants ten nuclear warheads. I’m terrified of the man who only wants one.”

(Nicole Kidman’s Julia Kelly)

(NOTE: Spoilers included. I highly recommend seeing the movie first…but don’t forget to come back and read it later!)

There are millions of people walking around blissfully unaware of this, but Nicole Kidman is a big crit-illuminati favorite.

So far as I can tell, this is mostly a cover for geek males who have the hots for her (David Thomson wrote a whole book about her–I haven’t read it, but I’ve read enough of Thomson to know he’s an emotional fellow even when he isn’t thinking with his zipper so I ‘m guessing his book is Exhibit A), but plenty of women indulge as well. When she recently celebrated her fiftieth birthday, there were a lot of twitter threads devoted to allowing people to share (or show off) their deep awareness of the Nicole Kidman catalog.

Having missed out on all that–and having noticed that neither of my favorite Kidman movies came up on a single thread I followed, I decided to put my two cents in here.

There’s nothing rational about the illuminati‘s response, of course. Beautiful women have been driving people of both sexes crazy for as long as people have left a record of themselves.

It’s too bad, though, in this case, because Kidman really is a fine actress who has made a career of taking what are, by Hollywood standards, remarkable risks. She deserves the kind of even-handed scrutiny she’s never really gotten.

At least on the surface, where things count when we are judging the beautiful people, The Peacemaker isn’t one of those risk-taking roles. And it isn’t my favorite role of hers. For that you can go here.

But it is my favorite movie of hers.

It was released in the interim between the first attack on the World Trade Center (deemed unsuccessful because it only killed six people) and the second attack, which killed quite a few more and briefly caused a bit of consternation among the Overlord class, before they realized how little time and patience would be required for this, too, to be dumped down the memory hole as long as they stayed patient and refused to win any more wars. Turned out they were up to the task. We underestimate them at out peril.

But The Peacemaker still roils the placid surface they’ve striven so hard to maintain.

The film was a modest success, both critically and commercially. Exactly no one I know of put it on their list of favorite Nicole Kidman movies (which, after 1995’s genuinely unsettling To Die For, had already become a signifier of knowingness, what the kids call a thing) or favorite anything else.

Here’s Roger Ebert, with a fairly typical take:

At one point, trying to dismantle the bomb, the Kidman character tells a children’s choir director, “Get those kids as far away from here as possible,” and the kids scurry out the church door. A nuclear bomb is set to explode in under two minutes. If it does, it won’t help that the kids are four blocks down the street. If it doesn’t, the kids are safe where they are.

That’s illuminati-speak for, “I’m bored. Get back to amusing me.” and typifies the laziness that’s typical enough of the mindset to make it reasonable to assume it’s a prerequisite.

It happens that Kidman’s character doesn’t say anything remotely resembling “Get those kids as far away from here as possible.” She doesn’t say anything about the kids at all. It’s not likely she would, since they are running by her as she fights her way into the church.

She does tell the FBI agents who help her move the body to which the bomb is attached into an area of the church which will help diminish the bomb’s radiation yield (however marginally) if it goes off, to get out and evacuate as many people from the area as possible.

Ebert’s point might still hold….Except it also happens that the nuclear bomb is encased in a smaller bomb, which Kidman’s character is going to have to trigger in order to destroy the timer and keep the nuclear bomb from going off.

So, yes, the kids she didn’t evacuate (and the FBI agents she did) are much safer four blocks down the street than standing next to the smaller bomb, which does indeed, go off.

I noticed all this even when I saw The Peacemaker in the theater and have kept on noticing it ever since. Ebert seemed like a nice fellow, and his late career outreach to first rate younger critics like Matt Zoller Seitz and my blogging pal, Sheila O’Malley, was a real service, but was anyone ever better at not noticing?

And simple logistics aren’t all that Ebert–and, to be fair, pretty much everyone else–failed to notice.

The really big thing they failed to notice is that The Peacemaker’s ticking-time-bomb plot (well-handled, by the way–strictly as a thriller, it meets the J. Lee Thompson-John Sturges sixties-era standard, the highest there is), is a cover for the movie’s real theme, which is that the man who makes his way to Manhattan with a nuclear bomb in his backpack might have a point.

Post 9/11, that’s something even the few Western intellectuals who pondered it previously have been all too willing to forget.

And all of that–the pondering in the moment and the subsequent forgetting– plays to Kidman’s character in the movie and to the skill the actress brought to the role.

One of the things that went unnoticed at the movie’s release and has gone unnoticed since, is that Kidman’s Julia Kelly is a first-rate portrait of a woman operating in–and adjusting to–a man’s world. Not just any old man’s world, mind you, but one put under the most extreme duress imaginable: a scenario where nuclear bombs have been stolen (in the movie’s tense opening sequence, which concludes with one of them going off in the Ural Mountains), and one of them is missing and presumed headed to New York.

After that “failed” bombing in 1993, that was always the threat.

New York, it seems, is full of symbols.

In The Peacemaker the symbolic target is the United Nations, but, really, it could be any symbol of Western power and prestige. It’s our symbols, as much as our reality, that Marcel Iures’s Dusan Gavrich wants to destroy.

