Friday, March 28, 2008

Swan song: F for Fake

F for Fake, Orson Welles's final feature, is one of the coolest movies I've ever seen, a marvelous marriage of fiction and non-fiction, a study of the value of art and the validity of the artmaker, conjured by a man totally confident and in charge of his medium. Welles, a filmmaker/charlatan, is as much a character in F for Fake as its other subjects, painter/forger Elmyr de Hory and writer/hoaxster Clifford Irving. These were men who captivated people by sleights of hand. And in case we forgot how Welles got his start, the man himself reminds us: "In my past there aren't any Picassos. My next flight in fancy was by flying saucer."

In terms of documentary-as-thesis, Orson Welles paved the way for Michael Moore. Both men, weighty in opinion and girth, are the stars of their documentaries. But while Moore traffics in contempt for his subjects, Welles is all about wonder. His fascination with truth and lies -- and art, which links them -- vibrates from the screen (this is aided in no small fashion by the editing, which is sublime and deserving of its own dissertation). Netflix F for Fake today. I leave you with a bit of Wellesian narration.

Reality is the toothbrush waiting at home for you in its glass. A bus ticket. A paycheck. And the grave. In the right mood perhaps, Elmyr has just as few regrets as I have to have been a charlatan. But we're not so proud either of us as to lay any superior claim to being very much worse than the rest of you. ... What we professional liars hope to serve is truth. I believe the pompous word for that is "art." Picasso himself said it. "Art," he said, "is a lie, a lie that makes us realize the truth."

Thursday, March 27, 2008

The revolution will be televised on NBC and hosted by Bob Hope

Most film bloggers love the Oscars as much as the movies they write about. It's a tricky, kind-of shameful dual love, since the Oscars are needless and distracting and not really about the art as much as the ego and the cash. Occasionally, though, constructive theses can be built around both movies and the awards for which they are nominated. So, attention guys and gals of the film blogosphere: You should buy "Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood." Those five movies are the best picture nominees from 1967, and writer Mark Harris uses them and their makers as the protagonists (or anti-heros) in a story about the passing of the torch (or fight to death) between Old and New Hollywood, which was figuratively acted out on the stage of Santa Monica Civic Auditorium six days after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

Half of the nominees seemed to be snearing at the other half: The father-knows-best values of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner were wittily trashed by The Graduate; the hands-joined-in-brotherhood hopes expressed by In the Heat of the Night had little in common with the middle finger of insurrection extended by Bonnie and Clyde. ... What was an American film supposed to be? ... In the last year, the rule book seemed to have been tossed out. Warren Beatty, who looked like a movie star, had become a producer. Dustin Hoffman, who looked like a producer, had become a movie star. And Sidney Poitier, who looked like no other movie star had ever looked, had become the biggest box office attraction in an industry that still had no idea what to do with, or about, his popularity.

It was the year of dragons versus dragonflies, as Harris paraphrases The Los Angeles Times. In one corner: Stanley Kramer, Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Rex Harrison, Darryl Zanuck. In the other: Mike Nichols, Hal Ashby, Arthur Penn, Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway. All of these players collided with each other at the '68 Oscars, a ceremony that took Hollywood's temperature just as it was getting feverish. Toward this suitable climax Harris threads his narratives: Will Bonnie and Clyde writers Robert Benton and David Newman ever bring the French New Wave to America? Will Harrison self-destruct before his picture (Doctor Dolittle) does? Will audiences recoil at the notion of Hoffman as a leading man and sexual being? Will Poitier and Rod Steiger move race relations forward or backward with their performances of an accomplished (yet sexless) black man and a bigoted (but vulnerable) white man? Will Tracy croak before completing his scenes?

The inherent drama of producing movies unites these five stories. Virtually everyone who worked on these films was yolked with crippling insecurity, Harris finds, and it's fascinating to read just how unsure Hoffman, Penn and Norman Jewison were about their tasks. Harris illustrates with bluntness and sly humor how the best picture nominees went from pie-in-the-sky dreams or commercial gambits to disasters-in-the-making to either critically immortalized triumphs (Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate), critically reviled bombs (Dolittle) or best-picture winners (In the Heat of the Night). The juiciest bits of the book are the gems from interviews with Hoffman and Nichols. A whole other book could be devoted to their manic anecdotes, and I would love to see the raw transcripts of Harris's interviews.

