Monday, March 30, 2009

Movies: Thieves' Highway and The Naked City

Let's make a movie. We'll have a good guy, Nico, a young, good-looking Greek guy who just got back from a trip around the world, who can't wait to see his parents, and his blonde fiance. We'll need a bad guy. Let's make him. . . a money-grubbing produce salesman, who will stop at nothing to maximize his profits on tomatoes and apples.

Wait, you don't think that's a good idea? An evil produce salesman, who let Nico's dad (a produce trucker) lose his legs in an "accident" rather than pay for his truckload of tomatoes? Who will do the same thing to Nico, pay a whore fifty bucks to separate him from his truck, get a couple of thugs to steal his wallet? Jules Dassin thought it was a plenty good idea, so made Thieves' Highway, perhaps the only film noir ever set in California's sunny breadbasket, in which the blonde turns out to be more money-grubbing than the whore (Dassin's got a thing for lofty fallen women). Filled with wrinkled, scummy truckers, and produce-salesman-henchmen that use a small axe as their weapon of choice, this isn't the finest Dassin film you'll see, but it's not quite a midnight movie, either.

The Naked City, on the other hand, is a New Yorker's noir. Narrated by a delightfully hardboiled voiceover, the film zeros in on one murder case, while reminding us that it's only one of the city's 8,000 stories. A beautiful dress model is dead (we see her murderers shaking her body at the film's beginning, while the narrator flies over the city, stopping in on the strangers who will eventually all find themselves tangled in the plot). An old investigator and his green partner need to find out why. The woman had a male friend who was—surprise!—engaged to her best girl friend. The best girl friend had no idea her fiance even know the victim, much less that the two of them were running a jewel-thieving scam in cahoots with a fancy-pants Park Avenue doctor and a scummy Lower East Side boxer: one to provide the apartments to rob, the other to do the robberies. Dassin's cross-section of the city—rich, poor, innocent, guilty, jaded, naive—is the ice cream sundae, and the shots of old New York's buildings and street corners, elevated train tracks and waterfront docks, are the cherry on top. The Naked City is one of the top five New York Noirs I've seen.

Books: The Runaway Soul, by Harold Brodkey

Woe to the source that foisted this brick upon me—luckily for it, I have no recollection which it was. After carrying this book to and from China (where I did not so much as crack it open), I finally did start reading—more than a month ago, and though I considered giving up often, I did finish it last night. But I've gained little.

Brodkey writes like a flatulent Philip Roth with Proustian ambition. His sensual moments are stunning; few write about the men's sexual experience with such (physical) tenderness. But these passages, even though some of them are quite long, are buried in a wasted landscape of mud, arduous prose about nothing that goes nowhere, the heaps of erasure dust of bildungsromans from Roth, Updike, Bellow (The Runaway Soul makes Augie March read like Flannery O'Connor).

This could have been an unforgettable 300 page novel; Brodkey managed to keep me spellbound through the first two hundred pages (in which the narrator masturbates (once) and takes a shit (once)—that's right, nothing else happens, and it's spellbinding). Had he kept his narration to his narrator—to youth, to exploration, to sensation—rather than veering off into familial drama, an older sister's spoiled tantrums, a mother on her deathbed, a father's love of stock phrases—had he kept his focus, Brodkey could have written a modern classic. Instead, he's created one of my least favorite books containing my favorite sentences.* Quite a feat.

E.g. "Thinking is a shadow fruit, shadows and weirdness in an electric orchard, blossoming with mirage after mirage, crumblingly real, then shadow paintings, mock photographs in black-and-white, then a mere sickly sense, and exposed underpainting, the overlay lost."

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Movies: Z

Not to be confused with Zorro, Costa-Gavras' Z is the 1969 Euronoir political thriller in which Yves Montand plays a leftist intellectual activist murdered by a bop on the head from a club waving out the back of a careening three-wheeler. This is in Paris, the night of pacifist rally, and Montand's crew knows trouble is coming—but there's nothing they can do to stop it. The police are against them, and have secretly hired a group of right-wing thugs to spoil their meeting; the thugs trash their posters, start fights, kill Montand, and then do their best to hush up all the witnesses.