And it’s Julia Kelly who stops him.

That’s significant.

She doesn’t stop him single-handed (this is a movie that works in part because, despite the Hollywood trappings, which, to be fair to Roger Ebert, are certainly there, keeps rubbing up against realities which have only become less comforting with time). This isn’t Woman turning into Kick-Ass She-Male and fulfilling every fourteen-year-old boy’s I-got-your-empowerment-right-here-bitch hand-job fantasies.

But Kelly has something to bring to the table and it’s that particular something that becomes crucial in the film’s final moments. Not so much her technical expertise (which does come in handy, but would have been possessed by any man who held the job that puts her in that position to begin with), as her understanding of the bomber’s motives.

While the men around her are focused on the logistics of hunting him down in a specific, ever-narrowing space, she’s trying to get inside his mind.

She can focus on that because she’s nobody’s idea of a warrior. An athlete yes. One of the film’s most effective sequences is the early segue from the nuclear explosion in a faraway mountain range to a shot of Kidman’s long body exploding out of a turn in an Olympic-size swimming pool where she goes for exercise. When she reaches the other end of the pool, the news of the real explosion is waiting for her.

The segue works in the short term, as solid film craft. But it works as character development, too, because by the end of the film, it will only be an athlete who can keep up with the Warriors (led by George Clooney’s Tom Devoe) tracking the bomber on foot through the streets of a Manhattan clogged by the easy panic and de facto martial law (now readily relatable to Boston’s response to the Marathon bombing and all the more effective for being glimpsed rather than dwelled upon).

But, even within a two-block Manhattan-specific radius, a man with a bomb in a backpack is a needle in a haystack.

Kidman’s Kelly finds the needle because she’s the one who has been focused on the why rather than the how all along.

And that focus has something to do with being, not a woman per se, but a woman in a man’s world. A woman who has stuck to her guns throughout, often in the face of male ridicule–has insisted that the bomber wants his act to have that symbolic meaning her Warrior partners (Devoe in particular) have continually dismissed as so much hooey.

Her Warrior partners put her in a position to just possibly save the day. They put her in the position to save the day because they possess qualities she does not.

But she saves it because she possesses qualities they do not. (And it’s not that no man could posses those qualities–it’s that no man who does would be likely to feel the need to prove himself in a man’s world. No man would need to be where Julia Kelly is the way she needs it.)

Then and now, plenty of people noticed the lack of sexual chemistry between Kidman and Clooney. A few people have noticed ever since that Clooney has rarely struck a spark with any of his leading ladies–like Paul Newman, he does his best work with other men. Almost no one seems to have noticed that, in The Peacemaker, sexual chemistry would be pointless, if not ridiculous. They’re trying to save the world. And what they do have is professional chemistry.

You know, the kind a woman needs to excel in a man’s world.

If it weren’t cased inside a well-made thriller, the world might have also noticed that Kidman’s performance is a finely tuned variation on those good old American standbys: The Striver and The Innocent.

They’ve often been intertwined–in the same stories or even the same characters–because they have an inverse relationship. The more one Strives–at least the more one strives for anything worth the effort–the less Innocent one becomes.

The Peacemaker was prescient in a lot of ways, large and small. The casual use of torture is standard (traceable at least as far back as To Have and Have Not, where it was admittedly a lot sexier–who doesn’t want to see Bogie pistol-whip a French Nazi?).

But most of the rest is a window on the world that has come to pass:

The cleverest and most committed terrorists are likely to come from the upper middle class. Russia will always be a player. Martial law tactics are always presumed effective by the people who made the need to “protect” us necessary in the first place. The defeated will always find ways to use our technology against us (exemplified here by an opening scene which sets the plot in motion with a man assassinated in his Orthodox church because he answers his cell phone and a closing scene where the man who took his place has set a bomb triggered by a Harvard-trained Pakistani on a timer that is ticking down inside a Catholic church half a world away).

There’s our increasing reliance on experts, special ops, and the movie stars who play them.

There’s tyranny loving a sniper.

And expedience the same.

There’s the man who wants one nuclear warhead still being more terrifying than the man who wants ten.

Heck, there’s even a Trump joke.

Laughs all around.

But, absent the habit of Not Noticing, The Peacemaker‘s slick surface can’t ease or erase its prickly insights.

The most prescient moment of all–striking truer than anything I’ve seen outside the history books regarding the true cost of Empire–comes when Dusan Gavrich, the Empire’s ultra-civilized victim, is explaining himself to Julia Kelly, the one who might understand.

Devoe’s Warrior, insistent upon logic in ways the Innocent Striver is not, breaks in.

“Sir, it’s not our war.”

Just before he shoots himself in the head, Gavrich’s face hardens into that of the Man of Chaos he never wanted to be.

“It is now.”

I remember that moment from the theater, too.

The innocent, striving days of 1997.

It stayed with me through the denouement that scrambled Roger Ebert’ s brain.

It’s with me still.

I watch it as often as I can, lest I begin not noticing.

