Saturday, April 26, 2014

A Crooked Hymn

    When I'm in a certain mood, filled with longing, all I have to do is listen to Vince Guaraldi's Great Pumpkin Waltz and I'm instantly transported back to another time. It has always maintained a prominent listing on the soundtrack of my life. Even though it's a fallacy, things were simpler then and they will never be the same.

Spike Lee's Crooklyn (1994) joins that distinguished pantheon of coming of age films centered around a filmmaker's romantic semblance of things past. Fellini's Amarcord (1973) and Woody Allen's Radio Days (1984) are similar entries in this field. Time has embellished places and things, and healed all wounds, but there is a distinct sting of bittersweetness to the proceedings.

Some tragic moment usually unfolds in order for the young protagonist (a stand in for the writer/director) to shed their first skin of childhood. In Radio Days, there's the death of a young girl that enthralls a mournful Country over the air waves; in Amarcord and Crooklyn, it's the death of the family matriarch. These films do more than center on the evocation of an era. Their primary focus is to sustain a mood, or a certain vibe.

Music is the central ingredient to this goal in all three cases. Fellini's usual composer Nino Rota breathes actual life into the foggy streets of the fictional seaside Rimini, much like the carefully chosen standards and big band numbers that connect one anecdote to the next in Allen's return to the Rockaway Peninsula of Queens during the Second World War. For Lee, it's a song score of equal if not greater resonance.

Lee (like Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused, 1993) uses songs that are still very much a living component of our collective memories. Sadly, not many of us can recall a time when Glenn Miller was played habitually on the radio, but we can make an instant connection with Sly and the Family Stone. Lee's Brooklyn (here renamed Crooklyn) was still a home to crazies and glue-sniffing dope fiends then, just as it is now, but the drug addicts in his fanciful reinvention take on an almost cartoon-like quality (like many of Fellini and Allen's dramatis personae).

I still remember seeing Crooklyn on the big screen at Westview Cinema on Route 40 back in the day (before it was bulldozed into fond memories). The Westview was a grand old art deco movie palace leftover from the Sixties. By the mid '90s they were showing many art house films. '94 was the same year Pulp Fiction and Léon (The Professional) came out, which I also saw at the Westview. It was a magical time.

Crooklyn may very well be the best film that Spike Lee has ever made -- even if Malcolm X (1992) and Do the Right Thing (1989) are both more iconic and ambitious. It even invokes a little bit of Mean Streets (1973) from Martin Scorsese's formative days. Scorsese has often said that Mean Streets was his first real film after mentor John Cassavetes challenged him to make a film about something personal. Lee and Scorsese's two films even share an idiosyncratic use of the same dolly shot.

What really links Scorsese's Little Italy to Lee's titular borough is the same fairytale magic filtered through years of reflection. There's a scene in Crooklyn when Troy (the female protagonist) is covertly watching The Partridge Family on TV with her brood of male siblings to the consternation of their parents. When she is sent South to stay with relatives, Lee abruptly distorts the aspect ratio to make his audience feel just as topsy-turvy as Troy does in the suburbs. He's locked us in.

Likewise, when she finally realizes her mother has passed away (days after the fact). It's a profoundly moving scene. In short, what all these amazing films do is stir memories of our own childhoods, as a little bit of theirs rubs off on us in the process. Like all great films have a power of doing, they infiltrate our subconscious where (like memories of our own) they live forever.

Things were such simpler then and they will never be the same. It's still a nice fallacy.

Crooklyn soundtrack

Respect Yourself - The Staple Singers
Everyday People - Sly & the Family Stone
Pusherman - Curtis Mayfield
Thin Line Between Love and Hate - The Persuaders
Pito (I'll Never Go Back to Georgia) - Joe Cuba
ABC - The Jackson 5
Oh Girl - The Chi-Lites
Mighty Love - The Spinners
Mr. Big Stuff - Jean Knight
O-o-h Child - The Five Stairsteps
Pass the Peas - The J.B.'s
Time Has Come Today - The Chambers Brothers
People Make the World Go Round - The Stylistics
Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours - Stevie Wonder
Bra - Cymande
I'm Stone in Love with You - The Stylistics
Everybody Is a Star - Sly & the Family Stone
Never Can Say Goodbye - The Jackson 5
Soul Power - James Brown
Soul Makossa - Manu Dibango
La-La (Means I Love You) - The Delfonics
I'll Take You There - The Staple Singers
Puerto Rico - Eddie Palmieri
Theme from Shaft - Isaac Hayes
Tears of a Clown - Smokey Robinson & the Miracles
I Can See Clearly Now - Johnny Nash

