Thursday, March 31, 2011

Three Great Movie Experiences Though Not Necessarily Three Great Movies

I used my bridge last evening that Neil set up for me.  I clawed it, I drank some water, and then he gave me foam.  Neil and Eric were watching something they’d recorded.  It’s on “The List,” which they’re always worried about keeping up with and then deleting stuff.  I wish they'd record That Darn Cat! because I've heard them talking about it and I bet it's purr-fect.  

      1 My Mom would take me to movies as a kid, but the rating system and its policing by ‘cinema’ staff was much more stringent in Britain than the U.S.  We did get to see Fiddler on the Roof in 1973 and, even though I whispered a ton of questions (including how long it would go on because it was three hours and I was seven), I still remember the grays and browns of the art direction.  It was a poor, lively, village in the middle of nowhere Russia and it was about to be destroyed by both the Cossacks and the younger generation.  I’ve seen it onstage and it looked so bright and fake; the movie captured both the hope and the despair.  

      Usually whoever plays Tevye is heaped with praise.  However, Topol nailed it by not overplaying the role. It also helped that he was younger and physically smaller than other actors playing the part before and since because he did not overpower the rest of the cast.  (Later I got in a huff and wouldn’t accompany my Mom to see The Way We Were.  She went on her own and didn’t come back for five hours because she sat through it a second time.  I kick myself still that I didn’t see it with her).

      2 My Mom would try to get us into movies like All The President’s Men and Annie Hall in England and it never worked out because the rating system was harsher in terms of the age cut-offs and the ticket sellers checked everyone and had no problem kicking people out of the cinema.  We did see all the live action Disney films like That Darn Cat! and The Shaggy D.A., but we'd arrive late, have to figure out what was going on, and then stay for the beginning of the next showing.
 It was great training for reading postmodern literature.  Somehow, though, my Dad was able to get me into Murder On The Orient Express.  It’s not the best thriller because, unlike The Sleeping Car Murders or Ten Little Indians, the characters aren’t in any danger once Richard Widmark has been killed.  Eventually, the culprits end up not in any danger of being turned over to the authorities either.  Most of it moves more like a play with the international all-star cast being interviewed individually by Albert Finney’s hilariously finicky and gnomic Poirot.  It feels stage-bound (the train is snow bound), even though it’s not a play, whereas Sidney Lumet’s film of Long Day’s Journey Into Night feels intensely cinematic, though it didn’t move from that house and, most specifically, that family’s parlor.  

      However, the first five minutes of Orient Express make up an entrancing, mysterious, and shocking silent movie.  In sepia tones, Lumet shows gangsters kidnapping a baby from a wealthy family, quick interactions with the family’s servants, the reactions of the family over time as the baby turns up dead, all of it intercut with screaming headlines and the types of diagrams, drawings, and high contrast photographs that would have been used in the 1920s and 1930s.  None of it is explicated in Agatha Christie’s book; it’s only suggested.  The thrill that sequence engendered in me pretty much got me through most of the rest of the movie, though the only interesting cinematic element Lumet could bring to the next two hours were the boldy suggestive – even Expressionistic – close-up angles that he used when Poirot recalls the most revealing and suspicious things that the suspects said.  On the other hand, even though it’s somewhat sluggish, the costumes make up one of the best fashion parades of any 1970s movie.

      3 My parents left for the U.S. because my paternal Grandfather died so my maternal grandparents stayed for two weeks to look after us.  My maybe best Monday ever was when Nana decided to take my sister and me out of school for the day and travel up to London because New York, New York had opened and she wanted to see Liza Minelli.  I rarely saw movies with Nana; it was Papa who took us to animated Disney movies.  She may have thought it was going to be another Cabaret and, after all, it is almost as dark, though it is not sardonic.  It’s Scorsese’s homage to the Vincente Minnelli musicals of the ‘40s and ‘50s, but Scorsese uses ‘70s tropes (the impossible relationship, frank sexuality, adult language, drugs, and physical violence) in a self-conscious way that works on two levels, i.e. the classic ‘40s and ‘50s musical genre is self-conscious and self-reflexive, and exponentially points up the artificiality of the scenery and the rising star versus the failing artist plot.  The Judy Garland-Gene Kelly movies required a specific suspension of disbelief (characters always sing their feelings, everything is always as bright and colorful as something on a stage, etc.) because the audience knew it was a genre, an entertainment that didn’t represent reality but a heightened version of it.  New York, New York actually utilizes the Bob Fosse Cabaret attitude that the performers would only perform when on a stage, rather than whenever it felt emotionally right.  It was a distancing device that went back to Brecht & Weill and actually a lot further than that.  However, the emotional intensity and the verbal speaking rhythms that are endemic to Scorsese’s oeuvre are right out of the 1970s and, in total candor, reflected the emotional upheavals I’d witnessed as a child between my parents which was part of the reason I found the movie to be electrifying, which I’m sure my Nana suspected.  It felt like Martin Scorsese knew what I’d gone through.  This wasn’t heightened reality; this was my reality.  It wasn’t so much as a suspension of disbelief as a revelation of emotional synchronicity.

      Critics beat it up for a number of reasons, though a couple of the songs became standards.  It is too long; it is a movie so in love with the process of film-making and genre conventions that it almost forgets to entertain the audience; the “Happy Endings” sequence is a great reference to “Born In A Trunk” from A Star Is Born and continues that unsettling subtext of is it Liza Minnelli or is it Liza Minnelli channeling Judy Garland?  The sequence should not have been cut, but it did need to be cut for the movie to flow; Liza Minnelli makes sense in the world of the movie but, though incandescent, Robert De Niro does not, though he was the factor that contemporary critics found most appealing.  

      That’s the most intriguing point.  Liza Minnelli does make sense because she is a singer and plays one.  Her parents are the icons that Martin Scorsese emulates (he was also having an affair with Minnelli).  Therefore, she seems like the poor waif heroine who suffers nobly with a raging husband and makes it as a star and mother (actually, this is more the Doris Day story than the Judy Garland story).  Robert De Niro, though, is the one who implicitly believes in her talent and pushes her.  He is the ethical artist who will not give up on jazz or live performance even as it is being subsumed by pop and the growing recording industry, which Minnelli represents.  However, though he fakes it beautifully (all the fuss about the fakery kind of killed the fakery, though this is another example of suspension of disbelief  ‘70s style – we’ll believe it’s not fakery though all the critics told us it was) De Niro is not a saxophonist.  Many actresses had their voices dubbed by Marni Nixon’s vocals and, though it was kept secret so that the spell wouldn’t be broken, you can feel the difference.  (You can in dubbed foreign films versus subtitled ones too).  It looks right and it sounds right, but it doesn’t feel right.  Even though he learned to play the saxophone, it’s not the same as Minnelli who’d sung since she was a girl.  De Niro has the rhythm and the rage of the borscht belt comics of the ‘50s, but the performing dynamic between the two characters would be much less intense because they couldn’t have performed together and the plotting to connect them – a singer and a comic – might not have been workable.  However, De Niro is a terrific comedian and Scorsese explored that later in The King of Comedy.

      My Nana wished at the end of the movie that they would get back together because the young son needed his parents.  I couldn’t articulate that we’d witnessed a flawed musical romantic tragedy that would only result in further heartbreak if they did reunite.  Even with its problems, I was convinced that the ending of the film is the only one that those two characters could have.

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