Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Marquee

I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, 1932

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Lone Star

John Sayles is one of the greatest American directors working today, but you may not have realized that. Chances are, you’ve seen a Sayles film somewhere along the line, liked it, but couldn’t remember it ever being in the theatres. His resume is peppered with terrific, highly original films, but it’s sorely lacking in blockbusters. A partial list would include titles like Matewan, The Secret of Roan Inish, City of Hope, Passion Fish, Limbo, Sunshine State, Eight Men Out, and Men with Guns. Quality films, each and every one.

Let’s go back in time a bit. In 1996, the “big” movies - the ones that garnered all the talk and awards were Fargo, Shine, and The English Patient. Virtually unnoticed was a perfect little Sayles jewel called Lone Star, which popped up on a lots of critics’ lists for the year. A murder drama which eschews big stars and violence in favor of spot-on characters and sublime storytelling, it’s an American masterpiece. I think it was the best film of the 90’s.

Lone Star is set in a smallish town near the Texas/Mexico border, where whites, blacks, and Hispanics live together in a cultural gumbo. There are frictions at work in this place, as evidenced by a school board meeting where there are arguments over whose version of local history is going to be taught in school. The film, however creates the palpable sense that these people really have lived together all these years, disagreements and all. That’s the thing about Sayles’ work – He never fails to create a strong sense of place in his films, and LS is arguably the best example.

Sheriff Buddy Deeds has long been dead when the movie begins, but his presence is felt throughout. Deeds was a larger-than-life legend, and in the estimation of the older townsfolk, the current sheriff comes up short in comparison. Especially since the incumbent is Buddy’s son Sam. (Chris Cooper). The film doesn’t quite avoid delving into the relationship between the son and his late father, but it doesn’t put it up front, either. There’s a great scene early on when Sam speaks at a ceremony honoring his father, and there is a definite undercurrent of bitterness in Sam’s words.

The tension between generations is the theme that pervades Lone Star, and it’s interwoven stories are all variations on the same topic. Besides the two Deeds, there’s the all-business Army officer (Joe Morton) who has returned to his hometown to run the local base, and who encounters his estranged father. And finally, there’s Pilar (Elizabeth Pena), the teacher who re-kindles an old romance with Sam to the consternation of her mother. All these story lines could have easily created a mish-mash of a movie, but the film is remarkably fluid.

The murder I spoke of at the beginning involves a long-dead skeleton found on the Army base. An old Masonic ring and a badge are discovered with the body, and Sam begins to realize that the dead man is Charlie Wade (Kris Kristofferson), a murderous redneck who was the Sheriff before his father. As Sam pieces the story together, he begins to suspect that the murderer may well have been his own father.

This theory, of course, doesn’t much wash with the town’s fathers. A fishing-hole encounter with the Mayor (one of Buddy’s old deputies) illustrates this and shows off Sayles talent for writing dialogue that says a lot more than it seems.

“Hey, look at all this, will ya? Tackle, boat... All just to catch a little ol' fish minding his own business down at the bottom of the lake. Hardly seems worth the effort, does it, Sam?”

Lone Star is full of flashbacks – That’s how we get to meet Charlie Wade, and one of the true pleasures of this film is the way Sayles recreates the past. He will hold the camera on characters in the present, and then sweep it away from them to the same characters in the past, without a cut. It’s potentially a confusing technique, but it works wonderfully here, as in a scene with Sam and Pilar fades into a scene with the two as teenagers, and also where a character hiding from Sheriff Wade under a bridge morphs into a shot of Sam standing on the same bridge years later. It’s virtuoso use of the flashback technique.

The denizens of Lone Star are people who have had past events dredged up, and everything they thought they new is altered. Sam’s investigation into the death of Charlie Wade leads him eventually to the truth – But it’s not the truth that we expected.

His renewed love with Pilar isn’t exempt from thunderbolts from the past either. The film drops a revelation on him about Pilar that I will not spoil for you. The film leaves hints about it, but it would take a very astute viewer indeed to catch them. The film’s finale is a wonderful summation of it’s themes, and although the plot would seem to have led the two lovers into a dead end, Sayles pulls it off.

