Wednesday, May 31, 2006

A Fanny Minafer Moment

"I walked my heels down looking for a place for us to live. I walked and walked over this town. I didn't ride one block on a streetcar. I wouldn't use five cents no matter how tired I was!"

This will be me in a week, in which time I will have completed the Chicago apartment-hunting trip on which I shall embark later today. My partner and I will be blowing around the Windy City from Thursday night until Wednesday evening, chasing a 3BR paragon of rentable real-estate, so burn whatever incense and say whatever prayers you've got that we find something good. If you live in Chicago, keep your fingers crossed that we hit the jackpot quickly, so that we'll have time to call you and hang out while we're there! If you don't hear from us, you can guess that we're turning into this...

...but hopefully that won't happen. In any event, I can't make any guesses about web accessibility where we're staying, or even about how much free time we'll have to use it, so expect light blogging for the week while I'm gone. I'll be so happy when this peekaboo month of May is wrapped, and this party is hopping regularly again!

Images from The Magnificent Ambersons © 1942 RKO Radio Pictures/Mercury Productions, and reproduced from

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

A Robert Langdon Moment

I have found the Holy Grail, and it indeed embodies as well as reflects the glory of the Sacred Feminine... and yet, it doesn't have anything to do with the Priory of Anybody. (Though I must add, having finished The Da Vinci Code earlier in the week, for all its cleverly persuasive culture-jamming of organized religion into a tactical, guilty series of mostly pilfered symbols, I did not enjoy spending the last 149 pages of the book screaming, "It's apple, you lutzes!" I also recognize when I am in the presence of an anagram, because people don't say or write things like "O, Draconian Devil!" Not ever. Perhaps I should go see about becoming a premier cryptologist in France or a world-renowned "Professor of Symbology.")

But anyway. As I was saying: the Holy Grail, the Sacred Feminine. What these terms mean to me is this: I have found the perfect Oscar acting category, The One where every. single. nominee. not only deserved to go home with the prize, but where any of them would have constituted a high-point winner in the history of the category. I speak, of course, of Best Actress 1974. We already knew that Ellen Burstyn made for a delicious, un-begrudgeable winner in Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, and that the undersung Diahann Carroll is a fine, flinty, frisky, fiery force of nature in Claudine (a personal favorite), and that Faye Dunaway offered the last word on haughty, glacial, cornered perversity in Chinatown, and that the incomparable Gena Rowlands practically invented a new form of acting and a new blazon of trip-wired domestic panic in A Woman Under the Influence. Four stellar performances, in four sensational films to boot. Too good to be true, right? Even in comparably stunning acting races—Best Actress 1996 and Best Actor 1999 are two recent, spectacular examples—AMPAS inevitably rounds out the field with a Diane Keaton in Marvin's Room or a Denzel Washington in The Hurricane that, however good and admirable, doesn't seem quite on the miraculous level of their peers. And four miraculous performances is a lot to ask from any Oscar category. Heck, one miraculous performance is a lot to ask from an Oscar category, especially if you've been following Best Supporting Actor the last decade or so.

So: loud, giant hosannas to Valerie Perrine, whose performance in Bob Fosse's carelessly structured and dramatically limited Lenny is yet another home-run in a truly unbelievable field. Perrine outdoes such recent, accomplished avatars as Elisabeth Shue in Leaving Las Vegas, Sharon Stone in Casino, and Courtney Love in The People vs. Larry Flynt—superb performances all of them—in playing a shapely woman for show, a randy, excitable, frequently naked woman who is voluptuous both in figure and emotion, and she convinces us in record time that she is not just loyal but attracted to pint-sized Dustin Hoffman as Lenny Bruce (who, for his part, does a more than credible job in their courtship scenes of looking like the luckiest schlub in the world). Perrine's Honey Bruce strips for a living, she eventually goes to prison for drug possession, and she even gets saddled with Scene 3A.1.9 from movies like this: the tearful phone call from jail. Also 3A.2.16, the melancholy conversation through the thick glass of the inmate visitation booth. She nails both of them, and she's absolutely stunning in a lively, poignant, and very funny sequence when Lenny introduces his blushing, buxom, shiksa wife to his flamboyant, protective mother. As great as Shue, Stone, and Love are, you occasionally catch them playing ideas about their characters rather than the women themselves: a minor slip, and occasionally a fruitful one, and yet Perrine never once invites the charge. It's a much less showy performance than most actors would give in the same part, and yet it bespeaks unflagging energy, and enough interesting rhythm in her line readings, her gestures and postures, and the subtle cloud-drifts in her facial expressions that even Alan Heim's merciless editing doesn't diminish its power. The later, lucid, more settled Honey she creates in the interview scenes, plashed through the film as a temporally unspecific framing device—a structure directly purloined for Shue's benefit in Leaving Las Vegas—is both a very different woman and palpably the same woman, so much so that watching Perrine is like enjoying two rounded, polished, gleaming performances for the price of one.

