Friday, September 15, 2017

Just a Guy from Queens

My article in the summer issue of The City Journal is now available online. Here's the link:

Monday, September 11, 2017

Summer Film Roundup, Part 8: Humblings, Horrors and Heroics

The Humbling (2014)

This gem may have slipped  past you when it first came out several years ago.  It's one of a group of recent films based on Philip Roth's late novels and, like them, it deals  with mortality,  the loss of creative powers, and other sobering matters.  I think of these as Philip Roth's "winter stories."  Barry Levinson refused big studio funding so he could direct this film his way; armed with a shrewd script by Buck Henry and the acting chops of Al Pacino in what's arguably his best performance in years, Levinson filmed the movie on a low budget in his own house, but the result is far better than any home movie.  Pacino doesn't scream and yell as has been his wont of late, but is admirably restrained, low-key, and thoroughly convincing as an aging actor who's convinced  that he's lost his talent and gets involved with a much younger woman.  (It's clear that Pacino has not lost his talent.)  He's likeable, sympathetic and moving, and the film is funny in a quirky way that's unlike the factory-made blockbuster laughs of most Hollywood comedies made these days. It has quite a few good moments and interesting characters, and I enjoyed it a lot. There's an undeniably melancholy element to The Humbling, but the humor saves it.  The young woman, adroitly played by Greta Gerwig, is a lesbian. Pacino converts her.

Batman Begins (2005)

It's quite a leap from  the diminished powers of an aging Philip Roth hero to the near-superhero powers of Christopher Nolan's retooled version of Batman.  It's an impressive example of a yet another quintessentially American story filmed with a largely British cast and British director in England.  (For yet another example, see Michael Grandage's 2016 film Genius  about  legendary book editor Maxwell Perkins relationship with Thomas Wolfe, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.)  The gradually developed backstory is seductive and well done, especially if Ninja warriors are your fetish, but unfortunately we get to the main plot, about bad guys trying to destroy Gotham City by poisoning the water.  It's something right out of the old 1966 Batman TV series. Yes, stunning photography and state-of-the-art special effects (state-of-the-art a decade ago, at least) dazzle the mind but also numb it, as the predictably "big ending" fills the screen with explosions and cars and planes and action and buildings and elevated subways collapsing with smoke and flames everywhere.   Much in the film is very good -- Batman's costume and cowel look more like the Batman of the comics than ever before -- but the one element that made the comic books so entertaining was Batman's ability as a master detective able to figure out diabolical mysteries.  (Remember, Batman made his debut in 1938 in Detective Comics.)  In this Batman film, as in so many of the previous ones, only his physical prowess is on display.  Batman's allure has always been his mixture of both physical and mental strength.  I enjoyed the film but wanted more. This view maybe heretical to the many Batman and Christopher Nolan fans out there, but I'll grant them that Christian Bale is a suitably dark Dark Knight, and Michael Caine might be best Alfred yet.  Or at least a close tie with the dapper and resourceful Alan Napier, a buckler not just for the 1960s but for the ages.

Night Watch (1973)

The early 1970s  was a rather good time for  suspense films and thrillers. Perhaps  it was the  disappointed utopian  dreams  of the 1960s  that  led so many moviegoers to embrace nightmares  in the theater.  Alfred Hitchcock's Frenzy, Joseph Mankiewicz's Sleuth, William Friedkin's The Exorcist, and a bevy of chilling horror films from British film studios like Tales from the Crypt and The House That Dripped Blood helped audiences wrestle with their demons as America seem to be sliding from the Great Society into the great abyss.  

In Night Watch the deserted house next door to the elegant house lived in by Ellen Wheeler (Elizabeth Taylor) seems to be dripping blood too. Ellen  insists that she's seen first one, then two  people being brutally stabbed to death in the house next door as she helplessly watched from her  window. Ellen  has recently recovered from  a mental illness , not to mention that the killings occurred during violent thunderstorms which obscured  her view, so naturally her husband and best friend, played respectively by Laurence Harvey and Billy Whitelaw, are a bit skeptical. After all, a thorough search of the house by Scotland Yard has revealed no foul play. Is Ellen telling the truth? Has she imagined the murders?  No spoilers here.