The conversation between Sam and Pilar occurs in an old, deserted drive-in theatre, and it’s beautiful in its sense of regret and longing. The whole thing lasts a few seconds, but it encapsulates years of resentment, deceit, …and love. Pilar’s final three words are so pitch-perfect and simple that they still astound me, even as many times as I’ve seen this.

"Forget the Alamo."

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Call It

What's the most you ever lost on a coin toss?


The most. You ever lost. On a coin toss.

I don't know. I couldn't say.

Call it.

Call it?


For what?

Just call it.

Well, we need to know what we're calling it for here.

You need to call it. I can't call it for you. It wouldn't be fair.

I didn't put nothin' up.

Yes, you did. You've been putting it up your whole life you just didn't know it. You know what date is on this coin?


1958. It's been traveling twenty-two years to get here. And now it's here. And it's either heads or tails. And you have to say. Call it.

Look, I need to know what I stand to win.

Everything. How's that? You stand to win everything. Call it.

Alright. Heads then.

Well done. Don't put it in your pocket, sir. Don't put it in your pocket. It's your lucky quarter.

Where do you want me to put it?

Anywhere not in your pocket. Where it'll get mixed in with the others and become just a coin. Which it is.

No Country for Old Men - Screenplay by Joel and Ethan Coen

Friday, March 14, 2008

The Marquee

The Creature from the Black Lagoon, 1954

Monday, March 10, 2008

Bernard Herrmann, part 2

As long as we're listening to great Herrmann scores, here's the best of them all - The great, soaring theme for North By Northwest. Enjoy.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Remembering Bernard Herrmann

One thing missing from my commentary on The Ghost & Mrs. Muir was a mention of Herrmann's gorgeous score. By way of rectifying that, here's the opening credits.

Friday, March 07, 2008

My Week of Movie Watching

The Harder They Fall (1956) – Humphrey Bogart’s last film, and one of the sourest flicks ever to come down the pike. It tracks the rise to a no talent Argentine giant to the top of the heavyweight boxing ranks. (It’s based loosely on the career of the “Amblin’ Alp”, Primo Carnera). Bogie is good as a down-on-his luck sportswriter who gets stuck in a shady enterprise and can’t get out of it. The film, however, belongs to Rod Steiger, in classic scenery-chewing form as a heartless promoter.

Gate of Flesh (1964) – Another foray into the work of the Japanese maverick Seijun Suzuki. Like him or hate him, Suzuki never bores. This is a tale about a small band of prostitutes who gang together in post-war Tokyo, and try to survive with the help of a strict code of behavior. Their closed world is disrupted by the arrival of a wild ex-soldier. The film is a comment on the societal sickness of post-war Japan, and it’s a nasty one. Some will squirm at its violent /porn depictions of savage whippings and of a cow being butchered onscreen. It’s not an easy watch, but I do recommend it.

Lancelot Du Lac (1974) – Robert Bresson’s version of the King Arthur saga concentrates on the love affair between Lancelot and Guinevere, and its final tragic consequences. This one is a heavy slog, even by Bresson's standards, as he spends an inordinate amount of screen time on totemic shots of feet, hands, door handles, etc. The film seems to suggest that the pride and arrogance of the two lovers leads to the destruction of the Knights of the Round Table. That’s my best guess ,anyhow.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

The Ghost & Mrs. Muir

“This is the Twentieth Century.”

That line is spoken several times throughout Joseph Mankiewicz’ The Ghost & Mrs. Muir, and it contains the seed which lies at the heart of the film. G&MM is, I suppose, a romance – a love story, but in many ways it rejects the shop-worn concept of living “happily ever after.” It’s a twentieth century take on things.

