THE LAST TEN MOVIES I WATCHED….AND WHY I WATCHED THEM

I haven’t done any hard statistics on this, but the vast majority of my movie-watching these days is revisiting movies I’ve seen before and a fair amount is revisiting movies I’ve seen many times.

This habit has grown over the last ten to fifteen years and intensified a bit in the last year or so after I suspended (and ultimately disconnected) my television service. I might go a month without seeing anything new and I now tend to treat movies like music, so watching favorites is more like listening to familiar albums than, say, re-reading a novel.

Like albums, movies tend to draw me back for certain very particular reasons–the parts I never get tired of. Hence, the “why I watch” bit. I’m offering this up as a snapshot of the kind of thing I engage with and very rarely write about. And if I very rarely write about this stuff it isn’t because it’s not worth writing about, it’s just because there isn’t enough time in the world….So, for fun, in reverse order, ten days, ten movies:

Dec. 8–Scaramouche (1952, George Sidney, Umpteenth Viewing)

SCARAMOUCHE

For Eleanor Parker; for the greatest sword fight in movie history; and for one of the sweetest and bitterest final scenes. Besides, it was my birthday (very early hours). I was also impressed this time around by the scenes in the National Assembly, which present the real fight boiling underneath the burgeoning French Revolution as one between the aristocrats and the wannabes. A timeless theme if ever there was one and hardly relegated to the French (let alone the Hollywood version of the French), though they’ve certainly made an art form of it.

Dec. 6–Life of Crime (2014, Daniel Schechter, 2nd Viewing)

LIFEOFCRIME1

For Jennifer Aniston, who reinforced everything I said here, and, yes, still definitely should have played at least one of the female roles in American Hustle.

Dec. 5–Saskatchewan (1954, Raoul Walsh, 2nd Viewing)

saskatchewan

For the scenery; for the measured and reasonably complex view of both Native American politics and the White Man’s code of military honor; for some fine action scenes involving canoes, of which there can never be enough;and for the memories of happy days a good friend and I spent honing our “It-ain’t-really-a-western-unless-Shelley-Winters-or-Joan-Blondell-shows-up” theory, which, for those of us born within a certain time span, has turned out to be surprisingly durable.

Dec. 5–Wagonmaster aka Wagon Master (1950, John Ford, Umpteenth Viewing)

wagonmaster2

For a cast that, even within the context of John Ford’s oeuvre, reminds me remarkably, almost painfully, of the vanished people I grew up among (and no, they weren’t Mormons). That, plus all the usual reasons for watching any of Ford’s numerous masterworks. To take just one such: The long, gliding scene that begins with Joanne Dru’s showgirl turning down an invitation, offered at a “squaw dance,” by one of the outlaw band who have hitched a ride with the Mormon wagon train, and ends with the man being tied to a wagon wheel and whipped by the Mormons while the stoic Navajo elders look on. I’d have to revisit my Shakespeare to be sure, but it might be the most remarkable piece of compressed narrative that exists in any form.

Dec. 4–The War Wagon (1967, Burt Kennedy, Umpteenth Viewing, though the first in a very long while)

Original Cinema Quad Poster - Movie Film Posters

For the memories; for “Mine was taller.”; and for Kirk Douglas finding all those different ways to jump on horses from every conceivable angle without, so far as I could tell, mangling his manhood!.

Dec. 2–7 Men From Now (1956, Budd Boetticher, Umpteenth Viewing)

7MENFROMNOW1

For Gail Russell; for Lee Marvin (“I was wrong Clete. He wasn’t half a man.”); for Randolph Scott’s finely wrought study in stoicism; and for the peerless storytelling, delivered with haiku-level perfection.

Dec. 1–Star Wars (1977, George Lucas, Umpteenth Viewing)

starwars1

Just gettin’ ready.

Nov. 30–Casablanca (1942, Michael Curtiz, Umpteenth Viewing)

casablanca1

For Rick and Ilsa and Frenchie. And to hear Dooley Wilson sing “As Time Goes By.” What, there are other reasons? Sure, but who needs ’em.

Nov. 29–An American In Paris (1951, Vincente Minnelli, Umpteenth Viewing)

ANAMERICANINPARIS2

For Leslie Caron, dancing or not, and for the glories of the vanished studio system.

Nov. 28–The Truth About Spring (1965, Richard Thorpe, Umpteenth Viewing)

TRUTHABOUTHSPRING1

For Hayley Mills, decked in denim; for more deathless lines than I ever found in a classic screwball (“Tommy, if you dare shoot Ashton, I’ll never cook for you again!”); for the evocation of every Florida kid’s dream-life; for “Here’s one they won’t get. Here’s one for freedom.”; and for a chance to tell the lingering shade of that lucky little so-and-so, Jimmy MacArthur, who got out of the last frame with Hayley once and Janet Munro twice: “I ain’t sorry you’re dead!” and half-hope he won’t be able to decide whether I’m kidding. Oh, yeah, and: “Of Catfish Key….Da-h-h-ling.”

