Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Victor Sjöström

IMDB Entry

Victor SjöströmI could do this entire blog on great but forgotten silent films. All but the very greatest have been forgotten (and often lost) and audiences these days don't seem to have much interest in them. The lack of sound, plus the acting style, just put people off.*  But silent films hold up well, if you're willing to put in the effort. 

Silent filmmakers were  far more international that films today.  It was fairly easy to shoot new intertitles for a silent film, and the audience didn't have to watch action on the screen while reading the subtitles.  That led to strong film industries in Europe, especially in Germany and Sweden.  And the greatest Swedish film director of the era was probably Victor Sjöström.

He grew up in Sweden and Brooklyn, NY, and broke into films as an actor and director around 1912, after a establishing a career in the theater in both areas.  Sjöström developed his craft and soon began making films with a psychological depth that was unusual for his time.  Around the time he had mastered filmmaking, he started adapting screenplays of books by Swedish Nobel Prize winner Selma Lagerlöf.  Lagerlöf distrusted what filmmakers might do to her work, but Sjöström seemed to find the formula to make both her and the audiences happy.  It was part of this series when, in 1921, he adapted her novel Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness! (Körkarlen) as The Phantom Carriage.

In it, Sjöström starred as a man doomed to drive the carriage the took the souls of the dead to heaven. The film's effects involved some very good double exposures, and were quite advanced for the time.**  Its dark mood seemed to strike a chord in the post-World-War-I world.   It was probably the masterpiece of the silent Swedish cinema.

He Who Gets SlappedIt raised enough notice for Hollywood to beckon and, in 1924, he went to work for MGM.  Using the name of Victor Seastrom,*** he eventually hooked up with Lon Chaney for another great film, He Who Gets Slapped.  Chaney starred as a circus clown, who was crying not only on in the inside, but on the outside as well.  His act consisted of having people slap him and knock him down.  He (the clown's name) has, of course, been betrayed in the past, and in the course of the film he gains some happiness.  It's a dark film, and Cheney is, as usual, riveting.

Sjöström was on a roll and when a few years later, Lillian Gish wanted to make a movie of The Scarlett Letter,**** she asked for Sjöström, feeling his dark attitude was just what the film needed.  She was right.  The film is an excellent adaptation and Gish was perfect as Hester.

Evidently, they liked the experience, because two years later, Gish insisted she and Sjöström reteam to make  The Wind, his masterpiece.

The windThe Wind in an intense film of loneliness and madness.  Gish is a young woman who moves to the West Texas to live with relatives.  But there is tension between her and her cousin's wife and she is forced to leave.  With no place to go, she agrees to marry their neighbor, even though she finds him repulsive.  But she soon finds out that the constant wind is even worse and slowly begins to go insane.

The film is a claustrophobic look at the difficulty of living on the frontier.  Gish is magnificent and Sjöström captures her feeling of helplessness in the face of relentless force.

Alas, the silent era was ending.  The Wind was one of the last silent films MGM released; they moved quickly into talkies.

But Sjöström did not.  He didn't like the restrictions the new sound equipment put on what he could do. He did the talkie A Lady to Love in 1930, then moved back to Sweden for three more films, after which he returned to the theater, acting and directing there. 

He also acted occasionally in films.  In 1950, Ingmar Bergman, who had loved The Phantom Carriage so much that he watched it every year, cast him in his film To Joy.  But Bergman saved his best role for Sjöström in 1957, when he cast him in the lead of Wild Strawberries, a movie that was filled with homages to The Phantom Carriage.

Sjöström died in 1960, known for the Bergman film, but forgotten as one of the pioneers of the silent film.  Anyone who loves the medium needs to seek him out.


* I'm appalled at comments about how actors in other film eras are called "bad," simply because their style is different than what people are used to.  Our current acting styles may look just as foolish to people in another 90 year, but they're treated as though that's the only way of acting.

**It may have been the source of the standard movie image of the see-through ghost. 

***I guess Americans didn't like umlauts.  This was before heavy metal music, of course.

****Over studio objections, who didn't want to make a movie about an unwed mother.  Gish argued the book was an American classic and taught in the schools, so there was no point to shying away from it. 

