Sunday, November 30, 2008

you want revolutionary?

What I would like to see is Rufus Wainwright covering Katy Perry's "I Kissed a Girl" with the lyrics intact.

And how about the Jonas Brothers doing "Papa Don't Preach" with some tweaks: "But I've made up my mind/ We're gonna keep our baby." Then critical attention would be- ahem, swift.

Swifter than a 27-second phone call, maybe?

Distilled Failures

"If there is a special Hell for writers it would be in the forced contemplation of their own works, with all the misconceptions, the omissions, the failures that any finished work of art implies."

- John Dos Passos

"I write a lot- every day, seven days a week- and I throw a lot away. Sometimes I think I write to throw away; it's a process of distillation."

- Donald Barthelme

"The faster I write the better my output. If I'm going slow I'm in trouble. It means I'm pushing the words instead of being pulled by them."

- Raymond Chandler

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A Window Into Hayes, and the Trouble with Hitch

It was announced Monday that John Michael Hayes had died of natural causes November 19 at a retirement community. He was 89.

He was a screenwriter who wrote four scripts for Alfred Hitchcock: Rear Window (1954), To Catch a Thief (1955), The Trouble with Harry (1955), and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), the latter being a remake of Hitchcock's own 1934 movie of the same title. Among other things, these films were noted for the wordplay, the double entendres, the clever ways through which they worked around censorship at the time.

Rear Window earned Hayes an Oscar nomination, and he got another for Mark Robson's Peyton Place

His other movies include Butterfield Eight, for which Elizabeth Taylor won her first best actress Oscar. He also worked with directors such as Budd Boetticher, Edward Dmytryk and Anthony Mann.

In an interview with Susan Green (Backstory 3: Interviews with Screenwriters of the 60s,  edited by Patrick McGilligan, University of California Press, 1997) a little over a decade ago, he remembers growing up, his marriage and his career. 

He was the first in his family to go to college, which he did by maintaining scholarships and by working. He was on police beat covering homicides and suicides, and he wrote mysteries for radio, which may account for his skills in plot, dialogue and character. You could say it was fated that he and Hitch get- well, hitched.

Hayes talks about being on the set with Hitchcock, how he was given the freedom to write, and the locations they had been to. He notes that the movies were Hitch's life, and how the Master of Suspense shot the movies in his head, with specific camera angles and all.

Then he started getting prominent mentions in the reviews and the trade papers. Hitchcock, he says, did not want to share billing with him- he wanted to be the sole creator of his movies. Hayes notes that, when you mention Hitch's titles, what comes to mind is that they are Alfred Hitchcock Films. You would not have guessed the screenwriters who worked on them, including playwrights and Pulitzer Prize winners: Robert Sherwood (Rebecca, 1940), Thornton Wilder (Shadow of a Doubt, 1943), Samson Raphaelson (Suspicion, 1947) and Maxwell Anderson ( The Wrong Man, 1956).

Yet Hayes also says Hitchcock was the easiest to work with. He lets us in on working with William Wyler, whom he calls the most difficult ever. He recalls an argument they had, after which Wyler tours him around, reading the inscriptions on his awards. It all takes about half an hour, then Wyler says: "Now tell me I'm wrong. What does all this mean?" To which Hayes retorts: "Well, those were things you've done in the past. I think you're wrong now. "

Yes, the William Wyler. Who directed Ben-Hur (1959), Roman Holiday (1953), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and others.

Hayes has already secured his place, if only for Rear Window, ranked 83rd in the 2007 poll of screenwriters by the Writers Guild of America on the 101 greatest screenplays of all time.

In 1954 it was nominated best written drama in the Screen Writers Guild of America Awards. The prize went to On the Waterfront.
It was also awarded best motion picture in the Edgar Allan Poe Awards by the Mystery Writers of America. 
It competed for an Academy Award as well, which went to George Seaton for The Country Girl, also a Grace Kelly movie, the one for which she won her own Oscar. 

Monday, November 24, 2008

You Can Take the Boy Out of the Country, But...