Nearly every critic dismissed Night Watch when it was released in 1973, characterizing the plot as "tired" or "predictable," offering praise only for Elizabeth Taylor's clothes. Even the usually reliable Leonard Maltin  gives  the film only two and a half stars in his Movie Guide.  Nonetheless, all three actors are outstanding in this neglected thriller, though Taylor's histrionics  can become wearying at times.  Though not as witty and sure-footed as thrillers like Sleuth or Deathtrap, the story cunningly leads you up and down various garden paths and then brilliantly fakes you out at the end. It's been awhile since the ending of a movie took me completely by surprise (I guessed one piece of the puzzle early on but missed the big picture) and done it, or shall I say whodonit, in a thoroughly logical way.  A large degree of credit goes to Lucille Fletcher, author of the play the film is based on, as well as the author of the famous radio play and film Sorry, Wrong Number.  She also happened to be Mrs. Bernard Herrmann, composer of course of the scores for Citizen Kane, Vertigo, and countless other classics. One can only imagine what their home life was like.  (They divorced in 1948.) 

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Summer Film Roundup, Part 7: Notes on Woody Allen

Café Society (2016)

At first I thought it would be Radio Days about movies instead of radio, but it turned out to be something entirely different. 

I admit that I was disappointed when the film abandoned Hollywood midway and resumed in New York, but then I warmed up to it again. In any case, Woody has never been interested in Hollywood or California (see his caustic portrait of La La Land in Annie Hall) and doesn't really have anything fresh to say about its culture. But I loved all the movie references and settings.

It's one of the most the most ravish-looking films Woody has ever made, thanks in part to the brilliance of the cinematography of Vittoria Storaro, who helped make The Conformist, Last Tango in Paris, Reds, and Apocalypse Now look so good.  It was a relief to see Hollywood in the 1930s presented in electric colors instead of the usual sepia, which has become the default setting for any films set in the 1930s.

A somewhat irritating aspect of the film is Jesse Eisenberg's performance. I don't know if it's the way Woody directs the young actors he now casts as his stand-ins, but they always adopt his vocal and physical mannerisms, making you wish that the young Woody Allen was doing it himself and doing it right. Fortunately Eisenberg drops the Woody mannerisms when he achieves success in New York. The Woody persona implies a nebbish and our hero has become a man.

The horse-drawn carriages through Central Park at dawn look beautiful, but haven't we seen all of that in Woody's films so often before? At least they serve the purpose of prompting us to thank God that Mayor DeBlasio wasn't able to get rid of the horse-drawn carriages.

It was good to see Tony Sirico ("Paulie Walnuts" from The Sopranos) again, even briefly.

Woody knows he could make every line in the film a knockout joke as he did in his "earlier, funnier movies," but these days he distributes his gags sparsely throughout his films, almost as rewards to the audience for sitting through the drama.  Yet he has learned to be a very good dramatist.

Funniest line: "It's bad enough he was a murderer but then he becomes a Christian!"

Funniest line that I couldn't believe the character would actually say: "If Jews had an afterlife maybe they would have more customers."

Woody is a liberal Democrat but has no real faith in politics or ideas. He has trouble empathizing with people who are actually motivated by ideas, so the Communist brother-in-law in Café Society is gently mocked, not so much because he's a communist but because he lives his life according to philosophical notions rather than reality. Woody is fascinated with gangsters because they presumably understand reality -- remember the gangster who turns out to be a better playwright than the film's actual playwright in Bullets Over Broadway?)  Unfortunately they put their understanding of human nature into practice in a rather disagreeable way.

Kristen Stewart is superb as the female love interest who embodies both Woody's idealism and cynicism.  You find yourself loving her even after she's ceased to be the person  you loved in the beginning. 

I was delighted by the ending. Woody often ties his stories into a nice little bow with everything too neatly resolved. This film has the kind of ending but I wish more films had the courage to make, where everything is still unresolved and the last shot fades out on a hero filled with regrets.

Not one of the best  of Woody's films but the most satisfying one in recent memory (Blue Jasmine was not so much satisfying as heartwrenching.  I can easily imagine seeing it Café Society again again and enjoying it just as much if not more; I would be a bit more hesitant to see Blue Jasmine again until I'm in a certain mood.)

