Actor: Viggo Mortensen, Captain Fantastic
Actress: Isabelle Huppert, Elle
Supporting Actor: Lucas Hedges, Manchester by the Sea
Supporting Actress: Viola Davis, Fences
Director: Barry Jenkins, Moonlight
Original Screenplay: The Lobster
Adapted Screenplay: Moonlight
Production Design: Hail Caesar!
Costume Design: Jackie
Song: "How Far I'll Go", Moana
Sound Mixing: Rogue One
Sound Editing: Arrival
Visual Effects: Kubo and the Two Strings
Make-Up: Suicide Squad
Animated Feature: The Red Turtle
Animated Short: Blind Vaysha
Live Action Short: Timecode
Documentary Short: 4.1 Miles
Foreign Language Film: Toni Erdmann
Monday, January 30, 2017
Parakeets, Scott #5124 - part of Pets issue
Shirley Temple, #5060
Sarah Vaughan, #5059 (w/Josh White #3215)
Mercury #5069 - part of The Planets issue
Everglades #5080l) - part of the National Park Service issue
Halloween Jack-o'-lantern #5140
Banana split #5095 - part of the Soda Fountain Favorites issue
Tulips #5049 - part of Botanical Art issue
Quilled Paper Heart, #5036
New Horizons probe #5078, part of the Pluto mini-sheet
Enterprise and planet #5134 - part of Star Trek issue
1953 Chevrolet #5102 - part of Pickup Truck issue (w/Hot Rod stamp #4909)
Wonder Woman (Bronze Age), #5150
Wednesday, January 25, 2017
My friend Brian does the “I Only Have Two Eyes” series annually on his blog (the title of which I’ve revised for my bespectacled self), about the best of archival screenings in the Bay Area. And since 2016 was the first year in ages that I actually logged every film I saw in a theater (final tally: 229 features & 256 shorts), it made compiling a list of my own 10 indelible experiences much easier to do.
We’ll start with Dumbo (Sharpsteen, 1941) at the Paramount in Oakland, on absolutely stunning 35mm. Although the emcee called it original (which it couldn’t have been, because that would have meant nitrate stock), it certainly was a crisply struck print that had not seen much circulation. Combine the divine “Pink Elephants on Parade” sequence with the most gorgeous Art Deco palace in the Bay Area, and it was a great way to start the year.
Also in January were some memorable titles at Noir City at the Castro, and for me, the highlight was a first viewing of Mickey One (Penn, 1965), a glorious jazz-tinged fever dream of a film, with an assist from legend Stan Getz. Disjointed, bizarre, singularly unique and punctuated by a live dance routine from burlesque goddess Evie Lovelle.
Soon after, the PFA had an excellent Maurice Pialat series, but I suspect that the power of his Under the Sun of Satan (1987) was magnified by it being bookended (quite by coincidence) with two other contemporary films I saw the same week that also explore religious faith, fanaticism and hypocrisy: Pablo Larrain’s The Club and Avishai Sivan’s Tikkun. In Pialat’s fantasy-fueled acid bath Passion Play, he posits the possibility that religion may be the most oppressive to the truly devout. Overall, a provocative accidental trilogy.
Some fun Gothic films ran their course at the Yerba Buena Arts Center that summer, and the highlight was my first time seeing The Beguiled (1971) on the big screen. Still Don Siegel’s best, Clint Eastwood plays a Yankee fox trying to subvert and seduce a Dixie henhouse. The thick hothouse atmosphere and sexual tension played beautifully through Siegel's lighting and the insidious plotting and character power plays. Still a remarkable film (soon to be remade by Sofia Coppola).
Though a relatively recent movie, I have to include the Triplets of Belleville (Chomet, 2003) screening at the Taube Atrium in the SF Opera House because Benoît Charest was there with a jazz combo to perform his exquisite score live, including saws, bikes, and trashcans as percussion instruments. A terrific experience.
