Friday, January 8, 2016

2015 Yearly Wrap

Martin Ramirez set, Scott # 4968

Medal of Honor set, Scott # 4822b

Coastal Birds set, Scott # 4994.  California condor stamp (1971), Scott # 1430

Penguins issue, Scott # 4989

Summer Harvest set, Scott # 5007

Elvis Presley, music icon series, Scott # 5009

Ingrid Bergman, Scott # 5012

Paul Newman, Scott # 5020

A Charlie Brown Christmas set, Scott # 5025

Friday, June 12, 2015

Running Wild with Wilder

Billy Wilder's hilarious Some Like It Hot (1959) has the following exchange between Jerry (Jack Lemmon) and Joe (Tony Curtis), after Jerry spent the night, in drag disguise, dancing with millionaire Osgood (Joe E. Brown).

Jerry: Have I got things to tell you!
Joe: What happened?
Jerry: I'm engaged.
Joe: Congratulations. Who's the lucky girl?
Jerry: I am.

I've seen this film on the big screen more times than I can count, and the one thing unusual about this exchange is that the audience reaction is so strong after "I'm engaged" that I've never once heard the next, to my mind funnier, joke clearly. It gets lost in the gales of laughter.

But given the breakneck speed of the film, it's easy to see why.  Few comedies I know are so dense with jokes as this one.  There are the recurring jokes (the one-legged jockey, Blood Type O), the meta-movie ones (the gangster film references, the Cary Grant impersonation, 30s matinee idols George Raft and Pat O'Brien in the cast), and the countless sexual innuendos.  All funny, all impeccably delivered.  But so many of the jokes also contribute to the actual plot, like a perfectly-oiled machine of cause and effect that make the story details of two musicians on the lam from the mob both highly unlikely and hilariously inevitable.

I've always loved Hot because it has edge and bite, but isn't an acid bath of cynicism like so much of Wilder's (admittedly terrific) work.  And it's a marvelous study of contrasts: male vs. female, Chicago winter and Miami warmth, a playful musical comedy with the highest body count of any Wilder film.  Finding the right tone for all these contradictions can be a high-wire act, but Billy balances them effortlessly.  And ultimately, it's a film about acceptance, embracing how fluid and foolish the human experience can be but still showing a generosity toward all its manic characters.

The Hotel del Coronado is featured heavily in the film, particularly when Sugar (Marilyn Monroe) in her bathing suit first meets Joe in his faux millionaire get-up on the beach behind the hotel.  Growing up in San Diego, the Hotel del was a constant fixture in the visual language of the city, as close to an icon as that suburban kingdom had. Coronado is actually an island off the coast, and the Coronado Bridge has this magnificent sweep, arcing its way along the city skyline. As a family, we didn't go there often (we were ensconced in the North County, near Escondido, the avocado capital) but any trip there represented a special occasion. The beach was beautiful, and never a hot mess of tourism like so many of the San Diego beaches were.

I grew up in the era of the TV show Simon & Simon, so I was used to seeing San Diego landmarks on screen, but Some Like It Hot, a film that never travels farther west than Chicago, was the first time I'd seen it in a movie, and even then, there was this geographic displacement. For there were Sweet Sue's Syncopators cavorting in the Florida surf, with the Hotel del behind them.  But it still created a connection for me, first rooting the glamour of Hollywood in something real and recognizable.

Some Like It Hot was also one of my ex-wife's favorite movies, and one that she'd never seen before meeting me. I remember going with her to see it in the theater and having that line so buried in laughter, she didn't even remember hearing it. So we returned home and I played the VHS for her so she could. I usually had a good sense of the kind of movie she'd like, and many of her subsequent favorites were ones I'd seen on my own the first time (as I often did while she worked late) and knew she would love: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill.  O Brother, Where Are Thou?

When we went back to visit San Diego, I took her to the Hotel del. It's a beautiful complex, and its modern amenities didn't detract from its classic Victorian grandeur (it was built in 1888). All the fixtures and details were gorgeous, and we even had Easter brunch there--as impressive and as indulgent a spread as I've ever seen. They have photos and ephemera from the film on display in the lobby, and the sand between your toes probably felt just like it did when Jack and Tony and Marilyn walked there 40+ years earlier.

