Playing Catch-Up

Well here we are at the end of the year. I have three more work-related obligations to get nailed down, and then I am an indolent layabout through the rest of the year (alright, more of an indolent layabout. Fine.). Trust me, if I could, I would knock out those three things bang bang bang, but – as you know – such things are dependent on time-space coordinates and other people. So here I am, in between bursts of housekeeping and letter writing, biding my time.

So let me waste some of yours.

I watched some movies, when I wasn’t working or madly re-writing my post on The Seven Samurai. Let’s talk about those.

The Last of Sheila (1973)

lastposterThere are Bucket List movies, and then there are… I guess you could call them Pail List movies? Movies you don’t have to see before you die, but you’ve heard some halfway decent things about them, and maybe you might want to look them up sometime? I honestly don’t remember this having much of a theatrical release, but I do remember it being reviewed in Creem magazine, of all places, which is probably what placed it on the… Pail List. Anyway, during one of Warner Archive’s sales, I picked it up.

James Coburn plays Clinton Green, a megalomaniacal Hollywood producer whose wife, the titular Sheila, was a victim of a hit-and-run homicide a year previous. Green invites several of his colleagues – all of whom were at the party leading up to the incident – on a week-long voyage on his yacht, during which they will play a devious scavenger-hunt game of his own devising. The yacht, incidentally, is named Sheila.

All of the participants are variously down on their luck in the star-maker machinery, and the cast is pretty amazing – Richard Benjamin, Dyan Cannon, Joan Hackett, James Mason, Raquel Welch, and Ian McShane. Green is an exceptionally clever, but sadistic asshole, and his guests must play along to curry his favor, with the hope of some payout or work at the end, even if they are unsure as to what the ultimate purpose of his game may be… but that ultimate purpose is put into question when Green himself winds up dead.

The-Last-of-Sheila-Cast-Herbert-Ross-1973The Last of Sheila feels like an NBC Mystery Movie of the same vintage, without a continuing detective character. The dialogue is lot more sardonic and the twists and turns a bit more clever, thanks to a script by… Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins?!?! The plot becomes pretty byzantine, and I think at least one ball is dropped, but the script is so agile I can’t be sure unless I watch the movie again, and therein lies a problem.

For the first time in my fairly long relationship with Warner Archive, I got a lemon of a disc. My blu-ray player choked on the layer change (which occurs just at the point that Green’s murder is discovered) and I had to use the chapter stop to get to the scene afterwards. I don’t think I missed that much, as there are several flashbacks when the surviving party members make with the detectin’, but I can’t be sure.

Also, the spoiler in the box back copy wasn’t cool, guys. It wasn’t subtle at all.

The Green Pastures (1936)

green pasturesWarner Archive, though, remains one of my favorite boutique labels, because without them, I would never have the opportunity to see cultural oddities like this. The Green Pastures was based on a highly successful play by Marc Connelly (winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1930!), which was in turn based on a short story collection called “Ol’ Man Adam and His Chillun”. The framing story takes place in a black Sunday School in the Depression South, where a parson discusses the Bible with the children – the vast majority of the movie is a recreation of the high points of the Old Testament in the children’s minds.

Despite Warner’s disclaimer at the very beginning that The Green Pastures is “a product of its time”, there are a lot of folk who would turn their back on this movie almost immediately. The very first of the biblical scenes, taking place in a heaven presented as an eternal fish fry with endless ten-cent cigars is going to provoke a lot of eye-rolling and face-palming. But then Rex Ingram shows up as “De Lawd” and the proceedings suddenly become less childlike and more reverent.

The Green Pastures takes us from the creation of Man (appropriately, Adam is also played by Ingram), through Noah and the Great Flood, Moses and the Flight from Egypt, ending up at last with the Crucifixion – and the theology gets surprisingly complex. The simplistic, childlike approach will continue throughout, as Noah (a marvelous pre-Rochester turn by Eddie Anderson) is beleaguered by dice-throwing gangsters; Moses is given the power of “a trickster” by De Lawd to confront a Pharaoh surrounded by secret societies and lodges straight out of  the more cartoonish Laurel and Hardy movies. It’s the Porgy and Bess version of the Scriptures, and it is quite something to see.

