René Clair's Hooray for Hollywood
From “Film Crazy: Interviews with Hollywood Legends” by Patrick McGilligan:
McGilligan: You have always been a severe critic of Hollywood, even though you spent your wartime years in America, working in Hollywood. How did you adjust to the Hollywood method of filmmaking?
René Clair: After the success of my first film, I was asked to come to Hollywood many times, but I always turned the offers down because I knew that their system of production was completely opposed to my individualism. In France I could do practically anything I wanted to. But in 1940, I had my choice between Hitler and Hollywood and I preferred Hollywood. [laughing] Just a little.
Leaving Your Brad Pitt-ness Unprotected
“One of the true surprises for me during the making of Fight Club was Brad Pitt. He never showed any evidence of an actor who was out there trying to protect his 'Brad Pitt–ness.' Usually when this happens to a young actor, the first instinct is hang on and play it safe. He doesn't want to fuck things up. And for sure, his manager, agent, and lawyer don't want to fuck things up. An awful lot of money is at stake. The result is that actors tend to repeat the same performances and the same kind of roles that created the most success. Without a shred of false vanity or the use of old tricks to win over an audience, Pitt proved to be a formidable actor of enormous talent. Can anyone imagine, thirty years ago, Robert Redford or Warren Beatty shaving his head or working without caps on his teeth or exposing himself so raw and ruthless as Brad had done and just let the chips fall?”
-- Producer Art Linson in his book, “What Just Happened? Bitter Hollywood Tales from the Front Line.” His take on how stunned the execs were when they screened “Fight Club” is great, but not as great as the battle over Alec Baldwin's beard.
As for Pitt, agreed. Cf., this piece from 2005.
Finding Dory's Box Office
Biggest Pixar ever? Just don't adjust for inflation.
It's been a busy few weeks, so I haven't had time for stupid stuff like box office. But now I'm a little less busy.
The big box-office story during the last two weeks has been Pixar's “Finding Dory,” which opened bigger than any animated movie ever: $135 mil. The previous highs were: 1) “Shrek the Third,” $121 in 2007; 2) “Minions,” $115 in 2015; and 3) “Toy Story 3,” $110 in 2010. Animateds tend not to open as big as other movies—“Dory” is 19th all-time, for example—but they last longer. Even something as shitty as “Shrek the Third” fell off by only 56% during its second weekend. “Toy Story 3” fell off by only 46%.
Same with “Dory” last weekend: only 46%. So its opening was the 19th best all-time, its second weekend was the 8th best all-time. Movin' on up.
Question: Can it become the biggest Pixar grosser of all time? Most certainly. That's “Toy Story 3” at $415. After 10 days, “Dory” is at $286, $60 million ahead of “TS3”'s pace. It just needs to keep up that pace.
Question: Can it become the biggest animated grosser of all time? Sure. That's “Shrek 2” at $441, and it didn't break “Dory”'s 10-day total until its 17th day.
Question: Can it become the biggest animated grosser of all time adjusted for inflation? Yeah, no. That's Disney's “Snow White” from 1937, which, in the era before DVDs, VHS, or even television, was re-released every 5 to 10 years and kept racking up the box office. Box Office Mojo has it as the 10th biggest grosser of all time at $935 million domestic. “Dory” won't come near that. But the rest is impressive.
In other news, the sequel to “Independence Day,” titled “Independence Day: Resurgence,” opened poorly, at $41 mil. That's $9 million less than the first one grossed on its opening weekend 20 years ago. Unadjusted. The first grossed nearly $600 million in 2016 dollars; this one will be lucky to do 1/4 of that.
Movie Review: The Intern (2015)
A 70-year-old widower named Ben answers an ad for a senior intern (65+) at an internet startup in Brooklyn, charms the people he works with, calms the high-strung founder, Jules (Anne Hathaway), and empowers her in business while helping fix her marriage.
And this charming, calming influence is played by ... Robert De Niro.
Most of the movie is as improbable as most movies, but I draw the line at an avuncular De Niro. The movie really needed a Michael Caine or a Morgan Freeman; someone with a twinkle. As great an actor as De Niro is, he comes off stiff and sarcastic here. He comes off as a Know-It-All.
I get it: Casting De Niro probably helped the movie get made. But it's also why the movie never had a chance.
They really like us
On its surface, the concept seems part of that odd, mini-trend of making uplifting comedies out of social anxieties: “Identity Thief” for identify theft; “The Internship” for career obsolescence in the digital age. Now ageism.
