30 May 2010

Re: Dennis Hopper

The internet is awash with obituaries for the late, great Dennis Hopper. So rather than add to the pile, I will leave you with this, by way of tribute.

26 May 2010

You Won't Understand a Single Thing He Says...

...but you will somehow be persuaded that the Ultimate Warrior is speaking the truth.

Also fun: the next time you watch a silent movie, imagine all the intertitles being read in this voice. Buster Keaton will suddenly be a lot more terrifying.

23 May 2010

Edward Steichen at the Nelson-Atkins

So the Nelson-Atkins Museum is running an exhibition of Edward Steichen's photography? You bet your ass I'm going. Picture related: it's a shot of Joan Crawford by Steichen.

[Image Sauce]

18 May 2010

Lulu In Hollywood

Why is it that the most fascinating denizens of Hollywood are the ones who realize just how absurd the whole Hollywood system could be? This is particularly true of Louise Brooks, who scoffed at motion picture stardom in spite of the fact that she easily had the talent to achieve that talent for herself. Louise chose the Weimar Republic over Los Angeles County, and although her career suffered for it, the choice would ultimately set her legacy in stone. This is one of the many lessons one can learn from Lulu in Hollywood, Louise's account of her experiences in tinsel town.

Rather than an autobiography proper, Lulu in Hollywood is more a collection of essays that highlight episodes in Louise's life in (and out of) the limelight. Among these episodes are her stint in New York as a showgirl in the Scandals and the Follies, her friendship with Marion Davies' unfortunate niece Pepi, her work under the aegis of Georg Wilhelm Pabst and her childhood in small town Kansas. Louise also treats the reader to her commentary on such figures as W. C. Fields and Lillian Gish, among others.

That such accounts are given from a firsthand perspective is appealing enough -- my inner scholastic still values a good primary source, it seems -- but that fact that it is such a wit as Louise Brooks narrating the events makes the book doubly enjoyable to read. Brooksie, it seems, was one of those rare specimens of human who possess both beauty and brains (this is not lost on her -- at one point, she claims that the fact that she read books made her an oddity among the screen starlets).

While not quite iconoclastic, Louise's take on Hollywood -- and indeed on the social circles of which she was a part -- is anything but starry-eyed. Here is one who definitely did not drink the Kool-Aid. Although her candor ultimately proved fatal to her acting career, Louise's singular personalty allowed her to become an enduring figure -- far more so, it seems, than many of the major stars who were her contemporaries.

Although it is a brief affair, Lulu in Hollywood is nevertheless an engaging read, so much so that even readers who are not particularly well-versed in classic Hollywood lore will be able to enjoy Louise's remarks.

15 May 2010

En Profil

Was there ever in history a profile as perfectly lovely as Norma Shearer's? Not likely.

10 May 2010

The Bicycle Thief (1948)

For American audiences, cinema in the wake of World War II was a pleasant and occasionally colorful affair, characterized by sentimental favorites like It's a Wonderful Life and Singing in the Rain. Cinema in Italy was another sort of affair entirely -- in sharp contrast to the optimism of contemporaneous American movies (as well as the telefono biancho pictures that dominated the cinema of Mussolini's Italy a decade earlier), the tone of Italian movies in the latter half of the 1940s was often times downright depressing. The most iconic film of the Neorealist era (as the style became known) is perhaps Vittorio De Sica's The Bicycle Thief (Ladri di Biciclette).

The film follows an episode in the life of Antonio Ricci. Antonio manages to secure a much-coveted job, but will need a bicycle if he wishes to work. He and his wife Maria pawn off their bed sheets in order to buy a bicycle. Antonio's job, as it turns out, is hang posters around town (as though to highlight the difference between the United States and Italy, the posters he hangs are promotional portraits of a glamorous Rita Hayworth). It is while hanging one such poster that Antonio's bike is stolen. With the help of a few friends and his faithful son Bruno, Antonio spends the rest of the film trying to find his stolen bicycle. I won't give away too many details, but I will tell you that all does not end well.

The search for the bicycle is hardly the only point of interest, however: the film also presents an absorbing portrait of an extremely sympathetic father and son duo. Antonio and his son Bruno play off one another quite well, and that they are able to stick together through their hardship is one of the few uplifting aspects of the story.

No less interesting is the struggle between Antonio's sense of decency and his growing desperation. He is not out to beg, borrow or -- as it were -- steal; he wants only to earn an honest living for his family. Yet as time and money begin to run dry Antonio becomes increasingly exasperated, a condition which leads him in the final scenes of the film to transgress his moral standards with almost disastrous consequences. Although he manages to avoid complete tragedy, the end of the film finds Antonio and Bruno utterly dispirited, their future anything but certain.

The ending is more than a little anticlimactic, and rather depressing to boot. Even so, the film is positively engrossing. It does a remarkable job of drawing the viewer into its world, and the everyman quality of its protagonists make them very easy to identify with. Indeed, this everyman quality is magnified by the fact that the cast is composed almost entirely of non-professional actors (Lamberto Maggiorani, who plays Antonio, was actually a factory worker prior to appearing in this film). Yet in spite of that fact, we see some very naturalistic performances; even young Enzo Staiola does a hell of a job as Bruno. TCM counts The Bicycle Thief as among the fifteen most influential films of all time, a difficult claim to dispute. This is strongly recommended viewing for film buffs, especially those interested in foreign films.