(And now that’s out of my system….I’m off to see Wonder Woman.)

MY FAVORITE POST-MILLENNIAL TELEVISION SHOW (Not Quite Random Favorites….In No Particular Order)

Medium (2005-2011)

…or, as I like to call it, Purgatorio.

I mentioned a while back that my favorite television show is The Rockford Files and there’s no real second. On an All-Time basis, that will always be true.

On the narrow basis of the new millennium though, my favorite show is Medium. And, again, there’s no real second.

It should be pretty obvious from those selections that I’m not especially enamored of the “narrative” shows that have come to dominate critically approved television since the dawn of The Sopranos.

Never fear. I’m used to being at odds with my fellow Earthlings. And if there’s one element that lifts Medium well above other recent shows I like, follow and write about (mostly Homeland and The Americans), it’s the unusual and serious degree to which is does not take Civilization for granted.

Even so, Medium should not work. It shouldn’t work in general and it really shouldn’t work on me.

It’s a mix of genres to which, taken individually, I’ve shown a lifetime of indifference, and, taken as a whole, tend to mutually repel each other–horror, paranormal, law and order, family drama, kitchen sink humor. Many of the elements within those genres that normally send me off to do the laundry or plot grisly murders are present in force: holes in logic, normalization of gore, the long-suffering teenager, the inquisitive child, the bickering couple.

And yet….

This time, on this show, it all works.

Some of it is the lead actress, who I prefer to call by her right title: The Unimpeachable Patricia Arquette. I watched a few shows with a friend of mine once and, in about Season One, Episode Three, he pointed at her on the screen and said “She’s frustrating!”

Exactly.

You know, like a real person in your life.

I could have looked at my friend (or any friend) and said “I often feel the same way about you.” And all of my friends could say the same of me. This is the only show I’ve ever watched where the cast (as opposed to a likeable lead, James Garner maybe) feel like friends. Sofia Vassilieva, twelve-playing-ten when the show began, eighteen-playing-sixteen when it ended, got both the teen wannabe and the actual teenager just right. Jake Weber got the put-upon husband just right (and boy, it’s hard to be more put-upon than having three daughters who are all psychics and the mom they got it from constantly awakened by nightmares of brutal murders which she feels compelled to solve in a manner that relies more on relentless will than careful detection). Maria Lark was a flat-out miracle as the inquisitive child. The rest of the cast was spot on as well. High profile guest stars like Arliss Howard and Anjelica Huston (in recurring roles), or Rosanna Arquette and Kelsey Grammer (in inspired one-offs) never felt like stunt casting.

It all worked and it all worked from the first episode.

Throw in better-than-good writing and the consummation of an idea which has dominated television for a decade-and-a-half now–a crazy white woman is what stands between us and chaos!–and you have high quality entertainment guaranteed as a baseline.

But Medium goes a bit beyond that. It poses–by accident or intent I can’t say–interesting questions.

What does it say about us that the best depiction of modern American normalcy on television in the new century, if not the history of the medium (no pun intended), shows a family of psychics (based on a real life model), where Mom spends her nights dreaming of horrible death and her days stalking the killers, while her daughters work out whether its ethical to pick the answers to homework math problems from normal Dad’s temptingly available head?

Nothing entirely good I suspect. But nothing entirely bad either. And a post-millennial show that offers some sort of hope in the madness is no small thing. After all, what really makes Homeland and The Americans (and, I suppose all those other quality shows I’m always hearing about) compelling is that, under all the effort at preservation on display, it’s the real message that resonates.

We’re screwed.

With Medium it’s….more complicated.

Hence Purgatorio.

In this show, the focus is on the living. But the drama resides with the dead.

And what the dead are seeking when they seek out Allison DuBois, is, if not redemption, then at least resolution. She doesn’t get visited by those who pass quietly in their beds. She gets visited by murder victims. And there are an awful lot of them.

Underneath the occasional bows to formula (even this premise can’t be endlessly inventive in an episodic format), and the pressing concerns of every day life, accurately, annoyingly, joyfully portrayed, what never wears smooth over seven seasons is the constant presence of violent death in the most ordinary suburban setting. Allison DuBois’s head is a war-zone.

Phoenix, with it’s built-in dynamics of immigration, drugs, sunlight, desert air, is an inspired setting even if it’s just by virtue of being the real Allison Dubois’s hometown. It’s normalcy with an edge, the kind of edge that has always existed in border towns when the border is in dispute as our southern border has periodically been and certainly is now.

But what makes the show compelling for me whenever I revisit it at length (as I’ve been doing recently) is the nagging conscience of Civilization, the search for order that seems to lean Catholic (I have no idea whether DuBois or the show’s creators are religious, only that religion’s concerns are, for once, represented as human concerns) but can’t quite get a grip in the modern sunlight.

Nor can it be dismissed. Every day in Medium, like every day in the “real” world, the sun goes down. Allison’s crazy dreams haunt a present that has been designed to dispel them. The character’s dogged will is that of a Crusader, a will that could only be produced by a religious impulse–when it annoys us, we call it fanaticism, when it frightens us, we burn people at stakes–even if no particular faith is espoused.

