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A Giggling Freedom-Fighter to Remember
San Francisco's Roxie Theater had a week's run of "Obscene" at the beginning of September 2008. I sat in an audience of four during the Sunday matinée. This seemed a sad turnout for a major documentary on the eccentric, revolutionary, beyond-category Barney Rosset (Barnet Rosset, Jr.), a publisher and film champion who reshaped American letters during his Grove Press years. Without him certain of your important freedoms would only be theories on paper.

How much opposition did Grove Press and its EVERGREEN REVIEW magazine present to the Establishment? "Obscene" shows CBS reporting the 1975 findings of a U.S. commission which investigated domestic espionage by the Central Intelligence Agency. The investigators found that the CIA had exceeded its charter and the law in its domestic surveillance. The number three target for its illegal eavesdropping was Rosset's Grove Press.

Have you seen "The Motorcycle Diaries" (2004)? Rosset published only one chapter of Che Guevara's memoirs in THE EVERGREEN REVIEW and his office got bombed the next night. "Obscene" tells us that Doubleday, already the publisher of Malcolm X (El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz), feared to abrade public opinion by printing the autobiography that the Muslim leader had told to Alex Haley. Grove Press issued the book in 1965, just after Malcolm's murder. THE NEW YORK TIMES declined to review it. Contemplate those events. Measure the distance we have traveled as a people. You may thank Barney Rosset for helping us along. He's still alive. He can hear you.

A compulsive defender of your civil liberties, Rosset published D. H. Lawrence's LADY CHATTERLEY'S LOVER in 1959. (French motion picture: 1955; British movie: 1981). He followed with Henry Miller's TROPIC OF CANCER and William Burroughs' THE NAKED LUNCH (film adaptation by David Cronenberg in 1991). He could have gone to prison each time, as Dwight Eisenhower's gloating postmaster general reminds us in "Obscene".

Imagine those thrilling days of yesteryear when Ike chaired the military-industrial complex. The U.S. and U.S.S.R. poisoned the atmosphere with nuclear testing. A maze of federal, state, and local law prevented you from reading about Connie Chatterley or from ever seeing some of America's most experimental writing. Brusque men arrested and prosecuted and jailed anyone who imported or published or sold such works.

Today I can find a working plastic replica of Jana Cova's vagina in an tourist store. I can watch a "Sex and the City" episode with Charlotte ogling a penis-shaped vibrator. In the 1950's Hugh Hefner would have been locked up for menacing the republic had he shown pubic hair in PLAYBOY. Barney Rosset changed that atmosphere of hypocrisy,repression, and an outward conformity to rigidly limited ideals. He didn't labor alone, but he did act pivotally.

Consider the enlightened Great Society of Lyndon Johnson. While we warred on poverty and escalated troops in Vietnam, Ralph Ginzberg got a stay in the slammer for mailing ads for EROS from the township of Middlesex, New Jersey. That postmark decisively convinced the Supreme Court of 1966 that he was not serious in intent. Edward Mishkin also did time for offending New York State with sadomasochistic imagery believed by the Court to lack redeeming social significance.

Justice William O. Douglas protested in a dissenting opinion that we cannot determine what significance such images may have for an individual. "Obscene" shows Congressman Gerald Ford demanding Douglas's impeachment for such views. Ford damns Douglas in part because he published an article in Rosset's EVERGREEN REVIEW. House Republican Leader Ford does not discuss the content of the article, merely the venue.

Grove Press put out the standard editions of Bertolt Brecht, Marguerite Duras, Eugene Ionesco, Jean Genet, Pauline Reage, and the unexpurgated Marquis de Sade. Rosset brought new, major talent onto the American intellectual scene, including Samuel Beckett, Amiri Baraka/Leroi Jones, Dr. Eric Berne, Jakov Lind, Yukio Mishima, Harold Pinter, and Amos Tutuola. Hubert Selby, Jr.'s thorny but eloquent LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN gets referenced in the "Obscene" end title song (the book hit celluloid with Jennifer Jason Leigh in 1989). Rosset did not make a fortune out of expanding our literary heritage, however. He impoverished himself in court case after court case, defending his--and your--First Amendment rights.

You may associate his Grove years with hardcore pornography. That cash flow paid bills, particularly in the 1970's. Brecht and Beckett do not bring Nora Roberts-sized incomes into a publishing house. In the film Rosset confesses to Al Goldstein that he published material which turned him on as well as kept his press solvent.

The film reveals that Barney's first love remained film. It copiously uses his home movies to illustrate his life. His maiden professional creative effort was the 1948 picture "Strange Victory", documenting violent racism in the U.S. and linking that vicious mindset to the Adolf Hitler we had supposedly defeated. The movie played one run in one theater.

"Obscene" discusses Grove's release of the Swedish radical import "I Am Curious (Yellow)" (1967). However, we do not hear about Rosset's other plunges into movie distribution with the pre-Stonewall "The Queen" (1968) and Yukio Mishima's "The Rite of Love and Death" (1966).

I met Barney in 1985 at the American Booksellers Association convention. Our bashful firebrand had a perpetual giggle in person. You get a touch of it in the film--but only a touch. That distinctive trait normally faded out during recorded interviews. I shook his hand at the Grove Press "booth" (some chairs around a lawn table under an umbrella). Shortly thereafter Ann Getty and Lord George Weidenfeld dumped him from Grove.

The documentary functionally stops there. It does not discuss Rosset's Blue Moon Books, which roused libidos and raised hackles by publishing more erotica from familiar names such as P. N. Dedeaux, as well as books by Martin Pyx (cited in Amazon as "a cult author"), Daniel Vian, and others Barney brought newly on board. Writers you couldn't have read in this country fifty years ago.

Kung Fu Panda

The Fur-Ball Rules!
Warning: This film reveals the secret of the Dragon Warrior, a mystery so awesome you may not wish to expose yourself to it without years of preparation.

I am stunned beyond measure to report that "Kung Fu Panda" may be the finest kung fu movie ever offered to a wide and adoring public. Odd that it's a cartoon. Of course, DreamWorks did glorious, fully convincing animation with lustrous backgrounds and art direction adapted from Chinese sources. My film crowd and I returned to watch it again, just to appreciate the splendor.