Except unlike those movies, where the joke is on the victim, Ben is our straight man. He needs a little help to get up and going, but mostly he dispenses needed advice to the hapless kids: about women, apartments, traffic routes, clothes, handkerchiefs. He’s never wrong and everyone is fascinated by him. Everyone’s surprised that this older guy is competent. (Sub in “black” for “older,” by the way, and good luck with that pitch.) It’s Grandfather Knows Best.
There’s a saccharine child, Jules, who is tough to take. There’s an affair, Jules’ husband, that needs to be confronted. It’s the story of the successful businesswoman with a wreck of a personal life. But Ben understands and nurtures. He fixes. A desk full of unwanted crap? He cleans it up. Jules mistakenly sends a nasty email to her mom? He organizes a break-in to delete the email. Mommies are catty around the career woman? He puts them in their place.
“The truth is,” she tells him, “something about you makes me feel calm, or more centered.”
That turns out to be the mini-trend this movie is a part of: men as the calm, rational center of movies written and directed by women. (See: James Gandolfini in “Enough Said”; Sam Rockwell in “Laggies”; Jake Lacy in “Obvious Child” and “Girls.”)
It’s a Nancy Meyers movie (“It’s Complicated”; “What Women Want”), which is almost interchangeable with a Nora Ephron movie. Brooklyn is idyllic, leafy and sparsely populated; classic movies are always on TV. It’s both clean in the present and nostalgic for the past. And a massive lie.
Where have all the good men gone?
Hathaway is good. She’s moving in a movie that does the opposite of move me. Her “buried alone” speech is funny, and reminded me of Meg Ryan’s “almost 40” bit in “When Harry Met Sally.”
She also gives a talk to Ben and the boys (her employees) after too many drinks at the local bar, that is worth examining. It’s about What Happened to Men:
We all grew up during the “Take your daughter to work day” thing, right? So we were always told we could be anything, do anything. And I think guys got—maybe not left behind—but not quite as nurtured, you know? I mean, we were the generation of “You go, girl.” We had Oprah. And I wonder sometimes how guys fit in. They still seem to be trying to figure it out. They’re still dressing like little boys. They’re still playing video games. How, in one generation, have men gone from guys like Jack Nicholson and Harrison Ford to... Take Ben, here. A dying breed. You know? Look and learn, boys.
This is interesting. I think it's getting at something that is true in our culture: a kind of white female privilege.
- Extended childhood knows no gender boundaries.
- Jules says this to her employees? Is she tone deaf?
- It feels like Nancy Meyers’ observations rather than Jules’.
- In the ’70s, people were saying, “How could we have gone from John Wayne to Jack Nicholson?”
Seriously: Jack Nicholson a model for manhood? The guy pounding the steering wheel and picking on the waitress in “Five Easy Pieces”? Why not just pick Jake La Motta as your nostalgic model for manhood? Why not Travis Bickle? “A dying breed. Look and learn, boys.”
We Interrupt This Blog for a Wedding
That's me on the right later today. But hopefully better dressed and with less drama.
Wait, that's wrong, isn't it? He's dragging Elaine away from a wedding. Oh well, you get the idea.
Also, what other movie image to go with? “The Godfather”? He's going to abuse her, then one brother will beat him up while another will have him killed. “Diner”? That's about fear of marriage. “Romeo and Juliet”? Doesn't end well. So, this. Plus Dusty's one of my patron saints.
In the Future, We Will Know Nothing as Well as We Know Every Action on a Baseball Diamond
From The Only Rule Is It Has to Work: Our Wild Experiment Building a New Kind of Baseball Team by Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller:
Lead length [by a baserunner contemplating stealing] is one of many new measurements made possible by Statcast, a system installed in every major league park for the first time in 2015. Statcast combines a Doppler radar array that takes two thousand readings per second with a network of high-definition cameras that capture images thirty times per second, producing a three-dimensional record of every action on the field: every player's position at every instant, as well as the speed, spin, and trajectory of every thrown and batted ball.
The book is about two stats heads (the authors) who run a semipro baseball team in Northern California for a season, and try to remake it according to SABERmetrician logic. It's about where they're right, and wrong, and what happens when statistical probabilities collide with reality. Well-written by both, who alternate chapters, although I did keep losing track of which player was which.