Much has been written about the second golden age of cinema, but most of the literature focuses on the rebellion and not the establishment. Harris gives equal play to Old Hollywood's arthritic grapplings, led symbolically by dedicated boozer Rex Harrison, who (along with wacko wife Rachel Roberts) is given the most delicious characterization and emerges from "Pictures at a Revolution" as a kind of silver-screen British Caligula. Leading the rebel forces was Nichols, a tough-as-nails maverick who perhaps was unaware of his own position and power at the center of all the change. If only he and Harrison could've worked together. (I envision a picture called Whiskey before Breakfast, wherein Harrison plays a bluegrass musician who discovers he is the second coming of Jesus Christ and tries to manage two followings, one religious and one musical. Nichols directs, of course. Ashby writes and edits. All are nominated, Harrison wins and tries to swallow his Oscar onstage, tumbler in hand.)

When Harris brings us to the Oscars, there's genuine suspense (even though we know who wins) because of what's at stake, both personally for the players and creatively for the industry. This is where Hollywood discovers what it's really thinking now, and what it's capable of next. The conferral of those stupid statuettes had not meant so much before, and has not meant as much since.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

I will write about your book, sir; just you wait

Every two to three hours, I develop an urge to consume chocolate. This urge often outweighs all else. If I don't get chocolate, I become sullen.

In the vending machine at work, the Snickers and the 3 Musketeers cost the same ($1), yet the 3 Musketeers is an inch longer and 3.7 grams heavier. I doubt the candies have different widths, so nougat alone must be cheaper than the combination of nougat, caramel and peanuts. Both bars are made by Mars, Incorporated. The question is: Even though 3 Musketeers has greater surface area, is the chocolate shell thinner than Snickers to keep the price the same? Or are caramel and peanuts that much more expensive? Of course, I'd prefer a Milky Way or Whatchamacallit, but these are not options at present.

Shortly after settling on 3 Musketeers, I went to the mail room. An author sent me a copy of his book today in the hopes I'd find some way to write about it. Included in the package was a Ghirardelli chocolate bar. Mint Bliss Intense Dark. 60 percent cacao. Thirty-five more grams than 3 Musketeers and the retail price is almost four times as much. But it didn't cost me a dime. Now I can put the 3 Musketeers in my desk drawer for emergency use.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

6. Paul Scofield, a true man, for all seasons

PAUL SCOFIELD, 1922-2008. Triple crown achieved at age 47 with an Emmy for outstanding single performance by an actor in a leading role for "Male of the Species." Preceded by a best actor Tony for "A Man for All Seasons" in 1962 and a best actor Oscar in 1966 for recreating the role onscreen.

Following Anthony Minghella and Arthur C. Clarke into the hereafter, Paul Scofield completed another celebrity death triptych yesterday. He died at 86 in the south of England, leaving only six living Triple Crowners.

This post will be massively deficient. To know and appreciate Paul Scofield is to have experienced his work onstage and I, of course, was not privileged to have seen his portrayals of Hamlet, Lear and Salieri and his interpretations of Ibsen, Shaw and Marlowe. I have seen him in two movies: 1994's Quiz Show, for which he nominated for an Oscar, and 1966's A Man for All Seasons, for which he won. In both movies he plays men of principle who do not waver under extreme circumstances.

"Your name is mine!" he growls at Ralph Fiennes, who plays his cheating son in Quiz Show.

"I am commanded by the king to be brief, and since I am the king's obedient subject, brief I will be," he says before his execution in A Man for All Seasons. "I die His Majesty's good servant, but God's first."

Two thirds of his Triple Crown he owes to Robert Bolt, who wrote the stage play and screenplay for "A Man for All Seasons," in which Scofield plays Sir Thomas More, the English statesman who stood up to Henry VIII. The film, for me, is a bore. Scofield's character seems to exist in spite of it. It's a humble performance, befitting both More and Scofield himself, who refused a knighthood in the '60s and eschewed all manner of limelight. He never went to the Oscars or gave a TV interview, never engaged in self-promotion and always returned to his family when the work was done. He was impervious to any kind of corruption, small or large, however inconsequential. View the clip below to see how he invests More with his gracefully adamantine spirit.

