Friday, May 31, 2013

Adam had All the Luck

Here's a movie starring Ingrid Bergman, Fay Wray, and Susan Hayward. 1941's Adam Had Four Sons has a screenplay that's dull as dirt and each of the five males stars, to a man, delivers a performance without the dimmest spark of life. But I have to say the three women actually make this movie worth watching.

The movie begins in 1907 when Adam and Molly Stoddard (Warner Baxter and Fay Wray) are the wealthy parents of four sons. They go to the train station to receive Emilie (Bergman), their new young, French governess.

Bergman's the star of the film and her sensitive reactions convey a genuine affection for the children, a barely repressed, innocent love for Adam once Molly has died, and a wounded quality when confronting Hester, Hayward's character.

Wray's not in the film very long, unfortunately, but long enough to be interesting, injecting elfish mischievousness into a flatly written character.

Hester shows up as the new wife of one of the brothers once they've grown up. She's a home wrecker with never clearly expressed motives unless it's the sexual conquest of every guy in the Stoddard family, which is how she plays it.

Alone and getting drunk in the house with Jack, one of the brothers who isn't her husband, she suggests they go into the city for the day. When he says they're too drunk, she stands up and says, "Well, I guess we'll just have to find something else to do."

They play hopscotch.

That no-one but Emilie has suspicions about Hester is pretty funny in itself. When David, the brother Hester married, brings her home, she greats every man in the family with a full kiss on the lips. She immediately starts calling Adam "Dad" and by the end of the day he's calling her "Darling" and treating her likes she's been in the family for years.

There's an absurd bit of melodrama later where Emilie takes the heat after Adam spies the silhouette of a woman, which was of course was Hester, with Jack in his room. This is how bad screenwriting can lead to rather improbable architecture; first Adam sees the silhouettes because apparently the window of his room is facing the window of Jack's room around four feet away.

When Emilie wakes up to the sound of Adam pounding on Jack's door demanding entrance, she goes all the way around Jack's room where there's another doorway. Hester exits, and Emilie answers the door to Adam, sacrificing the good regard he has for her when he assumes it was her silhouette he saw. Never mind Ingrid Bergman is significantly taller than Susan Hayward.

This plays against the unspoken love Adam and Emilie have for each other. Somehow this guy has lived with Ingrid Bergman for a decade without ever thinking about kissing her. This may be more improbable than the architecture.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Detour to Plant Land

My legs are still sore from yesterday's adventure which involved a lot of crouch-walking as I pushed through a lot of rough, dead foliage. I think I was using muscles in my legs I don't normally use--I've been feeling them all day, especially when I sit or stand.

I was walking to the store when I decided to go exploring. There's a whole undeveloped area across the river I'd never been to, mostly because it's surrounded by bodies of water, walls and fences. Yesterday I found one tiny entrance through a broken fence and down a hill behind the Wal-Mart.

Mostly it was empty hard dirt with islands of trees and shrubs with occasional shadowed pits.

The flora got thicker the further I moved west. I came finally across a spot that looked like it may have been a river or stream bed at some point but had now become an accidental garden;

As you can see at its edges are concrete slabs and bricks. I found more and more ruins of some long ago demolished structures.

I assumed there would be another path out but as the vague little trails disappeared under the tangled brush, some of it like needles, I just got more and more tired as I looked for a way out.

I did find an empty blue tent, presumably belonging to a homeless person who was out for the day and who probably thought he'd hid his home pretty well.

After tiring myself out and getting all kinds of seeds and leaves on my hat and clothes pushing through dense foliage I finally had to give up and go back the way I'd come, though I walked back on the southern side of the weird pocket, seeing more ruins.

And this guy posed for me when I got back;

Twitter Sonnet #512

Owls watch the sparks of blue evening paint.
An indigo awning distils the blonde.
Unicycle clocks stick to a thin saint.
Blackened roots grip the tomato vine wand.
Gathering wet cotton obscures the hood.
Heavy fibres threshed by the retainer.
On this moons clam up like it's understood.
The eighth matryoshka's no container.
Omnipresent fruit flies closed the Starbucks.
Horseflies monitored a shadow of Stubbs.
Waves of needles hide dead blue canvas trucks.
Torpedoes soften in the boiling subs.
Banshees balk at harmless Debra Winger.
Spindle gears grind a gratified finger.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Saving the Dumb but Presumably Decent Sailor

Now this is the Susan Hayward I was looking for, at least for the first half of 1946's Deadline at Dawn, an at times clumsily written but still good film noir. It's a somewhat unfocused story about perhaps too many characters that nonetheless pays off in the end with some impressive moral ambiguity even for a noir.