Who would have guessed when Woody Allen was making  films like Bananas and Sleeper that the biggest influence on him would turn out to be not Groucho Marx but the short stories and plays of Anton Chekhov.  Yet the raffish smile and upraised eyebrows of Groucho are never far below the surface.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Summer Film Roundup, Part 6: Coming to America, Surviving in America

America, America (1963)

A moving and magnificent film that Elia Kazan considered his personal favorite -- not surprising, since it's the tale of how his own Greek family came to America, leaving behind their lives as an oppressed minority in Turkey.  The immigrant story strikes home because it's really the story of so many of our own families. The Turkish Greeks in the film are reminiscent of Eastern European Jews who fled Tsarist Russia for a better life in America.  It's probably one reason why Kazan got along so well with the Jewish playwrights and directors he worked with in New York like Clifford Odets, Arthur Miller, Lee Strasberg, and countless actors.

Stavros, the young hero of the story played by newcomer Stathis Giallelis, is based on Kazan's own uncle; he's an Odyssean hero (though in The Odyssey, Odysseus is returning home whereas Stavros is seeking a new one.  He allows nothing to divert him from his of reaching America, and there are plenty of diversions along the way.  A lesser man would have given up and returned to his family after being swindled of everything he owns by a smooth-talking  bandit he meets early in his journey; the lesser man would have settled for marriage to the wealthy merchant's homely daughter, Thomna (portrayed by Linda Marsh who's actually a rather attractive young woman, but whose make-up gives her dark eyebrows and swathes of facial hair).  Could I have made the trek to America the way Stavros did? No way.  Could you? Ask yourself that as you watch this compelling film.

I particularly relished Paul Mann's as Aleko Sinnikoglou, Stavros's would-be father-in-law.  After the big meal when he opens his belt and tell Stavros about the life they're going to enjoy together in the years to come, getting old and wealthy and fat, the expression on Stavros's face is not unlike that of Christopher in The Sopranos after his girlfriend tells him she's been cooperating with the FBI and that the two of them can go into the Witness Protection Program, and he sees a disheveled husband and his fat wife and two kids coming out of the supermarket. It's not an appealing vision of the future. But Christopher ultimately chooses death whereas Stavros choose his life. In pursuit of his dream he has a touch of a amorality In him that I think Kazan had as well. I genuinely felt sorry for the poor girl who really loved him and lost him.

Kazan's based this film on his own novel, which was published a year before the film was released.  It's revealing that he wrote the book in a style that's half-fiction, half-screenplay, the same style in which Arthur Miller wrote the book of The Misfits.  I don't think that's a coincidence.  Kazan was somewhat  envious of Miller and Tennessee Williams because he wanted to be a writer himself during all the years he was directing their landmark plays.  I think America, America, the film, is very well written, but I noticed that some of the reviews say that the writing is clunky, which may be the impression given by characters from different cultural environments attempting to communicate with one another.

In her review of the film Pauline Kael confesses that  she finds the actor who plays Stavros uninteresting and unbelievable as someone with the brains and stamina to make the journey to America. She also asserts that despite some memorable scenes, there are embarrassing melodramatic touches, like the Judas figure who betrays Stavros and steals all his money, and the Christ figure at the end who gives up his life for him. I disagree with her on both points.  I suspects Kael just didn't find the affirmative nature of the film hip edgy enough for her taste.  Full throated affirmations always left her uneasy. 

The one aspect of the film that the reviewers unanimously praised is Haskell Wexler's remarkable cinematography. This nearly three-hour epic benefits enormously from his gorgeous black-and-white photography, mostly shot on location.  But Kazan doesn't linger for too long on any of the many striking compositions the way Antonioni would. Kazan is a storyteller who lets you see the image and then quickly moves on.  He later said that Wexler was the most brilliant cinematographer he'd ever worked with, and also a huge pain in the ass

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973)

Virtually all the critics slammed it when it first came out, but their judgment was based on the version butchered and released by MGM to 103 minutes; this leisurely film is in fact immensely enjoyable and it's now-restored length of 124 minutes. (I have a hunch the bordello scene with its casual nudity was the first thing to be cut by the studio back in 1973. Nudity was hot in movies back then, but only when presented as something shocking, not natural and a matter of everyday life.)  Sam Peckinpah's "revisionist westerns" are highly addictive -- he captures the grit and realism of what certainly seems like the authentic Old West so that you can almost smell the leather holsters and feel the floorboards of a bar beneath your feet. No cheap indoor sets to be found here. Critics found the film slow and even boring, yet the deliberate pacing gives you the feeling of what it must really have been like to slowly stalk an outlaw like Billy the Kid, surprisingly well portrayed by Kris Kristofferson. And of course James Coburn is unmatchable as Pat Garrett, along with countless supporting players like Slim Pickens and Barry Sullivan, who are not presented as star cameos but casually allowed to do their thing and then let the film move on. 

