guess who's coming to dinner (stanley kramer, 1967)

I’ve seen a handful of Stanley Kramer movies ... a few more if I count the ones where he produced but didn’t direct. I have a pre-conceived notion about Kramer that poisons my ability to fairly evaluate his work. I don’t like his movies. But I realize that it’s been a long time since I’ve seen any of them ... I have never given a rating to his films, because I haven’t seen one since I first began assigning ratings. So I’m revisiting Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, but I’m rating it for the first time.

The only time I saw it was more than 40 years ago, and my memory is that I hated it. This time, I felt obliged to bend over backwards to see its good points, and I admit there are a few.

Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy are very good. Beau Richards is OK. Having said that, too many actors here are hamstrung by the parts they are asked to play. It’s not that Katharine Houghton, in her first movie, is bad, but she is given a character with no shadings. Houghton plays the wide-eyed idealist in love as well as can be expected, but like almost every character in the movie, she isn’t playing a person but a placeholder in a framework. Roy Glenn seems to exist solely to give Sidney Poitier one scene where he can turn on the fire. Cecil Kellaway is the Irish monsignor, a part he could do in his sleep. And he, too, is only in the film to show the expansive liberal nature of Spencer Tracy, whose best friend is a monsignor even though Tracy’s character isn’t Catholic.

You can already see how hard it is for me to say something nice. I began the above paragraph noting some of the movie’s good points, only to quickly move into attack mode.

Your reaction to film’s approach to Poitier’s character, Dr. John Prentice, likely colors your reaction to the film as a whole. The film exists to make a comment about interracial marriage, and Dr. Prentice is the black half of that relationship. Prentice is perfect: he’s a doctor, he does good all over the world, he’s on his way to Zurich to do more good, he’s great looking, he is, in short, the Perfect Man. Some of us feel this perfection undercuts the film’s seriousness ... wouldn’t it make a better point if Prentice was a real person with real problems, instead of an idealized man the likes of which have never walked the earth? In fairness, Kramer knows this ... in fact, he did it on purpose. His idea was to remove any possible objections to Prentice, so that the only possible reason why you wouldn’t want him to marry your daughter is because he is black and your daughter is white. For Kramer, the focus is unmistakable, which forces the audience to consider race and only race.

Kramer doesn’t trust that audience. He clearly doesn’t think we have the ability to ascertain character in a person who is as complex as any other person. He reduces Prentice to “Black Man” because he worries that otherwise, we won’t be sympathetic to Kramer’s central (i.e., only) theme.

One result is that Kramer turns Poitier, one of our most dynamic actors, into a quiet man who wants to please. By turning off Poitier’s capacity for anger, he makes Prentice more like a stereotypical “boy” than like the man he is supposed to be. And while Kramer does give Poitier one scene where he lights up, he directs his anger at his father ... he never lets any of the white characters see what might be seething underneath the mask.

The film benefits greatly from the presence of Hepburn and Tracy. I’ll be kind and say that while Kramer knew the backstory of the two, he didn’t necessarily milk it. Well, I think he did, but I have no evidence. It was known that Tracy was dying ... it was known by the audience, since Tracy had died before the film’s release. This adds poignancy to every scene between the two stars. When Tracy gives his final soliloquy, talking about true love, Hepburn is crying real tears, because she hears Tracy in the context of their love affair. At one point, we get a one-shot of Hepburn and her tears, and Kramer holds it for a few seconds, after which he switches to a one-shot of Tracy looking at Hepburn, also for a few seconds. The two shots are designed to elicit tears from the audience, and even I can’t say Kramer shouldn’t have given us that moment.

It reminds me very much of a scene that tears me up every time I see it, and I’ve seen it a lot of times over the years: the deaths of Bonnie and Clyde. Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway are great in that movie ... as fine actors, they convince us of the connection of their characters. And when they die, we get a brief moment where they look into each other’s faces. But the real impact comes from the brilliant editing of Dede Allen, who uses quick cuts to give us the last seconds of the two outlaws. Is that any more “artistic” than Kramer using longer cuts to draw emotion out of the last scene of Tracy and Hepburn? I know which one I prefer. But I must accept that I am unfair if I don’t accept the power of Kramer’s work here, as well.

