Penny Serenade

So I have to admit that I have a soft spot for Cary Grant. He oozes gentlemanly charm and is incredibly beautiful. He is able to play the baffling idiot, the straight guy, the angry man, the paranoid loner, and various other roles at the drop of a hat. One of my favorite films of all time, The Philadelphia Story, has him paired with one of my favorite actresses, Katherine Hepburn, and their chemistry is palpable. What makes him a great actor is that he is able to manufacture chemistry between with his female co-star so easily that you really do believe that he is in love with her despite what his character says. This is never one-sided because he is usually paired with unbelievably talented women, but he brings a willingness to be charming to any situation that it is hard to resist. However in this film he seems to be off of his game a little.

Cary Grant plays a journalist who falls in love with a young woman. He finds out that he has a gotten a promotion and is going away to Japan and decides to marry this young woman (who happens to be Irene Dunne). After a little while he brings her out there and she realizes that he is stretching the limits of his income. This is especially troubling because she finds out that she is pregnant. She gets mad at him and leaves to go to her room when an earthquake happens (because Japan is a hot bed of earthquakes even then apparently.), causing her to miscarry and mess up her junk enough to never let her have children. She is devastated, because every woman wants children. Grant then decides to settle down in the states and buy his own newspaper. They go through an adoption process and get a young girl. This young girl ends up being the light of their life but unfortunate circumstances intervene and they are penniless and without children. Their “loving” relationship falls apart.

I do not like it when films rely too much on gimmicks. The gimmick here is that Irene’s character loves records. As she is leaving her husband, she plays records that remind her of different times in their life together. So I am supposed to believe as the viewer that she is remembering these very detailed memories that in reality have no connection to the bland song she puts on in the space of time that the song plays. These are not symphonies. They are “penny serenades,” songs that many young couples used to dance to at high school proms. They are maybe three minutes each, but these memories last fifteen minutes, twenty minutes and longer. So much so that you forget that this memory is being supplied by a song and that the film is going to cut off the memory at some point and return to Irene’s face looking all wistful and for her to put on a different record. This break in the story line makes the story feel incomplete and quite annoying. It dulls the relationship between Grant’s character and Irene’s character because you don’t see it grow naturally.

there are some scenes that I found really great, especially the scene when they bring home the girl for the first time. They try very hard not to wake up the snoozing baby, but everything in their house seems to make some sort of noise. They don’t have a crib, so they put chairs up against a small bed. She gets up and brings the child to sleep with her, and he gets up afterward to feed the baby only to see that it is gone. He starts freaking out and wakes up his wife only to realize that it was sleeping right next to him. These slapstick comic moments are what Dunne and Grant are best at and sadly there are not enough of them.

Although this film can be moving at times, the emotions in the characters hardly ever feel earned. There was not enough fleshing out, not enough focus on the attributes that each one brings to the relationship, and not enough Applejack (he is the best character in the whole film… really good character work). I hope this film served as a lesson to filmmakers after it to teach that gimmicks are never really worth it. They fall into themselves too quickly.

Another Thin Man

Myrna Loy and William Powell return for another installment of the Nick and Nora saga. Saga is probably putting too much weight on it. Adventure would probably be more of an apt word. Hauling a one year old, a dog, and a glass of whiskey, Nick and Nora return to New York City once again and get wrapped into another mystery by accident. They go down to Long Island to see their gruff and paranoid financial advisor. This advisor had made some mistakes in the past and it led to one of his engineers being sent to jail for ten years. Well this engineer was not too happy about it and started very publicly threatening him by telling him that he has been dreaming about his demise. Well his dreams come true and the advisor ends up dead and Nick is thrust in the middle trying to figure out how it happened and who did it. Once Nick figures it out, he gathers everyone in one room and shocks everyone by telling who the real murderer is.

In my last entry on this series, I reveled in what a good time I had with the series. I was in love with the husband and wife dynamic, the effortlessness of the crimes being solved and witty dialogue. All of those elements are present in this installment but something seems to be missing. I think it is because Nora has again taken such a back seat. This is Nick’s mystery, Nick’s story, and Nick’s source of one liners. Although they have some scenes together, and she makes a valiant effort at trying to figure out who it was, she is made to seem ridiculous by her need to be involved. For example, after being left again by her husband, she decides to meet this informant at a nightclub to find out the whereabouts of one the bad people. She dresses like a vamp and tries to meet the informant, but she gets entangled with the wrong guy who insists on dancing with her. Also by this point Nick had already figured out where this particular bad guy was and how irrelevant he was to the investigation. He sits back and watches his wife go through this embarrassment without helping her out at all or letting her in on the secret. She is made to look ridiculous for wanting to be active in the mystery, she should have just stayed home with her baby. How can this glaring inequality of gender in this film not go unnoticed by people who were watching it? Nick is always made out to be the valiant one, the one who can solve any mystery while sipping at his ever-present whiskey, but Nora is made out to be the controversy hunter, the one who always wants to solve the mystery but never even comes close. It is frustrating to watch.