Friday, June 25, 2010

Tall Tale

Directed by
Jeremiah Chechik
Written by Steve Bloom & Robert Rodat
Starring Patrick Swayze, Oliver Platt, Roger Alan Brown, Nick Stahl, Scott Glenn, Stephen Lang, Catherine O'Hara.
IMDB Entry

Sometimes you can spot a promising young director after a film or two, and think he has the chance for a long and successful career.  But that's not always the way it works out.  That the case for Jeremiah Chechik.

Chechik grew up in Montreal and made a splash with his first film:  National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation.  While not as good as the first National Lampoon film, it was a solid hit, enough for him to get a little bit of clout.  His next film, Benny and Joon got critical raves and showed that Johnny Depp was more than just a pretty face.  And he continued this artistic success when Disney hired him to direct Tall Tale.

Subtitled The Unbelievable Adventures of Pecos Bill, the movie is exactly what it says it is:  a tall tale.  In it, Daniel Hackett (Nick Stahl) is a preteen boy who feels he has outgrown his father's (Stephen Lang) stories of Pecos Bill, Paul Bunyan, and other American legends.* But a mine operator, J. P.Styles (Scott Glenn) wants to buy the Hackett farm in Paradise Valley, and shoots and wounds Daniel's father.  Daniel runs away and finds himself in the Texas desert where he meets up with Pecos Bill (Patrick Swayze).  Bill goes to help out, and Paul Bunyan (Oliver Platt), John Henry (Roger Allen Brown), and Calamity Jane (Catherine O'Hara) soon take up the quest.

All the character are larger than life (often figuratively) and the film uses a broad acting style and a west where Pecos Bill can shoot off the trigger fingers of two desperados from a mile away, with only a trickle of blood. If you want to nitpick the film, you shouldn't be watching:  the point is that it's deliberately unrealistic**. The movie doesn't try for any fancy twists, but just the delights of a good story.

Patrick Swayze is perfectly cast as Pecos Bill; you can really believe he's a epic hero and he gets the modest strength of a western stereotypical hero just perfectly.  Nick Stahl makes for a very convincing Daniel, and it's always a joy to see Oliver Platt and Catherine O'Hara (especially when she's not playing a mom).

Despite some critical raves, though, the film flopped badly.  It had an anemic box office results.  It may just not have been flashy enough for modern audiences.  Plus, I'm sure few kids have heard about about Pecos Bill.  He probably didn't mean much to most of their parents; it was not something that really takes front and center as a story.

Of course, a film director can continue a career with a flop, but Chechik followed this with the pure disaster that was Diabolique.***  He then went on to the pointless film of The Avengers, another high-profile disaster.  Chechik has not directed a movie since.****

It's too bad.  He was far more promising in films when he started out.  Maybe with his TV success, he can return to projects like those he started out with.  Just keep him away from blockbusters.


*Actually, both Pecos Bill and Paul Bunyan are "fakelore" -- stories that were created and passed off as authentic American folklore.  Bunyan was actually the mascot of an insurance company (there is some debate as to whether he was made up from actual logging tales, or out of thin air, but it's clear that the ad campaign is what popularized him with the general public).

**The IMDB counts as a goof that no one ever reloads their gun, a gold medalist for Missing the Point

***A complete and utter mess.  It was a mistake to remake Clouzot's Les Diaboliques in the first place, and the change in the ending not only trashed the original, but also trashed itself.

****He has worked successfully in TV, most notably as director and producer of the Great but Forgotten TV series, The Middleman, which shares a lot of the the philosophy of Tall Tale.  Currently, he's also directing episodes of Burn Notice.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Picket Fences (TV)

Created by (and most episodes written by) David E. Kelley
Starring Tom Skerritt, Kathy Baker, Costas Mandylor, Lauren Holly, Holly Marie Combs, Justin Shenkerow, Adam Wylie, Fyvush Finkle, Ray Walston, Kelly Connell, Zelda Rubenstein, Don Cheedle, Dabs Greer, Roy Dotrice, Marlee Matlin, Robert Cornthwaite
IMDB Entry
Episodes on Hulu

You'd think that a show that won 14 Emmys and was nominated for another 14 would be familiar to TV viewers.  But, other than during the Emmy season, Picket Fences was terribly underappreciated, even when it was on the air.