This corruption would go unpunished if not for the right-minded district attorney (too young to buy into the government's scheme, an in spite of threats) and the money-minded journalist (also young, but modeled after a paparazzo rather than a judicious student of the law). Working at first parallel and eventually together, they untangle the mystery and bring all the crooked cops and military officials to trial, though a disappointing end note tells that the bad guys went unpunished and the good guys eventually got screwed.

The (brilliant) plot is based on actual events—in Greece, in 1963. Which leads me to my only complaint: I left the theatre loathing the French, with never a thought to Greece at all—even though I knew from the beginning that the film was based on actual Greek events. Costa-Gavras is such a fantastic story-teller that I believed him fully, to the point of taking home the wrong message. I suppose he didn't have the liberty to make an actual expose, but I still regret that the French now bear the brunt of my anger. Then again, French district attorneys are likely much more stylish than Greek ones. . .

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Movies: 12

This remake of the intriguing 12 Angy Men is a bloated parade of sentimental nonsense, watchable only because it is a remake in Russian (one is always more forgiving of pap if it comes in foreign tongue). There is a radical twist—the boy on trial is not just a ragamuffin; he's a Chechen ragamuffin—but the filmmaker wastes it. He seems to want to comment not only against the racism and classism protested in the original, but also against war and genocide. To that end, he intercuts the jury's deliberation scenes with flashback shots of the Chechen boy knife dancing with soldiers, seeing his parents shot dead, hiding amongst corpses from continuous gunfire, and holding his dog at the moment that its shot dead by a stray bullet.

If you like dogs, I suppose that will move you, and if that were the only taste of sap in the film's entirety, I'd let it go. But it's not. The film ends with Henry Fonda's character talking to a tiny bird that had gotten trapped in the deliberation room (a school gym, whose tawdry state provides opportunities for certain of the jurors to rail against the government). The bird, like the boy, is given the opportunity to remain trapped inside, where he will be safe, or to be let free, where the swirling snow will freeze him (the boy isn't in danger of freezing to death, but of being killed—since he has been a pawn all along, framed for a murder committed by a much more organized group (the government? capitalists?) in order to rid a building of an aged tenant and make way for new construction.

The production is certainly competent, but the script required heavy editing before filming, which it clearly didn't get. The first half of the film is watchable enough; it's enjoyable to watch individual characters unfold, open up, change sides. But the film's insistence on providing an opportunity for each of the 12 to break down, spill their guts, is at first exhausting and then cauterizing. By the last third, we know what to expect and we aren't interested it watching it play out. In a real room of 12 people, six or 10 may reveal themselves, but a few will always remain mysterious. But 12, by forcing each man to his breaking point, jumps the shark before it's half over.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Music: Days of Wild headlines Sly Stone's Birthday Celebration at BB King's

How can I maintain that I don't like Funk when I spent all last night shaking it on the dance floor? Every ten minutes, one who will here remain nameless said, "Look! You do like the Funk!"

People. Just because I was dancing doesn't mean that I like the Funk. It means that I like dancing, and that Funk is fairly easy to dance to. In all honesty, the suite of Sly songs expertly executed by Days of Wild were a little too slow for dancing, as most of Sly's songs are. They are more like grooving songs than dancing songs—songs for dancing in your chair, not on your feet.

But there were two or three solos on the bass and guitar that did move me musically, which is more than I can say for the repetitive, canned Funk one hears on the radio. And all three vocalists had hidden surprises in their voices, released at timely moments.

Ultimately, it was worth it all just to see band leader Swang dance. Even if I can't really enjoy Funk, I can totally enjoy other people enjoying Funk.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Dance: Ethan Stiefel and His Students at Guggenheim's Works and Process

The Works & Process season is generally a well-curated cross-section of performance arts, but this year, they are scraping the bottom of the proverbial barrel (or courting some nepotistic donor). Last night was literal amateur hour: undergraduate students from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts joined their new Dean, Ethan Stiefel (Principal Dancer, American Ballet Theater). Ethan was interviewed by Matthew Murphy, an UNCSA alumnus who danced with ABT as well, and then by Larry Keigwin (of Keigwin + Company), whom Stiefel brought to UNCSA as a guest artist.