Friday, April 25, 2014

Overlooked by Oscar

The following films and personnel were strangely absent from Oscar ballots in their respective year. I have tried to compile a list of five personal favorites for each category that were inexplicably snubbed. Yes, it's true that The Goodbye Girl (an excellent film that also won Richard Dreyfuss an Oscar for Best Actor) was nominated for Best Picture in 1977, but Close Encounters of Third Kind was not. I love The Goodbye Girl, but Best Picture nominee over Close Encounters?

Best Picture snubs

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
Do the Right Thing (1989)
Notorious (1946)
The Searchers (1956)
Trainspotting (1996)

Best Director snubs

Paul Thomas Anderson for Boogie Nights (1997)
David Lean for Oliver Twist (1948)
Sam Peckinpah for The Wild Bunch (1969)
Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger for The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)
John Sayles for Lone Star (1996)

Best Actor snubs

Steve McQueen for Papillon (1973)
Anthony Perkins for Psycho (1960)
Richard Pryor for Blue Collar (1978)
Sylvester Stallone for Cop Land (1997)
Harry Dean Stanton for Paris, Texas (1984)

Best Actress snubs

Sandrine Bonnaire for Vagabond (1985)
Deborah Kerr for The Innocents (1961)
Eul-boon Kim for Jibeuro (The Way Home) (2002)
Giulietta Masina for La Strada (1954)
Jeanne Moreau for Jules et Jim (1962)

Best Supporting Actor snubs

Dennis Hopper for Blue Velvet (1986)
Jerry Lewis for The King of Comedy (1983)
Bill Murray for Rushmore (1998)
Christopher Plummer for The Insider (1999)
Terence Stamp for The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994)

Best Supporting Actress snubs
Carol Burnett for Annie (1982)
Lainie Kazan for My Favorite Year (1982)
Virna Lisi for Queen Margot (1994)
Lena Olin for Romeo is Bleeding (1993)
Alfre Woodard for Passion Fish (1992)

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Chaplin in One A.M. (1916) for Mutual Film. Heading to Blu-ray this August from Flicker Alley.
Method Man

      After revisiting Rod Steiger's knockout performance in The Pawnbroker the other day, I decided to take a look back at the career of this occasionally polarizing screen actor. Highly regarded for his early work in Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront (1954) and the lesser-known Robert Aldrich film The Big Knife (1955), Steiger also made himself known to audiences in the film version of Oklahoma! (1955) as well as the David Lean epic Doctor Zhivago (1965).

He won the Academy Award for Best Actor for Norman Jewison's In the Heat of the Night (1967), an honor that seemed more befitting his dramatic turn as a German Jew Holocaust survivor in The Pawnbroker (1964). Interestingly enough, Steiger was not Jewish in real life. He was raised a Lutheran by his alcoholic mother, a former vaudevillian. Steiger ran away at 16 and joined the Navy where he saw action in the Pacific on board a destroyer during WWII.

His career in show business began like many screen actors of his generation on stage and television. One of his earliest successes was the title role in the teleplay Marty, written by future Network (1976) scribe Paddy Chayefsky. It was adapted into a feature film a couple years later starring Ernest Borgnine (Steiger turned down the film) and won the Academy Award for Best Picture as well as the prestigious Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

He would go on to lend support in many films, as well as play Al Capone, Napoleon Bonaparte, W. C. Fields and Pontius Pilate. Memorable roles in The Illustrated Man (1969) and The Amityville Horror (1979) also came knocking. He famously turned down the lead role in Patton (1970) which went on to win George C. Scott an Oscar for Best Actor (Scott infamously refused the nomination). Two of my all-time favorite Steiger roles were as diverse as an actor can get.

The first was for Sergio Leone in Duck, You Sucker! (1970) where Steiger played a Mexican outlaw. The second was a return to his fictional Jewish roots in The Chosen (1981) playing a strict Hasidic Rebbe. Another must-see for Steiger fans is the Francesco Rosi classic Le mani sulla città aka Hands over the City (1963). Steiger may have been post-dubbed in Italian by another actor, but his portrayal of a corrupt businessman is timeless.