Peckinpah knows how to fill a wide screen with endless details while subtly directing your eye to the main action. His style reminds me a bit of Robert Altman, letting you take it all in without highlighting moments or parts of the screen in the old Hollywood manner.  Lots of gun fights and killings, as you would expect in a Peckinpah film (the sights and sound of men being shot off their horses soon feel as expected as characters bursting into song and dance in a musical) but they too seem entirely natural in the American West at that time.  Even the odd friendship between Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett comes across as convincing, since they both started out as outlaws together in the beginning.  The unlikely inclusion of Bob Dylan in a supporting role along with his music on the soundtrack gives the film a 1970s spirit at the same time you feel you're in the late 19th century. It's a crime that this film was overlooked in 1973 and that it's critical and commercial failure helped derail Peckinpah's career.  Peckinpah grew up out west and knew and loved that part of the country; he had no illusions about it, though he may have retained an illusion or two about Hollywood's willingness to allow a director to pursue his personal vision in a mass medium like feature filmmaking. The failure of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid left a bitter mark on Peckinpah, I'm the man who had directed Ride the High Country (1962) and The Wild Bunch (1969) never made another Western again.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Summer Film Roundup, Part 5: Epics East and West

Russian Ark (2002)

A cinematic tour de force to end all tours de force: 300 years of Russian history filmed in a single Steadicam shot, with absolutely no cuts, thus going Hitchcock (see Rope, with its illusion of a continuous 80-minute shot) one better. Digital video and the Steadicam made the continuous shot possible, and as last year was the 40th anniversary of the invention of the Steadicam, one way to celebrate it is to see this remarkable work, which was "filmed" digital direct to hard disk so that no image information was lost during compression. (Don't ask me for more details -- that's technically as far as I'm able to go.) Whereas the 1948 Rope took place in one room with a handful of characters, Russian Arc unfolds in the 36 huge rooms of the Hermitage in St Petersburg, filled for this production with over 2,000 actors and extras in full period costume and makeup.  With the exception of several botched attempts within the first 20 minutes,  the entire thing was filmed in one unbroken performance; because the crew had only a single afternoon allowed by the Hermitage to film, the fourth try had to be the lucky charm because they couldn't stop for any mistakes as the daylight necessary for the opening scene was gradually away.  The Steadicam, operated by a single valiant cameraman with Herculean strength and stamina, glides through scores of tableaux, following an eighteenth-century French Marquis as our tour guide through coronations, ballroom dancing, the reigns of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great and the fall of the Romanovs.  It took years to plan the film on paper so that all the technicians and actors would know exactly what to do at the right moment; the lights and microphones were hidden in all the right places, and the seemingly impossible was achieved. The result is dazzling, a visual feast and a history lesson to boot.  Director Alexander Sokurov pulls off an epic feat worthy of Tolstoy.  It's unexpectedly moving, despite the lack of a traditional narrative  or the emotional involvement in a handful of characters we can relate to.  But anyone with a love of art and history, and what's possible with near-heroic actors and technicians, and cinematic technology that doesn't solely rely on CGI effects, cannot help but find this film something of a sui generis marvel.  This is a film where you find yourself rooting for the cameraman. And for any true cinephile, that's not such a bad thing.

Hearts of the West (1975)

Speaking of traditional narrative films and emotional involvement with a handful of characters  you can relate to... 

...Hearts of the West is an immensely enjoyable confection of Hollywood entertainment about a young would-be writer of pulp westerns who gets roped into being a movie cowboy. Strong performances by Jeff Bridges, Alan Arkin, Andy Griffith, and Blythe Danner, along with a host of topnotch character actors. The crackerjack script by Rob Thompson grabs you with the first scene and carries you through to the very end when you feel that satisfied movie sensation to the full.  If Russian Ark is a bit to rarefied for your taste, come out west with Jeff Bridges and dive into a story that's unimpeachable fun.  If you find it just a tad too sentimental or corny, you can always return to the Hermitage.

