Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Mickey Rooney, 1920 - 2014

I had to write up this movie for TCM last year, a Wayne Newton movie from 1969, 80 Steps to Jonah.  It’s a pretty awful movie but it has an amazing cast.  Aside from the talented Mr. Newton, who does a hell of a lot better in the lead than you’d expect, and of course sings a couple of songs, it has Jo Van Fleet, Slim Pickens, Keenan Wynn, Sal Mineo, R.G. Armstrong, and in a small role as a drunk, Mickey Rooney. 

Mickey Rooney did about 11,948 movies in his unbelievably long career, which, relatively speaking, spanned only slightly less time than the history of cinema, so I can write about his performance in 80 Steps to Jonah with confidence that no one else is going to cover this one. If they do, my hat’s off to them for sitting through it without any contractual obligation to do so.  

Now you might be thinking, and who could really blame you for doing so, that I mention this movie because Mickey Rooney is a singular beacon of light in an otherwise dimly lit crevice. Well, sort of.  Rooney hits not a single note of subtlety in his two brief scenes in the film, both of which involve him as a drunk who is, in fact, very drunk.  Based on how Rooney’s performance plays to the other actors’ performances in the film, it is clear that he ignored any and all advice from the director and shot for the moon, as if the actual audience were located there and, just to be sure they could tell his character was drunk, played it big enough to be seen from the deep end of the Sea of Tranquility. So he’s not so much a beacon of light as a raging bonfire, projecting enough residual heat to melt nuance upon contact.

So why am I writing this up?  Because that son of a bitch never phoned in a single line or gesture or raised eyebrow.  If he was taking your money for the job, he gave you a performance.  He earned every goddamn paycheck like he was working overtime to pay backrent for last three months (and sometimes he was).  Occasionally, that over-projection got him into trouble with the kind of people who don’t or didn’t or won’t understand the philosophy behind the phrase, “give ‘em their money’s worth.”  But Mickey didn’t care and neither do I.  He never ran into trouble with me and a year later, he’s the only goddamn thing I remember about that movie. 

He’s the only goddamn thing I remember about a lot of movies. 

Because  he’s worth remembering.

And always will be. 

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Time Just Gets Away From Us

I've been writing this blog for seven years now and it's been so long since I updated here with anything resembling regularity that I goddamn went and forgot I'd been doing this for seven years.  Seven years.  Seven goddamn years writing about movies.  And the anniversary date passed, as it always does, without me even remembering it.



It was March of 2007 that I started blogging here after a successful and yet unsuccessful foray into political blogging.  My posts in that arena got noticed by a few folks here and there and linked to not once or twice but a few times on The Huffington Post and after that it was all vitriolic hate mail and assholes yelling me down.  Who the hell needs that?  So, successful and yet unsuccessful.  I deleted the whole damn blog and started over.  My first love was always the movies anyway so why in the hell was I wasting my time engaging a bunch of close-minded jerks when I could be discussing the movies with people who felt the same way that I did?  I called it Cinema Styles: From Silents to Sound and then dropped the last part because, Jesus, it just sounded so pretentious.

I gathered a following the only way I knew how, by going to every movie blog in existence and shouting in the comment section day after day, "I'm here!"  Eventually a few suckers took the bait and popped over to my place to read the wincing, cringing crap that I've long since deleted.  In fact, I deleted so much of my early stuff that I eventually lost the entire first three months and ended up with a July start date, although that date's never been real.  Even now, reading an old post can bring a shower of embarrassment over my whole, pathetic and blighted existence.  Jesus, did I really write some of that shit?  Did I really?  Delete!

I got better.  The people coming to my blog with consistency in those early days, the Kimberly Lindbergs and Ken Lowerys and Sheila O'Malleys and Neil Sarvers, taught me how to be better by commenting and questioning and challenging my long cherished beliefs.  That guy Dennis Cozzalio showed up and then Bill Ryan and then Arbogast, and we all know who he became, or was, and at some point I began to really love the whole damn thing, maybe because it seemed like something was happening.  Maybe something was happening.

Bill Ryan.  Geez, at some point, I became attached to that guy at the hip.  I feel honestly close to that guy.  I've unfriended him twice on Facebook.  Twice. Bill can piss you the fuck off.