Hayward got top billing and Paul Lukas second though Lukas doesn't show up until thirty four minutes in, as a cab driver. The real male lead for most of the picture is Alex (Bill Williams), a Navy sailor on leave who wakes up from a drunken blackout in a newsstand with fourteen hundred dollars stuffed in his pants.

We come to know Alex to be a tender-hearted knucklehead who wouldn't think of "hugging" the woman who took him back to her apartment and plied him with whisky. In my opinion, if a woman comes on to a drunken sailor on leave and he shuts her down, that's not chivalrous, it rather insulting. I can't blame her for breaking the radio he carries around, the repairs for which being the reason we eventually learn he'd taken the money from her purse.

The spurned woman is Edna Bartelli (Lola Lane) who spends most of the movie as a corpse Alex fears he's responsible for since he can't remember what happened in his stupor. Not knowing what to do, he wanders into a dance hall where June Goth (Hayward) works, dancing with fellows who buy dance tickets. She takes him back to her apartment, too, and again he's too innocent to do anything about it but he does offer her the money before he goes.

The exciting thing about the first half of the movie is that Hayward basically assumes the detective role here. When she sees the money and hears his story about the dead woman she knows this chump is in over his head and since she's clearly smarter than him she needs to be the one to get this sorted before he has to report for duty at 6am.

There's a good scene where she tracks down and interrogates a woman she learns from a soda jerk had fled the scene. She pulls Sherlock Holmes' trick from "The Blue Carbuncle" as she and Alex walk away from sodas they'd just ordered--she goes back and asks the soda jerk to settle a bet for her and Alex and tell them he'd never seen someone walk away from sodas they'd just ordered and paid for.

It's disappointing the movie stresses that Hayward is doing this stuff out of a maternal instinct--calling Alex a "big baby". When Paul Lukas shows up and takes centre stage it's almost like someone in the production said, "Okay, guys, enough fun, we can't seriously build this movie around a girl gumshoe." And yet, where the story goes with Lukas' character is actually rather interesting.

The movie's only an hour and twenty minutes yet it seems to pile on a new character with every scene until the group working together trying to find Edna's killer includes Alex, June, Gus (Lukas), a gangster (Edna's brother), a guy Edna was blackmailing and his wife.

The gangster's interesting and he gets off pretty light considering this was during the Hays era but I would've liked to have spent a lot more time with Hayward's character. Which is probably why I have a big pile of Susan Hayward movies on my hard drive to watch.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Incomparable Gestures

A good adventure movie doesn't merely consist of an exotic variety of locales, attractive heroes and desperate love. It has to be weird, too. 1939's Beau Geste so begins promisingly with a company of French Foreign Legionaries discovering a fort manned by their dead comrades, among whom is a dead man with a note confessing to the theft of the "Blue Water", a legendary sapphire. The bugler from the company sent to investigate the fort vanishes into thin air.

With no explanation, the movie takes us back fifteen years to England and five children--four boys and a girl--playing on a river bank. The boys are brothers living in the home of their wealthy aunt and the girl is her ward.

Two of the boys grow up to be Gary Cooper and Ray Milland and the girl grows up to be Susan Hayward in her first major role. I actually sought this movie out because of Hayward, who usually impresses me regardless of the quality of the movie she's in. Here I was surprised by how lame her performance is. Lamed, I suspect, by the careful studio grooming as she speaks with a slow restrained cadence and conveys the most simplistic of reactions to events in the movie. It's like the Susan Hayward I know and love anesthetised.

Gary Cooper is miscast as both an Englishman and an aristocrat; the part would have been more suited to Errol Flynn or Cary Grant. The brothers' last name is Geste and Cooper's the Beau of the title, a mischievous, adventurous and above all good-hearted fellow. Cooper seems more natural in the role once the brothers join the Legion. He has a rather effective speech about serving under the French flag he delivers to his comrades who are considering mutiny against their brutish Sergeant.

