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Tuesday with Shirley July 23, 2008

Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, Billy Wilder , add a comment

How does one approach Shirley MacLaine? With respect? Surely. With admiration? Maybe. With awe? Possibly. If The Apartment is as close as any to being your favorite film, you probably do so equipped with something related to that movie, book-wise. Arm twisted for no apparent reason, I’d probably choose The Apartment, along with It’s a Wonderful Life and Rear Window, as personal top of the heap. I love most everything about Billy Wilder’s cinematic instruction manual for life, including MacLaine’s performance as elevator operator Fran Kubelik. Miss Kubelik is a bit of a dour character who could so easily be tilted too far one direction or the other, but Ms. MacLaine delivers the sadness, the pixielike allure, the imperfect heroine with a warmth and subtlety that win me over every time. I hope there’s nothing improper about having a crush on a 48-year-old movie character. (Don’t tell me even if there is.)

For me, it’s The Apartment, but I know it’s Terms of Endearment for others, or maybe The Turning Point or any number of her roles. From starting with Hitchcock in The Trouble with Harry to serving as the Rat Pack mascot and doing Some Came Running alongside Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, she’s nothing short of a legend. After The Apartment, I’ll take Being There as a somewhat distant second favorite, even if her role is overshadowed by Peter Sellers. Wilder’s Irma La Douce isn’t close to fully utilizing either director or actress, but it’s another good turn and one I also enjoy. Plus, you know, she’s a little nutty in real life. Growing up, I associated Shirley MacLaine with her, let’s say, unorthodox views on reincarnation, alien life, and probably half a dozen other interesting topics. It took the discovery of her films from the fifties and sixties to really make me appreciate the acting and star presence.

So what would the demographic of a big city book signing be like for an Academy Award-winning actress, best-selling author, beloved icon of spirituality, and Warren Beatty’s big sister? In short, lots of older people and lots of females. The thing with New York City events like this (meaning, free) is that they always seem to attract a myriad display of eccentrics. A rogues’ gallery of poor hygiene, indescribable fashion, and a complete lack of candor. The most vocal members of this type of crowd have seen it all and left social scars all across the city. People will ask most anything, regardless of coherence or appropriateness. Add in some air conditioning when it’s ninety degrees outside and the fun simply creates itself.

Something I’ve begrudgingly grown to love about book signing lines are the inevitable wait times. If I’d not queued up, as my friends on the other side say, I wouldn’t have seen the absolute disgust repeatedly met by the book store worker’s announcements that Ms. MacLaine would only be signing and not reading, answering questions, or singing (!). The delight here was especially exacerbated when Shirley came out obviously unaware of the store’s warning. She very casually inquired about the plan for the night and asked if anyone had any questions for her. Question #1 - Why is the government covering up the existence of UFO’s? clydefro reaction #1 - Oh boy, this is going to be a hoot. Trust me, this is not the kind of thing you can uncover just everyday, for free nonetheless, even in Manhattan. I had hit upon a goldmine of sociological observation.

There has to be a level of sheer, bewildered admiration in seeing a bona fide film legend like Shirley MacLaine be so brave and honest in her opinions. I truly revere her openness. I think she’s touched, but I still have the utmost respect for her willingness to share. Of course, she has a sense of humor about it all. When someone asked about Frank Sinatra, she briefly pretended to summon him from beyond. It also shouldn’t go unnoticed that people really adore this woman, and, at least in this audience, it doesn’t even seem primarily to be for her film roles. I was thrilled when someone finally asked about making Some Came Running for Vincente Minnelli. Shirley’s reply? Minnelli was a great director of curtains, of furniture, but pretty much left his actors alone. (No wonder Minnelli made an entire film about curtains!)

She also gave her fans ample opportunity to speak. With the Q&A already unannounced and, thus, eating into the allotted signing time, a book store employee attempted to cut things off by proclaiming a particular question as the last one. Having none of it, Shirley immediately negated that and made a definitive motion to continue on, which the session did for another ten or fifteen minutes, thirty in all. This allowed for an Obama question (Shirley’s a fan) and the previously mentioned Sinatra moment. Time a wastin’ already, the signing started soon afterwards, but she again seemed intent on meeting and greeting everyone (not a common reaction by any means). I don’t know if everyone was able to have their book scrawled on, but my wait paid off and I was glad to share how much I love The Apartment with her.

