Thursday, September 22, 2011

A Tribute To Gerald of Laszlo's on Lex

Like others I feared the worst but hoped for the best when Gerald's posts became less and less frequent. I've only just learned of his passing from Matthew's beautiful tribute to him, and can't quite find words to express the loss. Perhaps that's because I know that no one could write them better than Gerald himself.

I never met Gerald. I only knew him through his comments and his posts. To say I felt I knew the man at all is an achievement on his part, because really I only knew his words. He knew so much, and for any not familiar with his blog I encourage you now to read, enjoy, and celebrate.

The thing that strikes me about my too short communication with him is how often our conversations were turned to my own life. There have been occasions where my own set of doubts and frustrations have crept into this blog, and when these moments have happened and I haven't had the good sense to delete five seconds after publishing Gerald was always there to offer a kind, reassuring word. Once, simply, "I feel confident." And it meant a lot. It really meant a lot.

I can only leave the reader with

Random considerations from one who has been down a few roads. Consider or disregard as applicable. Best.


Monday, September 12, 2011

Making Chaplin Move

I generally walk right on through Disneyland’s Main Street. The turn of the century themed entrance to the original park has charm, but doesn’t provide the same thrill as a roller coaster. While I love any occasion to obnoxiously sing along to Oklahoma! or Hello Dolly, Main Street is not really the main attraction. Walt Disney described it as a "weenie," something to pull people in. By definition it is something you are meant to walk past, but if one looks closely it has hidden treasures for the film history fan.

I hadn’t walked into one of the area’s storefront arcades until a few weeks ago, or if I have it was at a time when ‘this tall to ride’ signs had meaning. I’d seen them as I passed, but never really taken note of the bank of Mutoscope machines lining the walls. I didn’t even know what they were until I took the time to walk up to one and read the manufacturing information.

Stop by and pay a penny. That seems to be the motto of the Mutoscope, and DL hasn’t changed the form. Except in Disneyland it’s more stop by, stand in line, have time to think about the exorbitant price you’re paying for a ticket, pay for the ticket, want to slap your crying five year old for not appreciating the vacation time and money spent to bring the whole family on this magical adventure, then say what’s an extra penny after all?

Note: “What’s an extra penny after all” was the original music pitch for the Small World ride. Ok no it wasn’t, but it should have been.

The machine itself operates on the old arcade model, with viewing meant for one individual at a time. The passerby pays a penny, turns the crank, and a series of images roll past on what looks like a giant rolodex. If the right rhythm is hit, the images move like a flipbook, creating fluid action. If you’re like me you’ve never been able to get a flipbook to operate properly, but the imagination fills in the jolts and small spasms of movement. Really there’s a reason these puppies went out of style.

Subjects for these machines varied, but one of the most popular topics was movies. One of the Disneyland Mutoscopes, simply called “Dough Fight,” features a scene from the Chaplin silent film Dough and Dynamite (1914).

As it’s a film I’ve seen before I couldn’t resist putting a penny into the slot to see what the experience would be like in a more personal, handheld environment. You speed up, Chaplin speeds up. You slow down, the chosen gag becomes a rickety mess. All that perfect tramp timing rested at my fingertips, and all of Chaplin’s precision came to naught in my inexperienced grip. In this scenario Chaplin became the Mario of the early 20th Century. It's now the norm for films to become video games and video games to become films, but the practice isn't without precedent.

A plaque at the entrance to Disneyland reads "Here you leave today and enter the world of yesterday, tomorrow and fantasy." Maybe yesterday and tomorrow are closer together than we might think.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Great Space Race: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes From a Different Perspective

There's still something about a darkened theater. It's a space that presents a strange mix, a sensational sense of togetherness and isolation at the same time.  While you never really forget other audience members are there (they laugh, they cry, some damn teenager gets caught on their date's lip ring) these multiplex multitudes are meant to be ignored as the lights dim. But should they be?

The idea of the 4th wall may be a theatrical concept, but it can also be applied to film. While both screen and stage tend to have a defined space, neither are self contained, and direct address is discouraged in both. The term may only be applicable to the world onscreen, but this recognition of the audience really happens all the time and is generally just as unsettling. The person coughing in the second row can completely ruin what should be a dramatic pause. A group of latecomers knock into your knees, excuse me, pardon me, blocking the screen in the process. Both distractions can alter the reception of a film, and one's understanding of it. There are limits to this, of course, but it's an interesting aspect of the process to consider, and one that has been written about rather extensively (see Rick Altman).

While the extent is debatable, I can attest to ways the screening space can change the film.

I've attended Screen on the Green in Washington, DC once every summer for the past four years. The event is an annual tradition known for its top notch lineup as well as the one minute HBO dance party that takes place before every screening. It's possibly the only show in town where the hundreds of people assembled on the mall will stand up and dance to the HBO intro before settling in for a classic cartoon and the advertised show.

Over the years I've watched the last five minutes of The Apartment walking backwards along the mall, trying to see it to the end while simultaneously hurrying to catch the last metro. My second year, On The Waterfront, we came late, couldn't get seats terribly close, and ended up watching the entire film with a sound delay. It's a lot less fun than it looks in Singin' in the Rain. The third time wasn't a charm with Goldfinger as they had to cut off the film midway through to evacuate during a horrendous thunderstorm. Dodging bolts of lighting actually seemed appropriate, though I prefer my terror remain up on the screen with head slicing top hats.

