The Trouble With You Is…You Got No Character!: Confessions of a Charactor Actor Junkie

Sitting here, watching Sahara (Zoltan Korda, 1943) on TCM, I was struck by what we are actually missing in today’s cinema and what makes it less than what it used to be: good character actors. See, I think that what created GOOD Hollywood, the Hollywood I love and worship, the films I come back to again and again and again, were not always the Glenn Fords, Rita Hayworths, Bogey & Bacalls, or the like. Nope, not even close. Don’t get me wrong, I have a favorite screen “couple” (Tracy & Hepburn), and I dig all that stuff, but…we had quality character acting even up until the mid-to-late-80’s, I would say. For heaven’s sake, I would (and could) argue that Lee Ving of the band FEAR was an awesome character actor. So actually into the ’90’s. But it was definitely on its way out. Even at that point, good character acting was primarily being shoved onto television and the Silver Screen was being relegated for “more important” content.

From Flashdance & Get Crazy to Clue & The Taking of Beverly Hills, Ving definitely made a place for himself as a character actor

While Wikipedia defines character actors as people who play “a particular type of role rather than the leading ones. Character actor roles can range from bit parts to secondary leads.” My focus is not so much on the ones that play secondary leads. I’m also interested in the supporting cast. Actors that play incredibly important roles but come in and out of a picture and you always recognize them and say, “Hey! It’s THAT guy/gal again!” That’s how I fell in love with Elisha Cook Jr and Walter Brennan. It was how I became enamored of George Kennedy. It’s why Thelma Ritter and Agnes Moorehead will always have a big huge places in my heart, and then, of course, really- how could anyone NOT love Dub Taylor or Ernest Borgnine?  It is also how one of my absolute favorites, Henry Silva, became totally etched on my psyche and (I’m guessing) upon Jim Jarmusch’s too. When Silva appeared in Ghost Dog(1999) he appeared alongside a few other equally well-known character actors. In doing so,  he was so self-referential as a well-known character actor that his character actor “ness” seemed to be the gag! And it was a good one! Well done, Mr. Jarmusch!

From L to R, Cliff Gorman, Henry Silva and Gene Ruffini

The reality is this: back when men were men and women wore Edith Head, the nutritional supplement of the cinema was your character actors. It was what nourished your films, not relegated them to the “Indie” category. Taking out your vegetables and just leaving the meat gives you an unsupported filmic narrative. Additionally, by taking out those ingredients, you also remove the familiar thread that runs through a multitude of genres, eras, and even media. Directors like Jim Jarmusch and the Coen brothers are outstanding in their ability to utilize character actors in the traditional sense. They flesh them out, give them purpose, sometimes simply within a few scenes and then…they are gone. These characters either disappear completely, or they simply fade into the tapestry of the storyline. But they are not there to be the focus, they just serve as support beams. However, even if these actors quickly disappear, in the next movie? They are used again. And the familiarity of That Guy/That Gal is there! And you know them from a Jarmusch or Coen brothers movie, specifically. However, there are not many filmmakers working like that today, and the films made by these filmmakers seem to have been relegated to a status that is not the same as every other film being released. They do not get the same production or distribution possibilities, they do not get the same publicity, and they simply do not get the same treatment. They never have. They have always been within the categorization of “indie” films. And if I wanted to stretch this out a bit further, I could include other directors who do the same thing. Spike Lee’s early work (like Jarmusch and the Coens’) was considered to be a catalyst of the Independendent Cinema movement, and he also used amazing character actors like Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, Danny Aiello, and he practically launched John Turturro’s career.  The difference between Spike Lee’s work and the other two directors mentioned above (even though all three men shared actors over the years like Steve Buscemi and John Turturro) is that Spike Lee got “successful” first. That success gave him the ability to put a great deal more money into his pictures and have the meat and potatoes all the time. Not that Jarmusch or the Coens minded, artistically. From what I can tell, they were like good cinema parents. They wanted to make damn sure that we had a full meal with every food group represented on the plate, and were willing to take a few risks and minor setbacks for that. Please do not misunderstand me- I am not calling Spike Lee a sellout. If you ask me, you cannot get a more well-balanced meal than Clockers (1995). But for some reason, he was able to get funding and go somewhere with his work that these guys were not. I find that interesting. Especially since they all were based upon the idea of using character acting as the backbone of their films. Looking at the Independent Cinema Movement of the ’90’s, they used the same character actors for very different reasons than Hollywood did, back in the day. We can look at these films retroactively and say, “Wow! How marvelous! Look at Steve Buscemi in Jarmusch’s Mystery Train!

Joe Strummer and Steve Buscemi struggle over a gun in Mystery Train (1989)

Only a few years later he would be helping the Coen brothers get much bigger with Lebowski!”

“Phone’s ringing, dude,”- Steve Buscemi’s character of Donny in the Coen Bros’ film The Big Lebowski (1998)

Or you can look at the fact that Jarmusch has used Spike Lee’s brother Cinque in multiple films. Or that Turturro has been bouncing back and forth between the Coens and Lee for years now, doing movies for both. Unlike the studio days, these filmmakers were using each other’s talent out of necessity. The main concept of independent filmmaking was “independent,” also translating to “severe lack of funds.” They had to work with what they got, including how much they could pay people. This meant You Use The People You Know.

John Turturro and Spike Lee in Do the Right Thing (1989)

Thus, the shared casts between these filmmakers had just as much to do with the budgetary restrictions as it did with their creative choices.

John Turturro in the Coen brothers’ Miller’s Crossing (1990)

Interestingly enough, it led to a very heavy reliance on casts that were chock full of character actors that served as a kind of connective tissue between their films and their compatriots’. It’s depressing to me that the last time that this kind of narrative and consistent cinematic thickness could be witnessed  was within the “Indies.” That was a long time ago. I firmly believe that one of the reasons that so many films today are lacking in depth, plot, and any kind of genuine entertainment value is due to the lack of character actors, be them comedic or dramatic. If you stop to think about it, a good character actor can play to any genre. They might get type-cast, and generally be known for one thing (like Walter Brennan and the Western), but the greatest asset a character actor can have is exactly what a character actor is known for: ELASTICITY in performance. My favorite players have had exactly that, and I miss it like hell. I go to movies now, and it’s almost like going to a park made completely out of cement and iron. I look for the trees, the flowers, the things that make me want to stay at the park, hang out, read a book in the sunshine, and there is simply nothing there. To give you an idea of what is missing, aside from my discussion of the Indie Film Movement, I would like to give you a couple of Character Actor Studies. By briefly looking at the careers of some of these early performers and their works, it should become transparent that when we sit down for a lovely 7-course meal at the Silver Screen these days, all we seem to be getting served is the steak, and that ain’t worth the money being paid! LET’S HEAR IT FOR THE BOY(S)! In the world of character acting, there is a great deal more attention paid to the men and there are, indeed, many more well-known and recognizable male character actors. There are many female character actors, but unless you consistently watch older films, they seemed to have mostly gone into the world of television during their later years, while the men continued to shine on the big screen (as well as the smaller one). But this is Tinseltown after all, and unfortunately that is the traditional unfair gender dynamic that was set up back when the Industry began.  That said, it has no bearing on how insanely talented these three men are, and how, without them, Hollywood would not be what it is today. And if anyone was curious, I would be willing to swear to that on a stack of whatever holy book you prefer. I honestly believe that without the help of Elisha Cook Jr.,  Walter Brennan, and George Kennedy our films would be suffering from severe anemia. Walter Brennan Best known for his work in Westerns, Walter Brennan was actually a great deal younger than most of the parts that he played. Due to the fact that he was always working, he was also always recognizable and ultra familiar. He was nominated for 4 Academy Awards, and won three of them. His performances as an “old timer” from whatever era the film was supposed to be set in, generally worked to his advantage. He played grumpy old men or preachers (Sergeant York, 1941),  eccentric historical figures (The Westerner, 1940) and innumerable men named “cap/cappy” or “pop” or “gramps” or “grandpa.” The figure that Brennan cut was the congenial older trailhand or the corner store owner in the Western town. Shift the narrative to a sea drama, and Brennan was the sea-weary captain. One more time and he was a prospector. In all of these cases, the same things stuck out: his voice, his facial expressions, and, especially, the attitude that he had to the other actors that were within his scenes.  While his acting was strong and individualistic enough to have warranted him award nominations, he positioned himself in such a way that it deferred to the star without losing any of his own strength as an actor. Indeed, Brennan essentially invented the character that has been parodied in so many different films, cartoons, and other media objects. While his voice is generally what people use for the imitation (it is one-of-a-kind), his multiplicity of characters created an iconic figure to repeat and have within various genres. People know who Walter Brennan is, even if they don’t know who Walter Brennan is. For example, if one were to describe Stumpy, his character in Rio Bravo (1959), a person would know exactly of whom were speaking. All we would have to say was that he was the older cooky sheriff chewing tobacco or smoking a cigar, with a loud laugh and a cracking voice and a bad case of messed up teeth. He likes an occasional drink and was essentially not very useful yet considered absolutely indispensable to the main character (in this case, John Wayne) of the film. Dollars to donuts, anyone you talk to would conjure up Walter Brennan. He made that much of an impression upon film and media culture. Elisha Cook Jr.

Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and Samuel T. Cogley (Elisha Cook, Jr-credited as Elisha Cook, however) in Star Trek episode “Court Martial” (1967)

Elisha Cook Jr.’s resume reads like film and television history.  He played characters that were as varied as gangsters, doormen and the severely mentally disabled. He was in everything (and I honestly do mean everything- he is one of the most visually recognizable character actors ever) from The Maltese Falcon (1941), Don’t Bother to Knock (1953) and The Killing (1956)

playing George Peatty in Stanley Kubrick’s THE KILLING (1956-billed as Elisha Cook)

to Shane (1953), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), and Carny (1980). His tv movie appearances are countless (among them Tobe Hooper’s Salem’s Lot-1979, and the Richard Matheson-penned The Night Stalker-1972), and his television appearances weren’t half bad either- Star Trek (1967),  S.W.A.T. (1975), Quincy, M.E. (1977, 2 episodes), Magnum, P.I. (1981-1988, 12 episodes) and of course ALF (1988).  Elisha Cook Jr. was, clearly, a character acting force to be reckoned with. In my world, if he pops up in a film or tv show that I’m watching, that automatically makes it better. While that may seem like an exceptionally fannish comment (and I’ll admit- it is, but only slightly), I can back up why I think it will be better. When a certain director and/or casting director cast Cook , they were, similar to Walter Brennan-selection, seeking out a certain flavor for the piece. But the special thing about Elisha Cook, Jr (and the way that he differs from Brennan) was that his acting capacity was so wide. While he was certainly selected for that deer-in-the-headlights facial innocence that he had perfected (even in criminal roles), Cook had a complicated and layered innocence, making the film or TV show that much more intense. Elisha Cook, Jr. garnered empathy and sympathy in ways that most actors never could, simply using his eyes, facial features, and small stature. No matter what role he played or how evil the character was meant to be, one always sided with Elisha Cook, Jr. It was a unique talent that he had by playing with his visual aesthetic in tandem with his vocal intonations. In short, he was a great actor. While there are many roles that he has played throughout his career, my favorite has to be Harry Jones in The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks, 1946).

Playing small-time hood Harry Jones in The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks, 1946), I DARE you not to be moved by his pathos.