So I still want to hate Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. But it’s time I pulled back. It’s not a very good movie, but it’s not worth the energy of my ire. 6/10.


terminator 2: judgment day (james cameron, 1991)

I once listed the first Terminator movie at #26 of my 50 favorite movies of all time. I mentioned Terminator 2 a couple of times:

The Terminator was James Cameron’s first hit, his second feature (Piranha Part Two came first). He later spent more money (Terminator 2 cost almost $100 million more than the original, which came in at $6.4 million). He became King of the World with Titanic. Avatar cost more than $300 million. None of them was better than The Terminator, still Cameron’s best film. ...

One of the best things about Terminator 2 is the way Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor became an icon for a certain kind of tough heroine. The roots for that characterization happen in the original, where Sarah goes from fun-loving waitress to terrorized target to mother of a future hero to the person who finally kicks the terminator’s ass, all in two hours.

The Terminator has very little flab; it’s a punk-rock action film. T2 fetishized its special effects, which were indeed amazing for their day, but the result was more Emerson, Lake and Palmer than The Stooges. The Terminator had one superb special effect, and it made the most of it: Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Watching T2 again, I realized I’ve been a bit harsh over the years. I stand by what I’ve written, but I don’t think it’s fair to dismiss the movie simply because it wasn’t as good as the 26th-best movie of all time. It’s like saying because Do the Right Thing is such a great movie, Spike Lee can never make another good one.

What were the specific critiques above? T2 cost a lot more than the original. Some of the best parts of the sequel were a direct result of the first movie. And it dazzled without a heart. (I admit I got off a pretty good line about The Stooges and ELP.)

I used to think Terminator 2 was flabby, that all the extra money took away from the streamlined excitement of the original. But watching it now, I understand that it was money well spent. Linda Hamilton was great, Arnold got to reprise his signature role, and the combination of Robert Patrick and special effects made for a terrifying villain. It’s more expansive than The Terminator, and yes, on some level it’s more dazzling. But I’m being unfair to say T2 had no heart. It tugged at our own hearts in ways The Terminator never did, and if that was sometimes a bit sappy, well, at least they tried. The original had no time for that kind of emotion ... it’s part of why I prefer it. But at least Cameron wasn’t just trying to repeat himself.

He also deserves credit for the coherence of the action scenes. In 1991, Michael Bay was still four years away from directing his first film. That Cameron knew how to present action didn’t seem all that noteworthy. Nowadays, after years of “chaos cinema”, Terminator 2 is positively old-fashioned, and I mean that as a compliment.

So yes, my own taste preferences will also lead me towards the punks over the Emerson, Lake and Palmers. On that most basic of levels, the first movie was half-an-hour shorter than the sequel, reason enough in most cases for me to react negatively to the long one. But the truth is, Terminator 2 was consistently engaging. The Terminator remains a 10/10, but I’m raising my rating of T2 to 8/10. (#546 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time.)

A proper action scene:

Here is an excellent discussion of the film, with a section devoted to its action scenes and their relation to chaos cinema:

The big action and little problems of Terminator 2: Judgment Day


what i've been reading

Martin Luther King edition:

There are forty million poor people here. And one day we must ask the question, "Why are there forty million poor people in America?" And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I'm simply saying that more and more, we've got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life's market place. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised. You see, my friends, when you deal with this, you begin to ask the question, "Who owns the oil?" You begin to ask the question, "Who owns the iron ore?" You begin to ask the question, "Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that is two thirds water?" These are questions that must be asked.

-- Martin Luther King, 1967

At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us it must spring up amongst us; it cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher.

