Sunday, December 1, 2013

When we play our Charade

Charade (Donen, 1963) celebrates its 50th Anniversary this week, and over the years, it has earned a reputation, oft-repeated, as “the best Hitchcock film Hitchcock never made.”  Now, I love Charade, and not just because it’s the best postage stamp film ever.  It’s an irresistibly entertaining comedy-thriller, with wonderful Paris locations, great lines of dialogue, and a fizzy, playful tone, all fueled by incredible chemistry between Cary Grant & Audrey Hepburn (their only film together). 

But I’ve always hated that Hitchcock meme because it shows a fundamental failure to understand what the great Sir Alfred was all about.  For while Charade is enormous fun, it really isn’t about anything except thrills and laughs and clever reversals.  And while Hitch certainly employed all those things, he was far more reflective, and far more subversive.  His is the cinema of sex and psychology, of paranoia and pursuit, of fever dreams and salient nightmares.  His humor was darker, his action laced with malevolence.  He showed a real fear of institutions and a suspicion of normalcy, with his characters regularly haunted and hounded out of their routines.


Hitch lived with the moniker “The Master of Suspense”, which often served as a back-handed compliment, since it appreciated his technical craft while also relegating him to a genre hack, a niche and unserious talent.  He certainly made worse films than Charade, but I’m hard-pressed to think of many that were as lightweight.  Charade is a delicious soufflé.  But Hitch was filet mignon.  So “the best Hitchcock film Hitchcock never made” should reflect his artistry and pathology, not just his deceptive smoke & mirrors.  Something by Chabrol, perhaps.  Or Polanski or Suzuki.

But we’re here about stamps, and the statute of limitations on spoilers is why I can call this marvelous confection the greatest postage stamp movie in history—because the big twist of the film is the fact that postage stamps play an important role at all.  Throughout the film, the key characters, good and bad, are looking for a missing $250,000 and the only clues to its whereabouts are the contents of a travel bag, which are itemized several times in the film

Police inspector: “One wallet, containing four thousand francs; one agenda...; one ticket of passage to South America; one letter, stamped but unsealed...; one key, to your apartment; one comb; one fountain pen; one toothbrush; one tin of tooth powder.  That is all.”
Of course, we eventually learn that the envelope actually contains three incredibly rare and valuable stamps, a discreet and portable way to move the fortune.  I won’t discuss the specifics around the stamps in question (which were conceived especially for the movie), primarily because I couldn’t do it any better than this detailed and illuminating blog post about philatelic values and the real-life counterparts to this narrative McGuffin.  Definitely check it out.
But the movie is very clever about disguising what is ultimately a preposterous resolution.  Early in the film, our damsel in distress Reggie (Hepburn) has the following chat with Jean-Louis, the young son of her friend Sylvie:
JL: When you get your divorce, are you going back to America?
R: Well, don’t you want me to stay?
JL: Yes, of course, but if you went back and then wrote me a letter...
R: ...You could have the stamps!  I’ll get you some here, ok?
JL: OK
 
This is before she learns her husband is dead or about the money and the bag, and it’s a throwaway exchange but a nice way to seed the idea of stamps being important later on when Jean-Louis goes to the stamp mart (which is obliquely mentioned in the agenda).
Similarly, the film is coy about how it shows the envelope, mixing it in among the other assorted items and, when more closely inventoried by Reggie and her mysterious ally (Cary Grant), dismissed quickly out of hand.  More emphasis is placed on the contents of the envelope, an innocuous letter to her, than the envelope itself—a sly little head fake by screenwriter Peter Stone.   We only get two brief looks at the stamps before the big reveal, one when baddies James Coburn & Ned Glass examine the bag's contents, and another when Audrey & Cary revisit the clues.