So underneath all the lovely writing and wonderful acting and skillful appropriation of ancient dread for a modern setting, the real heartbeat of Medium is the nagging, frustrating truth that animates all worthwhile art, serious or popular:

Without Meaning, there is no Life.

[NOTE: I have no idea whether the real life Allison Dubois is an actual physic or whether psychics really exist. I also have no interest in knowing. The key to any good show is whether it works on its own terms. By that measure, Medium works wonderfully well.]

MY FAVORITE “ANYTIME” MOVIES….BY DECADE (Not Quite Random Favorites….In No Particular Order)

Some time in the distant past when I used to listen to sports talk radio (and boy is that time getting to be distant), I heard a segment where a bunch of junior noncoms in the Dead Brain Cell Count Brigade opined about movies they could literally sit down and watch anytime.

The DBCCB being what it is, Die Hard came up a lot.

Nothing against Die Hard, which I like, but I always thought I could do better ….so, being, as they say, snobby but not runny snobby:

The Thirties:

Carefree (1939, D. Mark Sandrich)

As many have noted, more a screwball comedy than a musical. As not enough have noted, a first class screwball comedy. And while it may not be a musical, strictly speaking, it does have Ginger doing “The Yam,” my favorite five minutes of film. My second favorite five minutes is Ginger, hypnotized, running loose with a shotgun, muttering “Shoot him down like a dirty dog!” while Luella Gear explains to Jack Carson that  “It’s probably one of the silly rules.”

The Forties:

Colorado Territory (1949, D. Raoul Walsh)

Walsh’s superior remake of his own High Sierra, the movie that made Humphrey Bogart a star. It’s easier to have sympathy for a western outlaw than a modern sociopath (even if the sociopath has had the rough edges smoothed away for the box office). Joel McCrea’s at his very best as a man looking for a second chance in the same wrong place he lost the first one, and VIrginia Mayo makes for one fetching half-breed. Plus it’s a heist flick, always a plus in my book.

The Fifties:

Rear Window (1954, D. Alfred Hitchcock)

Top drawer Hitchcock of course. It’s not so much remembered now, but this sat in the vaults for decades before being restored and re-released to theaters in the eighties. I took my mom to see it and, every time Grace Kelly came on the screen she would murmur, “Isn’t she so-o-o-o-o-o beautiful!” I could hardly disagree, but I thought I would go back a week or two later and watch it by myself, just to see what it was like without the sound effects. Met a girl from work in the lobby and, since we were both there by ourselves, it would have been rude not to sit together. First time Grace Kelly came on the screen: “Isn’t she so-o-o–o-o beautiful!” Interestingly enough, we spent the time before the movie mostly talking about a girl in our office who actually was the only woman I’ve ever known who was as beautiful as Grace Kelly in Rear Window, and had just quit to move back to Orlando. I found out a year or so later that she had wanted to date me, in part because I was the kind of guy who took his mother to the movies….Oh, wait. You thought I was gonna talk about the movie? Come on. You know about the movie. Hitchcock’s serious side and his comic side, perfectly married. That’s the movie.

The Sixties:

El Dorado (1967, D. Howard Hawks)

This is probably my all-time “anytime” movie. It’s a not-that-loose remake of Hawks’ Rio Bravo, which everybody, including me, knows is “superior.” But there’s nothing in Rio Bravo I’d trade for the hour in the middle when John Wayne and Robert Mitchum are just a couple of roughnecks trying to keep law and order in a cowtown while Wayne keeps seizing up from the effects of a bullet in his back and Mitchum–with so little polish on him you can smell the whiskey, if not the vomit–is trying to dry out in time to dodge the next bullet. And if that’s not entertaining enough, I can always sit and ponder the mysteries of a universe where Michele Carey could smoke that many holes in the screen and fail to become a star.

The Seventies:

The Rockford Files: Season Four, Episode 8, “Irving the Explainer” (1977, D. James Coburn)

Not a movie. Okay, but there’s enough plot for three movies and it never gets resolved or leaves you wishing it would. People ask me what my favorite television series is and I say The Rockford Files. People ask me what my second favorite television series is and I say “I’m sorry, I don’t understand the question.”  Pick to click:  “Let me get this straight: You have a client who has the same name as Herman Goering’s house?”

The Eighties:

Midnight Run (1988, D. Martin Brest)

Way funnier than Die Hard, and the action sequences are no sillier. I’m not sold on Robert De Niro’s serious mode. (The whole Brando school leaves me…bemused.) But there’s never been a better comic actor. Not even Cary Grant. Matched here by the entire cast, including Charles Grodin, who I can usually take only in the smallest doses.

The Nineties:

Wag the Dog (1997, D. Barry Levinson)

Preston Sturges for the Age of the Security State and a road movie to boot. We forget. That’s the only explanation for a world where this movie exists and you still have people running around crediting the CIA–or, better yet, “the intelligence community”–as a reliable source. Comic genius from Dustin Hoffman, the aforementioned Mr. De Niro and Anne Heche, as the Girl Friday from both Heaven (oh, the efficiency) and Hell (she doesn’t care the job or the master, she just wants to serve someone and, buddy, you better be it).