"Male of the Species," a Hallmark movie that won him his Emmy, seems interesting but remains unavailable for rental. He, Sean Connery and Michael Caine play three iterations of malehood and, of course, Scofield represents the principled and fatherly. A man so disciplined and pure in his personal life was able to approach each role as a blank slate, to sublimate his imposing physical features depending on his task. This was a man with an utter lack of vanity.

What I still would love to see: He and Katharine Hepburn in A Delicate Balance, in John Frankenheimer's The Train and, of course, in Zeffirelli's Hamlet and Branagh's Henry V. If anyone out there has more personal or qualitative thoughts on Scofield, please leave them in the comments.

This is part six of The Triple Crowners, an 18-part series celebrating the actors who have won an Oscar, a Tony and an Emmy. Check back soon for part seven, featuring one of the most terrific (truly terrific) performers of all time. Or catch up with previous installments here.

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Cutting Edge 3: Chasing the Dream

The Cutting Edge 3 has pulled the ice-romance genre out of the shadows of the Cold War and into modern-day America — where wealthy, white, Botticelli-bodied men flirt without reservation with middle-class, Hispanic, Botticelli-bodied women. And in 2008 (a far cry from 1992), chasing an ice-skating dream is not just about gold medals and beating the Soviets; it's about family, and loyalty, and betrayal, and empañadas and how the insidious creep of gentrified construction can hamstring an entire ethnic neighborhood, and how none of that matters as long as there's love.

Succeeding spandex'd forefathers D.B. Sweeney and Ross Thomas is Matt Lanter as Zach Conroy, a hottie somewhere between the ages of 18 and 26 who practices pair-skating at the swanky new sports center his grandfather built in downtown Wherever (Seattle? Toronto? Either way, there's some kind of space needle on the skyline). He's perhaps the country's only dangerous figure skater. His reputation for risk-taking precedes him, and the only woman who dares skate with him is Celeste Mercier, a pale blonde. Unfortunately, within the first 10 minutes of the film, Zach throws Celeste wildly and she fractures her ankle. Three months of rehab. No nationals for her.

Zach is charged with finding a replacement partner who can match his graceful recklessness. He finds her after challenging her brother to a game of 6-on-1 ice hockey, during which Zach scores goal after goal using his stick as a partner — think Fred Astaire with a Dirt Devil beating Sampras on grass — until Alejandra "Alex" (easier to pronounce) Delgado enters the ice and soundly schools him. Alex, you see, is a hockey player. It took two Cutting Edge movies to finally get to the inverse of the first. Hockey and figure-skating, you see, are enormously similar. It's easy for a figure skater to pick up hockey, and vice versa. Body-checking and triple toe loops, for example, both require the skillful manipulation of momentum.

Anyway, look how far we've come: a woman hockey player who quips, "I don't go for guys in leotards." This says a lot for both the brownish people movement and the heterosexual gymnast movement. In 2008, women can be tough and men can be graceful. Women can also be Puerto Rican (or Mexican...or...Colombian?), though men are still generally white and muscular and look good in any kind of T-shirt.

Alex (played by Francia Raisa, of Honduran descent, although, inexplicably, her sister's name is Italia, according to IMDb) practices under the exacting eye of coach Jackie Dorsey (played by Christy Carlson Romano, returning to the franchise after her cheek-soaked triumph in Cutting Edge 2: Going for Gold) and Zach does his best not to fall in love. But love finds a way. Zach tackles Aleja—Alejarno—Alex into a pool at his mansion in the 'burbs; she watches him sleep at her dim, reddish apartment in the city. Amidst all this courtship are villainous rivals and a protective Hispanic brother and a bosomy Russian (the Soviets never really go away) and the race for nationals. Then there's the botched routine where Zach slices Alex's head with his skate and, miraculously, no blood is drawn. But everyone knows he's a risk-taker, so it's really no one's fault but hers.

