Saturday, May 28, 2011

NEW YORK, NEW YORK 1977

It's an odd thing being a film enthusiast. One part of you regards film as an art form, worthy of all the aesthetic principles applied to fine art; the other makes peace with the fact that film is an entertainment industry "product" and just as likely motivated by tax shelters, hedge funds, and profit predictions. (I'm not naive to the realities of the movie industry, but I confess that I still find it a sobering experience watching the Oscars and seeing so many filmmakers reduce the sum of their work to gratitude afforded producers, agents, managers, and publicists.) 
That's why, in this world full of directors more concerned with building an add-on to their Malibu beach homes than with building a legacy of work that has something to say about the human condition, I remain (sometimes blindly) faithful to and thankful for filmmakers like Martin Scorsese. Even when he falters, as I believe he does with "New York, New York," he's one of those directors who always appears to be trying to make films that matter.
Liza Minnelli as Francine Evans
Robert DeNiro as Jimmy Doyle
 I first saw “New York, New York” in San Francisco in 1977. Robert DeNiro and Martin Scorsese were extremely hot due to the success of “Taxi Driver,” and the town was abuzz because Liza Minnelli was appearing at the Orpheum Theater in the Scorsese-directed musical, “Shine It On” (which became “The Act” by the time it reached Broadway). Minnelli had suffered a string of movie flops following 1972’s “Cabaret,” but the papers were full of gossip about her romance with Scorsese and predictions that “New York, New York” would return her to her former station as the queen of show biz.

Alas, despite high-running anticipations, “New York, New York” flopped rather spectacularly when it opened. The original version I saw on opening day was hastily re-edited within the week and a shorter version re-released to theaters, but to no great effect. The verdict was already in and the film pretty much declared D.O.A. by the critics.
DeNiro and Minnelli Make with the Goo Goo Eyes
 The most extravagant film to date for the gritty Martin Scorsese (the combined budgets of all his previous films didn't equal the 14 million spent here), “New York, New York” is a 1950s MGM backstage musical viewed through the dark prism of the 70s zeitgeist (issues of individualism, commoditization of art, and feminism crop up amongst the nostalgia fetishism). Sweet-natured big band singer Francine Evans (Minnelli) falls for volatile saxophone player Jimmy Doyle (DeNiro), and in the tradition of “A Star is Born” and “Cover Girl,” Francine’s professional ascendancy threatens DeNiro’s ego and strains their romance.
Real Tensions on Stylized Sets
No expense is spared in giving the film the look and feel of those quaintly studio-bound romances of old, but Scorsese’s desire to contrast 70s naturalism with the stylized artificiality of 50s musicals doesn’t really gel, and the whole enterprise feels like an obscenely over-funded film school experiment.  
Without a doubt, Scorsese’s biggest and most fatal miscalculation is in mounting such a staggeringly sumptuous production and then neglecting to give us either characters to care about or a romance to root for. What were the writers thinking in dreaming up DeNiro’s Jimmy Doyle? Did Scorsese really think a guy this noxious (he's like a cross between Travis Bickle and Jake LaMotta) would make for an appropriate musical-comedy leading man? Even with the film structured as something of a dramedy, DeNiro's lack of any kind of redeeming quality leaves an emotional hole dead-center of this overstuffed opus. In addition, not only is DeNiro’s character such a selfish, hot-headed, obnoxious bully that watching his scenes becomes an increasingly trying experience, but the level of passivity with which his abuse is met by the Minnelli character has the effect of souring our feelings towards her as well.
Robert DeNiro: Star Quality? Yes. Charm? Not so much.
When veteran filmmakers lament the loss of the artistic freedoms that came with the "New Hollywood" of the 70s, one can't help but feel that a lot of the blame must fall at their own cocaine-dusted feet. 70s darlings like Peter Bogdanovich and Michael Cimino provided the nails for their own coffins by misusing their success to cultivate costly, undisciplined vanity projects ("At Long Last Love" & "Heaven's Gate", respectively), and Scorsese follows suit with "New York, New York."
These directors, who were so resourceful with tiny budgets, all seemed to lose their minds when handed millions, prompting the studios and lawyers to ultimately step in, like stern governesses, and take back the keys to the candy store. Scorsese allows improvised scenes to drag on and on pointlessly, as if unable to ascertain when to cut; characters pop in and out with little information given as to their importance to the leads; and whole scenes look randomly assembled, able to be inserted and deleted with little change to the plot. I respect when a filmmaker tries to do something different, but creative self-indulgence on such a grand scale just feels needlessly wasteful.
Mary Kay Place and Barry Primus play peripheral characters of varying degrees of plot significance, depending on the version of the film you see.

 WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
Given my criticisms, “New York, New York" appears an odd choice to number among the films that inspired me. But I really do find something admirable in what Martin Scorsese attempted to do with this film that has nothing to do with his inability to actually pull it off. It's a provocative idea to explore what a director known for his realist/naturalistic style could bring to a genre as ungrounded in reality as the classic Hollywood musical. To his credit, Scorsese doesn’t attempt to mock or display cynical superiority to the genre, but clearly respects the power of musicals and their dream-factory allure. If anything, “New York, New York” makes a good argument for the opinion that when it comes to musicals, contemporary directors can't match the efforts of even the most journeyman contract directors of the past.

PERFORMANCES:
This is the first love story I’ve ever seen that had the audience on its feet cheering when the lovers DON’T end up together! I’m really not equipped to judge Robert DeNiro’s performance because the character he plays is so detestable I can’t tell if DeNiro is just miscast or if he thinks his creepy stalker act is actually supposed to be charming (sad to say, but I've known many women -and men- who would willingly put up with such behavior if the guy looked like DeNiro). What I can speak to is how terrific Liza Minnelli's performance is. I think it's her absolute finest film work, and she is in the best voice of her career. Though ill-served by the script, she is exactly right and a perfect fit for what should have been the role of a lifetime and another Oscar nomination. After spending most of her career trying to distance herself from comparisons with her mother, Minnelli just goes all Garland on us here, and the results are fantastic. Any warmth and heart that the film has is chiefly due to her.
Minnelli's finest film moment: Singing the hell out of "The World Goes 'Round"
THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
On par with how far afield this film goes emotionally is how superbly the film works musically. Scorsese handles the musical sequences surprisingly well and displays a real knack for the ways in which music can be seamlessly integrated into a narrative. The score is chock full of great postwar standards and the new songs by Kander & Ebb ("Chicago") are among their best work. That the terrific title song “New York, New York” was largely ignored until covered by Frank Sinatra two years later attests to the indifference this film was met with by the public on its release.
                   Outstanding musical sequences compensate for a rambling narrative

THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
Some people can forgive a film anything if there are lots of explosions or chase scenes. Me, I'm a sucker for a film that's beautiful to look at. Cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs (Easy Rider), costume designer Theadora Van Runkle (Bonnie and Clyde), and Production Designer Boris Leven (West Side Story) give “New York, New York” a period gloss that almost, just almost, makes up for the fact that, while all dressed up, the film ultimately has nowhere to go.
My Favorite Set: The Neon Nightclub

Obviously, everything I've written about “New York, New York” are the impressions I was left with after I saw the film. That's the fair bargain struck between the filmmaker and the movie-goer: let me have your attention for a couple of hours (or three) and you are free to take from this experience what you will, pro or con. That's straightforward and honest to me. I invest my time, they invest their ideas and inspiration. What pisses me off is when I've invested my time and it's nakedly apparent that the movie I'm watching doesn't care about anything beyond merchandising, insuring a sequel, and hefty paydays all around.

What makes a flawed film like "New York, New York" still such a valuable piece of cinema is that, love it or hate it, there's no denying that it's the work of someone who is vitally invested in what you are seeing. You can overlook the flaws when there is some passion on display. I'll take a wrongheaded, artistically well-intentioned flop over a calculated, market-researched blockbuster any day.