How the West Was Won (1962)

If neither Russian Ark nor Hearts of the West leave you satisfied, you can turn to a combination of the epic ambitions of the first and the frontier fantasies of the latter -- yes, I'm talking about the Cinerama event of 1962, How the West Was Won. Scorned by critics and viewed by many today as a hoary relic of old Hollywood's unabashedly triumphalist view of the American West, I was surprised to find myself quite entertained and at times rather moved by this big flawed film.  Certainly it can be a bit sentimental and soap opera-ish; and, as in the critics' (inexplicable, to me) longtime favorite, The Man Who Shot Liberty, also released in 1962, Jimmy Stewart is embarrassingly too old for his part, playing a trapper courting and eventually marrying a young frontierswoman played by Carol Baker.  Stewart was 53 at the time playing a man of about thirty while Baker was 30 playing a young woman of around 20.  (But he was still a bigger star at the time than she was. Did she trap the trapper or was it the other way around?)  Still, in the 19th-century, with women dying in childbirth a common occurrence, it wasn't unusual for older men to marry much younger women, though perhaps not of the caliber of Carroll Baker.  (In real life, Baker outlived her third husband, the slightly younger British actor Donald Burton, and she's still going strong at age 86.) 

Only two films were ever made in the original Cinerama format: How the West Was Won and The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm, also released in 1962, the first and final year for true Cinerama narrative films  The rest were documentaries, like the film which introduced the new widescreen process, This is Cinerama (1952).  Directors didn't like working in the 3-camera Cinerama format: the camera was huge and unwieldy and the only shots which could be taken where long shots and medium shots. Close-ups tended to distort the face. Actors didn't much care for it either. Some were intimidated by the giant apparatus looming in front of them, and most of them complained that it was impossible to look directly into another actors of face without appearing on screen as if they were looking off to the side. So the actors had to perform scenes actually looking off to the side so that it would show up on the screen as if they were facing one another.  Say goodbye to method acting . Audiences weren't crazy about aspects of Cinerama either. Sure, the giant curved screen offered spectacular cinematography, but because three projectors were needed to show it in theaters, the three images were imperfectly joined when projected, revealing two discernible vertical seams separating the three pictures posing as one. The lines were particularly visible in shots which showed the sky or a clear background; fortunately the three directors of How the West Was Won -- John Ford, Henry Hathaway, and George Marshall -- cleverly devised camera shots with trees or vertical posts arranged so that they would disguise the distracting vertical seams.  But the image was far from perfect until many years later when the Cinerama films were digitally remastered to eliminate as much of the vertical lines as possible. Later Cinerama films are Cinerama in name only: 2001: A Space Odyssey was billed as Cinerama but actually shot with a 65 mm camera and the film transferred to 70 mm stock and projected on a curved screen. (And this is the last time I go technical on you.)
Amusing to think that only five or six years later this film could never have been made. The culture changed so dramatically in those half a dozen years that audiences, particularly young ones, would have hooted and booed at the end when the film's narrator, Spencer Tracy, tells us that the bravery and courage of the pioneers made the taming of the West and our modern cities possible; as he speaks we see gorgeous shots of untouched western landscape dissolving into Los Angeles freeways, obviously without a touch of irony on the filmmakers' part.  By 1968 to 1970 and beyond, audiences were flocking to see revisionist westerns like Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch or Arthur Penn's Little Big Man. (But 1968 was also the year John Wayne made the unapologetically patriotic, pro -Vietnam war film The Green Berets, so obviously the counterculture hadn't seeped into every corner of the culture.) 

Having said that, I must say that How the West Was Won is fairly sympathetic to the Indians -- sorry, Native Americans -- and the solid performances by Gregory Peck, Debbie Reynolds, Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Richard Widmark, George Peppard, the aforementioned Jimmy Stewart and Carroll Baker, and a couple of nice turns by John Wayne and Harry Morgan as Generals Sherman and Grant make it more than worthwhile.  

