Monday, November 21, 2011

Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) - Directed by Robert Wise

Foreword: I must point out I'm indebted to Tony D'Ambra's review of this film (linked here), as he was the inspiration to see this film in the first place. I can't even hope to add any sort of new idea to the fold, but I do want to emphasize my admiration for both Tony's review and for the film.

In Robert Wise’s fatalistic film, written by blacklisted screenwriter Abraham Polonsky, we see the ugliness and dark side of film noir, not just in a cinematic way, but in a socially destructive way. It stars Harry Belafonte as Johnny, a night club entertainer who’s in debt to the mob due to his gambling addiction, and Robert Ryan as Earle, a racist con-man who is desperate for cash and respect from his wife Lorry, played by Shelley Winters. Ex-cop, Dave, played by Ed Begley recruits both men for a heist job he has been planning (which will set them up nicely for many years) in a small town in the Hudson Valley of New York. He needs both men, but when Earle finds out his partner for the heist will be a black man, he’s completely against it.  Realizing his desperation, though, he decides to reluctantly join the plan. Johnny is not without his racial prejudices either, turning the film into a socially potent film noir. Premonitions of violent gunplay in the presence of kids playing with squirt guns on the street presages the violent climax.

Robert Ryan and Harry Belafonte give brilliant performances as two men who can hardly stand each other, but attempt to set aside their prejudices for the greater good of the heist. As in all heist films, the set-up is terribly important. Shooting in small town, upstate NY, the cinematography by Joseph C. Brun during several sequences in the film is simply stunning of the Hudson River and the mountains in the background. During the actual heist itself, there is a wonderful choreography of sequences that stir up the suspense, as we realize before the robbers do, that something is about to go wrong. There is a deep sense of melancholic fatalism at work in the film. We sense early on that both of these men have ugly personality issues and are doomed. Earle cheats on his wife, has a violent streak, and has a deep sense of self pity that does not flatter him. His racism is the icing on the cake. Johnny is not much better. He’s cheated on his wife, gambles too much, and is no longer living at home. Although he visits his daughter and takes her to the park, he’s distracted by threatening mobsters who want cash. His racism seems more born out of self defense and prior history,  but it’s racism nonetheless. Ed Begley’s Dave is the only one that can keep Johnny and Earle from tearing each other apart.

Wise chose to film in standard aspect ratio, shunning the oncoming neo-noir aesthetic for a more traditional look, while still maintaining an aura of cool. His work on editing Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) seemed to have influenced him quite a bit, as the use of deep focus, low angle and Dutch angle shots are very Welles-ian, but they’re used here to striking, not gaudy effect. Of particular note is the chase around the fuel tanks and pipes at the end, as shadow, harsh light, and odd depth-of-field emphasize the paranoiac dread. Wise’s film is deeply realist in nature, containing neither heroes nor anti-heroes for that matter. It’s simply ugly people playing the ugly game of life and losing.

Wise continues to impress me, with work across multiple genres, something that other American directors, like Sam Fuller and Anthony Mann did. After working on film noirs, westerns, and sci-fi films, Wise made a huge name for himself with the stupendous West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965). What I notice about all his films, is the deep respect for the audience. I know some don't agree with that! I think he gives us what we can believe in. Film noirs like The Set-Up (1949) and Odds Against Tomorrow allow the audience to believe these are real people making fatal decisions. In West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965), despite the cinematic unreality of musicals, Wise captures the sincerity of the characters, which makes us feel that these musical worlds are much like ours, containing people we believe in and admire. If you can make masterpieces in the film noir and musical genres, there’s a real understanding for what makes movies tick.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Red Desert (1964) - Directed by Michaelangelo Antonioni

Were it not for Michaelangelo Antonioni’s early 1960’s output, he would probably make my all-time top 5 most overrated directors. As it is, he is saved from such a fate through a string of 4 films that all examine the same thing: spiritual, emotional, and relational alienation. His “alienation” trilogy of L’Avventura (1960), La Notte (1961) and L’Ecclise (1962) introduced his major themes of concern and his major muse, Monica Vitti. We tend not to include Red Desert in this grouping, but we might as well have, and called it a "quadrilogy" of sorts. In fact, I would argue that Red Desert is the culmination of the themes that he was exploring and the highest form of visual and thematic expression that he would ever achieve. In his following movies, Blow-Up (1966), Zabriskie Point (1970), The Passenger (1975), he began a decline stemming from a self-indulgent pretense that bordered on near self-parody. Can I blame him though? Where can one go after Red Desert?

