Friday, February 25, 2011

In a Lonely Place (d. Nicolas Ray, 1950)

In a Lonely Place (streamed here). Bogie’s finest hour. Nick Ray’s most personal film. And the creepiest meet-cute of the studio era?

Dixon Steele (Bogart) had just been taken in for questioning. The night before, a coat check girl was seen leaving the bar with the sardonic writer, who had asked her to summarize the plot of a trashy book. That girl’s body was found at dawn. In a pickle, Dixon, the most logical suspect, suddenly remembered his alibi: the neighbor with whom he was trading skivvy looks when he showed the girl out.

And so that neighbor, Laurel Gray, is summoned to the police station. She confirms that Dixon showed the girl out. But why did she notice this particular neighbor, the detective asks? “I like his face”, she reveals, nonchalantly, pausing to glance at Bogie’s ravaged face behind her. When a flattered and grateful Steele offers to give her a ride after the interrogation, Laurel immediately brushes him off with a great line, “I always leave with the man who brought me.” Laurel, it appears, holds a black belt in cock-teasing.

There's something extremely creepy about the insouciance of both Laurel and Dixon in the interrogation room. Dix, in particular, behaved strangely: caustic and ill-mannered, he seemed more concerned about his sleep being disturbed than the horrifying fact that a girl, whom she saw just hours earlier, turned up murdered. Dixon perked up only when he saw a chance to hit on his alibi. For her part, Laurel seems way too hard-edged and knowing for a struggling young actress. In the terrific scene following the meet-cute, shown below, Laurel’s self-assurance pegs her as a femme fatale, a woman who seen it all and knows what she wants -- a woman who “won’t be rushed”:

At this point, Ray appears to be carefully lining up all the pieces for a Camus-tinged noir about a guy wrongly accused of murder. But from there, he swiftly rearranges the board, and the movie turns into something entirely unexpected: it becomes a "woman’s film." In the prototypical Wrong Man variant of this sub-genre, the protagonist is unsure about the man she about to choose, or has in fact chosen. In Suspicion, Joan Fontaine spends the entire movie wondering if her rakish husband is actually a murderer. Joan Fontaine falls hard for a self-absorbed dilettante who doesn’t even remember her name in Letter from an Unknown Woman. And Joan Fontaine’s sis Olivia de Havilland finally realizes that Monty Clift is a useless golddigger near the end of The Heiress.

Gloria Grahame*, who plays Laurel, would be the last actress you'd cast in a doe-eyed Fontaine part. With her dismissive sidelong glances and pouty, sensual lips, Grahame exudes a kind sordid worldliness, like someone who might shrug off a date with Cary Grant just to get a quickie with a mobster. It’s no wonder she’s best known for playing bad girls. But Ray gradually shifts our perspective to her, so that we begin to study Dixon the way she does. His confidence and quick wit is attractive to be sure, but he makes her, as he makes us, uneasy. Our guide becomes Ray's frequent reaction shots of an increasingly anxious Laurel.

In a twist on woman's film tropes, the man’s flaw here is a given, both for the viewer and the characters on screen. There's no suspense about the guy. We’re not hanging by a thread trying to figure if Dixon’s a murderer or some other miscreant. Dixon’s innocence concerning the murder mystery was tipped early, and his combustibility was shown at the opening bell, when he clocked an arrogant producer. With his hair-trigger rage firmly established, the drama hinges on a simple question: is love enough to compel Laurel to stay with a loose cannon?

Remarkably, the film has no use for the chimera that the man would fundamentally change for the sake of love. Dix’s no Rick Blaine, a romantic hero in a cynic’s guise. He is who he is: a witty, brilliant asshole with moments of kindness but prone to flashes of insane rage. There’s a lovely scene in which an ecstatic Dixon, swept up in domestic bliss, volunteers to cut some grapefruit for Laurel. But as Dixon awkwardly straightens out the blade, plowing the knife into grapefruit like a serial killer, Laurel, standing by the wall (on the opposite side of the frame) observing him, is consumed by fear. Even performing a small little household task, she can’t trust him.  Laurel was certain to leave Dixon long before the “ironic” phone call (which wouldn’t have saved this relationship even if the phone call was picked up earlier). He’ll never earn her trust, no matter how much she loves him.

