Friday, May 2, 2014

Movie Love: Ty Burr’s Gods Like Us, David Thomson’s Moments That Made The Movies and Sophie Cossette’s Sinemania!

I may not be particularly enamoured of the movies much of late – their overall quality is abysmal and they just don’t seem to have the cultural cachet they used to have – but I can still appreciate the enthusiasm of those that are still enthralled by the art form and, more so, enjoy the different approaches they take to expressing their love of cinema. Three recent books all find a way into the movies that is both atypical and idiosyncratic. They’re entertaining and informative in equal measure, fine tributes to the movie love that so many people still possess and a timely reminder of why I fell for the movies in the first place.

Ty Burr’s Gods Like Us: On Movie Stardom and Modern Fame (Panthone Books, 2012) is nothing less than a smart, comprehensive look at the meaning of celebrity, from the beginnings of Hollywood in the early 20th century to the present day age of the Kardashians. Burr, a longtime film critic for The Boston Globe, is interested in how we have changed in regards to our obsession with movie stars, which, of course still exists, and how the dynamic between fan and star has played out over the decades. Interestingly, when the silents first began appearing over a hundred years ago, the stars of the films were never listed on screen (only the movie’s title and studio who put out the film were so identified). But the movie magazines, which cropped up alongside the movies, suddenly began receiving letters from fans wanting to know who this or that actor or actress was and the studios were forced to give credits to the actors in the movies. That started the ball rolling.

Burr makes the fascinating and significant point that, at their outset, the movies were largely a female-driven fan industry as women, restricted in so many ways in early American society, used the movies and their allure of love and sex, before and after the censorious Hays Code, as an escape from their limited lives. Men didn’t need the movies for that as, naturally, they could do pretty much what they wanted in life. So the freewheeling likes of Florence Lawrence (arguably the first movie star and completely unknown to us today) and "It" Girl Clara Bow struck a chord with those early female moviegoers. Neither star, however, ended their careers well: with Lawrence committing suicide in her early fifties and Bow becoming a recluse after several sex scandals brought her down – a destructive career path that has never gone out of style in Hollywood, sadly, particularly for actresses who as they age usually lose their place in the movie star pantheon. Burr also examines the push-pull of Hollywood and morality in America as the silent star and screen scandals, Clara Bow’s and, especially, the Fatty Arbuckle case, wherein the popular comedian was accused in 1921 of raping and killing a young starlet, Virginia Rappe, testified to how the movies have also always been viewed with suspicion and fear by puritans who fear their ‘immoral’ influence on the young and impressionable.

That double-edged sword has always hovered over the movie stars, who can embody the good and bad in life though that it also depends on whether they’re perceived as bad boys or good ones. Robert Mitchum’s 1948 pot bust didn’t hurt his career at all as he was seen as a Hollywood wild card anyway; can you imagine if Jimmy Stewart, an icon of decency in fans’ eyes, had ever been arrested for possession? Closer to home, when Demi Moore asked nicely for a glass of tea at a Toronto International Film Festival press conference a decade or so ago, the tabloid newspaper The Toronto Sun ‘reported’ the next day that she had demanded one, which was hardly the truth.

Morgan Freeman in Bruce Almighty
That type of reaction to movie stars and their ascendancy and decline at various times and in various eras, is the crux of Gods Like Us, which not only looks at the predictable stars / icons of their time – Marilyn Monroe, John Wayne, Tom Hanks et al. (Marlon Brando, aptly, gets his own chapter heading entitled “Barbarians at the Gates: Brando Changes Everything”) – but also studies some of them in a new light or at least in a way I haven’t perceived before (and I teach many of these actors in my classes, most recently in one on Iconic Cinema.) Here’s Burr on Morgan Freeman: “Freeman’s color remained part of his casting even when – especially when – he was playing God (Bruce Almighty, 2003), the president (Deep Impact, 1998) or Nelson Mandela (Invictus, 2009). It’s less an issue in genre thrillers like Se7en (1995) and Kiss the Girls (1997), and, anyway, by now his persona as a gentle, firm, benevolent man is so established that it’s a moot point; he’s not black, he’s Morgan Freeman.” And here he is on Tom Cruise, an actor I don’t care for but almost came to appreciate based on Burr’s take on the movie star. Discussing the Oscar he did not win for Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia (1999, which Burr seems to believe he should have won; I don’t), he smartly writes, “He’ll never win. They’ll give Cruise a plaque at the end of his career like they did with Cary Grant and Fred Astaire, two other stars who were, judged, wrongly, as locked into performing helpless variations on themselves. I’m not saying Cruise is on a par with Grant, but I am saying that both men impersonated the person they each wanted to be with a diligence and craft and shifting nuance that doesn’t get half the credit it might. “Then he adds, stingingly, “Anyway, why struggle to reframe Cruise as a master thespian when he’s more entertaining as a celebrity, especially after he seemed to undergo a complete persona meltdown in the new century? (More later in the“When Stars Go Bananas” section.)” Burr is referring to Cruise’s jumping on the couch when he appeared on the Oprah show and the section he references isn’t actually in his book, but his comments on stars seen as going nuts applies equally to recent incidents, be they Shia LeBeouf’s strange tweets or Alec Baldwin’s homophobic rants or his recent diatribe against New York City in New York Magazine.