Perhaps because Stiefel spoke more as an administrator than as a dancer, his comments were not particularly interesting. In fact, and perhaps egged on by Murphy's own cavalier attitude, he seemed rather flippant about the process by which he was recruited for the role. Keigwin is a fascinating and very of-the-moment choreographer, but his presence didn't add much depth to the discussion; it was ultimately an excessively cheerful puff-piece, driven by banter that (Keigwin's excepted) rang falsely.

And the dancing was almost unmentionably bad. The choreography, by UNCSA faculty, was either embarassingly dated (like Tangled Tango, something one would expect to see on an early-80s episode of The Muppet Show), clearly outside the dancers' ability (in the Pas de Deux from Le Corsaire, the girl almost fell over twice during her turns, and the boy was not yet strong enough to manage the dramatic lifts; his entire body was buckled and trembling, and I was certain that he was doing damage to his lumbar spine), or so infantile that one would expect it at one's children's school talent show (like the Four Cygnets section from Swan Lake).

I realize that these are young dancers in training, and so I do not want to be cruel. It is the Guggenheim's responsibility to present performers of a certain caliber, not children playing at pretend. And as a somewhat cruel aside, dancers of the same age at Russian ballet academies are far more accomplished (and do not sound like stomping cattle when they cross the stage in pointe shoes—the Cygnets almost sounded like tap dancers). It is Stiefel's responsibility to instruct his students on the proper diet for dancers, as well as to train them much harder, both physically and theatrically (did I mention that they all wore virtual death masks?).

Keigwin's Natural Selection, shown in an abridged version to accommodate the limits of the small theatre and the traveling students, was the sole piece of watchable choreography in the evening's program. But the dancers were visibly straining, and simply could not do many of the jumps. I do think that, as students, they should be working on repertory this challenging, but they should certainly not be performing it, at least not in New York, at the Guggenheim, for a paying audience. At the show's end, were they flushed with pride, having danced on a real stage in the big city, or were they red with shame, for having shown their big thighs and flat feet to what is arguably the toughest audience in the world?

Friday, March 13, 2009

Movies: Roman Holiday

People love Audrey Hepburn, but she’s a bit fragile for my taste. She is, though, perfectly cast as a princess taking the day off, shifting back and forth between the royal beauty’s air of entitlement and propriety and the nervous, zesty girl getting her first taste of plebian life (drinking, driving, brawling, and spending the night in a man’s apartment—though all in a perfectly innocent way). The movie, unsurprisingly, struggles to live up to its fame; Audrey is delicate, Gregory Peck is startling in that fine-hewn, 1950s American way, and their antics are sweet. But like so many sweet things, their story is unnatural—do we really believe that the medicated but headstrong princess, once escaped from her caretakers, having fallen asleep in the street, would be so lucky as to be found by a begrudgingly well-meaning American journalist, handsome to boot? It’s easy to believe he’d plan to sell her out, bringing his buddy aboard to snap candid photos of her misdemeanors, and even easy to believe that he would be so touched by her graceful innocence that he’d decide, after 24 hours, to keep the story to himself—once we’ve bought into the initial absurdity. And the cool, quiet, rejection of the usual happily-ever-after ending, in which the princess and journalist share a cordial, public goodbye, is so level-headed that it makes up for all the earlier leaps of fantasy.

