Sunday, July 31, 2016

Books: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

The 2016 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge is an event in which the goal is to read and write about a variety of books related to classic film, hosted by Out of the Past. For a complete list of the rules, visit the website.

From an early age I've always been taken by Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Like The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, I was fascinated with the idea of discovering a magical other-world by accident, when you least expect it, and would've given anything to have had it happen to me. As a budding artist, John Tenniel's illustrations captured my imagination as much as the story. I think I may have even tried to copy them for myself - freehand, of course. I know I tried making some originals.

Alice in Wonderland (1903)
The volume of Alice I own is the Bantam Classics paperback, published in 1981, which also includes the sequel, Through the Looking-Glass. The introduction by Morton N. Cohen reluctantly acknowledges the, shall we say, less savory interpretations of the Alice books and author Lewis Carroll, AKA Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, in particular ("As we know, psychoanalytical criticism is rarely flattering to its subject, and indeed the Charles Dodgson that these critics sketch for us is not a pleasant human being"), but dismisses any potential Freudian subtext, saying that the Alice books were popular because Carroll just really, really grokked kids. 

Personally, I get a Michael Jackson vibe just from reading Cohen's own descriptions of Carroll ("he remembered and concentrated on how to please [children], how to entertain them, how to make them shriek with laughter"), but maybe we as a society know too much for any non-familial adult-child relationship to seem completely innocent. More's the pity. Either way, the books still work for me.

Alice in Wonderland (1931)
You know about the Tim Burton Alice movies. You know about the Disney animated film. You may even know about the Paramount all-star, pre-Code movie with, among others, Cary Grant, Gary Cooper and WC Fields. I'm betting you don't know, however, about the three Alice movies I'm gonna talk about - all from the first half of the 20th century, from three different countries, and all noteworthy. All three can be found on YouTube.

The first film adaptation of Alice was a British silent from 1903, 38 years after the book was published. It was directed by Cecil Hepworth and Percy Stow and starred May Clark as Alice. The only surviving copy was partially restored and tinted by the British Film Institute. The costumes are nice, and the growing and shrinking effects are decent. The Cheshire Cat looks more like Grumpy Cat. The title cards describe scenes in a broad fashion but don't go into dialogue, so if one never read the book, I imagine they'd have a tough time making sense of it all - not that Alice makes much sense to begin with. One wonders what Georges Melies would've done with an Alice movie.

The first Alice talkie came out in 1931. It was an American production directed by Bud Pollard, starring Ruth Gilbert in a blond wig. It was shot over in Fort Lee, NJ. It's lousy. I couldn't finish watching it. Gilbert talks in a Betty Boop voice with a goofy expression on her face. Everyone over-enunciates, this being an early sound movie. It's shot like a stage play, which is to say, unimaginatively, and the screenplay is pedantically devoted to the book to the point where they may as well be reading from it directly. The one saving grace is the 20s-jazz-style theme song by Irving Berlin, of all people.

Alice Au Pays Des Merveilles (1949)

Then there's the 1949 French Alice film, Alice Au Pays Des Merveilles, directed by Dallas Bower and starring Carol Marsh. This is a live-action/claymation hybrid. Marsh interacts with the stop-motion-animation puppets of Wonderland. Also, like Bride of Frankenstein, there's a framing sequence depicting the author of the original book, in this case, Carroll - or Dodgson, I should say, played by Stephen Murray. We see him in his job as a math teacher at Oxford University, meeting Queen Victoria and telling the Wonderland story to Alice Liddell, the real-life inspiration for the Alice character, and her sisters.

The claymation is terrific. I like the designs for the White Rabbit, the Cheshire Cat and the Mad Hatter. There are musical numbers adapted from the poems in the book that sound way better than the singing in the '31 version. The puppets sing, dance and emote well. Marsh captures Alice's befuddled innocence without being cloying, and she has a great singing voice. The film drags after awhile, as it becomes more about the Wonderland denizens and less about Alice, but it's still worth seeing for anyone who loves the book.