Red Desert is unabashedly a pretentious film at heart, but this is not unlike many great works of art. Monica Vitti stars as Giuliana, mother of a young boy and wife of Ugo (Carlo Chionetti) who runs a huge, industrial plant, of which I’m not sure what it produces or refines, but it’s a network of steam release valves, rusted silos, and produces all kinds of waste that, along with the rest of the nearby industrial jungle, pollutes the water and air in abundance. Antonioni shot the film in northern Italy in and amongst real industrial power plants. These are real places, but they don't feel like it. They feel otherworldly. Adding to this odd dimension is the soundtrack that reminds me of the kind of blips and drones that might as well have come from the sci-fi film The Forbidden Planet (1956). But, Antonioni clearly wants us to recognize the tortured and pained reality of this world, even though green grass looks out of place in the polluted landscape.

Giuliana, we are told, had a car accident one month prior, and her husband feels that she is still in some state of shock, as he confides to fellow plant supervisor Corrado (Richard Harris). In fact, she is. We are introduced to her as she walks with her son across the wasteland around the factory. She strangely pays a man for a half-eaten sandwich, and we immediately realize that she is not right. While visiting her husband’s plant, she meets Corrado, and they soon develop a strange affair. It doesn’t involve sex at first. Rather the extent of their relationship involves confiding to each other what is eating at their souls. She opens up to Corrado and admits that in the hospital she became lost, losing touch with herself and has been unable to retrieve her soul from the proverbial abyss. Corrado is less estranged from humanity, but is fearful of the world and cannot remain still, prodded to transience. Red Desert examines their soulless existence with urgency and remorse. She cannot fathom loving anyone, nor anyone loving her. She wants to connect, but lacks the spiritual and emotional center she needs to do so. When later in the film Giuliana goes over the edge due to her son’s faking a major illness, she and Corrado are thrown together in the most dispassionate of ways in a feigned attempt at comfort.

This was Antonioni’s first film in color. Red Desert is filled with a near continual barrage of striking images, often with primary colors contrasting with bleak grays and browns. It's one of the most visually expressive films ever made. Nearly any shot could make a striking photograph or painting, something which has been noted by many. Additionally, notice the way that fog insists on being both part of the imagery and part of the enveloping malaise and disconnectedness of the characters. In fact, this is a film where the imagery and thematic/psychological elements parallel each other directly. Much like Anthony Mann’s westerns, like The Naked Spur (1953), or Kurosawa’s Dodes’ka-den (1970), Red Desert uses the environment to deeply reflect and ultimately enhance the psychosis of the characters within that environment. Red Desert’s industrial and toxic wasteland is Antonioni's fully realized metaphor for the polluted and alienated modern soul. This for me is what elevates Red Desert above all of Antonioni’s films. Although L’Avventura and others cover the same ground (poetically in fact), it appears to me that Antonioni reached his zenith of expression in Red Desert and laid down his manifesto.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

My Top 50 Musicals

In honor of the impending conclusion of the Wonders in the Dark Top 70 Musicals Countdown, hosted and championed by the amazing Sam Juliano (who so graciously invited me to submit two posts to the countdown), I've decided to post my own Top 50 Musicals. I spent a good chunk of my summer catching up on all things musical, and both revisiting some old favorites and seeing many musicals I had never seen before, seeing 28 musicals in all. I also participated daily in the comments at the site and really enjoyed the banter and the education that went along with the countdown. What did I learn? I learned that I enjoy musicals much more than I ever thought I did and I'm far more educated now in the subject than 6 months ago. I've still got some learning to do. My exposure to Opera films and some foreign musicals is not as good as it could be. My own personal issues with Maurice Chevalier is also somewhat of a detractor on several films as well. But, all in all, I feel pretty proud of my own top 50. I will say that I think it's a mix of traditional and accepted classics, some different choices, as well as some campy and/or guilty pleasures. Let me know what you think!

I should start with what my own definition of a "Musical" is, just so we're all clear:

"A film that uses music, dance, or song to conceptually further the plot, emotions, character development or general impression of the film when said music, dance or song is performed or perceived to be performed and is considered to be a main crux of the film."

1. The Sound of Music (1965)
2. Singin' in the Rain (1952)
3. The Wizard of Oz (1939)
4. Swing Time (1936)
5. Cabaret (1972)
6. A Star is Born (1954)
7. A Hard Day's Night (1964)
8. Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
9. 42nd Street (1933)
10. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)
11. An American in Paris (1951)
12. West Side Story (1961)
13. Moulin Rouge! (2001)
14. Mary Poppins (1964)
15. Beauty and the Beast (1991)
16. Funny Girl (1968)
17. On the Town (1949)
18. The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
19. Fiddler on the Roof (1971)
20. Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)
21. Easter Parade (1948)
22. The Music Man (1962)
23. The Band Wagon (1953)
24. Top Hat (1935)
25. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)
26. Yellow Submarine (1968)
27. Once (2006)
28. Oliver! (1968)
29. Dancer in the Dark (2000)
30. Funny Face (1957)
31. The Red Shoes (1949)
32. Fantasia (1940)
33. Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)
34. The Smiling Lieutenant (1931)
35. Kiss Me Kate (1953)
36. The Little Mermaid (1989)
37. Footlight Parade (1933)
38. Coal Miner's Daughter (1980)
39. Oklahoma! (1955)
40. Annie (1982)
41. My Fair Lady (1964)
42. The Blue Angel (1930)
43. Amadeus (1984)
44. White Christmas (1954)
45. Pinocchio (1940)
46. Grease (1978)
47. Cabin in the Sky (1943)
48. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
49. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)
50. Lili (1953)

