Tuesday, January 01, 2008

The Perfect Human

Jorgen Leth's 1967 mock-serious film study of the human animal, The Perfect Human, is just one of those things that delights me and makes me giggle irrepressively. Somehow it manages to be beautiful and comic at the same time.

Now we will see how the perfect human looks and what he can do.

The Perfect Human part 2

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Zombies, Madmen, and Cats: The Films of Val Lewton

I love Halloween. Especially the iconic images of Halloween: the gypsy fortune teller driving her cart through a forest at night, lit by a solitary lamp; ghostly women in diaphanous gowns who walk the halls of old houses at the ends of lonely roads; cackling witches; yowling black cats; grinning jack o' lanterns; and death riding a skeletal horse through a midnight sky. My idea of Halloween is, obviously, a romantic one based on the influence of a lifetime of Gothic literature, cheap, paper Halloween decorations, and old Hollywood movies.

In my opinion, the best horror films ever were made in Hollywood in the 30s and 40s and though I love Universal Horror as much as anyone else (The Black Cat, especially) my personal favorites are those kitschy, heavy-handed, offensively cliche RKO films made by Val Lewton on a shoestring budget with a repertory cast. He stole from classic literature frequently (both The 7th Victim and I Walked with a Zombie are drawn from Jane Eyre), relied on offensive stereotyping, and sometimes I'm damned if I can figure out what the point of the film is (what's with that woman in The Curse of the Cat People, anyway) but he also created fun, stylish, moody films that while not actually scary are spooky in that uniquely Halloween way. I guess I'm easy, give me an outmoded folk legend, an exotic locale, or a deserted house with subterranean waters and I'm yours.

The first time I saw them was on a cable channel Halloween marathon and I've been in love with them ever since. If the only Val Lewton film you've ever seen is Cat People, you should definitely check out some of the others. My personal favorites are:

I Walked with a Zombie - a young nurse travels to the West Indies to care for a madwoman and comes face to face with Voodoo, very evocative, very lifted from Jane Eyre.

Isle of the Dead - a group of people are trapped on an island with Boris Karloff and a dread disease. They're droppin' like flies.

The 7th Victim - a young career woman goes to the big city and gets involved with Satanists - can her little sister save her?

And, of course, last but never least, Cat People - a curse from the old country follows a young woman to her new home and destroys her life.

If you want some more ideas, read Wendell Jamieson's article from the New York Times or Bright Lights Film Journal's article on Val Lewton.

Have fun! Don't get sick on corn candy!

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

The Loss of Bergman and Antonioni

Two giants of mid-century European cinema died this past week. Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni were responsible, in their own highly individualistic ways, for creating films that dealt with issues concerning man's place in the world, his existential angst, and alienation in the modern world. They also brought foreign film to the notice of American viewers for the first time.

I admit to being somewhat of a Bergman junkie. I've seen most, though definitely not all, of his films and the list of ones I admire deeply is long. He gets a bad rap for being heavy going and for dealing in big, serious themes like religion, death, and morality, but his films display a charm and wit unique to him, and though being rather serious, and possibly erring on the side of self-conscious intellectualism, the themes he explored are universal and seemingly timeless. Though I prefer the films Bergman made in the 1950s, ones like Cries and Whispers are as excellent as anything he made before. To list the films I admire most would tax any reader's patience and most of them are so famous as to be too obvious to mention. However, I have to suggest watching Summer Interlude since I believe it was one of his favorites and I know it is mine and practically no one ever mentions it.

While I feel a little two knowledgeable about Bergman (you know, like those people who can drone on endlessly about a subject they spend too much time and effort on - freakishly knowledgeable Star Trek or Harry Potter fans, for example) I've only seen two of Michelangelo Antonioni's films: L'avventura and Blow Up. I know practically nothing about his work or him, except that watching both of these films awed me and made me feel utterly stupid! Such complexity, such depth, and so perfectly rendered: I'll probably never completely understand what they're about, but I can enjoy trying to.

There's a lot in the press this week about Bergman and Antonioni, here are a few samples of what's out there:

Bergman, Antonioni and the Religiously Inclined - New York Times

Ingmar Bergman Obituary in the London Telegraph
Ingmar Bergman Obituary in The Guardian
Ingmar Bergman Obituary in The New York Times

Michelangelo Antonioni Obituary in the New York Times

Senses of Cinema on Michelangelo Antonioni

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Happy Birthday Hume Cronyn

Looking for something to write about (I seem to be temporarily out of ideas) I checked my favorite celebrity birthday site and realized that it was Hume Cronyn's birthday on July 18. A great but underrated actor, Cronyn often played strange, distasteful little men chock-full of neuroses and axes to grind. I don't think I've seen that many of his films, but the ones that come immediately to mind are People Will Talk (1951 ) and Shadow of a Doubt (1943), an excellent celebratory birthday pairing if I do say so.