In a Lonely Place might have the most adult (or depending on your view, cynical) perspective on love of any movie of the studio era. People don’t change for love. Love doesn’t redeem. You have to either accept the whole enchilada, or walk away.

* Nick Ray’s catches his wife Gloria Grahame in bed with his 13-year-old son (from a previous marriage), whom Grahame later marries?!? Holy shit. How did I not live 37 years on this earth without knowledge of this craziness?

Saturday, February 19, 2011


As you can see, I've tried to remodel the place a bit. Probably will tinker with a bit more as the color scheme is all off.

Sorry, Mike and Waz, I lost the comments from the previous post. That Echo commenting system is a bit forbidding, so I ended up activating the plain old blogger system.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Top 10 Movies from the Past - 2010 Edition

Hi. It’s been a long time. Thought I’d break the ice by doing something fun. And what can be more fun than a top 10 list? Especially a meaningless list like this one. The following is list of older movies I happen to have caught in 2010 for the first time. In other words, it's a meaningless list. But hey, I want to start writing again, and what better motivation than to write about the things you love?

01. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (Powell & Pressburger, 1943). The Archers’ movies are like postcards from God. They look and feel like nothing else in the movies, and even the bad ones are a treat. Their best movie, Colonel Blimp, actually snuck up on me. There I was, happily lapping up the technicolor splendor and Robert Livesey's extraordinary portrait, guffawing at his compassionate send-up of that blustery British type. The complex structure is impressive, and I noted that the Archers have a wicked way of sometimes opening scenes right in the middle of the action. But by the end of it, I was just knocked flat. All the formal razzle-dazzle aside, though, Colonel Blimp is above all about the lived experience, about love and enduring friendships, but also how we end up obsolete, failing to adjust our ideas for a new time and extrapolating too much from past experience. This all comes together in that poignant scene when Candy meets Theo again. The way Candy gamely tries to laugh off the tragedy of his life, that he failed to act on his love when he had his moment, just crushes me.

02. The Tales of Hoffmann (Powell & Pressburger, 1951). Have you seen a clip of this crazy picture? Well, have you? Let me help you out then.

03. Clash By Night
(Lang, 1952). A world-weary Stanwyck returns home to a sad little port town where she instantly becomes a prize catch. After a bit of resistance, she resigns herself to a stable, loveless marriage with stolid Paul Douglas. That is, until his best friend, a sweaty, snarling Robert Ryan, begins to vie for her attention. Clash By Night is Lang’s saddest film, a catalog of fear, loathing and self-sabotage among lonely, desperate souls. Framed by shards of deep shadow, Ryan and Stanwyck circle each other lustily but warily, two predators who know that they’re too similar to thrive together. As the film reaches its drippy denouement, I was moved less by Stanwyck’s dilemma than by her own internal drama: the tug-of-war between Phyllis Dietrichson and Stella Dallas, the ying and yang of the Stanwyck persona. What’s at stake is not so much who she chooses to be with, but who she chooses to be.

04. Matador (Almodovar, 1986). The matador penetration-as-murder metaphor is -- I’ll admit it -- a bit labored. No matter. Pedro’s breathless black comedy, about the intertwining of Eros and Thanatos, is both a spectacular work of high camp and a controlled investigation into dark nature of human temptation. It’s impossible to shake off.

05. Ashes and Diamonds (Wajda, 1958). His eyes masked by dark glasses and decked out in a snazzy utility jacket, Cybulski’s Maciek look more like Natalie Wood’s Friday night date than a rebel soldier tasked with a violent mission. And for much of the compressed single-night narrative, Cybulski, all Brandoesque gestures and Dean-like diffidence, acted that way. He spent more time courting a pouty bartender than advancing the plan to assassinate a communist official. In the final installment of the "Warsaw Trilogy," Wadja left behind the sewer-stink realism of Kanal in favor movie thrills. Loaded with symbols and expressionistic flourishes, like the fireworks that punctuate the assassination, the picture closes with a pre-Breathless long-take staged with such conviction and brilliance (especially a shot of a bleeding Maciek hiding amid the white linens) that it’s easy to overlook the excesses.

