THE LAST TEN MOVIES I WATCHED…AND WHY I WATCHED THEM (May/June, 2020)

Okay, once more not even close to the last ten I watched but I’m tryin’. really I am. On the upside, a lot more first and second viewings than usual. Here goes:

May 25-A Streetcar Named Desire (1951, d. Elia Kazan, 2nd Viewing)

Well, it had been twenty years, so it was time. Vivien Leigh still scared the bejesus out of me but at least I knew it was coming. Brando’s best performance by miles, though you can still see her cocking an eyebrow and hear her whispering sotto voce, “Yes, dear, but are you willing to tip yourself into madness?” And if you listen close you can still hear him saying…”Maybe?” The question was never asked again so he was never forced to resolve it before the short journey to self-parody was completed. Everyone else is terrific acting their little hearts out in the background. If you wonder whether he knew what happened, just study the sad arc of his life. One of the essential American movies, though not perhaps for the reasons most people seem to think.

May 26-Viva Zapata! (1952, d. Elia Kazan, 1st Viewing)

Okay, truth be told, I’ve had the Elia Kazan box sitting around for at least a decade, trying to watch them all in order and just waiting until I was up to Streetcar again. (I broke the sequence to re-watch Man on a Tightrope, about which more when I do my Handy Ten on Gloria Grahame). This was next in line and another chance to see early Brando. He only had to deal with Anthony Quinn and Dr. No in this one so he was, alas, in his comfort zone. Still pretty interesting, but given the talents involved, I couldn’t help thinking it might have been more. And frankly, the Great Actor of the Age wasn’t as convincing a Mexican as Chuck Heston in his much-derided Touch of Evil turn.

May 30-The Great Escape (1963, d. John Sturges, Umpteenth Viewing)

Well, for all the reasons I’ll always watch it, up to and including the moment when Virgil Hilts (not Steve McQueen, not his stunt man, Virgil Hilts, who by that point is no longer fictional or even a composite) make that leap. But the reaction shots alone are always worth the price of admission and time spent. Plus, it’s out in a great new eye-popping transfer from the Criterion Collection. Get it if you can!

June 2-The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (2015, d. Guy Ritchie, 1st Viewing)

I’m always looking for good popcorn in the bargain bins of America while they last. Took a chance on this one and I’ll say it’s…pretty good. Seemed like I was just catching hold of the odd rhythm when it ended so I’ll probably watch it again at some point. Given some of the things they’ve made franchises of, I’m surprised this hasn’t produced at least one sequel.

June 3-The Last of Sheila (1973, d. Herbert Ross, 3rd Viewing)

Because it had been a long time, I had it lying around, and somebody or other was lauding it on Twitter. Thought what I thought the other two times I watched it….Wanted James Coburn to have the last laugh and he doesn’t. Wish there was more Dyan Cannon…and there isn’t. Still, diverting, as, with that cast, it could hardly fail to be.

June 5-Dance, Girl, Dance (1940, d. Dorothy Arzner, 1st Viewing)

Out this summer on Criterion, (with notes from my blog-pal Sheila O’Malley, who also did the same for The Great Escape…the lady has range). This is a combo backstage musical/women’s picture from the only female director working under contract for a major Hollywood studio at the time and it’s a small gem. It’s odd, disorienting, feature is that a young Lucille Ball makes a young Maureen O’Hara look dowdy. Granted, the worldly, wise-cracking dame always has an advantage, but I guarantee that’s the last time that happened! A cracking good time for anyone who has the good taste to like this sort of thing.

June 6-The Wild and the Innocent (1959, d. Jack Sher, 1st Viewing)

This was the first film in a four-movie set of Audie Murphy westerns I scored cheap on Amazon. It was the weakest of the lot and, like most of Murphy’s lesser efforts, still pretty entertaining. Even the eternally baby-faced Audie was a little long in the tooth to be playing the teenage frontier hick who’s never been to town. But it works out over the long run, with Gilbert Roland giving a nice twist on a sympathetic villain and a genuinely touching performance from Sandra Dee that suggests there might have been a lot more to her than heaven, Bobby Darin, or Hollywood allowed.