The Current Millenia:

I know we are in the second decade of the new millennia, but it hasn’t been the sort of millennia that produces a lot of things worth revisiting. Forget two, I’m surprised there’s one.

Knight and Day (2010 D. James Mangold)

That’s the whole movie right there. Two people who are amazed by each other. One’s a superspy and the other likes to work on cars. Guess which is which? This is almost enough to make me forgive James Mangold for his wretched remake of 3:10 to Yuma. Almost.

MY FAVORITE WESTERN THEME (Not Quite Random Favorites…In No Particular Order)

Movies only…we’ll leave this, by a long ways the best TV western theme, aside…

..and stick to the cinema entries.

First, a little history:

Narration: Though High Noon opened to universal praise in late July, 1952, one of its early previews has proved disastrous. 

Fred Zinneman, Jr.: What was wrong with the preview was that there was wall-to-wall music in it and what people were responding to was the amount of music. After it was over, people–all the executives–were forming into little groups, whispering, and I just went into the bathroom, where two other executives were, and I heard one of them say to the other, “Well, what does a European Jew know about making westerns anyway?”

From Inside High Noon (50th Anniversary DVD edition of High Noon, Frank Langella, narration)

Stanley Kramer:  He (Columbia studio head, Harry Cohn) said “What difference does it make? So I ran it. It’s a piece of junk anyway”

Narration: Now, in fairness to Harry Cohn, the print that he saw of High Noon was missing a crucial element: music. You don’t have to be an expert to know how much music can add to a movie. But in this case the music was so unusual, so revolutionary, in fact, for its time, it added a whole dimension to the picture. Most movies of the 1950s opened with a fanfare, a big orchestra. Here’s what you heard at the beginning of High Noon…as spare and low-key as the film itself:

(From The Making of High Noon (50th Anniversary DVD edition of High Noon, Leonard Maltin, narration)

Not that those sometimes fanfares went away entirely….either from not so famous movies…

or extremely famous ones…

Or that you couldn’t split the difference:

Still, the makers of High Noon–having gone with too little music and too much–were onto something when they found the right mix. In the western, at least, vocals added something.

But there were only a few great ones. Some spare and low-key, some operatic.

And some of them didn’t make it to the movie. Well, one of them anyway:

Sometimes, a shoulda’ been didn’t make the movie either…

…that’s from the cutting floor of Rio Bravo, which, if it’s missed, is not as missed as it might have been, thanks to what is there.

This couldn’t have been a theme, exactly….

But this actually was…(well, a piece of it was, anyway)

So you can see (or hear), where they might have had a hard time choosing. And why they had a high bar to meet when they “remade” it (fanfare and all)…

And, by the late sixties, there was even at least one instance of a theme that blossomed out into a soundtrack (i.e., an ongoing ballad that ran through the whole movie, with endlessly witty variations, the gist of which are barely hinted at up front):

But, really, when it’s all said and done, there are three that stand head and shoulders above the rest.

One has the advantage of being from the greatest movie ever made:

One has the advantage of being both the greatest vocal and the best song ever recorded for a western theme.

But, down at the end, there’s something about the ground-breaker…Tex Ritter’s proudest moment, and one which he knew how to deliver more ways than one. My favorite is the one I played first, but this is a great variation. And there’s no more elegant or mysterious phrase in the English language than…”Wait along.”

 

MY FAVORITE HEIST FLICK: COMEDY DIVISION (Not Quite Random Favorites…In No Particular Order)

I have a thing for heist flicks. I have such a thing for heist flicks that I find it hard to believe I’ve operated this blog for four-and-a-half years without writing about at least one of them at length.

Today, I’ll fix that.

Heist flicks can be broadly defined: What’s a kidnapping movie but a heist flick about a stolen body? There must be some kind of horror film division where souls are filched eh? Westerns about land grabs? Yeah, I’ve heard of those.

You can stretch “heist” almost as far as you can stretch “noir.”

Forget all that. I’m sticking to the basics.

For the purposes of this little exercise, the heist flick concept will be limited to stories about some person or persons trying to steal some form of loot.

That ought to keep it simple.

And within that basic definition there are two fundamental approaches: Comedies and tragedies.

I’ll get to the tragedies later. Today I’ll stick to the comedies.

Better yet, I’ll stick to a period that stretches from the early sixties to the early seventies, when nearly all the best comedy heist flicks were made.

There were good ones before (Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief, from 1955, a likely model of inspiration, comes directly to mind).

And I’m sure there have been good ones since (can’t think of any off-hand but the world’s a big place and I don’t like to say never).

But the best were nearly all made in those golden years between 1963 and 1971, when so many other pleasant things were going on, most of which these films never acknowledge.

They did have certain themes in common beyond the obvious heist structure. They all kept a fine balance between real comedy and real suspense…something Hitchcock himself only managed a few times. They all had genuinely clever plots that bordered on the feasible without inviting too much realism in  And they all had a developing love story at their center, which mirrored and enhanced both the comedy and the suspense.