I'm a baseball fan, but the above makes me wonder whether we're spending too much time on the national pastime. If we're going for a three-dimensional record of every action on a particular field, the floor of Congress might be a better place to start.
Movie Review: The General (1926)
Does anyone else extrapolate beyond Hollywood endings?
I know Buster Keaton’s “The General” is a classic, voted the 18th greatest movie of all time by the American Film Institute, with only Chaplin’s “City Lights” (No. 11) ahead of it in the pure comedy category. And I know 1926 wasn’t exactly an enlightened time when it came to race, so the fact that our hapless hero is in effect fighting to preserve slavery, even if he is just trying to get the girl, well, I’ll let go of that.
But the ending? Keaton’s Johnnie Gray finally gets the girl and the uniform; he’s both honored and loved. And we get that great final shot of Keaton and the girl, Annabelle Lee of Marietta, Ga. (Marion Mack), sitting on the siderod of the titular train, kissing, as he keeps saluting passing soldiers at such a furious pace it’s as if he’s dismissing them. There’s almost an Army schmarmy vibe to it. It’s as if he’s saying “Make love not war” 40 years before that became a rallying cry.
But it’s still 1862. And he’s still wearing Confederate grays. “So he’s dead in three years,” I thought. “And at best she’s Scarlett O’Hara, at worst ‘A Woman in Berlin.’”
I know. Don’t extrapolate.
Comic imperatives, narrative imperatives
The story is built on misperceptions that would easily be cleared up if someone, anyone, would just say something. Ironic, given silent film.
Johnnie, we’re told, loves two things, his train and Annabelle Lee. and we see him wooing her in her front parlor in his usual fumbling fashion. Then Confederates fire upon a Union garrison at Fort Sumter, war is declared, and Annabelle’s father and brother immediately go to sign up. And what about you? Annabelle seems to indicate to Johnnie. It takes a second for the other shoe to drop. Oh, right, I’m supposed to be brave. I loved Keaton at this moment. For not going along.
Except then he does. He’s first in line to sign up, but the Rebs won’t take him. The officers behind the scenes feel he’ll be more valuable as a train engineer except nobody bothers to tell him this. Despite his persistence, they simply order him out, repeatedly, and out he goes, dejected, only to be greeted by Annabelle’s father and brother, who eye him the way Annabelle did: So? You signing up? And he doesn’t bother to tell them. They think he’s a coward. Annabelle does, too. Even when he tries to tell her, she doesn’t believe him.
A year later, her brother has medals (I thought of Bob Dylan’s “John Brown”), her father’s been injured (superficially), and she’s still ignoring Johnnie. Then his train is hijacked by Yankee spies, who plan on destroying the Western & Atlantic Railroad tracks between Atlanta and Chattanooga, Tenn., cutting off the South from needed supplies. (Needed to keep slavery going.) This is based on a historic incident, the Great Locomotive Chase, or the Andrews’ Raid, after James J. Andrews, a Kentucky civilian who concocted it. The hero for the South was the train’s conductor, William Allen Fuller, who, per Wikipedia, “pursued the train hijackers on foot, by handcar, and in a variety of other locomotives.”
And that’s Keaton. There’s a great balance here between the comic imperative to have Johnnie fumble and the narrative imperative to have him succeed, and Keaton threads it like the silent-film genius he is. It’s this element of the movie, oddly, that Mordaunt Hall, in his review in The New York Times in February 1927, found problematic:
It is difficult to reconcile one’s self to a hero who is apparently astute in some things and almost idiotic in others. This man, who has difficulty in crossing a road, is supposed to be crafty enough to outwit the Northern General.
Hall’s piece is titled “Mr. Keaton’s Face Overpowers This Film,” which most modern critics would agree with; but he also dismisses the film as “somewhat mirthless,” which, for most critics, is like shots fired at Fort Sumter.
I’m in the middle. Keaton does beautiful things onscreen but he doesn’t make me laugh like Chaplin. Chaplin is also gentler around women. There’s something petulant and vaguely menacing about Keaton at times. Example: As Johnnie and Annabelle work to bring back The General and save the South (temporarily), she keeps mucking up in ways different from his own. So he throttles her neck. Like she’s Laurel or something. I guess it’s EOE but it’s still a bit of a surprise, particularly given his parlor shyness. Beware the shy ones, girls.
