Monday, January 15, 2018

Cinéma Inhabituel for January 16-31

A Guide to the Interesting and Unusual on TCM

By Ed Garea

As we wind down the month and prepare for the annual Oscar deluge in February, we begin the column with a word from our own Jonathon Saia. He has launched an exciting new series of articles called The Auteurs. Each article will feature a film from a selected director and examine why it meets the standard of an Auteur. Jon is a superb student of film history and his series promises to both inform and entertain. We think you’ll like it as much as we do and will look forward to each new installment.

The Auteurs: A Tour Through American Cinema with Jonathon Saia

Auteur, French for “author,” is a term and later a movement coined to define a filmmaker whose work is so singular that the work is undeniably their own. 

For my new column, “The Auteurs,” I will be writing about 20 filmmakers – some legends, some under-appreciated – who have laid their views, values, and personal lives bare on screen for the world. As a student of cinema history, I have specifically chosen directors whose work with whom I am mostly unfamiliar in order to further educate myself in the process. 

In choosing which film from these prolific, iconic, and varied filmmakers’ ouevres to profile, I will mainly focus on projects that the directors have also written, produced, edited and/or shot themselves to fully claim them as its author. When at all possible, they will also be the star of the film. I have focused on American films made within and around the Hollywood Studio System because it is the world I know best; therefore, can give the uniqueness and splendor of the films a better context.

I hope this inspires you to take your own journey through cinema history. I look forward to discussing these films and their makers with you throughout the year

Enjoy!

Erich von Stroheim and Foolish Wives (1922) (Already posted. Read it here.)
John Cassavetes and Husbands (1970) (Already posted. Read it here.)
Charles Chaplin and Limelight (1952)
Maya Deren and Meshes in the Afternoon (1943)
Oscar Michaeux and The Symbol of the Unconquered: A Story of the Ku Klux Klan (1920)
Jack Smith and Flaming Creatures (1963)
Elaine May and A New Leaf (1971)
Herschel Gordon Lewis and Two Thousand Maniacs (1964)
Orson Welles and The Lady from Shanghai (1947)
Melvin van Peebles and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971)
Shirley Clarke and Portrait of Jason (1967)
Buster Keaton and Three Ages (1923)
Andy Warhol and Lonesome Cowboys (1968)
Doris Wishman and Bad Girls Go to Hell (1965)
Jerry Lewis and The Family Jewels (1965)
Barbara Hammer and Nitrate Kisses (1992)
Spencer Williams and The Blood of Jesus (1941)
D.W. Griffith and Orphans of the Storm (1921)
Kenneth Anger and Invocation of My Demon Brother (1969)
Lois Weber and Too Wise Wives (1921)

AGNES VARDA


January 31: A double feature from the noted New Wave director kicks off at 2:30 am with the justly celebrated Cleo From 5 to 7. Corinne Marchand stars as a singer who is nervously awaiting the results of a cancer test, and the movie documents a nerve-racking two hours in the singer’s life as she waits for the results and the characters she meets. And yet, at the end, we are still left with a sense that the story has not been fully resolved. It is a brilliant study of a woman’s real life dilemma with no need for artificial drama. Watch for cameos by Jean-Luc Godard, Anna Karina, Eddie Constantine and Sami Frey. 

Following at 4:15 am, the crap really hits the fan when married young carpenter Jean-Claude Drouot proposes making his mistress a part of the family in her 1966 Le Bonheur (Happiness). Francois (Drouot) is a carpenter living in a suburban village. He is happily married to lovely Therese (Claire Drouot), and they have two well-behaved young children. When Francois meets Emilie (Marie-France Boyer) and begins an affair with her, he finds that his happiness increases. “Happiness works by addition,” he tells Emilie. Therese can’t help but notice his newly-found joyfulness, and during a family country outing one afternoon, she questions him about it. He tells her all about Emilie and their affair, assuring Therese that the relationship is no threat to their family and that he has found more than enough happiness to satisfy everyone. While Therese appears to accept the situation, things are not what they seem on the surface, and the family's seemingly perfect existence becomes increasingly threatened. 

YASUJIRO OZU 

January 23: Beginning at 3:00 am comes two excellent family comedies from the celebrated director. First up is Equinox Flower (Higanbana), from 1958, a lovely film starring Shin Saburi as a businessman who excels at giving everyone else family advice, but when his own daughter (Ineko Arima) rejects his plans to arrange a marriage for her, he is totally at a loss. This forces him to examine his seemingly perfect life and he comes to see just how committed he is in his own life to traditional ways in a society that is changing. Built along one of Ozu’s favorite themes, the changing Japanese cultural landscape as the country modernizes, Ozu focuses on the effect it has on the adjustments a family must make between generations.

Compare its outlook with Ozu’s earlier film Early Summer (Bakushu), from 1951, which airs immediately afterward at 5:15 am. Noriko (Setsuko Hara) is a secretary. She’s single and livers happily with her mother and father. But she’s approaching 30, which sets off alarm bells in her family, as tradition dictates that women marry young. Her family feels that her independent spirit needs to be modulated by a husband. Noriko sees the fact that she works, has female friends with whom she is close, and has no need to rush into marriage as completely normal, but her married older brother (Chishu Ryu) sees it differently, as an impudence. When her boss suggests his 40-year old bachelor friend as a suitable husband, all the members of her family press her to accept. But Noriko is determined to follow her own course of action, without seeking their advice, and to their ultimate chagrin. As with all Ozu films, a simple scenario at first is actually way deeper than assumed and there are no easy choices in life. It’s a shame TCM is airing these classics at such a late hour, which means we’ll have to get out the recorders. These two films are far and above the other fare the stations providing that night and should rightly be viewed in prime time instead of being relegated to the late night ghetto.

ERMANNO OLMI

January 21: Talented Italian director Ermanno Olmi, who gave us the terrific and insightful Il Posto in 1961, gives us a 1978 film that many consider his masterpiece, The Tree of Wooden Clogs (L'albero degli zoccoli). This 1978 film will be shown at 2:15 am. Originally a three-part series made for television, it’s a perfect example of Olmi’s “slice of life" filmmaking. It focuses on a year in the lives of four peasant families sharecropping in Lombardy, a rural region in northern Italy, at the end of the 19th century. 