Ray Milland, as the other most prominent brother, is better cast both because he was Welsh and because he made his comparatively normal character seem very human beside the legendary Beau. He's the one who falls in love with Hayward's character, Beau's the one who takes steps beyond the emotional constitution of an ordinary human.

For most of the film, we know one of the brothers has stolen the Blue Water but we don't know which one. The three who join the Foreign Legion tease each other about it with an underlying real concern. It adds a nice extra shade of tension to the story of dissention and survival, particularly considering how the film begins.

It's not a perfect film but it's a good deal of fun.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Heaven in a Pop Up Book

Of Greta Garbo, Peter Bogdanovich has written, "There was always so much more going on in her performances than whatever the lines or situations were, so many shimmering thoughts and feelings seemed to pass across her gorgeous face." This is from his review of 1936's Camille, one of the only two movies Garbo starred in that Bogdanovich considers great, the other being Ninotchka. I suspect Bogdanovich may have been biased by the fact that Ninotchka and Camille were made by the two best directors she worked with in the sound era, Ernst Lubitsch and George Cukor respectively, because I found his quote to be profoundly true in Camille--Garbo thoroughly outshines everything about the movie. The dialogue, direction, the other actors, the production design, and especially the story. None of it's worthy of her but it's hard to imagine a movie that would be.

It's based on a book by Alexandre Dumas, fils.--son of the more famous author. It's really an unremarkable melodrama; among the mid-19th century Parisian upper class, Maguerite "Camille" Gautier (Garbo) is one of the many party girls, living for sensual pleasures and willing to do anything for the men capable of funding her lifestyle.

The unimaginatively written male lead is the handsome young man whose father controls his wealth. He's named Armand and is played with typical tinny dullness by Robert Taylor. A somewhat more interesting character played by a better actor is his rival for Camille's affections, the wealthy Baron de Varville played by Henry Daniell.

Where Armand is the straight forward, passionate good joe, the Baron is an intriguingly complex villain. Genuinely in love with Camille, he at first threatens not to lend her money she needs to pay her debts if she chooses Armand over him, but then relents and gives her the money anyway. In fact, the worst thing he actually does to her is fail to pick up her fan when she drops it in one scene. Because Daniell invests so much more nuance in the role, one would probably like him a lot more than Taylor if Garbo's performance wasn't overwhelming all other considerations.

Most of the evil done to Camille is done by Armand's father, played decently in a couple scenes by Lionel Barrymore, and by Camille herself. Worried about the scandal it would cause and the ruin it would bring to his son's life if he marries Camille or persists in living with her unwed, he begs Camille to push Armand away from her. Out of love for Armand and interest in his future she tearfully agrees and the only method she can think of is to act like she doesn't love him and to go back to the Baron.

Of course she's also terminally ill and so we've covered all our typical melodrama bases. What elevates and defies everything is Garbo. One could say she wasn't appropriate casting--Camille can barely read and her lifestyle hardly indicates her to be an intellectual and yet Garbo exudes and offers a clear vantage of an interior world of complex wisdom. Through all the tears she sheds over this larger than life plot, you believe every one. She makes the ridiculously contrived seem like the undeniable, inevitable tragedy of human life.

There's a kind of alien mystery about her. Armand continually calls her an angel and one has the sense of a heavenly being deeply affected by the comparatively insignificant little human dramas, a goddess kneeling before gnomes and goblins out of love.

Twitter Sonnet #511

The Red Label Sea qualified liquor.
People point to pattern baldness as proof.
A hand has to have a decent kicker.
Women know when Richard Burton's aloof.
If the forest reflects gardens, stay home.
Anger divvies among tea cup mushrooms.
Jumping beans will perform best in a dome.
Silly string is stupid to put on looms.
Roasted Arby's noses know about fast.
The cleft in the derby was dearly earned.
One day, all the fuzzy dice will be cast.
Raisin ad suns will be blinded and learn.
Gaseous blue spiders crest the wood ridge.
Pantomimes prescribe a wet paper bridge.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Some Interpretations

First of all, I'd like to wish Caitlin joy on the occasion of her contemplating the ambiguity of her birthday.

Last night I dreamt I was doing math homework and had just finished a word problem to which the answer was "88,888 lbs". From under the answer I moved a black pawn diagonally up and took the "lbs" so that the answer was now "88,888 (black pawn)". And to think, I only won two out of five games in the chess tournament I played in yesterday.

