Sunday, December 20, 2015

Kringle All the Way

My first associations with Fred Astaire were with Christmas.  One of the first films I remember him starring in was the family-friendly TV movie The Man in the Santa Claus Suit (1979), where he is an ever-present holiday sprite in NYC as three different men find unlikely solutions to their respective problems through a Santa suit they rent from Fred.  Of course, there was the ubiquitous Holiday Inn (Sandrich/1942), which first introduced the song "White Christmas" (sung by co-star Bing Crosby).  But the earliest thing I remember was the Rankin-Bass Christmas special Santa Claus Is Coming to Town, narrated by Fred, which first aired in 1970, the year I was born.

Rankin-Bass, of course, were the producing pair (Arthur Rankin Jr. & Jules Bass) who created a series of animation specials, mostly Yuletide but other holidays too, that were prevalent when I was growing up.  Quite a few used puppets and stop-motion, including the first, 1964’s Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, which received a postage stamp issue last year.  That’s an origin story for Rudolph, with Santa an established character and Burl Ives (as a North Pole snowman) acting as singing narrator.  SCIC2T follows the same template, with Fred a mailman who uses the letters from Santa he encounters as a springboard to explain Kris Kringle’s backstory.  He makes a terrific storyteller and even sings the title tune, a bonus pleasure.

Like Gene Kelly, the other legendary male dancer from Hollywood’s Golden Age, Fred Astaire doesn’t have a US postage stamp yet.  It’s always curious how the decision-making process is conducted for which film stars get memorialized by the USPS, either in the Legends of Hollywood series or an offshoot issue.  Certainly, he’s a profoundly influential figure in popular culture, both as singer & dancer, and while Bing has a stamp, as do Fred’s co-stars of the classic musicals Easter Parade (Judy Garland) and Funny Face (Audrey Hepburn), he's still waiting for one.  Fred’s only Oscar nomination was for the very unmusical The Towering Inferno (Guillerman/1974) and his co-star there, Paul Newman, also has a stamp.
In fact, the closest thing to a postage stamp in the US that Fred has is actually in his Rankin-Bass Xmas special, where all the credits are formatted as postal letters, with the characters depicted as stamps.

Though no longer mainstays on network TV, these specials still get rotation in December on other cable channels, like ABC Family.  Perhaps their best facet were the songs, which had nice memorable little hooks.  But revisiting Santa with my mom recently, I noticed something unusual: they cut one of the tunes, and a rather central one, since it’s the musical motif for Santa himself (whose theme recurs throughout the show).  The internet being what it is, it was easy enough to find the missing song, which has the following lyric, sung by Kris: 

If you sit on my lap today,
A kiss, a toy is the price you pay.
When you sit on my left knee, don’t be stingy.
Be prepared to pay.

While the song itself is innocently karmic (the love you give comes back to you), the quid pro quo aspect of coercing affection with the promise of gifts sends a very different message these days.

It’s also interesting that Kris and the future Mrs. Claus (the gorgeous redheaded school marm, naturally) are also essentially a common law union, never getting legally married, but finding  their vows to each other sufficient in a ceremony that’s spiritual but not “religious”.  It’s a curiously progressive stance that’s perfectly in sync with Jessica’s surprisingly adult torch song of non-conformity and sensory awakening “My World Is Beginning Today” (which also indulges in some heavy abstract animation, very unusual for these kiddie specials).  Her voice was done by Robie Lester, who only has a handful of credits but, curiously enough, did provide the singing voice for both of Eva Gabor’s Disney flicks: The Aristocats (1970/Reitherman) and The Rescuers (1977).
I’ll admit that I liked the rudimentary but charming animation style as a kid, and it served as my first introduction to quite a few classic film stars: Jose Ferrer and Greer Garson (The Little Drummer Boy, 1968), Shirley Booth and Dick Shawn (the latter as the hilarious Snow Miser in The Year Without a Santa Claus, 1974), and Jimmy Durante (the cel animated Frosty the Snowman, 1969).  Mickey Rooney--another legend one suspects has a stamp in his future--played Santa in both SCIC2T and Year Without...

