FAVORITE FILMS….FOR EACH YEAR OF MY LIFE…BY DECADE…CUE THE SIXTIES

At least according to Terry Teachout, this idea has been going around. Terry’s own list is here (it’s a pretty good one). The idea is to take each year of your life and list your favorite film from that year.

For me, “favorite” is a simple concept. It’s whatever resides at the matrix of what I like the best and what has meant the most. I tend to emphasize this quality over what I think is “great” anyway (though, unsurprisingly, there is considerable overlap…we tend to elevate what we like, though I also like to believe that what we like can elevate us).

I want to drill down a bit, though (including links to those films I’ve written about at length and mentioning the close competition, when it exists), so I’m going to post these by decade…starting conveniently enough with the decade I was born in and am most fascinated by…

1960 The Apartment (Billy Wilder) (over Swiss Family Robinson and Psycho)

1961 The Guns of Navarone (J. Lee Thompson…and, for once, truth in advertising)

1962 The Miracle Worker (Arthur Penn) (over The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Ride the High Country, Cape Fear, The Manchurian Candidate…I could go on. Easily the strongest film year of my lifetime.)

1963 Charade (Stanley Donen)  (over The Great Escape and Hud)

1964 The T.A.M.I. Show (Steve Binder) (Actually a strong year, but….no competition)

1965 A High Wind in Jamaica (Alexander Mackendrick) (over That Darn Cat and The Truth About Spring)

1966 Gambit  (Ronald Neame) (over A Man For All Seasons and El Dorado)

1967 The Graduate (Mike Nichols) (over Wait Until Dark, Hombre, Don’t Look Back and the Soviet version of War and Peace)

1968 Monterrey Pop (D.A. Pennebaker) (over Where Eagles Dare…Interesting decision if I took one of those liberties I’m prone to take and considered Elvis’ Comeback Special a film. Glad I don’t have to make it.)

1969 Medium Cool (Haskell Wexler) (over Support Your Local Sheriff...it was a very strange year.)

Overall, a strong decade. As will be the 70s. After that….dicey.

 

 

 

 

 

SEEING PSYCHO WITH THE NOVICES (Segue of the Day: 9/1/15)

VERAMILES1

So Psycho came to the local college theater (the big one with the stadium seating this time) and I had a chance to see it on a big screen, with an audience, for the second time since I started this blog.

I wrote about the first experience here and, just from a film school standpoint, everything was the same, only more so. Vera Miles still keeps the whole thing from dissolving with a flicker of the eyelid here, a sideways glance there, an occasional quaver of barely contained emotion appropriate to actual human responses bubbling up through the movie’s otherwise completely flat, almost robotic surfaces.

Anyway, the audience told the tale.

The main difference between the two viewings was that, this time around, I was clearly with kids who had mostly not seen it. That’s maybe another sign, perhaps a slightly surprising one, of how times have changed.

Last time I saw Psycho with a college audience was in the mid-eighties, with VHS players a recent phenomena and public screenings of classic film outside of major cities relatively rare.

Back then, people were competing to see who could recite the most dialog back to the screen. This time around, with opportunities to see popular classics having been in abundance for the entire lifetimes of most of the audience, even the most famous surprises were clearly surprises. Except, of course, for the one surprise almost nobody can avoid knowing about, which is the shower scene.

So the shower scene evoked relatively little response and the screams and shouts and warnings were all at the end, meaning the part real film buffs are always claiming they stop watching after they’ve seen the movie a time or two, because, well, the first part of the movie is where all the film buff stuff is at.

Look, Anthony Perkins’ performance is all that. He deserves every accolade he’s ever received. And Janet Leigh is fine, too. It’s a nicely nuanced turn.

But, as I intimated in the earlier piece, there’s no edge or shadow in her performance (or her persona, such as it was/is) that suggests her character is really the type to steal $40,000 for some reason other than to set a fever dream plot in motion. I suspect that’s why the shower scene has little emotional resonance with audiences these days, when the violence is no longer anywhere near the edge and the “shock” aspects have faded, especially for kids who barely know who Janet Leigh was and have no reason to think she won’t be killed by the sociopath at the Bates Motel just because she’s too big a star to die halfway through the movie.

All of that leaves the movie right where it really always was…with Miles to do the heavy lifting at the climax which, had it not worked so perfectly, would have left the movie a curio for the benighted to discuss among themselves, like Rope or Marnie, instead of, at one and the same time, in the conversation for the greatest horror film and the greatest noir.

