Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Duke and Daddio

Today is my father's birthday. Happy Birthday, Daddio! I can't be there to make you a cake or give you a present, but I hope you'll think of these video clips and my words as big ol' birthday hugs and wishes from me. 

My dad turned 40 four days before I was born, which means he is now 67 years young. I love him more than words can say. We have a special relationship that most people don't understand or appreciate. It's the kind of relationship that doesn't require a lot of communication or constant reassurance, just honest to goodness love and understanding. We might live nearly 6000 miles away from each other and only chat maybe once a week on Facebook, but I know he is always thinking of me and sending me good vibes. I'm doing the same for him. I don't miss him because it doesn't feel like we're really away from each other. We're always on the same wavelength. He is my biggest and best cheerleader and has always supported my dreams and ambitions. I'm a really lucky gal and I am incredibly proud of the personal progress he's made these last few years.

My daddio is also a true blue Pisces loner and a beautiful artist. He taught me to love nature and appreciate the world around me, especially the cinematic world. We used to rent five or six movies at a time and have a movie marathon every weekend. I can't begin to tell you how many times we watched The 13th Warrior together. My dad has seen virtually every movie released within the last 60 years, even the most obscure, tough to find, unimaginable flicks. I'll never forget the look on my husband, Jake's, face when my dad remembered he had watched The Temptation of Dr. Antonio when it was released. He can also recall and appreciate the most minor of actors and directors, which usually brings up a story or two of when he saw their movies and who he was with. I love those stories.

Out of all the actors in all the world, John Wayne is my dad's absolute favorite. I'm ashamed to say that I didn't start loving John Wayne until I became an adult, but now I can't imagine life without his movies. When I was thinking of writing this post, I revisited Molly Haskell's wonderful essay about Wayne, What Makes John Wayne Larger Than Life? Haskell was fortunate enough to spend time with him on the set of The Shootist and experienced a heck of a lot of emotions when she was with the Duke. She puts all of my mixed, jagged feelings about Wayne into such deceptively simple words:
If, in real life, our fathers were not just authority figures but adventurers in the world with whom we identified, so our loyalty to Wayne, as moviegoers, takes us back (some of us, anyway) to when we were tree-climbing adolescents, identifying with the hero rather than with the schoolteacher's girlfriend, or saloon girl “pal.” We rode the range instead of tending the hearth or the boudoir until the sexual highway forked and rites of adolescence planted us more firmly on the path to femininity.
Wayne represents to me those true conservative values – personal honor and integrity, individualism and responsibility – that have long ago been abandoned by the party that pretends to honor them. He represents the West as an imaginary land, a place of hope compromised by death but undiluted by vulgarity. Monument Valley is our inverted Olympus, a place from which sprang forth the gods and goddesses appropriate to our psychic landscape. His West, as carved out of the films of Ford and Hawks, gave us myths built out of contradictory urges – the urge to settle down and the urge to move on; the need to be alone and the need to save; the love of woman and the love of man; strength and vulnerability. And it is Wayne who stands on all borders, reconciling the warring ambiguities of which his political persona is a crude distortion.
John Wayne was a complicated man. So is my father. I love them both and can't help but think of my Pa whenever I watch Rio Bravo or Hatari! I love our adventures, our aimless car rides through the Oregon countryside, but I know we'll have plenty of them down the line together.   

Last night I asked my dad what his favorite John Wayne movies are. In honor of The Duke and my dad's birthday, I'm going to share some very special scenes from those films along with a couple of observations for some of the movies. He prefers Fordian Wayne to Hawksian Wayne, but I guess I'll let that slide because it's his birthday. I hope we can watch 'em all together in the near future.
Sands of Iwo Jima (1949, Allan Dwan)

This clip works as a really great self-contained short film. I chose this one because it displays Wayne's mastery of gesture - notice how he pats her on the arm after their discussion about war and repeats the same action with one of his buddies moments later. They're all in it together and Wayne knows it. This clip is also an early indicator of Wayne's complex relationship with women and sensitive understanding of children. 

Also, you get to see Wayne run the emotional gamut from Thomas Dunson (Red River) to Spig Wead (Wings of Eagles). He's such a frighteningly believable asshole.

