The Walk to the Dance

John Ford’s Tombstone, Arizona in My Darling Clementine (1946)

I wasn’t feeling all that well late this afternoon, so I switched on the television to Turner Classic Movies (TCM). They were just starting John Ford’s My Darling Clementine, one of the best Westerns ever made. It’s one of those films I’ve seen so often that I could anticipate the actors’ lines and gestures seconds before they appeared on film.

The film contains a whole sequence of what I call privileged moments. These are scenes that send shivers up my spine irrespective of how many times I see the film. The most incredible ones in My Darling Clementine appear in the middle of the film. Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) is lazing in a chair on the porch of his hotel, and Morgan (Ward Bond) and Virgil (Tim Holt) Earp are about to leave to visit the grave of their brother James. The Earp brothers notice a number of buckboards filled with people streaming into town. It turns out there will be a dance commemorating the building of a church.

Wyatt Earp Lazing in His Chair

Clementine Carter is about to leave on the outgoing stage, after having been told off by her old beau Doc Holliday (Victor Mature), but it is late that day. So Wyatt and Clementine walk down the main street of Tombstone to the church dance. This scene is conveyed in four or five shots that are among the best in any film I have ever seen. They arrive at the dance, and the church deacon invites them to dance. The scenes of the dance are again Ford at his best, with Wyatt’s stiff movements with the lovely Clementine in his arms. Folded in his arms during the dance is Clementine’s jacket.

Wyatt and Clementine at the Dance

These privileged moments are de rigeur for a film to be considered one of what I consider to be a great film. In future posts, I will try to sketch some more of these scenes—but only as I see the films again and the scenes are fresh in my memory.

Fun on the Dunes of Arrakis

Poster Art for David Lynch’s Dune (1984) with Kyle MacLachlan

I think it is part of the human condition to fall in love with a book or song or film that one knows is not altogether up to snuff. In suchlike manner do I love the Dave Robicheaux novels of James Lee Burke, Annie Lennox and the Eurythmics singing “Sweet Dreams,” or David Lynch’s magnificent near-miss epic, Dune, based on the Frank Herbert novel of the same name.

Yesterday I saw Dune for the nth time, loving every minute of the film which its director disavowed because he did not get final editing rights. Having read the novel twice, I knew that there were unpardonable lacunae in the story, but I didn’t care. I felt that Lynch managed to get at the heart of the characters, even though he claims not to have read the book.

Alia of the Knife in Dune, Played by Alicia Witt

Please do not confuse my strange taste for any love of camp or any other such outmoded sensibility. The things I like about Dune are not its imperfections, but how close Lynch comes to pulling it all off.

Come to think of it, I feel that way about two other film epics directed by Anthony Mann that have received scant critical praise, including The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) with Sophia Loren and Stephen Boyd and El Cid (1961) with Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren. Like Dune, both Mann films were vitiated by the penny-pinching producers, but had some excellent bits.

Every director worth his salt has in his filmography films that have ended up as heartbreaks. Think of Orson Welles’s whole career after Citizen Kane, the late works of Josef Von Sternberg (after his Marlene Dietrich masterpieces), Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus, and Akira Kurosawa’s Dodes’ka-den, over which the filmmaker attempted suicide.

It seems that imperfection is part and parcel of movie-making—perhaps because it is an art form that involves large crowds of people.

A Creative Drought

Poster for Akira Kurosawa’s Dodes’ka-den (1970)

In the first twenty-two years of his film career, Akira Kurosawa had directed twenty-three films, many of them internationally recognized as classics. His career has another twenty-eight years to run, but he was to complete only seven more films.

After the success of Red Beard (1965), the Japanese film industry began to show weakness—a weakness that was to lead to the fall of the hitherto successful studio system in Tokyo within a few years, as a giant real-estate bubble was to make the land on which the studios sat more valuable than anything possible at the box office. Kurosawa turned to the United States, working first on a project call Runaway Train, which was never made. Then he was to direct the Japanese side of Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) from which he was fired for not seeing eye-to-eye with the producers at 20th Century Fox.

Scene from Dodes’ka-Den (1970)

Not having completed a film in five and a half years, Kurosawa was hurting. So he picked up a book of short stories by Shugoro Yamamoto entitled A Town Without Seasons. With a shooting schedule of only twenty-eight days, Dodes’ka-Den (1970) was Kurosawa’s first film in color.

