Saturday, May 18, 2013


There is that moment when your friend is telling you about his or her life, and it all sounds so perfect, and according to plan, and what you should be your only proper response is to lie that everything with you is going just fine, and "pretty great myself", out of a sense of competition but also a desire to give a sense of false comfort to yourself. Frances Ha has one of the best of those moments ever captured in a film. HBO's "Girls" had a similar moment in this past uneven season, but Greta Gerwig and Mickey Sumner, as Frances and Sophie, two best friends whose paths post-college are going in wildly different directions, make this phone conversation, crossing the Atlantic, so grand and vivid. Frances is a modern dancer, only she has all the determination and passion for the art form without the requisite talent. Sophie is working a nine-to-five at a book publisher's agency. Clearly one is making more money than the other, and there begins the fork in the road of their relationship.

While Frances Ha is about these two women and how they grow apart over the course of several months, the focus is squarely on Frances, as she bounces from one apartment to another, struggling to find a permanent place in a modern dance company where she has been apprenticing for who knows how long. The film is broken into chapters based on her current address, beginning in Brooklyn, jumping to Chinatown (living with Adam Driver, another link to the film's apparent sister series, "Girls", and Michael Zegen, a single writer whose constant flirtations go unnoticed), then to a couch in the apartment of established dancer Grace Gummer (Meryl Streep's daughter), and finally to a summer camp in Poughkeepsie, surrounded by younger college students judging her lack of upward motion post-graduation. Even a splurge trip to Paris for two days results in missed opportunities and generally ignored tourist sights in the background. Frances' story concludes with a rather pat final sequence, almost too perfect in its solutions to her problems, but does wisely leave room for her continued self-improvement. A character this dynamic and with such interesting quirks and dilemmas cannot be perfected within the space of a narrative feature film. By the end credits roll, Frances has turned a corner, but she has many more ahead of her. As I left the theater, I wondered what was in store for Frances, and hell, myself, as we both traveled life's journey after graduating college and pursue finding stability, love, and a space in the world all your own.

Noah Baumbach, a polarizing director whose work either inspires rage or empathy from his viewers, has rather wisely shared this film with Gerwig, who is credited as the script's co-writer. This makes it far easier to recommend Frances Ha to anti-Baumbach enthusiasts, because the finished product feels more like a Gerwig vehicle, from page to screen, than a Baumbach vision. Gerwig herself, however, has raised the ire of some viewers, who find her hipster pixie girl persona off-putting and phony. To those viewers, I bite my thumb. In this title character, and in just about everything else she's done, she is warm and funny and awkward and beautiful. We wince as Frances makes bad decisions, and applaud her small triumphs, and it's because of the vibrancy Gerwig so fearlessly gives her character. The highlight of the film, seen in the trailer, finds Gerwig running and dancing across New York crosswalks to David Bowie's "Modern Love", with a sense of joyous adventure and eager excitement that cannot help but be infectious. It is this shameless exuberance that makes Frances Ha such a pleasure.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

2 by Delmer Daves at Anthology Film Archives

One of the few key directors discussed in Andrew Sarris' "The American Cinema" without a book-length biography is Delmer Daves, which is surprising considering how popular and well-loved many of his films have remained over the years. However, unlike his fellow auteurs working in similar genres (John Ford, Anthony Mann, Howard Hawks), one cannot generally tell a Delmer Daves film by its visual style or its thematic elements. He was, like many of his contemporaries, a solid studio-era director who just so happened to deliver good films time and again, even if they did not distinguish him from others of his type. Anthology Film Archives, whose "From the Pen Of..." series sheds light on underrated Hollywood screenwriters, also devotes several weeks a year to another series, "Overdue", programmed by critics who select a filmmaker who deserves, at long last, a retrospective film series. The month of May spotlights Daves with 5 films, including classic movie fan favorites like 1945's Pride of the Marines and 1950's Broken Arrow. If you asked fans of those films who directed it, one has to wonder if they would know. The stars, yes, are John Garfield and Jimmy Stewart, respectively, but the director? Daves is not a cinematic name brand. Maybe he never aimed to be.