That was long ago, and feels even longer. And so I wonder what those films I introduced her to and she loved so much mean to her now. As the film reminds us, nobody's perfect. But at least she tried to make things work. And in the end, she was the one who got the fuzzy end of the lollipop.  So I know there's plenty that she'll choose not to look back on, and I can't blame her.  Like that drowned out joke, the swell of emotion and memory can easily overwhelm many of the smaller details, no matter how good or rich or authentic they may have once been. 

For some people, movies, songs, and places are inextricably tied to a person or an experience. Therein lies their special beauty and their power. Some films can be timeless, but not everyone separates that larger appreciation with the more personal resonance they have. For some, those emotional associations are too strong, and the value they once had are no longer worth the poignancy they now bring.  And so it was with her, sometimes.  But I can't say.  We may not have been right for each other, but I hate the idea that Some Like It Hot might be as much out of her life as I am. I hope not.

The Marilyn Monroe stamp (Scott #2967) was the first in the Legends of Hollywood USPS series.  The Frank Capra stamp (Scott #4670) features in its illustration the Hotel del (which was also used to terrific effect 2 decades later in Richard Rush's excellent The Stunt Man).

My Favorite Films of 1959

1. Some Like It Hot
2. Rio Bravo (Hawks)
3. Hiroshima, Mon Amour (Resnais)
4. The World of Apu (Ray)
5. North by Northwest (Hitchcock)
6. Pickpocket (Bresson) 
7. Fires on the Plain (Ichikawa)
8. Floating Weeds (Ozu)
9. The 400 Blows (Truffaut)
10. Odds Against Tomorrow (Wise)

Friday, April 17, 2015

Riddle Me This

My name is Sterling and I am a Muggle.

Now in the Harry Potter films, this is not a particularly good thing. For while it's true that Harry defends the magical world against Voldemort and his pathological hatred of muggles and their mixed-breed offspring Mudbloods, muggles themselves don't come off too well in the movies. Most are just anonymous passers-by, oblivious to the central conflict at hand, but we never really get any insight into what the relationship between the magical realm and our realm is. We know that it is a secret, a veil of which needs to be maintained at all times. But as the worlds intersect more and more by installment six, The Half -Blood Prince, we never see what effect the destruction carried out in our world has on us muggles. The only concern is the safety of our magical heroes. For all the films are concerned, we might as well be living in the Matrix.

And while we hear of admirable muggles--Harry's mother and Hermione's parents, for example--we only get one genuine muggle characterization in the entire film series, the hateful, ignorant and cruel Dursleys, Harry's adopted parents. The world of Hogwarts is seen as an escape and validation for Harry, because the muggle world has nothing to offer him. They have unicorns and griffins, talking paintings and enchanted candy, and travel by levitation or teleportation. We use postage stamps. They use owls.

Being a muggle, I have not read the books. My familiarity with Harry's saga is defined (or confined) completely to the films. And while there's no question that the movies are gorgeously realized, another frustration I have with them is that all the attention to detail is committed to the appearance and atmosphere, while the story falls short for me, and that's largely because of its central villain, Voldemort.

Make no mistake, he's a sublime physical creation, embodied scarily by Ralph Fiennes in the final five films. He is grandiose, brandishing an air of theatricality while still looking like a cross between a corpse and a reptile. Bald, essentially noseless, with long spectral fingernails, he is grotesque but undeniably charismatic in his fluid motions and calm demeanor. He has an old-school sense of civility about him, masking a highly malignant spirit. He also has a sense of inevitability about himself, as if he knows he only has one destiny: to rule.

But to what end? He lusts for power, sure--he admits as much when we first meet him in The Sorcerer's Stone (as a growth on Professor Quirrell's head). And he has that platform on racial purity, ridding the magical world of muggle contamination. But then what? What are his designs on the muggle world? Except for one brief (and vague) intimation in The Deathly Hallows, part 1, no mention is made of what impact his rule will have on us. And even less is said about why he wants any of this in the first place.

The Harry Potter films are about choices--the choices Harry in particular makes and the impact they have on those around him. Whether to be compassionate or greedy, humble or vain, wise or impulsive. And much is made about how Voldemort and Harry are linked, not just thematically but literally connected, as if Harry might easily take the same path towards evil if he isn't careful.