Perrine won the Best Actress prize at Cannes for this performance, and she was anointed Best Supporting Actress by both the National Board of Review (who gave their lead prize to Rowlands) and the New York Film Critics Circle (who fêted Liv Ullmann up top for Scenes from a Marriage). In truth, I think Perrine's probably is a supporting performance, even though she's afforded a hefty amount of screen time; Honey is indispensable to the movie, but much of the story transpires far away from her, especially in its middle and end sections, which emphasize Lenny's arrests and obscenity trials. The NBR and NYFCC may well have given Perrine the Supporting prize for the very reason that Best Actress was so crowded; if 1974 were today, her agent, noting the slim field that earned Ingrid Bergman a wholly unnecessary trophy for a virtual cameo in Murder on the Orient Express, would surely have pushed for the same treatment, and Perrine might well have won. Then again, since strippers and hookers are even more ubiquitous in the Supporting races than in the Lead category, Perrine handily distinguished herself by landing in such plum company. Too, she was still living down that little tidbit about being the first actress to bare her nipples on PBS, only a year earlier. So it must have felt pretty durned good, sitting there with Gena and Ellen and Diahann and Faye.

And when wouldn't it? That's a magic lineup...the kind that keeps us hopeless, ridiculous Oscar obsessives forever watching over the Academy's shoulder, and peering into its wispy, shimmering horizons, hoping that we'll soon be treated to another brilliant, five-pointed star like this one.

Image © 1974 MGM/UA Pictures.

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Monday, May 29, 2006

Cover Boy

Debuting on newsstands right about now is the new issue of Stop Smiling, the magazine where you'll find my cover-story interview with the phenomenal Scottish film director Lynne Ramsay. Some of my favorite tidbits from the conversation are missing from this transcript—not least the discovery that we love many of the same films, including Safe and A Woman Under the Influence—but I still hope that you'll enjoy the conversation and follow up on her films, including the three dazzling shorts (Gasman, in particular) available on the Ratcatcher DVD. After a week of very high spirits for British cinema, Ramsay's a great rental choice!

Image © 2006 Stop Smiling Magazine, and reproduced from their website.

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Sunday, May 28, 2006

Picked Flick #53: Min and Bill

If, as surely does happen, Oscar-winning actresses congregate in heaven for their own exclusive socials, Marie Dressler sticks out like more than a sore thumb. Here was an actress of such stout frame, heavy brow, and rectangular jaw that she makes Shirley Booth look like Gwyneth Paltrow. By all rights, Dressler should have been too big, too thick for movies, excepting perhaps the Odessa Steps sequence in The Battleship Potemkin; she's a dead ringer for the doomed, outraged giantess who marches her dead child back up toward the marauding soldiers. Somehow, though, in the early 1930s, as the birdlike Lillian Gishes and Mary Pickfords of the silent era passed their torch to the peppy comediennes and glamour goddesses of the studio era, Dressler rose to the absolute top of her profession. More than just a comeback queen, having faded in the wake of antique triumphs like Tillie's Punctured Romance (directed by Mack Sennett in 1914, and co-starring Charlie Chaplin), she emerged as a veritable superstar, briefly without peer. Consider this extraordinary reminder from Matthew Kennedy's terrific biography: "At the time of her death in 1934, Dressler was the most beloved film star in America. According to an August 1933 Time magazine cover story, her films then earned an average of $800,000 each—a sum far exceeding the draw of all other stars. The honor of box-office champion was officially given to her in 1932 and 1933 by the Quigley Publication and the Motion Picture Herald's nationwide poll, which asked 12,000 motion-picture exhibitors to name movie stars with superior earning power. Dressler topped Jean Harlow, Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, and Mickey Mouse. There were Marie Dressler puppets, dresses, fan clubs, and commemorative flowers."