In all honesty, the look that he gives the other fella playing the gangster in one of the darker scenes in the film just breaks my heart. That may have been the film that made me an Elisha Cook Jr.-addict. While there were many other actors of his same height and general physicality who played similar roles, only Cook had the kind of talent it takes to bring affection to hoodlums and hen-pecked husbands alike. Unlike Walter Brennan who is primarily recognized based upon his singular vocalizations, Cook is a character actor that is familiar based upon his aesthetics and his characters’ ability to aggregate sympathy. George Kennedy I’ve accepted the fact that many people don’t watch older movies anymore. My friends and associates do, but the outside world-at-large? Not very often. However, there is a very decent proportion of those people who know who George Kennedy is. All you have to do is mention Cool Hand Luke (Stuart Rosenberg, 1967). Just ask about this scene:  In a film chock full of amazing talent, how is it that we remember George Kennedy almost as well as we remember Paul Newman? Harry Dean Stanton is in that movie, as is Dennis Hopper. Those are names that folks would recognize. However, George Kennedy’s character strength is what made him so recognizable.  Where Brennan was practically genre-specific and most definitely recognizable by voice and Elisha Cook Jr. had a face and persona that could break a thousand hearts and inspire love for even the lowdown dirty no-gooder characters, Kennedy’s forcefulness and bold demeanor gave him significance. Kennedy was masculine, tough as nails and super badass and many of his roles reflected those things. Like many other character actors, Kennedy found much of his career in television. His roles in Have Gun, Will Travel (7 episodes, 1960-63), The Asphalt Jungle (3 episodes, 1961), Bonanza (2 episodes, 1961-64),  and McHale’s Navy (2 episodes, 1963-63) only increased his popularity and solidified his “larger than life” persona. He even had his own television show, Sarge, which featured Kennedy as a cop-turned-priest who just can’t stop solving those crimes! Sarge brought big names out too- Vic Morrow, Martin Sheen, Leslie Nielsen (who he would later work with on the Naked Gun films) as co-stars and folks like John Badham and Richard Donner to direct.  Within Kennedy’s “character presence,” there was one feature that he carried on to almost every role he played: perseverance. While in some films it could be labeled as “stubbornness” or “hard-headedness” that was part of the Kennedy charm. It could make a character heroic (Airport, 1970)

playing Joe Patroni, the determined airline mechanic who does things his own way in order to try to save the day in Airport (George Seaton, 1970)

or brutal (Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, 1974).

playing the nasty Red Leary, determined to get his share (and way) of everything no matter what (Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, Michael Cimino, 1974)

It could catalyze a sense of martyrdom (Delta Force, 1984) or it could cause tunnel-visioned determination that doesn’t pan out so well (Lonely are the Brave, 1962). In addition to this, Kennedy’s physicality is a very distinctive part of his oeuvre.  It is so much a part of his “characterization” that he played four roles in four different shows/films where the character’s descriptive nickname was “Big” (ie “Big” Jim or “Big” Buck). Where Brennan went with the voice and Cook entangled facial expression with physicality, Kennedy’s impressive physical stature made him a perfect candidate for characters needing a tough persona and thus will be remembered as such. FEMALE TROUBLE Before we discuss the ladies, I would ask that you slide on over to Celluloid Slammer and check out their little ditty on character actresses, because truly…it’s fantastic. In the world of character acting, the men get a lot of love, but the women need some lovin’ too, and that post made me happy. Now that you’ve done that, shall we begin? Thelma Ritter

Thelma Ritter with Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window (Alfred Hitchcock, 1954)

The exquisite Thelma Ritter was probably in a very healthy chunk of the films that you were forced to watch in film school. Whether you liked them (or her, for that matter) is really none of my business, but the fact that a such a mousy-seeming woman could make such a significant place for herself in some of the best films that Hollywood made is still a very commendable feat. Ritter is another actress that you know her face, but you can’t remember from where or why. That is her gift. The first reason is that she’s in darn near everything, and they’re all pretty decently popular titles. The other reason is that Thelma Ritter is the kind of character actress that doesn’t impose herself on the film or the narrative. She almost becomes as crucial an element to the story as the storyline itself: you couldn’t imagine the film without her, and yet she is the least imposing figure you could think of. While she generally plays nurses, housekeepers or caretakers in general, she has also been cast in several roles that document her dramatic abilities without question. Her roll as the poor police informant Moe Williams in Sam Fuller’s Pickup on South Street (1953) is nothing short of brilliant. Both dramatically strong and crushingly heart-breaking, Ritter plays Moe’s part as real as they come, up until the very last moment. To me, that is her most memorable performance and also my favorite.

If Thelma’s Moe doesn’t break you, you have no heart.

However, Ritter’s work is extensive and each role, no matter how seemingly insignificant, is as unforgettable as she is, the sign of a good character actress. Unlike many character actresses, her career was almost exclusively in film. In general, most character actors/actresses have healthy resumes on both the little and the big screen. However, Thelma Ritter’s work existed almost entirely on the big screen, mostly due to the fact that she was unendingly usable. She fit into almost any context and any genre and there seemed to be roles cut out just for her. She invented an archetype, really (“the Thelma Ritter type”).  And her list of films is GOOD GRAVY astounding. While Sam Fuller’s film may have only gained respectability within recent years, she rocked it as Birdie in All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950), did a turn as Maude Young in Jean Negulesco’s Titanic (1953), and continued on to pieces like Pillow Talk (Michael Gordon, 1959) and The Misfits (John Huston, 1961). Now I’m not saying the lady didn’t do television- she most certainly did (there’s an “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” that I’m dying to get my hands on!), but the cinematic roles that she played helped to carve out and create a character type. In my mind, Thelma Ritter is somewhat of a legend. She can go from nosy neighbor to helpful housekeeper in the span of 1 film, yet always maintain that certain something. Her Ritter-ness has yet to be matched. I have not seen another actress who can carry that serenity on her face or the same playfulness or the grim determination, at times within the same film. My take on her is that, through being a character actress, she was able to use her wide variety of skills to dance through an industry that tried to pigeon-hole you into being one thing. I think she truly enjoyed her work and the variety of roles it gave her. I certainly love watching her. Agnes Moorehead While many people have grown up knowing her simply as Samantha’s mother Endora, Agnes Moorehead had a very brilliant career that started way before her turn as the technicolor witch on Bewitched. Though not conventionally attractive, Moorehead certainly had the power to be so. She played a multitude of characters over her career, ranging from her regular appearances in Orson Welles’ films to the aforementioned television series. I was pleasantly surprised to catch a lovely little film the other day called Mrs. Parkington (Tay Garnett, 1956), starring Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon. What I found to be the real kicker was that Agnes Moorehead, playing the Baroness Aspasia Conti in the film, is actually constructed as a beautiful and sexualized character. Played in opposition to the protagonist, she is regal and beautiful but aging, and discusses these issues in such a way that is unusual and terribly unique. The reality of the situation is that the way that Moorehead is dressed and made-up, she is every bit as attractive as the lead, but that doesn’t gel with the narrative (nor does it gel with the characters that Moorehead plays on a continual  basis), so she does become a secondary figure. But she is still seen as being a sexually attractive female, something that Moorehead did not get to do too often.

Agnes Moorehead as the lovely Baroness in Mrs. Parkington (1944)

Moorehead was, many times, part of the Old Maid/Crochety Woman character actress circuit. These were the female characters in films who, according to much recent film theory, are the flimsily disguised lesbian characters. They played the matronly aunts, the stern heads of orphanages or prisons, or other spinster-esque figures that had no romantic implications…at least not with men. Indeed, there were many allegations that Agnes herself was gay, but those went unproven. However, many characters that Moorehead played fall into a type that has been considered a little “less than hetero.” Her relationship with the Mercury Theater and thus Orson Welles brought her some amazing roles and showcased the strength of her performative skills. Moorehead’s ability to take charge of a scene just within a few lines can be seen in films such  as Citizen Kane (1941) and Jane Eyre (1943). But if you truly want to see a great performance, get your paws on a film Welles and the Mercury Theater gang did called Journey Into Fear (1943). Not unlike my Thelma Ritter/Pickup on South Street reasoning, my favorite Agnes Moorehead film roles are the ones that showcase a different image than her usual one and underscore her talents. Therefore I feel that Mrs. Parkington is a really fine film for exploring a different side of the Moorehead persona as far as sexuality is concerned. However, my real favorite is Journey Into Fear. While her role as Mrs. Mathews has some of the familiar qualities that she carries through her career (she plays the prototypical bullying-wife role), she also gets to shine with a few truly brilliant comedic turns. Part of that is the writing and the chemistry she clearly shares with the other actors, but a good portion of that is all her own. Later on, that comedy is quite visible in Bewitched (which she was on from 1964 to 1972) but up until then, her comedy stylings were somewhat more concealed. A great radio-star and a fine actress, Moorehead, like Ritter, created a character standard.  While Ritter’s was the kind and dependable housekeeper/neighbor/nurse, Moorehead virtually defined the matronly female figure. Her physicality and stern features in addition to her unwaveringly strong and full voice cut a striking figure on the cinematic canvas. I have always considered Moorehead to be more of the George Kennedy-type. You knew what you were getting, and what you wanted to use her for. Unfortunately, after seeing Mrs. Parkington,  I realized how wrong I was. She got type-cast, an unfortunate side effect of being a character actress. I suppose if you are good at something, that can tend to happen. It is an unfortunate occurance, however, seeing as she did have other skills that got explored (to an extent) earlier on in her career. I do wonder sometimes what it would’ve been like to see her play something perhaps a bit less austere. But then I watch her interact with Eleanor Parker in Caged(John Cromwell, 1950) and…well, I just love it so much I guess I accept things how they are. Father…er…Hollywood knows best?

While definitely a more sympathetic character than the women prison guards, Moorehead’s turn as Ruth Benton in Caged doesn’t stray much from her typography of roles given.

Mercedes McCambridge Not every character actress has been pleased about the roles that they have played or perhaps their character actress status, regardless of how well they completed the task. Mercedes McCambridge is one of those figures. Her lot in Hollywood was certainly much more tragic and difficult that the above two ladies and I have definitely heard people refer to her as a “cult” figure in a slightly condescending manner, which truly breaks my heart. Indeed, McCambridge herself said, “One of the most destructive things in my life was the kind of parts I played in pictures. I studied Shakespeare and the classics, and I end up shooting Joan Crawford and killing a horse that Elizabeth Taylor was in love with. I’m serious. I played the worst harridans, the most hard-bitten women, the absolute heavies, and it just about did me in.”

People can call Johnny Guitar a “cult classic” all they want. I’ll just call it one of my favorites that I can put on, oh, just about anytime. A chick Western by Nick Ray- what’s not to love??

Well, Mercedes, here is the problem- you play the heavy so damn well!  Being a fan of noir, I’ve seen a good amount of mean and bitter characters in the movies. But Old Hollywood rarely gave women a chance to explore that area. We were allowed to do the manipulative and vindictive femme fatale (and some of them could get pretty damn mean) but for the most part, women didn’t get to be rough and hard. I don’t know. Perhaps it was some kind of Delicate Flower Syndrome in tandem with the desperate fear that we actually have the capacity to be rough, hard-bitten bitches when we wanna be. Guess I can’t blame Hollywood too much. In any case, we got that freedom later, so can’t complain too much. But Mercedes did it early and she did it with style, even if those weren’t the roles that she wanted to play. McCambridge actually had a great deal in common with Agnes Moorehead. Like Moorehead, she was extremely successful in radio and her career there flourished for years right alongside her film and television work. Not only that, but she too was a member of the Mercury Theater, thus getting in with Mr. Welles which most likely led to her legendary (but uncredited) role as the androgynous gang leader in Touch of Evil (1958).

