Tuesday, July 26, 2016

woody reimages billy's "the apartment" - sort of

Woody Allen conferring with Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart (in glorious color) on "Café Society" - and 56 years earlier ... 

... Billy Wilder conferring with Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine (in glorious black-&-white) on "The Apartment."  The connection?

In the hugely entertaining and affectionate “Café Society,” his 52nd or 53rd  film as a director (but who's counting?), Woody Allen addresses the element that has traditionally anchored Hollywood - the Jewish moguls, originally from the East Coast but fitfully transplanted to the sun-struck, intoxicating night-blooming Jasmine-scented environs of  Los Angeles, who influenced (and lived through) the movies that they produced.

Driven by a dream cast, “Café Society” is another Allen original but one that comes with a teasing touch of déjà vuBut more about that later. 

Jesse Eisenberg plays Bobby Dorfman, a nebbish who leaves 1930s New York for the land of Oz - Hollywood, where his Uncle Phil, played by chamelone Steve Carell, is a big-time agent-cum-producer who drops the names of stars like Ginger Rogers and may even hang out with them.  Phil, his mother's brother, makes Bobby his gopher and puts him in the hands of his assistant, Vonnie - an ever-remarkable Kristen Stewart who looks absolutely fabulous in the vintage wardrobe by Suzy Benzinger.

This is where Allen stops and, in a major plot point, pays homage to Billy Wilder's "The Apartment."  In Wilder's 1960 film, Jack Lemmon develops a crush on Shirley MacLaine, unaware that she is having an affair with his married boss, Fred MacMurray.  Here, Eisenberg falls for Stewart, unaware that her character is having an affair with his married uncle.

In "The Apartment," a cracked mirror in a compact exposes the affair.  In “Café Society," it's a piece of memorabilia - a love letter from Rudolph Valentino that Vonnie has given to Phil on the anniversary of their affair.


Wednesday, July 13, 2016

façade: George Roy Hill

The unfairly neglected George Roy Hill (1921-2002)

George Roy Hill made 14 major films in about 25 years before retiring in 1988 to teach his craft at Yale, and from where I sit, there isn't really one embarrassment among them. Wait! I take that back: There's ”Thoroughly Modern Millie,” a film that I dislike to the point of irrationality.

He was an active force in New York during the 1950s, directing both plays and live TV dramas, including among other titles, the original Playhouse 90 production of Abby Mann's "Judgment at Nuremberg" in 1959 (wherein Maximilian Schell played the same role that would inevitably win him an Oscar two years later for the 1961 Stanley Kramer film version).

Hill directed the original stage production of the Tennessee Williams comedy, "Period of Adjustment," and when MGM made it into a movie in 1962, Hill was part of the package, guiding star Jane Fonda through one of her most charming performances. He followed this directorial debut with another filmed play, Lillian Hellman's "Toys in the Attic," made a year later and starring Dean martin, Geraldine Page and Wendy Hiller.

His third film was the very charming and very urbane 1964 Peter Sellers lark, "The World of Henry Orient," which Hill would also direct as a terrific Broadway musical, titled "Henry, Sweet Henry," in 1967. Two films with Julie Andrews followed in 1966 and '67, both roadshow attractions - "Hawaii" and the dreaded "Thoroughly Modern Millie," respectively.

Then came "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid"in 1969.  It was his sixth film, it was topped by two genuine movie stars - you know, Newman and Redford - and it was a huge hit.

From that point on, Hill helmed a pleasingly eclectic selection of titles, including "A Little Romance" (1979), the Laurence Olivier/Diane Lane trifle, and Diane Keaton's "Little Drummer Girl" (1984).

"Slaughterhouse-Five" (1972) and "The World According to Garp" (1982), arguably, his two best films, followed and then he reunited with "Cassidy/Sundance" stars - you know, Paul and Robert - for the Oscar-winning "The Sting" (1973), himself taking the best director award that year.

And he would subsequently also direct Bob in "The Great Waldo Pepper" (1975) and Paul in "Slap Shot" (1977), both fine, sturdy films.

His last film was "The Funny Farm," with Chevy Chase, made in 1988. Hill died from complications from Parkinson's disease in 2002, at the age 81.  He is much-missed and way too under-appreciated.

Thursday, July 07, 2016

cinema obscura: Richard Benner's "Happy Birthday, Gemini" (1980)

The late Richard Benner, who died in 1990, was a promising Canadian filmmaker who, for reasons unknown, directed only three movies.