The makers truly understand the traditions of the genre. They work charming variations on familiar set pieces. Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, and the talented vocal actors convincingly give the figures tongue, while the animators invest the visual character images with authentic personalities.

I'd still call "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" the best martial arts motion picture I've viewed. That I saw four times on first run. As for pure fury-fisted kung fu…the furry-fisted panda bear does the job. The trailer certainly did not suggest anything like the physical beauty and the wise humor that dominate the production.

Journey to the Center of the Earth

Cute Fun Nicely Done
Of Jules Verne adaptations called "Journey to the Center of the Earth" one has many choices. I'm partial to James Mason, Arlene Dahl, and Pat Boone descending down the rabbit hole in 1959 (with Thayer David behind them ). Yet, this 3D version fronted by Brendon Frasier and Anita Briem ("No one has dibs on the mountain guide.") both looks impressive and boasts a well-dialogued script. It reliably delivers good-hearted fun, with a mine-train ride to outdo Indiana Jones' doomed temple.

This being 3D, the movie builds in flinch moments that will all but touch your nose. The process generally works well. However, nothing I have seen on the screen rivals Alfred Hitchcock's canny "Dial M for Murder" for the aesthetics of object placement and art direction in a 3D setting.

Sex and the City

A Wondrous Look at Love and Mid-Life Womanhood
The "Sex and the City" movie introduced me to Carrie Bradshaw and her circle. I had never watched the series. I came to the film without preconceptions and enjoyed it thoroughly. After reading this site I began to doubt my own virgin perceptions. Had I ignorantly bought fool's gold when the real pay dirt payoff lay in the cable series?

So I viewed the First Season of the HBO series, becoming utterly charmed by the four main women negotiating the singles dance in 1998 New York. The IMDb site for the show has a lot of savage reactions posted, most of which I have to reject. I found all dozen 1998 episodes quirky and clever and perky and groundbreaking and sharply written and slyly acted.

I have known women of that born-in-the-Sixties generation and of my own (which came of age in the Sixties) who talk and act like these folks--though not as flamboyantly or consistently entertainingly. "Sex" trades in exaggeration for artistic effect, after all. Some caustic posters seem to confuse louder-than-life satire about Eros and New York with propaganda for la dolce vita in Manhattan.

Forearmed with an appreciation of the series' birth year, I re-saw the film at a revival house. This time I came in warily, ready to judge ruthlessly. I liked it even more. I can understand the substantive criticisms on this site. The First Season had a chipper, often ironic tone, lively and saw-edged. Some posters missed enjoying that all over again.

The motion picture offers a defiantly darker production. That includes visually darker. In both theaters the image on the screen was subdued, the colors more muted than "Persuasion" (1995). While the series had bright summery lighting favoring the fashions and skin tones, the big screen sequel seems seriously autumnal, far gone toward winter.

The film definitely has a richer and more complex emotional range than the First Season. The blithe charm of the TV version has gained in wisdom, pain, regret, and savor. We're dealing with very bitter dark chocolate here, piquantly flavored and highly nutritious, but not always easy on a naïve tongue.

Then again, three of the ladies have crossed into their 40's. These midlife years hold different dynamics for them than their end-of-youth 30's. Two married and have children. As Miranda tells her husband, she changed herself for him. She can't go back to living as a rapier-tongued mantrap, not with a child in tow and years of stability with Steve behind her. The fourth, Samantha, has gone through chemotherapy and fringes on 50. She actually thinks outside her personal hedonistic box, though not comfortably.

The acting wondrously brings me closer to women I'd like to have in my life. Sarah Jessica Parker particularly offers an understated, nuanced, very complete portrayal of a 41-year-old career woman buoyed by her friends and adrift in her long-ripening romance. The First Season never presented Carrie at the fresh-into-town "My Sister Eileen" (1942/1955) stage. Interestingly, the movie brings in Jennifer Hudson to fill exactly that role of someone escaping the provinces for NYC. St. Louise from "Trolley Song" St. Louis shows us a phase of aware-yet-wide-eyed single womanhood we missed from the four friends.

The series began 10 years into the women's association, though the curtain rose on them at a point where things had only started to gel in their lives. The misfires made for humor and heartache. A decade further down the road the challenges come differently, the missteps have major consequences. We're not talking flubbed dates ending in erotic disappointment; here miscues can shatter valued life partnerships and alter personal destinies.

"Sex and the City" has evolved from its cable roots in Noel Cowardly wit to a full-flowering Anton Chekhov-style comedy. Measure the film against the Louis Malle/Andre Gregory/David Mamet "Vanya on 42nd Street" (1994) or John Gielgud's "The Cherry Orchard" (1962). Seriously. The writing, the performances, and the deep undercurrents traveling through "Sex" will hold up under comparison. You will likely prefer the Chekhov, but this production prowls that uneasy landscape and provokes the same rueful laughter. Like single malt Scotch which has tamed its fire in wood, the subject matter, the characters, the approach have all matured from HBO days.

I would unhesitatingly program the movie in a female ensemble festival alongside "The Women" (1939), "All About Eve" (1950), "Interiors" (1978), "Little Women" (1994), "How to Make an American Quilt" (1995), and "The Hours" (2002). It would double-bill very interestingly with "The Jane Austen Book Club" (2007). I'm hoping we can revisit Carrie, her girl friends, their mates, and all their associates in another decade, not as an exercise in nostalgia or to awaken a mummy-wrapped franchise, but as part of an ongoing look at female relationships gaining layers as time goes by.

Le procès

Greater Than the Classic Novel
*** Perhaps some spoilage in this comment. You may prefer to see the film beforehand. ***

In 1968 I first saw "The Trial" at the Richelieu Theater in San Francisco. An improvised cinema in the basement of a minor league hotel, the Richelieu proved a good venue for a movie shot in jury-rigged locations. Literally underground, the makeshift theater had 16mm equipment doing rear projection on the backside of the screen we watched.

I absorbed "The Trial" at a Sunday matinée and wandered out feeling two-dimensional. As I drifted down Van Ness Avenue a car could have struck me and I would have noticed, but not cared. That disorientation lasted two hours. Later that year I encountered the same effect after my first viewing of "2001: A Space Odyssey", though the spell only lasted a few minutes.