Although it opened to worldwide critical praise, the film bombed in Japan, leaving its director so despondent that he attempted to commit suicide by slashing his wrists. I happen to think the film is beautiful, continuing the director’s exploration of the humanity of the poor begun with Red Beard. The name of the film is based on the sound made by a teenaged boy pretending to be a trolley working its way through a slum that resembles a city dump. Around him are stories of other residents of the slum as they deal with poverty, ill-health, crime, starvation, and even love. It is a film that made me feel good, such that I will try to find a DVD of it to purchase.

Film Director Akira Kurosawa (1910-1998)

Although Kurosawa is not my favorite Japanese director (I would pick either Kenji Mizoguchi or Yasujiro Ozu for that), I love seeing his films again and again—and his films are more readily available than those of Mizoguchi and Ozu.

 

Lone Wolf and Cub

Former Executioner Ogami Itto with Son Daigoro

I have always loved Japanese samurai films. Now, during my quarantine, I have been checking out some of the more marginal samurai series. As of today, I have seen all six of the Lone Wolf and Cub films starring Tomisaburo Wakayama and produced by the Toho studio in the early 1970s. These films include:

  • Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance (1972), dir: Kenji Misumi
  • Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx (1972), dir: Kenji Misumi
  • Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart to Hades (1972), dir: Kenji Misumi
  • Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in Peril (1972), dir: Buichi Saito
  • Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in the Land of Demons (1973), dir: Kenji Misumi
  • Lone Wolf and Cub: White Heaven in Hell (1974), dir: Yoshiyuki Kuroda

In all six films, Ogami Itto is pushing a wooden baby carriage which comes complete with an impressive series of armaments, including an early precursor of the Gatling Gun (?!). In White Heaven in Hell, it even turns into a toboggan, enabling Ogami to escape hundreds of attacking members of the Ura-Yagyu clan mounted on skis.

The body count in all six films easily exceeds a thousand, as the combination of Ogami’s swordsmanship and the rapid-fire machine gun built into the baby carriage wreaks havoc on his enemies.

Film Poster for Lone Wolf: Baby Cart in Peril

Obviously the source for the films comes from Japanese comic books known as manga. Below is a panel from one of the comics:

A Feeling for the Manga Source of the Films

Although there is no real dedication to realism or even plausibility in either the films or the comic books, the films are all well-crafted Toho Studio productions and immensely entertaining. There is some minor nudity in the films and a great deal of violence.

 

 

007

Poster for The Living Daylights (1987)

During this extended period of quarantine, I have relied more and more on sheer entertainment value. In terms of film, nothing fills the bill quite like the James Bond films—almost irrespective of the actor that plays 007. I have just seen The Living Daylights starring Timothy Dalton as the ace British spy. It doesn’t seem to matter that the plots are highly unlikely. In compensation, there are the Bond girls, in this film, Maryam d’Abo fills the role quite appetizingly.

Ever since my freshman year in college when Sean Connery, Ursula Andress, and Joseph Wiseman starred in Doctor No, I have loved the Bond films. Not only that, during my college terms, I managed to read most of the Ian Fleming novels written to date. And since I graduated, I read all the rest of them that followed.

Timothy Dalton and Maryam d’Abo in The Living Daylights

I suspect that John LeCarré and Len Deighton wrote spy novels that were more true to life, but it really doesn’t matter. The continuing characters of M, Q, Felix Leiter, and Miss Moneypenny help provide continuity. The only James Bond film I did not like was 1967’s Casino Royale with Peter Sellers as 007, which I saw as a somewhat leaden spoof. Plus, it just doesn’t fit in with all the other Bonds, and it is in no way true to the Ian Fleming novel of the same name.

James Bond Hitches a Ride in Gibraltar

There are still about eight or nine Bond films I haven’t yet seen. It is my intention to remedy that oversight before the end of the year, if I can. In this year of ultimate unreality, the unreality of James Bond is curiously soothing.

 

Plague Diary 20: More Books and Films

Christopher Plummer in Nicholas Ray’s Wind Across the Everglades

It was yet another day in quarantine (I am not keeping count). I started by making hot chocolate with the premium chocolate I had purchased in Mexico during my vacation. When produced in a double boiler the chocolate comes out perfect every time.

