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Tuesday, April 24, 2018

The Pride of the Yankees

I've just started reading a biography of Lou Gehrig, so I thought I'd watch The Pride of the Yankees and see how much is actually true. Some of it. The 1942 film is pretty much hagiography, but Gehrig was certainly more deserving of such a treatment than most, especially Babe Ruth.

Gehrig died in 1941 and the film was out the following year. Director Sam Wood had been a semi-pro ballplayer, and convinced Samuel Goldwyn, who knew nothing about baseball, to make it after showing him Gehrig's "Luckiest Man" speech (called by some the Gettysburg Address of baseball). What I found interesting was that star Gary Cooper also knew nothing about baseball--he had never seen a game before making the movie.

The film is corny as hell but enjoyably so. We get the obligatory scene in which young Lou hits a ball so far he breaks a window. His German parents, domineering mother and hen-pecked father, are delightful comic cliches (Gehrig was, apparently, a mama's boy, just like he is in the film). He then meets his wife, Eleanor (Teresa Wright), the daughter of a hot dog magnate. When she is decorating her house Gehrig's mother overrules her choices with her own monstrous selections, until Gehrig has a talk with her.

For a baseball movie, there isn't that much baseball. There's a rumor that Cooper couldn't bat left-handed so they filmed him hitting right-handed and had him run to third base, but according to Wikipedia that's apocryphal. For someone who didn't know about baseball, though, Cooper has a pretty sweet swing. Babe Ruth, a natural performer, plays himself, but he had to lose about fifty pounds to play the part, because he had already retired and ballooned to 270 pounds.

But Pride of the Yankees kicks into full gear when Gehrig starts to get sick. He takes himself out of a game after his 2,130 consecutive game streak (a record until Cap Ripken Jr. broke it). He is diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, which now bears his name, and gives that speech on a day honoring him. There actually is only a few snippets of Gehrig's speech on film, so most people know it by Cooper's rendition, and he couldn't have done it better. I'll admit there were tears in my eyes.

The Pride of the Yankees isn't a perfect film by any means, but it's a good example of how they made movies in the '40s, pushing goodness and light and heralding good guys, who were often played by Gary Cooper.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Brief Encounter

Before David Lean started making epic movies, he made much smaller ones, including several with Noel Coward. One of them is Brief Encounter, from 1945, which is based on Coward's one act play. In a recent poll, it was declared the second-best British film ever, after The Third Man.

The story is deceptively simple. A seemingly happy housewife meets a seemingly happy doctor by chance at a railway station. They bump into each other again and spend an afternoon together. Before long they realize they are in love with each other. Given the morals of the time, it's inconceivable that they should act on their emotions, but it puts them to the test, especially her.

The film is told from the point of view of the woman, played by Celia Johnson. She's just ended it with Trevor Howard, the kindly doctor, and is sharing an evening at home with her husband (he does a crossword puzzle, still in his jacket and tie, and she listens to Rachmaninoff on the radio). In her head she confesses the whole thing, which we see in flashback.

Brief Encounter is filmed in moody black and white by Robert Krasker, and there are many evocative shots of steam trains going in and out of the station. Much of the film takes place there, and it's almost like a character. A comic subplot has the station master (Stanley Holloway, who would later play Alfred P. Dolittle) trying to win the heart of the woman minding the tea and biscuit sales. Lean has his fun when Howard and Johnson kiss and he cuts to a train speeding down the tracks (at least it doesn't go into a tunnel).

Since it's 1945, the pair do not consummate their longing. I'm sure if it was made today they would. Instead there is a great scene in which Howard, who is staying in a friend's apartment, invites Johnson over. She is on the train home when she dashes off and joins him, but the friend arrives home early. She scoots out the back entrance but leaves her scarf, so the friend deduces everything. Howard is embarrassed by the tawdriness of it all, even though nothing happened. He asks his friend if he's angry. "I"m not angry. I'm just disappointed."

Both actors are good but Johnson steals the show. She was nominated for an Oscar for her role. She has big wide eyes and a delicate frame, and the scenes in which gusts of air blow by from the trains makes her look like she's about to take off in flight. Her face is so revealing, even when she is not speaking.