I knew something of Welles at that point. I had heard him on the radio as Harry Lime, charismatic conman and thief. I remembered him as the mesmeric Cagliostro in "Black Magic" (1947). I knew "The Magnificent Ambersons" (1942) from television, and I had seen "Citizen Kane" (1941) and "Touch of Evil" (1957 studio release version) on big screens. I had even watched a 16mm print of the unrestored "Tragedy of Othello" (1952), as visually complex a work as any that exists. Yet I had never experienced any cinema such as "The Trial".

Welles used film stock with a very sensitive emulsion, then flooded the sets with light to get flat whites, dead blacks, and infinite shades of grey in between. This technique yields quite powerful results on a large screen in a darkened theater. In the 1960's, a decade noted for experiment and hallucinogens, I found nothing else remotely as daring, nor as radically disorienting.

Though color achieved dominance after the 1950's, geniuses still produced powerful black and white aesthetic statements. Fellini in "8-½" (1963) created a hyper-real dreamscape of crystal-edged images. Brownlow's "It Happened Here" (1966), Cassavetes' "Faces" (1968), and Pontecorvo's "The Battle of Algiers" (1966) each brilliantly counterfeited reality with documentary/home movie-style footage. Wise's "The Haunting" (1963) and Polanski's "Repulsion" (1965) conjured interior locales built of light and shadow alive with menace and madness. Haskell Wexler's b&w photography in Nichols' "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (1966) starkly enhanced the primal drama being enacted.

Welles himself collaborated supremely with Shakespeare in "Chimes at Midnight" (1966, AKA "Falstaff"), his last black and white feature, an autumnal ode to Merrie Olde England. Not even that greatest of all films matches the reality-corkscrewing visual landscape he achieves in "The Trial". (Though I erroneously thought that Josef K's office parodied modern workplaces until I toiled in a Federal agency perversely like it in design, in noise level, and in operation.)

"The Trial" has provided me with 40 years of revelation, pleasure, instruction, and prophesy. It explains more of modern life than a library of …FOR DUMMIES books. The film demonstrates that we live in existential peril from each other, just as surely as "Dr. Strangelove" (1963) implores us to realize that fools run our world. Not art, not religion, not politics, not family ties, not the brotherhood of a common cause, nor the unities of spiritual and physical love can alleviate this indwelling danger.

And yet…Orson Welles on a talk show in the 70's stated that he was a pessimist. An optimist, he held, believes things are going well. A cynic believes that things are going badly, but that nothing's worth saving. A pessimist believes that things are going badly, but yet there are things still worth working to save. I would say that in "The Trial" we may find a human dignity and a sense of independent self still worth clinging to, despite what comes.

Luis Bunuel's "Nazarin" (1959) subjects a Christ-like priest to the torments, indignities, and exploitations of an indifferent world. Welles' K can't be called anybody's saint. He's arrogant, thoughtless, flawed…as guilty of the seven deadly sins as that Charles Foster Kane whose K dominates Xanadu's gate. For all of that, he's human and has inherent worth, no matter how twitchily or self-centeredly he behaves. Anthony Perkins lends Kafka's abstract figure a vulnerable charm that has worn well for me over the 40 years I've watched him.

The haunting main musical score comes from I Musici's recording of Tomaso Albinoni's "Adagio". Wikipedia informs me that Remo Giazotto composed this in 1958 from 18th Century fragments of an Albinoni trio sonata sent to him by the Dresden State Library. I have read elsewhere that these shards survived the Allied firebombing of Dresden (see "Slaughterhouse Five", the 1972 movie from the novel by Kurt Vonnegut, another survivor of that fire raid). THE TRIAL also escaped flames. Max Brod, Kafka's literary executor, did not obey his friend's command to burn his manuscripts. Both the book and the musical composition hung on in incomplete form to become reimagined and fused together, augmenting each other.

"The Trial" film seems to me more complex than Franz Kafka's unfinished novel, an admittedly great work written sparely and at arm's length from the reader. Beyond resolving scenes left unconcluded by the author, Welles submerges his viewer in a more layered, more meaningful experience than Kafka's text can provide. Art direction, dialogue, camera movement, music create a multi-textured whole that seems to me a greater artistic creation than the deservedly notable book.

While still in his 20's, Orson Welles personally revolutionized radio drama, the New York stage, and world cinema. He would have had the same effect on television if the seed he broadcast in his revelatory "Fountain of Youth" (1958) had taken root in creative minds. I consider Welles' films from the 1960's to surpass "Citizen Kane" (1941), a landmark in the evolution of motion pictures. Beatrice Welles once told me her father would bless me for thinking that.

Watch on the Rhine

Hellman and Hammett Brilliant and Timely
"A wrong-doer is often a man that has left something undone, not always he that has done something."--Emperor Marcus Aurelius

The DVD release of "Watch on the Rhine" could not come at a better moment. It restores to us a major Lillian Hellman play stirringly adapted to the screen by Dashiell Hammett (Hellman scholar Bernard F. Dick's audio commentary affirms his authorship). It presents a subtle performance by Bette Davis, who took a subdued secondary role long after she'd become the workhorse queen at the Warner Bros. lot. Equally significantly, it reminds us that World War II had a purpose.

Sure, you say, like we needed that. We've heard Cary Grant sermonizing in "Destination Tokyo" (1943) about Japanese boys and their Bushido knives. We've watched jackboots stomp the living hills in "The Sound of Music" (1965). We've toured an England callously occupied by Germany in "It Happened Here" (1966). Yet, truth to tell, we still need the message spread.

I have an 81-year-old friend who curses Franklin Roosevelt regularly. He feels that FDR connived the U.S. into a foreign fight we didn't need, and thereby caused the death of his favorite cousin. He's encouraged in his demonizing of Allied leaders and the trivializing of War Two by Patrick Buchanan.

The political columnist has freshly released a fat book heavy with detailed research which claims that Adolf Hitler would have posed no further menace to Poland, Europe, or the world if only the Third Reich had been handed the Free City of Danzig in 1939. Buchanan holds that if those selfish Poles hadn't confronted the Nazis, drawing in foolishly meddling Britain and giddily altruistic France, no war would have engulfed the West. He believes that without the rigors of Total War, no one in Germany would have built gas chambers to provide a Final Solution to the Jewish Problem.

Some commenters on this site feel that "Watch" sags under the weight of stale propaganda. Maybe. However, neither my friend nor Pat Buchanan seem to have gotten the film's point: Some people hurt and kill to grab other people's land, goods, and liberty; such people dominated the Axis Powers and "enough" didn't appear in their vocabulary.