The Alice books are in the public domain, so one imagines storytellers across all media will continue reinterpreting them as long as it fires their imaginations.

The Thin Man
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Friday, July 29, 2016


TCM viewing

In one of my favorite 90s action movies, The Negotiator, there's a scene in which Kevin Spacey and Sam Jackson debate the ending of Shane. The latter says Alan Ladd is alive, despite the gunshot wound he took. The former insists he's actually dead as he rides off on his horse. They never settle the matter definitively.

Maybe it was my TV, which is pretty old and starting to show signs of wear. Maybe it was TCM's print. I don't know, but the ending looked so dark it was really tough to even make Ladd out! Most of the night scenes in Shane were like this, in fact. I'm not sure if this was director George Stevens' intent or not. All I know is the movie looked darker than I had remembered.

Okay, I'm just gonna put this out there and damn the consequences: the kid in this movie was totally in love with Shane. I can't be the only one to pick up on this, am I? I mean, he was crushing hard on Shane from the moment he appeared. I think at one point, he even tells Jean Arthur he loves Shane. I know, I know, it wasn't meant to be interpreted as romantic love, but it's hard to ignore the subtext in the scene where Shane teaches him to shoot a gun... I wouldn't even mention it, except the movie plays up the kid's hero worship of Shane almost to the point of comedy. It wasn't exactly subtle.

The mountains of Wyoming frame many of the outdoor scenes. They're magnificent. Shane was shot in Wyoming's Jackson Hole Valley, an area which encompasses, among other things, the Grand Teton National Park and the National Elk Refuge. I believe the animal the kid watches in the beginning of the film was an elk. They're bigger than deer but smaller than moose. The Shawnee and Cree Indians call them "wapiti," meaning "white rump."

Ladd was good, but I wanna show some love for Van Heflin. The more I see of him, the more I like. Between this, the original 3:10 to Yuma, and The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, he did some quality work. He wasn't flashy; that usually wasn't his role. He provided stability while all the crazy stuff's going on around him. Here, he and Ladd get into a great barroom brawl scene, going up against a bunch of bad guys together, and you can tell the experience bonds them. Plus, he gives a good rally-the-troops type speech in the second half of the film.

Despite the presence of the kid, this isn't an overly sentimental movie, which I appreciate. Like Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven, one gets the impression Shane was trying to put his violent ways behind for good, but circumstances wouldn't allow that to happen. That's probably why he leaves at the end - he knows he can't be around decent people for too long. It's a good movie. I can see why it's so beloved.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Star Trek Beyond

Star Trek Beyond
seen @ New Paltz Cinema, New Paltz NY


New Paltz, New York is a small college town in the Hudson Valley. Bibi and Eric have lived there for many years. It suits their temperament. It's ultra-liberal, scenic, close enough to New York that it doesn't seem too far away, yet distant enough to feel autonomous. I visit them once or twice a year. Sometimes they come down here to New York to visit me. Bibi and I were debating what to do during my trip up there last Saturday when we realized we had an opportunity to see Star Trek Beyond together. That settled the problem of what to do.

Friday, July 22, 2016

The Abyss

The Abyss
Sundance Channel viewing

I always thought Ed Harris should have been a bigger star. Like Harrison Ford, he's got the rugged good looks, he can do action or drama and sell you on him with a fierce intensity, and he's worked with some great directors: Cameron, Stone, Howard, Eastwood, and Weir, to name a few. Plus, he's a great yeller. I usually expect him to do some quality yelling whenever I see him in a movie. He's just really good at it. If you saw enough of his movies, you'd understand.

1989-2002 was probably Harris' peak period. He alternated between Best Picture contenders (Nixon, Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, The Hours) and quality popcorn fare (The Firm, Absolute Power, The Truman Show, and yes, even The Rock, a movie I love unironically because of him specifically). He even found time to direct himself in a wonderful biopic of painter Jackson Pollock (fun fact: the art coach who helped Harris learn how to paint like Pollock is a former employer of mine).

