The Films of 2019: Rolling Thunder Revue

In the fall of 1975 Bob Dylan and his friends embarked on a free-wheeling North American concert tour known as the Rolling Thunder Revue.  Rolling Thunder was part family reunion, part requiem mass for the death of the Sixties, part traveling carnival show, with Dylan made up in white greasepaint, peeking out from underneath an enormous hat covered in flowers.  Archival footage from the tour (much of it recorded by the late Howard Alk) has been edited by Martin Scorsese into a sly and mischievous new film of the same name, made for Netflix.  It’s a documentary with an asterisk, or maybe half a dozen of them, hovering invisibly over everything we see and hear: where Scorsese’s excellent 2005 film No Direction Home played Dylan straight, Rolling Thunder Revue plays him fast and loose, revising some facts and inventing others. 


"Ball of Fire": A fractured fairy tale

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (dir. David Hand, 1937).

Ball of Fire (dir. Howard Hawks, 1942).

The title card at the beginning of Ball of Fire (1942), directed by Howard Hawks and written by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder, announces itself as a modern-day fairy tale of New York.  More specifically, it’s their riff on the story of Snow White and the seven dwarfs—Disney’s 1937 animated version of which was, at that time, still a major cultural touchstone and one of the highest-grossing movies ever made.  (See above.)  Hawks and Wilder’s screwball comedy has a fugitive nightclub singer/gangster’s moll named Sugarpuss O’Shea (Barbara Stanwyck) in place of a princess and an awkward English professor (Gary Cooper) in place of a prince.  (The year before, Stanwyck and Henry Fonda had played opposite each other in a similar dynamic in Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve, and she’d played opposite Cooper in Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe.)  As in the Disney version of Snow White, the seven dwarfs steal the show: in this case they’re represented as the seven little old men who are working with Cooper to write an encyclopedia, played by a veritable who’s-who of classic Hollywood character actors (Henry Travers, Richard Haydn, Oskar Homolka, S. Z. Sakall, et al.).  The eighth “dwarf” and the closest equivalent to Disney’s Grumpy is the stern housekeeper, Miss Bragg (Kathleen Howard), who’s considerably slower to warm to Stanwyck’s charms than the men. 

Wilder would go on to adapt another modern fairy tale, Samuel Taylor’s Cinderella story Sabrina, in 1954, again a possible response to Disney, whose own version premiered in 1950.  But Sabrina doesn’t quite have the zest of Ball of Fire—nor does it have a scene in which Stanwyck and her seven dwarfs form a conga line and dance through the library.  With all due respect to Snow White and Cinderella, we could use more princesses like Sugarpuss.



From the archives: "A Hallmark card"

Seeing A Beautiful Mind (dir. Ron Howard, 2001) in the theater in January of 2002 was a formative experience for me, not because I liked the movie but because it was the first time I arrived at a conclusion—on my own, in the act of watching the movie itself, not after reading somebody else’s review of it later—that diverged from the general consensus.  In this case I concluded that the movie in question was middlebrow Oscar bait.  By the time I went to see the movie it had already begun racking up award nominations and critical accolades, which to my mind (I was then a high-school senior) meant that it must be important.  But as the movie wore on I began to grow wise to its pretentiousness and sentimentality.  After it was over I walked out completely soured.  But the experience had awakened something in me, a critical sensibility that I hadn’t really refined yet but which felt exciting.  I realized I didn’t have to like something just because a film critic, even my favorite one (at that time Roger Ebert, whose critical sensibility would inform my review, even if we differed in our opinions about the movie itself), had liked it, or because it stood to win a million Oscars.  I could listen to my own gut and make up my own mind.  From that point on I felt confident calling bullshit on something that I thought stank.                

My review was (is) a little bit snarky but it sums up exactly how I felt about the movie—which, of course, went on to win a million Oscars.  So it goes.

Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly as John and Alicia Nash in A Beautiful Mind.

“A Beautiful Mind plays like a roller-coaster ride: it starts out shaky, and by the time it’s over you’re begging to get off before you vomit all over yourself. […It] has a kind of greedy delight in its overuse of titles (‘Princeton, New Jersey—1941’, etc.); its golden cinematography, by the usually dependable Roger Deakins, looks muddy and hazed over; an intentionally weepy score, written by James Horner, is as contrived as the film’s screenplay.