Even without these added obstacles sitting on beach blankets sandwiched between the Smithsonian Museums, the Capitol, and the Washington Monument adds an extra thrill to any film.

This year I came for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, a fun and frothy classic perfect for a summer evening.

While nothing as disruptive occurred this time around, the event is set up in such a way that those around you become more of an attraction than they usually would. The drama unfolding right before my eyes was a blonde other than Marilyn Monroe scanning the sidelines for her boyfriend. I had one eye on the choreography on screen, the other on the graceful way the girl would extend her hands high into the air and wave repeatedly to direct him to their spot. If it were a darkened theater I may have noticed the added laugh on the line about writing your senator or the occasional wolf whistle, but I wouldn't have noticed her high high heels with candy cane stripped ties.

As media becomes more readily disseminated and more easily condensed it is important to remember not just Screen on the Green or even the ipod screen, but the city bus or the rural barn in which the ipod is played. With new audiences for classic films come new spaces in which they can be viewed.

To infinity and beyond.

Friday, August 12, 2011

My Life as a Greer Garsonologist (Extra! Extra! Read All About It!)

By Yours Truly (Not Johnny Dollar)

Some exciting news for this little blog o'mine that its ramshackle authoress is in Issue 73 of Bright Lights Film Journal. It is a long term goal of mine to keep up with and diversify my writing, and this is the first time I've submitted a film piece to any publication, online or otherwise, so I'm thrilled that Gary Morris and the minds behind BL liked it and accepted it. I'm also more excited than I should be to be somewhere in the coding of MUBI.

Greer Garson is one of my favorite actresses, and her career trajectory has always fascinated me. More than almost any other star (save the likes of Marilyn Monroe) she became trapped in a certain persona that she couldn't break from. This not only shaped her legacy, it also marked an important shift in the American conscience that's worth documenting. And thus the above essay was born.

If you actually take the time to read it, bless you. Either way just wanted to share.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Link Love #2 (Plus Liebster Awards and Additional Newsbits)


The wunderbar Marsha of A Person in the Dark has bestowed a Liebster upon Movie Montage. Liebster is supposedly German for "beloved," and it is now my turn to pass the torch along to several worthwhile blogs of my own choosing.

LA. La Land: Fame, Fortune, and Forensics: Aside from being a fellow Meredith this girl knows her stuff. Really. Her posts are deeper than the Mariana trench and a lot more fun to look through.
Film Studies For Free: Catherine Grant's page is an invaluable resource for film news, new journal publications, and listings of film essays and articles available online. It's overwhelming but in a good way.
Happy Thoughts, Darling: The word liebchen immediately brought MC's site to mind. Well written and a nice blog to sit down and drink a cup of tea with.
The Pneumatic Rolling-Sphere Carrier Delusion: To use his own words Joe describes his blog as "rambling observations on books, history, movies, transit, obsolete technology, baseball, and anything else that crosses my mind." Every time I click on his page it's the equivalent of stepping into an ephemera shop. Also fun for those who love all things San Francisco.
Who Can Turn The World Off With Her Smile?: Laura's blog is still new to me but I'm pretty assured in calling her the Eve Arden of the classic blogging world. Her page is a lot of fun to read and I feel like if I ever met her on the street she could toss back a one liner faster than Eleanor Powell could machine gun tap.


  • The Lady Eve's REEL LIFE was able to interview Edna May Wonacott, the child actress who played Ann Newton in Shadow of A Doubt. Read her great post about Edna here
  • The Millie truly has a unique way of expressing herself (I still think "stupendously deranged" is a word pairing of divine inspiration) so please enjoy Six Greatest Upbeat, Cheerful Bobby Darin Songs About Violent Death
  • The Movie Snob's latest Director's Spotlight on Francis Ford Coppola outlines why he's the gift that keeps on giving
  • I love Kate of Scathingly Brilliant's love of astronomy. You can read all of her 'star stuff' posts here

Also of Interest

  • While I imagine most of you have perused it by now TCM always does an incredible job with its graphics, and I encourage one and all to look through each and every page of their Summer Under the Stars website
  • Nancy Wake, WWII heroine dubbed the "White Mouse" by her Nazi enemies, has died at 98. Learn more about her amazing life (thanks for the link, Kendra)
  • Roger Ebert posted a link to the Sound on Sight article The "Gray Ones" Fade To Black yesterday, a piece about the lack of shared cultural knowledge many young people today seem to possess, and I've been contemplating whether or not to comment. While this is true I think that we all need to start speaking loud and clear 'We are here! We are here!' Dr. Seuss style because there's clearly a flourishing classic film community on the Internet with a lot of young energy behind it, and I think it's time people recognized our existence instead of using those darned kids with their Bieber fever as a well worn punching bag.

Just For Fun

  • A 'Did You Know' Fact. I haven't watched the television show The Munsters in many years, but only just found out that Grandmama, played by Blossom Rock, is Jeanette MacDonald's older sister. Who knew!

Also a note that this blog isn't going anywhere but the girl behind it is. In the next few days I'll be making the move clear across the country to Southern California, and will hopefully be able to stay forever and ever and ever. The area should prove an amazing resource for this blog, so stay tuned.