Produced during the same year the HUAC hearings began, the provocatively-named The Red House (1947) is often written about as being a film noir, with its dark shadows and murderous secrets. However, anyone coming to this film expecting something in the noir mode will be disappointed. It does deliver a solid, if a tad unbelievable, mystery, engaging performances, and beautiful suspenseful atmosphere. Daves broke from the studio system to write, produce, and distribute this film independently for United Artists producer Sol Lesser, giving the film a slight edge and individual look that other pictures from 1947 did not offer. More than half is shot outdoors, in some confining spaces, contributing further to the overall independent aura of the production, free from the restrictions of studio walls.

There is something overwhelmingly Lynchian about Red House, as the small town is introduced by voice-over narration as a quaint locale far from the big bad city and with an innocence that has lasted over generations. Then the squeaky-clean rural setting is corrupted by the mysterious mention of a "red house" residing within the Oxhead Woods, one that produces blood-curdling screams that carry over wild winds in the dead of night. Pete Morgan (Edward G. Robinson) warns his young farmhand Nath (Lon McCallister) to stay away from the woods at night, naturally giving the inquisitive teenager a case of the investigative bug. He recruits Pete's adopted daughter, Meg (Allene Roberts), to help him find the red house, incurring the wrath of Nath's jealous sexpot girlfriend Tibbie (singer Julie London, channeling Rita Hayworth in Gilda) and the villainous advances of property protector Teller (beefcake Rory Calhoun). Pete's spinster sister Ellen (Judith Anderson, who has never been bad in anything) knows the secret of the red house and threatens to burn the dastardly hovel to the ground.

The investigative team of Nath and Meg, and in fact the entire scenario of a small town's secret being hidden not-so-deep beneath the surface, surely had a vivid influence on Lynch's Blue Velvet (1986), and Roberts' Meg is about as impossibly innocent as Laura Dern's Sandy. But even ignoring the obvious Lynch connections, Red House has much to recommend. As the film becomes progressively more intense and mysterious, the sunny vistas become more ominous and threatening, through superb photography by Bert Glennon. Robinson gives one of his finest performances as a man driven by his dark past and doomed to repeat his haunting mistakes, and while McCallister isn't the most engaging hero, Roberts is the ideal blonde American apple pie heroine. As previously mentioned, Anderson is always marvelous, though she is not featured in the film nearly enough, and London and Calhoun provide gender-specific eye candy. If there is a major fault with the film, it's that the running time is far longer than the mystery's interest can sustain. By the time the red house is found, it's some distance from the final act, which is where the discovery would hold more dramatic weight. That said, Daves builds the suspense as Robinson's dark secrets emerge and the lives of those around him are continually threatened. And that dark woodland ending is a stunner.

The complete movie The Red House

Following the excellence of 3:10 to Yuma (1957), it's quite a step down for Daves to deliver such a formulaic western as Cowboy (1958). The film reunites Daves with his Jubal (1956) and Yuma star Glenn Ford, but also saddles him with an unusually cast Jack Lemmon in a role perhaps better suited for someone with more gravitas as a western/action star. It's your rather standard manhood rite of passage story, based on what might have been a more compelling book by Frank Harris, played here by Lemmon. He is a poor hotel clerk who yearns to be a working man, and whose interest in a Mexican beauty leads him to enlist with Ford's cattle trail team. When he discovers she has married in his absence, Lemmon hardens and becomes a heartless cowboy, only softened by Ford's gradual growth towards sensitivity and humanity. Snore. While Daves does include some rather thrilling set pieces (the trail hands play with a rattlesnake with deadly results, Ford must place a ring around a bull's horn, a rough and tumble fistfight around the campfire), they are not enough to completely enliven what is otherwise a puerile genre effort. Even the Saul Bass titles are dull. The supporting cast has some fun faces in it, including Dick York (pre-"Bewitched"), Richard Jaeckel, Brian Donlevy (third-billed in what is essentially a glorified cameo), Strother Martin, and Anna Kasfhi as Harris' love interest (at the time she was Mrs. Marlon Brando). Daves would make a far better western, The Hanging Tree (1959), the next year.