Then I decided to take a walk to the mailbox on Barry, about a mile east of here, to return a Netflix DVD of two Japanese samurai films I had seen over the previous two days. (I will write more about them in a future post.) I also wanted to stop in at the local Target store, but I had forgotten to bring my face mask with me—something I do about half the time. I notice a lot of people wear face masks all the time. They remind me of people who sleep alone with condoms draped over their jewels.

I returned to eat lunch with Martine. Mine was a couple of Chinese beef buns accompanied by frozen peach slices. While Martine went for her afternoon walk, I watched Nicholas Ray’s Wind Across the Everglades (1958) starring Burl Ives and Christopher Plummer. There were some beautiful shots of the Everglades and its bird life, and some highly dubious plotting, even if Budd Schulberg wrote the script.

Martine had wanted us to order Japanese from the Aki Restaurant on Santa Monica Blvd, so I phoned in an order and picked it up. It was a tasty reminder of when we used to eat our weekend meals in restaurants.

After dinner, I began reading Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (2013), set during the Chechen wars. It looked like a good read.

Which brings me near to the end of another day. I will watch another episode of “Deep Space 9” and hit the sack.

 

 

The Social Distancing Film Festival

It’s Not the Big Screen, But It’s Still Good

First, my apologies for hijacking a photo from the University of California at Santa Barbara website. Secondly, I didn’t do several years of graduate study in film history and criticism without it having a lasting influence on me.

While Martine has been taking long walks to no particular destination (the destinations are all closed, anyway) and noting the takeover of the streets of L.A. by bums, I have been reading and watching a ton of movies. In twenty-six days this month, I have watched twenty-five movies:

04/03/20 Boorman, John Emerald Forest, The 1985
04/04/20 Menzies, William Cameron * Address Unknown 1944
04/05/20 Resnais, Alain Hiroshima Mon Amour 1959
04/06/20 Kurosawa, Akira * Rashomon 1950
04/07/20 Jackson, Peter Hobbit, The: An Unexpected Journey 2012
04/08/20 Jackson, Peter Hobbit, The: The Desolation of Smaug 2013
04/10/20 Jackson, Peter Hobbit, The: The battle of the Five Armies 2014
04/11/20 Forster, Marc * Quantum of Solace 2008
04/11/20 Lang, Fritz * Beyond a Reasonable Doubt 1954
04/12/20 Wise, Robert * Set-Up, The 1949
04/14/20 Hertz, Nathan Attack of the 50 Foot Woman 1958
04/15/20 Dean, Alexandra Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story 2017
04/16/20 Totten, Robert Sacketts, The: Episode 1 [Made for TV] 1979
04/17/20 Totten, Robert Sacketts, The: Episode 2 [Made for TV] 1979
04/19/20 Siodmak, Robert * Phantom Lady 1944
04/20/20 Park, Chan-wook I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK 2006
04/21/20 Robson, Mark/Val Lewton * Isle of the Dead 1945
04/21/20 Misumi, Kenji * Sword of Vengeance 1972
04/22/20 Misumi, Kenji Baby Cart at the River Styx 1972
04/23/20 Tarantino, Quentin * Jackie Brown 1997
04/24/20 Parajanov, Sergei * Color of Pomegranates, The [Sayat Nova] 1969
04/24/20 Parajanov, Sergei Hagop Hovnatanian 1967
04/25/20 Rouse, Russell * Wicked Woman 1954
04/26/20 Keaton, Buster * Sherlock Jr 1924
04/27/20 Rapper, Irving * Now Voyager 1942

More than half of them, I really liked. Those are noted with an asterisk just before the title of the film. Predictably, most were either American film noir productions or Japanese jidai-geki (samurai films). A few were outright dogs.

As long as the quarantine/social-distancing rules remain in place, I will probably continue to see at least one film per day. Some of them are on DVD from Netflix; some from Turner Classic Movies (TCM); others from Spectrum Cable’s On Demand service.

 

Plague Diary 17: A Film About the Plague

There Is Only One Film I Know About Quarantining from the Plague

In the early 1940s, a Hollywood movie producer named Val Lewton (his real name was Vladimir Ivanovich Leventon) was responsible for a handful of great horror films in which the effects were more psychological than crude, which placed him pretty much in a one-man category.