Brief Encounter is truly a great film.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Loving Vincent

I've now seen all five of the nominations for Best Animated Feature for the 90th Academy Awards, and while I can't say Loving Vincent was my favorite, it is certainly the most ambitious. Each frame was hand-painted, in the style of Vincent Van Gogh, its subject matter. Directed by Dorota Kobelia and Hugh Welchman, it is sure to please Van Gogh connoisseurs, who will recognize many of his paintings during the story, and may turn on newcomers to the man's work.

The film is set up as a mystery, with the son of a postman (Douglas Booth) charged with delivering a letter from Van Gogh to his brother, Theo. Booth couldn't be bothered, but his father (Chris O'Dowd) was an admirer and a stickler for the mail to be completed. Booth follows a trail of those who knew Van Gogh, finds out that Theo is dead, and begins to suspect that Van Gogh did not actually shoot himself, but that he may have been murdered.

The look of the film is undeniably brilliant. The flashbacks are done in black and white, in what at times looks like photographic realism. The color portions are full of Van Gogh's thick brushstrokes and vivid colors. Also, interestingly enough, the actors are painted to look like themselves. You'll immediately recognize Saoirse Ronan as the daughter of Van Gogh's doctor, who may or may not have had a romance with him.

Loving Vincent looks greats, but the script is a bit clunky. There's tons of exposition that is clumsily laid out, for those I suppose who have no idea who Van Gogh is (I don't know what they would be doing watching this film). Still, it's a beautiful film and an interesting one.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

DAMN.

The announcement of the Pulitzer Prizes usually generates no controversy, but this year the Music Prize did--it went to Kendrick Lamar, for his album DAMN. It's the first time the prize went to a music form other than classical or jazz (and the first jazz prize only goes back twenty years).

There was some blowback. The first was among the classical world, who didn't necessarily criticize Lamar, but felt that the Pulitzer was the last place for modern classical composers, who operate in a very small vacuum, get recognized. But this argument basically says, "Even if we don't have the best music, we want a prize anyway." To their credit, both of the other finalists, who are classical composers, championed Lamar's selection.

The other argument is more complicated. The Pulitzer organization, in their award, cited that Damn. is "a virtuosic song collection unified by its vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African-American life." Some voices from the African American community were dismayed that a singer who commonly uses the word "nigga" and refers to women as "bitches" is representative of black American life.

I have a tremendous hole in my brain when it comes to hip-hop. I've tried to listen to it a few times. I bought the greatest hits of Tupac Shakur and only got to the second or third song. I think my resistance is two-fold: one, it does not speak to me on a cultural level. I have no experience with what rappers live through, and it's like listening to something in a foreign language. Two, the music is off-putting to me. I need a melody. Some hip-hop does have melody, but not enough, and it seems repetitious and hard on the ear.

That being said, I did listen to DAMN. (it was free with my Amazon Prime membership) and I didn't hate it. I managed to listen to the whole thing, and some parts were musically brilliant. The album is full of songs with one word titles that are bedrocks in anyone's life, like "Loyalty," "Fear," "Love," and "God." Some of the songs are catchy, like "Element," but unfortunately the lyrics contain some epithets that are not exactly forward-thinking when it comes to women:

"If I gotta slap a pussy-ass nigga, I'mma make it look sexy
If I gotta go hard on a bitch, I'mma make it look sexy"

But as a lyricist Lamar can't be dismissed. I think lyrics are the greatest contribution the rap and hip-hop movement has made--these guys are poets. I think this passage from "Humble" is dizzying in its expression:

"Aye, I remember syrup sandwiches and crime allowances
Finesse a nigga with some counterfeits
But now I'm counting this Parmesan where my accountant lives
in fact I'm down at this D'usśe with my boo bae,
tastes like kool aid for the analysts
Girl, I can buy your ass the world with my paystub
Ooh that pussy good, won't you sit it on my taste bloods
I get way too petty once you let me do the extras
Pull up on your block, then break it down we playing Tetris
A.M. to the P.M., P.M. to the A.M. funk
Piss out your per diem you just gotta hate em, funk
If I quit your BM I still ride Mercedes, funk
If I quit this season I still be the greatest, funk
My left stroke just went viral
Right stroke put lil baby in a spiral
Soprano C, we like to keep it on a high note
It's levels to it, you and I know, bitch be humble"

