A Month of Roger Ebert’s Great Movies, part four

As I write this, it is Sunday morning of the Memorial Day weekend. I was up until 3am last night, watching movies, yet here I am, awake. Even if I stay up until bleary-eyed, apparently all I still get is five hours sleep, at most. Man, getting older is awesome. Anyway, the last couple of weeks have been jammed with work and watching movies for the Roger Ebert Great Movies Challenge on Letterboxd.com. Enough to keep me from writing about anything except the latest Crapfest, so let’s use this lack of sleep to clear some of that out.

Un Chien Andalou (1929)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs was inevitable, I was up against a scheduling problem one Saturday; I had my weekly Show that evening, which took up the portion of the day I usually employ as movie-watching time; there was no real possibility of watching a movie after The Show, my usual dodge, as the following day was Mother’s Day, and we were driving to visit my Mom, and I needed to try to get more than my usual five hours sleep. It was time to employ my first cheat, which was to drop one of the movies from my list that I did not have a burning desire to watch just yet, and substitute Un Chien Andalou, only 16 minutes long, and, at the time, available on Netflix Instant. A legendary collaboration between Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali, Un Chien is one surreal image after another – the only criterion was both men had to agree before something was added. Any description or review of the short is going to wind up being a laundry list of that imagery, much of which is deliberately shocking – it was several viewings before I could watch that eyeball-slicing scene – and definitely memorable.

The most remarkable thing that can be said about Un Chien Andalou is that, although the imagery is deliberately random, and there is absolutely no underlying story, the mind still tries to rationalize that nonexistent story, organizing and creating symbolism where there is none. That’s actually highly entertaining and a triumph for Dada.

It may not currently be available on Netflix, but there’s always YouTube:

Network (1976)

network_posterWhen that weekend finally wound down, I was able to – finally – watch Network in its entirety, and that turned out to be a bracing experience.

Network news anchor Howard Beale is going through a slow-motion nervous breakdown when he is fired from his position for flagging ratings. When he announces he will commit suicide on the air, of course, ratings spike, so Howard keeps his job for a little while, until that spike diminishes. But when his breakdown goes full-blown, and he busts into his news set wearing only a raincoat and pajamas, and soaking wet, urges the viewers to shout out their windows, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” – and people across the country do – a star is born.

Network is startlingly prescient about a number of things, some deliberately so. Writer Paddy Chayefsky heard about a multinational corporation jockeying to buy ABC, and realized that such a sale would be the death knell for broadcast news departments as they stood at the time: money-losing, but regarded as a necessary prestige product. Corporations don’t understand that, and news departments suddenly had to become profit centers. This hadn’t happened yet in ’76, but it was on the way.

Another bit of prophecy that Chayefsky probably hoped was too outlandish to come true is contained in one old-school executive refusing to give airtime to “a raving lunatic” and being told to sit down and shut up. At that moment, the modern viewer should be able to name at least three raving lunatics being given airtime just tonight. Ambitious executive Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) crafts a new form of newscast which will seem all too familiar today as “infotainment”, the only problem being that Chayefsky and director Sidney Lumet don’t go broad enough to full visualize the mess that is modern journalism.

7041084_origOne thing that will also strike the viewer is that Network is largely built on monologues and soliloquies, usually the province of live theater. Paddy Chayefsky also wrote quite a bit for the stage, and it shows here. I don’t mind, coming from a theatrical background myself. Hell, there should be more monologues, if they’re the quality of the speeches delivered here. The writing is so good in these that Beatrice Straight – playing William Holden’s long-suffering wife – won a Best Supporting Oscar for her sole extended scene in the movie.

There are some problems, of course. My major one is Chayefsky once more presenting us with a female character with daddy issues to explain why a young actress winds up in bed with an actor twice her age. He did this in 71’s The Hospital between Diana Rigg and George C. Scott, and here it is again in Network. Whether this is Chayefsky cracking wise about these pairings being insisted upon at the studio level (you shouldn’t have to think too hard to think of a half-dozen similar mismatches in movies), or wish-fulfillment on the writer’s part, I don’t know.