THE AUTOGRAPH FILES:
By the way, I was one of the many who went to see Ms. Minnelli at the Orpheum theater that summer in 1977, and stood out by the stage door to get the photograph below autographed by both Scorsese and Minnelli. Considering all the pressures of the show, the movie, and everything else, you couldn't have met two nicer people.
Larry Kert appeared in the "Happy Endings" number that was cut from the film and later restored. Got this autograph when he was appearing in a play in Los Angeles


Tuesday, May 17, 2011

REFLECTIONS IN A GOLDEN EYE 1967

One of the more suspect affectations among the film-school cognoscenti (and there are many) is the lazy, ofttimes wholesale, approbation afforded offbeat, abstruse, or otherwise boring films in an effort to appear possessed of a more discerning aesthetic sense. Though rooted in the not-unfounded notion that the scope of film should encompass more than just mass-market fare, too frequently this democratic ideal gives way to a baseless elitism and the knee-jerk aligning of oneself with the unpopular just because it is unpopular. 
I know whereof I speak, because, as a former film student, I've been guilty of such behavior myself. More hours than I care to think about have been spent in dark theaters pretending to enjoy some execrable, masturbatory piece of self-indulgence merely because it was trashed by mainstream critics. A sophomoric game of "one-upmanship" was common practice with me and my friends at film school (The San Francisco Art Institute) , each of us attempting to best the other in professing love for a film more unlikely and unknown than the last. 
"A peacock of a sort of ghastly green. With one immense golden eye. And in it these reflections of something tiny and grotesque."
 I mention this as a kind of preemptory self-defense/explanation, noting my awareness that heralding John Huston's arty, much-maligned, "Reflections in a Golden Eye" may appear more than a little pretentious. That may be the impression, but I really think that this would be a widely-liked film if only more people knew about it. A victim of an era that had no idea of how to market such an unusual film, this is one amazing movie that has definitely improved with time. Distanced from the shock value of its once-taboo theme of homosexuality, and removed from the movie-star tabloid distractions of its two controversial stars, "Reflections in a Golden Eye" can be seen for what it is: a searing character piece boasting fine performances and John Huston at his best as director.
 Elizabeth Taylor as Leonora Penderton
  Marlon Brando as Major Weldon Penderton
Julie Harris as Alison Langdon
Brian Keith as Lt. Col. Morris Langdon
Robert Forster as  Pvt.  L.G. Williams
Zorro David as  Anacleto

A last-gasp entry in the beloved (to me, anyway) sub-genre of "Southern Gothic," "Reflections in a Golden Eye" peels away the placid exterior of life in a peacetime military base to reveal the madness and repressed passions that lie beneath the imposed order of barracks, military protocol, and rigid conformity. 
Its plot is steeped in southern-fried dread: Robert Forster is a sexually repressed soldier who develops a scopophilic fixation on Elizabeth Taylor, the sexually rapacious wife of army officer Marlon Brando. Brando, who tolerates Taylor's affair with fellow officer Brian Keith (whose mentally disturbed wife, Julie Harris, has recently mutilated herself out of grief over the death of a child), is a latent homosexual who becomes sexually obsessed with Forester.  
Houston, rather ingeniously, takes a stylistic cue from the book's title and not only shoots the film in muted tones of gold, but films the events from an emotional remove. We are not invited into the minds of these characters so much as we are entreated to observe their piteously empty and sad behaviors as if we were voyeurs ourselves: seeing it all from a distance, reflected and distorted in an immense, all-seeing, golden eye. Once the film is over and there's time for everything to sink in, it soon dawns that the reflection has been of ourselves the entire time.
A favorite Elizabeth Taylor screen moment.
Leonora challenges her husband's masculinity:
"Son, have you ever been collared and dragged out into the street and thrashed by a naked woman? Huh?"
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
It's always a challenge for a movie to ask us to identify with characters that represent, in large part, aspects of ourselves we look to the movies to help us to forget. "Reflections in a Golden Eye" has much to tell us about pain, compassion, and awareness of the fact that everyone harbors within themselves something dark and hidden that they are convinced would render them unworthy of love if revealed. But, like Thackeray's "Vanity Fair," Carson McCullers' "Reflections in a Golden Eye" is a novel without a hero, and it deprives us of reassurance and comforting, "feel good" messages. What I admire about the film is how it shows, with sensitivity and insight, the ways in which  the bizarre and even perverse, when removed from the sensationalism of moral judgment, can reveal itself to be nothing more or less than just human vulnerability.

