Monday, February 28, 2011

Oscar Schmoscar--Please Make It Stop

I can't remember the last time I watched the Oscars. The gaudy spectacle of the most famous people on earth taking four hours to congratulate themselves on television is unbearable. Ugh.

So, no, I didn't watch last night. But my new yearly ritual has been to roll out of bed the morning after the telecast and trip over all the footage of the nonevent. And have you ever noticed that the footage is always the same?

News Flash: The Oscars sucked last night.

News Flash: Someone said something stupid.

News Flash: The winners were the people who were predicted to win.

I could have written this two days ago and wouldn't have to change a word. It's always the same.

Since I'm a movie geek people always want to know what I thought of the winners. Here goes: I think voting on art is silly. I think Black Swan was trying to be Black Swan and The Fighter was trying to be The Fighter. Why force them to compete for a prize like a couple of Roman slaves? It makes no sense. It's a waste of time. Worse, it devaules the films themselves.

Is there an upside to all this bullshit? I'm forced to say yes. An Oscar nomination can shed light on a little-seen film. Something like Blue Valentine probably roped in some new viewers because Michelle Williams was up for best actress. Good. More power to her. Blue Valentine is cry-in-your-popcorn beautiful. It deserves so much more attention than it got. And if an Oscar nomination helps reward the people who made such a daring and lovely film, and if the promise of such an award motivates people with money to spend that money on such daring and lovely films, then I say that's wonderful.


But if we ever get to a point where the Oscars don't perform this function, a point where there's nothing left but the vapid, humorless, laborious broadcast itself then can we please just put Oscar out of his misery?

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Future of 1940

above: Welles and Toland shoot CITIZEN KANE

THIS IS ORSON WELLES is the best book ever written about the director not because it is the most factual (it probably isn't) but because it is the most accurate--accurate in the human sense. When you read biographies of Welles, it's often difficult to reconcile the disparate personalities you come up against (which seems almost fitting considering the director's own obsession with contradiction). In THIS IS ORSON WELLES, the book-length interview book he did with Peter Bogdanovich, however, you get a record of the man himself on full display.

Consider, for instance, this revealing passage in which Welles and Bogdanovich discuss long shots.

PB: Preminger once said that ideally...he would never cut. He would like a picture all in one take.

OW: That will come when tape is perfected and they stop putting film in the camera. I saw that kind of insane flash of ignorance when I first started. I said to [Gregg] Toland, "Isn't it basically ridiculous that the film is in the camera?" And he said, "Yes. Eventually it will just be a sort of electric eye. We won't be carting the film around or the motor--we'll just be carrying the lens."

The crazy thing about this passage is that Welles and Toland apparently foresaw the rise of digital cameras as far back as 1940. Notice that in relaying this story to Bogdanovich, Welles still refers to perfection of "tape"--an indication that he and Toland hadn't figured out the solution to the problem. But Toland's basic concept of an "electric eye" is shockingly prescient.

What should humble Hollywood today is to think what these two visionaries might have accomplished if they'd been allowed to work together after CITIZEN KANE. Who knows how they might have further revolutionized film?

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Borrowed Trouble

Eric Beetner and JB Kohl have just released a sequel to their novel ONE TOO MANY BLOWS TO THE HEAD. The first book was a propulsive midnight journey through the Kansas City underworld circa 1939. In the new book, BORROWED TROUBLE, Beetner and Kohl take on the seedy mean streets of Hollywood. Expect things to get dirty.

Check out the trailer for the book here.

Then run over and peep the free preview of the book over at Smashmouth. The website warns you that the book "may" contain adult content. I'm pretty sure we can count on it...

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Help Rescue Some National Heritage

The Film Noir Foundation is having a blogathon, hosted by Ferdy on Films and The Self-Styled Siren, to try and raise funds to rescue and restore classic noir films.

I've been writing occasional essays and profiles for the FNF for a couple of years now, and I'm a firm believer in their mission. We think of films as timeless cultural artifacts--and they are--but they're also extraordinarily fragile. Film disintegrates. It wastes away if it's not properly cared for. Studios didn't always understand this (many still don't, or don't really care). Movies are business for them.

But movies are more than commercial products. They're art and they are national heritage. They're time capsules. Does it matter that we preserve a forgotten B-film like ROADBLOCK, some bargain basement crime flick like TOO LATE FOR TEARS, some bleak little number like THE SOUND OF FURY?

Damn right, it does. These films aren't just entertaining, they're glimpses of a lost America, an America that was barely acknowledged in the popular culture of the time. The forties and fifties remain obscured by nostalgia, but film noir allows us to see the cracks in that facade.

Noir is important because it was both a classical form of filmmaking and a form of experimentation that embraced and integrated avant-garde effects. It was both a vehicle for enforcing gender roles and a way of questioning them. It straddled political lines, helping to fuel the Red Scare and helping to combat it. It was, finally, a fascinating mix of talents and interests that swirled together at the swampy end of Hollywood's economic spectrum and managed to produce many of the best films the town ever made.

If you want to chip in a couple of bucks to help save some of this indispensable heritage, go here.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Winslet and Haynes Talk

Check out the interview Christina Radish did with Kate Winslet and Tood Haynes about their new adaptation of MILDRED PIERCE. Good stuff.

Read here.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Prowler comes to DVD

It's always gratifying when a real-deal masterpiece claws its way out of the dustbin of history. After fifty or so years of being a cult favorite of noir geeks, Joseph Losey's brilliant 1951 THE PROWLER is finally out on DVD.

Here's why you should see this film posthaste:

1. It's the best example of what historian Eddie Muller calls "bad cop noir." Van Heflin plays a cop who responds to a panicked call by housewife Evelyn Keyes. She's just seen a prowler. Heflin looks around and doesn't find anything, but then he looks Keyes up and down and decides she needs a boyfriend. The moral of the film: the cops might be worse than the crooks.

2. It's l'homme fatale at its finest. Here the man is the problem, an inversion of the more typical femme fatale storyline.

3. It doesn't go where you think it's going to go. The last half hour of this film will blow your mind. It's shocking that such a movie made it to the screen in 1951.

4. It features terrific performances by two of the most underrated noir performers. Van Heflin did hanging-by-the-last-thread desperation better than just about anyone (see his companion performance in ACT OF VIOLENCE). Often cast as the morally conflicted everyman, here he shows that he could also play scumbags as well as anyone. Opposite him is the divine Evelyn Keyes. The star of such must-see films like HELL'S HALF-ACRE, THE KILLER THAT STALKED NEW YORK, and 99 RIVER STREET, Keyes was one of the best actresses of the 1950s. This might be her most complicated performance because her lonely housewife is equal parts need, lust, and sadness. Through much of the film we know more than she does, yet Keyes never loses our sympathy.

5. It is one of the three impressive noirs Losey made in 1951 (along with his brilliant remake of M, and THE BIG NIGHT). They were to be his last films in the US before Losey had to flee the blacklist and headed to England to begin his impressive collaborations with playwright Harold Pinter and actor Dirk Bogarde.

Restored in part by the Film Noir Foundation THE PROWLER is available now on DVD. For those of us who've been watching scratchy bootleg copies for years now, this is amazing news. For those who haven't seen this film, a revelation awaits.