One time, early on, Kim Morgan linked to me on MSN.  That was a helluva boost (I think she found me through David Hudson - damn, what a friend he was to us movie bloggers back in the day) and I felt pretty good.  I went to her place at Sunset Gun and left a bunch of stupid joke comments because I was grateful and didn't know how to express it.  I'm a moron.

One time I went over to the Self-Styled Siren's site.  I was nervous about it.  I wanted to comment but I didn't feel I was operating on the same level as she was and didn't want to embarrass myself.  I commented, she clicked on my link, came back and said she'd gone to Cinema Styles, saw a post on Anton Walbrook and decided I was a keeper.  Goddamn.  I mean, seriously, god-fucking-damn.  How did I deserve that?

I got to know other bloggers that I still talk to, some I don't and some I've wrangled with here and there and everywhere.  Marilyn Ferdinand was an early friend online and a great lady in person.  Somewhere along the way we stopped amusing each other.  How's that shit happen anyway?  I have no idea really.  But it does and I'd be a fool to pretend it doesn't.  It happens.  Shit happens.  We move on.

Tom Sutpen brought me onto the Gunslinger blog a few years back.  That's a job I never deserved but I did my best to do the job right since Tom felt I could.  I don't post there, like here, with much regularity anymore but whenever I come upon a picture I just feel has to be seen, I post it there.  Do yourself a favor, head over there and check out if you never have.  It's the best statement on everything that's anything there is, and I can't take any credit for it (though I remain proud of every - well, almost every - series I've created there).

A quick aside: Tom Sutpen and Ray Young (Flickhead) are two of the craziest, cantankerest (it's seven years, I can make up whatever fucking words I want), relentlessly honest sons of bitches I've ever come across on these here interwebs.  I'm glad to know them.

But I'm not going to sit here and type out an exhaustive list of names of every goddamn person I've gotten to know over the years.  You all know who you are anyway, right?  I'd rather talk about time, anyway.

You know what I do now?  I write for Turner Classic Movies.  I love it.  I put up a Wednesday post and every other week I put up a Sunday post.  I get assigned articles to write for the main site and I do that, too.  And I love it but the damnedest thing happens after seven years: The well water gets low sometimes and you can't just say, "Eh, I'll just skip this week."  Sometimes I'm up late on Tuesday night asking myself, "What in the hell am I going to write about tomorrow?!"  I mean, it's not like I can throw up a picture and a couple hundred words.  No, TCM expects a full article when you put up a blog post and I aims to deliver.  And here's the other thing: It's not even that hard.  I mean, this is all super easy if you just watch a movie and review it.  That's always an option and one I take on occasion.  But most of the time, I like to write about a general subject that I, and my readers, can talk about, discuss.  In other words, I can watch a great older movie, like I did recently with a Sunday post on Anthony Mann's Raw Deal, and write it up but for some reason, I feel like I'm letting down the powers that be by not writing about a general topic we can all have fun talking about.  Stupid, I know.  And when I do write up something like Raw Deal, I ask myself why am I even bothering with these general topic posts when there are so many great movies out there that haven't had a lot of write-ups that I can review.  Then I start thinking, "It's Tuesday night, oh god, what movie do I write up?!"  I complicate the process more than I need to.

So, seven years. Goddamn. Time, huh?


Thursday, February 6, 2014

Unavailable Anywhere: Black Roots

I wrote the piece below almost a year ago, in March of 2013, for Turner Classic Movies, who showed the film on their network.  If not for TCM, it might not be known at all, if it even is known by many.  As it was fully restored in 2012, I was hoping, when I wrote this, for an upcoming DVD release.  As it is, the screener I have from TCM still seems to be the only game in town.  Here's hoping that changes soon.  Enjoy the piece.
_______________

Lionel Rogosin had a good career with his father's textile business. He even became a chemical engineer following his service in World War II for the expressed purpose of working in the family business. But something gnawed at Rogosin since his service overseas. He had visited Europe, the Middle East and Africa and had come back with a sense of the injustice in the world to which he had previously been blind. Concerned with racism at home and abroad, and linking it to a fascist mentality, he wanted to do more than work in textiles. As clichd as it sounds, he honestly wanted to make something better of himself.