Friday, August 5, 2011

What Lucille Ball and Coffee Creamer Have in Common

Sometimes my mother calls me Lucille. It’s not because she has forgotten my name (though I was often confused with the family dog…), rather this is more a playful reference used when I’ve done something silly. And by silly I mean something Lucy Ricardo might do. I’ve loved I Love Lucy since childhood, and it’s still my favorite show. It is not only a link to television’s past but to my own.

Only later would I learn the many sides of Ball. Her days as a platinum blonde chorus girl at RKO (check out Astaire/Rogers films Top Hat and Roberta for some early cameos, among others) and eventual promotion to full red-headed Technicolor glory in films like Du Barry Was a Lady, which only Ball and Virginia O’Brien make bearable. Offscreen reading about her love affair with Desi Arnaz can only lead to ugly crying and the over consumption of thin mints.

What fascinates me the most is how she was always half and half. Half out of this world gorgeous movie star, half goober. Her beautiful eyes would brighten as a deformed putty nose threatened to light her face on fire. Lucy Ricardo often gravitated towards the silly and the slapstick, and this is what Ball remains best known for. But part of the fun is the rare moments when that other side shines through.

The only way I can imagine celebrating her centennial in public memory is to post what I would probably deem my favorite scene from I Love Lucy. It’s part of an episode that appropriately takes place during the Hollywood season, when Lucy gets to do a dance number with Van Johnson. It has always stuck out to me as one of the few moments when Lucy completely drops her schtick. The number begins situation normal (i.e. humorous) and slowly transitions into Lucille Ball, effortless screen queen. The true beauty is that Ball made both seem effortless. The result is magical.

I only just discovered that there is a wonderful blogathon going on at True Classics to celebrate her August 6th birthday (and I have now joined in the fun!), so be sure to check out the posts here.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Bette Davis- a definition of a favorite actress

"Whatever I did, I did. My mistakes are mine. I, alone, am responsible."

Bette Davis [bet-te da-vis]
  1. Actress
  2. Organizer (See: Hollywood Canteen)
  3. Warner Brother's Scarlett O'Hara (See: Jezebel) 
  1. To have the stars
  2. To know one's enemies
  3. To be short in body but tall in spirit
  1. "A great name for a secretary"*
  2. A bumpy night

1. Determined 2. Commanding 3. Hard-working 4. Ethical 5. Theatrical

*Carl Laemmle's publicity men on wanting to change Davis' name for pictures (via "The Lonely Life" by Bette Davis, p. 125)

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Facebook and the Circle of Life

Wild Card #3. There were no Parent Trap style handshakes involved but I have nonetheless made a pact with Amanda of A Noodle in A Haystack to produce one wild card post a month. Not only is it a chance to flex muscles outside of filmdom, it has the added fun of not knowing what we may come up with. Feel free to pull up a chair and join us if you like. The more the merrier.

Internet fads come and go, but one that has attracted my attention recently is Google +, a 'new and improved Facebook' with less mess and no invites to raise barnyard animals. One of the main selling points is the ability users have to place those they allow to view their posts into different categories. Don't want your gym partner in high school/mailman/grandmother to know you have undying love for grape jello? Easy. Just put them in a circle labeled "Anti-Jello."

This seems like a logical step in the evolution of social media. One that I imagine Facebook will be forced to adopt if it wants to remain competitive. And while I understand the rationale, the ways this makes social networking more like filters we have in life, it creates a potential end (or twilight) to a fascinating, sometimes embarrassing, sometimes litigious chapter in digital history.

Chances are you've seen it before (and done it before. I know I have). The late night post of self-doubt, photographic documentation of the fling of a friend you haven't seen in five years. It can be uncomfortable if you don't know the person well and run into them at a supermarket. And yet I find the no-holds-barred approach many people take to social media fascinating. With party phone lines there was no way of knowing who was potentially listening to a personal conversation.  Pouring private thoughts into a tape recorder has something of a message in a bottle effect. Now hundreds of people can be made privy to personal thoughts instantaneously. Seeing your Uncle Alfonso post about his smelly socks is the same as if he'd mentioned this outright at the dinner table, though the latter seems less likely. It's like going out into a field and yelling obscenities into the night sky, all the while knowing that now the stars can listen. And comment. And pass the information along to their friends in other galaxies (or your boss).

I love seeing different sides to those I know. Of course this is more satisfying when the information is earned in person, but now the field is more open to those outside of one's immediate circles. It offers a limited opportunity to walk in someone else's shoes, even if that means reading posts about hand painted mailboxes. With more prevalent filters it seems less and less likely that these different viewpoints will be as accessible. And I think that's a shame.

Who knows what the future of social media will be, or if these sorts of advancements will keep those with over share proclivities from curbing the habit. For better or worse the practice underlines the need we all have to communicate, and offers more opportunities to be heard. Call me crazy but I think that's kind of beautiful.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Yolanda and the Thievery of American Idealism

I don't often write reviews of films I dislike because I wouldn't want to trample all over some soul who loves it with the grace of an elephant on roller skates. It often comes down to a why, why, why does a film push all the wrong buttons? How can the likes of Fred Astaire and Vincente Minnelli be reduced to sultry six year olds swiping their sticky fingers across all 36 floors? I take Yolanda and the Thief (1945) as a challenge. On the surface it's a candy coated Brother's Grimm, but its core is mid-40s America. While film noir and the notorious femme fatale are often terms most associated with post-war angst, Yolanda and the Thief indicates ways the post-war musical also bears witness to fear of the independent woman.

