Monthly Archives: January 2010

The American Critic

Last night, The New York Film Critics Circle presented Andrew Sarris with their lifetime achievement award for his contribution to film criticism.

If Sarris were to read what I’m about to write, he’d probably chastise me for my excess of enthusiasm (unlike Kael, Sarris was the most sober of critics), and my liberal use of superlatives (unlike John Simon, Sarris never made ostentatious proclamations), but in this case I’m sure there’s no other way to express the tremendous, even overwhelming value of Sarris’ work on those of us who try to think seriously about the movies.

Andrew Sarris is the greatest living film critic. Not only is he the most insightful, the most historically versed, and the strongest writer around, Sarris is singlehandedly responsible for positing the dominant ideology behind American film criticism as it is practiced today. Whether you know it or not, without Sarris – as strange as this sounds – we wouldn’t think of films in terms of directors and writers. We’d think of them as stories performed by glamorous people. And in this case, the “we” applies as much to casual viewers as it does to scholars. Since delivering The Auteur Theory to America – in short, the notion that films, like books, do have authors with unique voices and visions – his book, The American Cinema, has done more than any other to bring this massive, perplexing, frustrating, joyful medium down to size. It’s to interested moviegoers what the OED is to linguists.

When I get up in the morning, I make a cup of coffee, look at my email, and open The American Cinema to a random page and read. Others stretch or do yoga, but to get the day going, I review chance passages of Sarris just to make sure the cinematic thermometer in my mind is properly calibrated. Of course, there’s always more work to be done, always more films to see and reconsider, and never enough to say about The Shop Around the Corner, which is why these morning sessions are rarely easygoing. With The American Cinema in hand, I imagine Sarris sitting atop one of those tall chairs that preside over tennis courts. As I hit the ball over the net and run around to the other side to return it to myself, Sarris is yelling at me to go faster, and hit sharper; he’s urging me not to give up on John Ford, and not to be unduly generous to Billy Wilder. And sometimes his wife, the great critic Molly Haskell, appears beside him, reminding the both of us not to forget things like historical context, the continually changing tide of culture that shapes pictures like oceans shape rocks. That’s when I really start to sweat. Molly reminds me that pictures aren’t made in a vacuum – that even Orson Welles, the most careful and controlling of directors, was subject to his zeitgeist. Surely, that needles Sarris (though he’s heard it many times), and he has to step down from his tall chair to have a few words with Molly in the corner. Lucky for me, their conference gives me time to catch my breath, which I so deeply need because it’s only 9:00 and I haven’t had my coffee. I’ve only read this, by Sarris:

The art of cinema is the art of an attitude, the style of a gesture. It is not so much what as how. The what is some aspect of reality rendered mechanically by the camera. The how is what the French critics designate somewhat mystically as mise-en-scene. Auteur criticism is a reaction against sociological criticism that enthroned the what against the how. However, it would be equally fallacious to enthrone the how against the what. The whole point of meaningful style is that it unifies the what and the how into a personal statement.

Thank you, Andrew (and Molly) for keeping the phonies in their place and making the great ones even better.

After You’ve Gone

Sophie Tucker was born on this day in 1884.

One Sunday, about a year or so ago, I found myself at a favorite old mansion in the foothills beneath Laurel Canyon. If you live in L.A. you might know the place; it’s that big, white neo-classical thing, just north of the Laugh Factory and a few steps from Hollywood Boulevard.

As long as I’ve known it, the house has been overtaken by ivy. In the courtyard out front, what were once trees had turned to brown skeletons. But far from making the house seem uninviting, the Miss Havishamness of it only made the place more compelling, powerful even. Most of the other properties in the area were coiffed to within an inch of their lives, so what, I wondered, was going on in here, in a house so close to the raucous throb of the Sunset Strip, to keep the owners from tending to their mansion?

I’d been driving by for years before I actually got to go inside. Thanks to a chance encounter with a local Hollywood paper, I found out the owner – a former child star of silent westerns – had died, and the family was selling off everything in the house.

By the time I got there, most of the stuff had been picked over. There were a few candelabra and some china tsotchkes, but other than that the house was empty. Empty and large. There was a living room the size of a one-bedroom apartment and a dinning room massive enough to hold most of the remaining for-sale coffee tables, presumably collected from other rooms in the house. A carpeted curling staircase presiding over the first floor was roped off with a sign that said “Off Limits.” But I wasn’t about to let that stop me.

When no one was looking, I leapt upstairs and in a matter of moments found myself in the master bedroom, but it wasn’t a bedroom – there was no bed, no dresser, and not a single window – it was actually more of a master bedroom-sized sauna. The entire space, from floor to ceiling, was covered in wood. There were benches along the walls. I was standing in a wooden box.

In the corner was another box. Opening it, I discovered a row of books, all biographies of movie stars. One of them was Sophie Tucker’s memoir, Some of These Days. It was blue and dusty, and looked like it would crumble if I so much as breathed on it, so I reached out carefully, gingerly, opened it to find, to my amazement, Sophie had signed it. To Milton Stuck, Love Sophie Tucker 7/3/60.

I bought the book for three dollars and left.