June 6-The Lincoln Lawyer (2011, d. Brad Furman, 2nd Viewing)

Now this is a popcorn movie, as good as it gets. So good, in fact, that it transcends the concept and has some insightful and occasionally moving things to say about this modern land that so many somebodies who weren’t paying attention during the whole Frozen Silence (1980-2016) or even the early Trump years, have suddenly awakened to find has turned into a crap-hole while they were busy staring at the disco ball. You want a sign of the Apocalypse: there’s been no sequel. What, are Matthew McConaughey and Marisa Tomei just too busy?

June 7-Liberty Heights (1999, d. Barry Levinson, 1st Viewing)

Another bargain bin pickup. I hadn’t seen any of Barry Levinson’s Baltimore movies except Diner, which is a big fave. This isn’t as good as Diner. Like all of Levinson’s movies, post Wag the Dog, it’s a little awkward, as if made by a man who is not sure he’s in the right profession any more. But it’s got a sweet spirit made melancholy by the distance the world has traveled in the wrong direction since its 50’s setting…or even since its 1999 release date. I could still swear the trailer had a scene that cut from a baseball crashing through a window, and kids scattering, to Joe Montegna saying (as only he could) “Put Joe DiMaggio on the phone.” In the movie that exists, it’s “Put the Fuhrer on the phone.” in response to the Jewish teenage protagonist dressing up as Hitler for Halloween. It was funnier in my head when it was Joe DiMaggio so if anybody knows where that movie went, let me know. I swear I didn’t dream it.

June 7-On the Waterfront (1954, d. Elia Kazan, 2nd Viewing)

I’m being a little hard on Brando, as happens from time to time, so let me just say that this is a great performance. I don’t think it’s anywhere near the greatest performance of all time–heck, I don’t even think it’s Brando’s greatest–see above), any more than I think Citizen Kane (a very great movie) is the greatest film of all time, but you can be pretty darn great and still not be the greatest ever. This was only the second time I watched it, and the first time I watched it without the baggage of unreasonable expectations. Now I just have to figure out why Noam Chomsky thought it was an anti-union, or even anti-Communist, film.

It could take a while.

Til then….

 

 

 

 

 

MAYBE IT’S TIME TO START THINKING ABOUT ELVIS AGAIN….

I know some of you follow Greil Marcus’s Mailbag (which I can’t link–it’s available under “Ask Greil” if you follow the Marcus link under my blogroll). For those who don’t, here’s the text of a question from one of his readers and his response, regarding the new Docu-flick The King.

I saw The King in NYC yesterday, really enjoyed it—you had the funniest line when you mentioned “crackpot religions” in LA in the late ’60s.
Only thing I got a little turned off to was criticism of Elvis for not marching with Martin Luther King like Brando and Heston did. Why no mention that by performing material on national TV in 1956 by black artists he opened doors for them like no one before? Plus that many people—James Brown, Ivory Joe Hunter, as well as Ali—truly loved him and made no secret of it.
I don’t know—what do you think—is it me?

I think it’s a hard question, less about the March on Washington than any number of civil rights protests in Memphis, and while Van Jones is a blowhard, with, here, none of Chuck D.’s dignity or thoughtfulness, he makes a serious argument. It hit home for me years before, when I looked at the Ernest Withers photo of King’s funeral procession in Memphis passing the State Theater, where the marquee has Elvis’s latest movie, Stay Away Joe—which in context, the context Withers built, means, “Elvis, stay away.” And he could have been there, in his home town, the same place where he sometimes recited the end of King’s March on Washington speech. “If I Can Dream” is about that speech and about the assassination—no, Elvis didn’t write it, but he sings it as if he’s tearing it out of his heart, unsure, tripping and stumbling, desperate to say what he means, to get it across, ignoring melody and rhythm, more like someone jumping on stage to give a speech than being paid to sing a song—but that doesn’t make up for anything. The kinship that James Brown, B. B. King, Eddie Murphy, Muhammad Ali, and Chuck Berry might have felt for Elvis, or his role as some kind of racial ambassador, doesn’t either. Sure, the Colonel would have kidnapped him and held him in Fort Knox to keep him from appearing in public in any kind of civil rights march, but hey, if you’ve seen an Elvis movie, you know he could find a way out.

