Archive for the ‘Watching’ Category

Friday at the Movies: Charles S. Chaplin

July 24, 2015

hollywood2 (2)For the last hundred years at least, he’s the one face everybody recognizes and associates immediately with “silent movies,” even though some of his greatest films were talkies.  He was known for comedy, but considered himself a serious artist.  He made gobs of money for corporations, but was one of the first movie actors to insist on artistic control—to the extent of forming his own film company that still exists today.  Universally loved but not personally loveable, a shrewd businessman, a prickly personality, a brilliant storyteller, a loner who touched millions of hearts—that was Charlie.

Plenty has been written about Charles Chaplin and I don’t need to write another biography (if you’re Chaplin1looking for biography, Sid Fleishman’s Sir Charlie is delightful).  Some film historians try to slight Charlie because there was a lot going on in Hollywood at the time that had nothing to do with him, but he so dominated the industry—especially the box office—he can’t be ignored.  He and Hollywood grew up together: after a desperately-poor London childhood and fleeting success in vaudeville, he arrived in sunny California at the age of 28 and proceeded to make 35 movies for Keystone in one year.  Though he later turned up his nose at Mack Sennett (head of Keystone) and frantic slapstick humor, his two years with Keystone launched him into the stratosphere of wealth and fame: by 1916 he was, literally, the most famous man in the world.  His face was showing up in nickelodeons and cantinas and makeshift movie theaters on six continents—anywhere a room could be darkened and a projector set up.

Everybody loved his signature character, the Little Tramp.  The Little Tramp is more recognizable than Chaplin himself: bushy hair and mustache, oversize shoes and undersize bowler hat, baggy pants, toothy smile.  He’s a loser who lives hand to mouth and stays barely within the law but always seems to come out okay in the end.  He refined the character in later full-length movies like The Kid and The Gold Rush, but there was always an underlying strain of despair in the Little Tramp, as there is in all the best comedy.

In I Don’t Know How the Story Ends, Chaplin has reached the peak of success.  He has established himself as a free agent and in the following year he will form his own production company with three of the greatest names in the biz: Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and D. W. Griffith.  United Artists, they’ll call it.  Chaplin has a big film project in mind, which will become his first recognized masterpiece: The Kid.. The story is simple: the Little Tramp accidentally acquires a baby who’s been left on his doorstep, names him Johnny, and goes on to raise the boy as his own until Johnny’s mother comes looking for him.  In IDK, I imagine Chaplin latching on to Isobel’s mother as a likely candidate to play the mother role, a development that stirs up confusion and resentment in Isobel.  Nothing remotely like that happened, of course: the mother’s role is played by Edna Purviance, and even in those early days it’s not likely such an important part would be entrusted to an amateur.  But that’s artistic license on my part.

Chaplin2Though it isn’t mentioned by name in my novel, The Kid is probably my favorite Chaplin movie: full of laughs and charm and heart tugs, due as much to Jackie Coogan in the title role as it is to Charlie.  You keep expecting both the comedy and the sentiment to go overboard, but it never does.  (Watch it!)

Three Chaplin movies are mentioned in IDK.  Tillie’s Punctured Romance was his first Keystone flick; the movie reportedly introduced the concept of “meeting cute.”  The Bond was a public-service short film that Ranger and Isobel see at Grauman’s Egyptian theater before the main feature.  Ranger describes Shoulder Arms, a comedy that that mines some funny business out of a very unfunny war.  In Chapter 10 Chaplin attends a party at the home of Titus Bell (Ranger’s father), and in the course of the evening he performs the “Oceana Roll Dance” that would later appear in The Gold Rush.  The roll dance cracks me up—I think it’s the deadpan he maintains throughout.  Isobel thought it was hilarious as well, in spite of her mixed feelings about Mr. Chaplin.

Though he kept making movies into the thirties (City Lights, from 1931, is considered one of his best), Charlie’s heyday was the twenties, and he never hit his stride with the talkies.  He also fell out of love with America (long story), and moved to Switzerland, not exactly a film-making mecca.  But he made a mark on culture and history that can’t be erased.

Other posts in this series:

How to Watch Silent Films

D. W. Griffith and the Birth of an Industry


Friday at the Movies: D. W. Griffith and the Birth of an Industry

July 10, 2015

Some people think film is just Keystone Cops crashing cars or somebody’s pants falling down.  But it’s a lot more.  It’s the new art: telling stories with light and motion.  This is going to be bigger than the Sistine Chapel!