Symbols of desire: The  Major, surrounded by the fetish objects of a male physique photo and a silver spoon stolen from a fellow officer, fondles a phallic candy wrapper discarded by the soldier he has become obsessed with.
  
PERFORMANCES:
Marlon Brando has always been an uneven kind of actor to me, but his performance here is outstanding and my favorite of all of his screen portrayals. Its one of those naked performances that actually makes you uncomfortable because he allows you to see him so emotionally exposed. Jokingly referred to as "Mr. Mumbles" by co-star Taylor (as relayed in the terrific book on the making of the film, "Troubles in a Golden Eye" by William Russo & Jan Merlin), Brando's sometimes garbled line-readings are at last made intelligible thanks to the "subtitles" option on the DVD.
When I young, Elizabeth Taylor was such a gossip magazine staple that it was kind of easy to dismiss her as just a movie star. I always thought she was beautiful, but it was only after I grew up that I came to appreciate what a gifted actress she was. She is wonderful here, playing a kind of sexually self-assured bubblehead (note the scene where she writes out the party invitations) unwittingly leading men to their doom. A vision of the kind of woman The Day of the Locust's Faye Greener would have grown up to be. Also, special mention has to be made of Brian Keith who surprised the hell out of me. Always an underrated actor, the way in which he takes a macho stereotype role and fashions out of it something genuinely heartbreaking, is nothing short of alchemy.

 THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
I'm crazy about cinema images that contain, in mere seconds of screen time, enough acuity, poetry, and beauty to equal a volume of written text or a concert of  music. The scenes wherein it is revealed that the sullenly distant Forester takes regular sojourns into the woods to doff his clothes and blissfully ride the horses he loves so much, are really haunting. Rendered even more so by the golden glow of the beautiful cinematography (reverted back to standard Technicolor a week after the film's release. The DVD edition restored Huston's original vision).

 THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
There are many memorable sequences in the film, but the one that seems to stay with me is one that is almost Hitchcockian in its construction. It happens late in the film, at a point in the story when the major has so fully resigned himself to his obsession that he has taken to following the young soldier along the streets at night (something the soldier is not exactly unaware of). One evening, while following on a crowded street, an auto accident occurs behind the major. Everyone on the street, including the soldier, turns to see what has happened or runs to be of assistance. The major doesn't flinch or look behind him at all. Throughout, his eyes remain, fixed and unblinking, exclusively on the soldier. The effect of the scene is so powerful, the first time I saw it I recall feeling my abdominal muscles tense, as if receiving a blow to the stomach.

There's a real poignancy to the pain that must be felt by individuals who cannot, will not, or are unable to, openly express who they are and be true to their natures. To today's audiences, films that deal with  repressed homosexuality may appear dated and perhaps even a little quaint. But I caution those who would think that the broader freedoms of today signal inclusive liberation. They don't. Indeed, one might even argue that our society today has no fewer deeply closeted gay men than in McCullers' time; the only difference is that now they're more apt to manifest as "gay for pay" porn stars; homophobic recording artists; and married, anti-gay legislating politicians.
  
In a marvelous scene, the major poses the following provocative question to the intolerant lieutenant (and, more importantly, to himself) who has just stated that his wife's effeminate houseboy, Anacleto (the only remotely happy person in the film), would have been unhappy, but better off, had the Army been given a crack at making him into a man.
This question was posed by Carson McCullers 70 years ago and it remains one that should be asked of, say, the anti same-sex marriage proponents of today:
  "You mean that any fulfillment obtained at the expense of normalcy is wrong, and should not be allowed to bring happiness. In short, it is better, because it is morally honorable, for a square peg to keep scraping about the round hole rather than to discover and use the unorthodox square that would fit it?"
Just brilliant.