Based on memoirs published 1946, The Pianist (2002) is about one man's survival amid the dread of Nazi atrocities. It is a sad, understated exploration of the brutality of war, and the dependence of one's fate on good luck and the kindness of strangers. 

Wladyslaw Szpilman is a Jewish pianist in Poland who works in radio. One time he was playing, bombs fall, and invasion gets underway.

As part of the middle class, he initially refuses to be daunted by the German occupation. It seems they would be safe, especially since England and France are going into war. They think they wil prevail, and that all will be right.

But Szpilman's family lose their belongings, and are sent into the ghetto. Through a series of surprising incidents and accidents, he is saved from transport to the death camps and gets involved with the resistance.

What is most remarkable here is the passivity of the movie, even as violence is so casually inflicted.

Roman Polanski's direction and Ronald Harwood' screenplay choose to be straightforward, so Szpilman's story is not told any more nobly than others who had gone through the horrors of war. Often the movies show us heroes, but what we get here is simply a survivor whose narrow escapes have largely depended on chance and the good will of strangers.

Often actors show us the motivations that dictate what the characters will do, but here their lead actor has a role so passive, he is essentially just drifting. Brody turns in a restrained performance, a mix of resignation and quiet defiance. 

In the end, Szpilman gets through the war, but it is hardly a triumph. For the rest of his life, he will get to play the piano among audiences, but he will be utterly alone. 

The war may be a distant country from the past, but those who had gone through it never really got away.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Who Wouldn't?

Jennifer Garner was able to secure Thursday a restraining order against a 36-year-old man. She had said the man has been stalking her and obsessing over her for years.

And who can blame him?

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Top This

Power, expressed and realized, is one of the greater aphrodisiacs.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

What's My Canvas?

Everyone who dreams, Nietzsche asserted, is an artist.

I say:

"I dream; therefore, I'm an artist."

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Being Happy Being Weak

"Where is human nature so weak as in the bookstore?"
- Henry Ward Beecher

"An ordinary man can…surround himself with two thousand books… and thenceforward have at least one place in the world in which it is possible to be happy."
- Augustine Birrell

"Publication- is the auction of the Mind of Man."
- Emily Dickinson

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Walking After You

This girl, whom we shall call Actress A, had auditioned for the lead role in a musical. As you may know, the part went to Nicole Kidman.

Eventually she starred in a movie of her own- a comedy- and their movies brought them to a face-off in the Academy Awards. They both lost, and the award went to another hot young thing.

The next year Actress A starred in a musical of her own, which earned her another nod from the Academy. She would then lose the category to... Nicole Kidman.

She would earn her own trophy the following year, for a movie in which she played support to...

Guess who.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Why Fight

"The love impulse in man frequently expresses itself in terms of conflict."

-Katharine Hepburn to Cary Grant, in Howard Hawks's Bringing Up Baby

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Make Space for This

"Negative space, the command of experience which an artist can set resonating within a film, is a sense of terrain created partly by the audience's imaginationand partly by camera-actors-director." 

In Negative Space (Hillstone Publishing, 1971), Manny Farber tackles the basic nature of the movies, and the role of the critic and the power he wields.

Farber pays homage to the true masters of the male action film such as Howard Hawks (whom he hails as a bravado specialist, a genius, a poet), Raoul Walsh, and Anthony Mann- and John Ford pre-Stagecoach. He approves of the witty economy and the free-wheeling dialogue in the movies of Preston Sturges, and the lyricism and the wackiness in Samuel Fuller’s. He counts Jean-Luc Godard, George Kuchar, Satyajit Ray and Andy Warhol among the smart people in films.

(But what do we make of it when he writes that of the French wizards Godard-Malle- Truffaut, it is the former who has so consistently made him feel like a stupid ass?)

Farber also salutes the underappreciated lesser directors of movies about cowboys, gangsters and soldiers: William Wellman, Keighley, Robert Aldrich, Zoltan Korda, John Farrow, and Phil Karlson. He believes Michael Snow is incapable of a callow, clumsy, schmaltzy move; and he thinks his Wavelength couldn’t be more taut or intelligent.