I don’t want to leave the impression that I hated this film. In fact it was quite the opposite. I had a good time with the silly circumstances, the witty banter, the ridiculous minor characters (The Happy Birthday song being sung by a bunch of thugs is so hilarious that I still chuckle while thinking about it), and figuring out who really did it. But I just want a little more of an equal relationship between Nick and Nora. They have such an easy chemistry that I prefer to see them on the screen figuring out the mystery together like they did in After the Thin Man. Is that so much to ask?

25th Hour

I was pretty young when 9/11 happened. I was in eighth grade and remember vividly the crash and watching the news in every class before being let go early. I was a sensitive child and at the time I thought I understood what the impact this event had on everybody, but I had no idea. I mean hell I was a privileged brat going to a private school in the middle of america thousands of miles away from New York City. I knew one person who had a relative that almost got caught in the towers, but she was running late to work and therefore her life was saved. But that was it. I was not aware what an impact this event was going to have on everyone around me in the long run. I was not aware of the fear this event was going to have on everyone. However not everyone was my age when it happened and therefore knew what was going to happen, the destruction that was going to result from such an angry event and they decided to make art to help deal with this knowledge. One of these people was Spike Lee. Spike Lee took the story of this man who is about to go to jail for a very long time and set against the backdrop of 9/11 and he did it so well that I now think he is one of the best directors of all time. He can make the  Miracle at St. Anna ten times over and I will still think him great because of this film.

What I think is different about this film from other post 9/11 films is the acceptance of the situation. Lee is saying “yeah it happened, yeah it impacted this city in ways that are overtly noticeable (like the absence of two very large structures, thousands of dead people including firefighters and police officers) and ways that are less so, but life still goes on.” New York City can no longer go back to the time before this awful event happened, so why deny it, but also why make everyone in New York City a saint just for living through it? People are still racist, stupid, and mean. He doesn’t want people to not care about 9/11 but at the same time he doesn’t want it to be the most defining thing about New York City. This philosophy produced some very moving shots of the two pillars of light that were erected as a memorial, the many walls of remembrance of people who have fallen and the constant construction site that is now the Two Towers. This is juxtaposed with very angry people barely talking about what happened, but it always being in the back of their minds. For instance there is one character who is a stock broker and a very successful one. He lives right next to the Two Towers and when he is asked if he would move, he rattles off some obscenities and say that he paid way too much for the apartment to move. He says that the terrorists can come and bomb the building next door and he would still stay in that apartment. A beautiful example of the denial and yet acceptance of this horrid event.

This story is and is not about 9/11. Following one man the day before he goes to jail for seven years for trafficking drugs, he walks around his city one more time. He visits his father, spends time with his girlfriend, goes to a party with this two best friends and goes through the emotions of only have a certain amount of time to breathe the air of a free man. He is angry, paranoid, and dejected. But it isn’t just about him, but about how this prison sentence affects his friends and family around him. They are just as lost as him about dealing with it. While everyone represents a stereotype each character transcends that stereotype within moments of knowing them. There is the insanely successful stock broker who makes his money on other people’s misfortunes (you see high in the first scene gambling millions of dollars on how big the unemployment rate will be), a trust fund Jew who is sad about being privileged and makes up for it by being a high school teacher at his old school, a father who was a firefighter, but turned into an alcoholic when his wife died and owns the bar that every firefighter and cop comes to in the area, and then there is the girlfriend who is Puerto Rican and it defines who she is but she has never actually been there before her insanely rich boyfriend (the drug dealer) takes her there. These stereotypes are there but they aren’t at the same time just like 9/11 is a part of the story and yet it is not.

I know I am going long on this post, but I feel like I have to talk about Monty’s speech in the middle of the film. Spike Lee is so very good at portraying racism as just a fact in his character’s psyche that I love him for it. In Do the Right Thing there is the infamous speech where he takes several different races and types of people and have them call everyone that is different from them slurs. It was a way of acknowledging the ridiculousness of hating someone purely based on their race or station in life. This speech works in a similar way. Monty goes to the bathroom to get away from his father for just a second. As he looks in the mirror he notices someone has written “fuck you” on it. This launches him into a tirade against Muslim taxi drivers, Asian grocers, Puerto Ricans, black basketball players, homosexuals, and Russian gangsters. It comes from a place of intense frustration and jealousy. These people inconvence him but at the same time they still have their freedom and he does not. It is also a comment on the ridiculous amount of racism that came out of 9/11 that we as a nation are still dealing with. Every Muslim became a terrorist. Every Middle Eastern became a target for abuse by people who were just ignorant of the country they actually came from, the religion they adhere to and the differences between radicalism and normal adherents. He was showcasing the faults every race, of every demcaration that you belong to and saying that hell we are not any better than those people that flew those planes into the towers… okay we may be a little better, but not by much. It is very powerful stuff for me, because of my personal experiences and because of my constant work against this kind of outlook in my own mind and in the minds of others.

This film was great. I guess that is the best way to sum up this post. I suggest that you should watch it, not just for the great dialogue, the amazing performances (I mean Rosario Dawson where did this performance come from and why can’t you do more work like this?), and the beautiful cinematography, but for the themes and the history of our recent past.