2016 was the first year the Alamo Drafthouse in the Mission was open, and the best part of their programming is the late night Mon-Wed screenings. My first dip into that pool was a packed show of Two-Lane Blacktop (Hellman, 1971), which I’ve seen several times in the theater, but never tire of the gearhead culture, the meditative structure and lack of urgency (for a racing film!) and Warren Oates’s phenomenal turn as GTO. My year was relatively short on roadtrips but this went some way to sating my wanderlust.
In my backyard at the Parkway, there was an irresistible double bill of the cuckoo-bananas conspiracy theory documentary Room 237 (Ascher, 2012) followed by a screening of the focus of its subject, The Shining (Kubrick, 1980) itself. Rarely does a year go by when I don’t see some Kubrick on screen (I also revisited Paths of Glory and Spartacus at the Smith Rafael Film Center for Kirk Douglas’s 100th birthday), but a bonus this year was an excellent exhibit on Kubrick at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in SF with some amazing artifacts from his career, including the typewriter and hedge maze model from this film.
Also at the Smith Rafael was a Sam Fuller weekend (with his widow and daughter in attendance), where the biggest revelation for me was his Tokyo noir House of Bamboo (1955), a beautifully stylized genre piece whose gangster trappings and compositions appeared to anticipate the marvelous Seijun Suzuki, whose career was starting around the exact same time. As you’d expect, Robert Ryan is in top form and the climax on a rooftop amusement park is a standout.
And finally, two silent films, both firsts for me. At the Silent Film Festival at the Castro, Destiny (1921), the earliest film I’ve seen by Fritz Lang and a glorious anthology of stories where Love must face down Death. It was wonderful seeing Lang’s visual imagination in bloom, anticipating the superb special FX and supernatural wonders of his next few years in Germany. Months later, over at the Niles Essanay Film Museum, the buoyant energy of underrated actress Bebe Daniels was on full display in the fizzy comedy Feel My Pulse (La Cava, 1928), about a hypochondriac heiress looking for rest at a health sanitarium which is actually acting as a front for bootleggers (led by a very young William Powell). A hilarious comedy and secret gem.
So that’s 10 features, but since I saw over 60 archival shorts in the theater last year, I’ll give an honorable mention to two with Buster Keaton, still silent in the autumn of his career. I saw The Railrodder (Potterton, 1965) at an Oddball Film Archive screening, featuring Buster traveling across Canada on an open-air mini-railcar, a playful reminder of his other great train film The General, but in sumptuous color. And around the same time, the Smith Rafael Film Center played Film (Schneider, 1965), one of Samuel Beckett’s few forays into film and a wonderful existential metaphor with Buster showing that age had not changed the expressiveness of his body in motion. A sublime pairing. Here’s looking forward to another year of familiar films and new discoveries.
The Walt Disney stamp is Scott #1355 and Buster Keaton #2828. Dumbo is #4194 and Steamboat Willie #4343. The Ringling Brothers stamps are #4901 & 4904 while the other circus stamps are, sequentially, #1309, 2750 & 2751. The Pontiac GTO is #4744 and the Ford pickup #5104.
Friday, January 20, 2017
D is for Demagogue. Despot. Deceptive. Delusional. Diddler. Dumbass. And, of course, Donald.
My Dad was a hardcore Republican (a picture of Barry Goldwater hung in his den in our home), and Ronald Reagan—our other celebrity-turned-president—was in office during my middle and high school years. So I’m very familiar with the mindset and priorities of the voices across the aisle. But this year’s election narrative couldn’t have been more surreal or sadly absurd if the Onion had been writing it. I wonder what The Gipper would have thought about our new President being a Russian patsy, or if he, or my dad, would even recognize their GOP anymore. Would they have seen through this charlatan, or ultimately toe the party line?
This past week, the San Diego Chargers, the football team I cheered for my entire life, announced that it’s packing its bags and moving to Los Angeles. To many (including me), this sense of betrayal will mean the severing of all support or connection with that team. But not everyone will. Loyalty and identification are powerful things, feeling that you’re part of something bigger.