Most of the movie is chase, and includes the most expensive scene of the silent era: a locomotive is sent over a burning bridge, which collapses and sends the train, a real train, into the river below. But its most famous shot is an early one: a heartbroken Keaton sitting on the siderods as the train moves again, taking him up and down as if on a merry-go-round, or, more aptly, on the vicissitudes of life. It’s exquisite. I also liked a moment in the North when Johnnie is hiding under a table where the generals are making their plans. A cigar burns a hole in the tablecloth, and for a moment we fear that Johnnie will be revealed. Nope. It’s so Johnnie can see Annabelle through the hole. It’s a natural iris shot. Lovely.
But 18th all time? In AFI’s first 100 greatest films list, from 1997, “The General” didn’t even make the cut. Anyone know what happened between 1997 and 2007 to give it such a boost?
Plus, fuck it I’ll say it, Johnnie is fighting to preserve slavery. That curdles some of the comedy for me.
Movie Review: The Red Menace (1949)
“The Red Menace,” a 1949 B-picture from Republic Studios, was one of the first anti-communist movies to be released during the post-WWII Red Scare, but from a distance it’s kinda quaint. Sure, there’s a Soviet cell operating in the U.S., but it’s the furthest thing from effective. A better title for the movie might be: “Red ... Menace?”
A tall, broad-shouldered lunkhead, Bill Jones (Robert Rockwell), is pissed that he’s been ripped off in some GI real estate scam and the government won’t do anything about it. Overhearing, a party member invites him to a nearby bar “for discriminating people,” where two broads make a play for him. While the brunette, Yvonne (Betty Lou Gerson), looks on disgruntled, the blonde, Mollie O’Flaherty (Barbra Fuller), takes him back to her place and mixes drinks while he peruses the shelves and ... Hey, what are these books? Marx? Lenin? You’re a commie! Yeah, but a looker. C’mere. Pucker up, baby.
Irish Italian Jewish Negro
The Soviet cell that Bill Jones is slowly indoctrinated into is like one of those WWII movie platoons: someone from every race:
- Henry (Shepard Menken), a nice Jewish poet, cuckolded by Mollie on a weekly basis.
- Mollie, Irish Catholic, whose mother hangs around like a gray cloud, mourning the loss of her daughter’s respectability.
- Sam, the affable Negro front-office worker at The Toilers, the commie newspaper.
- Reachi, the Italian, who wonders if communism is a democracy as they say, why is it called “a dictatorship of the proletariat”?
- Nina, the foreign beauty, who will become The Love Interest.
Things first go south when Reachi is killed in a back alleyway for asking questions. Then Henry gets curious, too, and is kicked out of the party. He quickly turns into a patriot:
At least that [American] flag has three colors in it, not one. Not one bloody one!
But he can’t take the ostracism and throws himself out a window. He leaves a note for Mollie, telling her to return to her mother, which she does; in a church. Sam leaves with his respectable father, while Yvonne, always ratting out others, is picked up by the cops, who, it turns out, know everything. (Because our law enforcement is on the case.) Then she goes mad. (Because that’s what happens to commies.)
That’s it. The filmmakers, I’m sure, wanted to make sure communism didn’t seem attractive, but they were so successful they made it seem hardly a threat at all. Which makes the way the movie is bookended even odder.
‘We can’t suspect everybody’
It opens steeped in paranoia. Nina and Bill flee California, sure that communists are right behind. At an Arizona gas station, the attendant makes small talk—Where are you from? Where are you going?—and Nina freezes:
Nina (whispering): Why’d he say that?
Bill: Just to make conversation probably.
Nina: I don’t believe it. There must be some reason why he’s so curious.
Bill: Take it easy, Nina. We can’t suspect everybody.
After we get the rest of the story in flashback, we see them driving into Talbot, Texas, where Bill suddenly becomes sensible: “I’ve been thinking, Nina. What are we running away from? This is the United States not a police state. Let’s go see that sheriff.” Which they do. And they tell him their tale. (This really should’ve been the spot for the flashback, but the movie screwed up that, too.)
The sheriff’s response to their tale?
You folks have been running away from yourselves, and the fear in your own minds.
The entire movie is an argument against the paranoia of groups like HUAC, presented as an argument in favor of such groups.
Nobody on either side of the political fence saw this. The Daily Worker denounced the movie, while California’s own HUAC, the Fact-Finding Committee on Un-American Activities, honored it, commending “Republic Studios and those persons who have so courageously assisted in this production.”
And then, like most anti-communist movies, it died at the box office. No one went to see it because that stuff's a drag: preachy, heavy-handed. It's called the free market.