And so, yes, the film is sweet, nice, fun. . . but to what end? It’s not particularly deep or challenging or lasting. It’s kind of like a can of soda. There is nothing—in all its famous shots—the Vespa, the Mouth of Truth, the royal gown—to sear our hearts or minds. I expect a movie this famous, this loved, to leave indelible marks on my memory. I’ve had chicken sandwiches more compelling than this movie.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Movies: Leave Her to Heaven

Gene Tierney does it again—I’ve only ever seen her before in Laura, but she is too good at playing these dangerous beauties—women who drive their men to madness through madness of their own (is it really that easy?) This time, in 1945 op-art Technicolor, she’s Ellen, the ultra-lipsticked obsessive lover. She falls for writer Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde) seemingly only because he’s already fallen for her, but she falls much harder. She instantly breaks her engagement to the local district attorney, announcing to him and her family that she’s engaged to the author—which isn’t true, until, of course, she makes the announcement, and with a mixture of good-natured surprise and confusion, he corroborates. But her obsession deepens and her lies multiply; Richard’s only other family is a sickly teenaged brother, who lives in a long-term care facility. To win her husband’s trust and affection, the beauty becomes close with the boy, helping him to build his health so that the three of them can go together to the Harland lake-front property—the Back of the Moon, as they call it.

There, Ellen longs for her husband’s attention—he’s divided between his brother and his new book, and the sexual implications of that are clear: she is not getting what she wants. We see them wake together in separate twin beds. Ellen climbs out of hers, in full make-up and wearing a white nightgown of pre-code opacity. She clings to the side of his bed, begging as overtly as one could, onscreen in 1945, but is interrupted by the morning greetings of her new brother-in-law through the wall, and the promise of a morning swim before breakfast. In the light of sexual starvation, her reaction—to drown that brother-in-law in the lake, in cold blood and after premeditation—is perfectly understandable! And rather proto-feminist, if I do say so. Her next choice, to kill her fetus by intentionally falling down the stairs (nevermind that this would hardly result in abortion) is even moreso—even though she did choose pregnancy purposely, to shake her husband out of his grievance over his brother.

These actions, of course, only serve to push him farther away, deeper into depression, and closer to Ellen’s happenstance rival—her cousin (who was raised as her sister), who becomes Richard’s friend and confidante. But Ellen, lacking human empathy (clearly key to being a feminist!) reacts only with jealous rage, rather than a change in attitude. Her eyes become cold and venomous, as she refills a jar of white powder with a different white powder. . . poisoning herself with arsenic at a picnic and framing her cousin for her death.

All of this narration unfolds in a film-length flashback, while Richard is rowing across the lake to Back of the Moon after two years in prison for conspiracy—for having suspected Ellen of killing his brother without turning her in (this comes out while Ellen’s cousin is on trial for the poisoning). When, at the film’s end, he gets there, he’s greeted by Ellen’s cousin—the woman he now loves—who is wearing, disturbingly, the very same dress Ellen wore when she walked the same dock. David Lynch would have a field day with these sister-cousins, their matching red lipstick paired with eyes innocently wide and cruelly narrow. My, what sharp teeth you have!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Dance: Morphoses, Choreography & Design at the Guggenheim's Works & Process

So far as New York is concerned, Christopher Wheeldon is ballet’s golden child, the choreographer anointed by Diaghilev’s ghost to save his ancient religion of pointe and pomp from shoeless oblivion. Wheeldon still sets dances to Stravinsky, still commissions extravagant costumes, and still believes that no show is complete without a romantic pas-de-deux. Compared to the general NYCB standard, Wheeldon’s choreography is rather fresh, though I could do without his preservation of the trappings.

Those trappings were actually the focus of Sunday’s Works and Process program, featuring Wheeldon along with designers Isabel and Ruben Toledo, who collaborated on his ballet Commedia (a suite of riffs off Diaghilev’s Pulcinella, a ballet inspired by the characters of the even older Commedia dell’arte tradition), creating harlequin-like costumes (white unitards painted with black diamonds, colorful capes and masks, long black gloves and short tulle skirts) and an enormous painted backdrop of stylized faces that peer down at the dancers, scaled by the painting to the size of puppets.