What, I wonder then, would it take to sever one’s connection with your political party? To put your country before your partisanship? This year, we learned that for many millions of Republicans, electing a racist bully, an unapologetic lecher, an insecure authoritarian, and a profoundly selfish and un-Christian pathological liar and narcissist wasn’t enough to cut that cord. Power trumped empathy and basic human decency.
I’m lucky. I have a job I love in one of the most liberal districts in the country in a self-proclaimed sanctuary state. But I worry for my country—not just for its institutions and the millions of lives who will be hurt and maligned by this new administration, but also for its larger sense of fairness, dignity and purpose. I love my country, deeply, but the term “American Exceptionalism” is a bitter contradiction-in-terms when I see how susceptible it is to fear and bigotry and self-interest.
There’s absolutely no evidence to suggest that our new president is a good person. He’s not a man of principle or character, just a cheat and vindictive opportunist. And as president, he, like all presidents, will get a postage stamp when he dies. What I’ve always liked about postage stamps is that they are meant to celebrate our culture, traditions, heroes, history.
But I can find no reason to celebrate today.
So now it’s a time for resolve and resistance. Resist having our values further eroded. Resist normalizing what was once horrid and unacceptable. Resist complacency in the shadow of ignorance and spite. Our country never stopped being great. But can we as Americans, from the right and the left, make it exceptional again, rooted in compassion, wisdom, and generosity? Yes we can.
The kitten stamp from last year's Pets set is Scott #5111 and the spay/neuter stamp is #3670. The Reagan stamp is #3897 and the US flag for veterans is #3331. The White House and Capitol stamps are from 1950 (D.C.'s sesquicentennial) and are Scott #990 & 992 respectively. The Child Labor Law stamp was part of the Celebrate the Century series, #3183o and the Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens stamp is #5080j. The two stamps from the Building a Nation set are Scott #4801d & e .
Thursday, December 29, 2016
In what now seems a lifetime ago, I once had to go through tens of thousands of feet of 16mm behind-the-scenes footage from the original Star Wars trilogy. Most of this was not shot on the set, but rather with the effects crew, model and creature shops, and other artists commonly known as “below the line” but critical to any movie’s success, especially those. So you rarely saw much of the cast, but one memorable sequence was Carrie Fisher in her (in)famous slave bikini outfit from Return of the Jedi (1983, Marquand) sunbathing in the Arizona desert during a break, side by side with her similarly costumed stunt double. And it was a jarring moment because you actually saw her interacting with another woman.
For let’s face it—the original three films are a sausage fest and Bechdel test nightmare. There are only 3 female speaking parts in the whole trilogy—the short-lived Aunt Beru, the blink-and-you-miss her Mon Mothma (recently revived in the terrific Rogue One), and Princess Leia Organa. So Carrie had to do the heavy-lifting for all 3 films when it came to female characterization, since she was both love interest and leader of the Rebellion. Powerful, commanding, willing to stand toe-to-toe with anyone she came up against (Vader, Tarkin, Jabba) but also kind, caring, and authentic. One of the highlights of Star Wars: The Force Awakens was seeing her back in action, still filled with authority and compassion. The fact that the last two franchise films have had women at the center of the heroics is due in large part to her influence.
Of course, since then she has also proven herself a witty writer and raconteur, smart aleck and cinematic sidekick, member of a vibrant-but-troubled Hollywood dynasty, an object lesson about addiction and an ambassador for destigmatizing mental health issues. And she leaves us just a few months after her co-star Kenny Baker (who played R2-D2) and, tragically, one day before her mother Debbie Reynolds.
Just a month ago, I saw a sneak preview of Bright Lights (2016, Bloom/Stevens), a documentary about Carrie & Debbie. It's a marvelous film in how it shows the once tumultuous mother-daughter relationship that evolved into one of deep love and support, but leavened with an enormous amount of playful ribbing, snark, and self-deprecation. They had come to terms with the demons of the past and were both continuing to dive into creative pursuits fueled by wisdom and nostalgia. So much of their personal bad luck and bad choices were scandal sheet fodder for so long, that there was little choice but to face the future with bravado and pluck. The film follows each of them individually (Debbie rehearsing a one-woman show, Carrie attending a scifi convention), but the best parts are when they are together. They come off as best of friends and savvy partners in crime, and it really did seem hard to imagine how one could exist without the other. Both full of such indomitable spirit in the film, and both gone much too soon (Carrie at 60, Debbie at 84).