All this for an actress whose alter ego in Min and Bill calls herself an "old sea cow." Typically of Dressler's manner, in this and other films, she utters the line in a tone that registers toughness, good humor, resignation, lucid practicality, a fainter twist of sour than you'd think, and an earnest but highly subliminal invitation to Bill (Wallace Beery), her boarder and possible paramour, to contradict her. He doesn't, but then, he needn't: the rich relationship between this man and this woman is terse, tempestuous, but palpably felt and fully realized. The title figures are not obviously in love, at least not in an obviously romantic way, but they are fully, crucially, almost unquestioningly implicated in each other's lives. They share meals and confidences and barbs. They enjoy liquor together, and nurse each other. They have great, terrible, rocking rows: just watch how Dressler pummels the imposing Beery and knocks him all around a room—and then goes after him with an axe, gutting the door of the closet where he's hiding, in what is obviously not a process shot. Most importantly, they are guardians and protectors of Nancy (Dorothy Jordan), a teenaged girl whom Min has raised after her loose, dypsomaniacal mother Bella Pringle (Marjorie Rambeau) left her as a babe in Min's boarding house. When Bella sallies back into their lives, Bill shares Min's alarm that Nancy may be taken away, but he's also helplessly attracted to this svelte, easy figure. The status quo of this ersatz, fish-smelling family won't stay the same, but how and to whom will Nancy escape, especially now that boys have come calling? Will defending Nancy turn Min against Bill? Is his fascination with Bella a partial rejection of Min? Why is there a slapstick boat chase in this movie, and how does Dressler glide so swiftly from that sort of sequence to the stark poignance of Min walking home, kicking a can along the sidewalk, uncorking huge emotions without seeming to let any out, and avoiding cliché at almost every turn?

Min and Bill, in a deft and efficient 66 minutes, offers a semi-comic spin on the kind of dockside melodrama popularized by Eugene O'Neill in works like Anna Christie (adapted to the screen the same year as Min and Bill, with Dressler in the cast). Something about the wharfs, a perennial locale for late-20s and early-30s cinema, prompted actors, directors, and other artists to crystallize strong, almost rough emotions within concise but deceptively layered story structures. While Min and Bill is less visually poetic than something like Sternberg's The Docks of New York, director George Hill's straightforward style nonetheless serves the material and the actors perfectly. Dressler and Beery clearly connect with the audience and with each other in ways that modern movies rarely ask, and which even the greatest bygone stars seldom achieved. The hefty, exaggerated muscularity of their acting, the very quality that might on the surface seem dated and uningratiating, locates Min and Bill on a subtle, exciting, hugely entertaining, and era-specific intersection between theater and film. Almost everything about Min and Bill is subtly, humbly impressive, and Rambeau's supporting performance is a real livewire, years before the Academy got around to acknowledging second-tier roles. Thank goodness they got it right with Dressler, though. In single moments or shots, her face may seem to work too hard, or her physique may imply a short route into typecasting, but her presence, her choices, her humor, her energy, and her gravity are utterly distinctive, and all to be savored. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

Image © 1930 MGM Films.

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Supporting Actress Sundays: 1942

Later today, StinkyLulu will post the second roundtable installment of his Supporting Actress Sundays feature, profiling the contenders from 1942. (If you're still catching up, you can click here for the basic mission statement of Supporting Actress Sundays, and here to revisit our first group discussion of the 1958 nominees.)

In general, the 1942 crop impresses me much more than the ladies of 1958 did, and in Agnes Moorehead's Fanny Minafer from The Magnificent Ambersons, the category boasts at least one all-time great performance, though Stinky himself registers a provocative and well-argued dissent on that score. Later today, click back over to see how Nathaniel, mainlymovies, myself, and our gracious host rate the honored turns by Moorehead, Gladys Cooper in Now, Voyager, Susan Peters in Random Harvest, Dame May Whitty in Best Picture winner Mrs. Miniver, and the winner in this category, Teresa Wright, also in Mrs. Miniver.

Edited to Add: Nathaniel has duplicated the yummiest, plummiest side-dish of Supporting Actress Sundays by editing a clipreel from the five nominated performances. Savor it! (The end is a hoot.)

Image © 1942 RKO Radio Pictures/Mercury Productions, and reproduced from

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Friday, May 19, 2006

Picked Flick #54: Suddenly, Last Summer

Sometimes even the major, personality-shaping fixations in our lives recede for a while, but then forcefully reassert themselves at unexpected moments. Literally, in this one week, I am experiencing a mini-revival of my Tennessee Williams fandom, on three wholly different fronts. Professionally, as my students pass in their senior thesis projects, I have pulled my own undergraduate thesis out of the mothballs: a structurally daffy, theoretically promiscuous, but mercifully unhumiliating argument about Williams' plays as pre-Foucauldian parables of panoptical social regulation, taking Not About Nightingales as the central text. In a public context, Warner Bros. has just released a seven-disc box-set of films adapted from Williams plays: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Night of the Iguana, The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, Baby Doll (which is actually an original Williams screenplay), Sweet Bird of Youth (a slightly neutered version of one of my favorite plays), and two DVDs devoted to A Streetcar Named Desire, which figured further down on this list. Theologically, today is May 19, which was not Katharine Hepburn's birthday, but it was the day she often cited as her birthday—May 19, 1909, rather than May, 12, 1907—in order to shave two years off of her age.