Fahrenheit 451

Truffaut worked on the adaptation for Fahrenheit 451 for several years before he was able to bring it to the screen. A highly personal film, he chose to work with the very best in cinematography (Nicholas Roeg, who would become to be a visual and weird director), scriptwriting (his partner that had helped write every other screenplay with him up to this point) and acting (Julie Christie was a star about to become international and Oskar Werner was a man with whom he had worked with before in Jules and Jim). His vision was complete ¬†and his intent clear. A making of a masterpiece was all but inevitable. So why didn’t it become one?

This can be answered in several ways, but I guess I should detour here to explain the plot. Set in some undefined future, firemen are not used to put out fires, but rather to make them. In particular their job is to set fire to all sorts of reading material, and only visuals are the accepted mode of entertainment. However there are several dissidents that choose to hide books and to read them in secret. Eventually they are captured and sent off for re-education which is implied to be tortured. One of these dissidents becomes a fireman who meets an interesting woman who introduces him to the world of literature. He begins to see his world with a clearer eye and his secret becomes harder and harder to conceal. He is found out eventually, but escapes just in time in order to come into a commune where people are known more by their favorite books than by anything else.

Not necessarily a visual book, Truffaut had a couple of obstacles to tackle. The first being that it was a very English novel, but Truffaut did not speak English. In order to solve that problem, he learned enough English in order to translate the script and employed only people who were multi lingual, mainly Julie Christie and Oskar Werner. Oskar Werner proved to be another problem. He saw the character very differently than Truffaut mainly he played the character with more distance than what was comfortable with Truffaut. This created a rift in their relationship and by the time production wrapped, they were not talking. In fact to get back at Truffaut, Werner purposefully cut his hair in a way that would create a continuity problem for him in the last couple of scenes. Werner’s performance is so obviously in conflict with the rest of the performances, that it makes the film uneven.

It makes me sad that I did not think this film was very good. Truffaut seemed to have such a passion for the original novel and worked so tirelessly to have it made that I feel sorry for him to have produced such an inferior product. Werner’s performance is perhaps the most obvious regrettable choice, but it is not his only bad choice. Julie Christie is a great actress, but it seems that she must have forgotten her talent at home. The striking reds of the fire engine and the fire itself clash so obviously with the very sixties decorations. It seems to drag on and on and the most striking scenes in the book seem to be played down in the film so much so that you can barely tell it is a significant event in this fireman’s progression.

This film is the first disappointment that I have had in Truffaut’s filmography so far. I hope it will be my only one. I also hope that you do not think ill of me for putting down this film… I do it only to be truthful and take no pleasure in it.

City Girl

F.W. Murnau was a director that was sort of unique during the silent era. He made huge films that almost always went over budget, but he did not make very many of them. In fact if you look at his filmography, it would probably read a lot like a modern director’s filmography instead of a silent film director’s. He along with a couple of other prominent and successful directors busted the notion that the director is just a paid ham like the writer. He had for the most part creative control over what he put out. This is obvious when you look at the pictures he made. Each picture presents a very definite and unique world where the acting is takes a seat behind the plot, the set and the moral points he wants to make. The action is usually melodramatic and the actors are usually exaggerated in their movements. You only have to look at Nosferatu to understand my point. This continued even when he immigrated to America and took on American folklore. To see an example of this folklore, you need to watch Sunrise, a picture based on the fears of the rural classes. Mostly heavy-handed in its message about the dangers of a big city, Sunrise is nevertheless the favorite choice for critics when recommending Murnau’s films. However I would object to this favoritism and put forth a better film that he did just three years after he did Sunrise and only a year before he died, City Girl.

Dealing with the same general themes as Sunrise, City Girl is about a farm boy who goes to Chicago to sell his family’s wheat crop. He stops at a diner and falls in love with a waitress. Naive and idealistic, he asks her to marry him before he leaves town. The girl surprisingly says yes because she longs to be in the country with a strong man by her side. They get married and return to the farm where the boy’s parents wait anxiously. The father, a mean old man who only cares about money, accuses the girl of being a gold digger. The girl and the father get into fights but the boy refuses to stand up for his new wife. The reapers come to find a new girl in the house and set off to harassing her. Again the farm boy allows this and she is left defenseless to the lies of his father and the come ons of these vulgar men. Their relationship falls apart, and she is accused of wanting to go off with one of the reapers. Instead of going off the reapers, she sets out to leave the farm on her own. The farm boy realizes his mistake and goes after her.

Both films deal with the farm vs city trope, the faithful wife or girlfriend and the doubting and/or unfaithful husband, and inflexible morals, but City Girl deals with these themes in a more nuanced way. There are more shades of grey to this film then in Sunrise because not every person is completely saint like (except for the mother of the farm boy and the sister, but they play very minor parts in the action) unlike the wife in Sunrise. Each person is selfish, naive, and angry, but each character has the potential to be sweet, giving, and lively so when the change ultimately comes it is earned rather than forced.

It is sad that this film was the second to last film Murnau would ever do. I feel like he was still maturing as a director and his true masterpiece was yet to come. However I am glad for what Murnau did give to us and am glad I saw this film…