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Swing Time (1936) - Directed by George Stevens

Note: This essay of Swing Time appears here in the Wonders in the Dark Top 70 Musicals Countdown, coming in at #6.

I sat down with my 3-year old daughter the other day and invited her to watch a dancing scene from Swing Time with me. She’s very interested in dance these days and taking a class (ballet) so I figured I would show her. It was the scene where Fred and Ginger are doing the “Pick Yourself Up” number, which is a boisterous dance. My daughter asked me a few questions about the movie at first as Fred and Ginger were talking, but she was mostly entranced and watched the scene with me in silence during the dance itself. I know it sounds simple, but I realized for the first time that dancing requires little explanation or greater understanding of context and/or plot to really understand it. It is truly a physical communication to those of us in the audience. Even small children instinctively know how to dance. It's not something you have to teach them. Dancing speaks to us on an instinctive level, and there never was, nor will there ever be another dancing duo like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, whose chemistry and artistry remain unsurpassed.

Swing Time is arguably Fred and Ginger’s greatest film. I know that Top Hat (1935) has lots of admirers (myself being one) but I think Swing Time has a bit more emotion working for it and in that way, is a bit of a departure. Director George Stevens may have had something to do with the film's different feel compared to the Mark Sandrich films. But, like all the Astaire-Rogers films, Swing Time has a plot that is mostly fluff, and usually only serves to get the stars from one song/dance number to the next. In this one, Astaire plays John “Lucky” Garnett, member of a dance troupe, who also has a penchant for gambling. On his wedding day following a dance show, his friends hold him up, causing him to miss the wedding, whereby he is told by his father-in-law-to-be, that he must make it big in the dance business and only then will he allow him to marry his daughter. With his friend, "Pop" (Victor Moore), they ride the rails to NYC, where through a chance encounter on the street, Lucky meets Penny (Ginger Rogers), who is a dance school instructor. Most of the film that follows is filled with the usual contrivances: mistaken intentions, love triangles etc. It’s all second fiddle anyway to the song and dance in the film.

Of late, I've been trying to gain a greater understanding of Fred Astaire's talent and artistry. Few people debate his solo dancing, which is rather tremendous. What I've noticed though, is his chemistry with other dancers besides Ginger Rogers is a mixed bag. Oh sure he worked with some of the most beautiful women and/or technically gifted dancers of the Hollywood era: Rita Hayworth, Cyd Charisse, Vera-Ellen, Eleanor Powell etc. But most of them are too perfect in a way. They seem to be going through the motions of the dances with Astaire (who tends to be a perfectionist anyway) and the chemistry with Astaire suffers for it. Something is missing. That something is Ginger Rogers. Arlene Croce in her Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book writes that Ginger Rogers “brought out his (Fred’s) toughness and also his true masculine gallantry.” In John Mueller’s Astaire Dancing: The Musical Films, he writes, “Rogers was outstanding among Astaire’s film partners not because she was superior to the others as a dancer but because, as a skilled, intuitive actress, she was cagey enough to realize that acting did not stop where dancing began.” What I believe made the pairing so remarkable, was their onscreen commitment to the dancing in whatever way they knew how. Fred’s perfectionism and trained excellence paired well and contrasted with Ginger’s ability to project independence and something resembling improvisation while they danced. What she lacked in formal training, Ginger made up with guts and know-how, which brought her sexiness and confidence to the foreground in their films together, elevating their dances.

There are three Astaire-Rogers dance sequences in Swing Time, my favorites being “Pick Yourself Up” and “Never Gonna Dance”, both of which arise out of the plot. In “Pick Yourself Up”, Lucky has just made himself look like a terrible dancer on purpose in front of Penny in the dance school. She gets fired because of it, and Lucky tells the director that she in fact is a great teacher and he proceeds to dance his heart out with Penny in a number that may be the most exuberant number they ever performed. What I love about the scene is the way that Ginger appears shocked and surprised at how well Astaire's character can dance. She sells this expression during the opening moments of the number, and this is an example of how her acting continued during the dance sequences. There are great changes in rhythm in the scene and it’s my favorite example of just how joyful these two could be onscreen. I also get the impression from watching this dance that Astaire and Rogers project an attitude: They're good and they know it. I've attached the video here....