He broke through in 1977 with the hugely entertaining "Outrageous!," a drag-queen farce driven by fine-tuned, yet comic, turns by the cross-dressing Craig Russell (who also died in 1990), the fetching Hollis McLaren, reliable Helen Shaver and the cult filmmaker Allan Moyle ("Pump Up the Volume" and "Empire Records"). A decade later, Benner made the less-successful sequel, "Too Outrageous!," and that was that.

End of film career; onward to TV, which also lasted only briefly.

In-between his two Russell farces, however, Benner made his best, most assured film - 1980's "Happy Birthday, Gemini," based on the Albert Innaurato stage comedy that was simply titled "Gemini" when it was staged off-Broadway twice within a year - first by Playwrights Horizons in December 1976 and then by the Circle Repertory in March 1977 - and again on Broadway in May 1977. To call Innaurato's piece "audience-friendly" was an understatment. It was irresistible, playing a whopping 1,819 performances on Broadway. Sigourney Weaver, Danny Aiello and Robert Picardo were among the cast in its various stage incarnations.

In those days, a successful stage comedy was automatically snapped up for the screen (not any more!) and when United Artists decided to film it, the project was handed to Benner on the basis of "Outrageous!"

Essentially a backyard comedy, set among row houses in South Philadelphia, "Happy Birthday, Gemini" revolves around the 21st birthday celebration of one Francis Geminiani - played on stage by Picardo and in the film by Alan Rosenberg - a gay kid who had the misfortune to grow up in a rough-hewn neighborhood. An antic comedy of manners ensues as various friends, relatives and neighbors crowd their way in, making a lot of arm-flailing, neurosis-revealing commotion.

These include Francis's father, Nick (Robert Viharo), and his girlfriend, Lucille (Rita Moreno); next-door neighbor Bunny Weinberger (Madeline Kahn) and her obese son Herschel (Timothy Jenkins), and Francis's classmates from Harvard, the twins Judith Hastings (Sarah Holcomb) and Randy Hastings (David Marshall Grant). It's like this - Sarah has a crush on Francis, who in turn has a crush on Randy.

Blessed with this pleasing cast, Benner almost effortlessly whipped up a most companionable film. The three young leads, all new at the time, are especially good. Rosenberg and Grant both went on to have modest acting careers in film and television, with Grant branching off into producing and writing and Rosenberg occasionally directing for TV. But one has to grieve the sudden, unexpected disappearance of Holcomb, who debuted in 1978 in "Animal House," had a commanding dramatic role in "Walk Proud" a year later, and was most fetching in "Caddyshack," made in 1980, the same year as "Gemini." Four films in three years and then ... nothing.  She apparently dropped out.  Where is Sarah Holcolmb? A major loss.

Anchoring the film with appropriately diva-like performances are Moreno and the late Kahn, both old pros whose bravura work here should have elevated Benner's pleasing little comedy to near-classic status. As a film, it certainly deserved as large an audience as its stage source attracted.

Friday, July 01, 2016

effortless grace

a face that exudes natural warmth

She's been alive 100 years, as of today, and worked in film for approximately 50 of those years. Born in Tokyo, she is best known ... as Melanie Hamilton in the iconic "Gone With the Wind," as Errol Flynn's most frequent leading lady, as an Oscar winner for "To Each His Own" and "The Heiress," as James Caan's victim in "Lady in a Cage," as Bette Davis' victimizer in "Hush ... Hush, Sweet Charlotte," as Yvette Mimieux's nurturing mother in "Light in the Piazza," as the wife of Paris Match editor Pierre Galante and as the older sister of Joan Fontaine (1917-2013), from whom she was reportedly estranged for most of their adult lives, a situation which apparently can be traced back to 1941 when both competed in the same Oscar category - best actress - and Joan won.

Olivia DeHavilland.  Livvie, to her friends.

credit: Vienna's Classic Hollywood

Thursday, June 30, 2016

cinema obscura: the missing songs/moments from Milos Forman's "Hair" (1979)

Twyla Tharp's athletic dance corps performs the Hare Krishna dream sequence
Milos Forman's brilliant 1979 film version of the Ragni-Rado-MacDermott tribal rock musical, "Hair," opened at a time when critics were particularly resistant to the idea of movie musicals, much more so than audiences.