He wanted to document the racism and oppression around the world and the first subject he chose was Apartheid. However, without the technical know-how and the means, he had little chance of going to South Africa to make the documentary. Instead, he taught himself how to work a camera and turned it towards the Bowery in New York. The result was one of the greatest documentaries of the fifties, On the Bowery (1956), winner of numerous awards internationally as well as a nomination at home for the Academy Award for Best Documentary.

Rogosin finally made that movie on Apartheid after he gained the necessary capital from On the Bowery, resulting in the equally impressive Come Back, Africa in 1959. Rogosin spent the next eleven years pursuing themes of racism and oppression culminating in a brilliantly realized hour-long documentary, Black Roots, made and released in 1970.

The premise of Black Roots was simple: gather black activists and musicians and listen to them talk about their experiences intercut with the songs that grew out of their personal trials and dreams. The camera first focuses on Rev. Frederick Douglass Kirkpatrick, referred to as "Kirk" by the group. Kirk tells horrifying tales of his family working all year on cotton crops only to have the buyer at market use deceit and intimidation to give them next to nothing for it. Or the time his grandfather died and the white farmer that employed him spoke at his funeral and referred to him with racial slurs throughout.

Larry Johnson speaks of how he worked as a shoeshine boy in a white man's barbershop and that, on the occasions the owner's wife and daughter would offer Larry a ride home after work, the owner made sure Larry stood on the running board outside the car, holding on for his life. He wasn't about to let Larry sit in the backseat with his daughter.

The stories get even more horrifying as the great bluesman Rev. Gary Davis speaks of a shooting and lynching when he was a boy. But some of the stories have a more positive edge. Attorney and feminist activist Florynce Kennedy speaks with pride at how her father never cowered before any white man, even when the Ku Klux Klan marched to his doorstep and told him to leave town. He grabbed his gun and told them if any one of them ever set foot on his doorstep again, he'd shoot them.

Intercut with these stories is the music formed from their experiences with racism in the United States. The music is rich and powerful throughout but perhaps the highlight is Jim Collier and Wende Smith's wonderful performance of "I Want to be Somebody." But there's also Rev. Gary Davis and Larry Johnson, two of the all time great bluesmen, performing before the camera, a sight worth the whole of the documentary alone.

Rogosin takes the camera away from the group only when the music is playing and we wander onto the streets to see black men, women and children, filling the urban sidewalks, laughing, talking and living. It presents a novel juxtaposition. Rather than let the stories of racism weigh the spirit down, by showing the contemporary city dwellers, alive with hope and confidence, he shifts the focus to the promise of their future in a different world.

Black Roots didn't do as well as many of his earlier documentaries and Rogosin fell on hard times. In 1960, he had opened The Bleecker Street Cinema in New York's Greenwich Village and it quickly became the most renowned independent art house theater in the country, hosting numerous independent and foreign films. By 1974, he had to sell it to make ends meet. Unappreciated, and all but unknown, in America, Rogosin left for England and only returned to the states in the late nineties. Rogosin died December 8, 2000, just two weeks before Florynce Kennedy died on December 22nd.

Black Roots didn't make a big impact upon its release. Maybe it was too non-commercial to make an impact. Maybe the lack of a narrator or other cliches of the genre turned the audience off. Maybe they just didn't understand what all of it was supposed to mean. Whatever the case, it now has a good chance for re-discovery. Fully restored in 2012 at the L'Immagine Ritrovata Laboratory in Bologna, Italy, it is now ready to be seen again and should be, by anyone with a love of spoken history, poetry and music. It's a beautiful piece of work that may finally get the recognition it deserves, if only anyone can see it.

Producer: Lionel Rogosin
Director: Lionel Rogosin
Cinematography: J. Robert Wagoner
Music: Reverend Gary Davis, Larry Johnson, Jim Collier, Wende Smith
Music Consultants: Alan and Anna Lomax
Film Editor: Ruth Schell
Cast: Jim Collier, Rev. Gary Davis, Larry Johnson, Florynce Kennedy, Rev. Frederick Douglass Kirkpatrick, Wende Smith.
63 minutes


Thursday, January 16, 2014

Proof Once Again...

