Monday, January 2, 2012
2011: The Movies and the Miseries
I felt a lot like Dick Powell’s character in Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful this year. His sarcastic, funny mantra through his section of the film is “I started to work” and I know exactly how he feels. He has this cute, charming Southern belle wife (played by the ever so glorious Gloria Grahame) who constantly interrupts his writing and thinking process. While most gentlemen would be honored to be interrupted by Gloria Grahame, she does become a bit of a nuisance because she limits his capacity for concentration and thorough thinking. He eventually finishes his novels and screenplays, but not without significant frustration and angst.
I don’t have Gloria Grahame to blame for my troubles, but I still know what Dick Powell was going through. Between 2008-2010, I was both writing and discovering great cinema frequently. Those were hellish years for many reasons and yet I was still able to write and think clearly. I felt as though I was becoming something better than I was because I was writing, thinking and watching so much.
This year, though, something changed - I became more depressed than ever before and I found myself unable to write or concentrate on much of anything, let alone great cinema. I work in customer service and that’s always got me down, but this year I failed to rise above my daily frustrations and lose myself in any of my passions or delights. I was also accepted into graduate school at SUNY Buffalo and decided to defer/not go there because I’m not in a good place to and don’t have the means to start fresh right now. I was turned down for a job I really wanted in the middle of the year and that also knocked me on my ass. I’m still a poor, moderately educated woman who genuinely thinks of nothing else except bettering myself and my mind and just can’t do it. And don't get me started on the Brewers...
I tried to start numerous essays and projects (I have a good 2/3 of a Mildred Pierce essay completed that is probably the best thing I’ve ever written and I can’t finish it) and, just like Dick Powell, was interrupted by either my own self doubt or depression and only managed to finish two things: my paper about Claudette Colbert for GeekGirlCon (which is around 5,000 words) and my introduction to the Edgar G. Ulmer films at the awesome Shock Theater from the Cinema Dementia Collection.
At (all the wrong) times, my mind is so clear and focused that I feel like I can take on the world. However, when I finally get a moment to sit down and say “I started to work...” the brain fairies have whisked everything away and I feel horrible about myself. How could I have gone from almost constantly writing and watching to this? I sometimes feel so depressed and stunted that I can barely move, speak or function. What is wrong with me? I’m seriously asking because I have no ideas on how to fix it.
Alas, I am not the giving up type. I still want to achieve my dreams and better myself despite the hopeless cynicism I now feel. On that happy note, here’s my top ten of the year. I don’t feel inclined to see most contemporary films because I don't really want to. Instead, here’s a short top ten of new-to-me flicks that got me through the endless days and nights.
In no particular order and with no particular agenda:
The Heroic Trio (1993, Johnnie To): I think Johnnie To’s more recent films are better, but this bad-ass women’s picture starring Michelle Yeoh, Maggie Cheung and Anita Mui is cunts-to-the-wall awesome. These ladies all possess amazing super powers and fashion sense and To uses his skillful cinematic humanity to blend the talents of their shared feminine verve to great avail. If To is our eras Howard Hawks, then this would be his Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Both filmmakers have an unspoken moral and professional code in their films that is often male-centric, but their femme flicks follow it too, which is why both filmmakers create such great roles for women.
La Ceremonie (1995, Claude Chabrol): I went on a Chabrol kick earlier this year and this one was my favorite. There’s this strange, unsettling, almost palpable current flowing through the film that’s really unique and unnerving. It’s not a ghost story in the traditional sense, but it still makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up. Sandrine Bonnaire and Isabelle Huppert are disguised as gal pals who romp around town having oodles of fun when, in reality, underneath that feminine veneer are the spirits of killers like Hannibal Lecter and Charles Manson. Bonnaire, in particular, is creepy as hell because she’s so inhuman - we find out halfway through the film that she’s illiterate and watching her try to relate to and understand society is absolutely bizarre and mesmerizing.
Battle of the Sexes (1928, D.W. Griffith): People who think of Griffith as this old fuddy-duddy Victorian clearly haven’t seen this film (or more than a ten minute clip from Birth of a Nation, for that matter). Griffith often played with society’s preconceived notions of femininity and morality (see Way Down East for a great example) and Battle of the Sexes is his boldest, most modern and hilarious film examining these themes. Phyllis Haver (the original Roxie Hart) oozes sass and smiles as the frizzy blonde gold digger, Marie Skinner. Many women have played gold diggers in films over the years, but none live up to the cheeky manipulations of Haver and her champagne wishes and caviar dreams.