06. The Music Room (Ray, 1958). Fading noblemen, at least in the movies, would like nothing better than to throw one last party, even if it means emptying their entire vault. In The Music Room, the stubborn Huzur does exactly that. His final gesture, tossing his last coins to the performer, is pitch perfect: petty, proud, and utterly imprudent, this is a character who sowed the seeds of his own demise. And we’re familiar with the trope of the failed VIP standing shamefully before the portraits of his predecessors. But is there one better than the scene here? The ancestral portraits, hanging in a barren room with walls that seem to extend to the clouds, loom over Huzur like a stern parent reprimanding a child. In the end,The Music Room, like Pather Panchali, is as terrifying as any horror movie, since there’s nothing more frightening to me than oblivion reached by way of financial bungling.

07. Ivan’s Childhood (Tarkovsky, 1962). Like Goya’s Third of May 1808, Tarkovsky’s depiction of war is terrifying and anti-heroic, never beautiful. But check out this stunning shot of a soldier kissing while straddling a trench.

08. Violence at Noon (Oshima, 1966). I don’t have very much to say about this. There’s a neat bit of trivia comparing the over 2,000 cuts in this picture to the 40 cuts in Night and Fog in Japan. But anyone with a passing familiarity with Oshima knew about his protean proclivities. I see Violence more as a peak representative of this director and the Japanese New Wave than some kind of outlier. Here we have the New Wavers’ penchant for cant angles and diagonal lines, their way with luminous high-contrast b&w stock (which I can look at all day), and a disruptive, minimalist score. What stands out is a move toward greater psychological realism that Oshima and his cohorts so often eschew. This might sound strange given how the victims here so frequently subvert our expectations about how they should react. But the care given to answering the question of why, even if it’s answered somewhat unsatisfactory, anchors the film and saves it from the old “none of this makes any sense but that’s okay because it captures the hopelessness and irrationality of modern Japan” routine.

09. Boyfriends and Girlfriends (Rohmer, 1987). A classic Rohmerian roundelay concludes the "Comedies and Proverbs" cycle on a cheery note. The masterpieces of this series, The Aviator’s Wife, Full Moon in Paris, and The Green Ray, were suffused with regret. They were about lives not lived and loves squandered. By comparison, there’s very little at stake in Boyfriends. Our heroine, the mousy bureaucrat Blanche, nurses a crush on a classic douchebag while her friend Bea’s a bit queasy about her relationship with earnest Fabien. The movie’s about the misteps of youth, about the way our youthful desire can be coaxed and shaped by friends. I love the way the film moves from the drab office park suburb to the resplendent French countryside, tracking Blanche’s moods and emotional progress. And the proverb here? A wise one: chicks before dicks.

10. On Dangerous Ground (Ray, 1952). Last year, I was finally turned on to the greatness of the underrated Robert Ryan. Possibly the least needy lead of the era, Ryan’s tough guys were often unsentimental pragmatists, with none of Mitchum’s brooding preening or Bogie’s romanticism. He's at his best in On Dangerous Ground. Check out his initial meeting with Ida Lupino. Before arriving in Lupino’s cabin, Ryan’s Wilson was a combustible menace. He's still hard-edged here, but beginning to soften just a tad. Cutting through the maudlin score with his firm voice and hard, stiff body language, Ryan opens up only through his eyes.

As fine as Ryan was, the movie’s far from perfect. Everyone agrees that the first half, with a restless Wilson teetering on the edge of a mega-implosion, is dynamite. But many deride the movie’s jarring shift to the blind Lupino storyline. I admit the shift is unwieldy, as if Bud White stumbled into Dancer in the Dark. Still, let me try to defend it. In contrast to Dix Steele in Ray’s In a Lonely Place, Wilson’s pathology comes from without. He can change, if he gets out of the scummy city. Here’s a character who's entirely self-contained, having never asked for viewer affection or admiration. Shouldn’t we extend our generosity and allow the man his redemption?

Reconsidered: Chloe in the Afternoon (Rohmer, 1972). Rohmer’s masterpiece, the greatness of which eluded me in my twenties. A separate post will address this picture.

Honorable Mentions:The Narrow Margin, A Day in the Country, A Night at the Opera, Remember My Name.

Other excellent films seen in 2010: Hands Across the Table, Offside, The Court Jester, Kanal, The Driver, Forbidden Games, The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, The Steel Helmet, A Woman’s Face, Bed and Board, Air Force, Scandal Sheet, Hour of the Wolf.

