movie log: Strangers on a Train (1951)

Seen January 31, 2009: Strangers on a Train directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Farley Granger and Robert Walker.

This is a famously classic Hitchcock suspense movie that begins with an encounter on a train; two men: one, Guy Haines (Granger), a well-known tennis player and the other, Bruno Anthony (Walker), a graspingly adoring fan. Bruno relates a hypothetical plan that he has imagined two strangers could undertake, and as the movie continues and the strangers part ways, it appears that he wasn’t just being frivolous. I’m not going to get into the story more than that, but I will say that this film is highly deserving of its reputation including (both in the reputation and the deserts) the performance by Robert Walker.

Private Lightning strike

The other day I ran across a great find: a new blog — here — by Steve Keith, ex-member of Private Lightning, a Boston-area band from the late 1970s and early 1980s. He’s also made a great collection of their music online (linked from that blog), and suggests that he will not only be adding more but sharing some reminiscences.

Private Lightning was one of my favorite local bands from that era. (It also curiously provided an early point of commonality with a couple of friends that I met at two different software contracting jobs way back then). I’ve long wished that some of their music was available in digital format, and from time to time (say, annually) have gone searching the web for news of same, always to give up and vow to one day digitize what I have on vinyl (those being: their 1980 album release, a 45 single, and a couple of tracks on a “Live at the Metro” LP). The other day, a woot offering of a fairly inexpensive USB turntable prompted me to go another search, apparently on the very day on which Steve started his blog.

What joy! Private Lightning ought, I think, to have had great success. An older posting by Steve that I’ve run across before, here, on a New England Music Scrapbook site, might explain why great fame did not come, as might another posting by Joe Viglione here. Who can say? Those have some sad reflections, but there’s been a lot of water under the bridge at this point, and I’m just happy to now be able to hear some of their familiar tunes plus many that are new to me. Thanks, Steve.

movie log: Coney Island (1917)

Viewed January 29, 2009: Coney Island – a short 2-reeler directed by Fatty Arbuckle and starring Fatty Arbuckle and Buster Keaton.

This is a simple comedic short about several men, notably the two characters played by Keaton and Arbuckle, on a day trip to Coney Island. They spend the day variously trying to escape from, defend, and impersonate their wives in the pursuit of care-free fun. This film was made before Keaton developed his stone-faced character; it was unusual to see him without it (smiles and all!).

I watched most of this with my 5-1/2 year-old grandson late one evening, though his parents arrived before it ended and he missed the very end. I wondered whether he’d accept it but he seemed to enjoy most of it, even laughing at several of the sight gags (such as when Arbuckle emerged from underwater with a fish in his mouth).

A very entertaining half hour, more so than I expected. Old films like this often give you some peeks into history: I was interested to see some of the contraptions they had, like the bumpercars that were propelled by wave action (flexible flooring that was warped into making huge waves) and to note that one of the carnival prizes was a big cigar.

movie log: Camille (1921)

Watched January 27, 2009: Camille starring Alla Nazimova (aka simply “Nazimova”) and Rudolph Valentino.

There are probably spoilers here, but I can’t imagine they will affect anyone’s appreciation of this story (whether this version or any other). Nevertheless, there’s the warning.

This is the story of a Parisian high-society courtesan Margeurite Gautier (Nazimova) whose hopes for salvation end tragically. Margeurite (called Camille or The Lady of the Camelias after a flower, one that reflects her health or vice versa) is ill: morally and physically. She’s wracked with consumption, and she gives her affections only for money – at least until young student Armand (Valentino) comes along. Armand is the only one who notices her physical illness and who cares for her. They fall in love, while curiously reading a story (shown in the movie via imagined scenes with themselves inserted into the story) of a couple from the past that seem to represent their own lives. Her future is bright: she’ll get well in the country air and sunshine, and will leave her immoral ways behind. But no: Armand’s father catches wind of the relationship and pays a visit to Camille, convincing her that she will only do Armand harm if she stays with him. So she leaves a note for Armand telling him that she’s had her fun with him and is returning to Paris.

Her wicked ways catch up with her. The illness returns. As she lies on her deathbed the creditors begin carting away her possessions, all but the book Armand gave her. She leaves an inscription for him, and he arrives just after her death to learn that she loved him after all.