"Everybody and his Aunt Lillian’s been through that bag, including me...I’ve been into it at least once a day.  Somebody would have seen it."
"It’s there, Reggie.  We’re looking at it right now.  Something on that bed is worth a quarter of a million dollars."
Of course, it defies credulity that the French police, a member of the US treasury department, and 3 criminals (not to mention our heroine) would not notice that something was unusual about 3 stamps on a single envelope for a domestic mailing, or that none of the stamps are French and all are from different countries!  But that’s the genius of a McGuffin, which is simply a vehicle to keep the plot moving.  And one of the beauties of Charade is that it has terrific pacing while also allowing lots of room to let the romance breathe.  It’s also a very funny movie without ever losing its sense of genuine menace, and Cary’s allegiances are always jumping back and forth (hero or villain?) believably.  And of course, the stamps are a great 11th-hour twist, but not the only one.

So approaching the climax, the final entry in her husband’s agenda brings Cary & Audrey to the Jardin des Champs Elysees.  They don’t know what they’re looking for so they split up and Cary tails the last remaining heavy, Tex (Coburn) as he wanders among a cluster of vending stalls.  Suddenly, both he and Tex have a wordless epiphany, punctuated by lots of quick close-ups of stamps.  


 
 
 
As they both return to grab the stamps from the travel bag, we return to Audrey still at the garden, who runs into Sylvie.
R: Sylvie! What are you doing here?
S: I’m waiting for Jean-Louis. 
R: Oh, what’s he up to?
S: He was so excited when he got the stamps you gave him this morning.  He said he’d never seen any like them.
R: I’m glad.  What’s all this?
S: The stamp market.  It’s there every Thursday afternoon.  That’s where Jean-Louis trades his stamps.
R: Good Lord, where is he?
S: What’s the matter, Cherie?
R: The stamps!  They’re worth a fortune!
Having gone to quite a number of philatelic conventions in my time, all the production design and displays in this sequence are very convincing, so I suspect the stamp mart is a real thing (though one I've never sought out in the 3 times I've traveled to Paris).


 When they finally find Jean-Louis, it’s too late:



R: (taking a bag of stamps from him): What’s this?
JL: A man gave me all those for only three.
The vendor has closed his stall, so they find him in what appears to be his home (with philatelic items scattered everywhere)


Stamp Vendor: I was expecting you.  I know you would come.  Look at them, madame.  Have you ever in your entire life seen anything so beautiful?
Reggie: I’m sorry, I don’t know anything about stamps.
SV: I know them as one knows his own face, though I had never seen them.  This one, a Swedish four shilling called Da Gula Fyraskillingen, printed in 1854.
R: What is it worth?
SV: Oh, the money is unimportant. 
R: I’m afraid it’s very important.
SV: Well, in your money, perhaps $85,000.
R: And the blue one?
SV: Oh, it’s called the Hawaiian Blue.  In 1894, the owner was murdered by a rival collector who was obsessed to own it.
R: And what is its value today?
SV: $65,000.

SV: Ah, the best for last.  Le chef d’oeuvre de la collection.  The masterpiece.  The most valuable stamp in the world.  It’s called the Gazette Maldave.  It was printed by hand on colored paper and marked with the initials of the printer.  Today, it has a value of $100,000.  I’m not a thief, madame.  I knew there was some mistake.
R:  You gave the boy a great many stamps in return.  Are they for sale now?
SV: Let me see, 350 European, 200 Asian, 175 American, 100 African and 12 Princess Grace commemorative.  Which comes to 10 Francs.  And don’t forget these. (hands her the stamps from the envelope)
R: Thank you.  I’m sorry.
SV: Oh, no.  For a few minutes they were mine.  That is enough.

I’ve always loved this exchange for a number of reasons.  It shows a stamp enthusiast who is passionate and learned, but also has enormous integrity.  It views stamp collecting as a portal into history, intrigue, and craftsmanship.  And the cheap bag of stamps is a very familiar fixture at stamp stores, showing that it’s a hobby that’s accessible to even the most modest amateur and not just a pastime for the effete and elite.  