Mercedes as the gang leader who had a bad case of scopophilia when it came to Janet Leigh getting raped…

Previous to that role, of course, she was plenty active. She had developed a very clear and defined position within Hollywood. In fact, she won an Academy Award her very first time out of the gate! Her screen debut was in Robert Rossen’s All the King’s Men (1949), and she nabbed a Best Supporting Actress Award. Not too shabby. Throughout her career she worked intermittently on television, film and radio. She also continued to do work on the stage, something that many character actors/actresses pursued. While people tend to be more aware of her roles in films such as Giant (George Stevens, 1956) or Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray, 1954),  McCambridge managed to demonstrate her theatrical ability in pieces such as Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Suddenly, Last Summer (1959). The Tennessee Williams/Gore Vidal-penned script alongside the stellar cast of primarily stage-trained actors really gave her a good launchpad to create the character of Mrs. Grace Holly. While this role may not have been the best example of female strength (I’m not certain you can depend on Tennessee Williams to give you particularly positive examples of either gender-to be honest, he’s a fairly equal opportunity misanthrope), McCambridge manages to imbue the character with at least a modicum of sympathetic attributes, which is a feat. While her presence in television and film was powerfully based within the Western genre, doing everything from Cimarron (Anthony Mann, 1960) and Run Home Slow (Ted Brenner, 1965) to multiple episodes of shows like Bonanza (1962-1970) and Rawhide (1959-1965), her most famous role (for the majority of the populace) is in a film where she never ever appears: The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973).  CAUTION: CLIP NSFW, LANGUAGE & CONTENT IS…HORROR FILM. Her voice was clearly an asset for most of her career. She had utilized it to great advantage on radio, and lent it to create one of the most iconic villains in all of horror movie history. While we may remember little Linda Blair as the visual token, it is Mercedes McCambridge’s aural flair that gave The Exorcist its maddeningly wonderful tone. Friedkin’s refusal to credit her for her work was unforgivable and beyond reproach, however she did win the court case that followed so the end result was satisfactory, I suppose. Like Agnes Moorehead and Thelma Ritter, Mercedes McCambridge was a woman who worked hard at what she did in many different genres and mediums. Her personal life was quite a bit more rough that Ritter’s or McCambridge’s, but she overcame those obstacles, making her, to me, just as tough as the women that she played. McCambridge has a varied resume that gets shoved into the cult basket quite a bit due to her associations with horror or kitch-Western, but I will always see her as the hard-working and thoroughly quality character actress that she strived to be, and love her for it. Ulterior Motives I’m not going to lie. I have some ulterior motives for writing this piece aside from the unbound celebration of character acting. My grandmother and my mother were both character actresses, and to me? I think that’s just about the most awesome thing in the world. But honestly- this started out to be completely free of personal intentions. I swear! It just became difficult when along the way I began to think about…well, my personal involvement. So, here’s my end of things. As I have gotten older,  I have gotten more interested in the world of character actors/actresses. I never really knew what that was or what it meant. I just knew that was “what Nana was.” When I started watching Sam Fuller movies, and I came across Paul Dubov‘s name (I came across his face a bunch of times first and loved him, so I looked him up- isn’t that how you start your adoration for any character actor/actress?) I was floored to find out that he was my Nana’s best friend’s husband. That was my first inkling that there was something a bit cooky in my life. It probably should’ve been my first clue that character actors were gonna be my “thing,” as they do involve a bit of research and I do love me some research but hey- how was I supposed to know? DUDE. I spent YEARS of my childhood swimming in the Dubov pool and going to Sizzler with his wife and my grandma. How much cooler did that make Underworld U.S.A (Sam Fuller, 1961) and Irma la Douce (Billy Wilder, 1963)? A LOT. And…I never knew. So, maybe no one else cares that I have a love for Paul Dubov and I am now appreciating that I got to swim in his pool when I was tiny, but…hell, I love it. It seems to me, the more that I start to learn about my grandmother and her life in Hollywood, the more there seemed to be this interesting circuitry amongst the character actors; a kind of relationship-connectivity that the bigger stars never had. There was definitely more intimacy. It seems like a “duh” moment, but for someone who loves these people as much as I do, and is just starting to really investigate my grandmother’s pretty extensive Hollywood career, it’s an interesting thing to note.

My grandmother, Irene Tedrow

The flexibility of a character actor seemed to provide them with things that the Big Stars don’t get. My grandmother was afforded a successful career in television, film and an extraordinarily active life on the stage. She was another woman who began on the radio, and spent many successful years there as well. Some of my fondest memories involve her singing or reading to me (yeah- ain’t nothin’ like a highly-trained Shakespearean actress reading you stories to put you to bed as a kid- natch!). Oh, and she made damn fine cous cous. But I digress…However, my digression proves the other flexibility: she had time to put into a thriving family life. Many of the bigger stars had to forgo this aspect and their children and grandchildren suffered the consequences. My mother and uncle did not. Neither did my brother and I. My grandmother was working all the way up until the day she had a stroke in her 80’s, but (and I would have to ask my mom/uncle about this) I don’t think that she ever felt the work/family strain as massively as the Big Hollywood Talent. Interesting. I don’t think she was unusual in this, either. Thelma Ritter took a few years off of her established stage career to raise her kids…Does it go with the territory?

My grandmother in Norman Jewison’s The Cincinatti Kid (1965) with Tuesday Weld, Steve McQueen and Karl Swenson

Character actors are unique in a multitude of different ways. Their lives and careers are different, they have different trajectories, and different methodologies. Personally, I find them more exciting than your average Big Star, due to the fact that they have such range and depth in roles. Even if a character actor is known for something (like Crispin Glover is known for being a bit “off”), I still enjoy each different permutation of that something, even if the actor tends to stick to what he/she is known for. I will fully admit to being a character actor junkie, and I don’t need or want any help for it. In fact, the more movies I watch, the worse the disease becomes! Oh, more noir…Yep, add Charles McGraw to that list. Oh, more NYC cop/gangster/exploitation flicks? Joe Spinell, you are right there, baby. I began writing this before I started really investigating my grandmother’s career as a character actress, mostly because I felt that, as media scholars/film or television lovers/people of the modern age, we should not only know who these people are, but appreciate what they have done for us. I would’ve loved to have written on more people and written more about the people I did write about, but short bits seem to work. Character actors help us in many ways. If we didn’t have the character actors in cinema, there would be no reality to a film. If you sit and think about it, the character actors in any picture are what actually ground it, even in a fantasy or sci-fi film. Who is the character that always points out the common sense option or helps out in a moment of crisis? Many times, your character actor. They are the string to that filmic balloon, and are desperately necessary. We just don’t always recognize it, as they have always served as the unsung heroes of cinema, in my eyes. Well, today I sing for them. Loud and clear. Thanks, guys. We appreciate you. Nameless to many, but recognizable by face or voice to millions, you are loved. Thank you for your hard work. Keep it up! We’ll be watching!

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This is the Night (and the Days!): TCM Classic Film Festival, Part II

Some people collect stamps. Others go in for Fabergé eggs. I seem to be one for collecting film viewings…on 35 or 16mm, preferably, and on the big screen (of course). Thus a film festival like the Turner Classic Film Festival is really and truly my venue. So after the amazing viewings I had already aggregated, I was ready, willing and able for more.

:::DAY 2:::

“You know there ain’t no forgetting…”—THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES

Saturday morning, bright and early, I grabbed some coffee and a breakfast sandwich from my local shop, and headed out to Hollywood Blvd on my bike once more, arriving just in time to grab my seat for This is the Night (1932). Directed by Frank Tuttle, this little pre-code gem was Cary Grant’s first picture and couldn’t have been more delightful if it had TRIED. Generally, if I have a passing thought during a film that keeps coming back, I will have that be my theme. The one I had for this picture? I haven’t laughed this hard since Animal House (1978). I happen to think that Animal House may well be one of the perfect films in the world so…this was a pretty high compliment. Literally, my sides were aching by the time the film was over. I have not enjoyed myself that much in the theater in ages.

This Is The Night was the first screening I went to that was TOTALLY sold out within a few minutes of me sitting down. It was CRAZY!

The acting was perfect, the construction and comic timing was just insanely smart, and I was left feeling remarkably depressed that there are literally dozens upon dozens of films that I have come across that use virtually the exact same story line with some of the identical gags and they are JUST not done as well. It was definitely a “good morning” to me. Not that this was news to me, of course, but a decent reminder. It instantly became one of my all-time favorite pre-code films and…when I say that I’m obsessed with pre-code films? I like pre-code films like bees like honey and scandal loves politicians.

In addition to the film, Foster Hirsch was there to conduct a Q&A with Cary Grant’s daughter, Jennifer (who is the spitting image of mom, Dyan Cannon with a bit of Cary thrown in…needless to say, she’s no slouch). Hirsch is a favorite of mine from way back due to his amazing noir writings and he’s a great guy for a Q&A. Smart, funny, and charming, he discussed things with Jennifer and let her tell interesting tidbits without prying. It was a good Q&A.

Then it was time. Time for what? Time to check one off the list. A notch on my cinematic bedpost. Part of my collection, as it were.

Last year, after seeing Eli Wallach do a Q&A for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly  and then seeing the film in the big Chinese, I made a solemn swear to myself, right then and there, that I was going to do EVERYTHING in my power to see EVERY Clint Eastwood movie (primarily Westerns, but all the stuff I missed which is…well…most of the early stuff, to be 100% honest) in the theater. The Good, The Bad & the Ugly  made me cry because it was SO. DAMN. BEAUTIFUL. Beautiful? Yes, beautiful. It is film-making at its finest. The music, the visuals; it is a veritable ballet or symphony. With that in mind, the minute I saw that Josey Wales  was on the schedule, digital or not, I was going to see the film. And see it I did!

Once again, I met up with Dennis before the show began. I went inside the Chinese, and he came down with some friends and we all sat and chatted together about things we’d seen so far, and other assorted things. I remember thinking, GOD, I LOVE TCM CLASSIC FILM FESTIVAL!! and then Ben Mankiewicz came up and introduced the film. He talked about how Josey didn’t quite have the popularity or recognition back when it was released that it has now. It was called a “Prarie Death Wish” and that it came out at slightly the wrong time, yet it made money. However, the most incontrovertibly interesting part of the entire introduction was Mankiewicz’s discussion of the author of the original Josey Wales material, Asa Carter.

The Outlaw Josey Wales, in the big Chinese?? THAT is the way that film was intended to be seen. SERIOUSLY.

Carter was not only a supporter of George Wallace, but he was kind enough to start his own section of the KKK. A few years later, he was on Oprah’s best-seller list. Due to the fact that he wrote under the name “Forrest Carter” and people are excruciatingly poor researchers, not to mention that they have zero memory, no one remembered the “Asa Carter” and only saw this fabulous piece of literature lauded by Oprah, The Education of Little Tree.