FOUND IN THE CONNECTION (Rattling Loose End #8–Western Heroes and Girl Group Singers)

Last week, as part of a well-organized plan to get in my car and drive a sufficient distance from my front door to allow for clearing the cobwebs of the last six months out of my head, I took a trip to Atlanta. Since I was going somewhere anyway and Atlanta happened to be it, I arranged the timing and destination around a showing of Winchester ’73 at Emory University (and a next-day visit to the Gone With the Wind Museum in Marietta).

The fun parts of the journey–the movie, the museum, the room service breakfast, the long lunch looking out over the square in downtown Marietta–were wonderful and more than made up for nightmare traffic, missed road signs (don’t worry Georgia Highway Department–even though this so rarely happens to me anywhere else I’m still willing to entertain the notion that it’s really just me!), and falling for the old “it’s only a ten minute walk and if you ask anyone over there they can tell right where it is” gag from the otherwise very efficient concierge at the lovely on-campus accommodations.

No problem on that last really. I gave myself thirty minutes, made it in thirty-five, after no less than two wrong turns (it could have been more but the thing about wrong turns is that, after a certain point, it becomes difficult to keep track, not so much of the turns themselves as of the definition of “wrong”), no less than three befuddled looks when I inquired as to the specific whereabouts of White Hall,  frequent consultations to the campus map that was resting in my pocket next to my bi-focals and the realization that, being no longer young, once gentle inclines now represent more than adequate stand-ins for various and sundry Himalayan peaks and if I’m going to attempt them at all I really should carry along coat-of-arms’ bearing standards that can be planted in triumph at the crests.

Still, I made it. Only five minutes late.

Real life college screenings still start with lectures, thank God, and while I was sorry I missed the start of this one, I was glad my back-line defense mechanism (“Well it doesn’t really matter if I’m a little late since I have seen it twenty times!”) didn’t have to kick all the way in.

And like I say, it was worth it.

The big screen really does illuminate.

Anthony Mann had made a number of fine films previously but this was probably his first flat-out, big league masterpiece (I wrote about what I think is his next one here). I was particularly struck by how much stronger and more subtle Shelley Winters’ already fine performance was writ large. But Mann’s magnificent use of sound can’t really be appreciated on a TV screen and, for all the times I’d seen the film, I never realized how much the bullets ricocheting in the rocks during the famous final shootout actually affect the action. Seen–and heard–in proper proportion, every bullet felt like three and the continuous maneuvering of the antagonists, which, however impressive, always felt a little staged to me, suddenly felt completely organic and yoked to real and present danger.

And, oh by the way, it should be a given that a man known for noirs, westerns and epics would be an action master, but, viewed on television screens of varying sizes, this rather obvious fact never washed over me quite as literally as it did when I was (to paraphrase something Robert Mitchum’s wife once supposedly said), the size of somebody’s left nostril. Unlike most of the other directors who can tell you all about how much they love John Ford films, Mann actually learned something!

For all of that, one of the reasons for going away once in a while is to create the circumstances for a homecoming, however modest. And it happened that on the occasion of this particular return, Rhino’s old CD collection Girl Group Greats (been cruising Amazon for years, hoping to find it cheap–at last the day was here!) was waiting for me in the mailbox.

Having just been exposed to the full experience of a film that is, among many other things, an especially fine celebration of the Western Hero, hearing all those yearning young female voices chime in a decade or so later drew a connection I had not previously made.

Now, I’ve argued for a long time that rock and roll and the western are the two great American art forms–that’s why they are the two things this blog is mostly dedicated to. But I don’t do a whole lot of philosophizing about whether or not they are specifically connected on any deep level–and whether any such connection amounts to them being deeply intertwined or (give or take “That’ll be the Day!” linking John Wayne to Buddy Holly) just mutually repellent.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to do that now either! Not just yet anyway. Perhaps another time.

And I’m not going to put together one of those mash-up videos where various Western Heroes rescue various damsels in distress to a soundtrack of the Angels singing “My Boyfriend’s Back.” (Though if anybody wants to take that idea and run with it, feel free…and if it’s already been done, let me know!)

So I’ll just conclude by pointing out that, until experiencing them in such close and intense proximity, it never occurred to me that the Lola Manners of “You just never know when a girl might need a bullet” fame, and the Jiggs Allbut of “My boyfriend’s back, he’s gonna save my reputation…if I were you I’d take a permanent vacation!” probably would have had plenty of interesting things to say to each other…and leave it at that!

Hey, I knew it would all make sense some day!