One other thing about the value of the stamps (beyond what the link above breaks down): Nothing is said about how sticking the stamps on the envelope potentially devalued them.  $250K may be the cumulative sales price, but would the US be able to recoup the money now that the stamps are affixed to something?  Or will some intern have to soak the envelope in water to slide the stamps off and allow them to carefully dry separately again?



Some other details: The stamp vendor mentions a Princess Grace commemorative stamp, and in the stamp montage, you can actually see one (from Monaco).  Other stamps on display include pictures of Lincoln & FDR, Charles De Gaulle & Louis XIV, and the 1960 Winter Olympics (in Squaw Valley, CA).  No US stamps are depicted, but there are ones from France, the Congo, Madagascar, French West Africa and French Equatorial Africa.  Incredibly, on display is even one stamp I’ve used in my own hobbying, an Eiffel Tower stamp from 1939, which I used to supplement this one-sheet for The Lavender Hill Mob (which is also one of Audrey Hepburn’s earliest film appearances).


Another thing I love about Charade is that it’s a film that loves the City of Lights without indulging in the stereotypical Paris porn like so many American movies do (Exhibit A: Donen & Hepburn’s previous collaboration, the musical Funny Face).  There's some wonderful Parisian street scenes and plenty of atmosphere without relying on the cliche locations.  Even when it does feature a tourist spot like Notre Dame (also visible in that stamp screen shot), it’s as a self-referential joke.

Donen is one of my favorite directors and has always had a wonderful eye for movement in his legendary musicals, and that skillset serves him well here, in a thrilling rooftop fight between Cary and a hook-handed George Kennedy, and also in the climax under the stage of the Comédie-Française, a masterclass sequence of using sound and movement to enhance suspense.  All before that final surprise happy ending, and Cary's last line of the film: "Well, before we start that, may I have the stamps?"


Donen doesn’t have a stamp (yet), but Cary & Audrey both do.  They are Scott # 3692 and 3786 respectively.  The flavorful score is by Henry Mancini, whose stamp is Scott # 3839 (Charade is even mentioned on the stamp itself).  All 3 postmarks are on the reverse side of my one-sheet postcard that opened this article.  The Hitchcock stamp from the Legends of Hollywood series Is # 3226 and the one from the Golden Age of Television is # 4414o .  Obi-Wan Kenobi is Scott # 4143i from the Star Wars issue.


Monday, September 30, 2013

An Aloha State


I’ve been to Hawaii twice. 

The first time, my family took one of those island-hopping cruise ships—still the largest boat I’ve ever been on, but tiny compared to some of the mega-liners that exist now.  I was in the throes of puberty and its typical self-loathing, and there seemed to be plenty of things to do for adults or kids, but not much in that limbo range of early adolescence.  I don’t remember much about the boat except playing chess with my dad in one of the lounges, and spending a lot of time in the movie theater they had on board, in the bottom of the ship.

They would loop the same movie all day, a different movie each day.  Usually, it was a bad contemporary movie (City Heat with Burt & Clint, Oh God, You Devil with George Burns) but they also showed Blue Hawaii (1961), my first real exposure to Elvis, since we didn’t have any of his music in the house growing up.  Directed by Norman Taurog (the only Oscar-winner who would helm The King), it wasn’t very good but it was my first exposure to Angela Lansbury outside of Murder, She Wrote (a staple in our home) and the first time I ever heard “Can’t Help Falling in Love”, the only decent song in the film.

Love and Romance, back then, were just an abstraction—seemingly unattainable, completely alien to how I saw my life, myself.  But overflowing with hormones, I was still swept up with the longing of it, if not the hope.  That song, so simple, talks about Fate, the sheer inevitability of feeling that happens when your heart is affected.  There’s no reciprocation in the song, no relationship.  It is simply confessional, embracing the truth that at the right time, the heart knows what it wants.  Even if it keeps that truth to itself.  I had grown up along the Pacific, but it had never seemed so big than when I was on that boat.  And me, so small.