One thing the award has inspired is a bit of a parlor game as to what albums from the past, if the board had awarded pop albums, might have won. Surely something by Bob Dylan--Blood on the Tracks? Born in the U.S.A by Bruce Springsteen? Something by Joni Mitchell (even though she's Canadian)? Cast your mind back to sixty years worth of American popular music and pick your favorites.

I would imagine the Pulitzers will go back to classical music next year, with a pop album breaking through every once in a while, to set tongues wagging anew.

Friday, April 20, 2018

The Valley of Fear

Oddly enough, up until recently I had read every bit of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes works--56 stories, and three novels. However, he wrote four novels, so I was missing one, and that was The Valley of Fear. Now I have completed the canon.

Like A Study in Scarlet, the first Holmes work, The Valley of Fear is a hybrid novel. The first half is a simple mystery that Holmes solves rather quickly, the second, connected story takes place in the coal mining country of the U.S. You may recall that in A Study in Scarlet the book tells a long story of Mormons out west (for which Doyle was criticized, as the Mormons are villainized). Here he does the same thing with Freemasons, as a secret society that seems a lot like them is running an assassination ring.

The opening mystery involves a man shot in his parlor, with a window open and the culprit presumably wading across a moat out front (ah, the days when houses had moats!). Holmes is fixed on a single dumbbell--where is its partner?

There is also a coded message that Holmes solves rather quickly. During this segment he talks about his nemesis, Dr. Moriarty. I had wondered about the theory that the Doctor was a figment of Holmes' imagination (in the other two stories in which he's mentioned, Watson never sees him). But the discussion in this work would indicate he's very real, and Holmes does not underestimate him: "The greatest schemer of all time, the organizer of every deviltry, the controlling brain of the underworld, a brain which might have made or marred the destiny of nations—that's the man!"

The U.S. portion of the book is nothing amazing, but it does have a twist at the end that fooled me. If you're looking for a Holmes novel to read, start with The Hound of the Baskervilles, or just read the stories. They're better.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

2001: A Space Odyssey

Fifty years ago this month one of the most written about films ever made was released. Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, was a film unlike any other, and I don't think there's been one like it since then. I've seen it at least three times, but I still don't understand all of it, and I don't think anyone is supposed to.

The film is basically told in four parts, as if it were movements of a symphony. The first, "The Dawn of Man," features hominids on the African savanna. They eat only vegetation. One day a strange black monolith, looking like a giant candy bar, appears, with a sound like a choir. The hominids are first afraid, and then embrace it. Presumably this gives one such early man the idea to use a bone to kill something. Next thing you know they are eating meat, and eventually use it to kill one another.

We can assume that the monolith was planted by an advanced civilization that is furthering human evolution. The next time it shows up it is buried under the lunar surface, so it is clearly in place for when man is advanced enough to find it. This section is the weakest of the film, with stilted dialogue and boilerplate sci-fi stuff. It also has a scientist using a videophone to call his daughter for his birthday. Even Kubrick and his collaborator, Arthur C. Clarke, didn't anticipate cell phones.

The third portion is the one most people know and is straightforward, as well as being suspenseful and even a bit funny. Two astronauts, along with three others in sleep pods, are on their way to Jupiter. They don't know it, but they are headed to the third monolith, adrift in space. Their ship is run by a computer, HAL 9000, who is more human than they are. When he starts to take over things get a bit dicey. "Open the pod bay door, HAL," is a memorable quote. When Keir Dullea gets back in the ship to shut him down, HAL, voiced wonderfully by Douglas Rain, says things like, "I can see you're upset about this, Dave."