My favorite is my favorite because it did the best job of balancing the love story with the rest. And considering who all and what all was involved in defining the genre, that’s saying something.

So….taking the best in chronological order (any other order would be an exercise in absurdity) and saving the very best for last:

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Charade (1963)
Director: Stanley Donen
Love Story: Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn
Heist Object: A Stamp (sort of!)

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Topkapi (1964)
Director: Jules Dassin
Love Story: Peter Ustinov and His Sorry Life
Heist Object: Emerald-encrusted Dagger

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The Moon-Spinners (1964)
Director: James Neilsen
Love Story: Hayley Mills (not the character she played so much as the actress) and the Isle of Crete.
Heist Object: Pearls (which have already been stolen…is there such a thing as a Reverse Heist Flick?)

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Kaleidoscope (1966)
Director: Jack Smight
Love Story: Warren Beatty and Oh! Susannah York
Heist Object: Casino Cash

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How to Steal a Million (1966)
Director: William Wyler
Love Story: Audrey Hepburn and Peter O’Toole (she made a romantic lead out of him…no small feat)
Heist Object: Paintings

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Waterhole #3 (1967)
Director: William Graham
Love Story: James Coburn and Margaret Blye’s Daddy (played by Caroll O’Connor…it’s complicated…a horse named Blue also figures prominently)
Heist Object: Gov…ern…ment…Gold

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Two Mules for Sister Sara (1969)
Director: Don Siegel
Love Story: Clint Eastwood and Shirley MacLaine (she made a romantic lead out of him…not even Audrey Hepburn could have managed that!)
Heist Object: Government Gold…it was a thing then.

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The Italian Job (1969)
Director: Peter Collinson
Love Story: Michael Caine and Noel Coward (though Margaret Blye once again makes for a lovely distraction)
Heist Object: Mafia Gold…being protected by the Government (a nice twist)

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Kelly’s Heroes (1970)
Director: Brian Hutton
Love Story: Telly Savalas and Donald Sutherland (No attempt to involve Clint in that end of it this time. Telly and Donald were wonderful actors…but they were no Shirley MacLaine).
Heist Object: Government Gold (though this time it’s the Nazi government)

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Dollars (aka $) (1971)
Director: Richard Brooks
Love Story: Warren Beatty and Goldie Hawn (though a subplot involving Gert Frobe and a gold bar also works beautifully on many levels)
Heist Object: Safety Deposit Boxes….that belong to crooks..and a nice way to close down the concept’s golden age!

I’m sure there are one or two from the time period that I either haven’t seen or have forgotten.

Plus the one I won’t mention until I’m naming my favorite (though those who are sufficiently hip to the genre or the period can guess from that faux-noirish top photo, which I found myself unable to resist).

I’m sure there are other films in the same vein and of the same quality that were made outside this time period, but, again, laying aside Hitchcock in lighthearted mode as the obvious source for much of this, I either don’t know about them or haven’t seen them.

So I’ll stick to my premise.

There was a special hybrid of comedy/suspense heist films…and almost all the best ones were made in the space of a turbulent decade.

Few were made before, probably because whatever turbulence filmmakers felt the need to channel was then best channeled through the device of romantic comedy or some other form of farce. It’s no accident that most of the heist films I named above, and the favorite I’ll name below, were superb romantic comedies as well. And it’s no accident that the old forms of romantic comedy, including the screwball kind, were falling out of fashion, both critically and commercially, at the same time the heist comedy romances flourished.

Something had to plug the gap between marriage-as-the-object-of-desire and marriage-as-nothing-at-all.

What better than loot?

Later on (and by later, I mean a year or two), this whole approach became problematic because the gap closed and marriage was no longer even part of the gold standard. More to the point, the presumption that marriage itself was both the logical and desirable end of any love story–even one involving loot–simply became untenable as a cultural assumption.

And once a cultural assumption becomes untenable it loses its force as a narrative device. That might be why subsequent attempts to remake some of these films fell completely flat. (The Trouble With Charlie, Jonathan Demme’s reboot of Charade, may be the worst film ever made by a director of his talent. I do not say this lightly. The remake/sequel of The Italian Job is fun for about five minutes. That’s about the length of time it takes to transition from the end of the original to the sequel part. I haven’t seen the remake of my favorite, but the fact that it stayed in development hell for years hasn’t made me any way anxious to fill this little gap.)

The other thing that hasn’t made me anxious to see a remake of my favorite–not even when Jennifer Aniston was attached to it for a while–is that my favorite is perfect.

There is never a reason to remake anything that’s perfect.

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Gambit (1966)
Director: Ronald Neame
Love Story: Shirley MacLaine and Michael Caine (who, in the romantic lead department, needed less help than any man not named Cary Grant, meaning, for once, Shirley didn’t have to work at being anything but Shirley).
Heist Object: The Bust of the Li Szu…or is it?

Gambit is the type of film that makes the crit-illuminati throw up their collective defenses. It’s always spoken of fondly but–horrors!–never taken seriously.