But even memories of some of the more obscure specials linger.  Nestor, the Long-Eared Donkey (essentially, a Biblical Rudolph from 1977) had a four-legged parental death that moved me far more than Bambi’s mom did.  Jack Frost (1979) was a primer in how a girl can say she loves you but not, you know, love-loves you (leaving the title character in a bittersweet frozen friendzone).  And the awkward, skeptical, bespectacled kid mouse in Twas the Night Before Christmas (1974) was easily relatable given what I saw in the mirror every day.
Perhaps the best loved holiday special is the one that got a stamp this year: A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965/Melendez), which is celebrating its 50th Anniversary.  The Charles Schulz museum in Santa Rosa, CA, isn't far from where I live and well worth the visit.  It always has wonderfully-curated collections that show how savvy he was in observing human behavior through these kids who always had childish impulses and very adult sensibilities.  The TV special is no different in its critique of commercialism at the expense of more simple and compassionate priorities (and all with a terrific Vince Guaraldi score).

Personally, my favorite remains How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966 and my first exposure to Boris Karloff) so if these TV specials are a trend with the USPS, I hope it gets an issue next--though as you can see, Dr. Seuss has gotten a few stamps from them already.

Santa from the Rudolph issue is Scott #4948.  The original Peanuts stamp is #3507 while Charlie Brown w/his tree is #5021.  Dr. Seuss is #3585, "The Cat in the Hat" #3187h and "Fox in Socks" #3989.  Paul Newman is Scott #5020 and the skyskraper stamp (#4710n) is from the Earthscapes issue. 101 Dalmatians and Lady and the Tramp are #4342 and #4028 respectively.  And Elvis is Scott #5009.

My 10 Favorite Fred Astaire films

1. Shall We Dance (Sandrich, 1937)
2. Swing Time (Stevens, 1936)
3. You Were Never Lovelier (Seiter, 1942)
4. Top Hat (Sandrich, 1935)
5. The Band Wagon (Minnelli, 1953)
6. Easter Parade (Walters, 1948)
7. Follow the Fleet (Sandrich, 1936)
8. Royal Wedding (Donen, 1951)
9. Silk Stockings (Mamoulian, 1957)
10. Funny Face (Donen, 1957)

Sunday, October 25, 2015

A Wing and a Slayer

The scene is an Arizona hotel room and two lovers have just finished an afternoon tryst and are now engaged in a tense post-coital discussion, where she is tired of the secrecy in their relationship and he is preoccupied with his looming financial obligations.  As they slowly dress, they resolve to find a way to make it work.
Marion: “Oh Sam, let’s get married!”
[they kiss]
Sam: “Yeah.  And live with me in a storeroom behind a hardware store in Fairvale?  We’ll have lots of laughs.  Tell you what—when I send my ex-wife her alimony, you can lick the stamps.”
Marion: “I’ll lick the stamps.”
It’s the last time they’ll ever see each other.  And so begins the tale of Marion Crane and her fateful intersection with the now infamous Norman Bates.

Now, every cinephile has a special, highly personal list of films—films they understand as great, films whose importance they appreciate and whose influence on the art form and the culture is undeniable.  But films which they don’t like all that much.  Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 Psycho is one of those films for me.  For I’ll readily admit that the film is remarkably made, and the vision of its director and the contributions of composer Bernard Herrmann, editor George Tomasini, opening credits maestro Saul Bass, and actors Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh are all exemplary.  The evidence on the screen is without question and the status the film has in the horror genre and the classic film canon is well-deserved.
But the thing is, I just don’t find Psycho very scary or emotionally engaging.  It’s always been an academic exercise for me, whereas Hitch’s subsequent film, The Birds (1963) I find much more unnerving, provocative, subversive and terrifying.

I live in the Bay Area, where The Birds takes place (first in San Francisco, then north to Bodega Bay in Sonoma county).  My dad was born in Phoenix, where that lazy rendezvous occurs, and I’ve driven across the southwest several times, a route that Marion takes after stealing her employer’s money, so I feel like I have a personal connection to both landscapes depicted in the films.  Hitch always had a gift for setting, and each has an atmosphere that's very real and tangible, though very different.   But for me, it's in studying some of the deeper differences that perhaps best highlight why I prefer one so much more than the other.