Friday, May 6, 2011

THE BOY FRIEND 1971


The decision to use a still from Ken Russell's "The Boy Friend" as the representative image for this blog's homepage was an easy one. From the time I first saw the movie in 1971 at age 14 at the Alhambra theater in San Francisco, it has remained, unchallenged in all these years, the one film that epitomizes all the magic, artistry and creativity that lie at the core of cinema's unique capacity to inspire dreams and feed the imagination.
Twiggy as the "Spirit of Ecstacy" hood ornament on a vintage Rolls Royce
A surprising, if not shocking, "G"-rated departure for the director who, during this time was making a name for himself (that name being “enfant terrible”) with his exuberantly impassioned, censorship-baiting, historical dramas; "The Boy Friend" is "based on" a 1954 musical comedy by Sandy Wilson that spoofed 20s theatrical fluff like "No, No, Nanette."  I place "based on" in quotations because, as imagined by Ken Russell, this adaptation of  "The Boy Friend" bears scant resemblance to its source material. In fact, it's really like no musical I've ever seen. Refashioning this precious little musical comedy (which afforded Julie Andrews her Broadway debut) into a scathingly trenchant commentary on show biz clichés, theatrical pretensions, thespian vanity, and Hollywood dream-weaving, Russell creates something akin to a cinematic Russian nesting doll: a spoof within a satire within a pastiche within an homage. A droll valentine to Hollywood musicals, it somehow manages to be terribly sweet and sprightly while also  being howlingly bitchy.
Above, from top to bottom, the wonderful ensemble cast of "The Boy Friend" : Twiggy, Christopher Gable, Glenda Jackson, Tommy Tune, Antonia Ellis, Barbara Windsor, Max Adrian, Vladek Sheybal.

The plot, as reworked by Russell is this: A seedy theater company in 1930's Portsmouth, England is putting on a production of "The Boy Friend" when they learn that the great Hollywood director, Cecil B. DeThrill (Vladek Sheybal), is in the audience. Onstage, amidst technical disasters large and small, members of the troupe attempt to sabotage and upstage one another for DeThrill's attention. Backstage, rampant egos, rivalries, and romantic intrigues compound the drama presented by the inexperienced stage manager (Twiggy) having to go on in place of the show's ailing star (Glenda Jackson!) who is laid up with a fractured ankle. Throughout (in large-scale set pieces), DeThrill imagines what his film version will look like, while, in turn, the cast members project their personal wish-fulfillment fantasies onto the material they're performing. Whew!
The striking of archly theatrical poses serves as a device to distinguish the stage acting from all the insincere play-acting going on backstage

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
"The Boy Friend" just may be the first deconstructionist / auteurist musical. Ken Russell rather brilliantly takes an innocuous, sweet-natured musical — with nothing more on its mind than idealized nostalgia — and uses it as a vehicle through which to explore the themes of the demythologizing of popular art, the artifice of romanticism, and the passion of creativity; the very themes he returns to in film after film. The way in which Russell turns his lens on the glamour images of 30s Hollywood (as popularized in its musicals and the promise held forth in their romantic clichés)--and contrasts these with the  shabby dreams and unglamorous realities of a tatty theater troupe, makes "The Boy Friend" a cheerier, but no less piercing , thematic companion-piece to those other Depression-era masterpieces of deconstructed Hollywood myth: The Day of The Locust & They Shoot Horses, Don't They?
In this musical sequence, Maisie (Antonia Ellis) attempts to convince movie director C.B. DeThrill that taking her to Hollywood with him would be no gamble...if you get my cruder meaning.