He holds your attention even when he's just sitting in a room talking. A lot of it is in his eyes, where much of the best acting comes from. Yes, he yells, but it's not an Al Pacino swagger or a Tom Cruise petulance. When Harris yells, you feel like it's coming from his very soul. I do, anyway.

Harris doesn't like talking about The Abyss. By a number of accounts, it was a stressful and highly demanding shoot for a film that didn't do well at the box office. Time has been kind to it, though, especially since the longer, restored edition was released on home video. That's the version I usually see on TV now, and it was the version Sundance showed.

I think Harris is terrific in the film, but knowing how James Cameron got that performance out of him - apparently Harris almost drowned at one point - gives me the shivers. For a director, it's a hell of a conundrum: how far do you push an actor to get the best possible performance out of him or her? Filmmaking should be a collaborative process, but Cameron is notorious for his dictatorial ways on the set. He got a great performance from Harris. But Harris was practically traumatized by the experience. I wish I could say the ends justified the means, but I don't know if that's true here.

Whenever I think of Cameron's films, sooner or later I'm reminded of my friend James. I met him in college. At the time, he was an aspiring filmmaker, and Cameron was his idol. James would tell me all kinds of geeky details about The Abyss, the first two Terminator movies, Aliens and True Lies - the kinds of things the average person can learn on Wikipedia today. He knew all of it long before the Internet. The early 90s were roughly the time that laser discs were popular, and he was deep into those, so that's where he must have gotten much of his information.

He may have been the first movie geek I ever knew. I remember thinking how amazing it was that he knew so much about movies. These days, he's into self-publishing comics - another interest he's had for as long as I've known him. I don't know if he still wants to make movies, but as relatively easy as it is to do these days, I wouldn't be surprised if that's what he's done too.

Monday, July 18, 2016

A Piece of the Action: the new Trek fan film rules

1. The fan production must be less than 15 minutes for a single self-contained story, or no more than 2 segments, episodes or parts, not to exceed 30 minutes total, with no additional seasons, episodes, parts, sequels or remakes. 
2. The title of the fan production or any parts cannot include the name “Star Trek.” However, the title must contain a subtitle with the phrase: “A STAR TREK FAN PRODUCTION” in plain typeface. The fan production cannot use the term “official” in either its title or subtitle or in any marketing, promotions or social media for the fan productions. 
3. The content in the fan production must be original, not reproductions, recreations or clips from any Star Trek production. If non-Star Trek third party content is used, all necessary permissions for any third party content should be obtained in writing.
I've been excited about the wave of Trek fan films that have popped up in recent years, but only in the context of them being one out of many different ways - fan fiction, fan art, licensed novels, comics, video games - to appreciate Trek outside of the canonical work. (I think some fans, in their fervor over the fan films, might have forgotten about this.) It's unfortunate that Axanar has poisoned the fan film well to the extent that CBS/Paramount had to step in and establish boundaries for future Trek fan films, but truthfully, I'm not gonna shed too many tears over this change.

The reason has nothing to do with the guidelines per se. There have been differences of opinion regarding their fairness, and even their legality. CBS/P clearly wants to avoid another Axanar by putting a cap on film length and fundraising money, and banning professional actors. Maybe it's not fair to think all Trek fan films would or will follow the Axanar pattern, but I doubt the lawyers at CBS/P see it that way. Remember, fan-made works exist at the copyright holder's sufferance. CBS/P could've said "no more fan films, at all" and that would've been that.

I think once the dust has settled, those who want to continue shooting Trek fan films, even under the new guidelines, will make like the Borg and adapt. The truly creative ones will find different ways to tell their stories, and the fans will adjust their expectations accordingly. The bounty of stunning and polished fan material looking like an official episode or movie might have spoiled us, myself included, and perhaps we thought it could have continued indefinitely as long as CBS/P had no objections. And maybe it could have.