But I was serious about wanting more monologues.

Some Like It Hot (1959)

MPW-78322And speaking of problems…

Everybody loves Some Like It Hot. I certainly did on my first viewing, when I was probably about 10 years old. Billy Wilder, last seen in this project as the director of the solid Double Indemnity was an amazing comedy director, and this movie is pretty much rightfully considered a classic. Yet, in my second viewing, its charms were lost on me.

Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon play two down-on-their-luck musicians in Chicago in the 30s. When their luck dips even lower, causing them to be eyewitnesses at a St. Valentines Day-style massacre, they take the only escape route open to them, masquerading as women in an all-girl band journeying to a gig in Florida. The singer for the band, incidentally, is Marilyn Monroe.

The whole thing is farce, of course, and if you don’t appreciate a good farce, something is wrong with your soul. Curtis, Lemmon and Monroe are all at the top of their game here. So what exactly is wrong with my soul that Some Like It Hot leaves me cold?

Oddly, a lot seems to do with Marilyn Monroe. The lady is gorgeous, the camera loves her, and stories about her neuroses on set are many; Wilder manages to use all these, and Monroe’s character has her share of problems, and seems extremely vulnerable. After having a girl-to-girl talk with her, in his disguise as Josephine, and finding out exactly what sort of guy Marilyn is looking for, Curtis slips into yet another disguise as exactly the sort of guy she’s looking for – rich, but bookish. This intertwines with a truly delectable Joe E. Brown pursuing Lemmon’s female persona – Lemmon grudgingly keeping the billionaire Brown busy while Curtis uses his yacht to seduce Monroe. It’s a farce, folks, it all makes sense because it happens so quickly.

Here’s the thing, though: Curtis is obviously the opposite of rich. His course of action – even though it involves getting Monroe to actually seduce him, rather than vice versa – is doomed to heartbreak from the outset. And as I’ve mentioned, Monroe feels very vulnerable in her role as Sugar Kane Kowalski, so I don’t want to see her hurt.  Inevitably, she is, and Curtis feeling like a dick about it doesn’t help.

Lemmon+Some+Like+it+HotOne of the most interesting aspects of the movie is Lemmon’s character becoming perhaps a little too comfortable in his role as a woman, even to the point of being ecstatic when Brown asks for his/her hand in marriage. It’s 1959, though, so we don’t get to explore this in any way except as wacky comedy. Jack Lemmon was one of America’s finest actors, and I can’t imagine anyone else pulling this off so well.

One of the reasons I like Wilder so much is that he was not afraid of meta humor. Curtis’ rich playboy persona talks like Cary Grant, and a damned good impression, at that. Lemmon practically shrieks at him, “Where did you get that phony accent? Nobody talks like that!” (Cary Grant apparently agreed; when he saw they movie he claimed, “I don’t talk like that!”). George Raft, playing head bad guy Spats Columbo, snatches a coin being tossed in the air from a gunsel, sneering, “Where did you pick up that cheap trick?”

Yeah, I have my favorite little bits, and I’m put in the odd position of recommending something I really didn’t like that much. It’s good enough that I may be wrong. Joe E. Brown is a goddamn gem. And that dress Marilyn is sewn into is just unfair.

The Hustler (1961)

el_buscavidas_1961_8…is another movie I can’t say I particularly enjoyed… but then, I’m not even sure I was supposed to enjoy it.

Paul Newman plays Fast Eddie Felson, a pool shark who one character points out “Shoots good, but shoots lucky.” The match of his young life is against another legend, Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason), a marathon that at its peak sees Eddie triumphant… but his hubris kicks in and he eventually loses everything to the more experienced, systematic Fats, and more importantly, to Fats’ manager Bert Gordon (George C. Scott).