This vision, too, is rather refreshing for ballet—traditionally as scene-stilted as opera, where the performers are dwarfed by parapets and fake trees and all other varieties of distracting nonsense. With Commedia, Wheeldon managed to include just enough trappings to satisfy the old guard, while keeping the stage clear enough for more modern minimalists. It was a small disappointment to find that this was motivated more by his limited budget and need to travel, rather than by a brave refusal to buy into a tired tradition.

Also on the topic of disappointment, I admit that I’m not a fan of Toledo’s costumes—I don’t like the hard geometry of the diamonds in black and white against the soft fantasy of the frothy tulle skirts in cantaloupe and mint green. I don’t like the red cape against the lime cape, or the red mask set against the lavender one. The designer’s intention was to create a kind of mayhem, an unintentioned chaos of color, but in the quiet, elegant theatre at the Guggenheim, that kind of visual noise is unwelcome.

Stravinsky, too, is always unwelcome to my ears, but when the music was off, and Wheeldon was demonstrating a kind of mock mini-rehearsal, working with a pair of dancers from NYCB on a short pas-de-deux, I bought at last into the choreographer’s magic—as a dancer, at least. In denim pants and button-down shirt (and striped socks once he did away with his boots in frustration), Wheeldon’s half-movements were more saturated with elegance than the dancers, performing fully and in flexible attire. The mere toss of Wheeldon’s hand, the implied line of his extended torso divulges a radiating grace that made the other dancers suddenly appear amateurish, unstudied, like teenagers at a high school talent show. If he’s going to single-handedly save the genre, he had better teach his dancers to move the way he does.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Art: The Armory Show

I almost didn’t make it to the Armory show this year, citing general artistic exhaustion along with extreme disapproval of the $30 admission fee (when was the last time you paid admission for the right to shop at the mall, which is basically what the Armory is—a poorly-curated international mall of art up for purchase). Because I was pressed for time, annoyed, and exhausted, I didn’t make it to SCOPE, the Armory’s low-brow ugly stepsister that I’m not ashamed to admit I usually prefer to the bigger, better, more-renowned thing. Too bad, because it was probably better than the Armory.

At first, I did think that this year’s Armory was an improvement over last, but it was so extensive that after the first two hours (I was there for three, and technically “saw” [often meaning glanced at dismissively] everything) I really couldn’t be attentive to anything. I did have a notebook, though, and jotted down the following trends:

Art that is interesting but not moving.

Art that is pleasant but not good.

Art that appeared again and again in different booths (and unwarrantedly so).

More specifically, I noticed a greater incidence of pen and ink virtuosity (something that I saw seeds of at SCOPE last year, but which has fully exploded since then) and highly textured collages—huge creations of layered paint, photographs, cut-outs, woodchips, threads, and sequins. Craft, it seems, is making a come-back, even if it’s not in a traditionally aesthetically-pleasing way. Artists are back to laboring hard and taking their time.

Less pleasingly, a lot of artists are relying on tacky technology—LCD screens and flashing lights, Jenny Holzer 2.0s, “look at me!” art that is generally less interesting than the floor (which concrete landscape of trapped shipping flotsam is actually pretty captivating in places.) Other gluts were of a more traditional kind—much too much photography from Diane Arbus and Robert Maplethorpe (though I did make a great photographic discovery—one gallery had a few huge prints from Paul Himmel, a mid-century American photographer whose name I’d never heard and whose work I instantly loved).

The other great find was a group of ink drawings by Hope Gangloff, a series of Egon Schiele-meets-Zak Smith (with a taste of the Wallace Smith woodcuts in Fantazius Mallare) portraits of women in bed and men in bands—hipsterish content that would have no staying power if not for her technical virtuosity, and distinct ability to use line to imply rather that demonstrate—the quality that makes Schiele’s drawings so emotive and powerful.

Her biggest drawing (which wasn’t big at all, maybe 18”x24”) was selling for $8,000, and if I were a collector of any means, that’s the thing I would have bought that day. Hers is a name to follow.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Movies: Night World and Upper World

Movies for the Noir set: Upper World for the Noir Romantics, and Night World for the Noir Existentialists. Since I’m of the second party, I’ll write about Night World first.