Tim Burton gave him a small role in Mars Attacks! (1996) playing a reactionary general and 1999 saw a brief return to form as a noble judge in Jewison's The Hurricane. Steiger passed away in 2002. He wasn't always revered by everyone as a first rate actor though. Stanley Kubrick refused to work with him when offered the chance to direct The Pawnbroker. Kubrick felt that Steiger wasn't very exciting. I'd give a dollar to know what Kubrick thought of Duck, You Sucker!.

Below are just two Steiger films that I feel deserve special mention and illustrate just how gifted an artist he truly was.

The Loved One (1965)
Based on a short story by Englishman Evelyn Waugh (Brideshead Revisited), directed by another Englishman Tony Richardson (The Entertainer; Tom Jones) and adapted for the screen by American satirist Terry Southern (Dr. Strangelove; Easy Rider) and British Author Christopher Isherwood (the Broadway musical Cabaret), this black comedy about the American funeral business set in California has really yet to find its true audience. Featuring a knockout cast including: Jonathan Winters (in dual roles; at this time becoming a Terry Southern staple), John Gielgud (in a terrific supporting part as a flamboyantly gay artist that could only be based on Isherwood himself), Liberace (as a creepy funeral home employee), Roddy McDowell (as a crass movie studio head), Paul Williams (as a rocket obsessed child phenom), Robert Morse (who is currently enjoying a return to the spotlight in his old age on the TV show Mad Men as recurring character Bertram Cooper) and of course Steiger as the looniest nut of them all, Mr Joyboy -- a man slightly preoccupied with cooking for his obese mother. There's at least a dozen other cameos as well. I wish I could say what it was all about, but it takes a definite jab at the British community in Hollywood as well as the movie business. Steiger's brief song and dance about cooking lobster for "Momma" is priceless.

In the Heat of the Night (1967)
As I've already stated, Steiger's Oscar win for this film seems a little retroactive to me. He doesn't do much in the film to the untrained eye, but when one considers the amount of screen time he steals simply by saying nothing, or chewing his gum (rather annoyingly at times) it becomes clear that Steiger was simply biding his time and using all the tricks in his actors toolbox to walk away with a picture that essentially belonged to Sidney Poitier. To be fair, Steiger had the harder part. He plays with the Southern caricature he was given with such a deft hand it's hard not to sit back and marvel at the simplicity of his performance. We have to imagine what he's thinking half the time, and from what we know about the South and White Southerners in general at that time, it isn't hard to envision those thoughts. It's when he takes us by surprise, by essentially being a human being (or a shrewd thinker depending on how you look at it), that the character truly becomes indelible. It's hard for me to imagine another actor in this role, though Carroll O'Connor did recreate it to critical acclaim on the long-running television series. While I could see Paul Winfield or Yaphet Kotto playing Tibbs (the Poitier part) it's his foil, Police Chief Gillespie (who eventually finds his conscience) played by Steiger that we ultimately remember most.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Pawnbroker

"Loneliness is the normal state of affairs for most people." 

A lonely old man just wants to talk; a racist junky comes in to pawn his broken radio; a gang of street thugs attempt to fence a stolen lawnmower; a pregnant girl learns that her precious diamond ring is only made of glass. These are the types of customers who frequent the local pawnshop run by Rod Steiger in Sidney Lumet's The Pawnbroker (1964).

It's a tough film. Not just because every single character is essentially broken (or on their way), but also because of the strange atmosphere that Lumet designs (the jaunty jazz score doesn't help either -- a product of its time). Lumet was a great television director and his cinematographic sense had not yet fully developed by 1964. The truth is, he often reverted to this abstract, stagey style of psychodramatics even after he had fully evolved as a great technician by the mid '70s.

Serpico (1973) is another streetwise Lumet film that seems real because of the grimy atmosphere that permeates almost every frame, but it does not feel artificial like The Pawnbroker does. The only thing that doesn't seem manufactured for effect in The Pawnbroker is Steiger. It's one of those legendary performances that stands on its own.

The Pawnbroker was one of the first films to show the interior life of a concentration camp (albeit sparsely). Steiger's character flashes back to his dehumanizing past frequently throughout the film. He watches as his wife is stripped and about to be raped by Nazis. This is inter-weaved with a young African-American prostitute (the girlfriend of his eager Latino assistant) in the present who stands topless before him.