Most people think this movie is all about this match and ultimately the return bout; this is likely due to most of the promotional material, and the charisma of Jackie Gleason. Gleason only has about 20 minutes of screen time, though; most of the movie is Eddie rebounding from this loss, his inability to get any pool action going thanks to Gordon’s network, and a growing relationship with fragile alcoholic Sarah (Piper Laurie); they begin by simply using each other, but definite feelings begin to grow through time and shared experiences, like Eddie having his thumbs broken by Gordon’s thugs.

Gordon turns out to be the snake in this broken Garden of Eden, eventually taking Eddie under his wing and trying to exploit his skills. Turns out Eddie loves pool more than he loves Sarah, and Gordon does what he can to take Sarah out of the picture, to eliminate that distraction, with tragic results. That breaks Gordon hold over Eddie, and produces the final tempering of character that will make the hustler unbeatable.

It’s a character study of some pretty unfortunate characters, but the truly astounding thing is, it gives equal weight to its major characters; this is fully Sarah’s story as much as it is Eddie’s. Were this movie made today, it’s doubtful it would remain so. Piper Laurie is amazing in the role; it was after this movie that she took a 15-year sabbatical from acting to concentrate on her family, returning in 1976 and Carrie. This was  no doubt the right decision for her to make, but watch her performance in The Hustler and then reflect on what we missed out on in that 15 years.

That Obscure Spartacus of Desire

Events have been conspiring against me, as Hamlet would say (in one of those tiresome modern translations my wife purchases for her students).  I did catch That Obscure Object of Desire before Netflix lost the rights to it, then I laid aside three hours to watch Spartacus Friday night. Hey, the IMDb says it’s only two hours, 41 minutes long, that’s plenty of time! Except that, oopsie, what I have is the restored Blu-Ray, which weighs in at three hours, 18 minutes – but it is not a slog by any means.

First things first: That Obscure Object of Desire, Luis Bunuel’s last film. I find myself once again stymied by Bunuel. I’m glad I saw Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie first, as, in a way, it prepared me. Just as the title characters in that earlier film never quite get their meal, Desire‘s protagonist – once again, the wonderful Fernando Rey – will never commiserate his relationship with Conchita, a pretty Spanish girl easily twenty-five years his junior. The reasons why become increasingly odd, an escalation over the course of months, maybe years, with Rey always trying to use his wealth to close the deal.

The most famous device employed in Desire is that Conchita is played by two actresses – Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina – both beautiful in different ways. A lot of brain time gets spent trying to figure out what each actress represents, and they frequently switch within the same scene. Apparently Maria Schneider was going the play the role, alone, but quit – some say simply announcing that she couldn’t play the role the way Bunuel wanted it, some say after a horrendous fight. Some also say, quoting from Bunuel’s memoirs, that he hired one actress on the spot to re-shoot the footage Schneider had already shot, and the other actress later, which doesn’t make a whole hell of a lot of sense; another quote from his book claims he was getting drunk at a bar and trying to figure out how to salvage his movie when the idea of using two actresses hit him.

In all, this confusion and duality of legends is really of a piece with the movie. Rey is relating the tale of his doomed relationship to his traveling companions on a train, which doubtless makes this the very definition of an Unreliable Narrator. Or possibly not, as it has to be said that Rey never has a clue as to what makes Conchita tick, and therefore, neither do we; she seems as mutable as the status of which actress is to play her at any given moment. In that way, I’m going to say that Bunuel has absolutely nailed the befuddlement of any male who has ever said or done the wrong thing and has no clue why it was the wrong thing.  And, like many a man before and since, he is too busy – or too stupid – keeping his eye on the prize to try to figure anything out. He doesn’t want marriage, he wants a mistress, he wants sex. And he always seems this close

Which is grossly simplifying and glossing over much more. Bunuel doesn’t make popcorn movies. He makes movies that engage on many levels, and you must pay attention, if only to see what will astound and confound you next.

And then there is Spartacus.