... that the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences don't know what in the hell they're nominating. No, no, this isn't about some film I loved, like Inside Llewyn Davis, not getting nominated.  I believe it should have been (and then gone on to win) but that's not the point I'm making.  The point I'm making is I don't think many, if any, of the members understand what in the hell they're nominating beyond acting, director and picture categories.  Screenplay?  Nah, I don't think they get that either.  Screenplay doesn't mean, "Hey, this movie's got a lot of good dialogue!" or "This movie is good so, screenplay good, too."  Screenplay has to do with construction as well as story development and, yes, character dialogue.  But it's entirely possible to also win a screenplay award for a movie with no dialogue.  Playtime, by Jacques Tati, has only incidental dialogue but there's a screenplay, it's just that it's entirely made up of stage directions and scenarios.  And it constructs a story that takes us from quiet order in the beginning to bombastic chaos by the end.  And it's a great screenplay.

When it comes to the awards further down the list, there's probably some real confusion.  Top in this area would be editing.  Editing doesn't mean "long movie with lots of cuts."  It also doesn't mean "movie with quick cuts."  It doesn't even mean "movie where I can see all the cuts."  It's all about how an editor chooses which shots to go to to best express the action on the screen and how to blend those into an aesthetic that matches the desire of the director.  If you see a movie that you find superb, that you got lost in and forgot you were watching a movie, it was probably pretty well edited.


Then you get down to the sound awards and, well, I'll just say it: Upstream Color has the best sound design of the year, period, bar none, hands down. There's an Oscar for this.  It's called Best Sound Editing and it's given, supposedly, to the movie that, essentially, makes the best and most creative use of sound.  It's like set or costume design, only for sound.  It's about using sound as music, in a way, scoring a film for the director by use of sound.  Best Sound, on the other hand, is about blending, about giving the ambient sounds, the music, the dialogue, and the effects the right mixing to make the whole experience seamless but also, to properly isolate or punch out sound when needed.  But Sound Editing, that's more about the art of sound and, God, nothing tops Upstream Color in that one and, of course, it didn't get nominated.  Why?  Because these people don't know what they're doing.  It's why I just can't care. Why I can't get worked up.  Why, every year, after I see the nominations, I shrug and move on.  See you next year, Oscar.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Useless Movie Test 1.0



1. If I saw you sit down on the edge of a bed, take your shoes off and start picking your feet, what city would you be in?

2. You're an ex-boxer yelling at me, a racketeer. Where do you tell me my guts "is"?

3. So you're sitting in a hotel lobby observing people come and people go. Anything ever happen?

4. Are you a dime a dozen? If not, who are you?

5. Did you ever know the old Vienna?

6. Who should it happen to?

7. Yes or No: Deserve's got something to do with it?

8. If you meddle with the primal forces of nature, what will you do?

9. If you're laying on a couch, out of sight, and a woman throws a vase at the wall, when you get up and reveal yourself, what should you ask?

10. If you ain't eating Wham, what else ain't you eating?

11. You're standing on a raft full of monkeys. What should you ask them?

12. You're an adult male virgin on an isle where the previous year's apple crop failed and you have the chance to quickly get laid and renounce your Christian faith. Should you?

13. Who belongs dead?

14. Do we accept her?

15. We are the people or we are the people?

Bonus question:
I'm a reporter, you're an heiress. When we get married, what comes down?

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Frank Wilson and The Club

Frank Wilson worked with Bruce Beresford on multiple occasions, including two films back to back in The Club and Breaker Morant.  The latter is an acknowledged masterpiece, containing one of the great performances of the silver screen, Edward Woodward as the title character.  The former, The Club, starring another Beresford favorite, Jack Thompson, as football coach Laurie Holden, isn't as well known and certainly not in the same cinematic universe despite being directed by the same director.  It's more pedestrian in look and feel (not a knock, mind you, just an admission that its content, a cocked-eye look at the politics of professional Australian football; and its visual style, more akin to a straightforward television movie appearance, especially its abundant use of slow motion, isn't intended to be as emotionally soaring and searing as Breaker Morant) but still comes off rather well and the source material, a play written by David Williamson, has sufficient bite to keep it interesting.  But what really stands out, as you may suspect from the title of this piece, is Frank Wilson, as former player and coach, Jock Riley.