09 May 2010

New Year's Dissolutions, Revisited

Way back in January, I made a post outlining my aspirations for this year. To briefly recapitulate, my primary new year's resolutions were:
  1. Start a collection of classic movie swag
  2. Get a new job
  3. Get something published somehow
The year is not quite half over, but I've managed to accomplish two of these. Paying off my credit card has left me with a bit of financial wiggle room -- no bailouts from the IMF for me, I can assure you! -- which has allowed to collect a few DVDs and books of interest. In the former category, I am now the proud owner of the Busby Berkeley Collection and the Myrna Loy and William Powell Collection. Where books are concerned, I secured copies of Lulu in Hollywood (which I am currently reading and rather enjoying) and Being and Becoming (Myrna Loy's autobiography). The latter is a first edition hardcover, a particular point of pride for me.

More importantly, perhaps, I start a new job at a local law firm two weeks from tomorrow. I have no idea how this happened -- it's almost as though I just stumbled into it. My daily commute has been slashed to all of fifteen minutes, since the office is essentially right down the street. The work promises to be much more demanding than that which my current job entails, but I expect it to be a welcome change of pace from soul-deadening boredom.

The third resolution, on the other hand, remains unfulfilled. Nevertheless, I'm working on it -- you've hopefully noticed that the posts here have been increasing in length and quality (if not quantity). I used to want to be a fiction writer -- and to a certain degree I still do -- but it seems that nonfiction is much more my forte. In addition to providing an avenue by which I can pursue my geeky obsessions, writing these posts has also allowed to my keep my writing skills up to snuff. Even if I don't managed to get something published this year, writing reviews and such here is really a pleasure in and of itself. It's also a treat, by the way, to have a readership at all. Minuscule as my audience might be, it's nice to know that someone out there is listening. Thanks for coming along for the ride.

Oh, and I've switched to a new template (as you might have noticed). The old one was getting a little stale.

07 May 2010

I know I'm Late to the Party...

...But this album is actually really damned good.

03 May 2010

Souls for Sale (1923)

I recently watched Souls for Sale for the second time. Many of you might have seen it as well; it was featured quite recently on TCM's Silent Sunday Nights, as it has been before. By and large, it's an enjoyable picture about the unlikely ascent to motion picture stardom of Remember Steddon (played by Eleanor Boardman). Mem -- as she is known to intimates and confidantes -- is married to the ever-so-sketchy Owen Scudder (Lew Cody), but something about her new husband does not sit well with her, so she escapes from him by hopping off a train and disappearing into the desert of Southern California. As it turns out, Mem's suspicions well-founded -- we learn early on that Scudder (isn' that a great name for a villain?) has a history of marrying women and later murdering them for insurance money (I'm not sure how that's supposed to work out legally, but such details are apparently beside the point).

Whilst wandering in the desert, Mem happens across a film crew doing location shots for an Arab Nomad film (such films being very much en vogue in the wake of Rudy Valentino's The Sheik) in which she is given a bit part. The obligatory love triangle ensues when Mem catches the attention of both director Frank Claymore (Richard Dix) and the matinee idol leading man Tom Holby (Frank Mayo). Although initially hesitant to pursue a life in pictures -- in an earlier scene, we see Mem's father, a preacher, denounce Hollywood as a new Babylon -- Mem eventually finds her way to tinsel town, where she is reunited with the film crew after unsuccessfully attempting to find work on her own.

Scudder, meanwhile, having been given the slip by Mem, embarks on his own series of misadventures. Scudder evades the police, swindles the mousy and lovelorn Abigail Tweedy out her savings and winds up in Egypt, where he is bamboozled by a pair of British con artists. Scudder learns of Mem's success in pictures when he sees her in film in an Egyptian cinema, and heads back to the United States to pay his wife a visit. Once in Hollywood, Scudder blackmails Mem by threatening to reveal that she is his wife -- a scandal that would bring her career crashing down around her ears. Mortified, Mem agrees to pay him the hush money after a brief scuffle.

It is during this confrontation between the estranged spouses, however, that the picture's biggest problem arises -- at one point Mem threatens to commit suicide, and Scudder begs her not to, claiming that he "cannot bear to watch her die," in spite of the fact that he has already killed several women in the past, and despite the fact that he was ostensibly planning to off her himself at the outset of the movie. All of a sudden, and without any real explanation, Scudder is genuinely in love with his wife (which now means that our love triangle has evolved into a love tetrahedron, I suppose).

In the picture's climactic final scene, a severe storm brings the shooting of Frank Claymore's extravagant circus film to a grinding halt when the big top is set ablaze by a bolt of lightning. In the ensuing chaos Scudder attempts to kill Claymore -- whom he has learned is planning to marry Mem -- by piloting a wind machine into him, but Mem herself suddenly stumbles into the path and Scudder winds up pushing her out of the way at the expense of his own life. The cataclysmic final scene is actually quite well done, but Scudder's sudden change of character is a major issue. Until the last twenty minutes or so of the picture Scudder is shown to be an utter scoundrel, which makes his tranformation seem almost incomprehensible. This transformation actually would have worked quite well if it were developed over the course of the picture, but as it is it's far too abrupt. Furthermore, it isn't explained very well -- are we to assume that by shaving off his mustache, Owen Scudder frees himself from the dark side of the force? While shaving the soup strainer certainly helps, it surely can't account for everything. This abrupt change really causes problems for what is otherwise a well-acted and directed picture.

Narrative troubles aside, though, Souls for Sale is still interesting from a historical standpoint -- not only does it feature big names in early roles, but it also must be counted among the earliest movies about the business of making movies. Cameos also abound -- Erich von Stroheim and Charlie Chaplin can be seen directing actual scenes from forthcoming films, among a small host of other Hollywood notables. Still other familiar faces may be spotted among the supporting cast, including Mae Busch, Barbara La Marr and, in one of his earliest roles, Will Haines.

Although I've harped a bit on the picture's one major foible, Souls for Sale is nevertheless still a worthwhile picture. I'd recommend it to anyone interested in the history of Hollywood and early cinema, as well as to silent film fans in general.

...Also, who names their kid "Remember?"