The studios, perhaps in an effort to court the reviewers, began pairing their big musical properties with a rather eclectic group of iconic filmmakers - Sidney Lumet and "The Wiz," John Huston and "Annie," Sir Richard Attenborough and "A Chorus Line" and Forman and "Hair." The ploy didn't work. The critics remained resistant, although Foreman's film was far better received that those by Lumet, Huston and Attenborough.

Personally speaking, I find "The Wiz" (which looks at if it had been shot through a microscope) and especially "A Chorus Line" (whose material I always found pretentious and insular) both unwatchable, but Huston's ”Annie” is perfectly fine and "Hair" is utterly unique, thanks largely to the commingling of Forman's singularly foreign sensibility and choreographer Twyla Tharp's unconventional moves.

Unfortunately, at 121 minutes, the release print of "Hair" doesn't contain everything that Forman filmed. Missing are musical numbers that, while trimmed from the film, can still be heard on the soundtrack album - the seminal "Frank Mills," "Air," "My Conviction," "Abie Baby" and "Fourscore."

After Forman expanded his "Amadeus" (1984) from 160 minutes to 180 minutes in the 2002, I hoped that he would go back and restore "Hair." But the harsh reality of the film business is that unsuccessful films are rarely given a second chance. There was a reason (not necessarily a good one) to expand "Amadeus": It had won eight Oscars.

The big omission from the "Hair" score is, of course, "Frank Mills," a song which one would think is inexpendable. Sung by the character of Chrissy, played in the film by Suzette Charles (whose role was entirely eliminated), the song is like a lulling anthem to the sweet obliviousness of apathy and is achingly beautiful in its utter simplicity.

If the name Suzette Charles rings a bell, it's because she would go on to be named Miss America - by default. In 1983, at age 20 (four years after "Hair" was filmed), Charles was named first runner up in the contest, after Vanessa Williams, and was eventually given the crown when Williams was revealed to be the subject of compromising photographs.

When I mentioned all this to Forman during an interview for the initial release of "Amadeus," he was delighted although he admitted that, by then, he had only a dim memory of Charles and her participation in "Hair."

Regarding the other songs missing from "Hair," Annie Golden sang "Air," Charlotte Rae did "My Conviction" and the late Nell Carter was among the singers on the combined "Abie Baby"/"Forescore."

One bit of trivia: The old RCA two-record soundtrack for the film does not list who sang what in the film, but the souvenir program for the movie included a removable plastic recording of selected songs from the film, with the singers listed (including Charles on "Frank Mills").

One of the songs in the film, "Walking in Space," is sung on screen by a young Asian actress playing a Vietnamese girl, but the singing voice coming out of her mouth belongs to ... Betty Buckley. I always wondered why that voice sounded so familiar - and so great.

Note in Passing: Two other film musicals of the era were helmed by less illustrious filmmakers - "Grease" by Randall Kleiser and "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" by the late Colin Higgins. Both, along with "Annie," were hugely popular with audiences, particularly "Grease" (as we all know by now). So much for the myth that moviegoers turned their backs on the genre. Not so. It was the studios that rudely slammed the door shut.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

façade: Mimsy Farmer

One of the minor icons of the 1960s and '70s, the fascinating Mimsy Farmer flitted from Hollywood ingenue to biker-flick staple to jet-setting international attraction with an adjustable breeziness that made her credible in each morphing and that explains the small, select cult that never lost interest in the blonde actress.

Deceptively all-American and wholesome-looking, Farmer shrewdly subverted her first major role - as the assertive Claris Coleman in Delmer Daves' "Spencer's Mountain" in 1963 - by playing it with a shockingly candid sexuality and idiosyncratic line readings that made everything sound, well, dirty. If Warners was grooming her to be Natalie Wood's successor - and it's apparent that the studio was - you can appreciate both its reasoning and its misjudgment. She didn't wait. Farmer used her debut to undercut the powers.

A couple year's later, she did the same thing in Harvey Hart's "Bus Riley's Back in Town" (1965), nominally written by William Inge but credited to "Walter Gage" after the studio decided to showcase Ann-Margret, enlarging her role. That was good. Apparently, no one paid any attention to Farmer who got in under the radar and, again, quietly and effectively stole the film - and reduced Ann-Margret - in a matter of a handful of scenes.