There’s a really attractive Billy Wilder book from Taschen that I received as a birthday gift last year. It has lots of photos and concise text about all of his Hollywood films as writer or director. In the back of the book there’s a nice picture with Wilder and MacLaine, and an unidentified man between the two of them. There’s also some white space at the bottom of the page. Perfect. I felt bad about not purchasing her book so I’m now the semi-proud owner of a paperback copy of Sage-ing While Age-ing. Signings have different degrees of security/pushy big dudes. Thankfully, this was fairly laid back and I was able to present the page of the Wilder book to her, which she signed without hesitation but only after trying to remember if she knew who the guy between her and Billy Wilder was. You can see why people love her so much. She does come across as being out there in another place, but she’s also genuine. That’s not a quality often seen or associated with “movie stars.” I think Shirley probably is more interested in another kind of stars anyway. When someone asked about her astrological sign, she asserted herself as a Taurus, placing her index fingers on either side of her forehead.

I Am a Cat July 18, 2008

Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1970s , add a comment

I wasn’t sufficiently acquainted with Kon Ichikawa’s work (and, truthfully, I’m still not), but the entire tone of his relatively obscure I Am a Cat caught me somewhat by surprise. I’d loved Ichikawa’s Fires on the Plain, a deeply and darkly humorous look at the ridiculousness of war played against that looming seriousness that’s always prevalent in those kind of films. I was then ready for some kind of Japanese incarnation of Harry and Tonto. That’s really not what I got, though. I Am a Cat is definitely steeped in comic undertones, with Tatsuya Nakadai almost parodying himself, but it’s absolutely far removed from Harry and Tonto. Instead, we’re left with some odd tribute to Nakadai’s eternally grumpy protagonist and the stray cat who’s his only true confidante.

Nakadai is an English teacher at a local school. He’s put-upon like the patron figure of dozens of films and televisions shows. Viewers who are especially fans of Nakadai will appreciate how the actor comically rants about here. His home life is almost disastrous, with a ditzy (but attractive) wife, three young children, a loud school nearby that’s controlled by a corrupt businessman he loathes, and frequent visits from layabout friends. And the grey-furred, green-eyed cat! I was mistakenly under the impression that the cat narrates the film, but this is patently false. Only the very last portion, mere minutes, is told from the cat’s perspective. We instead get the ruminations of Nakadai’s decidedly upset protagonist.

As such, the film will appeal particularly to a pair of contingents - those fans of Nakadai and the cat lovers. I, with head hung in semi-shame, volunteer as a part of both. The feline aspect is an especially winning part of the film, though not the focus. Sure those susceptible to some whiskers and such will be satiated by the throwaway shots of the cat, but the film is pretty good otherwise, as well. Nakadai’s constant disbelief at everything around him is pure brilliance. Baseballs come flying across the fence from the school. Not just a stray one or two, but ball after ball. Nakadai blows a fuse and then ends up humiliated. Suddenly the actor is delivering pathos to this grumpy middle-aged man. The comedy is still there, but it’s now twinged with a bit of sadness. You realize the film is battling an entire shift in Japan society. Businessmen are corrupt and powerful. Their newfound wealth has lead to unearned snobbishness. And kids just don’t respect their elders. It may not be an entirely unique or profound message, but the point is made.

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Let’s get back to the cat, though. Furry little guy. Ichikawa completely plays to the kinds of moments that feline foes will loathe. The cat-friendly viewer smiles when the screen is filled by the whiskered star doing basically nothing except living up to the film’s title. Sure it’s pandering and the era-specific synthesizer music doesn’t help, but there’s a quaintness at play that saves these detours from harming the film. The cat is an important element in the movie and he serves as Nakadai’s companion when not out competing with a larger male for the affections of a female cat. The other male cat, called simply “Black,” provides by far the biggest laughs in a recurring bit about a weasel and his flatulence. There are few bigger crowd pleasers in an arthouse cinema than hearing Nakadai, with utmost seriousness, discuss “the fetid fart of the weasel” and its relation to the pride of this local cat community.