But as I said, the theology gets complex. De Lawd is constantly disappointed and puzzled by his creation, especially after wiping nearly all of them out once, and they still insist on going bad; eventually De Lawd turns his back on Man and falls into depression, much to the dismay of the assembled angels. The biggest surprise (to me) is that Jesus does crop up at the very end, but not as the Son of God; instead, in God’s darkest hour of despair, he appears as a sign that Man is capable of Getting It Right, and De Lawd returns to his previous, beatific happiness.

the-green-pasturesSay what you will, this is one of the very, very few studio films with an all-black cast, and a lot of actors get to shine in something beside Stepin Fetchit comic relief roles. Rex Ingram, in particular, only got to shine a few times – here, and in the 1938 Huckleberry Finn as Jim, and The Thief of Bagdad as the sardonic genie. Apparently, the original plan was to have Al Jolson play the role in blackface, which is as wrong-headed and idiotic an idea as I can possibly imagine. This movie would have actually deserved all the opprobrium leveled against it for the wrong reasons (Paul Robeson was also offered the role, which would have been amazing, but he turned it down). Ingram is a winning blend of serenity, gravitas, and quiet power – one literally cannot conceive of the movie without his presence.

But the most telling thing in Warner Archive’s package is the trailer: nearly four minutes of Dick Powell and Marc Connelly telling us how great and important a movie it is. No blacks are ever shown except in a long shot., at a safe remove from the audience.

The Swimmer (1968)

the swimmerSo how best to follow that up than with the whitest movie I have ever seen?

Burt Lancaster plays Ned Merrill, a middle-aged man who decides that he will get home by swimming through a man-made river of swimming pools in a suburban enclave of wealth and privilege. Where exactly Merrill is coming from as he dives into the first pool is never revealed, another piece in the puzzle that is The Swimmer – we only know that the people are delighted to see him, and he has been away for a while.

As I said, this is a puzzle, and we are going to be given more pieces as the picture progresses. Merrill has been gone for at least a year, yes, and we find out that he was fired unceremoniously from his high-powered job at an “agency”. As he gets closer to his destination, he journeys from the land of the truly rich to the nouveau riche and finally into the land of the working schlubs (his last pool is the local municipal pool, with many rules and too much chlorine); resentment at his presence at scorn at his fallen status grows, even as his constant references to his happy marriage and loving children begin to take on the flavor of “the lady doth protest too much, methinks.” This leads to a gut-punch of a surprise – though not entirely unexpected – ending.

film-aspect-ratio-levelsThis is the Death of The American Dream as Twilight Zone episode, though Rod Serling would have put more of a keener edge on it, more of a stark moral. In the (as usual) exhaustive and informative extras on the Grindhouse Releasing blu-ray, we find that the production was a troubled one, and star Lancaster, who apparently felt this was one of his best roles, later said that the movie really needed a Fellini (or more likely, his pal Visconti) to actually pull it off well. This is a possibility – there is a level of grotesquerie that is lacking a sense of commitment in this story.

Director Frank Perry’s previous success was his first movie, the equally oddball love story David and Lisa. He would go on to more successful pictures like Diary of a Mad HousewifeRancho Deluxe and Mommie Dearest, but his doom was probably ensured when producer Sam Spiegel got Burt Lancaster for the lead (after being turned down by William Holden, Paul Newman and George C. Scott). Lancaster was eager for the role, learning to swim from Olympic coach Bob Horn (reportedly, Lancaster was afraid of water before this movie), and undergoing a strenuous physical regimen that slimmed him down while still producing twenty pounds of muscle. Critics may not have liked the movie, but they all praised the star’s physique.

He also started directing the movie behind Perry’s back.

The-Swimmer-1968-Movie-2The most famous instance of this is in Joan River’s debut scene, as a woman who encounters Merrill during the aforementioned nouveau riche Binswanger’s pool party (where no one is using the pool for swimming except Merrill). The scene lasts perhaps three minutes, and took seven days to film, Rivers attempting to follow both men’s direction. Eventually, Perry was fired from the director’s chair, and Lancaster prevailed upon his friend, Sydney Pollack, to re-shoot one sequence completely, and to add several more scenes.