The show was an early series by the prolific David E. Kelley.  At the time, Khe had made a name for himself writing for L.A. Law, and he had joined up with Stephen Bochco to create the hit show Doogie Howser, M.D.  That success allowed Kelley to create Picket Fences.

The show was set in the fictional Rome, Wisconsin, a place where weird things happened.*  People were found murdered in household appliances, the town is terrorized (well, weirdly annoyed ) by a serial bather, cows give birth to human babies, the Pope testifies in a murder trial, the town's mayors had all the job security as a drummer for Spinal Tap -- these were the weekly events that made Rome so fascinating.

cast of the showThe story centered on the Brock family.  Jimmy Brock (Tom Skerritt) is the town sheriff, married to Jill (Kathy Baker), who's a doctor.  They have to juggle their careers as well as their three kids, Kimberly (Holly Marie Combs), Matthew (Justin Shankerow), and Zach (Adam Wylie).  Kenny Lacos (Costas Mandylor) and Maxine Stewart (Lauren Holly) make up the sheriff's department, along with their dispatcher Ginny (Zelda Rubenstein).

One of the nice things about the setup is that it combines two of the most common types of TV settings:  the cop show and the medical drama.  This gave Kelley a chance to be able to use either or both as a basis for his plots.  The only thing missing would be a courtroom show . . . .

And it was that, too (Kelley had started as a lawyer).  Most of the issues brought in Rome's irrepressible lawyer Douglas Wambaugh (Fyvish Finkle) to defend -- in startling ways -- the various people arrested, all in front of the irascible Judge Henry Bone (Ray Walston), who is not impressed by Wambaugh's showboating or the bizarre cases he is forced to contend with.

Kelley's writing was funny, but it also dealt with some serious legal and moral issues, often involving the cutting edge of technology.  It was also one of the few mainstream TV dramas where religion played an important role -- the Brocks attended church** and the town clergy were often involved in the issues.

The acting was absolutely first class. Tom Skerritt's*** easy charm made him the sanest and calmest person in Rome.  His relationship with Jill is one of the better TV marriages, and Kathy Baker was perfect.  Holly Marie Combs played the world's most together teenager**** and her brothers were realistically portrayed.  In addition, Finkel's Wambaugh was one of TV's greatest characters -- a P.T. Barnum with a law degree.  Ray Walston as Henry Bone more than managed to hold his own with him.*****

The show had a stock company of actors, so if they needed to write in a Catholic priest, for example, it would always be the same actor, giving the impression that Rome was a real community.  And if someone did a particularly good job (like Marlee Matlin, as the dancing bandit), they were often brought back.

The show cleaned up at the Emmys its first season, getting eight nominations and winning Best Dramatic Series, and Best Acting for Skerritt§ and Baker.  The next year it got four more, again winning Dramatic series and giving Finkle, a veteran of the Yiddish theater in New York, a supporting nod.

But all the critical acclaim faded.  Partly it was because David Kelley became involved in other projects.  He had written at least part of nearly every show, and the quality of Picket Fences slowly suffered.  It was run on a Friday night -- not a good night for TV -- and struggled with numbers its entire run.  The Emmys and acclaim kept it on the air, but once the numbers continued to drop as the show began to show its age. 

Kelley went on to further success with shows such as Ally McBeal, Boston Public, The Practice, and Boston Legal. Most of the cast were able to use it as a springboard to success in TV. Since relatively few people watched during its run, relatively few missed it and, to tell the truth, there was only so much weirdness you could keep coming up with every week.

In any case, it's a show worthy of rediscovery.  Luckily, the first season is on Hulu, so you can rediscover the delights of Rome, Wisconsin.


*While not as weird as the great Eerie, Indiana, the show did have the same actor as school principal, and also starred Justin Shenkerow.  In addition, Eerie's weatherman was Rome's coroner.  Hmmmn.

**And not just a generic TV church -- they were Congregationalists.

***Skerritt's most visible role prior to this was as one of the co-leads in the movie M*A*S*H, something few people remember since the character, Duke Forrest, did not make it into the TV series.