It was a subject Olmi knew well, based on stories his grandmother told him. For the director, a Catholic, a Marxist, and a peasant, the story was close to his heart and to his own history – a devastating look at a feudal system which forced peasants to beg for what should have been theirs by right. He knew the region and the people intimately, and the title itself refers to a peasant family that has a child so clever that they decide to send him to school instead of making him work the farm. This requires a great sacrifice, as the boy has to wake up very early and walk several miles to get to the school. One day his shoes break when returning home, but the family cannot afford to buy another pair. His father solves matters by chopping down a tree and fashioning a pair of clogs for his son so he can go to school. The consequences of this action will later have a heavy impact on the family. Don’t let the running time of a little over three hours deter you. With Olmi the devil in is the details and the film is a virtual immersion into the lives of those who got the short end of the stick. The film won the Palme d'Or as best film at the Cannes Film Festival, being one of the few winners to be selected unanimously by a festival jury.

OVERLOOKED CLASSICS

JANUARY 16: At 4:45 am TCM is airing King Vidor's 1934 utopian drama, Our Daily Bread. New Yorkers Mary and John Sims (Karen Morley and Tom Keene) are hard hit by the Depression. Out of work, the couple gets some badly needed help when Mary’s Uncle Anthony (Lloyd Ingraham) gives them a tract of fallow land to farm. They hit a rut when they realize they cannot farm it alone. 


When Chris Larsen (John Qualen), a dispossessed farmer from Minnesota, breaks down outside the Sims’s farm with a flat tire, John suggests to him that, in exchange for his farming expertise, he and his family live on his land and share in the farm's output. After Chris accepts, John realizes he can expand this offer to other destitute families and to his surprise he has many takers. Working together as a collective, the men till and plant the land, while the women tend to domestic chores, such as making homes out of hand-built shacks. But trouble comes when they realize that, because no mortgage payments have been made, the county sheriff is about to auction off the farm. At the auction, the group unites to intimidate any potential buyers, with the result that the sheriff is forced to sell the farm for $1.85 to a member of the collective. As the film continues other troubles arise, such as a severe drought, and nearly ruin not only the farm, but Mary and John’s marriage. Though the acting is nothing to write home about, and the reviews were mixed, the film remains as an interesting piece of Americana made outside the studio system.

PRE-CODE

January 17Eleven Men and a Girl (1930), a college football comedy with Joe E. Brown and Joan Bennett at 3:15 pm.

January 18: Lionel Barrymore and Miriam Hopkins in the 1933 drama The Stranger’s Return (6:00 am). Paul Muni and Aline MacMahon in 1933’s The World Changes (7:45 am). Jean Muir and Donald Woods star in As the Earth Turns, from 1934 (9:30 am). Barbara Stanwyck is a mail order bride in William Wellman’s The Purchase Price (1932), with George Brent and Lyle Talbot (1:00 pm)

January 19: A Joel McCrea mini-marathon begins at 7:45 am with 1931’s Kept Husbands (w/Dorothy MacKaill). Following in order are The Sport Parade (1932, w/Marian Marsh. Read our essay on it here.) at 9:15 am; Rockabye (1932, w/Constance Bennett) at 10:30 am; Born to Love (1932, w/Constance Bennett) at 11:45 am); Bed of Roses (1933, w/Constance Bennett) at 1:15 pm; Chance at Heaven (1933, w/ Ginger Rogers) at 2:30 pm; and Gambling Lady (1934, w/Barbara Stanwyck) at 4:00 pm.

January 20: Young American Leslie Howard goes back to London in the time of the American Revolution and meets his ancestors in Berkeley Square (1933, 6:15 am).

January 22: Four films featuring prostitutes are on the bill. Dorothy MacKaill discovers that you can run but you can’t hide in William Wellman’s 1931 drama Safe in Hell (6:00 am). Helen Twelvetrees commits murder to protect her daughter’s honor in Millie (1931, 7:30 am). Garbo talks in the original Anna Christie, from 1930 with Marie Dressler (9:00 am); and Walter Huston is a missionary who tries to reform Joan Crawford in Rain (1932, 10:45 am).

January 24: Jewel thieves Miriam Hopkins and Herbert Marshall find their relationship threatened when he turns on the charm to their newest victim, Kay Francis, in Ernst Lubitsch’s delightful 1932 comedy, Trouble in Paradise, at 11:00 pm). 

At 4:15 am. Jimmy Cagney, Joan Blondell and Ruby Keeler headline Busby Berkeley’s Footlight Parade (1933).

PSYCHOTRONICA AND THE B HIVE

As always, there’s a good selection of psychotronic films. 


January 17: For those who like a little murder mystery with their baseball there’s MGM’s 1934 Death on the Diamond, which is airing at 10:15 am. Here’s the plot: “Pop” Clark (David Landau) owns and manages the St. Louis Cardinals. Things have not been going well on the playing field in recent years for the Cardinals, and if the Cards fail to win the pennant, Pop will be forced to sell the team to greedy business rival Henry Ainsley (John Hyams). His hopes rest with rookie pitcher Larry Kelly (Robert Young). Larry is befriended by wealthy Joseph Karnes (C. Henry Gordon), but he is later warned by sportswriter Jimmie Downey (Paul Kelly) to avoid Karnes, as notorious gambler. Though the Cards are given only odds of 20-1 to win the pennant, they get off to a strong start and are firmly entrenched in second place. This is not good for Karnes, who has bet $1 million against the Cardinals, and he tries to buy Larry off with a $10,000 bribe. But Larry informs Jimmie and Pop of Karnes’ dirty doings and the bribe is made public. Just as Pop thinks the team has turned the corner, someone begins murdering the players. A race is on to find the identity of the killer before he wipes out the Cardinals’ chances for the pennant. Can our hero Larry romance Pop's daughter, Frances (Madge Evans), win enough games, and still have time to stop a murderer before he strikes more than three times? Tune in and find out.

Move ahead to 4:30 am and it’s Jack Benny as an angel sent to destroy Earth with a blast from his trumpet in The Horn Blows at Midnight, from 1945. Benny is a trumpet player in a band who falls asleep and dreams that he's an archangel sent to earth to blow his horn at midnight, signaling the end of the world. Benny misses his cue, and spends the rest of the film trying to evade a pair of fallen angels who are out to stop him. Not nearly the turkey Benny made it out to be on his television show, it’s an entertaining screwball comedy with an excellent cast, good writing and top direction from Raoul Walsh.