I have a special shout-out for the late Eli Wallach, not only because he is superb as the mustachioed train bandit, but also because I had the good fortune to act on stage with him on two separate occasions. I observed him during the rehearsal process, playing with his own lines like a sculptor playing with clay, and generously helping other the other actors find more interesting possibilities in playing their own characters. Over Chinese dinner before one of the performances he told me that he had played Italians and Mexicans in his youth and in his old age was now playing Jews, the group to which she actually belonged. But he was also a gent and a mensch and a vastly talented actor whose work I'll continue to enjoy for years to come. His life was...epic.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Summer Film Roundup, Part 4: Back to the Golden Age

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)

Before there was Dr. Strangelove, there was The Strange Love of Martha Ivers.  It's an extraordinarily compelling film noir, or twisted melodrama, if you like.  It owes more than a few debts to Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity, released three years earlier, also produced by Paramount, also starring Barbara Stanwyck and with a score by Mikós Rózsa, who shamelessly plagiarizes his work from the earlier, better film. (Some of the melodic themes of the film are virtually identical to the ones in Double Indemnity, so much so that when Barbara Stanwyck is talking to her husband Walter O'Neill and saying "Walter," I almost felt she was talking to Walter Neff in the earlier film.)  Even the story itself bears similarities to Wilder's film, and we pretty much know how it will play out after the first 20 minutes or so, though the ending was a bit more ham-handed than I'd expected. In his debut film, Kirk Douglas is somewhat improbable as a weak-willed alcoholic, but he mostly manages to pull it off, with only a couple of moments where he's obviously "acting."  Judith Anderson is great at playing a cold, sadistic bitch , but Stanwyck gives her a good run for her money. 

The stylish Gothic imagery is courtesy of director Lewis Milestone; the script by Robert Rossen is filled with ominous plot twists and crackling dialogue.  Rossen new thing or two about secrecy and betrayal: he was later blacklisted for refusing to name names to House Committee on Un-American Activities, then changed his mind and named 57 people, enabling him to continue his career and direct his masterpiece, The Hustler (1961).  The relationship between Van Heflin and Lizabeth Scott bears more than a slight resemblance to the one between Paul Newman and Piper Laurie in The Hustler.  In both films the couple "meets cute" in the Hollywood tradition, though they also "meet dark," the romantic and enigmatic dialogue bristling with apprehension.. Rossen seemed to have a fascination for mysterious women  with complicated pasts. (But then who doesn't?)  Things work out a bit better for Heflin and Scott  than for Newman and Laurie, but it's evident that Stanwyck and Douglas are doomed from the start. 

At first I thought the sailor whose hitched a ride with Van Heflin in Heflin's first scene was Kirk Douglas -- we never got a good look at the sailors face, and from a distance it appeared to my eye to be Douglas. It turns out according to the IMDb that the sailor was played by a young Blake Edwards, years before he would achieve fame as a director.

Kirk Douglas turned 100 this year. He's still going strong, and he and his wife of 62 years have a new book out, Kirk and Anne: Letters of Love, Laughter, and a Lifetime in Hollywood.  It's been a long, wild ride since that first film performance in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers.

The Last Tycoon (2017)

Inspired by Clive James' recent book, Play All: A Binge-watchers Notebook, I binge-watched a long-form TV series for the first time. It helped that I only had one day left of my free Amazon Prime trial and had until midnight to watch 9 of the 10 episodes of the first season of the Amazon series based on F. Scott Fitzgerald's unfinished Hollywood novel, The Last Tycoon.  I've long been a hopeless sucker for anything  about Fitzgerald' final years in Hollywood, and have read The Last Tycoon  three or four times and agree with the general consensus that it's the best novel  ever written about Hollywood, even in its incomplete form. (The scholarly consensus now asserts that Fitzgerald's preferred title for the novel was The Love of Last Tycoon: A Western, and some of the new editions of the novel bear that intriguing name.  The series has been called "Mad Men for Hollywood in the 1930s," and there seems little doubt that the producers were interested in playing that angle. It's a handsomely mounted production with fine performances by Kelsey Grammer, Matt Bomer, Lily Collins, Dominique McElligot, Jennifer Beals (yes, that Jennifer Beals) and Rosemarie DeWitt, among many others. Iddo Goldberg as the imperious and perverse Fritz Lang is particularly amusing.   And yet, nearly 10 hours of television each episode is 51 minutes) did not substantially deepen or add to what Fitzgerald created in his unfinished novel of 140 pages. The storyline goes off in many directions that have nothing to do with the original novel -- Nazi interference in Hollywood movies with insistence on script approval, the subject of two recent books, is one area the series explores that Fitzgerald never wrote about. Much as I enjoyed seeing the characters go through twists and turns unimagined by there are original author, I never felt they were adding anything essential to what he had written. 