Just this morning, thinking about Sophie on her 126th birthday, I found myself skimming through the book. I’ll never forget the last show at the Palace in New York, she wrote in its final pages. It was ghastly. Everyone knew the theater was to be closed down, and a landmark in show business would be gone. That feeling got into the acts. The whole place, and even the performers, stank of decay. I seemed to smell it. It challenged me. I went out on that stage determined to keep my mind on the future – not on the past. I was determined to give the audience the idea: why brood over yesterday? We have tomorrow. As I sang I could feel the atmosphere change. The gloom began to life, the spirit which had formerly filled the Palace and which made it famous among the vaudeville houses in the world came back. That’s what an entertainer can do. That’s the power he has; and which he can use when he knows how to use it.

Could Wes Anderson Actually Win an Oscar?

As the Oscar-speaking world delves deeper into the Avatar/Hurt Locker debate – which has to be one of the more exciting awards dramas in recent memory – I’ve begun to wonder, with the ballot deadline fast approaching, if any of the Academy’s 5,777 voting members has begun to think seriously about talking animals.

I bring this up because this year, with Up, Coraline, and Fantastic Mr. Fox all in the running for Best Animated Feature, it’s beginning to look like we might have something of a photo-finish on our hands.

If the race has been less compelling in the past, it’s because Pixar, the Freed Unit of cartoons, has dominated so clearly, and indeed so beautifully, that no one could dream of getting close to them. Of the six Pixar features released since 2001 – the first year Animated Features were given their own Oscar category – each one of them was nominated, and among the nominees, four took home the Academy Award. (Did I say Freed Unit? Make that Edith Head.)

This time, though, things are different. For one, the competition is stronger. Unlike most of Pixar’s competitors in years past, Coraline and Fantastic Mr. Fox have the advantage of being user-friendly, basically mainstream releases with a great deal of critical support behind them. To Academy voters itching to look beyond Pixar – and they’re out there – these facts alone could spell the beginning of the end for Up.

Should that be the case, the question then becomes which way will they go? Coraline or Fantastic Mr. Fox?

I liked Coraline, but I sure hope it’s Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Unfortunately, there appear to be roadblocks ahead. We can only wonder what the name Wes Anderson means to the Academy’s 5,777, mostly senior, voting members. It has been almost ten years since he received a Best Screenplay nomination for The Royal Tenenbaums, and in the interim, his popular appeal has only begun to fray. Whatever one’s reaction to The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and The Darjeeling Limited, they were too mannered to register on the Academy’s taste radar, and caused many voters to wonder if Anderson could ever renew the promise of his first more approachable features. Oscar, after all, loves classical with a twist; films like Up in the Air and The Hurt Locker, which take a well-worn formula and subvert it, slightly, tend to win the day. And yet, no matter how conservative its voting record, or traditional its predilections, the sensibility of nearly six thousand people can’t be reduced to a single epithet.

Into this tenuous atmosphere comes Fantastic Mr. Fox, and it’s a wonderful movie, Anderson’s best since Rushmore. Watching it, I couldn’t help but think that stop motion was the ideal venue for a director so attuned (sometimes distractingly so), to the strange dollhouse quality that all people, being strange people, come to adopt. Far from hindering him, it seems the painstaking one-frame-at-time technique – slow, expensive, deliberate – might have forced Anderson out of his world of decadence, and ushered him toward a more economical, barebones approach to story. At least that’s what I hope, because as a one-time fan frustrated by his recent work, I’d love to see Wes Anderson repeat the kind of discipline he has recovered here, in Fantastic Mr. Fox. Perhaps then that old promise – the promise of Bottle Rocket and Rushmore – will be fulfilled.

This is What a Film Critic Does

Manohla on The Hurt Locker.

Midnight in the Garden of Madison County

From the middle of March to about September, people in Los Angeles are happy – no, delighted – to talk about Clint Eastwood. In those months, before Oscar season kicks in, you’ll hear about what a magnificent movie star he was and still is – the last, maybe, of the great generation. You’ll hear about Rawhide and Leone and his illustrious career, and about how amazing it is that a man of his eighty years can still get a movie made, not just often, but regularly, at the rate of at least one a year. And you’ll hear about that incredible year when he made two movies, Flags of our Fathers and the Japanese one.

But starting around October, that changes. As the leaves fall over Little Santa Monica and the studios send out Oscar screeners, a certain group of progressive (i.e. old-fashioned) movie folk don’t want to talk about Clint anymore. It makes them quiet. It makes them nervous.

Yesterday, I casually mentioned Clint’s name at a party off Abbot Kinney and about two-dozen heads turned down to the floor. One of those heads belonged to my friend John, who, once the party resumed again, grabbed hold of my upper arm and drew me into the kitchen. “Jesus Christ,” he said, “it’s the middle of fucking January already. You can’t do that, Sam.”

Of course. I should have known better. Now is the time when we have to stop thinking about Clint-the-Acting-Legend and start thinking about Clint-the-Director. And it’s a hard transition for a lot of people, myself included. Hard because we – and I hate saying this – we don’t really love Clint-the-Director as much as we love Clint-the-Acting-Legend. Well, I mean, of course we love him – we’ll always love Clint no matter what – but after October, that love loses its luster and begins to feel more like the love one has for a cousin, or Robert Wise.