Both prescient and investigative, Gods Like Us re-examines how the movies have changed the meaning of stardom and vice versa, be it in the rise, for a time, of the ‘real’ movie stars, like Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate (1967) (and later the other Hoffman, Philip Seymour) – amusingly the suits liked the movie but could not help admonishing the 1967 film’s director Mike Nichols that “it’s just a shame about the boy” – or later the new pop stars like Michael Jackson, who carried the baggage of fan’s expectation of what he meant. Today of course, we have social media, which brings us different kinds of stars – Paris Hilton, the Kardashians, and their ilk – and, conversely, removes the mystique of the stars, which in many ways had persisted almost intact to the present century. There are still stars around, reminds Burr, a precious few, such as Meryl Streep, Denzel Washington, Tom Hanks, and, in particular, Julia Roberts, whose mega wattage smile should never be underestimated, he writes and who offers the same pleasures of “nerve and playfulness “ in all her roles (Erin Brockovich, 2000; Eat Pray Love, 2010) no matter how superficially different they seem to be. “She is, in celebrity terms, the best kind of professional. She understands what we want and she gives it to us.”

And while I would have liked more on Michelle Pfeiffer and Jessica Lange (only briefly mentioned) and some commentary on James Franco, today’s Paul Newman in that he’s a character actor deemed good looking enough for leading man roles, but one can’t expect Burr to run the full gamut of all those stars who have made a difference over the years on screen. That would require a much lengthier tome. (That said, I don’t get the complete omission of River Phoenix, the sensitive successor to James Dean, who is mentioned in depth in Gods Like Us, in so many myriad ways. )

Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson and Peter Fonda in Easy Rider

Burr, too, reminds us he’s a critic first and foremost. His dead on take on the seminal Easy Rider, Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper’s 1969 classic, is a biker flick that Burr writes, “…was a success beyond all measure and the final cruel proof for old Hollywood that something was happening here and they had no idea what it was. That said, the movie was dated within five minutes of its release and is nearly unwatchable today, a mumbling time-capsule approximation of incoherent attitudes towards freedom, America, women, drugs and dialogue.” Yet, he goes on to note; it also brought us Jack Nicholson. “Playing a boozy Southern lawyer who hitches up with the heroes for a few scenes, Nicholson is the only aspect of the entire movie that feels focused. He has a grip on the character – a failed son of privilege, standing outside his small-town culture, possessed of the wisdom and self-pity of the still-young alcoholic – and he conveys it incisively in word and deed and stance… His energy and humor are electrifying, and after the endless, stoned heaviosities of Hopper and Fonda, Nicholson seems to cut to the heart of the matter with joy and drawling wit. And he gets off the one line of dialogue that resonates: 'This used to be a helluva good country. I can’t understand what’s gone wrong with it.' He conveys, instantly.” The late, great Pauline Kael could not have put it better. Whether he's explaining Eddie Murphy’s calculated career changes, or Woody Allen’s unique film persona, Burr offers up many more smart critiques like the above throughout.

But it’s Burr’s anecdote about his encounter with Robin Williams that resonates with me the most. They were both heading out for a jog in New York and though first the comedian/actor acknowledged him, as one runner to another, his eyes turned dead as soon as he realized that the critic recognized him and any human connection between the two was instantly turned off. (I had a similar experience in the reverse in 1989 when Matt Dillon had a friendly chat with me at a Toronto Film Festival party for Drugstore Cowboy; he was clearly relieved to be in the company of someone, who, unlike all the many women at the party, was not hitting on him.) Those moments, sad in so many ways, is testimony to how we may elevate movie stars to gods but just as quickly we can bring them down to earth when we’re infringing on their personal space or perceived to be doing so even if, we as Burr, are not. Gods Like Us is a warning sign that what the public may deem as worthy of worship can so easily be removed from acclaim and love. The movie stars are at our mercy and caprice and as long as movies continue to be made, they always will be.