The film is set in the mythical land of Patria, somewhere between South America and Burbank. As in, it's South America, clearly set in Burbank.

Save the drama for your llama.

After some villagers sing and a group of girls in a convent shower together (because who doesn't think 'wet t-shirt contest' whenever they pass their local church...) Johnny (Fred Astaire) and Victor (Frank Morgan) come rumbling and grumbling in on a train, two con men out for some quick dough. Their plight provides the major plot line for the film. Other characters include:

Yolanda (Lucille Bremer) in a get up enforcing the notion that a woman's only worth is her ability to look like a pre-teen milkmaid.

Overly precocious loud-mouthed child

Man with fake mustache

Johnny and Victor find out that the heir to a large fortune is none other than young and unassuming Yolanda, prime for the picking. After determining the girl's religious nature Astaire decides to pretend to be her guardian angel. In gaining her complete trust he is able to force her to give up her millions. But I'm sure you can guess what happens instead, so I'm not even going to waste the type.

What is of note in the film is the one of these things is not like the other cherry picked social statements which don't seem to fit in with the otherworldly surroundings.

Yolanda's economic circumstances are introduced through a series of billboards that pass the train windows at the beginning of the film reading Aquaviva Gasoline fuels the nation [sic], Fly Pan Aquaviva Airways, Aquaviva Beef feeds the world,  adding an unexpected commercial aspect and comment on the modern corporation.

"This Aquaviva's got the country by the throat!"

More importantly, these interests are not initially introduced in relation to Yolanda.

Victor: Must be awfully rich, eh? Millionaire, would you say?
Steward: Very rich, señor, as you Americans say, "filthy."
Victor: Yes... Well what sort of a man is this filthy Aquaviva? I mean how does one contact him? Has he got any vices? Hobbies? Does he play gin rummy?
Johnny: Don't worry, Junior, Mr. Aquaviva will probably meet you at the station and hand you a blank check.
Steward: Mr. Aquaviva is not Mr. Aquaviva, Mr. Aquaviva is Miss Aquaviva!
A woman running a company? Shocking. Which is why Johnny has to come in to save the day. Not as the traditional lead, but as a 'fake guardian angel,' a bizarre position that conflates romance with religion. It takes 'worship your man' to a whole new level.

More than that, the resultant marriage has to be on Johnny's terms ("Women are bad business"). His initial fears about being roped into matrimony are only satiated when the traditional Hollywood ending saves the day. And in this the very notion that something once assured has to be saved.

Am I taking this too far? Quite possibly. Would pointing out the resemblance of Patria (spanish for homeland) to Patriarchy be too much? Oh yes. And yet...

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Unexpected Ephemera-The Legacy of Laurence Olivier

This weekend marks the first Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh blogathon, a celebration of people with the ability to turn life into a non-stop Gap ad. Flawless. But of course both were much, much more, and as such I admit to struggling to come up with a topic. I perused netflix for ideas and found that The 49th Parallel by one of my favorite filmmaking teams, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, was available on instant. The listed synopsis sealed the deal:

The great Laurence Olivier leads an impressive cast in this wartime thriller about a Nazi U-boat crew stranded in Canada during WWII.

Sounds perfect, right? Except in watching the film I encountered a problem. While Olivier is billed as the premier cast member, his character's time is rather limited. In fact, he's not even part of the greater arc of the film.

Though he does make quite an entrance.

The fact that Netflix would tout the film as an Olivier vehicle intrigued me. It's pudding proof that the very name Laurence Olivier has a life of its own.

Awhile ago I acquired a program for a performance of The School for Scandal that took place at the National Theater in Washington, DC on April 8th, 1963. The play featured an impressive cast led by Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud. Sign me up.

In the cast biographies one name pops up time and again: Laurence Olivier. Though he made no appearance in person that night he was nonetheless present in the theater, a phantom filtered through the experiences of others. Below are the appropriate sections involving Olivier.

Who's Who in the Cast

Ralph Richardson (Sir Peter Teazle) This international star headed the Old Vic for many years with Sir Laurence Olivier. He performed outstandingly in Shakespearean plays both at home and abroad, and in 1947 was knighted by the Throne for his numerous stage achievements. He was born in Cheltenham of Quaker parentage and made his debut with the Little Theatre in Brighton, where he quickly became its leading actor. After four years in the provinces he joined the Birmingham Repertory Company, where two other young actors, Laurence Olivier and Cedric Hardwicke, like himself, looked to London as their goal. The triamvirate were destined to be associates in many productions for many years. They bowed to the London public together in George Bernard Shaw's "Back to Methuselah," which was followed by Tennyson's verse play "Harold." 

Geraldine McEwan (Lady Teazle) After several successful appearances in London, and a guest apperance back in Windsor, Geraldine McEwan joined the Shakespeare Memorial Company during their 1956 season to play the Princess of France in "Loves Labour's Lost." She was at Stratford-on-Avon the following year to play Olivia in "Twelfth Night." Marina in "Pericles" and Hero in "Much Ado about Nothing." In 1960 she again played Olivia, this time at the Shakespeare Memorial's Company's London headquarters. The following season she return to Stratford-on-Avon as Beatrice in "Much Ado About Nothing" and Ophelia in "Hamlet." Interspersed with her Shakespearean roles were appearances as Sir Laurence Olivier's leading lady in "The Entertainer," "Member of the Wedding," "Change of Tune" and earlier this year in "Everything in the Garden."