Paul Lukas deserved the Oscar he won. He and Bette Davis put convincing passion into their portrayals of refugees who fight oppressors. They give emotional punch to the intellectual case for stepping off the sidelines, for actively facing down torturers and murderers. Bernard Dick notes that Hellman didn't care for Lukas as a person since he stayed apolitical. Of course, as a Hungarian he had seen first-hand Bela Kun's bloody "dictatorship of the proletariat" replace an outmoded empire and then topple to Admiral Horthy's right-wing tyranny.

In a marvelous cameo role added to the play by Hammett, Henry Daniell sardonically depicts a Wehrmacht officer of the class that disdains the brown shirts he serves. His Phili von Ramme would doubtless stand with Field Marshal Rommel in 1944 during the Plot of July 20th against Hitler. In April 1940, however, he pragmatically abets the Nazi cause, although he insults Herr Blecher "the Butcher" and scorns the Rumanian aristocrat Teck de Brancovis for trying to peddle information on an Underground leader.

Teck, a pauper and possible cuckold, wishes cash and a visa to return to Europe where he can resume the shreds of a life that had come undone with the empire-shattering Great War and the greater world-wide economic Depression. He has no political convictions, no scruples about trading a freedom fighter for his own tomorrow. Mercury Theater graduate George Coulouris lends this burnt-out case's Old World cynicism an edge of desperate menace.

Lucille Watson gives winsome vitality to the grasping man's hostess, a domineering old gal who knows her mind and gets her way--but who doesn't adequately appreciate her children and their achievements outside the home she controls. She and her pallid office-bound son belong to the American version of von Ramme's and de Brancovis' privileged kind. However, this family hasn't seen ruin and never will. They're moneyed people who could silently advance evil simply by not opposing it.

This mother and son might easily make choices which would reflect that complaisance toward National Socialism and Fascism which flourishes today in my friend and in pundit Buchanan. "Watch on the Rhine" has a manicured period look. Its dialogue reflects its erudite origins on the stage rather than sounding fresh from the streets. Yet Hellman and Hammett's film has gut-based power. Audiences still need to hear and heed its call to arms against grabbers relentlessly on the march.


An Enchanted Vision of Role-Playing and TV Reality
*** Big spoilers in this comment. You may wish to see the film first, despite most of the reactions posted. ***

Tiptoeing through this movie's site calls to mind images from Cole Porter's song "Miss Otis Regrets" when the mob hauls the heroine from jail to the hanging tree. Such a demure victim; such an violent, wrathful crowd! However, let me take a whirl at defending "Bewitched" (2005).

This clever variation on classic TV delighted me. No, it's not "Clueless" (1995) or "Shakespeare In Love" (1998) or "The Jane Austen Book Club" (2007), all of which run changes on genius. Yet "Bewitched" does provide talented actors with a slyly subtle script.

Set down your rope and torches for just a little while and let's explore the film a bit. Perhaps we can uncover an inner structure worth watching. Cre8tivguy1 on page 10 of this site cogently remarks: "If the original 'Bewitched' was nothing else, it was logical within its own set of established rules." I hold that Nora and Delia Ephron followed a strict logic proceeding from a premise perhaps not instantly obvious to casual viewers.

The initial question I believe we should ask: Did Aunt Clara exist in the witch Isabel's life before she accepted the role of Samantha? I'm thinking Aunt Clara didn't. Notice she never interacts with Nigel. She only drops down the chimney into Isabel's living room because the Nicole Kidman witch has taken on the part of Samantha Stevens. Isabel's own existence has begun to merge with that of the television character she's reprising.

The subtext of this script involves how TV influences our personal realities. The original "Bewitched" television show provides a template which reshapes the lives of those in contact with the remake, Jack and Isabel foremost. Once the show starts dominating the young witch's consciousness, Aunt Clara can appear when needed--a figure from the 60's series Isabel has studied, not from her actual prior life.

Isabel accepts a television character into her home as family and fails to notice that anything's odd about that. (I'm thinking that the show "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer" pulled a similar insertion of an previously unknown personage. When Buffy's "little sister", a demon in disguise, suddenly showed up everyone in the cast acted as if she'd been there all along.)

The Ephron sisters offer a nice observation here on mass media culture. Face it, our society does tell us to treat imaginary folks from "The West Wing" or "The Sopranos" or "Seinfeld" as friends or even kinfolk. We don't blink at caring seriously about the lives of fictional people.

As a further demonstration of TV's effect on human beings, Uncle Arthur manifests to pep-talk Jack. He's the original small-screen Uncle Arthur who Jack has cherished in his mind all these years. Jack saw and internalized the series, now the character he liked best steps from his dreams into his objective reality to help him out.

How many television role models do you carry inside as ideals of wisdom and behavior, sources of advice and aid? Do you ever ask how Spock or Susan B. McNamara or MacGyver would handle a situation you face? Of course. The Ephrons know we do this.

Significantly, Uncle Arthur drives Jack to the couple's special place, the completely unreal sound stage Stevens house. Their special spot, scene of a date referencing "Singin' In the Rain" (1952), exists in a television studio reality. That's where Isabel feels at home, acting a role someone else created.

Many commenters have found little chemistry between the Jack and Isabel characters (not Will and Nicole, but the ego maniac and the innocent they're playing). Maybe so, maybe not, but under the influence of the "Bewitched" TV template, both evolve before our eyes to wind up as truly remade for one another, as compatible as the original Darren and Samantha. That's magic.

As the film starts, each has a disappointing, unfulfilled life. I'd say that the Kravitzes do not illogically pop from nowhere at the end to live across the street from Isabel and Jack. They're brought there to illustrate how the pair has become transformed by the characters Elizabeth Montgomery and Dick York originated. The dynamics of the classic show have almost totally replaced the unsatisfactory realities Isabel and Jack each occupy at the beginning of the film.

Does Shirley MacLaine's Iris obsess Michael Caine's Nigel due to her superior witchcraft? Or does the web the revived show weaves draw him into the romantic absorption he's habitually fought against using casual self-gratification and cynical wit? Remember, he wouldn't let Isabel watch "Bewitched" as a child. Yet that program didn't merely make fun of magic-users trying to solve sit-com problems. It essentially celebrated the power of love to bridge barriers and have the final word once all the spells had been spoken.