And since the job of the crit-illuminati is to shape the expectations of the rest of us–and I’m as susceptible as the next person (or was in youth anyway…I didn’t start out mistrusting everyone), I had to see it about ten times before I realized just how much better than really good such things can be.

Such things can tell us…things.

If we let them.

I’d never let that spoil the fun, though.

What makes this film good–really, really good–are the usual things that make movies really good. Great actors making difficult things look easy. (Watch the magnificent aplomb of the great Herbert Lom as he goes through a series of emotionally complicated shifts in character and perspective without making the least bit of fuss. You’ll have to make a point of watching because, even then, he’ll never let you catch him at it.) Real movie stars, Shirley MacLaine and Michael Caine in this case, in the glory of youth. Good tight writing and direction from established pros (Ronald Neame is a British version of Martin Ritt–all he ever seemed to do was make wonderful movies).

All that’s a given.

What gives the film force, though, a force that has carried through however many dozen viewings I’ve had a chance to give it, is that Caine’s Harry Tristan Dean and MacLaine’s Nicole Chang, spend the movie finding something that really is better than all the money in the world (and we know this because all the money in the world is what Lom,  playing “the world’s richest man,” has). Namely, each other.

It really was acting, of course, and acting of the highest order. Neither Michael Caine or Shirley MacClaine were exactly known for being the monogamous type.

But they, and everyone involved in all of these films, came out of cultures that valued forms of permanence, including especially the form that starts with “til death do us part.” And, having mastered the one art every great actor has to master, that of observation, they play out Gambit‘s romantic implications with such natural ease that the deepest cynic would have no trouble believing their characters will make some form of “til death do us part,” work…or that it will leave a hole in the world if they do not.

Those kind of assumptions are all lost now and that’s the real reason nobody makes this kind of movie stick anymore. It’s certainly not for lack of trying and, amidst all the usual blogging/facebooking/tweeting/think-piecing laments about the absence of “basic story-telling” in modern narratives (be it film, stage or page) no one really wants to acknowledge the underlying reason, because it would mean admitting it as part of the price of “freedom,” in this case, the freedom to live in a world where “til death do us part,” and “well, as long as you won’t be here in the morning,” carry the same cultural weight.

It might or might not make for a better world. We’ll find out soon enough because right now we’re living in the afterglow of a cultural collapse which hasn’t made its own force felt as economic or military collapse. Here’s hoping we’ll be the first people to avoid facing the usual consequences.

But, however it works out in the “real” world, it sure makes for a hole in the world of narrative fiction the meantime. “Stories”–as opposed to the shiny-object distractions filmmakers (and novelists and playwrights), now strive to deliver across the board, often with an impenetrable layer of “seriousness” ladled on top–depend on cultural assumptions, the value of “til death do us part” being one of the principals that sustained basic narratives for about five thousand years, from the birth of narrative, until yesterday.

Right up to the moment Gambit was being made in fact.

Which is why a light entertainment from the mid-sixties carries more weight than we have any right expect, and not just because Shirley MacLaine, the actress of her age, gets to be as good as she was in any of her richly deserved Oscar-nominated performances.

Good and necessary as Caine is (as good and necessary as it gets), it’s her show, just the way the old screwballs were always the woman’s show.

For starters, she gets to use her dancer’s body more than most dancers do in actual musicals. From the tight little walk that the movie’s opening tracks through a crowded Hong Kong street, you could be forgiven for believing she’ll get right to it. Instead, she spends the next twenty minutes being the one thing you would bet Shirley MacLaine could never be, which is bo-r-r-r-ing, If you spend the whole time waiting for her to move a muscle in her face, don’t blink or you’ll miss it.

It might be the best pure acting job of her career, because the joy (as opposed to fun, which this movie always is) starts when she starts to talk and it turns out she’s a girl who really, really likes to talk. Shirley MacLaine on a movie screen could never be boring when she talked, because she never talked like anyone else. Here, once she starts, she talks a blue streak and even Michael Caine, completely in control to that point, has to run to keep up.

After that, it becomes a game of romantic yin-and-yang. Every time he gets dumber, she gets smarter and, when she finally gets dumber again, he gets smarter again just in the nick of time. And we realize that if he gets dumber a little more often than she does, it’s because she’s seen more of the world than he has…and maybe even more than he thinks he has.

So, yeah, for all those reasons and more, Gambit is my favorite comic heist flick. But it’s also my favorite because it’s a reminder that, when we bother to look back, the moment of our forgetting is tantalizingly near.

It’s as if we could still reach back and touch it, maybe even reclaim what we’ve forgotten if we wanted to. One moment, movies like this seemed simple, even inevitable. The next moment, what we call “now,” they seem impossible.

So, now, whenever Gambit nears its end, and the actress of the age just gone by starts once again talking about “all that Mongolian clay,” I’m no longer sure whether to laugh or cry.

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Then Nicole arrives, and she climbs into the heavily protected cage. But she sets of the alarm.The last bit’s the tell…because, across an uncrowded room that’s taken their whole lives to reach, it’s obvious the Li Szu is no longer the object of desire.