Here’s an hour of beautiful photography and slice of life couplings. Bright marquees swirling across the black screen to bring us into the night world—a night club, to be exact, where the singer, who’s married to the owner, is having an affair with the man who trains the dancers. Meanwhile, the owner has designs on one of those dancers, but she’s too busy blowing off a local gangster and feeling sorry for a young drunk, soaked to his socks for the third night in a row after his mother shot his father dead when she walked in on him and his mistress. The doorman wants to go home early because his wife’s in the hospital, but the owner is making everyone stay late—the dancers have to rehearse after closing!—because he’s mad at his wife. To get back at him, she sets him up against the local gangsters, who are threatening decisive action if he doesn’t start buying his hooch from them (he of course refuses). As a tender meet-cute unfolds between the dancer and the sot, over a steak and a pot of coffee, after the dancers have all gone home and the doorman’s wife has died alone in the hospital, the gangsters bust in and shoot everyone dead—everyone, that is, but the new young couple, who make plans to marry the next day and sail for South America. I guess it’s a film for romantic existentialists. But I do love a romance between a stripper-with-a-heart-of-gold and a heart-sick sot.

Upper World? It’s not quite as fresh, even though it’s from Ben Hecht story (as much as I love his novels, his films do often seem the work of a brilliant hack, a man too smart for his own good, too conscious of the mediocrity surrounding him, so that he was nearly paralyzed by fear of being mediocre himself, and in that stymied state, became precisely what he loathed). A wealthy tycoon finds himself isolated in his marriage (his wife too busy throwing costume balls to engage with him in a meaningful way), and so is ripe for friendship when he meets the totally unaffected Ginger Rogers, a showgirl who sings a burlesque program at a seedy joint. They really are merely friends, but the showgirl’s smarmy boss—who may also be her lover—sees an opportunity to make a quick buck by blackmail, and the confrontation turns into an accidental murder: both underworld characters are shot dead with the tycoon in the crossfire. Though he’s responsible for one of the two deaths (the showgirl stopped the boss’ bullet aimed for him, and so he tangled with the boss, the gun firing in the scuffle), he tries to get out of the situation by switching some bullets, planting his gun in her hand, and sneaking out. As usual, though, a nosy cop gets involved, having a personal grudge against the tycoon who got him demoted over a speeding ticket (those tycoons all think they are above the law!) At a dinner party in front of his wife and colleagues, just as they are toasting the success of his latest merger, the night before he sails purposefully abroad with his family, the police come in, along with the newspapermen. At last realizing that he’s not above the law, the tycoon confesses. But the film doesn’t end there, because those tycoons actually are above the law! Though he’s tried, he’s found. . . (there is a dramatic pause; we never hear the words “not guilty”) or we find him, on a ship, with his wife, laughing, promising to again be devoted to each other, as they make their way abroad. Perhaps a film for existential romantics. . .

Monday, March 2, 2009

Movies: Central Park and Me and My Gal

If you want to make a movie that will really captivate your audience, you need nothing less than: a beautiful girl, a group of thugs planning to steal a pile of money, a cowboy, a lion escaped from the zoo, a nearly-blind policeman, a Great Depression, a gala dinner party, and a criminally insane zookeeper on the loose. Put all those things together in Central Park, and you’ve got a sure thing! Joan Blondell is so hungry that she’s stealing hot dogs when the vendor isn’t looking, but so sweet that she shares them with the down-and-out cowboy who winks at her in the park. Just when they’ve made plans to meet later, she gets picked up, somewhat unwillingly, by a couple of cops who want to pay her $100 for some undercover detective work—dressing up as the most beautiful girl on 5th Avenue. This outfit comes with a golden key to the proceeds of a gala dinner that the rich will be holding that night in Central Park—a benefit to feed the jobless. The cops say they’re worried about a group of crooks planting their own girl and absconding with the cash—little does she realize that these cops are those crooks, and that she’s the plant.