The British-born, American based David Thomson is one of the more idiosyncratic film writers around. His book Suspects (1986) speculated on the future off-screen lives of fictional movie characters, everyone from Tony Manero (Saturday Night Fever) to Michael Corleone’s wife Kay (The Godfather), even going so far as to imagine a homosexual relationship between Humphrey Bogart’s Rick and Claude Rains’ Louis in Casablanca. (I don’t think anything in the movie suggests that type of relationship but it’s a provocative, fascinating idea nonetheless.) In that vein, it’s not surprising that Thomson’s latest book, a coffee table-like tome called Moments That Made The Movies (Thames & Hudson Inc., 2013) does not trod the predictable path in choosing 70 specific, iconic scenes that have stood out for him over his movie going and reviewing years. His opening and closing shots in the chronologically arranged book – a semi-erotic, series of two naked women from 1887 by Eadward Muybridge entitled One Woman Standing, Another Sitting and Crossing Legs and Richard Lam’s famous still (the only specific photo in the book) of a couple making love during the 2011 Stanley Cup hockey riots in Vancouver – set the book’s original tone and theme. Yes, some of his choices are obvious ones – the book's cover image of the dead body in the swimming pool that opens Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd. (1950), the chilling crop dusting scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959); the erotic, chronically jumbled sex scene in Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973); Dean Stockwell’s creepy character, Frank, singing "In Dreams" in David Lynch’s disturbing Blue Velvet (1986) – but would anyone seriously argue that they’re not moments that made those movies? I certainly wouldn’t. And while my first choice for a scene from The Godfather (1972) would not necessarily have been Michael Corleone’s execution of Sollozzo and McCluskey in the Italian restaurant, key plot point that it is, it’s arguably still one of the most important moments (of many) in that momentous movie, marking Michael's coming out as his father’s gangster son. (Thomson does have problems with the fact that you can hear the noisy subway trains rattling by in that scene. He thinks that a more out the way, quieter establishment would have been chosen for the meet. Normally, I'd say he’s nit-picking but Thomson’s points have a way of making you at least speculate on why the director chose the setting he did even if it’s not quite the flaw Thomson considers it to be.) He also doesn't proffer the expected shower scene from Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) though, but points to a more provocative one in a way instead. (You'll have to peruse the book to see what it is.) Other choices remind us of movies unfortunately forgotten or not as well-known as they should be, such as Phil Kaufman’s 1983 masterpiece The Right Stuff and the beautifully shot scene of astronaut Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard) astride his horse, juxtaposed against the spaceship he will soon be flying. But Thomson also fixates on scenes from movies that I consider mediocre, Jane Campion’s In the Cut (2003) and the Coen Brothers’ Burn After Reading (2008). Yet, damned if his picks – the explicit sex scene between Meg Ryan and Mark Ruffalo in the former, a desk bound conversation between David Rasche and J.K. Simmons in the latter – are about all I remember from those otherwise forgettable flicks. (I also liked Brad Pitt’s exuberant comedic performance as a wired gym bunny in Burn After Reading but that’s about all.)

Scene from an Italian restaurant, The Godfather (1972)

The book is also replete with detailed and often quite arch and funny text accompanying the stills in the book. Regarding Arthur Penn’s gangster classic Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Thomson explains the cult of stars Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway (far better looking than the real life characters they portrayed in the film) in the movie as such; “It’s a film about Warren and Faye making it, which in Hollywood is rather more important than making out, or whatever it’s called.” Thomson also likes the fact that Jacques Rivette’s masterful French fantasy Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974) has not yet been made available on DVD in North America. “…I like it all the more for that,” he writes, “So it is hard to get at, elusive, difficult to see…We need to know that there are unattainable things, or films we must search for. Or wait for. There is no desire without that frustration.” Moments That Made The Movies is all about that desire, for the stars, the erotic nature of the scene, the meaning of life as contained in the film frames. It will make you look at old favourites or new ones in a different light. What more can you ask for in a book like this?