Today, I saw (for the nth time) his film Isle of the Dead (1945), set on a strange Greek island during the First Balkan War (1912-13). Boris Karloff plays the Greek General Nikolas Pherides who, together with an American journalist, rows to an offshore island to visit the grave of his wife. He finds that her grave had been broken into and her body stolen. Worse yet, he lands on the island only to find that one of the guests in the house where he is staying has died of the plague.

Karloff and the other people on the island must quarantine until the wind changes. Once the hot, dry sirocco wind begins to blow, that particular strain of the plague dies off.

Boris Karloff as General Pherides, “The Watchdog”

The psychological element introduced by Lewton is a superstition of a vampire-like creature called a vorvolaka which is promulgated by a Greek peasant woman named Kyra serving in the house. Karloff, who prides himself by his nickname of “The Watchdog,” buys into the possibility of the truth of this superstition, blaming a young serving woman who is enjoying rubicund good health for being a vorvolaka.

The film is a scant 72 minutes long and would be an excellent choice for a Quarantining-at-Home Film Festival, even if it is one lone title. There is also an Elia Kazan film called Panic in the Streets (1950) which involves the plague but has no claustrophobic quarantining.

 

 

Beauty and Brains

Actress and Inventor Hedy Lamarr (1914-2000)

One of the most beautiful actresses ever to appear on the silver screen was also a brilliant inventor whose work—for which she did not receive a dime—is used by most Americans on a daily basis.

Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler, better known as Hedy Lamarr, was an Austrian actress from a Jewish family that fled to the United States on the brink of World War Two. She was slightly notorious for having appeared in the nude in Gustav Machaty’s Czech film Ecstasy (1933). Not only was she unclothed, but was photographed in a tight facial shot simulating an orgasm. As a result, the sanctimonious studio boss of MGM, Louis B. Mayer, put her in films, but never in the big productions.

Poster for Ecstasy (1933)

Still, Hedy did her best, starring in many films, but also making a unique contribution to the war effort. Working with music composer George Antheil, she developed an invention for producing an unjammable system for communicating with a torpedo that has been released. The method involved hopping across a broad spectrum of frequencies. In 1942, her invention was granted a patent, but never used during the war because the Navy thought they knew better. But by the time the patent expired in 1957, it was being used and is used today in Bluetooth technology and on legacy versions of WiFi.

Because Miss Lamarr did not renew the patent, she did not receive any remuneration for her invention. I just saw a thoughtful documentary by Alexandra Dean entitled Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (2017). Perhaps, in the end, Hedy was too smart for Hollywood—and Hollywood did not tend to reward actresses for their brains. She drifted through several marriages and several bouts of plastic surgery. But looks were never her problem. This woman had a brain, and that was unforgivable.

 

 

Plague Diary 3: Making Adjustments

Small World Books in Better Days

No one knows how long the current plague restrictions will be in place. I have to assume it will be for several weeks. During that time, I cannot go to the movies or dine at a restaurant or visit a museum. For lunch, I visited Bay Cities Imports, Santa Monica’s primo Italian import grocery, and bought one of their Spaniard sandwiches. Based on a review at the Food GPS site:

The Spaniard isn’t made to order; you’ll find them wrapped in white butcher paper on the deli counter, along with other grab-and-go sandwiches, meaning they may sit for awhile. Still, my experience with The Spaniard still worked out well. The small-ish sandwich was stacked with jamon serrano, coppa seca, honey ham, Pamplona chorizo, Gruyere cheese, oregano, parsley, roasted tomatoes, olive oil, black pepper, and rosemary on a chewy baguette. Next time, I’ll probably beg to go back to The Godmother like some kind of guilt-ridden sandwich adulterer, but I enjoyed my brief fling with The Spaniard.

Since I could not eat lunch at the store, I took my lunch with me and drove to Venice, stopping at a parking meter and munching away while a parking enforcement officer kept circling my car seeing if she could ticket me. I waved my sandwich at her by way of greeting.

After I finished, I popped some quarters in the meter and walked to Small World Books. As you can see in the above photo, the bookstore is in the same building as the Sidewalk Cafe. As the bookstore is run by the wife of the cafe owner, it was not altogether surprising that it, too, is closed for the duration.

So I headed home and watched a DVD version of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Blue (1993), which I loved. I plan to see the other two films in the trilogy—White and Red (both 1994)—within the next few months. After dinner, I read another hundred pages of Jan Neruda’s Prague Tales.