The Ephrons' picture has a texture as light as gossamer. By contrast, Charlie Kaufman used a meat axe to carve out "Adaptation" (2002) with its bold sequences of art intersecting life. "Dark City" (1998) sinisterly developed the idea that personal realities can shift beyond our control. However much "Bewitched" the movie may look like fluff floating on the wind, it affectionately and shrewdly makes substantial points about a society molded, perhaps very much for the better, by TV and mass entertainment. Marshall McLuhan would, perhaps, have understood.

After all, the Ephron sisters know intimately how reality crossbreeds with art. Their parents, Henry and Phoebe, strip-mined their eldest daughter's life while she was living it to yield two plays and a movie. I saw "Take Her, She's Mine" (1963) not knowing that Sandra Dee played a character based on Nora's college student days. I'm wondering how the feedback of seeing herself transformed into a role--a forthright, but naïve young woman slowly shedding an over-protective father--affected her real existence. Perhaps she's just told us.

Wax, or the Discovery of Television Among the Bees

"2001: A Space Odyssey" on a home movie budget
"Wax" is very likely the oddest film I've ever seen. Marvelously, beautifully, lyrically, and profoundly intellectually stimulating in all respects. Breathtaking in its scope and achievement. But very odd.

I have read medical reports containing sodium pentathol interviews and transcripts of schizophrenics' monologues. I have read memoirs and fiction by schizophrenics and hard drug users. I have read Surrealist and Beat Movement literature. I have read James Joyce and Gertrude Stein. I have read the visionary poetry of Charles Williams and H.D.

I have watched films by Kenneth Anger and David Lynch and Maya Daren. I have read Yoruba ethnic literature from West Africa and studied Aleister Crowley's skryings on the Enochian aethyrs. I have read H. P. Lovecraft and also Kenneth Grant's post-Crowleyan magickal writings describing journeys behind the Tree of Life which would have preempted H.P.L.'s usual nightmares had he but known of them.

"Wax" stands tall in that company. A hypnotic, hallucinatory, purely poetic fusion of words, images, political ideas, and mystical transformations, nothing quite resembles it. "Pi" (1998) tried for something as distinctive, but that film gave us a glowering, paranoid, tortured vision shot in deliberately painful close-ups. "Wax" makes a complete contrast in its joyful freedom of eloquence in narration and visuals.

"Wax" enhances life while critiquing it. The film employs early, simple computer graphics. It juggles idiosyncratic desert architecture, prosaic photography, and absurd juxtapositions of common images.

It tells a story of Middle Eastern honey bees along with offering a hard view of the original U.S. military actions against Iraq in 1991 (a time so simple in retrospect as to seem the good old days). It links Los Alamos with transformations in consciousness. "Wax" leaps beyond the merely political in its luminous metaphors for human existence.

You can find stronger films, more beautiful films, more linguistically spry films, but you will probably never find anything quite like this fireworks display of language and image. Think "2001: A Space Odyssey" on a home movie budget. Your grasp of reality (and cinema) may never feel the same.

The Mad Miss Manton

The Hot Miss Hilton?
25 years back when I saw "The Mad Miss Manton" at a rep theater I thought the production pallid and I found Henry Fonda callow. I knew "The Lady Eve" and this contrived potboiler surely did not approach its exquisite chemistry between the stars. While anything with Barbara Stanwyck should have had value, the sight of her and her débutante pals scouring the city (including the sewer) for clues in their floor-length minks seemed merely ludicrous. (I'm now wondering if the filmmakers intended it that way.)

The strong words posted by more recent viewers make me wish to see the movie again. One of the IMDb's greatest values lies in offering new perspectives. While I still don't think it would rival "The Penguin Pool Murder" (1932), "The Ex-Mrs. Bradford" (1936), or "Meet Nero Wolfe" (1936) as one of the top comedy-mysteries from that era, a lot in me has changed in 25 years.

However, until that time, let me fantasize. Of all the light-hearted 1930's whodunits, this could be the ripest for a remake. Consider Paris Hilton playing a morally delinquent T-fund babe who decides to prove her worth after getting chewed out by an editor for her social uselessness. Let's call him Denzel Washington. Smell the friction sizzle!

Watch her posse of multi-cultural brats from Bel Aire and the hills of Beverly shift into smart mob mode to solve a slaying down at their favorite detox center. Listen to police investigator Margaret Cho fuss an electric-blue streak as they play free-lance CSI-ers with her evidence. Could Kathy Baker play a caustic housekeeper in the Hattie McDaniel-cum-Thelma Ritter mode? After "The Jane Austen Book Club" (2007) I believe she could!

She Done Him Wrong

Who Done Who Wrong?
*** Big spoilers in this comment. You may wish to see the film first. ***

Oh, this story has no moral/ This story has no end/ This story just goes to prove to you/ That there ain't no good in men/ She loved her man/ But he done her wrong/ Oh so wrong.

--The Ballad of Frankie and Johnny

Now that April 22, 2008 will provide a fresh DVD to remind people of the glories of this early, idiosyncratic classic, let's gather 'round the barroom table, hoist a schooner of foaming brew, and discuss it a bit. I definitely agree with the commentators on this site who couldn't call this a comedy. I'd call it a cracking good melodrama with humor and songs and blood and betrayal and white slavery and bold women holding their own in a hard world.

Yet, it's an academic truth that in the discussion of dramatic forms anything that has a restorative ending can legitimately get tagged as a comedy. People with Ph.D.'s attest this. "Does a comedy have to be funny?" gets soberly mulled over in playwright classes at Julliard.

So, let's ask if this movie does have that restorative ending. Or do we see here a "problem comedy" as in late Shakespeare ("Measure For Measure", to cite an example). Does the production slip something at us under the radar?

As we know, "Diamond Lil", Mae West's bawdy stage success set in the Gay 90's, underwent a sanitizing sea change into "She Done Him Wrong" for Paramount. The Hollywood Production Code specifically banned her play from being filmed, along with works by other authors (notably "Lulabelle" and "The Shanghai Gesture"). The tidied up shooting script got through the Hays Office and still managed to deliver some jolting frankness about human affairs, earning a best picture nomination despite its more cartoonish aspects.