Ah, Spartacus. No obscure symbolism here. Well, not on the level of Bunuel, anyway. Straightforward, glorious story of the Third Servile War, with some historic jiggery-pokery by Howard Fast in his novel and Dalton Trumbo in his screenplay. Legend has it that Kirk Douglas was royally peeved by not getting the title role in Ben-Hur, and Spartacus was going to by-God show them, producing the movie himself through his Bryna Productions. That’s a big chip to be carrying on your shoulder, and it wasn’t long before Douglas fired the first director, Anthony Mann – apparently the only footage Mann shot that’s still in the finished picture is at the very beginning, in the salt mines. Douglas remembered that guy who directed him before, and that movie turned out pretty well. Stanley Kubrick, and Paths of Glory.

I suppose that could have been a case of Be Careful What You Wish For for Kubrick; he’s at the helm of a big Hollywood picture, but he has no real control. He’s a hired gun, and he doesn’t like it. There were apparently many fractious discussions between Kubrick and Douglas, with Douglas generally getting his way. And the astounding thing is, none of that is on the screen. This is a good, solid movie, still standing head and shoulders above most of the comparatively turgid movies that came out in the Epic Cycle of the 60s. It’s a testament to both men’s ultimate professionalism that this is the case.

Can we all just agree that Charles Laughton owns any movie he's in and just get on with our lives?

Yet I still can’t get over the feeling that it would have been better had Kubrick had more control; there is a scattered quality throughout the narrative, as if the story gets bored with one set of characters and moves quickly from the gladiators to the senate, and then thinks nah, that was a bad idea, and moves back again. Apparently, the high-power stars were re-writing the script daily, to emphasize their own roles. Again, all hail to Kubrick and editor Robert Lawrence for making the movie as cohesive as it is. And what stars! The sort of actors you could likely leave to their own devices, if need be – Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov… Olivier and Laughton were said to hate each other, which Kubrick put to good use. The scenes between Spartacus and Varinia (Jean Simmons), once freed of the gladiator school, feel a little too plastic, too self-consciously Hollywood… at least until the last time we see them together, and, just as in their early scenes, some genuine emotions show.

There is a lot of exceptional detail in the settings, which I’m going to mark on the Kubrick side; and probably my favorite scene takes place before the ultimate battle, as Spartacus’ slave army faces the approaching Roman legions, the masses of men changing formations as they approach the line, preparing for battle, the sun shining off shields. That ain’t CGI, baby, that’s a ton of extras, and it is breathtaking. It’s practically in real-time, with only cuts to Spartacus and Olivier as Crassus on their respective rises, watching the battle lines form. I am put in mind of people bitching about how 2001 is boring because it’s so slooow and waaaaah why can’t something blow up. Phooey on them. Like I said, breathtaking, and in this instance, tension-building in the extreme.

I literally hadn’t seen Spartacus since the mid-60s, and then it was on TV. I remembered only two scenes from it: the Gladiator Instructor painting Spartacus’ body to demonstrate the Quick Kill, Cripple, and Slow Kill zones, and the end, which I thought royally sucked because the hero died. Nowadays, of course, I can see and appreciate more than that. I know now that Howard Fast started writing his novel while he was jailed for refusing to give names to the House UnAmerican Activities Commission, and that screenwriter Dalton Trumbo was still on their blacklist when shooting started; when Crassus starts waving around papers that contain “names of all enemies of the state” there’s a certain bitter, dark resonance to it.

There’s a ton of good stuff in Spartacus; there’s a reason the Criterion Collection once put it out on DVD. The fact that at this remove I can detect the lack of the director’s touch should not deter anyone from seeking it out. As I said, tremendous cast, good story, high production values. Like anything thus far in the Stanley Kubrick Project, I feel quite confident recommending it.

Next up: Lolita about which I have heard some… not-encouraging things. Never seen it, but it does have the look of Kubrick going in exactly the opposite direction from Spartacus as far as he could. Whether or not this is a good thing, we shall see.

I do try to keep an open mind.