Another wonderful thing the film highlights is Debbie’s tireless campaign to save the artifacts of Hollywood history, particularly the costumes—not just of her films, but of films that predate her and that would have otherwise been thrown out by studio departments who were, back then, far less interested in preserving their past than making space for the latest productions. Pieces that she purportedly saved over the years (through fundraising and her own backlot connections and initiative) include Charlie Chaplin’s bowler, Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra headdress, Marilyn Monroe’s subway grate dress from The Seven Year Itch, and Judy Garland’s Oz ruby slippers.
One of my favorite songs is “Graceland” by Paul Simon, who was once married to Carrie, and whose relationship with her is documented in that song (among many others). It’s a song about renewal and second chances, and when I drove across country last year, I listened to the whole Graceland album as I approached Memphis to visit Elvis’s legendary estate of the same name. In the song, Simon writes about his ex:
She comes back to tell me she's gone
As if I didn't know that
As if I didn't know my own bed
As if I'd never noticed
The way she brushed her hair from her forehead
And she said losing love
Is like a window in your heart
Everybody sees you're blown apart
Everybody sees the wind blow
As if I didn't know that
As if I didn't know my own bed
As if I'd never noticed
The way she brushed her hair from her forehead
And she said losing love
Is like a window in your heart
Everybody sees you're blown apart
Everybody sees the wind blow
Life is a pilgrimage and we should all be so lucky as to have it filled with grace (in both the poetic and spiritual dimension). Yoda says to Luke, “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.” 2016 was a rough year for a lot of people for a lot of reasons. May the road we take in 2017, portentous clouds notwithstanding, be filled with the light, courage, good humor and fierce resolve that they both embodied so well.
Carrie and Kenny share a USPS stamp, essentially, from the Star Wars issue back in 2007. That is Scott #4143f . The X-wing fighter is #4143m. The Wizard of Oz stamp is #2445, Judy Garland #4077, and Yip Harbug #3905. The music stamp from the American Filmmaking series is #3772d. And Elvis is #5009. Incidentally, the first film poster on a postcard I ever owned was a gift from my high school girlfriend. It was for Singin’ in the Rain, still one of my favorite films ever. I’ve included it here, along with the inscription she wrote on the back, since this whole blog & collection originated, in a sense, with her.
My 10 favorite films featuring Debbie*, Carrie+, or Kenny#.
1. Singin’ in the Rain (1952, Donen/Kelly) *
2. The Empire Strikes Back (1980, Kershner) +#
3. Hannah and Her Sisters (1986, Allen) +
4. Time Bandits (1981, Gilliam) #
5. Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989, Miyazaki) *
6. The Elephant Man (1980, Lynch) #
7. When Harry Met Sally… (1989, Reiner) +
8. Mona Lisa (1986, Jordan) #
9. Star Wars (1977, Lucas) +#
10. The Blues Brothers (1980, Landis) +
Friday, December 9, 2016
Kirk Douglas was never really known for comedy. Brawler, tough guy, a hero who was often tortured, if not physically (which was often), then psychologically—his films are typically serious stuff. When he did smile, it was often wolfish, or as if the cat ate the canary. What humor he showed in his characters would often be wry, acerbic, cynical. The most playful he ever got—his Ned Land in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)—was in a fantasy adventure, but even his films that had a comedic bent (There Was A Crooked Man... (1970), for example) would have a dark undercurrent. While this changed towards the end of his career (1980 and beyond), it was mostly in the service of forgettable films, the best of which was Tough Guys (1986), his final pairing with long-time screen partner Burt Lancaster—another actor, in fact, who rarely did comedies, though his screen charisma had far greater natural buoyancy. Even when Kirk wasn’t fighting, he was always like a coiled spring, ready to pounce at any time. It’s what made him a great villain in his early years and such a suitable anti-hero as his career blossomed, this authentic intensity.