But we never witness Tom Riddle, Voldemort's birth name and incarnation as a boy we see throughout the films, at similar crossroads. He is not a product of his choices, because we never see him choose. He is creepy, deceptive, surly from the beginning. Why the obsession with dark magic? Why this hatred of muggles? Why the fear of death? As film after film passes, we learn more about what he did, but never why he is what he is.

So as a villain, this makes him an abstraction--less a menace and more a mere plot device, lacking real motivation. From the beginning, people in the magical world are loathe to even utter his name. But why? What are they afraid of exactly? We know he killed Harry's parents and some others while Harry was an infant, but how close was he to truly ascending to tyranny? What was the magical world's reaction to this threat? He Whose Name Must Not Be Mentioned invokes horrible things at first, but after a while, their fear and denial becomes more knee-jerk and less understandable, and while we still have characters afraid to utter it by film number 8, it seems like just an empty conceit by then.

Even the Horcruxes, the objects to which Voldemort imparts parts of his soul to stave off mortality, had great promise if they actually spoke to his vulnerabilities, if they acted as metaphors for his character's weakness and fallibility. But they don't. There are just things, objects of personal significance, but aside from his diary (the first horcrux we're told about, in The Chamber of Secrets early in the series), none of them tell us anything more about him than we already knew. Their destruction represents a mechanical To Do list but has no larger character resonance.  Even the slight twist that Harry himself is a horcrux is admitted to just be an accident, and not part of Voldemort's design. In the end, Voldemort is defeated, evaporating into ash, remaining irritatingly one-dimensional.

But this is true of all the other villains, too. Draco Malfoy is an unrelenting bully and coward. His father, a slimy political animal. Bellatrix Lestrange is a psychotic. Peter Pettigrew, a blind sycophant. The one true villainous character who has depth, complexity, and fascinating contradictions is Severus Snape, who it turns out was never a villain at all! There are no conflicted bad guys like Gollum, no betrayals by good guys like Narnia's Edmund Pevensie. The good people stay good and the bad remain bad. Even the revelation Dumbledore might have had a more ignoble past only emerges after his death. Harry learns some valuable life lessons, makes some important choices, but it's largely in the framework of a black-and-white moral landscape.

Which, to me, is boring. Perhaps why my favorite film of the series is the one where Voldemort never appears in any form: The Prisoner of Azkaban. It helps that, in Alfonso Cuaron, it has the best director in the series. But it's also cleverly structured as a mystery and time travel film (with its own playful paradoxes) and less a morality tale. And while it has another example of a villain who really isn't (Sirius Black), it also has a good guy who remains a genuine threat: Professor Lupin, whose uncontrollable werewolf alter-ego is the closest thing to an Id we see in any of the films.

The Harry Potter stamps were a controversial choice when they were issued in 2013. Traditionally, USPS stamp subjects were American or at least iconic on a global level. You could argue the latter is true for the books and films, but usually time is the judge of that kind of legacy, and these stamps (British author, all British actors) so fresh off the success of the series appeared as a mercenary concession to popular entertainment. The Scott numbers for the stamps depicted: 4825 (Harry), 4830 (Hedwig), 4837 (Harry, Ron, Hermione), 4841 (Draco), 4842 (Harry w/wand), 4843 (Voldemort), and 4844 (Bellatrix). The last of these, of course, is on the one-sheet of James Ivory's A Room with a View (1986), which in addition to Helena Bonham Carter also featured Maggie Smith, who also got a Harry Potter stamp for playing Professor McGonagall.

Friday, February 20, 2015

My Oscar Ballot

Picture: Boyhood
Actor: Michael Keaton, Birdman
Actress: Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl
Supporting Actor: Ethan Hawke, Boyhood
Supporting Actress: Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
Director: Richard Linklater, Boyhood
Original Screenplay: Nightcrawler
Adapted Screenplay: Inherent Vice
Cinematography: Mr. Turner
Production Design: The Grand Budapest Hotel
Editing: Whiplash
Costume Design: Inherent Vice
Score: The Grand Budapest Hotel
Song: "Glory",  Selma
Sound Mixing: Birdman
Sound Editing: Interstellar
Visual Effects: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Make-Up: Guardians of the Galaxy
Animated Feature: Song of the Sea
Animated Short: The Dam Keeper
Documentary Short: Our Curse
Foreign Language Film: Timbuktu

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Free Falling

It’s been a tough summer for cinematic San Francisco.  Last month, the post-apocalyptic wasteland of SF served as a battleground for Man vs. Monkey in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.  Before that, a trio of horrific monsters laid waste to my City by the Bay in the recent reboot of Godzilla.  Not since Jeanette McDonald warbled her way through the devastation of the 1906 earthquake has the city taken such a pummeling on celluloid in one year.