Frank Wilson made a career in Australian tv and movies so he's not as known in Hollywood as other Australian actors and directors, like Beresford himself, who made the transition across the sea.  As such, what work he's done isn't as readily available and The Club itself only became available on streaming just recently.  But it's worth a look if only for his performance alone.  As an added bonus, you get an excellent performance from Jack Thompson as well but Wilson is the one who really holds the screen captive.  It's a great performance, not of a character as grand and eloquent as Woodward in Breaker Morant, but petty and small and selfish.  If you're going to watch it, skip the dialogue below.  If you've seen it, you probably agree it's one of the best scenes in the movie.

The scene takes place after Laurie's been told he should have no trouble getting another coaching job, implying his services may no longer be needed.  The history between Jock and Laurie has become clear:  Jock was a highly regarded player/coach with the club and holds the record for most games played as well as most flags (think pennant in baseball) and premierships as coach.  He lost his job when Laurie went to the committee running the club and told them that Jock was often drunk at games and made poor decisions leading to losses, including a premiership.  Laurie became the coach and Jock moved on to the committee, where he now stands to be elected president (detailed in another great scene between Jock and Laurie - "I've heard whispers," "You don't hear whispers, Jock, you start them.").  After this history has been revealed, Jock confronts Laurie:



Jock Riley: "I've been called all sorts of things in my time, Laurie, but never a coward.  And what about you?  Sneaking around with the committee behind my back and telling them I was drunk just so you could get my job. You call that courage?"

Laurie Holden: "You had just lost us a premiership."

JR: "Oh, I noticed you didn't win too many when you took over."

LH: "And do you know why?"

JR: "Oh, I'm to blame for that, too, am I?"

LH: "You and your cronies wouldn't let me buy players."

JR: "We were upholding an old tradition.  We were wrong, but we believed in it."

LH: "They might have.  You did it to stop me getting a flag."

JR: "That's crazy talk, Laurie.  You really think I'd sabotage this club for eight years to get back at you?"

LH: "Yes I do."

JR: "Then you're crazy! It's just as well. We're getting rid of you."

LH: "You were a thug as a football player and you were a lousy coach.  And you're the last person in the world who should be president."

JR: "You can call me what you like, mate, but the record books are going to show that I played three more games than you did. And I won four more premierships!  And they're still going to be saying that in a hundred years."

It's a great scene because it shows the callousness and self-interest of Jock so clearly.  Mere seconds after denying he would ever sabotage the club just to keep someone else from breaking his records, he puts those records out there as proof that Laurie has lost the argument.  Basically, he just agreed with Laurie's assessment of him, whether he knows it or not.  Or whether he cares or not.

Frank Wilson won a festival award for Best Actor in 2005 for the short film, The Chess Set, just one day before he died.  He probably should've won a lot more but his career never reached the fertile markets of Europe and America.  Too bad.  He was damn good.  The Club may not be of the same caliber as Beresford's Breaker Morant or Tender Mercies, but it has Frank Wilson, and that's reason enough to give it a look all by itself. 

Friday, January 10, 2014

When Bobby Met Llewyn

I don’t know what to make of the connection in my head between Five Easy Pieces and Inside Llewyn Davis but it’s there.  Two wandering souls, lost, searching, ending up home, leaving again.  Two sons talking with their fathers, their unresponsive fathers.  One says everything he can to fill in the gaps, to try to make both sides of the conversation work.  The other simply sings a song.  



“The best that I can do, is apologize. We both know that I was never really that good at it, anyway.”

Music is important to both but never provides the way out, or in, that their youth promised.  Talent amounts to something but its value is negotiable.  Diners and road trips, and hitching rides, and heroin induced blackouts and chicken salad sandwich freak outs. 

There are missed opportunities and failed relationships.  Or can it be called failure if no real effort went into making it work in the first place?  And friends walked out on.  And cats. 

Cats.

“I had a baby kitty cat once. It was a fluffy thing. Bobby gave it to me. Remember, Bobby?  The little pussy cat you gave me?”

“Yeah.”
                  
“It had two little white front paws and I was crazy after her.   We left her at some friends' house and she got squashed flatter than a tortilla outside their mobile home.”

Au revoir.


Thursday, January 9, 2014

Never Seen It, Don't Know It #1

After Midnight, released in 1927, directed by Monta Bell and starring Norma Shearer and Lawrence Gray (both pictured above).  No word on whether they let it all hang out. 

Three Plus One

Jeanette MacDonald, Dolores Del Rio, Norma Shearer, and Ernst Lubitsch pose for a few pics in 1939.