The nudity also ensured that the film stood zero chance of a wide release. Over the years it's gained a cult following for the sheer strength of Steiger's performance. His Nazerman states that he does not believe in "God, art, science, newspapers, philosophy" but that all life is about money. He's given up on the human race who he angrily refers to as "scum, rejects".

His soul is lost before the film begins, and it's equally lost (perhaps even more) after the final gut-wrenching moments that close out this desolate picture. If anything, the film is a rather obvious warning of what can become of us if we choose to close off our feelings. On the other hand, based on what Nazerman had been through (including the death of his children), it's no wonder he bothered to go on living at all.

I wish I could say that something about it illuminated me. I felt rather the same way after viewing Lumet's similarly stagey adaptation of the Peter Shaffer play Equus (1977). Like I needed a bath. Nazerman fucks but he doesn't feel love. He ruminates but he doesn't feel loss. He admits his faults but he doesn't repent. In a way, he's Ebenezer Scrooge without the final ghost.

Tragically, I never felt pity for him. His descent into something resembling madness (and a final death wish) is a masterclass in acting. I only wish the rest of the film had performed on the same level as Steiger and his brave costars. Lumet also filmed Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night (1962) with Katharine Hepburn and Jason Robards. Both films are available on Blu-ray from Olive Films. The transfers are beautiful.

One of my favorite Lumet films is The Hill (1965) with Sean Connery and Ian Bannen. Lumet, Connery and Bannen teamed up again in (quite possibly Lumet's most difficult to penetrate film) The Offence (1972). The human psyche has never been filmed so crude or compellingly.

Monday, April 21, 2014

10 favorite films

no. 10  
The Road Warrior (1981)

The Lawrence of Arabia (1962) of apocalyptic action movies. It's The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) meets Yojimbo (1961) by way of Death Race 2000 (1975). One of the few sequels in film history that truly manages to be a standalone specimen. 

no. 9 
The Wrong Box (1966)

The late, great Bryan Forbes crafted one of the most sublime and unsung comedies of all-time with a legendary cast including: Michael Caine, Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Peter Sellers, John Mills, Wilfrid Lawson, Nanette Newman and Ralph Richardson. It's Robert Louis Stevenson brought to you by The Marx Brothers.

no. 8
Paris, Texas (1984)

Harry Dean Stanton delivers one of THE great screen performances as Travis Henderson, a man that redefines the word introspective. A towering achievement on every level from Ry Cooder's mythical score to director Wim Wender's palpable sense of desolation.  

no. 7
Being There (1979)

Peter Sellers may have lost the Oscar to Dustin Hoffman (for Kramer vs. Kramer) but his penultimate performance was one for the ages. Hal Ashby constructs a sense of magical realism that few filmmakers have been able to spawn. It's deftly funny too.

no. 6
Gloria (1980)

John Cassavetes may have just been the preeminent American auteur, rivaling even Orson Welles. This was his wife Gena Rowlands' finest hour (along with Cassavetes' A Woman Under the Influence, 1974). Bypass the Sharon Stone remake. 

no. 5
Monte Walsh (1970)

A film about the end of one era that signaled the death of another. By the dawn of the '70s, the movie business was on the cusp of changing in a big way. This elegiac Western starring Lee Marvin and Jack Palance is a sad but poetic reminder that all things must pass. See my full review here.

no. 4
Nights of Cabiria (1957)

Giulietta Masina.
Giulietta Masina.
Giulietta Masina.

no. 3
A Man for All Seasons (1966)

Fred Zinnemann had already made one of the best social commentaries masquerading as a genre film with High Noon (1952). His adaptation of the Robert Bolt play about the fate of Sir Thomas More had nothing to hide. It's the ultimate film about conscience as well as one of the greatest historical dramas ever conceived.

no. 2
Mona Lisa (1986)

Every once in a while a film that seems perfectly commonplace attaches itself to me. The plot of Mona Lisa isn't anything new (it's a standard neo-noir) but it is a one of a kind film. Bob Hoskins (in a tour de force) nails the common, ordinary hero sleeping inside us all. 

no. 1
La Règle du jeu (1939)

I desperately wanted to include a selection from Kurosawa and Satyajit Ray on this list (in addition to Ken Russell, Chaplin and Miyazaki) as I admire so many of their works. In the end, there is only Jean Renior's The Rules of the Game. All films about the human condition are beholden to it. 

honorable mention:

The Railway Children (1970)