Thursday, August 10, 2006
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Wednesday, August 02, 2006
"This film is alive," Henry Miller once said, "and it speaks to me."
Movies have many voices. Some simply entertain us; others instruct. A few make us feel alive, and even fewer influence our behavior and decisions.
The ones that grip us in a personal way are the truly special movies in our lives. They have the awesome ability to get us to look inside ourselves and to pursue dreams that we otherwise might never consider.
Growing up, we all invariably have used film as a point of reference, a learning tool, an example. We would gulp down our One-a-Day vitamins, check our PF Flyers to make sure that they were double-knotted and then, almost routinely, make a beeline for the neighborhood Bijou where we would lose ourselves in make-believe, fantasies and daydreams. The Movies. Even the word is glittery.
The special ones stay with us – forever. It takes little mental coaxing for me to remember those personal film arousals that have overwhelmed my life. And I've a suspicion that if I were to connect these movies - the way one connects dots - I'd come up with an image that looks, well, very much like me.
Each of us could be charted by the movies that have guided us, movies we love. As a society, that chart would probably include such titles as "Gone with the Wind" and "The Wizard of Oz," seminal movie experiences that continue to have an impact on the masses.
The beauty of movies is that they work on us personally, directly on our senses. They get us alone in the dark and then, while we're isolated and diverted and vulnerable, they subliminally instruct us in the ways of life. And, sometimes, they lie to us.
They may not always change our lives in conspicuous ways, inspiring us to pick up and move away, get married or have a baby (although some can). What the best of them do is to, quite simply, put us in contact with ourselves.
The movies that are special to us - and you know which ones are your favorites - knock us out with some truth or some indication of what can be. We never do quite get our balance back. We leave the theater feeling dazed, irritated, excited, exhilarated and maybe even eager to do something.
Movies are my life, more than a profession or even an avocation. I will be frank: I dream about them, the way I do about people. They are my world and it's a wondrous place. But one has to be careful because when one lives in a world of movies, one risks living in a place that's close to, well, nowhere.
So, how did I end up in this place?
It started innocently enough. I used movies initially as an escape, then as a learning tool, looking for examples, for role models, for someone with whom I could connect the way everybody does.
That wasn't easy. I'd sit there in awe of John Wayne, for example - as he fought Indians with his cunning and prowess or, in John Ford’s "The Searchers," as he rescued a teenage Natalie Wood - knowing that I could never measure up. Never. The image of Wayne swooping down and scooping up Natalie Wood has a strong, masculine force that is anything but absurd to a 10-year-old boy.
It was difficult to feel much kinship with the people I saw on screen, but I tried.
Then, I saw a movie that convinced me that, somehow, my life would be emotionally mixed up with movies. When I first saw it, Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment" created a longing so ardent that I thought my chest and head would implode. I remember little else about that summer or that year, for that matter, except that I loved "The Apartment" and that I related to its star, Jack Lemmon, in the most complete, complicated way possible. A point of reference and a role model, at last!
With such dubious assets as his slight build, sagging shoulders, slouching posture and wide-open face filled with basset-hound anxiety, Lemmon filled me with wonder for someone who seemed so much like me - or so I liked to think.
Jack Lemmon was Mr. Joe Average, a guy like a lot of other guys, only with a quizzical alertness and high-strung energy. As Saturday Review aptly put it in its review of Richard Murphy’s “The Wackiest Ship in the Army,” Lemmon was "the perfect personification of all harassed mankind - the outranked, outnumbered, outmanipulated little fellow with sound instincts and bad judgment. He is the one who is always taken advantage of. And if, in the end, he emerges triumphant, it's because of a basic decency rather than superior cunning or sudden inspiration."
I've seen "The Apartment" at least 20 times, maybe more, but I still remember the first time. I was with some friends, kids who tested their tonsils and tangled diction on the screen by shouting obscene words through their cupped hands.
They goofed off, but I watched. “The Apartment” is the first film that I actually studied, reading between the lines and noting techniques. I’ve seen a lot of films, and my list of favorites keep changing, but “The Apartment” – the story of an ambitious office worker (Lemmon) who climbs the corporate ladder by “lending” his apartment to his philandering bosses before getting his priorities straight – has been resistant to any upward or downward revision in my mind. It's been a constant, the test, I guess, of a truly great personal film.
Few movies, however, have the kind of impact on our lives that that “The Apartment” has on mine. But the infrequent great ones do come along from time to time, films that restore our belief in possibilities and that remain our points of reference throughout our lives.
These movies are like dreams that live on. Each movie, each celluloid dream, becomes a part of our mental scrapbooks. I know that I’ve lingered over movies and movie scenes the way some people reminisce over snapshots of that wonderful vacation in Cape Cod. “The Apartment,” for example, has been carried around inside me ever since that first viewing. It’s familiar and comforting, like an old easy chair that’s been lugged to each new place in which I’ve lived – to remind me of where I’ve been and from where I’ve come.
That movie is like a ribbon, a thread, that has run through my life and I can always go back to it. And, like me, throughout the years, it has evolved and changed. It hasn’t remained the same and, for some reason, I find that reassuring.
I still quote lines of the Billy Wilder-I.A.L. Diamond dialogue from the movie – such as Lemmon’s casual shrug, “That’s the way it crumbles, cookie-wise,” or his observation to his dream girl in the film, Shirley MacLaine, as they are about to enjoy a spaghetti dinner on Christmas day: “It’s a wonderful thing – dinner for two.” Shirley MacLaine. Yes, she was my dream girl, too.
Inevitably, I found myself discreetly consulting “The Apartment” as a way of getting through life. A situation would be confronted by speculating how C.C. Baxter, Lemmon’s character in the fim, might handle it. I actually thought I’d grow up to be Jack Lemmon or, at least, C.C. Baxter.
