Thursday, January 12, 2023

At the Movies in 2023



 A running list of what I've seen on the big screen this year:

1. The Unknown (1927)- Pickwick Theater

2. Falstaff (Chimes at Midnight) (1965)- Pickwick Theater

3. Ball of Fire (1941)- Music Box Theater

4. So Sweet So Perverse (1969)- Music Box

5. The Fabelmans (2021)- AMC Village Crossing 18

Last Year at the Movies

Last year marked my full return to in-person moviegoing. My numbers didn't reach the heights of 2018 when I hit a personal best of 126 movies, but in 2022 I did manage to see 85 movies at the theater. That's better than a movie a week, which is nothing to be ashamed of. 

This was not a great year for the movies, I'd say. We continued to see the slow death of the midbudget film, the star vehicle, and the kind of bread-and-butter adult-skewing movies that used to keep Hollywood in business. My favorite new movies this year were mostly flops: I loved both TAR (my number one of the year) and THE NORTHMAN. I really liked BABYLON, a flawed film, sure, but the kind of flawed film that I go for--indulgent, over-the-top and fun. I also really liked smaller unsung films like RESURRECTION and SUNDOWN.

I didn't like EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE as much as other people did, and I thought BULLET TRAIN was mostly a waste of a good concept and cast. TOP GUN: MAVERICK was a lot of fun, though it's funny to see it touted as some kind of masterpiece. I'm more of an Ethan Hunt guy than a Maverick guy, I guess. (Very excited for the new Mission Impossible out this year.)

As is always the case, the best movies I saw at the theater last year were mostly old movies. Highlights included favorites like THE MALTESE FALCON, EYES WIDE SHUT, BLAST OF SILENCE, CAT PEOPLE and more. Last year also marked the return of Noir City Chicago, which was a delight. The highlight of that was a showing of FLESH AND BONE, my first time to see the movie in a theater since it came out back in the 90s. 

Here's a breakdown of my moviegoing last year by decade:

Total films seen on the big screen: 85

2022: 20

2020s: 4

2010s: 1

2000s: 8

1990s: 9

1980s: 9

1970s: 5

1960s: 6

1950s: 9

1940s: 8

1930s: 1

1920s: 5

1910s: 0

 

Wednesday, November 2, 2022

FIND HIM


Happy to announce that FIND HIM is finally here. It's been a long road for this book, the last miles of which lead through Covid and supply chain chaos, but I'm thrilled that the book is out in the world and getting good notices. Find it wherever you get your books.

Sunday, July 24, 2022

Commentary Track on THE GUILTY

 


I had a blast doing the commentary for Flicker Alley's restoration of John Reinhardt's great poverty row noir THE GUILTY (1947). The film is included in a new set with Reinhardt's *other* great noir from that year, HIGH TIDE. The package is fantastic, packed with extras, including a commentary by Alan Rode on HIGH TIDE, informative features on the stars, director, and producers--all with a nice intro by Eddie Muller. If you're a serious noir geek, then you really don't want to miss one. Check it out here.

Saturday, June 25, 2022

Publishers Weekly (Starred) Review for FIND HIM


 My new book FIND HIM will be out November 1st, and I'm thrilled about the rave review ("an exceptional tale of crime and courage") it just got in Publisher's Weekly. Pre-order the book here.  

Friday, May 6, 2022

MOBY DICK - REHEARSED (1955)


above: Welles directing MOBY DICK - REHEARSED in 1955.

 If you divide the career of Orson Welles into three periods--Early, Middle, and Late--then you will find his most prolific work in theater in the Early period. That was the period of rapidly successive experiments and triumphs--the time of the Dublin Theater, the "Voodoo MACBETH," the Mercury Theater, JULUIS CESEAR, and NATIVE SON. A heady time, to be sure.