****A rare breed.  The only other one I can think of in series TV is Molly Quinn in Castle.

***** Walston was supposed to be a one-shot guest star, but he quickly became a regular.

§ Skerritt's look of surprise when his name was called was one of Emmy's most delightful moments.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Gods and Monsters

Gods and monsters (1998)
Directed by
Bill Condon
Written by Bill Condon, from a novel by Christopher Bram
Starring Ian McKellan, Brendan Fraser, Lynn Redgrave, Lolita Davidovich
IMDB Entry

Some actors make good movies.  Some actors make stinkers.  Brendan Fraser manages to do both.  Frasier has made such flops and mindless entertainment as George of the Jungle, Dudley Do-Right, Bedazzled, Monkeybone, Looney Tunes: Back in Action, Journey to the Center of the Earth, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, and Furry Vengeance.  But he's also appeared in Crash*, The Ugly American, and Gods and Monsters.

Bill Condon's film tells the story of the last day of filmmaker James Whale.  Though known primarily only to film buffs today, Whale directed the landmark Boris Karloff Frankenstein, and well as its sequel  The Bride of Frankenstein, one of cinema's enduring classics.  He was a major director of the 1930s (also directing Show Boat).  But after the mid-1940s, he retired from filmmaking. 

Whale's personal life would have been the stuff of scandal.  He was a homosexual, and never tried to hide the fact.  But fan magazines and gossip columnists of the time didn't make much ado about this.

The movie is set just after the Korean War.  Whale (Ian McKellan) is living alone with his housekeeper Hanna (Lynn Redgrave), weak after a series of strokes.  He is feeling lonely and depressed and hallucinates about the shooting of The Bride.

Into this life comes Clayton Boon (Fraser), an ex-marine who he hires as a gardener.  Whale and Boon become friends, seeing Bride of Frankenstein together and going to Hollywood parties.  But Whale has something else in mind for Boon.McKellan and Fraser

This is Fraser at his best.  He plays a big lug, but not a fool. He portrays the complications of the relationship very well.  It is so different from the type of films he's famous for that you might even think it's another actor.

Ian McKellan proves once more why he is one of films greatest actors. It's really his film, and he manages to draw out the complexity of Whale's emotions in a brilliant fashion.

Box office was modest,** but the film was shot on such a shoestring budget that it was a small financial success.  The film even got three Oscar nominations -- two for McKellan and Redgrave, and a win for Condon's screenplay.

Condon's next film, Kinsey, got good reviews but weak box office and his career stalled a bit, but he seems to have revived it with Dreamgirls.  Fraser has become a major action star in mindless popcorn films.  It's been good for his bank account, but hopefully he will try again to do more serious projects more worthy of his talent.


*I'm saving asterisks by putting my comments on this list in one footnote:

  • George and Dudley. Any Jay Ward fan worth his salt cringes at what they did to his characters.
  • Bedazzled.  See the original, one of the great comedies of the 60s, and perhaps the best film of the great Peter Cook.
  • Crash. Well deserving of its Oscar.  I can't even fathom the hatred for it, especially from fans of Brokeback Mountain.  Anne Proulx especially has acted like an ungracious jerk, showing the worst case of sour grapes in the history of film.

**Fraser's Monkeybone did better at the box office, and it was considered a massive flop.  Of course, it also cost 25 times as much.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Harry Golden (author)


Harry GoldinHarry Golden led an unusual life.  Born in the Ukrane, he ended up in New York City at the age of three and grew up on the Lower East Side.  He became a stockbroker, but lost his job in the 1929 crash and was convicted of wire fraud, for which he spent five years in prison.  Once released, he moved to North Carolina where he got a job writing for the Charlotte Observer and in 1944 began to put out a bimonthly newsletter called The Carolina Israelite.

If Golden were writing today, The Carolina Israelite would be done as a blog.  It was Golden writing about topics of interest to him and finding an audience for his writings. He started writing nonfiction books on Jewish history to help make ends meet, and in 1958, republished the best of the magazine in a book Only in America. The book was a major best seller and Golden followed it up with For Two Cents Plain.

Only in AmericaThe essays in the book, like much of Golden's writings, fell into three categories.  He wrote on general issues for Jewish Americans of the time, with a unique viewpoint as a Jew in one of the least Jewish areas of the country.  He was also a staunch supporter of racial equality and wrote eloquently against the segregated South. But the most popular essays were when he reminisced about his boyhood in New York before World War I.