But we know from various interviews he’s done that he is a funny, warm, charming guy in real life—a trait that didn’t fade an iota even after his debilitating stroke in January 1996. So on the occasion of his 100th birthday, I thought we’d talk about the best, overtly funny thing he was ever in, his guest appearance on The Simpsons which aired just a few months after the stroke: “The Day the Violence Died.”
In it, the famous Itchy & Scratchy cartoon pair are celebrating their 75th anniversary, commemorated by a parade through downtown Springfield. It’s here that Bart meets the bum Chester J. Lampwick (Douglas), who claims to have created Itchy, only to have it stolen by Roger Meyers Sr. (a Walt Disney proxy in the world of the Simpsons). The ensuing court case and rags-to-riches storyline for Chester is packed with a ton of fun references to animation tropes from a variety of decades.
Of course, Kirk is no stranger to exposés on the cutthroat character of Tinseltown. He played a merciless producer in The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) and a washed-up actor in Two Weeks in Another Town (1962), and his real-life political courage in the face of enormous industry pressure during the Blacklist era is the stuff of legend (his Spartacus storyline is the best thing about the otherwise tedious Trumbo).
So it’s fun to see his irascible Chester go up against the craven, money-grubbing system. But Chester doesn’t care about art. He only cares about restitution. So It’s no skin off his nose when the studio goes bankrupt. In this way, he’s a kindred spirit to Grandpa Simpson (one of the most reliably hilarious characters on the show). A funny running gag is that various Springfield characters have a history with Chester, contracting him to do odd jobs he never completed for food he insists was terrible. Invariably, each of these ends in a roll-on-the-floor fist fight. He’s a crank, and the tough guy hasn’t softened a bit with age, though he also plays a good piano accompaniment to his silent short. Throughout, Douglas plays it straight, but still sounds like he's having fun. And in the end, he gets his just reward: his solid gold house and rocket car. And eventually, the studio finds an unexpected cash flow, so that means for the last 20 seasons, Chester has been getting residuals on all the new Itchy & Scratchy cartoons that are made. A suitable happy ending.
What is the origin of Itchy & Scratchy? Certainly the most famous cat vs. mouse dynamic in film history is Tom & Jerry, a pair that has yet to earn a USPS stamp but which earned more Oscars for their shorts than either Mickey Mouse or Bugs Bunny. But a more obvious progenitor is Krazy Kat by George Herriman, most famously a comic strip for over 30 years but also the subject of some very early animation efforts. In the strip, Krazy Kat is a soft-hearted character who is constantly trying to woo Ignatz the mouse. The latter always responded by throwing bricks at Krazy’s head. Similarly, Scratchy is always depicted as a sweet or sentimental soul, with Itchy the brutal aggressor, blessed with a limitless imagination when it comes to inventive ways to murder his nemesis. Chester also says, "Before I came along, all cartoon animals did was play the ukelele." One of Krazy's signature traits was strumming a makeshift guitar or banjo. So even though Krazy Kat is hardly known at all anymore, it holds striking similarities with the Simpsons’ incarnation.
In the show, we learn that Chester first created Itchy back in 1919, long before his “official” debut in 1928’s Steamboat Itchy. The first Krazy Kat cartoon was in 1916, and while I’ve never heard any allegations to Disney using Krazy Kat as a model for Mickey, it’s a different story with the design elements of his famous mouse and Felix the Cat (also stampless) who debuted in 1919 in Feline Follies and became incredibly popular thereafter, with more than 150 shorts between 1919 and 1928. When we see footage of Itchy’s debut Manhattan Madness, it’s a fun lampoon of the visual style of the time, as well as a satire of the unfortunate tendency to use ethnic or racial stereotypes back then.