Mae West's character Lady Lou blatantly tells her maid that she plays a man's game by men's rules. And she does know her men. She's under the protection of the fellow running the saloon she works at. She has Chick, a frantic former hot squeeze, doing time upstate (only she hasn't told him he's now former). A local ward heeler has his eyes set on her and announces his intention to co-opt her in short order from the saloonkeeper who's keeping her.

Then there's that Salvation Army-style rescue mission dude next door. Oh, and Russian Rita's oily escort wants to spend more time with Lou and gains the leverage to press his attentions. A lot of balls to keep up in the air, as Miss West might have considered writing.

Although Lady Lou definitely controls action, she does this by controlling the men who initiate it. She demonstrates that when she resolves her boy friend dilemma. She uses eyes and facial expressions alone to send the Bowery politico Flynn to his death.

She has seen Chick, now an escaped convict and Flynn's armed enemy, slip into her boudoir. She directs the unknowing ward heeler into harm's way with a mimed variation on her trademark "Come up 'n see me" line, all the while she's singing the betrayal-revenge ballad "Frankie and Johnny".

She uses one man to cancel out another. It doesn't matter who'll emerge alive. She knows she can deal with the survivor.

In a sense, her actions parallel an earlier scene where she dispatches her proved ally, the bouncer Spider, to pick up Russian Rita's corpse. She simply signals him with her eyes, trusting he'll know what to do when he finds a dead woman in her dressing room. He does. She knows her men and how to employ them for her own ends.

The moralistic cartoon interpretation of the story's wrap-up would have the special Federal predator, the Hawk, reform Lady Lou by extracting her from dubious friends and an environment of vice. Of course, a cynic could say that he simply swoops her up as his prey. Notice the way Cary Grant coolly appropriates her, not at all different in his attitude from the confident Flynn when that worthy announces his plan to annex Lady Lou's charms.

The Hawk essentially offers marriage or jail time. Perhaps he's cleanly presenting her with reciprocating love, mutual understanding, and a protector whose Federal status will permanently shield her from the privations of the street she's proud to walk. That's the nice, Hays Office view.

Or maybe the male game hasn't changed and West knows it. Lady Lou's diamonds, like Lorelei Lee's in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" (1953) and the satchel of negotiable loot Barbara Stanwyck has amassed in "Baby Face" (1933), signal a woman's independence, the high cards she holds at the table. The Hawk's tiny diamond ring and marriage certificate may simply act as the age-old trumps in a man's game.

By putting those down on the green felt he stakes a permanent claim on exclusive rights to her hourglass shape, one defensible against other men and overriding her own desire for freedom of action. That viewpoint would give us a true problem comedy ending. One perhaps signaled by the possessive smirk the Hawk gives her in the carriage.

Of course, as we're now speculating, we should remember that the Hawk doesn't exactly fly alone hunting Lady Lou. While she's lip-lickingly fascinated with the guy, could she stay limited to any one man, even a Cary Grant-sized dreamboat? We do have a woman whose own will has remained her only law up to this point.

I'd say she still knows her men. However she plays the hand he's now dealt her, we can rely on Miss West's Lou to lay her cards down skillfully. She'll use the Hawk's own game and his own rules for her own purposes, however she conceives them, just as she has when coping with all the other males in her life.

The Girl Hunters

Unique and Authentic
"The Girl Hunters" opened in San Francisco the same week in 1963 as "Dr. No". Mickey Spillane's film got all the major publicity. However, the first outing of Sean Connery as James Bond altered action film history. Thereafter Pabst Blue Ribbon-drinking proles got muscled aside for dinner-jacketed U-speakers who knew that red wine didn't go with fish.

I saw "The Girl Hunters" three times that summer. I admit that I love it dearly. I have whistled the propulsive soundtrack themes for 45 years, conjuring up the film's attitude as I set my shoulders determinedly and prowl the urban landscape with a warily appraising squint.

I read the book twice that year. The second time I imagined Spillane's own curbstone-edged voice doing the first-person narration. It fit. My God, it fit. As an actor he didn't have the line-reading skills of a pro, but he had authenticity and a distinctive charm.

Robert Aldrich's Spillane adaptation "Kiss Me Deadly" (1955) has stature as a late-noir post-modernist metafictional commentary on the detective genre. Prophetically, Aldrich filmed it before most of those adjectives had meaning. However, only "The Girl Hunters" accurately conveys the feel of Mickey Spillane's fiction.

Aldrich and actor Ralph Meeker present a private eye opportunist seen from the outside--brutal, energetic, eyes on the main chance, cunning rather than bright. He's too large for his suit, a hustler busting out of his own clothes and the place he has in the world. A sly comment on slick, 1950's grassroots capitalist greed.

"The Girl Hunters" and star Spillane give you Mike Hammer the way he sees himself--reasonable, but dedicated; taking care of business the way he needs to in an uneasy environment. A solid citizen, good to friends, but "someone terrible", a civic benefactor with a .45 under his coat and the will to use it.

The only major difference I recall between book and screenplay comes when Hammer enters the tough waterfront bar where he's not welcome. The novel has a routine fight at the door. The movie shows Mike out-menace the ice pick- wielding bouncer while displaying his trademark homicidal grin, "the one with all the teeth."

Interestingly, Lloyd Nolan, the white-haired Fed in the film, portrayed Brett Halliday's detective Mike Shayne in seven movies for 20th Century-Fox in the 1940's. You might check out the DVD package. Its features discuss Halliday's books, solid mass market hardboiled mysteries.

Spillane took this type of urban adventurer and invigorated him with the Old Testament rigidity of Stonewall Jackson, Jack Dempsey's love of hands-on violence, and the populist wrath of a John Brown. His far more gutsy, hugely selling novels wove working class attitudes into fiercely climaxing revenge fantasies. The on-screen fight in "The Girl Hunters" between Hammer and the Dragon had no equal for pitiless savagery in 1963.

In 1923 Carroll John Daly put the first hardboiled wise-cracking private detective into pulp magazine print. He represents a different stream from Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Daly's action tales have roots in rough-and-ready American culture. The big-talking river raftsmen in HUCKLEBERRY FINN and the folk yarns of Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill display the same out-sized swagger as Daly's private eye Race Williams.