Psycho rattles your cage but always keeps a certain moral polarity.  Marion may have made a poor decision (the theft) but is depicted as a fundamentally good and sympathetic person, as are beau Sam and sister Lila.  On the surface, Norman is meek and genial but ultimately, his murderous motives aren’t particularly complex: He is fundamentally disturbed, an Other with a mental schism that manifests in a tragic, divided self.  He lives outside civilization—first in a remote motel off the desert highway, and then in an institution for the insane, locked up and glibly reduced to a psychological diagnosis.
The Birds has greater complexities that get under your skin.  We first see Melanie (Tippi Hedren) and Mitch (Rod Taylor) flirting in a pet store off Union Square and they’re both attractive but a little off-putting.  It’s not a meet-cute.  The tension and chemistry crackle, and while we’re not sure which is more of a predator, both undeniably enjoy playing games.  And as the film continues, we watch them spar and tentatively feel each other out.  Of course, any romantic prospect goes unconsummated because by the time she’s tailed him to his home farther north, nature has started to rebel.  We don’t know why the birds attack; Hitchcock never explains it--though if you watch Melanie’s relationship with Mitch’s mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy), we’re given some clues.

But that all lives in the world of metaphor and symbolism.  In the meantime, the avian uprising takes its human toll, not in a few passers-by who check-in at the wrong establishment, but a full town under siege, with its population quickly devolving into panic and paranoia.  Psycho is about one unhinged individual well off the beaten path.  The Birds is about the end of the world.  Our world.  And while the shower scene in the former is a master class of cinematic construction, I know I would rather go that way than how poor Annie (Suzanne Pleshette) dies, being brutally pecked to death.  The most haunting shot in Psycho is that corkscrew camera move focusing on Marion’s lifeless eye, still fixed in a gaze of unbelieving horror.  It’s a tremendous, haunting moment.  But Farmer Fawcett in The Birds is the film’s first casualty and he has no eyes after the birds are done with him.  I find that far more nightmarish.
For me, the other thing I find frustrating about Psycho is that it peaks early, with that shower scene.  Everything after that for me is a slow decrescendo, an anti-climax.  We know the “twist” about Mother so there’s little sense of mystery building up to the mummified reveal, and while Anthony Perkins does a wonderful job in the role, Norman really is less a character and more the shell of a person co-opted by his dead mom long ago.  What we see of him is a front, a shadow of a victimized little boy, so when Marion dies, the most interesting person does, too.

But The Birds builds and builds and builds.  The schoolhouse.  The diner.  The sparrows through the chimney.  The gulls in the attic.  And just when you hope for a release valve, a return to normalcy, an explanation that sets things right, it never comes.  The birds have taken over.  Mitch and Melanie and the rest may depart their home, but they haven’t really escaped.  It’s one of Hitchcock’s darkest endings and certainly his most apocalyptic.  If the Earth ever wanted to fight back, we wouldn’t stand a chance.  For me, that’s an existential type of vulnerability far more resonant than being naked in the tub.
Hitchcock has always benefited from great composers over his career—most notably Herrmann but also Franz Waxman (Rebecca) and Miklos Rozsa (Spellbound), among others.  But The Birds has no score.  Instead, there’s only a daring aural soundscape that’s a cacophony of bird calls and shrieks—nothing tuneful, just din and chaos.  I think it shows an enormous amount of self-awareness and discipline for an artist like him to not fall back on familiar patterns and habits, and time and again, The Birds breaks the mold of what we’re accustomed to with Hitchcock.  It’s not a very funny film, as we’re often used to seeing in his work, but it is fantastic.
Of course, there are birds all over Psycho—the city of Phoenix, Marion CRANE, and all the examples of Norman’s taxidermy hobby.  They stay at silent attention in his parlor, ominous but stuffed.  It’s a strange pastime and a ghoulish one once we know his secret, but it’s also his most fascinating character detail.  The fact that these two films are back-to-back in Hitchcock’s career makes for a wonderful study in contrasts and an irresistible double bill.  