As for those who can't or won't work under these conditions, I hate to say it, but maybe they should reconsider playing with another kid's toys and make some of their own. Homages to another creator's work are all well and good, but the bottom line is we need new Star Treks - and we, as fans, need the will to let go of our attachment to Trek long enough to follow talented creators like James Cawley, Vic Mignogna, Tommy Kraft, Christian Gossett, and others if they decide to start something new outside of Trek fan films. Personally, I hope they do.

Axanar and fan fiction
William Shatner's 'Leonard'
Two Nimoy docs
Lin brokers Axanar settlement
action Trek vs. mental Trek

Friday, July 15, 2016

Books: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

The 2016 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge is an event in which the goal is to read and write about a variety of books related to classic film, hosted by Out of the Past. For a complete list of the rules, visit the website.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is one of the quintessential New York books. I like it for the way it captures, in great detail, city life in the early 20th century. Betty Smith brings you not just the general sights and sounds, but the way people talked, the kinds of food they ate and how they ate it, how different ethnicities coexisted, and so much more. If it were merely an archive of urban life during a critical growth period in American history, it would still be valuable - but of course, it's much more than that.

I had read Tree before, but I was still amazed at the frankness Smith brings to the story of young Francie Nolan. Long before Judy Blume, Smith writes from a child's-eye view about things like sex, menstruation, inter-gender dynamics, and even rape. Francie yearns to understand the world and her place in it, and even if she's not as outgoing or sociable as her peers, or even her brother Neeley, one gets the feeling she'll be all right anyway.

I found her mother, Katie, a curiosity. She meets Johnny, the man who will become her husband, by straight up stealing him from her best friend without any apologies. In time, she realizes Johnny's an alcoholic who can't provide for his family like he should, but she remains loyal to him. And after he dies, she denies herself happiness with another man who truly loves her (before giving in eventually) out of that same loyalty. I realize part of her behavior is a result of the cultural mores of the time and place she lived in, but she struck me as a paradox, not easily pinned down.

Betty Smith
And then there's Aunt Sissy. As wonderful (and perfectly cast!) as Joan Blondell was as Sissy in the movie, one does not truly appreciate her character, as written in the book, is basically a raging nymphomaniac! (Of course, that sort of characterization wasn't possible back then.) Smith recognizes her, um, uniqueness in this regard, but she also writes her with a great deal of sympathy unusual for the time (early 40s) this book was written.

Indeed, Smith treats many of her characters this way. Even peripherals who come and go in only one or two scenes get examined closely by Smith, who hops in and out of people's heads freely. It's a bit off-putting at first to contemporary writers like me who were taught to stick to one POV at a time, but one gets used to it over the course of the story.

I did think Tree went on a bit too long. There were moments late in the book, after Johnny's death, that seemed either superfluous (I didn't think Katie really needed another child) or dragged (Francie's employment experiences). It wasn't much of a bother, though. Tree is one of the great novels of the 20th century and should be on every young adult reading list.

The Thin Man

Monday, July 11, 2016

Les Cowboys

Les Cowboys
seen @ Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, New York NY

Les Cowboys was a movie Vija had suggested for our movie group and I went to see it only because I hadn't seen her in a few months. I had nominated a different movie on our Facebook page, but apparently something very bad happens to a dog in it, which didn't go over well with the animal lovers in our little group, so Vija recommended this instead. All I knew about it came from a single review I had read which seemed positive, but with reservations. Didn't matter, though. I had taken the Sunday off from my writing group and needed something to do, and seeing a movie, any movie, with Vija certainly appealed to me. So I went.

There was just one problem: I could barely see because gremlins stole my glasses. (That's my story and I'm sticking to it.) When I had agreed to see the movie, I had kind of forgotten about this unexpected complication. By the time you read this, I'll have a new pair, which in truth, I've needed for months at least, but I had to spend a little over a week going through the world without them. Why so long? The holiday weekend, of course. It slowed down the manufacture of my new pair after I went to the neighborhood eyewear boutique for an eye exam.