Then came the biker flicks for Farmer, the most memorable for me being 1967's "Hot Rod to Hell," starring Dana Andrews and Jeanne Crain, before she  headed to Europe where she made the drug-laden "More" for Barbet Schroeder in 1969. The film was written by the former New York Times movie critic, Eugene Archer, with Farmer responsible for "additional dialogue." "More" was the head film of its time, Farmer became the darling of the Croisette and she pretty much stayed in Europe, returning to the United States for some occasional TV work.

Her most popular film during this time was Dario Argent's horror film, "Four Flies on Grey Velvet"/"4 mosche di velluto grigio"(1971), which expanded beyond art houses to become a mainstream hit here.

Although seen only sporadically here over the past five decades, Farmer managed to make about 50 films, just about all of them in Europe. In retrospect, she seems like a not unpleasant mirage, an image that now seems at once blurred and vivid. I miss her and regret that I didn't have the time, energy or inclination to keep up with her unusual career. Thank heaven for film, video and DVD. I can always create my own Mimsy Farmer Film Festival which, in addition to the titles already mentioned, would naturally include those three biker films - "Riot on the Sunset Strip," "Devil's Angels" and "The Wild Racers."

Now, whatever happened to another singular actress, Kaki Hunter?

Note in Passing: Check out Dave Kehr's comments on the DVD release of "Hot Rods to Hell" in his 2007 essay for The New York Times.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

cinema obscura: Robert Enders' "Stevie" (1978)

Jackson with Washbourne, wearing the flowered dress that Jackson's Stevie wittily describes as "they all came up."

Robert Enders' endearing "Stevie" (1978), adapted by Hugh Whitemore from his West End stage play, is essentially a precise acting duet between two titans of the British stage and cinema, Glenda Jackson and Mona Washbourne, respectively playing the poet Stevie Smith and her beloved aunt (who remains agreeably nameless throughout).

Yes, the piece is stagebound but also, somehow, surprisingly cinematic because Enders (a novice filmmaker at the time who worked largely as a producer) fills his movie with a sharp array of words - the tricky, observant wordplay of Smith's poetry (which Jackson reads directly into the camera at intervals) and Whitemore's affectionate imagination of the bracingly articulate conversations between Smith and her aunt, who lived together.

Through all the talk we come to know Stevie and her emotional problems.


All of this is staged in a cozy cottage designed by John Lageu and photographed by Freddie Young with an eye for the prevading warmth of the central relationship and Stevie's work.

There's a third character on the periphery - Freddy, a close friend played on stage by Peter Eyre and in the film by Alec McGowen - as well a Stevie as a child (Emma Louise Fox) who appears in flashbacks, moments that were only spoken about on stage. The addition of the flashbacks, as well as a narrator for the film (courtesy of Trevor Howard's marvelously sonorous intonations), are the only filmic compromises made by Enders, whose fidelity to the piece's frail nature is remarkable and admirable.

"Stevie" remains the only film directed by Enders, who died in 2007. His film was picked up for American distribution by First Artists, a fledgling company which had a short life in the late 1970s and which had little faith in "Stevie." It opened the film for two weeks in Los Angeles in 1978 and then promptly shelved it. Two years later, when First Artists was long gone, Enders bought back his film and opened it on the East Coast in 1980, where it was a huge hit with the critics and art-house patrons.

Other limited engagements in other cities followed.

It was made available on home entertainment in Great Britain, but never here. "Stevie" remains a lost film.

Note in Passing: Because of her film's irregular release pattern, Jackson never received the Oscar nomination that she so fully deserved. But the Golden Globes honored her and Washbourne in 1979 and both the National Board of Review and the New York Film Critics Circle Awards gave the best actress and supporting actress awards to Jackson and Washbourne in 1981. Washbourne, who died in 1988 at age 84, was honored by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards in 1978 as supporting actress.
* * *

"Not Waving but Drowning"

"Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning;
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning

"Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he's dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said.

"Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning."

-Stevie Smith

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

cinema obscura: Fritz Lang's "Destiny"/"Der Müde Tud" (1921)

Scenes from Lang's "Destiny"/"Der Müde Tud": The Wall (above) and Lil Dagover and Bernhard Goetzke as the ingenue and death in disguise (below)

Master filmmaker Fritz Lang thrusts the viewer into an intense emotional whirlpool in his 1921 silent film, "Destiny" ("Der Müde Tud"), one of the lesser known titles in his canon of work but an achievement that I've always found compulsively watchable and utterly fascinating.