The stories were a wonderful look into a different time.  Some of the incidents stick in my mind, like the ritual of buying a boy his first suit.  I especially liked the little scam where the kids would get a flavored seltzer (three cents) for the price of a plain (two cents) -- they'd order plain seltzer then, after paying two cents at precisely the right time, they'd tell the soda jerk to "float" a little flavoring on the drink.  It had to be done right, so that the drink had been poured and the soda jerk had no option but to give a little squirt of flavored syrup to the drink.

Other essays I loved was his analysis of the character of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, where he shows how Shakespeare subtly undercut the antisemitism in the play.

Golden continued to write.  He stopped publishing The Carolina Israelite in 1968, by which time he had established himself well enough to write books full time.  In 1974, Richard Nixon pardoned him for his embezzlement rap.  His books still remain in print, and are a wonderful look at both the Lower East Side in New York and of life in the early days of the civil rights movement.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (TV)

Produced by
Norman Lear
Created by Gail Parent, Ann Marcus, Jerry Adelman and Daniel Gregory Brown.
Starring Louise Lasser, Greg Mullavey, Mary Kay Place, Graham Jarvis, Debralee Scott, Dody Goodman, Philip Bruns, Victor Killian, Claudia Lamb, Bruce Solomon 
IMDB Entry

In 1976, Norman Lear was riding high.  He produced one smash TV hit after another:  All in the Family, Sandford and Son, Maude, Good Times, The Jeffersons, and One Day at a Time.* And one project that he had been thinking about for a long time finally came together:  a soap opera satire called Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.

The show was controversial from the start.  Thought it covered many of the same plots and issues in the daytime soaps of the era, it did it much more directly, so it scared off network executives.  So did Lear's production schedule:  from the start, he wanted it to be like a soap opera: episodes a week. He finally managed to sell it on a syndicated basis, but due to its content, it usually ran at 11:30 pm.**

Original castThe center of the story was, of course, Mary Hartman (Louise Lasser), a housewife in the fictional Fernwood, Ohio. She was a perpetual innocent (even when talking about some far-from-innocent scenarios) who tried to look on the bright side of things.  When the neighbors are mass murdered and her grandfather (Victor Killian***) is discovered to be the Fernwood Flasher).

Some of the better subplots in the early episodes included Mary's sexual problems with her husband Tom (Greg Mullavey) and her attraction to a police sergeant (Bruce Solomon) who takes a liking to her.  My favorite early subplot involved her best friend Loretta Hagers (Mary Kay Place), who, along with her husband Charlie (Graham Jarvis), were absolutely certain she would make it as a country singer, talent or not.

The show worked very hard to get a soap opera feel.  The sets and the acting mirrors what you saw on daytime soaps, with a very deadpan style.  It was deliberately slow paced, with a very dry sense of humor that came from the characters trying to act ultra normally amid absurd plot twists and their own obsessions.  Much of the humor, like that in Barnaby, depend on a cumulative effect:  it's mildly amusing the first time, but gets funnier as the lines play off what has happened before, especially as you become familiar with the characters.

This does create problems.  Though DVDs have come out, none have tried to create the series one episode at a time.  And while the show was designed so that missing an episode was no big deal, you start to miss things.  Also, clips taken from the show don't really give a good feeling for its genius, since part of the fun is watching the familiar characters doing their thing.

The show was successful, but it took its toll.  A hundred and 30 episodes in two years is a lot of work and eventually Louise Lasser decided to move on.  The show evolved into Forever Fernwood (following Mary's family after she left) and then to Fernwood 2-Night (a talk show parody starring Martin Mull and Fred Willard, who had joined the original show during its run).

The setup of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman means that it will probably not appeal to younger audiences:  the slow pace is unusual for the MTV generation and beyond. Further, because you need to see the episodes unfold like a soap opera, few are going to give it the time it needs.  It's a shame, because the show was one of the wonders of 70s TV.


*He had flopped with The Hot L Baltimore, though few held that against him.

**This was before there were any viable late-night alternatives to The Tonight Show.

***Killian has the distinction of being one of the few lead actors to not be credited in one of his films, the hilariously bad Unknown World.  The film is very similar in concept to The Core, but with far more ridiculous science.  Between shooting and release, Killian was put on the Hollywood blacklist, so the producer left him off the credits.