The second time I was in Hawaii, I was married.  A good friend was a pilot for the now-defunct Aloha airlines and we paid him and his girlfriend a visit.  My wife and I loved taking road trips so all we did in our free time there was circle Oahu by car, stopping every couple miles to visit one magnificent (and deserted) beach after another.  At one point along the drive, we encountered what looked like the remains of a terrible plane crash—except there were no emergency response vehicles, but a more sedate bustle and a road block that cut our excursion short.  It wouldn’t be until the following fall’s television season that this mysterious sight would be explained.  But mostly, the two of us just used paradise to escape, with the beauty of the island surrounding us.  Honolulu held little interest.  This was about exploring and getting Lost together.

I’m not married anymore, but no talk about my past travels is adequate without discussing my ex.  Like I’ve said before, we made a good team, and that was no truer than when we explored the world together.  We had different interests and tastes, but the pace at which we took things complemented each other perfectly, and the world seems, in a certain way, smaller without her.  Left to my own financial devices now, it’s certainly more inaccessible.  I’ve been to some truly amazing places, but there are many I’d still like to visit someday.  Perhaps I will.

When I first stepped foot on Kauai, it was literally the most beautiful place I’d ever been in my life.  But I’ve been to the islands twice now, and other places call to me far more.  But more than that, there is something unique about Hawaii for me.  Distinctive in its nature.  Whatever travels I see in my future, I foresee doing them alone.  And that’s ok—I love traveling, exploring, discovering by myself.  Which is why I probably will never go back to Hawaii. 

Because Hawaii is different.  Hawaii is for sharing.


Top 10 places I've been with her
1. Paris, France
2. The Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
3. Budapest, Hungary
4. Bryce Canyon, Utah
5. Kruger National Park & safari across South Africa
6. Venice, Italy
7. Tokyo, Japan
8. Coastline of Maine, north of Portland
9. Barcelona, Spain
10. Siena, Italy

Top 10 places I've been without her
1. Amazon rainforest, Ecuador
2. The Catacombs - Paris, France
3. The Library of Congress nitrate film vaults - Dayton, OH*
4. Edinburgh, Scotland
5. Savannah, Georgia
6. 80 corridor, Wyoming
7. Kauai, Hawaii
8. The Tate Modern - London
9. Arlington Cemetery, Virginia
10. The Cat Cabinet - Amsterdam

*since relocated

10 places I still hope to visit one day
1. Machu Picchu, Peru
2. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
3. Pyramids of Giza, Egypt
4. Angkor Wat, Cambodia
5. Musee d'Orsay - Paris, France
6. Pordenone Silent Film Festival, Italy
7. High Sierra Camps, Yosemite Nat'l Park, CA
8. Santorini, Greece
9. Antelope Canyon, AZ
10. MLB Hall of Fame, Cooperstown, NY


The Classic Elvis stamp (Scott #2721) is paired with a Hawaii statehood stamp (#4415).  The Steamboat Geyser stamp was part of the Wonders of America series (#4059), here paired with another Yellowstone geyser, Old Faithful (#1053) and one celebrating the park itself (#744).

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Jesus Christ Superman



I’ll admit it.  Reflecting back on the big tentpole pictures of the summer, even the ones I found enjoyable seemed to evaporate from memory quickly.  But while it’s far from perfect, Man of Steel (Snyder) still lingers.

I think what I like about the film is that it addresses something that the other films have largely avoided, or only given lip service to: That Supes is genuinely super-human.  Not just extra-powerful, but almost godlike in his abilities (on a relative scale).  The devastation of Metropolis at the end is exhausting, given the overall film’s running time, but essential in conveying how humanity is mere cannon fodder if two true Super Men were to do battle.

But the irony is that despite the acknowledgment of this fact, the film is the least messianic about Superman than any we’ve ever seen.  In the Christopher Reeve incarnation, man is essentially powerless, and Superman must come and save the day for the planet time and time again.  At the end of Kill Bill, Part 2, Bill has a monologue on how the persona of Clark Kent is Kal-El’s commentary on (and veiled contempt for) mankind.  It’s a patronizing position, but apt because in those films, he’s all-powerful, but man is also hopelessly impotent.  This is even taken to the extent that Earth gains an entitlement complex by the time we reach Superman 3, where our hero is criticized for not always being able to save everyone, all the time.