January 19: Chester Morris and Lucille Ball are among the survivors of a jungle plane crash who realize their repaired airplane can only carry five passengers in 1939’s Five Came Back (1:00 am).

January 20: Farmer Max von Sydow finds himself framed for murder and railroaded into the nut house by his ambitious sister Liv Ullmann and her doctor husband, Per Oscarsson in Laslo Benedek's 1971 drama The Night Visitor, at 2:00 am. Immediately following at 4:00 am, watch Richard Burton embarrass himself in the execrable 1977 sequel, Exorcist II: The Heretic.

January 25: Once Elvis hit it big in movies, rock stars were in demand. Roy Orbison is a Confederate spy who gives guitar lessons to the governor’s daughter and later robs a Union train before he learns the war is over in 1957’s The Fastest Guitar Alive, airing at 1:30 pm. Roy’s gimmick is a shotgun guitar that he uses to get out of scrapes.

At 6:15 pm it’s cowboys vs. dinosaurs in Ray Harryhausen’s The Valley of Gwangi (1969).

January 26: At 8:00 pm, children marooned on an island must create their own society in Lord of the Flies (1963). At 11:45 Ray Milland and his family flee the aftermath of a nuclear war in Panic in the Year Zero (1962). At 1:30 am comes the 1970 environmental holocaust film No Blade of Grass. And at 3:30 am, Jenny Agutter and Lucien John are two children lost in the Australian Outback in Walkabout (1971).

January 27: Nature strikes back, beginning at 2:30 am with a giant boar on the loose in Australia in Razorback (1984). Following at 4:15 am, John Huston and Shelley Winters are threatened by a giant octopus in the Godawful Tentacles (1977). With Henry Fonda in a mercifully brief appearance.


January 29: Warner Baxter is a master criminal who suffers amnesia as a result of a blow to the head and is reborn is as noted criminal psychologist in Columbia’s The Crime Doctor from 1943. It went on to spawn an entertaining series and can be seen at 12:30 pm.

January 30: Scheduled at 8:00 pm the one and only King Kong makes an appearance. The 1933 film has been imitated many times but never topped for adventure or realism.

SILENTS PLEASE

January 28: Young Edna Purviance, from the French countryside is set to marry her sweetheart, Carl Miller, but a misunderstanding causes her to move to Paris, where she becomes the mistress of wealthy Adolphe Menjou in Charlie Chaplin’s A Woman of Paris, which airs at Midnight. It was Chaplin’s first attempt at a serious dramatic feature, and though the critics loved it, it didn’t click with audiences and fared miserably at the box office. Chaplin reedited it, but waited until 1977 before reissuing it with a new musical score.

TRAIN WRECK THEATER

January 16: Tune in at the early hour of 6 am to catch Ronnie Reagan in the stirring 1938 social justice piece, Girls on Probation. For those who would rather be doing anything else, you can read about it here.

Friday, January 12, 2018

TCM TiVo Alert for January 15-22

TCM TiVo ALERT
For
January 15–January 22

DAVID’S BEST BETS:

SHAFT (January 15, 2:00 am): "Who's the cat who won't cop out when there's danger all about? Shaft. Right on." It's not just the great theme song and a super funky soundtrack, this is the absolute best blaxploitation film ever made. It was so popular that it's considered the film that saved the then-struggling MGM studio from going out of business in 1971. Richard Roundtree is Shaft, John Shaft, a private dick who is asked by the Mafia to rescue the daughter of the crime boss. Shaft is as cool as they come, bedding a number of women, and always a step or two ahead of the police, the mob and the gang that kidnapped the girl. It's an incredibly enjoyable movie, filled with action and humor. 

THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS (January 16, 12:45 am): This is Orson Welles' follow to Citizen Kane starring Joseph Cotten (one of cinema's most underrated actors in just his second film) as Eugene Morgan, a charming and successful automobile manufacturer around the turn of the 20th century. Twenty years after he returns to town, Eugene falls in love again – though he's been in love with her for most of his life – with Isabel Amberson Minafer (Dolores Costello), a former flame who is later widowed. But Isabel's son, George (Tim Holt), steeped in the Amberson tradition and name, interferes in the love affair between his mother and Eugene, who want to marry. The film is beautifully shot with incredible acting and a compelling storyline about those who go to unbelievable lengths to keep their pride at the expense of their own personal happiness and of their families.

ED’S BEST BETS:

THE EARRINGS OF MADAME DE (January 18, 10:00 pm): The films of Max Ophuls are noted for their subtlety, and this film is a prime example. Taking a simple premise, that of a French woman whose series of white lies does her in, Ophuls raises it to the level of high tragedy. although it opened in the U.S. to mild praise, the film is viewed today as one of the greatest gems of movie history, and perhaps the acme of Ophuls’ career. Of course, a good cast helps, and Ophuls has a terrific one with Charles Boyer, Danielle Darrieux and Vittorio De Sica as his leads. Ophuls is in his element here, painstakingly designing mies-en-scenes that frame and define his characters, and combining that with close-ups that allow us some psychological insight into the characters. The plot is beautifully staged, opening and closing on the consideration of the eponymous piece of jewelry that passes from owner to owner until returning to Darrieux. This is a film of charm and beauty with a marvelous subtext of the pain that goes hand in hand with vanity and which no amount of lies can cover or explain.

DAY FOR NIGHT (Jan. 22, 12:45 am): This is one of Truffaut’s wittiest and most subtle films – a film about the making of a film. While on the set of Je vous presente Pamela (Introducing Pamela), the story of an English wife running off with her French father-in-law, we also get to know the cast and crew shooting the film, each with his or her own set of problems. Hence the title: a technical cinematographic term for simulating a night scene while shooting during the day. Special filters and optical processors are employed to create the illusion. While Nathalie Baye and Jean-Pierre Leaud are wonderful in their roles, Valentia Cortese steals the picture as the fading actress Severine. For those new to Truffaut, this is the perfect introduction and one not to miss.