But for me, Psycho always remains largely a cold and analytic experience while The Birds continues to be a starkly visceral one, steeped in ambiguity and a perverse sense of wonder.  It’s the most cryptic of Hitchcock’s films, which is perhaps why it’s also one of his most satisfying.  Hitchcock was famous for being a control freak, meticulously mapping out every shot, leaving little to chance or spontaneity.  Most of his protagonists find themselves in a dark place, but through resourcefulness, creativity and luck, they figure out the truth and save the day.  The Birds is his most artistic expression of how easily we can become victims to randomness and powers far greater than ourselves which we can never control.  It is a masterpiece.
I don't know whether it's accidental that many of my favorite films of his take place in the Bay Area, starting with the sublime Vertigo (also SF and previously discussed here) and continuing with the exceptional Shadow of a Doubt (1943; filmed in Santa Rosa).  My mother had never visited Bodega Bay but she wanted to because of The Birds, so we recently went before she moved to her new home out east.  The schoolhouse is the most iconic location and instantly recognizable a half-century later, and while little else in the small town resembles the film, it's a beautiful area with some lovely views off the water. 

The Hitchcock stamp was Scott #3226.  If you look carefully at the color photo of him with the cigar, you’ll see that there’s a subtle die-cut in the stamp itself of his famous silhouette (in the upper left hand corner).  I can’t tell you how nerve-wracking it was to separate all these stamps when this Legends of Hollywood sheet was first issued, because the perforations were so close to that die-cut, and it was easy to have that inadvertently tear if you weren’t careful.

Hitchcock also has a stamp (Scott #4414o) from the Early TV Memories issue.  Alfred Hitchcock Presents aired from 1955-1962 so in the time frame of both of these productions.  The coastal bird stamps issued earlier this year are #4991-94.  The American kestrel is #3031, the ring-necked pheasant #3050, and the British Alfred Hitchcock stamp was issued in 1985. 

My 10 Favorite Hitchcock films

  1. Vertigo (1958)
  2. Strangers on a Train (1951)
  3. Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
  4. Notorious (1946)
  5. Rear Window (1954)
  6. The Birds (1963)
  7. North by Northwest (1959)
  8. The 39 Steps (1935)
  9. The Lady Vanishes (1938)
  10. Foreign Correspondent (1940)

Thursday, August 13, 2015

East Village People

I don’t really talk about my stamps much in real life.  People know about the blog (I’ll post a link periodically on Facebook or Twitter), but I don’t converse much about this pastime to friends nor volunteer that I have a blog--let alone what it’s about--in social situations.  The reason of course is that most people’s hobbies are not at all interesting to non-aficianados, and an innocent question in polite society could easily suck the unsuspecting down a vortex of hopeless minutae that one can instantly regret.
The perfect cinematic example of this is in Woody Allen’s very funny Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993), where a couple, Larry & Carol Lipton (Woody and Diane Keaton) slowly get embroiled in the possible murder plot of an unassuming neighbor, a passionate philatelist whose primary character trait is a gregarious eagerness to bore people with his collection, something Larry learns quickly when he and Carol first pay him and his wife a visit.
Paul (Jerry Adler): “Now let me show you a mint 1933 airmail—very rare and very beautiful.  Look at that.  And this plate block is quite unique because it has a flaw in the engraving.  See if you can see it.”
Larry: “It’s hard for me…”
Paul: “Give you a little hint, right down here in the corner.  Interesting.”
Larry: “That little tiny thing there?”
Paul: “That makes it quite valuable, you see.”
Larry: “Ah-ha.”
Paul: “And I just got in a commemorative set of issues that are going to be quite valuable, too.  Look at the color work there. Look at these presidentials.  Look at the color work.  Even the perforations are still intact.”

Of course, his hobby is open season for Woody’s commentary after their visit is over
Larry: “Jesus, couldn’t you keep the conversation going a little longer in there?  I was signaling you frantically.”
Carol: “I was just trying to be neighborly.”
Larry: “Neighborly?  If this guy showed me his stamp collection one more time…My favorite thing in life is to, you know, look at cancelled postage.”

Once the wife dies, supposedly of a heart attack, Carol’s suspicions are aroused, which are only fueled by a friend of theirs, Ted (Alan Alda):
Ted: “Maybe this guy killed her, you know?. Like he’s got like a young tootsie stashed someplace.”
Larry: “No, no, not this…you gotta, you gotta see this guy.  This guy gets his jollies from licking the back of postage stamps. He’s a boring, old…”
Ted: “I could see that.  Depending on whose picture is on the stamp.”
I suppose it’s a bizarre backhanded compliment to think that stamp collectors are so boring, we’re incapable of nefarious doings, but it turns out Ted is right, and along with the help of Woody’s client, writer Marcia Fox (Anjelica Huston), the unlikely foursome get to the bottom of some increasingly mysterious clues and developments, but not without some hilarious digressions along the way.
It may seem sacrilegious to say it, but I prefer this Manhattan to Woody’s more heralded Manhattan from 1979.  For me, that film, awash with Gershwin music and Gordon Willis’s B&W photography, has some marvelous elements but is less than the sum of its parts.  The film feels glossy, fabricated, with some good one-liners but dialogue that overall feels like it’s trying to one-up Annie Hall.  Everyone feels rooted in type and it never quite gels for me.  Plus, the most beautiful performance, Mariel Hemingway’s, is in the service of what still feels like a skeevy March-November romance.  It’s his most overrated movie, I think, and one that mostly inspires in me curiosity of what he could've done with Meryl Streep in more than just a bit part.

Mystery has modest intentions, but it actually does deliver on all cylinders.  The mystery is a good one, with the menace comic but also very real.  This is also probably Woody Allen’s least dysfunctional relationship depicted in film, with his reunion with Diane Keaton an effortless one.  Their dynamic of a married couple, still endlessly charmed by each other even though the irritations and restlessness of familiarity abound, is instantly believable.
It’s also a wonderful reassembling of two other major forces in Woody Allen’s best film, Crimes and Misdemeanors from four years earlier.  Here Alda still has that borderline-unctuous personality, but in a very likable way (think early MASH).  And Huston does a 180 from her ill-fated Dolores Paley.  She’s smart, fearless, stylish, and quick-witted.  In her career, she’s often traded on an ominous sensual presence in films like The Grifters or Prizzi’s Honor, but I think this is her sexiest role by far, and she’s fabulous.
It also is very knowing about the crime film, Woody being a voracious cinephile, and it upends the genre’s conventions at every turn.  There are few setpieces funnier in his films than the phone call with their suspect, each amateur sleuth armed with a tape player trying to keep a fabricated conversation on the rails.  And of course, the wry Lady of Shanghai climax is incredibly self-aware and undeniably perfect.  The film is a real gem.

Of course, we don’t actually see much of Paul’s collection, but that rare airmail stamp?  It’s gotta be this Century of Progress issue (Scott #C18).  Today’s mint value would be around $100, not bad but nothing compared to the Graf Zeppelin issues from just a few years earlier.  Then again, he does talk about an error on a plate block, so that would make things more, uh, interesting...
The New York stamp (Scott #3592) is from the Greetings from America issue, while the Cinematography stamp (#3772g) is from the American Filmmaking release.  George Gershwin is #1484, Glenn Miller #3098, and "Radio Entertains America" (#3184i) is from the Celebrate the Century series.  Marge Simpson (#4400) is voiced by Julie Kavner, who's appeared in 7 of Woody's projects, and Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia, #4143f) has appeared in just that one pictured.  As for the Martin Ramirez stamp from earlier this year (#4972)?  I thought it had a nice Art Deco vibe which suits that lovely period film nicely.

My 10 favorite Woody Allen films
  1. Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)
  2. Zelig (1983)
  3. Midnight in Paris (2011)
  4. Annie Hall (1977)
  5. Bananas (1971)
  6. The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)
  7. Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)
  8. Another Woman (1988)
  9. Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993)
  10. Sleeper (1973)

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.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Zero Recall

Happy Birthday to Albert Einstein, who was born on this date 136 years ago.  So why not discuss the action film where his postage stamps played a critical part of the story?  For I’ll be honest: I’m a sucker for time travel movies, so I have a weak spot for John Woo’s Paycheck (2003), flaws notwithstanding.
Now Paycheck is not a typical time travel movie because nobody actually travels through time.  Ben Affleck is an engineer-for-hire who builds a machine for billionaire Aaron Eckhart that can see into the future and right before getting his memory of the job erased (a scifi conceit that’s part of his employment contract), he leaves himself an envelope full of innocuous items—each of which his “future self” knows will (by virtue of using the machine) help him, since he can see that Eckhart plans to betray him.  From there, he is forced to go on the lam from both the law and a team contracted to kill him as he tries to unravel a past he doesn't remember.