He contends that what separates them is their ability to handle drab material. A great director finds ways to work within the confines of a particular genre, and yet makes it his own.

Additionally, he cites the obsessive themes running through the movies of Sam Peckinpah and Orson Welles.

Here in Negative Space, Farber looks for earthiness, humanism and shape in the movies. While doing so, he displays his amazing powers of description and classification. For example, here’s what he has to say about a few actors:

On Belmondo: outlandishly coy and unfinished

On Bardot: coarse, spunky shrewdness

On Palance: fiercely elegant, better silent


As for acting itself, it can be distorted, emotionalized, stylized, or understated.

Here you will see how a star like Joan Crawford can have more authenticity, even though she may have less real skills. Or how a thespian like Liv Ullmann can let another actor take over the screen, yet still leave a mark.

Among the movies he reviews in this book, Farber finds Detective Story to be way more engaging than melodramas such as A Place in the Sun and A Streetcar Named Desire, which are equally lurid. He also proposes Sam Fuller’s Fixed Bayonets as the best war film since Bataan.


Naturally, one of the biggest pleasures in reading books like this is how certain personalities and movies fail upon assessment of the writer, like when he takes a shot at Catherine Deneuve.

For Farber, Frank Capra is a preacher and John Huston, Message Mad. He says Don Siegel has been wrongly deified by auteurists and Luis Bunuel, a man of fits and starts.

He bemoans “the success of efficient, hard-working mediocrities” in such fields as jazz, painting, the novel (Bellow! Cheever! Salinger!) and film (Delbert Mann, Kazan, Chayefsky).

Farber also takes jabs at the less talented De Sicas and Zinnemanns, and “the water buffaloes of film art: Stevens, Wilder, Clouzot.”

He points out the flaws of Huston and De Mille, and the defects of Antonioni, Richardson and Truffaut, even as he acknowledges that they are important directors.

He takes a stab at Psycho for its suppositions, and the movie’s advocates for heralding off-the-camera tricks rather than taking the movie for what is up on the screen.

Negative Space also covers the New York Film Festival in the late ‘60s, and explores the myths you can find in a film festival. He expounds on the particulars that make watching Eric Rohmer’s Ma Nuit Chez Maud a pleasure, and the levels that Bresson’s Mouchette moves on. He hails Faces as a real break-through in movie acting.

Farber discusses such movie trends and techniques as the Flat Man, the lead who does not have a past or a discernible future. Another is the Gimp, a string that is jerked by the film-maker when the movie has become safe, a shock tactic to make the movie artful. He charges A Place in the Sun and A Streetcar Named Desire particularly guilty.

Furthermore, he sings the praises of the bit player, who may not have range, but who has the power to stir those brief moments that energize a movie to life.

This is one book that bears re-reading.


In Jean-Luc Godard's Weekend, a rich girl screams at a farmer who smashed her sports car and killed her boyfriend:

"You filthy unwashed peasant, you killed the man I loved and ruined my car. He was handsome and he was rich and now he's dead and you're stupid and ugly and you don't even care. You hate us because we screw in Saint Moritz. You probably don't even know how to screw. You just get screwed by the union. You probably don't even own the tractor. (She kicks the tires.) Cheap tires? My car was beautiful. It had a Chrysler motor. I got it because I screwed the son of General Motors."

Ha ha. I can't wait to see the movie.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

The Winner

"Who are the real winners in this election? Don't ask me. Ask Joe the Plumber's agent." - Stephen Colbert, Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report." 

Wednesday, November 5, 2008


"A room without books is like a body without soul."

- Cicero

"When I get a little money, I buy books; and if any is left, I buy food and clothes."

- Desiderius Erasmus

"If you cannot read all your books, at any rate handle, or as it were, fondle them- peer into them, let them fall open where they will, read from the first sentence that arrests the eye, set them back on the shelves with your own hands, arrange them on your own plan so that you at least know where they are. Let them be your friends; let them at any rate be your acquaintances."

- Winston Churchill