Williams admitted that he could walk into a room filled with clues and not find a single one. His style of detecting was to fling open the door and start shooting, then sort things out as they flew. Spillane read and admired Daly, writing him a revealing fan letter after achieving success.

Spillane gave the Race Williams bumptious folk hero contemporary visceral impact. He described his work as "the chewing gum of American literature". However, his books do more than exercise eye muscles.

America's classic paranoid rant remains the same for rich and poor, Left and Right: Somewhere, somehow, someone is doing me dirt and I won't stand for it any longer! From 1947 to 1952 Mike Hammer shot men and women, kicked the guilty as well as the innocent, and broke teeth other than his own exorcising that rage. He came back after a decade in THE GIRL HUNTERS novel, which focuses our smoldering abstract anger on a world-girdling spy ring at the service of the international Communist conspiracy.

Thank God it can be thrown into disarray by a lone American woman loose in the Soviet Union. (To learn what happens to Velda, the invisible Maguffin, read the book's direct sequel THE SNAKE.) Thank Him again that we have a howitzer-packing rogue private eye who can shrug off seven years of drunken debilitation (and repeated merciless beatings from a former best friend) to get ugly with foreign assassins nestled in our midst.

Philosopher Ayn Rand named Spillane in her Objectivist newsletter as her favorite author. Why? His stories did not deal in moral grey areas. Bad was black, good was white. She liked that. Yet the truth of Spillane's fiction has more twists.

Mike Hammer himself knows that he's a kill-crazy psycho. If you read nothing else of Mickey Spillane's, you might take time for the first chapter of ONE LONELY NIGHT. Hammer spends the rest of that book brooding over why a woman he has just saved from a gunman jumps to her death in an icy river after taking one searching look at the expression on his face.

He comes to the soul-soothing epiphany that he's a killer designed by nature to kill killers. That's his destiny. He's a walking American revenge machine, a wish-fulfillment figure from the unquiet depths of our national psyche.

"The Girl Hunters" presents this raw-hewn character straight, without any intermediary meddling. However you may like the approaches taken by Ralph Meeker or Armando Assante or Stacey Keach, the movie's credits have it right--Mickey Spillane is Mike Hammer. The Hammer on the page is a foot taller than Spillane on screen; otherwise they're identical.

An Affair to Remember

Love In a Time of Cold War
I lived through every minute of the 1950's. Our middle class lives had iron hoops of restraint, decorum, and sublimation that exploded in the 1960's. "An Affair to Remember" did nothing to disrupt those conventions.

Rather, it celebrated an escape from the merely comfortable. The central characters set their plush but routine lives aside to actively embrace love's uncertain adventure. They did so within boundaries that suburban households would have recognized and honored.

Two of the most accomplished actors ever to touch the giant screen took front and center. Their highly stylized, glamorously stylish portrayals presented enduring truths within a dramatic setting as ritualized as a classical Japanese Noh play. The truths came through the fully realized performances, not the formal devices used to frame them.

Don't look for the raw-edged 50's neo-realism of "La Strada" (Fellini, 1954, Italy), "Los Olvidados" (Bunuel, 1950, Mexico), "Roshomon" (Kurosawa, 1950, Japan), or "Pather Panchali" (Ray, 1954, India). Those films offered the illusion of naked life thrust at you in stark black and white. "On the Waterfront" (Kazan, 1954), "From Here To Eternity" (Zinnemann, 1953), and "Baby Doll" (Kazan, 1956) tried to capture that unguarded quality in more traditional Hollywood dramas.

"An Affair to Remember" has a look as alien to that approach to movie making as the filmed ballets of Dame Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev. In this aspect it certainly remains rooted to its time. John Ford's "The Searchers" (1956), Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo" (1958), and the musical "Oklahoma!" (1955) all partook of the same wide-screen, non-realistically-colored, highly-coded representation of existence which you find in "Affair".

If you must compare this studio-bound confection to film-making outside the Hollywood box, try the soulful Technicolor meditation Jean Renoir offered in "The River" (1951). There you have a French master going to India to recreate its look and heady spiritual atmosphere in his own image and likeness. We don't see the subcontinent of Satyajit Ray, but rather a cinema Impressionist's personal canvas.

The full title, "Leo McCarey's An Affair to Remember", reminds us that you truly see McCarey's film, McCarey's vision, McCarey's world. Here the director put romance, sex, verbal wit, temptation, physical humor, responsibility, grace under pressure, destiny, and adult responses to life's caprices into the context of his own "Belle of the Nineties" (1934), "The Awful Truth" (1937), and "Going My Way" (1944).

He populated this pocket universe with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr, icons who shared his perspective and could incarnate his values. Watch these masters of screencraft play knowingly with the lines and situations, much as Dame Margot and Nureyev invest staidly conventional choreography with their own vivacity.

A year later Grant strayed frivolously at Ingrid Bergman's side in "Indiscreet", while earthy lust had bedeviled Kerr throughout "The Black Narcissus" (1946). Take those movies as bracketing context and measure the differences. McCarey may have used a light touch, but he approached his material with deep seriousness.

In "Affair" Grant made a lover's sensitive responsiveness to a woman on her own terms feel right, proper, and manfully debonair. Kerr gave romantic attraction the priority it has for Jane Austen--not impassioned lunacy, but a well-grounded woman's due. Neither could tell what would come from actively committing to their love for each other.

Both knew the lives they'd led with other partners. In his case, he'd enjoyed quite a lot of exotic women. In hers, she had bonded with a good, stable man. Each set those prior ways aside in favor of crossing economic as well as emotional frontiers.

The next decade offered us "Never On Sunday" (1960) and "Tom Jones" (1963), "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (1966) and "Hud" (1963), all hugely influential pictures which abandoned Hollywood formulas about the sexes and helped revolutionize the 60's. In "Affair" we can see the conformities that partly defined Dwight Eisenhower's era supporting the idea that yes, you can free yourself from the predictable to love--really love--responsibly, but totally.


A Roisterous Showcase
I would call "The Bombshell" (UK: "The Blonde Bombshell") Jean Harlow's funniest comedy. She exhibits enormous acting range, from emotional anguish to maternal care to melting passion, all in the service of farce. The movie's frenetic dialogue and propulsive urgency also make athletic use of Lee Tracy, the fastest talking lead actor on the screen.