Laurence Naismith (Sir Oliver Surface) was born in Surrey and educated at a church choir school in London where Laurence Olivier was a fellow pupil. The two men appeared together in several school plays, one of which they performed at the Old Memorial Theatre in Stratford-on-Avon.

Laurence Olivier could undoubtedly give Kevin Bacon a run for his money in connectedness. And that's as much a part of him as Hamlet or Rebecca. He's a thread that ties everything together. The fabric of theater itself. Limitless.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Editing Spotlight: The Red Shoes

The Red Shoes (1948)
Film Editing by: Reginald Mills

The Red Shoes is a film that I could gush about for days on end. If the number of films that can be considered true art is quite small (at least according to Roger Ebert) this is one that should absolutely be on that list.  I've written about this Powell and Pressburger classic (and this very scene) elsewhere, and have written more generally about the film here for the first film preservation blogathon, but wanted to write an entry with a more focused approach.

The most famous sequence in the film is The Red Shoes ballet, but one of my favorites is an earlier scene that displays the same level of technical mastery and in certain ways provides an important introduction to the later, more cited ballet sequence. So much of its power is in the rhythm of the editing and in ways the ordering of shots play with viewer expectation.

At this point in the film Vicky (Moira Shearer) has yet to impress Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) enough to let her join the ballet company full-time.

She is given permission to perform the lead at the dinkier Mercury Theater, introduced in this dreary establishing shot at odds with the previous work put into the Covent Garden sequences to make post-war London look brighter and cheerier than it actually was at the time.

There is a disheveled, weather beaten notice to match, with Vicky's appearance hap hazardly pasted over the original announcement. The camera tracks in on her portion of the poster, boasting not only Victoria Page but the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

There is then a dissolve to a spinning record

A subtle joke about the supposed "live" music accompanying the performance.

The spinning fan and the circular speaker graphically match the record and the cheap, lackadaisical atmosphere

Victoria Page performs to the increasing tempo of the music. She begins a series of pirouettes...

... And the camera follows suit with a whirling POV shot, a first look into Victoria Page's mind that will be built upon in The Red Shoes ballet, a sequence which depends on the inner workings of a dancer to effect an otherworldly stage presence. This dizzying series lands squarely on...

... Lermontov, who has been sitting in on the performance unbeknownst to Page.

Ruh roh.

The dance goes on, including a hilarious pan where the "live" records have to be switched and all hell almost breaks loose.

The pace continues to quicken.

Finally Page finishes the dance and looks to Lermontov

But this supposed eyeline match is merely a fake out as Lermontov has already left. Another man moves into his place, leaving Vicky unsure of her fate.

Watch the full scene (and more) below.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

what olivia de havilland means to me

Yesterday Olivia de Havilland celebrated her 95th birthday. I still don't know as much about her as I would like. Word on the street is she's a pretty snazzy lady. What I do know is what she came to mean to me as a kid.

I wish I could put my fedora just so over one beguiling eye and claim that I first knew Olivia de Havilland from Adam in that obscure number on the bottom shelf of filmlandia. That one with the cobwebs all over it and a big red warning sign reading 'insiders only.' But I can't. I'm left standing out in the cold with all the other mugs in line for Gone With the Wind.

Without getting all slobbery let's just say there was a time when I needed a role model.  That time happened to coincide with the year I was taken to a theatrical screening of Gone With the Wind during its re-release in 1998. I was awed. And in it I felt I had found a like soul. Not in that flame thrower Scarlett O'Hara but in her counterpart, Melanie Hamilton.

Yes, that pale faced, mealy mouthed Melanie Hamilton. She was the quiet strength and compassion that found me when I needed to know how to act like a grown up. And I can't even begin to describe the impact.

For me Olivia de Havilland is quite simply the power of film.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Who ARE those guys?

Wild Card #2. There were no Parent Trap style handshakes involved but I have nonetheless made a pact with Amanda of A Noodle in A Haystack to produce one wild card post a month. Not only is it a chance to flex muscles outside of filmdom, it has the added fun of not knowing what we may come up with. Feel free to pull up a chair and join us if you like. The more the merrier.

Walking through stores I always notice them. Picture frames on display with black and white photographs peering from newly minted frames, ghosts encased in silver too bright for their faded world. And I've always wondered why. Are some old photographs in the public domain, making them a more suitable choice for companies that want to give potential buyers an idea of how their own loved ones will look? Do families donate their likeness? Or is it some perverse reminder of what we all will soon become? Souls for sale. Two for the price of one.

Monday, June 20, 2011

More Classic Coens-O Brother, Where Art Thou? Edition

Joel Coen has described O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) as The Odyssey meets The Three Stooges. Such a description encapsulates why the Coen Brothers are one of my favorite filmmaking teams working today. I have a soft spot for artists who know their history and are able to find creative ways to incorporate it into their own work. I previously pointed out some connections between The Hudsucker Proxy and the Frank Capra canon in this post and was delighted to see another link to classic film in my latest CB viewing.  While more subtle I can't help but connect it to another one of my favorites.

About midway through the film Everett (George Clooney) has a run in with his ex-wife (Holly Hunter) and her uppity new beau, Vernon T. Waldrip (Ray McKinnon). When Everett speaks unkindly to his wife Vernon feels he must intervene, and the two put up their dukes.