While I think that the literature is possibly quite good, I’m not sure it can override or forgive Asa’s personal activities. But they can be held in separate places, perhaps. I don’t know. I’d have to read Little Tree  first. In any case, this personal data about Asa Carter made me wonder about the film that Eastwood had created. Since I am always fascinated by adaptations, upon seeing Josey Wales I had to stop and wonder about the similarities and divergences. I found Mankiewicz’s discussion of the film’s genesis remarkably funny and revelatory, not to mention quite original as far as an introduction to a film was concerned.

The film itself was everything I could have asked for…and more. It was funny and generously beautiful. Eastwood was gracefully stolid to a fault, and the phrase that kept coming to my mind, over and over during the film was “character jambalaya.” Not having seen the film before, it was a joy and a pleasure to be able to witness what I did on a screen like the Chinese.

Josey Wales is like a really good chunky soup, like a jambalaya. It is chock full of substantial bits and pieces of things, sometimes the very same elements (the soup analogy would be carrots, meat, etc), and each time you dip your spoon in for more? You come up with a different combination. Sometimes you’ll get the same bits with each bite, but sometimes you’ll be missing the carrots or you’ll run out of meat (the film equivalent would be the dismissal of a certain character, through whatever means that character gets, well, dismissed). Needless to say, I loved it and am eagerly awaiting my next chance to fill in the spaces on my Clint Eastwood movie dance card.

Immediately upon the cessation of the film, Dennis and I had to leave to catch what was to become one of the hits of the festival: a little-known British war film called Went the Day Well? (1942). There were a large amount of reasons I wanted to see this film. As a film scholar and Viewing Collector, it was rare. Those were the first reasons. However, more importantly, as a burgeoning film archivist/preservationist, I felt insanely guilty over not going to Kevin Brownlow’s in-person panel over at the Roosevelt Hotel (I couldn’t!! I had to see Outlaw Josey Wales!!) and was bound by my own personal decree to hear him present this fine piece of celluloid. And WHAT a piece it was!!

Seeing Kevin Brownlow speak was inspirational. I have to say that growing up in Hollywood like I have, I have been lucky enough to come into contact with a great deal of extraordinary people. While I was impressed by each of those on a separate basis, seeing Kevin Brownlow speak was pretty awesome (in the true sense of the term, let us make Harlan Ellison happy). He is not only jovial and self-effacing, but incredibly entertaining and, from my perspective (hell, from any self-respecting film lover’s perspective), a substantial figure of pride for film preservation everywhere. Good grief, the man is the only guy in his field to have won an Oscar for what he does! Because of this status, I knew the film was also going to be special. I figured he wouldn’t talk in front of just any old film. I figured right.

Kevin Brownlow is a rockstar. SERIOUSLY.

I knew from the outset that it was going to be grim and gritty. I don’t think that anything that Graham Greene has had a hand in has ever not been at least a teensy bit brutal in that respect. And if you know me…well, you know I like brutal. So, I was VERY MUCH IN. Call me crazy or just an old-fashioned girl, but I’m a sucker for old school nihilism! And I got it. In spades.

This film was so good I very much considered going to see it when they screened it a second time on Sunday. But…so many films, so little time! It played INCREDIBLY well with an audience. Some of the best audience reactions I’ve heard in a very long time and by far the best audience reactions from the entire TCM Classic Film Festival. While it was indeed a packed house, a packed house does not always guarantee a reaction. The film must provide that. This film gave it to us hard and spared no one. Somehow this film sits squarely between the hips of  really messed up “home invasion” flick and war-time/patriotism-spy stuff. Went the Day almost invents its own damn genre.

I hesitate to truly describe anything about the film as I am deathly afraid of saying too much. The horrific aspects were enough to satisfy a gorehound like me, and the driving, pounding suspense was enough to drive even a Hitchcock junkie to nail-biting. Yep, this movie totally won.

On the way out, we ran into the always amazing, wonderful and lovely Michael Torgan, my long-time good friend and head of the New Beverly Cinema.

Film Fans Unite and Take Over!!

We all chatted for a bit and then all went our separate ways for a while, Dennis and I agreeing to meet back up for our next agreed feature. What can I say? The man has AMAZING taste and he’s more fun to hang out with and watch movies with than almost anyone I’ve ever hung out and watched movies with. Being TCM Classic Film Fest buddies with Dennis ruled!! I felt like the cool kid in school, man!

I believe that at this point we had run into my super great pal Peter, as well.  I had run into him several times during the festival, but due to Festival Craziness, I cannot for the life of me remember what movies it was between! However, I do know that he got to go and see Reds (1981) and he and I chatted about that for a while. He said the Q&A with Beatty and Baldwin was pretty epic!

After a short interim, I returned to the Chinese and the cinema for Pennies From Heaven (1981). I wanted to see this film for many reasons. Primarily because I had never seen it on a big-screen before and the Busby Berkeley-ness of it all made me want to know how that would go down…in color. Additionally, let’s get blatantly honest here- I wanted to see the Christopher Walken dance/striptease large and in-charge. He is such a magnificent dancer and on a big screen…I did want to see that play out. Those things said, I’m not certain that I made the right choice. This is the only film during the entirety of the festival that I feel a little badly about, due to the fact that another film was playing at the same time that I would’ve loved to have seen on a big screen-Niagara (1953). But… what can you do, right?

Why am I disappointed? Well, Pennies isn’t a bad film, per se. I just…don’t know. Somewhere it sits with me wrong. I think that perhaps that is where it has its glory? Perhaps its disjointedness and its dark mutilated humanity is where its beauty lies? I’m just not sure. It is an uncomfortable film. And perhaps I was just not entirely prepared for that after the smooth cinematic excursions I had been traveling on. In any case, I may do a further study on the film, but suffice to say that, while I enjoyed it, it wasn’t as wonderful an experience as I wanted it to be and I will take full responsibility as that may simply be my Terms of Viewership coming in.

But there’s room for one “off” film. Especially when the next film is as good as it was!!! When Dennis and I had been exchanging emails previous to the festival about our possible schedules, the one thing that we BOTH knew was where we were going to be Saturday night at 9:30pm. I sacrificed for this screening, man. Not only did I miss my friend’s birthday gathering for this, but that very same gathering was also partially a high school reunion full of people I actually wanted to see (I know- imagine that, if you will…hard to believe). Yeah, One, Two, Three (1961) was definitely a viewing that I needed to collect!

Michael Schlesinger introduced the film and he did it with style, candor and charisma. Indeed, his knowledge on Wilder and the film itself was impressive and extremely well-presented, both for Wilder-scholar and amateur alike. He branded One, Two, Three  as Wilder’s “testament movie” and discussed how, not unlike Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959), this picture was almost a “greatest hits” piece as it seemed to gather all of his favorite filmic themes (men in drag, political commentary, sex humor, etc) together and put them within one narrative piece.

It was a bit of an understatement to say that I was thrilled. Indeed, our love (and excitement) for this film was so great that we sat there before the film started, deeply concerned about the masking. We knew, after all, that this was a ‘Scope movie, and it hadn’t yet been prepped  for that! I was a bit nervous! But, all fears were assuaged as the curtains gently rescinded from the screen, and Jimmy Cagney appeared, swift-talking and sharp as ever! What a gorgeous print it was too!!

Giggling like a school girl & occasionally looking at Dennis & the rest of the audience for their reactions (I get high off Billy Wilder Audience Reactions- it’s, like, my favorite drug) I blissfully made my way through that film and could’ve gone home a happy camper. Beyond happy, even.

But no. Not an option.

Not even close.

If I had missed The Mummy (1932) at the Egyptian Theater I would have been a flaming idiot. Thankfully, I did not because I’m a very smart young lady.

Tragically, the theater no longer looks the way it did when I was a child, which to me is always a little saddening. The walkway into the theater used to be lined on both sides with sarcophagi and I seem to remember being covered by a kind of tent-like overhang amongst the other sundry Egyptian decorations inside.

Egyptian, circa 1989. It was closed for "maintenance" around 1992, then Mother Nature decided to go further with the 1994 earthquake. It reopened as the American Cinematheque in 1998.

All of these things really made the entire journey into the cinema a true trip into some fantasy historic realm called ancient Egypt where…you could see movies?? Yeah, I don’t know. I loved it. It is entirely possible that I entered the land of Tutankhamun to see pretty much any of the 20th Century Fox films being released at the time, which meant I likely saw Spaceballs (1987), The Princess Bride (1987) and possibly Willow (1988) there, which rocks.

I know, I know. You guys were all watching Aliens (1986), Predator (1987), and Robocop (1987), but I didn’t get to be that cool yet.  I got that cool later. But hell- my memories of going to the Egyptian theater are like the Holy Grail to me. I wouldn’t part with them for the world. Not even having gotten to see Big Trouble in Little China (1986) before my folks would let me…well, maybe that one…!!!*

[*disclaimer: have no real idea if/how many of these flicks actually played the Egyptian, but, ya know, artistic license and all that!]

At any rate, back to the main event, right? I’m not complaining about what the place has now, as it’s an amazing theater and I go there every year for the Film Noir Festival and MANY other events, but…if you remember from part I of this saga, I do have that 13-year-old boy living somewhere inside me, and he thinks it would be really COOL to have mummies and themed stuff like that around as much as possible, especially on a night like that one at the TCM Film Fest when I was going to go see Boris Karloff do his thing!

I rushed over from the Chinese and was able to run into my friend Andy who had been working the event. Tired as he was, he said that there was no way that he was going to miss The Tingler from the previous night. So he got to tell me how cool it was and, essentially, how much I had missed. My William Castle-gene was feeling mighty depressed at that point, lemme tell you. Agreements have since been reached, but it was quite bitter at me for missing the event.  Looking at the time, I departed from Andy’s company, quickly locked up my bike, and ran inside, once again pouncing on a seat that was nice and close to the stage, as one of my favorite working actors (and crushes) today was presenting the film: Ron Perlman.

Perlman noted that Karloff's performance was nuanced and genre-transcendent, yet still said, "He complained about spending a lot of time in make-up? Eh. I've spent more!"

I love me some Perlman. Ohhhh boy, am I a sucker for him!  It helps considerably that I have an extremely healthy love affair with Hellboy (comic and film) and that Jean-Pierre Jeunet has a big ol’ place in my heart. Even so, Sons of Anarchy is a great TV show that has had people like Tim Hunter (River’s Edge) and Chris Collins (The Wire) work on it, so…not so shabby. In any case, Perlman was fantastic. He was relaxed (although I may be mistaking exhaustion for relaxation, but hey-splitting hairs, right?), intelligent and ever-so-elegant.

He did a little Mummy history lesson, harmonized with some Karloff critique, and then said “Hey! What’s up guys! Let’s watch this thing!” It was wonderful. Charming, friendly and enjoyable. There was also a real sense that he very much enjoyed the film even if he had only revisited it very recently.

So I settled into my seat, the film came on, and I realized exactly what The Mummy is, and laughed to myself with a glow of affection that I had never had before: it’s a horror film for archivists.

The last time I watched this film, I was simply a horror fan. There was not a preservationist bone in my body. Now? Well, the word “ridiculous” comes to mind. All I could think about was how the terminologies and methods used within the film were (more or less) on the mark, and I got the biggest thrill ever. You know when you see a film and due to the innate human tendency towards egotism you think “My god! This film is about ME!”? Well, that was me at midnight at the Egyptian. Should I discuss how the film was brilliant in the make-up or the historical sensibilities or…?