Other animation references in this episode:
· Mickey’s Steamboat Willie (also 1928), of course, as well as Roger Meyers Jr. no longer being able to afford the cryogenic chamber where his father was being stored (another allusion to one of the dafter Walt Disney rumors).
· Chester’s last name Lampwick is also the name of Pinocchio’s juvenile delinquent friend in the 1940 Disney feature. His terrifying transformation into a donkey (fated for a life of animal servitude) remains one of the most horrific moments in the studio’s history.
· The unnamed Itchy & Scratchy cartoon featured at the end has the familiar southwest landscapes used in all the Warner Bros. roadrunner cartoons, as well as the rocket skates by Acme (Wile E. Coyote’s favorite brand).
· Itchy & Scratchy Meet Fritz the Cat, another animated feline, this time created by R. Crumb and featured by Ralph Bakshi in his infamous 1972 feature film.
· Perhaps the most blistering lampoon is that of Schoolhouse Rock, with the Amendment-To-Be song that acts as a gross perversion of the original Saturday morning civics lessons. They even got Jack Sheldon (who sang the original “I'm Just a Bill”) to perform this number. Check it out.
At 100, Kirk has had a wonderful run, and he’s managed to outlive several of the other guest actors from his episode. Terrible lawyer Lionel Hutz (who actually manages to win his case here) was played by frequent guest, the late Phil Hartman. And Alex Rocco did recurring bits as Roger Meyers, Jr. on the show before passing away last year. At least Sheldon and other guest actor Suzanne Somers are still with us.
One other bit that makes this a particular favorite episode for film buffs: When Bart uses the school projector to screen Chester’s copy of Manhattan Madness, the film catches fire and incinerates just like a movie made from the old nitrate film stock would. The former film archivist in me values this moment a great deal (though the less said about how much I resemble Milhouse at that age, the better). And the philatelist in me appreciates how the Itchy & Scratchy studio becomes solvent again once it’s revealed the United States Postal Service plagiarized Roger Meyers with its Mr. Zip icon (a real cartoon brand in the 1960s, used to publicize the importance of the newly introduced Zip Codes).
One other bit of Simpsons trivia. At exactly 100, Kirk still isn’t the longest-living person to appear at one time on the show. Bob Hope lived to 100 years, 2 months. So it won’t take long to beat that record. Another curiosity: Even though the Stanley Kubrick references are prolific throughout the series's lifetime, there has never been a Spartacus spoof, unusual for a film with such iconic possibilities. Maybe one day. But Kirk's legacy on the show is secure. Look at the postcard below and you’ll see Chester in the upper left-hand corner, nestled between Dr. Nick and Nelson Muntz.
Kirk isn’t eligible for a USPS stamp yet (thank goodness) but he has appeared in stamps from other countries, like the Mali one depicted at the top. The Walt Disney stamp is Scott # 1355. Other Scott #s for the Disney issues: Mickey w/friends (3865), Pinocchio (3868), Mickey & Pluto (3912), Mickey & Minnie (4025), Dumbo (4194), Fantasia (4192) Steamboat Willie (4343). Homer, Bart, and Lisa Simpson are Scott #s 4399, 4401, and 4402 respectively. The cartoon cat stamp on the Fritz the Cat poster is part of the Bright Eyes series, Scott # 3232. The Stanley Steamer stamp is Scott # 2132, Krazy Kat # 3000e, and Roadrunner # 3391. And the pet stamps from this year included cat (# 5122) and mouse (# 5117).
For more entries in the Kirk Douglas Centennial Blogathon, go here.