With that in mind, you can enjoy the series as an entertaining riff on Fitzgerald's work, and appreciate the 21st century sensitivity to the often mistreated young actresses and neglected wives of the Hollywood moguls, as well as the rather wretched conditions that screenwriters were forced to work in despite the high salaries they drew. (Fitzgerald would probably have appreciated the latter point, considering how hard he labored at his novel between screenwriting gigs before dropping dead of a heart attack at the age of 44.)  A factory is a factory, even if the paycheck is much better than the average American's at that time.  And as the series shows, many of these writers weren't simply cynics who took the money and ran but sincerely wanted to write good films, despite the immense odds against them. So sit back and enjoy the ride, which is as filled with wonderful implausibilities as any Hollywood film of the era.

If you enjoy this series, I urge you to read Fitzgerald's novel as well as the excellent examination of how it was written, Matthew J. Bruccoli's "The Last of the Novelist": F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Last Tycoon.  And don't forget to take a look at Aaron Latham's entertaining and heartbreaking book, Crazy Sundays: F. Scott Fitzgerald in Hollywood.

Summer Film Roundup, Part 3: Continuing the Italian Theme

Death in Venice (1971)

High-class gay kitsch.  Luchino Luchino Visconti's adaptation of the Thomas Mann novella looks gorgeous but has none of the subtlety of the original work.  Visconti changed the protagonist, nicely played by Dirk Bogarde, from a novelist to a composer loosely based on Mahler, probably as an excuse to cover the soundtrack with Mahler's music, which overwhelms the film itself.  It also provides Visconti with justification for ignoring the complex inner life of the hero, whose thoughts about writing and art and his own emotional turmoil are completely absent from the film. Presumably composers don't have all those heavy thoughts in their heads the way writers do. The result is over two hours of middle-aged Bogarde staring longingly at an effeminate blonde boy on the beaches of Venice. I found it difficult to keep up with the agonizingly slow pace.  Instead I amused myself with speculating on how Pauline Kael must have eviscerated it, but when I looked in her 5001 Nights at the Movies, I was disappointed to discover that the film wasn't included.  I guess Penelope Gilliatt (who alternated with Kael every six months as The New Yorker's film critic) was saddled with reviewing this white elephant.

For those looking for better examples of Visconti's work, The Damned (1969), also starring Dirk Bogarde is a compelling look at Nazism but shares Death in Venices's (and Visconti's) obsession with the gay theme (not that there's anything wrong with that, to quote Seinfeld)since it focuses on the SA, or brownshirts, a paramilitary Nazi group which was heavily homosexual and eliminated by Hitler shortly after he took power in the Night of the Long Knives.

La Terra Trema (1948) is a nearly three-hour long neorealist film about Italian fishermen and their families.  (All right, it's 2 hours and 40 minutes, but it felt longer.)  One of my college film professors thought it was one of the three greatest films ever made. (I still wonder what the other two were.)  I struggled to stay awake.

The Innocent 1976, with Seventies Italian  superstar  Giancarlo Giannini and the  ineffably lovely Laura Antonelli, was Visconti's last film.  It's visually impressive and enjoyable.

I haven't seen the two Visconti films that are perhaps most highly-regarded, The Leopard (1963), and Rocco and His Brothers (1960); I dearly look forward to seeing his first film, Osessione (1943), an adaptation of the 1934 James M. Cain novel The Postman Always Rings Twice, which would be brilliantly made in Hollywood with John Garfield and Lana Turner, 3 years after Visconti's version.

Luchino Visconti di Modrone, Count of Lonate Pozzolo, was an Italian aristocrat, a communist, an openly gay man, a screenwriter and director whose films are long and leisurely and invariably beautiful to look at. There's no question in my mind that Kubrick was influenced by him (and by Antonioni and Max Ophuls), particularly in Barry Lyndon.  (Marissa Berenson plays the wife in that film and also Death in Venice).  I think both Kubrick and Robert Altman appropriated Visconti's slow zoom ins and zoom outs and graceful panning shots.  Eyes Wide Shut seems to be influenced by Visconti's fascination with decadence as well. 

But enough about influences.  Get hold of the above films and prepare for many hours of dazzling imagery and pointed social critique. Unlike so much of today's Hollywood product, you won't find climaxes every 3 minutes. Or is it every 2 minutes?