This leads back to some themes I’ve hit on here before, but this feels like a good time to re-visit them.

I’ll take that attempt at pure musical criticism first:

“ignoring melody and rhythm.”

Here’s a question. If you’re relying on the counterfactual, which fact are you trying to hide?

That Elvis was using melody and rhythm in ways you don’t understand? Or merely in ways that would undermine the larger point you are about to make?

(To revisit my take on “If I Can Dream” you can go here.)

Second:

“But that doesn’t make up for anything.”

The examples Marcus gives of what Elvis did that didn’t “make up for anything” are designed to let us know that Elvis couldn’t have done anything that made up for not participating in at least one Civil Rights march, the way (as the questioner reminds us) even Marlon Brando and Charlton Heston did.

For Elvis, more than forty years after his death, the goalposts are still moving.

For everyone else, they remain the same.

Just a reminder on how this works:

Bob Dylan converted to Fundamentalist Christianity (and has never quite renounced it, preferring to dance around the question).

Forgiven.

Neil Young and Prince loudly and proudly endorsed Ronald Reagan (whom Marcus and many other Libs consider a fascist).

Forgiven.

John Lydon and David Lynch (two of Marcus’ great heroes) have said kind things about Donald Trump. (NOTE: Elvis is still called to account for who he might have voted for, had he lived to see the day.)

Forgiven.

Ray Charles (no Elvis fan) was a life-long rock-ribbed Republican who sang for Reagan and George W. Bush. And you should have seen the contortions the obituarists at all the Good Liberal periodicals put themselves through when Ray had the bad taste to force-multiply the association by dying the same week as the Gipper.

Forgiven.

Elvis Costello once got drunk and called Ray Charles a “blind, ignorant nigger.”

Totally forgiven…even by Ray Charles!

Dozens, if not hundreds, of liberal African-American icons never quite managed to march with or for MLK or the Civil Rights Movement. Too many to list, really.

All totally forgiven.

And, oh yeah, that photographer, Ernest Withers?

FBI informant.

Totally forgiven.

Elvis Presley, never marched with or for MLK.

Nothing could ever make up for that!

Got it?

Now who was it again that asked the real question in the year he already knew we would never walk away from?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iwqbuus8QPU

ANTHONY MANN’S EPIC AUTUMN (Segue of the Day: 1/7/17)

El Cid
(Anthony Mann, 1961)

The Fall of the Roman Empire
(Anthony Mann, 1964)

Anthony Mann does not yet get his due. There are occasional professional contrarians who will tell you he’s better than John Ford, but they are a cult and Mann, who would have been the first to tell you he wasn’t quite John Ford, deserves far better. I’ve been counting him as one of my five favorite directors for a while now, but in the latest list from “They Shoot Pictures Don’t They,” the most exhaustive ranking of great films available, he has one entry (The Naked Spur, at #969 of a thousand).

That’s one fewer than Michael Mann, who I still think of as the Miami Vice guy, and the same number as John Avildsen, who’s on the list for Rocky.

All of which adds up to just another brick in the towering wall of our modern delusion. Mann made a handful of noirs and a hatful of westerns (hence the Ford comparisons) that are better than anything Michael Mann has done. He also made these two epics from the early sixties, which time is beginning to reveal as masterworks in their own right.

Watching them together (as I’ve done since I discovered them a few years back…this was my third go-round), in these hurly-burly days is an experience. And, for me, what was even more salient this time was having recently seen Marketa Lazarova, the Czech film from 1967 which I wrote about here, for the first time.

The long view of history I mentioned there is as fiercely present here, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Mann’s films served as some sort of inspiration in how to handle narrative and editing in Marketa or any other epic-minded film that uses similar devices to collapse time and space for the purpose of expanding our imaginations.