This is kind of a mish-mash of a movie, with good parts and bad. The bad include an abundance of overacting (or perhaps even bizarro acting) and ludicrous depiction of what goes on when the party moves from the dance hall to the courtesan’s apartment. The good include some of the tender countryside scenes and, in particular, the scene where Armand’s father confronts Camille. Of note (neither good nor bad) are the arty set decorations, e.g. of Camille’s apartment and at least one party setting – they look like something out of a surrealist painting. (The movie opens with a card saying that the story has been updated for modern times- I suppose that’s part of what they meant. I can’t help but mention here a fascinating wall-sized circular window in Camille’s bedroom, roughly 5 feet in diameter. A slider within the wall opens and closes the viewport at the touch of a button, as quickly as a Star Wars doorway. I’d like one of those.) There are a lot of allegorical devices: the story-with-the-story, the fact that it always seems to be raining, snowing, or dark as a backdrop to the party life, while the simple life is in sunshine; the correspondence between Camille’s physical health and her moral choices; the flower that is healthy when she is. Valentino has very little to do, it’s hard to see from this (and from other Valentino movies of the period) how he shot to fame.

I guess the bottom line is: a simple tragic story, acting all over the map from bizarre to good, surrealistic sets, and a lot of layers (even if none of them go very deep). Some if not all of those things make it memorable, and maybe that’s enough.

movie log: Way Down East (1920)

Seen January 25, 2009: Way Down East directed by D. W. Griffith, starring Lilian Gish, Lowell Sherman, and Richard Barthelmess.

If you’re a fan of old silent films, you’ve probably either seen this one or have it high on your want-to-see list. I am such a fan. Most of my silent movie watching these days is courtesy of TCM, which features a semi-regular Silent Sunday Night program as well as a smattering of silents throughout the normal schedule, or on DVD. That’s not a bad thing – it’s a good thing. These days, especially if you have a decent sound and video system, there’s often no clear advantage to watching a movie in a theater or in your home. Or, said differently, there are plusses and minuses for each – I think it’s high time we disabused ourselves of the notion that the theatrical experience is always better.

I’m sure you know that I’m leading up to a “but” – so here it is. But seeing a good quality silent film with live original music in a theater full of fans is a real treat. I saw this one at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, NH, as part of their monthly Sunday Silent Classics series. Live original music is composed and performed by Jeff Rapsis, who is greatly responsible for the series. It was a long movie, but the audience was with it all the way: hissing the bad guy and cheering for the good people.

Way Down East is a movie based on a play; it purports to be a morality tale, but it’s really just a pot-burner of a story involving rich and poor relations, evil men, good folk, fallen women, comic foils, and good old action sequences. The movie opens with a some words about how mankind is gradually progressing from a polygamous animal towards the ideal of one man for one woman, and telling us that this story will show how the order of monogamy must come to pass in order to spare women the kind of fate depicted in it. The setup has a poor family – mother and grown daughter – failing to make ends meet. The daughter Anna (played by Lillian Gish) travels to Boston to beg assistance from rich relations. She is soon wooed by a lecherous cad of a playboy – Lennox Sanderson (played by Lowell Sherman) – who tricks her into a sham marriage; she’s pregnant and back home with her mother before she learns that the marriage is fake. The story goes from there, punctuated with purple-prosed title cards and filled with archetypical characters: judgemental types, forgiving types, helpful and comic types, heroes and villains.

The IMDB lists several running lengths for this film, anywhere from 107 to 165 minutes. This one was apparently the 145 minute version which, I gather, is the de facto issue. Even at this length you can see where there have been some cuts. There is, for example, a matter of a robbery at a small-town post office that was reduced to a couple of off-hand mentions (probably for the better). The film quality was not perfect, but fairly decent, with some parts better than others. The original film featured color tinting and this print did as well, although I was at a loss to figure out what the tinting implied. Just as I thought I figured out when and why the tinting was used, each theory was busted.

Spoiler here – skip this paragraph if you care about such things. This movie is mostly famous for its ice floe sequence near the ending (filmed in and around White River Junction, VT, and perhaps in parts of NH). Lillian Gish was so dedicated to this performance that she sustained an injury from dangling her hand in the frigid water, an injury that lasted the rest of her long life. Some notes on the web suggest that the ice floe sequence was not in the original story, but was added by Griffith for the movie. If so, it was plugged into the movie pretty well: while watching it I felt that it presented an analog to what happened to Anna’s baby earlier in the film (particularly the focus on the cold hand, and the baptism and rebirth of the soul). Rapsis’ music really shone during this sequence, building up an excitement that kept me on the edge of my seat throughout.

A thoroughly enjoyable film, and well worth the wait (for me) to have seen it presented in this way. Those who aren’t comfortable with or adapted to seeing silent films might be a bit put off by the style (and even for an old silent film, the style is a bit strident) – but don’t let that stop you.

movie log: Way Out West (1937)

Viewed last night, January 24 2009: Way Out West, directed by James W. Horne, starring Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.