Sophie Cossette’s quirky, darkly funny graphic novel Sinemania! (ECW Press, 2013) announces its outré intentions right at the outset when she begins her introduction by referencing Andrzej Zulawski’s 1981 horror film Possession. It’s a ridiculous, frankly unwatchable movie wherein Isabelle Adjani plays an unhappy woman mired in a love affair with a monster but it’s also indicative of the talented Cossette’s personal obsessions: the movies and moviemakers that go beyond the pale or norm in crafting their unique visions onscreen. So she offers up well-drawn, striking back-and-white panels unveiling the tumultuous lives and unruly characters of directors like Alfred Hitchcock, Luis Buñuel, Fritz Lang, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Erich von Stroheim, Kenneth Anger, Orson Welles, Otto Preminger, Ken Russell, Russ Meyer and Werner Herzog, among others. Reading Cossette’s Sinemania!, emphasis on the sin, makes you realize anew if you haven’t already that it often takes a specific type of off kilter person to put up with all the bullshit that accrues to creating movies, from dealing with egotistical, unmalleable actors to the arrogant suits who often try to quash your outside personality so to better fit you into an easily controllable box. But Cossette isn’t above poking fun at them, too, whether it’s spoofing Ken Russell’s temper tantrums and odd depictions of ‘reality’ – she calls the British director of The Devils and Women in Love, a “Fish and Chips Fellini” – or imitating Otto Preminger’s Germanic accent and Prussian demeanour in a first person account of the filmmaker, self-pityingly describing how nastily he is perceived by others in a confessional therapy session. Cossette also doesn’t shy away from the sexual overtones, subtle or not, in many of the movies she draws in Sinemania! (Pasolini’s sadomasochistic sexual predilections alone, which may have gotten him murdered, are fodder for some of her raunchy musings but she also has fun imagining how Buñuel may go to hell for his satiric, anti-clerical films, tallying his ‘sins’ in point form as he slides down the path to the heated depths.)

Not all of her conceits pay off. Contrasting American director Sam Peckinpah and German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder in one linked chapter, just because they were both abusive to their lovers and excessive in their indulgences of alcohol (Peckinpah) or drugs (Fassbinder), doesn’t gel. The men are entirely different creatures, in their sexuality, background and output with really very little of consequence matching them up with each other. Josef Von Sternberg (The Blue Angel) vs. Guy Ritchie (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels) makes no sense at all. And I don’t know what Woody Allen and Spike Lee have in common to put them together; being fans of the same basketball team doesn’t cut it. (Admittedly Lee has had to put up with comparisons between his movies and Allen’s films, at least early in his career, but that’s just lazy critics pontificating and not at all based in objective fact.) I’d also have given John Waters, one of the movie world’s genuine eccentrics, a chapter of his own instead of a one-page poem detailing his foibles. Likely Terry Gilliam (Brazil) should have been included in Sinemania!, too, instead of, perhaps Quentin Tarantino, who’s more of a dull, movie-obsessed brat than a larger than life directorial figure. And where’s Alejandro Jodorowsky in all this? The director of The Holy Mountain and El Topo is the very definition of crazily obsessed.

A page from Sinemania! (click on image for a better view)

Sinemania! also has individual two-pagers sandwiched between the four or six page chapters, a page each written by Phil Liberbaum (Cossette’s partner) and Ryan Lalande. Taking a gander at films by directors like David Lynch, Martin Scorsese, Joel and Ethan Coen, Elia Kazan, Roman Polanski, Brian De Palma and Lindsay Anderson – some of whom merit the longer treatment – adds a bit to the book, though Liberbaum’s arch/sarcastic tone is more appealing than Lalande’s straight-ahead, somewhat dull views. (I’m not sure what Robert Wise or Sidney Lumet are doing in Sinemania!; they’re skilled movie makers, of course but also supremely ordinary guys, from all I can see.) Ultimately, what allows Sinemania! to work as art – and the Montreal-born, Toronto-based Cossette is certainly a knowledgeable movie fanatic, as much so as Burr and Thomson – is its sideways glance at the movies, a roundabout approach to why cinema is important and why the men (still mostly men, alas) who make those movies aren’t, for the most part, like you and I. It takes a certain type of single-minded, focused individual to get the movies made. Fortunately, it also takes die-hard film fans like Cossette to, if not make perfect sense of what makes them tick, at least, allow us to ponder what drives them in their quest to make great movies. Sinemania! is manic in all the best ways.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre and Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he just finished teaching a course on iconic cinema. He will be starting a course on Hollywood and Society, a look at how Hollywood has handled hot-button issues in the movies over the years, beginning on May 9 at Ryerson, and also giving two lectures on Jewish actors-filmmakers Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Barbara Streisand and Richard Benjamin on May 13 and May 20 at the Miles Nadal JCC.

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