Donovan's Reef (1963, John Ford)

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949, John Ford)

Red River (1948, Howard Hawks)

In Harm's Way (1965, Otto Preminger). This was the last John Wayne movie we watched together.

This movie features my favorite Wayne relationship apart from Rio Bravo. He and Patricia Neal are absolutely perfect for one another. Wayne was often paired with women much younger and prettier than himself, but Neal fits him to a T. She's not a sexy ingenue or a cutesy Hawks dame, she's a mature woman. She's sexually assured, he's sexually assured and it's just a beautiful thing.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Merrie Memories

About a month ago, a friend of mine posed the question: "What was your first moment of directorial consciousness, and how did it come about?" I immediately thought of Tim Burton and Alfred Hitchcock, but I completely forgot about one important contribution to my directorial consciousness: Looney Tunes! 

Like many young tots, I grew up watching countless hours of Looney Tunes. I used to watch the credit sequences with fascination because I realized that many of the same people worked on the cartoons over and over again. It became sort of a guessing game for me. Though I had no idea what the credits actually meant, I did my best to remember the order of the credits and guess whose name would appear next. Names like Leon Schlesinger, Friz Freleng, Michael Maltese, Carl Stalling and Maurice Noble are permanently wedged in my memory because of this tendency. I also noticed some fellas named Charles M. Jones, Tex Avery, Robert Clampett and Frank Tashlin directed my favorite cartoons and took note of their different animation styles. I wish I could say I preferred Chuck Jones back then, but I'm guessing my favorite was Tex Avery because, even at that age, I loved his pop culture references. 

A particular favorite of mine is Avery's 1936 flick, I Love to Singa. It's a lighthearted Jazz Singer rip-off about a little jazz-loving owl born into a family of staunch classical music nerds. This one stands out in my memory because I remember watching it at the hospital when my little brother, Joe, was born. I was five years old at the time and paced up and down the waiting room like the father does in the cartoon. I was disappointed that I didn't create a divot in the floor with my white and pink sneakers that I had just learned how to tie the laces on without the aid of chewing gum. Whenever I watch it, I think of that memory and miss my brother very much. 

On that note, here are a handful of my favorite Looney Tunes:

Sunday, February 17, 2013

As Fast As You Can: Die Hard with a Vengeance/While the City Sleeps

John Kerr (1931-2013)

John Kerr died on February 2nd. He starred in two of my favorite Vincente Minnelli films, The Cobweb and Tea and Sympathy, and acted in a handful of other pictures like The Pit and the Pendulum and South Pacific before going into semi-retirement to become a lawyer. I loved his acting and his passing makes my heart hurt.

Kerr came into prominence in the 1950's, which was both the right and wrong decade for him. Had he been born ten years earlier, I imagine he would have had a career similar to Farley Granger's or even Richard Widmark's and acted in some film noirs and war pictures before flirting with melodrama. He might have been a bigger star if that had been the case.

Kerr, however, was a true blue '50s man. He possessed the same passionate rainbow of emotions of his contemporaries, like Clift, Dean (who was supposed to have his role in The Cobweb) and Brando, but he also had this dorky, clean-cut edge to his acting that I find absolutely endearing. His passion was based in practicality and he never truly let himself go off the emotional deep end like those other fellas, which is probably why he had such a long and happy life.

I hope he did, anyway. RIP, John Kerr. Thank you for the lovely movie memories.

Tea and Sympathy Trailer

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Black & Blue

I watched a crappy movie called The Deep Blue Sea the other day. A lot of other people like it, but I found it to be glacial and profoundly irritating. I won't be giving too much away by telling you that the lead character, Hester (Rachel Weisz), tries to kill herself in the first ten minutes of the movie. She goes through all the necessary cinematic suicide steps – she writes a note to her boyfriend using perfect penmanship, delicately turns on the gas in her flat and casually, almost gracefully lays down in her bed to let death wash over her. Like Sleeping Beauty or Snow White waiting on death's door for her one true love.

What a bunch of bullshit.

The more I think about the movie, the more her character and her suicide attempt piss me off.