Ranger Bell, I Don’t Know How the Story Ends 

hollywood2 (2)A lot of kids are bitten by the movie bug in their early teens, but Ranger, the pivotal character in IDK*, had the good fortune to be bit by the best.  D.W. Griffith is his hero, and Ranger’s burning ambition is to work for the master on the way to becoming a master himself.

Griffith broke into show business as an actor in cheap vaudeville houses, and everybody agrees he wasn’t a very good one.  But he did gain a sense of what audiences appreciated: emotion.  They liked thrills and chills and action, but also wanted to laugh and cry.  When he gravitated to film acting for the Biograph studios in New Jersey, he learned to tone down his hammy stage-acting style—for one thing, the camera couldn’t capture all those broad, wild arm gestures.  But the camera could move in on a face and catch the smallest twitch of a muscle or glimmer of a tear.  A face on film could connect with the audience more intimately than a live actor ever could, and once he discovered the emotional power of the movies, D.W. was never going back to live theater.  The story is that one day a director was sick and D.W. was drafted to take his place.  The director’s chair quickly became his perch for the rest of his artistigriffith1c career.

When Griffith left Biograph he took the studio’s best cameraman with him.  This was Billy Bitzer, who worked closely with him for the next sixteen years and collaborated on some of the most ground-breaking work ever produced up to that time–like The Birth of a Nation, released in 1915.

This is the film that made D.W. Griffith a household word, but it’s hard to even talk about, much less watch.  It’s the story of a southern family during and after the Civil War, and all they lost and suffered.  The first half includes some truly thrilling battle scenes and appealing family relationships.  But the second half is all about noble southerners fighting “bad Negroes” by raising up a little army later called the Ku Klux Klan.  The way African-Americans are shown (even the “good” ones) is racist and insulting, even though Griffith claimed to love and admire them.  Still, The Birth of a Nation can’t be ignored because it broke so much new ground in film-making.  Griffith used quick intercutting to make the battle scenes more dramatic, high angles to capture wider views, fades between scenes, lots of extras, and eyeline matches, where the camera is adjusted to frame the same view a character is seeing.   He even had an original score written, which was played by live orchestras in all the big theaters where the movie opened.  For emotional punch, audiences had never seen anything like it, and Birth of a Nation  was a huge hit.  (Although it’s worth noting that many Americans were not comfortable with its blatant racism even, and it was banned in some cities–even entire states, like Kansas.)

The praise and criticism showered on him was so overwhelming Griffith decided that he had to top himself for his next feature film.  He had already made a touching little drama called The Mother and the Law, but in the meantime he saw an Italian film called Cabiria, which was set in ancient Sicily and Carthage.  The movie used fabulous sets and shocking set pieces, like small children in Carthage being sacrificed to Moloch. (It’s disturbing to watch, even today: here’s a clip, and try to ignore the soundtrack).  Griffith was impressed by the spectacle and determined not to be outdone by any Italian, so he postponed the release of The Mother and the Law and decided to incorporate that story into a larger tale spanning centuries.  That became Intolerance, subtitled “Love’s Struggle through the Ages.”

“The ages” take in Babylon’s fall to Persia in 539 B.C., the earthly ministry of Jesus, the St. Bartholomew Massacre in France in 1572, and the modern story of The Mother and the Law—all intercut and stitched together with the theme of someone not tolerating someone else.griffith2

Most of the money and effort went to the Babylon segments (which Ranger describes with great enthusiasm in Chapter 3 of IDK).  Elaborate battle scenes and court scenes involved a literal cast of thousands, which meant some clever camera work.  Though not filming from a balloon.  They actually tried it, and Billy Bitzer got sick.  Most of the panning and zooming shots were done with a camera on tracks, but film historians to this day don’t know exactly how.