WE DISAGREE ON ... WINGS OF DESIRE (January 22, 10:15 pm)

ED: B. There have been quite a few films that featured angels in their plots, but nothing like Wim Wenders features angels. Only Wenders can envision them as gloomy men in overcoats moving stealthily through Berlin looking to comfort those unfortunates in need of their assistance. Being an angel is a tough lot in Wenders’ existential fantasy. Being powerless is part and parcel of their job, since they cannot change fate but can only bear witness to what it does to an individual. It’s this feeling of powerlessness that motivates an angel named Damiel (Bruno Ganz) to give up his celestial otherworldliness for the sensation of corporeal existence. The film gets off to a great start, as we share the details and responsibilities of Damiel and a fellow angel named Cassiel (Otto Sander). We see them riding the subway, listening in on each commuter's thought process, or in traffic listening to a woman talk to the dog in her car. They offer comfort to a pregnant woman on her way to the hospital, or solace to a wife who just lost her husband. They do all this while remaining invisible (except to children) to those they help. And we witness the growing feeling of longing in Damiel for the joy that a corporeal existence can bring. He becomes inspired by watching an American actor (Peter Falk) as he prepares for a role, or a beautiful trapeze artist (Solveig Dommartin), with whom he becomes infatuated. So far, so good. But while the basic idea of the film is enchanting, it gets away from Wenders and ends up quite overripe. Take the case of Falk, in town to star in a film about World War II. We hear him worrying about whether he understands the role, and while sketching another actor on the set he is given to some of the ripest dialogue this side of Coleman Francis in The Beast of Yucca Flats (“Flag on the moon. Where did it come from?”). While looking at an actor in costume, he is led to muse, "Yellow star means death. Why did they pick yellow? Sunflowers. Van Gogh killed himself.” And it gets worse with Dommartin’s musings. Such pithy pronouncements as ‘"Where did time begin, and where does space begin?” make us feel more that we’ve wandered into a lecture on existential philosophy than watching a trapeze artist at work. In the end, both she and Falk lead us to a musing of our own along the lines of “Who cares, anyway?” Her remarks not only serve to trivialize the film, they go on and on, and in the end their final effect is to break up the monotony of endlessly lingering camera shots on her high-wire acrobatics. For a film that grabs us at the beginning with its novelty, Wings of Desire breaks down in the second half, weighted down by excessive dialogue and camera movements and its unyieldingly heavy sense of whimsy. It ultimately wears us down and gives us only a sense of relief that the film, artsy-fartsy to the extreme, has ended. Day for Night is coming on immediately after this. Watch that instead. 


DAVID: A. If you love film, you will love Wings of Desire, an ingenious and moving picture from 1987. The visually-stunning film focuses on Damiel (Bruno Ganz), an angel in Berlin around the end of the Cold War. He stands on top of tall buildings, in a crowd or nearly anywhere, watching people and listening to their thoughts, many of them quite depressing. Damiel and Cassiel (Otto Sander), an another angel featured in the film, can't really do anything to directly comfort people except touch someone's shoulder to give a little hope to those with troubled existences. Its beauty is in its subtlety. The acting is brilliant, particularly Ganz and Peter Falk, who plays himself. Falk is in Berlin to film a movie, and it turns out, he was an angel who chose to give up his immortality to become a person. Falk's ability to play himself with an unexpected twist is one of the most compelling aspects of this most compelling film. Damiel is growing tired of being an angel and yearns to be a human. He tells Cassiel: "It would be rather nice, coming home after a long day to feed the cat, like Philip Marlowe; to have a fever, and blackened fingers from the newspaper; at last to guess, instead of always knowing.” Damiel falls in love with Marion (Solveig Dommartin), a beautiful trapeze artist who fears she will fall. For Damiel, it's love at first sight. He longs for the simple things humans experience, but often don't notice, such as touching someone or having a conversation. Damiel risks his immortality to have an opportunity at love. Is the film's tempo slow? Perhaps, but that allows the viewer to better understand Damiel's existence as an angel and the quandary he faces in choosing mortality and love. Rather than a deep meaning, the film provides a simple lesson: It is the small things in life that make it worth living.

For the complete list of films on the TCM TiVo Alert, click here.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Husbands

Saia on Film

By Jonathon Saia

Husbands (Columbia, 1970) – Director: John  Cassavetes. Writer: John  Cassavetes. Stars: Ben Gazzara, Peter Falk, John Cassavetes, Jenny Runacre, Jenny Lee Wright, Noelle Kao, Noelle Kao, Meta Shaw Stevens, Leola Harlow, Delores Delmar, Eleanor Zee, Claire Malis, Peggy Lashbrook, Judith Lowry, Eleanor Cody Gould, Lorraine MacMartin & Sarah Felcher. Color, Rated PG-13, 131 minutes.

It’s not a question of understanding it. If you feel it, you feel it, stupid.” – Dialogue from Shadows (Cassavetes)

If the work of John Cassavetes – the father of American Independent Cinema – could be summed up in one word it would be Freedom. Freedom from structure. Freedom from capitalism. Freedom from traditional staging. Even Freedom from the director’s own will. Everything was in pursuit of Emotional Truth. Nothing else mattered. 


The critics of his films would describe them as “embarrassing,” “boring,” and like “being at a party after the liquor and wit have run out and when nobody can quite bring himself to leave.” John’s attitude: “If it doesn’t give you an answer, f*** you. I didn’t make it for you anyway.” While other filmmakers were kowtowing to the pressures of a studio, high profile backers, or distributors, John, his family, and friends were working on their passion projects for years at a time for free (using non-union crews to boot). Not only that, but John and Gena Rowlands (wife, muse, and one of the greatest actresses of all time) would mortgage their home, four-wall theaters, and pass out fliers to get people to see their films when the major studios refused to back them. Shadows (1959), Faces (1969), A Woman Under the Influence (1974), The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), and Opening Night (1977) were completely funded outside of the studio system and for WomanBookie, and Opening Night, John and Gena even distributed the films themselves. 

They did anything they could to get their projects made and made the way they wanted: in order to get funding from Universal for Minnie and Moskowitz (1971), John had his secretary read the entire script to the executives; to get free labor for Woman, John agreed to be a mentor at AFI so he could use the students as his crew; when he didn’t like the posters Universal had made for Minnie and Moskowitz, he printed his own – and took out a two-page ad in The New York Times to advertise it himself; he even turned down a very lucrative offer to videotape his plays because he was afraid the camera would taint the experience for the actors. 