-- Abraham Lincoln, 1838

Donald Trump ran one of the most divisive and prejudiced campaigns in modern history. He began his campaign by insulting Mexican immigrants, pledging to build a wall between the United States and Mexico and then spent a year and a half denigrating communities of color and normalizing bigotry. He called women ‘pigs’, stoked Islamophobia, and attacked a Gold Star family. He mocked a disabled reporter and appealed to people’s worst instincts.  I cannot in good conscience attend an inauguration that would celebrate this divisive approach to governance.

-- Barbara Lee, 2017

I was in Russia years ago, with the Miss Universe contest, which did very well – Moscow, the Moscow area did very well, very well. And I told many people, “Be careful, because you don’t wanna see yourself on television. Cameras all over the place.” ... I’m also very much of a germaphobe, by the way, believe me.

-- Donald Trump, 2017


phil dellio & scott woods, unshackled: the dustbin of donald trump

Maybe it takes two Canadians to place Donald Trump in perspective. Phil Dellio and Scott Woods worked on this book for more than a year, never expecting that by the time it was published, Trump would have actually won the election. The book works just as well with that surprise element, though, because they are trying to figure out Trump, not just as a person/politician, but as someone who is part of our cultural landscape.

Thus, the “chapters” examine cultural landmarks that connect to Trump, in order to understand all of us. They go from Sarah Palin to Elvis Presley, which all by itself makes a nice instant description of the parameters of President Donald Trump. There is a section with, in turn, Pat Buchanan, George Wallace, Barry Goldwater, and Joe McCarthy. The middle of the book is devoted to “early sightings in the movies, on TV, and between the covers”, which goes from Nashville (the movie) to Howard Beale, from Citizen Kane to the Manchurian Candidate, from Gordon Gekko to The Joker. These selections make sense the second you see the connections.

None of this would matter if the writing wasn’t up to the concept. So it is important how good that writing is. There is no attempt to identify who wrote what, but there is a smoothness to the style that keeps any seams from showing. Combine the pleasure of reading this writing with the seductive nature of the book’s structure (short chapters), and Unshackled becomes very hard to put down. You can’t resist the pull of “just one more chapter”.

In some ways, this book is very much of the moment. You might even think it’s a bit too late to be reading about the emergence of Trump as President. But it’s still soon enough to the election that everything seems fresh. And it works as an excellent snapshot of how this all seems to us as we prepare for Trump’s inauguration. For this reason, I think this book will make for interesting reading ten years from now, as a reminder of where we were in 2017. I not only recommend Unshackled, I suggest you read it ASAP.

(I suppose a disclosure is in order. I know both Phil and Scott, and am very kindly included in the acknowledgements.  It made my day to see my name in the same sentence as Rob Sheffield’s).


music friday: when i was a teenager

Here’s the Facebook meme:

List 10 albums that made a lasting impression on you as a TEENAGER, but only one per band/artist. Don't take too long and don't (over)think.

I came up with ten fairly quickly. The most obvious omissions, in retrospect, were Dylan and The Yardbirds. Anyway, here are my ten, in no particular order, with one selection from each (I turned 13 in 1966, so my choices come between that year and 1970, when I graduated from high school):

Jefferson Airplane, Surrealistic Pillow (“Embryonic Journey”)
The Beatles (White Album) (“Yer Blues”) (Hard to get Beatles on YouTube, so The Dirty Mac will have to suffice.)
Otis Redding, Live in Europe (“I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now”)
The Rolling Stones, Beggars Banquet (“Sympathy for the Devil”)
Judy Collins, In My Life (“Hard Lovin’ Loser”)
Van Morrison, Astral Weeks (“Madame George”)
The Steve Miller Band, Children of the Future (Side One)
The Velvet Underground and Nico (“Heroin”)
The Doors (“The End”)
Love, Da Capo (“7 and 7 Is”)


andrei rublev (andrei tarkovsky, 1966)

The day after the Golden Globes, Eileen Jones wrote a fired-up piece titled “Against Meryl Streep”, with the subtitle, “Meryl Streep’s speechifying at the Golden Globes was the worst thing to happen since Trump’s election.” Whatever you think of Jones (and she seems to have pissed off a lot of people), she does have a way with words:

“That I should live to see the day when Meryl Streep’s speechifying at a Hollywood awards show is admired as solemnly and discussed as fervently as Lincoln’s second inaugural address is a personal nightmare.”