In People Will Talk, Cronyn plays a weasley little college professor who, jealous of his colleague's success and popularity, sets out to destroy his reputation and strip him of his medical credentials. Written and directed by Joseph Mankiewicz and starring Cary Grant, Jeanne Crain, Finlay Currie, Walter Slezak, and Margaret Hamilton, the film is full of witty one-liners, thoughtful philosophic insight, and delightful characters. Cronyn's character and the confessions he forces from his victims provide the necessary tension to a film that would be too idyllic otherwise.

Cronyn's character in Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt is less cruel, but far more disturbing. Next door neighbor to the Newton family in peaceful Santa Rosa, California, Cronyn comes over every evening during their dinner to discuss various strategies for knocking off the head of the family. Relishing each gruesome detail, Herbie (Cronyn) follows crime stories in the paper as if murder were something abstract and benign, feeling far removed from their reality in his remote California town. Cronyn plays Herbie as both naive and ghoulish and, though his role is small, it helps to drive home Hitchcock's point that no place is safe, no matter what it looks like from the outside.

If you enjoy Hume Cronyn's particular brand of weird charm, you may want to watch some of his other films, such as Lifeboat (1944) with Talulah Bankhead and Walter Slezak or The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) with Lana Turner and John Garfield.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Movie Kitsch on KDOC

It took a long time, but KDOC has finally realized that their success as an all-reruns all the time station lies in its ability to tap the retro/vintage crowd. Their programming is still eclectic (what politeness!), but on the whole they are closing in on quality camp, kitsch, and nostalgia, giving less airtime to bad shows from the 1980s like Matlock and Saved By the Bell and focusing more on the 1970s and beyond. Though their programming is definitely improving, it is still quite apparent that they don't totally get it. Their new graphics, though objectively better than before, have lost a certain je ne sais quoi that emphasized their unique low budgetness. My favorite was how their ads for Kojak always used surf guitar in the background as though, in their admiration for Quentin Tarantino, they hadn't noticed that surf guitar and crime are an LA thing, incongruous when paired with the mean streets of New York. A KDOC fan from way back, I remember how by 9pm their re-run programming used to be replaced by hours and hours of Dr. Gene Scott mumbling on about no one knows what and scribbling obscure and occult-looking symbols from a variety of ancient languages on a whiteboard. As nostalgic as I am, I'm glad those days are gone. Instead, we have Universal horror movies and countless hours of The Endless Summer, Elvis, and Annette Funicello/Frankie Avalon beach movies. Mini-marathons of Twilight Zone, Bewitched, and The Partridge Family. It's an improvement no matter how you look at it.

This saturday, as part of their series of Saturday night monster movies, they're showing The Mummy (1932) starring Boris Karloff and directed by Karl Freund. Sunday night's selection from retro surf culture is Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (1966) with Frankie Avalon, Dwayne Hickman, and Vincent Price in a daring crossover role. It is my own rather worthless opinion that the beach movies are much less of a sure bet than the old monster movies. Last week, I watched The Wolf Man with Lon Chaney, Claude Rains, Bela Lugosi, and Maria Ouspenskaya, and the most troublesome thing about it was that I couldn't honestly believe that Claude Rains was supposed to be Lon Chaney's father. Bad special effects, corny lines, none of those things bothered me, but Lon Chaney as an Englishman? It was a minor irritant to my enjoyment of the movie.

On the other hand, I tried to watch Beach Blanket Bingo the next night and I didn't last 10 minutes. Almost immediately, Annette and Frankie go surfing for a few minutes and, of course, when Annette comes back to the beach after wiping out her massive and immovable flip is still intact! Wasn't she, you know, under water? Shouldn't that have had some effect? If that wasn't bad enough Frankie spent all his time ordering these "girls" (a hapless troupe of bikini-clad bimbos) around as if he were a sultan and they his harem. What made it even worse was that they were only to happy to satisfy his every wish. I would have popped him one!