Before going to sleep last night, I watched a BBC production of Richard II released last year as part of a production of Shakespeare's whole Henriad called The Hollow Crown. My British Literature teacher told me he liked how Richard is performed in this production, exactly as Richard ought to be played, he felt. It ended up being Ben Whishaw, who I remembered from Cloud Atlas though I may have seen him as the newest Q in the James Bond movies.

He does give a good performance, part of a generally good production. Just in terms of his youth, it's illuminating to see as part of his vanity and weak will that Shakespeare portrayed as his primary character flaws--and Richard II was indeed, in reality, only 32 when he was deposed. In The Hollow Crown production, it's hinted through performance that Richard and his closest advisor, the Duke of Aumerle, are in love, though there aren't scenes added to make this definite. Mainly it's visible in how Aumerle consoles Richard on the beach on their return from Ireland.

It fits in with Aumerle being chief among the flatterers who are blamed for exacerbating Richard's counterproductive narcissism. It also helps to emphasise the personal impact of the political dealings on Richard.

Whishaw plays the scene where Richard hands the crown over to Bolingbroke with the masochistic savouring appropriate to the material. As much as Richard gloried in himself as a reigning king, he wallows in his downfall with relish almost to the point of absurdity and yet he doesn't become a joke. There's enough insight in it to emphasise the tragedy. I love this bit from after Richard's broken his mirror;


The shadow of your sorrow hath destroy'd
The shadow or your face.


Say that again.
The shadow of my sorrow! ha! let's see:
'Tis very true, my grief lies all within;
And these external manners of laments
Are merely shadows to the unseen grief
That swells with silence in the tortured soul;
There lies the substance: and I thank thee, king,
For thy great bounty, that not only givest
Me cause to wail but teachest me the way
How to lament the cause.

Patrick Stewart's also in the production as John of Gaunt and he does very well with the relatively small role. It's good to see him again in something that's not very broad comedy. He seems younger here than he has in years.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

She Emerges from Stains in the Wall

What is a ghost? Whether or not you believe they exist, we all have a basic idea of what ghosts are supposed to be. One of the persistent notions in various cultures is that a ghost is a person who died with issues he or she did not resolve in life and so their spirits become enormous, mysterious, free-floating emotional existences divorced from corporeal reason. This conception has formed the foundations of good ghost movies and bad ones. Mama, a movie released this year directed by Andy Muschietti, is one of the very good ones.

Where does this conception of a ghost come from? Well, think, if you can, of someone you cared a great deal about but with whom you were rarely, if ever, in contact with, for whatever reason. One of the maddening things about such a circumstance is that the mind automatically tries to fill the void, to paint the darkness with personality. If you parted with the person on bad terms, your mind might automatically, continuously regenerate the unresolved issue creating a feedback loop contrived of emotion antithetical to reason which, of course, would tell you there is no real external stimulus.

Mama plays on this human tendency brilliantly. Most decent horror movies are restrained in how much of the monster they actually show. Mama shows you just enough for most of its running time to let the perception of a personality fester in your mind. It provides clues that let your mind assemble a very distinct personality.

As the film opens, a man who's just lost everything in the stock market, in a state of extreme emotional distress, takes his two small daughters for a crazed drive in the snow. The car skids off the road and the two take shelter in a small, apparently deserted house in the woods.

The man holds a gun to his mouth but decides to murder his children first. Fortunately for the kids, there's a ghost in the house, who they come to know as Mama, who kills their father. Over the course of five years, Mama cares for the children in the abandoned house. We don't see very much of her but we've already got a lot of signifying pieces of data to start to get an impression of Mama's personality and obsessions.

The children, when they're found by men hired by their uncle Lucas, are thin and feral, having survived only on the cherries and moths Mama provides for them. They also move quickly through the shadows as we see Mama moving in the few glimpses we have of her.

Lucas gains custody of the children and with his girlfriend, Annabel, played by Jessica Chastain, they four form a tentative family unit.