While it may be coincidence Vernon's over exaggerated, seemingly inexperienced stance immediately reminded me of Gary Cooper's character in Ball of Fire.

Even though the tables are turned with Vernon as the Dana Andrews aggressor with this in mind I knew that he would be quite a shot.

It is a subtle move that not only defies viewer expectation but further cemented my admiration. Oh, and the rest of the film is amazing too. How it took me 11 years to get around to watching it I'll never know.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

new name, same blog

Just wanted to write a quick note to let everyone know that the blog formerly known as Or Maybe Eisenstein Should Just Relax is now Movie Montage. As much as I loved my old name it only recently dawned on me (I'm not the sharpest tool in the shed) that while what I post here should fall under fair use (or I'm good about giving credit where credit is due, at least) having song lyrics from a modern work as the shining searchlight for my blog is probably not the greatest idea. I occupy a rather specific and small corner of the internet so while I doubt it would ever be a problem it just seemed like the thing to do. I also don't want some menacing fellow with a baseball bat and a double breasted suit to take me out to the ballgame under the sea, so to speak. With the new name I have no such worries, it still retains links to Eisenstein and to editing, and identifies this blog from the start with film. I also admit to deriving pleasure from alliteration, and my vanity loves the sound of Meredith of Movie Montage. It makes me feel more important than I actually am.

So sorry to confuse everyone once again with all these changes, I think after this the dust will finally have settled.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Editing Spotlight: Death of a Cyclist

Muerta de un ciclista (1955)
Film Editing By: Margarita de Ochoa

Death of a Cyclist opens with a tease where a cyclist leisurely disappears from view. Then a crash, a bang, a sudden screech of wheels, and in this moment the film changes, as suddenly as the lives of the characters trapped in its web are transformed by this early original sin.

Maria (Lucia Bose) and Juan (Alberto Closas), the culprits behind this crime, find themselves on the road that day as lovers who must hide their meetings from Maria's husband Miguel (Otello Toso). The death of the cyclist is something they swear to forget till the mischievous Rafa (Carlos Casaravilla) hints that they may not have been as alone or discreet as previously assumed. Perhaps Miguel might be interested in his suspicions as well.

The pace of the editing of the film as a whole follows a similar murderous path, cutting just before the viewer would expect, quickening the pace, shortening the breath between life and death. In one instance, if memory serves, there is even a rapid cut from a youthful college student to a church cemetery, a scene transition that also acts as montage. Such moves can either hit with the bluntness of a rusty hammer or cut clean through, and Death of a Cyclist exhibits a little of both.

For me the most breathtaking sequence in the film is the lead in to the supposed 'outing' when it is presumed that Rafa has told all. It occurs during a "Spanish" dance which is introduced as a joke, a costume party of sorts put on for the benefit of a couple of foreigners. And (at least according to another stereotypical trope) do not the Aunt Bessies and Myrtle Mays of Paris, Illinois, their camera straps trapped between mini mountains of neck fat, always prefer a little romanticism?

A transition from the swipe of a grand piano to the strumming of a guitar,
from modernity to ethnic tradition

Dancers stomp to the soulful singing of Gracia Montes in an entrancing number meant to enhance rather than distract from the ugly meeting that will soon take place. This use of sound focuses the audience even more intensely on the emotional impact of the scene.

Carlos Casaravilla (The Spanish Buster Keaton?) whispering to Lucia Bose, their expressions the only indicator of the ugliness of his words which are drowned by the music

The loud dance setting does not simply act as a shield. The music and the rhythm of the background action are paramount to the central tension.

Editing plays the most important role in building this tension while simultaneously linking it into the greater narrative. The camera jumps between isolated aspects of the performance and the nervous faces of the leads. Jarring extreme closeups cause further disorientation and add to the drama. Despite this spatial dislocation eye lines between the central characters are clearly maintained and given added weight by the tight framing, making the importance of relationships (sanctioned and elicit) all-important, not just in plot but in overall construction.

The full scene (and the film) are definitely worth a look.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Bridesmaids (2011), Vulgarity, and The Case of the Laughing Theater Audience

Poirot is too busy buying a new mustache comb and Marple has found herself tangled in yards of yarn. But I’ve read enough Agatha Christie mysteries to know when something is amiss, and have decided to tackle this investigation myself.

The Facts Were These.

Weekday nights the local Cineplex becomes a ghost town. Empty packets of sour patch kids flutter across the floor like tumbleweed as one lone hombre mans the concessions, waiting for customers that will likely never come.

But this is only a stage trick, and as 9:30pm nears our theater begins to fill. The audience for the evening consists of those old enough to see an R rated movie without having to sneak in, but not old enough to have milk bottles holstered at the hip. A theatergoers dream where crying children dance like sugarplums in sleep deprived heads, mercifully out of our earshot.

The lights dim for Bridesmaids, a new comedy garnering attention for its strong female cast.

But I wasn’t laughing.

Why wasn’t I laughing?

The plot thickens.

I did enjoy Bridesmaids (and speaking of plot the title more or less speaks for itself). I too grant praise to its strong female cast, notably Kristen Wiig (who also co-wrote the script) and Melissa McCarthy, who almost steals the show.

But my enjoyment remained largely confined to the occasional smile where everyone else seemed to roar. It felt like being the last kid picked for kickball all over again.