The actual best scene – well, my favorite, anyway – involves Merrill hitching a ride in a limo to one exceptionally rich mansion, and finding to his surprise that the chauffeur is not “Steve”, and manages to have a complete conversation with the replacement without once asking his name. Bernie Hamilton is the replacement, only the second black we will see in the movie – the first being a bartender at a party – and his terse, restrained and resigned scene with Lancaster speaks volumes about how he feels about his place in this world. That one scene calls bullshit on the rest of the movie most effectively and efficiently.

the-swimmer-1968-790x587Still, the most effective condemnation of all this is in the extras – and I must admit that this may only be due to my jaundiced eye. There are many, many interviews, of course, but the ones I am concentrating on are with Joan Rivers and Janet Landgard, who plays Julie, a young girl who confesses to a childhood crush on Merrill that the man proceeds to totally misinterpret, giving us an early glimpse into his mental problems. Landgard had a continuing role(s) on The Donna Reed Show and this was her theatrical debut, an absolutely perfect avatar of a young blonde suburban girl, just entering into womanhood. She had since left Hollywood and was working at something awesome like managing scientific bases in the Antarctic (so numerous are the extras I don’t have time to scan back and verify that, but it was impressive enough to make me say, “Good on you!”). Rivers, of course, went on and became quite the enduring presence in Lala Land.

Both ladies’ interview segments are interspersed with clips from the movie. Both women have changed significantly in the intervening years, of course. The difference is that Landgard allowed herself to age, while Rivers, ever mindful of Hollywood, has had her face plasticized and botoxed to near-immobility – probably the best indictment of the lifestyle The Swimmer was trying, however unsuccessful ultimately, to condemn.

The Magic Flute (1975)

magic fluteOkay, one more before I put this to bed.

This is Ingmar Bergman’s TV adaptation of Mozart’s famous opera. I am going to freely admit that opera is one of those art forms I just do not get, but if there is one thing I have developed in these last few years of cinematic horizon-broadening, it is a deep love for Bergman, and the trust this engendered. This was a dream project for him, so I surrendered myself to Bergman’s dream, and did not regret it one bit.

The Magic Flute isn’t pure opera, it’s a form of it called Songspiele, which incorporates spoken dialogue. Bergman attempted to duplicate the theatrical experience, right down to having a facsimile of the original 1791 theater built in a studio of the Swedish Film Institute. The overture is illustrated with the expectant faces of the audience.

My lack of operatic knowledge worked soundly in my favor. I went into this knowing nothing about the opera, so every plot twist, every character beat and nuance was completely new to me. Tamino, a handsome prince lost in a strange land, if tasked by the Queen of the Night to rescue her daughter,  Pamina, from the evil sorcerer, Sarastro. He will be assisted by the fowler, Papageno, who wants nothing more than a girlfriend. The Queen gives Tamino the Magic Flute of the title, and Papageno a set of magic bells.

Film_71w_MagicFlute_originalThe major twist (spoilers for an 18th century opera, dude) is that Sarastro is actually Pamina’s father, and he is no sorcerer, but a respected holy man hoping to not only free Pamina from the evil influence of her mother, but also deliver all mankind from evil. Tamino, he feels, will prove to the active agent of this change, but only if he can survive the ordeals suffered by every member of Sarastro’s priesthood, and an ultimate test that he will face along with Pamina and the power of the Flute.

Bergman’s staging is magical – there are occasional glimpses of backstage activities, and the sets fluidly expand to impossible vistas as the story progresses, moving back and forth between the physical confines of an actual theater and the larger expanses of the imagination. The Magic Flute also gives me something I had not been aware I craved in the few operas I have attended: intimacy, in the form of canny close-ups and camera moves.

The Magic Flute has some notoriously difficult passages; Mozart wrote these for singers he knew and their particular strengths. The singers here – some of the best Sweden had to offer – tackle the music with relish, and as the first TV movie recorded in stereo sound, the presentation is quite luscious.

Here’s an example of the playful staging, with Papageno’s entrance and first song:

That’s a high point to leave you on, here. Hopefully, back soon with more blathering, because I’ve certainly watched more movies.