All in Fun? - The elaborate recreations of Busby Berkely-style production numbers evoke the escapist entertainments of the past. When fantasy was king and Hollywood was known as the Dream Machine
The more humdrum reality
"The Boy Friend" is such a fun movie that it is easy to overlook the fact that Russell rather ingeniously uses Hollywood musical  clichés to comment on the way in which these Depression-era escapist fantasies fed (and mislead?) the penny-ante dreams and illusions of the populace. This is years before Dennis Potter would cover similar territory in the BBC TV drama, "Pennies from Heaven."

PERFORMANCES:
A true ensemble piece, "The Boy Friend" is one of those rare films (like "Young Frankenstein") where everyone is so perfect in their roles that you can't single out an individual performance. Like many directors in the 70s, Russell often worked with the same actors, creating a kind of film-to-film repertory company. "The Boy Friend" was my first exposure to Ken Russell so the pleasure of seeing gloomily dramatic actors from "The Devils" or "Women in Love" exhibiting such gleeful dexterity in singing, dancing, and comedy, was  a pleasure I had to experience in reverse. Quite deservedly, Twiggy received above-the-title billing and was promoted heavily on the film's release, but the movie is full of sensational actors.
There's No Business Like Show Business: The entire cast of "The Boy Friend"
Standouts: Max Adrian as the beleaguered company manager; the wonderful Murray Melvin...looking as if he hadn't aged a day since 1961's "A Taste of Honey"; my personal fave, the beautiful Georgina Hale; that pint-sized, scene-stealer Barbara Windsor; and of course, the dynamo that is Antonia Ellis, who almost walks away with the film. Providing the film's splendid choreography and plenty of dreamboat appeal is former ballet dancer Christopher Gable. He and Twiggy display a genuine likeability and chemistry together, which is welcome since their scenes are the anchors of sincerity necessary to stabilize all the cuthroat boat-rocking of the other characers.


THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
Ken Russell's films rarely cease to dazzle the eye. In "The Boy Friend" the meticulous period detail of Shirley Russell's ingenious costumes and Tony Walton's witty and breathtaking set designs make for one eye-popping experience.
Sur Le Plage
Jellyfish perform a sand-dance while starfish sway in rhythm!
I'm sorry, but this is just brilliant. I don't know what kind of mind would think of such a thing, but I wish I had one just like it
Perfect Young Ladies- An example of Shirley Russell's keen eye for period costuming
Another peerless Tony Walton set design
 The late Shirley Russell (Ken's first wife) designed the costumes for every Ken Russell film from"Women in Love" to "Valentino"

THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
What played a significant factor in my early fascination with "The Boy Friend" was that I was unfamiliar with the work of Busby Berkeley at the time. Sure, I watched a lot of old movies on TV, but I had an elder sister who tended to monopolize the channel selector - she hated musicals and had a penchant for "black & white-shoe" pictures (her name for 50s teenage-delinquent movies. The "black & white shoe" sobriquet, a reference to the compulsory 50s accessory of saddle shoes). Consequently, I grew up with a vast awareness of the entire Mamie Van Doren oeuvre, but little knowledge of cinema choreography. I've since seen almost everything Busby Berkeley has had a hand in, and though I wouldn't have thought it possible... not after seeing Carmen Miranda cavorting amongst a sea of oversized bananas in "The Gang's All Here"... but in "The Boy Friend" Ken Russell, as some critic must have certainly noted, really manages to out-Berkeley, Berkeley.
My lasting favorite and the most beautiful sequence in the film is the number that takes place atop a giant gramophone turntable. It's a homage to a sequence in "42nd Street" and it's an absolutely smashing piece of filmmaking. I've never forgotten it.

"The Boy Friend" ranks top among my "comfort movies": those films I return to time and time again for that feeling of familiar pleasure they always guarantee. Like a child who giggles anew at the same “knock-knock” joke endlessly repeated, there is something so delightfully soothing about revisiting a beloved film that has the power to always cheer you up. Every known line of dialog, each dependable laugh, all the recognized pleasures…they reignite my sense of nostalgia (which has really increased now that I’ve reached the age of having something to actually be nostalgic about) and invite me to surrender to the long-ago-discovered charms of an old acquaintance and friend.