I’ll admit I had fun in both films—neither was superb but the production values were high, the casts were game, and the silliness was within acceptable limits for these genre tentpole endeavors.  But between both, there was only one moment that really struck me as arresting and even, perhaps, magical.

To provide a little context: I am not an adrenaline junkie.  I don’t really participate in extreme sports, ride wild rollercoasters, or do high-octane adventure travels.  I love taking my time, enjoying the scenery.  I’m a walker, not a runner.  Heck, I don’t even know how to ride a bike.  But one thing I have done is jumped out of a plane.

It was my bachelor party, 15 years ago.  Instead of the typical bar crawl/strip joint routine, I wanted to go skydiving.  Not a tandem jump.  Not a static line.  A full free fall, where I pull the chute myself, land myself.  So that’s what we did.  We had to train for hours on what were essentially three procedures: (1) Jumping, (2) Pulling the chute, (3) Pulling the emergency chute if #2 didn’t go so well.  In fact, by the time our training was done, the winds were too high and we (the two groomsmen and myself) had to come back the next morning to jump.

And that’s what we did.  We each went one at a time, so the other two could be waiting on the ground when one landed.  I jumped first.  The hours of learning the same routine over and over was smart, because by the time you were standing at the plane's doorway, you were thinking about the steps you had to do and not about being thousands of feet above the ground.  The rule was that you jumped with two experienced skydivers, so while you weren’t attached in any way, they could keep an eye on you in your descent.

Similarly, there was a routine as you were falling to earth: Check your altimeter (to track your fall), check the horizon (for orientation), check in with each of your spotters (thumbs up sign).  Rinse, repeat.  Over and over.  The thing you discover very quickly is that it is very, very windy and very loud from the wind as you fall.  And the Earth is so far removed so far below, it almost seems abstract.  It’s unreal.  So while you’re conscious that it’s gradually getting closer, it doesn’t really feel like you’re falling.  You feel suspended in a way.  But you have your routine (rinse, repeat) so you don’t have much time to wrap your head around the unnatural particulars of your situation.  You just have one job: Land.

And then, at the right altitude, you pull the chute and you get this massive jerk and then you’re not suspended anymore, but you are floating.  You feel gravity more because of the harness you’re in, and you start adjusting to the handles that control your directions.  Your spotters kept falling so you are by yourself in the sky.  That’s when you can start enjoying the view and getting your bearings.  Those first moments are the most tranquil and beautiful.

Eventually, the spotter (who has now landed) checks in with you on the one-way radio in your helmet to start spotting you again, giving suggestions so you can best hit the landing zone.  Each descent is different, but mine consisted of a large circle that spiraled into tighter and tighter rotations until I was heading straight for the target.  Then, right before you touchdown, you pull the handles down hard, giving you one final gentle little air bubble in the chute, so you don’t land quite so hard.  Then, when you’re on the ground, you run to gather your chute so the wind doesn’t blow it (and you) farther afield.

It was awesome.  Not just the sensation of it, but knowing that I did it all myself.  I've focused on the mechanics of the jump because the truly amazing aspects really are impossible for me to describe.  I’ve never experienced anything like it, and though I haven’t done it again since (mostly because of cost), I would again in a heartbeat.

So there’s this scene towards the end of Godzilla where a dozen paratroopers (each holding a red smoke flare) jump over San Francisco, enshrouded with fog and smoke from the monster battle below.  And the camera follows Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s descent, with the only sound his breathing and the only music Ligeti’s haunting Requiem (made famous by Kubrick’s 2001).  In a movie full of noise and bombast, it’s a moment that borders on the spiritual as these falling angels dive straight into hell.  Remarkable.