A very funny old Laurel and Hardy film, this was not the first time I’ve seen it and I doubt it’ll be the last. Laurel and Hardy are couriers on a mission to a small western town to deliver a mining deed bequeathed by a man to his daughter Mary Roberts who, inexplicably (but who cares), is in thrall to saloon owner Mickey Finn (wonderfully played by James Finlayson). Finn hatches a plan to steal the deed by having his wife impersonate Mary. Much hilarity follows.

Highlights are a soft-shoe song-and-dance number by Laurel and Hardy (which never fails to crack me up) against a western-sounding tune featuring yodelling by Chill Wills, and attempts – involving a donkey – to gain access to the second story of Finn’s saloon residence.

Great stuff.

movie log: Manhatta (1921)

Viewed January 19, 2009: Manhatta directed and photographed by Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand.

Seen on TCM (the source of many a great old movie viewing), this is a short film of about 10 minutes. Well-known still photographers of the day Strand and Sheeler (also a painter) created this sequence of scenes around Manhattan, meant to depict a day in order. Most scenes are sort of a still life in motion, fixed on a subject while things happen around it. In one you look through columns in the foreground with small and distant people moving in the background, in another you see massive ships nearly motionless with whisps of steam and smoke moving gracefully above. The film is interesting not only for its artistic presentation but simply for a look back in time. Title cards contain parts of Walt Whitman’s poem “Mannahatta” – appropriate as Whitman was known, e.g. in Leaves of Grass, to sometimes speak as if he were addressing readers in future times.

Nice short film. I watched it twice.

All the mem’s Presidents

Since there probably aren’t enough blog posts inspired by this week’s inauguration of Barack Obama as President of the US, one is surely needed from me.

I was thinking about the number 43. 43 individuals have taken the oath of office. (The office has been assumed 44 times, but Grover Cleveland did it two non-consecutive times, so Obama is considered the 44th office-holder.) I voted in the elections of 8 of them. Ten of them have been part of my conscious life, by which I mean that I knew about them, had conversations about them, experienced them directly in some way. My earliest memories of there being a President involve the Nixon/Kennedy race.

This means that I, personally, have experienced nearly one fourth of the US Presidents while they were in office. (If I live to see one more, it’ll be exactly one fourth.) I find this somewhat – I dunno, stunning? disturbing? humbling? the opposite? It says something about how young this country is, or how old I am, or both.

I extend that by thinking about the family connections that I have, along the lines of: if your father, who you knew and who was was active in your life, experienced an event (was in a war, say) that happened before your own awareness of the world or existence in it, you nevertheless feel connected to that event. You were touched by an ancestor who touched that event. One could probably feel this through a non-relative that one knows, as well, but the immediate ancestral link is my idiom here. In the same way that I have experienced Presidents since 1961, my father provides another 28 years in this other way. This assumes that he became aware of Presidents at the same age as I did. He’s only 3 up on me, though, since FDR was in office for a great deal of that time. Still, I’m adding those 3 to Presidents that I feel somehow connected to. That’s 13.

(This introduces another tangent that I’ll go off on here. Since 1961, there have been 10 Presidents. By the end of Obama’s first elected term, the average duration per President will have been 5.2 years, despite the fact that five of the ten presidents were re-elected when they ran as incumbents. You could imagine a perfect world and look at this a couple of different ways. 5 dual terms plus 5 single terms could take 60 years and with an average of 6.0 years per President, or 5 dual terms within our 52-year period would leave 3 single terms, giving an average duration of 6.5 years. Either way, the 5.2 year average is awfully short considering the number of re-elections. We all know why that’s so, but I still find it – well, if not fascinating, at least something to write about. In contrast, in the 28 years before this – before 1961- the average duration per President was over 9.3 years.)

There were other ancestors involved in my life. The one born the earliest was my grandfather, who adds another 6 Presidents. I now feel that my personal reach, as given to me in the way I’ve described, extends to 19 Presidents. That’s pretty darned close to half of them.

Even more striking: compared to me, that same grandfather missed only Bush the younger and Obama; at his death he could have claimed this relationship to 17 of the 41 Presidents. His father, in turn, would have given him that reach to another 7 – to 24 of 41. He only had one grandparent that he could have known well as a young adult, and I assume he did. She adds another 4 Presidents – bringing it to 28 of 41. My grandfather, then, who died not long ago, in 1995, could claim that he was raised among ancestors who experienced Abraham Lincoln and NH’s Franklin Pierce, and that there were only 13 US Presidents outside of this kind of his reach.

So where does this leave me? At the end of a blog post, thinking about time, how short and how long it is, what distance we’ve come and how much of that distance we can feel. Connected to the past, connected to the present, and maybe providing somebody’s connection in the future.

movie log: The Namesake (2006)

Viewed 4 days ago, January 17 2009: The Namesake directed by Mira Nair and starring Kal Penn, Tabu, and Irrfan Khan; based on a novel by Jhumpa Lahiri.

