15 February 2014
This is not my favorite of David Thomson’s books (his New Biographical Dictionary of Film is endlessly pleasurable) but it’s certainly the most beautiful. And what an excuse to flip through these gorgeous photographs, cooing over your favorites, putting all the others on your Netflix queue.
Have I mentioned I’m grading papers this weekend?
The book also makes me want to find images of my own, exemplary of those breathtaking little moments in film that stop you short.
As a result of reading his bit about my favorite film of all time, The Third Man (1949), I found myself scrolling through images online. Thomson loves that last scene, in which the beautiful and enigmatic Alida Valli walks toward the camera and past poor Joseph Cotten, who wants her to love him. The zither music plays unrelentingly.
Tell me: do you have a favorite moment from a favorite film — a crystalline, perfect, deeply pleasurable moment that somehow brings forth all manner of emotion when you recall it?
14 October 2013
I’m still grading papers, which means I give myself rewards of a tour around the internet every 5 papers or so. And look what I found here: a bunch of great photos, including this promotional shot from 1949 of a suntan spray machine.
Don’t you love it that it looks so much like a gas station pump?
Okay, back to the struggle…
29 March 2013
I wrote about the strange and kind of wonderful My Name is Julia Ross (1945) yesterday but kept mulling over its terrific imagery today, so wanted to offer you this to give you a small taste of its weird, creepy-fun vibe. And I ask again: why didn’t more film noir have female protagonists? They inevitably spiced up the genre beautifully.
28 March 2013
What doesn’t this movie have? Cockney housemaids, creepy English country homes with secret passageways, a black cat, a mysterious back story … and all packed into a tidy 65 minutes of Hollywood movie time. Some people call this film noir, but it’s weirder than that — it’s horror, it’s gothic, it’s melodrama.
And did I mention it’s streaming on YouTube? The perfect thing for a late-night movie:
And when you watch it, pay careful attention to the first ten minutes and tell me what you think. I can’t believe this got past the censors at the time.
Julia Ross has just come in after looking for a job all day, and has a conversation with the maid who cleans her dreary boarding house. If things aren’t already bad enough, she finds a wedding invitation in the mail from a man who clearly used to be sweet on her — why, the housemaid thought for sure Julia would make him forget about that other girl. Oh well.
Cockney housemaid: If you ain’t aiming too high, I know plenty of places where you can get a job like mine. [Julia looks distressed at the notion of being a maid.] But I suppose a fine lady like you was trained for something better.
Julia Ross, looking stricken: The doctor says I’ve got to be careful for a few months.
Maid: Oh. My sister had her “appendix” out, too. She were scrubbing and cleaning the very next week.
Julia: Does it bother her now?
Maid: Nothing bothers her now. She’s dead. But it wasn’t good, honest work that killed her.
Now, tell me: is this a coded conversation about an abortion? Sure sounds that way to me.
19 November 2012
The days are getting shorter, and the semester has arrived at the truly ugliest and most miserable few weeks. Thus, it’s time for Feminéma to offer advice for those affected by the lack of sunlight in our lives. At the risk of sounding presumptuous, I have a six-point No Depression plan of music, food, and old movies, helpfully delineated below.
1. Acorn squash and crispy pancetta with sage and penne. This is so good and so seasonal right now. Just make it and tell me if I’m not correct. (I followed the recipe religiously except that I used both sage and rosemary. And don’t be fooled by this photo: the pecorino romano cheese on top is absolutely crucial.)
2. The music of Ella Fitzgerald. I want to give a special shout-out on behalf of her album with Louis Armstrong, Ella and Louis (1956), but really any of them will do. Soak up that voice, that range, and those fabulous standards as dusk falls and your acorn squash is baking and the pancetta crisping up in the pan.
3. Pomegranates with any and all Middle Eastern or central Mexican dishes … or just on their own. Of course, in a perfect world we’d all live around the corner from a place that serves a killer chiles en nogada nightly (the fact that most of us don’t is enough to make me question religion altogether). But hey, pomegranates are everywhere in markets right now. So, learn how to open them with this handy video:
…and sprinkle the seeds on hummus, baba ghanoush, a lamb dish, or — if you’re very clever indeed — your own homemade chiles en nogada:
4. The bluegrass album The Eagle by Steve Earle and the Del McCoury Band (1998). I maintain that it’s very difficult to remain blue while listening to bluegrass music, perhaps because the sadnesses it describes are such simple, easy kinds of sadness (your girl fell for another man, for example). Overall, those trilling instruments — the mandolin, the fiddle, the stand-up bass, the banjo — do something to my soul that’s hard to replicate except in the form of Ella Fitzgerald.