I just don’t find projectile vomit funny. Did I not go to enough frat parties (aka any) in college to find the concept of throwing up in another girls hair entertaining? Possibly.

To keep this from turning into commentary on ‘whatever happened to class,’ it is worth noting that this sort of physical comedy has been present in films since the beginnings. As has a brand of ‘bad taste’ criticism, notably in relation to early Chaplin comedies that were criticized for their vulgarity by the newly minted middle class movie audience. A famous example of this form of comedy is the opening of The Immigrant (1917) where Chaplin leans over the side of a boat, giving the impression that the tramp is seasick and hurling. But when he comes up he reveals that he is actually fishing.

Of course the difference here is that the joke works because of the power of suggestion and misdirection. The effect would be quite different if Chaplin had actually blown chunks all over Edna Purviance.

And that’s why I left the theater largely disappointed. Wiig and the rest of the cast proved capable of what I’ll call a different kind of comedy as using the words ‘intelligent’ or ‘sophisticated’ might make me hurl. A hilarious airplane scene where Wiig uses her body with the same goofy grace and ease as Lucille Ball, or a sequence where she struggles to get the attention of a cop with each gag topped infinitum.

Such comedy is planned. Timed. Vomiting is involuntary. A passive action defined by lack of control. And it feels like a cop out.

Differences in taste aside I can’t knock the feeling that the crass humor (not confined to vomiting) is disingenuous. Yes, SNL has featured waterfalls of vomit for years, and yes, I love that the film tackles female stereotypes and presents a picture of women who are allowed to take part in acts entirely ‘unfeminine.’ What bothers me is that in promotion and execution it seems less a statement of ‘girls will be girls,' but rather ‘girls will be boys.’ Basically I won't be happy until I see a movie poster with promotion reading 'not another dumb action movie.'

I praise Bridesmaids for its challenge of form, but in the end the film can’t escape one of the chick flicks ultimate clichés. Maybe this is just a case of “it’s not you, it’s me.”

But I don’t want to be the stereotypical deadbeat boyfriend. Gender aside I’ll settle for awkward guy friend standing on the sidelines, knowing the film can do better.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Girl, The Film Blog

Over the years this site has gone through a series of hiccups and transformations. And what would a film blog be without a little my sister, my daughter, my sister, my daughter action? For those of you who've stuck around, bless you. I've decided that the time has come to move out of ch-ch-ch-changes teenage hell, and thought the place to start would be to create a post (which I've also turned into a page to be updated as necessary) that gives a general sense of what I hope Internet stumblers will find here, now and in the future.

In terms of content this blog can be broken down as follows.

  • Reviews of films old and new, but mostly old. Since this is primarily a classic film blog most films highlighted will be pre-1970 but I'd like to throw in more current offerings as well. To be a rogue time traveler is not to get stuck in any one space.
  • Pieces highlighting personal experiences relatable to classic film, whether this be an event, a location, or a chance encounter with a shadowy stranger. Except that last option actually sounds terrifying. Scratch that.
  • Editor's Spotlight: Posts focused on the contributions of a named editor, the importance of editing to a specific film or more microscopic shot breakdowns/scene analysis that also takes into account how editing functions in respect to all other aspects of a production.
  • Other Topics. This could be anything really but some areas of film I'm especially interested in are star studies, new media uses of classic film, home front propaganda pictures of WWII, and a non-auteurist approach to cinema as a way to bring other contributors into the mix.
  • One Wild Card post a month on any topic unrelated to film for a little flavor.

This list is by no means all inclusive. Like a box of chocolates, you never know what you're gonna get.

Except that line has never made much sense to me because you do know. You're going to untie that perfect bow and get some form of chocolate, or run screaming back to the overpriced store where you bought it and demand what you paid for. I guess 'you never know what kind you're gonna get' doesn't sound as quotable. And what if the box specifically says all milk chocolate? Whatever, Forrest Gump. Whatever. We're done.

To come to the point this is a film blog. Therefore, a reader can and should expect film related topics. Even the spam is custom tailored. Who knew Bette Davis loved... well I'll stop there.

The url for this site Vote For Gracie is so named because one of my favorite historical quirks is comedienne Gracie Allen's mock Presidential Campaign of 1940 (♫Those big politicians don't know what to do/Gracie doesn't know either/But neither do you!). Because I like to make life confusing the actual name for this blog is Or Maybe Eisenstein Should Just Relax which I wish I was brilliant enough to think up myself but is actually from a Jack Johnson song called Inaudible Melodies.

I decided on this title for a number of reasons. For one my personal background is a mix of theory and production. I have a B.A. in film studies and will be pursuing an MFA starting in the fall with a focus in film editing. I'll never be Eisenstein, of course, but I love that he played both ends of the field, creating new art (and a new method of editing) while also contributing to written work on the subject. With a lot of luck and work this is what I hope to do as well.

Editor/montage joke aside the relax part is also important because I hope this blog is fun to read. This isn't Cinema Journal, I'm not James Agee (though a girl can dream), and when the main reason people find this site is a search for pictures of Thelma Todd's dead body I really can't take myself too seriously. My plan is to aim somewhere more squarely between fandom and film analysis, combining critical enquiry with readability. Meat and potatoes with some whipped cream on top. Though hopefully not as disgusting as that sounds.