While filmmakers such as Stanley Kubrick or Terrence Malick would spend take after take obsessively trying to perfect the technical elements of the shot or the version of the performance they wanted, John instructed his camera operators to follow the action (even if that meant the actors were out of focus, out of light, or even out of frame) and refused to give the actors motivation (or even let them discuss their characters with the other actors!); the actors were in charge of the scene and their characters. So much so in fact that his screenplays didn’t even contain stage directions. He gave them total freedom to move anywhere and do anything they wanted; as long as it felt True to the scene and True to the character they – not Cassavetes – were creating. No fancy editing tricks. And in many instances, no music. He even shot his films in sequence to give the actors a sense of continuity. Nothing was to take away from the power of the performance. 

His films were family affairs, quite literally home movies. Gena appeared in nine of his twelve films (starring in six of them); his brother in law, David, in six; his eldest daughter, Xan, in four; his mother, Katherine, and mother-in-law, Lady, in three each; his son, Nick, in two; his youngest daughter, Zoe, in one. Parts of Faces were shot at Lady Rowlands home; Love Streams shot at John and Gena’s. Each film began with a workshop reading of the screenplay at their home, attended by good friends and creative partners like Peter Bogdanovich and Elaine May.   
Though John Cassavetes began as a very successful television actor in the height of TV’s first Golden Age – and got that way by sheer determination (chaining himself to a radiator at CBS to get one of his first walk-on parts) and chutzpah (jumping on agents’ desks and grabbing them by the collar when they dared to impugn his talent) – it’s interesting to note that a man so committed to actors and acting didn’t find that much fulfillment in acting himself. He got into acting to meet girls (which is how he met Gena, so it definitely worked out for him in that department) and as soon as fame hit, he became bored and tried to find new ways to make the whole experience more exciting. 

After being rejected by the Actor’s Studio, he and friend Burton Lane founded the Cassavetes-Lane Workshop as a sort of rival program, countering the Studio’s rigidity of The Method and embracing a more improvisational, collaborative approach; something that would prove invaluable in his success as a filmmaker. (Sidebar: after John started to become more high profile as a film actor in the mid-’50s, the Studio did invite him to join. But John insisted on auditioning so he and Burton Lane performed a scene from a made-up play – i.e., an improvisation. The panel was so impressed they admitted him on the spot. John’s response: “Screw you. I don’t want any part of you. I’ve got my own school and I’ll drive yours out of town!”)

Cassavetes’ first film, Shadows (1959), grew out of an exercise at The Workshop. He would assign actors characters and relationships and over a period of several classes, they improvised a world that could form a story. John thought it would make a good movie so in order to get funding for gear (but not for crew or actors; this was the first of many films he would make on a volunteer basis), he went on the radio and asked people to send in money if they were inspired by the story of a trio of African-American siblings and their place in a racist society. This was not only an incredibly progressive story to be making during Jim Crow, but probably the first instance of crowd-funding. By the end of the week, John had $2000.

Shadows was shot at The Workshop and the students were the crew. He borrowed money from famous friends (including Hedda Hopper) and got some of the gear donated by filmmaker Shirley Clarke. They would knock on doors of strangers to see if they could plug in lights and use their electricity. They stole shots. They exposed 250,000 feet of film (roughly what was shot for Gone With the Wind), which took months to synchronize because the sound was off and they had no script supervisor. Cassavetes encouraged the leads to hang out in certain neighborhoods, have dinners together, and do anything they could to bond as siblings. He was already cultivating his passion for intimacy and authenticity. The first cut took two years to assemble because they had no script and no story. It was guerrilla filmmaking in every way. 

If you see Shadows today, it still claims to be “improvised” in its final frames. Yet after test screenings of the completely improvised version, Cassavetes and his cast and crew returned to filming for a few more weeks, leaving what worked in the film and using the rest as inspiration for new scenes that were then scripted by John. This “improvised” title card dogged Cassavetes for years and allowed critics to dismiss his work as rambling indulgences, or worse, elaborate home movies when in truth they were heavily scripted pieces. His screenplays would begin with long dictation sessions with his secretary in where John would act out all the parts, and continue revisions through the rehearsal process (even during and up to the filming of the scene) with heavy input from the actors. Sometimes he would spend a week on a scene: writing, rewriting, improvising, shooting, reshooting, and even then it would get cut from the film if John didn’t think it worked. Ben Gazzara, a frequent co-star, found this process extremely helpful in creating his characters because even if the scene were cut, “that kind of backlog of remembrance about the situation is invaluable.”

Over the next ten years, Cassavetes directed two very conventional Hollywood films (Too Many Blues, 1961; A Child is Waiting, 1962) and acted in his most acclaimed and famous TV and film work: the series Johnny Staccato (1959) and the films The Dirty Dozen (1967, for which he received his only Oscar nomination for acting) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968). He used the paychecks from these projects to fund Faces (1969), a film he spent five years workshopping, filming, and editing and what many have called his masterpiece; though my vote would go to A Woman Under the Influence (1974) in where Gena Rowlands gives arguably the greatest performance by an actress in the history of film. 

While Faces continues the style and desire for Realism and Truth John started in Shadows, it still feels rough, like a master honing his craft. For me, his next film, Husbands (1970), is his first masterpiece.


Husbands: A Comedy About Life, Death, and Freedom (there’s that word again…) is the story of Gus (Cassavetes), Harry (Gazzara), and Archie (Falk); three best friends sent into a tail spin of domestic panic and midlife crisis when their fourth musketeer Stuart (played by Cassavetes’ brother-in-law, David Rowlands) suddenly drops dead. We meet them through a series of photographs at a pool party (notice Gena Rowlands as Gus’ wife in one of them). They laugh, they cajole, and they flex, trying to prove who has the biggest muscles. I dislike words like “masculine” and “feminine” because I think they box people into corners of prescribed behavior, but I want to draw attention to this “masculine” act in the flexing photo. Cassavetes’ films, particularly his male characters and particularly in Husbands, ooze behavior that can best be described as “masculine”: aggressive and volatile, trying to connect through yelling, physical posturing, and dominant assertion; it’s no wonder that Martin Scorsese was so attracted to his work. This photo (in where Cassavetes himself seems to have the largest muscle – read into that what you will) is emblematic of John’s energy and work and serves as a great symbol of the friendship of these men: playful competition. 