“[S]he brought to the Golden Globes all the fiery rhetoric she used to play Margaret Thatcher in a recent admiring biopic”.

“She strikes me as about the worst possible spokesperson imaginable for the Left in an era of working-class rage”.

This inspired me to buy her book, Filmsuck, USA, which doesn’t disappoint. We disagree on the value of a lot of movies, but I find her writing smart and fun to read. She announces her intentions with the first sentence: “That loud sucking noise you hear is American cinema going down the drain.”

The book is devoted to American films, which she doesn’t think live up to their possibilities. She doesn’t talk much about foreign films, but she does talk about “art films”. “[W]e tend to rely on stupid premises like Art Film = Good Film. And when I say ‘we’ I mean ‘you’: I swing exactly the other way, being far more inclined to regard with suspicion any film selling heavy doses of ‘artistry’."

Now, I have no idea what Jones thinks of Andrei Rublev, or the work of Tarkovsky in general. It is clear from her writing that Jones has a vast knowledge of film, and that her interests reach beyond what you might suspect from the quotes I am cherry-picking here. (As one example, Jones, who teaches in the Film Department at Cal, teaches a course on the History of Avant-Garde Film.)

I mention all of this because I experienced something of a disconnect, watching Andrei Rublev after reading Jones on Rango (she loves Gore Verbinski), “David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and the Audience That Loves This Kind of Crap”, and Peter Greenaway (“I can’t stand Greenaway films, can’t even stand to hear descriptions of Greenaway films.”) Here I was, settling in to a three-hour art-house classic, and I couldn’t get Eileen Jones out of my head.

Andrei Rublev survived. I’ve been afraid of his movies for years, only seeing one (Ivan’s Childhood a couple of years ago ... I liked it ... and I saw Solaris so long ago I don’t remember anything except I hated it). But I did what I could to put my concerns out of mind, and for the most part, it was a success.

Tarkovsky certainly wouldn’t have approved of my method of watching, but he did make it easy for me. Andrei Rublev comes in two parts, a total of eight segments, giving me many opportunities to stop for a bit and think about what I was seeing. (OK, at one point, I replied to an email I’d gotten from Jones.) The film gives the story of the title character, a famous 15th-century Russian painter. From what I can gather, the film doesn’t appear to be a stickler for accuracy about that life. Instead, Rublev stands in for people like him: artists, people of faith, members of communities. Tarkovsky isn’t didactic about his representation of the 15th century. He presents it to us, and leaves it to us to imagine how different life was then, at the tail end of the Middle Ages. The film looks beautiful ... the cinematographer, Vadim Yusov, worked with Tarkovsky on several films. I found the acting rather inscrutable, perhaps because my ear wasn’t clicking with the Russian. But the actors served well as visual representations of their characters.

The entire thing almost works like an 8-part miniseries, although that impression might be amplified by the way I watched it. Three hours at one time would have felt a bit much. If my piecemeal approach to watching the film is too impure for you, add a point to my rating. #26 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 8/10.


what i've been reading

Fuck you, members of the media.

Fuck your constant pursuit of ratings, of quarterly profits, of giving this tinpot cumdumpster a platform with which he can influence a large part of our country

Fuck you for buying into the idea that racism should be afforded an equal platform with equality, for calling a Nazi anything other than a Nazi.