Me circa summer 2011. Not one of my best days. I sobbed on a bench at the Belmont Red Line for 30 minutes after finding out I didn't get a job I really wanted. After this, I ended up spilling BBQ sauce on my favorite dress and watching my favorite baseball team, The Milwaukee Brewers, lose to the damn Chicago Cubs. Blergh.

It's no great secret that I tried to kill myself when I was fifteen. I overdosed on thirty sleeping pills in the high school bathroom and was sent to a juvenile mental institution for a short time. I'm fairly certain it took place on May 16th, 2001. The event is a bit foggy because of the effects of the medication, but I vividly remember the textures and sensations: I remember swallowing those green dolls by the handful and the sickening, sweet taste of the gelatin mixing with the orange carrot juice I'd carefully selected for the occasion. I  remember violently throwing those pills up with the handy dandy aid of charcoal – you've never really lived until you've thrown up black goo all over yourself, especially on your favorite purple shirt that says “Goddess” on it. Most importantly, I fondly remember the elation I felt in the back of the ambulance. I was covered in my own vomit, my teeth were black and gritty from the charcoal and I had bloody needles sticking out of my arm, but I knew I was going to be OK. I'd fought my demons and survived the battle. I'll never forget the looks on the EMT's faces when I started laughing.

Natalie Wood in Splendor in the Grass (1961)

Little did I know what levels of depression I would reach once I ventured into adulthood. I shudder to think what I would have done to myself if I hadn't already tried and failed with that earlier attempt. My teenage depression was fleeting, almost like a high of sadness. My adult depression was a constant, dulling pang, like a giant leech that was slowly sucking the life out of my soul. I'll be honest and say that the thought of trying again has crossed my mind on more than one occasion. In fact, I did and still do think about it daily. Once I tried to commit suicide, the thought of death wasn't nearly as scary as it used to be. I started to casually think things like “Oh, if I hang myself, then I won't have to have to go to work today.” Or “if I jump off this building, then I won't have to worry about filing my taxes this year.” You know, really important, life-threatening things like that.      

I highly doubt I'll ever try to kill myself again, but it is comforting to know that I always have that option should the need arise. Still, I often find myself looking down from the balcony of my third floor apartment and wondering what it would be like to sail through the air for those brief moments before I hit the pavement. To feel the cool, rushing air on my face. When I'm in the shower, I sometimes find myself wondering what it would feel like to drown after the water has filled my lungs. Would it be as euphoric as I imagine? Would I glide with the ocean waves in the deep darkness until I become fish food? Water has always been very comforting to me. Or, better yet, what would it feel like to lay in a bathtub with my wrists sliced open? My own AB- blood oozing and swirling out from my thick skin like a warm sheath. Would the openness of the wounds make me cold? I hate being cold.

The violence and even pain of death isn't something that I'm afraid of anymore. I don't know if I'm just a thrill seeker or what, but these romantic notions aren't really desires for death, more like desires for those strong sensations. I don't want to die, but I desperately want to feel that rush of wind and glide in the deep darkness of water.

Just imagine, these are the thoughts I have when I'm happy!

I realize that every person has their own way of dealing with depression and suicide. We are all beautiful, unique snowflakes even in planning our own demise. Still, I think there are two definite factors that every person needs to have in order to make an attempt: a certain amount of bravery and madness. People often say that suicide is the coward's way out, but I don't think there's anything cowardly about shooting a gun in your face or swallowing drano on a warm afternoon.

The Deep Blue Sea's Hester is neither brave nor mad. In fact, she is a coward and an annoyingly rational thinker. When she promises to keep her mouth shut and not beg or quibble with her lover, Freddie, she openly admits that she's lying and trying to manipulate the situation to keep him there. Her suicide attempt isn't an invitation for death, it's an invitation for a little TLC. She just wants to be loved, Freddie! Hester is a wimp, a victim of romance and her own mistakes. She is clearly smart and capable enough to move on with her life and actually find something and someone worthy of her, but she is content to wallow in her own emotional filth and feed on the carcass of a dying love affair. Considering what the 1950's meant for women on screen and off, her characterization and blasé suicide attempt are incredibly infuriating and, well, depressing.