This trailer is far better than the film.

Portrait of Jason (1967)

The common perception of the documentary is that we, the audience, are seeing the truth. But it's a "truth" that has been shaped by others, building "performances" out of people seemingly being themselves and often working towards a narrative structure that real life does not always afford. So when Shirley Clarke placed her camera in front of a middle-aged black homosexual hustler in 1960s New York to capture his incredible stories, it takes some poking and prodding to get her subject going in the directions she wants. By the abrupt conclusion of Portrait of Jason (1967), there is the glaring question of what or who exactly it is a documentary about. This question is what continues to make Clarke's work an enduring classic finally reaching a wider audience through its Milestone Video re-release.

The most vivid truth of Portrait of Jason is that its central character, a self-admitted hustler and con artist, is giving the performance of his lifetime. Jason Holliday isn't even his real name; he was born Aaron Payne, but adopted his pseudonym while living in San Francisco. His stories, while involving, can never be fully trusted. But that doesn't stop them from helping to create an engrossing and very human character before our very eyes. Provided with ample alcohol and pot by Clarke and her filmmaking cohorts, who also throw out prompts for good stories ("Talk about Brother Tough. Do some of your act."), Jason's story is his to tell, but it is also molded by the filmmakers, culled from a marathon 12-hour interview session. He recalls his various houseboy jobs, many revealing the world of racial divide he grew up in, but also openly discusses his homosexual liaisons and how well-endowed he is (or isn't). Jason deviates from his established free-wheeling character for hilarious celebrity impersonations, from Mae West to Butterfly McQueen to Katharine Hepburn, which he claims are part of a nightclub act he is actively working to make a reality...before he laughs himself silly at ignoring multiple phone calls from a venue interested in booking him.

This almost constant laughter of Jason's, as he downs tumblers of booze and chain smokes marijuana cigarettes, is at first charming. But as the film progresses, we wonder how someone can be this jovial, even under the influence. Then his stories begin to betray layers of self-hatred and pain. But then, are these feelings genuine? Are the stories real? When Clarke's fellow interrogator Carl Lee (son of blacklisted actor Canada Lee) accuses Jason of betraying him in the film's final act, the hustler's tense and tearful reactions are unlike anything we've seen from Jason before. But there is that question again, are they real? Does it matter? In the long run, not really, because Jason is one unique showman, and keeping we viewers enthralled for a feature's length is no small feat. This is a film you can come back to numerous times and still be surprised by new discoveries in Jason's stories, his delivery, the narrative structure, and what Clarke is truly attempting to do with this unusual documentary form.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

May 7 - first day back!

My return to New York was also a return to the movies, and the city continues to be the best place for film lovers in the world. Yes, L.A., even better than you.

Roberto Rossellini's Voyage to Italy (1954) (or as it's referred to just about everywhere but the Film Forum calendar, Journey to Italy) has managed to elude much attention from scholars and film fans over the decades since its release, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that it paired the director with his controversial real-life amour Ingrid Bergman. Andrew Sarris and Francois Truffaut, the original auteurist scholars, were admirers of the film, but it has largely been forgotten in favor of focusing on Rossellini's pre-Bergman work. It's interesting to consider that even as his marital indiscretions with his Swedish muse and wife have been forgiven over time, his films with her still tend to be dismissed. One has to wonder why this particular film has been chosen for a re-evaluation over their other collaborations; Stromboli (1950) is particularly interesting, and has much in common with his neo-realist origins, and Fear (1954) is a fine psychological thriller. Both are better than Voyage to Italy. Beautifully restored by the consistently great Cineteca di Bologna, the re-release of Voyage to Italy is not a complete waste of time, but is also not a revival to get overly excited about.