However, despite being more powerful than any Superman we've seen thus far, Man of Steel's Superman is still less god, and more man.  His search for answers to his own identity make him more accessible, and his dedication to being an example for Earth, not an answer to all its troubles, is not mere lip service, as we see in the moving sacrifice of Col. Hardy and Dr. Hamilton (Chris Meloni & Richard Schiff, respectively) in the destruction of the Earth Builder.  Earth’s rescue is a collaboration; Supes may be the architect, but mankind has a real stake in its own salvation.  And that’s something we’ve never seen before.

I liked this film because it also (intentionally or not) harkened back to one of my favorite sci-fi films of the 70s, God Told Me To (Cohen, 1976).  In it, a supernatural being here on Earth assumes upon himself his own personal God complex.  And who can blame him?  A miraculous birth, powers far beyond his peers, in a society steeped in religion but agnostic when it comes to life on other planets—what else is he supposed to conclude other than that he represents a spiritual Second Coming?  And when you are dealing with someone who not only believes he’s God but has the power to back it up, what then?  It is director Larry Cohen’s finest film (Andy Kaufman’s too, incidentally), and it takes perverse pleasure in merging and melding these myths and cultural tropes that cinematic sci-fi usually keeps quite separate.

There were other things I liked about Man of Steel, too.  Krypton was a real place, with a real culture and history, not just a sound stage.  Zod is not just power mad; he’s a totalitarian on a genocidal mission, which makes him more believable and more horrifying.  True, Kevin Costner’s death is stupid and doesn’t have the poignancy of Glenn Ford's in the 1978 version, and the romance with Lois needed time to breathe.  It’s too fast, too sudden.  But Diane Lane, as Ma Kent, picks up the emotional slack and you see how the Kents would’ve raised their son with a stalwart code of values.  

But in the end, the film tries to explain Superman, not just accept him on faith.  In the original Superman, he just…shows up one day, out of the blue.  His appearance to humanity is completely arbitrary (unless it’s to save Lois’s life).  But here, Kal-El is forced to make a choice that redefines his purpose, and the planet’s own self-awareness, too.  His search for this purpose ends up bringing the Kryptonians to Earth.  His sense of responsibility is why he reveals himself, at long last.  Call it The Last Temptation of Clark.  Until now, the cinematic Superman was always one-dimensional, a goody-two shoes.  That’s what made him truly alien.  He isn’t even known by his superhero moniker here.  This is not just a reboot, but a new conception of the character altogether.  I’m curious to see where it goes.

Of course, my favorite silver screen Superman is still the one conceived by the Fleischer brothers in their marvelous cartoon shorts of the 40s.  Here's one gem from 1942.



The first card (a greeting card, actually) has a Superman stamp issued as part of the DC comic book series (Scott #4084k) and is paired up with the Superman stamp that was part of the Celebrate the Century series (#3185f).  And Canada had a Superman stamp too, from 1995.  The other Superman stamp (#4084a) and FDC from that DC comic series is on the other card (a postcard), along with Supergirl (#4084i) from the same series.  As a concession to possible comic collectors, I also added a Marvel stamp on each of these cards from a subsequent release, too--hence The Hulk (#4159l) and Captain America (#4159e).

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Sunset




She said we didn’t argue enough, and perhaps she was right.  We were best friends, and it was hard to stay mad at each other for long.  I can hardly remember a time when we let the sun go down on our anger.  As it probably should be.  But it also meant that things that needed to be talked about, weren’t.  They were perpetually shelved in the wake of our love and good feeling in each other’s company, left to be addressed (or not) for another day.