The monster Babylon set towered over Sunset Boulevard, and once filming was complete Griffith was so broke he couldn’t pay have it demolished.  The remains of Belshazzar’s court stood for four years, peeling and crumbling, until the city finally ordered it torn down as a public nuisance and fire hazard.  (That’s where Ranger takes the girls in chapter 3.)

intolerance-set2Intolerance won high praise but didn’t earn back enough profit to justify its expense.  In my opinion, though Intolerance has some fine moments and The Mother and the Law story is genuinely touching and sweet (this is the film Isobel sees in Chapter 4), it’s too long and incoherent to make a strong impression.  But it did enhance Griffith’s reputation, and he went on to make some great movies, like Hearts of the World (described in Chapter 11), Broken Blossoms, Way Down East, and Orphans of the Storm.  Were they “art,” as Ranger believed?  Most movie historians agree—

When he finished, he was the leader of an industry acclaimed not only as entertainment, but as art . . . Griffith did not achieve this miracle alone, but he deserves unstinting credit for achieving it at all.   Kevin Brownlow, Hollywood: the Pioneers

You can get Intolerance on Netflix, but I warn you, as Isobel is warned by the family cook Rosetta, “those dancing girls in Babylon didn’t wear enough clothes to dry a saucer with.”

Other posts in this series:

How to Watch Silent Films

Charles S. Chaplin

Friday at the Movies: How to Watch Silent Films

July 3, 2015

hollywood2 (2)(In anticipation of my next novel, which will go on sale in October, I plan on a series of posts about the silent movie industry and its profound meaning.  Well, forget the profound meaning–I just found the subject and the movies to be seriously fun!)

I don’t like silent movies.  They’re dumb and hard to understand and the film quality stinks and everybody moves too fast and wears too much makeup and they’re old . . .

Well, silent movies are old.  That’s true.  And that has a lot to do with why they’re hard to watch—at least until you get acquainted with them, and understand a few hard facts.

First, a lot of the film quality is bad.  The movies were produced on celluloid, an early plastic compound that was ridiculously flammable—the film would spontaneously combust if temperatures reached 150 degrees centigrade (which some projectors did).  That’s what happened to over half the silent movie film ever produced, due to poor storage or handling.  Of the film that remains, a lot of it is scratchy, warped, or overexposed–some scenes glare while others sulks into shadows and you can hardly make out what’s going on.  Some of that may have been the fault of early directors and techniques that were still in flux.  But a lot of it is just age.

Second, the speed at which many films are shown today is too fast.  Shooting speeds varied in the early days, generally from 18 to 22 frames per second (today it can be as high as 60 frames per second for high-rez).   Since the earliest cameras had to be cranked by hand, cameramen tried be consistent but there were slight variations in film speed that didn’t match the projection speed.  Even in their own day, the movies were apt to look jerky and hyper.  Sometimes, especially in early comedy like the Keystone Cops, the fast speed was deliberate.  But more often it was just because the projectionist didn’t know his business.  Today, action sequences that were supposed to be dramatic and exciting often look like the sight equivalent of Alvin and the Chipmunks.

Finally, the soundtrack that’s often matched to silent films is just awful.  I watched a DVD of The Gold Rush, for example, that has a nauseating organ score all the way through.  After a while I noticed it was eating into my brain.  I had to either turn the sound off or turn the movie off (click here for a clip from The Gold Rush that’s more delightful).

Still, there’s plenty to appreciate about the best of the silent films, especially if you watch a progression of them from around 1912 to 1921, when the industry made amazing strides.  During the twenties, the industry produced some of the greatest movies ever made (snooty film historians say so!)  The range of camera techniques opened up, goofy slapstick gave way to sophisticated sight gags, and facial expressions, even in the weepiest melodrama, can still make audiences cry.

From this . . .  (A Trip to the Moon, 2003)

From this . . .
(A Trip to the Moon, 2003)

After the first sound movie debuted in 1927, the silents were doomed, even though some of the best ones appeared in the very early thirties.  At first they were much better than the “talkies” for photography.  because early sound pictures required actors and cameras to huddle around a microphone.  The action was obviously limited.  Big sweeping views like battles and parades and crowd scenes were impossible, so for a while you could have either spectacle or sound, not both.  Of course, the technology improved so that now you get both.  But it may have been a good thing that movies weren’t hindered by sound technology at first—it freed up cameramen and directors to develop their visual range, including special effects that are pretty impressive even today.

. . . to this (The Thief of Baghdad, 1924), in a a mere 22 years!

. . . to this (The Thief of Baghdad, 1924), in a a mere 22 years!

So, how to watch?