The best part of Iron Man 3 was the harrowing barrel-of-monkeys rescue scene as a dozen Air Force One passengers plummet to earth.  My favorite part of the J.J. Abrams 2009 Star Trek reboot was the space jump.  In short, I’m a sucker for skydiving in the movies, even when the movie (Terminal Velocity, Moonraker, Point Break) isn’t very good.  Because it always makes me remember that day.

Raymond Burr was featured in the US release of the original Godzilla (1956, Honda/Morse).  Perry Mason premiered a year later.  The USPS Scott # for the stamp of that TV show is 4414n.  The Iron Man stamp is Scott #4159h

Saturday, March 1, 2014

My Oscar Ballot

Picture: 12 Years a Slave
Actor: Bruce Dern, Nebraska
Actress: Amy Adams, American Hustle
Supporting Actor: Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club
Supporting Actress: Lupita Nyong'o, 12 Years a Slave
Director: Steve McQueen: 12 Years a Slave
Original Screenplay: Her
Adapted Screenplay: Before Midnight
Cinematography: Inside Llewyn Davis
Production Design: Her
Editing: Gravity
Costume Design: The Grandmaster
Score: Philomena
Song: "Let It Go", Frozen
Sound Mixing: Gravity
Sound Editing: All Is Lost
Visual Effects: Gravity
Make-Up: Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa
Animated Feature: Frozen
Animated Short: Feral
Documentary Feature: The Act of Killing
Documentary Short: Facing Fear
Live Action Short:  Just Before Losing Everything
Foreign Language Film: The Missing Picture

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Of Tramps and Vamps

This past weekend was the 100th anniversary of Charlie Chaplin’s introduction of his Little Tramp character in the 1914 short film Kid Auto Races at Venice and there is probably no single character in cinematic history so universally recognized or instantly iconic as him.  As you can see in these stamps, from various decades and continents, the Tramp belonged to the world, and was embraced for the hope and humanity he represented.

But 1923 was an unusual year for Charlie Chaplin.  After enormous success at the Essanay and Mutual studios, he was now at First National, fresh from his first feature film, the incredibly popular and moving The Kid (1921).  He was still making shorts, but with nowhere near the same manic productivity of the previous handful of years.  He was an artist in transition, and faced with the prospect of creating an ambitious follow-up, he took an unusual turn—one unlike any in his remarkable career.

A Woman of Paris (subtitled “A Drama of Fate”) opens with the following disclaimer:

TO THE PUBLIC: In order to avoid any misunderstanding, I wish to announce that I do not appear in this picture.  It is the first serious drama written and directed by myself.  – CHARLES CHAPLIN.

No ambiguity about his intentions, Chaplin wanted to make a movie that wasn’t propped up by levity or his own comedic presence.  And the story is a familiar one: a provincial ingĂ©nue, unhappy with her home and romantic life, goes to the big city, where she becomes torn between a wealthy benefactor and her beau from her past life.

The film, quite frankly, is an impressive endeavor, but also a bit of a mess—albeit an illuminating one, because it brings into sharp relief what a master storyteller Chaplin typically was, and how his rigorous discipline in creating comic set-ups was a reflection of his insistence on having motivation and characterization contribute to a larger narrative unity.

When the film opens, we already see Marie St. Clair (Chaplin regular Edna Purviance) and Jean Millet (Carl Miller) ready to elope.  Summarily banished from her own house and rejected by his parents, she’s taken by him to the train station to purchase tickets to Paris while he quickly returns home to pack a few items before meeting back up with her.  A family tragedy delays him, but despite his efforts to explain the situation, she simply hangs up on him and, without a penny or possession, goes to Paris alone.

While we do later learn that Jean is unreliable and easily swayed by parental pressure, we haven’t seen this yet.  It is his idea to take Marie in when her step-father abandons her.  It is his idea to move forward with their plans to marry.  Why does she give up on these dreams so quickly, and without even giving him a chance to explain?  We know very little about the couple, but she is quickly characterized as one ready to appease and acquiesce; so where does this spirit of reckless abandon come from?