But even in his Middle period, when he'd left America and was making his way as an independent filmmaker in Europe and Africa, he did not abandon the theater. (As he would, alas, in his Late period. Although he lived until 1985, he stopped working in the theater in 1960.) In some ways, his most significant production during this time was CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT, by all accounts a failure as a play but one that functioned as a trial run for his triumphant 1965 film FALSTAFF, perhaps the single greatest work of his career.

Having said that, however, Welles' most lasting contribution to the theater during his Middle period was certainly his Melville adaptation MOBY DICK - REHEARSED. It was the highpoint of his career as a playwright and another piece of evidence that he may well have been the supreme literary 'adaptor' of the 20th century. (Other evidence would include his adaptations--on radio, stage, and screen--of HG Wells, Richard Wright, Booth Tarkington, Kafka, Isak Dinesen, and, of course, Shakespeare.) It also brings his experiments in self-conscious meta-artmaking to something of a boil, which would pay off in later works of extreme self-consciousness like his essay film F FOR FAKE and his unfinished THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND.

MOBY DICK - REHEARSED is a play in two acts. The setting is the backstage of a small theater. In Act I, we're introduced to an acting troupe getting together to rehearse a production of KING LEAR. Petty complaints and light teasing are exchanged, lines are run, a little time is killed. Then the troupe's Actor-Manager arrives and announces that they will be rehearsing a new play, an adaptation of Melville's novel MOBY DICK. The gang grumbles a little more but soon enough everyone snaps to, and the story of Ishmael, Starbuck, Captain Ahab and the great white whale begins to take shape. As it does, the story begins to take over. By Act II, we are fully in MOBY DICK, the story having subsumed the actors. Only at the very end, with Ahab and his mortal enemy confined to the watery deep, do the actors at last shrug off their roles and return to themselves. Then the curtain falls.

When Welles produced MOBY DICK - REHEARSED in June of 1955 at the Duke of York's Theater in London it garnered largely rave reviews, but it didn't draw a huge audience. (Welles, always a popular celebrity, was never a strong box office draw.) In the years since, the play has rolled on, taking on a life of its own in numerous productions (the most famous of which was the 1962 production starring Rod Steiger as the Actor-Manager/Ahab). The director of one such production in North Carolina, Robb Mann, told me that his actors played the early scenes as comedy and "then as the play progressed rolled it into drama, going from realism to hyper-realism." That strikes me as the natural progression of Welles' play, which develops from a half-hearted rehearsal to a deep immersion--with the actors playing actors who are at first playing characters until the characters finally become people who fully take over. 

The adaptation itself is brilliant. With a nod to Shakespeare, Welles converts Melville's prose into blank verse. He takes the author's sprawling novel--itself a roiling compendium of styles (part philosophical meditation, part gothic comedy, part boy's adventure tale, part cetology textbook)--and pars it down to its fierce beating heart: Ahab's obsessive hunt for the whale. The crew's growing unease with their captain's obsession becomes the focal point of the play, with Starbuck's caution crashing against Ahab's mania like the waves beating the sides of the ship.

But, of course, there are no waves. There is no ship. Adapting a story like MOBY DICK to the stage is a fool's errand because you can't put the ocean or a whale inside a theater, and faking it would just look goofy. MOBY DICK works best as a novel because it works best in the theater of the mind, with Melville's incantatory prose casting its spell even when he's lecturing you about whale blubber. 

Welles grasped this blunt reality and worked with it. At the start of the play, the Actor-Manager, who will transform into Ahab as the rehearsal progresses, explains to his actors that the production will involve the audience as cocreators in the evening's production. It's up to the audience to supply the ocean and the whale. This kind of stripped down theater is (to use a phrase the theater director Jerzy Grotowski would coin years later) pure "Poor Theater." It embraces economic constraints as an engine of creativity. It shows incredible faith in the audience. It also finds Welles working in direct opposition to the Brechtian notions of epic theater that characterized his Early period mega productions like FIVE KINGS (1939) and AROUND THE WORLD (1946). Both of those plays had been flops artistically and commercially, but with MOBY DICK - REHEARSED, Welles found the perfect vehicle for his particular brand of epic classical theater.