Luckily for her, the cowboy figures it out. Unluckily for him, the thugs figure out that he’s figured them out, and they tie him up in their hideout. Unfortunately for them, he’s a cowboy. He unties himself and uses the rope as a lasso to disarm his guard. He makes it to the gala just in time—for the havoc. All the while this plot was developing, there was another one underway: a good-natured, old policeman, a week away from retirement and losing his vision is at the Central Park zoo, playing with the tiger cubs, when the escaped insane zookeeper, who tried to feed one of the other zookeepers to the lion a year ago, who talked to the big cats as if they were humans, comes and locks him in the tigers’ shed. Then, he corners his old victim, and feeds him to the lion again (not that the victim doesn’t somewhat deserve it; he’s ornery and verbally abusive to the cats). The madman laughs while the lion roars and toys with its victim. When the policeman finally breaks free and the other zookeepers arrive on the scene, the madman escapes—and so does the lion (in their semi-inept rescue of its victim, they let the creature loose).

The big cat goes straight to where the action is—the gala dinner, leaping into the kitchen where it sees a black cook handling a giant side of meat. The cooks (all very black in very white uniforms) run out of the kitchen and into the ballroom, where the partygoers try to push them back where they belong. But then the lion bounds into the ballroom, and total mayhem ensues, with people jumping out the windows and men picking up chairs in lame defense. Meanwhile, the thugs have the cash and are off and running in their escape vehicle. The cowboy steals a convertible and chases them; the car chase moves to a foot chase after the vehicles are wrecked. Gunshots kill the kindly policeman, but the cowboy gets his hands on the money—just in time to be discovered by the police and suspected of being a thug himself. Meanwhile, the lion is caught as well. The cowboy and the girl both go to jail, but somehow manage to talk their way out, roundabout the time we hear an announcement that the madman has been arrested as well. So all’s well that ends well, even though our heroes are as poor as they were when we met them that afternoon. What a day’s work, and all in an hour!

Me and My Gal is a movie I’ve seen before—probably during the New York City Noir festival—but without realizing it, since I missed the beginning the first time. It’s a lengthy, anecdotal beginning for what’s basically a mad-cap love story about good cop versus bad gangster (the two men are in love with a pair of sisters, if the gangster can be said to be in love—he’s likely just using the girl since she works at the bank he’s planning to rob). Before any of the action gets off the ground, the film meanders along the waterfront, where the cop (Spencer Tracy) saves a dog (its owner can’t afford to feed it so is about to intentionally drown it) and a drunk (who’s actually made it into the water and has to be pulled out). The drunk comes back later in one of my favorite comic scenes of all time—he’s slapped a diner with a huge fish, and he, the diner, and another diner are calmly arguing over just what type of fish it is. The cop gets in on the argument before settling it and returning to his usual habit at the restaurant: flirting with the cash register girl (the sister of the gangster’s girl and the cop’s love interest).

The film’s other genius moment is the thoughts-out-loud sequence while the cop and the cash-register girl are on their first date—unchaperoned, at the cash-girl’s apartment. They’re canoodling on the couch over a box of chocolates when the cop presses his luck and turns out the lights, trying for a kiss (and more, if he can get it). We hear their thoughts—something to the effect of “A girl doesn’t know how far to let a guy go,” and “A guy doesn’t know how far he’s supposed to try to go,” back and forth a bit, until they both get a little frustrated and the evening ends in a spat. Later, they reënact the conversation aloud, and decide that a kiss is okay, if it’s sweet and tender, resolving their differences (not that there were any to begin with) and eventually deciding to get married. That’s where the film ends, though I’ve skipped the bank heist, the gangster in the attic room, the paralyzed father-in-law who discloses that hideout by blinking his eyes in Morse code, and the ensuing roof-top chase scene that culminates in one dead gangster and one promoted cop. All that’s just gravy to an already madcap mating story.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Movies: 42nd Street, Footlight Parade, Gold Diggers of 1933

Not all Busby Berkeley super-musicals are created equally; though they are all fantastic, some are more fantastic than others. I thought that 42nd Street was the epitome of the genre, since it had me singing in the subway station afterward, but that was before I saw Footlight Parade, which had me tapdancing in the subway station whilst singing, whilst seeing other moviegoers doing the same!