Overrated: Fists in the Pocket, What Have I Done to Deserve This?, Big Deal on Madonna Street, The River, Casque d’Or.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Inauguration Speech Thoughts

Postgame pundits describe the speech as workmanlike, and that's probably on the mark. President Obama's inaugural address nestles passages of startling power among prosaic, almost progrommatic declarations. As a speech, it was a bit disjointed. But as a call to arms for a new era? Fairly magnificent.

I'd like to focus on one point that I haven't seen elsewhere, about Obama's ambitious desire to change the mentality of Americans. Or rather, restore a previous, healthier mentality about work and sacrifice, the real values that undergird American greatness, according to Obama:

In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of shortcuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted, for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame.

Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things -- some celebrated, but more often men and women obscure in their labor -- who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.

For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and traveled across oceans in search of a new life. For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West, endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth. For us, they fought and died in places Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sanh.

Time and again these men and women struggled and sacrificed and worked till their hands were raw so that we might live a better life. They saw America as bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions; greater than all the differences of birth or wealth or faction.

Obama here is aiming straight at the financial crisis' root problem. Though the economic crisis is mind-bogglingly complex, the heart of our problems is the ethos of easy money (fanned, of course, by the easy credit/low-interest/deregulatory policies of the last twenty years). Think back to 2005, the year when "New Gilded Age" articles were in vogue. It was a hallucinary time, when high school grads in my office suite would be pulling in 250 large to process mortgage applications, when party conversation revolved around the latest real estate acquisition and/or remodeling woes, when folks watched shows like "Flip That House!", and when bonuses for money-swapping middlemen in their late-20s reached 8 figures. Everyone's got a shortcut to riches. And nobody really connected this loot to, you know, productivity, which is how income and wealth are generated. Folks forget, in bubble periods, that this great swell of dough is coming from somewhere. As it turns out, the money came due in 2008.

Obama, an adherent of behavioral economics, reminds us in this address that "those values upon which our success depends, honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism" This focus on responsibility and hard work is the first salvo in the project to reverse a dangerous mentality that led to so many actors to make so many poor decisions.

In 1994, most people make between $30,000 and $80,000. To make 400K, you better have gotten lucky with the right business, put your money down on a longshot, or you're capable of removing human organs with some degree of precision. You made dough because your work provided economic value commisurate with your income, or you took a commisurate level of risk for your reward. Over the last fifteen years, but especially in the last five, the fruits of economic growth increasingly went to groups that didn't provide the corresponding economic value. Growth, and income was generated by transfers of money and the creation of clever financial instruments that promised risk-reducing miracles by offering derivative insurance and bets against defaults. With these new Wall Street overlords in charge, the banks see no problem lending $300,000 to a guy making 18 grand a year as the risk of default is sold off in packaged securities. The guy making $18 Gs doesn't see any problem buying a $300,000 house, because he thinks he can flip it in a year.

All of this were driven by financial innovations that disproprotionately benefit the middle man. In a sound economy, the middle people -- stock brokers, mortgage brokers, agents, accountants, lawyers, financiers, etc -- keep the wheels greased so the cogs of capitalism can turn efficiently. In our economy, the cogs were the middlepeople; financial services, a field that essentially performs complicated transfers of pre-existing money, became the dominant sector. It's just crazy.

Obama's task as president is nothing short of restructuring the US economy. A big part of that goal is reconfigure the engine so that green technology and its derivatives, rather than consumer, fuels our economy. But an important, if less discussed part of his task is refashioning American thinking so that individuals and institutions aren't driven by bad incentives, fallacies and poor framing of economic choices. Reminding folks that money = work is a good place to start.

* Some good economic crisis materials:

- Giant Pool of Money, from This American Life -- perhaps the best explanation in layman's terms of the subprime mess that ignited the crisis. Everyone should listen to it.
- The NY Times "The Reckoning" series, very good pieces that serve as indictments of the major bad actors.
- The blog Calculated Risk, which was way ahead of everyone in sounding alarms, is worth checking out from time to time.
- This NY Times chart is pretty cool, too:

Update on 1/24/09: Frank Rich has a better piece expressing pretty much the same thoughts.

Aggressive Douchebaggery: It works!