A horse and his girl

When a girl has the heart of a mother
It must go to someone of course;
It can’t be a sister or a brother—
And so I love my horse.
                                    Lorenz Hart, “You Took Advantage of Me”

Cinema is full of stories about children falling in love with animals, where the animal—almost always a horse or a dog, but sometimes a wild bird, or something wilder—functions as an object of desire that presages the kisses and crushes of adolescence.  When a girl (or a boy) is twelve, like Velvet Brown (Elizabeth Taylor), the plucky heroine of National Velvet (dir. Clarence Brown, 1944), she doesn’t like boys, or if she does she’s not allowed to act on it in the manner of her older sister Edwina (Angela Lansbury), first seen sporting nail polish on her way to a date.  And Michael Taylor (Mickey Rooney), the teenage urchin who washes up on her family’s doorstep and helps her win the Grand National, is too old for her anyway—even if, at five-foot-two, he is short enough to be her peer.  He becomes an honorary sibling, another member of the Brown family brood.  (How many kids do they have?  It’s impossible to remember.  There’s even an extra one in the novel who didn’t make it into the movie.)  So anyway the horse becomes the thing Velvet loves most, the thing onto which she pins the hopes and desires that can only be directed toward the safe innocence of an animal.       


Kate in 1933

Katharine Hepburn in Little Women (dir. George Cukor); Morning Glory (dir. Lowell Sherman); and Christopher Strong (dir. Dorothy Arzner).

Katharine Hepburn was probably one of the two or three greatest screen actors of the twentieth century, and yet just because she’s worthy of admiration doesn’t mean she can’t also grate a little on one’s nerves.  Take, for example, the three (!) films she made in 1933: Christopher Strong (dir. Dorothy Arzner), which came out in March of that year; Morning Glory (dir. Lowell Sherman), which came out in August; and Little Women (dir. George Cukor), released at Thanksgiving.  All three films find Hepburn laying claim to the traits that would be associated with her star persona forever after: vigor, spiritedness, warmth, intelligence, stridency, sincerity, androgyny.  But Hepburn’s later films would find her refining these traits more subtly, where here they drop with a clang. 


American gods

Initially when I started watching Frederick Wiseman’s Aspen (1991) last week for the first time I saw it as his portrait—sketched with a slightly bemused hand—of the Reagan/Bush-era’s Masters of the Universe in various attitudes of play: shopping, working out, primping, posing.  There’s a scene early in the film in which a plastic surgeon refers passingly to the myth of Narcissus, and at first that seemed to me a clue about Wiseman’s attitude toward his subjects, who at times resemble Greek gods and goddesses skiing down what might as well be Mount Olympus.  But of course no Wiseman film is capable of being reduced to such a limited reading, and his attitude, however bemused it may be at times, is never judgmental.  As the film goes on its scope expands in that way that his films nearly always do, to include more and more people and spaces and experiences, until it has become clear that Aspen isn’t really much about Aspen in any limited sense: it’s about doctors and painters and dancers and churchgoers, people playing charades at parties, members of a book club talking about Flaubert, families celebrating wedding anniversaries, the vast canvas of humanity--endless, endless--that unrolls across Wiseman’s cinema.



The Films of 2019: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: the title suggests a fairy tale set in cinema’s dream factory, spun by one of our sliest fabulists.  Only at the very end of the movie does the full poignancy of that title, and all that it implies, come into focus.  Set in the spring and summer of 1969, this is Quentin Tarantino’s fantasy vision of a moment in history when New Hollywood began to take over the old-guard studio system and the peace-and-love optimism of Woodstock went up in helter-skelter flames.  The movie’s long final sequence takes place on the night that Charles Manson’s murderous flower children went on a murderous rampage in the Hollywood hills.  But Tarantino re-imagines the events of that night, which has since entered into the annals of American myth, in a move that invites comparison to his earlier masterpiece of historical revisionism Inglorious Basterds.  In both films Tarantino indulges the fantasy of using movies as a means of undoing history’s mistakes, saving its victims, exacting revenge on its monsters.