Suddenly, Last Summer features one of Hepburn's best and steeliest performances, and certainly her most gleamingly villainous. She literally enters the movie from a great height, soaring down in a rococo elevator, spouting redolent mythologies about herself and her dead son Sebastian—the ghostly, depraved Rosebud of this particular mystery. Now get ready for this plot: Hepburn's fabulously venal Violet Venable has called one Dr. Cukrowicz (Montgomery Clift) to her eerie palace in order to persuade him to lobotomize her niece Catharine (Elizabeth Taylor), whose first-hand account of Sebastian's outlandish death has landed her straight in the booby-hatch. Catharine's story is quite a whopper, pivoting on details like pedophilia, prostitution, homosexuality, and cannibalism: it would seem that Sebastian has been gobbled by a ravenous band of young Spanish street-hustlers. Being a Williams play, this Guignol tale is, of course, a benchmark of truth. Instead, it is high society and social institutions that are unmasked as killing lies: the deceptive, carnivorous will of old-money aristocracy, embodied by Hepburn's Violet and her garden of Venus flytraps, and the buyable ethics of modern corporate medicine, represented by the endowment-hungry trustees of Monty's hospital. Granted, political content is not the first thing one might look for in Gore Vidal's mad adaptation of Williams' play, itself as purple as a low-hanging cluster of grapes. The script needlessly and distractingly pads the sensational atmosphere with predictably googly-eyed sanatorium scenes. Clift, recklessly sunk into this maelstrom of insanity, crosses his arms and darts his pupils in several scenes as though he is barely, quietly holding himself together, while his famous pal Liz Taylor sallies forth with her lurid monologues without quite adding much to them. Still, Suddenly, Last Summer fascinates almost as much as it entertains, which is tremendously. Director Mankiewicz, having helmed some of the greatest Hollywood movies about dubious, contested tales (All About Eve, A Letter to Three Wives), cleverly whets our appetite for the naked, bleeding truth, even as his direction of the actors and his gamely bold production design make clear that he is most interested in the nervy climate of repression and panic that surrounds the breech-birth of a horrible family secret. When Mercedes McCambridge, the most proudly perverse of 1950s character actresses, shows up as a fluttering flibbertigibbet, the movie's fruity compote gets even more aromatic and flavorful. It simmers enticingly, and sometimes, gloriously, it boils right over.

In short, if it's camp you want, it's camp you'll get, as when Monty gives a blond male nurse a visible once-over, or when Liz starts struggling with a locked door in the wrong place at the wrong time, triply imprisoned by an iron-barred causeway, an expressionist camera angle, and a triangulated bra. The movie makes it so easy for conservative culture vultures to tear away at it, like the flesh-eating birds that feast on baby sea turtles in one of Hepburn's centerpiece monologues. Tear they did: Suddenly, Last Summer sparked a bonfire of disgusted protest in 1959, but the movie, even more than the play, belongs in that beastly menagerie with Faulkner's Sanctuary, Pasolini's Salò, and Mary Harron's film of American Psycho, aggressively vulgar works in which a hard, proud skeleton of social critique and complex implication is nonetheless palpable, even to viewers as green as I was at age 15, when I first saw the movie. Floating between its scenes of family terrorism, pulsing beneath the shiny enamel of Williams' lyrical prose ("Most people's lives—what are they but long trails of debris, with nothing to clean it up but, finally, death"), triumphing over the drag-revue flourishes like Hepburn's emu-feather hat and Liz's perpetually breathy delivery ("We! pro! cured! for! him!"), there is something remarkably formidable about Suddenly, Last Summer. It makes you chuckle, sometimes against its own interests, but it also lingers like few "better" films ever do, and in that way at least, it's a better Williams film than those bashfully catered affairs that Richard Brooks whipped up out of Cat and Sweet Bird. Just you try flossing it from your mind. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

Image © 1959 Columbia Pictures.

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It Is Risen!