So get the gang together, mix a coupla Singapore Slings, get some teeny tiny eatables and have yourselves a movie night courtesy of KDOC.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Golden Earrings: Ray Milland Goes Native

Last Christmas my mother gave me the Marlene Dietrich Glamour Collection DVD box set from Universal. Pleasantly surprised that my mother, unlike some, pays enough attention to realize that I am a devotee of crappy, I mean, campy old movies, I have been savoring it ever since, watching each of the films at well-spaced intervals, never gorging myself on so many that I had nothing left to watch. After several delightful visits to Camp Marlene I had seen all the films in the set I felt were worth watching. The one remaining film, Golden Earrings, I had dismissed. What little I knew about it just didn't entice me. I mean, Marlene Dietrich and Ray Milland just being in the same movie is odd enough, but as Gypsies? This could never be good. And while it is no less plausible that Marlene should be an eastern European gypsy than, well, say a Southern Belle or a Spanish femme fatale, it seemed completely impossible to believe in Ray Milland as either a gypsy or a romantic leading man. Well, the other day, in desperation for something, anything, to watch I popped Golden Earrings into the DVD player and watched it. The whole thing. At every cringe-worthy moment, I cringed; at every offensive racial/cultural stereotype, I was duly offended. But for everything that is wrong with this movie -- and there's a lot, believe me -- I have to admit that in some horrible, kitschy, painful, embarrassing way I enjoyed it, which is odd because I can't think of one really positive thing to say about it. It's almost as if I enjoyed this film in spite of myself. Throughout, I felt that I knew better than to enjoy it, that to like it was somehow evidence of some deep seated tendencies I'd rather not delve too deeply into, let alone admit.

At any rate, Golden Earrings is wartime spy thriller mit romantic fantasy about an English army officer who goes to Nazi Germany in order to smuggle out a formula for poison gas. While hiding from the Nazis, Denistoun (Ray Milland) meets up with Liddie (Marlene Dietrich), a Gypsy woman traveling alone who claims that spirits who live in the water told her he was coming and that, though a gadze (a non-gypsy), he is her man. Well, at first, he is disgusted by her filthy Gypsy habits and superstitions. After all, she is an offensive two-dimensional stereotype. But then, so is he. Ever the stiff-upper-lipped Englishman, he is more tightly-bound than nickel-62 and just about as fun. But then Denistoun decides to go with Liddie, traveling incognito as a Gypsy in her flimsy-looking vardo. Dark stained skin, large earrings in his ears, and sporting an eastern European peasant blouse, Denistoun "goes native" and becomes relaxed and carefree in a way that would have horrified his schoolmates at Sandhurst. He steals chickens, develops a ear for cimbalom music, and eats with his hands. What's more, having cast off his whiteness he becomes a gifted fortune teller, beginning to take on the psychic and supernatural world of the Gypsy stereotype (according to this film, the Roma are psychic and follow some sort of animistic earth-based religion. Who knew?).

As is so often the case, the film's point of view is best encapsulated by the trailer, which in this case summarizes the film as a tale about a "man from the civilized world" who comes into contact with the "primitive and passionate" world of the gypsy. If I'd watched the trailer first I would have known what I was in for and may never have watched the movie at all. I don't understand why Universal would have made this film, except maybe to rectify the fact that the Roma were the one minority Hollywood hadn't taken a shot at yet. Anyway, I can't say it isn't offensive or stereotyped or that the love story is so stirring that it makes up for all of its other flaws, but inexplicably, you may, like me, be able to enjoy its kitschiness, camp, and bad acting in spite of it all.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

THIS JUST OUT: Banacek Season One

Though I am probably in the minority here, I am excited about the recent release of Season One of Banacek on DVD. A cop drama from the early 1970s, Banacek starred George Peppard as a Polish-American insurance investigator with a penchant for reciting obscure Polish proverbs while smoking a cigarillo and wearing far too form-fitting turtlenecks and leisure pants. My primary joy in Banacek has been that, though set in Boston, the entire series was filmed either on the back lot at Universal or on location in Los Angeles, and I have enjoyed it as a sort of treasure hunt of LA streets and neighborhoods, much the way I do Rockford Files and CHiPs. But in watching reruns of the show during its short stint on KDOC, I have become familiar with certain elements of the Banacek character. Several things remain constant throughout: Banacek always solves the impossible to solve case, always has leggy women simply falling all over him, and is always self-consciously enjoying the most expensive of everything. So I ask myself, whose fantasy was this? It seems to me that the entire series is simply a middle-aged man's dream life escape from his ordinary humdrum existence. While Banacek is decidedly unbelievable as an irresistibly handsome millionaire genius, this is exactly what we are asked to believe of him. In its original pitch to the network the series must have been intended as a prolonged dream sequence framed within two explanatory episodes in which the mediocre, lonely, insurance salesman Banacek is knocked unconscious by a rogue pot of African violets only to wake up after a delicious fantasy of beautiful women, witty one-liners, and fantastic wealth to find that he is, once again, just a common wage slave. At least this is my reading and, I have to say, the series is much more believable this way.

Though you might want to just rent this one, it can be bought at Amazon and though you won't find much in the way of unqualified praise for this show, there are some fans out there. Check out these clips from YouTube: