Thursday, June 30, 2016

She Certainly Can Cannes-Cannes

When people (quickly) discover what a big cinephile I am, the question I get the most often (besides “What’s your favorite movie?”) is “Have you been to Sundance?”  And they’re invariably surprised when I tell them No.  After all, isn’t that what cinephiles do?  Isn’t Cannes our Mecca?  But honestly, I’m not interested in going and never really have been.  The newest incarnation of this query is the Turner Classic Movies Festival every spring.  I’m a regular on #TCMParty, have met dozens of fabulous film fans from around the US on that hashtag, and even am lucky enough to have TCM follow me on Twitter.  But I’m guessing I’ll probably never go to that, either.

This year will be my seventh working for the Mill Valley Film Festival.  But long before that, I’ve been going to local film festivals, most notably The San Francisco International Film Festival.  So I love the energy film fans bring to a screening.  I'm excited by the marathon days, the triangulation of schedules across multiple venues, the bustling from one show to the next.  In particular, I love that festivals are usually the only place you can see short films projected, which I consumed voraciously long before it became my job to program them.

But destination film festivals have held little appeal to me.  As much as I love travel and movies, they’ve very rarely overlapped in my life.  When I’m somewhere new, foreign, different, I want to explore the landscape, not hole up in a theater.  I’ve seen movies in England and Ecuador when I was living there, and once in Thailand because the humidity was so oppressive, it was the easiest way to cool off (it was one of the Bourne films), but otherwise, my travels meant seeing parks and museums and centers of culture and history, never movies.  And that’s what it’d be like if I was in the south of France or Park City, too.

Some of it is also the cost.  Festivals can be expensive on their own, let alone the additional price tag of planes, hotels, food, etc.  The one festival I have been to outside the Bay Area was SXSW, and that was because I’d visited Austin already and my all-access badge was paid for.  But everything else on that trip still made a huge dent on my wallet.  It was undeniably fun, but not something I had any wish to make a habit of.  And that’s why I can’t see myself spending money to stay in LA for a week for TCM, no matter how great the crowd, the guest list or the program schedule might be.

There are lots of different types of festival patrons, too.  Some love to see the big stars, the legends or masters or household names.  Some people are drawn to the First Look appeal—the chance to see a film weeks or months before anyone else.  Festivals count on that kind of star-power draw and name recognition, and I totally get that.  But that’s not what draws me.  I love festivals for the chance to see films I’ll never see anywhere else, arthouse or otherwise.  Guests are great and Q&As can often be illuminating and memorable, but that’s not the reason I go.

And that’s why, given a choice, I’d always prefer SFIFF over TCM (whose schedules overlap annually).  Because I live in the Bay Area, there’s no shortage of classic films available on the big screen here.  Here’s a list of all the films that screened in June in a theater within 40 minutes of me that were made at least 40 years ago:

The Gold Rush (Chaplin, 25)
Behind the Front (Sutherland, 26)
Nell Gwyn (Wilcox, 26)
The Scarlet Letter (Sjostrom, 26)
The Big Broadcast (Tuttle, 32)
White Zombie (Halperin, 32)
Duck Soup (McCarey, 33)
The Crime of Doctor Crespi (Auer, 35)
The Great Garrick (Whale, 37)
Four’s a Crowd (Curtiz, 38)
The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (Curtiz, 39)
The Long Voyage Home (Ford, 40)
Santa Fe Trail (Curtiz, 40)
Hold Back the Dawn (Leisen, 41)
They Died with Their Boots On (Walsh, 41)
Double Indemnity (Wilder, 44)
The Dark Mirror (Siodmak, 46)
His Sister’s Secret (Ulmer, 46)
La Otra (Gavaldon, 46)
To Each His Own (Leisen, 46)
The First Legion (Sirk, 51)
The Forbidden Christ (Malaparte, 51)
Strangers on a Train (Hitchcock, 51)
The Lusty Men (Ray, 52)
The Devil’s Money (Galindo, 53)
Roman Holiday (Wyler, 53)
Giant (Stevens, 56)
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Brooks, 58)
Suddenly, Last Summer (Mankiewicz, 59)
Butterfield 8 (Mann, 60)
La Dolce Vita (Fellini, 60)
The Great Race (Edwards, 65)
Tokyo Drifter (Suzuki, 66)
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Nichols, 66)
Spring Night, Summer Night (Anderson, 67)
The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (Straub/Huillet, 68)
Dillinger is Dead (Ferreri, 69)
The Wild Bunch (Peckinpah, 69)
Two-Lane Blacktop (Hellman, 71)
Fat City (Huston, 72)
Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (Peckinpah, 74)
The Sugerland Express (Spielberg, 74)
Kings of the Road (Wenders, 76)

And that's not even including the SF Silent Film Festival, which featured 16 features--including films by Ozu, Clair, Lang, Lubitsch, Fleming, Micheaux, and Wellman's Beggars of Life, starring Louise Brooks--and even more shorts. 

TCM fans are drawn to their festival by the opportunity to see those classic films on the big screen (many of which I already have), by the stars, the interviews, and the camaraderie.  And I don't doubt for a second that I would have a lot of fun in their company.

But there are far more things I would feel I missed out on by not attending SFIFF--new foreign treasures, innovative docs, experimental shorts I'll never see anywhere else.  Every month is like a TCM festival living here in the Bay Area anyway--beautiful Art Deco houses, or film archive theaters, or dungeon-like screening rooms specializing in 16mm arcana--so I save my pennies (or rather, maximize their cinematic heft) by staying put.  There are still a lot of places in the world I want to visit.  But movies have very little to do with any of them.  Which suits me fine.

The Ingrid Bergman stamp is Scott # 5012 .  The stamp of Aaron Douglas's painting The Prodigal Son (Scott # 4748g) is part of the "Modern Art in America" series.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

SFIFF59 Round-Up

With 17 features and 60 shorts screened, this was definitely the most productive SFIFF I’d ever attended.  The POV award to Aardman Animation (with guest Peter Lord) accounted for 1/3 of that short tally, with an impressive survey of the studio’s output since its inception 40 years ago.  While Wallace & Gromit and Shaun the Sheep are the most famous franchises they’ve created, this fantastic collection they screened covered not only their familiar stop-motion style but some really wonderful cel and CG creative efforts, too.

The short collections have always been my favorite part of SFIFF and this year had some very strong programs, including two shorts in particular that really blew me away.  Brouillard #14 is an experimental film that used in-camera double exposures of the same nature path traveled over and over again to yield a phenomenal explosion of color, creating a throbbing pointillism effect that evoked both the density and illusory quality of memory in a way I’d never seen before.  And Night without Distance used simple film negative imagery to create an extraordinary other-worldly effect as men with guns posted as silent sentries in a remote landscape.  It was a short that was beautiful, tense, immersive, subtle, sometimes disorienting, and endlessly fascinating.  I can’t imagine either of these remotely having the same effect as a Vimeo link so keep your eye out on the festival circuit in case they screen anywhere near you.

As for the features, it’s always interesting to see what kinds of trends and motifs recur across various titles quite inadvertently (since what I see is often based as much on geography and scheduling as it is on my specific interests).  So here are some thematic trios that emerged:

Deconstructing masculine tropes in slyly humorous fashion was the main order of business in the Greek Chevalier and South Korean Right Now, Wrong Then.  In the former, from Athina Rachel Tsangari (who was also part of a fun Q&A), a small pleasure cruise turns into the S.S. Oneupsman ship as a group of men try to determine who’s the Best among them by contriving more absurd and arbitrary contests to compete in.  In Hong Sang-soo’s latest, two parallel stories follow a hapless film director as he courts the same woman to very different effect as we’re reminded that love and chemistry often rely on the most unlikely variables and not on us putting our best feet forward.  By contrast, the man-child of the Spanish The Apostate has his own problems he hasn’t sorted out, but while the lead (Alvaro Ogalla, another SFIFF attendee) is fun, his religious change-of-heart is so low-stakes and frustratingly flimsy that it was hard for me to care if any of his issues are resolved.

In opposition to this were some exceptional and unnerving films with women forced to confront some internal and external demons.  To call Under the Shadow an Iranian Babadook is no slight, since it’s still very scary and nerve-wrecking as a mother and child during the Iran-Iraq war confront a phantom that’s born not from an emotional trauma but a political one.  The Swedish Granny’s Dancing on the Table is a dark tale of a young girl using her family history (rendered to wonderful effect by rough-hewn stop-motion animation) and her own resourcefulness to survive her single father’s brutal oppressiveness in the wilderness.  As for the German Wild, my favorite feature of the festival, a young office worker’s obsession with a wolf devolves into a full feral transformation (or actualization).  Call it a lupine Repulsion or 50 Shades of White Fang, but it’s riveting, uncompromising storytelling.

In addition to Granny, animation is also used to clever effect in Penny Lane’s bizarre biopic NUTS!, the story of an early 20th-century media pioneer and medical quack who builds a very unlikely empire.  A simple animation style is used to do most of the dramatic heavy-lifting (in historical reenactments) and while the film mines the absurdity of this man’s life well, a third-act inversion is as inevitable as it is tonally unsatisfying.  Better is Lewis Klahr’s dizzying evocation of the 60s in Sixty Six, where he uses collage animation, including cut-outs from period comic books (like those pictured below) to convey his own strange mythologies, melancholy memories, and affectionate paeans to the period and pop culture.  Very personal, sometimes even impenetrably so, but unquestionably vivid and unique.

Sixty Six was not the only feature to take liberties with traditional narrative structure.  Otar Iosseliani’s Winter Song is a loose and limber free association piece about an assortment of Parisians whose paths cross in countless variations, all with playful anarchic panache.  Famed cinematographer Chris Doyle’s Hong Kong Trilogy: Preschooled Preoccupied Preposterous doesn’t work as well.  Despite being resolutely affectionate to the different generations of the city, it often feels too eager to please and the sober political shadow of the protests that serve as a hub of the action jars with the whimsy that often feels forced.

In addition to NUTS!, there were a couple other films I saw that had medical concerns as their focus.  The deeply compassionate Czech Home Care chronicles a nurse who is diagnosed with cancer and must confront her own mortality as she explores alternative solutions to her condition.  This was also the most lively Q&A I attended, with director Slavek Horak, equipped with plum brandy, giving a shot to each audience member who asked him a question.  But even more thoughtful was the documentary Haveababy, which approaches a fertility clinic’s lottery with objective ambivalence as assorted “contestants” vie for the opportunity to create a family, with results both happy and heart-breaking.

And no SFIFF would be complete without the archival screenings.  New to me was Cast  a Dark Shadow (Gilbert, 1955), with the irrepressibly sleazy gold-digger Dirk Bogarde biting off more than he can chew when his wife-killing M.O. locks horns with some very uncooperative women in his orbit.  The 20th Anniversary of The Watermelon Woman (a film I hadn’t seen since its original release) was an occasion to revisit this landmark indie film about identity politics and see how much in the film industry hasn’t changed when it comes to inclusion and ready acceptance.  The deft meta-language of its reframing of film history is now fairly commonplace while black lesbian representation is still sadly outside the mainstream’s comfort level.  Kudos to director Cheryl Dunye for an enlightening Q&A.  And to round things out was the dense discord of Mercury Rev & Simon Raymonde who treated Dreyer’s classic Vampyr (1932) like a silent film in their musical accompaniment, giving it a whole new dimension of creepy.

But the archival highlight was Nick Park’s (1993), still one of the greatest animated films ever made and a film I dearly love but hadn’t seen on the big screen since it first came out.  It’s a wonderful heist film with one of the greatest silent nemesis ever portrayed, the stoic, sinister penguin, which is why I added the penguin stamp to the Wallace & Gromit card above (even though he doesn’t appear in their Oscar-winning feature film).  The short also features a few stamps itself, when Gromit sifts through the mail and opens his birthday card.  


The train, of course, foreshadows one of the great film chases in the climax and sharp-eyed Aardman fans will recognize the puma from Creature Comforts on display in the museum (a set that I once saw on display in the National Media Museum in Branford, UK).

Top 10 SFIFF features (non-archival)

1. Wild (Krebitz, 2016)
2. Granny's Dancing on the Table (Skold, 2015)
3. Chevalier (Tsangari, 2015)
4. Haveababy (Micheli, 2016)
5. Winter Song (Iosseliani, 2015)
6. Under the Shadow (Anvari, 2015)
7. Right Now, Wrong Then (Hong, 2015)
8. Neon Bull (Mascaro, 2015)
9. Sixty Six (Klahr, 2015)
10. Home Care (Horak, 2015)

Top 10 SFIFF shorts (non-Aardman)

1. Night without Distance (Patino, 2015)
2. Brouillard #14 (Larose, 2013)
3. Edmond (Gantz, 2015)
4. Jaaji Approx (Hopinka, 2015)
5. Extremis (Krauss, 2016)
6. Partners (Imbach, 2015)
7. When You Awake (Rosenblatt, 2016)
8. False Start (Barrada, 2015)
9. Manoman (Cartwright, 2015)
10. Bob Dylan Hates Me (Zahedi, 2016)

Top 10 Aardman shorts

1. The Wrong Trousers (Park, 1993)
2. The Pearce Sisters (Cook, 2007)
3. Winter Trees (Freed/Freed, 2012)
4. Sledgehammer (Johnson, 1986)
5. Dot (Sumo Science, 2010)
6. Creature Comforts (Park, 1989)
7. The Flight of the Stories (Dubicki, 2014)
8. Going Equipped (Lord, 1990)
9. Full ANL (Burrascano, 2015)
10. Shaun the Sheep: 3DTV (Grace/Wilton, 2014)

The Scott #s for the stamps pictured:

Year of the Dog - 3895j
Sealed with Love - 4741
Where Dreams Blossom - 4764
Penguins - 4989
Quilled Paper Heart - 5036

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Desert Island 100

The challenge: Pick my favorite feature film each year from 1924-2015.  Add 8 more shorts spread out over that period to make an even 100.  Here's what I picked.  Links are to other blog entries on those films.  What would your list look like?

1924 Greed (von Stroheim)
1925 The Gold Rush (Chaplin)
1926 The General (Keaton/Bruckman)

1927 The Italian Straw Hat (Clair)
1928 The Wind (Sjostrom)
1929 Man with a Movie Camera (Vertov)
1930 The Blue Angel (Sternberg)
1931 M (Lang)
1932 I Was Born, But... (Ozu)
1933 Footlight Parade (Bacon)
1934 The Thin Man (Van Dyke)
1935 Bride of Frankenstein (Whale)

1936 The Crime of M. Lange (Renoir)
1937 Shall We Dance (Sandrich)
1938 Bringing Up Baby (Hawks)
1939 Only Angels Have Wings (Hawks)
1940 Pinocchio (Sharpsteen)
1941 The Lady Eve (Sturges)
1942 Casablanca (Curtiz)
1943 The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (Powell/Pressburger)
1944 Meet Me in St. Louis (Minnelli)
1945 Children of Paradise (Carne)

1946 Belle et la Bete (Cocteau)
1947 Black Narcissus (Powell/Pressburger)
1948 Germany, Year Zero (Rossellini)
1949 Kind Hearts and Coronets (Hamer)
1950 Winchester '73 (A. Mann)

1951 On Dangerous Ground (N. Ray)
1952 Singin' in the Rain (Donen/Kelly)
1953 The Earrings of Madame de... (Ophuls)
1954 The Seven Samurai (Kurosawa)
1955 Night of the Hunter (Laughton)
1956 Forbidden Planet (Wilcox)
1957 Sweet Smell of Success (Mackendrick)
1958 Vertigo (Hitchcock)
1959 Some Like It Hot (Wilder)
1960 La Dolce Vita (Fellini)
1961 Last Year at Marienbad (Resnais)
1962 Cleo from 5 to 7 (Varda)
1963 The Leopard (Visconti)
1964 Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Kubrick)
1965 Chimes at Midnight (Welles)
1966 The Battle of Algiers (Pontecorvo)
1967 Point Blank (Boorman)
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick)
1969 The Wild Bunch (Peckinpah)