In "Platinum Blonde" (1931) Harlow somewhat stiffly embodies genteel sex in service of a comedy. By 1933's "Dinner At Eight" she stands her own paired with two mighty talents. She spars lustily with Wallace Beery, a Falstaffian scene-seizer. Her lines as straight woman to Marie Dressler could not be more exquisitely rendered.

To an extent Lola Burns in "The Bombshell" spoofs Harlow's own career and image. Her character even does a retake of the rain barrel scene from "Red Dust" (1932), a picture which had Harlow sunnily portraying a good-time girl along the Malay rivers. More broadly, she helps satirize an entire merciless industry which could cruelly grind up creative personnel's egos, private lives, and sanity.

Yet, we don't have the corrosive movie-biz self-criticism of "What Price Hollywood?" (1932) or its "A Star Is Born" descendants. For all the muck it rakes up about the studio system, this remains a fun picture, a supremely good time, and a roisterous showcase for a talented star who died far too soon.

Marilyn Monroe had wanted to play Harlow in a biopic. Both luminous women left impressive, abbreviated legacies.

Wife vs. Secretary

The Genius of Jean
I treasure this film for Jean Harlow's performance, capped by a magnificent, simple line reading: "You are a fool. For which I am grateful."

She had amazing range for an actress who died at 26. Howard Hughes presented her in "Hell's Angels" (1930) as an amoral menace to civilization. (When she slips into "something comfortable" she actually puts on clothes.) It would be charitable to call her appearance in that picture acting. Yet within a couple of years she could dominate the screen by the force of genuine talent.

Her starring career blazed briefly, but with almost no wasted roles. Here she gets to behave like a normal working class woman--not a débutante, nor a tenement dweller, nor a criminal's moll, nor a voracious mantrap, nor a comic banshee, nor an adventuress working the China Seas or Malay docksides.

Clark Gable and Myrna Loy have more customary roles. A part this quiet remains a rarity for the winsome, brilliant, and doomed Harlow.

Libeled Lady

The Lady shines forth
I have watched "Libeled Lady" for 35 years in rep houses. It has legs and class. Ed Sikov charts the corkscrew arc of screwball comedy in his 1989 book SCREWBALL. I would hold that "Libeled Lady" (1936) remained MGM's finest entry into the screwball stakes until "The Philadelphia Story" (1940) upped the studio's ante.

Columbia birthed the genre with "Twentieth Century" and "It Happened One Night" (both 1934). Universal's "My Man Godfrey" (1936) enriched the breed considerably. Paramount and RKO introduced Cary Grant into the mix through "The Awful Truth" (1937) and "Bringing Up Baby" (1938).

Warners may have given us the classiest screwball ever in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (1935), Shakespeare by way of Max Reinhart, William Dieterle, and Erich Wolfgang Korngold. William Powell and Myrna Loy collaborated with Dashiell Hammett early in the game to give screwball turns to cinema marriage and the mystery genre in "The Thin Man" (1934), though that's not a pure example of the form.

I like the simple definition that screwball comedy involves a pursuit relationship between a man and a woman, marked by inversions of the social order. The pursuit relationship takes a natural course in "Libeled Lady". William Powell sets off to end a libel suit against the Evening Star. This quest broadens into love for Myrna Loy, who correctly suspects him of ulterior motives for his attentions to her.

Inversion of the social order certainly slips in. Working people labor to upset the apple cart of a rich father and daughter, who seek to smash the Evening Star after 20 years of political enmity. Yet the film artfully sidesteps the naked social satire of "The Front Page" (which Howard Hawks transformed in 1939 into a screwball divorce masterwork, "His Girl Friday").

The most radical inversion of our expectations may lie in jettisoning the entire class struggle--no small feat in the Great Depression. The wealthy Allenburys don't appear as oppressors or mindless sybarites, nor do they represent a wholesome aristocracy under assault by Bolsheviks.

The common folk neither champion social causes nor shine forth in natural virtue. No one's noble, no one's iniquitous. All seem equal under the eye of Heaven. You don't find that in Frank Capra's later populist movies.

Further, we have a film that made bigamy funny in the 1930's, in the teeth of the Production Code, the Roman Catholic Legion of Decency, and grassroots Bible Belt principles.

Five gifted performers help to dampen any outrage. "Libeled Lady" accords Powell and Loy more dignity than they'd get from "I Love You Again" (1940) or "Love Crazy" (1941), though the script musters less purring wit than their Nick and Nora Charles exploits. Spencer Tracy gets to roar and bluster in a very James Cagney vein.

(Pause a moment: Could you envision a Warner Bros. "Libeled Lady"? Star Errol Flynn as Bill, the dapper libel-suit quasher. Have Olivia DeHavilland undertake Connie, the offended heiress. Let Cagney do Warren, the commitment-shy newspaper editor. Either Una Merkel or Glenda Farrell could suffer as his fiancée, the sublimely frustrated Gladys, whose road to the altar proves long and devious indeed. I think this imaginary version would gallop friskily, a typical Warners knockabout farce, but it would lack the pervasive elegance that MGM built into its actual production.)

Though asked to play Gladys very broadly, Jean Harlow still has some subtle moments. Watch when she tells Powell that he's a strange egg. "Wife Vs. Secretary" (1935) had presented her in a subdued mode, gentle as a whisper. "Libeled Lady" chooses to use her mostly in brassy counterpoint to Myrna Loy's soft woodwind.

Walter Connolly, though only five years older than Powell, portrays a very well-heeled father with all the skill accumulated in a career filled with canny industrialists, money men, outraged parents, and elder statesmen. "The Bitter Tea of General Yen" (1933) and "Twentieth Century" gave him stronger sidekick roles, but no one ever did more to flesh out a stereotypic part. His only rival at comic authority figures remains Eugene Palette (ideal for my Warner Bros. fantasy).

Jack Conway's direction defines workmanlike. Gregory La Cava or Leo McCarey would certainly have spent more time with the script and the actors to refine more metal from the ore. However, Conway does a briskly pleasant job.

This film does not have the character depths of "My Man Godfrey", nor does it reshape a screen persona the way "The Awful Truth" re-molded Cary Grant from mere leading man to an icon of the art form. We don't see the sublime mayhem of Howard Hawks' pioneering screwballs.

Yet MGM's star factory knew how to produce highly polished entertainment week in and week out. "Libeled Lady" glistens lustrously.

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