What first arouses his suspicion is that despite expecting a nine-digit payday for his years of service, he discovers that he had mysteriously declined his salary (one of many things he can't recall after this amnesia procedure) and this envelope of random junk he left for himself is the only thing he’s left with.   He first receives the envelope (with cancelled postage) from the registrar at the company:
Registrar: Your personal items.  You only needed four stamps.
Ben: Oh, well, I guess I can afford the extra 50 cents.

This is before he learns from her that he gave up the paycheck he had earned, something he can hardly believe he would’ve done voluntarily.  But very quickly, he realizes (after a narrow escape using a couple of the items in the envelope) that giving up his salary was his way of telling himself that these items held enormous value while still getting that message past his employer who would’ve checked the envelope for anything unusual.
The rest of the movie is essentially one big chase film after that, so we see this envelope with the Einstein stamps over and over again, surviving shootouts and high-speed pursuits, since the contents of the envelope remain his only clues as to why he has been put in such peril.  Certainly, no philatelic items in film history are exposed to as much high-octane action as this set.

Eventually, he learns that he had a girlfriend (Uma Thurman) during his time at the company and despite not remembering anything about their relationship, he recruits her to his cause--she does remember him, after all--and she gets in on the action, too (although his assignment was top secret, so she doesn’t know exactly what he was working on either).
By this time in his career, Woo was on the verge of self-parody.  Face/Off (1997) was an irresistible acting tour de force as John Travolta and Nicolas Cage swap faces and personas, but all the incessant slow motion and flying doves and heavy-handed symbolism were getting to be predictable, silly stylistic flourishes.  The second Mission: Impossible film was completely undistinguished and the less said about the WWII Windtalkers the better.  So Paycheck is nice because the action is well-executed but isn’t as overly-orchestrated as we’re used to seeing from him.  And because Affleck is always problem-solving his way out of situations using the envelope’s items, it’s a movie that highlights the character’s brains over his brawn.
Ultimately, the stamps serve their most important purpose by explaining his situation.  He intuits that the excess postage itself was a clue and when inspecting the stamps closely, he sees that’s he embedded in Einstein's eye a set of microscopic pictures, “screen shots” from what he saw in the future-vision machine.   
They are a series of newspaper headlines from the future showing that rampant abuse of the machine would destroy the economy, aggravate international tensions, and ultimately lead to global war.  Up to this point, he was able to stay one step ahead of Eckhart because he had put (pre-amnesia) a poison pill in the programming of the machine, temporarily sabotaging it so it couldn't be used.  But now, he knows he has to go back and destroy the machine for good with his dwindling supply of envelope “assists”.
It’s important to point out that Albert Einstein does indeed have two different US stamps, an 8 cent and 15 cent issued in 1965 and 1979 respectively (Scott #s 1285 & 1774).  The stamp in the movie is neither of them.  So why manufacture a fake stamp?  One guess is that they needed a high denomination but still specifically wanted to use Einstein.  After all, Affleck does have this conversation with his one other close confidant, Paul Giamatti.
Giamatti: Look, if we know anything, we know that time travel’s not possible.  Einstein proved that, right?
Affleck: Time travel, yes.  But Einstein was very clear that he believed time viewing theoretically could be accomplished.
It’s from this conversation that they speculate how he was somehow able to anticipate these items being critically useful to him and, by extension, guess what he had been building in this mystery job assignment.  So the Einstein stamps not only see a ton of action, but they act as a thematic reference, too.
Paycheck isn’t a great film—Ben and Uma have zero chemistry and there are a few too many explosions by the climax—but I like the puzzle aspect of decoding the usefulness of each individual item, and the envelope itself and the persistent inventorying of its contents hearkens back to that other (far better) stamp movie, Charade.
This was the last film Woo made in the states, returning to a very different Hong Kong from when he made the legendary The Killer, Hard Boiled and A Better Tomorrow.  Here's hoping one day he makes his way back across the Pacific; it'd be interesting what the intervening years have taught him.