John threw his arm around me as we made our way out of the kitchen. “It hurts me as much as it hurts you,” he said. “Believe me, after I saw Mystic Pizza –

“River. Mystic River.”

“Right. After I saw Mystic River, I thought, ‘Wow, now I get it! Clint’s making old movies. He’s the last Classicist!’”

“I know. I thought the same thing.”

“We all did.”

“Somehow it made it seem okay.”

John reached for a bottle and refilled my glass. “Well, it’s not okay anymore.”

“But what about Unforgiven?”

He looked up. “Stop it, Sam. Don’t do this.”

Play Misty for Me? What about Play Misty for Me? What about High Plains Drifter or The Outlaw Josey Wales? You’ve got to admit – ”

“Jesus Christ, pull yourself together.”

“But – ”

“No, Sam.”

“But – ”

“I said no.”

We were quiet for quite a while before John muttered, “Space Cowboys…” That was the last thing we said to each for the rest of the party.

On the walk back to our cars, I slipped and said something about Morgan Freeman. I knew it was a mistake the moment the words “Miss Daisy” left my mouth. There was a stillness in the air, and I sensed John wanted to say something about Invictus. But he didn’t. I guess he knew it would be better for both of us if nobody said anything at all.

Pas Malle

Tonight, the lucky people of New York City will be offered a rare treat. As part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s weeklong tribute to director Louis Malle, Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn will appear for a panel discussion following the 6:15 screening of their film, My Dinner with Andre. So if you’re in New York and you have plans tonight, cancel them.

My Dinner with Andre is one of those films people struggle with, and I understand why. At just about every turn, you can almost feel Malle consciously resisting cinematic pleasures as they present themselves. To some viewers, this asceticism can feel like stubbornness, as if the director were willfully pitting himself against the audience in a battle of endurance, which is why, I think, the movie has that magical art-house ability to turn normal people into curmudgeons.

Watching the character of Wally Shawn struggle to accept Andre’s ridiculous stories of how he achieved enlightenment, I’ve seen people snort at the vapid pretentiousness of it all, wishing to god the film would end. But of course, the joke’s on them because My Dinner with Andre is a comedy.

Don’t believe me? Wait for Wally Shawn’s reaction shots. Malle is oh-so careful to place them at moments of high incredulity, where they do the work of punch lines. Not only does this technique ally us with Wally (our reactions seem always to match his), and add much needed warmth to an otherwise cerebral picture, but it opens us, the audience, to the pleasure of gently satirizing Andre.

Look for these moments – scattered throughout the picture like Easter Eggs – when you start to feel your inner curmudgeon emerging, and don’t be surprised to find yourself laughing less and less as they accrue. By the end of My Dinner with Andre, a film about shaking us out of our own spiritual sleepwalks, you may realize that for all of Andre’s flamboyance, and for all of the giggles we have at his expense, the greatest joke of all – the most serious joke imaginable – is on Wally. It’s on us too.

So if you’re in New York and you have plans tonight, cancel them and go to My Dinner with Andre with an open mind and full stomach. But wait on that drink. You’re going to want it after your sleepwalk ends.

Society High

I know it won’t make me anyone’s favorite person to draw Grace Kelly’s legacy into the gray zone, but the Roman exhibition of her handbags and things, and the new biography by Donald Spoto, and The New Yorker piece tied to both of them, have all blown her harmless, sugar dusted contribution right out of proportion.

Despite her Academy Award (in 1954, for The Country Girl), Grace was by and large an unreliable actress; as a style icon, she was, despite her glamour, purely status quo; and though she had that golden sort of Beverly Hills beauty that wins people parts in movies, hers was refined to the point of anonymity, like one of those über-coiffed hedges outside of Versailles.

What she did have, however, was niceness in abundance. In that way I think of her as I do Gregory Peck. They cornered the market on indistinct distinction.

How else would a blonde get a part in a Hitchcock movie? Certainly not by showing personality, independence, texture, wit, verve or any of the other qualities we look for in an actor. Like Eva Marie Saint, Tippi Hedren, Kim Novak, Janet Leigh, and a whole other fistful of blondes, Hitchcock fell for Kelly’s opacity, which, in a picture like To Catch a Thief (1955), he transformed into a site of sexual suspense. Watching her, we wonder, is she going to do it? Is this ice princess going to melt?

It’s all part of Hitchcock’s sadistic game with himself, and when his pieces are in the right places it can be really fun to watch. But don’t for a second fool yourself into thinking Grace was ever more than a star pawn on the master’s board.

Even in Rear Window (1954), her best film, Kelly turned out half a person. Molly Haskell wrote, “she is more committed to their relationship than Jimmy Stewart, but there is not much in her chic vacuous personality to commit.” When I was younger, I would have disagreed. I would have thought Jimmy was crazy not to drag himself out of his wheelchair and onto Lisa Fremont. But now I think he was onto something. At least Raymond Burr had a mysterious briefcase.