This album makes me particularly happy because seeing these artists live back in 1998 is possibly the best concert experience I have ever enjoyed. They performed around a single microphone (this is old-school, folks) — so every time one of them took a turn as the featured soloist, the rest moved out of the way. It’s masterful.
5. Grapefruit, of course.
I got turned onto the magical healing properties of grapefruit by my Dear Friend, with whom I suffered some of the ugliest parts of our mutual careers. Sometimes she would tell me that it had been a two-grapefruit kind of day, and I would know exactly what she was saying.
It has become a part of my daily routine, what with fresh grapefruit juice relatively inexpensive year-round. But ’round about now I switch to the real thing. There’s something about the ritual of slicing it into portions and scooping up that beautiful flesh that helps.
6. The Lady Eve (1941), that perfect Preston Sturges comedy with Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda. It’s wickedly sexy, the ultimate in silliness, with Fonda as the slightly dimwitted millionaire’s son who gets caught in the snare of Stanwyck’s con-woman clutches. Just watch this scene, in which she watches all the other women on board their cruise ship try to snag him. Stanwyck gets him within minutes, naturally.
“Holy smoke! the dropped kerchief! that hasn’t been used since Lillie Langtry!” she proclaims at one failed attempt to get Fonda’s attention. Stanwyck was one of the first actors I wrote about when this was still a new blog — and she remains a favorite of mine. Never has she been more perfect than as the card sharp who makes her own happiness.
Those of you who suffer from seasonal affective disorder — perhaps in combination with all the other reasons to find this part of the year so hard to survive — will forgive me my light tone, the absurd notion that one could find music or a few ingredients to be a cure. I don’t mean to diminish this condition. But I do believe that there are external things that help me — and perhaps others, too — most of all by making us feel that our own actions might mitigate the worst of it.
Be strong, friends. And put some pomegranate seeds on top.
21 October 2012
On the surface of things, Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious seems about as retrograde as it gets. Alicia (Ingrid Bergman) is the titular “notorious” one — notorious, that is, for her history of sexual looseness. Never mind that she and secret agent Devlin (Cary Grant) fall in love. In fact, the film’s central problem is her sexual past — will it keep them apart?
A hoary tale? Yes. So how does this film manage to be so perfect?
Dev has pursued Alicia for professional reasons: because her father was a prominent Nazi, tried and imprisoned for his crimes. Knowing that she rejects her father’s beliefs, Dev sees her — at first, anyway — as a perfect potential agent to rout out other Nazis.
But when they head down to Rio to wait for their assignment, the intervening weeks allow them to spend a lot of time together. Sure as the sun will rise, they fall for one another. In the sun-baked Brazilian landscape, they enjoy a blissful honeymoon-like affair. Alicia is uninhibited with her expressions of love.
No one who has ever watched their kissing scene at the telephone will forget it — a scene for which Hitchcock had to walk a fine line. Hollywood’s Hays Code censors stipulated that no onscreen kiss be longer than 3 seconds, so the director had them break their kisses into brief bursts but ultimately choreographed a 3+ minute long take of these two perfectly beautiful human beings embracing, kissing sporadically, nuzzling one another’s necks, murmuring about the evening they’ll spend together. It’s spectacularly sexy, showing yet again the futility of rules seeking to delimit sex onscreen. Just look at how she touches his earlobe, and try to deny this truth.
This scene also introduces a maddening conundrum: Alicia’s open-hearted professions of love vs. Devlin’s restraint. He won’t tell her he loves her. It doesn’t stop her from going all in — but her love and his closed mouth on the subject becomes a barrier in their affair. She’s also open about her prior personal misery, which often led her to drink to excess. But she feels different now, capable of change. Dev listens to her optimism and looks into her glowing face, but remains devastatingly silent.