I've worn glasses most of my life. Wearing them has become second nature to me, to the point that feeling my face without them when I normally expect to wear them feels wrong. Enduring a week-plus of squinting at signs, holding books up closer to my face, and guessing at the layouts of unfamiliar places made me realize how much I take them for granted. This one dude in my writing group told me how he got laser-corrective surgery done on his eyes, which he said were pretty bad. I said I'd be too scared to have that done to my eyes, even though it's a fairly common practice by now. I dunno. Maybe it's worth considering before I get too old.

Despite the change of movie, most people couldn't make it, so it was just me and Vija and Franz. I had to talk them into sitting in the front of the theater. I think we were in the fourth row, but the screen was set far enough back that we weren't looking up into the actors' nostrils. I had feared I might need assistance from Vija in interpreting the occasional subtitle (and so had she!), but they were big enough that I could read them, and as a plus, a number of scenes were done in English.

Les Cowboys, a French movie, was a modern riff (though not a remake) on The Searchers: dude's teen daughter appears to have been abducted by her boyfriend, but after a few days, she sends a note saying she chose to elope with him and to not bother coming after her. Dad is not convinced, however, so he and his son set off in pursuit. Muslims are substituted here for Indians. The timeline for the story begins before 9-11 and stretches past, hitting a few other notable events along the way, including the train bombings in both Madrid, in 2004, and London, in 2005. Plus, John C. Reilly!

Dad, his family, and their friends, are really into American Western culture; they have square dances and sing country songs and wear cowboy hats, hence the film's title. It's a bit odd to hear a song like "The Tennessee Waltz" sung with a French accent. I have no idea how widespread this sort of thing is in France; you just have to accept this for the sake of the story, although it doesn't play much of a factor at all. I think it's only there to make the Searchers comparisons more overt. There are also scenes of people riding the plains of Afghanistan on horseback which kinda look like they were cribbed from a Western.

Long story short, Vija and I liked the film and Franz didn't. He seemed to think the depiction of European Muslims was off - a Colombian, he spent some time in Paris before he met Vija, so I bow to his superior knowledge in this - but he also nitpicked at the writing and acting, which didn't seem anywhere near as bad as he claimed.

See, the problem with talking about movies with Franz is, while he's basically a good guy at heart, he's also a bit eccentric, to the point where he can come across as excessively dogmatic when expressing his opinions. I know because I've tried debating him on movies in the past and ended up frustrated at his intransigence. During the movie, he kept whining to Vija about this and that scene he didn't like, and she kept shushing him - not the first time this has happened. It reached the point where I had to tell him to shut up. Fortunately, the theater was only about half-full, so he didn't embarrass us, at least.

Neither of them has seen The Searchers, so I had to describe it to them in the context of Les Cowboys. The French film takes a sudden and dramatic second-act twist which deviates sharply from the American film, but parallels still exist. Like John Wayne's Ethan Edwards, the father in Les Cowboys, Alain, has a bias against the culture connected to the alleged kidnapping, and the fear that the Natalie Wood surrogate, the daughter Kelly, has assimilated into that culture, is present. The Jeffrey Hunter surrogate, the son Georges, eventually comes to see things differently than his father over time.

Both films are concerned with how whites look upon "the other" in extreme situations. Searchers exposes the prejudice that lies underneath the mythology of the American West, the same mythology that the family of Les Cowboys celebrates, despite its origins in another country. There can be no reconciliation in Wayne's heart over what happens to Wood; he wants to kill her because of it, and would have if Hunter hadn't interfered. In the end, Wayne is left alone, on the outside, as Wood is reunited with her family. Les Cowboys ends on a note of acceptance, despite the anti-Muslim sentiment witnessed to that point. It's a message we could use now more than ever.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

The Most Dangerous Game

Hot and Bothered: The Films of 1932 Blogathon is exactly what it says on the tin. It is hosted by Once Upon a Screen and Cinemaven's Essays From the Couch. For a complete list of participating blogs, visit the links at either site.

The Most Dangerous Game
TCM viewing

I watched The Most Dangerous Game, but honestly, I wasn't that impressed. It doesn't get interesting until the third act, and I can't say I cared that much about Joel McCrea's character. Plus, given recent events, a movie about killing people for sport seems a little unpalatable right now. So let's talk about another aspect of the movie instead - its ties to King Kong.