The Strawberry Blonde (1941, Raoul Walsh): This movie is a fucking perfect example of classical Hollywood filmmaking and storytelling. It should be as widely seen and honored (if not more so) as Casablanca or Gone with the Wind. James Cagney stars as Biff Grimes (I love that name) and Walsh used his special brand of wisenheimer-gangster-dance skills better than anyone else in the biz. Though Cagney was certainly a man of his time, there’s something very comforting about watching his marshmallow-y bulldog self take “nothin’ from no one” and try to thrive in the industrial 1890’s.
Big Bad Mama (1974, Steve Carver): I’ve been trying to write a capsule about this one for ages. Set during the depression, Angie Dickinson starts bootlegging and bank robbing to provide for her teenage daughters. It’s a violent, sexy and wonderful movie that doesn‘t run very deep, but watching Dickinson wheel and deal with a gun in ‘30s clothes is just delightful. The film also stars William Shatner who Kirks his way into Dickinson’s “heart,” Tom Skerritt, and Robbie Lee who was the lead in one of my favorite movies, Jack Hill’s Switchblade Sisters.
It Should Happen to You (1954, George Cukor): Despite being shortchanged on films because of a cancerous death, Judy Holliday is a national treasure and her best work was arguably with George Cukor. Their most acclaimed collaboration was Born Yesterday, but I prefer It Should Happen to You because it’s so idiosyncratic and zany. Cukor also shot on location in NYC and doesn’t shy away from depicting the bustling life of the city and its many citizens, which adds a really strange dimension to this sorta-kinda screwball comedy.
Father was a Fullback (1949, John M. Stahl): This flick would make an excellent candidate for a Masculinity in Cinema class. Fred MacMurray (or MacAttack as he is called in my home) plays a college football coach who is far more concerned with his depressed teenage daughter’s vivid gloominess than he is with his lousy football team. Stahl, like Sirk and Minnelli, was a master with melodrama and depicting cinematic human emotion. He saw straight through to the souls of his characters and empathized with their struggles and, most importantly, their ambitions. In this film, he showcases the desperation of depression and how it affects an entire family, which also consists of the always amazing Maureen O’Hara and a young Natalie Wood who is so adorable and precocious that she almost makes me want to have children. Almost.
Driftwood (1947, Allan Dwan): Speaking of young Natalie Wood, she plays an orphaned rapscallion in this wonderful flick by Allan Dwan. Wood befriends an abandoned Collie dog who turns out to be the carrier of a spotted fever vaccine. While Wood is making everyone in town feel uncomfortable with her constant judgmental quotations from the Old Testament, she contracts the fever and the Collie, now named Driftwood, saves the day. Despite having seen a significant amount of Dwan’s films and appreciating his greatness as a filmmaker, I still don’t quite know what to say about his technique or how to feel about his filmmaking vibe. Driftwood is the first Dwan I’ve really connected with and loved.
I Married a Witch (1942, Rene Clair): “Don’t you like blondes?” This is an odd duck of a film that’s stuck with me over the past couple of months. Veronica Lake and Fredric March are sexy and fun as the wedded witch and human in question and I can only imagine how much more fun it would have been if it were made ten years earlier! Still, it gets away with a lot for being made during the war years and an occult romance was never more charming.
Skidoo (1968, Otto Preminger): I’m still not even sure whether I like this movie or not, but it’s simply unlike anything else I’ve seen. Like a lot of ‘60s and ‘70s films made by classic Hollywood directors (Seven Women, Rio Lobo, The Most Dangerous Man Alive), Skidoo has a strange energy that I imagines comes from mixing the "old school" with the "new school." It’s bat shit insane and yet such a loving and tender adieu for some of Hollywood’s finest ladies and gents, including Groucho Marx, Jackie Gleason, Carol Channing, etc. It might not have been their last film, but the entire movie feels like a slow exit from the most wonderful party you’ll never be able to remember, one that’s full of warm hugs, inappropriate groping, acid, and the desperate insecurities that come with middle class morality. That last image will stick with you, though. It's just all so lovely and horrible.
So, there’s my top ten. It felt good to write it and I hope you’ll seek out some of these films. Please let me know when you do! I hope to be happier and write more this year. If you have any helpful suggestions on how to accomplish either of those things, I am Gable’s ears. Thank you for reading!