  • Check your expectations.  The beginning of anything is going to look awkward and crude, and when you consider that The Great Train Robbery, one of the first motion pictures that told a story, was made in 1903, it’s pretty amazing that the industry was able to offer up three-hour spectacles like Intolerance only fourteen years later. Technicolor, wide-screen, high-rez, surround-sound, and CGI have all happened since, but it took 100 years!  Let’s just admire what some very talented people were able to accomplish in a very short time.
  • Try to get the best soundtrack you can.  When big-name directors and actors premiered big movies, they often commissioned an original score to be played along with it, by a live orchestra.  Of course, this was only possible in the prominent cities and theaters.  By the time these films reached smaller towns, the local keyboardist had to match the action to short piano pieces.  The musician might have a book of scores considered suitable for love scenes, sad scenes, dances, fights, funerals, etc.—meaning the piano or organ player was flipping through the book continually as the film rolled.  The silent comedies and dramas you can can get on DVD today usually have a piano or organ score.  These are bearable if they don’t go on to long.  But for a longer picture, try to find a full-orchestra score.  For example, Douglas Fairbanks’ Thief of Baghdad is available with a classical soundtrack by Rimsky-Korsakov—or an organ.  Ditch the organ if you can.
  • Be patient with the film quality.  Even the best-preserved movie classic will probably be uneven in spots—blurry, shaky, or scratchy.  As mentioned earlier, at least half of the film produced during the silent era didn’t make it into the future because it wasn’t stored properly or it was simply lost.  So be grateful for what we’ve got.
  • The best tip is appreciation. Motion pictures were a brand new way of telling stories, for the first time in 200 years (if you count the development of the novel) or 2000-plus years (if you go back to poets like Homer).  Acting and the stage had been around for millennia, but film had totally different demands and possibilities.  Limits, too, especially during the silent era.  Those early directors had to figure out how to communicate as much as possible through action and expression alone, and they caught on fast.

I’m not a snooty film historian, but if you want to explore a bit of the development of the movies during the late teens and early twenties, here’s a list of titles you’ll be able to find on Netflix or Youtube (the asterisk indicates they’re mentioned in I Don’t Know How the Story Ends):

Tillie’s Punctured Romance* (Charlie Chaplin and Louise Dressler)

Coney Island* (Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Buster Keaton)

Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm* (Mary Pickford)

Intolerance* (directed by D. W. Griffith, with a cast of thousands)

The Gold Rush (Charlie Chaplin)

The Kid (Charlie Chaplin)

The General (Buster Keaton)

The Mark of Zorro (Douglas Fairbanks)

Other Posts in this series:

D. W. Griffith and the Birth of an Industry

Charles S. Chaplin

Countdown to IDK: Cover Coverage

June 12, 2015

Some of my covers I’ve loved; some I cringed at, just a little.  I got kind of a shock with my first-ever published novel, The Playmaker, which looks like this:

Alternate Title: Revenge of the Theater Nerds!

Alternate Title: Revenge of the Theater Nerds!

First of all, the character, Richard Mallory, looks nothing like I described him in the book.  I’ve heard that artists were supposed to actually read the book to get design ideas, and this artist wouldn’t have needed to read far—the description is in the first chapter.  Second of all, nowhere in the story does Richard attack anyone with a sword.  Third of all, what’s with the font style?  It looks like “Goosebumps.”  (On the positive end, I really like the bear in the background, even though lots of kids guess it’s a dog.)  I did bring up the Goosebumps font with my editor, who explained that the design team was going for boy-appeal.  And in the end I can’t complain, because The Playmaker is still in print—after fifteen years!


Alternative Title: Please Love Me. Please.

Usually the hardcover image carries over to the paperback, but that didn’t happen with my third published novel, My Friend the Enemy.  To your left is the hardback, which quickly made itself scarce.  No wonder; to me this cover says Read me because I’m thoughtful and sensitive and good for you.









On the other hand, here’s the paperback edition, which says Read me because I’m a great story about a girl and a boy and their fraught friendship during World War II.

I might hesitate about reading the first.  I’d pick up the second in a heartbeat.






My first publisher, Random House, always gave me a completed design and basically said, “Here.  We hope you like it.  (And too bad if you don’t.)”  My current publisher, Sourcebooks, asks for my ideas ahead of time and doesn’t use them.  But they also ask for feedback and are willing to make small changes.  So here’s what the cover of my goes-on-sale-in-October MG novel looked like in its first version:


“What do you think?” asked the editor.  Well . . .