42nd Street is the sweet story of Bea (Ruby Keeler), a newbie thrown into the lead part at the 11th hour when the show’s star finds herself in bed with a sprained ankle. This is actually the climax of a lengthy set-up in which that star is torn between two lovers—the old vaudeville lover who taught her everything she knows about show business but who’s unhealthy for her career, and the wealthy, fat philistine who’s funding the entire production because of his lust. Bea, meanwhile, has met the mysterious man from Vaudeville and has taken a liking to him, though she’s also being courted by one of the men of the cast, a well-meaning “juvenile” as they were called, and a few other assorted fellows. The old star rages with jealousy at first, but in the end, turns the show over to the ingénue with pleasure—freeing herself to go back to vaudeville with her long-time lover. Bea and the juvenile are paired off with ease, and their romantic denouement is a mini-musical, the abridged version of the show, featuring three or four sing along numbers complete with taxi-top tap dancing, mock shootings, and girls, girls girls!

I know that sounds unstoppable, but what it you pair Ruby Keeler with James Cagney, tap dancing across a bar? Exactly. This show is even more about show business—Cagney is a man put out of the musical business by the success of the talking picture. Rather than quit (though his wife quits him), he starts a new business: staging song-and-dance prologues for the moving pictures, complete with Live! Dancing! Girls! In pussycat costumes! In love slaves of the Orient costumes! In mermaid costumes! Joan Blondell plays his secretary and gal Friday—in love with him though he doesn’t notice and instead takes up with her good-for-nothing “friend.” He has two business partners robbing him blind, but he doesn’t notice because he’s so devoted to his business. MAN can he dance! Watching him demonstrate the look he wants for the pussycat number, as compared to what the cigar-smoking rehearsal director had arranged (the man looks much more like a bookie than a rehearsal director). . . Cagney is a physical genius, in and out of character. Keeler flaps her feet around and is supposedly really something, but she’s as awkward as a baby chicken trying to fly, her scrawny legs flapping around and her scarecrow arms sticking out wildly. Cagney is liquid music, sound in a body, completely and naturally free. Unlike his troupe of dancing girls—someone is leaking his numbers to the competition, so for three days, while they prep for a big production, an audition of sorts for a contract with the biggest picture-house owner in the country, he shuts everyone in the studio on lockdown—that’s right, fifty dancing girls sleeping on cots in the rehearsal studio, in their pincurls and nighties, running for breakfast. You can’t beat a movie like this; it just doesn’t get better.

So too bad for Gold Diggers that I didn’t see it first—if I had, I’d probably have liked it better. Then again, it came out a year after Footlight Parade, so my disappointment was, for once, historically accurate. It’s a cute enough story—Ruby Keeler, an out of work showgirl who rooms with a few others like herself, is in love with the mysterious songwriter who lives across the way. He’s in love with her too, and everything is looking up when the girl’s old producer shows up to say he’s putting on a new show—right in the middle of the Depression! He hears the neighbor’s songs and decides to have him write the show; everyone’s terribly excited until they realize they don’t have any funding. But the mystery man shows up with $10,000, and won’t say where he got it. He also won’t perform onstage, opposite his girlfriend, even though he has a better voice than the juvenile they’ve cast in the production. . . until there’s a show business emergency and he has to go on. Once he does, we find out why he was so mysterious—he’s filthy rich, and his family doesn’t want him in show business. To thwart his controlling older brother, though, Ruby’s two roommates cook up a scheme to trick the stick-in-the-mud and his old lawyer into falling in love with them, with some mixed identities thrown in for good measure. Their plan works, and everyone finishes off happily in love, but what good is that without fifty dancing girls comprising a “human waterfall,” like they do in Footlight Parade? Exactly. Trash. Cagney has spoiled me so terribly!