Of course, I wasn’t Jack Lemmon and my life that followed wasn’t at all like the one he lived in “The Apartment.” And with this, I realized that movies have the ability to hit us in more ways, and on more levels, than we can ever appreciate. They are transporting and make us believe.
Up until that time, I spent endless, sleepless nights as a kid wondering if I’d grow up to look like Jack Lemmon (I didn’t) or if I’d join the Navy the way he did in John Ford and Mervyn LeRoy's “Mr. Roberts” (again, I didn’t) or work for an insurance company the way he did in “The Apartment” (ditto) or if I’d marry Shirley MacLaine’s Fran Kubelik (no way). These were actual, recurring dreams.
Ever since I first saw “The Apartment,” my life has been wrapped up, irrevocably, in movies, so much so that, for me, film has evolved into a pop psychology. Film became a part of something larger in my life. Movies and events in my world have tended to blend together.
Along the way, I learned to separate fantasy from reality, to realize that only a few of my movie-fed dreams will materialize. And I’ve also accepted the realization that many of these dreams may fall short of “the way it happens in the movies" - a harsh truth for the movie-loving kid still inside me.
No, the Navy no longer holds any glamour or allure for me, and neither do insurance companies. And I married someone who, I think, is better than Fran Kubelik. But I have other, newer dreams, all of which, I’m sure, also come from the movies.
Note in Passing: My parents were not happy that I went with my aforementioned friends to see "The Apartment." I subsequently saw it on my own several more times, always behind their backs. I'd fib and say I went to another film. I remember telling them that I had seen "The Story of Ruth," a Biblical epic. Blasphemy, I know. In reality I was watching Jack lend out his apartment to his bosses for sex. I confess: I was a kid sinner.
(Artwork: top: Publicity shot of Jack Lemmon as C.C. "Bud" Baxter in "The Apartment"; middle: still shot of the office Christmas party, and bottom: Lemmon and director Billy Wilder, a "mutual admiration society" on the set)
Tuesday, August 01, 2006
After spending most of my life at the movies (or at least thinking about them) and all of my adult life reviewing them professionally, I decided it was time to kick back with a little movie-free downtime.
But my wife Susan had other ideas. Convinced that I’m way too opinionated a soul to truly harness myself – and also too much of a movie aficionado to completely fast – she had this handsome blog designed for me. “Indulge yourself!,” she said. A compelling, possibly dangerous idea. After all, an idle mind can uncork some weird, comic demons, and this blog, I decided, would be devoted to my own personal demons - a collection of movie-fed daydreams.
My most intense movie passion revolves around those titles that are, well, not “the usual suspects." I'm not talking about great movies, but good, solid films that, as I point out in the introduction to your left, have been either neglected, overlooked, underrated, hastily dismissed or unfairly maligned.
These are films that are lost, plain and simple. They are just about impossible to see nowadays. Because of studio indifference/politics, they not only have never been issued on home video/DVD, but have also virtually disappeared from the airwaves, never or rarely televised anymore. Without some kind of acknowledgement and, yes, gratitude, these films have the potential disappear ...forever.
They are also the kinds of movies that critics rarely, if ever, return to – for the purpose of reevaluation that, by extension, would possibly adjust original first impressions that were perhaps the result of deadline pressures.
As a working critic, I had become keenly aware of how different a film can look when distanced from the prevailing hype (or bad press) that surrounded it on its initial release.
And, frankly, as a film enthusiast, I get weary of scanning the revival listings in The New Yorker magazine and The Los Angeles Times - only to find, yes, the usual suspects being honored and celebrated again. You know the culprits -“Citizen Kane,” “Nashville,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “The Searchers,” “Raging Bull” et al. These are films returned to by critics on a regular, predictable basis. There’s nothing left to say about them. Certainly, I have nothing to add. At this particular juncture in my life, such films seem to interest me less and less.
Rather, my goal is to share with you films of a rarer persuasion - movies likely to go through my head at any given moment, often bleeding together.
When the mood strikes me, I hope to comment on Natalie Wood’s “Inside Daisy Clover.” On another day, it might be the lost Pat Boone musical, “Mardi Gras,” a personal guilty pleasure. There will be viewpoints on films unavailable on DVD, such as Billy Wilder’s “Ace in a Hole” and Martin Ritt’s “No Down Payment" and pronouncements on those lost films that pop up occasionally and unexpectedly on American Movie Classics.
That said, I don’t mean to imply that this blog will devoted exclusively to lost movies, that there won’t be occasional comments on contemporary titles and new DVD releases. But I’ll make every effort to veer away from the current Hollywood blockbuster or the latest critics’ darling. One thread that I'd like to weave through this blog is what I call missed opportunities on DVD releases. For example, why on earth haven't Kevin Costner's deleted scenes in Lawrence Kasdan's "The Big Chill" ever materialized on home entertainment of any sort? And exactly where are all the songs excised from James Brooks' former musical, "I'll Do Anything"?
Speaking of musicals, I also hope to post periodic comments on the musical film, perhaps the most creative, least appreciated genre, one that embraces every possible art and craft. And I will certainly muse periodically about the appeal and talents of Jack Lemmon, an all-time favorite of mine, as well as the subject of two books that I wrote. There will be a LOT of Jack Lemmon here.
Anyway, on different days, in different moods, these movie-fed daydreams may vary, starting in one place and then going someplace else. And beware - my conclusions will be ever changing, too, sometimes maddeningly so.
I relish the idea of sharing these daydreams with you and sincerely hope that you will open up and share yours with me. And, by all means ... feel free to disagree. --Joe Baltake, 8/1/06
(Artwork: Natalie Wood, in extreme close-up, on a 1962 cover of SHOW Magazine.)