Isobel Ransom, the main character in I Don’t Know How the Story Ends (that’s what IDK means, if you’re wondering) lives in Seattle.  The story takes place during the summer of 1918, while America is involved in World War I.  While her father is serving as an army surgeon in France, Isobel and her mother and sister travel to southern California to spend a couple of months with her aunt, who lives in a sleepy little town called Hollywood.  But times are changing fast for Hollywood, soon to become the motion-picture capital of the world, and Isobel is caught up in the frenetic, wild-west age of movie-making.

First of all: nothing in the above design says 1918.  The look is more 1930’s.

Second of all: nothing says California.  The look is more depression-era Kansas.  In fact, a couple of people I showed it to said the first thing that came to mind was The Wizard of Oz.  Since that was also the first thing that came to my mind, surely it’s no fluke.

Third of all: nothing says motion pictures.

I mentioned all this to my editor: the girl’s dress needs to change; her hair should be different; what’s that thing in the background that looks like a broken-down fence; why is the landscape so desolate; and can’t we stick in a few palm trees or something?  And finally, where’s the movie camera?

No movie camera.  The philosophy behind this cover is that the story reflects universal themes and they didn’t want to make the time and setting too specific, in order to appeal to as many readers as possible.  I don’t know about this, since movies are about as universal as we get these days, and the specific subject matter seems to generate plenty of interest whenever I mention it.  But they did take the landscape and costume into account, and here’s what we ended up with:


Still no palm trees.  But it passes for California, and if you look closely you can make out the hazy outlines of the blue Pacific. And the girl’s dramatic pose is a nice touch–even if it makes older readers like myself immediately hear the opening bars of “Tara’s Theme.”

So, what do you think?

Keep watching for reviews, blurbs, first paragraphs and chapters, and more!  You might even find out How the Story Ends!  (And oh yes, you can pre-order here.)

Not a Fan. But Still . . .

April 17, 2015

Not a fan.  Nope.  Saw the first one but remembered almost nothing of it because we took our 18-month-old with us, and I was so worried about possible inappropriate behavior the story poured over me like water without making an impression.  We missed Episode V altogether—two kids by then, little disposable income.  When Episode I appeared, I caught it at the dollar house—actually two dollars by then—and decided it was worth about that much.  The pretentious hype that surrounded it was a huge turnoff, too: documentary “retrospectives,” contemplative essays, interviews with Bill Moyers (“If you see a Bill Moyers special on it,” a sarcastic friend told me once, “you’ve plumbed the depths”).  So I skipped II and III, except for bits happened upon while scrolling through the channels in motel rooms.  No, not a fan.

So I’m a little hard-pressed to explain my reaction to this:

That voiceover, that musical score, the final fadeout on Solo’s battered face with that familiar goofy smile, and Chewbacca’s answering growl: We’re home.  Yeah, in a way . . .

I still want to nitpick: shouldn’t Chewie look a little gray, too?  Cool trailer, but so many explosions—is this going to be another mindless FX orgy?  Such obvious emotional string-pulling; makes me feel a little silly, falling for it.  But I can’t explain the little catch in my throat when that particular chord clashes and the trumpets blare out that staggering fanfare and the Millennium Falcon zooms into the frame yet again.

A New Hope slammed into American culture in 1977, near the end of a miserable decade: two major assassinations within ten years, Vietnam, inflation, Watergate, oil embargoes, gas lines, Jimmy Carter’s “malaise.”  And the movies, to the best of my memory, were floundering in a swamp of grainy, noir-ish despair (Midnight Cowboy, Death Wish, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?).  Fortunately, George Lucas wasn’t paying attention. American Graffiti (1973) captured mid-century teenage angst with wit and aplomb and launched a few careers (Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, that bit-player Harrison Ford), kicked off a nostalgia boom (“Happy Days”) and bankrolled Lucas’s next big project.  Not science fiction; space fantasy.  Harking back to Flash Gordon and Saturday matinees at the Bijou, but weighted by his quasi-profound, California-style spirituality.  It was a peculiar vision the suits didn’t get, but they left him alone, and we got Star Wars.

Picture the world in 1977: no cell phones.  No personal computing or internet.  Very few cable channels.  No VCR’s.  What America liked we all liked; the buzz was THE BUZZ.  Star Wars (as we knew it at the time; not A New Hope) seemed to ring all bells: fun and exciting and unexpected and jaw-dropping (special effects would never be the same), with a whiff of profundity if you felt like writing a book about it–Joseph Campbell and his Hero with a Thousand Faces was about to receive an enormous leg-up.  Further episodes were a given: Empire, widely agreed to be one of the best sequels ever.  Then Jedi.