Screw it.

It was about archeologists who totally mess up, mishandle their preservational work and suffer the consequences!!! See what happens when you mess with the wrong shit? Yeah, that’s right. Uh-huh. SO GOOD. Ok, so this is an excruciatingly nerdy angle to take, but welcome to my world. I like a good beer, a great punk show, and to save 35mm film. Got a problem? Horror cinema is one of my favorite genres to discuss because it is so multi-faceted (to me). It shows one thing while it clearly talks about another. The Mummy is fun for me because it is a film that explores historical restoration and preservation and science in tandem with nostalgia and great emotion. As a budding archivist/preservationist, any film that figures in characters within that profession, be they living or dead, is pretty damn cool.

I’ve heard people say that they think Mummy  is relatively slow and boring. Well, I’m sure that most people wouldn’t want to catalogue that Scroll of Thoth, either, so I suppose that makes sense. I disagree. I think it’s a wonderful film. Karloff gives the film enough of a jolt that any “slowness” someone might experience is solved by his creepiness (and it is creepy! Make no mistake!!). Either way, I got more joy out of this than I had ever gotten before. It is totally subjective and fully personal and dorky as all get out, but that is just fine with me. While James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) will always be my favorite Universal horror film, this film, in one night, became my second-in-line.

:::DAY 3:::

“Good. Better. Best. Bested.” –WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?

And then…as soon as it had begun, it was over. It was the last day. And I was a horrible mix of excited and depressed. Excited at the prospect of what my final choices on my final day were to be, horrifically depressed as I knew that it was all about to come crashing down on my head. No more full days of wall-to-wall film, running or biking from theater to theater on little-to-no sleep, bits and pieces of food (when there was 5 minutes or so) and a bucket full of coffee in my bag. No more terrific conversation with fabulous gay men from Baltimore or invitations from gentlemen asking me to dinner with his sister and himself complete with the all-important Elwood P. Dowd “business card”  accompanying the invite.

If this is confusing you at all, please see the film Harvey (1950). It will become much more clear at that juncture.

What would I do when this was all OVER??? I didn’t know, truthfully. So, as that gorgeous green-eyed dame said,I decided to “think about it tomorrow” and enjoy my final day!

My first film was something I was really enthusiastic about. If you don’t know who Ross Lipman is, you really should. He is an extremely brilliant gentleman and UCLA film archivist who specializes in some of the most unusual and cool stuff around. Not only has he worked on restoring some of Kenneth Anger’s work (already a big “hellllooo! You rock!” in my book) but his other work reaches levels in film preservation that are (in my mind) deeply necessary.

His interest in preserving and restoring the underrepresented and neglected areas/subjects of cinema is something that I am always deeply grateful for and, in this case, incredibly happy to see at the TCM Classic Film Festival. Lipman’s work, represented by such wonderful pieces as Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1981) (which he won an award for, incidentally), Barbara Loden’s Wanda (1970) , or the presentation for TCM’s festival, The Sid Saga- Parts 1, 2, 3 (mid-1980’s) is really important. I think if we didn’t have Ross around to grab some of this stuff and make sure it was nursed back to filmic health, we’d be a much sadder place. Plus, the added bonus? The films don’t suck!

So the films that he presented and the stories that went with them were almost unbelievable. The Sid Saga- Parts 1, 2, 3 (mid-1980’s) is created from a number of smaller films that a man made over his lifetime. I would say that he’s just like your grandfather, and perhaps he is…if your grandfather had done everything from carpentry and a Fuller Brush salesman to being a (literal) one-man-band and a rocket scientist. Then…he made films about all of it. With animation!! The funny thing? It was conducted with some of the most romantic life-honesty I’ve ever seen. For all intents and purposes, much of the evolution of these films serves as a love story to his wife, Adelaide, in a way that many documentary films simply cannot dream of negotiating.

On the preservation aspect,  damn I love Kodachrome. There will never be anything like that. Sid shot some absolutely incredible nature films that just yelled “Hey! It’s Kodachrome here! Do ya miss me yet?? Huh?? Do ya??” All I wanted to do was reach out my arms and cry out: “Yes! Come back! Please! We made a mistake!” But the films themselves looked phenomenal.

Lipman discussed that the preservation was fairly labor intensive, which seemed to make sense. Not only was there a veritable plethora of media to contend with (Sid used still photos, home movies, audio bits, newspaper clippings, animation sequences…the kitchen sink, maybe?) but some of the stock was fading and, while Sid had done all the editing work, he had never completed a full composite print!! Without getting too complicated, suffice to say that, while difficult, they were successful in their endeavors to complete a beautiful version of these films using all of the various sources that Sid provided them. It must’ve been work, but it certainly paid off in my eyes- literally.

I can only say this: if you possibly get a chance to see these (or really anything that Ross presents- he has excellent taste, and in addition to the stuff I said before, he’s a very entertaining speaker) please do. They will make you laugh, cry and entertain you in a way that most documentaries don’t and the vast majority of independent and experimental cinema can’t. In my eyes, there was more life and joy gushing from each frame of this piece than I have seen in quite some time. It was a wonderful experience to meet Sid through this film, and I am a better woman because of it.

I wish that I could tell you that I went and saw something BRAND SPANKING NEW right after The Sid Saga. But I totally didn’t. I totally went to This is the Night  again and laughed myself silly, and had a blast sitting next to Dennis as he laughed himself  to pieces, too. It was just as much fun the second time around. Man, I love that movie.

Bouncing from pre-code to pre-code, we left Night and went straight to the screening for Hoop-La (1933). I was so thrilled to see this on the bill again for Sunday with the people who had been presenting it before, as writer David Stenn is a fabulous historian on Jean Harlow and Clara Bow, and I had experienced the awe-inspiring coolness of MoMA film archivist Katie Trainor the first evening of the festival.

As the two began their intro to the film, I think Dennis must’ve thought I was a little crazy when I practically leaped out of my seat in pure, unadulterated excitement upon the discovery that this film was a Carnie Film. I have…a thing about freakshows, circus-life, carnivals, and their representations in cinema. I love anything having to do with that world. From Freaks (1932) and Nightmare Alley (1947) to Ghoulies II (1988), I love the carnival. So a pre-code with Clara Bow set in the circus world?? SIGN ME UP! And to be honest? Hoop-La was everything it claimed to be and more.

We were the second audience to ever see this print. The first audience had seen it a few days earlier. It originated from nitrate prints that Fox had given to MoMA that had been then blown up to 16mm and printed. The only other print in existence up until this point had been at the Cinematheque Francais, and it’s apparently not very good at all. But this print looked amazing. They clearly have put a good amount of love, time and energy on making this beautiful piece of history last.

Clara Bow was always breathtakingly gorgeous with a killer body to boot, but she has never looked as sexy and delicious as she does within the frames of this film. I felt extremely lucky to be one of the first audiences to get to see the premiere of this film’s restoration and to hear such wonderful scholarly discussion on the subject from Bow’s biographer and from the woman who made the final call and decision to select the film for preservation and restoration.

From Hoop-La to…Haskell- Wexler, that is! There was a break for a bit, but then it was time for the Final Film of the 2011 TCM Classic Film Festival. There was really no question for me as to what it was going to be when it was announced: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966) with Haskell Wexler in conversation with Leonard Maltin. Maltin may have an obsession with films being unnecessarily short, but he’s not the worst guy at a Q&A, and I was eager as hell to hear Wexler discuss…well, anything! Additionally, I had only seen this film once before in my life and all I remembered about it, as I laughingly related to Dennis, was that it’s a film that has “a lot of yelling in it.”

The discussion with Wexler was simple and fantastic. He is a tall and elegant man who is profoundly humble and seems almost unaware of how much of an impact he has had on other people. He went up to the table and sat down, answered a few questions, and then stated, “But I’m sure you didn’t come here to see me, so perhaps we should just watch the film…” The audience response was emphatic! Yells and clapping and people stating how much they had come just to see him speak. It was lovely.

He said it was his first studio film and he said that they wanted to fire him. He said that they told him that everything was “too dark.” I laughed when he said this. I laugh even more now, as I write this. Too dark? Virginia Woolf? Really, guys?

Wexler also said that while he may have gotten the Academy Award that year, he gave Nichols a percentage of the credit. “He knew more about filmmaking,” Wexler shrugged. He also said that in his acceptance speech, he appealed to the audience to be able to “use our art for peace and love” due to the fact that Vietnam was hot and heavy. Unfortunately, that didn’t work too well in tandem with what he had won for- he got letters back from people who said, “Oh yeah? Use our art for peace and love? Like Virginia Woolf?”

So there we were. Ready to go into the final, final stretch. Sad, tired, and cinematically-fulfilled, but ready for Albee and the machine-gun-onslaught that is Burton/Taylor and company. Or were we ready? I’m not certain that I was. Things are different on a big screen. Things are also different with less sleep and less food, but I believe in this case it was Wexler’s photography in tandem with the large-screen presentation that made me as vulnerable as a small orphaned child.

Dear lord, that is a rough and brutally gorgeous movie. It has all the intensity of a river rafting trip gone suddenly wrong in the most desperate way. Yet that river? It’s still in the middle of nature and therefore breathtakingly beautiful. To be honest, for a good percentage of that screening, I’m not certain whether I was crying, breathing, or if I ever took my hands away from my face. The impact of that film on me was strong as hell and will probably remain so for the rest of my life.

There are certain big-screen viewings that you will remember forever. They become like lovers or family members in your life. I left that theater with a new addition to my circle, without a doubt.

As Dennis and I left the theater and prepared to say our goodbyes, we were approached by a fellow TCM festival go-er.

“Did you hear what happened???” She asked, clutching her friend, both of them shaking, eyes wild with a strange and uncomfortably odd kind of excitement.

Normally in this situation, approached by a random stranger, I would likely respond with something mildly smarmy about having been sitting in a movie theater for the last 10 hours. I was pretty drained. I looked at my compatriot to see if he registered anything/knew anything, but he seemed as blank as I.

“Bin Laden has been killed!” she continued, barely even waiting for our response, “Can you believe that? While we’ve been sitting in all of these films for hours and hours on end, the world has changed completely! And we didn’t even know it!”

Dennis and I looked at each other, stunned to our eye-teeth. I believe that we might have stuttered some kind of response to her, but really? What do you say to that? In any case, she seemed to want to alert the rest of the film festival, so off she ran, and we were left looking at each other.

“Well that certainly changes things, doesn’t it?” he said.

I nodded. It was definitely a “wow” moment.  We spent a few minutes considering the new information in tandem with the leftovers of Albee/Nichols/Wexler/et, al swirling about in our brains, and then we parted ways, him home to his family and me to the TCM Film Festival party.

When it comes down to it, all these weeks later, I have to think- did Bin Laden mean anything to me personally? Will his death personally effect me in the same daily way that seeing honor and relationships deconstructed in Becket did? In 20 years, will I be filled with some perverse joy  that a man who was a catalyst for others’ deaths was wiped out and will it feel as good as watching One, Two, Three or This is the Night? Somehow, I doubt it.