He gets worse when they finally learn of Alicia’s first assignment as an agent: to flirt with and gain access to the inner circle of a local Nazi transplant, Alex (Claude Rains). Realizing that the CIA wants her because of her loose sexual past makes both of them stop short. Alicia believes she has changed; should she refuse? Does Dev’s refusal to admit he loves her indicate that their relationship is going nowhere? Why won’t he beg her not to participate? Given her disappointments in him, she reluctantly agrees to go undercover, and their relationship comes to a painful halt. Get it? Because he won’t allow that she might have been changed by her love for him, she returns to her old ways of sleeping around and drinking. It’s a classic vicious circle.
So why do I find this film so fresh?
Because I find it impossible to believe Hitchcock’s real goal was to make a problem out of Bergman’s sexuality. Far from it. No one can watch her onscreen — that absolutely guileless woman, so open about her feelings for Dev — and find her problematic. Instead, it’s the shadowy, conflicted Devlin who appears as the real problem. When he meets with his CIA superiors, he makes it clear how troubled he is by their use of her, their assessment of her character. We know early on that he loves her; why can’t he tell her?
Dev’s inability to express his true feelings to her ultimately constitutes a betrayal of their love, especially when the Nazi, smitten as expected with the beautiful and vivacious Alicia, asks her to marry him. Watching Ingrid Bergman’s face register that betrayal is akin to watching her two years earlier in Gaslight (1944) as the young wife driven mad as a result of her husband’s machinations. Her face conveys hurt, lust, and love equally with such transparency that it breaks your heart.
Still, Devlin’s crippled emotions forward the plot usefully into a terrific tale. Equal parts domestic drama (how can she live with Alex and his sinister mother?), thwarted love story (will Dev allow himself to love Alicia again?), and political thriller (just what are Alex and his Nazi cronies up to, anyway?), Notorious never limits itself to any single genre boundary. Watching Alicia and Devlin finagle to get him into Alex’s mysteriously locked wine cellar is riveting on all three levels.
Even more thrilling is what happens when Alex discovers his wife’s perfidy — and what he does about it. The Hitchcock-y second half of the film is so compelling not just because we’re so worried about Alicia, and not just because it’s filmed with such precision and drama, but because Dev must finally make a choice.
That’s why this film still feels so fresh, why it never feels like an outdated, retrograde tale about the importance of female chastity: the real story isn’t about her notoriety, but about Devlin’s inability to be honest with her and with himself. Read this way, the film looks far more subversive of gender and sexual norms of the time.
Would I go so far as to say it’s radically dismissive of those retrograde views about female sexuality? Well, no. It still propels Alicia toward rehabilitation from her old life into a happy monogamous relationship. It’s still titled Notorious, for heaven’s sake. But let’s not be small. This film imagines a happy future for a woman with a rich and varied sexual history, and criticizes a man for refusing to believe in such a thing.
And oh, this film couldn’t be any tighter, or feature three more compelling leads in Bergman, Grant, and Rains. Maybe I need to watch it again right now.
10 October 2012
Film history is rife with narratives about corrupt politicians, so we have plenty of models for thinking about how virtue gets corrupted along the way to political office. Think of Robert Redford in The Candidate (1972) or Broderick Crawford in All the King’s Men (1949, below) — the basic trope is that politics corrupts.
But film history gives me no model by which to understand Mitt Romney’s willingness to lie during this campaign. He’s the political equivalent of Gumby: endlessly plastic, bendable. I am sickened to my bones of a man who either is willing to say anything to make himself more appealing to voters — no matter that he claimed just the opposite last week or last month — or someone with so few actual political commitments that they all seem to him to be accurate. He praised Planned Parenthood till he condemned it; now he claims to have no plans to dismantle abortion rights despite having been avidly pro-life to the point of advocating a personhood amendment. Each time he lies, his big eyes and handsome face and devout Mormonism all seem to try to reassure me that he’s at heart a good man, an honest man. It is all a lie.
In the one week since the debate with President Obama, Romney’s campaign has had to “walk back from” (i.e., deny) a number of the most crucial things he professed during that evening. His campaign has just today denied that he really meant to flip on the abortion question. What do you call a man who lies with such skill? What do you call a man who shape-shifts with such dexterity and disinterest in political commitment, yet decries his opponent for getting his position wrong. I am sick to death of it, and have a fear in my soul that a desperate American public will believe what it wants to hear — whatever little piece suits their fancy. For this man, no policy matters enough that he will not change positions depending on who’s listening.
In Romney’s America, there will be no king in Israel.