Close readers may have observed that I didn’t mention Jedi in the first paragraph.  That’s the one that got me: one of the few movies we saw as a family in the theater, with a big screen and surround sound.  At the first sight of Vader’s shuttle gliding into the reconstructed Death Star, I was hooked.  The wonders did not cease. It was wonderful—one of my three big movie crushes.  Even though the dialogue made me cringe and the ending was embarrassing, I was in love.  These things have to hit at the right time, when certain variables line up and certain doors in the soul stand open; otherwise it would have been fun but not an obsession.

It was a relatively brief obsession, from which I moved on.  I was interested but not excited about the prequels, which proved to be the graveyard of reputations.  (“No, really,” I have said since, “Hayden Christensen is a good actor.  Have you seen Shattered Glass?”)  No reputation took a bigger beating than George Lucas’s, and the announcement that Episode VII would feature the original stars in their original roles was met with mixed feelings.  None have aged especially well: Hamill is best known for voice acting, Fisher for caustic novels and memoirs, and Ford . . . why didn’t anybody tell him that Indiana Jones IV was a bad idea?

But still.  It’s the longest-running movie franchise ever.  Middle-aged Americans literally (not figuratively) grew up with it.  Like The Wizard of Oz, it’s part of the cultural landscape, dating back to before culture got so fractured.  And in spite of all the years and cynical take-downs, there’s still something gawkily sincere about it.  It wants to stir us, not merely entertain us or milk us for spare change.  George Lucas believes in it—even after I, II, and III–and if we clap our hands hard enough, we’ll believe too.  Chewie, are we home?

No, of course not.  The trailer will not deliver all it promises because the elaborate, multi-billion-dollar scaffolding of Star Wars is too flimsy to support humanity’s hopes, no matter what Bill Moyers used to think.  It’s hard to imagine anyone thinking that anymore–but that involuntary thrill at a musical theme still means something.  The wonder is our capacity for wonder and longing.  We’re all vulnerable to it, whether it comes through music or art or dance or sailing or building or NASCAR racing–something takes each of us through the surface of time and pins us to eternity for fleeting moments. It would be a huge mistake, on the basis of those moments, to join the church of Star Wars.  But those involuntary thrills that feel like a stab of unfulfilled desire point to something bigger and better and beyond us—also much more real than a flickering image on a movie screen.

Old Movie Week

June 14, 2010

Finally, after three years of waiting, the 1974 version of The Three Musketeers is available on Netflix.  I was very much alive in 1974, but incommunicado as far as media was concerned.  We lived in a small town in the  New Mexico mountains, owned no TV or radio, had no phone, saw may three movies in an entire year, if that much.  Occasionally we heard some news: there was this investigation going on, something about Watergate?  And oh yeah, the President resigned over something.  And life went on in the world of best-sellers and blockbusters, including what some believe to be the definitive version of The Three Musketeers.  It’s fun–a powerhouse cast including Charlton Heston, Michael York, Oliver Reed, Richard Chamberlain (how many of those names do you recognize?) and a classic catfight between Raquel Welch and Faye Dunaway.  Nice opening sequence, great costumes, so-so soundtrack, clever bits including background comments by the King’s dwarfs that cracked me up.  In the end it sort of disappears.  Dumas’ classic work is actually pretty thin on story–I did read it once, but it didn’t have very powerful claws to hold my imagination or memory.  C. S. Lewis wrote that what he missed in it was a sense of place; the action shifted from Paris to London and back with no indication of the character of the locations.  I missed a sense of character.  Athos, Aramis, and Porthos display distinctions–the jaded one, the religious one, and the buffoon–without depth.   D’Artagnon is the naïve enthusiast catapulting himself among them, and for an adventure yarn that’s good enough.  The story just doesn’t hold up for me, and the movie is fun but forgettable.