The world may have changed completely according to that woman, due to Bin Laden’s demise, but my life was changed completely by watching 16 films over the course of a few days, spending time with people of like-mind, and getting the rare opportunity to see some incredibly iconic figures discuss their work and creative intent. I’m pretty young still. But from what I have seen, I think that the real change will come when we start to look more at cultural objects as capable of change rather than people’s deaths.

I honestly don’t know how we will view Bin Laden’s death a few years from now. But do I think that people will still be talking about the latest film that they liked, whether it was The Hangover 8  or Nicholas Winding-Refn’s newest? Yes. Yes, I do. And as long as that doesn’t change, well…I’m A-ok.

Made it, Ma! Top of the World!: TCM Classic Film Fest, 2011–PART 1

I guess I didn’t realize exactly how excited I was about the TCM Classic Film Festival until I got there that first day. I rolled in, locked up my bike, collected my pass, and sat down to get some food. I looked around me, and I realized that I was surrounded. It was like a scene from John Carpenter’s They Live, only instead of being beset by alien creatures I was actually surrounded by people who were, more or less, my people. They were the kinda folks that could chat at length with me about Ida Lupino’s career or discuss why Ball of Fire (1941) is probably one of the greatest examples of “ensemble cinema” ever created.

It was at that point that I started feeling like I was walking on air. THIS WAS IT!!! A full weekend-plus that was just full of film. I had done something right. Yep.

Last year I had just sorta gone about my business, running into pals and such, maniacally running from film to film, overflowing with anxious joy and wonder at the fact that I was getting to see such an astonishing number of my favorite films on 35mm. I had lived off the food and coffee provided me by the concession stand at the Chinese theater, and gotten little to no sleep. But I was more concerned about getting into the screenings due to the fact that I didn’t have a pass. I was on stand-by. This year proved to be, well, very similar. However, I had a pass. Did that make things easier? Not really. I still ate very little and pumped even more coffee through my poor sleep-deprived body. But having the pass definitely made me less stressed out about whether or not I was going to get into the screenings I wanted to get into, and that was worth every bit of it.

The postcards for this year...I like them so much better than last year!

So as I sat there, having one of the only relaxed nice meals I would have for the next 3 days, I was giddy. It was what I call “conference energy” and it was wonderful. I’ve done so many of these damn things, from purely academic to absurdly geeky and…the buzz on the TCM Festival went up to 11, in the way that Spinal Tap truly intended it to. EVERY table had the schedule out and was eagerly arguing and planning out their course of events for the next 3 days.

:::NIGHT ONE:::

“I kissed you because I loved you…for a minute!”–THE DEVIL IS A WOMAN

I finished up, tipped my good-looking waiter, said good-bye to the Gregory Peck that was playing on the screen. Timely as ever for film-related events, I entered the welcome party in the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel just at the perfect moment to hear Robert Osbourne give the “Welcome to the TCM Classic Film Festival” address. I schmoozed a bit, met up with some lovely folks that I had gotten to know due to the wonders of the internet such as the lovely and wonderful Sales on Film (who I was also lucky enough to spend some quality time with over the weekend), and ran into some old and dear friends like my good pal Eric Caiden of Hollywood Book & Poster.  Looking at  the time, we realized

Not gonna lie. As many times as I could, I saved my silly ticket stubs. They make for good copy! And, well, that archiving thing ya know...

that social time was over and Film Time was ON. So…we scrambled over to the Chinese and grabbed seats for Night at the Opera (1935). The guests that they had were Robert Bader and Groucho’s grandson, Andy Marx. The Q&A was lovely, with a good discussion about different parts of comedy and the place that it had within the relationship between Andy and his grandfather.

One of the things that interested me most was the discussion that Bader and Marx had about technology and comedy routines. Having recently watched the Bill Hicks documentary and cried my ever-loving EYES out (if you haven’t seen it, see it. NOW. Even if you don’t know who Bill Hicks IS), I’ve been thinking about good comedy quite a bit and so their revelations were most enlightening.

The two men discussed how they used to record people’s comedy routines off of the television and play them back and memorize them that way. Marx said he used to do that with his grandfather’s own work. To me, that kind of translatory learning is fascination. Visual learning is one thing, but to realize that comedy, good comedy is so damn multi-faceted…that is clearly another. And while the Marx Brothers are incredibly physical comedians, their other major strength is in the pure, unadulterated speed and complicated linguistic play that took place within their dialogue- something that could only be learned through an aural reification.

After the Q&A, and just before the feature, they showed the Warner Brothers’ cartoon “What’s Opera, Doc?” As many of my friends can attest, I am a junkie for old cartoons and this was a REAL WINNER. As my research showed, it was indeed what I thought: a condensed version of Wagner’s operas. You can’t get much cooler than that. And with Chuck Jones at the helm? HELL YES!!

Merris Melodies does Wagner!

Then it was time for a complete change around. From the zaniness and chaotic anarchism of the Marx Brothers, it was time for Joseph Von Sternberg’s The Devil is a Woman (1935). While this film is notorious for a multitude of reasons, it is apparently most well-known for the fact that it really hit a nerve with the Spanish government officials who hated it with a passion, due to its portrayal of the police guard. They threatened to ban all Paramount pictures completely if the studio didn’t do something about Von Sternberg’s film so…Paramount pulled the picture and destroyed the master. Because, ya know, it’s important to throw the baby out with the bathwater (I know, I know, different time…different time…).

Paramount also decided, in their infinite wisdom, that it would be a good decision to release Von Sternberg from his contract early. And once again, hindsight is 20/20, but GOOD LORD. What hindsight!! Can you imagine what the situation would have been if…this had not been Marlene’s favorite movie? The thought gives me chills. Because this was one of the best films I saw over the course of the festival and it is one of the best Marlene movies ever. Don’t get me wrong- she’s done great stuff- but her out-and-out petulance and lust for life in this film is incomparable. I’ve never seen anything like it before, and I’ve watched a good deal of old movies with great divas, Dietrich included.

Asked why this film was her favorite, Marlene Dietrich simply replied, "Because it is my favorite."

The Devil is a Woman is a film that stands apart. It is to be noted that the festival background gives it a flavor of defiance and exoticism that is all-at-once erotic and, in the Bakhtinian sense of the word, Carnivalesque. Ideas of the fool and the grotesque populate the film as often as the drippingly sensual flowers carefully placed within Dietrich’s hair. It would be dismissive to call this film a “movie.” It is, by my count, both a stunning prayer to the alter of Marlene (and we all know the Von Sternberg-Dietrich thing, so…) and an exquisite exploitation of the cinematic medium.

The woman who came up beforehand, Katie Trainor, is the Film Collections Manager (read: killer moving image archivist and who I wanna be when I grow up!!) at MoMA, and is a total rockstar. She explained that although the master of the film had been destroyed, per Paramount’s instructions, Marlene Dietrich actually had a print of Devil in her bank vault. She gave the print to MoMA, who restored the film a while back, but restored it again now, this time to polyester film stock, making it good for another 300 years! Of course, I was sitting there while she talked about this stuff geeking out mercilessly, hoping she would continue talking about it for a good time more. Luckily, I was able to hear her speak one more time during the festival, but sadly I was not able to talk to her in person.

After the films were completed, we all went our separate ways in order to get some sleep in preparation for Friday- a day that I knew was going to be exciting, difficult, and invigorating all at once. It proved to be all of these things.

:::DAY 1::: 

“That’s Neat! I like That!”–BECKET

I got up incredibly early. Like REALLY early for me. Having not had to get up early for a very long time, this was a challenge. But, surprisingly, it went incredibly smoothly. Got up, showered, dressed, got on the bike, grabbed a breakfast sandwich & a huge bucket full of espresso (4 shots and the rest filled with coffee, please…yes, I do know how many ounces it holds, I’ll be drinking from this all day, I appreciate the concern!) and I was off.

When I got to the Egyptian, I was actually surprised to see that there was a mass of folks that had gotten there WAY before I did, and we still had about an hour and change to go before we got let in!

It's all about the Saxons. And the Normans. And...well, the O'Toole of course!!!

The doors to the Egyptian finally opened, and I shuffled up to the front of the theater. It may be a little intense for the screen, but if I want to see a guest at the Egyptian…I’m gonna try to be at the front. And so? I found myself a lovely little chair and patiently waited.

For me, this was a fairly big thing to check off my list. I had DVR’d Becket (1964) a few months back, but when I heard that it was going to be at the Festival, I had quickly erased it and been anticipating this moment the whole time. Especially since I knew that Peter O’Toole himself was going to show. At this point, I can’t wait to see what O’Toole film TCM Fest’ll play next year, since last year I saw The Stuntman (1980)! In any case, there we all were, waiting, anticipating, patience dwindling to nothing like a 10-year-old child’s on the tram to Disneyland. You could literally look at the people beside you in the theater and they had the “Are we there yet?” look on their faces. Considering the various age-ranges (a good percentage retirees or thereabouts), the look of wonder and child-like excitement was fantastic. It gave the audience a wonderful sense of democracy that technical generation gaps were not permitting.

And then it happened. Ben Mankiewicz appeared and the crowd went nuts. He came out and chatted a bit, making a few jokes about the Royal Wedding that had happened the night before and the film Royal Wedding, since that was going to be presented later in the day (all I could think at that point was how hard that made me laugh and…oh boy- I must be a really BAD film nerd if those are the jokes that get me! I’m sunk for good!). Mankiewicz was even more charming and a hellovalot smarter and cooler than he is on tv, and I like him on tv, so that’s saying a lot!  After his initial presentation, he gives a bit of historical background on Becket and they run the film.

Is the film good? It’s better than good, it’s great. When I call this the first “bro” movie, I’m not kidding. I say that in a slightly off-the-cuff joking way, but I do mean it in the sense that it does discuss all the issues that pertain to that which we have come to look at as “bro” culture. Perhaps not what it is now, in that it has completely been degraded and turned in upon itself in some kind of commodified and trivialized way (like most other things), but in the sense that there is a sense of loyalty and masculinity that two men can share with each other that women have no place in.

On the other hand, I recognize that there is a highly sexual element of this film, between Henry and Becket. It is quite exciting and enthusiastically celebrated, in fact. This may be one of the first films that I have seen in a long while where, with one notable exception, women are portrayed as horrific, evil creations, and I’m…almost down with that struggle. Mostly because I am so dearly and desperately in love with the relationship as it evolves/devolves between Henry and Becket.

The colors were beautiful. The story exquisite. I could write about this film alone for an entire entry. However, I cannot do so, as I have to discuss the actual in person visit from Henry II, himself! You know a film is good when it closes and it feels like a lover pulling away in the morning…you know they have to go, but that doesn’t make it any easier. And thusly, Becket wrapped for me, and Mankiewicz returned to the stage.

"They found Burton at the Pair of Shoes and I was under a piano at the Garrison club. They had to get us all dressed up like a king and a priest again for those final shots. We were very confused."

And then came the man. There’s no getting around it. I’m prejudiced. His eyes and his acting got me one day and…I was sold.

Well, I wasn’t any less sold that morning. He was elegant and charming, and seemingly surprised at the film. I don’t think he had been there the entire way through, but he mentioned that it was quite something to hear the way he sounded “all those years ago.”