Interestingly enough, it’s the end sequence, the foundational, “don’t go in the basement” moment, that is the most iconic. I have no idea if it’s the absolute first of its type, but that hardly matters because it was rare-to-unheard-of before Psycho and, unlike the inimitable shower scene, has been imitated four thousand times since.

All of which adds to my growing and now close to irreversible belief that Hitchcock either truly lost his nerve or let his vendetta against Miles (who had backed out of Vertigo because she was pregnant and refused to get an abortion) obscure his judgment. I love the movie as it is. It’s as great and disturbing as its reputation (something I concede about few Hitchcock movies, as much as I enjoy them).

But I’m convinced it would have been even greater and more disturbing if he had cast Miles in both parts.

And what, may you ask does any of that have to do with the Segue of the Day?

Absolutely nothing.

All the screening did was reinforce some of my already formed opinions (albeit under very different and illuminating circumstances).

Happens all the time.

What I don’t get to do enough of, these days, is smile.

Which is what hearing this…

and this…

on the sound system, while waiting for the lights to go down so I could watch Psycho with the twenty-year-olds made me do all over.

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (Wait Until Dark on Campus)

WAITUNTILDARK

i had occasion here to write about the last time I watched Wait Until Dark, the 1968 thriller starring Alan Arkin and Audrey Hepburn. I’ll stand by everything I wrote there, but this week brought another interesting experience with the same movie.

FSU has a very nice Student Life Center, with a stadium-style movie theater on one side and a smaller theater in a room across the hall with folding chairs, DVD projection, crappy sound and, as of this visit (I hadn’t been in a couple of years) two separate screens, side by side in the same room.

I guess the extra seating is courtesy of the place getting more popular. On my two previous visits, there was one screen and maybe twenty people in attendance. Both sides of the room were packed for this one, maybe a hundred people total.

I didn’t learn anything new about the movie itself and the viewing experience was, as I expected, less than ideal. But the time I spent trundling down there, hiking from the nearest parking lot (no sense expecting a government institution to do something logical like stick parking spaces near the campus movie theater and, as a long ago habitue of the previous rat-trap theater I can assure you it was ever thus), was nonetheless well spent.

What I was mostly interested in was finding out how an audience of college kids would react to an old fashioned thriller.

They reacted alright. In spades.

That wasn’t entirely a positive thing, mind you. Apparently, the new kids are conditioned to respond to every strong emotion with a single emotion: Laughter.

Terror on the screen? Good excuse to laugh.

Rage? Psychosis? Romance? Unexpected plot twist?

Ditto, ditto, ditto, ditto.

I may have forgotten a turn or two, but, trust me, the response was the same.

Laughter.

Frankly, the movie’s strongest element, which is Hepburn’s nuanced portrait of a women being subjected to gradually mounting terror, was completely lost. If I hadn’t seen the movie before, I would have walked out having no idea how she handled the part because, every time she emoted, there was…laughter.

Up until the last ten minutes.

During the last ten minutes, they started screaming because they were having the be-jesus scared out of them. I don’t exactly know the reason the response was so intense. I mean, it’s a good movie and an effective chiller, but I didn’t expect any reaction to be that extreme and that universal (I might have been the only person who wasn’t screaming). But I suspect it had something to do with seeing a real person actually terrorized. It’s not something that’s ever happened much in the movies and I doubt very seriously it’s happened at all in the lifetime of today’s twenty year old college kid.

I don’t put a lot of faith in anecdotal evidence. If I did, then I’d have to conclude, for instance (on the basis of an opening day viewing of The Break-Up with a theater full of black women), that Jennifer Aniston has cachet in modern Black America on a par with James Brown in the sixties. Maybe she does, but based on everything else I know about that subject, I’d have to say that it’s more likely there are times when an audience is just in the mood.

This felt like more than that, though.

It felt like the kids who have been socially conditioned to laugh at everything were afraid for Audrey Hepburn.

So maybe her performance got through after all.

I may not have to entirely give up on the future. And, believe me, that’s a relief. Because with ten minutes to go, I was ready to do just that.

Tuesday night is Psycho, incidentally. In the big theater.

Can’t wait for that.

SEGUE OF THE DAY (7/29/12)

Vera Miles/Doris Day

I snuck up to Birmingham last weekend for a first visit to the Alabama Theater, a heaven-sent, beautifully refurbished movie palace with easy access, a friendly staff, popcorn in boxes and, on this particular lazy Sunday afternoon, a Hitchcock double-bill of Psycho (with Miles playing the ultra-responsible sister of the Master’s most famous snuff victim) and the fifties’ version of The Man Who Knew Too Much (with Day playing the wife of James Stewart’s Indianapolis-doctor-cast-adrift-in-Eric-
Ambler-land).