My Top 10 Kirk Douglas films
- 1. Paths of Glory (Kubrick, 1957)
- 2. Out of the Past (Tourneur, 1947)
- 3. Seven Days in May (Frankenheimer, 1964)
- 4. Champion (Robson, 1949)
- 5. Lonely Are the Brave (D.Miller, 1962)
- 6. Spartacus (Kubrick, 1960)
- 7. Detective Story (Wyler, 1951)
- 8. The Man from Snowy River (G.Miller, 1982)
- 9. Lust for Life (Minnelli, 1956)
- 10. A Letter to Three Wives (Mankiewicz, 1949)
Wednesday, August 3, 2016
I’ll admit it: Despite the waste and corruption that often go hand-and-hand with their undertaking, I am easily seduced by the Olympics. Given that coverage (live or tape delayed) often occurs round-the-clock, the looming Summer Games in Rio de Janiero will prove to be an extraordinary temptation over the next 2 weeks, especially for this perpetual early riser. Although I love watching the relatively obscure sports that are often broadcast in those pre-dawn hours, I’ll inevitably watch some track & field, too—races that often get front-and-center attention in the TV coverage, not only because the US always does very well in them, but because of the natural mythology around naming “The World’s Fastest Human” in the 100-meter dash.
Certainly, Track & Field has played a more prominent part in movies about the Summer Olympics than any other sport—most recently with the historical drama Race (Hopkins, 2016) about Jesse Owens in the 1936 games. While not the first black athlete to medal in the 100m, his victory that year (exactly 80 years ago today) carried enormous symbolic weight because the games were held in Berlin under the shadow of Hitler and orchestrated by Joseph Goebbels and the propaganda arm of the Third Reich. In defiance of the host country’s insistence that no Jewish or “Negro” athletes compete, Owens’ 4 gold medals struck a powerful blow against the dogma of racial superiority that was a driving engine of the Nazi Party.
The movie isn’t bad. Stephan James is good in the lead role, and the story is an important one. Predictably, the double meaning of the title is a prominent theme, since not only did Owens face systemic prejudice at Ohio State (where the movie begins), but he felt enormous pressure from the NAACP not to compete in Berlin as a gesture of protest against how African-Americans were still being oppressed in the US. Although the horrific explicitness of that racism isn’t depicted as vividly as it was in 42, the movie follows many of the same beats as that recent (superior) Jackie Robinson film. There’s even a scene where German runner Luz Long befriends Jesse in front of the entire stadium of Germans (and the Fuhrer) that echoes what southerner Pee Wee Reese would do with teammate Jackie in Cincinnati decades later. Long’s scene with Owens in private after their race is perhaps the best in the film—two athletes with deep mutual respect acknowledging the role they’re each playing as propaganda tools of their governments. But like many movies dedicated to recreating real events, the other characterizations are cookie-cutter and the final result is more of a history lesson than an emotionally engaging drama.
What’s interesting about the film, though, is that its story directly links to the two most celebrated films about the Summer Olympics: Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia (1938) and Hugh Hudson’s Chariots of Fire (1981). The connection with the former is obvious. Riefenstahl (played by Black Book’s Carice van Houten) was perhaps the most prominent female film director in the world at the time and is an important character in the movie. While commissioned by Goebbels as a tribute to the wonders of a modern Germany (we see the two of them watch rushes of her coverage), Riefenstahl went beyond that short-sighted mandate and redefined cinematic language when it came to form and athletics in ways that are now commonplace on ESPN and advertising today. It’s still a problematic film, with the ever-present swastikas and the specter of the Holocaust around the corner, but it’s not a paean to National Socialism the way the country’s leaders might have hoped for. Her eye transcends the politics of the piece, even if it can't divorce itself from it completely. And she doesn’t give short shrift to Owens’ accomplishments either. In a scene in Race where Riefenstahl asks Owens to help her shoot some pick-ups for his Gold medal Long Jump that would later be inserted into her film, they have this exchange:
Jesse: Isn’t that cheating?Leni: Cheating?Jesse: Yeah. I’m just saying it’s not the actual jump I made.Leni: You did make that jump. We all saw it. You made history out there. All I’m doing is making sure years from now, those people who weren’t there can see it too. ‘Cause they’ll never forget what you did.