The discussion wound its way through all sorts of topics: theater, Lawrence of Arabia, drinking, Burton, their relationship, cricket, and Katharine Hepburn. The most memorable moments, of course, were when O’Toole would go “off the script” as they say, and add something that truly was a personal touch. When discussing Richard Burton, he asked Mankiewicz if he was familiar with the cricket expression a “pair of safe hands” (the generosity of this made me smile- Americans? And cricket? I love you, Mr. O’Toole!). When Mankiewicz replied in the negatory, he responded that it referred to someone who was reliable and could be counted on not to make a mistake, someone who would back you up properly. “I knew with Richard Burton it would be like that,” O’Toole said.

His stories were wonderful. I could have listened to them for hours. But the one that stuck with me the most was the one that he told about Lawrence of Arabia. “I find acting very difficult,” O’Toole commented, and then discussed David Lean in some detail. “To sit on a camel, in the non-existent shade, covered in vermin, is not my ideal platform. But I came out, and David said, ‘It’s an adventure!'”

And Peter O’Toole himself is an adventure. Even as an older gentleman his eyes sparkle and his wit is sharp. “It’s an adventure!” No doubt. His life could not have been more of one and his films could not have expanded that if he had tried. Seeing him before me that morning was a dream. Theatrically, scholarly, and filmically, Peter O’Toole will remain one of the greatest actors in the world and I feel irascibly lucky to have been able to see him have a live Q&A after the masterpiece that was Becket!

I rushed out of there like a house on fire, unlocked my bike, and slid amongst Friday morning cars along Hollywood Blvd on my bike. I have to say- it was SO much quicker than walking! I love my bike! So I found a place to lock her up, and charged straight up to the Chinese 3 for Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life (1956). Some of you may remember that I have written about Nicholas Ray before or know my passion for his films, so you can imagine how excited I was. Well, quadruple that. It was a spectacular event, in the true meaning of the word spectacular originating from “spectacle.” Not only was star Barbara Rush there to do the Q&A with Robert Osborne, but it was in glorious DeLuxe color and Cinemascope.

Words fail to describe how good Barbara Rush looked. The fact that a woman who is in her 80’s looks like she just popped off the screen is almost unfathomable. Yet there she was, plain as day, gorgeous, funny, bright and quick as hell!

For a young actress to work with Nick Ray was a big thing, but James Mason...that VOICE!

When Robert Osborne asked her to talk about some of her leading men, she quipped back in the middle of his question, “I had ’em all!”

Her discussions on Paul Newman’s aspirations to character actorhood were especially enlightening. due to the fact Indeed, looking at his career and certain roles he chose to take on, you can see that desire manifest itself more than once. However, due to the fact that he was deadly good-looking,  he lost the character-actor lottery and was more leading-man stock (can’t say I’m complaining much). She said that he always really wanted to be Wallace Beery.

Rush was also on very good terms with Sinatra, too. He made sure to let her know that he had her back, no matter what. “Kid,” he said, “If you ever need help…” to which Rush replied “You would be the last person I’d call! You’ll kill ’em!!”

For someone who was extremely unfamiliar with her work, this Q&A was a godsend. Not only was she delightful and funny, but she was informative, incisive and analytical about the Hollywood system then and now. She stated, pure and simple, “There were no Lindsay Lohans because of the Studio System. They would give them picture after picture, shape them and mold them, protect them.” It was an interesting and saddening thing to consider. It’s not like people were partying any less back then. It’s just that the Studios and the Agents and the assorted folks in and around that circus authentically cared more (not about the person, mind you, about their product/commodity) and that, in effect, prevented a great deal of mishap. Don’t get me wrong, bad things still happened, but the covering up and shaping/molding/continuing to provide pictures after scandal may have saved more lives than we think.

Then there was the film itself Bigger Than Life is aptly named. And no, it could not have been shot in black and white or any other aspect ratio. It was a deliberate use of tools for a deliberate study on addiction, psychosis and different kinds of abuse-related traumas. It felt like a Douglas Sirk movie that had gone to the circus but in that upside-down, ten-in-one, freakshow kind of way, not the cotton candy and ferris wheel. It was dark and twisted and over the top, and while many might see this as the basis for a cult film and cause for laughter, I saw it as hauntingly beautiful and uncontrollably disturbing. It was meticulously thought out in the way that only a Ray film is, and is very clever at disguising itself as simply the American dream gone wrong. The issue is that this is the American dream gone to Hell in a handbasket. It deals with drug abuse, sure, but it deals with all kinds of other abuses and their repercussions on the psyches of the most vulnerable. We’ll put it this way- I adored the film and will be writing on it more at a later date, I’m sure.

So I believe I might have had something to eat at that point. I honestly don’t remember. I think I did, but that seems highly unlikely seeing that there was no possible way that I was going to miss the next screening. The bits and pieces in between the screenings at the Festival seems so meaningless unless you are in the company of fantastic and awesome people (which I was for good portions of the weekend) or getting to know some new ones, so anything less than that pales.

The next thing I knew, I was making my way into the Chinese 3 again, when who should I see but my good friend and companion, writer-on-film extraordinaire, and all around excellent being with opposable thumbs, Dennis Cozzalio. I was THRILLED to pieces. I always love spending time with him and so every time I see him it’s like some cool holiday. I snagged a seat right by him, sat down, and we immersed ourselves in the glory, the magic, the unbelievable brilliance  that is The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958). In my notebook, as I was watching, I scribbled the following phrases:

1) Indiana Jones and Goonies totally bit off this!! Dude!!

2) Pixar for nerdy grown-ups!! [ok, so maybe I shoulda written Aardman. SUE ME.]

3) Who let the dragons out? Who? Who? Who? [YES. I went there. TO MYSELF. In the movie. THANKS.]

My decision, right then and there: any film that has such beautiful and skillfully battling skeletons has won my heart. Now I know you might say- hadn’t you seen Harryhausen’s work before? The quick answer is yes. The longer answer is a) never a full film (but many clips, pieces of documentaries, and virtually hours of footage on the making-of stuff) and b) NEVER ON A BIG SCREEN.

Never let anyone tell you that the big screen doesn’t change the way you seen a film. Even one you have seen a bazillion times. It is a complete falsehood. Seeing this film on the big screen with Bernard Herrman’s excellent score ripping its way through my ears was life-changing. The 13-year-old boy in me was doing cartwheels and flips. It was so brilliant. I’m surprised that my seat remained in one piece considering how much I was bouncing around in absolute glee.

Delightful doesn’t begin to describe this film. ROCK an ROLL comes close, but…that doesn’t sound too scholarly, now does it. Perhaps we shall split the difference?

When that came to a close, I walked out into the lobby with Dennis and we ran into a friend of his. As it turned out, his pal John is finishing up the same program that I will be starting up in September! So after a bit of movie dishing, Dennis moved towards his next film and John and I chatted about film archiving and all sorts of fun stuff. Also how fencing/fighting skeletons essentially just rule. After grabbing some coffee with him, I made my way down to the courtyard in front of the big Chinese, so that I could get in line for Spartacus (1960).

It wasn’t so much that I felt a need to see it on the big screen (although seeing anything in the big Chinese is almost like seeing the face of a god…well, maybe a junior deity, seeing as it’s all digital now and I’m a sucker for a good print. But still- stuff in the big Chinese? GREAT) as I wanted to see Kirk Douglas. I love the man. Lonely Are the Brave (1962) (Douglas’ favorite film of his career, by the way!) is possibly one of the best modern Westerns to grace the silver screen, and Ace in the Hole (1951)? Well, let’s just say I still don’t go to church. It still bags my nylons. I’ve also read his autobiography (the first one, anyways) and have a very keen sense of him due to my minor obsession with the blacklist and blacklist history. So aside from the fact that my mother had seen the very same film in the very same theater when it came out, 50 years ago (sorry for outing your age, mom! Forgive me for the sake of journalism?), I had my excitement gauge set firmly to “Elder Statesman of HELL YES I RULE” Douglas. Needless to say, I was not disappointed.

Kirk Douglas has had multiple strokes over the years which have made his speech difficult to understand. I can’t say I got everything, but I got most of it. His poise was brilliant. His timing? SPOT ON. Whatever neurological explosions happened within the Douglas anatomy, they have not, for even one instanteffected his ability to turn on a crowd and keep them going.  People were laughing at his jokes (damn funny), murmuring in agreement at his statements and watching intently as he discussed certain elements of his life now in comparison to back then. He actually said that he was happy that he had the strokes, as they taught him to stop taking things for granted.

"I think for a guy who can't talk, I'm saying a lot!"

My favorite story that he told was when he called Stanley Kubrick and wanted to make Paths of Glory (1957) (another GENIUS performance from this man). He said he had to cajole Kubrick into it a little, and his stance on Paths when he decided that he wanted to make it, verbatim, was: “This picture won’t make a nickel. But we have to do it.” That attitude ruled his career and it still rules him. It was inspirational to see clips from his one-man show and to know that this man has the strength of a thousand winning armies. Kirk Douglas is Spartacus, still.

He received a standing ovation in response to his statement about breaking the blacklist by using Dalton Trumbo’s name as an actual credit and making sure that Trumbo was let on the lot when no one had the balls to do that, and with that we said our farewells to the man who changed Hollywood (and my personal film life) forever, and got on with the show.

Spartacus itself was quite enjoyable. It was made a little less enjoyable by the people in the audience who persisted in taking pictures of the screen. I knew when the flashes would go off, too. It was like clockwork. People’s credits at the beginning? FLASH. Laurence Olivier and Tony Curtis in the now-infamous “snails-oysters-bathing scene” FLASH FLASH FLASH.

I do understand that there were a ton of people attending this festival from different cities, states and countries. I also understand that those places may not have theatrical screenings of these films, thus you make the journey to the seriously amazing TCM Classic Film Festival. But…it was quite distracting and disappointing. There are amazing screen captures that you can get online. It is entirely unnecessary to disrupt other people’s film-going experience by shooting pictures through it. If the staff could’ve done something, I think they would have. But quick flashes in a large group of people…well, not much you can do.

Spartacus is truly an amazing film. Due to the emotional attachment to storyline/characters I am always guilty of when I go to the movies, I tend to forget how many extraordinary actors are in it together. You can probably play Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon and connect him to any one of these actors because of this one picture. How poignant, too, that I was seeing another Tony Curtis movie at the TCM Festival, as last year I had seen one of my ALL time favorites, Sweet Smell of Success (1957), and he had been the guest for the Q&A beforehand.

As the film let out, I had to throw in the towel. I was spent. This broke my heart because I was so looking forward to seeing William Castle’s The Tingler (1959) at the Egyptian. Castle is one of my 100%, no-question-about-it, favorite humans to have come into the world of the cinema. But I had to admit defeat, and so I biked home, opened my door, put the bike down with my stuff, and promptly passed out completely. It was necessary. I’m kinda glad I did, too, as Saturday turned out to be the biggest and most movie-filled day of ’em all!!

****WATCH THIS SPACE SOON FOR PART 2 OF THE TCM CLASSIC FILM FESTIVAL SAGA!!!!!!!****

We Are Nobodies: 13 Assassins and the Elegance of Miike

Elegance of Miike?

The hell you say.

The man who gave us Ichi The Killer? The man who shocked people’s delicate sensibilities with Visitor Q? No, surely no. You must have the wrong guy. You mean to say that he made a film that gestured with grace and style towards the works of Kurosawa? Are you…saying that a Takashi Miike film was…restrained?

Yes. That is precisely what I am saying.