Both films were products of RKO Radio Pictures during the pre-Code era. Before he grew into a legendary figure in the industry, David O. Selznick was production head at RKO from 1931-33, having attained the rank at the tender age of 29. Among the stars who were part of the studio during the pre-war years include Katharine Hepburn, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and the studio's best remembered films during this period include Little Women, Top Hat, Bringing Up Baby, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and of course, Citizen Kane.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

If I were a TV horror host

A couple of weeks ago, Jen told me about a silly little 50s sci-fi flick she saw on MeTV (The Leech Woman, if it interests you). She said one of those old-fashioned TV horror hosts introduced the film and provided commentary before and after commercials, which I thought was pretty cool. I didn't think they were still around. A quick online search revealed the host was Chicago's Svengoolie, a host I had heard of before, though the one on MeTV is actually the second to bear that name.

I don't remember any horror hosts from my childhood. I know I watched monster movies on TV, but if they came with hosts, be they vampires, mad scientists, or mutants of some kind, they don't stick out in my memory, and you'd think they would at a young age. Maybe that was more of a late night thing, but then, I only stayed up late to watch Friday Night Videos. Now that I'm reminded of horror hosts, I feel like I was deprived of an essential childhood television experience! It's great that I can see Svengoolie on MeTV if I want to, but I can't do it from a child's perspective.

Zacherley was one of the first TV horror
hosts and was big in NYC and beyond.
Here in New York we had Zacherley for many years, originally from Philadelphia. He was a genuine star both locally and nationally, cutting records, appearing on American Bandstand, making all sorts of live appearances throughout the metropolitan area, in addition to doing his shtick hosting late night horror movies on TV. Ten-year-old me probably would've dug him.

Now, of course, the only late night personalities are the ones who host talk shows, and local television is clogged with infomercials in the wee hours. Plus, the thrill of seeing a horror or SF movie on TV you've not seen in years, or at all, is mitigated by the fact that you can rent them anytime you want on Netflix or buy them on Amazon!

Let's pretend, however, just for a moment, that local networks still showed old genre films late at night and horror hosts were still there to present them. And as long as we're playing make believe, let's further pretend I had the skills to actually be a horror host... which I don't. But what if I did?

Vampira operated out of LA and built up a following
long before her appearance in Plan 9 From Outer Space.
- I'd do everything cheap. Yes, it would probably be quite possible to have a decent looking set from which to shoot, with respectable production values. I'd operate on a shoestring budget anyway! Besides, the impression I get is that one doesn't need that much in terms of set design - and it's an absolute given that there would be no computer-generated special effects. That said...

- I'd still maintain an online presence. In this day and age, it's probably a necessity if you wanna achieve any kind of notoriety.

- I'd partner up with a local theater for special events. We're running out of local theaters here in Queens, but I imagine a place like Cinemart in Forest Hills would be ideal. I could always move to the UA Midway or even the UA Kaufman when I get bigger. The point is that I could host midnight screenings, say, three or four times a year. Halloween would be the biggest one, of course.

Cleveland's Ghoulardi had a brief but successful run in the 60s
before moving to LA to do voice work.
- I'd include 70s and 80s movies in my repertoire. Not just because these were the decades of my youth, but because there's probably a wider variety of schlock available. The only downside might be restrictions in terms of nudity and profanity, but there could be ways around that. For example, Zacherley was known for occasionally inserting himself into the movies when one least expected it - though it probably wasn't to cover up a nude scene.

- Most importantly, my character would be a comic book-style supervillain. A low-rent one, naturally, who operates out of the ruins of an old, abandoned video store. He watches these old movies (the only ones still intact) to figure out a plan to conquer the world, but they all disappoint him in the end because they're never good enough. I'd be a combination of General Zod and Leslie Nielsen from the Naked Gun movies. I'd need a henchman too - a puppet of some kind, perhaps. I could see that working, couldn't you?

Friday, July 1, 2016