Their final dance is “Never Gonna Dance”, which is performed after Lucky feels he has lost Penny to another man and is his plea to her that he may love again, but he’s never gonna dance with another. This dance is performed with deeply felt emotion. He slowly convinces her to begin the dance after they walk around each other for a bit. Then they part and as she walks away, he grabs her and she whirls around to face him. Their bodies throb with synchronicity and reluctance, like some passionate love affair between two people who are not supposed to be together. It’s hard not to become engulfed in the dance’s emotive and physical allure. It’s probably the most passionate and sexy dance Astaire and Rogers ever did. Famously during this scene, which had to be filmed in more than forty-eight takes, Rogers’ feet had terrible blisters and began bleeding during the shooting. In her book, Ginger: My Story, she writes, "I never said a word about my own particular problem. I kept on dancing even though my feet really hurt. During a break, I went to the sidelines and took my shoes off; they were filled with blood. I had danced my feet raw. Hermes saw what had happened and offered to stop the shooting. I refused. I wanted to get the thing done. Finally, we got a good take in the can, and George said we could go home -- at 4:00 A.M." 

Astaire has a tremendous solo dance in the film, but it is one sequence that must be addressed with special context. It is the “Bojangles of Harlem” number, which Astaire performs in blackface. Traditional blackface was of course laced with prejudices and highly caricatured performances. But, this sequence in the film, as noted by many critics and historians, is a clear homage to the great African-American tap-dancer, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, someone whom Astaire greatly admired. Moreover, Astaire also pays tribute during the scene to another great dancer of the time, John Bubbles, an African-American tap dancer who in fact taught Astaire a thing or two later in his career. In Levinson’s Puttin' on the Ritz, he documents an interview from the 1960’s that Bubbles gave which regards a tap lesson he once gave to Astaire, which highlights Fred’s regard for Bubbles: “It was on the stage at the Ziegfeld Theatre. He paid me four hundred dollars. He couldn’t catch the dancing as quick as Ann Miller, though, so I taught her so she could teach him to save time for them…..I gave them heely-toes, cramps, stomps, heely-toe turns, and cramp rolls.” It’s interesting to note that Astaire’s make-up is not the black, burnt-cork type, but a lighter brown color. My only complaint with the scene is the prop of the giant sole of the shoe with the large lips and bowler hat that I personally find offensive. But, the dance and performance are clearly not. In fact, it may be Astaire’s greatest solo dance sequence ever put on film, including some astounding, rapid-fire tap sequences and a brilliant, three-shadow back-projection effect behind Astaire as the shadows try to keep up with him. This sequence rightly earned the great choreographer Hermes Pan a Best Dance Direction Oscar nomination. If interested, for some added context around blackface, I point us to Spike Lee’s Bamboozled (2000), which takes a unique approach, both historically and conceptually to address blackface in its many forms.

Outside of the famous dancing in the film, there are also a couple of great songs as well. With music by Jerome Kern and lyrics by Dorothy field, their songs “The Way You Look Tonight” and “A Fine Romance”, both became huge hits and standards throughout the years. “A Fine Romance” is performed in a wonderful and memorable set-piece with Astaire and Rogers in a winter wonderland of snow, with snowflakes falling all around them. “The Way You Look Tonight”, one of the most beautiful songs Astaire ever sang, has a touch of irony in the scene, as Astaire sings on the piano, while Rogers has her hair covered in shampoo suds in the bathroom. She comes out to meet him at the end of the song and totally forgets she hasn’t rinsed her hair. It’s a sweet and funny moment.

Despite their amazing chemistry, Astaire and Rogers might not actually have liked that they were paired together in so many films. Famously Astaire wrote to his agent, Leland Hayward after the The Gay Divorcee (1934) became a hit: “What’s all this talk about being teamed with Ginger Rogers? I will not have it Leland – I did not go into pictures to be teamed with her or anyone else, and if that is the program in mind for me I will not stand for it……if I’m ever to get anywhere on the screen it will be as one not as two”. Ginger in a BBC interview in 1987 said this: “We were a team. He didn’t do it by himself, Fred was not my Svengali. A lot of people think he was. I was very much my own woman.” Whether they got along or not, what’s amazing is that they were able to be professionals during the onscreen performances to the point of creating immense chemistry, be it through a heated rivalry or common goals of success, despite whatever differences they had. Swing Time is their final great pairing and perhaps the culmination of all their work throughout the years prior to this film. Their dancing here feels especially perfectly timed, creative, and in the final dance, terrifically passionate. What they left the movie-world will forever be remembered fondly and their beautiful dancing will always retain its charm and elegance.