Cut to the friends at Stuart’s funeral. None of them know what to say or even how to behave. They are in shock, lost in perfunctoriness. Gus and Archie are so out of it that they yell to Harry for a match for their cigarettes even though he is walking Stuart’s bereaved grandmother (Lowry) to the gravesite. 

After the funeral (which oddly and importantly none of their wives attended even though their families had been friends for a number of years), Gus, Harry, and Archie decide they are not ready to return home. So they don’t. Over the next two days, the friends play in the New York streets like kids, race each other up and down the block for a dime, ride the subway from end to end, have existential conversations about aging, play basketball and swim at the YMCA, and have a singing contest with a bunch of drunks at a bar. All without so much as calling their wives to tell them where they are. 

The longest scene of the aforementioned action, and the most compelling I would argue, would be the singing contest. Perhaps it’s because it was one of the truly improvised scenes in the film, giving it a freshness, a life. It doesn’t progress the narrative (although what scene really does in a film of somewhat disjointed exercises in male bonding and vanity), but it is a great example of Might Makes Right and the men trying their best to overpower their pain with dominance. The table is filled with expressive faces of men and women, mostly older than our leads; yet the friends are so clearly in charge of the moment. They have all been drinking for what appears to be a long time – the numerous pitchers and empty glasses intimate this – and as the men get drunker and drunker, they begin to get more confrontational, particularly to a singular woman. 

It was just a little love affair,” she sings. “I never thought you’d grow to care.” Each man yells in her face: “More feeling!” “I don’t believe you!” “Again!” Eventually, Archie forces a kiss on her, stripping to his underwear, and stealing her red (raspberry?) beret. This exchange is a great metaphor for their marriages. Three husbands struggling to communicate, attempting to control their lives (and wives) in crude and desperate ways. 

The following scene is dubbed as its most “controversial” although it is humorous to think of as shocking in a modern context. The alcohol has begun to get to them as the men cram into a stall together to get sick. Archie is embarrassed that he might puke in front of his friends, which sends Harry over the edge. “First there were four of us. Now there are three of us. And you want to be alone.” It’s like if they left one another for even enough time to vomit, they may lose each other forever. Audiences were disgusted by even the intimation of vomit (even though you don’t see anything) and many walked out during this scene. John’s response was typical Cassavetes: “When somebody dies, I want to feel something. I want to be so upset that I could cry, throw up, feel the loss deeply.”

When Harry (though not Gus) is ushered out of the stall so Archie can throw up, he finally calls his wife. They quarrel. Combined with rejection from all angles, he destroys the phone booth. He confesses his jealousy of their closeness and admits in one of the film’s most humorously tender lines, “Apart from sex, which my wife is very good at, I like you guys better.” This line has two layers to it: Harry is simultaneously confessing love for his friends, yet defending his heterosexuality by reminding them that he has sex with his wife and that it is good; he is also commenting on the place and necessity of a wife, or at least his wife, as a sex object and not a person in which to confide.   


Harry thinks it is time to return to real life. He wants a shower and a shave and vows to go back to work. Gus and Archie agree to work, but refuse to bathe, taking pride in their stench. The three of them first go to Harry’s house. While there he gets into an altercation with his wife (Meta Shaw, one of the producers’ daughters) and mother-in-law (MacMartin), forcing a kiss on the former and choking the latter. Gus and Archie run in just in time to break up the fight. Harry knows his marriage is toxic (clearly his anger management is a factor) and decides to run away to London. Gus and Archie are welcome to come or not. But he is out of there.

Instead of going straight to the airport, Harry and Gus decide to go to work first (Archie presumably is unemployed or apathetic to his job and follows Gus to his dental practice). Harry sits at his desk, trying to work on blueprints; Gus tries to work on his patient’s teeth, after not bathing or brushing his own teeth for two days so I'm sure that was a pleasant experience for her. Archie complains about Harry breaking up the rhythm and forcing them back to ritual. He encourages Gus to leave his patient (and maybe even his practice). Harry will need them in London, they think. And rush to his office. 

Before they can board a plane, Gus and Archie need their passports. So do they go home, greet their wives, apologize, and explain the situation? Nope. Gus calls his wife (without apology) and tells her to bring him his passport because he is going to London to get Harry settled in. Oh, and if she could go over to Archie’s house and get his passport from his wife too. Cassavetes is smart and doesn’t give us the satisfaction of this scene. The next shot we see is the three friends on the plane. We never see the wives. Not even at the end of the film.

In London, the men rent tuxedos and head to the casino where their first order of business is – what else? – finding girls for the night. Gus and Harry are much smoother with this than Archie. While Gus and Harry’s women flirt in coy and expected ways, Archie’s desired flirts back aggressively, grabbing his hand and promising him pleasure. He panics and changes his mind. This moment is a great window into Archie. Deep down, he probably misses his wife, and is not the kind to cheat. Perhaps he is going along with all of this for the benefit of his friends. 

When they do convince the girls to join them upstairs, we get a window into all three of their marriages (and since the characters were based on and shaped by the actors, perhaps the marriages of the actors playing them). The woman Gus picks is argumentative. He is aggressive with her, manhandling her, on the border of what looks like date rape, yet she replies in kind with her own form of aggression, seduction, power, and grit. Harry is impotent with the woman he chooses, mirroring the emasculation we previously saw with his wife. And instead of the eager and receptive woman in the casino, Archie chooses a woman who does not speak English, perhaps mirroring the lack of communication he has with his own wife. And when she finally kisses him back and slips him the tongue, he is livid and disgusted that someone so “innocent” could know how to do something so “dirty.” 

With their failed sexual experiences, Gus and Archie decide it is time to return home. “We got lovely wives,” Archie says. “The problem is we have to go to bed with them.” But not Harry. Harry will remain in London. He implores them to stay, but they know this moment is over. Like a funereal hymn, a eulogy to their friendship that will never be the same again (and maybe never could be after Stuart’s death), Harry sings Sinatra’s “Dancing in the Dark,” his profession of love to his best friends.

Outside their homes, which we learn are down the street from one another, Gus and Archie inventory the identical gifts they have bought for their wives and children. Each one says to the other, “What is he going to do without us?” The more appropriate question is obviously, “What are we going to do without him?” Stuart is dead. Harry is gone. What will they do without them?