Its long inaccessibility, given that rep houses and a lot of campus film programs are sadly out of business, was blessedly only a temporary occurence now that the film is available on DVD and is slated for a Blu-ray release via Kino on August 30th.  

The dream-like tale of two lovers whose future together is dimmed when Death (Bernhard Goetzke) materializes and snatches the young man (Walter Janssen), "Destiny" is the kind of film that, on paper, can sound positively purple. The young woman (Lil Dagover) contemplates suicide when Death challenges her with a deal that she can hardly refuse: There's a boy and there are three candles, each representing a human life.

As each candle is extinguished, someone dies. But if one candle stays lighted, the boy will be spared and survive.

This main storyline gives way to three subplots - set in ancient Persia, Renaissance Venice and China - that are both wildly methaphorical and metaphysical as the woman frantically searches for someone to give up their life once the boy's is spared. The elderly, who are at death's doorstep, run from her. There is some alert, unexpected humor in this death-drenched fable, and the heroine confronts carefully-designed stumbling blocks, until she and her lover are reunited in a way that can only be described as supremely Lang-ian. Relax. No spoiler here.

I've always been struck by the methodical pace and overriding sense of calm that Lang brought to his very dark, moody fairy tale. The filmmaker kept things in check here, both his direction of the material and the performances of his cast.

The result is an impressively muted film.

Fritz Lang brilliantly deconstructs the notion of romantic filmmaking with "Der Müde Tud," which actually translates, tellingly, as "The Tired Death."

Friday, June 03, 2016

"And coming up in our next hour - Robin's exclusive sit-down interview with the amazing little gorilla boy and his parents! But first..."

The handsome, sentient Harambe's fate was sealed the very minute that kid fell into his moat.  Whatever would have transpired, he would have been shot and killed.

Police Lieutenant: "Well, Denham, the airplanes got him."

Carl Denham: "Oh no, it wasn't the airplanes. It was beauty that killed the beast."

The familiar dialogue, of course, is from the iconic 1933 production of "King Kong," written by James Ashmore Creelman and Ruth Rose and co-directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack.

But in the case of handsome Harambe, the 17-year-old western lowland gorilla who was murdered by the facility that was supposed to protect and nurture him, it was reckless stupidity that killed this gentle, magnificent creature.

Harambe was murdered on Saturday, May28th, the day after his 17th  birthday.

A willful child.  A possibly negligent mother. A clueless zoo.  A dead gorilla.

I reference this disturbing story, which has nothing to do with movies other than its unsettling similarity to "King Kong," because it will not go away anytime soon. With the media being what they are today - namely, insatiable and shameless - be prepared for the boy and his parents, when they are finally and officially unmasked, to be all over the place, along with the zoo's executive director and possibly even the gorilla's killer.  All of them are likely to be quite ubiquitous for at least a week or two, especially on television - on the morning infotainment shows in particular.

I predict that the unnaturally cheerful group on ABC's "Good Morning, America!" will get first dibs, sensitively questioning the kid and mother, listening attentively to some expert and feigning concern for the dead animal. It's what an overpaid television executive would call "great TV."

By now, I'm sure that you are familiar with the disturbing story of the gorilla Harambe, an inmate at the Cincinnati Zoo, who was assassinated by the zoo after a four-year-old child ignored his mother, went on an "adventure" and fell into the gorilla's moat. Harambe was an endangered species, being held in Cincinnati for breeding purposes.  It's an ugly story.

And this story follows quickly on the heels of the one about the baby bison that was euthanized by its caretakers at Yellowstone National Park after visitors there, who meant no harm, handled it.  Why was the bison put down?  It was easier than caring for it.  (I'm paraphrasing what Yellowstone's officials actually said but that's the gist of it.)  And why was Harambe put down?  That's among the questions I'll ask later.  But the bottom line is, it's not a good time for captive animals, friends.

And it hasn't helped that the spokesperson for the zoo - its executive director Thayne Maynard - has come across as curiously callous and unflappable.  Perhaps he has been trying to be a calm or "manly" presence in the face of a tragedy or perhaps he's naturally stoic, but a little emotion and some show of concern would have made him more convincing and, by extension, his dubious decision less drastic.