Speaking of resurrections, Michele Soavi's existentialist, zombie-filled horror-comedy Cemetery Man will finally debut on DVD in less than three weeks, on June 13. You all know that I love this movie, and though Nick's Flick Picks generally eschews all offers to, in the words of Lloyd Dobler, "sell anything, buy anything, or process anything," I am more than happy at the request of Anchor Bay Entertaiment to help escort the absurdist, Italian undead into your living room and onto your DVD shelf. (Now if only we could get Rupert Everett into our living rooms...)

Deep Discount DVD, my favorite on-line DVD retailer, is already taking advance orders for $11.99. How can you beat that, and why would you want to?


I'm a Late Bird...

I was walking into my office today at 2:20pm, amid a quick, jewel-toned moment of sunlight between rain-showers, and I noticed a robin perched on the side of the Lower Walk through campus, placidly enjoying a worm. I say again, 2:20pm. This is my kind of bird: he didn't wake up early, and he still got his.

I've decided to take him as a personal totem for my return to my web-writing duties, now that my grades are finally all filed. (Lulu, I hope you're feeling the same!) I've got almost a dozen theatrical releases to report on, #54 in the countdown to post, the fabulous new Tennessee Williams DVD Collection to review, Supporting Actress Sunday to keep pace with, a belated but heartfelt Happy Birthday! to broadcast, the Cronenberg corpus to debate, and many more DVDs and books piled around the apartment to wade my way through, blissfully, gluttonously, like a pig, as they say, in ————.

Don't call it a comeback!

Image reproduced from

Thursday, May 11, 2006

The Last Supper

This just in: I am not dead. Even better, I am finally riding an inland wave, away from the whirlpool of end-of-semester activity. Aside from grading, my last big obligation before tying a bow on the term is a dinner I am hosting tonight for my graduate students, which is doubling as our last class. It's my first gig at making food for 12 people at once (so I'll be channeling Dr. S, findfinishfreedom, The Boyfriend, and the other accomplished kitchen wizards who frequent these parts). There's also a certain poetic symmetry to the event, since we're gathering to discuss our last book for the course, Reading Lolita in Tehran, which itself is about a group of graduate-age students who convene regularly at a professor's house to discuss literature. So now I have to cook, clean, and (um) finish the book.

I'll be back, though, to resume the favorite films countdown, and to report on my recent reimmersion into the moviegoing world: most recently with the jazzy street politics of Dave Chappelle's Block Party, the outré pleasures of Matthew Barney's Drawing Restraint 9, and David Jacobson's promising and yet intensely frustrating Down in the Valley. Stay tuned!

Image reproduced from the website for Sugar's Uptown Cabaret in Austin, TX.


Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Free Fallin'

The most fun internet toy that's been called to my attention in quite a while. He'll fall for hours, forever. Even when he gets squished or stuck, you can drag him up and fling him all around. Be creative. It's not voodoo, but it's the next best thing, and safe for the kids.

Monday, May 01, 2006

One Night in Heaven

If you're looking for a working definition of nirvana in 14 syllables, try this: "Days of Heaven in restored 35mm." I have never seen this film on the big screen before; in fact, I probably haven't watched my video copy in three or four years. I ask you then: is there any better feeling than seeing a vaunted classic that is also a treasured favorite, and discovering that it's even more august and haunting and layered and imaginative than you had recalled? From those opening rainwater arpeggios and the sere, sepia photographs that dissolve into each other beneath the serifs of the titles, the film is a masterpiece even by comparison to most masterpieces. My response to the film, my immersion in its images, sounds, and tensions, were things that I felt in my body, my fingers and chest. I literally pressed my toes into the rubber soles of my shoes when Richard Gere shoveled that first mound of coal into that belching, blazing stove, and then dug in my heels, too, as he accosted his foreman. The scenes of threshing the wheatfield and of fighting off the swarming locusts stirred me at an almost glandular level. It's that kind of movie, a sensory state into which you accede, entirely.

Moments before I headed into the 7:30 showing, I learned from an e-mail that by tomorrow morning, I have to generate a list of texts for a 20th-century American literature survey course I'll be teaching next Spring. This seemed like a tall order, but then watching Days of Heaven conjured every thought and feeling I've ever had about this country and its distinctive ways of remembering, tilling, loving, divorcing, stratifying, illuminating, and abandoning itself. The whole syllabus suddenly came to me in a flash, as did ideas for two other courses I'd never even considered. Funny how the creative vision of a genuine artist can awaken and elevate a dormant brain into such sudden and wide-ranging epiphanies.

Image © 1978 Paramount Pictures, reproduced here.

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