The movie opens with a man, Ashoke (Irrfan Khan), riding on a train in India, reading a book of stories by Gogol. A fellow passenger urges him to travel, but he is happily rooted; all the travelling he needs to do he can do via others’ words on the printed page. There is a mostly-implied accident. Scenes change, time passes, and we find that he’s uprooted and gone to America. He returns to arrange a marriage to Ashima (Tabu) and brings her back to the US. There they have a son. They’d like to take some time to name him, but the US hospital requires that they provide a name for a birth certificate before they leave, and so they give him the name Gogol after the father’s favorite author. More time passes; a sister Sonia (played by Sahira Nair) arrives, and both children grow older. Gogol (played as a young adult by Kal Penn) has come to resent his alien name, as it isolates him from his American peers. He chooses instead to go by Nikhil – Nick for short – interestingly a variation of the author Nikolai Gogol’s first name.

And that’s the setup, modulo some details. The movie builds from there into an intricate tale of life influenced by externalities; of personal and cultural clashes, alienation and rejoining; of literature and stages of life. Significant mention is made of Gogol’s story “The Overcoat,” including a reference to Dostoevsky’s alleged remark that “we all” (meaning Russian literature) “come out from Gogol’s Overcoat” – a very self-referential, almost fractal remark about both this film and that story.

Deeper than that I won’t go, which is probably just as well. The movie doesn’t lend itself to an easy recapitulation, nor is that something I want to try right now.

When I was younger I used to have a thing, a mental defect if you will, where I would almost always refuse to see a movie that was based on a book unless I had read the book first. Nowadays I’m older, read a lost less, and see a lot more movies. But I think I might have wanted to employ that policy here. Not that the movie is bad: quite the opposite. It’s a very engaging and rewarding film, with fine performances all around, one that suggests a richness of source material. I think I’ll want to seek out the book, and you can take that as a compliment to the film.

movie log: Athens, Ga. – Inside/Out (1987)

Viewed 3 days ago, January 17 2009: Athens, Ga. – Inside/Out, a documentary directed by Tony Gayton.

Explores the issue of why the town of Athens, Georgia seems to be a fertile ground for musicians and other artists, at least from a 1987 vantage point. There are appearances by and interviews with many various local musicians and artists, including some representation by the two best-known musical products of that area, those being R.E.M. and the B-52s. Unfortunately the documentary failed (for me) to clearly define its premise, let alone examine it. While it was entertaining enough, and it was fun to see the activity in and around this town and listen to first person accounts from career artists (and hopefuls), I didn’t come out feeling very educated about the topic. Part of this, I think, was the failure of the documentary to identify its subjects. I often had no idea who was on the screen, as they were rarely or sporadically identified, and even when identified there wasn’t a lot of information about who they were or what their role was in the community. One of the main figures in the documentary was someone who we eventually found was called “Orf” – but other than seeing that he had a pretty high opinion of himself, who he was or why we should be hearing from him was never revealed. There was also an ongoing time warp: it seemed that footage was from different years or different eras (e.g., in some scenes members of the B-52s talking about their current fame and looking back to Athens, while in other scenes we see Peter Buck of R.E.M. hanging out on a sidewalk and reflecting on the niceties of not being well known), but I could never be sure, as the paucity of information applied here. It was almost an “if you don’t know, I’m certainly not going to tell you” approach.

As I say, though, there was plenty of fascinating material. Some readings by a fellow named John Seawright who had a deep Johnny Cash -like voice and looked a bit like Buddy Ebsen or Michael Nesmith appealed to me. (Sadly, a web search indicates that he died some years ago.) Towards the end there were interviews with some ex-members of group “Pylon” (who were mentioned with reverence throughout the film up to this point). We learn that the group broke up when their agent tried to book them on a tour with U2; it seemed they really didn’t want to be bothered. Now, or rather when interviewed, they were working fairly menial jobs and apparently seemed to barely remember being in a band, nor did they want to return to it.

On a meta level, I had problems with the DVD. The 2.1 track played just fine, but the 5.1 track was noisy. There was also a commentary track that was added some years after the documentary was mde, but this was also too noisy to bear. A shame, as it might have exposed some of the things that flew over my head.

I did find this film entertaining, which almost goes without saying; I rarely see a documentary about (and featuring) real music and art that I don’t find appealing. I only wish it had been more informative, as with similar-themed documentaries (i.e., about music in a particular city) such as Made in Sheffield or even with documentaries about specific groups, e.g. Edgeplay (about The Runaways) etc, etc, where you can learn a great deal even if you come in fairly ignorant about the subject. This one may have been intended more for insiders than for outsiders, which is fine – that’s just a matter of defining the intended audience.