This last point is worth pondering a moment longer. As both a filmmaker and a theater producer, Orson Welles would have had a far easier time of things if he'd been interested in crafting small stories or intimate character studies. But, then again, he wouldn't have been Orson Welles, would he? He was interested in outsized personalities taking center stage on the largest possible canvas. And that never changed. FALSTAFF is as big as any movie he ever made, and he made it for a pittance. 

Likewise, MOBY DICK - REHEARSED may be Poor Theater, but it's epic Poor Theater, a heedless adaptation of an unadaptable novel. It's Welles acknowledging, more than ever before, the importance of the audience as cocreators of a live performance, even for a text as iconic as Melville's book.



Friday, April 1, 2022

Some thoughts on the Longevity of THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939)

The other day in the film aesthetics class I teach, we watched THE WIZARD OF OZ. Everyone in class had seen it, but no one had seen it since they were children. The viewing made for a fascinating experience.

For one thing, the movie doesn't just hold up well, it possibly holds up better than any movie ever made. If that seems like an outsized claim, consider the following:

1. What other film from the 1930s would a room full of teenagers in 2022 already have seen? (I recently learned that in this same class, about a third of them had never seen the original STAR WARS.) They'd all seen OZ, and they'd all seen it around the same age, between 5-10 years old. 

2. Because it's a kids movie, it doesn't really age. The reason that most movies from the 1930s or 40s have trouble connecting with modern audiences is they're time capsules of old attitudes and styles. (I've found some of my students to be resistant to the pre-Method style of movie acting, as well as black and white cinematography.) THE WIZARD OF OZ, though, was created to be a live action cartoon, a storybook come to life. It's artificial from start to finish, with a mythic context. The acting, music, dancing, art direction--it's all integrated and pitched at the same level of unreality. This separates it, even from most kids movies of its time, which tried to at least wink at the parents or teens in the audience. Not OZ. It knows who it's for: kids. The irony is that, because we were all kids--because we wanted to run away from home at some point, and then wanted to return, and because we were scared of adults, and loved our pets, and because we felt misunderstood--it's for all of us.

3. Look, I'm a Judy Garland obsessive, so of course I'm going to say it's all because of Judy, but it's impossible to imagine anyone else doing what she does in this film. She's a teenager playing a little girl (which, like everything else, adds to the movie's air of otherworldly weirdness). She's plucky without being annoying, scared of evil witches and flying monkeys but always able to rise up and defend herself and her friends. And, of course, she's the greatest musical comedy performer in movie history. That helps, too. 

MGM originally wanted Shirley Temple as Dorothy, but Temple, though talented and adorable, was an actual child and would have grounded the movie in a reality at odds with its aesthetic. And while she could sing, she sang, well, like a kid. She would have been, in a word, cute. Judy isn't cute in OZ, she's touching, and that's the difference.

4. That brings us to "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." Famously, the scene of Judy singing her signature song was almost cut for fear that the Kansas opening was too long. But it is, of course, the heart of the movie. The song, melodic and simple, and imbues the movie with a strange sense of melancholy. The more you know of Judy's life, of course, the more meaning the song has. 

5. The level of craftsmanship here is exemplary across the board. The makeup and costumes of the Wicked Witch, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion are still impeccable. The Technicolor still pops. The sets by Cedric Gibbons still enchant. It's all great. 

I'm tempted to say that THE WIZARD OF OZ is a perfect movie, but I can't because I hate the Lion's song "If I Were King of the Forest." It slows us down right when we want to get to the Wizard himself, and the song itself is a dud, a three-minute slog through Bert Lahr's mugging. 

That one quibble aside, though, OZ really is pretty close to a perfect creation. It shows the studio system operating at its zenith, all the parts working in concert to create a masterpiece, one of the true works of cinematic art.