 For character study, check out A Face In the Crowd.  This is a 1957 movie by Elia Kazan (you know, of On The Waterfront) that didn’t get much attention at the time.  It has its weaknesses, but also some striking moments, especially in the development of the two main characters.  Patricia Neal is Marcia Jeffries, whose uncle owns a radio station in NE Arkansas.  Marcia is bright, ambitious, and enthusiastic; it’s her inspiration to go into out-of-the-way places to capture authentic hillbilly voices to feature on her program, “A Face in the Crowd.”  On a trip to the county jail she stumbles up on a mercurial character named Rhodes who can be persuaded to sing for a slug of Jack Daniels.  From there he launches into an improvised riff that inspires Marcia to offer him his own radio show, billed as “Lonesome” Rhodes.  A swift rise follows, from Pickett, Arkansas, to Memphis, Tennessee, to New York City and the big big time, accompanied by the screams of adoring fans and the solicitation of wealthy entrepreneurs and politicians.  All this naturally goes to his head and leads to a bad end.  It’s predictable enough but still engrossing: first as an artifact of the days when campaign managers were just beginning to catch on to TV as a means of manufacturing political persona, and next as a character study of a well-rounded human being who flattens into his own self-image.  And finally, as a fascinating side trip into what Andy Griffith’s career might have been before he became Sheriff of Mayberry.

It would be easy enough for Griffith to portray his character as an amiable dunce (where have I heard that term before?), pumped up by his handlers.  He starts out as a drifter, a skirt-chaser and a bum, sleeping off a bender in the county jail.  But Larry Rhodes is nobody’s fool and besides his natural gift of gab and a sharp sense of just how far he can push the envelope, he possesses an instinctive feel for human character that masquerades as sympathy.  He’s successful because he can connect, not only with the faceless crowds of radio and TV-land but also with Marcia Jeffries.  Marcia is nobody’s fool either: a strong female in a man’s world, meeting obstacles with charm and enthusiasm, she rides Rhodes to the top and then fears she’s ”created a monster.”  With some justification, but she was also his first victim.  The storyline wobbles toward melodrama but doesn’t cross that line, and even though Griffith’s performance is a bit over the top at the end, it gives the lie to the legend of the bland, conformist, Eisenhower fifties.

 Except for one thing: the movie’s view of the American public is as cynical as Lonesome Rhodes’.  We’re all a bunch of sheep out here; all you need to know about us can be read in the ratings and market share reports.  Elia Kazan and screenwriter Bud Schulberg were left-leaning anti-communists, a rare combination in McCarthy-era Hollywood.  They took an admirable and costly stand against communism but, at least in this movie, showed a condescension toward the masses not too far removed from contempt.  If the public is as Kazan and Schulberg portray them, so gullible as to be swept away by cracker-barrel corniness, what’s wrong with somebody like Rhodes profiting from it?  That’s a question scarcely raised.

 One other observation about old movies: sound tracks have sure changed.  When did movies start using a continuous sound track?  The score of old movies is mostly noticeable in its absence, except when clangs into the story at a dramatic moment with a screech of strings.  Some directors, like Eric Rhomer, did without scores altogether.  It’s a bit eerie, like standing a little too close to the action.  Do movie and TV scores today function as insulation from life, or has life itself become something that’s scored all the way through?

Yes, I Saw Avatar

January 22, 2010

. . . in 3-D on an IMAX screen. In Las Vegas. At 11 p.m. That’s got to be the ultimate movie experience!
So what did I think? It’s breath-taking–literally, like when you’re tottering on the edge of a cliff with the hero and nearly plunge into the falls. Or taking a ride on a reptilian creature with a 12-foot wingspan. Avatar is what movies are all about: why D. W. Griffith re-imagined Babylon for Intolerance, or why William Wyler tore up the turf in the Ben Hur chariot race–Spectacle! Danger! Romance! Casts of thousands! Transporting viewers to other times and places! There’s no point complaining that the story is shallow, anti-American, or tree-huggy (just try hugging that mother tree!); it’s true James Cameron called it an ecology fable, but he was after spectacle, not proselytizing. Nobody is going to be converted to radical environmentalism or paganism who wasn’t there already. And it’s not conversion if you’re already there, is it?
Cameron spent a whole bunch of money and a whole lot of time on a gamble that paid off, just like Titanic. To me it was as emotionally engaging as a roller-coaster ride, that kind that when you get off you’re glad you did it but don’t particularly want to do it again. Some fans have expressed their feelings of letdown after leaving the theater, going so far as to seek group therapy on fansites. I understand this too: it’s possible to be so transported by cinematic fantasy it’s hard to slip back into your place in the world. Much harder if you’re not sure of your place. But this too shall pass, both the individual displacement and the buzz about the movie, and eventually the movie itself. What’s it going to look like on a flat TV screen? Blue kitties in space.