Then, an intertitle: “A year later in the magic city of Paris, where fortune is fickle and a woman gambles with her life.”  And now Marie is traveling in the uppermost circles of Paris society.  She has a stable of vain and fashionable friends, all well-to-do (if perhaps fellow gold-diggers).  She is the kept woman of the richest bachelor in Paris, Pierre Revel (Adolphe Menjou).  She is cavalier enough about her opulent lifestyle that she isn’t worried about the prospect of losing her meal ticket when Revel becomes engaged (for business reasons) to another woman, but she is also still conventional enough that she objects to his remaining her sugar daddy, even though it’s an arrangement he wants to maintain because of his affection for her.

How did this traditional country girl ascend so fast to this high social tier?  How did she adapt such a sophisticated, almost cynical, attitude so quickly?  We see not a sliver of this potential in the first act of the film, so this transition feels incongruous and jarring.  And then, invited to an upper-class friend’s party, she happens on the wrong apartment by accident and discovers Jean living with his widowed mother in the same building.  How did they move to Paris so quickly, and how are they able to support this quality-of-life change on Jean’s profession as an artist?  And how likely is it that Revel would’ve never heard Marie mention Jean over the course of their affair? Again, no answers.

And this comes as quite a shock coming from Chaplin.  His films are brilliant examples of the intricate mechanism of set-up and payoff, where he establishes early a prop, a character foible, a deep-seeded intention, a simmering conflict, all so that when these elements align, a convincing foundation has been laid and the convergence of these story points harmonize to beautiful effect.
His films are filled with coincidence and unlikely incidents, but they never stink of contrivance because he has planted the necessary seeds in a way that is meticulous, visually deft, but also quite hilarious.  And here may be one important factor—because when we laugh, we as an audience are willing to forgive much that might otherwise suspend our disbelief.

But I think it goes deeper than that.  Chaplin’s obsession with multiple takes and working out the minutest of details is legendary, and this relentless perfectionsim was critical in making many of his most famous sequences work so effectively.  A Woman of Paris suggests that these comic set-ups were instrumental in driving this exacting narrative cause-and-effect, for divorced from any humorous context, the motivations in this “serious” drama are flimsy and the characterizations underdeveloped.

“A Drama of Fate” suggests a certain inevitability to Marie’s story, that her future was preordained by bad luck and the world’s cruelty.  But whereas Chaplin can mine deep emotional undercurrents from his comic set-ups (another part of his genius), there is little to invest in with Marie’s tale because she is less the victim of class or patriarchy and more her own bad, almost random, choices.  There is lots of melodrama, but little that is tragic.  Just frustrating.

This translates to the casting as well.  Purviance showed great comedic chops in his films, but also genuine emotional warmth and range; but here she seems adrift, not quite knowing where to take her character.  Marie is obviously meant to be a complex persona, but it never quite elevates beyond the contradictory.  Unquestionably the best performance is by Menjou, who controls every scene he’s in, and even though his part of the wealth, materialistic temptation is usually the heavy in these morality tales, he is not only the most charismatic person in the film, but also the most sympathetic—because he knows what he wants, refuses to be a hypocrite, but still displays real feeling, too.  Was Chaplin a better evaluator of performance when he was acting in a scene?  Did performing opposite him bring out unexpected qualities from his co-stars?  It’s tough to say, but Woman certainly raises these questions.

Don’t get me wrong, there is much to admire in Woman.  Chaplin shows his gift for composition often, and brings enormous amount of energy to the various crowd scenes.  The story does have a real adult and sophisticated sensibility.  And there are still small little touches, visual grace notes, that act as emotional shorthand in individual moments.  Plus, the ending is an unexpected one, although still in compliance with reaffirming gender roles of the time.  It is only the larger arc that I find unsatisfying, these merits notwithstanding.   But it does one make one wonder how Chaplin’s directorial skills would’ve developed if he’d pursued more projects like this in his career.  As it stands, A Woman of Paris remains a one-off for him—a fascinating experiment in a legendary career.

Chaplin’s last “short”, (actually a four-reeler) was also in 1923, The Pilgrim.  After that, it would only be features, with the masterpiece The Gold Rush (1925) right on the horizon, though this exacting nature would mean his productivity would slow down while his contemporaries Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, with two features each in 1923, would stay at full throttle until the silent era ended.  But he would prove with each subsequent film, that the wait was well worth it.