Michelle Cottle has a very perceptive post discussing aggressive careerism in the context of the Caroline Kennedy debacle. Cottle's point is obvious, but some of us with high self-regard need to be reminded that, in order to get where you want to go, especially in this dire climate, proper decorum and "face" are drawbacks, as Cottle notes in discussing Burris vis-a-vis Kennedy:

The man was appointed to Obama's Senate seat by a governor charged with trying to sell that very seat, prompting many folks to ask how Burris could be so vulgar and shameless in his ambition. The entire Democratic leadership vowed that Ron Paul would be president before Burris would be seated in the Senate. But Burris reallllly wanted that job. So he showed up at the Capitol on swearing-in day and got himself very publicly kicked out. Undeterred, he kept on chugging, chatting up the drama-obsessed media, meeting with members of the caucus. And look at him now! Downing ice tea and warm rolls in the Senate dining room with the rest of the club.

Caroline wasn't pushy enough. She wasn't aggressive enough. And she wasn't shameless enough to power through all the hurdles in her path and take what she wanted. On the most basic level, I suppose you could chalk this whole mess up to her individual personality. (Certainly, neither Hillary! nor Sarah! would have folded so easily.) But when we're talking about the number of gals on the political landscape in general, it's worth noting that such Carolinian personality traits are not infrequently cited as contributing to the stubborn gender imbalance within a number of fields, my own included.

Though Cottle arrives at a gender-specific conclusion, the necessity of aggressive douchebaggery should be drilled into the heads of a whole category of talented men and women who don't want to appear too desperate in their career ambitions, leading to stalled lives and thwarted goals.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Election Predictions

Just trying to sneak this post in before heading out to Las Vegas for canvassing and election monitoring. Predictions:


Obama - 53% - 353 EV
McCain - 45% - 185

Swing States

Obama will win: Kerry + IA, NM, CO, VA, NV, OH, FL, NC (roughly in that order of strength)
McCain will win: IN, MO, ND, MT, GA

The race has been teetering between 6-8%, and I still expect a small tightening going into election day. But the early voting has shown that Obama's groundgame and enthusiasm advantage is real, and it may be decisive even if McCain moves many of the undecideds to his column with a last minute ad barrage. This GOTV gap, an advantage for Bush in 2004, will provide a cushion for Obama.


Democrats will win: VA, NM, CO, AK, NH, OR, NC, MN (in a squeaker). GA will go to a run-off.
GOP will hold the rest (including KY) and win no Dem seats.


Dems +25 seats.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The last debate

It's really funny that right-wingers think that they are the "true" Americans, because they're almost dangerously untethered to the mainstream, by now having created an alternative culture and media that chronicles an alternate reality, one where ACORN is a mortal threat to the fabric of democracy, where Bill Ayers is one of the world's most dangerous men, and where the financial crisis was caused not by the creation of highly leveraged derivatives, but by the Democrats' pushing for more minority home ownership.

In this bubble, what's scary isn't the dangerous incompetence of George Bush and his disastrous eight years -- recognized by pretty much all non-wingnuts -- but "socialists" like Barack Obama who wants to raise taxes on folks making over $250,00. And ironically, John McCain, one of the few prominent Republicans who has resisted the wingnut echo chamber in the past, is now completely ensnared in it.

If, in the previous two debates, McCain was a little too caught up in his own personal crusades (read: earmarks; taking on his own party), here was a performance that was launched from wingnuttia, where "spreading the wealth around" is dangerous, where $250,000+ earning "Joe the Plumber" is the stand-in for Mr. America, where "health of the mother" is somehow code for zealots, where only liberal wimps are concerned about storing nuclear power "safely", and vouchers are a cure-all for education.

The pundits thought McCain did well because he was aggressive and forced he debate, but the trouble is the right-wing philosophy he was espousing didn't connect to people, and the shorthand he was using made sense only to the cheerleaders over on The Corner. By contrast, Obama didn't launch into sputtering attacks on the Alaska Independence Party, G. Gordon Liddy, Diebold, Troopergate, the torture memos, US Attorney firings, and any number of other liberal blog causes. The rather phlegmatic Obama, in cool professorial mode, explained his policy proposals in detail, over and over. Unlike the 2nd debate, Barack was off his game and missed a lot of obvious retorts. But he did his job.

And more importantly, Obama looked calm and unflappable. McCain looked like a meth fiend, bulging his eyes, and moving around in his seat like a maniac. Is it any wonder McCain got slammed again in the snap polls?

It's clear that McCain is an uncoachable candidate, and that his downfall was trying to run a Bush '04 base/echo chamber campaign that is both wrong for the times and completely unsuitable for himself.