MY FAVORITE HAIRCUT (Not Quite Random Favorites….In No Particular Order)

jfonda1It was called a “shag.” Some prefer “hairstyle” but don’t worry. Either way it’s nothing I ever had. This is not about me. Just about what I like.

There having been only three famous women who ever truly rocked it above and beyond the call of duty, I was just going to post some pictures of them. (I’m sure some of the many men who wore it, David Cassidy, Rod Stewart, et al, touched the souls of those of other persuasions, male and female. If so, peace be upon you. As for me, I am what I am and make no apologies.) But, in doing a little research, I found out my favorite haircut had a specific and pretty inspiring history.

To the extent such things can be spiritually copyrighted, it was invented by a Hollywood hairdresser named Paul McGregor for Jane Fonda’s character in 1971’s Klute. I encourage you to read the full story at the link, where, among other things, I learned that Warren Beatty, much to McGregor’s bemusement, claimed he modeled the lead character in Shampoo after him.

That might be another story for another day when I write about movies that defined the seventies. Klute and Shampoo will definitely be on the short list for consideration.

(And whether that was really where the shag began I don’t profess to know. Not my bailiwick. You got other ideas, feel free to share.)

For now, the part that interests me most is Fonda’s own reaction to the cut. Again, you can read the whole thing at the link, but basically, she saw it as a path to freedom, specifically freedom from her super-controlling husband/director Roger Vadim, who liked for her to wear hairstyles he approved.

I’ll buy that.

And, if so, it was not just mine and a lot of other people’s favorite haircut but maybe one of the more important cultural statements in modern history.

The Fonda who was perpetually cowed by men like Vadim could never have become Hanoi Jane. which, in itself, might have been a blessing. However pure her intentions, she did no worthy cause any favors in the role. And the less said about her eighties-era aerobics empire, the better. (Okay, I’ll say this much: those workout videos were as emblematic of Reagan-era ethics as visiting Hanoi was of counterculture ethics half a generation earlier–once unleashed, Jane got around.)

But she also never could have become, for a decade or so, starting with Klute itself, the bravest actress in Hollywood, a place where genuine bravery is always in short supply. She didn’t keep it up, but, while she was in flight, she went places nobody went before, at least not in big Hollywood productions that reached far outside the art-house circuit.

(For how far outside that circuit a Hollywood star can have an impact, I’ll just repeat something my mother told a woman on the phone who was going on about Jane’s political shortcomings right after we had seen 1978’s California Suite: “Well honey that may be true, but I’ll tell you one thing. She’s forty years old and she came out wearing a bikini and there was not one ounce of fat on her.” In our world, you always got credit for being a trouper. Next to that, being a commie didn’t seem so bad.)

For all the best and worst of it, out of Fonda’s own mouth, we can thank the shag.

Which leaves the real question hanging.

Did she who rocked it first rock it best?

Well….

Let me first say that, when it comes to haircuts, “shag” has developed a very fluid definition. So fluid it basically includes every shoulder length hairstyle you can think of, including the most famous post-shag hairstyle of ’em all “The Rachel.”

Nothing against the Rachel, but no matter how many millions donned it, it only ever really belonged to one person–and she hated it. Too much trouble. I’ve expressed my admiration for Jennifer Aniston plenty here before, but the Rachel is not a shag, let alone the shag.

The true shag, as befitting its source and inspiration, was both bold and democratic. If I’m giving it the strictest definition, I’m saying if I didn’t see it in the halls of my high school, circa 1974, it ain’t a shag.

Which brings me to Fonda’s competition.

Until recently (meaning this week) I always considered this competition to consist of one woman and one woman only–a woman who was really famous in England in 1974, but was completely unknown in my rural southern high school until she showed up on Happy Days a few years later.

That would be this woman:

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..who did not even cause a buzz in my part of the world when she made the cover of Rolling Stone in January, 1975. Believe me, if anybody had seen this, word would have gotten all the way around:

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So if nobody liked Jane, nobody had heard of Suzi, and nobody else wore the cut with sufficient flair to inspire imitation, why were so many girls sporting one? Utility maybe, but, in high school, that ain’t enough. In high school, at least for it to spread like that, somebody has to make it cool.

And, until this week, when I was searching around Pinterest on an unrelated topic, I had somehow completely forgotten who made the shag cool in my part of world in 1974. Then I happened across a few key photos that unlocked the memory gate.

Everybody in my high school knew who this woman was. And everybody liked her. Girls especially. Working class girls most especially. There was a reason she was the Country Music Association’s Female Vocalist of the Year for 1974. Country girls were her first major audience. And they didn’t just like her music.

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For the record: The girls in my part of the world kept on copying Olivia Newton-John’s hairstyles for the rest of the seventies.

Farrah Fawcett’s soon-to-be legendary do?

Never saw one anywhere but on television.

Now, as to who was the absolute best?

Come on. You think I’m gonna make that pick?

I’m country. Sort of.

I’m a lot of things. Sort of.

I ain’t stupid.

Kudos, though, to Suzi, for pretty much sticking with it, decade after decade.

And for always being a reminder that a thing of joy is beautiful forever.

NEXT UP: MY FAVORITE COMEDY HEIST FLICK