After Harambe was shot and killed, it's been reported that reproductive bilogists extraced "viable sperm" from the gorilla for artificial insemination and gneetic research.

"There's a future," Maynard has said. "It's not the end of his gene pool." Not a good comment.  Sounds like he got what his zoo wanted.  Even in death, after his life had been diminished by being jailed in a zoo, Harambe was exploited and humiliated. Being imprisoned wasn't enough.

As for the media, nothing in-depth or tough has emerged. As for questions that need to be - and should be - answered, I have these...

  • Why would a woman with four children in tow, including an infant, go to a zoo with no support?

  • Why would anyone take a four-year-old, let alone an infant to a zoo?  Does anyone realistically think a four-year-old would absorb anything from a zoo visit (other than the fact that gorillas, or any other precious animals, shouldn't be imprisoned there)?

  • Wouldn't a four-year-old be better served by an insipid Disney cartoon about gorillas?  Or is it possible that this four-year-old has seen one too many insipid Disney cartoons and, consequently, can't distinquish fantasy from reality?  (Hence, the headstrong kid's reported insistence that he be allowed to enter the habitat of an endangered species, ignoring the word "no" from his mother.)

  • Why was the gorilla moat so easily accessed?  If a four-year-old could penetrate the barrier, anyone could.

  • Where was the handler who normally socialized with Harambe? Namely, someone who could reason with the gorilla, given that it's been widely reported that one can indeed reason with a gorilla?  (Gorillas are apparently exactly like us, something most humans don't want to hear.  We're superior, see?  But are we really?)

  • Given how quickly the zoo decided to put down Harambe, is it reasonable to assume that a sharpshooter is on the payroll full time and that a gun or rifle is readily available all the time? How handy.

  • Who exactly shot Hamabre?  Why hasn't that Zoo employee been indentified?  And was the area cleared of the public for the killing?

  • And why is so little information being extended by the zoo and the local police?  Why, for example, has the family been protected by both the authorities and the major media? Actually, anyone resourceful can go on the internet and easily locate this info.

  • Why has the family hired the Gail Myers Public Relations firm to answer questions and make statements? A public relations firm?  Hmmm. No, this story is not going away anytime soon.

  •  Shouldn't animals be protected from human interlopers, rather than the other way around? Isn't a zoo supposed to protect its unwilling prisoners, not kill them? And in this sad case, the victim was, again, an endangered species. Absolutely unbelievable.

  • And why do we still have zoos?  Here's a case of an animal that was imprisoned his entire life, from his birth to his death, and then murdered when he became an inconvenient PR problem.

  • OK, what if the kid had died before Harambe was shot?  I refuse to believe that the gorilla would have intentionally killed the boy but that the kid would have died accidentally.  Yes, what if the kid had died?  Is it safe to assume that Harambe still would have been put down - in response to the situation?  I think so, absolutely. Perhaps he would have been taken down even if the kid lived - shot for mauling the boy.
Perhaps he would have been taken down even if the kid lived - shot for mauling the boy.

Harambe's fate, unfortunately, was sealed the very moment that kid fell into his moat.

Finally, a touchy observation that has been brought up in an excellent editorial in The Philadelphia Inquirer:  "Zoo officials killed him according to the principle that human life is worth more than animal life. Though we tend to acknowledge it less readily or consistently, some animal lives must in turn be considered more valuable than others." At last, someone said it.

It's humans who, in convenient self-interest, decided that human lives are so much more important than animal lives. A case of conflict of interest.

Note in Passing: Harambe means "pull together" in Swahili.  His nickname at the zoo was Handsome. Perfectly describing the mood of the moment is Anthony Seta, organizer of the vigil in memory of Harambe, who in this brief video, notes that he was part of the Cincinatti community.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

cinema obscura: annoyingly altmanesque

Robert Altman in 1978, directing Mia Farrow and Vittorio Gassman in "A Wedding."  Not good.

As a working critic, I was often in the minority on films and filmmakers, guided by a rather simple, but rigid, personal theory - namely, that there is no place for loyalty (actually, blind loyalty) in movie criticism.

I was embarrassed by a colleague who developed a crush on a movie or moviemaker early on and willfully refused to grow or move beyond that.

I was impossible.

Which brings me tone of my early heroes of the cinema - Robert Altman.