Of course these carry some Hollywood gloss–big stars playing against ethnic type, fabulous sets and costumes, casts of literally thousands. But once you absorb all that, and understand the level of obsession that went into these films (obsessions that encompassed and enfolded Mann himself, producer Samuel Bronston, the set designers, even the composers, all properly lauded in the fine documentaries that accompany the 2-disc versions from the Miriam Collection) it’s possible to recognize just how thorny and disorienting they are, how fully they (like Marketa) capture not merely lost worlds but lost value systems.

El Cid was a big hit, so big it made The Fall of the Roman Empire’s impossible air of art-house risk possible. For better or worse, the presence of Charlton Heston, then strongly identified in the movie-going public’s mind with The Ten Commandments and Ben Hur, massive hits that had done a fine job of capturing value systems not yet lost in the previous decade, was able to carry El Cid to similar box office heights. But he refused to work again with his co-star, Sophia Loren, on the second film. Mann was already pushing the boundaries of acceptable narrative in El Cid. Any chance that he wouldn’t push past the edge in the followup was gone the minute Heston refused to sign on.

Whatever the reasons, Heston’s absence allows Fall to play as the more contemporary film.

I won’t say “better” because I’m a long way from comprehending either film at the level required to make that judgment. But, purely in artistic terms, Heston’s absence may have been as much a blessing as it was a box office curse. Fall became a famous flop, effectively breaking both Mann and Bronston in ways that went beyond the merely financial. Sadly, neither lived to see it redeemed by recent critical appraisals in a way that Cleopatra, a similar back-breaker from the same period, never will be. El Cid needed Heston because it’s a hero’s narrative. Fall didn’t need him (and one wonders if this was the real reason he passed on it), because it’s an anti-hero’s narrative.

The neck-snapping irony in this, is that El Cid is set in a moment when the Christendom just emerging (sotto voce because it’s never mentioned) in The Fall of the Roman Empire, is being saved from extinction.

The further irony is that Fall is even more opulent, something that seems impossible while you are actually watching El Cid.

In terms of both spectacle and historical accuracy, Bronston was determined to make David O. Selznick look like a kid in short pants. With Fall he succeeded. It took me this third viewing to comprehend how much his obsession with the details of Rome’s face, at the singular moment when the mask was finally beginning to show its cracks, has as much to do with creating the film’s unique aura of displacement as Mann’s sudden shifts of tone, mood, lighting, weather.

In the midst of the towering monuments to Rome’s glory, literally recreated with stunning scale and specificity on a plain in Spain, Christopher Plummer’s Commodus (the role of his career), and Stephen Boyd’s hapless Livius, really do seem like they are being toyed with by ancient and angry gods.

Livius himself–the hero Charlton Heston wouldn’t play–is redeemed only by his devotion to the old ways and Commodus’s sister. And it becomes clear, over time, that these virtues are inextricable from a stubbornness and pride that end up costing the lives of nearly everyone and everything he holds dear.

Boyd puts every bit of the bitterness that would come from such a man’s recognition of his own failures into his final line, a line sufficiently damning that one wonders how anyone thought they could get a hit out of this.

What we’re left with is indescribable opulence (it really has to be seen to be believed and I can’t even get my head around what these films must look like on the big screen), endless back-stabbing among cabals who vie for the loyalty of the military and the deep state, a hapless legislative body made exclusively of fops and fools, the endless peddling of influence. All these qualities course through El Cid and finally overwhelm the characters who populate The Fall of the Roman Empire.

The history runs in reverse, as history is wont to do.

The first film replicates the preservation of what rose in the place of what fell in the second film.

Whatever order one views them, these films, especially The Fall of the Roman Empire, which broke Samuel Bronston’s bank account and Anthony Mann’s health, are in the DNA of everything from Star Wars to Kurosawa’s late epics to the best work of the similarly under-appreciated Ridley Scott (who now must labor under the burden of CGI, an empire whose reach and grasp far exceed Rome’s…one hopes that Mann appreciated how lucky he was to fall in with a fellow visionary like Bronston even for a heartbeat).

You can take your pick of which reminds you most of the City by the Potomac these days, as the man who the Alt-Right likes to tweak all and sundry by referring to as the God Emperor ascends, rising from the bottomless sea of our present corruption, within which the deepest muck he was born to rule.