1970 Days and Nights in the Forest (S. Ray)
1971 Walkabout (Roeg)
1972 The Bitter Tears of Petra van Kant (Fassbinder)
1973 The Spirit of the Beehive (Erice)
1974 Chinatown (Polanski)

1975 Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Gilliam/Jones)
1976 The Marquise of O (Rohmer)
1977 Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Spielberg)

1978 The Last Waltz (Scorsese)
1979 The Black Stallion (Ballard)
1980 The Empire Strikes Back (Kershner)
1981 Pennies from Heaven (Ross)
1982 Burden of Dreams (Blank)
1983 Zelig (Allen)
1984 The Terminator (Cameron)
1985 Come and See (Klimov)
1986 The Sacrifice (Tarkovsky)
1987 Wings of Desire (Wenders)

1988 Bull Durham (Shelton)
1989 Do the Right Thing (Lee)
1990 Miller's Crossing (Coen)
1991 The Double Life of Veronique (Kieslowski)
1992 The Last of the Mohicans (M. Mann)
1993 Groundhog Day (Ramis)
1994 Ed Wood (Burton)
1995 Underground (Kusturica)
1996 Lone Star (Sayles)
1997 A Taste of Cherry (Kiarostami)
1998 Out of Sight (Soderbergh)
1999 Topsy-Turvy (Leigh)
2000 In the Mood for Love (Wong)
2001 Mulholland Dr. (Lynch)
2002 Gerry (Van Sant)
2003 Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (Weir)
2004 Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Gondry)
2005 L'Enfant (Dardenne/Dardenne)
2006 Children of Men (Cuaron)
2007 Once (Carney)
2008 Man on Wire (Marsh)

2009 The White Ribbon (Haneke)
2010 Winter's Bone (Granick)
2011 The Tree of Life (Malick)
2012 Moonrise Kingdom (Anderson)
2013 Upstream Color (Carruth)
2014 Timbuktu (Sissako)
2015 Mustang (Erguven)

1929 Un Chien Andalou (Bunuel)
1933 Snow White (Fleischer)
1949 Begone Dull Care (McLaren/Lambert)
1962 Cosmic Ray (Conner)
1968 Windy Day (Hubley/Hubley)
1993 The Wrong Trousers (Park)
2000 The Heart of the World (Maddin)
2013 Just Before Losing Everything (Legrand)

Here are the Scott #s for the stamps pictured:

Devil's Tower - 1084
Water conservation - 1150
Talking Pictures - 1727
Hudson's General - 2843
Frankenstein - 3170
Cinematography - 3772g
Luke Skywalker - 4143e
James Stewart - 4197
Wedding cake - 4398
William S. Hart - 4448
John Huston - 4671
Iron worker - 4801h
Circus clown - 4905
Martin Ramirez train - 4970

Friday, February 26, 2016

My Oscar Ballot

Picture: Mad Max: Fury Road
Actor: Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs
Actress: Charlotte Rampling, 45 Years
Supporting Actor: Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies
Supporting Actress: Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl
Director: George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road
Original Screenplay: Ex Machina
Adapted Screenplay: The Big Short
Cinematography: Carol
Production Design: Mad Max: Fury Road
Editing: Mad Max: Fury Road
Costume Design: Carol
Score: Sicario
Sound Mixing: The Revenant
Sound Editing: Mad Max: Fury Road
Visual Effects: Mad Max: Fury Road
MakeUp: Mad Max: Fury Road
Foreign Language Film: Mustang
Animated Feature: Anomalisa
Animated Short: World of Tomorrow
Live Action Short: Day One
Documentary Short: Last Day of Freedom

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.