-- Chris Kluwe, “Fuck You, Donald Trump

 

Hugh Laurie, winning for his work in “The Night Manager,” joked that he assumed this would be the last Golden Globes because “I don’t mean to be gloomy. It’s just that it has Hollywood, Foreign and Press in the title. And I think to some Republicans, even Association is slightly sketchy.” The point about the press is taken, and taken with thanks, but this formulation — which Streep repeated and made worse by prefacing it to say “You, and all of us in this room, really belong to the most vilified segment of American society right now” — has the unfortunate effect of suggesting that some of the richest and most influential people in the world are victims.

-- Alyssa Rosenberg, “In the Trump era, artists can be Jimmy Fallon or Donald Glover. Choose wisely.

 

“Why can’t you give him the benefit of the doubt…,” [Kellyanne] Conway asked, to which, [Chris] Cuomo answered “because he’s making a disgusting gesture on video about Serge.”

-- Ken Meyer, “Conway Asks: Why Do You Believe What Trump Says ‘Rather Than What’s in His Heart?

 

If happiness comes when you find something you are good at, and then you do it, then I guess Preston Epps was a very happy man. After "Bongo Rock" hit #14 on the charts, Epps locked in with the following songs, in alphabetical order: "Baja Bongos," "Blue Bongo," "Bongo Bongo Bongo," "Bongo Hop," "Bongo in the Congo," "Bongo Party," "Bongo Shuffle," "Bongo, Bong, Bongo," "Bongola," "Bongos in Paradise," "Bongos in Pastel," "Gully Bongo," "Hully Gully Bongo," "Prest Bongos Under Glass," "Stormy Bongo," and "Surfin' Bongos." None of them made the charts, with the exception of "Bongo Bongo Bongo," which made it to #78.

-- Steven Rubio’s Online Life, January 9, 2009


road to morocco (david butler, 1942)

The third in the Road series starring Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, and Dorothy Lamour. It turned up on TCM while I was channel surfing, and I have fond memories of it, so it was an easy decision to watch it.

Do the Road Movies need to be explained? Their peak was in the 1940s, when five of the seven movies were released, with the final picture coming in 1962, when Hope and Crosby were almost 60 and Lamour was reduced to a cameo. It’s hard to imagine many people under 50 seeking out comedies from the 40s that were very popular at the time but not considered “classics”, so my guess is there is a need to explain the series. All except the last involved Hope and Crosby stuck is some quandary, during which they’d cross paths with Lamour, with a battle for her heart ensuing. There were songs, Lamour wore sarongs in most of them, and the laughs were non-stop. The movies were ... how about “insouciant”? They were nonsensical, offering parodies of popular genres of the day. There were lots of ad-libs, with Hope often talking directly to the audience. As in Hope’s comedy act, there were plenty of topical references, one reason the films don’t hold up as well as some ... there was no attempt to be timeless. I guess the closest thing in more recent years would be the Naked Gun movies with Leslie Nielsen.

Road to Morocco is thought by some to be the best in the series. I certainly saw it many times on TV when I was a kid. It was nominated for two Oscars, including Best Original Screenplay (if the rumors are true, Crosby and especially Hope, or their writers, deserve a bit of credit for their ad-libs). It was named to the National Film Registry in 1996. Watching it again, I thought it fell a bit short of expectations, and in my memories, my favorite remains Road to Rio (admittedly a minority view).

There is a feeling that anything goes in the Road series. In Morocco, there’s a musical interlude with the three stars where each of their voices comes out of the mouths of others (so you’ve got Lamour with Hope’s voice, or Hope singing as Bing). There are talking camels. Anthony Quinn plays a desert sheik ... wait, that’s not so odd, the Mexico-born Quinn was famous throughout his career for filling whatever ethnicity a movie needed. A running gag in the series has Hope and Crosby playing “patty-cake” as a way to distract bad guys ... this time it backfires, the bad guys are expecting it, leading to the line, “That gag sure gets around”.

I don’t know ... I feel a fondness for the series, and re-watching Road to Morocco was enjoyable. I’m inclined to rate it higher than it probably deserves. 7/10.