While other posters exist for this film, I actually prefer this one. It seems to express the duality of Miike perfectly.

Is that what I liked about it. YES. Is that what I loved about it YES. Did I miss all the usual “Miike-isms”? No, because they were absolutely there, you just had to look a little harder for some of them. They were studied, intentional, and entirely present. Yet, during the course of the film, I came to believe that  it was entirely possible that some of the things that we have come to take for granted as being part-and-parcel of a Miike film have been subsumed into this film under the guise of narrative and character development.

13 Assassins is not just a good film, it is a wise film that pays homage to Japanese cinema on the whole and yet also makes raging commentary on it and it is not in a soft voice. Miike can be accused

of many things but having a soft directorial presence on-screen is not one of them. People know who the man is and not only that…they know what he is capable of. In a sense, Miike is like one of the characters within his own film- but not the reserved, trained, samurai variety. No. Miike is the loose cannon-character.

The character of Makino almost seems to serve as Miike's surrogate within the film, commenting on various situation in a beautifully challenging manner.

He is the one who, when you see him on-screen, your first thought (if you’ve seen a couple of samurai epics from the “good old days” of Japanese cinema) is: Ah hah! This would be the Toshiro Mifune role!

Now, due to my stubborn refusal to give away spoilers, I don’t want to go into too much heavy detail on the actual narrative. Details-wise, this film involves samurais, the shogunate of feudal Japan(in particular the Edo period), and a future leader of the shogunate who is relentless in his sadism.

Lord Naritsugu- historically based upon Matsudaira Narakoto, the 25th son of the 11th shogunate, Tokogawa Ienari. While I'm only assuming the same about Matsudaira, I can tell you this much for certain: Lord Naritsugu is *not* the guy you wanna bring home to dinner.

Here is the story’s bottom-line: Dear awesome samurai guys, please get rid of the raging prick who will be taking over the country in a few years. Regardless of the fact that we’re in a “time of peace” and your samurai-status has been rendered practically irrelevant, we know you can do a good job…or at least die trying? OKTHXBYE.

So you have your standard underdog samurai picture. However, this film is far from standard. While it may rely on the well-worn path of honor and the Samurai Way, it deals in issues that are much further reaching. Upon viewing 13 Assassins, I was honestly blown away due to the shattering number of things that it tackles without being preachy or hitting you over the head.

While Miike can place politics in his films, they are, many times, too balls-out crazy to grab them on the first (or fifth) go around. And, unlike many of my good friends, I’m not always in the mood to watch and/or study Miike. Thus I will openly admit: no, I have not looked for political insignias in Dead or Alive and I have not done a full psychoanalytic and historical perspective run-through of Visitor Q. I honestly have no doubt that the stuff is there. But it is much more…well…subtle. Due to the high-shock and/or hyperbolically violent nature of his films, any substantial messages seem to be the subtle aspects in a non-subtle text. But that’s Miike. He’s not a stupid man.

Not only does is this film displayed in a manner that is breath-takingly gorgeous and intensely well-constructed, it is a high-adrenaline ballet that will leave you gasping for air, and prying your hands from the seats. Tension, drama, EPIC (and I’m not using that word lightly) action, all condensed into a historically-based Japanese samurai film.

While ideas of war and peace are investigated, there are other concepts that are even more fascinating. Miike uses the rhetoric of the samurai film to investigate the state of Japanese cinema today. Wildgrounds.com quotes Miike as saying that “Maybe older japanese films have much more energy and are just much more interesting than films that are currently being made now (…) When it comes to making movies, we [Japanese people] sort of lost a lot of things over the years and we had a feeling that if we try to get back to, try to make movies the way they used to make them, we might learn, gain something.” In a sense, what Miike does through various character compositions and structures is rip apart modern Japanese cinema and let us know exactly what he thinks. In order to do this in the most effective manner, he chose to use the samurai film to do so.

Miike is not a fan of standard/traditional cinematic tropes, so one might find it curious for him to do a picture like 13 Assassins. But looked upon more closely, this seemingly traditional film plays more like Yojimbo with a machine gun. Not literally, of course, but in the content. Every choice that Miike makes in this film is careful and considered, meticulous and studied. However, he seems to be attacking more than just the fictional enemy in the narrative.

What I found the most attractive in this film is that while he celebrated the Old Guard, he ripped it apart. 13 Assassins felt to me like a type of Trojan Horse of Japanese cinema. While Miike certainly wanted to bring a reverential treatment to those that went before him, he also wished to inspire critical thought. But this is being done by working from inside the system.

The juxtaposition of older and younger samurai within the picture and their individual experiences underscores this intention quite nicely. In what I see as one of the most seminal sequences, some of the elders look on as the younger men deal with their first kills. The pregnant pause that follows this action is telling. Not only does it speak of the older men’s high level of experience and familiarity with the act of killing (they are clearly more seasoned professionals at the task) but it also illuminates the position and mentality of the younger men. While these young men may be good at what they do and brave as hell, they have not yet had to, as they say, “withstand the slings and arrows” of Real Action. Facing the reality of what they were about to engage in was a very important feature of this film. It is almost as though Miike was making a kind of commentary about older/younger filmmakers. Both are strong assets to the film community as a whole and bring essential components to the “film battle.” But if we follow Miike logic, the younger filmmakers take some influence and what they need from the elders but will still do it their own way and manage to kick the living crap out of the enemy, no matter how scared they are to do so.

For Miike, film is not a light, airy subject. It is not simple entertainment to be tossed off in the manner of an overblown comedy or a fluffy melodrama. His take on cinema is not unlike that of the Russians in the late 1920’s. What I’m about to say may seem far-fetched, but work with me a little. If you know your history, Russia in this period was a slightly crazy place to be. They were moving and shifting a whole lotta stuff around, and one of the things that they had to make some decisions on was the film industry,  a very popular part of Russian culture. The politicians were no dummies. They knew what they

Anatoly Lunacharsky, art critic, journalist, all-around pretty neat guy!

had. But how to figure this out? What was crucial for them was the technological aspect that was coming into play alongside their incessant politics. They realized that with sound pictures, they could get the message across with more fervor and, to be frank, easier. In addition, Anatoly Lunacharsky, who, as the People’s Commissar for Enlightment from 1917 until his forced resignment (yes, due to the very same lovely politics) in 1929, recognized one of the other major Catch-22 issues about film that we still deal with today. He stated, “Cinema is an industry, and, what is more, a popular industry.” (1)

Additionally, at this same time, in March of 1928, part of the Soviet desire to get things “together” with the cinematic world was to construct some kind of set of rules and regulations (they were into that kinda thing- then again, seeing the Hayes Code in the USA a few years later, seems like we were too…). So a bunch of folks, including industry professionals such as Sergei Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov and Vsevolod Pudovkin, went to the Party Conference on Cinema and tried to participate. They were able to do so…but only to an extent. Due to the Soviet way of thinking about the film industry, it became a full-on policed machine, commercialized and propagandized mercilessly.

One of the key sentiments put forth within the statements that evolved from this Conference was what cinema was really for and what it really did. While the Soviet mentality geared it towards political intent, the facts, as stated, were not entirely incorrect. As Richard Taylor writes, quoting some of the Soviet documentation, “Party leadership had been determined to develop a Soviet cinema that was ‘the most powerful weapon for the deepening of the class-consciousness of the workers, for the political re-education of all the non-proletarian strata of the population and above all the peasantry.'” Cinema for the Soviet Union was a weapon. But it wasn’t just the Soviets who then realized this. They were just some of the first to put two and two together. Say what you like about communism and the rest of it, but they were no fools when it came to media practice.

So I’m sure you’re wondering at this point what any of this has to do with Takashi Miike and/or 13 Assassins. I argue that it all does, in some funny way. Perhaps not down to political detail, but on a larger scale. See, Miike is down with Lunacharsky’s struggle. He gets it. To date, Miike has directed 83 films in 20 years. That’s off the charts. He knows he can make a bit of change making movies, so he does. But he also has the mentality that was sculpted from all of the different filmic and political practitioners of Soviet Russia: film is a weapon. And he can wield it any way he wants. And he does exactly that.

When asked about making the audience happy, Miike was quoted as saying that he doesn’t even think about it. He said, “there’s no way for me to know. To try to think of what makes for entertainment is a very Japanese thing. The people who think like this are old-fashioned. They think of the audience as a mass, but in fact every person in the audience is different. So entertainment for everyone doesn’t exist…” (2) He also added that even as hard as he works, it is that hard work that motivates him. It doesn’t necessarily wear him out. He sees it differently. He states,

We have to change the negative things into positive. In today’s Japanese film industry we always say we don’t have enough budget, that people don’t go to see the films. But we can think of it in a positive way, meaning that if audiences don’t go to the cinema we can make any movie we want. After all, no matter what kind of movie you make it’s never a hit, so we can make a really bold, daring movie. There are many talented actors and crew, but many Japanese movies aren’t interesting. Many films are made with the image of what a Japanese film should be like. Some films venture outside those expectations a little bit, but I feel we should break them. (3)

Miike’s philosophies on the audience and the Japanese film industry are the essence of 13 Assassins and why it is so beautiful and why it works. He went into the film to do a remake, an undergoing he had taken on before with Happiness of the Katakuris (and possibly more- I will openly admit I have not seen all 83 things the man has directed!), but did it his way. What was his way? Traditionally bound, with a heavy Miike visual lens and narrative cradle.

I refuse to use the word “mature” here (it’s condescending- that phrase “his most mature work to date” makes me want to throw things). But I’ve seen it used in other reviews and I wish that people could see what his actual point in creating this masterpiece was. There is no maturity here. He didn’t all of a sudden go from a kid to a grown-up due to a FILM. And frankly, Audition is a quite lovely film, Katakuris is incredibly skilled and Ichi‘s chaos requires a very defined sensibility. I don’t think we’ll be seeing a mess of costume dramas out of Miike anytime soon. THANK GOD.

See, 13 Assassins requires that you look a little closer. This film has teeth- and they’re sharp. Like the Soviet Party in the late 1920’s, Miike has a cinematic gun and he knows how to use it.  This film’s careful deliberation was like a slow-acting poison that was more of a commentary on the pretentiousness of modern “art” cinema or any overdone/overpriced cinematic exploits than anything else. I have a feeling he’s not a fan. While there was clearly money spent on this film, none of it was wasted. Which makes me even more glad that there’s a guy like Miike around to show us how to do things right and properly, while everyone else is failing so miserably.

If you can see this film on the big screen PLEASE DO. It is way more affective. Laugh, hoot, holler, JUMP UP AND DOWN IN YOUR SEAT!! I know I did. In fact, I will probably go see it again just to get that same adrenaline rush. 13 Assassins– the samurai movie that provides your body with the same endorphin-like energy as heavy exercise and sexual attraction. Yeah, I liked this movie.

(1) Anatoly Lunacharsky as quoted in Taylor, Richard. “A ‘Cinema for the Millions’: Soviet Social Realism and Film Comedy.” Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 18, No. 3.  Historians and Movies: The State of the Art: Part 1 (Jul. 1983). p439-461.

(2) Interview with Takashi Miike, Midnight Eye.com. http://www.midnighteye.com/interviews/takashi_miike.shtml

(3) Interview with Takashi Miike, Midnight Eye.com. http://www.midnighteye.com/interviews/takashi_miike.shtml