So out with some of the old, in with a few things that are new. Here is your chance to run like hell while you still can. In stuffing and shaping the past I sometimes get confused, and who knows what you might find down in the fruit cellar....

EDIT Since writing this post the name of this blog has been changed to Movie Montage.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Queen Victoria, Colonialism, and The Rains Came (1939)

YAM has elected to host any unofficial entries to the 1939 blogathon through its site (thanks guys!). I didn't hear about the venture in time to officially apply but as a veritable milestone year in film I still wanted to join in the fun. No offence meant to the cool cats in CMBA, we play in our corner of the sandbox in peace. As the film I have elected to write about has already been reviewed it seems only fair to provide a link as I'm not trying to steal anyones thunder.

Such a turn of phrase is also appropriate for a discussion of a film famous for special effects. In that oft cited banner year The Rains Came beat out heavy hitters like Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, new fangled technicolor marvels, for the special effects Oscar.

Even the first credit showcases a technical mastery as the title melts from the screen

The Rains Came takes place in Ranchipur in the year 1938. It stars Myrna Loy as a different kind of lady whose trademark flipped nose remains stuck in the air through most of the film, George Brent as resident bad boy, and Tyrone Power as an 'Indian' doctor too involved with his work to take much notice of the blatant advances of Loy. I say 'Indian' because for Hollywood in a certain period that meant placing Power in a turban and giving him a little extra spray tan.

I find it interesting that Myrna Loy's brief account of the film in her autobiography includes this account of Power's character, as it is written with a kind of elementalism and poetry often associated with Indian culture.
"He used to invent games for us to play on the set, just to keep my mind off other things. "If you weren't who you are," he asked, "what would you like to be?"
"I haven't the slightest idea," I replied. "Do you know what you'd like to be if you weren't Ty?"
He made a graceful sweeping gesture with his hands: "I would like to be the wind, so I could be light and free and be anywhere I want at any time. I could go all around the world and look in people's windows and share their joys and sorrows. "When he died, that's all I could think of. I said to myself, "Well, all right, he's the wind."
-From Being and Becoming by Myrna Loy
Other elements aren't quite as poetic, with characters including

Nigel Bruce as Smug British Jackass #1

Famous Russian Actress Maria Ouspenskaya as the Maharani, another victim of Snookie Orange Glow

Monkeys! And other native elements of the simple minded and affable variety

The reason this film is generally discussed is the tremendous rain and earthquake sequences where gallons of water gush over bridges, buildings, and people without prejudice.

Yet another film that confirms my preference for an industry pre-CGI

Other elements given less notice but worth mentioning are lighting and sound, which were made doubly difficult in the ways they had to factor in the tremendous weather. Sound in the necessity to balance the dialogue with a downpour, and lighting especially in effects meant to produce lightning and an overall gloomy atmosphere.

Candle/Lighter shots are particularly difficult as they have to give the impression of a single light source that must be timed to go out at the exact moment Myrna Loy gives a huff

While the effects are amazing, in my second viewing of this film the greater part of my attention was paid to the strange politics. On the one hand it criticizes the Raj and British expats as pompous and obscene, a thread that diminishes and is ultimately extinguished in the main character arcs of the film. With this in mind I have to bring in who in my view is the most important player in the film.

Queen Victoria.

While only a mere statue her importance is a symbolic one, and in her lies the central message of the film. You might have first noticed her presence in the background of one of the stills above, centrally framed behind the monkeys. It seems fitting that in this first sequence Brent takes out a sling shot and tries to scatter the native pests while Victoria remains serene and unwavering in the background.

She remains a central figure in the only patriotic speech in the film, the only instance that blatantly admits any knowledge of current events. George Brent's remarks are as follows:
"I've got faith in a lot of things, for instance Queen Victoria... To you she's only a statue, but to me she's an old friend. A living reminder of the fine, brave days before the world went to seed. When London bridge did its falling to a dance step, not to the threat of tomorrow's bombs. When every American was a millionaire, or about to be one.... There she stands in her cast iron petticoat, unconcerned about wars, dictators, and appeasement, as serene as ever. God Bless her."
Where Americans and the British come into play, modern India does not. While I know very little about India or its history the name Gandhi and his peaceful protestations of autocratic rule should ring some bells.

Victoria comes in later in the film when Brent nearly drowns, and provides an anchor to safety. Where complex buildings are reduced to rubble, Victoria stands.

Even her outfit bears some resemblance to a sari with her head draped in an elaborate cloth, a hint at the woman as nation metaphor present in famous Indian films like Mother India or in paintings where the sari becomes the upper portion of a picture of the country itself. Instead of an Indian woman as country the former Empress of India is given this prominent position.

The only 'Indian' woman in the film given any real screen time is the Maharani, and however skewed the portrait she does present a stalwart image in the face of great strife. But her reign is replaced by Powers, and the picture ends with an image of India still tied to its colonial trappings.

So why Victoria? Why this strange return to the past? I can't say that I have an answer, but will instead provide an anecdote. Two years ago I met an Englishman, an older gentlemen the very image of Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady. He even professed a fascination with linguistics and commended my proper usage of a few choice words that we Americans tend to muddle. He went briefly into his past, including mention of a boyhood spent in India in what must have been the 30s and 40s. When I asked him about it his eyes shone and he lamented that it was wonderful then. It is the sad then that stuck out.

I wondered then as now at these strange markers of forgotten times that most celebrate for their passing. Yet here they remain.