Cassavetes doesn’t give us a moment to say goodbye to Archie, but does give us closure with Gus. Why? Perhaps it’s because he is the director and wanted to give himself the last moment. But more than likely it’s because the idea for the film came from the premature death of John’s brother at 30, and he wanted to pay deference to this tragedy. His son, played by Cassavetes’ own son (and future director) Nick, greets him in the drive way. “Dad! Oh boy, you’re in trouble.” The last line is once again a double entendre: Gus will clearly be in trouble with his wife. But perhaps even more importantly, he is in trouble with himself. Lost without his safety net and trapped in a world that eventually and at any moment could end in death, Gus slowly walks to his back yard and we cut to black.  

Afterwords

Husbands never leaves the men’s side or vantage point (physically or metaphorically) and despite their apathy for the pain they have clearly caused their families, we side with their struggles of fear and complacency. Per usual, the camerawork is up close, personal, and unrelenting.

The film was originally an independent production, funded by Italian producer Bino Cicogna, as well as monies from the three leads. But when the film began running out of money, due in part to John’s long rehearsal process and overshooting, Cassavetes sold the rights to Columbia, which guaranteed they got their investment back and that the film would get a large release. By demand of the studio, Husbands used a “professional” crew, anathema to Cassavetes’ freewheeling shooting style. “The most boring thing in the world is to direct a film, set the camera here, mark the actors, get your focus and light it...professional accuracy seems to me to have nothing to do with content, and since the only people in the film that are truly interested in what the film has to say are the actors, it seemed to me the best choice to make an alliance with them rather than the usual alliance with the crew.” Though Cassavetes need not have worried so. Husbands, union crew or not, still screams John and is his first polished, yet still very personal film. 


The editing process was long and arduous. Having shot 280 hours of footage, Cassavetes whittled it down to four. Further cuts got it to three hours and test audiences (and studio heads) were thrilled despite this long run time; Erich von Stroheim would have been on Cloud Nine. However, John was unhappy with it and spent another seven months reediting the film. With so much material, the focus could go in vastly different directions. The first version focused on Harry. Subsequent versions focused on Gus and focused on Archie. The editors were so confused on the meaning of scenes or even who the characters were that Cassavetes ended up dictating a 400-page novel to his secretary, full of back story and interior monologues, to serve as a guide to the editors. Peter Falk was stunned by the amount of detail John had thought about the characters and was annoyed that he didn’t share these ideas with him when they were filming. Falk and Cassavetes fought frequently on the set over this very issue: Peter wanted to be directed; John wanted him to figure it out for himself. 

The first released version of the film was 154 minutes (further whittled down to 138 minutes) and found audiences and the studio less enthusiastic then ironically the three-hour version; Columbia essentially buried the movie. Critics were torn, but mostly negative. While Jay Cocks called it “one of the best movies anyone will ever see,” famed critics like Andrew Sarris, Rex Reed, and Pauline Kael referred to Husbands as respectively “tortured and turgid,” “a deadly little bore,” and “deliberately banal.”

But I have to disagree. I find Husbands glorious in its “torture,” riveting in its “boredom,” and don’t think that “deliberately banal” is necessarily a bad thing. Cassavetes’ intention was to show regular, middle-class men, suffering, lost, and reaching for connections in their own way, desperately clinging to the familiar while trying their best to escape it, in the wake of a tragedy. And he did.

The film’s celebration – or rather exploration – of normalcy and flawed characters hit the 1970 audience by surprise. People were used to glamorous characters, leading glamorous lives; heroes were heroes and villains were villains. Previous films like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Bonnie and Clyde (1969 and 1967 respectively) definitely celebrated the anti-hero, but Husbands created a new kind of anti-hero: the plain, ordinary, American male. “Husbands,” Cassavetes said, “depicts the American man without any camouflage...I think that people in films are expected to be heroes...I try to have the actors try not to be better than they are...you have to have the courage to be bad and really express what you want to say. Did you ever notice how in Hollywood movies even the villains are charming? But we are all crazy. We’re never nutty on film. That’s the trouble. On the screen everyone is perfect….that’s boring.” Husbands, and films like Five Easy Pieces and Diary of a Mad Housewife (both 1970)cut their audiences too close to the bone, but helped shepherd in the personal, moody filmmaking of the auteur movement, highlighting the ordinary people that would populate films for the next half decade (until Star Wars took hold). 20 years later, it would find its renaissance in the second independent wave of the 1990s with Steven Soderbergh, Kevin Smith, and Kenneth Lonergan. 

Cassavetes subsequent films rival Husbands for their bravery, unpretentiousness and poetry. In addition to the aforementioned A Woman Under the Influence, I would highly recommend two other Gena Rowlands lead films: Opening Night, in where she plays an actress losing her touch with reality, and Love Streams, in where she plays the divorcee sister of Cassavetes’ character, who had begun his own slow decline from cirrhosis by this point. The film takes on a melancholy beauty as we essentially watch Cassavetes begin to die on screen as his wife looks on. He died six years later.

Without individual creative expression, we are left with a medium of irrelevant fantasies that can add nothing but slim diversion to an already diversified world.”  – John Cassavetes

AUTHOR’S NOTE: My sources were varied and all entertaining for this piece. I would recommend the documentaries Making of Husbands and A Constant Forge as well as the behind the scenes footage of A Woman Under the Influence and a Charlie Rose interview with Rowlands, Gazzara, and Bogdanovich from 2004. My main literary sources were Accidental Genius: How John Cassavetes Invented the American Independent Film by Marshall Fine and Cassavetes on Cassavetes by Ray Carney.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Dinner and a Movie

By Steve Herte

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Lucasfilm/Disney, 2017) – Director: Rian Johnson, Writers: Rian Johnson (s/p), George Lucas (characters). Stars: Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis, Lupita Nyong’o, Domhnall Gleeson, Justin Theroux, Anthony Daniels, Gwendoline Christie, Kelly Marie Tran, Laura Dern, Benicio Del Toro & Frank Oz. Color, Rated PG-13, 152 minutes.

This film has all the twists, excitement, surprises and magic Episode VII lacked. There were special effects I’ve never seen, new, imaginative creatures, a little bit of political correctness and a lot of familiar characters. I still miss Harrison Ford, but he was killed off in the last episode (this did not add to its entertainment value).