I had not seen either film on a big screen since the mid-eighties and, as I suspected, these two sneaky great performances–both far beyond the capacity of my ignorant youth–gain considerable power with their nuances writ large.

Anybody interested in knowing why rock and roll had to happen when and how it did, could do worse than spend a few hours watching these thirty-ish actresses use every second of the screen time they were granted inside genre pictures made by the world’s greatest story-boarder to render sharp, telling definitions of repressed middle-class American women yearning to breathe free.

Miles’ Lila Crane is the much smaller part, of course, and the actress had the burden of knowing Hitchcock wanted desperately to be done with her (for reasons too complicated to go into here).

But she specialized in compression so the inch he gave her is enough.

The movie that opened the seam into the underbelly of modernity turns on her response to John Gavin’s assertion that he “can’t believe” his suddenly missing girlfriend, Marion Crane (the Janet Leigh character butchered in the famous shower scene), would commit the one completely unforgivable American sin and steal a large wad of cash from a guy who could afford to lose it.

Miles has no more than a full second to respond before Hitchcock cuts away but it’s all she needs to send the movie spinning off into the deep, subliminal recesses where it has to go in order to transcend mere shock value. In that perfect second of evasive stillness she reveals what the script either can’t or won’t–that clearly there’s nothing she wouldn’t believe, and thereby nothing you shouldn’t believe, especially where Marion is concerned.

Constricted as that moment is, Doris Day’s Jo Conway McKenna would probably have killed for it. She’s the perfect fifties’ housewife–right down to giving up her glamorous career because her husband wants to stay in Indianapolis–so she doesn’t get to breathe for anything like a full second, either before or after her son is kidnapped.

Forget her life–the closest she comes to seizing control of anything at all is in one of the London scenes that unwind after her son has been snatched and she senses the first real chance to get him back.

She’s outside a church, becoming less and less polite with the British bobbies who are practicing the fine arts of officialdom everywhere–obfuscation and appeasement. Finally, they start to think it might ease things along if they looked a little closer at the surface of the situation. No further mind you. No sense digging underneath and courting anarchy just because the Indiana housewife is getting her period.

Stalking their stroll, hurrying them along, Day’s entire body language changes–shoulders forward, rear tucked, legs pistoning.

I was once at a baseball stadium with a young mother who had just been informed that her daughter (about the same age as Day’s son in the movie and, like him, an only child) hadn’t shown up where she was supposed to. Happily, the girl had not been kidnapped by international assassins and was found quickly enough, but the memory of that mother’s carriage when she lit out in search of someone who could tell her what the hell was going on has always made Day’s similar immersion in the task–and burden–of restoring the order men are forever undoing by violence and stupidity instantly recognizable even on the occasional TV viewing.

Here, with plush curtains and Jim Crow-era balcony shadows looming all around, it jumped.

It jumped so much I finally remembered to ask myself if Day had been a mother herself at that point.

Well, of course she had.

I had to look up the exact details when I got home the next day, but a fast memory-twitch allowed me to grok the essence right off.

One son, roughly fourteen at the time of filming–not much older than the boy in the story. Fathered by Day’s first husband (who apparently did everything but kick her in the stomach when she refused to have an abortion), he eventually took the last name of her third (who bilked her fortune down to a box full of I.O.U.s before dying young).

So, as Terry Melcher, he became one of the great American record producers of the sixties and, along with Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys, the unwitting but essential contact point between hip, heady, show-biz L.A. and Charles Manson, the man whose perversion of society’s fundamental building block–“family”–would soon after use Melcher’s last known place of residence as a stage to make America long for the halcyon days when everybody knew the smile on Mom’s face was permanent and sincere, and–precisely because this was so assuredly true–Norman Bates was still the worst you could imagine having to put up with in a boy next door.

I would go on about the cosmic significance of it all–what connections, if any, exist between motherhood, society’s yearning need for rock ‘n’ roll and Tex Watson finding the chance to stab a pregnant actress to death in part because Doris Kappelhoff’s first husband had the decency to settle for punching her in the face.

However, since doing it justice would take a book and a stronger stomach than I presently possess, I’ll just have to leave it in the “food for thought” category for now.

If nothing else, this may help me preserve the happy illusion that it means nothing at all!