Bergman and George Sanders play Catherine and Alex, a British couple on their first vacation together alone, driving through Italy to reach Naples, where Alex hopes to place his late uncle's villa on the market. As the two begin to notice that not only are they happier when they are without the other, but they are developing overwhelming romantic desires for others, the journey becomes more uncomfortable and reaches a boiling point with an explosive argument over a borrowed car that leads to words they both wish were never spoken.

We are really given very little information about who Catherine and Alex are, making their eventual discovery that they don't really know each other very well slightly more effective. We don't know either. Sanders, who always tended to be smug and condescending in everything he did, provides vivid contrast to the emotional highs often found in Bergman's performances. If they seem mismatched, all the better. This is a couple that has very little in common, except perhaps the fact that they don't love one another. Based on a novel by Colette, the woman we can also blame for Gigi (1958), the slight narrative of the film is enlivened by striking black and white cinematography by Enzo Serafin. The camera prowls the museums, ruins, and streets of Naples and Pompeii, serving as a fine travelogue of 1950s Italy while also providing comparisons between the doomed couple and the stone works of art. There are also interesting casting choices that outsider film fans will admire. Paul Muller, later to become a member of Jess Franco's regular troupe of thespians, plays a beatnik-type tagging along with a trio of free-wheeling lady tourists, and Leslie Daniels, appearing here as the caretaker of Alex's uncle's villa, somehow followed up his esteemed work in European arthouse films with a memorable co-starring role as the doctor's assistant whose arm is gorily torn off in The Brain That Wouldn't Die (1959/62). From Rossellini to Jan in the Pan...that's quite an actor's journey.

A disastrous ending can completely undo a film, no matter what good came before it. In the case of Voyage to Italy, the final scene seems to contradict everything Rossellini was trying to accomplish in his exploration of a marriage disintegrating. If this was the ending of the novel, it's a wonder that the director even bothered adapting it in the first place. For the master of Italian neorealism to conclude his story with a wildly unrealistic and stylized Hollywood ending voids much of the film's effectiveness. It destroys what could have been a minor, but noteworthy entry in his oeuvre.

You probably know of The Source Family (2012) even if you think you don't. If you've seen Annie Hall (1977), Just the Two of Us (1970), Alex in Wonderland (1970), or Cisco Pike (1972), the Source restaurant, a mainstay of the Sunset Strip in 1970s Los Angeles and home to the Family, is featured prominently in key sequences in those films. As featured in this documentary, the Family even inspired a skit on "Saturday Night Live". Where the Manson Family and Jim Jones' Peoples' Temple have shifted public awareness of cult mentality into negative images of mass murder, mindless followers, and megalomaniacal leaders, Jim Baker's Source Family was quite a different animal. This group began with a health food store and blossomed into a 140-person commune of men, women, and children following a self-written philosophy combining the best elements of major world religions. Of course, all good things must come to an end, and the Family's existence lasted a mere five years before Baker's unusual behavior (including adopting 13 wives and moving the family headquarters to Hawaii) led to family members heading for the hills and eventual group disintegration following their leader's death. Baker, known first as Father Yod and then as YaHoWha within the Family, had a fascinating life story even before he, but to reveal more of this unusual story would rob you of the wonderful surprises in store for the adventurous spectator.

The most incredible aspect of the documentary is the sheer volume of archival material used. Assigned by Baker with the task of documenting the Family and its history, Isis Aquarian (the film's associate producer, and ex-girlfriend of famed photographer Ron Raffaelli, also interviewed here) captured daily life, meditations, and key events of the Family's existence in photographs, audio recordings, and home movie footage. Maybe the best material is to be found in the film's soundtrack, made up entirely of original recordings by the Family's rock band, the YaHoWha 13, which released a staggering nine albums in a very short period of time. Original copies of the LP's sell for top dollar among collectors today, but the curious can check out the few CD releases available. Most are available on iTunes listed either under Father Yod and the Source Family or the Yahowha 13. There is even a mammoth 13-CD boxed set, now out of print, that looks to be the final word on the musical world of the Source Family.