What do I look for in a Star Wars film? The George Lucas “gifts” inserted into scenes, C-3PO acting bewildered, wise cracks from the cast when he gets flustered, dizzying action scenes and of course John Williams’ grandiose music. It was all there. Opening with the familiar crawler that disappears into the starry distance to the trumpeting Star Wars theme, the best part is that it explains a lot of what bewildered me in the previous movie.


The movie opens more or less where The Force Awakens left off. Young would-be Jedi, Rey (Ridley), has traveled to enlist Luke Skywalker (Hamill), who lives like a hermit on a remote island on the planet Ahch-To (where there is a Jedi temple and a library of sacred Jedi books), to train her as a Jedi. He sees the great power in her, but is afraid he’ll create another Kylo Ren. (Apparently, Luke’s entire class of Jedis have been wiped out and their temple destroyed.) We know why Kylo Ren (Driver), the Darth Vader wannabe who has a complex and tortured history with Luke, turned to the dark side from Luke’s training. But the spirit of Yoda (voice of Oz) shows up to turn the tide in Rey’s favor.

Carrie Fisher is now General Leia Organa (though some characters still refer to her as “Princess”). She and X-Wing pilot Poe Dameron (Isaac) have their hands full. The First Order, under hideous Supreme Leader Snoke (Serkis), is chasing the Rebel Resistance to erase them from existence. Besides a new and improved battle cruiser called the “Dreadnought,” they possess a new tracking device from which the rebels cannot escape.  

Stormtrooper-turned-rebel-hero Finn (Boyega), along with rebel mechanic Rose Tico (Tran), with whom he falls in love, travel to Canto Bight to find the Master Codebreaker (Theroux), who will help him infiltrate the First Order flagship and turn off the tracker. But instead, they wind up with the two-faced hacker, DJ (Del Toro), who betrays them, and they are captured by Captain Phasma (Christie), a female Darth Vader in a chromium costume.

The seemingly hopeless situation for the Resistance (outgunned, outnumbered, and reduced to hiding in a cave on planet Crait with only one entrance) is lightened by moments of humor. When Leia finally sees Luke she says, “I know what you’re thinking. I changed my hair.” There is a mutiny on board the resistance flagship that is put down by Leia after having been blown out of the bridge by enemy fire (a surreal scene indeed). And of course, a grand final battle involving aging, obsolete speeders against the titanic Imperial walkers (how the First Order set so many of them up on planet Crait in such a short time is one of the mysteries in this film).

Carrie Fisher was wonderful throughout the film, and her last acting job is superb. She even tells C-3PO (Daniels) to “wipe that bewildered look off,” something he obviously cannot do. We will remember her forever.

The only character I had a problem with (and so did Supreme Leader Snoke) was Kylo Ren. One minute he’s trying to be another Darth Vader and fails at that. Snoke tells him he looks like a child in a mask. Another time he appears vulnerable to Rey’s good intentions. And still another time he’s a raving lunatic intent on killing Luke. Adam Driver’s acting was confusing. He reminded me of a juvenile Severus Snapes from the Harry Potter series. Not a true villain.

Otherwise, the acting was great, the scenery amazing, the action heart-stopping in 3D and it was all wonderful, Star Wars sci-fi fantasy. Now I can’t wait for the final film.

Rebellion is born today, the war is just beginning, and I will not be the last Jedi” – Luke.

Rating: 4 out of 5 martini glasses.
Pastai
186 9th Avenue, New York

I wanted this restaurant to be special, it was my 2,800th. And it was. Pastai, which means “the pasta makers” or “the pasta sellers” in Italian, is the first restaurant to be classified as Sicilian (at least in my searches). Not only that, it’s my first gluten-free pasta and wine bar.

Inside the unassuming glass entrance to this cozy little bistro, white tile wall and white tin ceiling frame a large pasta bar festooned with rolling pins of all sizes, shapes and materials. I was led to a bare-topped butcher block table next to the bar, perfect for observing, where my server Elvis (yes, that was his name) was eager to help me select from the many choices or explain any dishes.

I decided to start with an unusual cocktail, the “Huckleberry Basil Limonata,” made with North 44 Huckleberry Vodka, Basil, Lemon Juice and Club Soda. The primary flavors were the basil leaves which made it look like a tall Mojito, the berry accents taking a back seat to the lemon. Very refreshing.

When in Sicily, have a Sicilian wine. The 2014 Planeta “La Segreta” red varietal from Sicily is 50% Nero d’Avola, 25% Merlot, 20% Syrah and 5% Cabernet Franc. This bold red is made in western Sicily and is a deep ruby color, has a spicy nose and a tannic berry flavor I loved.


My first course was the “Polipo con Patate" – charred octopus over fennel citrus salad, red onion, oregano and olives in a lemon extra virgin olive oil sauce. Everything was obviously so fresh right down to the peeled grapefruit slices and the vivid green arugula. The single octopus tentacle was crispy on the outside, tender and moist on the inside. I always marvel at well-prepared octopus. The flavor was like nutty calamari.

Next, a dish I’ve had many times, the “Carpaccio di Bresaola” – thinly sliced air-cured beef, artichokes, arugula and truffle oil. The only negative comment I had was “too much arugula.” The mound of green on the delicate pink of the meat hid the artichokes as well. Otherwise, it was excellent. The artichokes were slightly vinegar-y and there was a slight salty taste to the almost translucent beef. A perfect dish.

My pasta was one I’ve never seen or tried, “Reginette al Ragu,” a long, curly pasta like a broad fettuccine with a ruffled edge and combined with a braised short rib ragout, more arugula and grated Sicilian Pecorino cheese. The ragout was tender to the almost shredded point and succulent. The pasta was deliciously al dente with the surprise slices of grape tomato. This time, the arugula was just a garnish.


One of the simplest of Italian desserts is also one of the best in my humble opinion. “Affogato,” a single scoop of vanilla or chocolate gelato, plain chocolate cookies and warm espresso not only looks lovely in a lily-shaped dessert glass, it tastes classy. My usual double espresso followed.

To finish off my evening I had a snifter of Absinthe as an after dinner drink. Previously, I had tasted this vaguely licorice-flavored concoction prepared poured over ice in a perforated spoon as it turned milky. But this time I had it “neat” and the green color was bewitching, as was the kick it packed.

I’ve never seen you here,” said the manager when he visited my table. First time, but not the last. Pastai has been in business for five years and I’m glad I discovered it.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.