This is the first movie in which I liked Jessica Chastain. It's the first movie I've seen where she plays a character who's allowed capacity for self-doubt or assertion--she generally seems to play a cipher. Most of the movie's told through Annabel's point of view and as a young musician in a rock band, she's decidedly reluctant to settle down into the family situation she's found foisted on her. Mama does seem to like her more than Lucas, though, who she quickly puts in the hospital so that it's just Annabel, Mama, and the kids.

As the story progresses and we learn something of who Mama was in life, one notes Mama and Lucas actually aren't so different. This contributes a great deal to the impression of Mama as an entity of big emotions incapable of very sophisticated examination of herself or her situation.

Above all, this movie is an effective use of visuals and mood. It's light on cgi, electing to use makeup and costume to create Mama instead. A decision that pays off in much the way it did for Pan's Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro served as executive producer for Mama)--the actor in the costume is capable of human animal nuances and quirks of movement that computers are nowhere close to being able to replicate. It helps to beguile the eye, too, which has learned to spot all sorts of tell-tale qualities of cgi.

In one way or another throughout the film, the characters are negotiating with Mama. But Mama usually manifests only as strange sounds or shadow or as aspects of personality in the children. One gets the impression of Annabel's helplessness, frustration, sympathy, and fear as the negotiation is outside the bounds of corporeal reason. This is how you tell a ghost story.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Ginger Breads

This is your brain.

This is your brain on drugs;

Any questions? Yes, I imagine you have quite a few.

Your brain is so ginger it's called Ginger and she's one of the central characters of a movie called Ginger Snaps, a Canadian horror movie from 2000 that assumes werewolf stories are more interesting if they're just allegories for pubescent drug abuse. Of course, the opposite is true.

Two sisters, Brigitte (Emily Perkins) and the aforementioned Ginger (Katharine Isabelle) are rebellious late bloomers, fifteen and sixteen years old respectively but neither has gotten her period yet. Behaviourally they resist growing up as well, displaying no interest in boys and contempt for any traditionally female behaviour. The two pose for each other in graphic photographs faking their deaths and turn the series in for a class project, an example of their general obsession with the macabre and rebellious.

Ginger changes when she gets her period and a werewolf, smelling the blood, bites her, making her a werewolf too, which means her body goes through frightening changes and she takes an interest in boys. In fact, she becomes rather promiscuous, much to Brigitte's dismay as the two consequently find themselves growing apart as Ginger voyages into experimenting with her body and social identity and Brigitte is stuck behind with hair that looks like a wig.

Wikipedia mentions critics have likened the film to the works of David Cronenberg. A comparison that shows a weak grasp of what distinguishes Cronenberg's films as well as the general point of symbolism in film.

Take, perhaps, the closest Cronenberg approximate to Ginger Snaps--The Fly, a film that also features a character's monstrous transformation and which focuses on how that transformation affects his relationships.

Could we say that Brundle's transformation is a metaphor for drug abuse, for mental illness, for the complicated, inexplicable forces that drive wedges between people? For obsession to the point of self-destruction, the end result of admirable creative or scientific pursuits to which one has dedicated one's life but have only led to ruin? Of course, The Fly can be interpreted as being any of the above because Cronenberg is wise enough not to anchor it to any one. The Fly is the story of a man turning into a giant fly. If you know how to write people, that's all it needs to be to be a meaningful story.

Ginger Snaps, on the other hand, can only be one thing and it's clumsy for it. Is it really helpful to say a girl who likes sex is a monster? Are murder and cannibalism really as bad as drinking too much alcohol? Identifying with monsters in movies is certainly a legitimate way in which to process a story. Stories about monsters can illuminate aspects of human nature. But Ginger Snaps is silly hyperbole.

Sometimes Gregor Samsa turning into an insect is just Gregor Samsa turning into an insect and he means so much more that way.

Twitter Sonnet #510

Tea leaf parachutes absently invade.
Dandelion liaisons drift through blue.
Plywood's exposed where the fake trees were made.
Wire skies take on the vinegar's hue.
Young linoleum watches surgery.
Domestic Justice Leagues laugh at cold wine.
A dull scalpel inks a film forgery.
Mysterious brains so strip tease with twine.
Hell knows brimstones sell when boiled and sweet.
Dark gum is deceitfully hard as stone.
Math rooms locked down for a prisoner's tweet.
Tragic carrots pursued the traffic cone.
Angry ugly oranges ooze mystery.
Sycamores still mind a ghost history.