Gene Tierney is the Mrs. Muir of the title, a recently widowed young mother in turn-of the century London. We first meet Lucy Muir as she discusses her plans to move out of the mother in laws home. She is still technically in mourning at this point, but she displays not a hint of sorrow or sentimentality as she talks to her mother and sister in law. When her late husband’s name is brought up she coolly replies, “But Edwin is dead.” It’s a tiny glimpse, but it illustrates what kind of marriage she is coming off.

She finds herself in a seaside cottage on the ocean, despite the repeated efforts of the local land agent to dissuade her. Despite his comments that “You wouldn’t be interested”, something draws her to the place, and she moves in. Soon enough, however, we see why the property values were so low. This cottage already has an occupant - The ghost of a seaman named Captain Gregg (Rex Harrison). Gregg is not a bad sort, despite his language and gruff manner, and Lucy’s original fear slowly gives way to fascination and fondness for this doppelganger.

The earthy sailor and the prim lady are therefore now living (sort of) under the same roof, and the film winks at the sexual possibilities that come with this situation. At one point as Lucy lies in bed, she hears Gregg intone, “Don’t let anyone tell you that you should be ashamed of your figure!”

The exchanges between these two are what start to really reveal Lucy Muir. Captain Gregg, you see, seems to know everything about Lucy, perhaps more than she knows herself. Consider this exchange about her ex-husband.

“You didn’t love him”

“How dare you say that?”

“Because it’s true. You were fond of him, perhaps, but you didn’t love him.”

Lucy goes on to talk about how Edwin was an architect, “But not a very good one. He couldn’t have designed this house. Who DID design it?” and Gregg replies with satisfaction “I did.” It’s at this point where it becomes plain that the ghost and Mrs. Muir have a kinship that goes beyond mere affection.

Lucy begins writing Gregg’s memoir, marvelously titled “Blood & Swash”, and the film has a bit of fun with the Production Code here. At one point, Lucy hesitates at one word, and only after exhortation from Gregg, does she type it – In four distinct keystrokes. The ghostwriting allows Lucy a look into the exiting manly life of the Captain, and her own life comes up short in comparison. Earlier, when she was with her in-laws, she said that she’s never had her own life, and that sentiment comes up here again. Gregg tells her that she should be out amongst the living, including with other men.

Unfortunately, she gets her chance, in the arrival of George Sanders as the impossibly droll and sophisticated Miles Fairly, a wealthy writer of children’s books. Fairly is handsome and charming, and Lucy falls for him, against the wishes of Captain Gregg. The new man is kind and generous, but there’s something about him that’s not right. Gregg sees it, Lucy’s housekeeper sees it, and we even sort of see it, when he jovially describes the children he writes for as “little monsters.” The ghost is absent for most of the section of the movie involving this romance, and it’s by design, I think. It seems that Gregg is letting her go her own way, even if he thinks she’s making a mistake. Which she is, as she eventually discovers.

So, what to make of TG&MM? Lucy Muir’s story is also the story of how 3 men affect her life. There’s her late husband, and Miles Fairly, both fond of her and kind, although with very little under their surfaces. She ends up feeling unfulfilled by both. Then there’s Captain Gregg. He’s the one who really understands her, and tells her what she needs to hear. The problem is, he’s dead. Why does the film present a love interest that can never really be a love interest? My thought is that the film isn’t really about Lucy’s quest for love, but rather about her quest for emancipation. That’s why Lucy keeps telling people that this is the 20th century. It’s a new era, and the old norms of romance and fulfillment don’t necessarily apply anymore.

The ghost visits Lucy near the end of the film, and as she sleeps, tells her that it wasn’t him channeling the book to her, that it was just her alone. That theory was always out there – That the ghost was just a figment of Lucy’s imagination, and that she found her way to emancipation by herself. The truth is left ambiguous, and I’m glad. At one point early on Gregg recites from Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale”

“Charmed magic casements, opening on the foam, of perilous seas, in fairy lands forlorn”

That fits Captain Gregg to a T, but go a bit further in the same poem and you find a stanza that might have been written for Lucy Muir.

“Was it a vision, or a waking dream? Fled is that music – Do I wake or sleep?”