As the film winds down, we’re again left with that tragicomic malaise. Nakadai’s character has suffered a break-in that Ichikawa delicately plays for humor. The teacher even takes the cat to spend a night away from his quarrelsome wife. Problems also persist at work. Things just aren’t turning out well for him. Silently (unwillingly, you might say) supporting him through it all is the nameless cat. He’s taken up with the creature just when he feels let down and frustrated with everyone else. Things are necessarily changed for both by the ending, and I don’t want to spell it out here, but it’s unclear whether we should expect the Nakadai character to alter his languid musings or general grumpiness. Eccentric melancholy rules the day. For better or worse, we all have some fart of the weasel in us.

(Kon Ichikawa’s I Am a Cat is unavailable on DVD, at least with English subtitles. Masters of Cinema recently revealed plans to release several of Ichikawa’s films next year, but it’s unknown whether this will be one of them.)

Mann of the Hour July 9, 2008

Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1950s , 5 comments

Even several years into the DVD format, it’s still a pleasant surprise when one particular filmmaker has multiple, unrelated releases hit shelves around the same time. Now, over 40 years since his untimely death, 2008 seems to have accidentally turned into the year of Anthony Mann in R1. His two epics, El Cid and The Fall of the Roman Empire, were released in late January and April, respectively, under the Weinstein Company’s Miriam Collection tag. Likely by pure coincidence, the director’s clamored-for Man of the West was finally put out by MGM in May. Like its R2 counterpart released a few years ago, the disc is free of extra features, but its status as a much in-demand title makes MGM look good just for finally going to the trouble to press the discs.

Only a week after Man of the West escaped from the vault, Universal did their part by re-issuing the three James Stewart westerns made for the studio. Packaged quietly in the James Stewart: The Western Collection set, Winchester ‘73 got an image upgrade, Bend of the River remained in its already quite good transfer, and The Far Country was presented in anamorphic widescreen for the first time in R1. The latter still looks rough in its somewhat soft video, but I can’t speak highly enough of how Winchester ‘73 shines. Three other Stewart westerns are found in that set as well, with Night Passage being the most interesting to Mann admirers because he was scheduled to direct it, but backed out to make The Tin Star (the R1 of which has inexplicably gone out of print from Paramount) instead. The film suffers from mediocrity as a result, and the two men never worked together again, ending a string of eight films together in just five years. Along with their other two westerns, The Naked Spur and The Man from Laramie, these are my favorite Mann films. His film noir output, made the decade before, is frequently exceptional, but I have the highest regard for those five.

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Prior to working with Stewart, Anthony Mann already had two westerns under his belt in 1950. His first was Devil’s Doorway, which isn’t yet on DVD, but more on that in a second. He then immediately stepped into The Furies, with Barbara Stanwyck and Walter Huston and now available on DVD from the Criterion Collection. My review of that release can be found at DVD Times so there’s no need to repeat in full here how exciting the entire package is for fans of the director. In some odd way, the attention by Criterion seems to further legitimize how accomplished Mann’s direction was and does a good deal to combat his being somewhat ignored on the DVD’s of his other films. Even Warner Bros.’ contentious release of The Naked Spur was atypically lacking any kind of appreciation as to the quality of the film. So despite being wrapped in with what’s likely to be, at best, Mann’s seventh finest western of the fifties, those still too brief supplements from Criterion are entirely precious.

Back to reality again from the WB, who get in on the Mann festivities next month by releasing his Cimarron remake, but with only an apparent trailer as bonus material. That puts the count on new R1 editions of Mann films at seven this year alone, not counting the duplicated Bend of the River. Pretty good, even if The Tin Star getting discontinued feels like a small step backward.

The other notable bit of information in store for fans of the director is his frequent presence on the Turner Classic Movies channel. When I started doing “The TCM Ten” picks every week last fall, I noticed a programming trend of repeatedly scheduling Mann films usually relegated to public domain hell. I’m not sure what happened (maybe they ran out of fresh titles), but his lesser-known movies disappeared from future schedules. Thankfully, the cycle seems to have started again and the next few months bring several prime selections. All of these will be mentioned again in my weekly picks, but Mann aficionados can look forward to his French Revolution noir The Black Book (aka Reign of Terror) next week, on July 14. A few of the more readily available titles are peppered into the schedule in the days and weeks after that, until, late night on September 22, we’re treated to Devil’s Doorway and the Abraham Lincoln-themed The Tall Target. I’m hoping for another airing of Desperate at some point, as well, since my recorder seems to favor Mann less than I do, having failed me when the film aired last November.

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