The fourth movement is anybody's guess. Dullea takes a space pod into some sort of gate, where there are psychedelic colors that probably were pretty groovy in 1968. He sees himself as an old man, and then becomes a fetus the size of a planet, aka the "Star Child." I read that at one point the script had the Star Child exploding all the nuclear bombs on Earth, but Kubrick blew up the world in his previous film, Dr. Strangelove, and didn't want to do it again.

Today the film is recognized as one of the greatest ever made but it took a while. Pauline Kael oddly thought it was "unoriginal," while I think Penelope Gilliat hit it on the head when she said it was "somewhere between hypnotic and boring." True, parts of it are boring. There is almost a fetishistic lingering on spaceships gliding through the ethos and men pushing buttons and doors opening. It takes maybe fifteen minutes for Dr. Floyd to get from Earth to the Moon in a spaceship, as we see the flight attendants serving dinner. I suppose the special effects were cutting edge and maybe Kubrick was showing off (he designed the special effects, and he won an Oscar for it, the only Oscar he ever won).

But, as Gilliat said, the tedium can be hypnotic. There are a lot of shots of ships, and one of the most famous cuts in movie history has the bone tossed by the hominid turning into a spaceship, a leap of four million years of human evolution in one edit.

I suppose I admire 2001 more than I love it, The HAL sequence on its own is a terrific short film, as is the Dawn of Man. A friend of mine mentioned that it couldn't be made today, and that's probably true, at least not how Kubrick made it. However, it was the highest grossing film of that year. It made Strauss' Thus Spake Zarathustra known to everyone, and it inspired one of my favorite Mad Magazine parody titles: 201 Minutes of a Space Idiocy.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Amadeus

The film world lost a giant last week with the death of Milos Forman. I have seen almost all of Forman's English-language films, but I haven't seen any of them recently, nor have I seen his Czech films, so I hope to do so in the coming weeks. You can find reviews of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Goya's Ghosts (which turned out to be his last film) on this site.

I turn to Amadeus, Forman's second Oscar-winner, from 1984. I hadn't seen it since it came out, and I viewed the director's cut, which includes about twenty extra minutes of material. I don't know if I've changed or if the film's changes mattered, because I liked it a lot more on this viewing. Though three hours long, it flew by in a whirl of color, emotion, and of course, music.

Based on Peter Shaffer's play, Amadeus tells the story of Mozart, but through the eyes of another composer, Antonio Salieri, who was court composer to the Emperor of Austria and thought himself a very big cheese. But when he hears the work of Mozart he realizes he's mediocre compared to him. To further torture him, Mozart turns out to be a vulgar, infantile man, given to fart jokes and a hyena laugh. Salieri, a pious man, questions God--how can you put such great talent in such a man?

The film is told in flashback, with Salieri as an old man living in an institution, giving a confession to a priest. The film does not answer the question as to whether Salieri really did kill Mozart--he talks about it, but when Mozart grows sick with a fatal illness he actually helps him compose his Requiem, in a scene that is thrilling--Mozart hearing the score in his head, and Salieri transcribing it.

Amadeus won eight Oscars, including the design awards--costumes and production design--which it richly deserved. I love that the period wasn't far off from the 1960s for elaborate and flamboyant costumes. Forman won best director, and F. Murray Abraham, an unknown actor who had been in a Fruit of the Loom commercial, won Best Actor as Salieri. After an eclectic search which included David Bowie and Mikhail Baryshnikov, Tom Hulce, best known for his role in Animal House, got the role of Mozart and was terrific. It's a shame that both leads couldn't have tied for the honor.

I don't know what was different from the original film and the director's cut, as it has been 33 years since I saw the original, but I do know one thing--this version allows us to see Elizabeth Berridge's breasts (she plays Mozart's wife, and Salieri has degraded her into exchanging her body for his help in getting Mozart a position). I suspect that and some extended music scenes are the difference.

What is great about the movie is, with all the fanfare, the music, the costumes, the old-age makeup on Abraham, the central theme rings so true--what if you were a mediocrity, and you had enough information to know that you were a mediocrity? Thus is Salieri's dilemma, which he carries with him to his death.