Altman was already something of a Hollywood veteran when he made his breakthrough film, "M*A*S*H" (1970), at age 45. As rebellious as the young audience to which it appealed, "M*A*S*H" restlessly defined the New Hollywood of its time, and with both that film and the one that followed, "Brewster McCloud" (1970), Altman perfected an improvistory style driven by a lot of rapid, energetic, overlapping verbal outpouring.

I was half Altman's age (part of his target audience) and I was in love.

What he created was a cinematic riff, a cool-jazz style to which he would invariably return during his up-and-down career, arguably hitting something of a peak with "Nashville" (1975), his most defining film.

"Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson," "Quintet," "The Player," "Short Cuts," "Prêt-à-Porter," "Dr. T and the Women," "Gosford Park," "The Company" and "A Prairie Home Companion," (his final film in 2006, the year he died) carefully followed the same formula - and were all over the map in terms of hits, misses and in-betweens.

But the formula turned rancid with two titles in particular - "A Wedding" (1978) and "Health" (1980), which is alternately known as "H.E.A.L.T.H." and "HealtH."  (Don't ask me why.)  These two films, both made for Twentieth Century-Fox, find Altman at his most condescending and most cynical, a filmic trademark of his that was starting to wear terribly thin.

His rancor, which was so bracing in "M*A*S*H" and so trendy in "Nashville," was beginning to leave a vaguely nasty aftertaste.

And the two are also painfully unfunny, with "A Wedding" serving as a rather snide, brutal attack on the titular event - which was already something of a cliché in movies - and "Health" aiming at the facile political correctness and hypocrisies of health-food devotés - an idea that was ahead of its time and very promising. But a missed opportunity here.

Both have huge casts, the usual ragtag Altman collection of disparate actors.  "A Wedding," a true narrative mess, details the coming together of two families - Eurotrash on one side (Vittorio Gassman and Nina Van Pallandt as the parents of the groom), vulgar WASPS on the other (Paul Dooley and Carol Burnett as the wannabe parents of the bride, named Snooks and Tulip, no less).  Neither is spared Altman's vitriol or judgment.

Lillian Gish, Mia Farrow, Geraldine Chaplin, Howard Duff, Dina Merrill, Viveca Lindfors, Lauren Hutton and literally dozens of other familiar actors come and go and bump into each other in the film's monied setting, a sprawling Oak Park mansion.  "A Wedding" is easily Altman's most (over-)populated movie, but no one here is companionable.

 James Garner and Ann Ryerson trying to resuscitate Lauren Bacall (and "Health")
"Health," meanwhile, takes jabs at health-food fanatics holed up at a convention in Florida. Seeing it again recently, I was struck by how much I've disliked Robert Altman's taste in actors (frankly, his ever-changing "stock company" always left me cold); by his misuse of his occasional celebrity players (in this case, Lauren Bacall, Glenda Jackson, James Garner and, again, Burnett) and by how self-conscious, obvious and shrill Altman could be when attempting decidedly odd/oddball touches.

Case in point: The wildly annoying strolling singers in "Health" who warble inane numbers while wearing ridiculous "vegetable" costumes. (FYI: "Health" originally clocked in at 105 minutes, but for some reason, the Fox-owned print of it that would unreel with some frequency on the Fox Movie Channel runs five minutes less - 100 minutes. Curious.)

It was the release of this film when I started to seriously question my enthusiasm for Altman, a fascination that started in my youth but dwindled as both he and I aged. Towards the end, I found his films as annoying as those singers. Anyway, I realize that Hollywod rarely remakes bad films, but given how health-conscious that present-day society pretends to be, "Health" should be an exception. Time has caught up with it.

The material is definitely ripe for a revamping. Perhaps Wes Anderson or Alexander Payne could get it right. Just a suggestion.

Essential Altman: That said, there are a number of Altman films that mean the world to me, starting with "Brewster McCloud," which remains a vivid seminal movie experience from my lost youth.  Following closely behind it are "California Split," Come Back to the Five & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean," "Popeye," "Fool for Love," "Cookie's Fortune," "Prêt-à-Porter," "A Prairie Home Companion," "Dr. T and the Women"and the very idiosyncratic "A Perfect Couple," not the usual Altman suspects.

And, yes, "M*A*S*H" remains a revelation.  As for "Nashville," it's addictively watchable, but knowing that Altman originally shot it as an eight-hour film, I'm way too aware of its many narrative gaps.