And she did. And we haven’t. Riefenstahl is one of the most complex figures in movie history, and one of my favorite documentaries is about her: The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl (Muller, 1993). In it, the film doesn’t blink at the insidious contribution she made to the Nazis’ ascendancy through her notorious film The Triumph of the Will. But it also shows in the many decades after WWII that she was smart, resourceful, innovative, gutsy, and supremely talented. Perhaps the best you can say about her is that she was a fervid aesthetician who lived in denial about how her gifts were exploited for evil. Other judgments, far harsher, would be equally fair. But this exchange in the film also brings the conversation about myth-making in an ironic full circle, because Owens’ legacy is also helped immeasurably by her film.
The connective tissue between Race and Chariots of Fire is interesting, too. Larry Snyder (SNL’s Jason Sudekis) was Owens’ coach at Ohio State, and also on the US Track & Field team that competed against Brits Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell in the 1924 Paris games. We even see a picture of Snyder with Charlie Paddock (played by Dennis Christopher In Chariots). Sadly, Snyder was in a plane crash weeks before the games and never competed. But he did go on to coach the US team in Helsinki (1952) and Rome (1960).
Abrahams, like Owens 12 years later, won the 100m (his time was 10.6 seconds; Owens, 10.3). The film shows that he dedicated his athletic pursuits to fight the antisemitism he faced in the English establishment. This resonates in Race because on the eve of the 100x4 relay in Berlin, the US benched its two Jewish runners out of deference to the Germans. Owens ended up subbing in that race and there is a powerful scene where his teammates talk to him about what a victory would mean to them, watching from the sidelines. They won, of course. Although Chariots doesn’t depict it, Abrahams also won a medal in the 4x100 (a silver) in Paris.
I think Chariots often gets a bad rap. It does have a bit of Masterpiece Theater stuffiness about it, but it also does address religion (Abraham’s Judaism and Liddell’s Christianity) in ways that you rarely see in mainstream movies anymore—with thoughtfulness, sincerity, and lack of piety. Vangelis’ iconic synthesizer score manages to be anachronistic but still mines emotional depths. It’s the only Oscar nomination Ian Holm has ever received (an oversight bordering on the criminal). Its period details are meticulous (lacking starting blocks, the runners use small trowels to dig in footholds before the race, something we see Owens do in Race, too). And with the recent Star Trek reboots, there’s a perverse delight in seeing Spock’s father (Ben Cross) and the Borg Queen (Alice Krige) fall in love. Plus it was my first introduction, at 11 years old, to Scotland, and I’ll admit to thinking of Liddell training across the lush countryside when 20 years later, I hiked up to Arthur’s Seat, the mountain peak overlooking Edinburgh.
There are also a couple of postage stamp references worth noting in Chariots. When Abrahams is enrolled in Cambridge (somewhere I’ve also visited), we see him and future Olympian teammate Aubrey Montague signing up for various extra-curricular activities.
Harold (to Aubrey): “Rugby club, golfing society, tennis, squash club, flora and fauna!, philately—is that all? You’re idle, man. Idle!”
So stamp collecting was a viable academic pastime back then. A few seconds later, we see a sign for another club: The Cinematic Club. Given that the date is 1919, it strikes me as perhaps a little early for such a club, especially for a medium that was still associated with the lower classes at the time, not the halls of privilege. Plus, even the most hardcore cinephile would be hard-pressed to name a notable British silent film up to that time (unlike other parts of Europe).
The second stamp reference comes a little later. The film has already used Aubrey’s letters to his mother as a narrative framing device for the film. Now, in Scotland, Sandy—a friend to the Liddells—makes a toast to the family, most of whom are returning to their missionary work in China, where Eric (Ian Charleson) was born.
Mrs. Liddell: I’m relying on you now to keep them all out of mischief.Sandy: Oh, that I will, Mrs. L. And if they do transgress, I’ll pop the details on a postcard and you can read all about it before you can say "Marco Polo".Eric: Cost you a fortune in postage stamps.
Tragically, Ian Charleson and Brad Davis, who plays American Olympian Jackson Scholz, would be dead within a decade, both from AIDS.
The Jesse Owens Olympic stamp is Scott # 2496. He never competed in the hurdles in the Olympics, but the stamp commemorating his records set in the US, part of the Celebrate the Century series, is Scott # 3185j.