But the important question raised by The Cutting Edge 3 is this: Can we, as humans, achieve both true love and a gold medal at the same moment in time?

The previous installments of the trilogy both concluded that yes, we can, but I never believed it until this time around. Here's why:

To win nationals, Alex and Zach must complete the Pamchenko jump. When their coach suggests this, Zach (heretofore a risk-taker!) retreats. The move might cause career-ending or life-threatening injuries, he says. The move involves the man picking the woman up by an ankle, swinging her up and down and around at greater speeds and parabolic angles and throwing her up into the air, after which the pair spins identically but at different heights. It ends with the man catching the woman on her way down as they both come out of their spins. Alex, who has negotiated similar moves while trying to score short-handed goals in hockey, says they should go for it. In 2008, a Puerto Rican can be a risk-taker and a woman and a hockey player.

Simply put, the Pamchenko jump is a metaphor for entering into an interracial courtship or, at the very least, a courtship that will anger your pale ex-girlfriend and/or your new girlfriend's hotheaded Hispanic brother. [SPOILER ALERT.] When Alex and Zach execute the jump and, seconds later, profess their love for each other, the full weight of the film washed over me, like a zamboni over ice. The Cutting Edge 3 says it's possible to achieve love, even if your WASPy grandfather bulldozed your girlfriend's kin's casa (Cuban for "house"), but the genius of the film comes right after. The story ends right after the kiss. We never know if they won the physical gold medal because it doesn't matter: Alex and Zach have won the gold medal of each other's hearts, and that's something that can never be taken away, even if they are accused of using performance-enhancing drugs, which, to be honest, they probably were, because who could execute the Pamchenko move without some mid-level steroids, at the very least?

I really have to see this movie again.

Sunday, March 16, 2008


Channel-surfing yesterday on the waves of our pirated cable, I passed my favorite, channel 49, and saw nothing but static. I doubled back. Static again. No. Static on every TV in the house. No. Channel 49, you see, is Turner Classic Movies. And it's gone.

Friday, March 14, 2008

I do not think that they will sing to me

"Isn't life the strangest thing you've ever seen?"

Walking to lunch on Vermont Avenue today, I saw a driver shaking two maracas to the salsa music blaring from his blue Volvo, all of its windows rolled down. He shook the maracas as he steered with his knees.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Wherein I talk about the state of things, and what comes next

Blog was tottering toward an identity crisis before I went on my recent Adventure. I had moved out of my seven-movies-a-week phase, had barely a lick of anything to write about, was going to miss the Oscar season (the only aspect of reality on which I feel cognitively qualified to comment) and didn't have the time or wherewithal to steer Blog toward providing insight, amusement or self-satisfaction — the only goals I had for it when I started it three years ago, on the 32nd floor of a 'scraper at 52nd and Broadway. Blog was founded on the principle of No One Cares about the Personal Lives of Errant Websurfers; I commissioned myself to write solely about movies; if I was to talk about my personal life, it would be refracted through movies; in short, this Blog would not be about me; over these same three years I also developed a strange lust for semi-colons, even though Kurt Vonnegut said not to use them, that they are "transvestite hermaphrodites, standing for absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college."

I have been to college, and I regret going. I was too young, too stupid and could've benefited from some real-world experience before hitting the books. Also, Vonnegut is overrated.

Anyway, my point: Blog will continue, but it must evolve. Into what? Maybe something more personal, even though I've put dual restraints on myself by maintaining relative anonymity while still revealing Blog to people I know and love. Censorship on both fronts. Whatever. Blog will continue. Please, if you care to, leave something in the comments: a recommendation, a suggestion, an explanation of why you come here to read, or simply a "hi there how are ya."

Upcoming topics as I get back into the swing of things: a quick recap of the Adventure, thoughts on what it means to live 42 days without Internet and TV and news, an outsider's view of a missed Oscar season, belated reactions to the deaths of Heath Ledger and Roy Scheider, and thoughts on the movies I saw on the ship (which I never would've seen anywhere else).

Friday, March 07, 2008

I'm back (from outer space)

Hopefully I'll have something to say within the next week. Stay tuned.