I don’t tell people when my birthday is.  It’s a date, a milestone that’s generally meaningless to me.  My age is a number that holds no real relationship to how I look or feel.  So I couldn’t care less about it.  At my last job, everyone would celebrate each birthday in our department, and after a few years, they noticed they never celebrated mine, so I told them that if they wanted to celebrate a date, then choose my wedding anniversary.  Because that was a date that held real value for me.  They never did.

It would’ve been 14 years today.  But now, it’s just a date like any other—one with plenty of memories and associations, but nobody with whom to share them.  Everyone thought we were a good couple, but what we actually were was a good team.  Our strengths played off each other well, and helped cover the things the other wasn’t so good at.  We started as colleagues, then quickly friends.  Before we were even a couple, she was the best friend I’d ever had.  Nobody understood me better, looked out for me more.  But a good couple has not just light, but heat.  Friction and frission.

Adam’s Rib (Cukor, 1949) is probably the most celebrated pairing of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy.  It is about a married couple, both lawyers, who take opposing sides in a domestic violence case, highlighting and amplifying the hypocrisies and complications of gender roles and expectations in a marriage.  It was written by a married couple (Garson Kanin & Ruth Gordon) and Hepburn & Tracy’s ongoing love affair is one of the most venerated of the classical Hollywood era.  So the anxieties and nuances of being a couple are in the film’s DNA.

And there is a lot of arguing in Adam’s Rib.  Arguments in the courtroom and the bedroom—never cruel but very pointed.  The most dangerous thing about being a couple is that the other person knows you too well—your vulnerabilities and vanities, your soft spots and triggers.  We don’t like to be reminded of our flaws, our shortcomings, and nobody knows either better than the person we choose to spend the rest of our lives with.  But ironically, the things that flare our tempers also flame our desires--we may be humbled sometimes, but it often comes with a subcurrent of hot agitation.

Last spring’s Before Midnight is saturated in this state of marital tension.  While the first film in the Linklater/Hawke/Delpy trilogy, Before Sunrise, was about love’s possibilities and the second, Before Sunset, about love’s resonance, this third installment is about love’s consequences.  Choices.  Children.  Compromises.  We’ve never seen Jesse & Celine so at odds with each other, but never as sexual with each other, either.  Fighting and fucking are the yin & yang of their partnership, the way to build and release emotions that run deep, and a way to remind each other that passionate defenses and passionate rebuttals speak to passionate feelings that still rise to the surface and overflow.  It’s not my favorite film of the series, but it is the one that speaks the closest to me—of all the little details and dynamics I can relate to, and those I wish I could say I do after being married a decade, but can’t.


You can’t have great make-up sex if you never have a falling out.  Acceptance evolves into complacency, and a close affinity can slowly degrade and fester if it’s not challenged or fueled by disagreement.  We never really fought.  It wasn’t our style.  We had been friends for far too long and never tired of each other’s company.  Perhaps we were too eager to accept, too quick to forgive, too reluctant to provoke.  But an electric blanket is different than a roaring fire.  One is dependable and cozy while the other needs more watching and greater attention, but can accomplish so much more, even if it does involve frequent licking of one's wounds.  To be a good couple, there needs to be a balance between the two sets of qualities--compatibility and chemistry-- and a sense of direction, growth.  Otherwise, you’re just roommates with responsibilities and a shared romantic history—real enough, authentic and loving, but rudderless, and a shadow of what could be. 

I can’t speak for her.  All I know is that I was very happy in the restless way you get when you don’t know what happiness really feels like.  If we had fought more, we might’ve discovered this sooner and done something about it, for better or worse.  And while things happen for a reason, she deserved a better ending.  On that point, I'll always be guilty.  But Agape is not Eros, no matter how hard you wish it to be.  And when it came to Love, we were speaking different languages, so assured in our understanding of each other to notice any disconnect. 




The Katharine Hepburn stamp (Scott #4461) is paired with a jury duty one (#4200), while Frank Sinatra (#4265) is matched with a wedding ring stamp (#4397).  The stamp named Where Dreams Blossom from this year is Scott #4764.